REVIEW: “Elysium”

Elysium Poster

Neill Blomkamp surprised a lot of people with his 2009 science fiction thriller “District 9”. While I wasn’t drawn to it, the majority of critics gave it high marks. It would go on to earn four Academy Award nominations including one for Best Picture. His eagerly anticipated follow up comes in the form of “Elysium”, another sci-fi foray soaked in social commentary. It’s a bleak, gritty, and violent film with high ambition and a much bigger budget.

Blomkamp once again writes and directs the movie which starts with a pretty heavy-handed setup. Blatantly obvious political statements on immigration, healthcare, and class warfare are thrown at the audience without an ounce of tact or subtlety. In fact it’s so painfully obvious that I started rolling my eyes and began to dread what was ahead. But to my surprise the film steers away from that and instead of shoving its positions in our face it allows them to simmer underneath the surface which definitely better serves the movie.

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The story basically goes like this – in the distant future Earth is an impoverished and overpopulated planet. People struggle against starvation, disease, and a brutish robot police force. But while the poor make up the Earth’s population, the rich upper-class live on a luxurious space station community known as Elysium. This orbital paradise features mansions, lush gardens, and machines able to cure any health problem instantly. But here’s the catch – only the wealthy and powerful are allowed on Elysium and there are strict government and military bodies that enforce that rule. As I said, not an ounce of subtlety.

Enter Max De Costa (Matt Damon), a struggling assembly line worker on Earth who has an accident which exposes him to lethal amounts of radiation. He learns he has only five days to live, but he’s not ready to kick the bucket just yet. He has to get to Elysium for treatment so he makes a deal with an underground smuggler. In exchange for a trip he must steal some important information from a corrupt military contractor. Seeing Max’s failing health, the smuggler has his doctors implant him with a super-strength robotic exoskeleton and cerebral implant to help with the mission. But Elysium’s Defense Secretary Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) also wants that information for her own nefarious reasons and she will do anything to get it.

Oddly enough “Elysium” drastically changes course as the film goes along. It moves from an obvious heavy-handed social critique to a fairly conventional sci-fi action flick. It uses several all too familiar approaches and it’s fairly easy to gain a sense of how things are going to end. That said, Blomkamp’s pacing is spot on. He keeps things moving which keeps the audience attached. He also has wonderful visual senses. The movie looks great whether it’s the big sweeping location shots or the intense and sometimes brutal action (and there is quite a bit of it). I loved the contrasting aesthetics between the dirty, rundown vision of Los Angeles (which was actually filmed in the Mexico City area) and the spotless Eden-like Elysium. Blomkamp has an unquestionable knack for visual filmmaking.

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Matt Damon is a solid choice to portray a ‘regular guy’. There’s not a lot of flash or bravado to his performance. He’s not a bold or larger-than-life character. In fact I would call him a very atypical hero and that works well within the story. But then there is Jodie Foster. I have no idea what she’s doing in this movie. Her erratic performance is all over the map and her accent morphs from French to British to something I’ve never heard before. I also thought Sharlto Copley was pretty bad as a ruthless sleeper agent who works for Delacourt. He certainly looks the part but that’s it. I don’t know if it’s his voice or his line delivery but nearly all of his dialogue feels terribly off. But thankfully this is Damon’s movie and he carries most of the load.

There’s no doubt that Neill Blomkamp is a gifted visual storyteller. I loved the overall look of “Elysium” from the futuristic technologies to the locations. I also thought the action scenes popped with intensity and grit. Unfortunately his writing prompts the question mark. Early on he uses a mighty broad brush to paint his social/political landscape and later the movie turns into a fairly conventional action film – two issues that I think keeps “Elysium” from being the really good movie that we get glimpses of. Still it has its moments. and as conventional as it may be, the action and pure visual spectacle keep it from being a total loss.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

“CARNAGE” – 3 1/2 STARS

It’s not hard to see that “Carnage” is based on a play. It’s a very stagey and theatrical adaptation of Yazmina Reza’s “God of Carnage”. The play first appeared Paris and London and soon found its way to Broadway where it was a Tony Award winner. Now Roman Polanski brings this confined but energetic story to the big screen and anchors it with four fantastic performers: Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, and John C. Reilly. It’s a sharply written, often times laugh out loud funny, and occasionally repetitive performance-driven drama.

The movie starts with a wide shot of a playground where two boys are having a disagreement. Things escalate and ends with one striking the other in the face with a stick. The story then skips forward as Nancy and Alan Cowan (Winslet and Waltz), the parents of the boy who had the stick, arrive at the apartment of Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Foster and Reilly), the parents of the boy who was hit. The four are meeting to talk about the incident and find the easiest solution to put it all behind them. Everything starts fairly civil but soon things start to unravel. Small subtle jabs erupt into abrasive personal attacks and things are made even worse once they all get into the Longstreet’s vintage bottle of Scotch.

With the exception of the brief opening scene and the brief final scene, the entire movie takes place inside the Longstreet’s apartment building. But don’t let that scare you. The clever dialogue and the unfolding of these very flawed characters is more than enough to hold your attention. Each have their own peculiarity and shortcoming and before long we even see the spouses turning on one another. The slick dialogue is delivered at an almost frantic pace but it also has a grounded and natural feel to it. The acting is strong and exactly what you would expect from this cast. The actors bounce their lines off each other and for the most part feel authentic. Now there were instances where Reilly falls into his typical over-the-top doofus mode and I did think both Foster and Winslet were brought down a little by the material. It also felt at times the film was a little repetitive. It seemed like some of the arguments were repeated but with slightly different verbal dressing and that lagged things down in the second act.

“Carnage” is an interesting film that offers some genuine laughs and some moments of brilliance. The small cast provides some truly fine performances even though the material hits a few small speed bumps. “Carnage” is a very tight, compact picture that sticks close to its theatrical roots. But even at under 80 minutes it has a little trouble filling it’s time and it may lose some viewers along the way. Yet I think there was enough here and I was entertained throughout. Plus I loved the final shot and felt that it spoke volumes. “Carnage” probably isn’t a movie for everyone, but I found it to be a dark comedy that worked.

“THE BEAVER” – 4 STARS

Regardless of your thoughts on Mel Gibson’s real life personal struggles, there is no denying that he can still command the screen. In “The Beaver”, he gives one of the strongest performances of his career in a role that may touch close to home for him. Everything in this film revolves around Gibson and it’s his mesmerizing performance that sells not only his character but the main focus of what his condition is doing to his family. It’s a painfully authentic portrayal of mental illness and director Jodie Foster allows Gibson to make this complex character his own.

Gibson plays Walter Black, the CEO of a toy company who is facing serious struggles with depression. His wife Meredith (Foster) kicks Walter out of the house after seeing his lack of interest in getting treatment as well as the terrible effects his depression is having on their two sons. Walter comes across a beaver hand puppet in a dumpster and it becomes a channel of communication between him and everyone else. The beaver becomes therapeutic in the sense that Walter begins to gain a self-confidence. He begins mending fences with his family and even comes up with an idea that turns the struggling toy company around. But it’s all done through the mediator which is the beaver leading us to question whether or not Walter is progressing or simply developing a growing dependency.

While Walter is able to regain a relationship with Meredith and his younger son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart), his oldest son Porter (Anton Yelchin) would rather he stay gone. There’s a huge disconnect between Porter and Walter and Porter’s greatest worry is that he will become his father. Their fractured relationship adds an interesting dynamic to the story but it feels underwritten. Sure, we understand the tension between the two but it seems that we have to do too much reading between the lines. Porter finds a little solace in an attractive but deceptive girl at school played by the wonderful Jennifer Lawrence. We get some fun scenes between the two as their relationship is actually fleshed out more than his and Walter’s.

“The Beaver” sold me on almost every point and the performances really click. I love every scene that Foster and Gibson share on screen and it reminded me of why these two have such strong track records. I only wish that Gibson and Yelchin had more screen time. Their relationship seems to be a crucial element of the story and therefore deserved more time than it received. While this is a moving and poignant drama there are also several scenes featuring some really funny dark humor. It all works together to create a really solid picture that, even with it’s few misfires, deserves more attention than it’s been given.