2014 is over and it was another memorable year for film (how will we ever forget ‘The Interview’ debacle?) even if box office attendance hit its biggest low for twenty years.
I managed to get to 126 films at a cinema in 2014 which was considerably down from 2013 but I think last year offered up better quality films on a more consistent basis. The Summer blockbusters weren’t quite as great as I was expecting but the slew of great indies and small budget films I saw more than made up for it. I also had another great trip to TIFF and looks like that will definitely be an annual trip now.  The vibe out in Toronto and the opportunity to see films months before they go on general release makes it a great experience.

Below is my best and worst of film in 2014 (note, this only includes films I saw at a cinema because I’m slightly OCD about my lists…)

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BEST FILMS

10. The Imitation Game

This biopic of the pioneering British computer scientist Alan Turing was fascinating from start to finish, explaining how he helped the Allies win the second world war by cracking the Enigma code that the Nazi’s used to relay messages.  He was then later persecuted for being homosexual.  Benedict Cumberbatch puts in a career best performance so far as Turing, making a slightly aloof character likeable while Keira Knightley is also great as fellow codebreaker Joan Clarke.  Director Morten Tyldum made what could have been a boring history lesson into something insightful and inspirational but doesn’t pull any punches with a gut punch of an ending.  ‘The Imitation Game’ deservedly won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF in 2014.

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9. I Origins

Starring Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Pitt and indie darling Brit Marling, this sci-fi drama exceeded all my expectations, weaving a complex tale of love, life and reincarnation all linked by the study of eyes.  The science talk and certain themes of the film won’t be for everyone but I found ‘I Origins’ engrossing from start to finish and marks writer/director Mike Cahill out as one to watch.  Pitt and Marling are both excellent too, Marling is definitely going to be a big star.  Also wins for one of the most shocking and innovative death scenes of the year!

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8. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes

Set 10 years after ‘Rise’, the human race has almost completely been wiped out by the ALZ virus and Caesar has become the leader of a new generation of the Apes.  With the remaining humans threatened by the Apes dominance, the tension rises as they attack the Apes habitat and Caesar has to choose between war or trying to keep the peace.  Director Matt Reeves successfully cranks everything up a notch from ‘Rise’ with Gary Oldman and Jason Clarke proving to be more than able replacements for James Franco who doesn’t return to his original role.  The real winner here though is mo-cap maestro Andy Serkis who brings incredible emotional depth to the role of Caesar, making the character identifiable and sympathetic.

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7. Fruitvale Station

Although technically a 2013 film, ‘Fruitvale Station’ wasn’t released in UK cinemas until 2014 and unfortunately didn’t get the attention it deserved.  A re-telling of the events that led to the real life killing of Oscar Grant by a police officer at the eponymous rail station in San Francisco, ‘Fruitvale Station’ was one of the most devastating films of the year.   Up and coming star Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Chronicle) excels in the role of Grant, displaying attitude and tenderness at the right times while the supporting cast of Melonie Diaz and Octavia Spencer provide the emotional undercurrent that makes the ending you know is coming even more harrowing.

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6. Guardians Of The Galaxy

At the start of last year, who would have thought that a talking raccoon, a tree creature, a green skinned alien, that bloke from Parks & Recreation and Dave Bautista would have come together to create one of the most enjoyable films of 2014?  ‘Guardians’ was a bold move for Marvel and it paid off handsomely, being the funniest and freshest thing the studio have delivered since the first Iron Man.  The space opera aesthetic of the film reminded me of the much loved ‘Firefly’ while the 70’s inspired soundtrack only made it that much cooler.   “We Are Groot” was also the best and most poignant line of 2014.  The Avengers suddenly have some competition!

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5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Another sequel in the list that was superior to its first instalment, ‘The Winter Soldier’ took the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe to the uninitiated) to new and exciting places with a gritty espionage tale that had repercussions for the future of Marvel films and S.H.I.E.L.D. in particular.  Directors Joe & Anthony Russo combined bone crunching fight scenes, an increase in practical effects and deft use of CGI to enhance the story of Steve Rogers (a dependable Chris Evans) as he comes to terms with living in a modern world.  ‘The Winter Soldier’ felt more character driven than other recent Marvel fare and the only slight disappointment was that the bad guy himself didn’t get more screen time.  Not as fun as ‘Guardians’ but a better all around film is my (probably controversial) opinion.  The Russo brothers will return to direct the next Cap sequel ‘Civil War’ which promises to be spectacular.

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4. Birdman

Has there ever been a role more suited to Michael Keaton than this?  ‘Birdman’ or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), to give it its full title sees Keaton as an actor famous for formerly playing a superhero who is struggling to balance his ego and his family life while mounting a “serious” Broadway play that he hopes will revive his career.  The role will surely win Keaton an Oscar nomination but Birdman features probably the best ensemble cast of the year with Ed Norton, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts all at the top of their game.  Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu and his DOP Emmanuel Lubezski deserve extra praise for the amazing cinematography, with most of the film being shot in what seems like one continuous take.  The camerawork and jazz drumming score lend a frantic, kinetic energy to a film that is practically pitch black perfect.

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3. Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, an ambitious man without a calling card in life who stumbles upon the underground world of freelance crime journalism in Los Angeles.  Bloom proves himself to be quite handy with a camera and enlists an assistant (Riz Ahmed) to help him set up his own company and sell his footage to local news editor (Rene Russo). As Bloom takes more risks, his demands become increasingly erratic and his sociopathic tendencies get gradually worse.
Jake Gyllenhaal deserves a lot of credit for playing such an unhinged and despisable character and actually getting you to care about what him. His lack of empathy and a moral compass is always laced with a charming or witty aside that makes Lou Bloom one of the more unique sociopaths in recent film history. The film looks and feels just as seedy as Bloom with first time director Gilroy capturing the danger and grime of LA’s streets perfectly while Londoner Ahmed is a perfect foil for Gyllenhaal.
Like passing by a car accident such as the ones that Bloom records, ‘Nightcrawler’ will make you feel uncomfortable but you won’t be able to take your eyes off of it.

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2. Edge Of Tomorrow

Surely the most underrated film of 2014 was ‘Edge Of Tomorrow’?  In terms of pure fun and spectacle, this Tom Cruise action vehicle set the bar the highest out of the Summer films with it’s simple premise of ‘Live. Die. Repeat.’   Watching Cruise die in combat over and over again could have become tiresome (or extremely satisfying depending on your opinion on the man) but director Doug Liman added a serious amount of humour and inventiveness as Cruise transforms from cowardly PR officer to battle hardened warrior in the war against a future alien race.  The films time loop element, though done before, feels fresh in ‘Edge Of Tomorrow’ and on his day, Cruise is still the best and biggest film star in the world.  ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ was his most charming and flexible turn in years.  Backed up superbly by Emily Blunt, who proved to be just as adept at kicking arse, ‘Edge Of Tomorrow’ was everything a trip to your local cinema should be.

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1. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson proved himself to be master of the whimsy and escapism yet again in 2014 with ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, a funny and stylish treat with an outstanding lead performance from Ralph Fiennes.  Fiennes plays Gustave, a concierge at the fictional Grand Budapest Hotel who flees with his young bellboy (newcomer Tony Revolori) after being framed for murder.  Fiennes is a revelation, displaying a sense of wit and comic timing that you didn’t know he had in his locker while the rest of the large ensemble cast look like they’re having the time of their lives.  Anderson fills the screen with his usual blend of lush visuals and a heightened sense of reality that draws you in for the duration of this weird but wonderful two hour ride.

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Honorable mentions:  The Wolf of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis, Calvary, Tracks, The Judge, Foxcatcher, Maps To The Stars, Get On Up, Selma, The Drop

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WORST FILM

Sex Tape

This was the closest I’ve come to walking out on a film since the awful ‘Movie 43’ but I saw it through to the bitter, unfunny end.  Lots of swearing and smut but barely any laughs as Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz sleepwalk through a plot that involves a couple who accidentally give iPads with their home sex tape on to all their friends and co-workers.  The only time I laughed was a scene involving Rob Lowe listening to Slayer and even the novelty of that wore off after a few seconds.  Truly dismal.

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MOST OVERRATED FILM

Boyhood

Probably a controversial choice and don’t get me wrong, I did like ‘Boyhood’ but I feel if it wasn’t for the novelty of the film being shot over the space of 12 years, this coming of age drama could have been written off as another forgettable indie.  The performances are good, especially from Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette but there’s something slightly mundane about it that for me, doesn’t make it worthy of all the plaudits it’s received.

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MOST UNDERRATED FILM

Next Goal Wins

Another gem that went largely unnoticed, ‘Next Goal Wins’ is a documentary about the American Samoa national football team who have the indignity of being the world’s worst team.  Picking up after a world record 31-0 loss to Australia, a British camera crew follow new Dutch coach Thomas Rongen to Samoa as he tries to transform the squad which includes the first ever fa’afafine player to take the stage in an International qualifier.   Not just a sports documentary, ‘Next Goal Wins’ showcases the spirit in the face of adversity of the Samoan people while there are plenty of fist pumping moments as the team finally begin to perform at a World stage.

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BEST ACTORS (MALE)

Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler

Michael Keaton in Birdman

David Oyelowo in Selma

Chadwick Boseman in Get On Up

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

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BEST ACTORS (FEMALE)

Mia Wasikowska in Tracks

Emma Stone in Birdman

Kristen Wiig in Welcome To Me

Julianne Moore in Maps To The Stars

Sally Hawkins in X + Y

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After the astonishing box office success of ‘The Avengers’ (or ‘Avengers Assemble’ if you live on British soil – thanks John Steed), it was going to take something special to kick off Marvel’s “Phase Two” and with ‘Iron Man 3’ they’ve delivered the goods.

Taking over from former director Jon Favreau is ‘Lethal Weapon’ scribe Shane Black, the guy who could be credited with reviving Robert Downey Jr’s ailing career with the tremendous ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ back in 2005.  With ‘Iron Man 3’, the two are completely in sync with each other again as the script bristles with equal amounts of charm and smarm coming from the lips of Tony Stark.

The story starts with Stark still suffering from the after affects of his near death experience whilst with The Avengers in New York. With the threat of the maniacal terrorist known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) looming large, he fears for the safety of his beloved Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) yet openly invites The Mandarin to attack his Malibu home. And attack he does as Stark mansion is obliterated from the sky with Stark and Pepper both narrowly escaping by the skin of his teeth. Stark winds up in Tennessee and much like the original ‘Iron Man’ has to rely on his instincts and ingenuity to survive and rebuild not only his body but his fractured psyche.
Meanwhile, his former flame Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) and her boss Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) have been working on a virus known as Extremis, which has phenomenal healing and destructive power yet is also unpredictable and potentially fatal when in the hands of The Mandarin.

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Without wanting to give too much away, I’m expecting Marvel fan boys to be slightly disappointed by parts of this movie. There is one titanic plot shift halfway through the film that will take you by surprise and either have you praising writers Black and Drew Pearce for the brave shift in proceedings or leave you crying in to your comic books because they’ve been so unfaithful to the source material.
Either way, it’s an unexpected move that is played for laughs and comedy features largely throughout the two hour plus running time.
Of course, this makes sense with Tony Stark being the most charismatic of all the current Marvel characters appearing in film, but some will argue the action packed scenes from the first two movies have been overlooked in favour of sight gags and biting one liners that you would more likely find in a buddy cop film (no surprise with Black’s ‘Lethal Weapon’ background).
The action scenes don’t compare to the non-stop carnage which occurred in ‘The Avengers’ with ‘Iron Man 3’ being a more restrained character study interspersed with some excellent special effects, yet the explosive, battering ram of a finale should appease everyone who’s been waiting for an army of tin heads to smash everything in their path.

Robert Downey Jr is in fine form as usual and it’s hard to imagine anyone else that has ever inhabited a superhero character quite as well as him, with the exception of possibly Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne/Batman or further back, Christopher Reeve as Superman.
Ben Kingsley is suitably evil as The Mandarin yet I can’t help but feel the ace in the sleeve for ‘Iron Man 3’ is Guy Pearce. I’ve been a fan of Pearce since Christopher Nolan’s ‘Memento’ and always thought he would make an excellent villain (I was hoping he would one day play Black Mask in a Nolan Batman movie) and here his portrayal of Aldrich Killian – from unkempt uber-geek to suave, calculated business man – plays off against the brash, improvised style of Downey Jr’s Stark.
Sadly the one character who misses out on most of the fun is Don Cheadle’s War Machine, here re-named and given a new lick of paint as Iron Patriot. Cheadle is a good actor and is comfortable enough in the suit so it’s a shame to see him not given a proper arc of his own to work with.

As with every superhero movie, there are numerous plot holes that purists are bound to have a field day over, but the whole point of something like ‘Iron Man 3’ is that it should be fun first and believable a very distant second. Shane Black has taken some chances and breathed new life in to Tony Stark’s journey with a razor sharp script and plenty of laughs to go along with the action.
Marvel’s Phase Two is underway with a bang and judging by the first weekend foreign box office figures (‘IM3 has already grossed more than ‘The Avengers’) and an obligatory post credits sequence, it’s obvious that Iron Man is here to stay for a little while longer yet.

8/10

The first trailer for the highly anticipated sequel to Marvel’s ‘Thor’ is now online.

“Marvel’s ‘Thor: The Dark World’ continues the big-screen adventures of Thor, the Mighty Avenger, as he battles to save Earth and all the Nine Realms from a shadowy enemy that predates the universe itself. In the aftermath of Marvel’s ‘Thor’ and Marvel’s ‘Avengers Assemble’, Thor fights to restore order across the cosmos…but an ancient race led by the vengeful Malekith returns to plunge the universe back into darkness. Faced with an enemy that even Odin and Asgard cannot withstand, Thor must embark on his most perilous and personal journey yet, one that will reunite him with Jane Foster and force him to sacrifice everything to save us all.”

Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston all return to the sequel while Christopher Eccleston is taking on the role of Malekith.

The film industry obviously has it in for the White House in 2013 as ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ is the first of two movies being released this Summer that sees the President’s home being attacked by a foreign threat.
Roland Emmerich’s ‘White House Down’ will follow this in a couple of months time but it’s going be difficult for even that master of disaster to outdo ‘Olympus’ in the body count and carnage stakes.

The film starts off at a wintery Camp David where President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) is enjoying a little family time with the First Lady (Ashley Judd) and his son. We’re also introduced to Secret Service guard Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) and it’s not long before he’s called in to action as he makes a decision that saves the President but kills the First Lady after a bad car accident in the icy conditions.
Fast forward 18 months and a crestfallen Banning has been relegated to a desk job with the President blaming him for the tragedy.
With a war brewing on the Korean border (sound familiar?), the South Korean ambassador travels to Washington for crunch talks but all hell breaks loose as Rick Yune’s North Korean terrorist Kang pulls off an attack that pummels the White House, leaving an impressive amount of bullet riddled bodies strewn all over the front lawn. The President is kidnapped and it’s left to Banning to find him and his son before Kang can retrieve the nuclear codes that will potentially bring the US to its knees.

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Wait a minute!  Doesn’t that plot sound a bit like..?

‘Olympus’ has already been dubbed ‘Die Hard’ in the White House and that reference is pretty accurate with Butler doing his best John McClane impression but the script lacks the wit and sparkle which made Bruce Willis’ character so endearing over twenty years ago.
Instead, Butler relies more on brute force as knives are stabbed in people’s throats with merely an eyelid batted and the whole affair relies on relentless darkly lit violence to create a few brief moments of suspense.
‘Olympus’ wears its star spangled heart fully on its sleeve with a script full of cheesy pro-America lines and cliches that come thick and fast. There’s no denying that director Antoine Fuqua (‘Training Day’) only had the action fan in mind as the countless explosions and destruction take preference over subtlety. It’s preposterous but fun even if the two hour run time feels a little bloated.
As for the acting, Eckhart is spirited but limited with a role that sees him tied to some railings for the majority of the time, a feisty Melissa Leo majorly hams it up as the Secretary of Defense and in a film where most of the back stabbing is done by Butler, Dylan McDermott does some devious work of his own. Morgan Freeman appears but doesn’t really do much as the acting President. After this and ‘Oblivion’, that’s two films in 2013 where Freeman has been reduced to more of a bit role and it’s a shame to see such a great actor being criminally under used.
The ruthless Butler is the star of the show, proving he’s much more comfortable as the action hero than a rom-com leading man. He’s a killing machine with a softer side but I wonder if the irony of a Scotsman saving the US from nuclear disaster is lost on the studio…

‘Olympus Has Fallen’ is a gloriously tacky and over the top action thriller that the popcorn crowd should lap up. The fact that stylistically it’s a lot closer to the original ‘Die Hard’ than the recent instalment of that franchise should be recommendation enough.  Over to you, ‘White House Down’.

7/10

The first trailer for ‘R.I.P.D. (Rest In Peace Department) starring Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges is now up.

Based on the highly successful graphic novel of the same name, ‘R.I.P.D.’ tells the story of a cop, slain in the line of duty (Reynolds) who joins up with an undead police department to find out the identity of the man responsible for killing him.

Also starring Kevin Bacon and directed by Robert Schwentke (Red), ‘R.I.P.D.’ opens on July 19th in the US.

 

2013 looks set to be a huge year for big budget sci-fi blockbusters and with ‘Oblivion’, director and co-writer Joseph Kosinski (‘Tron: Legacy’) has already set the bar pretty high.

The film takes place 60 years in the future after Earth has been invaded by an alien race known as the Scavs. The war has been won but Earth has been ravaged and mankind have abandoned the planet to live on one of Saturn’s moons named Titan.
Tom Cruise plays Jack Harper (not to be confused with Jack Reacher). an ex-marine commander turned mechanic who is part of an operation to mop up what’s left of the invasion and repair the robot drones that assist him and female companion Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). They have two weeks left of the operation before joining the rest of civilisation and their chief commander Sally (Melissa Leo) on Titan, but Jack is troubled and having recurring dreams and flashbacks from prior to the Scav invasion about a mysterious woman named Julia (Olga Kurylenko).
After a spaceship crash lands, Jack finds the same woman encased in a sleeping capsule and is subsequently captured by a rebel gang of human survivors led by Morgan Freeman who live out of sight of the alien threat.  The gang inform him that there is more to the war than meets the eye and not only is the woman he’s discovered the missing link he’s been waiting for, but he could also be the key to mankind’s fate.

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While the plot from Kosinski resembles a mash-up of Pixar’s ‘Wall-E’, the Terminator films and a small slice of ‘RoboCop’ (the robot drones could be distant cousins of the ED-209), it’s the stunning special effects and sprawling landscapes that really stand out as spectacular.
Shot on location in parts of Iceland, the dystopian Earth in ‘Oblivion’ is as beautiful as it is menacing. The amazing cinematography, shot on the landmark Sony CineAlta F65 camera adds incredible depth to each shot while the CGI is as impressive as anything you’ll see this year.

Whether you love him or hate him, Tom Cruise is still one of the best and most reliable leading men in cinema today. With undeniable confidence and charm, he takes ‘Oblivion’ on his shoulders and carries it from start to finish despite some good support from British actress Riseborough. Morgan Freeman and Kurylenko are desperately underused but do enough with their screen time to make their characters memorable.

So, is ‘Oblivion’ a sci-fi classic in the making or merely an impressive looking action film? For the first 75 minutes, you would have to agree with the former but the final third of the movie falls in to more conventional story telling and loses some of the aspects that had made it unique. Surprisingly, the movie seems to shuffle towards an ending that feels low on tension and a little rushed. It lacks the dramatic impact that perhaps it was intending, a similar gripe I had with the ending of Kosinki’s ‘Tron’ movie.

Despite a couple of shortcomings, ‘Oblivion’ feels like the first big “event” movie of 2013.
It is a fresh and exciting blend of new school aesthetics that also contains enough knowing nods to movies of old to appease fans of “thinking man” sci-fi amongst the gun fights and explosions.
The combination of the two plus some solid action means ‘Oblivion’ is one not to miss, especially in the IMAX format.

8/10

Director Harmony Korine (‘Kids’, ‘Gummo’) returns with ‘Spring Breakers’, the cinematic equivalent of a bored and pissed off generation screaming YOLO in your face for 90 minutes.

Featuring former Disney tweens Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez along with Ashley Benson (‘Pretty Little Liars’) and Korine’s real life wife Rachel, ‘Spring Breakers’ tells the story of four college girls who hold up a chicken restaurant to raise the money for their life changing spring break trip to Florida.  After a wild few days, the girls are arrested after a party gets busted and are subsequently bailed out of jail by corn-rowed, drug dealing gangster, Alien (James Franco).  Alien is caught up in an ongoing feud with rival gangster and former best friend Archie (Gucci Mane) and takes a shine to the trouble seeking girls so much that he keeps them around to see how far they’ll go to help him.

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Switching between crude, hedonistic sequences of partying and melodramatic passages of self-realization, Korine paints a picture of disenchanted youth that sucks you in amid some totally surreal moments.
Most of those moments belong to Franco who dominates the film as the ludicrous and (un)intentionally hilarious Alien.  His finer moments include performing oral sex on a loaded gun before tinkling the ivories and serenading the girls with a Britney Spears ballad.  The fact the girls are clad in pink balaclavas and holding automatic weapons adds an extra layer of bizarre to a film that goes out of its way to sensationalise most of the grimy details.
All four of the actresses play their roles pretty well.  None of the characters are particularly likeable but they are believable. You can imagine there’s a group of girls like this anywhere in America, ready to disassociate themselves from normal society at a heartbeat. Hudgens in particular seems to revel in her role as Candy, displaying her sexual powers of manipulation more than any of the other girls.  Gomez doesn’t quite break free from her Disney shackles as her church going character Faith is the first to show some kind of moral response to the increasingly messed up situations happening around her.  Even so, it’s still odd and a little unsettling to see that girl from ‘Wizards Of Waverly Place’ inhaling from a bong.  In truth, if more conventional actresses had been used to play these characters, their actions may not have had the same affect.

At times, ‘Spring Breakers’ plays like an extended gaudy music video or a particularly bad soft porn flick with enough tits and ass to appease most flesh junkie.  The nudity and hardcore drug taking are stylised so much that by halfway through the film you would have become desensitised to it, while despite guns featuring heavily, violence is kept at a relative low.

On the surface,’Spring Breakers’ looks like it could fall in to the same category as other “teens gone wild” flicks as ‘Project X’ and ’21 & Over’ but look closely and there is a more complex coming of age story, albeit set within a world that gets gradually more unrealistic.
Each of the four girls either learn or eclipse their own boundaries or eventually realise that sometimes life isn’t better outside of the confines of their small town they’ve grown so tired of.
With a great pumping soundtrack featuring Skrillex, Cliff Martinez and Gucci Mane, ‘Spring Breakers’ is an experience that you will either love or loathe. It is an exercise in entertaining, stylish film making that takes the audience down some dark roads but the dreamy visuals and repetition of certain words or phrases give it a certain detached and edgy feel.

7/10