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Knight at the Movies: Stoker; The Jeffrey Dahmer Files; notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2013-02-27

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Does anyone believe for a second that Nicole Kidman could have given birth to Mia Wasikowska? No more than that Lana Turner would spawn Sandra Dee, Joan Crawford would whelp Ann Blyth, Olympia Dukakis would give birth to Cher, or that Cher would go into labor and bring forth both Winona Ryder and Christina Ricci. These mother-daughter movie combos are no less believable than at least three-fourths of the plot contrivances in South Korean director Park Chan-wook's English language debut, Stoker.

But the movie, based on an original script by Ted Foulke—the pen name of Wentworth Miller, the hottie former star of TV's Prison Break—like all great melodramas, doesn't waste a second on nonsense like logic or reality when it comes to casting or its highly theatrical approach. This is Grand Guignol Writ Large—I mean Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte/Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? large. The only missing element is the balls-to-the-wall scenery-chewing in the acting department. And that's a quibble with a dark little thriller as enthralling and tremendously entertaining as this one is. That's also not to imply that Stoker is camp a la The Wicker Man or Orphan; rather, it has moments that repeated viewings will quickly come to be seen through that beloved lens—in the way that there are over-the- top moments in Carrie and The Exorcist or The Birds that can be taken this way.

From the get-go, we are dropped firmly into the hermetically sealed world of India Stoker (Wasikowska). It's immediately apparent that this strange girl—with her jet black, straggly, inky hair, wrinkled dress and out-of-date saddle shoes—is an odd duck. There are bits of Rima the bird girl, Shirley Jackson's wild, forest-foraging teenage heroine Mary Katherine Blackwood of "We've Always Lived in the Castle" and a dash of Norman Bates thrown in for good measure in India. And, naturally, once we see the watchful, antisocial, dowdy India interacting with glamorous mother Evelyn (Kidman), there's more than a hint of Carrie White, too.

India's sullen behavior is understandable at first. Her beloved father (Dermot Mulroney) has died in a car accident and the family's creaking, old-money mansion is filled with post-funeral guests, including Matthew Goode as the Uncle Charlie that India never knew she had. India is suspicious of this Uncle Charle, an impossible dreamboat with his confident smile who drives a fancy Jaguar and has quickly dazzled her drunken mother with his charm. She's seen him arguing with the old family retainer, who has inexplicably disappeared after the funeral, and there are other things about him that don't add up, either.

Yet Uncle Charlie tries hard to connect with India. (He's a link to Joseph Cotton's character in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt.) Slowly, he seems to be favoring her over Evelyn's drunken attempts at seduction. The competition between mother and daughter subtly kicks into high gear (a la Mildred Pierce) after India and Uncle Charlie share a piano duet that gets increasingly hot-to-trot. (By the way, has anyone ever experienced a sensual piano duet in real life?) The murderous plot twists—a little bit of Hitchcock here, a little bit of Almodovar there—then begin to increase as Chan-wook tightens the screws.

Wasikowska and Goode are the center of the picture (with Kidman taking what is essentially a supporting part) and they're a very creepy duo (increasingly so as Miller's script takes them in several unexpected directions). But Stoker is really Chan-wook's movie (in much the same way that A Single Man was Tom Ford's). Every shot is perfectly composed; every breath, gulp and rustle of a skirt is emphasized (the movie's a sound effects engineer's dream); and every music cue is perfectly selected. You're aware the entire time that you're in a carefully captured movie world. Yet with someone as talented as Chan-wook in control, his talents overriding the gaps in Miller's script, Stoker ends up such stylish entertainment that one willingly cedes control and surrenders to the director's florid vision.

The Jeffrey Dahmer Files, which played at a batch of gay indie-film festivals last year, is now available OnDemand and will soon be broadcast on the cable channel of its distributor, IFC.

Director Chris James Thompson eschews the biographical details of the infamous gay serial killer's story and instead opts for a more subtle style. On-camera interviews with Dahmer's neighbor in the Milwaukee apartment building where the majority of the killings took place; the police detective who took his confession; and the medical examiner are interwoven with scenes of actor Andrew Swant as Dahmer, who goes about picking up some of those he murdered and purchasing the seemingly benign objects—the blue barrel, a suitcase, etc.—he used to store the remains of his victims.

The sparseness of Thompson's approach initially adds to the creepiness and ghoulishness inherent in Dahmer's infamous crimes but ultimately frustrates, while the uninitiated might want to do some research first as background details on Dahmer's life aren't included. The re-enactments have a subtle power—suggesting much about the banality of evil and the bleak solitude of Dahmer's urban existence. However, although the three interview subjects are compelling camera presences, they don't offer any real insight or opinions about Dahmer, as each details his or her involvement with him.

I laud Thompson's refusal to indulge in the distasteful and gory approach one would expect from the material but neither does he offer a viewpoint or feature someone with any sort of psychological insight into Dahmer's nature, which—given the unprecedented nature of his disturbed subject—eventually seems downright loony. Ultimately, one doesn't expect or want subtlety or restraint when dealing with the story of Jeffrey Dahmer.

Film notes:

—Out writer-director Dee Rees's 2011 Pariah is screening as the next installment in Sharon Zurek's Dyke Delicious monthly series on Tuesday, March 5, at Columbia College's Hokin Hall, 623 S. Wabash St., at 7:30 p.m. and on Saturday, March 9, at Chicago Filmmakers, 5243 N. Clark St., at 8 p.m. As usual, the latter screening will be preceded by an hour of social interaction. The gorgeously shot Pariah (one of my top 10 films of 2011) is the moving, coming-of-age, coming-out story of a 17-year-old African-American butch lesbian butting heads with her family (especially her mother) as she is about to graduate from high school in Brooklyn.

—Cinema Q III, the annual Cultural Center LGBT film series, is back for the third year beginning Wed., March 6, and continuing on subsequent Wednesday evenings through March 27. The series, which is co-sponsored by The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, The Legacy Project, Queer Film Society and Reeling, takes place in the Claudia Cassidy Theater in the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., at 6:30 p.m. Admission is free. This year's line-up focuses on the lives of LGBT seniors with some selections celebrating their pioneering efforts and others centered on the unique challenges faced by the LGBT elderly.

The mini-fest kicks off Wed., March 6, with the 2011 rowdy road dramedy Cloudburst, which was adapted by out writer-director Thom Fitzgerald from his stage play, The film follows the exploits of the hilariously profane Stella (Olympia Dukakis) and Dotty (Brenda Fricker), her sweet but equally tough partner, as they head to Canada to legally wed after being together for 31 years. The unedited version will be shown. The screening is co-sponsored by Center on Halsted.

The series also includes To Die Like a Man (March 13), Living with Pride: Ruth Ellis @100 and T'Aint Nobody's Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s (March 20) and a 15th-anniversary screening of Gods and Monsters (March 27). A post-screening discussion will accompany each movie. Windy City Times, Time Out Chicago and ChicagoPride are media co-sponsors for Cinema Q III. www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dca/supp_info/cinema_q.html

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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