What do a movie about a Catholic priest suspected of inappropriate conduct with an altar boy, and one about an alien refugee camp where things spiral out of control, have in common? Not much, except that I watched and thoroughly enjoyed both of them last week. Characters and plot are more important to me than any other elements in a movie, and both of these films scored high in those areas.
- Plot Summary from IMDB: “It’s 1964, St. Nicholas in the Bronx. A charismatic priest, Father Flynn, is trying to upend the schools’ strict customs, which have long been fiercely guarded by Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the iron-gloved Principal who believes in the power of fear and discipline. The winds of political change are sweeping through the community, and indeed, the school has just accepted its first black student, Donald Miller. But when Sister James, a hopeful innocent, shares with Sister Aloysius her guilt-inducing suspicion that Father Flynn is paying too much personal attention to Donald, Sister Aloysius sets off on a personal crusade to unearth the truth and to expunge Flynn from the school. Now, without a shard of proof besides her moral certainty, Sister Aloysius locks into a battle of wills with Father Flynn which threatens to tear apart the community with irrevocable consequence.” The movie was written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, who I was amused to learn also directed Joe Versus the Volcano. That’s quite far removed from this one. Among his other writing credits is the Oscar-winning Moonstruck. The screenplay for Doubt is very strong and captivating, which seems appropriate since it is based on a play.
- Main Cast
- Meryl Streep – As always, she does a phenomenal job with her character. She portrays Sister Aloysius as a stern, stone-faced principal, and although she initially comes across as a villain (at least when it comes to the students she rules over with an iron fist), the audience begins to see how much she cares for the children and her fellow nuns. With every word spoken, every threatening stare, and every deliberate step, Streep was Sister Aloysius.
- Philip Seymour Hoffman – He is always so good, whether playing an eccentric literary figure in Capote or a ruthless criminal mastermind in Mission Impossible III. So it was business as usual when he donned the clerical collar and vestments as Father Flynn. Viewers don’t know whether to despise him or sympathize with him, or how much or how little to trust him. But behind all his smiles and words of wisdom lies a strong-willed individual who is willing to take on the formidable opponent that is Sister Aloysius.
- Amy Adams – She’s come a long way since playing Tara’s cousin, Beth, on one of the less stellar episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Lately, Amy Adams seems to be everywhere, and is definitely still on the rise in Hollywood. Just this month she and Streep reunited for the comedic biography Julie and Julia, but their roles were much more serious in Doubt. Adams’ character, Sister James, is a young, idealistic nun who sees the best in her students and is more interested in nurturing them than in disciplining them. She certainly seems out of her league against Sister Aloysius and a classroom full of kids ready to walk all over her, and out of place living amidst a group of ancient, gray-haired nuns. Despite these odds, she seems perfectly happy and fulfilled with her role as one of the sisters and as a teacher, and it is interesting to see Sister Aloysius take her under her wing and mentor her on the finer points of discipline and faith. On a less rosy note, Sister James finds herself caught in between the dueling Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn, and in addition to not wanting to doubt either one of them, she has a crisis of faith, since she can’t accept that Father Flynn is anything less than a noble priest who genuinely cares for the children and the community.
- Overall Assessment – Doubt has been dubbed a drama and a mystery, but I would add to that list psychological thriller. It isn’t a thriller in the strictest sense of the word – there are no knife-wielding lunatics, car chases, or explosions. But there may as well have been, because the searing battle between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn got my heart racing, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. Everything from the cinematography to the acting to the script came together to create a tense and intense, ever escalating, moral and relational conflict within the walls of St. Nicholas. “Doubt” is, indeed, the key word to this story, and by the end of the movie, everyone, including the viewer, is left unsure of what to believe.
- The Plot: One of the reasons I enjoyed this movie so much is that I hardly knew anything going into it. Therefore, I was surprised by each and every turn in the story. This type of movie is best enjoyed if you don’t know what to expect, and so I won’t reveal much of the plot here. Instead, I’ll give you this summary of the basic premise: An extraterrestrial race is forced to live in slum-like conditions in a refugee camp in Johannesburg, South Africa, where, in the 1980s, their ship came to a halt and has remained hovering ever since. The movie chronicles the shaky relationship between the humans and “prawns” (as they are called because they look like giant shrimp), and examines such themes as injustice, greed, loyalty, and other facets of human nature. After starting out like a documentary, the movie settles into the more familiar action thriller territory, but never falls short of being a top notch sci-fi film.
- The Cast: Over the past few days, amidst tons of buzz about District 9’s opening weekend, I’ve been asking myself, “Why haven’t I heard anything about this movie until now?” It has sci-fi classic written all over it, and it was completely off of my normally excellent pop culture radar. The simple answer? There’s not a single American actor in the cast, much less a well known actor. Typically, movies don’t get a fancy promotional campaign in the U.S. unless there’s a big name attached to the project. The big name here is Peter Jackson, but he doesn’t exactly make the talk show circuit rounds like Brad Pitt or Meryl Streep. The central character, Wikus Van De Merwe, is played by Sharlto Copley. This is Copley’s first acting role (he has some behind the scenes credits to his name), and he did an excellent job of portraying Wikus. If I recognized any of the other actors, I don’t know where from, but my guess is that they were all totally new to me, and to most Americans. But they were all terrific, and the fact that they were unfamiliar to me helped achieve the feeling that this was a documentary about real events, happening to real people.
- The Visual Style – I’ve heard the term “faux verite” used to describe the visual style of this movie. That refers to the use of handheld cameras, news coverage (complete with scrolling text), and archival footage that, combined, make the movie feel like a documentary uncovering events that spiraled out of control. This style is reminiscent of Cloverfield, which gave a more realistic (therefore more terrifying) spin on creature features. While I enjoyed Cloverfield (see my review here), District 9 is more compelling because it asks a similar question on a larger scale. While Cloverfield asked, “What would happen, and how would people react if a giant creature paved a huge path of destruction through New York City?”, District 9 asks, “If seemingly non-hostile aliens landed on Earth, what would happen and how would the human race react?” District 9 doesn’t provide a final answer to that question, but the tale that it spins is oh so fascinating and surprising.
- The Blood and Gore – Be forewarned: this movie is rated R for language and violence, yes, but mostly for the sometimes staggering amount of gore. I can’t remember another movie during which I’ve exclaimed “Ew!” “Gross!” “Yuck!” so often. I usually keep my mouth shut during movies in a theater, but I couldn’t help but react to many of the gory moments in this one. Let’s just say that the alien weaponry was mighty powerful, and that wasn’t the only source of the gore.
- The Buzz – I’m happy to see that District 9 finished the weekend atop the box office, earning an estimated $37 billion, nearly $18 billion more than the next closest new release, The Time Traveler’s Wife. If everyone else loved this movie as much as I did, then positive word of mouth will continue to make this a “little movie that could.” It’s a shame that dreck like Transformers 2 rakes in hundreds of millions at the box office, while an instant classic like this has to prove itself to an unfamiliar audience. Trust me – go see this movie! If you like sci-fi, don’t mind a healthy dose of blood and guts, and just enjoy watching a well made movie of any genre, then you won’t be disappointed. And it is worth the price of admission to see it on the big screen, since like Peter Jackson’s more well known works (King Kong, Lord of the Rings, etc.) there are plenty of sweeping views and overwhelming (in a good way) sound effects – not to mention all the other special effects.
So there you have it. Doubt and District 9. Two very different movies, but both absolutely engrossing and both exhibiting excellent directing, cinematography, acting, and scriptwriting.