Sunday, August 30, 2009

District 9 Movie Review

District 9

Matinee with Snacks

The early previews of District 9 looked like a dark update of Alien Nation – visitors come and can’t leave so we take them in and let’s see what that’s like. The previews are deceptive. That may be what Act I of District 9 is about, but certainly not the real story. Set in Johannesburg, South Africa, the film parks the aliens for 20 years in a shantytown and it’s impossible not to recollect the same slums from the time of apartheid. In that country’s history, the minority white settlers ghettoized the conquered native blacks, and here it is the established humans ghettoizing new arrivals. The fear and hatred and resentment outside District 9 is real, but the secret exploitation is what makes this film more than a thinly veiled allegory. We know, looking back over human history, that the treatment of these castaways would be just like this, or worse.

Newcomer Sharlto Copley (sexy in person at Comic-Con) is Wikus Van der Merwe, a nerdy pencil pusher who inadvertently stumbles upon the aliens’ greatest secret. Called Prawns by humans, the aliens have something we want, but they have managed to defy our exploitation until Wikus accidentally opens that door. Sharlto is wonderful – new to film, he’s very natural and earthy and believable, and we are caught up in his performance and his empathetic nature. Director Neill Blomkamp encouraged his actors to improvise as much as possible to add realism to the scene, which is a seriously ballsy choice considering how pre-planned heavy effects movies need to be as a rule. I learned that one performance-capture actors performed all the motion work for the Prawns, and regretfully have been unable to retrieve his name to applaud him. The alien body design is bipedal, but with bird-like reversed knees and a chitinous and reticulated body. Still below all that is that actor’s vivid humanity, which serves to bring the audience closer to these visitors emotionally. A cowering form elicits pity even if it has antennae.

District 9 was made for a seemingly impossible $30 million, and it wows you not with expensive overdone bells and whistles, but with making everything feel as real and grounded as possible. The best effects are the ones that don’t seem like effects (the perpetually hovering derelict spaceship, for example) and just fill in the story. We feel like we’re really there with Wikus and the main alien known as Christopher Johnson, thanks to the digital video and hand-held camera, oh and the incredibly realistic effect of Johnson. This film doesn’t throw itself around trying to be the biggest movie of the summer (no offense, Iron Man), it just is a blessedly original story told as bare bones as possible, while also exhibiting seamless special effects. It’s low key in its excellence by just being solid and real and well thought-out.

Oh, but I should note that this movie is crazy gory. But, so were the Oscar bait movies Saving Private Ryan and Gladiator. It’s not gore for gore’s sake, but it is definitely unapologetically vivid. In the 72 hours during which the majority of the story takes place, writers Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell pack in story and character and spectacle and humanity at its best and worst. By the time we get to Act III it’s pretty intense, so be ready for it. I’m so grateful that the original project project that Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson were going to do (a movie adaptation of the video game Halo, deep sigh) fell through so we could have this great original work. District 9 is going to be studied and discussed for a long time, it’s substantial and revealing. Go see it.

MPAA Rating R-bloody violence and pervasive language
Release date 8/14/09
Time in minutes 112
Director Neill Blomkamp
Studio TriStar Pictures

Monday, August 24, 2009

Review: Inglourious Basterds is Damned Delightful

Quentin Tarantino is my kind of filmmaker. His use of tension (Quentin's Tension), his sincere homaging, his absolute love of all things cinema -- I mean, this is just a guy that "gets it." I know he's not for everyone. And I know this subject matter isn't appealing to most. But man, if we could all just get over our preconceived notions and let Tarantino present his concepts I think we'd be better off as a nation, nay, a world.

World War II. The Nazis. A ruthless band of Americans (led by Brad Pitt) is inserted into the thick of it, into enemy-controlled France. Their mission? To wreak havoc. To cause fear. To bring the fight to the Nazis. We've seen filmmakers tackle every angle of this war, from the measured and noble perseverance of Defiance to the horror of concentration camp discovery displayed in Band of Brothers. But we've never seen the joy of killing that must have occurred on the winning side, the angry outlet of war, where courage and nobility have left, leaving only darkness, blood, and hurt on all sides. Tarantino tries here, tries to point out the obvious, that real people with flaws and families were involved, that we would have had to send a few killers over there to sort things out.

Because really, no one can make sense of something this big: 11 million people marched off to camps and killed, an entire generation of Russians dead defending the capitol, a new and fearsome weapon developed by the biggest intellects in the world and unleashed upon a citizenry. It's all too massive, the scope is too epic, and most efforts come off as sterile by comparison. There's no way to impart the enormity of the situation, so why not tell the story of one man? Or a group of survivors? It's the kind and gentle way out. It's comfortable. But it's not true, any more than the phrase "six million Jews" has the type of impact that it should. It should absolutely floor you, each and every time. But the human emotional construct is built to deflect, work around, and simply move forward. We never put it together that these were all real people, and that's the true horror of the situation, that neighbors sold each other out, that we sent some very bad people to do some very bad things, and that occasionally a Nazi officer was a charming yet horrifying version of Mr. Rogers. Somehow, once you wade through the one-liners, silliness, and brutality you're left with the heart of the film. You want the Nazis to be obliterated, and not for noble reasons. Think of the hurt if someone took your sister, wife, or mom away from you. What would you want for that person? And isn't it empowering to see a filmmaker completely unafraid to give it to you? Yeah, it's the ugly side of humanity ... but it's no less honest. If anything it's more accurate given the hell that was occurring during this time period. War is terrible, but the people involved on all side were humans with the human motivations of passion, anger, national pride, and power.

The most misleading thing about Inglourous Basterds is that it's not even about Pitt's group of guerrilla warriors. It's really the story of a girl in occupied Paris who runs a movie theater. It's a fantasy revenge epic. It's a cascade of characters, all compelling, all dynamic, all thrown into the Tarantino stew. This is a fun movie, which is terrible to say given the subject matter, but it's true. Tarantino has made the film that occurs in your head which you never, ever, tell anyone about. He's laid bare the themes of familial obligation and revenge, and he's done it with real beauty. The Nazis were evil for a number of complex reasons but Tarantino is nice enough to hate them for simple ones, offering simple solutions. Like a bat to the head, it's not too subtle, but you can't help but watch. Each and every scene has a giant shoe hanging over it, just waiting to drop, violence waiting to be strummed on Inglourious Basterds' 12-string guitar. The only startling aspect? You want to hear the music.

Grade: A

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Opens: August 21, 2009

Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz



“Inglourious Basterds” begins in German-occupied France, where Shosanna Dreyfus(Mélanie Laurent) witnesses the execution of her family at the hand of Nazi Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Shosanna narrowly escapes and flees to Paris, where she forges a new identity as the owner and operator of a cinema. Elsewhere in Europe, Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) organizes a group of Jewish soldiers to engage in targeted acts of retribution. Known to their enemy as “The Basterds,” Raine’s squad joins German actress and undercover agent Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) on a mission to take down the leaders of The Third Reich.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Reel Thoughts: Wild About Harry

When a film series reaches its sixth installment, usually the well is running pretty dry (think Halloween or Friday the 13th). Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince succeeds beautifully in continuing the series and deepening the characters, relationships and upcoming menace. And the cast is uniformly terrific as it matures before our eyes.

Harry Potter benefits from its strong literary source novels by J.K. Rowling, but that by no means makes filming her works a piece of cake. Call it Harry Potter and the Raging Hormones, since this is the first time we see the kids really grappling with their sexuality. Being more of a casual observer of the films, and never having read the novels, I wondered where Harry’s love interest from the previous film went, and why he suddenly had the hots for Ron Weasley’s ginger-haired sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright).

I only point that out as a way of saying that for the first time, you can’t watch the new film without being familiar with the series. As wonderful and entertaining as Half-Blood Prince is, its best moments come in seeing new sides and levels to characters we’ve grown to love over the past years. Evanna Lynch steals her scenes as the ethereally kooky Lana Lovegood, and Sir Michael Gambon is the best he’s been as the embattled Headmaster of Hogwarts, Albus Dumbledore.

As Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermoine Granger (Emma Watson) return for their sixth year at Hogwarts, the work of the Dark Lord Voldemort grows so brazen that even muggles (non-wizards) are getting killed in mass numbers. Everyone knows that Harry is the “Chosen One,” and he’s as beloved in the wizardly world as Radcliffe is in real life.

In this, the sixth of seven books, Dumbledore has a vital mission that involves bringing back an old professor (James Broadbent) who knew Voldermort when he was a student. Broadbent is wonderfully duplicitous, coming across as dithering yet manipulative, and the central mystery of Half-Blood Prince concerns what he knew and how he helped Tom Riddle become the Dark Lord, who murdered Harry’s parents. The title refers to a mysterious inscription Harry finds in a book of potions he is lent to attend Broadbent’s potions class. In addition, the book is full of “the Half-Blood Prince’s” notes that fix errors in the text, and make Harry seem like a star pupil.

Like The Empire Strikes Back, Half-Blood Prince revels in being an open-ended and darker entry in the series. It packs a huge dramatic event that you probably already know. Director David Yates creates a sense of menace and suspense and leaves you anxiously awaiting the two-part Deathly Hallows that closes out the saga in November 2010 and summer 2011. I can’t say if the film does justice to the novel, but it certainly is a shining addition to the Harry Potter film chronicles.

Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Movie Central: Shrek Forever After

Shrek Forever After (Coming Soon)

Release Date: May 21, 2010 (conventional theaters and IMAX)
Studio: DreamWorks Animation
Director: Mike Mitchell
Screenwriter: Tim Sullivan, Josh Klausner
Starring: Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy, Antonio Banderas
Genre: Animation, Comedy, Fantasy
MPAA Rating: Not Available
Official Website: Not Available
Review: Not Available
DVD Review: Not Available
DVD: Not Available
Movie Poster: Not Available
Production Stills: View here
Plot Summary: Shrek Forever After will be released on May 21, 2010. Aron Warner (producer of the "Shrek" franchise films) and Andrew Adamson ("Shrek," "The Chronicles of Narnia") are serving as executive producers on the film, which is being directed by Mike Mitchell and produced by Teresa Cheng and Gina Shay and will feature the original all-star cast, including Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz and Antonio Banderas.

Coming Soon!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

'Funny People' tops modest boxoffice


"Funny People"

Universal's "Funny People," a film about stand-up comics with serious problems, staged a good-humored weekend bow estimated at $23.4 million.

But that was on the lower end of industry expectations for the Adam Sandler-starring dramatic comedy, which will be watched for drawing power during coming weeks. Industry consensus maintains summer-laggard Uni needed not only to open the R-rated "Funny" well but also to sustain positive word-of-mouth. Its first-frame tally gains luster when viewed among lackluster results elsewhere in the limp boxoffice session. The weekend's top 10 rung up $106 million, or 25% less than top performers in the same frame last year, according to Nielsen EDI.

As for the other openers, Fox's "Aliens in the Attic" arrived in fifth place with $7.8 million, down in the cellar of prerelease forecasts for family action fantasy, and Freestyle Releasing's R-rated horror film "The Collector" missed the top 10, collecting just $3.6 million.

After topping the previous weekend's rankings, Disney's animated family actioner "G-Force" dropped 46% in its sophomore session to $17.1 million and third place, with a 10-day tally of $66.5 million. Sony's romantic comedy "The Ugly Truth" tumbled 53% in its second outing to ring up $13 million with $54.5 million in cumulative boxoffice, and Warner Bros.' horror pic "The Orphan" slid 44% for $7.3 million in sixth with a $26.8 million cume.

Warners' leggy sequel "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" took the frame's silver medal with $17.7 million. Bolstered by $3.2 million from 160 high-grossing Imax playdates, "Prince" boasts a $255.5 million cume through three sessions.

In a limited bow, Sony Pictures Classics unspooled the Belgian drama "Lorna's Silence" in six locations to gross $36,219, or a solid $6,037 per site.

Roadside Attractions opened eco-documentary "The Cove" in four theaters and grossed $55,500, or an impressive $13,875 per venue.

Focus Features debuted the Korean vampire film "Thirst" in four locations and fetched $55,173, or an encouraging $13,793 per site.

Fox Searchlight sent out its romantic comedy "Adam" on Wednesday with four playdates to woo $66,265, or $16,566 per engagement, with five-day cume of $94,776.

IFC Fims opened Danish WWII drama "Flame and Citron" in a pair of New York theaters, grossing $13,620.

Elsewhere, Searchlight's romantic comedy "(500) Days of Summer" added 181 theaters for a total 266 to register $2.8 million, or a sunny $10,338 per venue, with a $6.8 million cume.

Iraq War drama "The Hurt Locker" from Summit Entertainment and Maple Pictures added 285 locations for a total 523 in grossing $1.9 million, or a sturdy $3,654 per site, with a $6.8 million cume.

IFC Films added 27 engagements for a total 35 for military comedy "In the Loop" and rung up $308,947, a solid $8,827 per playdate, with cume of $589,535.

And Here Media's Japanese drama "Departures" added one theater for a total 22 in grossing $44,540, or $2,121 per venue, as cume hit $1 million for the foreign-language Oscar winner.

Directed by Judd Apatow, "Funny" co-stars Seth Rogen and Leslie Mann. Toting a nearly 2 1/2-hour running time and $70 million negative cost, the dramedy has drawn largely positive reviews and debuted midway between the two previous Apatow-helmed movies. "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" unspooled in August 2005 with $21.4 million and registered $109.4 million overall domestically; 2007's "Knocked Up" bowed with $30.7 million and rang up $148.8 million in domestic coin.

"We're pleased to be No. 1," Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco said. "We're pleased with the opening, as it was a different sort of role for Adam. And for Judd, it has him evolving into a more serious kind of comedy."

Audiences skewed 53% male, with 52% of "Funny" patrons aged 25 or older.

Like "G-Force," "Aliens" mixes whimsical CGI characters into live action, though with production costs estimated at $45 million, the latter was a lot less expensive to produce. Rated PG, "Aliens" features a young ensemble cast including Ashley Tisdale ("High School Musical"), with John Schultz ("The Honeymooners") directing.

"The kids do love the movies, so hopefully we'll take advantage of the summer days ahead," Fox senior vp distribution Chris Aronson said.

Opening audiences for "Aliens" comprised 52% females, with family patrons accounting for 75% of its support.

Liddell Entertainment's "Collector" stars Josh Stewart ("The Haunting of Molly Hartley") and was helmed by "Saw IV" writer Marcus Dunstan. Playing in 1,325 locations, "Collector" targeted primarily young males.

"Exceeding $3 million was our goal, so we are quite pleased," Freestyle president Mark Borde said.

Looking ahead, wide openers set for Friday include Paramount's "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" -- the first pure action release in several weeks -- Sony's Meryl Streep starrer "Julie and Julia" and Universal's R-rated horror thriller "A Perfect Getaway."