Film review – Spring Breakers

Director Harmony Korine bottles an American phenomenon for the big screen in a wild story of four ladies who would probably put the Pussycat Dolls in hospital.

Easter is the spring break in the US, which for most college kids means a trip to Florida to get drunk, high and laid – a welcome escape from their stultifying college lives. Four female students have not been able to raise the money to go, and so wander empty hallways, literally climbing the walls with excess energy and boredom. Cotty (Rachel Korine, Harmony’s other half), Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) hatch a plot to get them to the action, drawing in church-going good girl, Faith (Selena Gomez) for a hot time in the sunshine state.

Does this film want to show you something, or is it just a wet ‘n’ wild ride like spring break itself? There is something interesting in the way the girls become these cartoon-like bikinied gangsters. The first job with a water pistol is the kindergarten for what is to come. These privileged, well-educated university students speak to each other in faux gangster lingua, lines drawn from movies and video games, mocking each playfully as “bitches” but ultimately bonded by close and respectful friendships.  Their performances are naturalistic and convincing at this point and it’s clear that of the former Disney moppets, Hudgens metaphorically burns her bra and her mouse ears, clearly having a good old time of it.

They hit the spring break scene in Florida, have a mild but jarring brush with the law, then meet Alien. An almost unrecognisable James Franco, Alien is a white, bling-laden rapper and wannabe badass who is the epitome of the “gangsta” cliché; ostentatious jewellery on his knuckles and teeth, big shiny semi-automatic pistols and a sports car with spinning rims that belong in Chris Rock’s stand-up routine.

Compare him to the established gangsters who drive a sensible Lambo (I use that term loosely), but also deliver comedy lines such as “He’s [Alien] taking the money from our babies mouths. He’s starving our babies,” while sitting in a massive mansion with a Flymo-quantity of weed piled on the coffee table (I’m sure Korine’s having a laugh at their expense). Alien’s all show, a big kid out of his depth with the big boys. He trampolines on his bed as he seduces the girls with bigger guns and more money – until they start to play with this newly bestowed power. They’ll soon graduate his school and go beyond him.

Spring Breakers is a curiosity, but ultimately is a victim of its own publicity. It doesn’t shock or provoke as expected because the crimes committed by the girls are not based in reality: it’s a neon, cartoon world of violence and fetishised female bodies from the pages of a graphic novel. There’s something of female empowerment here, sexually and socially, but it’s taken to the nth degree, and Korine’s lingering voyeurism undoes it’s legitamacy. Who knows though, maybe time will class this as a classic exploitation flick of interest.

The film has flash and style, but stock footage repeated throughout makes it feel padded out and a little wearing. It’s more atmosphere than plot – a springbreak on acid.


Film review – Side Effects

Side Effects is director Steven Soderbergh’s last film for the cinema, ever (ever, ever, ever?), and he will next be seen directing the HBO TV movie Behind the Candelabra about the extravagant pianist, Liberace. His departure from Hollywood is rooted in what he called the “absolutely horrible” treatment of directors by financiers, with respect to their disregard of the needs of the audience.

Soderbergh’s always been interested in individuals up against a greater foe, whether that’s against film producers (him, apparently), a polluting corporation (Erin Brokovich), a Las Vegas casino (Oceans 11 onward), or the entire drug trade (Traffic); he likes to put characters out of their depth to see them fight through to the end. Side Effects looks to be a similar story, but for his grand finale, he’s added a twist.

Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is a 27-year-old ad-agency worker, who has a nice job and a nice flat, but her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum, rejoining Soderburgh after starring in his writing debut, Magic Mike) is about to be released after four years jail time for insider trading. She seems to have everything together, but the day after Martin comes home, she attempts to harm herself. After treatment in hospital, she agrees to attend the clinic of psychologist, Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law).

After first prescriptions fail to remove the blanket of depression she suffers, Banks tries a new drug, one introduced to him by a pharmaceutical rep at a paid-for dinner in a swanky restaurant. Unfortunately for him, Emily has a bad reaction to a combination of his prescribed drugs and commits a terrible crime while under their influence.

Soderbergh navigates us through his familiar territory of courtrooms and non-descript offices, taking apart how the vulnerable are prescribed drugs with unknown consequences, by doctors who are embedded in a big-pharma relationship that greases the wheels of the medical industry. Banks faces scrutinisation by medical board investigators, and his practice partners, concerned for their reputation, put the pressure on him. Meanwhile, Emily is in custody awaiting the result of a trial hearing on her likely state of mind.

It seems as if no one person is to blame, and Soderbergh does an excellent job of spinning the characters around the crime, each with a viable get-out clause. Emily’s crime appears to be a case of unfortunate circumstance that no one could have foreseen. Certainly, we are presented with questions about the wisdom of the corporation-doctor-patient relationship. Then, things shift into a much more thrilling Hitchcockian gear of personal jeopardy.

This is where Mara really begins to disturb. Her performance of someone caught in the shadows of mental illness is so perfect. She flits from a weak, vulnerable person to someone darker, chilling, just as quiet, but with a design at work. What seems to be one plot melds into a different one entirely. Don’t expect a righteous, Soderbergh courtroom battle royale; this is a battle of minds, duking it out in a game of guilty or not guilty? The frame of “victim” shifts sharply against Banks, with swift consequences for his professional and personal life. Law plays it pretty straight, like ol’ Jimmy Stewart would have done; an ordinary man in a tweed suit jacket, up against the odds.

The plot twist does go a bit too far, mind. Emily’s previous psychiatrist, the viperish Dr Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones, who admitted recently to suffering depression), is part of a more elaborate leftfield plot addition that seems far-fetched to say the least. I think it would have been better if only Banks and Emily were locked into a desperate struggle to find the truth, a tale of a wayward professional caught by an individual who could end his career.

Who knows, maybe Soderbergh wanted to make a sharp swerve from his usual shtick, just to mess with our minds. It’s still a gripping film and should be seen for Mara’s performance.