Wednesday, April 10, 2013


(Germany/Hungary/France - 2010; 2012 US release)

Unbearable grief and crushing loneliness lead to fateful decisions and actions in this thoughtful, intelligent and unsettling sci-fi drama that admittedly may be too uncomfortable for mainstream consumption.  Rebecca and Tommy meet as children in a small seaside community where she's temporarily staying with her grandfather.  As quickly as they bond and become one another's first love, she's off to Tokyo where her mother has a new job.  12 years later, Rebecca (Eva Green) returns looking for Tommy (Matt Smith) and the two pick up where they left off.  Happiness proves to be short-lived as Tommy is hit by a car and killed.  Blaming herself for his death, Rebecca, against the wishes of Tommy's mother (Lesley Manville), but with the blessing of his father (Peter Wight) is artificially inseminated with Tommy's DNA in a now-commonly-practiced human cloning procedure.  She moves away and gives birth to Tommy.  Years go by and Tommy (played as a child by Tristan Christopher) has noticed the frequent sexual tension between him and his spinster mother and her efforts to keep him as isolated as possible after his friends' mothers refuse to let their kids associate with a clone.  Tommy tries to be a regular boy, vaguely aware that something is odd but not fully understanding that it's his mother's intention not to have a son, but to have an eventual lover.  When Tommy reaches adulthood (again played by Smith), he goes off to college and brings his girlfriend (Hannah Murray) home and things get complicated, to say the least.

Hungarian writer/director Benedek Fliegauf lets the story unfold very deliberately (and in hindsight, the final reveal is there in the opening scene if you're paying attention), and makes outstanding use of the North Frisian island of Sylt, off the coast of Germany.  It's a visually striking location, and the gray, chilly atmosphere coupled with Peter Szatmari's cinematography, in which Fliegauf makes use of the entire 2.35:1 aspect ratio and frequently relies on expansive horizons to emphasize the distance and the isolation, makes quite an impression.  It's a difficult and downbeat film, maybe even offensive for some, and its central character remains cold and likely crazy throughout, but Fliegauf and his actors deserve credit for keeping it serious when it easily could've devolved into ludicrous camp.  Released elsewhere in 2010, WOMB was belatedly released in the US in 2012, possibly to capitalize on Eleventh Doctor Smith's DOCTOR WHO notoriety, achieved after he worked on this film.  (Unrated, 112 mins)

(China - 2011; 2013 US release)

Another plodding, lifeless, overly-stylized Chinese CGI extravaganza, THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE is the latest from A CHINESE GHOST STORY director Ching Siu-Tung, using his occasional Anglicized Tony Ching pseudonym.  A decade back, in the midst of that incredible wuxia renaissance that gave us such classics as Ang Lee's CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, and the Zhang Yimou films HERO, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, and CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER to name just a few, this type of period Asian fantasy epic was almost always guaranteed to be great entertainment.  But in the years since, with the over-reliance on dubious CGI to the point where the films now look completely animated, and badly at that, these have have become a chore to sit through.  I've spent some time away from the genre, and this drop-by didn't change my opinion.  If anything, these things are getting worse.  Yet, they remain hugely popular in China.

THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE can't decide what it wants to be, and as a result, it succeeds at nothing.  With a story that manages to be both overstuffed and flimsy, SORCERER deals with young herbal healer Xu Xian (Raymond Lam), who nearly drowns but is rescued by Susu (Eva Huang), a snake goddess capable of disguising herself as a human.  Susu is sympathetic, unlike her malevolent companion Qingqing (Charlene Choi), who befriends Neng Ren (Zhang Wen), an apprentice monk who's been bitten by a bat demon and wakes up with fangs and pointed ears.  Meanwhile, Neng Ren's sorcerer monk mentor Fa Hai (a visibly bored Jet Li) isn't fooled by any of these snake demons in human form and gives Susu a chance to leave Xu Xian since he respects her kind-heartedness.  When she refuses, Fa Hai declares war on the snake goddesses, killing Susu, who's later brought back to life by some talking spirit herbs.  The snake demons are also assisted in their battle by an army of mice, led by a particularly sassy rodent with a child's voice.  Oh, and there's also a nervous talking chicken, a grumpy old tortoise, and portals to other dimensions.  There's enough heaping helpings of outright lunacy in this film that should automatically make it fun, so it boggles the mind how incredibly dull this film is.  How can you go wrong with a grouchy tortoise?  SORCERER can't figure out if it's an action epic, a demonic horror film, or a kiddie movie.  It never finds a tone, and the effect of the endless CGI is just numbing.  Like most of these types of films these days, it's stylized to a fault and has no characters, no humanity, and no feeling.  It's a just an assembled product and Li, who's absent for long stretches, isn't even masking his obvious lack of interest.  Completely DOA.  (PG-13, 94 mins)

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