Friday, February 12, 2016

Reviews from gulag: Dear film critics, please stop confusing "insuperable boredom" with "challenging art"

As we continue to catch up with the last gasps of last year, let us briefly discuss 45 Years, Anomalisa, The Assassin, and Memories of the Sword.

45 YEARS (2015)
Kate and Geoff Mercer (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay) are old British people, with 45 years of marriage behind them.  But seven days before their newest anniversary—which has taken on a great deal of significance already, thanks to their 40th anniversary's preemption by Geoff's heart issues—they receive a letter from the far-off land of Switzerland, addressed specifically to Geoff, informing him that all these years later, they have found the central metaphor of this film, encased and preserved in glacial ice: the body of Geoff's old lover, Katya, who died back in 1962 when she fell into a mountain crevasse.  Geoff grows increasingly compulsive about remembering Katya—and Kate grows increasingly apprehensive that she was not loved the way she always thought she was.

The thing that 45 Years is about is very, very obvious, which I presume my plot synopsis makes clear: both its main characters are, in many respects, crybabies—Geoff, because he still gives a shit about a woman who died almost half a century ago, and Kate, because she cannot understand why Geoff might give a shit, and also because despite being a grown woman of advanced age, she operates under the bizarre impression that our spouses (if we ever wind up with spouses) actually see us as the fulfillment of every stray fantasy about their ideal partner.  Given that the only mate that most of us would ever actually perceive as truly perfect would be a telepathic shapeshifter with complementary sexual fetishes (who also shits dollar bills—or pounds sterling, if you like), I doubt any of us will ever find precisely what we're looking for in this world.  This, you know, is the way of things.  It's no reason to be unhappy.  But, on the other hand, most of us are crybabies (yours truly included!).  And unhappy we often are.

Either way, it remains one of the noblest purposes of art to explore those aspects of the human condition that, on one hand, we take for granted, while on the other, we never really speak about—mostly because they terrify us.  Thus is 45 Years an upsetting thing, simultaneously tender and raw, focused principally and wisely upon Kate, who goes through the process of solving the mystery of this allegorical ghost story, and comes to realize that in a very real sense, she was always her husband's second choice.  (Meanwhile, we come to suspect, by way of the bits and pieces through which 45 Years' backstory is revealed, that he was her first choice, in part because he was simply the first man she ever really got with, and it's feasible that she's never even seriously questioned her single-minded devotion till now.)  45 Years' possibilities for emotional catastrophe are pretty much endless.  This is why, I suppose, it's underplayed with a genuine brutalism that does its ridiculous melodramatic scenario no favors whatsoever, to the extent that we never even visit Katya's body, either through the intermediary of a viewpoint character, or through a third-person interlude—because God knows that the only time director Andrew Haigh ever punches this film up past "sleepy interiors" is when he arrives at "cold, wet, boring-ass exteriors."  Or maybe this isn't entirely fair, for there is that one scene with a legitimately demonic dog, whose insidious barking is heightened sufficiently in the sound mix to become absolutely aurally intolerable, and was presumably intended to draw actual, audible expressions of annoyance from the audience.  (Well, that's what happened at my screening, anyway—and since it happens right before a pivotal scene, it's all the more curious what on God's green Earth Haigh must have been thinking.  I have to imagine that the idea was to jar the viewer into a nervous state right before the big ol' reveal, but it doesn't work one bit, because "nervous" and "unbelievably aggravated" aren't really synonyms.)

The point is, 45 Years is essentially undirected: one of the least stylized films of 2015, its principal authors are its actors, and despite the fact that a few other people in this film have lines (none of them have any dialogue of real importance), and despite the spectral presence of Katya, this is as pure a two-hander as you'll likely see.  And the performances are technically superb, to be sure (Rampling's more than Courtenay's, but she has the better, meatier part).  They are qualitatively good, too: Rampling's endless implosion is arguably legitimately great, and worthy of her Oscar nomination; Courtenay renders Geoff's blithe dipshittery as not completely unbelievable (or even completely unsympathetic), which certainly ain't nothing.  Where 45 Years goes wrong, and this is principally a matter of taste, is the curious insistence to never, ever go big (let alone broad), even though the feelings it grapples with—the perception of betrayal, of the assumptions of your very existence being upended, of having lived a life that now seems entirely wasted, of being tricked into consenting to the extinction of your very genetic legacy—are so fucking huge.  Rather, Rampling and Courenay play it so resolutely tiny, right down to the very last shot, which doesn't even feel like any kind of ending or climax at all—not until the scene cuts to black, so mercilessly and so quickly that it's not entirely impossible that you might not have been paying strict attention to it before you realized the credits were rolling.  No, let's not go too far: 45 Years' final gesture is not so ambiguous as to be enigmatic, exactly, but it surely represents everything "wrong" with a movie that refuses, in nearly every instant, to match its style to its actual content.  But then again, if you like grave-quiet films about people breaking themselves and each other, over their own fantasies and insecurities and weaknesses, then I doubt I could recommend 45 Years highly enough.

Score: 6/10

In this other movie about sad old white people, Michael Stone (David Thewlis) has found himself in late middle age and so chock full of ennui he can barely stand talking to anybody else anymore—and thus, for maximum ironic value, Michael is the implausibly famous author of a how-to guide for customer service managers, wherein he teaches corporate employees how to touch people's hearts through bullshit smalltalk.  Presently, Michael has arrived in Cleveland to give a speech on that very subject.  As he mumbles through his interactions with other human beings, he despairs of their dull sameness, from the cabbie who picks him up from the airport (Tom Noonan) to the concierge at his hotel (Tom Noonan).  He cannot gain solace even from talking to his own wife (Tom Noonan).  But in the midst of trying to reconnect with—that is, seduce and soullessly fuckan old flame who happens to live in Cleveland (Tom Noonan), he meets shy wallflower Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who turns his whole worldview upside down—and you can pretty much predict what happens from there, given that this was written by Charlie Kaufman.

The most interesting thing about Anomalisa, by far, is the fact that it's stop-motion animated.  But that needs to be unpacked a bit, I'm afraid, since the interesting thing about Anomalisa's animation isn't that it's particularly technically-accomplished.  (It is highly technically-accomplished, but not nearly to the extent that Anomalisa's biggest boosters have been raving about, because there are some real and serious issues inhering to the fact that all the women in this movie look almost exactly alike, including Lisa, which makes her whole deal—that is, feeling like and possibly even being an unattractive woman—appear to be based on positively nothing but a dumb scar on her eyebrow.)  Anyway, the really interesting thing about Anomalisa isn't that it's animation specifically made for adults, either.  (Although I cannot possibly say that this aspect of its production is uninteresting, particularly when Anomalisa has a puppet sex scene that evinces more tenderness and realism than most movie sex scenes that involve actual human bodies.)

No, the fascinating and formally outrageous thing about Anomalisa's animated format—the reason that being animated is completely inseparable from its substantial effectiveness as a work of art—is that it permits Michael's utter disconnection from the world to manifest itself in the form of one man's voice, specifically Tom Noonan's voice, which Noonan uses to create a whole sonic universe, composed solely of different shades of gray, peeling paint.  And this, in turn, permits the potential for Michael's existential salvation to be embodied in the voice of a woman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays Lisa—an Anomalisa, if you will, and, by God, Charlie Kaufman certainly hopes you will, although I guess I'd be remiss if I didn't admit (however grudgingly) that this unfathomably bad pun does indeed work much better in the film itself than it does in its title.  And perhaps it works as well as it does because Leigh is stunningly, stunningly good as this anomalous Lisa, so wounded and human that her dimness and naievete evoke infinite pity rather than even the first stirring of contempt, to the extent you kind of get why it's her voice, and her voice alone, that breaks through to Michael.  You further understand why he would want her, and choose her over his other groupies—even if you cannot comprehend for even one moment how a second-rate business writer could possibly have groupies.  It's especially easy to understand, I suppose, if you like to have sex with a certain genus of broken bird, and break them further in the process, since naturally that's what this amounts to.

Anomalisa, you see, is effectively perfect in its first two acts; but that Kaufman, you know, is wily, and he's kind of a dick, and he's not about to give us a Sad Old Man melodrama that is actually concluded by mutual sexual salvation—this, I think, does not even count as the mildest of spoilers.  I recognize that about ten years ago we all decided, as a culture, that narratives of this kind were garbage, because they were unrealistic and sappy and stupid and—above all!—had a tendency to be sexist (unlike superhero stories or Nicholas Sparks movies, obviously).  Yet as long as people age, and grow tired of their spouses and jobs and of living generally, there will always be American Beauties, and I'm not sure I agree that all of them should end with a lecherous middle-aged man getting his head blown off, either literally or metaphorically, though I suppose at least Anomalisa makes sure that Michael deserves his comeuppance when he gets it.

Though, in point of fact, for a second or two it's actually not entirely clear which of these routes Anomalisa is going to go—the metaphorical skull-shredding, or the literal one—since its troubles begin in the midst of a simply awful dream sequence, which apparently exists solely because this is a Charlie Kaufman movie, and hence is obligated to deliver some manner of psychedelic freakout, whether it's appropriate to the story being told, or not appropriate whatsoever.  (But it also helps pad the runtime to feature length, so there's that!)  Anyway, at this point, things go so rapidly to shit that, frankly, they're even less believable than the previous hour's whirlwind of a magical, utopian romance, and in the process Anomalisa sheds any chance of being one of 2015's best films, or even one of its merely great ones, as it crashes through a third act that lasts all of about fifteen terrifyingly overdetermined minutes.  There remains an awful lot to love about Anomalisa before it decides to blow off such things as nuance and hopefulness—and, in full honesty, there remains a little bit to love even in its final moments, after its gotten the blunt shrillness of its reversal out of the way, and you can settle down and appreciate the lesson—but it is impossible to shake the feeling that Anomalisa immolates itself here, upon the topheth of its own banal psychological insight.

P.S. Anomalisa, it bears mentioning, was co-directed by Duke Johnson, and by "co-directed," one suspects they mean "directed, but Charlie Kaufman is the much bigger name, and anyway, he wrote it and directed the performers in the radio play version, so let's give him credit too."  But one final aspect of Anomalisa that I (at least) found fun was that it was produced by Johnson's "Starburns Industries," which the Community fan in me got a huge kick out of.

Score: 7/10

THE ASSASSIN (Republic of China, 2015)
In 8th century China, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) was sent to live in a monastery with a self-exiled princess, who trained her in the pseudo-magical martial arts and the ways of death.  After failing to kill a man in front of his son because she is still too full of human pity, she is naturally sent to go assassinate her own cousin, the governor of Weibo, apparently a project of immense importance to the imperial court.  She proceeds to stare at him for about an hour and forty minutes through a curtain.

Yes, The Assassin is very well-photographed, and it is reasonably well-designed.  It is not so gorgeously-photographed, nor so sumptuous in its costumes and sets, for this to offset the fact that it is impossibly, murderously boring.

Indeed, as well-mounted as it is, it is on the short list of the most boring fucking movies I've ever struggled through.  Imagine Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero (or whichever wuxia classic you wish to name), with fewer and lesser stunts, 80% fewer lines, not the barest fraction of the emotional resonance, and no recognizable acting whatsoever—on top of a plot (such as it is) that you can barely parse out, driven by character relationships and motivations that are oblique and mystifying.  It is substantially worse even than Wong Kar-Wai's The Grandmaster, which also sucked something fierce, but at the very least was doing something, even if what it was doing did not often work to its benefit.  The Assassin is Exhibit A if you ever want to accuse film critics of being out-of-touch, and of bandwagoning upon a niche product that does one thing really well (in this case cinematography), but is essentially alien to any actual mainstream audience—not for nothing, the film was a commercial failure in director Hsiao-Hsien Hou's native TaiwanIndeed, The Assassin is made with what appears to be a totally deliberate anti-populist ethos, which (in our hypothetical indictment) feeds into the elitist critic ego.  Good Lord, even The Assassin's fight scenes, which are rare, off-puttingly-staged, and narratively meaningless, are at their very best naught but mediocre.  Only one, that takes place in a forest and finds the action broken by trees in an unblinking, almost static take, actually looks passably cool.  But it, too, is seemingly pointlessThe Assassin, contrary to what you may have heard, is perhaps the single worst film of 2015.

Score: 1/10

MEMORIES OF THE SWORD (Republic of Korea, 2015)
Twenty years ago, in approximately the 10th century, the Three Swords—two swordsmen, one swordswoman—challenged the corrupt royal government of Korea in the name of the People, and made substantial headway before one of their number, Deok-gi (Lee Byung-hun), betrayed Poong-cheon (Bae Soo-bin), and dragged his lover Suel-rang (Jeon Do-yeon) along into sin with him—indeed, it was she who struck the fatal blow, although it was Deok-gi who slashed the back of Poong-cheon's infant daughter Hong-yi.  Our story is the story of that child (Kim Go-eun), who grew up, and was trained in the magical martial arts to take revenge against Deok-gi and Suel-rang.  What she doesn't know is that Deok-gi is now Yoo-baek, an important and ambitious general, and that the one who trained her is Suel-rang herself.  The day she finds out, she is cast out into the wilderness, still possessed of her mission to kill Yoo-baek—but now possessed of the knowledge that the next time she meets her adoptive mother, one of them must die.

Oh, but that only scratches the surface of the plot of Memories of the Sword, which is perhaps the plottiest damned movie of all 2015—in both good and bad ways (it can get a little confusing), but mainly in good ones, to the extent that I'm reasonably sure that it might have the best screenplay, in purely mechanical terms, of any movie in a long while, or at least since Ex Machina.

But anyway, you can see how it came to pass that I had cause to turn to South Korea for a wuxia antidote to the hateful boredom wrought upon my soul by The Assassin.  If I have nothing else for which I must thank that film (and I do not), it's that The Assassin's blu-ray release offered some previews of several other recent international martial arts pictures.  The most interesting-looking of them was this one; but it was a minute into actually watching it before I recognized the names, and realized it was Korean, and not Chinese.

I'm sure that the Korean language has a term for "wuxia" all its own, but there's zero sense in denying that this film is doing its pure damnedest to be Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—from a young female hero trained by a villain, to a romantic subplot with a deeply backgrounded male "co-lead," to a concern for the older generation and their own romantic entanglements, to a tendency to use long, extended flashbacks, right down to some incredibly direct visual thefts (specifically, from Crouching Tiger's unforgettable bamboo forest scene).  On a purely narrative level, however, Crouching Tiger honestly has nothing on it.  Obviously, in the performances that give life into Memories' story, it does not surpass its forerunner; but Kim Go-eun and Bae Soon-bin are quite good, and Lee Byung-hun is basically perfect.  No, it is principally on the visual level that Park Hueng-shik's wannabe classic really falls right to pieces in the comparison.

There is a great, great film in this material—indeed, with this exact same script, with this exact same cast, probably even with the exact same cinematographer and production designer (certainly with this exact same costume designer), but with a director who was more enamored of Ang Lee and less in love with... I'm not even sure who.  I'd say Guy Ritchie, but I think Guy Ritchie would've done a better job, too.  My vague and cursory research suggests that it's Park's first action film (at least, his first wuxia film), which goes a long way to explaining why he'd make such strange, counterintuitive, and damaging choices.  Although if I'm not mistaken, Ang Lee wasn't exactly known for high action prior to Crouching Tiger, either, so I don't know what Park's problem is.

But I'm making Memories sound ugly or unpleasant, which it really isn't for the most part: there is only an urgent, pathological compulsion inherent in Park's direction, to "punch up" his otherwise-well-choreographed action with some of the most asinine camera tricks conceivable—shakycam! fifty crash zooms in a row! slowwww-motttttion!  (And, yes, one of the most obviously stitched-together long takes in some years, too!—which nonetheless still manages a certain kind of manic, climax-of-Sword of Doom-style cool.)

However, after exhausting his fetishes, Memories finds Park contrasting his bizarre stylistic tics with a genuinely gorgeous classicism, notably in the film's finale, which could simply not be more beautiful—even if it's so overwrought as to be kind of joyously ridiculous.  Does it come down to a duel in the snow?  Damned right it does—although even at this crucial juncture, you may not expect a play straight out of the Jason Vorhees handbook, repurposed for profound emotional catharsis.  It's actually quite awesome.

This deeply bimodal aesthetic is what drags a potential masterpiece down into the realm of the "merely good," and yet "good" it absolutely is—exceedingly good, even!—driven by a truly dynamite scenario that might well have deserved a visionary, but surely isn't ruined by the journeyman it got.  In the final analysis (and highlight this sentence if you wanna really be spoiled!), the best Star Wars film of 2015 is not The Force Awakens—it's Memories of the Sword.

Score: 7/10 

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