Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium” – Fakery in lieu of satire

Poster for "Elysium"

In the distant future, Earth is a polluted, overpopulated wasteland, no longer capable of supporting human life. A privileged few have managed to escape into the only place left for them – outer space. But something is amiss. Humanity is stagnant – out of balance. All of its resources benefit a privileged few. But soon, a lone hero will venture forth from his ruined home planet to save humanity from itself. And that hero…is a cute little robot named Wall-E.

I made the profound mistake of rewatching District 9 the day before seeing Elysium. The former, Neill Blomkamp‘s 2009 feature film debut, posits an alternate present-day in which aliens landed 20 years ago, and now exist in a beleaguered slum in South Africa. District 9 revels in cynicism, and does so quite effectively. As a viewer, I patted myself on the back in smug self-assurance that – yes, that’s exactly how terribly that situation would play out. In fact, it would probably be a lot worse. Elysium posits a similarly broken and unjust world, but does so in a manner that feels completely derivative (see Wall-E) and isn’t particularly effective at world-building or satire. The viewer must either accept Elysium as a straightforward piece of populist propaganda – without an ounce of self-awareness – or simply enjoy it as a film in which Mecha-Matt Damon blows a few things up. I tried to enjoy the film on one of these levels, but found each of them to be lacking.

Many of the film’s action beats felt like pale shadows of things I had already seen in District 9. This included a few identical weapons, but let’s face it, rail guns are cool enough to include twice. Unfortunately, in several cases, the action direction and cinematography have gotten noticeably worse. The moment Damon put on his cyborg exosuit, all of his fights turned into fast-cutting, incomprehensible blurs. Whatever blend of physical and virtual effects was in play here, it clearly didn’t work well enough that they felt comfortable showing it for more than a half-second at a time.

Much of the world building of the earthbound slum (or slumbound earth) worked fine, and some of it even approached decent satire. The overwhelming reliance on automated law enforcement (including a hilarious parole droid) definitely hits a few familiar notes for American audiences. The problem is that the satire is basically non-existent on Elysium – the titular space platform. There is no allegory in place here. Elysium is America, or at least the most wealthy Americans. And this isn’t the future – this might as well be now. This attitude is readily apparent from the film itself (and the director has confirmed as much himself), and it might have even succeeded as a passable allegory if not for the one crucial detail- the most alluring amenity of Elysium is a medical bed in every home that effectively and instantaneously cures any disease or injury. You read that correctly. The MacGuffin in this science fiction film…is a magical healing bed that grants immortality.


That’s it, folks. That’s when I checked out of this movie. Because if you’re the person who is withholding the magical healing bed from the rest of the world, you are evil, you are irredeemable, and you are utterly boring. Saddling strong performers like Jodie Foster and William Fichtner with such one-note villainy feels like a waste, despite both of their passable performances. And the less said about Sharlto Copley the better. He plays a neat (if slightly incomprehensible) psychopath, but he feels like a bearded retread of David James‘ psychopathic soldier from District 9. He likes killing, he’s good at it, and he’s in gleeful service of a corrupt regime. If the regime itself had been a bit more believable, I might have enjoyed this performance a lot more. Copley is clearly having a good deal of fun with it.

Elysium should have worked as a concept. There was much about this world that made me intrigued, made me curious… I wanted to know more about how the government of this place operated. I wanted to know more about its relationship with Earth. The platform clearly possesses either the military might or political capital to exert force on the planet below (at one time locking down the airspace of Los Angeles through sheer force of will). There is enough implied substance here that the film could easily have built out that relationship further, peppering in the small details that would have made it a credible world. Science fiction (or at least its marketing) used to be about making the audience “believe” something. You’ll believe a man can fly. You’ll believe a spaceship can fly to Mars. As a film intended to make me believe in an orbital platform for the super-rich, the film was a total failure. All it really made me believe in was a world broken so badly that the film’s pretense of a happy ending provoked nothing but a mirthless chuckle.

FilmWonk rating: 3 out of 10

2011 Glennies, Part 2: Best Supporting Actor/Actress

Best Supporting Actor

#5: Oscar Isaac – Blue Jones, Sucker Punch

Oscar Isaac in "Sucker Punch"
Let it never be said that I hold a mean grudge… I hated virtually everything about this film, including the character of Blue Jones, but this will be one of the few awards where I enforce the nebulous distinction between “the best” and “my favorite” (David Chen posted a great discussion with IFC’s Matt Singer on this topic). Every moment of screen time with villainous burlesque magnate (or possibly psych ward attendant) Blue Jones made me physically uncomfortable. All of the male characters in this film are deplorable predators, but Isaac’s performance brought this one to life in a disturbingly memorable way. Every one of his line readings made my skin crawl, and that is certainly what the villain of such an overwhelmingly fetishistic comic farce needed. I would sooner rewatch Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones than ever revisit this performance, but it was undeniably one of the best of the year.

Honorable mention: He also gave a solid supporting turn in Drive.

#4: Albert Brooks – Bernie Rose, Drive

Albert Brooks in "Drive"
Now that’s more like it – here’s a villainous performance I would gladly revisit. Albert Brooks demonstrates an alarming vicious streak in this film, which would be brilliant even if I didn’t know him primarily as a comic actor.

#3: Ben Kingsley – Papa Georges, Hugo

Ben Kingsley in "Hugo"
There is a solid ensemble cast at work in Hugo, but Ben Kingsley certainly does the heavy lifting. Insofar as this film is primarily about the burden of a forgotten artist, Kingsley manages to elevate even the more cookie-cutter moments surrounding the revelation of his true identity. From my review:

Kingsley’s performance is marvelous, delivering just the right blend of sadness and intrigue. This is a bitter and ancient soul, but his bitterness is richly layered enough to suggest that it is the product of having lived too much rather than too little. This is a man who had everything and lost it; not a man who regrets what he failed to achieve.

#2: Kenneth Branagh – Sir Laurence Olivier, My Week with Marilyn

Kenneth Branagh in "My Week With Marilyn"
This is basically an actor’s dream role, getting to simultaneously ham it up as a beloved cinematic mainstay, and portray him in his prime as a director. If I were a bit more cynical, I might think that Branagh was exorcising some of his own directorial frustration into this performance, but watching him butt heads with Michelle Williams is entertaining regardless of its source. While Olivier’s relationship with Marilyn Monroe is actually one of the less developed aspects of the film, Branagh plays up Olivier’s confrontationalism and dismay to brilliant comedic effect.

#1: Christopher Plummer – Hal Fields, Beginners

Christopher Plummer in "Beginners"
Beginners failed to crack my Top 10 for one simple reason… It wasn’t primarily about Hal Fields. Writer/director Mike Mills based this film loosely on the story of his own father coming out as gay following the death of his wife, and just a few years before his own death, and Plummer’s performance succeeds because he treats a genuinely fascinating character with an overwhelming degree of affection. His chemistry with Ewan McGregor (who plays his son, the Mike Mills surrogate) is stellar, and helps to elevate the less interesting material that McGregor has to work with. Even as the film gets just a little bit bogged down in its own quirkiness, Plummer remains the heart of it, portraying an old man who is exploring his new life with all the fervor and enthusiasm of a much younger man. His portrayal feels entirely authentic, and derives all of its comic effect from the character’s inherent sweetness and earnestness.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Ryan Gosling as Jacob Palmer in Crazy, Stupid, Love.
  • Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, and Paul Bettany as a trio of ruthless financiers in Margin Call
  • Seth Rogen as Kyle in 50/50
  • Michael Parks as Abin Cooper in Red State
  • Colin Farrell as Jerry in Fright Night

Best Supporting Actress

#5: Emma Stone – Hannah, Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Emma Stone in Crazy, Stupid, Love.
Crazy, Stupid, Love. was a surprisingly enjoyable film, taking a fairly conventional romantic comedy premise and amping it up with a masterful sense of humor and charm. And one of the biggest charmers was surely Emma Stone, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite comic actresses (she also had an amusing minor role in Friends With Benefits this year). She plays nicely with co-star Ryan Gosling (who just barely missed out on my list above) both in terms of chemistry and comedic timing, and manages to shine despite her limited screentime.

#4: Chloë Grace Moretz – Isabelle, Hugo

Chloë Grace Moretz in "Hugo"
“Don’t you like books?!”

Chloe Moretz’s reading of this line clinched this as one of my favorite performances of the year. Moretz brought such a sense of joy and adventure to the character that she managed to set herself apart from similarly bookish heroines (such as Hermione Granger) without crossing the well-trod line of irritation that such characters often stumble into. She is, to a large extent, the heart of this film, lighting up the screen with enthusiasm in her every scene, and making an excellent foil for Asa Butterfield and Ben Kingsley’s more somber and subdued roles.

#3: Jodie Foster – Meredith Black, The Beaver

Jodie Foster in "The Beaver"
This film didn’t work as a whole for me, but if there’s one thing that both Foster and co-star Mel Gibson demonstrate, it’s that they understand depression and self-destruction. And this understanding comes through despite the film’s darkly comedic (and frankly absurd) premise of a man talking exclusively through a Cockney-voiced beaver puppet. Gibson’s performance is agonizing to behold, but is made doubly so by how credibly Foster plays his steadfast and equally tormented spouse. Meredith clearly still cares for Walter, even as he makes it harder and harder for her to interact with him in any meaningful way – a theme that plays out marvelously in the restaurant scene pictured above, which was a tour de force for Foster in both acting and direction.

#2: Rose Byrne – Helen Harris, Bridesmaids

This was a film chock full of memorable and fully realized characters, but none quite so effective as Rose Byrne’s villainous would-be maid-of-honor, Helen Harris. Byrne plays up the various conflicts between Helen’s wealth, insecurity, and inherently scheming nature, leading to one of the film’s most memorable confrontations in which (I’ll be vague here) she offers Kristen Wiig a friendly snack. It’s all smiles, and yet both actresses play up the tension brilliantly – a dynamic that persists throughout the film. This villain is the antithesis of Oscar Isaac above – an absolute delight in every scene, and a performance I will happily revisit.

#1: Marion Cotillard – Adriana, Midnight in Paris

Marion Cotillard in "Midnight in Paris"
I had to excise the word “irresistible” from my description of Emma Stone above, lest I squander it in advance of my favorite performance of the year. Marion Cotillard plays Adriana, and without being too specific, let’s just say she has an active social life, chock full of fascinating suitors. Cotillard could have played this character simply as an object of desire, but her charm and vivaciousness are merely the initial layer of a delightfully rich characterization. While this allure nearly puts her out of the league of Owen Wilson’s “Aw shucks” demeanor, as the film goes on, the two characters complement each other nicely, and Adriana’s various interests play well into the film’s exploration of the dangers of nostalgia. While the film itself is a love letter to Paris, Cotillard’s performance seems to encapsulate all of the romance and intrigue that the city itself has to offer. And both the city and the lady are irresistible.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Anne Heche as Joan Ostrowski-Fox in Cedar Rapids
  • Maya Rudolph as Lillian in Bridesmaids
  • Carey Mulligan as Irene in Drive
  • Evan Rachel Wood as Molly Stearns in The Ides of March
  • Anna Kendrick as Katherine in 50/50

2011 Glennies, Part 1: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2011)
2011 Glennies, Part 2: Best Supporting Actor/Actress
2011 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actor/Actress

Jodie Foster’s “The Beaver” – Everyone loves a trainwreck – but there are limits

Poster for "The Beaver"

Walter Black (Mel Gibson) is a severely depressed, self-hating individual who pulls himself back from the brink of suicide and starts talking through a stuffed beaver puppet he finds in a dumpster. This performance may be hard to write about, but it was even harder to watch. The beaver persona strikes a comedic note at first, but these beats seem increasingly out of place as the film descends further and further into Walter’s insanity. Whenever Walter is forced to speak in his own voice (without the jaunty British accent), Gibson conveys such intractable discomfort and crippling hopelessness with every syllable that you wonder how Walter has managed to stave off suicide thusfar. His mere existence is a punishing chore. At the beginning of the film, I wondered if I would be able to judge this film without pondering Gibson’s real-life persona. By the end, I forgot Gibson entirely and found myself nearly weeping for the increasingly pitiful creature that is Walter Black. This performance may be unpleasant to watch, but it is certainly one of Gibson’s finest.

Did I mention Walter has a teenage son? When Porter Black (Anton Yelchin) isn’t selling term papers to his high school classmates or romancing one of his clients (Jennifer Lawrence), he spends his time writing down Post-Its of every one of his similarities to his father, no matter how minute (“Rubs eyebrows”), in staunch determination to eliminate every last one of them before he heads off to college. To this end, he is also planning a contrived roadtrip worthy of Elizabethtown, wherein he will visit locations around the country where “everything changed forever” (such as the balcony where Martin Luther King was shot), in a desperate effort to find himself.

I’ll be blunt – I hated this character. He felt like the worst sort of indie cliché, and I found every moment of his screentime excruciating. By the end of the film, we’re seemingly meant to draw parallels between Porter and his father, but they never quite landed. Apart from some apparent OCD, Porter seems a great deal more high-functioning, intelligent, and capable than Walter. While it’s certainly possible that he might slip into a depressed and self-destructive state, the film never really shakes the feeling that no matter what happens, this kid will be just fine. Yelchin’s performance is acceptable, but the character just feels sloppily and unbelievably written.

Still from "The Beaver"

In fact, suspension of disbelief is one of the hardest things about watching The Beaver – this story never quite feels like it could take place in the real world. Porter’s subplot took up nearly half of the film and felt like a complete distraction, and Walter’s story also felt unfocused. While I could accept the absurd degree to which Walter’s family and colleagues accepted his newfound puppetry, his rapid ascendence to fame over a nationwide craze of…children’s woodchopping kits (?) was just too much of a stretch, and felt completely out of place amid the dark family drama that was brewing.

Jodie Foster (also the film’s director) gives a heartbreaking performance as Walter’s wife Meredith – she and Gibson have always had impressive chemistry together, and this film tests it to destruction. In one of the film’s best scenes, the couple goes out to dinner for their 20th anniversary – without spoiling how it ends, I will say that it was physically uncomfortable to watch, and that it was an impressive showcase of both acting and direction.

Porter’s love interest, Norah (Lawrence) gives a rather unsettling speech near the end of the film, ostensibly spelling out its message – maybe everything’s not going to be okay, but at least we’ve got each other. The tone of this speech was as dark as the rest of the film, but as a moral of this somber tale, it somehow works. The Beaver is a deeply flawed, but profoundly affecting film. I can’t say I especially welcomed its effects, but it may be a fascinating character piece for those who have suffered from depression (or their loved ones) – those who know the loneliness that can engulf these individuals even when they’re surrounded by people who desperately want to help.

The Beaver may strain credulity, but its raw sentiment feels real and tragic. That said, it’s not a film I would comfortably recommend to anyone.

FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10