Tag Archives: 12/20

Stranger than Fiction

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: The mundane life of IRS employee Harold Crick is turned upside-down when he starts hearing a voice in his head. The voice belongs to Karen Eiffel, who is writing a book with Harold as the main protagonist; unfortunately for Harold, not only does she have writer’s block, but she’s famous for killing off her main characters – just as he’s falling in love and starting to enjoy his life.

It seems unlikely that Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) would be the hero of anyone’s book, since – apart from having a talent, bordering on a penchant, for numbers – his life is thoroughly ordinary. He works for the IRS, lives alone, doesn’t really have a hobby or social life to speak of, save for his trusty watch. However, one morning his ablutions are disturbed by a voice in his head, narrating what he’s doing.

Naturally, his first instinct is that is that he’s going mad, which is unfortunate given that he’s auditing and falling for feisty baker Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a conscientious tax objector who also, understandably, objects to Harold ogling her. When the narrator reveals Harold’s deepest thoughts back to him and also the fact that he is marked for death, he’s alarmed and struck by the literary turn of the voice in his head (‘Little did he know…‘).

He shares his concerns with literature professor-cum-lifeguard Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), who sceptically asks Harold to keep a tally of whether he’s in a tragedy or comedy. The results aren’t promising, even if Ana slowly softens to Harold’s uptight honesty. Anyway, the owner of the voice – writer Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) – is desperately researching ways to kill off her lead character. Can Harold reach her before she overcomes her mental block?

Authors will often say (I do, at any rate) that their characters ultimately take on lives of their own and will begin to make suggestions about what they’re going to do or say next, and this simple premise drives Stranger Than Fiction. It’s not particularly original – plenty of characters have confronted their creators – but Marc Forster’s film takes the idea and runs with it confidently and nimbly. It’s an idea which (like close cousin Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind*) only makes sense as long as you don’t prod it too hard – exactly when did Harold wink into existence, for example? – but the film manages to be clever without being clever-clever, by which I mean that it asks questions about the nature of fiction in books and film (neither Eiffel nor Hilbert are ‘real’, after all) without shouting from the rooftops that it’s doing it.

It’s cutely written as well: there’s a great verbal and visual pun which I won’t spoil for you. That said, the theme – if you have a life, make sure you go out and live it – is a pretty standard one in recent times, American Beauty being just the first example that came into my head: having your author narrate your mundanity to you is simply a novel (no pun intended, though it‘s rather a good one) way of announcing a mid-life crisis.

The appearance of a comic actor in a straight role is not the only feature of Stranger Than Fiction that brings The Truman Show to mind. Harold is almost a negative of Truman: where Carrey‘s character was a ‘real’ person living a fake life, Ferrell’s is a fictional character somehow living in the real world. Both undergo a revelation, a revolution in their lives, and come face to face with their ’Makers.’

It’s tempting to say that Eiffel beats Christof solely because she doesn’t wear a beret, but I won’t be so flippant. Neither will I reveal whether she ends the story as comedy or tragedy, but the denouement is both effective and touching. High praise must be given to Ferrell for reining in his natural exuberance, and while his chemistry with Gyllenhaal doesn’t exactly burn up the screen, she’s as sympathetic as I’ve seen her and they make for a sweet couple.

Hoffman plays his role effortlessly (I hope he works hard to make it look so easy, it would be annoying if he didn’t), while Emma Thompson is just wonderful as Karen Eiffel; her mannerisms and haunted expression bring enormous gravitas to the film, much needed since Hoffman is doing breezy and Farrell couldn’t do deep if he tried (neither of these things are criticisms, by the way).

Nonetheless, it’s not all good news. Though she’s perfectly decent, I saw no reason whatsoever for Queen Latifah’s character to be in the film. She plays Penny, a writer’s assistant who tries to nurse Karen’s book to completion, and for all the impact she has on the story Thompson might as well be talking to her semi-smoked cigarettes. Stranger Than Fiction is also enamoured of its own story, when Harold’s decision to live his life to the full is neither particularly profound, original, nor (to be honest) full – his relationship with Ana is lovely, if familiar, but the guitar playing doesn’t convince – so I’m not persuaded that Karen’s novel is quite the sensational tale Jules makes it out to be, even with its intended ending.

The film pulls a few fancy tricks that I’m not sure about, too: the graphic visualisations of Harold’s obsessive counting don’t add much, and while his wristwatch is incredibly cool – nay, heroic – its analogue/digital design has nothing to do with the story, so comes across as a gimmick for its own sake.

Let’s be clear about this, though. Stranger Than Fiction is no noble failure. It’s a success, albeit one with significant qualifications. At times it’s over-familiar, at others a bit slow; it’s also unbalanced and won’t do anything for you if you’re looking for a full-on Ferrell comedy. But it’s not a self-satisfied, introspective work either, so as long as you come prepared – don’t expect Elf II – there’s every chance you might really like this quietly provoking tale.

NOTES: The film could easily be a conservative work from Charlie Kaufman, a less fevered variation on Adaptation.

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Green Zone

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Hunting down Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, Warrant Officer Roy Miller keeps coming up empty – and he wants to know why. His investigations send him on a direct collision course with the Pentagon, who refuse to give up their source, so he goes on a hunt of his own with the reluctant assistance of local ex-soldier Freddy. Unsurprisingly, Miller suddenly finds he has enemies on all fronts.

It’s April 2003, and the US Army are busy searching for Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction among the ruins of the bombed-out cities of Iraq. Leading the search is Roy Miller (Matt Damon), who is frustrated when his ‘intel’ repeatedly turns out to be useless. Miller’s inconvenient questions to his superiors bring him to the attention of CIA agent Marty Brown (Brendan Gleeson), who is trying to keep the country functioning; but he’s struggling against local Pentagon official Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), busy installing a puppet leader and feeding Amy Ryan’s reporter Lawrie with stories from an elusive source called ‘Magellan’.

Marty tells Miller to keep his eyes peeled, so when Iran War veteran Freddy (Khalid Abdalla) tells him about a meeting of Ba’ath Party Generals, including chemicals expert Al-Rawi (Yigal Naor), aka the ‘Jack of Clubs’, he’s more than interested. A firefight ensues during which Al-Rawi escapes, but Miller finds a notebook which may hold the key to his whereabouts. Miller is desperate to catch up with Al-Rawi, but the Pentagon are equally keen to keep Miller off the track; so when the Warrant Officer finds further clues in Abu Ghraib prison, he becomes involved in a violent race with moustachioed Special Forces hardman Briggs (Jason Isaacs), who doesn’t let a thing like being on the same side as Miller get in his way.

Whether or not you have any interest in the politics of the piece, there’s plenty to applaud in Green Zone. The re-enactment of the chaos and carnage of war is brilliantly filmed, once you get used to Greengrass’s nervous, restless camera (and you do); and the film is tightly paced, measuring out regular action scenes amongst the slower sections, which develop the plot and highlight the absurdity of the Americans luxuriating in the Imperial Palace while the civilians they’ve ‘liberated’ go without electricity or water.

The film is packaged in the style of previous Greengrass/Damon projects The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, which means Green Zone is always exciting and kinetic. What’s more, while you can agree or disagree with the politics of the piece, as someone who remembers watching Colin Powell trying to bamboozle the UN with crude computer mock-ups of lorries laden with chemical weapons, the subject matter remains relevant and – bravely for mainstream American cinema – points fingers at those in charge. You may believe the invasion of Iraq was justified in any event, but the uncomfortable fact is that the Allies went in to find WMDs – and found none.

The above praise makes it all the more unfortunate that one key aspect of Green Zone is a real let-down. Though the actors are all game, Brian Helgeland’s script fails to muster a single credible character with a humanising personality, quirk or foible. Everyone is a simplistic representative of a political position: Miller the doubting Thomas, Clark the slimy, scheming face of Washington, Briggs the unquestioning assassin, Marty the overlooked voice of reason, Freddy the noble Iraqi, Lawrie the gullible journalist. The film may have been based on a real-life account of the war, but it seems as though anything that could identify the characters as actual protagonists has been sanded away, leaving the talented cast to play a bunch of largely anonymous ciphers.

Consequently, when the film ramps up the thrills in full-blown Bourne fashion, with helicopters and vehicles and on-foot pursuits, the action partly relayed via state-of-the-art technology, it’s a strangely uninvolving experience. You don’t want Damon to get killed because he’s cuddly Matt Damon, but otherwise his Roy Miller doesn’t have enough about him to feel worth caring about. And while you’re clearly meant to feel for Freddy, he’s far too obvious a symbol of Iraqi self-determination to empathise with as a genuine person – and as others have noted, how the hell does he catch up with the action come the climax?

So what does that leave us with? It leaves us with a paradox, in that the film finds truth amongst lies yet doesn’t ring true itself. Green Zone plays like a cracking action film but fails to hammer home its point, which must have been Greengrass’s chief priority. I couldn’t help but compare the film unfavourably to David O. Russell’s Three Kings, which was seldom believable and occasionally quite unpleasant to watch, but took a much more jaded, scabrous view of the first Iraq War and was more memorable and effective as a result. Alternatively, I think of Black Hawk Down, which dealt with another screwed-up mission and brought the viewer into the middle of the fray, concentrating on the humans stuck in hell rather than the political decisions that caused them to be there.

I don’t want to sound too down on Green Zone, because I enjoyed it. I applaud the idea of exposing the (probably) illegal ‘War’ in Iraq for the sham it was, and I understand that packaging the Allies’ shoddy dealings in an action-cum-thriller wrapper secured the film the largest possible audience (though not, ultimately, very good box office). However, action films need a hero, and Damon’s upright but charmless Roy Miller just isn’t that man. Put simply, it’s difficult to warm to any film that suggests that the Ba’ath Party, given the chance, might save the day.

Galaxy Quest

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: The stars of TV space action show Galaxy Quest have their convention-attending schedule disrupted by the appearance of particularly convincing aliens. Put in charge of a working replica of their fake ship, the crew of the Protector must put on the performance of a lifetime to save their lives as well as the race that adore them.

A kind-hearted parody of both the original Star Trek TV show and the convention culture of its fans, Galaxy Quest is an amiable comedy that raises smiles of recognition as well as laughs from the jokes themselves. Of course, the central joke will be entirely lost on anyone unfamiliar with both Trek and Trekkies/Trekkers, but that sort of viewer is unlikely to be drawn to this film in any event.

The film’s plot is nicely drawn out, the cast of the TV series initially portrayed as jaded and bickering, bitter at never having outgrown the show. A pleasant but gullible race called the Thermians make contact with lead actor and Shatner/Kirk-alike Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen), famous for his role as Captain Peter Taggart; they ask for his assistance in a war against aggressive green enemies and, taking them for particularly devoted fans, he agrees to go to their ‘ship.’

In a nice twist, the Thermians reveal that not only do they consider the Galaxy Quest shows to be historical documents, they have based their technology on the programme too, helping the actors to be instantly familiar with the deck of the Protector II. It is a little difficult to believe that a race so outwardly simple is capable of such technological achievement, but they have a non-humanoid form too which is perhaps capable of great things.

Otherwise, the plot is pretty standard, and one you will have seen before if you have watched The Three Amigos or A Bugs’ Life. Familiarity is also an issue with other elements of the film: yes, it’s quite funny, but a lot of Star Trek is funny, intentionally or otherwise (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is essentially a comedy).

Also, the science fiction aspects of the film are adequate, but nothing more. Although they look very nice, action sequences involving the Protector are not as exciting as authentic Trek (the ship takes a lot of hits but the consequences seem minimal); aspects such as teleportation and the time-reversal device are used glibly too, with the actors proving rather too good at the job in hand and not particularly fazed by the extraordinary situation they find themselves in.

I haven’t made much mention of the cast, but they are fine in their dual roles. Allen is good as the overbearing star, although he is lumbered with re-learning a sense of pride in being a role-model (the geeky fans he insults at the start of the film end up being vital to the success of the mission). Alan Rickman is entertaining in morose, Frankie Howard-style as the semi-alien Science officer with a ruined Shakespearean career and preposterous catchphrase.

Sigourney Weaver and Tony Shalhoub fill out the Ohura and Scotty roles respectively, whilst Sam Rockwell enjoys his role as Guy, convinced – because his character has no surname – that he will be killed off as the expendable extra. Finally, Daryl Mitchell plays Lt Laredo, the former child actor who pilots the ship. His appearance as the sole black character may be a nod to the tokenism of Star Trek, but nothing is made of this in the script and the character does nothing of much interest.

To sum up, then: although it aims for the stars, Galaxy Quest never reaches the heights it hopes for, falling between the two stools of comedy and Science Fiction. Nevertheless, it’s easy on the eye and brain, always good for a giggle, and a perfectly decent choice if you are after undemanding Friday night fare.

The Man Who Cried

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: When a hard-up Jewish farmer leaves Russia to seek his fortune in America, he leaves behind a young daughter who is forced to flee herself when her life is threatened. She ends up in England, acquires the name Suzie and with her talent for singing sets off for Paris as a staging post to America. However, in Paris Suzie befriends carefree Lola and mysterious gypsy Cesar, both of whom will have a profound effect on her life – though the invasion of the Nazis ruins all their plans.

Russia, 1927, and a devoted father (Oleg Yankovskiy) makes the heart-breaking decision to leave his farm and beloved daughter Fegele (Claudia Lander-Duke) at home whilst he heads for the promised land of America. Unbeknownst to him, the village is soon after cleared of Jews and with a photograph of her father her only possession, Fegele boards a ship, not (as she thinks) bound for The States but for England, where she is taken in, given the name Suzie and subjected to the taunts of unsympathetic schoolchildren.

Suzie can sing, however, and this talent serves her well as an adult (played by Christina Ricci) when she comes to find a career, heading for the gaudy clubs of Paris as a first step to finding her father in America; in Paris, she befriends Russian dancer Lola (Cate Blanchett) and the two become room-mates. Suzie and Lola meet two very different men: Lola, looking for a rich man to look after her, works her way into the affections of Italian singer Dante (John Turturro), who gets them both work in the opera run by Felix Perlman (Harry Dean Stanton), whilst Suzie finds she prefers the company of fellow outcast Cesar (Johnny Depp), a handsome but poor gypsy who provides opera horses.

World War II begins, threatening each of the characters in different ways, and as Dante knows about Suzie’s Jewish heritage she is more vulnerable than most. Forced to leave Cesar, Suzie resumes the long journey towards her father, suffering further tragedy on the way; and even when father and daughter are reunited, the event is accompanied by new and unwelcome surprises.

As it shows Fegele/Suzie’s tough, tragedy-filled childhood, and proceeds to contrast Lola’s desire to climb socially with Suzie’s (equally doomed) quest for meaningful love and real belonging, The Man Who Cried reveals itself to be an attractive, lyrical film, paying close attention to the creation of both period and atmosphere. The latter is largely created through music, and from the difficult tunes of the gypsies to Suzie’s plaintive rendering (as both child and adult) of Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, the film is sure-footed in terms of its score, vital given the importance that music has throughout the story, not least in Dante’s defiant, then collaborative, singing.

In their supporting roles, Blanchett and Turturro are very good at playing out their relationship of convenience – he gets sex, she gets material comforts – and the whole film is carried along by the theme of daughters looking for fathers or father figures, Potter directing with a detachment that allows the characters’ emotions to speak for themselves rather than being accentuated by artificial tricks. Particularly effecting is one of the film’s very few comic moments, also a moment of pathos as Dante and Suzie become the sole remaining performers at the opera, playing to an almost empty house.

Unfortunately, two major things hamper the viewer from becoming involved more fully in Suzie’s story. Firstly, her relationship with Cesar – an illiterate, taciturn man – fails to convince, not necessarily because of any fault of Depp’s but because the part just isn’t solid enough. It involves a lot of stares and a bit of sex, but for the relationship to truly mean something it should have had a climax, a consequence, a surprise – even something akin to Titanic would have been nice. Yes, Depp is a man who cries, but his and Suzie’s parting doesn’t feel sufficiently dreadful, when he is going off to fight for his life and she to remember him forever in a distant land.

And this is the second point; talented though she is, Christina Ricci doesn’t get under the skin of her role. Passing over the complications of portraying an English-educated Russian Jew (in her remarkably few lines of dialogue she goes for a plain, prim English accent), Ricci’s Suzie is an observer of all the goings-on, including the deportation of her Jewish landlady, but none of the traumatic events in her life (‘coming of age’, for example, or the death of Lola on the voyage to America) get built into her character, and at the end of the film she is just a child happy to see her father and sad to see him dying.

I don’t think her child-like appearance is necessarily a bad thing, though she is a good deal shorter than the other actors; however, as Ricci plays Suzie the last scene could have been filmed the same day as her first, and since she seems unchanged by her experiences, the viewer is entitled to wonder why he or she should be particularly bothered about them.

I’m not sure Ricci was miscast so much as misdirected, just as I believe Depp made as much as he could out of Cesar (there is the other consideration that Depp and Ricci had previously worked together on Sleepy Hollow and found the intimate scenes distressing, which may or may not show). Whatever, Sally Potter must take as much blame for failing to draw out a central element of her own story as she should take credit for making an otherwise thoughtful and beautiful film with an unusual but effective female sensibility. Worth watching just to hear Dido’s Lament, and though it’s flawed in many respects, it is for the most part fascinatingly flawed.

Men who Stare at Goats, The

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Throwing himself into the Iraq War to escape his failed marriage, reporter Bob Wilton encounters ex-Army man Lyn Cassady, a self-styled super-soldier possibly equipped with psychic powers. As Bob learns of the origins of Lyn’s powers and the New Earth Army, he alternates between scepticism, wonder, and trying to avoid being kidnapped or shot.

Journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) works for a small-town Michigan paper; but while writing disbelieving pieces about local crazies such as Army veteran Gus Lacey (Stephen Root), who babbles on about psychic super-soldiers and claims to have (almost) stared his pet hamster to death, he fails to notice that his wife has fallen in love with his editor.

In a funk, Bob ‘goes to war’ but struggles to get into American-occupied Iraq, until he meets up with Gus’s former colleague Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) in Kuwait. As the pair travel into Iraq, Lyn tells Bob about the US Army’s Project Jedi, initiated by his mentor Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) who saw a vision after being shot in Vietnam. With the enthusiastic support of Brigadier General Hopgood (Stephen Lang) – and after many New Age travels – Bill created the New Earth Army, a unit dedicated to non-lethal combat and using psychic powers such as cloudbursting, invisibility and mind control to achieve their aims.

Lyn’s impressive Jedi powers made him the Unit’s star pupil, but he increasingly became wary of the uses to which his skills were being put, especially when he literally stared at a goat until its heart stopped. Jealous colleague Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey), meanwhile, had no qualms about the ‘dark side’, whether it was using LSD on a soldier with tragic consequences, or cursing Lyn with the ‘Death Palm’. The truth about Lyn’s destiny may be less mystical, but it’s equally devastating and features an unexpected meeting with old acquaintances – that is, if he doesn’t get himself and Bob killed in Iraq en route.

The Men Who Stare at Goats offers up plenty of ammunition to its detractors. Perhaps because of the quirky subject matter, perhaps because of the involvement of Bridges (The Big Lebowski) and Clooney (O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Burn After Reading) – or a combination of both – the film has the distinct feel of a Coen Brothers project. Not that this is a bad thing in and of itself, of course, but Goats does that Coenesque thing of mixing dark themes with details and dialogue that border on the whimsical, such as the explanation of the ‘Predator’ weapon and pretty much all of Bob’s marital strife – why does his wife’s lover have a prosthetic arm?

The set-up to the main action feels contrived, the coincidences of Bob meeting up with Lyn whilst doodling the All Seeing Eye stretching credibility, even if this sort of mystical destiny is the point of the film. Unfortunately, the movie never really knows itself whether Bill’s teachings have real foundation or are essentially hogwash; the chaotic climax (or ‘Bill’s revenge’, as it might be called) is juvenile, and the final images are a clumsy attempt to express symbolically a hippy-tinged blandishment – hey man, if you open your mind, it doesn’t matter if you can’t really walk through walls, ‘cos, hey, you’re kind of doing it anyway.

On the other hand, much about Goats is utterly absorbing. The film opens with a credit that claims ‘more of this is true than you would believe’, and as it skilfully shows the foundation and operation of the New Earth Army you find yourself wanting to believe in Project Jedi – given what we know about Cold War paranoia, it’s very easy to believe that such a Project was set up in response to a Russian response to a complete hoax. Goats also intelligently contrasts the innocent, pacifist aims of the New Earth Army with the cynicism of modern, corporation-led modern warfare: the gunfight between rival private security firms is utterly believable, and the Guantanamo-style horror of Hooper’s compound shows that Bill’s New-age idealism has become subverted, perverted, monetised, weaponised. Furthermore, even if Bill and Lyn’s story doesn’t conclude in particularly satisfactory fashion, Bridges and Clooney are charismatic enough to ensure that our journey with them is both amusing and affecting during the spritely 94-minute running time. Their pathos and belief in their gifts – despite occasional contradictory evidence – is funny, touching, and in complete contrast to the grim humourlessness of Green Zone. Kevin Spacey is brilliantly unpleasant, while Lang’s bug-eyed Hopgood is great fun; even McGregor, who has a tough time staking his place as the uninitiated observer, warms into the part, though a significant amount of his charm undoubtedly comes from a recognition of clever casting – who better to talk about Jedi nonsense than the young Obi-Wan?

So, The Men Who Stare at Goats will absolutely not be to everyone’s tastes. If you like your War Films loud, intense and patriotic, you’ll find this far too liberal and sneering; however, if you’re willing to embrace the unconventional and have a keen sense of the satirical – and appreciate acting so good it looks effortless – this movie offers a great deal of fun, no little emotion, and a fascinating, sly insight into the extreme edges of modern warfare. And don’t let the jokey title put you off: this movie actually has something to say on top of its attention-grabbing eccentricity.

Gods and Monsters

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: James Whale, the revered, retired and increasingly frail director of the famous ‘Frankenstein’ films, looks back on his life and loves under the disapproving gaze of his severe housekeeper. His young gardener agrees to sit to be painted by Whale and is fascinated by the man, but remains unsure of his motives.

Bill Condon’s film, from Christopher Bram’s novel, is an intimate affair, focusing mainly on the last few weeks in the life of troubled film director James Whale (played by Ian McKellen). Whale has survived a tough, working-class English upbringing and the displeasure of his father to become a man of fine tastes and vision – he directed the first film version of Show Boat, after all – but all anyone really wants to know about, including a gauche young student who comes to interview him, is the schlocky Frankenstein films he turned out.

Naturally, this is the last thing Whale himself wants to discuss so he makes his own fun by making the poor young man strip (not that, as it happens, he particularly minds); however, when Whale suffers a stroke it becomes clear that he is seriously ill, and we find out that only strong medication is keeping his mind from being flooded with a hundred thoughts at once.

Despite his infirmity, Whale becomes interested in his gardener, an ex-marine called Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser). Boone is avowedly heterosexual yet the pair strike up an awkward friendship when Boone consents to be painted by the director. However, the portrait is destined never to be completed, either because Boone is freaked out by the old man’s lurid stories, or Whale is irritated by the youngster’s brashness. Overseeing them both is stern East European maid Hanna (Lynn Redgrave), who frets for her master’s soul as much as for the propriety of the goings-on within the house.

The description of the film as ‘intimate’ works on two levels: the film details both characters’ love lives closely, giving them and the viewer insights into both homosexual and heterosexual love; also, the film for the most part feels quite small, spent largely within Whale’s house, although there are occasional flashbacks to Whale’s life as a boy, as a soldier in the (so-called) Great War, and even a few recreations of the filming of Bride of Frankenstein, plus an entertaining visit to a party thrown by George Cukor and patronised by Princess Margaret, where Whale embarrasses the still-working (so still in the closet) director and faces his own monsters when brought face-to-face with Boris Karloff and other stars from his films.

As the film progresses, attempts are made to link the theme of Frankenstein with the director’s own predicament: ‘Alone: bad. Friend: Good.’ These are largely successful, and the tale Whale tells of his lover Barnett being snagged on barbed wire, his body visible for weeks after his death, is very moving, but it does mean that the film verges on being talky for much of its running time, concentrating on the characters’ feelings rather than their actions.

Accordingly, it is vital that the acting is of good quality and Ian McKellen is gloriously fruity as Whale, leering over young flesh with a keen eye whilst retaining the frailties of his situation. Redgrave is also excellent, and whilst Fraser is comparatively lumpy (his explanation about why he is a marine in name only fails to move as much as Whale’s stories) he does everything that is asked of him and is convincing enough when he finally rejects both Whale’s advances and his drastic request.

Gods and Monsters is a fine little film which tells a touching and finally tragic story of a man whose cult success overshadowed the films he regarded as his classics. As long as you don’t expect anything more of it, and as long as you realise exactly what you’re letting yourself in for, you are likely to find this both informative and enjoyable. Even if it’s not your thing, Sir Ian’s performance alone makes it worth a watch.

Moon

WFTB Score: 12/20

The plot: Left to look after a mining facility on the dark side of the moon with only a friendly robot for company, Sam Bell looks forward to the end of his three-year contract and reuniting with his family. However, Sam starts to feel unwell and, after an accident, develops the feeling that he’s not alone. Is it paranoia? And if not, what – or who – is with him?

First of all, a warning: if you’ve not seen Moon and think you might want to, please (in the nicest possible way) go away and come back later. I can’t even allude to the films that it bears comparison to without giving away crucial elements of the plot, and I’d hate to spoil it for you in any way. Okay?

Good. So, this is Moon: in the near-ish future, Lunar Industries have solved the Earth’s energy crisis by collecting helium-3 on the moon and sending it back in regular launches from the Sarang mining base. The only human not to benefit directly is Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), the base’s sole employee, just a few weeks away from returning to his wife Tess (Dominique McElligott) and their young daughter Eve.

A satellite* failure prevents any direct communication with Earth, so – apart from talking to himself and some plants – his only conversation is with sympathetic automaton GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey). Sam begins to hallucinate, causing him to suffer a terrible accident while he’s out recovering helium-3 from the giant harvesters that roam the moon’s surface; the next thing Sam knows, he’s being looked after by GERTY at the base’s infirmary, though for some reason his robotic assistant doesn’t want him to go outside.

He manufactures a reason to go anyway and discovers a crashed vehicle with what appears to be himself inside. Suddenly, Sarang has two unhappy Sams at each other’s throats and GERTY has a lot of explaining to do. The pair learn to rub along together and delve for answers at the base, facing a race against time to take action before the company’s ‘rescue’ team arrive.

The temptation to fill this review with naff David Bowie puns is almost irresistible, but I’ll try not to, for the one-time Mr Zowie Bowie’s debut feature film owes nothing to his father’s work (though planet Earth is blue, and there’s not much Sam can do). Instead, I’ll start by saying that Moon is a fabulous-looking film. The exterior shots on the moon’s surface, often looking back towards Earth, are convincing and add to an atmosphere of remoteness and melancholy which is enhanced by Clint Mansell’s score

Indoors, there’s a lovely lived-in feeling to the sets: while largely clean, white and featuring the usual futuristic lettering, there’s also clutter: photos, pen markings, post-its and the like. The design is uniformly believable and striking, especially GERTY’s emoticon-like facial expressions which are both charming and emotionally affecting. Also, Sam Rockwell does a superb job of acting on his own (as it were), bringing out all the frustration and alienation of the Sams’ predicament and what turns out to be a tricky domestic situation, as well as physically representing someone who is deeply unwell.

For a while, it looks as though Moon is going to fully exploit the ambiguity of Sam’s situation, the question of how much we can take on trust and how much Sam is creating in his head due to mental illness; however, the film plays out in a decidedly unambiguous fashion, meaning it loses in Fight Club-style intrigue what it gains in its choice of dramatic climax, which isn’t necessarily the greatest trade-off.

The climax of the movie is a slight disappointment and asks more questions about the plot than it answers: if people can go back and forth so easily, surely Lunar Industries would send a team to the moon, to cover illness and prevent exactly the sort of loneliness Sam experiences? Alternatively, couldn’t a company with the technology to make GERTY and the harvesters run the base without any human intervention? Still, you can destroy the magic of many a film by poking at it too much, and in general Moon carries the viewer along on the strength of its atmosphere and strong central performance.

On the other hand, the viewer who watches a lot of space-themed movies might see many things they’ve seen before. In particular, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey hangs over the entire film. Jones’ movie apes the look and feel of the central section of 2001, the chief difference being the generally benign presence of GERTY rather than HAL’s cold indifference. Even the scenes where Sam speaks to his daughter appear to be inspired by 2001, and one of the final images echoes Dave Bowman’s journey through the stargate.

Moon’s themes differ from 2001 but are reminiscent of other films such as The Island (which in itself was hardly an original idea) – though the vision of cloning used here reminded me more specifically of The Prestige. I read that Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running was also a big influence, but I will need to see that film (and the original Solaris) to form my own opinion.

While I may be being excessively hard on films that lean on others for visual or thematic inspiration – since that accounts for 99.9 percent of all films made – I should stress that Moon is competently made and very nicely played, Sam Rockwell wringing every nuance out of his character’s complicated personality and the script making him play against himself with humour and style. It’s just that instead of watching Moon again, I’d rather watch everything that influenced it – which either means it does its job brilliantly, or that the movie’s not as memorable in its own right as it might wish.

NOTES: Which is how it’s spelt. Not to come over all schoolma’amish or anything, but I hope someone in the production was severely ticked off for misspelling the word on one of the computer screens.