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Monday Review: District 9 and Ponyo


'District 9' brings humanity to aliens

There is one key thing the best science fiction films have in common, and that is that if you took out the aliens or lasers or spaceships or androids they'd still be compelling stories. Despite all the gadgets and gizmos in science fiction, it's still the story that matters. Two films this summer illustrate this point perfectly: Terminator and District 9. The former lacking any interesting story at all and the latter being a triumph in science fiction storytelling that is rarely seen. It's a little ironic that the film about the survival of humanity has less humanity in it than the film about the survival of the human race, but here we are.

Describing the actual plot of District 9 would partially ruin the film, especially since the marketing guys have done such an amazing job of not letting much of it slip out. Instead the trailers, advertisements and discussions focused on the world that District 9 takes place in, which is all I will describe here. Some 20 years ago an alien ship appears over Johannesburg. The aliens inside are eventually settled into a slum in the South African city and the predictable problems of crime, "race" issues, and violence ensue. There are obviously stark parrellels between the film's premise and current situations in South Africa.

Director Neil Blomkamp, whose future in Hollywood should now be a lock, along with screenwriter Terri Tatchell (not to mention Peter Jackson, the film's producer) have created a world with massive scope. One gets the feeling that we are simply seeing one story in a world that houses thousands, which is probably true since the film is based on Blomkamp's short film Alive in Joburg. The film's interspersing of documentary style and straight action cinema creates a feeling of a world that has layers far beyond what we're seeing. A fictional world, yes, but one that feels absolutely real.

It helps that the film's protagonist , played by newcomer Sharlto Copley, starts off as nothing more than a character that would normally be an opening gag in almost any other film of this size and scope. With a name like Wikus Van De Merwe and a seemingly ridiculous accent he comes across as nothing more than a punch line, but evolves into a real character that few science fiction films ever have. Even more amazing is the supporting cast of "prawns," the aliens who crash landed. There is nothing cheesy about these aliens, nothing fake (and that isn't just in reference to the high quality CGI). Blomkamp has somehow created real aliens. It's impressive and a little creepy at the same time.

It should be noted that part of the reason this world seems so real is that this is not an action movie. Action does show up near the end, and their are very cool alien guns that explode people, but the film's focus is not on them. When the action does pick up its done immensely well, with a sort of gritty style that belies the flying bullets and mech suit... I've said too much.

If you haven't seen the film yet I advise you to not read anything more on it. Head out and let its world open up to you with no expectations. There hasn't been a world or idea in film this intriguing for a long while, but if that isn't what gets your summer movie juices I believe that aforementioned guns that obliterate people should be enough to get you intrigued.

Magic on the screen

Magic. That must be what Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki animate every film they make with. No other animation studio around breathes so much life and beauty into their films. Every hand drawn scene in every film teams with more life than most live action films have in them. This is once again the case in Miyazaki's latest film Ponyo, which practically overflows the screen with creativity and wonder.

Disney, who has been bringing Miyazaki's films out in the US for years now, once again has brought this one over and dubbed it over with big name actors including Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Lily Tomlin and Cate Blanchett. I'm a strong promoter of watching a film in its original language with subtitles, but if dubbing it over mean that more children get to see Miyazaki's work than it is well worth it. Plus, Disney has done a wonderful job of bringing a subtitled version to their DVD releases, which are the kind of high quality release that very few Japanese animation films sees in the US.

But what about Ponyo itself? It seems that this time Miyazaki's story doesn't quite live up to his work. In fact its almost as if the entire concept was based around what he wanted to draw, which in this case turns out to be not such a bad thing since you could enjoy the film with the sound off it is so stunning. Ponyo (voiced by Noah Lindsey Cyrus) is a little fish with magic powers. She accidentally washes ashore and is saved by Sasuke (Frankie Jonas) and they fall in love. Here father, a man who lives under the sea trying to save it from humans pollution, bring sher back. So she runs away using her ever growing magic to get back to Sasuke, but happens to flood all of the island town he lives on. The entire film seems like a big excuse for the artists to draw fantastic and wondrous sea creatures, not to mention one of the most adorable animated creatures even in the form of Ponyo.

The film tries to tackle issues such as pollution, love and motherhood, but most of it gets lost in some of the more absurd plot points, like the calmness with which everyone seems to act after the world has been flooded. Again, non of this is a complaint. It would have been easy enough to watch this movie without sound or a plot at all and still left the theater entirely happy. It does help that most of the voice acting is top notch, and if you don't stay to listen to the ridiculous closing theme song you'll miss out on some of the best unintentional hilarity in years.

I can't say that Ponyo is my favorite Miyazaki film, but much like Pixar, even my least favorite film of his is a masterpiece. The worlds Miyazaki creates are nothing short of epic, and if you're simply waiting for this to come out on DVD don't. Seeing Ponyo on a big screen is breathtaking, especially the opening ten minutes or so, which could only be described as a work of true art.

(Please give the link in my profile a click so that I may continue my work on saving the albino toucan.)
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About Matthew Razakone of us since 2:04 PM on 04.03.2009

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