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This Week's Film Reviews (March 29, 2013)

29 Mar 2013

A few gems opening this week.  The lost and found WAKE IN FRIGHT from Australia (1970) is one to catch.  It got a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

BEYOND THE HILLS (Romania 2012) ***

Directed by Cristian Mungui

This new two and a half hour film from the Romanian director of 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS is another criticism of society, in this case of what can happen in an isolated Orthodox convent.

Everything goes well in the convent run by the priest (Valeriu Andriuta) and kindly Mother Superior (Dana Tapalaga).  When one of the convent’s nun, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) is visited by Alina (Cristina Flutur), trouble boil up in paradise.  Voichita wants to remain in the faith, But Alina, her orphanage classmate wants her to go off with her.  This leads to Alina losing it and cursing the convent so much so that Father and the nuns believe her possessed.  They tie her down and gag her resulting in turning the convent into turmoil.

Mungui’s film moves at a leisurely pace which allows the events to unfold credibly.  The audience understands the Father’s sternness in order foe the convent to survive.  The nuns obey him unconditionally.

The film also explores the hardships of living outside the city where water has to be drawn from the well and where all labour has to be done by the nuns.  At the same time, the audience is shown two sides of the coin.  Alina is a nonbeliever and her view is also shown strong on screen.   Yet her dilemma is real.  She cannot live without her lover and she cannot stay in the convent because she does not believe.

BEYOND THE HILLS illustrate clearly life’s sad tragedies.  And Mungui displays all the hardship and brutalities that go with it too – both physical and emotional.  The film starts and leaves at the same place – a journey nowhere but with lessons learnt.

EMPEROR (USA 2012) **

Directed by Peter Webber


Very ambitious war drama set just after WWII tackling major issues that have not been touched by other Hollywood films, but unfortunately the film fails to meet expectations.  Still, EMPEROR opens the eyes of audiences to the way of the Japanese, that every westerner should be aware of.

Japan has surrendered after the two atomic bombs have destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The Americans with all good intentions wish to help Japan get on her feet but at the same time bring the war criminals to justice.  The question here is he role of Emperor Showa (Takataro Kataoka).  General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones in all his growling glory) has commissioned General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox who played the psychotic villain in ALEX CROSS) to determine if the emperor is guilty.  The emperor is found to be just an instrumental figure though he is a man of peace.

The film is primarily bogged down by the romantic subplot between Fellers and the Japanese girl he met while studying in University.  We have all seen this before – the parental objection to the romance, the cultural rift and the separation during the war.  Fellers keep this information from General MacArthur though his colleagues term him a Jap lover.

Director Webber (best known for THE GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRING) takes the film down its expected course where Feller fights for the Emperor’s innocence.  The moderately budgeted film looks good in terms of atmosphere and cinematography, but one just cannot help but feel cheated when the film’s high hopes are dashed by simple arguments (at one point the Japanese occupation in Asia is compared to western colonization) over the war and silly action set ups.

GINGER & ROSA (UK 2012) **

Directed by Sally Potter

Stylized, beautifully shot and meticulously acted, GINGER & ROSA is exactly the type of film that is expected from writer/director Sally Potter who provided the same with her famous gender ambiguous ORLANDO.

Her film is not one normally strong on narrative.  Potter uses ideas, events and emotions to construct some meaning into a film.  In GINGER & ROSA set in London, 1962, two teenage girls - Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) – are inseparable, the characters under study. They play truant (hookey) together, discuss religion, politics and hairstyles, and dream of lives bigger than their mothers'' frustrated domesticity. But, as the Cold War meets the sexual revolution, and the threat of nuclear holocaust escalates, the lifelong friendship of the two girls is shattered - by the clash of desire and the determination to survive. 

  To make sense of life the two make a stand and take up the worthy cause of fighting for a nuclear free world.  But other problems close to home, some of these being growing up and family tensions prove too much for the two adolescents. 

Potter’s film does not lead to any conclusion or provide solutions to any of the problems brought up.  That is likely not her intention.  Her dramatic climax is nothing sort of compelling with secrets finally coming out.  Performances are great, especially by Timothy Spall as Mark, a friends of the mother’s who though unexplained, is saved from the dislikes of the girls.  

Still GINGER & ROSA is too stylized for its own good.  Style should complement the story.  In Potter’s film, it is the other way around, so much so that confusion and ambiguity gets the better of everything.

THE HOST (USA 2013) *

Directed by Andrew Niccol


Following hot on the heels of the box-office successes of THE TWILIGHT series films and WARM BODIES comes another romantic sci-fi thriller, again catered to the teen crowd.  Lots of beautiful male bods are on display here, reminiscent so much of the successful formula used in TWILIGHT and BREAKING DAWN.

THE HOST is based on Stephanie Meyer’s best selling romantic sic-fi romance novel, the young author also responsible for writing and producing the TWILIGHT/BREAKING DAWN works.

When the film opens, we find that parasitic aliens called "souls" have invaded the Earth and have begun to possess the minds of humans. Melanie Stryder''s (Saorise Ronan from HANNA) body has been inhabited by a soul named Wanderer, but she refuses to fade away.  Wanderer starts to see Melanie''s memories, in which she sees her loved ones and eventually finds a connection with them, too. Melanie is trapped inside Wanderer''s mind, speaking to her mentally, when both decide to set off and find Melanie’s loved ones.  The good looking males are played by Max Irons and Jake Abel.

Two recognizable faces appear – William Hurt and Diane Kruger (INGLORIOUS BASTERDS), playing the human and alien side respectively.  They both steal the show from all the pretty boys and Ronan, who given her material actually fares not too badly.

The idea of using voiceover to relay the thoughts of possessed Melanie is not a good one.  These account for most of the film’s unintentional laughable parts.  When voice over is also used for relaying the message of the seekers, the film gets a bit confusing.  What is most surprising is that director Andrew Niccol of GATTACA has made such a mess of this film.

THE HOST ends up a totally laughable piece of rubbish.  The silly idea of a story worked as a novel, considering the huge number of bestselling copies sold, but just serves to show that not all written works are adaptable to the screen.  THE HOST fails not only in all departments but in overall concept.

MIAMI CONNECTION (USA 1987) **

Directed by Richard Park


This 1987 movie took more than 25 years before being released here for several reasons but the main one being that the film was a huge flop.  Directed Richard Park was so impressed with Y.K. Kim’s martial-arts skills that they decided to make a movie together.  Never mind Park has never made a movie before.  No studio was finance it nor distributor touch it.  So after spending all the personal money to make the film Park got the film in limited release to horrid reviews.  But is the film so bad?

MIAMI CONNECTION is so cheesy, badly written, executed and put together with even the end message against violence going to head with the film’s violence.

The film is set in 1987.  Motorcycle ninjas tighten their grip on Florida''s narcotics trade, viciously annihilating anyone who dares move in on their turf.  Multi-national martial arts rock band Dragon Sound have had enough, and embark on a roundhouse wreck-wave of crime-crushing justice. When not chasing beach bunnies or performing their hit song "Against the Ninja," (Who wrote this rubbish song?) Mark (kung-fu master/inspirational speaker Y.K. Kim) and the boys are kicking and chopping at the drug world''s smelliest underbelly. It''ll take every ounce of their blood and courage, but Dragon Sound can''t stop until they''ve completely destroyed the dealers, the drunk bikers, the kill-crazy ninjas, the middle-aged thugs, i.e. THE MIAMI CONNECTION.

Y.K. Kim is the hero of the movie because he has a black belt and can fight the best.  Somehow, the three fighter members of Dragon Sound can beat any fighter in the rival gang.  So when the fights begin, the audience knows exactly who will win.  The silliest part of the film is a ridiculous sub-plot involving a member (Maurice Smith) finding his lost father.  Lots or laughable crying by the actors when father is finally found.

MIAMI CONNECTION is so silly that it becomes total watchable.  There is never a dull moment as another silly thing will pop up in the next frame.

SPRING BREAKERS (USA 2012) ***1/2

Directed by Harmony Korine

Harmony Korine is the author of the script that went on to become the controversial film KIDS directed by Larry Clark.· 30-year old Korine himself also directed a few films, JULIEN DONKEY-BOY and GUMMO, films that defy the conventional form of filmmaking.

Korine again breaks all the rules of filmmaking with his latest spring break film SPRING BREAKERS.· Though the film is about teens, the film is, as expected not the typical teen film though what happens on screen could very well happen to any teen in what could be termed the ultimate American nightmare.

The simple plot involves Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Cotty (Rachel Korine) and Faith (Selena Gomez) who have been best friends since grade school.· They live together in a boring college dorm and are hungry for adventure. All they have to do is save enough money for spring break to get their shot at having some real fun.· A serendipitous encounter with rapper "Alien" (James Franco) promises to provide the girls with all the thrill and excitement they could hope for.· With the encouragement of their new friend, it soon becomes unclear how far the girls are willing to go to experience a spring break they will never be able to forget.

The film initially centres on Faith who is seen attending her family Christian meeting in which she is preached the verse of 1Corinthians 10:13 which is: “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”· The preacher tells Faith how cool the verse is and the audience expects the film’s plot to involve Faith succumbing to temptation and escaping from it.· But as the film goes on, Faith only escapes as she is removed quarter way in the film by the fact that she suddenly returns home.· The film then delves on the two other supporting characters.

The result is a dissatisfying piece of filmmaking.· But Korin’s film though is always all over the place and then sometimes all at the same place with identical set-ups is still majorly absorbing.

Credit also goes to an unrecognizable James Franco, who does a more than an amazing job as Black rapper, Alien.· The girls fare not too bad either.· The trance dance soundtrack suits the crazy partying segments as well as all the highly erotic super bodies that fill up the screen.

Though by no means a flawless film, SPRING BREAKERS is definitely an unforgettable experience made possible by a young filmmaker’s daring and talent.· This is also one film that is worth a second viewing.

WAKE IN FRIGHT (OUTBACK) (Australia/USA 1971) ****

Directed by Ted Kotchef

It was the 70’s that Australia made it big internationally with her innovate, uniquely styled Australian films.  Films such as NEWSFRONT, PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK, THE GETTING OF WISDOM, THE LAST WAVE and of course, WALKABOUT were the best of that decade and all came from the unexpected place called down-under.  One other film by then unknown director Ted Kotcheff, made on a budget of Aus$800,000 was one such film.  Lost for many years because of its unavailability, this is now the chance to catch a good look at this excellent piece of real horror, which incidentally scored 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.

The OUTBACK of the alternative film tile is a place called The Yabba.  Here, the people very friendly in the ‘yabba’ way.  They will keep buying you drinks and you don’t have to come out a cent.  But you have to keep drinking, fighting, gambling, womanizing or embark on wild barbaric kangaroo hunts.

School teacher John Grant (Gary Bond) finds himself stranded in ‘The Yabba” after losing all his money on gambling.  He is already disgruntled because of the onerous terms of a financial bond which he signed with the government in return for receiving a tertiary education. The bond has forced him to accept a post to the tiny school at Tiboonda, a remote township in the arid Aussie outback.  It is the start of the Christmas school holidays and Grant plans on going to Sydney  to visit his girlfriend but first, however, he must travel by train to the nearby mining town of Bundanyabba (known as “The Yabba”) in order to catch a Sydney-bound flight.

Grant’s drinking leads him to Tim''s house. Here he meets Tim''s daughter, Janette (Sylvia Kay).  Janette then tries to initiate an awkward sexual episode with Grant, who vomits.  Grant finds refuge of a sort, staying at the shack of "Doc" Tydon (Donald Pleasence).  Doc tells him that he and many others have had sex with Janette.  He also gives Grant pills from his medical kit, ostensibly to cure Grant''s hangover.       And the film goes on with Grant degrading himself from bad to worse.

What is remarkable about this horror film is that the horrors are real and brought on by the protagonist himself.  The goings-on by the town folk are crazy enough and also sufficient to scare any newcomer into the town.  But Grant slides in with horrific results.

One of the most disturbing segments in the film is the authentic kangaroo hunt (filmed with professional kangaroo hunters) in which dozens of the animals are butchered and left hobbling about wounded.  The men are supposed to grab the wounded from the back and slit its throat.

If one is up to it, WAKE IN FRIGHT makes quite the unforgettable movie.

PICKS OF THE WEEK:

Best Film Opening: Wake In Fright

Best Film Playing: Django Unchained

Best Comedy: 21 & Over

Best Family: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Best Foreign: No (Chile)

Best Documentary: The Gatekeepers

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