Elysium – The Future Is Now


Country: United States
Genre: Action/ Science Fiction/ Drama
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Year: 2013

Rating: ★★★☆☆


Elysium is the definition of a mixed bag.

Practically everything that is great about the picture you can intuit from the trailer.

In the future, the super rich will abandon planet earth for a terraformed space station in order to retain the luxury they have become accustomed to.

Of course, it won’t actually happen that way. The earth will probably lose at least half of it’s population, so it won’t be as crowded as depicted in the movie. Instead of a space station, the rich will probably reside in pockets of wealth protected by walls and private armies.

Still, what’s great about the image of a terraformed space station is it elegantly communicates the essential idea that the rich will exploit the earth and it’s people to the point of exhaustion and collapse, and then abandon it to rot.

Writer/director Neill Blomkamp gets a lot of the social dynamics right, too. Delacourt (Jodie Foster) represents the Cheneyesque faction of folks eager to go to the “dark side” to achieve their ends, shooting first and asking questions never. President Patel (Faran Tahir) represents the “liberals” who serve the rich just as assiduously, but want to maintain the illusion that their hands are clean. Robots have largely taken over domestic chores on Elysium. The militarization of the police is complete — officers are now robots, so the elite don’t fear rebellion. Blomkamp brilliant captures the ongoing dehumanization of the workplace.

Best of all, Elysium manages to create an analog between Elysium/future Earth and USA/present time Mexico! In other words, the rich have been exploiting so-called third world countries and creating privileged walled conclaves for a while now. It’s just that the United States and the other 1st world countries will become similarly exploited in the near future. What’s happened to the rest of the world will now happen to America, Britain, Europe, etc. That’s an important point, and not one that most Americans would reach on their own, even progressives.

So far, this review is reading like a rave, so why have I only given Elysium three stars?

Weaknesses In Elysium

Sadly, as sharp as writer/director Blomkamp is with visuals, social content, and plotting, he’s pretty awful when it comes to characterization and dialog.

Blomkamp can’t find the right tone for either Delacourt or Patel, which is kind of inexcusable considering how many role models he has to draw from on the current American political scene. The hero of the piece, Max (Matt Damon) is flat emotionally and his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) isn’t much better.

So, what’s the plot?

Max has come down with radiation poisoning from his abusive workplace. His only chance for survival is a trip to Elysium, where they can cure pretty much anything. Meanwhile, Delacourt is planning a coup against President Patel, so she will have a free hand to commit atrocities against anyone who attempts to illegally immigrate to Elysium. She enlists the help of John Carlyle (William Fichtner, brilliant as a technocrat), who can reboot the computers on Elysium to transfer the presidency to Delacourt. Coincidentally, Max attempts to kidnap Carlyle to have a bargaining chip against the authorities on Elysium.

That’s pretty good stuff, but without the human element, there is little emotional impact.

I have one more complaint. In the beginning of the movie, Blomkamp underlines a bunch of story points which he already communicated visually. It’s so redundant that it’s a bit insulting. I’m reluctant to believe that viewers have become so stupid that they couldn’t figure it out on their own.

Elysium has enough good ideas to make it a worth while watch, but it left me curiously unmoved, when it should have left me wrung out and in tears.

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Only God Forgives – Serves Them Right

Only God Forgives

Country: United States
Genre: Action
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Year: 2013

Rating: ★★☆☆☆


Julian (Ryan Gosling) belongs to one fucked up family. His brother rapes and kills the 14-year-old daughter of a Thai massage parlor manager. After the manager takes his revenge at the urging of police captain Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), Julian’s mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) makes a special trip from the good ole’ U S of A to settle accounts.

When Julian tells her “It’s complicated, mom. He killed and raped a 14-year-old girl,” Mommy Dearest replies “I’m sure he had his reasons.”

So begins Only God Forgives.

We seem to be set up for a hard-boiled noir, but writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn has something else in mind.

Only God Forgives is stylized beyond Quentin Tarantino’s wildest wet dreams. Some of the pauses would give Sergio Leone pause. Unfortunately, all of this iconography comes off as more pretentious than epic, partly because there isn’t a raw beating heart of emotion at the center what amounts to little more than a series of tableaux, punctuated with graphic carnage.

Julian, the ostensible hero at core of the picture, is joyless and all but lifeless. Mommy Dearest seems more like an excuse in potty talk intended to shock than a real character.

Only Captain Chang really registers. He has the dignity and implacability of an Old Testament Judge. He inspires devotion from his subordinates, who worshipfully listen to him croon karaoke between bouts of killing and torture.

Sadly, Only God Forgives seems like no more than a waste of an intriguing character, and is ultimately quite dull.

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The Paperboy – Funhouse Mirror Southern Gothic

The Paperboy

Country: United States
Genre: Drama/ Comedy
Director: Lee Daniels
Year: 2012

Rating: ★★☆☆☆


Ultimately, my reaction to The Paperboy is best described as WTF!? In that sense, I suppose, you have to give points to director Lee Daniels for originality.

I’m not talking about the story, which is nothing new. Native son and Miami Times reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey, in a fearless performance) has returned to Bumfuck, Central Florida to investigate the dubious conviction of one Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) for the murder of a famously corrupt sheriff. Ward is a closed off individual, but Ward’s way in is Hillary’s prison pen pal, Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman). Meanwhile, Ward’s younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) has fallen in lust with sleazy ol’ Charlotte.

From that description, you’d expect a humid, sleazy thriller, along the lines of Wild Things.

But no. That’s not what director Lee Daniels has in mind at all. The atmosphere is sleazy and humid all right, but Daniels seems to be playing the scenario for twisted laughs. And then there’s the Jansen’s black housekeeper, Anita Chester (Macy Gray). In the midst of all this hothouse Southern gothic nonsense, she plays Anita as deadpan. It’s no accident either. All the other black Southern characters are just as deadpan in their delivery. Is Daniels trying to tell us that black people in the late 60s South muted their personalities to avoid giving White people an excuse to torment them? Maybe so, but it comes off as very odd next to the florid performances of the rest of the cast.

So far, The Paperboy is exceedingly odd, but rather entertaining for amateur sociologists like myself. It’s an extremely stylized take on the post civil rights South, a funhouse mirror of reality. Director Lee Daniels goes out of his way to depict his characters as comic grotesques.

But then, in the late third act, the plot from Pete Dexter’s novel makes nonsense of Daniel’s direction. The movie is capped by a melodramatic development that comes out of nowhere, both in dramatic and thematic terms.

What the hell was Daniels trying to accomplish? Who knows? The only certain thing is that Daniels completely lost control of his material.

We’re left with a mind boggling curiosity which has no particular effect on an audience, other than to leave them in stunned disbelief.

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White House Down – Fantasyland

White House Down

Country: United States
Genre: Action/ Mainstream
Director: Roland Emmerich
Year: 2013

Rating: ★★★☆☆


Here we go again.

Not long ago, I wrote a review of Olympus Has Fallen, in which the White House is attacked and taken over by terrorists.

Now, we have White House Down, with a very similar story, at least in terms of the general hook. But there are some very important differences as well.

Once more, the filmmakers start out with an almost impossible hurdle. How do you make a gung-ho patriotic movie in the age of Obama, when our President is a unapologetic war criminal, a so-called constitutional lawyer who is intent on abolishing the Bill of Rights?

Olympus Has Fallen tried to brazen it out with slam bang visuals, hoping the audience wouldn’t notice that the politics of the movie were completely full of shit. It almost worked too until the patriotic speech at the end, which made me want to gag it was so hypocritical.

Thankfully, the filmmakers behind White House Down don’t make that mistake. Instead, they create a full blown fantasy of how they wish our first black president had turned out. Instead of a war criminal, he’s a peacemaker. Instead of a tool of the military industrial complex, the president in the movie, President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) intends to expose the corruption of the military industrial complex.

It’s difficult to get your head around this alternative universe which is the polar opposite of modern day America, but to the extent that you can, screenwriter James Vanderbilt manages to make our heroes likeable and worth rooting for. Besides likeable President Sawyer, Channing Tatum’s Cale, the lunkhead who takes on the villains, engages our sympathies enough to carry the action.

It also helps that, once we get past the dicey plot mechanics of how the villains manage to bring down the White House (Olympus Has Fallen is more convincing in this respect), the jeopardy is near constant and the action works, even though it’s PG-13. Indeed, with the relatively light tone director Roland Emmerich uses, a less graphically violent approach makes sense.

What else is there to say?

White House Down is manifestly a silly movie, but for the running time, it actually winds up being fun. The crucial element to that modest success is that White House Down knows it’s pure fantasy and doesn’t take itself seriously, unlike Olympus Has Fallen, which left a very bad taste in my mouth.

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