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Knight at the Movies: Beyond the Hills; Oz the Great and Powerful
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times

This article shared 4325 times since Wed Mar 13, 2013
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A look at the trailer for the Romanian drama Beyond the Hills—the latest from acclaimed 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days writer-director Cristian Mungui—might give viewers the mistaken impression that it's a horror film: A young woman arrives at a remote convent in order to convince her best friend to leave with her. The friend, now a devout nun, refuses and after a series of attempts to change her mind, the young woman seemingly goes berserk, becomes possessed by the devil and is given an exorcism. And though these events do occur, the only horror here is what is done to Alina (Christina Flutur), the outsider, in the name of religion.

Mungui's movie is slow-moving and repetitive as he captures the austere lives of the nuns who cluster around the dour, take-no-prisoners priest who brooks no intrusions into the regimen of life at the convent—and certainly isn't about to loosen his grip on Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), the newest nun in the orthodox order, when her friend Alina arrives. Alina, blond and quiet, grew up in an orphanage with the dark-haired Voichita, her best friend and lover. Upon her arrival she's taken aback that her heartfelt reminders about the love she and Voichita shared aren't enough to convince her to pack her things and head to a new life via the promise of new jobs "on a boat" (which one presumes, might be a cruise ship).

Nor do her attempts at seduction work. Voichita has found something in religion or the simplistic, task-driven lifestyle at the convent that Alina—try as she might—can't seem to break through. And herein lay the seeds of a tremendous tragedy—one that Mungui slowly records. As Alina goes into emotional freefall over Voichita's refusal, the other nuns, egged on by the priest and led by the woman they address as "mother," attempt to use their religious training to forestall Alina's breakdown. When that fails, they resort to measures that seem reasonable to them but, when discovered, naturally horrify the outside world.

The two young actresses immerse themselves in their roles (both shared the best actress prize when the film premiered at Cannes), and Mungui's methodical pacing; the desolate, wintry location of the convent; and the hardscrabble lives of the women allow for a great deal of detail and shading within the scenes. At the heart of the film is the conflict between orthodox religion and the secular world—each represented in the two leading characters—and the incredible damage that unerring faith in one's viewpoint can wreak. The final sequence in which the two worlds intersect is masterful. Beyond the Hills is a subtle, heartbreaking film that rewards the patient viewer.

Kinda related: Strange Frame, just out on DVD from Wolfe Video, also focuses on a lesbian couple fighting against some pretty tough constraints. Let's just say that Naia and Parker, who share similar musical tastes as they fall passionately in love and form a band, have a lot to contend with in G.B. Hajim's critically acclaimed animated science-fiction rock musical. Set 500 years in the future on a moon of Jupiter, the film is a delightful, original hybrid. Tim Curry, George Takai, Claudia Black, Ron Glass and Juliet Landau are among the actors providing the voices.

Oz the Great and Powerful is the first cinematic attempt to cash in on the recent resurgence of Ozmania brought about by the phenomenal popularity of the stage musical Wicked. Disney, journeying back to the Land of Oz for the first time since 1985's offbeat and winning (but underperforming) Return to Oz, has spent close to $200 million on the film. The movie substitutes young con man Professor Marvel (called Oscar Diggs here) for the dewy-eyed innocent Dorothy Gale of Kansas, but essentially their trajectory is the same. Trapped in the black-and-white "real world," Oscar—a flop magician in a two-bit circus and a bit of a womanizer—flies in his big balloon to Oz (via a handy tornado, of course). Immediately, there's a transformation into vivid color, amid a host of eye-popping digital effects. On the way to killing the baddest of the three witches, who are sisters he romances on their first encounters (Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams), Oscar takes along some strange new friends, makes a stop in Munchkinland and learns to grow a heart.

The basic trouble with this family-friendly film, which Sam Raimi directs, is that it takes just as long to grow a heart as Oscar does. Visually dazzling and sumptuously appointed (although the negligible 3D, again, is merely headache-producing), Franco is dead wrong for the part of an irresistible con man. Handsome he is; irresistible and charming, no. And there is an inescapable feeling of condescension in almost every line he utters. As any Ozmaniac will tell you—without heart and innocence as a starting point, there's no point in starting. Franco could have taken a lesson from Williams, who elevates every scene in the movie with her delicately delivered performance.

While the movie, as noted, looks great and kicks into satisfying high gear as it heads toward the last act, with Franco and his allies in league to destroy the witch and her minions, the tinhorn feeling of the bulk of Oz the Great and Powerful leaves one yearning for another trip down the yellow brick road—the one first glimpsed by audiences in 1939.

Film notes:

—It's certainly going to be some enchanted evening when TCM's "Road to Hollywood" tour brings the Rodgers and Hammerstein 1959 musical South Pacific to the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., on Tuesday, March 19, at 7:30 p.m. Film historian and author Leonard Maltin will host, with an onstage appearance by none other than the film's perky, seemingly ageless star, Mitzi Gaynor.

South Pacific, which Joshua Logan directed, has forever been critically maligned because of his decision to shoot the musical numbers through various colored filters (a creative mistake that Logan humorously owned up to in his memoirs). But Gaynor's best screen performance, the unbridled romantic appeal of co-star Rossano Brazzi, handsome John Kerr, lovely South Sea locations and acres of hunky, shirtless sailors—not to mention all those sing-a-long ready tunes—definitely put South Pacific in the plus column. Tickets are free but must be ordered in advance; see

—Cinema Q III, the annual Cultural Center LGBT film series, continues Wed., March 13, with 2009's gritty To Die Like a Man, a fascinating portrait of an aging Portuguese drag queen from writer-director Joao Pedro Rodrigues. The series—which The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, The Legacy Project, Queer Film Society and Reeling are co-sponsoring—takes place in the Claudia Cassidy Theater in the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., at 6:30 p.m. Admission is free. A discussion follows each of the movies. Windy City Times, Time Out Chicago and ChicagoPride are media co-sponsors for Cinema Q III.

Check out my archived reviews at or . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.

This article shared 4325 times since Wed Mar 13, 2013
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