Moon (2009)

Running Time: 97 min.

Director: Duncan Jones
Stars: Sam rockwell

If you’re like me, you’ve probably seen a fair few (if not all, repeatedly) of the Great Science Fiction Movies. I’m not talking about your capitalist fluff like Star Wars and Star Trek*, I’m talking about the serious SF movies.

Alien.


Brazil.


Metropolis.


2001.


Silent Running.


Blade Runner.

and most important of them all (at least for the purposes of this review), the now-forgotten classic Dark Star.

Duncan Jones, the son of a guy a who starred in another of the all-time great SF movies The Man Who Fell to Earth, has seen these films and many more. But I mention these particular classics not because they’re the first ones that came to mind, but because they have elements in common with each other. The first is isolation and loneliness. All of these films, the protagonist is a person isolated from the mainstream of society in one way or other, often by the vacuum of space.

The second theme is madness. The question of the sanity of either the protagonist or the antagonist is left open. In the case of Brazil or 2001, it’s left wide open.

Finally, we have a fight for one’s own (or humanity’s collective) soul. Now, to be fair, it should be said that a lot of movies have these three elements in varying degrees — but if you were to stick the aforementioned SF movies into a blender, garnish with some Space: 1999 and add a huge extra helping of Dark Star, I believe you would have something very akin to Moon, the film debut of writer/director Zowie Bowie (sorry, Joey Bowie. Sorry again, Duncan Jones).

This is not to say that Moon is unoriginal or a rip-off; I think Jones brings enough originality to the story to make it work, particularly for a generation not as deeply versed in some of the “classics” as maybe they ought to be. But if you’re like me, you will spend a lot of your time noticing little things, ideas consciously or unconsciously nicked from other films.

The main influences are clearly Dark Star, Blade Runner, 2001 and Space: 1999 (and before some wag puts it out there, I’ll add that the budget for this film was clearly inspired by mid-70s Doctor Who). You notice it even before we get to the friendly, calm-voiced computer named GERTY (which is well done by Kevin Spacey, but his voice is so recognisable that you notice it’s Kevin Spacey).

Sam Rockwell (in a much stronger performance than 2005’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) plays Sam Bell, the sole human inhabitant of a mining station on the far side of the moon. The work is mostly automated, but needs a caretaker — and Sam is itching to get home after have served his contract of three long years away from his wife and daughter.

The time has taken its toll on Sam, and one day while out in a rover doing inspections, he hallucinates and crashes, injuring himself badly.

This part of the film is clear. The rest of it is a little murky.

Some time later, Sam wakes up in the infirmary, informed by GERTY that he has suffered injuries and some memory loss. As he recovers he wishes more and more to get back to work, the only thing that gives him a sense of feeling. Finally tricking GERTY into letting him outside the base, Sam returns to the scene of the accident and makes an unsettling discovery — the injured Sam still alive inside the vehicle.

At no point are we as the audience absolutely certain that what we’re seeing is reality, and Jones’ strength here is to keep us focused on that mystery. Is this all a dream of the dying Sam #1? Is the presence of a second Sam an indication of madness? Further along in the film we get a “logical” explanation of how this situation came to be, and we eventually return to what we assume is the real timeline, but we cannot be certain, particularly early on. Watching the two Sams warily interact proves very entertaining and the story unfolds more-or-less logically from there. Eventually Sam(s) realise the truth of their situation, that they are being manipulated. But why exactly, and how can he (they) beat the odds?

I suspect that a lot of the raves given this film are due as much to its obvious borrowing (sorry, homage) to its influences, and due to it being a rare example of a slow-paced story in this genre. There are few explosions or action sequences; largely it is (apart from the first quarter and climax) a psychological play. Plot revelations are drawn out, actions are very constrained, the feel is deliberately claustrophobic, and the minor supporting roles are minimal. Hopefully it will find (and seems to have found) an audience mature enough to be able to deal with the Kubrick-esque pacing and really savour the performance and atmosphere. If Moon is a modest hit, it will be good news for low-budget and serious SF filmmakers everywhere. To be able to take your time and really get into a story will come as something of a revelation to the twitchy video-game generation, for whom “sci-fi” in movies has largely meant huge explosion, whizzy spaceships, thrilling headgear and odd-coloured alien women to romance.

Rockwell gives a fairly low-key performance (for him) as both Sams, doing a very effective job of showing us Sam at various stages of his experience on the moon, and interacting with “himself” quite effectively. The special effects are quite modest (very Gerry Anderson!) but they do the job, and the moonbase while obviously cheap removes us from our own world well enough to allow us to sink into the mind(s) of the characters. Throw in a modest twist to the “us versus them” countdown and you end up with a satisfying story (with kind of an open ending) that doesn’t try to keep you thrilled/amazed/scared/titillated the entire time. For me that’s kind of refreshing, for some leaving the theatre with me I got the impression they were surprised to be so thoughtful after a “sci-fi” movie. Some were just plain perplexed. A few seemed underwhelmed.

Points off for being so completely blatant in his borrowings, but overall Jones has made an effective, well-directed “little” SF film, something the world could probably use more of. The sparse soundtrack by Clint Mansell is as unobtrusive as a fine waiter, and Gary Shaw’s cinematography makes the most of the limited sets (also helping the “moon surface” shots be more convincing). If you’re the type who enjoys discussing movies over drinks after the screening, Moon will probably be the first in a long time to provide you with more than just “what’d you think?” to ponder.

*Apart from “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” which is actually a great sci-fi movie.

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My New Cinema BFF: CineCenta in Victoria BC

Whenever we talk about the things we miss from our lives in Florida, our first breath on the subject is always devoted to the great people there: not just family and the smaller circles of close friends, but the many, many fascinating/insane/beautiful folks we knew on one level or another. But after that, you’ll often hear us talk about the great places of the metro Orlando area. Right at the top of that list is a miraculous movie theatre called the Enzian.

If you haven’t been there, it’s not like any other cinema. Period, full stop. I’ve been to many great movie houses of yesteryear, like the insanely beautiful Fox Theatre in Atlanta. Enzian is nothing like them. I’ve been to many modern art-house cinemas. Again, no. I’ve been to my share of “Cinema Drafthouse” type places, and you’re getting warmer but still far off the mark. The Enzian is really quite individual in this world, and not even the many warm memories I have of the Rhodes Cinema in Atlanta or the Grove Cinema in Coconut Grove or the other film dives that came alive only when the lights went down and the movie came up can erase my love of the Enzian, it’s owners and staff, it’s festivals and events but of course it’s wholistic movie experience, which goes far beyond just the good stuff on the screen.

Having said all that, the Enzian has a rival. They don’t even know about it (till some of them read this post and I know they will!), but it too flirts for my affection. It is called CineCenta, a part of the University of Victoria, and it is different from the Enzian, but in a kind of “kid brother” way. I’ve been lazy in not finding it till recently, trying out the other cinemas in town both mainstream and off-beat; Victoria has a strong art-film sensibility and you can find foreign and highbrow works all over town, particularly during the Victoria Film Festival. I am ashamed to have avoided driving “all the way across town” (15 minutes) to the UVic campus for almost two years.

Like Enzian, the prices at CineCenta are insanely low. They offer memberships in the society, they frequently mix “revival” prints and other curiosities into the mix, they host mini-fests of their own and yes, Enzian — they put real butter on their popcorn.

Oh, there are differences, to be sure. CineCenta operates on a shoestring, their theatre is smaller (300 seats), their advertising is virtually non-existant off-campus and they don’t serve wine or beer.

What they do have, though, is an appealing “student” atmosphere, a frankly fantastic sound system that squeezes the sweetest highs and shakes the bottoming bass with astonishing clarity; the pre-screening jazz we heard was melting my brain with audiophile delight, and of course, a plethora of wildly diverse but mostly amazing movies.

As I write this, the 60th anniversary print of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (see my review here) has given way to Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae, which will be replaced this weekend by showings of Pixar’s Up and Duncan Jones’ Moon, with an almost obligatory screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show next week. And much, much more. Wow.

I’m now down to missing mostly Enzian’s rolling, reclining chairs and tables, their high-quality menu and their wonderful staff, because CineCenta is meeting my needs on most of the other fronts pretty nicely now.

I feel a bit like a cat who’s gone to live down the street, where they feed me more yum-yums. 🙂

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Running Time: 93 min.
Director: Vittorio Di Sica
Stars: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staidla

An old friend is apparently tromping around the art-house circuit in celebration of its 60th anniversary. Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (as I always knew it, but since corrected to its proper title) played here last night and I could not miss an opportunity to revisit it in a theatre for the first time since my first viewing of it at the Rhodes Cinema in Atlanta back in the late 70s (a film mecca I owe so much to, now sadly gone).

It was as good and moving as I remembered it. As a young man, the twin themes of injustice and male pressure/alienation rang out to me, and they are still there. Now, though, I have the luxury of watching the details more closely; the lay of post-war Italy, the religious statements, the flow of daily life. I notice the music and the cinematography, and marvel even more at De Sica’s brave decision to use non-actors. Just four years after it came out, it was judged by its peers in Sight & Sound’s magazine poll to have been the greatest film ever made, and it continues to list regularly in very high places among critics’ lists of the best movies ever (in the 2002 poll for that same magazine, 50 years later, it placed 45th – meaning that in all that intervening time, only 44 other films have been made that are considered better).

The story it tells is a simple one: Ricci, a poor man with a wife and two children to feed, is desperate for work. When the employment pool finally lands him an offer, he mentions that if he doesn’t get it he’ll be “waiting another two years.” The catch: the job requires him to have transportation, which at that time for people of his status, meant a bicycle. He lies and says he has one to get the job, but actually hocked his some time back. Upon learning the news, his wife sells their bedsheets to pay back the pawn of the bicycle (a wonderful scene that reminds me so much of a similar moment in 1952’s Scrooge). It is at this moment that we first realise we are watching a classic, even if one is seeing it for the first time; the gritty realism of working-class life really hits home here, the pressure ordinary people are under in society from so many different directions, not to mention the foreshadowing of Ricci’s possible future if things don’t go well; his wife has literally bet their marriage on it. If you’ve ever had to put everything you own, every cent in your bank account, on the line in the hope of future reward, this scene will touch a nerve.

De Sica wasn’t the first to do neo-realist “kitchen sink” drama, but in this one and his later Umberto D. he may have surpassed even the inventor of the form, Roberto Rosselini. Everything comes together so well here — the plain-faced working man (Lamberto Maggiorani, an actual factory worker) and his precocious son (Enzo Staiola) who struggles to live up to his tough but loving father; the cinematography of Carlo Montuori that gradually gets grayer and grayer as the moral nature of the story is revealed; the music by Alessandro Cicognini that blends beautifully into the street noises of Rome; the dialogue (in Italian, but Italian is a language that doesn’t depend on subtitles to get its meaning across) and of course the city itself, which demands co-star status just as it did in other films by both Italian and American filmmakers. Rome is more than a location, it is part and parcel of the story being told, whether it’s Ladri di biciclette or Roman Holiday, a Fellini film or an Audrey Hepburn vehicle.

When the precious bicycle is stolen, this simple act causes Ricci’s world to collapse, especially frustrating as he was so close to grabbing the best brass ring a man in his position could hope for; a simple honest job that paid well and where the work was steady. Losing the bike means that even this modest dream is slipping away, and leads Ricci to search throughout Rome, on foot, using what little money he has left, in a desperate attempt to retrieve the key to his happiness. At first he assumes the police will help, and like many law-abiding citizens is rather shocked to discover that they are rather indifferent to such a “minor” crime. We watch as Ricci goes through the stages of loss, and empathise with his plight as he leads us on an increasingly erratic travelogue through post-war, economically-depressed Rome.

By keeping the camera so commonly fixed on Maggiorani’s face, the lack of much in the way of “action” forces us to care about this character and the way the system continuously lets him down; from the police to the church — and ultimately to God and himself — nobody but nobody comes through for him, and the ratio of those who want to help versus those who simply don’t care forms a powerful commentary on the fragility and arbitrary nature of existence. Just today, by sheer coincidence, I happened to see a survey that said around 60% of workers live pretty much paycheque-to-paycheque. The more things change …

The rich tapestry of Italian life gives us a number of colourful supporting characters, from the friend who incompetently tries to help Ricci organise a search to the bike mechanic falsely accused, from his wife Maria to the psychic she trusts (mocked by Ricci at first, he eventually reaches the “bargaining” stage of grief and goes to see her himself, symbolising the end of his rational hopes), finally to the accused thief himself, and of course the young son who must tag along on this descent into hell, trying desperately for his father’s approval. Interestingly, I’ve never met a woman who’s seen the film who didn’t fixate on the boy’s perspective; just another example of the layers this seemingly simple tale contains. Fellini in particular was likely scribbling a lot of notes in the film’s many religiously-influenced scenes, as scenes of incredible similarity turned up in Nights of Caribia and other works.

Ultimately, the film does not lead you to any sort of neat ending, happy or unhappy. Having been rebuffed at his last, best hope for getting the bicycle back (which has now become his life, hopes and dreams), he sacrifices his own moral code and, under pressure and relentless temptation, tries to steal a bike to replace his loss, becoming the very thing he loathes and destroying the last shred of his character. His son rescues him from humiliation and possible jailing and leads the crying, broken man away to face an uncertain — but undoubtedly tragic — future. The impact of society’s failure and the relation of poverty, desperation and crime in the face of life’s inherent unfairness hits you like a one-two punch, and the indefinite ending leaves you reeling.

After 60 years, Bicycle Thieves still resonates, affects and engages its audience — this is what has earned it its classic status. If you can catch a screening of this 35mm anniversary print, do so; but if not, treat yourself and rent it. Watch it without distraction, in a dark room, so the effect of the visuals is not diminished; you may not fully see its greatness at first, perhaps, but this is one of those films that changes you, however subtly, and gives one yet another perspective on this world.