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Tuesday, September 08, 2009

District 9 - Theater

AndyO review - * * * *

Metacritic: 81/100 (Universal acclaim)

District 9

Released: 2009

Go to IMDb page

Information © IMDb.com

It's pretty rare that a movie comes out of nowhere and surprises audiences the way District 9 did. In this age of "event" movies that you hear about a year in advance, District 9 quietly appeared at the end of summer and blew audiences away. Three weeks after its release, it's still a trending topic on Twitter and staying in the top 5 at the box office. No small feat in this age of movies that come and go in one week.

In District 9, an alien spacecraft -- as huge and menacing as the ships in Independence Day -- arrives over the skies of Johannesburg, South Africa. After nothing happens, humans open up the ship and find insect-like aliens -- afraid and starving. The aliens are moved to a holding area in the city called District 9. 

Twenty years later, the human citizens of Johannesburg have grown tired of sharing their city with the aliens (referred to derisively as "prawns"). The prawns are being shipped out of town to another "District," far away from Johannesburg. The person responsible for managing this effort is Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who works for Multinational United (MNU). Wikus is a bumbling bureaucrat, who's landed this job thanks to marrying an MNU official's daughter.

Wikus and his armed motorcade drive into District 9 and start knocking on doors, asking prawns to sign their "eviction" notices. Things get interesting when Wikus is sprayed with an oil-like substance that starts to mutate his body into one of the prawns. Where the story goes from here is what makes District 9 so original and breathtaking. Let's just say I didn't get up to use the bathroom. 

The story behind the production of District 9 is also fascinating. First-time feature director, South African Neill Blomkamp, was working with Peter Jackson on the Halo movie when the plug was pulled. Jackson was so impressed with Blomkamp, he told him to write a script for something else and he'd find the financing.

Blomkamp wrote a script that could take advantage of some of the development he'd already done for Halo. This becomes even more clear when you watch the live-action promo trailer he made for the video game release of Halo 3.

One other thing about the film is it only cost $30 million. After seeing it, you won't believe it. I didn't.

As I watched District 9, I found myself comparing it to Star Wars--mostly, I think, because of how surprised I was with it. But later, when I read more about it, I found other comparisons. Star Wars was also made for relatively little money ($10 million in 1977). George Lucas knew how to take that money and make it look like $50 million. He hired unknown actors (except for Sir Alec Guinness), and put all the money into the sets and the special effects.

Like Lucas, Blomkamp put all the money on the screen. In an interview with Boston.com, he said he kept the costs down by doing the following:

  1. He hired one of his friends to play the lead role (Sharlto Copley). ("We had no $15 million, $20 million star to pay. So that eliminates that expense.")
  2. He knew how to accomplish the effects shots with no research and development ("Because of my background, I know what I can get away with. If we had done R&D [research and development], it would have been $50 million right there.")
  3. He shot it in one of Soweto's poorest neighborhoods, Chiawelo. He hired locals as extras. ("These were seriously impoverished people. Destitute people. The township alone had 70,000 people. But if you hire different groups each day, you get that money into the community.")

All of this is interesting to those who study filmmaking, but it doesn't really matter. District 9 is a great movie regardless of how much it cost, or how it was made. It will surely join the canon of Sci-Fi films and make Blomkamp a star of a director. Whether he stays in this position depends on his next film. I, for one, can't wait to see it.


posted by AndyO @ 11:28 PM   0 comments

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Ponyo - Theater

AndyO review: * * * *

Metacritic: 86/100 (Universal acclaim)

Having two kids, I sometimes get to see movies that adults wouldn't normally go to or rent. As we've explored our video store, we've found some non-Disney animated gems, including Howl's Moving Castle and Spirited Away. Both films, I found out later, were directed by Hayao Miyazaki, one of Japan's greatest animators.

Today, I took Cameron and his friend MacLean to see the new Miyazaki film, Ponyo. At first, the animation style (anime) of this film matches many second-rate films and children's shows. But in the hands of Miyazaki, Ponyo is like a waking dream. I saw the tagline for this film is "Welcome to a world where anything is possible." That pretty much describes it.

It's ironic that Disney distributed Ponyo. If you remove Miyazaki's thumbprint on this film, you have themes that were also present in The Little Mermaid or Pinocchio. You get the feeling that Disney's legendary animation and storytelling is echoing back to the United States by way of Japan.

If you've never seen any of Miyazaki's films, I recommend you go to the video store tonight and rent Howl's Moving Castle (nominated for the Best Animated Film Oscar in 2006) and Spirited Away (won for the Best Animated Film Oscar in 2003). (Give yourself a moment to adjust to the choppy anime animation style. It's not as slick as computer-animated films like Toy Story or Shrek.)


posted by AndyO @ 3:49 PM   0 comments

Inglourious Basterds - Theater

AndyO review: * * * 1/2

Metacritic: 69/100 (Generally favorable reviews)

I've always admired the gusto that Quentin Tarantino brings to his films. The latest, Inglourious Basterds, is a mashup of 70s cinema, Westerns, and WWII movies -- told only the way Tarantino could tell it. Don't go into Basterds expecting historical accuracy.

As the trailers have shown, Brad Pitt is in charge of the "Inglourious Basterds" as Aldo Raine. In this case, the Basterds are Jewish American psychopaths who want to torture and scalp Nazis as revenge, sport, or both. But the Basterds make up only one part of the story.

The next part concerns Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a "Jew Hunter" (he was named by his fans and enemies) who seems to have an almost telepathic ability to stalk his prey. We see him in the first scene, speaking to a French dairy farmer in French. His words at first are friendly and disarming, but after they continue to talk (and switch to English) they become like knives. (Watch the subtitles closely during this scene, as they offer a bit of comic relief during an otherwise tense situation.)

The last threads of the story concern two women. The first, Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), owns a cinema in France. She also happened to escape from Landa in the first scene, with the French farmer. She, like the Basterds, is also looking for revenge.

The other woman, Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) is a famous German actress who's also a spy. She's going to help the Basterds get into a movie premiere, which will be attended by most of the German High Command (including Hitler himself).

Inglourious Basterds, like most of Tarantino's work, is the kind of film that takes time to understand and appreciate. It wasn't until a few days later that I was thinking about the style of the film. Scenes often border on comedy, which, like Landa's words to the farmer, are meant to disarm the audience. One moment you're watching a kind of cartoonish introduction of one of the Basterds (Stiglitz!), the next someone is getting executed or scalped.

Tarantino, like so many great filmmakers, creates a world that is unique and interesting. Roger Ebert summed it up best in his review when he wrote that the characters in this film "are seen with that Tarantino knack of taking a character and making it a Character, definitive, larger than life, approaching satire in its intensity but not -- quite -- going that far. Let's say they feel bigger than most of the people we meet in movies."


posted by AndyO @ 2:54 PM   0 comments