STOKER, JACK THE GIANT KILLER



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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.  

THE HUNGER GAMES


No matter what faults the movie has, and it’s not perfect by any means, it’s certainly entertaining and it does get you going emotionally (surprisingly so at times) while still being one of the uglier views of humanity I’ve seen lately. As anybody who hasn’t been on the moon for the last year knows, it takes place in a dystopian future where two teenagers, male and female, are chosen by lottery from twelve districts to participate in a televised contest to the death as punishment for a rebellion that took play more than seventy years earlier (presided over by Donald Sutherland, one of those actors who, like Michael Caine, is good in everything he does and who does just about everything he can). The heroine here, Katniss Everdeen, comes from the poorest district, an Appalachian mining town, and volunteers to replace her barely eligible younger sister; her father died in a mining accident and her mother has a habit of checking out emotionally. To paraphrase Birdie Coonan from All About Eve, she has everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end. One should resent the filmmakers for pushing the underdog button so strongly here, but no, it works, possibly due to the strong performance of Jennifer Lawrence, who is now cornering the market on backwoods teenagers. The forward momentum never really flags until we get to the money shot, the battle royale that makes up most of the second half. It’s not dull and it gets the job done, but shouldn’t it have been just a bit more exciting? Not particularly well directed, it wasn’t always easy to know who was fighting who and what was at stake during various skirmishes; Lawrence spends a lot of time up a tree (both figuratively and literally) and almost always manages to survive by having someone else do her dirty work for her. But what is perhaps really missing here is what is going on outside the competition. The battle itself is pretty much a done deal; we know what’s going to happen there, it’s only a matter of how many variations on a theme the filmmakers can come up with. But it’s the citizenry’s reaction, what the television audience is thinking; it’s what is going on behind the scenes, the politics and infighting, that is really missing. And isn’t that what it’s really all about? No matter how many teenagers kill each other, the real story is the society that created such a nightmarish reality show. There are indications that there may be a ton of stuff left on the cutting room floor (to be included in the DVD release, I’m sure). Toby Jones, who has been in the Harry Potter series and played Truman Capote in the movie that didn’t star Phillip Seymour Hoffman, is shown quite often with Stanley Tucci, who plays the commentator (you know, Jeff Probst); yet Jones has maybe one line the whole movie; to paraphrase Ronald Regan in Kings Row, where’s the rest of him? There was one moment when Lawrence is cradling a fellow doe-eyed contestant; from the movie audience’s point of view, one gets choked up; but, oh, how I wanted it to cut to Tucci who would say, “Yes, folks, that is really touching, that is really sweet—what do you think will happen when they have to kill each other”. I also wondered where all the commercials were; American Idol doesn’t exist just because people like it; it exists to make a profit. Certainly special credit must be given to the screenwriters Gary Ross (who also directed), Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray for squeezing in an incredible amount of information and characters in such a short period of time (the whole thing might have worked better as a mini-series); they can’t do much more but sketch in things, but their damn good sketchers. The Art Direction and Production Design also deserves special recognition, though, as a friend asked me, what were all the kids doing on top of the Walt Disney Concert Hall during the climactic fight scene? In the end, the set up doesn’t give the filmmakers an exit strategy. There is no way the movie can have a happy ending, no matter who survives—the Hunger Games will continue on, a reality that the movie doesn’t capitalize on enough. For a similar type story, see Series 7: The Contenders, also about a reality show fight to the death.