Thursday, September 30, 2010

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go
Grade: B
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield, Sally Hawkins, Kate Bowes Renna, Charlotte Rampling
Director: Mark Romanek
Free Admission Granted

Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go is the Harry Potter film for a modern dystopia. It nails much of what I dislike about Hogwarts Academy – the conformity, the noble-minded authoritarianism, the obedient little drone who achieves heroism through destiny rather than sacrifice. Created by the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, the Hailsham students of Never Let Me Go are chosen by birthright to save people, as well. They won’t be celebrated, and it will come at great unspoken cost.

Then again, Never Let Me Go is like Blade Runner, isn’t it? Anchored around the lives of characters who are designed to use and dispose. Sacrificial beings for the betterment of others. One film calls death “retirement.” The other “completion.” Each reasons if the characters are worthy of the rights and protections of souls. In style, the film follows in the line of English science fiction like Children of Men as a reaction to this enormously influential forbear. Rather than an eye-catchingly dystopian future, these films strive for oppressive anti-spectacle in a recognizable modern world.

And it’s a little like Inglourious Basterds, right? Each takes place in an alternative history, where it’s certain in one and possible in the other that World War II didn’t end the same way. Nazis, or at least Nazi medical ethics, might have prevailed, with a genteel totalitarianism setting in. The story gives life to that unpleasant little Nietzsche observation that all forms of higher culture are based on cruelty.

And it is a little like the book and film of that other towering contemporary English novel, Atonement. They each follow a love triangle around lives of psychological oppression, lingering on an impressively interior performance by Carey Mulligan. She gets great mileage out of short sentences. They mark monumental discoveries that are really short and simple wisdom.

And maybe Never Let Me Go is like a Pink Floyd song. The famous Dark Side of the Moon track "Time." You truly feel the line “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.” And they share that feeling of a whole life being felt in one moment. The time is gone. The song is over. Thought I‘d something more to say.

I’m uncomfortable with things. I’m not sure that Andrew Garfield adds enough magnetism to carry the role of the doomed love interest (Charlotte Rampling, in two scenes, does). As for themes, I’m not sure it’s treading new ground so much as nicely re-treading sown ground.

I didn’t love it. I didn’t connect to it. Yet I reserve the right to. I suspect it is a film that will keep a hold on me for a while. Indeed, never let me go.

Easy A

Easy A
Grade: Pass
Cast: Emma Stone, Penn Badgley, Amanda Bynes, Aly Michalska, Dan Byrd, Patricia Clarkson, Stanley Tucci, Thomas Haden Church, Lisa Kudrow, Malcolm McDowell
Director: Will Gluck
Free Admission Granted

The Easy A might well be for a class in astronomy. This is supposed to be the movie in which the redhead It Girl Emma Stone (Superbad, Zombieland) is born as a star.

If dying stars turn into black holes, sucking everything around them into eternal darkness, then movie stardom defies the laws of physics. Stone absorbs the surrounding creative matter, burns it into a ray of light and shoots it across space and time. If this were a political science class, I would say she transforms each scene – and eventually the whole movie – into a referendum upon her. And that is how a star is born.

Astronomy aside, Easy A thinks of itself as an English class. This teenage sex comedy studies at the school of filmmaking that snatches classic high school literature and resets it in high school. For better or worse, that’s how Shakespeare becomes 10 Things I Hate About You, all so the kids “can relate.” Director Will Gluck and writer Bert V. Royal choose that all-too-mandatory Nathaniel Hawthorne novel The Scarlett Letter. The smart-girl-gone-wild Stone even stitches the letter A on her suddenly spicy wardrobe.

That takes us to drama class. The invisible understudy Olive Prenderghast (Stone) rises to the role of school floozy after a false rumor spreads around school. She becomes the lead actress, creating the illusion of a convention-challenging sex life that doesn’t exist. Like any great thespian she lures other students into her performance, pretending to have sex with school outcasts – such as her gay friend (Dan Byrd) – so they can win social acceptance. Hester Prynne-like, she accepts shame so that others can live freely.

As in many schools, there’s the risk of plagiarism, but really it’s more allusion and talking about your favorites. Royal’s script mentions John Hughes by name, and Gluck throws in an energetic musical number referencing Matthew Broderick’s famous singalong in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Otherwise, the verbose snark, at times, reminds of Diablo Cody’s Juno. A snotty Christian student (Amanda Bynes) brings a bit of Mean Girls or Heathers.

It might be more sensible to grade Easy A with a pass-fail system. It is very attentive one minute and looking out the window the next. Why create delicate differences in rating its success? Everybody gets what they expect, and everybody gets the point.

The Virginity Hit

The Virginity Hit
Grade: D
Cast: Matt Bennett, Zack Pearlman, Nicole Weaver
Director: Andrew Gurland and Hunt Botko
Free Admission Granted

The Internet was born out of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Military planners were confronted with the question of how to maintain command and control during a nuclear war. A decentralized method of electronic communication was proposed, leading to a communications system that could transport information long distances almost instantaneously.

All of that danger. All of that ingenuity. All of that technology. All so that a foursome of buttfucks could film the end of their friend’s virginity for Youtube.

And when I say buttfucks, I really do mean buttfucks about the unsympathetic characters in The Virginity Hit. Sometimes we let young people off the hook too easily, hoping they will grow out of their childish impulses and one day transform into productive clockmakers. Not on my watch. When you secretly film and record sex with your girlfriend – or worse, when you don’t have the balls to tell your friends not to record it – you deserve your teenage virginal tragedy.

This intentionally obnoxious comedy, produced by Will Ferrell and his frequent collaborator Adam McKay, takes inspiration in the casual sadism of the teenage years. Its boorishness passes with little reflection or commentary, accepting the world of digestible Internet voyeurism.

The voyerism is perpetuated through a fake documentary style familiar to its co-directors, Andrew Gurland and Hunt Botko (The Last Exorcism). The film uses unknown actors, shoots on handheld cameras, and imitates a Youtube video. In films like The Blair Witch Project, this style conjures a heightened state of reality. In films like This Is Spinal Tap, it serves as an ironic framing device for the absurdity. This one has too many implausible moments to be the former, and too few laughs to effectively do the latter.

I was reading a John Hughes quote the other day about teenage life. He described it as the period of time when each person takes life most seriously. It’s true that Hughes made his share of hormonally charged movies, but his characters often possessed serious and vulnerable sides rarely spotted in today’s teen movies. Watching The Virginity Hit, I wondered, do these kids have thoughts? Do they talk about life? Or is every minute consumed with sex, drugs and Youtube?

Going the Distance

Going the Distance
Grade: C
Cast: Drew Barrymore, Justin Long, Christina Applegate, Other people who are just happy to be in a movie.
Director: Didn’t this thing just direct itself?
Free Admission Granted

One of the great things about useless romantic comedies is how easily they break down into question and answer form. Observe the Drew Barrymore-Justin Long long-distance get-together Going the Distance.

Q: Is it funny?
A: Eh, not bad. The leads dish out their easygoing dirty-mouthed patter with bland precision, and there is a bottom-barrel Zach Galiwhatever guy-talk character. In the end, it doesn’t ask you to remember a single gag or line, so you can use that space in the memory bank for more important mental pursuits.

Q: Do you want the couple to get together?
A: Yes. If the script or the star pairing makes it seem like they’re forcing the couple together, then you have a disaster (or at least Slumdog Millionaire) on your hands. Fortunately, Drew Barrymore is at the top of her rom-com game here. (Don’t read me in that tone of voice.) Actually, one might say she’s above her usual rom-com game, as we actually like her and wish for good things to happen for her.

Q: Does it have anything to do or say? Or does the whole thing hinge on getting the couple together?
A: Nope, nothing to say whatsoever. The whole thing hinges on getting the couple together. If you are looking for any grand insight into relationships, or even minimally original insight into having a long-distance relationship, Going the Distance is not the film for you.

Q: Does it make you feel like an idiot?
A: No. And wow, was that a new experience!

Q: Should you go?
A: Is your girlfriend asking? Then of course, sweetheart.

The American

The American
Grade: A
Cast: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Paolo Bonacetti, Thekla Reuten
Director: Anton Corbijn
Free Admission Granted

It’s time to submit a definition of the George Clooney hero.

He’s an aging professional who has grown smarter than the system to which he has indentured himself. The distance between his intelligence and the system’s need for myopy breeds cynicism and alienation. Finding himself the villain of his own story, he is sinking into a crisis in which his soul suddenly wants more than the system can give him.

Since at least Out of Sight, and most effectively in the tremendously underrated Michael Clayton, Clooney has explored iteration after iteration of this role, in the way Tom Cruise used to play the young hot shot needing mature guidance. Being a smart star, Clooney has chosen a character (or a character has chosen him) that is indelible to this modern time and place. It has made Clooney a star worth investing in.

The American sees Clooney as a darker shade of this hero, an underworld weapons expert forever on the move. He arrives in a picturesque Italian villa to slowly custom-build a high-powered weapon for a sexy female assassin (Thekla Reuten). His instinct is to keep a low profile, to stay professional, to submit to the system, even though he feels it closing in. A recent tragedy finds this taciturn wanderer slowly opening to human connection. He befriends a priest (Paolo Bonacetti) who knows a sinner when he sees one. He succumbs to the beauty of a gorgeous prostitute (Violante Placido) who views an American as a path to another life.

It’s too bad Grahame Greene has already used the title The Quiet American. It fits this film’s hushed European style, the alienation it gathers out of chilly imagery. As a young photographer, director Anton Corbijn (Control), matched moody images to the moody music of Joy Division. The American shares that same icy visual mystery. The town’s narrow stone corridors seep with paranoia. Clooney’s attraction to a gorgeous spot of countryside serves as an antidote of liberating beauty.

Clooney’s charm and charisma usually soften films with the Clooney hero. They are stories of alienation without feeling like stories of alienation, missing that cold Antonioni thing of watching characters come apart in the emptiness. Not so The American. For one picture, Clooney scrubs down the charm and hides it in a shell. The film relates his character to a butterfly, but really, he’s stuck in a cocoon, a permanent state of transformation, unable to fly away.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Plaza Classic Film Fest #3: The Last Picture Show

(The Last Picture Show, 1971, d. Peter Bogdanovich)

Black and white is the actor’s friend.

So said Peter Bogdanovich, during his onstage appearance at the Plaza Classic Film Festival Aug. 14, before a screening of his 1971 masterpiece, The Last Picture Show.

Bogdanovich was quoting his friend, Orson Welles, who was occasionally known to bum around the director’s home during his residential wanderings. We can only have fun imaging the two directors exchanging this little nugget as Cybill Shepard washed their underwear. Whatever its origins, this explains the nostalgic black-and-white look of this 1950s coming-of-age story, set in a slowly dying Texas town.

If black and white is the actor’s friend, then Bogdanovich was graciously paid back by a largely unknown cast. This really is an actor’s film. While only Jeff Bridges would go on to measure up to The Godfather graduates, the rest of the young cast (Timothy Bottoms, Cybill Shepard, Randy Quaid, Sam Bottoms) would dot the great films of the 1970s.

Bogdanovich gives each actor one big speech or scene. Often, the camera starts as if it is a character hidden in the room. Then it slowly, auspiciously closes in on the actors’ faces, as if closing in on their souls. Breaths freeze. Time holds. The characters dig for a thought or moment buried deep within. Then the camera slowly fades back, releases the tension, and allows time to resume its normal speed. We see this technique again and again, most effectively as Ben Johnson reminisces at a fishing hole shortly before his death.

It is generally thought that the Oscar winner Johnson stole the show, letting the withered miles of his face serve as the town’s soul. But I’ll take Ellyn Burstyn. Her aging beauty possesses the callousness to draw blood and the tenderness to be wounded in equal measure. Could an actress have a breakout performance at age 39 nowadays? You could in 1971. Her subsequent five-year career run is a treasure of the seventies’ New Hollywood films.

Perhaps the biggest star is the town itself. And this leads to a mystery … how did a New York boy so acutely capture the rhythms of a small Texas town? Arnene, Texas, is a place of perpetual dying – a small brick speed bump for the northern winds rushing down the plains. The town no longer lives, but it never quite vanishes.

While the film is based on a Larry McMurtry novel, there is something vaguely Faulkneresque about the location and story. I see a loose similarity to the Compson clan of The Sound and the Fury. The girl runs off to the fast life, Dallas or Hollywood. One young man leaves town for a perch of psychological distance. And one young man remains to mind the farm and preside over the decline. In Picture Show, it is the sweet Sonny left to watch Arnene slide further into dust.

All this leads to that fantastic ending, a small table, a lovers’ conversation, an ending that becomes a beginning. Sonny still has Ruth (Cloris Leachman), his older lover, but their prospects are dim. Their final wounded conversation is a thing of sadness, generosity, and a humane uncertainty. It’s a film moment that I can never shake. That’s why I love the movies.


Grade: D
Cast: Madeline Carroll, Callan McAuliffe, Rebecca DeMornay, Anthony Edwards, John Mahoney, Penelope Ann Miller, Aidan Quinn.
Director: Rob Reiner
free admission granted

Is this all that I have to look forward to?

Three or four decades of looking back to the good old days? While I remain at an age when I can effectively deny the presence of gray hairs, I’m still displeased with this future. When I’m 60, will I look back or will I look forward? Rob Reiner’s Flipped doesn’t help.

This 1960s puppy love story plays as if someone hacked all the locks on the cages holding the lost episodes of The Wonder Years. Now they’re scurrying around the Boomer Porn laboratory. Hopefully, someone can stop them before they reproduce.

It would be one thing if Flipped were an act of sunny but genuine nostalgia. But there are enough out of place references to seem like somebody else’s nostalgia. For instance, no one commonly used terms like “visually challenged,” or anything challenged, until the 1980s at the earliest. Is this real nostalgia? Or false nostalgia? Calculated nostalgia? Marketable nostalgia?

From the first shoo-bop 50s moment that little girl Julie (Madeline Carroll) falls in love with little neighbor boy Bryce (Callan McAuliffe), we know we’re in for a lot “I’m never talking to him again” tween drama.

It balances the beam a little better while telling Julie’s story. She’s freaky but spunky, climbing trees to keep them from being cut down. John Mahoney, best known as the father on Frasier, pitches in a nice supporting role as the young boy’s grandfather who takes a shine to the female neighbor. That said, Bryce really is a spineless little corporate nobody in training.

Romance of a lifetime? I seriously doubt this one’s surviving the sixties. He’s headed for a cubicle or a car lot. She’s headed for the free love commune in Easy Rider. But that’s for parents to know and kids to find out later.

I suspect Flipped will provide a harmless, even modestly pleasing departure for fans of the Wendelin Van Draanen children’s novel upon which it is based. It sells the basic tropes of pre-teen sensibility and teaches a few valuable lessons. But it never departs much from the expected.