Sunday, May 3, 2009

Tribeca Report No. 10

The opening sequence of Ducan Jones’ Moon sucks you right in; this is how you start a movie. The exposition is handled, quickly and efficiently, with a slick commercial for “Lunar Industries,” which has solved the energy crisis by harvesting an energy resource from the moon. We then go to their lunar base, manned by a single astronaut: Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), who is at the tail-end of a three-year contract and counting the days. This opening is stylishly shot and powered by an intense, driving Clint Mansell score; I was all but bouncing in my seat with giddy enthusiasm.

Thankfully, the film lives up to its promise. Moon is a rare sci-fi flick with a brain and a heart, and while some of it is clearly inspired by other material, director Jones spins this yarn into something unique and fresh and new and exhilarating. You give yourself over to it as it hurls intriguingly from one scene to the next, occasionally obtuse but never detached.  Moon works as the best sci-fi does—by using technology and special effects and cool sets to compliment a genuine, thought-provoking, human narrative. Throughout Sam’s story, he is faced with questions about life and death and memory and the difficulties of his own personality; he sees things in himself that he doesn’t like.

But what’s refreshing about the picture is that it’s got its head in the right place. To a degree, it apes the look and feel of a 2001, but without all that deadly solemnity. Moon is a film with a sense of humor; part of that is in the script, part of that is in the ingenious casting of Rockwell (an actor who can turn on a dime from good-natured goofball to morose manic-depressive), part of that is in the screenplay and direction, which are full of little throwaway asides that give the film a lived-in, grimy feel. The sparkly white uniforms are discolored and a little dirty; so is Rockwell’s brilliant performance.

Some will complain that its tonal shifts could be smoother, that too much of the material is familiar from other films, or that the philosophical and psychological elements of the story are skimmed but not explored. Strangely, I was aware of those problems, but not bothered by them. Good films do that to you—things that might drive you mad in a film that isn’t working are forgivable, perhaps even enjoyable, in a film that does. I, for example, didn’t mind the cribbing from 2001 and Solaris and Outland and Alien—it’s a picture that knows its roots and knows our expectations, and sometimes (in the case of the HAL-ccenteric GERTY), Nathan Parker’s screenplay slyly subverts those expectations. That’s good storytelling, and Moon—involving, hypnotic, and altogether spellbinding—announces the arrival of a major new talent.

* * *

Caroline Bottaro’s Queen to Play is a charmingly low-key seriocomic drama from France; its primary selling point here in the States is that it features Kevin Kline in, surprisingly enough, a French-speaking role. His character, Dr. Kröger, is one of those cranky, bleary-eyed professorial types that he’s played so well over the last few years. Our heroine, Hélène, cleans Kröger’s house, and she discovers his chess set on a shelf and asks him if he’ll teach her how to play. “Why does this game mean so much to you?” he asks. “I don’t know,” she replies, convincingly, but something in the way she says it captures him, and he begins to teach her the game.

The extended chess metaphor is a little on the clumsy side, as those things go; she informs us that “The queen is the most powerful piece,” and you don’t need a masters in English lit to figure out what they’re driving at here. That complaint aside, Bottaro does a marvelous job of showing how her love of chess subtly but completely takes over Hélène’s life—one great shot reveals her mopping a floor that is covered in checkered floor tiles, and it’s not much of a leap for her to imagine that she’s on a giant chess board.

The picture’s only possible trouble is with its pace; there are moments where it threatens to become a glacial French chamber piece, though Bottaro’s script is mostly too nimble for that. What it can’t manage to avoid is the idea that any film dealing with a sport (no matter what the sport) must end with a big competition of said sport; when Kröger suggests that Hélène enter an upcoming tournament, my soul died a little. This soon after Rudio y Cursi, was I about to see another distinctive indie bury itself in a painfully standard ending?

And the tournament does feel like a construct, but you know what? It kind of works anyway. It’s undeniably involving and certainly helps pull the story towards a conclusion; perhaps it’s unfair to discount the third act just because it goes to a predictable place (after all, I reminded myself, Searching For Bobby Fischer—the greatest chess film ever—also, in fact, ends with a chess tournament). Queen to Play takes a bit too long to get going and drags periodically throughout. But it has some lovely scenes and charming performances, and its closing shots are really something.

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