Friday, July 31, 2009

It's time to play the music, it's time to light the lights...

If you were to make a list of entertainers who have had the biggest impact on people's lives, you would quickly hear the names of Walt Disney and Steven Spielberg mentioned.

I don't doubt for a moment that both of those men should be mentioned. I grew up on Disney films and countless children around the world have been entertained and enraptured not only by Disney cartoons but by Disneyland and Walt Disney World. And no film director was more important in my burgeoning love for movies than Spielberg--"E.T." was the first movie I saw, I returned to the theater six times as a teen to watch "Jurassic Park" and "Saving Private Ryan" was the first time I felt a movie devastate me.

But no popular entertainer has had more of an impact on our culture, imagination and education than Jim Henson.

Henson's creations are often the first fictional characters children recognize and love. "Sesame Street" itself was enough to secure Henson's place in history; teachers around the world should credit Henson for creating a love for learning in children, a belief that knowledge can actually be fun.

And I'm heartened to see that "Sesame Street" is still as popular as ever--in an age where our entertainment is dumbed down, fast-paced and driven to meet the needs of attention-deficient kids, I'm glad that kids still know who Big Bird, Bert and Ernie and Oscar the Grouch are.

What I'm more worried about is how many kids will actually grow up knowing who Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy and Gonzo REALLY are.

Let's get this right: The Muppets are one of greatest creations ever. When "The Muppet Show" debuted in the 1970s, it was not known as a kids' show--its unique brand of vaudeville, anarchy and puppetry made it a delight for adults AND kids to watch. It wasn't the double entendre-driven humor we see in Dreamworks films today, where there is slapstick for the kids and light raunch for the adults. Rather, The Muppets were more of the Pixar version--humor that was universal, character based and with a respect for the entertainment history that had gone was Pixar mixed with Looney Tunes, only done by puppets.

More than that, the Muppets were successful because they were characters. Yes, we knew they were puppets...but as often as they broke the fourth wall, Henson and his crew never stopped to make a puppet joke. They treated the Muppets as characters themselves--they weren't puppets who could fill any role...when they were in a movie or TV show, the characters were Kermit the Frog as Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy as Miss Piggy and so on. They were never referred to, even by the human co-stars, as puppets. They were frogs, bears, chickens and whatevers.

I stress that because, although the Muppets continue to be popular today, it's not the same. When Henson died and the Muppets were taken over by Disney, something changed. The anarchy that Henson described as "an explosion in a mattress factory" was watered down and the Muppets were treated no different than Sesame Street characters...kid stuff. Rather than be their own characters, they were used to play literary characters, the joke not being rooted in their personalities or unique characteristics but as "hey look! A puppet's playing a pirate!" Even when they played themselves, it felt safe...the edge is gone so that the Muppets can be generic, kid-safe and cute. (The exception I will give is "A Muppet Christmas Carol," which was a Disney production and is probably my favorite adaptation of Dickens' classic).

I don't ask that my Muppets be R-rated or even PG-13 rated when I mention edge; the idea of a "dirty Muppet movie" is off-putting. What I mean is that they've traded the (purposefully) cheesy vaudeville jokes for pop culture references and the very real relationships between the characters and made them jokes (yes, it's funny to see Miss Piggy pursue Kermit and watch him be's not funny if that's the only joke and Kermit is not really interested). It's all so safe, square and unimaginative these days...I'm hoping that Jason Segel can breathe some life back into them with his "Greatest Muppet Movie Ever"--his Dracula puppet musical in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" makes me think his interest in the gig is genuine and not a money-ploy.

At its heart, the Muppets were not about pop culture gags or being cute for kids. Henson was an entertainer. He wanted to make people happy and he did so in a way that was always childlike, never childish.

So, in honor of the 30th Anniversary of "The Muppet Movie" I decided to take a look back at the original "Muppet Trilogy," the 3 Muppet Movies made in the 1980s before Henson's death and before Disney took them over (I should note, though, that if you go to the Disney Studios in Orlando, do check out "Muppet Vision 4D," which Henson helped gets the anarchy of the "Muppet Show" right on, right down to blowing up the theater at the end).

The Muppet Movie: I had an interesting reaction to watching this movie again after not having seen it in more than 20 years--I think that, as an adult, I appreciate and love this movie far more than I ever could have as a kid. I personally believe that "The Muppet Movie" is not only the greatest family movie ever made, it's a bona fide great movie. There is pure magic on display here that even the other films, as good as they can be at times, never quite recapture.

We all know the plot--this is "approximately how" the Muppets met each other and became famous. Kermit is discovered playing his banjo in a swamp and decides to head out to Hollywood so he can make millions of people happy. Along the way he picks up a stand-up comic bear, a chicken-loving...thing and falls in love with a beautiful pig, all the while evading a nefarious frog-leg magnate before Orson Welles orders the "standard rich and famous contract" for the gang.

The key to why, after 30 years, "The Muppet Movie" is still a masterpiece is found in the first 5 minutes of the movie. Yes, everyone remembers the sincerity of Kermit sitting on a log in the swamp singing "The Rainbow Connection." And yes, the scene still gives goosebumps...both as we watch Kermit in an actual swamp and wonder "how did they do that" and as the song's beautiful lyrics hit our hearts. But what most people forget is the chaos of the film's opening sequence, as every Muppet character takes their seat in a theater to watch the movie itself at a private screening ("Private Screening, Waldorf?" "Yes Statler, they're too afraid to show it in public!").

This is the hallmark of why the movie works--there's a balance of sincerity and silliness that is perfectly balanced. On the one hand, I believe this film is as personal as anything Henson ever did. He was always very candid that Kermit was, in several ways, his alter ego. Kermit's dream of making millions of people happy was very likely Henson marveling at his own luck of getting to do that very thing. And the film is not afraid to it the breaks and give us some moments of true beauty and poignancy. Gonzo's solo in the desert "I'm Going Back There Someday" is almost transcendent and the movie's "Magic Store" finale is one of the great show-stoppers in film history, especially when they break the fourth wall and EVERY MUPPET EVER CREATED joins in singing "The Rainbow Connection."

And all of this is balanced by Henson's puppetry. In an age of CGI, I think we take it for granted that anything is possible. But there's still an amazing magic in looking back at this movie, done 30 years ago with puppets, and having to ask "how did they do that?" Yes, I understand that when Kermit was in the swamp Henson was in a waterproof box under the log. But how did they get Kermit to ride a bike? Look closely at the scenes with Kermit and Fozzie driving along the road...that's very obviously not green screen. The car is moving. And in the front seat are two puppets. How is that done? Part of me really never wants to know, even though I'm sure that there are explanations all over the Internet.

And, as I stated earlier, each Muppet is treated as an individual character, although Kermit is, of course, the hero. Fozzie's loyalty to his friends is a theme throughout the series and Gonzo's love of madness and danger is something that started on "The Muppet Show" but is the source of laughs through each of these films. Watch how Kermit, Fozzie and Gonzo interact--they're like real guys and watch the reaction Fozzie has when Miss Piggy ditches Kermit and then reappears later...who would have thought to give puppets such human, funny and understandable reactions?

Even the romance between Kermit and Miss Piggy is something that comes off as very sweet and genuine. Their date--waited on, in the film's greatest cameo, by Steve Martin--is actually a quiet interlude that comes off as surprisingly romantic. When Miss Piggy leaves, we don't blame Kermit for heading to the bar to tell his sorrows to bartender Rowlf (leading to another great song, "I Hope that Something Better Comes Along). Even some of the cameos are more than just pop culture gags...they're homages to the humor that informed the series. Yes, Steve Martin as a sarcastic waiter is funny. But Fozzie and Bob Hope sharing a scene (complete with Fozzie's great reaction to Hope's joke)? That's the kind of joke that goes even deeper.

But to say that "The Muppet Movie" is some kind of epic, romantic spectacle is short-changing the wonderful comedy at play. Yes, the jokes are random and cheesy ("Myth? Myth?" and the Hari Krishna jokes might be lost on today's younger audiences)...but they're supposed to be. Henson was a huge fan of vaudeville and it's that Catskills humor that he pokes in the rib, knowing how lame the jokes are and turning the film's biggest joke into how they get away with still making us laugh.

We also give "The Simpsons" and a lot of modern humor too much credit for breaking the Fourth Wall and winking at the audience, forgetting that in 1979 Kermit not only was talking to the audience, but showing other character's the movies screenplay, both catching Dr. Teeth and Co. up to speed and providing a very clever and funny solution in the third act. The film's most clever joke also is a great nudge to the audience as Fozzie and Kermit encounter a certain Big Yellow Bird walking down the road to get to New York "to try and break into Public Television." It was funny then; it's still funny today.

And of course, there's just the pure Muppet craziness that seems to pop up here and there. Animal turning into a giant, a fun rock number in an old church ("they don't look like Presbyterians to me") and a funny little error when the film breaks, giving a great cameo by my favorite Muppet, The Swedish Chef ("the flim is in the flam").

Not all of it has aged well--the scenes with Doc Hopper drag a bit, mainly because there are no muppets around. The Mel Brooks cameo is a bit grating. And, to be honest, there's something vaguely unsettling about a plot that involves a frog assassin with a spear gun trying to kill Kermit.

But all in all, there's wonderful magic at work here. "The Muppet Movie" was not a children's movie but a childlike movie, full of sincerity, silliness and fun. It's easily one of my favorite movies of all time.

The Great Muppet Caper: There's really no sincerity to be found in "The Great Muppet Caper," Henson's first directorial outing. The movie breaks the fourth wall in the opening credits and, from that point on, it's basically just a madcap comedy.

And it works. "The Great Muppet Caper" may lack the heart that makes "The Muppet Movie" such a classic, but it makes up for that with sheer cleverness, eschewing vaudeville for something smarter (they even take a dig at the previous film's cheesy humor with the great reaction to "Catch them red-handed." "What color were their hands before?" "I don't think this is the time for that kind of humor.")

The plot finds Kermit, Fozzie and Gonzo in London as investigative reporters, trying to crack the case of Lady Holiday's missing diamonds. Along the way, they of course meet Miss Piggy--who is trying to break into modeling--a cast of eccentrics at the dilapidated Happiness Hotel and Charles Grodin, whose infatuation with Miss Piggy is, for some reason, hilarious to watch.

As I said, the film is one long wink at the audience. After the hot air balloon opening, where Kermit, Fozzie and Gonzo can actually SEE the opening credits, they launch into one of the great Muppet musical numbers, "Hey a Movie," in which they basically tell you that nothing you see is to be taken seriously.

This film is still just flat-out funny, with one of the greatest running gags in Muppet history being that Kermit and Fozzie are identical twins ("No, it's not a bear, it's a frog. Bears wear hats."). . . it also permits a hilarious sight gag when we see a picture of their father. And the Muppets are permitted to go a bit crazier this time, especially Gonzo with his camera, tormenting a poor newspaper editor.

There's just a lot to like here. I love the "Happiness Hotel" number, particularly Sam the Eagle's great line at the end ("you are all weirdos"). There's a fantasatic "how did they do that" bike scene that tops "The Muppet Movie," followed by a dance number in which Miss Piggy swims...again, how is that done? Kermit and Miss Piggy's courtship in this film is a bit less romantic and more screwball than before, which is really when the two characters hit their stride. And, most famously, there's the great speech Fozzie gives to the other Muppets, which leads to a great gag by Janice.

Again, not all of this has aged well. Many of the British cameos floated right past me, although I thought that the John Cleese one was clever. The Oscar the Grouch cameo is not as well timed or as clever as the Big Bird one from "The Muppet Movie" and the finale lacks the magic and "oomph" that the first and third "Muppet" films had. But when this movie is on, it's on and possibly the most entertaining and consistently funny of the Muppet films.

The Muppets Take Manhattan: When I was a kid, this was my favorite of the Muppet films. And while it's still very enjoyable and the music is wonderful, I don't think it ever hits the heights of the first two films.

The plot of this is pretty standard, "let's put on a show" stuff: Kermit and the gang graduate from college and decide to take their senior show to Broadway. They find that the Big Apple is not too friendly and decide to split up until the show can be put together. Kermit gets amnesia and then the film ends with the big show, complete with a long-awaited wedding.

I think the film tries to recapture "The Muppet Movie" tone of silliness and sincerity, but just can't quite do it. The plot meanders and spends too much time with the gang apart--the Muppets are always funnier when they're together. Kermit's "Boffo Socko" producer gags come off as a bit dated and, perhaps worst, the human characters in this just aren't interesting, although some of the cameos are very clever (Joan Rivers and Miss Piggy together? That's right up there with Fozzie and Bob Hope).

That's not to say it's not a fun film, just that it doesn't have the vision or magic of the first two; it feels a bit more familiar, which I guess happens after three films. But there's still a lot to enjoy hear. I loved the vignettes of the Muppets on their own, particularly Rowlf's experience at the Kennel or Scooter in the movie theater (featuring my favorite Swedish Chef gag in the films, "oh, the popping corn, in the 3D, popcorn coming right at you"). Miss Piggy's jealousy as she trails Kermit is very funny, particularly when she takes down a mugger. Any addition of Rizzo the Rat is a good sign in my book and, of course, there's the famous introduction of the Muppet Babies, which could have been too sugary and cute but really is clever and fun.

And the film boasts one of the great Muppet finales, the wedding of Miss Piggy and Kermit (although I'm sure Muppet fans debate about whether it was genuine)--I'm not too emotional about the marriage of two felt characters, but the wedding itself is one heck of a scene with every popular Muppet character squeezed into the chapel and one of my favorite song lines in a Muppet movie ("Because you share a love so big, I now pronounce you frog and pig").

Like I said, the Muppet movies afterward have their moments, particularly "Muppet Christmas Carol," although you'd be better to stay away from "The Muppet Wizard of Oz." But it's these first three films that really capture the true insantity and magic of the Muppets and, ultimately, Jim Henson.

Movie Review: "The Hurt Locker"

This review originally ran in the 8/2 edition of The Source.

The best action film of the summer features soldiers, robots and big explosions.

Thankfully, nary a Terminator or Transformer is in sight.

“The Hurt Locker,” the latest adrenaline rush from director Kathryn Bigelow (“Point Break”) is a taut, almost unbearably suspenseful thriller about a U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit stationed in Iraq. It’s an intelligent, unrelenting and realistic piece of action filmmaking that ranks as the best film to date about the current conflict and, quite possibly, the best war film since “Saving Private Ryan.”

Bravo Company is nearing its last month in combat when Staff Sergeant William James (James Renner) joins up as the team leader and bomb technician, a replacement for Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce), who was killed in action in the film’s riveting opening sequence. The unit’s job is to head out to locations where roadside bombs have been found; James has the harrowing task of donning the disposal suit, which looks like an oversized scuba outfit, and disarm the weapon before it blows.

James’ unit members, Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), are taken aback by their new team leader’s cavalier approach. James has no concern about waltzing up to a bomb and sticking around longer than necessary to disarm it; he seems to be seeing how close he can get to death and still escape unscathed. He won’t even send a robot out to inspect the site first. This does not sit well with his teammates, who must patrol the area to keep an eye out for insurgents who could open fire or detonate the weapon at any time.

Bigelow has gained a reputation throughout the years for being the rare female filmmaker who has no qualms about jumping into territory that is normally the domain of adrenaline junkies like John McTiernan or Michael Bay. Here she bests them both, bringing a sense of geography, tension and realism that is reminiscent of Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Ultimatum”). It’s easily the best work of her career.

Countless films have scenes where the heroes disarm a bomb. Most of them focus only on the task of “red wire vs. blue wire.” Bigelow, working from journalistic accounts of life within an EOD unit, pans back to show us the big picture. While James is disarming a bomb, Sanborn and Eldridge are keeping an eye on the surrounding buildings. Is the crowd gathered around to watch or is there an insurgent waiting to hit a detonator? When a car pulls up, is it a suicide bomber that needs to be dealt with or a civilian who got a little too close? When a man says he was forced to become a human bomb is he really crying for help, or is he just drawing the unit into a trap?

Hitchcock famously illustrated the difference between action and suspense as follows: a bomb is under a table and goes off, that’s action. But if the audience knows a bomb is under the table and two people are sitting at it, unaware, and we are waiting to see if the bomb will go off, that’s suspense. “The Hurt Locker” has scenes of intense action, including a nail-biting shootout in the middle of the desert. But Bigelow’s concern is not to cater to an audience need for big explosions and special effects; by showing us the effect a bomb blast has in the first scene and creating characters that are realistic and likable, Bigelow gains empathy from the audience and a desire not to see these characters hurt. Every scene, then, is filled with a growing sense of restlessness and dread as we realize that even the most peaceful moments can erupt into deadly violence.

The film is a very literal interpretation of Hitchcock’s definition.

Bigelow also deserves credit for refusing to politicize the film. She doesn’t go the “Valley of Elah” route by showing us the tragedy war causes in the lives of soldiers, but neither does she go the jingoistic route of being a gung-ho, kill the bad guys war movie. In painting her soldiers as average men doing an extraordinarily dangerous job, she pays the men and women of the Army the ultimate compliment. Renner, Mackie and Geraghty give natural performances, creating real characters instead of action heroes. When A-list stars like Pearce or Ralph Fiennes show up, their roles are unheralded and serve as a reminder that no one is safe in war, adding to the film’s dynamic tension.

In the end, however, the film is elevated by the psychological portrait it creates of James. In the age of a volunteer Army, what makes a man willingly go to war? The answer is given right at the beginning in a quote by Christopher Hedges that states “war is a drug.” While Sanborn and Eldridge both wrestle with fear in the face of death and only want to get home, James’ biggest nightmare is going grocery shopping or returning to the monotony of everyday life. Renner gives a masterful debut performance, getting into the mind of a man who is addicted to the adrenaline rush of combat, the thrill of being a “wild man” and showing us both the benefits and the risks such a mentality carries.

The film detours slightly in its late second act, digressing briefly into a mystery surrounding a young boy on the base. The plot thread is largely unnecessary except to show that even James is susceptible to the emotional and mental turmoil of combat; Bigelow could have excised it and still had a complete film, although its inclusion takes nothing away. A subplot involving Eldridge and a base psychiatrist is an interesting parallel to James’ cavalier attitude, but never feels like it reaches a complete arc, although there is a reason why it ends abruptly.

Still, these are minor concerns with an otherwise masterful movie. I find it interesting that “The Hurt Locker” is being released to art theaters before expanding wider. It’s a fantastic bit of storytelling and anyone who enjoys a good war movie or action flick will find a lot to love here.

But then again, when compared to the “Transformers” and “Terminators” of the world, this really does begin to look more and more like a work of art.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

2009 Progress Report

Well, we're halfway through the year. I guess it's time to take a look at where we are in terms of the 2009 movie year. I have to admit it hasn't been a great year, but the great films often are released in the last six months of the year. And there have been some very good films this year...even some big, imperfect films that won major points for ambition. So let's take a look at what, if I made my top 10 list for 2009 right now, would be on the list.

1. Moon:It's right now a very very tight race between this and "Up." But Duncan Jones'low-budget indie sci-fi drama is such an unexpected surprise that rightnow it has the edge. I love low-budget science forces filmmakers to actually deal with ideas and concepts instead of using CGI as a crutch. Sam Rockwell should be guaranteed and Oscar nomination for his work here and I love that Jones takes an intriguing concept and then explores its implications. An intelligent, funny, philosophical and touching film that never ceases to be entertaining.

2.Up:I'd love to say that I'm getting tired of putting Pixar on this list year after year, but the truth is it makes me giddy. Every time at bat it just seems that the studio's wizards are challenging themselves and raising the bar higher in terms of story-telling. "Up" is a wonderful film in every way--it has great characters, hilarious gags and thrilling action. But, just like "The Incredibles," "WALL-E" and "Ratatouille," the film has deeper things on its mind and this wonderful little film tackles themes of love and loss, friendship and risk.

3. Away We Go:It's cool to hate Sam Mendes these days, I get it. I don't understand the hatred--I think he makes very beautifully-photographed films and gets fantastic performances from his actors. But it's true that with "Revolutionary Road" he may have become the go-to guy for bitter screeds about American family life. That's why this little comedy, written by David Eggers and featuring Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski as a very happy and very much in love couple, is so refreshing. As the two look for a place to raise their child they encounter various examples of the American family--they learn what they don't want, what they do want and--most importantly--that no one's getting it completely right; the best they can do is their best. It's a minor film but one that is very funny and packs a surprising emotional punch in the third act...all the while still focused on two characters who we love spending time with. An underrated little gem.

4. Public Enemies:Maybe I'm just a sucker for any film involving G-Men, Tommy Guns and Bank Robbers, but Michael Mann's fascinating crime epic had me in the palm of its hand from beginning to end. Johnny Depp gives a great performance as John Dillinger and Christian Bale is surprisingly effective as the soft-spoken, out-of-his-element FBI agent who pursues him. Some have hated Mann's use of digital cameras here, but I love the immediacy it brings...and no one can film a shoot-out better than Mann, who is at the top of his game here.

5. I Love You, Man:The best Judd Apatow movie that doesn't involve Judd Apatow whatsoever. It pleases me to no end that Paul Rudd and Jason Segel are able to headline a movie; the two are possibly the most likable character actors in comedy right now. This "bromantic comedy" doesn't really bring anything new to the table--"Seinfeld" was riffing on the similarities between male friendships and dating relationships 10 years ago--but rather Rudd and Segel bring the funny and have a wonderful chemsitry together. And like the Apatow films, there's a sweetness to it...this is a movie for guys about the importance of male friendship and camaraderie and I think the best comedies right now tap into that emotional truth.

6. Watchmen:I don't think "Watchmen" entirely succeeds as a movie--and I really want to see Zach Snyder's director's cut to see if it improves on what was changed and left out. But it's probably as close as we could have ever hoped to getting a faithful and skilled adaptation of what is possibly one of the greatest works of literature of the 20th Century. Snyder created a very grown-up take on the comic book movie and the film grapples with many of the deep themes of Alan Moore's comics. The visuals are outstanding and, at times, it's possible to think that the comic book has been copied verbatim. For taking the risk and coming so close to success, I applaud the movie. And I also think there needs to be serious Oscar consideration for Jackie Earle Hayley as Rorshach and Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan.

7. Star Trek:The most purely entertaining adventure of the summer. I'm not a Trek fan but JJ Abrams may have convinced me to give it a shot. His film is a perfectly-paced and realized piece of entertainment--funny, thrilling and a blast from start to finish. And Abrams--the best producer in television right now--understands the importance of having engaging characters to carry a story. I'll follow his Enterprise crew wherever they choose to go next.

8. Drag Me to Hell:Sam Raimi. Back to horror, reminding us of the pure joy of walking the tightrope between slapstick and terror. The seance scene is on par with anything from 'Evil Dead'--a perfect mix of horror and bizarre comedy. Just a real blast of a film that too many people ignored.

9. Knowing:Yes, the majority of critics hated this. But it's not fair. "Knowing" may not be on par with director Alex Proya's "Dark City," but it's a chilling and fun little sci fi thriller that, like "Moon," pushes its themes as far as they'll go. The ending may leave some cold but I dug it. . . I love the mix of the spiritual and the scientific that is on display here. And for once Nicolas Cage is in a believable role in a studio movie.

10.The Hangover:Two words: Zach Galifinakis. His questioning about Haley's Comet had me doubled over for about five minutes. A wonderfully absurd, blissfully male-centric comedy. I love that it's not about a night of debauchery in Vegas but about what happens to those guys who just couldn'thandle that night. Not the most original concept but director Todd Phillips really proves just how essential the right actors are to a film--I will gladly follow Bradley Cooper, Justin Bartha, Ed Helms and Galifinaks back to long as Mike Tyson comes around again.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Movie Review: "Moon"

This is going to be a difficult one to review.

Let me start it off simply by saying this: don't watch the trailers for "Moon." They spoil a crucial part of the film's story. Don't let anyone talk too much about the plot, as part of the pleasure of watching this science fiction drama is watching director Duncan Jones and star Sam Rockwell breathe life and intelligence into deep philosophical and scientific ideas.

And get yourself to a theater playing this film as soon as you can. "Moon" is the best science fiction film since "WALL-E" and one of the greatest grown-up works of the genre since "Dark City."

Unfortunately, I can't talk about much of what makes this film so great without spoiling the film's plot. So we'll keep the review relatively brief and then, down the road, I will most-likely come back and revisit the story and deal with the plot twists.

The film takes place in the future. A source of energy powerful enough to solve the world's energy crisis has been found on the moon. Lunar Inc. is a corporation that mines the properties and sends them to Earth. They do this by manning a moon station with one employee for a three-year period.

Sam Bell (Rockwell) is nearing the end of his 3-year contract and just in time. He misses his wife and daughter, he's beginning to show some signs of depression and is aching for some human contact. The only person he has to talk to each day, besides himself, is Gerty, the station's computer system (voiced by Kevin Spacey in an homage to HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey.")

One day, Sam heads out to inspect some damage on one of the harvesters. There's an accident and he wakes up in the infirmary. . .

And that's all you need to know. Just know that the accident is a catalyst for a series of discoveries Sam makes that will challenge his perceptions and make him ask questions about his own sanity and ultimately will prompt the audience to ask philosophical questions about the very nature of humanity and reality.

Director Jones (who is the son of David Bowie) tells this story with wonderful skill. I'm certain the budget for this indie must have been nearly non-existent. Yet he creates a believable setting on the moon, with a space station that has the basic utilitarian design we've seen in "Alien" or "2001." It's not a sprawling complex but a small one; the main sets are the infirmary and the kitchen. But it's believable...if there was a work station on the moon, this is what it would look like.

Jones is dealing with big ideas here. When the film begins to reveal its twists, everything is plausible. Some of it elicited a chuckle from me--of course, I thought several times, a corporation would DEFINITELY do that if they had the resources. Some of it silenced me--this film is not afraid to push its ideas to the limits, asking questions not only about plausibility but about humanity and what makes a person a human. Is it memories? Experience? If our behavior can be predicted, are we nothing more than expendable machines? But even now I'm revealing too much.

Sam Rockwell has been one of the indie world's unsung heroes for several years. He first came to my attention with his small part as a red-shirt in "Galaxy Quest" (again proving that "Galaxy Quest" simply doesn't get the respect it deserves). He's delivered knock out performances in "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," "The Assassination of Jesse James..." and "Choke." Here, however, he may finally get the recognition he's been building toward for a long time. Rockwell is the only main character in this film and the majority of its runtime is spent with him talking to himself. In that time, he is able to create a portrait of a man who is funny, scared, angry, frustrated, somewhat zen and regretful. As new twists are revealed, he shows a new side to the character. Again, I feel that I must tread lightly as even a description of his scenes may tip the hand and reveal some crucial twists. Suffice to say that Rockwell has an Oscar nomination in the bag with this.

I grew up not caring much for the whole science fiction genre, believing it to be the realm of Trekkies and Star Wars geeks. As I've gotten older, I've found a love for the type of science fiction that uses the genre as a jumping point for questions about philosophy, humanity, ethics and theology. I may not care much for ray guns. But films like "Dark City," "The Matrix," "A.I." and "WALL-E" have captivated my imagination and shown me just how useful the genre is for asking deep questions.

It's a pleasure to add "Moon" right alongside those great movies. This is one of the year's great films.

DVD Reviews: "Waltz With Bashir," "Wendy and Lucy"

Waltz With Bashir

Three words that stop casual filmgoers cold: Animated. Foreign. Documentary.

Factor in the fact that "Waltz with Bashir" is a film about the first Lebanon war and you have a film that most filmgoers would easily pass by. But in doing so, they're missing one of the most surreal and breathtaking expriences of the past year.

Director Ari Folman served as an Israeli soldier during the Lebanon war but could not remember any of his duties there. When a friend recounted his nightmares about the war, Folman began to regain some of his memories, which led him to talk to others who served in the war in order to understand where he was, what he did and what role he may have played in a brutal massacre.

Told with beautiful 2D animation, the film is able to recreate the surreality that many war stories inevitably have. As the film deals not only with the factual accounts of war but also with the strange tendencies of the human mind in shielding people from harmful memories, the bizarre scenes are very fitting. When a soldier describes his dream of floating away on a naked body as his boat is blown up, we see it happen. Folman is also able to recreate Lebanon, the hell of war and the unbelievable sights of war without spending millions of dollars.

The result is a fascinating documentary, one that probes the mysteries of the human mind and also helps us understand how a human being can go on living after enduring the hell of war. But it's also a reminder that we should never forget the events of the past, and the film culminates in one of the most sledge-hammer to the heart sequences I've ever seen as the safety of animation is pulled away and we're left face-to-face with the harsh, brutal and ugly reality of war. A great film experience.

Wendy and Lucy

Director Kelly Reichardt's minor masterpiece is a heartbreaking portrait of life on the fringe, of what happens to an outsider in a culture that is tilted toward helping the rich and the powerful.

Michelle Williams will no longer be just the "other Dawson's Creek girl" or Heath Ledger's ex-wife. She gives a nuanced, strong and pitch-perfect performance as Wendy, a bone-broke young lady heading to Alaska with her dog Lucy. When her car breaks down in Oregon, Wendy must figure out how to get by, with only a few hundred dollars to her name.

The film is quiet and will likely try the patience of some viewers. It's the type of movie that leaves people complaining that "nothing happens," but that's not really fair. No, there are no murders or life-threatening events. But to say nothing happens is a slight to the character of Wendy, who finds herself dealing with the frustration of having nothing while people still demand everything. Who can't relate to not being able to get a job because they don't have the experience or even an address or phone number? Who can't feel for her when she has to get to Alaska to get a job but can't find the money to fix her car that is stuck there? If it's true that the same rules apply to everyone, as a character in the film states, then why does it seem like those rules most benefit those who already have a head start?

The film is a real look at the issue of poverty and the epidemic we're seeing in America of the working poor. Critics of welfare say that they don't want to help those who can't help themselves. But what happens when someone is trying to help themselves and still can't get ahead because the culture is still taking from them? What happens when we live in a culture so fixated on what's fair that they don't stop and ask what's right?

The film forces the audience to ask critical questions about current policies and politics, but the movie itself never is political or preachy. It instead asks us to observe the plight of Wendy and ask ourselves, "is this right?"

Reichardt is condemning a culture in which everyone is isolated and no one wants to help others if it's going to cost them. There's a wonderful counterpoint in the relationship she forms with an older security guard, the one character willing to give her a hand even though it's obvious he doesn't have much; maybe it's just that he can relate "the whole thing's fixed," he says of the world at one point. Maybe that's true.

The central "plot" of the film involves Wendy losing her dog and her search to get her back. Some may argue, as one character does, that Wendy shouldn't have a dog if she can't afford it. But what of the companionship? What of the fact that she's trying to get somewhere where she'll have the means to take care of the dog? If we ask a person to better themselves and support themselves, what means are we taking to help them do that?

Reichardt's film is though-provoking, gentle and touching. It may lose itself, at times, as the story meanders and the director can't quite figure out where she wants to go with the tale. And the ending seems rushed and arbitrary, although it also occurs at a point when Wendy really does have no other decision.

Still, despite its flaws, "Wendy and Lucy" is anchored by Williams' wonderfully realized performance, even if it was a tad too understated for others to take notice of last year.

Movie Review: "Public Enemies"

There's a scene in Michael Mann's "Public Enemies" when John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) woos a young woman by telling her "I like baseball, movies, good clothes, whiskey, fast cars and you...what else do you need to do?"

I have a feeling that the people most-disappointed by Mann's fantastic crime drama will be those who want to know a little bit more about what made America's Public Enemy #1 tick. Anyone looking for a deep psychological profile or for any other hint of what urged him to rob banks is going to be a bit disappointed.

For those who simply want to see a crackling crime drama told by Hollywood's best action director and wonderfully-acted by one of the world's biggest movie stars, "Public Enemies" is about as good as it gets this summer. What Mann has created is nothing we haven't seen before--it's simply a cops-and-robbers tale told to perfection. It may not be Mann's greatest picture, but it's right up there with "Collateral" and "Heat," and is the first truly great live-action studio film of the summer.

The film centers on the last year of Dillinger's life, starting with a daring sequence in which the young robber and some friends break fellow gang members out of prison. Dillinger, known for the fast and flashy way with which he robbed banks, quickly becomes a folk hero--he famously tells bank clients not to give him their wallets. "I'm here for the bank's money, not yours," he says (although I wonder if he ever thought about who the bank's money actually came from). He gives a female hostage his own coat and when he ties four to a tree to cover his tracks assures them "it will take you only about 10 minutes to worm your way free."

As Dillinger is capturing the public's attention, the head of the newly-formed FBI, J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) is attempting to secure funding to increase the bureau's jurisdiction. With Chicago as the epicenter for organized crime, he promotes special agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to the head of his Windy City force. His main goal: to track down John Dillinger. Purvis, portrayed by Bale as a good and soft-spoken man who simply wants to stop crime the right way, soon discovers his squeaky-clean group of young G-Men are not skilled enough to take down Dillinger and his team. So he recruits some hardened cops from Texas and begins to wrestle with the implications of compromising his values to get results.

There's also the romance between Dillinger and coat check woman Billie Frechette (Cotillard). What might at first seem a superfluous addition to a cops-and-robbers story is actually the film's heartbeat and the closest we get to understanding Dillinger. The two's relationship is, on the surface, on of love. But looking a bit closer, it's based more deeply on needs. Frechette comes from a background where "nothing happened" and the opportunity to be around Dillinger gave her a whiff of excitement and the opportunity to be special. For Dillinger, who never let anyone down, it was his way of using his ill-gotten gains to help someone "better" themselves. There's no doubt that the two share an affection, possibly love. But the deeper truth is that the relationship allowed both of them a chance at some form of self-fulfillment.

That's a lot of information for one movie, which clocks in at 140 minutes but never feels overly-long. In fact, if there was one complaint I had about "Public Enemies," it was that it needed a bit more time, specifically at the beginning. Much is made of Dillinger's popularity with the public and it's hinted that he's seen as a Robin Hood during the Great Depression. But that just sort of happens...we never really see much of the Great Depression or see this ascent to popularity Dillinger and his gang face.

But then again, I wonder if the addition of such scenes would have given us the impression that Dillinger was a Depression-era Robin Hood. Mann steers away from the idea that Dillinger ever really felt he was doing good work--he was just a guy who knew the value of tweaking his public image. "It's important that the public likes me," he says at one point. "I hide out among them." I think the addition of any scenes that portrayed him as being exactly what the people thought would have misled the audience. Instead, Dillinger seems more amused by the popularity and more than willing to milk it...there's a fantastic scene where he's arrested and taken to Ohio and commands a press conference like a celebrity, even leaning on the shoulder of the warden like old chums. Still, the film does take a moment to find its footing in the opening scenes, although after about 30 minutes it rolls quite smoothly.

The film's look--Mann photographed it on digital instead of film--has also been cause for debate. The movie doesn't have the polished, soft look we've come to expect of period films. Instead, the visual camera captures the harshness of dark nights, the pitch blackness that is only interrupted by gunfire and gives the movie an immediacy that urges us to see the film as the events are happening, not as if they happened more than 70 years ago. I personally really like the look. Mann is one of the few directors pushing the edges of filming in digital and the cinematography in "Collateral" was some of the best photography I've seen in an action film. I love the fact that it gives the film more urgency and immediacy instead of holding the audience at arm's length and romanticizing the era. This is easily the most fascinatingly-photographed film I've seen all year.

We live in an age where Michael Bay is known as the action king, but that's a misnomer; he's the activity king--something's always happening in his movies, whether it's interesting or not. Mann is truly one of the best action directors around and those who need any confirmation are just invited to revisit the bank heist in "Heat." The reason you won't hear a ton about the action scenes in "Public Enemies" isn't because there aren't any--there are quite a few--but simply because they're so well done, which is simply what's expected of Mann. In a world of fast cuts and caffeinated editing, Mann is one of the few directors who truly understands the importance of geography and coherence in an action sequence. The siege on the Little Bohemia lodge, scene as a turning point in the FBI's war against Dillinger, is particularly fantastic as Mann cuts out any soundtrack and extraneous lighting, letting muzzle flashes and the rat-tat-tat of Tommy Guns fill the extended, 10 minute shootout.

But it's actually the scenes without any gunfire that are most intriguing. There's Hoover's insistence on escalating his war on crime, which is portrayed as a giant public relations effort. There's a simple shot of Army troops guarding Dillinger's prison. A fantastic sequence in a movie theater (before the incident at the Biograph) where Dillinger's face is broadcast on a news reel and the audience instructed to look to their left and right...the smirk on Depp's face at that point is perfection. And, near the end, a scene where Dillinger waltzes into the Chicago Police Department's Dillinger Task Force room and struts around like he owns the place, unnoticed by any of the cops--even when he asks the score for the Cubs game. It's a scene so brazen and bold that I immediately thought it was fiction...but come to find out, Dillinger did actually make that visit (although I doubt it was on the day of his death, as the film portrays it).

Depp, after years of playing eccentric characters in garish makeup, reminds us that he can also play real characters with dynamic skill. I don't know that any other actor would have been right for the role, incorporating a hint of sincerity, a mix of bemusement and a whole lot of self confidence. Depp never overdoes it but is not afraid to push Dillinger's self-confidence as far as it can go and still be realistic (the visit to the police department). The reason we may not learn much more about Dillinger the man is, quite possibly, because there wasn't much more to him. He was incarcerated at a young age and when he came out, having met his gang in prison, he simply wanted to live fast and for the moment. When he asks "what else is there to know" the answer may be "nothing," because there was nothing else, save for a commitment to do right by those closest to him. Leonardo DiCaprio was attached to this before Depp and while I think he could have pulled off Dillinger's confidence, I think it's the bemusement that he would have lacked...he's too sincere, while Depp adds a small dash of irony to the role that really works; Dillinger is very aware of how absurd his fame is...and he loves every minute of it.

I've noticed that in the past few months Bale's presence has been dialed down in the film's marketing. I'm guessing his name was a selling point due to the mega success of "The Dark Knight" (maybe it was scaled back after seeing his one-note work in "Terminator Salvation"). It was probably the right move, because Purvis is really a supporting character here, not another lead role. And I think that removing Bale from the spotlight and giving him a smaller, non-starring role is really a good move. He's a great actor but he's not a movie star. Here, he's soft-spoken and gives us just enough information to understand the conflict he's having with his integrity. Purvis may be out of his league, is what the film seems to be saying, and in the final moments at the Biograph, where Dillinger met his end, we get the sense that he was overrun by the more aggressive cops he recruited for the task (Purvis committed suicide a year after Dillinger's death). Bale's solid in the role, mostly for the fact that he never oversells it. It makes it more touching when he has a heroic moment involving Cotillard's character at the FBI headquarters late in the film.

Cotillard is fine, although her newly-acquired English seems to give her stumbles in the dialogue. And the entire cast is filled with fantastic character actors who bring the era to life. Billy Crudup so perfectly captures Hoover's radio-ready voice and mannerisms, and yet gives us a hint of the man's flaws, that he could be a dark horse contender for an Oscar.

And, of course, Mann must bring everything around to that fateful night at the Biograph theater, a sequence that is taut and suspenseful even though we know how it ends (Dillinger's death is the one thing everyone knows about his life). Depp brings something to Dillinger as he watches Clark Gable portray a gangster on death row that says that he knows how he's ultimately going to go out. And the staging of the shoot-out is handled with the skill Mann typically brings...when the first shot is fired, the event is seen as being a travesty, with the FBI eager to kill, not arrest, Dillinger. But then again, Dillinger was reaching for a gun. Mann doesn't oversell the scene, again letting the audience wrestle with what happened...although there is the slightest sense of judgment in watching Purvis saunter away from the crowd that gathers around the gangster's body.

I find myself fatigued with big budget action movies that are nothing more than loud noises, pretty CGI and vapid storytelling. It's refreshing to have a film that manages to be engaging, entertaining and intelligently done. This is the best live-action film so far this summer and one of the year's best films.


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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.