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Column Fri Aug 09 2013

Elysium, We're the Millers, Planes, The Spectacular Now & Lovelace

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Elysium

It's hard to believe it was four years ago when Neill Blomkamp became one of a select few new filmmakers to give many of us hope that the future of science-fiction film was in capable hands. Sure, Blomkamp's District 9 delivered wildly entertaining action and impossibly realistic effects (for very little money), but like all great sci-fi, it acted as social commentary about what happens in a society in which one class attempts to segregate another because the minority is looked at as something less than equal.

In many ways, his latest film, Elysium, covers a bit of the same ground, although the perceived threat is not from an alien race this time but from our own. The year is 2154, and planet Earth is a dried-up, polluted, overcrowded, garbage dump of a world. Not only have the rich built an enormous space station (called Elysium) orbiting Earth, but they have a medical device that not only can detect any ailment you might have, but re-arrange your atoms so that you are cured almost instantly. In other words, barring any catastrophic injury that kills you instantly, you could feasibly live forever, or at least a very long time. Needless to say, the poor saps on Earth don't have this.

Matt Damon plays Los Angeles native Max, a former car thief who, after spending far too long in jail, has decided to go straight and work in a factory that produces the very robots that essentially run and keep order on Earth. He was an orphan, raised by nuns, who taught him wrong from right and to respect the world that he grew up on, even if all he longed for as a child was to live on Elysium. He grew up best friends with a girl named Frey (played as an adult by Alice Braga), who becomes a nurse later in life, and the two are reunited in the hospital where she works after Max's arm is broken in a scuffle with police robots.

We are also introduced to Defense Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who is in charge of Elysium's security. Apparently it's not uncommon for illegals to get ahold of a shuttle, load it with non-citizens (most of whom are looking for medical attention), and make a run for the space border. Delacourt has no qualms about shooting these ships right out of the sky; those that make it to Elysium are captured and shipped right back to the surface. The divide between the haves and have nots is clear, and the have nots are eager to occupy Elysium.

One day at work, Max is accidentally given a full blast of radiation while on the line, and is given five days to live. Refusing to die this way, he revisits his old criminal buddies, including Spider (Wagner Moura) and Julio (Diego Luna), hoping they have a way of getting him to Elysium before he dies. Their solution is to kidnap an Elysium citizen while he is visiting Earth and somehow steal his DNA to get them safely to the secure floating community. The man they go after happens to be John Carlyle (the great William Fichtner, playing the snootiest, most entitled Elysium resident alive), head of the tech company that makes the world's robots and most of the tech on Elysium. When Max and company make a play to kidnap him, he just happens to be smuggling in his brain classified information that could literally destroy Elysium's secure status. When that information is downloaded into Max's brain, he becomes Sec. Delacourt's primary target.

The rest of the film is explosions and shooting and running and stabbing and flying shuttles, and it essentially abandons the interesting metaphor it has spent so much time establishing in its first half. Naturally, Frey and her sick daughter (whom Frey wants to get to Elysium as well) are caught up on the middle of Max's story, but having them in the mix feels more like a distraction than a necessity. The best thing in Elysium is the return of director Blomkamp's District 9 partner in crime Shalto Copley, playing Kruger, a nasty sleeper agent working on Earth for Delacourt. The man is pure psychotic rage in the guise of a military-style warrior, and Copley dives headfirst into his demented, rapey brain. There are things he does in the name of protecting secrets and gathering information that will be tough to shake after you've seen it — be warned.

Copley's performance would have stood out even more were it not for the fact that nearly every other character in the film seems to be ramped up to full velocity. I wanted to throttle Spider after about five minutes with him; it seems like his dialogue was written in all capital letters, underlined with 50 exclamation points at the end of each sentence. But nothing quite prepared me for the pure awfulness of Jodie Foster's performance here; I could watch her make bread for 30 minutes and find it fascinating in most circumstances, but a combination of a clunky accent (I think her character is meant to be French) and a bizarre pattern of over-enunciation of every word out of her mouth makes Delacourt a complete joke both as a leader and a character. When the illegal shuttle attempts to land on Elysium, she handles it as if this has never happened before when clearly this is a regular occurrence.

That's another deep flaw of Elysium; everything is over-explained. Characters are told what to do when that's pretty much all their job requires them to do. Do the men and women who shoot down the shuttles trying to bum rush Elysium really need to be told by Foster to shoot them down? I realize this is a problem in many movies, but it really seems to emanate from the pores of this film.

Make no mistake, Elysium is a visual marvel. Blomkamp's almost casual approach to beyond-impressive special effects is so great, and I wish more sci-fi directors would take note. But there is something weirdly pedestrian about Blomkamp's writing in this one. There is not one, but two sick kids who figure prominently into this story. The only thing missing is a three-legged puppy. But having said that, he hasn't strayed away from some pretty horrific R-rated violence, which I'm all in favor of. But the greatest special effect Blomkamp has in his corner is Damon, who is far from playing a hero. He's playing the classic desperate man, who behaves recklessly and puts those around him in danger because of his desperation. He refuses to allow himself to die from making the very machines that have kept him down his whole life. I just wish the rest of the Elysium's characters were do deftly written.

Were it not for a great deal of the clunky dialogue, a general feeling of rushing through the story, and painting too many of the characters in broad strokes rather than as a detail-oriented work, Elysium might be a damn-near perfect film. It certainly has a terrific concept and a few truly great performances, beginning with Damon and ending with Copley, but I found myself being let down as often as I was moved or impressed. I will likely always be eager to see what Blomkamp has for us next, but Elysium is a step backward from one of the single most elegant debuts in recent memory, certainly in the science-fiction arena.

We're the Millers

I don't know how someone could watch We're the Millers and not laugh. Okay, I guess I can see how it's possible. People find different things funny, humor is subjective, I get it. But Millers feels like it throws a little bit of everything at its audience, and I thought quite a bit of it stuck the landing. Believe me, no one was more surprised than I was at how much I laughed at this film. Certainly neither of its stars — Jason Sudeikis and Jennifer Aniston — have perfect track records when it comes to making solid comedy. They both require something resembling a decent script to even broach the possibility of quality. Both seem to rely on formula to carry the day. But strangely enough, when they are allowed cut loose and be as lewd and crude as they wanna be together, it's funny.

Sudeikis plays David Clark, a guy who has been dealing drugs (mostly pot) since he was in college. He makes a decent living at it, but when a particularly large amount of cash that he owes his connection is stolen from him, he is forced to face the drug kingpin (played with psychotic levity by Ed Helms) and make amends, hopefully without getting his ass kicked. Helms' solution is to send David down to Mexico in an RV to pick up a large stash of pot from drug lord Pablo Chacon (Tomer Sisley) and bring it back over the border undetected.

David is smart enough to know that a guy driving solo in an RV is a bust waiting to happen, so he hires three other people he vaguely knows to pose as the Miller family. Aniston plays Rose, a stripper at a club David deals in, Emma Roberts plays Casey, a street kid from David's neighborhood (saving her from getting attacked is what got David robbed in the first place, so she owes him), and Son of Rambow's Will Poulter plays neighbor kid Kenny, whose mother seems to have vanished and he just wants someone to hang out with. The kid is a special kind of harmless freak, but damn near everything that comes out of his mouth is funny. The trailers for We're the Millers love to show a certain sequence in which Kenny is bitten by a spider in a sensitive place, but that isn't even is best moment.

Most of the movie is a variation on the road-trip comedy. The Millers grab the pot and manage to get it over the border without too much hassle, but once their back in the U.S., their adventures begin, especially after they are befriended by off-duty DEA Agent Don Fitzgerald (Nick Offerman), his wife Edie (the always-perfect Kathryn Hahn), and their daughter Melissa ("Castle's" Molly Quinn), who just happens to make a nice potential love interest for the virginal Kenny. The mishaps of the road trip portion of the film are hit and miss. Most of the interactions with the Fitzgeralds are great — an attempted wife-swapping encounter is particularly awkward and hilarious — but having Chacon and his enforcers chase the Millers across the country felt hugely forced. The dangers of transporting that much pot in an RV are enough that we don't need stereotypical villains blocking the path.

But where Millers really falls apart is when it gets sentimental about its makeshift, fake dysfunctional family. The fun things about these people is that they play up the familial bond when they are around other people, but when they're alone, they can't stand each other and have no qualms about verbally attacking each other whenever they get a chance. However, as the film goes on, the sap creeps into the seams and makes us try to care about keeping this group together after the pot is delivered. Each member of of this "family" is alone in the world, and they seem to function well together, with Rose even taking on the role as matriarch when her "kids" need a life lesson.

Director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh) and four screenwriters(!) can't collectively generate enough conviction to the material to really let it go where it needs to be to make the film a social satire about racial profiling or the war on drugs. Instead what we get is soft-peddling of any cutting-edge topics and general transition from raunchy comedy to four lessons in redemption and togetherness. Jesus Christ, what don't they just start a drum circle while they're at it? Throw in a few weak cameos by the likes of Thomas Lennon and Ken Marino, and one marginally funny one by Luis Guzmán. Sudeikis (he of the School of Wise-Ass) and Aniston are okay together; Poulter and Roberts are often better. Collectively, We're the Millers gets a barely passing grade because I remember quite a few big laughs between the bouts of silence and shame.

There are so many better films out there right now that I find it tough to recommend We're the Millers, but if you're the type of moviegoer who's addicted to mainstream releases, you could do worse. And like I said, you'll probably laugh more than you think you will.

Planes

Okay, if your lead character is a crop-dusting plane named Dusty (as voice by consummate wise acre Dane Cook), and his idea of a boring life is to go back and forth over the same patch of dirt dusting crops, who exactly is consuming said crops? Okay, it took me a while to get this, but a case is made at the beginning of the film about organic fuels, including those made from corn, which I believe is Dusty's crop of choice. Let me try another one. If you're a former Navy fighter plane named Skipper (Stacy Keach, sounding a lot like Paul Newman did in the original Cars), and you have a couple dozen "kills" under your belt, who did you kill exactly if your entire world is nothing but talking vehicles, such as cars, trucks, fork lifts, aircraft carriers, ships, helicopters and, yes, planes? And who is running these warring nations of planes? A fleet of limousines?

As the opening titles say, the new Disney (not Pixar, mind you, even thought the John Ratzenberger is included) animated film Planes is set in the "World of Cars," and, in fact, there are quite a few cars and trucks in this film. There are even signs of cross-vehicle relationships, which I'm sure thrills car supremacists to no end. But in all seriousness, this little feather-light story that bears a striking resemble to the first Cars movie is pretty cute and utterly harmless. The jokes are harmless and not that funny, but I'm guessing kids the ages of the ones that made Cars such a massive hit will enjoy them. I'll admit, even I got a little caught up in Planes, partly because the animation is so impressive and also because I was dying to find out how the filmmakers put a face on an aircraft carrier.

Dusty wants to end his days as a crop duster and become the first of his kind to race in a famous around-the-world jaunt, which sounds crazy to start with until you add in that Dusty is afraid of heights, and then it sounds impossible. But with the help of some of his farmland friends, including Skipper, he learns to fly like a racer against the multi-time winner Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith). There's some really fun voice work from the likes of Brad Garrett, Teri Hatcher, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, John Cleese and, in a nod to the many Top Gun-like military aircraft moments in the film, Val Kilmer and Anthony Edwards.

Dusty is just your run-of-the-mill nice guy, which means he doesn't fit in with the other racers that are far too concerned with winning to help out their fellow global travelers when one of them gets in trouble. But eventually his good-guy, sportsmanlike conduct begins to rub off on the other contestants. The lessons and themes in Planes are vague at best, but sometimes keeping things ethically uncomplicated is the best way to go in family entertainment. Director Klay Hall keeps things peppy and moving, while the animation is remarkably crisp and realistic most of the time. It is absolutely not essential that you see the film in 3-D, but since almost all of the action takes place in brightly lit, daylight conditions, it actually looks pretty good.

There is no after-credits tag in Planes, but there's something far more interesting (if not necessary): there's the promise of a sequel in about a year's time of Planes: Fire & Rescue, so whether you like it or not, if your kids like this one, you won't have to wait three years for the next installment. Aren't you the luckiest parent on the face of the earth? Me? I'm still trying to figure out why there's so much death and destruction in this film, and where all the humans disappeared to. It's freaking me out, man.

The Spectacular Now

This film, the latest from director James Ponsoldt (Smashed), has been getting so much acclaim on the festival circuit since it premiered at the beginning of the year at Sundance that a backlash began before its release schedule kicked in last week. That's a sure sign that it must be seen before it is judged. As strange as it may seem, part of the reason Ponsoldt's movies work so well is that it's clear he loves his characters. I'm sure a lot of directors are quite fond of the people in their films as well, but Ponsoldt cares so much about his characters that he puts them through hell just to see them come out stronger and better people on the other side.

The Spectacular Now is a case in point, one of the single best coming-of-age stories since a trenchcoat-wearing John Cusack lifted a boom box over his head, hoping to win over a girl with Peter Gabriel music. What a chump! In fact, I don't think it's an accident that the lead character here, Sutter Keely (played with the perfect mix of smarm and charm by Miles Teller), has many of the fast-talking, wise-beyond-his-years qualities that Cusack often displayed in his early films.

Working from a smart script from Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber (who co-wrote (500) Days of Summer), Polsoldt doesn't jump right into his story. Instead, he lets us spend time with high school senior Sutter, his wildly overprotective mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh, here to reinforce the Cameron Crowe connection), his ex-girlfriend (Brie Larson), and his married older sister (Smashed star Mary Elizabeth Winstead). These people aren't just place fillers used to shape our opinions of Sutter; they exist as living, breathing characters with issues and flaws of their own and interesting stories that we get to explore during the course of the film.

But upon meeting the bookish, slightly naive Aimee Finecky (the radiant-without-makeup Shailene Woodley), Sutter's life is changed and he starts to have real feelings for her. If this were simply a story about two young adults falling in love, I wouldn't be here praising it quite so passionately. What you begin to notice as the film goes on is that Sutter is always carrying a giant soda cup with him everywhere he goes. And before long we realize that said cup is filled with some type of alcohol. Ponsoldt almost sneaks the theme of alcoholism into The Spectacular Now. He wants you to see it but not focus on it, unlike his previous films, Off the Black and Smashed, which look at the topic more square in the eyes.

What makes the film all the more tragic is that Sutter is so down on himself that he feels the need to bring others down with him, and before long he's got Aimee drinking right along with him. Nothing in The Spectacular Now plays out how you think it will. For a film with such a simple story, there are a great number of subtle elements at work. Aimee lets her perfect grades slip a bit, but she doesn't spiral the way Sutter does. He's probably the smartest kid at his school, but his issues with drinking and an absentee dad are contributing to a general sense of malaise. He could be a straight-A student, but he doesn't care. Any bouts of sadness experienced by Aimee happen because she loves Sutter so much that it kills her to see him struggle. A long overdue trip to see his father (the usually likable Kyle Chandler, whose character you will not like) changes everything for the young couple, in more ways than one.

Ponsoldt never forgets that Sutter and Aimee tread the fine line between kids and adults. There's a love scene between them that is both perfectly awkward and quietly romantic. Teller and Woodley mesh so beautifully together that you can't help but want to see where this couple ends up in five or 10 years. Their natural spark adds a light touch to the proceeds, and as a result, there's a great deal of knowing humor throughout. The film's conclusion offers no easy answers about their future, but it still manages to convey a sense of hope that both of them will be okay, regardless of their prospects as a couple.

The Spectacular Now caps an unprecedented summer of wonderful coming-of-age movies, which includes The Way, Way Back and The Kings of Summer. My only complaint was that none of these films focused on this type of story from a female perspective (sorry The To-Do List, but you were kind of dumb), but maybe next summer, we'll be lucky enough to see the other side of this equation. This movie comes the closest to capturing the tumultuous, swirling trappings of male and female youth, and I hope Ponsoldt isn't quite done exploring such stories because he's one of the best doing so right now. The film opens at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Lovelace

As much as this is a more or less straight-forward biopic of one of the all-time most important stars in adult film, directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (who co-helmed Howl) and writer Andy Belling have attempted (and succeeded) at doing something a little different. The first half or so of Lovelace shows us a rather glorified version of Linda Lovelace's life growing up with strict parents (an almost unrecognizable Sharon Stone as Dorothy Boreman and Robert Patrick as John) and entry into the world of porn with the help of her loving husband Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard). Linda (captured faithfully by Amanda Seyfried) is portrayed as a woman who loved all types of sex, and while she was nervous about her first starring role in Deep Throat, she was also quite eager to enter this new phase of her career.

As the legend of Deep Throat grew, she got to meet (and sleep with) celebrities, such as Hugh Hefner (played not all-that-convincingly by James Franco), and she was interviewed by both the underground and mainstream media as the centerpiece of what many believed was the first pro-feminist adult film.

And then the film takes us back to where it started because most of what we've seen so far is either complete bullshit or only half the truth. You see, Lovelace wrote two important books in her lifetime. One was called Inside Linda Lovelace, which most agree was ghost written by Traynor, whose personality bears more than a passing resemblance to Eric Roberts' portrayal of Dorothy Stratton's husband Paul Snider in Star 80 (in fact, to drive the comparison home, Roberts makes a cameo in Lovelace). This book is an oversexed, glossy version of Lovelace's life story that points her as a nympho princess, wildly in love with her husband.

But the other book she wrote six years later was called Ordeal, and it was the true story of that time in her life, when she claims she was forced into making adult movies, sold into prostitution by Traynor to pay off his huge debts, and physically and emotionally abused by him, including times when he would threaten her with a gun. His behavior pushed her to leave the industry before her career even took off, and she began an anti-pornography campaign almost immediately. Lovelace manages to tell both version of Lovelace's story and allows us to figure out which is more honest. And the directors tell the story without getting ridiculously graphic about Lovelace's particular talent in Deep Throat; it's actually kind of funny how they handle it.

I got a kick out of watching the period re-creations of the shooting of Deep Throat, sometimes shooting scene-for-scene reinactments. Hank Azaria plays director Gerry Damiano, with Bobby Cannavale as producer Butchie Peraino and Chris Noth as "financier" Anthony Romano, representing the mob interests who took nearly all of the film's profits. Debi Mazar is on hand as Lovelace's co-star Dolly Sharp, while Adam Brody does a remarkable job mimicking the voice and look of the late Harry Reems. There's a great sequence when Lovelace is required to cry in a scene with Reems that is so funny because she's such a terrible actor, but her crying seems so authentic that it throws everyone.

The cavalcade of familiar faces continues with Juno Temple as teenage Linda's best friend Patsy, Chloe Sevigny as a reporter questioning the exploitation factor of porn, and Wes Bentley as the photographer who captured Lovelace's carefree spirit and an open-armed posse that landed on the Deep Throat poster. The subject matter is handled tastefully, although Traynor's treatment of Lovelace is so awful at times, that's tough to maintain.

Sporting a heavy Bronx accent, Seyfriend's version of Linda is low on self-confidence, and that makes her an easy target and easily persuaded into some tasteless situations. Lovelace politely skips over some of the truly offensive loops that she did prior to Deep Throat, and that's probably just as well. There's enough degradation for several films here. There isn't much psychological depth to the early version of Linda, but as she gets a little older and a lot wiser, she begins to stand up for herself and becomes a smart enough person to get out of a terrible situation. For those of you who have seen Woody Allen's latest, Blue Jasmine or the recently wrapped AMC series "The Killing," you will be shocked to see how different Sarsgaard can be from role to role. But Traynor might be a new low in terms of character traits. There's nothing good about this guy; he put the "man" in manipulator.

Sometimes a film with casts as recognizable as this can feel like a star parade, but having this many familiar faces certainly helped keep a whole lot of characters straight in my mind. The whole time I was watching Lovelace, I kept wondering if the real Linda would think this was a fair and accurate portrayal of her distressing life. Would it discourage young women from entering the world of adult film? In the end, I couldn't come up with a decisive answer, but it certainly takes any hint of glamor right off this line of work. There goes my Plan B, I guess.

I don't say this often, but I actually wish the film had been a big longer and explored some other aspects of Linda's life that weren't so tawdry, especially during her second marriage. As it stands, Lovelace is an acceptable biography that skims the surface most of the time, but finds gold when it digs a little deeper.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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