Thursday, September 26, 2013

Short Takes: Stoker, Side Effects, and More

Stoker (dir. Park Chan-wook, 2013)

Though he made a number of films in several different genres, Alfred Hitchcock will always be known for his thrillers, which are continually ranked not just among his best films, but also the best films of all time. The celebration of these films and desire to emulate them have resulted in the development of a sub-genre, "Hitchcockian thrillers," that ape the director's trademarks. Stoker, Park's (Oldboy, Thirst) English-language debut, can be added to the list. When India Stoker's (Mia Wasikowska) father dies, her mysterious Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) comes to live with her and her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). Of course, good old Uncle Charlie is much more sinister than he appears - anyone who's seen Shadow of a Doubt, which this film borrows heavily from, would know that. Park's dark idiosyncrasies liven up the film, especially in moments that seem to enter India's mind, such as a brief scene where she's surrounded by the shoes she's received over the year. Wasikowska is the film's MVP, fully committing to India's oddness, and Kidman makes the most of what's essentially a thankless role. But none of these elements can make up for Wentworth Miller's uneven script, which fails to capitalize on its terrific setup, and ends on a coda that feels dropped in from another film. It's a film that aspires for Hitchcock, but lands closer to airport-bookstore pulp. B-

War Witch (dir. Kim Nguyen, 2013)

The subject of this film is gut-wrenching: Komona (non-professional actress Rachel Mwanza) is a twelve-year-old girl in an unnamed African country when she's abducted and trained to become a child soldier. Nguyen smartly crafts an inventive, powerful film that doesn't become overwhelming in its misery, instead presenting Komona as a young girl who must mature beyond her years in order to survive, while adding a magical-realist element that makes the abstract more tangible. Mwanza is a revelation; she capably handles the film's most despairing elements, and never overacts, displaying that same maturity beyond her years as Komona. The film was Canada's nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film last year; obviously, Amour won, but hopefully voters faced a difficult selection between that film and this one. A-

Side Effects (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2013)

If Soderbergh is to be believed (and we'll wait and see), this film was supposedly the final theatrically-released production of his career. If that's true, it's an odd note to go out on. Emily (Rooney Mara) has been struggling since her husband (Channing Tatum) went to prison for financial crimes; he's now out, and the two are trying to pick up their lives where they left off. Only Emily now struggles with depression, and takes medications prescribed to her by Dr. Banks (Jude Law) and her old psychiatrist, Dr. Seibert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Not to spoil what happens, but what starts with pretensions of being an exposé of the pharmaceutical industry instead evolves into the type of sexual thriller that Adrian Lyne has built his career on. The film is all over the place, mostly the result of Scott Z. Burns' script, and Soderbergh doesn't seem particularly invested as a director. For a director with a career as illustrious as Soderbergh's, it seems odd that he'd leave filmmaking behind with such a disposable film. B

The Bling Ring (dir. Sofia Coppola, 2013)

Coppola's films have often focused on the lives of the privileged, but The Bling Ring finds her turning a critical eye to her characters for the first time. Based on a true story, the film follows a group of bored, rich SoCal kids who decide to burglarize celebrity homes. Why? Basically, because they can. Spearheading the group is Rebecca (Katie Chang), who uses new kid Marc (Israel Broussard, the film's great discovery) to assist her on their first robberies, then recruiting Chloe (Claire Julian), Sam (Taissa Farmiga), and Nicki (Emma Watson) to join them. Broussard truly delivers the film's best performance, as he's just self-absorbed enough to get caught up in this situation but also self-aware enough to realize that it's stupid. Watson is no doubt the most high-profile, and though she nail's Nicki's vapidity, she doesn't quite resonate throughout the film. The film's biggest problem, though, is that's Coppola's critical lens lacks bite; it almost seems like she can't bring herself to fully paint these girls and their new-age lifestyle as human beings without somewhat admiring them. However, as with all of Coppola's films, it is beautifully shot. B

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