JWR Articles: Film/DVD - The Assassin; Youth; Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Directors: Hsiao-Hisen Hou, Paolo Sorrentino, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon) - January 5, 2016

The Assassin; Youth; Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

4.5 4.5

The Assassin reviewed at the 2016 Palm Springs International Film Festival
For Your Consideration 2015: Best Picture

Once again the race is on for dozens of productions to snag a Best Picture nomination for this year’s Oscars. Here are three hopefuls that have an outside chance of ending up on the list.

The Assassin
Hsiao-Hisen Hou
105 min., Four and one half stars

All of the ingredients of a Shakespeare play

Murder most foul, Court intrigues, sorcerer’s revenge, ambush on the highways, jealous women, hush-hush pregnancy, masked face, jewelled link, entertainment within the play—Hou’s ninth century China, martial-arts-lite tale of studied assassin Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi exudes the ideal stoic tone as she flashes her dagger of death) is most certainly a work of art (notably the wondrously expressive long, slow-panning shots from Ping Bin Lee’s unerring cinematography and—led by Wen-Ying Huang and Ding-Yang Weng—the entire design team’s spectacular attention to detail in every set, costume and prop).

Yet, unlike the Bard who had the extra-special skill of weaving everything together into a seamless whole, the writing team (Ah Cheng, T’ien-wen Chu, Hou, Hai-Meng Hsieh and Pei Xing) couldn’t quite find the same level of narrative artistry as the visual feast that engages the eye with nearly every frame. (Giong Lim’s drum-rich original score adds still another layer of interest to the production.)

Those expecting the blood, gore and unbelievable acrobatics of other films in this genre will likely be disappointed; for the rest, it just might awaken an interest in learning more about China’s past, if only to shed further light on the dark art of radicalization.

Paolo Sorrentino
118 min., Four stars

We’re all just extras

Write-director Sorrentino, using a metaphor-rich, upscale Swiss spa as the main set, has created a film that speaks volumes about virtually every aspect of life and death.

The action centres around a pair of lifelong friends (Michael Caine as the retired conductor-composer, Fred Ballinger; Harvey Keitel as a prolific filmmaker, Mick Boyle, who wants one more kick at the can with Life’s Last Day, which only lacks the last few lines of dialogue before pre-production should begin) who enjoy all that the health-renewing hotel has to offer (and some of its staff…).

Conveniently for the plot, Boyle’s son (Ed Stoppard in the brief role as Julian) has married his best bud’s daughter (Rachel Weisz burns up the screen and her dad when she has a venting scene for the ages as unexpectedly single, Lena), binding all four together on many levels.

An invitation from Queen Elizabeth for a command performance of Ballinger’s Simple Songs (written for the maestro’s wife—Sonia Gessner is superb in the fleeting, silent role) is of no interest whatsoever to the sometime friend of Stravinsky’s until circumstances have taken many unexpected turns.

The large ensemble cast—including Jane Fonda in a stellar “your work is shit” tongue lashing of Mick at the film’s 11th hour—eventually gets in the way of the main threads, producing a riot of colour, texture and tone (levitation or Miss Universe nudity, anyone?), that weakens the ongoing drama rather than fuels its strongest moments.

Marvellously it is gesture—particularly the hands—which provides the truly magical moments: Caine is completely believable as a conductor—don’t miss the Alpine symphony, which brings a whole new meaning to “pastorale” and a very young masseuse who assuredly lets her fingers do the talking in painstakingly, lovingly rendered touch.

By journey’s end as the “Simple Songs” are launched, David Lang’s original score lives up to both the simplicity of art and the innocence of youth still to be found in us all, if only we'd care to look and allow it to take stage.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
105 min., Four and one half stars

If only we all cared as much

Less than 24 hours after finishing Kazuo Ishiguro’s fanciful novel of purposely harvesting young human organs (Never Let Me Go), a viewing of Gomez-Rejon’s masterfully crafted film of three disparate youths suddenly bound together by the ravages of cancer seemed to be the next logical chapter in understanding just what real compassion and caring looks like.

Novelist Jesse Andrews (who also wrote the screenplay) has a compelling empathy and understanding of teenagers—their foibles, self doubts, insecurity and fierce loyalty all coming into play as his characters look death in the face, far too soon for any life.

Thomas Mann delivers a superb performance as Greg, showing a range of emotion and savvy knack for artfully utilizing an actor’s special friend: silence. His narration easily lets the drama unfold; his scene of regret will remain in memory for a long time to come. His future looks bright indeed.

Playing Rachel, the dying girl, Olivia Cooke finds just the right mix of fear, humour, resignation and determination to convince (the makeup and hair department supporting her deterioration with, sadly, complete realism). Her moment of “you don’t understand, you don’t have cancer,” immediately rekindled Ishiguro’s “donors” Tommy and Ruth when they rail against their carer and—in Tommy’s case—sometime lover: all three needing these moments to uncategorically bemoan their fates in the presence of others far healthier. Letting that built-up anger out—with a witness—does a great psychological service to those who know, more or less, when their days are finished.

Greg’s best friend, and, eventually confidante of Rachel, is in the very capable hands of RJ Cyler, who acts as the catalyst for the three amigos.

The supporting cast (a collection of well-meaning parents, along with quirky students and staff—notably Molly Shannon as Rachel’s wine swigging, single mom, Denise and Jon Bernthal’s take on totally with it science teacher, Mr. McCarthy) all make their points but never upstage the three principals.

The music from Brian Eno and Nico Muhly deliciously pizzicato-rich is ideally supplemented from classical gems, adding much colour to the production even as the animation department serves up a feast for the eyes whenever required.

Here’s to more from Gomez-Rejon—like his leading players and crew, this production fires on all cylinders and is well worth an encore. JWR

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