"Elysium" (2013)

Elysium (2013)
Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Running time: 109 minutes

I feel I must say that the evidence supporting the notion that science-fiction is the best genre that there is is becoming more and more prominent. Over the past year I’ve seen that most of the films tackling some of the most interesting aspects of the human condition have all done so using the tools of science-fiction. Though they have their flaws, films such as Oblivion exploring (albeit a little shallowly) the concept of identity, what makes us who we are?; Prometheus‘ example of the uncertainty and Babylonian lack of communication and intention if mankind truly met our gods; and even The Host worked a different angle on identity, presenting an emotional scenario far beyond the experience of anyone else alive! Yes other genres tackle some compelling issues as well, but usually only the truly amazing examples from those genres actually do so. But even an average science-fiction film can open up a mind (even subconsciously) to a new way of thinking. Oblivion may not have been perfect, but the discussions I’ve had with people about the ideas presented in the film have been staggering! Now that is the mark of a great creative work.

Which leads me to Neill Blomkamp, a modern pioneer of the science-fiction genre.

Now Showing this week is Elysium, direceted by Neill Blomkamp (previously known for 2009’s District 9). In the future, over-population of Earth has become such an issue that the rich and privileged people felt the need to bail out. They constructed a space station in Earth’s orbit which they named “Elysium” (aptly named after the Ancient Greek realm of the Underworld, reserved for the relatives/chosen ones of the Gods), a paradise filled with beautiful trees, clean air and machines that can cure any ailment on any person with a still functioning brain. Cancer, physical injuries, disease, all of these conditions are a thing of the past for any citizen of Elysium. But this paradise comes at a price: those who are not privileged enough to reside on Elysium are left to suffer on the remains of Earth, a barren wasteland full of derelict slums and poverty. Matt Damon stars as Max, a Los Angeles ex-con assembly line worker who helps build the robots that police humanity and guard Elyisum, who inadvertently gets exposed to such high levels of radiation that he now has five days before he dies. The medical facilities on Elysium are now his only option for survival, but getting up there illegally is no easy task, so Max sells his criminal talents out to a group of illegal people smugglers in the hopes that they will give him passage to the paradise forever floating in the sky.

As thought provoking and enthralling as it is, Elysium‘s comparisons to the real world are hardly subtle. This is especially true here in Australia, with our current political debates in relation to refugees; and Elysium most certainly takes a definite side in the debate. The “illegals” in the film merely want to use Elysium’s medical facilities to cure their ailments, not to rise up and take over; whilst Elysium personnel are willing to shoot down any spacecraft carrying illegals for their own safety. It is obvious who the film thinks is in the wrong here! But Blomkamp uses the beauty that is science-fiction to craft a world that should resonate with people by legitimizing why there are people who travel from one place to another via unconventional means: because the place they are leaving is cruel and prevents them from having the means to travel conventionally. And perhaps a fictitious, exaggerated scenario can resonate a point across more than some real world facts. Again, such is the genius of science-fiction. The debate in the film may be one sided, but it is still compelling.

Aesthetically, Elysium shines! Literally and metaphorically. The pristine world of Elysium itself is glistening with architectural beauty, and luscious plant life; giving off a vibe of cleanliness and purity. This paradise juxtaposed with Earth’s gritty, harsh landscape is what truly nails the class system conflict that is central to the narrative. Earth is sand torn and decrepit; looking like a shanty town housing billions. And while the people of Earth have more advanced technology than we do today, the look and feel of the technology still displays an archaic sensibility. The computer monitors are all 1980s CRTs; Max’s exoskeleton combat suit (on the poster) completely lacks style and finesse; everything in the film displays advancement yet poverty. Now that is a tough aesthetic to pull off, but Blomkamp smashes it! A big part of cinema as a medium is how it looks and feels, and Elysium excels in this department.

Performance wise, the film was quite good as well. Damon as Max was a compelling protagonist, especially with his past experience in the criminal underworld leading to us feeling that perhaps he’s not that great a person. He does have a love interest character named Frey (Alice Braga), however I felt that their relationship felt a little forced every now and then. I didn’t understand what they saw in each other, if that makes sense? Jodie Foster plays a cold villain in the form of Ms. Delacourt, the head of security on Elysium. Foster’s performance may not be one for the history books, but her sense of presence and power in any scene she’s in is palpable. But the true performer of the film is that of Sharlto Copley as Kruger, a disbanded security agent of Elysium brought back in to track Max down. Copley is almost unrecognisable in the role, presenting a character so mentally unbalanced, toeing the line between intelligence and insanity, that it is terrifying. His South Afrikaan accent gave him a higher pitched voice, giving off an air of kindness to him, but his words and his intentions showing his true nature of violence and anger. He was an amazing villain, truly the highlight of the film.

Elysium is most certainly worth your time. My only real complaints about the film would be that the moral argument was too one sided and the ending was a bit naff. I can’t truly explain myself fully on those two points without spoiling the film, so I won’t, but suffice to say that they inform each other and it was a problem. These complaints, however, are hardly a deal breaker and Elysium is definitely one of the smarter action blockbusters you will see this year. Well done Blomkamp, you’ve proven that District 9 was not a fluke!

See you next time!

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‘We’re the Millers" (2013)

We’re the Millers (2013)
Directed by: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Running time: 110 minutes

We’re the Millers has been a first for me in my film reviewing activities, as it was the first film that I have seen screened in a more critic-esque capacity than a public one. I saw it several days before it’s Australian release (as a guest of Warner Brothers no less!) and am thereby able to write and prepare my review in time for the film’s opening weekend! This is crazy talk for a small time blogger like me! Sadly I had the chance to see Neill Blomkamp’s new film Elysium (a film I would have been much more excited to write about) in a similar preview screening the following night but was unable to attend, so I suppose I’ll just have to write about that film when I see it at the same time as the rest of you. But I digress, on to the review!

Now Showing this week is We’re the Millers, a new comedy directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (previously known for comedy classic Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story). David Clark (Jason Sudeikis) is a small time drug dealer who now owes a lot of money to his supplier after a youth gang robs his apartment. His supplier has offered him a chance to pay off his debt by instructing David to travel into Mexico and pick up a shipment of marijuana and bring it back across the border into the US. If he can pull this off, David will be debt free and also be paid one hundred thousand dollars! Out of options, David hatches a clever plan to get the drugs back over the border: he will disguise it as a family holiday. However, given David has no family, he convinces Rose (Jennifer Aniston) a stripper from his apartment building; Kenny (Will Poulter) a socially awkward teenager; and Casey (Emma Roberts) a delinquent teenage runaway to pose as his family so as to avoid suspicion. What could possibly go wrong?!

As I have said before, I find the best comedies are the ones in which ordinary people are convinced to commit some kind of criminal offense, and that then spiral out of control around them. I can safely say the We’re the Millers delivers on that front. David may be an accomplished drug dealer, but he has never been involved in drug smuggling of this magnitude and all the other members of his “family” are all newbies to the world of serious crime. The highlights of the film were most certainly the moments in which the characters were attempting to do something illegal and/or immoral and then needing to think on their feet in order to get out of the situation they have now put themselves in. The fake family angle helped further heighten the lunacy of these moments, as the protagonists were willing to do things that the other characters found very strange given they assumed that the Millers are a real family!  I would say, however, that a lot of the comedic strengths of the film came from Jason Sudeikis playing the lead character. I imagine that the film was written with the knowledge of him playing David, and with him also being allowed some improvisational freedom with certain dialogue. I heard in an interview about the film that other actors such as Jason Bateman and Steve Buscemi were considered for the part before final casting, and I am certain we would have had a very different film should either of them (especially Buscemi!) was cast. As an actor, I would liken Sudeikis to how I described Seth Rogan in last week’s review: a comedian with a certain style of comedy that he is brought in to perform if the movie needs that kind of comedian. And We’re the Millers certainly benefited from his presence.

Having said all that, the comedy was far from perfect in my mind. While there were some good moments outside of the criminal shenanigans, none of them were really laugh out loud moments. The biggest example I would say would be the Jennifer Aniston strip tease scene that was featured so heavily in trailers (because of course it was!). While it was amusing to a degree, it was clearly there for the sole excuse of getting Aniston’s clothes off rather than it being the funniest thing they could come up with. But then again, as I just said, it was amusing so does that make it really a bad thing? I always find comedies the hardest kinds of films to review because unless they are just outright not funny, you can’t really say anything bad about them even though they don’t strike you as the greatest films ever made! I suppose one thing I found about We’re the Millers that I can’t say about many other comedies I’ve seen is that it wasn’t terribly predictable. It was often so crazily absurd that if I thought it was going somewhere, or that it wouldn’t go somewhere, the film would defy my expectations to great comedic effect. I guess that’s the mark of a good comedy, as best as I can come up with at the time being.

We’re the Millers made me laugh. It certainly is not the wittiest comedy around nor is it the most poignant but it was humourously engaging throughout. And that’s really what you want from a comedy in the end isn’t it? I had a good time watching it, and I reckon that most of you would have a good time watching it too. If you can get passed Jason Sudeikis being the same guy he always is, We’re the Millers is an enjoyable comedy. And comedies being the annoying to review things they are, there’s not much more I can say beyond that!

See you next time!

"This is the End" (2013)

This is the End (2013)
Directed by: Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogan
Running time: 107 minutes

Now Showing this week is This is the End, a comedy-horror film written and directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogan. The attention grabbing premise is that every person featured in the film is not playing a character but is rather playing themselves, either accurately or as an amusing fictional representation. Actors Jay Burachel and Seth Rogan attend a party at James Franco’s new house, along with a cast of other actors such as Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride, that soon turns sour once the biblical Rapture begins outside. Suddenly the world as they know it is enveloped in fire and numerous people have been lifted up to heaven, and they are all left trapped in Franco’s home wondering why they haven’t been rescued themselves. Naturally, shenanigans ensue.

From the get go, This is the End was a film that was either going to excel with originality or fall flat on its face, tripping over its own concept. Thankfully the film leans more towards the former and less towards the latter, making for a Hollywood comedy that is a little different from what we are used to. The idea of having the actors playing themselves in the story rather than characters was a very enjoyable novelty, with a highlight being many of the actors critiquing/mocking each other for some of their more universally reviled roles and celebrating their achievements together. But for me the best parts of this self-awareness experiment were, ironically, the parts where an actor were not playing themselves, but a hilarious polar opposite to how we (the audience) perceive them. Michael Cera, for example, is known for his awkward, sheltered, weird teenage loser characters, but then to see him being a crazy cocaine user and soliciting oral sex from party floozies was definitely side-splitting! There were many other characters (can I call them that? This is really confusing!) like him that were very amusing, but I shan’t reveal them for the sake of spoilers. 

Building upon that, the actors whom played more accurate portrayals of themselves (or at least, what one can assume were accurate. You can never truly be certain) did so a little bit to their detriment, more so than coke fiend Cera! The best example I can think of for this would be Seth Rogan himself. Here is Seth Rogan playing himself in this apocalyptic scenario, and you could be forgiven for thinking he was playing any one of his other characters from his film career. He could have been Zack, or Cal, or Ben, or any other character from a “Seth Rogan film”. Which leads me to wonder can Seth Rogan play only one type of character, or can he not play any type of character and can only be himself? Which option is worse? Don’t get me wrong, I really like Seth Rogan, it is just that This is the End made me realise that perhaps I like him more as a comedian, given it seems that his acting ability doesn’t stretch very far. But maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe Seth fits in just like someone like Tom Cruise does. He has a type of character he excels at, and if that is the kind of character the movie needs then he is perfect for it. In the end (see what I did there?) I suppose it doesn’t matter, as long as I get some laughs.

Speaking of laughs; as I have previously stated, the movie is quite hilarious. A lot of the humour comes from the surreal nature of the fact that the actors are not playing characters but themselves, and the clashing of personalities and opinions on their real life exploits are essentially the crux of the jokes. There was a lot of gross out humour as well, and for the most part it was quite funny also. However, they did sometimes decide to stay with the jokes for a lot longer than they should have, dragging them out to the point of frustration. All of that aside though, the only thing that really bugged me about the film was when the humour got in the way. I know, the humour getting in the way in a comedy, go figure! I’ll elaborate, I was irritated when the need to make something funny got in the way of the moments in the film that were genuinely terrifying. It was easy to forget sometimes that while all these crazy personalities have been making jokes left and right, that the Rapture has begun outside! There are sections of the film revolving around the mystery of what may be lurking outside in the smoke, and one instance involving a demonic possession, that were nerve racking and amazingly intense. But then the film would ruin it by making a creature have a gigantic erection; or in the demonic possession instance, have the victim stop shouting horrifying Latin and biblical doomsday text and revert to silly name calling. Now while it was amusing, while it was absurd, I was honestly having more fun when the bad guys were scary, not funny. Perhaps that’s just me, but I like a comedy-horror film to still maintain a level of genuine fear of the villainous monsters in the movie. Shaun of the Dead managed it, so there is no excuse!

This is the End is a good watch. If I had to say it in a sentence, that would be it. It’s really funny, often quite clever, and with some intensely scary moments. It also strikes an interesting self exploration for all the actors, with them wondering why they haven’t been taken up to heaven with the others and are left on Earth. Hollywood actors acknowledging their own stupid egos always makes for some great viewing. Plus, it’s always good to see Seth Rogan doing what Seth Rogan does. What can I say, he’s a funny guy! You should check it out.

 

See you next time!