SPRING BREAKERS (2012, directed by Harmony Korine, 94 minutes, U.S.)
UPSIDE DOWN (2012, Juan Solanas, 100 minutes, Canada/France)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Comedian D.L. Hughley was on Real Time with Bill Maher a few years back, talking about the seductive fantasy of your standard issue rap video: a picture of convertible sports cars, hot tubs and rippling seas of bouncing booty. As successful as Hughley has been, he admitted those videos even made him feel like life might be passing him by.
That fantasy idyll of compliant, scantily-clad young females, drinks a-flowing, and tunes a-blasting is a vision of consumerist Heaven that lingers in the public’s consciousness, and as prevalent as the fantasy is in our world it is surprising that Harmony Korine is the first American filmmaker to not just exploit this particular id-driven bacchanalia, but to prod it parts as well. Dreamy, preposterous, at times monotonous, Korine’s luminous and titillating new feature, Spring Breakers, is as close to an art installation as it is to a mainstream film. Korine’s hypnotizing voyage has an openness that allows the viewer to decide what they think of its mayhem, a strength that seems to have confounded some of his critics.
Here’s a film where it ain’t the story but the telling. Bored college girls are stranded on campus, too broke for the full Florida Spring Break experience. They decide to fund their trip with a hold-up and then have the ultimate Spring Break experience, boozing, drugging, dancing and firing off guns. “Spring Break Forever!”
Shot by French director Gasper Noe’s cinematographer, Benoît Debie, Korine sends his quartet of freshly-bloomed bikini maidens over the rainbow to a splendor we’ve only previously seen in Girls Gone Wild videos. The sea of slow-mo writhing bodies offers titillation but also have an unnerving resemblance to atrocity scenes. James Franco, for the second time this month, plays the wizard who will escort the quartet across the Emerald City. With his corn-rows, his mouth full of metal and his gangsta patter, Franco’s pimp-like character Alien is the racial middle man who escorts the girls into the very black world of inner city St. Petersburg.
Race is part of what is simmering beneath the surface of Spring Breakers, the Reconstruction is what is being discussed at the history class the girls are shown blithely ignoring. As for Alien’s history, he proclaims he was once “Brothers” with his African-American rival Archie (rapper Gucci Mane,) but a falling out has placed murder in the air. Why are these bikini teens so ready for violence? Korine does little to distinguish the four young women, except making Faith (Disney star Selena Gomez) a religious good girl. Their conversation gives us little to define them, in voice-overs they discuss “really finding themselves” amongst the dehumanizing spectacle, but the mournful emptiness roars loudly beside the rampaging sensual id.
I’ve already thrown around the world “dreamy” for Debie’s gorgeous floating camerawork but it also stems from Korine’s disinterest in showing the nuts and bolts of the narrative, just the euphoric highlights. When the idea is hatched to pull a heist to fund their spring break vacation, there is no brainstorming and planning, instead, we’re thrust into the driver’s seat of a car, watching the robbery in progress. From beginning to end, Spring Breakers’ journey unfolds with the logic of a dream, begging the question, “is this happening anywhere but in the imagination of these characters?” And is it their dream or ours? It may be full of nasty charm but Spring Breakers knows to be careful what you wish for.
– – – – – – – – – – – – –
A much more-elaborate but conventional fantasy also opens this week in Philly, a joint French/Canadian, English language sci-fi film titled Upside Down. In this none-too-subtle class critique, two world are linked in orbit with less than a mile between them, but the “upper world” lives in luxury while the “lower world” exists like a colonized country, robbed of its resources and left in squalor. The “lower world” Adam and the “upper world” Eden (as adults played by Cloud Atlas’Jim Sturgess and movie star Kirsten Dunst) met in the mountainous link between worlds, a romance that could never be because the lovers were from different worlds, both figuratively and literally. A decade later, Adam sees Eden on television and sets out to infiltrate the “upper world” and win her heart.
The director Juan Solanas (son of acclaimed Argentinean director Fernando E. Solanas) brought the concept to Hollywood first but found that American studios wanted too much control over the film’s direction, which led to French and Canadian money being secured to mount a production that could match any modern CGI blockbuster for grandeur. The design is imaginative, if a little Matrix-y and if you can accept the eyebrow-raising premise, there is a real joy in the clever ways the film illustrates the connection between the two worlds, whose gravity only effects its own natural-born citizens. The film has a slyly subversive take on corporate culture, when Adam uses his scientific genius to get a job at the soul killing cross-world conglomerate we see a world ruled by a certain suit and tie feudalism. A disgruntled upper world co-worker, played by Mike Leigh regular Timothy Spall acts as a liaison to help Adam’s transworld journey and after devising his own gravitational pull, Adam is off to see how the other half lives as he plots to reconnect to Eden.
The film is pitched at the level of young adult fiction, and it works well at that level. It is shameless at corny developments like Eden having amnesia but within the emotional limitations of the genre, Upside Down is a modest success. The film’s refusal of Hollywood money was probably a good thing, it has a clear sense of purpose that sets Upside Down apart from its big studio brethren, a sense of originality whose corners haven’t all been sanded clean by marketing concerns. I would have liked to have gotten a little more out of its leads, Jim Sturgess’ shaggy boy band charisma is a little thin and while Dunst may deliver some not-unpleasant movie star sparkle, her now 30-ish girl-next-store charm lacks an ethereal dimension one might expect from a dreamgirl from another planet.
Upside Down almost seems like it was crafted for Dunst alone, echoing the crashing planet scenario of her 2011 film Melancholia and even finding a way to echo her big pop cultural moment, the upside-down kiss from Spider-Man. Every star has their special qualities, it seems like someone has decided Dunst is the girl we want to kiss upside-down.