It’s Easy to Promise the Impossible: Tim Burton’s FRANKENWEENIE

It’s obvious at first glance that Tim Burton’s FRANKENWEENIE – the feature-length adaptation of his own short film from his early years as a filmmaker – is an adaptation of the original FRANKENSTEIN story: a character named Victor Frankenstein, shaken by his inability to cope with death, brings a creature back from the dead. What is not obvious is just how deep Burton’s reverence for not just FRANKENSTEIN, but all monster films, comes across in the film. Though FRANKENWEENIE begins harmlessly enough as an innocent FRANKENSTEIN clone, by the end of the film Burton has made it clear that this is not just an homage to Mary Shelley’s original work – it’s a love letter to all monster films, whether they be from Universal’s back-catalog or not.

Shot beautifully in black-and-white and 3D, this stop-motion, children’s horror film brings Burton back to his roots in the best way possible. It’s a huge return to form for the director, especially for fans of his who have longed for a qualitative return to his early animation days. Reaching back in time and dusting off this little short, it’s obvious that the Gothic director cares a great deal about this material – more so than can be said about anything he’s done in a long time. It’s clear that the charm, the wit and the genuine heart of FRANKENWEENIE resonates with Burton on an emotional level, and it comes across on screen in every frame.

The story begins fairly predictably: young, brilliant outcast Victor, after losing his dog, resorts to the scientific inspiration of his new teacher in order to bring the dog back to life. It’s a timeless story that’s lent renewed potency by the innocence of the child-and-his-pet dynamic between the characters. This is not about Frankenstein struggling with the idea of death and thus creating a monster – it’s just about him struggling with the idea of death.

In this way, Burton captures the spirit and thematic content of the original story with commanding dexterity. Victor’s story arc is reasonably similar to that of his spiritual counterpart – though filtered through a new lens of youthful discovery – but it’s the parallel themes between the Monster of the original story and Sparky the dog where the story truly shines. In spite of the fact that Sparky is just a dog, Burton never lets him off the hook of the progression of the story; the adorable little animal (seriously – cutest thing I’ve seen all year) still has to struggle with his own existence. It takes a rare touch to display to an audience the inner turmoil of a reanimated dog, but Burton pulls it off in one of the most affecting sequences in the film.

And in the final act of the film, Burton and his team manage to pay homage to a host of  memorable creature-features from throughout Hollywood’s history, all filtered within the context of the story: Boris Karloff, GODZILLA, GREMLINS, Vincent Price and more all get their fair due. FRANKENWEENIE is, in actuality, a Universal Monster fanboy’s dream come true, but Burton never lets the fan service devolve into anything other than an organic progression of the story.

The animation is perfect. Stop-motion is a dying art form, and it’s terrific news to fans everywhere that Burton is one of the few mainstream directors out there who are still willing to direct an entire feature in the format – especially in black and white. There’s something tremendously endearing about the way that Sparky moves within the lush, beautiful sets, somehow feeling both nostalgic and fresh all at the same time. It’s the perfect medium to tell this story in, and Burton nails the design around every corner, as he often does.

Which is the best part about FRANKENWEENIE: Burton’s eccentricities – which have so often actually limited and burdened him in recent years – are actually spiritually and tonally relevant here. This is a Tim Burton film, not a studio film directed by Tim Burton, and that’s an important distinction to make. The Gothic aesthetic is beautiful and natural, lending the world of the film a uniqueness that actually gels the story together, rather than haphazardly fragmenting it.

But what really makes the film come alive are the characters, which are Tim Burton through and through. Many of the characters are directly inspired by horror staples: Mr. Rzykruski (voiced by Martin Landau) is a perfect throwback to Vincent Price, and Edgar “E” Gore (Atticus Shaffer), Martin Short’s Nassor (a Boris Karloff circa THE MUMMY imitation) and Winona Ryder’s Elsa van Helsing all recall famous horror characters and actors of old. Each character is memorable and wildly original, but the fan favorite seems to already be Catherine O’Hara’s “Weird Girl”, who steals every scene in which she appears with her saucer-eyed, absentee expression and equally vacant-looking cat, Mr. Whiskers.

FRANKENWEENIE is a big win for Tim Burton, who has crafted yet another Gothic, stop-motion classic which will resonate with both children and adults for entirely different reasons. After a couple of critically disappointing features, it’s nice to see the director get back to doing what he does best.

8/10

d.a. garabedian

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The Wettest County in the World: John Hillcoat’s LAWLESS

John Hillcoat’s LAWLESS – like his previous film THE ROAD – is less concerned with conventional narrative devices and momentum and more with atmosphere, presence and mood; lucky for Hillcoat (as well as screenwriter Nick Cave), he’s got one hell of a knack for creating compelling, captivating atmosphere.

Based on the true story of the Bondurant brothers – and adapted from their descendant’s historical fiction novel, THE WETTEST COUNTY IN THE WORLD – LAWLESS recounts the tale of how the brothers rose to be titans of the moonshine business during Prohibition, and how they went to war with the forces who sought to destroy them.

Hillcoat’s style of direction here should feel familiar to anybody who saw his last film, THE ROAD: his films have begun to seem increasingly like meditations on various topics, rather than anything more narratively traditional. In spite of the film’s classical approach to momentum – there are no scenes that exist outside of the context of the characters’ arcs, and each addresses what has come immediately before and what will come immediately afterwards – there is a certain ethereal disposition to the progression of LAWLESS; characters float from scene to scene, reacting internally to what has become before, rather than externally. In this way, Hillcoat imbues the narrative with a certain detached momentum, abandoning narrative through-lines for arc-based ones.

But the true victory of this film isn’t in its atypical approach to narrative, but rather in its terrific cast. There is not a single actor in this film that wasn’t cast to absolute perfection. Even the smaller roles of Cricket Pate (played by Dane DeHaan, who had his breakout role as the tortured Andrew earlier this year in CHRONICLE) and, surprisingly, Gary Oldman’s Floyd Banner (one gets the feeling that a large portion of his performance is on the cutting room floor) resonate deeply with the viewer simply because of how exquisitely well they are portrayed by their respective thespians.

DeHaan in particular emerges as a bright spot in the film, despite his extremely minimal screen time. It’s obvious that this kid has a big future ahead of him if he plays his cards right, and by picking up projects like this and the upcoming PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, it sounds like he is. Oldman is also impressive in spite of his handful of appearances throughout the film, simply because of the incredible presence that he brings to the proceedings: when you introduce the great Gary Oldman inexplicably gunning down supposed mob rivals in cold blood with a tommy gun, you feel that character in the back of your mind for the rest of the runtime.

But presence is really what the entire film boils down to. Shia LaBeouf was born to play parts like Jack Bondurant, ones made up of equal measures simmering rage and youthful innocence. His arc is one of the most compelling of the film, as Hillcoat and Cave never try to peg him into any one category. It’s obvious from the beginning that his exuberance, recklessness and general eagerness is his primary character motivation, but they never simplify that characteristic to one of inevitable tragedy; Jack succeeds as often as he fails because of it, and that makes his actions unpredictable and the consequences even less so. Jason Clarke’s Howard Bondurant is similarly explosive, but he’s given significantly less to do than the other brothers, pulling a memorable performance out of an underwritten role.

Tom Hardy and Guy Pearce, of course, steal the show. Hardy is, without question, one of the most memorable presences working in Hollywood today, and he has more expression in his right eyebrow than many actors do in their entire bodies. It’s almost impossible to believe that INCEPTION’s Eames and LAWLESS’ Forrest (not to mention THE DARK KNIGHT RISES’ Bane) are played by the same person – Hardy has become a complete chameleon, and his flamboyant and eccentric performances in the last two Nolan films bear absolutely no resemblance to the quiet, smouldering one that he offers here. Saying more with a muffled grunt or a whispered, fractured sentence than the other characters say with entire monologues, Hardy is worth the price of admission alone. He’s had a damn good couple of years, and he’s becoming one of the most diverse and dynamic actors working in Hollywood.

Guy Pearce, on the other hand, is the perfect counterpoint to the simmering Hardy. Playing the impossibly flamboyant Charlie Rakes with ham-fisted glee, Pearce offers a scene-stealing turn in a film full of scene-stealing actors. His mocking politeness – punctuated by bursts of explosive violence – makes him a serious wild card in the narrative, and you never know just what he’s capable of or what he might try at any one moment. His perfectly groomed, Depression-era swagger is laughably extreme in the best way possible, and if he weren’t so alternately hilarious and terrifying, it wouldn’t work. But it does, and it does because of Pearce’s terrific grasp of the material.

Needless to say – and without spoiling anything – the climactic sequence is a tour de force of characterization, acting and direction, with one of the most elegantly staged final showdowns of the year. Hillcoat doesn’t pull any punches, and assuming that he stuck close to the Bondurants’ true story, he did the moonshiners a great service in depicting them in the film.

8/10

d.a. garabedian

TIFF 2012 – Micro-Review: Stuart Blumberg’s THANKS FOR SHARING

thanks-for-sharing

Review originally posted at The Arts Scene, here.

Stuart Blumberg’s THANKS FOR SHARING is an exercise in structured, rigid quality. That’s not a bad thing, per se, but it robs the film of striving to be anything better than the admittedly-great movie that it already is. Writer/director Blumberg – best known for his screenplay on the Oscar-nominated THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT – turns in his debut offering as a director here, but never strives to take the film out of safe waters, to its detriment.

But let’s not pull any punches here – this is a very strong film, especially for a first time director. The movie clearly comes from a strong, capable hand: somebody who has a deep understanding of these characters and their motivations. There’s little in the way of experimentation or directorial depth, but that’s to be expected; Blumberg is just finding his voice as the man behind the camera (not just the man behind the page), so it’s completely understandable that the majority of his output on his directorial debut comes largely from the screenplay.

And what a screenplay it is. It doesn’t reach particularly far in any one direction, nor does it try and achieve anything other than it promises, but the screenplay for THANKS FOR SHARING is one of those rare, contemporary offerings which might as well have been designed for teaching students how to construct a film. Everything is wonderfully tight, with absolutely no fat to it whatsoever. Characters’ motivations are clear, concise and compelling, and each scene drives the plot forward in a meaningful and deftly-handled way. There is appropriate seeding of future plot developments sprinkled throughout, so that nothing feels out of place or jarring. These are all marks of a master of the cinematic word, and Blumberg’s precision as a writer more than makes up for any first-time jitters at the idea of using visuals as a language separate from the words.

Along with the script is the truly excellent cast: Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins and Gwyneth Paltrow are all perfect in their roles, and the banter and chemistry between all three is mesmerizing, delicately balancing the line between strong, human drama and comedy. Meanwhile, relative newcomers Josh Gad, Patrick Fugit and, yes, even Pink all do an absolutely stellar job with the material that is given to them – which is, of course, extremely compelling. Ruffalo steals the show out from under all of them though, and his performance as the deeply on-edge, master-of-his-own-domain Adam goes to some fairly dark places which will keep the viewer guessing well into the final act of the film. There’s not a moment wasted between any of these characters, and the dynamics between them is what makes the movie everything that it is; Blumberg may have dreamed up these people, but this is one of those cases where the actors completely take over and occupy them down to the last detail.

Unfortunately, everything else about the film just feels like a lack of ambition. There is something to be said for the eloquently constructed and perfectly structured film, but that can only get you so far. There’s interesting, un-mined material here in the relatively unexplored topic of sexual addiction and the stigmas attached to it, but the film really does the bare minimum in exploring the deep-seeded nature of the disease. And though its exploration of the barriers it can create between the victim and any of his or her intimate relationships is a good start – be they friendly, romantic or familial – it would have been nice if Blumberg had been interested in diving further into the murky depths the disease can take you; as it stands, the film is a lot of talking about horrible things happening, and not a lot of seeing them.

Still, for what Blumberg was trying to accomplish, you’re not likely to get much better than this. THANKS FOR SHARING is an eloquent, deftly constructed film which proves that Blumberg is a force to be reckoned with behind the pen – and now, behind the camera, as well.

8/10

d.a. garabedian

TIFF 2012 – This is War: Bartholomew Cubbins’ ARTIFACT

The music industry is in a tricky place, and it has been for several years now. And no, that’s not all because of file-sharing (even though it sure does have a hell of a lot to do with it); there are a lot of intricate and complex political, economic and technological issues going on behind-the-scenes of all of your favorite bands. In fact, many of them probably make less money than you do; not just less, but significantly less. Most bands these days are in debt so deeply to the record labels that there is no hope of them ever getting out again.

Enter 30 Seconds to Mars, the band fronted by actor / director / musician / artist Jared Leto. Along with his brother Shannon and fellow band-mate Tomo Miličević, the three musicians collectively encompass an alternative rock group which has sold in excess of six million records worldwide after only releasing three albums. In today’s music climate, that’s not just a rare thing – it’s unheard of. It categorically places them amongst the pantheon of some of the most successful artists in rock music working today. And in spite of all of this success, the band is somehow still nearly $2 million in debt to their record label. They have never seen a dime of the estimated $60 million that their album sales alone have brought in.

This is Jared Leto’s (working under his popular, directorial pseudonym, Bart Cubbins) ARTIFACT, the artist’s feature-length debut as a director. The documentary may just be the most definitive film yet produced on the state of the contemporary rock ‘n’ roll scene: with interviewees that span from a who’s-who of former record label COOs, presidents and other businessman to contemporary superstars like Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington, System of a Down’s Serj Tankian and Incubus’ Brandon Boyd, the film uses the people who are actually involved in the business to give an unprecedented look into the increasing amount of corporate greed surrounding today’s music scene.

Where the film is most successful isn’t in its objectively systematic dissection of record label politics, but rather in its framework: ARTIFACT is not just an account of 30 Seconds to Mars’ struggle with record label EMI, it’s also an intimate look at how the creative process has become impeded by back-door politics and economic jargon that has little to nothing to do with musicians or what they are trying to do. Following in the wake of an apparent breach-of-contract with their record label – wherein the band attempted to terminate said contract – the trio of musicians found themselves unexpectedly being sued by their own record label – to the tune of $30 million. The film follows their simultaneous battle against the lawsuit and the recording of their third album, THIS IS WAR.

What Leto has to say about the record industry is things that many musicians have already been screaming for years: that it’s corrupt, that there is incessant level of greed dominating everything and that it’s led by self-serving business types who have little knowledge of the actual industry and care more about themselves than about the company or their employees. Leto’s animations and narrations explaining the true economics of rock music may be surprising to some, but it’s becoming increasingly common knowledge in a world of independent superstars and crowd-source-funded albums that the contracts between record labels and their artists is borderline criminal, a hodgepodge of legal hokum from which artists become trapped, with no hope of actually generating sustainable income. It’s an important footnote on an industry whose primary function isn’t just generating capital and entertainment, but art.

But, again, Leto’s call-to-arms over the injustices of his industry would be quickly lost had they not had the framework of the THIS IS WAR sessions to drive home the juxtaposition of art and business. Taking as broad a canvas as possible, Leto interviews everybody he can get his hands on, all while simultaneously exploring the history of his band, the personal relationships between its members and how the horrors of the industry have begun to affect (both positively and negatively) the most important artistic output of his career. Peppered with lush, haunting instrumentals (all of which from the THIS IS WAR sessions; some a-sides and some not), ARTIFACT does a terrific job of driving home not only Leto’s personal struggles as an artist, but just how frustrating a business that exists in a medium of self-expression can really be.

As 30 Seconds to Mars dives headfirst into crafting an independently-funded album with the hope that their lawsuit will be settled in time for them to release it, Leto carefully constructs a narrative that never becomes overly preachy, nor overly sentimental; just as things become a little bit too heady, the director ensures that we take a quick left turn into the realm of the personal and intimate in order to balance it out.

Anybody who has been aware of “Cubbins'” directorial style through any of the alternative rock group’s music videos (which should really be called short films – they range from five to 13 minutes in length, and have been shot in world record-setting locations as diverse as the Republic of China and north of the Arctic Circle) should know by now that the actor has picked up a few flourishes from the incredibly high caliber of directors that he has worked with and become friends with over the years: there are often dark, noir-esque nods to David Fincher in his works, not to mention the surrealist (and the more contemporary, brutally realist) styling of Darren Aronofsky. On ARTIFACT, Leto is less reliant on his acquainted influences and merely shoots the film in subdued, simplistic fashion. Which is, of course, not necessarily a bad thing for a documentary.

ARTIFACT is an interesting film for several reasons, most notably because it brings Leto’s wonderful eye for compositions and direction into the realm of features for the first time. What the film truly is, however, is a celebration of everything music-related, and a fascinating peek inside of an industry that has become infamously idealized – one where outdated models, expectations and relationships have given a new generation a violently skewed perspective on how it operates. If music lovers – fans, creatives and the corporates – all got to take a look at this film, we might be on our way to figuring out how to make this industry sustainable again.

8.5/10

d.a. garabedian

TIFF 2012 – Seeing What You Want to See: Rodney Ascher’s ROOM 237

Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING is, simply put, one of the finest horror films ever made. Its wonderfully surrealistic aesthetic and narrative lends a certain dream-like quality to the whole affair that leaves large portions of the film completely up to interpretation. That’s the way Kubrick wanted it: THE SHINING is like a puzzle with no borders and, well, no real picture to speak of.

But I don’t think Kubrick would have ever expected the way audiences have begun to force those puzzle pieces together. And if you’ll excuse my unnecessary dedication to this analogy for another sentence or two: just because you can jam two pieces together, doesn’t mean they actually fit. If anything, you’re just bending them to the point where they might not actually fit in the places they were originally supposed to.

There. I got it out of my system.

Rodney Ascher’s ROOM 237 is a baffling documentary, firstly because of the fact that I’m not even certain that I want to call it a documentary (neither does the filmmaker himself, according to his Q&A after the world premiere last night); it’s really more of a 104-minute lecture on conspiracy theories with very few cinematic qualities to speak of. This isn’t necessarily a knock against the film, as it was an artistic choice; one made by necessity, perhaps, but one that was made nonetheless. Interviewees exist entirely within the confines of the audio, floating like ghostly specters over scene after scene of found footage.

Because, curiously, ROOM 237 is made up mostly (possibly entirely) of existing footage, large portions of which come from both the Kubrick film in question as well as several of his other works. In this way, Ascher has essentially created a remediated work, something not wholly dissimilar from what you’d find on YouTube: fans narrating over existing footage, informing you of their theories and ideas. Which is basically all ROOM 237 is: all tell, no show.

The film, divided into nine segments, essentially follows around a half dozen conspiracy theorists as they wax philosophical on their increasingly bizarre interpretations of Kubrick’s masterpiece. Some are vaguely compelling – like the relationship between the film and the Native American genocide – while most are just absolutely, utterly insane, the wild meanderings of fans who have over-analyzed Kubrick’s film into oblivion; one reference to the Holocaust leads into another until suddenly we’re talking about Stanley Kubrick being the man who filmed the faked Moon landing, and that THE SHINING is a government-covered-up allegory for his experience with the deception.

What’s unfortunate is how much material there is to be mined out of the concept, and how little actually winds up on screen. In spite of the fact that Ascher makes clever juxtapositions between the found-footage on screen and what is being said by the interviewees – sometimes with a hint of judgment, most times not – he never actually delves into this obsessive-compulsive behavior and absurdly detailed analysis. That’s where the story is, but Ascher seems completely disinterested in telling it; he’s more concerned with dictating these theories to his audience, which is strange, unless he really just wants to get the word out about what happens when you play the film backwards and forwards at the same time.

The film is funny (often at the expense of the interviewees), but more in a “what am I watching?” kind of way, rather than in a genuine “this is awesome!” kind of way. And that’s really the extent of what can be said about this film: it’s a film for people who want to be preached to for the better part of two hours about theories that they will likely find absurd and dismiss completely. Any notions about the extremes of people’s willingness to create meaning out of an intentionally presented vacuum are ignored, and that’s really the only thing that could be spoken about. ROOM 237 is the equivalent of reading conspiracy theories on the internet for a couple of hours, and nothing more.

5/10

d.a. garabedian

TIFF 2012 – Micro-Review: Ben Timlett, Bill Jonesa and Jeff Simpson’s A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY: THE UNTRUE STORY OF MONTY PYTHON’S GRAHAM CHAPMAN

A Liar's Autobiography -- The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman - TIFF 2012

Review originally posted at The Arts Scene, here.

A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY: THE UNTRUE STORY OF MONTY PYTHON’S GRAHAM CHAPMAN is many things, but it’s most certainly not predictable. Though the entire film plays out more or less like an extended version of one of the animated interludes from any of the comedy troupe’s feature films (recalling the sequences from THE HOLY GRAIL, most notably), there is no denying that this is a bizarre kaleidoscope of a film, completely disjointed and lacking in cohesiveness (intentionally so).

Yet, there’s something strangely endearing about it. Co-directed by Bill Jones, Ben Timlett and Jeff Simpson and presented in 3D – because, why not? – A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAHY takes the recordings of the titular Python reading his “biography” aloud shortly before his death in the late-1980s, then edits them into the film as narration and the main driving force of the story. Though not directly involved in the creative process of the film, nearly all of the remaining members of the troupe have contributed voice-work or some other element to the film.

So why isn’t the film funnier? Monty Python is one of the greatest comedy troupes to have ever graced the screen – big or small – but A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY is light on the laughs. Sure, there are plenty of chuckles to be had here and there throughout the film – namely because of Chapman’s pointed humor, which crackles throughout – but for the most part, there is a noticeable lack of spiritual channeling of the classic Python humor that one hopes to get from the film. The directors give it their all in making the film reverently faithful to that spirit, but most of the laughs come from things which are out of their hands – like Chapman’s 25-year-old narration.

Still, there’s a lot to like in A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY. The varied animation styles (there are something like 17 different aesthetic forms, and they weave in and out of one another with absolutely no warning) are quite striking, and many of them are downright beautiful. The 3D is entirely serviceable, even though it’s obviously used only for gimmicky and comedic purposes. Chapman’s narration is both funny and heartfelt, not to mention incredibly intelligent; his references to Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams (the doctor is voiced in one scene by Cameron Diaz because, again, why not?) provide a context that seems missing from the first act of the film, and the bizarre imagery suddenly starts to coalesce into  a symbolic goldmine. It’s unexpected to say that a film like this may just demand a second viewing, but that may be the case here – there are simply too many visual motifs and symbolic references peppered throughout the film to get them all on a single try.

And Chapman’s story – buried under abstract metaphor or just plain old fabrication – is a sincere and moving exploration of a man coming to terms with his sexuality, his vices and his fame. It’s a highlight in a film that tends to be lacking in the belly-laughs department: a refreshingly dramatic tale of complex emotions, hidden behind a thin veil of absurdist humor and abstract imagery. The comedian’s perfectly twisted take on his own failure to come to grips with his homosexuality (or bisexuality? The film doesn’t make it clear – or, rather, it makes it intentionally ambiguous) is touching, and it helps keep the plot from meandering its way into irrelevance.

It’s clear from the get-go that Jones, Timlett and Simpson are all gigantic fans of Monty Python’s canon, and they do their very best to capture the essence of what made the absurdist troupe great. Unfortunately, A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY: THE UNTRUE STORY OF MONTY PYTHON’S GRAHAM CHAPMAN is ultimately a mixed bag: at its best a unique and creative Freudian interpretation of Chapman’s troubled life and at its worst a colossal missed opportunity.

6/10

d.a. garabedian

TIFF 2012 – Hypnotized and Transported to Another Dimension: Harmony Korine’s SPRING BREAKERS

I admit that I was thoroughly unprepared for SPRING BREAKERS. What at first glance promised to be trashy entertainment in the vein of latter-day exploitation films (lent an extra dimension of viciousness by its casting of pop-culture princesses Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez), instead offers a grim, at-times unsettling fever-dream of disconnected reality. In spite of the pedigree of Harmony Korine, it wasn’t until the moment the title cards landed on the screen that I was sure that SPRING BREAKERS wasn’t quite what I’d signed up for.

And that’s not a bad thing, either. Korine has crafted a film that is easily one of the most bizarre and compelling of the year, and it’s difficult to sift through what, if anything, the film is trying to accomplish. It’s clear from the get-go that it’s a feverish nightmare, a sick and perverted take on the American Dream that finds a way to make beautiful young people partying at the beach seem sinister and horrifying. The moment the dub-step kicks in in the opening scene and the beat drops behind freakishly excessive students having the time of their lives [note: the score is partially composed by one Sonny Moore (a.k.a. Skrillex), and it’s unlikely that will be a better pairing of musician to film this year], the hilariously dark tone of the film is set; a tone from which Korine never wavers.

Make no mistake: SPRING BREAKERS is a funny, funny movie; it’s just borderline-gallows humor. There’s something delightfully compelling about just how messed up what is happening on-screen is, despite the fact that Korine never allows the film to delve into visceral excess – something for which I am thankful for, as my uneasiness was palpable throughout in spite of the lack of violent gratuity. Had there been a more gratuitous exploration of that excess, I might not have been able to stomach it at all.

The film looks fantastic: the cinematography, the lighting and the editing all combine together to make a beautiful fantasy from which nothing can escape – least of all the characters. There’s a revelry to the entire affair that mirrors the state of mind of these psychologically disturbed young women, as Korine edits wildly around mesmerizing compositions: moments from the first act are further contextualized in the final one, and if it weren’t for the apparent linearity of the story, one might get the feeling that the film was being shown out of order. But the hallucinatory form of the film gives Korine free-reign to do whatever he pleases, and so he jumps around constantly, splicing in contextually relevant moments before their scenes have even appeared. And as malleable as the structure of the scenes are in the hands of the filmmaker, there’s never a sense of haphazardness.

Audio choices are atypical, as well. Music cues are repeated in varied arrangements, dialogue becomes a whispering, droning, repetitive sneer which loops back on itself over and over – first to progress the plot, then repeated ad nauseum until all sense of reality is lost, and the meaning behind the words twists and distorts until everything sounds like the Devil whispering in your ear.

The film isn’t perfect, however. There are a lot of issues that come out of the film in its second half, particularly because of the disjointed nature of the plot; much like in films such as FUNNY PEOPLE, SPRING BREAKERS is less typically structured under the three-act paradigm and more just split down the middle. In essence, Korine divides his film into two parts: pre-Franco and post-Franco.

In spite of the latter half’s issues (most of which stem from an unfocused thematic through-line and a generally meandering story), it is also home to the highlight of the entire film: James Franco. While all of the women in the film are suitably cast and all do a solid job, Franco steals the show out from everybody else on the production. Dressed to the nines in Sunshine State-gangster attire (complete with grills on his teeth, corn-rolled hair and tattooed from head to toe), Franco completely loses himself in the role and has more sinister fun than I’ve seen put on-screen in some time. His obviously improvised ramblings are the stuff of legend, and he is simultaneously hilarious, horrifying and pitiable. His power-drunk boasts, demanding that the girls “look at all his shit” (“shit” which includes nunchucks, a few bottles of Calvin Klein and a host of machine guns) are breathlessly entertaining, and the Britney Spears montage might be one of the darkest moments of comedy I’ve seen all year. Richard Kelly would be proud.

SPRING BREAKERS is unique, it’s interesting and it’s absolutely insane – all things that are refreshing to get out of a film that seemed at first like a cheap exploitation film that was taking advantage of the popularity of barely-legal pop-culture icons. Instead, we get a different kind of social commentary: one that says what we all expected it to say, but in a way that was far from expected. A hellish fever dream of surreal, dark comedy.

A nice change of pace, really.

8.5/10

d.a. garabedian