Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! Sometimes I use an opening paragraph to discuss the similarities between the movies I review. Therein lies a problem: I can’t think of anything District 9 and The Goods share other than their release date. In fact, the movies are so different I recommend for completely opposite reasons. Whereas the former drained me with its relentlessness, the latter is vulgarly affable.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v7Cy9u_-O54
District 9 marks the first time I’ve ever seriously considered walking out of a theater. That is not to say the movie is tedious, or its ideas offensive. Co-writer/director Neill Blomkamp knows how to manipulate an audience, and there is a 10-minute stretch of raw, nauseating horror that I could barely handle (dutiful readers will remember I don’t do well with deliberate gore). Much to my relief, Blomkamp relents from grotesqueries to tell an original sci-fi allegory, one with ample social commentary. Coupled with an exceptional lead performance, it does not take long for District 9 to accelerate into high gear. Yet for all its strengths, the movie falls apart during its climax, and devolves into a by-the-numbers action spectacle.
With a pseudo-documentary style, Blomkamp deftly defines his world. Twenty years ago, an alien mothership settles in Johannesburg, and millions of aliens are soon under quarantine. Corporation MNU controls the insect-like aliens (nicknamed Prawns), and seeks to exploit their technology. Unfortunately, humans cannot control Prawn weaponry, and the mothership is derelict. The aliens aren’t too pleasant either – nasty and unsophisticated, they’re treated like second-class citizens. Alien/human relations are at an all-time low. MNU decides to move the Prawns out of city, and appoints eager bureaucrat Wikus (Sharlto Copley) as their man-on-the-ground. When Wikus unwittingly discovers an alien secret, he soon is privy to deeply sinister motives, and there is no one he can trust. Not surprisingly, his only choice is to seek refuge in the alien ghetto.
Considerable attention is paid to character design. The Prawns are repulsive creatures, but their characteristics soften once they take on virtuous human qualities. The biggest surprise comes from the unknown Sharlto Copley. As Wikus, his innocence and terror anchor the story, and ably invite the suspension of disbelief. As with similarly high-concept movies, it’s better not to overthink District 9. Blomkamp mixes “documentary” footage with a straight-up narrative, so the documentary’s perspective on Wikus is murky. In addition to the apartheid allusions, there are familiar jabs at corporations, racism, conformity, and soullessness of bureaucracy. Certainly the South African director has plenty to say about his homeland, and his tale made me more curious about the country’s history.
As a debut feature, District 9 shows considerable promise, especially when one considers the scope of the production. Thirty million is a small budget by Hollywood standards, yet Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson accomplish a great deal. They tell their story with ample economy – at one point they even gloss over an entire car chase. The final action sequence has plenty of blood splatter that’ll appease fans of Jackson’s early work. Due to budget constraints, this sequence lacks kinetic thrills, and pales in comparison to the panic of the preceding two acts. I cannot deny the intensity of the movie, even if scrutiny weakens its long-term impact.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UeZMNxB0BOQ
The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard is an uneven comedy that succeeds on the strength of its one-liners. It tells the story of Don “The Goods” Ready (Jeremy Piven), a travelling salesman whose card reads, “I move cars, motherfucker!” With his trusty team, Don revitalizes fledgling auto dealerships. They are usual bunch of quirky, good-natured perverts who only exist in R-rated comedies. Now they must sell 200 cards for Selleck Motors in Temecula, California – a town “[full of] Indian casinos, wineries, and toxic wasteland,” according to my friend Bobby G. Temecula proves too much for Don and his team. Don cannot resist Selleck’s daughter, Babs (scene-stealer Kathryn Hahn) cannot resist Selleck’s man-child son (Rob Riggle), and Selleck himself cannot resist Don’s right-hand man (David Koechner). The local salesmen are equally hopeless, especially the old codger (Charles Napier) who is quick to assault customers. And the mysterious “Querque” incident looms over Don’s every move. Can Don deliver the titular Goods? Does it even matter?
You’ll be comforted to know director Neal Brennan cares little about his characters, or his story. The movie is simply a vehicle for dirty one-liners and outrageous behavior, and I mean it in the best way possible. Part PCU* and part Glengarry Glen Ross, Jeremy Piven excels as a man who invents/believes his legend. Still, the movie is not merely a vehicle for Piven (pun intended). Screenwriters Andy Stock and Rick Stempson give each car salesman a chance to realize their potential, both professionally and comically. Some members of the cast have taken dramatic roles, and it shows. They all play it straight, so only the audience is in on the joke. The long-form bits, however, rarely work. When Don finally explains “Querque,” there’s a bland cameo of an overexposed comedian. Featured as Don’s enemy, the sometimes funny Ed Helms has a Boy-Band sub-plot that always falls flat. Thankfully these moments do not eclipse the movie’s modest goals. Much like Ready himself, The Goods swoops in, does its job, and leaves before anyone has the chance to get bored. It won’t be a blockbuster, but thanks to its quotable script, I suspect The Goods will find a spot on many DVD shelves.
* Early in the movie, Piven has a monologue in which he advocates smoking on an airplane. It eerily resembles the anti-protest treatise of PCU’s climax. If you think about what might have happened to James ‘Droz’ Andrews, The Goods works as PCU’s unofficial sequel.