Monday, July 20, 2009

Review: Moon

A lot of different stories fall under the category of science fiction.  Space opera, time travel, cyberpunk, etc.  And though the 2000's have given us a number of great films in each of those categories, few if any have reached the heights of Star Wars, Back to the Future, or Blade Runner.  Enter Duncan Jones' film Moon.  I'm not saying it's as great as any of those films, but what it is is one of the purest science fiction films of the decade.  It's not as grandiose as the Star Wars prequels or as ambitious as, say, Danny Boyle's Sunshine, but in it's own way manages to fascinate and entertain in equal measures.  It gets so many of the minor details right that it really sucks you into the story.

Moon's story is a simple one.  Astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) works on the Sarang mining base on the far side of the moon, where he's been working alone for the past three years.  His only companion is the base's robotic system, named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), and after three years Sam is starting to suffer the emotional stress of isolation.  During the final two weeks of his contracted stay, Sam discovers the base's dark secret (it's always a dark secret, isn't it?), and begins frantically searching for a way home.

I don't want to say anymore, because even though the film's twist comes 30 minutes in, the story is every bit as fascinating for where it doesn't go as where it does.  Certain parts of Moon are, indeed, predictable, but the film is deceptive in that it telegraphs just enough so the viewer thinks they have it figured out.  At other times, the film suggests certain forboding possibilities and then leaves it up to the viewer whether or not such things are the case.  The film offers several possibilities as to how Sam might end up dead, and then shows remarkable restraint in not overplaying its hand.

So yes, this is indeed a wonderful little piece of science fiction, but the real reason to seek out Moon is for Sam Rockwell's excellent performance.  He's more or less a one-man show here, and he's able to run the gamut of emotions, from emotional distress to violent rage to giddy aloofness, all in a matter of minutes.  Rockwell never oversells it or underplays it, but manages to hit that emotional sweet spot and make the viewer feel for this poor guy.

All the best science fiction films are about more than what's presented on the surface.  In just over 90 minutes, Moon manages to tackle space exploration, alternative energy, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, space madness and, yes, dark corporate secrets.  That it meshes all of these into one brief, cohesive film is an impressive feat unto itself.  The finale is a bit on the underwhelming side, but there's still enough here to satisfy any sci-fi fan.  If you need a good, hard science fiction film to take the edge off junk like Transformers 2 or Star Trek, you owe it to yourself to check out Moon.

4.5 stars ( big grinbig grinbig grinbig grin1/2 ) out of 5.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter is back again to grace us with the sixth installment of the series, and it's time to rollout a report card for the latest film. One of the biggest things I noted about Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince off the bat this time around is that you better be at least a little familiar with the series, as this is definitely part six of an ongoing franchise rather than a film you can pick up by itself. If you're not familiar with any of the staple characters (and this means all of them, not just Harry, Ron, and Hermione), you're probably in for a good amount of confusion as to who's who. Not a single character is really given an introduction besides the single major new addition, the well intentioned but dithering Professor Horace Slughorn. Many plot points are given with an understanding that you already have a good grasp of how the world of Harry Potter works, otherwise you might be scratching your head when Professor Dumbledore suddenly pulls out a bunch of vials containing memories. However, while this may be a detriment in ways, it is definitely necessary, as the plot in this film puts in place the beginning of the end of this saga. By the film's tragic close you can tell that every piece has been put into place so that a conclusive finale is just around the corner. So although some may be alienated by the insider tone of the film, too much explanation at this point in the series would have definitely detracted from what was necessary for this film to set up for the next.

As for how this measures up then in terms of the rest of the series, it's best compared to the previous installment, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which was also directed by this film's helmsman, David Yates. Similar in visual style in many ways, they differ greatly in how they advance the plot. Where Phoenix was non-stop action, adventure, and intrigue from beginning to end, Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves have definitely slowed things down this time to allow the characters to develop at a slower pace, all the while slowly building up the bleak atmosphere now dominating the wizarding world since war with Voldemort has more or less broken out.

One of the most distinct tenets of the character development in this film is the heavy presence of the fully teenaged romances the main trio is involved in. Hermione pines over Ron while he obliviously misses her advances and falls for a quidditch fangirl who wants to do nothing but snog him. Meanwhile, Harry pines for Ron's sister Ginny, which Hermione takes note of but Ron is oblivious of for the longest time, butting in at awkward times. While this all may seem a bit more soap opera than many were hoping for in what is otherwise a very dreary film, it serves not only as effective comic relief, but also emphasizes just how dark everything else is. These three are but teenagers caught up in a conflict that is far beyond the usual drama of their age group, which really brings to the forefront just how tragic it is that these otherwise normal teens have to deal with such terrible things.

And as for how dark the film is, I am simply astounded this film was rated PG by the MPAA, for I would severely hesitate about bringing a child under the age of ten to this film. Talk of murdering people as protective magic; a plot to assassinate a major character; willfully poisoning a mentor at his behest for the greater good; all of these alone would make a film heavy material for most kids, let alone all of them and more in a single film. There are also parts of the film that would definitely be very creepy to a lot of kids, such as when Harry and Dumbledore are attacked by gaunt golems in a very dark cavern. But of course, there are only a few times in the film that violence actually leads to bloodshed, so that means it must be acceptable for children, right?

The cinematography in the film is quite fantastic, going from dilapidated urban settings and the claustrophobic interior of Hogwart's to expansive views of the British countryside and moors. The darkness pressing on the manmade settings and the light bathing the shots of the countryside create a brilliant contrast, especially during the winter scenes when the land is covered in pure white snow. These jarring changes of scenery help keep the viewer subconsciously on edge throughout the film, adding to the level of tension permeating Hogwart's.

All the actors from the previous films are back in fine form, but a special mention must be given of Tom Felton, who brings a wrenching humanity to Dracy Malfoy that was never really seen in the other films. He may be a right bastard, but he still has a conscience lurking underneath his tormented interior somewhere, and Felton gives life to the turmoil beneath Draco's bravado, which he has never been able to show anyone in his life. Jim Broadbent plays Slughorn effectively, never overtaking a scene in anyway, which is exactly what is needed in a character that never wants too much attention because of the secret he can share with no one.

All in all, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a welcome addition to the series. When the action actually picks up it will keep you gripped, and during the lulls you'll get to know how all the characters have matured in the wake of the previous film's events. If you've come to know the characters well, you'll find the humor and pathos of their lives touching, happy to see who they have grown into, but upset at what they must continue to suffer. The special effects are top-notch, and you should really pay attention to the details in the scene where Dumbledore puts a completely trashed room back in order and everything flies back together as if put in rewind, with characters standing in the midst of it all. After the successes of both Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince, which are only the second and third feature films directed by David Yates, I am more than curious to see where his career takes him as a director once he finishes with the rest of the Harry Potter series.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Review: Bruno

Bruno is a difficult film to review.  On the one hand, it is extremely funny.  This is the hardest I've laughed at a film all year long.  If anything else, Bruno at least has that going for it.  But on the other hand, the novelty of Sacha Baron Cohen's shtick has clearly worn off.  Gone is the charming aloofness of Borat, a character who simply didn't know better, and in its place is a character whose shocking abrasiveness exists out of some bizarre desire to become famous at all costs.

The film opens with Austrian fashion reporter Bruno (Sacha Baron Cohen) committing career suicide by appearing at an Italian fashion show wearing a velcro suit.  Following the incident, he decides that the only course of action is to go to Hollywood and "become famous".  The bulk of the film is little more than a series of ridiculous sketches wherein Bruno tries out various methods of achieving fame.  Starring in a TV pilot, organizing a charity, attempting to end the conflict between Jews and Muslims, etc.

Sure, there's a loose framework of a story what with Bruno narrating the transitions between segments, but look past that and you'll see the film for what it really is: an 82 minute exercise in baiting homophobes, idiots, and assholes.  And yeah, that can be funny (and often is), but there's nothing to it.  There's no reason for Bruno's flamboyant rampage across the country. 

I think part of the problem is that, after Borat, we're all looking for the gimmick, the shtick, the gag.  Borat worked because most people had never heard of the character or the comedian underneath.  Now, Cohen's got to go pretty far out of his way to get a rise out of his audience.  It's still pretty easy to prank on unsuspecting people, but it feels like Cohen's trying too hard to entertain or shock his audience.  Here, the line is thankfully drawn at gay sex onscreen, but I have a feeling Cohen would go there if he thought it would get a reaction.

I guess my complaint boils down to the fact that Bruno is largely without subtext.  The movie is hilarious, and parts are certainly eye-opening (the finale, with Bruno playing the role of Straight Dave at a UFC event), but it all means nothing.  Borat worked because there was at least a through-line to the character's roadtrip across the US.  Bruno's quest to become famous simply reveals the film to be nothing more than the PR stunt that it wants us to think it's mocking.

If this kind of comedy is your thing, if you enjoyed Borat at all, you'll probably find Bruno pretty hilarious.  I definitely did.  Just don't try to read too much into it, because you almost certainly will find it lacking.

3 stars ( drydrydry ) out of five

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Review: Away We Go

Depending on what stage you're at in your relationship with your significant other, Away We Go would either make a perfect or a terrible date movie.  Having seen the film by myself, I personally couldn't say, but I'm willing to bet that you wouldn't want to see this on a first or second date.  Away We Go is the kind of film that likely will appeal more to newlyweds and parents than to teenagers on a first date.

Not to suggest that its demographic is set in stone or anything; that's based solely on the characters and their situation. The movie begins with Burt (John Krasinski) discovering that his longtime girlfriend Verona (Maya Rudolph) is pregnant.  Cut to months later, when the two visit Burt's parents (Catherine O'Hara, Jeff Daniels) to deliver the sonogram photos.  Here, Burt's parents announce that they're moving to Belgium right before the baby is due.  Burt and Verona take the news as an opportunity to pull up stakes and find a better home for themselves and the fast-approaching baby.

From there, the film hits its groove as a road trip movie, with our couple bouncing from Phoenix to Tuscon to Madison to Montreal to Miami in search of the perfect place to raise their daughter, only to find that all of their family and friends are tragically bad role models for both them and the baby.  Verona's former boss (Allison Janney) is a lush who sees no problem with disparaging her two pudgy kids in public.  Burt's childhood friend Ellen (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a hippie/feminist/whatever with some... odd views on sexuality.  Their college roommates (Chris Messina, Melanie Lynskey) have adopted four kids while repeatedly failing to produce their own.

It seems like everywhere you look in this film, there's a horrible (or at the very least tragic) individual threatening to kill any hope for Burt, Verona, and even the viewer.  But to what end?  To show that everyone in the world is a terrible person?  That it doesn't matter where you live, problems exist everywhere? That's getting close to it, I think.

It still puzzles me why the film is little more than an episodic journey in bad parenting, but the counterpoint to that is the fact that John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph are pretty great in this film.  They're our proxies.  They think all these people are just as messed up as we do.  Krasinski plays Burt as a big kid who's whole-heartedly dedicated to bringing his own kid into the world the right way, and a lot of the film's charm rests solely on his shoulders.  In contrast, Maya Rudolph is calmer and more subdued than her work on Satuday Night Live suggested she could pull off.  If Krasinski is the comedic center of the film, Rudolph is the emotional center.

Overall, Away We Go isn't anything to rave about, but it's a far sight better than most of the big, dumb action movies released this summer.  If maybe not a truly memorable film, it is at least the perfect counterprogramming to the summer movie season.  I'd recommend it to anyone looking to escape from the exploding excess of films like Transformers, or those seeking a fresh take on the whole rom-com genre.

smilesmilesmilesmile 4 stars out of five