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by Bill Gibron

3 Sep 2009

For Mike Judge, the world is divided into the fringe - and then everyone else. His movies don’t center around young urban professionals living angst-filled lives in the big city, or high powered businessmen transacting trepidation from their unsure international connections. No, for the man responsible for a couple of backward adolescent metal heads named Beavis and Butthead, the marginalized members of society offer a far more appealing source of inspiration. The working Joes, the suffering single mothers - these are the people he wants to party with. And in his latest live action film, Extract, that’s exactly what he does. Within the small Texas town where flavoring manufacturer Joel Reynolds has set up shop, an entire universe of karma, pro and con, is about to unravel - and Judge can’t wait to show us how it happens.

Things are not going well for our eager entrepreneur. He is married to a woman who uses sweatpants as a barrier toward sexual intimacy and his workers run the gamut from the socially awkward to the borderline retarded. One day, wannabe floor supervisor Step suffers a horrible accident that almost costs him his testicles. Simultaneously, Joel gets a buy-out offer from General Mills. The potential lawsuit turns the deal from certain to unsure. Still, our hero is convinced he can work things out. Into his life walks smoking hot temp Cindy. Seeing her as someone who sympathizes with his plight, Joel gets bartender buddy Dean to set up his wife with a gigolo. That way, when she cheats, he can be with Cindy blame free. What he doesn’t know, however, is that this new girl is a con artists, using Step to set up Joel for a huge multimillion dollar settlement.

by Bill Gibron

14 Aug 2009

He is consistently hailed as the last great master of 2D animation, the Walt Disney of his own amazing and imaginative Japanese empire. Several of his films sit at or near the top of the list of the nation’s all time box office champions and he is considered the first director of anime ever to win an Oscar (for Spirited Away). From an early career working on adaptations of Puss and Boots and Treasure Island, to his breakout Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), he pledged to maintain a standard of quality and artistry that many in the modern movie biz can’t match. It’s a philosophy that’s followed him through other masterworks (My Neighbor Totorro) and true works of cinematic art (Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle).

Now comes his latest, the fanciful fairy tale Gake no Ue no Ponyo (Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea) and he’s actually brought the House of Mouse along with him this time. New head of cartooning, Pixar’s John Lasseter, has made it his goal to make Hayao Miyazaki a household name - and with this charming, visionary film, he just might do it. Sure, you might have to suffer through some trite English voice acting (courtesy of Miley’s Cyrus’ sister Noah and the Jonas Brothers’ sibling Frankie), but the images employed by Miyazaki and his crew defy description. This is easily one of the greatest achievements in animation - ever.

Poor little Ponyo is a fish-like creature who longs to be human. Her mother is the ancient Goddess of the Sea, her father a slave to his love of the ocean. Escaping to the surface, she comes in contact with lonely boy Sōsuke. He misses his own dad, the captain of a shipping liner. Ponyo falls instantly for her new pal. Soon recaptured, she vows to return to land and be with her new friend. Sprouting arms and legs, she uses the powers of the old ways to aid her transformation. Sadly, such spells cause the waters to swell, creating a storm and tsunami that almost consumes Sōsuke’s town. While Ponyo is happy to be with her playmate, her parents are very upset. And with the moon losing its orbit and destroying the tides, our little heroine must choose - a life as a human, or the powers that are part of the sea.

Ponyo is gorgeous, the lost art of hand drawn animation accelerated through a whirlwind vision of ecology trumped by man’s careless need for comfort. It’s a sly bit of preaching, letting images evoke the kind of emotional reactions that scientific hypotheses and philosophical rants typically produce. By using Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid as an obvious jumping off point, and instilling the narrative with a grandeur for all things ancient and mythic, Miyazaki reconfigures folklore for those who might not see the otherwise hidden agenda. By focusing on Ponyo’s desire to be human, by showing how that “selfish” act affects the entire ocean population, the movie mirrors the currently contemporary mindset. No matter how precious we think our environment is, we seem willing to undermine it for our own personal aims.

The addition of a nursing home and a group of elderly residents also plays into the theme of tradition and respect. Miyazaki uses the aged as a metaphor for what’s forgotten in times of tranquility, and what’s needed when cooler, wiser heads are mandated. The ladies may seem like Sōsuke’s most significant playmates (the kids at his school are introduced and done away with in a single short sequence) but the truth is, they will end up playing a major part in the resolution of this matter. That they are rewarded for their actions is another attempt by Miyazaki to emphasize the importance of the past. While the movie manipulates reality to play with the natural order, how he uses his characters to create symbolism and substance is one of his best moves.

Yet it’s the stunning visual set-pieces that make this film so magical. One of the most astounding occurs when Ponyo decides to defy her father and, loaded up on magical elixir, make her way back to Sōsuke. As the waters swell and the waves crest, as massive walls of ocean are metaphorically changed to huge schools of running tuna, our plucky little redhead runs the surface, her speed matching the mesmerizing backdrop the animators create. There is no CG here, no use of computers to guide or supplement (unlike other Miyazaki efforts). Instead, cell after seamless cell illustrates a tidal wave terrorizing a young mother and her son, car running roughshod over the flooded roads in order to transport them to safety. As we witness Ponyo’s resolve, we can literally witness the power of love.

Removing the Japanese voices from the film does do away with some of the movie’s indomitable spirit and magic. Just like seeing a martial arts epic stripped of its dignity, there is something about the process of Westernizing a movie like this that fails to match its inherent mystique. The movie was not made by American’s and even with Lasseter in tow as a ‘technical director’, the translation is a bit wonky at best. When seen in its native tongue Ponyo remains a classical canvas, a remarkable masterpiece of style and substance. English just doesn’t have to same power, no matter how capable the casting is. Indeed, this happens a lot in foreign filmography. A wholly unique film - Let the Right One In - can feel false and slightly pretentious when given the mandatory US mainstream make-over.

Still, it’s a credit to Miyazaki’s craft that he can overcome such marketing limits to fashion a film that’s so charismatic, so full of passion for the animated artform and all its varying disciplines that it reminds us of what came before while setting the benchmark for what will come after. In recent years, the major studios have backed away from 2D cartooning, stressing that audiences seem to prefer 3D computer graphics to the old pen and ink prototype. Clearly, few of these so-called “viewers” have truly experienced the unadulterated bliss within the medium - and if anyone can convert them, it will be Miyazaki. In a Summer of senseless mayhem and underwhelming efforts, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea is majestic. It easily matches (and in many cases, surpasses) the best the genre has to offer.

by Bill Gibron

14 Aug 2009

One hates to think that this is how it would be. After centuries of resorting to internment and segregation as a means of dealing with ‘dissent’, the arrival of a technologically advanced (albeit aesthetically displeasing) alien race should result in something more progressive than an Apartheid-like police state. Yet that’s exactly what happens in Neill Blomkamp’s inventive extension of his 2005 short Alive in Joborg, now titled District 9. By showing us what happens to a derelict spacecraft stranded above South Africa, its entire extraterrestrial contents fenced off in squalid camps for the last two decades, the first time filmmaker offers the kind of sci-fi social commentary that made instantly classics like Planet of the Apes such pointed, prophetic allegories.

Utilizing a mock documentary approach (and then abandoning it when the drama demands it), Blomkamp doesn’t focus on our first contact with an interstellar civilization. Instead, we fast forward way beyond the “Prawns” arrival to their current sordid situation. Nicknamed for their uncanny resemblance to giant crustaceans, the nearly two million members of what was apparently the mothership’s working class crew have been housed in District 9 under the international auspices of the MNU (Multi-National United). There, they are subjected to horrific living conditions, the criminal infiltration by surrounding Africa tribes, and some despicable displays of out and out racism.

It’s up to newly appointed bureaucrat Wikus Van De Merwe (newcomer Sharlto Copley) to evict the unsettled creatures and move them to their new home - a clean and sterile “camp” called District 10. Naturally, a few of these beings don’t want to be relocated, especially ‘Christopher Johnson’ and his young ‘son’. Turns out, these two have figured out how to refuel the spacecraft and are desperate to get it running. But with Wikus in the way, they are prevented from acting. During a raid of their home, our human paper-pusher falls victim to a situation that has him suddenly turned from captor to captive. With Christopher’s help, Wikus tries to uncover the secrets settled in District 9 while getting back to his own uniquely “human” way of life.

By avoiding the typical end of the world apocalypse that most alien invasion movies mandate and illustrating instead man’s continual inhumanity to all things different and diverse, District 9 becomes that most elusive of science fiction films - a serious and thoughtful dissertation on who we really are. Indeed, the best speculative fiction is merely a mask for covering up our true selves. As Blomkamp begins his examination, giving Wikus, his surround government stronghold, and the various residents living near the “Prawns” a chance to air their views, we feel like its Southern American circa the 1950s all over again. Even the silly seafood slur becomes uncomfortable and disturbing after a while.

Blomkamp, clearly inspired by his native land’s unconscionable treatment of its long suppressed population, pours as many references to said history as possible. He wants to make sure we never forget the regrettable, indefensible manner in which the majority (or in the case of South Africa, the far more sly minority) wield power over those without standing or strength. The use of cat food as a metaphor for drugs and (regulated) drug addiction, the exploitive criminal element contained within the nasty Nigerian gangsters, remind one of contemporary urban blight, while the setting showcases how we tend to warehouse people problems (refugees, victims of natural disaster) in hopes that the complications will stay within the fence line. Of course, they never do.

But District 9 takes it further. It ventures dangerously close into Holocaust territory, especially in a sequence where Wikus learns of a Mengele-like lab where aliens are experimented on for their possible technological (and tactical) advances. It also argues for the kind of armed uprising that most cases of segregation and forced separation produce. Yet there is more to this movie than messages and CG civil rights. District 9 inside a solid action film, an infiltrate and investigate kind of military mission that uses the POV gimmick as a way of having us play a part. It also offers an unusual perspective from the character department. Unlike the implication of the trailers, this is not a “prawn” story per say. It is a human saga. As we see the creatures getting harassed, as we witness their own angry and occasional doe-eyed sadness, we sense something bigger at play. Once the last act arrives, Blomkamp delivers on said promise.

It’s hard to talk about the last 30 minutes of this movie without giving too much away. Faith plays a big part in the actions of several characters, as does a desire to do things strictly by the book. The soldiery comes off as faceless and forgettable, as meaningful as the mechanisms of death they bring to this final showdown. With Wikus still at the center, his decision to help Christopher occasionally clouding his judgment, we wind up with a fight for life that also has some cosmic consequences as well. With all these allusions and symbols shuffling around, you might think that District 9 is too “intelligent” to be entertaining, striving for parable when it should be putting on the spectacle. But this is where Blomkamp, along with producer Peter Jackson, really shine. Not only is this movie thoughtful, it’s thrilling as well.

Even better, District 9 doesn’t come up with the easy answers. When all is said and done, when the dust has settled and the smoke has cleared, the differences between man and alien still exist. One character’s motivations have changed forever, while another’s are left up to speculation (and a possible sequel). There is hope in the conclusion, as well as irreversible harm. Indeed, one could look at what happens and see a future where integration is all but impossible. Blomkamp’s tone does tend toward a more genocidal solution, and for all their claimed compassion, the face of the MNU looks like any other badly managed bureaucracy - loaded with waste and competing personal interests. Anyone who goes to District 9 and expects to see a WETA take on Independence Day will be very disappointed. Expect something a whole lot smarter and more subtle and you’ll be richly rewarded. This is one of the Summer’s - and the year’s - best. 

by Bill Gibron

7 Aug 2009

It’s definitely not the biggest flop of Summer 2009. That honor is still reserved for Transformer: Revenge of the Fallen (artistically) and either Year One or Land of the Lost (financially). And there really was no reason to avoid screening the film for the press. Sure, a few long time curmudgeons would and still will hate on this title, but it clearly wasn’t made for them. Besides, the intended audience, who doesn’t read such cinematic snobbery in the first place, won’t be clamoring for their thoughts any time soon. No, if G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra becomes any kind of hit for studio parent Paramount, it won’t be because of some specialized publicity, a pick-and-choose concept of criticism, or geek nation rebelling against the mainstream media. It will be because, like it or not, Stephen Sommers has made a pretty decent popcorn film - flawed, but fun.

Jarhead grunt Duke and his army buddy Ripcord are put in charge of delivering some sensitive nanotech warheads for the U.S. government. While on route, their convoy is ambushed by a group of elite fighting drones led by the lethal Baroness. They destroy most of Duke’s men before another secret squadron, known as the G.I. Joes, saves the day. Under the directive of General Hawk, this collective of specialized forces has the latest in scientific and high tech weaponry advances. Unfortunately, the Baroness’ efforts are bankrolled by aggressive arms dealer McCullem, who along with a mad scientist known as “The Doctor” are creating a race of super soldiers. The nanotech warheads will be used to blackmail the rest of the world into falling in line with the evildoers’ demands.  It will be up to the Joes to find the foe’s hidden hideout, retrieve the bombs, and once again make the world a safe for freedom and justice.

If all you care about is action, G.I. Joe delivers. It offers up some of the best eye candy stunt set-pieces of the summer, easily besting the Bay bombast of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. While he’s just as crazed and over the top as his brother in non-believability, director Sommers at least stages his chaos with a normal attention span in mind. During a terrific chase scene in Paris, the camera leaps and bounds around the F/X, allowing us to both feel the experience and follow it, logistically. Similarly, a last act dogfight underwater (don’t ask) provides enough big screen scope and CG pyrotechnics to keep many a 14 year old’s bubbling brain pan good and stimulated. Even the hand-to-hand combat between our two franchise ninjas - Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes - is a crackerjack karate kick.

But if all you care about is character, narrative logic, emotional depth - Heck, even something you’ll remember an hour after you’ve seen it - G.I. Joe completely fails. This is a film that simply tosses personalities at the screen, unexplained and completely without context, coming back later for a few flaccid flashbacks in order to rebuild their already meaningless backstory. We know very little about Duke, even less about Ripcord, and the rest of the “Joes” are jerryrigged out of central casting conceits, multicultural needs, and a clear eye toward the budgetary bottom line. Don’t come looking for A-list stars here. Dennis Quiad aside (he’s our real American heroes aging father figure), the rest of the company is crap.

Indeed, the actor choices here are laughably bad. Sienna Miller does a decent job mimicking a Matrix-like female bad-ass (complete with a Trinity-lite line of tight black leather outfits), but she’s hormone fodder, nothing more. Marlon Wayans might have been added for marketing diversity’s sake, but his comic asides are just awful. As for our villains, there’s not much to discuss. Both Christopher Eccleston and Joseph Gordon-Levitt may seem like unusual choices to play Cobra’s kings, but they spend so much time doing little except explaining themselves that we grow weary of the endless exposition. But the worst marquee offender here is Channing Tatum. Totally talentless, without a lick of onscreen magnetism or presence, he represents the most low rent hero in the history of action films since the days of Steven Seagal. Had Sommers picked a better group of cinematic recruits, G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra would be much, much better. With the current crop, he needs all the supercomputing power the production can muster.

And then there is the script, a slop jar collection of cartoon call-backs, contemporary tech buzzwords, jingoistic clichés, and every emotionless bon mot in the thriller love interest primer. We don’t expect to buy or believe everything here - this is a property based on a kid’s show fashioned out of some updated toys, after all - but it would be nice to have something resembling human interaction and warmth between the characters. Everything is declarative and assertive, from military directives to feelings of affection. Perhaps the problem goes back once again to casting, but it seems pretty clear that not even a director with a better grip on people than Sommers could elicit feelings out of the fake, pedantic dialogue offered as conversations here.

With a plethora of whiz bang pop rock and roll to provide the demo with some entertainment rules of engagement and just enough story to keep things from straying too far off course, G. I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra will be seen as the one time the studio rolled the dice and more or less came up a winner. Even if the movie doesn’t make back all it’s money, Paramount successfully avoided the predicted piling-on of an out of touch media in favor of finding publicity accomplices within the Internet’s new specialized salesmen. Whether it will really mean anything in the end remains to be seen. After all, it’s not all about the press. It’s also about the presentation - and this escapist claptrap is goofy and cheesy, but mostly mediocre. And if a group of racists robots can monopolize this Summer’s money pit with their overlong trip into tedium, these celebrated soldiers should easily recapture some of final fiscal glory. They’re not heroes, or zeroes. Instead, these G.I.s are just so-so.   

by Bill Gibron

25 Jul 2009

No matter the culture, no matter the country, politics is farce. It’s the crazed game playing of people so drunk on power that they don’t ever realize they’re regularly pissing themselves. It’s policy draw on deception, tricks and tactics merged with an infinite desire to betray. As the old saying goes, leadership regularly stifles the needs of a nation, compromising them by the mandate to maintain control. Toss in special interests, unlikely allies, regular scandals, and the freakish rarity of actually accomplishing something, and strange bedfellows are the least of its new world worries.

So it’s easy to see how this bi-partisan, bicameral back and forth leads to laughs. It, like most of its participants, is a no brainer. It’s also an arena that UK writer/director Armando Iannucci has mined before, most successful in his British sitcom The Thick of It. Now he’s turning that delicious debunking of the English government into a feature film - In the Loop - and the results are resplendent. Using the War in Iraq as a backdrop, and offering a multileveled look at the push toward invasion, Iannucci and his fellow screenwriters craft a burlesque so smart, so completely incapable of avoiding the truth, that it turns even the most meaningless events into a devious bit of double-edged détente.

During a radio interview, Secretary of State for International Development Simon Foster deviates from the standard government “line” on potential conflict in the Middle East. Calling it “unforeseeable”, he sets off a firestorm both at home and abroad. The Prime Minster’s chief policy strategist, a gruff and crude enforcer named Malcolm Tucker, wants Foster’s bollocks on a platter. He sees nothing but irreparable damage from this disastrous quote.

Over in the US, Karen Clarke, the Assistant Secretary of Diplomacy, hopes to use the British as a means of uncovering a secret war committee seated by State Department snake Linton Barwick. With the help of General Miller, and a controversial position paper from her assistant Liza, Clarke is determined to stop the march to war. For Forster, just getting through the day without being terrorized by Tucker or undermined by new assistant Toby is a major accomplishment. When he steps into this fray, however, there’s no where to go but down.

Uproarious, bitter, and ever so slightly twisted, In the Loop revives our hope in art infiltrating and exposing the hypocrisies of life. It’s a foul-mouth free-for-all, a wicked assault on all that is proper and expected in the realm of Left/Right positioning. Loaded with both the driest of UK wit and the most excessive of crass curse word wizardry, this is a saber stabbed directly into the darkest heart of the sovereignty process, a blade soaked in the blood of dumb decisions, chest-thumping hubris, and the future lives of thousands of young men and women.

Using an Office like handheld approach, In the Loop places the audience directly into the meaningless mix of the political process. We are bystanders as positions are taken, alliances are forged (and quickly forgotten), and backroom dealings become front page news. Interlacing the need to remain territorial while inviting the like minded into their dominion, we see cat and mouse as a cutthroat enterprise, hands and asses slapped as readily as well honed daggers are aimed at the solar plexus. Sure, we’ve been there before, our post-Watergate world inundated with several marked social commentary spoofs. But In the Loop offers a take that’s so black, so clouded in mean-spirited cheek, that we forget how funny it all is.

Acting is crucial to getting this material across, and Iannucci recruits some former Thick accomplices - Peter Capaldi (as Tucker), Paul Higgins (as unhinged Press Officer Jamie McDonald), and Chris Addison (as new character Toby) - as well as bringing in new faces like Tom Hollander (as Foster), Mimi Kennedy (as Clarke) and James Gandolfini (as the jaded General) to man the mania. All work together in perfect harmony, making the ensemble element of this film function in a flawless and frisky manner. It’s interesting to watch Americans work within the very British mandates of In the Loop‘s sense of humor. You can see them wanting to arch and eyebrow or overplay a scene, removing the mischievous seriousness from the material. But Iannucci keeps them in check - that is, when he’s not purposefully letting them fly off the handle.

Indeed, Capaldi and Higgins are so good scatological outbursts that they provide a primer for how to turn vulgarity into convenient comic gold. They work their dirty mouths with untold energy and verve. Both manage the F-word, the C-word, and multicolored variables of same so well that you can’t wait for their next meltdown. From sexually descriptive assaults to position and philosophical battery, they become the lunatic yin to the more laid back, stereotypical stiff upper lip of the leadership’s yang. Hollander, who many will know from his place within the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, is equally effective as the pawn placed directly in the middle of this erratic ego fest. While Addison’s Toby is slightly under-drawn, he is balanced perfectly against Anna Chlumsky’s amiable aide Liza.

While some will see the targets as easy and the marksmanship as hit or miss, there’s no denying how delicious In the Loop really is. It carves a hole within the absurdity that is modern day ideology and argues, rather effectively, that most decisions aren’t based on dogma, but dimwitted double-crosses. Like the moment in Oliver Stone’s W. when Richard Dreyfuss’ Dick Cheney explains the oil-based reasons for invading Iraq, what we have here is pre-determination bumping up against the paving of a path to get there. Unlike other films which try to make sense of the surreality, that balances real insight with outrageous antics, In the Loop simply goes for the throat. As comedies go, it’s razor sharp. It’s merely the players and their positions that are dull.

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