Sunday, 31 January 2010

Best Films of 2009 : Moon (Dir. Duncan Jones)

There's nothing like a bit of old-fashioned futurism. Back in the 70s and early 80s, cinema produced a series of science fiction movies that not only excited the eyes and ears of the public, but captured their imagination, dealing with powerful, challenging issues raised by the anticipated shock of man's mastery of the physical and biological universe, environmental disaster, and the rapid advancement of technology. Whether it was Alien, Kubrick's 2001 or Ridley Scott's poetic visual masterpiece Blade Runner, moviemakers were capturing a golden (space) age of cinema. Sadly it wasn't to last.

Roll on today, to the execrable crashes and bangs of Michael Bay's Transformers, and people, or at least movie executives that call the shots, prefer pure spectacle to being challenged to ponder the big questions of mans' place in the big scheme of things. James Cameron's Avatar being the billion-dollar exception that proves the rule, of course.

Child of the 70s Duncan Jones (and son of the Man Who Fell to Earth and original space cadet, David Bowie) has created what in many ways is a love letter to that lost age of sci-fi. The action sees Sam Bell (played by Sam Rockwell, pictured), an employee of Lunar Industries alone working a 3 year contract on the far side of the moon, extracting a rare, precious mineral required for clean energy back on earth. His only company is the a robot voiced by Kevin Spacey, whos reassuring voice nannys Sam like Red Dwarf's Kryten, while at the same time appearing to manipulate him, like 2001's Hal 9000. What is he hiding?

The story begins with Sam coming to the end of his time on the moon. He is like a spacebound Robinson Crusoe, having forged a life for himself building matchstick models to entertain himself and occupy his mind, when he begins experiencing a series of visions, which raise his suspicion, causing him to investigate matters, and, well, I can't share much more without giving the story away, but suffice to say, the situation, and indeed, he himself, is not who he thinks he is.

A recurring theme of movies this type is the corrosive effect corporate greed can have, rejecting the sanctity of life for the cold comfort of the financial bottom line, and in this sense, Moon is very much reminiscent of flicks like Blade Runner, and Alien : large economic forces are at work, abusing technology at the expense of social norms, forcing people to act in ways that are contrary to their human instinct, and regardless of the cost of human life. in Blade Runner, Deckard is made to "retire" replicants despite emerging understanding that they are capable of something approaching humanity, in Aliens - corporations want to capture and use the aliens for biological warefare, as a product to be researched, harnessed, and sold, irrespective of the expense of human lives lost in the process. Here, minerals from the moon must be mined at minimum cost to the business, even if it means repeatedly (*****PLOT SPOILER HERE***) cloning the one individual trained and capable to do the job.

There's little in the way of overt "action", but Moon still manages to be completely engaging for its' entirety. The on screen interest lies not in explosions and effects, but in an incredible performance by Sam Rockwell, which must surely be worth of an Oscar nomination. He has hitherto ploughed a furrow in indie flicks (he pops up in Blow and Frost/Nixon), and the odd big budget movie (remember Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?), but largely as an unremarkable, but excellent character actor in secondary roles. Here, he is the movie, and what he achieves is incredible. (***MORE PLOT SPOILING***) Through his exploration of the various iterations of the character of Sam Bell, he explores brilliantly the nature of the human experience, provoking existential questions. What makes us who we are? Is it our memories? Our emotions? Our relationships with other people? Or our experiences?

In conclusion then, Moon is a truly wonderful movie, and though I suspect the Oscar interest this season will go the way of movies like The Hurt Locker, Up, and Up In The Air, for me this is by far more superior to any of the obvious candidates.

Hack Rating 5/5

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Best Movies of 2009

So, 2009 was a fascinating year in the movies. It ended spectacularly with Avatar, with some light relief from In the Loop there in the middle, and so much fun with Funny People. Notice I deliberated didn't mention summer turkey Transformer 2. Oh balls, I did. With my eye on the Oscars and the Golden Globes (to be presented by our very own Ricky Gervais, pictured), here's my top flicks for the last year of the noughties....

1. The Hangover: Not quite as good as it could have been but nevertheless one of the most fun movies of the year, a Vegas caper tale with lots of hi jinks thrown in.
2. In The Loop : Malcolm "shouty bloke" Tucker wonders round Whitehall tearing his hair out at Minsterial incompetence, with the bonus of a stateside cast including James Gandolfini in the run up to a fictional war somewhere in the Middle East. Lots and lots of joyous, emphatic and wonderful swearing.
3. Avatar: Special effects extravaganza from James Cameron turned out to not suck despite looking like a giant turkey in the trailer. He didn't scrimp on the script either, and the result is probably going to be the biggest grossing movie ever, beating the record he set with Titanic.
4. Funny People: Surprisingly insightful character drama described as a comedy, with a bit of satire on Hollywood thrown in, all about a hit Hollywood comedian-actor, who's life is turned upside down when he is diagnosed with cancer. No, it's not depressing, but Judd Apatow is going to have to stop going over familiar ground soon......
5. State Of Play: Classy US remake of the brilliant BBC drama minseries, turning into a movie on the grand tradition of Washington-based political conspiracy movies.
6. Taking Of Pelham 123: Somewhat underrated by reviews, this actually didn't suck, and John Travolta made a pretty good, scary baddie.
7. The Wrestler: a bravura acting performance from a broken down ol' piece of meat.
8. The Damned United: Sheen Does it again, this time with a quip-perfect Brian Clough, in movie of Dave Peaces' novel about Ol Big Ed's disasterous spell as manager of Leeds United.
9. Up In The Air: George Clooney satirises his off screen persona in this recession comedy about an executive who loves corporate loyalty cards, air miles and travellling first class more than he loves people. Quite likely to win something in this awards season....
10. Frost/Nixon: Michael Sheen plays slippery, lightweight David Frost in out of his depth, in this Ron Howard directed flick that was described as being "Rocky" for journalists, giving "Tricky Dicky" the trial he never had.
11. Moon: Brillant throwback sci-fi movie, harking back to the likes of 2001, Blade Runner, Alien, and Dark Star, directed by Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie), and with a truly incredibly performance from Sam Rockwell, who carries a whodunnit/ghost story/character drama. Totally different from anything else that came out this past year, and refreshing for it.

I also enjoyed Star Trek, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Gran Torino and District 9. My money's on Up In The Air, The Road, Up, and perhaps Inglourious Basterds. I'm also now realising that there's a distinct lack of foreign movies in my list, something I shall endevour to rectify this year! Anyway, best of luck, especially to Ricky Gervais with presenting the ceremony tomorrow, despite the fact that The Invention Of Lying sucked....

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Best Films of 2009: The Hurt Locker (Dir. Kathryn Bigelow)

The Hurt Locker is the most recent attempt at capturing events in the current US / Allied occupation of Iraq, following the toppling of Saddam Hussein from power in 2003. Depicting war is a tricky and difficult task, always raising questions of authenticity: It takes years, sometimes decades, for an accurate appraisal of the war as a political, moral and historical event, and perhaps we're too close to events in this recent middle east altercation to really get to the truth.

What I've been hoping for, if I'm honest, in relation to this current conflict, is an angry portrayal of  it as the poorly thought-out, badly executed, and morally vacuous action it is, leading to the death of over 100,000 Iraqis. It would be good to finally see the implicating of political leaders like Bush and Blair as power-hungry Neo-Con meglomaniacs, and the true motivation being a cash bonanza for oil companies and defence contractors, the old military-industrial complex that was at fault for Vietnam, not the non-existent "weapons of mass destruction".

The Hurt Locker isn't that movie. One of last year's most critically acclaimed movies was written by freelance writer Mark Boal, who spent time emedded in an American bomb disposal squad in war-torn Iraq. The result is a mixture of action thriller and cinema verite. It follows a bomb disposal unit as they are sent out each day to diffuse bombs, praying to come back intact, and counting each minute until make it to the end of their tour of duty. When their much admired leader (a brief, excellent cameo from Guy Pearce) dies on a disposal mission, Lt James (Jeremy Renner, pictured above) is drafted in to take over as their leader and disposal expert. But James is unstable, and rather than wanting to stay alive, he's a "wildman", more intent on going for glory, and living off the heady intoxication of enemy contact, and the dangers of being blown up. His wreckless ways put him at odds with his team, and Sgt JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) in particular, as they put themselves at risk with each mission, coming closer and closer to death each time.

While there are stabs at putting the actions of these aggressive, macho grunts in a political context (Lt James arrives to base to discover it has changed names from Camp Liberty to Camp Victory), it is the madness of humanity in these insanity-inducing conditions that becomes the point of focus, the kind of stuff well-captured in Apocalypse Now. War is seen as a dangerous lark for boys, an exciting rush, "fun", as one soldier calls it on the one hand, but the reality of constant fear, mistrust of every foreign face, and death is never far away. It's a disturbing but exhilerating experience, and the attention to detail by Boal and Bigelow is to be applauded, as the personalities of the actors ring true as they clash, as risks are taken, tempers fray, and people die.

However, The Hurt Locker ends in an unsatisfactory manner for me, incomplete, one that would not satiate the publics' desire for a jingoistic action thriller, nor mine for a moral inventory of the conflict. Having said that, it's the most compelling, authentic portrayal of the Iraq war and its' aftermath to date, to be viewed as experiential rather than moral, and for that reason, it warrants viewing, and if predictions are to be believed, it's certainly worth watching out for at this years' Oscars.

Hack Rating: 3.5/5