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 (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Post Tenebras Lux” (“Light After Darkness”) (2012) 5.17.15

I noticed that this film was playing at a theater in town of which I think I talked about in a couple of other reviews. It’s Oregon’s “only student-run cinema” that shows films that are a bit different, avant-garde, art house, whatever you want to “label” them as. I personally always get excited when they announce their upcoming lineup each term of the school season, and I even mark a calendar for what films I plan to see. They’ve opened me up to a lot of new experiences with movies I would have never heard of if it hadn’t have been for them in the 8+ years I’ve been living in Portland. I was particularly interested in this one. As after having seen the trailer before another film I saw their recently, Harmony Korine’s brilliant and misunderstood “Spring Breakers” (2013), they showed a trailer for it where I learned a couple of things. For one, it won the “Best Director Award” at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival in Mexican writer/director Carlos Reygadas 4th trip to Cannes. It’s an award of the utmost highest prestige for any filmmaker, and one that certainly has some clout (just the year prior, Nicolas Winding Refn won for “Drive”). I’ve always felt like Cannes is especially good at choosing projects in certain categories, and knowing my love for directors and the “auteur theory”, this caught my attention. As it looked to be one of those sprawling films takes place all over the world and didn’t really have any kind of narrative thread that I could tell of, at least by the film’s trailer. It also stated that it evoked the works both the great American director Terrence Malick as well as Hungarian director Bela Tarr. Anybody that knows me knows that my affinity for both of these directors runs deep, particularly that of the former, so at the very least, I knew I was in for something that at the very least would be worthwhile from a challenge the moviegoer point of view.

The film starts off with a little girl (the real life daughter of Reygadas) playing on a farm on the verge of a thunderstorm with cows, horses, and dogs circling around her. She’s shown looking around in a state of marvel or wonder at the “life” she sees going on all around her. It’s the first in a sequence of loosely edited together “fragments” or sequences within the film. From here things go from strange to stranger, as we are introduced to several vignettes of different segments in which the viewer kind of has to connect the dots in order to make any kind of sense of what they’re watching (and just as a disclaimer – I don’t mean this as a bad thing). An AA meeting of some sort takes place, which quickly soon after jumps out of Mexico to England, where the camera brings us into a boy’s locker room as they prepare for a rugby game, to a Lucifer-like, red animated Devil figure with a toolbox who seems to be making house calls of some sort (the film is rich with ambiguous symbolism), to a bathhouse, where the little girl mentioned above’s mother and father, the two central characters of the film – Juan and Natalia partake in some rather deviant sexual activity. From there the film mostly carries on in this fashion. With Mexican villagers climbing the film’s gorgeously shot countryside (it quickly becomes apparent why Reygadas won the coveted Best Director prize) to scenes involving Juan and his nuclear family, and both back to the Lucifer-like hellish character, and finally back to the English boys playing rugby to act as the film’s rather loose and open-ended climax (if you even want to call it that) of the film.

This was somewhat of an endurance test even for someone like myself who (without sounding boastful) is a bit more versed in what people consider art house cinema than most. The film comes across as a sort of “expressionist” painting, which leaves us as a viewer, the audience, to try to make sense of what it’s trying to say. The first thing that was striking, at least to me, was the way in which the aspect ratio of the film was shot. Imagine those old “home movies” from the sixties that you see in films or on TV that show just a small square in the middle of the screen. Well, the entire film is shown in this ratio, apparently known as 4:3. Apparently done to achieve a look with a clearly framed center. But (and this is a tab bit hard to for me to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it) with the outside of the square box shown in distortion like you’re looking at something through a foggy glass window. This gives it the expressionist feel in which I spoke of above.

Now here’s my major critique of the film and my critique of film’s that are simply art for art’s sake in general. Without any sort of narrative arch or development of any of the characters within the story, I found it almost “too” abstract and too challenging to make any sort of sense of what was going on. Sure the cinematography was rather impressive, and I genuinely did enjoy what I made out to be the film’s rich symbolism when taken its fragmented scenes and tried to put them together. What did each character represent though, and what was the film trying to say? Even for a hardcore art house film enthusiast such as myself, I found that I was constantly questioning why the director consistently transported us from one location to the next, without any outward meaning or semi explanation at least on a surface level. I’ll end by saying that I’m a big fan of the Swedish art house director of Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007), who may be the greatest filmmaker within the art house genre of all time. But even despite his loose interpretations and symbolic leanings, there was always, even with Bergman’s more artistic endeavors, I always felt like there was some semblance of understanding on my part. Which, despite of the undeniably impressive cinematography on display here, the interpretation seemed like that of a Rorschach Test, and admittedly, there has to be a point somewhere in where I draw the line, which wound up being the case with this film.

[C+]

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+]

Review: ‘Cold in July’ 9.13.14

I’ve grown quite fond of director Jim Mickle over the past couple of years. Really only having very recently seen both his 2006 debut – “Mulberry Street” and last year’s “We Are What We Are” (a surprisingly better remake of the 2010 Spanish film of the same name). Though admittedly I was a little disappointed with his 2010 film – “Stake Land” it still had its moments. That and I knew we were being introduced to a new kind of genre director. Perhaps a new horror director but with something very different to say. His films up to this had focused on a decaying city being overrun by toxic rats, a vampire hunter, and a family of cannibals. Though there have been several genre pictures of this kind. Mickle seems to have more of his own vision and puts a personal stamp on everything he does. Like with many great directors, you would almost know it’s a Jim Mickle film even if you didn’t know so going in and had seen any of his prior work. He is an auteur. But rather than be pigeonholed to one specific genre, Mickle here steps outside of his comfort zone to delve into an entirely different genre. A sort of genre hybrid. One that contains elements of film noir, crime, suspense, and thriller tropes.

We are first introduced to Richard (Michael C. Hall from Showtime’s “Dexter”). Richard is a quiet, reserved family man. Who at the very beginning of the film has to make a rather difficult choice in order to defend his family. Someone winds up dead. And this someone’s father, a man who goes by the name of Russel (played ruthlessly by the great Sam Shephard) wants revenge on the family of the man who killed his son. Richard’s paranoia increases over his own family’s safety after several run in’s with Russel, and after one specific incident, they are put into a kind of pseudo-Witness Protection program. The first act was more or less standard fare. But then things really start to pick up. Richard witnesses an act of police corruption, believes his family was set up and used as bait, and tells Russel that he doesn’t think it was his son who he killed and that it was all part of a cover up involving both the police and local Texas mafia. Then about halfway in we meet a man by the name of Jim Duke (played by the legendary Don Johnson), an outside detective from Houston, who comes in to work on the case. Things also seem particularly shady to him as well, and the 3 central characters then band up together to go and seek out the truth. By whatever means necessary.

Mickle does a great job here of tackling a new genre, one that acts out as an almost hybrid of sorts. It’s a gritty piece of pulp noir crime thriller. He does a great job of making sure the audience is constantly second guessing at the twists and turns that come up constantly at almost each and every corner of the film. His ability to wrack up the amount of tension and suspense that he does without letting go is nothing short of amazing. It also has a incredible original score, one that’s heavy on the synthesizer and sounds like something from early John Carpenter films like “Assault on Precinct 13” with hints of the excellent Cliff Martinez (“Drive”) scores of recent years. The pulsating, thunderous, driving beats of the score accentuate the story’s suspense and drama. Mickle’s 3 central actors – Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, and Don Johnson all come with the goods here. All three performances are particularly strong and none stand out above the other. What I can say too without hopefully giving too much away, is that its climax that had me gasping. The violence is someone restrained up to this point, but when the the end comes Mickle really brings the guns. I thought the last 15 minutes, which had elements of a great Western showdown, and reminiscient of something out of a Sam Peckinpah film, were some of the most tense, well shot and choreographed segments I have seen of any film this year. This one already has earned a spot on my top 20 films of the year so far. If this type of material sounds like something that you might be interested in I can assure you you won’t be disappointed.

Grade: B+

Review: ‘A Field in England’ 3.18.14

This was one of my top 10 most anticipated releases of this year. For those of you who don’t know I am a huge Ben Wheatley (‘Down Terrace’, ‘Kill List’, ‘Sightseers’) fan. I would say of all of the international filmmakers whose movies I look forward to most he would be in my top 3 along with Nicolas Winding Refn (The ‘Pusher’ Trilogy, ‘Bronson’, ‘Valhalla Rising’,’Drive’, ‘Only God Forgives’) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (‘Amores Perros’, ’21 Grams’, ‘Babel’, ‘Buitiful’). It had a lot of strong components, particularly the black and white cinematography which I thought lended itself nicely to the story which I believed took place during the Revolutionary War. Cinematically there was some unique camera framing and angles, an interesting use of an almost “strobe light” effect (there’s actually a disclaimer at the beginning that warns you if you have sensitive eyesight), and a solid musical score as it consisted mostly of what sounded like songs taken from that time period (either that or old Irish jigs) mixed in with some of Wheatley’s moody, almost haunting scores that he uses from film to film. As for the story itself, it involves a pack of Brits who basically band together and evade enemy forces in the opening scene. From that point they realize that one of them is actually a scholar who was sent out to find and rescue a nobleman. So that becomes their mission also with the hope that they might reach an alehouse (lots of nice puns surrounding that). Then about halfway in in usual Wheatley fashion it goes into absolute ape shit bonkers territory. I won’t reveal any spoilers, but what I will tell you is this…it involves eating hallucinogenic mushrooms and doing an unbelievable amount of crazy stuff. I had some degree of difficulty following what was going on, hence the lower grade below. So what I did was I began reading into other people’s interpretations of the film, not so much reviews, and correlated those who had the similar explanations or ideas to that of my own. After finishing it and reading those, I realized that maybe it was a brilliant film underlying that maybe I just didn’t look hard enough at. I also found out that Wheatley has said in multiple interviews that he intentionally wanted to make a film that would require repeated viewings on behalf of the viewer. So this film could get considerably better after another viewing or two. Still, worthwhile, especially if you have the slightest interest in one of the more innovative and incredibly unique auteurs on the film making spectrum today.

Grade: B-