Monday, 21 February 2011

Monsters and Never Let Me Go: Two Brilliant British Independent Sci-Fi Films ask “What are You Doing Tomorrow?”

Walter was in Winnipeg for a couple of days and we watched yet another great 2010 film (have I mentioned 2010 was apparently an excellent year for film? Ignore any comments to the contrary): Never Let Me Go. We argued about whether this was a science fiction film. For me, any film that takes place in an alternate universe is automatically a science fiction film. We know from the moment Never Let Me Go starts that this film takes place in England, but it’s an England where, by 1967, the average life expectancy was 100. So something is amiss. I call that sci-fi, even if the film is best-described as a slow-moving, thoughtful romantic drama.

To analyze that drama and describe what makes it so unique, one would, however, need to say why something is amiss in this alternate 20th century England. I cannot do that because this is a film, like so many others, which you will enjoy much more if you know almost nothing about it. This limitation on what I think I can divulge invariably shortens my reviews and makes it difficult to write a meaningful essay about the experience I had watching it. Perhaps that is too high a price to pay, but for now I will pay that price.

Walter and I talked about the growing numbers reading our blog (thanks for dropping in, my friends; did you know you can become a ‘follower’ and be instantly alerted to all new reviews?). I expect this trend to continue as I commit to writing more reviews in the years ahead and as we get linked to more websites. Walter and I debated about the length of our reviews. We both enjoy reading long film reviews which add something meaningful to our own experience of watching the film. At the same time, we realize that the trend in journalism is toward more bite-sized articles that people can read in a minute or less. So Walter will probably continue to write longer reviews while I try to mix it up with mini-reviews and longer reflections.

This, as you will have gathered by now, is going to be a longer reflection, even if I can’t divulge the secret of Never Let Me Go (not so much a problem with Monsters). Never Let Me Go is based on the 2005 prize-winning novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, who also wrote the novel The Remains of the Day. It stars three young British actors: Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightly and Andrew Garfield. All of the actors in this film were outstanding but Mulligan (who was so brilliant in An Education, my favourite film of 2009) impressed me again with her extraordinary skills as an actor. I continue to predict that she has many acting awards in her future. The cinematography is also outstanding, working almost exclusively with earthy colours to contribute to the film’s rather bleak atmosphere. While its impact on me was more in the ***+ range, Never Let Me Go is so beautifully made (it’s directed by Mark Romanek, written by Alex Garland) and acted that I must give it ****.

Never Let Me Go is an exquisitely subtle film, its slow pace focusing on relationships, not on messages. But one message is made explicit at the end and I was amazed when, two days later, I watched a film (which just happened to be another independent British sci-fi film) which came at the same core message from a very different angle. That message (in my opinion) is the reminder that life is about what we decide to do with each day we are given. Never Let Me Go approaches this message from a distinctly fatalistic angle, while Monsters, which twice has the protagonist asking the question: “What are you doing tomorrow?” approaches the question from an angle that challenges the standard obligations of life. Yet both films seem to say that we have the freedom to make each day our own, to live life to the fullest while striving to become more fully human.

One does not expect a low-budget monster film to be profound, or, except for fans, even watchable. But Monsters was a very pleasant surprise (thanks, Jeremy, for recommending it to me). It began by reminding me of another low-budget sci-fi film that profoundly impacted my life (in a negative way). That was a 1959 film called First Man into Space that I saw when I was nine years old and which gave me nightmares for years. Like Monsters, it was about what happens when a ship sent into space comes crashing back to earth with a “monster” on board. In both films, we learn by the end that the “monster” (or monsters) is not what it first appears to be.

In Monsters, the alien “monsters” which catch a ride back to earth from one of the moons of Jupiter land in Mexico, resulting in a quarantined area called the "Infected Zone” which extends to the U.S. border. The U.S. immediately builds this ginormous Wall along its border to keep out the aliens (need I expound on the rather obvious allegory?). I couldn’t help thinking how lucky they were that the aliens didn’t land in Canada.

The story of Monsters involves the attempt of of Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and Sam (Whitney Able) to get through the Infected Zone back into the safety of the U.S. Kaulder is doing it as a favour to his employer, Sam’s father, and he doesn’t like it. Sam, meanwhile, is engaged to a man in the U.S. but doesn’t seem to be approaching her married life in the U.S. suburbs with great enthusiasm. I’ll reveal no more about what happens on the journey Kaulder and Sam take together except to suggest that they discover life is more about the journey than the destination (thus the repeated question: “What are you doing tomorrow?”).

I would love to talk about the ending of Monsters but can’t do it to you. What I will say is that I found it profoundly satisfying. This is not your average low-budget sci-fi/horror flick, the kind I rarely appreciate. This is a film which dares to avoid the kind of gore and action in which such films specialize. And it dares to avoid all of the obvious approaches to aliens and try something altogether “alien”. I loved that about Monsters. I hesitate to say this, but it needs to said: I even think the film may be asking who the ‘monsters’ really are.

The way Monsters was shot by first-time director Gareth Edwards made the film about much more than aliens, namely also about the life of the people of Mexico. Monsters was shot entirely on location (mostly Mexico) using all non-actors (except for the two lead roles), similar to the way Mexican director Carlos Reygadas makes his films. The non-actors react exactly as you would expect them to and the result is a sci-fi film that feels incredibly real - even the low-budget special effects feel real (as opposed to CGI wonders) and are the better for it.

I have avoided saying much about the aliens. Back to my comment above about not giving too much away, I want you to discover these aliens for yourself. But perhaps most of our readers have already seen the films in question and would like to read about our reflections on everything that happened in the film. If that’s the case, write a comment and I will reconsider the way I write my reviews.

In the meantime, I will make one change, effectively immediately: I will start putting film titles in all of my review titles, to make it easier for readers to find a specific review. Monsters, by the way, gets a very solid ***+. My mug is up for both of these great sci-films.

Monday, 14 February 2011

More Excellent 2010 Films to Watch For

The more I catch up on 2010 films, the more I think I was premature in saying it was a relatively poor year for films. In the past few weeks, I have seen three more excellent films made in 2010.

Barney’ Version

The best of these was Barney’s Version, a Canadian film starring Paul Giamatti as a flawed man obsessed with love. It’s a tragicomedy in typical Canadian style and I loved it. As I am once again writing regular reviews for Media Matters (Third Way Cafe), my full review of Barney’s Version can be found there. Here is the link: ****

Another Year

Mike Leigh is my favourite British director and Another Year is another typical and typically excellent Leigh film. My favourite Leigh film, All or Nothing, featured a very dysfunctional family struggling to find a way forward. Another Year, by contrast, features a remarkably functional and happy family whose struggle (during the year in question) revolves around their dysfunctional friends. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen are perfect as the older couple (Tom and Gerri) whose closest friends are desperately lonely, depressed and always drinking, and Lesley Manville (who also starred in All or Nothing) is outstanding as the key friend, a woman with serious boundary issues.

Another beautiful family drama, involving the ordinary people of London, made by the master of such films. This also gets ****. Would Barney’s Version and Another Year have made my top ten of 2010? I’m not sure and I don’t want to spend too much time thinking about it.

The Town

I’ve said before that Ben Affleck should stick to directing and leave the acting to others. In The Town, he tries to do both, starring as a thief (banks and armoured cars) who lives in the Charlestown area of Boston, an area apparently renowned for its thieves. This tale centres on the developing romantic relationship between the thief and one of his victims (who doesn’t know he was the thief in question because he was masked). It makes for a very intriguing premise and interesting story, and it’s all done quite well, with plenty of drama and suspense, but The Town doesn’t quite pull it off for me.

At the centre of that failure, I come back to Affleck’s acting. He isn’t terrible here by any means, but neither is he particularly convincing as a man struggling with his conscience and his life of crime. Nevertheless, The Town is well worth watching and gets a solid ***+.