Review: Never Let Me Go (2010)

Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day), with a script by Alex Garland, is a physically drab-colored but emotionally colorful take on a science fiction future we have, in reality, avoided (in some ways, so far). The performances by all the lead cast, as children and as adults, are complicated, restrained and ultimately unforgettable. It is no doubt one of the best films of 2010.

The film takes place from 1978 to 1994, but not our version of those years. In this film, some time after World War II, medical science advanced to the point that the creation of human beings solely to be used as organ farms for the rich became commonplace, and this development rapidly worked its way into ethics, practice, economy and politics.

Kathy H. (Carey Mulligan [An Education, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps]/Isobel Meikle-Small) narrates the tale of her life as one of these parentless children, and also follows the story of her two best friends, Tommy D. (Andrew Garfield [The Social Network]/Charlie Rowe) and Ruth (Keira Knightley [The Duchess]/Ella Purnell). They are raised and educated at Hailsham, an orphanage or boarding school which forms their entire childhood world.

Kathy is moonily but still seriously in love with Tommy, who, as a child, is bullied, has wild bursts of anger and quickly pairs off with Ruth, Kathy's best friend, when the pairing off begins with their adolescence. A scene in which Kathy listens to a song on a cassette tape bought for her as a gift by Tommy at one of the school's bittersweet broken-toy school bazaars--"Songs After Dark" by Judy Bridgewater, a fictional Petula Clark-esque torch singer/rocker--really tells a lot of the story all on its own. And what a great song, by legendary singer/songwriter Luther Dixon ("Sixteen Candles," "Baby It's You" and more), and performed here in character by jazz singer Jane Monheit.

At Hailsham, the children are pretty well taken care of by the staff, though the adults all know the secret the children only grasp partially for a long while. Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins) tries to spill the beans, but finds she's mostly speaking above the heads of her charges. Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling, strident), the school's headmistress, quickly has Lucy removed from her teaching position at Hailsham, and reassures the children that they are above-average and have a special destiny. She encourages the children to make art for the school's "gallery" (curated by Madame Marie-Claude [Nathalie Richard]), which is a glamorous name for a failed experiment, which yet lends credence to rumors.

The film raises questions of fascism, vampirism, caste, love, endurance and the human soul. Instead of working them out on a political or top-story level, it explores them through the individual stories of Kathy, Tommy and Ruth. In doing so, it raises some more questions, and provides human answers, not simple plot resolutions. The telling of the story itself is a protest against the given fascism of the characters' circumstances. In many ways the message of the film is that people's real stories and struggles are anti-fascist in and of themselves. There can be no triumphant Axis story of World War II which can coexist with The Diary of Anne Frank or Schindler's List, etc. That is, unless the Axis wins, and burns the books, and marches forward, as is implied with this story, bulldozing individual rights, freedoms and stories like this one.

But in creating this crushing, theoretical fascist society, the story of witness to horror is muted by the quotidian acceptance of the horrific circumstances by all the characters of the story. No one can see any way out. It's simply impossible, unthinkable, which tweaks our own view of life in our own societies, which we hope is more just. But what are we missing? Whose stories? Whose points of view?

Rachel Portman's simple, subdued themes fit perfectly and speak in the same dramatic language as the rest of the film. Cinematographer Adam Kimmel's washed-out, patinated colors bring a familiar cinematic Britain--drab, staid, rainy--together with a (conquered?) fascist Britain, as a polite-but-firm, structured killer of youth. Images of bleak, whimsical absurdity and inescapable imprisonment linger after the film is over--an oddly featureless bust in an alcove in Hailsham's walls--a bird indoors, perched on a teapot--a beached boat--Tommy's jangling, desperate artwork, which echoes Picasso, Henri Rousseau and Sendak--Kathy's small, spare, utilitarian apartment during her time as a "carer," or "donation" facilitator--tattered white cloth banners flapping on barbed wire. The juxtaposition of the boat on the beach with Kathy's reading of "The Tale of Sindbad the Sailor" from The Thousand and One Nights in the hospital perfectly captures the themes of stark desperation versus the lightness of freedom, flight, adventure, futurity which our heroes get to glimpse. Scheherazade staved off execution by telling these stories which last into this imagined alternate history to warm and salute these similarly trapped characters. Kathy is a Scheherazade, too. As Kathy, Tommy and Ruth's hopes flare, then flag, the audience is right there with them, through displacement, scars, reaching out, collaboration with attacks and indignities and labored breathing.

I really thought Never Let Me Go might be campy or, honestly, a failure, before I had seen it. The trailer made it seem kind of hokey, and I am not a fan of Romanek's previous feature, One Hour Photo, which, frankly, could give no one great hopes for a film with such grace and heart as Never Let Me Go. Nonetheless he made this one, too, and it's outstanding, just right. It's beautiful, nuanced, delicate and truly affecting, in a way that the similarly plotted Repo Men, also of 2010, was not. It has an apocalyptic wartime savoir faire like Children of Men, the great Alfonso Cuarón film and its basis, the stunning P.D. James novel, The Children of Men, or The Third Man. Seek it out and meet these characters in their predicament, which truly tells us some secret things about our own.

The Magic of the Movies


Sen. John Thune (SD) won't run for president in 2012

From the Washington Post:

South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune has decided not to run for president in 2012, saying he wants to remain in the Senate to fight for conservative principles.

"There is a battle to be waged over what kind of country we are going to leave our children and grandchildren, and that battle is happening now in Washington, not two years from now," Thune said in a statement. "So at this time, I feel that I am best positioned to fight for America's future here in the trenches of the United States Senate."

Thune had been weighing a run for national office for months. He recently spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, a gathering widely regarded as one of the first cattle calls of the 2012 fight.

He coulda been a contender, like Mike Pence. I think Thune was best positioned to take on President Obama, but I've been wrong before. I have now removed Thune from the GOP field page, and replaced his entry in this month's poll with "Other."

Choose Our President 2012


Review: Unknown (2011)

Jaume Collet-Serra's Unknown is a fast-paced, fun, tense Möbius strip of a movie. It's great to watch, fun to think about, talk about and see again. I saw it once again already. It changes with the light. Liam Neeson, January Jones, Diane Kruger, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella and Aidan Quinn are larger-than-life actors who live up to their legendary reputations here, with a tight script by Oliver Butcher & Stephen Cornwell, from the novel Out of My Head by Didier Van Cauwelaert (which I have not read), and really smart direction. Collet-Serra previously directed Orphan, which had a secret twist I didn't love. Unknown's is a cut above.

The film opens with a view of the sunrise above the clouds from an airplane over the Atlantic. We see a loving American couple, Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson), a botanist, and his wife, Liz (Jones), arrive in Berlin where Harris will attend a biotechnology summit.

Immediately there's trouble. Martin forgets his briefcase (maybe?) at the airport, and decides to return for it at once, without consulting Liz, who is already in the lobby checking in at their hotel, the Hotel Adlon, when he discovers the missing luggage and hails a cab for the quickest resolution to the problem.

The cab gets into an accident short of the airport, however, plunging into the water, where the cab driver, Gina (Diane Kruger, Inglourious Basterds), performs an amazing water rescue. But it kind of spoils the summit for Martin, who wakes up from a coma in the hospital, groggy and weak four days in. Nobody has been looking for him. All he remembers is that he is Martin Harris, and Liz is his wife.

The amnesia Harris experiences feels real and disorienting to the audience. We're learning about him along with him. The identification with Harris's point of view is so total that with every shot and line following its introduction, the audience knows exactly how he feels, and makes automatic assumptions the script takes advantage of to work genuine plot magic. We look here. We don't look there while we're looking here. What could we be missing? Quite a lot, actually, I thought, when I got a chance to think about it. When is a briefcase not a MacGuffin?

Not much is wasted here. What's interesting about amnesia? It's a sloughing of identity, a chance for a person to be someone else entirely, without preconceptions. The film plays this straight. I do not believe it cheats at all. What's interesting about the progress of amnesia? The remembering. This is handled expertly as well, beat by beat, so that even if it gets a little cheesy, it's fair and credible. Finally, what's interesting about an accident? Who gets tripped up, and who can play it to their advantage. (In this case, it's advantage genetically modified global death Frankencorn, but you can't have everything, and luckily in this case, we can pretty much have our corn and eat it, too [when it's done eating us].)

Liam Neeson's credibility as an actor is essential to the film's success. Maybe there are other actors who could have pulled off this part, but I wouldn't change him out for anything. He's committed, believable and sympathetic. In Unknown, whatever action he's engaged in, he looks like he's swigging bitter medicine. Let me throw in an extra bravo for Liam Neeson in a great action pic.

The supporting cast are essential as well. Jones is lovely, wistful and yet all business as Liz. Kruger as cabbie/waitress Gina plays a mysterious Bosnian refugee saving up for new papers so she can escape her underground life in Berlin, when she crashes into Martin's life and dilemma. Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella are pros who sink their teeth in. And Aidan Quinn is an able Martin Harris be-alike.

Unknown is the best movie of the year so far. Watching it again was kind of like watching The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects for the second time, with satisfying clues and secrets. It's like Finnegans Wake, it starts right over again when it's over. It comments sagely on the extreme egocentricity of terrorism. It's my favorite Liam Neeson starrer since Batman Begins. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did. If not, you could always blame the corn. But in all likelihood it will just growl and blame you right back, so keep a sharp eye out.

SPOILER ALERT! Click here for a spoiler-heavy addendum to this review, detailing my theory about what may really be going on in Unknown.

The Magic of the Movies


Review: True Grit (2010)

The Coen Brothers' True Grit, from the 1968 novel by Charles Portis, and following several film versions of the adventures of drunken rogue Deputy U.S. Marshal Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn, most notably 1969's with John Wayne's solid, and sole Oscar-winning role, is a modern Western with great performances, surprising humor, and real depth. (I read the novel long ago and shall revisit it soon.)

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld/Elizabeth Marvel) narrates this film, as in the novel, so I take it that the whole film should be viewed that way, that is, as dependent upon her point of view. Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) has killed her father. She finds the scariest man she can find to go after him, Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, last year's Best Actor for Crazy Heart). She aims to "see the thing done" and will go with him into the Indian Territory. Mattie's single-mindedness in her revenge quest is the defining feature of True Grit. Steinfeld plays it up, and is superb in her depiction of a headstrong young girl, idealistic, intelligent, morbid, righteous, outraged, civilizing, inevitable. Marvel is excellent and indispensable to this portrayal as well. No less than Steinfeld, she has to sell the irony of her telling her own at-times distinctly unheroic hero story like the Old Testament Book of Judges. Marvel's inflections, mannerisms and stark silhouette as the older Mattie have to bear the weight of prelude and coda to an outsized tale, and they do. This frame also creates much of the ironic humor laced throughout the film, in a few deft strokes providing multiple contrasts to events of the main plot.

When we first see Cogburn (his having been previously heard from), he's in Judge Parker's court in Fort Smith, Arkansas, around 1878, booming out details of a violent confrontation he had apprehending some thieves of the troublesome Wharton clan. He already looks like a legend, busted-up, eye-patched, red-nosed. He looks like a Hogarth cartoon of a diseased and deadly rogue. Mattie is entranced, and sold. She will have Cogburn by hook or by crook (or $50 ready cash, $50 upon the disposition of Chaney). Without the cash, as is repeatedly emphasized, nobody would be pursuing Chaney for the murder of Farmer Frank Ross of Dardenelle, Yell County. Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon, adding to a great year with Green Zone and Hereafter, excellent) is pursuing him on another matter.

The film this one is truly haunted by, like Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear or Michael Caton-Jones's This Boy's Life, is not the 1969 version of this story, but Charles Laughton's 1955 The Night of the Hunter, based on the 1953 novel by Davis Grubb, which also features themes of parental murder, deadly greed and banditry, unrelenting conflict between good and evil starkly drawn, and, yes, revenge.

Before this film has rightly started, the music starts, haltingly, on a piano, the melodic hymn Lillian Gish and Robert Mitchum duet on in the velvety crashing denouement of The Night of the Hunter, and it recurs, interspersed with arrangements of other popular American religious songs and hymns like "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and "Bringing in the Sheaves" as the reels unspool. The score is ingenious and mostly quite effective, but listen and see if there aren't a few times when you feel as I did that the use of these particular themes was just repetitive, or perhaps even counterproductive to its dramatic moment.

But while The Night of the Hunter concerned children orphaned by their own pious, thieving, murderous stepfather, fleeing his depradations into the wilderness, True Grit is about a child who flees her own home life to pursue the half-wit who killed her father, putting herself and (many) others in danger. She wants revenge, however ridiculous the efforts to obtain it may become. She's not forced into facing danger for her own self-protection like the innocent and younger children in Hunter. She writes to her mother that she is "about to embark on a great adventure." Mattie Ross is the relentless hunter here. And her quest is marked with similar piety and spooky resolve as what moves Robert Mitchum's Reverend Harry Powell. Later, there's another Night of the Hunter moment, a "flight of the children" when Cogburn and Mattie flee for her life. It doesn't take place on a boat, but astride a black pony, and its tree canopies, starry skies, night wonder sounds of croaking frogs and chirping crickets, and trance-like, hallucinatory rhythm and contrasts seem to reference this scene from the 1955 film fairly directly.

One of the chief pleasures of the film is the contrasting textures of Cogburn's (let's admit it) Karl Childers-esque Missouri-Arkansas bray with Mattie's more-literate Southern schoolgirl accent, LaBoeuf's Virginia-Texas drawl (sometimes with defects) or Lawyer Goudy's (Joe Stevens, "Medium," The Alamo [2004]) sneaky, smoky Texan Tennessee waltz on cross-examination. Candyce Hinkle also has a gracious real-Arkansan trill as the landlady of the Monarch Boardinghouse, and Barry Pepper's hoarse and harassed noble rasp as bandit king Lucky Ned Pepper is also eminently listenable. Make no mistake, this is a Southern Western. The film's dialogue is an admirable treasure trove of antiquated and regional American English usage, much of which is straight from Portis, as it was in the 1969 Grit, but moreso. Josh Brolin is a truly menacing psychopath played as a verbose and brutal Bluto. His pleas for a ride when horses are scarce are as pathetic as what follows, and it's ridiculous and believable at the same time. The Coens love a good Bluto (see Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, etc., there's even another one here in Paul Rae's wonderful minor gangster Emmett Quincy), and Brolin's Chaney is as dumb, amusing and frightening an iteration as they come.

All the little details, jokes, period technology, speech and attitudes--harsh realities of violence and survival juxtaposed with Mattie's Biblical idealism and pragmatic outlook--they all add up to a grand yet subtle entertainment. There is sometimes an unevenness of tone which seems almost an impossible-to-resolve consequence of the film's narrative framing. But tinker in one place, and it might upset or exacerbate some other difficulty of the intricate, and ultimately quite successful whole. I found this framing, faithful to the novel, to be indispensable. It firmly places this film as about the throes of a Wild West, and Mattie Ross's place in that. Watch also for a complex interplay of the use of items as both tools and weapons, especially ropes, knives, guns, the law, animals, people. Mattie helps kill the Old Southern West she adventures in by looking for justice in it, and she never stops, she just keeps twisting the knife by the rules she learnt there. There're good things and bad things about that, few easy, and they don't stop, either.

This is a great, grand, funny, smart and moving film, maybe the best Western since John Hillcoat's 2005 Australian play on Heart of Darkness, The Proposition. It's perfect in many ways, and I would not object to acting awards for Bridges, Steinfeld, Damon, Brolin, Barry Pepper or Marvel, or other awards, especially for the screenplay, fine-grained cinematography by the legendary Coens collaborator Roger Deakins, or the film overall. If you like to go to the movies, here is one for you. I'm glad to say I've seen it several times myself already (okay, 14 times, that's right I said it), and could go again for another viewing of this bright, funny rip-roarer.

The Magic of the Movies


Review: The Eagle (2011)

Kevin Macdonald's The Eagle, based on the children's book by Rosemary Sutcliff, which I may have read years ago, is not a movie for children. It should have been rated R or NC-17, and not PG-13 by the MPAA, which, in case you're still wondering or keeping score, doesn't care. Plot spoilers will follow.

Two children are murdered in the film, one in a particularly grisly way. Both of these murders are pointless and the blood and guts of the grisly one completely unjustified. It would be silly to be as upset by movie violence as by real violence. But I still found this rather unsettling. I mean why do it. I mean don't do it. Okay, if you must do it, make it mean something!

The grisly murder is supposed to illustrate the master/slave relationship of total demanded obedience between Esca (Jamie Bell), a Briton saved from death-by-gladiator by his master Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing "Grimace" Tatum), a Roman centurion whose single obsession in life is to retrieve the gold eagle standard of the lost Ninth Batallion, led by his Roman centurion father, which disappeared twenty years earlier entering the Pictish wilds of Northern Britain.

Esca hesitates in killing this child, the last warrior to attack himself and Aquila, and the child runs away. Aquila takes him down with a quick thrown weapon and reproofs Esca's hesitation.

I have no problem with movie characters being evil or bloodthirsty. Indeed, the occupied Britons and conquering Romans are at war, and Esca and Aquila are in a precarious position wandering fairly unprotected through "uncivilized" lands. Allowing the child to escape and perhaps warn comrades might well have brought down a quick death on the two. Still, I found the way it is portrayed over the top and, like a lot of things in this movie, confused to the point of troubling.

The Eagle comes to specialize in raising numerous interesting, possibly powerful issues, and completely failing to grapple with them in any kind of way that could be even confused for successful. Honor in battle, personal debts, slavery, dedication to family and country, etc. are all brought up and dumped on top of this action movie. I don't need to be told exactly what to think about a work of art, but I also don't want to sit through a movie that's two hours of some people yelling, "We don't think good!" And then there's the gay subtext.

Nowadays, if you would like to make a movie about gay characters, you can. There is no need for subtle Spartacus-like hinting or quibbling. If you don't want the movie to be about gay characters, you can leave out the gay subtext. You can even use a gay subtext to say something else, if you're not going to put the issue at the fore, like, say, perhaps, in Reservoir Dogs. The Eagle puts all the possibly-gay stuff--and there's lots of it--in subtext, for no reason I can conceive. Some may say I'm writing it in because these are two attractive young actors whose characters bond in an unusual, perhaps historically accurate way which is not gay or straight. Again, that would be fine if there were some point like that which was made within the movie. I think there is not. These are two seemingly gay characters who are not allowed to cuddle, and that is sad. If that's the point of the movie, why would it be? Does that message need this context? Ugh. It reminded me of Se7en, in that all the scenes and camera moves lead you up to a point in the story which is utterly predictable, but justified, and even after a certain point necessary to the story. Then you never see it happen.

Each line in Tatum's script must have included the parenthetical direction to grimace, or else the director was yelling "Grimace!" all day during shooting. Oddly, this makes Tatum's character the most sympathetic to its victims in the audience. I felt you there, Tatum. Bell does a pretty admirable job of creating a real character despite the script's clear shortcomings. (Tip for Tatum: Bell accomplishes acting with his face.) There actually are a few good lines which sum up what the relationship must be between Esca and Aquila, but these lines feel excavated from a trash dump. One wants to wash them off before sharing their discovery with anyone. I have titled the ending scene "Dote-dee-doe," and I give my permission for this to be used on the DVD.

The action is okay, the acting is okay, except for Tatum's, which is awful. And his is the main character. The depiction of the Pictish people is fascinating in places if ultimately muddled and wasted. Please avoid The Eagle, and tell your friends, if you like them.

The Magic of the Movies


Other, Christie lead 2012 GOP presidential nominee web poll results for January

Gov. Chris Christie (NJ) led January voting for who respondents thought would be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. As usual, this is of self-selected voters of any party who found my website, so it is not scientific in any way. (This means you should not complain that it was not scientific because it's never going to be.) Voting is just for fun, please no wagering. Here are this month's results:

January 2011

#1 - Other ... 24.4%
#2 - Gov. Chris Christie (NJ) ... 20.2%
#3 - Sen. John Thune (SD) ... 18.5%
#4 - Fmr. Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) ... 17.6%
#5 - Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX) ... 8.4%
#6 - Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) ... 5.9%
#7 - Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (TX) ... 2.5%
#8 - Gov. Haley Barbour (MS) ... 1.7%
#9 - Fmr. Gov. Tom Ridge (PA) ... .8%
#10 - Gov. Sam Brownback (KS) ... 0%
#10 - Senate Min. Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) ... 0%
#10 - Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN) ... 0%
#10 - Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) ... 0%

119 total votes cast / Margin of error ±100%

The Other option was inflated for this month by Pence votes cast before he announced his non-candidacy.

You can vote for this month's new poll here, or click the vote button from any of the Choose Our President 2012 pages.

Choose Our President 2012