Video Verdict: ‘District 9,’ ‘Days of Summer,’ ‘Extract,’ ‘All About Steve’

In “District 9,” Sharlto Copley plays a South African government official who must go on the run after coming into contact with alien DNA that turns him into a hybrid species.

This week’s DVD crop is anchored by two of the better theatrical releases of 2009, including a small-budget science-fiction adventure that packs a big-budget punch

 

District 9
4 stars (out of four)
Rated R for bloody violence and pervasive language
Sony
Available on: Blu-ray and DVD

Looking back, 2009 should be remembered as a good year for science fiction. Not only is director James Cameron’s “Avatar” storming through theaters now, but J.J. Abrams successfully rebooted the “Star Trek” franchise earlier this year. And neither of those films has anything on “District 9,” an intimate sci-fi drama about space aliens forced to live in a South African slum.

Although made for a fraction of the cost of “Star Trek” and “Avatar,” “District 9” has the emotional impact of an epic. Writer-director Neill Blomkamp starts the film as a pseudo-documentary, explaining, through video interviews and news footage, that an alien spacecraft suddenly and mysteriously settled over Johannesburg, South Africa, eventually revealing a malnourished group of aliens unable to return to their home planet. Although the human race agrees to let the aliens live on Earth, the visitors are relegated to a holding area that quickly devolves into a ghetto.

In large part due to the South African setting, the film makes obvious references to apartheid, and these sometimes get heavy handed. Thankfully, Blomkamp shifts his tone early, delivering a movie that has both social commentary and genuine action and suspense. Key to the plotting is Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a racist South African government official charged with overseeing an alien relocation project. Through an accident, he absorbs alien DNA, making him a species hybrid.

Wikus also becomes the most wanted man in South Africa because his transformation allows him to use alien weapons designed for control only by their species. Not surprisingly, government agents are set on dissecting him in hopes of harnessing the key to alien technology. Suddenly hunted by his own people, Wikus is forced to turn to aliens for help.

“District 9” is an obvious and well-constructed allegory on racism but it also becomes an exciting adventure movie. Copley is outstanding in the lead role, and the special effects, most centered on the look of the aliens, are outstanding. In the end, “District 9” is not only one of the best movies of 2009 but one of the finest science fiction films of the decade.

It is available as part of multiple home video releases, including a two-disc DVD set and two-disc Blu-ray release. Extra features vary, but all versions include deleted scenes and a commentary by Blomkamp.

 

(500) Days of Summer
3½ stars
Rated PG-13 for sexual material and language
20th Century Fox
Available on: Blu-ray and DVD

Director Marc Webb starts “(500) Days of Summer” by informing viewers (courtesy of voiceover from an all-knowing narrator) that he is not telling a love story. This is altogether misleading because “Summer” is definitely a love story, just not the sort Hollywood generally sees fit to relate.

The picture is built around Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a sweet greeting card writer with a romantic streak. Not surprisingly, Tom is smitten the moment that he meets Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), an attractive executive assistant who has always cast a spell on men. Although Summer is interested in Tom, she makes it clear that she doesn’t believe in true love and – because Webb tells his story out of order – audiences know their relationship will be troubled. In fact, Webb spends almost the entire movie jumping from one point in their courtship to another, cluing viewers in to the timeline with shifting day markers.

One moment, they’re happily getting to know each other, the next Tom is pining over a breakup. As fractured as it sounds, the storytelling is incredibly smooth and it delivers insight into the characters that we mightn’t get otherwise.

Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel are both wonderfully likable, and they have solid on-screen chemistry. When together, they make a great couple, but they also give subtle reminders that they probably won’t spend eternity in each others’ arms. Webb is also perfectly suited for the material. He tells his fable with more than a touch of whimsy but keeps things serious enough to make us feel for poor Tom when things go bad and respect Summer for her complete honesty.

Make no mistake, “(500) Days of Summer” is a love story, it’s just not the sort we’ve grown accustomed to.

DVD extras include deleted and extended scenes and an audio commentary by Webb, Gordon-Levitt and writers Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter.

 

Extract
3 stars
Rated R for language, sexual references and some drug use
Miramax
Available on: Blu-ray and DVD

Many people know writer-director Mike Judge for his work creating the television series “Beavis and Butt-Head” and “King of the Hill,” but film lovers will always remember him as the man behind “Office Space.” That movie captured the often ridiculous nature of pushing pencils for faceless, publicly traded companies long before “The Office” became the ultimate parody of working life.

With “Extract,” Judge is again tackling the world of work, but with a different perspective. Rather than focus on cubicle dwellers, he shines a spotlight on a hardworking business owner named Joel (Jason Bateman). Despite making a success of his professional life, Joel feels stuck, in large part due to his sex-less marriage to Suzie (Kristen Wiig).

His life is further upended when a freak accident leaves one of his employees seriously injured, opening the door for a sexy con-woman (Mila Kunis) to try and make a big score. Helping Joel through it all is his laid back bartender buddy Dean (Ben Affleck), a guy whose good intentions are seldom mirrored by reasonable action.

Judge’s insightful and acerbic wit shines throughout the consistently funny film, and the cast makes sure all the gags hit their mark. Everyone is good, but Bateman stands out, giving Joel an everyman demeanor that’s so appealing viewers can lament his plight even when laughing at it.

DVD special features are limited to a short on the makings of a classic Mike Judge film. The Blu-ray release includes that extra plus one deleted scene and five extended scenes.

 

All About Steve
2 stars
Rated PG-13 for sexual content including innuendos
20th Century Fox
Available on: Blu-ray and DVD

One of the things that makes movies like “Extract” noteworthy is the preponderance of more traditional comedies like “All About Steve.” Although its heart is in the right place, this lightweight feature is predictable, only intermittently humorous and populated with characters that have little relationship with reality.

Sandra Bullock stars as Mary Horowitz, a Sacramento, Calif., crossword puzzle designer so obsessed with her craft that she has no social life. When her parents finally convince her to go on a blind date, she finds herself smitten by a handsome television news photographer named Steve (Bradley Cooper). Although smart and attractive, Mary has such a gift for gab that she frightens Steve away, but that doesn’t stop her from following him across the country, convinced that they’re soul mates.

Steve does his best to let Mary know he’s not interested, but his self-obsessed co-worker, TV reporter Hartman Hughes (Thomas Haden Church), tells her that Steve is simply scared, thus encouraging her stalking crusade. Sadly, Bullock and director Phil Traill make Mary such a maniac that viewers may want to break up with her.

The best moments in “All About Steve” poke fun at the television news industry, with Haden Church’s melodramatic reading of Hartman Hughes providing a few genuine laughs. If the film were called “All About Hartman,” it might have been something. “Steve” just isn’t that interesting.

DVD extras include deleted and alternate scenes, a gag reel, short features about the film and a commentary by many of the filmmakers, including Bullock, Cooper, Traill and Haden Church.

 

ALSO OUT THIS WEEK

“It Might Get Loud”: This unusual documentary is a rock music lover’s dream, as it gathers three world-famous guitarists – Jack White, Jimmy Page and U2’s The Edge – on a single soundstage, watching as they interact. Directed by Davis Guggenheim, the film captures the jam session and sheds light on each man’s creative process.

“Family Guy Presents – Something Something Something Dark Side”: The “Family Guy” characters parody “The Empire Strikes Back” in this followup to the 2008 “Star Wars” spoof “Blue Harvest.” An original animated movie, this is being rolled out exclusively on Blu-ray and DVD, so don’t tear through your TV Guide looking for an air date.

“Kyle XY” – The Complete Third and Final Season: The 10 final episodes of the television adventure series about a young man with special abilities (Matt Dallas) and no memory of his origins. DVD bonuses include deleted scenes and a feature on what would have happened had there been a season four.

“Beyond a Reasonable Doubt”: Modern remake of the 1956 film noir effort about a journalist (Jesse Metcalfe) who frames himself for murder in hopes of gathering evidence that proves a high-profile district attorney (Michael Douglas) is corrupt. Amber Tamblyn also stars. Available on DVD and Blu-ray.

 

Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications.  E-mail him at Forrest@ForrestHartman.com

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2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized, Video Verdict

2 responses to “Video Verdict: ‘District 9,’ ‘Days of Summer,’ ‘Extract,’ ‘All About Steve’

  1. I guess this is ancient news by now (I’m always on the cusp of things), but I wanted to say that I really enjoyed “(500) Days of Summer.” The acting, the story, the directing and even the soundtrack were all spot-on. Someone said it’s the “Annie Hall” for the twenty-something generation, which might be true.

    As always, great reviews, Forrest. Keep up the great work!

    Like

  2. “Summer” is a very good film Allen. Glad you enjoyed it. I’ll keep up the reviews as long as I have readers.

    🙂

    Like

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