Quick Takes: 08.21.13 – 2013 Art-House Horror Edition

StokerStoker (Dir. Park Chan-wook)
Grade: A-

My first experience with Park Chan-wook’s divisive English-language debut was shortly after its release in March, before it seemed to drop off the radar with little word from anyone here at the site. The film certainly deserves to be brought back around to discussion, partially for the sake of our South Korean Wave marathon, but mostly because it’s still creeping under my skin five months later. The obvious influences of British suspense lore from Bram Stoker to Alfred Hitchcock has been well noted by nearly everyone, but this is far from an empty tribute and entirely in keeping with Chan-wook’s vividly sensuous style and focus on moral (and sexual) perversion. Incest is rarely less than a flicker away from his tongue, but here he feels contented slickly grazing the surface of such impulses rather than fully penetrating.

Mia Wasikowska stars as but one of the titular Stokers, a simple title that raises any number of tantalizing dissections of family roles and bloodlines. India is already something of an oddball at the start of the film, her Victorian style garments and piercing passivity making it as though she walked out of costume drama into an immature teen flick. Her life is thrown on its side, however, when her father’s death is shortly followed by the emergence of her mysterious Uncle Charlie, played by an impishly boyish Matthew Goode, his every word rolling off with either slithery charm or the occasional curdling heartbreak. There’s no mistaking the fact he’s a vampire evil up to no good odd, and that about face representation of many elements of Stoker could cause viewers to think it more than a little stagey in execution.

StokerWelcome to a Park Chan-wook film. It puzzles me how people feel this execution is in any way off course from his usual work, though it may be the frank clunkiness more inherent in the English language than Korean. It’s a different cultural environment, but one Chan-wook delights in sending up, as in the aforementioned high school diversions, or inflecting with more of the gothic influence the country was founded upon. There’s a feeling of going back to blood roots and figuring out what makes your metronome tick to that particular frequency. The design aspects brim with a bracing peculiarity, such as Chung Chung-hoon’s specter of a camera, floating deceptively through the chasmic rooms and mirrors of Therese DePrez’s sickly toned production design.

Bart Mueller and Kurt Swanson’s costumes, too, come to a point not only of character specificity but crucial necessity, the given and borrow apparel of each character coming to alter or inform their identity. Stoker wears all its odd, disturbing and delightful flourishes on its sleeve, so you certainly can’t accuse Park Chan-wook of taking any half measures. Yet none of these outspoken visual or character decisions are thrown in willy-nilly. Nicole Kidman’s work as India’s mother, for example, may seem less crucial than Wasikowska’s and Goode’s work, but provides a crucial symbolic lynchpin of the film. Evelyn seems like she’s got her share of natty secrets up her skirt, but the real genius is in pulling her down to her natural human frailty, as an empty vessel desperate to fill herself with whatever love she can find, even of a sickening nature. I can empathize, since Stoker had me aroused in its twisted passion from start to… well, it’s still not crawled down my skirt yet, has it.

Berberian Sound StudioBerberian Sound Studio (Dir. Peter Strickland)
Grade: A-

I’ve struggled to put words on Berberian Sound Studio, a film so easy to describe referentially, but whose ideological imprints fragment the deeper you get into it. It’s initially about a British sound designer, played by a never more attuned Toby Jones, who is brought to work on a unexpectedly gruesome Italian horror film, and it admittedly never stops being that. As a matter of fact, the film becomes even more consuming of Gilderoy, a lonely peckish type who’s clearly more at home with quainter films than The Equestrian Vortex, the loud, presumably violent unseen feature he’s working on. His days go in and out listening to and creating the sounds of bloodcurdling screams, eerie Latin whispers, and the gratuitous hacking of numerous fruits and vegetables. It’s an engrossing auditory experience, but there’s something just as unsettling as seeing these sounds often associated with murder juxtaposed against fruits and the aghast facial expressions of the woman vocalists.

Cosimo Fusco and Antonio Mancino are on hand to admonish Gilderoy for his shy and disturbed behavior as Francesco and Santini, the latter being the director, who takes notable offense to Gilderoy’s assertion of his film as horror. “This is a Santini film,” he states with the kind of self-indulgence that benignly dismisses any workplace complaints as necessary for “the art”. There’s certainly a comic nature to how Gilderoy flails meekly about the job, but always with a backdrop of approaching insanity. Gilderoy ends up bonding with a similarly tormented vocalist played by Tonia Sotiropoulou, the two of which form a slight affection that’s ultimately stalled by the paranoid passages the sound studio induces. Gilderoy’s home and work life bleed sharply into one another, leaving no peace between the intense work he’s subjected to day-in-day-out and the darkly foreboding letters he receives regularly from his mother.

It’s only when the film jarringly, and of course literally, folds in on itself and Gilderoy that Berberian Sound Studio takes on a less explicable, more intensely disquieting effect. Italian speaking audiences may grasp the third act shift more easily than audiences, as director Peter Strickland offers no subtitles to bridge the gap between us and the local Italians. By then any narrative sense is thrown out the window as beside the point, making Gilderoy’s experiences and decisions more anguishing because of our inability to truly catch up with how far he’s fallen down the rabbit hole. By the end you too may be just as trapped in the film’s hypnotic spell as him.

Magic MagicMagic Magic (Dir. Sebastian Silva)
Grade: B+

When I heard that Chilean director Sebastian Silva had not one, but two films at Sundance starring Michael Cera, I immediately felt that one of them would fall by the wayside. While I haven’t yet come around to Crystal Fairy, Justin found it to be “charmingly low-key” in his review. Word is that film was improvised while they were still waiting to make Magic Magic, which is similarly low-key, but I’d be remiss in calling it charming. Juno Temple takes lead as Alicia, as naive and meek as Toby Jones is Berberian Sound Studio, but with a shyness rooted more guilelessly in a sense of inexperience. Traveling to a Chilean island with her cousin Sarah, played by Emily Browning, she becomes immediately and increasingly taken aback by the cruel behavior and crude humor of Sarah’s friends Augustin, Barbara and Brink, played by Augustin Silva, Catalina Sandino Moreno and an impossibly impish Michael Cera, respectively.

If you’ve seen the trailer or DVD art, you’re not being well served as to exactly how chilling this film is. Its straight-to-DVD nature might as well be a too-cool-for-school certificate, its darkly mesmerizing imagery and psycho-thriller trappings making it a tough sell. Don’t mind that, though, as Alicia slowly unraveling mental state is given heartbreaking context by how emotionally abandoned she is over the course of her holiday, particularly after Sarah is whisked away to the mainland for reasons that become obvious to us, but that set up yet another wall for Alicia to crash against. With Alicia becoming more abused as time goes on, perspective slowly shifts to the group, whose own collective paranoia threatens to leave Alicia in an even less opportune condition as their attempts to help her take several crazy twists and turns along the way. These detours may draw us closer into camp, but what’s a psychological thriller without Juno Temple doing a hypnotized stripper dance for Michael Cera?

SightseersSightseers (Dir. Ben Wheatley)
Grade: B

This weekend summer ends on a note of Brit humour with The World’s End. It’s a delight whenever we get a film from Edgar Wright, who’s slowly establishing himself as one of the most creative filmmakers working the mainstream vein. However if you’re looking for similar British humour with a darker edge to it, Ben Wheatley is definitely your man! Last year’s Kill List certainly had its share of dry-as-death laughs, but Sightseers feels more like a comedy crossing over into darker territory. It certainly makes for his most completely entertaining film yet, the murderous spree that a couple on vacation takes up in coming on with a devilish smile and a twinkle in their eyes.

Wheatley still grounds it in a sense of spectatorly beauty, thanks to Laurie Rose’s almost epically stunning cinematography, as well as some nicely placed human trepidation, Alice Lowe’s every action from beginning to end teetering on the edge of something truly romantic. That is before she leans away from it in shocking suspension. Indeed Sightseers may have this year’s most tensely timed final shot. It’s a somewhat routine exercise of Wheatley’s growing dramatic and textural skills, but few filmmakers nowadays can get away with their exercises becoming living, breathing cinema.

Post Tenebras LuxPost Tenebras Lux (Dir. Carlos Reygadas)
Grade: C-

If you caught this referenced in my Woody Allen list, you were hopelessly confused. Admittedly I always turn back to Post Tenebras Lux when something hopelessly confuses me, not because the film has no bottom. When the devil comes into your house with a toolbox and his dick swinging – yes, there was another movie besides This Is the End to do that this summer – you know you’ve done something wrong. It’s easier to describe the experience of the film than it is to dissect the details of its plot, which is a good sign that you won’t be forgetting it anytime soon. From the aforementioned cartoon devil to the film’s viscerally and logically shocking ending, Reygadas is indulging in the same “no half measures” way of filmmaking as Park Chan-wook, though indulging is the key word.

I nonetheless find myself detached from its characters, whose moralities, intentions and desires are just as blurred as the film’s increasingly baseless bleary-eyed cinematography. It goes from the film’s extraordinarily gorgeous first scene, of a girl walking through a field of cows as thunder clouds roll in from the horizon, to eventually the point of senseless gimmickry. The choice and use of shooting in the Academy ratio is inspired; the intentional ripples on the edges, less so. Reygadas follows these impulses beyond the point of reason and make the few inspirationally bold moments feel somewhat sparse. Mind you, I’ll almost certainly revisit it and it’s a film I’d recommend seeking out. Maybe you’ll find more lyricism in its repetition than I did.

Fruitvale StationFruitvale Station (Dir. Ryan Coogler)
Grade: C-

Oh, how I want to be on Hilary Kissinger’s side. Her review of Fruitvale Station was so positive, even reigniting my interest in seeing a film I’d become less so over time. The idea of a slice-of-life narrative about Oscar Grant’s last days could be fascinatingly provocative in how the smallest details, and indeed it’s those moments I enjoyed the most out of Ryan Coogler’s film. Oscar’s earlier interactions with his mother, played by Octavia Spencer, build a strong family bond that goes a long way towards endearing us to his life. It’s a shame that those moments are too few in Fruitvale Station, a film that exists as a constant reminder that this man is going to die. It doesn’t matter that camera-phone evidence of such opens the film, because at every turn there’s a kindhearted character interaction to remind us of this fact.

Not that I want the film to exist in ignorance of his death. The fact that his death is coming does offer an important tension, but reminding us of that with the impending agony of his loved ones giving him advice that will eventually lead to that demise feels simply manipulative. It’s also a shame that, in spite Michael B. Jordan’s undeniable abilities and a dramatic performer, we’re never provided a real human being. We’re instead shown somebody whose actions and attitude are as simple and saintlike as the picture of the real Oscar Grant that ends the film. It feels as though we’re being hidden the darker aspects of his character, as though we can’t handle them or because they’d make people think he deserved what happened to him. So much about this film, even the dreadless scene of the incident, just feels like it’s avoiding reality. We get a world of black and white, rather than one fleshed out with all the social reasons a tragedy like this happened in the first place.

What movies have you watched recently? Comment below!

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  • I didn’t like Stoker very much. In all its visual splendor and over the top gimmickry of forced metaphors … it went nowhere for me. The screenplay was quite poorly written, not much to really support director’s vision here.

    Never seen a Wheatley film. Not interested in Post Tenebras Lux or Magic Magic. Barberian Sound Studio sounds interesting. And the points that you raised regarding Fruitvale Station is exactly what most of the critics have been talking about, so looking forward to see what i think about that.

    As for me, i watched the following films this week:

    – Iron Man 3 (B-)
    – Star Trek Into Darkness (B+)
    – Alphaville (A-)
    – Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana (B+)
    – Drifting Clouds (A)

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