scary monsters, super freaks: district 9, tokyo!, grace

As the shadow of QT's latest flick, and by some accounts, his cache as a popular and artistically relevant figure in film, slowly disperses - and those weird screamy arias you hear? They're the neo-cons and right-bloggers singing their weird screamy praises for a film that apparently has something to do with the war on terror - let's take a quiet moment to reflect upon the best movie to make the summer scene, a star-less, South African sci-fi actioner that only runs 84 minutes long.

What sets Neil Blomkamp's District 9 apart from the run-of-the-mill summer fare isn't producer Peter Jackson's name over the title, but that it takes a page from sci-fi classics like Blade Runner (1982) and Children of Men (2006). Like those films, District 9 is willing to accept the same sort of limits on the narrative it asks the audience to accept at the outset: that what you're about to see is a moment in time from a diminished and cruel place that's filled with either brutal or cowardly people who arent' likely to find their better angels over the next hour and a half. Blomkamp powers what's essentially a well-bred action pic quickly and smoothly, so much so that it doesn't have the time to ponder the motivation of scientists at Multinational United who obssess over captured alien weapons, or the depravatiy of Nigerian gangsters who squat on the edge of the refugee aliens' camps to barter off-world artifacts for catfood, but instead pauses just long enough to remind us that this is how things are here, so as we move from alien slum to South African suburb to a horrifying secret lab beneath MNU's headquarters, it becomes clear - but never ponderously so - that there's a lot more to overcome in this picture than broken-down spaceships and rampaging alien viruses.

So D9 is paced, yes, but Blomkamp doesn't just chuck a jumble of unconnected ideas into his movie in the hopes that they'll pass for politics; maybe what makes D9 so special for a summer flick is that the political and racial ideas not only give the film a dense moral core, but it makes this movie sing. Lots will no doubt be written about the distant and contemporary history surrounding the setting, and rightly so, but for me District 9 's shanties, forced relocation, and images of terrified and angry aliens rioting had echoes of the narrative here in the United States following the Hurricane Katrina. In 2005, the tragedy of losing one's home, or having to wade past bloated bodies to go break into a corner store for food and diapers was transformed into a kind of shame, that to have suffered so marked those people not as refugees deserving compassion but scorn, just another facet of their cursed and barely-like-us lives they lead. I have to wonder if the abuse and degradation we humans heap on the "prawns" of District 9 wasn't so much about their difference, but our profound disappointment in their vulnerability.

Paul Solet's Grace, about a young, beautiful mother (Jordan Ladd) coping with a zombie infant, is a chockablock with ideas, none of which ever come together the way they should. I really, really wanted to love Grace - Jordan Ladd's after-bar air drumming gave me my only thrill from Deathproof (2007) - and Solet sets up an potentially promising flick with lots of atmosphere, but despite the bravery Ladd and the other actors here show, it's almost as though he ends up squeamish at the prospect of having to film his own horror movie. Grace is not all that bad, but not nearly as good as it should've been.

And for Tokyo!...you know, I generally approach these little omnibus things with some skepticism. Who, except stone cold fanboys and girls wants only a few minutes of your fave director or star? And do those directors ever manage to grasp the limitations of the format enough to give us a little of that good stuff? Anyway, from the top: Gondry, as usual, wanks; Leos Carax's segment, a riff on the giant monster movie, roars off to a fantastic start before it all-too quickly tires out (though I'd be willing to go back and see the advertised sequel); and the always-excellent Bong Joon-Ho turns out an eerie, funny, and heartbreaking piece about Tokyo shut-ins, special tattoos, and Saturday afternoon pizza.

UPDATE, 8.28.09>> Now this - this is the Tokyo story I'd like to see.

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