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Never Let Me Go (2010)

You’ll be excused for mistaking Never Let Me Go as one of those austere boardinghouse dramas the English are fond of cranking out. I mean it even has Keira Knightley in the thing for goodness sakes. Pretty lily-white British actors trying to find their place in a reserved society spanning the 1970s to the mid 1990s. You’d be forgiven for stifling a yawn. But then Never Let Me Go takes a sudden left turn into a realm of science fiction morality play. It becomes something much deeper and menacing. I am about to go into some major spoilers concerning the sinister premise of the movie, so if you’d prefer to stay pure then politely excuse yourself from the remainder of this review and come back at a later time. I won’t think less of you but only if you promise to come back.

Kathy (Carey Mulligan) and her pals Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Knightley) all grew up in the remote countryside school of Hailsham. It’s like any other school in most regards, except at Hailsham the children all wear monitoring bracelets, are afraid to leave the boundaries of school for fear of being murdered by outside forces, and are told that her physical fitness and internal health are of “paramount importance.” Figured it out yet? My wife didn’t take long before she leaned over and whispered, “Are these kids organ slaves?” Kathy and her friends find out their true identity when an outside third-grade teacher (Sally Hawkins) takes pity on them. She reveals that the students of Hailsham are clones whose sole purpose is to be raised into healthy adults who will then give “donations” to the ailing public at large. Most clones will go through one to four “donations” before “completing,” unless they so desire. You see Never Let Me Go exists in a realm where medical science has made momentous breakthroughs and now people can live to 100 years of age on average. Kathy and her friends are the dirty details.

The rest of the movie flashes through our trio’s teen years. Kathy has always been kind and affectionate to Tommy, but before she could seal the deal Ruth swooped in and took Tommy for her own. Kathy has waited in vain for the two to break up, but that day just never comes. The trio ventures out to a small farmhouse in their teens to do some work and see the outside world. They’re living with a few other Hailsham alums that show them the knack for social interaction with outsiders. There are two rumors at play. One is that the Hailsham alums think they’ve found Ruth’s “original,” the person she’s been cloned from. The second rumor has greater significance: if two Hailsham students can prove that they’re in love, deep, honest love, then they can defer their donations for a few years. This idea takes hold of Tommy and consumes him. Except, we don’t really know whether Ruth or Kathy will be his partner in love.

So why don’t these people run away, or fight back, or do anything of defiance once they discover the horrible truth that will befall them? I have read several critics taking the film to task for being so painfully prosaic and passive, and Never Let Me Go can admittedly fall prey to those detractions at times. However, this is not the Hollywood version where the abused (clones) fight back for their survival and regain independence in a hostile world. That movie was called The Island, plus the several other films that Michael Bay sort of ripped off and then added extra loud explosions. Never Let Me Go has nary an explosion or moment of triumphant revolution. There is no revolt coming because the film doesn’t want to let anyone off the hook; these people are society’s collective collateral damage. They have been bred to be walking, talking, mostly demure, fleshy warehouses for spare parts. It’s only a matter of time before they leave everything on the operating room table, and these people benignly accept their doomed fate (“We all complete”). They march forward, trying to find some level of dignity and beauty before they get the call for “donations.” These people don’t know what it means to rebel; they have no real concept of liberty. They’ve been conditioned since childhood to obey, and that’s the whole point of the film. They have no self-preservation instincts. Likely any cloned child that was expressing strong feelings of boldness was removed, and destroyed, so as not to taint the rest of group. These people are like gown-up versions of veal. They’ve been cultivated since birth for the purpose of destruction, and their knowledge of the world is limited and cruelly self-serving. Watching innocent characters march off to a merciless fate can be very emotionally draining. It should also make you angry.

These people are hopeless so that the movie’s full impact is absorbed. This isn’t some far off nightmarish scenario, because we as a society are already reaping the rewards of a lifestyle, a lifestyle that we’re loath to think about the mechanics of how we got so fat and happy. I can go to a Walmart and buy a T-shirt for a dollar. I am a happy consumer, but what did it take for me to get that product at such a discounted rate? Sure there are variables up the wazoo, but there are many negative factors that go into why that price stays low, invisible hand of the market be damned. Workers clock long hours in unsafe conditions in order to meet supply, earning a penance just enough to keep them alive and moving product. Environmental concerns are overlooked because that would mess with production. Long-term generational poverty can develop. The worker has ceased to be a person and is merely a dispenser of product, much like our clones in the film. This is not a definitive example of what goes on in the world, mind you. Never Let Me Go isn’t some far off scenario; we’re already there, albeit less explicitly. If the price of gas rose a dollar a gallon but it meant that people in other countries could have safe, uncontaminated water and enough food to stay healthy, what do you think would happen?

With all of that said, Never Let Me Go can’t fully fight the trappings of inert drama. For two hours we are watching somewhat nice, somewhat bland British kids gawk and smile their way toward the inevitable. The conceit calls for the breeding of rather milquetoast personalities. It simultaneously makes the characters more innocent and less emotionally involving. The screenplay relies on our sense of outrage and injustice to fill in the gaps of emotional connection. There are little molehills of characterization at best. You’re supposed to be choked up on indignation and sadness so as to not notice that the threesome of character are all rather good-natured but boring. That even may be an aim of the screenplay to accentuate the terrible fate that awaits, or maybe I’m just being overly analytical. Never Let Me Go reveals its awful truth fairly early at about the 40-minute mark, making sure that the audience is fully aware that we are definitely not headed for a happy ending. As it is, the actors are all lovely and talented but there’s only so much silent emoting and teary eyes can conjure.

It’s credit to the talents of the actors that you do feel a storm of emotions from such otherwise frail characters. Mulligan (An Education) showcases her great gifts for communicating sadness. Her face just crinkles up, her eyes get glassy, and you want to hug her. She’s our dramatic linchpin. Her looks of conflict and yearning do well to communicate the inner struggle of her character’s abbreviated life. There’s a lot left to the imagination and Mulligan once again crushes it. Garfield (The Social Network) is stuck playing a wishy-washy character, which makes him seem a bit thick at times. He’s the most naïve and hopeful of the three, so when those hopes get crushed again and again his breakdowns have the most emotional heft. Knightley (Pride and Prejudice) has been in six period films since 2005, so she’s got this thing down pat. Ruth is a bit more assertive and angry than her friends, and it’s a pleasure seeing a more calculating side from the actress. It seems like the filmmakers had a troublesome time trying to downplay the attractive features of their cast. So it seems that they relied on the actors eating less. Knightley, and particularly Garfield, look rather gaunt and puckish, even before they begin “donations.”

I’ve gone this far without even mentioning director Mark Romanek’s (One Hour Photo) contributions, or the fact that the film is based off the 2005 novel by author Kazuo Ishiguru (Remains of the Day) and is adapted by Alex Garland (28 Days Later). Great artists that shaped the vision of this film. It’s a shame then that the impact of Never Let Me Go is blunted. It’s an intelligent, poetic, haunting, and emotionally wrenching film experience, and yet it could have been far more penetrating and devastating. The passive nature of the characters accentuates their doom and our sense of outrage. But that same passive nature makes them less than engaging characters. It’s been days since I saw the film and it still lingers in my memory, a testament to the moral quandaries and acting prowess. The existential drama of the film is better suited for the page where the questions of identity and morality can be given more careful and rewarding examination. The movie has an oddly detached feel to so much suffering. Never Let Me Go is a hard film to let go but also a hard film to truly embrace.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Wolfman (2010)

After re-shoots, reedits, a second director late in the process, and delayed release dates, it’s no surprise that The Wolfman is a bit of a shaggy mess.

In 1880, Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) is an actor who returns home to England when he learns that his brother has been killed. Gwen (Emily Blunt), the fiancé to Talbot’s dead bro, writes that the departed brother was mauled, which points toward some kind of vicious creature roaming the woods. Inspector Aberline (Hugo Weaving) has been called in to clear the matter. Talbot’s father, Sir John (Anthony Hopkins), welcomes his prodigal son back but warns him of the dangers lurking in the countryside. The villagers are ready to blame the gypsy caravan and their chained bear when the feral creature strikes again, thus exonerating the bear. Talbot is bitten by the beast but survives only to transform into the cursed werewolf once every full moon.

Structurally, this movie feels like it’s all Act 1 and Act 3 with about ten minutes in between. By that I mean it’s all protracted setup and climax and little to connect the two. The beginning takes so long, with characters walking around like zombies who have no sense of wonder or fear given the extravagant circumstances. This is a movie that confuses set changes with plot advancement. Dour characters enter half-lit rooms and say little that isn’t cryptic or terse about the unusual happenings. This is what you have to look forward to for about an hour. The central mystery of who is the initial Wolfman is pretty easy to figure out when you play the economy of characters, which only compounds the movie’s sluggish pacing problems. You’re going to have definite pacing issues when your monster can only appear once a month, so say hello to massive time-lapse montages with the moon. It makes it hard to keep track of how much time is actually elapsing.

There is little cogent explanation for why anything happens and the movie does an extremely poor job of maintaining a credible suspension of disbelief. What exactly are the rules here? What are the limitations for the Wolfmen? How far back does this whole thing go? The movie traces it back to an Indian kid, who looks like Gollum, in a cave, but where did he get it from? What is the history of this lycanthropy illness? When you turn into the monster, do you have any control? Are you a slave to your animal impulses? Are you culpable for what happens? Is it more like having multiple personalities except one of them is harrier? Nothing is really made clear and the movie just plows along while the unanswered questions continue to pile up, never to be addressed.

The Wolfman does a fine job of establishing an ambiance that feels ripped right from the old Hammer horror films, but fog and shadows and art direction can only take you so far. Every room looks like it’d be a prize-winning example of how to build a haunted house, though the lighting tends to be overly murky. Danny Elfman also provides a darkly lush score that mingles well with the onscreen atmosphere. But the refined sets only tease a better movie. An attack at the gypsy camp can get interesting. The beast flaring up at an insane asylum calls for something wickedly entertaining and scary, but everything is over before it really gets going, and we’ve moved on to the next scene of character sitting glumly in the dark. There’s nothing to startle beyond some overused jump scares. The movie lacks good scares because the film fundamentally can’t sustain a mood because the plot is never elaborated.

The character work is exceedingly shallow. Talbot is the main character but what do we learn about him? He’s an actor, he left town, he gets bit by a wolf, he skips stone’s with his dead brother’s girl, and that’s about it, folks. There’s an entire back story about Talbot spending time in a mental ward, which could prove to be fascinating but it’s just another set piece and nothing more. Talbot is pretty much a placeholder for a character; he’s the dude that has to get bit for there to be a story. He’s more catalyst than character, and you can feel that painful realization in how Del Toro (Traffic, Che) plays his non-character. Del Toro is a truly capable actor but he sleepwalks through the entire movie and mumbles most of his lines. Despite being a dead ringer for Lon Chaney Jr., he brings no energy to his role, nor does he ever seem truly concerned with his beastly transformation. You got more reaction and contemplation from Michael J. Fox in Teen Wolf.

The rest of the actors try and make good with the parts they’ve been tossed. Blunt (Sunshine Cleaning) can be a very good actress but she’s playing the thankless task of the underwritten love-interest-to-monster part. She’s no more fleshed out than the blonde damsel that screams and faints in the old classic monster movies. Blunt has the annoying habit of her voice turning into this simpering whine when she’s distressed. Hopkins (Fracture) pretty much gives the plot away with his maniacal cackling and incessant ear-to-ear grinning. You can pretty much faithfully assume where his character is going from the first malevolent twinkle in his eye. The screenplay exerts no effort to disguise its easily telegraphed character reveals. The person who comes out best is Weaving as the inspector, but that may be directly linked to the fact that he has the least amount of screen time of any of the main characters.

The special effects are fairly good and the practical makeup effects by screen legend Rick Baker are even better. The actual Wolfman is a snarling, spooky creature, but I wonder why we don’t get more shots allowing us to fully view the makeup work. Director Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park 3, Jumanji) seems to be more of a proponent of CGI, which means that we get scenes of Wolfie jumping from ye olde rooftop to rooftop like he’s any sort of wily creature. There’s nothing in the movie that really makes use of the specifics of being a Wolfman. We get a few POV shots of the Wolfman running extremely fast, but little else takes advantage of what makes the Wolfman a creature to be reckoned with. We only get a slew of decapitations and sliced innards that display the ferociousness of those wolf claws. Johnston isn’t afraid of gore but he doesn’t help his case when he fails to create any feeling of dread. It’s hard to dread what you can barely understand and with people you don’t really care about. Consider me stubborn, but when I got to a movie called The Wolfman I want some attention paid to the title animal.

As I was watching The Wolfman I began to disassemble it in my head and piece together my own version of the film, an infinitely better version. For the sake or argument, I’ll explain my version and you can tell me which seems like the superior product. In my imaginary version, I completely eliminated Blunt, Hopkins, and most of the other side characters. I focused on Talbot and the Inspector and their relationship. Talbot has known about his lycanthropy for some time but he’s been able to control it for the most part, until recently. It haunts him, his inability to stop the sinister urges inside him that take over. The inspector is called in after the mysterious murders have picked up and they resemble some equally gruesome murders from 20 years prior (when Talbot first grappled with his hairy alter ego). The bent of the plot would then be on the relationship forged between the two men, how it turns into mutual affection and admiration all the while Talbot is trying to stay one step ahead of the investigation. Then my Act 2 break would be the Inspector finally realizing who is responsible for the murders (his friend!) and struggling with his own moral obligation to meet justice. Maybe this sounds too much like a crime thriller, but to me that sounds like a better film than watching two CGI werewolves claw at each other and spit.

The Wolfman is yet another misguided remake in a genre being gutted by horror remakes. The old monster movies of old were more than creature features and deserve better treatment than this bloody mess. I suppose few films can survive given the retooling process this one went through. This super serious monster movie has terrific production design, some alluring atmosphere, and a whopping void where a story should be. Characters will bumble about and the plot hums along with no explanation or elaboration given, meaning that setup often immediately crashes into climax. That’s not a satisfying recipe for a moviegoer. The Wolfman is mostly suspense-free and the actors are phoning it in; Hopkins is a kook, Blunt trembles her lower lip, and Del Toro seems to be drugged. This is mostly a costume drama with a little gore splashes in for good measure. It’s boring and half-baked and the best attribute is the scenery. If I wanted to watch scenery I’d flip through a Home and Gardens magazine. I was expecting entertainment here but instead it’s just another reminder to stick with the original.

Nate’s Grade: C

One Hour Photo (2002)

Do we regularly invite strangers to view the picturesque and personal moments of our life like marriages, celebrations, and maybe even a handful of hastily conceived topless photos? Well we all do every time we drop off a roll of film for development.

Robin Williams continues his 2002 Tour of the Dark Side (Death to Smoochy, Insomnia) as way of Sy, your friendly photo guy working at your local Sav-mart superstore. Sy takes an intense artistic pride in the quality of prints he gives. He knows customers by name and can recite addresses verbatim. One family in particular Sy has become fond of is the Yorkins, mother Nina (Connie Nielsen), father Will (Michael Vartan) and nine-year-old Jake. The Yorkins have been coming to Sav-mart and Sy for over 11 years to have their photos developed. He tells Nina that he almost feels like “Uncle Sy” to the family. For Sy, the Yorkins are the ideal postcard family with perennially smiling faces and the happiest of birthdays. He fantasizes about sharing holidays with them and even going to the bathroom in their posh home.

Sy is an emotionally suppressed and deeply lonely man caught in his delusions. In one of the eerier moments of the film we see that Sy has an entire wall made up of hundreds of the Yorkin’s’ personal pictures. When Sy attempts to become closer to the objects of his infatuation that’s when things begin to unravel at a serious pace. The more Sy learns that the Yorkins are not the perfect family he yearns for the more he tries to correct it and at any cost.

One Hour Photo is an impressive film debut by music video maven Mark Romanek (best known for the NIN “Closer” video). Romanek also wrote the darkly unrepentant story as well. One Hour Photo is a delicate voyage into the workings of Sy’’s instability with lushly colorful metaphors. Romanek’’s color scheme is a lovely treat, with vibrant colors popping out and Sy’’s life being dominated by cold, sterilized whites. His direction is chillingly effective.

This may be the first time we can truly say Robin Williams has not merely played a version of Robin Williams in a movie. Sy’’s thick glasses and thinning peroxide-like hair coupled with an array of facial pocks allow us to truly forget that the man behind the mask is Mork. His performance is unnerving and engrossing. The supporting cast all work well. Nielsen (Gladiator) is a sympathetic wife even if her hair looks like it was cut with her eyes closed. Vartan (Vaughn on ABC’’s wonderful Alias) plays understandably wary of Sy’’s friendliness. The great Gary Cole has a small role as Sav-mart’’s manager who grows tired of Sy’’s outbursts and peculiarities.

One Hour Photo is rife with nervous moments and titters. Williams almost has an uneasy predatory feel to him when left alone with Jake. The greatest achievement the film has is that is depicts the scariest person you’ll ever see, sans hockey mask, and by the end of the film you actually feel degrees of warmth for this odd duck.

Not everything clicks in Romanek’’s dark opus. A late out-of-left-field revelation by Sy feels forced and needlessly tacked on. The Yorkin family photos all appear to be taken by a third party, since the majority of them involve all three of them in frame. The climax to One Hour Photo also feels anything but climactic.

A compellingly creepy outing, One Hour Photo is fine entertainment with beautiful visuals and a haunting score. And maybe, in the end, it really does take an obsessive knife-wielding stalker to make us realize the importance of family.

Nate’s Grade: B

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