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Putting a Fine Point On It

Putting a Fine Point On It (photo)

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Twelve years ago, Paul Verhoeven, ever the cynical prankster, turned Robert A. Heinlein’s jingoistic ’50s sci-fi novel “Starship Troopers” into a plug-ugly satire of homicidal xenophobia, making his whitebread human “heroes” even more grotesque than the giant insectoid creatures they regularly slaughtered. Trouble was, mainstream America didn’t really get the sick joke, even when Neil Patrick Harris turned up in full quasi-Nazi regalia to conduct sadistic experiments on the captured bugs. Perhaps mindful of that film’s commercial failure, South African director Neill Blomkamp dispenses with subtlety altogether in his similarly subversive debut feature, “District 9,” crafting a political allegory so blatant and in-your-face that even the congenitally dimwitted can’t possibly fail to get the point. Blunt doesn’t necessarily mean ineffective, though. “District 9” eventually devolves into a fairly conventional buddy action movie, but its lengthy, remarkably detailed set-up addresses bleak truths about the plight of the dispossessed in ways that might well be unbearable — or at the very least seem too preachy — if not swaddled in genre.

Structured as a fake documentary recounting world-shaking events some years after they occurred, the film takes place in Johannesburg, where a city-sized spacecraft experienced the warp-drive equivalent of engine trouble 20 years ago, hovering motionless for months a few miles above ground. Eventually, its starving, frightened occupants, who resemble huge bipedal prawns, were evacuated by humanity and given what was meant to be temporary shelter in a hastily constructed shantytown that looks pretty much exactly like (and was, in fact, filmed in) modern-day Soweto.

Two decades later, they remain tenth-class non-citizens, and it’s the task of Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) to serve the aliens eviction notices, informing them that they’re to be moved to the new District 10, which amounts to a concentration camp. While searching one particular shack for weapons, however, Wikus accidentally sprays himself with an alien fluid that somehow triggers a genetic mutation, transforming his left arm into a prawn claw that can fire the aliens’ ray guns. With the South African government eager to harvest his organs for bioweapons research, Wikus has little choice but to hide out in D-9 and seek help from the very beings he’d previously treated like refuse.

Admittedly, that’s a tad heavy-handed, and certain aspects of the scenario (written by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell) aren’t terribly plausible. Humans and aliens have no trouble understanding each other’s language, for example, and that’s a huge stretch even given 20 years of cohabitation. (I often have no idea what the people in Ken Loach films are saying, and they’re speaking English.) On the whole, though, “District 9” pulls few punches in depicting the sorry legal status and the (literally) subhuman living conditions of these intergalactic refugees. As Wikus travels from one dilapidated hovel to the next, addressing the inhabitants with brutal condescension and cheerfully incinerating their nurseries (which are slaughterhouse-repulsive to human eyes, but still), our sympathy shifts so decisively to the aliens’ side, despite their hideous appearance, that we can’t help but feel shameful about belonging to such a noxious, unfeeling, destructive species — precisely the visceral gut reaction that Verhoeven was going for, I imagine.

08122009_district97.jpgWhat held “Starship Troopers” back from greatness, alas, was its monotonously repetitive second half, in which the film made a dispiriting shift from knowing satire to mindless shoot-’em-up. “District 9” doesn’t tumble nearly as far (in part because it hasn’t scaled such a great height), but it loses much of its rough-hewn, mock-doc energy once Wikus teams up with a prawn named Christopher Johnson and his ugly-cute shrimp of a son. (That the aliens have been allotted generic human names, picking up where Ellis Island left off, is just one of the film’s numerous sly gags.)

The trajectory of the film’s second half is pure buddy-flick formula sprinkled with gratuitous explosions and lens-smearing gore — though there are still details to savor, like the constant view of the gigantic mothership in the background of exteriors, as apparently ineradicable a part of the landscape as a mountain range. And I’m not sure what to make of a subplot involving bloodthirsty, superstitious Nigerian gangsters, though it’s hard to believe that a film so ardent about decrying prejudice would stoop to regional xenophobia. In any event, genre efforts this bracing are sufficiently rare that it’s hard not to treasure them even when they’re somewhat compromised. And I look forward to having conversations about this one that won’t involve the phrase “No, don’t you get it?”

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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