An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Friday, June 19, 2009

Outlands: VISIONEERS and MOON

Going to the movies the past two nights, I've encountered two indies set in the near future, both built around lonely, passive protagonists. They both owe a strong debt to films and ideas of the past. Only one is pure sci-fi, but it struck me as odd or somehow meaningful that I saw them so closely together. (In between the two I saw Francis Ford Coppola's new film, Tetro [yeah, I go to the movies a lot, you wanna fight about it?], which I liked very much but which, alas, I cannot shoehorn into this discussion.)

Jared Drake's Visioneers is undistributed—and it looks like it's going to stay that way, given that a DVD release is slated for later this summer—but I was able to see it last night at Chicago's magical Gene Siskel Film Center at the ceremony for the winners of some kind of local award for indie comedy. The one-man "celebrity" jury was this guy, who is totally cool with me because he wrote The 'Burbs and that is a great fucking movie. (It's a must-see for fans of Bruce Dern, who also starred in Silent Running, which was a major influence on Moon. See what I did there?!) I also had a random quasi-celebrity sighting in the audience: this awesome motherfucker, who played the dude who played Kramer in the show-within-the-show on Seinfeld (sidebar: Wikipedia says this guy was Larry David's first choice for the role of the actual Kramer). I spotted him just hanging out in the lobby/cafe area before the movie, although he did have an official-looking badge on. Insider events!

So, this movie. It's a disappointment—partly. I'd been excited about it since seeing the trailer last year, partly because it's a beautifully cut trailer but mostly because of the promise of seeing one of my favorite comedians ever, Zach Galifianakis, in a leading role. I did get to see that, and more on Zach later, but anyone who shat themselves with excitement over that trailer should brace for a letdown (and get some new pants—seriously, it's time). Basically it's an earnest, extremely derivative attempt at Orwellian satire that I might have retitled Dystopia For Dummies.

Corporations are inhuman and soul-crushing! Self-help gurus are full of shit! Having thoughts and emotions is better than not having them! These are a few of the facile non-profundities peddled by the Visioneers script, written by Brandon Drake, the IRL brother of director Jared Drake. (Will they someday be known as The Drake Brothers, a la Messrs. Coen and Duplass? Probably not, but let's call them that anyway. Their mom would probably love it. Mrs. Drake, if you're reading this, you should still be proud of your sons even though someone you've never met has reservations about their movie.)

The ideas in this movie are ideas that you have encountered before—cherry-picked from 1984, Terry Gilliam's Brazil, the stories of George Saunders, and any number of other sources you could name. It's set in a vaguely-defined corporate dystopia in which people have been exploding (literally) if they...well, it's not too clear what the prerequisite for explosion is other than that our protagonist, an unhappy corporate drone trapped in a loveless marriage with a woman obsessed with a TV self-help show, is in danger of being the latest explosion victim. He's been dreaming at night, which his doctor tells him is veeerry baaaad (because good things like dreaming are bad, because the corporate power structure hates emotions and independent thoughts and authentic lives...you begin to see the movie's perspective?) I guess the idea is that people who break out of the bland complacency that's standard in this society get 'sploded, but the thing is, we only actually see one explosion take place—perhaps due to budgetary limitations—and the poor guy wasn't actually doing anything subversive. So the ideas here are both familiar and half-baked. Anyway, the only bright spot in Zach's existence is his daily phone conversation with a higher-up at the office named Charisma. Then Charisma gets fired, for being too nice I guess, and Zach has to save her from being de-emotioned by the evil corporate baddies. Will love conquer all? Will anyone care?

Okay, so it sounds like I'm being pretty harsh. But here's the thing: I felt that the directing half of The Drake Brothers actually treated this well-worn material in a paradoxically fresh, unpredictable way. There's an off-kilter approach to Drake's framing and cutting that suits the material. For a low-budget movie it's a surprisingly stylish affair, and here's where I shall praise Drake for shooting on film rather than going down the dark road of shitty digital video (as most of his microbudget peers understandably do). The 35mm print screened at the Siskel Center looked yummy. Drake's camera often lingers on scenes well past the point when a Hollywood counterpart would have cut away, like a party guest who won't leave, increasing the sense that everyone in this society is essentially uncomfortable with their lives.

And then there's Zach G. His performance here is so restrained and internal that anyone familiar only with his broad hijinks in The Hangover would be shocked. It is comprised alternately of long vacant stares, hushed line readings, and controlled physical freakouts that combine to suggest a basic discomfort with such acts as speaking and moving. It's a character that flirts with maddening passivity (Syd Field would disapprove) but Zach owns it—you can't take your eyes off him, even when he's just staring off into space (and Drake lingers searchingly on close-ups of his face, a lot, to a point that's kind of disconcerting, in a good way).

Even though I was ultimately let down by the film's adherence to age-old ideas about how it would totally be better to live in an imperfect world with genuine emotions than a perfect world with robotic sameness, I was never less than intrigued along the way. (It's also worth mentioning that during the first 10 minutes or so I thought I was watching a future classic; the opening scene is a perfectly realized peek into absurd corporate routine that the film never quite lives up to.) There are a lot of odd little details and grace notes—a largely unexplained subplot about a commune of hippies coming to live in Zach's backyard bears some nice absurdist fruit—and enough skill in the filmmaking that I'm eager to see what The Drake Brothers cook up next. The forthcoming DVD is something worth checking out.

And yeah, Moon. I don't know that I have a lot to say about it right now, even though it's a far far better film than the one I just wrote about. It is a modest, melancholy little sci-fi masterpiece that I look forward to seeing again. Although it does call to mind the idea-driven SF films of the pre-Star Wars era, writer-director-sonofDavidBowie Duncan Jones isn't interested in reinventing cinema or making grandiose statements about mankind, a la 2001 and Solaris. Indeed, one of the movie's virtues is its perfect simplicity, its smallness. Despite the big second-act "twist" there's not actually that much going on plot-wise. Jones finds the perfect tone and the perfect look, and the rest is taken care of by the amazing Sam Rockwell, who I believe may be the best actor of his generation (and this is his finest showcase to date). For the work of a first-time director this movie is almost shockingly fully-realized, especially compared to the other debut I saw last night, which was more "promising" than anything else. This is a sad, funny, and deeply human film despite the hard-SF trappings. J.R. Jones of the Chicago Reader picked up on that humanity when he wrote this poignant line: "As it turns out, the moon is just another shitty place to work, and as the hero discovers to his horror, even his own selfhood is company property." As of mid-June this is my favorite new film of the year...unless you count Silent Light as a 2009 film, which I do, so okay, it's my second-favorite new film of the year so far. Not too shabby.

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