The Therapist Experience: The Girlfriend Experience

The Girlfriend Experience movie poster

 

Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience is a low-fi, partially improvised production loosely associated with his periodic palate-cleansing experiments including Schizopolis, Full Frontal, K Street, and Bubble. Working with real locations and relatively cheap cameras, this class of thrifty productions allows Soderbergh a rapid turnaround from conception to finished product. In the case of Schizopolis, the lower price tag allotted a certain amount of creative freedom for uncomfortable autobiography. But Soderbergh is also able to bring timelier subject matter to theaters more quickly than most feature films can manage, delayed as they are by the monumental amount of funding and team effort it takes to make and market one. Even the music is economical — most of it diegetic, performed onscreen by street buskers, but also incorporating a cool score by Ross Godfrey.

The Great Recession and Bush’s October 2008 bank bailout hang over everything. Soderbergh beat other films featuring characters beset by unemployment and poverty, including Wendy & Lucy, Frozen River, and especially Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. The sex trade is just a titillating hook for the greater theme of commerce itself, and the way freelance individuals market themselves in order to make a living. The high-class escort Christine (Sasha Grey) is nothing more than a small business owner, a hooker Joe the Plumber.

Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend ExperienceHigh-class escort Christine (Sasha Grey) is a hooker Joe the Plumber

Terminology is very important. “Call girl” is allowed, but “prostitute” is most certainly never used. The phrase “the girlfriend experience” is professional lingo used by call girls to describe service that goes beyond mere sex. The movie depicts very little nudity or sex, and we’re thankfully spared a humiliating experience in which she trades sex for a positive online review from a scumbag (Glenn Kenny) who has granted himself the power to destroy or boost escorts’ careers.

The film opens with an image of a modern work of art hanging on a gallery wall, comprised largely of dull, flattened, reflective metal — just like Christine herself. Whether Grey’s blank performance is deliberate choice or an expression of her limited acting abilities, it fits the character. While Christine is a savvy businesswoman concerned with self-promotion and maximizing her income, her business is entirely in the fulfillment of others’ wishes, up to a point, for a fee. She has goals and desires, but tellingly, Christine defers even her dinner orders to men. The only thing that seems to arouse her is Personology, a Scientology-esque variation of new age hokum astrology that she uses to guide both personal and professional decisions. It seems a bigger hazard to her happiness and success than her profession.

The economic climate may be bad, but Christine and her boyfriend live in a swanky apartment adorned with their art collection. Her clients are mostly financiers, living luxe lifestyles but made anxious by the financial calamity to the point of impotence. They vent their panic to her while she patiently listens and asks softball questions. She always makes a point to ask her clients how their wives and children are doing; not to shame them, but out of a kind of polite decorum that somehow validates what they are doing with her. She has variations of the same staid conversation with her own boyfriend: “It’s good to see you too. How was your day?” Sometimes her clients are so worked up they don’t even want sex, just someone to listen. So what she provides might sometimes be better described as The Therapist Experience. In the unexpectedly touching final scene, she meets a favorite client in less glamorous circumstances than we’ve seen before, and fulfills his needs with a tenderness she hasn’t previously demonstrated, even for her own lover.

Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend ExperienceChristine (Sasha Grey) provides The Therapist Experience… for a price

The story is told through multiple layers of narration. Christine keeps a functionally dry journal of her appointments, keeping track of her various ersatz relationships, the brands of clothing she wore (down to the lingerie), where they dined, what movie they saw, whether or not they had sex. In a second layer of narration, a journalist interviews her for an piece he’s writing on call girls. He finds her interesting in that she’s the only escort he has met that is in a serious relationship. The issue is raised as if it were the key question of the movie, but the theme falls by the wayside to make way for examinations of the ways that people sell themselves in a difficult economic climate.

Her boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos) is a physical trainer, another profession that values youth and physique. While Christine tries to expand her escort business by commissioning a website, and soliciting reviews on seedy internet message boards. All the while she hopes to remain anonymous so she can eventually finance and launch a legitimate boutique. Meanwhile, her boyfriend is simultaneously trying to expand his own business. Like Christine, he is his own boss while working in an established system that resists free agents. His most successful tactic to upgrade his clients into longer, more lucrative commitments is to insincerely cast their work together as a relationship, a bit of psychological manipulation he perhaps learned from his girlfriend.

Like Soderbergh’s Bubble and K Street, some of the cast are non-actors. But Grey is one step removed from an amateur, being in fact a professional porn star. She is likely one of the few to ever fall up, as it were, from pornography to a legitimate film career. She doesn’t seem to have extraordinary acting skills (which is good, for her character is distant and chilly by design), nor does she have an especially expressive face or voice. But she is remarkably pretty, petite, and blessed with a lovely figure seemingly unmolested by silicone. But why look to the world of porn to cast a prostitute? To put it bluntly, it’s illegal in most states for one person to get paid to provide sex, but it is legal to get paid to have sex on camera. Did Soderbergh imagine a real porn star would have special insight into the character of a prostitute? Perhaps he saw parallels in Grey markets herself as a brand in the adult entertainment world.


Official movie site: www.girlfriendexperiencefilm.com

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Don’t Panic! Turn your iPhone into The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy free wallpaper Don't Panic

Don’t you wish you could turn your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch into The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as seen in the eponymous series of novels by Douglas Adams? Of course you do! Install these free wallpapers, open up The Guide, grab your towel, stick out your Electronic Thumb, and hit the spaceways. But do try to avoid Vogon vessels…

iPad with retina display iPad iPhone 4 iPhone 3 & iPod Touch

iPad 3
with retina display

iPad 1 & 2
1st or 2nd generation

iPhone 4
with retina display

iPhone 3
3G, 3Gs, or iPod Touch

Need help? The Iconfactory has an excellent FAQ.


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The Ultimate Six-String Summit: It Might Get Loud

It Might Get Loud movie poster

 

It Might Get Loud indeed, when three generations of rock guitarists convene for the ultimate six-string summit. Jimmy Page (representative of 1970s stadium rock and, with Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, part of the canonical trinity of guitar heroes) joins The Edge (child of the punk/new wave era but also paradoxically a bit of an egghead) and Jack White (student of Americana and freewheeling blues-rock of The White Stripes and the Raconteurs). The three had no doubt crossed paths before now, but probably never had a chance to pick each other’s brains, let alone trade licks and jam.

Director Davis Guggenheim also made the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth and the soccer drama Gracie, but the core concept came from Thomas Tull, producer of Batman: The Dark Knight. As White quips in one of the DVD bonus features, he thought Page would make a fine Joker.

The Edge in It Might Get LoudU2’s The Edge is a child of the punk/new wave era but is also paradoxically a bit of an egghead

Throughout, White is considerably more witty and spontaneous than the others, both verbally and in his effortless improvisation. In comparison, The Edge sometimes seems reticent and comparably tongue-tied. Considering his notoriety as the man that introduced cod-Satanism and Tolkien into Led Zeppelin’s lyrics and iconography, Page is quite the dapper English gentleman. He arrives in a chauffeured Rolls, while White and even The Edge drive themselves to the set.

Jack White in It Might Get LoudJack White, of The White Stripes and The Raconteurs, keeps it real

While Page and White share a background in the blues, The Edge comes from somewhere else altogether. He’s long been more interested in sonics and textures than in impressing audiences with fleet-fingered technique. Page was, for a time, one of the biggest rock stars in the world, but of the three, The Edge has enjoyed persistent fame the longest. He states with total conviction that This is Spinal Tap was, for him, not funny at all: “it’s all true.” A deleted scene answers a question I’ve long had: U2’s nicknames date back to their childhood, and now even The Edge’s mother now no longer calls him David.

There’s no need for an onscreen interviewer when no one else would know better what to ask these three men than each other. When guitarists get together for gabfests, a natural topic is to wistfully reminisce over their first instruments (The Edge and White still own and play theirs). Their conversation is interspersed with short animated sequences and priceless early footage, with relics including embarrassing very early footage of U2 as gawky teenagers.

All three have enjoyed comfort and success for quite some time, so it comes as a rather awkward shift in tone when they are called to reflect on times of crisis in their careers. None were instant stars. Page’s early anxieties are the most interesting; he became a highly successful session guitarist fairly early on (working largely in the now-forgotten musical genre of Skiffle), but realized he was looking at a creative dead-end. He found release in The Yardbirds, a fertile cauldron that famously also included Beck and Clapton at various times, and arguably invented hard rock. The hair came down, the pants flared, and the cello bow came out. Multi-instrumentalist White recounts a childhood sleeping on the floor in a room too crowded with drums to leave room for a bed, and founding his first band while working the lonely job of furniture upholsterer. The Edge recalls the contemporary political turmoil of Ireland as a backdrop to his anxiety over being “just a guitarist” and possibly never a songwriter. From this crisis of confidence came the politically charged U2 standard “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” His substantial contributions to U2 were deliberately obscured by the unusually democratic band; it’s only recently that they have begun to talk more openly about their internal division of labor (generally, Edge demos the music, Bono supplies the lyrics, Larry works alongside the producer, and Adam is resident sartorialist).

Jimmy Page in It Might Get LoudLed Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page is now quite the dapper gent, but was once an infamous 70s bad boy that introduced cod-satanism and Tolkien to stadium rock

The natural wish is for the three to strap on their guitars and jam. So as each is celebrated as much for their songwriting as for their chops, they take turns teaching the others one of their signature tunes. The Edge’s chiming “I Will Follow” riff fails to take off, but Page’s “In My Time of Dying” provides a bed for some fantastic slide-guitar solos from all three players. The climactic closing tune is ill-chosen; The Band’s “The Weight” is without a doubt a great, classic song, but not much of a guitar showcase.


Official movie site: www.itmightgetloudmovie.com

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Mummy’s Boy: The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

The Mummy 3 Tomb of the Dragon Emperor movie poster

 

Perhaps it was the mood I happened to be in the day I saw it in 1999, but I will freely admit I loved The Mummy, the first film in the latter day incarnation of the 1930s MGM horror franchise. In concert with Simon West and Jan De Bont’s pair of Tomb Raider films, The Mummy picked up the period-piece action/adventure mantle left dormant since the last Indiana Jones in 1989, and perhaps contributed to the fedora-clad adventurer’s return for The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull almost 20 years later. It struck me as exactly what all big-budget action blockbusters should aspire to be: good fun, with genuinely impressive special effects, thrills, a little romance, and a few laughs. Not a little of its charm came from the self-deprecating Brendan Fraser, a decidedly different kind of character compared to the arrogance and near superhuman capability of Lara Croft and Indiana Jones.

The franchise proved unusually fertile, spawning an inevitable sequel (not really terrible, but still nowhere near as fun as the original) and even two prequels starring The Rock: The Scorpion King and The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior. The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) came as something of a surprise when the series had seemed to have petered out. Original director Stephen Sommers had since moved on to G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009), leaving it up to Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious, Stealth), to see if there was any freshness to be found.

Maria Bello and Brendan Fraser in The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor“Sorry pal, there’s a mummy on the loose.”

Some time has passed, and Rick (Fraser) and Evelyn (Maria Bello) have retired to a staid English manse. Evelyn earns a living from transforming her past adventures into the form of a popular series of swashbuckling adventure novels, while Rick does, well, nothing. Both find their lives unfulfilling and yearn to return to adventuring. The youthful Fraser hasn’t even grayed his hair, but if Evelyn looks like an entirely new woman, it’s because she is; Bello replaces “thinking man’s sex symbol” Rachel Weisz, who likely had higher aspirations. Their son Alex (Luke Ford), now a rogue archeologist in his own right, forms a contentious relationship with Lin (Isabella Leong), a girl with a considerable secret — she and her mother Zi Yuan (Michelle Yeoh) are immortal (but she doesn’t seem to have matured her emotionally or intellectually over her long life). The slightly fey John Hannah is back in the role of gentle comic relief.

The enemy this time is China itself; the government conspires to awaken the cursed Emperor Han (Jet Li), possessed of supernatural powers but encased in stone for all eternity. With its modern military at the service of a superhuman immortal emperor, China plots nothing less than world domination. The Emperor’s powers also seem to be pretty vaguely defined, and he rarely uses them to best effect. Jet Li rarely appears onscreen in the flesh, leading me to guess he probably did a lot of motion-capture work a la Andy Serkis in the Lord of the Rings and King Kong. He spends much of his time made of indestructible molten rock, but can transform into a fierce dragon at will. Nonetheless, he spends more than a few scenes standing back as his minions fall before his foes, when he could simply sweep in and kill everybody whenever he wanted.

Michelle Yeoh and Isabella Leong in The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor“Here we go again!”

The movie produces obstacles as it goes along, and you have no choice but to shrug as one MacGuffin piles up atop another. To wit: a special diamond needed to awaken a mummified Chinese Emperor, the blood of someone pure of heart, a drink from Shangri-La, and the sudden appearance of the sole dagger capable of killing the revived Emperor. Capping it off is a trio of benevolent yeti, but the Emperor is eventually defeated with the aid of a literal ghost in the machine: General Ming (Russell Wong), vanquished earlier by the Emperor. The moral of this story seems to be: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Like a lot of contemporary effects-oriented features (including Watchmen, Sin City, The Spirit), the best thing about it are its excellent closing credits.


Official movie site: www.themummy.com

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Gritty, Grimy, and Graffitied: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three movie poster

 

Plenty of genre movies have been set in New York City, such as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (devilry on the Upper West Side), Walter Salles’ Dark Water (ghosts on Roosevelt Island), Guillermo Del Toro’s Mimic (vermin in the subway), and Spike Lee’s Inside Man (thievery on Wall Street). The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, directed by Joseph Sargent from the novel by John Godey, is one of the few of these New York movies seemingly made for New Yorkers. Plenty of the world’s cities have underground transit systems, but this particular story could be set nowhere else. It’s a potent premise that has been remade twice, first as a TV movie in 1998 and again in 2009 by Tony Scott as a big-budget star vehicle for John Travolta and Denzel Washington. It was even an indirect inspiration for the famous color-coded criminal aliases used in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a time capsule, full of curiosities about how the New York City subway looked and functioned in the 1970s. It also reveals a great deal about how the city itself was perceived and portrayed in popular cinema at the time. The cityscape is gritty, grimy, and graffitied. Women are just now begrudgingly being let into the M.T.A. workforce. A cynical City Hall is willing to negotiate with terrorists if it means more votes in the next election. Hookers and pimps share the subway with drunks and robust ethnic stereotypes. The unhealthy filth of millions of people living in close quarters is symbolized by a cold going around (which becomes a key plot point).

Walter Matthau in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three“Somebody down there knows how to drive a train. You don’t pick that up watching Sesame Street.”

The movie’s racial politics are dated, but perhaps more honest towards flawed human nature. Lt. Garber (Walter Matthau) is openly condescending towards visiting Japanese officials studying the M.T.A. He’s flatly racist in a way no hero in a modern film would ever allowed to be (he calls them “monkeys”). But in fact, he actually does get his comeuppance. Matthau is, to say the least, an odd casting choice for the hero of a thriller. But he was probably about the correct age for a Transit Authority detective, and had the right air of sardonic disillusionment for a believable lower-level civic employee of the bleak New York City of the 1970s.

Speaking of roles that would never be conceived the same way in today’s Hollywood, the bad guys remain very effectively disguised throughout. Character actors Robert Shaw and Martin Balsam were never exactly superstars, but how many actors today would willingly disguise themselves for most of a movie? I can really only think of Clive Owen in Inside Man and almost anything Gary Oldman does. Unsurprisingly, no attempt is made to obscure the very expensive face of John Travolta for one frame of the 2009 remake. Note that Shaw’s unmasking is spoiled by his prominent appearance on the DVD sleeve.

Robert Shaw in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three“Excuse me, do you people still execute in this state?”

Made decades before 9/11, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is nevertheless a miniature nightmare scenario of one of the Manhattan’s myriad vulnerabilities to terrorism. In the 1970s, the familiar form of terrorism was to hold hostages for remuneration or to espouse a cause. Scott’s 2009 remake had to face 21st century audiences (many sitting in New York City movie theaters) for whom terrorism means mass murder. But Scott takes the conventional route and boils down the plot into a conflict between two men, on a personal level. Scott’s choices highlight how much the original actually bucks cliche.

In the original, we know practically nothing about the personal lives of Garber or the villainous Mr. Blue (we may guess he’s some sort of ex-mercenary or soldier of fortune, but he gives no hint of his ideology or motivations). In contrast to the ice-cool Mr. Blue, Travolta’s character is manic and unhinged, and rants in a barrage of f-bombs. Just as Sargent’s old school runaway train sequence is more thrilling than Scott’s rapid-fire editing and CGI flair, the original also outscores on pure cynicism.


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A Man Alone: Babylon A.D.

Babylon A.D. movie poster

 

Vin Diesel has made something of a specialty in dystopian science fiction movies possessed of astonishing visuals but horrifically bad scripts (I’m looking at you, Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick). Does he seek these kinds of projects out, or has he been typecast as a weary but action-ready man of the future? Mathieu Kassovitz’s Babylon A.D. is yet more sci-fi trash with an international feel, not just in the spirit of Diesel’s own oeuvre, but also very much a direct descendent of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. The presence of Michelle Yeoh promises martial arts asskicking that never really materializes, and the proceedings are given a measure of class by Gerard Depardieu and Charlotte Rampling.

Vin Diesel in Babylon A.D.The goggles… they do nothing!

The movie predicts an especially bleak future for Europe, wracked by perpetual war and terror attacks that leave the urban landscape looking like Chechnya and Bosnia. Toorop (Diesel) is a reluctant mercenary warrior, something like a masterless ronin from old samurai movies. I was prepared to like his character until he shoots a disarmed man in the face and makes a lame Die Hard-like quip. I watched the extended unrated cut on DVD, which may explain why a full 22 minutes lapses before the hero finally undertakes his task: to escort the genetically engineered girl Aurora (Mélanie Thierry) from the war-torn wastelands of “New Serbia” to New York. The persistent tone of a-man-alone cynicism is something else Babylon A.D. shares with many of Besson’s anti-heroes, especially the Transporter films: Toorop knows he’s being used, but not by whom or why.

Michelle Yeoh and Melanie Thierry in Babylon A.D.

Some of the genuinely incredible shots and sequences to watch for, none of which are reflected in the promotional stills:

  • The opening sequence is an unbroken shot zooming straight down on planet Earth, homing in on Manhattan and into Diesel’s eyeball
  • A 270-degree camera move incorporating a CGI helicopter and an ancient convent carved into a stone cliff
  • An establishing shot of an unspecified Russian city built around a giant crater, its origins unexplained (but a likely allusion to the post-WWIII Neo-Tokyo of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira)
  • The entire island of Manhattan lit up with a grossly expanded Times Square and completed Freedom Towers

The Manhattan of the Future Babylon A.D.The Freedom Towers dominate the Manhattan of the future

Movies like Babylon A.D. always fall apart at some point, and this one finally succumbs when the refugee party arrives in New York City. Aurora’s father suddenly materializes, apparently solely to provide a massive infodump of exposition. The long, complicated backstory was barely hinted at before, if at all: Aurora is the product of an incorporated religion whose CEO and High Priestess (Charlotte Rampling) hopes to manufacture a miraculous virgin birth. All of this is told, not shown, which only creates frustration and confusion, and little emotional response.


Official movie site: www.babylonadmovie.com

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Apocalypse on Wheels: Death Race

Death Race movie poster

 

Death Race evidences a cynical, shallow, indiscriminate outrage at… everything. In this future dystopia, the U.S. economy collapsed in 2012, followed by soaring unemployment, crime, and incarceration. Echoing Rollerball and Running Man, professional sport has merged with the penal system, providing both televised entertainment and a justice system in one neat, cost-saving package.

In the key incident that illustrates the extent of this fallen society, the government manufactures a riot by shutting down a manufacturing plant and laying off all its workers. The incited rioters make convenient scapegoats for society’s shortcomings, ultimately benefitting the government. One of these innocent blue-collar laborers is Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), a former crook trying to make an honest living as a family man. Like his character Frank in the Transporter films, his criminal forte was driving. Driving very fast. Unjustly imprisoned at Terminal Island Penitentiary, he’s made an offer he can’t refuse; die or be drafted into the role of Frankenstein, a masked fictitious racer in the titular Death Race. As with professional wresting villains and the Yankees, Frankenstein is a villain perfectly designed for the public to root against, and they don’t need to know that the real Frankenstein died long ago.

Jason Statham and Natalie Martinez in Death RaceThis ain’t your daddy’s prison movie

Death Race was originally conceived as a higher-budgeted vehicle for co-producer/star Tom Cruise, but was gradually downgraded to this video game pastiche helmed by Paul W.S. Anderson. It’s a dubious choice of source material, considering that the original Death Race 2000 (1975), starring David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone, is one of the lesser-known apocalyptic sci-fis of its era. Peers Soylent Green, Rollerball, Logan’s Run, and The Ωmega Man) are all better-known and most were in line to be remade earlier. Carradine makes a voice cameo as the previous bearer of the Frankenstein mantle.

Since The Dork Report is never above pointing out the crushingly obvious, Death Race the film is only a few degrees removed from the “Death Race” it depicts: both are escapist entertainments built upon brutality, sexism, and shaky moral ambivalence. The ostensibly hellish Terminal Island Penitentiary actually appears rather chaste and peaceful, making the scenario less distasteful to audiences. Rape is never a worry, and racially motivated conflict is only faintly alluded to by the presence of ethnic gangs (white supremacists are obliquely referred to as “The Brotherhood”). The drivers’ copilots are “Navigators” recruited from the neighboring women’s prison. These stunning model-quality lovelies were cherry-picked to titillate by the Warden (Joan Allen), in service of greater ratings. Speaking of, Anderson misses an opportunity to satirize televised sporting events as well as The Wachowski Brothers’ Speed Racer or even Dodgeball did.

Jason Statham and Joan Allen in Death RaceGravitas or Botox?

Death Race is mindlessly entertaining enough, until we’re asked to forgive unrepentant murderer Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson) solely because he lends a hand to our hero Jensen. The logic is confused: given an unjust prison system that exploits the guilty and innocent alike, should the guilty also be allowed to walk free? If truly guilty prisoners like Machine Gun Joe are so plentiful, why does the warden have to go to the bother of framing innocent people in the first place?

Statham supplies his usual persona of buff, terse, reluctant hero who has no time for girls (seriously, what is up with that? Transporter 2 even flirts with the notion his character Frank might be gay). Attempts are made to class up the joint with the bizarre miscasting of Joan Allen, a fine actor that here seems wooden and inexpressive (literally so — a case of too much Botox?). Worse is the criminal waste of the powerfully imposing Ian McShane. He was nothing less than awesome in Deadwood, bringing to life a crime lord more interesting than even Tony Soprano. McShane also elevated the short-lived TV series Kings, playing his part like he was in Shakespeare while everyone else was trapped in an elementary school play. But even he can’t do anything to rescue this mess.


Official movie site: www.deathracemovie.net

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Solitary Confinement: Moon

Moon movie poster

 

Moon is a rare science fiction thriller that doesn’t derive its tension solely from the spectacle of spaceships, robots, or offworld locale. Rather, it’s a psychodrama about paranoia, in the Philip K. Dick tradition of Blade Runner, Minority Report, and A Scanner Darkly (not to mention the countless movies Dick indirectly inspired, such as Dark City, 12 Monkeys, and The Matrix). Moon’s futuristic trappings hide several onion layers of deeper themes: bioethics, torture, labor exploitation, and questioning the nature of the self and one’s perception of reality.

Director Duncan Jones (aka Zowie Bowie, son of David Bowie), shot Moon on an extraordinarily economical budget of $5 million, achieved largely by restricting production to soundstages and substituting practical miniatures for costly CGI. A beneficial side-effect is a pleasing tactility lacking in most contemporary sci-fi films, where entire characters and environments are now routinely virtual. As a beat-up moon rover slowly trundles across the uneven lunar surface, kicking up dust, bumping and rattling all the way, it feels real because it is.

Duncan Jones' MoonOur circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong

As his character’s name Sam Bell implies, Jones conceived the role with Sam Rockwell in mind. Rockwell was great in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Matchstick Men, and is great here. He must hold the screen virtually alone for most of the film, and Jones was right to hype him for an Academy Award nomination.

Sam is a blue-collar miner and the sole occupant of a partially automated base dedicated to strip-mining the dark side of the moon for a compound needed back on earth for clean power. It may sound like technobabble but in fact the science is sound: Helium-3 is a real element believed to be plentiful on the moon and theoretically may someday provide a sustainable source of energy. But in the true sci-fi dystopian tradition, Sam’s employer Lunar Industries turns out to be as insidious as the Weylan-Utani corporation that exploits the Nostromo mining platform crew in Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Lunar Industries boasts of profitably saving the Earth’s environment by providing clean power on the cheap, made possible by engaging in practices that are arguably immoral but commonly accepted. The exploitation of cloned life is a direct parallel to today’s outsourcing of labor to developing countries with more lax human rights. If one wonders how a future society might be so inured to cloning that they would condone Sam’s servitude, media broadcasts overheard at the end of the film spill the beans: no, they don’t (that is, if we’re optimistic and assume what he hear is real – it’s possible they’re the fantasy of a dying man imagining his moral victory). But perhaps it’s like how many in the western world live now; we enjoy affordable consumer electronics and clothing manufactured by workers that literally live inside their factories, and don’t ask why our purchases don’t cost more. Jones told Suicide Girls that Moon is the first part in a projected trilogy, so perhaps we will see prequels or sequels that flesh out a world where human cloning is a fact of life.

Kevin Spacey in Duncan Jones' MoonGERTY ROTFLMAO

Sam’s madness and physical deterioration is partially explained within the science fiction context as a result of the inherent instability of cloned life. Apparently, like early experiments with animals like Dolly the sheep in 1996, clones are more prone to disease, organ failure, and premature death (Dolly survived about half the normal lifespan for a sheep). Like the “replicants” in Blade Runner, these clones come with built-in expiration dates. But then, don’t we all? While Blade Runner’s Dekker comes to terms with his true nature through escape, Sam instead chooses to confront.

Discovering he is merely a commercial product with inbuilt obsolescence is just one of Sam’s problems. His quarters and workspace look like they might have once been as clean and white as 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Discovery One vessel (or the inside of an Apple Store), but have long since become stained and soiled with the filth and grit of the many Sams that came before him. Also like the Discovery One astronauts, Sam periodically receives prerecorded video messages beamed from earth. These asynchronous conversations are not unlike email, and a poor substitute for real human interaction.

You don’t have to look far for a metaphor: the common practice of solitary confinement is increasingly recognized as a form of torture. The harrowing New Yorker article “Hellhole” by Atul Gawande recounts how a psychologically stable person can go mad in a matter of weeks or even days without human contact. We first meet Sam three years into his tour of duty.

Sam Rockwell in Duncan Jones' MoonI am obligated to make a lame “Sam I Am” joke somewhere in this review, so here it is

Sam’s interactions with the base’s computer GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) are likewise reduced to the rudiments of online communication; its “face” is comprised of happy/sad/neutral emoticons. GERTY is a rarity in science fiction: a compassionate example of artificial intelligence. Countless movies (including 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, Wargames, The Terminator, I Robot, et al.) have trained us to expect artificial intelligences to be inherently evil or, at least, dangerously unstable. But GERTY is more like David (Haley Joel Osment) in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet, or Wall-E: an artificial creation that rigidly follows its programming, but whose parameters allow it to exhibit genuine compassion and caring for its charge.

I loved the movie overall, but was disappointed by the lack of ambiguity in its storytelling. The trailer reveals more than I would have liked to know if I had watched the movie cold, and the movie itself reveals its secrets very early by quickly dropping the word “clone.” Would it have been more interesting had there been hints of a possibility that Sam might be delusional, hallucinating a clone, and was in fact alone the whole time? Maybe I’ve been conditioned by too many Twilight Zone episodes, Fight Club, and M. Night Shyamalan movies, but I expected a twist ending that never came.

I’ve touched on several of Moon’s more obvious inspirations, but I’m also reminded of Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris remake, in which a clone-like creature murders his original. Cloning is just beginning to enter the zeitgeist, having recently figured into the braindead actioner The Island but also the more contemplative Never Let Me Go, based on the highly regarded novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. Clones may very well prove to be the next zombies or vampires.


Official movie site: www.moon-movie.com

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The Best of Inception Online

To follow up on my recent review of Inception, here’s a collection of the best online coverage I’ve seen elsewhere:

Devin Faraci’s Never Wake Up: The Meaning and Secret of Inception is the best thing you will read about Inception, an opinion shared by The Awl. “Inception is about making movies, and cinema is the shared dream that truly interests the director.”

“You have three minutes to make a PowerPoint presentation that will take me three hours to click through.” Christopher Nolan’s Implementation, from The New Yorker, by Gideon Lewis-Kraus. Via Kottke.org.

The Cobol Job, the official prequel, in comic book form.

Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio’s pal and fellow ecowarrior, gave Inception a rare endorsement on his blog.

An appropriately Escher-esque infographic by Last Exit To Nowhere.

Cinema Blend provides a very handy F.A.Q.

Prepare to have your mind blown all over again by this key musical cue clue discovered by YouTube user camiam321, drawing on hints dropped by composer Hans Zimmer in the L.A. Times:

Christopher Nolan’s Fugue State: Inception

Inception movie poster

 

In his 1999 essay Celluloid Vs. Digital, Roger Ebert cites studies equating the experience of watching a movie to entering a fugue state: “film creates reverie, video creates hypnosis.” In other words, experiencing a film in the traditional manner, projected at 24 frames per second in a darkened theater, affects the brain in a way akin to dreaming. Inception is far from the first movie set in dreams, but it may be alone in attempting to encode the experience into the architecture of a film itself. Whether you compare it to onion skins or a puzzlebox, the form follows the content.

The bar has been set very low by the likes of Avatar, but Inception is finally proof that movies with budgets in the hundreds of millions need not be moronic and disposable. Yes, Inception is a sci-fi action movie full of well-tailored outlaws, guns, fight sequences, and exploding mountain fortresses, but it’s also an intelligent, complex experience for adults. If it took a weak remake and two movies about a vigilante in a rubber bat costume for Nolan to get here, then so be it.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Inception“It’s not, strictly speaking, legal.”

Inception is the natural progression from Following, Memento, and The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s quartet of wholly original visions. Insomnia, a safe remake of the far more incendiary Norwegian original, now seems like a detour, a paying of dues to enter the mainstream. His pair of Batman franchise entries injected a modicum of psychological realism into the pulp source material, but the grimly ponderous weight of it all was perhaps more than it could bear. For my money, nobody other than Tim Burton has managed to find the right mixture of camp and solemnity that makes up Batman.

While Inception may have some surface resemblance to numerous heist, caper, long con, action, and science fiction films, it is nevertheless a very welcome New Thing. Its deepest thematic links are probably to cerebral sci-fi meditations Solaris and Until the End of the World. The nightmare planet in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris haunted visitors with imperfect reincarnations of their most emotionally significant others. When a grieving astronaut is reunited with his ersatz wife, long dead of suicide, is it a blessing or a curse?

Inception“A single idea from the human mind can build cities. An idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules.”

Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World posits a future in which dream-reading technology would be enormously addictive, psychologically damaging, and permanently alter society. If a technology is ever invented for a group of people to not only enter an individual’s dreams but also to construct the dreamworld itself, how plausible it is that society would not be radically transformed? In Inception, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a master at corporate espionage. His expertise is with a process normally utilized for the “extraction” of trade secrets, but inverted to inception: to implant an idea, a task which proves to hold massive significance to Cobb. Like a drug, we’re told, these machines gradually seep away users’ ability to dream on his or her own. We glimpse a sort of opium den in which burned-out dream junkies go to re-experience the normality of not only dreaming, but more importantly, waking up from dreams. Wenders’ The End of Violence would similarly look at another dystopian future in which global surveillance is taken to its logical extreme.

Inception’s action sequences beg comparison to everything from James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Mission: Impossible. Its creative fight sequences, taking place in virtual arenas in which the laws of time and gravity are fluid, recall The Matrix. But the true narrative and structural template is much more along the lines of long-con tale much loved by David Mamet (particularly Homicide and Redbelt) and heist films Rififi, Thief, and Heat, in which a crack team of criminal experts work with a psychologically damaged leader on a high-stakes One Last Job.

The bloodless massacre of hordes of armed thugs seems designed to resemble video games. The obliquely portrayed violence is partly explained by a PG-13 rating that hypocritically permits dozens of onscreen shootings, but disallows blood, and thus any sense of the repercussions and ramifications of violence. But in the world of the film, the thugs are explained to be manifestations of the subconscious. A slight-of-hand morality magic trick that makes it OK for our heroes to mow them down with machine guns and grenades (again, this flashes back to The Matrix, in which the good guys rationalize away their mass killing of virtual avatars).

Marion Cotillard in Inception“You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.”

Inception had already developed a reputation as a mind-bender even before release, but I found it to be surprisingly straightforward if you pay a little bit of attention. If you choose to take the film at face value, pretty much everything you need to know is spelled out for you, often in frankly literal exposition (usually in exchanges with Ellen Page’s inquisitive character). The key ambiguity is a simple but profound question raised in its final moments. Interpreted one way, the film neatly wraps itself up in an airtight box (which is extraordinary in and of itself, when most big-budget movies often fail to make logical sense). Interpreted another way, it calls into question everything you’ve seen.

This moment hinges on Cobb’s totem, a personal item that each dream-traveller must rely upon to detect whether or not they are awake. Both Cobb and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) warn Ariadne (Ellen Page) to never allow anyone else to touch hers. But Cobb also freely admits that his totem first belonged to his wife Mol (Marion Cotillard). Complicating matters, unless I missed something, we never see her with it outside of the dream world. The top had symbolic meaning to Mol, for she locked it up in a metaphorical safe in her dreams. Cobb then uses it to plant the notion in her head that the dream world is not real, in order to encourage her to break her addiction and wake up with him. If the top was real, would she not be able to test herself with it when she woke up?

One further clue that suggests much of what we saw may be Cobb’s dream: if he and Mol lived the equivalent of 50 years in Limbo, several levels deep into their subconscious, why do they seem to only wake up through one level of dreaming? Is Cobb still trapped a few levels down?

Ellen Page in Inception“Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.”

And one wonders about the implausible dream technology itself. It’s offhandedly said to have been developed by the military for training purposes, but very little time is spent on the mechanics of the technology. Some sort of IV is involved in the process of linking people together, but how exactly does an Architect create and realize the world? We see Ariadne fiddle with papier-mache models, and verbally describe the world to the participants, but we’re also told that the architect need not necessarily enter the dream personally, so it’s not her mental map that makes things possible. If the agents are able to conjure things on the fly (Eames produces a grenade launcher out of thin air, and Ariadne folds a city in half), why do they not take more advantage of their effectively unlimited abilities during the heist? Cobb makes a big deal out of a prospective architect being able to devise labyrinths, something like a video game level designer. But Ariadne’s work is literally short-circuited and we never see a dramatic payoff to the theme of mazes.

Ray Bradbury once said that he was not concerned with the mechanics of interstellar travel; if a story he wished to tell required a rocket ship to ferry characters to another world, that was good enough for him. So is it pedestrian of me to wonder about these practicalities, or do these questions actually matter a great deal? Is the lack of specificity about how this miraculous technology actually works a clue? I believe it is linked to the troubling ambiguity of Cobb’s desire to “go home.” Does he simply want to clear his name so he can re-enter his home country, or does he want to plunge deeper into his fantasy? Is he actually guilty of a crime like Roman Polanski, or merely obsessed with indirect culpability like Kelvin in Solaris or Teddy in Shutter Island? Either way, he may have the opportunity to construct a false reality in which he can absolve himself.

I believe Inception is one for the ages, and not just because it has been endorsed by Al Gore. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, it’s the rare science fiction film likely to remain well-regarded for years.

Random Observations:

  • How many heist movies have you seen in which the master thief attempts the mythical One Last Job before retiring?
  • Despite Leonardo DiCaprio sporting Nolan’s own haircut, Inception might suffer in comparison to his somewhat similar character in his most recent film, Shutter Island. Two thrillers in a row about a man wracked with guilt over his dead spouse.
  • Wikipedia puts the budget at $160 million, plus a $100 million publicity campaign. As usual, these numbers make my head spin. But at least this time the result is a strong movie.
  • Like Paul Thomas Anderson, Nolan has developed his own personal actors’ troupe. Inception features return appearances by Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy.

Official movie site: www.inceptionmovie.com

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