Stoker Review (Kirk Haviland)

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Stoker (2013)

Starring Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman, Lucas Till, Dermot Mulroney and Jackie Weaver

Written by Wentworth Miller

Directed by Park Chan-wook

New in theaters this week from Fox Searchlight Pictures is Stoker, the English language debut film from Korean master filmmaker Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance). The intense horror/thriller written by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller packs a stellar cast with Mia Wasikowska heading up the center of the story. With Chan-wook delving into the English market, the question remains, is his unique style and vision compatible and adaptable for an English audience?

After India’s (Wasikowska) father, Richard Stoker (Mulroney), dies in an auto accident her Uncle Charlie (Goode), who she never knew existed, comes to live with her and her emotionally unstable mother (Kidman). But there is something not quite on the level with Uncle Charlie, something from the past has kept him from being a part of the family for India’s entire life, and that is not lost on the house matron and India’s Auntie Gin (Weaver). But instead of feeling outrage or horror the tormented and bullied high school girl becomes increasingly infatuated with her Uncle, and begins to feel urges and actions that she never knew she had come bubbling to the surface.

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Stoker is one hell of a debut from Park Chan-wook. Continuing to press forward with his trademark brooding atmosphere, pierced periodically with jarring violence, Chan-wook has crafted an unconventional yet beautiful looking story. The script provides a solid base for Chan-wook to jump off from, staging even the most mundane and generic dialogue in subtly dramatic tones that increase the ominous feel that permeates the film. The script does pack a sexually charged coming of age story that Wasikowska grabs with gusto. Her India goes from dour and reclusive, a girl whose best friend is her father and would rather go hunting with him than shopping with her mother, to a confident and determined young woman set upon a different path. Chan-wook does nothing to subtly connect this other ‘awakening’ to her sexual awakening, he smashes his audience over the head with it like a cast iron frying pan. Matthew Goode delivers the fully formed silent menace that was only touched upon in his Ozymandias performance from the Watchmen back in 2009. And Nicole Kidman chews scenery in a deliciously camp performance.

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On top of the heaps of violence there is a lot of stunning imagery on display here. The transitions are gorgeous and some of the most beautiful put to lens this year or last. Some of Chan-wook’s favorite imagery does creep into the film as well; his spider motif does show up here as does his fascination with unconventional weaponry, but this helps to add to the visual flair. The Stoker house is a visually compelling estate with lush grounds, including stones and large boulders that may have more than decorative purposes, old style French doors and all the creaks that come with a house of age. The Plantation type feel is lost once you enter the dungeonesque basement, complete with iffy lighting that India swats as she walks like low hanging school decorations.

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The film will not go without controversy though – it will not be universally loved. Chan-wook does not dilute his vision to appeal to North American audiences. His audacious and bombastic connections between female sexuality and violence, culminating in a shower sequence that very well may disturb quite a few, and may  have some screaming misogynist and sexist charges his way, and they may not even be wrong. But ultimately it is the same girl who ends up aware, and even gaining the upper hand, by the end of the film. Of course means to an end is hardly a defense but the seeds of India’s behavior are sown from the very beginning of the film, through another classic Chan-wook piece of imagery in a gift box. Seeing these exploited and maneuvered by Goode’s Charlie through the film you can see how the malleable India could be formed and shaped by his deeds into something more sinister than she may have if her father had lived and was around.

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In the end Stoker may not be a film for the masses. The unflinching portrait of a girl discovering the true meaning of her family and their dark secret, as well as discovering herself along the way, will be unsettling for some and possibly offensive to others. But for fans of Park Chan-wook, this is the film they have been praying his English debut would be. For fans of experimental and ground breaking cinema, who aren’t afraid of some violence mixed in, or fans of Park Chan-wook’s previous works, Stoker is a must see.

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The Grey Review (Matt Hodgson)

The Grey (2011)

Starring Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, and Frank Grillo

Screenplay by Joe Carnahan

Directed by Joe Carnahan

I’m sure that I’m not alone when I say that since Taken (2008), Liam Neeson has a special place as one of the baddest men on the planet and I mean that in a good way. Let me try to explain how bad he is. If Liam Neeson wanted my last fruit cup, I would give it to him. If he picked a fight with me, I would punch myself in the face repeatedly, while also apologizing profusely for the un-Neeson-like strength of my punches. If I heard a rumour from a friend of mine who was notorious for making up rumours, and the rumour was that Liam Neeson didn’t like my review of The Grey…then I’d probably look into personal funeral options, immediately. Anyone know the number of a good undertaker?

MINOR SPOILERS

The plot of The Grey is quite simple and potentially very effective. A group of men contracted to work in Alaska are on their way back home for a two-week vacation. All that’s left between them and their destination is a plane ride that turns bumpy and eventually crashes in the great white middle of bloody nowhere. Most of the passengers have perished in the crash, but a small group of men find themselves in the unwelcoming position of having to collect what few mental marbles they have left and think of a plan that could lead them out of this wintery hell. A troubled but knowledgeable man named Ottway (Neeson) proves to be the best leader out of the group of survivors. However, even if they follow Ottway and listen to his every order, there is still no guarantee that these men will survive to see their families again, let alone the morning. If the cold doesn’t kill them, then a pack of bloodthirsty predators pursuing them will certainly try. It seems like these tired and hungry humans are a poor combative match-up against these deadly beasts.

I thought that The Grey started out perfectly. Neeson’s character is cold, hardened, mysterious, and deadly, just like the environment that the group of survivors find themselves in. The film gets right to the point as it feels like the plane crash happens within the first 15 minutes of the film. Also, there are some excellent dream sequences which effectively utilize the common intrusion of sensory experience on our dreams. I can’t believe I’m actually praising dream sequences as they are usually one of my least favourite narrative devices, but at the beginning of The Grey they really are quite impressive. Unfortunately, this pretty much sums up what I think are the positive elements of the film.

I’ve heard complaints about The Grey regarding the story’s believability, but I don’t find this to be a very valid criticism. Sure, a lot of what happens in The Grey is pretty outlandish, but it could happen, and it’s also not a discovery channel survival documentary…it’s a movie. My personal problem with The Grey is that I didn’t care about the fate of the characters after about twenty minutes. This was mainly due to some very questionable plot decisions that may leave you scratching your head. I think The Grey uses a different type of logic than the one I’m familiar with. So often throughout the film, obvious decisions for the characters were anything but obvious to me. A particular scene on the edge of a cliff really made me wonder if the characters had smoked some exceptionally powerful crack before arriving at their conclusions.

Finally, the editing during the action sequences derailed much of the excitement for me as I tried to figure out who or what I was looking at. From what I could tell it seemed like the filmmakers used a combination or CGI and puppets for the predators. It was nice to see something besides CGI being used, but unfortunately it wasn’t very effective as the most often used puppet seemed to be a head with sharp teeth that would literally fill the screen during many of the attack sequences, adding to the confusion of these scenes as it was impossible to see anything else.

I wish I could have written a more positive review for this film; I was very excited for its release and as I have said, I’m a big Liam Neeson fan, but some questionable decisions with the script and some confusing editing during the action sequences make it difficult to be very excited to watch this one again.

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