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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.

And 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.

One 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.

A 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.

Talking 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.

I’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.