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Column Fri Jun 19 2009

Moon, The Proposal, Year One, Tetro and Seraphine


Before I begin my review, I must vent: I just finished watching the hideous incarnation of "At the Movies" with Bens Lyons & Mankiewicz (I watch it purely for scientific purposes, like observing the mating habits of wild slugs). Anyway, these two turd burglars (in particular Mankiewicz) did something I consider something above and beyond the realm of their normal level of assholishness: they spoiled a significant plot point about the Duncan Jones film Moon. Yes, the plot point in question is probably all over the internet for those who love the spoilers, and yes, to a degree, the trailer gives away that something stinky is up in Denmark. But the trailer wisely keeps the film's mysteries cloaked and uncertain; it's actually a magnificent trailer that is even more misleading than you might think and I love it for that very reason. Regardless, the Bens flat out said what the film's only real twist is and they are a couple of dicks for doing it.

That said, I don't think anything could truly ruin the experience of watching Moon, one of the finest works of cinematic science fiction that I've seen in a very long time. I've been telling people that it's the best sci-fi work I've seen in five years, but that timeframe isn't really tied to a particular movie. For all I know, it's the best science fiction film made in 20 years. I keep searching my personal databank to think of a film set in the future that I've enjoyed more, and I have to go back to some major league classic to find one. Like most of my favorite films in this genre, Moon is based on reality. I thoroughly believe that if scientists discovered that the surface of the moon had an energy source stored in it (called Helium 3), it wouldn't take long for a corporation or two to find ways to set up massive mining operations to scrape off the moon's surface, process the material, and ship it back to Earth. I also firmly believe that said corporations would be so cheap that they would use as few employees as possible to man these operations, maybe as few as one worker.

The immensely talented Sam Rockwell (most recently seen in Choke and Frost/Nixon) plays Sam Bell, an astronaut in the last couple weeks of a three-year contract with Lunar Industries to single-handedly run this operation. He misses his wife and child immensely, and is able to communicate with them infrequently through recorded messages. The mining station's inability to send and receive live transmissions is just one of the signs that the facility is just like any other ill-functioning home or office. Sam's health also seems to be failing, but he's not sure whether this is a result of being cooped up for three years or his mind simply giving out on him. Sam's "co-worker" on the moon base is GERTY, the ship's talking computer (voiced in a friendly, HAL-like way by Kevin Spacey). For the most part Sam sits in the base and watches remote feeds from the mining operations going on some distance from his location. Whenever something goes wrong, Sam hops in a space suit and drives out to fix it. Yes, he's essentially a glorified maintenance man. On one such repair run, Sam gets in a terrible accident in which he ends up severely banged up, bleeding, and knocked out cold. The film's great mystery begins when Sam wakes up... back in the base, without a scratch on him and no memory of how he got back there.

As he investigates, he discovers something all the more remarkable. The wreckage of the vehicle he was driving is still out in the field. He heads out to investigate, and finds the absolute last thing he expected to find — his own badly injured but still living body. Although many have spilled the beans on this film's many secrets, I'm not going to. Not that the secrets are all that difficult to figure out, but watching them spool out before me was one of the great joys I had when I first saw Moon at SXSW in March. Considering this is director Jones' first feature, Moon is a remarkably mature and flawlessly crafted work. A lot of other directors would have rushed through this material, but Jones allows us to see what Sam's daily routine is like, his interactions with GERTY, and how his deep loneliness only seems to get worse as his time on the base nears an end. But the film goes much deeper than that. As both versions of Sam begin to interact, it becomes clear what exactly their relationship is, and suddenly this small, one-actor piece becomes a much weightier creature. Ethics, morals and a definition of life suddenly become the topics of the day, and the film goes from being a great piece of science fiction to a phenomenal personal drama that just happens to be playing out on the surface of the moon.

I loved Jones' small touches as well. By having Spacey voice GERTY much like 2001's HAL, we are meant to wait for that pivotal moment when the computer becomes self-aware and turns on the humans. It makes for some great moments of unexpected tension. But it should come as no surprise that the film belongs to Rockwell, for many different reasons. He is called upon to play two very different characters here, and while his ability to lose himself in a performance is nothing new (please see Confessions of a Dangerous Mind as Exhibit A), the fact that he pulls off two unique individuals in the same movie is almost too good to be true. The unscathed Sam is a bit angry and cocky, while the injured and sickly Sam just wants answers and piece (and peace) of mind — and to go home.

People are going to draw all sorts of comparisons between Moon and such classic films as Silent Running, Alien (more for the ho-hum quality of space living than the presence of any actual aliens) Outland, even 2001: A Space Odyssey, but rather than look for plot or tone similarities, look at what great company this film is keeping in the minds of critics and fans alike. This is a film made for people who grew up loving great science fiction films and literature, especially works made during the 1960s and '70s. There's a timeless quality to Moon that drew me in and gave me no choice but to have a deeply emotional reaction to this beautiful movie. I have little doubt this film will end up on my best of 2009 list, and you should see it just as soon as it lands in your neck of the woods. And look at that, I made it through my entire review without mentioning that Duncan Jones is David Bowie's son... oops!

The Proposal

Ryan Reynolds has been the source of many surprises in my movie-going world of late, and he continues that streak with The Proposal, a film that by all rights should be as disposable as most of romantic-comedies of late but isn't because Reynolds' type of funny is funnier than most. My appreciation of Reynolds dates back to "Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place" (yeah, I said it). While I only watched this mediocre sitcom sporadically during its inexplicably long run, I will say that I distinctly remember thinking that Reynolds' brand of smarmy charm won me over. His unforgettable turn in Van Wilder came shortly thereafter, and while he didn't get an bonus points for being in Blade: Trinity or The Amityville Horror remake, he did give us Waiting, which more than made up for any past mistakes. The first genuine surprise he delivered in my book was Definitely, Maybe. I can't quite put my finger on why that film got to me as strongly as it did (and not just me, I should add; for the most part, critics and audiences dug this movie). Earlier this year, the dude surprised me again with an excellent serious turn in Adventureland, followed by a quick (as in, blink-and-you'll-miss-him quick) turn in Wolverine. Sure, I'm curious about his taking branching out his Deadpool persona, but I hope the filmmakers actually allow Reynolds' superior brand of sarcasm and deadpan to come through in the character. I'm also really curious about his turn in the long-delayed (in this country, at least) drama Fireflies in the Garden and the upcoming comedy Paper Man.

I'm in no way implying that The Proposal even comes close to being as good as Definitely, Maybe, but it's certainly not as terrible as, say, Reynolds' inevitable-conclusion rom-com Just Friends. My meager recommending of The Proposal has man caveats. The film has not one, but two moments of public embarrassment for both Reynolds and co-star Sandra Bullock; one is usually a deal-breaker for me. But it seems that for every aspect to the film that I loathed, there was another element that genuinely surprised me. And thanks to Ryan Reynolds, I laughed a great deal more with this film than I have others like it in a very long time.

Reynolds plays Andrew, a put-upon executive assistant to a publishing house editor Margaret (Bullock). Margaret is loathed and feared in her office, but Andrew is a dutiful and under-appreciated right hand who is hoping one day to be promoted to editor with her help. Margaret is Canadian and because she can't be bothered to file the proper paperwork with immigration, she's on the verge of being deported. In one of the film's many leaps of credibility, she announces to the powers that be at her firm that she and Andrew are getting married, which sends all sorts of red flags up at the immigration department, who seem eager to catch her fraud and throw her out of the country. In an effort to make their relationship seem real, Margaret decides to join Andrew on his already-scheduled trip to see his family in Alaska. Yes, one of the films The Proposal resembles is New In Town, as we see Margaret in her six-inch heels make her way around the rugged terrain of Alaska. Turns out Andrew's family (mother Mary Steenburgen, father Craig T. Nelson, and very funny grandmother Betty White) is rich and practically owns the town he grew up in, but they also happen to be genuinely good, loving people who haven't seen their son in three years because of the grueling schedule Margaret forces him to keep. If you can't see where all of this is going, you're a dunderhead.

Director Anne Fletcher hasn't exactly made a living making unpredictable films (her other two works are 27 Dresses and Step Up), and The Proposal is not exactly an example of her branching out. The real key to anything this film accomplishes is, of course, Reynolds. I've seen Sandra Bullock be funny — and she certainly has her moments here, including a creative "nude scene" with Reynolds — but a grumpy, bitter, nasty Bullock is surprisingly not nearly as interesting as the bitch that runs rampant through this film. I have no trouble enjoying films with unlikable characters, but what she's doing here just isn't very funny or compelling. Reynolds on the other hand is great in nearly every scene. In case you hadn't figured it out, the entire premise of the film is a role reversal from the traditional office-setting comedies (such as 27 Dresses), where the female underling falls for the boss. So in a sense, Reynolds is playing a chick for much of the film, and he does it quite convincingly. He's sensitive, emotionally driven, and seems to take all-too convincingly to the subservient position ("I can see your vagina from here!"). The dynamic changes a bit when Bullock springs the wedding idea on him, but old habits die hard.

As the film goes on, some of the best scenes between the two are not meant to be funny. They share a room at his parents' house (her in the bed, him on the floor), and they have long, late-night conversations about each other's lives, partly to prepare for their immigration test and partly just because she doesn't know that much about him. These scenes are actually kind of sweet, and it's when Bullock essentially drops character that she becomes much more engaging. The film is filled with underwritten supporting characters, including Malin Akerman as Andrew's former high school/college flame, who seems extra happy to see him. At least the film doesn't set her up as some sort of artificial rival just to give us a villainous character. I did like seeing "The Office's" Oscar Nuñez as the town's jack-of-all-trades, including male exotic dancer, which makes for one of the film's most obvious but still funny sequences. Denis O'Hare as the immigration officer who isn't buying this marriage arrangement for a second overplays a character that was probably not well developed on the page either. He might as well be twirling his wax mustache while he delivers his boring dialogue.

The film's final act brings in a totally unnecessary impromptu wedding and an officeplace finale that is just plain dumb. The Proposal is just plain dumb, let's make that one thing perfectly clear, but Reynolds' verbal trades with Bullock make it just good enough that fans of his will feel like they got their money's worth... probably. It's a coin toss as far as I'm concerned, and the odds are the coin will land on its side. But Reynolds provides just enough of his brand of humor to push the coin over in favor of seeing this film. If your significant other is chomping at the bit to see The Proposal, you could do a lot worse. (Please feel free to put that on the poster.)

Year One

Baffling. That's the first and last word that pops into my head when I contemplate Harold Ramis' biblical comedy Year One, a bizarre throwback of a movie that feels like the Mel Brooks movie that Brooks never actually got around to making. I have this deep, sure thought that Ramis had something much more intellectually complex going on when he first conceived of this movie (he's credited with the story and as co-writer with frequent "The Office" scribes Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg), perhaps something a little more dangerous, something that challenged the very existence of organized religion or questioned whether God even exits. There are shreds of that in Year One, but the guts of this film feel ripped out and replaced with fart jokes, dick jokes (foreskin jokes, to be precise) and sex jokes. Some of the joking is ridiculously funny; I probably laughed out loud a good dozen times. But most of the jokes just sit there looking for an audience member who will laugh at pretty much anything. You know who you are.

I had to tough time wrapping my brain around the idea that this was the same man who gave us Animal House, Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day and grossly under-appreciated The Ice Harvest. Even at their most base, these films had a brain and cleverness behind each gross-out joke. But Year One feels more like the kitchen-sink approach to comedy — throw as many funny people and juvenile situations at the crowd as possible and something is bound to hit. Look for cameos from nearly every member of the Judd Apatow (one of the film's producers) extended family: Paul Rudd, Bill Hader, Christopher Mintz-Plasse — hell, even Ramis himself (who was in Knocked Up and Walk Hard) appears as Adam, father of Cain and Abel (David Cross and Rudd, respectively). And very often, the film will make you laugh, but boy is it trying way too hard when simply a smarter draft of the script would have done the trick.

Part of the problem is Jack Black as horny-caveman-turned-holy warrior Zed. Those of us who have been following Black for years have got his routine down pretty much. He's a loud talker, blurting out his lines like a small cannon, and we love him, but he works best when he tosses in a bit of actual acting. Compare his work here to what he does in Tropic Thunder; the difference is subtle, but it's there. Michael Sera also has a set of mannerisms that I'm beginning to get overly familiar with, but he's much funnier in Year One. I don't know whether he's getting better dialogue than Black, or if he keeps making them sound funnier. Either way, I laughed far more at his character of Zed's best buddy, the lovesick Oh. The pair travel though the Old Testament, meeting Adam and his family, the foreskin-obsessed Abraham (Hank Azaria) and his people, and visiting Sodom and Gomorrah.

I could literally go scene by scene and say, "That was funny, that wasn't funny, that wasn't funny, that was funny," but the idea of evaluation bit after bit doesn't appeal to me. But weirdly enough that's how my mind is thinking of Year One, in terms of what scenes worked and which didn't. The moments with Abraham wanting to chop off every foreskin is hilarious; Kyle Gass' cameo as a eunuch (if you aren't laughing at just the idea of that, you will hate this movie); Cain attempting repeatedly to slay Abel, these are all bits that work. But most of the stuff in Sodom falls flat, even the scenes between Cera and the usually reliable Oliver Platt as the city's high priest who loves sacrificing virgins to the gods and when men rub oil on his hairy chest; none of it is that great or memorable.

But there are some big ideas floating around in this film that almost get lost in the pedestrian humor. In an early scene in which Black is contemplating eating an apple from the forbidden tree of knowledge, Cera says, "It's not about fruit, it's about doing what you're told." Is he talking about the very basis of religious? Later in the film Cera ponders the notions that maybe God doesn't exist. Heavy stuff that seems slightly out of place for a film like this. The first song in Year One's closing credits is Cracker's "I See the Light," the chorus of which goes, "I see the light at the end of the tunnel now / Someone please tell me, it's not a train." It's a cautionary song about looking for enlightenment in a higher power, and it seems appropriately placed in this movie. Too bad the movie doesn't actually ponder this or any other weightier issues just a little bit more.

I suppose I took away some joy at watching Black on fire for the entire movie and Cera's fruitless attempts at putting out the flames one thimbleful of water at a time. Cera's under-his-breath quips result in some of the movie's biggest laughs, but you have to plow through a lot of amateur-hour-type material to get to those moments. I'm not sure who gave up first, but I'd have to lay the blame at Ramis' feet. He's far too talented to let something like this film happen without his knowledge. My firm belief is that he thought he was going for something a bit retro and instead it became The Jack Black Show whether he wanted it to or not. That's too bad; the world is in desperate need of some truly biting satire aimed squarely at practice and pretense of religion, and this film ain't that.


The stunning black-and-white cinematography and the exquisite acting alone would have been enough to strongly recommend Francis Ford Coppola's latest work as a writer-director (this is his first original screenplay since The Conversation in 1974), but Tetro is one of those films where Coppola isn't afraid to let a little magic slip into the mix. While he doesn't aspire to the lofty surreal qualities of One from the Heart or even his last film Youth Against Youth, Coppola does find the magic in simply being a highly emotional being and a gifted artist.

The film is about two brothers with a great many years between them and both the sons of a celebrated composer and conductor (played in color flashbacks by the great Klaus Maria Brandauer). The younger brother, Bennie (newcomer Alden Ehrenreich, who bears more than a slight resemblance to a young Leonardo DiCaprio) was abandoned by his older sibling, Angelo, when he was just a kid with a letter promising the older brother would return. An 18-year-old Bennie arrives in Buenos Aires to find his brother (played as an adult by Vincent Gallo) living with the a beautiful Miranda (Spanish actress Maribel Verdu of Pan's Labyrinth). Angelo has renamed himself Tetro (derived from the brothers' last name) and has begun a life for himself where no one around him knows his life story or the family secret that drove him from his home when he was 20.

The big family secret isn't that earth-shattering or all that hard to predict, but it isn't really the point of the film either. Tetro was a talented writer on the verge of success when he gave it all up after a friendship with a patron/critic friend (played by the legendary Carmen Maura) imploded years earlier. It's fascinating to watch the relationship between the brothers change, shift, grow and retract, sometimes within a single conversation. Tetro clearly loves Bennie, but something about having him stay with him is making memories of his troubled past come to the forefront of his clearly manic/depressive mind. It's clear that most of the things that interest Bennie come from his memories of the things Tetro loved (such as certain music, strange movies and writing), and Tetro is both honored and horrified by this.

I've always felt Gallo is one of his generation's most under-appreciated actors, and you can't help but be transfixed by both his eyes and his dangerous performance here. But the real find and the true surprise in Tetro is Ehrenreich, who matches Gallo in intensity scene for scene, but expresses a sweetness and likable quality. It's his fragility that makes what he does so astonishing, as he plays a young man trying desperately to hold together what little family he has left (their father is dying back home in America). The temptation is to look for parallels between this family and Coppola's own (his father was a musician as well, having written, among other things, the theme to The Godfather), but I wouldn't get lost in looking for the connections. It's clear this is a deeply personal tale for the director, even without the backstory. Tetro loses its way in some of the final scenes, and the entire film might be something of an endurance test for some of the less patient in the audience, but I didn't mind the slower pace (it's a nice change this time of year). As the brothers turn one of Tetro's stories into a play to be judged as part of the festival contest, the movie gets a little too into its own head, and the self-referential nature of the work bordered on the tedious. But overall, Tetro has an energy and a maturity that only a 70-year-old indie filmmaker could bring to the work. Coppola's efforts to make truly independent film have paid off with his latest two efforts, and I'm extremely eager to see what he's got for us next. I think this is a better film than Youth Against Youth (which I also liked), and it's worth seeking out if only for this devastatingly fine cast. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


I've seen a couple of films over the years about female painters who had to hide their gender in order to have their work taken seriously, but I think this might be the first film I've seen in which a female artist was not taken seriously because of her station in life. Set in the early 1900s, this fine French film chronicles the brief and troubled career of Seraphine Louis (eventually known to the world as Seraphine de Senlis), a self-taught painter who made her own paints and composed works of great originality. In 1912, on the brink of World War I, respected German art collector Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur) took up residences in a small Paris boarding house where Seraphine (played by the captivating Yolande Moreau) was working as a cleaning woman. She was painfully awkward around others and spent every dime she made on materials for painting alone in her small room. When Uhde happens upon one of her works, he immediately declares it a masterpiece, and he would know since he was one of the first collectors of Picasso's works, and he discovered Rousseau. Apparently untrained, or naïve, painters were becoming all the rage in Europe at the time; Uhde referred to them as "Sacred Heart Painters," and he eventually took Seraphine's work to some of the finest art galleries in the world, including the MOMA.

This award-winning film (it took many of the prizes at this year's French Oscar equivalent, the Cesars) is more than just a celebration of this lost artist's work. It shows how ill-equipped she was to handle any level of fame, praise or money as a result of her work. Seraphine has close ties to the local convent, and there's even some indication that she was either mentally ill or made less able to care for herself as a result of some physical or emotional trauma. Director Martin Provost doesn't attempt to answer these questions or even speculate, but the facts about Seraphine's life are documented and occasionally tragic. Still, he's taken great pains to show us how this tentative bond was formed between the artist and her patron. In her time, many never took note of Seraphine's work simply because she had no formal training and because she was a servant for hire, but the film champions those who look beyond an artist's station in life and examine the visionary quality of the art itself. In many ways Seraphine is one of the most inspirational films I've seen in quite some time, but it may not be immediately evident due to where the artist ends up by the end of the film. Ah, French films, you are so very gloomy, even as you entertain me and end suddenly. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

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Josh / June 19, 2009 3:42 PM

Steve have you seen The Nines? If not put it on your netflix queue. In fact I believe it is on Netflix Watch Instantly. Ryan Reynolds is incredible in that film.

Boo / June 21, 2009 1:23 AM

It's "Youth WITHOUT Youth"...

Bowler / June 21, 2009 5:34 PM

the Proposal made me want to move to Alaska, the scenery was fabulous

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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