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9

•September 11, 2009 • Leave a Comment

9posterstarring Elijah Wood, John C. Reilly, and Jennifer Connelly
written by Pamela Pettler and Shane Acker & directed by Shane Acker
Rated PG-13 for violence and scary images.
77%

Director Acker expands his 2005 Oscar-nominated short into an feature-length animated film. 9 (Wood), a living rag doll created by a now-dead scientist, wakes up for the first time to a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which humanity has died in a mysterious war. The only remaining inhabitants of this world are 9, the previous 8 rag dolls the scientist made, and a monstrous mechanical creature known only as “The Beast.” As 9 struggles to survive in this hostile environment, he begins to realize that he and his companions were created for a purpose, and that he holds the key to their collective destiny.

9 is a confusing little film that never quite seems to get across any big ideas or go anywhere terribly significant, despite hints at a much larger story left untold. However, the world that Acker has created is so absorbing and creatively-visualized that it will likely be some time before viewers notice the narrative shortcomings. 9 has a genuinely unique and inventive aesthetic that is totally absorbing from the very beginning. I never tired (during the film’s admittedly brief runtime) of the strange-but-familiar images that appeared on the screen as events unfolded.

The framework upon which this brilliantly-conceived tapestry is hung, however, is so flat and generic that it never seems more than woefully underdeveloped. It doesn’t help that nothing is given a name, leaving the movie’s backstory to sound like the bare-bones summary given at an early pitch meeting. “The Scientist” builds “The Machine” in service of “The State,” but the evil “Chancellor” allows its potential to be abused and it creates a swarm of mechanical nightmares that wipe out everyone and everything. No doubt this was done to make the story seem timeless and archetypal, but instead it comes across as lazy and bland.

No doubt one major cause of these shortcomings is the film’s transformation from a 10-minute short with no dialogue into an 80-minute film with an all-star cast of voice actors. In its original form, the story needed no explanation or context. It had its small but resourceful protagonist and an antagonist who pursued him across a dystopian landscape. Given the opportunity to flesh-out his highly-original world with an equally-original origin story, Acker has turned to some combination of Nazi Germany and the Terminator franchise, with some bizarre silliness about the transference of souls (reminiscent of 2001’s ill-fated Final Fantasy) thrown in without any sort of guiding mechanic to ensure that it makes sense.

The changes are not all bad, however. There was something endearing about the silent expressiveness of 9 and his companions when they couldn’t speak, but giving them voices and distinct personalities turns out to be one of this movie’s strengths. The greatest pleasure of the opening act is being introduced to the other characters, one by one, and then watching them develop and interact as individuals. The A-list talent providing the dialogue doesn’t hurt, either. They include Christopher Plummer as crotchety leader 1, Martin Landau as the more adventurous 2, John C. Reilly as the kind, nervous 5, and Jennifer Connelly as the bold, competent 7. Still, I have to admit that my favorite characters were the silent twins, 3 and 4.

Throughout 9 I couldn’t shake the feeling that this would have made a better video game than a movie. It had all of the elements of an excellent puzzle or adventure game, and the plot had all of the structural components of that medium. Certainly if I had been required to play my way through the discoveries and revelations of the movie, they wouldn’t have seemed as obvious, or as perfunctory, as they do.

I find Acker’s work here very promising for a first-time director. He has a flair for the visual and an excellent sense of the essentials of character. Because of that, I kept wanting to like 9 more than I did. Anyone who enjoys the original short (which can still be found on YouTube) will likely have a good time, as I did. Ultimately, though, I was left unsatisfied, and a bit underwhelmed. There is a lot to like, but audiences will be left scratching their heads and wondering what went wrong.

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Theological Moviegoings: Jesus of Montreal

•September 8, 2009 • Leave a Comment

jesusofmontreal

Jesus of Montreal begins with a suicide, or so it appears. The act is actually staged as the dramatic finale of a stage play, but we only realize this as the man appears to dangle from the end of the rope and the audience (previously unseen and unheard) erupts into applause. It is a humorous and disorienting moment for the film audience, and it immediately prepares them to look deeper as they continue watching; not everything may be what it seems at first.

It’s an apt place to begin a contemporary retelling of the story of Jesus, particularly one in which conventional, orthodox notions of who he was are occasionally challenged. In the film, a Catholic priest hires a celebrated local actor, Daniel Coulombe, to update and stage the Passion play his church has put on every summer for the past 40 years. The priest, Father Leclerc, expects Daniel to make the play more relevant to modern audiences, and perhaps draw in people who might not otherwise attend. Both men achieve what they set out for, but (of course) the results surprise them both.

Before production can seriously begin, Daniel has to assemble a troupe of “disciples” who are compatible with his vision for the play. However, the actors are recruited from unexpected places. For instance, one is busy dubbing a porn film when Daniel approaches him, though he heeds the (casting) call and leaves to follow Daniel in the middle of the recording session.

The most-developed of these followers is a beautiful young actress named Mireille, who Daniel finds filming an ad for an expensive perfume. She agrees to take on the role of Mary, despite the cruel insistence of her boyfriend that her acting talent is solely a factor of her sex appeal. She enjoys the change in self-perception that comes from stepping into a role that isn’t designed to display her like a piece of meat, and when trouble arises later she is the most insistent that the group forge ahead. She has begun to see herself in a way that she never has, and she can’t bear to think of returning to the way things were before.

Of course, the most dramatic events revolve around Daniel’s experiences. There is an early scene where Daniel is researching his character in the library. A stranger, a woman, approaches him and says, “You are looking for Jesus? He will find you.” As Daniel puts the play together, and then takes on the central role night after night, he begins to “live into his role.” What began as a job “becomes a vocation” (as Robert Johnston explains in Reel Spirituality).

He finds himself in trouble with authorities after his outrage over the demeaning treatment of Mireille at an audition for a beer commercial leads him to destroy thousands of dollars worth of equipment and chase the offending parties out of the auditorium. Meanwhile, the unexpected success of his passion play prompts a local advertising mogul to offer him the opportunity to “sell out” and have the entire city in the palm of his hand. Daniel himself seems a bit surprised by his response to these situations.

All of these extreme, life-changing events which the characters experience successfully mirror the lives of people in the Gospels. Again and again, contact with Christ not only proves to be life-changing, but is transformative in such a way that the person cannot imagine returning to the life they lived before. In Jesus of Montreal, the story of Jesus is invested with that power to change lives in startling and unlikely ways.

At the same time, just as Daniel’s Passion play reaches new audiences in new ways, the film audience’s experience of watching him take on the role of Christ in his own life can challenge perceptions and shed new light on the story as well. A traditional retelling of the biblical account of Jesus’s life can seem drab and familiar, even when rendered dramatically on film, but by changing the details, the filmmakers can bring the heart of the story into the spotlight once more.

Then, too, at such a temporal and cultural distance, it is easy to lose sight of just how revolutionary and counterintuitive Jesus and his message were to the people in and near 1st-century Jerusalem. When Daniel breaks up the beer commercial audition, for example, we are reminded of the divide between what is culturally acceptable and what is morally acceptable, and of how shocking it must have been when Jesus drove the merchants from the temple.

Incidentally, Jesus of Montreal, like the Jesus of the Gospels, has some things to say about organized religion (in this case the Catholic rather than the Jewish faith, naturally). In this case, the presence of the church is actually more of an absence. In the few scenes which show the interior of the sanctuary it is always empty. Despite the ornate beauty of the architecture and decorations, this church is spiritually dead. The revival is going on outside its walls.

This brings us to Father Leclerc, the most church’s most visible representative. He is furious with Daniel after he sees the play for the first time, but his reasons are somewhat surprising. He is not upset with Daniel’s modifications to the official Jesus narrative because he believes it is blasphemous or heretical, but because he knows his superiors will. Leclerc has long-since ceased to be a believer, but he continues to go through the motions as the head of his church because he is afraid of losing his job and having nothing left to fall back on. The actors encourage him to join them, promising to accept him and do what they can for him, but he is too afraid.

The conflict between Daniel and Leclerc reaches its peak when Leclerc orders the other actors to return to performing his original script and they refuse. Furious, he storms inside the church and Daniel follows him to have it out. The two argue about the play, and Leclerc accuses Daniel of interfering with his ministry to the congregation. He claims to offer a sanctuary and a listening ear to people who cannot afford to visit a psychiatrist. However, it is clear that the comfort he offers is as empty as his faith, and as the church itself.

The actors, after sharing a “last supper” of pizza, decide to put on one last performance for the public. In the midst of the crucifixion scene, an altercation between a group of guards and some members of the audience leads to an accident which fatally injures Daniel. However, he lives on in two important ways. First, his friends donate his organs to the hospital, and they are transplanted into several waiting patients (restoring sight for one woman, extending the life of a man in need of a new heart, etc.). Second, an organization is set up in his name, with the actors who worked with him agreeing to take charge of it and ensure that it adheres to his principles.

This is the weakest portion of the movie, as the circumstances surrounding Daniel’s death and legacy seem a bit forced for the sake of their Gospel parallels, and hence a bit unbelievable. However, the film as a whole sheds some powerful light on the question of what Jesus’ approach to society and culture might look like now, perhaps opening the viewer’s eyes to see the world a bit differently and understand some of the importance and uniqueness of Christ’s message in a new and relevant way.

Amadeus: Best Picture, 1984

•September 1, 2009 • Leave a Comment

AmadeusposterThe 57th Annual Academy Awards were hosted by Jack Lemmon. Amadeus was nominated for 11 Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (F. Murray Abraham), Best Actor (Tom Hulce), Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup, and Best Sound. Major contenders that year included A Passage to India (11 nominations, 2 wins), Places in the Heart (7 nominations, 2 wins), and The Killing Fields (7 nominations, 3 wins). F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri beat out Tom Hulce’s Mozart to take the award, and The Killing Fields won both Best Cinematography and Best Editing, leaving Amadeus with a total of 8 Oscars.

The film, based on a Tony-winning play by Peter Shaffer (who also won the screenplay award), follows a very one-sided rivalry between Antonio Salieri, court composer to Austrian Emperor Joseph II, and musical prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. As a boy, Salieri makes a vow to honor God with his music, if God will reward him with the necessary talent. He feels that God has accepted this bargain, until Mozart arrives on the scene. Salieri immediately recognizes a talent that dwarfs his own, but is appalled to discover that the young Mozart is a vulgar, lascivious man. Unable to understand why God would choose to mock him by rewarding someone like Mozart with superior musical ability, Salieri pits himself against the Almighty in an effort to thwart and frustrate Mozart at every turn.

Amadeus begins, many years after the death of the title character, with Salieri’s attempted suicide and relocation to a primitive mental ward (an interesting setting considering director Milos Forman’s previous multiple Oscar-winner, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). He is visited there by a very young priest, and there is considerable irony in hearing Salieri addressed as “my son.” Salieri immediately makes it clear that he does not wish to confess, but he cannot resist the opportunity to tell his story. His account is a sort of “apology” in the sense of explaining and defending his beliefs and actions. From this point events unfold as an extended flashback which begins with Salieri’s childhood desire to be a musician.

As we get an idea of Salieri’s life and character, it becomes clear that there is a disconnect between his actions and his perception of himself. He recounts how, as a boy, he prayed “the proudest prayer a boy could pray” asking God to grant him talent. In return, he promises his chastity, industry, and humility. There is no apparent recognition of the contradiction between promising humility in a prideful prayer. He regards his father’s sudden death as a divine miracle in answer to his prayer (for which he feels no remorse). Indeed, Salieri gleefully regards any unexpected occurrence that works in his favor as a miracle. However, anything that frustrates him is also a result of divine intervention in his life.

On the one hand, Salieri believes that God is in control and actively at work in the world. On the other hand, he also seems convinced that the world revolves around him (or at least should). Meanwhile, although he doesn’t seem aware of it, Salieri is in continual violation of the spirit of his vow, if not the letter. He is not chaste in anything but the strictest sense of the word; for instance, he admits to the priest that he was “in lust” with his pupil, the beautiful opera singer Katerina Cavalieri. Also, while we don’t see him gorging himself, several scenes quietly emphasize his taste for fine food. Abraham plays these parts brilliantly, conveying the quasi-sexual and self-indulgent nature of Salieri’s love of sweets.

Perhaps the most significant contradiction of all, however, is Salieri’s philosophy of art. His primary aesthetic is essentially a theological one. Unlike most of the other characters in the film, Salieri believes that art (particularly in musical form, in this case) offers a connection with the divine. He frequently recognizes salvific themes in Mozart’s music, and even expresses the belief that Mozart’s music speaks with “the voice of God.” Strangely, though, Salieri is outraged. While he apparently recognizes that God can speak through anyone, he doesn’t believe that God should. He feels cheated of a gift that he is certain he deserves more than Mozart. As far as Salieri can see, not only do the wicked prosper, they do so with God’s full support and blessing.

Mozart, however,  does suffer for his own shortcomings. Less reflective than Salieri, he indulges in an unhealthy lifestyle that revolves around the constant consumption of alcohol and attending wild parties late into the night. His extravagance is a source of contention in his marriage and keeps him constantly on the verge of financial ruin. Mozart truly is just an overgrown child, and the film hints at his father’s failure to raise him well, but Salieri hears only the mocking laughter of God in Mozart’s juvenile cackle.

In the midst of his rage and envy, Salieri fails to recognize the significance of being able to experience God through Mozart’s music in a way that no one else in the film can, including Mozart himself. This is perhaps one of the most significant ideas in the film: Not only can God speak through “secular” art, but the ability to recognize and appreciate the Creator in art is itself a gift. And it is a gift which Salieri clearly possesses, as he shows again and again through his eye-opening voice-over commentary on Mozart’s music (which is the film’s third important character).

There is also a striking recurring shot which communicates the idea of art as an act of creation mimicking the Act of Creation: The conductor (either Mozart or Salieri) directs the orchestra in the royal opera house. The shot is framed with the conductor at the center, shot from below, with the richly-decorated beauty of the full auditorium as a backdrop. The musician as creator fills this enclosed “universe” with the sounds of music, maintaining total control over both the performers who follow his lead and play his music, and the enraptured audience.

The conflict gradually escalates until it leads Salieri to a breaking point, a sort of crisis of faith. He takes down the crucifix we have often seen him appeal to, leaving behind a stark outline on the wall where it once hung, and casts it into the fire. As the symbol of his devotion burns, he makes a new vow to God: “From now on we are enemies, You and I. Because You choose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me for reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation. Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it. I will hinder and harm Your creature on earth as far as I am able.”

It is clearly a point of no return for Salieri, and as he sets himself up here as an antagonist to God he becomes a semi-diabolical figure. This connection is emphasized visually when Salieri repeatedly dons the costume worn by Mozart’s father before his death. The ghastly black robe and hat with its different masks for the front and back of the head signals Salieri’s assumption of his new role as a deceiver.

As I mentioned above, Mozart’s music plays a role so significant that it could be considered the film’s third major character. Its presence is palpable from the opening moments of Amadeus, still haunting Salieri long after the death of its composer. He feels that he has been kept alive so that God can torture him with the knowledge that Mozart has achieved musical immortality, while his own work fades into obscurity within his lifetime. Still, there is no denying that he remains powerfully affected by the art of the man he hates; so much so that he opens up the audience to the power of the music as he describes his experiences with it.

Ultimately, his plan to kill Mozart and win out over God revolves around turning the composer’s own music against him. Knowing of both the incredible potency of Mozart’s ability and his guilt over the death of his father, Salieri commissions a requiem mass. For a composer who speaks with the voice of God and can summon up the ghost of his own father or fill a theater with “the music of forgiveness,” being tasked with the music of death could prove quite dangerous (as it in fact does). As the work grows towards completion, Mozart draws himself closer and closer to death until he is too weak to even finish the work and Salieri must step in to help.

Their collaboration on Mozart’s deathbed is an amazing scene because it brings to a thematic head everything that the film has been about, particularly the conflict between Mozart’s effortless talent and Salieri’s reluctant admiration and the power of artistic creation. The music floods the soundtrack as Mozart dictates the notes onto the page, and there is a palpable feeling that he is summoning spiritual forces into the material world.

Amadeus is a magnificent, lavishly-produced film that speaks directly to the nature of the relationship between art and theology. It demonstrates the blindness of those who cannot recognize that such a relationship exists, but also something else: The destruction of a man who is consumed by his outraged inability to reconcile the majesty and purity of divine revelation with the flawed human instrument that expresses it.


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Scripture/Film Pairings

•August 27, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Borrowed from a friend on Facebook:

Here’s a challenge for you. For each of the Scripture divisions listed below, identify an appropriate film to watch.

You may take a lot of approaches to this task. For example, you may name a movie that would set the right mood for someone reading through that part of the Bible. Or a movie with a plot that runs parallel to a key story. Or a movie that provides a contrast to the Bible — maybe one that serves as a warning. And of course, you can try to find movies that translate key biblical themes artistically. Be as creative and unusual as you like. The goal is to help us think about the Bible (and these movies) in a new light.

Post this challenge and your answers in a note of your own, tagging me and a few other people so we can compare answers. There is just one rule for the movie choices: Do not include any evangelistic or Bible-story films. That would be too obvious.

The categories:

1) Origins
2) Law
3) OT History
4) Poetry
5) Wisdom
6) Prophecy
7) Apocrypha
8) NT History
9) Epistles
10) Revelation

My answers are below.

————————-

1) Origins: Unbreakable
2) Law: Atonement
3) OT History: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
4) Poetry: Amadeus
5) Wisdom: The Virgin Spring
6) Prophecy: Dogville
7) Apocrypha: Pulp Fiction
8) Gospel: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
9) Epistles: Shane
10) Revelation: In Bruges

What would you pick?

The Good Old Summertime

•August 25, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I had a great summer this year, ranging from an excellent class (that I didn’t think I would enjoy) to an excellent weekend at the Texas Shakespeare Festival (which I was pretty sure I would enjoy). And, as always, in the midst of traveling the country to visit friends and family and taking care of business here at home, I had some amazing movie-watching experiences. Unfortunately, summer being what it is, there was a bit of a frustrating slow-down on Moviegoings activity. This is particularly annoying because I ought to have more time to post during the summer, not less (and, in fact, I do . . . but nevermind). In any case, I had an extraordinarily difficult time narrowing my viewing experiences of the last few months down to a top ten . . . but here they are, in no particular order:

Wise Blood

The Battle of Algiers

The Conversation

Kicking and Screaming

Marjoe

Bonnie and Clyde

Boogie Nights

The Hurt Locker

The Virgin Spring

Waltz with Bashir

I’ve wanted to see John Huston’s adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood ever since I first heard that it existed some years ago, so as soon as I learned that it was getting the Criterion treatment, I was ready. The movie did not disappoint: A rich adaptation that brings the source to life in a unique way that I’m sure I will revisit again and again. And this wasn’t the only spiritually-challenging film I encountered. I was floored by the 1972 documentary Marjoe, in which a fraudulent evangelist invited a film crew to follow him around the country for one last tour to expose the shallow trickery employed by him and others like him. It was an eye-opening experience, even for someone (like me) who has always been a bit suspicious of such methods. I was also deeply moved by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, a raw, shocking examination of human responses to evil and suffering.

I also experienced three amazing war films. There was the startlingly relevant 1966 French film The Battle of Algiers, detailing that conflict with an astounding attention to both detail and the bigger picture. In 2003, the Pentagon organised screenings of the film subtitled “How to win the battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas.” It is an apt description that doesn’t seem to have been taken to heart. Speaking of the War in Iraq (and political commentary thereon), I was totally blown away by The Hurt Locker, the best American movie of the year so far. The film tells the story of a few months in the lives of an elite American bomb squad in Iraq, and is probably the first genuinely successful movie about the conflict precisely because it avoids heavy-handed political undertones and simply tells an amazing story. Finally, I at last had the chance to experience Waltz with Bashir, an animated movie which is unlike any film I have ever seen (animated or otherwise). The movie really brings home both the short-term and long-lasting horrors of war, evoking timeless anti-war classics like All Quiet on the Western Front (novel and film).

The somber mood continued with The Conversation, in which the best surveillance expert in the business experiences a crisis of conscience over one of the jobs he has taken on. This Coppola-directed Best-Picture nominee has been overshadowed by his masterful Godfather, Part II, but it deserves to be seen and discussed. Also nominated for Best Picture, but still deserving attention, is 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde. This film definitely lives up to its reputation as a seminal American film, and it’s a lot of fun as well.

Finally, although nothing I chose for the top ten could be called genuinely light-hearted, both Boogie Nights and Kicking and Screaming walked a fine line between comedy and tragedy. The former is Paul Thomas Anderson’s towering epic (and it really does belong in that genre) about the adult film industry during the 1970s and ’80s. The latter is an ennui-filled movie about a group of brilliant-but-directionless recent college graduates who can’t seem to escape the orbit of their alma mater. It might have struck a bit close to home. Maybe.

Honorable Mentions:

Up

Pixar strikes again with a funny and moving story about dreams deferred.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Hard to believe I had never seen this before, but I loved it. Great music, great concept, great production values. I could go on and on . . .

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

Documentary filmmaker Kurt Kuenne sets out to make a movie about his best friend Andrew after he is murdered by his girlfriend (who also happens to be pregnant with their child). The result is an incredible story that needs to be seen and heard.

District 9

The surprise blockbuster of the summer is undoubtedly this action-packed sci-fi allegory about apartheid in South Africa. It blew away all of the pricey, shiny American contenders.

Shadows and Fog

In this hilarious Woody Allen film, his character is pulled out of bed by the neighbors to wander the streets in search of a serial strangler who may or may not be out there. Mob insanity and existential musings ensue.

One, Two, Three

Dr. Strangelove remains the definitive Cold War comedy about nuclear war, but One, Two, Three starring James Cagney has the market cornered when it comes to Iron Curtain farce. Cagney plays a fast-talking executive of the Coca-Cola company branch in Berlin, assigned to chaperone his American boss’s daughter (and frustrate her determined attempts to marry a dashing young Communist).

Moon

This small sci-fi drama was another pleasant summer-release surprise. Sam Bell is nearing the end of a 3-year solo shift mining precious resources on the moon. He can hardly wait to get home to his wife and daughter, but an unfortunate accident and a startling discovery threaten his mental stability and his chances of returning home.

The Verdict

Paul Newman is a broken-down old lawyer who sold his soul a very long time ago . . . but he finds an unexpected chance for personal redemption when a fat medical malpractice suit falls in his lap.

Ponyo

Hayao Miyazaki’s latest animated masterpiece has arrived in America, and does not disappoint. The story is slight and definitely aimed at a much younger audience than some of his previous works, but viewers will still be amazed by the artistry of his visuals.

Knowing

This apocalyptic Nicolas Cage thriller is much better than it looks. At least, I thought so. The concept is intriguing, though outrageously far-fetched. However, anyone willing to simply “go with it” will likely be entertained.

Fall Movielogue, 2009

•August 24, 2009 • Leave a Comment

August 24 – January 10

# Title (Production Year) Rating% Date Watched — Review links, if any (*Title* denotes top ten movie of period)

1303 Solaris (1972) 99% 8/24/2009
1304 The Great Buck Howard (2008) 89% 8/25/2009
1305 Trouble the Water (2008) 69% 8/27/2009
1306 We Are Wizards (2008) 35% 8/28/2009
1307 Guru (2007) 80% 8/31/2009
1308 Killer’s Kiss (1955) 45% 9/1/2009
1309 Osmosis Jones (2001) 71% 9/3/2009
1310 Spartacus (1960) 96% 9/4/2009
1311 Blazing Saddles (1974) 52% 9/5/2009
1312 Jesus of Montreal (1989) 85% 9/6/2009 — Post
1313 Tobacco Road (1941) 44% 9/8/2009
1314 Beavis and Butt-head Do America (1996) 53% 9/9/2009
1315 The Earrings of Madame de… (1953) 97% 9/9/2009
1316 9 (2009) 77% 9/11/2009 — Post
1317 Key Largo (1948) 95% 9/12/2009
1318 *The Last Temptation of Christ* (1988) 95% 9/13/2009 — Post
1319 Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004) 54% 9/13/2009
1320 The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) 94% 9/15/2009
1321 Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009) 89% 9/22/2009
1322 Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) 81% 9/23/2009
1323 The Informant! (2009) 91% 9/24/2009
1324 Mimic (1997) 59% 9/25/2009
1325 Au hasard Balthazar (1966) 91% 9/30/2009
1326 Zombieland (2009) 87% 10/2/2009
1327 Elmer Gantry (1960) 94% 10/4/2009
1328 A Man for All Seasons (1966) 91% 10/7/2009 — Post
1329 Last Year at Marienbad (1961) 87% 10/8/2009
1330 Dante’s Inferno (2007) 66% 10/9/2009
1331 Toy Story (1995) 96% 10/9/2009
1332 *Toy Story 2* (1999) 97% 10/9/2009
1333 To Be or Not To Be (1942) 76% 10/11/2009
1334 Silent Light (2007) 67% 10/11/2009
1335 Bedtime Stories (2008) 44% 10/11/2009
1336 Inside Deep Throat (2005) 83% 10/11/2009
1337 MirrorMask (2005) 89% 10/13/2009
1338 The Firemen’s Ball (1967) 95% 10/13/2009
1339 Horsemen (2009) 21% 10/15/2009
1340 Flatliners (1990) 84% 10/16/2009
1341 The Red Balloon (1956) 96% 10/17/2009
1342 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) 87% 10/18/2009
1343 Random Harvest (1942) 67% 10/20/2009
1344 Where the Wild Things Are (2009) 82% 10/20/2009
1345 *The Browning Version* (1951) 100% 10/22/2009
1346 *A Serious Man* (2009) 100% 10/23/2009
1347 Future War (1997) 0% 10/24/2009
1348 Zombiemania (2008) 66% 10/25/2009
1349 Christmas in July (1940) 91% 10/26/2009
1350 Great Expectations (1946) 95% 10/27/2009
1351 Daisy Miller (1974) 77% 10/28/2009
1352 Zombie Nightmare (1986) 0% 10/31/2009
1353 The Mummy (1932) 70% 10/31/2009
1354 Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955) 61% 10/31/2009
1355 Carrie (1976) 83% 10/31/2009
1356 Matilda (1996) 76% 11/1/2009
1357 Cape Fear (1991) 96% 11/2/2009
1358 Eve’s Bayou (1997) 96% 11/4/2009
1359 The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) 51% 11/7/2009
1360 Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) 83% 11/8/2009
1361 The Adventures of Milo and Otis (1986) 40% 11/10/2009
1362 Follow That Bird (1985) 83% 11/10/2009
1363 The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968) 90% 11/13/2009
1364 The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1991) 78% 11/13/2009
1365 Hangover Square (1945) 33% 11/13/2009
1366 First Spaceship on Venus (1960) 0% 11/13/2009
1367 *Inglorious Basterds* (2009) 97% 11/14/2009
1368 *Spirited Away* (2001) 98% 11/17/2009
1369 Vernon, Florida (1981) 86% 11/20/2009
1370 Drag Me to Hell (2009) 82% 11/24/2009
1371 An Education (2009) 93% 11/25/2009
1372 The Messenger (2009) 77% 11/29/2009
1373 The Road (2009) 95% 11/29/2009
1374 *Fantastic Mr. Fox* (2009) 96% 12/7/2009
1375 The Princess and the Frog (2009) 74% 12/11/2009
1376 Enemy at the Gates (2001) 90% 12/13/2009
1377 The Box (2009) 83% 12/16/2009
1378 Avatar (2009) 94% 12/18/2009 — Post
1379 Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) 93% 12/19/2009
1380 *Kill Bill: Vol. 2* (2004) 97% 12/20/2009
1381 Sherlock Holmes (2009) 84% 12/26/2009
1382 *The Fog of War* (2003) 96% 12/28/2009
1383 *Almost Famous* (2000) 97% 12/30/2009
1384 Eyes Wide Shut (1999) 93% 12/31/2009
1385 Charley’s Aunt (1941) 60% 1/6/2010
1386 Up in the Air (2009) 96% 1/7/2010

District 9

•August 14, 2009 • Leave a Comment

districtnineposterstarring Sharto Copley
written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell & directed by Neill Blomkamp
Rated R for bloody violence and pervasive language.
94%

20 years ago, an enormous alien ship arrived and parked itself directly over Johannesburg, South Africa. Instead of first contact with highly-advanced beings, humanity finds the ship full of filthy, malnourished alien refugees. With international pressure mounting, the government relocates the “prawn” to a temporary camp, which soon becomes a permanent slum: District 9. Now, with human/alien relations strained to the breaking point, a chance encounter between Wikus Van De Merwe (Copley), a well-meaning but incompetent bureaucrat, and a prawn named Christopher Johnson will have volatile and unexpected consequences for everyone.

District 9 immediately drops the viewer into a fully-developed world that is at once exotic and familiar, fleshed-out with an intense attention to detail. The film begins as a documentary, using news reports and interviews to handle the details of exposition. The beauty of the technique is that it allows the setting to be developed to a point where explanations aren’t clumsy or forced, and unanswered questions don’t feel like plot holes. As the movie progresses, the film’s mode of narration gradually and gracefully slips into cinematic omniscience. Almost imperceptibly, the camera becomes a fly on the wall rather than part of the action, and the viewer is drawn completely into the story.

The illusion is maintained in part thanks to a cast of complete unknowns, most notable Copley as Wikus, the movie’s “everyman” hero. Actually, calling him an everyman might even be an overstatement. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a less-likely action hero. Wikus begins the film as a sort of South African Michael Scott (the clueless manager of TV’s “The Office”), and wanders dangerously close to self-parody during the opening scenes. Ultimately, though, he becomes a believable character precisely because he is so flawed, and so conflicted between his desire to do the right thing on the one hand, and his constant self-interest on the other. He becomes the film’s moral center, but not until he has also displayed the darker side of humanity.

Even viewers unfamiliar with the recent history of South Africa will immediately recognize the subtext here, as the prawn are abused and exploited in every way imaginable. Terms like “dehumanizing” and “human rights” don’t even seem to occur to anyone. After all, these aren’t humans. Only Wikus eventually comes to realize how wrong they have been, and how wrong he, personally, has been; an inner transformation that mirrors the external one, Wikus’ identification with “the Other” is made possible by his transformation into the Other. Wikus is not maliciously evil, as some of the other characters are. He is exemplary of a more ordinary, complacent, and banal evil. Unwilling to rock the boat, he pretends everything is fine and pursues success within a system he knows is unjust. When he finally admits as much to Christopher Johnson late in the film, we sense that it may be the most dramatic change he has experienced.

While it may not be immediately obvious, District 9 is an action movie at heart. Without Wikus’s growth as a character, and as a person, it might be easy for all of its big ideas to get lost in the sturm and drang of the climax. The final half-hour or so is fantastically entertaining, even if it does seem to shift the focus away from the film’s disturbing message about humanity. By then the point has been made, and rather than browbeat the audience with it further, Blomkamp allows room for some straightforward, adrenaline-charged fun. It helps that, unlike much of this summer’s blockbuster fare, the extended, explosion-laced firefight has been earned by the depth of the plot.

Incidentally, I should probably mention that this is not a film for the faint of heart or (more importantly) the weak of stomach. And alongside that warning, I will also add the minor complaint that the movie tries to fake its audience out a few too many times with slow motion and mournful music; a small but grating misstep in a film that otherwise manages to avoid cinematic formulas and tropes to a refreshing degree. And speaking of “refreshing,” the story of District 9‘s production is a model of what I wish we’d see more of from Hollywood. Director Neill Blomkamp was set to direct a movie based on the Halo video game franchise for producer Peter Jackson, but when funding fell through, they put this together instead on a shoestring budget (the lack of financing doesn’t show). “What’s that,” you say, “a completely original science fiction story produced in place of yet another tired video game adaptation?” Yes, indeed. More, please!