Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Movie Review: Lost River/When Marnie Was There (2015)



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Remember Ryan Gosling? That guy who became the toast of the town back in 2011 thanks to the unexpected success of Drive, then just seemed to largely disappear from the public spotlight? Unless you’re among the confounding number of The Notebook fans, that is? That’s not to say he just isn’t working anymore, as he was in the surprisingly decent Gangster Squad as well as the upcoming Adam McKay flick The Big Short; just that it seems like he didn’t make the best use of his rejuvenated exposure. Probably the two big contributors to why this is is as a result of two films he made after Drive: One of them was Only God Forgives, a film by the same director that wasn’t nearly as well received by the general public nor by critics. The other was his debut as writer/director that… got probably the most perplexing response in recent years. As in, it got both a standing ovation and an audible collection of booing when it premiered at Cannes. Well, no matter happens in the following review, I am guaranteed to disappoint someone. Fine by me. This is Lost River.

The plot: Single mother Billy (Christine Hendricks) and her two sons Bones (Iain De Caestacker) and Franky live in the slums of Detroit, with Bones being forced to scavenge abandoned houses to keep the family fed while keeping out of the way of local thug Bully (Matt Smith). After a fateful meeting with local bank manager Dave (Ben Mendelsohn), she agrees to a job in an underground club located beneath the town reservoir. As Billy is thrown further into the world of depravity located under the surface, Billy and his friend Rat (Saoirse Ronan) have to rescue her and “break the spell”.

Gosling’s time working with Nicolas Winding Refn must have paid off because this carries a similar hypnotic trance-like quality to it. The bold use of colour, the slow and almost mystical analog soundtrack, the striking imagery at work like the burning houses and interiors of the underworld theatre; they all contribute to the fantastical setting where dream logic seems to reign supreme. However, more than Refn, this film comes across like if Harmony Korine ever attempted to make a more whimsical fairy tale. This uses the backdrop of downtrodden America same as he does, except this doesn’t follow the usual voyeuristic exploitation of the middle class that Korine regularly takes part in. Instead, it treats the characters that are below the poverty line with a certain respect and allow them their dignity. It offers a rather confronting depiction of life in the slums of Detroit, where Devil’s Night has given people a taste for pyromania and what’s left over gets stripped for metal to be sold for scrap. Given what surrounds them, these characters need all the dignity that they can get.

This features an… interesting cast of characters. Ronan feels she was told she was going to be in an M. Night Shyamalan film with how lifeless she comes across as, and Rat doesn’t really make a real impact as a result. Mendelsohn is having a little too much fun, given how this is the guy who is not only quoting Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Birdy Nam Nam throughout the film, not to mention a certain dance sequence that might be one of the most mindfrag-inducing things I’ve ever encountered. Seriously, I can’t even put into words how strange that moment is, but Mendelsohn is definitely enjoying every moment he’s given and he delivers his oddly pop song dialogue rather well. Smith as Bully might have one of the best character introductions I’ve seen this year, with him just roaring about he owns this motherfucking town. However, even with how bombastic his portrayal can get, he manages to balance it out with some softer moments as well like his interactions with Rat. Barbara Steele as Rat’s grandmother Belladonna doesn’t even get any lines, and yet the screen time she gets of her just staring at old videos of her and her husband is surprisingly potent in… some kind of feeling. Yeah, the dream state this film exists in makes a lot of little details difficult to iron out. Not that it’s gonna stop me from trying, though.

The Detroit backdrop was ideal for this story, considering how a lot of it deals with the rampant destruction of homes in order to create new ones. The Motor City deals with a lot of burnt-down houses on an unfortunately regular basis. It adds some decent weight to the predicament faced by Billy and her son, considering the stripping down of houses for metals to sell is, again, a common occurrence in the poorer neighbourhoods. Thank you, Danny Brown, or else I wouldn’t know any of this. However, beyond using Detroit’s poverty stakes to add to the twisted fairy tale idea, there also seems to be a certain motif involving violence as entertainment. As much as the implications of such reading have for Gosling’s true intentions with this film, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.
It’s almost as if there was a need to comment on modern film audiences and their attitudes to the bloodier side of the art. Chalk it up to the still-misnamed trend of ‘torture porn’, but today’s filmgoers do have more of a taste for the red stuff. We see this through the performers in the underworld theatre literally shedding blood for their art because, basically, it’s what the audience wants. Dave himself quips about how all they’re doing is fulfilling a need for that people have. Cut to above the surface and Bully shows the potential end result of that bloodlust. When all that is being fed to you is the most extreme sense of emotions, namely violence and anger, it’ll eventually be all that you can identify with. When Bully pets Rat’s pet rat (which I think is meant to be a euphemism, but I can’t tell; maybe it’s just how Smith is playing it), we see that he is unable to really process the idea of the more precious things in the world with anything other than bloodshed. Maybe this is a call for more psychologically, rather than viscerally, effective art; a means to try and convince people to go for something more substantial and thought-provoking, rather than just licking their lips at the blood being spilt for the sake of performance. I sense an attempt by Gosling to subconsciously make us root for this film more than we should, possibly. Or, in a slightly less pretentious light, maybe it’s drawing a parallel between the destruction of homes and the kind of mindset that fuels it; it’s almost like people enjoying watching others suffer.

All in all, as you can probably tell from my ramblings above, I’m still not entirely sure what the point was of the film as a whole. Gosling definitely shows flair for imagery and atmosphere, even if it is pretty derivative, the acting is hazy but works really well in places and the soundtrack is mesmerizing, but the dream logic this film employs can be a little too thick to cut through at times. It’s worth a watch for the imagery alone, as this at least feels like there’s a genuine point to it besides just looking nice, but be warned that it’s not the most coherent thing in the world. It’s better than Ted 2 as, even though they both have the problem of recycling old material, this film at least does it from other people and doesn’t resort to ripping itself off for ideas. However, in comparison to another hazy and ultimately kind of dull film, Far From Men was a lot more clear in its intentions and felt like it had more of an idea of what its end goal was.

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Even if you’re too hesitant to venture further into the world of magical girls and giant robots, Studio Ghibli is that rare exception that demands respect from everyone. Comparable to the Disney of Japan, its filmography are among the most definitive of the entire art form, from its fantastical marvels like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away to its more heart-rending productions like Grave Of The Fireflies. New releases from this studio are looked forward to as much as Wes Anderson films in film buff circles. So, when news hit that not only was the head honcho Hayao Miyazaki going on hiatus but the rest of the studio as well, otaku the world over felt a collective tear form in the corner of their eye. Given all of this information, today’s subject has a lot of weight to it as, potentially, the last film that Studio Ghibli ever releases. It’s not Miyazaki, but that doesn’t change the clout the name ‘Ghibli’ has, so this had better be damn good. This is When Marnie Was There.

The plot: Anne (Hailee Steinfeld), after suffering from a particularly nasty asthma attack, is sent by her foster parents to live with her aunt and uncle in a seaside village. When she visits a nearby supposedly abandoned mansion, she meets Marnie (Kiernan Shipka), a warm and inviting girl whom Anne soon forms a kinship with. However, as their encounters become more unusual and her name starts ringing different bells when mentioned in town, Anne discovers that Marnie may not be all that she appears to be.

It’s Studio Ghibli, so of course the production values are amazing. The animation is fluid with no signs of budget-cut moments, the character designs are crisp and the scenery is beautifully painted. Given how all of the dramatic action happens in a sea side town, it’s surprising just how serene it all looks. This extends to the sound design as well, both in terms of how the vocals are integrated and how the soundtrack is integrated. Takatsugu Muramatsu’s sweeping and blissful score hits adventurous, tragic and even romantic in places with the kind of efficacy that brings tears to the eye.

Ghibli also has a knack for bringing together A-list talent for the English dub, except they are usually names that aren’t normally associated with voice work. This is no exception, with names like Catherine O’Hara, Kathy Bates, Geena Davis, Ellen Burstyn and John C. Reilly just to name a few. Jamie Simone, probably best known for the best voice director on Naruto (pre-time skip), did an amazing job at translating these actors’ abilities to just their vocals: Steinfeld gives proper dimension to her role and delivers emotion like I’ve never seen/heard from her before; Reilly and Grey DeLisle make for two pretty cool guardians, avoiding the weirdly unsavoury behaviour I keep seeing in this studio’s work (stealing food, reckless driving, etc.); and Shipka, having prior experience as a VA, manages to work especially well with Marnie’s dialogue. This is rather surprising because, to put it simply, this is a weirdly written role.

At the heart of this film is Anna’s feeling of disconnection from the world, both as a result of her asthma and because she is a foster child. The film does a decent enough of portraying her relationship with Marnie as her finally making that connection with someone else, except they do so by making Marnie out to be a “free-spirited” person. What a lot of screenwriters tend to forget about this style of characterization is that, if unchecked, it can end up coming across like she’s got a few screws loose. I shouldn’t be getting uncomfortable flashbacks to Leslie Burke from Bridge To Terabithia out of how unintentionally concerning a character is. Not to say that it isn’t understandable, given what we learn about Marnie’s upbringing. It’s just that when they have her describing Anna as “her precious secret”, there’s only so much whimsy that can be used to barricade the potential implications that could come out of that line of thinking. Of course, once the plot progresses further, their relationship to each other only grows more concerning as a result. Because of this, there is this barrier that prevents complete investment in the proceedings, as there is a large portion of the film where it’s not entirely clear if we should be concerned about what Anna is getting herself into.

This isn’t helped by how we’re not exactly sure what kind of relationship this is. I mean, I know that anime is more than capable of depicting the power of platonic love: Madoka Magicka is a friggin’ masterpiece for that very reason. It’s just that, maybe because of my own Western sensibilities, Anna and Marnie’s iterations of “I love you” comes across as something maybe more intense than the filmmakers intended. Not to say that there is something inherently wrong with the film going in that direction; just that, when it isn’t made clear if that is the case, it can cause some real tonal whiplash. Not only that, even the possibility of this makes Marnie’s already verging-on-unsettling behaviour seem even more suspect. Sure, this all gets resolved by film’s end, but said resolution actually brings up other implications that only make the end result feel weirder.

All in all, it’s a beautifully drawn story that, even if it is held back by certain questionable plot developments, still hits emotional depth more times than not. It follows the studio’s standards for English dub casting and artistic integrity, but it also falls into some of the studio’s lesser work in terms of narrative cohesion. As a potential capper to a very long and storied institution, it’s a bit of a letdown. Then again, I believe this to be the end as much as I believed Kool Keith’s retirement announcement. It’s better than Spectre as this doesn’t feel broken as a result of a single bad casting decision. Seriously, I still can’t figure out how they screwed that one up. However, even with its less-than-ideal script, Black Mass’ acting gave it the edge in a direct comparison.

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