A nifty little piece of science fiction, Duncan Jones’ Moon works on the same level as the best of the genre: psychological, rather than effects-laden eye candy. This is a thoughtful, even provocative, virtually one-man chamber drama that just happens to be set on the moon and use futuristic plot devices.
Sam Rockwell stars as Sam Bell, employee of Lunar Industries who single-handedly oversees an automated mining process on the dark side of the moon. It’s a lonely gig, and wouldn’t you know it, the communications satellite has been down for the entirety of his 3-year contract. His only companion is the base station’s AI Gerty, memorably portrayed as a mobile unit that displays a series of emoticons and voiced by Kevin Spacey as 2001‘s HAL 9000 with a tad more emotion.
Towards the final days of his contract, one of the giant mining machines malfunctions and Sam heads out in a lunar rover to fix it. His rover crashes, and Sam wakes up in the medical bay some time later; Gerty explains that he had an accident, has been unconscious for some time, and has suffered some memory loss.
Sam suspects something is amiss. He ignores Gerty’s orders from command and heads out to the site of his accident…
Then Moon takes us in some pretty interesting directions. There’s an initial surprise that sets up a twist that most of us will figure out before Sam does; this shifts focus onto the main character. We seem to know more than he does, and we watch how he slowly uncovers what is going on and how he reacts to it.
Moon boils down to a one-man show, and Rockwell is exceptional here, displaying a vivid range, creating distinct personalities. Jones’ slow, methodical pace works because we’ve invested so much into Rockwell’s character.
The film recalls Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Trumbull’s Silent Running. It’s a refreshing low-budget return to genre basics as opposed to the effects and spectacle that sci-fi has been represented by in recent cinema. It’s a film of ideas, intelligence, logic.
Moon is the debut feature for director Jones, a commercial director who displays an surprising amount of control over his project and has instantly established himself as a director to watch. He’s also the son of glam rocker David Bowie. You might remember Bowie’s Space Oddity, which featured a character called Major Tom and contained these lyrics:
Here am I sitting in my tin can
far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue
and there’s nothing I can do
“More of this is true than you would believe” reads the disclaimer at the beginning of Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, which I would like to believe. The movie is more than a bit of a mess, but there’s a lot of good here, it’s pleasant and breezy, and the underlying material is really intriguing. It’s worthy of some forgiveness and a mild recommendation.
The men stare at the goats in order to kill them with the power of their mind. They’re super soldiers trained by the US military in aspects of the paranormal. They’d be the perfect soldiers and spies; but do the super powers really work? That’s more of a ‘maybe’.
Goats jumps back and forth in time, but we begin with Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), reporter looking for the perfect story. He wouldn’t expect that from crackpot Gus Lacey (Stephen Root), who tells Bob about the New Earth Army and the government-funded paranormal training, but then he meets Lyn Cassidy (George Clooney), who seems a tad more convincing (despite the mustache).
Wilton meets Cassidy in Iraq, where one thread of the story takes us, but we’re far more interested in Cassidy’s continued history of the New Earth Army, recreated for our pleasure in detailed flashback featuring some really fun performances.
The New Earth Army was founded by Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), a Vietnam vet who realized that soldiers didn’t really want to kill. He turned New Age philosophy, discovered peace could make for a more powerful weapon than war, and somehow convinced the US government to commit funding to studying the powers of the mind.
Django trains his men using hippy-dippy New Age philosophy, but the good vibes are eventually killed off by Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), a failed student who wants to use the powers of the mind for more sinister plots (like, killing off goats) and is easily able to convince military officials of the benefits for taking Django’s program in this direction.
The Men Who Stare at Goats has one big problem: it’s a satire, but isn’t quite sure if it’s light and breezy or darker and heavy or how serious it should take itself or it’s subject matter. This results in a tone that’s all over the map for most of the film; ‘goofy’ is a good descriptor for most of it.
Other issues: the lead character, McGregor’s reporter, is a real snooze. And the production is TV-level efficient but unexceptional and decidedly uncinematic; director Heslov hasn’t really brought much to the table.
But there’s a lot of good here, in the New Earth Army flashbacks and in the performances from Clooney and Bridges, who both know exactly how to respond to the material. If you can forgive the weaknesses, The Men Who Stare at Goats provides plenty of goofy fun.
I’m not quite sure what Kirk Jones’ Everybody’s Fine is trying to say, but it isn’t said with enough conviction. There are a lot of stray themes here – kids neglecting their parents, the effects of a father putting too much pressure on his children, of his kids hiding the truth to avoid disappointing him – but nothing really gels, and the film seems to grow more implausible as it goes along. Not a good sign for an intimate drama.
Oh, it’s competently shot and directed and put together, and front and center is a pretty good performance by Robert De Niro as the father, but what does it want to say? It’s okay to lie to your loved ones and tell them everybody’s fine, to shut them out of your life and shelter them from your own inadequacies?
The first twenty or thirty minutes of the film are the best. De Niro plays Frank Goode, a late-sixties retiree whose wife passed away eight months ago. He’s preparing for a family get-together with his four adult children, and opening scenes show him buying meat, wine, a new grill a the local store. I could have easily watched De Niro shop for groceries for the entire film.
The kids, however, stand him up. So Frank, despite a heart condition, plans a cross-country trip with stops to see them all. They might politely tell him they’re too busy too spend any time with him and send him on his way, but at least he’ll get a glimpse of his children.
First up is David (Austin Lysy), a New York artist. He’s not home, but Frank sticks around for awhile, making small talk with a passing prostitute and an elderly man at the local diner. These little vignettes are realistic-perfect, with a stoic De Niro playing off the eccentric people his character comes across wonderfully.
As the film progresses, the vignettes are overpowered by complications (read: unnecessary plot contrivances) that develop along the journey and eventually force an air of implausibility.
Frank’s other children are Amy (Kate Beckinsale), a Chicago advertising executive, happily married with a teenage son; Robert (Sam Rockwell), conductor with a Denver orchestra; and Rosie (Drew Barrymore), a successful dancer in Las Vegas (no, not that kind of dancer). But everybody’s life (spoiler) isn’t so fine.
Everybody’s Fine is based on the 1990 Italian film Stanno tutti bene directed by Giuseppe Tornatore (fresh off his most successful film, Cinema Paradiso) and starring Marcello Mastroianni in the role played by De Niro here.
I haven’t seen the earlier film, but can imagine something has been lost in translation. Everybody’s Fine is capably made by director Jones (Waking Ned Devine), and successfully identifies the situation faced by its main character, but its attempt to reconcile his conflict is unsatisfying and even unnecessary.