I got a little caught up this weekend on movies, though not nearly enough. More short snippet reviews today with longer ones hopefully in the future. And for those expecting my Feed the Queue review of Nashville, you’ll have to wait another week. I didn’t get any Netflix DVDs watched last week, so it did not come in the mail this week. However, I should be able to get to it and this week’s new addition this coming weekend.
So, here is what I watched this weekend:
NEVER LET ME GO
It’s a movie that didn’t get nearly the attention this year that it probably should have. Never Let Me Go is a tender story based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s celebrated novel about an alternate reality where cures for all known diseases and ailments was discovered through a process of creating human clones for organ harvesting. The story starts in the 1970s as three young clones are being raised in a boarding school where they are educated and prepared for brief lives before being farmed.
Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley star as those clones Kathy, Tommy and Ruth respectively. They, like the other children, know nothing about their life purposes. They believe themselves to be thinking, breathing organic lives that will grow old together. A conscientious teacher shatters their perceptions and tells them about their future existence. It sets them all on regretful internal journeys to try and come to terms with their fates. While never dealing with the legal implications of the situation, the film focuses entirely on the moral ones. As they learn art and music, they grow and develop just like other children, the difference is that these kids are not likely to live a third of the lifespan of those whose lives they are saving. The film never gives us reason to understand or sympathize with the dying who will receive the generous organs that will keep them going. So, the audience is only left with trying to fathom how we could allow our own civilization to believe that such a measure would be appropriate.
Mulligan, Garfield and Knightley are all superlative. They each convey the jealousy, anger, sadness, hope and despair that go with their various lives. Knightley has shown a level of acting maturity that has been missing from her broader, more audience-friendly work. You might even mistake her for a serious actress if you only had films like this as a reference. Mulligan and Garfield, however, haven’t been dragged into the populism as deeply as their contemporary has, though they have both shown a willingness to perform for a paycheck. Of course, they have plenty of role-models doing the same thing, so we cannot expect them to perform any less.
The story is beautifully crafted, sweet, serene and challenging without feeling heavy handed or egomaniacal. The music is a bit overbearing at times, but is no less beautiful. Director Mark Romanek doesn’t draw attention to himself and allows his actors to convey every emotional treatise the piece has to offer and it’s a stronger film because of it.
What a gorgeous film. Too bad the undercarriage is vapid, soulless and mechanical. But perhaps the script is a metaphor for the stricture of the film itself. The story is entirely unexceptional, predictable and laden with Disney-friendly dialogue and situations. There are no challenging imperatives and any attempts to question the moral implications of replacing human thought with machine is lost on an audience dazzled by visuals over substance.
Sometimes, a great visual is enough to sustain a film. Anyone familiar with the failures of the original TRON knew going in not to expect Hemingway or Dostoevsky. You don’t sit down to a film like this because you want to be educated. You take a seat in your crowded theater to escape, be entertained and most importantly be mesmerized by the visual effects on the screen. And an impressive feat it is. These are the kinds of designs that would have made the original better. Revolutionary graphics were envisioned for the original, but other films of the time had already eclipsed it and it was left trying to break out of its video game mold. This film does more than that. It creates an artificial environment that feels lived in. It’s an expressive world that would be interesting to visit, but never to live. It’s the type of world you envision as the silver screen’s biggest asset. The creation of an expansive universe in which you can get lost.
Before Dr. Strangelove. Before A Clockwork Orange. Before 2001: A Space Odyssey. Before some of his greatest films were ever made, a young Stanley Kubrick created a noirish thriller about a boxer who falls for a neighbor. The young woman is dating a dance hall thug and though she wants desperately to be with someone who respects her, she stays because he abuses her. He even delights one evening in showing our champ being taken to the mat in an effort to show her what a loser she has seemingly fallen for.
While not the visual feast that many of Kubrick’s other films were, Killer’s Kiss has some staggering shots. Some are borrowed, some are new, but they are frequently interesting. The story’s a bit hollow and lacks a decent amount of credibility, but that may be due to lackluster performances from Jamie Smith as the boxer, Irene Kane as the girl and Frank Silvera as the thug. They never inhabit their parts favoring instead the traditional, unexceptional carictures that best fit the film. Of course, admiring a Kubrick film has seldom been about the performances, though he has captured a number of terrific ones (Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange and Jack Nicholson in The Shining are two perfect examples). The key to watching Killer’s Kiss is more to admire the second feature film of writer/director/producer Stanley Kubrick and his influence and growth as a filmmaker than it is to actually appreciate the overall quality of the film.
THE BIG SLEEP
There have been many actors who have taken on the role of Phillip Marlowe, though most will probably remember Humphrey Bogart best. Yet, the similarities between his character in The Big Sleep and that of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon are far too noticeable. However, Bogart’s hard-boiled detective facade is one of the most recognizable of the Film Noir genre. It’s a combination of voice, swagger and style that seem to characterize many of Bogart’s performances. He performed the act so many times that it’s not surprising he did it so well. While appreciating Bogart’s distinctive style is important, the story of The Big Sleep is far more interesting and perhaps might have been better handled with someone who hadn’t already established the same character five years prior.
Bogart starred frequently with Lauren Bacall and it’s not difficult to understand why. Their romantic chemistry is palpable. They bounce bon mots off of one another like they’d been married for 20 years. In this film, Bacall plays the daughter of an aging businessman who has hired Marlowe to look after his wayward younger daughter who has gotten herself mixed up with nefarious individuals that may cause the family great turmoil. As the film progresses, he’s entangled in blackmail, murder and various other crimes, each one leading him deeper into a dark conspiracy to cover up the initial crime. Most of the film plays out expectedly with a few minor twists throughout. It’s not as complex emotionally or thematically as films like Mildred Pierce or The Maltese Falcon, but it’s enjoyable enough. You root for the good guys and boo at the bad guys and in the end, everything turns out like you expected. It’s a pleasant waste of time that you probably won’t remember the details of the next day.
VERONICA MARS, season 1
Before I sat down to the two noirish thrillers mentioned above, I spent the week with Veronica Mars, a noir-like mystery drama from UPN about the high school daughter of an ousted sheriff whose claim to fame was believing that one of the wealthiest families in the school district murdered their own daughter and covered it up. Kristen Bell plays Veronica, a wise-cracking chip off the old block. Her father Keith (Enrico Colantoni), knowing little else than police procedure has become a private detective and Veronica helps him with his cases.
In addition to the stigma of pursuing the wealthy, Veronica suffers likewise despite the victim being her best friend. She is ostracized by the wealthy cliques at the school who treat her like scum, yet eventually come to her to solve their most bizarre cases. Each episode features a new, inventive case while the 22-episode series follows a continuous arc trying to solve the murder of Lily Kane. Other characters along for the ride include Wallace Fennell (Percy Daggs III) her erstwhile companion whom she saves in the first episode from being ridiculed duct-taped to the courtyard flagpole; Duncan Kane (Teddy Dunn), Lily’s devoted brother and Veronica’s ex-boyfriend; Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), Duncan’s best friend and constant thorn in Veronica’s side; Eli “Weevil” Navarro (Francis Capra), a guy from the wrong side of the tracks whose grandmother works as a maid for the Echolls; and Don Lamb (Michael Muhney), the man who replaced Keith as sheriff and regularly jabs Keith and Veronica over Keith’s failures to catch the perp whom he helped apprehend, the mysterious Abel Koontz (Christian Clemenson), the man who became a patsy and admitted to killing Lily even when everyone with any reason knew he didn’t.
The show is witty, smart and funny and paints life in high school, especially when examining the class warfare inherent in the system, in bleak and almost uncompromising ways, never letting the audience forget just how ruthless the formative years of life can be. As the school shares facilities between the super wealthy and the poor, there’s a constant struggle for superiority where Veronica, who had once been a part of the Haves now must contend with being part of the Have-Nots and straddle the fence between loyalty and self-preservation. There are several undercurrents in the show from suicide and date rape to revenge and lust, yet the show carefully balances all themes and remains consistently engaging. The first season was quite impressive and I’ll be moving on to the second season post haste.