Sep 18, 2009

Review Post 47: District 9 / Adventureland / Whiteout / Julie and Julia / Fish Tank

DIR: Neill Blomkamp
CAST: Sharlto Copley

District 9 is an area of Johannesburg which, in the 20 years since their arrival, has been used as a ghetto for alien inhabitants of Earth. Now District 9 is too small, and the ‘prawns’ need to be moved, a job that Wikus Van de Meerwe (Copley) is given command of.

District 9 divides rather neatly in two. The first half is a mockumentary, retrospectively telling the story of a scandal surrounding the film’s central character.  The second half abandons the documentary device and opts to be a rather straightforward sci-fi action movie, with a lot of shooting, a lot of shouting, and less brains than you’d hope. For about forty five minutes District 9 is a really excellent film. In this first passage it is thick with metaphorical meaning and social and political comment. You can see it as being about the realities of Apartheid, with the ‘prawns’ standing in for black South Africans. You can see it as being about the current conditions of South Africa’s slums. If you want to I’m sure you can also make an argument that the film is about the way the West greets immigrants from poorer countries. It’s a film, in short, that has thought about what it is saying and that wants you to think as well.

Sadly, at a certain point, Neill Blomkamp begins either to lose interest in exploring these issues, or confidence that he’ll be able to carry the audience with him. Whichever is the case the second half of the film largely abandons these ideas, opting instead for a series of increasingly long, noisy, and frankly tedious action scenes. One thing that continues to shine through this noisy second half is the quality of Sharlto Copley’s leading performance. He’s the only human character with a truly developed role, and single-handedly engages your attention and sympathy even as the film loses the courage of its initial convictions. As Wikus, Copley sucks us into the film’s documentary style.  He gives an entirely believable and charming performance as a mid-level bureaucrat who has been given a promotion largely because his boss is also his father in law, and ended up several feet out of his depth. Copley’s delivery is excellent; it has that improvised feel that really adds to the realism of the documentary style.

Blomkamp abandons that documentary style in the second half of the film, but Copley’s performance remains raw and real, and any interest retained during the action heavy last half hour is entirely down to the fact that Copley is so good that he takes you along on Wikus’ journey with him. Sadly the rest of the performances just aren’t up to snuff. This may be down to the script as much as it is the actors. The portrayal of the Nigerian criminal gangs has been accused of being racist, I’m not sure I buy that, but the writing and acting of those characters, as well as of the special team sent to capture Wikus, is so cartoony that it helps the second half feel like a completely different film.

The special effects are fantastic, and the team that worked on the leading alien ‘Christopher Johnson’ deserve some awards recognition, because he’s one of the film’s most engaging characters. He’s brilliantly integrated into the film, and so expressive that you feel a real connection with him, even though he’s just a long chain of 1’s and 0’s in a computer. The only real problem with the effects is that the relatively small budget of $30 millon clearly didn’t stretch far enough. District 9 seems far too empty, given that we’re told that over a million prawns live there.

With ten minutes of action excised, and one of its several climaxes cut, I think I’d have liked District 9 a great deal more. At 112 minutes it feels a bit draggy, and I began to get bored during the last, rather repetitive, hour of the film. However, a strong central performance and a smart and provocative opening act mean that District 9 is worth catching, even if it’s not the masterpiece that some have been talking it up as.

DIR: Greg Mottola
CAST: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart,
Ryan Reynolds, Martin Starr

The latest from Superbad director Mottola is the first film he’s written since his debut, The Daytrippers, back in 1996.

The film is based on Mottola’s own experiences in his early twenties. It sees James (Eisenberg) condemned to a summer working at crappy theme park Adventureland, when his parents break the news that they can no longer afford to fund a trip round Europe. While at work James connects with Em (Stewart), but as their relationship grows he is also tempted by the gorgeous Lisa P (Margarita Levieva).

Adventureland clearly wants to stir memories of the films of the late, much missed, John Hughes. Instead it ends up feeling like one of the hundreds of low rent Hughes rip offs that were around when he was making films. It made me nostalgic for films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Some Kind of Wonderful, when what it was trying to do was give me the same sort of warm feeling that those movies do. A large part of the problem is Mottola’s script. It feels like a script, the people in this movie talk like people in a movie. Now, that’s not necessarily a problem, and certainly the same is true of Hughes’ films, but the things these characters say aren’t charming or funny, it’s a shockingly banal and tedious film. Rather than a story that he needed to tell this fells like Mottola’s fantasy of his own early twenties, and that’s just not very interesting to watch.

James, Mottola’s alter ego, is clearly supposed to come across as awkward, but also as witty and charming. Jesse Eisenberg can do this; he squared that circle brilliantly in Roger Dodger, but here he’s defeated by a character who is irritating, pretentious, and often stupid in ways that you just don’t buy. There is a character in this movie who punches James in the balls every time they see each other, I ended up feeling that James earned most of those punches. Of course the fact that I was supremely irritated by James caused other problems for the film, particularly in the relationships. I especially didn’t believe that two extremely good looking girls would be interested in this not especially good looking, annoying, young man. Jesse Eisenberg tries hard, and I like him as an actor, but he’s defeated by the script here.

Kristen Stewart, on the other hand, can’t place all the blame on the writing. Yes, Em is whiny, unsympathetic and dull, but holy hell Stewart is a terrible actress. Next time I see her in a film I’m going to try and count her facial expressions. I wasn’t keeping score this time, but I doubt I’ll run out of fingers when I do. There’s not an ounce of emotion in anything she does. At one point she’s clearly supposed to be both annoyed and heartbroken, but the best Stewart can do is ‘talking a bit louder than usual’. Her main facial expression is a quizzical confusion that caused me to constantly expect her just to shout “line”. I’m actually beginning to wonder if she’s a robot, so alien does human emotion appear to her.

The only high points in Adventureland come from the talented supporting cast. Ryan Reynolds disappoints in a role that gives him little to do, but Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, as the couple running the park, are fantastic, scoring laughs every time they open their mouths. Wiig, in particular, is a riot, which makes it a terrible shame that she’s got about eight lines. Somebody needs to give her a starring role in a comedy.

If you want to see a smart, truthful, funny rom-com about two people in their twenties that pays fond tribute to John Hughes, just go and see (500) Days of Summer. You’ll thank me.

DIR: Dominic Sena
CAST: Kate Beckinsale, Gabriel Macht,
Tom Skerritt, Columbus Short

It’s a shame to see where Dominic Sena’s career has gone. His debut, Kalifornia, was a stylishly assembled and well acted thriller, but since then he’s been making lowest common denominator shlock. No prizes for guessing where Whiteout fits in.

Whiteout is perhaps best summed up by its first post credits scene. Kate Beckinsale walks through the snow and into the Antarctic base where the film takes place. She walks into her quarters, strips to her underwear, and then steps into the shower. She proceeds to take a shower, but we only ever see her through glass so foggy that we can’t see anything, or tell if it’s really Beckinsale.  This is a film either attempting to have its cake and eat it or, more likely, completely confused about what it wants to be. It seems interested in being an exploitation movie (which would be fine), but lacks the courage to go all the way with that, and so it ends up in a no man’s land; too gory for a truly mainstream crowd, but neither splashy nor exploitative enough to be fun for the trash cinema lovers.

While it’s never exactly terrible, Whiteout is by no means a good film. Kate Beckinsale is extremely pretty in a sort of doll like way, which is completely unsuited to this part. Her US Marshal Carrie Stetko is supposed to be wracked with doubt about her ability to do her job and days from handing in her badge, when she’s called upon to investigate what turns out to be Antarctica’s first murders. Beckinsale, though, looks so delicate that you don’t believe for an instant that she’d be able to hold a Marshal’s job. In addition to this she’s such a limited actress that you never get any sense of this inner conflict until she exposits about it. Most of the time she looks as if the thing she’s most worried about is whether her lip gloss is still perfect (it is, by the way, even after she’s spent several hours trapped in a plane buried 20 feet under the Antarctic).

Of the other performers only Tom Skerritt really sticks in the mind, because as Dr John Fury (next, on names I’ll never believe belong to real people) he treats the script with the utter contempt it deserves, hamming it up to his heart’s content. He’s not any good, but he’s somewhat entertaining. This is more than I can say for Gabriel ‘holy shit, I’m so wooden’ Macht and Columbus ‘hell yeah, I’m a stereotype’ Short, who are both aggressively bad.

Staggeringly it took four writers to put together what passes for Whiteout’s screenplay, a document stitched together like a patchwork quilt made of clich├ęs. The reliance on flashbacks is appalling, making it feel as if the filmmakers are desperately stretching to reach a mandated 100-minute running time and as if they think we’re all complete morons. One scene is repeated four times in less than an hour, and other flashbacks pop up to remind us of things that happened as little as twenty minutes ago. Who are these reminders for, the lobotomised?

It would be hard to make a bad looking film with the stunning snowy vistas that Sena has to work with, and indeed the scenery is jaw dropping. It’s almost reason enough to see the film on it’s own, but honestly, you could just watch a nature film and get the same result without the crappy acting and deeply predictable story. Sena also succumbs to the fashionable shaky-cam in his action scenes. I don’t mind shaky-cam when there’s a reason for it, but here it just looks like a way to disguise bad fight choreography, a lazy way to avoid putting just a little work and thought into what ought to be a series of thrilling scenes. It also happens to look a total mess, as if the camera has been handed to a hyperactive intern who has never previously held it.

Whiteout doesn’t make it to the legendary levels of awfulness exemplified by the shoddy likes of, say, Crank - High Voltage. Instead it is just something that a few filmmakers tossed off without really seeming to care if it was any good.

DIR: Nora Ephron
CAST: Meryl Streep, Amy Adams,
Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina

Nora Ephron hasn’t directed in four years, so fans will likely be glad to hear that her latest is, in effect, two films for the price of one.  On the downside, I’d be surprised if anyone likes both of them.

The film cuts between the two stories. The first is that of cookery writer and TV chef Julia Child (Streep), as she moves to France with her Husband (Tucci), falls in love with food, and works on the book that made her name; Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The second story is set in 2002, and about office drone Julie Powell (Adams), who starts a ‘blog about her challenge to herself to cook her way through the 524 recipes in Child’s book in one year.

As I said, you are almost certain to have one overwhelming favourite between these two stories, and mine was that of Julie Powell. I remember seeing Amy Adams in Junebug, it was one of those truly - increasingly - rare moments in which you see a movie star arrive, seemingly fully formed, on screen. She was so charming, so sweet, so funny, and so brilliant that I knew I’d be seeing much, much more of her. I’ve seldom been so pleased to be right, Adams is now a big star and a critical darling. Julie & Julia is more evidence of just why that is.

This year Adams has moved beyond the ‘lovely girls’ that she been playing for some time, and here she reins in her more cartoonish aspects to play a very down to earth woman, with more than a little melancholy. She’s had her long red hair darkened and cut into a gamine crop in an attempt to dress down her stunning looks  (it doesn’t work, she just reminded me of Audrey Hepburn). Where Adams really excels is in making you love Julie, despite the fact that she’s actually often rather selfish in her pursuit of her project. In fact she’s so good at that that one scene (with the excellent Mary Lynn Rajskub) in which a friend confirms Julie’s suspicions that she’s ‘a bitch’ doesn’t work, because that’s the one thing you don’t believe of Adams. However, her sheer magnetism draws you to Julie, and into her story.

Something that works really well in both stories is the chemistry between the screen husband and wife. Both Adams and Chris Messina and Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci have a really convincing closeness and comfort with one another, and there seems to be a real affection between the couples in this film, which is not something that often works in movies.

Aside from this though the story of Julia Child didn’t really work for me. Most of that is down to Meryl Streep. I have to confess that I’ve never really figured out why people rate her so highly, because most of the time what I see when I watch her is Meryl Streep acting, and that’s certainly the case here. She is apparently doing a perfect impression of Child here, and I’ll defer to others on that point, but the problem isn’t that it’s a bad impression, it’s that it’s ONLY an impression. There’s little behind the eyes in Streep’s performance, no sense of the woman behind that towering personality (and frame). It’s all a performance, a broad, cartoony, theatrical one at that, and it feels even more so when set against Adam’s more restrained and effective work. In the Child story there are compensations for Streep’s scenery chomping. Stanley Tucci, a fantastic actor who really doesn’t get his dues, is wonderful as Child’s besotted husband and Jane Lynch pops up for a hugely entertaining cameo, but the central piece of the puzzle never quite fits, and that undermines the whole badly.

For Ephron’s part she makes the film flow surprisingly well, given that she’s telling stories forty years and an ocean apart. The period detail in both stories is spot on (it is odd to think of 2002 as a period, but things move so fast now that it is). Cutting between the stories seldom jars as you might think it would, but because of the difference in both style and quality of the leading performances it does still often feel like you’re trying to watch two different films at the same time. Uneven, then, but not a dead loss.

DIR: Andrea Arnold
CAST: Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender,
Kierston Wareing

She hasn’t (quite) done it yet but mark my words; Andrea Arnold will, probably soon, make a truly great film.

After her immensely promising debut Red Road, Fish Tank is perhaps a very slight disappointment from Arnold.   That says more about Arnold and about Red Road than it does about Fish Tank, which is often electrifying cinema, and boasts some of the best and most thrilling performances and scenes seen on camera this year. Even though it has its stumbles, and doesn’t entirely work, this is still vital, visceral, frequently astonishing filmmaking and should be seen by any serious film lover.

The really thrilling thing about this film is watching the raw talent of Katie Jarvis. Seventeen when the film was shot, Jarvis had never thought of acting. Indeed she only auditioned for Arnold after the casting director saw her at the station, having a blazing row with her boyfriend, and asked her to come in. We should all think ourselves lucky that Jarvis was so pissed off with her boyfriend that day; because Andrea Arnold has taken that raw material and moulded it into one of the finest and most honest performances I’ve seen in a long time. Even when she’s not talking Jarvis is fascinating. She’s got a face that seems always to be open, to allow us to read every flicker of emotion that passes across it. I’ve no idea how much technique Arnold coached her in, or how close the character of Mia is to the real Katie Jarvis, but I could believe that they are one and the same. That’s how good she is, in her first film, at 17.

There is one scene in Fish Tank, between Jarvis and Michael Fassbender, that is probably the best single scene I’ve seen in the 126 films I’ve seen to date from 2009. It takes place at the end of the second act, after Mia and her Mother’s new boyfriend Connor (Fassbender) have been circling each other for about an hour of screentime in a relationship that is sometimes friendly, sometimes fractious and often has a tense sexual undertone. For about seven minutes Arnold ratchets up this tension to truly unbearable levels, to a point at which you’re unsure what outcome you want to see, or what you think about either of the characters. It is a miniature masterpiece, and if that scene were a stand alone short I’d be tipping Arnold for her second short film Oscar.

For all this greatness though, there are things in the film that really don’t work. Arnold’s script, for one, can sound a touch forced. Often the voices can start to blend together, mainly because they are all so profane that it becomes a little wearing, and starts to smack of a lack of imagination. Incidentally, it appears that is now impossible to get an 18 certificate purely for language, because the C word, previously a no no at 15, is used so frequently here it almost becomes punctuation at times. Arnold’s third act also lapses into implausibility, mainly as a result of a late attempt to impose a plot and a structure on what has previously been a slightly shapeless film. That shapeless feel also means that, while Fish Tank is clearly a high quality piece of work and the performances are always engaging, it is perhaps less instantly compelling than Red Road.

All these things are issues, but they all end up paling almost into insignificance next to the film’s many virtues. Apart from Jarvis there is stunning work from Fassbender as Connor, whose moral ambiguity the actor embraces without judging. He walks a fine line playing the role, never allowing us either to really get to like Connor, or to really know that he’s bad news. Kierston Wareing also does nice work as Mia’s Mum, particularly in an oddly touching scene at the end of the film, when she and Jarvis dance together.

Another remarkable contribution is that of cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who also worked on Red Road. In both films he and Arnold have taken an ugly urban dystopia, and rendered it stunningly beautiful. Some of the shots of Mia dancing, especially in that pivotal scene when she dances for Connor, are breathtaking, but without seeming overly designed.

I do have some reservations about Fish Tank, but they are nitpicks, and at times this film achieves real greatness, I highly recommend that you see it.

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