Chan-wook Park’s “Stoker” is a well-acted and stylishly made, but slightly hollow, Southern Gothic thriller.
The picture, which was written by Wentworth Miller, aims to be a dysfunctional family drama, a morbid bildungsroman and a serial killer thriller all in one package, but it finds only moderate success in any of these genres.
At the film’s beginning, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is in mourning after her father (Dermot Mulroney) is killed in a car accident.
She is left in the care of her boozy mother (Nicole Kidman) and charming but slightly creepy uncle, Charlie (Matthew Goode), whom she never knew existed until he shows up out of the blue to bury his brother.
Things quickly turn odd. A great aunt (Jacki Weaver) also turns up suddenly with some urgent information on uncle Charlie, but then just as quickly disappears. And why exactly does Charlie consistently insist that India fetches some ice cream from the freezer?
There are some terrific shots in the film – a spider creeping up India’s leg or some pencil shavings spotted with blood. But while “Stoker” looks great and features some solid work from its cast, the film’s aim is murkier.
India’s introduction into the cruel world of adulthood is shepherded by her sociopath uncle, whose own backstory is eventually revealed via flashback. But the film eventually adds up to very little, both thematically and narratively.
Park (“Oldboy”) is a talented director with visual flare, but his first English-speaking picture doesn’t quite make up for in style what it lacks in substance.
I was also disappointed to find that Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s critically acclaimed experimental documentary “Leviathan” was not the cinematic revelation that I’d been led to believe it would be.
In all fairness, there’s a certain amount of impressive camerawork on display in the picture, which was shot in the North Atlantic and focuses on the commercial fishing industry.
At least, that’s the description of the film provided by the Internet Movie Database.
For 90 minutes, I was simultaneously awed and nearly lulled to sleep by images of fish being hacked up, water sloshing along the side of the film’s boat, waves crashing, gulls flying overhead and crew members silently making their way around the vessel.
Virtually no words are spoken during the film. The crew barely says a word, giving us no sense of what life is like working in commercial fishing and risking life on the treacherous seas.
Often, it is difficult to discern exactly what we’re seeing: Was that a person? Is that a fish’s head? Are those discarded fish floating by underwater or live ones?
A number of stand-alone images in the movie are stunning, especially shots from below of birds flying overhead and then diving into the water for a fish snack.
But, much like “Stoker,” the filmmakers, whose sheep documentary “Sweetgrass” was significantly more compelling, never reveal their purpose. The images in “Leviathan” merely exist for the sake of witnessing them, but not necessarily digesting them.
And then, there’s “21 and Over.” Much like “The Hangover” and the far-worse “Project X,” this latest wannabe transgression appears to operate under the assumption that it’s a given rite of passage for young American men to engage in all manner of bacchanalia as a coming of age tradition.
But that’s not all. Not only should we laugh off the behavior in “21 and Over,” which includes stealing cars, vomiting in public and urinating on a bar full of patrons, as boys just being boys, but we should also accept that it’s perfectly normal for young men to treat women as sex objects – such as spanking two blindfolded co-eds who believe they are taking part in a sorority initiation rite – and poke fun at minorities.
In reference to the latter, Justin Chon’s character, Jeff Chang, is consistently called by his full name as if it’s a punch line and his father is an over-the-top caricature of the immigrant father who has put overwhelming pressure on his son, who just wants to party, to attend medical school. Oh, and he knows some sort of karate, we later find out.
And then, there’s a group of Hispanic women, who are among the “villains” in the film. They are referred to – and I’m not kidding – as the “Latins.”
I’m sure I could tick off numerous other reasons you might be offended by “21 and Over,” but that’s the point, isn’t it?
There’s nothing wrong with being vulgar – for example, I thought the raunchy “Bridesmaids” was the funniest movie I’ve seen in the past two or three years. But there’s a difference between laughing with three-dimensional characters and laughing at the expense one-dimensional ones.
“Stoker” is playing at Manhattan’s Sunshine Cinema, while “Leviathan” is screening at the IFC Center.