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AVATAR (2009)

In A, Action, Adventure, Epic, Motion Pictures, Romance, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on July 16, 2010 at 3:01 pm

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STUDIO – 20th Century Fox

CASTSam Worthington, Sigourney WeaverZoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Joel David Moore, Wes Studi

DIRECTORJames Cameron

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Following the success of Titanic, James Cameron took some time off from making movies. Oh, he produced an IMAX documentary about the doomed ocean liner, but when it came to his next dramatic film, he had an idea which he claimed would be ground-breaking. It would take place on a mysterious forest planet called Pandora, made with as-yet invented technologies in CGI and motion capture. It promised to be more expensive than Titanic, take years to complete, and it would do it all in 3-D. Finally, in December 2009, Avatar bowed. It was everything Cameron said it would be, and it eventually shattered box office records.

Sam Worthington stars as Jake Sully, a paraplegic Marine veteran recruited to replace his late twin brother Tom, a scientist, on Pandora, a lush moon orbiting a gas giant light-years from Earth. On Pandora, a major corporation has set up a mining operation for a substance called unobtanium. But the indigenous population, a ten-foot tall humanoid species called the Na’vi, are intent on protecting their home, so a paramilitary defense presence, headed by Colonel Quatrich (Stepen Lang) is required. To provide a more diplomatic solution, exobiologist Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) has developed human-Na’vi hybrid bodies called “avatars”, which are “driven” via mnemonic transfer, in order to interact with the Na’vi more easily. Despite Augustine’s protests (she wanted a PhD and not a grunt), Jake becomes part of the team.

Jake Sully and Norm Spellman (Sam Worthington, Joel David Moore) on their first expedition in their avatar bodies

Now, just in case you are among the dozen or so people left on this planet who have yet to see this movie, I will stop here. Avatar is one of those movies that, no matter what you have heard about it, needs to be seen to believed. James Cameron spent over a decade developing this movie, and it shows. Visually, this is among most striking motion pictures ever released. It was filmed in 3-D from the word “Go”, but even in 2-D, it is a visual feast for the eyes. I had seen this movie in 3-D when it was released in December 2009, and I can tell you that there are few “3-D gimmicks” in the movie. This allows for fairly easy translation into the 2-D world upon which many of us still rely in our home entertainment systems. The CGI and motion-capture effects are so photorealistic, that it’s difficult to tell the difference between a physical set and a virtual one, even when you know which one you’re looking at.

True, James Cameron makes an eye-popping movie nearly every time out of the gate. His philosophy is that visual effects should enhance the story, not drive it. Here, however, the visual effects do both, but in such a way as to not be obvious. Does this mean it’s “the perfect movie”? No. There are flaws, some obvious, some subtle. For example, for a screenwriter, James Cameron is an excellent director. While the screenplay in this movie exceeds that of Titanic by leaps and bounds, it still has a few rough spots to stumble through in the telling of this story. For example, when Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) first encounters Sully’s avatar, her first instinct is to kill him (he is, after all, the enemy), but because of a “sign” from Eywa (the Na’vi deity), she takes him to her peoples’ village, instead. Overall, it was handled all right, but I feel this could’ve been written better.

Another weak point I noticed right away in this movie is its similarities with Dances With Wolves. Both feature a military man learning the culture of the indigenous people. Both have a romantic subplot between the military man and a prominent native woman (in the case of Dances With Wolves, she was a white woman adopted by the Sioux). Both have the military questioning the central character’s loyalties. And both feature Wes Studi (He was the “angry Pawnee” in Dances With Wolves, and in Avatar, he is the Na’vi leader and Neytiri’s father). These similarities were pointed out, by the way, prior to Avatar‘s release in this “South Park” episode (Caution: NSFW).

And what about the mining operation? I’m fairly certain more than a few people let out a snicker or two when they heard that the substance in question was called “unobtanium”. Well, as it turns out, as silly the name of this stuff is, this is not the first movie which uses the term (It was also used in 2003’s The Core). And it is based on the engineering term “unobtainium“, which was first coined in the 1950s. In Avatar, it’s a metallic grey substance that fetches “20 million a kilo”, and the largest deposit of it sits underneath the Na’vi village, known as Home Tree. Again, silly name, but it fits.

There has also been a recent “3-D backlash” of sorts because of this movie. Several movies this year which were released in 3-D, including Clash of the Titans, Alice in Wonderland, and The Last Airbender, suffered from critical and popular derision, because these were originally regular (2-D) movies which were converted to 3-D in post-production. Interestingly enough, the 2-D versions of these movies fared better. These are just a few of the many cases of Hollywood trying to capitalize on a trend based on one very successful movie, and charging a higher admission for people to see it. But if too many of these “bad 3-D” movies come out, people will refuse to see all 3-D movies, even ones intended to be in 3-D, like Avatar. Are you listening, Hollywood? By changing the movie to take advantage of a trend, you are changing the director’s vision. Remember when you converted Gone With the Wind to CinemaScope in the 1960s? Yeah, that went over really well, too…

Avatar is a visual and aural feast, to be digested over and over. Even though it comes thisclose to being “Dances With Wolves in space”, it is still a ground-breaking motion picture, and one of the best science-fiction films to come along in years.

4 (out of 5)

THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975)

In Comedy, Horror, Motion Pictures, Musical, R, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on June 25, 2010 at 12:45 am

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STUDIO – 20th Century Fox

CASTSusan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Tim Curry, Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, “Little Nell” Campbell, Meat Loaf, Charles Gray, Peter Hinwood

DIRECTOR – Jim Sharman

MPAA Rating: R
(UK Version Not Rated)

A funny thing happened on September 26, 1975. A movie based on the musical “The Rocky Horror Show” opened in theatres nationwide. It tanked. But an even funnier thing happened a few months later. Those same movie theatres, who were obligated to keep prints of this musical disaster for a certain amount of time, relegated it to screenings at Midnight on the weekends. Over the next 15 years or so, The Rocky Horror Picture Show evolved into a cult phenomenon unlike anything else in cinematic history. In its heyday, millions of people the world over dressed in costumes, performed the movie in front of the screen in real time, talked back to characters, and threw items at the screen on cue. In essence, this was interactive cinema in its truest form, and (to my knowledge) the first known wide-spread case of it. I went to exactly one screening with a roommate in 1985; it was the singularly most bizarre experience of my life, and one of the most fun as well. On this occasion, with the movie’s 35th Anniversary upon us, I have decided to try to watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Normally, this is where I set up the plot for the movies that I see, but the plot to Rocky Horror is so incomprehensible, I can only try, so here goes: Love birds Brad Majors and Janet Weiss (Barry Bostwick, Susan Sarandon) have just left a friend’s wedding. On their way out of town, they get caught in a storm and find they have taken the wrong road. But when they try to turn around, the car gets a flat tire and (wouldn’t you know it?) the spare is no good. So, our intrepid vagabonds walk back up the road  to a castle they’d seen earlier, so they could borrow their phone. When they get there, they are greeted by a strange-looking handyman named Riff-Raff (Richard O’Brien) and his master, one Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry). From there, it gets… weird. The plot (such as it is) moves forward, courtesy of a Criminologist, aka “No-Neck” (Charles Gray), who tells the audience of Brad and Janet’s ordeal at Frank-N-Furter Castle as the movie plays out.

Brad and Janet (Barry Bostwick, Susan Sarandon) meet Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry)

This is one of those movies that, by itself, is confusing and convoluted. Riddled with so much camp and cheesiness, it is amazing to note that this movie was the launchpad for the careers Susan Sarandon, Brian Bostwick, Tim Curry, and Meat Loaf. Full of overt pansexual imagery, Rocky Horror is not for the uninitiated. It may not be Mary Poppins, but what makes this movie special is the audience participation. The DVD has two versions of the movie, US and UK (The UK version has one extra song). I strongly recommend that if you decide to screen this movie, you do so during a party, because the overall experience will play out better if the crowd is into it.

The special features of the DVD have the customary audio commentary, but there is also an audio track (which plays in the rear surround speakers) of an audience shouting out at the movie. It’s a bit chaotic, but entertaining nonetheless. Another feature that got my attention is the Multi-view feature; when activated, a set of lips will appear on screen, prompting you to see theatre audience members perform that scene live. Finally, there is the “Audience Participation” feature, which cues the audience to do something during the movie. For this, I recommend you lay down a sheet of plastic, or at least have a non-carpeted surface, for easy clean-up. Here are the items you’ll need to take part (Just be careful not to damage the video equipment):

  • Rice
  • Water pistols
  • Newspapers
  • Candles/Cigarette lighters
  • Party hats
  • Noise makers
  • Household cleaning gloves
  • Confetti
  • Toilet paper
  • Toast
  • Frankfurters

The Rocky Horror Picture Show essentially posits the question “What if Dr. Frankenstein was an alien drag queen who was trying to create a boy-toy of his own?” Oh, there are a few hints of “Frankenstein” here, including the requisite castle and thunderstorm, the fact that Rocky Horror, aka The Creation (Peter Hinwood), is afraid of fire, Riff-Raff has Igor’s hunched back, and Magenta (Patricia Quinn) appears in a Bride-of-Frankenstein wig in one scene. But where it is different from the Mary Shelley classic is… well, everywhere else! So, the next time you invite 20 of your closest friends to your home (At least that many, or it just won’t work), break this ol’ chestnut out and make it a real party!

3-1/2 (out of 5)

(Group Screening)

(Alone)

NINE (2009)

In Drama, Motion Pictures, Musical, N, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on June 12, 2010 at 1:19 am

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STUDIO – The Weinstein Company

CASTDaniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penélope Cruz, Sophia Loren, Nicole Kidman, Dame Judi Dench, Kate Hudson, Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson

DIRECTOR – Rob Marshall

MPAA Rating: PG-13

In 1982, Raul Julia took the Broadway stage to star in a musical based on the Federico Fellini classic . It won four Tony Awards, and ran for over 800 performances. Then, in 2003, Antonio Banderas starred in the Broadway revival of the production, which garnered two more Tonys. And in 2009, Chicago director Rob Marshall has brought Nine to the big screen, this time with two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis as tormented film director Guido Contini.

It is 1965, and the celebrated auteur has been hounded by his staff, the producers, and his regular star and muse, Claudia Jenssen (Nicole Kidman), to produce a script (or at least reveal some plot points) for his latest project, to be entitled “Italia”. But there is one small issue: There is no script. During a press conference, Guido slips out and drives to a remote spa hotel to try to unwind from the all of the pressure. He’s so stressed, he invites both his wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard) and his mistress Carla (Penélope Cruz) to join him. Before he knows it, the whole production staff shows up, and they have set up shop at the hotel to work out the details of the new movie.

Guido (Daniel Day-Lewis) greets Luisa (Marion Cotillard) at the hotel

I found Nine to be quite entertaining. Daniel Day-Lewis seemed to competently channel Marcello Mastroianni with ease. The casting bore a few surprises, and admittedly a few raised eyebrows. Nearly all the musical numbers were showstoppers. In particular, I give “thumbs-up” (sorry, Mr. Ebert) to four daring numbers. First is Cruz’s smoldering “Call From the Vatican”, a playful, flirtatious, and not-innocent-at-all phone sex romp that was one clever camera angle shy of giving this movie an “R” rating. Kate Hudson was a pleasant surprise playing Stephanie, a star-struck fashion reporter convinced that Guido is Italy, and her number “Cinema Italiano” (written specifically for the movie), is the highlight of the movie. The next performance piece of note goes to Fergie (yes, as in Black-Eyed Peas) as Saraghina, and her number “Be Italian”, in which she (and her ladies) instruct young Guido and his classmates on the ways of love. Finally, Marion Cotillard had two songs in Nine, but it is her second number, “Take It All”, an angry striptease directed at Guido, that got my attention.

And the other women? You couldn’t get much better than Dame Judi Dench as costume designer Lilli, and the incomparable Sophia Loren as Guido’s mother. By the way, I think casting Sophia Loren in this movie gives it validation, as she has been associated with Italian cinema for her entire illustrious career, including a couple of movies directed by Fellini himself.

Nine was filmed both on location in Italy, and in a partially-constructed set for “Italia”, which serves as the stage for the musical numbers, each showing the set in various stages of construction. It also functions as Guido’s imagination, dark, fragmented, and full of sexual energy. This actually helped to make the story easier to follow than your average musical. Director Rob Marshall (himself a Broadway veteran) employed this tactic with Chicago, but here I think worked with greater effect.

There are a few weak spots in this movie. For example, I felt that one of the more pivotal scenes, in which Luisa spots Carla in the restaurant, seemed somewhat contrived. There are also plot differences between Nine and , some of which worked and some which did not. I will not spoil those plot points here, so I will only recommend you screen both movies (like I did) and spot them yourself. Besides, the basic story is still the same, as well as most of the characters’ motivations.

The DVD’s special features include rehearsal and audition footage for the movie, as well as behind-the-scenes looks at the choreography of selected songs, and even a few music videos. I know I’ve already stated this, but I was particularly impressed with Kate Hudson’s number. In one featurette, she explains that even she didn’t know she had it in her, but then again her mother was a go-go dancer on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” back in the 1960s (Yes, that really is Goldie Hawn in body paint and a bikini).

Nine is a competent retelling of one of Fellini’s greatest movies, but where is succeeds in production value, it does lack a bit in the pacing of the non-musical portions of the movie. Still, it is an irreverently sexy spectacle, sure to please both the eyes and the ears. Oh, by the way, I think Fergie needs to tackle Broadway and more film projects; she is far too talented to have a pop music career.

3-1/2 (out of 5)

8½ (1963)

In #, Classic, Comedy, Foreign, Independent, Motion Pictures, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on June 9, 2010 at 1:15 am

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STUDIO – Embassy Pictures

CASTMarcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo, Rosella Falk, Barbara Steele, Madeleine Lebeau, Caterina Boratto, Eddra Gale, Guido Alberti, Mario Conocchia

DIRECTORFederico Fellini

NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG-13)

For many years, I have heard about , the acclaimed film by Italian director Federico Fellini. But because I generally have an aversion to non-English-speaking movies (I confess, a rather unhealthy centrist conceit), I avoided this movie for fear that I would not understand it. I had seen only a couple of European movies before (specifically, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the 1949 French movie Gigi, which would later be remade into the Best Picture of 1958). It takes a certain kind of talent to read subtitles and still be able to follow the movie; recall that I had a little difficulty with Inglourious Basterds a few months ago. So, sitting through a film like would appear to pose a unique challenge, and rather than stay safely in my American hole, I took a chance and expanded my horizons.

This movie opens at a health spa at a remote location somewhere in Italy, where film director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) is trying to escape the rigors of his everyday life and prepare for his next movie at the same time. Reporters, gossip columnists, producers, diva actresses, his wife, his mistress, and even a Cardinal all play their parts in both running interference and contributing to the movie’s creation. At the same time, Guido’s dreams of escapism and sexually-charged recalled memories from childhood step in to influence his decision-making process. To make things even more twisted, Guido starts incorporating these dreams and fantasies into his movie, causing everyone to wonder just what Guido’s movie is all about.

Guido and his wife Luisa (Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée) at the café

Confused yet? To blur the lines between art and reality even further, is a movie about the making of… . Now, you’re all mixed up, aren’t you? Well, considering that the working title of this movie was La Bella Confusione (“The Beautiful Confusion”), it is easy to spot that Fellini himself wasn’t sure which direction this movie was going, either. Officially, this is Fellini’s ninth movie, but because it’s a left-turn from his usual fare, and because it is somewhat autobiographical, the title is based on his notion that it’s “movie 8½” to him, nestled between La Dolce Vita (1960) and Giulietta Degli Spiriti (1965). As a result, is about as “meta” a movie can become, with disjointed imagery that actually forms a cohesive whole. For example, early in the movie, Guido and his mistress, Carla (Sandra Milo), are engaging in a little sexual role play. At one point, he takes her eyeliner and draws garish eyebrows onto her forehead. This is a deliberate reference to a beach-dwelling prostitute he’d known when he was a child; she was called “La Saraghina” (Eddra Gale), who is later introduced during a flashback.

Fellini’s use of imagery, from the claustrophobic dream of the traffic jam at the beginning of the movie, to the Dante’s Inferno-esque descent into the spa’s steam room all carry significance; of course, some are more obvious than others. In a fantasy, we first see the lovely Claudia (Claudia Cardinale) as wholesome and pure, dressed in white; when we finally meet her in person, she is glamorous and sexy, dressed flamboyantly in black. It is also no coincidence that Fellini peppered with quick glimpses of a mysterious woman, one of which bearing her likeness on a Virgin Mary. This woman was Caterina Boratto, a renowned Italian actress and Fellini’s “dream girl” from his own childhood.

Now, I’m not about to try to examine this movie. There are college courses in Italian cinema because of , and numerous students have dissected this movie in their Masters theses for over 40 years. But watching this movie was indeed an eye-opening experience, filled to the brim with unconventional cuts, shots, dialogue, and editing, all of which seem to give a life of its own. I screened it twice, first by watching the movie itself, then by listening to the essay commentary which provided some of the tidbits of information I have learned. The commentary examines the reasons why old women were cast as Catholic priests in one scene, and in another the Cardinal (Tito Masini) is shown as nothing more than a naked old man. And then there’s the elephant in the room: the giant scaffolding which is to become a launchpad for a rocket in Guido’s movie. I hope I’m not giving too much away when I say that I knew something was up when a producer shows a two-foot tall matte painting of a rocket to be superimposed onto the full-scale launchpad shown under construction. According to the commentary, Fellini had ordered the scaffolding to be built as high as the workers could get it, but even he had no idea what he was going to do with it.

The two-disk set comes packed with features, including interviews with co-star Sandra Milo, who recounts her 17-year love affair with Fellini (even after she had married someone else), assistant director Lina Wertmüller, who went on to have a distinguished career of her own, and three-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who shared his thoughts on how Fellini achieved his vision on-screen. There is also a 1969 pseudo-documentary by Fellini which aired on NBC; in it, he traces the creative process in the casting of his next project. It plays off as a mini-, complete with reporters, actors, and producers all vying for an audience with Fellini.

But what fascinated me was a German documentary about composer Nino Rota, a reclusive musical savant best known for two things. First was his famous collaboration with Fellini, which rivals that of Spielberg and Williams, or Burton and Elfman. A typical meeting between Fellini and Rota would have the two at a piano, trying to hammer out a composition for a given movie, only to give up hours later, exasperated. Then, as Fellini would leave the room, Rota would improvise a piece (probably just to relax after a hard day), and Fellini would exclaim “That’s it! That’s the music I want!” But Nino Rota was also notorious for recycling his music. Did you know that his Oscar nomination for Best Musical Score for The Godfather was withdrawn because it was based on his score for Fortunella (1958)? Listen for yourself, and you will recognize it!

So, I have long last come to the conclusion of another long review. But, as is often the case, there was plenty of ground to cover. Fellini’s is a movie different from any other. Elements and inspirations from Citizen Kane, “Pinocchio”, Dante’s Inferno and even the Keystone Cops, as well as Fellini’s unique ability to draw from memory to feed his imagination, make a standout among classic cinema. You may need to watch it more than once to get it, but this one is worth the effort.

CORALINE (2009)

In Animation, C, Drama, Family, Independent, Motion Pictures, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on March 15, 2010 at 1:31 am

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STUDIO — Focus Features

CAST — Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Keith David, John Hodgman, Robert Bailey, Jr.

DIRECTOR —  Henry Selick

MPAA Rating: PG

I have been a fan of animation for almost my entire life, so when the Academy decided to add a Best Animated Feature category to the Oscars, I found it to be welcome news. And when Coraline became one of the nominees in this category for 2009, I decided to check it out.

Coraline is the story of Coraline Jones (voice of Dakota Fanning) whose family has just moved into a rather unusual apartment building occupied by rather eccentric tenants. Her parents seem to be too overly occupied with a catalog that they have been working on for what appears to be (from Coraline’s perspective) an eternity. In fact, when she got exposed to poison oak, her parents did nothing about it.

Coraline Jones (voice of Dakota Fanning) discovers the secret doorway

Then one day, the landlady’s grandson Wybie (voice of Robert Bailey, Jr.) drops off a gift for Coraline: a doll that looks just like her. That night, she is awakened by the sound of mice scurrying under her bed. She chases them to a secret doorway leading to another apartment  just like hers. Almost. It’s more brightly lit, the food tastes good, and her “other” parents dote on her. It’s perfect, with one exception: Everyone in this alternate universe has buttons where their eyes should be. And in order to stay in this world, Coraline must have buttons sewn into her eyes, too

I think I will stop here, because the trailer tells you this much of the story. But I have to say that I had a fair amount of expectation for this movie. It was received well by critics, it had decent box office, and it was up for the Animated Feature Oscar. This should be a decent movie, right?

Not really. Stop-motion animation is the most ambitious form of the craft. Personally, I am fascinated by it, and I wish I had the patience to do it myself. But, as the first stop-motion animated feature released in 3-D, Coraline disappoints. From the word “Go”, you are exposed to one “clever” 3-D shot after another. Okay, so I watched the 2-D version of the movie, but constantly seeing jumping mice, flying cotton candy, and numerous objects ”reaching” toward me throughout the film is not my idea of a good time. 3-D is supposed to enhance the movie experience, not dominate it. The end result is that the 3-D in this movie was too distracting. If you want to see how stop-motion animation should be done, I would like to direct your attention to Nick Park and his very talented staff at Aardman Animation (the people behind “Wallace & Gromit”, Chicken Run, and those Chevron commercials with the talking cars). I would also like to suggest the people behind this movie do the same; perhaps they might learn something from it before embarking on their next project.

As for the plot, I thought the story was very clever, but the execution was lacking the energy to drive it. By the third act, I did sit up and pay close attention, but everything leading up to it looked like it needed to be done over again. Too much 3-D distraction. Another weakness I found here was the voice talent. The most interesting character in the whole movie is the cat (voice of Craig Daniel). The rest of the cast sounded like they phoned in their lines, just so they could collect a paycheck.

To its credit, Coraline is full of stunning and sometimes original imagery, but the lackluster voice work and the overdose of old-school 3-D trickery make this movie fall flat.

DISTRICT 9 (2009)

In Action, D, Motion Pictures, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on February 7, 2010 at 9:14 am

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STUDIO — TriStar

CAST — Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Nathalie Boltt, Sylvaine Strike

DIRECTOR —  Neill Blomkamp

MPAA Rating: R

In 2009, the science-fiction/fantasy genre made a generally strong impression upon moviegoers. Among the top-grossing films of the year were Star Trek, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Terminator: Salvation, and of course, a small little-known movie called Avatar. Maybe you’ve heard of it.

But not all sci-fi is big-budget tentpole films. Meet District 9, one of two movies in the sci-fi/fantasy genre to receive an Oscar™ nomination for Best Picture of 2009 (Avatar is the other). This movie, the cinematic directorial debut of Neill Blomkamp, made with a modest budget, and featuring a cast of unknowns, is one of the boldest and most eye-popping movies of 2009. It is also one of the most polarizing. This is one of those films that received both critical praise and derision, and sometimes both at the same time. On a personal note, I can say that more than a few of the people with whom I have spoken did not like this movie, and my brother hated the first half when I popped this movie into my DVD player (But he did love the second half). But this isn’t my brother’s review, nor my friends’, nor a recap of what the professional critics said.

HMU Manager Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) serves eviction notices in District 9.

District 9 is the story of an alien race who had been stranded in Johannesburg, South Africa, for over 20 years. Since their arrival, a series of incidents with the aliens (known derisively as “prawns”)  created tensions among the locals, leading to the formation of a designated colony in town known as District 9. Eventually, District 9 turned into little more than a shantytown under the jurisdiction of corporate giant Multi-National United (MNU). Finally, the locals demanded the aliens be dealt with once and for all, so MNU moved in to relocate them to a new settlement 200 kilometers away. Even though they are being served eviction notices, the move is mandatory. And the man placed in charge of the evictions is Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley).

Now that you know the premise, I won’t go any further into the story for the sake of spoilers, except to say that Wikus (pronounced “VEE-kus”) has an eye-opening experience which leads to his discovery that his employer is not as benevolent as he thought they were. The first half of District 9 was a chaotic mix of shooting styles to give a documentary feel, including news, corporate, file and security footage. This mix of mostly hand-held footage sets up the story in a rapid, if not unique, way. As the movie progresses, the camerawork evolves into a more cinematic feel, with some of the documentary footage mixed in to provide tension in key scenes. For example, now a wanted man, Wikus walks into a restaurant and tries to order food. A security camera shows him entering, then the cinematic storytelling takes over when the news splashes his face on the TV. It may be a gimic, but for the most part, it works with great effect.

This movie took advantage of parallels of South Africa’s own history (The title itself is a nearly direct reference to an area in Johannesburg once known as District 6 during the Apartheid era, and the alien settlement was once a real slum near Soweto). In the opinion of this writer, science-fiction is at its best when it makes social and political commentary based on either historical or current events (hence the appeal of the Star Trek franchise all these years), and the story of District 9 is both frightening and real in its examination of the human race, which fears the “prawns”. And we all know that people fear what they do not understand.

The choice to shoot this movie on location in South Africa, using a South African cast and a native South African director was both bold and visionary (I may be a little prejudiced – for lack of a better word – as my grandfather was born in Pretoria). District 9 is not for everyone, but it is gripping from start to finish.

4 out of 5

THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

In Action, D, Motion Pictures, Movies, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on January 23, 2010 at 1:31 am

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The Dark Knight (2008)

STUDIO — Warner Bros./DC Comics

CAST — Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman

DIRECTOR —  Christopher Nolan

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Where do I begin? As most people would say, “From the beginning, of course!” So, that is where I will start.

Our movie opens with a bank heist like no other: A carefully laid-out plan by a team of crooks in clown masks quickly turns ugly as, one by one, they systematically kill each other until one remains. And we all know who he is, don’t we?

At the end of Batman Begins, we are literally handed a hint of what is to come. There’s a new criminal on the streets of Gotham, and no one knows anything about him, except that he leaves a calling card: a joker from a deck of cards. So, we all knew The Joker would be in this movie. What we got was the creepiest, most psychotic, most manic Joker who ever put on a purple suit.

In the 1960s “Batman” movie and TV show, Cesar Romero played the Clown Prince of Crime with absolute glee; each time he appeared on the show, it was easy to see just how much fun he had in the part. In 1989, Jack Nicholson’s performance in Tim Burton’s Batman was so gloriously over-the-top, that it became a new standard in superhero movie villian performances.

Until now.

The Joker (Heath Ledger) crashes a fund-raiser

Enter Heath Ledger. His take on The Joker was so eerie, so chaotic, so fun to watch, that finding the actor behind the character was difficult, at best. When he (posthumously) won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor of 2008, I thought it was a sympathy vote more than anything else. After seeing this movie, I can say that my initial judgment was… premature.

(Is this a good time to say that I had made a promise to myself not to spend the entire review talking about Heath Ledger? Okay, then! On with the show!)

This movie needed to be at least as good as its predecessor in order to sustain the franchise, and The Dark Knight delivers. Oh, and I should note Aaron Eckart’s take on District Attorney Harvey Dent (aka Two-Face) was nearly equally as strong as that of Heath Ledger’s Joker. And, like Batman Begins, The Dark Knight was well-paced, beautifally shot, and held me from start to finish.

It is sad that Mr. Ledger passed away; he left big shoes to fill should the Powers That Be revisit The Joker in a future movie. But this “Batman” franchise still has teeth in it, and The Dark Knight has a large bite.

4 out of 5

BATMAN BEGINS (2005)

In Action, B, Motion Pictures, Movies, Sci-Fi/Fantasy on January 22, 2010 at 1:34 am

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 Batman Begins (2005) STUDIO — Warner Bros./DC Comics    

CAST — Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Katie Holmes    

DIRECTOR — Christopher Nolan    

MPAA Rating: PG-13    

For my first review, I thought I would start things off with a bang (and a POW!, a BIFF!, and an OOF!). Okay, all kidding aside, and with apologies to Adam West, let us begin our quest for the genesis of Batman, as seen through the vision of director christopher Nolan.    

This story centers around the beginnings of the crime-fighter known as the Batman, and how it nearly began with an act of revenge; a still-young Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) wanted to kill the man who shot his parents. When that didn’t work, he traveled abroad, ultimately winding up in prison for attempted theft in Asia. What follows is the now-famous training sequence, in which a man named Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) introduces Bruce to the League of Shadows. Now with his training complete, Bruce returns to Gotham to find it worse than it was when he left. In fact, it seems the only five people in town who aren’t corrupt are Bruce, his butler Alfred (Michael Caine), his one-time girlfriend (and assistant DA) Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), Wayne Enterprises employee Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), and a police lieutenant named Gordon (Gary Oldman).     

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) embraces his fear

I found this movie entertaining, with a flow to the plot that didn’t stop dead in its tracks, even though I found the Scarecrow subplot to be somewhat contrived.  Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne is a brooding badass billionaire, with a near-perfect characterization that (thankfully) doesn’t fall into the caricature of George Clooney. Michael Caine makes an excellent Alfred, who not only is Bruce Wayne’s caretaker, assistant, and confidant, but here we also see him as his center and surrogate parent. The chemistry between Christian Bale and Katie Holmes worked well. Also, Morgan Freeman is a welcome addition to nearly any movie. I think I will stop right here to say that both Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are among my favorite actors of all time, so having both of them in this reboot of the Batman franchise was a stroke of genius. Finally, the custom-built Batmobile was the perfect cherry on top of this ice cream sundae of a movie. 

Overall, Batman Begins is well-paced, wonderfully shot, and a visual feast on the eyes. Though 1978’s Superman is still the standard of the modern superhero movie, this movie meets the challenge head-on without wavering. 

3-1/2 out of 5