Movie Review: District 9

This Website for Humans Only

It’s taken me a long time to wrap my head around my own reactions to District 9. That’s not to say that this movie is needlessly complicated in terms of plot, story or satire. In fact, it’s rather straight-forward. But District 9 is a total anomaly in the Hollywood structure. How else can you describe a film with no celebrity actors that starts as a sci-fi pseudo-documentary and ends as an action shoot-em-up? If Children of Men made a baby with Flight of the Navigator you might find something similar to D9, but you might as well count on your 1,000 monkeys and typewriters script-writing scheme for better results. I was blown away by District 9. The special-effects, the creature and weapon designs, the not-so-subtle commentary on human nature, the moronic anti-hero, his reasonable yet grotesque alien sidekick, they all conspired to create one of the most creative motion pictures ever conceived. No summer movie since Spielberg’s Jaws or Jurassic Park has managed to captivate me so constantly while leaving me completely baffled as to what was going to happen next.

To clue you in, the basic premise of D9 is that twenty years ago an alien craft settled above the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. The aliens- prawn-like creatures, some adorable, some horrifying- cannot fix their spacecraft and are forced to migrate to Earth. The South African government builds the aliens a temporary living space, a slum, and the aliens become immediate social pariahs. All native South Africans are united in their xenophobia toward the creatures. To alleviate the rioting and illegal profiteering on both sides of this conflict the government decides to evict the aliens from the slum and transplant them to a new “safer” environment. The aliens fight back. They do not want to move.

The man leading the government’s efforts to suppress and torture the aliens in District 9 is Wikus van der Merwe (yeah, try saying that with a mouthful of peanut butter). He’s a foolish and overconfident man, but compelling in a strange way. It’s almost like watching Ricky Gervais’ David Brent dealing with an alien invasion. He’s totally unqualified to be in this position, but he makes up for it with sheer enthusiasm. When you see him burn down a building, he’ll bear a sickeningly sweet smile as he describes the little “pop-pop” sound it makes.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot of this movie, because half the fun of D9 is the insane pace at which unpredictable events occur, throwing you into unbelievable situations at the drop of a hat, showing you things that have never been done this well on film before. The real story behind D9 is Neill Blomkamp, the writer/director formerly slated to helm the video-game mega-blockbuster Halo. When Halo cracked because of bickering studio mumbo-jumbo, big-time producer Peter Jackson decided to let Blomkamp do a pet project utilizing Jackson’s extensive Lord of the Rings effects experts. The result is a movie that probably should have been released earlier in the summer, because it would have been nice to see a real science-fiction blockbuster take down an ugly red-headed stepsister like Revenge of the Fallen.

District 9 is not the greatest story ever told, nor is it the finest film ever conceived. But for a first time feature for this up and coming filmmaker, I think it’s a movie to see this weekend, even if it means seeing two movies. My recommendation? See District 9 twice, QT will be in theaters til October. (Just kidding, you Basterds.)

Grade: A+ (for arm-ripping)

Movie Review: Funny People

Talk About a Misleading Title

Funny People takes a painfully long time to say nothing and go nowhere. It’s the kind of screenplay that should have been cut in half, redrafted and then sent back to film school for notes. Unfortunately Judd Apatow is now at the point in his career where, as he put it plainly at last year’s Comic-Con panel, he has the studios by “one ball” if not both. This would explain why at the hour-and-a-half mark of a movie about comedians in Los Angeles the film pointlessly transplants itself to San Francisco to become a love story about Apatow’s wife, actress Leslie Mann, and conveniently reiterates how desirable and talented she is. While Mann is admittedly very funny and generally skilled at conveying a point, this movie is not and should be chastized heavily for leading its audience down two distinct and contrary trails, neither of which resolves itself or lives up to the funny promised in the title.

I don’t want to sound like an Apatow-hater. The man has done more for comedy than Bill Clinton’s dick. But at some point, like an aging musician who survived a whirlwind of success in his youth, old dog Apatow got lazy and started shoveling out anecdotes and instances in lieu of story and character. If you’ve seen the theatrical trailer for Funny People you know exactly what happens in the movie, point-by-point. The only things you’re missing are the briefly hilarious moments featuring Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman as Seth Rogen’s roommates, performers in one of the best sitcom parodies ever conceived. Everything else in this film is ancillary. The love story, the medical drama, the relationship between Rogen and Sandler- none of these threads result in anything funny, touching or particularly memorable. Whereas 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up had heart, Funny People has a gaping void where the soul should be, throbbing in agony as it listlessly stumbles to its conclusion.

I’d like to write more positively on the subject, but I really don’t know what to say. Many of my friends have claimed that Funny People is two movies in one, to which I reply, “Yeah, two bad movies.” If either movie was valuable on its own, we might have something to work with here, but neither Rogen’s or Sandler’s journeys are particularly noticeable or interesting. While Rogen is back to basics as a sweeter version of himself (after a brief and tremendously lousy stint with acting in Observe & Report), the real culprit here is Sandler, a generally fantastic performer capable of intense and powerful characterizations (i.e. Punch-Drunk Love) as well as moments of shocking hilarity (i.e. You Don’t Mess With the Zohan). In Funny People, Sandler transforms into an old Hollywood douchebag, the kind of person we hope he’ll never be in real life. It’s neither fun or compelling to see him fill this role, and it’s almost a shame we don’t get to see him transform into a baby or portray a Merman like he does in the fake movie clips within Funny People. While patently retarded, at least those concepts have more legs/fins to stand on than Funny People, a movie that never decides what it wants to be, what it has to say (if anything), and why it deserves to exist other than to pat Apatow and his wife on the back for all the better movies they’ve made. By the time we reach the third act (of twelve) and Apatow shuffles all of his old comedy cohorts into one of many needless cameo compilations, the whole thing seems more self-indulgent than anything even Wes Anderson could have concocted. Rather than too-precious characters, we’re dealing with characters and a universe that aren’t precious enough, with nothing remarkable or interesting to take away from it. In the same way that Charlie Kaufman’s Synechdoche, New York perfectly simulated real life by being both terrible and boring, Funny People perfectly simulates the life of a comedian in Los Angeles: it’s painful, not as funny as it looks, and you definitely lose money on the deal.

Grade: C- *

* This grade is slightly higher than it should be because of the Jason Schwartzman factor. Plus Aziz Ansari, while painfully underused, is featured in this movie. Like twice. That has to count for something.

Movie Review: Orphan

There's Something Wrong with the Guy Who Photoshopped this

Horror movies deserve to be graded on a different scale than regular movies. There’s so much formula and history to the genre it almost requires an entirely different set of skills to create an effectively scary film than it does to create a compelling drama or comedy. The sort of character-driven, hero vs. obstacle storytelling that runs rampant in most movies is generally the antithesis of the modern slasher movie, where oftentimes the murderer is the most compelling character. It’s been a gradual evolution over time from protagonist-driven scarefests like Alien or the original Friday the 13th to hilarious splatterfests like the Final Destination series. Rather than expecting the protagonist to succeed, the shallow characterizations of the heroes simply make them easier to visualize as imminent victims in an escalating sequence of graphic murders.

And to be honest, there’s nothing wrong with that. Since its beginnings, film has been about marveling at spectacle, about showing the audience the formerly unknown, bringing the unbelievable one step closer to reality. In the same way that gamers get off on Grand Theft Auto killing sprees or watching their Sims starve to death in a door-less room, horror junkies have found cathartic release in the gory demises of promiscuous teens and the heart-pumping tension that precedes them. Whether you’d like to admit it or not, there’s something all too human about rooting for catastrophe, as if religion and law were invented solely to prevent our natural predisposition for destruction. Like the people who watch NASCAR hoping for a crash, there’s something strangely natural about the voyeuristic desire to witness the worst, only to receive a soma-like burst of schadenfreude in the end.

I doubt anyone was expecting a dissection of film and humanity when they clicked on a link to a review of the movie Orphan, but in the same way that it’s easy to trivialize the written word in an increasingly technical age, it’s easier still to write off a horror movie as cheap schlock before it’s even given a chance to scare the bejeesus out of you. Orphan plays with that sensibility from minute one, providing an immediate look at the b-movie bullshit we’ve grown to expect and then turning it on its ear. Not only has director Jaume Collet-Serra sculpted a masterfully scary horror movie, his eye for shot composition and ability to coax beautiful performances out of actor and child-actor alike is something to be admired. Perhaps he fired his previous cinematographer or simply had a better script to work with, but Collet-Serra has come a long way from 2005’s hysterically crappy House of Wax.*

Orphan has a ridiculous premise and its opening dream sequence is an homage to the schlocky horror that birthed it. Rather than continuing down the b-movie route, Collet-Serra takes us on a surprising turn toward humor, warmth and drama. The performances by the lead actors are consistently impressive for a horror film, especially that of Aryana Engineer, the young actress portraying Vera Farmiga’s adorably deaf daughter (yes, I did just say that). Of course Isabelle Furhman steals the show as the secretly evil adopted Orphan with unclear intentions. There is occasionally too much plot and crybaby drama slowing things down, specifically with regards to Farmiga’s alcoholism subplot and Peter Sarsgaard’s dopey husband in disbelief moments, but Furhman’s intensity provides the film with enough tension that the boring parts are few and far between. When the brutality happens (and man, does it happen) you can’t help being caught between a rock and a hard place: Should we be rooting for Farmiga to wise up to her adopted daughter’s cruelty, or for Fuhrman to off the whole family in the grossest ways imaginable?

In the end, this is a movie based around a twist which many of you have already spoiled for yourselves by reading it online. I blame the marketing campaign for highlighting the twist so blatantly, as its barely important for your enjoyment of the movie. Orphan is a successful horror film because it constantly keeps you on your toes and sustains a tension that is rarely seen in the genre these days. Shots of night-driving in the snow and the sequence when a car rolls backwards down a hill are enough to please cinema buffs, but the real joy is the ride that the movie takes you on, never letting you stop for a moment to question how asinine and bizarre the premise is and instead keeping you constantly curling your toes in nervous anticipation. The 11:35 pm Thursday audience at The Grove in Hollywood was filled with the late-night date crowd, and I haven’t heard more terrified laughter since Sarah Palin was announced as a vice presidential candidate. This is a movie that effectively placates your emotions, letting you laugh at times and making your hair stand on end at others. I can’t recommend this movie enough to mainstream audiences, because there simply isn’t anything else scary playing right now, and at times we all need a reminder of why we go to the movies: to feel something, whether it makes us chuckle or shakes us to the bone.

Grade: B+

* I will give Collet-Serra credit for two great moments in House of Wax: How swiftly the pipe enters Paris Hilton’s skull, as if there were no bone or brain matter to provide friction; and how hilariously morbid it is to watch an evil redneck clip off a girl’s finger while having casual conversation with her brother.

Movie Review: 500 Days of Summer

He's come a long way since 3rd Rock

500 Days of Summer bills itself as a story about love, but not a love story. While the movie is filled with romantic moments, it fights the sappy saccharine cliches of typical romantic comedies and instead exudes an indie rock personality far less contrived or cloying than its competitors (see: Juno, Away We Go). The story is deeply personal, and thanks to an especially funny note from the author at the beginning of the film, it’s clear that while the film may be presented from the male perspective, it’s also based in a very heartfelt reality.

Very rarely is there a film that achieves sentimentality, heart and humor so skillfully while still appealing to the very nature of aesthetically pleasing cinematography and set design. While an almost too-long endeavor, 500 Days never loses the charm it rides in on, and manages to highlight its central actors as both quirky characters and compatible romantic leads. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has matured into a leading man so nicely that when his character looks into his reflection in a car window and sees Han Solo staring back, it’s not that far a stretch. Zooey Deschenel is cute and quirky as ever. The film doesn’t take leaps to justify her characters’ behavior, but as the film is from the male character Tom’s perspective she is presented purposefully as an enigma. Even so neither character in the relationship is painted as stereotype. They’re both given the opportunity to redeem themselves many times, and it’s their missed connections that make the film feel so honest and endearing.

Mostly I can’t get over the screenwriting of the film. Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber crafted a screenplay with more time jumps than Star Trek and still managed to create something totally coherent and palatable. The story unfolds almost as a series of steam-of-conscious memories. Your only clue to the chronology is a constantly changing day counter that precedes the scenes, letting you know that even though we just saw day 342, we’ll be hopping back to day 17 for the next scene, just to give you a little perspective. Lesser screenwriters wouldn’t be able to present you with 500 days of a relationship in a single movie, but these guys really nail it on the head. I’m hoping to see a Best Screenplay nomination for both of them.

This is not to say that director Mark Webb doesn’t deserve some accolades as well. The visual style of the movie hangs on that indie rock boundary between chic and twee that often plagues less successful low-budget dramedies. Perhaps the level of polish and precision in this film is the direct result of all the money thrown at it, but if that’s the case then the filmmakers should still be commended for presenting a deep and intimate relationship story that manages to make Los Angeles look slightly less soulless than the average LA portayal. Through these characters eyes, the city is blossoming with romance. It also feels…human. Go figure.

I can’t recommend this movie enough. Even if the romantic thesis of the movie doesn’t gel with you, there’s still a lot of laughter and fun to be had in this particular picture. I look forward to Mark Webb’s next directorial effort, as well as the next efforts by the screenwriters. I look slightly less forward to Joseph Gordon Levitt’s portray of Cobra Commander in the upcoming G.I. Joe movie, but if anyone can save that stinking turd from self-destruction maybe it’s him.

Grade: A

Writers (WGA):

Scott Neustadter (written by) &
Michael H. Weber (written by)

P.S. Pink Panther 2? Yeesh. These guys have come a long way.

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Half-Blood Prince was always my least favorite Potter book. Why? Because our main protagonist sits by the sidelines for about five hundred pages while his best friends snog each other. The most action-packed moments of the story happen at the very end or in flashbacks, and Harry Potter loses almost all of his agency, a flaw that plagues the series for the first three hundred pages of the final book as well. Rather than actively seek out adventure like he used to, Harry listens to Dumbledore regale him with adventures from the past. To be fair, important information is revealed, information critical to the conclusion of the Potter series, but a writer as skilled as Rowling could have easily tied Harry more closely to the forward progress of the narrative, acting as the detective rather than an ancillary stooge.

Somewhat ironically the sixth Harry Potter film shines as one of the best in the series, utilizing the book’s narrative malaise as a way of depicting the young wizard’s growth into manhood. In previous Potter films the set pieces had been so bombastic and distracting there was hardly the time to get to know the characters beyond a series of pithy remarks, but director David Yates skillfully utilizes the natural awkwardness of his young actors to create intertwining romantic plotlines that are both hysterically funny and touching. Despite the dark dealings surrounding Hogwarts in this story, the character relationships provide some of this summer’s finest comedy, perhaps with the exception of Pixar’s Up.

It’s hard to fault an adaptation that takes a stagnant story and brings it to vivid life, especially with such incredible camerawork and visual effects. There are certain shots, like the characters peering down from the rafters of the Weasley house and the early Death Eater assault on London that rival Oscar-worthy cinematography. That being said, there are occasional pacing problems, mostly the result of the adapted work itself than botched screenwriting. The script is piping with life and character, and thanks to some clever usage of love and luck potions, we get to see new sides of Harry and Ron that allow the actors behind them to really have some fun.

Visually stunning, emotionally honest and somehow still very grounded, this movie steals the crown from Prisoner of Azkaban. I almost wish Yates had directed the Goblet of Fire, but it’s clear from his previous attempt in the series, Order of the Phoenix, that he definitely needed a warm-up before he nailed it.

Potter fans can look forward to TWO upcoming movies, as the final story “Deathly Hallows” will be broken in twain as a way to further drain the bank accounts of loyal fans. It’s an unsurprising move fiscally, but a truly moronic one in terms of narrative. The first three hundred pages of Deathly Hallows suffer from a Potter without agency and mostly revolve around the three central characters bickering in the woods until some ancillary sidekicks miraculously reveal information pertinent to the central quest. I’ve joked previously that the last two books flail aimlessly because of Rowling’s own inability to neatly wrap up the massive and incredible universe she’s created. But even George Lucas gave us a Return of the Jedi (and those damnable prequels [and Indy 4]). Deathly Hallows has a tremendous ending full of heart, revelations and a huge destructive battle. Surely that’ll make for some really swell filmmaking. At least in Part II.

Grade: A