No Concessions: “Never Let Me Go,” “Catfish,” and POSSIBLE SPOILERS

Written by Film, No Concessions

Two years ago I took a friend to see the acclaimed Broadway revival of The Seagull, starring Kristin Scott Thomas. At intermission we got to talking about some of the plot specifics, including the ending. Once the show ended a woman near us complained that by “spoiling” it we had spoiled her afternoon. Say what? Is it possible to spoil a century-old play? Is there a statute of limitations on spoilers?

I blogged a bit about this encounter. That would have been the end of it, except that a fellow theater writer saw my piece and took me to task for my allegedly snooty and “unfriendly” behavior on his blog. The exchange was…strained, I’d say, with me forced to be on the defensive. I still am around him; I figured I’d let bygones be bygones and friend him on Facebook, and Mr. Congeniality never took me up on it.

ASSHOLE, I say with love. But I digress.

Fact is I don’t give a damn about knowing everything about the plot of a show or a movie beforehand; I like to be surprised, but I’m more bowled over by craft than “a-ha!” moments, which can be self-defeating. I guessed the denouement of The Sixth Sense early on, which left me grumbling through the rest of it, as the ad campaign hinged on the big finish. It was only on second viewing that I appreciated how elegantly M. Night Shyamalan had connected the dots and got us all to see dead people, some of us more quickly than others.

This week brings not one but two movies, Never Let Me Go and Catfish, whose plot twists I need to tiptoe around. The former should get a pass—it’s based pretty closely on Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 bestseller, which is spoiled all over the web. I note, though, that most of my colleagues in the reviewing racket have discreetly skirted the particulars, and that the film co-stars An Education Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan, who was also in that spoiled Seagull, which should really warn me off. I promise to be on my best behavior—except to say that this movie bears a certain superficial resemblance to a sci-fi blockbuster that flopped the same year the book was published. I can’t help myself.

In my defense, I’ll add that this cornerstone revelation comes about 40 minutes into Mark Romanek’s film, and that there’s at least one more surprise toward the end that makes you want to go back and reevaluate the rest. And I do want to go back. Once some viewers think they know what’s going on, they may start disconnecting from the movie, which is understandable—it’s “depressing,” and coldly and clammily English to the bone. Sci-fi adventure it’s not. But it got under my skin.

The movie slices away the fantastic trappings, exposing the fragile love triangle at its center. The film is set at Hailsham House, a rural boarding school straight from PBS’ Masterpiece Theater. It follows the lives of three of its students, from childhood to early adulthood. Narrator Kathy H. (Mulligan), a bookish type born to observe and narrate, is BFFs with the sexy, and more headstrong, Ruth (Keira Knightley) and the deeply creative, and at times deeply angry, Tommy (Andrew Garfield, the Spider-man in waiting). The three spend their time making art and whiling away their time in the countryside. All very idyllic—except that their guardians (including Happy-Go-Lucky star Sally Hawkins, not so much a bon vivant this time) are slightly wary around them, the adults obsess about their health and well-being, and they need to be scanned in after playtime. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that’s something’s askew in paradise, given that Hailsham’s headmistress is played by Charlotte Rampling, smiling her tightest, most serpentine smiles.

The story gets progressively dystopian as the three children, now teenagers, enter the “Cottages,” where Ruth and Tommy begin an affair, and Kathy H., left out in the cold, begins to contemplate her place in the world. It is, by design, a narrow exploration; in creepy-funny scenes the trio tries to act like “normal” teenagers, like the ones they see on lousy 80s Britcoms. Everything they learn about life outside their boundaries brings a reckoning, a series of sorrows temporarily dispelled by the therapeutic language they were raised on, until there is nothing more to communicate to them as they reach their “completion.” Love is the only comfort.

The previous Ishiguro adaptation, The Remains of the Day, was a miracle—backed by the considerable resources of Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson the Merchant Ivory partnership made something out of the nothing that was on the page. Taking nothing away from his art he’s not a giving writer, not interested in the traditional pleasures of fiction, and seemingly resistant to adaptation. But here comes another worthy try. (The screenplay, which Ishiguro has endorsed, is by Alex Garland, the author of The Beach and screenwriter of the ultra-aggressive end-of-Earth movie 28 Days Later.) Romanek, the director of landmark videos for Nine Inch Nails and others, didn’t quite get the hang of features his first couple of tries. This one, though, has a clinical if not entirely detached tone and style, creating a certain dismal anticipation that some are sure to reject as the close draws near. You won’t, however, recoil from the three leads, who are outstanding. This is a respectable film about terrible, troublesome things, and it doesn’t let go.

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“Don’t let anyone tell you what it is,” say the ads for Catfish. Thanks, guys—make my job a little easier. What does the PR have to say about it? “A reality thriller that is a shocking product of our times, Catfish is a riveting story of love, deception and grace within a labyrinth of online intrigue.” That, uh, helps.

Let’s look at the trailer and A some Qs.

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Q: I’m intrigued. What’s in the house? A catfish?

A: No. It’s not Piranha 3-D.

Q: Is there a catfish in the movie?

A: No. Well, yes. A metaphorical one.

Q: This isn’t getting us anywhere. What’s a “reality thriller”?

A: It’s a documentary, without the boring, old fart connotation of the word. Something to hook an audience that’s more attuned to reality than a bunch of talking heads.

Q: Reality like in Jersey Shore?

A: If that’s your idea of reality, I pity you. Maybe it’s time to put that word in quotes. “Reality” shows conform to scripts and storylines, and we’ve seen plenty of movies, like Paranormal Activity and The Last Exorcism, made up from purportedly “real” found footage. Hell, an Oscar-nominated documentary from 1956 about New York bums, On the Bowery, is going into re-release today in a handsome new print. Its derelicts are real, their activities almost fully staged. Was the Academy hoodwinked, or sufficiently impressed by its raw, streetwise aesthetic not to care? In any case we’ve been dealing with these issues for a long time, longer than even the 50s. It’s just that now “reality” is in the eye of the zeitgeist.

Q: Is this a wank, like Joaquin Phoenix’s “fake-down”? (A term whose trademark I own.)

A: Co-directors Ariel (“Rel”) Schulman and Henry Joost are cagey about this. The film begins with Schulman’s brother Nev, a photographer, entering into a Facebook relationship with Abby, a precocious eight-year-old who paints quite grown-up portraits based on his pictures and has her own gallery in deepest Michigan.

Q: That sounds vaguely familiar…

A: A lot like the Marla Olmstead hullabaloo, itself the subject of the 2007 documentary My Kid Could Paint That.

Q: And then…?

A: Through Abby, Nev meets, online, her mom, Angela, and her older half-sister, Megan. Nev is intrigued by the flirty Megan, who sends him MP3s of her songs…except that, they’re not her songs, but YouTube footage. When Nev goes on assignment in Colorado, he decides to confront Megan, with Rel and Henry in tow, filming everything.

Q: Are Abby and her family serial killers?

A: Let’s just say the tone of the movie is more Sex, Lies, and Videotape than The Blair Witch Project, and that Angela and her daughters are scene-stealers in their own right.

Q: Isn’t that kind of a cheat? What kind of “reality thriller” is this?

A: The marketing is classic sleight-of-hand, misdirection. Catfish isn’t a cop-out, however. It sets you up for one thing and gives you something else that is more satisfying. Whatever this is—fact, fiction, or “faction”—the filmmakers have a firm grasp on their slippery material. Witches, monsters, aliens—that “reality” is tapped out.

Q: So truth is stranger than fiction?

A: Maybe. Catfish jumps into the fissure of our culture, where lines are awfully blurred, and “documentary” is as flexible a term as “reality,” and a feature film about Facebook is opening in two weeks. Nev is a typical Everydude, the product of our voyeuristic society, who has few qualms about privacy and using the stuff of his own life as a movie. But he’s not altogether insensitive, and when he injects himself into a peculiar situation he doesn’t overreact to what he finds. Is real Nev as open-hearted as reel Nev, or is this whole thing a put-on, opportunism masked as humanism? Stay tuned.

Q: What else can you say about the movie?

A: The manipulation of the Universal globe at the beginning is brilliant, as clever as the one that starts Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The studio must be desperate to get filmmakers on the lot; “come on over and abuse our logo!”

Q: How does The Seagull end?

A: Yeah, right.

Queue Tip: Guys should never think with their dicks. But if we didn’t, there wouldn’t be any film noir, and there wouldn’t be The Square, an Australian entry to the genre now on DVD and Blu-ray. It begins with Raymond (David Roberts), a construction foreman, and Carla (Claire van der Boom) having noisy extramarital sex in a car. Raymond figures the kickbacks he’s getting from a resort project will buy them a new life, but the money can’t come fast enough for Carla, who’s married to a low-level gangster, Smithy (Anthony Hayes). She wants the duffel bag full of cash he’s hidden in their house following a robbery. Raymond reluctantly agrees to the theft, and hires an arsonist, Billy (Joel Edgerton), to make it look like the money was consumed in a house fire.

Let’s recap: thinking with dick, diddling gangster’s wife, and hiring an arsonist. Before you can say Body Heat or Blood Simple everything goes wrong, though to say more would be spoiling things, and that’s not how we’re rolling this week. In short order however corpses are being thrown on the barbie, metaphorically speaking.

The Square is another film hatched by brothers. Nash Edgerton, who stunt-doubled for Ewan McGregor on the Star Wars movies, directed; Joel, a fine Stanley opposite Cate Blanchett’s Blanche in the recent touring production of A Streetcar Named Desire, co-wrote it with Matthew Dabner. It’s an effectively nasty piece of work, well-acted and filmed with a blue-gray pallor that sometimes made the DVD image (2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen) hard to make out on my portable player but is more than apt under the circumstances. There’s a good role, too, for the gruff character actor Bill Hunter, of Gallipoli and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, that amounts to a cherry on top of a maggot sundae.

Extras include a you-are-there making-of tracing the saga of the film, deleted scenes, a moody music video (Jessica Chapnik’s “Sand”), and Nash’s short Spider, a ten-minute sick joke that’s pretty funny. The Square is the next best thing to having a steamy blood-drenched affair of your own.

Back in college I had a beautiful Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom poster hanging on my wall. In time I removed it, folded it up, and shipped it back home to New Jersey, where decades later it sits in a drawer, a cultural artifact straight from an Indy movie. And so the plight of its phenomenal artist, Drew Struzan, whose work defined the Spielberg/Lucas glory years when we gawked at his illustrations in newspapers and magazines, waited on line to see if the movies lived up to their promise, then bought reproductions of for decorations that announced our cinematic taste to anyone who visited. Iconic, but in the end disposable for the short-sighted.

Like me—those one-sheets have aged better than some of the films they put a face on, and are worth decent coin today. But idiot college students weren’t the only ones who didn’t properly appreciate a good thing when they saw it. A new book, The Art of Drew Struzan, is the third collection of his work, a “making-of” that shows, illustration-by-illustration, how the final images for Blade Runner, The Thing, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and of course those heavy-hitting Spielberg/Lucas movies came to be. Needless to say it’s a knockout visually; Struzan’s compositional sense is flawless, and his art instantly captures the essence of a movie, be it a summer event or a more intimate drama like 1983’s Under Fire.

The surprise of the book is the frankness of its text. Discouraged by the computerization of the craft and the cluelessness of the suits Struzan hung up his poster paintbrush two years ago, and this is as much a tell-all as it is a show-all. In his introduction genre specialist David J. Schow prefers to call it a “living memoir” and it is that, career warts and all. The excellent Under Fire poster, for example, had to be rejiggered to accommodate the “equal likeness” clauses stars Gene Hackman, Nick Nolte, and Joanna Cassidy had in their contracts, meaning their heads had to be the same size on the poster—a snap with Photoshop, a tedious cut-and-paste job then. Money Pit art showing a house-shaped sinking ship in the background was jettisoned when a ferry sank in the Philippines not long before the movie opened in 1986, the same year an art director gave Struzan trouble as he created a great poster for Big Trouble in Little China. Guillermo del Toro has walls full of Struzan art, not that his concepts for Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy ever saw the light of a multiplex. They were “too arty,” in an era where likenesses of the actors’ heads have come to dwarf every other element of a poster.

Struzan isn’t bitter, however, and the work that made it through the gauntlet was fully realized. “He creates poster images that will speak of those films long after we’re gone,” comments Frank Darabont in his introduction (Struzan created special edition DVD covers for The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile). Given his status as the go-to guy for movie posters “people assumed I was powerful and wealthy, a world traveler, a celebrity. I didn’t have shit, man—I wasn’t even middle class,” Struzan writes. “But I loved doing the artwork. “ And he did eventually get to meet Harrison Ford—the closest I’ll get is his poster, which I really need to retrieve and rehabilitate.