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September is coming to a close so it’s time to update our top fives! I’d say it’s been a pretty good lead up to awards season.

John

1. Inception
2. The Social Network
3. Green Zone
4. A Prophet
5. Kick-Ass

Brian

1. Inception
2. The Social Network
3. Toy Story 3
4. Kick-Ass
5. The Kids Are All Right

Jared

1. Inception
2. She’s Out of My League
3. Hot Tub Time Machine
4. Scott Pilgrim Vs The World
5. How to Train Your Dragon

The Grouches got a sneak peek at Never Let Me Go, director Mark Romanek’s first effort since One Hour Photo. The film did the festival circuit and opened last weekend in New York and LA to very good business. It will expand throughout the country in coming weeks.

Never Let Me Go
stars Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, and Andrew Garfield as friends who grew up together at an English boarding school. But this school has a sinister purpose. How will that affect the three companions as they move into adulthood?

John

I accidentally stumbled upon the film’s secret before seeing it. That made me quite mad as I thought it ruined the film for me. But the secret turned out not to be a big revelation. In fact, it’s essentially the premise of the film and explained rather early. We won’t spoil it for you here, but I imagine the secret of the school will appear in plenty of reviews as simply a plot point. Don’t be too concerned about getting spoiled.

I really like the idea of a twisty film laying out its big secret at the beginning and letting the film be about the characters living through the secret instead of building up to a shock revelation at the end. For instance, what if there was a sequel to The Sixth Sense? What would Bruce Willis do with his time now that he knows he is dead? It could be interesting.

But Never Let Me Go isn’t. It wastes its premise by not doing anything with it. I could see it moving in several directions. It could have become a plot-driven thriller, like how Children of Men took its premise of a world without childen and spun it into an action film. It could have used its premise to explore deeper themes, like examining what it means to be human or drawing a corollary to real world issues. Instead, Never Let Me Go gives us a tepid love triangle and an understated plot that’s hard to care about because the characters are under-developed. We barely even learn what the characters think about their predicament.

I’ll address too responses to this film that I’ve heard frequently. One is, why didn’t they just run away? This actually didn’t bother me as there must be some pretty intense psychological factors at play when one knows one’s fate from an early age. But I’m only surmising because the film doesn’t explain. It probably should have because it could have been a fascinating topic to explore. Two is that the film left viewer cold and I’d have to agree. I didn’t really care what happened to the characters, especially in their love lives.

Carey Mulligan is great, but I think its only Oscar hope is in Score. It’s beautifully shot but I think it either requires more flair or it needs to be a better movie to be recognized in visual categories.

Jared

I really want to compare Never Let Me Go to another film, but doing so would reveal the inner workings of this film’s plot, and as John mentions, we aren’t going there here. Even though I don’t entirely understand his reluctance, as I don’t really see any way to spoil this movie.

The lightly dips its toes into a number of genres while delicately avoiding any semblance of a coherent story. I could be wrong, but I believe I caught one of the characters reading a Virginia Woolf novel. I’ve done my best to put aside the painful memories I have of reading her work, but one thing I distinctly remember from To the Lighthouse was a particular insistence on focusing not on plot, where chapters are devoted to short periods of time and then years elapses in a throwaway chapter. I had a similar frustration here, where it seems that nearly every important moment in the story happened off-screen. Which helped make it difficult to be emotionally invested in anything that happened on-screen. As did the consistently drab, detached feeling generated by the cinematography.

The premise is certainly interesting. And the film does raise (or attempt to, at least) a number of fascinating questions. But the dogged determination to avoid delving into any moment, feeling, or relationship means the movie never really takes the time to adequately ponder any of them. So I’m not entirely sure what to recommend about the film. It does present an intriguing framework and series of ethical dilemmas, so perhaps if that’s all you need to get the mind racing, you’ll be happy. Well, not happy, because nothing could make this uber-serious film crack a smile.

I’ll be honest, I don’t see how the film could make a play for any major awards. I obviously had problems with the script and the movie as a whole. In Bend It Like Beckham, The Edge of Love, and this one, Knightley is mining a vein of bitchy best friend that continues to surprise me. I really like both her and Carey Mulligan, but I don’t think their characters here provided much of a canvas.

Brian

As the last one to do my not-so-quick thoughts, I’ll keep this short, but I just found Never Let Me Go so blah. Had I been drawn into the character’s lives– cared about their love triangle, tried to understand the psychological damage heaped upon them — I might have cared about the end result. And had the characters been developed at all, instead of trying to mirror the slow and minimalist tone of the book (or so I’ve heard), I might have stopped trying to figure out the macro-ramifications of the world in which they lived.

I thought the title screen could have been the biggest miscue of the entire film. Without that knowledge about cancer being eradicated, and the average life span extending to 100 years old, the mystery of Hailsham would have lingered much longer and been much more engaging. The dystopian elements were so obvious to me from the start (though the specifics remained murky) — that I kept trying to latch onto Carey Mulligan or Keira Knightley’s performances. Children of Men is one of my favorite films of all-time and hidden in its heart-stopping tracking shots and escapist futurism is a thought-provoking philosphy experiment: What WOULD happen if all the women of the world stopped having babies?

Never Let Me Go tries to pull a similar trick by offering similar ethical/philosophical quandaries hidden in a love story — one that never materializes amid the pretty cinematography.

Jared said it best, all the good stuff happened off screen. And I’d give him more credit, but he went ahead and referenced Virginia Woolf. What the hell, dude?

Last week, John and I got to see a preview screening of The Social Network. Our thoughts, below:

JOHN: The Social Network is an immensely entertaining film. I was totally skeptical of the concept of a Facebook film, but the advance raves piqued my interest. Good thing it did because I had a hell of a good time.

I hesitate to give it any sort of higher significance as a lot of other commentators have. It’s not the film that explains our generation or anything like that. It’s an inherently interesting story about a driven kid and a business dispute, deftly constructed and full of entertaining dialogue. Truthfully, the fact that it’s about a game-changing website barely even matters. It does sort of dwell on themes of obsession and honor, but it’s primarily a plot-driven film and is better for it.

Come Oscar time it could certainly find a spot in the Picture, Director, and Screenplay races, and probably deservedly so. I’ve soured on Sorkin over the years as his contrived dialogue does less and less for me. It’s still quintessentially Sorkin, but the characters don’t feel like they came from some sort of smooth-talking alien planet like in Studio 60. Interestingly, it may end up in the Original Screenplay race since it was apparently written separately although concurrently with the Ben Mezrich book. And David Fincher brings an interesting enough visual style to the table, though there’s one totally bizarre rowing scene that stands out whose flair I didn’t get at all.

I liked Trent Reznor’s score, but not as much as I hoped. As for the cast, I love Jesse Eisenberg but he’s got the Michael Cera syndrome of playing the same character in every movie. Here he tightens his lips and alters his body movements, but it’s sort of the same old performance. Justin Timberlake is turning into a very good actor but if he ends up in the Supporting Actor hunt it’s only because he’s Justin Timberlake. The acting revelation here is Spider-Man-in-waiting Andrew Garfield as Mark Zuckerberg’s screwed business partner Eduardo Saverin. If audiences come out of the theater sympathizing with Saverin over Zuckerberg more than the creators intended, it’s probably because Garfield nails it.

Go see The Social Network when it comes out. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

BRIAN: Like Jared, this film was high on my list of movies to see. Probably would have been my answer to our Question of the Week of the Oscar movie we are most looking forward to. Having been a relatively early Facebook user, and been on the perimeter of the perimeter of the entire Facebook creation story (Hi Alice!), I was fascinated to see how it translated to the screen. And then there’s the pedigree behind it. Aaron Sorkin on the script, David Fincher behind the camera and Jesse Eisenberg in front of it.

Verdict? Highly entertaining and enjoyable — funny in parts, depressing in others. Watching Eisenberg work through the Machiavellian scheming was a joy — here is a character whose brain is always working. The gem of his performance is that you never know if he’s thinking about the next release of Facebook or if he actually cares about the people he’s screwing over. The early sequence of the implementation of Facemash, Facebook’s predecessor, really sets the tone and allows Sorkin’s script to shine. The whole first hour was a perfect example of Sorkin at his best: heavy exposition with a light touch that gives you just enough insight into the characters to be drawn in for the next sequence.

My only trepidation going in was that Sorkin was working off of a book by Ben Mezrich, a fiction author who pretends to write non-fiction. Notorious for playing fast and loose with his facts, Mezrich devises a backstory to the Facebook narrative that doesn’t really exist. Yet as I watched The Social Network, I realized that in the end, it doesn’t really matter, because even when movies are based on just-the-facts sources, they inevitably alter the story for cinematic convenience.

For this, and other reasons, The Social Network reminded me a lot of one of my other favorite (and underrated) movies, Shattered Glass. In both, you have a narcissistic prodigal genius who has little ability to interact with others. The difference, of course, is that Stephen Glass got caught. But what I appreciate out of both films is their ability to let you sympathize with and despise its central character — not an easy feat. And each of them finds a way to make what should be boring, exciting. For Shattered Glass, its fact-checking and editing a magazine (and believe me — its not that exciting), and in The Social Network, it’s coding the back-end of a website. Aaron Sorkin makes programming look cool.

Unfortunately, I’m worried that this film is going to bomb, and bomb badly, and the box office. The screening was half-empty and the few friends I’ve talked with have little to no interest in seeing it, which is a shame. It’s a very good movie that deserves to be seen — and I hope that Sorkin gets his much deserved screenwriting nod. Eisenberg, and the film itself, are deserving of recognition too, but it’s too early for me to say if it’s my front-runner.

And just to disagree with John — I thought Garfield hammed it up and was actually distractingly bad in this. I’ll be curious to see what he’s like in Never Let Me Go.


[ed. note: Apologies for the delay in posting this QotW.  My computer’s hard drive crashed last week (for the second time this year), so our responses may be slightly out of date.  This question went out before TIFF and Venice.  Hopefully we’ll get back on schedule soon.]

This week’s installment: What yet-to-be-released potential Oscar contender or contenders are you most looking forward to seeing?

John

I had been getting excited for this fall, but when I went to check the list of suspected contenders at the usual awards sites, well, yikes. I mean, did you know there’s a period piece this winter about King George IV’s speech impediment and how he overcame it? Lord.

For now the prognosticators can play it safe with the likes of Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours. (How do you go from pulsating Mumbai to a whole movie where a guy is just stuck under a rock? It sounds like a snoozefest.) But as time goes on some of these pictures that have awards season written all over them will fall by the wayside and some interesting stuff will take their places. Meanwhile, the one I’m most looking forward to is Black Swan. Darren Aronofsky has a terrific track record and this one is a psychological thriller with Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. Okay, so it’s set in the world of ballet, but otherwise it couldn’t sound more exciting.

I’m also looking forward to True Grit. An interesting string of westerns have come out in recent years and the Coens’ take on any genre is something to anticipate. I can totally see Jeff Bridges and Josh Brolin in a western, but I’m interested to see what Matt Damon will do.

Finally, I have Another Year and Blue Valentine pegged as this year’s films I will love that the rest of the Grouches hate.

Jared

In case anyone out there would like a summary of the very rough Oscar picture, I though In Contention did a nice job recently.

I dunno, John.  Sure, The King’s Speech is Oscar-baity as all get out.  But it was directed by the guy who did The Damned United and features a pretty fun cast, including Colin Firth in the lead.

You definitely stole one from me, though.  Sure, Portman and Kunis are ridiculously attractive, but I tend to have extremely visceral reactions to Aronofsky’s work (well, The Wrestler was a little more muted, I suppose).  Similarly, the pairing of Knightley and Mulligan has me intrigued for Never Let Me Go.

There’s also a few films being bandied about now for the Oscar race that I’m not yet convinced will make an impact.  If The Tourist actually makes a play, you are looking at a film with Jolie, Depp, and Paul Bettany directed by the guy who did The Lives of Others and written by guys who wrote Gosford Park, The Young Victoria, The Day After Tomorrow, and The Usual Suspects.  And you may have recently seen the trailer for Love and Other Drugs.  I haven’t loved the few Ed Zwick movies I’ve seen, but I was completely sold on the trailer.

But if I had to name one film, it’d be The Social Network.  In Jesse Eisenberg, it has the star of my favorite 2009 film.  Rooney Mara seems on the verge of a breakout.  While I haven’t loved David Fincher’s films, I’ve certainly liked them.  Plus he did the video for Englishman in New York!  But, of course, the main reason I’m most looking forward to the film is because it was written by Aaron Sorkin.

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