Film review – Monsters (2010)

29 October 2010
Monsters: Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able)

Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able)

The low-budget British film Monsters begins with a found-footage/doco style opening of a giant squid-like creature being shot at by the US army. It looks like a film along the same lines of District 9, which is further evoked by its back-story about an alien species that is quarantined along the US/Mexican boarder in what is known as the Infected Zone. Similar to District 9, the treatment of the aliens is symbolic of the way Western governments treat and respond to refugees and illegal immigrants. However, for the majority of the film the aliens are kept in the background. So despite all the initial signs that suggest Monsters will be a science-fiction/thriller, it is actually best described as a melancholic romance film since the majority of the focus is on the growing feelings that the two human protagonists have for each other.

Our two heroes (of sorts) are a bitter and frustrated photojournalist named Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and his wealthy boss’s daughter Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), whom he is reluctantly looking after. As they travel through the Infected Zone in Central America hoping to make it back into the US they encounter the destruction and devastation done to Mexico as a result of the US military’s actions against the aliens. Their cynicism begins to subside, they stop resenting each other and through shared experiences find themselves drawn to each other. In other words, Monsters follows the narrative structure of the classic screwball comedy/road movie It Happened One Night, even though it is tonally a completely different film

Monsters: Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy)

Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy)

Once you accept that Monsters is a love story set against a sad metaphor for how the US treats outsiders (hint: the film’s title is not referring to the alien creatures), then it can be reasonably enjoyed on the level it was intended to be. The few times the possibility of an encounter with aliens does enter the narrative the film is suitably tense and exciting. While the US military aggression is sometimes too bluntly asserted (the soldiers singing “Ride of the Valkyries” is particularly crude) there are also powerful moments such as when Andrew and Samantha encounter the giant wall that has been built to keep the aliens out. The rather over-the-top ending will either be regarded as ludicrous and cheesy or effectively majestic depending on the extent that you are still prepared to go along with the film.

Watch highlights from the Q&A with writer/director Gareth Edwards, moderated by Thomas Caldwell.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Cinema Autopsy on the 82nd Academy Awards Nominees (including predictions)

4 March 2010

The nominations for the 82nd Academy Awards have been out for some time now and the general consensus seems to be that 10 nominations for the Best Motion Picture of the Year award has devalued the category, the inclusion of The Blind Side in two major categories is baffling but that otherwise the nominations are more or less what was to have been expected. In fact, the Oscars this year are shaping up to be one of the most predictable years yet.

I’m not going to comment on the any of the documentary or short film categories as I haven’t seen the majority of the films nominated but I will share my thoughts and predictions about the feature films up for various awards. Alternatively you can go straight to my ranked list of all the nominated films or the list of my predictions.

Best Motion Picture and Best Director

The Hurt Locker

The big story this year is that the two favourite films, Avatar and The Hurt Locker, are respectively by action film maestros James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, who used to have a professional and a personal relationship (they were married). Bigelow seems to be preferred mainly because Cameron won in a big way previously with Titanic (1997) and was kind of obnoxious about it while Bigelow has been previously ignored by the Academy.

The Academy frequently rights past wrongs by awarding people for less deserving films to make up for previous oversights and there is a good chance that will happen this year to Bigelow. The Hurt Locker is certainly a very good film but it is not a good as many of Bigelow’s previous films including Near Dark (1987), Blue Steel (1989) and Strange Days (1995). A lot of people are also excited about the gritty realism that Bigelow brings to the Iraq conflict but I can only explain that by assuming that they haven’t seen Nick Broomfield’s Battle for Haditha (2007) and are yet to see Paul Greengrass’s Green Zone (2010), both of which are superior films.

However, I still think Avatar is going to win the main prize and honestly that would suit me just fine. I’m rarely one to back the big, bloated, over-exposed Hollywood eye-candy film but of all the films nominated this year I truly think Avatar is overall the film that deserves to win. As I discussed in my original review and the subsequent occasionally heated comments, Avatar may have its flaws but it is such a technological achievement and such an immersive experience that it completely won me over. It certainly deals with archetypal characters and re-hashes a very familiar story rather than going for anything resembling narrative originality but I firmly believe that there is an art to repackaging a well-worn tale and making it something exciting again. Avatar over-exceeds  expectations and not many films can make that claim.

Acting awards

Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds

Jeff Bridges seems destined to win Best Actor for his performance in Crazy Heart and so he should as his role in the film is one that he’s been building up to for his entire career. While many people are betting on Sandra Bullock winning Best Actress for The Blind Side, and she is the best thing about this loathsome film, I think the charm, freshness and non-rampant conservatism of Carey Mulligan’s performance in An Education may in the end win over the Academy’s voting members. I certainly hope so anyway but I suspect I am being naive. Christoph Waltz should and will win Best Supporting Actor for Inglourious Basterds and Mo’Nique should and will win Best Supporting Actress in Precious.

Writing awards

For the screenplay awards I’m pretty certain that the very good yet  middle-of-the-road Up in the Air will win Best Adapted Screenplay while Best Original Screenplay will go to The Hurt Locker. However, I’d much rather see the political and poetically profane In the Loop win for Best Adapted while the tightly written animation Up should really win for Best Original.

Technical awards

The White Ribbon

If Avatar does indeed win Best Motion Picture then I’m certain the Academy will compensate by not only giving The Hurt Locker Best Director but a bunch of other awards including Cinematography, Editing, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. However, editing should go to District 9 for its seamless blend of cinematic styles while cinematography should go to Christian Berger’s incredible work in The White Ribbon. In fact, The White Ribbon is one of the most perfectly shot films ever made so I do hope the Academy prove me wrong and recognise its achievement in the cinematography category.

Production award

My pet hate with all film awards is that Best Art Direction and Best Costumes usually always go to whatever film was set the furthest in the past. Recreating historical details is always deemed more worthy that actually using art direction and costumes to reflect character or themes in a filmic way. So even though I haven’t seen The Young Victoria I’m sure it will win Best Art Direction while the visually bold, inventive and exhilarating The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus will miss out. In most other years I’d tip The Young Victoria to win Best Costumes too but I’m pretty sure that Coco avant Chanel will win because it’s about a fashion designer and the Academy are just so crushingly obvious like that sometimes.



Up, of course, will deservedly win Best Animated Film and the massively acclaimed A Prophet will win Best Foreign Language Film. Original score will go to Avatar and it would be very embarrassing if any song other than “The Weary Kind” from Crazy Heart won Best Original Song. Star Trek may as well take Best Make Up and as for Best Visual Effects … well, I can’t imagine even the most ferociously anti-Avatar critic thinking it won’t and doesn’t deserve to win for this one.

Ranked list of all nominated films
Doing this ranked list of films nominated in the various 82nd Academy Award categories actually demonstrated how foolish star ratings can be and how it is almost next to impossible to adequately compare films with such different purposes, audiences, styles and genres. Nevertheless, I persisted and this is the result:

Avatar (James Cameron, 2009) 9 nominations
Up (Pete Docter, 2009) 5 nominations
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Terry Gilliam, 2009) 2 nominations

District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009) 4 nominations
Crazy Heart (Scott Cooper, 2009) 3 nominations
Bright Star (Jane Campion, 2009) 1 nomination
A Prophet (Un prophète, Jacques Audiard, 2009) 1 nomination
A Serious Man (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, 2009) 2 nominations
An Education (Lone Scherfig, 2009) 3 nominations
In the Loop (Armando Iannucci, 2009) 1 nomination
Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, 2009) 4 nomination
The Princess and the Frog (Ron Clements and John Musker, 2009) 3 nominations

The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band, Michael Haneke, 2009) 2 nominations
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008) 9 nominations
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009) 8 nominations
A Single Man (Tom Ford, 2009) 1 nomination
Precious (Lee Daniels, 2009) 6 nominations
Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, 2009) 6 nominations
Julie & Julia (Nora Ephron, 2009) 1 nomination
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009) 2 nominations
Invictus (Clint Eastwood, 2009) 2 nomination
Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009) 1 nomination

Coco avant Chanel (Anne Fontaine, 2009) 1 nomination
Sherlock Holmes
(Guy Ritchie, 2009) 2 nominations
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (David Yates, 2009) 1 nomination

Nine (Rob Marshall, 2009) 4 nominations
The Last Station (Michael Hoffman, 2009) 2 nomination

The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson, 2009) 1 nomination

The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock, 2009) 2 nominations
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Michael Bay, 2009) 1 nomination

Not seen
Ajami (Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, 2009) 1 nomination
Il Divo
(Paolo Sorrentino, 2008) 1 nomination
The Messenger
(Oren Moverman, 2009) 2 nominations
The Milk of Sorrow (La teta asustada, Claudia Llosa, 2009) 1 nomination
Paris 36 (Faubourg 36, Christophe Barratier, 2008) 1 nomination
The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos, Juan José Campanella, 2009) 1 nomination
The Secret of Kells (Tomm Moore, 2009) 1 nomination
The Young Victoria (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2009) 3 nominations

My predictions list

A full list of all the nominees can be found on the official Oscars website and I’m sure several thousand websites and blogs elsewhere. Here are my predictions in one straightforward list:

Best Motion Picture: Avatar (James Cameron and Jon Land)

Directing: The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)

Actor in a Leading Role: Crazy Heart (Jeff Bridges)

Actress in a Leading Role: An Education (Carey Mulligan)

Actor in a Supporting Role: Inglourious Basterds (Christoph Waltz)

Actress in a Supporting Role: Precious (Mo’Noque)

Writing (Adapted Screenplay): Up in the Air (Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner)

Writing (Original Screenplay): The Hurt Locker (Mark Boal)

Cinematography: The Hurt Locker (Barry Ackroyd)

Film Editing: The Hurt Locker (Bob Murawski and Chris Innis)

Sound Editing: The Hurt Locker (Paul N.J. Ottosson)

Sound Mixing: The Hurt Locker (Paul N.J. Ottosson and Ray Beckett)

Art Direction: The Young Victoria (Patrice Vermette and Maggie Gray)

Costume Design: Coco avant Chanel (Catherine Leterrier)

Animated Feature Film: Up (Pete Docter)

Foreign Language Film: A Prophet (Jacques Audiard)

Music (Original Score): Avatar (James Horner)

Music (Original Song): Crazy Heart (“The Weary Kind” by Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett)

Makeup: Star Trek (Barney Burman, Mindy Hall and Joel Harlow)

Visual Effects: Avatar (Joe Letteri, Stephen Rosenbaum, Richard Baneham and Andrew R. Jones)

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – District 9 (2009)

15 August 2009

District 9For over twenty years an alien spaceship has been hovering over the South African city Johannesburg. Its stranded alien occupants have since been living in slum conditions in a militarised camp know as District 9. Tensions between the human and alien population are running thin so the private company Multi-National United (MNU), who have a commercial interest in harnessing the alien technology for weaponry, are sent in to relocate the aliens. The mass eviction campaign is lead by Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley in his acting début), a petty bureaucrat who, like most humans, refers to the aliens derogatively as ‘prawns’. However, when Wikus becomes exposed to a black fluid he finds in one of the slum shacks he finds himself undergoing a radical genetic transformation. Now hunted by the ruthless MNU military division and the exploitive slum crime syndicates, Wikus has nowhere else to hide but within District 9.

District 9Produced by Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) District 9 is the feature writing and directing début of South African visual effects artist Neill Blomkamp. The genesis of District 9 is contained within Blomkamp’s impressive 2005 short film Alive in Joburg, where he first introduced the idea of using an alien and human encounter to explore issues of discrimination. Just as films about misunderstood benevolent aliens in the 1950s (The Day the Earth Stood Still, It Came from Outer Space) were calling for an end to the Cold War us-and-them mentality, District 9 is likewise making a strong statement about the damage that can be done when refugees are treated with suspicion before being given any compassion. It is a fascinating contrast to the politics of alien invasion films such as Independence Day and War of the Worlds (original and remake). District 9 is an incredibly effective parable about human rights abuses against refugees, while also functioning as a thrilling science-fiction action film.

District 9 is very fast paced and has a constant feeling of immediacy. Blomkamp uses extensive use of the faux documentary new-media style of filmmaking where mock footage from security tapes and news reports are seamlessly integrated into the action. The world of the film is further fleshed out due to the amazing visual effects used to so vividly create the aliens, their spaceship and other pieces of hardware. This is a rare case in modern cinema where the effects actually look real rather than something designed by committee on a computer during postproduction.

D9_Intl_D9_1687_smallThe final key to the why District 9 works so effectively is that it has been written intelligently. As the lead character, Wikus is an unlikely hero as he is selfish, cowardly and prejudiced. However, he is nevertheless identifiable and not beyond redemption. The alien characters are also rendered as fully fleshed out characters and Blomkamp generates an enormous amount of sympathy for them. There is nothing clean-cut or contrived in District 9 and it doesn’t even resolve traditionally. The lack of complete closure naturally leaves open the potential for a sequel but it also feels true in the sense of that the racial conflict at the heart of the film is not something that can be neatly resolved. District 9 is the most original, innovative and entertaining science-fiction film in years and contains the best mix of politics and spectacle since Starship Troopers.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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Alive in Joburg (Neill Blomkamp, 2005)