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The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015)

Maze-Runner-The-Scorch-Trials-PosterIt’s called The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, though the trials appear more as “general struggles,” The Scorch appears as but a brief expanse of desert before the mountains, and then there’s the lack of any and all maze running (there is plenty of running, however). This sequel to the YA-inspired hit lives up to my biggest worry: the only thing interesting about this franchise was the maze, and now that’s gone. The mystery of the maze, and its cool factor, gave this story something memorable. Now it’s just generic YA pap. Beyond its boring protagonist, it would be a scorch trial for me to even assign description to these characters. They don’t even get one note to play; they have no notes. That’s because so much of this tedious and bloated sequel is our group of maze survivors running from one outpost to another, seemingly safe and then predictably not. It’s a plot routine that gets redundant quickly, and yet little else seems to occur. They go from stop to stop gaining characters but little else. The momentum feels stalled and there’s no sense of direction to guide the characters. It feels so aimless and dull and far too flimsy to justify even half of the movie’s 132 minutes. I just don’t care about these characters so I rooted for the bad guys. Weirdly enough, the bad guys use tasers and the good guys use bullets. There are some scant highpoints, namely the direction of Wes Ball, who finds ways to make the chase sequences visually stylish and fleetingly exciting, and a self-destruct sequence set to a Patsy Cline tune. There’s enough to get your hopes up before the grim reality of the overwhelming onslaught of YA tropes comes crashing down again. Can we stick these dumb kids back inside a maze already?

Nate’s Grade: C

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Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

MM-Main-Poster Allow me to begin with a confession. I had to see Mad Max: Fury Road again. I knew minutes into the film that my appetite would not be quenched and I needed to see it again, which I did less than 12 hours later. A week later I saw it a third time in the theater. The reason I did this is obvious in one regard – it’s a highly enjoyable, pulse-pounding, amazing spectacle of first-class stuntwork and mad genius so rarely accomplished on such a large, splendid scale of destruction. The other reason, from a writing standpoint, is that I needed to see the movie again or else my review of Fury Road was going to consist of nothing but an unending stream of positive adjectives vomited upon the page in excitement. And for you, dear reader, I wanted to do better. Also, I wanted to see Mad Max: Fury Road again and I honestly wouldn’t mind in the slightest seeing it again.

In the post-apocalyptic future, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is an aging warlord with his own fiefdom. He controls the water supply and has an army of gearhead warriors to enforce his rule. His trusted driver, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), is leading a caravan for supplies when she goes rogue, driving off into the desert. Furiosa has taken Immortan Joe’s “property,” namely his five wives. Enraged, Immortan Joe gathers a posse of death vehicles and riders and heads off to reclaim his “property.” Max (Tom Hardy) is a drifter thrust into the middle of this conflict when he’s strapped to a car and driven out into the desert, part of the Immortan Joe rapid response forces.

maaaadThere are few things more exhilarating in the realm of motion pictures than a well-executed, well-developed action sequence, and Mad Max: Fury Road is a blistering, awe-inspiring masterpiece of brilliant carnage. What director George Miller has achieved onscreen is visionary. The level of execution is so rarely seen at such a large scale, and with so many moving parts, that I was delighted and curious how something this extraordinary could escape the risk-averse studio system. I’m trying my best to restrain myself from sheer hyperbole, but this is an instant classic in the world of action cinema and a definite top five all-time action film (for those keeping track, I would say last year’s Raid sequel would also qualify for that status). The movie provided me a font of joy that did not let up until the end credits ushered me out of the theater. The action sequences are epic in their scale, with dozens of different vehicles in hot pursuit, and yet Miller brilliantly orients his audience to every moment of his symphony of demolition. There are so many different parts to the action but the audience knows everything that happens. The sheer sense of momentum and pacing is overwhelming and giddy. The action sequences develop organically, with new consequences throwing our characters into different and dire directions. There’s also a startling amount of variety with the action sequences. Fury Road has been described as a two-hour chase film, and that’s accurate to a degree, but there are breaks in between the sequences, small moments to catch your breath and learn more about our characters and their hostile world. Each sequence is different enough that the action doesn’t ever feel redundant, even when the third act literally requires the characters to backtrack. The adrenaline just doesn’t turn off from the get-go, and Miller keeps throwing out new tricks, new stunts, and new cars to astound and amaze. Simply put, Fury Road shames other American film releases.

The stuntwork is another facet that just raises the bar when it comes to action movies. Miller emphasized practical effects whenever possible, and the emphasis pay off with a heightened sense of realism onscreen. It’s real cars being smashed to real bits, real stuntmen being tossed around. In an age of CGI over saturation, it’s all too easy to become numb to big screen spectacle because of how hollow it all comes across visually. Just this past month with the Avengers sequel, I knew that all the fight scenes were mostly CGI or actors against green screens, and it eases off the enjoyment of the moment. Don’t even get me started on the deluge of CGI carnage in the last Hobbit film. Real physical objects and physical interaction offer so much more believability in an age of increasing disbelief with special effects. With Miller’s focus on practical effects first and foremost, it brings that sense of crazy excitement back and it ensures that Fury Road will hold up better over time.

DG fury roadI also appreciated just how much thought Miller and his team put into crafting their world. Every detail feels like it adds to the overall richness of Miller’s vision. The designs of the cars, the use of scrap, the fact that a pulley system is operated with children running up giant wheels, it all contributes to making the world better realized and more alive. The level of thought put into weird and deadly concepts in this movie is fantastic. Once the main characters pass through a bog of land, we see people dressed in cloaks traversing the land on stilts, and it’s little passing details such as this that make the movie feel more complete. I enjoyed that one of Max’s heroic attributes is that he’s specified for his blood type, being O the universal donor. The fact that Miller finds a satisfying way to bring this attribute back as a payoff is also appreciated. I also enjoyed how Miller expands upon the family of Immortan Joe, with his bevy of freakish sons and brothers and peculiarities. I enjoyed the fact that Miller isn’t afraid to embrace the weird of his dystopia, symbolized best by a blind guitar player attached to a roaming wall of speakers who can shoot flames out of his instrument. Every time the movie cut back to this guitar playing pace setter, I smiled, and I smiled a lot during this movie.

Some have grumbled that Max is a supporting player in a movie that bears his name, but I would argue he is a co-lead and the real star is rightfully Imperator Furiosa. Max is not replaced with Furiosa, rather they have an inter-dependant relationship where they’re both vulnerable and they both come to trust the other but without a romantic mingling. These are both wounded, shaken, mistrusting, and volatile people, and to watch their shared sense of teamwork and the gradual opening and reliance upon one another, it is itself an affecting and emotionally satisfying relationship. But back to Furiosa, it’s really her story because she is the one with the personal connection to the mission. Max has always kind of been a wandering warrior who finds himself in other people’s battles. Consider him a post-apocalyptic Man with No Name. Furiosa is the leader who has planned and implemented the escape from Immortan Joe, and it’s she that deserves our attention. I enjoyed the fact that Miller doesn’t even have to explain her past. We know she’s suffered trauma, physical and likely sexual, and he assumes the audience does not need Furiosa’s past abuse spelled out specifically for them, or seen in grisly flashback. She’s a strong woman who is far from helpless with one arm. This is a story about women liberating themselves from sexual slavery under a corrupt patriarchy (more on the thematic relevance below). Theron is our leader and the ferocity in her eyes is all you need to believe that this woman will do whatever it takes for freedom.

The other aspect that’s very clear is that Fury Road is a decidedly feminist film but it never stoops to preaching or even directly calling attention to its efforts. It’s a ruined world where men with unchecked power have exploited the vulnerable, where women are treated as “property” and valued for breeding purposes. Our heroes are by and large women who have rejected their roles in this society or are fleeing their impositions. And with Furiosa as lead, it paints a more than convincing picture of women being just as capable and badass in the post-apocalypse (I want to go as Furiosa for Halloween). It’s a movie that portrays women struggling against an unjust system that devalues them but Fury Road doesn’t wallow in their suffering. It doesn’t have to in order to get its points across. It also treats the wives in a manner that lacks being sexualized. Immortan Joe has treated them as property but Miller treats them as human beings, even going as far as to give them distinguished personalities. They play a role in the action rather than damsels in need of saving. I’m not saying they approach three-dimensional characters but they’re certainly not just eye candy. There’s a sequence where they wash each other with a hose, and you could see the myriad ways this moment would go tawdry for some cheap titillation, but the film steers clear of that and moves on to the bigger picture. What the Men’s Rights Activists (sadly this is actually a thing) seem to have lost in their caterwauling is that feminism is not a zero-sum game; one person gaining stature and opportunity does not mean it’s taken away from another. Just because Furiosa is strong it doesn’t make Max weak. Furiosa being a compelling lead character does not diminish Max. It makes him an even better character because he recognizes her value and his own limitations, like a scene where he voluntarily hands over a rifle because he knows she’s the better marksman. No one has to explicitly point and say, “Girls can do it too.”

theronhoultThere’s also a fascinating commentary on the danger of religious fundamentalism with the war boys. These powder-white young men are Immortan Joe’s armed forces and they are promised a swift appearance at the gates of their paradise if they die in battle (“Witness me!” is their exclamation before sacrifice). They spray paint their faces chrome (“Eternal, shiny and chrome”) and then go in for the kamikaze kill. Again, the theme is ripe and obvious but without requiring characters to comment. Nux (Nicholas Hoult, wonderfully deranged and then sincere) actually has the closest thing to a character arc, going from hopeful martyr to independent thinker. He begins as a clumsy yet determined antagonist and becomes a resourceful and unexpected ally.

This is practically a flawless film on a technical level. The cinematography by John Seale (Cold Mountain) is bright with lush colors that pop on the big screen. We’ve been treated to far too many color degraded films, so it’s nice to view a movie that wants to use all the colors at its disposal. The musical score by Junkie XL (300: Rise of an Empire) is stirring and pulse-pounding with its heavy percussion, but there’s a languid melody that returns again and again that is emotionally resonant. It’s surprising how the score will punctuate the bombast and wailing guitars with a lovely string arrangement, like when we rush into the sandstorm and a car is blown into the sky. The editing is outstanding by Margaret Sixel (Happy Feet) and she keeps the audience informed with every new twist and turn, and with so many moving parts and changing dynamics, that is a miracle itself. The production design by Colin Gibson beautifully expands and informs this strange world. There isn’t a department in Fury Road that wasn’t at the top of their game.

If I had to quibble, I could accept the argument that Mad Max: Fury Road lacks the substance to be considerably more than an exhilarating action ride. The dialogue can be a bit on-the-nose, Hardy mumbles through a majority of his miniscule lines, and the characters aren’t as fleshed out as they could be and the plot is rather bare bones. However, I view its narrative economy as a virtue, as there isn’t a moment or scene wasted in telling this breakneck tour de force of post-apocalyptic demolition. Rarely does an artist get to work at this level in the studio system let alone succeed with a final product that still manages to be strange, mordant, uncompromising, and completely riveting. This is a near-perfect action movie and a thrilling high-wire act of practical filmmaking bravado. Mad Max: Fury Road is the standard I am going to judge all summer movies by for the rest of the year, and I imagine many will be found wanting. I could continue to heap praise on the movie but the most persuasive stance I can make is that if you fail to see Fury Road on the big screen, you will always regret this decision. I am a disciple of Fury Road and witness my brethren and me. This movie was made for the biggest screen, the loudest sound system, and an endless bucket of popcorn.

Nate’s Grade: A

Insurgent (2015)

insurgent_poster__spanA return to the world of Divergent yields little forward momentum, in fact just enough to end on the point that I thought where a sequel would naturally begin. Turns out we needed a whole other movie, Insurgent, to arrive at this obvious narrative next step. Insurgent picks up with Tris (Shailene Woodley) and company on the run following the coup of two of the five social factions. Tris is a Divergent, able to apply herself to multiple factions, and she and her kind are the only ones who can open a secret box left behind by the founders of this post-apocalyptic civilization. The film does enough to hold your attention and we get to visit the other two factions we missed the first time, providing further shape to what is still a confusing world. I think the Divergent series will always fall short of the YA pacesetter, The Hunger Games, but they offer their escapist moments of entertainment. The second film is a bigger, louder, and more heavily coated CGI affair, especially the magic box’s mental trials that amount to a repeat of the first movie’s psychological trials of fear. Woodley is the strong center of the film and she processes her own PTSD over being forced to kill friends in order to survive; you do start to sense that Woodley is growing restless with the franchise. The third book is, as required by the mandate of milking YA franchises, being split into two movies, and while it served little to the Hunger Games, I hope better for the Divergent series, a group of movies inferior and somewhat mystifying but still interesting enough. For now.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014)

MV5BMTcxNDI2NDAzNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODM3MTc2MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Taking place immediately after Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) was rescued from the events of Catching Fire, we find ourselves locked away underground with the residents of District 13. Long believed annihilated by the Capital, and its tyrannical leader President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the people rebuilt their society as one large series of underground bunkers, preparing for a day of revolt. The leader of District 13, Coin (Julianne Moore, under a thick grey wig), is wary of Katniss as the symbol of the revolution. She would rather fight the Captiol without her, but the people love her, and it is the common people that Coin and her team must struggle to unite and inspire. Katniss is not exactly in the inspirational mood. Her family was saved from District 12 before it was bombed but the Capital holds Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) as a high-profile captive, ready to denounce the latest aggressive acts of the rebels as foolish and dangerous. Katniss desperately wants to rescue Peeta but before she can she has to accept her fate and become the Mockingjay, the figure to rally the districts in war.

KATNISSThe very title The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 both tells you everything and nothing. Firstly, there are no Hunger Games anymore. This is a full-on war film, and we’re finally getting to all the good stuff, the revolutions stirring all throughout Panem we heard about and caught glimpses of before the plot required a redo of the games, repeating the structure of the first film. It felt overly redundant, especially when the stuff outside of the games was far more interesting. That structure has been cast aside and Mockingjay is a completely different film than the ones before it, focusing much more on character and the politics of propaganda. In many ways, this is a quieter film that allows the characters to deal with the trauma of their experience in the deadly arena. Even though war is fermenting and people are being bombed into oblivion, there is considerably less urgency, especially less contrived urgency. This allows the characters and the plot to breathe, the calm before the storm. Much has changed and a measured amount of time to process this is a good move. This is no longer the Hunger Games. This is war. The subterranean District 13 is the major setting of our film, which gives Katniss time to reflect on how damaged she is and her guilt over what exactly the Capitol is doing to their promotional lapdog, Peeta. The movie opens with her muttering to herself, hiding from others due to a disturbing nightmare. The psychological well being of our heroine is a ripe topic. While the world is on fire, much is once again expected of Katniss, and we get to watch her transform, awkwardly, into the revolutionary figure others require of her. The political and media critiques add another level of entertainment, as each side spins and contorts to position themselves for the news cycle. This expose of media manipulation makes Mockingjay feel in part like a post-apocalyptic Wag the Dog. Credit co-screenwriter Danny Strong, he of HBO’s Recount and Game Change fame. This welcomed change of pace and structure allows the film to finally feel like the story we want to watch. And while I’m tip-toeing around spoilers, I’ll just say that the split occurs exactly where you think, book readers.

And secondly, the “Part 1” of the title is also what defines this 125-minute prelude to the concluding movie, a fact that becomes inescapable as it seems all the good stuff is being reserved for later. While the reflective plotting allows more space to breathe, it also becomes abundantly clear that this wasn’t exactly a story that needed to be told in two parts. From a financial standpoint, I can’t argue with the decision from Lionsgate. This is their once-in-a-lifetime franchise and elongating the final film in YA franchises has become de rigueur and a box-office no-brainer. Still, the overwhelming feeling is that this is all setup and the best stuff is just ahead, a tease that the franchise also toyed with during Catching Fire, as we were stuck in the games instead of the revolution. Mockingjay Part 1 is mostly buildup; it’s entertaining and more politically adroit than expected, but in the end it’s still a story stretched out. The intriguing supporting characters from Catching Fire are still mostly put on hold. The inclusion of Gale (Liam Hemsworth) still feels relatively pointless in the scheme of things, except for prolonging the love triangle, the weakest element of the story by far, and one that even author Suzanne Collins seems half-hearted about. When the world is falling apart, who cares which boy Katniss decides to kiss? Old favorites like Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Effie (Elizabeth Banks) get brief appearances but little else. There is a stark decrease in action with this movie, only two real sequences of suspense, and one of them proves to be false. Strangely enough, there’s a high-stakes nighttime raid that plays out unironically like a dystopian Zero Dark Thirty finale. I await others to make a similar comparison. It’s no surprise that Mockingjay becomes more suspenseful, engaging, and meaningful just as it’s ending, leaving less on a cliffhanger and more on a latent promise. Instead, this particular movie features a lot of speeches and hushed discussions in dank quarters (the photography is rather dimly lit and hard to decipher at times). It’s not exactly rollicking.

SS_D8-3267.dngBeing a war film, atrocities are commonplace and examined openly, especially when Katniss visits the ruins of her home in District 12. Not once but twice does the camera slowly zoom out to allow the graveyard of charred skeletons to gets its thematic due. There’s only so far a mandated PG-13 rating can take you when it comes to illustrating the horrors of war, but I give Mockingjay credit for neither glossing over the loss of innocent life or glorify the leaders of this revolution, namely District 13. President Coin is shown to be a calculating and pragmatic leader who is concerned more about the big picture. She’s thankful for Katniss but just as ready to move onward and forget her. By the end of the movie, you don’t exactly have warm feelings for the people of District 13, who laid in wait, sowing seeds of rebellion with the other districts, all the while relying on their bunker for ultimate safety. The other districts are more vulnerable and more likely to feel the Capital’s wrath. Just ask the smoldering citizens of District 12.

Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Constantine) is the Hunger Games’ version of David Yates, the director who steered the concluding four Harry Potter films. Chris Columbus put that world together, but a better, more visually adept director saw Potter through to its end. Likewise, Lawrence has taken the world that the original Games director Gary Ross cultivated and given it the mood and visual heft needed for the franchise to feel properly and triumphantly cinematic. If it weren’t for this man’s visual talents, the many conversations in the dark would be even harder to watch. Lawrence has been a helpful addition to the franchise, especially as the world was starting to get more fleshed out. While I bemoan the overly gloomy cinematography (which was also an issue with Catching Fire), Lawrence has brought a necessary sense of gravitas to the series. The emotional pain and psychological torment registers, and his handling of his actors will often be overlooked thanks to the natural talent of his lead actress, but Lawrence has found a way to strike the right tone to make us care.

Speaking of the woman in question, Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) is already an Oscar-winning Hollywood star in her mid twenties, and she elevates these films even more. Her character is a reluctant figurehead, never having asked for such prominence, nor having asked to trigger a revolution with countless casualties. Without as much physical activity and arrow slinging, Lawrence gets greater opportunities to emote and show the fractured, conflicted feelings of the woman in the middle of the revolt. She’s not a natural when it comes to being on-camera, she cannot fake sincerity (even though she played up the whole “star-crossed lovers” angle in the first film as a means of survival, but whatever), and it’s somewhat funny watching skilled actors pretend to be bad actors. The emotions are on a hair trigger here, as rage boils over to fear and shock. Lawrence anchors the series with another surefooted, strong performance.

The real standout is Sutherland (The Italian Job). This is as much President Snow’s movie as it is Katniss Everdeen’s. Rather than plotting from the shadows, Snow gets to become the worthy villain the franchise has been waiting for. Sutherland relishes his retorts with Katniss and preying upon her. His broadcasting of an ever-increasingly frail Peeta is more meant as a crushing psychological blow, a reminder that his prized hostage will be punished for Katniss’s and the rebellion’s mounting successes. When they’re finally face-to-face once more, it’s the film’s most invigorating moment.

o-HUNGER-GAMES-MOCKINGJAY-PART-1-900It’s also hard to watch the movie and not feel grief over the loss of actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Mockingjay Part 2 will officially be the actor’s last onscreen appearance. He’s good, though the part isn’t exactly challenging, but the real pang is the realization that we’ll never get another Hoffman performance. Once the final minute of Plutrarch Heavensbee is gone onscreen, so is the cinematic ghost of a ridiculously talented man who was taken from the world far too soon. In a nice gesture, Mockingjay Part 1 is dedicated to his memory.

Once more into the breach, dear friends, as Mockingjay Part 1 lays the way for the promise of an exciting and action-packed finale. The extra pause, the last breath before the melee, is both a blessing and a curse. It allows the film to break away from the plotting of the previous two entries and it provides a refreshingly reflective opportunity peppered with intelligent conversations about the political process and propaganda. It also stretches out a story that proves it did not have enough plot points to justify the expansion. No matter, the cash registers will ring loudly as the world’s hunger for the Hunger Games knows no limit. Lawrence and a team of great supporting actors help provide reasons to keep watching, as well as the increasingly dire circumstances of the war against the districts. This intermediary film serves as a bridge to the exciting conclusion, the assault on the Capitol. Let’s just hope that audiences don’t feel too stingy about paying to watch a two-hour trailer for another movie.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Maze Runner (2014)

MV5BMjUyNTA3MTAyM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTEyMTkyMjE@._V1_SX640_SY720_If anyone can reasonably explain to me the end of The Maze Runner in a way that makes some tangible amount of sense, I will give you money. The latest YA-franchise-in-the-making starts off with a storyline that reminded me of Rod Serling. We follow a group of teen boys, memories wiped, as they wake up in the center of a giant mechanical maze. Who put them there? Why? What’s on the other side? As long as the maze and the mystery of it are front and center, the film works, twisting in intrigue. However, when the story veers away to the characters, mostly flat archetypes, and their new society, that’s when I started getting sleepy. You got this awesome huge maze to explore, kids. The film ends up being an exercise in less-is-more restraint when it comes to sustaining a mystery and knowing what points to emphasize and which to skip over. There’s a girl brought into their camp, the first, which they say should be a big idea and change the social dynamics of a group of boys, but it doesn’t. There are silly mechanical spider monsters that scamper through the maze, as if the filmmakers felt a giant maze wasn’t a sufficient enough obstacle and selling point. Scattered flashbacks early on spoil who is responsible for the maze, but when we get to the actual ending, the rationale for who built this large contraption and for what purpose doesn’t add up, like, at all. An explanation wasn’t necessary, but if they needed a quick one I would have accepted, “Aliens did it because.” There’s already a planned sequel in the works. My idea: the kids escape the maze only to discover… they’ve just entered a larger maze. Then they escape that maze only to discover… you get the idea. The Maze Runner is moderately enjoyable. Just don’t expect to enjoy, understand, or even accept the ending and its implications.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Snowpiercer (2014)

snowpiercer-posterI have seen Snowpiercer twice and it’s still a hard movie to describe. It’s the English-language debut of Korean filmmaker Joon-hoo Bong, notable for The Host (the good one) and Mother. It’s based upon a French graphic novel only printed in France and South Korea. It’s an international production, filmed in the Czech Republic, and populated with recognizable actors like Octavia Spencer, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Ed Harris, and Captain America himself, Chris Evans. It’s a dark dystopian allegory about class warfare, it’s a stunning sci-fi action movie, it’s a parable about humanity, it’s a stylish thriller that puts most of Hollywood to shame; it’s many things, chief among them, an incredible movie that demands to be seen on the big screen when able.

To combat global warming, world leaders disperse a chemical to lower temperatures, and oh boy does it work, inadvertently causing a new Ice Age that kills almost all life on the planet. Almost, because a few hundred got aboard the train owned and operated by Wilford (Harris), a rich and secretive industrialist. He built a train that can circle the globe, running on a perpetual motion motor. The last of humanity is housed on Wilfrod’s train. After seventeen years aboard, the class system has become rather rigid. The important and wealthy are at the front of the train, and the poor are crammed in the back, given gelatinous protein blocks to eat, and kept in line by armed guards. Curtis (Evans) is plotting a revolt, biding his time, consulting with the wise Gilliam (Hurt), an aging leader missing several limbs. Together, they storm ahead, capturing effete Wilford spokesman Mason (Swinton) as a hostage, rescuing an engineer (Kang-ho Song) with a drug addiction who will help them open the train cars, fighting car by car to take control of the train. Naturally, those in power fight back in force to maintain the uneven status quo.

snowpiercer-main-review-e1375509690609Short of the adrenaline-soaked Raid 2, there hasn’t been a better action movie this year than Snowpiercer. It starts slow, drawing the audience in, setting up its initial burst as a prison break of sorts where the tail section passengers have to figure out a way past the guards and several security doors open for only a few seconds. When the break does happen, in a clever fashion, you feel the full rush of the new opportunity thanks to the movie properly setting up the stakes and obstacles. Each new car presents a new world and a new obstacle. There’s one car where Curtis and his revolutionaries are met with fifty ski-mask wearing grunts with axes. This is the standout action sequence because of how it keeps changing. At first its brawn versus brawn, complete with swinging axes. Then the fighting stops briefly and all the grunts put on night vision goggles. The train enters a long tunnel, condemning Curtis and company to the dark. The grunts then go to town, spearing and slashing the hapless passengers blindly swinging in the dark. I won’t spoil the solution to this scenario but it too is properly set up and leads to some extremely satisfying action imagery, the kind of stuff that pops in a trailer. There’s an entirely different sequence later that also stands out. As the train goes into a long curve in the track, certain train cars are visible from others. Our chief heavy, listed as Franco the Elder (Vlad Ivanov), sees Curtis in the car ahead and starts firing. Eventually Curtis and Franco blast small holes in the protective glass and wait, wait for their moment, for their shot. It’s a tense neo-Western standoff moment, and another delightful addition. The accumulative action has a surprising degree of variety and development.

Snowpiercer is a stirring action movie that keeps your eyes glued to the screen, but it does an equally impressive job of building its world and adding dimension to its storytelling. Reportedly, Harvey Weinstein wanted to cut twenty minutes out of the 126-minute film, but I’m puzzled as to where those edits would come. Every scene in this movie drives the film forward or imparts crucial pieces of information or metaphor that will play out later. Even something as comical as stopping for sushi in the aquarium car (balancing the ecosystem) has greater meaning and subtext when you look back at the film as a whole. Joon-hoo Bong and his co-screenwriter Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) have given serious consideration to how this world operates and what life would be like when all of humanity is confined to one long train. The past is revealed incrementally, gingerly allowing the audience to become consumed with this odd dystopian landscape, our fascination brewing with each new puzzle piece being added. I was enthralled with the rich details, the cruel methods of keeping those in the tail section in line, the regular head counts, the protein block bars and what they truly are made of, the annual celebration of passing a certain bridge marking their own New Year, and especially the deification of Wilford. The characters worship the engine, and why not since it is the source of life for them, or as the chirpy schoolteacher (Alison Pill) sings: “What happens if the engine fails? We all freeze and die!” The later reveals are the best, giving full explanation why tail section children are important and, particularly, why Curtis is so ashamed at having two good arms. That monologue by Evans, looking back on the earliest and most cruelly chaotic days on the train, is a whopper. I truly hope that aspiring actors will use it during future auditions. It will make an impression.

snowpiercer-tilda-swinton1Its dark sense of humor and political and philosophical subtext provide an even richer texture to this strange, bleak world. The political commentary isn’t exactly subtle, I’ll admit, but it’s exceedingly better executed and integrated into its plot than, say, last year’s Elysium. The class-consciousness provides a greater depth to the proceedings, providing a new spin on the have/have nots that’s just as relevant today. It’s not just tacked on, either. The political commentary is intertwined with the mechanics of the plot, as we’re witnessing class warfare against inequality, how barbarous acts can be co-opted for personal gain. When Curtis and his small company finally reach Wilford and the engine, it’s a moment akin to visiting the Wizard in Oz, the man behind the curtain they’ve heard so much about. There’s a great degree of incredulous humor from Wilford’s vaulted perspective, but the longer you listen, the more you start to follow his twisted logic and why exactly the status quo must be upheld despite the bloody consequences. Then there’s the macabre humor, which can be bracing at points, none more so than the school car sequence with Alison Pill (TV’s The Newsroom). Also doing plenty of comedic heavy lifting is Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive, We Need to Talk About Kevin) with such an odd authority figure character. With a mouthful of fake teeth, some owlish glasses, and a peculiar speech pattern, it feels like she stepped out of a Terry Gilliam movie, and we’re all the better for it. Often she’s the only source of humor in what is otherwise a dreary story about the strong preying upon the weak.

Stylish, intelligent, rewarding in surprising ways while still being thoroughly entertaining, with tremendous technical attributes such as production design, Snowpiercer is a sci-fi flick that borrows from many but creates its own unique and enthralling landscape. Rare is the movie going experience where you sit at the edge of your seat, completely taken in by the creativity of the artists at work, transported to somewhere new and exciting, and you dread the approaching end credits. Snowpiercer is an experience that’s hard to describe beyond an unrelenting checklist of positive, glowing adjectives. Simply put, it’s movies like this that make going to the movies special.

Nate’s Grade: A

Divergent (2014)

MV5BMTYxMzYwODE4OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDE5MzE2MDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_High school for many was a personal version of hell, with its class system and pressure to conform. Divergent built a whole future dystopia around this relatable concept. The problem with the movie is that the source material doesn’t think that much further.

In the future, 100 years after a great war that scarred the world, the survivors have holed up in the remains of Chicago with a large fence as their protection. The government decided to split off into five different factions, each with their important purpose. The five factions (Abnegation, Candor, Erudite, Amity, and Dauntless) work in harmony. Tris (Shailene Woodley) comes from a family of Abnegation, the selfless ones who run the government, though Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the head of Erudite, would like her faction to be on top. At the choosing ceremony, a candidate can select which faction they wish to live within. However, if rejected, that person will be factionless and on the outskirts of society. Rather than choose the comfort of her boring life, Tris decides to join Dauntless, the faction in charge of the security of the city. Before she can say goodbye to her family, she’s off joining a new one, but Dauntless has many tests to weed out the weak. Paramount in her mind is the fact that Tris is told she’s a divergent, one who doesn’t fit neatly into any one of the factions. Divergents are being singled out and executed because they are feared; they can’t be so easily controlled. Tris has to prove herself against tough competition in Dauntless while hiding her true divergent nature.

divergent-movie-stills-tris-maggie-qHaving not read the best-selling Young Adult books, I went into Divergent and walked away entertained enough though questioning the larger appeal. My movie partner told me that the adaptation hews closely to the book, fitting in all the major plot beats; she even said it was a better adaptation than the first Hunger Games, so fans should be relieved. What the movie came down to was one long plot about Tris getting through the Dauntless tests. It’s like a post-apocalyptic Full Metal Jacket, just minus the war half. With this tight focus, the film actually plays better and is easier to digest. The stakes are made clear and the hurdles are easy to understand. In a way it reminded me of the Ender’s Game film where we watch a recruit move up the ranks of their sci-fi training, though Ender’s was better at establishing dimension to its world. I did like the small touch that the Abnegation people won’t allow themselves to see their reflection because they see it as vain. I could have used more touches like that.

There are simple pleasures watching Tris, the plucky underdog, rising to the challenge and besting her snobby peers. The games get more intense and Tris learns from trial to trial, eventually learning how to hide her divergent nature by blending in against her nature. There’s also an intensity to this world that’s appreciated; people will die if they can’t keep up (there is one shocking sequence where a batch of jealous recruits literally try and kill Tris). The physical trials are fun but the mental ones are even more entertaining because they function around the candidate’s fears. It’s a tad lazy to simply broadcast a character’s fear for them to confront in a dream, but it provides some creepy imagery and new wrinkle for Tris to master. Even the requisite romance that every YA property has to have is handled respectfully without overdoing it. The mentor/teacher relationship with Tris and Four is a natural conduit for their budding romantic feelings, though James (Underworld: Awakening) looks way older than Woodley (The Descendants). In reality, he’s 30 and she’s 22, though she’s supposed to be… 17? 18 years old? I don’t know but it just didn’t sit right.

SHAILENE WOODLEY and THEO JAMES star in DIVERGENTWhere the movie gets into problems is the larger world outside those Dauntless camps. It feels too ill defined and purposely vague. What’s on the other side of the giant electrified fence (hopefully dinosaurs)? I suppose that’s what sequels are for (they’re already filming the second Divergent for March 2015). The world just feels too small even for one city, and the history doesn’t feel integrated into the cultivations of this society. In a sense, the movie doesn’t give you enough to go on with its world building and spends far too much time dragging out its story. At a hefty 142 minutes, a time frame becoming de rigueur with YA adaptations, the film feels laboriously padded. I kept thinking the movie was going to check out at any moment, robbing me of some semblance of a complete ending. Fear not, there is an ending, though one that feels far too definite to continue a franchise. The bad guys are so obviously guilty, that even while still being at large, it’s hard to fathom a scenario that doesn’t unite everyone against the common threat. Does every YA post-apocalyptic mold eventually lead to unlikely heroes becoming the focal points of revolutions? I’m being facetious, but also highlighting just how derivative this movie is. Divergent borrows from its larger influences liberally, having enough story sense to know how to construct a satisfying tale of heroes and villains. It’s a well-polished film thanks to director Neil Burger (Limitless) but it’s also lacking necessary elements to distinguish it from the glut of dystopian imitators and predecessors.

I just can’t wrap my head around the world of Divergent. It lacks the clean clarity of, say, The Hunger Games, where the game is kill-or-be-killed and it’s very much a class warfare allegory. In Veronica Roth’s novel, the post-apocalyptic Chicago is divided into five factions but this isn’t a caste system. The different factions are looked at as equals, meant to cooperate harmoniously. So there goes any sort of class conflict when the factions are presented more as lifelong clubs. The design is that branching people off into five groups will somehow prevent the strife that lead to the unnamed war of the past. This doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me. Why would limiting people’s options for careers and lifestyles eliminate conflict? I understand the not so subtle message about conformity and the strength in controlling others, but it still doesn’t hold. Then there’s the notion that a divergent is a dangerous rogue, but it’s not like the divergent are mutants or genetically different. These are just people who don’t fit neatly into one of the five faction options. If you eliminate the conformity obsession, who cares? It’s only an aptitude test in the end, like what you take in middle school that say, “Hey, you like drawing, maybe you’d like to be a police sketch artist” (true personal anecdote of mine). It’s not something that looks deep into the souls of boys and girls and presages their future. It’s an aptitude test for crying out loud. The world of Divergent also feels strangely unfulfilled, with too many lingering questions about the logistics of how this future Chicago is able to function. There’s a confusing aura around this world and it doesn’t get explained because we spend so much time in Dauntless boot camp.

There was a weird motif I kept noticing throughout the film and that’s the future’s unsafe disregard for medical safety. The Dauntless kids are all about the running, jumping, punching each other in the face, but it all begins at their choosing ceremony. The candidates walk to the front of an auditorium, slice their palm with a ceremonial knife, and then squeeze blood into a bowl representing the faction they select. Of course they reiterate “faction before blood” so it’s a little strange that the ritual involves their blood. Anyway, what I picked up was that every candidate was using the same knife, only with he most perfunctory of wiping the blade. That is just unclean and a way for blood-based disease to spread. Then later during the mental round of testing, Four injects Tris and himself with the same needle. Clearly these post-apocalyptic people have forgotten all about AIDS and other deadly diseases. Why else would Jeanine be so calm as her hand is covered in someone else’s blood? I’m surprised she just didn’t lick it for effect.

divergent-movie-fan-reviewThe actors are all well cast for their parts, with Woodley again proving herself as one of the best young actresses today in Hollywood. Her part isn’t anywhere as complex or demanding as her terrific turn in The Spectacular Now, but she’s able to slide in emotion where possible, expressing much through the power of her eyes. She’s a heroine you want to root for, and when she goes into badass mode it feels earned. James is suitably hunky while still being mysterious and broody. Interestingly enough, Miles Teller, Woodley’s onscreen beau in Spectacular Now, is here as a bully and Ansel Elgort, who plays Tris’ older brother, will soon play Woodley’s onscreen beau in The Fault in Our Stars. It’s like this weird cross-section of Woodley’s film history of boyfriends. The adults do fine jobs with their limited time, with Winslet (Labor Day) being a better realized version of what Jodie Foster was possibly going for in Elysium. My favorite adult actor was Jai Courtney (A Good Day to Die Hard, Jack Reacher) who hasn’t found the right fit for his talents, until now (he was great on Starz’s Spartacus TV show).  As a no-nonsense Dauntless captain, he’s imposing in many respects and also intriguingly devious. He’s a grade-A heavy and adds a jolt to the scenes he’s in.

Poised to be the next YA breakout franchise, Divergent will likely be a hit with its target audience and reap the rewards at the box-office, though I think its flaws will hold it back from being embraced by a wider audience with no affiliation with the books. It’s an entertaining story with good actors and enough well constructed payoffs, but it’s also confusing, vague, and lacking enough urgency, class conflict, and developments to parlay into a more interesting story once Tris graduates from the Dauntless ranks. As a standalone film, Divergent works enough and duly entertains, thanks again to Burger’s visual sensibilities and the strength of Woodley. I’m just not invested at all in this world or its larger characters to compel myself to find out what happens next. I ravenously tore through the Hunger Games books, but to each their own. As a big screen sci-fi film, it’s strange that Divergent would work best in its smaller moments and settings. It’s too bad the movie doesn’t diverge enough from the pack of YA-modeled adventures. Well there is one thing to look forward to: I’ll see if I get my wish for dinosaurs in March 2015.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Starving Games (2013)

kinopoisk.ruI feel like lambasting the duo of Friedberg and Seltzer has gotten to the point of beating a dead horse. I’ve been railing against their misbegotten sense of comedy (really just pointless and soon-to-be-dated pop-culture references) for years, declaring three of their terrible spoof movies as my worst film of that year. There is no love lost between me and these two men, and yet I feel the sense to restrain my ire when it comes to their latest, The Starving Games. It’s another witless comedy caper, this time using the popular Hunger Games series as its skeleton to hang its desperate jokes upon. These guys don’t know what parody is, don’t know the particulars of comedy and how to build and payoff a joke. It’s the same pattern of ineptitude that will never change. Yet while sitting through all 80 laborious minutes of Starving Games, I felt like Friedberg and Seltzer have come to the realization that the end is nigh for their spoof careers. This last movie didn’t get a theatrical release and the production values look chintzy even for them. They used to crank these lousy films out one a year; hell, in 2008 they gave us two. Now they’ve released two in the last five years. Usually they’ll pack a celebrity or, barring that, MadTV alums. Even those are absent. That’s right, even this movie couldn’t snag a MadTV alum or D-list celeb. Perhaps, as I’d long prayed, the public has grown sour on Friedberg and Seltzer’s misunderstanding of comedy and matured enough to realize that pointless references are not the same as parody. In all fairness, I did laugh two times in The Starving Games, both related to Diedrich Bader as President Snowballs. The lead actress, Maiara Walsh, displays a lot of potential. She’s a good comic actress, has a tremendous smile, a memorable face, and sturdy poise to slough through this mess. She deserves a better movie and more opportunities.

At this point, you know what you’re getting with Friedberg and Seltzer, and that’s all you’re going to get. However, I just looked online and discovered they have two movies scheduled for release next year, one a Fast and Furious parody (goody), and the other an honest to God spoof-free straight comedy. I’ll be fascinated to see what these two have to offer when it comes to non-spoof comedy, but their background fills me with equal parts dread and derisive excitement. Hey, it can’t be worse than InAPPropriate Comedy, could it?

Nate’s Grade: D

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

108361_galIt’s been a year and a half since The Hunger Games broke box-office expectations, gifting Lionsgate studio with a formidable franchise. Based upon Suzanne Collins’ series of young adult novels, the first film was an agreeable adaptation that was occasionally hobbled by poor direction, rushed plotting, and budget limitations. Catching Fire, the second film, improves upon the established groundwork in almost everyway with the chief drawback being a terminal sense of dystopian déjà vu.

In the months after the events of the 74th Hunger Games, the two victors from District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), are traveling across the other districts of Panem as part of their victory tour. What better way to endear yourself than visiting other districts to remind people that their children are dead and you survived? On the tour, there is growing unrest throughout, and the people have turned Katniss as their symbol of defiance against the tyrannical Capitol. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) threatens Katniss to control her media image, to convince the people that she’s madly in love with Peeta and not a fledgling revolutionary. In order to check the power of the victors, Snow introduces a rule change for the 75th games, the Quarter Quell. This year the participants will be culled entirely from previous past victors, meaning that Katniss and Peeta will be plunged back into the deadly games and this time their competition aren’t children.

97801_galWhat a difference a director with a sense of cinematic visual command can make. Early into pre-production, the original director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) decided to bow out for sequels, and so Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend) was hired, and goodness does the movie benefit from this change at the helm. Lawrence has a much stronger visual authority, having cut his teeth in commercials and music videos (remember those, kids?) before feature films. The man couldn’t frame a lousy shot if he tried. With a stronger visual lens, the world of the Hunger Games is able to stretch, given a proper budget, and the visual grandeur unfolds around you, especially the largess of the Capitol. The movie doesn’t feel like they had to cut corners with their budget or special effects, and part of that is credited to the skill of Lawrence. And with this new visual stylist comes the demise of shaky cam. Dance and celebrate that Ross’ misapplied docu-drama approach has been abandoned; this time, when there is onscreen action, you can comprehend what is happening. I read the book years ago but even I was feeling twists of tension, notably the start of the Quarter Quell. The action isn’t terribly developed but it’s sufficient, though again the kill-or-be-killed extremity kept to PG-13 safety is starting to chafe. My only visual complaint is that much of the action within the games takes place at dawn/dusk and thus low-light environments. It feels like someone threw on a muddy filter, though perhaps this was just my theater’s light bulb-saving projection setting.

Now that the world of Panem is established, Catching Fire does a nice job of showing the various social conflicts coming to a head, bubbling into uprising. The pre-games victory tour opens up the world, allowing us into other districts and viewing the different strife befalling them. It’s jolting to watch the public defiance met with summary executions and yet the people will not be stopped. Now the class conflicts of the haves and have-nots get pushed to their breaking point. There’s a great contrast provided with a Capitol party so lavish, with food so sumptuous and plenty that the Capitol denizens have cocktails on hand to induce vomiting. That way you can continue eating (historical fact: vomitorium is actually not what you think but instead a passage below a tier of seats for easy exit, like in modern stadiums). The themes and the points aren’t subtle, that’s for sure, but they are effective and intriguing. Katniss, who only wanted to survive, has been thrust as the face of revolt, and now she has to walk a delicate line to again save her loved ones. The fascist politics and media manipulation hinted at in the first film are given more examination, providing a richer narrative. What works in the first Hunger Games is generally expanded upon and what faults the first film had have been, generally, nipped and tucked. There’s nothing as eye-rollingly awful as Peeta’s human rock sculpture camouflage. The burgeoning love story elements again are abbreviated the harshest, but when the world is coming apart, you have to spend more time on revolution than love triangles.

The film also benefits from a slew of new characters that have strong personalities. We’re introduced to other formers winners of Hunger Games past, and they make the most with their limited exposure. Joanna Mason (Jena Malone) is an axe-wielding woman given to speaking her mind with devil-may-care attitude. Her first scene in the film involves her stripping naked in an elevator with Peeta and Katniss. Malone (Sucker Punch) really has fun with the blithe approach of the character and manages to come across as comical while still being a credible badass. She’s a terrific character and you’ll be seeing more of her in the sequels to come. The other famous victor is Finnick (Sam Claflin) who bathes in the celebrity limelight, luxuriating in his media image as a suave playboy. Except there’s more under the surface and you’ll be given peaks throughout the film. I’m not as sold on Claflin (Snow White and the Huntsman) as I am on Malone; he’s got the requisite chiseled physique, but I don’t feel the charismatic pull the character demands. Also, when I close my eyes and listen to him speak I hear James Franco, and I don’t know what to make of that. Then there’s the new head game maker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is presented as an enigma. He leans on President Snow to spare Katniss rather than turning her into a martyr for the cause. However his alternatives are sinister and media savvy. Hoffman is one of our best working actors today but he seems to sleepwalk through the role, perhaps because he’s meant to be vague. However it’s played, it’s hard to get a read on Plutarch until the very end.

Strong as ever, Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) is the rock of this franchise. The Oscar-winning actress has been on a tear as of late and her acting and overall presence elevates the material. They struck gold when they hired her. There’s more fire to her and more devastation, as she’s going through the PTSD, plagued by nightmares. She’s haunted by the horror she’s escaped but also by the continuation of the threat from Snow, the ongoing charade that she will have to keep up for the rest of her life. There is no time out of the spotlight as a victor let alone a national celebrity like Katniss. Lawrence can convey so much wordlessly and she can convincingly play the different dimensions of her wounded warrior.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)Many of the criticisms one can hurl at Catching Fire are the same from Collins’ book. There is a repetitive plot structure, where the games themselves feel like too much of a retread. It feels forced to serve up what worked the first time. The problem with throwing Katniss and crew back into the Hunger Games is that all the real consequential action is taking place outside of them. We’ve been watching the stirrings of revolt all movie, watching the cracks take shape, and then the movie returns to its deadly TV competition when the audience just wants to leave to see if the revolution will be televised. Breaking free of Katniss’ first-person perspective from the book allows the filmmakers to add scenes fleshing out the world and the characters, with some nicely malevolent conversations between Snow and Plutarch. But that also means we don’t have to be locked into watching Katniss’ every move (I know this sounds like sacrilege). It’s not like the creatively torturous games are boring, but it’s hard to ignore an increasing sense of been-there-done-that. When there are so many larger, wider-reaching consequences happening outside throughout the various districts, you can’t help but feel a bit antsy. Another reason the film doesn’t break free from the games repeat is that it purposely keeps Katniss, and in turn the audience, in the dark about the larger outside machinations. The collective ignorance has a purpose but it also makes the plot frustrating.

Really, Catching Fire is more a setup for the series greater conflict rather than a complete film/story. Things are unraveling in the country of Panem, but if you want resolution you’ll have to wait until 2014 for the next movie, or more likely 2015 for its concluding half. What Catching Fire does is tease out the plot change and then transition to it, but only in the final minute. As my pal and colleague Ben Bailey notes, it ends in similar fashion to 2003’s Matrix Reloaded, and you’re left on a cliffhanger that doesn’t seem like a natural resting point for the story. Again, these critiques can be waged at the book as well as the film is a fairly close adaptation that will satisfy the die-hard fans.

From here on out, the Hunger Games movies are going to get more interesting. With two remaining films to cover the ground in one book, it should allow for greater development of characters, conflicts, dramatic themes, social commentary, or just larger kickass action sequences now that we’re in a larger arena, so to speak. Under the screenwriting expertise of Danny Strong (HBO’s Recount and Game Change) I’m anticipating a more politically astute and intellectual dystopian drama. Francis Lawrence has brought visual dynamism and stability to the franchise, just in time for when things are poised to get really interesting. As a film, Catching Fire is a step above the previous entry, ironing out some of the shortcomings and presenting more subtext when it comes to its social unrest. It introduces a bevy of intriguing new characters, escalates tensions throughout the realm, and promises greater suffering and strife ahead. However, the repetitive plot structure of throwing Katniss back into the games for an hour eats away at time that could be better spent watching the revolution ferment. It’s still a reliably entertaining film with a sharper visual gloss, so fans should go home happy and audiences should be suitably thrilled. The alterations from Collins’ book are all for the better. Catching Fire will slay the box-office with little trouble but I’m most thankful that we’ll be leaving the games behind for good.

Nate’s Grade: B

Elysium (2013)

elysium-firstposter-full2With the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face, Elysium is a sci-fi action movie with more on its mind than pyrotechnics. It’s writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to 2009’s out-of-nowhere hit, District 9, a film so good that the Academy even nominated it for Best Picture that year, a rarity for a sci-fi flick. The apartheid allegory of District 9 was pretty straightforward, but Blomkamp and company found inspiring and fresh ways to tell a rousing story that worked in tandem with its social commentary. Elysium takes the haves and have nots to an admitted extreme.

IIn 2153, the rich have left Earth for a floating space station known as Elysium. It’s a luxurious paradise where technology can miraculously zap people to complete health. Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is in charge of Homeland Security and protecting Elysium from the less desirables that want to break in. Those “less desirables” would be the inhabitants of Earth. The planet has become an overcrowded, dirty, impoverished slum; Earth as third world. Max (Matt Damon) is an excon working a factory line for a sneering corporate bigwig (William Fichtner) struggling to leave behind a life of crime. His childhood friend, Frey (Alice Braga), works as a nurse at a hospital, but she’s got her own worries, namely a terminally ill daughter. After an accident at work blasts Max with radiation, he has five days to live. If he can just make it to Elysium, he can be cured. The problem is that Delacourt is shooting down spaceships trying to land on Elysium, including ones filled with women and children. To get off planet, Max needs to help in a heist, but it’s prized codes that could lower the defenses of Elysium and make anyone (ANYONE!) a citizen, thus available for medical treatment. To make sure this doesn’t happen, Delacourt relies on a rogue mercenary, Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a crazed madman who leaps at the chance to do dirty work. The hunt is on for Max.

94576_galThe socio-political commentary isn’t terribly veiled here, and maybe that’s because now Blomkamp has bigger targets than South Africa’s governmental policy. I didn’t have a problem with the fact that the inhabitants of luxury are portrayed as all white and that the denizens of the impoverished Earth are mostly non-white minorities (if minorities dominate a future Earth, when do they become majorities?). It’s clear that Blomkamp intends for Elysium to represent the United States. The poor who break through into the Promised Land, many to give their children a better life, or a life at all, only to be deported back to a slum, are clear stand-ins for contemporary immigration, notably Latin America. This is all fine by my book, though I can already hear the persecuted cries of some conservative commentators. It’s not as refined a commentary and that’s fine, not every message needs to be subtle, but I want more with my message than a simple rich vs. poor allusion. We never get to see what the people of Elysium are like, nor what most of that world is like beyond wide idyllic imagery. Fichtner’s character does a good job of symbolizing the callousness of an elite, but then he’s just one guy. The difficulty of maintaining a working wage is given the most care in the film, but much of the higher thinking takes a backseat for the third act movie heroics. The shift is acceptable but it makes a thin development of socio-economic commentary that much thinner.

When it comes to action, Blomkamp certainly knows how to stage a scene to get your pulse racing. The only problem is that there isn’t terribly much action to Elysium, or at least methodically sustained action to satisfy. You always feel like you’re getting a taste of something cooler down the road but it never fully materializes, much like the exoskeleton suit. It looks cool, it provides some progression, but it doesn’t lead to much. What does it accomplish? It allows him a port into downloading the Elyisum codes, but so could anything else. If anything, the metal exoskeleton seems like more of a hindrance, dragging Max down with extra weight and bulk. It pains me to say that the cool exoskeleton, such a prominent marketing feature, could have easily been eliminated as well. The best action in the movie is a heist in the middle that manages to juggle a team of good guys, a team of bad guys, a mark, and a deep sense of urgency for the score. It’s terrific and makes fun use of Blomkamp’s inventive future weapons. The rest of the film is mostly a series of chases, many of which are well orchestrated but only flirt with long-lasting action satisfaction.

The third act on Elysium is an entertaining and noisy conclusion, except Blomkamp sets himself up for limitation. Some spoilers to follow so tread carefully, reader. Elysium gets taken over by Kruger and his team as a defacto coup… except, well there are only three of them. We don’t even get to see them train the robot sentries on enemies or the populace of Elysium. I really don’t know how far-reaching their hastily staged coup is going. We want Kruger to be the big baddie that Max has to fight right before the cusp of the climax, but when there are only two other dudes who aren’t making great use of their fancy resources, it feels too boxed in and restrained. The action is fun while it lasts.

101212_galAnother niggling concern is the glut of side characters and their side stories that don’t feel organically integrated into the hero’s story. The flashbacks to Max as a kid could have been completely wiped out. They don’t add more information to the story and feel a tad too hokey for the movie. Sister Saintly Nun espouses wisdom and promises Max will be destined for one great thing in the future (could I settle for two “kinda good” things?).  The bigger distraction is Frey and her sick kid, a.k.a. the Angelic Sick Child, you know, the type that feels so at peace with things and with no worry. This is a staple of the movies. Her only purpose in the narrative is to goad Max into making a bigger sacrifice, to think of others, not that beforehand the guy was displayed as being particularly selfish. Then there’s Max’s friend Julio (Diego Luna) who serves little purpose other than to carry him out of the occasional scene and to, of course, be sacrificed to drive the hero forward to achieve his goal. There’s a middleman who arranges for people to get identities that will be read on Elysium, if they get on there safely first. The villains are also pretty one-dimensional in their stock villainy: Kruger a sociopathic killing machine and Delacourt a tyrant. None of these characters leave much of an impression to make you want to take time away from the main story arc. Worse, many of them feel vaguely characterized and are clear plot beat generators rather than people. Maybe Max would be better off as a loner.

The acting is also all over the place. The worst offender is Foster (Carnage), who weirdly over enunciates every syllable in an affected future accent. She also seems to bob and swivel her head a lot as she talks, as if the Oscar-winning actress really had to go to the bathroom but was holding it at bay to complete her takes. Damon (Promised Land) is a reliable action hero but realistically, it’s a little curious that the main character would be, by all accounts, white. It makes much more sense for the savior of planet Earth to be like those left behind, but then I don’t really want to wade into deeper racial subtext than necessary. The real treat of the movie is Copley (The A-Team) who is having a ball playing a sword-wielding psycho killer. He provides a notable spark whenever onscreen, bringing a menace that makes you tale notice. Again, I just wish there was more to the character than his vague back-story and bunt motivations.

Despite what has seemed like a fairly negative review from the start, Elysium still a good movie but beware higher expectations forged from District 9’s unique alchemy. There are a lot of familiar plot beats here and everything from the characters, to the action, to the world building feels like it could have been pushed further. It feels like they took the freshness of District 9 and applied it to a more tired-and-true blockbuster formula. Blomkamp drops us into an intriguing world but I wanted more of just about everything. More with the characters, more with the plot, more with the socio-political commentary, more with the ins and outs of this future world and its inhabitants. The ending is also a bit jubilantly naïve given the powers of the Powers That Be. Really, a keystroke sets everything back to scratch. Again, I’m being more critical than I intend to be. Elysium is quite an entertaining movie with great visuals and Blompkamp is certainly a visionary auteur to praise, but it’s hard not to feel a smidge of disappointment with the man when you know what he’s capable of, even with a perfectly fine movie.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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