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Destroying the World to Save It

Destroying the World to Save It (photo)

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Is it too late for “9” to be the action movie of the summer? Shane Acker’s dystopian fable shares a subject with the latest entries in the “Terminator” and “Transformers” franchises (not to mention “Battlestar Galactica”), but his direction is a model of clarity and grace, and his animated, inhuman protagonists are more life-like and individuated than those of the average blockbuster.

Acker’s feature, an expansion of his Oscar-nominated short, is set in a sandblasted future littered with desiccated bodies and shattered buildings. There are no humans — the last dies just before the film begins — but life, of a sort, still stirs amidst the rubble in the form of nine tiny figures, each with single digit etched into its back. With their burlap bodies and zippered torsos, they’re like toys from the pre-industrial era, part mechanical and part organic. Although they’re all the product of the same hand, Acker gives each one a distinct body type and personality: 1 (voiced by Christopher Plummer) is the self-appointed leader, decked out in a cape and pontiff’s hat; 8 (Fred Tatasciore), his hulking henchman, is a bulging sack with a lopsided mouth. 7 (Jennifer Connelly) is a warrior, thought lost to “the emptiness,” 3 and 4 are mute twins with inquisitive natures and movie-projector eyes. 9 (Elijah Wood), the most recent model, is naïve and newborn, but his ignorance of the bleak past proves a valuable asset.

Their enemies, and the architects of humankind’s obliteration, are mechanical through and through — giant, clanking things with red, flickering eyes, their surfaces a maze of jagged edges and menacing protrusions. They, too, are intelligent, but vastly more single-minded. Their sole objective is to wipe out whatever vestiges of humanity remain, including the nine final creations of the scientist who ushered in the age of the machine.

A newsreel recovered in the wreckage shows the scientist perfecting a metal orb with an unblinking red eye (a deliberate homage to “2001”), then watching impotently as his invention is appropriated by a bellicose general and used to make instruments of war, which eventually band together and turn on their creators. The part of the scientist is, fortuitously, voiced by Alan Oppenheimer, whose surname cements the obvious parallel to the development of the atom bomb. The villain here is not technology per se — Acker is, after all, a computer animator — but uniformity. The newsreel shows the general flanked by fascist regalia, and details humanity’s defeat by “the iron fist of the machine.”

Acker is wobbly with the mechanics of plot; the script, by Pamela Pettler (“Monster House,” “The Corpse Bride”), grows more strained as the movie builds to its climax, a display of spiritualist smoke and mirrors too vague to provide the hoped-for uplift. But he makes real characters out of his cloth and metal constructions, and the movie’s action sequences have a spatial coherence that has all but vanished from the live-action realm. When 9 and his cohorts are set upon by a hawk-like robot, or menaced by a contraption that’s a cross between a poisonous snake and a sewing machine, you have a tangible sense of their peril because you can visualize the space around them and get a feel for the distance between threat and safety. Making one action clearly follow another shouldn’t be a rare talent, but there are plenty of bigger-budget directors who could stand a refresher course.

09092009_Gamer2.jpgMark Neveldine and Brian Taylor — who, due to the Directors Guild’s arcane rules, are billed as the hybrid entity Neveldine/Taylor — specialize in the kind of whiplash-inducing action from which “9” provides a welcome respite. But they cleverly play both sides by fashioning their movies as implicit criticisms of the style they embody. Jason Statham’s Chev Chelios, the protagonist of the duo’s “Crank” films, is an action antihero, a ruthless hit man whose life depends on keeping his heart rate elevated — a devilish conceptual equivalent to the nonstop action the genre demands.

“Gamer,” which opened on Friday without screening for critics, takes a marginally more sober tack, beginning with the substitution of stolid Gerard Butler for the antic Statham. Butler plays Kable, the reigning champion of the live-action video game “Slayers.” He has a real name, too, but it’s a closely guarded secret, part of the past obliterated by the bioengineered cells that have turned his lower brain into a Wi-Fi hotspot. In the movie’s flesh-and-blood analogue to first-person shooters, Kable and his fellow death row inmates are remotely controlled by pallid teenagers and obese shut-ins, their neat gunshots sending plumes of blood spurting from their opponents’ foreheads. Part networked competition and part reality show, the game is the brainchild of greasy software genius Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall), whose other triumph is a “Sim City” clone called “Society.”

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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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