Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Fun For the Whole Family

Well, I think we may finally be clearing the initial theatrical rough patch of the year.  This marks the first entry for The Third Row in 2013 reviewing something currently in theaters. And MAN, is this one interesting...

I should probably start out by saying something that is going to be a major point to keep in mind throughout this review - Park Chan-Wook's Stoker is definitely not a film for everyone.  The mixed reception it's receving now is further testimony to this fact, and I feel it bears repeating now.  I mean, while watching it, I liked what I was seeing, but I could also see this was definitely gonna be a film that would alienate a lot of people.

...and I just watched a few of you already leave assuming that was the review.  Cheap buggers.

Anyway, allow me to explain further.  Best known to viewers over here for his violent and squirm-inducing adaptation of the manga Oldboy, Chan Wook-Park makes his first foray into English language-film.  The result is a bit of an enigma, but certainly a memorable one.

"Yes, yes, we all remember how Oldboy endedBut this isn't that film, so stop asking your uncle to cut out his tongue."

The title of the film comes from the surname of the family its plot unfolds around, most notably young India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska, playing something of a cypher, though given the nature of her character, it works well.)  As the film begins, her father (played by Dermot Mulroney in flashbacks) has been killed in a car accident. At the funeral, she and her mother (Nicole Kidman, going from distant and troubled mother to ruthless ice queen quite effortlessly) are visited by her previously unknown uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode.)  Alongside having never met the man before, India finds herself uncertain of Charlie - he's outgoing and charming, and makes efforts to engage her, despite her generally antisocial behavior.  Despite this, there is a lingering suspicion that there is more to him than he's willing to let on.  Naturally, these suspicions prove to be right (to be expected...while you could make a film just on paranoia, it isn't as likely to happen.)  As more people try to discover Charlie's secrets, more people disappear, and India finds herself being drawn further and further into his orbit.

'Heart and Soul' has never been creepier...

All in all, the film is something of a curious product - it's a film that's tricky to go too much into without ruining some of the surprises (likely why the marketing for it has been so vague), and even now, I wonder if I've tipped a few more cards on the plot than I should have.  That odd sense of mystery is one of the things that this film has going for it fairly well.  In no small part, this is likely thanks to the decision of the character we're seeing the plot unfold through.  Like I said before, Wasikowska's turn as India is something of a mystery, and given the overall plot of the movie, that feels less like an accident and more a deliberate choice to lead us to question our narrator.  This also seems to inform some of Chan-Wook's direction over the movie - there's a strange sense of emotional detachment in many of the scenes, which seems to mirror India's own somewhat detached view of events around her.

Despite how that might make it sound, Chan-Wook's direction, and the editing and cinematography by Nicolas De Toth and Chung-hoon Chung (respectively) are still very present in the movie.  Every shot of this film feels carefully arranged, and in many cases creates some very involving scenes.  I know a lot of people have criticized this style as over-edited and needlessly stylized, but honestly, I'd be inclined to disagree.  It's definitely not a style I'd like to see applied to every movie, but for the story this one is trying to tell, it's a good fit.  Further, it actually makes an impression just in how the entire film looks.  Given my druthers, I'd take an overly stylized film that may not necessarily click over something that just doesn't have any really distinctive identity of its own in its direction or editing-But I digress.  While I can see where the criticisms may be coming from in this case, personally, I felt the very controlled style of the movie worked in its favor.

On a not really humorous note - this scene actually leads to a pretty cool transition shot.

Further adding to the feel of this movie is the score by Clint Mansell.  Once again, the man proves his strength in understanding the story and creating atmospheric music that really helps set a tone.  This is one of the best things I can say for Stoker - everything in it works together well to really create a film with a very distinct feel for itself.  It's a microcosm, a sort of parallel world to our own, simultaneously feeling like ours but through a dark lens.

As far as the rest of the elements of the movie go, I want to further build on what I said before by saying the casting on this works well.  Alongside the earlier statements of Wasikowska and Kidman, Goode makes for a good antagonist, all smiles, but all the while giving the feeling of something sinister waiting to make itself known behind those grins.  (On this note, I should probably look into more of his work - the only roles I've seen him in to this point, he's been largely playing those characters with something of a hinted at malevolence.  He does it well, but I really should see if he's got the range for other parts.)  For only being featured in flashbacks, Mulroney still manages to make his part worth it, as his character is the film's heart/conscience, both for the general story and for India.  He is the one person we see her interact with where there isn't some semblance of detachment or malevolence, and his performance really helps bring that out.

With that note, I have to say, the script on this is an intriguing one.  Far from being a straight-up thriller, it plays into some interesting, and disturbing, ideas about family and legacies that can be passed along.  This particularly informs the last act (which I can't say too much about without spoilers) and leads to a climax that is likely to leave a lot of people trying to determine what message they walk away from the film with.  It's definitely an ending that doesn't mind just presenting the events and going "so...what do you think of that?"  Wentworth Miller and Erin Cressida Wilson have constructed an unsettling narrative that builds up with just enough clues at any given time to keep you going and (mostly) avoiding making a complete 'A-HA!' reveal (the end kind of slips some here, but not enough to really kill the movie.)  To their credit, the twist was going to be a bit of a hurdle regardless - from the start of the movie, you can tell there's something lurking that is just waiting for an opportunity to float to the surface.  So in a way, you're already waiting for it, which makes it hard for the writers to still properly surprise when the time comes.  To their credit, while some parts of it are still somewhat predicted, they do manage to make up for that in the execution - offering turns that, even if you're trying to guess them, you'd be hard-pressed to fish out of the plot before the writers want you to find them.

The result is a film that can, and has, proven its mileage will vary.  Some will like it, some will love it, but it's also going to turn off a LOT of people with it style and content.  For my own vote, I have to say it honestly worked well for me.  While Chan-Wook still seems to be learning the ropes of English language film, this is still a fascinating first step into it, and I hope he doesn't lose the edge he has here with subsequent projects.  Even the parts that may not click with everyone are something of a strength here - giving the film a voice that's actually fairly distinct rather than simply blending into the noise of a lot of the other releases for this time of year.  Despite my warnings that your mileage will vary, I do still think it's worth at least giving it a chance if you can to see what you think of it.  I won't guarantee you're going to like it, but at the very least, it's worth taking the try to see what you think regardless.

Suffice it to say, this made for a pretty interesting release to get this year started off with.  Hopefully this marks the end of the 'meh' phase the first part of this year has had. It will be nice to be looking forward to things on the horizon again.

Till next time, folks!

In the meantime, heed the advice of the Third Row's token creepy uncle - always remember your umbrella.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Better Late Than Never

The old saying is that March goes in like a lion and out like a lamb.

Except here at the Third Row where, admittedly, March kind of took its sweet time getting off the ground.  In all fairness, after some of the spread last month, a breather seemed like a pretty good idea.

With that, we're back, and just on the tail-end of another holiday-appropriate review (somewhat.)

This last Friday marked International Women's Day.  Upon learning about this, I have to admit, I was struck with a challenge of what to do for it review-wise.  The fact is, there's a lot of obvious answers I could have gone with...but then, where would the fun be in that (Editor's note: One day you will review 'Showgirls'. ONE DAY).  Combined with the fact I already spent my other ace in the deck last month for Valentine's Day, and so I was initially stumped as to what I could run for this day that would be fitting, yet still unexpected.  Like so many of the finds on this site, this one was a pretty lucky accident - I had had the film in my collection for a while because of a pack of films and had almost forgotten it could be relevant...and the odds most people would remember this one for a day like this were slim.  Reading the plot, I got the feeling we were on to something.

On watching it, I have to say, Nathan Juran's Attack of the 50 Foot Woman actually proved an interesting pick for this holiday.  On the one hand, I'm not sure I can necessarily say it's a profound film with a bold statement to make on gender relations. However, for the age of the film and what it explores, it actually makes for an interesting piece about a woman who gets a chance to get back at her scheming husband and his conniving mistress...by turning into a giant and going on a rampage.

In all fairness though, she had pretty good reason on this one.

Look, I told you this one wasn't that profound, but bear with me.

The one thing that really surprised me about this film is that despite its very 'giant monster' style of advertising, the science fiction elements are almost secondary to the human storyline playing out: Allison Hayes plays the titular woman, Nancy Archer, who has had a history of mental illness and problems with alcoholism.  Somewhat unknown to her, her husband Harry (William Hudson) is only still staying with her because of her money and is plotting with his mistress (Yvette Vickers) to get rid of her and inherit the lot.  Suffice it to say, Nancy has enough on her plate as is before she runs afoul of a roaming alien satellite (which serves as the first herald of the film's rather low-budget special effects.)  Naturally, no one believes Nancy at first, until a second encounter where Harry leaves her behind (leading to suspicions that he killed her.)  In the midst of this, Nancy is returned and all seems well-until she starts growing.

Which, for a while there, is largely just everyone being stunned by the giant hand.  Kind of makes them look like jerks when they won't even look her in the eye.

As with many B-movies of the day, the story itself isn't really the high point here.  That said, as far as this movie goes, it's not a bad one.  While the actual science fiction angle itself feels somewhat underdeveloped, and the alien who is the source of Nancy's growth ultimately just walks out of the movie, the human plotline actually manages to carry more of the movie on its own strengths anyway.

Strangely, I think a big part of what keeps this movie's head above the water is the acting and direction.  Yeah, not the things you traditionally expect to hear spoken well of in a B-movie, but they do actually pay off here.  In the case of the former, it's the fact that much of the cast actually make the effort and take the project with, oddly enough, sincerity (alongside Hayes, the other standout here is Ken Terrell as her butler, and one of her only supports at the start of the film.)  Despite the low-budget effects, the somewhat erratic pacing (the titular attack isn't actually until the last 10-15 minutes of the movie), and the fact that the story itself is somewhat basic in its layout, the director and cast still make a good effort of making the most of the material.  As a result, the performances, while nothing award-winning, are solid, and the film becomes enjoyable despite its lower budget trappings.  In some cases, those low budget elements actually add to the charm in a way.  They're cheap, something the director even owned up to with some degree of regret years later, but at the same time, they aren't completely distracting, with perhaps one exception in the film's climax.  To their credit in this last one, they do try to shoot it so it's less apparent at least.

I omitted that one out of minor spoiler courtesy.  In the same vein, I will go on record as saying, the giant hand was a pretty regular fallback for this one effects-wise.

It feels a bit odd talking about this film, really - on the one hand, it does have its flaws as I've outlined above.  On the other hand, they seem determined not to let them slow down the movie, and that actually manages to make the film a fun watch despite it.  When the film's climax comes around, any irritation at the corny effects starts to take a backseat to the enjoyment that you're about to see Harry get what he's had coming to him for the past 50 minutes (it was 1958, films could be shorter back then.)  Even now, as I try and recount some of the bigger drawbacks, there's still a part of me that has to admit, even as failings, they still work out well in the overall scheme of the film.  It's a kind of bizarre charm that makes it understandable that this film has since gained a cult status of sorts years later.

While we're on the subject of this and other cult movies, I just have to wonder...
Between this and
Plan 9 From Outer Space was there an unwritten rule about aliens recycling medieval tunics?  Or was it just two those two movies that did it?
Also, the bull on the back of the alien's tunic kills me in the best sense of the word.

So all in all, perhaps not the quintessential movie for the day, but still a rather interesting take on the old "Hell hath no fury" message, and one that actually handled its human dynamic in a fairly believable manner (...or as believable as you'll get from a woman getting turned into a giant by a giant alien who's been flying around the globe in a giant sphere.)  If you're curious, or have any interest in that wonderfully bizarre period of low-budget sci-fi/horror from the 1950s, this one's got enough going for it to be worth your time.  Just remember what you're getting into when you go so you then won't come beating down my door when this isn't a best picture winner.

Seriously.  After all of these FX shots I'm showing you, if you expect a masterpiece on all fronts, you have no one to blame but yourselves.

Well, a bit of a basic film for the first of the month, but all in all, not a bad discussion piece.  Will be back fairly sooner next time and with some projects lined up in the next few months alongside regular reviews, things should get interesting.

Till then!