District 9

Category: Film
Genre:  Sci Fi / Drama
Directed By:  Neill Blomkamp
Running Time:  112 min.

District 9 is the most intriguing film I have seen a good long while.  Thought provoking and well crafted on all fronts I thoroughly enjoyed it.

This is a plot driven work, where story is of the first priority.  The cast, while well chosen, is comprised largely of unknowns so as not to distract from the experience.  The protagonist, Wikus Van De Merwe, an everyman character thrust into extraordinary circumstances, provides a vehicle for the audience to see the different facets of the transformative story arc.  Transforming from an outsider to an outcast plays delightfully, and tugs at the strings on our perceptions of segregation and persecution.

Set in Johannesburg South Africa (check), the story sets the alien within the marginally unfamiliar, blending these elements and softening the contrasts, which helps play towards the plausible feeling throughout.  District 9 succeeds greatly in creating a lived in feel, set in the present with an alternate history, establishing an encapsulated dystopia surrounded by everyday trappings of contemporary experience.

At its core this is a story truly about human nature, rather than alien.  The aliens, colloquially  referred to a s Prawns, behave and emote is very human ways, especially as their circumstances trend the behavior towards all too familiar lowest common denominator of human activities.  This inherent grafted humanity lends poignancy to the story, and helps to ground the plot in reality, albeit an altered one.  Man’s inhumanity to man is not restricted to humans; as we see any class of perceived outsider gets the same treatment.

On the reverse of this is Wikus’s continuing humanity, which we see fracture as the story plays out.  He feels the same love and connection to his wife, even once fully transformed into an alien, but loses much of the rest of his humanity once pursued once he finds himself up against the preverbal wall.  Darkly reflected against his humanity is the primary Prawn in the story, “Christopher Johnson”, as he is cast as intelligent and feeling, protecting his son, mourning his abused brethren and still reaching to find his way home.

Underneath the plot and performance, this remains a science fiction film, by virtue of the “what if” question at its core and the fantastic elements at its surface.  Serving this are a host of special effects, pulled off in nearly transparent fashion, serving the story rather than distracting from it.

District 9 is crafted in a manner that makes the whole experience uncomfortably plausible, and both the overtones and undercurrents of social issues and the human condition are hard to ignore once one gets to thinking about it.  A solid story, well told while avoiding the common pitfalls of standard fare, this film set the bar high indeed.

Rating: 8/10

Up

Category: Film
Genre: Animation / Adventure / Comedy
Directed By: Pete Docter / Bob Peterson
Running Time: 96 min.

Up is one of the best told original stories I have encountered in recent moviemaking.  It truly is an original tale with characters you care for and a unique protagonist perspective to boot.

On the technical front this is a Pixar 3D animated film, and maintains the studio’s reputation for high quality.  There are some beautiful lighting effects, and the animation itself is executed in such a way as to be transparent to the viewing experience.  I viewed it both in the 2D and 3D presentations, and both stand up well.  As with the rest of the effects, the 3D adds to the experience without being gimmicky.

Up is a great example of why Pixar really makes the better films in this genre.  There are deep character themes to be explored and the story is well told through the film medium.

Structurally, this tale is about a journey.  As with most good tales there are parallel journeys taking place, one physical, and others emotional within the characters.  Our protagonist is Carl Frederickson, whom we are introduced to as a young boy in what looks to be the late 1940’s or early 1950’s.  He is enamored with exploration, living vicarious adventures via his newsreel hero, Charles Muntz who embarked to Paradise Falls, in the mysterious depths of South America.  Muntz has fallen from public opinion, accused of presenting fraudulent discoveries, and sets off to Paradise Falls to clear his name.  None of this dampens Carl’s enthusiasm, and in the midst of his fantasy adventuring in the neighborhood, he meets Ellie, a dynamic girl who shares his love of adventure and hero worship of Muntz.  Ellie shares her adventure book, complete with a section reserve for future adventures once she reaches South America.  They become fast friends, cross your heart swearing to go to Paradise Falls someday.

In one of the most artful sequences of the film we see a montage as Carl and Ellie marry and buy and renovate the house that was their childhood hideaway.  We see them receive the news that Ellie cannot bear children, and in response Carl makes a savings jar for their trip to Paradise Falls.  Real life intervenes and they use the saving for life’s little rainy day occasions.  As they reach their golden years, Carl arranges a trip to South America, and just when he’s about to surprise Ellie, she falls ill.  Just before she dies she gives him her adventure book, and we see the first half is already filed with their shared childhood adventures.

This entire sequence is done without a single spoken word, yet it speaks volumes.

Flash forward and Carl is alone, a man seemingly passed by by the world.  He has settled into a grumpy old man persona, having no friends or family, and feeling he’s somehow missed out on life.  His house is the last obstacle to a construction project, and in defending it, he is consigned to a rest home.

Carl gets the last laugh, tethering hundreds upon hundreds of balloons out his chimney and setting off for Paradise Falls.  Through various misadventures he gets mixed up with Russell, a wilderness Explore scout after his last merit badge, “Assisting the Elderly”.  They do finally arrive at Paradise Falls, with various obstacles in their path, including a now reputation-obsessed Muntz.

The core themes of the story are those of belonging, and to a lesser extent, coping with loss and fatherhood.  Early on, Ellie provided Carl’s sense of belonging, extending all through the rest of her years.  When she was gone, all Carl had left were his memories and his dreams, some of which he felt he’d betrayed.  At the outset of his balloon adventure, Carl is looking for vindication, finally taking the trip to Paradise Falls.  In having to care for Russell’s well being Carl is forced out of his myopia, and his perspective begins to change.

On encountering Muntz, we see a great counterpoint to Carl, illustrating the difference between dreams and obsessions.  Carl is forced to choose between getting all the way to Paradise Falls, or keeping his promise to Russell, and his choices are held up to the mirror that is Russell’s innocent nature.

Upon finally exploring the second half of Ellie’s adventure book, Carl discovers she has filled it with memories of their adult life, complete with her final inscription thanking him for the adventure, and telling him to go find his very own new adventure.  As he makes his choices to save the day, Carl realizes that the house in simply a house, Paradise Falls is just a place, and what really matters is belonging, be it to a club, a pack, or a family.  Carl fills the hole left by Russell’s absent father, and Russell helps fulfill Carl’s need to be a father and care for someone.

In the final analysis, Up tells an original story with heart, humor and intelligence that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike.  A great story, well told by creative folks who take evident pride in their craft, UP is possibly my personal favorite from Pixar to date.

Rating: 9/10

Star Trek

Category: Film
Genre: Sci-Fi / Action / Reboot
Directed By: J. J. Abrams
Running Time: 126 min.

Heading into Star Trek there were two apprehensions on my mind.  First the law of evens, which is a tongue in cheek reference to the Odd numbered Star Trek movies being sub-par, and this was number eleven.  Second, it’s a reboot of a classic property with a director from outside the genre’s core.  As it turns out, I really needn’t have worried, Star Trek is a very worthy film, largely living up to the buzz and assuaging most of the doubts I’d had going into it.

Breaking from the expected “how the gang all got together at Starfleet” origin story line, Abrams manages to weave and dodge a bit to keep the audience guessing, even though in the broad strokes we know the final destinations of each of these characters.  The casting for the entire crew was spot on in this film, with the best choices being Karl Urban as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, and Zachary Quinto as a slightly reinterpreted Spock.  Quinto’s success at this task was even more of a challenge as he acts against Leonard Nimoy himself as an older Spock, and both performances hold up very well.

My main concerns had been with Chris Pine as Kirk, Simon Pegg as Scotty, and Eric Bana as Nero.  Let me start by saying that Chris Pine is not Shatner.  And he shouldn’t be; the new interpretation provided by the new depth of the Kirk character fits nicely with Pine’s performance, especially given the greater level of humor woven into the story.  While given much less screen time than the rest of the cast, Simon Pegg as Scotty simply shines.  A more cheeky performance than James Doohan’s, the new Scotty in instantly likeable and helps draw the story together with his insertion into the main cast in act three.  Eric Bana as the Romulan villain Nero walks a very thin line down a tricky path for an actor.  Romulans have always been over the top or saddled with flat performances in the past (with a few exceptions).  Bana strikes the right balance because the audience understands his motivations, the character is made accessible and therefore believable.

The plot will likely provide a few bones of contention for extreme hardcore fans, but that is to be expected.  In terms of what was considered a reboot, this film does extremely well in terms of continuity, both in literal and emotive terms.  I give Abrams a lot of credit for not shying away from big plot decisions that drive the story forward and provide the impact necessary for the audience to emote with the story.  Less so a reboot, this does well as the eleventh film in the series, and a new, deeper take on the character for a modern audience.

If you watch with a little attention, there are plenty of treats for the fans as well,  each of the main actors gets an iconic line for their character, for example Bones’ “Are you out of your Vulcan mind?” drew a great response from the crowd at the IMAX showing I attended.  The movie is laced with additional nuances and Easter eggs, but I will leave that for the inevitable wiki contributions and cheat sheets that are no doubt already being written by the geek elite.  Suffice to say it’s a Star Trek for both fans and new audiences.

In terms of special effects, one really honestly forgets that there are effects in the film.  The spaceships look like space ships should, and work thanks to intricate CG camera moves. The phasers and transporters all look extremely nifty and are blended seamlessly.  Style wise some scenes were just a tad heavy on lens flares and over lighting, but it can be ignored pretty easily and by no means does it ruin the experience. The new score is excellent and manages to incorporate the original theme, as well as new cues that are beautifully crafted.  Again, the music, outside of the opening and closing titles, is a seamless element; the rest of the movie has far too great of a grip on ones attention to be consciously aware of it unless you make a special effort.

Overall I am exceptionally pleased with the new Star Trek effort, both for its keeping to the spirit of its roots and for making brave choices on new directions, and keeping those two contractions in balance to create an eminently enjoyable film.

Rating: 8.5/10

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Category: Film
Genre: Action / Comic Adaptation / Sci-Fi
Directed By: gavin Hood
Running Time: 107 min.

X-Men Origins Wolverine is a mixed bag as far as comic adaptations go.  Breaking it down by the three acts, the first was great, the second was adequate and the third act just left me with a disappointed questioning look on my face.

I had hoped that this would be a continuation of the “comic movie renaissance” phenomena of last year that included Iron Man, The Dark Night, and to a lesser extend The Incredible Hulk and The Spirit; by this I refer to comic adaptations being treated with care and respect for the original material, made by fans for fans, within the bounds of adaptability.

Wolverine has a rich history with many elements to draw on.  The adaptation fails to take full advantage of this and treats the characters as expendable checkpoints on the path to concluding the film.  The essential problem here is that this is an origin story, a tale with a steady rise from A to B; now its adaptation into film format requires a story arc with a climax followed by a resolving conclusion that wraps up much of the loose ends.  In order to achieve this the makers of Wolverine reinterpreted the Deadpool character in what I can only describe as a wasteful fashion, robbing themselves of the chance to explore a truly interesting character in exchange for an expendable ultimate villain for the final showdown.

The overall impression this film left was that it wasn’t taken all that seriously in respect to the fanbase, the history, or its own execution.  The effects also looked somewhat phoned in, especially in the final climax battles.  As a simple comic-esque action film, Wolverine is certainly enjoyable, and I generally try to approach these adaptation as exactly that; adaptations of the source material into a new media.  Unfortunately the frankly unnecessary ham handed treatment of some of the plot elements and characters pushes my tolerance on truly enjoying the film in its entirety.  Adaptations necessitate certain levels of change, but this is simply a matter of poor choices.

Rating: 6.5/10

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Category: Film
Genre: Drama / Romance / Sci-Fi
Directed By: David Fincher
Running Time: 159 min.

This is one of those rare instances of fine storytelling brought to the screen in just the right way. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button does one of the most interesting things that can be done in fiction. It explores the human condition by changing just one of the major rules of our existence, and watching that path unfold against the backdrop of a life.

In this case the simple but major rule that changes is aging. The chronological age of Button’s character is juxtaposed in reverse with his physical age. This fundamentally changes how he experiences the world and how the world views him, providing grist for insight and new perspective.

This work is sure to be mentioned in the same breath as Forrest Gump, and for a number of reasons. Primary, though not necessarily the most readily apparent, is this is a story without an antagonist, built purely on character development and driven by the same.   Both films use similar protagonist types, the embedded outsider if you will;  by showing the world through their eyes the audience is allowed to examine it anew. This is also a film bound to time, though the creators take a different, softer approach to the portrayal of time here; in Gump time and pop culture events were nearly a character themselves in the story telling.

The layered narrative works well as the key device for advancing the story, allowing access when and where needed. Anchoring the diary and the events of its reading in 2005 by linking them (tangentially) to the events preceding hurricane Katrina also serves the story well.

While this will be called a romance by many, the success of the treatment comes from the organic way the romance fits into the story, rather than it feeling heavy or artificial. It weaves and flows through the story, instead of being written as a cumbersome foundation to the characters and plot.

Casting in this picture was excellent, Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett carry the lead roles in a way that, along with the supporting cast, garner nearly total buy-in to the story. The effects in this film are nearly transparent, serving the story telling and not announcing themselves unduly. The aging makeup work is believable and allows the viewer to accept each stage of the characters’ development. This is an important point, as once you buy into the nature of Button’s existence, it holds a mirror up to all the elements of life around it. There were many places there the creators could have copped out and opted for a happier treatment, but instead took what I feel was the brave and honest approach to the material, following it from start to finish with all the emotional repercussions that entails.

I truly enjoyed this film, in both its concept and its execution. As I said it is one of those rare examples of well crafted storytelling from start to finish.

Rating: 8.5/10

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Category: Film
Genre: Sci-Fi / Drama / Remake
Directed By: Scott Derrickson
Running Time: 103 min.

Remaking films certainly has its challenges and pitfalls. Directly comparing 2008’s The Day the Earth Stood Still to the 1950 original with no allowances would be absurd, and not make for much of a review.

As with many remakes, especially science fiction films, the concerns, fears, and hope of the era in which it was made are the driving force behind its relevance. Science fiction is about answering the question of “what if?”, so a new answer is required in remaking the film nearly 60 years later, replacing concerns of man’s inhumanity towards man with the damage man has done to the planet.

The film was reasonably well executed, keeping elements from the first but reinterpreting where appropriate. Keanu Reeves was well cast as he has the blankness and detachment necessary to truly play the character of Klatu. Gort was also nicely reinterpreted, and the supporting visual effects were nicely done as well.

The other casting was a bit off; Kath Bates seemed neither right nor wrong for the role of Secretary of Defense, but simply irrelevant. The military casting was also too much of a charicture, robbing serious moments of their impact. Jaden Smith did well as Jacob, though I found myself very much disliking his character until around the midpoint of the film. Couldn’t quite believe Jennifer Connelly as a mother figure, but perhaps that was inherent to the character rather than a performance failure on her part.

As for the film’s conclusion I think it was the right way to go, both making the title relevant (perhaps more so than in the original) and also providing the reprieve ending with out the world getting off scott free with no consequences.
All in all an entertaining film, though I think if we put half the energy into original projects as we do in remakes, we would have some much more praise-worthy material out there.

Rating: 5/10

The Spirit

Category: Film
Genre: Thriller / Noir / Comic Adaptation
Directed By: Frank Miller
Running Time: 103 min.

Initially I thought The Spirit might just be one of those films that defies description. After a bit of thought the situation is in fact both far simpler and far more complex than that.

To paraphrase a line from the film, The Spirit has the final word on strange. Not being entirely sure what to expect in the film adaptation of one of the most influential and long running properties in the noir/detective genre, I tried to come in without preconcieved notions. This is really how you have to absorb this picture, as the creators really went for broke and pulled out all the stops.

Its handy to make comparisons to Miller’s previous big impact comic adaptation, Sin City, though the comparisons are only useful up to a ceratin point. Visually many of the same rotoscoping/solid color effects are used, but with more variability than in Sin City. In terms of character the film departs greatly form the ne-noir grit of Sin City, unabasedly giving itself wide comedic and thematic lattitude. Much of this comes from the fact that Will Eisner’s The Spirit comics established much of what is taken for granted in the genre, including stylized dialogue, over the top adversaries and vignetes that work best when they take themselves (if nothing else) completely seriously.

The casting is well done with appropriate fits for every character. This was the first comic film that I felt Samuel L. Jackson fit into nicely, as in previous work he always seemed to be several orders of magnitute over the top. One of my favorite characters was Stana Katic as Officer Morganstern, with great delivery of a delightlfully off kilter performance. Scarlett Johansen as Silken Floss is superb, strongly reminding me of Drew Barrymore for some reason, and The Wonder Years’ Dan Loria as the Gruff Dolan is also a nice fit.

On the whole, if you’re looking for a deadly serious comic flic, look elsewhere. This one requires you to be ready to strap in and enjoy some creatively stylized story telling. If you want a fun romp through the world of a modernly re-realized genre-defining property, this is your ride.

Rating: 6.5/10