Sunday, March 15, 2009

SXSW 2009 Film: Pulling John, Objectification, Moon, The Last Beekeeper

Pulling John

Saw this, my first film of the festival, on a whim because I was there and it was starting. Yay for convenience! The John of the title is armwrestling world champion John Brzenk. Yes indeed, there is a robust armwrestling community that exploded worldwide with the release of Sylvester Stallone's Over the Top in 1987. Not coincidentally, Brzenk appeared in the film as himself and even had an action figure. I love this sort of thing, people who are famous to a small group of enthusiasts, but who are a blank to the general public. Brzenk is a great character. Humble, self-effacing, yet a champion. Incredibly charming with just a touch of bravado. Totally the opposite of up-and-comer Travis Bagent who is outwardly in love with himself in rather cliche, jock-lunkhead way. The audience was initially charmed (not so me), but eventually turned against him what with the constant boasting about how "pretty" he is. The film restores a measure to sympathy for him when it becomes clear Bagent worked very hard developing his strength and skills to earn his father's attention. The third character is massive Russian Alexey Voevoda. He's a pretty boy and knows it, but being Russian is rather reserved.

Pulling John follows the standard tropes of sports docs with all the scrappy glory and sudden reversals that typically show up in this narrow genre. The competition sequences are thrilling and the biographic elements interesting. If the structure and form are merely functional, the story is engaging enough to make this worth your time. Brzenk was at the screening (nice guy, just like in the film) and it was fun to see the obvious armwrestling fans there for him and the culture as opposed to the film-in-general fans.


From the guy who directed Helvetica comes another design-centered doc in the same static, immaculate style. Liked it, though interestingly it had the same problem as Helvetica in that it opens with a burst of wonderful images and great talkers before petering out. Which is unfortunate really because while Helvetica was able to exhaust the subject, Objectification's subject matter is so broad that it should be able to fill it's time without losing focus. A talking head or two could have been trimmed with no loss (or more interesting people profiled with much to gain). Apple chief designer Jonathan Ive and New York Times Magazine's Rob Walker were far and away the best talkers, offering thoughtful observations and a good dose of humor. Overall, worth it, especially for people like my friend Jennifer K if that means anything to you.


I was really looking forward to seeing this based on the positive reviews from Sundance. Sam Rockwell plays a blue-collar guy stationed on a Moon base which mines energy for the folks back home on Earth. He's nearly done with his three-year solo stint when an accident occurs that sets the plot in motion. After a great opening 10 minutes documenting his routine, rather dreary life through a revealing montage, I started to get a tickle of discomfort which then expanded further into full-on disappointment. I won't give away the plot, though it's quite difficult to discuss much about the heart of the film while staying vague, but will say that I expect better representation of (my beloved) science fiction genre. Way too many plot holes and contrivances for even a silly rom-com, let alone SF. What is the actual science/business reasoning behind sending one, general-utility guy to man a mining station that is already automated and then providing him with a nurturing computer/robot companion? I mean, besides it being an interesting set-up for a movie. He doesn't do anything that the robot couldn't do, so why is he there? And why bother to program a nurturing robot when there could just be a bigger crew? The questions accrue at a rapid pace with only a few answered with glib, throwaway explanations. Rockwell is quite good, the set-design is practically another character (with hefty homage/steals from 2001), and the music by Clint Mansell sells the tension. Still, I just couldn't get past my exasperation.

After conferring with a few people today who saw the movie, I'll say that my standards are high. Some found the movie confusing and wanted more explication of the plot, where I found that element right on. Many were intrigued with the exploration of boredom and alienation in the midst of all the technology, where I—well-versed in this common aspect of science fiction literature—found it overly broad. One more thing, when the plot starts cranking, there is an obvious parallel to the film Alien (and no, there is no alien/monster here) for which Moon suffers in comparison. It's unfortunate really that 30 years after Alien, director Duncan Jones feels he has to hit you over the head with it. A little too much tell, not enough show. Despite all this, I'm glad that Sony Pictures Classic has picked the film up for distribution. Hopefully, it will help increase the prevalence of science fiction films that lean more heavily on ideas than special effects.

The Last Beekeeper

Oh for a different, more talented editor. The story and footage are all there, it just wasn't put together right. This doc attempts to tell the story of the collapse of bee populations across the US through the experience of three commercial beekeepers. Science with a healthy dose of human (though sadly not much bee) characterization. Absolutely the right strategy. And yet The Last Beekeeper goes about it all wrong. Rather than initially foregrounding the story of the bees while building empathy for the beekeepers through seeing them talk about and do their job, the filmmaker immediately leap into the "here's why this person is interesting" element. Within a couple minutes of introducing the first beekeeper, we find out she took over the business when her step-father died in a tragic accident. Tears are shed onscreen before we even know this person. Second beekeeper, a stout good 'ole country boy is first seen opening the gay porn catalogue that just arrived in the mail. Uh, director? Save that for later! Let us think we know this guy, then upend our expectations. Ach.

Another detrimental element is the heavy use of text on the screen. Why are we reading about the statistics when we could have the scientists tell us the scope of the problem? Why the constant, repetitive expository text ("You are here now and about to see this")? Just show it, quit telling. The problems continue with the awkward cutting between the beekeepers' stories and the entomologist laying out the science of Colony Collapse Disorder. Momentum and rhythm are never established. As I said, the building blocks are all there, they just need to get put together better. A last, minor note, either the bee business is truly an incredible emotional wringer, or beekeepers are a weepy lot. Lots of tears shed, almost exploitatively so.

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