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When Michael Haneke, the acclaimed filmmaker of Amour and The White Ribbon, came to the U.S., he met with a producer who gave him a script to consider.  It was an action film of some sort, a WWII something or other, a story totally inappropriate to Haneke for anyone who knew anything about his films.  To paraphrase his reaction, he asked, Is this what Hollywood is?  A place where they just grab any old thing they have lying around in a drawer to give you that hasn’t been produced yet?
This is what I thought while watching the movie Stoker.  It’s directed by Chan-wook Park, the popular South Korean director of Oldboy and Thirst, and though I can’t say that’s how he got hired to direct this film, it certainly feels like some producer just had it lying around in his drawer and foisted it upon him. 
The film was written by Wentworth Miller (his first foray into screenwriting, but I guess he had to do something to pass the time while behind bars) with Erin Cressida Wilson (Fur, Secretary) given credit as a contributing writer.  In many ways, it’s basically one of those women in danger films that almost every actress made at one time or another in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, from Barbara Stanwyck to Joan Crawford to Katherine Hepburn (yes, even Hepburn made one).  As in those films, a psychopath or sociopath or psychotic sociopath or sociopathic psychotic worms their way into a household; anything from camp to high tension occurs (and usually both).  In this entry in the once popular subgenre, when the patriarch of a wealthy family dies, his brother suddenly shows up at his funeral and takes a rather creepy interest in his niece (the man is called Uncle Charlie for those who like film references and have seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt).   Various bad things happen as a result.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the screenplay.  It certainly gets the job done.  At the same time, for someone of Park’s oeuvre, it’s rather routine.  No, I have to be honest here.  It’s very routine. No, that doesn’t quite do it.  It’s ridiculously and insultingly routine.  Is this really the best the U.S. can offer a filmmaker of Park’s stature?
To Park’s credit, he directs the hell out of the movie.  He fills it with odd angles and creepy sounds (there’s suppose to be some through line about the niece, India, being able to hear things other people can’t, though there never seemed to be a pay off for it).  There’re all sorts of overlaps and dissolves and plenty of visual metaphors (like a spider crawling up India’s leg and going between her thighs—subtle much?).   Park gives it the old Orson Welles try (who also had to constantly flaunt his directing in order to cover up lackluster material as in Touch of Evil and The Lady from Shanghai).  And it must be said, Stoker is often an effective and even beautiful movie.
But it’s also one of these stories where people go missing and no one seems that concerned about what happened to them, unless it’s convenient for the plot.   Everyone who knows Charlie’s secret seems extremely worried about India, but not her mother, Evelyn, who in many ways is chopped liver by the time the movie is over.   The two both share the same house with Charlie, but it’s only India who anyone is concerned about (I thought sure the big revelation was going to be that Charlie was actually India’s real father, but no, this interest of Charlie’s for India was left a bit vague for me).   And the ending doesn’t really resolve anything or provide a satisfying emotional resolution.  In fact, by the time it was over, I was wondering whether a bit too much of it ended up on the cutting room floor.
The movie is nicely cast for the most part.  The actors do the best they can with the material.  Mia Wasikowski is India and she’s fine (she’s very good at sexual yearning and having an orgasm while playing the piano with her Uncle).  Nicole Kidman handles the material well in her roll as an escapee from a Tennessee William’s play.  The strongest acting comes from that remarkable down under discovery Jacki Weaver, and her performance here may make her one of the finest character actresses in films since Thelma Ritter.  Mathew (A Single Man, Matchpoint, Watchmen) Goode is Uncle Charlie; he’s lovely to look at, but his performance is a bit flat, like his American accent.
 I know I’ve been really hard on this film.  But I think it’s because Park deserves better.  The U.S. film industry has chewed up and spewed out many an artist over the years and I would hate to have the same thing happen to Park.  But Stoker is not a promising beginning for an American career.
I saw Jack the Giant Slayer.  Yes, I did.  It was at this nice theater I love to go to and there really wasn’t much else showing and a friend wanted to go for lack of a better movie out there to see, so we went.   It’s not a disaster.  If only it were; it would have been a lot more fun.  It’s actually, in certain ways, better written and acted and at times cleverer than Stoker.   It’s directed by Bryan Singer (are we ever going to have another movie like The Usual Suspects again), has four authors (yes, four), and stars Nicholas Hoult, Ewan McGregor, Eddie Marsan and Ian McShane, with Stanley Tucci as the gay character who can’t be identified as gay because that would be offensive.   But one spends most of the time wondering why any of them actually wanted to do the film.  It’s one of those movies in which a woman claims to be raised by her mother to be a feminist, but the chief lesson she was taught is to marry for love.  It’s one of those movies meant for a family audience, but it has so many people being slaughtered, that it’s just kind of depressing.  It’s one of those movies where the good guys’ army is being massacred, but they never seem to run out of soldiers.  In the end, it’s just one of those movies, one of the worst things a movie can be.  

I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP, YOU KNOW–reviews of Taxidermia, Thirst and Cold Souls

I have gotten so behind on my blog, but I have a ton of good reasons and I’m sure I can come up with a few more if these don’t satisfy. I spent seven days in jury duty (and then this week got another notice for jury service which I didn’t think was funny one bit). After that I needed to earn a living and do coverage work and then I needed to do some work on a screenplay I’m writing with a writing partner. I’ll also blame the hot weather.

So, I’m going to concentrate on catching up on my movie reviews starting with these three fascinating oddities that I’m grouping under a title that is a homage to Anna Russell’s satiric summary of Wagner’s The Ring Cycle: “I am not making this up, you know”. All three are examples of the kind of movie I tend to look forward to, the ones that I’m eager to see while everyone else is talking about the next Batman and Transformer movie. These are smaller, more personal films, all audacious and often foolhardy, made by artists who have a vision; something that feels left out of U.S. films lately, possibly because such a trait is often ground down by film school and books on screenwriting.

Taxidermia is best summed up by the plot: a lowly and incredibly thin soldier who can shoot fire out of his penis has sex with his commanding officer’s heavyset wife; their very overweight son becomes a major competitor in the Olympic sport of speed eating (that’s okay, I never heard of it either); but the son’s son then regresses to being ultra thin like his grandfather (and therefore a disappointment to his father) and spends his time in taxidermy and taking care of his father who is so grotesquely overweight he can’t leave his basement apartment (the movie is sort an after, before, then after ad for a weight loss clinic). Fascinating for awhile on its own terms of utter weirdness, but from a story telling point of view, it feels like a number of scenes were left out between the second and third generation to explain what happened to that relationship. It’s written by Gyorgy Palfi (who also directed and who has gotten a slew of awards and nominations for this and his movie Hukkle) and Zsofia Ruttkay based on some short stories by Lajos Parti Nagy. It’s reminiscent of such movies as Delicatessen, Eraserhead and films by Peter Greenaway, best summed up with the phrase “for those who like this sort of film, it’s just the sort of film they’ll like”. I can’t say I liked it, though; but it certainly held my attention.

Thirst: if someone can write the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, then I don’t see why someone can’t make the movie Theresa Raquin and Vampires, which is what this South Korean movie is. Theresa Raquin is a 19th century novel by Emile Zola about the wages of sin being death; Thirst takes that idea a step further by turning Raquin’s central character, a bourgeoisie roué, into a devout Catholic priest. In this vampire version, a priest, because of his faith, undergoes an experimental treatment for a disease and ends up craving blood. He has an affair with a married woman and together they drown her dull and bland husband, but are haunted by their crime. It’s exciting, unapologetic, violent and at times ridiculously so over the top it reaches camp (though how does one do a vampire Theresa Raquin without some camp sneaking in). It was written by Seo-Gyeong Jeong (who also wrote a movie called I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Okay) and Chan-wook Park, who also directed and is known over here for the soon to be remade in the U.S. Old Boy.

Cold Souls, written and directed by Sophie Barthes, is one of those movies one describes as intriguing, which is fine with me, though I know a lot of people who consider that the kiss of death (like describing a script as existential to a Hollywood executive). It’s a very clever European type of movie (though its inspiration is Russian writers like Gorky, Chekhov and Dostoevsky) in which an actor named Paul Giamatti played by Paul Giamatti (I know, I know, type casting; but wouldn’t it have been hysterical if he hadn’t got the part and Philip Seymour Hoffman had been cast instead) can’t find the soul of Uncle Vanya, the character he is playing in the Anton Chekhov play of the same name, so he has his soul removed and substituted with that of a Russian poet (by way of a business headed by David Strathairn that seems straight out of a Charlie Kaufman movie). Giamatti finds the soul of Vanya, but loses his own. When he wants his back, he finds it’s been sold on the black market and he has to go to Russia to retrieve it. Ridiculous and absurd, yes, but also ultimately moving and insightful into the human condition (yes, it’s one of those movies; so deal with it).