“ELYSIUM” (2013) Review

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“ELYSIUM” (2013) Review

Four years ago, writer-director Neil Blomkamp made a name for himself with the release of his science-fiction thriller, “DISTRICT 9”. The movie made a celebrity out of the movie’s leading man, Sharlto Copely, as well. A few years passed before the two men paired up with Matt Damon and Jodie Foster to make a second science-fiction movie called “ELYSIUM”.

Set in the year 2154, “ELYSIUM” told the story of Max Da Costa, a parolee and former car thief who lives in ravaged Los Angeles. In the 22nd century, two classes of Humans exist – the very wealthy, who live on a luxurious space station called Elysium; and the poor, who live on an overpopulated, devastated Earth. Ruthless androids police the impoverished residents on Earth, while the Elysian citizens are serviced by robotic servants in a comfortable and luxurious setting. And while Earth’s citizens receive questionable and ineffective health care from health care workers at rundown hospitals, Elysian citizens regularly use man-sized medical devices called Med-Pods in their homes that keep them free from disease and wounds. Max, who had grown up as an orphan and spent a good deal of his life in prison, now works on an assembly-line at a robotic factory that provides the technology for Elysium called Armadyne Corporation.

An accident at the plant exposes Max to radiation and he discovers that he has five days left to live. Armadyne CEO John Carlyle has Max fired. His friend Julio introduces him to a notorious smuggler and hacker named Spider, who organizes illegal caravans to Elysium. Spider agrees to get Max to Elysium, if Max can help him steal valuable financial information from Carlyle. Spider arranges for Max to receive a fake Elysium ID needed to use the Med-Pods, a primitive powered exoskeleton that increases his strength to rival the android sentinels, and a cerebral data uplink, which will allow Max to transfer information from Carlyle’s mind to his own. With help from a team that includes Julio, Max intercepts Carlyle’s space shuttle and steals the latter’s data (including the program), uploading it to his own brain. The team, however, finds the data scrambled by Carlyle’s security measures and cannot transmit it to Spider. Even worse, Max and the others are forced to deal with a brutal mercenary named Kruger, who works for Elysian Secretary of Defense Jessica Delacourt. And Delacourt wants the information that Max had downloaded from Carlyle’s mind in the hopes of using it to stage a coup d’etat against Elysium’s President Patel. The information from Carlyle’s mind could also help Max’s childhood friend, Frey, who is not only a nurse, but also the mother of a young girl dying from leukemia.

Although I had been impressed by “DISTRICT 9” four years ago, I have to be honest and say that I found a few aspects of the movie a little off-putting. I cannot say the same about “ELYSIUM”. There is nothing about it that I found off-putting . . . only questionable. However, “ELYSIUM” failed to impressed me. I am sorry, but it simply did not. The movie did benefit from some virtues. I have to give credit to Blomkamp’s screenplay for exploring issues that affect our lives today . . . and may even have a bigger impact upon our future – immigration, transhumanism, class issues and especially health care issues. And I must say that I found Blomkamp’s vision of 22nd century Los Angeles, reinforced by Philip Ivey’s production designs and Trent Opaloch’s photography, to be very interesting and original. And I cannot help but wonder if his vision will prove to be prophetic. The movie’s action sequences struck me as impressive. And I found Blomkamp’s handling of the sequence featuring Max’s theft of Carlyle’s data from the latter’s mind to be first-rate. Personally, I feel that it is the best sequence in the movie.

Too bad “ELYSIUM” featured even more aspects that I found either questionable or simply . . . off-putting. Yes, I know that I had earlier claimed that the movie did not have any off-putting aspects about it. I now realize I had been wrong. My biggest complaint about “ELYSIUM” happens to be its second half. Whatever intelligence Blomkamp injected into the script’s first half, he seemed to have ripped it away in its second. And this happened when Max made a bargain with Kruger for a trip to Elysium in exchange for Carlyle’s program (threatening suicide by a live grenade next to his head). It did not help that Frey and her daughter were along for the ride with Max as hostages of Kruger. So many stupid incidents occurred during the movie’s second half; including the reconstruction of Kruger’s damaged face from an exploded grenade held by Max with the Med-Pods. Kruger should have been dead after what happened to his face. But following his recovery . . . oh God! It was just one big mess! I would tell what happened, but I fear I have given away too much of the plot, already.

There were other aspects of “ELYSIUM” I found disturbing. According to its premise, 22nd century humanity will be divided into two classes – working class and the elite. So, what happened to the middle-class? Did economic upheavals caused its elimination? And if the middle-class had ceased to exist, to which class did Max’s immediate supervisor at the plant belonged? Or the doctor that Frey worked with? And why did Max seemed to be the only white person among the working-class in Los Angeles? Surely, there were other whites among the working-class. And if Blomkamp intended for Los Angeles’ working-class to consist mainly of a large majority of Latinos and less blacks and Asian-Americans, why cast the obviously white Matt Damon as Max Da Costa?

Speaking of Damon, he gave a decent performance as the movie’s protagonist, Max Da Costa. But he did not exactly rock my boat. He tried. But Max never struck me as a particularly interesting character. I would have been more impressed by Jodie Foster’s portrayal of the cold-blooded Jessica Delacourt, if I were not so confused by her accent. If anyone has an idea of what her accent was supposed to be, please let me know. One could always count on Sharlto Copely to give a top-notch performance in any movie. His portrayal of Delacourt’s thug, Kruger, was certainly an all-out effort on his part. Unfortunately, Kruger struck me as one of the most-one-dimensional villains I have ever seen on the movie screen in the past few years. One would think that an old friend like Blomkamp could have written Kruger with a little more dimension for Copely. I have never seen any of Alice Braga’s previous performances. And she struck me as a very competent actress. But like Copely, she was saddled with a one-dimensional character that no skillful acting could overcome. At least for me.

There were some performances that impressed me. William Fitchner gave a first-rate performance as the businesslike and brainy CEO John Carlyle, whose bigotry toward the working-class led to a dislike of being touched. Wagner Moura infused a great deal of energy into his performance of the smuggler and hacker, Spider. And this energy carried into every scene he was in. Diego Luna, whom I last saw in 2012’s “CONTRABAND” gave a very compassionate performance as Max’s loyal and caring friend, Julio. It was nice to see Faran Tahir, who portrayed Elysium’s President Patel, after a few years. And like Moura, he infused a good deal of energy into his performance and the movie, thanks to some skillful acting.

“ELYSIUM” could boast some virtues, including an interesting premise, excellent production designs and photography, and skillful acting from some of the cast. But a few one-dimensional characterizations and a plot that lost a great deal of intelligence in its second half resulted in “ELYSIUM” becoming something of a disappointment for me.

“MALEFICENT” (2014) Review

 

“MALEFICENT” (2014) Review

I am probably the last person on this earth who would associate Angelina Jolie with a Disney film, let alone one made for children. Then again, I have never seen Jolie in another movie like her recent film, “MALEFICENT”.

Despite some adult themes found in this new film, I honestly believe that “MALEFICENT” is basically a movie for children. It is not just based upon Charles Perrault’s 1697 fairy tale, “La Belle au Bois Dormant”, but also the Disney Studios’ 1959 animated adaptation, “SLEEPING BEAUTY”. Only this film is told with a twist. Some would say with a feminist twist. Linda Woolverton’s screenplay features the story’s main villainess, the evil and vindictive fairy, Maleficent, as the movie’s main protagonist. The film begins with Maleficent as a young and powerful fairy who serves as the main protector of a fairy realm called Moors that borders a human kingdom ruled by ruthless monarch named King Henry, who covets it. Maleficent befriends a young boy named Stefan, who works as a kitchen servant for the king.

The years pass as Maleficent and Stefan’s friendship grows to something close to a romance. But King Henry’s latest attempt to invade Moors leads him to offer his daughter’s hand in marriage and his kingdom to the man able to kill Maleficent. Ambitious and longing to rise above his station, Stefan sets out to collect the bounty on his old friend. Unable to kill her because of their friendship, Stefan drugs Maleficent and burns her wings off with iron (a substance lethal to fairies) and presents the latter to King Henry as proof of her death. Stefan eventually marries King Henry’s daughter, Princess Leila, and eventually assumes the throne following his father-in-law’s death. When Maleficent learns about the birth of Stefan and Leila’s infant daughter, Aurora, she appears uninvited at the christening and places a curse on the infant princess. On her sixteenth birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into a death-like sleep. After Stefan is forced by Maleficent to beg for his daughter, she alters the curse with the addition that it can be broken by true love’s kiss. Stefan arranges for Aurora to be raised by three pixie fairies – Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistlewit. And despite her initial dislike of Aurora, Maleficent begins to secretly care about the girl, when the neglectful pixie fairies fail to take properly care of her.

There is a good number of elements for “MALEFICENT” that I found very admirable. I believe it is one of the more visually stunning films I have seen in recent years. A great deal of credit has to go to Dylan Cole and Gary Freeman’s production designs. The pair did an excellent job in recapturing medieval life . . . at least in a fantasy world. Dean Semler’s photography of parts of rural England, which served as King Stefan’s realm, added to the movie’s visual style. But the work from the special effects team, especially for creation of the fairy realm and other sequences that featured magic, truly enhanced the movie’s visual style. I also have to add a word about Anna B. Sheppard’s costume designs for the film. I could wax lyrical on how beautiful they looked. But there are times when I believe that images can speak louder than words:

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I will not claim that Sheppard’s costumes are an accurate reflection of medieval fashion. But . . . hey! I cannot deny that I found them beautiful.

As for the plot for “MALEFICENT”, I cannot deny that it proved to be something of a conundrum for me. Woolverton’s screenplay and Robert Stromberg’s direction clearly seemed to hint that it is basically a movie for children. The dialogue, the movie’s style of humor and especially its use of the three fairy sisters as the movie’s comic relief practically screams “Kiddie Film” to me. And yet . . . Woolverton’s screenplay also featured elements that seemed to indicate a movie with strong adult themes. The most obvious element proved to be the theft of Maleficent’s wings. Unless I am mistaken, the entire scene struck me as a metaphor for rape. Think about it. Stefan drugs Maleficent (a stand-in for any rape drug) to knock her unconscious. Using iron – an indication of violence – he physically violates her by burning off her wings. The relationship that develops between Maleficent and Aurora not only proved to be unexpected, but is given a feminist twist. Aside from Maleficent’s relationship with her aide Diaval, a raven whom she had saved by transforming him into a human; the male-female relationships in this movie proved to be either ineffective or disastrous. Even the use of “True Love’s Kiss” had a twist I had failed to foresee . . . until several minutes before it actually occurred.

There have been other productions – both television and film – that mixed elements of children’s stories and adult themes. ABC Television’s “ONCE UPON A TIME” seemed to use a great deal of adult themes in its twist on fairy tales. Yet, the series continues to maintain some semblance of childlike morality in its portrayal of magic. J.K. Rowling’s “HARRY POTTER” literary (and film adaptations) series becomes increasingly ambiguous as the saga progresses. And aside from the first film, George Lucas’ “STAR WARS” film saga strikes me as a case study of moral ambiguity with touches of humor and characterizations for children. But these science-fiction/fantasy sagas seem capable of balancing humor and storytelling for children with adult themes.

I cannot say the same about “MALEFICENT”. The movie’s childish humor – courtesy of the three fairy sisters – struck me as heavy-handed and not at all funny. I also believe the movie’s 97-minute running time made it difficult for Woolverton’s script to maintain that balance between children and adult themes. More importantly, the movie’s running time forced Stromberg and Woolverton to rush the story forward at a unnecessarily fast pace, especially during the movie’s last half hour. Other aspects of the plot – Maleficent’s background, her relationships with both Stefan and Diaval, and especially her developing relationship with Aurora. But there are two aspects that struck me as rushed – namely Aurora’s relationship with the fairy sisters (which barely seemed to exist) and the last half hour in which the sleeping curse is played out. I cannot help but wonder if Disney’s penchant for cinematic penny-pinching forced Stromberg and Woolverton to rush the movie’s climatic act.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s performances. Angelina Jolie was outstanding as the movie’s protagonist, the fairy Maleficent. Being the top-notch actress that she is, Jolie effortlessly captured every nuance of Maleficent’s character – both the good and the bad. I have been a great admirer of Sharlto Copley in the past – with the exception of his villainous turn in the 2013 sci-fi movie, “ELYSIUM”. Thankfully, his complex portrayal of this movie’s villain, King Stefan, reminded me of his skill at portraying complex roles. At first, Elle Fanning seemed to be stuck with a role that struck me very sweet, kind . . . and boring. Fortunately for her, the Princess Aurora character became more interesting in the movie’s second half and Fanning got the chance to show off her acting chops – especially in the scene in which Aurora confronts Maleficent about the curse.

The movie also featured solid performances from Sam Riley as Maleficent’s confidant Diaval, Kenneth Cranham as King Henry and Hannah New as Queen Leila. I have been longtime fans of Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple. But I have to be honest – I was not that impressed by their portrayals of the three fairy sisters. It was quite obvious to me that Staunton, Manville and Temple did their best to make the three sisters – Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistlewit – interesting. Nor can I accuse them of bad acting. They were obviously giving it their all. There are times when external forces have a way of affecting an actor or actress’ performance, whether due to bad direction or bad writing. In the case of the three actresses who portrayed Aurora’s fairy guardians, I suspect their performances were sabotaged by Linda Woolverton’s writing. The screenwriter’s sense of humor struck me as subtle as a stampeding buffalo. I also believe that her screenplay may have hampered Brenton Thwaites’ performance as Prince Philip. How can I put it? Thwaites gave a bland and boring performance, because he was forced to portrayed a bland and boring character. The 1959 animated version of the prince had more zing than this latest version. And I blame Woolverton’s screenplay, not the actor.

Do not get me wrong. I rather liked “MALEFICENT”. I found it to be a visually stunning film with some strong moral ambiguity in its plot and in some of the major characters, and a solid cast led by outstanding performances from Angelina Jolie and Sharlto Copley. I also enjoyed the feminist twist on the “Sleeping Beauty” tale. But due to some flawed characterizations and a failure to balance both the children and adult theme in its plot, I can honestly say that I did not love “MALEFICENT”.