Another Earth

A low-budget drama with a big sci-fi premise offers us a startling blend of genres.

Although the science fiction is frequently associated with gigantic effects-driven spectacles, the debut feature of writer-director Mike Cahill offers us an intriguing alternative.

The central premise involves a student (Brit Marling) and music teacher (William Mapother) whose fates intersect after a car accident.

After four years pass, they gradually get to know each other properly and whilst the discovery of another planet identical to Earth lingers in the background.

Beginning with a major plot development right up front, it is hard to go into to details about the plot without significant spoilers, except to say that the narrative is consistently surprising and enjoyable.

Part of that is because Cahill and co-writer Marling don’t go for the obvious sci-fi tropes that have been done to death, as they have fashioned a story that’s like an episode of The Twilight Zone scripted by Kryzstof Kieslowski.

Despite the sci-fi elements, a large part of the drama is given over to themes of grief, regret and secrets, but it skilfully avoids being a signature, self-indulgent indie movie.

Part of this is down to the tantalising backdrop of an identical planet, skilfully evoked via news clips, reaction shots and recurring images of the sky.

But it is also a surprisingly powerful study of loss, regret and possible redemption.

In an age where seismic news events seem to be experienced through ever more unbelievable news updates on television, the film had a tangible resonance.

Despite the fantastical premise, emotions and events are wisely kept grounded in a believable reality.

Essentially this boils down to two actors who really deliver the goods: Marling has a natural screen presence and pulls off a difficult part with some aplomb.

Her confident delivery of dialogue was probably due to the fact that she co-wrote them, but there are some difficult scenes here which she handles extraordinarily well.

Likewise Mapother, who for most of the film has to make his grief-stricken character interesting but, to his credit, he convincingly rebuilds his inner and outer life.

The production makes highly effective use of his low-budget, shooting with a handheld HD camera in such a way that doesn’t call attention to itself, but feels organic to the story.

Visual compositions are also impressive, with characters often tastefully framed through an appropriately chilly palette that’s heavy on the blues and greys.

News footage, often done so badly in bigger budget films, is very convincing here and a couple of scenes are brilliantly effective through ideas and execution alone, rather than expensive graphics.

The electronic score by Fall on Your Sword is perhaps the joker in the pack – a pulsating melange of beats and hooks that fits the film perfectly, giving it unexpected shifts in mood and pace.

Shot in and around New Haven, Connecticut for a reported budget of under $200,000, this represents a significant commercial and artistic achievement, which was why it was one of the big breakout hits at Sundance earlier this year with Fox Searchlight swiftly acquiring the rights.

Since the collapse of the indie film bubble in 2008, Sundance in recent times has rediscovered its original spirit by providing a welcome platform for films like Winter’s Bone, Exit Through The Gift Shop, Senna and Martha Marcy May Marlene.

All of these didn’t come off the studio production line, nor were they vanity projects looking for faux-indie credibility or a bidding war studios would later regret.

Another Earth is a good example of a modern Sundance success – a genuine independent that has broken through to the mainstream by force of its ideas and execution alone.

In an age where genre movies are designed to please carefully targeted demographics, this feels suitably fresh.

I’ll close by mentioning that it features one of the most effective closing shots of any film in recent memory.

> Official site
> Reviews at MUBi and Metacritic

Hedy Lamarr – Movie Star Inventor

Hedy Lamarr was the one of the most glamourous actress of her day who just happened to pioneer a form of wireless communication that led to Bluetooth and wi-fi.

A new book by Richard Rhodes called Hedy’s Folly charts the incredible story of how a huge Hollywood star helped pave the way wireless technology which we now take for granted.

Sam Kean of Slate makes a good analogy in his review:

“Imagine that, on Sept. 12, 2001, an outraged Angelina Jolie had pulled out a pad of paper and some drafting tools and, all on her own, designed a sophisticated new missile system to attack al-Qaida. Now imagine that the design proved so innovative that it transcended weapons technology, and sparked a revolution in communications technology over the next half-century.”

Slate have also done this video montage:

Rhodes has written a diverse set of non-fiction books, including essays on America, writing itself, the SSJames Audubon and the definitive history The Making of the Atomic Bomb which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.

But who was Hedy Lamarr?

She was an Austrian-American actress who became a major star at MGM during their golden age of the 1930s and 1940s.

Her American debut was in Algiers (1938) and amongst her films in this period included Boom Town (1940), White Cargo (1942) and Tortilla Flat (1942).

Incidentally, she bore a remarkable resemblance to Vivien Leigh, the star of arguably MGM’s most iconic film Gone With the Wind (1939).

But it was after leaving MGM in 1945 that she had her biggest success playing Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949), which was the biggest hit of that year.

But she was more than just a pretty actress and her life reads like the most outlandish of movies.

After growing up in Vienna, she absorbed a lot of information on long walks with her father and his detailed explanations of how – then modern – technologies like printing presses actually worked.

After an unhappy marriage to an arms manufacturer for the Nazis, she escaped to London after learning that Louie B Mayer of MGM was scouting for actresses.

She then turned down his original offer before getting on the same boat as him back to the US and by the time it docked she had secured a better contract.

In what reads like a real-life super hero(ine) story, she then set about inventing things in her spare time rather than drinking or going to night clubs.

She was obsessed with creative ideas throughout her life: sugary cubes that would mix with water and a “skin-tautening technique based on the principles of the accordion” were just some of those she came up with in between takes.

As a Jewish emigre she was deeply affected when in 1940, Nazi U-boats hunted down and sank a cruise ship evacuating British schoolchildren to Canada.

Seventy-seven children were drowned in the attack.

She decided to do something but instead issuing a press release about world peace through the MGM press office, she sketched out a revolutionary radio guidance system for anti-submarine torpedoes.

Her neighbour, the avant garde composer George Antheil, had already experimented with automated control of musical instruments.

Their ideas contributed to the development of frequency hopping: if you could shift around radio frequencies used to guide torpedoes, then it would make it very difficult for the Nazis to detect or jam them.

They got a patent and then promptly gave it to the US Navy, who were interested but perhaps not too receptive to being outsmarted by a Hollywood actress.

Although others had pioneered the concept, such as Polish engineer Leonard Danilewicz, it was still incredible that an A-list actress and her musican neighbour were doing this as a past-time.

Instead Lamarr was encouraged to use her fame to sell war bonds, raising around $25 million, which is $340 million in today’s money.

(If you’ve seen Flags of Our Fathers, there’s a whole sequence devoted to the war bond efforts, only in that film it involved soldiers from the Battle of Iwo Jima)

However, after the war the Navy did revive the idea when they developed a sonar buoy to detect enemy ships: the basic concept was used to disguise radio signals as they were transmitted from the buoy to aircraft overhead.

But perhaps the lasting legacy is the application of frequency hopping in modern computing technologies.

As the computer revolution gathered pace over time, frequency hopping and Lamarr’s ideas came of age.

Gradually engineers discovered that it could be usefully applied for modern computing devices that use radio frequencies in what is termed “spread-spectrum broadcasting“.

Devices such as mobile phones and wi-fi routers all have to avoid intereference when communicating with one another and use a form of frequency hopping.

The original patent had lapsed after the war but in 1997 the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave Lamarr an award for her contribution.

Their press release in March 1997 featured this killer line:

“In 1942 Lamarr, once named the “most beautiful woman in the world” and Antheil, dubbed “the bad boy of music” patented the concept of “frequency-hopping” that is now the basis for the spread spectrum radio systems used in the products of over 40 companies manufacturing items ranging from cell phones to wireless networking systems”

So the next time you use a Bluetooth headset or log on to a wi-fi router, think of the actress and the musician who played a part in making it possible.

> Buy Richard Rhodes’ book on Amazon UK and Amazon US
> Richard Rhodes
> Find out more about Hedy Lamarr and Frequency Hopping at Wikipedia
> EFF press release from March 1997

Steven Spielberg on Stanley Kubrick

In 1999 Steven Spielberg sat down for a lengthy and fascinating interview about Stanley Kubrick.

Conducted by Paul Joyce, parts of it were used in the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures and clips surfaced on the subsequent DVD and Blu-ray re-issues from Warner Bros.

An Italian Kubrick site recently posted the unedited 25 minute version that aired on British TV around the release of Eyes Wide Shut at UK cinemas (which if I remember correctly was September 1999).

It is a fascinating discussion which covers:

  • Spielberg’s first experience at a Kubrick movie
  • How the film of 2001: A Space Odyssey was a mind-altering experience
  • The violence in A Clockwork Orange
  • How they first met on the set of The Shining
  • Kubrick’s late night phone calls to other directors
  • How he found out about Kubrick’s death on the Internet

> More on Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg at Wikipedia
> The Stanley Kubrick Collection (available on Blu-ray here)

Martin Scorsese and Grover Crisp on Blu-ray

How far has Blu-ray come as a format since the Martin Scorsese keynote address at the Blu-Con 2.0 conference in 2009?

Two years ago Scorsese joined the event live via satellite from New York City and his 20-minute address was moderated by Grover Crisp, the man in charge of film restoration and digital mastering for Sony Pictures Entertainment.

In the run up to Christmas sales of the home video format will be under renewed scrutiny, but it is worth looking at what was said via video of the event which someone has posted online in three parts:

Part 1: The history of home video, proper aspect ratios, why the Blu-ray format is superior, Bernard Herrman’s score for Taxi Driver (for which Crisp oversaw the recent Blu-ray restoration).

Part 2: They discuss the uncompressed sound of the format, how the rise of DVD drove the restoration of prints and the 4k restoration of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

Part 3: More on the Dr. Strangelove restoration and the dilemmas involved in doing it, Scorsese’s favourite film on Blu-ray, whether he considers the Blu-ray release before shooting a film and the benefits to future generations of filmmakers.

All this is interesting, not just because Scorsese is such a passionate authority on film, but because there is still is some confusion over the Blu-ray format.

The main problems have been: the needless format war which delayed the adoption of the format; mainstream confusion over how it differs from DVD; the costs of upgrading to a player and the recession.

I remember being sceptical about both high-definition disc formats (HD-DVD and Blu-ray) when they were given their first major marketing push in the run up to Christmas of 2007.

Was its introduction too soon after DVD?

I was invited to a screening of The Bourne Ultimatum on HD-DVD (still available on Amazon for some reason), projected in a cinema and the three guys there (publicity people mainly, but also a someone from Microsoft, who were involved in the format) were very bullish about why it would succeed and Blu-ray wouldn’t.

Two months later in February 2008 the HD-DVD format was dead, as Toshiba (the main electrical company behind the format) couldn’t sustain the costs after studios and retailers sided with Blu-ray.

During 2008 the cost of Blu-ray discs and systems was still relatively high, even though television was shifting to the HD era and it became hard to actually buy old-style analogue television sets.

The Dark Knight in late 2008 was perhaps the first truly blockbuster disc in the format, even though – compared to DVD – overall sales were still sluggish and anecdotally even people in the media I spoke to were confused, sceptical or didn’t care.

The main misunderstanding I encountered was the worry that DVDs couldn’t play on a Blu-ray player (they can) and just scepticism about upgrading their equipment.

Even in 2010 The Guardian were publishing articles by writers who didn’t seem to know what they were talking about, which prompted me to write this response.

At the moment, the adoption of the format is still being hobbled by the resilience of the DVD format (a lot of great titles are still really cheap) and a lingering sense of confusion about Blu-ray outside the home video/cinephile realm.

There is a three-way split between DVD, Blu-ray and digital downloads (if you include Netflix, iTunes etc) but optical discs might be more resilient than people think.

Although there are analogies with where the music industry was ten years ago, the recent problems at Netflix suggest that the adoption of digital downloads and streaming might be slower than you think.

Which brings us back to Scorsese.

His point that Blu-ray offers the best quality and drives the restoration of classic films (a subject very close to his heart) are good ones and in a year of sequels and remakes at the cinema, releases like Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, Ben Hur and The Three Colours Trilogy have been most welcome.

Seeing classic films that have been restored with care and attention is a real joy that reminds you of the craft that originally made them so great.

> More on the Blu-ray format at Wikipedia
> Recent DVD & Blu-ray posts
> Taxi Driver on Blu-ray
> Recent Martin Scorsese posts

Moneyball

A statistical approach to baseball might not seem the most gripping basis for a sports movie, but this is a surprisingly compelling character portrait with hidden depths.

Adapted from Michael Lewis’ unlikely bestseller, it explores how Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) defied conventional wisdom with the help of an assistant (Jonah Hill) who convinced him of the hidden value of data.

As an ex-player, Beane had grown up in era where scouts and grizzled veterans had stifled both his own career and the true potential of players who weren’t superstars on big salaries.

In late 2001 when his star players have been traded to bigger teams (“organ donors to the rich”) he finds inspiration in Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a young economics graduate who can spot underrated baseball players the bigger teams are ignoring (his character is a composite largely based on Paul DePodesta).

What follows is a movie every bit as brilliant and radical as the system that went on to revolutionise US baseball.

Fundamentally, it is a compelling portrait of a man motivated by his past to change the present, but it also quietly subverts the traditional US sports movie by not pandering to clichés of underdogs triumphing against the odds.

Director Bennett Miller brings an unusual aesthetic to the genre by making the off-field action more dramatic than what happens on the pitch, which dovetails beautifully with Beane’s superstitious compulsion to never watch the games.

The harsh realities of running a sports team at the highest level are conveyed through his battles with coach Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), doubting scouts who naturally resent the new data driven approach and the chorus of critics amongst the media and fans.

There are personal dramas too: flashbacks of Beane’s early playing career are skilfully woven into his motivational backstory, whilst his relationship with his young daughter (Kerris Dorsey) is both touching and central to the story.

The main challenge with this approach is to make things visually interesting, but the choice of DP Wally Pfister was shrewd: his brand of subtle lighting and shooting that serves the story wisely keeps the focus on the characters and the unfolding drama.

As for the screenplay – collaboration credited to Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin – it manages to take the human drama behind a baseball franchise and make it a wider metaphor for anyone battling against personal demons or institutional arrogance.

One of the reasons the book became an unlikely bestseller and proved influential in both the sport and business world, is because by mining a very specific episode, it ultimately tapped into universal truths.

Although the film is an underdog story of sorts, it explores how people in a bad place are forced to become creative (they have nothing to lose) and how easy solutions (in this case ‘on base percentage’) to difficult problems can be so hard to see.

It also documents a time when old school sporting philosophies based on hunches gave way to statistical analysis powered by computers and spread sheets. Or more simply: when the geeks beat the jocks at their own game.

But it’s the human drama that makes Moneyball really tick: Beane is a fascinating character and the exploration of why he went against conventional wisdom lies the heart of the film, but also possibly puts another interpretation on the title.

The film puts forward the daring notion that money ruined his playing career – his motivation as general manager was partly driven by a desire to push back against a sport corrupted by cash.

Brad Pitt gives perhaps his finest performance in the lead role, not only convincing as charismatic leader of a sports team but as a more vulnerable father and someone struggling with the past.

Jonah Hill might seem an unlikely choice as Beane’s assistant, but he plays the straight man role very well and his chemistry with Pitt suggests his very casting highlights the ‘hidden value’ concept his character explains in the movie.

There are also solid turns from Philip Seymour Hoffman (showing a subtle, quiet gruffness), Chris Pratt as the first underrated player they sign and Kerris Dorsey as Beane’s daughter, whose presence is always keenly felt in the background.

Where the film really triumphs is in how it applies the low-key approach Miller used so successfully in Capote to a big studio film about a fascinating chapter in America’s most beloved sport.

The use of MLB footage and real locations grounds the film in a realistic setting far removed from the glossy visions of previous sports movies, whilst Mychael Danna’s wonderful, atmospheric score sounds like Philip Glass’ scoring an Errol Morris baseball documentary.

Like Beane’s impact on Major League Baseball the final it is both surprising and effective.

Given the tortured production history of the project, which saw a noted director (Steven Soderbergh) leave over creative differences and one A-list screenwriter (Aaron Sorkin) hired to re-write another (Steve Zaillian), it is a miracle that the film exists at all.

Part of that must lie down to the persistence of Brad Pitt (who also serves as producer) and it is tempting to read parallels into his struggle to get this made at a major studio (Sony Pictures) with Beane’s story.

To extend the analogy, Pitt is Beane (protagonist struggling against received wisdom), Bennett Miller is Brand (the unconventional catalyst), Sony Pictures is the Oakland A’s (an organisation trying to meet commercial demands) and Major League Baseball is Hollywood (large institution where passion frequently clashes with pragmatism).

In a year in which he has also delivered a powerful performance and produced Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, we can be grateful that a movie star like Pitt is using his influence to make interesting movies rather than just counting money.

This takes on a new relevance as the wonderfully staged final scenes click into place.

Perhaps the most potent aspect of Moneyball is that it grows in your mind long after you’ve seen it, which for a movie belonging to a genre prone to cliché is really quite an achievement.

Maybe it can also function as a parable for major studios to keep looking for those quietly interesting projects rather than just the loud, costly franchises.

> Official site
> Reviews of Moneyball at Metacritic and MUBi
> More about Billy Beane and Moneyball at Wikipedia