Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Movie Review: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go (2010)
Directed By: Mark Romanek
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley
Based on the Novel By: Kazuo Ishiguro

Having never read the novel on which the film is based, I thought the trailer for Never Let Me Go looked powerful, if vague. I think that's why I loved the trailer so much. Unlike most film trailers that give away the entire plot of the film they are advertising in under three minutes, the trailer for Never Let Me Go leaves you intrigued by how little it reveals. Well, for those unfamiliar with Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, at least.

The film introduces us to Kathy H (Carey Mulligan) who, in the opening scene is 28 years old and, through narration, is taking the audience back to the unusual events that occurred to the students at a Hailsham boarding house in England in 1978. As child, young Kathy H befriends two fellow classmates, the friendly but untrustworthy, Ruth (Keira Knightley) and the shy, awkward loner, Tommy (Andrew Garfield). Told by their headmistress that all Hailsham students are "special", they grow up without any family connections or a clear understanding about what their place is in society, having never been off school grounds. I remember Peter Howell's review in the Toronto Star and how he mentioned that the sinister Orwellian language with such words as "donors", "carers" and 'completion" all lend an ominous and unsettling atmosphere to the film.

The film is almost ridiculously gorgeous to look at. English landscape is always a beautiful sight to behold and, despite its dark and tragic plot revelations, it remains so. The colour is muted so that everything appears green or yellow; mellow colours for a leisurely-paced film.

Never Let Me Go is not your standard sci-fi film. Like George Orwell's 1984, it's not necessarily about the role of authority figures or government standards, but the human desire to survive, thrive and love one another. The film (and, I presume, the book) doesn't delve into why these things are being done to the students of Hailsham or how exactly they "came to be." It's just an accepted fact of life that this is the way things are in the world. Without the background information on the origins of Hailsham and other similar boarding houses, the audience is allowed to solely focus on the three central characters and their struggle to understand the meaning of life and their role in it, however brief.

The reason the unusual plot plays out so well on screen is because of the stellar casting. Carey Mulligan is one of the top five young actresses working today. She gives a lovely performance as Kathy H, giving her character quiet strength and sad, world weary eyes. Even though we know so little about Kathy H's background, it doesn't matter because Mulligan manages to make her so likeable and sympathetic. Andrew Garfield nearly steals the film as Tommy, the gangly and shy love-interest of Kathy H (although he settles for a relationship with Ruth). This is my first time seeing Garfield in a film and I was impressed by his stuttering, twitchy Tommy. I'll be pulling for him this Oscar season for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. There were two or three occasions in the film where I got teary-eyed and it was all thanks for Garfield and his performance. As for Keira Knightley, I'll be the first to admit I'm not her biggest fan; however, I was impressed with the fact that she chose a role different from her usual historical snarky-heroine screen portrayals. She actually gave a nuanced performance as Ruth, which is no easy accomplishment since Ruth is a difficult character to love.

In this early stage of the Oscar race, Never Let Me Go has a legitimate chance at some major nominations, especially considering we are in for another year of 10 Best Picture nominations. I just hope that, after all the other hyped films that will come out in the next couple of months, critics and voters will remember Never Let Me Go - a quiet, powerful, philosophical and compelling film. I hope it doesn't get lost in the chaos.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

Movie Review: Let the Right One In

Let the Right One In (Sweden, 2008)
Directed By: Tomas Alfredson
Starring: Kare Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson

I've been a little behind on my entries, but not my movie-watching. Last weekend, I finally got around to seeing Let the Right One In; that Swedish vampire film that everyone was talking about two years ago.

What I didn't realize was that, more than anything else, Let the Right One In is a coming-of-age story. The fact that young Oskar's new friend, Eli, is a nocturnal bloodsucker is beside the point.

Twelve-year-old Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) is shy, awkward and mercilessly bullied at school. At night, he spends time by himself at the playground outside his apartment building. There he meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), the girl who has just moved into the apartment next door with a man she claims is her father. When asked what her age is, Eli replies, "twelve-ish." Despite the fact that it's the dead of winter, Eli wears only short-sleeved shirts outside, has cold hands, pale skin and appears older and wiser beyond her years. Oskar is immediately drawn to her and the two develop their friendship in the little playground at night, which is the only time Eli can come out and play.

Let the Right One In is a slow-burning film. Its opening shot is of falling snow, without any soundtrack. Everyone speaks in hushed tones and Oskar and Eli must overcome many obstacles before becoming genuine friends. It's more about the coming-of-age of two marginalized children than horror film (although there are unsettling scenes of blood and gore). The more you get to know Oskar and Eli, the more you feel for their sad situations: his because of the constant bullying he faces, hers because of her inability to connect to humans and violent desire for blood. Despite the supernatural situation, you want their friendship to endure. Somehow.

It's an intelligent film, made for audiences who love  character development and emotional connection mixed in with their horror. It's completely unique and unlike any vampire film you've seen before (it even twists around some vampire folklore to make it seem fresh and original). The fact that it effectively manages to combine gothic horror with tragic realism, is no easy accomplishment. I was surprised how affecting, tragic and emotionally charged a vampire film could be when put in the right hands.

One of the things I can't get over is how beautiful the film looks. Visually, it's better than the large majority of what you'd see in the cinema. The colours are darkened, in keeping with the atmospheric mood, and it makes Stockholm look like a beautiful winter wonderland. The darkened colours only serve to make the blood stand out even more, whether it's splashed on the snowy sidewalk or a dirty basement floor.

I'm not usually the biggest fan of child actors. They tend to over-emote and, because of their age, don't necessarily pick up on the subtleties of the development of their characters. Hedebrant and Leandersson go above and beyond what you'd expect from a child actor. There were times I forgot I was watching two pre-teens instead of two full-fledged adults. Both Hedebrant and Leandersson convey their loneliness and world-wearniess with their sad eyes. Their chemistry onscreen is also what makes their performances work so well. You can see their yearning for connection to one another. And, despite their obvious differences in the lives they lead, they are both looking for the same things.

Love story, horror film and social commentary wrapped in one, Let the Right One In will be one of the most powerful, beautiful coming-of-age tales you are ever likely to see. It will stay with you long after the film has finished. I now plan on reading John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel on which the film is based.


Thursday, October 14, 2010

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 13


Not gonna lie: I have a ton of films I could have just as easily chosen as my favourite guilty pleasure film. Other potential choices: Hook (1991), Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1988), Twister (1996), Beetlejuice (1988) and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991).

But, in keeping with the "holiday spirit" of Halloween, I'll go with The Lost Boys (1987); that crazy little vampire movie from schlock-master director Joel Schumacher. Starring some of the biggest young stars of the 1980s, the film's popularity has endured, probably thanks in large part to its incredibly quotable dialogue. It also has a little bit of everything to keep audiences interested; horror, romance and comedy. Although there are some who argue the film hasn't aged well (you only need look to Rotten Tomatoes to find the evidence), I couldn't disagree more. If nothing else, it's a time capsule of a decade when big hair reigned supreme, kids listened to cassettes and teen movies weren't always ruled by raging hormones and nudity.

The Lost Boys is its own brand of fun. Say what you want about the film, but there isn't another movie quite like it. It's over-the-top, over-stylized and completely ridiculous. But it never pretends to be something it is not and for that it gets brownie points in my book. It's the Batman Forever of vampire films, taking the mythology around the "creatures of the night" and throwing in laughs along the way. Completely CGI-free, The Lost Boys instead relies on excellent make-up and actual stunt work.

The plot is straight-forward: Michael (Jason Patric), Sam (Corey Haim) and their single-mom, Lucy (Dianne Wiest), move to Santa Carla for a fresh start. Within hours of arriving, Michael makes enemies with David (Kiefer Sutherland), the head of a motorcycle-riding vampire gang. Sam enlists the help of the Frog brothers, Edgar (Corey Feldman) and Alan (Jamison Newlander), to help him save his brother, Michael, from becoming a vampire. Self-proclaimed vampire hunters, the Frog brothers are the teenaged dimwit equivalent of Van Helsing.

Watch it for the cheese-tastic soundtrack, the vibrant clothing, 1980s pop culture references and some great vampire fight scenes. Did I mention the two Corey's were in it?


This almost topped The Lost Boys and, in many ways, it's a much more entertaining film. But, you know. The Halloween theme and all.

Speed (1994) was my favourite action film as a child. That bomb-on-bus, highway-jumping action sequences just don't come out of Hollywood anymore. Granted, CGI has never been better that it is today, but Speed rarely (if at all) had to rely on any of that and it still manages to be more exciting (and openly ludicrous) than the large majority of action films being released today. It's almost as though the film were self-aware: instead of turning away from its outrageous plot, it embraces it and puts its actors through violent encounters with elevators, buses and subways just for the hell of it. Why not?

Reasons I love Speed: (1) Keanu Reeves, never better. (2) Dennis Hopper and his nine fingers. (3) The troubled transit systems in Los Angeles. (4) For keeping viewer interest when a large portion of the film takes place on a bus. (5) It's ridiculous and awesome.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

30 Day Movie Meme: Day 12


With all the wonderful Disney and Pixar films out there to choose from, it would seem hard to pick just one. For me, though, it all comes back to the 2003 Pixar classic, Finding Nemo.

I still remember seeing a late screening in theatres (to avoid all those kids who would have talked over the whole thing) and I was crying three minutes into the film. Single-dad clownfish, Marlin (Albert Brooks), loses his son, Nemo (Alexander Gould), somewhere along Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Along the way, Marlin befriends a blue tang fish suffering from short-term memory loss named Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) and the two embark on an epic underwater search.

It's themes of unconditional love, loyal friendships and family values, Finding Nemo is an intelligent little film. Don't dismiss it as a kids animated flick. It's one of those rare films that rise above that classification. Andrew Stanton continues to write and direct instant Pixar classics.

In terms of visuals, nothing surpasses the brilliant blues and oranges of Finding Nemo. It was like watching an underwater special on the Discovery Channel. Although WALL*E came close, in terms of animation, Pixar has not yet topped Finding Nemo.

The end result is a smart, funny and engaging film for both children and adults. Pixar continues to reinvent both the children and animation genres.

Friday, October 1, 2010

In Memoriam: Tony Curtis (June 3, 1925-September 29, 2010)

Another Hollywood legend has passed away.

It made me realize how many of the classic actors of the 1950s and 1960s are slowly disappearing. The death of Curtis, at the age of 85, is much like the loss of Paul Newman last year: it reminds us that the "golden days" of Hollywood are rapidly disappearing with the deaths of its legends. Their old film stories and anecdotes are going with them.

Curtis was famous for openly sharing his experiences as an actor and a celebrity. Whether you believed his stories or not (and there are many who accuse him of being an outright liar), he acted as though he were an open book. Curtis wrote books on the subject of celebrity and filmmaking (most recently, 2009's The Making of Some Like It Hot: My Memories of Marilyn Monroe and the Classic American Movie, something I can't wait to read once it comes out in paperback). He fanned the flames of gossip when he claimed that Monroe miscarried their child (the product of a brief fling) soon after filming wrapped on the 1959 film. He was famously married to Janet Leigh and is father to actress Jamie Lee Curtis. He essentially put all his cards on the table, regardless of whether you liked him or not. He was a classy actor, even when sharing the most explicit details of his life in Hollywood.

I'm kind of ashamed to admit I've only seen three films in his extensive resume. The Defiant Ones, which I saw on TCM a good five years ago (I'm due for a re-watch), Spartacus and one of my all-time favourite films, Some Like It Hot. I saw the latter film for the first time only last year, when I bought it on a whim. It really lives up to its honour of the Best American Comedy (bestowed by the American Film Institute). As Joe/Josephine, Curtis is paired with two wonderful co-stars in Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe. When I first bought the film, I watched it twice in one week (no lie!) and a total of three times in that first month. While every aspect of the film is wonderful, Curtis' performance is one of the highlights.

Curtis was also a talented painter and was technologically savvy. He knew how to communicate with fans in the age of the Internet. You can check out his official website (run by Curtis Enterprises). He still offered to mail autographs to fans (a snail mail address is included on his website) and all of his most recent paintings were displayed in his online art gallery. Curtis was also the founder of Shiloh Horse Rescue and Sanctuary, a non-profit organization (started in 2003) which rehabilitates homeless and abused horses. His website claims that it has saved the lives or more than 500 horses.

His memorial service (according to his blog, run by Shiloh Horse Rescue and Sanctuary) is on October 4th and will be open to the public to allow both family and fans to pay their respects. I was really surprised by this's so rare for an open memorial service for a celebrity).

Regardless of your opinion of Curtis, he was a charismatic screen legend and, up until now, one of the few who were left from an era long gone. Hollywood is now short one more star.