Elysium

ImageWhat if Wall-E were real?  That’s the question director Matt Damon and director Neill Blomkamp try to answer in Elysium.  Actually, there have been plenty of films depicting world-ending scenarios this summer, nonetheless, this is the one that stars Matt Damon, so pay attention.

The word “Elysium” actually refers to a Greek notion of the afterlife where those chosen by the gods would spend eternity.  Blomkamp’s Elysium reveals a similar idea with the ironic twist being that the “chosen few” are simply the world’s wealthiest and most privileged.  Here Elysium is a space station constructed miles above Earth’s atmosphere designed to house the planet’s most fortunate, so that they can maintain their lavish lifestyle without the burdens of living on an overpopulated Earth.  The year is 2154.  Max (Damon) is an average guy living in L.A. who finds himself in a life or death situation that can only be cured by the advanced medical treatments available on Elysium.  Elysium’s strict immigration laws prevent unauthorized travel to the haven, leaving Max to desperate measures.

Blomkamp’s film is wonderfully directed.  With brilliant juxtapositions between Elysium and Earth, he designs a very well made story that looks all too real!  Scenes of sweeping, Eden-esque beauty are shattered by guerrilla-style wildness of a civilization clinging to existence.  Slightly reminiscent of Minority Report, Max’s humanity and loss thereof is accentuated with symbolic intensity and careful pacing.  His decent into despair is marked by a crude cyborg-like surgical implant that Blomkamp uses to remind us of how close we are from becoming a race of data transfer capsules.  The film’s various villains are united and yet compartmentalized representing a visionary balance of complexity that while slightly excessive could have been tremendously overbearing.  Blomkamp’s previous film District 9 was in a similar topical vein, and while it was a better film overall than Elysium, this latest film is a finer directorial effort, perhaps worthy of Oscar’s attention, although unlikely given the film’s weaknesses in other areas.

Elysium’s main problem is in the writing.  The problem is that Elysium should be more upsetting than it is.  It attempts to invoke the spirit, the outrage, and the temperament of the Occupy Wall-Street movement, showing a wealthy 1% looking down on a struggling and desperate 99%.  However, this is done in a rather heavy-handed way that comes across simplistic and, at times, stereotypically vapid.  This is most apparent in examining Jodi Foster’s Secretary Delacourt who attempts to plan a coup for seemingly no better reason than because her fascist ways are more fascist than the current fascist in charge.  Foster does her best with what she’s given, but a complicated issue is reduced to a shred of viability, turning what could have been a deeply stirring sci-fi commentary into just another by the numbers hero tale.  Questions are left unanswered especially in the film’s closing act, which offers a naive and, while plausible, uneven resolution.  Not to mention that the film fails to soften the reality that Damon, Blomkamp, and company are pandering to a low to middle class audience about the gap between the haves and the have-nots.  I had a similar issue with Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby from earlier this Spring.  This is the “Catch-22” of A-List Hollywood in the economically polarized 21st century.

Pompousness aside, Elysium offers a fast-paced, stirring, visually well-made exploration of a slice of humanity.  While it may not accomplish what it set out to do contextually, it is still a worthy film deserving of some credence.  B

Elysium is rated R and has a refreshingly appropriate running time of 1 hour and 37 minutes.  While not the near masterpiece of sci-fi that was District 9, Elysium is a good summer movie and a great example of visionary directing. 

The Great Gatsby

ImageMay 10th, 2013 marked the highly anticipated release of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. This film marks the fourth time F. Scott Fitzgerald’s glitzy classic has seen the big-screen treatment. It seems that in an almost poetic piece of truth, filmmakers have been reaching for their own ‘elusive green light’ in that no one has been able to cinematically capture the full power and prestige of the classic novel. It’s unusual for a book to be adapted to film every 25 years or so, but that is precisely what has happened. Alan Ladd played the mysterious Jay Gatsby in 1949, Robert Redford in 1974, Toby Stephens in the deplorable A&E TV movie in 2000, and now Leonardo Dicaprio steps into that legendary yellow car’s driver’s seat. Is the fourth time a charm?

It’s the roaring 20s in America and in the midst of America’s strongest economic boom in history, Nick Caraway (Toby Maguire) puts his writing career on hold and leaves the Midwest for the magic of New York as a bond salesman. Caraway becomes fascinated with his mysterious neighbor (Gatsby) as rumors about the man and his wealth circulate all around him. Nick is drawn into Gatsby’s lavish world and through him, the audience is presented Fitzgerald’s cautionary fable of excess, greed, and moral decay that lies beneath the surface of social luxury.

Fourth time a charm? The answer to this question is a complex one. The appeal to this film rests in the impeccable casting of Dicaprio as Gatsby and the choice of such a distinctive director in Luhrmann. Luhrmann and Dicaprio have, of course, successfully updated a classic once before with 1996’s Romeo + Juliet. While The People’s Critic was not that impressed with that film, it can be admired for its style and individuality. The Great Gatsby does not disappoint in terms of its style, which is no surprise given Luhrmann’s reputation.

The film chooses to introduce Caraway slightly differently from the novel, and in that commits its first mistake. The tone of the film is altered right from the start, and Caraway’s character is strangely identified as a flawed and beaten down man; he is introduced as a man clinging to sanity. Fans of the book will also be incredibly disappointed in some glaringly missing elements from the film’s final act. These changes result in a sacrifice of some major complexities within a major character’s past. Nonetheless, the middle section of the film is faithful to the novel and develops very well.

The cast is rounded out nicely with Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan and Joel Edgerton as her husband Tom. Isla Fisher plays Tom’s mistress Myrtle and newcomer Elizabeth Debicki plays the vapid vamp, Jordan Baker. Luhrmann is guilty of rushing the pace a bit too much when it comes to developing these characters, but this is likely because he knows the story swings on the hinge of Gatsby and Caraway’s relationship. Unfortunately the pacing does affect the film’s effectiveness. This and some astonishingly poor editing reduces the film’s overall impact. Consequently, Maguire effectively sets up awe and majesty for the appearance of Dicaprio, although the anticipated reveal of his character is not quite as satisfying as it should be.

The Great Gatsby is a story of mood. A successful adaptation must transcend regurgitation of plotpoints and allow the viewer to feel and experience the raw nature of desire and time’s fleeting nature. It is here that Luhrmann does succeed. The major victory for this film is in its capturing of the essence of the novel, the time, and the message. Bold choices from contemporary music, effective use of slow motion, and inventive camera placement make the movie exciting and at times, well…Great. I do, however, question the decision for executive producer Jay-Z to use four songs by himself or Beyonce in a film that so urgently attacks bravado, audacity, and arrogance. The Great Gatsby is the best adaptation of Fitzgerald’s material, and Dicaprio adds another iconic role to his ever impressive career. While the film is not perfect and will certainly provide some disappointments for fans of the book, the film does stand on its own as a determined, flashy, show-piece of entertainment. B

The Great Gatsby is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 23 minutes. It is released in 3D, but it offers nothing by artificiality. Learn a lesson from the film and enjoy it in modest 2D.

The Big Wedding

ImageWith the highly anticipated release of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, I decided to re-read the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic novel about moral decay in American Society.  Reading the book again was meant to assist me in my review for the upcoming Gatsby, but it turns out there’s another story of tragic spoiled Americans consumed with their own lavish excesses already in theaters, and it’s called The Big Wedding. 

The Big Wedding is a star-studded turkey of a movie that can be enjoyed as more of an oddity than anything else.  On the surface, it appears to be a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy about the goofy pitfalls that occur within the chain of events leading up to a big American family wedding.  However, Justin Zackham both writes and directs a film that if anything, actively attempts to rationalize dishonesty as an honorable and necessary trait within the family dynamic.

The story revolves around the Griffin family as they prepare for the wedding  between adopted son Alejandro (Ben Barnes) and his fiancé Missy (Amanda Seyfried).  The Griffin patriarch is Don (Robert DeNiro) who is hosting the wedding at his home that he shares with his girlfriend, Bebe (Susan Sarandon).  DeNiro continues his series of baffling role choices here, and it’s hard to envision what drew him to the character of Don, although he probably hasn’t played a character who takes this many blows to the head since Raging Bull.  The wedding draws an ensemble cast together that includes Don’s ex-wife Ellie (Diane Keaton) and Don and Ellie’s two children Lyla (Katherine Heigl) and Jared (Topher Grace) both of which vary in degrees of estrangement from Don.  The conflict hinges on the news that Alejandro’s biological mother Madonna will also be attending the wedding, and her ultra-conservative views on marriage and divorce cause Alejandro to plead with Don and Ellie to pretend to be married so not to offend her.  Various other subplots regarding Lyla’s marriage troubles, Don’s relationship with Bebe, and Jared’s awkward fling with Madonna’s beautiful daughter Nuria fill out the film’s 89 minute running time, but none of them are remarkably interesting or funny.  Additionally, Robin Williams is given absolutely nothing to do as Father Moinighan in a screenplay that feels like a series of wasted opportunities. 

While The Big Wedding certainly disappoints given its potential, it is oddly watchable.  Most of the characters are quite unlikable, and it begs the viewer to question whether this is intentional.  Katherine Heigel’s character is uniquely deplorable, an example being when she candidly announces who she needs to “lynch” to get a Cosmo.  Zackham makes it quite clear that every character has, in one way or another, used deception, fraud, or trickery as a recourse for trying to keep a family together.  This thematic exploration and justification for dishonesty feels wildly out of place in a supposedly fun wedding comedy, but it is a strangely fascinating direction to take.  Perhaps this film would work better if it were more Gatsby and less My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but what we’re left with is a bit of a mess, albeit a somewhat intentional one. D+

The Big Wedding is rated R and runs 89 minutes.  You might want to make sure there’s an open bar before attending this wedding.

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