At first glance, the two movies we saw early on Day 1 of the Sundance Film Festival wouldn’t seem to have much in common. One is a sci-fi thriller and the other is a documentary about a boxer, yet both could very much be considered “one man shows,” films that stand or fall based merely on the ability of one man to capture the viewer’s attention and retain it for 90 minutes.
Directed by Duncan Jones; Written by Duncan Jones, Nathan Parker
Cast: Sam Rockwell
If for some crazy reason, you’re not a fan of actor Sam Rockwell, then you might want to stay away from Duncan Jones’ directorial debut, because you’re going to be seeing a whole lot of him over the course of its 97 minutes. Aside from a few fairly unimportant side characters and the voice of Kevin Spacey, this is essentially Rockwell’s one-man show, and Rockwell proves himself more than capable of showing off all of his varying moods, sometimes at the same time. In some ways, that’s probably all you should know if you already plan on seeing the movie, since one of the film’s main plot points would probably be more effective if you didn’t know it was coming. On the other hand, not discussing it would be doing a disservice to one of the coolest aspects of the movie, so we’ll offer a very slight SPOILER WARNING! (One has to assume this plot device will eventually be made a part of the trailers once the film is picked up for distribution.)
The general premise revolves around a company called Lunar Industries mining the moon for Helium-3 to provide energy back on earth, something we learn in the authentic-looking advertisement that opens the film. Rockwell is Sam Bell, the sole remaining worker on the mining station Sarang, having signed a three-year contract that’s almost at an end. His sole companion is a sentient computer named Gerty – that’s where Kevin Spacey’s voice comes in. As we meet Bell, he’s started to lose his mind and ready to go home to earth, his wife Tess and their three-year-old daughter Eve, before an accident with one of the company’s harvesters sidelines those plans.
The film’s influences are fairly evident from the stark lunar landscape harking back to “Alien” and Spacey’s blatant HAL impression, though any assumption that Gerty will turn against Sam like his “2001: A Space Odyssey” predecessor proves to be unfounded. Instead, Gerty ends up being used humorously as Sam’s companion and a foil for him to bounce his plans on, the computer’s only expression of emotion being an ever-changing emoticon monitor, which offers plenty of giggles.
Then there’s the plot device mentioned above (last warning!): It involves Rockwell finding an exact doppelganger of himself, introducing a cloning element to the story, but the big question is which man is real and which is the clone. It’s a pretty big reveal, but there are enough twists that follow so that you never feel as if the movie is merely retreading “Multiplicity.”
Rockwell is such a solid actor that he could pull off talking to a disembodied voice (or himself) for an entire movie, and it works. “Moon” is quite a showcase for his talents and his range as an actor, as his character(s) are put through a variety of situations and over the course of the movie, he almost literally starts falling apart.
Despite being a sci-fi based thriller in the vein of the movies referenced above, “Moon” is exceedingly slow at times, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing since it’s essentially a character development piece. On the other hand, the movie just looks absolutely fantastic, Jones’ team having created fantastic sets and effectively used CG to create the lunar environment. It looks so good, you’ll probably wonder how much money went into the making of the movie. Certainly, it couldn’t have cost much, but the recreation of the moon’s surface, the mining stations and even the mining process are all very impressive. Wisely, Jones also hired composer Clint Mansell, Darren Aronofsky’s regular guy, to construct a chilling ambient score to accompany Sam’s descent into madness.
There are some problems with the overall storytelling when it comes to the cloning element with far too many questions left unanswered in a satisfying manner. For the most part, the amazing visuals and sound design help set a tone that makes the movie so riveting, although its ability to let Rockwell shine with such a brilliant and rounded performance will probably be appreciated more.
Tyson (Sony Classics)
Written and directed by James Toback
Cast: Mike Tyson
It’s almost fated that director James Toback would make a film about his long-time friend Mike Tyson, being that the two of them have been so closely linked since Tyson made his big screen debut in Toback’s “Black and White,” a famous scene where he attacks pre-comeback Robert Downey Jr. The two men are similar in some ways, being eclectic and reclusive, often stirring controversy either intentionally or accidentally, and Toback himself has mainly been off the grid almost as long as Tyson has.
Certainly rewatching the footage of some of Tyson’s greatest fights will be a highlight for boxing fans, but “Tyson” is more of an intimate portrait of this controversial sports figure, told from his own words. Whether or not you believe his view of his own life or approve of there even being a movie about his achievements, you can’t help but be impressed with what a unique sports doc Toback has created.
Filled with highs and lows, the film begins with Tyson losing the Heavyweight Championship, and we’re then put into a room with him for the next 80 minutes where he reflects back on his life, including his days as a young hoodlum on the streets of Brooklyn, getting arrested and being put under the tutelage of trainer Cus D’Amato, who turned things around for the angry young black man.
There’s little question this doc is one of the talking heads variety, though it’s always Iron Mike doing the talking, whether it’s in the candid interviews done in front of his friend’s cameras or in archival interviews before or after his most famous matches. The results are somewhat similar to A.J. Schnack’s Kurt Cobain film in that you really can get into a person’s head by hearing them talk about themselves, and Tyson keeps the film entertaining with all sorts of anecdotes and memories.
Throughout the film, Tyson paints himself as a victim, but he also admits where he feels he was clearly in the wrong, whether it was losing a fight from lack of training or not speaking up when his wife Robin Givens was badmouthing him to Barbara Walters. Tyson also gets quite emotional over the course of the film, both over good times and bad, particularly the death of D’Amato. Often you wonder whether these are real emotions or whether Tyson has become the greatest living actor from all the years trying to maintain his persona. (There seems to be a veiled admission early in the film that Tyson’s physical abuse as a child led to his anger and desire to fight, but it never gets too deep into what happened.)
Shooting the former boxer with multiple cameras then editing the results together in a fluid way using split screens and other filmmaking techniques, Toback creates one of his most cohesive works in at least a decade. One might expect Tyson’s long-time friend would turn this movie into a sympathetic puff piece, and in some ways, the results do strive to make Tyson look better, but Toback does retain more than a few unfavorable moments to balance them out. Tyson doesn’t skirt over the infamous low points of his life, giving a play-by-play of his two fights with Evander Holyfield including the infamous rematch where Tyson nearly bit off his opponent’s ear.
Tyson is a constant dichotomy, one that makes you sympathize for him one moment, then saying something so outrageous and unforgivable the next, you don’t know what to think or believe. As biased as the results may seem at times, what makes this film so masterful is the way Toback is able to capture both sides of this sports figure and share his perspective in such an artistic way.
If you’re going into this movie looking for answers about what makes Tyson tick then Toback’s portrait of his friend is successful and deeply gratifying.