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.

Killer Joe

24 Feb

Director: William Friedkin (2011)

killerjoeMomma, we are not in Kansas anymore. We are in deepest, darkest Southern territory, home to the hicks and miscreants of middle-America, fuelled by gun crime, sweat and fried chicken.

Killer Joe is not for the faint hearted. And do not allow yourself to be fooled by the trailer and synopsis pitching it as a ‘black comedy’. A lesson I certainly learned the hard way… Comedy there may be, but this is as black as it comes as a father and son agree to put their mentally disturbed sister on retainer with a quietly deranged, dirty detective they hire to kill their mother so they can cash in on the life insurance to pay off some drug overlords after a deal goes bad. As I say, this is not your typical gritty thriller, this is one that as the credits roll could be as hard to clean away as the congealed fat from a deep fat fryer.

Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) is in trouble with the kind of people who you don’t want to get in trouble with – the kind with a predilection for motorbikes and pipes. And he owes a lot of money, fast. At his wits end – what few wits he has – Chris hears of a cop who moonlights as a contract killer. His cunning plan, hire the aptly named Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey) to kill his layabout mother who happens to have a healthy life insurance policy so he can pay off the bad guys and leave town. The only problem is Killer Joe needs his $25,000 fee in advance. Luckily, Killer Joe has other kinds of payment on his mind – namely the possession of Chris’ younger sister, oddball Dottie (Juno Temple) until the insurance claim clears.

As the bizarre relationship between Joe and Dottie develops, Chris begins to regret his quick acceptance of the deal. But once you’re in, you’re in, leaving Chris and his father to reap the consequences of their dark plan. Though, it’s mainly Chris who feels the consequences. And by Chris, I mean mainly Chris’ face and internal organs.

McConaughey owns the sleaze as Joe, lurking in the dark trailer park shadows in his Stetson, powerful and foreboding, while Hirsch’s twitchy and battered Chris is the physical embodiment of bad decisions.
Unapologetically violent, abrasive and sadistic, Killer Joe is a bloody adventure into the darkest end of the comedy spectrum, earning its categorisation as a ‘Southern Gothic’.

You will never want to eat fried chicken again.

The Help

12 Feb

Director: Tate Taylor (2011)

Help_posterAdapted from Kathryn Stockett’s novel of the same name by close friend Tate Taylor, The Help tells the touching – yet harrowing – story of the relationship between a young white woman and her two black maids in 1960s Civil Rights era Mississippi.

Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) is a young plucky journalist, hoping for a life that is a world away from the sterile existence of her middle-America girl friends. After her own beloved childhood maid Constantine leaves her home while she is at college, Skeeter finds her eyes opened to the realities of the treatment of the black maids. Calling on the services of her friend’s maid, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) to help her answer domestic questions at her new job at a newspaper, Skeeter soon realises the extent to which the maids really run and raise the households.

Unhappy with the way she sees ‘the help’ treated, she decides to use her writing to give the women who raised her, her friends and now her friends’ children, by creating a book of their stories, exposing the abject racism they face every day. Of course, this is the 1960s, segregation is still very much enforced and while there may be hints at advances with the Civil Rights movement, this is small town America and the help are just that, accessories of status and power, unworthy of opinion or complaint. Skeeter refuses to accept this. Her next task is to somehow convince the maids to share their experiences of the racism that has become part of their lives at the hands of their employers. Easier said than done…

Nominated for a slew of awards including Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress for Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer (who won both the Oscar and BAFTA for her supporting role), The Help was an overwhelming success, mirroring the success of the book in revealing the truth behind the picket fences. Watching the burgeoning friendship grow between Skeeter and the maids behind closed doors as truths are heard and lessons are learned is heart warming but similarly a grounding reminder that this was all taking place only 50 years ago.