Spring Breakers, and the problem with film reviews

Feature Simon Brew 5 Apr 2013 - 06:55

How do you review a film as raucous and perplexing as Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers? Simon lays out the problems...

Walking away from a screening of Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers last week, I was hit with a bit of a problem. Basically: I didn't know how to review it.

The basic requirement of someone going in to review a movie, is that you can come away from said film with an opinion, and the guts of an 800 word review with a star rating at the bottom. The vast majority of the time of course, that's entirely the case. Granted, the modern day rush to get a review online within an hour of the credits rolling (we've been guilty of this in the past) tends to cut down on the increasingly valuable thinking and gestating time, but most people can come up with a reaction to most material in pretty quick order.

A reaction to Spring Breakers is certainly what I had, but then it brought to mind a bit of an unsaid about film criticism, that it'd be remiss not to bring up. That film critics are expected to have something to say about everything, from Dunston Checks In through to Rashomon. And sometimes, that's impossible.

Film, after all, is a broader church than ever before, as diverse as books, and arguably more so than even theatre. In theatre criticism, so broad are the genres involved, that you wouldn't ordinarily send the opera buff to review the pantomime, nor would a fan of serious drama necessarily get the call to go and see Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest life-sapper. There seems more an acceptance in theatre that some people aren't the right choice to review certain productions. You do get that in film too, but not always quite as much.

Film, after all, is a far more accessible medium, and as a result, more of us inevitably access a broader range of material. That's a healthy thing certainly, not least because there's the regular potential to be shaken out of our comfort zones two hours after choosing something a little bit offbeat to watch. In the last week alone, I've gone from Harold And Maude and Silver Linings Playbook through to the haunting duo of The Hunt and Tyrannosaur. I sandwiched Muppets Take Manhattan and Tombstone in there too.

Each of those films needs consideration in different ways, and that's why my hat goes off to some of the considerably talented newspaper film critics whose job it is, at heart, to have an opinion and provide guidance on pretty much everything that arrives in a multiplex on a Friday. Given that, in the UK, we're getting over ten films a week being released in cinemas at the moment, that's no easy task. The Peter Bradshaws, Robbie Collins, Mark Kermodes and Matthew Turners of this world have, I'd argue, a far harder job than it first looks. Sure, you can only tell the truth about your feelings towards certain material, but the nature of the job requires you to have something to say. And these people have to see pretty much everything. Not for nothing to do magazines and websites tend to have a mix of reviewers to cover different material. It's because the people who can cover virtually everything well are a rare and cherishable breed, whether you agree with their opinions or not (it's another reason we'll miss the peerless Roger Ebert).

Which brings me back to Spring Breakers. I was conscious, from pretty much the opening scene of the film, that Spring Breakers wasn't a film that seemed squarely aimed at me. I'd been engaged by Harmony Korine's previous duo of Kids and Gummo, even if I found them both hard to warm to. Here though was a film I was keen to see (I wouldn't have volunteered to cover it if I wasn't), that spent a lot of time not working for me, before bursting into sporadic moments of outright brilliance. I don't think I've ever seen the music of Britney Spears deployed in quite so inspired a way. And James Franco's performance in the movie is brilliantly insane too. Every time his glittering character, all teeth, guns and madness, appears on the screen, Spring Breakers lifts enormously. 

That said, it's ostensibly the tale of its four young female protagonists, and much of the early hype surrounds Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens shedding their Disneyfied image, thanks to substances, bikinis, pumpy of the rumpy nature and violence. If they were looking to play against expectation and type, that's a box very much ticked.

What lets them down slightly is the distinctions between the four lead characters aren't really pronounced enough, and tend to get swallowed up in the noise that Korine surrounds his film with. The loud soundtrack, the gun cocking breaks between scenes and the regular explosions of sound also overshadow much of the neon-splattered visual work.

Fortunately, I don't really consider myself a film critic (help yourself to that phrase in the comments), but I'm still conscious that when I put a review of something up on a website, that if it even gets one person spending money or investing time as a result of it, I've got a responsibility to get it right. Which is why I've sorted of copped out here.

Because in truth, this is one of those moments where the star rating system fails. To be fair, the star rating system at its best is a shaky affair, yet if I had to score Spring Breakers, I'd give it a three. However, I can't think of a single 'three star' moment in it. Some five star bits? Yep. One star bits? Yep. Twos and fours? Quite probably. But for everything Korine throws at you, Spring Breakers never sits in the middle, is never ordinary, and regularly gets a reaction from you, either positive or negative. How can I put a three at the bottom of a review like that? 

It's one of the problems with the world of film criticism. I can't pretend to you that Spring Breakers is my kind of film, having sat and considered it for a good week. Neither, though, can I tell you to avoid it. Some - even outside of the token five star Nuts/Zoo/Loaded/delete as appropriate review it'll probably get for all the topless scenes - will love it. Really love it. Others, inevitably, will have the opposite reaction. I've had both, in less than two hours.

So, in lieu of a slightly overweight man from the Midlands pretending otherwise, I've decided to come clean. It's an unreviewable film for me, for a mixture of positive and negative reasons that go to the heart, in my mind, of some of the challenges facing film criticism. Because I don't believe you can or should fake it when a piece of material isn't aimed at you. I didn't review the Twilight films here, because they don't really appeal to me, and I didn't want to pretend otherwise, or go into them with buckets of snark.

Instead, for me, all you can ever do is tell the truth. So here goes: Spring Breakers is the most brightly coloured mess of cinematic giddiness you're likely to see this year. But I can't work out for the hell of me whether you're going to like it or not.

That really doesn't help, does it?

Spring Breakers is out in UK cinemas now.

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So did YOU like it or not?

Crystal clear to me. I love to see a brightly coloured mess of cinematic giddiness.

yeah i have no idea even from the trailer what to make of this movie. But congrats on the phrase "pumpy of the rumpy nature"

Er, yes and no. And not sure. I'm not helping myself at all.

I felt the same watching In Time

loved the 'review' and as a blogger, I often encounter films that I want to give 3 start to, even though there's nothing average about it (Tarnation).

In Time is one of the most flagrant wastes of a brilliant setup I've seen in ages. Such a shame.

this review just makes me really want to see it, kinda like that oh man that film really sucked, you gotta see it.

Hah - see, you actually *did* review it, you sneaky bastard, even though you said you didn't! Your not-review was a review all along! And a good review it was too.

I think a review like this could help DVD sales. The curious (like me) will probably pick it up from blockbusters for a few quid on exrental

I feel that way about all of Harmony Korinne's work, honestly. There were some discomforting elements in Kids, some truth to the nihilism that made the problems less annoying. There was a weird beauty to Gummo that was balanced by the movie's incredible ugliness. (I also feel this way about a lot of James Franco's more... artistic career choices.) He's never done a flat-out five star flick, but he's never done something so awful to merit a one, either. There's always some stand-out element counterbalanced by something not as good, and there's not an efficient way to encapsulate that in a neat little graphic.

I actually much prefer this to a Peter Bradshaw style 'Don't bother, it's rubbish' type review, at least it gives me a gist of what to expect, and helps me decide if it's the kind of film I think I'll enjoy (sounds like it is). I'm off to see it now :)

I really like this 'review' (or lack thereof) of Spring Breakers. It's truly refreshing to see such a frank acknowledgment of the limits of film criticism - particularly in the context of this particular film and this particular director. I'm a big fan of Harmony's films in general, and Spring Breakers in particular, so I'm obviously biased here. Still, I think it's true that the lion's share of negative criticism directed at Spring Breakers comes from a very basic misunderstanding of what the film and filmaker is trying to achieve. In interview after interview, Harmony has explicitly stated that this is a film about "surfaces"; that he intends to evoke a feeling, not convey an understanding; that he wants viewers to experience it physically, not understand it intellectually. And yet critic after critic has bashed the film for its lack of plot, or the shallowness of characters, or the incoherence of its message. These are held up as self-evident deficiencies, rather than intentional, essential features of the film's particular project.

At the same time, I'm sympathetic to those reviewers who feel trapped by this logic, and can understand the oft-repeated lament that Harmony is trying to have it both ways- denying his critics any ground from which it is possible to critique him. I personally don't believe that this is Harmony's intention as a filmmaker (that he purposefully tries to make life difficult for film critics); but that doesn't mean their lives aren't made difficult. Once you are asked to discard such seemingly-universal assumptions about "what makes a good film" (solid plot; complex characters; intellectual coherence), how are you supposed to say if that film is good or bad, much less whether it deserves 1, 3, or 5 stars? Like I said, I'm sympathetic. Still, just because a film is hard to criticize doesn't absolve the critic of responsibility, in the same way it doesn't immunize the filmmaker from judgement. Spring Breakers may be judged a cinematic failure, but it should be judged on it's own cinematic terms.

Very few reviews have done this; but this is a rare example that does.

With you on that Simon. In Time very quickly went from intriguing high concept sci-fi to an hour of running around.

Star ratings are a nightmare. Unfortunately, people want bite-sized film review chunks so that they can just skip to the last paragraph and see the stars. Convenient, but restrictive.

This is a great (non)review by the way. Excited to see this film.

Perhaps, but James Franco still did his best to make it great even though the script was hardly convincing; He plays a bad guy that magically turns good.

Well they had to wrap up his story. And he was in hindsight one of the best things in it, but so was alfred in his movies, so it's still a 1, right next to batman and robin. I mean it killed a franchise. If he's been in a bad movie, that's it. That's not to say he was bad in it though. sandman shouldn't have been in it, but he was actually not bad. That particular honor was Spider-Man's, both venom's, and Mary jane's. I was dead set on not liking the amazing Spider-Man, but I watched it with my seven year old right after watching the social network. So yeah I liked it.

Not that hard to review- three stars is fair. That Spears scene was definitely a highlight. Add a star if you're into mild titilation and 'bangin toons'. For all the supposed hell raising, it's actually pretty tame stuff. One brief scene even had black blood spots after a pistol whipping, suggesting an attempt to gain a lower certificate. There's so much repetition though, lets the shenanigans down greatly. Takes an age to get going too. The same shots of nameless, feckless youths partying becomes as irritating as the venereal diseases they are probably spreading. One section of dialogue is repeated three times in a row. In a ROW. Remember how Shaun of the Dead used repeated lines to add a different context(eg. 'Glad somebody made it/You've got red on you')? Spring Breakers just seemed to do it because the editor had about ten minutes of footage and six lines of script to fool around with. Franco is easily the best thing in it though. You wouldn't recognise him if you hadn't seen him since Freaks & Geeks.

Not that reviews are going to make much difference to a film advertised off the back of its soundtrack anyway. Project X got a string of one star reviews and it ended up being the most pirated film of 2012. Anyone seen it? Looked bollocks.

Like every villain in that movie, Franco was let down by how poorly the script handled his character.

Or a Peter Bradshaw style 'At the end when Bruce Willis is dead and Vader is Luke's father and Dumbledore dies', Honestly, no critic spoils like Bradshaw.

It's brilliant. It's frikking hilarious. It's arthouse pop everything and a pleasure.

just saw the film & i agree 100% with this review. i can't decide if i like it or not - there are moments of genius and ridiculousness. Different actors would have sunk it, more character background would have brought it back.

Had to google some reviews to see what others thought - so very pleased to have stumbled across an equally unsure viewer!

I agree with many of the points raised here but none more so than this is one of the best reviews I've seen in a long time.

Mentos commercials are more entertaining than this "film". And to think, we still cannot view "London After Midnight" but we will have "Spring break forever". Yuck.

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