Secrets of the Father, Sins of the Daughter

No two people grieve in the exact same fashion, but India seem unreadable in hers.

No two people grieve in the exact same fashion, but India is utterly unreadable in hers.

The coming-of-age drama is a popular staple of both cinema and literature, most likely because the experience of growing up is universal and it speaks to a deep need we have to understand who we are and how we should live our lives. One of the most essential traits in this narrative is vulnerability, and conveying this through a character is often tougher then you might think; because a character’s vulnerabilities so often are used to define them rather then strengthen them. Moments of uncertainty and weakness are the ideal times for character growth, and the provocative family drama that plays out in the refreshingly vampire-free Stoker uses them in such a low key manner that you’re never quite sure what the source of that weakness is until it all comes together in the end.

India plays in the garden of Eden, unaware of the snakes under her feet...

India plays in the garden of Eden, unaware of the snakes under her feet…

While the protagonist of Chan-Wook Park’s elegantly twisted new thriller is uncertain about who she is, she is also very good at hiding this under a guise of normalcy. She is India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) and you would forgive her for being a little emotionally detached given that her father Richard was recently killed in an unexpected car accident, on her 18th birthday no less. Her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) is soothing her widow’s grief with a steady supply of red wine, and all her attempts at getting India out of her seemingly sullen shell are unsuccessful.

Uncle Charlie offers India an umbrella, and finds her response rather stormy

Uncle Charlie offers India an umbrella, and finds her response rather stormy

However, the arrival of her never before seen Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) under the pretense of helping Evie through her emotional turmoil has a strange effect on India’s life. At first she resents Charlie’s claim that he simply want to be friends with her, but as he continues to pursue her with a strange mix of paternal care and mentoring advice, India gradually finds herself attracted to him for reasons that even she doesn’t understand.

The need for order in the wake of her father's death leads to India creating some out of whatever is available

The need for order in the wake of her father’s death leads to India creating some out of whatever is available

Stoker thrives the way it does by telling the story not through its actor’s dialogue, but with their performances and interactions with the environment around them. From the opening images of blowing grass and crimson flowers, to unusual framing shots that place characters in the same scene without sharing the physical space, the film achieves a haunting sense of other world-ness that highlights a number it’s themes. It is helped along by the light but mesmerizing score of Clint Mansell (Requiem For a Dream) which adds an aura of dark whimsey to to the otherwise sinister tone of the events.

India doesn't take kindly to Charlie trying to muscle in on her family OR her piano playing skills.

India doesn’t take kindly to Charlie trying to muscle in on her family OR her piano.

Each actor’s performances carries an undercurrent of mystery, which escalates from a question of intentions to a wider notion of just who they really are. Mia Wasikowska keeps India’s expressions neutral throughout the film, but allows us to see her curiosity about her Uncle and how it motivates her actions. She’s introverted, yet doesn’t appear shy and rather seems to resent the attention of people, so her attraction to Charlie becomes all the more telling. This attraction is best conveyed during a piano duet between them that starts as a battle of wills and quickly twists into a type of lust that is not all it appears on the surface. This incident comes full circle during a shower scene that at first seems to be showcasing a genuine moment of weakness, until it becomes something else entirely.

Even though Evelyn and India are close together while brushing hair, there remains a strange distance between them...

Even though Evelyn and and her daughter are close together while brushing her hair, there remains a strange distance between them.

Initially, Evelyn’s infatuation with Charlie seems like her sole defining characteristic, making her a deserved source of scorn for India. But while Evelyn Stoker’s treatment of her daughter appears on the surface to be neglectful, Nicole Kidman slowly deepens our understanding of their relationship until we understand the truth. By wearing a tacked on smile of gaiety, and expressing uncertainty over why her daughter was so close to her father, it grows clearer that she has been hiding emotions that could not be expressed when her late husband was alive.

Evelyn and Charlie Stoker complete play the part of Gertrude and Claudius respectively, while India as Hamlet watches from behind the curtain...

Evelyn and Charlie Stoker play the part of Gertrude and Claudius respectively, while India as Hamlet watches from behind the curtain…

As the the enigmatic Uncle Charlie, Matthew Goode is tasked with portraying a man who can blend into fine company with his sophistication and worldly charm, yet is distinctly off in a way that only India takes notice of. His name an homage to the similarly mysterious uncle from Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Charlie makes no secret of his pursuit of India, but does so in a way that intrigues her instead of repulsing her. Goode is versatile enough to summon a smile that is charming to Evie, and then display an almost child-like care for India that turns his obsession with her into something more tender. His true characterization of Charlie is not in what he says to her, but how he seems to understand her better then anyone, and this is made especially notable in the scenes they share which play out entirely without dialogue.

The film is worth watching for these visual metaphors alone, which are sometimes simply clever, and other times gloriously evocative.

The film is worth watching for these visual metaphors alone, which are sometimes simply clever, and other times gloriously evocative.

It’s this last thing that characterizes Stoker’s subtlety, and demonstrates how a simple story can be much more provocative if the pieces to it are alluded to rather then made explicit. The attraction India has to Charlie as well as her apparent jealousy of her mother lends the film a palpable theme of sexual tension, only for it to be blurred and turned on it’s head as we realize that not all seductions are lustful. Likewise, numerous hints about India’s background feel as though they are leading towards a damaging reveal, only for it to become apparent that the truth is far more meaningful to India’s character and our interpretation of her.

India takes aim at her destiny

                              India takes careful aim at her destiny

Stoker is a film about dangerous secrets, about the reasons they are kept and the consequences for knowing the truth; and yet the the answers are not as important as what each means to the person who discovers them. While any film could use violence to illustrate these, few films do in a way which feels as integral to the characters as to the audience. Compared with the violence of his previous revenge thriller Oldboy, Park uses it sparingly but effectively, all the more to unnerve us when it breaks through the docile surface of the family. In keeping with this theme, Charlie may be family, but India learns though the course of the film that not all family is related by blood. Some are related by what’s in the blood.

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Oz The Gweat And Tewwible

"Quick! Take my hand and we'll escape from this thinly veiled Alice In Wonderland imagery!"

“Quick! Take my hand and we’ll escape from this thinly veiled Alice In Wonderland imagery!”

Who is Oz? While not the central question (That would be “How do I get back to Kansas?”) of the classic 1939 film which ushered in color to the film industry, this was nonetheless the inquiry which drove young Dorothy Gale and her compatriots to the doors of the Emerald City, each hoping to acquire a symbolic character attribute. What they found was not an all-powerful wizard as they expected, but a weak and rather timid figure (Frank Morgan) who taught perhaps the most recognizable lesson to many young children regarding the appearance of something in juxtaposition to the truth behind it. Oz ruled through the sheer force of his legend, and now that Oz The Great And Powerful has finally opted to fill in the the history of this enigmatic figure, and though what we learn is intriguing, it’s presented in a somewhat perfunctory yet needlessly twisty fashion.

In his earlier, older incarnation, Oz proved that once again, men would always leave Dorothy behind. Her shoes on the other hand would always be there for her.

In his earlier, older incarnation, Oscar proved that once again, men would always leave Dorothy behind. Her shoes on the other hand would always get her where she needed to go.

The film begins with a pleasantly old-fashioned prologue featuring our anti-hero Oscar Diggs (James Franco) showcasing his equal talents at wowing an audience of yokels with a parade of cheap illusions and wooing the various ladies of the traveling circus he reluctantly accompanies. He’s not quite a true sleaze though, as he shows a genuine compassionate heart for the suffering of others. It just seems that he thinks with his ego, which makes him still well overdue for a test of character, coming in the form of a nearby tornado which whisks him and his hot air balloon to the other side of the rainbow. Once there he meets a parade of characters starting with the wide-eyed witch Theodora (Milla Kunis) and her sister Evanora (Rachael Weisz) who harbors more reservations then her sister about a supposed “Wizard” who will descend from the sky and save the land from the Wicked Witch who has killed the king and plunged the land into chaos.

It’s worth noting that though the acting from all the cast is rather stiff, this may in part be due to trying to capture the slightly campy style the original film. Unfortunately this does not extend to Franco, who does an okay job when it comes to playing a slightly ego-driven charlatan, but rarely gets a chance to express genuine emotion. He’s simultaneously too cartoonishly scheming and too soft hearted (Imagine George Clooney from Oh Brother Where Art thou?, but without the flair of humility) Knowing that the part was first offered to Robert Downey Jr, and then Johnny Depp it’s obvious that the part called for charisma, but the con-man grin Oscar sports throughout much of the film feels too fake to charm Theodora’s heart, let alone the audiences’.

Hey guys, I just smoked some Pineapple Express and now I think I'm in a 1930s movie about wizards and flying monkeys...

Hey guys, I just smoked some Pineapple Express and now I think I’m in a 1930s movie about wizards and flying monkeys…

With a not entirely convincing leading man at the helm, what Oz really needs is for the witches to be both compelling and interesting, but again the film falters due to the nature of the story not allowing this sort of complex characterization. Though we learn little more about the politics or demographics of Oz, the witches seem to be key players in the land, yet their relationship to it remains nebulous. Oscar meeting Theodora would seem to give a perfect opportunity to provide exposition on who she and her sister are and what their purpose in Oz is, but its gimicky narrative actually restricts this from happening in favor of setting up a somewhat loaded storyline that sends Oscar away from them and prevents them from interacting for much of the rest of the movie. This is a real shame, because Oscar’s relationship with Theodora and her’s with her sister is without a doubt the most interesting part of their characters, and it seems a crying shame that it is put aside so casually after focusing on it so much.

However, Milla Kunis makes up for her wooden performance with a hat which would make Carmen Sandiego jealous.

However, she makes up for her wooden performance with a hat which would make Carmen Sandiego jealous.

As it is, Milla Kunis as Theodora plays tragic naivete well for the first part, but her later scenes try too hard to invoke the original movie and wind up coming off as pale imitations. Rachael Weisz adds an air of the debonair to her shifty sorceress, but her actions start to feel forced rather than organic, making her ultimately lackluster. We can see the reason she might do some of the things, but we lack enough background on her to believe that she would, especially when these actions appear to result in her only believable source of emotion which is sadly not dwelled upon. The inclusion of Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams) also fails to provide any more meaningful material to get invested in, as forced close-ups between Franco and her feel strange and unmoving, as is her continual faith in a man who freely admits to her that he has no powers and has also curiously forgotten the affections of a by now volatile Ms. Kunis.

"When you said you wanted to "Blow me a bubble," I thought you were just playing coy!"

“When you said you wanted to “Blow me a bubble,” I thought you were just playing coy!”

Where Oz shines the brightest is in everything that is not the characters or the script sadly. Sam Raimi of Spider-Man and Evil Dead infamy crafts some truly breathtaking scenes of splendor that Franco feels strangely indifferent to, while showcasing additional ingenuity in several scenes whenever the action takes a darker turn. Tenderness is not his strong point, but a moment involving a little girl made of fragile china shows an affection for these characters that just can’t be evoked from the sight of a dozen little munchkins breaking into song. The climax is a fantastic example of thrilling set piece that still feels hollow because the conflict fueling it has been relegated to exposition and hidden in plot twists rather then put out in the open. And once you see the reason for complicating everything, it feels like a magician explaining a trick and makes you wish you could take the explanation back so you could preserve the magic for yourself.

Rachael Weisz proves that the color green runs in the family, as well as Raimi's other flying characters...

Rachael Weisz proves that the color green runs in the family, as well as Raimi’s other flying characters…

There are times when Raimi seems somewhat reluctantly dialing back what could be a potentially creepy yet mesmerizing movie, opting to smooth over the edges of real danger and preventing Oscar from truly coming across as the silver-tongued womanizer which would damage the audience’s belief in him. In many ways his character is most similar to the devilishly charming yet selfish Tony (As played by the late Heath Ledger) from Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus. Only where Raimi tried to outline the character’s darkness, Gillian wasn’t afraid to let it bleed through and show us that even though he was the main character, he was still a slimebag. Missing the tone and scaring the kiddies? Perhaps, but as we should all remember “We’re not in Kansas anymore…”