SRS Cinema // 2003 // 92 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Mina Rhodes (Retired) // December 21st, 2007
In a world where power is the only dream, one man is about to awaken.
A $10,000 budget, surreal black-and-white cinematography, and "social commentary" on our consumerist culture were the ingredients chosen to create the perfect indie sci-fi film. But director Justin Hennard added an extra ingredient to the concoction: complete filmmaking ineptitude! Thus, Moonlight by the Sea was born! Using their ultra-mediocre abilities, Hennard and actors Sean Allen (A Scanner Darkly) and Mylinda Royer dedicated their time to fighting characterization and the forces of actual storytelling!
Albion Moonlight (whose first name sounds like Ambien; already, the film is trying to put you to sleep...), so named because Moonlight sounds poetic in the title, is a "Salesman" for "The Corporation" (wouldn't want to spoil anything, but perhaps it's a metaphor!), an apparently multi-planetary entity run by "The Chairman," that sells stuff and spies on everyone and is Evil. Moonlight crash-lands in New Mexico -- erm, I mean some distant desert planet that happens to look just like New Mexico, and just happens to have breathable air, and an atmosphere perfectly conducive to supporting human life...There, Moonlight is faced to think for himself for the first time in his life, and also tolerate a whiny android called "The Stranger," as well as deal with Nomman, a guy who may be Moonlight's conscience. Meanwhile, back at The Corporation, Gwen Klaus gets passive aggressive with a certain Captain Santop, and 20 minutes worth of story is spread out for what seems like an eternity.
Let me first apologize for my opening statement, which was a parody of the opening narration from The Powerpuff Girls. It was completely self-indulgent. Kind of like the film this review is concerned with, actually. Moonlight by the Sea is an aggressively pretentious slice of student-level filmmaking that tries to make up for its underdeveloped ideas and complete lack of a compelling story by throwing as many cheap filters and visual effects at the viewer as it possibly can.
I wish that was all that needed to be said, but there is a certain word count these reviews must reach or exceed, and so I must soldier on.
You may have seen the music video for David Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes." Imagine, if you will, that music video, rendered completely in black-and-white, dragged out to 92 minutes in length, without the great song backing it up, and not even yummy David to look at. Now, imagine it suffused with godawful dialogue that tries to be poetic and profound (our dullard hero on his location: "Somewhere between latitude and longing..."), but is actually so faux-intellectual that it bypasses unintentional hilarity and just flops depressingly, like a fish on land (that lame simile is probably smarter than the film's entire script). Throw in a dash of Alphaville, and you have Moonlight by the Sea.
The story shows some potential. Considering the sinister ways in which corporations try (and, despairingly, often succeed) to dominate society in their ruthless, single-minded pursuit of profit, there is a lot of real world material to mine for interesting social commentary, especially within the context of a science-fiction film. Moonlight by the Sea completely misses the mark, however, and simply rehashes lame Big Brother clichés while superficially remarking upon rabid consumerism.
The Corporation (also the title of a film that is actually worth watching) is apparently an omnipotent entity that has a monopoly on every product imaginable, and yet it fails even the basic visual requirement of a successful marketing behemoth: a memorable logo. Nike has the swoosh, McDonalds has the big "M," Apple has the, well, apple. The Corporation has...a poorly designed triangle-circle squiggly thingy. So much for brand recognition. The Corporation itself is located in a black void with television monitors and hanging lights, and the film tries to pass this off as another neat-o visual, but it really just looks like what it is: a cheap way to hide the fact that there are no actual sets.
Having few or no sets is not a limitation if the script, ideas, and acting presented are strong enough (see Lars von Trier's Dogville, and its follow-up, Manderlay, as well as Mamoru Oshii's Talking Head), but Moonlight by the Sea is such a failure on all levels that the filmmakers can't even begin to hope to compensate. It is also a puzzle how Gwen Klaus, who looks to be in her early twenties, managed to climb to a high position in The Corporation in such a short time. Ah, but she is a Very Pretty Young Woman, naturally, and every wannabe male auteur who makes a sci-fi film must have a Very Pretty Young Woman to add some sexy, femme fatale intrigue to his hackneyed script. Mylinda Royer tries to provide such intrigue by wearing black lipstick and licking a television monitor -- after delivering her required lines of groan-worthy introductory dialogue, of course.
Away from The Corporation, on the unnamed planet that looks a lot like the undisguised New Mexico desert that it is, Moonlight does a lot of standing, lying down, and blank staring, while his voiceovers about "reports" and his dead wife manage to find new ways of being completely uninteresting. The Stranger also does a lot of whining about reporting to The Corporation, because he is apparently an android owned by them. We know he is an android because the actor who plays him awkwardly fidgets like a second-rate Ash from Alien, and makes ridiculous robot noises with his mouth. It all ends exactly as you would expect a ham-fisted psuedo-existentialist student film to end; I don't want to spoil anything for those hopeless few souls still interested in seeing it, but let's just say a gun and a bland piano score are involved.
Fitting the amateurish production of the film, the DVD itself is unimpressively put together. Presented in it's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Moonlight by the Sea looks about as good as it was meant to, with little artifacting or flaws, but the picture is not anamorphically enhanced. The audio is a rather flat stereo track. The mix itself is rather poor, not due to any flaw of the DVD, but simply due to the poorly recorded dialogue. The menus are basic, cheap-looking, and static. As far as special features go, there is a feature-length audio commentary with director Justin Hennard and producer Gonzalo Gonzalez, where they spend a lot of time mumbling, talking in affected Texas accents, and patting themselves on the back for being so courageous for shucking the three-act narrative format. I suppose that's their way of excusing the film's lazy script. In addition to that, there is an unrelated short film called "My Skin!," which is just as campy as its title would lead you to believe, and some trailers for other low-budget, lowbrow releases. A decent offering of extras, assuming you don't chuck the disc into the trash after watching the main feature.
A film with only a $10,000 budget, especially a sci-fi film, that attempts some level of visual granduer should be applauded on some level, I suppose. However, budgetary limitations are no excuse for a bad film. David Lynch's Eraserhead and Mamoru Oshii's The Red Spectacles, for example, are both surrealist sci-fi films that had highly restrictive budgets, but easily overcame them because of the real talent behind the camera. Moonlight by the Sea has no such luck, and if anything, actually "borrows" a bit too much from Mr. Lynch's grab bag of audio and visual tricks. Loud bursts of static on the soundtrack, moody B&W photography, surreal nightmare visions -- all are here and accounted for. The film is wholly derivative, and is lacking any original elements or ideas -- that is, unless you consider a bad actor playing an android, who likes staring directly into the camera, to be groundbreaking stuff.
An excerpt from Justin Hennard's accompanying note included with the DVD, in which he describes the film: "An experiment, a failure, a success, a lesson...all of these seem appropriate." Well, maybe just that second one.
The film is found guilty of being a complete waste of a potentially interesting concept, as well as a pretentious bore. But what is it to be guilty? Is it like some crossroads where two people meet, or is it like a flower, that grows sometimes, and does things...hmm, I wonder. Oh no, I have to make my report! SRS Cinema is found guilty of supplying this film with a DVD presentation that it doesn't deserve. But maybe that's a compliment in disguise...some things are hidden, sometimes, and you have to dig deep to find them. It's like symbolism, n' stuff.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: SRS Cinema
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Filmmakers' Commentary
* Bonus Short Film