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Review: District 9, Sunshine Cleaning, The Man in the Hat, The Rocket Post and Case 39

By October 3, 2009December 31st, 2013No Comments

It’s going to be a massive few months for Wellywood — District 9 seems to have come out of nowhere to take the world by storm (Currently #35 in the IMDb All Time list, just below Citizen Kane. I kid you not) and The Lovely Bones trailer is whetting everyone’s appetite at just the right time. This Friday, Wellington audiences are the first in the world to see a fifteen minute sampler of the locally shot Avatar (Readings from 11.45am, free of charge) and three more Film Commission features are due for release between now and Christmas: The Strength of Water, Under the Mountain and The Vintner’s Luck, all of which have a significant Wellington component to them.

District 9 posterAnd if the Hollywood big cheeses were worried about The Lord of the Rings shifting the tectonic plates of entertainment industry power they ought to be terrified by District 9, a new world demonstration of the SANZAR spirit (minus the Australians) that achieves in spades everything that this year’s big-budget tent-pole features like Transformers and Terminator failed to do. It works thrillingly as pure entertainment and yet at the same time it’s a little bit more.

Aliens have arrived on earth but unlike in the 70s and 80s they aren’t here to tell us how to connect with the universe and expand our consciousness. And it isn’t like the 90s when they arrived to caramelize us with their death rays. These aliens have arrived for remarkably 21st century reasons — their ship is crippled and with no way home they are destined to become refugees, outcasts, misunderstood second-class citizens.

So, of course, it’s only appropriate that they arrive in Johannesburg where until recently vast numbers of people were kept in sub-human conditions, living in shanty towns. The parallels are obvious but not hammered home too heavily but this is a Wingnut film first and foremost so the satire is covered in body parts and human and alien fluids of various viscosities. The heretofore unknown (but brilliant) Sharlto Copley plays the hapless Wikus Van Der Merwe, ordered to lead a forced relocation of the alien “prawns” to a new tent city, but is it slum clearance or ethnic cleansing?

Van Der Merwe gets a bit of alien on him and finds his DNA fusing with the other species. This is bad for him but great for the security forces as it means he can use the awesome “prawn” space weaponry so they try and mine him for every bit of hybrid DNA they can find. He takes exception to this and then, as the saying goes, all hell breaks loose.

Writer-director Neill Blomkamp has been taken under Peter Jackson’s wing but if the big guy isn’t careful Blomkamp is going to outshine him. He’s that good and he isn’t even 30 yet.

Sunshine Cleaning posterOne of the many strengths of District 9 is the perfect sense of place, a quality that is harder than it might seem to pull off. Literally the only interesting thing about the High School Musical films is the setting: Albuquerque, New Mexico, a place with a truly unique light. Christine Jeffs’ new film Sunshine Cleaning makes good use of the same New Mexican locations — the harsh dry heat and the dust of a city ground out of the desert helps root this affecting story of a single mother and her sister, trying to get by cleaning up after other people’s tragedies.

Amy Adams does her best, bless her, as Rose Lorkowski, the senior sister but she’s got too much Hollywood (and too many twitches) to really shine. Emily Blunt, however, as Norah the younger sister is a different deal entirely — all resentment, hurt and anger yet somehow still hopeful. Sunshine Cleaning is a good film, with a decent heart.

The Man in the Hat stillA diamond year for New Zealand docos gets even better with Luit Bieringa’s The Man in the Hat, a portrait of Wellington art dealer and identity Peter McLeavey who has inhabited the same first floor Cuba Street gallery for 40 years. McLeavey is a quietly engaging presence and Bieringa tells the story well, following his subject through a meandering journey to his work in the morning – he really does take the long way around.

The Rocket Post posterTalking of the long way, The Rocket Post has taken a long time to get to the Penthouse. Filmed in 2001 on the remote Western Isles of Scotland, funding issues prevented its release in the UK until 2004 by which time director Stephen Whittaker had passed away from cancer.

It’s a modest and humble Ealing-style romantic comedy (with some darker moments) about a naïve German rocket scientist (Ulrich Thomsen) in the late 1930s who dreams of mankind landing on the moon thanks to his work. Unable to fund his research in the fatherland he goes to England where a scheming politician (John Wood) thinks he’ll save a packet by using rockets to deliver mail between the islands instead of installing a telephone. Thomsen and his Nazi-sympathiser partner (played by a very young looking Eddie Marsan) arrive on the tiny island to try and win over the sceptical locals including the delightfully freckly Shauna Macdonald.

Case 39 posterI’ll give the new horror movie Case 39 the benefit of the doubt and assume that, like a lot of recent films, it was forced into production too early when the writers’ strike looked like shutting Hollywood down completely. With not enough ass to even be half-assed, this is a tired and clichéd satanic-child film starring Renée Zellweger whose lack of range is becoming increasingly obvious. A friend of mine once called his new baby “The Life-Stealer”, so someone must think there’s a market for rubbish like this but don’t bank on it still playing in theatres next week.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 19 August, 2009.

Notes on screening conditions: I should have seen District 9 at the Embassy but scheduling didn’t work. The Empire screening was perfectly adequate but I think Peter Jackson productions should probably always be seen at his favourite theatre.