A Trip (Back) To The Movies – Review: “Spring Breakers” (2012) 4.5.15

Spring Breakers Movie Poster

I was excited when I saw that our local college student run movie theater was showing this as the first film of their spring season. I’ve always been a firm believer that movies aren’t always better, but deserved to be witnessed on the big screen. It’s an entirely different experience from that of the privacy of your own home. The great thing about living in a city like Portland is you can re-experience or experience something for the first time at one of our many local area theaters that show older films, so that those of us can get a chance to revisit older films as they were intended to be seen – on the big screen. I remember seeing this film twice in theaters when it got a limited wide release early in 2013 and was so impressed by it that it made my “Top 10 Films of 2013”. First off, I have always been a fan of Harmony Korine’s work. Though like other directors (Lars Von Trier comes to mind), his films have always been a bit esoteric. Korine is a provocateur, who seems to be always pushing the envelope, which is essentially what he’s been doing ever since he first gained notoriety when he wrote the screenplay at the age of 18 for Larry Clark’s “Kids” (1995). A landmark achievement of a film that explored the daily lives of a group of New York City teenagers as they did well, what teenagers did at the time and still do – consume. Whether it’s by having copious amounts of sex, partying, or drinking and drugging their way through adolescence. It was one of the most controversial films of the decade but while it was shocking and explicit, it also was a revealing depiction of what it’s like to be a teenager and the types of poor choices they make in their more formative years because let’s face it – teenagers think they’re invincible. “Kids” was and always will remain a deeply important film because it depicted a slice of life that most of us experienced as we numbed ourselves through our formative years for no other reason other than that it seemed like “the thing to do”.

“Spring Breakers” is essentially a companion piece to “Kids”. Korine’s screenplay seems to explore similar ideas and themes, just set in more current, modern-day times. This time focusing on a group of college students (played against Disney typecast by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Korine’s own wife – Rachel Korine) as they take a spring break trip to hell. The film starts with a brilliant opening montage that looks like something out of a “Girls Gone Wild” video set to a loud and abrasive Dubstep piece by the king of the EDM/Dubstep scene – Skrillex (who collaborates on the film’s score with who’s arguably the best film composer in the business – Cliff Martinez). It’s filmed in slow motion and shows countless crowds of college students engaged in just about every act of spring break debauchery – drinking beer bongs, girls flashing just about every body part, guys pouring bottles of beer on them, everyone flipping off the camera, etc. This does a great job in setting the tone for the rest of the film. It then flashes back to the four female central characters eagerly anticipating the end of the term so that they can join the ranks of college students who flock each year down to exotic locations in chase of some sort of cathartic experience in which they can go all out without any care in the world for any repercussions for the lewd behavior in which they choose to engage in. The four girls take a trip down to Florida in hopes of searching for the “American Dream” (as you’ll often hear Spring Break referred to in the film) winding up in some kind of nightmare as they experience the dark side of what happens when you wind up in the aftermath of Spring Break. It’s within the film’s second half, when the girls are taken out of the Spring Break culture after being arrested and bailed out by the film’s most integral character, Alien (played by a scene stealing, career best performance by James Franco, complete with cornrows and a full grill on his teeth). It’s within the second half of the film that I felt like Korine really starts to explore some of the underlying themes of the film and his intentions for doing so.

“Spring Breakers” is a vile and repulsive film about our generation’s fascination with sex, violence, consumerism, and over consumption. It seemed liike many people didn’t quite know what to make of the film as Korine does an expert job at mis-marketing it to look like something it’s actually not. While also being his most accessible (which is easy coming from the director of films like “Gummo” and “Trash Humpers”), commercially successful (it was the top grossing limited release of 2013), and also his most satirical and misunderstood film to date. One thing I realized during my third viewing of the film, is that you kind of have to be looking through Korine’s lens and the world in which he depicts, to understand the film’s subtext. Korine is in no way glamorizing or sensationalizing the world in which these characters exist in. Rather quite the opposite. He is repulsed like you or I are. This is clearly exemplified by the lifestyle of the film’s protagonist (if you want to call him that) Alien. Alien represents everything our current youth and adult culture idolizes – excess and the allure of money. He appears to have it all that any young person could want on the surface – lots of money, a fast car, a beautiful home on the water, endless supplies of drugs…the list goes on and on. But he’s also a byproduct of living in a society of consumerism and endless consumption. For all of his many materialist riches his life is void of anything or substance or meaning. There’s a segment in the film that many people laughed at but which I found downright deplorable. While in his home he shows off his many “riches” – money scattered everywhere, an artillery wall for his guns, an endless supply of drugs, a bed made of art, swim shorts in every color (look at my SHIT!). He embodies everything almost any young man or women could want, or at the very least, would want to be around (hence his appeal to the four female leads). Franco plays the character to a T. In one of those iconic roles that you really can’t picture any other actor being able to pull off. It’s a total transformative performance that ranks up there with some of the best of the past few years.

While the first half of the film is filmed like some sort of dream complete with rich candy colors (Korine and DP of photography Benoit Debie, who’s prior work on Gasper Noe’s “Enter The Void” (2009) was a cited influence for the “look” of the film).The film’s second half is filmed in slightly more muted colors, with many of the scenes taking place at sunset or night (a nicely, rather intentional decision of contrast by Korine). The way in which it’s filmed also has a Terrence Malick-esque feel (“The Tree of Life”) as the cinematography takes on a free-floating, soaring, stream-of-consciousness quality to it with many scenes using voice-over narration in showing multiple shots and quick edits of its characters. The film goes from Girls Gone Wild sex romp in its first half to semi-tragedy in its second. I could go on and on about the satirical elements Korine seems to want to get across to his audience. But I’ll end by saying this, like Bobcat Goldthwait’s biting satire – “God Bless America” (2011) did, Korine does a good job at putting up a mirror to our generation’s cultural climate, where we see ourselves in, but are too ashamed or embarrassed to admit it. Which is essentially what I think turned most people off to this film. It’s my favorite of all of Korine’s work to date, and in years to come, will be discovered as a dug up artifact to remind the future of the materialistic, self-serving, superficial, and hopeless reflection of both the times and society in which we currently live in.

[A-]

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Review: ‘Nymphomaniac Vol.2’ 9.5.14

Well what can I say other than Lars you really outdid yourself and surprised even me this time around. Whereas Vol.1 was almost a walk in the park, Vol.2 goes straight down the rabbit hole into darkness and depravity. He might as well have named the 2 volumes “Night” and “Day”. Vol.2 goes to lengths even I was surprised LVT, or his actors for that matter, were willing to go. We essentially pick up right where we left off in Vol.1 except Joe (Stacy White) is now in committed relationship with Jerome (a gutsy performance by Shia LaBeouf). It continues to be told in flashback, with the Charlotte Gainsbourg character reciting her story of how she became to be a “nymphomaniac” to Stellan Skarsgard, the man who comes to her rescue at the beginning of Vol.1. Joe, feeling dissatisfied with her new domestic life, decides to break things off and continue on her odyssey of sexual exploration. If in Vol.1, she was exploring her “awakening”. I would say Vol.2 depicts her exploring her perversions. We soon jump forward a few years, and the old Joe (Martin) is now the new Joe (Gainsbourg) and this change in time also corresponds with a paradigm shift in the film. Joe now is willing to go to whatever length, at whatever costs, to fulfill her sexual fantasies. That’s essentially a loose story line of Vol. 2. The major difference between the 2 films, is that Vol.2 really starts to up the ante and becomes almost borderline exploitative. Which can be a good or bad thing depending on what your threshold is for this type of material. While I found a lot of it to feel rather banal and slightly nihilistic which is I guess to be expected when you’re exploring sadomasochism, fetishism, homosexuality, and pedophilia. It sometimes felt excruciatingly painful to watch at times, which was really my only criticism of the piece. It tended to go a little too far over the edge, and I found myself cringing and feeling extremely uncomfortable of what I was being shown at times. Which I guess is all part of the challenge, at least for me. Where it’s strong points lay were in it’s unbelievably bold performances, particularly that of the young Joe (White), as well as the older (Gainsbourg). I also thought the use of classical music infused with the works of Bach and Wagner set to scenes of extreme debauchery to be rather effective (like Kubrick did with “A Clockwork Orange”). That, and two other things that stuck out were how he tied in this last film of his “Depression Trilogy” with the others that proceeded it (“Antichrist”, “Melancholia”). There was one scene in particular where I thought LVT was actually going to start over and replay the beginning of “Antichrist”. Which I thought would have been a brilliant move. Also a very intentional one on LVT’s part to play with and tease the audience a little. And it mostly worked for me. Lastly, I really liked the statement of what he was trying to say about the nature of humanity in the climax. Like many people I put a rather large emphasis on a film’s ending, and what he does here I thought was rather brilliant. It really got me thinking. As with other LVT films, this is yet another in his ever expanding oeuvre of thought-provoking, challenging films. My only question that stands is, where on earth is Lars Von Trier going to take us next? I don’t know if I want to find out.

Grade: B

 

Review: ‘Nymphomaniac Vol.1’ 9.4.14

Those of you that know me well enough know that I have a deep respect and admiration for Lars Von Trier. As someone who considers themselves to be a student of film, there is no other director (except maybe Stanley Kubrick or David Lynch) that has had as much of an influence on my developing taste in film particularly during that of my more formative years. I remember clearly, it being well over a decade now, when I first saw LVT’s “Europa” (1991). The opening tracking shot of a murky train track with a brilliant voice over narration by Max Von Syndow telling the viewer “to sit back, relax, and let the images take over”, which enduced some kind of a trance; was my first introduction to this writer director. Much like David Lynch and Gasper Noe, LVT seems to be much more interested in entering the viewer’s subconsicous from the get go than anything else. What has been the focus of so much controversy over the years is what LVT’s intentions are once he gets in there. As Bjork, the famous Icelandic singer who worked on one his films (2000’s brilliant “Dancer in the Dark”) said – “it’s almost as if there’s this sort of psychological robbery or robbery of the soul that takes place when working on and seeing a LVT film”. In fact, she had such an awful experience working with him that she vowed never to act in any other film again (ironically though, she won the best actress award at Cannes for her spellbinding debut performance). LVT, while maybe difficult to work with, has an uncanny gift for bringing out great performances in actresses. Emily Watson’s performance in 1996’s “Breaking The Waves” and Nicole Kidman’s in 2004’s “Dogville” are two outstanding performances in not only what are 2 of my favorite LTV films, but 2 of my favorite films of all time. I think what Bjork was quoted as saying is indicative of a lot of LVT films. He goes places and shows you things that you have such an immense emotional reaction to, that an exercise in one of his films can be very off putting to some. With that said, I’ve always found his boundary pushing, penchant for the taboo, and challenging material; specifically emotionally, to be his biggest strong points. He is a provocateur who bullies his audience. Again, a criticism that many people have of him that I just don’t happen to share. I want to be shocked, perturbed, angry, and completely emotionally and psychologically devastasted when watching a LVT film. And believe me I’m not a masochist or sadist, nor am I a misogynist (which LVT is often referred to as). I just like films that explore the dark side of the human condition that bring me to places where there’s no pre-established contract set up. Which is why I gravitate to the type of material and stories in which Von Trier often chooses to write about.

When I first heard that LVT had announced to Stellan Skarsgard (an often LVT collaborater who appears in the film) that his plan after 2011’s mostly superb, end of the apocalypse art film – “Melancholia”, was to write and direct a 5-hour porno movie. My first reaction was one of intrigue, but my second and most important was, how the heck was he going to pull it off. Then, after being screened throughout the festival circuit last year and garnering mostly positive praise. I once again grew a sense of anticipation and excitment that I often times do with a lot of LVT films. Well, after some procrastination I finally got around to watching Vol.1 last night. In typical LVT fashion it was another addition to his ouevre of ever growing, boundary pushing, esoteric films. A loose synopsis is that it follows the sexual exploits of Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, another LVT frequent collaborater) from the age of 2 through her teenage and young adult years, as she recites them in a series of flashbacks to Skarsgard, who just happens to help her at the start of the film when she is most in need. The film uses this tale of her sexual odyssey to explore underlying themes such as temptation, jealousy, relationship power dynamics, male vs. female ego, control, obsession, and love vs. lust. There is a fair amount of explicit sex yes. But one can probably induce that already by the title of the film. What’s important to point out is there is nothing stimulating about the sex we see on screen at all. LTV uses this concept to explore sex as an addiction, something we use for selfish reasons, or are constant need to be in control, and as an ultimately   unsatisfying way of relieving all of the tension we build up. This is all effective and done well. However, while it was intellectually stimulating, it didn’t really strike a chord for me emotionally or psychologically that some of LVT’s prior work has. It all felt very topical in its examination. It felt like he could have gone further and probed deeper into the material (which I hope is the case with Vol.2). The script also had its flaws, in that I found the constant metaphors (and there were far too many of them) and symbolism to be a bit unecessary and self indulgent. I feel like had LVT made things a bit more subtle and not so obtrusive, I probably would have liked the film quite a bit more. Still, and I’ll refer to Von Trier here as I often refer to the films of Woody Allen. A sub par or mediocre LVT film, as with Allen, is still better than 90% of most other directors better works. Or better yet, certainly more worthwhile than whatever’s showing this week at your local IMAX theater.

Grade: B-