District 9…

Thanks to some generous friends we had chance for a night out this evening and went to see District 9, a new film produced by Peter Jackson and directed by Neill Blomkamp.  My thoughts in brief?  Go see this movie.  There, now if you like you can just skip the rest, which are my thoughts at length.

The basic plot is pretty simple.  An alien spaceship comes to halt in the sky above Johannesburg.  It doesn’t move for a long time so the government cuts into the ship and finds a whole host of aliens who appear to be starving.  They are ferried down to the surface where a refugee camp is set up.  When the story proper picks up the aliens have been in the camp, which has now taken on the form of one of the worlds worst ghettos, for some 20 years.  The government of South Africa has contracted a company called Multi-National United (a private paramilatary firm, a la Blackwater) to clear the aliens (derogatorily called Prawns) out of the current camp in Johannesburg to a concentration camp hundreds of kilometers away.  The main character is Wikas van de Merwe, an MNU employee who is heading up the team serving eviction notice to the Prawns.  Things obviously get more complicated from there, but I’ll let you go watch the actual film.

First of all the direction is superb, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better use of CG in a film.  Additionally, Sharlto Copley, who plays van de Merwe, is excellent and carries some very powerful scenes.  He also provides a performance that convincingly captures every moment along a pretty extended arc of character development.

Some of the “bad guys” are a little too typical, and there are elements of the plot that might have felt formulaic in another movie.  The thing is, those two issues are very easy to ignore in this film, because it is so conceptually original.  I can honestly say that I’ve never seen an alien movie, or a sci-fi movie, anything like this.  The whole thing just felt so completely real in a way that sci-fi and fantasy never quite do.

The one point of difficulty thematically is something that seems to afflict an awful lot of movies that explore otherness.  It’s the human being (read White Male) who saves the alien (read African, Asian, Woman, insert subaltern here).  I’m never quite sure what to do with this problem.  These kinds of films are trying to challenge oppression, and are particularly interested in creating a sense of filial love in the oppressor for the oppressed.  District 9 does this very well by humanizing characters who are, quite literally, not human.  And it’s also necessary to humanize van de Merwe, who represents the oppressor, in order that we the audience might identify with him.  And it’s even necessary for the oppressor to be the main character because that’s who we as the audience must identify with most closely.  We are the oppressors, so we must see our oppression.  But how can you encourage an audience, particularly in Western culture, to identify with a completely non-heroic character?

Even taking this issue into account District 9 is a brilliant piece of work that everyone should go see.  If this film doesn’t garner at least a whole host of award nominations, to say nothing of actual awards, it will just serve as further evidence that Hollywood is filled with dilettantes and tools.


Half-Blood Prince the Movie…

**spoiler alert**

Jinny and I had a rare night out on Friday night and went to see the newly release Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. This movie is based on one of my favorites of the 7 book Potter series and so I was curious (though frankly not excited) to see what they’d do with this one. My one word review? Mediocre. This film is more evidence that these kinds of books just don’t translate well to the big screen.

There was, however, a lot to love in the film. Dan Radcliff, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint (the actors who play Harry, Hermione, and Ron) seem finally to be coming in to their own. Grint’s physical comedy was particularly good, and he and Radcliff had a number of great scenes together. All in all the dynamic between the three friends was very good, much better in fact than in any of the previous five films. Additionally, Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore is a vast improvement over the absurdly intense Dubledore of Goblet of Fire and the ridiculously stoic Dumbledore of Order of the Phoenix. Gambon does a much better job this time out capturing Dumbledore’s odd combination of brilliance, intensity, ferocity, and oddball goofiness. It’s that eclectic nature that people like about Dumbledore, and I think that Gambon’s failure to capture it represents one of the key failures of films 3-5. Here he gets it right.

But those good things are not enough to make this a good film. It is just too choppy, too disjointed to ever be great. This choppiness notwithstanding it may have been a much better movie had it not been for the two worst adaptation decisions I’ve ever seen in a film. You’ll have to watch the movie to know what I mean, but let me just say that for the life of me I don’t understand what the Christmas scene was for, nor why they removed all of the action from the climax of the movie. Those writing/directing decisions were just plain weird.

If you’re a Potter fan by all means go and see the movie. There are enough fun bits to make it worth your money. If you’re not a Potter geek, just wait for the DVD, you’ll be glad you did.

The Road and Adaptation…

Early this summer I finished the best work of fiction that I’ve read in a long while. It was The Road by Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men). It is simultaneously the most haunting and most powerfully touching story I’ve read in ages. A post-apocalyptic journey tale, it seemed like an odd fit for McCarthy (admittedly I only know some of his other work), but he elevated the genre to perhaps its highest point. He sidesteps all of the post-apocalyptic clichés with grace. McCarthy’s greatest accomplishment in this work is his ability to make you feel, down to your very bones, the emotions that his characters feel. Their dread is your dread. Their loneliness is your loneliness. Their despair is your despair. And most importantly, their fragile, precious, tenuous (even tendentious) hope belongs to the reader as well. I’ve never had an author capture me emotionally in that way.

One of the thoughts I had when I picked the book up at first was, “I bet somebody’s gonna make a movie out of this.” After all, post-apocalyptic stories are all the rage, and McCarthy’s last book-to-movie adaptation was essentially perfect (No Country). But as I was reading I became more and more convinced that The Road is un-adaptable to the big screen. Or maybe it’s better to say that Hollywood could never adapt it, because they would be unwilling to do what would be necessary to make the adaptation true. What makes an adaptation true? It isn’t necessarily about detailed accuracy, making sure all the little characters and side-stories and inside jokes make the cut. It is about spirit. It is about ensuring that the emotion of the film, the themes, the main characters, the ethos and pathos mirror the book. The Road is, it turns out, being adapted into a film. I’ve only seen the trailer but I knew immediately that it will not be a good adaptation. I won’t run down the specifics, but let’s just say that all of those clichés that McCarthy side-steps, the film very clearly blunders straight into. It might be a good movie, and it will probably be a popular movie (maybe even critically successful), but I cannot see how it could ever be a good adaptation.

Let me put this another way. All of the things that the Coens did to make No Country perfect, Hillcoat (director for The Road) has clearly failed to do. It’s too bad nobody got Joel and Ethan on board for The Road.