Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Review: "Spring Breakers" has Poetic Beauty Partying All Over It

Left to right: Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens,
Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine
When director Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers opened in limited release, nobody expected it to break specialty box office records like the more acclaimed films The Master or Moonrise Kingdom. However, it was only the start of this film's surprise hit status. Starring three Disney starlets, a crazy performance by James Franco, and directed by the guy whose last film was called Trash Humpers, this doesn't seem like a film that deserved a place in this past weekend's Top 10 box office. However, despite polarizing the youthful demographics, the film has been a critical success. How can a film that is essentially extensive partying with nudity and drugs one of the best films of the year so far?

When I first wrote about Spring Breakers, it was a time when promotional materials was low. At best, it seemed like a cheesy cousin of Havoc or a film in which fresh faced actresses unsuccessfully try to play bad. However, the very fact that the film was considered for a contention release this past December only made me more curious. What was it about James Franco's performance that made it even worthy of competing, especially when almost every race had been established?

The result is a film that feels like a cross between coverage of MTV's Spring Break coverage, Drive, and The Tree of Life. The film opens up with bikini-clad people partying on the beach and pouring alcohol over naked breasts. Skrillex's "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" plays in the background. Suddenly, as the song whist through a breezy hook, a loud, aggressive thud turns everything into chaos. While Skrillex would have worked otherwise, this song choice is essentially the first poetic note. It explains how the film grows from this happy tale into utter chaos. All in the course of two minutes, we get a thesis of the film to come.

Four college girls get bored and head down. The first half of the film is pretty much a love letter to hardcore partying from gambling in a corner to drinking beer through funnels and smoking out of a bong. There is an excessive amount of nudity, and it almost feels hypnotic. The film feels as breezy as that first Skrillex song. The only matter is how to keep this sensation alive after everything comes to an end.

This is where Harmony Korine officially makes himself a fascinating director visually. In a very Terrence Malick fashion, many of the shots are muted, only relying on established conversations to contradict emotions of the moment. Many scenes play out as quiet puzzles and the chaos feels more like a whirlpool. These characters aren't really redeemable in the traditional sense. This isn't about having fun. This is a tale that as one of them establishes, "We have found ourselves out here." Of course, that is where things go dark.

James Franco
Introducing Alien (James Franco), who is the king of Florida with a heart of gold. He lives the dream with a house full of guns and Scarface on repeat. He mentors the girls into the dark second half where along with an ominous continuation of the Drive score, composer Cliff Martinez makes the film feel like clicks in a hollow hallway. The drugs are no long done for fun, but for the sake of relaxing with a character who at one point is crazy enough to perform oral sex on a gun.

It will all make sense within context of the film. However, Franco really sells the performance and by choosing to go more mellow and consistently say "y'all," he has created his most quotable character since Saul Silvers in Pineapple Express, also ironically a stoner in a role that got him a Golden Globe nomination. He comes across as the hero, even though his intentions aren't always that great.

While it may seem like opposition to mainstream opinions, Korine is the true hero of the film. Even though the four leads spend majority of the film in bikinis, there is this neon quality that makes them glow in dark scenes. While it adds to the erotic nature, it also works as an aesthetic. Almost every scene is lit with neon colors and it only makes the film tonally more eerie. Korine is a genius when it comes to lighting sets.

He's also great at shooting scenes in general. There are at least two scenes in this film that show why Korine is a master filmmaker. There is an early one take that must be seen to be believed in which a heist and a moving car are shot simultaneously without losing either's coherency. The other is the more buzzed about montage in which the girls and Alien perform a series of violent crimes over Britney Spears' "Everytime." This alone qualifies as one of the best scenes of the year and the best montage with a Spears song. It will force you to have a visceral reaction on par with how Martin Scorsese did in Goodfellas with Derek and the Dominos. 

True, Spring Breakers is morally ambiguous. You'll either support the movie's dark narrative or hate it because of the same reason. Things don't always end on a happy note, and Korine has created a challenging piece of cinema that does just that. However, while the ambiguity causes some to question the film's actual narrative, I believe that it is a coming of age story essentially in which innocence is lost. Korine just happens to put it into a fascinating art house film that feels almost equal parts meditative as it does chaotic.

So what are the film's Oscar chances? As I stated recently, this film may skew too young to really even be considered for much. I do not see a film that opens with a bunch of naked girls to be in the Best Picture race. While critics have helped the film to gain momentum, the Academy usually veers away from prudish subject matter, thus why movies like Shame weren't even considered. The fact that it is also just as ambiguous as Drive, and in ways that polarize audiences, that only makes it harder to get recognized. The Academy loves more traditional narratives, and with exception to James Franco, there isn't an iota of Oscar prestige on this project.

With that established, my long term goal of understanding why Franco has been considered for a nomination finally makes sense. His turn as Alien is perhaps one of this year's early stand out of memorable characters. He has a whole rant about his possessions that may reflect complexity and heavy reliance on stunted delivery. Franco seems almost too much at ease, and it also feels like he is back to ambitious role choices after taking it easy with Oz: The Great and Powerful.

Will this land him a second Oscar nomination? I would like to hope so. Of course, as I initially hoped with The Grey, films before June don't stand a strong chance of making it to the finals. Of course, with the praise around Franco gaining momentum, it is possible that he'll at least be considered. However, it has yet to be seen what his competition will be. For all we know, Ryan Gosling in one of his many films will give Franco a run for his money. However, with the Academy attempting to recognize a wider array of films, it is possible that this one could make a small blip on their radar, especially since Franco's previous nomination gives him a leg up.

I do not see any of the other stars getting nominated. While I admire the choice to cast Disney stars in roles that accentuates good girls going bad in a very meta way, they are not as memorable. True, their behavior becomes shocking, but almost every memorable moment is caused by Franco or Korine's camera work. The meditative nature alone makes me wish that a Best Director nomination was possible. At very least, a chance at Best Cinematography.

Again, it is too early to predict if it will be a massive success. However, I am sure it will unfortunately be ignored by the Academy. I will probably keep this on my radar and push it whenever I get the chance, even though I am sure nothing will come of it. I am not calling it my 2013's version of The Master, but Spring Breakers is exciting cinema because it isn't traditional and shares more with Malick than popcorn summer films. If the Academy was to recognize brilliant cinema, it would do it with Spring Breakers. Though that would be one weird montage, especially if they had to blur nudity.

Do you think James Franco has sealed his nomination status? Is Spring Breakers possible of being more than that film with girls in bikinis? Will the lack of Harmony Korine's mainstream status hurt it, even though The Tree of Life got nominated for similar visual achievements?

1 comment:

  1. Franco and Korine deserve an oscar nomination SB is great film. Dont see it happening though...too risky and controversial for the academy, they like to play it safe.