Knight at the Movies Archives
Todd Graff brings forth another teen picture, a wildly inventive addition to the sci-fi canon
Even with the addition of two (count ‘em) Disney Channel starlets (Alyson Michalka and Vanessa Hudgens), Bandslam from out
writer-director Todd Graff isn’t really High School Music 4: The Guitar Hero Edition. The film is too scruffy and too respectful of the
messy musical roots of punk and glam rock to fall neatly into Disney territory. But it’s not exactly Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (a
superb teenage film) or Camp (Graff’s own delightful look at musical theatre camp) either. Neither rock nor roll, Bandslam falls neatly
The familiar story centers on Will Burton (welcome newcomer Gaelan Connell), a put upon teenage loner with a cleft chin, a mass of
curly hair and a permanent pout. But Will is a loner by choice who lives and dies for music, hilariously judges others by their taste in
the same, and vents his frustrations with the musical illiterates around him in a series of letters to his idol, David Bowie (who has a
fun cameo). Will acridly describes high school to his single mother (the sadly underused Lisa Kudrow) as “Novocaine for the soul”
but perks up a bit when she announces a move from Cincinnati to Lodi, New Jersey and the promise of a fresh start.
At first things seem to be the same but then Will falls under the speechless spell of Charlotte (Michalka), one of those impossibly
stunning blonde popular girls who plays guitar. This one fronts a band of musical misfits (which surprisingly, doesn’t feature a gay
kid) and Charlotte & Co. intend to go head to head with a band headed by her ex-boyfriend Ben (heartthrob Scott Porter) in the
hotly competitive statewide battle of the bands contest called Bandslam. She and Will bond over an old Velvet Underground tune
(who wouldn’t fall for the ethereal vocal stylings of Nico?) and she recruits him to shape up the band. At the same time Will is
working on a class project with the dark haired gorgeous but acerbic Sa5m (“the 5 is silent”) played by Hudgens. The character of
Sam (I’m dispensing with the “5” – sorry kids) is basically the same shy but lovable kook played by Ally Sheedy from The Breakfast
Club (which in light of the recent, sudden death of 80s teen movie director John Hughes is a rather bittersweet, serendipitous tribute
to him). Sam and Will are meant to be together but it will take a lot of teenage angst – and a slambang rockin’ finish – for him to
Graff, (working from an original script by Josh A. Cagan) has a keen ear for dialogue (to be expected from a man who has written
everything from the blissful Used People to The Vanishing) and the teenspeak sounds about right and certainly helps overcome the
less than fresh situations (the wonderful scene in which Will and Sam make a pilgrimage to the now shuttered legendary punk club
CBGB’s is an exception). And not only does the movie get close to the inherent melodrama of the teen years, the last half with its
myriad of plot reversals seems to have been envisioned by a teenager caught up in the primal drama of the high school years.
That’s a backhanded compliment at best as the picture, familiar but energetic up to that point, doesn’t know when to unplug the
amplifiers. One other problem dissipated the movie’s good will for me: though the two leading ladies both have competent voices
neither has the Janis Joplin-Grace Slick-Stevie Nicks vocal chops the genre calls for. Hudgens, especially, could have used a lot more
in the vocal area when called upon to put across the obligatory Star Is Born moment (and the song chosen is a dud, too). Gorgeous
and competent the ladies are (and Michalka plays a mean guitar) but both come closer to Nancy rather than Ann Wilson in the vocal
department. There’s nothing here as enthralling as the truly exultant “The Want of a Nail” that the musical theatre kids belted out
at the conclusion of Camp and given Graff’s sophisticated musical sensibilities, that’s a disappointment.
Though Bandslam wears out its welcome as it teeters rather than rocks toward the finish line, there is something inherently enticing in
the old “let’s put on a show” formula it utilizes – even one that rocks at 125 decibels.
District 9, the debut film from writer-director Neil Blomkamp (the script was co-written with Terri Tatchell) is a funny, violently gross,
and wildly enthralling addition to the science fiction canon. It’s no surprise that Peter Jackson, with his taste for gleeful gore so
prominent in his early films (Braindead, Bad Taste) and penchant for originality would be prominently listed in the credits as the
Presenter of this highly creative film which nimbly outdistances every sci-fi blockbuster of the summer season.
The title refers to the slum like government camp located in Johannesburg, South Africa in which a spaceship full of worker aliens
derisively called prawns “because that’s what they look like” have been quarantined for over two decades while their gigantic, though
apparently useless spaceship, hovers overhead. Once it’s determined that humans can’t operate their advanced weaponry which is
tied to the aliens biology, they’re left to their own devices in the slum. Vice of all kinds including something icky to contemplate
called “inter-species prostitution” presided over by a group of cut throat Nigerians led by a paralyzed warlord (who reminds one of the
Duke, the character played by Isaac Hayes in Escape from New York) has become rife in District 9. Multi-National United (MNU), a
government contracted agency (read: Blackwater in Iraq) presides over District 9 and to ostensibly quell citizen protests, decides to
move the almost two million cat food loving aliens to a new encampment – with the help of some brutal mercenaries.
A featherhead with the unlikely name Wikus Van Der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), son-in-law of MNU’s CEO is charged with handling the
move. The idiotic Wikus with his phony bonhomie is the smiling public face of the operation and is so annoying and stupid you
almost smile when he inadvertently gets sprayed in the face with some alien black goo and begins to transform into one of the
prawns. But once the transformation begins the film turns into a race against time (there are great suspense elements here ala The
Fugitive) and we begin to root for the dumb bunny who gains more courage and character with each change in his physical
alteration. As MNU’s true motives are uncovered as well as those of the aliens, the film builds, amidst a flurry of gut busting action
sequences, to a nifty conclusion.
There’s a real cinema verite, handheld feel here (ala Cloverfield or a war documentary) that gives the movie, much of it told in
mockumentary style, a gritty, in your face quality. Messages and metaphors in sci-fi pictures are not rare but the obvious political
allegory to Apartheid used in District 9 is particularly cunning and really resonates given the hideous conditions and inhumanities the
aliens are forced to endure. The movie is like a weird cross-breeding of City of God, Alien Nation and The Fly but it really works.
Like Alien Nation, the inventive, entertaining District 9 would make the basis for a great television series – though on second thought
let’s hope for a couple of big screen sequels before that inevitable creative reduction happens.
Expanded Edition of 8-12-09 Windy City Times KATM Column*
By Richard Knight, Jr.
CHECK OUT OTHER KATM FILM REVIEWS IN THE ARCHIVES
*I missed screening District 9 before deadline but am including it here and it will appear in the 8-19-09 print edition as well