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Stoker (2013)

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Stoker (2013)Starring Michael Goode, Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska, Dermot Mulroney

Directed by Park Chan-Wook


One of the bigger films to debut this year during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival was South Korean director Park Chan-Wook’s highly anticipated Stoker, his first foray into English-language filmmaking. Working from a script written by Wentworth Miller (yes, the guy from “Prison Break”), director Park explores the idea of what creates human monsters in Stoker, not necessarily vampirism as the title might suggest, all while still proving that his masterful touch with offbeat and thought-provoking material translates well in any language.

Stoker follows a seemingly ordinary family forced to deal with the untimely death of Michael (Dermot Mulroney), husband to the cold and distant Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and father to the awkward India (Mia Wasikowska), who happens to be celebrating her 18th birthday the very day that her father dies while on a last minute road trip. Before Michael’s body is even settled in the ground, his mysterious long-lost brother, Charlie (Matthew Goode), arrives to pay his respects and get to know the family he’s never met before.

Of course, there’s far more than meets the eye with good ol’ Uncle Charlie, but rather than call him out on his sinister ways, young India becomes increasingly infatuated with her ever-influential and charismatic uncle as manages to weave himself in deeper and deeper within their familial unit. Unfortunately for the teenager, though, her uncle has taken up seducing the emotionally starved Evelyn, who never received the kind of love she so desperately wanted from either her husband or her daughter.

And as tensions continue to rise, a disturbing love triangle begins to emerge and secrets are revealed to all, and that’s when Stoker really goes into some wickedly weird and wonderfully twisted territory (and to say anything more would be giving away all the wonderful surprises director Park and screenwriter Miller have woven into this haunting coming of age tale) that should undoubtedly satisfy Park’s longtime fans out there who have been waiting patiently for him to make the jump and take on some Hollywood projects after a successful career in South Korea.

As a storyteller, Park has been often revered (and rightly so) throughout his career for his innovative approach to stylized violence and challenging material as well as his love of an off-kilter story structure, which has won him legions of fans worldwide throughout his career. And while this writer would consider Stoker to be the ‘safest’ of Park’s cinematic endeavors, by no means does it ever feel like Park’s vision was stifled at all by trying to ‘fit in’ with American cinema standards either (which are of course generally less daring than many of the films coming out of South Korea and many other foreign countries as well).

Director Park also once again delivers a wonderfully mesmerizing visual masterpiece with cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, allowing the camera to often do most of the heavy lifting throughout the film. With a sparse and often uneven script to work from, the reason Stoker succeeds can be contributed to Park’s absolutely pristine attention to detail; from the stunning uses of lighting and costumes to the vivid and lush production design, every detail in the film felt purposeful and packed with emotion, demonstrating that Park’s impeccable attention to detail certainly hasn’t waned over time.

Chung somehow manages to take even the simplest of shots – whether it be of a very awkward family dinner or blades of tall grass glistening in the glow of a setting sun or even a small child making sand angels with an unusually devilish smile upon his face – and make them all feel like a works of art brought to life on the big screen.

Something I don’t often discuss in movie reviews is sound design, but with Stoker the sound of the film is almost as integral as the visuals in creating a cinematic triumph; because we’ve been told that India has some sort of supernatural senses (including hearing) early on, Park uses that to manipulate his viewers’ senses by delivering a film with sound so vibrant, it’s almost like we’ve become India and developed our own superior hearing capabilities. Stoker also features a fantastic score by Clint Mansell that I’d highly recommend to those of you who consider yourselves fans of that sort of thing- this writer found it to be by far one of the more memorable scores I’ve encountered in some time, and the way it balances out against the sound design is something of a marvel.

Quite simply, Stoker is challenging, haunting and hypnotic- pretty much everything you’d want from a film helmed by the man behind the cult classics Oldboy and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. As the story slowly unravels and Park begins to reveal just one piece of the puzzle at a time, he keeps audiences completely engaged throughout Stoker, almost acknowledging that he’s screwing with your own perceptions of good and evil through his wonderful visual style and challenging characters that will undoubtedly leave you fascinated, frustrated, intrigued and completely mesmerized by from beginning to end.

And while Stoker may not necessarily rank up there amongst those other classic films from the visionary filmmaker, it’s Park’s masterful direction and a trio of stunning performances by Goode, Kidman and Wasikowska that elevates the project beyond its often shallow and silly script making it still a great slice of cinematic gold. Many will be turned off by its superficial and oddball tendencies, but longtime Park fans will undoubtedly delight in Stoker‘s striking visuals and Park’s haunting exploration of how human monsters are made, making an unforgettable (albeit uneven) thriller by one of the finest modern filmmakers out there working today.

4 out of 5

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Before We Vanish Review – A Quirky and Original Take on Alien Invasions

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Starring Masami Nagasawa, Ryûhei Matsuda, Hiroki Hasegawa

Written by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa


During the J-horror rampage of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kairo (aka Pulse). A dark, depressing, and morose tale of ghosts that use the internet to spread across the world, the film’s almost suffocatingly gloomy atmosphere pervaded across every frame of the film. Because of my love of this film, I was eager to see the director’s upcoming movie Sanpo Suru Shinryakusha (aka Before We Vanish), which follows three aliens who recently arrived on Earth and are preparing to bring about an alien invasion that will wipe humanity from the face of the planet. Imagine my surprise when the film turned out to be barely a horror title but was instead a quirky and surreal dramedy that tugged at my heartstrings.

Admittedly, I was thrown completely for a loop as the film begins with a scene that feels perfectly at home in a horror film. Akira (Tsunematsu), a teenage girl, goes home and we enter moments later to blood splashed on the walls and floor and bodies strewn about. However, the disturbing visuals are spun around as the young girl walks down a highway, her clothes and face streaked with blood, Yusuke Hayashi’s music taking on a lighthearted, almost jaunty attitude. From there, we learn of the other two aliens (yes, she’s an alien and it’s not a secret or a twist, so no spoilers there): Amano (Takasugi), who is a young man that convinces a sleazy reporter, Sakurai (Hasegawa), of his true form and tasks Sakurai with being his guide, and Shinji (Matsuda), the estranged husband of Narumi (Nagasawa).

What sets these aliens, and their mission, apart from other invasion thrillers is their means of gathering information. They’re not interested in meeting leaders nor do they capture people for nefarious experimentations. Rather, they steal “concepts” from the minds of people, such as “family”, “possession”, or “pest”. Once these concepts are taken, the victim no longer has that value in their mind, freed from its constraints.

While this may seem like a form of brainwashing, Kurosawa instead plays with the idea that maybe knowing too much is what holds us back from true happiness. A man obsessed with staking claim to his family home learns to see the world outside of its walls when “possession” is no longer a part of his life. A touchy boss enters a state of child-like glee after “work” has been taken. That being said, there are other victims who are left as little more than husks.

Overly long at 130 minutes, the film does take its time showing the differences between the aliens and their individual behaviors. Amano and Akira are casually ruthless, willing to do whatever it takes to send a beacon to begin the alien invasion, no matter how many must die along the way, while Shinji is the curious and almost open-minded one, whose personal journey finds him at one point asking a priest to envision and describe “love”, a concept that is so individualistic and personal that it can’t be taken, much less fathomed, by this alien being. While many of these scenes are necessary, they could have easily been edited down to shave 10-15 minutes, making the film flow a bit more smoothly.

While the film begins on a dark note, there is a scene in the third act that is so pure and moving that tears immediately filled my eyes and I choked up a little. It’s a moment of both sacrifice and understanding, one that brings a recurring thread in the story full circle.

With every passing minute, Before We Vanish makes it clear that it’s much more horror-adjacent than horror. An alien invasion thriller with ultimate stakes, it will certainly have appeal to genre fans. That being said, those who go in expecting action, violence, and terror will certainly be disappointed. But those whose mind is a bit more open to a wider range of possibilities will find a delightful story that attempts to find out what it means to be human, even if we have to learn the lesson from an alien.

  • Before We Vanish
4.0

Summary

Before We Vanish is a beautiful, wonderful tale that explores what it means to be human when faced with the threat of extinction.

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Delirium Review – Bros, Cameras And A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On

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Starring Mike C. Manning, Griffin Freeman, Ryan Pinkston

Directed by Johnny Martin


When will these testosterone-overloaded frat bros with cameras ever learn that pissing off the evil souls of the departed all in the name of amusement won’t get you anywhere but wrecked? Same goes for filmmakers: when will they learn that found-footage exploits set in a house of pure sadism are something of a wrung-out affectation? Oh well, as long as people keep renting them, they’ll continue to get manufactured…which might or might not be to the benefit of the horror film-watching populous.

Delirium opens with a poor lad, strapped with a GoPro, running for his life through a labyrinth of haunted territory, praying for an escape…and it’s a foregone conclusion as to what happens to this trespassing individual. We then relocate our focus towards a collection of (ahem), “gentlemen” self-titled as The Hell Gang, and their escapades are about as profound as their grasp on the English language and its verbiage. The words “dude”, creepy”, and the term “what the fuck” are thrown about so much in this movie it’ll make your head spin to the point of regurgitation. Anyway, their interest in the home of the Brandt clan is more piqued now than ever, especially considering one of their own has gone missing, and they’ve apparently got the gonads to load up the cameras, and traverse the property after-hours, and against the warnings of the local law-enforcement, who surprisingly are just inadequate enough to ignore a dangerous situation. The cursed family and the residence has quite the illustrious and bleak history, and it’s ripe for these pseudo-snoopers to poke around in.

Usually I’m curb-stomping these first person POV movies until there’s nothing left but a mash of blood, snot and hair left on the cement, but Martin’s direction takes the “footage” a little bit outside of the box, with steadier shots (sometimes) and a bit more focus on the characters as they go about their business. Also, there are a few genuinely spooky scenes to speak of involving the possession of bodies, but there really isn’t much more to crow about, as the plot’s basically a retread of many films before it, and with this collection of borderline-douches manning the recording equipment, it’s a sad state of affairs we’re in that something such as this has crept its way towards us all again. I’m always down for jumping into a cold grave, especially when there could be a sweet prize to be dug up in all that dirt, but Delirium was one of those movies that never let you find your footing, even after you’ve clawed your way through all of the funereal sediment – take a hard pass on this one.

 

  • Film
2.0

Summary

Got about a half-dozen bros with cameras and a wanton will to get slaughtered on camera, all the while repetitively uttering the same phrases all damn day long? Then my friends, you’ve got yourself a horror movie!

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Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters Review – A Timid Step Towards a Frightening Possibility

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Starring Mamoru Miyano, Takahiro Sakurai, Kana Hanazawa, Yuki Kaji, Tomokazu Sugita

Directed by Kobun Shizuno and Hiroyuki Seshita


The Godzilla series is the longest-running franchise in cinema history. With over 30 films over a 60+ year career, the famous kaiju has appeared in video games, comic books, TV shows, and more, cementing its place as one of the most recognizable cultural icons in the past 100 years. With Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, the titular beast makes its foray into the world of anime in this first film in a proposed trilogy. While there are moments that are genuinely thrilling, the film unfortunately fails to capture the imagination and wonder that is at its fingertips.

The story is quite simple: Earth is under attack by swarms of various kaiju who are wreaking havoc across the planet. Entire cities are being destroyed when Godzilla appears to vanquish humanity’s foes. Unfortunately, the King of the Monsters isn’t really there to help humans and its rampage continues until a race of alien beings arrive at Earth asking for a place to stay in exchange for defeating Godzilla. When they are unable to do that, the remaining humans board a giant spaceship to venture off into space in search of a new home only to come back some 20 years later, nearly 20,000 years later by Earth time (think Interstellar logic), to search for resources and, possibly, a planet that will welcome them once again. However, Godzilla is still around and isn’t keen on sharing.

The main character of the film is Haruo Sakaki, a young man who begins the film by nearly following through on a suicide bomber terrorist act that is meant to call attention to humanity’s loss of vision and failure to fulfill their mission of finding a suitable home for the remaining survivors. Even though he is accosted and jailed for this act, he is eventually freed when people realize that his lifelong passion of killing Godzilla is the foundation for research he’s done in finding a way to take down the creature…a plan that just might work. The other characters are so forgettable that I forgot their names during the film.

From there, the film essentially pivots into following a massive team of volunteers who land on Earth’s surface to lay a trap for Godzilla in order to destroy it. Since this is Earth 20,000 years after they left, the flora and fauna have evolved and changed so radically that the team have no idea what to expect or how to react, so caution is a must.

The problem with this is that while the characters have to be cautious, the film doesn’t nor should it. The movie has the chance to explore the wealth of imaginative opportunities at its fingertips and yet does almost everything it can to avoid doing just that. The color scheme is flat and uninteresting. The character movements lack smoothness and the action sequences fall victim to shaky cam syndrome. There are a few mentions of some of the changes that have taken place on the planet, such as razor sharp plants, but they’re so incidental or offhand that it feels like no one making the film has any interest in seeing anything other than man against beast.

Speaking of this dynamic, the action sequences are quite entertaining but also feel somewhat reserved. Godzilla barely moves and much of the destruction levied against the humans is seen from a distance, apart from an attack on a military outpost by dragon-like creatures. For nearly the entire film, I found myself thinking, “I’m okay with this but that’s about it.

The brightest moment in the film are the last few minutes and I won’t spoil what happens. Suffice it to say that it definitely has me interested in the second and third films but I really hope that this new world will be explored further in those entries. Otherwise, we’ve got a fascinating foundation that will be squandered.

  • Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters
2.0

Summary

Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters is a bland entry in a trilogy that has great potential. For a first course, there’s a distinct lack of flavor or complexity. The final minutes are the only saving grace and I hope that the second and third films make use of that grand wonder.

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User Rating 5 (1 vote)
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