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First time director spins masterpiece

By Lady Liberty
web posted August 17, 2009

District 9

Rated: R
Running time: 113 minutes

***** out of *****

I was fascinated with the very idea of District 9 from the moment I saw the first trailer several months ago. And I remained intrigued despite the fact that the trailers revealed little, and I'd heard even less. I was frankly surprised to see good reviews suddenly springing up as the movie neared its release date, but no less determined to see it for myself. That's what I did this weekend.

District 9 takes place in South Africa where an alien space ship suddenly appeared in the skies above Johannesburg almost thirty years ago. The aliens didn't attack nor did they offer technology or trade. In fact, there was little contact at all until humanity took the initiative. But first contact isn't all it's cracked up to be, especially not if you're an alien. Humans "rescued" the aliens from their ailing ship, but segregated them into a gigantic shantytown known as District 9 where they remain, monitored by a constant police presence.

Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) works for MNU, a corporation that oversees much of District 9 and engages in most of what the rest of the world sees as alien relations. MNU has ulterior motives, of course. It wants desperately to get some version of alien weapons technology up and running. In part because humans are fearful of the aliens, MNU undertakes to move the entire population from District 9 to a location well outside Johannesburg. Van De Merwe is put in charge of the relocation effort, and that's when things suddenly get complicated.

District 9 is presented as a documentary film. Some footage appears to come from news organizations while other snippets are apparently culled from security cameras. There's also video of various persons who are interviewed—of the anonymous "man on the street" variety, MNU employees, and friends and family of Van De Merwe—and their comments woven into the rest of the material. Though there are obviously some scenes that couldn't have come from the aforementioned sources, those are also skillfully edited into the plotline here and there. Taken as a whole, the delivery is striking to say the least.

Director Neill Blomkamp grew up in South Africa, and I suspect his intimate knowledge of the country during apartheid contributed greatly to District 9 (which is based on a 2005 short made by Blomkamp). Famed director Peter Jackson had originally tapped Blomkamp to direct a movie version of the video game, Halo. When that didn't pan out, Jackson gave Blomkamp $30 million to make whatever he liked. He expanded on his earlier idea, and co-wrote and directed District 9; Jackson is credited as a producer.

I was surprised to learn that leading man Sharlto Copley hadn't acted before this, but I figured I'd give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, in a documentary-style film, he could probably get away with not being very good. The reality, however, is that Copley had to be far more than just another interviewee. He had to portray a variety of very strong emotions under a number of extraordinary circumstances. Copley wasn't adequate to the role. No, he was positively fantastic. I feared for him, I cheered for him, I loathed him, and frankly, I wept over him. He may not have acted before, but I sure hope he does again!

It's painful to type the word "only" in front of "$30 million," but that kind of money for this kind of movie is a pittance. I fully expected mediocre special effects and other shortcuts which, in a film relying on at least some effects, could very well have resulted in dragging the movie down. Once again, I was delighted to see that Blomkamp (and Jackson's own WETA Workshop, which handled everything from special effects to props, and from vehicles to make-up effects) came through, and in a major way. The CGI (by Image Engine, a company in Vancouver, Canada where Blomkamp attended and graduated Vancouver Film School) is flawless, and the integration with live action is just terrific. I wasn't merely satisfied by the depiction of these aliens, I was awed. I never doubted for a moment that they were real.

From a somewhat lower tech standpoint, I loved the cinematography. Some scenes were filmed with handheld cameras, and the jouncing and jiggling were perfect touches and added genuine realism. Other shots with broader scopes were awesome, beautiful, and horrifying by turns. I credit excellent direction combined with talented cinematographers, good editing, and some more of that superlative CGI work for the cohesive and dramatic end product.

BOTTOM LINE: It's obvious I recommend District 9 to movie goers as a unique new action movie. But I must confess something else as well: When the movie was over and the audience making its way out, I was still in my seat. I sat there, alone, in the dark, weeping. I've talked about movies before as "entertaining" or "exciting," and this one is both. It was also, to my lingering amazement, profoundly moving. Good for Mr. Blomkamp, and good for movie fans, too.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: District 9 is rated R for bloody violence and pervasive language. Because this is science fiction, though, I don't see that the violence would be too much or too graphic for kids of about 13 or 14 and up. The language (and plenty of it) is going to have to be your own call.

POLITICAL NOTES: I didn't know it before I saw the movie, but the shantytown filled with shacks occupied by aliens is real. Its human population was in the process of being relocated to government housing, but people still lived there when the movie was being made. Even had it been a product of set decorators, the living conditions there were appalling. That it's real is almost unfathomable. While there are the all too obvious lessons here where poverty and apartheid is concerned, I also think it's important to point out the motives of MNU, motives which echo those of many governments, up to and including a "the ends justify the means" attitude. The notion that some lives are considered less valuable than others is also brought home, sometimes in particularly graphic and horrific fashion. That's another lesson some could do with learning, particularly by those currently considering healthcare reform in this country.

World's Greatest Dad

Rated: R
Opens: August 21, 2009 (limited)
Running Time: 99 minutes

*** out of *****

PLEASE NOTE: I know that there are those who will disagree with my rating of World's Greatest Dad. But I rate movies based in part on how much I enjoyed them, and that significant part of my personal rating system is based almost solely on a comparison with other movies I've liked. I try to stay fair with those comparisons and, given other movies I've rated higher, this is the best I could do for World's Greatest Dad. In honesty, it's somewhat better than that, but the comparitive scale I use left me with the rating you see here.

I first heard about World's Greatest Dad when comedian Bobcat Goldthwait was being interviewed on a popular morning radio show. I was leery since I'm not a big Bobcat Goldthwait fan, but the show hosts raved about the movie, and film festival attendees seemed to agree. So did a good friend of mine who happens to be a fellow movie fanatic. How could I not take the chance, then, to see World's Greatest Dad on pay per view?

The first thing we learn from World's Greatest Dad is that Lance Clayton (Robin Williams) isn't the man he thought he'd be. He's a writer, but he's never been published. He's a teacher, but his poetry class is decidedly unpopular. He's a father, but his son Kyle (Daryl Sabara) is a disappointment. And although he has a pretty girlfriend—the high school art teacher (Alexie Gilmore)—she refuses to take their relationship public.

Despite repeated rejections, Lance hasn't given up on writing. And he certainly isn't giving up on his relationship with Claire even though he suspects she's interested in another teacher (Henry Simmons). But his son? That's a tougher choice. Kyle is crude, inexcusably rude, sometimes deliberately cruel, and not terribly bright to boot. Although Lance loves his son, he can't make himself like him. But when a sudden tragedy turns Lance's life upside down, he realizes he also has an opportunity to turn his life around and, in the process, influence everyone around him in a positive way. All he has to do is decide whether or not to grab the brass ring.

We all know that Robin Williams is both a brilliant comedian and a very good actor. This may be the first role that's really let him be both simultaneously, and he's a tour de force in this film. Daryl Sabara is good, too. He holds his own in scenes with Williams, and he had me believing in his portrayal of Kyle strongly enough that there were moments I really wanted to deck him—much as I suspect his father did at the time. Alexie Gilmore, Henry Simmons, Geoffrey Pierson (who plays the school principal), Evan Martin (as Kyle's best friend, Andrew), and Lorrain Nicholson (Jack Nicholson's daughter, all but unrecognizable as Kyle's goth classmate) all give solid supporting performances.

Bobcat Goldthwait wrote a clever and funny script, and then directed it beautifully. He claims he doesn't like teenagers (and seeing the way they behave in this movie, I can't think of too many people who won't agree with him), but he surely understands them! A friend who raised two boys said the portrayal was, unfortunately, entirely realistic; I was reminded of several high school classmates myself when I watched World's Greatest Dad. Fortunately, we can appreciate the funny and the horrible alike when we're watching it onscreen even as we shudder at our own more personal experiences.

The set decoration is entirely realistic with some amusing (but believable) quirks. The camera work is nicely handled including a few moments of judicious slow motion; one camera angle in particular adds so much to the pain of a poignant moment that my breath caught for just a moment (as was likely intended) when I saw it.

BOTTOM LINE: Given the combination of a good idea, a solid script, terrific actors, and a gifted director, I'd have to say that World's Greatest Dad would be a treat for people who really love film making however they happen to feel about teenagers themselves. Many of the rest of the grown-ups out there would likely enjoy it, too.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: World's Greatest Dad is rated R for "language, crude and sexual content, some drug use, and disturbing images." This is probably about right. While many things aren't too shocking for kids as young as 13 or 14, there are a few things (which I won't discuss here so as not to ruin some nicely twisted parts of the plot) that are well beyond what you may want your younger teen to see.

POLITICAL NOTES: There's nothing either overtly or subtly political about World's Greatest Dad. But when I saw the blatant hypocrisy of the high school students on full blown display, I couldn't help but think of the politicians who will do and say anything just to stay popular with the voters. I suspect that if they grew up (like the vast majority of teenagers eventually do), our country would be the better for it. ESR

Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

 

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