This is the smartest alien movie in quite a while. But then movies about creatures from other planets are never about the aliens; they’re about the humans, and about what being human really means.
It has cool and creepy giant insect-looking aliens and there are very cool sci-fi weapons and shoot-outs and chases and space ships and a super-cool giant insect-robot thing, and it is very exciting and scary and sometimes extremely gross (but in a cool, sci-fi way). But, like all great science fiction, it is in aid of speculative allegory. The interactions between humans and aliens all the more powerful for being understated, taken for granted, and filmed in an intimate, low-key fashion that makes it feel like a documentary. Instead of running around and shrieking, this story posits an even more believable human reaction to an alien invasion — a bureaucratic one.
Humanity’s history sometimes seems to come down to the lines we draw, metaphorically and literally. Boundaries establish real estate ownership, communities, and countries, and battles over those boundaries have continued, in some cases, over millennia. We draw lines to distinguish ourselves from others and we draw lines to separate others from ourselves. This movie is not about an invasion from outer space. It is about life twenty years after an invasion. At first, the huge spaceship just hovered over Johannesburg. There was no attack, no communication of any kind. Finally, the South Africans went up to the ship and broke in to find the creatures badly malnourished and ill.
Two decades later, as this movie begins, the humans and aliens exist in uneasy proximity, assigned to “District 9,” fatuously assigned generic human names like “Christopher Johnson” and provided the flimsiest of “rights.” In the name of “humanitarianism,” they are living in the title area, little more than a junkyard. The government has outsourced the supervision responsibility to a contractor. The creatures are exploited by crooks, and called by derogatory epithets like “prawns” (the South African term for shrimp), based on their physical resemblance.
The alien population has grown and so the entire community is about to be “relocated” (evicted) to a new facility, a slum even more remote and meager than the current one, with tents instead of corrugated huts. Wikus Van De Merwe (brilliant newcomer Sharlto Copley) is selected by his boss, who is also his father-in-law, to oversee the “relocation.” This involves, for some absurd reason, going hut to hut with clipboards eliciting some form of “consent.” Copley, much of whose dialog is reportedly improvised, is terrific as the well-meaning but hopelessly overmatched bureaucrat, who has no idea of how offensive he is or how much he is missing as he talks to the company’s camera recording what he thinks will be his triumphant moment. When he unexpectedly inhales an alien substance, he is at first more worried about looking like he knows what he is doing on film than about any possible harm. But soon he is feeling sick. And then things really get out of, uh, hand.
This is where Copley really takes off as Wilkus has to draw on depths of courage, skepticism, analytic ability, and trust he never anticipated. He goes through external and internal changes raising questions about who and what is truly human and he shifts loyalties more than once. The movie shifts, too, combining the documentary footage with news accounts and other perspectives to show us what Wilkus is seeing but to get a glimpse of what lies ahead of him — or is chasing him.
Its setting in Johannesburg immediately suggests the metaphor of apartheid (and some critics have objected to it as a superficial or slanted portrayal — see links below). The film is more clever and ambitious than that. Just as the classic original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is claimed by both the right and the left as representing their side, this is a movie that is designed to be discussed and argued over. It is those conversations about Its meaning in light of the way that struggles with the notion of “the other” can inspire both the best and the worst of what it means to be human.
The first decade of the 21st century has given us many great films. Here are a dozen I found especially inspiring. From documentaries to fantasies, from real-life heroes to an animated fish, these are the stories that help to show us what we should dream of and what we can accomplish.
Erin Brockovich Julia Roberts won an Oscar playing the real-life single mother whose determination and courage helped hundreds of victims of toxic pollution learn the truth of what happened and find some sense of justice. The movie is candid in its depiction of the price Brockovich herself paid in her personal life for her dedication to the residents who had been poisoned and misled. But it also shows what one individual can accomplish even when the other side has millions of dollars and dozens of lawyers. Quote: “By the way, we had that water brought in specially for you folks. Came from a well in Hinkley.”
Trouble the Water Documentarians Carl Deal and Tia Lessin went to Louisiana for a project that did not work out. They were about to leave when Hurricane Katrina hit. But this Oscar-nominated film is not their story. They turned most of their movie over to Kimberly Rivers Roberts and Scott Roberts, local residents who bought a camera for $20 a week on the street just before the storm and walked around taking pictures of what was going on around them. These citizen journalists document the helplessness of the community and the failure of every possible resource or assistance. Roger Ebert, who included this film in his 2009 film festival, said, “the eyewitness footage has a desperate urgency that surpasses any other news and doc footage I have seen.” The power of the human spirit to tell our stories will always triumph over failures of bureaucracy and even the ravages of storms. Quote: “We lost our citizenship.”
Persepolis Marjane Satrapi’s acclaimed graphic memoir becomes a powerful animated film about her experiences as a child in an Iran that is increasingly restrictive after the Islamic Revolution. After her beloved uncle is executed, her parents send her away to Austria, where she struggles with a new culture and with the new world that is adolescence no matter where or who you are. Perceptive, touching, resilient, this takes animation and memoir to a new level. Quote: “There’s nothing worse than bitterness and revenge. Keep your dignity and be true to yourself.”
Billy Elliot Jamie Bell is sensational as the 11-year-old boy who has to dance, even though everyone he knows is opposed to it. Ultimately his passion and his talent are so inspiring to those around him that they cannot help but give him their support. The play inspired a Tony-award-winning Broadway musical but the gritty authenticity of the original and its setting in a small mining town in Thatcher-era England makes the film version especially powerful. Quote: “Sorta feels good. Sorta stiff and that, but once I get going… then I like, forget everything. And… sorta disappear. Sorta disappear. Like I feel a change in my whole body. And I’ve got this fire in my body. I’m just there. Flyin’ like a bird. Like electricity. Yeah, like electricity. ”
A Beautiful Mind A man sees what no one else can, and we call him a genius. A man sees what no one else does, and we call him crazy. This Oscar-winner for Best Picture is a movie about a man who was both, the true story of genius John Forbes Nash, Jr., who revolutionized mathematics and then became mentally ill. Jennifer Connelly won an Oscar as his loyal wife, a mathematician herself, who stayed with him for decades as he struggled to find a way to master his delusions. Quote: “I’ve made the most important discovery of my life. It’s only in the mysterious equation of love that any logical reasons can be found.”
Lord of the Rings Peter Jackson’s splendid trilogy of the J.R.R. Tolkein series is magnificently realized, from the tiniest detail of Elvish dialogue to the grandest vista of Middle Earth. Villains and heroes, quests and romance, this story teaches us that courage, loyalty, and integrity are more important than strength and magic. Quote: “I can’t carry it for you… but I can carry you!”
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind The best film of the decade is this loopy romance, starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet as one-time lovers who pay to have their unhappy memories erased and then find themselves missing even the pain of love. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman plays with the themes of identity, time, memory, and attraction in a slightly off-kilter world that seems oddly homelike and familiar because it is so heartfelt and true about how even the unhappiness of love can enlarge our spirits. Quote: “Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders. ”
Every family should see this m-a-r-v-e-l-o-u-s movie about the 1999 national spelling bee because it is about so much more. It is about the strength of American diversity and the commitment of this country to opportunity — the eight featured competitors include three children of immigrants (one’s father speaks no English) and a wide range of ethnic and economic backgrounds. It is about ambition, dedication, and courage. It is about finding a dream that speaks to each individual. It is about how even in the midst of one of life’s biggest challenges — middle school — it is possible to find passion and confidence and to achieve excellence. Most of all, it is about family — the opportunity to discuss the wide variation in styles of family communication and values is in itself a reason for every family with children to watch this movie together. Quote: “My life is like a movie. I have trials and tribulations, and I overcome them.”
Finding Nemo This story of a father fish in search of his lost son is an epic journey filled with adventure and discovery encompassing the grandest sweep of ocean vastness and the smallest longing of the heart. There are terrifying-looking creatures, but one of the movie’s best jokes is that even the sharks are so friendly that they keep reminding each other that “we don’t eat our friends.” There really are no bad guys in this movie — the danger comes from a child’s thoughtlessness and from natural perils. The movie has no angry, jealous, greedy, or murderous villains as in most traditional Disney animated films. And it has characters with disabilities that are handled frankly but matter-of-factly. Best of all is the way it addresses questions of protection and independence that are literally at the heart of the parent-child relationship. Quote: “I have to get out of here! I have to find my son! I have to tell him how old sea turtles are!”
In America Writer-director Jim Sheridan’s semi-autobiographical tale about Irish immigrants in New York City is something of a fairy tale set in a sweltering and grimy apartment building where even the kind-hearted drug addicts help look out for the children. Told through the eyes of the family’s daughters, the whole movie is exquisitely tender. The girls’ sense of wonder brings a softness and a glow to whatever they see, whether it is a street fair or a broken-down air conditioner. Quote: “When luck comes knocking on your door, you can’t turn it away.”
Hotel Rwanda When the conflict in Rwanda exploded into violence in 1994, the Hutus began a full-scale slaughter of over 800,000 Tutsis and any Hutus who supported them. In the middle of the madness, Paul Rusesabagina hid more than 1000 Tutsis in his hotel. Using the same skills that made him successful as a hotel manager, he cajoles, barters, and bluffs his way into keeping them safe. Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo as Rusesabagina and his wife provide a center of decency in the midst of madness and cruelty. The sensitivity of their performances is matched by the script and direction, which make their points, both personal and political, with grace, not bitterness. Like “Schindler’s List,” this film takes us deeply into the horror of one of the 20th century’s greatest tragedies by allowing us to focus on the illumination cast by one small story of grace, courage, and humanity. Quote: “There’s always room.”
The Pursuit of Happyness Chris Gardner is a single father who went from homelessness to success as a stockbroker. What mattered most to him, though, was being a good father. Real-life father and son Will and Jaden Smith star in the story of a man who would not give up. At first he focuses on the misspelling of the word “happiness” at his son’s day care. But then he focuses on the word “pursuit,” because he understands that all we can be promised is the chance to try for what we want, and that has to be enough. Quote: “You got a dream… You gotta protect it. People can’t do somethin’ themselves, they wanna tell you you can’t do it. If you want somethin’, go get it. Period.”
The news about actress Brittany Murphy is shocking and very sad. She died today at age 32.
Murphy made her first real impression as the suggestible Tai who got a makeover from Cher (Alicia Sliverstone) in “Clueless.” She had an engaging openness and, when she sang along to a Mentos commercial, a surprisingly supple singing voice. She had better luck with small roles in movies carried by others (“Sin City,” “Girl, Interrupted”) than in films where she had the leading role (“Uptown Girls” and “Little Black Book”). But even in her lesser films like “Don’t Say a Word” she always showed commitment and a certain fearlessness in her portrayals. I know the movie is too dark for younger children, but I am fond of “Happy Feet” and enjoyed her voice as the penguin, Gloria, especially when she performed the Queen song, “Somebody to Love” and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland.” That’s how I am thinking of her now.
Big Change at This Year's Oscars: Thanked Names on Screen Jezebel reports a long-overdue innovation in this year's Oscar ceremony: nominees will have the opportunity to submit their list of people to thank before the show, so that they can run across the bottom of the screen. This will give the ...
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