District 9

In Alive in Joburg, a film that was only six-and-a-half minutes in length, Neill Blomkamp toyed with an ingenious idea. Aliens are marooned in South Africa, and come seemingly in peace; but when they start moving into human neighborhoods, the authoritarian apartheid government locks them away in concentration camps. They’re treated as subhuman and forced into slummy squalor. The government agents are so insensitive that they act as though the lumbering spaceships are guilty of parking violations. Locals fear these illegal aliens, and the state caters to their fears. Although it’s interspersed with prosaic C.G., the movie is cleverly made to resemble scores of social-protest documentaries, and it shares their goals, too. The analogy is obvious, but Alive in Joburg is innovative science fiction—we see humans mistreat aliens like humans mistreat humans, and it makes the notion of man-to-man malefaction seem not only inhumane, but absurd. We feel revolted at the extraterrestrials’ plight, and ashamed that certain native Earthlings—who have darker skin, perhaps, but no tentacles dangling from their orifices—could be treated this way on their own planet.

In District 9, Blomkamp has stretched those six minutes into nearly two hours, but he has nothing more to say; like a carton of milk left out for too long, the core idea sours and goes rotten. I’m not sure if the implicit change in attitudes was a conscious choice on Blomkamp’s part, but Alive in Joburg, like the documentaries, looks as if it was meant to raise awareness and engender protest; District 9 is like an unremitting demonstration of how horrible humans are. The government’s role in the short is co-opted by a private corporation in the feature; and, in order to give us a linear plot, we are shown how the company turns against one of its own when an employee, Wikus (Sharlto Copley), begins to mutate into one of the aliens. He bugs out, literally and figuratively. But this metamorphosis is straight-faced Kafkaesque. The company, supervised by the employee’s father-in-law (Louis Minaar), wants to dissect Wikus so that they may better understand and market the advanced alien weaponry—which will make them a killing (again, literally and figuratively). But Wikus escapes, and his only chance of survival lies in cooperating with aliens whom he earlier scoffed at.

Blomkamp has a background in special effects, and was slated to direct the Halo movie before it was shelved; working with the same producer, Peter Jackson, he made this instead. The problem with District 9 is that Blomkamp directs as if he were still adapting a video game. Working with a budget that seems frugal compared to Hollywood’s follies, and, I presume, limited interference from Jackson, Blomkamp’s intelligence comes through; but his direction is monotonous and oppressive. He doesn’t sustain the documentary conceit for long, but his camerawork and cutting remain as hysterical as his hero; there’s not a moment of humor, or levity of any kind—not even a breather. Some action flicks, and arty exploitation movies like Inglourious Basterds, leer too long at the hick pornography of violence. District 9 is the opposite—its violence is like a slave master’s whip, and we’re flogged into recognizing injustices that you’d have to have Oedipus eyes to miss. Wikus doesn’t see the error of his ways until very late in the game, and what with the lack of any likable or caring or even interesting characters (of the human persuasion, at least), the anti-corporate message becomes singleminded in its pessimism. It’s as if Blomkamp were saying that institutionalized apartheid is fated to go on forever, and if some higher beings from elsewhere in the universe were to come and penalize us for our barbarism, we’d deserve it.

To be fair, I don’t think that that was necessarily Blomkamp’s intention. This is his freshman go at feature-film direction, and his shortcomings may well be ironed out in the future—District 9 is considered the sleeper hit of the summer, so his career is open-ended. The visual effects are impressive; the fight scenes are visceral (literally—ruddy viscera constantly splatters the camera lens); and the C.G. aliens are cleverly designed—they look like hermit crabs deprived of their shells. But that couldn’t account entirely for the film’s success, could it? It’s reassuring when a picture comes out of left field and enjoys mainstream popularity, particularly if it has an I.Q. that makes the Transformer robots look like wheelbarrows. Outside of the movie world, we still live in a time when the President is castigated if he intimates that America has so much as made a booboo in its two-and-a-third centuries of worldly affairs. Though this movie is set in South Africa, the problem of institutionalized racism is universal and ongoing, and needs to be addressed—no matter how “post-racial” we flatter ourselves for being. The movie is profusely, masochistically apologetic, but its irrevocably lost faith in humanity makes us shoulder responsibilities that we’re not entirely culpable for. It seems we’re all given a bum rap for a few rotten eggs, and those eggs are impossible to crack, so there’s no point in trying. When I pined that The Hurt Locker wasn’t given the multiplex run that popcorny thrillers get, I was told it was because that movie was depressing. Well, I saw District 9 at my local shopping mall, and it makes The Hurt Locker look like High School Musical.

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Sorority Row

Don’t hang out with bitches. In Sorority Row, that could get you killed—but only after a little disreputable fun. It’s another remake of a bargain-bin slasher that probably shouldn’t have been remade, and the word “exploitation” is practically tattooed to the buxom heroines’ chests. But the movie nabbed me from the start and knocked the wind out of me laughing. It’s a retread, I’m sure, but it isn’t torture porn, and its satiric kick keeps punting the movie forward without blustering it off-course into self-conscious meta-nightmare. Sorority Row has probably gotten press mostly for being the major-motion-picture début of Audrina Patridge, an “actress” from MTV’s The Hills; indicative of the movie’s status as exuberant trash entertainment (as opposed to whorish trash mimicry), she’s the first bitch to be killed off.

Why did I go see Sorority Row? On The Late Late Show a few weeks back, Craig Ferguson introduced his guest, Carrie Fisher, with a clip of her brandishing a shotgun in a Greek-letter-house kitchen, jeering at an unseen assailant, “Don’t think I’m afraid of you. I run a house with 50 crazy bitches!” Fisher, who, in 1975, played one of the screen’s best slutty teenagers in Shampoo, is, alas, not given the kind of camp-classic, aging-queen role that might have really electrified the movie and maybe even resuscitated her career—Carrie Fisher as Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford. The producers of Sorority Row were probably more interested in keeping the cameras ogling the young meat—on both the prissy vixens and their preppy bucks—but they sacrificed some wicked-witchy fun that I’m certain the writers (Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger) and director (Stewart Hendler) would have loved to provide. They clearly weren’t interested in providing an acting showcase for inchoate talents, but as the bimbo-in-chief, the 21-year-old Leah Pipes acts wonderfully jaded; her character is so good at keeping her head that we’re all the more excited to see it lobbed off.

This story of girls whose covered-up secret comes back to haunt them in the form of deadly, “pimped-out” tire irons is indefensible as anything more than a guilty pleasure—though most professional reviewers think even less of it than that. The contrived ending doesn’t bother me here; is it any less plausible than the plot of Vertigo? (Besides, who’s to know this couldn’t happen in a sorority house on the night after graduation? I don’t remember my last night of college…) In truth, the murders—save for one, which comes too early on (and seems derivative of a gag from Snoop Dogg’s Hood of Horror)—aren’t staged as cleverly as they could have been; the jokes, with a few exceptions, are funny but forgettable; and the party scenes are as inauthentic to collegiate life as ever—they could be outtakes from Asher Roth’s “I Love College” video. Background details are noticeably lacking. I couldn’t tell which coast they went to school on, or even whether it was in a big city or small town, and only the girl in glasses seems to have had a major. But what really counts here is that the people who made this had nothing to lose—except audience interest—and that they kept because the fun of vivifying this kind of trash must be infectious. Their edge is that they really had it out for the rich-bitch culture that The Hills represents, that MTV doublespeak that feigns an ironic distance from subjects who are nonetheless vindicated for being tinsel idols of consumer culture. Television viewers laugh—and then, feeling inadequate, shop. In Sorority Row, viewers laugh—and, avenged for being made to feel inadequate, watch the spoiled scions get chopped. This in-utero Sex and the City setting is devoid of virgins, so they’re not the ones spared, as they were in Halloween. This time we get a survivor on scholarship.

The Hurt Locker

The press has fallen in love with The Hurt Locker. For those of us who came of age during the combat-movie drought that wars like Iraq tend to engender—and who are typically disinclined to browse that genre at Blockbuster, besides—The Hurt Locker is like a first kiss. But I hesitate to stretch the metaphor, a.) As to not detract from the seriousness that is the movie’s desert, and b.) Because it is not quite so good as to extend to the proverbial loss of my virginity.

There’s a sense of inevitability that permeates The Hurt Locker, and though it affects us on a deeper level than most procedurals do by virtue of both skill and discretion, the film stays true to that limited form. I don’t wish to be unfair; the way the filmmakers follow the procedural lockstep is integral to their conception, and part of the movie’s power stems from the singular, sensuous way they underplay the suspense scenes—poeticizing the horrors that are, for these characters, routine. The flesh is thick, and there’s a heart beating beneath it, but we can still detect that skeleton with clichés in its marrow: the trailer-park individualist who gets the job done but puts others at risk in the process; the by-the-book black soldier whose respect the lone wolf earns; and the younger, more impressionable lad who comes to idolize the loner. There’s familiarity in all this, as well as in the lone wolf’s relationship with a young local boy (Christopher Sayegh)—an Iraqi Shia LaBoeuf who, in a nice touch, endears himself to Americans by way of curse words. (It sounds as if Lil Wayne was his English teacher.)

But the director, Kathryn Bigelow, is a pro in both the banal sense and the positive one; she knows the ropes, but knows how to tug them, too. Her focus is narrow and her methods are austere, but her targets are well embodied, and pregnant with echoes of their grander context. It’s as if she made a war film in the style of The Wrestler. She stages combat effectively, appositely—the complexity of her images is almost subliminal. Rich in its invocation of atmosphere, The Hurt Locker coats the sun-baked sands of arid Iraq with a cool iridescent gel. It’s not the kind of star-glamour antifreeze required for a bland, exploitive movie like The Kingdom (2007)—a lemon; it’s more like the psychological analgesics that professional soldiers mask their anxieties with. We aren’t given babes in the woods like Charlie Sheen in Platoon; unformed baby-men whose innocence is despoiled by war are a dramatic shortcut, as easy to sympathize with as puppies under Jack the Ripper’s knife. Bigelow lets us under her guarded soldiers’ skins with a vision that’s neither tawdry nor ironic.

These troopers constitute a bomb squad in its final weeks of deployment in Baghdad: cocksure SSgt. James (Jeremy Renner), prim Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), and sensitive Sgt. Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). James is something of a legend for having disarmed 800-something I.E.D.s in his day, and approaches each new one with an aloofness that drives his teammates batty. This is pure procedural—vindicating the competent badass (and we’re cued in immediately that he’s a badass because he smokes cigarettes) who doesn’t follow the rules but gets the job done is old-bag Hollywood heroism. But the more we see James in action, the more his strut seems abreast of a fresher truth; back on the home front, he’s either a father or some woman’s baby-daddy—his ex-wife still lives with him, so he’s not sure. He’s graceful under pressure, and in the heat of combat, he’s coolly maternal to his men; yet, as Eldridge tells him, he’s one hell of a leader, but lackluster as a people person. He needs the specter of death barking up his leg like a rabid dog; without it, he can’t be all that he can be. His ravenous addiction to war is the tragedy of war.

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In the Loop

Dressing up the march toward war in the heightened-mundanity style of The Office might seem like a ludicrously insensitive sneak attack, but the makers of In the Loop are savvy wolves in sheep’s clothing. They use faux reality-T.V. looseness as an antidote to high-flown demagoguery, yet they get their complex points across with the clarity of “Yes We Can.”

Not that their vision is so sanguine. The fresh-faced British Secretary of State for International Development, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), opines on a talk-radio interview that an impending Middle Eastern war is “unforeseeable.” Of course, higher up within the government, war is quite foreseeable—in fact, it’s being actuated behind layers of sticky red tape—so the Prime Minister’s spin-doctor, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), is assigned to Foster for damage control. Tucker is a Scots sociopath whose trenchant profanity is probably like Karl Rove’s id on rollerblades. He trains the naïve secretary to speak in ambivalent bromides, and against Foster’s better judgment, the secretary uses them at antiwar conferences held by the American Assistant Secretary for Diplomacy, Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy). Foster, along with a document by Clark’s assistant Liza (Anna Chlumsky), are supposed to be Clark’s ace in the hole against the forces of her pro-war opponent, Linton Barwick (David Rasche). But, through swaths of convolutions, obfuscations, and manipulations, the strength of her hand goes up and down like the Scales of Justice turned into a playground seesaw.

The Middle Eastern war isn’t Iraq, though it’s clearly an echo of it. The head honchos on both sides of the Atlantic go unnamed and the references (Lily Allen, I Heart Huckabees, etc.) are clearly anachronistic for a 2002-3 timeframe. But the filmmakers are too clever as satirists to fall into the Iraq trap; In the Loop depicts the horrendous ways in which any modern war can be tricked into erupting. Similarities to Iraq give the writers (Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche, Ian Martin, and the director, Armondo Iannucci) moral ground to stand on—not a soapbox to scold from.

The cast, however, is given several opportunities to scold, shout, seethe and weave strands of B.S. with a scatological loom. Within the loop are hacks, stalwarts, armchair ideologues, sadists and suck-ups, and Iannucci gives each type a send-up, but not dismissively. Most of the actors deserve to get props, but Capaldi and James Gandolfini (as a pragmatic American general) are given the funniest and most difficult roles, respectively.

I usually wince at “pure” evil characters in “serious” movies, but Capaldi makes a robotic weasel like Tucker seem plausible; only once did I think he had his own opinion on something and wasn’t just brokering power for its own sake or for the sake of his ego. To paraphrase from The Lion in Winter, his human parts are missing; but it’s not within this movie’s docudrama purview to examine how that lack affects him internally. Gandolfini, on the other hand, has a role that seems alien to antiwar farce: the tough, sympathetic, mostly respectable Army careerist. His general has Tony Soprano’s physical menace, but that same imposing physique is only one tool that Gandolfini uses to give Lt. General Miller his gravitas. Miller is Soprano with brains as well as guts—pun intended, of course. One of the best—and tensest—scenes in the film pits these two characters against one another in a strength-of-will battle that rivals the Daniel Day-Lewis/Paul Dano confrontations in There Will Be Blood. Here, “good” has such supple reserves of violent strength that you almost fear for “evil.” It almost gives a glint of humanity to “evil.”

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