23 September 2010

Never Let Me Go

***** 5 stars

Based on the Man Booker Prize nominated book and bestseller of the same name, Mark Romanek's adaptation of Kashu Ishiguro's novel may be one of the best movies to come out this year.

Many reviewers have quibbled over the revelation of the "twist" that comes much sooner in the movie than the book, but I think that's nonsense. What works in a novel would often appear slow and dull in a movie. If anything, I think it helps engage those viewers who come into the film with a naivete not unlike the characters in the film. That being said, I'm not about to ruin the surprise for anyone!

"Never Let Me Go" is the story of Kathy (Carey Mulligan); or really the story of how she grew up at a boarding school, Hailsham, and the close friends who share her journey in both body and soul. Ruth (Keira Knightly) has been her best friend since they were children, however she is an unusually spoiled girl who takes advantage of Kathy's kindness. In the middle of all this is Tommy (Andrew Garfield) who goes with Ruth while secretly longing for Kathy. The story is entirely from Kathy's perspective though we at no point doubt the sincerity of her narration. Separated for years, she reunites with Tommy, but is it too late?

The beauty of the book, and indeed the movie as well, is that while the subject matter may be science-fiction the actions are incredibly realistic. Book shelves and movie houses view sci-fi as something involving aliens or supernatural powers (clearly fantasy). It seems most of what you find is now Fantasy, with Science Ficiton going the way of the buffalo (or a Philip K Dick novela). Wikipedia defines science fiction as "dealing with the impact of imagined innovations in science or technology, often in a futuristic setting. It differs from fantasy in that, within the context of the story, its imaginary elements are largely possible within scientifically established ... laws of nature". It is in this truest sense of the word that "Never Let Me Go" resides. I can't imagine seeing it in video stores sharing the same space as "2001: A Space Odyssey" or "Star Trek". Instead, it focuses on the reality and questionable humanity of science and human beings.

Mark Romanek's primary art is music video and it is with that knowledge that he captures the subtle emotions that his actor's give him. Where other director's may be more comfortable with quick cuts or master shots, Romanek lingers. He creates truly unsettling images of nothing more than a face, albeit a face in pain. The soundtrack is sparse and subtly supports the loneliness our characters feel.

Mulligan and Garfield give subtle and pained performances that are certainly deserving of nominations come award season. In a particularly brilliant scene, the trio embark on a road trip to see an old ship stranded on the beach. Tommy has never lost the curiosity of his youth and runs to the ship while Kathy and Ruth watch. He crawls over the bow all gangly arms and legs; pausing only to catch his breath, grinning from ear to ear. In the context of the film, the scene becomes even more haunting as the inevitability of their situation bares down on both them and the viewer.

Although I had read the book and therefore knew what the outcome of the story would be, I found myself close to bawling towards the end of the film. I can't remember the last night a movie effected me on such a primal level. In particular, I think I began to lose it when Kathy and Tommy, now together, search for a way to maintain their relationship in the face of certain desolation. It's impossible not to be moved. I loved this movie, but I'm afraid to watch it again. The next time I won't be in a packed movie theatre with the shame and embarrassment of actually crying out loud to keep me in check. It's a pain that feels so good yet is scary as hell. On the path to "completion", what is our purpose?

I would recommend this movie to any and everyone. It is a landmark in cinema as the book was to the publishing world. Dealing with universal themes of growing up, falling in and out of love, living up to responsibilities, and the acceptance of fate; it is sure to cause a cavalcade of emotion in any view. Bring a tissue. Actually, make that three or four.

22 September 2010

WWQTW?: Nowhere


I could not have been more nervous and excited to reveal the movie on Monday. For the most part, we have been watching classics (both new and old), and I thought it was about time to shake things up. The purpose of the club has always been to educate and expand the movie knowledge of its members. This month, I didn't just want to expand, I wanted their brains to explode! So, I screened one of my favorite movies of all time- "Nowhere" by Gregg Araki.

Released in 1997, "Nowhere" tells the interconnected stories of a group of teenagers living in Los Angeles. The action takes place in the 24-hours leading up Jujyfruit's party. The main character is Dark (played by the amazing and frequent contributor to Araki's films, James Duval). He is the quintessential existentialist; always worrying about the future, life, love, and himself. He's in love with Mel (Rachel True, "The Craft") but she's only in love with sex and she doesn't care where she gets it. Dark is equally confused when his masturbatory fantasies are invaded by new kid Montgomery (Nathan Bexton, "Go"). Dingbat (Christina Applegate- one of the best in the cast) is looking for love in all the wrong places. Egg (Sarah Lassez) falls for the charms of a famous heartthrob. Alyssa (Jordan Ladd) appreciates the kinky side of life with her boyfriend Elvis. Her twin brother Shad and his girlfriend Lilith (Ryan Phillippe and Heather Graham) fancy themselves anarchist's in the same vein of "Natural Born Killers". Cowboy (Guillermo Diaz, "Chappell Show") is looking for his drug addled boyfriend (Jeremy Jordan, "Never Been Kissed"); and a very young Mena Suvari is looking for the party with her boyfriend (and Mel's brother).

Cameos abound with Gibby Haynes of rock band Butthole Surfers plays jujyfruit; Rose McGowan (also in Araki's "The Doom Generation"), Traci Lords, and Shannon Doherty are a trio of Valley chicks; Christopher Knght and Eve Plumb from "The Brady Bunch" play some parents (Araki seems obsessed with the Brady's, referencing them in several films); John Ritter is a televangelist; and Beverly D'Angelo is Dark's mom.
[side note: In my dream film where I pay homage to everyone I've ever loved, this recurring theme of casual, big name cameos will appear. As will direct references to this movie and "The Doom Generation". I love him that much.]

I don't remember exactly when I first saw this movie but I think I sought it out after watching "The Doom Generation". It introduced independent cinema to me in a totally new way. Previously, independent meant "Pulp Fiction" and "sex, lies, and videotape". Now, there was a filmmaker doing it for himself and showcasing subject matter I was more familiar with. Life isn't a John Hughes movie much as we wish it were. Instead actions have consequences. Sometimes it means your car gets high jacked by a trio of crazed hackers. Sometimes you stick your head in the oven. Sometimes you can't decide between two guys and wind up losing both of them. Sometimes it means you end up alone.

Araki has been the face of gay independent cinema for years, a title he would happily relinquish. A member of what a "New York Times" critic dubbed the New Queer Cinema, Araki was one of the first to address gay, bisexual, straight issues in the same breath. Furthermore, these characters where not ostracized from their peers. They were represented in a positive light free from cliche or stereotype. Actually, it might be more fair to say they were just as fucked up as any other character in the film! Blame it on my fairly young age or naivete, but it's hard for me to remember that this is a new concept; that gay culture was addressed in a derogatory tone. In an interview with the "Montreal Mirror", he says "I like to be thought of without any kind of adjective attached to it. A gay filmmaker, a Gen-X filmmaker, an Asian-American filmmaker--I'd just like to be thought of as a filmmaker. I don't make films to be thought of as a spokesperson or to toe any politically correct line. I approach films in the way a musician approaches music. It's just my means of expression, my chosen medium." However, it's impossible not to think about how his own experiences have influenced his "chosen medium". That being sad, I appreciate such a personal filmmaker who refuses to talk about his personal life. He's said all he has to say- It's on the screen.

Gregg Araki has never shied away from controversial subjects and visuals. His films usually address the misanthropy of youth that comes with being an outsider. His characters come from the sub-culture. They're gay, poor, violent, dumb, exceedingly smart, creative, lost, derelicts. There seems to be no shame to the actions performed by its characters. Most get away with murder, at least for a little while. One of my favorite scenes in "Nowhere" involves three Valley chicks waxing poetic (more like moronic) in complete oblivion to what is going on around them. Next thing we know, they've been zapped with a laser gun by a visiting alien (dead? abducted?). All that's left behind are their retainers. It's classic!

This movie is not for the faint of heart or prudes. It is a hard "R" and you will either love it or hate it. Unfortunately, it is not available of DVD so head to your local indie movie store or you can catch it on IFC. It's showing September 26th so check your local listings.

Recommended viewing: Also by Greg Araki The Living End, The Doom Generation, Mysterious Skin. Also Mallrats, Donnie Darko, All Over Me, Empire Records,

19 September 2010

The Devil's in the Details

**** (4 stars)

If the above statement is true, than "Devil" is a truly good scare. While leaving the advance screening last night, one of the organizers asked if M. Night Shymalan had redeemed himself. The answer is both yes and no. While the story and screenplay (with help from "Hard Candy" and "30 Days of Night" scribe Brian Nelson) really works; he didn't direct this feature and that's part of why it works as well. At a tight 80 minutes, Devil is half as long as Shymalan's usual fare. It's also less preachy than his normal work and focused more on scares and less on what I call the "Shymalan stare"- characters stare at each other, the distance, the floor, for what seems like hours. It's annoying. Instead, "Devil" is helmed by John Erik Dowdle who previously remade "Quarantine" ([Rec]- Spain 2007).

The mythology of "Devil" is pure Shymalan- The Devil sometimes come to Earth to collect the souls of the wicked, starting with a seeming accident and ending with the death of one victim's in front of their loved one. To quote "The Usual Suspects", "...and with that- poof- he is gone". Enter our cast of misfits who, if you've seen the trailer I'm not spoiling anything here, get trapped in an elevator OF DOOM!!!!

The cast is well rounded with seasoned character actors from both the big and small screen. Chris Messina ("Julie & Julia") plays the lead detective on the case along with security guard and narrator Jacob Vargas ("Jarhead"). Trapped in the elevator is a mishmash of vagrants- Bokeem Woodbine ("Saving Grace") is a security guard at the building, Logan Marshall-Green ("Dark Blue") is the loner, Geoffry Arend (I call him Mr. Christina Hendrix) is the sleazy salesman, Bojana Novakovic ("Drag Me To Hell") the hot chick, and Jenny O'Hara ("Big Love", "Mystic River") is the creepiest old lady known to man. They all have secrets and it's only in uncovering them that they might save themselves. But, you know what they say about playing a game with the devil...

The movie keeps you guessing until the end with a twist that reminds you of "The Sixth Sense". I thought I knew what was going to happen until I was pleasantly surprised each time it changed direction.

The amazing Tak Fujimoto kept the action tight and interesting within the confines of the elevator as only an award winning cinematographer can. He has shot all of Shymalan's films (you must admit, they all look wonderful) as well as "Silence of the Lambs", "Ferris Bueller's Day Off", "Gladiator", and HBO's "John Adams". The opening credits are ridiculous though and tried far too hard to be clever. It's like Shymalan was in the room when they were put together. Don't listen to him!!

Much of the fun we had (thanks ladies for coming with me to a midnight screening on a weekday!), was the audience. The theatre was packed and everyone was involved. At one point, we were all yelling at a character who decides to investigate a noise he heard in the dark. Instead of yelling "No", I yelled "Walk into the dark!". Everyone laughed. Movies like this require a theatre audience and more importantly, an audience who gets involved.

If you love horror, suspense, and yelling at the screen you must see "Devil" while it's in theatres.

15 September 2010

The Extra Man

***** (5 stars)

Last night word-of-the-day Jennie and I went to an advanced screening of "The Extra Man" starring Kevin Kline and Paul Dano. There is nothing more exciting than a free movie, except when that movie isn't even out yet or if the theatre has Coke Icee's. Yum...Icee...

Anyway, the movie is hilarious! Not only were we laughing (pretty par for the course regardless of what movie we're seeing), but the whole theatre was laughing as well. At a few points it was almost annoying as the laughter drowned out the dialogue. Better that than stunned silence though, I always say.
"The Extra Man" is about nebish and sexually confused Lewis Ives (Dano)- English Literature teacher and wayward loner. After losing his job, he moves to New York to pursue his passion for writing and ends up renting a room from fellow teacher Henry Harrison (Kline), who may or may not be insane. Harrison fancies himself a gentleman in the fashion of an F. Scott novel and offers his services as an extra man. Not to be confused with a gigolo ("Don't be crass"), an extra man provides wit, charm, and companionship in return for invitations to society parties, trips to Florida, and nice meals.

The dynamic between the two actors is undeniably entertaining. Dano looks like he may implode at any moment, his frail frame carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. His awkwardness is almost painful to watch. By contrast Kline is a proud, stand up straight, sort of guy. He never pretends to be less than a bit unstable and particular, but it's always in an oddly charming sort of way. Watch for John C. Reilly as the (if possible) more eccentric downstairs neighbor and Tony Award winning actress Marian Seldes (fun trivia- she taught Kevin Kline while at Julliard) as billionairess Vivian Cudlip.

The only weak link for me is Katie Holmes, a fellow writer and proud vegan at the green journal where Lewis takes a job. Who dressed her? I mean, it's nice to see someone wear the same outfit twice in a movie (it's refreshing actually), but she is so stereotypically kookie New York it's painful. She appears to only have two emotions- wide-eyed surprise and wide-eyed confusion. What's worse is you know what she was trying to attain, a sort of innocence and ingenue status, but she never quite delivers. She doesn't just chew the scenery, she chomps down.

I don't want to give too much away. There are twists that must be seen to believe. I will say it is a must watch for fans of comedy, idiosyncratic behaviour, and cleverly intriguing story lines. You will not be disappointed!