We’re nearing the end point for 2009 and fortunately there are some sweet new releases on DVD that should get all kinds of conversation going. And not just “am I Federally mandated to like Sandra Bullock?” This week Videoport Jones and I talk bugs, Mike Judge and America’s Next Sweetheart. Also, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. These things are not related.
Videoport Jones: “Before everyone out there starts nerding out with inter-rage, I would just like to start off this review by saying I really liked ‘District 9.’ I love a ‘little movie that could’ story, and this relatively low-budget sci-fi action pic, about the unexplained arrival, and 20 year uneasy cohabitation with humanity, of a spaceship full of odd, insect-like aliens, really took off, both financially and critically. Good for it: ‘District 9’ has some witty special effects, a sly and affecting lead performance by newcomer Sharlto Copley, a smidge of the social satire that underlies most successful science fiction, some exciting, violent action sequences, a sense of humor, and a mech battle that puts the Transformers to richly-deserved shame. There. See inter-nerds? I liked the movie. That being said…there are some issues that keep me from jumping on the ‘best sci-fi movie EVER!!!’ bandwagon. To wit: (oh, and SPOILERS AHEAD!!): Boy does this movie dumb itself down as it goes along. I was frankly wowed by the set-up: A documentary intro explains that an alien ship just showed up, hovered over Johannesburg, and, when humans finally cut their way inside, they found, not the advanced, big-headed visitors we always expect, but a weird, buggy, seemingly-unintelligent race that, with its hairtrigger temper and lack of understanding or respect for human customs, quickly found itself ostracized into the titular shantytown, where it seemed content to scrounge through human refuse. It’s a unique and evocative premise, carrying within it plenty of room for social commentary and satire. And there is some of that, much of it slyly embodied by Copley’s pencil-pushing minor bureaucrat, a cheerfully racist little weasel who undertakes his assignment (to head up the eviction of all aliens from District 9 into a more remote, concentration camp-like resettlement) with humorously chilling good cheer; he’s sort of like Michael Scott as a Nazi in the beginning. But soon the film essentially abandons its initial moral complexity, introducing a ‘smart’ alien with a secret agenda and, sigh, a cute little kid alien and the film essentially turns into ‘Enemy Mine,’ with Copley finally overcoming his prejudices and realizing that aliens are people too. Also, for a film that’s been praised for its anti-racism, satirical content, I’m gonna go ahead and call it a little racist. Sure, the white South Africans (or mostly the Haliburton-like evil corporation in charge of the alien evictions) are plenty bad, in a Bond villain sort of way, but at least they’re not portrayed as thuggish, voodoo-cultish, gunrunning, bloodthirsty, and cannibalistic as the (black) Nigerian gangsters in the film are. And the film’s treatment of the aliens themselves is pretty questionable; there’s only one intelligent alien in the whole film, with the millions of others portrayed as stupid, sneaky, and lazy – basically the film’s welfare class stereotype. It lends a puzzling and slightly queasy undertone to what remains an interesting and mostly-fun sci fi film.”
Justin: “Jonesy, this is why we are friends. You find a way to ground me even when I don’t know I need to be. I saw this flick in theaters and came down with a serious case of shock and awe. Going in with no expectations (and really, no knowledge of the plot), I was constantly in amazement of this movie’s combination of drama, emotion, humor and ballsy action. To put in plainly: I got sucked into the world of ‘District 9.’ Problem is, there are flaws in that world, which I am happy you pointed out. As two sci fi geeks I think we can say this movie gets a big lift from the novel premise of ‘aliens as refugees.’ We’re so used to either the friendly alien or destroyer alien that when we get around to the origin of the bugs in ‘District 9’ it’s almost disconcerting. ‘Wait…they didn’t come here to destroy us?’ And working off this we’re taken into a familiar world of refugees, one that could be the Gaza Strip or a UN camp in Liberia. And yet it’s completely foreign because of who is living there. It’s a movie that is really hard to look at during certain points (and not just because of what happens to Copley’s character), because no one is expecting a contemplation on human rights, or in this case alien rights. But the movie does begin to lose that murky footing as it slips into action mode (which, I’ll say is a pretty sweet mode. Seriously I’d watch an action sequence directed by Neil Blomkamp any day.) I think the problem here is that trying to stitch together these two halves – a classic sci fi tale meant to reflect on aspects of humanity and a guns-ablazin’ chase epic – was particularly hard to reconcile here. But more than that I think you touch on a hole in this story, which is that they drifted into a weird stereotype with many of the aliens as shifty and lazy. Of course I’m sure the filmmakers (and any student of geopolitical situations) would argue that was a result of the aliens interment. Regardless, this is a movie that has some flaws but is otherwise outstanding. And if it’s a conversation starter that’s even better. But seriously, that mech suit was pretty freakin’ sweet, right?”
VPJ: “Mike Judge has always had it rough. Either his ‘Beavis and Butthead’ is being protested by shrill, shrieking ‘Won’t someone think of the children?!’ harridans who were, as ever, incapable of perceiving satire of any kind, or his ‘King of the Hill’ is constantly overlooked in the animated comedy series sweepstakes in favor of things like the loathsome ‘Family Guy.’ Either his now cult classic ‘Office Space’ gets stuck with a minimal (and lousy) ad campaign, and dumped after some lackluster reviews (which, surprise!) missed the point entirely, or his nearly as funny ‘Idiocracy’ never gets a theatrical release at all, getting dumped directly to DVD. Seriously, only my man Joss Whedon seems to be carrying a more emphatic ‘kick me’ sign on his creative back. So I was predisposed to like ‘Extract,’ not only for the Judge’s Job-ness, but because of the stellar cast which includes Jason Bateman, David Koechner, J.K. Simmons, Kristen Wiig, and others. And I did like it. But not too much. Like ‘Office Space’ and ‘Idiocracy,’ ‘Extract’ centers on a put-upon workplace everyman (the ever-dependable Bateman) who’s stuck in a sexless marriage and in his job as president of a mildly successful (and employee dysfunctional) company that manufactures manufactured food flavors. It’s a very Michael Bluth-like situation, and Bateman’s as good here as he was on ‘Arrested Development,’ and his supporting cast all have some nice moments (even Ben Affleck who, as a slim, bearded, pill popping, mellow bartender/guru is as amiable and likeable as he’s ever been). Unfortunately, like in his other two films, Judge seems unable to sustain any interest in plot, leading to the films petering out in the third act, and this time, the movie wasn’t as good to start with. ‘Extract’ starts off pretty diffuse and low energy, and this time there’s an underlying sourness to the humor that saps the fun. Sure it’s satire, but here the point of view seems to be a grumpy ‘everyone’s sort of a jerk’, and some of the plot elements (Mila Kunis’ con artist femme fatale, Bateman’s sitcommy plan to have his wife seduced) have no satirical snap to them. It’s not bad, but this one’s not headed for Judge-ian cult status.”
JE: “I think Mike Judge and Joss Whedon should start a support group. And film it. Because I would watch it. Of course the trouble is it would likely never get released on DVD or tied up in development hell. I don’t want this review to turn into a pity party for Judge, but the fact is the dude has had a hard road. You could argue ‘King of the Hill’ was his biggest commercial success after running 13 seasons on Fox. (I have to admit I had ‘come to Jesus’ moment with ‘King of the Hill’ when I finally started watching it regularly and grew to love the character of Hank Hill.) Maybe ‘Extract’ suffers because he’s just not giving it his all any more? I’m not saying he didn’t give it his best, but consider how you’d feel after consistently working on projects only to have them undercut somehow. That’s gotta nail you in the mind. But I have to admit I probably didn’t help him at all by missing this one in theaters. Even though it has many things I like (Bateman, Koechner, Simmons and Judge at the helm), I skipped it. Don’t give up Big Mike, the world still needs you. And if Joss Whedon calls schedule a lunch.”
(500) Days of Summer
VPJ: “First – the title. Was this thought up by the same so-so-clever jackass who brought us ‘Face/Off,’ ‘Se7en,’ and ‘Thr3e?’ It’s extremely un-clever (or [un]-cl37er), and it makes my teeth hurt. But that’s beside the point. This film, a non-chronological retelling of the relationship of indie darlings Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel overcomes its titular handicap pretty nicely though. As coworkers-turned-lovers-turned-exes, these two have some nice, offbeat chemistry. I can’t overstate how completely impressed I am with J G-L especially; From not caring anything about him whatsoever in that sitcom I hated, the guy has turned in some truly compelling performances in the likes of ‘Brick,’ ‘Mysterious Skin,’ and ‘The Lookout,’ and here he puts a nice, layered spin on the standard Hollywood lovesick dude role. Deschanel’s cute as ever, but a little of her blinky, quirky hipster-girl act goes a long way for me; the movie’s the better for being told from Gordon-Leavitt’s point of view as he flashes back on their relationship and tries to piece together what went wrong. Better, but not perfect – Summer suffers from some terminal cuteness (really? a wise little kid dispensing love advice? really?) which tends to undercut its cool-kid indie vibe every once in a while, but the Harold Pinter (see ‘Betrayal’…seriously) nonlinear structure imbues every happy cute moment with a knowing sadness, and, on balance, the movie is, mostly due to its male lead, pretty darned affecting.”
JE: “See, I was just too, too put off by the hipster pedigree on this one. With the music, Deschanel and JGL it all just seemed too much. Sure you could argue what constitutes ‘hipster’ these days, but something about this flick came off as too cool for school for me. They’re in LOVE! It’s TORTURED! It’s NEW YORK! Here’s THE SMITHS! Too much. Alas, that makes me uncool. Still, I do like Deschanel. She doesn’t seem to have a lot of range – she always seems to hover around cute disinterest – but she makes up for it with what you so aptly described as her ‘blinky, quirky hister-girl’ act. As for JGL (is it OK to call him that? Can we just start and see if it sticks?) you’re right to say he has really grown into a versatile actor, capable of leading man or sidekick status. There was no doubt the guy was going to have a career, he had a floppy-hair charming quality that will get producers to like you. But instead of becoming another Breckin Meyer, he’s making a name for himself. I’m sure this movie will make some of you laugh, cry and feel good about life. But I’ll probably not be watching it with you.”
All About Steve
VPJ: “I’m not watching this. Look, Sandra Bullock’s America’s sweetheart, cute as a bug, the smoochy-sweety-lovie-pie of the universe, and I am, by Federal law, unable to resist her charms. That being said, I don’t really care for her. I don’t dislike her either – she’s just there, always ready to look winsome, smooch a middling male costar, and fall over adorably, and America needs that, I suppose. I mean, it does..right? I dunno…in this one, Bullock’s reviving her ‘cutie-pie-with a teeny-tiny-dark-side’ persona (let’s call it Sandra 2.0) from ‘Forces of Nature,’ in that she’s cute, but a ‘little but crazy’. She also gets to cry a little. Here, she’s a kooky free spirit who decides that Bradley Cooper (who she’s only seen on CNN in his job as a cameraman) is her one true love and follows him in the most disturbing-yet-adorable display of cross country stalking since the last generation’s America’s sweetheart Meg Ryan terrified Tom Hanks in ‘Sleepless in Seattle.’ Can we vote on America’s next sweetheart?”
JE: “You sir may have just hit on a brand new Reality TV show! I like it! America’s Next Sweetheart, hosted by Katherine Heigl! Hmmm…that part might need fixing. Could we get Alicia Silverstone? Think of the challenges: Adorable pratfalls! Lovelorn monologing in the rain! The best friend obstacle course! See the likes of Renee Zellweger, Reese Witherspoon, Amy Adams and more face off! America decides! This could be a real hit. ANYWAY, yeah I got no read on this movie, nor do I want to. Unlike you I’m willing to pay the fine for not liking Sandra Bullock. Sure she seems to have the ability to channel this sort of Mary Tyler Moore-esque quirkiness, but I don’t find myself gravitating towards the movies she makes. Also, do you think there is a Sandra Bullock scrip generator out there? Seriously just plug in Ryan Reynolds, make her a business woman and you got her last movie.”
It Might Get Loud
VPJ: “Portland’s own guitar god Samuel James gives this documentary, about a would-be historic hang session with tri-generational guitar legends Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White a sadly lukewarm review. The problem lies in the jams, according to Sam, where the fact that each of them is unwilling to relinquish his lead guitar status means that they’re all just playing the same chords. He says it sounds like one guitar, echoing slightly. Sam knows stuff.”
JE: “I do not doubt Mr. James knowledge of these things. Though he and I may be enemies after our last encounter at SPACE Gallery. Words were exchanged. Threats made. Lives were changed forever. As for this movie it is slightly more than a jam session with the trio as they revisit what got them on their magical instrument in the first place and how they developed their playing style. But that’s not really what a good music fan renting this wants to see. They’re paying to see them play each others songs and transcend the musical universe as we know it. But apparently that transcendence got put on hold. Who woulda thought three guitar impresarios and legends in their own right (or legend-in-training in White’s case) would want to play second fiddle to anyone?”
LIGHTNING ROUND! Also this week at Videoport: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (Michael Douglas does a Gordon Gekko in this thriller, playing a sleazy crooked politician), Herb & Dorothy (Documentary about two low-income workers who somehow managed to amass one of the world’s best collections of contemporary art), Family Guy: Something Something Something Dark Side (The show that wouldn’t die tries to wring more laughs out of yet another Star Wars parody), Blind Date (The uber-talented Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson star as an estranged couple trying to patch things up).
– Did “District 9” muddle its message with the depiction of the aliens?
– What will it take for Mike Judge to catch a break?
– What challenges would you want on “America’s Next Sweetheart?”