Wednesday, March 27, 2013


It takes balls to make a film that takes disapproving aim at an entire generation. But it takes even bigger balls to fashion one that cleverly disguises itself as an empowerment message for those it’s so visibly perturbed by. Such is the case with Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, a chaotic, pulsing napalm bomb of disdain and awe that stares curiously into the hyper-sexed, hard-partying soul of Generation Y America and finds only superficiality and apathy. This is cinema as incisive, subversive social criticism, clad in slutty exploitation clothing and scored to Skrillex.

Following a numbing near-pornographic opening credit sequence of hedonistic beach bash debauchery, Spring Breakers introduces a quartet of vacuous nubile college students – Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens and Rachel Korine - who yearn only for escape from the tedium of their existence. Financially strapped, the girls turn to armed robbery for cash and book it to Florida, where they become entrenched in the booze-soaked reverie of the annual festivities. Fate takes a turn for the weird, however, when a drug bust inadvertently draws them into the realm of Alien (James Franco), a grilled and blinged-out rapper/gangster with dreams of moving up in the underworld. Soon, the bikini babes are donning ski masks and packing shotguns, giddily intent on living the thug life, the hell with repercussions!

A provocateur from day one, when he penned Larry Clark’s Kids at the age of 19, Korine isn’t a particularly subtle filmmaker (the male gaze is cranked up to intentionally creepy extremes here), yet he is a fearless one. Trapping the audience in his female protagonists’ warped, stunted headspace, he subjects us to their banal thoughts, which are often drearily repetitive, disconnected from reality (“Pretend it’s a video game or a movie!”) or amoral. One sequence features a voice over from Gomez’s Faith – the one sorta-good-girl in the group – wherein she describes the “spiritual” experience she’s having in un-self-aware, trite drivel. Today’s entitled American youth, the director seems to argue, lack imagination and insight, and share no contemporary artistic common ground profounder than Britney Spears (whose auto-tuned anthems feature in two key scenes).

If the film is intriguing in its first half, it becomes utterly entrancing once Franco’s Alien commands center stage. Visually repulsive, slurring his words through a stoned drawl, he’s a true darkly comic original; a societal outcast with a tragic backstory (determining whether its fiction or not is part of the fun) who learned everything he knew from his black crime boss friend (Gucci Mane). Rejoicing in his cliché material possessions – including nunchuks, guns and TVs that play Scarface (of course) on a loop – he’s a clown in wolf’s clothing, unprepared for his new charges’ dangerous detachment from reality. Franco masterfully disappears into the flashy role, and Spring Breakers ignites every time he’s free to cut loose and do his thang.

Korine hasn’t created an easily digestible work here. This is a picture destined to be misinterpreted, ridiculed and dismissed by many. But those tuned into its queasy wavelength will discover likely one of 2013’s most remarkable efforts; a movie that dares you to revel in its gaudy orgy of bad behavior while slyly flipping off those who would do just that. Spring Breakers lives boldly in the moment, and mournfully shakes its head for the future.

4 out of 5

*Originally published in BeatRoute Magazine.


There’s one sequence in G.I. Joe: Retaliation that exemplifies exactly what a decent G.I. Joe movie should be. Brave ass-kicking good guys Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Jinx (Elodie Yung) have kidnapped Cobra baddie Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) from a mountain lair and, during their rapid descent, are pursued by a squadron of katana-wielding ninjas decked out in matching crimson outfits. Racing across the snowy, craggy terrain via zip-line, swords slash flesh, body parts pound into jagged rock, and casualties plummet helplessly into the ominous foggy abyss. Played entirely in tense silence, this fast and furious set-piece is pure popcorn silliness; comic-booky in the best way and filled with fun little bursts of giddy imagination.

Alas, rather than construct an energetic story around these ten cool minutes, director Jon M. Chu (Step Up 3D, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never) and Zombieland screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick use it as a crutch to prop up one of the most embarrassing examples of fan-film moviemaking in recent memory. Cutting loose most of the material established in Stephen Sommers’ campy 2009 guilty pleasure Rise of Cobra, the trio has crafted a dumb, convoluted adaptation of the 1980s animated show/toy commercial that’s short on thrills, laughs or surprise, yet brimming with pandering shout outs. Want to see a Cobra H.I.S.S. tank realized (and blown up) on screen? You’re in luck! Looking for memorable characters or crazy over-the-top combat? Best search elsewhere.
Picking up shortly after the tragic Nano-mite War depicted in Rise of Cobra, Retaliation finds Duke (Channing Tatum), Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson) and co. tracking down nuclear warheads in Pakistan, at the order of counterfeit U.S. president Jonathan Pryce (who is being impersonated by sinister master of disguise Zartan). However, shortly after completing their assignment, the fighting force is ambushed by Cobra forces and almost entirely wiped out. Only Roadblock, Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Flint (personality vacuum D.J. Cotrona) remain, forced to go underground and scout out a means of taking down their country’s imposter leader and the newly freed Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey). They’re aided in their top-secret operation by General Joe Colton (Bruce Willis), the original Real American Hero, and ninja warriors Snake Eyes and Jinx – who have their own mystery to unravel regarding the murder of the former’s beloved sensei.

Drastically scaled back from the mega-budget excesses of its predecessor, Retaliation aims for a more realistic vibe - the Joes use actual ammunition, as opposed to lasers, and real world political events are referenced - while nonetheless packing in ludicrous nonsense like explosive lightning bugs and a sci-fi-ish subterranean prison fortress that apparently houses only two convicts. The clashing tones don’t work. Just when we’re starting to chuckle – as when RZA pops up as Blind Master, spouting hilarious ninja lore jibberish – the picture retreats back to the mundane. There are an extraordinary number of scenes of characters hanging out in nondescript locations spouting mind-numbing exposition at one another. Fine, if it were well written, but the dialogue here rarely rises above wretched. Even the comedic banter (“’Prepare for extraction?’ What are we? Teeth?!”) is cringe-inducing.

While the original cartoon may not have been high art, it could be at least counted on to supply plenty of engaging larger-than-life personalities. Retaliation’s greatest failing is that no one on-screen is very charismatic or interesting. Sure, Johnson is enjoyable. However, this says more about his inherent likeability as an actor than the project (for further current evidence of this phenomenon see exhibit B: Snitch). Tatum and fan fave Snake Eyes are sadly underutilized, while newcomers Flint, Mouse (Joseph Mazzello) and Jaye - who spends most of the film in various states of undress - are woefully vanilla. And the less said about Willis’s paycheck appearance, the better. It’s highly probable defibrillator paddles were needed to jolt him to life each day on set. Even bitchy old Cobra Commander disappoints - a killer costume in search of an identity. Only an eye-poppingly possessed Pryce and Ray Stevenson (using a bizarro southern gentleman drawl as the assassin Firefly) seem to understand what kind of movie they’re in and revel in the absurdity.

All might be forgiven, had the film delivered on the action front but, aside from the aforementioned vertiginous dust-up, Chu comes up woefully short at crafting memorable battles. The shootouts are generically staged, free of excitement, and the physical clashes are a sad continuation of the current shaky-cam/spastic editing trend. It’s a sign of Retaliation’s incompetence that it even manages to make the climactic sight of Johnson decimating Cobra minions in a heavy-duty one-man tank boring.
It’s frustrating how unremarkable G.I. Joe: Retaliation truly is. The flick doesn’t even manage to suck on the amazing level of its other foul Hasbro cinematic brethren Battleship or the Transformers trilogy. No, this is a nothing movie; a soulless corporate product that aspires only to keep the brand name in the public consciousness another couple years. Mission accomplished, I guess. Hoorah.

1.5 out of 5

*Originally published at BeatRoute Magazine.  


Had Steven Seagal not collapsed so spectacularly into the parodic fat Elvis phase of his career a couple decades ago, Olympus Has Fallen might have wound up being a really kickass Under Siege threequel. For here is one of the most ludicrous, straight-faced entries in the “Die-Hard-in-a-[Insert Confined Location Here]” action subgenre in years; an absurd throwback to ’90s kill-em-all extravaganzas that honors its forebears while still being a really solid, memorable formula entry. No cheesy fourth-wall-breaking winks or sad attempts to nab the youth market (*cough* The Expendables *cough*), just two hours of skillful hard-R carnage, pyrotechnics and irresponsible ultraviolence. Thank the movie gods for minor miracles.

Beefy, hulking Gerard Butler confidently occupies the eye of Olympus’ hurricane, playing Mike Banning, a top-notch Presidential guard (“He moves mountains or dies trying!”) relocated to the Treasury Department after a tragic nighttime accident on an icy bridge. However, he abruptly proves to be the country’s only hope when President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) is taken hostage by a North Korean extremist icily played by Rick Yune. Conveniently trapped alone in the terrorist-ruled White House, Banning stealthily begins picking off adversaries, intent on protecting the President’s son (Finley Jacobsen) and liberating his former boss. He’s aided from afar by Speaker of the House Morgan Freeman, who understands the full magnitude of the arch-villain’s cataclysmic plot against America’s fair people.

Eschewing the tedious shaky-cam/rapid fire-editing aesthetic that has plagued contemporary action films, director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Shooter) goes for a more classic feel, conveying his considerable mayhem in relatively clean, comprehensible shots. Dodgy CG aside – there is a really cruddy-looking plane crash early on – the action in Olympus feels refreshingly old school, with a good handle on geography and cause and effect. It’s also exciting! And the violence is brutal and impactful (critics who fretted over Zero Dark Thirty’s portrayal of torture may have an aneurism watching Banning interrogate two bound-and-gagged goons). The script, by newcomers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, won’t win any awards for its clunky dialogue or logic, but there’s genuine rising tension; the more things go wrong, the more we’re pulled in and the climax doesn’t disappoint.

As a tough-guy hero, Butler isn’t one of our more charismatic stars. That said, his terse delivery and blunt force physicality serve him quite well here. He’s a dependable lead, with a few choice quips, who we believe is capable of stopping a small army single-handed. Offering strong support is Eckhart, as the resilient, iron-willed commander-in-chief, and Dylan McDermott, demonstrating amusingly snaky attitude as an aging Secret Service man. Freeman, Angela Bassett and Robert Forster cash paychecks with admirable gravitas as Banning’s top-rank advisors, while a gutsy, electric Melissa Leo – seemingly unaware that she’s acting in a big, dumb B-movie – compellingly endures horrific trauma as the captive Secretary of Defense. Look no further for a portrait of true professionalism, folks!

Silly and energetic, this picture should make for a great opening-weekend crowd experience, where its unironic blend of overkill, cornball flag-waving and endearing over-earnestness guarantees to produce no shortage of laughs and fist-pumping enthusiasm. It’s often easy to dismiss films like this, but Fuqua has crafted a fun shoot ‘em up and it’s worth recognizing a job done pretty damn well. Now, will someone please get started on the inevitable (and welcome) sequel, Olympus Has Fallen Harder?

3.5 out of 5

*Originally printed in BeatRoute Magazine.