Friday, June 21, 2013

On DVD/Blu-ray: STOKER (2013); AMERICAN MARY (2013); and THE LAST EXORCISM PART II (2013)

(US/UK - 2013)

Despite plenty of pre-release hype, STOKER, the English-language debut of famed South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook (OLDBOY) only got a limited US release, topping out at 275 screens at its widest.  It's not surprising, really:  it was never really clear what kind of film it was, Fox had no clue how to sell it, and the title probably led test audiences to expect a vampire movie.  It's best to approach STOKER knowing as little as possible.  On her 18th birthday, withdrawn outcast India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) discovers her wealthy father Richard (Dermot Mulroney) has been killed in a car accident.  India and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) are joined at their estate by Richard's long-absent younger brother Charles (Matthew Goode), who has been "travelling abroad" and who India never knew about before the funeral.  Charles decides to stay, much to the disapproval of motherly housekeeper Mrs. McGarrick (Phyllis Somerville) and his aunt Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver), both of whom quickly disappear without a trace.  Nevertheless, the charming Charles develops flirtatious relationships with both Evelyn and India, forming a bizarre--and murderous--triangle of unrequited lust with the sexually-frustrated mother and the sexually-blossoming daughter.  Working from a script by PRISON BREAK star Wentworth Miller, Park's film manages to overcome its often clumsy metaphors and facile symbolism (chief among them India's switch from saddle shoes to sexy high heels--and there's enough lingering close-ups of Wasikowska's feet to guarantee this a spot near the top of Quentin Tarantino's Best of 2013 list) with some truly inspired filmmaking.  Park, cinematographer Chung-Hoon Chung, and editor Nicolas De Toth are the real stars of the show here, with endless visual flourishes, brilliant use of sound, color, odd framing, sweeping camera movements, tracking shots, etc.  It's like an art-house mix of Hitchcock, De Palma, Argento, and Antonioni wrapped in some soapy Tennessee Williams-inspired gothic potboiler, but never going over the top and never played too broadly by the actors.  STOKER is flawed, but it hits much more than it misses, it's genuinely unpredictable, and Park's enthusiastic, inspired filmmaking is positively infectious.  (R, 99 mins)

(Canada - 2013)

Twin sisters and Eli Roth protégées Jen & Sylvia Soska wrote and directed this colorful, stylish, but frustratingly empty body-modification horror film that got some inexplicably glowing reviews even from critics outside the usual sycophantic indie horror circles.  The scenesters immediately took to it, due in large part to the presence of GINGER SNAPS cult horror star Katharine Isabelle, who brings a sort-of deadpan, Canadian Aubrey Plaza persona to her role as financially-strapped med student Mary Mason.  Mary, one of these broke college kids who lives alone in an improbably spacious apartment, finds herself making some quick cash when she applies for a job at a nudie bar and ends up suturing the wounds of some poor schmuck who got the shit beat out of him by the owner (Antonio Cupo).  After meeting heavily surgically-altered stripper Beatress (Tristan Risk), who's had 14 surgeries to make her a living embodiment of Betty Boop, Mary becomes a sought-after, off-the-books surgeon and body-modification artist.  She puts her skills to more sinister use after she's drugged and raped by one of her instructors (David Lovgren), and holds him captive, performing a variety of operations, ranging from sewing his mouth shut to amputating his arms to hanging him from hooks through his skin.  Even with the rape/revenge angle, the Soskas never make Mary's transition from down-on-her-luck student to psycho killer very plausible.  The film is intended in part as a gothy homage to David Cronenberg, particularly his 1988 film DEAD RINGERS (an interesting idea, considering the filmmakers), but it just feels like whole chunks of the story are missing.  Isabelle is fine in the role, and there's some nice bits of dark, sick humor (Risk's Beatress makeup is both amusing and creepy), but when a snooping detective (John Emmet Tracy) tells Mary that he thinks she's hiding something and she replies "There's really not all that much to me," I can't help but wholeheartedly agree. (R, 103 mins)

(US/France/UK - 2013)

The much-mocked title is the least of this pointless sequel's problems.  Abandoning the found-footage motif of the surprisingly OK 2010 original (which got a huge boost from Patrick Fabian's performance as a phony preacher faced with very real evil), PART II finds once-possessed Nell Sweetzer (the returning Ashley Bell) taking up residence in a New Orleans halfway house for troubled girls run by the gruff Muse Watson, the guy you call when Kris Kristofferson is out of your price range.  The sheltered Nell befriends some of the other girls, gets a job cleaning hotel rooms, and finds a possible romance with a shy co-worker (Spencer Treat Clark), but it's not long before the evil spirit Abalam comes back for more.  Of course, it takes director/co-writer Ed Gass-Donnelly 70 of the film's 89 minutes to get there, as the bulk of the film is spent on endless fake scares and scenes of Nell walking around, haunted by visions of her supposedly dead father (Louis Herthum) and being followed by a mysterious figure wearing Tom Cruise's EYES WIDE SHUT orgy mask.  Sporting possibly the most asinine ending of any movie this year (which expectedly leaves the door open for PART III), THE LAST EXORCISM PART II is a shameless con job that approaches DEVIL INSIDE levels of audience contempt, which is starting to sum up possession movies in general.  We've seen enough.  THE EXORCIST is now 40 years old and it's never going to be equaled, let alone topped.  So just stop.  Please.  By the time you get to using a title like THE LAST EXORCISM PART II, it's pitifully obvious that there's no new angles for filmmakers and nothing more of anything resembling entertainment value to offer audiences.  (Unrated, 89 mins) 

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