Cerebral

Stay (2005)

Film #13: Stay (2005)

In the mood for a mystery, I consulted my film library and randomly chose one. I had never heard of 2005’s Stay, written by David Benioff and directed by Marc Forster, but its attractive cast made the case for a spontaneous viewing. The film begins with a rollicking POV shot of a car accident on a bridge. Henry Letham (Ryan Gosling), a 20-year-old survivor of the wreck, goes to see his usual psychiatrist, only to find a “substitute shrink” in the form of Dr. Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor). After Henry tells Sam that he plans to kill himself in a few days’ time, Sam is distressed enough to confide in his girlfriend Lila (Naomi Watts), herself a suicide survivor. Sam starts to investigate Henry’s background more in-depth, and as he does, his reality begins to unfold, leaving him unsure of who, exactly, is the crazy one in all of this.

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Moon (2009)

Heads up, this review is riddled with spoilers. RIDDLED!

Moon is a British science fiction film quietly released in 2009. It got some attention from its screening at Sundance, but besides that short-lived buzz, it got little notice from the media or the public in general. This is one of the more tragic facts in recent cinematic history, because this little indie movie was able to evoke the isolating tone of 2001-era science fiction while delivering an intelligent and reality-based story. Moon is the debut feature film of director Duncan Jones, and on that note, I have to disclose my bias in reviewing this film, since Jones is the son of the handsome and ageless rock star David Bowie, a man who visits me in my dreams every night and can do no wrong. But even with that conflict of interest accounted for, Moon is seriously an awesome movie.

In the near future, Earth’s energy crisis will finally be resolved through the harvest of helium-3, an element used in nuclear fusion that is found in abundance on the moon. Lunar Industries operates a moon-based facility that mines and transports the helium-3 back to Earth. Overlooking this process is a single employee, whose contract of loneliness lasts three years. We join Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) as he nears the end of his long shift. With live transmission to Earth apparently blocked, Sam watches delayed recordings from his wife and new daughter on Earth. Despite the assistance of an emoticon-faced robot named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), Sam is beginning to break down psychologically. After a hallucination causes him to crash and pass out on a harvesting expedition, he comes to in the station’s medical bay. And this is where things get weird.

Sam investigates the accident site and finds someone unconscious. Turns out, it’s him. They’re both Sam Bell, as GERTY reveals. After some initial hostility from Sam2, they begin to piece together the facts of the situation. It turns out that the original Sam Bell is back on Earth with his teenage daughter, his wife having recently passed. The memories and videos from them have been manipulated and implanted into each clone. After a three-year service, the clones begin to deteriorate, before they’re finally incinerated in a pod that they believe are taking them back to Earth. The new clone is awakened just like Sam2 was after the crash, then quickly takes over the shift after some rehabilitation.

This is an incredible story that evokes thoughts about corporations, technology, personhood, and the ethics surrounding cloning. Every turn in the story could have been treated as some kind of big twist, but instead, the script just slides them out, confident that the audience will be satisfied enough intellectually to not require a dramatic delivery. It is, in all manner of sorts, a slow burn of a movie. And how could it not be? It’s set on the moon, the loneliest place humans have ever been to. Using models instead of CGI, Jones gives us plenty of wide long shots that let us get lost in the emptiness of space. The colorless, barren moon surface is only slightly less terrifying than the pitch black sky above it. It’s a nice setting for a movie largely about its characters’ psyches.

To say “characters” in the plural is a slight stretch, however, since Moon is mostly a one-man show. Sam Rockwell is one of my favorite actors, able to make characters seem both amiable and a bit psychotic with ease. Playing against himself, Rockwell gets to paint his performance with every shade of emotion. From the hopelessness of Sam1 to the frustration of Sam2, Rockwell is what carries Moon through its sometimes lengthy sequences. Another tragic fact of this film is that Rockwell was ignored by the Academy and never nominated for Best Acting in Moon. How he could have been overlooked is beyond me.

Lending his voice to a robot tethered by rail to the station ceiling, Spacey is a nice accompaniment to Rockwell & Rockwell. His droll voice is perfectly suited for a mechanical assistant. It’s only natural to see GERTY and think of HAL, and the filmmakers know this, so they play GERTY’sintentions somewhat ambiguously at first. Soon enough, however, it’s clear that GERTY is entirely on Sam’s side. This sort of Bizarro-HAL is a breath of fresh air in a genre where robots are often just cold, calculating, and murderous. As we root for Sam to find a way around his injustice, GERTY roots with us, offering his assistance at all turns. But it’s still never easy for the Sams – the fact that GERTY is rail-based keeps him from being too omniscient or powerful, a restriction that only makes sense given Moon‘s low-key future.

Bathed in bright lights and completely sterile white interiors, the set design evokes THX-1138, another slow-paced science fiction movie with a conspiratorial theme. It’s futuristic, but entirely rooted in reality. The models, which look fantastic, add to this approach. So does the fact that it only takes place a generation into the future. The problem that Sam Bell is there to solve is one of our most immediate and pressing; the problem that surrounds the use of his clones is one that lurks in the shadows of our technological future.

Moon is a thinking person’s movie, akin to several excellent decades-old science fiction films. Its steady reveals keeps the story interesting, and when the pace begins to lag, it’s supported by Rockwell’s stellar performance and beautiful direction from Jones. I saw that there was some talk of a trilogy of films set in Moon‘s fictional universe. Although I’m usually against such ideas, I think that as long as Duncan Jones gives those movies the intellectual and technological attention he gave to Moon, then we have two movies to look very forward to.

Final Rating: 9/10

Stray Observations:

  • One thing I wish the film had addressed was the nature of the hallucinations Bell started having. When he burned himself he saw a teenage girl – but it wasn’t his actual-aged daughter, was it? And was it the same figure he saw in the harvester? It just seems like a weird loose end in a story so fully realized.
  • I also wasn’t sure what the point of making the clones get sick after 3 years was if they were just going to get incinerated anyway. Could anyone help me figure these points out, because I might very well just be overlooking something.
  • If you like to watch Sam Rockwell unravel into mental instability, make sure to check him out in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, a trippy movie directed aggressively by George Clooney.
–James A. Janisse

The Machinist (2004)

Christian Bale went from 180 to 120 pounds for his role in The Machinist. I felt like I needed to state that first, because his emaciated frame is the centerpiece of this dark psychological suspense flick. Directed by Brad Anderson, Bale plays Trevor Reznick, a machinist who hasn’t slept in a year and whose health is clearly suffering for it. Reznick’s insomnia has not only wreaked havoc on his body, but also his mind, and while distracted at work he ends up causing an accident that costs a co-worker (Michael Ironside) his arm. As Reznick tries to find solace – first with a hooker (Jennifer Jason Leigh), then with a warm airport waitress (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) and her son – it seems more apparent that there may be another accident that he should feel guilty for.

Deranged and confused, Bale is characteristically excellent. I can’t think of a single actor besides Daniel Day-Lewis who’s as committed to his parts as Christian Bale. It’s not just the weight loss – although that alteration was so extreme that an early shot of Bale shirtless will likely stay with you forever – but it’s the complete embrace of Trevor as an average hard-working guy who slips deeper and deeper into paranoia and delusions. Things start to get weird when Reznick meets Ivan, a worker he’s never seen before played by John Sharian. Ivan seems like a congenial fellow at first, but Sharian quickly turns him into an ominous force. Congenial on the surface, Ivan becomes a menacing shadow of a character. Nobody else has ever seen him before, and proving his existence ends up becoming Reznick’s primary concern.

The Machinist is a nightmare of a film. Harsh lighting throws shadows across Bale’s face, darkening his eye sockets and making him even more skeletal. The picture is as bleached as Reznick’s hands, having undergone some severe desaturation that matches the mood of the film precisely. In Trevor Reznick’s world, there is no color or joy. There is only a foreboding sense of some uncovered mystery, telegraphed to us through recurring images and instances of time standing still. A twist ending comes part and parcel with this subgenre of  “mind-bending” films, and in this case, a lot of the movie depends on its execution. So it’s unfortunate that it left me with mixed feelings.

It turns out that a year ago, Bale was the driver in a hit-and-run that left a young boy killed. Since then, his world has been littered with hallucinations having to do with the accident, which he apparently erased from his memory after driving through a tunnel. The waitress and her son, as we saw them, were never real – they were the victims of Bale’s crime, projected into his own delusional world. And Ivan turns out to be a manifestation of himself and the guilt he’s been suppressing. Or something.

It’s not a bad twist. On the contrary, it’s actually well thought-out and hinted at throughout the film. But in some ways, it seems a little too thought-out.  There are some cases where the symbolism being stressed seems overly specific, such as the clocks always showing the exact minute that the accident happened. Other times, there are whole threads that seem forced. One that reoccurs a few times involves fish in Rezner’s freezer going bad, and it seems to exist solely to include cryptic blood-dropping shots. A mysterious game of hangman that was pretty eerie in its first appearance similarly ends up remarkably expendable. Screenwriter Scott Kosar wrote this script while in film school, and unfortunately it shows, with symbolism that’s sometimes too contrived and heavy-handed.

Besides Bale’s haunting body frame, the most memorable part of this movie is the “Route 666” sequence. Bale takes the waitress’ young boy on a hellacious carnival ride that ends up forecasting the film’s ending. The message comes via garishly gory animatronics and images so frightening that the boy ends up having a seizure. The ride seems to come out of nowhere and might seem a little out-of-place, but it steeply descends into Willy-Wonka-tunnel-level madness and revitalizes the film just as it begins to lag. It’s a great sequence that acts as a suitable microcosm of the entire movie, from its cryptic story to its dark tone. And of course, its overbearing symbolism.

Final rating: 7/10

Stray Observations

  • “Trevor Reznick” may sound familiar because it’s derived from Trent Reznor. Just a little somethin-somethin for all you NIN fans who also tend to enjoy English-speaking foreign-made independent psychological films.
  • The first time I saw this movie, I thought Ivan was a black man. This time through I realized he wasn’t (it’s seriously that desaturated), but someone else I was watching with did. Then I determined that he seemed vaguely as though he was from Louisiana, but the actor is from Connecticut. There’s just something distinct about him that I can’t place, and I think that added to Ivan.
  • Those Hitchcockian strings were something else that felt a little forced.
  • After filming this, Bale was cast as Batman and had six months to bulk up. He got back up to his weight (180), then put on an additional 50 pounds of muscle (230), and then found out that that was a little much, so he dropped 40 pounds (190), officially earning my lifelong envy for having such versatile body mass.
–James A. Janisse

Mulholland Drive (2001)

Mulholland Drive is a David Lynch film that takes place in Los Angeles, which instantly makes it interesting. Lynch is not your typical Hollywood director, but here his characters are, getting into accidents on Mulholland Drive and running around Sunset Blvd. But the real life industrial relationship behind the film is far from the only thing that makes it interesting. Mulholland Drive is one of the most complexing and ambiguous films in popular cinema, and luckily its complicated story is made into an enjoyment through incredible filmmaking.

After some 50s dancing by colorfully backlit silhouettes and a shot of a bed prefacing the very dreamlike film ahead, we begin with a car crash that leaves Laura Harring stranded and walking through Los Angeles. She eventually teams up with Naomi Watts, a naive newcomer to the city hoping to become a movie star. The two try to figure out what happened to Harring, who has amnesia, while a director played by Justin Theroux struggles with control over his picture.

That description makes the film sound as though it has a normal narrative. In reality, the movie includes several seemingly disconnected episodes that either follow one of the two storylines, or something entirely unrelated. One memorable scene early on helps establish the tone of the film and nothing else. Patrick Fischler tells a story of a recurring nightmare that is subsequently slowly realized. An instance of terror that he experiences behind a restaurant by the dumpster is intense, with Lynch masterfully manipulating the audio to make us experience Fischler’s shocked and muffled perception.

Lynch just knows how to make a film evokes the feelings he wants. This movie is suspenseful and mysterious, with a foreboding sense of danger always surrounding the characters. Lynch accomplishes this sometimes using simple devices – like switching between a character’s subjective point of view and a very restricted look at them as they walk, giving us only the narrowest sense of their surrounding and the fear of it being penetrated at any second. Other times he uses unsettlingly fast trucking shots that whip us from a more complete view of what’s going on back to that same limited vision. In the same name of ambiguity, some shot fall out of focus, giving our eyes the difficulty that the plot gives our brains.

Many elements of the story accompany the filmmaking technique to make this movie dreary. Justin Theroux’s storyline shows the oppressive influence of mysterious powerful figures. It plays out somewhat as an attack on the Hollywood system, where creativity and directorial control can be overtaken by business deals or nepotism. Michael J. Anderson is appropriately eerie as a dwarf at the top of the line of power, and Lafayette Montgomery puts in one of the most memorable (and one of my personal favorite) roles of all time as the Cowboy, a very mysterious figure who commands conversations with ease and appreciates good manners.

The best performances are the leads, however. Naomi Watts is especially impressive. She initially plays Betty, a saccharine sweetheart who has come to watch over her (very bizarre) aunt’s house in Hollywood. Betty is creepily wholesome and cheery, evocative of a naive optimism that probably constituted many a young girl’s outlook in the days of the studio era. At first you may be believe that this is all Watts is capable of, but she destroys that notion during a scene where she auditions for a role. It’s powerfully erotic and a mind-blowing turn from a character that you thought you knew entirely.

After most of the movie follows the convincingly amnesic Harring and Watts as “Rita” and Betty respectively, it takes a surreal turn and seemingly pops the audience out in another universe, one where Watts now plays a disillusioned victim of the Hollywood system named Diane Selwyn, and Harring plays her rising star girlfriend who is manipulative and cruel. It’s in this alternative dimension that Justin Theroux finally connects with Harring and Watts’ storyline, as his seemingly unchanged director character becomes a source of ultimate tension between Harring and Watts’ new characters.

The fact that both of these actresses can take on two different roles in one film is praiseworthy enough, but again, Watts is stand-out since her second role is a polar opposite of her first. It’s almost hard to believe that it’s the same actress in both of these commanding presences.

One of the last scenes in the original storyline is when Watts and Harring visit a late-night show at Club Silencio. An opera singer is allowed to dominate the film for a considerable amount of time, long enough for us to forget the surrounding narrative and become entranced by her performance. Just when it’s been so long, she faints and her singing continues without her. It’s only one of the many interesting and surreal ways that Lynch plays with reality in this film.

Lynch has actually declined to ever fully explain the meaning of this film and its seemingly at-odds storylines. The general consensus among viewers is that the original story is a dream that Watts’ character Diane concocts as a way to escape her miserable and (soon enough) guilt-ridden life. Betty represents who she once was, or maybe who she never was but wants to be, a wide-eyed delight who is a ridiculously talented actress. Harring plays who she wishes her lover would be, a fun and trustworthy companion who is dependent on Watts because of her amnesia.

In this sense, the film is ultimately tragic, and it’s only appropriate for the dark and sinister tone that pervades it throughout. It’s a film that will give you an opportunity to think and could be discussed for hours with intelligent and interested fans. Even though it’s difficult to make sense of, it’s entertaining and driven by great performances, from the lead actresses to the minor characters who all play in unison in the same off-key way. It’s an unmatchable foray into surrealism, and deals with delightfully Lynchian themes of power, industry, and diving into the unconsciousness that makes up dreams. Mulholland Drive is a masterpiece that all but matches the perfection that Lynch gave us in Eraserhead.

Final rating: 9.5/10

–James A. Janisse

 

 

 


Eraserhead (1977)

After watching Dune as my first David Lynch film, I realized that he might best be approached in a chronological fashion. So I rented Eraserhead, Lynch’s first feature, and sat down to watch it, unaware of what I was in for. I of course knew a bit of Lynch’s reputation as a filmmaker, but no amount of reading or talking about him could prepare me for the surreal grotesque nightmare that is Eraserhead.

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