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Monday
Aug172009

District 9 (2009)

Nein!

There’s a great deal of laughable hype surrounding District 9, saucer-eyed hysteria that labels the film “thinking-person’s sci-fi.” On the contrary, this is the kind of experience where checking one’s brain at the concession stand is the only way to avoid a maddening two-hour slog through third-baked ideas and tiresome tough-guy clichés. I wasn’t so much disappointed by District 9 as frustrated by it. With all the critical acclaim and near-Twilight level of geek exuberance at Comic-Con last month, I expected some kind of originality or compelling story; instead, I felt like the victim of a multi-million-dollar practical joke.

The premise is fine. An alien spacecraft stalls over Johannesburg, South Africa in 1982 and sits dormant for two months. Upon cutting into the ship, government officials discover millions of malnourished squid-faced aliens, apparently the worker bees of some larger colonial empire. During the next two decades, the aliens are relocated to the slums below, where they adopt all the best traits of human beings, including prostitution and arms dealing. News footage and interviews show the downtrodden of South Africa rioting and complaining about the interlopers in a “we were an oppressed minority first” fashion, which leads a shady corporation called MNU to intercede and—working with the government—set about moving the aliens to a concentration camp outside of Johannesburg. District 9’s first ten minutes is compelling stuff, with documentary footage recounting the first encounter through the paramilitary raid on the alien ghetto; we’re treated to some spectacular ideas which—this being thinking-person’s sci-fi—promise a mind-bending story over the next couple of hours.

Then we meet Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley). He’s an MNU stooge whose recent promotion grants him the honor of presenting eviction notices to the aliens (or “prawns” as they’re dismissively called). Wikus is a good-natured bureaucrat with a lovely wife and a father-in-law with a cushy directorship at MNU. For the first twenty minutes, Copley’s performance reminded me of Michael Scott, the amiable idiot from NBC’s The Office—lovable but cringe-inducing in his lack of self-awareness. Wikus leads the armed convoy into the slums, knocking on tin shack doors to get prawns’ signatures on relocation notices. While investigating some sort of chop shop hidden in one of the houses, he is sprayed with goo from a black canister that gradually transforms him into one of the aliens, which of course makes him a target of MNU. It is important to note, however, that Wikus’ transformation begins much earlier, when his ineffective, smiling desk-jockey persona gives way to that of a bullying racist. If that last sentence seems inconsistent with the rest of the paragraph, welcome to District 9.

There have been so many great books and movies created around the idea of the disillusioned company man on the run from his evil former employer that to even try to get away with cutting corners in plot and character development is an unforgivable sin. Wikus alternates between self-interested coward and socially awakened good guy so often during the film that I wondered if he’d become the first genuinely schizophrenic super hero of the new century. With three floppy black fingers growing out of his arm, he escapes an MNU hospital and heads for the slums, where humans dare not go. He encounters Christopher, the only intelligent prawn in the film, who has perfected a fuel that will allow the mother ship to restart and return to his home world. The only complication is that the same canister that mutated Wikus is also the fuel source (?) and has been confiscated by MNU. Christopher assures Wikus that he can cure the mutation if he is allowed to return home, so the two stage a raid on MNU HQ, using weapons that only the aliens—and those with alien DNA—can fire. If this sounds confusing, it’s not, in the context of the film; the one thing District 9 has going for it, which is also one of it’s biggest flaws, is that it introduces a lot of plot points and ideas that almost cohere; it also takes zero time to flesh out these ideas, and instead mashes them together hurriedly, in an effort to show us how much stuff cool alien guns can vaporize.

This manifests early on in the way the story is told. As mentioned earlier, District 9 opens with documentary footage and interviews; it is here that we meet Wikus and learn of his assignment. But almost immediately come interviews with his family and friends that speak of him in the past-tense, meaning that before we even get to know this character, we’re already informed that something awful has happened to him, and that the movie is not unfolding in real time. In the far superior Cloverfield (no, obnoxious characters and a lack of glory shots of the monster do make a monster movie bad), the audience is told at the outset that the story they’re being told involves essentially doomed characters; it's like one of those drunk driving commercials depicting a five-year-old’s birthday party that ends with pop-up text saying everyone in the video was killed. This, however, is not nearly as jarring as the fact that the documentary style is abandoned a half-hour into the picture in favor of a conventional omniscient action-movie perspective. Coincidentally, this is also the point at which the ideas stop flowing and the bullets start flying.

Much has been made of co-writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s feature debut, and I definitely grant him points for style. The ship footage is handled convincingly; the aliens are more often than not seamlessly integrated with their human counterparts. But to sell a movie such as this, the ideas need to be consistent and solid. For example, much of the hype has been built on Distric 9’s Apartheid allegory. But aside from depictions of the slums and some early footage of whining locals, the story never delves into real issues of segregation and oppression. We’re told that the prawns are being relocated to concentration camps, but we’re never shown why or why that’s bad; which is to say that the movie does very little to prove that A) anyone would care if the prawns were simply exterminated or B) that the camps are actual death camps and not simply a new kind of slum that’s been removed from the middle of the human populace. This brings to mind several other questions: why were they put in the middle of Johannesburg in the first place? Is there only one reasoning prawn in the whole race? If so, why didn’t he act as a spokesperson? Do other countries recognize the prawn’s plight? Is the United States interested in their technology? Why do humans understand prawn language but at no time attempt to speak it? If the film is intended to be an Apartheid allegory, it is the only one I’ve seen in which the oppressed people are depicted exactly as the racists see them: simple-minded, violent, self-interested sub-humans. I’d wager this wasn’t Blomkamp’s intent, but he spent so much time disintegrating soldiers and crashing spaceships that he apparently set his story notes on fire in the process.

There’s really a lot more to say about the problems in District 9, but you’re either going to see it or not see it. If you choose to fork over your money, I implore you to not also surrender your mind. And if you do come out loving this picture, I recommend taking a few days to read George Orwell’s 1984 and watch Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men. Neither is about aliens, but they deal with the same themes as District 9 (oppression, military-industrial secrecy, the tricky nature of the human condition), minus the pyro-porn, transforming robots and unreliable characters. I doubt you’ll be able to watch District 9 a second time with the same eyes.

Monday
Aug102009

Julie & Julia (2009)

Imitation Crab

Julie & Julia is the reason I created this blog. It’s not that I was inspired by Julie Powell’s story of becoming an Internet culinary diarist; I was repelled by it. Walking out of the theatre, surrounded by happy, chattering faces, I realized that this pathetic, over-long mess is supposed to represent entertainment for adults (as opposed to “adult entertainment”). It’s made for people who don’t go to movies; who don’t appreciate art or intellect; who consider Friends to be hilarious, groundbreaking television.

On the surface, the film has a lot going for it. It’s not a romantic comedy, though it’s certainly being advertised with the same rote, gooey commercials. Rather, it’s half biopic, half journey-of-discovery-movie, and all “comedy”. Julie & Julia begins in the late 1940s with Julia Child (Meryl Streep) arriving in France at the end of some sort of government career; she’s bored by long days of waiting for her husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci), to return home from his embassy job, and so decides to become a professional chef. Cut to 2002 New York, where government employee Julie Powell (Amy Adams) struggles with the boredom and heartbreak of handling insurance claims after 9/11. Frustrated by being the only one in her circle of catty, well-to-do friends without ambition or prospects, she sets about becoming a blogger, with a goal of preparing all 541 recipes in Juila Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days.

If you’re a fan of romantic comedies—or just happen to watch a good deal of them—the rest of the picture will be utterly familiar and probably very entertaining. If you’re a fan of biopics, as am I, the rest of the picture will be like listening to a book report based on Cliff’s Notes presented by a cheerleader with short-term memory loss: it’s peppy and occasionally spunky, but all the really interesting, vital information is left out in favor of facile genre-defining plot points. Writer/Director Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail) has created a mash-up of Powell’s bestseller, Julie & Julia, and Julia Child’s book with Alex Prud’homme, My Life in France. The problem is that the Julie Powell story centers on an unpleasant, wholly uninteresting caricature of the New York woman, while the Julia Child story turns a very interesting, historic woman into a bird-voiced caricature of herself. Much has been made of Streep’s portrayal of Child, but watching the film, I couldn’t help but think it was much broader than it should’ve been; Ephron makes the fatal mistake of actually playing Dan Aykroyd’s Saturday Night Live skit—where he parodies Child—in the middle of the movie; keen observers may note very little difference between the quality of the two performances.

I understand that Julie & Julia is not a biopic, and that it is not meant to teach us anything about Julia Child; this is Julie Powell’s story—as such, I suppose it’s perfectly acceptable to treat the Child portions of the film as mere slice-of-life vignettes meant to mirror Powell’s own boring struggles. We never learn anything about Child, such as why someone raised in Pasadena, California sounds like a Dickensian schoolmarm on laughing gas; we never learn what compelled her to become a spy during World War II (in fairness, this information came out only last year); we don’t get anything substantive regarding her relationship with Paul, except that he’s much older and they apparently can’t—or won’t—have children (their relationship is so tender and yet so weird that it comes across as that of a sham marriage between two gay best friends). Instead, we get more Julie than Julia. We see her cry again and again about not having made anything of herself; she whines about her anxiety over boning a duck; we watch her type lame entries on her blog that have as much insight and humor as the average Carrie Bradshaw column—which is to say, none; one scene involving Julie falling victim to a pot of boiling lobsters reminded me of a Swedish Chef skit on The Muppet Show. It’s the filmmaker’s prerogative to ditch facts for whimsy, but, honestly, does it have to be this dumb?

Never mind that we never see Julia Child make the leap to television, where the majority of Americans grew to know and love her (which is akin to doing a Michael Phelps biopic without mentioning the Olympics). The last straw was the movie’s utter failure to develop a sub-plot involving Julia Child’s apparent snubbing of Julie’s blog. This fascinating nugget promised to bridge the two parallel arcs by bringing Streep and Adams face to face, but it was never expounded upon. Instead, the slight was mentioned and dropped, acting as nothing more than an excuse to watch Adams cry again.

There’s a fascinating Julia Child biopic waiting to be made by a writer and director with a real story to tell, and an actress who understands nuance. Julie & Julia is nothing like that film; it’s a fragrant, gorgeously presented quiche stuffed with rat poison.

Sunday
Aug092009

Messengers 2: The Scarecrow (2009)

 Pumpkin Patchy

Messengers 2: The Scarecrow is at once the most frustrating prequel I’ve ever seen and the best direct-to-video thriller I’ve ever seen. Set about five years before the haunted farmhouse romp, The Messengers (starring a pre-Twilight, pre-bizarre-respiratory-disorder-as-acting-crutch Kristen Stewart), this film fills in the back-story of the Rollins family, most of whom we saw murdered at the beginning of the first film. Ostensibly, it promises to reveal the dark secrets of how the land on which two families staked their fortunes turned into a breeding ground for restless spirits (or at least how Norman Reedus morphed into John Corbett in half a decade), but by movie’s end, we’re left with the feeling that this is really a prequel to a prequel. 

While a quote on the DVD cover describes Messengers 2 as “The Shining gone country,” this film owes much more to the classic film, The Devil and Daniel Webster. John Rollins (Reedus), a struggling corn farmer, has had more bad seasons than he can manage; his credit is capped at the local grain store; his farm faces foreclosure; his irrigation system seems perpetually broken; swarms of angry crows demolish anything resembling a healthy crop. This causes tension between he and his wife, Mary, and their two kids, Lindsey and Michael. One day, John finds a dried out scarecrow inside a false wall in his barn. Little Michael warns him not to put it up, that it creeps him out, but Dad ignores this sage advice and erects the scarecrow in the middle of his dying field. Within days, mounds of dead crows litter the land, the water system begins working, and the banker who’d come to foreclose on the farm is run over by a semi-truck. 

By this point, because the movie had been given an “R” rating and gone straight-to-video, I thought I knew exactly how things would unfold; namely a series of grisly deaths, some half-assed mysticism about ancient ghosts and farmland, and the inevitable ending, where John goes completely berserk and kills everyone. But Messengers 2 is full of surprises—most good, one horribly, horribly bad—and I found myself engaged with many of the characters and their unfortunate circumstances. Just as The Mist isn’t really about other-dimensional monsters, Messengers 2 isn’t about ghosts or a possessed scarecrow; it’s really about the nightmare of having to provide for one’s family and maintaining dignity in the face of economic despair. I was so involved with Norman Reedus’ performance—and, to a lesser extent, Heather Stephens’ turn as Mary—that I was thrilled to see their dynamic play out for most of the film’s run-time; as opposed to, say, having to watch that stupid glowing-eyed monster on the DVD cover. The drama works, even if some of director Martin Barnewitz’s trippy camera moves representing John’s despair do not. If one were to take the supernatural elements out of Messengers 2, the result would be a perfectly satisfying middle-America hardship tale.

But who wants that, eh? Not when there’s a glowing-eyed scarecrow on the DVD cover! So, yes, the movie includes some rather depressing cinematic asides: the wise old farmer who happens to share a first name with the unseen killer in the tacked-on pre-credits sequence (wonder if he’ll turn out to be evil?); the mysterious, sexy temptress who’s more cup-size than performance; the inevitable rise of the scarecrow—ridiculous in concept, not bad in execution. It’s all a mess, but not one that derails the picture. 

One of the benefits of watching a DTV movie is being able to instantly re-watch it with the commentary track. Barnewitz and screenwriter Todd Farmer provide a lively, informative discussion about the origins of the film and the creative challenges they faced in shoehorning Farmer’s original draft (of a movie called, simply, The Scarecrow) into the Messengers franchise (we also learn that the whole film was shot in Bulgaria, and that every stick of furniture and every acre of corn had been scratch-built—each detail, wholly fabricated and convincing). Most importantly, they talk about the ending, which is a happy one, and which doesn’t mesh with what we know about the Rollins family from the “original” Messengers. An executive producer demanded that the film not be a downer, which is inexplicable considering how the movie was released—what, they were afraid that bad word-of-mouth would cripple their DVD sales (three words, “glowing-eyed scarecrow”; okay, I’ll let it go)? So we end up with a huge chunk of story missing between films—namely, why and how does John Rollins go insane and kill everyone? Were it not for the commentary track, I would’ve written this off as sloppiness on the part of the creative team; alas, it was an executive decision, which does little to soften the blow.

I would love to have seen Todd Farmer’s The Scarecrow made into a movie, without the burden of a sequel hanging over it. In fact, if you haven’t already seen The Messengers, I recommend skipping it altogether and sticking with the prequel (besides, any serious horror student knew John Corbett’s secret the instant he appeared on screen, and that was fifteen minutes into the picture). Though it has a number of pitfalls, the acting of the main cast and the writing is compelling enough to hold one’s attention—at least until…just look at the DVD cover.

Wednesday
Feb182009

Friday the 13th (2009)

Enhanced But Not Improved

This may be hard for many of you to accept, but Friday the 13th Part Twelve isn’t a very good movie; I know, technically, this is supposed to be Friday-the-13th-Part-One-for-the-Facebook-Generation, but this is one shabby excuse for a reboot (I’d call it more of a re-wet sock). Sure it’s got the requisite blood and boobs, but it also has boredom, a real problem when you’re dabbling in the slasher genre. 

Let’s begin at the beginning. It’s a dark and stormy night at Camp Crystal Lake in the year nineteen-hundred-and-eighty; a desperate camp counselor (denoted by the word “Counselor” written in large block letters across the back of her clingy, drenched shirt) is on the run from a deranged old lady. There’s a confrontation, spliced lazily in with the opening credits, and we get the dinner theatre version of the “Jason-is-my-son-and-today-is-his-birthday” speech. The counselor- who has been running away from this unarmed geriatric troll while carrying a machete- beheads her pursuer and scampers off into the woods. A few quick cuts and credits later, we see a little boy pick up a locket that the old lady had been wearing around her neck (it’s really easy to get off, by the way) and he, too, scampers off into the woods. Yes, this is little Jason Voorhees, alive and well; and if you’re wondering why his mother would go on a killing spree to avenge the drowning death of her clearly un-drowned child, then you’re officially too smart to enjoy this movie. 

Flash forward 29 years to the same woods. A group of randy, good-looking twenty-somethings has set up camp for the night, taking a break from their search for a legendary marijuana crop in the wilds of New Jersey (sounds like the screenwriters found it alright). Because someone in the audience might not have heard of Jason Voorhees, or may have been asleep for the previous five minutes of the film, the legend of Camp Blood is retold; it’s such a sexy tale that the campers go off to their tents and into the woods to “make love”, at which point they are butchered by a grown-up Jason (Derek Mears) wearing a bed sheet over his head. One of the campers, Whitney (Amanda Righetti), is spared and held captive by Jason because she bears a (remarkably unconvincing) resemblance to the picture of Jason’s mother from the locket. Yep, it’s a new century, kids, and Jason Voorhees kidnaps people now. 

Twenty minutes into the movie, “Friday the 13th” appears on the screen in big red letters. 

Six weeks later (stay with me), Whitney’s brother, Clay (Jared Padalecki), shows up in town, looking for leads in her disappearance. We get several scenes of him knocking on doors and being rejected by the locals and the county sheriff, along with extended shots of a new group of campers buying beer and pumping gas. In the film business, these chunks of blood-and-boob-free time are known as “character development”, i.e. “lifeless filler”. Honestly, there’s nothing else to describe here, plot-wise, because you all know the drill. Stalk. Slash. Stalk. Slash. The story’s all by-the-numbers and unfortunately so are the murders. Because the filmmakers wanted to create a modern-day mash-up of the first three (really, four) Fridays, they end up delivering poorly-staged Xeroxes of deaths that were spectacular thirty years ago. There was only one true “jump” moment in the whole picture, and that involved the one scene that wasn’t completely telegraphed from start to finish. And that gets at the heart of what’s so very wrong with this movie. 

Director Marcus Nispel birthed the Texas Chainsaw Massacre update a few years ago, and has essentially remade his remake here; particularly in the latter part of the film, when we’re taken deep into the killer’s lair (Jason Voorhees does not have a lair!), one gets the feeling that the boy Jason did drown years ago, and that Leatherface simply relocated to Jersey and took up hockey. There’s too much intelligence in this Jason, a fact that many are praising, but which took me right out of the experience. Jason has always been a big, dumb, lucky death factory; the argument could be made that this version of the character has yet to become Mindless Zombie Jason, but that’s like making a movie about Darth Vader where he’s not yet become the all-powerful bastard of the universe (oops). If Nispel or his screenwriters had any talent, guts, or imagination, they would have truly rebooted the franchise with a movie featuring Mrs. Voorhees as the killer; they could have explored whatever happened to Mr. Voorhees and tidied up the hole-filled mythology that has plagued the Friday films for decades. But, no, they had to have the guy in the mask wielding the machete; I’m not saying I want my slasher movies to be Memento, but they have to have a reason to exist beyond the easy stuff. After having been shot into space and fighting Freddy Krueger, planting him back in Camp Crystal Lake with the same crop of mentally deficient teenage Spam-shavings seems like a cruel joke (one that’s on us). 

I’d like to close with a brief note about breasts. While it’s true that the new Friday the 13th has an abundance of female nudity, I must confess that nearly all of it had the opposite intended effect on me. The girls were uniformly attractive in this picture, but once their tops came off, I was faced with the oddest pairs of “enhanced” boobage that I’ve seen in quite awhile. Only one actress looked to have dodged the scalpel, but she was part of one of the weirdest, most poorly cut sex scenes in the series’ history. If you think this last paragraph is chauvinistic, you probably have a point; but it’s also the perfect illustration of why Nispel’s Friday is slasher porn for idiots: it opts for flashy freak fare when all that’s needed are the simple pleasures of the real thing(s).

Thursday
Jan152009

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Oscar-Mired Wieners, Part Two

A few years ago, I stopped going to the movies during Oscar season; I should clarify by saying that I only went to movies that I was fairly sure had no chance of being recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I couldn’t take the over-produced crowd-pleasing nonsense that passed for High Art; you know, movies like Slumdog Millionaire

Blasphemy! How could I have not fallen in love with the moving story of lovable beggar Oliver Twist—sorry, Jamal Malik. I’ll tell you how. Have a look at the film’s poster. You see option “D” in the multi-choice Who Wants To Be A Millionaire question? Well, the movie opens with a similar question and a similar set of options, except that “D” is “It Is Written”. Yes, thirty seconds into the movie, I said, “Oh, fuck” (to myself, of course). What follows is two hours of contrived back-story in which our hero answers a series of Millionaire questions whose answers relate—in chronological order—to his hard-scrabble Indian upbringing. Think of this movie as Forrest Gupta

It’s not all heart-strings and fanfare, though. Director Danny Boyle brings some great touches of savagery to the screen, including peasant children being blinded for the purpose of gaining more charity and Jamal’s torture at the hands of local cops. These scenes hint at a more genuine film, but every grasp is met with a scene-shift into either stereotypes (let’s laugh at the guilty white American tourists!) or falsehoods (what game show would allow the host and contestant to take an un-monitored simultaneous piss-break after the last—and most valuable—question has been asked?)…

This is a shame, too, as the cast is uniformly terrific. Dev Patel in particular plays the grown-up Jamal with passion and wonder; the script, however, paints his character as alternately a kind of autistic rube and a pissy brute that prefers slamming people into walls over reasoned discussion. Anil Kapoor, as the game show host, is sufficiently cheery and exciting; but he is undermined by a late-in-the-story plot involving his unease at being de-throned as the show’s reigning champion (not to mention the fact that he’s apparently some sort of crooked crime boss with enough pull to have the cops torture contestants in between tapings). I don’t know if such things actually occur in Dubai, or if screenwriter Simon Beaufoy is counting on my cultural ignorance to pull one over on me; either way, Slumdog Millionaire doesn’t make me believe that these things could happen or should happen…

I also don’t buy Jamal’s undying love for Latika (Frieda Pinto), another street urchin who grows up to be a mobster’s girlfriend and one of the most beautiful women in the world. Jamal pursues her for most of his young life, never quite putting together the fact that she’s been a prostitute for much of hers; the movie doesn’t even attempt to deal with this issue; she’s just, y’know, looking for love and stuff. In Boyle and Beaufoy’s India, the streetwalkers are all well-adjusted, kept women. Okay, maybe that’s unfair, but the film’s utter lack of context gives me nothing to work with, and certainly nothing to care about…

I almost forgot to mention Jamal’s brother, Salim . He’s the Bad Brother (Jamal’s the Good Brother, you see). Salim opts for the glamour and security offered by a life of crime, and his storyline ends on a laughable Scarface-esque note. Shortly after, we’re treated to a wholly out-of-place Bollywood dance number, and I suppose it’s Boyles only measure of restraint that we didn’t see Salim’s bulled-ridden corpse doing the Electric Slide…

Danny Boyle has made two great movies: Trainspotting and Sunshine. While not perfect, they firmly establish the other-worldly qualities of their characters and their lives. Slumdog Millionaire tries to have it both ways: it wants to be both a fairy tale and a gritty slice-of-life culture study. But the script—which, had it been written for the Hollywood studio system, would have been rejected by the B-staff of Full House—never gets on board with either idea. For a film like this to work, one must either remove the contrivances or head at them full-speed with stylistic over-kill. This syrupy pap just made me want to kill myself…