The Hurt Locker(7/16/2009)

            The highly respected critic Manohla Dargis began her recent New York Times profile of the filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow by saying: “The take on Kathryn Bigelow is that she is a great female director of muscular action movies… sometimes, more simply, she’s called a great female director.  But here’s a radical thought: She is, simply, a great filmmaker.”  The double standard which Dargis points out is well stated, but I would never go so far as to call Bigelow a “great director” of any kind.  This is, after all, a filmmaker whose greatest claim to fame is a mid-nineties Keanu Reeves vehicle (Point Break) which Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright could ridicule with the same breath they mocked Bad Boys II.  The other highlights of her oeuvre are a forgettable Submarine movie called K-19: The Widow Maker and a moderately creative vampire movie called Near Dark which was marred by a low budget and a lame tacked on happy ending.  The best movie she’d made up to this point was Strange Days, a mostly forgotten science fiction movie which, while solid, was only a minor triumph.  As such I’ve been a bit perplexed by the revisionism with which many are describing this career in the wake of the release of Bigelow’s newest film The Hurt Locker.  While I’m still not a fan of Bigelow’s career up to this point, seeing this new film does make me excited to see what the future will bring for Ms. Bigelow, because The Hurt Locker is significantly better than anything she’s made before.

            Set in the midst of the Iraq war circa 2004, the film covers 20-30 days in the life of a three-man army bomb squad.  The newest member is Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), he’s the commanding officer and he takes point on the bomb defusing duties.  Supporting him are Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) who must watch what he’s doing and look out for possible triggermen looking to set off the bombs.  Quickly it becomes apparent that Staff Sergeant James has a very different style than his predecessor, he’s reckless and prone to taking wild risks.  With only a couple dozen days left in their tour, the men must try to hold out in spite of the danger that this behavior puts them in.

            It is no secret that movies about the Iraq War have mostly been miserable failures both critically and commercially.  Granted, a lot of the movies that are lumped into the genre are really either primarily about other Middle-East conflicts (E.G. Lions for Lambs, The Kingdom, Rendition) or they’re about the lives of soldiers after they’ve returned home (E.G. Stop Loss, Home of the Brave, The Lucky Ones).  Perhaps the only theatrical film thus far which I would unhesitantly say is about the Iraq War is Brian De Palma’s ballsy but at times terribly executed film Redacted, which came under heavy fire by right-wing ideologues for failing to exult “the troops.”  Many suggest that the problem has been that it’s “too soon,” that there’s no way to fully assess the conflict until after it’s over.  I have trouble buying this explanation, as there have been plenty of documentarians who have proven more than able to assess the situation intelligently as well as some surprisingly superior television projects like FX’s “Over There” and HBO’s “Generation Kill.”  If nothing else these various projects have more than established the look and feel of the war in Iraq to the point where this film feels more like a return to the setting than an introduction to it, thus allowing Bigelow to hit the ground running.

            While this clearly isn’t the first work to tackle the conflict, it is the first one to focus on actual combat… sort of.  After all, combat in Iraq doesn’t exactly look like the frontline battles of wars past.  Most of the fatalities in Iraq come from hidden bombs which often explode before the victims know what hit them.  So in spite of the film’s focus on “combat,” I wouldn’t call it an action movie as many critics have.  In fact, the film only has one scene which I’d classify as an honest-to-goodness action sequence, and even there the thrills are mostly suspenseful rather than visceral.  Most of the “combat” consists of tense situations where the team must deal with live bombs which could go off at any moment.  The film avoids most of the clichés of bomb defusing; the characters don’t spend minutes choosing between the red and blue wires (at least they don’t announce their dilemma out loud) and they are never given a large readout counting down to when the bomb will blow.  The honest-to-goodness action scene I referred to, a tense Sniper duel, is easily the highlight of the film.  In fact it may just be the best sniper face-off since Full Metal Jacket.

            The particularly impressive thing about the film’s visual style is its ability to balance both conventional and documentary aesthetics.  This is an equilibrium that many filmmakers have been trying to perfect lately, thus making this success all the more impressive.  The film is shot handheld, but it is in no way meant to be a mockumentary, and it will not be offensive to those opposed to “the shaky cam.”  The picture oddly looks both washed out and digital, a very gritty look but in an entirely twenty first century way.  In spite of this gritty look, when the bombs in the film do go off Bigelow is not afraid to shoot them with all the gusto that Roland Emmerich would.  Up until now Bigelow’s style resembled the early work of Tony Scott, it was slick and relaxed.  So this film’s docudrama aesthetic is a pretty big departure for her.  The is made even more impressive if one compares it to the clumsy way Brian De Palma tried to shift into faux-documentary styling in his Iraq film.    

            The film is completely apolitical, I doubt that Bigelow is a fan of the war, but no judgment seems to be made about the conflict other than that it is a highly dangerous environment that can be incredibly trying for those involved.  In fact the movie is so neutral that at times it seems to lack even a storyline.  The film is completely dedicated to simply showing twenty-some days in the life of these guys and almost nothing else, it goes from set-piece to set piece with only a few scenes back at the barracks to connect it all.  In its third act the film threatens to form an actual narrative arc, but then goes back to its slice of life format.  This isn’t to say the film is without depth, though it lacks a strong central story the characters are well developed through their actions and their conversations.  Though the format is not conventional, this is not some sort of wild Gus Van Sant style experiment, it won’t be confusing to non-cinephiles and its style serves no extraneous purpose other than to support the material.

            The Hurt Locker is indeed the best feature length film about the Iraq war, and by quite a distance at that.  Still, I feel there are better movies about the war to be made in the future.  Perhaps in the future we’ll get movies about this war that are as refined as a Saving Private Ryan, a Thin Red Line, or a Letters From Iwo Jima.  This film is reminiscent of the more primitive World War Two movies that were made in the late forties and fifties like Battleground or Twelve O’Clock High.  These were very matter of fact films which simply sought to tell a story about men trying to cope with hardships on a battlefield.  They were simple stories of survival, no more concerned with the full ramifications of the war then the men on the ground were.  I certainly hope that movies will come that can achieve greater ambitions than this, until then The Hurt Locker will have to do.

***1/2 out of Four

DVD Catch Up: Knowing(7/15/2009)

            If there’s anyone whose status as a major celebrity baffles me, it’s Nicholas Cage.  That’s not to say I hate him as an actor, in fact I’ve loved a number of his performances, but he isn’t a guy who screams star quality and he’s prone to some really misguided career choices.  At times it seems like Cage can’t say “no” to a script, that’s pretty much the only explanation for why he’s found himself at the center of so many cookie-cutter Hollywood action movies.  In just the last three years he’s stared in such dreck as Bangkok Dangerous, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Ghost Rider, and a remake of The Wicker Man.  When I saw the trailer for his newest film, Knowing, I really couldn’t help but roll my eyes.  Everything about the trailer suggested that this was just another in a long string of Nicholas Cage stinkers.  Given my instincts about the star and trailer mixed with the film’s lackluster scoring on Rotten Tomatoes, I was quite prepared to skip Knowing altogether.  Then a funny thing happened; Roger Ebert, a critic I have a lot of respect for, broke from the general critical consensus and gave the movie a glowing four star review.  I don’t want to sound like I’ll do anything Ebert tells me to do; he (like all critics) is perfectly capable of displaying ludicrous taste on occasion.  However, his praise got me just curious enough to look deeper, and in doing so I realized that the film was directed by Alex Proyas; the man behind one of the 90’s greatest science fiction movies, Dark City.  I still wasn’t going to lay my money down to see the film, but I was just intrigued enough to give the DVD a rental once it came out.

            The film opens in a classroom circa 1959.  The class has decided to put together a time capsule that will be opened in fifty years.  Each student draws a picture of what they think the future will look like, except for one odd little girl who instead of drawing finds herself furiously writing a long series of numbers across two sides of a sheet of paper.  The teacher finds it odd, but puts it in the capsule anyway.  The school is probably more dedicated to the idea of time capsules than any school in history, and they diligently open up the capsule fifty years later in an elaborate ceremony.  The papers within are handed out to a crowd of kids, and in the frenzy the aforementioned page full of numbers finds its way into the hands of a child named Caleb Koestler (Chandler Canterbury).  Against the rules of the ceremony he brings his artifact home with him where it falls into the hands of his father, an MIT professor named John Koestler (Nicholas Cage).  Koestler initially thinks nothing of this until he sees the number 91120012604 in the series, 9/11/2001 2604.  He looks up the September 11th attack and sees that there were in fact 2604 people killed in the world trade center that day.  He then begins to take a hard look at the pattern of numbers and realizes that every number in the series corresponds to a world tragedy.  All the numbers have been accounted for except for three which are going to predict disasters that will occur in the coming weeks.

            For all the flack I just gave Nicholas Cage, he really truly isn’t a bad actor, most of the dread I have over his career has more to do with the ridiculous films he chooses to make than what he actually does in them.  His work here was mostly dignified, he plays an average guy and he plays him well enough.  I also thought Chandler Canterbury did well as far as child performances go, and Rose Byrne (despite some terrible dialogue and some ridiculous scripted behavior the part of her character) also does well enough given the material she’s given. 

However, all three of these actors have a big challenge here: dealing with a ridiculous script that feels like it was ghost written by M. Night Shyamalan, and not The Sixth Sense Shyamalan, more like the Lady in the Water Shyamalan.  The screenplay was in fact written by Ryne Douglas Pearson, Juliet Snowden, and Stiles White.  You haven’t heard of these people because the only theatrical movie on any of their resumes is a mercifully forgotten horror film called Boogeyman.  There is however a reason I bring Shyamalan into this, because it’s a similarly high concept thriller which take ludicrous twists and expects the audience to just go along with it.  The whole concept is after all ridiculous, the film claims that every major disaster of the last fifty years is represented on the code Cage finds, but there are hundreds of plane crashes, building fires, and warfare incidents a year, how the hell are you going to fit every one of them on one sheet of paper? 

But even if you can go along with this, one still has to contend with this screen play’s nasty habit of using coincidence to drive its story.  Why did this sheet of paper land in the hands of Cage, someone who’s later revealed to have had a major connection to it in a number of ways? Coincidence.  Why did Cage happen to be exactly where he needed to be to witness one of the disasters predicted on the paper? Coincidence, even though the movie contradicts itself and says he was lead there even though he didn’t know how to locate disasters until after this one happened.  And finally how did Cage stumble upon the number 91120012604 which would turn out to be the key to solving the code?  Coincidence.  And I could have maybe accepted that last one had the film not proven itself to be as lazily written as it was.  It gets even worse in the last twenty minutes where the characters all suddenly abandon logic and start doing whatever suites the story that’s been written instead of making the decisions rational people would make.

That said, all of this film’s faults are with the script and I think its director, Alex Proyas, mostly acquits himself here.    Proyas avoids unnecessary stylization and shoots the film in a way that’s mostly relaxed and dignified.  He doesn’t over edit the film and he doesn’t try to make it a kinetic experience.  There are three fairly strong set pieces.  The first, a plane crash, is one of the most intense five minutes of disaster filmmaking I’ve seen in a long time.  The second, a train crash, is marred by some iffy CGI but Proyas shoots it well.  I won’t give away the third, but I will say that it’s executed well even if it is part of a very stupid ending. 

Roger Ebert is one of my heroes, but I’m going to have to strongly disagree with him on this one.  Ebert argues that this is an exploration of whether the universe is random or deterministic, and indeed it does explore just that.  The problem is that it explores the issue in a way that is cheesy and ham-fisted, and its plot hole ridden script lacks the logical seaworthiness that such an exploration requires.  The film also fails on a human level and as a thriller it isn’t very thrilling.

*1/2 out of Four

Brüno(7/11/2009)

            At times, I can’t help but feel depressed when I look at the box office numbers for soulless cookie-cutter blockbusters like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.  There was a time when movies like The Godfather, The Exorcist, and The Graduate could become not only sleeper hits but outright cultural phenomenons.  Adjusted for inflation all of those movies are within the all time box office top twenty.  Now it seems like the only way to gain such cultural prominence is to have Madison Avenue flock people like sheep towards highly calculated products filled with shiny objects.  It would be easy to dismiss these audience trends as the result of an ever more stupid society, but that’s perhaps a bit too pessimistic.  The more likely explanation is the much talked about separation of pop culture into various niches, thus leaving no one project able to gain a mass audience.  Why am I talking about this?  Because one of the more refreshing exceptions to this trend was Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2006 satire Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.  Say what you will about the movie, but there is no denying that it is perhaps the best tribute to word of mouth, creative marketing, and genuine cultural adventurousness since the 1999 sleeper success The Blair Witch Project.  I had a few issues with Borat, but these reservations were overpowered by the satisfaction of seeing something so original and unmarked-tested make $261,572,744. 

Borat was a smart film that was completely willing to piss off, marginalize, and alienate its audience; I liked that a lot.  Unfortunately, I think it also wasn’t as consistent as I perhaps would have liked it to be.  A couple of the sketches in it like the Rodeo and the religious revival were great examples of dead on satire, but there were also some sketches felt like missed opportunities.  For example, his interviews with Bob Barr and his trip to a confederate antique store were both rife for biting satire but instead they devolved into cheap physical comedy.  Such inconsistency is perhaps to be expected from films like this which rely so heavily on improvised interactions with unknowing participants.  Going into Cohen’s new film, Brüno, I hoped that he would have honed his act to perfection and delivered a film that was all killer and no filler.

The Brüno character was first introduced on Cohen’s HBO series “Da Ali G Show.”  The character can bluntly be described as a flaming fruit.  He embodies every stereotype people can possibly have about homosexuals: he’s sexually promiscuous, he’s effeminate, and he takes the fashion world seriously.  He makes Liberace look like J. Edgar Hoover (okay, bad example).  It’s a character that would be highly offensive to real life homosexuals if it was meant to be an authentic reflection of their community, but that’s not what he’s trying to do here, rather his goal is to make his victims really uncomfortable.  The other major characteristic of the Brüno character is that he is astonishingly stupid and has no conception of reality.  He’s someone who’s probably never read a single book unrelated to fashion and celebrity gossip.  For example, his only understanding of Adolf Hitler is that he’s Austria’s biggest celebrity; everything else about him is incidental.

While the supposed goal of the “documentary” that the Borat character was making was to learn about America and apply the lessons to his home country, all Brüno is trying to do with his cross country travels is become a celebrity.  It’s quickly established that he has no talent as an actor, so he quickly tries his hand at some of the stupider tactics used to gain exposure in the twenty-first century like adopting African babies, making sex tapes, and insincerely taking up a social cause.  As you can probably tell, celebrity culture is a big target here.  In fact Cohen probably achieves more to expose celebrity obsession than he does to expose the film’s more talked about target of homophobia.  Particularly telling is a bit where Cohen is auditioning various parents who wish to involve their babies in a photo shoot.  Brüno asks if they are willing to have their children in all sorts of outlandish and sometimes dangerous situations, and they all agree to everything he wants to put the children through, one even agrees to subject their baby to liposuction.  One cannot help but wonder what dementia would lead these people to place their children’s fifteen minutes of fame out of the way before they can even walk.

Of course the homophobia angle is their too, but this is where Cohen begins falling into some of the traps he fell into on Borat.  Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity is the interview he was somehow able to get with Ron Paul (who should seriously fire his publicist).  Rather than getting Paul to hang himself with his own words, as he did during the best moments of “Da Ali G Show,” he chooses to never even conduct the interview.  Instead he lures him into a waiting room, drops his pants and tries to seduce Paul who proceeds to do what any reasonable person would do: he runs out of the room.  Frankly, I think this might be the lamest gag Cohen has ever done in any of his projects.  He does nothing to strike at Paul’s political positions (incidentally he’s one of the few Republicans who supports gay rights), he just pulls a sub-Ashton Kutcher prank.  His work heretofore has succeeded largely because he focused on exposing what people are willing to say in front of very large cameras with the full knowledge that what they say may be aired in some capacity.  As such his resorting to the use of hidden cameras here is particularly disappointing.

Another missed opportunity is an interview he gets with one of those crazy church people who thinks he needs to “reform” gay people.  Done right this could have been the centerpiece of the movie, but it really amounts to little more than a framing device in the final cut.  Bill Maher was able to get a much better interview out of one of these assholes in his documentary Religulous.  Another missed opportunity was his interaction with a Fred Phelps protest which amounted to little more than him running passed them in S&M gear, a prank that resulted in a real interaction would have been preferable.

It should also be noted that this has some really graphic sexual material.  The film opens with a gay sex scene that is so over the top that it makes the wrestling scene from Borat look positively puritanical. Hell, it even makes the puppet sex scene from Team America: World Police look subtle.  Then there was a scene at a swingers club which featured unsimulated sex.  The penetration was concealed by large censor boxes, but there was still it was clear what was going on and the scene ended with a long altercation with a dominatrix.  How this material avoided an NC-17 rating I do not know.  In fact I’m going to be very angry if the MPAA gives another Ang Lee or Atom Egoyan drama that stigmatizing rating after this.  A lot of the sexual material on display seems to mainly be there to shock the prudes in the audience, and I don’t have a problem with that goal.  It reminds me a bit of the controversy baiting elements that surrealists like Salvatore Dali and Luis Buñuel would add to their work to shock the bourgeois sensibilities of their audience.  It’s oddly refreshing to see a mainstream movie that’s pushing the boundaries of sex instead of violence.

There are definitely highlights to Brüno that are better than anything in Borat: I’m thinking in particular of the baby interviews, an interview with an actual terrorist, a climactic scene in front of a crowd of really scary looking rednecks, and best of all a focus test of an absolutely bizarre television pilot.  However, the film does not always reach these heights.  In fact there are many more outright bombs here then there were in Borat, which oddly proved to be the more consistent of the two films.  Also the plot that connects everything here is pretty much an inferior retread of the plot Borat used.  So obviously this completely failed to live up to my dream of a Cohen film that was all killer and no filler.  Still there is plenty to admire about Cohen’s work here.  I think part of the problem is that the exposure he got from Borat hurt some of his opportunities.  I can’t help but think that this would have been the better of the two projects if he had made it first.  In spite of the problems I’m still going to recommend this film for the bits that worked.  And let’s face it, even though we’ve seen Cohen’s work once before, his shtick is still fresher than 90% of mainstream comedies.

*** out of four

DVD Catch-Up: Notorious(7/8/2009)

            Christopher Wallace (AKA The Notorious B.I.G. AKA Biggie Smalls AKA Big Poppa) titled his first album Ready to Die, in his great album track “Everyday Struggle” he rhymed “I don’t wanna live no more/sometimes I feel death knocking at my front door” and his follow-up album was to be titled Life After Death.  Notorious, a big budget biopic about the slain rapper, opens with a clip from an interview in which Biggie laments that he doesn’t think he’ll be lucky enough to be around in ten years.  Like his sometimes friend, sometimes rival, and fellow rap icon Tupac Shakur he was a man eerily in tune with the life threatening dangers of the street life he became famous rapping about.  The ironic twist is that in the final years of his life he was beginning to find some degree of hope, but it was too late.  As a “gangsta” his life mirrored Caine Lawson, the gangster at the center of the Allen & Albert Hughes excellent Menace II Society who only realized that he truly did care if he lived or died with his final breaths, a part which ironically would have been played by Tupac Shakur had he not had a falling out with the film’s brother directors.  But Biggie’s greater legacy will be as a musician and in this field his story has as much of interest as other more established artists like Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, the only difference is that Biggies story was cut short at an age where those two musicians stories were just beginning.  This biopic wisely chooses to focus on this later story than the former and it’s a film that understands what it was about this man such a magnetic figure in his domain. 

            The film opens on that fateful night in 1997 where Biggie is shot dead in the middle of Los Angeles, but it quickly flashes back to his life as a young kid in the Clinton Hill area of Brooklyn.  His mother Voletta (Angela Bassett) was a school teacher who did everything in her power to help young Chris (who is played at this age by Biggie’s thirteen year old son Chris “CJ” Wallace, Jr.), in this sense Biggie’s story is perhaps less sympathetic than others who were driven to the streets by worse conditions.  Still, one has to realize that Wallace entered the drug game at a very young age and at the height of the crack epidemic.  After a period of incarceration, Biggie turns his focus away from drug dealing and toward his talent for rap which he has been developing since he was very young.  He meets the famous Sean “Puffy” Combs (Derek Luke), who’s an up and coming talent scout at this point, and is promised a record deal.  The incarceration of his best friend drives him to put everything he’s got into his music career.  Along the way he meets (and beds) a then unknown Lil’ Kim (Naturi Naughton) and his future wife Faith Evens (Antonique Smith), and then later meets the fellow rapper he will forever be linked with, Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie).

            George Tillman, Jr. shoots the film with a music video gloss that’s heavy on camera trickery and fancy editing.  This works great when Biggie is “In mansion and Benz’s, Givin ends to my friends and it feels stupendous,” but it is a lot more problematic when he’s “livin everyday like a hustle, another drug to juggle.”  These scenes scream out for a more down to earth and gritty approach and all of Tillman’s gloss really feels wrong on the streets of Brooklyn, consequently the first half hour or so of this movie really suffers.  Tillman seems to understand this problem and wisely cuts this portion short, quickly moving on to his rise to fame in which the style he’s chosen tends to thrive.

            I wouldn’t call myself a Biggie expert going into this film, but I am a fan and I feel like I’ve collected a pretty good knowledge of his life over the years.  As far as I can tell, this movie is exceptionally accurate to the real facts of the man’s life.  I didn’t see any obvious inaccuracies and most if not all of the famous moments of his life are here.  I am however a bit suspicious about the depiction of Biggie’s mother and of Puff Daddy, both of whom are credited as producers here.  Puff Daddy in particular seems to be painted both as blameless in the East Coast/West Coast feud which breaks out in the second act and as some sort of uplifting coach to Biggie.  To his credit, Puffy has allowed the film to point out some of the sillier aspects of his public personality, but the mentorship hat he’s wearing here seems a bit too good to be true.  Biggie’s mother Voletta also seems a bit too good to be true.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure Voletta was and is a great woman who did everything she could in raising this troubled youth, but at times the film makes her out to be downright saintly, there are very few people in the world who are this devoid of fault or weakness.

            As one could probably guess, finding a talented, four hundred pound, twenty-five year old, African American actor with rapping abilities probably wasn’t easy.  Realizing that there weren’t any veteran actors who resembled the film’s subject, the producers went on a very public search for the right man to fill Biggie’s size fourteen shoes.  The man they found was Jamal Woolard, a real Brooklyn rapper who is perhaps most famous up to this point for being one of many rappers who have been shot outside the New York radio station Hot 97.  Woolard really does look and sound a lot like the real Biggie, his impersonation skills truly are impressive, but I wouldn’t really call this a spectacular performance.  I think this is a performance that the Academy should take a close look at, not because I think it’s really worthy of their award, but because it might make them realize that doing these sort of celebrity impersonations really isn’t as hard as it looks.  Don’t take that to mean that I think Woolard didn’t work hard on his performance here; in fact I’m sure he put everything he had into his work here and in turn puts in a very good performance.  But this isn’t the work of a master thespian and outside of his impression I wouldn’t call his scene to scene work particularly special.  Still, he mostly does what he needs to do and he even does all of his own rapping.  Speaking of the rapping, the song selection is pretty good here. 

            Many called the film “formulaic” during the initial round of reviews, but I’m not sure that’s really fair.  Its only formulaic if telling someone’s life story from beginning to end is a formula, would you criticized a written biography for taking such a trajectory?  I wouldn’t, because that’s simply the clearest way to tell someone’s life story.  There’s certainly a place for adventurous biopics like I’m Not There, but Biggie Smalls story isn’t as well known as Bob Dylan’s and such trickery would probably do him a disservice.  I know I’d certainly prefer a “conventional” to a movie like La Vie En Rose, which screws with chronology for no reason other than to pretend it’s less conventional than it is. 

            So, in final analysis, this is a pretty good example of a music biopic.  It isn’t great and it has flaws but it’s a good representation of the iconic rapper.  It probably has little appeal to those who have no interest in the subject, but those looking for a Biggie Smalls biopic will be well served.

*** out of Four

Moon(7/6/2009)

The very first science fiction movie was Georges Méliès’ 1902 classic A Trip to the Moon.  A fourteen minute epic in which a group of explorers go to the moon, walk onto the surface (no space suit needed), find a group of moon men, beat them off with umbrellas, then return home.  The film is probably best known for a moment in which their ship crashes into the man on the moon’s eyeball, he doesn’t look pleased.  After that the moon was the number one destination for fictional space travel, at least until we went there for real and realized it was kind of a boring place.  In fact it quickly dawned on us that none of the planets in this solar system are really destinations for high adventure and since then we’ve been setting our science fiction stories in distant galaxies.  The problem with this is that after a good fifty-some years of space travel it’s become increasingly clear how far away we are from being able to get to Mars, much less a new solar system.  In fact the closest planet that might have life on it is 150 trillion miles away.  That’s not a problem if you’re making a Space Opera like Star Wars or Star Trek, but it’s not all right if you’re making what you’d call “hard science fiction,” stories that predict very realistic and plausible future technology.  Those kind of serious Science fiction movies have been looking back toward our home solar systems.  Danny Boyle’s 2007 hard science fiction film Sunshine had the sun as its destination, while this latest entry of the genre is bringing the genre full circle by returning to our closest celestial neighbor, the moon.

  Rather than having a twist ending, this film has a major twist about a third of the way into it.  It would be ludicrously hard to talk about this film without giving away this twist, so this review is going to be a bit more spoilerish than most.  I won’t give away any of the later developments, but be warned that I will be giving away some key surprises from the first act or two. 

The film is set an indeterminate number of years into the future at a point where humanity has finally found a clean source of energy by mining a substance called Helium-3 from the surface of the Moon.  A base has been established on the moon but travel there is still a slow and unwieldy process, and as such there is only one person manning the operation, a man named Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell).  His main job is to drive to the automated harvesters mining the surface, remove the full capsules of Helium-3, and then launch them off to Earth.  His only companion is a robot/computer system called Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey).  One day Sam sees a strange vision while driving the lunar rover and crashes it right into the automated harvester.  He wakes up the next day in the ships infirmary.  Gerty wants him to stay in bed, but Sam convinces the computer to let him leave.  He immediately drives out to the site of the crash, and looks into the rover where he finds his own body still in there and still alive.  He runs the body back to the base and resuscitates it.  Now he must discover why there’s someone else who looks just like him on the base and then must find out what the company plans to do about it.

A lot of this movie rests on the shoulders of Sam Rockwell as this is essentially a one man show; or rather a two man show in which Rockwell plays both parts.  Rockwell is a great actor who, for whatever reason, has never really been able to break the A-list.  He has everything a mainstream actor needs but has never become a household name, possibly because he’s attracted to more challenging material than some actors.  His double role here is reminiscent of Nicholas Cage’s double role in Adaptation, he must play two people who look alike but who have fairly different personalities.  The original Sam is the slightly more Rockwellish of the two, he’s a laid back person albeit one who’s gone through three long years of moon work and is rather tired from it.  The second of the two is a bit more stern and aggressive, he hasn’t been beaten down by his situation and he’s less easy-going.  There are physical differences from which you can tell the two apart, the first has a bandage on his hand and a black eye, but for the most part it is Rockwell’s acting which differentiates the two. Quite impressive.  My one problem with the characterization (and I mainly blame the script for this) is the fairly unperturbed way Sam reacts to his “twin” at first.  There is a portion shortly after the twist where the characters are way too calm about the fact that their staring at someone who looks just like them.  If I was in that situation there would be a lot more swearing and more demands to know exactly what the hell is going on.

The robot here is a cross between HAL 9000 and R2-D2.  I’m not exactly sure whether it is an independent robot or if the floating console is a manifestation of the base’s main computer.  He floats around, has what looks like a camera lens for an eye and there’s a screen on him which displays various smilies in order to convey emotions.  One usually expects these kind of robots to be nothing but trouble, especially when he’s been programmed by a seemingly conspiratorial corporation.   This robot plays with that convention, his allegiance is never entirely clear, at least not until very late in the movie.  That was an interesting take, but I would have liked a better explanation as to why the robot took the side he did.  As it is he just takes a side because he does, I expected that to be resolved better than it was.

Visually the film is perfectly competent but never exceedingly great.  The film was made relatively cheaply for a science fiction film of this sort, and I’m sure a lot of ingenuity went into the production.  The production leans toward physical effects more than CGI, a decision I certainly approve of, though it was a bit annoying that a few shots of the moon’s surface seemed to be recycled at times.  The most impressive element of the production was the space base’s highly detailed interiors, which seemed to share elements from some of the better spaceships of the genre like the Nostromo from Ridley Scott’s Alien or the Icarus II from Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.

I think the concept at the center of this is Chaos Theory.  Admittedly, everything I know about this theory comes from the book and movie Jurassic Park, but bear with me.  The idea behind Chaos Theory is that no system is perfect because the initial conditions will not remain the same continually.  One example given in Michael Creighton’s novel is that of a billiard table on which a ball rolls with enough force to continue rolling forever.  Deterministic Theory predicts that the ball would continue along the same pattern forever, while Chaos theory suggest that the felt of the table would eventually deteriorate, imperfections would form on the ball and eventually the conditions would change enough to throw the ball off course.  Another film which I think shows chaos theory in action is Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, in which a television network has found the perfect way to keep an unsuspecting man living in their elaborate town-sized city for thirty some years, but bit by bit the illusion was destroyed and an evolving suspicion in the man’s mind about the solution eventually trumps the best laid plans of the producers.  There is a similar situation in Moon, though I won’t spell it out for fear of giving away more than I already have, but like The Truman Show this is about a seemingly fool-proof house of cards that finally collapses partly because of an unforeseen accident but mostly because of the unanticipated factor of human curiosity and questioning.

Now, this theoretical interpretation is fine on an intellectual level, but it never really strokes any of the emotions that I expect great cinema to stroke.  This film is neither as technically or intellectually ambitious as something like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris, both films with a certain sense of awe that Moon lacks.  Aside from my coldly intellectual chaos theory interpretation, I’m not sure this really amounts to much more than an extended episode of The Twilight Zone.  Of course, an extended episode of The Twilight Zone is certainly worth watching, but I really wish this had amounted to more.  Some of the earlier portions of this movie really seemed to be leading to something grander than the eventual explanation; I looked forward to a really profound explanation for Sam’s visions and for Gerty’s strange behavior.  But the solution turned out to be the most mundane of all possible explanations.  That was disappointing.  Ultimately I believe this is a movie that draws inspiration from all the right sources but which does nothing to push its genre forward in any meaningful way.  Still it’s a very well crafted and intriguing 97 minutes of cinema that never seems to drop the ball in a major way; I just wish they tried to run with the ball when they had it instead of standing still with it.

*** out of Four

Public Enemies(7/1/2009)

            I feel really sorry for filmmakers who try to make crime movies these days, the standards for that genre are unbelievably high.  No matter how great a movie about gangsters gets, the bar has been set so high by the likes of The Godfather, Goodfellas, and Scarface that it has become hard to call even the best examples of the genre being made today “great.”  Take for example 2007’s American Gangster, a film which is element for element a pretty damn good effort, but when compared to some of the above mentioned films it’s hard to really get too excited about it.  Still there have been a few exceptional films like The Departed and City of God which have found their way into the pantheon in spite of the sky high expectations, and one such exception was Michael Mann’s Heat, a sprawling cops and robbers epic which paired Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in a thrilling cat and mouse chase through L.A.’s underworld.  Because of this and the presence of A-list talent like Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, Mann’s new film about the legendary John Dillinger, Public Enemies, comes with a level of anticipation above the already high standards of crime epics. 

            John Dillinger was not a gangster in the way Al Capone, Frank Lucas, or even Henry Hill were.  He didn’t run any vast criminal conspiracies from dark mansions nor did he hold any legitimate covers.  Rather, he was a bank robber in the vein of Bonnie & Clyde; and was, in spite of his massive fame in the eye of the public, considered “public enemy number one” by the newly formed FBI.  When the film begins, John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is already an established criminal and the film is about the last few months of his life.  Christian Bale plays Melvin Purvis, an FBI agent fresh off the apprehension of Pretty Boy Floyd, who has been put in charge of a task force set up to capture or kill Dillinger.  Meanwhile, Dillinger is basking in his infamy; he has the fastest cars, the nicest clothes, and he’s also hooked up with a beautiful woman named Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard).  But as Purvis begins to close in it becomes clear that the good times aren’t lasting forever and Dillinger must be increasingly careful in order to survive as public enemy number one.

            Another legendary American outlaw was given the film treatment in 2007 with Andrew Dominick’s film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, an excellent film but one which did not resonate well with the public.  That film had the difficult task of trying to subvert the legendary status of the outlaw at the center, to show Jesse James for the moody killer he was rather than the Robin Hood figure the public believed him to be, all the while examining what it was that created that public fascination.  Michael Mann does not take the same approach with his film though one could envision a film where he does.  Generally, Mann seems rather disinterested in the way Dillinger is seen by the public and by Dillinger himself for that matter and instead focuses on how he is viewed by the FBI, the criminal underworld, and his girlfriend Billie Frechette. 

Mann could have depicted Dillinger as a martyred rebel or as a menace that needed to be put down by brave G-Men, but he never settles into a simple groove like that.  It’s almost impossible not to be pretty impressed by Dillinger’s smooth antics but Mann also does not hesitate to show the more violent aspects of his personality. Mann also undermines a lot of Dillinger’s exploits in a brilliant scene where he is told that much more money is made through a secret telephone fraud than by the very public bank robberies he had involved himself in.  On the other hand, the movie is hardly an advertisement for the FBI who are often excessive and cruel in their pursuit of Dillinger, and they seem motivated more by public opinion than a genuine desire to make America safer.  Ultimately Mann’s depiction is very matter-of-fact, he shows Dillinger doing the very cool looking things that history records him having done and allows the audience to judge.  This failure to take sides may seem frustratingly non-committal to some, but I appreciated Mann’s willingness to report without judgment.

            It has become a critical custom to examine Johnny Depp performances by trying to identify the sources of his inspiration, this film will be no exception because he is clearly trying to channel James Cagney.  This is a pretty obvious choice but also an effective one especially from a physical perspective.  Like Cagney, Depp has a certain range of facial movement here, he can be charming Frechette one moment and then have a killer’s look in his eyes as he fires a Tommy Gun the next.  But with a Cagney impersonation comes a certain degree of theatricality that one simply has to accept, and this is particularly troublesome in some of the early line readings.  In fact that’s true of a lot of people’s acting in the first few scenes of the film, which seem to be liberally homageing the acting mannerisms of thirties cinema in a way that the later scenes aren’t for some reason. 

Unlike Depp, there aren’t many reservations I have about Christian Bale, who’s doing some of the best work I’ve seen him do in a large budget film in a long while.  Bale has the Elliot Ness role here; he needs to act like a boy scout but also like a pretty tough and smart agent.  Bale is pretty restrained throughout, it’s like he realized his character was no match for John Dillinger in the eyes of the audience so he never goes out of his way to seem like some sort of badass.  His character is someone who gets results by being smarter, not stronger, than the opposition and he’s not ashamed to ask for help when he realizes he’s outgunned.  But it’s Marion Cottilard who steals the show here.  I couldn’t stand the overbearing work Cottilard won an Oscar for in 2007’s La Vie En Rose, but I absolutely loved her here. Dillinger is a man who could have hooked up with movie stars and singers if he wanted to, but Cottilard’s work makes it abundantly clear why he was taken with this coat check girl.  Cottilard is drop dead gorgeous in the film and sexy but not in a way that makes her look like some sort of fake Maxim model.  She really feels like someone who could verbally go toe to toe with Dillinger and you believe her character when she stays loyal to Dillinger even at personal risk. 

In his last two films Michael Mann had been experimenting with Digital Photography, a decision which didn’t draw a lot of attention firstly because both Collateral and Miami Vice spent most of their running time under cover of night and secondly because they both inhabited very modern settings.  Here however Mann has thrown down the gauntlet and declared a place in the making of large scale period pieces for digital photography.  To shoot with this kind of digital camera is basically the 21st Century equivalent of shooting on grainy 16mm film stock, it lacks a certain glowing beauty but in turn it gains a certain documentary-style immediacy.  One thing I like about digital photography is that it really seems to see the world the way the human eye does rather than the way movies try to make the world look.  We’re so used to seeing the thirties through orange color filters at magic hour that to see it in this raw form seems kind of jarring.  Basically it’s the exact opposite of what Sam Mendes did with Road to Perdition, but I’d say it’s a reasonable tradeoff.  After all, how many gangster movies that look like The Untouchables and L.A. Confidential do we need?  Because Mann chose to shoot with such a modern and reality tinged medium you really feel like you’re in the same room with John Dillinger, you feel like you’re watching gangland shootouts that were caught on tape and put on Youtube in full 1080p.

Speaking of the shootouts, the action scenes in this film are numerous and awesome. These robberies, escapes, shootouts, and car chases are smoothly shot and kinetic.  The action is fast paced and immediate like a Bourne film, but they also lack a lot of the more aggressive techniques that have turned some of the people off to that series.  In that sense this is sort of the best of both worlds, it’s intense but I doubt the choreography will confuse anyone.  Particularly strong is the sound design.  Like the shootout in Heat, all the gunshots here are exceptionally loud and realistic which is invaluable in adding to the intensity of the gunplay.  I do not for the life of me know why other directors don’t use Michael Mann’s sound library when putting together their shootouts.  Highlights include a tense prison escape that opens the film, a massive shootout in a Wisconsin woods that ends brilliantly, a couple of great bank robberies, a tense cat and mouse scene in a dark hotel room, but best of all is Dillinger’s famous wood gun escape in which he fleas a heavily guarded prison without firing a shot.  Those simply seeking summer thrills will be just as happy with this movie as those interested in the life of the famous outlaw. 

There are a handful of problems to be found: some of the supporting performances are a little weak, there’s a really bad scene in which Dillinger does something really cocky for no reason (I thought for sure it would end up being a dream sequence or something but it wasn’t), and a there are a couple plot points that never really come to fruition.  But the movie’s real sin is just that it isn’t a masterpiece, and that’s what some people demand whenever a great director and cast try to make a crime movie, but that’s a bit short sighted.  There are a lot of critics who seem to be holding this to a much higher standard than they should and rejecting it just because it isn’t the best movie this genre has ever seen.  That’s a bunch of hogwash; this is better than any Hollywood movie I’ve seen in the last seven months and it should be celebrated for that, not punished for daring to have a good pedigree while not quite being Oscar worthy.  This is an excellently executed and very entertaining movie I recommend to anyone without hesitation.  If you skip this movie to see a two hour toy commercial or something this weekend you should be ashamed.

***1/2 out of four