Monday, August 24, 2009

Film Review #209: District 9
Director: Neill Blonkamp
Cast: Sharlto Copely, Vanessa Haywood, CGI

Midway through this story set in South Africa’s Johannesburg, the ingratiating corporate gopher charged with being the public face of a massive forced removal himself takes refuge within the sprawling, sordid shanty-town. Things have gone terribly wrong. Back at the shack of one Christopher Johnson, whom he’d tried to evict earlier, Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copely) notices his host’s young son chattering and peering at him. Already distraught, Wikus demands, “What’s he doing?”

“He likes you,” says Christopher.

“We are alike,” says the little one, fascinated. “We’re the same.”

“We are not the same!” shrieks Wikus, leaping to his feet.

Wikus is still mostly right in this horrified declaration. Christopher and his son (who are CGI-conjured instead of played by actors) are aliens, two among the growing thousands who’ve been corralled for 28 years – since their apparently disabled mothership stalled above the city where it still hangs mid-sky – in an inner-city camp, ringed by East Berlin-like guard towers, gates, warning signs, razor wire and Multi National United’s prowling, brutal, trigger-happy private security forces. The South Africans call the aliens “prawns,” an epithet descriptive of their appearance, and their language is a series of clicks, which Wikus understands but are subtitled for the audience.

Tensions and incidents of violence have risen during human and alien encounters, and the TV live-eye reports and interviews that provide much of the narrative thread and documentary-like ambiance include a pointed, bizarre parade of black South Africans voicing fearful hostility toward the aliens, resentment over the resources they consume, and vigorous support of an even greater Apartheid toward them. In their very public display of removing the aliens to a remote site with even fewer amenities than District 9 offers, MNU has carefully kept out of view their interest in accessing the aliens’ weapons, which are coded to work only via contact with alien biology, and the Mengele-like medical experiments. So smarmy to start with that you want to slap him, Wikus actually seems to believe MNU’s public relations line and is crudely racist – if that would be the term – in his officious condescension toward the aliens. Imagine his surprise when a chance encounter with a canister of alien fluid – its versatile powers will also fuel that mother-ship if Christopher can get back up there – first makes Wikus violently ill and then causes an alien hand and arm to sprout, replacing his own, just the beginning of his transformation.

To what lengths must we go to feel another’s pain and know we are alike? Only when “infected” with an alien life-form does Wikus become, well, fully human. Enduringly, we all want to go home. Each stranded in the world of the other, Wikus and Christopher share this yearning and its dilemmas and, from across a great chasm, come to be allies and even brothers. Quickly arriving at Central New York multiplexes after wide release on August 14th, District 9 is an exhilarating action film whose shooting, editing and narrative are way better crafted and more thoughtful than you’d ever expect. As executive producer, hit mogul Peter Jackson “presents” this first-time feature from South African director Neill Blomkamp. In the largely South African cast, Copely delivers a stunning, high energy performance as the MNU bureaucrat who actually does love his wife Tania (Vanessa Haywood) and has more gumption than anybody previously imagined. One by one, his father-in-law (MNU’s CEO), the mercenary chief and the gangster running District 9’s black market all get more than they bargained for out of this frightened, unhip little guy they were planning to swat aside.

District 9 also owes a great deal to other sci-fi movies. Part of the pleasure of watching it involves realizing that a certain vocabulary has evolved at this point that comments on more than the action at hand (satisfying as that may be). From Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002), for example, we see the blue holographic computer functions that hover in mid-air (predicting your own smart phone’s finger-operated apps screen). The Wachowski brothers’ Matrix trilogy (1999 – 2003) provided familiarity with the notion that new knowledge and abilities could be “plugged in” instead of acquired through laborious, old-fashioned step-by-step learning (see the part where Wikus, inside what we might best call an alien HumVee, finds himself understanding its operation and channeling Ellen Ripley).

In fact, District 9 especially owes a great deal to the Alien quartet (‘79, ‘86, ‘92 and ’97) – whether it’s memories of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) protecting the orphan Newt by using her space-age fork-lift to battle the alien mother in the second installment, Ripley’s chest bursting open as she dives into the flames in the third, or the cloned Ripley – now part-alien herself and discovering botched versions of earlier attempts to clone her stored in vats of formaldehyde – heading back to Earth, perhaps not with the same creature-loyalty. And whether it’s the many zombie films, New Line Cinema’s Blade trilogy with Wesley Snipes (variously directed, 1998, 2002 and 2004), or the progression of Ripley’s transformation over almost two decades and four directors, there also has emerged the idea that mixing species is at least tinged with infection. Setting District 9 specifically in South Africa, including “news clips” of vociferously anti-alien black South Africans and Wikus’ reaction to Christopher’s offspring thinking they’re “alike” makes explicit something of a trend in which mixing species frankly stands in for an old ideology that views race-mixing with horror and justifies treating those who are different as “non-human.”

Done with such seeming nonchalance that it takes you a while to realize it, District 9 actually offers an alternative history for South Africa: there is no government visible in this film, no Mandela, no end of Apartheid. Instead, "all that" is replaced by the 1981 arrival of the alien mothership which unites South African blacks and whites alike in repressing those yet lower on the food chain. (Given the parts assigned to Nigerians in this story, you have to wonder what the inside-Africa stereiotype is there.) In fact, I think surfacing this satirically is part of this film’s brilliance, though not everyone agrees; District 9 dwells in a queasy, ambiguous zone and some reviewers have found it literally, offensively racist.

Anyway, definitely don’t wait for the DVD.

This review appears in the August 20, 2009 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly in “Make it Snappy,” a regular film column since 2006. “District 9” is playing in wide release.
Film Review #208: Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg
Director: Aviva Kempner

The film opens just as the first episode of the television show did on January 10, 1949. Ample-bosomed Jewish mother Molly Goldberg (Gertrude Berg) leans out the kitchen window that faces the air shaft of a brick tenement building in the Bronx and greets her neighbors across the way – what NPR correspondent Susan Stamberg calls the urban equivalent of neighbors talking across back fences – “Hello! Such a little word for such a big feeling! I want to say hello to you in all the letters of the alphabet. That would be a hello!”

Washington, DC-based Aviva Kempner’s richly detailed film about the life of Gertrude Berg isn’t currently scheduled to screen in Central New York, but let us hope that changes. Opening on just two screens July 10th, it’s up to a dozen theaters this week and has bookings through the end of the year. Intriguing in several ways, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg also has enough Syracuse connections to make it a natural here.

Before Oprah, Ellen, Martha, Rachel Ray, or I Love Lucy (which, incidentally, replaced “The Goldbergs” in 1956) there was Gertrude Berg’s creation, Molly Goldberg. Berg, a New Yorker who grew up at her father’s Catskills resort and married the Englishman who invented instant coffee, produced, wrote the scripts – in the end, some 12,000 – and played the starring role in both radio and TV versions. Before transitioning to television in 1949, Berg’s live 15-minute radio vignettes ran five days a week from 1929 – beginning three weeks after the Stock Market crash that launched the Great Depression – until 1945. The Yiddish-accented Goldberg family comprised Molly, her husband Jake, Molly’s Uncle David, and their first-generation American kids Sammy and Rosalie. Their stories provided solidarity and identification to Jewish listeners and to other Americans a window on how Jewish immigrants assimilated, found spots in US business and neighborhoods, navigated raising their kids in American culture while preserving their own, coped with a Depression economy laboring under 25% unemployment and lived through the rise of anti-Semitism both here and abroad and World War II.

Though often folksy and comedic, the show addressed political issues through the lens of a single family. During Hitler’s rise in 1933, radio audiences listened to the real rabbi that Berg invited onto her show as he performed a real Passover Seder. After the infamous Kristallnacht rampage in Germany in November 1938, during which wandering mobs killed Jews and burned their homes, shops and synagogues, Berg aired an episode for the next Passover in which a rock is thrown through the window during the Goldbergs’ Seder and Molly calms the family so the ceremony can proceed. Kempner includes archival footage and photos that recreate the social tensions on this side of the Atlantic during those years. The late 1930s saw Nazi clubs who marched on Long Island and in Detroit the popular radio commentator Father Charles Coughlin, whose broadcasts lionized Hitler and blamed the world’s problems on Jewish conspiracies.

Berg’s post-war transition to television was hugely successful and earned her the first Emmy Award given for Best Actress in 1950. Kempner includes interviews with many of the surviving actors from that cast as well as generous clips from episodes. But Molly’s husband Jake Goldberg was played initially by actor Phillip Loeb, who committed suicide in 1955 after he was forced off the show and black-listed as a Communist during the McCarthy era. This past spring, the Syracuse-based simply new theatre’s production of Trumbo, followed by ArtRage Gallery’s screening of Johnny Got His Gun, re-acquainted Syracuse audiences with black-listed Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, plus the unlikely part played by a Syracuse grocer named Laurence Johnson in strong-arming Madison Avenue ad agencies representing radio and TV sponsors to pull their support from shows who employed suspect cast and crew, or risk national product boycotts.

Kempner’s film (which also details the lengths Berg went to defend Loeb) features the Newhouse School’s television authority Robert Thompson, who relates how Johnson convinced General Mills that he and the American Legion could brand them as Communist sympathizers unless the show fired Loeb, a founder of Actors Equity and union activist.

As it happens in this city of sometimes surprising cultural extremes, Syracuse University Press also published Glen Smith’s 2007 biography of Berg, and SU Library’s Special Collections houses Berg’s papers. Kempner was here to research her film and she uses Smith as a major source as well. Now somebody needs to bring her movie here too.

This review appeared in the August 13, 2009 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” is screening in limited release. Thanks to mPRm Public Relations for providing a preview DVD screener.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Film Review #207: HBO's Grey Gardens
Diector: Michael Sucsy
Cast; Drew Barrymore, Jessica Lange, Jean Tripplehorne

Beginning in the fall of 1971, reports – first in the National Enquirer – began appearing in the New York City press about a dilapidated mansion in an exclusive oceanfront section of East Hampton, the Long Island enclave some 114 miles from New York City. Grey Gardens was the Beale family’s 28-room estate, then inhabited by Edith Bouvier Beale, Sr. (“Big Edie”) and her 55-year-old daughter Edith, Jr. (“Little Edie”), plus a large number of cats and raccoons. Because Big Edie owned the property, her estranged husband had been powerless to sell it, as had her two sons, although they administered the small trust left to her after his death, which had by then run out. The media sensation – first the tabloids, then the mainstream dailies and Gail Sheehy’s article “Paradise Lost” in New York Magazine – stemmed partly from the estate’s extreme disrepair and its inhabitants’ bizarre theatricality.

Neighbors complaining of the stench had led the Suffolk County Health Department to threaten eviction. Without running water or heat, the house had many windows broken, was overgrown with vines and underbrush, filthy and trash-filled. Big Edie was John “Blackjack” Bouvier’s sister; his daughters, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill, were Little Edie’s first cousins. In the summer of 1972, Mrs. Onassis (Jean Trippelhorne in the HBO version) visited Grey Gardens, where she had spent much time as a child, while she was visiting her sister, who was visiting Andy Warhol in Montauk. When Big Edie insisted she would not leave, her two nieces arranged for a massive cleaning and refurbishing. During this project, Mrs. Radziwill brought the brothers Albert and David Maysles around. The Maysles, already acclaimed for their Rolling Stones cinema vérité documentary Gimme Shelter, hoped to film Lee and Jackie. A year later they showed up again – Mrs. Onassis had “lost interest” in their movie – asking to film Big and Little Edie.

Little Edie had discovered that first National Inquirer photographer shooting from the bushes and invited him in – she hoped publicity would revive her old dream of a dancing career – and she welcomed the Maysles and insisted her contract contain a clause that she could appear in other films. Big Edie had aspired to a singing career herself; she spends a fair amount of time on-screen in the ensuing film – when not bickering and making up with Little Edie – vamping and singing 30s and 40s pop tunes from beneath enormous old hats, ensconced in her bed with her cats, newspapers, hand mirror, empty pâté tins and ice cream cartons.

The Maysles’ 1975 film has been an enduring classic in its own right. Re-released in 2006 on a two-disc Criterion set, its copious extras contain an audio clip of Little Edie telephoning Albert Maysles after the Bush-Gore election. Big Edie had died in 1977; two years later Little Edie sold Grey Gardens, had a farewell two-night sold-out cabaret engagement in Greenwich Village, traveled and settled in Bal Harbour, Florida, where she died in 2002.

The Maysles’ riveting film is now also worth seeing along with Michael Sucsy’s new dramatized version. The HBO film premiered in April and came out on DVD several weeks ago; it has a whopping 17 Emmy nominations, including one each for Best Lead Actress in a Mini-series or Film for Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. For one thing, it makes clear (as the Maysles really didn’t) to what extent, in a single intervening year, most of Jackie and Lee’s improvements vanished.

The Maysles also hadn’t tried to account for Grey Gardens’ decline over the quarter century or so the two women lived there alone. Sucsy asked himself a dozen questions about what might have occurred and then attempted to fill in those gaps. So we see Little Edie at her New Year’s Eve 1936 debutante ball at the Pierre Hotel, see her mother’s narcissism and sabotage of her confidence, her brief Manhattan period when trying to break into dancing, her affair with Truman’s former Secretary of the Interior Julius Krug, her mother’s maneuvers to get her home after her own affair with a live-in “singing teacher” fell apart. Little Edie was witty, unstable, bright, surprisingly generous, gracious, blunt, ill-equipped to strike out on her own, stricken. Sucsy alternates these vignettes with often remarkable, verbatim recreations of scenes from the Maysles film. I watched these two films together last week. Like Helen Mirren reincarnating Queen Elizabeth, Barrymore and Lange astonish.

This review appeared in the August 6, 2009 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. HBO’s Grey Gardens and Criterion’s 2006 DVD of the Maysles Brothers’ 1975 documentary are both available at Netflix. The Emmy Awards air 9/20 on CBS.