Stoker (2013) – Chan-wook Park

stoker1India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is an unusual heroine.  Sullen and reticent, she’s distant from the people around her but has a fine sense of the details of her surroundings — the gentle cracking of a hard-boiled egg’s shell, the creeping of a spider on the carpet.  When her father dies in a car accident on her eighteenth birthday, leaving India and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) alone, a family member formerly unbeknownst to India makes an appearance: her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who also exhibits an ability to “hear what others cannot hear, see what others cannot see.”

Director Chan-wook Park draws us into this finely tuned way of perceiving the world in Stoker, a psychological thriller and warped coming-of-age story.  Visually the film is extraordinary.  There is an almost mathematical beauty to every shot; everything is balanced, mirrored, and rhythmic, and we continually cut back and forth to create links between scenes and images.  The ticking of the metronome matches India’s footsteps as she climbs the stairs, and it keeps time as she makes snow angels on her bed — an image that’s later revisited when Charlie remembers making angels in the sand as a boy.  India opens the pencil case where she keeps her lethally sharp #2s, and we cut to her memory of opening the basement freezer and discovering what Uncle Charlie has hidden there.  Every image has a meaning, circling back with beautiful precision to another image.

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Because of their shared sensibility, there is an immediate energy between India and Charlie — even when it becomes clear that Charlie’s intentions in visiting the Stokers are more ominous than simply mourning his dead brother.  Charlie is handsome, poised, and sinister (a definite homage to Hitchcock’s Uncle Charlie in the 1943 thriller Shadow of a Doubt), and he becomes a twisted mentor for India in her journey towards self-discovery. “Just as a flower does not choose its color, we are not responsible for what we have come to be,” India’s voiceover whispers in the opening scene. “Only once you realize this do you become free. And to become adult is to become free.”  There are elements of a coming-of-age story here, but they’re distorted and perverse.  It’s as if we have stepped into a mirror world, where a Philip Glass piano duet between family members can serve as a sexual awakening, and where the “adult” the young hero becomes is something quite different from what one might expect.

The plot itself is a little trite — thrilling, but at times predictable and sprinkled with clichés.  Uncle Charlie is first introduced as a graveyard silhouette watching the funeral from a distance (what a trope!), and his shadiness is never in question.  Evelyn is also a weak link in the small cast of characters, Kidman doing her best to bring to life the bland, beautiful widow all too ready to move on from her husband’s death.  Ultimately it is the cinematography and aesthetic that make this film worth watching.  The story may have its moments of weakness, but it’s told so tremendously well that it’s hard to take your eyes off the screen.

Spring Breakers (2012) – Harmony Korine

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There are a lot of ways four college girls might choose to fund a spring break trip.  Scrupulously saving cash, picking up extra jobs on the side, asking their parents for help… or holding up a local restaurant using squirt guns, ski masks, and an El Camino stolen from a professor.  Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Cotty (Rachel Korine), and Faith (Selena Gomez) are four friends who, feeling stifled by their stale college town, are willing to go the extra mile to ensure that they get the spring break they want.  After robbing the Chicken Shack for cash, the girls take a bus down to Florida, where they partake in nonstop drunken revelry.

The partying these girls engage in is truly a spectacle, and director Harmony Korine feasts upon it, taking it all in with gorgeous, languid shots.  Boys pour beer over girls’ bare breasts; teenagers jump up and down, screaming; alcohol rains down and brightly colored plastic paraphernalia abounds.  It’s a world of decadence and reckless abandon, and it’s so gracefully filmed that one can’t help but be mesmerized by it.  The film is a collage of different shots laced together by music and dialog, never completely anchored to one moment, and the effect is both seductive and nightmarish.

Brit, Candy, Cotty and Faith are clearly experienced partygoers, but we know virtually nothing else about them.  Faith is a Christian and more innocent than the other three, but the girls are otherwise devoid of identities and almost indistinguishable from each other.  The location of their school is also never specified, and they have vague southern accents that come and go depending on the scene.  In a sense, it doesn’t matter who they are or where they’re coming from; they are dipping into an alternate reality where they can leave those things behind.

The girls are also a peculiar combination of childlike and hyper-adult.  They are petite, their faces round, their giggles girlish, and Korine made the notable choice of casting two former Disney Channel stars as Faith and Candy: Gomez of the sitcom Wizards of Waverly Place and Hudgens of the High School Musical trilogy. With Disney, these actresses maintained wholesome, youthful reputations — and now we see them scantily clad, handling weapons, snorting cocaine.  It is a jarring, almost hysterical sight.  As they laugh and scream and party, the four girls come across as children playing at adulthood, drunk on their own autonomy, with no sense of responsibility or consequences.

898236_t607It’s not until the girls are arrested for use of cocaine that they are hit by the repercussions of their actions.  “Why is this happening?” Faith’s voiceover laments.  “We were just having fun, we didn’t do anything wrong.” Serendipitously, the girls are bailed out by a gangster who calls himself Alien (James Franco), and their spring break swings in a new direction. Franco is almost unrecognizable with his cornrows and grills, and he exudes a goofy sincerity that makes him strangely likeable.  He takes an immediate liking to the girls — “I think I just fell in love with y’all” — and welcomes them into his opulent world of drugs and violence.  While Faith is reluctant, the other three are titillated by the change of pace.  They seem to be willing to try anything, viewing this trip as totally isolated from their real lives.

This is an arresting, vivid, and poignant picture of the college-going youth of America.  The narrative is absurd, a caricature, but there is some real truth to it.  Korine is taking a good look at American “spring break” culture: this phenomenon of thousands of college students spilling onto America’s beaches, wreaking havoc, and returning to their schools as if nothing has happened. The film presents a world that feels more like a fever dream than anything else — a world in which young girls can shed their identities, brandish guns and indulge in power fantasies without repercussions.  And while scenes are cut with Alien’s murmuring, “Spring break… spring break… spring break forever,” it’s a significantly transient world; whatever damage these girls do will be left in their wake when they hop on the bus to go home.