Monthly Archives: April 2013
It’s late in the twenty-first century, decades after humanity battled an alien species in a war for the planet, and while humanity won the war Earth is desolate. The moon destroyed. The remaining members of humanity live on a starship around Saturn’s moon, Titan, and the oceans of Earth provide the energy resource. Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are the team stationed with repairing drones, the flying machines that protect the energy plants. There are still pockets of alien scavengers that need to be dealt with. Jack and Victoria make a great team, and dip into romantic companionship, until Jack meets a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko) professing to be his wife. Jack begins to doubt the purpose of his mission and wonder if the alien scavengers are the enemy.
If you’ve been keeping up with sci-fi cinema in the last couple decades, you’ll likely recognize more than a few elements with Oblivion. From its themes to its plot points to its revelations, there’s little here to designate as original. So the real question remains how derivative can we take? I think when the execution is nimble then it’s one of the easiest sins to remember. Especially in the realm of sci-fi cinema, it’s hard to put together a new story, let alone one set up as a Hollywood star vehicle, without borrowing from other established movies. This in itself is not an issue. Tarantino is a master borrower but he always recontextualizes his artistic influences into something new and different, and while we critics lament his less original career path of late, the man’s box-office profits have never been better in his career. I think when we feel like we’re getting a good story we don’t care when that story has been told before in other manners. Star Wars, after all, has many cultural fathers, but it was a rollicking good time with characters we cared about, so nobody seemed to mind. Likewise, Oblivion has many forbearers from Independence Day to I Am Legend to 2001 to an indie film from a few years ago I shall refrain from mentioning because even the very mention will spoil key plot points. Some will decry the film as a rip-off of superior, headier fare, but I never minded. I was having too good of a time and found the movie too satisfying to quibble.
I won’t say the movie is smart per se but it’s far more measured than I would have expected. The advertising makes it look like Cruise fights a bunch of aliens and robots, and while there is that aspect, it’s almost an afterthought to a slow-burning mystery that patiently parcels out its revelations, even to the very end of the film. I’m trying to be cagey about certain plot points to avoid spoilers. It’s a film that has more on its mind than explosions, but when it goes into explosion mode, director Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy) makes it count. The larger action elements are well staged and polished with some above average special effects. The sight of the moon dashed across the sky is definitely an evocative image. I love the overall look of the film, Kosinki’s clean, spare, bubbly Apple-esque aesthetics. The drones themselves manage to have personality even with a limited, streamlined design and some choice sound design. The man knows how to hold onto an image and when to keep pushing. The action is suitably thrilling and the drama suitably suspenseful. Actually, better than suitably. I enjoyed the details of this world. It’s probably the spiffiest post-apocalyptic landscape you’ll ever see. This is an entertaining movie that finds nice ways to satisfy, and given the particulars of its sci-fi plot, finds a way to have its cake and eat it too. As a result, Oblivion is a sci-fi flick that offers enough to engage the mind and audience demands for big effects and big thrills.
I’ve never been a Cruise hater. I even thought the man tried his damndest to make a movie like Rock of Ages worth watching (a valiant effort but not enough). His character is pretty affable at first and we get to watch as everything he knows comes undone. It’s a role that would lead to overacting, but Cruise underplays the part, more alarmed naïf than flinty action hero. I’m not expecting Oscar-caliber performances in every role but Cruise does a fine job of anchoring the audience and selling his character’s journey. He also has good chemistry with not one but two ladies. Kurylenko (Seven Psychopaths, To the Wonder) is an actress of great beauty and questionable talent, but perhaps being paired up with a genuine star like Cruise brings out the best in her. They’re good together, though my preference was for Riseborough (W.E., Never Let Me Go), an actress who brings a tremulous vulnerability to an otherwise underwritten and confused character that’s more a plot device. Riseborough makes the character so much more than she is on the page. She’s still a relatively new actress so I look forward to her future performances. There are other familiar faces, like Morgan Freeman and an especially unsettling Melissa Leo, but it’s really a three-person acting exercise.
Oblivion is a visually alluring sci-fi thriller that also manages to have enough heart and smarts to leave a satisfying impression. The pacing is more deliberate but offers plenty rewards, doling out revelations up until the end, unpacking its mystery with finesse. The first twenty minutes or so, establishing the particulars of this world and the routine of our protagonists, is downright exceptional. The rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to that start but it continues to be an engaging and entertaining movie with some top-notch visuals. The musical score by electronic band M83 also provides a stirring counterpoint to the glossy, clean visuals (the band’s song “Outro” was also very effectively used in that lovely five-minute trailer for Cloud Atlas). You may figure things out as you watch, but you won’t mind, at least I didn’t. The more I step away the more I think back with renewed enthusiasm for the film. It’s smarter, slicker, and just a more satisfying film than we’re accustomed to with this kind of budget and from Hollywood.
Nate’s Grade: B
It’s been too long since I’ve last had the pleasure of viewing a Uwe Boll movie. The man is downright prolific when it comes to spitting out multitudes of projects every year sometimes three or four. And yet there’s no guarantee I’ll have a speedy and easily accessible avenue to watch the man’s finished products. Take for instance his biopic on Max Schmeling, finished almost three years ago, and undergone a title change for American audiences to Fist of the Reich. Americans might not know who Max Schmeling was but by God do we know ourselves some Nazis. I can understand why this one was put on the shelf for as long as it was. There’s the fact that it’s entirely in German, Boll’s first completely foreign-language film since 1997. There’s also the fact that it’s still a pretty dull and uninvolving movie, and given the figure and subject matter, that may be enough to make Fist of the Reich the most disappointing film of Boll’s career.
From 1930-1948, Max Schmeling (Henry Maske) was Germany’s most prolific athlete. He boxed overseas in America quite often, earning the world title in a controversial bout where his opponent was disqualified after a below the belt punch. Schmeling romances a movie star, Anny Ondra (Susanne Wuest), and proposes to her the day their courtship hits the gossip pages. Schmeling also has to fight the growing nationalistic influence of Hitler’s Nazi party, which looks at him as a powerful propaganda opportunity. After a high-profile loss to Joe Louis, in a rematch no less, Schmeling loses value to the Nazi machine and he’s drafted into the oncoming war.
When I say “most disappointing” I know that’s going to strike a chord given Boll’s oeuvre of craptacularcinema, but I really mean it. The biggest failing of the two-plus hours of Fist of the Reich is that it does not provide adequate evidence why Schmeling is a compelling figure of history. It’s a biopic that doesn’t have enough juice to justify why its central hero should even earn a biopic. I don’t think I’ve seen too many movies based upon real people where I left thinking, “Well that person didn’t deserve a movie.” And the ridiculous thing is that Schmeling of course deserves his own movie. The man was an international superstar, the pride of a nation during a tumultuous time, one of only three men to beat Joe Louis in his career, and then became a propaganda pawn for the Nazis. The man was even forced into service in the war and was one of only two survivors during a hellish battle. His manager was Jewish, his wife a Czech movie star, and they had to flee their country home to escape from the advancing Russians. That is some compelling stuff even before you get into the psychological depth at play with a man being pushed as a tool of Nazi propaganda and how that constrictive, humiliating, and infuriating chapter would have taken its toll on Schmeling’s soul. There is a wealth of material there to stage a rousing and engrossing biopic, and the fact that Boll and screenwriter Timo Berndt cannot is just inexcusable.
There’s very little depth given to Schmeling as a character; all the edges are sanded off and we’re left with a rather bland do-gooder that really just wants to box. He’s sort of this nondescript, milquetoast nice guy who trudges from scene to scene, doing bland but nice things. You won’t dislike the lug but you’ll find it hard to explain why he’s interesting. This shallowness just compounds as the movie continues, going further into the war as well as the downturns in Schmeling’s boxing career. His relationship with Anny is also pretty bland. They’re nice together and loving in appearance but also mundane. It’s like the movie is progressing scene-by-scene establishing facts and plot points rather than exploring the relationships of characters. Max gets married. Max gets a big bout. Max wants to give Joe Louis a rematch. The film seems so devoid of passion, bled dry by going through the checklist of what audiences desire in their biopics. The movie even attaches a weak framing device where Schmeling and a war prisoner are walking to a border and Schmeling recounts his life. Except this framing device ends with thirty minutes left to go. Can it be termed a framing device if it doesn’t frame a quarter of the movie? It’s not even necessary except to throw in a bit of war violence at the opening to hook an audience. It feels like nobody knows what to do with Schmeling so they’ll just breeze through his life’s big events, make him seem like a charitable fella, and then pray the audience understands the man’s historical significance.
Another reason for the stilted drama is quite possibly the noticeable acting limitations of our lead, Maske. The man is a former champion boxer in Germany who reportedly underwent eight months of acting training to prepare for this movie. Well, apparently eight was not enough (did I just backend into a pun?). He may be a great boxer but he is a very poor actor. His monotone, caveman-like warble reminds me of the speaking tones of early Arnold Schwarzenegger. I don’t think the guy has more than two sentences at a time. Again, I’d rather have my actors learn how to do something rather than teach a non-actor how to act. Actors can fake singing or boxing, plus there’s editing. Was it really substantial to have an actual boxer in the role? I know Schmeling himself actually wanted Maske to play him in a would-be movie, so there’s some passing approval, but there’s a reason that Maske hasn’t acted in a movie since this one. Maske’s pained acting, limited emotional range, and overall stiffness, combined with the thin characterization, makes for a void at the center of the movie.
I also assumed given Boll’s own background in boxing (he famously boxed a group of critics several years ago in a publicity stunt) that the onscreen bouts would be thrilling to watch. The excitable German ringside announcer seems to be watching different fights than I am. The fighters just don’t have any fight in them, carefully going through the motions, but when they hit they do so like they’re timid, afraid to put any force behind it. The camerawork and editing also fail to mask this feeling. Boxing is such a ferocious sport and we need to feel the danger and ferocity within the ring, but all too often it just feels like another ho-hum occasion for Schmeling, one where he’s rarely put to the test. Even the boxing matches that go to 15 rounds show us two fighters without any blood on them or bruises or any sign, beyond a glistening coat of faux sweat, that these two men have spent over an hour beating the crap out of each other. This limited sense of realism handicaps the movie as well as drawing out the accomplishments of Schmeling.
Boll’s direction also seems rather remote on this movie, curiously so. He relies almost entirely on bobbling handheld camerawork that can get a bit tiresome when it feels like the camera rarely settles. The movie is almost entirely comprised of a series of medium shots, which further adds to the overall blandness of the movie. The cinematography by longtime collaborator Mathias Neumann is entirely lackluster and downright incompetent. The visual compositions are supremely lacking; I don’t think Boll and Neumann even stumble into one engaging visual shot. And we’re talking about a boxer’s career here. The colors of the movie feel so drab and restrained but not in any sort of elegant artistic manner. It just looks like a drab movie, which suits a drab script with a drab lead actor. I’m also fairly certain that Boll’s longtime musical collaborator Jessica de Rooij borrows liberally, if not outright lifts, the musical themes of John Williams’ score for Saving Private Ryan. Has anyone else caught this?
It may seem foolish of me to admit, especially after twenty movies reviewed, but I actually had some semblance of hope that Fist of the Reich was going to be Boll’s first actual good movie. As it stands, Tunnel Rats is still the best Boll film, relatively speaking. I really thought that Boll’s background and boxing experience would carry over and we’d get a handsomely made, reverent, and absorbing look into the life of Max Schmeling, but time after time, the movie settles for bland. There’s a lot of meat to this guy but it feels about as in depth as a child’s book report, skimming over the drama to cover the significant signposts of the man’s life. As a result, we get an overview of the guy’s life but lack the evidence why we even took the journey. Saying a guy’s a great boxer, or a great humanitarian is one thing, but we need to see this, we need to feel it, and that’s the saddest failure of Fist of the Reich, that it takes an important historical figure and squeezes out all the lingering resonance.
Nate’s Grade: C
Danny Boyle is a director that can make anything watchable. The man made an entire movie about a dude trapped under a rock and it was spellbinding. With that in mind, he does his very best to turn the trippy, Inception-like crime thriller Trance into a workable, watchable experience for the audience. The main issue is that the movie is so busy that once it slows down you realize there really isn’t anything going on. James McAvoy plays an art auctioneer who stashed a valuable painting during a heist. He undergoes hypnotherapy by Rosario Dawson so the crooks can determine where the loot resides. The premise allows for plenty of fake-outs, and you’ll be conditioned to doubt just about everything you see on screen. The film does a nice job of applying that doubt to the characters as well; the good guys may not be so good and the bad guys may not be so bad. With Boyle’s hyperkinetic visuals and some fast-paced editing, Trance is serviceable in the moment, but when the characters literally spell out everything you realize how shallow the movie is as well as these characters. The lone truly memorable moment is a scene where Dawson jets off to a bathroom, we hear an electronic buzzing, and she comes out fully nude, presenting herself as a shaven offering. The fact that this relates to an actual plot point is practically incidental. The movie isn’t as smart or as fun or as entertaining as it thinks it is, and I wish Boyle had taken advantage of dream/mind mechanics and gone crazier with his visuals. Still, if you’ve got a couple hours, some low expectations, it’s worth at least one watch.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Upping the gore quotient considerably but having little else of merit, the remake of Evil Dead loses just about everything that made the original special. Gone is the sense of humor, unless you just count the quantity of gore to be the qualifier for “humor,” and gone is any real sense of a creative spark. It looks good thanks to director Fede Alvarez, and the practical gore effects can be memorable and truly disgusting in the best possible way, but it just doesn’t feel like an Evil Dead movie. It makes the same mistakes that your typical dumb horror movies do, from a lack of clarity to one-dimensional characters (I think Blonde Girlfriend had one line of dialogue for the first hour) to repeated rule breaking. There are a bunch of callbacks to the original Evil Dead but they serve little other purpose. The finale, after a series of fake-outs, involves a weak showdown with a Big Bad that’s anything but. I expect better from a remake sanctioned and produced by the original director, Sam Raimi, and star Bruce Campbell. Maybe they knew it was only a matter of time before their 1981 film, and its superior 1987 sequel, would be remade by a cannibalistic Hollywood, so they wanted to cash in while they could. Or maybe they just argued, if anyone was going to make a poor remake, it might as well be them. If you’re hungry for gore, then Evil Dead may suffice, otherwise it’s a horror movie that’s too familiar, too mediocre, and ultimately too disappointing to recommend.
Nate’s Grade: C+
It’s impossible for me to ever separate The Host, a sci-fi would-be romance based upon the best-seller by dubious author Stephenie Meyer, and the demise of famous film critic, and personal influence, Roger Ebert. On April 4, 2013, America’s most prominent film critic, a man who with Gene Siskel changed the face of film criticism and the dialogue with movies, died after his cancer had returned. Upon hearing the news, I was overcome with grief and shed a few tears for the loss of a great writer and a great man who influenced a generation of online film critics like myself. Then I saw what was Ebert’s last published film review — The Host. Knowing his last review on this Earth is this awful movie, that it may be the last new release he ever saw, well it just feels ignoble. The man deserved better and so does anyone else who watches The Host, a movie I saw the very day of Ebert’s death.
Set on earth years after an invading alien race has already conquered, life isn’t too bad. There aren’t any wars or pollution or hunger. The aliens, looking like little glowworms, latch onto the spines of humans and use them as hosts. They control the bodies of the humans but some of us won’t go down willingly. Melanie (Saoirse Ronan) is an 18-year-old gal who fights as part of a resistance movement, led by her Uncle Jeb (William Hurt). The aliens abduct her and Melanie’s body gets a new owner – Wanderer, also referred to as Wanda. Good old Melanie is still in her head, feisty, and goading Wanda into finding Melanie’s family hiding out in the desert with Jeb. Also there is Melanie’s boyfriend, Jared (Max Irons), who is upset that his girlfriend has become “one of them.” Ian (Jake Abel), on the other hand, is adjusting well to the change, as he falls for Wanda and she him. In between these hormonal complications, Wanda is being chased by the appropriately named Seeker (Diane Kruger), who is deadest on bringing some human-style violence to Wanda/Melanie and the resistance fighters.
The Host, like much of Meyer’s more popular Twilight saga, is a rather dramatically inert story that just seems to exist with little sense of momentum or direction or purpose, beyond providing another bloodless onscreen romance that ceaselessly finds unsettling messages to convey to young girls. Once again it all comes down to a stifling romantic triangle where none of the participants ever seems to work up the necessary passion to garner continual interest. There’s a bit more heavy petting going on but even when these people are having sex dreams, they imagine Melanie with her bra on (such a limited imagination). Please don’t confuse this as some implicit regret on my part that the movie didn’t sexualize its lead heroine (she’ll be turning 19 soon, so fear not pervs). At least the Twilight movies can be seen through the prism of pre-teen wish fulfillment. The Host, on the other hand, is just an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style sci-fi movie where no one seems that preoccupied with anything too urgent. If the aliens are really that gung-ho to root out the resistance fighters, why aren’t they looking for heat signatures? Why aren’t they studying truck movements? The fighters aren’t very stealth-like in their comings and goings either. Hell, why don’t they even just keep a lookout for people wearing sunglasses, an obvious sign they have something to hide. It’s like the aliens and the humans are simply just going about their business without any danger. That’s because the ultimate fulcrum with which all the plot hinges upon is the romantic whims of a teen girl teaching an alien how to love. Sigh.
The least successful adaptation is likely including Melanie in the action through the use of bratty voiceover. She likes to chime in with snide remarks and pushes Wanda away when she starts getting feelings of her own for another boy. It is simply unbearable. You ever been stuck in the car with a really annoying brat? That’s what it felt like. Now I realize that having the dueling voices was an easier prospect on the printed page, but a similar challenge was tackled with 2003’s Dreamcatcher when an alien possessed Damien Lewis. We had a visual representation of Lewis taking refuge inside his own head. That was better than watching him, and it pains me even now to type it, engage in an argument with himself where the voice of the alien adopts a British accent. Maybe we could have had a better visual representation of Melanie inside Wanda, or maybe something with mirrors, that’s always a good go-to visual for characters of dueling minds. As developed, The Host feels like Melanie’s strapped in next to you, providing incessant and annoying commentary, and all you want to do is tell the kid to shut up.
Given the world-conquering plot elements, I can’t help but think Meyer found one of the least interesting stories to tell within this world. The invasion aspect seems far more compelling a story to tell than one girl stuck in a love triangle. I suppose it’s because Meyer is bringing a different perspective to science fiction, but I found most of this movie to be unbearably boring. And her premise, while flawed, could have been workable. Learning to live a symbiotic relationship with an alien that controls your physical being, there’s plenty of room there to tell an interesting and insightful story. The issues of identity and control could be richly explored. Instead, we get Melanie liking one boy and Wanda liking another, and so Melanie fights from inside to stop Wanda from acting out her exciting new feelings. Given the scope of everything going on, alien invaders and underground resistance organizations, it all feels so slight and myopic and overindulged melodrama. I suppose the whole thing could be a metaphor for puberty, a teen girl whose body is taken over by an alien presence, causing her to act irrationally and deal with swoons of affection she doesn’t know how to properly handle, causing her to act out and alter her perceptions of herself. Then again, I may just be giving Meyer and the movie more credit than they deserve.
The saddest part for me was that Andrew Niccol directed this movie as well as adapted the screenplay. He is responsible for these characters, these plot beats, these samples of dialogue. This is the man who gave us The Truman Show, Gattaca, and Lord of War. Granted, Niccol’s last movie, 2011’s In Time was a great idea in need of a far better script, but I always have high hopes with this man given his track record. From a visual standpoint, he takes a few pages from Gattaca where everything in the world is sleek and shiny and looking like an orgasmic car commercial. The shimmering cinematography by Roberto Schaefer (Marc Forster’s longtime DP) is crisp with plenty of cool colors to signify the mood of our pleasant overlords. There are plenty of nice things to look at, and female fans will likely extend that compliment to the young men duking it out for Melanie/Wanda’s affections. It’s just that everything moves so glacially, so stubbornly slow, that the movie feels like it’s run out of gas long before it’s over. At over two hours, there desperately needed to be some judicious chopping with this movie’s flabby midsection. If you’re not a fan of Meyer’s book, Niccol fails to give you any tangible reason why you should care or keep watching. I even thought about leaving at one point, and that’s an urge I can usually quell, so that’s how monotonous it truly got.
It’s nice to see Ronan (Hanna) growing into the capable leading lady we all thought she could be, though this movie does her no favors (gone is the gangly awkwardness of The Lovely Bones). I understand that for the majority of the movie she’s playing Wanda, the alien controlling the body of Melanie. There are going to be certain limitations to this portrayal, but Ronan just sounds overly sedated for most of the movie. Then there’s her annoying voiceover, which dips into a Southern accent at several intervals. I guess when Mel gets mad it brings out her roots? Likewise with Meyer’s heroine du jour, Bella Swan, I just don’t see what all the fuss is about over this character. She’s a pretty plain heroine with courageous whims but it’s another example of a film where the supporting characters have to key us in on character traits we just aren’t picking up on our own.
I’m always puzzled when filmmakers decide to make their aliens so, well, alien. Independent evolution in a different star system is going to develop some funky designs, sure, but when you got magical glowworms as your sentient life, I find it hard to believe that they built all that super duper technology to achieve their world-domination. A glowworm made a spaceship? With its glowworm tentacles and its size of about three inches? At least the aliens on Star Trek looked like they knew there way around auto shop. For that matter, we’re in the future where everybody drives a crazy shiny vehicle no matter how off road it gets, but the stupid alien occupiers can’t master the tricky science of contact lenses? And this goes for the human rebels as well. The telltale sign you’re controlled by the aliens or not is the translucent blue ring around your iris, but why hasn’t either side just popped in some contacts to blend in? The aliens can master space travel but get squeamish about things touching their eyes?
The Host is another of Meyer’s poorly plotted, insipid melodrama that manages to be all about teen hormones except those hormones feels so hermetically sealed off. It’s another neutered romance, and this was supposed to be her so-called “adult book”? It’s the same themes and tropes from her non-adult Twilight series, just with a coating of sci-fi rather than supernatural. Even Niccol, admittedly in a bit of a slump, can’t save this picture, and ultimately the overly long, lightly plotted, and tremendously tedious affair lumbers to its predictable conclusion, replete with happy ending (let’s just say that Ian gets a hotness upgrade as far as his lover). The concept of an alien species stripping human beings of free will and living not just amongst us but within us, that’s a solid idea that could make for a compelling story. Meyer found the dumbest story to tell, her bread and butter, a love triangle where both guys have struck her at some point in the film (dwell on that). It pains me that The Host may have been Roger Ebert’s last movie. As far as I’m concerned, this movie murdered Ebert.
Nate’s Grade: D
Harmony Korine is the kind of filmmaker who I typically avoid. I haven’t liked a single one of the movies the man has written or directed. This list includes Kids, Julien Donkey-Boy, Trash Humpers, and the detestable 1997 film, Gummo, possibly one of my most hated films. The man has become an expert on depicting juvenile delinquents and the excesses of youthful folly, so I wasn’t surprised that his latest writing/directing effort, Spring Breakers, followed suit. I was surprised at the names he was able to attract to the film. Former Disney Channel starlets Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, as well as ABC Family’s Ashley Benson, join Rachel Korine as a foursome of gals who long for the pleasures of a spring break getaway. They scrimp and save for months, plus also rob a restaurant, and take their sojourn to the sunny beaches of Florida. The girls run afoul of the law and are bailed out by rapper and wannabe gangster Alien (James Franco). Living large, and with handy access to a plethora of weapons, the girls get involved in the crosshairs of a turf war, but they won’t let anything bring down their good times.
When you break it down to its trashy molecular core, Spring Breakers is like an exploitation film as directed by Terrence Malick. Allow me to explain, dear reader. Much like that hallowed art house filmmaker, the plot in Spring Breakers is really a wispy, abstract concept, and the film is prone to repetition and redundancy, a triptych for the senses. There’s plenty of overlapping dialogue that circles back and repeats itself, images that bleed into one another, and a plot that generally takes its cues from MC Skat Kat, namely moving two steps forward and then two steps back (is this reference too dated?). The rote dialogue, when not indifferently profane and nonsensical, is usually variations on, “Spring Break. Spring Break forever.” I’ve just given you about a fifth of the entire movie’s dialogue. It may have just been my theater’s sound system, but I found much of the dialogue hard to hear and decipher. Perhaps it was Korine admitting that the things his characters say weren’t worth straining to hear. As expected, this can get rather frustrating to sit through. It’s not so much a movie as an experience meant to wash over the audience. Hence the nonstop dubstep score, provided by Skrillex, and the crashing imagery of tawny exposed flesh, gyrating bodies, neon lighting, fellating gun barrels, and excessive inebriation, all meant to bring the spring break experience to the consumer, that is, if most people’s spring breaks involved lots of illegal activity. If Malick’s movies are meant to serve as religious experiences, then consider Spring Breakers to be the equivalent of ingesting GHB.
Let’s talk about that paucity of characterization. Besides Faith (Gomez), a name a bit too on-the-nose for this sort of enterprise, there is zero I can say about ANY of the other three girls. They are completely interchangeable. They have no defining characteristics beyond their simple geographic placement within the camera frame. That’s it. When Faith ditches the movie at the halfway mark, having the good sense to realize her supposed friends might not be the best influence, I wanted to go with her. I didn’t want to be left with these vacuous and annoying characters. It’s pretty clear the contempt that Korine has for his own female characters, constantly serving them up for ridicule. It makes the whole movie even less appealing. We’re not supposed to like our heroines but it gets uncomfortable when the director seems to be constantly shaming them, rubbing our faces in how awful they are as people. With an absence of characters you care about, and a plot that feels like it keeps circling back, there’s precious little to hold onto before you become anesthetized to Korine’s exploitative navel-gazing.
After Oz the Great and Powerful I didn’t think I would utter these words, but thank God for the presence of James Franco. The man is so fully committed to his gonzo portrayal of a white trash wannabe gangster that you are downright thankful when he takes over the movie halfway in. At least we don’t have to spend as much time with our empty-headed trio of ladies. Franco, perfecting an ominous drawl, is a cartoon of misplaced machismo, living the “gangsta” life he’s seen parroted in pop culture (he has Scarface running on a constant loop on his TVs). He provides a jolt of energy to the movie, a second wind, and thankfully pushes the girls into greater conflict than part-to-party binges. He brings a real sense of danger to the film, and the descent into a criminal path couldn’t have come soon enough for me. It’s such an enjoyably whacked-out performance that I wouldn’t be surprised if Franco may even be considered for some Best Supporting Actor nominations.
There’s something just so tiring and depressing about watching people trying to chase a hedonistic high rather than, you know, live their lives. In this warped sense of thinking, the all-encompassing term of “partying” is meant to be the divine state of being and anything else falls by the wayside of significance. I understand the movie is exposing a shallow and empty way of life but it can still be tiring to watch nonstop. You become numb to the onscreen antics. You become numb to the free-flowing spirits, profanity, and gratuitous nudity (there were literally six topless ladies onscreen before a word was spoken). Watching Spring Breakers, you have two options: give yourself over to the trance-like, self-destructive youthful fever-dream or sit solemnly, objectively observing how the outrageous become routine, and become dead inside.
As much as it pains me to admit, being a non-fan of Korine’s movies, there are a few moments in the movie that are actually surprisingly effective. The first is a hasty robbery of a small restaurant. We stay in the passenger seat of the slow-moving car as it spins around the building, and in the background we see the escalation of events, the girls smashing breakables and terrorizing the few patrons. It’s one of the few visual decisions that felt, and here’s a word you won’t find anywhere else in relation to this movie, artistically restrained. There’s also plenty of forced irony in the movie where a character’s positive words will be counterbalanced by a visual contrast. Faith phones her grandmother and talks about her great time, even promising next year that she wants to take dear old granny along with her. Meanwhile, as the words play out, which will happen again at several redundant points, we see the girls engaging in behavior that would most likely not be granny-approved. Even if forced, and often redundant, it’s still effective, as is Korine’s hypnotic visual sensibilities. If nothing else, Spring Breakers is a good-looking movie with many pleasing visuals.
I think I understand why my critical peers have lavished as much praise upon Korine’s bacchanalia. They see a satire of this empty, nihilistic, party-all-the-time, damn-the-consequences lifestyle, the idiocy of youthful hedonism. The problem is that there’s only a handful of moments in Spring Breakers where I felt that Korine actually achieved satire, one of them being a montage of robberies set to a Britney Spears song (beforehand we saw girls holding guns by the barrel and dancing in a circle). Those moments that struck me as satire were few and far between, because what I mostly left with was just another exploitation film. If this were meant to be satirical, the girls would not get away with it all in the end. Korine may intend to stand back in some ironic judgment of his own movie, providing himself an excuse for the lackluster plotting and characters. Here’s the point: even if it was done intentionally, it still makes for a lackluster plot and characters. Saying, “I meant that all along,” is not an excuse when the rest of the film fails to live up to your stated satirical intents.
Allow me a moment to talk about the somewhat disconcerting treatment of, for lack of a better description, the sluttiest of our gals, Cotty, played by Rachel Korine. When I saw the last name of Korine I thought, “Is that the director’s daughter?” Harmony Korine has been in the film industry for almost 20 years, so it was a possibility, and oh what a disturbing thought that was. Some cursory research proved that Rachel Korine was in fact Harmony’s wife; there’s a thirteen-year age difference. It’s still uncomfortable that Korine would slot his own wife to portray one of the titular spring breakers, the only one from our posse who goes nude onscreen too (sorry skeevy Disney Channel and ABC Family fans). So when he’s slut shaming these girls, mocking them with contempt, directing their gratuitous exploitation, he’s also including his own wife in this distasteful characterization, making sure the camera has multiple opportunities to take in her exposed flesh. It’s like he’s serving up his own wife to the gods of spring break (a.k.a. young male ticket-buyers), and it just seems icky.
When Spring Breakers came to a merciful close, the college-aged guy behind me remarked, “That’s the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen.” I replied, “Then you haven’t seen a lot of movies, have you?” Korine’s abstract, aimless salute to self-indulgence is a depressing experience that celebrates the worst in human beings, but weird it is not. I’m just tired of Korine’s schtick. He presents trashy characters, prods us to ridicule them, and then gives them a lot of empty space to do dumb things for an hour and half, ultimately going nowhere and accomplishing little. It just so happens that Spring Breakers, his most commercial and accessible film, has attractive, nominally famous actresses partaking in the nastiness this time. I suppose there will be some appeal to a small swath of filmgoers to see former squeaky-clean Disney Channel gals cutting loose, behaving badly, and playing against (manufactured) type. For me, the very casting of these ladies was another sign of Korine’s artistically bare ambitions. If he wanted to hold up the entire escapist spring break pleasure-seeking lifestyle for satire, then he needed to push harder. What’s on the screen is rarely satire. Instead, it’s just another careless exploitation film, replete with moronic characters we don’t care about and a plot that would be charitably described as, well, a plot. Even Franco’s calculated weirdness cannot save this film. Spring Breakers is a trip best avoided.
Nate’s Grade: C-