Coming soon...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Oh for f....

You've got to be kidding me.

And yes, I'm aware the picture has nothing to do with the article. But I think it perfectly sums up my.... hairline....

Monday, September 7, 2009

Alive In Joburg (2005)

And this is the short that inspired District 9...

DISTRICT 9 (2009) - Neill Blomkamp

Four years ago, an unknown South African director named Neill Blomkamp released a short film called Alive In Joburg. The film caught the attention of Peter Jackson who, having obtained the rights to the Halo game franchise, offered Blomkamp the directorial duties on the adaptation. The movie was eventually put on hiatus. However, Blomkamp, with Jackson’s backing, wrote District 9, a feature that expanded on the ideas and themes put forth in Alive In Joburg. And now, we have that feature.

In 1990, a massive alien mother-ship came to a halt over the city of Johannesburg in South Africa. The aliens within the ship became refugees, looking for a new home on Earth. Initially, the aliens were welcomed by the human population. But soon the people of Johannesburg grew tired of the aliens and confined them to a camp, known as District 9. Twenty years later, and a corporation known as Multi-National United wants to forcibly move the residents of the now militarized ghetto away from Johannesburg and it’s citizens. The man in charge of serving the eviction notices is Wikus Van De Merwe. What he finds in District 9 will change his life forever, and draw the eyes of the world on the slum.

The best science fiction films don’t deal with situations, but with themes. The fantasy setting serves to drive the story. And District 9 is a film that manages to merge allegory with action and deliver something quite fantastic. The film is part mocumentary, part actioner, and to Blomkamp’s credit, he manages to merge the two elements almost seamlessly. The early part of the film deals with themes of displacement, apartheid, and xenophobia. The aliens, derisively nicknamed ‘prawns’ by the people of Johannesburg are the lowest on the social scale. They are regarded with suspicion and hatred. Where as once the black citizens were those that were looked down upon by the white citizens of South Africa, now the aliens are those who suffer the racism. It’s Blomkamp’s critique of apartheid that is the central driving force to the film.

But that’s is only one aspect of the film. The focus of the story is on Wikus Van De Merwe, who we are introduced to via the mocumentary footage at the beginning of the film. We follow him as we are introduced to District 9. As the film progresses, the mocumentary footage dwindles and the film becomes more narrative-based as Wikus struggles with an incident that threatens his life. (I’m trying desperately not to reveal too much here!) The last act of the film is where Blomkamp lets loose with the action as District 9 becomes embroiled in a frankly stunning gun fight involving humans and alien technology. It’s no loss that Blomkamp lets the allegorical side of the film take back seat to the action, as the action is absolutely nail-biting.

One of the other great strengths of the film is Blomkamp’s attention to detail. There are so many little smile-inducing moments of detail that just contribute to the overall success of the film. Little narrative and visual flourishes that show how a bit of dedication to quality really draw you into a film. The script moves at a blistering pace. There are moments where logic is abandoned and tiny plot-holes appear. However, you barely have a moment to dwell on these as Blomkamp keeps things moving towards a blistering climax.

District 9 cost $30,000,000 to make. Sounds like a lot. However, when you take into account that most Hollywood blockbusters cost somewhere in the region of $200,000,000+, it really makes you ask where the money in these films actually goes. The special effects in District 9, designed by Weta Workshop and created by Image Engine are staggeringly good. The CG aliens blend in with the live action footage without ever looking out of place. The effects serve the film, and not the other way round, and this is essentially what all CG should do. That it’s done so well in this film should serve as a lesson to other filmmakers who pack their films with all flash and no substance.

Sharlto Copley, an unknown actor from South Africa plays Wikus Van De Merwe, the man caught between following orders and doing what’s morally right. Copley delivers a fantastic performance, changing from a man who’s naive, a bit dim, but upbeat to the man of action as the story progresses. That he does a great deal of acting against unseen CG characters is a testament to his acting abilities. He’s initially somewhat of an unlikable character but you do engage with him and care about his story as events unfold. While some of the ‘villains’ of the film are a tad clichéd, they serve the purpose of the story and all the actors involved throw all they have into their performances.

Blomkamp draws upon a lot of influences in making District 9. However, combining these influences, he has delivered what is probably the best science fiction film of the 21 Century. A bold statement considering Children of Men, The Matrix, Moon, The Fountain and Primer all fall into that category. But District 9 really manages to edge all these films out. Great sci-fi makes you take a look at the world you live in. And while District 9 makes you do this, it also has one of the great climactic battle scenes of recent times in terms of cinematography and ideas. This is science fiction at it’s best. And Blomkamp is the new wunderkind of the genre.


FUNNY PEOPLE (2009) - Judd Apatow

Judd Apatow’s films could never have been accused of being poignant. Sure, there’s a lot more to them than the average comedy. The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked up certainly contained more substance than all the Wayans Brothers and Scary/Epic/Date Movies combined. But none of his films have been as personal as his latest, Funny People. And a great deal of this is down to the fact that the film is more of a drama than a comedy. Despite starring Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen.

Sandler stars as George Simmons, a former stand-up comedian and now star of empty-headed vacuous family movies. He’s got money, success and fame. He gets any woman he wants. And he has a terminal blood disease. After finding out he’s not got long, Simmons goes off the rails. And he wants to return to stand-up. After gate crashing a stand-up gig, he meets Ira Wright, a struggling stand-up comedian. He hires Wright to be his assistant and introduces him to the world of a successful Hollywood star. But Simmons begins to resent the trappings of his success and wants to get back the one thing he never held onto. His ex-fiancee, Laura.

It’s clear from the get go that this film is different to Apatow’s other films. It’s far more personal. To a degree that the opening titles are scenes Apatow shot of Sandler when they were roommates and yet to hit the limelight. Apatow was a stand-up comedian at one point, and he injects a lot of his own personality into the characters in the film. It also contains quite a few Apatow regulars, including his wife, Leslie Mann, Rogen, and Jonah Hill. So it’s clear the writer/director wants this film to be something from the heart.

But is it good? Yeah, I suppose it is. It’s not as funny as The 40 Year Old Virgin. In fact, it is more of a drama than a comedy. In certain respects, Funny People shares a lot in common with Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy. Both writer/directors are known more for their comedies. And both films are the most personal of their work. The dialogue in Funny People is as strong as anything Apatow’s done, and is where the comedy of the film lies. The actors are very familiar with each other and this helps the witticisms and delivery. So this isn’t a situational comedy.

The performances are for the most part, pretty excellent. Adam Sandler’s always done his best work when he isn’t doing mad-cap films. In fact, his best role was in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, a dark drama-comedy. So Sandler’s on fine form here. I’m sure he and Simmons have a lot in common, so Sandler could draw a lot on his own experiences for the role. Seth Rogen, while not playing a slacker here, seems to fit into the mould he’s forged in Apatow’s films. And while the Jonah Hill, Leslie Mann and Jason Schwartzman are all great in the film, the show is stolen by Eric Bana who appears at the end of the film. Bana is the only actor who isn’t playing a ‘funny’ character. But he slightly overplays the character, and gets the most laughs. That’s not a criticism as I’m sure that’s what Bana was going for.

The great criticism of the film is it’s length. The film is essentially two films tied together, and as such pushes the running time to a whopping two and a half hours. There could have been two films made of the story. And this is somewhat of a drawback for the film. But it’s perfectly entertaining none the less, and Apatow’s most grown-up film.


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

THE HURT LOCKER (2009) - Kathryn Bigelow

The Iraq war is a sensitive subject in... well, every medium. It’s a shady conflict with no clear and definable enemy and despite it being in the news nearly every day, it’s a subject filmmakers are hesitant to touch. The majority of films that deal with the war concentrate on the effects of the conflict on the soldiers or the families and friends of soldiers once they have returned from the conflict. Few films actually deal with the war on a day to day basis. But now we have The Hurt Locker, a film that deals with a bomb disposal unit, stationed in Iraq in 2004. Does it shed any new light on the war?

SSgt. William James newly appointed to an Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit in Iraq. He’s seen his fair share of duty in Afghanistan and has disposed of countless explosives. Iraq is littered with Improvised Explosive Devices. James is teamed up with Sgt. JT Sanborn and Spc. Owen Eldridge, soldiers just counting down the days until they go home. They hate Iraq and fear for their own safety. But James is reckless, and doesn’t care for his own safety, nor that of his fellow soldiers. And his recklessness puts him at odds with Sanborn and Eldridge.

Well, The Hurt Locker has arrived on a veritable tidal wave of positive reviews and unrelenting praise. And as I walked out of the cinema I couldn’t help but ask... why? Before the film began, I was sure I was walking into something that would... blow me out of my seat. Heh. But I was very underwhelmed. The first hour of the film had me gazing through the screen as the film failed to grab me by the balls and force my attention on the screen. It seems to follow the consensus that films that deal with the Iraq war are just not that very good.

Now don’t get me wrong. There are some great moments in the film. A lot has been made of the tension that runs throughout the film. And there are some extremely tense moments in the film. But overall, I felt the film just fell a little flat in places and didn’t really hold my attention for long enough. And at a running time of 131 minutes, that is a problem. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t present the three central characters with an enemy they have to hunt for. This would have been cliché. Instead, their enemy is boredom and the situation they’re in. There are themes of heroism, fear of death and brotherhood in the film, but these aren’t touched upon nearly as much as they should have been. Maybe the canvas is too big, or maybe the writing wasn’t strong enough, but I felt there should have been more.

The performances, on the other hand, are excellent. The three central actors, Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty all play their roles with conviction. None of the characters are too similar, and they all have their demons to battle with. Despite glossing over a lot of these, other than for Renner’s James, the actors do their best with what they have and are convincing. There are cameos from heavyweights like Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce and David Morse, but these cameos are fleeting and don’t give the actors much to work with.

Kathryn Bigelow is most famous for Point Break, a film that is basically testosterone on screen. And there’s no shortage of it in The Hurt Locker. But in no way is The Hurt Locker a comparable film to Point Break. It is far more serious. As it should be. Bigelow’s direction is sketchy. At moments, she builds the tension brilliantly. And she does get great performances from her actors. But her cinematic flourishes aren’t anything incredibly innovative. And the very last shot of the film is shockingly misjudged and out of place within the context of the rest of the film.

Overall, The Hurt Locker isn’t a bad film. It’s just a little better than average. It’s saved by it’s actors. And yet the first great Iraq war film hasn’t been made. It certainly isn’t this film. A far better document of the war is the television mini-series, Generation Kill. Obviously, being a mini-series, it has a greater canvas to work on. But many great individual films have been made about World War 2, and wars don’t get bigger nor more complex than that. Ignore the hype and maybe you won’t be disappointed like I was. It’s good, but not great. I just hoped for more from The Hurt Locker.