Movie Review: “Elysium” (Neill Blomkamp, USA 2013)

An interesting shift has occurred in the way that villains are drawn in American films. Once upon a time, it was true that “henchmen” sorts–the common enemies who worked for the more powerful main villain–were all, to use old Dungeons and Dragons nomenclature and prove that I am the world’s biggest nerd, either neutral evil or chaotic evil characters. They were all angry, vicious, violent sorts who were either unquestioningly following a superior’s orders or just out to satiate their own bloodlust. The main villains, meanwhile, were typically lawful evil. They were the enemies who were attempting to enforce a moral code, albeit a corrupt one, on others. They were the most dangerous, because they didn’t sow the seeds of their own destruction and were capable of planning and deliberation.

However, we are now often seeing the lawful evil villains end up overtaken by chaotic evil villains. Perhaps the clearest example in recent history is the Joker in The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK 2009). In the film’s world, the mafia has been the primary villain in Gotham City, until the Joker arrives and essentially destroys them. The mafia, like most criminal organizations, is a carefully organized group that operates on specific rules and a strong code of conduct for its members. The mafia is a perfect example of lawful evil. Meanwhile, as Alfred once says, “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” a perfect description of the Joker and/or of chaotic evil alignment. The Joker is more dangerous because of the very unpredictability and desire for destruction without any personal gain that traditionally provided the opening for similar villains’ destruction in the past. But it’s not just the Joker–the title Winter Soldier in the last Captain America commercial is not the calculating lawful evil villain but rather a mercenary, the most popular type of villain is now a horde of mindless zombies, and Scott Pilgrim fought seven evil exes who didn’t execute some sort of long-range plan in order to get Ramona Flowers.

Elysium fits nicely into that paradigm shift–it presents us with a perfect example of a lawful evil villain in Secretary Delacourt and a chaotic evil villain in Kruger. Delacourt sets the long range plan and uses Kruger as a means to her ends, knowing full well that he is only helping in order to satisfy his violent instincts. And in the end, he turns on her like a rabid dog and becomes the most dangerous villain for Max.

However, the reason I had so long to think about that paradigm shift as I was watching this film is that it was so predictable and poor that I had no reason to keep paying full attention to it. It telegraphed its every cliche move well in advance, its characters were cardboard cutouts, and it ultimately had nothing to say.

It says something that perhaps the most interesting part of this film was actually the bizarre car crash that was Jodie Foster. Her line readings were full of odd pauses and changes in voice. Her accent careened through the world from American to French to English to something unrecognizable like a drunken motorcycle rider. She spoke through clenched teeth and inappropriate smiles through perhaps 90% of the film. She had no recognizable emotions, and yet somehow managed to seem inappropriate for the tone of every scene. It was a part that should have been easy to play–even Zooey Deschanel has survived playing an emotionless ice queen before–and yet an actor as decorated as Foster managed to mangle it to an incredible degree. And yet, it all seems so calculated that it seems that she simply must have been attempting something that I (and other critics–I am not the only one who has hated her performance here) am missing. It was messy and odd in a way that few performances in history are.

Otherwise, the acting throughout the film didn’t stand out. Matt Damon is a talented actor who seems to have decided that he simply does not want to take parts that require any acting, and that trend continued here–he played Max well enough but really didn’t have anything to do. Alice Braga (of CIdade de Deus [Fernando Mereilles, Brazil/France 2002] fame!) just had to look pretty and forgiving, and she did that simple job. Sharlto Copley, however, did stand out in a bad way–his over the top scenery chewing was annoying but appropriate enough for his insane character, but his slurred dialogue was a chore of the highest order to understand–I really am not sure I understood a word he said.

Blomkamp and cinematographer Trent Opaloch did nothing to distinguish this film from the animated dreck that mostly populates the action and science fiction world in which it lives. The CGI was high quality, but it was still far, far more present than it should have been, and the film was relying on that CGI for too much of its look. They did not show any desire at all to use lighting, angles, or color to enhance the motion of a moment or help push a point but instead just left the entire film with a made-for-television color palette.

One thing that did work pretty well in this film is the score. Ryan Amon was rather conventional–the score at many points sounded very, very similar to Hans Zimmer’s work–but he also stayed true to what was occurring on screen throughout and never lost his way. It wasn’t a particularly stirring score, but it was one that befit a better genre study than this one.

All told, Elysium is terrible. It’s so unoriginal and so conventional that I was practically bored to tears and the only real interest was provided by just how shockingly bad/strange one of the lead performances was. It’s a film that’s to be missed, unless you just want to attack Jodie Foster.

Movie Review: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (Anthony Russo/Joe Russo, USA 2014)

Sometimes, it’s good to watch films like this one so that you remember to appreciate those that try, even if they fail. The Monuments Men (George Clooney, USA/Germany 2014) was awful, but at least it was actually trying to be a real movie. As lame as it may have been and as low as its sights may have been, Oculus (Mike Flanagan, USA 2014) at least had sights on being a good genre film. Divergent (Neil Burger, USA 2014) may have been mostly an homage to hot teenagers, but . . . okay so that one wasn’t really trying either.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not a film. It doesn’t have a point or really even a plot. It has a character (though only one) that it’s using to sell the future films Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America 3 (title apparently not yet revealed), and Iron Man 73 (title estimated by me). It’s just using the star appeal of its title character to draw people in to tell them, “Hey, we’re going to do some cool stuff in those other movies!” (And I’m betting they don’t deliver on that promise.)

First, just to get it out of the way, I will note the one really good thing about this film: It’s not a cartoon. Big budget action movies like this are usually so overloaded with CGI that they are indistinguishable from Pixar’s work, but this one keeps the CGI under control much more than most. It’s certainly not CGI-less and frankly there is still more of it than there should be, but the Russos deserve some credit for trying to keep things practical. As a result, the actual picture quality of the film is exquisite–they have the money to make everything look good and don’t waste it on CGI, so it actually looks amazing (and yes it looks much better than any similar films that are coming out). Otherwise, the Russos and cinematographer Trent Opaloch don’t do much to make the film stand out visually, showing no command of color, lighting, or other elements or any ability to think outside the conventional box, but I would forgive that for the increased practicality, really.

The plot is a convoluted mess that makes it nearly impossible for the film to make a point. It falls into a typical trap for longer, bigger-budget films–it tries to make half a dozen points at once and so doesn’t make any of them. It tries to make the point that you have to trust some people in order to have their strength behind you when you need it (which is already a rather convoluted and specific point), the point that your past is never gone, the point that selflessness is always preferable to selfishness, and of course the point that freedom and security are often diametrically opposed forces. The S.H.I.E.L.D./Hydra storyline is about freedom and security. The interaction between Fury and Captain America is about trust. The Winter Soldier subplot is about the ability to escape the past. And so, the film ends up not making a single one of these points but rather using them as themes. Themes like that are fine for longer works, but not for films–films don’t have the time to use themes–they have to make points.

The political overtones of the film are probably what the filmmakers would say that want us to pay attention to, and casting Three Days of the Condor (Sydney Pollack, USA 1975) star Robert Redford is a signal that they were considering the types of political thrillers that have often been his stock and trade, perhaps even specifically paranoid thrillers. However, they dilute it so much with the other plot elements that it’s impossible to give them any credit for that oversimplified political point. And along the way, they keep mentioning other Marvel superheroes who are in currently-active film series like Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, shoehorning them into the dialogue for no reason other than to make some people in the audience think, “Man, I can’t wait for the next Iron Man movie.” How can you really be trying to make a point when you’re doing that once every three scenes? That’s what makes this film a commercial rather than a real film.

Acting-wise, this film generally gets by though it requires little of its actors. Chris Evans deserves special credit, because he really gives a depth of feeling to his character that the script frankly never gives him. There is a sense of weight and loss to his face in a number of scenes that we would not get were it not for his performance, and he deserves credit for not just doing that but doing it with real depth and subtlety. Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, and Samuel L. Jackson (Whose name in real life should probably be Nick Fury, right?), the film’s official Overqualified Real Actors, are an oddly mixed bag. Jackson is surprisingly restrained in a role that could have easily been campy to the extreme in his hands. Johansson, for someone as smart and confident as she professes to be, spends an awful lot of the film cocking her head like a confused dog and looking around in wonder, though the oddness of her physicality actually makes her character seem more interesting than she otherwise is. Redford, meanwhile, is an absolute mess–he’s wooden and emotionless, like a man going through the motions repeating lines he does not want. Nobody else really stands out, though I did enjoy briefly seeing/hearing the Dream Lord. (And yes, that’s who he is to me. He may have been Dobby first, but that’s one of the best Doctor Who episodes ever.)

A word should go to Henry Jackman’s score. It may have been a little overly conventional at points, but overall it heightened the dramatics exactly as it should have throughout. It deserved a better film. And if Alan Silvestri’s theme from the first film that appears in the credits is any indication, it is a vast improvement over that earlier film.

Overall, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not just a commercial for other films, but a pretty poor one. It’s too busy selling things to make its point, and so it completely falls apart in spite of an excellent score and lead performance.

Notes

  • In the first fight, TWS seems to be at least equal in strength to CA. In the second, CA is suddenly much stronger (though also ridiculously stupid, since he leaves the gun sitting right next to TWS). At least have some consistency in your stupid rules, guys.
  • “The first rule of being on the run: walk, don’t run.” No, the first rule is don’t spend the whole time with really sexy girls with bright hair–they draw attention. Raise your hand if you think you would be in a mall anywhere and not notice Scarlett Johansson. I bet we’ve got a crowd of full pockets.
  • Yeah, Macs, bitches!
  • If you’re being inconspicuous, shouldn’t you ditch the shield? But he has it when they get to the New Jersey base.
  • “Air conditioning is fully operational.” Nick Fury’s car has a sense of humor, right? It’s not really answering him, right? It’s much funnier if the car has a sense of humor.
  • I’m sorry but a shield is a stupid weapon. It was in 1941. It hasn’t gotten better.
  • It seems pretty obvious that Bucky basically got an evil version of the treatment that made Steve into Captain America. Steve really got screwed on coolness, though–Bucky gets a cool robotic arm; he gets a stupid shield.
  • I didn’t watch the first film. Is there a 10% of the brain myth mention in it? I have a bad feeling that there is. (As I recall, Captain America is supposed to be supremely intelligent as well, not just an essentially perfect physical specimen. Wikipedia seems to agree with my memory.)