Monday, October 12, 2009

Strangers in Strange Lands


People who fit in do not often make it as the protagonists in movies. The character who's just like a bunch of other people (or aliens, or mutants, or cartoon creatures, or whatever) isn't particularly interesting. TVOR was particularly reminded of this when she considered the movies she's going to blurb about in this post.

District 9

Directed and co-written by Neill Blomkamp

Here's a science fiction film that's much less about machinery and more about character than is usual in the genre. In telling the story of a group of aliens who have landed outside Johannesburg, South Africa and spend the next couple of decades held in camps, Neill Blomkamp shows us a lot about humanity--and the lack of it. Sharlto Copley is a mid-level bureaucratic type, totally inadequate for the job, who is charged with relocating the aliens. The movie is produced by Peter Jackson (who made the Lord of the Rings films) so the special effects are very well-done, but not overpowering. They support the story instead of taking it over. Even non sci-fi fans can enjoy this one.

The Informant!
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Usually movies about whistle-blowers are a very serious, often with a little inspiration thrown in. The idealistic protagonist takes on the big bad company, which shows how big and bad it is by wreaking havoc on the lives of the little people in its way. The company is dreadful and sinister as it tries to prevent the good guy from exposing the crime and corruption at its core. And should the audience not be following along closely enough, there's some helpful music and a few supporting characters who help the hero demonstrate his goodness and the bad guys their badness. It's all very nicely laid out. The good guy is very, very good, and the bad guys are very, very bad. You leave the theater knowing that you've seen a film about an important subject.

The Informant! is not at all like this. The film starts out with a very different feel from what you might expect. You might even call it perky. With perky credits and very perky music, the film just doesn't have a serious feel to it. The whistle-blower guy doing the voice over seems to be going off on tangents. And it proceeds to get weirder as it goes along. It would be great to go into this film knowing nothing and just let it unfold, but given that the film has been around a while, it's probably too late for that. Even so, TVOR won't add much else, other than her recommendation. Matt Damon plays the whistle-blower, and Scott Bakula and Joel McHale are his FBI handlers. TVOR loved the narration, the music, and even the perky credits. And about that seriousness. It's not evident as much of the film unfolds, but if you're not pretty angry about corporate bad behavior by the end of the film, you probably haven't been paying attention.

Still Walking
Written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda

One of TVOR's favorite films of the 2009 Seattle International Film Festival is working its way around the county. This Japanese film is definitely one to catch, in a theater if you can, or if that's not possible, later on video. The film takes place over a 24-hour period, as a family gathers at the parents' home to commemorate the death of the oldest son fifteen years earlier. This dead son is the most important character in the film, certainly to the parents, and in some ways to the second son, who cannot begin to measure up to the dead man, or at least, the idea of him. As the family eats and spends the day together, a whole lot is going on, mostly pretty quietly. It's a wonderful film.

Video notes:

Michael Mann's The Insider is a much more typical example of whistle-blower movie, and it's a good one. Russell Crowe shows us how bad those big tobacco companies are.

Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich, although not a whistle-blower, is an unlikely person to expose the evil that a utility company does. Yet she does, looking about as trashy as Julia Roberts could--which, frankly, is not that trashy. The movie is fun, though, and the good guys win.

Tulpan was another film TVOR enjoyed at SIFF 2009, and now it's available on video. It takes place on the steppes of Kazakhstan, and face it, when have you ever seen what that part of the world looks like? Asa, the central character of the film, is a young shepherd recently returned from serving the the Russian navy. He needs to find a wife in order to get a flock of his own, and make his way in the world. Unfortunately, there is only one bridal candidate around--Tulpan. This is a beautiful film about a harsh way of life.

Also from SIFF 2009 is Kabei, a family saga taking place in 1940's Japan. It's a little sentimental, but not overly manipulatively so, and TVOR liked it.

And for something completely different, yet another film from this year's SIFF is Every Little Step, a documentary about casting a revival of A Chorus Line. It also has film and interviews from the original production. And singing. And tap dancing. It's very nicely done.