Saturday, April 06, 2013

Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine), Evil Dead (Fede Alvarez)

Sprang brake!

Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers is some kind of masterpiece--compared to all the Girls Gone Wild videos, and lord knows I've seen more of them than I want to admit, his movie is the Citizen Kane of teenage vacation pics. 

Easily the best moments come at the beginning, when the picture for maybe ten minutes doesn't really feel the need to explain anything--just splice together footage of girls and boys flashing nipples and ass cracks, gyrating and spraying beer everywhere like surf breaking on rockface, sprinkling cocaine on nubile skin like confectioner's sugar on a finely turned bun. For some ten minutes Korine achieves a verite ambiance, a brief vision that captures the langorous ennui of the American adolescent--the sense that life is mean and short and doesn't have much of a point, so one must grab what pleasure is available now, as much as one can. You almost believe he would pull out of all this a bloodily profound truth, something about these spring breakers from within their culture, on their own rap-booming, beer-spraying, bouncing-booty terms.

Yeah, yeah. Right off we're asked to believe that three girls wearing face masks and tiny shorts (they don't even bother pulling on decent denim) would rush into a diner, badger cook and waitstaff badly enough to receive money (and what was the cook with his pots of hot fat and kitchen knife doing all this time, hm?), and use the proceeds of that heist to fund a booze-and-drug fueled crawl through St. Petersburg, Florida (from the cash register of a fried chicken diner? Who eats there, Bill Gates?). We're asked to believe in a meth and arms dealer named Alien (James Franco) dumbass enough to scatter dollar bills all over his king-sized bed and loaded weaponry all over his room like M & Ms, yet smart enough to earn the money to buy a grand piano beside a drop-dead gorgeous swimming pool. Only in Florida, I suppose.

I'm not demanding realism, mind you; I know a demented fantasy when I see one, and the four coeds are an important part of Korine's fantasy.  Gomez plays the good girl--not only does she attend regular church, she hangs out in a bikini without flashing a nipple, sucks on an oversized bong once that I actually noticed, and bails early before she gets into real trouble. Rachel Korine is second-best girl, having only functioned as getaway driver for the diner heist, and using a bullet wound on the arm as pretext  for her exit scene. Only Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson go all the way, incarnating the director's concept of spring break's darker side, in day-glo bikinis. The girls' behavior is so precisely calibrated to their respective statuses (Gomez the Disney princess, Korine the director's wife, Hudgens and Benson as the bad bad girls), their rewards and punishments so schematically meted out that you can't help but think the story, with a bit of judicious sanitizing, could make for a nice discussion topic in next week's Sunday school. 

Korine joins his one-time Dogme 95 co-conspirator Lars Von Trier in staging handsome-looking pictures that are occasionally provocative (a scene with a gun barrel inserted in the mouth is sure to provoke some kind of reaction) but when you really think about them have little real application to the actual world--and are hence weightless. What's left, really, are Korine's stylings, illuminating the surrounding darkness like a day-glo g-string in the dank Miami night.

I'll swallow your sequel

Fede Alvarez's Evil Dead plays surprisingly better than it appeared, at least from the loud and splashy trailers: the requisite five pretty youths headed for an isolated cabin, the mandatory evil presence (redneck cannibal, or generic Abomination). Only Alvarez probably realized that this was his best chance for going big-time--despite being (or especially because it's) only a sequel--and he wasn't about to waste the opportunity. 

Alvarez's intent is announced with the very first shot, a breathtaking view of a vast wooded landscape (presumably Auckland, New Zealand) on the upper half of the screen--the shot is upside-down. Right off he's telling us to expect the usual, only it won't entirely be the usual. 

The script presents a more thought-out than is standard scenario: instead of five horny adolescents intent on an orgiastic bacchanal in the woods, it's three friends and a brother trying to force a troubled young girl to quit her heroin habit. The storyline involves us for maybe twenty minutes, then is completely dropped when more supernatural antics take place, but for those twenty--and especially the last ten of those twenty--the premise works well (skip the rest of this paragraph if you wish to see the picture): her friends and brother aren't sure if it's the addiction speaking, and they do all the wrong things for the right reasons. For those brief minutes the movie makes explicit the idea The Exorcist refuses to confront: that demonic possession is a metaphor for addiction (drugs, sex, whatever), a supernatural excuse for us to be the very worse assholes we can be, to satisfy our appetites. 

Love it that Alvarez doesn't use shaky-cam--at least not to the point of incoherence; love it that he doesn't slice the footage into a slurried mess (though he presents plenty onscreen, sometimes flung at the camera lens); love it that he largely avoids CGI--most of the special effects are either deft misdirection or classic magic tricks or plain, old-fashioned filmmaking. 

There's a scene I'd like to point out, of Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore) perched at the top of the cellar stairs while Mia (Jane Levy) crouches below, tears streaming down her cheeks. We know Mia will turn evil and we dread the moment; Alvarez's camera is pressed close to Mia's all-too-human and teary face, and we're  aware that it looms over us while Natalie is poised upstairs, fidgeting with uncertainty--will she or won't she come closer, give Mia some comfort? Suspense and dread, and not a pixel in sight.

It's pretty good for what it is, an exercise in genre filmmaking; maybe its biggest problem is just that: it's a mere exercise in genre filmmaking. I've maintained that Drew Goddard's Cabin in the Woods, working from Joss Whedon's script, pretty much killed the genre--rendered all other permutations, no matter how well made, redundant by showing how silly it all is (Five kids isolated in a cabin in the woods--wouldn't they at least have cellphones? Paramedics on helicopters?). Watching this I can admire the filmmaking, the same time say the picture hasn't changed my mind any.

That is, till I saw Raimi's own Evil Dead 2 again on cable. Raimi had a big success with his first Evil Dead, and an offer was immediately put to him to remake the picture on a bigger budget. Raimi turned this down; he was hoping his upcoming Crimewave would be a hit, that he would win some financial independence. It wasn't, so he was doing the Evil Dead remake--only it wasn't just a remake; Raimi, presented with basically the same material, decided to change his interpretation and along the way throw in everything he knew about filmmaking which, as it turns out, is a lot.

 Watching this, all memories of Cabin (and by extension this remake) were blown away like so much brain matter. This is the cabin-in-the-woods flick to end all cabin-in-the-woods flicks, by turns horrifying, hilarious, and droll. There are images here that recall Ray Harryhausen (the Necronomicon gnashing its teeth), and images (the laughing furniture scene) that recall--well, I'm not sure what: Buster Keaton crossed with Jan Svankmajer maybe? There are moments disgusting beyond belief (the popping eyeball scene) and moments disgusting beyond that, if you know where to look (the discharge pouring from grandma's ear is actually brother Ted Raimi's sweat, pouring out of his rubber old lady suit). There's a phantasmagoric beauty to some of the frames (the undead Andrea twirling on her toes; Ash's Oldsmobile turning in the air; the massive trees groaning, pulling their rootlike knees up from the ground in arthritic pain), a requisite for truly memorable horror. This is the genre's epically surreal, no-budget masterpiece; the Platonic ideal all other lesser pictures aspire to, at the same time shattering the mold of that ideal with modern power tools, forever. 

Towards the end of this entertaining if ultimately disposable movie the iconic chainsaw finally makes its long-awaited appearance, and the audience members heave a sigh of recognition: "Yeah--" Dispiriting, till one realizes: who put that expectation in their heads? Accepteth no substitutes. 



Quentin Tarantado said...

As you recommended, I've seen Evil Dead 2 again (reciting lines along with the film). Sarah Berry has to be the worst, most unconvincing, funniest sounding screamer in film history, which was probably the point of hiring her. She barely had a film career, according to the very unreliable

Noel Vera said...

Sarah who?

I can barely remember who were in the picture, other than Campbell.