The first surprise of the 2013 film year, Harmony Korine's "Spring Breakers" is a bold look at today's younger generation, portraying it as a group that has no firm connection with reality, content to exist in a hedonistic lifestyle in which all of their needs are met without taking any responsibility for any of the fallout that may result.
Brutal, cold and unsparing, the movie succeeds handsomely in taking on the cultural mind-set of our young and exposing it for the dangerous and ultimately nihilistic existence that it is.
Trapped at an anonymous college that Korine presents as more of a prison than an institution of higher learning, Candy, Britt and Cotty (Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine, respectively) are anxious to bust out and head to Florida for spring break.
Problem is, they have no cash, a small bump in the road that they solve by robbing a local restaurant, wielding a squirt gun, a hammer and loads of chutzpah.
They set off for more pleasant climes with their goody-two-shoes friend Faith (Selena Gomez) in tow, intent on living it up and leaving their baseless ennui behind. They succeed handsomely until an untimely bust at an out-of-control party lands them in jail. However, they have a dark angel ready to lend a helping hand in the form of Alien (James Franco), a low-level pusher who bails them out, insisting that he'll just be their chauffeur about town.
Obviously, the girls are in over their heads, and while one of them has the sense to leave before things spin out of control, the other three embrace Alien's lifestyle in which they do want they want, when they want and how they want without any concern for the consequences. The disconnect between reality and the media-fueled fantasy world the trio lives in is evident from the beginning and ultimately taken to tragic extremes.
To motivate her friends before their first robbery, Britt tells them to "just pretend you're in a video game." However, these three don't really need to pretend, as their lives have been so saturated by violence in games and film as well as a lack of true personal connection because of social media that toting guns and treating others as targets in a game has become their reality.
None of them possesses anything resembling a conscience as theirs have not been nurtured or allowed to grow, never having been exposed to any positive examples in their privileged, stifling existence.
What's interesting about the film is that while it's obvious that there are no boundaries where sex is concerned and that the girls are experienced, this is not the focus of the movie or the characters. Once they enter upon their life of crime with Alien as their mentor, it's as if they've become characters in their personal version of "Grand Theft Auto," assuming the first-person shooter role like a duck to water.
Power is what they're after, whether it be monetary or in the form of superior artillery, both of which they acquire with a sense of invulnerability as they live to fight another day — or is it live to advance to another level? They have little interest in sex as they run the risk of making an emotional connection with someone else as a result, something they simply wouldn't know how to handle or perhaps recognize.
The young actresses embrace their roles and run with them, and it's obvious that Gomez and Hudgens relish the opportunity to sully their good-girl reputations. All four fully invest their parts with an abandon that's invigorating.
Equally engaging is Franco, who continues to challenge himself and succeeds in generating a bit of sympathy for the trailer-park Scarface he brings to life.
The performances from these five are not exploitive in any way, and neither is the film, as "Spring Breakers" proves to be a revealing and chilling look at the way modern communications, which was touted as a way of bringing us closer, has actually isolated us from each other and reality to potentially tragic results.
3 1/2 stars out of 4
Cast: Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, James Franco, Gucci Mane, Heather Morris, Ash Lendzion and Emma Holzer.
Directed and written by Harmony Korine; produced by Charles-Marie Anthonioz, Jordan Gertner, Chris Hanley and David Zander.
An A24 release. 94 minutes. Rated R (strong sexual content, language, nudity, drug use and violence throughout.) At Savoy 16.
Also new in theaters
"Gatekeepers" compelling look at Mideast troubles. (3 1/2 stars) Since 1967, the primary function of the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security organization has been to quash terrorist activity in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
As exercises in futility go, this would be toward the top of the list, as this service has been thwarted by political infighting as well as confusion over how the group is supposed to go about accomplishing this goal. And yet, despite all of this, nearly 90 percent of planned terrorist attacks were stopped. That various heads of this organization feel a sense of disappointment about their accomplishments speaks to the nearly impossible high expectations they and others had for the Shin Bet.
Dror Moreh's "The Gatekeepers" provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the organization and its methods in stopping Palestinian attacks through the eyes of six of its former leaders. Recounting the group's triumphs but focusing more on their failures and regrets, the film is a revealing and compelling look at recent Middle Eastern history that's unique in the perspective it provides as well as the honesty it contains.
Viewers do not have to be experts on the conflict as Moreh does a fine job of getting us up to speed early. He also drives home the point that the trials these beleaguered men face are not unlike those of any other government officials who are in no-win situations.
Avi Dichter, Shin Bet leader from 2000 to '05, provides a scenario he and his colleagues faced all too often in which they are required to make split-second decisions as to whether they should attack suspected terrorists or not, running the risk of killing innocents if their intelligence is wrong and perhaps letting civilians die if they don't act.
This dilemma underscores the entire film as we're left with the sense that these six well-intentioned men are convinced that the group they've devoted their lives to was doomed from the start and that a more humane solution must be found to bring an end to this conflict.
"Olympus Has Fallen" efficient piece of B-movie patriotism. (3 stars) I wouldn't be surprised to find out that the original title of "Olympus Has Fallen" was "Die Hard at the White House."
This B-movie knock-off follows the same rhythm and contains the same beats as the features in the Bruce Willis franchise as it contains a lone hero facing an impossible situation while stuff all around him blows up. The stuff in question this time includes the Washington Monument, the National Mall and the White House, as a group of North Korean fanatics is intent on getting U.S. forces out of South Korea so that they can invade and take over.
Before we get to these shenanigans, we're treated to a tragic prologue in which we see President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and his wife (Ashley Judd) involved in a tragic car accident that leaves her dead and Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) wracked with guilt over not saving her.
As a result, the bodyguard is reassigned to the Treasury Department where, 18 months later, he can witness the film's titular attack and spring into action in order to redeem himself.
There are few surprises, but at least the requisite action sequences are executed well by director Antoine Fuqua, who has assembled a first-rate cast that invests enough gravitas into their roles to sell the film.
It's great to see Butler in a part he can sink his teeth into as he reminds us not only how likeable he can be, but also how well-suited he is for action films. Eckhart is quite good as well, outraged yet level-headed enough to get me to vote for him while Morgan Freeman — as the Speaker of the House who is forced into the role of Commander-in-Chief — brings his considerable presence to bear in the movie's tensest scenes.
The emotional investment of these three as well as Angela Bassett and Robert Forester help make "Olympus Has Fallen" an enjoyable if ridiculous piece of propaganda.
A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chuck Koplinski studied film at Chicago's Columbia College and has reviewed films for 20 years. For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter at chucksmoviepicks. He can be reached at email@example.com.