September 25, 2010

Never Let Me Go (09/25/2010)

(Warning! Below I reveal a little about the premise of the movie that is not clear from watching the trailers, but no real "spoilers"!)

Lettergrade: C+

At long last the prayers of people who liked the concept of Michael Bay's 2005 clone actioner The Island, but wished it had been done as a highly depressing English drama that doesn't have any action in it have been answered.

Never Let Me Go is based on a best selling novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, and tells a multi-decade love story set in an alternate reality that looks a lot like ours, but in which clones have been created for the sole purpose of staying healthy so they can someday donate their organs to non-clones (and likely die in the process).

The movie follows three of them (played as adults by Carey Mulligan, Kiera Knightley and some guy I'd never heard of), and functions in three main segments, taking place in 1978, 1986, and 1992, respectively. Mulligan's child substitute likes Tommy (Andrew Garfield), but a much more aggressive clone who will grow up to be Keira Knightley likes him too. Each time period examines a very different phase of the three's lives and meditates upon how they feel about themselves, each other, and their ultimate purpose.

The movie is beautiful, emotionally haunting, and wildly sad, but I take some major points off the top for ultimately being a bit dramatically inert. It's a little funny to me that I feel that way because when I think of it, there are a few very powerful dramatic devices that work quite well during certain segments of the movie, however the lack of an overall narrative thrust is what really prevented the movie from taking off for me. The segment that leaves the strongest impression is the opening segment, where we think we're looking at a standard English boarding school of the 70s, but slowly begin to realize that something is a little wrong. The classes the children take sure seem to have some unusual subject material, and visitors to the school look at the kids with an unspoken combination of pity and disgust. The beans are spilled about 20 minutes into the film by Happy Go Lucky's wonderful Sally Hawkins, who has a brief role as a young teacher who doesn't seem to have taken the job meaning to cause trouble, but whose conscience upon spending time with the children up close will not allow her to do otherwise.

The film's other revelations are more intimate and interpersonal in scale, and yet the movie feels overly restrained at the same time in a way that put me off. I have not read the book, but I hear that director Mark Romenek and his screenwriter, Alex Garland, stayed pretty close to the source material. They know how to communicate a great deal of emotion with wonderful efficiency and poignancy, but I kept waiting for some key element of the plot to emerge that never quite did.

The movie I kept thinking of throughout Never Let Me Go was 2007's Atonement, another multi-decade British drama in which there similarly is a romance that is strangled at birth by the selfishness of a third party. Knightley is in both movies, although she's the wronged party in the earlier film whereas she's one doing the love obstructin' in this one.

Now the guy they're both hung up over doesn't really seem to have a lot going on, honestly, other than the fact that he's there, and he's obtainable. Sort of like the British clone boarding school equivalent of work hot. I think the movie survives this just fine, but a love triangle like this would seem to work a lot better if you can more clearly understand why both women are fixated on the same dude. Tommy is with Knightley in this movie because she wanted him to be and basically pushed him to do that: whatever his personal feelings may have been, they don't seem relevant to the matter!

I honestly don't think of Atonement (a Best Picture nominee!) much these days, other than to briefly remember the stellar acting from some of the cast, Saoirse Ronan in particular. Never Let Me Go made me feel deeply sad in a way that has stuck with me for much of the last week, but to be honest with you, I suspect that in the future I'm not going to think of it much either.

And check out my journal entry on Atonement.

September 9, 2010

Piranha 3D (09/09/2010)

Lettergrade: D-

I tend not to dig horror flicks much these days, but I have a soft spot for movies that are a little hammy, self-conscious, and satirical. Alas, Piranha 3D is not. A number of factors led me to believe that the flick would be a lot more fun than it turned out to be, some of which I'll get into below. Suffice to say that the movie's wit and sense of humor are like a thin layer of caramel that runs through a pint of ice cream: It adds some tasty accent here and there, yes, but it still feels mostly like you're eating vanilla.

In spite of some inspired tongue-in-cheek casting choices and some overly ridiculous uses of 3D, most of the movie is kinda mean-spirited and ugly. And then there's a scene where the piranhas attack a spring break party toward the end that rivals Saving Private Ryan in terms of sheer gore and gruesomeness. I'm not sure what I was looking for from this movie... maybe something more along the lines of Bride Of Chucky or Freddy Vs. Jason or even the disappointing Snakes On A Plane: All of which knew how to deliver some laughs while keeping the violence amusingly unrealistic. But as is, it's one of those movies that seems to be made for a bafflingly small audience, and I can't really recommend it to anyone for any reason.

But back to my reasons for plunking down the cash for a ticket in the first place. The first thing that caught my attention with this movie was that director Alexandre Aja was trying to get Joe Dante (who directed the original 1978 Piranha, a cheapie take-off of Jaws) and James Cameron (who got his directing break on 1981's Piranha II: The Spawning, but was later fired) to appear in the film as water safety instructors. Dante wanted to do it, but Cameron, who was busy making Avatar at the time, didn't. Nevertheless, the idea that Aja attempted an idea like that suggested to me that there was a perverse wit at work here that might just make one of those ridiculous so-good-it's-bad cult classics that I love watching with friends.

And then I heard about the cast. The scenery chowing Christopher Lloyd as a local doom-saying marine biologist. Elizabeth Shue as the cop. An actual speaking performance from the lovely Kelly Brook, a British super-model with world-renowned breasts and almost zero acting talent (and she's not shy about flaunting either!). Jerry O'Connell as a character so closely based on Girls Gone Wild's Joe Francis that there was almost a lawsuit (although he could have been more upset that they show his surrogate giving cocaine to a college freshman then getting his johnson bit off by killer fish more than anything). They even got Richard Dreyfuss to appear as a character named Matt, who dresses a hell of a lot like Dreyfuss's own Matt Hooper from Jaws and even sings the same tune that the earlier character sang with Quint and Chief Brody whilst fishing during the pre-credit sequence.

But again, all these clever / inspiring ideas find themselves in a pretty bloody, highly unpleasant movie. Several times during the flick, I had to look away from the screen, something I rarely do. Aja and his picture editor seemed to anticipate just how long audience folk like me might avert their eyes before attempting to look back at the screen... and then they held it a few seconds longer!

James Cameron has really come out against this movie, saying in an interview with Variety that its cheap, manipulative tricks are not what 3D is all about:
“I tend almost never to throw other films under the bus, but that (‘Piranha 3D’) is exactly an example of what we should not be doing in 3-D. Because it just cheapens the medium and reminds you of the bad 3-D horror films from the ’70s and ’80s, like ‘Friday the 13th 3-D.’”
As readers of this blog know (all three of you!), I hate 3D. And I think Cameron has got it completely dead-ass wrong here. Cheap 3D tricks are exactly what the format has always been about. If you're going to make a movie in 3D there had damn well better be things lunging out at you and random shit flying at the camera. That's what it's been about since it was popularized in the 50s in order to compete with the ever growing trend of people having new fangled television sets in their homes. Making a serious, dramatic picture with Oscar aspirations is not what 3D is all about. And frankly, after sitting through three goddamn hours of your 3D smurf epic last winter, I can't think of a single way in which having to wear thick, cumbersome glasses made the movie better. In fact, I would argue, that because 3D made your picture darker and less sharp that most people would have been better off seeing it the ol' fashioned way. You know, the way where color, depth of field and sharpness actually mean something.

3D is, and always has been, a cheap gimmick designed boost ticket sales. If nothing else, give Piranha 3D (and the upcoming Jackass 3D) credit for understanding that where you do not.

September 5, 2010

Machete (09/05/2010)

Lettergrade: D+

I made my wife go see Machete with me, and I will have to live with the strain and damage it has inflicted on our marriage.

No seriously... it's not that bad, but make no mistake that it's bad. Here's a movie with several different influences that just don't sit well together. A small part of it seems to want to be The Kentucky Fried Movie occasionally and the other tries really hard to be cool with lots of blood n' guts badass'dness the likes of which were present in some of co-director Robert Rodriguez's earlier movies. Those two things tend to cancel eachother out to a certain degree, I think, and resulting the movie falls into that trap that many movies seem to these days... it works too hard to do too many things, and as a result succeeds at none of them entirely. It's amusing sometimes, but frankly not enough to be called a comedy. The action is intense and gruesome, albeit cartoony, and not really what I'd call "fun."

Three and a half years ago, Rodriguez made a fake trailer for Machete which was used as an interstitial bit during Grindhouse, the double feature tribute to low budget 70s exploitation flicks that he made with Quentin Tarantino. Fans seemed to agree that the fake trailers (Machete in particular) delivered much more satisfaction than the two movies themselves, each of which ran upwards of 90s minutes and seriously wore out their welcome. The popularity endured, in part because beloved character actor and Rodriguez regular Danny Trejo was so great in the role, and now Machete has been expanded to a feature's length of 1 hour and 45 minutes. In a way, it feels like a third Grindhouse feature, but with toned down mimicry of subpar 70s filmmaking. Also like those movies, it's one that feels like it might have played right at about 65-70 minutes rather than 100.

Part of what made the fake trailer so great was that we only got quick flashes of the absurd story, without any of that clunky set-up or pesky backstory to get in the way. The new movie sees fit not only to reuse (or recreate) as much of the trailer's material as it could, but to weave the peices into a storyline explaining how Machete gets from point A to point B to point C. Isn't brevity the soul of wit, to deploy an overused quote? And aren't certain things funnier if left pretty much unexplained?

The basic premise is that Machete, an ex-Federale living in Texas, gets wrapped up in a botched assassination attempt on an ardently anti-immigrant senator up for reelection. Give credit to Rodriguez for assembling an all-star cast including Robert DeNiro, Jessica Alba, Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin, Lindsay Lohan, Don Johnson and Steven Segal, but fault him at the same time for not coming up with something more interesting for all these people to do once they made it to set.

And a word about that, if I may... I really admire that Rodriguez has built his own studio empire in Austin... far from (and somewhat independent of) Hollywood, but at the same time I must acknowledge he coughs up what seems like 2 or 3 directing projects a year, most of them feel pretty mediocre, as this one does. Spielberg has directed multiple movies back to back before, and usually one will feel a little undernourished. You almost forgive him for being half-hearted with a Jurassic Park sequel or something like Minority Report, however, because there's a Schindler's List or a Catch Me If You Can or a Saving Private Ryan coming at the end of the line. If Rodriguez cuts short post-production on Spy Kids 3D, it's so he can jerk out The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3D before the fiscal year ends. There's a key difference here, folks.

In any case, I'll give the movie some points for a few great laughs, but would overall describe it as malformed and unsatisfying: One you can safely skip, be it in the theaters or on DVD. Watch the original trailer again, though:

And check out my journal entry on Grindhouse.