A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Never Let Me Go” (2010) 8.23.15

I’ve been anticipating revisiting this film for quite some time as soon as I saw it listed several months back as part of Oregon’s only student run non-profit cinema’s summer lineup. I thought it’d be a perfect choice for my meetup.com movie group as the members of the group have a rather vast taste in cinema and from what I remembered upon seeing it just about 5 years or so ago now, and more than almost any other film that’s come out in the years that have gone by since, admittedly was very little. Though what I do remember was being incredibly moved by the picture and it’s “meta-exercise” in that it blended Science Fiction, romance, and drama all in equal measure. That and it’s directed by the famed British director Mark Romanek, more known in his native country for being a very well-known music video and choreographer, until he delved into the world of film with 2002’s excellent but disturbing “One Hour Photo” with Robin Williams, which showed that he had a deft hand behind the camera in the feature film format as he did in music videos and commercials. That, and it was co-written by the know well-known author turned screenwriter turned director Alex Garland, who recently wowed audiences with his directorial debut – this year’s “Ex Machina”. Featuring a cast of mostly then young British actors Andrew Garfield, Carey Mulligan (pre-“Drive”), and Keira Knightley (probably the most well-known of the crop upon its release), and supporting turns by Domnhall Gleeson (from “Ex Machina”), Andrea Risborough (Michael Keaton’s mistress in “Birdman”), the oh so very talented Charlotte Rampling, and 2-time Academy Award nominee Sally Hawkins (2008’s “Happy Go Lucky” and 2013’s “Blue Jasmine”). It’s a film littered with talent from almost every side – from its screenwriter to director to it’s amazing cast. And one that I was excited to revisit. particularly with a group of people from all age groups, many of whom had never seen it never mind heard of it.

The film takes its source material from the highly acclaimed novel by Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel of the same name. A very loose synopsis as I tend to like to provide with some of these older films for those of you who have already seen it as the plot begins at a prestigious boarding school called Hailsham, somewhere in the English countryside. It focuses on three life-long best friends who find themselves wrapped up in a love triangle; Kathy (Carey Mulligan) loves Tommy (Andrew Garfield), but Tommy is in a loveless engagement to Ruth (Keira Knightley). But as the film unfolds layer by layer, we come to find out that they may not have as much time left (here’s where the Sci Fi element plays into the picture) here on earth, as they once imagined they might have.

“Never Let Me Go” is easily director Mark Romanek’s best work. From a technical standpoint, Romanek does an excellent job unfolding the tale bit by bit, hinting and leading the viewer in, making them work for it in their understanding of the story. It’s filmed in lush frames and gorgeous shots of the English countryside. And has a sad, melancholy feel that perfectly suits the film’s story about the 3 young leads and their disposition once they find out that they’re merely clones. Or better put, organ donors who were selected at birth to only live into early to mid adulthood, whose life expectancy depends on how many “donations” they’re asked to give before they expire. It’s a tragic story, but whose 3 leads bring a certain authenticity and real raw human emotion to their roles. Particularly that of Garfield, who shows here why he’s become the actor that he is today (remember this is pre-“Social Network” where he was virtually unknown). Carey Mulligan, who I’ve had a soft spot for ever since her strong work in her breakthrough Academy Award nominated role in 2009’s “An Education” and 2011’s “Drive”). Knightley, probably the most “well-known” of the bunch, does a serviceable enough job here and is puts in one of her better performances that’s impressive even if it doesn’t quite match the other 2 leads of whom she plays off of. But what was and is still so interesting to me is how universal and philosophical the film’s story deals with that should tug at the heartstrings of almost any viewer. All of us think about mortality and when it’s going to be our own time to “expire”. But what makes the film so interesting is that each of its characters understand that they’re time is limited to their short lifespan of around 30 years. Sure it’s a theme that deals with the notion of knowing one’s own lifespan and the inevitably of death. But the way in which it handles these themes are done with heartfelt emotion and grace. This is a film that will not please all audiences as its tone may be too melancholy for some and it themes exploring things we often don’t like to think about (i.e. our own mortality). But within it contains great direction and a screenplay by Garland that’s handled with care and sincerity. Never mind it’s 3 leads in Knightley, Garfield, and Mulligan, all of whom bring their A game and who being relatively unknown actors at the time, showcase their talent and prove why they’ve all become sought after young actors in Hollywood. This film moved me more this time than it did upon its initial screening, and in my humble opinion, it’s a master work in it’s 3 major components in the writing, directing, and acting fields. This is one that will linger on with me in the weeks to come and will for ever be remembered, despite it being somewhat underseen and underappreciated at the time of its release, as a stunning achievement and a reminder of what I value about certain films within cinema that are not only relatable but that we can find something ourselves within in it while viewing them.

[B+]

Never Let Me Go – Starring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, and Andrew Garfield

Sunday, Aug 23, 2015, 3:00 PM

5th Avenue Cinema
510 SW Hall Street Portland, OR

5 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

The combination of heart-wrenching drama, romance, and dystopian sci-fi that is Never Let Me Go is easily director Mark Romanek’s best work. The film is an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s highly regarded novel of the same name. The plot begins at a prestigious boarding school called Hailsham, somewhere in the English countryside. We focus on three l…

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A Trip To The Movies – Review: “A Most Violent Year” 3.29.15

I can think of at least three people I know, that had seen this film prior to my seeing it, and all three had the same thing to say about it – “I really liked it, but I think it would be something that you would love“. I didn’t quite know what to make of the comments other than mostly everyone I know knows that I have somewhat of a particular eye for film, and that my tastes seem to be a bit more aligned with independent or what some consider to be art-house films. So I interpreted this comment to mean that maybe it fell a bit on the artsy side of the film spectrum. Though people also know that I’m a big Oscar Isaac fan and consider him to be amongst the very best in the crop of young actors currently working in the film industry (the only two actors out there right now within his age bracket who are as good as him are probably Joaquin Phoenix and Jake Gyllenhaal). What I don’t think a lot of people know is how much of a fan I am of writer/director J.C. Chandor. Who’s maybe one of, if not the most promising up and coming young directors, who also happens to be pretty brand new to the film industry but whose two feature films prior to this one I really enjoyed. In 2011 he released “Margin Call”, a mostly overlooked and underappreciated film about one long night revolving around a group of business men and woman the night prior to the economic collapse of 2008. I was almost as equally impressed with his last film – 2013’s “All Is Lost” about a shipwrecked man played by Robert Redford (which deservedly garnered him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor). Then I saw the trailer for his latest film, this one, and started to think this guy might be one of the next true auteurs, because not only does he write and direct, but I began to start to realize that he may be the next true “genre” director as all of his films seemed to be entirely different then the one previous to it. Which is incredibly rare these days inside the studio system because a lot of directors (and there are several exceptions mind you) seem to make a hit film and then make subsequent films that don’t really deviate or stray away from the formula that originally worked for them. Chandor, like Bennett Miller (“Capote”, “Moneyball, “Foxcatcher”) seems to not really care about anything other than making high quality genre pictures. So when I heard that his newest film was a crime drama taking place in New York City in the early eighties to say my interest was piqued would be an understatement. Especially considering the number of people who said it was a very specific type of film for a very particular audience, that being someone like myself, my anticipation for it grew quite considerably.

“A Most Violent Year” centers around an immigrant, Abel Morales (played by Oscar Isaac), who lives in New York City circa 1981. Which we’re soon told was one of the most violent years for crime in the city’s history. Abel is a hard-working man who owns an oil business and who seemingly is trying to make a name for himself. At the beginning of the film one of Abel’s oil drivers is beaten down after an interstate hijacking. Abel’s wife, Anna (played by the ever so reliable Jessica Chastain), also his bookkeeper/accountant, comes from a Mob-like mentality family, as does the local teamster’s union reps, pressure Abel to fight violence with violence. Which puts him at a sort of inner conflict because he wants to be a business man and not a gangster. To top off his precarious situation with his business, he’s also informed by the local District Attorney (played by “Selma”‘s David Oyelowo) that he is being investigated for a number of different illegal activities that they think he is somehow involved with. Abel seeks council from his lawyer (Albert Brooks – great to see him back in tbe first role I’ve seen him in since “Drive”) in an upcoming deal he has lined up with a Hasidic owner of a local fuel oil terminal, which is the kind of deal that he’s been waiting an entire lifetime for. This deal is the major plot device that drives the story. But can he close it under the pressure of the number of oil competitors, a loving but seemingly untrustworthy wife, unreliable employees, teamsters union, and the District Attorney. Who with the exception of his loving wife, seem to be willing to do just about everything possible to stand in his way to try to make sure the deal doesn’t go through.

This was a brilliantly well made and executed film that defied my preconceived notions and wound up exceeding my expectations and then some. This is writer/director J.C. Chandor paying homage to the classic Hollywood gangster/crime family drama. Incorporating just about every element we’ve come to expect from the genre. The acting is also outstanding. Particularly from its two lead performances, in what felt like it should have been an Academy Award nominated turn by Oscar Isaac who is nothing short of exemplary, as well as Chastain, who wound up receiving a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress for her fine work here. Chandor does a masterful job at recreating the look of early 1980’s New York City, filmed in a brown/yellowish color palette (what I call “cigarette stain”) where everything looks broken down, dilapidated, and decaying. A look that I thought was perfect given the context of the film. In terms of feel it felt like some of the seminal films of the genre like Francis Ford Coppola’s first two “Godfather” films (complete with Isaac putting on his very best Al Pacino/Don Corleone impression), Brian DePalma’s “Scarface” (in terms of its underlying theme of an immigrant trying to become an opportunist in the pursuit of the American Dream), as well as some of the crime films of Martin Scorsese (though much more subtle). At times it felt like it shared more of a direct influence with David Michod’s “Animal Kingdom”, which also took a rather stark and bleak look at the decimation of a crime family. The major difference here is that unlike the Michod film, Abel is not a criminal in the same sense as the characters in that film were but rather becomes one as a mere byproduct of the turbulent times he lives in. I was also thoroughly impressed with its deft storytelling which had me thoroughly engaged from the opening credits through its final frame. Not once did I look down at my watch the entire time (which admittedly I’m sometimes guilty of doing even in other good films just to see how far along we are in the story). There was a tense underlying feeling of unease that permeated as the events that unfold give the film an almost paranoiac feel. Last but not least, don’t believe anything you hear about it being a bit of a slow-moving story with little to no actual violence leading some people I’ve heard go so far as to say they have a hard time even considering it being labeled an actual “crime” film. Well let me be the one to dispel those myths. It is very much a crime film, containing almost all, if not every component contained within the genre. Also, if by “slow” people mean a potboiler/nailbiter that takes its time telling its story than I’m sorry. You just may not have gotten the director’s intentions behind delivering the story in the way that he did. The violence may be sparse yes, but when it comes boy does it pack a wallop. I can’t even count on two hands how many times both my myself and the people around me gasped at some of the film’s more shocking moments (and there were plenty of them). This is writer/director J.C. Chandor’s best work to date, as was the case with its star, Oscar Isaac. It’s an old school, classic, crime drama, that if been given a proper release date of last year like it did almost everywhere else, it would have most likely wound up earning itself a spot on my list of the best films of the year. In a year where we saw a slew of director’s making their masterpieces, here is yet another one that deserved way more attention than it got, marking J.C. Chandor as the new poster boy of genre filmmaking.

[strong B+]

A Trip To The Movies – “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” 2.28.15

I’ll just flat-out start by saying this was probably the most highly original, inventive, and exciting film I’ve seen to have come along in a while. In fact, had it of come out last year, it wouldn’t most likely have, it would have, landed a coveted spot on my “best films of the year-end” list. What’s so interesting about this film is that it kind of came out of nowhere. In fact, I don’t even remember how I heard about it. Since I really don’t read any film news/review anymore that’s not where I took notice of it. I do however somewhat regularly look at cumulative scores and saw that this one was graded rather highly. Then I saw the name of the title and it piqued my interest. And merely based on that and that alone, plus seeing a tagline that it was “the first Iranian Vampire Western”, I thought to myself well at the very least this sounds interesting. What I “didn’t” know while watching it is that it’s an American film. Even though all of the characters in the film are Iranian actors who speak in the Persian language and it’s written and directed by an Iranian-American filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour who has lived in America for practically her whole life. Which is ironic because the film feels totally foreign, and different from just about any other American film I’ve seen, bringing us into a poor desolate land known as “Bad City” which feels like a world far, far, away when in actuality it was shot right here in the States in Bakersfield, California.

The film opens with an old man, Hossein, a heroin addict who seems to be at the end of his rope in terms of his addiction. The only saving grace in his life is the assistance of his son, Arash, who is at his father’s beckoning call because like most sons (at least that I know) does just about anything to save his father. Anyways, Hossein owes quite a bit of money to the local town drug dealer, Saeed (whose look seems to be taken straight from Ninja of the rave/rap African group Die Antwoord). Saeed takes one of Hossein’s prize possessions much to the chagrin of Arash. Saeed seems to be the focus of the story, at least for about the first quarter of the film, along with his hooker, junkie, drug partner Atti. But one night Saeed happens to stumble across a young woman, called simply “The Girl”, that follows him to his apartment, which in that point in the story it shifts gears completely and this “girl” or young woman of whom I speak of becomes the central focus of the story. What’s even more notable is that said woman is a vampire, who goes around town wreaking havoc but does so with a conscience. She seems to only prey on the weak, sick, and degenerate members of society. It is by this chance encounter between the town drug dealer Saeed and the girl whom Arash crosses paths with, which involves the major subplot of the story, one that mirrors the one from “Let The Right One In” (2008) and the American version “Let Me In” (2010). But don’t be fooled, besides the reference, it’s undeniably unique enough (not to mention they’re adults and not children) to separate itself from those films. It is through their relationship that the rest of the story unfolds, and all of the characters previously mentioned are reintroduced back into (or out of, depending on how you want to look at it) the story.

As you can probably already tell by my comments at the beginning of my review I absolutely loved just about every aspect of this film. There is just so much I want to talk about that I feel like I would be doing it a great injustice to leave any of them out. But for the sake of not writing a novel, I will try to keep it to just the key elements of the film in which I really liked. First off was its stunning black-and-white cinematography. I’ve always thought a film is better when shot in black-and-white. As it takes the viewer away from the color palette and allows the images to speak for themselves. In this film this approach works brilliantly as it’s maybe the best looking black-and-white film since as far back as I can remember. This format also gives this chilling, noirish tale a look of authenticity that works perfectly given the content of the story. It’s also about as stylishly shot from a design angle and has a look and sometimes feel of an old Jim Jarmusch film (especially in the hipster department). The cool, sleek, and cold feel and tone matches the images on-screen magnificently. Another thing I think is important to point out, is that for a movie with this much style (Quentin Tarantino came to mind for me at times) it’s also loaded with substance. The central story and the many shifts in character arcs make it completely and utterly compelling from start to finish. There’s also a great “meta-ness” to the whole affair. While it certainly is a horror film at heart it also combines elements of film noir, westerns, comedy, drama, and romance. All genres that are balanced quite well considering how dense of a film it winds up being. The last thing I think that’s important to point out is that there is scene after scene of sheer beauty that seem like they have the potential to be iconic movie history (an example would be the dancing scene between John Travolta and Uma Thurman in “Pulp Fiction” (1995) – but imagine not just one but several scenes like that). Which had me looking up the screen with a shit eating grin for practically the entire film, so engaged by the style, story, and characters that I had to pass up a bathroom break in fear that I was going to miss whatever was next. This is hands down the most unique, stylish, and fresh take that breathes new life into what is otherwise a tired genre, that being the vampire film. It’s only two months into the year and this one has already secured a spot on my top 10 list of 2015.

[A-]