Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Blomkamp Comes Back Down to Earth With "Elysium"

Elysium finds Matt Damon in badass mode. 
District 9 was a real shot of adrenaline when it hit theaters back in 2009. In an era in which so many blockbuster types are sequels, remakes or so derivative that they might as well be, here was a complicated, raw and original piece of science fiction.

Like many films of the genre, it was a full-on political allegory, and it attacked societal tendencies of xenophobia and social segregation in a way that was intellectually stimulating, pulse-poundingly thrilling and emotionally affecting. The film used a cinema verite mockumentary style to deliver its atypically personal and rough-edged story, but it still managed to deliver impressively large-scale special effects.

In short, it was one of the best films of that year, and really, one of the greatest science fiction films I’ve come across.

Because of this, I was anxiously anticipating Elysium, the sophomore outing from writer/director Neill Blomkamp, who once again teams with actor Sharlto Copley for an original science fiction film. With Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, and an increased budget in tow, expectations were undoubtedly high.

So, it’s with a great deal of disappointment that I write that Elysium is about as ho-hum as it gets. It’s visually stimulating and Copley makes some interesting choices with his batty bad guy, but the action’s not all that memorable and the narrative is a passably clichéd effort.

With this, District 9 and 2015's Chappie, Copley and Blomkamp
are clearly keen collaborators.
The film is another Occupy Movement parable. Earth’s wealthiest inhabitants have moved to Elysium, a utopian space station in which all sicknesses can be cured by med-bays that seem right out of Prometheus. The rest of society remains on Earth, which has become an overpopulated slum policed by oppressive robot forces.

Damon stars as Max Decker, an ex-con who works on an assembly line creating police robots just like Douglas Quaid did in Total Recall. His long-term dream of visiting Elysium becomes a vital necessity when he is exposed to lethal radiation on the job, and his effort to get to Elysium and into a med-bay leads him to join forces with some anarchic smugglers. They fit him with a powered exoskeleton and promise him a ride to Elysium if he can boost a sort of access card to the space station from the brain of one of its citizens working on Earth.

In doing this, Max stumbles into possession of a program that can override Elysium’s defenses, drawing the attention of Elysium’s power hungry secretary of defense (Foster) and her homicidal goon (Copley). Thrown into the mix is Max’s childhood friend (Alice Braga) whose daughter has terminal leukemia.

Throughout all of this, the plot relies on a mounting number of coincidences. The worst of all is Max’s insistence that the smugglers go after the guy whose brain just so happens to hold the key to overthrowing Elysium simply because he’s mad at him for owning the plant where he was exposed to radiation.

Worse than that, the story doesn't give viewers anybody worth caring about. Damon does what he can, but Max’s character arc is a telegraphed string of clichés with an endpoint that isn't really earned.

Blomkamp’s take on the divide between the haves and have nots is not nearly as moving or gripping as his exploration of apartheid in District 9. If that’s an unfair standard, I’ll go a step or two lower and confirm it’s not even as good as Oblivion, 2013’s other derivative “original” science fiction entry (reviewed here).

Still, it is superior to the similarly themed In Time (which I reviewed last year), and the space station is neatly realized.  Ultimately, it functions as an OK palate cleanser as we await the next big thing from a filmmaker with clear talent to burn. C+

Thursday, January 9, 2014

"Saving Mr. Banks" Gets The Disney Treatment, For Good and Bad

Banks shows a P.L. Travers who warms to the Disney way.
Saving Mr. Banks is about the making of Mary Poppins, and taken on its own terms, it’s an enjoyable crowd-pleaser with a multitude of fine performances that, if nothing else, made me want to revisit the classic Disney film.

However, at the same time, it’s also a candy-coated fabrication, and it really rubbed me the wrong way how it turns P.L. Travers’ (Emma Thompson) justified concerns over Hollywood ransacking and her understandable desires to maintain artistic integrity into nothing more than daddy issues that the sweet-natured Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) needed to massage and overcome.

I have no reason to doubt Travers was a difficult, nitpicky woman, but the movie makes her story into a “Taming of the Shrew” tale that seems largely biased and unfair. The driving thrust of the movie concerns whether or not Disney and the brain trust behind the film adaptation can convince Travers to sign over the rights of the film, but in reality she already had signed the rights over out of financial necessity. A trip to California did occur, and, I can imagine Disney tried to allure her into seeing his way so that he might get the rights to her other books. However, scenes depicting her succumbing to the charms of Disney Land, connecting with Disney over shared childhood troubles and enjoying the film at the premier are totally made up.

Generally, I don’t have a problem with films bending the facts or making major changes if necessary (American Hustle recently did this, and, as my review indicates, I unblinkingly loved the film). I'm usually a firm believer in not letting the truth get in the way of good drama, and that’s especially true if embellishments give actors good beats to play, as the trip to London affords Hanks. However, this film clearly implies that it is a good thing to allow a giant corporation to pillage one’s art, and that’s an unsettling takeaway for me.

The film spends a lot of time on Travers' tough childhood.
To be fair, the throughline about fathers and how we want to remember them is a poignant one, and it certainly hits on a recognizable and interesting nerve. But the way it's delivered diminishes Travers as a character. In the film, Disney assuages Travers not by compromising on her understandable concerns about fake sentimentality, animation or the casting of Dick Van Dyke, but by promising to save Mr. Banks. Her qualms are only an extension of her icy exterior, and the good heart thawing by Disney has made them moot.

All of this makes for a meta viewing experience. The film Disney produces is a loose adaptation of Travers’ book, one that includes all the basic elements but also adds various spoonfuls of sugar to make it all play better. The end result may be a bit artificial, but it does make the father figure look good.

The exact same comments could be made about Saving Mr. Banks itself. Most of the basic elements are here, with certain things artificially livened up and/or sanded down to make it all go down easier, but, most importantly, it makes Walt Disney look good.

Considering all of this, one could easily make the case that the film was a giant work of propaganda with the following goals:
1) Make sure Walt Disney comes across well. 
2) Convey that the corporation know best when it comes to artistic direction (That's especially interesting on the heels of the whole disaster that went down with the making of Brave, which I reviewed last year). 
3)  Make people feel nostalgia over Mary Poppins, particularly in light of the fact that we just released a 50th Anniversary Edition Blue Ray. In stores everywhere!
Hanks is great as Disney, but the film does a lot of myth making.
It’s really personal opinion on whether or not you take issue with any of that. I find some of it problematic, but, honestly, I’m more annoyed that the sugarcoating results in a missed opportunity. Midway through the film, Disney indicates he understands Travers' protectiveness because he had a similar experience with Mickey Mouse, and that scene hints at what this film could’ve been.

The real Disney got to maintain his artistic license, while Travers did not. Instead, Disney steamrolled her vision, basically because he thought he knew best. History has shown his inclinations were smart ones, and I think a more interesting movie would've explored this dichotomy more fully (the film’s excellent poster pointed to it).

There are shades of gray to the making of Mary Poppins and fascinating complexity to the two pivotal people involved, but Saving Mr. Banks is more interested in showcasing a sugary confection. That’s not a big surprise, and in fact, it echoes what happened with the original film, calling to mind a line included in both: Can't put my finger on what lies in store, but I feel what's to happen all happened before. B

Monday, January 6, 2014

"The Lone Ranger" Plays Better Than Expected

The Lone Ranger is a gorgeously shot film and Johnny Depp's
shtick doesn't grate like one might think it would by this point. 
The Lone Ranger was ravaged by critics last summer, but it’s really not all that terrible. It’s pretty cliché and about a half-hour too long, but it has an enjoyably off-kilter personality and is book-ended by two dynamite train sequences.

Like the Will Smith vehicle Wild Wild West, the film is a tonally confused blockbuster update of an irrelevant Western brand that turned into a box-office laughingstock. But unlike that film, it doesn't deserve such scathing critical derision.

Actually, The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is really a better comparison point. Not only is The Lone Ranger from the same studio (Disney), director (Gore Verbinski) and star (Johnny Depp), but it also follows the same narrative template.

As in those films, the focus here is on an upright hero in the classic mold (Armie Hammer subbing in for Orlando Bloom) joining forces with a kooky outsider type (Depp as a loopy Indian instead of a drunken pirate) to take down some bad guys. Even more specifically, it’s another mismatched buddy actioner in which a straight man driven by duty and love is corrupted for the better by a seemingly clueless weirdo who is actually a cunning, revenge-seeking superman.

Although clearly modeled after it, The Lone Ranger doesn't come close to capturing the magic or cohesiveness of the first Pirates film, but it does have the screwy charm, snappy direction and inventive action set-pieces that made the second one such a guilty pleasure.
With such concentration on trains, I suspect Big Thunder
Mountain Railroad at Disney amusement parks would've
been altered if the film had been a hit. Alas, it won't be.
Verbinski has a real knack for action and clear love for the Western genre, and that’s abundantly evident in the way he stages the bonkers train sequences and frames the gorgeous landscape. However, he has developed a tendency to over-stuff his movies to a bloated extent, and 149 minutes is just too long for a film like this. The movie would play a lot better without the unnecessary and intrusive framing device, and nothing would've been lost by cutting Helena Bonham Carter’s legless madame from the film.

The tone is questionable for a family film with the Disney label. At times the thing is a cute slapsticky riff, and at other times it digresses into extreme levels of violence. This, parents should be warned, is a film containing a massive body count, including the slaughtering of nearly an entire tribe of Indians, as well as an odd and unnecessary digression into cannibalism.

Overall, The Lone Ranger isn't a good movie, but it is an entertaining one. Depp, whose iconic role as Jack Sparrow has increasingly grown tired, actually does some interesting things here and, again, the train scenes are really quite thrilling. C+

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Tom Hanks Shines in Searing "Captain Phillips"

Once the accent settles in, Tom Hanks kills it in Captain Phillips.

Captain Phillips is a gripping, well-crafted film about a real-life Somali pirate hijacking that turned into an ill-conceived hostage situation. As he did with United 93, director Paul Greengrass presents the story almost like a documentary, and despite the facts being public knowledge, he infuses the whole thing with an almost unbearable amount of tension.

The film opens with two scenes designed to set up the viewpoints and concerns of our two leads –Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), the captain of a transport vessel to Kenya, and Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the fearless and desperate leader of a four-band pirate crew that will eventually hijack Phillips’ ship. The latter scene does a nice job of subtly showing why Somalis would turn to piracy, but the former is a tin-eared exercise – the one blight on what is a very tight and attuned script from screenwriter Billy Ray.

The film mostly sticks to the actual story, which lends the whole thing a no-bullshit credibility but results in a lack of the sizzle and depth that might have been included in a more fictionalized account. We learn very little about any of our characters, and while they all feel like real people, we’re mostly denied of the movie moments that would really sell their dimensionality. However, the measured, fly-on-the-wall approach creates a participatory feel, so it's really a strength and a weakness all at once.

At 134 minutes, the film is pretty long, and it does start to drag once the pirates take Phillips in their desperate attempt to salvage their botched takeover of the Maersk Alabama. That said, I think the extended sequence inside the claustrophobic lifeboat is important to get viewers into the cornered mindset of the helpless inhabitants, as Phillips becomes more and more convinced he will not make it out alive, and the pirates become increasingly terrified and delusional about how the situation will play out.

The extended time is also essential in building the sense of dread, and it really sets up the denouement of the film in which Hanks gets to drop the façade of resolute cool headedness and let all the bottled up pressure and fear come flowing out. It’s a strong film overall with great technical work across the board and ace support from newcomer Abdi, but I suspect Captain Phillips will be remembered most for these final emotional moments with Hanks. The man’s an all-time great, but his breathtaking vulnerability in the infirmary scene (a breakdown on which can be read here) may be the strongest moment in his illustrious career. B+