Catching Up: District 9, Thirst, Ponyo, A Perfect Getaway
By Fernando F. Croce

A thrilling, brilliantly subversive modern classic that questions the human/alien, hero/villain lines of sci-fi culture. But enough about Starship Troopers, it’s time to review District 9, Neill Blomkamp’s intriguing but ultimately jejune space-bug yarn. The interplanetary visitors are quarterback-sized roaches, not invaders but weary refugees stranded in a Johannesburg shantytown. Following years of interspecies abrasion, earthlings have had enough of the marginalized, scavenging insectoids, so South African authorities orchestrate a forced "relocation"; a smirking government stooge (Sharlto Copley) leads thuggish soldiers during the mass alien eviction, then gets a crash course in tolerance after being sprayed with some metamorphosis-juice left over from Cronenberg’s The Fly. Plenty of allegory to go around: The alien spaceship is an immigrants’ boat, conglomerations gin up human hatred for the creatures ("If they were from another country we might understand, but they’re not even from this planet!"), the corralling of the outcasts is redolent of apartheid, the Trail of Tears, and concentration camps. An alien guerilla insurrection explodes, Copley’s compassion once he grows a gooey claw is meant as a Children of Men-like call for engagement in the face of rampant injustice. Trenchant concepts, but, when it comes to exploring them, Blomkamp has about as much curiosity as Roland Emmerich -- ideas are raised only to be squashed in favor of chases and detonations. (Dung-colored shaky-cam is the presiding aesthetic, the better to switch from faux-documentary introductions to action-movie blurriness.) A dash of satire might have sharpened the splatter, but Blomkamp just trudges away humorlessly; next to the zombies of Romero’s politicized apocalypses, these overgrown lobsters are circumscribed E.T.s whining to phone home. For all its defiant intentions, District 9 ends up playing exactly like one of those unctuously "important" Edward Zwick sermons in which the plight of another race becomes exotic background for the white guy’s redemption. It’s Blood Diamond with tentacles.

*

Park Chan-wook is a flossy decorator with sham moralist pretensions, but the dude was born to make a vampire horror-comedy. Madly operatic and perversely lyrical, Thirst sustains for over two hours the Grand Guignol tingle of the opening shot of the Cut segment from Three... Extremes, the Korean director’s previous take on bloodsuckers. The plot is based on Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, for no better reason than to allow lapsed-Catholic Park to pile on more looming crucifixes than Hitchcock’s I Confess. A chaste, sensitive priest (Song Kang-ho) returns to his hometown after a near-fatal brush with experimental vaccines in Africa. He stays at the home of a childhood friend, whose wife (Kim Ok-vin) is roused out of carnal slumber by the padre’s sexy despair. The erotic awakening is triggered by another revelation, which comes to Song mid-unction: A patient’s blood is tasted, and suddenly the world is a waterbed of appetites. He’s soon escalating walls, but Song is too pious to savor his "horrible illness" -- he duly feeds his new craving by sipping from IV tubes in hospitals until Kim gets him to trade faith for vampirism (and also give her a taste of the supernatural). Park is highly touted in some circles for endowing promiscuous stylistics with a patina of moral inquiry, but I’ve always smelled a charlatan: His arabesques of retribution and redemption (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) are all sizzle and no meat, asphyxiated by the auteur’s swirling camera and callous smirk. Thirst parades plenty of those faults (time your restroom breaks to the characters’ spurious discussions about the fate of humanity) but, when it sticks to the kind of sardonic farce in which recorders hemorrhage and jugulars are sniffed out, its fierce style and ripe humor are hard to resist. Cinematically speaking, it embodies at least one of Zola’s declarations: "I am here to live out loud."

*

Hiyao Miyazaki, bless him, continues to be an analog guy in animation’s increasingly digital world. His new animé fable, Ponyo, puts the Ghibli artisans through their paces right from the jubilant start with a flurry of jellyfish in aquatic motion -- watercolor confetti. Ponyo (voiced in the English-dubbed version by Noah Cyrus) is a goldfish princess, birthed in the deep sea by a big-faced marine goddess (Cate Blanchett) and a human-hating sorcerer with a penchant for David Bowiesque glam makeup (Liam Neeson). Yearning to see the dry world, she sneaks out and ends up in a bucket carried by a 5-year-old boy, Sosuke (Frankie Jonas); she sprouts limbs and transforms herself into a bubbly little girl, but her flight seems to throw off nature, with tsunamis smacking the shores under an unmoored moon. If the plot is reminiscent of both The Little Mermaid and Finding Nemo, that just shows how metallic Disney and Pixar feel next to Miyazaki’s genuine sense of awe. A sequence in which giant fish shoot out of the ocean and rain down on ships as the heroine rides a storm surge is as spectacular as anything in the epic Princess Mononoke, though Ponyo is closer to the gentleness of My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, with bits of comparable childlike enchantment: Sosuke’s tug between the regret of having lost a friend and the consolation of an ice-cream cone, Ponyo’s delight at the discovery of honeyed tea, a shot of a half-submerged home (with rows of abandoned wheelchairs) that’s out of Ozu. It doesn’t have the bite of Spirited Away, yet, in its exhilaration, eco-mysticism and sheer strangeness, it has the ineffable poetry of a child’s color-pencil version of Hokusai’s Great Wave woodblock print.

*

Were it as bland as its title, A Perfect Getaway would have sunk without a trace in the quicksand of summer hackery. But it’s not. Practically thrown away by its studio as a yuppies-in-peril tropical shocker in the Turistas mode, it’s actually a cunning, sideways-sneaking genre piece with both the fancy to surprise audiences and the adroit filmmaking to do so. Steve Zahn and Milla Jovovich play urban newlyweds backpacking through the "gorgeous dead end" of Oahu, the lush site of a couple of recent murders. They meet and ditch a scary pair of hitchhikers (Chris Hemsworth, Marley Shelton), then hook up with another couple (Timothy Olyphant, Kiele Sanchez) who give off no less ominous vibes but are a bit closer to their class lines. A grinning Iraq vet with a fondness for blades and monikers like "American Jedi," Olyphant is posed as the threatening polar opposite of Zahn’s meek Hollywood writer, but writer-director David Twohy (Pitch Black) draws these worn Straw Dogs-Kalifornia lines only to throw a basketful of panama peels under the viewer’s feet. No point in spoiling surprises, suffice to say that cell phones and batteries figure in superb suspense sequences, Mark Plummer’s cinematography is the most alert to visceral jungle gradations since Dean Semler’s in Apocalypto, and the personas of Zahn (indie quirk-dispenser) and Jovovich (plucky Euro-babe) are richly upturned. Michael Bay, Stephen Sommers, and the other swollen blockbuster offenders should see this one, and take note when Olyphant leans over and says, "Get me a story."


Reviewed September 3, 2009.

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