Author - Alia Knight

Review: The Wandering Earth

The Wandering Earth is perhaps the most highly anticipated Sci-Fi film in Chinese cinema history. It stars Wu Jing, who was also the star and director of China’s historical blockbuster Wolf Warrior II, as well as Qu Chuxiao and veteran actor Ng Man-tat.  

Earth’s sun is at the threshold of going nova. In a mere 100 years it will explode and destroy the solar system. Faced with inevitable extinction, humanity comes together to create the Wandering Earth project. A series of giant thrusters are built to break the Earth out of its orbit and propel it on a centuries-long journey to a new star system. Half the population, selected by random drawing, is sent to underground cities as the Earth’s surface turns into a frozen wasteland.

A space station is built and launched ahead of the Earth to act as its navigation system. Liu Peiqiang (Wu) leaves his young son on Earth to join the first crew of the space station for seventeen years. During this time his son Qi (Qu) grows up in one of the underground Chinese cities.  Just as Peiqiang is about to conclude his service on the station and return to his son, both he and Qi are thrust into the middle of a desperate struggle to stop the Earth from colliding with another planet and once again save humanity from extinction.

While the idea of relocating the Earth to another solar system may be novel, it’s hard to ignore the common apocalyptic Sci-Fi clichés in the movie such as humanity moving underground to escape destruction, the parent leaving a child behind to embark on a long space voyage and the philosophical scenes of deciding what to do when you can’t save everyone. However, there’s enough quality graphics, powerful acting and plot twists that you can forgive some of the more predictable elements.

As with most any science fiction movie, the discerning viewer will likely question how much the premise of the movie conforms to the laws of physics. They might also question the realism of two fellow astronauts having seamless conversations with each other while one speaks nothing but Chinese and the other nothing but Russian. Scientific and linguistics discussions aside, The Wandering Earth is a profound depiction of the eternal struggles man faces against nature, technology, society and even himself. From beginning to end, characters fight on and cling to hope when there is no logical reason to have any.

Adding to the drama is the presence of Chinese New Year, irrefutably the country’s most important celebration. The film was released on China’s New Year’s Day and the climax of the story takes place during this holiday. Wu’s character very accurately describes it as “a time of reunion” before issuing a call to action by saying “I don’t want this to be the last reunion.” The message being, perhaps, that to save our planet and secure the future of our children, there’s nothing we shouldn’t be willing to sacrifice.  

Review: The Wild Pear Tree

The Wild Pear Tree is a contemplative, beautifully minimalist story about the clash between youthful idealism and the world’s often harsh realities.

The movie centers on Sinan, a young man who returns to his quiet hometown in the country after graduating college. He has high hopes of becoming a writer and fights hard to pull together the money to publish his book. He seeks support from everybody from the town mayor to a local business owner to an established writer. However, his dream of becoming a successful author routinely hits roadblocks that include the cold-hearted economics of the real world, his father’s gambling addiction and, frankly, his own insolence and naiveté.

Though it is a Turkish film, Sinan’s experience is one many can relate to. The English major who took a job in a grocery store or the International Studies major who became an insurance agent will easily see themselves in Sinan. The optimistic youth who discovers almost nobody wants what he is so eager to offer the world is a story that cuts across borders. Indeed, at times it is almost painful to watch as it is such a stark reminder of how cavalier and detached from reality that time of life can really be. In one particularly poignant scene, Sinan’s mother opens up about how short-sighted and hopelessly romantic she was in her own youth, while Sinan continues stubbornly refusing to accept the notion that anyone could see or understand the world the way he does.  

Sinan’s own story is enmeshed with dialogues that reflect social realities of modern Turkey. This can be seen from the very beginning when the town mayor gives a short speech about how lack of transparency breeds political corruption to the very end when Sinan’s father reflects on how the education system in the country has changed. While these are conversations that have been particularly relevant in Turkish society for some years, they are discussions that you don’t need to be Turkish to understand and appreciate.

The dialogue is truly what takes center stage in this film. The wind blowing through the trees is its soundtrack. The picturesque settings are its CGI. The simple, graceful cinematography keeps you engaged and intrigued for the duration of the film. The Wild Pear Tree is a testament to the struggles of finding your place in the world in a country that has long defined itself as a crossroad of humanity.

Review: ‘The Grinch’

The Grinch, is the newest film adaptation of Dr Seuss’ timeless Christmas classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The movie topped $67 million in its first weekend, surpassing the last film version of the story from 2000.

It is a tale few American kids or adults haven’t heard before. The Grinch (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) lives in solitude in a cave on Mount Crumpit, above the town of Whoville. While the Whos in Whoville all adore Christmas, the Grinch despises it. Although in this day and age more than a few of us could probably relate to his desire to escape from incessant Christmas music.

During one of his incognito visits to Whoville, he bumps into Cindy Lou, the daughter of an exhausted but loving single mother. That evening, they both make a resolution; the Grinch to, of course, steal Christmas, and Cindy Lou to catch Santa so she can ask him directly to help her mother.

The film’s animation does justice to all the charming artistry that was so characteristic of Dr Seuss. It has wit, humor, plenty of feel-good moments and a few tear-jerkers that genuinely tug at your heartstrings. It also speaks to some very real experiences on Christmas such as loneliness, commercialism and the importance of family. The character of the Grinch has a complexity that children will enjoy and adults can appreciate.

At the same time, The Grinch offers very little new to the story. The film’s makers play it very safe and take care not to tamper too much with what made the tale so universally appealing. While some might appreciate the movie staying true to the classic story, others might be left a little bored from its predictability.

Review: ‘The House that Jack Built’

Director Lars Von Trier’s latest film, The House that Jack Built, is a series of flashbacks of an accomplished architect and psychotic murderer.

It opens with a monologue about the nature of art by Jack (Matt Dillion). He proceeds to recount in detail how he conducted five previous murders. Each one to him is a work of art, and each one helped him develop as an “artist.” Perhaps in an effort to accentuate his genius, the victims and law enforcement in the film are almost offensively foolish and inept. This causes Jack to become more and more reckless with his crimes, as he apparently wants his art to be noticed.

There are multiple allusions to poetry in the film. The very title is derived from the nursery rhyme “This is the House that Jack Built.” Throughout the film, Jack’s deranged narration is interrupted by an unseen character called “The Verge,” which is meant to represent Virgil leading Dante Alighieri to the bottom of hell in The Divine Comedy.  

There is certainly some provocation to be seen in the movie. The way Jack’s female victims are portrayed as careless and provocative is bound to ruffle some feathers. His first victim, played by Uma Thurma, is a hitchhiker which is blatantly obnoxious. His second victim, played by Siobhan Hogan, carelessly allows him into her house because he claims he can help her get money from her deceased husband’s pension. All of this suggests von Trier is thumbing his nose at critics.

At the end of the day, it’s difficult to decide if The House that Jack Built is von Trier’s way of justifying or drawing attention away from his controversial “joke” about Hitler that he told at his last Cannes appearance in 2011.

By the same token, it’s also hard to decide if the movie is too tedious or too sadistic. While the analytical viewer might appreciate the sophisticated references to both classic and popular art, the film is layered so heavily with metaphor and allusions to everything from poetry to modern politics that it becomes tiring. The dialogue also becomes a bit tedious after a while. The gory scenes honestly begin to feel rather drawn out.

What tends to make serial murderers so intriguing to people is not their psychopathy in of itself but the fact that it tends to coexist alongside recognizable humanity. Ted Bundy captured the imagination of the public because he was found guilty of the most grotesque crimes imaginable and was undeniably intelligent, charming and personable. This is an aspect that is missing from The House that Jack Built. It is violent, gory and disturbing without spending much time reminding us that Jack is still a human being. There is so much time spent on grotesque murder scenes and so little on any sort of a story line or character exploration it becomes dull. As a result, The House that Jack Built is one film you’d just as soon forget.

Review: ‘Happy as Lazzaro’

Happy as Lazzaro has garnered a number of awards and nominations, including the Canes Film Festival Award for Best Screenplay. It is an enchanting insight into an aspect of Italian history and tradition that doesn’t often take center stage in the movie theaters.

Rather than sweeping cathedrals or regal art galleries, Happy as Lazzaro opens on a dusty, rustic farm. The impoverished farmers who work the land are apparently engaged in sharecropping; trying to pay off a suspiciously large debt to the wealthy family who owns the land with the crops they cultivate and harvest. Between the feudalistic layout, the presence of modern machinery and folksy atmosphere, you as a viewer are left genuinely uncertain as to what era the film is meant to take place in.

In the midst of all of this is Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo), a pixie-like young farmer who floats through the dirt and noise with childish acquiescence and an angelic demeanor that makes him seem like a being from another world. Lazzaro befriends Tancredi (Luca Chikovani) the son of the farm’s cruel mistress, which leads to a shocking twist that explains the mysterious nature of the estate and injects a dramatic dose of magic, mysticism and traditional Italian folklore into the story.

The movie may test the short attention span of today’s cinema goers. In the beginning it moves rather slow, depending largely on keeping the audience confused to maintain their interest. As the story progresses, a powerfully relevant theme of worker exploitation and the tremendous gaps that can exist in a society emerges.

 

Director Plays a Director in “Newly Single”

“Newly Single” is not the peppy romantic comedy its name may suggest. This explicit film, directed by and starring Adam Christian Clark, is an intense emotional rollercoaster about the dating life of an unbalanced filmmaker.

Clark plays Lester, a conceited young man struggling to make it as a writer and director in Los Angeles. The movie weaves back and forth between his efforts to get his film off the ground and his romantic life after/during a difficult breakup.

As the story progresses, the parallels between the two become more and more evident, in ways that range from comical to sinister. By the end of the movie you can’t help but wonder whether the film he is struggling to make is his outlet for how he would like his love life to be, or the other way around. What’s clearer is Lester’s inflated ego is far more fragile than it appears at first. He wears a different mask depending on who he’s with, and he’s with so many different people in the story that even you, the viewer, has to actively try to discover who he really is.

Through its music, style and clear use of symbolism, the movie definitely has an old-fashion vibe to it. Indeed, the old-time charm that it opens with makes its increasingly explicit sex scenes that much more surprising.

Its plot is fragmented to the point of feeling directionless at times. While its seeming lack of purpose can make it hard to stay interested, Clark’s riveting and convincing portrayal of a delusional, insecure teenage boy in a man’s body, as well as the performance of rest of the cast, does not.

Review: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

“Fearless Lives Forever.” That is the slogan of the trailer for the film “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and it is indeed suitable. This movie is not shy about depicting for the audience how Farrokh Bulsara, better known as Freddie Mercury, was all about defying labels and transcending conventions in every aspect of his life.

Mercury was born in Zanzibar, a kingdom which would cease to exist within his lifetime, and spent most of his childhood in India before his family moved to England. His status as an immigrant is not given lavish attention, but from disputes with his family to being mistaken for Pakistani, it is definitely present. In many ways the story of Mercury’s early life is reflective of the struggles children of immigrants around the world face; the conflict between conforming their present surroundings and the expectations of their heritage.

Mercury, it seems, resolved this dichotomy by rejecting both. Musically and personally, he created a whole new identity for himself instead of accepting any that were offered to him. He broke all the rules. The movie showcases this by depicting the smallest details, from methods for composing music to his chronic tendency to show up late. In his very first performance in the movie, he dresses in women’s clothes and breaks the microphone off its stand because he finds it too limiting. “Formulas,” he says in response to criticism of the song Bohemian Rhapsody, “are a waste of time.”

Mercury also refused to accept the boundaries of limitations. From the start of the movie, we see him unapologetically aspiring for greater things after his day job moving luggage at the airport. He convinces a band about to give up taking a chance on not just him, but themselves. He convinces them to believe in music that defies categorization.

For being a film about one of history’s most famous rock bands and its famously flamboyant front man, the cinematography is rather tame, at least in the beginning. The dusty looking scenes where dialogue takes center stage creates more of a documentary feel. Slowly but very surely it builds to the climax of Queen’s performance for LiveAid. Here, just as with the real performance itself, nothing is spared and Mercury’s ability to captivate every single member of such a massive audience is beautifully recreated.

“The big difference is that unlike a concert movie, we’re trying to tell a story,” said cinematographer Tom Sigel in an interview with Motion Pictures Association of America. “There is the occasional point of view of the audience member, but really the great thing we can do in a movie and the thing that this story demands is you put the audience on the stage with the performer.”

The film strives to present an intimate portrait of who Freddie Mercury and the band Queen were rather than an experience of going to one of their shows, and it achieves that beautifully.