This Week's Film Reviews (Oct 28, 2016)

27 Oct 2016

INFERNO opens this week, another weak adaptation of the Dan Brown bestseller.  The black indie MOONLIGHT, the talk of the town finally makes its debut.  Cinefranco- a feast of French cinema also opens this week.  See separate article for capsule reviews.


THE HANDMAIDEN (South Korea 2016) **
Directed by Park Chan-wook

South Korean helmer Park Chan-wook, known for his excellent thriller OLDBOY  returns with another suspense thriller, this time adapting Sarah Waters' Victorian England-set bestseller Fingersmith to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s.  The adaptation works with a few flaws but the result is nevertheless something completely different - a historical drama that turns out to be both an erotically charged thriller and a lesbian romance, with sex scenes rivalling BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR.

Park’s film is told in three chapter’s from the points of view of the story’s three characters.  The film contains lots of flashbacks, with each flashback containing possibly a different meaning to the story than when the scene first appears.  It is tight and clever editing, but too many of these lend to a bit of confusion.  A few parts at the end are also confusing like the one in which Fujiwara rows a boat in a misty lake with the two women in it.

The three distinct perspectives are of:  Japanese aristocrat Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), Korean thief Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), and pseudonymous schemer and thief, Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo).   Hideko lives isolated in the luxurious colonial manor built by her tyrannical and depraved uncle (Cho Jin-woong), a book collector who forces Hideko to read erotic stories for his lecherous old friends.  Into this bizarre yet static daily routine enters new handmaiden Sookee, who is in on the purported Count Fujiwara's scheme to marry Hideko and seize her inheritance.  But the twist in the plot does not end here.  The Count is in reality scheming against Sookee with Hideko with even more plot twists (not revealed in the review) on the way.  It all becomes clear in the very end though confusing when each twist is revealed and in flashbacks.

But for all that the film is worth, Western audiences will be treated with a sumptuous feast for the eyes, in terms of the Korean and Japanese period atmosphere, from the colourful costumes, to the sets and wardrobe to the strange practise of the rich and famous.  The one scene in which the two women destroy the valuable scrolls and books is one that stands out the most.

Park’s fondness for the gruesome and excesses, as observed in his films OLDBOY and LADY VENGEANCE is on display here.  The digit chopping with the page clamp cutter segment had one critic walk out of the press screening.  The lesbian love-making scenes between Sookee and Hideko, with their bodies sliding along each other with extreme moaning will also have the audience drooling.  Other excesses include foul language, surrealism (the misty boat ride on the lake; the lengthy tooth rubbing scene) and erotism (Hideko’s sex readings to her uncle and dirty cronies).

THE HANDMAIDEN has delighted many critics for these excesses.  But excesses are excesses and the film which runs a full  two and a half hours could do with a bit of trimming. 

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IkvHtfRAKNk

INFERNO (USA 2016) **
Directed by Ron Howard

The films of director Ron Howard (the all American boy of the TV series HAPPY DAYS turned successful Hollywood director) have one characteristic.  There are largely forgettable.  One can hardly remember two or more scenes from his films such as A BEAUTIFUL MIND, PARENTHOOD  or even his most successful APOLLO 13.  

The same will be said in a few years time for Howard’s INFERNO, based on Dan Brown’s 2013 novel of the same name and the sequel to the equally boring DA VINCI CODE and ANGEL & DEMONS.  Tom Hanks reprises his Robert Langdon role.

Warning: It is best not to see the trailer before the film as all the best and most important parts are shown, leaving the film even more boring.

The film begins with the chase then resulting suicide of Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), a transhumanist scientist, intent on solving the world's overpopulation problem before jumping from a bell tower.  (This scene is also seen in the trailer. )  The film switches to Robert Langdon awakening in a hospital room in Florence, Italy, with no memory of what has transpired over the last few days.  He suddenly finds himself, once again, the target of a major manhunt. With the help of Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) and his knowledge of symbology, Langdon tries to regain his freedom and lost memories, all while solving the most intricate riddle he has ever faced.

The script by David Koepp (JURASSIC PARK) makes more confusion of an otherwise simple story laced with too many subplots.  Every sub-plot makes sense in the whole realm of the story, but the audience is not given much time to digest the details.

The climatic sequence when all the characters converge to save the world (in their own way) is a total confusion of bad editing when the audience is uncertain how the virus might be or might not be released in a container that is immersed in a water system. The knife fight that involves a victorious Sienna feels like something out of a horror film where the slasher always appears for one last scare.

If there is one saving grace of the film, it is the performance of Sidse Babett Knudsen as Elizabeth Sinskey, head of the the World Health Organization.  One of Denmark’s best actresses, she makes the most of what would otherwise be an underwritten role.  Her presence gives a new definition to screen presence.  Irfan Khan and Omar Sy (UNTOUCHABLES) are both not bad as the polished no-nonsense Harry Sims and Christoph Brüder, head of the SRS team respectively.

The film is shot in a few exotic locations such as Florence, Venice and Istanbul that should provide a few bright moments.

What is most puzzling is the supposedly surprise ending with Dr. Langdon and the Dante’s mask if it is already shown in the trailer.  The link to the trailer is provided below.  See it, if you must, but after watching the film, again, only if you must.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RH2BD49sEZI

MISS HOKUSAI (Japan 2014-2015) ***

Directed by Keiichi Hara

The Japanese animated feature MISS HOKUSAI is set in 1814 in Edo,where peasants, samurai, merchants, nobles, artists, and courtesans live together in apparent harmony.  It is also just the time that marked the end of the samurai era when Edo was renamed Tokyo - an important period for the Japanese, that unfolds here for the education of the westerners.

The artist is the film’s subject.  Accomplished artist Tetsuzo spends his days creating astounding works, from a giant Dharma portrayed on a 180-metre-wide sheet of paper to a pair of sparrows painted on a single grain of rice.  Short-tempered and with no interest for saké or money, he (Hokusai) would charge a fortune for any job he is unwilling to undertake.  But it is his daughter, O-Ei who is sane and completes the work her father leaves unfinished.  

As all of Edo flocks to see the work of the revered painter Hokusai, the artist's daughter O-Ei toils inside his studio, creating masterful portraits and erotic sketches that — sold under her father's name — are coveted by aristocrats and journeyman printmakers alike.   Shy and reserved in public, in the studio O-Ei is brash and uninhibited, but despite this fiercely independent spirit she struggles under the domineering influence of her father and is ridiculed for lacking the life experience that she is attempting to portray in her art.   This film is her story (the young woman behind one of history's most famous artists) and it shows her coming-of-age in a precarious and difficult situation.

Based on the manga Sarusuberi by Hinako Sugiura, MISS HOKUSAI is carefully crafted animation, similar to the type Ghibli Studio produces.  The animation is impressive especially during the fire and water (very difficult to animate) scenes but the film lacks dramatic drive.  The characters often appear just coasting around, like the objects of a painting.  The fact that a lot of mythical elements are introduced does not help the film’s credibility either.

The film was first screened during the Real Asian film festival in Toronto in 2015 and is finally getting a screening run at the TIFF Bell Lighbox.  There are two versions - I saw it in the original subtitled version.  The other is the inferior dubbed version.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nj1rwo_d-s

MOONLIGHT (USA 2016) ***

Directed by Barry Jenkins

MOONLIGHT is one of the most talked about African American films screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.  It has garnered rave reviews based on its raw content and originality.  And indeed, this film deserves all accolades.

MOONLIGHT is Barry Jenkins’ second feature after MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY.

It is s very strange feature, low-budget, very originally told (in three parts; each part titled by each of the three names the protagonist is given) of the life of Little or Chiron or Black from childhood to adulthood.   His real name is Chiron, but is called Little in school due to his small stature.  Little is ‘adopted’ by a local thug and his girlfriend when he is not living with his drug addicted mother.  

Bullied and beaten up frequently because of his small stature and curly hair (he looks very much like a girl), Little cannot take it anymore and is arrested after he finally breaks a chair over his bully right in the middle of a class.  The scene deserves quiet cheers.  

Little grows up, surprisingly into a big muscled guy and meets back with his school buddy who gave him the nickname of Black.  He obviously had the thug of his childhood as his mentor.  Kevin and Black have a gay sex encounter which Black can never forget.  

Jenkins’ film feels like it is all over the place though it is obvious he is leading his audience somewhere.  One good thing about Jenkins film is that you never know where he is leading the audience.  Though slow moving at times, Jenkins film is never boring and a compelling watch for start to end when the audience finally figures out the purpose of MOONLIGHT.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5fYFIj16YC0

THE VIOLIN TEACHER (Brazil 2016) ***
Directed by Sergio Machado

A Brazilian version of Meryl Streep’s MUSIC OFTHE HEART?  

THE VIOLIN TEACHER, which opens at the arts house theatre Bell Lightbox serves both as an art house film and a crowd pleaser.  From the film’s very first frame, the audience sees the protagonist, a  talented but tortured soul named Laerte (Lazaro Ramos) unable to fulfil his promise during an important violin audition for the famous São Paulo Symphonic Orchestra.  When he returns home disgruntled, he has a long distance telephone call with his dad where the audience sees his parents’ full support and him not reaching his full potential.  The next scene ups the angst when he quarrels at his orchestra practice and his group is disbanded.  To make matters worse, he has no money to pay rent and is served with an eviction notice.  But lo and behold!  There is hope.  He has a chance to make some money by teaching a group of underprivileged violin students in the slums of Helipolis.  His path is, as expected, full of difficulties but the film attempts to show that the transforming power of music and the friendship arising between the professor and his students open the doors into a new world.  This is where the story is stretched a bit too far in crowd-pleasing territory.  This comes despite the fact that the film is based on a true story.

The film contains two scenes that are quite difficult to believe.  One is the night scene when thugs threaten Laerte.  Laerte takes out the violin and plays a classical piece, apparently so well that the uneducated thugs are mesmerized and leave him alone.  The audience also learns during the film that the kids have no knowledge of music theory.  They do not know what a treble cleft is nor can they read notes. The scene that follows has the kids at practice playing a classical piece conducted by Laaerte quite effectively.

But the film works when the director stops trying too hard and lets his film flow.  The scene that contains no dialogue where Laerte walks with his students demonstrates the new camaraderie created very effectively.  The film also bursts into energy in the club scene where dancers rap to the Brazilian beats - a scene that is only loosely tied to the plot.

The segment where Laerte agrees to have his kids play for a drug dealer’s party might sound far-fetched, but one can tell that the incident actually happened. 

Flaws aside, THE VIOLIN TEACHERS captures both the atmosphere of liveliness and difficulty of survival in the slums.  (The part where a father strikes his son with the hope that the son will not hang around the wrong crowd hits the story home.)  That together with Ramos’ performance lifts THE VIOLIN TEACHER over the drabness of a formulaic film too eager to please.  Also, needless to say, the film contains a beautiful score of violin classical pieces.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TjaDenw6v-U


Best Film Opening: MOONLIGHT



Best Animation: WAY FAR NORTH

Best Documentary: TOWER



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