District 9, and a few more movies

#184  [archive]

District 9

Writer-director Neill Blomkamp has faded from view, but this was his first and best movie, packed a wallop, and it still holds up as a thoughtful thrill ride.

The setup is that a ginormous alien space ship is hovering over Johannesburg, but that's all it does — hovers. The spacemen make no attempt to communicate with us Earthers, so the authorizes eventually send helicopters up, with men to blowtorch their way inside the ship.

There they find a million aliens who have nowhere else to go. With the whole world watching, the aliens are 'welcomed' to South Africa, housed in camps, and treated with disdain.

The movie opens 28 years after the aliens' arrival, when everyone's grown accustomed to having a spaceship hovering in the sky, and teeming crowds of hated aliens living in shacks, being treated as third class not-quite citizens. 

Almost too obviously, this is apartheid — or ICE, or Palestine, Mexicans swimming the Rio Grande, or anywhere one group has all the advantages, and the other gets none of the chances. It's as American as apple strudel.

A glib human cop named Sharlto Copley is put in charge of what's basically the Bureau of Alien Affairs, mandated to evict the aliens from their slum, because the humans have decided it's too close to the human city. They'll be relocated to internment camps, of course, and Copley goes about the evictions with less humanity than even the aliens. 

In the process of illegally searching aliens' homes and looking for anything illegal in their possessions, Copley accidentally squirts himself in the face with some unknown black liquid, and soon he begins changing into sort of a half-breed, a hybrid human-alien. 

The effects are terrific but never overwhelm the story. The lead actor is endearing, playing a character who's certainly flawed and not too bright. The script is intelligent and tight, and the film is a little too loud, but it all works as action, as spectacle, as science fiction, and as a political statement.

Produced by Peter Jackson, the Lord of the Rings guy.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Toni Erdmann (2009)

Winfried is a daft but delightful old man, fond of telling dad jokes and bad jokes, who sometimes pretends to be someone else, just for the fun of it.

Ines is his daughter, a big shot career lady negotiating a deal with some oil conglomerate while also sidestepping her mostly-male colleagues who repeatedly underestimate her.

The conflict here is that Winfried thinks Ines is too serious about everything, and she's grown weary of Dad's whoopee cushions and has taken to avoiding him — so of course, Winfried decides to wear a slightly ridiculous wig and fake teeth to become his favorite made-up character, life-coach "Toni Erdmann," and follows Ines unbeknownst to Bucharest, where he'll insert himself as "Toni" into everything.

So he's my mother, minus God, plus a sense of humor.

The story sounds silly, but it feels genuine. For such a kooky concept, it's actually underplayed, not zany for zany's sake; everything fits the characters (well, perhaps everything but the wig, and one particular scene).

And wherever you think the story is going, it's not going there, and whatever happy ending you're expecting will not be delivered. 

There's sadness here, too, between the laughs. Neither Dad nor Daughter seem genuinely happy.

The actors are superb, leaving no doubt that these characters love each other, but the gulf between them is oceanic, and the film never imagines a midway point between his frivolity and anarchy and her dedication to being successful at the job. 

In addition to being written, directed, and performed so well, another factor in the film's success is that it's long. Most movies these days are around an hour and a half, but Toni Erdmann runs two hours and 42 minutes — time enough for these characters to bloom and breathe, and time for scenes that might've been extras on some lesser movie's DVD, but here make the original cut, adding perhaps nothing much to the plot but so much to the spirit. 

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Within Our Gates (1920)

This was pioneering black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux's retort to D W Griffith's Birth of a [racist] Nation, and it would've shocked white America if anyone white was watching.

Blacks are presented as genuine people, intelligent and articulate, and if there's any doubt about it Micheaux literally spells it out in the first intertitle: "Sylvia Landry — a schoolteacher from the South visiting her northern cousin — is typical of the intelligent Negro of our times."

Sylvia (Evelyn Preer) is awaiting the return of her true love, Conrad, but her cousin Alma has her eye on the same fellah, and sets Sylvia up to be caught in the act with some other guy, after which neither Sylvia nor the movie sees Conrad again.

She returns to the South, and soon she's raising funds for a black school, because the whites won't spend two nickels on black kids' education. She's romantically pursued by a local doctor, who's white, which leads to what must've been the first interracial wedding shown in a movie.

The film never flinches. It shows lynchings, bigotry, white-on-black rapes, all with a much more even-handed view of humanity than D W Fuckin' Griffith, that's for sure: It shows bad and good whites, bad and good blacks, and Micheaux offers ample condemnation of blacks who were happy to be subservient and popular with whites. 

Could Within Our Gates even have been screened in the South, in 1920? I can't imagine it playing at the Bijou in Baton Rouge. If it made it past the Mason-Dixon line, it must've played only in church basements and without any advertising.

The intertitles perplexed the heck out of me, especially at the start of the film, so I'll spare you that frustration. The convention of listing the cast at the show's start or finish perhaps hadn't become commonplace yet, so each new character in the film is introduced with an intertitle like, "Philip Gentry, a detective. —William Smith," and William Smith is the actor.

The film is a jawdropping historical piece, and ought to be seen for that reason, and dropping jaws was Micheaux's intent. It's more symbolism than story, and a century later it's not grand entertainment.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

• Coming attractions •

Asteroid City (2023)

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

China 9, Liberty 37 (1978) 

The Cook (1918)

The Dark Crystal (1982)

Doctor Who (second season, 2006)

Dr Cook's Garden (1971) 

The Eiger Sanction (1975)

From Beyond (1986)

Good Night, Nurse (1918)

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) 

Manchester by the Sea (2018) 

The Scarecrow (1920)

Stalker (1979)  

Street Trash (1987)

Wisconsin Death Trip (1999) 

The YouTube Effect (2022)  

    ... plus occasional schlock and surprises

    • And then •

A Night in Casablanca (1946) 

Atomic Cafe (1982) 

The Bat People (1974) 

Brainwaves (1983) 

Cell 2455: Death Row (1955) 

Downsizing (2017) 

Hobo (1992) 

John Wick (2014) 

Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy (1996) 

Love Happy (1950) 

Motel (1989) 

Nothing But a Man (1964) 

Romper Stomper (1992) 

Scarecrow (1973) 

Scared to Death (1947) 

Secret Weapons (1985) 

Squirm (1976) 

Taoism Drunkard (1981) 

Who Farted? (2019) 

You Can't Take It With You (1938)


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

AlterCineverseCriterionCultCinema ClassicsDocsVilleDustFandorFilms for ActionHooplaIHaveNoTVIndieFlixInternet ArchiveKanopyKinoCultKino LorberKorean Classic FilmChristopher R MihmMosfilmMubiNational Film Board of CanadaNew Yorker Screening RoomDamon PackardMark PirroPizzaFlixPopcornFlixPublic Domain MoviesRareFilmmScarecrow VideoShudderThoughtMaybeTimeless Classic MoviesVoleFlixWatchDocumentaries • or your local library

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —

 Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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  1. Even though it's 0500 and I just got home from my semi-weekly visit to my Sis, nobody has commented for a while so I'll do a quickie. I enjoy hearing about movies I might see one day, but of the list above, I've only seen A Night in Casablanca (not so hot) and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (in a theater). I haven't even seen Love Happy, even though it features Raymond Burr. I'll look forward to Doug's reviews of these features and read them carefully. I'm especially eager to hear about Who Farted, which I understand is about the Republican presidential debates.

    Doug will be up in another couple of hours, and he's a more charming commenter than I am. I'm just visiting: he lives here. And I note that I managed an entire comment without talking about rock music (aw shit).

    my warmest regards,

    1. Well, if you won't do it, I will.

      Instead of movies, most of yesterday was rock'n'roll time, including the Turtles, BST, BTO, CSNY, and ELO.

      There was also pineapple sherbet, but that's not a band to my knowledge.

    2. No AC/DC?


    3. They're a little loud for me, if I even know who they are. Might be wrong, though, might be thinking of Metallica or Kiss.

    4. It's possible they were all the same group with radically different garb and accents. G'day.


    5. "G'day" reminds me of my favorite Australian band. The Cat Empire had a great sound, and got pretty big down under, but to my knowledge never made much noise in America.




    6. It's hard to hear singles. What's their best album?



    7. Guess I should've seen that coming, eh? I know only their catchy 45s, not at all any LPs.

    8. They're coming to Seattle in about two months and admission is cheap (for admission).

      SUN, NOVEMBER 19, 2023
      Showbox SoDo
      8:00 PM
      7:00 PM
      DAY OF SHOW $40.00-$40.00

      You can probably get one of your 45s autographed, but I think to get all eight names yer gonna need an album. You picked the right group. Springsteen charges hundreds of dollars.


    9. Top end for Bruce is stage seating in some venues. Up to $8,000 dollars. But the Cat People probably don't fall down like Bruce.


    10. Wow, I somehow thought (or maybe just assumed) The Cat Empire had broken up. I didn't even discover them until long after they were big so they must all be really old by now. Like, half Dylan's age.

      The Showbox isn't big, and maybe I could afford a ticket but I don't think I could squeeze into the place. Also, I hate crowds.

      How much would you pay to see Dylan? For me it's less than $8k, yikes.

    11. This is a single off an album called Hearts and Bones, which is partly about Paul's marriage to Carrie Fisher, which was slightly meteoric and lasted just a little bit longer than the first Star Wars movie. I don't particularly like the album version of this song: it sounds like it was mixed by people who weren't wild about modulation. There's a better version on YouTube, but it's in two pieces due to a guitar glitch.

      The coda of the song (in this case, the last minute) was written by Philip Glass because Paul didn't think he could write a coda and believed that the song needed a little think time before ending.

      I'm a fan, as you will know, of Paul Simon. This is easily one of his five best songs.

      This was written in Dreamtime and I swear Paul got every word and every musical phrase right. Had the bastards not mixed it in mud it would have been his best song.


    12. Claude Should Be Sleeping ReignsSeptember 23, 2023 at 7:42 PM

      "How much would you pay to see Dylan?"

      The greatest film ever made about being an artist:


      The second greatest film ever made about being an artist:


    13. Claude It Never Gets Easier ReignsSeptember 23, 2023 at 7:46 PM

      From laughs to tragedy to laughs again in mere seconds, and more truth in the dialogue than any ten other films:


    14. Claude Garfunkel ReignsSeptember 23, 2023 at 8:06 PM

      "This is a single off an album called Hearts and Bones"

      Great album, one of his best (and hardly ever mentioned). I hear he's a little prick in real life!

      My favorite remains "American Tune," the lyrics turn me to mud:

      And I don't know a soul who's not been battered
      I don't have a friend who feels at ease
      I don't know a dream that's not been shattered
      Or driven to its knees

      But it's alright, it's alright
      For we lived so well so long
      Still, when I think of the
      Road we're traveling on
      I wonder what's gone wrong


      Oh, and it's alright, it's alright, it's alright
      You can't be forever blessed


      Brings to mind Randy Newman's witheringly sardonic similar words:

      Of all of the people that I used to know
      Most never adjusted to the great big world
      I see them lurking in book stores
      Working for the public radio
      Carrying their babies around in a sack on their back
      Moving careful and slow

      It's money that matters
      Hear what I say

    15. Only place to reply to a comment about five up. I last saw Dylan just before he went on his Christian jag in the late 70s. A friend paid for the tickets for my birthday, so I'm not sure exactly, but I think they were about $20 a seat. We were a long ways away and the amplification system wasn't terrific. Most of the people I'd like to see now are dead, so the cost is either very high or very low.


    16. JTB — "Johnny Ace" is sweet and fine, dunno about five best but the competition is fierce, and it's something Simon should be proud of.

      The song's coda came from the allegedly great American composer Phillip Glass? Hadn't known that. All I know about Glass is 4'33'' — music as fake as the artist who turned in a blank canvas.

      Also hadn't known Johnny Ace was a real guy. Today I learned! Gotta give him a listen...

    17. CSBSR — I see greatness in both clips, certainly — Desmond getting the shit kicked out of him figuratively and then literally, and the Fabulous Stains coming clean. Maybe the best moments from both movies.

      The greatest film ever made about anything is probably a movie I haven't seen, probably we've never even heard of it. Some people worked their hearts souls and asses off making it, but Sundance said no and the San Bernardino Film Festival said no and now that movie languishes in a storeroom in the basement of the house where someone who never had a moment's fame or success lived, and then died, twenty years ago. His grandson lives in the house now, and knows the film is in that storeroom but he's never bothered to watch it, and he needs the space for motorcycle parts so this afternoon he's gonna box up everything in the storeroom and take it to the dump.

      For me, the greatest film I've seen about being an artist is season 5, episode 10, of Doctor Who: Vincent and the Doctor. And I'm mostly serious. At least, it's the best I can think of on this particular Sunday morning while there's a rash under my balls.

    18. CINGER — Man, that's an extremely uncomfortable scene. Delightfully uncomfortable. Nobody at the table is intentionally an ass or even aware they're asses, and the harmony is actually nice, but jeez who can't understand why DL gets furious? Fuck, I would've left without touching the guitar, and I don't even sing.

    19. CGR — As for being a little prick in real life, is it even possible for someone like Simon, someone who's had decades of fame and praise and wealth and adulation, to not become a little, or more likely large prick?

      My cynical suspicion is that even the rich and famous people we're all told are great — Keanu Reeves, Tom Hanks — would be absolute pricks if any of them spent half an hour at a coffee shop chatting with you or me or any 'real people'.

      I love the poetry of American Tune, but why I've wondered for 50 years did Mr Simon and his team care so little about it that the guitar squeaks were left in the audio? Write a great song, and then release it over what sounds like someone washing windows.

    20. CR — I'll take Simon & Garfunkel, among these options. Really quite fine.

    21. JTB — As you know I was never as Dylanized as you, but his Christian period is when a lot of people lost interest, me among 'em. Seems so crazy that even the most successful, the people who seem to have it all, still have a hollowness inside and an eagerness to fill it with poppycock and literally pray that it helps.

      Some of 'em, it helps, I suppose.

      Most it makes less of.

    22. The squeaks is part of the music, a component of the art like Dylan just barely missing a vocal note, like the nude descending a slightly crooked staircase. That's the best I can do.


    23. Well, I guess it all adds to the art.

      To me it's like I've written something better than I'm capable of, something simply brilliant, and then decided to leave three typos in the first paragraph uncorrected, for art and authenticity.

  2. Claude, American Tune has always been my favorite Paul Simon song. He wrote it right in the middle of Watergate: it was his commentary about our loss of faith in the workings of governance and I can't think of a more powerful song about what doesn't work in America with the possible exception of Old Man River. But American Tune is so much more specific and it is about how all of us are abused by the systems we vote for, so it has a remarkable universality to it. nice choice.


    1. I'd have to spend a day listening to Paul Simon to pick a favorite. "America" would be a frontrunner...

      "Kathy, I'm lost", I said, though I knew she was sleeping

      I'm empty and aching and I don't know why

      Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike

      They've all come to look for America, all come to look for America, all come to look for America...

  3. TWO TINGS . . . . . . .

    (There's no place above to reply) . . .

    1) OK, first 4'33" was by John Cage, not Philip Glass. They're both legit characters. Some of Philip Glass' compositions are very musical; John Cage was a genuine American philosopher and wrote many books, at least two of which were about mushrooms. He was a bit of a polymath, and I still keep a couple of his books in my drastically downsized library.

    2) Cat Empire sort of broke up after 20 years. I think there are only two of the originals in the current lineup. I spent almost five minutes researching this, so I could be off by a couple years or a couple people.


    1. Oh, fuckshit. I've gotten my great American composers mixed up, sorry. Ha! I'd be embarrassed but I'm me so why bother?

      Was John Cage in The Cat People?

      More seriously, is his mushroom book about magic mushrooms?

    2. I seem to have ejaculated during foreplay there. I guess I thought it was a come as you are party.

      The mushroom books, which I haven't read, are, I presume, about gathering and eating mushrooms. If there's any magic it's more likely to be in the writing, but I'm surprised daily so why not with this?

      As to the Cat People, I've not yet listened nor woken up, so I can only say that the brass looks promising but the bass drum seems over the top. If you play a bass drum with a kick pedal, it could be rock; if you play it with a tasseled bass drum stick it's a parade. But I prejudge.


    3. Probably I've said this before, but I'm not a fan of mushrooms. They worry me. One guy goes to work sleepy or hung over, makes a whoopsie, and you've got toadstools instead.

      Lamentable words, by the way. Toad stools sound so sweet and cute and lovely, and why shouldn't a toad have a comfortable seat? Mush rooms, though, just sound disgusting.

    4. https://youtu.be/QLIQ_NWyErQ?si=scTyzSkjkdv2-m7C

    5. Response to comment before last. I've never eaten a mushroom. The very idea induces nausea. I'm not a picky eater. I eat almost everything else and I'll try almost everything, but not mushrooms. At 20 Thanksgivings after my sis and BiL moved to town and the six of us ate dinner at my folks' house, my BiL, who detests black olives would get in a war with me and attempt to hide a mushroom somewhere in my food. Of course I would try to disguise an olive on his plate. The trick was to go to the bathroom way before dinner and carefully watch the preparation of the food and the setting of the table. I don't think either of us faux-poisoned the other, but there were some close calls.

      But I'm aware that there are people who love mushrooms and go to the woods searching for new varieties to stuff down their gullet. On the fairly rare occasions I'm in the woods these days, I make a point of trying to piss on every mushroom I see, but demand exceeds supply.


    6. Faskinating about your mushroom aversion. Uncommon, in my experience, but me too, mostly.

      Love black olives, though.

      Precocious reader as a kid, I devoured an article about toadstools and death from some serious grownup publication when I was far from grown up, and it made me mushroomphobic.

      My wife was a great cook, and could make mushrooms good enough to make me forget the toadstools, but I've been mushroomless since she stopped cooking.

      Bill Hicks says mushrooms come from cow's ass. Dude died before I knew much more than who he was, and that sucks.

    7. Looking for a Hicks stand-up show right now. Any recommendations?

    8. Grazi, I shall give him some of my ears tonight.

      I know almost nothing about him except that he's dead, and you tell me I gotta question even that. He wasn't right-wing, was he?

      Impossible, nobody on the right is capable of being funny.

    9. Hicks might be called a hippie libertarian nowadays, though more likely - nowadays, in our pathetic thin-skinned culture - he'd just be cancelled in ten seconds flat. He's the rare comedian who simply called out bullshit and hypocrisy and absurdity wherever he saw it.

      He made some jokes about women and gays that haven't aged well, but again, I don't think it was from a total world view angle, just particular instances or circumstances. He's really no different than the great Richard Pryor in that regard.

      And certainly were he alive today his views, or his expression of his views, may have become more nuanced - but hopefully no less withering. Because he was vicious as hell when he wanted to be, and his targets ALWAYS deserved it.

      Like Alex Jones he was obsessed with conspiracies, especially the Kennedy assassination and Waco (he visited before the conflagration) and he sure looks a lot like Jones.

    10. Anyone who's never made jokes that didn't age well has no sense of humor. I'm still making jokes that don't age well, today.

      Hicks visited before the conflagration? Wow. Not even knowing what he said or did there, that's cool. Ain't no purpose to celebrity unless you use it.

      I don't even much remember what I thought about the Waco standoff, before the flames. Probably I didn't give it much thought at all.

      I agree with the wisecrack from THE ABYSS:

      "You think everything is a conspiracy."

      "Everything is."

  4. Doesn't matter which song is Paul Simon's best. The two in question (American Tune and The Late, Great Johnny Ace) are masterworks.

    This doesn't happen in pop music, but Simon managed to capture the violence in post WWII America in a fairly short song. He even changes keys, time signature and tempo when he switches years: 1954, 1964, 1980, all violent years, as was every year between, but Paul manages to snapshot these years into a trend.

    In 1954, Paul was 14, listening to the radio in Brooklyn, strumming his guitar, and dreaming of Rock 'n' Roll, which he stopped playing before he made his first record.

    In 1964, Paul had cut Wednesday Morning, 3 AM with Garfunkel, the album had failed: it wasn't reviewed by any first rate music critics and almost nobody bought a copy. Paul had given up and moved to England where he almost married Kathy Chitty and was able to get gigs, both singing and writing. (Meanwhile, the great producer Tom Wilson had remixed Sounds of Silence and quietly prepared to re-release it as a single. It would make Simon and Garfunkel stars.)

    In 1980, Paul, having released three solo albums that were critical and popular successes, released One Trick Pony, which was not so good and sold poorly. Had this ended his career, it would have been a very good career. But ahead was Graceland. Violence continued.

    I gotta go. I'll write more in about 14 hours.


    1. Enjoy 14 hours.

      I remember One Trick Pony as not bad at all. My bro-in-law was a huge Simon fan, and he loved it. Sounds AOK to me, FWLIW.

      Hey, I liked The Lone Teen Ranger.


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