Elysium: Edge of your Seat


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NEILL BLOMKAMP’S ELYSIUM is understandably compared with his breakthrough hit, “District 9” – a gripping story about apartheid and xenophobia imagined via a narrative about aliens in South Africa. Sci-fi has always been a great form for presenting the issues of the ‘real world’ through the lens of an unreal one (Remember, for instance, “Wall-E’s” clever comment on the destruction of the planet or “Battlestar Galactica”  which dealt with issues of race and politics in America with a subtlety and intelligence that won it its millions of followers).

Compared with these high-water marks, “Elysium” pales in comparison. The story is set in a dystopian 2154, when the have’s live lives of sybaritic ease on Elysium, a space station hovering above earth, and the 99% live in overcrowded, post-apocalyptic squalor. All of earth, apparently, has become a third world slum that looks remarkably like the favelas of Rio. So, the rich live in their enclosed, gated communities where the poor aren’t allowed. Not unlike Australia and its boat people policies. Get it?

As far as analogies go, “Elysium” ain’t no “District 9”. But once you go beyond that disappointment, this is an edge of the seat action movie. By far the best big budget summer blockbuster we’ve had so far.

The story follows five days in the life of Max da Costa (Matt Damon) an ex-con factory worker who is poisoned by radiation after an accident in the factory. He is given five days to live and is determined to find a way to Elysium to get cured. (There the homes all come equipped with machines that look like tanning beds but that miraculously remove defective genes, rebuild faces that have been exploded by grenades and that probably also offer instant liposuctions). To get there, he is introduced to Spider (Wagna Moura), a rebel commander; and, en passant, an ex childhood friend and nurse, Freya (Alice Braga who we saw in “I am Legend”). She, coincidentally, has a daughter with a few days to live and is in need of an Elysium cure as well. To pay for his journey, Max, fitted with an exoskeleton, must kidnap rich businessman Carlyle (William Finchtner – who always plays nasty guys. He was the bank manager in “The Dark Knight”) in order to hack into his brain and pass himself off as a citizen of Elysium. In his way stand armies of droids controlled by Elysium’s head of security (Jodie Foster, with a weird accent) and her thuggish henchman, Kruger (Sharlto Copely – the protagonist of “District 9”).

Blomkamp offers us a convincing world one hundred years in the future – his banged up spacecraft, crowded hospitals and robot assistants look more like real objects than the imagined designs of an art director. Really, that’s all we ask from these blockbuster action movies: give us enough realism to allow for our willing suspension of disbelief. Ground us in something we can relate to, so that you gain our permission to take us “to infinity and beyond”. It may be a simple ask, but pretty much all of the mega-bucks offerings this year have failed on that requirement.

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And apart from “Olympus has Fallen” and “World War Z”, the action movies have also all failed to keep us gripped. “Elysium” is rare in that it actually offers moments of suspense and tension. And, despite the complicated plot, it creates enough momentum for us to want to know what’ll happen next.

Let’s not forget that it is after all, an action movie, so there isn’t much room for character development (and frankly, the motivations of the characters are often very sketchy). But, in Matt (wearing Daniel Craig’s muscular bod), you know you’re with a guy who will live up to a sense of nobility, shrug off multiple wounds and kill the bad guys. And one look at Jodie in her pale cream power suit mumbling false pleasantries to some newcomers to Elysium, lets you in right away that she’s bad through and through.

Badass Jodie – itself worth the price of the ticket.

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Lovelace. Deep!


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AS THE NAME implies, “Lovelace” is a biopic of the woman whose lack of a gag reflex helped transform the seedy porn movie industry in a highly profitable porn movie industry…though still seedy. Hers was the throat that launched a thousand imitators and earned her producers over $600M. She herself earned the less than princessly sum of $1250.

The movie’s first twenty minutes is uncomfortably jaunty; a semi-comic breeze through Ms. Lovelace’s (Amanda Seyfried) transformation from prudish virgin to ‘head girl’. Her performance for the cameras in front of her husband, Chuck (Peter Sarsgaard) and his delighted backers (Chris Noth and others), is an epiphany to all: their realization that they’ve found so much more than a porno star – a stellar cash dispensing machine. “Deep Throat”, we are shown, changed the appeal of cinematic penetrative pulchritude from that of Mackintosh wearers (those days remember were before the advent of DVD’s) to enthused gender-neutral audiences everywhere. For a nation drowned in the despair of Vietnam, here was a turn on more thrilling than pot. Indeed, at the height of its popularity, Linda Lovelace’s misplaced clitoris was probably as well known as its humorous commentator – Johnny Carson.

All good then?

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Maybe not so. It is at this point, as we see a much older Linda sitting a polygraph test to prove the accuracy of the book she’s written about it all, that the outer layers of the onion are peeled back and the movie darkens. We are guided away from the carefully constructed image of a victimless, profitable, even glamorous industry to the reality that lies within: here is the true version of her life and marriage – a marriage of sustained emotional and psychological violence; a life of abuse, degradation and prostitution.

There are many issues the movie touches upon – the patronizing and casual misogyny of male/female relations at the time (the men in the movie constantly refer to the women as “sweetheart”, “babe” etc); and the deep hypocrisy of a time when sexual and gender relations were on the cusp of the so-called liberation, as dramatized by the mother’s (Sharon Stone) warped sense of marital loyalty and prudishness.

But at its heart, it’s a movie that’s both about the idea of identity and the need for personal freedom; and about the driving corruption of commerce.

Linda’s story is one of a woman who has to continually re-imagine herself in order to escape her dire circumstances. As Linda Boreman – her unmarried name – she must flee her stern, unflinching mother – a woman of unyielding morality; one that, in a way, is the catalyst for her fall from grace. Dorothy Boreman’s counsel to her desperate daughter, fleeing the persecution of her increasingly deranged husband is to stick by him and obey, no matter what. As the skin of Linda Lovelace becomes its own trap, (any woman who’s done it on camera is fair game, no?), she has to escape again to a safer, more honest persona. Lovelace itself is a fictional name…not the name of a real person, but the invention of a male fantasy. But fleeing the magnetic pull of her husband and her avaricious producers is difficult. In one scene, as a desperate Lovelace tries to escape, her flight is essentially thwarted by a couple of police officers. As Linda is lying bludgeoned on the road with her husband next to her, the officers see only a famous movie star and object of lusty desire. She wants freedom, they want her autograph.

In the end, Ms. Boreman becomes Mrs. Taynor (her married name) and then the deep throat Lovelace and finally she morphs Mrs. Cannavale, mother and happy wife. As she said, “I refuse to let seventeen days in front of a camera define who I am”. A long journey.

Freedom at last.

Throughout the movie, there is talk about money. Who earns what; who owes who; what the takings on “Deep Throat” are; how the profits are split etc. Linda is never seen by her producers as fully human – she’s simply the money shot. Her fight for freedom and identity is a fight to escape not only her husband, but a world of financiers, intent upon “Deep Throat” Part Two. (One wonders how much of this was a comment on the present parlous state of Hollywood as the likes of Hugh Jackman et al whore themselves out to the millionth version of Wolverine)

There has been much written as to the accuracy of this portrait. The real Linda Lovelace changed her story several times (she wrote four autobiographies) as she presumably sought to direct her readers’ attention away from the porn star to the born again Christian. Her co-stars regarded her as an inveterate liar.

It doesn’t matter. This is an account of a persona called Linda Lovelace, who, in the eyes of co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (“Howl”) is a symbol for and exploration of the trapped, abused wife/paramour. Their clever reveal as we leave one truth (she’s really enjoying fellating a series of men) to expose the ‘reality’ nicely expresses the lie of prostitution as some sort of generally victimless crime. They needed to tread ground quite carefully in how Linda was portrayed: a story that seethes with moral outrage could easily have become an excuse for a voyeurs’ peek at Seyfried’s voyeur-worthy beauty. But the few scenes of nudity are never presented through the lens of a leering camera.

Seyfried herself IS the movie. She’s in virtually every scene, which is quite a dramatic leap from her small whimpering role in “Les Miserables” and the truly dreadful “In Time”. And she pulls it off reasonably well. She seems more comfortable as the happy-go-lucky fantasy Linda that as the beaten, battered wife.

The two powerhouse actors of the movie, who lend it resonance and gravitas are Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck, the abusive husband and a haggard, lined, gaunt Sharon Stone, as her tight-lipped, bitter mother. Sarsgaard’s performance is all shape-shifting: one moment he’s the charmer who woos Linda away from her small town home, the next he’s the uber monster, until he shifts into a cringing, money grubbing sleazebag, all too eager to pimp his wife to anyone with cash. I suspect we’ll see more and more of Sarsgaard, if he can find better roles (he was the center of gravity in “An Education”; but then again he was in “Knight and Day” and “Green Lantern”)

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All in all, “Lovelace” isn’t as good as it should have been (a dreadful cop-out resolution at the end feels false), but is nowhere as bad as it could have been.

Worth the price of the ticket!

FRANCES HA: Marvelous


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FRANCES HA IS a rare gem of a movie that manages to capture a genuine sense of real people living real lives and sounding like real people. Director Noah Baumbach (“Greenberg”, “The Squid and the Whale”) is one of the new school of Indie New York directors who delivers the kind of naturalism of approach that lulls you into the feeling that the camera isn’t there and that Greta Gerwig (the eponymous Frances) isn’t really acting at all.

The movie focuses unsparingly on the life of Frances, a young, semi-employed, generally penniless, often awkward, embarrassing, charming, determined choreographer. We follow her relationships – friendships, not romances – her dreams, her successes and failures. And, with incredible precision in the scenes he selects to build his narrative, Baumbach and the brilliant Gerwig help us form an understanding of and great empathy with this less than heroic, but thoroughly endearing character.

Unlike the typical Hollywood fare which tends to be strongly plot driven with a few character touches thrown in to keep our interest, “Frances Ha” is all character driven; the vignettes of her life that we see, like a peek into a series of moving snapshots, only loosely add up to a ‘story’.

Essentially her quest to find permanence in a career of dance, which is about as chancy a career as acting or ‘art’, and her strong bond with her life-long friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner -best known for her part as Francesca in “The Borgias”) are the threads that knit the narrative together. But, like life, it’s a very loose narrative – it wanders here and there as it builds to a quiet, fanfare-free resolution.

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Frances’ character approaches life with such a carefree naiveté and sense of joy that there is a delightful absence of strum und drang. Where other movies could so easily have drifted into drama and angst, this one manages to engage its audience without the need to resort to cheap tricks and theatrical angst.

For this, credit must also be paid to Baumbach as writer. The dialog feels real – it’s how people talk; the relationships in the story feel like real relationships, not ‘set-up’s’ to make a greater point.

The movie is shot in black and white, which felt initially a little bit self-consciously arty (apparently Baumbach is a strong fan of Woody Allen… and there is a lightness of touch and tone that is certainly reminiscent of this other great New York director), but soon enough becomes invisible. Baumbach explained that he shot it in black and white to “boil it down to its barest bones…to create an immediate history and a kind of instant nostalgia”.

That’s probably a lot more pretentious that the resulting movie.

The Heat. Only luke warm


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THE HEAT IS an earnestly worthwhile, moderately funny movie with a face-lifted Sandra Bullock reprising her now unchanging comedy sthick: uptight spinster loosens up amidst pratfalls.

Unpleasantly ambitious FBI Agent Sarah Ashburn (Bullock) is seconded to the Boston PD, mainly as a means of getting her out of the hair of her bosses in New York and ostensibly to track down a vicious drug lord. In Boston, she finds herself teamed with a foul-mouthed aggressive cop, Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCartney of “Bridesmaids”; director Paul Feig also directed this). It’s a buddy movie, so you know the drill: they hate each other, they fight each other, they get to like each other, they get drunk, they catch the bad guys.

I kept wishing this were funnier. It’s essentially just another middle of the road buddy movie with a few gags. What was interesting about it (and what got me to the cinema in the first place) is that this is the only major studio movie this year so far that features two female protagonists who aren’t there to show off T&A (unlike Lara Croft for example). The movie sets up nice role reversals and shows off its chutzpah in being a movie about kick-ass, bad-ass cops that happens to be a ‘chick movie’. It isn’t about women desperate to find/land/trap men. Indeed, it’s gorgeous Sandra who’s unattached, unlike foul-mouthed larger than life McCartney who can’t seem to fight off the men beating down her door. The issue Agent Ashburn’s (Bullock) subordinates have with her isn’t that she’s brighter and more driven than them, but that she dares to be a woman who’s brighter and more driven. It certainly proves the point that women can be as foul-mouthed as men.

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As with all buddy movies, at heart it’s about how people burrow past external defences to find the truth of character and build a relationship based on trust and respect. So, its heart is in the right place. And certainly, Sandra Bullock has now played this same role so often, from the enormously successful “Miss Congeniality” on, that she certainly brings a lot of conviction and experience to it. Nobody struts with a rod up her arse better than Sandra. Indeed, her character here is so close to her character in her comedies that you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d simply stepped into Miss Congeniality 3

I guess if I found pratfalling funnier, I’d have mustered up more laughs