Sunday, March 31, 2013

If you combine your hotel and murder on Expedia, you get a rate

SPRING BREAKERS                                                                                       
(dir. Harmony Korine, 2013)

What a seemingly effective act of cinematic perversion "Spring Breakers" is. Taken in any five minute increments (of which this randomly-cutting movie could likely be reassembled without problem), and it's a hypnotic day-glo concoction of scantily-clad coeds, titillating sudden violence, and the most bizarre James Franco performance this side of most other things James Franco does.

Problematically the movie is feature length and keeps going, as we quickly learn we're not partying with "Spring Breakers" - it only roofied us. And once the effect wears off and we see the clear light of day, "Spring Breakers" becomes reduced to what it really is: a movie playing in the shallow end of the swimming pool trying to fool us by changing the depth signs.

For its first third, "Spring Breakers" approaches plot like it's the photo album rather than the photos itself, just a hollow vessel to hold whatever it desires. In this case, it concerns four college females, always scantily clad, allowing the movie's costume designer an easy day off. Desperate for the cliched spring excursion to Florida but with only $325 between them, they hatch a scheme to rob a local chicken shack with water pistols. What follows in St. Petersburg is initially your typical romp of drinking and promiscuous sex, bare breasts abounding, all amped up way even beyond 11.

All this until Alien (real name Allan) enters the picture. Played by James Franco with the zeal of an untethered actor working in his own movie, he's a local rapper/gangster whose career seems to lean heavily toward the latter. Soon he draws the girls into his portal and they ditch the 750ml bottles of liquor for semi-automatics, going on shooting sprees well beyond the usual collegiate mischief.

Writer/director Harmony Korine's gambit is some kind of audacious brilliance because those who love the movie and those who hate it will point to the exact same evidence. There's little room for debate. Little room for two valid interpretations. 

"Spring Breakers'" pitch for itself boils down to Jason Lee's definition of rock and roll in "Almost Famous" - "Here I am, and fuck you if you don't understand me."

We can all agree Korine shoots the movie like a montage of itself, rapidly cutting from scene to scene and within a scene itself, doublebacking to revisit moments from only slightly different angles while purposefully avoiding any elegance. Lines in the voiceover find themselves repeated with no clear motive. Footage of spring break debauchery is presented like a parody of an MTV parody, with extreme close-up and pulsating bass lines and oversaturated colors allowing the titties and booze to wash over us.

What gets tricky is when you're forced to decide whether this has merit or not. Korine's proponents will call the movie a twisted reappropriation of Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach movies about the fun you can have when your parents aren't around. They'll say he doesn't set out to craft traditional narratives, but instead wants to break down the language of film and rebuild it to surreal, avant garde purposes. Meanwhile his detractors will say he's an emperor with no clothes and that he made a thesis instead of a movie - a movie that's all style and no substance, until the style becomes the substance, until that style quickly turns abrasive.

None of this to sound condescending. Instead to say that Korine and his movie inspires two distinct viewpoints that are equally valid because they can't be pitted against each other. No matter what side you're on, the other side simply didn't get it.

"Spring Breakers" isn't without its own genuine merits either. A sequence where Franco quietly seduces one of the more wholesome, frightened coeds to stick around, all with his hand caressing her face until it seems to envelop her, is chilling in its latent dread. Franco also delivers a monologue about the stuff in his home, built around the phrase, "Look at my sheeeeit," that deserves to be memorized by aspiring actors for auditions.

And there's a certain level of honor in an artist who works completely on his own terms, crafting a movie whose obnoxious style feels designed for you to hate it, taunting you to do so, until the rug is pulled out and it's time to get on board. If this is what Korine wants to do, "Spring Breakers" at least feels like purest distillation of these goals.

Ultimately it just feels like a surface-level movie that doesn't deserve a look beneath the surface.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Or as they retitled it in North Korea, OLYMPUS HAPPY ALL THE TIME

(dir. Antoine Fuqua, 2013)

What a pitch meeting that must have been for "Olympus Has Fallen," no doubt full of wit, passion, and intellectual volleyball...

Director: "So we have this idea for a movie..."

Studio executive: "Stop right there, where do I sign!?"

It helps to know this is actually the executive's 7 year old son sitting in the office of his father, who's caught in a meeting. But details aren't important.

And there might as well be the motto of "Olympus Has Fallen": Details aren't important. For here is a movie that seems to have been assembled from yard sales of better movies. Explosions? Check. Troubled hero seeking redemption? Check. Shots of men leaning over tables, mouth agape, as they watch startling footage on televisions? Check. Actual friggin countdown clock for some kind of bomb? Double check.

"Olympus Has Fallen" isn't a challenging movie. It isn't a profound movie. It isn't a groundbreaking movie. But it is, by all technical definition, a "movie." As such, the most elemental question one must ask when the lights come back up is, "Am I unhappy with how I spent these two hours?"

Although the answer might only be about 75% , that's high enough for a passing grade if we're using college scales. Director Antoine Fuqua and crew seem to interpret the word "stupid" as a personal challenge, but so cheerfully and so gleefully! I can't remember the last time I saw something so thoroughly wrong-headed while at the same time caring so little. The whole thing is such a delirious assault of stuff that if you concede defeat and go along for the ride, it works, in an admirably goofy way.

With the ulterior motive of supplying future film classes with a scavenger hunt for cliches, "Olympus Has Fallen" concerns Mike Banning (Gerard Butler, perpetually posing for the movie poster), former Secret Service agent who regrettably allowed the First Lady to perish in a car accident while trying to save the president (Aaron Eckhart). Now he works a desk job in the treasury department, but when North Korean baddies invade the White House and hold the president hostage, only one man can save them all! One man that North Korea didn't count on! It's only exclamation points from here on out!

For a movie that devotes its entire first reel developing that tragic back story for Butler, Fuqua and screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt don't seem to give one cheery damn about it once the mayhem kicks in. Tacked on in a half-assed attempt to give the story emotional heft, it's not only steamrolled over for the sake of action, it's entirely forgotten.

This isn't meant to criticize. Just to point out that the movie has one overarching, adamant goal: watch people kill each other real good. Sure, one could criticize the confusing goal of North Korea to launch some secret American missile system that plays like a nuclear MacGuffin. Or the laughably expository dialogue where characters repeat each other's names and job titles and dramatic purposes in case we forgot. Or the inconsistent ease with which Butler evades the bad guys, then runs into them again when the movie decides it's time for a fight scene.

Want to tackle the movie from that angle? I can't in good conscience argue. Keep fighting the good fight. But we're dealing with a movie whose bottom line is the body count, and sweet Lord, what a body count it has! Characters knifed in the head. Helicopters crashing over the West Wing. Fields of faceless citizens mowed right down with machine gun turrets. 

If the guys at Pixar animated a snuff film in their spare time, this movie no doubt puts their CG blood level to shame. 

"Olympus Has Fallen" coulda used more zest in its screenplay, more spark in its stupidity (although using a Lincoln bust to crush someone's skull was a nice touch). And it uncomfortably straddles the middle ground at times, not sure whether to embrace Roland Emmerich disaster iconography or "so bad it's good" midnight movie cheese.

This is still the stuff from which goofy smiles are born. Watch it in a packed house where sarcastic comments flung at the screen are encouraged. Watch it when it debuts on Starz in three months. Or don't watch it at all. Whatever. "Olympus Has Fallen" has no reason to exist, but I don't deride its existence.

All it lacks is a post-credits shot of a lone White House janitor shoving all the corpses in a pile with a push broom.