Tag Archives: Stoker

Now Playing: Stoker and Barbara

Stoker
dir. Park Chan-wook, 2013, USA

Rating: 8.1

Barbara
dir. Christian Petzold, 2012, Germany

Rating: 8.7

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barbara

The bottom line: a hell of a woman x 2.

Recently finishing first-runs at Chicago’s Landmark Theatre, and now playing around the country elsewhere in limited release, are Stoker, the American debut of South Korean director Park Chan-wook, and Barbara, the latest from German auteur Christian Petzold. On the surface, these films might not seem to have much in common: one is a Nicole Kidman-starring gothic horror movie that floats across the screen as episodically as a nightmare, while the other is an “art film” that precisely recreates the socio-political climate of East Germany in 1980. But one might also characterize both as dark, morally inflected psychological thrillers that center, crucially, on female protagonists. And it is worth pointing out that Park and Petzold are of the same generation and have even led somewhat parallel careers: both were born in the early 1960s, were university educated (Park studied philosophy, Petzold majored in film production), served apprenticeships as assistants to other directors before making their debuts in the 1990s, and toiled in relative obscurity in their native film industries for years before making their international breakthroughs in the 2000s (Park with 2003’s Oldboy, Petzold with 2007’s Yella). Barbara and Stoker are also both damn fine movies that are well worth your time.

I have to confess that it took me a while to warm up to Stoker even though I’ve long been an admirer of director Park. Perhaps I was prepared for the worst because of the depressing track record of talented foreign (especially Asian) filmmakers who have come to Hollywood and been incapable of replicating, whether through their fault or not, what made their work exciting to begin with. Or perhaps it was the fact that Stoker seemed to languish in post-production for a suspiciously long time — Park has admitted in interviews that Fox Searchlight, the distributor, forced him to cut the movie by 20 minutes, which will hopefully be restored on the forthcoming Blu-ray/DVD release. Whatever the case, as I sat through the first 20-or-so minutes of Stoker, my heart sank due to what I perceived to be its lack of cultural specificity: the events seem to be taking place in the American south (it was shot in Nashville), yet no one sounds remotely southern. All four of the film’s principles (Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode and Jacki Weaver) are either Aussies or Brits who speak with flat, neutral American accents. Then there is the matter of the schizoid production design. Stoker is set in the present day although the sets, props, and costumes skew heavily, David Lynch-style, towards the style of the 1950s and early 1960s: this is a world where high-school girls still wear saddle shoes, and the boys who court them wear black leather jackets and ride motorcycles. All of which made me draw the hasty conclusion that this was a movie made by someone who knew too little about contemporary American life.

Silly me. I should have known to trust Park and his production team better than that and not to have expected anything as mundane as “realism” from the director of the boldly stylized Lady Vengeance. As the film progresses, the indeterminate yet vividly dream-like setting (America as filtered through the imagination of a Korean obsessed with classic American cinema) starts to become its strongest virtue. Stoker is a coming-of-age story about India (Wasikowska), a troubled, violent and perhaps mentally unstable 17-year-old girl, whose sexual awakening and passage into adulthood are precipitated by the death of her father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), as well as the mysterious arrival of the heretofore unknown-to-her “Uncle Charlie” (Goode). If that latter name sounds familiar, it’s because Stoker is a virtual remake of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, in which Joseph Cotton played a similarly sinister character with the same name. (Park has claimed that he actually pruned Wentworth Miller’s original script of more Hitchcock references, although this is hard to believe: he still manages to visually quote both Strangers on a Train and Psycho.) As both India and her mother Evelyn (Kidman) become irresistibly attracted to Charlie, Park spikes the perverse psycho-sexual stew with a startling array of sights and sounds: the sharpening of a pencil sounds like the grinding of human flesh, a digital spider crawls between India’s legs (a creepy-funny moment proving that the most obvious metaphors are also sometimes the best ones), an impressively unsettling use of the Lee Hazelwood/Nancy Sinatra duet “Summer Wine” and, best of all, an extreme close-up of Kidman’s strawberry-blonde hair, the individual strands of which digitally morph into blades of tall grass waving in the wind (one of the most astonishing images I’ve seen on a cinema screen in years).

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While there is more cinematic vitality and intelligence in any one minute stretch of Stoker than there is in the entirety of Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning Argo, such virtuosity has already brought out objections from the pilgrim-hatted “style-over-substance” brigade. But Park presents nothing if not a coherent and compelling worldview in Stoker as well, albeit one that is likely to make viewers distinctly uncomfortable. Chicago film critic Kevin B. Lee recently praised Silver Linings Playbook for its vision of America as a giant psych ward, persuasively noting that while much was made of Bradley Cooper’s “bi-polarity” (an angle the distributor unfortunately exploited by acting as if the film were some kind of breakthrough in allowing Americans to talk openly about mental illness), all of the characters were suffering from some form of addiction or obsessive-compulsive disorder. I think Park Chan-wook offers a similar vision in Stoker, although none of his characters are afflicted by anything so benign as Robert DeNiro’s cuddly version of OCD; instead, they’re all psychotics and sociopaths. While I wanted to mentally rewrite another ending for Stoker immediately after I first saw it, reflecting on it over time has caused me to realize that the ending Park presents is probably the most logical conclusion to his story: shortly after she’s turned 18 and “come of age,” the dark seed within India’s soul fully flowers, which leads me to think that Park may be saying something specific about America after all.

I would be hard-pressed to name a recent movie more worthy of the phrase “culturally specific” than Barbara, which begins with the title character, a young doctor played by the magnificent Nina Hoss, arriving in a provincial East German town in 1980. We soon learn that she has been banished there as a result of merely applying for an exit visa from the German Democratic Republic. Understandably, this leads to her immediately adopting an attitude of aloofness to her new co-workers, including the kindly hospital director, Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), who seems to have taken more than a professional interest in her. Barbara’s coldness towards her professional colleagues in these early scenes is contrasted with the extreme compassion she shows toward the hospital’s patients, especially Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer), an adolescent girl suffering from spinal meningitis. We also learn that Barbara is secretly plotting with her lover, the West German businessman Jorg (Mark Waschke), to defect to the west, which she must do while simultaneously staying one step ahead of prying Stasi agents. This plot description, however, probably makes the movie sound like more of a contrived genre piece than it is; written in collaboration with noted avant-garde filmmaker Harun Farocki (the director for whom Petzold started out as an A.D.), Barbara is built on quietness and patience, and is grounded in an impressively real-world sense of what daily life in East Germany must have been like (i.e., an atmosphere of almost-banal mistrust) shortly before the worldwide collapse of Communism.

The most popular German movies to previously address the same subject as Barbara are the lighthearted comedy Goodbye Lenin! (2003) and the Hollywood-style melodrama/thriller The Lives of Others (2006). While I personally enjoyed those earlier films, there’s no question that Barbara blows them both out of the water. The great advantage of Petzold’s movie is the degree to which it more doggedly sticks to the subjective experiences of its fascinating protagonist, giving viewers a glimpse of a specific time and place in recent history as witnessed by a single person. Dr. Barbara may come across as one of the more uniquely bitter lead characters in contemporary cinema but we come to realize that’s only because she has been made that way by living in a cultural climate of widespread fear; she seems suspicious that virtually anyone might be a Stasi agent or an informer, only letting her guard down when meeting Jorg for a tryst. Nina Hoss does an incredible job of internalizing this suspicion through closed-down body language that suggests the actress has tensed nearly all of her muscles for most of her screen time. (Here’s hoping that she got a nice long massage as soon as production wrapped.) In an age when too many actors choose to express themselves merely with their voices and faces, Hoss’ full-bodied performance is an object lesson in what cinema acting should be. The character, unsurprisingly, does undergo a transformation as the plot develops, but one that leads to a pleasantly surprising conclusion that I won’t be giving away here. Let me just say that Barbara’s character arc is utterly believable in its quiet and natural way. Like everything else in this gem of a movie.

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CIFF 2012: Twenty Most Wanted!

It’s time for my annual wish list of movies that I hope will turn up at the Chicago International Film Festival in October. Even if you’re not a Chicagoan, I hope you will find this to be a handy guide to a bunch of exciting-sounding movies that will hopefully be coming soon to a theater near you in the not-too-distant future. I’m deliberately not including Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmasters and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Assassin, both of which made the previous two installments of this list but which I have now given up hope of ever seeing in my lifetime. I should also point out that some of my most anticipated releases of the fall, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and Clint Eastwood’s Trouble with the Curve, are scheduled to drop before CIFF kicks off on October 11.

Caesar Must Die (Taviani, Italy)

I’ve never seen anything by Italy’s esteemed Taviani brothers whose long-running co-director act dates back almost 60 years. Their latest sounds fascinating: a documentary about real life high-security prison inmates performing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for a public audience. This won the top prize at Berlin earlier in the year from a jury that was headed by Mike Leigh.

The Catastrophe (Smith, USA)

Yep, I submitted my most recent short film to CIFF and I’m still waiting to hear back. I’d be lying if I didn’t say this is the film I would most like to see at the festival. Fingers crossed!

Django Unchained (Tarantino, USA)

Could Quentin Tarantino’s much-hyped, southern-fried Spaghetti Western turn up as a gala presentation or closing night film? Well, he did bring Inglourious Basterds to Chicago in the summer of 2009, a few months before its official release, when CIFF gave him some kind of Lifetime Achievement Award thingy . . .

Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio, Italy)

Another old Italian maestro, Marco Bellochio, returns with an Isabelle Huppert vehicle about an actress caring for her comatose daughter. Bellochio’s 2009 feature, Vincere, which played CIFF, was superb, and Huppert (will she be speaking Italian?) is one of the world’s greatest actresses, so seeing this would be a no-brainer if it should turn up.

Drug War (To, Hong Kong)

The prolific crime film specialist Johnnie To made one of his very best films with 2011’s mind-bogglingly good dramedy Life Without Principle. This raises my expectations even more for Drug War, which sees To re-teaming with long-time collaborators like writer Wai Ka-Fai and actors Louis Koo and Lam Suet. Plot details are scarce but still photographs show a lot of men pointing guns. Intriguingly, this is also To’s first film to be shot entirely in mainland China in over 30 years.

Gebo and the Shadow (De Oliveira, Portugal/France)

Portugal’s Manoel de Oliveira, one of the world’s best directors, assembles a heavyweight cast of European talent for this adaptation of a 19th century play by Raul Brandão: Michael Lonsdale, Claudia Cardinale and Jeanne Moreau join Oliveira stalwarts like Ricardo Trepa, Leonor Silveira and Luis Miguel Cintra. Described as the story of an honored but poor patriarch who sacrifices himself for his son, this is the latest chapter in one of cinema’s most storied and freakishly long careers; at 103, Oliveira has already embarked on pre-production of his next film.

Holy Motors (Carax, France)

My most anticipated film of the year by far is Leos Carax’s long awaited follow-up to 1999’s Pola X. Holy Motors stars Carax’s perennial alter-ego Denis Lavant as an actor who constantly shuttles between multiple parallel lives. Or something. The rest of the formidable and diverse cast includes Edith Scob, Michel Piccoli, Kylie Minogue and Eva Mendes. This wowed audiences and critics alike at Cannes but went home empty-handed come awards time due to an unusually conservative jury headed by Nanni “Middlebrow” Moretti.

In Another Country (Hong, S. Korea)

Another year, another Hong Sang-soo movie that plays to acclaim at Cannes with uncertain prospects of ever turning up in Chicago. Only one of Hong’s last seven films, including five features and two shorts, has played here (The Day He Arrives recently had a few screenings at the Siskel Center). One would think that the presence of Isabelle Huppert in the lead role and the fact that the majority of the dialogue is in English would improve In Another Country‘s chances but one never knows. It seems U.S. distributors like their Korean movies to carry the “Asian extreme” tag, and their witty and intellectual Rohmer-esque rom-coms to be spoken in French – and never the twain shall meet.

Jimmy Picard (Desplechin, USA/France)

The last I checked, Arnaud Desplechin’s first American-set film was still shooting in Michigan but it’s conceivable he could have it ready for a Toronto premiere in September – and thus a local CIFF premiere the following month. Benicio del Toro plays the title character, a Blackfoot Indian and WWII vet, who becomes one of the first subjects of “dream analysis” under a French psychotherapist played by Desplechin’s favorite leading man Mathieu Amalric. The estimable director’s only other English language film, 2000’s Esther Kahn, is also one of his best.

Laurence Anyways (Dolan, Canada/France)

23 year old writer/director/actor wunderkind Xavier Dolan debuted his third feature at Cannes this year where it was well-received. Melvil Poupad stars as a heterosexual man in a long-term relationship who undergoes a sex-change operation. I was initially skeptical of Dolan purely because of his young age and his credentials as a former child star but after catching Heartbeats (whose English language title is a regrettable stand-in for the original Les Amours Imaginaires) at CIFF two years ago, I was completely won over; the guy is a born filmmaker and the two-and-a-half hour Laurence Anyways sounds like a logical and ambitious step forward for him.

Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Japan/Iran)

Abbas Kiarostami’s latest divided critics at Cannes, a lot of whom compared it unfavorably to his supposedly “shockingly accessible” Certified Copy from two years earlier. But it also had its defenders and a die-hard Kiarostami fan like me is chomping at the bit to see it. This is a Japan set story about the relationship between a prostitute and an elderly college professor. The ending is supposedly nuts.

Love (Haneke, France/Austria)

I’ve never warmed up to Austrian miserabilist Michael Haneke, who specializes in combining titillation and moralism in convenient arthouse-friendly packages. But his latest, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, sounds more actor-driven and appealing to me: it tells the story of a married couple in their 80s (played by French screen legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) whose relationship is tested when the wife has a stroke. The ubiquitous “La Huppert,” who appears in three films on this list, co-stars.

Mekong Hotel (Weerasethakul, Thailand)

A documentary/narrative hybrid from the terrific experimental filmmaker Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul about various characters congregating at the title location situated along Thailand’s Mekong River. Apparently pigs and Tilda Swinton are also somehow involved. Depending on whom you believe, this is either a minor diversion or a major masterpiece. Either way, count me in.

The Night in Front (Ruiz, Chile/France)

The great Chilean filmmaker Raul Ruiz passed away from liver cancer last year while putting the finishing touches on what he must have known would be his final film. The Night in Front, an adaptation of stories by Hernan del Solar, received a posthumous debut in a special tribute session at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Fittingly, it was shot in Chile, Ruiz’s home country, from which he had lived in exile for decades. If this swan song is anywhere near the league of Mysteries of Lisbon, the 4 1/2 hour Ruiz opus that preceded it, it will be essential viewing.

Something in the Air (Assayas, France/England/Italy)

Something in the Air has been described as a coming-of-age story set against the turbulent political climate of Europe in the 1970s with locations that include France, Italy and the U.K. This makes it sound like an improbable cross between my other two favorite films by director Olivier Assayas: Cold Water and Carlos. This was offered an out of competition slot at Cannes, which Assayas turned down. As with Jimmy Picard, the only way this will show up at CIFF is if it has a Toronto World Premiere first.

Stoker (Park, USA/S. Korea)

The great Korean director Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut boasts excellent credentials in an A-list cast (Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode) and crew (composer Clint Mansell and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon) and yet . . . the film seems to be languishing in Post-Productionland for a suspiciously long time. Stoker has been described as both a drama and a horror film and plot descriptions make it sound like a virtual remake of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. How could this not be great?

Tabu (Gomes, Portugal)

With apparently explicit nods to F.W. Murnau’s film of the same title, this Portuguese/African co-production tells the story of an elderly woman living in contemporary Portugal with her black servant and then flashes back to tell the story of a love affair she had in Africa fifty years prior. I’ve never seen anything by the young director Miguel Gomes but the diverse locations and unusual two-part structure also make this sound similar to Daniel Kohlerer’s recent (and excellent) German/African co-production Sleeping Sickness. Both films were produced by Maren Ade, who is a fine young director in her own right (Everyone Else).

To the Wonder (Malick, USA)

As someone who saw The Thin Red Line five times in the theater, I’ve certainly fallen off the Terrence Malick bandwagon in the wake of The New World and The Tree of Life. And yet I still wouldn’t miss a new film by him for the world. The plot of this Ben Affleck/Rachel MacAdams-starring love story sounds like it will continue the autobiographical vein of The Tree of Life: an American man divorces his European wife and then embarks on a new romance with a woman from his small hometown. This is essentially what happened to Malick while preparing The Thin Red Line.

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Resnais, France)

I used to be somewhat lukewarm on Alain Resnais’ post-1960s work until 2009’s wild Wild Grass brought me roaring back into the fold. This new meta-movie sounds like a typically provocative and fascinating Resnais experiment: a group of great French actors playing themselves (including Michel Piccoli, Mathieu Amalric and Resnais’ permanent leading lady and muse Sabine Aszema) watch a filmed performance of the play Eurydice, which transports them back in time to when they had all starred in the same play years earlier. Some critics derided this as “indulgent” at Cannes but I say that’s like criticizing Thelonious Monk for not playing the piano melodically.

Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, USA/India)

Kathryn Bigelow’s long awaited follow-up to The Hurt Locker sees her reteaming with journalist/screenwriter Mark Boal in adapting the true story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. This was well into pre-production at the time Bin Laden was killed, meaning Zero Dark Thirty received an 11th-hour “mother of all rewrites.” Details on this are scarce but the excellent Jessica Chastain apparently has a prominent role as a journalist.


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