Sunday, February 28, 2010


Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009) [8]

Moon hearkens back to when Science Fiction films were challenging films that told human stories more than special-effects laden fantasy pieces. Existing somewhere in the realm of 2001 and Solaris, Moon is not quite in their realm but is a very accomplished film with a great performance by Sam Rockwell. Rockwell plays Sam Bell, who has been solitary stationed at a helium mining moon base, his only companion a HAL-like robot voiced by Kevin Spacey. It's getting near the end of Sam's three year contract and thing begin to go haywire. Sam's psychical and mental state being to deteriorate. Out on a routine maintenance mission, Sam's state causes an accident. Sam awakens in the base's infirmary with no memory of the accident, except with a hint that things may not be right. Sam ends up finding another version of himself and the rest of the film attempts to unravel the mystery of why there are numerous cloned Sams running the base. That that particular question is never concretely answered is both the appeal and confusion with Moon. The film addresses the notions of isolation and identity in a human way, not having any omniscient answers. Yet there are holes in the logic of the story that are frustratingly not answered (why the Sams life spans are only three years and why do they even need clones in the first place come to mind). For all its unclear answers, there's no denying that the acting and execution of the film are first rate. Rockwell's performance is surely underrated, playing at one point three different versions of Sam. That he occupies almost all of the film's running time and manages to keep rapt attention on his performance is a really good achievement. The film itself has the look of classic science fiction, down to the non-CGI special effects. Duncan Jones for the most part, has a command on the film and story that keeps its from delving into crackpot babbling. It's a superb effort in a genre that all too often is overly concerned with visuals and nonsensical characters or settings (this may or may not refer to Avatar).

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Hangover and Big Fan, A Pair of Sixes

The Hangover (Todd Phillips, 2009)/Big Fan (Robert Siegel, 2009) [6]
The Hangover is by no means the comedic masterwork that its word of mouth and box office had led me to believe. I had known Phillips is a one-note director, as his male bonding over crazy situation comedies all follow the same basic template. Here a group of various guys head to Las Vegas for the standard crazy bachelor party. Where The Hangover differs a little is in its structure, where it places the viewer in the same predicament as its characters in putting together the pieces to figure out what happened. Outside of that, the film is consistently amusing but has few truly hilarious moments. Not surprisingly, Zach Galifinakis provides the funniest moments, many of them ad-libbed or taken from his stand up act. In a testament to the sad state of Hollywood comedies, this passes for something considered hilarious where I find nothing that remarkable about it.

Big Fan features a great performance by Patton Oswalt but is bogged down by its lackluster direction. Oswalt is at times hilariously out of touch and tragically demented as Paul Auifero, a Staten Island parking garage attendent whose entire life is wrapped up in the New York Giants. A chance encounter with the Giants star linebacker ends up with Paul getting beating up which puts the Giants' season and Paul's alliegance in limbo. What Siegel does right is nail the fine line between being a die-hard fan and being a borderline delusional fanatic. This is highlighted best in Paul's calls to a sports radio show. Paul works all day on these rants/responses and the end result is nothing more than the nonsenical drivel that is spewed out daily on sports radio. But it also captures the idea that this these rants are the only element of Paul's life that he actually cares about and how his fandom overrules evertyhing else in his life. Siegel highlights these points well but the film offers nothing more than a blank space to show all this. The only instance where the film seems to grasp Paul's character and mental state is at the end, which has a amusing twist that saves Big Fan from being underwhelming. Where The Hangover mostly maxed out its potential, the main issue with Big Fan is that it could have a bit more visual substance to match its main character's performance.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

You, the Living

You, the Living (Roy Andersson, 2009) [10]

Some reviewers have stated that You, the Living is more or less part two of Songs From the Second Floor, Andersson's previously lauded feature. While the two have their stylistic similarities, You, the Living may be the better film, and I'm a huge fan of Songs. Andersson works in a very recognizable visual style, heavy on offbeat characters and situations, with a static camera and lots of long shots. While not as visually striking as Songs, You, the Living embodies with its look what its characters feel. It's full of lots of ugly, miserable people describing their ugly, miserable lives. The film is unrelenting as it depicts of the failures of life and love as almost all the characters are mired in depressing circumstances. What's most amazing is how Andersson makes these characters so physically unappealing, and how the manufactured landscapes these characters occupy only enhance the dour, absurdist elements of it all. Yet through its absurdities and depressions, the film is punctuated with fantastic moments of black humor, often with help from a brass band highlighted by a tuba. It's not an understatement how the music shapes the moments of humor in the film. The major difference from Songs is that that film was almost unrelentingly bleak and you get the feeling here that Andersson is much more sympathetic to his characters. That through all their trials and tribulations, the film attempts to get at a true understanding and appreciation of human nature. Andersson never treats his characters with contempt or flippancy. It's a fantastic blend of pathos and humor, absurdity and seriousness that makes it worth the time.
Blogger's note: I am counting this as a 2009 release because of its U.S. commerical theatrical release. Most sites list its release date as 2007 but I try to keep film organized by their commercial dates, since that's the only way I'm going to be able to see them.

Friday, February 12, 2010


Che (Steven Soderbergh, 2008) [7]

For a film over four hours long and split into two parts, Soderbergh's Che Guevara biopic is never boring or overly didactic. It's a testament to Soderbergh's craft that he created a very good visual film that has its striking moments. The film is very much defined by its two parts: part one, The Argentine, that follows Guevara's rise through the Cuban Revolution and the cementing of his legend and part two, Guerilla, which shows everything that went right in Cuba go wrong in Bolivia. Understanding the failure of Che in Bolivia clearly hinges on understanding what he accomplished in Cuba. Soderbergh also casts distinct look and feels for each part, as the vibrancy of Cuba is replaced in Bolivia with cooler hues of blue and green. All throughout, the film has an even-keeled tone of observation. The success lies in that is not an outwardly political film but gains its efficacy from its focus on Che and his actions. Benicio del Toro is solid as Che not playing him as an epic figure but as someone whose knowledge and understanding of Latin America made him an admired figure. His performance, like most of the film, is lack of any fireworks but very carefully goes along to get the details right.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2009) [6]

The Hurt Locker may be a visceral, taut, well-made thriller that gives an in-depth and intense point of view of the soldiers charged with disposing IEDs. Yet I get the feeling watching this that Bigelow has sacrificed any nuanced discussion of the Iraq War and political policy in general in favor of all action all the time. The Hurt Locker does what it does exceptionally well - give a glance into a hectic situation with a good amount of formal accomplishment. Focusing mostly on the macho posturing of Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner) and the idea of war being a drug, the film is practically stridently apolitical. And for what benefit? It apparently drags all sense of nuance out of what James and his crew are doing. They hop from situation to situation diffusing roadside bombs as if in a video game, with Sgt. James perfectly cast as the ballsy hero. The film asks no questions and has no willingness to probe into the geopolitical situation or even address the psychological nature of their characters except to assign traits on the characters. Bigelow has a background in large budget action films and this really operates no differently, the exception being that it has to deal with the Iraq War. Aside from the fact that it is a well constructed film, I have no idea why critics would fawn over this. If they're saying an apolitical film like this says more about the war than some of the other more strident films that have been released, they're wrong. At its core, the macho bluster of action pictures overtakes any keen political discourse The Hurt Locker may have had.