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Stoker

10 Mar

Director: Park Chan-wook (2013)

stoker-posterAll families have skeletons; secrets and histories we’d rather keep hidden from prying eyes, even if those prying eyes are our family themselves.

Written by Wentworth Miller (Prison Break) and directed by Korean director, Park Chan-wook, in his first foray into English language film, Stoker is a stunning yet disturbing invitation into the secrets that lurk in family history.

When India’s (Mia Wasikowska) father dies in a car accident, she is left in their desolate yet immaculate home with her emotionally unstable mother (Nicole Kidman). That is until Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) comes to stay. An Uncle Charlie India never knew existed until her father’s funeral. Before long, India begins to have her suspicions about Uncle Charlie, particularly the effect he seems to be having on her mother. But wariness soon gives way to infatuation as India becomes entangled by her uncle’s calming manner and almost omniscient presence in their home.

Stunning to look at, from the opening credits to the flawless costumes and styling to the most beautiful meeting of nature and violence, Stoker is a revelation of cinematography. Symbolic and eerily quiet, Chan-wook presents a film so reaped in artifice and false impressions that, just like India searching for the truth about her uncle, we need to work to figure out who we can trust – if indeed anyone.

What Stoker may lack in the intensity we saw in Old Boy and Chan-wook’s earlier work, it makes up for in mystery and slow burning tension as the veils around the characters slowly fall, to reveal them all at their most twisted and disturbed. It is perhaps this idea that has earned the film a host of comparisons to Hitchcock, where the suspense and psychological thrills are not so much plated up for the viewer, but left hidden in shoeboxes, in trees, behind doors left ajar, for us to find and create.

Stoker finds its strength when we define its title away from the simple Bram Stoker’s Dracula comparisons and look more towards the idea of a stoker, an implement used to fuel the flames of a fire. Mia Wasikowska excels as a young woman between her role as daddy’s girl and her burgeoning sexuality. Matthew Goode serves to meet this unborn sexuality, to stoke it, with his too perfect appearance and the almost otherworldly seductive power he holds over the Stoker women.

Quietly violent and resonating, Stoker is a strikingly affecting film wrapped up as a gothic fairytale and a revelation that has allowed us to see Wentworth Miller emerge as the writer we should all be watching.

The Woman in Black

31 Dec

Director: James Watkins (2012)

woman-in-blackFrom the trailer alone, my threshold of terror looked set to be pretty low when it came to watching The Woman in Black. Wind-up toys, singing children, clowns, swampy plains prompting flashbacks of my own close encounters of the muddy kind as a child – it didn’t bode well.

Thankfully, my recompense came in the fact that I have already seen and experienced the twists and frights that The Woman in Black would bring – none of which I will be sharing here, of course. From the stage production of Susan Hill’s now iconic tale of horror rampaging its way through a desolate British village, I could see the clear potential for the story to make a fantastic classic horror film. But in the same breath, I also recognised the danger of the subtlety and slow building tension to the story’s horrifying revelation becoming polluted on the big screen. Then again, who would have though a short story could come to champion the underappreciated genre of horror theatre? It could go either way.

Winding its way through twists and tales as tight and intertwined as the perilous roads through the village, The Woman in Black casts aside the gore and the violence that is rife in the horror genre, opting instead for a taut psychological thriller, moving back to the basics of seat jumping and heart thumping. Produced by Hammer Film Productions, The Woman in Black has all the trappings of the traditional ghost story, tense music, eerie abandoned houses at the end of long drives, terrifying children, eyes through keyholes and oddly reflective misty windows – textbook but nonetheless guaranteed to have you leaping out of your seat, no matter how hard you try to resist.

Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is a young lawyer, summoned to a remote village to sort the papers of an old widow, mysteriously revered by all who hear her name mentioned. And as a consequence of his association said mysterious widow, poor Kipps soon finds himself on the wrong side of the village folk. As Kipps begins to explore the old widows house, he soon begins to realise perhaps there is something behind the ashen faces of the villagers whenever he mentions his work at Eel Marsh House… Tales of ghostly figures, missing children, suicide and death itself whisper through the mists that engulf the village – this is not your regular ghost story designed to scare away out of towners.

Effortlessly casting aside the dreaded Potter associations with ease, Radcliffe carries the film with a maturity and drama that suits the classic stylings of the story, avoiding the hysteria that too often saturates big screen horror. While it doesn’t have the same tension from the story itself as the book and the play, The Woman in Black is a happy homage to traditional frights that while not surprising, still give good scare and make for an enjoyable watch. Apart from all the clowns. That is less than enjoyable.

Monsters

27 Nov

Director: Gareth Edwards (2010)

Monsters starts like oh too many science fiction films, with a space probe crash landing in Mexico, that interesting pseudo no-mans land, far enough away from America to allow for sufficient political allegories but close enough for those allegories to hit home and make us wonder, perhaps this could happen to us.

As it happens, an alien life form came back with space probe and is now rife along the Mexico-US border leading to the quarantine of Northern Mexico. Armed forces patrol in night vision through the jungle, keeping what appears to be humongous tentacled creatures in line – namely out of the US, thankfully the government have constructed a Hoover Damn style wall stopping the uninvited aliens out of their country. (Spot the allegory yet?)

We meet Andrew, a young photojournalist played by everyone’s favourite awkward yet strangely attractive indie boy, Scoot McNairy (In Search of a Midnight Kiss), on a mission to rescue his boss’ daughter, Samantha (Whitney Able) from danger in Mexico and get her over the border into the US. All seems to be going well as they hop on a train to the border. That is until they find out the line has been destroyed, forcing them to disembark and thankfully find a kindly family in the forest to shelter with for the night while they figure out how they can make their escape. After discovering ticket prices at the ferry port have been subjected to some startling inflation rates and an unfortunate passport incident after an impromptu night of passion, it looks like they are going to have to overland it, bartering Samantha’s engagement ring to get them an escort through the infected zone to the border. Yeah, Samantha is engaged, despite the inevitable sexual chemistry between our protagonists but the ease with which she sheds the ring so early on makes it clear she ain’t all that bothered and could be in the market for a skinny indie boy alongside her ticket home.

Famed for its astonishingly low budget of only $500,000, Monsters’ low-fi approach to modern science fiction avoids the usual ‘hand-held’ techniques often used to denote low budget, instead opting for more thoughtful camera work, almost reminiscent of the photojournalism that pays Andrew’s rent. Edwards’ footage of Mexico is stunning, capturing the grit yet the beauty of the country and its people with touching accuracy, particularly in the village’s makeshift chapels devoted to their lost idols killed by creatures. It is footage like this, alongside the ramshackle armed checkpoints that ring all too true with anyone who has seen the roadside memorials in Latin America or likewise found themselves face to face with armed border guards and made to feel like an alien.

One of my favourite aspects about Monsters is perhaps also the thing that many people will not like about it. Transposing the screenwriting of an indie romance with the action of a science fiction, Edwards has created a new take on the alien movie – and also romance within alien movies. This isn’t a frantic ‘we’re about to die, let’s get on each other’ relationship that we have been led to believe goes hand in hand with alien domination. This seems more of a gradual realisation.

Yes it is a little bit twee, and not all that convincing in parts, not helped by your groans of despair at the end, but for me this is forgivable considering the directorial bravery shown by Edwards in pushing aside all templates for both genres. The final seconds of the film, which admittedly I did not understand the first time I watched this, bring us back to that apocalyptic and hopeless world we saw at the beginning. If we view Monsters as a film within a film, we must also recognise that only one ending in this dichotomy can be the happy one – it’s up to you which ending you choose to see first.