If Never Never Comes: Shorts on Screen
"If" and "never" are closely related concepts, frequently found in each other's company. "If" of course, is the ultimate supposition; a key to all that is possible or impossible. It's really the basis of all fiction. "Never" is a pretty big supposition as well. Conservatively used, it tells us that something hasn't happened before. Less conservatively, it suggests that some won't ever happen, at any time under any circumstance. That's a pretty drastic form of "if," or anti-if, supposing the limitation of possibilities in an unknown future as opposed to a known (even a poorly known) past. Now, for us, culturally, we live in a world where "never" has taken on additional context over the past century or so thanks to "Neverland;" a place where impossibilities and never-befores collide into one magnificent "Yes but what IF? Wouldn't that be wondrous?"
The movies and TV show discussed herein do dive into the possibilities. In some cases, they go no father than personal considerations; choices for possible futures. In others, they go all the way to their own Neverlands; places that never were, or maybe never should be.
If... - 1968
Written by David Sherwin & John Howlett
Directed by Lindsay Anderson
with Malcolm McDowell, David Wood & Richard Warwick
One of the things I most enjoy about doing these heavily themed groupings is the opportunity to discover some real curveball entries while forcing the theme to work. If... is a curveball no matter what you're doing.
If you're unfamiliar with British academic traditions and social structures (and I'm no expert, which presents a problem, but more on that later), imagine the house & class structure of Hogwarts, then move it to an all-boys boarding school in the 60s, and remove every scrap of charm. The film takes a fairly passive approach to narrative, allowing scenes of ordinary, awful daily life at a pent-up school to create an atmosphere and reveal the myriad cracks in its stiff upper lip. The school seems primarily interested in inculcating its students in the ways of class stratification and the fine traditions of being absolute shitheels to anyone marginally "less" than oneself.
Into this system come Mick Travis (McDowell) and his cohorts. Mick, in particular, is awake to the changing societal ideas of the late 60s, and he doesn't care for the system, or the douchebags who thrill in abusing it for the own personal amusement. This conflict comes to a head... eventually.
If you add up the elements in your head -- boarding school, England, late 60s social changes, late 60s cinematic experiments and Malcolm McDowell -- your sum should round out pretty close to what you can expect from If... As such, while I found the film interesting, I have to acknowledge that it really wasn't made for me. There was a slight sensation of being at the table when someone else's family is having a family meeting. I didn't feel that I had all the context I required, and much of the gravity was lost on me. Given our own cultural & historical contexts, we kind of already know the answer to the open-ended "If..." and it's even messier than late 60s cinematic experiments.
What If - 2014
Written by Elan Mastai
from a Play by TJ Dawe & Michael Rinaldi
Directed by Michael Dowse
with Zoe Kazan, Daniel Radcliffe & Adam Driver
You probably don't know this about me, because you probably don't know me, but one of my favorite movie genres is romantic comedy. Now, that doesn't mean I just go around liking romantic comedies all willy-nilly with no sense of discernment (what do you think I am, a geek or something?) but there are few things that I find more satisfying in a movie than a good romantic comedy, so you can imagine, it's been a frustrating few years for me lately.
The premise is nothing new. After all, "romantic comedy" does tend to dictate certain parameters in a story arc and where it ends. That doesn't have to be a bad thing if it's done right. Daniel Radcliffe is Wallace, a mopey and heartbroken young man who gave up on med school and cloaked himself in bitter detachment when he caught his last girlfriend making out with someone else in the supply closet. He meets Chantry (Zoe Kazan), an animator with a similarly awkward and morbid sense of humor at a common friend's party and they hit it off instantly. Right about the time Chantry gives him her number to hang out sometime, she drops the old "My boyfriend will be worried" bomb. Wallace "loses" her number and returns to sulking. After a chance encounter at a revival screening of The Princess Bride, Chantry mourns her diminished ability to make male friends because she's in a relationship and they agree to be friends. You can guess much of the structure that follows.
We get a lot of conversations that show how well they get along, awkward situations that flirt with temptation and uncomfortable questions from friends. Wallace's feelings only intensify, leaving him with no good options. The "valiant gesture" scene plays on our experience with valiant gesture scenes, backfiring drastically, and just when it looks like all is lost, there's the moment that demonstrates how perfect they were for each other all along. I hope I'm not spoiling anything for you, but let's face it, you knew.
Well, I love this movie.
It has everything I'm looking for. The romance actually works. Radcliffe and Kazan play the chemistry well. I'm actually pretty much in love with Chantry myself, so the extent to which I relate to Wallace is off-the-charts. The writing is idiosyncratic enough to give them specifically similar off-center personalities rather than the generic ones favored by "aim low; it's just for girls" Hollywood product. Their shared senses of humor also fulfill the comedy part of the equation, which is nice to find. In fact, there are a number of funny characters in their circle of friends. Not only does this keep things bouncy, but it just makes the movie a nice place to go for an hour and a half. This was, in fact, my third time seeing the movie because I so enjoy the characters. There are no bad guys, just situations complicated by love's comings and goings.
If I have anything negative to say about What If, it's that it supercharges my yearning for that kind of life-altering connection that I don't actually believe in anymore.
If I Stay - 2014
Written by Shauna Cross
from a Book by Gayle Forman
Directed by RJ Cutler
with Chloe Grace Moretz, Jamie Blackley & Mirielle Enos
I really wanted to like this one more than I actually did, in the end.
Chloe Grace Moretz is Mia, a Portland teen with ambitions of going to Julliard to pursue her study of the cello. Her parents and brother are all rockers, and she feels like an oddball (which all teens do in one way or another). On a snow day, the family sets a course for adventure and ends up in a head-on traffic collision. Mia finds herself looking on as her family -- including herself -- and shuttled off to the hospital.
Over the next day, Mia's spirit wanders the hospital, learning that her family has died, and shifting back and forth through her own life, observing the moments that have brought her to the uncertain precipice of adulthood, with particular focus on her relationship with her rock-and-roll boyfriend Adam. Each episode tends to suggest reasons why she may or may not wish to go on living without her family, and with all the fear and uncertainty that plagues her.
Mia, I'm afraid, comes off as a bit of an undefined wuss a lot of the time. She seldom takes a pro-active role in her own life, and she's over-simplified in her tastes ("I like classical music so how can I fit in with all these rock and rollers in my life?") in the writing. When she DOES make a proactive personal choice (to pursue Julliard) it's undermined by Adam, who frankly doesn't seem like all that much of a catch.
I initially rankled at the flaky portrayal of alt-rocker Portland parenting, but it was eventually redeemed in the way that it demonstrated a sense of loving community. Stacy Keach got to throw down with a heartbreaking scene as Mia's grandfather, which is the best acting I've seen him do in decades.
I acknowledge that If I Stay wasn't necessarily designed for someone with my experiences in life and storytelling, but I seems to me that the young people could do better than this kind of cheap and lazy emotionality. The Fault in Our Stars was better in every way.
Never Let Me Go - 2010
Written by Alex Garland
from a Book by Kazuo Ishiguro
Directed by Mark Romanek
with Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan & Andrew Garfield
Kathy, Tommy & Ruth are students in a strange sort of boarding school. They're shielded from the outside world, but their lessons tend to center on ways of behaving there, with academics being a low priority. In fact, docile behavior and physical health seem to be the central focus of the institute. As it turns out, they're not exactly expected to become productive members of society, but they do have a purpose, and I'd prefer not to spoil what that purpose is.
If this were an American movie, it would go all Hunger Games in the second or third acts, and in fact, the premise underlying Never Let Me Go has been used in several movies that end with much more explosive conflicts. But this is a British film adapted from a novel, so nothing explodes.
Now, I make a general habit of criticizing Hollywood for thinking 'splody-'splody-boom-boom rather than taking a break for story and humanity now and then, but this is one case where a lack of reaction on the parts of the characters really made it difficult for me to care what happened to them. The film is a really slow-paced exploration of love, loss, life -- all things that I enjoy having explored in film -- but their situation plainly called for a bomb in the end after all.
It was well done, but I really can't recommend it due to the overbearing weakness of the characters in the face of great injustice.
Never on Sunday - 1960
Written & Directed by Jules Dassin
with Melina Mercouri, Jules Dassin &
Ilya (Mercouri) is the most popular girl in town, and it's not hard to see why. She's the only independent prostitute in the Greek coastal town of Piraeus, and the joy she gains in freedom is something she shares with her many clients and admirers.
American philosopher Homer Thrace comes to town with an overly idealized image of the early Greek philosophers to seek out the answers to where the world has gone wrong since their blissful days. He finds himself instantly drawn to Ilya (who doesn't?) but then balks when he learns what she does for a living. He determines to educate her, to save her from her happy life.
The "never" title refers to Ilya's work schedule, but the story is still concerned with possibilities and fantasies. It functions, in many regards, as a parable for the way which the United States took it upon itself to tell the rest of the world what was of value and what wasn't in the post WWII era. How could anyone possibly be happy without the awesomeness of America in their lives? Remember folks, you can't have a Coke and a smile unless you have a Coke first. On a more personal level, it raises some interesting questions about what it truly means to be morally compromised, to give oneself away.
Melina Mercouri has bee called the Last Greek Goddess, and Never On Sunday is a large part of her mystique. Ilya's is the embattled soul of Greece, tugged this way and that, seeking it's own place of belonging. If you think I'm overstating, allow me to inform you that Mercouri would go on to be elected to Greek parliament and later serve as a minister of culture in the country's cabinet. That was after she was barred from Greece by dictatorial rule. She is a Greek statue of liberty.
Neverlake - 2013
Written by Carlo Longo & Manuela Cacciamani
Directed by Ricardo Paoletti
with Daisy Keeping, David Brandon & Martin Kashirokov
Neverlake is a surprisingly effective little horror thriller with a little bit of everything, which is maybe one thing more than it needs.
College student Jenny is in Tuscany to visit the father she's had very little relationship with. He remains there to study the history of the Etruscan civilization and their relationship to the nearby lake. The lake is said to have healing powers, and it's an archaeological site containing the figurines of people and organs that the Etruscans wanted to cure. There's mystery almost instantly, springing from her father's evasiveness, and Olga, his assistant is immediately identifiable as something more.
While exploring the lake, shortly after her arrival, Jenny encounters a blind girl who conveniently speaks English. The girl takes her back to the hospital where she lives with other children, all of them sickly and seemingly neglected. It seems fairly obviously that they are somehow connected to the film's overarching mystery, but the story really does a good job at keeping things obscured until the appropriate time to start revealing things.
I felt like there were some Neverland elements that existed primarily for the sake of misdirection. There's a boy named Peter. Jenny's mother's tombstone reveals that her last name was Darling. Jenny reads Peter Pan to the kids. Ultimately, the story had other places to go and things to do; many of them creepy.
Neverwas - 2005
Written & Directed by Joshua Michael Stern
with Aaron Eckhart, Ian KcKellan & Brittany Murphy
What the hell, Hollywood?
You had a completely charming movie with a stellar cast and you sat on it for two years then unceremoniously pushed out on on video two years later. Jerks.
The rest of us are unlikely to have heard of Neverwas, thanks to the aforementioned jerks, and that's really a shame. In short, AARON ECKHART plays Zach, an accomplished psychiatrist moves back to the town in which he grew up, seeking a position from WILLIAM HURT at the local mental hospital, where ALAN CUMMING, VERA FARMIGA and others are patients. One of the patients is IAN MC-freaking-KELLAN who immediately recognizes Zach, though at first, we're not clear how or why.
Meanwhile, Zach reconnects with a former childhood friend, BRITTANY MURPHY (in one of her most adorable performances) who is fascinated with the book Zach's father, NICK NOLTE wrote when Zach was a child. Owing to his father's suicide, Zach has negative feelings about the book and his father, as well as his mother, JESSICA LANGE.
As Zach works with the patient Gabriel (MC-freaking-KELLAN), he finds that his delusions are connected to the children's book his father wrote, Neverwas. What do those connections mean? Is there really a kingdom of Neverwas? Is Zach truly destined to save it? Hey, isn't that MICHAEL MORIARTY, CYNTHIA STEVENSON and BILL BELLAMY in that hospital scene? And dammit, WHAT THE HELL, HOLLYWOOD?
Beautifully shot, well acted, with a PHILLIP GLASS soundtrack that doesn't grate, and built upon a touching story that will only disappoint the studio execs who didn't read the whole script and thought they were going to get a special effects fantasy bonanza for the price of a thoughtful drama.
Written by Neil Gaiman & Lenny Henry
Directed by Dewi Humphreys
with Laura Fraser, Gary Bakewell & Paterson Joseph
I read a book a couple years ago called Un Lun Dun by China Mieville which, at the time, I felt was best described as a grimy Wonderland/Narnia story underneath London as conceived by Neil Gaiman. As it turns out, there actually IS a grimy Wonderland/Narnia story underneath London as conceived by Neil Gaiman, only instead of a book, it was a BBC miniseries called Neverwhere.
Over six rather economically paced half-hour episodes, "regular guy" and Paul McCartney body-double Richard (Bakewell) becomes our eyes and ears (and ultimately our conduit for heroic fantasy) in the London under London, where the forgotten people go. It fairly boilerplate fantasy in the Wonderland/Narnia vein. Richard tags along with Door (Fraser) a girl he rescued on the surface, and various cohorts as they seek out a series of people and things that will solve the mystery of Door's parents' murder, resolve a threat to the unincorporated realms of Neverwhere, and quite possibly help Richard to get back to his real life -- all while dodging a pair of ruthless assassins. Naturally, the adventures range throughout their world, serving as a sort of travelogue of Neverwhere and/or Gaiman's cleverness. "Oh, you've never heard of [that place, those people, this thing]? Gosh, you really ARE from London-above. It's a wonder you're not dead yet," and so on.
It's effective storytelling, if not particularly fresh. Bear in mind, this is a BBC TV production from the 90s and the production values are, shall we say, limited. While they do manage to use a lot of locations, they still end up seeming stagey owing to them shooting on video which gives everything a strong sense of artifice. I had a hard time forgetting that I was watching not-terribly-good acting taking place among art projects in the sewer. There's a particular moment at the climax of the series where an ancient and magical stone door is finally opened, and the ancient and magical stone door wobbled just like plywood and plaster. I had to groan. It really undermined the death defying challenges that had gone into getting that door open.
For a story so rooted in the "wonder" of discovering its "land," it was frequently negated by the lack of actual wonder brought about by its discount treatment. Then again, if you still get into old-school Dr. Who, hey, this might be right up your alley. It's not necessarily Gaiman's best work either, but it's got all the flavors. As soon as they meet the bad-guy-pretending-to-be-a-good-guy, I knew the rest of the story, but then I've been reading Gaiman for 25 years now, give or take, and I've become pretty familiar with his standard bag of tricks. Gaiman has adapted the story for a novelization, a graphic novel and a radio play. It was in development as a film, but it seems that plans fell through and it was... nevermade.