Monthly Archives: December 2013

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The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

The Wolf of Wall Street

by Steve Habrat

Just a few short weeks ago, director David O. Russell brought us American Hustle, a sexy, cool, and confident look at a bunch of leisure-suited misfits trying to obtain the good life in the amber glow of the late 1970s. Fast-forward the clocks to the late 1980s and enter legendary director Martin Scorsese with his equally sexy, cool, and confident The Wolf of Wall Street, another comical tale about a money-hungry American who will do whatever it takes to live in the lap of luxury, even if that means breaking the law to do it. At an epic three hours, The Wolf of Wall Street is a slap of energetic entertainment that finds Scorsese at his absolute raunchiest, using the true story of Jordan Belfort as his road map through sex, drugs, and, well, even more sex and drugs. The ringleader at the center of this sleazy circus is Leonardo DiCaprio, who sinks his teeth into the role of Belfort with ravenous comedic fury and an Oscar statute burning in his twinkling eyes. DiCaprio has never seemed hungrier for the award, which makes the word “Wolf” in the title very fitting. While this may be DiCaprio’s show, coming up hot on his heels is Jonah Hill, who delivers another surprising performance as Belfort’s business partner, Donnie Azoff.

The Wolf of Wall Street picks up in 1987 and introduces us to young Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), who has just been hired in as an intern at a firm run by Mark Hana (played by Matthew McConaughey). Hana takes an immediate liking to the up-and-coming Belfort, so he decides to take him under his wing and recommend that Belfort embrace a lifestyle of sex and drugs to get him through the workday. Things seem to be going smoothly under Hana, but Belfort ends up on the street after the firm closes in the wake of Black Monday. Determined to find another job, Belfort, with the help of his young wife, Teresa (played by Cristin Milioti), finds a job at Investor Center, a hole-in-the-wall business that specializes in pink slip stocks. Belfort quickly excels with this new company, making a small fortune that allows him to buy a flashy sports car and live comfortably. One day, Belfort is approached by Donnie Azoff (played by Jonah Hill), an owl-eyed salesman who is curious about what Belfort does for a living. The two strike up a fast friendship and together, they decide to open their own firm, Stratton Oakmont, which rakes in millions by using Belfort’s aggressive business tactics. The employees of Stratton Oakmont begin to embrace Belfort’s wild lifestyle, which is dominated with sex, drugs, and wild office parties, all of which catch the attention of Patrick Denham (played by Kyle Chandler), an FBI agent convinced that Belfort is up to no good. Belfort is able to keep the FBI off his back for a while, but when he starts laundering money from the company to pay for his lavish lifestyle, Denham closes in and threatens to bring down Belfort and his merry inner circle.

The Wolf of Wall Street’s main focus is Belfort’s insatiable hunger for wealth and luxury, two things he obtains very quickly. Yet Scorsese explores Belfort’s excessive lifestyle in a comical light, making it seem almost cartoonish as marching bands parade through his office, hookers sprint topless through the cubicles, businessmen snort up cocaine like vacuum cleaners, and sex parties suddenly erupt in the bathroom. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Belfort starts his career on an honest note, refusing to sip martinis and do cocaine with Hana while the two dine on a four-star lunch that overlooks New York City. Yet you can see that Belfort is intrigued by all the flesh and powder dangled in front of him. He resists it at first, acknowledging it with a smile and a shrug of his shoulders, but after sticking a crack pipe in his mouth, he is sent into overdrive and the endless shower of money makes it impossible for him to control his debauchery. When the parties get bigger, the drugs gets stronger, the women get prettier, and the behavior gets even more reckless, The Wolf of Wall Street becomes absolutely revolting and hilarious in equal measures. One of the more shocking moments comes when the employees of Stratton Oakmont gather at a beachfront mansion for a gonzo party that culminates with a drugged and drooling Azoff coming up with the idea to approach up-and-coming show designer Steve Madden about allowing the company to sell shares of his company’s stock, Belfort meeting the beautiful Naomi Lapaglia (played by Margot Robbie), and the belligerent Azoff pleasuring himself to the gorgeous Naomi in front of the entire party.  It’s unruly and downright hilarious in its extremity, showing off just how monstrous money and power can make people.

The Wolf of Wall Street

As Belfort, DiCaprio becomes a party animal that would make Jay Gatsby blush. Once he snorts that little white line, pops the Quaalude, and downs a glass of wine, he becomes a wrecking ball that just can’t be stopped. Naturally, he develops a drinking and drug problem, at one point proclaiming that he refuses to die sober while aboard a smashing and crashing yacht. He’s wildly materialistic, chuckling at the suggestion that some of the dishes aboard his overdone yacht may get smashed in a particularly bump journey. When he isn’t busy destroying his Lamborghini, he is preoccupied with flying his helicopter home from a hookers-and-cocaine binge that results in him almost crashing the chopper into his home. When the FBI begins breathing down his neck, he contemplates bowing out of his company to avoid prison time, but in the heat of the moment, he just can’t say no to making even more money, something that he already has more than enough of. His destructive and disgusting behavior is egged on by his employees, who look at him like a pin-stripped god that has taken them all to millionaire heaven. Yet through it all, you can’t help but sort of like Belfort, even if he is a brash show-off who won’t listen to anyone. DiCaprio makes him a beam of charisma, even when he is dry humping a stewardess, laughing in the face of the law, or slithering his way out of the local country club in a daze.

As far as the rest of the cast goes, Hill never shies away from the ad-libbed humor that he has become known for. He lobs zingers as the equally excessive Azoff, a foul-mouthed salesman who is married to his cousin and who likes to party just as much as Belfort. McConaughey continues his hot streak as Hana, a fast-talking broker who demands martinis brought to him in rapid succession and who recommends that Belfort embrace a destructive lifestyle of sex and drugs to survive Wall Street. Robbie fogs up the screen as the beautiful Naomi, a goddess who loves money and nose candy just as much as Belfort does. Chandler is bullish and straightforward as Denham, the FBI agent who is convinced that Belfort may not be as squeaky clean as he likes to pretend to be. The secondary players consist of P.J. Byrne as Nicky “Rugrat” Koskoff, another close friend of Belfort who proudly wears an atrocious headpiece. The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal stops by as Brad Bodnick, a juiced-up drug dealer who helps Belfort sneak cash into a Swiss bank account. The Artist’s Jean Dujardin turns up as Jean-Jacques Saurel, a Swiss banker who flashes false grins at the desperate Belfort. Rob Reiner gives a snappy performance as Max Belfort, Jordan’s father who tries to keep the boys of Stratton Oakmont in check. In smaller roles, Jon Favreau stops by as Manny Riskin, a seedy lawyer hired to keep Jordan out of prison, and even filmmaker Spike Jonez pokes in as Dwayne, the geeky Investor Center manager who hires Belfort.

In true Scorsese form, The Wolf of Wall Street is a snazzy piece of filmmaking that tickles your peepers with hilarious slow-motion shots, characters talking directly to the audience, and wicked narration from Mr. DiCaprio. Given that the film clocks in at nearly three hours, you’d assume that there may be one or two places where the picture is dragging its feet, but the endless scenes of wild parties never loose their bite, humor, or their entertainment value. You just can’t wait to see what grandiose act Belfort commits next. Scorsese also keeps each and every scene as stylized as possible, making the entire experience go by in a flash. Overall, while it may not be quite as sharp as American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street is still a raunchy examination of a man who had everything but still demanded more, more, more. You’ll find yourself buzzed by the racy script from Terence Winter, elated performances from DiCaprio and Hill, and a stinging sense of black humor that keeps you in stitches even when it threatens to cross the line into the inappropriate. The Wolf of Wall Street is a big, shiny Christmas gift from one of the greatest American directors alive.

Grade: A

TRAILER THURSDAY!

Get a load of a very young Jack Nicholson in the trailer for the 1967 biker flick Hells Angels on Wheels, directed by Richard Rush.

hells_angels_on_wheels_poster_01

Merry Christmas!

Anti-Film School wishes all of you a very merry Christmas!

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

SAVING MR. BANKS

by Steve Habrat

Director John Lee Hancock is no stranger to crafting crowd-pleasing dramas. He’s the man responsible for such films as Dennis Quaid’s 2002 sports drama The Rookie and Sandra Bullock’s unstoppable 2009 hit The Blind Side. When it came to telling the enchanting story of how Walt Disney managed to get the rights to P.L. Travers’ book Mary Poppins, Hancock was certainly the man for the job. Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks is certainly a well-oiled piece of period filmmaking with several performances that certainly scream for Oscar. It’s a mushy tale about how much the character of Mary Poppins meant to Travers, served up in a candy shell that audiences are guaranteed to savor. Both Hancock and Disney Studios are playing to our hearts with the emotional script from Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, but the magic of Saving Mr. Banks really comes alive through the performances from its spread of A-list celebrities. This is Emma Thompson’s show, but Tom Hanks, who is still hot off the success of Captain Phillips, warmly beams his way through his performance as the ultimate dreamer, Walt Disney. And then there is the sweet performance from Paul Giamatti and a particularly touching turn from Colin Farrell, who becomes the film’s beating heart and soaring soul.

Saving Mr. Banks picks up in 1961, with Mary Poppins author Pamela P.L. Travers (played by Emma Thompson) tight on money and low on options. Through her agent, Diarmuid Russell (played by Ronan Vibert), Pamela receives an offer from Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) for the rights to her beloved story so that he can make it into a movie. At first, Pamela refuses to sign over the rights to Disney, who she believes will ruin her very personal story, but her reluctance to right another novel to bring in more money puts her in a difficult spot. With no other alternatives, Pamela travels to Los Angeles to meet with Walt to discuss the project. Upon her arrival, Walt goes above and beyond to charm the scowling Pamela, but each one of his attempts bounces right off her thick skin. Pamela soon begins meeting with scriptwriter Don DaGradi (played by Bradley Whitford) and composer/lyricist brothers Richard and Robert Sherman (played by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak) to pour over every single detail of the script, storyboards, and musical numbers—all of which she finds fault with. As the exasperated Disney crewmembers try to please Pamela, she strikes up a friendship with her kindly driver, Ralph (played by Paul Giamatti), and begins flashing back to her dysfunctional childhood in Queensland, Australia, with her alcoholic father, Travers Robert Goff (played by Colin Farrell), who instilled a vivid imagination inside the young Pamela.

Saving Mr. Banks juggles two storylines, one which flashes back to Australia, 1906, which gives us a glimpse inside Pamela’s upbringing at the hands of her drunken but loving father and her wounded, soft-spoken mother (played by Ruth Wilson). The scenes set in Australia are given a fairy tale glow, romanticized and shimmering in true Disney fashion. The dramatic outback flashbacks are met by the scenes set in 1961, which posses a more humorous side as Pamela grapples with her idiosyncrasies with her beloved character. Thompson plays Pamela as a porcupine of a woman, a prissy control freak who never passes up a chance to put old Walt Disney in his place. When she isn’t complaining that Los Angeles smells like sweat and chlorine, she ripping into ol’ Walt for anything and everything. Initially, she appears to be immune to Walt’s charms and she scowls every time she lays eyes on a familiar mouse that we have all come to adore. When she meets with DaGradi and the Sherman brothers, she stomps her feet and demands that all of their meeting are recorded. She especially detests the songs like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” and she groans over the mustache added to the character of Mr. Banks, an addition that Walt has personally requested. For as cold and heartless as she seems to be, Thompson molds the character into a sympathetic soul who wrestles with painful memories that she feels doesn’t deserve the pixie-dust whimsy that she is convinced Walt will give her story.

Saving Mr. Banks #2

As far as the rest of the performances go, Hanks beams his way through his performance as Walt Disney, a happy-go-lucky businessman who is absolutely perplexed by the whirlwind that is Pamela. Watching his reactions to feisty writer is a treat, especially when she recoils in horror at his suggestion of taking a trip to Disneyland. As his battle to make the movie culminates, he tells a personal story that reveals his understanding over how much the character of Mary Poppins means to Pamela. Then there is Giamatti, who gives one of the most sensitive performances of his career as Ralph, Pamela’s gee-whiz limo driver who makes every effort imaginable to get to know this rigid sourpuss. Watching Ralph develop his friendship with Pamela is hilarious and near the end, it takes an emotional turn that will make your heart swell. Whitford nabs several chuckles as DaGradi, the cautious scriptwriter tasked with battling with Travers on a day-to-day basis. Schwarztman and Novak are a terrific tag team as the Shermans, the composers who just can’t seem to come up with a tune that gets Travers tapping her toes. Then there is Farrell, who just leaps across the screen on the wings of imagination. Behind closed doors, he is a withering heap of a man consumed by alcoholic demons and an illness that threatens to take his life. However, when he is facing the young Pamela in the sun, he is a dancing court jester, her encouragement to never stop dreaming or chasing imagination. Trust me when I say that this role is one of Farrell’s finest hours.

Considering that Saving Mr. Banks is a Disney production, the film’s sets and cinematography look like a million bucks. While there was no filming in Australia, Hancock does a marvelous job transforming various locations around California into the dusty Australian Outback. It should also be noted that there isn’t a single shot in the entire picture that isn’t crisp, clean, and gorgeous, always eager to show off the fantastic period clothing and set design. Hancock and his screenwriters also do a marvelous job with revealing little secrets about Pamela’s past to the viewer, whether it is her dislike for pears or her fury over Mr. Banks having a mustache on screen. Every little reveal is balanced throughout the picture, one being just slightly more emotional than the last one. Overall, while there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Disney studios has sweetened this story up in places, Saving Mr. Banks is still a wholesome little movie that touches on the importance of imagination and pleas with each and every one of us to never loose our child-like sense of wonder. Thompson and Farrell are Oscar worthy in their respective roles, Giamatti’s Ralph is unforgettable, and Hanks is clearly having a grand old time slipping into the skin of Walt Disney, a role he was born to play.

Grade: B+

American Hustle (2013)

American Hustle #1

by Steve Habrat

Ever since his directorial debut in 1994, David O. Russell is a filmmaker that continues to surprise critics and audiences with the wide range of films that he produces. He’s done indie comedies (Spanking the Monkey, I Heart Huckabees), mainstream comedies (Flirting with Disaster), war thrillers (Three Kings), political comedies (Nailed), sports dramas (The Fighter), romantic comedies (Silver Linings Playbook), and now, just under a year after releasing his celebrated Silver Linings Playbook, he tackles another project that expands his intriguing body of work. Just in time for Oscar season we have American Hustle, a film that has been receiving glowing word of mouth over the past several months for its intoxicating blend of 70’s style, quirky characters, dry humor, and rich story that consistently pulls the rug out from under the viewer at every turn. With expectations at a staggering high, you start to wonder if this tale of a sleazy con man, his gorgeous partner, and a shifty FBI agent could ever live up to such praise. Yet with each passing second, American Hustle hits entertaining levels that are off the charts, and it finds Mr. Russell in full form, radiating a confidence we have yet to see from this talented filmmaker. Russell can also thank his star Christian Bale, who gives the best performance of his career, for making American Hustle such a strutting must-see.

American Hustle introduces us to Irving Rosenfeld (played by Christian Bale), a smooth-talking con man that runs a chain of Laundromats and on the side operates a seedy loan business where he takes $5,000 from desperate clients and gives them nothing in return. Life is pretty good for Irving, but it gets even better when he meets the beautiful Sydney Prosser (played by Amy Adams), who is drifting from job to job. After showing his business off to Sydney, she jumps on board and assumes the identity of Lady Edith Greensly, a British bombshell with overseas banking connections. As Irving and Sydney rob their clients blind, the two strike up a romance that is kept from Irving’s motor-mouthed housewife, Rosalyn Rosenfeld (played by Jennifer Lawrence), who paces around their home like a caged tiger. It doesn’t take long for Irving and Sydney’s operation to be thwarted by Richie DiMaso (played by Bradley Cooper), an eager FBI agent looking to make a name for himself at the bureau. Rather than locking Irving and Sydney up in jail, Richie decides to use the con artists to help him with an operation called Abscam, which would lure Carmine Polito (played by Jeremy Renner), the beloved Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, into taking a bribe. Irving and Sydney reluctantly agree to help Richie, but their plot to take down Politio takes a dangerous turn when several other high level politicians and ruthless mobsters get involved.

With so much style and humor to burn, American Hustle wouldn’t even need its winding and weaving script that finds all of its boldly drawn characters attempting to get over on each other. From the opening retro studio logos, Russell is gleefully smashing open a post-Vietnam and Watergate time capsule, which allows us to glimpse an America that has embraced earth tones, tacky oversized sunglasses, perms, bell bottoms, leisure suits, plunging dress necklines, and disco music. It’s all so loud, excessive, and in your face that it threatens to be cartoonish. It also guarantees that American Hustle is going to be a strong contender in the production design category, costume design category, and make-up and hairstyling category. While the meticulous attention to detail certainly makes the film entertaining, the sense of humor that Russell injects is an absolute wonder. The film opens with Bale’s Irving fussing with his comb over, hilariously gluing strips of hair down over a tuft of fake fuzz. It is guaranteed to have the theater doubled over in laughter, especially when Cooper’s DiMaso decides he is going to mess the eccentric masterpiece of a hairdo up. Also brilliant is the winking trip to a flashing disco club, where Adams and Cooper burn through the dance floor like fiends. It’s wildly hilarious and hot-under-the-collar sexy as they shimmy and shake their way to a dimly lit bathroom stall. American Hustle’s crown jewel of hilarity comes when Irving and Rosalyn have their very first fiery encounter with a microwave, which they continuously refer to as the “science oven.”

Amy Adams;Jennifer Lawrence

Making American Hustle even more irresistible is the A-list cast, who all seem like they are locked in a never-ending battle for the spotlight. While they are all fantastic, none come close to matching the work of the out-of-this-world Christian Bale. We’ve seen Bale immerse himself in his characters before, but none have been quite as charming and alive as Irving, the pudgy con man with the meanest comb over you have ever seen. In front of Sydney, his clients, and even DiMaso, Irving has a silver tongue that really works a room. His confidence practically burns a hole in the screen, but when he’s behind closed doors and facing the wrath of Rosalyn, he’s a fidgeting disaster that clutches at his heart and pops little white pills to calm his weak ticker. Adams is a spitfire as his redheaded partner, Sydney, who throws on a British accent and toys with DiMaso’s heart. Adams and Cooper share two specific moments that could practically set the screen ablaze. Cooper nails his role as the slimy DiMaso, the hotshot FBI agent who wears his perm like a crown. Lawrence is as sexy as ever as Irving’s restless wife Rosalyn, a bored and neglected housewife who threatens the whole operation. Then there is Renner as Polito, the optimistic Mayor who is determined to bring back Atlantic City any way he can. Rounding out the cast is Louis C.K. as Stoddard Thorsen, DiMaso’s perpetually peeved boss who can never seem to get control of his determined agent.

As if the style, humor, and fluid performances weren’t enough to make you fall in love with American Hustle, the film also boasts a firecracker of a script from Eric Warren Singer and Russell. Slightly based on true events, it dares to be unpredictable, sweet, intimate, touching, and intensely character driven as all of these characters that claim to do anything for survival try to play each other any way they can. It’s a thrill not knowing what direction it’s going to veer off in next. All the bickering and scheming builds to a witty final act that springs a double-cross rush that leaves you floating out of the theater. Overall, American Hustle finds Russell at the top of his game as a filmmaker. He is working with an airtight script, capturing brilliant performances that play phenomenally off each other, filling his frames with gorgeous set and costume design, and allowing his sharp sense of humor to fuel its soul. The end result is gold-plated entertainment that is guaranteed to retain its shine for years to come and reward with multiple viewings. By the end of the film, you will respect the hustle.

Grade: A

Mini Review: Silent Night (2012)

Silent Night #1

by Steve Habrat

In November of 2012, Anchor Bay Films quietly snuck Steve C. Miller’s Silent Night, a loose remake of the 1984 Christmas slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night, into select theaters and then quickly released it on Blu-ray and DVD just a few short weeks later. Were us horror fans really that bad that we deserved a lump of coal like this?! Apparently yes, yes we were. From the get-go, it is obvious Silent Night is winking at the horror fans that will undoubtedly flock to it over the years. But too often, the film is awkward and amateurish, consistently confusing pulpy gore for honest scares to the point where it is almost maddening. To make it worse, this abysmal waste of time can’t seem to smoothly deliver anything resembling a good joke. It’s so bad, folks, that even a beloved genre star like Malcolm McDowell can’t even sell it, and believe me when I tell you that he tries very, very hard to make this formulaic snoozefest work. The only positives that you will find in Silent Night are the homicidal Santa, who prefers to toast his victims with a flamethrower, and a scene in which one character gets their head chopped in half with an axe. That is where this turkey’s joys begin and end.

Silent Night picks up on Christmas Eve, where the citizens of a small Midwestern town are gearing up for a massive holiday celebration that invites hundreds of Santa Claus impersonators to get in on the fun. Among the citizens looking forward to the holiday activities are Aubrey Bradimore (played by Jamie King), a sheriff’s deputy still attempting to get over the loss of her husband. The celebration seems to be getting off to a smooth start, aside from one belligerent Santa (played by Donal Logue) who is making children cry in a local park, but things take a nasty turn when a small-time porn director and his star wind up brutally slaughtered at a local motel. Bradimore, fellow deputy Giles (played by Andrew Cecon), and the town Sheriff, Cooper (played by Malcolm McDowell), launch an investigation, but they realize that this massacre isn’t an isolated incident. After watching a videotape that was rolling during the murders at the motel, the officers discover that their suspect is dressed as a morbid Santa Claus, making it extremely difficult to track down the killer and bring him to justice. As the sun sets and the celebration kicks into high gear, several more citizens turn up dead, but the quest to track down the maniacal Santa gets personal when one murder strikes close to home for Aubrey.

Silent Night #2

Silent Night opens with a pitch-black opening credit sequence that suggests that what we are getting into is going to be a straight-shooting horror movie that wallows in shadowy suspense. Miller’s camera is trained on the killer as he makes his chilling Santa mask, suits up in that jolly red suit, and torments one victim with an axe before offing him in a totally unexpected manner. It’s a sturdy stage setter, that you cannot deny, but once Miller emerges from that dark cellar and lets his killer loose on the town streets, the film quickly plummets. Almost every death scene is completely wooden, shot with a jittery camera and strung together through fast edits that resemble something out of a heavy metal music video. These death scenes will undoubtedly please gore fans, as the blood sprays in every single direction, but they never rise above being gross. Now I’m certainly not one to complain about gross, but Miller never even considers injecting an ounce of terror into any of these scenes. They just flail around on the screen with sudden blasts of music, the same old lazy jump scares that we have all come to expect from uninspired horror exercises such as this. Furthermore, the “ick” moments seem to lack a punch of originality, especially a scene in which a wannabe porn star is crammed into a wood chipper. It’s nauseating enough, but it seems like more of an obnoxious cry for attention rather than a vicious little surprise.

In addition to the lack of solid scares, Miller can’t seem to get his actors to do much with Jayson Rothwell’s clunky script, which is bogged down with clichéd dialogue and leaden one-liners. McDowell taps into his fiery wit and bug-eyed smugness, but even he can’t make some of the jokes work. It’s almost painful watching him spit out lines like “what is this, Glee?” to one caroling officer. And to think that this is the same man who played the sadistic Alex De Large in A Clockwork Orange! King’s Aubrey fares no better, as she just sulks around and forces a brooding side to her one-dimensional heroine. Cecon’s Giles is also pretty painful, a dimwit only present to bite it in an idiotic death scene. The only two actors who seem to rise above the material are Logue, who gets to have a bit of fun as a cranky Saint Nick who rants and raves about the holiday season, and Ellen Wong, who shows up as the perky Brenda, the wisecracking secretary of the police station. Overall, while all of the bloody mayhem and tongue-in-cheek approach may sound tempting to horror fans, Miller’s Silent Night is a flat, clumsy, and scare-less affair that bores more than it thrills. Aside from it’s chilling killer, it is just another careless remake that should have remained shelved at the studio.

Grade: D-

Silent Night is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

TRAILER THURSDAY!

“‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was left…. LIVING!” Here is the trailer for the 1974 holiday spookfest Silent Night, Bloody Night, directed by Theodore Gershuny.

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TRAILER TUESDAY!

“Warm flesh, wet blood!” The holiday trailers get extra gory with 1984’s Don’t Open Till Christmas, directed by Edmund Purdom.

Don't_Open_Till_Christmas_FilmPoster

Spring Breakers (2013)

Spring Breakers #1

by Steve Habrat

Arthouse writer and director Harmony Korine isn’t the type of filmmaker who releases warm and fuzzy crowd pleaser films. Far from it. Korine made a name for himself with such films as the gritty AIDS tale Kids, the voyeuristic and derelict Gummo, and the schizophrenic Julien Donkey-Boy, all films that have achieved cult status due to their controversial subject matter and off-the-beaten-path approach. Over the years, Korine has managed to keep a relatively low profile, but earlier this year he finally broke into the mainstream with Spring Breakers, a glow-in-the-dark tale of four college girls letting loose on the streets of Florida. Through his camera lens, Korine turns this tale of escaping the mundane and living out your fantasies into a sun-drenched nightmare that leers at you through showers of Natural Light, clouds of cocaine, hovering trails of marijuana smoke, and walls of dubstep noise. And then there is James Franco, who gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Alien, a showy, grill-wearing rapper and wannabe thug who pulls our four beach-bunny heroines down into a neon underworld that is ecstasy to some and a living and breathing Hell to others.

Spring Breakers introduces us to Candy (played by Vanessa Hudgens), Brittany (played by Ashley Benson), Cotty (played by Rachel Korine), and Faith (played by Selena Gomez), four college students who are eager to tag along with their fellow classmates to a spring break celebration in Florida. Unable to scrape enough money together to go, Candy, Brittany, and Cotty decide to rob a local diner in an attempt to come up with enough money to make the trip. The robbery proves successful, and together, the girls board a party bus that will take them to a weeklong celebration in the sun. Upon their arrival, the girls are convinced that they are in paradise and they proceed to indulge in an abundance of reckless and wild behavior. After getting busted by the police for doing cocaine at a party, the girls are taken to a holding cell, where they, along with two hard-partying twins (played by Sidney and Thurman Sewell), are bailed out by Alien (played by James Franco), a small-time rapper and thug who believes the girls can be useful with his criminal empire. After getting to know Alien, the girls believe they have it made, but their endless paradise is threatened when tensions flare between Alien and a dangerous local gangster by the name of Big Arch (played by Gucci Mane).

Korine begins Spring Breakers with a twirling montage of a college kids on a shining beach. There is no sound to accompany this string of images as they shout at the camera from behind Ray-Ban sunglasses. At first, the behavior seems harmless enough, that of college kids who are letting loose after months of hitting the books and hunching over finals. As the sequence picks up, the behavior spirals more and more out of control as girls shed their bikini tops for the audience and the cheering guys douse them in streams of cheap beer. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare, a depiction of animalistic behavior that parents everywhere secretly try to tell themselves that their son or daughter doesn’t engage in. To our four main characters, this is what they consider to be the good life that they daydream about, snorting cocaine off of each other’s stomachs, seducing a room full of meathead guys who throw beer on their quivering bodies, and urinating in the street for the entire world to see. As the film goes on, the girls begin to grapple with this endless paradise, some embracing it without ever looking back and others frightened into the shelter of their normal routine by the arrogant wannabe thug Alien, who claims to take great delight in being as bad as they come.

Spring Breakers #2

When evaluating the performances of Spring Breakers, the actor at the head of the class is Franco, who is flawless as the smirking faux-thug Alien. Franco introduces Alien as an overconfident poser who demands that the girls, who circle his feet like dogs, marvel at all of his possessions. He brags about having Scarface on repeat, shows off his high-powered weaponry that hangs over his bed (which he dubs his “spaceship”), and loves gathering the girls around his baby grand piano that sits on his scenic back porch. When he tangles with Gucci Mane’s menacing Big Arch, who spits poisonous threats like a viper, his confidence begins to wobble. With a showdown looming in the distance, Alien’s love for the good life is put to the test, especially when he realizes that he needs to back up all of his boasts. As far as the girls go, Hudgens and Benson are white hot as Candy and Brittany, two girls who love pointing their fingers like guns and making gun shot noises. Rachel Korine is a ball of confliction as Cotty, a pink-haired partier who can’t quite decide if she is as taken with Alien’s lifestyle as her pals are. Gomez surprises as the religious Faith, who grows increasingly concerned about both her current situation and her rebellious friends.

While the subject matter of Spring Breakers sure fits in with the rest of Korine’s homely body of work, the film is a slight shift from his usual ragged, fly-on-the-wall visual style. The party scenes certainly hold on to the vérité approach we have seen in Korine’s previous work, but Spring Breakers finds him applying a gorgeous neon glow to almost every single shot, sometimes leaning towards a glow-in-the-dark surrealism that makes you feel like you’re trapped in a night club. It’s never short of beautiful, even when it’s allowing you to glimpse the worst in human beings. The film also casts a spell with the thumping dubstep score, which almost throws you into a glazed-over trance as partiers scream into the camera. In addition to its neon visuals, Korine’s script builds the suspense quite nicely, working its way to a shattering showdown where the girl’s get to live out their violent fantasies, complete with neon green bikinis and hot pink ski masks. Overall, while it may be a bit too much for some viewers to handle, Spring Breakers is an undeniably shocking and multi-layered meditation on the pros and cons of the good life. It finds Korine at the top of his directorial game and coaxing a wild turn from the ever-colorful James Franco. This is a blissfully edgy and hallucinatory work of mad genius from a man who loves pushing our buttons and making us uncomfortable.

Grade: A

Spring Breakers is available on Blu-ray and DVD.