Launching this week are a pair of major-studio releases, along with the Atlanta arrival of the English-language directorial debut of a notable Korean director.
Korean director Park Chan-wook, whose releases include Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, makes his English-language debut with Stoker, an arresting psychological thriller starring Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode and Nicole Kidman, and written by Wentworth Miller.
Thanks to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the name “Stoker” has a long-running connection to a particular type of violence: brutal and romantic. That type of violence fits with what’s portrayed in Stoker, the story of India Stoker (Wasikowska), whose father died under mysterious circumstances. When India’s uncle, Charlie (Goode), ends up moving in with India and her mother, Evelyn (Kidman), he brings with him a wave of violence that awakens India emotionally—and sexually.
If that sounds at least a little incestuous, you’re correct. Park certainly isn’t shy about using incest in his films (Oldboy in particular uses this to a devastating end), and that disturbing aspect works well at establishing a genuinely creepy psychological thriller, even more than the bursts of violence that progressively dominate the film.
The story would falter, though, without the right cast, and the three leads are perfect for their roles. Wasikowska plays the socially awkward India with just the right amount of awkwardness, with her emotional and sexual awakening coming in appropriately stilted form. Goode’s performance as Charlie emanates creepiness from his first appearance, regardless of the scene—it’s effective at showing the amount of dread he causes in the characters who aren’t India and Evelyn. And as Evelyn, Kidman gives one of her best performances in years, playing a woman yearning for excitement in her life that she believes Charlie can provide.
Stoker is most definitely not a film for all audiences. For fans of mind-bending psychological thrillers, though, Stoker is one of the best offerings in the genre to come around in recent years, and is well worth watching.
One film that’s not quite as thrilling is The Call, which still shows some promising signs before detouring into absurdity. The Call stars Halle Berry as Jordan, a 911 operator distraught from an incident where an error on her end resulted in the kidnapping and murder of a young girl. She’s forced back into action when another girl, Casey (Abigail Breslin), is kidnapped and manages to call 911.
Most of the film takes place in what is more or less real time, with Jordan giving Casey advice on how to identify her location and protect herself. When the call inevitably is disconnected, though, Jordan springs into action to find Casey herself. And yes, this is where the film goes from interesting to laughable. Jordan’s every action once she begins looking for Casey in person is one where the audience has no choice but to laugh at the absurdity of the situation. Let’s remember, Jordan’s a 911 operator, not a kick-ass cop. As if this absurdity isn’t bad enough, the twist ending is shockingly perverse, with a move that doesn’t line up with anything seen in the rest of the film. It feels like an ending that was tacked on by studio mandate, rather than something organic to the story. It ultimately weakens the film, and takes what could have been a fairly standard thriller into hackneyed territory.
Audiences looking for something more comedic might find amusement in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone. The film stars Steve Carell as Burt Wonderstone, a Las Vegas magician whose career and personality have grown stagnant as his fame grows. Burt’s career finally falls apart when a rival magician, Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), begins to dominate the cultural magic scene, and Burt’s partner, Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi), leaves to pursue a new career path. With the help of former assistant Jane (Olivia Wilde) and Burt’s childhood inspiration, Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin), Burt begins to straighten out his life with the goal of headlining a new show in Vegas.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is by no means a great film. The story itself is somewhat predictable, but the route it takes to its conclusion is bumpy thanks to shifting comedic tones. What ends up holding the film up—just barely—is a largely well-cast ensemble, headed by Carell. While none of the actors are really stretching themselves in this film (with the possible exception of James Gandolfini as a noxious casino owner), they’re all extremely talented, and they’re able to elevate the film with excellent comic timing and delivery. It’s just enough to make Wonderstone watchable, which is not worth nothing during this time of the year.