Monday, August 31, 2009

Movie Review: District 9 (2009)

District 9

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District 9 is one of the best sci-fi movies to hit our screens for decades. Presented by Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) and directed by Neill Blomkamp, it moves the genre into new territory in much the same way as Alien did back in the the late '70s.

District 9 begins as a mockumentary summarising the events of the last 20 years in Johannesburg, South Africa, when an enormous alien ship settled in the air over the city followed by a long period of complete inactivity. When no life forms emerged from the ship, the military decided the best approach was to break into the ship. On entry, they found thousands of emaciated, malnourished, aliens close to death.

The aliens were evacuated and located in a massive refugee camp in the middle of Johannesburg. But after 20 years, the detention area has become saturated with crime as a result of the extreme poverty and demoralisation of the population of alien creatures.

The government in Johannesburg has decided to relocate the now 1.8 million alien creatures to a site well away from the city. To do that, a new facility has been built and the aliens now require evicting from their slum. Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) has been delegated the leadership in the eviction process. We follow him out into the streets of the alien area where, with the help of a private military company, he serves eviction notices. During a visit to one shanty, he discovers a device that sprays him with a black liquid and he becomes infected. From that moment on, Wikus has to work out where he will find help for the consequences of his one mistake.

I'm not going to describe any more of the plot. The less you know the better your experience of the movie will be. Suffice it to say that this movie is as far away from a cliche-ridden Hollywood serving as you can possibly get.

What makes District 9 so good, apart from the brilliant special effects that make you forget they are special effects, is that it is an example of how modern art and culture can make profound contributions to our thinking about contemporary issues. District 9 is clearly a political statement — about apartheid, racism, attitudes towards refugees, detention centres, and humanity's incompetence at handling anyone or anything that is "different". Despite the "message" of the film, the director never preaches to us. We don't feel as th0ugh we are being bludgeoned with the message (like so many cliched "Christian" movies we often see). The message is implicit and genuinely haunts after the final credits roll.

Copley is superbly cast as Wikus, the story is outstandingly fresh, the cinematography lifts the whole narrative to the level of believability. District 9 is not to be missed!


Positive Review
' District 9 is very smart sci-fi, but that's just the beginning; it's also a scathing social satire hidden inside a terrific action thriller teeming with gross aliens and regrettable inter-species conflict. And it's a blast. . . .' - Betsy Sharkey/LA Times

Negative Review
'It's a bad joke that District 9 will be hailed for its "originality."' - Michael Sragow/Baltimore Sun

Content Advice
bloody violence and pervasive language

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Movie Review: Balibo (2009)

Balibo_010  In 1975, five Australian journalists were murdered in East Timor because they dared to report on what was happening in that country as Indonesia invaded it. A sixth journalist went looking for them and was also murdered in plain view on a wharf in Dili. Since then, the Australian government has turned a blind eye to the events and made the false claim that they were accidentally killed in crossfire. Balibo tells this story.

Juliana Da Costa (Bela Viegas) has returned to East Timor to give evidence at the Timor-Leste Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. She experiences the invasion and the massacre on the Dili Wharf. During that massacre, she witnesses the killing of Roger East (Anthony Lapaglia), an Australian freelance journalist.

As Juliana begins to tell her story, we are taken back to 1975 when Roger East is approached by José Ramos-Horta who invites East to come to Timor and run the East Timor News Agency. At first he refuses. He has had enough of war time correspondence and has become cynical about any good it might do.

However, when Ramos-Horta tells him that five Australian journalists have gone missing without East even knowing it, he decides to go to East Timor to run the agency on the condition that he can first try to find out what happened to the journalists.

The narrative then moves to the story of his search and, as he retraces the journalists' paths, their journey is re-enacted. So the remainder of the movie moves back and forth between East and the five journalists as these two stories converge on the Balibo where the murders took place.

You might think the multilevel narrative would make this movie complicated to follow. Far from it. The movie is brilliantly directed and edited and the events unfold in a clearly understandable way. The ultimate fate of the Balibo Five (the name the journalists eventually came to be known by) is absolutely shocking. The fact that the Australia Government has swept all this under the carpet is a highly disturbing illustration of how politics often takes precedence over humanitarian concerns.

Balibo rings with authenticity. Filming occurred in the actual buildings where the Balibo Five were murdered. The recreation of the news footage recorded by the Balibo Five is stunning and every actor portrays their character superbly. The role of Juliana is a composite character representing over 8,000 Timorese people who courageously came forward to testify at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The involvement in the film of people who were actually there in 1975 during the massacre and the factual presentation of the killing of the Balibo Five based on the actual coronial report investigating the deaths makes this portrayal even more poignant.

Balibo is not only an incredible achievement from a dramatic and cinematic perspective — it is a brilliant political thriller. It is also an extremely important expose of a cover up of a monumentally immoral travesty. It is a potent memorial of six men — Channel Seven╩╝s Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham and Tony Stewart, and from Channel Nine, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie, and Roger East who cared enough to find out what had happened to his colleagues — who gave their lives to make sure the world knew about what was going on in a small corner of the globe.

Balibo is much, much more than entertainment. It is a disturbing reminder that great injustices can be perpetrated even by some of the best governments in the world.


Content Advice
Violence and coarse language


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Saturday, August 08, 2009

Book Review: What Not to Say

Friendship. Love. Sex. Ending relationships. Marriage. Divorce. Having children. Coming out. Domestic violence. Depression. Suicide. Terminal illness. Personal crises. Art. Taking drugs. Holidaying. Losing a job. Making money. Work-life balance. Moving home. Exams. Complaining. Texting. The environment. Making decisions. Politics. Religion. Death.

Every one of us will, at some time in our lives, need to deal with one or more of the above litany of life situations and issues. Inevitably, one or more of our friends or colleagues will experience some of the above as well. And if you have ever been with someone who has experienced any of the above, you will have experienced the anxiety of wondering what you should say. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I make the situation worse? What if I am influential in my friend making the wrong decision or leading them to feel even worse?

Well ... Mark Vernon has provided some excellent help in his small volume (less than 200 pages) called What Not to Say: Finding the Right Words at Difficult Moments. Vernon is an Honorary Research Fellow in Philosophy at Birkbeck College, London. Bringing insights from philosophers from ancient times to the present, Vernon helps to understand the important issues in relation to difficult moments and what might be appropriate to say or not say.

Vernon is witty, engaging, and shares aspects of his own life journey. Although the book is short, it is packed with lots of wisdom and shows how philosophy can be very relevant to everyday life. Of course, as always, there will be things to disagree with. But they are the best books!

For a gentle, insightful book on life's issues, What Not to Say is a delightful place to spend a few hours.