Everything, Everything


Young love is a heady thing.

(2017) Young Adult Romance (Warner Brothers) Amandla Stenberg, Nick Robinson, Anika Noni Rose, Ana de la Reguera, Taylor Hickson, Danube R. Hermosillo, Dan Payne, Fiona Loewi, Sage Brocklebank, Robert Lawrenson, Peter Benson, Françoise Yip, Farryn VanHumbeck, Marion Eisman, Allison Riley, Valareen Friday. Directed by Stella Meghie

 

There is something about young love that is intoxicating, not only for those experiencing it but for those around them. We all remember those first throes of our first real love, the high highs, the low lows, the amazing mood swings. Our hormones sizzle our bodies like steaks on a grill and we have no clue how to handle the intensity of our emotions. It’s sweet and horrible and wonderful and bitter all at once.

The movies and television often celebrate this particular event which is common to nearly everyone, but there are some movies that give us a twist on that; the dying teenager finds love sub genre. The tragic element tends to put young girls hormones into overdrive, either in maternal sympathy for the beautiful young boy who is dying or identifying with the beautiful young girl who is dying.

In this case, it’s the latter. Maddy (Stenberg) lives in a hermetically sealed house with filtered air and a sterile environment. She suffers from severe combined immunodeficiency disorder, or SCID. Simply taking a stroll outside could kill her, so for the past 17 years of her 18 years of life she has lived here, watching the world go by through big glass windows.

She wants to be an architect and has designed a diner and a home that she sometimes imagines herself inhabiting. She often feels like an astronaut adrift in space, unable to touch down back on Earth and in her imagination she often sees an astronaut in her creations.

Maddy’s mom Pauline (Rose) is a mother hen, protecting her daughter with almost drill sergeant-like ardor. She’s a doctor who specializes in immune system disorders and she’s responsible for a lot of Maddy’s care. The only two people who ever interact with Maddy besides her mom is the housekeeper Carla (de la Reguera) and Carla’s daughter Rosa (Hermosilla) who undergo a pretty thorough sterilization procedure every time they come in.

Maddy dreams of going to the beach but that seems an unlikely reality until Maddy’s reality is turned upside down by literally the boy next door. Olly (Robinson) moves in and soon the two are trading soulful glasses through the window and then it’s phone numbers. They begin to text and call like well, a couple of teenagers. The two fall head over heels. Carla tries to foster this relationship but Pauline finds out about it and soon, no more Carla.

Soon Maddy and Olly decide that their only alternative is a trip to Hawaii – it turns out that Olly’s dad (Payne) is abusive. Olly is a little reluctant but Maddy is willing to risk everything for a single perfect teenage day at the beach – including her life.

This is based on the young adult romance novel of the same name by Nicola Yoon. I haven’t read it but I’m wondering how similar the plot is to the movie because quite frankly, this feels like too many movies I’ve seen before from Romeo and Juliet to The Boy in the Plastic Bubble to dozens of young adult-aimed movies over the past few years.

One of the things that bothers me is that Olly is literally too good to be true; despite having to deal with his father’s physical abuse, he almost never acts out in ways that most abused kids do. I don’t know Yoon or screenwriter J. Mills Goodloe have spent much time around abused kids but given their tone-deaf portrayal of Olly I’d say the answer is no.

The movie is definitely aimed at a tween/teen crowd, especially young girls. Olly is dreamy/handsome and Maddy is a prototypical spunky teen heroine with a tragic disease.. Oh, and the plot is preposterous, the teen characters are all smart and terrific and the adult characters are all jerks. Not to mention that rules and common sense don’t mean squat when you’re doing what you want to do instead of what you should do. There’s a time and a place for being rebellious but not when it puts your life at risk but I suppose that feels pretty noble and everything.

There’s not a lot of realism here and the big twist is so completely unbelievable that it would have ruined a much better movie than this. As it is I just sat there watching and nodding to myself, muttering “Yup. Of course that’s where they went.”

I wish that Hollywood would stop treating tweens and teens and kids as underage morons. They are capable of figuring things out and I’m convinced that, just like adults, they want good movies and not crappy ones. The fact that they pretty much stayed away from this in droves bears me out. I think that there are better versions of this type of story to be made (and likely a few that have already been made). Teens deserve better than this.

REASONS TO GO: There is some decent cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie suffers from too-good-to-be-true boyfriend syndrome. The plot is predictable and goes completely off the rails once the action shifts to Hawaii.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the book, Olly has a shaved head. In the movie version, Pauline (Maddy’s mom) tells him he needs a haircut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fault in Our Stars
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Camera Obscura

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Carol


A different type of Christmas Carol.

A different type of Christmas Carol.

(2015) Drama (Weinstein) Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy, John Magaro, Cory Michael Smith, Kevin Crowley, Nik Pajic, Carrie Brownstein, Trent Rowland, Sadie Heim, Kk Heim, Amy Warner, Michael Haney, Wendy Lardin, Pamela Evans Haynes, Greg Violand, Michael Ward, Kay Geiger, Christine Dye. Directed by Todd Haynes

We sometimes look back at the 1950s as a kind of idyllic era, a time when America was the pre-eminent world power (although I’m sure the Soviet Union had a thing or two to say about that), when life was simple and the American way of life was at its peak. However, for all the affection we have for that time period, there were some undercurrents that were much more ugly than our collective memories would credit.

Carol is set in 1952 as America’s post-war paradise was in full flower. Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, it can be said that the movie is about the relationship between shopgirl Therese (pronounced as if it rhymes with “caress”) Belivet (Mara) and well-to-do housewife Carol Aird (Blanchett). While Christmas shopping for her daughter, the elfin Therese catches the patrician Carol’s eye and things evolve from there. Unfortunately, the kind of relationship the two women have in mind is frowned upon in that era.

To make things more complicated, Carol is in the midst of a contentious divorce with her husband Harge (Chandler) who has already endured a Sapphic affair by his wife with her friend Abby (Paulson) although that, we learn, actually took place before he married her. The thought that his wife has been intimate with another woman apparently drives him a little bit batty, but he loves his wife and wants her to stay, but his problems with alcohol and rage make that impossible. Carol is trying to keep things low-key between her and Therese but left alone and needing to get out of town, the two women hop in a car and head vaguely West, not really with any specific destination in mind although once they get to Chicago they stay at the swanky Drake Hotel. However, the repercussions of Carol’s actions will force her to choose between her needs and her daughter.

This is exquisitely acted, with likely Oscar nominations coming to both Blanchett and Mara. While this is clearly not about Carol as much as it is about Therese, film title notwithstanding, Blanchett gives Carol an icy upper class veneer with a warm center when it comes to other women. She is graceful and a bit brassy; after a loud fight with her husband witnessed by (and to a large extent caused by) Therese, Carol in an exasperated tone exclaims  “Just when you think it can’t get any worse, you run out of cigarettes!” It’s the type of line that would have been uttered by a Joan Crawford or a Rosalind Russell, but not nearly as well as Blanchett delivers it.

Mara’s naturally gamine features have gotten her comparisons to Audrey Hepburn, although she is somewhat more sophisticated an actress than Hepburn. She does have Hepburn’s charming youthful inexperience, but beneath that is a sexuality that lights up the screen, particularly later in the film when the relationship between the two women begins to get physical. Mara is very much desired by a good deal of men in the story, not the least of which is her boyfriend Richard Semco (Lacy) who very much wants her to be his wife a little further down the line. His earnest delivery is perfect for a character who is completely puzzled that his girl simply isn’t behaving the way she’s supposed to.

One of the characteristics of the era was its elegance and from the exquisite fashions to the furniture and settings, the movie gets it down pat. They capture the speech patterns of Manhattan sophisticates, which was more genteel than we’re used to hearing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an evocation of 1950s New York that captured as well as this one for a film not made in that era. I think that an Oscar nomination is very likely for costume designer Sandy Powell, whose fashions here are beautiful, simple, stylish and perfect for the time period.

And yet for all the praise I’m heaping on the movie, you’ll notice the rating doesn’t seem to match and here’s why. The movie takes a very long time to go a very short distance. The addendum at the end of the movie is nearly pointless, as by that time we’ve emotionally checked out of the film. Haynes has a definite case of the on-too-longs and the film would have benefitted from some judicious editing.

But let’s be clear about this – I’m very much in the minority when it comes to the critical opinion of the movie, which you can tell from the scores below, so do take my remarks with a grain of salt but the thing that really makes me wonder about the universal critical acclaim is this question; would the movie have received the same kind of praise if the couple at the center been heterosexual? I have a very disturbing feeling that it would not.

This is a beautifully shot movie with superb acting performances, and on that basis alone you should likely go see it. Certainly if you’re an Oscar buff, you’ll want to catch the lead performances which are likely to both be nominated. However, be aware that you may find some of the movie a bit tedious and mannered, which while it fits in with the era it’s set in, may indeed not necessarily fit in with modern moviegoing audiences.

REASONS TO GO: Blanchett and Mara deliver award-worthy performances.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is much too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality, brief nudity and a little bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Highsmith said she was inspired to write the novel after a chance encounter with a blonde woman wearing a fur coat in a department store in 1948.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 95/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Far From Heaven
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Tomboy

47 Ronin


Keanu Reeves keeps a sharp eye out for flying monkeys.

Keanu Reeves keeps a sharp eye out for flying monkeys.

(2013) Martial Arts Fantasy (Universal) Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rinko Kikuchi, Tadanobu Asano, Ko Shibasaki, Min Tanaka, Jin Akanishi, Masayoshi Hanada, Hiroshi Sogabe, Takato Yonemoto, Hiroshi Yamada, Shu Nakajima, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Neil Fingleton, Natsuki Kunimoto, Togo Igawa, Tanroh Ishida, Yorick van Wageningen, Clyde Kusatsu, Haruka Abe. Directed by Carl Rinsch

There is honor and courage and then there are the ancient samurai of Japan. If we in the West think we know what those concepts are, think again. For that group of warriors, those weren’t just concepts – they were their way of life.

In feudal Japan, the kind and just Lord Asano (Tanaka) rules in a beautiful and bucolic province of Ako. He takes in a half-breed man named Kai (Reeves) who apparently escaped from the demon-infested forest as a boy, although his samurai urge him not to. His beautiful daughter Mika (Shibasaki) nurses him back to health and the two fall in love, although there is absolutely no future in it.

But not everyone is as honorable as Lord Asano. Lord Kira (Asano) desires the wealthy and plentiful lands ruled by Asano and determines to obtain them. With his devious partner, a shape-shifting witch (Kikuchi) who poses as one of his concubines, Kira hatches a plot to shame Lord Asano during a visit by the Shogun (Tagawa) which results in Asano’s ritual suicide. His samurai are released from service and declared to be Ronin, masterless samurai which is the equivalent of a mercenary in modern times although with much less respect. They are forbidden from seeking vengeance by order of the shogun. Kai is sold as a slave to the Dutch where he is made to fight in their bare knuckle brawls and Mika is betrothed to Kira whom she will marry after a one year mourning period for her father.

This is more than the leader of Asano’s samurai, Oishi (Sanada) can take. Even though he knows the consequences of his actions, he determines to re-assemble his men and add Kai, whom he had previously expressed disdain and loathing for, to take on overwhelming odds to exact justice for their Lord, but it’s not an easy matter. Kira’s palace is more of a fortress and the possibility of 47 men storming the castle and surviving is simply ludicrous, plus he is under the protection of a skilled and seductive witch but even if they are successful, the men know they will be under the sentence of death for defying the shogun’s orders. So what’s the use?

Well, according to the actual men who inspired this movie, plenty. If you take away the supernatural elements of this version of it, the basic events happened pretty much as shown – a Japanese feudal lord was betrayed by an ambitious and ruthless fellow lord, rendering his samurai as Ronin. They did defy the shogun’s order and behave as depicted. The results were surprisingly the same as well and they were led by a real life samurai named Oishi.

This was something of a surprising choice for a very big budget Hollywood movie. Why the writer and filmmakers determined to add the supernatural elements of the witch, the Lovecraftian samurai, and the demons in the forest is somewhat surprising; a smaller budget version with fewer special effects would have been a much more effective film in my view.

I won’t deny that some of the CGI are pretty spectacular and the attempts to give this a kind of epic scope of the sort that the legendary Akira Kurosawa used to routinely give his movies are pleasing to the eye. However, Kurosawa certainly would have rolled his eyes at the over-complexity of the plot.  and quite frankly the legendary director wasn’t much into fantasy although he wasn’t afraid to use elements of the supernatural in his films when they were required.

Rumor has it that the studio was overly involved in the making of the movie, demanding changes and leading to a delay of nearly a year for this movie to come out. There definitely is a feel here for too many cooks in the kitchen; the movie doesn’t have the feel and flow that you get with a steady, single hand in charge. Perhaps they needed someone more experienced than first-time director Rinsch for a movie of this scope and budget.

While Reeves is as usual somewhat stiff and wooden, we are treated to some of the finest actors in Japan at this time with the Oscar-nominated Kikuchi as the seductive and sly witch with the different-colored eyes (one brown, one blue) and the respected Sanada, a veteran of The Last Samurai lending gravitas to Oishi and Asano (The Wolverine) giving Kira a kind of sly wink to go along with his wickedness. Tanaka (The Twilight Samurai) as the kindly Lord Asano is also memorable.

While this is a good-looking movie that gives us the opportunity to watch quality performances by actors who don’t get as much exposure in the West as they deserve, there is simply too many flaws for me to give this a solid recommendation. See it more as a curiosity piece rather than as coherent cinema and as long as your expectations aren’t too high, you might even find reasons to enjoy this.

REASONS TO GO: Some fairly cool eye candy. Nice supporting performances from a great Japanese cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Overwrought plot. Needless elements of fantasy in one of Japan’s most iconic true stories. Something of a mess.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is quite a bit of martial arts action violence, some fairly disturbing images  as well as some thematic elements that might be above the heads of the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the seventh filmed version of the story although the first to come from Hollywood; in reality the 47 Ronin are revered in Japan for their honor and adherence to the Samurai code despite overwhelming odds.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 29/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forbidden Kingdom

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Griff the Invisible

Beautiful Creatures


Now THAT'S a bad case of dandruff!

Now THAT’S a bad case of dandruff!

(2012) Romance (Warner Brothers) Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann, Eileen Atkins, Margo Martindale, Zoey Deutch, Tiffany Boone, Rachel Brosnahan, Kyle Gallner, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Cindy Hogan. Directed by Richard LaGravenese

There is a special magic in the South. The mist that gathers on warm summer nights, the cicadas whispering their lovely song, the kudzu climbing up the crumbling antebellum facades of mansions of faded glory, the ghosts that live there dancing in musty ballrooms to forgotten tunes.

Gatlin, South Carolina, dwells in that magic. Located conveniently close to a Civil War battlefield whose glories get re-enacted every 21st of December, Gatlin is in many ways a town that time forgot. Ethan Wate (Ehrenreich) would very much like to forget Gatlin and put it in his rearview mirror. His mother died in a car accident not that long ago and his father never leaves his bedroom. Town librarian Amma (Davis) who was also his mom’s best friend looks after him mostly.

As the school year begins, Ethan – a popular athlete who also has a pretty good mind, preferring to read books by Henry Miller and Kurt Vonnegut rather than play videogames and surf the Internet as most boys his age are prone to doing, finds that his girlfriend Emily (Deutch) – who gave him the summer to grieve for his mom – is no longer as interesting and attractive to him, despite her obvious physical charms. Like Gatlin itself, her mind is small and narrow.

The new girl, however, is a different story. Lena Duchannes (Englert) is the niece of town recluse Macon Ravenwood (Irons) whose family founded Gatlin. Macon has little to do with the good people of Gatlin and the good people of Gatlin kind of prefer it that way since as the whispers go, the Ravenwood family are a bunch of Satan worshippers and being smack dab in the Bible belt, the citizens of Gatlin are God-fearin’ Christian sorts.

Despite the scorn heaped Lena’s way, Ethan finds her irresistible; she reads the poetry of Charles Bukowski, has a quick wit and a keen intellect and seems uninterested in being popular. Despite her initial resistance, Ethan’s charms and earnest affections begin to break down her misgivings.

But those misgivings are well-placed. Lena really is different. You see she’s a witch – pardon me, they prefer the term casters, as in spell-casters. As her 16th birthday approaches, her soul will be claimed by the dark side or the light. Unlike male casters who choose which team they’re going to play on, female casters have no choice. They’re either a good witch or a bad witch…..er, caster. Glinda the Good in other words couldn’t have been bad if she wanted to.

Macon is anxious for Lena to join Team Goodness. Coaching the other side is Macon’s sister Sarafine (Thompson) who like many dark casters no longer has a corporeal body of her own; she inhabits the body of a Bible thumping church lady who happens to be the mother of Ethan’s best friend Link (Mann). Sarafine also calls upon Lena’s cousin and former best friend Ridley (Rossum) to help sway her to the dark side of the Force….er, casting.

But Sarafine has a secret weapon which she doesn’t even have to threaten with. There’s a curse on the loose invoked 150 years previously during a civil war battle that will tip the scales on the side of the dark no matter what. Lena, with the assistance of Ethan and Amma, must find a way to break the curse or on December 21st – Lena’s birthday coincidentally enough – the world as we know it may very well come to an end. But when they do find a way, it may be more than Lena can bear.

This is based on a young adult series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl and there’s no doubt Warners  is hoping to establish a franchise to fill the void left by the departure of the Twilight series to whose army of pre-teen and teenage girls this seems to be aimed squarely at. While the roles are reversed (the male is the human and the female is the one with the powers), the star-crossed quality of the romance will reverberate with those young girls.

Ehrenreich seems a likable enough sort but he’s no Robert Pattinson nor is he a Taylor Lautner. While he’s a handsome young dude, he doesn’t have that brooding wounded quality that young girls flock to and he has a natural advantage – the grief over his mom’s passing would be like catnip to most women who’d be moved to mother him but for some odd reason they really push that aspect of his personality into the background.

My problem is that they choose to make Ethan kind of a stereotype, a cross between Rhett Butler and Larry the Cable Guy. Ethan is far too aww shucks and not enough oh wow. He’s polite and courtly but with a big hunk of redneck served in. The down home country aphorisms don’t really jive with the intellectual posturing; he reads a lot of books but doesn’t seem to be changed by them. Ehrenreich seems a likable actor but this is a part that I’m not sure any actor could salvage.

And that’s a shame because Lena is a lovely role and Englert does a nice job with her. All the brooding that Ethan lacks Lena has in droves. Like most teens, she is aware of changes in her body and she knows those changes are inevitable and irrevocable. What she doesn’t know is how those changes will change her and the thought terrifies her. Englert does a nice job of capturing all those conflicting emotions – her love for Ethan, her fear of hurting him, her terror that she may not be the person she thinks herself to be or the person she wants to be. With a more worthy male role, this would have been a superb film.

Supporting them, Irons and Thompson particularly chew scenery with great gusto. Thompson channels Agnes Moorhead from the old Bewitched television show and is gleeful in her wickedness, although she considers herself honest about who she is. Irons lends gravitas and a bit of jolly good bonhomie in bringing the reclusive but effusive Macon to life.

Viola Davis is a brilliant actress who in the last five years has been as good as any actress in Hollywood, but this is a role that she could do in her sleep. While she gives Amma a maternal quality that blends nicely with her spirited willingness to stand up to Macon and to other casters in the community, Davis adds a dignity that makes the part a bit more memorable than it might have been in lesser hands. Even so, one gets the sense that Davis was hoping for a steady paycheck out of this more than a career enhancer.

LaGravenese chose to go with practical effects more than CGI (although there is some of that here) and while some of the spellcasting resembles films like Dark Shadows and Beetle Juice in tone, there are some pretty nifty moments in terms of the effects.

I can respect a film that wants to appeal to a specific audience and I have no problem with films being aimed at preteen and teenage girls (as well as their moms). I personally have no problem with the Twilight franchise other than I thought that the movies could have been better. In fact this movie is better but will probably not get embraced by that same audience in quite the same way. The rainy splendor of the Pacific Northwest is a lot hipper than the Tennessee Williams-esque gothic forests of the South.

One thing that the Twilight series is more adept at than this film is capturing the high school experience. At least there you get a sense of real kids in school; not so much here. However, I also must admit I like the caster mythology a bit better than that of vampires and werewolves established by Stephenie Meyer.

The box office for this film is unlikely to set studio execs rubberstamping a green light for the sequel, but there may yet be a future for the franchise. The numbers are pretty anemic right now however and unlikely to get any better unless it strikes a chord on the global market. That’s a shame because with the lovely cinematography, some fine performances and a genuinely fine Southern Gothic feel, this has a lot going for it.

REASONS TO GO: Nice Southern Gothic feel. Irons, Thompson and Davis are tremendous.

REASONS TO STAY: A very strange chemistry between the leads doesn’t always work. Turns Gatlin into a Southern-fried Pleasantville.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few frightening images for the younger kids, a bit of supernatural violence and some sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the scene where Ethan fumbles while reciting Charles Bukowski’s poetry to Lena was actually actor Alden Ehrenreich flubbing his lines to Alice Englert’s amusement. Director LaGravenese found the scene to be charming and natural and liked the idea of a Romeo getting the lines of poetry wrong for his Juliet so the goofed up scene was left in although in every other take Ehrenreich got his lines right.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100. The reviews are truly mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twilight

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: A Good Day to Die Hard

The Sorcerer and the White Snake (Bai she chuan shuo)


Not all the great visuals are CGI.

Not all the great visuals are CGI.

(2011) Martial Arts Fantasy (Magnet) Jet Li, Raymond Lam, Eva Huang, Charlene Choi, Zhang Wen, Vivian Hsu, Miriam Yeung Chin Wah (voice) Kar-Ying Law, Suet Lam (voice), Chapman To, Wu Jiang (voice), Gao Hai Bo, Yin You Can, Li Dan, Han Dong. Directed by Siu-Tung Ching

China has a rich and varied history of lore and legend from which they periodically draw inspiration for their films. Fantasy is huge in China, and with a whole pantheon of demons, monsters and God-like creatures to choose from, it’s no wonder that some of the best fantasy films in recent years have come from there. So where does this one stand.

A young herb-gatherer with ambitions of one day becoming a doctor named Xu Xian (R. Lam) is observed picking herbs in the bucolic mountains by White Snake (Huang), a thousand-year-old snake demon who is curious about humans. Her mischievous sister Green Snake (Choi) decides to play a trick on poor old Xu, appearing to him as he climbs up a particularly treacherous section of the mountain which startles the would-be physician so badly that he falls off the mountain and into the lake below. White, realizing that the herb gatherer will drown because of her sister’s prank, goes down into the lake in human form and kisses Xu, not only imparting oxygen to the young man but also part of her vital essence.

Xu can’t stop thinking about his savior nor can White stop thinking about Xu much to Green’s amused disgust. With the dragon boat festival in full swing, White decides she needs to see Xu and Green somewhat bemusedly agrees to help.

Fahai (Li), abbot of the Lei Feng Pagoda, has spent his life tracking down and capturing demons. His apprentice Neng Ren (Wen) is a little bit impetuous and not nearly as strong as his master. While chasing a group of bat demons, Neng meets up with Green without realizing she’s  a demon. White at last with Green’s help finds Xu and decides to reveal to him that she is the one that saved him that day. The two wind up getting married.

This is something Fahai cannot allow as it violates every principle of human-demon relations. Only ill can come of this and he does everything in his power to prevent the union from continuing. White’s love for Xu will have devastating consequences both for him, the Pagoda and possibly for all of China unless Fahai can make things right.

Ching is best known for directing Chinese Ghost Story along with being an action choreographer on several well-known Chinese films. Here he pulls out all the stops in a movie that is drenched with CGI as animated demons, sometimes in the form of their animal totems and sometimes in human shape (the Asian cut of the film features much more of the latter; the American cut has more of the former which is a bit jarring as they come off as kind of Disneyesque creatures with juvenile voices).

Li has progressed into more gruff old man kinds of roles – a decade ago he would have been the herbalist. Although he is no longer as youthful as he once was, he is still as graceful a martial artist as has ever been on the screen and his moves are still just as fluid and economical as they ever were. Plus he has the experience of decades of screen time not to mention his own natural charisma that you just can’t teach.

Lam is a big star in the East but little known here, but he makes for an engaging Xu. His character is a bit naive, a bit unobservant and a bit of a bumbler but fiercely loyal and remarkably brave and selfless. Lam conveys all of that with an easygoing charm. He doesn’t have quite the martial arts proficiency of Li (but in all fairness very few people on the planet do – including those who are martial arts masters) but he pulls off his fight scenes pretty well.

Like most Chinese heroines Huang has an ethereal beauty that is breathtaking. Her sensuality is more coy than overt, a bit schoolgirl-ish at times but there’s no denying her emotional intensity, particularly in her last scenes of the film. I’ve always been partial to Michelle Yeoh among Asian actresses but Huang certainly is one to watch.

Nearly every scene is laden with special effects of the CGI variety. They are less concerned with the realistic nature of CGI in the east than they are here so in some ways the effects look less practiced than they do on major Hollywood films but they get the job done. The fight scenes, surprisingly, are less compelling; the choreography is almost an afterthought and there isn’t a lot of care given to those scenes seemingly, which is extremely disappointing.

Still, this is a movie worth seeing. It’s available on VOD right now and in theaters in selected cities. Martial arts fans will no doubt be making a beeline to see anything with Li in it to begin with but to see a major production such as this with such a venerated director. This isn’t the best work by either of them, but it’s good enough to take the time to find it.

REASONS TO GO: Somewhat sweet-natured and inventive. Always good to see Li.

REASONS TO STAY: Fight scenes are disappointingly banal. Special effects not up to Western standards.

FAMILY VALUES:  Action of a fantasy variety, a few images that might be too disturbing for the very young and a bit of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Li complained later that this was one of his most tiring roles because most of his fighting opponents were women for whom he’d have to hold back some but who would go all out on him.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/10/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100; the reviews are pretty dismal.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hero

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Cinema of the Heart 2013 Day One

Black Death


Winter is here.

Winter is here.

(2010) Medieval Horror (Magnet) Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Carice van Houten, John Lynch, Jamie Ballard, Andy Nyman, Johnny Harris, Emun Elliott, Tygo Gernandt, David Warner, Kimberley Nixon, Tobias Kasimirowicz, Keith Dunphy, Tim McInnerny, Marianne Graffam. Directed by Chris Smith

Back in the Dark Ages, the bubonic plague must have seemed like the end of the world. A pandemic that seemed to spare nobody, there was only rudimentary medical science and literally no protection against its ravages. Entire villages and even districts were wiped out by it.

So when a village seemed to be emerging unscathed from the horrors of the plague, the Church was suspicious. Witchcraft must be involved. Ulrich (Bean), a no-nonsense knight if ever there was one, is dispatched to the town to discover the truth and if necessary, put a stop to it. He enlists Osmund (Redmayne), a monk who knows the area well.

Osmund is pious but no saint. His girlfriend (Nixon) has been sent ahead into the forest to escape the plague. Osmund had plans to meet her there before being drafted. He joins (albeit reluctantly) Ulrich’s troop which includes a gleeful torturer (Nyman), a grim warrior (Lynch) and a mute killer (Gernandt). The group has issues, including being forced to strike down one of their own (Ballard) who is stricken by the plague, as well as having to take on bandits.

Eventually they reach the village which is seemingly controlled by two individuals – Hob (McInnerny) and Langiva (van Houten). During dinner, the me are drugged and put into a water-filled cage in the swamp while Osmund is given a horrible decision regarding his girlfriend whom he’d feared was dead. And the fears of the Church may not be entirely unfounded when it seems that there is a necromancer in the village who is powerful enough to raise the dead…

Smith is best known in this country for Severance but has actually directed several nifty little horror films in Britain. He is known for some fairly gritty films, but this might be the grittiest. This is not a Sword in the Stone England where everything is clean and healthy but what it really was like; foul, filthy and full of pestilence.

Good thing he’s got Sean Bean. Bean, who has of late made his medieval mark on Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and the first season of Game of Thrones on HBO is just as great here. He is strong, a great fighter, an inspiring leader but not without faults. His belief in the Church is staunch and unwavering but his unquestioning faith leads him to do acts that are most certainly unholy.

Redmayne is perfectly suited for the role of the pious Osmund. Osmund is terribly conflicted; on the one hand there are the vows to the church but on the other his forbidden love. Redmayne captures this division nicely and Osmund’s terrible dilemma is made very relatable. Van Houten, one of the best actresses in the Netherlands (if you haven’t seen Black Book by all means go out and rent it) plays the femme fatale to the hilt, and gives Langiva a very sensuous edge. The veteran character actor McInnerny also has a deliciously bad side to him.

The two sides – the Church and the pagans – don’t distinguish themselves here which makes it tough to have a rooting interest (it’s Osmund by default). That makes for a pretty grim fairy tale and that can get taken to extremes. The battle scenes are pretty violent and there’s nothing clean about them. There are no Errol Flynn acrobatics, no Lord of the Rings legerdemain, just a bunch of guys hacking away at each other with pointy things which was pretty much what medieval warfare was all about.

You may wonder what point there is to the movie with the ending which is, like the rest of the movie, pretty much a downer. I’m not sure you really need to look for one. This is a pretty strong movie that has overtones of horror, action and fantasy. However, don’t look here if you’re looking for the feel-good movie of the year. Then again, if you’re looking in the feel-good movie of the year it’s unlikely you’d be in the horror section anyway.

WHY RENT THIS: Spot-on re-creation of medieval England. Strong performances by Bean, Redmayne and van Houten.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally overly brutal in the violence. Ending seems a bit pointless. Might be a bit too unrelentingly grim for some.

FAMILY VALUES: The violence can be pretty intense in places. There are also a few bad words scattered about.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rupert Friend was originally cast as Osmund but was eventually replaced by Redmayne.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is some behind-the-scenes footage (separate from the standard making-of featurette) and some interviews with the filmmakers.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $265,318 on an unreported production budget; I think it unlikely that the film was profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Centurion

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Meek’s Cutoff

Lemon Tree (Etz Limon)


Lemon Tree

Tarik Kopty finds himself with a strange urge for lemonade.

(IFC) Hiam Abbass, Ali Suliman, Danny Leshman, Rona Lipaz-Michael, Tarik Kopty, Amnon Wolf, Doran Tavory, Amos Lavie, Smadar Yaaron, Hili Yalon. Directed by Eran Riklis

Simple things can turn into complicated issues without much urging. We have a wonderful talent as a species of turning a molehill into an insurmountable mountain.

Salma (Abbass) is a Palestinian widow living on the edge of the West Bank eking out a living from a lemon grove that has been in her family for generations. With only the elderly Abu Hussein (Kopty) to assist her – her son has fled to America to find opportunity as a dishwasher – she cares for her lemon trees with meticulousness born of generations of love for the trees she has been given custodianship for. She is able to sell her lemons at market and maintain her household in that fashion.

That is, until the somewhat smarmy Israeli defense minister (Tavory) moves in to the large house bordering the other side of her grove, on the Israeli side of the border. His security detail sees the grove as a threat – why, terrorists could hide among the trees and launch an attack on the home of the minister. Salma is ordered to cut down her grove, for which she will be properly compensated by the Israeli government.

To Salma, this would be the equivalent of a mother being asked to smother her babies. It’s not merely a source of income to her – the grove is a connection with her family’s past. She balks at the order and puts in for an appeal with the Israeli military. In order to help her navigate the tricky waters of the Israeli appeal process, she needs a lawyer. She specifically wants a Palestinian lawyer since she doesn’t trust the Israeli lawyers but none of them will take the job. None of them, that is, besides Ziad Daud (Suliman), a young lawyer trying to establish himself.

The case becomes a cause célèbre in the Israeli news media, and the minister finds increasingly that he is becoming an unsympathetic figure. Even his own wife (Lipaz-Michael) doesn’t support his cause. He is becoming increasingly less comfortable with the attention and is eager for the case to come to a conclusion.

To make matters worse, the grove has been barricaded by the military pending the outcome of the trial and is overseen by armed soldiers, with Salma being banned from tending to her trees which are slowly beginning to die, lending urgency to the situation. To make matters worse, Salma and Ziad are beginning to feel a strong attraction for one another, which is bringing further frowns to the faces of the Palestinian village elders.

This is loosely based on an actual incident. Director Riklis, who also helmed The Syrian Bride (reviewed elsewhere on this blog), is a solid storyteller who wastes no motions. This is his strongest work to date, and it’s clear that Abbass, who also starred in The Syrian Bride, has an excellent rapport with the director.

She is at the moral and physical center of the film, in nearly every scene and she handles herself with serenity and calm, but with just a hint of fiery sensuality that makes her scenes with Suliman provocative. Salma is a very strong and determined woman, well aware of her expected role as a widow in her community but she is also a woman, and a beautiful one at that. This is the kind of performance that gets overlooked by the American film community but is nonetheless worth seeing.

This is neither pro or anti Palestinian. It doesn’t take sides in the conflict other than to acknowledge that the people getting hurt are the innocents caught in the middle who are merely trying to live out their lives in peace, as Salma is. It takes some shots at the traditional roles of woman in the region, and for that alone its worth watching.

WHY RENT THIS: A modern David-and-Goliath fable that is an allegory about Israeli-Palestinian issues even as it explores the role of women in both cultures. Outstanding work by Abbass as Salma.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the supporting roles might have been fleshed out a bit more.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some implied sexuality and sexual tension, and a little bit of foul language but generally acceptable viewing for general audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hiam Abbass won the Israeli equivalent of the Oscar for her work in this movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations