Despite a slew of high-minded films that have aimed for intelligent, more mature audiences, this summer's movie season has been, for the most part, like any other: comprised of loud, effects-heavy sequels, prequels, remakes, adaptations of comic books, adaptations of cartoons, adaptations of comic books that were adaptations of cartoons that were adaptations of toy lines, and on and on. Low-brow comedies, schmaltzy, manipulative romances, trashy kiddy flicks; mediocrity reigns supreme. For every Hurt Locker, there are five Transformers; for every Funny People, there are 10 Dance Flicks; for every Away We Go, 20 Proposals.
To be sure, there's a handful of popcorn movies from the last three months that are spectacular examples of genre filmmaking; Star Trek, Harry Potter, The Hangover, Drag Me to Hell, even G.I. Joe.
But disappointment has become routine. It's easy to get excited about the hyped-up tent-pole release of the weekend, but it's getting easier to prepare in advance for the movie to be garbage.
Now, in mid-August (the dregs of the summer season), a surprise has come along in the form of District 9, a deliriously ambitious film that is more entertaining than Wolverine, Terminator: Salvation and Transformers combined, and twice as intelligent.
Co-written and directed by Peter Jackson protégé Neill Blomkamp (it's billed as "Peter Jackson Presents"), the movie is that rarity among rarities: a sci-fi actioner that is original in concept, rather than being a remake, rip-off, or regurgitation of some other source material.
It's entertaining, thoughtful and eye-popping (shocking fact: its budget was $30 million, and it looks bigger and better than any of the aforementioned $200 million Hollywood extravaganzas), and presents a new approach to alien invasion stories.
Set in Johannesburg, South Africa, Blomkamp presents his fantastic story as a collage of alternate-reality media clippings and utilizes politically-charged allegory not to preach, but to engage the viewer in a way rarely possible for films involving aliens and spaceships. He shoots much of the first half as Blair Witch/Cloverfield-style mockumentary, but isn't a slave to his own rules and smartly deviates from the format when story and action require.
The plot: a giant spacecraft inexplicably descends into earth's atmosphere and finds a resting spot above Johannesburg. After several months, the government breaks into the ship, discovering thousands of barely-alive alien creatures. They're rescued, flown down to earth and placed in a refugee camp dubbed District 9. After 20 years, the aliens have multiplied, with numbers north of a million, and the camp has become a third world slum. Public opinion has turned on the creatures; they're considered primitive, dangerous, and generally inferior to the human race. The government responds to the pressure of the people by hiring private contractors to build a ghetto, far removed from the city, to which the aliens will be relocated.
Enter Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a bureaucratic puppet charged with overseeing the eviction and relocation of the aliens, or "prawns" as their derisively referred to.
Wikus, a bumbling fool whose benign exterior hides a deeply instilled sense of entitlement and superiority (he's the unconscious racist, the "but I have a black friend" faux-liberal idiot), diligently goes door-to-door politely demanding that the aliens sign eviction notices. At this point the film largely abandons the political themes, as well as the documentary format, becoming a rollicking, frenetic action thriller as Wikus is exposed to a substance that causes him to slowly transform into an alien and become a fugitive as the government tries to acquire him for biotech weapons experimentation.
He's forced into alliance with Christopher, an alien hatching his own plans for escape from the planet.
This hunter-becomes-the-hunted storyline culminates in an intense, prolonged climax wherein Wikus and Christopher must do battle with brutish soldiers, Nigerian gangbangers and conniving government high-ups.
The violence is both shocking and humorously grotesque; exploding body parts abound--the Jackson touch is evident as Blomkamp ups the gross-out factor with outrageous gore gags reminiscent of Jackson's early work (Dead Alive, Bad Taste).
Much has been made of the film's apartheid metaphors; film critic Armond White caused an internet firestorm last week when he took issue with what he viewed as an irresponsible and ill-informed interpretation of institutionalized racism.
White, as usual, took the contrarian's position and essentially reamed the movie, saying "District 9 stops making sense and becomes careless agitation using social fears and filmmaking tropes Blomkamp and Jackson are ill-equipped to control...
District 9 confirms that few media makers know how to perceive history, race and class relations."
While he may be correct--like most genre films that take on social and political issues (George Romero, I'm looking at you), the subtext is hackneyed and inconsistent--White misses the bottom line of Blomkamp's goal. The filmmaker isn't on a soapbox politicking (the specificity of an outdated notion such as apartheid should prove that), he's methodically framing his plot in a way that forces viewers to let their guards down--suspension of disbelief also often means suspension of emotional investment, which is why this kind of genre material is so easily dismissed--and become involved in a story that is familiar, rather than fantastic.
The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard is almost as obnoxious as its title connotes. Like being trapped with a used car salesman who thinks he's a stand-up comedian and is convinced he can win you over with his snappy one-liners, this sleazy new comedy from the Will Ferrell school of absurdity will do anything for laughs. Unfortunately, the filmmakers eschew things like character development and plot in favor of jokes that fly fast and furious but mostly fall flat.
Jeremy Piven plays Don Ready, a used car liquidator who comes off like the annoying, less successful brother of Ari Gold. Piven is supported by a cadre of able comedians, many of whom appeared in previous (and far superior) Ferrell/Apatow productions like Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers, and there are laughs to be had, but in the end, the obnoxious factor is too much to handle (not to mention the sub-par production value). It completely wears out its welcome by the halfway point, and the brief 80-minute running time feels as if it's been stretched into a torturous four hour epic.
This is a terrible comedy made all the worse by its talented pedigree. Director Neal Brennan co-created the Chapelle Show and co-wrote the slightly brilliant Half Baked, but in his directorial debut he's clearly lost at sea. Even Piven, an actor of endless charisma and talent, turns in a worst case scenario performance of his by-now iconic Entourage character. This is a dud, and all involved should be embarrassed and ashamed.
Love Does Funny Things
Oprah's Book Club chick-lit is an always-reliable go-to for film adaptations. The latest is The Time Traveler's Wife, a big Hollywood weepy with two magnetic actors anchoring the ludicrous concept firmly in the "stupid but harmless" purgatory of sophisticated trash.
Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams are hopelessly likeable, talented performers who are able to imbue everyman qualities into their movie star performances; they elevate the ordinary by playing characters as best possible scenarios of people you might actually know. They're the movie star opposites of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.
The Time Traveler's Wife is ideal material for them. It's non-sense, with plot holes and lapses-in-logic galore, but is the kind of tearjerker that will cause men to mist up against their will and women to swoon.
The concept is simple. Bana has a physical condition that causes him to randomly travel in time, against his will. McAdams is the love of his life. His time traveling takes him all over the timeline of their relationship; he meets her when she's six, she sees him after he's died, and everywhere in between. This opens the door for obvious conundrums. How does he deal with knowing when he's going to die? How does she deal with his sometimes weeks-long absences? If the couple is fighting, and then she sleeps with a younger version of Bana, is she cheating? Will their child have the same condition? It's all trivial, fluffy but interesting; the embodiment of film as well-done, vacuous entertainment. Empty calories, not extremely memorable, but a fine diversion; it's the perfect date movie for casual filmgoers looking for a romantic evening's moodsetter. It's not art, but it doesn't need to be.
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