Spring Breakers (2013)
by Steve Habrat
Arthouse writer and director Harmony Korine isn’t the type of filmmaker who releases warm and fuzzy crowd pleaser films. Far from it. Korine made a name for himself with such films as the gritty AIDS tale Kids, the voyeuristic and derelict Gummo, and the schizophrenic Julien Donkey-Boy, all films that have achieved cult status due to their controversial subject matter and off-the-beaten-path approach. Over the years, Korine has managed to keep a relatively low profile, but earlier this year he finally broke into the mainstream with Spring Breakers, a glow-in-the-dark tale of four college girls letting loose on the streets of Florida. Through his camera lens, Korine turns this tale of escaping the mundane and living out your fantasies into a sun-drenched nightmare that leers at you through showers of Natural Light, clouds of cocaine, hovering trails of marijuana smoke, and walls of dubstep noise. And then there is James Franco, who gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Alien, a showy, grill-wearing rapper and wannabe thug who pulls our four beach-bunny heroines down into a neon underworld that is ecstasy to some and a living and breathing Hell to others.
Spring Breakers introduces us to Candy (played by Vanessa Hudgens), Brittany (played by Ashley Benson), Cotty (played by Rachel Korine), and Faith (played by Selena Gomez), four college students who are eager to tag along with their fellow classmates to a spring break celebration in Florida. Unable to scrape enough money together to go, Candy, Brittany, and Cotty decide to rob a local diner in an attempt to come up with enough money to make the trip. The robbery proves successful, and together, the girls board a party bus that will take them to a weeklong celebration in the sun. Upon their arrival, the girls are convinced that they are in paradise and they proceed to indulge in an abundance of reckless and wild behavior. After getting busted by the police for doing cocaine at a party, the girls are taken to a holding cell, where they, along with two hard-partying twins (played by Sidney and Thurman Sewell), are bailed out by Alien (played by James Franco), a small-time rapper and thug who believes the girls can be useful with his criminal empire. After getting to know Alien, the girls believe they have it made, but their endless paradise is threatened when tensions flare between Alien and a dangerous local gangster by the name of Big Arch (played by Gucci Mane).
Korine begins Spring Breakers with a twirling montage of a college kids on a shining beach. There is no sound to accompany this string of images as they shout at the camera from behind Ray-Ban sunglasses. At first, the behavior seems harmless enough, that of college kids who are letting loose after months of hitting the books and hunching over finals. As the sequence picks up, the behavior spirals more and more out of control as girls shed their bikini tops for the audience and the cheering guys douse them in streams of cheap beer. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare, a depiction of animalistic behavior that parents everywhere secretly try to tell themselves that their son or daughter doesn’t engage in. To our four main characters, this is what they consider to be the good life that they daydream about, snorting cocaine off of each other’s stomachs, seducing a room full of meathead guys who throw beer on their quivering bodies, and urinating in the street for the entire world to see. As the film goes on, the girls begin to grapple with this endless paradise, some embracing it without ever looking back and others frightened into the shelter of their normal routine by the arrogant wannabe thug Alien, who claims to take great delight in being as bad as they come.
When evaluating the performances of Spring Breakers, the actor at the head of the class is Franco, who is flawless as the smirking faux-thug Alien. Franco introduces Alien as an overconfident poser who demands that the girls, who circle his feet like dogs, marvel at all of his possessions. He brags about having Scarface on repeat, shows off his high-powered weaponry that hangs over his bed (which he dubs his “spaceship”), and loves gathering the girls around his baby grand piano that sits on his scenic back porch. When he tangles with Gucci Mane’s menacing Big Arch, who spits poisonous threats like a viper, his confidence begins to wobble. With a showdown looming in the distance, Alien’s love for the good life is put to the test, especially when he realizes that he needs to back up all of his boasts. As far as the girls go, Hudgens and Benson are white hot as Candy and Brittany, two girls who love pointing their fingers like guns and making gun shot noises. Rachel Korine is a ball of confliction as Cotty, a pink-haired partier who can’t quite decide if she is as taken with Alien’s lifestyle as her pals are. Gomez surprises as the religious Faith, who grows increasingly concerned about both her current situation and her rebellious friends.
While the subject matter of Spring Breakers sure fits in with the rest of Korine’s homely body of work, the film is a slight shift from his usual ragged, fly-on-the-wall visual style. The party scenes certainly hold on to the vérité approach we have seen in Korine’s previous work, but Spring Breakers finds him applying a gorgeous neon glow to almost every single shot, sometimes leaning towards a glow-in-the-dark surrealism that makes you feel like you’re trapped in a night club. It’s never short of beautiful, even when it’s allowing you to glimpse the worst in human beings. The film also casts a spell with the thumping dubstep score, which almost throws you into a glazed-over trance as partiers scream into the camera. In addition to its neon visuals, Korine’s script builds the suspense quite nicely, working its way to a shattering showdown where the girl’s get to live out their violent fantasies, complete with neon green bikinis and hot pink ski masks. Overall, while it may be a bit too much for some viewers to handle, Spring Breakers is an undeniably shocking and multi-layered meditation on the pros and cons of the good life. It finds Korine at the top of his directorial game and coaxing a wild turn from the ever-colorful James Franco. This is a blissfully edgy and hallucinatory work of mad genius from a man who loves pushing our buttons and making us uncomfortable.
Spring Breakers is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Sucker Punch (2011)
by Steve Habrat
After all the gun smoke had cleared and the credits crawled across the screen, it became crystal clear to me how Christopher Nolan settled on Zack Snyder for the reboot of Superman: Snyder simply showed him Sucker Punch. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that Nolan gushed over it either. Sucker Punch is a trippy puzzler that sends you stumbling from the theater to debate what the hell just happened with your friends, which is quite similar to what Nolan did with his towering Inception. But where Inception pulled off it’s elusiveness with refined sophistication, Sucker Punch takes the dirty, dusty road where dragons swoop from above, girls in fishnets wield 50 calibers, WWI zombie German soldiers leap from trenches, and our heroes bop around in a WWII bomber. And that is just naming a few of the oddities that Snyder lobbed into his obvious pet project. I’m sure by this point you’ve seen the other reviews of Sucker Punch and, to use a term from Mr. Obama, the film has taken quite a “shellacking.” Sure it’s big, loud, and completely overblown, but I oddly found myself enjoying the madness. What actually appalls me is that Battle: Los Angeles, a film that makes no attempt to be about anything except blowing everything up, actually received better reviews than this film did! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?! Did we see the same movie?
Maybe I was rooting for Snyder to actually pull off the impossible. Everyone under the sun has seen the unruly trailer. Snyder seemed like he wanted to shove every possible genre of film into one film to make one hulking masterpiece. One that encompasses everything from the kung-fu films to epic medieval fantasies. I truly found Sucker Punch to be a noble, and at times, refreshing attempt at it even if it was beginning to show signs of collapsing on itself. The film also has had a slight hypnotic affect over me in the sense that I am confident that there is more to this particular film than first meets the eye. The first time seems to be a shock and awe campaign to pin you to your seat but the more my mind wanders back and evaluates the little touches, the more I’m lured into wanting to uncover more about it.
I won’t dive to deeply into the plot of the film because some of it is up to you to piece together, but the film follows the starry-eyed, pig-tailed Babydoll (played by Emily Browning), who is admitted into a mental institution by her unhinged stepfather after she accidentally shoots her baby sister. It’s here that she falls under the care of the at times menacing and at times motherly but always vampy Dr. Gorski (played by Carla Gugino). Behind the walls of the institition, she embraces her new life in a brothel and learns to dance for the seedy men that come to drool over the young girls. Babydoll soon joins forces with the tough-as-nails leader Sweet Pea (played by Abbie Cornish), Sweet Pea’s gung-ho little sister Rocket (played by Jenna Malone), the uneasy “pilot” Amber (played by Jamie Chung), and the big guns specialist Blondie (played by Vanessa Hudgens). The gang rapidly starts plotting an escape from the institution/brothel and through their wildly untamed imaginations, envision elaborate dream-missions to find the supplies they need to break out of the big house.
While the film marvelously finds a perfect balance between the hectic dream worlds and the rotting walls of the institution, the film tries to cram so much in that points are a little to overpowering. There is an incredibly inspired sequence that takes place on a WWI battle field complete with zombified German soldiers wearing ghastly gasmasks, biplanes falling in flaming ruin from the sky, earth shaking explosions and a lofty android walker with a rabbit face that Amber maneuvers into a outrageously bad ass death machine. It’s a truly breathtaking action sequence that is worth the trip to see the movie alone. Sadly, the film stumbles when it ventures into the realm of medieval fantasy in a war sequence that smashes WWII together with the Lord of the Rings. I give it credit for being atypical but it’s shockingly monotonous and lacking in any sort of looming danger. This leads me to my next compliant, which is the fact that all the girls are magically scrappy superheroes. There is never any concrete justification and we are supposed to just embrace it. One sequence that is especially irritating is when Babydoll confronts three giant samurais. She flips through the air so repeatedly that I almost wanted to shout “ENOUGH ALREADY! WE GET IT!”
Ultimately, Sucker Punch overcomes the obstacles and still manages to be engaging. I still found myself consumed by much of it and the writing, although uneven, is never less than interesting. The dialogue is good but not great and the premise alone never lost me. The performances’ by the young actresses are finely tuned and convincing. I was extremely worried that they would be wooden. The standout is without question the wounded Rocket. She kicks ass while nursing the burden of a broken heart. I actually breathed a huge sigh of relief that the film never descended into a perverse fantasy for Snyder. While the girls are adorned in fishnets and lingerie, the film is surprisingly tame. We never get a glimpse of the burlesque dance sequences and instead are substituted with the dream world. An even bigger relief is that the film counters Snyder’s fixation with masculine heroes. I enjoyed the girl power feel that he explores this time around. It’s more substantial than his homoerotic bloodbath 300. It still comes in third to his colorful Dawn of the Dead remake and spacey adaptation of graphic novel juggernaut Watchmen. On top of it, Snyder further refines his coarse camerawork and his fluid montages of slow motion into real time. It all flows so gorgeously and it’s impossible not to eat it all up.
The aspect that truly wounds Sucker Punch is the ending where, like Watchmen, it crams all of it’s “profound” ideas in a brushed over climax that feels curiously unsatisfying. This is where the film truly flat lines. It piles on nonsensically cryptic monologues on top of some obvious visual symbolism. The film is convinced that it is a fine wine that will be savored as the taste sticks in your mouth. Unfortunately, it’s just a high-end, calorie-loaded beer that is surprisingly tasty in the beginning. A taste that you and your buddies exclaim about for the first few sips but when you reach the bottom of the bottle, you just gulp down the last drops to finish it. It wasn’t as refreshing as the first few half but it wasn’t impossible to polish off. You’ll oddly find yourself wanting to experience it all again to peel back some more layers and it will make for some good conversation in the long run.
Sucker Punch is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.