Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Never Let Me Go (2010, Mark Romanek)

“Everyone I know goes away in the end.” ~ Nine Inch Nails, “Hurt”

When asked recently about the essential difference between his original U.K. version of The Office and its American remake, series creator/star Ricky Gervais stated that while Americans are brought up to believe in their boundless potential for success, British children are more often reminded of their social standing and limitations. I expect that this difference has quite a bit to do with the chilly reception Mark Romanek’s delicate adaptation of Never Let Me Go has found on these shores. Like The Remains of the Day, the most notable big-screen Kazuo Ishiguro adaptation, Never Let Me Go is a story about people who have been born and raised for the express purpose of serving. It’s not necessarily a theme that resonates widely in a culture that values determination and grit, but it’s a more universal idea than most people would probably care to admit.

It’s impossible for me to discuss the particulars of Never Let Me Go without spoiling the plot, so here goes.

Never Let Me Go is an almost unbearably sad story of three people- Kathy (Carey Mulligan), the film’s protagonist, and her friends Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley)- who have been bred specifically to serve as organ donors for others who have been born naturally. Like the meagerly paid Third World workers who toil in ramshackle factories to manufacture the products we take for granted, these “donors” are kept out of sight from the general population- less emotionally messy that way. From childhood, they’re sequestered in an isolated school called Hailsham, where they are taught numerous academic subjects in a way that doesn’t prepare them for the future so much as allow them to mark time before the inevitable. And these are the lucky ones- the administration of Hailsham sees itself as progressive, if you can call encouraging children to hope for the future before slamming the door on these hopes “progressive.”

What seems to turn off the film’s critics is the acceptable the characters have for their fate. However, it felt right to me. Since they were born, these children have been brought up to obey their elders and betters and not to question what they’re told about the world. They’re kept isolated from anything that might contradict what they already know, and are fed rumors about the horrors that face those who run away. All their lives, the characters in Never Let Me Go are told that their only worth is as spare parts for others, so it seems somehow right that they wouldn’t try to escape their fate for fear that they wouldn’t fulfill their appointed “purpose.”

Besides, what would people have this be? The Island, in which characters who have been raised in captivity suddenly morph into motorcycle daredevils and shoot-‘em-up action stars? Give me a break. When a person has spent his or her entire life clinging to a shred of hope, it’s the more mundane things that begin to sustain them- Lucy’s childhood dreams of owning a horse, or the art projects the students are assigned with the promise that the best will be selected to be shown in a gallery. As an adult, Kathy becomes a “carer,” tending to other donors and shepherding them through to their “completions” (even in death, donors aren’t granted full humanity). It’s a difficult responsibility, but Kathy believes she’s doing a service, bringing comfort to her fellow donors, including Tommy and Ruth. Trouble is, every donor’s got to reach completion sooner or later.

Late in the film, the characters hear a rumor that donors can be granted a few extra years if they are found to be in love. For Kathy and Tommy, who have harbored feelings for each other since their Hailsham years, this presents a new kind of hope. However, the movie never makes this possibility seem any more real than the rumors of Hailsham escapees turning up dead and mutilated. But while we don’t believe the rumor to be true- and it’s possible that Kathy doesn’t believe it very deeply either- Tommy is excited about the possibility of a delayed completion. It’s in these scenes where Garfield’s performance, the best in the film, gets especially fascinating. While Kathy and Ruth have grown up to be fairly normal (considering the circumstances), Tommy has remained more or less childlike, and so his efforts to prove he deserves to be granted an extension find him reverting to the ways he learned at Hailsham, as he draws sketch after sketch to show off his creative mind and soul. When he discovers the truth, it devastates him so much that all he can do is break down screaming as he did when he was a child. It’s a heartbreaking moment, as is his final scene, in which he meets his destiny by turning to Kathy and giving her one final sad smile.

One of the marvels of Never Let Me Go is how precisely Romanek captures the very specific tone of the novel. Ishiguro’s book is fairly light on story, so in order for the movie to work at all Romanek needed to find the right feeling, and he never missteps. Every element of the film- the performances, Rachel Portman’s score, the muted cinematography and art direction- is tightly controlled, all in the service of sustaining the mood of resigned fatalism at the heart of Ishiguro’s vision. Romanek doesn’t reach for his effects because to do so would break the movie’s spell. Like its central character, Never Let Me Go refuses to rage against the dying of the light, and while of the movie’s critics might object to that, I for one found it to be incredibly moving. By refusing to pander to the audience’s need to catharsis, Romanek has done justice to a great book.
Rating: 8 out of 10.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Social Network (2010, David Fincher)

Nowadays, we’re told from childhood that we can do damn near anything, provided we’re willing to put forth the effort. And while that’s not entirely wrong, the truth is that some people have a much easier path to worldly success than others. To be born into money is a tremendous leg up for a child, since his family’s social and financial status allows them to use their money and connections to give their child an advantage over those who are less fortunate. And if David Fincher’s spellbinding The Social Network is any indication, the stratification is even more pronounced at the top. In the world envisioned by Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, the Harvard students we see aren’t content to accept that they’re the cream of the crop because they attend America’s most prestigious university- they need to further stratify their society, with the truly elite winning invitation to the school’s prestigious “final clubs” while the others find themselves on the outside, looking in.

Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, is one of those on the outside. Early in the film he despairs, “how do I distinguish myself when I’m surrounded by people who all got 1600 on their SATs?” He sees induction into a final club as being his ticket to greater things in life, and he pictures (fantasizes?) soirees in which Harvard’s best and brightest bus in stunning young women for all sorts of decadent activities. Meanwhile, the best Mark can manage is to get into a Jewish frat that holds kitschy “Caribbean nights.” It doesn’t help that Mark is lacking in social acumen- the movie’s first scene finds him talking circles around his girlfriend, belittling her college (“Why do you need to study? You go to BU”), and insinuating that she slept with the doorman.

Naturally, the girl in question calls Mark an asshole and breaks up with him, which prompts Mark to get drunk, post nasty remarks about her to his blog, and extrapolate his feelings about her into a resentment toward all the women around him by starting a blog called “Facemash”, which asked visitors to compare the relative hotness of Harvard’s coeds. The stunt ended up crashing Harvard’s servers and landing Mark in hot water with the school’s administration, but it also made him a celebrity on campus and attracted the attention of a trio of popular seniors, the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer and Josh Pence) and their friend Divya Narendra (Max Minghella). The three of them approach Mark to assist them with an idea of theirs, called The Harvard Connection, which would connect Harvard men to connect with interested women, since “women want to go with guys who go to Harvard.” Mark, of course, accepts.

It’s the so-called “Winklevii” who present the movie’s strongest contrast to Mark. Whereas Mark is average in stature and appearance, the Winklevii are practically Aryan poster boys (“I’m 6’5”, 220 pounds, and there’s two of me”). Likewise, the Winklevii are rich kids, honors students, and star, Olympic-bound rowers on Harvard’s celebrated crew team. Divya appears to be formidable unto himself, but he’s practically the Winklevii’s sidekick. Perhaps most importantly, all three are longstanding members of one of Harvard’s most elite final clubs, and when they propose their idea to Mark they’re only able to take him into the club as far as “the bike room.”

So why does Mark take the Winklevii and Navendra up on their idea only to turn his back on them almost instantaneously to pursue what would eventually become Facebook? According to the Winklevii, Facebook was a ripoff of their Harvard Connection concept, but I don’t see that many similarities to be honest. On the basis of The Social Network, Mark didn’t steal the concept so much as turn it upside down. Whereas the Winklevii were two of Harvard’s golden boys, Mark was an outsider in almost every sense. He saw The Harvard Connection as reinforcing the sense of entitlement that the Winklevii and their peers felt at being rich, smart, and popular. While he and guys like him yearned to be accepted into the Winklevii’s sphere, he also resented their eagerness to trade on the irresistibility of their lifestyle, while employing someone else to do most of the leg work. All this, of course, in the guise of “rehabilitating Mark’s image”, to use the Winklevii’s condescending phrase. What they don’t realize is that Mark won’t be condescended to- not by Harvard’s chief of security, not by the Winklevii’s smug attorney, not even by the golden boys of a final club Mark wishes to join.

The Harvard Connection was basically another way for the Winklevii and those like them to confirm their awesomeness by trumpeting the irresistible allure of the Harvard name to women who were in the market for the most eligible men out there. Like so many aspects of their blessed lives, it was defined by its exclusionary nature. But although Facebook was only available at certain college in its early years, any student who attended those colleges could join. Consequently, Mark’s creation of Facebook feels like a raised middle finger to the Winklevii and their cocoon of privilege. When asked why the Winklevii filed the suit, Mark posits that “for the first time in their lives things didn’t turn out as they’d planned.” In short, they weren’t the golden boys anymore. We see the Winklevii competing in one of the world’s toniest upper-crust sporting events, the Henley Regatta, and their hard-fought loss to the Dutch crew team feels like small potatoes to them after they’re told that video from the race had already been posted on Facebook. In response, the Winklevii (who had previously tried to be honorable about the whole thing because they thought it was the Harvard way to be) show their true colors by saying, “let’s get this frickin’ nerd.”

Of course, it would be much easier to root for Mark Zuckerberg if The Social Network it was just about him beating a matching pair of Teutonic stuffed shirts at their own game. But Mark is too prickly a character for that. Fincher and Sorkin contrast Mark’s difficulties with the Winklevii with a very different lawsuit filed by his Facebook co-founder and former best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, very good). As Mark worked on the coding and design of Facebook, Eduardo supplied his business savvy, first supplying some of his own money before venturing out to find advertising revenue.

Unfortunately for Eduardo, advertising didn’t mesh well with Mark’s image for Facebook, which was “cool” precisely because it wasn’t plastered with ads. So when Napster founder Sean Parker (played by Justin Timberlake) swooped in to hook Mark up with his venture capitalist friends, Eduardo found himself being forced out of a business he’s helped start and into which he’d poured much of his money and energy. Once again, there are some class dynamics in play- Saverin was a buttoned-down prep school graduate, whereas Parker was a self-made Silicon Valley rock star who lived fast and seemed less interested in making money than staying on the edge. The difference between Eduardo and the Winklevii is that Eduardo honestly cares about Facebook. The business with the Winklevii was just that- business- but Eduardo comes off almost like a jilted lover. In fact, during his final deposition, Eduardo can’t even bear to look Mark in the face, turning his chair around and gazing out the window with tears in his eyes.

The Social Network is the most impressive Hollywood movie I’ve seen this year, with a whip-smart screenplay, stellar filmmaking, and impeccable performances across the board. Eisenberg’s work as Zuckerberg is light years from the affable nebbishes he usually plays, and the supporting cast- yes, even Justin Timberlake- is first-rate across the board. But honestly, I think I’ve said plenty about the movie already. Not only are the film’s other pleasures articulated clearly by some of the other reviews out there, but this is such a deep film that it will take multiple viewings just for me to absorb everything it has to offer. And who knows- maybe after I revisit it, I’ll bump this rating up even higher.

Rating: 9 out of 10.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Life During Wartime (2009, Todd Solondz)

You know, I think I’m pretty much done with Solondz. Happiness has its problems, particularly when Solondz feels the need to provoke, but it also makes some genuinely cogent points about the inability of its characters to relate to each other, or in some cases even try. For the most part, Storytelling and Palindromes kept the provocations while jettisoning the incisiveness, but I had some hope that Solondz might be able to pull it together for this sequel to Happiness. Alas, no such luck. Life During Wartime tones down the audience-baiting (to a point anyway), but doesn’t fill the gaps with anything interesting. It’s that rarest of creatures- a bland Todd Solondz movie.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have a handful of interesting ideas on its plate. Foremost among these is Solondz’s re-casting of the entire ensemble. The most obvious impetus behind this is to suggest the passage of time and the effects the years have had on the characters. Nebbishy pedophile Bill Maplewood, formerly played by Dylan Baker, has emerged from a decade-long prison sentence as hulking, monosyllabic Ciaran Hinds. Sunny bleeding-heart Joy has morphed from Jane Adams into wet blanket Shirley Henderson. Allen, the shut-in prank caller once played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, has turned into The Wire’s Michael Kenneth Williams, picking up additional dangerous hobbies along the way.

And so on. It would be easy to call Solondz’s re-casting a cheap formalist prank. After all, this was the guy who alternated half a dozen different actresses of different ages, body types, and colors (along with one male) in the lead role of Palindromes. But I think that Solondz recognizes that most of his audience will already be familiar with Happiness- enough that our familiarity will inform our pre-conceived notions of the characters and their lives. Consequently, he’s able to use the re-casting of the roles to comment on how greatly they’ve changed in the intervening years. For example, in the first movie Dr. Maplewood’s wife Trish, then played by Cynthia Stevenson, was something of a pushover, but a decade of raising her children alone while moving past her family’s dicey past (with help from prescription medications) has turned her into the quirkier, more imposing Alison Janney. Since we already know where she’s been, it’s interesting to see how much she’s changed.

Alas, if only the rest of the movie was so thought-provoking. Not that it doesn’t try, mind you- Solondz clearly thinks he has plenty to say on the subject of forgiveness. And maybe the film could have been a fascinating treatise on forgiveness if only he didn’t feel the need to make his characters talk about it in every other scene. The most egregious mouthpiece for Solondz’s thesis is little Timmy Maplewood (played by Dylan Riley Snyder), who at one point grills his mother and her new beau (the decidedly non-fruity Michael Lerner) about the concept of forgiveness and how far it should be taken. Timmy’s conflicted feelings about forgiveness make sense for his character- after all, this is a kid who has just discovered that his dad isn’t a dead war hero but rather an imprisoned sex offender. But Solondz just doesn’t know when to stop with Timmy. Scene after scene finds Timmy grappling with his feelings loudly and at length, until all I could do was give up on the character. It doesn’t help matters that Solondz feels the need to spout off profanities at several points, or that Snyder is less effective as a flesh-and-blood performer than an image of boyish innocence.

If Timmy is coming to grips with the past, his elders are haunted by it. In the case of Joy, this haunting is literal- she’s visited at several points by Andy (previously Jon Lovitz, now Paul Reubens), who committed suicide after she snubbed him in the first movie. During his visits, Andy appeals to Joy’s memory of their relationship (such as it was) and remembers the pain she once caused him. He also invites her to join him in death, an invitation that’s extended to her once more by Allen’s spirit after he too kills himself. The scenes with the ghosts show some promise- Solondz means to position them as the counterpoint to Timmy’s notions of forgiveness- but mostly come off as clumsy.

This clumsy execution of potentially effective ideas is a common thread that runs through Life During Wartime. There are a handful of moments that actually work as they should, notably a scene in which Charlotte Rampling plays a self-loathing woman who picks up Bill at a bar. But more scenes are like the film’s climax- in which Timmy mistakes an innocent male bonding gesture for an unwelcome sexual advance- which is so hamfisted in its setup and follow-through that most of its impact gets blunted. In the end, very little Solondz does in Life During Wartime manages to hit home. Storytelling and Palindromes didn’t work for me, but at least they were the work of a filmmaker who was trying. By contrast, Life During Wartime finds Solondz, like his characters, replaying old tapes.

Frankly, I’m getting tired of listening to these old tapes. Once again, Solondz’s worldview can be boiled down to “life sucks, and then you die.” The only thing new he can bring to the table here is that it sucks when you’re dead too. But that’s not enough to make his brand of nihilism any less cheap. I’m not averse to bleakness in my movies- I love No Country for Old Men, after all- but if that’s all you got, you don’t have much of anything. Unless I hear that Solondz suddenly has more to say, I think I’ll forego his movies from now on.

Rating: 4 out of 10.