Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Bleeding Heart Show

From the album Twin Cinema, it’s “The Bleeding Heart Show,” by the band The New Pornographers. I love this song. They never filmed a music video as far as I know, but these kids did:

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NO — 5/10

NO (2013, Pablo Larrain): 5/10

It’s pretty difficult for me to say what I want to say about this movie without “spoilers,” so if you consider me repeating historical fact from 25 years ago spoiling anything (litmus test: did you want to know prior to seeing ARGO if the Americans got out of Iran alive?) then stop reading now.

Being the isolationist xenophobe I apparently am, I knew very little about Augusto Pinochet going into this. I knew he was a Chilean dictator and was most likely a huge asshole. I did not know that in 1988 there was this major campaign to get him out of office — not by voting in another candidate, but by simply saying “YES (give him 8 more years)” or “NO (get him out now, and we’ll figure out who will replace him later)” in a nationwide election.

Pablo Larrain’s NO is sort of a mockumentary about the TV ad campaign by the freedom fighters hoping to end Pinochet’s reign of terror. And it could have simply been a rah-rah good-guys-win formula picture where the heroes, against all odds, win the election and live happily ever after. But what I like about Larrain’s vision is summarized in the final shot (a nice little companion to ZERO DARK THIRTY, now that I think of it), where our hero (Rene Saavedra, the Don Draper hired to produce the TV ads for NO, and played by Mexican movie star Gael Garcia Bernal) has this look on his face like “Jesus, what did I do all that for — things are just as bad if not worse. What’s changed? Nothing. The future of Chile is vapid and pointless, and the freedom I so desperately fought for (and my wife got arrested for, and almost tore apart my family) is shallow and results in a bunch of shit like The Bachelor.”

Okay, so with that praise out of the way, time to get to the bad stuff. First of all, one can’t address this film without discussing the visuals. It looks like a pair of pantyhose was smeared with vaseline and stretched over the lens. Larrain has perfectly captured the look of 1988 TV cameras, so that what we see seamlessly cuts together with the real-life TV ads from 1988, but I found this choice immensely distracting. There are other ways to re-create the period — kudos to the costume department for having amazingly hideous ’80s fashion, and even giving Garcia a rat tail — without resorting to dusting off a crappy old video camera. In addition to the video stock (and the boxy 1.33: aspect ratio), the mockumentary style merely gives us handheld shots roving around the sets and offices and following Garcia around over the shoulder, basically saying who-cares to anything resembling framing, composition, or mise-en-scene. I’m not saying every film needs Emmanuel Lubezki behind the camera, but this directorial approach created a tsunami of ugliness that did not work for me.

Secondly, the narrative really sags in the second half. Once we get the idea (which is fine, and the ads are funny), it becomes a repetitive slog through the campaign, complete with requisite scenes of rebels throwing rocks in the street, things on fire, hoses spraying unruly citizens, and police in riot gear. Luckily, the cynical, downbeat ending (Garcia doesn’t even smile once from the time the winning verdict comes in through the end of the film) rescues it a bit. Plus, it’s hard to be too down on a film that resurrects old footage of Richard Dreyfuss, Jane Fonda, and Christopher Reeve stumping for the Chileans.

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Spring Breakers — 8/10

SPRING BREAKERS (2013, Harmony Korine): 8/10

Come for the bikinis, stay for the pretentious art film.

But seriously, remember in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE when Alex’s Ludovico treatment associates Beethoven with mass murder to the point where he’s disgusted by something he once considered beautiful? When the sight of a gorgeous naked woman makes him gag with nausea? SPRING BREAKERS is Harmony Korine giving us the Ludovico treatment. He starts off with a montage of superficial hedonism — hot, young, nubile bodies in motion, drenched in alcohol, boys and girls screaming and partying and doing drugs and flashing tits and making out. This is the part the perverts who saw the trailer and posters came to see.

Korine then spends the next 90 minutes upending our image of sexy young women until it’s nothing but pure immorality: tasteless, violent, dark, vengeful, nihilistic, and self-absorbed. The final shot is literally turned upside down. By this point, the sight of a swishing ass in a yellow bikini isn’t so cute anymore. This is, perhaps, unsubtle and heavy-handed messagizing. And there’s a vague hypocrisy surrounding Korine’s leering, drooling camera — yes, his lusty gaze is the point (irony) but does that excuse the exploitation? I’m not sure.

But what’s clear to me is how well the delivery system of this suspect message works. The film is overstylized in neon pinks and greens, its camera drunk with motion and focus, and the editing shows hints of a Terrence Malick influence when it slaps the voiceover of an innocent Southern girl (Selena Gomez, interestingly subverting her image as a teen pop star) over Korine’s version of a nature documentary; it’s just that this part of nature is drugs, guns, and money. The music is hypnotic. And in one delirious sequence (an early contender for best scene of the year), Britney Spears’s “Everytime” provides the soundtrack for some serious gangster shit.

At the center of this moral cesspool is James Franco, giving possibly the best performance of his career. Treating the film as every bit the comedy it is, his Alien the gangster is the kind of thug Franco’s PINEAPPLE EXPRESS stoner would run screaming from. With a toothy grin bearing a metallic grill, a corn-rows mullet, tattoos, and baggy shorts, Franco savors every line of dialogue he gets and nails the sheer ridiculousness of this thing. His now-famous “Look at my shit” monologue is everything it’s cracked up to be and more.

SPRING BREAKERS doesn’t waste much time associating the barrel of a gun with fellatio (though it begins with a squirt gun firing a money shot of water into a girls mouth, and later involves a real Glock in the mouth of a gangster), and this constant parallel between sex and violence almost makes Korine out to be some kind of Puritan. But when today’s teens’ idea of fun is cocaine, blackout drinking, and date rape in north Florida, it’s hard to blame Korine for wanting to blow it all to smithereens.

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Before Sunrise & Before Sunset

BEFORE MIDNIGHT is coming out at the end of May, 2013, and in advance of that release I’m re-watching the first two films in Linklater’s trilogy. I’d seen BEFORE SUNRISE at least half a dozen times since its 1995 release, but BEFORE SUNSET only once – during its theatrical run in 2004. Here are the results of this rediscovery of the series…

BEFORE SUNRISE (1995, Richard Linklater): 10/10

It’s May, 2001. I’m 26 years old and living a shambling lifestyle in Los Angeles: a struggling screenwriter, professional script reader, film & music journalist, and overall a typical 21st century twenty-something. I’d had my heart broken by my first and most powerful love a year prior, and was still single and smarting. My dear friend A.J. and I decide to take a trip to Europe. Two dudes, two backpacks, a few dollars, and a vague itinerary. We hit Prague first, then an unplanned detour to Český Krumlov, then Vienna, then finally Budapest. It’s our last night in Europe before we must catch a 7am flight to Paris, connecting to L.A.

Late afternoon, we pop into a Budapest hostel for a beer. The only other person there is a gorgeous young woman named Niina drinking alone. We ask her what we should do for the evening. She suggests a dance club, and invites us along. I come to find out she’s from Finland (but speaks perfect English, of course), and is traveling alone on a trip she was supposed to take with her boyfriend — but they broke up just before the trip, and she decided to make the journey on her own anyway. A.J. and I join her at the club and while A.J. is dancing and meeting many Hungarian students celebrating the last day of class that night, I spend the entire time at a booth with Niina talking and talking and talking. When we leave, A.J. returns to our rented apartment and I walk the streets of Budapest with Niina. We share our hopes and dreams, tell jokes, explore the city, and night turns into early morning. The sun rises early in Hungary in May — it’s about 4:30am when dawn light cracks through the sky. We end up at the edge of a bridge over the Danube, linking Buda and Pest, the old town and the new town. Large stone lions greet travelers at the bridge. I move in for the most romantic kiss of my life to date.

Eventually I need to get back and pack for the airport. Niina and I come up for air long enough to take a taxi back to her hostel, and as I drop her off, I realize this night has been a real-life recreation of BEFORE SUNRISE in many ways. My memory of that film is quite strong, as I had seen it three or four times in the six years since its 1995 release. I remember Jesse telling Celine they shouldn’t write each other – that they should say goodbye for good, right there. I can’t bring myself to repeat that dialogue, and end up giving in and exchanging emails with Niina. Alas, just as Jesse and Celine say in the film — it’s depressing. You end up exchanging one or two emails and calls, then it disappears.

I tell this story not to say that I’m unique for living this film, but to point out just how universal the story is. Whether the details are as specifically coincidental between the Jesse/Celine story and mine or not, most of us have those moments in life where we experience the beginning of love, the possibilities it brings, the fears it uproots, and the overwhelming power it has over our memories. And in cases like these, perhaps it’s the finite time limit that makes it so heartbreaking. BEFORE SUNRISE is cinema’s greatest existential love story — because it can only exist in the present. These two people have just one night together, and that constraint forces them to savor every moment they have.

And oh, what moments. SUNRISE works on so many levels, not just the grand-scheme philosophical premise of it. It’s the little details. Celine first meets Jesse because she’s escaping the noxious sounds of an elderly married couple arguing. He’s reading Klaus Kinski’s autobiography “All I Need Is Love.” They’re in a record store listening booth, forced against each other’s shoulders by the tiny confines of the space and Linklater’s intimately voyeuristic camera. The closer they get, the more charged the romantic tension. Later in the film, after they’ve had their first kiss, their first fight, and many laughs, they’re in a quiet alley talking about broad themes (oh how the young love to explore life’s big questions) and Celine talks about how love, God, and magic is what exists in the space between people — it’s in how we try to connect to another person and share ourselves with them. It’s a difficult, maybe impossible task, but she says the meaning is in the attempt. As that line sits and digests, Jesse looks at her with such glowing love. He’s a cynic (many of their arguments and anecdotes reveal his innate cynicism about people, while hers reveals an idealistic optimism) but admires her positivity so much. After we register the new depths of his feelings for her, Linklater jumps out to a wide shot and we see this empty, yellow-lit alley, a passage that can go forward or backward, but these two people are stationary for the moment, right in the middle. And they’re the only two people there.

BEFORE SUNRISE is relentlessly cinematic despite being a two-handed dialogue-driven story taking place in less than 24 hours. Here is a film where two people literally in constant motion (on a train) meet, and decide to stop moving for the night (get off the train). They freeze time in Austria (neutral ground, a strange land for them both) before he has to return to the U.S. and she to France. Vienna becomes a third character in the film (and sorry, I hate that cliche when critics talk about locations being characters, but what else can I do here) but not in an intrusive or forced way. Its street bums (like the poet whose words sum up this bizarre relationship [“Don’t you know me by now?”]), its palm readers, actors, bartenders… they are specific and charming. At one point Jesse tells Celine, in one of his trademark cynical world views, that he thinks people drink and do drugs and get depressed because they’re sick of themselves — “I’ve never traveled anywhere I haven’t been.” But here, Linklater gives us a chance to do something without ourselves: we live this romance that doesn’t involve us, it’s about these two people. And we believe every second of it.

Let’s not ignore just how terrific Hawke and Delpy are. Hawke nails the grunge-era twenty-something slacker, with his beat up black leather jacket, grey t-shirt, blue jeans, and black Chucks. His goatee is grad-school comedy, his hair a month past needing a cut. He does sarcastic fist pumps when he gets his way, and drops all charade when he feels that passion for Celine. Delpy is every bit Hawke’s match — silky golden hair that ends up in braids, a hippie long skirt with a flannel tied around her waist, artsy and comfortable, like she is in her skin. She looks at Jesse in so many different ways, all perfect — when he’s first telling the story about the garden hose and the ghost, you can see her starting to fall for him. When she finds him silly and immature in his philosophies, but charming nonetheless, she furrows her brow at this endearing boy. But when she hugs him, you can sense she can’t let him go, like the fragile girl she is at heart — open to everything and vulnerable because of it.

My all-time favorite films tend to be aggressive, visceral experiences marked by an abundance of style and unforgettable imagery (e.g. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, THE CONFORMIST, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, DO THE RIGHT THING, FUNNY GAMES, etc.).  But after all these viewings, BEFORE SUNRISE has joined that group with a different kind of power — it gets into my bloodstream straight to my heart. Whether it’s the 18 years I’ve had to digest it, the distance from which to contemplate it, or the experiences I’ve had to identify with it, its brilliance has become undeniable. Few films in history, at least of the thousands that I have seen, have been able to explore and communicate so rapturously not just what it feels like to fall in love, but to investigate what it means to be alive — to be young, to wonder, and to leap into the unknown.

BEFORE SUNSET (2004, Richard Linklater): 8/10

It’s not as jarring as you’d think to watch this film straight back-to-back with SUNRISE. In a flash we’ve jumped forward 9 years, and Jesse is a published author working a tour at a bookstore in France when he sees Celine for the first time since that morning in Vienna. There’s something pure to the fact that Linklater has not shown us a single moment of their time together without us watching. We learn that Jesse returned six months later to Vienna, but her grandmother’s death prevented Celine from meeting him there. And without any info on each other, they were doomed to be lost.

Jesse does explain at the beginning, when speaking to bookstore customers about his autobiographical novel documenting that night with Celine, that if you found out whether or not they actually met up six months later, it would take the piss out of the whole thing. Then five minutes later, Linklater tells us whether they actually met up or not. I’m not sure winking at the unnecessary existence of this film makes it better, but regardless — it’s great to see these two characters again. It’s only later in the film when they confess that they were just being young and stupid when they decided not to exchange information — sort of accusing those of us who didn’t want a sequel of the same. Why not keep in touch? Why not see what happens?

The two one-night lovers fall a bit too quickly back into their pattern of philosophizing about life, within virtual seconds of meeting again. Celine has become a nonstop chatterbox, and a little embittered by life. Her change is an honest one — this is what happens to idealists when they turn 30. Jesse, for his part, remains a cynic but one who has yet to let go of the romantic side of him. I believe him that he wrote the book in order to find her. My problem with their interactions here is not the truth of the situation (it’s every bit as honest and realistic, if not more so, than the first chapter), but the content of the conversation. While these discussions do capture an identifiable characteristic of being in your early 30s, reflecting on your irony-free youth and showing signs of discontent adulthood, they’re not all that gripping. What they say isn’t as funny or charming, and there aren’t as many lines that hit home. I don’t know who to blame for this. I can start with myself, of course, but perhaps it’s the screenplay. SUNRISE was co-written by Linklater (who evidently had an experience much like I did and based Jesse on himself) and Kim Krizan, who reportedly had a brief affair with a Canadian man and lent her experiences to the script as well. But SUNSET is credited to Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy. I’m guessing a lot of the conversation this time around was improvised or pre-written by the actors themselves, and for some reason it feels a little dulled. And they never take a breath. Delpy is talking nonstop, mostly with Jesse watching, smiling, and failing to interrupt. Those beautiful moments in SUNRISE when their silence spoke volumes — those are gone. The rhythms of that night in Vienna have been replaced by an 80-minute one-note barrage of dialogue.

SUNSET is 20 minutes shorter than SUNRISE, but it feels like half the size of it. There are just a handful of locations in this Paris-set sequel: the bookstore for a few minutes, a cafe, a garden path, a tourist boat, a car, and Celine’s apartment. That’s it. Paris isn’t looming over this story like Vienna loomed over SUNRISE. Perhaps that’s by design — when you’re young, the world is huge and it matters a great deal; when you get older, it’s more about whom you’re with than where you are. Or it could be budgetary. Whatever the reason, the film just feels tight and small. Even Linklater’s compositions are rigid and contained; lots of medium two-shots and closeups; very few wide scenics. And the artistry of SUNRISE — the powerful cuts, fluid camera moves, and scene setting vistas — has vanished. (Nothing in SUNSET matches the power of that push in towards Celine when Jesse returns to the lounge car to ask her to get off the train; or the cut out to the empty alley mentioned above; or the listening booth shot).

All that said, I’m dwelling on the negatives strictly to explain why I think SUNRISE is a much better film. That doesn’t mean I dislike SUNSET at all. I think it’s smart, poignant, and the argument in the car — when Celine erupts in agony over her wasted romanticism, and Jesse in return confesses his aching dreams about being with her, it’s impossible not to cry — is fantastic. The ending is a gorgeous one, not just the final shot of Celine seductively dancing, but the entire apartment scene including her swoon-worthy waltz that she wrote about Jesse. I’ve grown up with these characters just a few years behind them, and I do feel like Linklater gets it. I’m excited to see BEFORE MIDNIGHT and the probable end to this series, but I go into it unsure the lightning he captured in the 1995 bottle will ever be matched. SUNRISE is 100 minutes of perfection, so raw and bewitching that even great sequels appear mortal by comparison.

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Oz the Great and Powerful — 7/10

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (2013, Sam Raimi): 7/10

In 1986, a group of fundamentalist Christians in Tennessee filed a lawsuit in an attempt to get The Wizard of Oz banned from classrooms. Their claim: the book promotes the idea that witches can be benevolent, and that “integral human attributes are individually developed rather than God given.” Well, they’re exactly right — that’s what the book does (and the film adaptation, etc.), and it’s all the better for it.

Sam Raimi’s new film, a prequel of sorts to Baum’s text, is first and foremost a Disney thrill ride for kids, full of wondrous 3D imagery and bright colors and loud noises to keep people entertained and distracted for two hours, briefly forgetting the pointless dead-end lives smothered by mediocrity and failure they’ll resume on their way to the parking lot. But so much of it also drills in this idea of the folly of believing in the outlandish possibility of he-who-cures-all deities.

The people of Oz are expecting the fulfillment of a Prophecy, which states a powerful wizard will arrive in their land to wipe away evil and free their citizens. James Franco’s circus charlatan Oscar, whisked away from Kansas in a tornado, does come to Oz and claims to be that wizard, but the only good will come when he stops pretending to be God and starts using his individual skills to win. And the people, for their part, just have to have faith in humanity — and in their own qualities — to get the job done. Glinda the good witch, played by the reliably adorable Michelle Williams, even gets to deliver some speeches about how the existence of a true “wizard” isn’t important: as long as you pull enough tricks to give the people confidence.

But something struck me throughout this film, especially in the third act. The plot that screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire have concocted is freakishly similar to John Landis’s campy ’80s comedy THREE AMIGOS! Early 20th century showbiz charlatans? Check. Brought to foreign land and asked to destroy evil? Check. Revealed to be cowardly phonies? Check. Instructs the people to use sewing skills to defeat the bad guy? Check. Ultimately assume responsibility and forsake riches in favor of selflessness? Check. For fans of THREE AMIGOS!, it might be too bad that OZ isn’t as funny.

Yet, hang on a second. It almost is that funny. This is a surprisingly sarcastic movie, full of not-taking-itself-seriously dialogue that puts the entire charade in quotes. Take, for example, an early scene where Franco first sees Williams in Kansas. She comes into his circus tent, dressed as a poor farm girl, and he says, “You look lovely. What is this, gingham?” Franco’s delivery on this line is the key to whether or not you’ll like this film. Judging by its reception amongst my peers, most people hate it. I think Franco nails it, and continues to provide the right attitude for his character — like an incredulous stoner denied the weed he so desperately craves, but given an experience that surpasses the feeling of being stoned. The entire premise of the antagonist’s journey in this story is based on a joke about psycho ex-girlfriends. Franco’s first love interest in Oz is Mila Kunis’s Theodora, a perfectly nice witch whom Oscar seduces — but then she gets clingy really fast. On the second day she’s already talking about spending the rest of their lives together, and Franco’s face expresses a hilarious whimper of fear. Knowing he has to dump this crazy broad quickly, he escapes into the arms of Williams, and Kunis’s response, with the help of her wicked sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz, having fun), is to unleash hell upon the world and remain cold-hearted and vindictive for the rest of her days, until Dorothy melts her in the sequel.

Plenty of other gags get big laughs here. Oscar doesn’t know the word for “chalice,” so when he celebrates the prospect of having a lot of gold he gleefully shouts… “and… one of these… things!” When some crows overhead foreshadow doom before the third act climax, Oscar rhetorically asks, “Did those crows just say we were going to die?” And for fans of BAD SANTA, simply the sight of Tony Cox is pleasure enough — but he gets to play a similarly grumpy character here, pissed off, put upon, and short-tempered. But not that there isn’t some earnest cuteness too. In Kansas, Oscar is unable to fulfill a paralyzed, wheelchair-bound little girl’s wish to have him make her walk. But in his “dreams,” he encounters her as a tiny china doll with her legs broken in shards on the floor. He takes out a jar of glue and repairs her legs, and she walks along side him the rest of the film. It’s corny, it’s easy, but it works.

Maybe my expectations were too low, and maybe I’ve seen too many obnoxiously self-serious blockbusters and stupidly empty-headed comic book movies, but Raimi does for OZ something close to what he did for SPIDER-MAN in 2002: he brings a sense of childlike joy and lightweight humor (along with his trademark horror jumps and angular camera) to a story that fits it like a glove. I would rather see Raimi do more films like THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, A SIMPLE PLAN, and EVIL DEAD II, but if Hollywood is going to foist upon us a cash-grabbing franchise picture to support amusement parks and merchandise, they could do worse than hire the gifts of Sam Raimi.

 

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The Imposter — 9/10

THE IMPOSTER (2012, Bart Layton): 9/10

Having just arrived to Netflix’s streaming catalogue, this dynamic 98-minute documentary should be the first movie on your must-see list. There’s been some talk about the lack of cinematic style in docs these days, especially due to directors’ desire to be faithful to the facts, but few films in 2012 were as inventive, gripping, and gloriously visual as this electrifying filmic page-turner turns out to be.

Cinephiles will recognize the influences immediately: the dramatic re-enactments cut with testimonials of Errol Morris’s THE THIN BLUE LINE, the blurry line between reality and fiction involving the story of an imposter from Abbas Kiarostami’s CLOSE UP, the small town Texas simpletons potentially masking nefarious deeds of Richard Linklater’s BERNIE, the lip-syncing performances from Clio Barnard’s THE ARBOR, and — most pointedly — the devastating power of our brains to allow cognitive biases to warp our behavior beyond any reasonable justification, laid out in Craig Zobel’s COMPLIANCE.

THE IMPOSTER is as good as any of those films listed above. It looks fantastic and wastes not a single shot or line. It tells the story with remarkable clarity while withholding just the right amount of information to provide the maximum dramatic effect, but never once feels too manipulative. There were times I wanted to see more: show me Carey and Beverly walking around their houses, meeting other people — hell, even in a room with each other — and when you wonder why Layton refuses us those moments, you start to question things that perhaps lead you down the same cognitive-bias path that you’re watching on screen. It’s a terrific ploy by Layton, making the truth less important than the journey and what that journey reveals about human nature; both in the characters and in ourselves as viewers.

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Stoker — 3/10

STOKER (2013, Park Chan-wook): 3/10

People have often charged Brian De Palma with the lipstick-on-a-pig accusation; that he’s slumming it with his material, using his supremely artistic skills to direct gutter trash screenplays. But De Palma has never been so guilty of that as Park Chan-wook is with STOKER, a movie akin to watching Jose Andres cook at McDonald’s. And it kind of pisses me off how stupid Wentworth Miller’s script is, because Park does his damnedest to elevate this thing to art.

And sure, some of the images are gorgeous, the editing lyrical, and the hyper-mixed foley work volcanic (the sounds of a pencil being sharpened, a hard-boiled egg cracking, and a bedspread being removed are louder than car engines) — but it’s all so head-slammingly pointless that I’m angered by the waste of talent on display. It’s hard to know if Mia Wasikowska is really any good; she’s been fine before but as the emo-goth psycho at the center of this ridiculous story, she’s hopeless. And unfortunately she’ll never be able to wipe off her resume the risible scene of her shower masturbation at the thrilling memory of an up-close-witnessed murder. Nicole Kidman phones it in, once again playing Nicole Kidman. But the worst offender is Matthew Goode, obviously cast as the central villain because of his absolutely unthreatening appearance — but I think that choice was abominable. It’s not just that he’s unintimidating; it’s that he’s an absolute joke: a J. Crew model posing as an actor an ensuring that no scene in which he is present will have any effect, either satirical or emotional.

OLDBOY was a hell of a film: rich with provocative ideas, overflowing with filmmaking bravado, and singular enough to inspire a Spike Lee remake. (And as part of a trilogy about vengeance, showed that Park is capable of exploring that subject with depth and prowess). But STOKER is almost the opposite; it has nothing to say about anything, and as beautiful as it is at times, it’s destined to be forgotten quickly, ignored fiercely, or remembered sadly as the piece of shit Park had to do in order to break into English-language cinema, like the best-looking version of fraternity hazing ever put on film.

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