Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Double Feature: Stoker & 21 and Over

There are two reasons I haven't really been writing lately. Two weeks ago it was because I was vacationing in Florida and did not see a single film in that time. Last week it was because this is March, and there's hardly anything worth watching, let alone writing about. I WAS looking forward to The Croods (look for my Open Letters review soon), but other than that I've been massively let down by most of the titles early this year. The big ones have either been disappointing or outright bad, and I admit it's been a struggle to look ahead and see the potentially great movies releasing in the next few months, from Iron Man 3 to Star Trek Into Darkness to Elysium. But the idea of gems hidden in the rough compels me to go back to the theater, and I'm going to tell you about two such titles, with the psychological thriller Stoker and the raucous comedy 21 and Over.

In the first, Mia Wasikowska plays India Stoker, a quiet, somewhat creepy 18 year-old whose mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) doesn't understand her and whose father Richard has just died in a car crash. While the two women try to recover from their family tragedy, they are visited by Richard's distant brother Charlie (Matthew Goode), who stays in their home in an effort to help them cope. But when people close to the family start disappearing, India wonders where Charlie has been her entire life, and how he will affect both her and her mother. Soon a new side to India opens, one hidden long away. She has to decide whether she wants the potentially-harmful Charlie gone from her life, or whether she wants him all to herself.

I've learned never to trust anyone with a Green Thumb.
Stoker is most notable for being the American debut of South Korean director Park Chan-wook, best known for the classic Oldboy. His movies are generally very adult matters, and this film earns its R rating not through graphic depictions of violence and sex (those are there too) but through the kind of psychological horror that not many modern filmmakers would touch. Chan-wok follows in the footsteps of Hitchcock, not just in content but creatively, as well. He creates perfect camera angles many couldn't copy and features exquisite scenes such as an erotic piano duet (yup, never thought I'd put those words together) and one bit in particular that focuses exclusively on Kidman's face and showcases her amazing talent. Speaking of the actors, Wasikowska and Goode play up the creepy to a perfect degree, though I doubt anybody would have expected otherwise. While Stoker also has a talented supporting cast, it's the trio of leads who really keep your attention and never allow you to grow bored.

Seriously. Wow.
Unfortunately, these are the best parts of Stoker, which opens up the floor to the worst as well. The story isn't properly fleshed out, with the narrative swerving into completely unnecessary territory all the time. It also takes its sweet time finding a rhythm, and while it does eventually settle into a groove that finishes out the final act, there was all this setup that you almost wish you hadn't had to sit through; if a movie is better when you've shown up twenty minutes late, then it's doing it wrong. There are also some serious logic problems that never get explained, character motivations that remain obscured to ridiculous degrees, and no real sense of urgency or responsibility for their actions. This is a good screenplay by Wentworth Miller (yes, the Prison Break actor), but it could have used a ton of polishing before shooting began.

The creepiest eyes in Hollywood.
I did like Stoker, but if I'm being fair this a movie with a hell of a lot of problems. It has a bunch of Hitchcock's flair but almost none of his dedication to quality, though at least it is a better debut for a Korean director than Kim Ji-woon's The Last Stand. Stoker has a few a surprises, mixing it's psychological thrills with erotic noire, and the result is a decent - if far from perfect - place to start. Still, this might be better off as a rental, as I'm not sure the experience from watching this can be appreciated in a movie theater when sitting in a dark home theater wrapped in a blanket is DEFINITELY the way to go.

Far less original (but almost certainly more irreverent) is 21 and Over, directed by the writers of The Hangover, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore. In it, former high school best friends Casey (Skylar Astin) and Miller (Miles Teller) surprise their Straight-A bestie Jeff Chang (Justin Chon) on his 21'st birthday, with the intent of giving him a night of drunkenness and debauchery. But troubles arise in the form of Jeff's strict father, who has scheduled a Medical School interview for him early the next morning. What start off as "just one drink" quickly becomes more than a dozen, and when Casey and Miller have an unconscious Jeff and no idea where they are, it's a race against time to get him into bed and somewhere on the way to sobriety before morning, whether that means infiltrating a sorority, escaping angry mobs, or outrunning the cops. They've got until 7 a.m. to set things right. Until then, everything that can go wrong, WILL go wrong.

Please leave your air horns at home.
21 and Over is a combination of The Hangover, Project X and any college antics movie from the 70's. In fact, despite the multitude of offensive statements, excessive cursing and insane situations depicted in the movie, there's very little in this film that could possibly shock its potential - and very forgiving - audience. Lucas and Moore are definitely following a path laid forth by their predecessors, blissfully ignoring minute complications like idiotic characters, offensive stereotypes and bad examples, thanks to the people watching that simply don't care about those things. Sure, ignore the fact that the next morning these guys are going to be suffering from some severe alcohol poisoning, and the rest of the film STILL doesn't make any reasonable sense.

This would have been a much shorter movie if they'd just had the one drink.

And yet 21 and Over's egregious sense of ego is actually what makes it so charming. See, the filmmakers realize and then explore exactly what guy friendships are all about. Best friends come back together after long periods apart and instantly remember what they loved about hanging out. Guys will eternally have their friends backs, even faced with long odds and impossibilities. Even when they fight, it's bare-knuckled brawling one minute and all-forgiven back-slapping the next. While Casey and Miller definitely have their issues with one another (like the guys from The Hangover), they don't hold back and keep their mouths shut, because that's not what guy friends do. But neither do they let it get in the way of their mission, and the pair never lose focus on what's important: getting Jeff Chang home and ready for his appointment before his father finds out.

It doesn't hurt that despite its sameness, 21 and Over is still a very funny, occasionally shocking good time at the theater. Is it better than Revenge of the Nerds or Animal House? No, but it hangs on nicely with the drug and alcohol-infused comedies of the modern era, and the cast of Astin, Teller, Chon and Sarah Wright make for a charismatic group of young actors worthy of your ticket purchases. Unapolagetically rude and crude, you can't get much funnier at the movies right now.

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