Director: Chan-Wook Park
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Alden Ehrenreich, Dermot Mulroney, Jackie Weaver
Written by Wentworth Miller, who you may know as one of the stars of the television series Prison Break, and heavily indebted to Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Stoker is a coming of age story with a difference. Think less Stand by Me and more Carrie.
India Stoker is a morose teenage girl, darker than your normal morose teenage girl, uncomfortable in her own skin and unsure of her identity. When her father, with whom she was close, is killed in a car accident she is left without a buffer between her and her troubled mother, with whom she has a strained relationship. Living alone together in large Southern mansion, they are surprised by the arrival of her Uncle Charlie, a brother of her fathers whom she didn’t know existed. Charlie arrives out of the blue and declares his intention to stay for a while. He is young, handsome, and well-travelled, and instantly charms India’s mother, while India is more cautious and distrusting of this mysterious uncle. With time she finds this distrust matched with a strange sense of kinship, before learning the dangerous truth about Uncle Charlie… he is a psychopathic serial killer.
This psychological thriller is directed by Korean filmmaker Chan-Wook Park who gained international attention in 2004, when his revenge thriller Oldboy won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and became a cult favourite around the world. Stoker marks his first foray into English-language filmmaking and he has no trouble applying his immense talent for visual storytelling to a different language. The images are masterfully composed, and cleverly edited together, including an interesting transitionary device where items that appear to be part of one shot end up becoming part of the shot on the other side of the dissolve.
Stoker has a creepy, chilling tone – established through the way the picture is photographed, the performances of the actors, and the music – that elicits quite a visceral reaction. Before you process the narrative information, before you understand what is going on, you are already feeling that sense of unease and mistrust.
The film has a Gothic feel to it, no doubt resulting from the fact that much of the action takes place in the Stoker’ old Southern mansion, which looks unchanged since the 1930s. In fact, it makes it initially quite difficult to pin down a time period for the events. You find yourself assuming that you are watching a period piece from the first half of the 20th century until we get a couple of scenes at the school which makes it apparent that it is the present day.
Stoker’s second half lacks the subtlety of its slow-burning first half, with that spookiness and sense of menace that is so overpowering in the film’s early passages making way for more direct, confronting images of violence. The eroticising of these acts of violence adds another disturbing layer to the bond being formed between India and her uncle.
Stoker will only receive a limited release, and likely won’t make a huge impact, but it could well be one of the year’s best films. It is a fantastic psychological thriller: creepy, compelling and strangely beautiful.
Rating – ★★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Starring: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Mae Whitman, Melanie Lynskey, Paul Rudd
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a coming-of-age story set in the early 1990s. Emotionally scarred Charlie has always felt invisible. He’s always been on the outside looking in. On his first day of high school he is already counting down the days until it’s over. But when he is taken in by a group of equally misfit seniors, he finds himself in a situation he has never been in before, he has friends, and through them he is able to take the first steps towards putting his past behind him.
Chbosky wrote the cult, young-adult novel of the same title in 1999, and made the rather bold decision to direct the film adaptation himself, despite his experience as a director being limited to one film almost two decades ago. However, his bold decision really seems to have paid off.
While there is a certain level of pretentiousness in their desire to be alternative, it still has an incredible authenticity. For example, the fact that Sam takes such pride in her good taste in music, yet along with Charlie spends the whole film trying to identify David Bowie’s ‘We Can Be Heroes’ seems to ring true of an eighteen year old know-it-all who despite her best efforts still has enormous gaps in her knowledge and experience. That authenticity is really important. So much of contemporary hipster culture is artifice, simply adhering to a set of conventions in order to be cool, even if they are a non-traditional set of conventions. If that was all The Perks of Being a Wallflower work was it would be an incredibly frustrating film, and this group of teens would probably come across as obnoxious and unlikeable. But it isn’t. There is an authenticity to their lifestyle. Their alternativeness doesn’t come from a desire to identify as being different. It comes from the acceptance and embracing of the fact that they are different. Whether as a by-product of their sexuality (Patrick), or as a result of childhood trauma (Charlie) or abuse (Sam), their lives have conspired against them to make them outsiders. Yet they manage to find a place with other different people (the inclusion of The Rocky Horror Picture Show as one of the group’s defining activities speaks volumes).
The performances of the film’s leading trio are fantastic. Logan Lerman’s is impressive as Charlie, providing the film’s emotional centre in a part that either makes or breaks the film. Lerman manages to make Charlie instantly likeable despite his closed off and troubled personality. As Patrick, Ezra Miller provides a fun and flamboyant character without forfeiting his humanity. Emma Watson delivers a career-changing performance which may well become her post-Harry Potter calling car – which is important for her career given that was a decade’s worth of employment she gained on the basis of being a talented ten year old.
There is one element in the story which distracted me. Charlie is a freshman (first year of high school) while the rest of his friends are seniors (final year). That is quite a sizeable age difference for a school context, but it is never really suggested in the film that this is in any way unusual. It is simply not an issue. Yet in real life it would be an issue. Why would a bunch of eighteen year olds want to hang around with a fourteen year old?
Some critics have complained that this film lacks originality, and it is true that there isn’t really anything here we haven’t seen in some form before, but a well-made coming-of-age story will find a way to connect with audiences and it is no surprise that The Perks of Being a Wallflower managed to sneak onto a few best films of 2012 lists. It’s a gem.
Rating – ★★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean