Mia Wasikowska Fearlessly Dives Into the Dark Side in ‘Stoker’

Mia Wasikowska in Stoker

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2013.

After watching her in Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” and seeing her portray the highly intelligent daughter of Annette Bening and Julianne Moore in “The Kids are All Right,” Australian actress Mia Wasikowska goes from lightness to darkness in “Stoker.” In it she plays India, a mysterious, dark-haired teenager whose father has just been killed in a car accident on her 18th birthday. Throughout the movie we see India trying to deal with both her emotionally unstable mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and her enigmatic uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) who has arrived to stay with them. Thanks in large part to Wasikowska, India is one of the most original and haunting teenage characters to appear in movies in quite some time.

It’s fascinating to watch Wasikowska’s transformation in “Stoker” as there is very little trace of the good-natured characters she has portrayed previously. Even her work in “Jane Eyre” felt like a fairy tale compared to the creepy nature of this film. Going into it, I wondered if Wasikowska was really looking to distance herself from the roles she has played in the past. It turns out she was, but in an interview with Helen Brown of The Telegraph, she also said it was because she was drawn to the character’s ambiguity.

“You don’t know if India’s a hero or a villain, the hunter or the hunted,” Wasikowska told Brown. “The film toys with your perception. It’s a weird love triangle between a mother, an uncle and a daughter. That feels very modern and very classic, at the same time.”

“It’s less about evil being in the bloodline than an idea of evil as contagious,” Wasikowska continued. “I think violence is something that catches on. I was interested in something India’s father says: ‘Sometimes you have to do something bad to stop you from doing something worse.'”

I loved how Wasikowska avoided making India seem like the average sullen, anti-social or Goth-like teenager we’ve seen in so many movies and TV shows. There’s something about India which feels wholly original, and it is a wonderfully complex character you spend all of “Stoker” constantly trying to figure out. Wasikowska explained to Brown what she was aiming for when she decided to play India.

“Stereotypes are much more prominent in teen movies,” Wasikowska said. “As a teenager, it’s more attractive to watch something you don’t necessarily feel you are, to watch movies about pretty people in love. But it was always exciting for me to find roles that gave me an opportunity to express what I felt was the more realistic side of teenagers.”

The most memorable scene in “Stoker” comes when Uncle Charlie joins India on the piano for one of the most exhilarating duets ever filmed. The whole moment feels like a cross between the “Dueling Banjos” scene from “Deliverance” and David Helfgott playing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s blisteringly difficult Concerto No. 3 in “Shine;” it’s a moment of harmony combined with a psychological unraveling which reaches a fever pitch. This is a movie scene I will be studying for a long time, and while talking with The Hollywood Reporter’s Rebecca Ford, Wasikowska described what it was like filming it.

“That’s sort of one of the scenes that you’re always anticipating during the shoot,” Wasikowska told Ford. “It was almost my favorite one to film, because we had the music there, playing really loudly for us, and then, to a certain extent, I felt like I didn’t have to do anything because so much of the emotion and the feeling was in the music, and if I just sort of surrendered to that, it was all there.”

“Stoker” marks the English-language debut of South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook who is best known for his “Vengeance Trilogy” of movies which includes “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Oldboy” and “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.” Both he and Wasikowska worked closely together on India to make sure they were on the same page throughout filming, and Wasikowska told Ford they kept sending each other pictures back and forth through email which helped to illustrate their thoughts on the character.

“Some of the images were from India’s perspective, so things that I thought would explain the way that she sees the world,” Wasikowska said. “And then the other images would be something that had an essence of her physicality or her emotionally, so that was really helpful.”

Now with a movie as dark and disturbing as “Stoker” is, you would think the atmosphere on set would be very serious as to not break the mood of the piece. But as we found out on this movie and many others before it, the dark nature of the script was counterbalanced by a lot of humor amongst the cast and crew. Wasikowska made this abundantly clear to contactmusic.com while at a press conference.

“I’ve often found on the films that have a more serious nature, the more light-hearted and silly and goofy it becomes in between the scenes out of necessity to counter the intensity of the scenes and material,” Wasikowska said. “I felt like we were pretty good at that!”

Watching Mia Wasikowska in “Stoker” gives you an idea of what great work lies ahead for her. Here she digs deep into a character she hasn’t previously portrayed, and she completely disappears into the part as a result. While India is still a hard character to figure out at the movie’s end, it is Wasikowska’s journey into the role which renders it all the more fascinating.

“The best way to explain it is when I’m filming, I have a definite story that I follow for her, but then when I finish and I let go of the project a bit, it’s sort of up to interpretation,” Wasikowska said. “So one of the interesting things has been seeing how people have interpreted her (India) and her character in the story. And the only thing that’s consistent is how different everybody’s opinion is of her.”

SOURCES:

Helen Brown, “Stoker’s Mia Wasikowska, interview: ‘It’s a weird love triangle between a mother, an uncle and a daughter…,'” The Telegraph, March 1, 2013.

Rebecca Ford, “‘Stoker’s’ Mia Wasikowska on Her Mysterious Character and Sexualized Piano Playing,” The Hollywood Reporter, February 28, 2013.

Mia Wasikowska: ‘Stoker’ shoot was fun,” contactmusic.com, February 28, 2013.

Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is Wonderfully Old-Fashioned

Murder on the Orient Express 2017 movie poster

Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express” marks a return of sorts for the actor and director. His last few movies as a director, “Thor,” “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” and “Cinderella,” had him embracing all the cinematic tools available to him to where his unique talents threatened to be squashed as he began to look like any other filmmaker making blockbuster motion pictures. But with this latest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel, we see him returning to his theatre roots as he directs an all-star cast to excellent performances while simultaneously playing the lead role of Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The late Leonard Nimoy said he never directed another “Star Trek” movie after “The Voyage Home” because acting and directing at the same time was just too much work. Branagh, however, makes it all look like a walk in the park, and after all these years I am astonished that he can make it look so easy.

Branagh is fantastic as Hercule, and he makes this classic character into a man of many splendors. We first see him being very picky about being served two hard-boiled eggs, both of which need to be the same size for him to eat. This scene almost makes him looks like a food snob, but then we see him solve a crime at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Hercule brings up three holy men to the front of the crowd, and immediately we think one of them is guilty, and that, once the guilty man is revealed, people will find their prejudices to be justified. But instead, Hercule implicates another man with the crime, and it shows how he sees sins as being universal and not relegated to a particular group or ethnicity. From there, we know this man will not be bound by prejudice when it comes to solving a crime.

Hercule just wants to take a holiday aboard the Orient Express, and we see him take great joy in observing perfectly baked foods as well in reading Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” which he laughs at constantly. But detectives like him can only stay on vacation for so long as the scent of crime is never far from him. And, as the movie’s title implies, a murder is committed which only he can solve with his unique set of skills. This will not be an easy case, but Hercule is quick to tell us, “If it were easy, I would not be famous.”

“Murder on the Orient Express” has been adapted several times, the most famous adaptation being Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film which, like this one, features an all-star cast. I have not seen any of the previous versions nor have I read Christie’s novel, so I am coming into this one a fresh newbie. From the start, I expected Branagh’s film to be an old-fashioned whodunit, but as it went on, I was surprised to see the story deal with themes Shakespeare wrote about time and time again. It becomes less about who the murderer is and more about the sins we allow ourselves to live with and of the different kinds of punishment we are forced to endure. Once the murderer is revealed, the story doesn’t stop there.

Branagh brings together a terrific group of actors who sink their teeth into roles which, on the surface, might seem underwritten and one-dimensional, but each actor does excellent work in creating an inner life for their characters to where their eyes tell us more than their mouths do. Even as they work on perfecting their poker faces, something which Hercule has them all beat at, their eyes betray a truth which can no longer stay buried.

Johnny Depp shows up as Edward Ratchett, an unsavory individual who becomes the victim of the story. Seeing Depp getting killed off early on in a movie is guaranteed to please many audience members who have had their fill of him, and I don’t just mean Amber Heard. I’m just glad Branagh cast him in this role instead of as Hercule. Depp would have just resurrected his Guy LaPointe character from “Tusk” and “Yoga Hosers” if he played Hercule, or perhaps he would have given us another variation on Charlie Mortdecai as, like Hercule, that character sports a truly extravagant mustache. All the same, Depp is wonderful in the role and makes Ratchett into a despicable character whose nasty fate deserves a thorough investigation.

I loved watching Penelope Cruz as Pilar Estravados as her demeanor presents the character as one with dark intentions as well as someone who has suffered far too much pain and tragedy in life. It took me a bit to recognize Josh Gad who plays Ratchett’s right-hand man, Hector MacQueen, and he is excellent as a man who has compromised his values once too often. Daisy Ridley, whom we cannot wait to see again as Rey in the next “Star Wars” movie, matches Branagh scene for scene as Mary Debenham, a lady who refuses to be investigated by Hercule for a protracted amount of time, but even her poker face falls apart before she realizes it. And you can always depend on Derek Jacobi, Dame Judi Dench and Willem Dafoe to turn in excellent performances as they rarely, if ever, have let us down.

But one performance I want to single out in particular is Michelle Pfeiffer’s who portrays Caroline Hubbard. 2017 has been a big year for Pfeiffer as she has emerged from what seems like an infinitely long hiatus and has given unforgettable and scene-stealing performances in Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” and Barry Levinson’s “The Wizard of Lies.” The same goes with her performance here as she takes the stereotypical divorced socialite and renders her into a complex figure of tragedy whose armor is harder for Hercule to break through. Pfeiffer has always been a fantastic actress, and her performance as Caroline reminded me of this and of how long her career has lasted. She has a show-stopping moment towards the movie’s end (you’ll know it when you see it), and it is further proof of how she has never been just another pretty face in Hollywood.

Branagh has directed “Murder on the Orient Express” as a theatre piece, and it is clear to me how much attention he has given the actors here. Having said that, he also gives this adaption a beautifully cinematic look. Along with his collaborators, director of photography Haris Zambarloukos and composer Patrick Doyle, he makes this film feel wonderfully old-fashioned, and it seems like forever since I have watched a movie which evokes this feeling. It should also be noted how he shot this movie on 65mm film which suits the material perfectly, and seeing those cigarette burns appear on the screen was a very welcome sight for me.

Of course, not everything about “Murder on the Orient Express” is perfect. The movie does drag a bit towards the end, and the story is at times a bit hard to follow. It also pales in comparison to another mystery movie Branagh directed back in the 1990’s, “Dead Again.” Still, it proves to be a wonderfully entertaining motion picture which reminded me of his best work even while not quite equaling it. The ending draws our attention to another Agatha Christie classic novel which implies, if this movie does well, we could be seeing the beginning of a franchise. I do hope this happens as Branagh has put together a wonderfully entertaining motion picture which begs for a continuation. Whether he can come up with a follow up remains to be seen as the world of movies remains dominated by endless superhero/comic book franchises.

I also have to say the mustache Branagh sports in this movie is very impressive. Lord knows how long it took for him to grow and keep so pointy. Many other actors would have been easily upstaged by such a mustache, but not Branagh.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Blade Runner 2049’ is Astonishing, Glorious and Mesmerizing

Blade Runner 2049 movie poster

Many words come to mind when describing “Blade Runner 2049.” Among them are mesmerizing, amazing, glorious, beautiful, and astonishing. I put special emphasis on the word astonishing because it is almost unbelievable to see what director Denis Villeneuve and company got away with here. Not only have they conceived a sequel which does its predecessor, Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult classic “Blade Runner,” proud, but they also got away with making an art house film with a budget of over $150 million and a running time of almost three hours. What were the studio executives thinking? Well, it doesn’t matter as this eagerly awaited sequel proves to be well worth the wait.

Taking place thirty years after the events of the original, the sequel introduces us to a new blade runner played by Ryan Gosling, and he comes to be known by a pair of names for reasons best left unsaid here. After enduring a brutal battle as he attempts to retire rogue replicant Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), he becomes aware of a long-buried secret which is overdue for a thorough investigation. In the process, he tracks down former blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who has been off the grid for many years as he seeks answers only Deckard can give. What results is a form of evolution no one could have seen coming.

Telling you more about “Blade Runner 2049” will prove to be detrimental to your viewing experience as you should only know so much about its plot before going into the theater. What I can tell you is the future world portrayed is even more beautifully bleak than the one Scott gave us 35 years ago, something I didn’t even think was remotely possible. The colors are vibrant, but everything is still subject to a never-ending rainstorm, the kind we needed in California for the longest time. And in this fictional universe, Pan Am is still a corporate giant even though it ceased operations in the real world back in 1991.

While I was bummed to learn Scott would not be directing this sequel (he serves as executive producer instead), they couldn’t have found a better filmmaker here to fill his shoes as Villeneuve takes on what must have been a truly daunting challenge here. “Blade Runner,” despite being a critical and commercial disappointment, has long since been considered one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made, and it certainly is. Making a sequel to it interested many including myself, and yet it could easily take away from the original as nothing easily compares to what came before. But Villeneuve is the same guy who gave us “Arrival,” another sci-fi masterpiece which invited and deserved comparison with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and this gave me confidence he could bring something special to “Blade Runner 2049.” Indeed, he has made a sequel which will prove to be every bit as memorable as its predecessor as the years go by as he expands on the themes and delivers a cinematic experience which is equally profound.

Furthermore, Villeneuve allows things to go at the same methodical pace Scott went at back in 1982. If you go into “Blade Runner 2049” expecting something along the lines of “Star Wars,” you will be seriously disappointed as the original defied sci-fi conventions with a vengeance. What was unique about “Blade Runner” is how it enthralled audiences with big ideas more than with wall-to-wall action sequences. The same is true with “Blade Runner 2049” as it probes the idea of what it means to be human, and it deals with characters searching for something which doesn’t feel the least bit artificial in a world dominated by technology. For me, the key line of dialogue comes when Lieutenant Joshi (played by Robin Wright) tells Gosling’s blade runner, “We’re all just looking out for something real.” This is certainly the case here, but as we catch up with these characters, their chances of finding anything real seem very small.

By the way, if Roger Deakins does not get this year’s Oscar for Best Cinematography, I will be seriously miffed. For far too long, this man has been the Randy Newman of the cinematography category, and this feels criminal as has given us beautiful and extraordinary images in “Sicario,” “Skyfall,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “The Shawshank Redemption” to where it is not easy to compare his work to others. Deakins, however, really outdoes himself here as he gives each scene in “Blade Runner 2049” a stunning look which shows both the beauty and the emptiness of the world these characters are forced to inhabit. What he has accomplished here is simply extraordinary as it all feels incredibly unique.

Gosling has long since proven to be as good an actor as he is a tremendously sexy one, and he is superb in a role which is very tricky to pull off. Again, I can only say so much about his character as it is too easy to spoil certain aspects of this movie, but once you understand who this blade runner is, it becomes clear as to the kind of balancing act Gosling has to play here. While life in the rainy and futuristic city seems to have burned this blade runner out completely, there are still glimpses of humanity to him which come out in a way which feels spontaneous and never forced. As a result, the “Drive” actor proves to be a genius at playing someone who is no longer certain as to how he should feel about the discoveries he has made.

Harrison Ford doesn’t show up as Deckard until the movie’s third act, but he makes it worth your time to wait for his first appearance. After watching him have tremendous fun playing Han Solo again in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” it’s great to see him bring another of his iconic characters back to life. Ford makes Deckard into a burned out shell of a man who is forced to hide not just from those threatening his existence, but also from the things he yearns to connect with most of all, and he illustrates the character’s never ending internal conflict without ever having to spell everything out for the audience.

The rest of the cast is superb as they bring a unique quality to roles which have them acting in both human and inhuman ways. Robin Wright kicked ass earlier this year in “Wonder Woman,” and she does it again here as Gosling’s superior officer who is a no-nonsense Lieutenant and eager to keep a war from being ignited. Ana de Armas, whom you might remember from Eli Roth’s “Knock Knock,” is perfection as Joi, Gosling’s hologram girlfriend who is definitely even better than the real thing as she comes equipped with a humanity which strikes at your emotions. Sylvia Hoeks is riveting as Luv, a replicant who can appear charming at one moment and incredibly lethal in the next, and she makes this character vicious and frightening as she is determined to make discoveries before others do. Jared Leto and Dave Bautista have essentially cameos here, but they make the most of their time onscreen and show the depth they are willing to give to even the smallest of roles.

My only real disappointment with “Blade Runner 2049” is we will never get to hear the music score by Villeneuve’s regular composer, Johann Johannsson. For some odd reason, he was removed from this project and is contractually forbidden from talking about why he was let go. His score to “Sicario” is one of my favorites, and it would have been great to hear what themes he could have brought to this sequel.

Having said that, the score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, the latter who recently did the music for “It,” is excellent as it captures the vibe of Vangelis’ score from the original without simply updating it for a new audience. It doesn’t even sound like the typical Hans Zimmer score as his music is usually pretty easy to recognize, although the last few cues do have a bit of “Dunkirk” in it. I feared “Blade Runner 2049” would get a more conventional score than the great one Vangelis composed years ago, but Zimmer and Wallfisch bring something wonderful, beautiful and thrilling to everything we see and listen to here.

The original “Blade Runner” came out in 1982, one of the greatest years for movies and one which many have called the year of the nerd. In addition to “Blade Runner,” we also got “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” “The Dark Crystal,” “Tron” and “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” among many others. “Blade Runner” was not a commercial hit and critical reaction to it was sharply divided, but like “The Thing” and “Tron,” its stature has grown over time to where it is now revered as the great motion picture it always was.

“The Thing” and “Tron” managed to generate a prequel and a sequel more than 20 years later, but neither could equal the power of their predecessors. This makes the achievements of “Blade Runner 2049” all the more profound as it equals the original film and digs even deeper into its theme which Scott explored to brilliant effect. What Villeneuve and company have come up with here feels as unique in today’s cinematic landscape as “Blade Runner” did in the 1980’s. I had every reason to lower my expectations on this one as sequels which come out decades later are typically doomed to failure, but this one defies the odds and I am so thankful everything worked out so well. It may not have Rutger Hauer, but very few movies can ever be perfect.

And for God’s sake, give Deakins the Cinematography Oscar! No excuses!

* * * * out of * * * *

‘The Grey’ Has Liam Neeson Battling More Than Wolves

The Grey movie poster

I was stunned at just how powerful “The Grey” was. Not that I was expecting it to be bad, but I was unprepared for how deep it was on an emotional level. On the surface, it looks like your average action movie crossed with an animal attack movie as the antagonists being a pack of bloodthirsty wolves. But as “The Grey” goes on, it becomes less about the wolves and more about man’s inner struggle. The wolves are really just serve as a metaphor for the beast inside of us which threatens to tear us apart.

Liam Neeson stars as John Ottway, a man who works at an oil drilling platform out in Alaska. John, however, is not an oil worker, but instead a hunter who shoots the wolves which threaten the workers. He also keeps having visions of his wife, Ana, (Anne Openshaw) and of them cuddling in bed together, and it is not clear whether she died or if she left him before he came out to one of the coldest places on Earth. What we do know is John is pretty despondent about his current situation, and he’s not sure if he wants to go on living.

All of this contemplation comes to a sudden halt when the plane he and the workers are traveling back home on suffers a serious malfunction and crashes in the most frigid and coldest place in all of Alaska. Director Joe Carnahan directs this crash sequence for maximum effect, and he keeps you inside the plane at all times which makes it all the more terrifying to watch. Robert Zemeckis’ “Flight” may have contained the most harrowing plane crash of any 2012 movie, but the one in “The Grey” is just as unnerving to witness.

John and the survivors gather supplies and make a fire in the hopes they will be rescued, but they are soon met by a foe deadlier than the subzero temperatures: wolves. They come at the men in packs and rip them apart mercilessly, and those left over are forced to escape the crash site and make their way towards the trees in the hopes of losing the wolves and making it back to civilization in one piece. It doesn’t take long to see how John being with them is a good thing as he knows how wolves think and act, and he understands that these animals feed off of our fear of them. John informs the men it doesn’t matter if they have harmed the wolves or not because they are in their territory and not the least bit welcome in it.

Carnahan, ever since his directorial debut with “Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane,” has been a kick ass director who fills his films with an energy both kinetic and rough. His movies are never filled with pretty boys and girls, but with working class people who have been through a rough and tumble life which has given them only so much comfort. As a result, these characters feel relatable and are inhabited by a strong group of actors who are not afraid to look less than glamorous as them.

Along with his director of photography Masanobu Takayanagi, Carnahan captures the brutally cold landscape of Alaska in a way which makes you want to wear layers of clothing and a parka even if you’re watching “The Grey” from the comfort of your own home. It should also be noted that the snowstorms seen here are not CGI creations, and the cast and crew did in fact shoot this movie out in British Columbia where the temperatures got as low as -40 degrees Celsius. Give them all points for sheer bravery!

Now I know a lot of animal lovers out there who are boycotting “The Grey” for all it’s worth due to its presentation of wolves being these ferociously evil monsters, but I doubt this movie is meant to be an accurate depiction of these animals. It’s not like you’re going into it expecting a National Geographic special, but if you are, why? The wolves and how they tear away at human flesh is clearly exaggerated for effect, and they are presented as bloodthirsty killers which I doubt they are in real life.

But the more you get into “The Grey,” the more you realize it’s really not about man versus wolf but about man’s conflict with himself. As these men make their way through unforgiving blizzards and up to a higher elevation which their bodies are not prepared to handle, they discuss the existence of God and if there was ever one to begin with. This movie is not out to offer any definitive answer to this question, but examination of this issue creates a moral conundrum for the characters which is fascinating to watch, and it brings the movie to a whole other level I didn’t expect it to go to.

It also helps that Carnahan has a great supporting cast of actors like James Badge Dale, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Nonso Anozie and Joe Anderson to work with as they all do a great job of bringing these characters to life. I especially have to single out Grillo who plays the arrogant hard ass Diaz. This character is the kind you want to see die painfully in a movie like this as he is like Hudson from “Aliens,” and excruciating pain in the ass, but Grillo makes Diaz into much more than that, and his character’s fate is a very sobering one to witness.

You have got to hand it to Neeson though as he brings a tremendous gravity to each film he’s in. Neeson has always been a riveting actor to watch, and he sells you on the knowledge his character has of wolves in a way few others can. If it were anyone else in this role, things might not seem as believable, but Neeson is the kind of guy who looks like he’s been through a lot in life (and he has), and you need an actor like him in a movie like this.

“The Grey” also has an emotionally powerful film score by Marc Streitenfeld. He has been Ridley Scott’s composer of choice for several of his movies, and yet he somehow got some time off to compose something for Carnahan. I even detected strands of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 in Streitenfeld’s score, and that is a piece of music as beautiful as it is sad (Peter Weir used it to great effect in “Fearless”). I had no idea Streitenfeld was going to come up with music this moving, and this says a lot about his talent.

“The Grey” doesn’t reinvent cinema as we know it, but it does take familiar elements and creates a movie going experience I didn’t expect to be taken on. While many may be bummed out by the film’s ending, I feel it is a perfect one for a movie like this. This is not a story which requires a heavy-duty action sequence to conclude it, and it’s really better for it as a result (be sure to stay through the end credits though). Those involved in its making were not out to give us a simple action movie, but instead a character driven one, and we should give them our thanks for taking it in this particular direction. Any other filmmaker would have been content to give us something which seemed like business as usual, but Carnahan was not out to do that. Thanks goodness for that.

* * * ½ out of * * * *