Thursday, August 13, 2009

Movie Reviews: Should You Believe the Hype?

District 9

There is a lot of buzz for the new sci-fi film District 9 -- even though it has no big-name stars, was made for relatively little money ($30 million) and is directed by a young South African-born director whom few have ever heard of, Neill Blomkamp. It doesn't hurt that Lord of the Rings genius Peter Jackson serves as executive producer. But should you believe all the hype that this is a great, completely original movie? I think that would be a bit of an overstatement, but YES this is a very good movie. And yes, I recommend that all sci-fi fans see it -- those of age of course; it is deservedly rated R for its graphic violence.

The movie opens in documentary fashion with the background that decades earlier, a spaceship parked over Johannesburg, South Africa. It turns out the alien occupants fled their planet -- and are now leaderless. So what does the South African government do? Well officials corral them into a huge barbed-wire ghetto shantytown, effectively separating the tall shrimp-looking creatures from the human population. Yep, it's no accident that this movie is set in South Africa -- the apartheid similarities are purposefully clear.

Moving forward to present day, the aliens' camp is now being overseen by a contract company, Multi-National United (MNU). After years of alien population growth and increasing public frustration from the city's humans, Wikus van de Merwe (new-comer Sharlto Copley), is assigned the task of relocating the camp's occupants to a remote and even more-confining location (yes, more societal commentary). Unbeknownst to the field operative, MNU stands to receive tremendous profits if they can make the aliens' advanced weaponry work. But meanwhile, African warlords also occupy the camp -- and have their own plans to control the weaponry (still more societal commentary).

Copley, a long-time friend of Blomkamp's and fellow South African, is excellent in the role. For once we are not distracted by a well-known leading man whose celebrity status detracts from the storytelling. As conflict breaks out, you will be amazed as you witness the character's evolution from being an oppressor to one of the oppressed. Most of the special effects are top-notch, although some bloody scenes seemed obviously fake to me. And not all the political allegories are fully fleshed out. But still, it's an intelligent film that will make you ponder discrimination -- all while enjoying some exciting action at the same time. [Rated R, opens tomorrow]

Grade: B+


  • District 9 is based on Alive in Joburg (2005), a short film directed by Blomkamp and starring Copley.


Released last summer in Japan, writer and director Hayao Miyazaki's latest animated adventure went on to win the Japan Academy Prize for Animation of the Year. The film has now been dubbed by English-speaking stars for release by Disney. So it's no suprise that the two main voices are by Disney actors -- and younger siblings of bigger Disney stars -- Noah Cyrus (sister of Miley) and Frankie Jonas (brother of the Jonas Brothers).

The plot is centered on a goldfish who lives in an aquarium inside her father's submarine. Ponyo (Cyrus) is driven by a desire to see more of the world, but she has a close call by a dredger and ends up trapped inside a glass bottle. She is rescued by Sōsuke (Jonas), a young boy who lives a quiet life on an oceanside cliff. He soon learns that Ponyo is no ordinary fish -- she is the daughter of a underworld mystic and a sea goddess. Ponyo uses her father's magic to transform herself into a young girl and quickly falls in love with Sōsuke, but the use of such powerful magic causes a stormy imbalance in the world. Will Ponyo be able to fulfill her dream to become a human girl -- or will that cause the end of the world?

There is something completely fascinating with Miyazaki's work. The animation is mostly flat and simple, but it's what he does with it at times that makes it so visually impressive (for example, this ocean adventure has no ordinary waves). But is it up to par with his Oscar-winning Spirited Away? I actually found this story pretty slow and lacking in intrigue. I am not even sure a 5-year-old would have the attention span to stick with it. Tina Fey, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett and Liam Neeson lend their voices to the parental roles -- but none seem just right. It's veterans Betty White (The Proposal), Cloris Leachman and Lily Tomlin who are a better fit -- voicing the roles of three nursing home patients who add some comic relief. Overall though, there are only a few laughs. So I'd say the film is still worth seeing -- but only for the animation alone. [Rated G; opens tomorrow]

Grade: B

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