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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Recount

Recount

 

The 2008 HBO television movie Recount dramatizes the traumatic few weeks at the close of the 2000 Presidential election. That hectic time brings back three distinct feelings for this Dork Reporter: bewilderment at the founding fathers’ purpose for the Electoral College (as everyone no doubt remembers, it was never in doubt that Al Gore won the popular vote), nausea at the Supreme Court and Bush Campaign’s abrupt circumvention of our democracy, and finally, the sudden omnipresence of my name: Chad (defined as “a piece of waste material created by punching cards or tape”). I’ve heard all the jokes, but Recount was able to teach me one new factoid: the “plural of chad is chad.”

Although a thriller involving presidential politics, its tone is nothing like that of All the President’s Men; no least, everything takes place in sunlight and no one smokes. Director Jay Roach (yes, him, of the Austin Powers movies) carries things along at a breakneck pace. This is how it probably felt to those on the inside of the Florida hurricane (involving even little a little boy from Cuba you might recall was named Elian Gonzales). But for a viewer, it feels like a 2-hour barrage of facts, figures, and dramatic recreations of key events. Perhaps unavoidably, much of the story is told through reams of history and exposition placed into the characters’ mouths.

RecountLaura Dern as Katherine Harris during her 15 minutes of fame

Like Oliver Stone’s W. (read The Dork Report review), this dramatization of real events provides ample opportunity for famous actors to exercise their skills as impersonators. Most notably, Laura Dern embodies Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris in all her tacky glory. Harris is unflatteringly depicted as caught in over her head by circumstances. She is vain about her appearance, yet blind to how she is perceived. Baker orders the Republican lobbyist Mac Stipanovich (Bruce McGill) to attach himself to her, to circumvent laws that prohibit the administration from interfering in Florida state matters. It’s an easy task; using flattery, he implies Harris is in control while he’s actually feeding her directives directly from the Bush campaign.

The early part of the film concerns the fundamental difference of approach between Warren (“Chris”) Christopher (John Hurt) and James Baker (Tom Wilkinson) – both actors affecting convincing American accents. Christopher is a gentleman of the old school, obedient to propriety. Baker, on the other hand, is a ruthless shark willing to play dirty. Christopher is forced to leave the effort due to family matters, and the weight of responsibility falls upon protagonist Ron Klain (Kevin Spacey), General Counsel for the Gore Campaign.

If true, here’s something I didn’t know: one of the final nails in the coffin of the recount came from no less than Joe Lieberman. In the version of events presented by the film, Lieberman directly interfered in the matter of questionable absentee ballots filed by military service members. The Gore campaign argued that according to the Bush team’s own standards, any improperly submitted ballots shouldn’t be valid. Lieberman initially agreed with the tactic, then wimped out on national television and spoke out against his own campaign, making it seem as if his own people were the ones stooping to underhanded tactics to win.

RecountKevin Spacey and Denis Leary as Ron Klain and Michael Whouley

As a staunch Democrat still simmering over what happened eight years ago, Recount reads to me as very pro-Gore. But I’m curious as to what Bush supporters think of the film. Does it look fair to them? I suppose they might look at Bush Campaign National Counsel Ben Ginsberg (Bob Balaban) and Baker and see two men doing everything they can to support the candidate they believe legally won the election. But when Ginsberg is quoted sneering at Democrats being willing to cheat and steal elections, I wanted to find the real man and spit on his shoe.

Watching this film brings back all my disgust at the real villain, of course, The Supreme Court. The movie illustrates the heartbreaking catch-22: The Supreme Court paused the recount, causing most Florida counties to miss the deadline, and then saying the recount could not continue because the deadline had passed. And then to rub it in, The Court stated that this particular ruling applied to the current situation only, and could not be applied to any future scenario. As Gore Campaign strategist Michael Whouley (Denis Leary) points out for the audience, this is something The Court had never done before in history. I recall from the time that one theory was that the Court perhaps fancied were saving the nation from a brutal blow to its foundations, in the same way that Ford did by pardoning Nixon in 1974. Regardless, the whole situation still smells eight years later.

The great tragedy is that the more the Gore campaign dug into the system, the more dirt they found. For instance, they uncover irrefutable evidence that thousands of legitimate African American voters were disenfranchised in Florida, but were powerless to do anything about it except weakly hope that it wouldn’t happen again next time. Now, in 2008, when racism matters more than ever, let’s certainly hope it doesn’t.


Official movie site: www.hbo.com/films/recount

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Glengarry Glen Ross

Glengarry Glen Ross movie poster

 

For better or for worse, Glengarry Glen Ross is very pointedly set in a world of men. I believe only one woman so much as appears in the background of one scene. It’s no accident, oversight, or deliberate act of Hollywood misogyny to banish women from this 24-hour slice of the lives of five bottom-rung salesmen.

Glengarry Glen Ross is full of grand, showboating performances from a dream cast of male master actors Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, and Jonathan Pryce. Baldwin very nearly steals the entire movie with a hilariously aggressive motivational monologue: “What’s my name? ‘Fuck you,’ that’s my name.” It’s all the more extraordinary that Pryce, sometimes guilty of outrageously affected accents and scenery-consumption, masterfully underplays his part as a shy, passive man who can barely speak, let alone assert himself against predator Ricky Roma (Pacino).

Kevin Spacey and Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen RossAll together now: “What’s my name? …”

The screenplay by David Mamet, expanded from his own stage play, set a high standard for gloriously poetic profanity not to be surpassed until David Milch’s series Deadwood. Famous for his naturalistic dialog (every “um,” “uh,” and stutter is right there on the page; there is no improvisation), Mamet is also a meticulous craftsman of mystery and suspense. But there is one plot detail that trips me up on each viewing: the morning after the sales office is robbed, Shelley Levene (Lemmon) brags about having pulled off an impressive sale of eight units of sketchy property. Roma’s ears prick up at his mention of the signing having been just that morning, obviously sensing something fishy about Levene’s claim. But the time of closure is not inconsistent with Levene’s story, nor is there any reason to suspect that Levene, whatever else he may be guilty of, falsified this particular sale in any way. Roma may simply be surprised that the lately taciturn and ineffectual salesman Levene could not have pulled off such a feat at such an unlikely time unless his spirits were buoyed somehow. Still, Roma demonstrates perhaps the film’s only act of kindness by being the only one to give the old master one last chance to swap victorious war stories.

Kevin Spacey and Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen RossShelley “The Machine” Levene wants to make a deal

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Superman Returns

Superman Returns movie poster

 

It’s probably my own fault for buying into the hype, but Superman Returns left me cold. There’s not a lot of drama implicit in the story of an omnipotent alien from another planet, and I just can’t buy the “god walks among us” metaphors. Spider-Man is a real, troubled human being burdened with great responsibility; Batman is a human being wracked with guilt and obsessed with revenge; Daredevil is a literally broken man overcompensating for far more than just his disability. With Superman, it’s just plain hard to relate to an alien, even if he suffers such petty human problems as unrequited love.

An obvious point of conflict is conspicuously absent: instead of any jealousy or anger from Richard White (James “Cyclops” Marsden), he simply acquieses to his romantic rival. It’s more like Superman to be above & beyond mere mortal jealousy; what makes White so noble? Perhaps he’s intimidated by Superman’s sheer potency. Just as the character is defined by nepotism (he’s the Daily Planet’s editor-in-chief’s son), Marsden is Bryan Singer’s X-Man star who was conspicuously erased very early in Brett Ratner’s X3. Hmm…

Another disappointment: whereas Spider-Man 2 exuded a strong sense of New York, Superman Return’s fictional Metropolis is a blank, generic city without character. It’s a timeless locale – the present, yet nostalgic – where when a superhero returns from across the galaxy to save them, the citizens all run out and buy newspapers.

As for the cast, Parker Posey wins for best screen presence. While Kevin Spacey gurns, hams, and scenery-chomps, she scores laughs with mere looks on her face. There was a lot of concern over the casting of a relatively inexperienced former soap star for the lead, but I thought Brandon Routh was just fine. Kate Bosworth (made up to look like Rachel McAdams), however, is was too young to be plausible as a star journalist with a five-year-old kid, and to be at all appealing to (yes I have to say it again) an omnipotent alien from another planet. Points detracted for dull, overhyped outtakes of Marlon Brando’s mumbled improv bullshit, and shafting screen legend Eva Marie Saint with about 5 minutes of screen time.