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 – “Eden” 7.4.15

I thought of starting this review out to reflect something I said awhile back in another. I started by saying something to the effect of “it should be by way of some sort of miracle that I happened to stumble upon this film”. And that’s the first thought that entered into my brain after the house lights came on after having seen Mia Hansen-Love’s (the French 34-year old writer/director who’s married to a little known guy by the name of Olivier Assayas) latest film. All I really knew was that it had been selected, screened at, and opened to quite a bit of positive praise at many of this past year’s most prestigious film festivals. That and it touted itself as being THE most quintessential film about the electronic music scene to date.

The film was co-written by writer/director Love’s real life brother, Sven, about his experiences as a successful music DJ/Producer who practically lived through what many electronic music fans would undoubtably agree was the hey day of electronic music, particularly that of the House/Disco scene that was coming out of Europe in the early to mid nineties and lasted for the next 20 years. It revolves around its central character, Paul (Felix de Givry, in what was my first introduction to him as an actor), a late teenager in early nineties Paris, France. Paul and his friends are stuck in a time where the electronic music scene, particularly in Europe, where the music seemed to really be taking off with artists like the Godfathers of House music, Daft Punk (who are featured regularly throughout the film as fictionalized versions of themselves and in the film’s soundtrack). Paul and his friends live, breathe, eat, and sleep electronic music. The scene is going through what some may call a rebirth or revitalization, and Paul and his fellow music friends seem to live for any single chance they can get to attend any of Paris’ many underground electronic events that take place each and every weekend. It’s not long before Paul and one of his fellow electronic music fans start to aspire to be on the other side of the dance floor and become DJ’s themselves. He forms a duo called “Cheers” and their events start to spread throughout Europe via word-of-mouth and ultimately to the States. The film goes on to explore these two decade plus years of Paul and his mates as they go on to become to be internationally recognized figures while also giving us a complete and comprehensive overview of what their experiences were like, the highs and lows, and trials and tribulations of being successful DJ’s at the time when the scene was exploding and experiencing a burgeoning renaissance.

What can I say about this film other than it was nothing short of both incredible and astonishing. As a devoted lover of electronic music this film felt like the ultimate love letter to not only myself, but to legions of fans around the world as it just could possibly be the most accurate and comprehensive look at a pivotal moment in history within the genre. Then there’s the character of Paul (played remarkably by Felix de Givry) who literally grows up before our eyes. From his young days as a late teenager transitioning into adulthood in his twenties, to the 20 year period that followed where he immerses himself into the world of electronic music. At times I got hints of Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” as we follow Paul for on his 2 decade plus journey through the music that runs through every moral fiber of his body. We see how his commitment to his passion affects his family, his continuous failed relationships (one of which is with the great American actress Greta Gerwig, who plays a small but important role in Paul’s life), to his struggles with cocaine addiction. And what becomes an underlying subplot that I personally could relate to in being  so passionate about something that it becomes difficult to break away from it. Change doesn’t come easy for any of us, and in the context of this film, neither does it for Paul. As the world seems to grow and change as time goes by, so do the people around Paul, except his commitment to his love and work doesn’t really  allow for much in terms of personal growth. This was just one in a film that explored a number of many other brilliantly explored subplots. Making Paul’s rise to an internationally renowned DJ/Producer feel like an expert character study of a man that’s so committed and dedicated to his life’s work. That when the party starts to fade away and the scene begins to change, like anything in life, Paul isn’t quite sure how to change along with it. This all bolstered by an excellent soundtrack of House (or as Paul would call it “Garage” music – i.e. House + Disco) music as well as some more contemporary electro tracks. As a music fan overall but especially an electronic music aficionado, this is the best collection of songs put to screen from the genre since Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting” (1997) soundtrack almost two decades ago. Lastly, what I’ll end on saying is this – what I love most about the art of film is when you can see part of yourself mirrored in it and come to a greater understanding about who you really are through the eyes of another director’s lens. And it becomes intimately personal. Then you know you’ve just lay witness to something spectacular. Which is exactly how I felt walking out of this film. The film’s message to me was clear and something that all of us either have or could relate to at some point, which is letting go of the person we saw ourselves as in our youth and accepting the permanent person that we’ve become. It’s a cathartic, self-revelatory, and utterly rewarding experience. And a film that ranks up there with this year’s best right alongside “Ex Machina” which should bode well and wind up as a serious top 5 contender come my end of the year best of list.

[A-]

A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “The Terminator” (1984) 5.3.15

This film officially wrapped up the end of the series of films at one of my local area theaters who showed several Science Fiction classics throughout the month of April. All of which (with the exception of “Blade Runner” (1982) which I chose the original “Alien” (1979) over as the two were playing on the same night) that I got to see on the big screen. Which has become a new passion of mine in revisiting some of the older classics for the first time in the theater. I’ve added several Sci Fi classics to my “bucket list” and it was some of the most fun I’ve had at the movies in quite some time. In this past month plus some I saw Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), as mentioned above, Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979), James Cameron’s “The Terminator” (1984), James Cameron’s (x2) “Aliens” (1986), and the recently released “Ex Machina” (2015). Alex Garland’s cerebral head trip which wound up being the best Sci Fi film I’ve seen since Duncan Jones’ groundbreaking “Moon” (2009).

I have to admit the “Terminator” franchise is one of my least favorite Science Fiction ones as I remember watching them as a kid, and while I admired the second one, I really never could find myself getting into any of the subsequent sequels. Similar to how I felt and still feel about the “Alien” franchise after its second installment. That and to be perfectly honest, I don’t even really remember seeing the first “Terminator” except for maybe bits and pieces when I was a just a young lad. And in thinking back my reason for not doing so probably had a lot to do with the fact that I saw the films out-of-order, with the second one first, then the third, and fourth. Since I didn’t much care for parts 3 or 4 seeking out the first one wasn’t necessarily high on my list. At least in my more formative years. Though since then, in becoming a student of film, I’ve come to learn that the original is highly regarded in many film circles to be one of the all time classic entries into the Sci Fi genre. So I thought to myself I should make it a point to check it out, now that I look at films analytically, to see if it earns the moniker of being up there with the all time greats like some of the ones mentioned above.

James Cameron’s debut film is a dark, dirty, post-apocalyptic vision of the future that seems very much influenced by the many films of the genre that came before it. Films like John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York” (1981) and Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) both seem like direct influences on it in terms of look and style. Except where those films were much brainier, Cameron seems to change the playing field a bit here. Not really caring much for character or plot, he appears to be much more interested in style and sheer entertainment value. As there’s not really much on display here in terms of any kind of narrative. What’s different, and done quite I should add, is his ability to bring an almost new kind of kinetic energy to the genre. His ability to engage the audience while keeping the cat and mouse plot moving along from scene to scene is really the film’s greatest strength. In relation to some of the other big-budget pics of the genre, this film in especially feels more sadistic, but with a certain playfulness about it with its splatter-violence and singular vision that I call “cyber punk”. In terms this vision I speak of it breaks new ground in the genre with its seeming admiration for over the top violence and energy. Something I hadn’t been privy to of some of the more contemporary films of the genre up to that point in film history. It’s maybe the most visceral and action packed genre picture for its time.

There’s also the flat-out bad acting but which actually suits itself well to a story that doesn’t seem one bit concerned with how the actors come across but based much more around visual style and hyper violence. Arnold (Ahnuld) Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton read their lines like they’re reading off of a teleprompter (though to his credit Schwarzenegger has maybe only a dozen or so lines in the entire film). The best thing about it acting-wise was the other cyborg sent from the future played by Michael Biehn, who gives some life into what is otherwise a pretty laughable script. Though at times I felt like it reveled in the irony of its poorly acted script. The Schwarz seems perfectly cast as his bland facial expressions, thick accent, and Frankenstein body language suits itself rather well to the role of a menacing cyborg. Hamilton on the other hand is more of a feast for the eyes, as she clearly seemed to be cast more for her gorgeous looks (lucky you Cameron) than for her acting chops.

What I will conclude by saying, is that while “The Terminator” is considered to be a master work and essentially the platform for starting James Cameron’s career. It also marks the turn of big budget Sci Fi going for a more action packed, style over substance, entertainment thrill ride approach. Which for the most part it succeeds in doing. Its influence is embedded in several Sci Fi films that proceeded it. As did its kitschy one-liners (“I’ll be back”). But for all of its nicely looking visual splendor and style it feels devoid of the brainer elements that I’ve learned to love from the genre. So for that mostly personal reason, it wound up being fun to watch and critique. But in terms of its place as being considered one of the “the greatest” Sci Fi films to me it barely makes the cut. That aside, I could still sit back and both admire and understand why its considered such an important work for its time.

[strong B]

A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Ex Machina” 4.18.15

Ex Machina - Original UK Quad

I suppose it was just a matter of time before novelist turned screenwriter Alex Garland made his directorial debut. Having been in the business for fifteen years now Garland was first introduced to the film industry when his novel, “The Beach”, was adapted in 2000 by a little known guy named Danny Boyle. Boyle would hire Garland to write the screenplay for his next film, “28 Days Later” (2002), which basically was the screenplay and film that was solely responsible for every zombie movie or TV show to come after it. The two would collaborate again in 2007 in what’s still one of my favorite Science Fiction films of the aughts – “Sunshine” (2007), a mostly under-seen, overlooked, and under-appreciated effort except for many film critics and die-hard Sci Fi fans like myself. A mere three years later, and Garland would once again pen the screenplay for another innovative music video turned feature film director, Mark Romanek, in 2010’s brilliant “Never Let Me Go”. Garland has mostly remained relatively dormant for the past five years or so, except for writing the screenplay for the mostly forgettable “Dredd” remake (2012). When this film first caught my attention it was because it was Garland’s first foray into writing and directing. And well, given his track record up to this point in his career as a screenwriter, I quickly took note of it and put it on my list of upcoming movies to see. Especially because after having seen the trailer I thought to myself it could be something that had the potential to be a new and fresh entry into the Sci Fi genre. Which in my opinion, next to maybe horror, is the single most difficult genre to create something original because like horror, often times the genre has a tendency to rehash something that we’ve already seen. That and as anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows that I am becoming more and more of an Oscar Isaac fan, who by the looks of it, seemed to play a pretty considerable role in the film.

The movie begins by introducing to a computer programmer, one of those brainy types who writes code named Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson from last year’s “Frank”, also coincidentally Brendan Gleeson’s son, who starred in “28 Days Later”). He’s shown in front of a computer at work, and the director sets up a nice establishing segment where his co-workers are muted in the background, but through a series of text messages and them circling in around him clapping, we find out that he’s won something big. That something is a week long trip out to the very exclusive home (or compound if you want to call it that) of the once 13-year old scientific prodigy who’s now somewhere in his forties. A CEO named Nathan (played by Oscar Isaac) who wants him to participate in an experiment shrouded in secrecy. After a long helicopter trip over a beautiful lavish mountain range (“wow these mountains are beautiful” Caleb asks the helicopter pilot who responds “yes Nathan has done very well for himself”) which tips off the audience to how wealthy and powerful of a man Nathan really is (a guy with the prominence of say a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates) Caleb soon after is dropped off in the middle of nowhere and once at the compound, he meets the rather eccentric and reclusive Nathan, who explains to Caleb he will be involved in a series of tests with a specially designed AI (artificial intelligence) android specimen he’s created named “Ava” to conduct a “Turing test” (interestingly enough a film was made just last year about how the Turing tests came to be in “The Imitation Game” where Benedict Caumberbatch played Alan Turing, the man ultimately responsible for their creation). These tests measure a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable, from that of a human (a theme clearly inspired by the granddaddy of all Science Fiction films – Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) ). Through a series of “sessions” (as the title cards display on the screen) both Caleb and Ava form a friendship that at first seems solely for experimental purposes, but one that develops into something greater as the series of sessions progress. This is the central core of the story and as it develops, the plot takes a number of twists and turns particularly as Ava’s creator Nathan gets more and more involved in how he wants things, and tries to make every effort to ensure, that his “experiment” has the desired effect he seems to set out to achieve. With both Caleb and Ava have agendas of their own.

This was a deeply thought-provoking and heady Science Fiction film, chock full of existential ideas and themes that had my “thinking cap/light switch on” from its first frame to its final one. Garland proves here that he is just a strong a director as he is a writer. Filming the movie (with the exception of the very beginning, the entire film takes place at Nathan’s compound) from the inside looking out. He does an excellent job at reeling the audience in to a very specific type of environment. The compound is filmed exquisitely using an impeccable lighting design of mostly neon lit colors along with a sterile environment, an environment that looks like something only someone like Steven Soderbergh could pull off, with both the framing and film composition looking extravagant. Much should be said for the breathtakingly believable android Ava played by Alicia Vikander. If people thought Spike Jonze did an excellent job at recreating a robot’s “voice” to sound believable in 2013’s “Her”. This movie one ups it and shows an android who in the flesh, is the most realistic looking adroid we’ve seen since films like “Blade Runner” and more recently, Steven Spielberg’s take on AI in “Artificial Intelligence” (2001). Gleeson shines here as his relationship with Ava comes across acharmingly authentic and thoroughly engaging. A relationship that was so convincing one might only imagine their own selves taking the same course if they were put in Caleb’s shoes. Ava is so human-like mentally, physically, and emotionally that the film ponders the question of whether or not a machine can be made to be more real than that of a human (drawing similarities to the computer program HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) ). Oscar Isaac puts in yet another great performance as what I referred to after the film as the “mad scientist”. He shows many colors and shades of his character as the film progresses, and through the audience’s constant second guessing of his motivations and agendas is a big compliment to the way in which his character is written. The film also contains a deeply haunting and atmospheric score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury of the famed trip-hop group Portishead that blends itself in perfectly with the picture. This being their first foray into feature film composition. The music was just as impressive as anything Atticus Ross or Trent Reznor have done with the last three David Fincher films.

This wound up being a very rewarding entry into the Science Fiction genre which in my opinion, was the most well constructed and perfectly executed Sci Fi film since Duncan Jones’ “Moon” (2009). As the film takes on many different shapes and forms throughout combining elements of everything from heady Science Fiction, to full-blown thriller, teetering at times in borderline psychological horror. Which is accessible enough to please both indie/art house and commercial audiences alike. This marks a monumental directorial debut for Alex Garland, who I can’t wait to see what he has up his sleeve next, which also happens to be the best film I’ve seen so far this year that should and will be talked about for years to come.

[A-]