Mud (2013)

Mud (2013)

I like it when an actor blindsides you with a performance you really weren’t expecting. Especially when they’ve been somewhat typecast in previous movies. Sure, you might be able to identify the odd movie they had that was a break from the norm, before they reverted back to their “type”. And actors sure do love playing up to their “type”! I don’t think we’ll be seeing Dwayne Johnson playing a hopeless romantic any time soon… unless his romance is between him and a free weights section at the gym. Conversely, you’ve got someone like Channing Tatum – a guy that’s willing to experiment with his roles, which has led to some startlingly good performances where he doesn’t just dance around the screen… But all of this pales in comparison to a performance from 2012 by one Matthew McConaughey. That film was Killer Joe. His new film promised more of the same: a break from “type”, but did Mud deliver?

Hey Joe!

Hey Joe!

I must say that Mud came at me from under the radar. I had no hype for it and it honestly wasn’t even pushed very hard in the UK. If I’m honest, I only became aware of it thanks to Keith over at Keith & The Movies putting it as his “most anticipated” movie of 2013. This guaranteed I had to go out and see it when it hit the UK… and it’s now hit. In an extremely limited release! Coming off the back of a disappointing The Place Beyond The Pines, I was eager to see a movie that lived up to my expectations from its protagonists. Well, Mud did at least achieve that… but just didn’t hit all the high notes I was expecting.

Mud is the tale of two boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who are growing up in the river communities of Alabama. Life’s pretty boring, but they love to explore, so they think all their dreams have come true when they find a boat lodged in a tree following a flood – their own private hangout. But the boat’s not entirely unoccupied. It’s here that they encounter the eponymous Mud (Matthew McConaughey) – he’s homeless, but don’t call him a hobo. What unfolds is Mud’s tale of why he is where he is – he’s murdered someone for treating his girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon) in a terrible manner. He’s on the run, and not just from the police, but from the dead guy’s family too… And our two young leads become embroiled in proceedings.

Mud (2013)

Let’s start off with what I really enjoyed about the movie, and that’s the acting. I felt that every actor was really pulling their weight here. A lot of credit has to go to Tye Sheridan for carrying the movie so well on his young shoulders. He really had to run the gamut of emotions in this movie and really captured the frustrations of being at that age – dealing with the confusing Mud situation and dealing with those pesky “love” emotions. Similarly, Jacob Lofland was ably suited to his role too; providing much of the comic relief in the movie. Not that there were laughs galore to be had, but he broke the tension well. But this is Matthew McConaughey‘s movie, yet again. His character, Mud, is a mysterious one. And thankfully it’s one that doesn’t rely on getting his top off (all the time… it does happen though), or smiling at the camera as McConaughey is so accustomed to. I’d argue that his performance here isn’t as startling as that of Killer Joe, or indeed A Time To Kill, but it’s still resoundingly strong. And before I leave this little “acting love-in”… Reese Witherspoon? Who’d have expected her to be doing some genuine acting too!?

The other thing I loved about the movie is it all just “fit” into place. It didn’t seem like a movie – it was like the cameras turned up and just captured the everyday lives of its inhabitants as they were. It’s hard to put this into words to accurately convey the feeling I had here, but the cinematography and direction by Jeff Nichols was suitably apt.

Mud (2013)

However, the film isn’t without its problems – crucially in pacing. The movie does drag its heels at several occasions and the film doesn’t need to be over two hours long. Not by any stretch of the imagination. It seems like the constant “fetch quests” that the boys went on carried on for far too long. This gave the impression that the film was somewhat directionless, as you couldn’t really see any plot progression aside from the fact that you wondered what was going to happen to McConaughey‘s character… at some point. All of this changed dramatically in the final 30 minutes, which was choc-full of action and drama. But for me, it was a case of “too little, too late”. The plotting was there, the script was there and the acting was definitely there. It’s just a shame the film became a little too enraptured with itself to really steam along at a brisk enough pace. Don’t get me wrong, I can do slow and lingering, but there’s a limit on this. Unfortunately, Mud went past that point.

Mud is another star turn for Matthew McConaughey, who’s picked up something of a habit of taking roles you wouldn’t have assigned to him half a decade ago. Whilst I wasn’t as blown away by Mud as I was by Joe in Killer Joe, this can still be classified as a success for him. Similarly, I want to see more from Tye Sheridan in the future. The kid’s got talent and I’m keen to see where he goes next. Unfortunately, the film trips itself up with its rather slow pacing, which makes the second act drag to an alarming degree. So, ultimately, Mud‘s a solid movie, but isn’t one I’d rush out to see again any time soon.

Why don’t more actors follow Matthew McConaughey and Channing Tatum? Take some of those wild and whacky roles. Take a risk! I want to see Megan Fox in a cerebral thriller about feminism, I want to see Tommy Lee Jones doing some slapstick comedy opposite Rob Schneider and I want to see Samuel L. Jackson… erm… what genre hasn’t this guy done!? OK, perhaps everyone should follow Jackson‘s lead and not the others’. Then they can all star in such fabulous movies as Snakes on a Plane, The Spirit and Deep Blue Sea… oh, wait…

Phage Factor:

3.5 Star

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Trance (2013)

Trance (2013)

Some directors can become very genre-centric, or known for only one recurring idea that they implement in film after film. For some people this is great; “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. But for others it can become a bit of a drag, as every new film delivers the same basic premise. Look at Michael Bay – he’s maligned for his use of CGI and explosions in near-enough every film he’s put out in the past decade. Then you have directors who switch it up film after film to tackle different genres. Perhaps the most famous example of this right now is Quentin Tarantino – I make no secret of my fanboyism of his catalogue of films. Each of his films has been stunningly different. But having said that… I think there’s another director out there more worthy of the accolade of “most diverse director”. And that would be Danny Boyle.

Danny Boyle is the guy behind Transpotting, The Beach, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours to name but a handful. In there you have tales of drug addicts, a zombie apocalypse and the story of a guy who gets stuck under a boulder and gradually goes bonkers. Boyle isn’t afraid to tackle different genres. He’s also not afraid to tackle theatrics either, as he was the guy behind the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, which many hailed as fantastic (me included). So this brings us to Trance – his latest full length film. A film that I put down as one of the 13 to watch in 2013. So does it live up to my lofty expectations?

The look of bemusement on my face during the trailers for Trance...

The look of bemusement on my face during the trailers for Trance…

First things first… I need to deal with the trailer for this film. It’s a trailer I’ve seen jammed in front of many other features recently. Honestly? The trailer is appalling. It actually reduced my hype levels for this film. A lot. It was disorientating, quite boring, and showed way too much narrative for my liking. It almost completely turned me off Trance. And I know some of you feel the same way about it too. Let me put this out there now – discard your thoughts from the trailer. The film is far better than those short teasers would have you believe.

Trance (2013)Trance is a heist story. A heist story by way of hypnotherapy and mind-bending reality augmentation. At its core, Trance follows Simon (James McAvoy), who works at an arts’ auction house. Simon’s not playing by the rules. So when a £20 million+ painting rolls through the auction room and the building is raided by thieves led by Franck (Vincent Cassel)… well, Simon’s in on the act. It’s an inside job. The only trouble? James misplaces the painting following a blow to the head. Naturally, Franck and his group are not best pleased by this turn of events and try to force the answer out of Simon. When that doesn’t work, they resort to hypnosis by recruiting Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) – a therapist. The film then focuses on Elizabeth trying to extract these concealed memories from James’ head…

But that’s only scratching the surface of what this film offers. Whilst my little synopsis accurately covers the first third of the film, it all goes extremely far into left field and gets pretty damn trippy and mind-bending. Immediate thoughts would point towards Inception and Vanilla Sky as inspirations for this film, but even then you’re not really coming close. What Danny Boyle has managed to do is create a vivid world, filled with believable characters and added this bizarre hypnosis twist in a way that really works.

Trance (2013)

Having said that, the mind-bending sections of this film did actually lose me at one point. I wasn’t sure what I was watching. Was I in reality, or was I in a regression? Maybe this was the point of a certain 10 minute stretch in the latter half of the film, but either way I felt lost. This shouldn’t be the aim of a film – to lose the audience. At all other points in the film I knew exactly what was going on and what was unfolding, but there were definitely sections of “what the hell is happening?”

Now, we need to focus on the acting of the three core players in the film: James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel and Rosario Dawson. As I mentioned in our Welcome To The Punch review, March is McAvoy season. Indeed, I actually saw him performing on-stage in London this past weekend as Macbeth. He was brilliant, if a little beardy and drooly. And Trance is another big outing for McAvoy. Arguably, Boyle has a good record of launching talent into the stratosphere. Just look at Cilian Murphy – a relative unknown when 28 Days Later was released. The same could actually be said of Ewan McGregor when he was selected for the role as lead in Trainspotting.

Trance (2013)

So, I actually hope that this gives McAvoy‘s career a massive boost. Not that he needs it, but I hope it does. Why? Because this is perhaps the best example I’ve seen of McAvoy‘s acting abilities. Trance really calls upon so many emotions from his character, James. I was sold on every facial tick, mannerism and emotion. A sublime performance. Similarly, Cassel ably plays out his role as the “bad guy” – a solid turn. Much praise has also been lauded on Rosario Dawson here, and it’s entirely merited. She’s an actress that’s already had some fine performances under her belt, but Boyle really brings out another side to her acting abilities, which is great to see.

The successful display of talent on show here is definitely down to Boyle‘s direction and Joe Ahearne and John Hodge‘s script. The film is anything but linear, but the characterisation is rich. One could argue that the film is not as well realised as some of Boyle‘s earlier works and indeed, that middle section got a bit too overwhelming, even for The Phage. There’s also an unexpected amount of gore and nudity (a heavy emphasis on pubic hair, or lack thereof). But then again, this is from the guy that had someone cut his arm off with a penknife and zombies that spewed blood at every turn, so perhaps it’s not that unexpected…

Cassel, McAvoy (with Macbeth beard), Dawson and Boyle - the key to the film's success.

Cassel, McAvoy (with Macbeth beard), Dawson and Boyle – the key to the film’s success.

Trance is another resounding success for Danny Boyle. It has its flaws, it’s not perfect, but as a whole it works in a cohesive manner. It works not only because of Boyle‘s direction and an interesting script, but because of McAvoy, Cassel and Dawson. McAvoy in particular appears to be at the top of his game right now. The trailers for Trance may have dampened my enthusiasm for the film, but this was eradicated within the first 15 minutes. What prevails is an intriguing, thought-provoking film with more twists and turns than a helter-skelter. It’s definitely a film that demands to be seen more than once, that’s for sure.

So although Tarantino is probably at the forefront of your mind for taking on wildly different films nowadays, you’ve probably got to look to Danny Boyle for the truest example of this. His back catalogue includes rom-coms, drama, action and horror. Many of them being seminal examples of the genre. Where does Trance fit into this list? Well, it sits highly in his back catalogue. It may not be the shining example of a thriller in decades to come, but it’s one you definitely can’t predict. And who doesn’t love the unpredictable?

Phage Factor:

4.5 Stars

Welcome To The Punch (2013)

Welcome To The Punch (2013)

It seems that James McAvoy season has definitely begun here in the UK. Every so often it appears as though one actor is in every new film you’re seeing at the cinema. Sometimes it’s great, because they’re fantastic on-screen… other times it’s just jarring as you feel you’re oversaturated by their presence. Back in 2011-12 we had a whole spell where Michael Fassbender seemed to be in absolutely every movie going. We saw a lot of Michael Fassbender. A LOT! The whole package you might say… Anyway, moving away from Fassbender‘s manhood, I’ve never understood why studios decide to schedule all of a certain actor’s movies together. It never works so well for me. Having said all that, how does James McAvoy‘s first movie of 2013 shape up? Well, welcome to Welcome To The Punch

Welcome To The Punch (2013)

The oddly titled Welcome To The Punch is a British cop-thriller. The whole thriller vibe seems to be a pretty popular choice for March, with both Broken City and Side Effects dropping in the two weeks previously. The plot here? Essentially, we have our embittered police officer Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy) – a guy that has had a vendetta to catch a notorious criminal by the name of Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong); owing in no small part to the fact that when they last met some three years ago, Sternwood decided to shoot Lewinsky in the leg. This injury would plague Lewinsky for the rest of his life and really build up the need for vengeance. But Sternwood goes off the map – he’s a ghost. All of this changes when a series of murders occur in London, where one of the victims is Sternwood’s only son. This brings the big guy back out of hiding and onto Lewinsky’s radar once more.

So it sounds rather simplistic doesn’t it? Good cop wants to hunt down bad villain… but the writing and plot is a lot more clever than you may think. Welcome To The Punch goes to great efforts to humanise its protagonists. McAvoy‘s character isn’t your typical loud mouthed police officer that’s full of confidence. In fact, he’s quite reclusive and harbouring many wounds – both physical and mental. Similarly, Strong‘s Sternwood isn’t your cookie-cutter bad guy. He’s incredibly relatable and is made much more human than your typical movie nasty. It’s a really refreshing take on the genre that I enjoyed immensely.

Welcome To The Punch (2013)

The film also doesn’t skimp on action. It starts as it means to go on, and bounds along at a frenetic speed. The plot is incredibly well paced and really draws you in to the proceedings. Admittedly, there are some details that are never fully disclosed, such as why Sternwood is seen as the biggest, baddest villain in all of London and how Lewinsky was assigned to his case in the first place, but this can be ignored as it contributes little to the overarching story.

And the calibre of acting? Well, McAvoy‘s off to a good start in “McAvoy Season” here. When he first really appeared on my radar in Wanted, I wasn’t impressed with the guy. Time has changed all this, as I now see him as one of our finest actors. Welcome To The Punch does little to overturn my opinion; he’s on sterling form here and totally sells you his angst, determination and frustrations. This is complimented wonderfully by Mark Strong, a man who’s no stranger to having his “Season” at the box office (appearing in Sherlock Holmes, Kick-Ass and Robin Hood seemingly at the same time). Strong plays to his strengths here – he’s always an imposing “villain” figure and this is no different. Once again, another engaging performance from one of the leads. As I mentioned earlier, it’s great that these characters have been fully fleshed out and realised so that one can empathise with them at specific moments. I’m a huge fan of this, as it really sets the film apart from the other “police thriller” of the moment, Broken City. In that film, everyone is very one dimensional. Here? Well, that’s definitely not the case.

Welcome To The Punch (2013)

All of the supporting cast, especially Johnny Harris, Peter Mullan and Andrea Riseborough deserve a mention here too. One scene that’s really stuck with me from later on in the film (above), featuring Harris, Mullan, McAvoy and Strong is simply superb. It’s got tension, humour and a huge “what will happen here” hanging over it. THIS is what thrillers are for. More please!

Welcome To The Punch is that rare beast: a stylistically slick-looking British police thriller. It’s shot, directed and written in such a wonderful way that you can’t help but get wrapped up in the film. Couple this with some extremely strong leads and a genuinely thrilling plot and you’ve got one hell of a film on your hands here. It’s certainly head and shoulders above what the US is churning out as of late. It’s simply a film that you cannot afford to miss if you’re a fan of thrillers that are rich in characterisation.

So where does McAvoy season take us? Well, for The Phage, it’ll be seeing him on stage next week as Macbeth before he then warps back into movie land for his star turn in Danny Boyle‘s Trance the week after. I’m on tenderhooks to see how that particular effort turns out. Can his residency on our screens propel McAvoy into the stratosphere, just as Michael Fassbender‘s stay did? Well, I guess it all depends on whether McAvoy feels like whipping his tackle out for all and sundry to see. It certainly didn’t harm Fassbender. I guess that’s what happens when you’re “endowed” with great acting abilities though.

Phage Factor:

4 Star

Side Effects (2013)

Side Effects (2013)

Who doesn’t love looking over the side effects of a medication? Well, if you’re American, you get told the side effects during your television adverts. This is still something I find hilariously shocking each and every time I’m over in your beautiful country. Who’d ever take a medication that “may cause loss of memory, sickness, diarrhoea,  impotence or death”. Seriously? You’d still take that?! Over here in the UK we find all that out via a little slip of paper that’s in the drug’s box. If you’re a hypochondriac you then give yourself all of the ill effects! Well, except the “death” risk. Not many people can fake death. Except David Blaine. So what about Side Effects, the latest film from Steven Soderbergh? Is its sole side effect euphoria, or is it one of those that’s going to incurably blind you… and give you diarrhoea?

Contagion and Side Effects... effectively sister films!

Contagion and Side Effects… effectively sister films!

Now, those that know The Phage personally (beyond my alias) will know how intimately I know the film Contagion. I use it as a reference point a lot in my professional life. And to those that don’t know me in that capacity? Well, I’m The Phage… and you know what that means if you’ve read our “Introduction” section on the left over there. A Phage has a natural affinity for any film about viruses, plagues and biology. So when a new film comes over the horizon in much the same mould as Contagion, The Phage pays attention. Especially when the posters look near identical and it’s from Steven Soderbergh again.

Briefly, Side Effects follows the story of Emily (Rooney Mara), whose husband Martin (Channing Tatum) has recently been released from prison. But Emily’s life isn’t all cheer and happiness… she’s quite depressed, manically so, in fact. After a failed suicide attempt, Dr. Jonathon Blake (Jude Law) – a psychiatrist – enters into her life to try and help her out and return her happiness. His innocent attempts to help her leads him to prescribing her a new drug called Ablixa, on the advice of her previous psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones). But that leads to all manner of crazy occurrences… but is everything that happens down to the drug, or something entirely more sinister?

Side Effects (2013)

Side Effects is an out-and-out thriller. And a damn good one at that. If you read my review of Broken City, you’ll note that the biggest flaw we saw was how “analogue” the plot was; you could see where the film was heading within the first 20 minutes. You certainly can’t say the same of Side Effects. What you have here is an extremely effective thriller with an exquisitely outrageous twist in its tail. You won’t see it coming – I can guarantee that. Maybe though that’s also the flaw in the film because it seems so outlandish! Not in the same way that Indiana Jones: Kingdom of The Crystal Skull was ruined by aliens, but it’s still a little “out of nowhere”.

One of the things I quite enjoyed about Contagion was that massive ensemble cast that was put together. Whilst Side Effects doesn’t quite replicate the large cast, it still features some superb displays of acting. Firstly, we’ve got to talk about the return of Jude Law, who was actually in Contagion. Thankfully, he’s abandoned his quasi-Australian accent here in favour of his natural British accent. Law puts in a great turn here as the plagued psychiatrist Dr. Blake. Similarly, you’ve got to again recognise Rooney Mara for another brilliant role portrayal. She really drew my attention in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and this really showcases her talents yet again. Please, give her more roles. And can I just mention how beautiful she looks here? Oh, I already did? Good. However, I must say I was less convinced by Catherine Zeta-Jones; mainly because of those glasses she wears throughout. They just don’t suit her. I also can’t imagine her as a psychiatrist if I’m honest. Her performance just came across quite stale and added little to the film.

Side Effects (2013)

But her minor misgivings can be overlooked owing to the fantastic overarching plot here. As I said earlier, I dabble in this general field outside of my film life, so I found the content enthralling; just as I did with Contagion. But I’d say that Side Effects is done far better than its spiritual predecessor, as its a lot more coherently put together with far fewer interweaving narratives. Not every film needs a Crash style overcross and I’m glad that Side Effects recognises that. Overall, it’s more straight forward than Soderbergh‘s last effort, but that makes for a far more honed and effective machine that deserves to be viewed.

Side Effects is 2013’s first example of a solid thriller that’ll keep you enraptured from beginning to end. It boasts a cast that (largely) lives up to your expectations and a plot that keeps you guessing where it’ll turn to next. It’s only real drawback is that the end feels somewhat “cheap” and from out of nowhere. The film tries to show you that it’s been hinting at this all along, but ultimately, it wasn’t hinting at this at all. Regardless, Side Effects demands to be seen if you’re a fan of the genre.

So it looks like the only side effects of Side Effects are a slight chance of confusion that will pass with time. Nothing too serious! It’s not like those god awful US infomertials (I love that crazy word… something else we don’t have in the UK… like Vanilla Coke, which I miss). There’s nothing to be particularly scared of with this medication. Just swallow it down and enjoy the ride!

Phage Factor:

4 Star

Broken City (2013)

Broken City (2013)

I love watching actors do press for their latest releases. Not just because it’s a chance to see them talking outside of their roles / hyping up a film that I may or may not give half a damn about, but because of how they “act”. It’s very telling when you see an actor looking unexcited about a project. Generally, that film isn’t going to be worth the film its burned onto. Yes, I’m looking at you Bruce Willis in your TV interviews for A Good Day To Die Hard. You looked disinterested, and boy was I disinterested in the final film. So when I saw Mark Wahlberg on British TV, getting all drunk and lairy when promoting Broken City… well, I knew I had to see the film.

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of the review, I want to dwell on Wahlberg‘s appearance on a show we have over here called The Graham Norton Show. His fellow guests? Sarah Silverman and Michael Fassbender. These aren’t two unknowns; especially Fassbender who’s now arguably bigger than Wahlberg both sides of the Atlantic. The video above is taken from YouTube and showcases the best bits. I really recommend watching it, as Wahlberg is hilarious / infuriating and gets more rowdy as the video progresses. I loved his drunken approach to selling a movie. Television gold. Seriously, watch the above video. It’s worth it! Even if you just skip to 11min in, it’s worth it.

So, what is Broken City? Well, I’m happy to report that Mark Wahlberg actually starts the movie “on the wagon”… so maybe he was playing this up? Or maybe he just loves the claret? Who doesn’t? The movie focuses on Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) an ex-New York cop who’s now living out his days as a private detective / snoop for anyone that’ll pay him. He’s suddenly offered business by the Mayor of New York: a Mr. Hostetler (Russell Crowe). The task? Spy on his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who he suspects of cheating on him. Simple enough? Now add in the backdrop of this being during the election campaign in which Hostetler seeks to retain his role in the city. But things aren’t always as clear as they first appear. There’s a hell of a lot of dirt in this Broken City.

Broken City (2013)

Yeah, I probably should write promo spiel right? In between slurring and interrupting guests, Wahlberg pitched Broken City as an old school film focused on a character driven plot. And he’s right. The film is very much driven by its protagonists and does very well from it. Especially for the first half of the movie. Now, I thought this first half was pacey, had a clear narrative and some really involving characters. The second half? Wow… things quickly became clouded and more and more plot points got thrown into the mix. So much so that I feel it detracted somewhat from the main themes of the film.

What the film did do well was characterisation, so I’ll hand it to Wahlberg there. I thought his and Crowe‘s performances were great. They were never going to set the world alight, as neither stretched themselves to any degree. In fact, you could argue that Mark Wahlberg was once again playing Mark Wahlberg… but I’m cool with that. I can relate to the guy for some reason. He’s an every-man. And Crowe? Well, as you’ll remember from my Les Misérables review, I just like the guy.

Broken City (2013)

Having said all that, the film is “light” and the plot “twist” can be guessed within the first 10 minutes of the run time. This isn’t a great asset for a thriller. You want suspense, you want shock, you want to be guessing “what if?” But with this, you can pretty much surmise how things will turn out. It’s a shame, as I think deep down there’s a great film here. I liked the character-driven focus of the film, as opposed to a number of big, dumb set pieces where cars blow up or fly off freeways. I’m bored of that (although Michael Bay isn’t, so it would seem). If only the film had a deeper narrative then there’d really be something to rave about here.

Broken City isn’t going to set the world alight, nor is it going to be elected to the role of Mayor… if films could be elected Mayor! The film is driven admirably by Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe, but is let down by a predictable plot. You really can’t be doing with a weak plot when you’re dealing with a thriller. The clue’s in the word “thriller”. You need to be “thrilled”. Unfortunately, Broken City was mostly filler in the latter half, and not much thriller. Clever what I did there, right?

So it looks like Mark Wahlberg‘s appearance on British TV was incredibly representative of the film as a whole. It started off promising and had a coherent narrative that made me keep watching, but as the film / interview progressed, the plot / Mark gradually became far less discernable and increasingly distracted by what was going on around it. It just goes to show that you really can judge a book by its cover film by its press coverage.

Phage Factor:

3 Star

Stoker (2013)

Stoker (2013)

There are dark films… and there are dark films. For some, a straight-up horror movie with a somewhat glib ending constitutes a truly “dark” film, whilst some will consider the ending of The Empire Strikes Back as dark. Me? Well, you’ve got to do something pretty darn subversive for me to label a film as “dark”. Take the darling of controversy, The Human Centipede, as an example. For some, the material was considered so offensive that the film was labelled as filth. But me? I just thought it was a lazily constructed, terribly acted film. Nothing more, nothing less. But every so often, a film crawls along that makes me think “wow… this is a dark slice of cinema”. Stoker is that film.

Dark

Dark

Stoker primarily focuses on India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) following the death of her father. All she’s left with is her emotionally-detached and disturbed mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), and the staff that work at their home. This all changes when her estranged uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) turns up at the funeral and stays for an extended period of time. She’s not alone any more, but the token of family solidarity isn’t what it initially seems to be either. Who is Charlie? Why hasn’t she heard of him before? And just why is he so weird?

To go into any more depth would destroy the film entirely. Chan-wook Park‘s Stoker is teed up as a psychological thriller that’s meant to harken back to Hitchcock films of yesteryear. The film oozes style in the way that it’s shot and it truly does harken back to that period… if only I really enjoyed that period of cinema. I’m much more of a modern cinema junkie than I am into the “classics” that people rave about. For some that’s blasphemy, but I couldn’t give a damn. I’m The Phage!

Stoker (2013)

The aping of the “classics” style makes the initial 45 minutes excruciatingly hard to sit through, as the momentum is somewhat absent. There’s no immediate set up, nor a big hook to latch on to. The film is entirely character driven and no mystery really appears until about 30 minutes in. It’s only then that the film truly gets going. As you can probably tell, I wasn’t a fan of that initial period. I didn’t really know what was going on and so I started to piece together my own plot in my head. My own plot was exciting and to be honest, wasn’t far off the mark come the conclusion of the film. OK, so I didn’t predict just how bonkers it would get towards the end, but I at least knew something was awry.

While we’re on the topic of “bonkers”, let’s return back to the “dark” theme I talked about. Now, annoyingly, I can’t really tell you why I found the film so dark or crazy towards its conclusion lest I spoil the plot for you. Let’s just say that some of the scenes are quite peculiar to watch. To some they’ll actually be quite uncomfortable. Those initial 45 minutes made me question just why this film had received an 18 rating from the British Film Council… but it became apparent later on. Let’s just say that India gets a lot of “pleasure” from some of the more perverse events that unwind. And they really are perverse.

Stoker (2013)

So what of the acting? After all, the film doesn’t help itself by rolling out the plot as slow as is humanly possible. Well, it’s… it’s… it’s OK. Mia Wasikowsa is great as India, but she’s somewhat limited by the fact that India is an incredibly sour-faced girl whose emotions range from “I’m really sad” to “I’m petulant and sad”. Well, except for that “pleasure” scene! Similarly, Nicole Kidman plays the emotionally-disturbed mother to a tee too. But there’s just no range in the role. I understand that it’s not actually possible to show off all your range in a film like this, so it’s probably more a short-coming of the film, or my lack-of-appreciation for this style, that is to blame.

Thankfully, the final build-up has lots of pay-offs and really redeems the film for me, but it still ends on a somewhat odd note that doesn’t really stack up. You’ll find yourself asking “why did he/she do X, Y and Z?”. Whether this was the idea that Park had in mind when he cooked this up, I don’t know, but ultimately I didn’t care enough about the film to make me think this for long.

Stoker is an interesting piece of cinema in 2013. Its nods to the past will either thoroughly ignite your interest in it, or it’ll entirely put you off. If the trailers left you somewhat cold and perplexed, the film itself will do little to correct these opinions. However, if you love Hitchcock-era suspense classics, then you can pretty much disregard what I said in the past few paragraphs and thump another star onto the below score. I didn’t think the film was bad, far from it, but it just didn’t have enough pace or momentum to really engage me over its (relatively short) run time.

Whilst I actually found last week’s reviewed film, This Is 40, to be dark, it was for a completely different reason. This Is 40 painted a very realistic view of what life is like once you’ve “achieved” what you wanted to. But Stoker? Well, Stoker‘s an entirely different kettle of fish. A kettle of fish swimming in crude oil that’s being sucked into a black hole that ends in the negative zone ruled over by King Negative and his dark dominions. Yes, it’s that dark. And also slightly disturbing. If you’re curious, then head out and catch this film while you can. I can’t guarantee you’ll like what you see, but you’ll definitely have an opinion on the closing half of the film.

Phage Factor:

2.5 Stars