Monday, April 23, 2018

Reviews from gulag: And with strange aeons, even death may die

Following on from yesterday, these reviews: Mary and the Witch's Flower and Woodshock.

I have a confession to make, which doesn't make me proud, and kind of puts paid to any pretensions I ever had to being an animation nerd: I'm not really sure I love Hayao Miyazaki.  I know I'm supposed to love Miyazaki, which is why I own a half-dozen Miyazaki films, all of which I... like okay, I guess.  I obviously respect Miyazaki and his legacy and all that.  Yet it is a legacy that casts a long, long shadow over Japanese animation, and my ambivalence toward Miyazaki's style is compounded when his successors in the field have tried to copy it.  Hence The Children Who Chase Lost Voices, one of the two big feature-length missteps (alongside The Place Promised In Our Early Days) that Makoto Shinkai made on his way to making his pair of mature masterworks, The Garden of Words and Your Name.

Hence also, and far more directly, Mary and the Witch's Flower, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, formerly of The Secret World of Arietty and When Marnie Was There and therefore formerly of Studio Ghibli itself, back before it was put on standby due to Miyazaki's (now-abortive) retirement.  A little bit of background, then: Mary was the first release of Studio Ponoc, the result of a sort of semi-accidental Don Bluthing of Studio Ghibli during Miyazaki's retirement/sabbatical, and somewhat consciously designed to be Ghibli's rightful heir.  This explains the poaching of Yonebayashi, and it explains also the film Yonebayashi made for them, which is kind of like someone's idea of Studio Ghibli, turned up to eleven in some respects and to zero in others, and which is also at least somewhat terrible.

The story (based on The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart) concerns young ginger Mary (huh) (Hana Sugisaki), an English girl sent off to spend a summer in the countryside with her great aunt Charlotte (Shinobu Otake); Mary is bored totally out of her gourd, of course, and we in the audience certainly sympathize, given that Mary spends an awful, awful lot of time stewing in its heroine's lazy, hazy forced-vacation.  On the other hand, Mary's shenanigans on the estate and in town, where she meets a colorful local jerk named Peter (Ryunosuke Kamiki) are cutesy-fun, and we know this is eventually going somewhere, thanks to the action-packed prologue that involved a broom-riding witch (another redhead) escaping an evil fortress and not looking back (so far as I recall) as it explodes.  The call to adventure comes when Mary follows a preternaturally-intelligent cat deep into the woods, where she finds a certain magical flower, identified later as a "fly-by-night," and also the broomstick left behind ages ago by the unnamed witch of the prologue.  (This actually takes two whole scenes, which is perhaps not ideal.)  At this point, she gets flower gunk on her new broom, and lo, it lifts her aloft to a world of magic, specifically the Endor College for Witches.

If this is a faithful adaptation of Stewart's 1971 novel, then I obviously cannot blame Stewart, but the reason Mary exists is, pretty clearly, because Harry Potter existed first; and, fittingly enough, you can even spot the little bespectacled warlock's doppelganger in a (somewhat forced and cloying) insert shot.  In any event, I doubt it's supposed to be Tim Hunter.  Mary takes a more circuitous route for its hero's journey,  because Mary is effectively a muggle on roids due to the fly-by-night, and while this is possibly more interesting on paper, it naturally ends up in the same basic place as Harry's more frivolous early dungeon-crawls; and the short of it is that Mary grifts her way into the school with her flower-buffed powers, which leads to something like the expected outcome, though in the process Mary also becomes aware that the school is a front for a sinister plot that only she can foil, led by two of Endor's distinguished faculty, headmistress Madame Mumblechook (Yuki Amami), and might-as-well-be-called-their-defense-against-the-dark-arts-instructor, Doctor Dee (Fumiyo Kohinata), an erudite reference I have chosen to be rather annoyed by.

So we have many of the characteristic Ghiblisms, starting from the very basic, that could probably refer to just about any fantastic fiction (a world of weird magic entered by a human child—it's more Ghibli if it's a girl, though), to the more specific (a caricatured old woman serving as the chief antagonist), to the stylization of the animated form itself, which is effectively indistinguishable from a turn-of-the-century Ghibli piece and which is probably the reason I find so many Miyazaki movies off-putting in the first place, though at least in Spirited Away, it was clearly on purpose.  Yonebayashi was a key animator on that, and it shows: Mary is awash in the squiggling, quivering, Kid's Kronenberg design ethos that gives the film's creatures and, er, magical fluids a strangely organic, even bizarrely sexual tinge, and I'll pretty much never enjoy that in a kid's entertainment, especially not one that's just way too pleased to revolve around the mechanic of a wee cartoon girl spilling blue lube out of a flower and having a hard shaft of wood get bigger in her hands before she shoves it between her legs.  I'd like to believe this is my hang-up, but I don't know any other way to read the images Yonebayashi's chosen—if there is a credible reason why a witch's broom must become tumescent, I'd like to hear it—but, sure, this sort of thing puts Mary quite squarely within the grand Ghibli tradition of Catbusses, horrifyingly-mutated forest gods, and whatever the fuck was going on in Yubaba's bathhouse.

The difference is that Mary, being a knockoff, does it without the quality of Miyazaki's imagination, or the sheer quantity of it. (Or of J.K. Rowling's imagination, for that matter.)  And it lacks, too, any of the deeper sense of mystical weirdness that Miyazaki's worlds always conjured, whatever other objections I might have had to their creation.  (Ironically, then, I kind of wish it were actually more of a Potter rip-off than it already is: by far—by far—the most enjoyable part of the film is the sequence where Mary bashes her way through her first day of "classes," simply because this is the only sequence that appears to be especially concerned with the Endor College as an institution, and hence packs the screen with practically all of Mary's cool visual and conceptual notions.  Plus, Harry Potter And the Secret of the 103 Minute Runtime would be, by default, my favorite Harry Potter movie of all.)

Instead of that, sadly, Mary gets a couple of lame villains with an evil plot barely worthy of a forgotten Saturday morning cartoon (not very Ghibli at all, that), and then takes its sweet time even getting to its several foregone conclusions—if you haven't figured out the mystery of the Prologue Witch about an hour before the film solves it for you, I don't know what to tell you, and when Mary finally twists, it chooses the least interesting way to actually go about doing it.  What you get in the end is a movie that's not really even interestingly abrasive in the way Ghibli fantasies often were, because it's too damn dull to be anything, really: nothing but a technically well-done rendition of character and creature designs that feel twenty or thirty years out-of-date, run through a plot dependent upon mostly-boring (and mostly-purloined) ideas, with no emotional hook that I noticed, and which stalls out almost the second it starts (which, again, is a good thirty minutes into the movie).  2017 was a pretty great year for anime, all told, but not because of this.

Score: 4/10

I'm a little bit of a fan of Lana Del Rey, and part of that, I would guess, is because of the curious aesthetic of her videos from back in her heyday of a few years ago, which it turned out (it was news to me, anyway) she invented herself.  It was sort of film studenty, but in a good way, using DIY quick-cut montages of old, faded, typically-8mm footage to evoke a mood that got paid off by the songs; it ultimately culminated with Del Rey handing off the visual aspects of her work to others who had more technical acumen, but were happy to work within her aesthetic.  And hence "Summertime Sadness," which takes a step back on stock footage but doubles-down on the grainy, faded, lost sensation of the thing.  (Presumably Tropico as well, Del Rey's short film, though I missed it.  It sounds cod-Malicky, so I'll have to catch back up.)

I mention it because Woodshock, by the Mulleavy sisters, Laura and Kate, also seems intended to answer the question, "what if a Lana Del Rey music video were feature-length and had a pretense of a narrative?"  Unfortunately, the question it actually answers is, "what if a Lana Del Rey music video didn't have music and were feature-length and had a pretense of a narrative?"  As that answer wasn't likely to please anybody, it is no surprise to learn that it didn't, and the fashion designer sisters were punished in a way that fellow designer-turned-director Tom Ford ought to have been for the garishly awful slog of Nocturnal Animals, yet for some reason was not.  Without unduly defending Woodshock's honor, for it is not exactly "good," I humbly suggest that this reason is "sexism," because in no sense is it nearly as bad.

Woodshock focuses upon a depressed woman named Theresa (Kirsten Dunst), who works in a marijuana dispensary in the Pacific Northwest, and whom we see, as her first act in the film, giving her dying mother a joint laced with some manner of painless poison.  Eventually we'll learn that serving as her community's angel of death is a duty that she's apparently taken on willingly enough, but giving the gift of oblivion to her own flesh and blood has proven too much for Theresa.  She spends the next 100 minutes or so flailing quietly within her guilt and grief and, increasingly, within the hallucinatory indulgence of her own poison, which she has dosed at a slightly-less-than-lethal amount, though Wikipedia informs me that a less-than-lethal dose was only an accident.  It's arguably an issue that I didn't pick that up while watching the damn thing, but, hey, that's actually fine: it's that kind of movie, right?

It sounds like it could go one of two ways—a ravishingly-dreamlike art film concerned with atmosphere and symbolic emotion, or a ponderous pretense that makes it obvious its main purpose was to put the Mulleavys on the map.  The hell of it is, it sort of splits the difference.  It is never uninteresting enough to make you angry, but it putters a great deal, doing absolutely nothing that's exciting narratively and not enough that's exciting formally, while it soaks in the timeless 70s-esque neverwhen of its setting—it's biggest misstep by far is caring about anyone outside of Theresa, but here we are, breaking POV constantly with its visits to her boss (Pilou Asbaek, whom I misidentified as Alfie Allen, which just goes to show what a great job they did in casting Euron on Game of Thrones).  Dunst has reinvented herself as she approaches middle age as the go-to "name" for arty films, though it's rare she actually has to do anything in them besides lock down like a pitbull upon one basic emotion, even to the detriment of her character or the story (see also Midnight Special, and The Beguiled, as well, which I'll talk about soon enough); it therefore seems unfair to judge her performance as good or bad, as anyone of basic professionalism could do it, though it's also too much to say she does not shoulder the burden of being the frowning human prop in somebody else's show as well as anyone could.

But Woodshock does have those laced-ganja freakouts to fall back on, as well as the American rain forest that serves as both setting and metaphor for Theresa's vanishing world.  Those sequences are even relatively staid as far as these things go—the Mulleavys' film relies on very much the same brand of 70s-style optical tricks that Del Rey videos do, I said, particularly dissolves and superimpositions, and it is both gratifying and kind of obscene in its lack of authenticity, in this movie made in 2017—but they're still pretty cool to look at, and, in its last heaving gasp of bad pot, redwoods, and uncanny wirework, it even made me feel something, possibly because this sequence has the most potent imagery (it does, and that's fitting), or possibly because this is the one sequence where a musical score seems to exist (and this is not fitting at all).

Now, I even somewhat enjoyed it while I was watching it, though I doubtless chose the perfect circumstances: starting it late at night around 3 a.m. and getting sleepy, but not sleepy enough to actually go to bed, and only after watching two or three more invigorating pictures.  But the actual value of Woodshock's experience, and it cannot be said to be significant, is that it made me appreciate why I liked those Lana Del Rey videos, and the Sad Hot Girl music they serve as vehicles for.  In combination with her borderline-surrealistic lyrics, tending toward the folly of youth, and her melancholy delivery style (famously or infamously, it is true that Del Rey can barely really sing), what those old images do, alongside those new images pretending to be old, is serve as a memento mori, for (after all) everything within the music and the pictures is either dying—or already dead.  Woodshock serves that function, too, and that's not nothing, although it's hardly an accomplishment that it was able to do it without making me sad for more than three minutes.  I mean, seriously: when I basically live in a constant state of fluctuation between being sad about being alive and being sad because I'm going to die, how can you guys not manage that one thing, when that one thing is the only thing you were even aiming for?

Score:  5/10

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