The Reel Deal
LEVIATHAN, STOKER, & JACK THE GIANT SLAYER
Quick Takes on Three Films
By Tyler Malone
Reel Rating: 5 out of 5
We’ve grown to expect the wrong things from documentaries. We expect them to elucidate a topic for us, to make their subjects easily understandable or digestible, to give us a thesis and then argue why that thesis is correct through an overabundance of talking heads and voice overs, infographics and historical reenactments. But documentarians are no different than any other artists, and the artist’s job, in the words of Francis Bacon Sr., “is to deepen the mystery.” Great art shouldn’t give us easy answers, it should ask difficult questions. Leviathan does exactly this. With no voice over to guide us, and little to no discernible dialogue anywhere in the film, we are confronted instead with a barrage of sights and sounds.
Leviathan takes as its subject the fishing industry, following one groundfish trawler almost wordlessly as the ship and its crew go about their business. This business includes hacking sting rays to shreds and tossing their maimed bodies aside, beheading fish as they gasp for air flopping about the ship’s death-soaked deck, and pouring blood red water from the boat back into the ocean. This is the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch if that show had balls (well, and poetic ambitions). In fact, there’s a great moment where one of the fisherman is watching Deadliest Catch, and he slowly nods off, as if bored by its false sense of story, its cliché narrative hooks, the irreality of its “reality TV.” Leviathan has no sense of story, it only has images, truth, poetry.
As these images flit across the screen, we feel swallowed whole, like Jonah by that mythical whale. And speaking of mythical whales, it’s fitting that the port the trawler sets out from is New Bedford, Mass. (one of the ports in Melville’s Moby-Dick). As in Melville’s novel, images in Leviathan take on allegorical dimensions. These hyper-mythic images are nothing short of breath-taking. Whether we’re watching superfluous starfish falling to the seafloor after having been needlessly uprooted or witnessing terrifying groups of seagulls that seem like they flew straight off the set of Hitchcock’s The Birds, everything feels simultaneously other-worldly and entirely of this world. It’s foreign, and yet too close for comfort. The film frightens in primitive ways, ways that tap into something buried deep in our psyche. In this way, the mood isn’t that of a documentary, but of a horror film. It’s ominous, apocalyptic, harrowing. To find a documentary whose barrage of poetic imagery is equivalent I had to think all the way back to the infinitely more didactic Triumph of the Will. But instead of simple didactic argument, Leviathan deepens the mystery, and who could ask for anything more?
Reel Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Even if the movie falls apart towards the end, and its tonal escalation gets away from him, South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook has made an interesting film in Stoker, his first American movie. Yes, even as it fails, it does so dazzlingly, which is more than can be said of most Hollywood films.
Park Chan-wook, known mostly for his visionary masterpiece Oldboy (which will be getting the Hollywood remake treatment later this year under the guidance of Spike Lee), at least refuses to give in to Hollywood conventions as he designs his neo-Gothic noir, his send-up to (the strange bedfellows of) Bram Stoker and Alfred Hitchcock. Imagine the eerie world of Stoker’s Dracula (sans vampires) transplanted to modern day and grafted to a plot that’s basically a highly sexualized version of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt.
Where the film falls off is when it explains away too much of the mystery. It spends the first hour expertly building a tension and tone, and then loses some of the atmospheric mystique when the plot becomes too literal, and certain characters’ motives and backstory are made clear. Actor-turned-screenwriter Wentworth Miller seems to have written himself into a corner, and couldn’t find an ending worthy of his script’s first half. Regardless though, it’s a film that sticks with the viewer long after he/she has left the theater–violent, sexual, thought-provoking, unsettling. It’s the kind of film where upon another viewing I may find myself pushing towards a more total appreciation or, equally possible, in the direction of utter disappointment, but as of now, I’m happy to report a mild amusement and interest that has allowed me to overlook its flaws.
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER:
Reel Rating: 1 out of 5
Why director Bryan Singer thought this lesser fairytale would make a compelling film is beyond me. In my humble opinion, the best application of this fairytale to film is in the Disney short Brave Little Tailor–one of the great Mickey shorts–and that works mostly because it is a short form for a slight story (well, and because Mickey is automatically a more lovable hero than some unknown and unexceptional Jack, especially one as underwritten as the one Nicholas Hoult plays here).
As a feature-length live-action film, there’s just not enough substance to fill a whole two hours. Because there’s little by way of plot, the scenes are filled with horrible dialogue (which I think someone misguidedly thought might come off as clever) and mediocre CGI (it’s not even a visual wonder, which would have at least kept me sidetracked) and little else. The characters, whether human or giant, are ironically as small and slight as the magic beans, but unlike those beans, they don’t grow at all in the 114 minute runtime.
The only thing that makes this cinematic fairytale marginally more palatable than the double dose of Snow White we dealt with last year is the knowledge that at least we’ll only have to endure one Jack and the Beanstalk movie this year. It’s sad that that’s what I have to grasp at for some minor comfort, but it’s the small things that get us through, right?
Leviathan is a film written and directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel. A documentary shot in the North Atlantic and focused on the commercial fishing industry.
Stoker is a film directed by Park Chan-wook, and written by Wentworth Miller and Erin Cressida Wilson. It stars Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, and Matthew Goode. After India’s father dies, her Uncle Charlie, who she never knew existed, comes to live with her and her unstable mother. She comes to suspect this mysterious, charming man has ulterior motives and becomes increasingly infatuated with him.
Jack the Giant Slayer is a film directed by Bryan Singer, written by Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie, Dan Studney, and David Dobkin, and based on the classic fairytale. It stars Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, and Ian McShane. The ancient war between humans and a race of giants is reignited when Jack, a young farmhand fighting for a kingdom and the love of a princess, opens a gateway between the two worlds.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of Cinema Guild
Design by Jillian Mercado
Film Still from Leviathan, Photography Courtesy of Cinema Guild