Thursday, August 27, 2009

"Avatar" Teaser is Up

The trailer for "Avatar," Jim Cameron's long overdue follow-up to the blockbuster-against-which-all-others-are measured "Titanic", went up online not too long ago. The result is, um, unexpected. This first glimpse of footage isn't yawn-inducing, but for me it is kind of "Huh?"-inducing. Some of that is definitely on-purpose, but there are enough flying dragons ridden by blue archers to raise an eyebrow or two.

While it's nice to see some new non-documentary footage from the mind of Jim Cameron, it's a little dismaying to see that it appears to be cut from a film that's a weird hybrid of "Halo", "Phantom Menace", "Apocalypto" and "Ferngully" (the font for the film is definitely either from "Ferngully" or from the "Yanni: Live at Red Rocks" album). It is a teaser, so it's hard to take a whole lot from it other than the overall setting, the look of some of the alien environments, and a sense of the scope, but that's about it.

What is clear is that we've got Sam Worthington in what looks like a starring role. That's promising. He was the best thing about "T4" so I like the odds that he'll do an excellent job in this film, provided, that is, Cameron gives him some room to act as himself, and not in the form of one of the small-headed, spotted blue man-things that seem to be the focus of the movie.

From what I've heard, this film is one of those projects that directors sometimes pull from out of the back of a closet when they realize they can literally make any damn movie they want. "Fifth Element" was like that. I think the Star Wars prequels were basically like that. So that's cause for worry, but this is Little Jimmy Cameron we're talking about, the guy who made "Aliens" and "Terminator 2" and "The Abyss". It's difficult to imagine we'll see a bad movie from him.

But this teaser does make it slightly less difficult.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"District 9"

(A review with spoilers.)

I saw "District 9" on Saturday, August 15th, and was pleasantly surprised to find a smart, original science fiction film exploring actual ideas at my local multiplex. Particularly after a few weekends of truly mindless toy-based movies.

I feel a certain pressure, all in my own head I'm sure, to really sound off about how great this movie is in a post. I think part of that comes from having a film exceed my expectations, part comes from my being as susceptible as the next guy to geek enthusiasm, and part of it is I think this film may be remembered long after this summer. But I'm not totally convinced on that last one yet, so I think restraint should be the order of the day.

I'm actually writing this on Monday, August 17th, but posting it today (Aug 25th) because I wanted to be sure there were at least two weekends between its release and my post because a.) I'd deal in spoilers, and wanted as many people to have seen the movie before the post went up as possible, and b.) I think even a non-spoiler-y review would give too much of the movie away. This movie, perhaps more than some others, benefits from low plot-awareness going in. So if you haven't seen it yet, click onto another website from your Favorites drop-down, because spoilers are a'comin'.

Quick background on the movie: The film's director, Peter Jackson-protege Neill Blomkamp, was slated to do a big-budget multi-studio film based on the "Halo" video games. That fell through when the studios got skittish about dumping $200 million into a movie whose hero wears an opaque face-shield for two hours. When the project died, Jackson and Blomkamp regrouped and poured all of their "Halo" energy and momentum into a new film. "District 9" is that film.

Set in Johannesburg, South Africa in present day, the film is shot in a quasi-documentary style and purports to document an eviction action on a slum settlement in that city. The evictors are a shady corpo-military company called MNU whose team, comprised of some civilians but more Blackwater-like mercenaries, are led by Wikus Van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) an affable bureaucrat who's been thrust into the role of team leader on the big day. The evictees are 7-foot tall aliens, derogatorily called "prawns" by their human neighbors, who came to Earth 20 years ago and have been penned into a squalid shantytown called "District 9" since. Much of the fun of these early sequences comes from seeing the human actors interact with the digital aliens without being awed by them. Wary, yes, afraid, yes, but not in any way amazed. These aliens are a part of the landscape for these South Africans, and on this day, just a problem to be dealt with.

During the raid, Wikus is exposed to an alien compound that makes him sick. Pretty soon he realizes what's happened: he's becoming one of them. The film proceeds to follow hapless, terrified Wikus as he attempts to fix what's wrong with him and chronicles his transformation from human to alien. Where "District 9" and Cronenberg's "The Fly" differ primarily is in how focused the story is on the transformation. "The Fly" pays loving attention to Seth Brundle's disgusting metamorphosis, but Blomkamp seems content to get the gross-out willies out of the way sooner, and doesn't linger much on them. But as with "The Fly", "District 9" lives and dies on how well the character of Wikus is written, and how well that character is played. Lucky for Blomkamp, Copley turns in a brilliant performance.

First, the actor. Sharlto Copley, who plays Wikus Van der Merwe, does excellent work. I loved that I'd never seen him before and the effect that lack of familiarity had on the way I experienced the movie. When he appeared on-screen in that first medium shot, I truly had no idea he was going to be the lead. I thought he would probably talk about the person we would come to know as the lead, but no way was this nebbish our guy. And I think it's awesome that it turned out he was. I wish more movies could pull this off, that studios would take a chance on more great first-time actors, but for now I'll just be grateful for the few times it does happen. I'm looking forward to seeing him in more films.

Second, and more importantly, the character. Wikus Van der Merwe is a classic Hollywood nice guy. Jack Lemmon's C.C. Baxter from "The Apartment" could have stood in for Wikus during these first scenes; he's chipper and charming, people at his work like him, he's even a bit incompetent, but incompetent in a nice way. But where other screenwriters might push away from the desk on issues of character with just that sketch, Blomkamp goes a bit further. Wikus is also a racist. The film does spend some time interviewing people who aren't racists (or maybe a terrestrialist is a better word), so tolerant people do exist in this world, but Wikus sure ain't one of them. He calls the aliens "prawns" as his default; his feelings of superiority are so built-in, he calls them prawns even when he needs their help. More than that, he doesn't care about their well-being. Sure, he doesn't like to see them slaughtered (like certain others at MNU), but watching them suffer a bit of abuse from some MNU shock troops doesn't bother him much. Nor does threatening to take away their kids if they don't submit to the eviction weigh much on his conscience. In Wikus's book, all of that's acceptable behavior.

But what happens to him over the course of the story changes him. Wikus has got an honest-to-God, old-time-screenwriting-101 character arc. I didn't realize how much I missed this stuff until I realized I'd been deprived of it for so long. Wikus changes. Physically, yes, but the physical change he endures forces him to see things in a new way. His outlook changes. And because Wikus resists that change so strenuously, it feels all the more authentic. Sometimes in movies, it feels like the character changes his stripes because the screenwriter's gotten to a certain page number in his script. But here it's well-done, gripping, and earned. I'd say that thematically, "District 9" shares as much in common with "Glory" as "The Fly" -- Colonel Shaw's journey from intolerance to respect for an unfairly maligned group follows a similar path, and both films reap some stirring moments as a result.

The effects were very good, but not breakthrough good. At least not visually. (They may have been so cheaply produced as to be landmark, but all I can go by is what's on-screen, and they looked as good as most CGI I've seen, and a bit better in a number of cases). But the aliens were well-done, particularly when the camera went into a close shot on their faces. Their eyes were alien enough so we wouldn't notice where the CG fell short, but human enough to let the CG render emotion, which they did surprisingly well. It's easy to see in the aliens of "District 9" how Blomkamp might have rendered the aliens of "Halo". I'd be happy to see Blomkamp get his turn at the plate for that project after all, though I'm not optimistic it will be him at the helm.

[Quick Geek Note: The 3rd act of this movie kicks the door open wide for a live-action, big-budget MechWarrior-type film. Much like all studios are scared witless about the idea of a superhero team-up movie, I think they've been similarly dismissive of a giant robot-suit movie, even though there's massive geek demand for it, both from anime fans and from nostalgiasts who remember stuff like "Voltron" fondly. These studio executives can only imagine these projects done wrong, and the careers that would end as a result. But with the climactic sequence that ends this film, Blomkamp has taken the stress out of green-lighting a mech warrior-type film. He balances the strength and gee-whiz dynamism of the robotic exoskeleton with Wikus's key emotional moments (which happen while inside the suit) so well, I think the studios will be turning something like "Johnny Appleseed" or any of the other countless giant-robot-suit Anime stories into a summer tentpole in the next 5 years. Prognostication over.]

Finally, I thought the social commentary of "District 9" was well-done and gave us a vision of an alternate-near-future that was as dystopian and disturbing as anything in "Blade Runner". I think the simple read of the social dynamics in "District 9" is that the film is a simple parable of how the whites in South Africa treated the blacks under the Apartheid regime, with the "prawns" standing in for the oppressed blacks, and humanity for the South African whites. Though it is that at it's core, "District 9" also levels its social critiques at other targets.

For instance, the true villain of the film is not a man but a corporation, MNU. MNU takes the worst aspects of massive, faceless, fingers-in-all-pots-type corporations like General Electric or Monsanto, and then gives them the quasi-military power of a BlackWater or a Halliburton. That the whole enterprise is run by the hero's father-in-law who just happens to have the moral code of Dr. Mengele, makes it clear what Blomkamp's opinion is of multinational corporations acting on the world stage. "District 9" also takes a fairly dim view of humanity, beyond the confines of racism. Rather than adhere to the high-minded theory that the presence of extra-terrestrials on Earth would cause a peace-explosion on this planet, Blomkamp presents, instead, a vision of that scenario where humankind's innate propensity towards violence and intolerance, particularly against those we believe to be different, wins out over those high-minded ideals. The result is we treat our alien visitors abominably. In the end, fear rules our behavior.

Anyway a good and impressive movie, and well worth a visit to the theater if you can swing it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

"Julie and Julia"

Saw "Julie and Julia" at our new new theater here in Kennesaw, part of a chain called NCG, on Tuesday night last week, in a room crowded with moms and daughters.

Nora Ephron has made some excellent movies in an undervalued genre (comedy), and this is one of her better efforts. The film bounces back and forth between Julia Child's life as a developing cook in Paris, and the life of stymied writer Julie Powell who decides to start a blog in which she chronicles her efforts to make all 524 recipes in Child's book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking", in 365 days. And though this film is ostensibly about two women finding their place in the world (I think I may have actually turned myself off from seeing this movie with that line), it's also about marriage, though highly idealized visions of marriage.

Paul Child (played by Stanley Tucci) is the sainted husband of Julia Child and, in the film, always knows the right thing to say, the most perfect gift to give, and never once loses his temper. Eric Powell (played by Chris Messina) is the sainted husband of Julie Powell, and he, too, always knows the right thing to say, the perfect gift to give, and though he does lose his temper once, it's because he doesn't like that she calls him a saint every now and again. So, in essence, he gets mad because he's too nice a guy. Oh, if only these were the problems married people had. But it's all fine, and it works because there's a specific light, comedic tone Ephron's patented over the years, and she's got it going here too.

But, thankfully, it's not ALL about wedded bliss. There's also a lot of food. Hopelessly outdated food, yes -- unfashionably hearty and reliant on thick cuts of beef and such -- but it's all so beautifully photographed, even the meat jellos look like they might be worth trying. "Julie and Julia" never makes food seem as marvelous or as important as it does in, say, "Big Night," or even "Ratatouille", it does its best and puts the aspics and the boeuf bourguignons at center stage enough to feel like you're watching a serious food movie.

Though I preferred the Julia Child scenes, I was never disappointed to return to Julie Powell's, which was a feat in and of itself considering how much fun it was to watch Meryl be Julia, and how much less fun, comparatively, it was to watch Amy Adams soldier through being Ephron's Meg Ryan 2.0, complete with the short haircut and the pouting and charming crying jags. Amy's a good actress, so she manages to make something interesting out of a fairly blandly written character. And as with any good film, you're left wanting a bit more, so I was disappointed I wouldn't get to see the scene where Meryl's Julia sees Dan Ackroyd's famous SNL sketch for the first time, (in real life, she loved the gory sketch so much she kept a VHS of it on her TV stand), or the scenes where she and Paul come in to a small public television studio in Boston, prepared as army generals, to make one of the first cooking shows ever put on the air. That would have been fun to watch, especially with Meryl and Stanley standing in for the Childs.

But, then again, as many biopics do tend to go on and on, maybe Ephron & Co. have struck upon the best telling of her life with this movie, grabbing up most, if not all, of the important moments of her life for half a movie.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Just a Taste of Crazy, Georgia-Style

Take just a moment, won't you, to watch my elected Representative, none other than Phil Gingrey (R), take the assault rifle-carrying health care town hall opponents head-on on "Hardball."

Actually, watch Gingrey tell Chris Matthews he thinks it's A-OK to bring assault weapons to public political events the President is holding.

Yes, these people exist, and yes, I live among them.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Michael Vick: Totally Reformed

If you happened to watch Michael Vick's interview on "60 Minutes" this past Sunday, then you may have been witness to the first stop in the most half-hearted redemption tour ever staged.

As you may remember, in 2007, Michael Vick's Virginia farm was raided. The Feds believed Vick, then the quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons as well as the farm's owner, was the proprietor of a dog-fighting ring. Dog fighting paraphernalia was seized, pit bulls were confiscated, and at least 6 dogs were exhumed from various shallow graves on the property. Vick was arrested. He lied to everyone about it. The NFL Commisioner, the owner of the Falcons, anyone watching TV who cared to listen. But it turned out dog-fighting was only the backdrop for the really sick stuff Vick did on that farm.

The indictment the Feds read out painted Vick to be the Papa Doc Duvalier of dog killers. Any way you can think of to kill a dog, Vick did it. Shot. Electrocuted. Drowned. Vick did it. Dog fighting is one thing -- well it's lots of things, but the kind of cold-blooded, personal and sadistic way Vick ended dogs' lives went well-beyond an illicit gambling operation. Goes well beyond questions of a "culture" that accepted dog fighting as a way of life. Hearing that indictment, people I knew who had rooted for the guy wondered what sort of person could do that. I was one of them. He went away for 18 months for a misdemeanor. He got out, and seemingly within minutes, he got a football contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. I wondered how an NFL team would explain their decision to hire Vick. Not that they couldn't or shouldn't, but I was curious to see how the battle to make it all okay was going to be fought.

His appearance on "60 Minutes" was to be the centerpiece of his "I'm sorry" tour, wherein he could persuade people that, like William Munny in "Unforgiven", he really "wasn't like that anymore." I came away deeply unconvinced. He seemed overly reliant on pre-written phrases ("put it all in perspective", "all because of the so-called culture"), cheap contrition ("I feel bad inside") and it all just seemed forced. In a clip they had of him speaking to a group on the evils of dog-fighting, he seemed to be struggling to remember the lines he was supposed to say.

In flashes though, I think his actual feelings made it through the stage-managed act. For instance, after James Brown details the ways Vick killed dogs, the aforementioned shooting, drowning, electrocuting, Vick sighs and says, "I don't know how many times I have to say it..." How about once? When asked why he cried at night, Vick didn't once mention dogs, or what he'd done to them. The overriding impression I get is that he's sorry he got caught. The interview showed not that he was sorry or changed, just that he could repeat the talking points his image management team told him to say.

Whether it's correct that, after serving his time, he should or should not be allowed to resume his football career is another issue. I'm of two minds on it myself. But what's at issue here is this: has Vick changed? Does he think that what he did to those animals was "disgusting," as he worded it in the interview? He says he has. But when he says he didn't feel disgust for what he'd done until the bars clanged shut his first night in jail, or when he continues to say he deeply regrets "the things I let go on," my inclination is to believe that he hasn't changed. He didn't let electrocuting a dog "go on", he actually did it himself. Same with the one he drowned, same with the ones he shot.

Here's the clip of the interview. Take a look and decide for yourself whether you think he's being sincere. Some of it I might put down to his not being a super bright guy, which is certainly not a crime, but my first read is that he isn't sorry yet. He still doesn't get it. He probably won't stage dog fights again, just because that would be beyond reckless, even for him, but I'm not at all persuaded he understands the reason for the public anger.

The whole sordid business has soured me on professional football. In the end, no matter how much the NFL Commissioner talks about how much he himself really loves dogs, no matter how often the Eagles owner says he expected a certain amount of "self hate" from Vick before he signed him, and no matter how awesome a mentoring job Tony Dungee does to make Vick a stellar human being, the fact that the whole charade is being perpetrated at all is because there are dollars yet to be made off of Vick playing football. Because this is true, people who want money will line up to make it off him, dog killer or no. It's something you know in your bones anyway: none of these guys is playing for the love of the game (who knows how many years its been since that was true), but to have the skin of civility ripped off the enterprise so brazenly is dispiriting.

One gets the feeling watching this play out, that it almost doesn't matter what Vick had done. If he was in playing shape when he got out of jail, someone who liked money would put a football in his hand and a fat check in his pocket, and Vick would go on "60 Minutes" and say how drunk driving is wrong, or domestic violence is wrong, or bar fighting that ends in death is wrong, and he'd play some football.

And you can be certain, no matter what he did, his image management team would make sure it was hard-hitting investigative reporter James Brown asking the questions.