27 July 2009

moon

2001, with Sam Rockwell in the Dave Bowman role, and Kevin Spacey playing HAL. That's the vague idea I had of Moon going into it, and I was sold based solely on that terribly wrong impression. Despite the facts that Spacey delivers all of his lines in his best HAL impersonation, the film ends with lights flashing across Rockwell's helmet, and he finds himself at the mercy of the technology of which he's supposed to be the master, Duncan Jones' (David Bowie's son, interestingly enough) smaller, more personal (and, frankly, infinitely more comprehensible) film sets itself far apart from 2001 that comparisons go out the window pretty quickly. Though, there were certainly parts that reminded me of Stephen Soderbergh's adaptation of Solaris, but again, not for long.

A lot of movies these days – far too many – lay everything out early on. By this, I mean that if a movie's structured A-B-C, C is revealed very quickly and the only question left to the audience is, “How is the movie going to get there?” Usually, that's not particularly interesting. That's not to say that such a story can't be told in an compelling way, it's just that I'm very rarely sitting on the edge of my seat wondering what in the hell is going to happen next, but Moon kept my head tilted through much of its runtime. Once I got into the film's groove, I could start to see what the big developments were going to be, but that didn't happen for a while.

Moon is, to be frank, quiet. It makes a good deal of sense, given that Rockwell's Sam Bell is the lone human (though you could argue that point pretty successfully) aboard a moon base that captures Helium-3 to send back to Earth to power fusion generators that've, more or less, solved the fossil fuel problem. There's a fantastic sequence where he's driving his moon rover out to one of the mobile harvesting stations, this massive machine that looks like a cross between a combine and a Jawa sandcrawler. It's kicking up all manner of moon rock as it trudges across the satellite's surface and, as Rockwell drives ever closer, he's caught in its wake, a shower of debris, a rain of rock. It's beautiful and understated, without a musical swell or camera flourish to call attention to it, a great moment of imagery that reminded me of the fireworks scene in Brokeback Mountain, another gorgeous cinematic moment made all the better because it didn't feel the need to announce itself. And, just like that part of Brokeback, something terrible was lurking underneath the surface. The rover crashes into the harvester, knocking him unconscious as rock pours over the small windows.

As a bleeding-heart, liberal, egghead communist, I have to admit that it was tough for me to suspect a company built on the socially progressive base of alternative energy to be, well, evil, but I should've, and right from the start. Between Cyberdine, and Weyland-Yutani, and OCP, there's a long history of corporate wrong-doing in science fiction. But... fusion power! From the moon! What's more awesome than that? How could they be evil? Well, the answer was staring me right in the face from the first moment Rockwell stepped onscreen, and believe me, it's a good one.

Speaking of Sam Rockwell, I don't really know if there are many actors that I genuinely like and enjoy as much as him. I like that he makes these choices of roles that keep him a step or two removed from mainstream acceptance and recognition; I hate it when a band (Isis), or a concept (“universal” health coverage), or a game (Dead Space) gets stolen from me and co-opted by people who don't understand or fully appreciate it as much as I do, and, at least for a little while longer, it doesn't look like Guy Fleegman is going to be taken from me and perverted into something that makes him less than he is. When I saw the G-Force trailer, I remarked that somebody needs to be put in charge of Will Arnett's career (beyond an agent... somebody who has the best interests of his talent in mind, not just his bank account). Rockwell doesn't need that person, at least not yet. He's able to run pretty much the full gamut in Moon, slipping in and out of fully-justifiable paranoia, and he doesn't disappoint. The video messages he sends back and forth with his wife and daughter back on Earth (Bell signed a three-year contract that's about up when the movie opens) are his only substantive contact with the outside world, and he clearly knows it, wrenching every little bit of human connection out of their video-phone tag that he can. In this way, I suppose the film could also be compared to Castaway, except that Moon remains compelling for its entire runtime, and not just a few minutes here and there.

Spacey, of course, is fantastic, even if he's never actually on camera. He's so good at running cool that his voice is the absolute and perfect counterpoint to Rockwell's constantly-bubbling emotions. You want to suspect GERTY from the get-go, but the AI is so convincing when it tells Sam that it's just here to help him.

For an (apparently) $4 million movie, the production value is fantastic. The CG sequences stay within the tone of the movie, always understated, never showy. The base is logical, efficient with its use of space, and GERTY, rather than a series of camera eyes installed throughout, is a physical mechanism that travels on rails set in the ceiling. A small display switches between variations on happy, sad, worried, uncomfortable, and even expressionless faces, so as to cue Sam in on the tone his computerized companion wishes to take with him.

I've tried to avoid spoiling what happens in the film precisely because I enjoy it so very much. I don't want to ruin it for anyone reading that might want to go and see it. That's something you should do, go and see it. As quickly as possible.

19 July 2009

harry potter and the half-blood prince


Until now, the only Harry Potter movie I've really been able to stand was The Prisoner of Azkaban, for a variety of reasons. It was an actual movie, not simply a crummy slapping of the book onscreen, that finally made Hogwarts as much of a character as the children I'd not been sold on until Alfonso Cuaron took them under his wing and showed them how to be actors. It probed the darkness that, in the books, was only starting to rear its head, and it pissed off a fanbase that I didn't particularly care for, so that was a serious mark in its favor. My heart was heavy when I found out Cuaron wasn't to direct The Goblet of Fire (but, let's be fair: Children of Men is a hell of a movie), and so I reconciled myself to the fact that there would never be a Harry Potter movie I enjoyed. Goblet of Fire was so badly paced that I'd probably rate it a worse experience than either of the Chris Columbus movies, and Order of the Phoenix only got interesting when the wizard gunfight broke out towards the end. Anybody who actually expected the Harry Potter movies to be any good was hoping for far too much, anyway.

It's still tough to believe that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has gotten the glowing reviews its received. Tough, not because it's an excellent movie (because it's very good, but I'm getting ahead of myself), but because it's a Harry Potter movie. It may well force me to reevaluate my impressions of the series as a whole (I doubt strongly they'll change much, but the simple fact that it may well do this is a high mark in its favor). It's still not Prisoner of Azkaban, but David Yates has clearly learned enough from his previous gig, and his predecessors, that it's entirely possible he could surpass that high water mark by the time the second Deathly Hallows movie comes out.

Yates has figured out how to play with the space that the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft provides him; he probes the shadows of the old castle to uncover those lying within the characters that have always been the movies' greatest assets. The literal differences between the high and low spaces in the castle, as Ron and Lavender run up the steps to begin their ill-advised relationship, while Harry comforts Hermione in the basement, have been so underused in most of the rest of the series as to be depressing. Bellatrix's destruction of the Great Hall at the end of the film, followed by her torching of Hagrid's cabin, are not mere desecrations of spaces, but deaths of characters, important as any other after six films.

Speaking of deaths (the series' worst-kept secret, after all), the time that Michael Gambon was given to shine was not wasted. The negative blowback that came from his arrival as Richard Harris' replacement to the part of Albus Dumbledore probably went a long way towards tainting the fanbase's perception of Prisoner of Azkaban, but I was never able to understand it. Harris was grandfatherly, for sure, but conveyed none of the power that Dumbledore had from the series' get-go, that would become so very essential as both the books and the films went along, reaching its high water mark here. Gambon has power in his presence; he always does. Sure, he's grandfatherly in that Obi-Wan Kenobi way that Dumbledore needs to be, and anyone with that bead would look bookish, like a professor, but Gambon conveys the strength that the Hogwarts headmaster calls upon when he has to go to war. He's at his highest and his lowest in this film, and those opposing moments come within seconds of each other when he's with Harry in the cave. As he's drinking the poisoned water, begging Harry to stop and, eventually, to kill him (isn't the ironing delicious?), he's fallen as far as he can go, but then, as Harry's pulled under water by the Inferi, he sets the world on fire and saves his young student's life. His silent communication with Snape, just before he's killed and falls off the tower, is a beautiful rendering of an essential moment in the book (for once, I'm happy with the series' overall fanatical fidelity to its source material).

Really, though, the Harry Potter film series' lasting contribution to the world will have everything to do with its acting. Not simply because it reminds an impatient society the virtues of patience (a big part of the reason this film is as good as it is, I'm convinced, is because we've had the chance to watch the principal actors really and truly grow into their roles. Rupert Grint, in particular, has fashioned himself in a fine comedic actor – not that anyone with a good eye couldn't see it coming, but it's awfully nice when potential is realized. Tom Felton has found the bit inside Draco Malfoy that's good, and has figured out how to mine it to great effect. Daniel Radcliffe has really learned how to be a subtle actor, particularly with his eyes, and Emma Watson, well, there's never really been any complaint I could make about her acting. She was perfect from the get-go, and she's just unfolded layer after layer of Hermione Granger as the years have gone by. I do hope she doesn't end her acting career with Deathly Hallows II. It would be a great loss), but because it's introduced a generation of young film-goers to a who's who of great British actors. Kenneth Branaugh, Ralph Finnes, Gary Oldman, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman (who's finally given more of a part to work with this time around), Emma Thompson, Brendan Gleeson, Julie Christie, John Cleese, Timothy Spall, David Tennant, Robbie Coltrane, David Thewlis, George Harris, Warwick Davis, Imelda Staunton, Helena Bonham Carter... The supporting cast members have been, without variation, extraordinary, and have hopefully inspired some curious members of the audience to check out some of their work that didn't have hundreds of millions of dollars behind it. Jim Broadbent, as Professor Horace Slughorn, upholds that tradition finely, and surpasses the bulk of those that have come before him. He's haunted by Voldemort from the instant he appears onscreen up until the moment he admits to Harry that, well, much of the student-formerly-known-as-Tom-Riddle's mad rise to power is directly attributable to something he once foolishly mentioned without thinking. To an audience that may only be best familiar with him from Moulin Rogue (another fantastic performance of his), he may well be startling in Half-Blood Prince, and that's a great thing.

The moments where the movie most clearly diverges from the book – the ones that feel most directly inspired by the tone of Prisoner of Azkaban – were certainly among the most compelling for me. Harry's final moment among the Muggles, where he flirts with a cute waitress who knows far more about the art of seduction than he, does a more than passable job of replacing the conversation between Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge and the “current British Prime Minister” that opens the book, grounding us in our own non-magical reality once again, and the Death Eaters' attack on the Weasley family's home at the Burrow, bringing home the danger of Voldemort's rise to power in a very Children of Men-esque way (from the completely-not-in-series-character shaky cam, to the instantaneous thievery of the power the characters felt only a moment earlier, to the senselessness of tragedy, to the lack of emotionally manipulative, bombastic music throughout). Not simply because I didn't have these moments committed to memory, but because they were the moments where the movie became its own entity, when it fashioned sequences well-suited to its form of storytelling, so different from a novel.

Since this was the last time we're going to see Quidditch (presumably) on the silver screen, I'm very glad they chose to send it off on a high note; Ron Weasley triumphant over all the naysayers (followed by the series' descent into Varsity Blues-like debauchery; I suppose teenagers really are the same, no matter if they're American, British, wizard, or Muggle) was a fine moment to end what was one of the best-shot Quidditch matches in the series' history. The speed at which the game unfolds, well, it still boggles my mind, and the constant lurking danger underneath an adventure, a game, was a great inadvertent metaphor for Harry's life both in school and out of it.

Actually, for a movie as dark as this one was (probably best comparable to Two Towers or Empire, seeing as how our heroes have been brought as low as they're going to be), there were a lot of laugh moments. It balanced the brightness and the shadows quite well.

As much as I'd like to unequivocally recommend this film to anyone that likes a good experience in the theater, I wonder how much of my enjoyment was fueled by the fact that I've invested so much time into these characters, this story, between the books and the films. I've slogged through over two hours of uninteresting movie for every hour of compelling filmmaking at this point; I've seen the stars grow from the time they were very small until now. It's an odd, nearly familial feeling I have at this point, so when the film is triumphant, that feeling is likely magnified for me a good deal. That's not to say Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince's filmmaking bona fides are in question; they're not. I just don't know if anyone who hasn't invested the time that a person like me has will feel quite as strongly about it. It's a fine film, for sure, but it may not be as fine to a viewer that's not seen the five preceeding ones.

05 July 2009

Public Enemies

I've heard plenty of people that I've introduced to Collateral, Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans, and even Heat complain that Michael Mann's films are far too cerebreal, that they lack the sort of emotional oomph that the best films use to transport you to another time and place. Up until Miami Vice, I disagreed, but the Colin Farrell-Jamie Foxx-Gong Li vehicle got me worrying that Mann had completely forgotten how to engage his audience on a level more visceral than, “Jesus, digital cinematography has gotten good.” He'd need something impressive to bounce back from his feature film retooling of the show that put him on that map, and fortunately, Public Enemies precisely that sort of movie. And, for the first time, I doubt anyone can argue that it does not punch you in the stomach, squeeze your heart, and cause you to step back for a moment or two to appreciate the craftsmanship, the artistry of the film.

At its best, a Michael Mann film is beyond meticulously constructed. Nothing is left to chance, not even the backstory of the principal characters (he'd assembled a full dossier, complete with pictures, for Tom Cruise's Vincent in Collateral before his lead actor ever showed up for rehearsals). Public Enemies reeks of the 1930s, from the weave of the suits, to the cadence of the conversations, to the music (oh, the music – Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday are all over the place, but the real treats are Diana Krall's version of “Bye, Bye Blackbird” and two songs from Otis Taylor, “Ten Million Slaves” and “Nasty Letter,” all of which bring an energy and attitude to the film that are indispensible). Nothing is out of place, not ever.

Mann wastes no time in introducing us to John Dillinger at the height of his powers, staging an elaborate breakout of his gang from the jail that holds them (while none of the break-out, or break-in, scenes approach the centerpiece heist of Heat, the clockwork precision with which they unfold, at least at first, illustrates Mann's skill at helming the crime film just as well as they do Dillinger's skill at helming, well, crime). Dillinger has allies all over the place, from the men at his side during the bank heists, to the people that hide him between jobs, to his fellow criminals in the Syndicate that launder his stolen cash and send bigger and better jobs his way. His list of allies slowly dwindles as the film winds on, until he's practically alone and finally brought down when one of the few people still close to him is forced to betray him by the FBI.

As usual, the casting is superb, even visionary. Christian Bale's Melvin Purvis is beyond dogged in his pursuit of “Public Enemy Number One,” and slaps J. Edgar Hoover (played by Billy Crudup in the actor's latest “really?” part) in the face with reality over and over again. Purvis is something of a contradiction here, a loner turned into the new face of the company, a man who never finds companionship or friendship as he races after the criminals terrorizing his country. Johnny Depp brings his rockstar charisma and total physical performance command to Dillinger, effortlessly modernizing yet another archetypical character in American film (first, the buccaneer in Pirates of the Carribean, and here the gangster). He grins and cracks wise with the press before he's thrown into prison, even putting his arm around the district attourney. His relationship with Marion Cotillard's Billie Frechette (she is more than Depp's equal as a performer – they're always fighting for the upper hand onscreen) is the emotional core of the film, and what really places it in the upper echelon of Mann's catalog. Never before has he so effectively rendered love (screwed-up though this particular love may have been) onscreen – the closing sequence of the film in particular (they were so close to escaping to South America).

Much of the film feels like a synthesis of great gangster films that have come before – Bonnie & Clyde and The Untouchables spring most readily to mind – but Dante Spinotti's digital cinematography adds a series of new wrinkles to the equation. Public Enemies virtually crackles with the sort of tension and excitement that can only come from immediacy, which is what digital provides in spades. Light doesn't need to be so overtly manipulated with a digital film, light can simply be, allowing shadows to fall, and fall off, in greater magnitude than ever before. The bright lights and colors of Havana and Miami were not the right locations to deploy the most recent generation of digital cameras; for all they do well, colors rarely pop in a digital film. The drab Chicago of the 1930s, well, that's a different story. Arthur Penn's version of the story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow redefined crime films for the second half of the 20th century; I think Public Enemies could well do that for the 21st century.