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Monday, March 8, 2010

Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person review Alice in Wonderland

Both: This must have looked like a really good idea on paper.

Lawrence Person: Another week, another visually-impressive-but-thematically-empty remake. This is better than The Wolfman, but not as interesting as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. They tried to graft a standard Plot Coupon fantasy quest onto what was a surreal dreamscape lacking any narrative spine. Big mistake.

Howard Waldrop: The only problem is, it's Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, not Carroll's (of course, you could say the same thing about all versions, from the 1933 all-star one to Disney's 1951 animated feature.)

In this one, Alice's story has become tied to the quest to defeat the Jabberwock. There's a high-Victorian backstory that pokes some fun at 19th century expectations, and Alice is in her early 20s. This all adds nothing to the original going-to-sleep-on-a–picnic setup for a younger girl.

LP: The framing device is all kinds of wrong: 1) It's dull and slows the movie down; 2) Unlike The Wizard of Oz, there's no correspondence between real and dreamland characters; 3) It's a work of distinct moral cowardice. By holding up the mores of 19th century English high society for 21st century American audiences to feel smugly superior to, nothing in the film challenges its target audience's beliefs in even the slightest way. (Laugh while you can; some 120 years hence, you'll look every bit as stupid and prejudiced a rube as Lord Ascot the Younger looks here.)

HW: The visuals are of course pretty good. All the trappings of Alice's Adventure in Wonderland (and a little of Through the Looking Glass) are here. It reminded me in many ways of the Dennis Potter Dreamchild (1985), where the Alice story was used (both biography and fiction) to make some real observations about the nature of dreams.

The characters are here: the movie tries to make daylight sense out of what essentially is a dream-narrative, to not very great effect. Placing the Jabberwock quest over the Wonderland narrative makes things both clearer and more diffuse at the same time.

LP: Once it becomes your stand good-vs.-evil dynastic succession plot, the whole thing is on rails and the movie has no more surprises left up its sleeves. Alice dithers over picking up the vorpal sword, but no one over the age of 14 will have the slightest doubt what she'll choose in the end. (China Miéville's Un-Lun-Dun, in which a secondary character becomes incensed at being relegated to the Funny Sidekick role in the Grand Prophecy and short circuits the entire creaky machination, has more courage in its little finger than this has in the entire movie.)

And stripped of their dream-logic, many elements cease to be surreal and start becoming deeply stupid. Why can't Alice just chow down enough Eat Me to grow big enough to crush the Jabberwock like a bug? If the Cheshire Cat can materialize and dematerialize at will, why not let him retrieve the vorpal sword? Etc.

HW: Depp's role (the Mad Hatter) is ill-defined on the Wonderland level, but okay within Burton's narrative. He's not mad enough on one level, but over-the-top in others. It just doesn't go far enough to bring across the mercury-poisoned pathos of the book. (The Henson Workshop creature of Dreamchild did.)

LP: Depp's Hatter switches between a sort of High English Twee and a vaguely menacing Bobbie Burns-esque brogue. Like most of his non-realistic roles, his portrayal is an odd choice that he somehow makes work though his complete mastery of the character's exterior qualities.

HW: Helena Bonham Carter's Red Queen is a one-note storybook Evil Older Sister role (so's the book's Queen). I'm sure it's not all that easy to act when your head, like Betty Boop's, is wider than your shoulders (or so it seems).

LP: In many ways the relish with which Carter's Red Queen devours the virtual scenery is one of the best things about the film. She obviously had fun with the role, and there's something supremely satisfying about the line "Prepare the Jabberwock for war!" (Now if only she and the Knave of Hearts didn't keep reminding me of the video for Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi"...)

Sadly, Mia Wasikowska's Alice doesn't have the presence to carry the movie. She's not the main problem, but she doesn't come across as a particularly strong protagonist, and she lacks real chemistry with Depp's pseudo-love-interest Hatter.

HW: Christopher Lee voiced the Jabberwock's resident-evil lines, and Michael Gough's dodo's pretty good, and even has the cane right out of Tenniel's illustrations. (Must have seemed like Hammer Films in 1962 on the set.) The voices are mostly just right (although I miss Percy Helton's squeaking White Rabbit from the 1951 Disney movie).

LP: Any movie version of Alice in Wonderland sets itself up for a difficult task, namely to recapture the mixture of whimsy and menace a young reader has upon first encountering the book. (Which is why, on paper, a Tim Burton version must have looked like such a sure thing, as Beetle Juice and A Nightmare Before Christmas both come so close to the sort of balance a successful version would require.) All movie adaptations of it fail for one reason or another; Burton's Wonderland fails because the linear nature of the plot derails the head-long, out-of-control dream-logic of the original, the feeling of being plunged into a world where nothing makes any sense and things keep changing too fast to escape. It fails because it's ultimately entirely too predictable and safe. When you can make friends with the Bandersnatch, Wonderland has all the menace of a trip to Hot Topic.

HW: This reminded me of nothing so much as Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm, a movie I don't generally like. Stunning, in some cases, visuals (I saw it flat). [LP: I saw it in 3D IMAX, and wished I hadn't, as the 3D actually made it harder to focus on what was going on; the scene of her falling down the rabbit hole was particularly annoying. And for all the ballyhoo around the "new" 3D, it still looks more like receding lines of successive planes (like a Renaissance trompe l'oeil backdrop) than real life. Unless you're a fan of the technique, I don't think the extra money is worth it.] The wrong (but a similar) story with all the characters used in a revisionist way. It's not a mess, it's just not Lewis Carroll, either.

This is not the book: it's the book's little brother.

Howard Waldrop's latest books are Other Worlds, Better Lives: Selected Long Fiction, 1989 - 2003 and Things Will Never Be the Same: Selected Short Fiction 1980-2005, from Old Earth Books. Locus Magazine interviewed Waldrop in its November 2003 issue.

Lawrence Person is a science fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Asimov's, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Postscripts, Jim Baen's Universe, Fear, National Review, Reason, Whole Earth Review, The Freeman, Science Fiction Eye, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and, as well as several anthologies. He also edits the Hugo-nominated SF critical magazine Nova Express and runs Lame Excuse Books.

Directed by Tim Burton

Written by Linda Woolverton (screenplay)

Starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Matt Lucas, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Alan Rickman, Barbara Windsor, Paul Whitehouse, Timothy Spall

Official Website: Alice in Wonderland: Characters

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person review The Wolfman

Howard Waldrop: Poor Curt Siodmak (who made it to 102). To have your 1941 screenplay (which gave us most of the cinematic werewolf tropes we have) have every bit of the poetry and life sucked out of it by two screenwriters and a director. (Maybe they thought the soulfulness in Benicio del Toro's eyes would make up for it.)

Lawrence Person: The Wolfman is a gorgeously art-directed mediocrity, combining the look and pace of a lush costume drama with the clichés and gore of a modern horror film. It's professional enough to hold your attention while in the theater, but the plodding, by-the-numbers nature of the beast (the film itself, not its titular character) is enough to make you regret the time spent there.

HW: To the original setup (long-gone American-raised son — here, the second and younger one, an actor to boot — receives a letter from his brother's fiancée, to return to the ancestral pile — the brother's disappeared and things are afoot) they've added nothing, only mixed things around to no good purpose. In the approximate Claude Raines role is Anthony Hopkins. There's Art Malik as a wrinkled old Singh retainer (not in the original) who 40 years ago would have been played by Christopher Lee or Michael Ripper.

There's the fiancée (Emily Blunt) in the Evylyn Ankers role. It's not bad casting — it's just wrong — Maleva the gypsy is played by Geraldine Chaplin. (I have never missed Maria Ouspenskaya more, since she died after a fire in 1949, smoking a cigar in bed.) Her (Siodmak) folk-poetry piece "Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night..." is used as prologue to the movie. It's the only minute of poetry here.

LP: Director Joe Johnston seems to have gone to the Zack Snyder School of Unsubtle Direction, with a graduate work in The Institute for Horror Move Clichés. Music cues herald every impending werewolf attack with all the subtlety of a Mexican soccer announcer. And something like 90% of those attacks have the exact same visual characteristics: character pauses for lingering shot, only to have werewolf leap onto them from outside the frame, carrying them (or at least significant body parts) off the other side of the frame. Even the boo-shock jump scares (including, yet again, the "character wakes up from the nightmare only to find he's still in it" cliché) are painfully predictable. Pick any random minute from the last thirty of Peter Jackson's Dead Alive and you'll find more imaginative gore than is on display in this entire movie.

Even potentially interesting scenes, like Talbot's grim hydro- and electroshock treatment sessions in a Victorian insane asylum, are marred by thuddingly unsubtle direction. The assistant orderly is a grinning sadist (complete with evil giggle) while the Head Professor Doktor Shrink (Antony Sher) comes across like a caricature of Sigmund Freud as penned by Julius Streicher.

Del Toro (a very effective actor in the right role, as witnessed by Traffic or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) looks like Lawrence Talbot, but he wears the role like an uncomfortable and ill-fitting suit. He doesn't have the bearing and presence you would expect of a leading stage actor. Except for the transformation and asylum sequences, his acting runs the gamut from A to C, the change from his brooding anguish over his brother's death to his guilty anguish over his lycanthropic crimes having all the dramatic arc of a stubby pencil. Sometimes he comes alive; his anguish during the hydrotherapy scenes are entirely convincing. (Then again, plunge me into a tank of ice-cold water, and I guarantee you I wouldn't need my Drama degree to make my screams convincing.) If the script ever lets him crack a smile, I must have missed it.

It's amazing how little Anthony Hopkins elevates the material. He does fine, but as one of the best in the business, you expect him to give you more than the distant, icy superiority he offers up here. Contrast this with the splendid work he did in The Edge (another mediocre movie), where he not only acts Alec Baldwin under the table, but steals his wallet, car keys and shoes to boot.

Emily Blunt is fine in a criminally underwritten role. It's not that she completely lacks chemistry with Del Toro, but their characters are each so sunk in their respective miseries that what chemistry they do have is on the order of "Hey, once we're both less depressed, maybe we should consider going out for coffee."

Surprisingly, the actor who far and away comes off best is Hugo Weaving, who can be very uneven (his one-note portrayal of Elrond was probably the weakest major character in The Lord of the Rings). But here his droll, intelligent Scotland Yard inspector steals the show, as well as breathing much-needed life into every one of his scenes.

HW: There are a tiny couple of redemptions (too late) here. Prosthetics have been berry, berry good to lycanthropy since An American Werewolf in London. They've only gotten better, and part of the audience (who'd evidently never seen this stuff before) gasped. And the idea of one werewolf, stalking another, with a double-barreled shotgun loaded with silver bullets, seems to be a first.

But the whole thing seems in the end unnecessary. It's not as big a waste of celluloid as the Nicolas Cage remake of Wicker Man was, but then nothing is, is it?

LP: If you have a hankering for a werewolf film, well, this is a werewolf film. And it has some gorgeous art direction (which was Joe Johnston's role in Hollywood before he took up directing). But there are a lot better werewolf films out there. Neil Marshall's Dog Soldiers, a tale of British soldiers running into a pack of werewolves while on maneuvers in the Scottish highlands, probably had about 1/50th of the budget for this film and was at least ten times as good.

HW: There are so many ways to lose all the poetry in a classic screenplay that this one seems destined to be taught in Screenwriting 101 under the heading "Missing the Boat."

Howard Waldrop's latest books are Other Worlds, Better Lives: Selected Long Fiction, 1989 - 2003 and Things Will Never Be the Same: Selected Short Fiction 1980-2005, from Old Earth Books. Locus Magazine interviewed Waldrop in its November 2003 issue.

Lawrence Person is a science fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Asimov's, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Postscripts, Jim Baen's Universe, Fear, National Review, Reason, Whole Earth Review, The Freeman, Science Fiction Eye, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and, as well as several anthologies. He also edits the Hugo-nominated SF critical magazine Nova Express and runs Lame Excuse Books.

Directed by Joe Johnston

Written by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self (based on Curt Siodmak's original screenplay)

Starring Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving, Art Malik, Geraldine Chaplin, Antony Sher

Official Website: The Wolfman Movie - Now Playing - Official Movie Site...

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Lawrence Person: If you liked The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, you'll like The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. It's the most Terry Gilliam film that Terry Gilliam has done in the last two decades. That's a good thing. Mostly.

Howard Waldrop: A wonder-show movie (the Alamo Drafthouse ran the trailer for The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao beforehand) that harks back to Ray Bradbury's Dark Carnival and Something Wicked This Way Comes, only this one is like a road-show version of a cross between King Lear and Mother Courage and Her Children.

There's an immortal Dr. Parnassus, his daughter, a little-person factotum, also a helper who loves the daughter, who plays Mercury in the presentation. There's a deal with the devil (Tom Waits, dressed like Walter Houston in All That Money Can Buy, AKA The Devil and Daniel Webster) and a Hanged Man who is important to the plot. (There's lots of Tarot imagery (and practice) in this, as in The Fisher King.)

Parnassus' wonder-wagon, like Li'l Abner's refrigerator, has more room on the inside than the outside (it's a 3-story, 50 ton caravan, pulled by one horse). There's a magic mirror (played by aluminum foil in a frame) that people go through, like in Cocteau's Blood of a Poet. The cheesiness is intentional.

LP: Parnassus and company attempt to play for indifferent, hostile, drunken crowds of modern Britons, the vast majority of whom have no desire to step through the proffered magic mirror, and those that do tend to choose the path of the Devil (in the form of various incarnations of instant sinful gratification) than Parnassus' path of enlightenment. The mirror seems to lead to the inside of Parnassus' mind, and functions as an external manifestation of the person's internal state; watching it brought back a line from Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie: "This is what it looked like inside Salvador Dali's head." Things begin to change when they come across the hanged man (Heath Ledger, in his last role), who turns out to be not entirely dead, possibly thanks to a special flute he had lowered into his windpipe. (Which is strange, because usually a magic coin is the instrument of resurrection...)

HW: This is probably Gilliam's best-integrated movie since Brazil. There are great scenes (a gondola on a lagoon filled with giant shoes is one) but the contrast between the set pieces and story aren't so great they cheese you off, as they did in The Brothers Grimm.

LP: This is much better than The Brothers Grimm, mainly because its flaws tends to be those in most of Gilliam's films (a rambling plot, an out-of-control quality to some scenes, set pieces that overwhelm the actors playing against them, etc.), which is infinitely preferable to the standard Hollywood bullshit that ruined The Brothers Grimm.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is almost a checklist not only of Munchausen, but of all Gilliam's tropes. Fantastic and amazing otherworldly landscapes? Check. (There's a monastery here every bit as imposing and unlikely as The Fortress of Ultimate Evil in Time Bandits.) Intermixture of fantasy and reality? Check. Colorful but shabby stage facades? Check. Midget? Check. (I had forgotten that Verne Troyer had a part in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, predating his Mini-Me fame.) There's even Lily Cole as a redhead every bit as young and hot as Uma Thurman was in Munchausen, and a policemen-in-pantyhose song-and-dance number that could have come straight out of his Monty Python days.

I'm with Howard to a point, but I don't think it works as well as The Fisher King, and maybe not even as well as Twelve Monkeys, which was a solid film, but not one that blew me away. (Much the same as my reaction to this one, though for largely different reasons.)

HW: Christopher Plummer is Dr. Parnassus — thinking about him 45 years ago in The Sound of Music gives you cognitive dissonance. It's his best acting in years. (Now he could play Lear.) The performances are fine throughout.

It's not a great movie, but it's fairly controlled (as controlled as any Gilliam movie can be) and there are some great set pieces (one's set in a landscape half Monty Python and half Grant Wood). There are bits of other movies, references to paintings, and in general good cultural fun. I sure didn't want my money back, which I did after The Brothers Grimm.

LP: Of all the films we've seen semi-recently, the one this most resembles is MirrorMask, right down to the externalized internal landscape, the traveling carnival atmosphere, and even the Commedia dell'arte masks. It's a shame Gilliam and Neil Gaiman have never collaborated on a movie, as they share some of the same central concerns, such as the primal role of Story in underpinning the world, and the vital necessity of fantasy. And I like to think that a Gilliam-helmed Sandman movie would be something to behold.

This is a good film that's just too uneven to be great (the rambling nature of the plot, the murky mystical underpinnings of the Parnassus' particular form of salvation (be happy, give up your material wealth, and... that's it?), and an ending that just doesn't quite come together as well as you would hope). And sometimes the sheer randomness puzzles you. Sure, having Tom Waits as the Devil pop of the head of a giant steam-powered babushka mother is sort of cool, but what exactly does it mean?

Make no mistake: This is definitely better than any movie we reviewed last year. But I can't help thinking that I've seen all of these moves before. Gilliam's films are still spanking fresh compared to Extruded Hollywood Movie Product, but they do tend to reiterate a fairly limited range of topics, and maybe he should try something (ahem) completely different for a change. Not that I'm saying he should make, say, a straight crime drama, and Martin Scorsese should make a Gilliamesque fantasy. (No wait, strike that. Even as failures, both of those would probably be all kinds of awesome.) But I would like to see something different from him. Still, I'm starting to wonder if my varying degrees of disappointment with each new Gilliam film is the fault of Gilliam, or my own longing for him to recapture the wonder of Brazil. How can you blame a man for never again equaling one of the greatest films ever made?

In a way, it's hard not to see Dr. Parnassus' traveling caravan as an unkind and deeply unfair metaphor for Gilliam's career (especially the way studios manage to turn each of his critical successes into a commercial failure). It's a shabby, broken-down, shambling remnant of what was once a glamorous conveyance, a permanently poverty-stricken sideshow tottering from one patchy, indifferent audience to another. But, whispers the showman, if you'd just ignore the tattered banners and bailing wire of the exterior, and step into the Imaginarium itself, oh, what amazing wonders and glories still await you...

HW: The movie's slowly creeping into theaters a city at a time (so far, LA, NYC, Boston and now Austin. It's coming to one near YOU, sometime in YOUR future.

Howard Waldrop's latest books are Other Worlds, Better Lives: Selected Long Fiction, 1989 - 2003 and Things Will Never Be the Same: Selected Short Fiction 1980-2005, from Old Earth Books. Locus Magazine interviewed Waldrop in its November 2003 issue.

Lawrence Person is a science fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Asimov's, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Postscripts, Jim Baen's Universe, Fear, National Review, Reason, Whole Earth Review, The Freeman, Science Fiction Eye, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and, as well as several anthologies. He also edits the Hugo-nominated SF critical magazine Nova Express and runs Lame Excuse Books.

Directed by Terry Gilliam

Written by Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown

Starring Christopher Plummer, Andrew Garfield, Lily Cole, Heath Ledger, Verne Troyer, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell

Official Website: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus - Official Site

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person Review 9

Both: Given the visuals and origin of 9, we had high hopes for this. High enough that we felt it wise to dial those expectations down several notches before seeing it, lest we be disappointed.

We didn't dial them down far enough.

Lawrence Person: I've been looking forward to this movie for two years. As for why, before I can talk about 9 the feature film, I have to talk about 9 the short film.

The original short film is a real masterpiece. Clocking in at just over nine minutes, it told, in non-linear fashion and without words, the story of a horrible mechanical thing hunting small canvas bag people and stealing their souls, and the efforts of the titular protagonist to fight it. It was clever, original, beautiful to look at, utterly gripping, filled with pathos, terror, wonder, and the sense of a fascinating back-story beyond the boundaries of the film's frame. It was a worthy nominee for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, and after seeing it, Tim Burton gave creator/animator/writer/director Shane Acker the go-ahead to turn the short into the feature film.

Parts of 9 the feature film retain the short film's virtues, but much of the rest falls woefully short of the magic of the original.

Howard Waldrop: This reminds me of nothing so much as Hugh Harmen's Academy Award-nominated 1939 cartoon Peace on Earth, as done by a creepy stop-motion iconoclast like Ladislaw Starewicz or Jan Svankmajer. (Warning: 3 seconds of full frontal animated clay nudity in that link.)

The surviving intelligences of a machine-human war seem to be sewn together with burlap 'toe sacks, and have been made in a series. The film is about all of them and their world, but mostly concerns 9.

The CGI is excellent. I was stuck in a D-Box seat; even that didn't detract from the movie. (It starts out quietly, but soon there are enough sounds and explosions to please the worst gamer who ever was or ever could be.)

LP: The look of the film is truly gorgeous, and hats off to Acker and the CGI team at Focus Films (or their subcontractors). If the jury-rigged, burnished, Steampunk-by-way-of-World War II look of the film appeals to you, it might very well be worth seeing merely on that basis alone. In this it's a lot like MirrorMask: the visuals are much more interesting and original than the plot. But anyone working in visual arts or computer animation will get more than their money's worth out of the ticket price.

And the first ten minutes of the films are very effective, with our tiny protagonist waking up in a half-destroyed house with no memory, no voice, and no idea what's going on.

HW: 9, by (his?) arrival, upsets the status quo (which seems to be Run and Hide). He first meets 2, then ends up with 1, the leader of the group. There's also a Mord the Executioner equivalent (8), who looks like a Golem, or burlap version of Bibendum, the Michelin Man.

LP: They live in an abandoned cathedral over which 1 rules in his pope hat and robe with all the subtlety of Jonathan Edwards and none of his better lines. There's also what appears to be a World War II-era bomber (possibly a B-24) from the final war against the machines crashed into the cathedral, which tells you very quickly that 9's world is not our own. (That, and the alchemical trappings, make it very clear that this is A Fable and not science fiction. And speaking of fables, there's an explicit shout-out to The Wizard of Oz.)

HW: Because 9 is inquisitive and naïve, things begin to go very badly very quickly. We meet the rest of the group while their world starts falling apart. Big problem: A dormant factory once used to manufacture war machines comes back on line: soon everywhere is covered with bio-mechanical versions of raptors, spiders and less-classified things. Some of them are right out of Bosch and Breughel (and, like Bosch, the director has a Thing for knives...).

LP: Some of the monsters are very imaginative. The first one we meet (a mecho-skeletal horror known only as "The Beast"), is the one from the short film, and is every bit as menacing here, and possibly even more so in its reborn form as a sort of canvas hypnoworm with some truly evil adaptive camouflage . But beyond The Beast, most of the monsters here seem to owe some degree of debt to machine intelligences in The Matrix movies, right down to the multiple glowing red eyes.

HW: There's some pretty exciting stuff here; it's repeated often enough you want something else to happen. Eventually, it does.

LP: The struggles between the 9's brethren and their mechanical foes start out quite gripping (especially given how tiny our heroes are; all of them easily fit inside a single army helmet), but quickly grow repetitive. As do the circular arguments between 1 and 9.

HW: I wasn't bored; I was somewhat let down by the last ten minutes, a sort of feel-better-about-things-coda, like the last scenes of a John Ford cavalry movie where all the dead soldiers ride across the sky...

LP: The worst thing about the film is the dialog, which falls utterly flat in almost every scene. This is something of a shock, since screenplay writer Pamela Pettler did a much better job in both Corpse Bride and Monster House.

Even more surprising is the somewhat lackluster voice acting in many of the scenes, especially given the quality of actors assembled here. Jennifer Connelly has fun (and the best lines) in her role, and Martin Landau and John C. Reilly bring their diminutive characters to life. But Elijah Wood and Christopher Plummer are allowed to get away with generally unsubtle, one-note performances, and I think Acker has to take the blame here, as both have done much better. (One of the many similarities with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, another labor-of-love feature debut by an animator-turned-director.)

HW: Good thing I wasn't 8 years old when I saw this. I would think it was one of the best movies ever made and would be looking for more just like it. Because I'm all grown up, I know better.

LP: This is another film I really wanted to be great, or at least very good, and it just turned out OK. It's short and reasonably entertaining, but far less original and emotionally involving than I had hoped. Howard's right: This is a great movie for the 8-12 year old set, much like Monster House, but like that film, the menace and violence may be too intense for younger viewers. (And unlike Monster House, it wasn't marketed as a YA film.) Teenagers may enjoy it too, but many adult viewers are likely to find that the non-visual aspects have a ho-hum, by-the-numbers quality to them. You've seen this plot too many times before. And the ending is more than a little sappy. (Though not as irritating as The Last Mimzy.)

If you haven't already seen the short film, you might want to see the feature film first, because just about everything good about the feature film is contained in the short film, with none of the irritations. (But either way, you should see the short film; it's still great.)

Howard Waldrop's latest books are Other Worlds, Better Lives: Selected Long Fiction, 1989 - 2003 and Things Will Never Be the Same: Selected Short Fiction 1980-2005, from Old Earth Books. Locus Magazine interviewed Waldrop in its November 2003 issue.

Lawrence Person is a science fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Asimov's, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Postscripts, Jim Baen's Universe, Fear, National Review, Reason, Whole Earth Review, The Freeman, Science Fiction Eye, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and, as well as several anthologies. He also edits the Hugo-nominated SF critical magazine Nova Express and runs Lame Excuse Books.

Directed by Shane Acker

Written by Pamela Pettler (script) and Shane Acker (story)

Starring the voice talent of Elijah Wood, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover , Jennifer Connelly, Fred Tatasciore, Alan Oppenheimer, Tom Kane, Helen Wilson

Official Website: 9 | Film Overview

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person Review District 9

Both: This is an interesting film that's worthy of your attention. It's not as bad as we feared, but it's not as good as its box office or buzz might lead you to believe.

Lawrence Person: District 9 is a moderately smart science fiction film married to a pretty stupid action film; most of the smart stuff is embedded in the milieu and setup; most of the stupid stuff is in the plot. It's mostly smart at the beginning, stupid in the middle, and mostly smart again at the end. Unfortunately, there's no way to disentangle the smart parts from the stupid parts; it's all of a piece with the story writer/director Neill Blomkamp wanted to tell.

Howard Waldrop: Something new — telling an alien invasion story in retrospect, and at the personal level. Yeah, the main guy's in charge early on, but then things go very, very badly...

Back story: The aliens ("prawns") came to Earth 20 years ago in a now inoperable Big Dumb Object (that's been hanging over Johannesburg all that time).

LP: The setup displays a lot of the skiffy novelty District 9 has working for it. Having the ship show up over Johannesburg instead of New York or Washington DC opens up a lot of heretofore unexplored storytelling possibilities. Moreover, the aliens first shown seem more like weak, disoriented and starving refugees than all-powerful galactic overlords. They seem, if anything, less intelligent than us (insert your own joke here), all but incapable of communicating with humans, and prone to mindless violence and arson. Some of the talking heads interviewed (lots of infodump here, but well-used and appropriate) suggest that the majority of prawns are in fact drones or members of a working caste, with the ruling or technocratic caste nowhere to be found.

HW: They were put into a ghetto township (District 9) which has of course turned into an alien shantytown. (There's also a camp run by a Nigerian warlord, who, among other things, sells the aliens catfood at exorbitant prices.) The aliens are to be relocated approximately 60 km out of town.

LP: The South African alien township setup is where much of the film's intellectual interest for astute SF viewers resides. Everything there is dirty, run-down and chaotic. The eviction process, in which illiterate aliens who may or may not understand English, have to sign their assent to the eviction notices, is both completely absurd and entirely believable as the result of bureaucratic ass-covering. The way things go pear-shaped is totally convincing because the situation was already totally screwed up in place where no one really seems to be in charge, less Alien Nation than Black Hawk Down. And the aliens are among the most alien we've seen, at least in an earth-based context. They're both pitiable and menacing, sometimes at the same time.

Likewise, the Nigerian warlord wanting to ingest alien flesh so he can use their technology is entirely too believable, coming from a continent where albinos are butchered to make magic potions and "sorcerers" are regularly arrested or lynched for using magic to shrink men's penises.

HW: Our hero, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who works for the multinational corporation (MNU) running the show, is put in charge of the move to the new tent-city. Echoes of Apartheid are everywhere.

LP: One fear I had coming in was that the movie would hit the Apartheid theme too hard, but they didn't; it remains a subtext rather than an overtext.

HW: The aliens have weapons that humans can't use (it's tied to alien DNA). The early portions of the movie are done with cinema-vérité interviews with alien experts and people who knew and worked with Van De Merwe. Through the first day of the eviction process, we get to know the world of the film, the alien set-up, and so on. Things begin to go badly when the eviction process uncovers alien technology labs and weaponry.

LP: The alien technology bit seems singularly unconvincing in light of the setup we're given. Except for whoever came down in an apparent command module that fell off the ship, all the aliens were ferried down via helicopter. And the vast majority of the prawns we see seem incapable of planning more than five minutes into the future, much less assembling high technology out of human refuse. So whence came all these inexplicable high-tech weapons that seem as ubiquitous in District 9 as copies of Frampton Comes Alive were in second-hand record shops?

I can believe aliens who are dumb as toast. I can believe aliens smart enough to build a mech suit out of scrap. What I can't believe is that the smart aliens would let the dumb ones sell the mech suit to the Nigerian warlord for cat food.

But there are still many effective scenes. In one, Van De Merwe excitedly shows the cameras how the alien use some sort of tube system to feed deliquescing cow to alien eggs, then has the shanty torched, eggs and all.

HW: The protagonist gets a dose of icky stuff from the McGuffin and begins, like Jeff Goldblum in the remake of The Fly, or the guy in Tetsuo: The Iron Man, to mutate.

LP: Evidently the McGuffin canister contains Universal Plot Solvent. I like works where the McGuffin is more than just a McGuffin, i.e. something with unique and intrinsic properties of its own that changes the direction of the plot rather than just something people chase around. But the Magic Icky Fluid here has such a huge and different roles in the plot (It turns people into aliens! It powers spaceships! It's a floor wax! It's a dessert topping!), that it's really where the Deep Stupidity begins. So it just happened to take our alien technocrat 20 years to distill this one canister, and he just happens to finish the day the eviction notices are delivered, and just happens to have his super-secret chemistry lab upon which the entire fate of his people depends up in a squalid shanty rather than hidden down in the super secret alien command module? That's an awful lot of Stupid to pack into a single plot contrivance...

Also, a warning: If you have a low gag threshold for icky fluids, you might want to avoid District 9. There are more on display here than anything this side of a David Cronenberg film.

HW: So far, except for the personal focus, pretty standard. Then we begin to follow the protagonist, like the guy in The Informer, as the world turns against him. (His father-in-law works for the multinational also.) As he runs and is hunted, we see all the tricks MNU uses to try and capture him. The story's been put out that he's highly contagious; that he's been porking aliens, etc. All he wants to do is get home to his wife.

LP: It was a nice touch having tabloid newspapers used as a tool of political oppression. It's a good thing that could never happen here.

The acting here is generally at least passable, and frequently better. Sharlto Copley is onscreen for the majority of the film, and he's not great (there are a lot of actors who could have done better with this role), but he's acceptable. The biggest flaws of the character comes from the script itself, which asks him to morph from a Woody Allen working in the DMV to Rambo in a mechsuit.

And there's one needlessly stupid cut where Van De Merwe is running just a few steps ahead of some guys chasing him with dogs, and then in the next scene he's escaped.

HW: We see more and more of the aliens in these scenes, especially one called — I kid you not — Christopher, and his young son. Christopher promises that if he gets back the McGuffin, he can cure Van De Merwe. Of course, Van De Merwe is mutating: there are some horrendous scenes of MNU testing him (because he can now use the prawn weapons) while they have him in captivity.

LP: MNU is every movieland Evil Multinational Corporation rolled into one. They might as well have Evil at Work motivational posters in their cubicles. The MNU doctor goes from zero to "hey, let's slice him up" in under 60 seconds, with absolutely no justification offered as to why he was "in perfect balance" or how they could actually commercialize the technology, much less hire recruits for it. ("So you want to turn my hands into alien claws so I can fire a really cool weapon? How about I join a company that doesn't want to induct me into the Brigade of Dr. Moreau?") Not to mention the budgetary justification for the whole secret genetics lab. ("So just what is it we're getting for our $20 million a year?" "Oh, we kill aliens in agonizing, horrible and disgusting ways." "And this is good for our bottom line how?") It makes Ernst Stavro Blofeld's operations look like models of prudent capital allocation...

HW: Christopher and his son are trying to re-power the command module with the McGuffin to get back to the Big Dumb Object. Meanwhile, Van De Merwe uses the alien technology to settle some MNU hash right and left. The final chase is protracted, but it works.

LP: The command module is another point of sloppiness. It's initially shown falling off as the ship hovered over Johannesburg. So how does it get buried all the way out in District 9?

On the bright side, lots of moments in the final 30 minutes play like you know exactly where things are going, but then take several unexpected and gratifying twists. And when the BDO finally does come to window-shattering, basso profundo life, the film generates a true frisson of awe.

HW: The special effects are not the usual ones. Each alien weapon has a different visual signature and a different effect on humans and objects. Some make humans disappear with a minimum of residue; others vaporize them and throw gooey stuff everywhere. That shows more imagination than most movies.

LP: Some of the alien technology was cool, others looked like those from any number first person shooter video games of recent vintage. But that's among the least of the film's problems.

HW: Don't go expecting another Independence Day — you won't get it, and this film communicates with you on a more emotional level than anything in that film ever did.

It's not a great film, but is pretty intelligent, (given that everyone works for the equivalent of Yoyodyne). The aliens show various levels of intelligence — just like the humans. And you're actually rooting for them at the end (which has an ambivalent but hopeful ending on the species level, and a devastating one on the personal).

LP: The movie is stupid in ways that big action films are frequently stupid, but it's smart in ways that films of human-alien interaction usually aren't. There's a sense of interesting and unexplained things beyond the boundaries of the movie, of aliens that are genuinely alien. That's just enough for us to give the film a marginal thumbs up. Your mileage may vary.

Howard Waldrop's latest books are Other Worlds, Better Lives: Selected Long Fiction, 1989 - 2003 and Things Will Never Be the Same: Selected Short Fiction 1980-2005, from Old Earth Books. Locus Magazine interviewed Waldrop in its November 2003 issue.

Lawrence Person is a science fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Asimov's, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Postscripts, Jim Baen's Universe, Fear, National Review, Reason, Whole Earth Review, The Freeman, Science Fiction Eye, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and, as well as several anthologies. He also edits the Hugo-nominated SF critical magazine Nova Express and runs Lame Excuse Books.

Directed by Neill Blomkamp

Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell

Starring Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James, Louis Minnaar, Vanessa Haywood, Mandla Gaduka

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