January 29, 2010


[note: this contains spoilers]

In Moon, Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, the lone crewman living on a lunar outpost where energy is harvested for around 70 percent of the earth. Sam seems fairly well adjusted to his solitary environment. His only company is a computer named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey). For a good half hour or so you wonder if we’re supposed to stand up and applaud the filmmakers for having seen 2001: A Space Odyssey enough to reference it in myriad ways. It’s not just the computer reminiscent of HAL, but even some of the shots, such as the scenes of Sam exercising that recall Gary Lockwood maintaining his fitness regiment aboard the spaceship in 2001. Fortunately, Moon changes things up, offering a hypnotic, trippy and perhaps inconvenient, unsettling idea: that since clones are replicated human beings, they must certainly feel pain, grief, loneliness, sorrow, joy, angst, etc.

Sometimes it seems that science fiction is the most difficult genre in which to create original ideas, but maybe the problem is that not enough people who make science fiction movies have read enough and seen enough outside the genre. Time will tell what becomes of the careers of first-timers Nathan Parker (screenwriter) and Duncan Jones (director). They’ve obviously had plenty of exposure to sci-fi, because Moon has a good deal of the paranoid corporate thriller that was perhaps more terrifying than the alien in Alien. However, they aren’t too worried about looking like the movies that have shaped their own, because Moon manages to remain something interesting on its own terms.

As for Sam Rockwell (who resembles Eric McCormack), his acting deepens with every scene, and the fact that he’s a bit obscure serves the movie well. It would have been disastrous to cast Tom Hanks or some other mega-star. Sam Rockwell is much more of an everyman. Kevin Spacey’s vocal performance isn’t too demanding for him as an actor, and I’m curious as to why he took the part. (Perhaps it was simply because he believed in the work). “GERTY” is a fun expansion of the HAL character: it has a computer screen displaying a face with emotions that change constantly to reflect the appropriate response to its human counterpart.

Less pretentious than 2001, Moon is a much more internalized space thriller. Instead of showing us how machines have taken over, Moon shows us the precariousness of manufacturing human beings…they’re not less human, they’re equally as human, but it’s easy for the corporation that made them to sleep at night with clones manning their operations rather than humans. Of course, Sam doesn’t know he’s a clone until this is revealed to him by another clone. (Which begs the question: how did the other clone know?) It’s a perplexing set of questions to consider.

The Year in Review: 2009

This recap of the 2009 movie year comes too little and too late. I haven't seen A Single Man yet, nor some other small movies I've been hearing about like Me and Orson Welles, and Moon, as well as some big ones like Avatar and The Hurt Locker. Those reviews are forthcoming, hence this will be a two-part essay. I've been looking back at what I have seen, attempting to assess the movies honestly. Trying to honestly assess movies is harder and harder. I generally always find my opinion of a movie goes down a little bit after I've had time to think about it. I'm experiencing that now with my initially positive review of Adam. I suppose reading the remarks of critics can affect your interpretations of a movie, but the more I thought about Adam in relation to my increasing irritation with everything about the dreadful 500 Days of Summer, the more I realize that they both fall into this persistent new (10 years old-ish) category of trendy-indies. Adam is a little better than 500 Days of Summer. Away We Go is in the same boat.

Away We Go did have some interesting things to say, of course, about our disconnectedness from the worlds we live in, but was a road-trip movie the best way to go about making that statement? We saw from the point-of-view of the main characters that everyone they knew was wacko and unable to be honest about their lives, but ultimately the protagonists traded one form of isolation for another. In going back to the girlfriend's childhood home, it seemed to intimate a refuge where insanity and disconnectedness wouldn't be able to prosper or seep in. That seems unrealistic. 

The big movies are clunkier than ever, self-indulgent in their clunkiness like Sherlock Holmes, which is maddeningly frustrating because of the immense possibilities when working with that character. The small movies are self-indulgent in their nothingness. Even the ones that are interesting on some level like Adam and Away We Go: ultimately you leave wondering what the point of it all was. With Sherlock Holmes, you're just relieved that the damned thing is over and done with after two-and-half hours already. It's a crime how non-interesting of a mystery it all was, particularly when the producers have the temerity to make it a retread of the it's-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it cliche that haunts all superhero movies and most thrillers of late.

Whether or not it's become a crime to have a good time at the movies seems an arbitrary point to make given that movies like Night at the Museum and the Twilight films, and Transfomers, are raking in so much money. I think Pauline Kael was right. We don't demand much of movies anymore, especially because we've been bred on television. I can't be a hypocrite and ignore the fact that I enjoy television as much as anyone, but it's hard not to recognize the mindlessness of what we choose to be entertained by.

The best times I had at the movies in 2009 were the fun ones, not the important ones. Star Trek didn't demand much of a non-fan like me, and I think that's the real success story of that movie. It made Star Trek accessible to the non-Trekkies. Whether or not the die-hard fans liked it is a question I can't answer. I also liked the acting in The Proposal, especially because Betty White is so deliciously naughty. The movie, however, was just another romantic comedy, offering nothing fresh except its  casting, particularly since the female lead is ten years older than the male (usually the only time we get extreme age differences it's the man who's older than the woman, such as almost every Audrey Hepburn movie ever made, where her male counterpart is old enough to be her grandfather). In The Proposal, the same old tropes were there, but we enjoyed it a little more because it was Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds, both fun actors.

Of course, Sandra's big tour de force this year, The Blind Side, has raked in lots of money. It was genuinely entertaining and she was genuinely good in that movie, but I doubt it will be honored with many if any Academy Awards. Ironically, The Blind Side achieved something delightfully reminiscent of a trick: the marketing people presented it as a football movie and pulled a fast one on fans of the genre who were treated instead to a glossier form of Lifetime docudramas with enough cute sentimentalism and Sandra's sexy Memphis accent, ballsy forcefulness, and blonde extensions, to make it rise above the usual trite stuff.

Russell Crowe, desperately seeking svelteness, did a good job in the political newspaper thriller State of Play, a throwback to the older political newspaper thrillers with a very modern sensibility. I'm currently on the fence about Rachel McAdams. I liked her pluckiness in State of Play much more than in Sherlock.

Amy Adams turned in a pair of engaging performances in Julie and Julia (the most "tasteful" film of 2009) and Sunshine Cleaning. The latter is a much better movie than Julie..., which was entertaining but mercilessly overlong, and as I said before, seemed somewhat stilted, though not completely unenjoyable, throughout Meryl Streep's half of the film. Adams brought a much-needed feeling of vivacity to that movie. I hope we're done with all these intercutting storyline movies like Crash and The Hours. It's turning into standard fare at best and a bad gimmick at worst.

Up in the Air was in many ways a breath of fresh air. George Clooney was on solid ground in a part that really made you wonder how much of it was acting and how much was reality, and the genius of that movie is that Clooney's character is such a likeably selfish person that we're genuinely shocked and sad for him when he's the one who gets his heart broken.

The most fun I had last year at the movies was Zombieland. It wasn't perfect. Sometimes you forgot you were watching a movie about zombies (perhaps a credit to the movie for some viewers and a deficiency for others), but it was fun, and Woody Harrelson was at his insane best. Zombieland was exuberantly American--a sort of cowboys and Indians zombie flick-- just as Shaun of the Dead was exuberantly British in its deadpan affection; both represent the best of the zombie influx of the last ten years for sheer freshness, energy, and excitement.

January 13, 2010

(500) Days of Summer

The timing of my viewing of (500) Days of Summer worked out nicely following a "screening" of Adam. Both are movies about love, even though the former defiantly states the contrary during its opening minutes. Whether or not that statement was a marketing technique or an attempt to stand out from its genre matters little since (500) does stand out in some ways, particularly because its main character is a male. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Tom, a young man who writes greeting cards for a living in Los Angeles. Tom believes in true love. Then he meets Summer (Zoey Deschanel), who doesn't. A relationship buds, although Summer hesitates to define it beyond friendship--with benefits (great dental plan, long-term sick leave, that sort of thing).

Spoilers Below for Adam and (500) Days:

Roger Ebert argues that Adam wrapped things up too nicely, and after reading his review of that film, I agreed with him. Perhaps the ending came about too easily, but this flaw was mitigated because the ending was unconventional. (500) too is unconventional in some ways, yet it surprisingly left me a bit irritated, and relieved that the movie was over. Despite (or maybe because of) Tom's utter niceness and his pouting face, I wasn't all that interested that the movie seemed to be all about him and his problems, wants, and needs. The lesson he learned was perhaps inevitable, delayed because the filmmakers chose to give us a sort of non-linear linear story. Yay, Tom. Summer realized you were right all along that there is true love, and GO TOM, you can find another girl...

End of Spoilers for Adam, but not for (500) Days:

There were a couple of standout moments: the scene where Tom's diabetes-inducing love-happiness results in a song and dance routine was quite funny (and perhaps those of you familiar with Fletch Lives were reminded of a similar scene in that film involving rosy expectations and the incorporation of music and cartoon bluebirds). Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a good actor, and I think he and his counterpart did a nice job. The film itself leaves me feeling ambivalent. It was such a contradiction of itself (and perhaps rightly so): both whimsical and cynical, modern and old-fashioned, and carried on the new cliche of splicing indie-folk-pop songs intermittently with its own score (which Adam did as well). Watch them both and compare.

Directed by Marc Webb. With Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zoey Deschanel, Geoffrey Arend, Chloe Moretz, Matthew Gray Gubler. 95 min. ½

January 10, 2010


At the risk of summoning the adjective police, Adam is a poignant, vibrant and evocative movie. It's the story of a man named Adam (Hugh Dancy) who has Asperger Syndrome and lives a quiet, highly structured life in Manhattan. Not long after his father dies, Adam meets Beth (Rose Byrne), an elementary school teacher/children's book writer, and a truly unique relationship forms. One of the more refreshing movies of late, particularly because its characters aren't caricatures or stereotypes. They have a little more mystery to them and a lot more honesty. Of course I was thrilled to see Amy Irving in the film, even if the part--as Beth's mother--was fairly small.

The entire movie is beautiful--beautifully shot and featuring gorgeous locations of New York (and California, briefly). Likewise, the soundtrack is terrific (both the instrumental score and the lovely folk-pop songs that intermingle with it--I thought I heard Leigh Nash singing in the end credits but it turned out to be someone else). Do check out this little film. It didn't seem to make much noise (although it got some recognition at the Sundance Film Festival), but amidst a lot of noisier, flashier films, this one is worth listening to and looking at.

Directed by Max Mayer. With Hugh Dancy, Rose Byrne, Frankie Faison, Amy Irving, Peter Gallagher. 99 min.

January 05, 2010

District 9

Perhaps it was the mind-numbingly awful selection of summer movies--particularly in the blockbuster-thriller category--that afforded District 9 such positive reviews. I found myself rather disinterested in it. The opening thirty minutes, playing a bit like a mockumentary, were a peculiar blend of cleverness and bad exposition, which you often get in the science fiction genre. The following hour and a half was predictable enough in its depiction of aliens being exploited by mankind followed by one man's grotesque journey to enlightenment. I'll avoid giving too much away, as I went into the film with no real knowledge of the plot (but rather high expectations, given the many favorable remarks the film has accumulated). I'll have to join in with the admittedly small band of nay-sayers on this one.

Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Starring Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt. 112 min. ½

January 01, 2010

Up in the Air

At the risk of corroborating all the hype, I have to say that Up in the Air is the best film I've seen all year (so far). This year the offerings have been sparse in terms of solid movies, but the latest from director Jason Reitman (Juno) certainly rises to the top of the list. What distinguishes it from the others I've seen thus far? I think perhaps its bravery. Most of even the good movies ended on a settled note where problems were resolved and there was a clear choice between what to do and what not to do.

Up in the Air, while I will neither confirm or deny its ending as happy or sad, seems resistant to making a judgment either way. The loneliness of a life lived avoiding commitment is honestly explored, but equally examined is the dissatisfaction with "settling" and being "tied down." Amidst subject matter that has been done before are characters that are unique and well-drawn. Performances by George Clooney and company are believable. Clooney's character may be a prick, but he's a likable prick, and proves his heart is not made of stone without lapsing into syrupy sentimentalism. And there are some genuine surprises, a good sense of humor that doesn't seem forced or self-conscious, and enough richness in material (source was the book by Walter Kirn) to warrant a second viewing. I'll drink to that.

Up in the Air is a winner. Go see it. And a Happy new year to you and yours. Directed by Jason Reitman. With George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Amy Morton, Melanie Lynskey, Danny McBride. 109 min. ½