Movie Review: District 9

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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.