Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Passion is better with talent and hard work

Moon (2009) was overlooked here in the States, but it won Best Film at the British Independent Film Awards. This may have been for the feat of creating a convincing sci-fi film for what is reportedly less than the equivalent of $5 million US. And that is with 400 special effects shots, including substantial CGI, much of which is undetectable (I cannot say the same for the lunar surface model shots, which are substandard). Those CGI shots are essential for the central premise of the story, and they are greatly aided by the fine work of Sam Rockwell. (That premise is hinted at by the illustration I selected.)

While for many people the takeaway of Moon seems to be that you can do good science fiction on a low budget, they are missing the point. Science fiction has always been about the present. I'm not much worried about what my life would be like if I was mining helium on the moon. But I am concerned about what my work life takes away from me, and that is especially true if I work for a large, faceless, multinational corporation. They have no compunction about taking from us everything that makes us ourselves. And that is the dilemma of Sam Bell, the protagonist of this film. He has become a pale photocopy of himself, his integrity literally collapsing. I mean, literally. There is a loneliness, a melancholy to this film which reminds me of the feeling I got from a number of bad jobs I've had--just wondering when the day or the job itself will be over and when I'll be able to spend my time with decent, worthwhile human beings again.

I should add that the film ends with a small, but poetically right and satisfying triumph, so the melancholy does not linger to the end, and a ray of hope is offered.

Obviously, a film like this is a passion project, as was the super-lowbudget indie Moonlight Serenade (2009), but here is the proof that passion is not enough. This film mirrors my personal experience in ultra lowbudget film: the project was premised on a genre of music--that music was well represented and well-produced, and everything surrounding it was either amateurish or shabby. (This may explain why the film has been on the shelf since being shot in 2006.) Amy Adams sings better than I thought, and her co-star Alec Newman is acceptable, although given his complete lack of box office appeal, I wonder they didn't go to New York and select from any one of dozens of handsome young men who sing far better and may even have been able to do their own piano playing.

It's not a terrible idea to bring together two young lovers over a common love of the Great American Songbook. (That may be my own bias, as I fell in love with that repertoire in my college years, and it is a passion my wife shares.) But you still need a story. And the one here is thin, thin, thin. Burned-out Wall Street yuppie maintains his sanity playing the Old Tunes, meets up with aspiring singer who needs accompanist--brief fight--final reconciliation. And that's literally all there is. Oh, the wonderful Harriet Harris seems to want to be Alec Newman's mother instead of his assistant (and how insulting is it that a bright, hardworking mature woman like Harris has to be assistant to a fledgling).

Speaking of thin, the sets appear to be made of cardboard and the impression is compounded by the DP's penchant for hyper-short lenses on very cheap video, yielding a distorted and smeared image.

The music, on the other hand, is virtually over-produced and plentiful, although, unfortunately, not continuous, else it would have drowned the super-pedestrian dialogue. (This is the kind of movie that, after the hero plays very well, has to have a scene where his friend the professional musician tells him he played very well. Nothing else happens in this scene--nothing.) The voices are rendered in a hyper-artificial echo, which is jarring in the scenes taking place in ordinary environments, such as apartments and sidewalks. They did take the risk of including non-diagetic songs, that is, songs that are not taking place in the real world, but in the fanciful universe of musicals in which people sing anywhere, anytime.

That incidentally, is the only explanation for Harriet Harris's participation, as she gets to sing "Lover Man, Where Can You Be?" while roaming around the cheap office set (which looks as though it might be an actual cheap office). I did not check the chapter stops on the DVD, but I would recommend simply jumping from song to song and skipping everything else. It's not like you have to see the entire film because you're interested in the writer-director's future. He has none.

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