Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Elysium: A Latter-Day Metropolis

            Once every generation, a filmmaker looks at the world, ponders trends both technological and social, and extrapolates a dystopian future onto the big screen. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is a classic example. This year we’re given Elysium, from South African writer/director Neill Blomkamp. This film presents a powerful and rare combination of human emotion and stunning visuals, with a plausible, if alarming, vision of the future.
            Blomkamp’s film takes us to the year 2154, when the rich and powerful live on the clean, green space station of Elysium, while the impoverished working classes subsist on the filthy, barren planet Earth. The rich get fresh air; margaritas served poolside by droids; and top-notch healthcare. The non-rich get squalor, routinely bullied by police droids and safety regulation-free workplaces. In this world, hard-working parolee, Max (Matt Damon) is exposed to a lethal dose of radiation at the factory where he works. Told he has only five days to live, Max’s life-long quest to get to Elysium takes on a new urgency -- there, he knows the radiation damage can easily be repaired.
            The idea of humanity being segregated into two classes is far from new. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) showed the wealthy experiencing lives of leisure atop skyscrapers, while the denizens of the lower floors toiled away hopelessly. Elysium shares more than just a conceptual likeness with Metropolis, though. Both films are insightful works of genius. They are intimately human stories combined with state of the art visual effects; bringing to life a focused, abundantly-textured prophecy.
            Jodie Foster appears in this film as Delacourt, Elysium’s Secretary of Defense, who features prominently in the traitorous circumstances which ultimately bring Max to the idyllic space station. It was odd seeing Ms. Foster playing a villain, which she did with a professional, steely composure. While I’m glad Ms. Foster leant her talents and name to this project, the role was small and shallow for and actress of her caliber. Perhaps Ms. Foster saw this as an arguably important project, and wanted to lend it her name recognition and gravitas? I don’t know, but she did a great job as always in her role.
            Elysium is peppered with terms like “Homeland Security” – Delacourt’s responsibility - as well as “undocumented” and “illegals” in referring to spacecraft carrying refuges from Earth. Hearing these terms was effectively disturbing. I can’t say whether it was Blomkamp’s intention to create a metaphor of America’s immigration issues in his film. I can say, however, that these expressions gave Elysium a sharper allegorical edge.
            There is a romantic subplot in Elysium, involving Frey (Alice Braga), a nurse Max grew up with in an orphanage. When the two were children, he promised her that they would one day go to Elysium. Frey’s daughter has leukemia, and sadly, this complicates both her life and her relationship with Max.
            Children appear often in Elysium, much in the way they featured prominently in Metropolis. It’s easy to fall into sentimentality with children, but Blomkamp kept his perspective, and what might have been a flaw became strength. Perhaps children figure significantly in both pictures because they become the future -- do we really want to imagine our own kids’ great-grandchildren living in this 22nd century?
            There is a final subtext to Elysium that I believe is worth mentioning. One of the opening scenes shows the Earth after the oceans have risen: most of Africa is submerged, along with Europe and both sea boards of North America. Also, there doesn’t seem to be any trees left on our depleted world. But there is still love for our planet, as shown by a Nun who gives young Max a locket containing a photo of the Earth from space. Elysium, the Nun tells Max, may look very beautiful from here, but the picture in the locket is what we look like to them. Elysium notwithstanding, there is no “Planet B.” We must never forget where we come from.
            Elysium is the best film I’ve seen so far this year. It is a thoughtful and moving social commentary wrapped in science fiction, with seamless special effects and thrilling action set-pieces. Blomkamp’s script does not ignore the humanistic for the money shot, and this, as much as anything else, elevates his picture’s value. In total, Elysium is not only worth seeing, but with today’s cultural climate, it may genuinely need to be seen.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

We’re The Millers...The Anti-Christ of Family Films

     It has been a long while since I’ve gone to a movie that had me laughing out loud. We’re The Millers had some great comedic moments. Sadly, the occasional hilarity was not enough to save this RV wreck of a motion picture.

     We’re The Millers focuses on thirty-something David Clark’s (Jason Sudeikis) mission to smuggle two tons of marijuana from Mexico to Denver, Colorado. To accomplish this, Clark enlists his stripper neighbor, Rose (Jennifer Aniston), a lonely and neglected teen-aged friend Kenny (Will Poulter), and to round out the ensemble, a homeless street-thief girl, Casey (Emma Roberts). Together, this foursome poses as an all-American family in an RV literally stuffed with weed. The conflict begins when Clark discovers that his employer has double-crossed not only him but Pablo Chacon (Tomer Cisley), the rightful owner of the kind green stuff. Additionally, the “Miller Family” is befriended on the road by another traveling family, the Fitzgeralds – Don, Edie & Melissa (Nick Offerman, Katherine Hahn and Molly Quinn, respectively) – an over-friendly, white bread slice of American middle-class monotony. Oh, by the way, Don is a DEA agent on vacation! Uh-oh! Predictably, the “Millers” bond, develop real familial ties and learn the most important lesson of family: you may not always like each other, but in the end, you’re all in it together.

     Saturday Night Live alum Jason Sudeikis tackles his first starring role with the subdued cool of a young Chevy Chase. It is probably safe to say that We’re The Millers owes some genetic material to National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)--in fact, I’d go so far as to say that Clark (?!) Griswold and David Clark almost certainly share a common ancestor...Maybe, Uncle Milty?

     Jennifer Aniston plays stripper-turned-mom, Rose, as smart, strong and no nonsense. Additionally, Aniston proves she’s still the sex symbol that she became on Friends by performing one of the greatest pole dances seen on film since Flashdance(1983). There’s even a Flashdance homage as she soaks herself under an industrial emergency shower!

     Will Poulter and Emma Roberts both turned in convincing performances in this family road trip from hell, but I think I need to single out Poulter’s work for some high praise. He portrays Kenny as pathetically nerdish and naive, yet possessing a big heart and real courage in the face of adversity. Poulter plays this poor kid so well that it is hard to believe his resume includes pictures like Son of Rambow and Chronicles of Narnia. I think we’ll be seeing a lot more from this young man in the future.

We’re The Millers lurches between outrageously hip hilarity and tedious awkwardness -- the kind of awkwardness that makes an audience cringe at a situation, not with it -- and a tedium that comes from forced, hackneyed moments of emotion. I felt forced to watch it. This film failed to commit fully to the irreverent, as much as to the heart. Consequently, the irreverent made the heart seem corny, and the heart made the irreverent seem vulgar. There was never an organic integration of the two, as there was in films like Bad Santa(2003).

     Director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball(2004)) even took that Hail Mary comedy shot of showing supposedly humorous out-takes before the end credits. OK, while the scene where Sudeikis, Poulter and Roberts bust out the theme from Friends is cute, the whole idea of showing out-takes is, in my opinion, the hallmark of a bad director desperate for cheap laughs.

This film’s greatest flaw lies in its basic plot: Weed is legal in Colorado. Medical marijuana has been legal for many years, and last year, we voted to make it totally legal – now, one can own up to an ounce for personal use. There’s no need to import the stuff from Mexico anymore, we grow it here, lots of it, and it’s damn good...I hear.

     The trade-off between comedic gags and painful schmaltz resulted in neither a brilliantly funny, nor completely “feel good” picture. This film seemed to try and play both ends off the middle, consequently becoming underwhelming in its mediocrity. The final scene could easily be a set-up for a sequel (Hmm, They’re The Millers?), but I would be surprised if that ever happens. Yes, I had a few good laughs, but aside from Jennifer Aniston’s pole dance, sitting through We’re The Millers there was only one place I wanted to be...anywhere but the theater I was in.