Rob Harmon’s Recommendation 06/25/13

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Rob Harmon

A fascinating trend in the history of American filmmaking is that many excellent filmmakers (and some not so much) have come here from other countries in order to make movies. While Hollywood exercises enormous influence on the world cinema scene just think of how much the outsider-perspectives of F.W. Murnau’s SUNRISE or Alex Cox’s REPO MAN or the bodies of works by Lubitsch and Wilder have affected our film culture.

STOKER should be regarded in this light: It is the first English-language film of South Korean director Park Chan-wook, who came into prominence in the early 2000’s with his gritty “Revenge” trilogy (SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, OLDBOY, LADY VENGEANCE), as well as the taut military thriller JSA: JOINT SECURITY AREA. Park developed a reputation for infusing lofty, almost Shakespearean themes with a violent genre sensibility. He was embraced by critics as well as by fans of “extreme” cinema for his bloody, baroque meditations on violence and revenge and their effects on the human psyche.

Like many of Park’s previous efforts Stoker is a thriller, and an effective, gruesome one at that. India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) has just turned 18 and is a friendless outcast in high school. To make matters worse her father and best friend in the world (Dermot Mulroney) has just died in a mysterious car accident on her birthday, while her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode, the character’s name a clever nod to Hitchcock’s SHADOW OF A DOUBT), whom she never even knew existed, shows up at the palatial Stoker home announcing that he will stay, to the delight of India’s unstable, sexually-frustrated mother Evie (Nicole Kidman). India is more skeptical about Charlie, though, and his urbane, world-traveling exploits. When a number of people—the housekeeper, an aunt—begin to disappear, it may be that Charlie is behind it, as well as a number of other dark family secrets.  The Stokers are an unusual bunch, each of them more-than-capable of stoking this story along: India in her virginal white outfits but with an unusual taste for bird hunting; Evie with her pent-up sexuality and mid-life crisis; and Charlie, almost too-perfectly handsome, just couldn’t be a murderer… or could he?

During its 99 lean minutes, Stoker conjures up a kind of Grimm’s fairy tale-like atmosphere, one where blood-and-guts and hints of eroticism are the engines of grandiose storytelling. There is a great deal of psycho-sexual tension at work in this family and Park and his screenwriter (first-timer Wentworth Miller, better known as an actor until now) are wise enough to never reveal too much of their hand, subtle enough to leave a lot to the imagination. Stoker proves that—similarly to CARRIE—in a story about a young girl’s pubescent awakening to the cruel realities of the world, blood-letting can be a remarkably effective metaphor. Though highly stylized, this film never loses it grounding and its heart: the family unit, grotesque though it may be.

Many of Park Chan-wook’s films are available for rental in our Korean section, including Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, JSA: Joint Security Area and Thirst.

New Releases 06/18/13

Top Hits
Quartet (drama/comedy, Maggie Smith. Rotten Tomatoes: 79%. Metacritic: 64. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review; “In a charming, only somewhat condescending scene in Quartet, Reginald Paget [Tom Courtenay], a retired opera singer, lectures a room full of hip-hop-loving teenagers about the similarities and differences between his favorite music and theirs. Opera, he explains, is about the expression of intense emotion through song. Rap, he surmises, sort of does the same thing. There is more to it than that, of course, but Reginald is distracted before he can finish the lesson. Perhaps he might have pointed out that singing opera (and rapping, for that matter) also demands a great deal of discipline and attention to technique.” Read more…)

Movie 43 (comedy, Richard Gere. Rotten Tomatoes: 4%. Metacritic: 19. From Stephen Holden’s New York Times review: “The kindest thing to be said of Movie 43, a star-saturated collection of crude one-joke vignettes made with big-time directors, is that most of the participants seem to relish being naughty. What binds these skits in a format that leads from one to the next with no connective tissue is the occasional presence of Dennis Quaid as a crazy, down-on-his-luck filmmaker who has wangled his way into the office of a timid midlevel studio executive [Greg Kinnear] to sell the project.” Read more…)

21 & Over (comedy, Miles Teller. Rotten Tomatoes: 27%. Metacritic: 34. From Nicole Herrington’s New York Times review: “There’s a line early on in 21 & Over about your “oldest friends always being your strangest ones.” That may be true, but there is a bigger theme here: After four years of college lifelong friendships can become forced, resulting in awkward attempts to reconnect and relive the good old days.” Read more…)

Stoker (thriller, Nicole Kidman. Rotten Tomatoes: 67%. Metacritic: 58. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “The first half of Stoker passes in a rapture of dread, as the viewer anticipates terrible things to come. This is partly because the director, Park Chan-wook, here making his English-language debut, is an internationally renowned master of bloodshed. His ‘vengeance’ trilogy — in particular the middle chapter, Oldboy, currently being remade by Spike Lee — is cherished by many cinephiles, in South Korea and beyond, for its blend of visual elegance, melodrama and extreme violence.” Read more…)

Jack the Giant Slayer (fantasy/adventure, Nicholas Hoult. Rotten Tomatoes: 52%. Metacritic: 51. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “Recently filmmakers have been dusting off fairy tales and giving them a revisionist feminist spin. As movies like Red Riding Hood and Mirror Mirror suggest, striking a balance between the old [and often sexist] and the new [and vaguely progressive] is trickier than it might seem. The makers of Snow White and the Huntsman tried to reconcile two potentially irreconcilable ideas— a thoroughly modern miss and an old-fashioned happily ever after — by putting a sword in Snow White’s hands so she could ride alongside her heroic hunk. The results weren’t half bad, even if this butched-up Snow White didn’t magically transform into a genuinely liberated princess. The makers of Jack the Giant Slayer, by contrast, have generally opted to stick to the original boy meets beans, boy loses beans, boy meets giants, and so on, embellishing the familiar bedtime story with 3-D and other effects, noisy battles and an occasional wink at the material.” Read more…)

American Mary (horror, Katharine Isabelle. Rotten Tomatoes: 59%. Metacritic: 46. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Andy Webster’s Times review:”‘I don’t think it’s really fair that God gets to choose what we look like on the outside, do you?’ says Beatress Johnson [Tristan Risk] in American Mary, a new horror movie from the twins Jen and Sylvia Soska. So Beatress has had work done. Lots of work: ’14 different surgeries to get me to look like this’ — a nightmare Betty Boop, with a synthetic, cartoonish face to supplement her ’50s homemaker dresses and a Kewpie-doll voice uttering the occasional obscene epithet. Beatress is just one fascinating player in this compelling film about appearances and their manipulation.” Read more…)

New Blu-Ray
Quartet
Stoker
Jack the Giant Slayer
Jack the Giant Slayer 3D
Al Pacino Double Feature: Scent of a Woman/Sea of Love

New Foreign
Neighboring Sounds (Brazil, drama/thriller, Sebastião Formiga. Rotten Tomatoes: 91%. Metacritic: 77. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From A.O. Scott’s Times review: “The characters in this densely populated movie can be roughly divided into masters and servants, and you notice just how much labor — ironing clothes, refilling water coolers, delivering packages, opening doors, selling drugs — goes into maintaining the leisure class in its life of ease. But [director Kleber Mendonça Filho], a former film critic whose command of the medium is both formidable and subtle, is up to something more than the usual upstairs-downstairs comedy of colliding destinies in a small place. The scope of his movie is narrow, but its ambitions are enormous, and it accomplishes nothing less than the illumination of the peculiar state of Brazilian [and not only Brazilian] society.” Read more…)

Marketa Lazarová (Czechoslovakia, 1967, drama/history, Magda Vásáryová)

New Classic DVDs (pre-1960)
Safety Last (1923, silent comedy masterpiece, Harold Lloyd. Rotten Tomatoes: 96%. From Dave Kehr’s New York Times DVD review: “Even people who don’t know [Harold] Lloyd’s name will probably recognize the ubiquitous image of the young man in horn-rimmed glasses, hanging from the hands of a clock high above a city street. The scene is from Lloyd’s 1923 feature Safety Last!, which is being reissued this week by the Criterion Collection in a newly restored and breathtakingly sharp Blu-ray edition. The encounter with the clock is only one gag in the film’s meticulously constructed 20-minute climactic sequence, in which Lloyd, as a lowly department store clerk, finds himself forced to take the place of a professional human fly, whom Lloyd has hired to climb the store’s skyscraper headquarters as a publicity stunt. But even [or perhaps, particularly] when it is removed from its carefully motivated context, the image maintains its force and piquancy as a metaphor of urban anxiety: modern man uncertainly suspended over the chasm of an uncaring, impersonal metropolis, struggling to hold on to something, anything, as his feet churn the void and the minutes of his life click away.” Read more…)

New Brit
Call the Midwife: Season 2

New Docs
Brooklyn Castle (inner city teen chess champions. Rotten Tomatoes: 98%. Metacritic: 77. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “The child chess champions in the irresistible documentary Brooklyn Castle don’t take long, as one of these sweetpeas likes to say, to crush you. Year after year, these big brains and little bodies at Intermediate School 318 in Williamsburg win chess tournaments, and their winning streak continues on screen. They are a remarkable, funny, inspiring, at times devastating group. Through the eyes of the director Katie Dellamaggiore, you come to know these children, their teachers and parents as you witness their pulse-quickening matches and tears splashed on the family dining-room table. There’s smiling uplift here, but the road is seldom easy and sometimes brutal.” Read more…)

Shakespeare Uncovered (literary history/analysis, Derek Jacobi)