Friday, March 15, 2013


Over the past decade or so director Park Chan-Wook has been the crown jewel in South Korea's cinematic boom. Most known for his Vengeance Trilogy, Park has a knack for his ultra-violent tragic plots, complex, flashy visuals, and characters who have, at best, a messy moral compass. Now comes Stoker, his English language debut, a mad confection of Gothic, Noir elements, which at its heart is a coming-of-age story about a young girl dying to become a monster.

The girl is India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska). The film opens on her 18th birthday as she learns of her father's death in a mysterious accident. At the funeral, she sees a man watching from the distance. The air ripples around him. He looks like he could be a specter or a mirage. At the reception the specter introduces himself as Charlie (Mathew Goode), a heretofore unknown uncle who has supposedly been traveling abroad for the past couple decades.

India is acutely suspicious of Charlie, particularly as people in her life start disappearing and freshly dug holes start appearing in the yard, but she's not terribly upset. There's something cold and reserved about her. Charlie might be a murderer and his increasingly inappropriate relationship with India's mother (Nicole Kidman in a wonderfully fragile performance) proves that he is certainly a master manipulator, but India is hardly a babe in the woods either. There's something dark in her that was once kept in check by her father and those frequent hunting trips he took her on, but is now running wild and unchecked with Charlie around. She doesn't care who killed her father, or about revenge, she's just caught up in the thrill of the hunt and satisfying her own longings.

Intriguingly perverse characters aside, the set-up threatens to be too familiar for its own good. In the hands of a lesser director, Stoker might have been a simple genre exercise resting too heavily on its Hitchcockian heritage, but Park is far too advanced a director for that. Instead he goes for broke imbuing the film with the kind of gonzo visual symbolism he's best known for. There's a running thing with spiders, piano's, spherical objects that are somehow linked to peoples animal nature not to mention a lot of kinky business with a leather belt that would make Freud blush.

Park sets up and repeats these images in subtle ways across the film. He'll also repeat certain scenes in a plainly contradictory form till we have no idea what is India's flashback and what is her increasingly sexual fantasy life. Park is also a master of intercutting. Durring one sequence he intercuts four or five different scenes, some of which may be flashbacks, another being narration from a nature documentary. But for all these complex scenes, there are also moments of touching simplicity. Look at another scene where India mourns her dead father by gathering the 18 pairs of shoes that he had given to her every year for her birthday. Park fades to each progressively smaller pair in way that makes them look like they're melting into each other as her psyche melts into a more childlike, animistic form.

Absolutely glorious cinema
I understand that at least some of these virtuoso sequences are in the script by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller, but the complex execution and tone is classic Park. The film isn't clean cut about anything. It's all right angles and ambiguity. In anyone elses hands it might have fallen apart, but Park keeps the fever dream together while steering clear of a cliche Gothic Horror look with tremendous results.

For whatever reason, it can sometimes be tricky for foreign directors to make that first American film, particularly after becoming established in their own countries. Language can be a problem when working with actors, American sized budgets can mean a lot of restrictions in terms of content and then there are cultural differences. Those issues have defeated some great directors such as Truffaut and Wong Kar-Wai. It's likely that Park's contemporary Kim Ji-Woon faced all three issues earlier this year with with the critically maligned Arnold Schwarzenegger comeback vehicle The Last Stand.

But Park has navigated most of these issues successfully. Stoker is a uniquely striking, poetic slice of gothic horror. It's got some strong performances, some great music and remember opening credit sequences? Stoker's got a wonderful one. Perhaps the film is not in Park's top tier of masterpieces, but it's still a bold, distinctive tale of the darkness at the center of a young girls heart.

Grade: A-

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Friday, March 8, 2013


The new Steven Soderbergh thriller Side Effects is one of those films that's difficult to discuss without ruining the thing, but let me just say, if what we're told by the ending is true, than why did she buy that sail boat, and just who was was the third place setting for?

Emily (Rooney Mara) is depressed and she has reason to be. Her husband (Channing Tatum) has just been released from prison for insider trading. She's having trouble adjusting. At home, at work, with friends, she's just going through the motions.

Soon she finds herself in the care of Dr. Banks (Jude Law) who puts her on a series of anti-depressants, but none of them are working. Banks meets with one of Emily's old doctors (Cathrine Zeta-Jones) who slyly suggests the a new drug, Ablixa, that she's clearly being paid to hawk. For a time, it works. Emily comes out her fog, but there are some dangerous side effects that lead to a capital "I" incident that finds Emily being railroaded into a mental institution and to Banks facing an ethics probe.

Eventually everything seems to die down, but Banks can't seem to let it go. He thinks there's something wrong with the whole thing, and he cannot, will not, rest until he's found something.
For most of the film, the question becomes about whether he's right or whether he feels so guilty for the tragedy he's complicit in that he'll do anything to lay the blame somewhere else. Most thrillers, wouldn't give the latter possibility the time of day, but Side Effects considers it long and hard.

One of the things I liked about Side Effects is the way it introduced the theme of ethical practice. Early on, Soderbergh manages to link the idea of insider trading with medical malpractice without making too overt. In the end, no one is clean, not Emily, not Tatum certainty not Banks, who left England for America under mysterious circumstances and is being paid a large amount of money to prescribe Ablixa's competitor even though, it's still in the experimental phases.

As a thriller, the film is well observed, very old fashioned, harkening back to the 70's work of Alan J. Pakula as well as to Hitchcock. There is a refreshing lack of set-pieces (not a single car chase and I don't recall a single firearm being drawn). Instead the film is uncannily focused on its plot and the unraveling of the conspiracy that may, or may not be there. When things get tense, it's because of the shifting dynamics between characters and not some artificial action scene.

Soderbergh has a peculiar identity as a filmmaker, on the one hand he has a great deal of visual splash, but yet he allows the audience to ignore or look past his razzle-dazzle. Basically, he gets out of the materials way. His film making here is elegant. Near the opening Emily visits her husband in prison. At this point we don't know that he's in jail. Another filmmaker would have had a big establishing shot of the jail, possibly with a giant sign telling us were we are. Instead, Soderbergh shows Emily checking in, and allows a background conversation to hint at were we are before he tells us explicitly. Also look at the way he switches his protagonist from Emily to Banks. It's the kind of thing books do all the time, but movies often don't even try. It's interesting to see Emily in the later scenes after the switch, to see someone who figures so large in the narrative suddenly being confined and obscured, while Banks comes into his own as a protagonist. Neither character is short changed, but Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z Burns simply realizes that the story would benefit from changing emphasis. 

Supposedly this will be Soderbergh's final theatricaly released film before he retires (he still has a Liberace bio-pic that will show on HBO as studios felt it was "too gay for theaters"). It remains to be seen whether this is a for real retirement or a Cher retirement. I can see it going both ways. On the one hand, a man who plans on retiring does not make 6 films in just the last 5 years. Soderbergh might just be too restless a worker to retire for long. On the other hand, he might just be out of things to do, he has one of the most diverse filmographies imaginable, taking on nearly every genre at nearly every budget level. But whether or not his retirement just proves to be a hiatus, he's picked a good film to go out on. God speed to whatever he does next!

Grade: A-

Monday, March 4, 2013


In 1979 there was a massive uprising in Iran which resulted in, among other things, the U.S. Embassy being captured and everyone inside being held hostage for 444 days. That's the part everyone knows. But the part that most people don't know, unless they saw Ben Affleck's recent Best Picture winner Argo, is that 6 Americans escaped the Embassy and took shelter in the home of the Canadian ambassador.

Argo's best scenes come early, as the State Department and exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) toy with the best way to get the 6 out of Tehran. Faced only with bad ideas (like having them bike 300 miles to the border in the dead of night), Mendez concocts one of those ideas-so-crazy-they-work, he and the 6 will pose as location scouts for a fake Canadian sci-fi movie and then leave via the airport.

To help legitimze the cover Mendez travels to LA and enlists the help of a washed up movie producer (Alan Arkin) and Planet of the Apes make-up guru John Chambers (John Goodman). Together the trio set up a fake production company, buy a terrible script and provide light comic relief with publicity stunts.

Argo isn't a bad movie by any means, it's actually pretty entertaining, but most of it's vertures come from Affleck's shrewd direction of what turns out to be a pretty Plain Jane script, despite the crazy premise. Take the hostiges themselves. The 6 "houseguests" get plenty of screen time, but with one exception, they're completely faceless and interchangeable, which is odd considering we're supposed to care what happens to them. It's the plan, and the near-misses that provide the tension rather than the human drama, but it would have been nice to have both.

Affleck does a good job building tension out of what might happen to these people, but it's surprising how little actually happens. All said and done Mendez and Co. have a pretty easy time executing the plan and get more resistance from his CIA superiors than the roving death squads. While the film is based on a true story, no one would confuse it with being an accurate account, so it's hard to understand why Affleck and his screenwriter didn't Hollywood it up some more and make an exceedingly tense thriller rather than just a moderately tense one. It's one of those rare cases that a movie could have used more time to have more stuff going on.

The portrayal of the Iranian's is fair from Hollywood standards, but hardly ideal. I really liked the film's prologue that shows Iran's beef with America as legitimate and understandable. Unfortunately that's the high point. While Affleck does manage to show some Iranians that aren't part of the mob, but the mob itself is a bit faceless. I understand that it's difficult to paint a sensitive portrait of a country in the midst of revolution while also telling a suspense story, but it's disappointing when a film's opening moments promise unusual nuance, and then doesn't follow through, especially when Zero Dark Thirty manages to add immeasurable nuance with just a few small touches.

I understand why Academy Voters went for Argo, it's accessible, entertaining and it doesn't rock the boat, but watching it I kept thinking that it could have been more. It could have been funnier, more suspenseful, and complicated. Instead we're left with a perfectly fine spy story with an out there premise.

Grade: B