Friday, March 3, 2017

 

Land of Mine (Under sandet)

Land of Mine official site War does not only destroy lives and infrastructure, but it also provokes hatred and wipes out empathy. But despite the amount of demons war might bring out of people, there is still hope for humanity to sustain. That's what Danish writer-director Martin Zandvliet terrifically demonstrates in his World War II drama "Land of Mine" (Under sandet | Denmark/Germany 2016 | in Danish/German | 101 min.). This thrillingly captivating and profoundly emotional film definitely deserves its nomination for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and it should be given the trophy.

The story is based on little known events that people would rather forget. After five years of German occupation, Denmark was liberated by the Allies. However, under the sand of its coastal beaches, Denmark was left with more than two million land mines that Germany had buried in order to fend off possible Allies invasions. The British and the Danish decided to use German POWs to defuse the land mines during May-October 1945. 2600 Germans, many of them as young as 13 years old, were forced to clear the land mines on the sandy beaches and half of them were killed or injured.

Enraged by the German occupation, hot tempered Sgt. Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller) has nothing left but hatred toward the Germans. When he is given a group of German teenagers to get rid of 75000 land mines on a deserted beach, he does not hesitate to take his vengeance on these young boys, even though their innocent looks may not reflect heinous crimes that the Nazis have committed. He locks them up at night and herds them to the danger zone during the day.

The boys have little experience or knowledge about defusing land mines, and they are given little food to survive, provided that they have not been blown away by mines. Sebastian Schumann (Louis Hofmann) emerges as a natural leader of the bunch and offers some comfort to a dreamy Wilhelm Hahn (Leon Seidel) and the inseparable twins Ernest (Emil Belton) and Werner Lessner (Oskar Belton). Through the terrible ordeal, some of them remain hopeful of returning home after they are done, although the hostile Helmut Morbach (Joel Basman) seems more realistic about the outlook.

The war continues when it has ended.

Land of Mine Official Site

The writer-director Martin Zandvliet superbly creates a thrilling atmosphere following every step of these boys. We normally see the brutality of Nazis in World War II movies, but in this film, he turns the table around and shows us how the POW is miserably treated after the devastating war expunges any compassion one might have. Even though the story seems straightforward, the film is incredibly suspenseful and its intensity is almost unbearable at times.

Roland Møller subtly and convincingly depicts the transformation in Carl's mindset and the awakening of his humanity. The fine group of young actors also give an outstanding performance as the battered teenagers who keep up their hopes and dreams about their future, despite the inhumane treatments while performing a daunting task. When the film unfolds each heartbroken moment without sentiment, we have to wonder how human beings could do such horrible things to each other during, and after, the war.

There is no winner in a war, except hatred. All we can do is to learn from the past and not let the evil episode repeat. We can only hope, just like those German teenagers in this film.

"Land of Mine," a Sony Pictures Classics release, San Francisco Bay Area on Friday, March 3rd, 2017.


Friday, February 17, 2017

 

The Great Wall (长城)

The Great Wall official site If you want to have some real authentic Chinese food, you probably should not go to a Panda Express restaurant and order broccoli beef, even though day after day plenty of people go there and enjoy that popular western dish labeled as Chinese food. In a similar vein, the legendary Chinese director Zhang Yimou just made a broccoli beef dish by tossing up all the ingredients from Hollywood in his latest big budget monster movie "The Great Wall" (长城 | China/USA 2016 | in Mandarin/English | 103 min.). The film hardly has any Chinese flavor in it, despite featuring the most recognizable structure in China—the Great Wall.

Never mind that the Great Wall was built for generations to guard China against invasions from the north, the script writers in Hollywood came up with an absurd explanation about the wall's purpose by recycling materials from previous Hollywood monster movies. They claim the wall is built to fight Taoties (饕餮), which are horrible-looking flesh-eating monsters, and "the Great Wall is the only barrier to bring the world safe."

Despite that statement, mercenary soldier William Garin (Matt Damon) looks pretty safe from Taoties on the other side of the Great Wall while roaming in the desert with his pal Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) searching for gunpowder to get rich. That is, until they are captured and brought inside the wall by emperor's army called Nameless Order, led by General Shao (Zhang Hanyu).

Don't speak Chinese? No problem. The film conveniently installs an English speaking character Commander Lin (Jing Tian). She has learned English from another westerner Ballard (Willem Dafoe) who has been living in the fortress for 25 years while looking for an opportunity to escape with gunpowder. As soon as William and Pero get behind the wall, Taoties begin to attack. William and Pero earn the trust from the Chinese army and join their battles led by Shao and Lin, as well as other Chinese commanders (Andy Lau, Kenny Lin, Eddie Peng, Huang Xuan).

The Great Wall Official Site

As the brilliant creator of the 2008 Beijing Olympics's magnificent opening and closing ceremonies, Zhang Yimou certainly knows how to put together an extravagant show. In this film, he doesn't fail to impress us with splendid visuals when he lines up the soldiers in the grandest setting—the Great Wall. It's almost like he is continuing the Olympic performances on top of the Great Wall. The movie would have been a much better entertainment if that were all it tries to accomplish.

But no. The movie is trying to use the director's visionary talent to tell a thin and ludicrous story that is stuffed with monstrous creatures similar to those in many other Hollywood blockbusters. It is not only these monsters look familiar, but some of the battle scenes also appear to be recycled. If you replace Taoties with zombies that climb up a wall, you will probably wonder if you are watching a rerun of "World War Z" (2013).

This film is no comparison to some of Zhang Yimou's terrific early films such as "Red Sorghum" (红高粱, 1987) and "Raise the Red Lantern" (大红灯笼高高挂, 1991), in which he told compelling stories that are definitely authentic Chinese. Unfortunately, instead of continuing to cook in a kitchen soaked with Chinese history and culture, he decided to come to Hollywood to cook broccoli beef to feed the appetite of Panda Express patrons, who readily accept it as Chinese. They probably also think the Great Wall was indeed to be built in order to fend off the apocalyptic attack from Taoties.

Let's hope that Zhang Yimou will come back to his Chinese roots soon after visiting Hollywood, and that there won't be any new walls to be built in this world.

"The Great Wall," a Legendary and Universal Pictures release, opens on Friday, February 17, 2017.


 

A Cure for Wellness

A Cure for Wellness official site After directing three "Pirates of the Caribbean" films set in the ocean, the director Gore Verbinski moves his movie set up to a mountain in "A Cure for Wellness" (USA/Germany 2016 | 146 min.). Even though the setting is changed to the land, he retains water as a crucial element of the film's story. However, despite the splendid visual and intriguing start, after a lengthy almost two and half hours, the amount of water is neither enough to clean up the muddy plot, nor able to get the film and its characters anywhere near wellness.

Accompanied by a mesmerizing melody (music by Benjamin Wallfisch) which repeats numerous times later in the film, the film opens with the death of a sales man. But oddly, that episode is insignificant at all to the rest of the film. Instead, the scene that follows, displaying a spectacular view of a train passing through the Swiss mountains, introduces the film's protagonist—a cocky twenty-something stockbroker executive Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) who is riding the train while cooking the books. When his misconduct is discovered by the Board, his only way to get out of the mess is to let the company's CEO Pembroke (Harry Groener) take the blame, as the Board proposes.

But Pembroke isn't in New York City. He has been in a mysterious "Wellness Center" located in a magnificent mountain-top castle in the Swiss Alps and has no desire to return to the "real world." Lockhart is sent over to retrieve Pembroke, but he isn't very successful in meeting Pembroke. Instead, he encounters the polite facility director Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs), a special patient Hannah (Mia Goth), and many other strangely-behaved but seemingly happy patients. Volmer claims that he uses water to treat these rich patients and once they arrive, they do not want to leave.

Of course, Lockhart doesn't believe anything Volmer tells him, so he goes on a thrilling mission to uncover the deep secrets inside this spooky place, while reluctantly he becomes a patient of the facility himself.

A Cure for Wellness Official Site

The film has a fantastic start by throwing you many questions. You will be instantly hooked by the seductive visual, the unsettling music score, the eccentric characters, and bizarre mysteries. However, the director Gore Verbinski doesn't seem to know how to solve the twisted puzzle he ambitiously sets up. The plot gets murkier as time goes by. The odd happenings become predictive recurrences. The stylish and picturesque visual loses its appeal, the enigmatic atmosphere gives way to horror film clichés, and the intense thrill evaporates. After more than two hours, hardly anything makes sense anymore and the water seems to go wasted instead of being used to cure something.

Part of the film's plot cannot shake off its resemblance to "Men & Chicken" (Mænd og Høns | Denmark 2015) but it lacks the quirky and comical spirit in its Danish superior. This film also shows no interest in being scientifically reasonable, although it never stops trying to add more intriguing ideas that it cannot handle itself.

It could have been a better film if it stops at the first half and let you wonder about the answers by using your own imagination, because what's in the second half is ridiculous and nonsensical. It becomes more interested in making a wedding commercial and showing off tortures involving water, plus some computer generated eel, which would have been scarier if they were water snakes.

"A Cure for Wellness," a 20th Century Fox release, opens on Friday, February 17, 2017.


Friday, January 27, 2017

 

The Red Turtle

The Red Turtle official site Despite the situation, it's always an extraordinary story to tell about being stranded on a remote island alone in the middle of an open sea. With charming animation and ten years in the making at the renowned Studio Ghibli, the Dutch director Michael Dudok de Wit tells such a fable in his dialogue-free feature debut "The Red Turtle" (France/Belgium/Japan 2016 | 80 min.). There is no question about the film's visual beauty, and you can easily transfer each frame of the film into an art piece hanging on a living room wall. However, it's surprising to observe many overlooked flaws in this film considering the studio's reputation on being painstakingly attentive to details.

In the opening scene, the nameless sailor struggles to stay afloat in the open sea during a violent storm. When he wakes up again, he finds himself alone on a remote island in the middle of a vast ocean. Luckily, he is able to find fresh water in a pound, giant fruits on trees, and the company of a few cute little crabs.

Obviously, the outlook of living like this is not very bright. He decides to build himself a raft to sail out. But as soon as he leaves the shore, his raft is broken into pieces by some invisible force under the water. On his third try and almost 30 minutes into the movie, the film reveals its titular character—the giant red turtle who is responsible for sabotaging the sailor's effort of leaving, perhaps for a good reason.

That red turtle changes his life forever, in a place that seems to be the end of the world.

The Red Turtle Official Site

Unlike the protagonist who uses science and intelligence to survive in "All Is Lost" (USA 2013), which is also almost dialogue free, the sailor in this film appears to be more primitive and often to act by instinct. His urge to sail out to the sea with only a few fruits on a raft seems to be irrational. Fortunately, his failure of going out to the sea allows him to stay alive on the island and let the filmmaker continue to unfold his story, no matter how imaginary it might get.

In order to embrace the film's story, you have to take a leap of faith without asking obvious questions such as where the sailor gets his new clothes he puts on in different scenes and where he gets the ropes to build his raft. That kind of details should not have been overlooked by a production stamped with the name Studio Ghibli.

Although the transformation of the main character seems to imply that this film is really a fairy tale, but the undertone of despair suggests it is also a conventional one. Fortunately, there are a few short-lived joyful moments and a few little crabs that provide much needed comic relief. While you may feel sorry for the unlucky sailor's fate, it's unlikely you'll get inspired or impressed by his story. The film doesn't intend to deliver any message, but its intention to present its grand visual appeal is apparent.

The film tells another survival story at the sea, but not an enduring one.

"The Red Turtle," a Sony Pictures Classics release, opens on Friday, January 27, 2017 in San Francisco Bay Area.



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