Into the Woods Film Review

   Rapunzel, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood together, at last, in one feature - Into the Woods is The Avengers of fairy-tale movies. Except, of course, if we decide to measure Disney's latest musical against the with, warmth and wonder of Joss Whedon's superhero marvel. In this instance, such a comparison would be wholly unfair.

   Based on Stephen Sondheim's stage show, and directed by Chicago veteran Rob Marshall, Into The Woods would, on paper, seem to boast a winning combination of parts. Yet, as these things often happen, somewhere in production the alchemy curdled - the end result is a bloated, empty, humourless and, indeed,a rare, headache inducing film.

   Within twenty minutes of the cinema curtains parting, I was praying for a higher entity to make the cast stop violently shouting at me in sharp regional accents; the show-tunes contained within do little to resemble classic Western melodies instead taking the form of voluminous, graphic assaults. One and a half hours of further blunt sonic trauma, Marshall's movie finally convinced me of something I had spent my entire life debating with myself - there is not, and cannot possibly be, a loving God looking down upon me. If there was, how could he not intervene? I asked for a Deus ex-Machina and all I got was this lousy James Corden.

   The flaws of Into The Woods are plentiful - indeed, too lengthy a list for my sanity to revisit at any great length. In short - the music, directing and screen-writing are a notch below uninspired; the child actors deliver the two most insufferable screen performances in living memory; the narrative flows at glacial pace to places we don't wish to visit....

   Ultimately, Into The Woods has neither the charm of classic Disney adaptations, the darkness of the source material fairytales, or the wit of modern takes on fables as so winningly encapsulated by Enchanted. Marshall's movie is stunningly, depressingly pedestrian and the only emotion that can possibly be gleaned from his latest musical is crushing ennui.

   To end the review on a balanced note, here is a comprehensive list of the things that can be enjoyed in the film: Anna Kendrick.

Beyond Clueless

    Beyond Clueless is a beguiling, often contradictory film; one which hypnotises and obfuscates with equal measure.

   A patch-work, mix-tape movie, Charlie Lyne's documentary takes the form of a Mark Cousins-esque dream-scape essay to investigate contemporary "Teen" features. Yet, from the off, the thesis is entirely uncertain - what exactly is Lyne trying to identify or state?

   Fairuza Balk, the star of The Craft, narrates Beyond Clueless with a calm, measured tone which, unfortunately, does little to banish an air of aimlessness through which the film floats. During reading of selected "key texts" - including Bubble Boy, The Girl Next Door and Slap Her, She's French! - the film meanders with elongated passages which fail to resemble traditional analysis but border, instead, on lengthy regurgitation of synopses. Insight and poetry are kept to a minimum.

   Interspersed between these chapters, however, comes the segments which really save Beyond Clueless: the thematic montages.

   Splicing together clips from iconic, and not-so-iconic, moments in the Teen genre, Lyne uses an emotive soundtrack by Summer Camp to fashion together sequences which border on the euphoric. An early example includes an infinite procession of cliques striding down school corridors, edited in a weightless loop, a glistening, pulsing, throbbing, oozing, soundscape underpinning the action and offering a spectral grace to proceedings. A parade of thousands of amorphous faces, bodies and lives, glow from the screen, highlighting both the universality of the High School and the individual stories within - the experience is akin to standing in an echo chamber with hundreds of young adult stories reverberating around one's skull; an elevating experience.

   Yet, come the conclusion of Beyond Clueless, Lyne has said or shown nothing which has expanded our knowledge or understanding of the Teen movie or Teen lives. Indeed, as the clock ticks on, we're quite uncertain whether or not Lyne has even identified what a "Teen" movie actually is - few would argue that Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, American History X or The Dreamers belong in a category normally associated with Bring It On. Omissions such as Angus are criminal too.

   Searching for consistency, or anything as lucid as meaning, in Lyne's experimental essay is a task most of us would fail at. Indeed, despite the positives, the montages constituting the prime examples, its impossible for our minds not to wander over the course of Beyond Clueless - when moments from Mean Girls, Clueless or Can't Hardly Wait flash on-screen, its impossible not to wish to be watching the entirety of these teen classics instead.

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God Review

   Alex Gibney, one of documentary film-making's most prolific talents, has told scores of tales across his long and varied career. Few, if any, are as full of the sorrow and pity on display in Mea Maxima Culpa - a retelling of broken deaf men crying out for God's healing ways and receiving nothing but sterile silence in return. This is the story of souls filled with courage to shout, and those stained by the cowardice of reticence.

   A damning and almighty "J'Accuse", Gibney's film introduces us to Terry, Gary, Pat and Arthur - four former student's of St John's School of the Deaf. During their most vulnerable years, the boys were systematically abused by the school's head Father Lawrence Murphy. They were not the first, nor would they be the last, of his victims.

   As adults, the deaf students became militarised and took it upon themselves to make certain that the public knew exactly what Murphy had done behind closed doors. Disturbingly his crimes, both in nature and extent, were well known within the Catholic Church ; a certain Cardinal Ratzinger (later taking the name Pope Benedict) was assigned to deal with all cases of paedophile priests across the religion. The Church, as always, took to institutionalised silence on such issues - their policy of "Omerta", and dealing with all issues internally, seemingly cribbed wholesale from the Mafia.

   Gibney's film is a helacious, systematic assault on the Catholic Church, showcasing the acts of pure evil perpetrated by the institution for the sake of public relations. Generations of children can be abused by men of God but the wellbeing of victims is of much lower priority to the Church than the men who commit such evil and the reputation of the institution too. It is a sickening state of affairs.

   Yet, for a film featuring such perverse and grotesque actions, Mea Maxima Culpa also boasts images of radiant beauty. As Terry, Gary, Pat and Arthur tell their harrowing stories, their faces and hands captivate us - Gibney's movie has illuminated his subjects so as to capture the profound brilliance and honesty of sign language as their features state more words than their mouths ever could. This is the story of supreme evil clashing with voices which do not tremble, voices which will not be hushed.

The Fives (Deuo pai-i-beu) Review

   The Fives (or Deuo Pai-i-beu) is a Korean crime movie which left this writer with an even greater appreciation of the British NHS and of our police force than I had ever previously thought possible.

   The revenge thriller, another example of the sub-genre stemming  from the country, centres around Ko Eun-ah  (Kim Seon-ah) a woman who is the sole survivor of a massacre in her home.

   The perpetrator, "180cm tall.... soft features that girls like", wouldn't look out of place in a particularly hunky K-Pop band. We soon learn that his murders take place on something of a regular basis; quite literally, the brooding antagonist is a lady killer.

   Yet, for reasons which are never fully explained, the local police don't seem too bothered about uncovering his identity - media storms must blow over relatively easily in Seoul as the detectives are too tied up with making takeaway orders to track down a brutal criminal.

   With the law of the land apathetic to her plight, Eun-ah takes the decision to gain her own revenge. That her assault has left her wheelchair bound, and with the crazy-lank hair style favoured by mentally traumatised vengeance seekers (see also Oh Dae-su in Park Chan-wok's Old Boy), matters not; Eun-ah has a cunning plan to hunt down and kill the man who has taken away everything from her. Alas, she cannot do this alone.

    As Eun-ah dreams of revenge, she plots to put together a crack team of souls as anguished as she; this is not so much the Fantastic Five - or even the Hateful Eight or Dirty Dozen - but much rather the Desperate Five. Despairing over long waits for medical aid, unable to queue jump like the rich and powerful in a world of privatised healthcare, the group Eun-ah have put together all desire the only thing she can truly offer to them: her body. (This is not meant in a sexual manner but in the more graphic, literal way - her organs are to be spread amongst those who need them once they have offered assistance in vengeance).

   On paper, The Fives does very little to separate itself from an already over-crowded market of "B"-movie style Korean thrillers and often, in plotting, finds itself taking asinine detours with overblown twists and turns; Jung Yeon-sik's debut film often plumps for the over-sensational rather than the sensible. This does not mean, however, that there is nothing of value to be found in the often by-the-numbers thriller.

    Kim Seon-ah's return to the big screen (after a number of years starring on television) is a welcome one - her nuanced turn, bitter and hate-filled, is captivating and provides an engaging lead performance. Like Kim Ha-neul in Blind, another Korean thriller about a mass murderer, Seon-ah is also able to make the most out of portraying a character suffering a disability in a rounded, human manner.

   Whereas Blind saw our hero struggle through with impaired vision, The Fives sees Kim Seon-ah's character seek revenge whilst consigned to a wheelchair - a refreshing take on the classic horror tradition of disabilities or disfigurements belonging exclusively to villains. Here, the murderer has sculpted abs and a face which wouldn't look out of place in 2AM - we're asked to give our sympathies not to an aspirational pretty boy but those on the bottom wrungs of society.

   A schlocky thriller it may be but, ultimately, The Fives asks questions of a healthcare system which can lead to the most grotesque of scenarios in a culture obsessed with looks and status.  

The Film That Changed Everything: My Sassy Girl

   I often find myself ranting at people, in person and in print, on the virtues of South Korean movies.

   How the country has been the most consistently inventive in all of world cinema for at least the last twenty years. How the nation's youth-focused, kinetic cultural industries are as exciting as the Golden Age of Hollywood or Motown. If there is a limit of hyperbole my mind can stretch to whilst talking about South Korean films, my mouth will easily surpass it.

   When asked where this obsession stems from (including, on one occasion, by film hero Mark Cousins who kindly indulged my ranting on the subject following a screening of A Story of Children and Film), my answer is always the same and forever unchanged - My Sassy Girl (Yeopgijeogin Geunyo).

   I have no idea how I came to possess this film (fate?) but one thing I can state for certain is that my life can be neatly divided into two - the time spent before seeing Kwak Jae-yong's soaring comedy romance, and the period after.

   For once it would not be an exaggeration for me state this movie changed everything for me. It opened my eyes to the possibilities of what story-telling could be, how expansive (and equally intimate) cinema can be; the passionate, tender, heart-warming (and hilarious) tale introduced me to its visionary director and reminded me how kind and gentle cinema can be at its very best; how empathy can triumph over cynicism and how something as simple as watching movies can inspire us to reach the heights of the best version of us we can possibly be.

   Looking at the Asian film industry in the years which followed its 2001 release, its quite clear that the movies' influence spread much further and wider than is often appreciated - one of the most popular films of all time in China, a key early wave in the Hallyu movement which swept Japan, and a tale which casts a clear shadow over Korean cinema to this day.

   It would also be remiss to note how Hollywood (in a bid to stay relevant) has often cribbed elements from Asian movies wholesale. Indeed, whilst the American film industry created an entirely bungled remake of My Sassy Girl itself, the fingerprints of Kwak's masterpieces can also be found all over Hollywood features such as (500) Days of Summer, Scott Pilgrim vs The World and a whole host of acerbic young teen romances.

   But what exactly is it that makes My Sassy Girl film so special? So timeless?

   The success of Kwak Jae-yong's films (which include The Classic and Cyborg She) stem from the director's infinite fascination with the human heart - the heights to which it can gracelessly float and the profound depths sorrow can drag it to equally. Grief is the price we pay for love.

   With My Sassy Girl, Kwak's return to the movie industry after an elongated sabbatical, the filmmaker established himself as one of the most visionary souls on the planet and unparalleled in sketching young love in all its guises across a number of genres. Here he mixes Chaplin-esque slapstick and traditionally Korean melodramatics with a post-internet kinetic energy - a unique mixture which has grown in influence as the years pass.

   The quirky and outrageous movie tells the tale of a young couple who find themselves falling in love. As standard as that premise may be, the "meet-cute"  sequence really stretches the semantics of such a term. The titular girl (Jun Ji-hyun), whom is never named in the movie, is rescued by our hero Gyun-woo (Cha Tae-hyun) as she teeters on the edge of a train platform - her eyes roll to face the top of her skull, her hair is shambolic; she is utterly and dramatically drunk.

   The girl's brush with death does little to sober her up and, in the proceeding train journey, causes further public chaos - threatening violence to passengers and emptying the linings of her stomach onto elders horrify all. Her final act before alcohol takes her consciousness is to reach towards Gyeun-woo, grasping for him as she calls out "Honey!", before collapsing in an inebriated mess.

   Somehow our put-upon protagonist finds himself the guardian of a very drunken, very beautiful and clearly very troubled young woman. Their adventures in life start here - and at no point does our titular heroine remember to behave herself; Gyeun-woo accepts his fate with begrudging resignation which, naturally, flourishes into something much more profound.

    My Sassy Girl is a rather unorthodox romance.... but aren't all the best love stories?

   Some may find cliches here (running for trains, public proclamations of love) but each action in this wildly romantic melodrama is done with such sincerity and earnest zeal... it'd be much kinder, and more appropriate, to call them "classics".

   And, in Kim Hi-sok and Kwak's co-written screenplay, the director demolishes a fair few stereotypes too. Who needs to travel to a time of destructive machines when all the wonder in the universe can be found in a tale of young romance? Perhaps Hollywood took away the wrong message when they stole liberally from this film.

   Kwak also confronts gender attitudes - Jun's role subverts the patriarchal norms of Confucianism to a wild degree, as Cha takes on a more submissive role than is often associated with masculine Korean cinema. Rather than continue peddling gender representations prevalent throughout cinema, Kwak instead focuses on how love, regardless of its shape or form, conquers all: a rather radical message in its own way.

   Equally, the film is something of a technical marvel. My Sassy Girl is a rare example of modern cinema which explores the medium with the wide-eyed enthusiasm and wonder of its early pioneers. Its a feeling which permeates those who watch it too - we're reminded what its like to discover movies and, ultimately, to discover love.

   The scenery of Korea, presented in natural splendor, is matched only in the manner in which Kwak captures his character's faces. And few faces are as expressive and enchanting as Jun Ji-Hyun who delivers one of the great performances the medium has ever witnessed; her features radiate empathy in spades as she scowls, smiles, cowers and swoons. Her performance as the titular character is one of wonder and hope - we root for the film's couple to come together like few others as we watch their relationship organically grow. She torments him but Gyeun-woo knows who really is the more tormented of the two - if only he can figure out how to ease her pain perhaps so they can save one another.

   Perhaps the pinnacle of the romantic comedy, Kwak's film is one of the landmark's of movie-making and should rightfully be remembered as one of the most influential films of modern cinema.

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