No Concessions: Summer Shorts, with Woody, Coppola, “Tony Manero,” and Zowie Bowie

Just about this time last year I devoted a column to indie or indie-ish movies hunkered down out there among the multiplex behemoths, titled “Summer Shorts.” It’s time for the sequel. The “specialty” market needs all the help it can get—this year’s biggest grosser among the littles has been Sunshine Cleaning, which washed up with a paltry $12 million in the till, or about what it costs to stage a Quidditch match. Consider this a lifeline, for them and for you, if you’re sick of super-stuff (and don’t forget the excellent The Hurt Locker, which I reviewed two weeks ago).

What I liked best about Moon, which I saw this opportune week, was its retro look. Director Duncan Jones (once known as “Zowie Bowie,” son of the formerly named David Jones) was inspired by the industrial design of Silent Running, Alien, and Outland, which production designer Tony Noble and visual effects supervisor Gavin Rothery translated with models rather than computer graphics. Every time the movie, shot in slightly distressed widescreen by Gary Shaw, ventures outside to the lunar surface I was transported to the pre-digital era. This movie has those movies in mind and also the worlds of Gerry Anderson, of TV’s Thunderbirds and Space: 1999, whose 1969 feature Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is another clear inspiration. (And maybe The Man Who Fell to Earth, but Jones is careful to distance himself from his space oddity dad.)

Sun is about a doppelganger, on a planet that’s the reverse of Earth. Moon is about…well, that would be spoiling, though the particulars of why lunar miner Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is being haunted by specters as he approaches the end of his lonely three-year assignment are made more-or-less clear by the midpoint. I’ve called Rockwell a flop indicator whose presence usually spells box office disaster, but a close-to-full midweek audience was rapt. The actor, not dipping too deep into his quirk bag, makes the character’s dilemma plausible, and urgent. (The film repeats the ticking readout from Outland, and it works the nerves 28 years later.) Strong support of a kind is provided by Kevin Spacey, as the pleasantly officious voice of the space station’s computer system, which has a yellow smiley emblem for a face. As it adds another worthwhile credit to the pool of serious science fiction movies Moon maybe over-references itself, but for buffs that’ll be part of its charm.

Francis Ford Coppola financed Tetro from the proceeds of his vineyards, and is self-distributing the movie in what appears to be a willy-nilly fashion, with whole cities dropped from the radar. If you e-mail him he may show up at your doorstep with a print. However you see it, rest assured that it’s more of a movie than his last stab at “personal,” commercially unbound filmmaking, 2007’s interminable Youth Without Youth, his first movie in 10 years.

Like Moon, the movie has a distinctive look—breathtaking black-and-white digital cinematography, in widescreen, more even and stable than the HD lensing of Public Enemies. The last act, set in Patagonia, has fleeting images of sunlight glistening off glaciers, and is to die for (Mihai Malaimare Jr., the DP, also coaxes amazing hues from the Powell-Pressburger film The Tales of Hoffmann, which figures in the film’s color flashbacks). It’s a movie of moments, centered on the sibling rivalry of two Italian-American émigrés living in Buenos Aires—the tormented sometimes-writer Tetro, played by indie scene gadabout Vincent Gallo, and Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), his blank canvas of a younger brother. Their shared history as part of a passionately artistic family gives the film an excuse for digressions into theater, art, and music, some entertaining, and some goofy, the sort of thing you might indulge in if you were floated by wine money. (There’s also a little sex, rare for Coppola.) Maribel Verdu (Pan’s Labyrinth) and Almodovar mainstay Carmen Maura anchor a few scenes. It will I think be remembered as the debut of the promising Ehrenreich, who Coppola discovered on a bat mitzvah tape of Steven Spielberg’s (!)—he was born to be photographed in moody black-and-white. But Francis, I ask: Would it kill you to make another movie like The Conversation?

Weeks after seeing it I can’t get bits and pieces of Pablo Larrain’s Tony Manero out of my head. Larrain intended the film to be an oblique commentary on his native Chile in the ’70s, as the fish rots from the head down (the head being the repressive Pinochet regime). It’s the surface of this very deadpan, very black comedy-drama (I don’t know how else to designate it) that got to me. Looking more like a crumpled Al Pacino than the disco hero of his night-fever dreams, Raul Peralta (played by co-writer Alfredo Castro) is obsessed with winning a TV contest to judge the best John Travolta imitator, which means eliminating the competition. When pooping on one’s white suit doesn’t do the trick (I shit you not), he resorts to other means, which are not unknown to him as he obsessively recreates the 2001 Odyssey disco in his ratty apartment. In the funniest scene (I thought it was funny), Peralta goes berserk when his local bijou replaces his fetishized Saturday Night Fever with the innocuous summer lovin’ of Grease. The movie is saying something about the colonizing influence of celebrity worship and the corruption of the era—Peralta steamrolls over the women in the movie and the resistance movement to get what he wants—but its mean streak makes the biggest initial impression.

Woody Allen had an incredible streak in the ’70s, as he transitioned from slapstick nebbish to wry New York sad sack. Intended for Zero Mostel and some unfortunate pretty young thing, Whatever Works was meant to be part of that golden era; I figure it to have been a light-side companion to the heavy Interiors (1978), where a friendly Jew warms up some staid WASPs. Thirty years later, it does no favors to Allen’s wobblier career, which careens from rewarding credits like Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona to undercooked movies like this one, which he cranks out like clockwork to fulfill some inner quota. I enjoy Larry David’s shtick on Curb Your Enthusiasm but, as a cranky Jew who, with the help of the city, inadvertently restores a wayward Southern family to life, he’s not enough of an actor to deliver Allen’s tired lines well past their sell-by date. As his childish bride, Evan Rachel Wood is appealing enough to make the notion of her and David as a married couple palatable; still, with David, Mickey Rourke, and Michael Douglas as her recent co-stars, she needs a Robert Pattinson gig, fast. When even Patricia Clarkson can’t raise the temperature you know Whatever Works isn’t working. This is Allen’s first New York film in several years—maybe you can’t go home again.

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  • http://slightlyintrepid.blogspot.com Ethan Tucker

    A small touch I enjoyed in 'Moon' was the comic use of snippets of Chesney Hawks' cheesy 90s one-hit-wonder 'I Am The One And Only'. Surely its only appearance in proper, grown-up cinema, pop trainspotters?

  • http://slightlyintrepid.blogspot.com Ethan Tucker

    A small touch I enjoyed in 'Moon' was the comic use of snippets of Chesney Hawks' cheesy 90s one-hit-wonder 'I Am The One And Only'. Surely its only appearance in proper, grown-up cinema, pop trainspotters?

  • http://slightlyintrepid.blogspot.com Ethan Tucker

    A small touch I enjoyed in 'Moon' was the comic use of snippets of Chesney Hawks' cheesy 90s one-hit-wonder 'I Am The One And Only'. Surely its only appearance in proper, grown-up cinema, pop trainspotters?