Wednesday, September 09, 2009

End-of-Summer Movie Roundup


directed by Neil Blomkamp
starring no one famous, but that may change: Sharlto Copley is great in the lead role

At this point, there’s really only one question I need to answer about this movie: Does it live up to the hype? With a few reservations, my answer is “yes.” The debut feature by South African director Neil Blomkamp, discovery and protégé of Peter “Lord of the Rings” Jackson (who produced the film), “District 9” is a movie about aliens that borrows ideas and themes from previous movies about aliens, yet manages to give them a twist that’s just new enough to be interesting and gripping. Blomkamp turns the stock premise of an alien invasion on its head to pose the more interesting question: If aliens were to arrive on Earth as a large but weakened population in need of our aid, how would we treat them? Very poorly, as it turns out, especially when they look different from us, speak differently from us, and are stuck with us for an indefinite period of time.

In “District 9,” the giant alien ship, which comes to a passive standstill just over Johannesburg, turns out to be filled with sick, helpless creatures who resemble a cross between crayfish, bug, and man, and speak a strange clicking tongue that’s subtitled for the viewer’s benefit. Dubbed “Prawns” by the humans, the aliens are removed from the ship and placed in relief camps just outside the city, where they remain for the next twenty years, unable to leave the planet or organize effectively. These camps, collectively referred to as District 9, degenerate into a de facto ghetto, and after increased complaints from the humans, a final decision is made to relocate the Prawns to another, more remote site. Responsibility for the move, which is coordinated by a shady government contractor called MNU (Multi National United), falls to a thoroughly unimpressive mid-level company man named Mikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), whose only apparent qualification for the assignment is that he’s married to the daughter of the head of MNU. Mikus soon finds himself in over his head when a disastrous accident makes him both persona non grata and valuable prey for MNU, forcing him to seek aid from an unlikely source—a Prawn named Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope) and the Prawn’s precocious young son.

Blomkamp films much of the movie, especially the first third or so, like a fake documentary, interpolating “news” clips and interviews with various observers and experts, though he eventually shifts to a faster-moving, more close-up style once the action and suspense start to ratchet up. And while he doesn’t delve all that deeply into the social allegory underlying the story, he gets plenty of mileage out of its imagery of cruelty and neglect, whether it’s the bleak expanse of run-down shacks and trash-heaps or the signs that say, visually or verbally, “humans only.” The Prawns’ predicament isn’t just an allegory of apartheid, though “District 9” is clearly a callout to the infamous removals from Capetown’s District 6 and also recalls shantytowns that still exist outside Johannesburg today; rather, it’s a more general and often brutal reminder of just how easily supposedly civilized societies can mistreat sub-populations perceived to be inferior and disadvantaged but also dangerous. Sometimes the movie oversells the message, but what it loses in subtlety it makes up for in visceral power.

Is “District 9” a masterpiece? No. There are some plot weaknesses that are hard to gloss over (I can’t explain more without giving too much away), and the climax is uncomfortably if only superficially reminiscent of the trailers from “Transformers” or any number of flashier, more expensive, and more disposable action movies. Still, the overall product works, boosted by a terrific performance by Copley as the hapless, frantic Mikus. It was also a smart move to make Mikus’ foil a Prawn who also happens to be by far the most intelligent, admirable, and, yes, humane character in the movie. There was a long stretch, about two-thirds of the way into the movie, when I was rooting for only Christopher Johnson and his son and couldn’t have cared less what happened to Mikus. In the end, Mikus manages to regain a tenuous foothold on our sympathies, though only by realizing—in a very literal way—that there’s little that separates him from the Prawns, and certainly nothing that gives him any claim to superiority. With that redemption, Blomkamp simultaneously rounds off Mikus’ story and leaves the door open for a potential sequel. But I hope it doesn’t come to that. “District 9” is much more powerful as a stand-alone piece than I can ever imagine it being as a franchise.



directed by Kathryn Bigelow
starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, with cameos by Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, Evangeline Lilly, and others

Taut yet fluid, restrained but not detached, seamlessly shot and acutely observed, “The Hurt Locker” is a film that’s easy to admire but not as easy to love. Or maybe that’s just me. I admit it takes a lot for me to warm up to a war movie, even an excellent one, owing mostly to the fact that I regard war as a scourge, or at best a necessary evil. So to the extent a movie’s chief message is that war is hell, I’m already sold and don’t particularly enjoy watching the point get proven; on the other hand, when it focuses on the positive effects war can have, such as freedom from tyranny, courage under fire, forging of character, fraternity among troops, or humanity across enemy lines, I can never shake off the dour sense that this good still comes at great cost.*

“The Hurt Locker” is a bit of an anomaly in that it doesn’t really take either of the two general arcs I just outlined. The title suggests it’s heading in the direction of the first one: for those of you wondering what “the hurt locker” means, from what I can gather, it’s an expression roughly equivalent to “a world of pain.” As such, it seems like an appropriate enough title for a movie that tracks a three-man U.S. Army bomb squad in the last 38 days of its rotation in 2004 Iraq; certainly, the movie itself doesn’t hesitate to show the high stress and, yes the pain and collateral damage that dog their work. Director Kathryn Bigelow (“Point Break,” “Strange Days”) demonstrates, not for the first time in her career, that she can run with the best of the boys when it comes to shooting deadly action sequences: the bomb-dismantling scenes in particular, as well as an extended stakeout that features a cameo by Ralph Fiennes, are riveting and almost unbearably tense—and no, they do not all end well.

Yet Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, a former journalist who covered Iraq and also penned “In the Valley of Elah,” aren’t interested in merely tabulating the carnage of war. Nor are they interested in making their three protagonists vehicles for an overtly polemical statement about the Iraq war; this ain’t no “Three Kings.” Rather, they zero in on how these men—especially their leader, Staff Sgt William James (an intriguingly opaque Jeremy Renner)—respond psychologically to the extreme tension that pervades their entire daily routine. James, new to the squad but an old hand at disarming IED’s (improvised explosive devices), clearly gets off not just the technical challenge of defusing each bomb but the added pressure of knowing that if he makes one error or takes one second too long, he’ll get blown to bits. Tellingly, the quote that prefaces the film is not “War is hell” but “War is a drug.”** Much of “The Hurt Locker” is devoted to showing just how true that is for James, an ace at his job who also brashly takes risks that both stun and anger his comrades (Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, who turn in solid rather than striking performances). They endure danger stoically enough, but they’re not addicted to it as he is—and this difference ultimately plays a large part in determining their respective fates. In the end, the focus remains on James, posing a question that the film leaves to the audience to answer: Did war make him what he is, or only exploit it?


* For some reason, I don’t seem to have this problem when the wars are fantastical, e.g., Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, etc.

** The quote is from Chris Hedges’ book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. The full quotation, and the passage from which it comes, is worth reading:

The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug, one I ingested for many years. It is peddled by myth makers—historians, war correspondents, filmmakers novelists and the state—all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty. It dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language and infects everything around it, even humor, which becomes preoccupied with the grim perversities of smut and death. Fundamental questions about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of our place on the planet are laid bare when we watch those around us sink to the lowest depths.


directed by Ang Lee
starring Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman, Eugene Levy, Emile Hirsch, Jonathan Groff, Mamie Gummer, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, others
adapted from the book by Elliot Tiber

As Elliot Tiber, the protagonist of the amiable, gently ruminative “Taking Woodstock,” tells it, he was the man who made Woodstock possible, without having any idea of what that would entail. It’s important to bear this in mind going into the movie, which is much less about that Aquarian exposition and much more about how the experience of facilitating it affected one nice, rather shy, closeted young man. “Taking Woodstock,” based on Tiber’s memoir of the same name, recounts the story of how he came to the aid of the Woodstock organizers when they lost their permit for their original venue. A New Yorker who grew up in the sleepy town of Bethel before leaving for the city, Elliot (Demetri Martin) happened to be president of the Bethel chamber of commerce at the time, and as such was able to offer his permit for an annual arts festival. According to his account, he also helped broker an agreement with local dairy farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) to use the latter’s wide open fields for the concert, and succeeded in turning his parents’ painfully run-down motel into a sold-out accommodation and ticket-seller for the festival while basking in the hippie glow that came pouring their way.

I enjoyed “Taking Woodstock,” but I can understand why it was so coolly received, and why it’s probably doomed to fall into the category of “lesser Ang Lee.” Still, even lesser Ang Lee is pretty damn watchable, and I suspect that a second viewing would yield greater rewards than the first. While the film incorporates barely any of the music that made Woodstock a cultural touchstone, it does feature wonderfully evocative shots of the throngs of concertgoers, as well as engaging appearances by a number of likable actors, including the delightfully droll Levy, Jonathan Groff as the laid-back yet shrewd chief organizer, Mamie Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter) as his ally, Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton as Elliot’s parents, who get almost as much of a waking-up as he does, Paul Dano as a friendly hippie, and most memorably, Liev Schreiber as a cross-dressing cop who provides security detail and motherly advice. Less effective: Emile Hirsch as a young Vietnam vet plainly suffering from PTSD; and Martin himself, as Elliot, is something of a cipher, which is partly why the movie as a whole never really catches fire. Nevertheless, “Taking Woodstock” makes the most of its modest charms, and if it doesn’t leave your memory entirely, it’s likely to sneak up on you long after you’ve stopped consciously thinking about it.



directed by Robert Schwentke
starring Eric Bana, Rachel McAdams
based on the novel by Audrey Niffenegger

I didn’t expect to love the book The Time Traveler’s Wife. After all, it’s a love story about a man who time-travels and a woman who doesn’t, and I am (1) not a romantic (never have been) (2) not a fan of time travel as a plot element, as it invariably offends my strictly linear sense of logic. Yet something about the novel’s sweeping romanticism burrowed into my skeptical heart and relaxed all my rational scruples. Truth be told, it’s one of my favorite books of the last five years. And the highest praise I can give the film adaptation is that it does justice to the book.

Not full justice, mind you: the movie simplifies the narrative, excises some supporting characters and at least two major subplots, and in so doing smoothes some of the edges off the time-traveling hero, Henry (Eric Bana). Nonetheless, at a fundamental level it remains true to the spirit of the novel. There’s a dreamy lyricism about the cinematography, and a warmth between Bana’s Henry and his lady love, Clare (Rachel McAdams), tinged with a faintly autumnal quality, a melancholy undertone, that struck me as just right. This is also the first time I really felt and understood Rachel McAdams’ appeal; she wouldn’t have been my first casting choice (Clare is one of the few roles I think would actually have suited Scarlet Johansson), but there’s an irresistible radiance about her that really fits the character. As for Bana, there’s a lot of him running around without much in the way of clothes (like the Terminator, Henry time-travels naked), which is never a bad thing—but whether dressed or déshabillé, he conveys a restrained soulfulness that prevents his scenes with Clare from verging into creepiness (for there are many interactions in which Clare is still a little girl) or schmaltz.

Overall, in mood and affect, “The Time Traveler’s Wife” reminded me somewhat of “The Lake House,” another time-bending romance, starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, from some years ago that didn’t get much love from either critics or the public. It’s easy to tear down both movies for similar reasons, yet what stands out about them, and softens my tendency to criticize, is their basic sincerity and a certain quietness that some might mistake for inertness. The plots might be sappy and ridiculous, but there’s very little in the way of dramatic posturing or declarations. Instead there’s an essential purity about their dopey, earnest, unhistrionic romanticism that, as in Niffenegger’s novel, can prove unexpectedly beguiling.



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11:43 PM  

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