Give a big welcome to Chris Inman, our brand new writer on the site. Better known to many as Spanky Patterson, Chris is a long-time listener of the podcast and has now moved on to become the first writer (outside of Sam) to join the site.
As a way of introduction, to allow you all to get to know him a little bit, here’s his five favourite movies of 2009, in ascending order, with his favourites of the decade to come in the next few days.
Time to have a little guess again at which films could be nominated for Oscars in a couple of months time, just entirely based on hype and vague attempts to understand the predictable nature of the Academy. So, for debate and conjecture’s stake, enjoy these predictions for the Oscar nominations in 2010, post jump. Continue reading →
As we are prone to do, it feels like to kick-off the Oscar buzz season as awards from major film festivals begin to roll in and the ceremony approaches. I realise that this may feel like the kind of wishing-life-away feeling that it given as you walk into shops in mid-September and see Christmas stock out all over the place, but these will get more frequent as we get closer and can begin to actually predict what could win. This is more to provide an interesting gauge of how buzz works, how it changes and how wrong we could well end up being by the time the awards come around.
So, just for the big few categories, here’s what seems like it’s going to cause a stir this year: Continue reading →
So, in the wake of Transformers revenging the fallen all over our minds, we were in need of cooling down from the sheer anger and exhaustion felt in the studio. Though Sunshine Cleaning should have been a great example of an indie to bring us back onto home turf, it ended up an underwhelming experience. The eminently crushworthy pairing of Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, along with the solid Alan Arkin and roles for Steve Zahn and Clifton Collins Jr, just couldn’t quite drive us into anything beyond a tepid lack of satisfaction. Ideas involved were strong, but the execution was half-hearted, even if all of the above tried really hard to elevate the material. Continue reading →
There’s a great blog post on The Guardian from Phelim O’Neill extolling the virtues of the “old-fashioned, miniature model work’ done for Moon. As anyone who listens to our podcast will know, Tom and I are luddite-esque on our anti-CGI attitudes, something pushed to a mass-extreme over the summer from Wolverine, through Terminator: Salvation and Transformers 2 and ending with GI Joe.
We are not wholly luddites in our view on using CGI. The belief here is that CGI should be used very sparingly, only ever to allow filmmakers to achieve visual aesthetics and objects which simply cannot be done any other way. The problem with many films now is that CGI becomes the dominant technology on screen, overtaking even using actual landscapes which could so easily be found and would be so much more tangible on screen. CGI can never, ever, replace actual, physical objects and beings. Beings most notably. I Am Legend has become our go to for films with terrible CGI which completely ruins the experience. Those ‘vampires’ in the film are useless, there is just nothing interesting or frightening about these things because they are not there, they are not standing next to Will Smith.
Moon is a wonderful example of how to use CGI. The effects are used only to prevent the miniature work from looking too much like Button Moon, to further the overall aims of the filmmaker rather than substitute any sense of imagination or ingenuity in the process. O’Neill notes that CGI has killed such a significant amount of problem-solving amongst filmmakers. They can rely so much on computers to create what they want that they simply give up on trying to create worlds with any sense of reality. The expectation is that, taking GI Joe as example, a massive underwater base with obese shark-like fish swimming around it will be awe-inspiring. It isn’t because, although you certainly would struggle to build something like that, it looks so wildly unreal that the only visceral reaction to that reveal is one of laughter at the utter ridiculousness of the creation.
We have questioned whether studios may start to cut budgets for filmmakers amid the recession, something which does not appear to have happened at all. If this happened, I would argue this would produce a rise in filmmakers trying to solve problems through a little lateral thinking, or pairing back on overblown CGI creations to create tangible worlds and beings. A man in a suit will always be better than a prancing sprite.
***Spoiler warnings! This review discusses some of the finer points of Moon which do contain a few spoilers, read at your own risk!***
I love science fiction, a fact that has been established on our show a number of times. It’s fair to say that Primer changed the way I look at the genre in regards to films, I now have this ridiculously high standard when it comes to narrative but also low standard when it comes to effects or other aspects of the film. It’s a strange way to watch a film genre being equally hyper-critical and lovingly forgiving. In Primer for example some of the sound mixing is very poor but you can forgive it easily considering the film’s painfully restrictive budget and how well it achieves its main goal of portraying a convincing depiction of time travel and the breakdown of a once close friendship. It’s hard to describe but this is the kind of mentality that I took into the cinema when I saw Moon recently.
Moon has often been compared to such stalwarts of the sci fi genre such as 2001 and Silent Running, it’s easy to see why. The film wears its influences on its sleeve with a heartfelt sincerity that’s instantly endearing. From the grainy and dirty look of the station exteriors to the pseudo-1970s design of the interiors, this film is already steeped in science fiction history from the very start. Everything in this film is a treat to fans of the genre. The premise, the design, the characters, everything.
The crux of the narrative reads like a thousand early Philip K Dick short stories. A lone worker on a Moon base carrying out the kind of maintenance that robots can’t perform wakes up in the base infirmary after suffering an accident outside on the surface. When he goes back out to investigate the crash he discovers his own body in the wreckage. What a hook! This kind of high concept science fiction is exactly what I look for in a film and Moon delivers on every level.
Considering Sam Rockwell is essentially the only visible cast member bar the ones we see fleetingly on video screens, he does a remarkable job of pulling the audience through the film. You’re with him every step and he carries the right amount of emotional weight during the heavier scenes while expertly judging the shifts in tone to more lighter comedic moments. It’s an incredibly detailed and rich performance, a performance that this film really needs its lead actor to command otherwise it’d be a crushingly dull flick.
Moon is played out with a conviction and reverence to science fiction sensibilities that’s sometimes overwhelming. Just like Primer, I couldn’t quite believe how perfect the film is in its purity as a good slice of sci fi. For all its little faults Moon is a spectacularly entertaining story near-flawlessly told.
Duncan Jones has given an interview to Popular Mechanics (found thanks to First Showing) during which he discusses, at length, his upcoming Moon. The trailer for the film, which stars Sam Rockwell in essentially a one-man show, is outstanding, looking very much like all of the scenes from 2001 when they are on the space station will HAL put into a single movie. It has that same feel of creepy calmness and strange happenings without explanation.
Asked about where the idea for the film came from, Jones said he had read a book called Entering Space by Robert Zubrin, specially being attracted to a chapter on the colonisation of the moon and the use of helium-3 as a source for fusion power. He goes on:
“It did seem to be a very logical argument about why you would have a reason to set up a moon base. I think one of the things that is limiting about NASA leading the space race is that everything they do is researched, but it doesn’t have any direct relevance to how it affects our lives. But with helium-3, there is a very direct link to how we could use that as a resource here on Earth and why it would be profitable.”
Jones himself appears to either have done a massive amount of research or is just a major space-head himself. He goes on to discuss screening the film for NASA, the mining techniques used during the film and GERTY, the robot being Rockwell is stuck on the station with.
The interview is quite heavy on the tech details but it’s a fascinating read, enough to get me very excited indeed about his upcoming sci-fi work and his future projects. He says at the conclusion of the interview that he plans to make something akin to Blade Runner.
The trailer for Mike Judge’s Extract, starring an ensemble headed by the likes of Jason Bateman and Mila Kunis, has been posted on Cinematical. It looks mighty amusing, with a return to his Office Space sensibilities following the dumb genius of Idiocracy, surely one of the most underrated movies of the past few years. You can check that out here.
Also out is the trailer for Moon, the Duncan Jones-directed, Sam Rockwell-starring spiritual successor to Silent Running. The film looks about what you might expect, but the key issue will be how you fell about Sam Rockwell and spending a whole movie in his company. See it below and let us know what you think.
We’ve also got another look at Michael Mann’s John Dillinger movie, Public Enemies, which still looks really interesting, even if some of the early buzz has been somewhat negative.
Starring: Michael Sheen, Frank Langella, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Matthew Macfadyen, Toby Jones
Director: Ron Howard
Writer: Peter Morgan
Ron Howard has an ability to make engaging and entertaining films about fascinating subjects which end up being hollow, forgettable and ultimately short of the mark of being great. Howard is a technically skilled but unimaginative, workman-like filmmaker, although that perhaps does sell short his ability to entertain an audience. He is no fool and certainly no philistine when in the chair, but for me represents a second-rate Spielberg, constantly able to make films wider audiences will enjoy but without that indefinable final part of the puzzle within his personal grasp to create anything truly unforgettable.
That’s not to say however that I haven’t enjoyed the vast majority of his films. Apollo 13 and Cinderella Man are both examples of his working at the top of his game, but also, alongside A Beautiful Mind, are indicative of this way about his work that rips the truly interesting parts of a story away for the sake of wide-appeal entertainment and manipulative emotion. Frost/Nixon falls squarely into the category of his better works, a film which is wildly entertaining and superbly acted which suffers as Howard struggles to engage on any level beyond what is literally on the screen. There is no deeper resonance to Frost/Nixon which there really should be, even if he comes close on occasion.
The film follows the quest by David Frost in the mid-1970s to get an interview with Richard Nixon, the former US president who a couple of years prior resigned from office amid the Watergate scandal. Frost, at the time, was a politically unengaged celebrity talk show host who was highly popular in the UK but struggling to break into the fame game in the US. He saw this interview opportunity as a chance to alter his image and break his celebrity in the US while Nixon, according to what we see in the film, saw the interview as both a chance to present a real image of himself to the American people and the espouse his own views on his actions when in office. Frost has to bring together a team of researchers to form a cutting interview with the president and finds himself out of his depth for the majority of the interviews conducted, finally breaking through in the latter stages when he finds some greater motivation to win the battle, along they way conducting a sort of psychological battle which Nixon wins easily through his years of political training.
What should occur then in the film is a battle between these two contrasting egos, and Howard does manage to play this story quite well. In one of the marquee scenes, Nixon telephones Frost late at night prior to the final interview, screaming at him about his coming from humble beginnings and that the two together are working to prove their worthiness to the elite, and will eventually destroy them. It’s a terrific dramatic scene which builds towards the final portion of the movie which also is high tension and high entertainment. Indeed, if for nothing else, this film should be credited with breaking the curse of the collapsing second half of a film as it gets stronger as it goes with a first half which struggles to engage outside of simply watching real life characters be played with skill.
The acting is relatively strong although Sheen, so good when playing Tony Blair, seems to be playing Tony Blair doing a David Frost impression in this film. Langella gives a titanic performance as Nixon, capturing mannerisms and personality traits without ever falling close to impression, rather inhabiting a complex and difficult character with the same level of aplomb seen from Philip Baker Hall in Altman’s Secret Honor. The rest of the supporting cast is given short-shrift. Sam Rockwell, always excellent, is good as obsessive journalist James Reston Jr while Oliver Platt provides strong support alongside Rockwell as Bob Zelnick. Kevin Bacon though, one of the finest and still underrated actors of his generation, is awful as Jack Brennan, playing him as through he has a quasi-homosexual attraction to Nixon which makes their scenes seem somewhat strange and jilting.
The problem, I’m sorry, is Howard’s direction. He does deliver a very entertaining semi-thriller but the film never reflects the obsessive nature of those hunting the public conviction of Nixon. The political discussion scenes, in which they wisely choose to exclude Frost, reflecting his real life lack of political conviction of knowledge, are never in depth enough to work beyond being basic network television-style discourse, therefore failing to add any intelligence or historical depth where there should be so much. That’s probably more Morgan’s fault, however. Adapting his own script, he doesn’t seem to understand where the drama will be until much later in the film, although this is much better than was seen in the unbelievably-overrated The Queen, a TV-movie at best.
Howard’s problem here is his own ambition. He wants to make this a kind of 1970s-style political thriller, primarily in the mould of something like All the President’s Men. The problem is, All the President’s Men is a masterpiece which can never be imitated with any success, and Frost/Nixon proves the theory. Where that film revelled in the research and understanding of the actions of the man, this revels in the drama of leading up to climactic interview scenes, an amateurish-tactic which Howard falls towards because he is unable to achieve the kind of grace of complex storytelling that Alan Pakula did thirty years ago. You can’t blame Howard for attempting it, but his failure to manage it brings the rest of the film into a harsher light. The verité style he employs at certain points, using handheld cameras and terrible talking head scenes with the characters involved, doesn’t work and you end up wishing he would just stick to what he does best and just make an entertaining if entirely non-challenging film.
I won’t fault the ambition of the move, and this is a worthwhile and fun film to watch, but you can’t help but imagine how this could have turned out in the hands of Spielberg or perhaps, given the verité attempts, Paul Greengrass. Unfortunately, it becomes another film from Ron Howard which strives for greatness, but never manages to achieve it.