Moon

Duncan Jones’s Moon rises high in the sky, but twinkles somewhat faintly. It borrows heavily from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ridley Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. It’s a variation on common themes, but themes that may not be common enough. And, compared to the others, Moon is exceptionally modest and accessible. It distills ruminations from the great sci-fi megillahs and boils them down to simple human drama.

In the not-too-distant future, Earth’s “clean” energy is mined on the lunar surface. The mines require only one overseer, who’s secluded on our satellite for three years; communications to and from Earth must be prerecorded, so his only face-to-face companion is a mobile computer called GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), whose operating system is half-HAL-9000 and half-WALL-E. Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is finishing up his three-year contract as the movie opens. Homesick, he’s grown a grizzly beard and is surly with his programmed pal; he takes solace in videos from his family, and in making a paper model of his home town. But his reminisces get the best of him: He sees a mirage of his wife (Dominique McElligott) while driving in his lunar rover, and accidentally crashes into a giant thrasher. We then see Sam awakened by GERTY back on the station and forbidden to leave; but Sam seems to have an intuition, goes out to the thrasher, and discovers himself to be in the wreckage, as well.

If this passage seems a little hard to follow, it’s because there are now two Sams perambulating about the base. (If you don’t want to know why, you may not want to read on.) GERTY is invariably shady when the Sams question him about this, and, at first, the Sams can’t get much out of each other; they behave like one of the more unfortunate pairings forged through Craigslist. The “new” Sam thinks they’re both clones, and the old one concedes that their lives, memories, and destinies are all a sham; like the crew of the Nostromo in Alien, they are secondary to corporate directives. Eventually, they seek ways to return “home”—that is, to Earth—before a repair crew arrives at the base and discovers them both there. The Sams question their humanity and authenticity, but mature before our eyes. Like the vivacious replicants in Blade Runner, old Sam seems to be reaching his expiration date; new Sam starts out brutal and impatient, but learns to respect his fellow self.

Moon runs the old what-is-it-to-be-human jag, but does so at full gallop. Fancy bouts of pontification are disposed of without detriment to the movie; the screenwriter, Nathan Parker, keeps the dialogue ever fluid and never dripping with significance. Unlike cousin HAL, GERTY—by way of Spacey’s smarmy-smooth diction—is ultimately humane, but this revelation is never lingered on. The ambiguous little smiley faces that GERTY expresses himself with are enough to make the complexity of his “humanness” clear. But, despite such touches, which make this a shimmering crescent-moon of a picture, Jones’s conception hasn’t entirely waxed.

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The Brothers Bloom

At a time when I’m fraught with accusations of joylessness—specious though the claims are—it’s a relief to express the fun I had at The Brothers Bloom. Bloom isn’t “mainstream”—it’s an indie film, whatever that distinction is worth—but it has oodles of charm and energy (enough, I imagine, to satisfy most viewers), and little of the forced eccentricity and manipulation and snarky cant that are sold in indie-crossover products like Juno. Whereas Juno was labeled “hip sentimentality,” Bloom could be described as “hip romanticism.” It resembles the work of Terry Gilliam and Tom Stoppard, but it’s Brazil without the bureaucracy. It’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas without much fear or loathing (or, for that matter, any Vegas). It’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead without the death sentence. Bloom sucks the venom out of existentialism by converting it into a game that can be beaten.

Bloom (Adrien Brody) is weary of being the lead actor in his older brother Stephen’s ceaseless play. Scam-artist Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) is always the triple-threat writer-producer-director, and he’s so adept that he knows every line of Bloom’s perennial resignation speeches by heart. The brothers have partaken in elaborate ruses and moneymaking schemes since they were wee lads bounced between foster homes, so Bloom—the poor sap who’s never been allowed to take charge of his own life—is no longer sure whether he’s a poor sap or a “sensitive anti-hero,” or if he’s just playing those parts.

But Stephen is not easily deterred; he rallies Bloom into one last scheme. His ambition is to pull off the ultimate con: one in which everyone gets what he or she wants. Bloom is skeptical at first, but succumbs to luring their mark, a sheltered heiress named Penelope (Rachel Weisz), by insinuating himself into her confidence. She’s been locked away in a mansion all her life, so she’s eager to join in on the meta-heist that’s part of their scam, but also clever enough to spot the literary references in Stephen’s artful schemes. The whole plot is a play on the moribund heist genre—the sort of gentleman-thief films The Italian Job was indebted to. Bloom certainly is a self-conscious throwback, and self-contained in a way that may seem old-fashioned; yet its subject is the specifically modern interplay of blatant artifice and genuine emotions. At its core is Bloom, the jaded existential hero who can’t even be sure he is an existential hero. He even doubts his love for Penelope; it seems as contrived as everything else.

But it’s through these “contrivances,” and its flair for theatricality, that Bloom earns its playful postmodernism. The movie is without the nervous snark that nowadays seems to accompany fourth-wall razing—the sort of smug self-awareness that movies like Kill Bill reek of—because its demiurge is part of the narrative (and part of the joke). Though Stephen’s a bit of a prick—how couldn’t he be?—he’s not amoral. He designs his contraptions out of love of complexity, meaningfulness, and unworldly exactitude—and, of course, for his brother.

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The Critic’s Criticism of His Critics

Of late, I’ve had the pleasure of reading some very negative comments made about my reviews. Because blogs are a newfangled, “democratic” medium, I respect my reader’s right to express him or herself that way, but I also reserve my right to respond—as lengthily (or douche-ily) as I please…


Comment 1:
Because God forbid we enjoy a ‘pop-corn’ movie without the need to call it ‘dumb.’

I doubt He’d forbid such a thing. In fact, I myself did not call the movie in question (Star Trek) dumb, as the commenter implies. I do, however, stand by my insistence that it is mindless trash entertainment—which I mean only half-pejoratively. There have been a few “popcorn movies” that have not been mindless—Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, for example, or I Am Legend, or, more recently, Up—but, generally speaking, such movies are designed to be mindless. Movies like Transformers typically don’t interest me because they are made for a mass audience that supposedly prefers movies that treat them like vegetables. Frequently, I, too, enjoy slipping into a coma. On this principle, I enjoyed Star Trek (as I say unequivocally in my review), and I also enjoyed The Hangover. I didn’t feel much need to write about The Hangover, though. I allowed the multiplex to extract its usual pound of flesh from me, but I got exactly what I paid for: enough shards of hilarity to make up for the film’s dumb ethnic stereotypes, clichéd characters, contrived ending, and compulsively current soundtrack of pop songs that one can only enjoy when krunked at a house-party. I welcomed the mindlessness, but that doesn’t mean I should flatter myself by saying that I liked The Hangover because it was anything much more than mindless. In keeping with an age-old tradition that our profit-oriented film industry maintains, popcorn movies are not the most daring or ambitious projects, the kind I usually find to be more worth my while. These rarer movies are not always superior—in fact, some (such as Observe and Report or The Dark Knight) are too stuffy and pretentious or have other failings that bring them below the level of an unpretentiously commercial studio turd like The Hangover—but films such as There Will be Blood or The Wrestler or Synecdoche, New York or Tarsem’s short-lived The Fall were much more interesting than The Hangover, and thus, to me, much more entertaining.

I am conscious, however, that there are those out there who don’t agree with my taste; not only am I comfortable being in a minority, but I accept that movies don’t mean the same thing to everybody, and I’m A-okay with those who subject themselves to Michael Bay movies and honestly enjoy them for what they are. I wouldn’t assume that those people would be compelled to write (or even read) film criticism, as I am. It might well be some form of masochism for a person of those tastes to read my blog; but, as their tortures are self-inflicted, I can’t see how they could possibly dredge up the nerve to howl about their wounds publicly, as if I’d forced them to swallow my opinions and vomit them into the mouths of their young. When next I review a popcorn movie that’s not mindless—maybe around 2019 or so—I’ll make sure to keep this commenter in mind.

Comment 2:
can’t spell pretentious without ‘u’ in it. do you even like movies?

I’m actually rather proud of this one. If by “pretentious” you mean “have standards,” then yes, I proclaim to the world, proudly and wholeheartedly, that I am indeed pretentious! Hallelujah! If I wasn’t pretentious as such, it’d be akin to me wanting to hook up with every biped I came across, and I’m not quite that naughty a boy. Though my eloquence (and temper) sometimes fails me, I strive to be fair when defending my sensibility rather than a snob, scold or boor. I simply see no point in praising a film that’s achieved its aspirations if those are very low; you wouldn’t praise a couch potato who insists on using the remote control. After all, I am open-minded enough to like movies—that “popular” medium, that bastard son of “fine” art. A few decades ago, certain very pretentious people claimed to hate all Hollywood movies solely on the virtue that they were dumb enough for those proletarian schmucks to enjoy. So, really, I’m just as much a vulgarian-schmuck as I am pretentious douchebag.

A little sidebar for the commenter: You may not be able to spell pretentious without a “u” in it, but you can’t spell it without an “I,” either.

Comment 3:
Another one brainwashed by a text-book and French New Wave.

Which textbook? Advanced Trigonometry? No, probably some “pretentious” tome about how filmmakers could have political viewpoints, or some such nonsense. Ugh! As if the commercial entertainment that seeps into the minds of millions could be worth thinking about! Not thinking about it is tantamount to having your brain washed and rinsed repeatedly. I think I’ve pretty much answered this one already, but will add that I’d lump most of the French New Wave films I’ve seen into that slim, dream-come-true category of movies that are daring and ambitious, intelligently substantial, and—this is the kicker—fun to watch.

Comment 4:
[Re: Star Trek]
In saying that the writers’ use of time travel is a cheat, I think you’re being overly harsh. Would you rather they just blatantly ignore EVERYTHING and start COMPLETELY anew like Batman Begins? While that worked for Batman, it would’ve been a million times more insulting to the Star Trek universe. I found their method of “starting over” was incredibly clever and was a way to both pave the way for having new adventures without worrying about keeping canon, but also a way of preserving all the old stories so you don’t have to go “well that’s not how this happens and that doesn’t make sense” when viewing the new film in context with the others.

Also, I was wondering if you ever had any joy in your life at all.

Regarding the first paragraph, the commenter has a point, and I agree with it to some degree. In fact, I have all along, which is why I wrote in my Star Trek piece that “I understand the need for this rupture, but find the methodology crass.” Therefore, the commenter is not really arguing against my point, so much as he or she is arguing beside it.

As for his or her second point—if you want to call it that—I’m pretty sure I’ve experienced joy in my life, though I might be mistaking that sensation for indigestion. (I’ll take some Tums and get back to you on that.) I’ve recorded several instances of joy I’ve had at the movies even in reviews that were mostly negative. For that reason, and others, it is a very strange thing for the commenter to wonder about, and it’s not really much of an insult, to boot. If the commenter is concerned, maybe he or she could get me a prescription for Prozac, or hook me up with some ecstasy. The commenter couldn’t possibly be suggesting that I could ever be so joyful in life as to anonymously post unreasoned ad-hominem attacks on complete strangers simply over a difference of opinion. I don’t know if I’ll ever be that happy.