POSTED ON MARCH 27, 2013:
Make for a pretty good movie
Harmony Korine has always been a divisive filmmaker, at least as far as his 1997 debut film, Gummo, is concerned. A Larry Clark-esque leer at a group of backwoods, Ohio teens -- bored, high and stuck in what seems like the skeeziest ring of Hell, Gummo's guerilla aesthetic and figuratively doomed characters gave the film the air of an unblinking corpse-dream, rotting under the firmament of a detached society. Sex, drugs and beating dead cats with a stick, mainstream it wasn't and Gummo's endless loop on IFC in the late '90s earned the film as many detractors as fans.
Fast forward 16 years and Korine -- after over a decade of doing not much that anyone besides indie fans noticed -- hits American screens with the biggest splash of his career: the propulsive, provocative and culture-skewering Spring Breakers.
Britt (Ashley Benson, Pretty Little Liars), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens, Sucker Punch), Faith (Selena Gomez, Wizards of Waverly Place) and Cotty (Rachel Korine, The Fourth Dimension) are three sexy, young college students on the verge of shedding their routine life of dorm room-dom and lectures for the sunny debauchery of Florida. Britt and Candy in particular can't wait to get on with spring break and the bevy of booze and dick that awaits their oral fixations. Faith, meanwhile, lives up to her name. A member of the campus Christian organization, she's a good girl who can't quite give up on her friends, having known them since kindergarten and being convinced of their basic goodness despite their bong-smoking, promiscuous ways.
That conviction gets shaken when Britt, Candy and Cotty find themselves lacking the money to go on spring break and decide to rob a diner with squirt guns -- lifting the till and the wallets of customers in a Pulp Fiction-like heist. Successful, they embark on that Yellow Brick Road to bacchanalia.
During a blur of booze, sand, boobs and coke, the four friends find themselves guests courtesy of the St. Petersburg police department, where they are bailed out by Alien (James Franco, Oz the Great and Powerful), a corn-rowed, white-boy rapper and drug dealer whose interest in the four, ripe, baby-fattened, bubblicious girls isn't at all complicated. At least until his former best friend and new arch-nemesis, Archie (Gucci Mane, Confessions of a Thug) lets Alien know, in no uncertain terms, that he needs to stop dealing on his turf or suffer the consequences.
From the opening montage of slow-motion revelers on the beach -- young, sun-drenched, slowly rippling flesh captured in Girls Gone Wild detail; carnality in the air so thick you kind of feel like an idiot perv for liking it -- Korine is celebrating feminine sexual agency (and sexuality in general) while forcing you to wonder what their parents must think. These are your kids and this is what they love. Even Jesus can't keep those adorable Disney actresses from getting high and laid. And if you're lucky, some of them might turn out to be serious human beings that can contribute to society or even run the country ten years down the line. The others? They'll just contribute to the collapse of Rome, a mirror image of Gummo's cynicism of expectations.
Korine isn't really trying to make statements about class and culture as much as he's gleefully rubbing our faces in them (casting well-known role models for young girls as sexually liberated, femme fatales feels like a giant fuck you to the industry of child stardom). His visual palette is a mélange of beautiful compositions, great editing, arty abstractionism (in perfectly timed doses) and candy-coated prurience, captured dexterously by cinematographer, Benoît Debie (Irreversible).
The performances Korine culls are all deft, in particular a great turn by Franco as Alien. He sinks into the look and the character, giving layers to someone who seems like a generally awful human being but who actually has a sweet, underdog side to him. "Look at my shii-yit!" he intones with boyish glee as he holds up two semi-automatic machine guns. Still, Franco reveals Alien's subtly sympathetic, man-boy qualities in a way that would have eluded many.
Piano Couple. Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode make some cinematic music together in Stoker.
It's unabashedly hedonistic, violent, weird, sardonic, sexy and espouses that this is what we should already know about ourselves. Spring Breakers is the most implausibly and excitingly visceral movie of 2013. If that doesn't get you interested, seek help.
Park Chan-Wook, director of the revered Korean neo-classic, Oldboy, is awesome. I. Heart. Him. Be it his Vengeance Trilogy (of which Oldboy was the second part), off-beat comedies like the truly deranged I'm A Cyborg, But That's Okay, or his unique take on vampirism with Thirst, the man has done little that isn't visionary.
Much of that has to do with the visuals of his films as much as his narrative sensibility, a signature, wonderfully geometrical, photographic intellect that gives many of his frames the look of post-modern art. And the interlocking nature of his plots reflects that cinematic exactness, both of which are brought to bear in his English-language debut, Stoker.
Unfortunately, his more operatic tendencies don't translate quite as well as Harmony Korine's hilariously faux-Scarface climax in Spring Breakers (though Korine, ironically cameos here as Mr. Feldman. In the end, they're both movies about what happens to girls bereft of societal and personal limitations).
India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska, Alice in Wonderland) is the daughter of a widowed, well-off mom, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman, The Paperboy) whose husband, Richard (Dermot Mulroney, The Grey) has been mysteriously killed in a car accident. Enter Charles Stoker (Matthew Goode, Watchmen), brother of Richard, ostensibly in town to console his family and who decides to stay on and reconnect with his long lost kin. With a European look to match his worldly adventures, Chuckles creepily ingratiates himself with his brother's widow while taking an even more preternatural interest in his 18-year-old niece. Dressed like a button-downed '50s librarian, bullied by her peers, contemptuous of her mother and obsessed with the identical pair of patent leather shoes she's worn for all of her life, India has entered a dystopian phase in her otherwise privileged existence.
When the bodies start to drop, India, Charles and Evelyn embark down a twisted road that seemingly leads to ruin.
Based on a script by Wentworth Miller (Resident Evil: Afterlife) the artifice of Stoker's Southern Gothic horror aspirations aren't helped by its cloistered story telling. Everything is so obvious. Richard's car accident is clearly something more. The overt Hamlet homage that is Charles trying to bone his brother's wife while casting all too personal aspersions on his niece devolves into parody. All of those devices would be fine if the film felt as organic as it looks.
It has moments, to be sure, due mainly to Park's style. India's masturbation scene ups the ante on chilling and Park is essentially playing with a theme that turned out to be the zinger in Oldboy. And Stoker looks fucking amazing (the transition between a hair brushing scene to uncut, windblown grass lands was as sublime as anything Park does, or anything in Highlander) but it's an ill fit with Wentworth's generally rote narrative and silly ideas (don't run away when Charles takes off his belt, you might live!) particularly when it comes to actively giving a shit about these shallow, self-serving people.
It's not even really a fault of the actors. Kidman (standing out), Wasikowska and Goode are fine, but they never come across as more than caricatures. Jackie Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook) shows up only to be perfunctorily wasted. At his best, Park makes archetypes seem real and immediate, revealing them and their stories operatically, comically and violently, but with an easy depth and weird glee that suspends disbelief. Sadly, that adeptness is lost in translation.
You have no idea how frustrating it is to condemn Stoker for not being as amazing as it should be. Is it a case of an international wunderkind stumbling when they finally make an American film? Yeah. But he's still great.
"Mudd" Miller (a.k.a Travis B.) has been rising to the top of the underground horror scene since his first film, Blood Stained Romance, garnered fan praise and a distribution deal with Echelon Studios (notable for the existence of the fun, radioactive-sploitation film, The Class of Nuke 'Em High). The founder of Rebellious Cinema and a favorite in underground horror, Miller's latest film, Purgatorium is set to open exclusively as the Circle Cinema's March Midnight Movie.
Telling the tale of a group of strangers who wake up in an empty house to find they're not where (or who) they seem, Miller's Twilight Zone influence is in full effect -- a noir-horror sensibility combined with a morality tale that finds our characters stuck in a loop of their own circumstances.
Purgatorium is an imaginative tale told with a sincerity and style that belies many of its peers. Stephen Miller's performance as Rod, pimp-'stache in full effect, is worth the price of admission alone.
Purgatorium opens at the Circle for two showings at 10pm and 11:50pm on March 29 and 30. For more information, visit circlecinema.com.
Next week: John Dies at the End. Spoiler: It's amazing.
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