9 – 9.5

Skyfall (2012)

James Bond film #23 (Daniel Craig Bond)

Skyfall (2012)

Note: This review is spoiler-free, so read without fear.

It’s been 4 years since the last Bond movie, the longest gap between two films with the same Bond actor, but Daniel Craig returns for Skyfall 50 years after Dr. No (1) was released in 1962. Though the story arc that spanned across his first two films has come to an end, Skyfall continues to delve deeper into Bond’s and M’s personal lives, exploring the history behind their relationship through the eccentric villain played by Javier Bardem. Most good Bond movies are usually strong in some areas but weak in others; Skyfall has the unique position of being categorically awesome. It’s hard to fairly judge a movie the night of its release, but Skyfall just might be the best Bond movie in the entire series.

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Casino Royale (2006)

James Bond film #21 (Daniel Craig Bond)

Casino Royale (2006)

Every actor to play James Bond brings their own style to the character and, subsequently, their films. Sean Connery was rugged and brash; he was always game for the ladies or to crack a one-liner, but he was more apt to shoot from the hip and judo chop his way to the heart of SPECTRE’s nefarious plots. His films were classic Cold War espionage adventures that established the tropes of the series. George Lazenby’s Bond was more of a softie, falling in love and getting married, and his solo outing included instances of romance to accommodate that new side of Bond.

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Cyrus (2010)

Film #25: Cyrus (2010)

Cyrus is a comedy-drama written and directed by the Duplass brothers, Jay and Mark, and released in 2010. With the exception of its professional actors, the film has all the hallmarks of the indie “mumblecore” movement that the Duplass brothers partake in: Low-budget filmmaking that’s character-based and dialogue-driven. The tenets of mumblecore can be divisive enough for a movie-going public more acclimated to high-concept films; Cyrus doubles down on its disconcertion by featuring a nearly incestuous Oedipal relationship. Plenty of people are probably interested in this movie based on its cast. Many will probably end up disappointed.

Personally, I absolutely loved it.

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The Descendants (2011)

Film #20: The Descendants (2011)

George Clooney starred in two films last year: The Ides of March and The Descendants. While the former has a special place in my heart since it was filmed in Ann Arbor while I was at school there, the latter received far more critical attention. In director Alexander Payne’s film, Clooney plays Matt King, a lawyer in Honolulu who is the sole trustee of a large plot of land on the island of Kaua’i. He and his huge network of cousins are on the verge of selling the land to a native Hawaiian for development, but his life becomes complicated when his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) has a boating accident that puts her in a coma. All of a sudden, “the back-up parent”, as he calls himself, is in charge of their two daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley). As if things weren’t complicated enough, Alex tells Matt that Elizabeth had been cheating on him.

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The Tree of Life (2011)

Film #16: The Tree of Life (2011)

The Tree of Life is probably the most controversial film nominated for an Oscar this year. It’s not controversial because of any graphic violence. It’s not controversial because of any sexual imagery. Rather, it’s controversial because some people have complained that it’s too “artsy”. Too “experimental”. People have literally walked out of theaters during the film. They’ve even demanded refunds, apparently because they didn’t “get it”. I’ve gone through the IMDb message boards for this movie, and it’s riddled with posts asking “what’s the point?”. I knew all of this before sitting down for Terrence Malick’s latest endeavor (his first since 2005’s The New World), and, as such, I was prepared for some real Stan Brakhage-type craziness.

Instead, I got a quiet, philosophical, and admittedly ambitious film that is among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

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The Orphanage (2007)

Film #7: The Orphanage (El Orfanato) (2007)

The Orphanage is a 2007 Spanish-Mexican film written by Sergio G. Sánchez and directed by J.A. Bayona, his debut feature film. It’s considered by many a horror film, but it also borrows heavily from the fantasy genre, which isn’t surprising given that it’s co-produced by Guillermo del Toro, director of the fantastically fantastical Pan’s Labyrinth from the previous year. Protagonist Laura (played by Belén Rueda) returns to the orphanage she grew up in with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their seven-year-old adopted son, Simón (Roger Príncep). Simón doesn’t know that he’s adopted, or that he has HIV – two secrets that an elderly social worker (Montserrat Carulla) threatens to reveal after she visits Laura one day. Shortly after this encounter, Simón disappears, and Laura is driven to despair.

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Waiting for “Superman” (2010)

Film #5: Waiting for “Superman” (2010)

Waiting for “Superman” is a documentary built on a very sobering fact: The American education system is broken, and it has been since the 1970s. Documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) approaches the subject in a manner in which all successful documentaries are made, combining information with poignant personal stories to expose a serious problem while offering suggestions for possible solutions. Watching this film will give you a solid background on the education issue, explaining what things like tracking and charter schools are. It will also anger and/or depress you, especially the ending that leaves most of its young subjects destined to remain in the broken system.

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Harold and Maude (1971)

Film #2: Harold and Maude (1971)

Harold and Maude is a classic “dark comedy” by director Hal Ashby. Harold (Bud Cort) is a taciturn young adult with a macabre interest in staging suicides for his oppressive mother (Vivian Pickles – yeah, for real). While attending funerals of strangers, he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), an eccentric octogenarian whose philosophy is to live life to the fullest. A relationship develops, and Harold finally begins to find happiness in life through Maude’s relentless carpe dieming. While his mother and veteran uncle try to move him toward a life of stable responsibility, Harold gets it in his head that he wants to marry Maude. Unfortunately for him, her plans for the future don’t coincide with his.

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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

Moneyball (2011)

Sports have always ranked low on the list of priorities in my life, and baseball probably sits at the very bottom. Although I can appreciate the statistics involved, nothing about the sport has ever intrigued me, so it was with some skepticism that I went into Moneyball. Turns out, you can have any opinion about baseball that you want, and this movie will still be amazing.

Based on the book by Michael Lewis, screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and Stephen Zaillian have crafted an enthralling story about one man trying to change the way the sport is played. Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland Athletics. Beane has a tumultuous past in baseball, revealed to us piecemeal through flashbacks. After turning down a full ride to Stanford to play professionally, Beane struggled on the field and burned out quickly. Harboring a grudge against the types of scouts that recruited him, Beane hires Paul Brand (Jonah Hill) and uses Brand’s system to recruit cheap players based entirely on statistics.

This “sabermetric” approach earns the ire of pretty much everyone else, from the table of scouts that work with Beane to his team manager Art Howe (a very surly Philip Seymour Hoffman). The film becomes a story about the politics behind the sport, and it’s because of this focus that the screenplay is so strong. Much like the Sorkin-penned The Social Network, the drama and tension are derived by the interrelational power struggles constantly at play. Angry at his picks for the season, Howe is defiant of Beane and refuses to play any of his new hires. In retaliation, Beane trades away the player that Howe had been relying on instead.

If this seems like an extreme measure, that’s because Beane is an explosive character. Bitter and temperamental, it would be a challenge to count the number of times that Pitt hurls objects across the room enraged. We may be rooting for Beane to accomplish his goal – putting an end to judging recruits based on how attractive their girlfriends are and other such drivel – but his motivations are undoubtedly selfish. Part of it has to do with the chip on his shoulder for the recruiting methods that led him to fail as a player. But another part of it is more admirable: The fact that he wants to win a series with the Athletics, with HIS team. His passion for his team is reserved at first, but eventually spills over into fraternizing with the players he may have to fire or trade away.

In contrast to Beane’s bombastic intensity sits Peter Brand, a recent college graduate with a degree in economics. Diffident and meek, Brand cowers in front of Beane at first before they establish a stable and very entertaining relationship. Brand, as played by Hill, may speak quietly and seem awkward in the presence of other baseball bigwigs, but he has enough faith in his science to stand his ground. This conviction is what wins over Beane (especially when Brand admits he wouldn’t have drafted Beane until the ninth round, with no signing bonus), and this resilience is what allows Brand to stick around even as Beane yells at him, abusing the power difference between them.

Watching Pitt and Hill establish a kinship is one of the film’s chief appeals. They’re in it together, against everyone else, and that’s just fine because the audience is ready to back them through their trials and tribulations. Both actors are in prime condition here. Pitt continues to show that he is a serious talent suitable for any genre, with a sad smile that lets Beane’s sorrow shine through his eyes. Hill continues to inch away from the ribald comedies that he gained popularity for, proving that there’s more to him than just vulgar hilarity. Everyone else similarly excels, from Hoffman to Chris Pratt to Stephen Bishop, the latter two as players on Beane’s motley crew of a team. And I have to single out Kerris Dorsey for being an adorable and self-aware 11-year-old actress. Assuming that’s actually her voice in those singing scenes, this girl has a lot of talent that I can’t wait to see more of.

Moneyball has very few scenes that actually take place on the diamond. Instead, it focuses on character interactions. The best scenes are those with Beane and his scouts, as their relentless droning on about irrelevant characteristics tire and then irritate Beane; a scene where Beane first encounters Brand, as he tries to trade for better players with the Cleveland Indians GM (played perfectly by Reed Diamond, who just barely tiptoes the line between courteous and condescending); and a scene in which Beane visits his ex-wife at her new husband’s house and awkward conversation fills the time as they wait for their daughter to show up. All of these scenes consist only of dialogue, but none of them are short of exceptional. Neither is the film. Soundly scripted with flawless performances, Moneyball is the best movie to come out of 2011 so far.

Final Rating: 9/10

Stray Observations:

  • I’ve developed such a trust for Aaron Sorkin. In The Social Network, he made computers programming and formal lawsuits entertaining; here, he turns baseball and math into excitement. At this point, I will follow you into the dark, Mr. Sorkin.
  • I was pretty peeved at Beane in the end for not taking that money, and I felt like it was a really weak dilemma to go out on. But I guess it made the most logical ending, and you can’t change things around so drastically if you’re basing your script off of reality.
  • Since their approach was based in science and math, I might have been siding with Beane and Brand a little more than your average audience member. But between objective statistics and “intuition”? I’ll take the facts every time.

–James A. Janisse