Tuesday, May 26, 2009

SIFF Review: Moon

Moon (2009) is writer/director Duncan Jones' debut feature, and it is a promising start to what should be a long career. The film is a throwback to pre-CGI sci-fi gems of the 70's and 80's, such as Alien and other such offspring of the phenomenon that was 2001: A Space Odyssey. Though the practical models and sets may have been constructed more for financial reasons than anything else, the effect is nonetheless welcomed; the whole thing feels very authentic.
Set entirely upon the moon in some not-so-distant future, the story revolves around Sam Bell (Oscar-worthy Sam Rockwell), a blue-collar everyman who's 3-year contract on a lunar base that produces some kind of fusion energy is almost up. He is alone, aside from a robot named GERTY, so it not too surprising when he appears to be losing his mind after such a protracted stint away from humanity.
Though other human actors are featured on computer screens and in brief flashbacks, the film rest entirely upon Sam Rockwell. The term tour de force is trite and really doesn't do justice to his performance here. He is given the unenviable task of filling the vast emptiness of the moon with life, and he delivers. It would be rather narrow to simply label this film as 2001 with a pulse, but that notion definitely comes to mind. 
As mentioned before, the filmmakers steer away from the standard 21st-century practice of spraying CGI all over the screen, instead using traditional physical models and miniatures to represent everything from the exterior of the moon base to the lunar rover to the giant ore collectors. The effect is really much more believable than anything that can be done inside a computer, and it boggles the mind why we do not see this used more often. 
There is a twist that we do not see coming, and it is quite original. Sam suddenly encounters a double of himself, but he and the audience are forced to wonder: is he just going crazy, or is there something sinister at work here? The praise for Rockwell's performance is not complete without addressing this double situation. Most of the film plays out with two Sams, and its in the trailer, so talking about it will not spoil things. One actor playing two characters at once is nothing new, but here, it is taken to another level. It is impressive to see Sam Rockwell engage in fisticuffs with and even at one point play ping-pong against himself, but what makes the whole thing work so well is the acting. Rockwell manages to create two versions of the character, the first is 3 years moon-bound, the second a younger, more hot-blooded incarnation, but they are still, in essence, the same person.
The director, Duncan Jones, was at the screening I went to, and he took some questions from the audience. He alluded to the idea of making another film set in the same universe he has established with Moon, and we can see this happening. If Hollywood loves anything, it is a franchise, and, should this film be a success (and I think it will be), it will be no surprise when we see a sequel. 

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Review: Star Trek

With Star Trek (2009)Director JJ Abrams has successfully rescued a franchise that should have been dead ten years ago. In injecting new life into the series, he has not only resurrected an American institution, but further developed his frenetic, easy, smartly crafted style of story telling, pushing narrative cinema in a new and surprising direction. 
The most important scene in a film is the first one, and Abrams seems to understand this. We open on the USS Kelvin, a Federation Starship, as it does generic scientific research in orbit of a star. Suddenly, some kind of wormhole bursts opens in front of them, and out pours a gigantic alien spacecraft that resembles a poisonous flower. Unprovoked shots are fired, demands are made, and the Kelvin's captain goes to the enemy ship, leaving one George Kirk in command. The captain is killed upon the alien ship, more shots are fired, and Kirk orders all hands to abandon ship, including his very pregnant wife. What follows is a heartrending study in sacrifice and fast, decisive action in the face of certain death. The scene is beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, and, if nothing else, Abrams has an uncanny talent for getting the audience to immediately care about characters we have never met before. 
The film is fresh and new, and this starts with the cast. Leading the pack is douchy-looking Chris Pine as James T. Kirk, future captain of the Starship Enterprise. Despite his troubling resemblance to Disney teen star Zach Efron, Pine is actually quite good; his young Kirk is a bright, impatient punk kicking around in the desolate farmlands of Iowa when we first meet him, throwing one liners at every beautiful woman and punches at every dumb thug. He's plucked out of the Midwest by Captain Christopher Pike and joins Starfleet Academy, and proves to be quite the whizkid, but not without a little smarm and rambunctious sarcasm. His diametric opposite is one Mr. Spock, a half-human-half-Vulcan misfit who finds his place at Starfleet. Played by Zachary Quinto, this young Spock reminds us at first blush of Dwight Shrute from "The Office"; he appears a humorless, power-hungry rule-nazi. But as the film progresses, he is given some heart and just the tiniest glimmer of a soul. 
Drawing from the Princess Leia archetype is Zoe Saldana as Nyota Uhura, a spunky, brilliant linguist who, upon her first encounter with Kirk, says "I thought you were just a dumb hick who only has sex with farm animals." Her affection is one point of competition between our "dumb hick" and Mr. Spock, who, throughout most of the film, completely despise each other. Some critics have bemoaned the film's villain (Nero, a Romulan... pirate, or something, from the future, seeking revenge for some nonsense that will be explained later by Leonard Nimoy) for being ill-conceived and lacking in screen time (strange complaints to come from one person's mouth, but many critiques are along these lines), but they fail to see that the real struggle, the real animosity is between Kirk and Spock. Nero is merely a catalyst; he's around only long enough to set things in motion. Kirk and Spock are constantly butting heads, and they even come to blows and one point. And Spock, as acting captain of the Enterprise, is so irritated with Kirk that he goes so far as to stuff him in an escape pod and leave him on some Hoth-like planet. 
The rest of the principle cast is uniformly superb, though they are given scant screen time. Kiwi actor Karl Urban is an inspired choice for Kirk's best friend, Leonard "Bones" McCoy; he perfectly renders the curmudgeonly, acerbic Southern doctor, though his American accent can be heard slipping at certain points. Comedy actor John Cho is passable as Sulu, pilot of the Enterprise, and genuine Russian youngster Anton Yelchin is actually kind of hilarious as Pavel Chekov. Similarly, Simon Pegg, an actual Brit, is perfect as Scotty, a genius engineer who apparently moonlights as a comedian. The entire ensemble is great together, and we look forward to further installments with this new breed of intergalactic travelers aboard a shiny, new Starship Enterprise.

Review: Watchmen

From a filmic standpoint, Watchmen (2009) does not remind this reviewer of anything. Director Zack Snyder, just three films into his career, has managed to create a style that is completely original and uniquely cinematic. Perhaps it was born out of a desire to imitate the kinetic stillness of comic books, but with this film Snyder finds a place in between the action. The glorious title sequence, for example, at first glance looks like a series of still photographs, but upon closer observation, we realize that these are moving images captured with high speed film. There are sequences like this all through out the film, and it quickly settles into a visual style that, it can safely be said, has never been seen before.
Sticking like glue to the plot, pacing, and even dialogue of Alan Moore's original graphic novel of the same name, the film has not an original bone when it comes to the things that happen; where it breaks new ground is how we see these things happen. Filtered through Snyder's brain and the faces of his actors, this cinematic endeavor brings Moore's vision into the living, breathing world.
This is more of an ensemble piece than any other comic book movie to date (even X-Men). We are first introduced to aging, retired superhero Edward Blake, aka The Comedian. He is killed within the first three minutes, but, because of the nonlinear narrative, he is featured throughout the film. Played by Seattle native Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Blake is a violent, cackling psychopath, and everything revolves around trying to solve his murder. The Comedian was part of a band of superheroes in the 1940's called The Minutemen, and then joined the group's successor in the 70's, called The Watchmen. Their activities were eventually outlawed, but one still roams the streets fighting crime: Rorchach (Jackie Earle Haley), an insane noir ninja whose paranoid journal entries provide voice-over throughout. Both Haley and Morgan turn in explosive, charismatic and psychologically subtle performances that save these comic book archetypes from coming off as mere caricature. Rorchach's former partner, Nightowl aka Dan Dreiberg, lives a normal, apartmental existence. Patrick Wilson takes Dreiberg, a somewhat boring character in the comic, and creates a complex and sympathetic every-man who just happens to have a history of fighting crime in a silly costume.
Perhaps the most impressive character is Dr. Manhattan, a former scientist who is transformed into a literal super being through a freak accident. Now he can rearrange matter and perceive time in ways no human can; this unique perspective renders him completely apathetic to the fate of humanity, a fate he can change with but a snap of his fingers. Played through motion-capture by a reflective and tragic Billy Crudup, Dr. Manhattan is the most realistic and impressive CGI character since Andy Serkis' Gollum. His blue skin emits a light that shines upon his surroundings in a surprisingly realistic way, he moves with an earthly weight, and his face is relatable and does not fall into the uncanny valley (thanks, no doubt, to Mr. Crudup). 
Rounding out this group of retired superheroes are Malin Akerman as Sally Jupiter, and Matthew Goode as Ozymandias, but neither is visibly old enough for their parts or equipped with enough talent, especially next to their much more impressive cast mates. 
Watchmen, the film, has been criticized for having an unwieldy story that is at once over stuffed with subplots and too sparse. These critics do not realize that the film is not here for the story; the reason it exists is to present a collection of moments. The first two thirds are a glorious exhibit of live action filmmaking stretched and bent to fit into new and wondrous places. From the title sequence, to Dr. Manhattan's heartbreakingly beautiful origin story, to The Comedian's final, fatal battle, Mr. Snyder shows us some kind of new, uniquely 21st-century vision of where cinema is going or ought to go. 

Friday, May 8, 2009

Review: Wendy and Lucy

Writer/director Kelly Reichardt's third feature length film, Wendy and Lucy (2008), is strange and beautiful. It follows Wendy (Michelle Williams, laconic and make-upless), a 20 something making her way from her home in Indiana to a prospective job in Alaska. Along for the ride in her dying car is her best friend Lucy (played by an affable dog named Lucy). The story opens as they stop for the night in a small suburb of Portland, Oregon. Waking the next morning, Wendy discovers that her car will not start. The nearby auto shop is not open, the local strangers are apathetic, and some bad decisions lead to a missing Lucy.
Reichardt possesses an easy, observational directorial touch. She keeps a tantalizing distance from her subjects, in a way very much like Jim Jarmusch or Charles Burnett. There is something almost voyeuristic in the way we just sit and watch strangers interact in strange and perplexing ways. 
Both set and filmed in suburban Oregon, the film is doubtlessly the work of Northwesterners, evident in the respectful yet passive-aggressive distance people keep from each other, the aching sprawl, and the unrelenting grayness of both the weather and the infrastructure. Wendy and Lucy is a study in stranger apathy, post-American-Dream America, and the time that comes in every person's life when they realize they are truly alone.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Review: Doubt

Doubt (2008) is based upon the play of the same name by John Patrick Shanley. Set exclusively inside a repressive catholic school somewhere in New England in the 1960's, it is a film about the struggle between doubt and certainty, and how this struggle can blow up into a heartrending, soul shattering battle when the combatants are forced to exist in such a buttoned-down environment. 
Amy Adams (pictured) stars as Sister James, a young nun and teacher at the school. She is a quietly positive, gentle little flower pressed into a black habit. Brilliantly played, Adams' Sister James is the fragile, calm rope that two opposing forces tug at voraciously, each with possibly ill intent. One, the instigator, is Meryl Streep (insert requisite praise here) as the school's hard, cold principal. Streep is downright hawk-like here, her birdy face stone-cut, her big spectacle-eyes like lasers. She suspects that the head priest and one of the students are engaged in... something; it is never addressed straight on. This is how repressed these people are; even behind closed doors, and in the throws of what passes for passionate speech, they cannot bring themselves to say what everyone seems to be thinking. The priest, played with superb aplomb by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is the other tugger here. He is kind and intelligent and progressive, all qualities that Sister James can appreciate and in fact admires. So Streep and Hoffman do their dance, their duel, and sweet Sister James has a choice to make; this little leaf threatens to be torn asunder.
Shanely seems to have some understanding of cinematic storytelling. In the beginning, at least, he lets the camera do most of the talking, which is as it should be. Little scenes that just watch, from afar, the daily life at the school are really quite sublime. It is only later, when accusations are thrown and much near-exposition is spat that things sag and become uninteresting. It can be said without spoiling things that this reviewer felt the end of the film did not deposit us in a different enough place than where we began. Or it was not compelling enough. It said what it wanted to say, but it might have taken too long to say it.