District 9 is Independence Day for the art-house set. And although it's already being hailed in many quarters as a model of originality, the truth of the matter is that the film follows genre conventions just as often as it heads off in its own direction. Like Independence Day, it treats the cinema of science fiction as its own buffet table, picking and choosing which ideas would best serve its own intentions. And in doing so, it comes up with a dish that's juicy in both execution and endgame.
Documentary-style footage and faux-news reels show how, back in 1981, an enormous alien craft appeared in the sky above Johannesburg, South Africa. The voyagers, malnourished and stranded on a spaceship too damaged to go anywhere else, were rounded up and placed in a slum area known as District 9. Now it's been nearly three decades since their arrival, and the million-plus aliens, known dismissively as "prawns" because of their physical appearance, continue to wallow in filth and poverty, conditions that convince the South African government to move them further away from the city limits so as to minimize their contact with humans even more.
A private company named Multi-National United is hired to take care of the migration, but it's more interested in discovering how all that complicated alien weaponry works. It's left to a corporate wonk named Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) to go shack to shack and get the indignant e.t.'s to move, and it's during his field work that an unexpected incident forces him to partner -- if perhaps only temporarily -- with these illegal aliens.
The specter of apartheid is never far removed from the actions occurring throughout District 9, but writer-director Neill Blomkamp and co-scripter Terri Tatchell never turn this into a heavy-handed screed. Instead, they approach the issues of racism and xenophobia mindful of their knotty ramifications. The blacks in the picture are as prejudiced against the "prawns" as much as the Afrikaners were as prejudiced against the blacks during the days of apartheid, aptly demonstrating how those without power will often lash out against others they view as even weaker rather than band together in an effort to topple the ruling class. And while Wikus might be an unlikely movie protagonist, he's a believably flawed Everyman, accepting the casual bigotry that defines him but never really exploring its cancerous effect until it's almost too late.
Imagination runs a bit short toward the end, as District 9 largely turns into a standard chase thriller and viewers are asked to swallow a bit more than even their disbelief-suspending minds might accept. But in a nice twist from the standard Hollywood blockbuster, this Australian import employs its special effects to save the day rather than ruin it, using superb CGI wizardry (from the same outfit that brought us The Lord of the Rings) to draw us into the final battles instead of relying on obvious fakery to distance us from the proceedings. Over 200 people are listed in the credits as having worked on the film's effects, and while this may not match Old Hollywood's proverbial "cast of thousands" on the other side of the camera, it is reassuring to see all these artists plying their trade on something so worthwhile.
G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA
Certainly, the fact that Paramount Pictures didn't screen G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra in advance for critics prevented the nation's scribes from weighing in on the merits of the last of the summer '09 blockbusters on opening day. Yet while it's accepted that Paramount kept the movie quarantined from the legitimate press (some whorish fanboy bloggers were allowed to screen it early and predictably reacted like 14-year-olds discovering porn) because the studio suits themselves knew that the film stunk on ice, I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt. I believe they kept it from the critics as an act of mercy.,Of course, the studio's benevolent gesture was in vain, since several critics felt it their patriotic duty to check it out anyway. This is the second film this summer to be based on a line of Hasbro toys, and the good news is that it's better than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Of course, then comes the sobering afterthought: Pretty much every movie this summer has been better than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. At any rate, this isn't G.I. Joe so much as it's C.G.I. Joe, a nonstop orgy of computer imagery and pretty much what we'd expect from the director of the execrable Van Helsing and two dopey Mummy movies. Tatum Channing, certainly more plastic than any of the G.I. Joe action figures I owned as a child, plays Duke, a dedicated soldier who, along with best bud Ripcord (Marlon Wayans), joins the elite commando squad in order to help take down a megalomaniac (Christopher Eccleston) bent on ruling the world. Duke's particularly perturbed because his former girlfriend Ana (Sienna Miller) is now an enemy agent, but both actors are so dull that they seem to have wandered in straight from the set of a soap opera. Wayans tries to provide some pep, but because his contract specifically states that the actor receive the lion's share of the script's truly atrocious lines, he's rendered ineffectual every time he opens his mouth.,Nobody's going to this film looking for quality acting, which makes the presence of several capable performers all the more perfunctory: Among those cashing checks are Dennis Quaid as the heroes' commanding officer, an unrecognizable Joseph Gordon-Levitt doing a 180 from (500) Days of Summer to portray a mad doctor, and Jonathan Pryce as an ineffectual U.S. president. But those who claim that action yarns don't even need sound actors or competent direction or compelling storylines are either not thinking the argument through or have become too shell-shocked to note the obvious differences between, say, Van Helsing and The Dark Knight, between Transformers: ROTF and District 9. Yes, there are a few rousing set-pieces in G.I. Joe, but for the most part, the action is unfocused, the effects are iffy, and the thrills are fleeting. Young boys will probably get a kick out of the movie, but everyone else will notice that the entertainment value is clearly MIA.
THE GOODS: LIVE HARD, SELL HARD
Like a Frankenstein monster that can never quite find the strength to climb off the table, The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard is a lumbering creation stitched together from body parts of past comedies operating in a similarly sophomoric vein. A slapdash effort that celebrates the Idiotic Man-Child in all his various incarnations, it quickly becomes clear that the colon in the title isn't the only thing the movie has in common with the likes of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Jeremy Piven stars as Don Ready, a mercenary salesman called into action whenever a company has trouble moving its product. For this particular Fourth of July weekend, Don and his team -- the lovelorn Jibby (Ving Rhames), the horny Babs (Kathryn Hahn) and the fast-talking Brent (David Koechner) -- find themselves hired to help car dealer Ben Selleck (James Brolin) empty out his lot. For Ready, it's always just a job, but for once, he finds himself getting emotionally involved with one of the locals -- specifically, Selleck's daughter Ivy (Jordana Spiro), who's preparing to marry a dweeb (The Hangover's Ed Helms) into boy bands. The Goods isn't quite as coarse as other recent films of its ilk, but it also isn't very funny, with the humor quotient never rising above a few mild-mannered chuckles. The film messes around with some decidedly non-PC content -- hate crimes, child molestation, the sight of James Brolin sporting a massive boner under his pants -- but it's too tepid to earn any points for either audacity, originality or offensiveness. As the squished cherry on top, there's also an unfunny cameo by an overexposed actor whose own movies are pretty unfunny. I won't spoil the, uh, surprise here, although it's clearly no surprise to see him also listed as one of the producers of this shrug-inducing comedy that will doubtless play a helluva lot better after four pizza slices and eight beers.