Category Archives: Drama

District 9 (2009)

One is immediately immersed in the film’s world. Beginning in medias res with stark images of a massive spacecraft hovering over Johannesburg, the audience quickly discovers it’s been there for over thirty years by the time our story picks up. For months after the craft appeared the Earth waited for a response. When none came, the decision was made to send special teams to board the vessel and finally get some answers. What they got, instead, were more questions.
The aliens inside were malnourished, unhealthy and their intelligence appeared to be below that of most humans. Labeled “prawns” due to their appearance, the aliens were removed from the ship and placed into a temporary encampment known as District 9, which has rapidly deteriorated into an outright slum. Enter Wikus van der Merwe, a seemingly naive yet (mostly) likeable fellow employed with Multinational United (M.N.U.), the pseudo-U.N. organization tasked with handling the prawns. He’s just received a promotion and is ordered to relocate the prawns to a newer camp set up in an area more isolated from humanity.
While the scope of “District 9” seems initially epic, the film  follows a very focused tale centered on Wikus and an alien known as Christopher. As the story unfolds, the development of these characters is outstanding – particularly for an action-oriented film. A lesser film would’ve transformed Wikus into a more compassionate person as the events transpired, perhaps even culiminating into some sort of freedom fighter for the prawns. With this film, however, we’re finally presented with a very real, very flawed character.
Wikus is a largely  self-serving individual, whereas Christopher is a more  humane character.
The documentary format in which the film is shot is a phenomenal aspect and one which is original and innovative, and combines nicely with the action movie style.                                                                                The polarizing opinions and wildly diverse interpretations of this film are precisely what makes it brilliant. It’s been labeled as both a compelling allegory of apartheid and of the Iraqi war, it’s been accused of somehow being a ‘racist’ film, while somesee it as violently offensive rubbish. The film does not provide answers and solutions, but rather allows the viewer to see that there are no viable solutions.

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Lemon Tree (2009)


When I was just a lad of ten, my father said to me,
“Come here and take a lesson from the lovely lemon tree.”
“Don’t put your faith in love, my boy”, my father said to me,
“I fear you’ll find that love is like the lovely lemon tree.”
Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet
But the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat.
The opening of this movie, with a Peter, Paul, and Mary song sung in a plaintiff voice, is a haunting beginning to a haunting film. The movie tells a small story in a beautiful and balanced way that shines a light on the bigger Israeli-Palestinian problem. There is a plea for women to rule nations for a more peaceful world embedded within this film.

I have been slowly but surely falling in love with Israeli films–the intensity of life there, where man has lived in conflict for several thousand years, is sympathetically portrayed time and time again. Yet even in that atmosphere, this is a memorable movie. The movie is directed by Eran Riklis, whose 2004 movie, “The Syrian Bride,” explored Israeli-Arab border tensions in a deeply moving way–non-judgmental and yet the conclusion was clear. This is also a wrenching, richly layered feminist allegory as well as a geopolitical one. Salma Zidane (Hiam Abbass) is a Palestinian woman whose history has put her in the wrong place at the wrong time–Navon, the Israeli Defense minister movies in next door and her life is changed forever. The movie is summarized nicely in the New York Times review (to go to link, click on title), and the details of the story are well told. But the mournfulness of women, who live with what powerful men have wrought (and perpetuate) is part of the story that is not so much told as etched out in the faces of Salma and Navon’s wife, Mira. I would rather that they be in charge of solving the dilemma than the men who feel it is their job to do so. The futility, the short range answers that complicate long term solutions, and the inevitability of people perpetually doing the wrong thing for the right reasons sadly plays out to the predictable ending. And you will not easily forget it.

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The Hurt Locker (2009)


OMG. OMG. OMG. What’s most striking about Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” isn’t its action sequences — which are low-key to begin with — but its tense quietness. Which was really difficult for me. I have trouble sitting still, and this movie had me on my feet incessantly. This is a war movie that rarely goes “boom,” an ironic choice, considering that its central character is an explosives expert. Then again, perhaps the true subject of Bigelow’s movie isn’t so much the war itself but human stress.
The movie follows bomb defusers in Baghdad relatively early in the war, when there was a lot of insecurity there. The things that ramp up the stress of this war–the urban setting, the proximity of civilians whose affiliations are uncertain, and the pervasive use of IED’s to promote unrest are all well depicted, as is the accumulation of stress as time goes on. It was hard to watch this for 2 hours. Imagine a year in that kind of pressure cooker.

The movie opens with a statement “War is a drug.” True, but that is not the only problem. True, the hypervigilence required to stay one step ahead of the enemy, to react to every movement as if it is a threat, and to gather every piece of information available so as to reduce your risk of harm takes it’s toll. There is alot of adrenaline associated with that. The adrenaline is addictive, and those who thrive on it are far more likely to be high adrenaline responders (and they are probably more likely to make it out alive). But it is also true that the return home brings with it a two-fold problem. The first is the adrenaline withdrawal–but this is a stress reduction response. That passes within weeks to months, and then there is overall physiologic improvement. Mood brightens. Energy returns. But what doesn’t change is that the people around you who didn’t go to Iraq don’t get it. They think you should put it behind you, not talk about it, and above all not change because of it. But trauma, and the stress associated with it, invariably changes you. It is impossible to turn back to clock. Those things happened and soldiers respond to them. But their friends and families cannot keep up with their pace of change. And so the soldier is drawn to returning, to a place they find acknowledges their experience, and to people who will listen to their stories.
This is an Iraq movie with a modest agenda and no obvious political views. The narrow focus, to bring the audience into the world of our men and women in uniform in Iraq, is the source of its strength. Memorable and highly recommended.

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Taking Woodstock (2009)


Beware. This is not a great movie. It is also not a movie to learn more about the history of the Summer of Love. The facts on that are disputed and probably largely unknowable. It was 40 years ago. The event came to be bigger than the sum of it’s parts. Michael Lang and Elliot have good reason not to agree on who did what and why. So lay that aside when viewing the film. There is more to it than that.
The movie reminds me alot of the collection of short stories by Ellen Litman, ‘The Last Chicken in America’. Elliot is the child of Russian immigrants who see him as needing to fix their problems. They don’t listen to him, they boss him around, and even though he is well into adulthood in terms of age, he has the worst of both worlds with his parents. They don’t listen to him, he is not an equal decision-maker with them, and they take it for granted that he will come to their aid when needed. And he fulfills that role to the best of his ability. They have a ramshackle 1930’s style motel in the Catskills that is going to rack and ruin, not much used, and in constant danger of being foreclosed on by the bank. It is in the guise of trying to wring as much money out of everything that Elliot gets involved in the whole music festival scene. So whether this version of events related to Woodstock is true or not, the depiction of the economy in upstate New York and the pressures on first generation Americans are worth the time spent watching the movie. The music festival itself is depicted in a way that is pretty unobjectionable, with the obligatory hallucinatory scene being above average in accuracy. It is by no means Ang Lee’s best effort, but he is a filmmaker worthy of attention.

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In the Loop (2009)


I admit it. I have been watching quite a few movies since the year began. I was on a brief viewing hiatus in December. The trip to Nicaragua led directly into the holiday bussle and I couldn’t manage to squeeze in either exercise or movies. But the New Year has reversed that trend quite nicely. Always start off the year where you hope to end up. I have never been good with resolutions, but I am a terribly entrenched creature of habit, and good habits are better than bad ones. Best of all, sometimes good habits get positively reinforced, and the first week of 2010 was one of those times.
This movie is a terrific spoof on the dynamics of international politics, in this case United Kingdom-United States relations. It is hopelessly ribald, language wise, and while I do not think myself a prude in that respect, this was right at the limit of what I can tolerate, language-wise.

War and how we get ourselves into one is the back story. The movie goes about demonstrating how the mountain of this significant event is reduced to a series of festering mole hills by the people charged with making the ultimate decisions that affect the world–literally. They are depicted here as heartless combatents who at the same time absolutely must get along. The paradox is highlighted again and again throughout the movie. Every faction is either figuratively or literally sleeping with another. The take home message is that the mechanics of politics, like the making of sausage, should not be looked at too closely. Just focus on the end products, and vote for the guys who have the least objectionable outcomes. And keep your sense of humor about it.

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