Rarely, if ever, have I been so perplexed by a film’s critical accolades as I am by those bestowed upon Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. In step with the central protagonist’s self-indulgent quest for amorous fulfillment, Fellini slogs through a seemingly interminable sequence of disjointed episodes, drily recycling hackneyed interpretations of love, God, and death that never gel into a coherent story—let alone come close to deserving the film’s hallowed “work-of-art” reputation.
There are films that ramble, films that pander, and films that needlessly exploit. Spring Breakers achieves the rare dishonor of excelling at all three. Apparently director Harmony Korine believes that the best way of satirizing the moral decadence that continues to rip apart society’s seams is to rub peoples’ noses in sex and violence. Given the maturity level of your average sex-starved teeny-bopper wannabe, that’s like giving a chocolate bar to a six-year-old and reprimanding him for enjoying it. Spring Breakers, despite its pseudo-intellectual pretensions, has the essential qualities of a mass-audience-pleasing film. Korine’s acid-rave cinematography, spiraling around beaches and party rooms showing off bikini-clad bods, glamorizes the lusts for nether pleasures. Everyone knows that the weenie is an easier muscle to work than the brain.
Though billed as a dark comedy, ultimately there’s very little funny about Bernie, a docudrama directed by Richard Linklater (School of Rock, Me and Orson Welles) and based on a true story about a mortician and funeral parlor director, Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), who weasels his way into the affections of a wealthy widow, Marge Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), then murders her. Not that I didn’t chuckle a few times. It was hard not to, given the magnitude of the lie that was concealed behind the complacent smirk of the protagonist, masterfully played by Black, as he carried himself as a paragon of charity, spreading God’s word and working as a community volunteer in the small town of Carthage, Texas.
It maybe should have been called Pulp Third Reich. Inglourious Basterds is a fantasy in the B-movie vein, an intentionally subversive (even both words in the title are misspelled!) satire about a group of Nazi hunters, led by First Lieutenant Aldo Paine (Brad Pitt), who exact revenge on Hitler (Martin Wuttke) and his henchmen. Too bad that it’s neither comic nor clever. Overall, it’s really a blood-splattered mess of a film, slaking Tarentino’s fetishistic thirst for graphic gore at the expense of wit or cogency.
Sam Mendes’s American Beauty (1999) is a movie I’d highly recommend to anyone who is as jaded and cynical about modernity as I am. Frankly, I can’t recall another film with more delightfully fatuous caricatures. But it’s so much more than that. Indeed, the film’s mordant satire can belie its depth if the viewer doesn’t heed the tag line’s admonition to “look closer.”