Mystery

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

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Sherlock Holmes is a character that everyone knows. He has survived for well over a century now, and has been re-imagined in various books, television shows, and films. The latest cinematic interpretation of this beloved character comes from Guy Ritchie, well known for his British crime films such as Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. The fact that Ritchie is known for films that are fast-paced and action-packed, and that Holmes is a detective who is praised mostly for his intelligence and logic, should raise a few concerns to anyone familiar with both figures. Indeed, the pairing ends up being unsuitable, and the result is a mildly entertaining but mostly forgettable adventure film.

The movie follows Holmes and his trusty sidekick Watson as they examine the case of Lord Blackwood, a villain that they begin the movie with by capturing but who appears to have risen from the dead. Amidst all this chaos is the threat of Watson’s fiance stealing his services away from Holmes, as well as a femme fatale that has a special and not entirely sexual relationship with the famous detective.

Holmes is re-envisioned for this film. Ritchie makes it very clear that this Holmes is still very deductive and intelligent, but that he has translated these intellectual skills into brawn. In two of the better sequences, Holmes plans out his movements in a fight and then executes them perfectly, allowing the audience to see exactly how Holmes determined he would kick that guy’s ass. Unfortunately, save for a few requisite instances of Holmes filling everyone else in with small but apparently sufficient clues, the rest of the movie just features Sherlock as a fighter and not a thinker. Fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories might be disappointed with the lack of fidelity here, but of course, much of the movie-going audience doesn’t bother with literature anymore and will probably be more pleased with this action-packed hot wired version of the super sleuth.

The lead actors is what makes this film somewhat enjoyable. Robert Downey, Jr. fits into the title role easily, especially with the bare knuckle brawling reincarnation. As a man who has struggled with his own addictions in the past, I was hoping that Downey’s Holmes might at least be faithful in the fact that he was a cocaine addict. Unfortunately, the closest Ritchie comes to this is a scene showing that Holmes is apparently a severe boozer (something I’m not sure a real detective would be able to support). The scene probably conveys the proper sense of unkempt problematic drug use, with Jude Law’s Watson having to pick up the intoxicated pieces of Holmes, but it still cheats by using the legal drug instead of the real deal (shouldn’t be that big of a deal, really, since cocaine was legal in these times).

Jude Law also works well as a more mature and straight-edged Watson. Many people have said that the chemistry between the two leads is the film’s saving grace, and that it plays out like some sort of “bromance”. This is true, and their banter and playful interactions should be enough to entertain even the most jaded Doyle fan whose hopes for the picture have shattered by the end of the first sequence.

The rest of the cast is disappointing. Mark Strong plays the most bored-looking villain I’ve seen in quite a while. Sometimes he seemed really severe, but most of the time it seemed like his eyes were on the verge of glazing over as he recited his cringingly bad dialogue. Rachel McAdams was entirely unnecessary. I’m convinced that her character was only there to serve two low purposes: sex appeal and sequel set-up.

The best sequences in the film are the action scenes, but really, they’re all so loosely tied together that sometimes you forget how they started or what the stakes are. The 19th Century English setting is really well-done, and is a good use of CGI in this film – a lot of the dangers and obstacles during the action sequences are an equally weighted bad use.

Most of all, the film just isn’t intelligent enough for its subject. Running around in tunnels beneath Parliament, somehow our characters come out on top of a huge London bridge under construction for the mediocre climax. And while Holmes may be privy to the cognitive biases that ruin most peoples’ perceptions and ideas, his observation skills are explained here as being the result of a sort of supersensitivity to sight and sound. I’m not sure how to feel about that decision, but I do know that I wish the character had done a bit less ass-kicking and a lot more thinking. This is a character that is so awesome because of his relentless faith in science and logic, but Ritchie has turned him into just another Hollywood action hero. As Downey Jr. says in the film, “Crime is common, logic is rare”. Apparently too rare, for it seems to be missing from this standard action adventure fare.

Final rating: 6/10

–James A. Janisse


The Village (2004)

The Village was the first M. Night Shyamalan movie I’ve seen in a while. It’s been a few years since I saw Unbreakable, and even longer since the Sixth Sense, so I tried to enter the movie with a fresh sense of judgment.

Unfortunately for me, popular culture has long revealed the twist ending of this movie, so it’s very likely that the knowledge of the twist ahead of time impacted my feelings toward the movie. On that note, I’m not going to restrain from spoilers in the review, so

***IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THIS MOVIE DO NOT READ THIS REVIEW.***

Still, I can’t say for certain that I wouldn’t have figured it out before the reveal anyway. Onward with the review.

The Village is a movie that takes its time as it explores small town life in a town supposedly in the late 19th century. The titular village is plagued by hidden and unnamed creatures that reside in the forest and keep the villagers to their little town. Joaquin Pheonix plays an emergingly rebellious young man who questions the insular doctrine that the town elders have established.

Pheonix is great, and probably the highlight of the film. His subdued performance makes you root for him as he stands up and tries to think critically about his situation, and his humbleness only solidifies his likability. The most tragic part of this movie is that the last third removes him almost entirely, and focuses instead on the leading lady played by newcomer (and Ron Howard’s daughter) Dallas Bryce Howard.

I’ve heard from a lot of people that Howard was good in her role, but I must respectfully disagree. Her delivery and mannerisms got a bit on my nerves, and I was pretty upset that she rose to the focal point of the movie by the end. It’s not that she was horrible, I think I just disagreed with the acting choices she made. I’m sure I could grow to like her if I examine her in other roles, but her interpretation of this character didn’t settle with me.

Her father similarly annoyed me. William Hurt was easily the weakest link of this movie for me. His line deliveries sounded so unnatural and awkward, and he only brought more unpleasantness to an already unsympathetic character.

Shyamalan’s direction in this movie is mixed. On the one hand, I feel as though he misuses slow-motion. The first time he uses it is when the creatures come into the town and Howard’s character has the door open and her hand outstretched. This scene is very tense, and I was enjoying the suspense a lot, but then it moved into slow-motion and broke all of the excitement that I had for it. On the other hand, there are some fantastic sequences and shots. One that stands out in particular is when Adrien Brody stabs Pheonix. It’s the most beautifully tragic and silent stabbing I’ve ever seen, and I was really impressed by it.

But the great acting and the occasional directorial goodness is all brought down by the end of the movie. The last forty minutes of this movie ruin any interest it had built up for me at all. The twists are uninspired and cliche, and the reveals are very anticlimactic. When I heard that the Village was actually in modern day, I thought it was an awesome idea, but after seeing the execution, I was severely disappointed in how Shyamalan decided to reveal this.

Then he decides to try to cover his tracks in depth by having an officer, played by Shyamalan himself, explaining everything and even offering an explanation for the lack of planes flying by. It’s like he doesn’t trust his audience to figure anything out on their own, and it really belittles the entire twist. Plus, I have serious problems with films like this, that show the creatures clearly as CGI-created monsters, and then later tries to say they were just people in rubber masks. That’s bullshit, and it’s insulting to audiences to show them one thing and then later say it’s another.

And also, I don’t think a blind chick could have killed anyone in the woods like that, even if they were mentally handicapped. The entire last third of this movie had me groaning and rolling my eyes, and made me join the leagues of other critics who claim that Shyamalan is a one-trick pony who has been failing that trick as of late.

Final rating: 4/10

–James A. Janisse