In a big old house deep in the country, the Stoker family is weathering a storm of portents. Dad just died in a puzzling automotive mishap, and now, with mom wandering around with a never-empty glass of wine spot-welded to her hand, daughter India, who just turned 18, is wondering about a mysterious "Uncle Charlie" who has suddenly appeared on the scene and announced he'll be staying for a while. She's never heard of this weird relative before—what does he want? When we see a large spider creeping up India's bare leg and proceeding up under her skirt, the question evaporates.
For his first venture into English-language filmmaking, South Korean writer-director Park Chan-wook deploys his gift for flamboyant imagery and eccentric audio effects in the service of a chilly Southern Gothic creepfest. Stoker is a great-looking movie (shot by Park's ace cinematographer, Chung Chung-hoon) with an appropriately dark-and-stormy score (by Clint Mansell, Darren Aronofsky's go-to composer). Its twisty plot might be said to be an homage to Alfred Hitchcock—whose 1943 Shadow of a Doubt also featured a sinister Uncle Charlie—but mainly the picture is a showcase for Park's own distinctive talent, and, presumably, a token of his determination to crack the American market.
But the movie has some unfortunate problems. Park didn't write the script this time out; the screenplay is by first-timer Wentworth Miller, and while it's skillful in stacking up the story's often-bloody surprises, it provides very little in the way of character development. Or, for that matter, characters. Mia Wasikowska's India Stoker is a glum, hostile cipher whose troubled nature, for much of the film, is a mystery. Her Uncle Charlie, played by Matthew Goode with his usual inscrutable mannequin leer, is likewise a hazy menace. Nicole Kidman brings some flair to the role of India's lonely mom—an easy conquest for Charlie on his way to his true target, her daughter—and Jacki Weaver briefly enlivens the doleful proceedings as India's Aunt Gwen, who turns up one day with an urgent warning. It's too bad that India's inexpressive mopery often drains the picture of energy it can't spare.
Still there's a lot to look at here, much of it amusingly odd. There's a priceless scene in which Charlie joins India at the family piano to play a four-hand duet; when he provocatively reaches around her to hit some high notes, she arches up in an orgasmic swoon. (Her sexual blossoming, at age 18, seems to be arriving a little late.) There's also a curious plot motif involving India's extensive collection of black-and-white saddle shoes—which does pay off eventually, but mainly affords the director an opportunity for a strikingly composed high shot. The sound design, too, is pure Park: a hardboiled egg being rolled and cracked on a table is so over-amped that it sounds like the crushing of crockery, and there's a metronome on the piano whose incessant clacking reverberates through the house like a hammer of doom. There's no particular reason for these audio flourishes, beyond the fact that they're, well, kind of cool.
The movie is juicily perverse, and intermittently quite violent. (Examining the soft soil in the Stokers' backyard garden, Charlie days, "Good for digging.") It drags a bit, even at 98 minutes, so the main attraction, especially for viewers unfamiliar with such previous Park films as Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, will probably be the director's wild-style visual sensibility. Which might be enough.
Jack the Giant Slayer
Bryan Singer's Jack the Giant Slayer is a very expensive kids' movie, shot in 3D, packed with CGI, topped with a PG-13 rating, and happily dispatched to the nation's megaplexes. A lot of skill and commitment have gone into this film (Singer is too good a director to hack out a piece of genre product), and kids may well love it. There's a little romance, but it doesn't get in the way; and some of the mild gross-out flourishes, like a snot-eating giant, seem aimed directly at 10-year-old boys.
The story has of course been boiled down from "Jack and the Beanstalk" and any number of other Jack-centric fairly tales whose origins are lost in the mists of Wikipedia. Nicholas Hoult (of Warm Bodies) plays Jack, a more-or-less medieval farm lad sent by his uncle to sell a cow in the local village one day. There he encounters the beautiful Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), a princess in disguise, who's in the habit of sneaking out of her father's castle in search of proletarian adventure. Jack rescues her from a group of louts, but the grateful Isabelle is soon retrieved by the king's retainers. Jack returns to his uncle's cottage with a fistful of beans he was given in the village. He has been told they're magic, and that he should not under any circumstances allow them to get wet. His uncle scoffs, as we know he must.
When night comes, Isabelle, out searching for adventure again, happens upon Jack's cottage. He brings her in. It's raining outside. The roof of the cottage leaks. One of the beans gets wet and begins to sprout. Then it erupts into a huge beanstalk and rockets up into the sky, taking much of the cottage—and the princess—along with it.
You can imagine the rest. The king (blandly played by Ian McShane) dispatches a retinue of knights, led by the stalwart Elmont (Ewan McGregor), to bring back his daughter. Jack, the bean expert, is allowed to accompany them—but so is the king's devious counselor, Roderick (a wonderfully droll Stanley Tucci), to whom Isabelle has been promised by her father as a future bride. Roderick has no interest in Isabelle; he lusts to become a ruler himself in the land of giants up above the clouds. There's a great danger in all of this, naturally: much in the way that Jack's party can climb up the beanstalk to the legendary realm in which Isabelle is now trapped, the giants can also climb down to wreak havoc in the kingdom below.
The picture's execution—its weave of cinematography, editing, and production design—is topnotch. And Singer whips the action along in galvanizing style, from the perilous climb up the beanstalk to (spoiler) the giants' furious descent. If there are problems with the film, I doubt they'd register as such among the movie's likeliest young enthusiasts. The CGI overload seemed to me like way too much of a well-done thing—although there are some lovely real-world locations, the movie often feels like a wall-to-wall digital fabrication. And the giants—a collection of mo-capped actors led by an unrecognizable Bill Nighy (with two heads)—are really more comical than terrifying, even in full (impressive) rampage. But who outside of the movie's target demo can say if these are serious flaws? Or flaws at all?