Friday, September 23, 2011

Overlooked Gems #7: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Grade: 96 (A)

In terms of recent years for movies, few compare to 2007. Even at the time many critics remarked upon the quantity and quality of great films released in the year: Ratatouille. Into the Wild. I’m Not There. Death Proof. The Bourne Ultimatum. Once. Michael Clayton. Sweeney Todd. Hot Fuzz. Knocked Up. Superbad. Atonement. And the year’s trifecta of masterpieces: Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men, David Fincher’s Zodiac, and my favorite film of the 2000s, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Yes, 2007 was a great year for film, and the vast majority of the films were either honored at the time (No Country, There Will Be Blood) or found wider audiences shortly thereafter (Zodiac). Yet with any great year, there’s a great film or two that slips through the cracks, and 2007 had a doozy: Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. My memory of the film is strong: released early in the Fall of 2007, I saw the film in theatres on my 17th birthday, and it left a lasting impression, which makes its relative obscurity all the more confounding. The film was mostly well-reviewed, and many film critics put it on their lists of the best films of the year. Yet four years later the film has not had anything more than a bare-bones DVD release and has not gained the acclaim it deserves.

 The film chronicles the fall of Jesse James (Brad Pitt), the famous outlaw who became a legend far long before his death. The James Gang is falling apart, on a final train-robbery before disbanding. It features Jesse’s wise, ornery older brother Frank (Sam Shepard), his short-tempered cousin Wood Hite (a pre-fame Jeremy Renner), suave cohort Dick Liddle (Paul Schneider), slow Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt), and Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell). Charley has brought along his skittish little brother Bob (Casey Affleck), a 19-year-old kid who’s grown up idolizing the legendary Jesse James and who believes he’s destined for great things. Only in his mid-thirties himself, Jesse looks and acts older than his age. Years of robbing, shooting, and being shot at has taken a lot out of him. He has two children and a wife. And as a legend, he has reason to suspect that the world is out to get him. But he starts to suspect his friends, the former members of his gang, anyone whose paths he may cross. Bob, meanwhile, has to deal with being underestimated by anyone and everyone he meets as a boy, a weirdo, and a “nincompoop”, as he says. When the two share scenes, it’s a story of a man and his idol, one enamored while the other is alternatively annoyed, amused, or flat out creeped out. And as the Ford brothers get closer to the increasingly paranoid Jesse, their options narrow.

There’s so much to admire about The Assassination that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Perhaps it’s best to start with aesthetic pleasures: Roger Deakins’ photography is as gorgeous and lush as any film he has ever made. The often has the look of an old, hazy photograph, suggesting a forgotten time and place the characters refuse to leave. James is a relic of a dying era, living on borrowed time. And the melancholy Nick Cave/Warren Ellis score serves as a sad soundtrack to his final days and to the tragic end of Robert Ford. Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik builds up the Jesse James legend only to bring it down to its sad reality and humanize the so-called “coward” Robert Ford (an approach that supposedly served well his debut film Chopper, although I have not seen that film). The film’s use of narration gives background information without ever feeling condescending or unnecessary, playing almost like a colorful novel. The film’s rhythms are in direct contrast to Walter Hill’s 1980 film The Long Riders, a quick-paced film that cut right to the bone of the Jesse James story. This film’s deliberate pace has been compared to that of the films of Terrence Malick, although the film is far more talkative and flowery than Malick’s works. If there’s one unfortunate caveat to the film, it is not a flaw so much as the fact that the first 3 ½ to 4 hour cut was edited down, and the finished product feels like a part from an even greater masterpiece. As it is, the 2 ½ hour version is still a great film.

The film is populated with colorful characters and tangents, some funny (Frank James and Dick Liddle are particularly fun), some sad (Bob’s relationship with a saloon singer played by Zooey Deschanel late in the film, Charley as a man forced into terrible circumstances by his brother). But the film is undoubtedly driven by the two leads: Pitt is frightening and sad as Jesse James, a man who already seems like a ghost on this earth, while Affleck is wide-eyed and fidgety without ever seeming over the top (Shia LaBouef was initially considered for the role; now that would have been terrible). He becomes more jealous and hurt as the film goes on, and he seems as a man with only one choice left if he wants to survive, let alone become a legend. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards, but don’t be fooled: he is the film’s protagonist, and its heart. First he’s obsessed with the legend he grew up loving, then he’s humiliated and frightened by the mean-spirited reality behind his idol, and finally a man on his way out of his sad, disappointing life.

Review Snapshots

13 Assassins (A-): Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike is best known for his 1999 horror masterpiece Audition, but his irreverent take on the samurai genre is a worthy addition to his prolific filmography (over 70 films). When the shogun’s sadistic brother threatens peace among the nation, 12 samurai and a nomadic warrior join together to defeat his army. One of the most striking things about the film is that the villain’s defenders are as admirable as the film’s heroes, bound by a code of honor that doesn’t allow them to question their leader’s behavior. The film takes some time to get going as it brings the heroes together, but as the two forces clash the film becomes a great spectacle.

Hobo with a Shotgun (B): Some films are rich with subtext, symbolism, and meaning. Others feature homeless men with shotguns shooting criminals. Hobo with a Shotgun is unmistakably the latter, and simply put, the film is a blast for genre fans and all-around sickos. If Drive is an example of how to elevate a genre-film to mythic proportions, Hobo with a Shotgun revels in the gutter as a gloriously sick piece of genre trash. And how many other films feature villains resembling an extra-sleazy take on Tom Cruise circa-Risky Business?

I Saw the Devil (B): Korean genre-filmmaker Kim Ji-woon’s ultra-revenge film serves almost as an “I’ll fucking show you” answer to fellow countryman Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy. The film’s extreme violence and ugliness is sometimes testing, and it repeats itself too often with the cat-and-mouse game between a serial killer (Oldboy’s Choi Min-sik) and a man who wants revenge for the death of his fiancée (Lee Byung-hun). But the filmmaking is so strong that it’s easy to overlook the sometimes creaky story. Extra points for Min-sik’s performance as a killer who somehow manages to become more of a monster as he’s faced with his impending death.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Drive

Grade: 97 (A)

Drive is Nicolas Winding Refn’s love letter to film. Many of Refn’s influences show through- Walter Hill, William Friedkin, Michael Mann. Alejandro Jodorowsky even gets a dedication. And the film unmistakably plays like a thriller of the early-80s kind, with a gorgeous Cliff Martinez score (possibly his best) that echoes the Tangerine Dream scores of Thief, Risky Business or Near Dark. But the film is unmistakably Refn’s. It disposes of any dialogue or shot superfluous to the story. It mixes gorgeous images with bone-crunching violence. It oozes love for the genre it exemplifies while raising it to mythic proportions. And as in any of his films, the characters are not defined by what they say or feel, but by what they do, and that’s what drives the film forward. Drive feels like the film Refn has been building toward for years. It is cinema boiled down to its purest form.

The nameless driver at the center of the film (Ryan Gosling) has little life outside of what he does. He drives. Sometimes as a stunt driver for the movies, sometimes as a getaway driver for criminals at night. He works as a mechanic in a local shop run by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who wants him to drive his stock car. Shannon has some dangerous friends sponsoring the car, gangsters Nino (Ron Perlman) and Bernie (Albert Brooks). But there’s nothing to worry about at the moment. The change comes with Irene (Carey Mulligan), a new neighbor to the driver. The two connect, the driver bonds with her son Benicio, and through this shy, simple relationship, the driver begins to feel that he is more than simply what he does. When Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaacs) makes bail, the he suspects something between Irene and the driver, but when a couple of hoods threaten Standard and Benicio, the driver is ready to help with a job Standard needs to pay the hoods back. And then the gentle, romanticized film takes an ugly turn as the driver is pushed to defend the people he loves however he can.

The performances in the film are universally spectacular, from Cranston as Gosling’s all around good guy boss to Perlman as a fuck-up gangster. Three stand out: Brooks, Mulligan, and Gosling. Brooks is usually called-upon to play neurotic co-workers, neurotic fathers, neurotic criminals, or all around neurotics. Here, Bernie is a vicious, menacing man. He seems irritated whenever he has to become violent, but he’s hardly reluctant to do it. Brooks manages to remain very much in the Albert Brooks persona, but without the character’s usual self-consciousness. Mulligan and Gosling manage to create a more memorable and pure relationship than most films can dream of; words are not needed, actions speak volumes. The two look at each other with great tenderness and affection as if they were shouting to the rooftops. Two of the finest actors working today, they allow the director’s framing to do the heavy lifting while the soundtrack works as a commentary on their love (the song “Real Hero” by College so perfectly encapsulates the relationship and how it affects the driver that it’s a shock to find it was not written for the film).

Gosling is the film. Refn’s leads represent the very heart of his films (Tom Hardy as anarchy incarnate in Bronson, Mads Mikkelson as the violence in man in Valhalla Rising), and with Gosling as the driver he finds a perfect muse. The driver works as an extension of what he does, as a James Dean-like American myth, but whose good looks and calm demeanor hide a potential for horrifying brutality. It’s difficult not to give all of the credit to Gosling: Drive has a more consistent story and script than Bronson or Valhalla Rising, and Refn has become a more confident filmmaker. But the two seem destined to make films together for quite some time, as Gosling seems perfectly attuned at all times to what the film needs (indeed, he and Refn worked together to trim the script). Gosling is a first-rate actor, as Half Nelson, Blue Valentine and Crazy, Stupid, Love. have proven. But his minimalist performance here is the best vehicle for his talents yet, and why not? With Drive, Gosling and Refn prove once and for all that character is action.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Overlooked Gems #6: Valhalla Rising

Grade: 78 (B+)

Danish filmmaker Nicholas Winding Refn has quickly cemented a reputation as a gifted genre-stylist. After a breakthrough with his 1996 Danish gangster film Pusher, Refn failed big with his first American film, the John Turturro starring Fear X. Refn’s production company went bankrupt and he was forced to make two sequels to Pusher, both of which were well-received. After a turbulent first decade in the business, Refn has established himself as a major voice in cinema, first with 2009’s Bronson, a fascinating film driven by a powerhouse performance by Tom Hardy but occasionally hampered by its heavy debt to A Clockwork Orange and an episodic script that often seemed like a series of set-pieces strung together. With this year’s Drive, Refn won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival. But the film in between, 2010’s Valhalla Rising, is today’s subject. A brutally violent Viking film starring Danish actor Mads Mikkelson as a mute, one-eyed warrior wasn’t going to make millions at the box-office, but with the impending success of Drive (to be released this weekend), Valhalla Rising deserves a chance to be re-discovered on DVD.

“One-Eye” (Mikkelson) is actually a nameless warrior held captive by a group of Vikings as a source of entertainment; he and other prisoners fight each other to the death in early scenes that establish that this is not a film for the squeamish. In the film’s mostly wordless opening sequences, One-Eye bites, kicks, punches and strangles various men before topping it all off by wrapping a chain around the neck of one man and snapping it. Seen as too dangerous, One-Eye is led away from the camp. He escapes, killing everyone nearby (one man he beheads and sticks his head on a pike, another he disembowels and leaves to die) save for a slave-boy who serves as an interpreter for the stone-faced warrior. The two run in with a group of Christian Vikings, who promise of gold, God, and glory if the two accompany them on a journey to join the Crusades in Jerusalem.

Valhalla Rising is broken up into six sections titled, in order: “Wrath”, “Silent Warrior”, “Men of God”, “The Holy Land”, “Hell”, and “The Sacrifice.” The film has the unfortunate virtue of having a third section so strong that none of the following sequences can quite compare. In “Men of God”, One-Eye, the boy, and the Vikings sail across the sea in hopeless abandon, blinded by fog and mist, completely lost. Tensions grow as some of the men’s distrust of One-Eye and the boy leads to their attempt to kill them in their sleep (as one might expect, it does not go over very well). Hungry and without water, the men begin to wonder whether they are cursed as they drift about. The sequence becomes more dream-like and strange until its end, when One-Eye awakes, drinks from the sea and finds that they are in fresh water. The sequence feels like Apocalypse Now or Aguirre, the Wrath of God boiled down to bare essentials: grim, nearly wordless, heavier on atmosphere as the situation grows more dire. An entire film built around this sequence may have been a strange masterpiece. As it is, the film’s subsequent sections can’t top or equal it, but they’re not bad by any stretch of the imagination.

The film’s greatest advantage is represented in Mikkelson’s character: the imposing One-Eye is less a man than a force of nature, a representation of violence incarnate. His presence spells the doom of nearly everyone he comes in contact with. The approach to the filmmaking and acting sets the film apart from mediocrities like Gladiator and Braveheart or total trash like 300. The violence is brutal and ugly rather than exhilarating, and the film isn’t marred by faux-Shakespearean dialogue a la Gladiator or self-important hooey like Braveheart. The actions of the characters tell more than any monologue ever could. The film’s influences are clear: John Milius, with its meditations on the violent nature of man, and Walter Hill, with the emphasis on action to drive the story. But Refn’s film is very much his own, taking genre pieces and cutting them to the bone. It reminded me of another brutal meditation on violence, Cormac McCarthy’s masterful novel Blood Meridian. Man is a nasty piece of work, and without pity.

Meek's Cutoff

Grade: 97 (A)

1845. A group of settlers crossing a river, animals pulling their wagons. This is the last we’ll see water for quite some time. They’re headed across the desert, and every decision they make is life or death. It isn’t clear exactly how long they’ve been on this journey, except that it has been a very long time. They’re tired and dirty, they hardly speak, and they have a long ways to go. With that, Kelly Reichardt’s incredible film Meek’s Cutoff establishes what kind of a film this will be: bleak, deliberately paced, and without huge set-pieces to get the heart pumping every few minutes. This is a slow film, and yet it packs an enormous amount of tension into 100 minutes. Meek’s Cutoff is a revisionist western of the finest kind: a tale of America’s Manifest Destiny turned into a desperate survival story. It’s the first ten minutes of There Will Be Blood stretched to feature length.

Three couples and a young boy cross the Oregon Desert. Their guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), is a trapper, a man of the land, and an all around character. But as a supposed two-week journey has drawn out into five weeks, it’s become increasingly clear that Meek may not know where he’s going. The husbands (Will Patton, Neal Huff, Paul Dano) begin to discuss whether or not they should kill Meek, but they decide to give him more time. The wives (Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan) are not included in the conversation. They’re running low on food and water, and it isn’t clear how much longer they can go on. Along the way, they run into a Native American wanderer (Rod Rodreaux), take him captive, and see if he knows the way to water. Emily Tetherow (Williams), the most even-headed of the wives, does not trust Meek and believes their captive is their only chance for salvation.

Greenwood has the showiest role of the bunch: he’s a rough, offbeat, religious man far more at ease than the settlers. Meek fully believes that he’ll get his followers to water and civilization…eventually. He’s a scoundrel, but under other circumstances he might be a very entertaining character to be around. In a voice and diction reminiscent of Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn in last year’s True Grit, Meek’s voice is a guttural growl that somehow manages to be enthusiastic and frequently jovial even when facing grave danger.  Equally impressive is Williams, an actress adept at playing characters who don’t necessarily reveal everything they’re thinking at every moment (as exemplified in Blue Valentine and director Reichardt’s terrific Wendy and Lucy). Tetherow’s contrast with the more outlandish Meek highlights the conflict between the two: Meek is a loud, sloppy frontiersman while Tetherow is controlled and sensible. An early scene in which she throws her family’s rocking chair from their wagon establishes her sense of the world around them: this is a dangerous place, supplies are low, and anything to lessen the load on the animals will help.

But the real star of Meek’s Cutoff is director Kelly Reichardt, whose work has grown increasingly ambitious after Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy yet has managed to stay in her style of neo-realism. Reichardt establishes herself as a master American filmmaker here. Many simple shots of the characters marching across the unforgiving landscape establish the mood and the world without visual pyrotechnics expected from westerns, while scenes of action are drawn out to nearly interminable length, killing the time the characters have left before oblivion.  Reichardt and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond never weigh their film down with expository narration or dialogue: it is not important that we know what the settlers did before their journey. Their actions speak for themselves. No monologue can serve the story half as well as the simple act of characters braving the harshest conditions.

Hanna

Grade: 53 (C+)

Joe Wright revitalized the period drama with his lively adaptation of Atonement, a film that that transcended the genre’s trappings through bravura sequences and resonated as a meditation on loss. It’s no surprise then that his take on an action film, Hanna, also goes for more than just thrills. But what in the world is it actually trying to say or do? Hanna re-establishes Wright as an important filmmaker with a great sense of visual panache, but the film’s point of view is muddled, and in the end it doesn’t seem to be about much of anything.

The fantastic young actress Saorise Ronan stars as Hanna, daughter of rogue CIA-agent Erik Heller (Eric Bana). Heller has trained Hanna in Antarctica her whole life. She is a proficient hunter and fighter, speaks several languages, and seems ready to become a spy in her own right. But Heller and Hanna have something else in mind; when Heller leaves and Hanna turns on a beacon to draw the in CIA, Heller’s former handler Marissa Weig (Cate Blanchett) arrives. Weig wants to cover up for past mistakes through eliminating Heller and Hanna, but Hanna is far more dangerous than her men expect; she easily kills several agents and escapes into Morocco, and from there it’s a race to see who’s who in this cat-and-mouse chase.

Wright directs the action sequences with the stylistic flair he hinted at in Atonement; the film frequently plays like the Bourne films as re-imagined as a pure sensory experience with a young girl in the lead role. Aided by a strange, fascinating electronic score by the Chemical Brothers and a strong central performance from Ronan, Hanna works as a stylistic work of genius and as a series of action sequences strung together. But what about the story?

Hanna makes its aspirations for something more early on when Hanna and her father read from the Brothers Grimm. The rest of the film is loaded with fairy-tale allusions: a family to serve as companions for Hanna while she hides out, a Wicked Witch of the West character (Blanchett, whose performance is marred by a distractingly cartoonish Southern accent) and her strange henchmen (Tom Hollander as an albino hitman who whistles one of the soundtrack’s more memorable themes), and a heroine unfamiliar with the world she encounters. But to what purpose? Hanna frustratingly dances around that question until it no longer seems interested in answering it. It doesn’t help that the films complex conspiracy plot doesn’t make much sense, nor does Bana’s decision to let Hanna take care of Blanchett rather than go after her himself. Hanna is ultimately more about the journey its protagonist goes on rather than her destination, but that journey has to be about something, and in the end the film’s purpose isn’t clear. As a technical achievement, the film is admirable, but it’s ultimately far too cold and bare to engender genuine affection.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Contagion

Grade: 69 (B)

Eleven years ago Steven Soderbergh’s masterpiece Traffic took a multi-textured look at the War on Drugs through its non-judgmental depiction of multiple factions of the drug world, from profiteers (Catharine Zeta-Jones, Dennis Quaid) to enemies of the drug trade (Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro). The film came in a brilliant run of artistically and commercially successful films for Soderbergh (Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Ocean’s Eleven), and that film showed Soderbergh’s talent for dealing with a complicated subject and large ensemble cast to deliver a great movie. Soderbergh uses that talent on the less ambitious but still sprawling Contagion, and the film manages to avoid the pitfalls of disease-of-the-week weepies or lame Outbreak-style thrillers because of it.

Beth (Gwyneth Paltrow) starts it all. After coming home sick from a business trip, she collapses into a seizure and dies. Beth’s husband Mitch (Matt Damon) doesn’t understand how this could happen. Neither do the doctors. It gets worse: people all over the world are dying. The disease is spreading like a wildfire. Members of the CDC (Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jennifer Ehle) and World Health Organization (Marion Cotillard) try to figure out the virus before it kills millions, but they can’t move fast enough. And a popular conspiracy-theorist blogger (Jude Law looking as ugly here as he is handsome in reality) spreading rumors about government cover-ups isn’t helping any. At the center of this is Mitch, caring for his daughter in a world crumbling around him.

Soderbergh handles the multiple storylines with a deft hand and in a realistic manner, and Contagion works as a chilling ‘what-if’ story that doesn’t stretch credibility with absurd action finales or over-the-top performances. The actors in minor roles make the most of limited screen-time (Bryan Cranston as a military official, Elliott Gould as a doctor, Paltrow as one of the first victims) while the meatier roles never fall into scenery-chewing or speechifying. Law’s character rants about untrustworthy governments without seeming too crazy (though the prosthetic bad teeth are a bit much) while Winslet and Fishburne handle their jobs well and without melodrama. Best of all are Damon as a father protecting his daughter from a world-gone-mad and Ehle as a dedicated scientist spending day-and-night on the clock trying to find a cure.

Not everything works. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns give most of their characters enough to do, but some feel unnecessary or go on far too long: John Hawkes’ character seems thrown in primarily to give Fishburne another person to look out for and as a way to absolve any guilt; Cotillard’s plotline reaches its logical conclusion halfway through the film but takes a turn that seems to belong in a completely different movie. The addition of these combined with the other characters and plotlines add fat to a film that mostly manages to move along quickly, bringing the film to a sluggish ending as it closes the multiple storylines. The film could easily have been 90 to 95 minutes rather than 106. And after the film reaches a logical emotional conclusion, it saves one final sequence that, while well made, feels unnecessary and a bit too on-the-nose. Still, Contagion is solid entertainment from a great filmmaker, and it takes a hint from Cliff Martinez’s excellent score: it’s frightening, paranoid, and eerily precise.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Overlooked Gems #5: That Thing You Do!

Grade: 85 (A-)

Tom Hanks is America’s most likable movie-star, so it’s not too surprising that his directorial debut, That Thing You Do!, is one of the most likable films of the 90s. What is surprising is that the film found only modest reception in its 1996 release. Few films of its time are as filled with pure joy and feature a love story as disarming. That is not the love story between stars Tom Everett Scott and Liv Tyler (although their charm is undeniable), but one between Hanks and the early 60s rock and roll he loves.

Local Erie teen band the One-ders (frequently mispronounced as the “o-nee-ders” until manager Hanks renames them “The Wonders”) are in a jam after their drummer (Giovanni Ribisi) breaks his arm. They enlist their friend, Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott), a teenager with an affinity for jazz music and a great talent as a drummer. They’re a talented group, but their song “That Thing You Do!” doesn’t take off until Guy ignores egotistical singer/songwriter Jimmy’s order to play the song as a ballad and gives it the kick it needs. They become a local sensation, tour Ohio, get a record contract and a hit with “That Thing You Do!”, and break up all within two months.

The film is a tale of a one-hit wonder teen group that never makes it past their first single, and yet their story feels vaguely familiar. Hanks wisely models the story of the Wonders after the story of the Beatles to make the film seem more universal. There’s the replacement of the original drummer with more talented man with a funny nickname (Richard “Ringo Starr” Starkey and Guy “Shades” Patterson), the re-structuring of an initially unimpressive song (“Please Please Me” for the Beatles, the title track for the Wonders), the band’s goofy sense-of-humor (provided by Scott and the always wonderful Steve Zahn), the frontman’s loyal yet frequently slighted girlfriend (Liv Tyler, perfectly cast for the first and only time of her career), the band wearing all-matching suits and bowing together after each performance, and the group’s demise at the egotism of the frontman (Paul and John combine into Jimmy). The stories obviously aren’t exactly the same; the Beatles, if I recall, had a few hits, but the similarities help make the Wonders seem like a worthwhile group to follow. It doesn’t hurt that “That Thing You Do!” is as catchy and giddy as “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” or “She Loves You” (nominated for an Oscar, the song predictably lost to Madonna and Andrew Lloyd Webber for a song from the film version of Evita).

That Thing You Do!’s star, Tom Everett Scott, looks like a young Tom Hanks crossed with Kirk Douglas (whose film Spartacus is frequently quoted by the goofy Scott), and it’s easy to see a young Hanks in the role. Scott has Hanks’ likability, and his slowly-developing romance with Tyler is as sweet-natured and simple as the love song that drives the film. He notices Tyler’s fever when her jerk boyfriend is focused on success, is far more impressed and excited to be on stage than Jimmy, and ultimately just wants everyone to get along. That Thing You Do! is also refreshing in it’s refusal to go along with usual music-movie clichés: Mr. White (Hanks) is a likable man throughout and never cheats the group (who wants to see Hanks play a jerk anyway?) There’s never a “band member tears apart a room” scene. No one gets addicted to drugs. No one says “you’ve changed, man”. So if the film doesn’t try to be more than a love-letter to a simpler time for rock-and-roll, it’s only because it’s as simple, catchy, and likable as the songs that inspire it.

NOTE: The DVD of That Thing You Do! features both the theatrical and extended cut of the film. While the extended cut has its moments (especially more scenes with Tyler and Scott), it spends far too much time on a go-nowhere subplot involving Scott’s girlfriend (a young Charlize Theron) and is way too long at two and half hours. Stick with the lean theatrical cut.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Overlooked Gems #4: Moon

Grade: 87 (A-)

David Bowie’s classic song “Space Oddity” fostered many a young man’s fascination with space-travel and science-fiction. It’s fitting then that his son, filmmaker Duncan Jones, made his directorial debut with Moon, a moody sci-fi thriller that echoes, among other sci-fi classics, Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. Moon was released in the summer of 2009 at the same time as Michael Bay’s enormously successful but universally derided Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. It’s not surprising that Jones’ slower, less juvenile film was far less expensive and less successful than Bay’s film. It is also far too easy to compare and contrast the two. Bay is an easy target with no delusions that he’s made an intelligent film, and his film is filled with sexism, racism, relentless noise and incoherent action. Jones’ film has far more ambition. Easy and pretentious as the comparison may seem, it is still heartening to see that intelligent sci-fi can still be made. It’s doubly encouraging that Jones’ talent was noticed, as his next film, the solid Source Code, successfully applied Jones’ interest in complex sci-fi to the blockbuster model. Moon is gradually building a cult audience that will no doubt grow as Jones’ profile becomes more pronounced, but it’s still early enough in the film’s lifespan that it qualifies as an overlooked gem.

Moon begins with Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell). Sam is almost alone on the moon, where an energy source was found ages ago to solve the earth’s energy crisis. Sam is the employee of Lunar Industries, which harvests this energy and sends it back to earth. He has a contract with the company for 3 years, after which his replacement will arrive and he can go home to his wife and daughter. His only companion is Gerdy (Kevin Spacey), a HAL 9000-esque robotic system that keeps Sam sane and up to date. Sam can receive transmissions from home, but the delay between the sent messages and their arrival on the moon prevents him from having actual conversations with his family. It is nearing the end of Sam’s agreed term on the moon. He’s tired, he has become irritable, he’s frequently talking to himself, he has grown long-hair and an unsightly beard, and he’s starting to see things. He’s ready to go home. Of course, things are about to get complicated.

At this point, it’s difficult to discuss Moon’s mind-boggling plot without giving away the surprises the film has in store. Needless to say, Moon doesn’t go in to expected places. The film doesn’t have action set-pieces or graphic violence, more people don’t come to attack Sam or have arguments with him. Aside from Kevin Spacey’s voice as a friendly companion this is largely a one-man show for Rockwell, who gives an astounding performance. Rockwell had previously acquitted himself nicely in restrained supporting roles such as Charlie Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford but had also done manic, irritating work in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Green Mile, where the directors seemingly let Rockwell run amok with every tic and spasm he could conjure. Rockwell’s increasingly more frantic and paranoid performance could have been a disaster, and yet Rockwell never goes into over-the-top cartoonishness the way he had in other “crazy” roles. He is a strong anchor for this film. Also good is Spacey in perhaps his most interesting role since American Beauty (clearly showing how lackluster his post-Oscar career has been otherwise). His character is highly reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL-9000, and yet the Gerdy isn’t a repeat; he’s far warmer towards Sam than HAL ultimately could be in the Kurbick film.

And here is where the SPOILERS set it, so anyone who hasn’t seen Moon and would like to go in knowing as little as possible may want to stop reading.


Much has been made of how Moon feels like a homage to classic sci-fi of its time aside from 2001. There are eerie spectral visions similar to that of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, the film’s low-budget has been compared to John Carpenter’s Dark Star, space is seen as a job with menial tasks as in Ridley Scott’s Alien, and Scott’s Blade Runner influences how the film turns out. Yet Jones’ voice is heard throughout the film. He establishes a mood of loneliness and longing early in the film that is perfectly complimented by Clint Mansell’s score. The film is not a masterpiece on the same level as 2001, Alien, or Blade Runner. Moon feels in some ways like a warm-up for greater films to come. But with this and Source Code a major filmmaker has already explored themes that will no doubt be repeated throughout his filmography: untrustworthy companies and the protagonists they manipulate, mind-bending sci-fi concepts, protagonists with regret for the decisions they’ve made, and focus on what makes us human and where our rights come in. That’s more than enough to make it worth the while.