Film review – Stoker (2013)

2 September 2013
Stoker: India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) and Charlie Stoker (Matthew Goode)

India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) and Charlie Stoker (Matthew Goode)

The gothic fiction genre, where horror and romance come together to define and sometimes undermine the moral sensibilities of the era, originated in England and was most popular throughout Europe. Originally a literary genre, its global popularity and influence across all art forms, especially film, has been such that one of the greatest gothic fiction films of recent times is Stoker, an American written and produced film, directed by a South Korean filmmaker and starring an international cast that includes several generations of Australian talent. And like so many of the best genre films, it undermines and takes the conventions into new territory.

The title Stoker alludes to Irish author Bram Stoker whose 1897 novel Dracula is one of the definitive gothic fiction texts. Dracula is the story of a predator, using vampiric violence as a metaphor for sex, and depending on interpretation it explores a variety of sexual anxieties of the era concerned with men, women and mysterious foreigners. Stoker is not a vampire film, but it shares some of the eroticism and bodily horror that director Park Chan-wook explored in his previous film Thirst (2009), which provided its own spin on the sex/violence symbolism of vampire mythology. In Stoker, violence as a trigger for sexual awakening is a major theme and like Thirst Park relies on the sound design to convey desire making every breath of air or sip of wine the soundtrack for lust and bloodlust.

The predator character in Stoker is Charlie Stoker (Matthew Goode), who on the day of his brother’s funeral turns up to stay with his dead brother’s wife Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and her daughter India (Mia Wasikowska). There is no doubt about Charlie’s sinister intent as when India glimpses him standing in the distance he looks like Norman Bates from Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) standing in silhouette next to the hotel. As Charlie ingrains himself into the lives of his brother’s widow and his niece, and starts digging up the garden, the film sets the stage for the oncoming nastiness.

The figure at the centre of the film is India who like many female heroes of gothic fiction is a young woman on the cusp of sexual awakening. The film and Charlie are obsessed with her age, reminding the audience that she turned eighteen on the day her father died. She always receives an identical pair of black-and-white schoolgirl Oxford shoes for her birthday, which increasingly become fetish objects that define her youth. She appears tiny against the large furniture in the house she lives in. As Charlie opens a bottle of wine he comments that it is young and ‘not ready to be opened’ at a stage in the film where it is clear he has plans for India now that she is of age.

India’s sexuality and how Charlie influences it is a central theme in Stoker. Initially India is portrayed as conservative and puritanical while Evelyn is sexual and open to Charlie’s seductive presence. However, like Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), Charlie is using the mother to get to the daughter and manipulates every moment to sway India from repulsion, to jealously to forbidden desire. Much is made of India’s sexuality from the mystery of what happened to the shoes she was supposed to receive on her eighteenth birthday to the close-up of the water dripping between her feet after having come in from the rain. She unlocks a box full of family secrets, which possesses all the symbolism of Pandora’s Box in terms of it containing both the evils of the world and female sexuality. And then there are the repeated shots of a spider crawling up her leg and in-between her thighs at precise moments in the film. Meanwhile, Charlie is frequently associated with the buzzing sound of a fly.

Not everything is what it seems in Stoker and its strength lies in how much it undermines expectations by taking a revisionist approach to gothic fiction conventions. The film never pulls the rug from beneath the audience, but it gently slides it out so that the audience can go along for the ride and accept the film seems to be one thing, but turns out to be something else. A key line of dialogue occurs early when Charlie comments that India has the advantage by physically standing on the stairs below him. Throughout the film India does physically appear lower than other people, just like her status as a young virginal girl makes her of traditionally lower status in gothic fiction. However, her uncle is right, she has the advantage and throughout Stoker it becomes apparent that a lot of generic conventions are being turned upside down so that the young virginal girl is not the victim she is often cast to be.

Stoker is about an awakening within India; an awakening triggered by Charlie, but not in the way he anticipates. The film begins with a flashforward where India narrates that she is wearing her father’s belt, mother’s blouse and uncle’s shoes and by the end of the film it is clear what these objects mean and how the different members of her family are part of who she is. Stoker almost feels like an origin story or a prequel to another popular genre, while remaining a more subversive than usual spin on gothic fiction conventions.

The blend of sexuality and violence of gothic fiction is right at the forefront of Stoker even if it mostly exists off-screen or through implication. Similar to the way that David Cronenberg’s films have moved from the visceral to the psychological, Stoker heralds a similar transition for Park. His meticulous framing and visual composition are more than evident in Stoker, but the transgressive thrills mostly occur under the surface in the psychological realm. This interior focus is effectively alluded to in the art class scene where instead of painting flowers in a vase, India paints the intricate pattern on the inside of the vase. And throughout Stoker the audience is in her intricate, violent and sexual interior world. It is a disturbing place to be in the most wicked and wonderful way possible.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – The Paperboy (2012)

4 March 2013
The Paperboy: Jack Jansen (Zac Efron)

Jack Jansen (Zac Efron)

Early in Lee Daniels’s film adaptation of Pete Dexter’s 1995 novel The Paperboy is a moment demonstrating how the film will function as an inverse of social conventions. The protagonist Jack Jansen (Zac Efron), a young college dropout who has moved back to his home in southern Florida, is lying in his bedroom when the house maid and film’s narrator Anita Chester (Macy Gray) enters. After some playful banter that suggests the young white boy and older black woman do not see each other in a master/servant context, the pair decides to swap places. Jack pretends to fuss about the messy state of the bedroom while Anita drops to the ground and declares she is going to lie around and jerk off all day. Set in the early 1960s in a notoriously conservative part of America, this swapping of racial, gender and class roles evokes the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s writing on the carnivalesque. The use of humour, the grotesque and parody to subvert social norms, hierarchies and notions of good taste runs throughout The Paperboy, a film noir that is set in the bright blistering heat of the Florida sun, the inverse to the shadow filled metropolises of traditional film noir.

The initial set-up for the film is a journalistic investigation into an alleged wrongful arrest. Jack’s older brother Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) arrives back in town with colleague Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) to write about Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), a man on death row for the murder of a despised local sheriff. Also in the picture is Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a woman with a background of becoming romantically obsessed with inmates who now wants to marry Hillary. While The Paperboy at first glance seems to be a fight against injustice and police corruption narrative, the investigation into Hillary’s presumed innocence soon falls into the background to function as the catalyst for what the film really wants to explore: an Oedipal dynamic between Jack, Charlotte and Hillary.

As an overtly sexual woman who desires dangerous men, Charlotte is quickly identified as the film’s femme fatale. Jack is instantly drawn to her and it is no coincidence that she’s a much older woman and Jack does not have a mother of his own; hence the symbolic son and mother relationship of the Oedipal scenario. The symbolic father is Hillary whom Jack believes he has to rescue Charlotte from since she desires him against all common sense. Keeping with the inverse of expectations theme, Hillary is revealed not to be a suffering victim of injustice but a crude, misogynist and racist man. For a film with so many sexual allusions, the most explicit scene is when at Hillary’s command Charlotte mimes giving him oral sex. The scene is confronting and uncomfortably comical, and constantly shows the reactions of the disturbed and bemused onlookers who include Jack. The moment is a lurid encapsulation of a psychoanalytic primal scene, where Jack is traumatised watching his symbolic parents engaged in a sexual act. The presentation of Charlotte as symbolic mother and object of desire for Jack is further perverted when she urinates on his jellyfish stings; an act that is both bizarrely nurturing and sexual.

And yet Charlotte is not a traditional femme fatale in the sense that she is not blamed for bringing about the downfall of the male hero. Her sexuality is not deceitful and she is always open about her feelings and attitude towards sex. Within the context of the other characters Charlotte is a character of striking honesty and purity. Unlike investigative journalist ‘heroes’ Ward and Yardley, Charlotte keeps no secrets about who she is. The only other character that compares to her in this regard is Anita who functions as Jack’s moral compass. The Paperboy contains several touching and tender moments between Jack and Anita to suggest the extent in which boundaries concerning race, sexuality and gender are artificial and constructed.

Nevertheless, The Paperboy is a gleefully carnivalesque film, but a contemporary one since it parodies not just dominant culture but what dominant culture perceives to be its binary opposite. To put it another way, the film’s camp aesthetic means that the targets for derision are across the board. The film portrays heterosexual sex acts as perverse and grotesque, but does the same for homosexual acts. There are both male and female characters who are presented as caricatures, and both white and black characters are portrayed as deceitful. The lower classes are mocked and so are the upper classes, as represented by Jack and Ward’s father WW Jansen (Scott Glenn) and his girlfriend Nancy (Nikolette Noel). Yet underneath the borderline hysterical plot twists and oversaturated colour scheme is the empathy between Jack and Anita, and also between Jack and Ward. The portrayal of the relationship between individual characters, when free from how they identify as belonging to particular social groups, is what is crucial to why The Paperboy is more than a giant southern American freak show.

The most arresting part of The Paperboy is saved until the end when the film makes its definitive attack on cultural hegemony. The film concludes in the dangerous yet cinematically beautiful swamp, which exists as a transgressive space of otherness in a similar way to the oft mentioned but never seen Chinatown in Roman Polanski’s 1974 film Chinatown. Such primal and exotic spaces that exist outside of what is considered civilisation are often evoked in film noir and other American genres, and are designed to somehow destroy the male hero. However, in the topsy-turvy world of The Paperboy this is not a space that has been defined by external cultures, but one that has been defined by white, masculine, heterosexuality at its most perverse and deadly. The ultimate threat that Jack faces is not due to his exposure to black culture, or homosexuality or to female sexuality. Instead the threat is monstrous dominant American culture as personified by the swamp people.

Everything about The Paperboy seems designed to undermine expectations and the result is an exhilaratingly unpredictable film with moments that induce shocked laughter as well as moments of surprising empathy. By creating a film that at times seems so gaudy and out-of-control, Daniel proves himself to be a master filmmaker. Lurid use of music and superimposition create delirious sequences to convey Jack’s point-of-view. One sequence is after a jellyfish has stung him; another is to convey his sexual obsession with Charlotte. Both moments are similarly hallucinogenic to capture the madness and intensity of his longing for Charlotte. Shot on widescreen 16mm and then blown up to the size of 35mm, the film has both an old fashioned yet otherworldly feel, in keeping with its subversion of film noir style and themes. Audiences willing to surrender to the cinematic subversions and transgressions found within The Paperboy will be rewarded with an experience that is both strangely familiar and yet seems entirely unique.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Rabbit Hole (2010)

14 February 2011
Rabbit Hole: Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart)

Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart)

The distinctive common element in the three diverse feature films of John Cameron Mitchell, is the way Mitchell lays bear fundamental aspects of what it is that drives and defines us all as human beings. The 2001 cult musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch explores sexual and gender identity, the explicit 2006 comedy/drama Shortbus looks at various issues connected to sexuality and sexual expression, and now Rabbit Hole focuses on some of the most raw emotions that can afflict us when tragedy strikes. Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning stage play by David Lindsay-Abaire, Rabbit Hole is tonally a departure from Mitchell’s previous work and yet it continues to demonstrate his deep understanding of human behaviour and his non-judgemental compassion for his characters.

The emotion that runs deepest in Rabbit Hole is grief, although anger and resentment also play leading roles. The characters at the centre of the narrative are married couple Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie Corbett (Aaron Eckhart) with Becca’s mother Nat (Dianne Wiest) and sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) as important supporting characters. The source of their pain is withheld from the audience for a considerable length of time, as is the relevance of teenager Jason (Miles Teller) whom Becca forms an uneasy friendship with. By strategically releasing so much important narrative information in later stages of the film the audience are forced to focus their attention on the emotional states that the characters are wrestling with and their relationships to one another, instead of the event itself. This makes the film all the more powerful. There is also repeated use of a strange paper collage artwork as a seemingly non-diegetic transition shot between sequences but even this object has an important meaning that is revealed later in the film.

Rabbit Hole: Howie (Aaron Eckhart)

Howie (Aaron Eckhart)

The tightly structured writing is outstanding and Lindsay-Abaire has expertly adapted his dialogue to suit the big screen without any of it feeling overtly theatrical. Given the flamboyant nature of his previous films Mitchell has demonstrated just how proficient a filmmaker he is with the restrained and affecting way he has approached Rabbit Hole. His careful framing and the use of a soft sometimes washed out light gives the film a melancholic glow that is oddly comforting despite the great sadness that it elicits.

The acting is also superb with the entire cast all doing extremely impressive work playing flawed and pained characters that the audience still want to spend time with. However, it really is Kidman as Becca who takes centre stage as a woman whose grief process doesn’t necessarily conform to the expectations that the people around her have. Becca’s own fight to prevent herself from being consumed with bitterness is compelling viewing and could only be pulled off by a truly dedicated and talented actor. Kidman has had her share of criticism over the years and admittedly chosen some very poor roles in the past, but she has always excelled in difficult parts in challenging films with strong directors. She demonstrated this in The Portrait of a Lady, Eyes Wide Shut, The Hours, Dogville, Birth and now again in Rabbit Hole.

Rabbit Hole: Becca (Nicole Kidman)

Becca (Nicole Kidman)

Rabbit Hole is a very sophisticated and moving family drama, comparable to Rachel Getting Married. It is a complicated and difficult film that is also extraordinarily sincere and honest.  It is artfully constructed without feeling worthy, it is truthful without being social realism and it is emotionally intense without being melodramatic. It delves deep inside its metaphoric rabbit hole to examine emotions that aren’t frequently explored in such depth. It also suggests that even when overwhelming life-changing events occur, we still do exist in a universe of infinite possibilities. As difficult as it may seem, especially when faced with a situation out of our control, there are always choices we can make to change our situation even if it is to simply alter the way we respond to others. Rabbit Hole is emotional viewing but it ultimately offers a sense of hope where healing and reconciliation are viable options.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Nine (2009)

20 January 2010

Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Luisa Contini (Marion Cotillard)

The 1960s Italian filmmaker Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) is in a creative slump and hasn’t written a word of the script for his new film. To placate the media, the film’s producer ostentatiously announces that Guido’s film will be about Italy “as a myth, as a woman, as a dream.”  This description encapsulates Nine, a musical dripping in Italian chic, which borders on the fetishistic, about the mythology surrounding a great filmmaker, the women in his life and the dreams he slips into to make sense of it all. Nine is a cinematic adaptation of a 1982 Broadway musical, which was itself an adaptation of Federico Fellini’s playful, self-reflexive and semi-autobiographical 1963 film . Nine was an excellent opportunity to make a cinematic spectacle but unfortunately director Rob Marshall has instead churned out a largely by-the-numbers musical.

Marshall’s biggest mistake is his very conservative approach towards the fantasy sequences. While Fellini intertwined the subjective and objective moments of , blurring the boundary between reality and fantasy, Marshall frames all the musical numbers as fantasy scenes that are detached from the real world. It’s a stodgy and boring approach made worse by the fact that all the songs take place in a clearly delineated ‘dream-space’ that is an empty theatre stage with bits of half built scaffolding. Instead of breaking free of the restraints of Nines’s theatrical origins, Marshall has embraced them and the musical numbers suffer as a result. Marshall had a similar approach to the songs in his excellent 2002 film adaptation of Chicago but it suited the format of that show while it does not in the case of Nine.

Marshall’s unambitious approach means that despite the bevy of sultry backup dancers in corsets, fishnets and suspenders (aren’t we over this look in ‘sassy’ musicals yet?) the music numbers mostly lack excitement. This is a shame because the mainly all female cast do an excellent job. Day-Lewis is as reliably immersed in the part of Guido as always, but Nine belongs to Marion Cotillard, Penélope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Kate Hudson, Sophia Loren and Stacy Ferguson (Fergie) who are all in top form playing the women in Guido’s life. Cotillard (Public Enemies, La Vie en Rose) as his long suffering wife is perhaps the one who shines the most. She gets the best numbers, she is the best written character (the rest of the women are maternal figures or objects of desire) and the camera adores her.

There are moments in Nine where the combination of music, spectacle and subjective filmmaking is just right and the final sequence in particular hints at how great the rest of the film may have been. Otherwise Nine is a disappointment and it really needed a more inventive and unrestrained director, such as Alan Parker, Tim Burton or even Baz Luhrmann, to do it justice. While Fellini’s was a glorious melange of myths, women and dreams, Marshall’s Nine is the product of a neat freak whose determination to tidy everything up ruins all the fun.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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