‘Stoker’: scary and suspenseful

India Stoker’s knee-length skirt is blowing in the wind; the long blades of grass sway back and forth against her shin. Around her waist rests her father’s belt. Above that, she wears her mother’s muddy orange blouse. Her feet fit snugly inside a pair of alizarin-red crocodile heels, a gift from her Uncle Charlie.

And that’s how the audience is first introduced to 18-year-old India (Mia Wasikowska), social recluse and protagonist in South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s first English film, “Stoker.” After India’s father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), dies in a car accident, she and her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), are joined by an uncle she’s never heard of: the handsome and charming Charlie Stoker (Matthew Goode). Charlie’s arrival to the Stoker mansion coincides with a string of disappearances, including India and Evelyn’s longtime housekeeper, Mrs. McGarrick (Phyllis Somerville), and India’s aunt, Gwendolyn Stoker (Jacki Weaver). Meanwhile, India is unraveling the secrets of her family, including the mystery behind her father’s death and her uncle’s sudden appearance.

Park’s psychological thriller, composed in collaboration with cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, is saturated in color and imagery. Regardless of whether Wasikowska is modeling outfits or Kidman is flirting with Goode, each shot is aesthetically appealing, often alluding to larger, conceptual ideas. In one scene, Wasikowska is laying on her bed in a fetal position, surrounded by a semicircle of tennis shoes. The subsequent images show a quick slideshow of all the shoes she had collected over the years for her birthday. It begins from the biggest shoe to the smallest, and it moves so quickly that it looks like the aging of Benjamin Button.

Visual components aren’t the only elements that grab the viewer’s attention. Park’s work with Wentworth Miller and Erin Cressida Wilson’s gripping screenplay pays tribute to Alfred Hitchcock. A motel and its vacancy sign are featured prominently. There is a shower scene, and for a brief moment, it seems as though someone may get stabbed.

If “Stoker” is a modern retelling of “Psycho,” then Charlie Stoker is the film’s Norman Bates. At first glance, Uncle Charlie seems amicable and cultured. He’s fluent in French and piano, blending in perfectly with the eccentric Evelyn and India, who share those skills. Though Goode is quick to show off his dimples, it seems creepy and as unhinged as Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates. Goode, with his dark mop of hair, even resembles Norman, minus his stammer. His performance adds to the mounting tension of the film.

Rather than employ the cacophony of Hitchcock’s high-pitched strings, Park incorporates the piano composition of Philip Glass and the atmospheric mood music of Clint Mansell, who is known for his work with Darren Aronofsky films such as “Black Swan” and “Requiem for a Dream.” Charlie and India’s piano duet, composed by Glass, is a beautiful chase between hunter and prey. India captures the higher and lighter gazelle-like footsteps, while Charlie contributes a menacing romp below middle C. The combination is a striking balance, which grows more unsettling the faster and higher it gets.

Unlike Park’s previous work “Oldboy,” most of the violence in “Stoker” is implied offscreen. The audience may see the residue of blood splatter from a gunshot wound or a growing pool of crimson from a murder’s aftermath, but Park is classy with the camera. Unlike recent horror movies, such as those from the “Saw” franchise, his message is neither showing gore nor the most innovative ways to die. His work is reminiscent of an era of films such as “Jaws,” when the images supplemented by imagination become scarier than what’s actually on the silver screen.

“Stoker” is an exercise in images and how those build over the course of the film.  The action isn’t fast-paced, but the scenes provide a steady stream of apprehension so that by the end, even a girl in crocodile heels, a orange colored shirt and a long, flowing skirt looks menacing.

“Stoker” was directed by Park Chan-wook and written by Wentworth Miller and Erin Cressida Wilson.


‘Jack the Giant Slayer’ falls short

Those hoping director Bryan Singer’s “Jack the Giant Slayer” would bring a fresh spin to the age-old fairy tale will be thoroughly disappointed. The film rehashes the same, familiar feudalism tropes that have existed since the Middle Ages.

Jack (Nicholas Hoult), a peasant farm-boy who has grown up with legends of giants and beanstalks, is at the town’s theater when he rescues the Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) from intimidating men. Though Jack is willing to accept this one-off encounter with the princess, he finds her on his doorstep at his farm while she is escaping from her impending marriage. Roderick (Stanley Tucci), her intended fiancé, is a greedy man who plots for world domination by releasing the giants onto mankind. When magic beans sprout into a giant beanstalk, taking the princess to the giants’ land, the king (Ian McShane) sends his guard Elmont (Ewan McGregor) and his best men up the beanstalk to rescue the princess. Naturally, Jack volunteers to go along with the chivalrous Elmont to rescue the damsel in distress.

It’s not hard to guess what happens from here. After all, all fairy tales end with their happily ever after, and screenplay writers Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney stick close to that idea, making the film quite bland. Though Lemke is also accredited on the writing team for “Shrek Forever After,” Fiona, the ogre princess, has more sass than Princess Isabelle ever did. “A princess is such a useless thing,” Isabelle even says at one point between her capture by giants and her rescue.

The script is predictable, fantastical and fundamentally flawed. The plot progresses at such breakneck speed that the actions seem as implausible as the condensed, three-day relationship between William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” If Jack is Romeo, Isabelle is Juliet. But rather than compare thee to the moon, Jack takes on a hoard of colossal CGI giants. For a farm-boy who’s afraid of heights, Jack gets over his fear and climbs that beanstalk awfully fast.

Hoult, known as the playboy Tony in the first two seasons of the British television show “Skins,” and McGregor, known for his award-winning performances in “Trainspotting” and “Moulin Rouge!,” are capable of giving more well-rounded performances, but the script holds them to these two-dimensional knight-in-shining-armor roles. The noble heroes lack development beyond their roles as good guys.

Lemke, McQuarrie and Studney’s script does provide context, which the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk” lacked. “Jack the Giant Slayer” is about more than a thief who steals golden eggs. However, their retelling of this fractured fairy tale is not as memorable as the giants’ refrain: fe fi fo fum, a proper synonym for the film’s mediocrity.

‘Jack the Giant Slayer’ was written by Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney and directed by Bryan Singer. To view this post in The Ithacan, click here.