“The Zero Theorem” – the epitome of self-indulgence

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The film opens with a long shot of space with some kind of black hole swallowing a galaxy in the very centre of the frame. The camera then slowly zooms out to reveal that what we’re looking at is a computer screen, in front of which sits naked and hairless Christoph Waltz. He’s not moving nor is he doing anything other than gripping a wireless controller, which looks like a re-appropriated toy. Having quickly scanned the background of that wide-angle take, I notice he’s sitting in a rundown church surrounded by a mess of steampunk-esque knick-knacks. And he just sits there looking at stars being eaten by darkness. And by that time, my suspicions as to what was to come were at an all-time high. Continue reading

“Elysium” – a stunningly gorgeous case of squandered potential

However I’d like to look at it, this year hasn’t been particularly rich in good Sci-Fi so far. Sure, I should probably mention “Man of Steel” as a particularly good example, though it is still technically a reboot and a comic book adaptation, and maybe “Star Trek into Darkness” (again, a sequel to a reboot of an established franchise). Nevertheless, in the field of original Sci-Fi, apart from “Pacific Rim” that I (and nobody else) loved, it’s been real slim pickens out there. Therefore, I really hoped I could wrap up this underwhelming summer in style and “Elysium” seemed to be perfect for just that occasion.

Quite honestly, I have been anticipating Neill Blomkamp’s newest creation for months now. I’m quite certain I’m not the only one around here who was floored by the perfectionist, beautiful and painfully gritty “District 9” a few years back, and among a multitude of thoughts streaming through my brain after seeing it I remember hoping I could have another serving of this kind of delicious Sci-Fi.

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In terms of story, “Elysium” does not come across as particularly original, but stays in tune with Blomkamp’s earlier film by touching on a sensitive problem we are facing at the moment. In it, we are presented with a dystopian vision of the world that is overpopulated, poor, filthy, and dangerous, where the vast majority of people struggle to see another day, all the while the richest and the most powerful (in other words, the mythical ‘1%’) have abandoned the planet altogether to dwell on a space station called “Elysium” orbiting the Earth. Simply put, Elysium is paradise incarnate, where everyone leads happy lives oblivious to the trials and tribulations of the regular folk on Earth. Not only that, but most importantly, every citizen of Elysium has access to the cutting edge medical technology that can heal pretty much anything, thus rendering them nearly immortal.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the otherworldly technology and the standard of living makes living on Elysium a dream of everybody down on Earth. Therefore, attempts at breaching its borders with stolen spaceships seem to be quite frequent, but they are almost invariably unsuccessful with most of the illegal immigrants being caught, deported and/or killed by ruthless Homeland Security led by Delacourt (Jodie Foster) – nearly the most powerful person on Elysium.

Back on Earth, we meet Max (Matt Damon), an ex-con who works in a droid factory and is doing a particularly bad job at staying out of trouble. One morning he manages to get into an argument with a police droid and walks away with a broken arm and extended parole only to roll up at work to suffer a terrible accident that leaves him with only a couple of days to live. Knowing perfectly well that the technology on Elysium could heal the radiation poisoning that is slowly killing him, Max seeks help of a local gangster Julio (Diego Luna). In exchange for the ticket to Elysium (which doesn’t necessarily mean he would get there), Max agrees to kidnap one of the heavily guarded ‘haves’ (William Fichtner), tap into his brain and extract information that might be worth billions on the black market. What he doesn’t know is that the person he’s about to rob is in possession of data that in the right set of hands could change the course of history. All that leads to Max being put in Delacourt’s crosshairs, who sends one of her most vile and dangerous sleeper agents Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to put him out of his misery.

Even with all its shortcomings, to which I’ll get in a minute, “Elysium” did earn its place on my shelf alongside my favorite kind of Sci-Fi. Even though the story is not the strongest card in its hand, this film’s lively world and gritty atmosphere made me squeal with enjoyment all throughout the screening. I can honestly say that Blomkamp has a fantastic grasp on how to build dynamic worlds and seamlessly incorporate the Sci-Fi elements into them. In “Elysium” we don’t have an alien race that needs to be worked into the universe, but instead we’ve got tons of really cool technology that nobody wastes time explaining (a cardinal sin committed by “Oblivion”). I personally love the immersive feel Blomkamp has provided (yet again), because it was completely up to me to discover all the fine details and little geeky things. I would be really disappointed if at every turn someone had to say a line or two to help me understand what’s going on. Blomkamp definitely understands how important it is to keep the viewer ‘in the zone’ at all times and how such moments would most definitely break the immersion. Sure, at times it is necessary to provide some details about what’s going to happen, but even at that, Blomkamp doesn’t really slow the pace down for us to catch up.

I think it’s not going to be a stretch if I say that “Elysium” is a near perfect example of how the Sci-Fi components should be incorporated into a film to create and engaging experience for the genre aficionados, because that’s to whom Neil Blomkamp has definitely addressed all his efforts. While I believe everybody can find “Elysium” very entertaining (it is, after all, a high quality big budget Sci-Fi film with high-profile cast and fantastic special effects), it’s the bunch of young adults (and adults) raised on video games, who will find this film to be a rollercoaster of genre-winking that will bring a smile to their faces. Seriously, how could I stay indifferent to the idea of the main character casually using a rail-gun that is not even mentioned in the story? And that’s not the end: from the combat exoskeletons, police droids, through brain chips ran on Norton Commander, all the way to personal force fields, “Elysium” is simply full of meticulously designed details that immensely help to lose oneself in this wonderfully crafted world of disparity and violence.

 

Having said all that, “Elysium” while perfect in its visuals, attention to detail and geeky references, it falls short in quite a few other departments. The first and the most important major concern I have with this film has to do with its story. As someone who values films most often for their storytelling, I regret to say that “Elysium” could have been written a bit better. It’s not that I dislike Blomkamp’s writing altogether, because I did enjoy the way the story was presented and paced, but I would like to have seen more emphasis laid on the characters, even at the cost of longer running time or the action sequences. I understand completely that a Sci-Fi film has to juggle way too many balls in order to get everything right, but all things considered, even a great spectacle can be destroyed by terrible writing.

As much as I enjoyed the story, even with its simplicity and all too conveniently placed characters and plot points, I think in general too much focus is placed in it on the wider universe and establishing the atmosphere. At some point the world starts to live on its own and doesn’t require additional hand-holding, so that the emphasis could be shifted towards something else. Sadly, the deeper we go into the story, the more “Elysium” fails to develop. For instance, all throughout the film we can learn so much about life on Earth and see it as a well-designed thriving world, all the while Elysium itself seems to be completely disregarded. As a result, I couldn’t help but think this so-called paradise was empty and devoid of any character. Empty houses, empty rooms… Plus, almost all of the sparse characters felt severely underwritten. In all honesty, it might have been done by design in order to elevate the sense of privilege and class disparity if Elysium was actually almost uninhabited, but something tells me it was not the case. Taking into account how nearly all characters (including Jodie Foster) looked undeveloped and glossed over, I can only assume that Blomkamp spent way too much time obsessing over the grit and dust on the Earth side of things and forgot to breathe life into the main players on stage.

Speaking of Jodie Foster, I can’t really stay silent about her performance, which was disappointing at best. That woman doesn’t really fit very well as a cold-hearted ‘catch-you-next-Tuesday’, which as a result made her character look blown out of proportion and comical, especially with that fake accent that she clearly could not pull off. Maybe if we got some more background on her, and/or more on-screen time, things could be different, but as a villain Jodie Foster was definitely out of her depth.

Not to worry, though. On the other hand, wherever Jodie Foster’s character fell short of expectations, Sharlto Copley’s Kruger made up for it in style. On some level, I don’t think if I’d be too far off by saying that Jodie Foster was only posed as the main baddie of the film, whereas it was Copley who was the true villain all along. Normally, I wouldn’t mind that kind of misdirection because of its eventual inconsequentiality. What I was disappointed with in the end was the fact that Kruger’s character whilst being potentially so rich, vibrant and layered, ended up receiving even worse treatment in the writing department than Jodie Foster’s Delacourt.

I was seriously dying to learn the importance of Kruger’s implants, the reason his weapon of choice was a katana, and most importantly, what his motives were. In return, I got exactly nothing in that regard. I can only consider it a wasted opportunity, because Kruger quickly becomes as one-dimensional as it gets. Sure, he gets to be a major boss in the story and all his abilities and what-not are there, but he could have been so much more. Thanks to lack of attention, Copley’s character goes all too quickly from disturbingly terrifying to a baddie with a sword, and it weren’t for that, “Elysium” in my opinion would have had the chance to become something more than a just another beautifully wrapped Sci-Fi story.

As much as I’d like to be able to say otherwise, “Elysium” as a whole is a wasted potential to redefine the genre. It wouldn’t really need much more than to balance the beautiful visuals and perfectly crafted world with a compelling story inhabited by relatable and vivid characters. In terms of atmosphere and the overall Sci-Fi experience, I can only congratulate Blomkamp, because “Elysium” is a very fun ride. Really, if at any point in time somebody out there decides to adapt the “Fallout” universe for the big screen, I believe that Blomkamp would be a fine man for the job. He clearly gets the post-apocalyptic vibe and like no-one else has the ability to smear the Sci-Fi onto real life to eliminate its artificial smell. However, I cannot accept a poorly written story just because the film looks beautiful. I really need my characters to jump off the page (or at least have more than one dimension) and no amount of grit and geeky tech can make up for that. As a result, what could have been ground breaking, ended up just very good. I know it looks as if I didn’t like “Elysium” – far from it – but I really expected Neill Blomkamp to dazzle me, which he did only partially…

“Behind The Candelabra” you can find only pain…

I seem to remember certain Steven Soderbergh announcing that “Side Effects” was going to be his last directorial effort. I also seem to recall, how much I loved “Side Effects” and quietly wished he would change his mind. Well then, for once my prayers have been answered (or maybe I just missed the memo), as he apparently changed his mind and directed “Behind the Candelabra” – a ‘kinda/sorta’ biopic about Liberace – a living proof it was possible to cross-breed humans with glitter (not Gary…).

Well, Mr Soderbergh, you have broken your own word and thus you are not much of a gentleman, I must say. Nevertheless, I am certainly glad you came back to your senses and I shall try and ignore your promises that this time you’re done for good.

Clearly, Soderbergh’s attempts at parting with cinema resemble the way I usually eat Pringles. I would usually pop the lid, get a handful and savour the delicious crisps before deciding to save the rest for later. Well, maybe one more… Ok, that one is definitely going to be last… Perhaps one for the road… And minutes later I would wake up to a sudden realization I find it difficult to squeeze my big fat sausage fingers down the devilishly narrow tube in order to fish out what are now the surviving remnants of my Pringle binge. So, if this is how Soderbergh is going to play out his retirement, we can be safe, because he’ll be back in no time with yet another fantastic film.

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It turns out it has been Soderbergh’s fleeting dream to direct a film about Liberace’s life since as far as 13 years ago, when he casually pitched this idea to Michael Douglas whilst filming “Traffic”. Fast forward until now and there we are: HBO dished out the funds and Liberace – the human Christmas tree – is now gleefully parading on the big screens… in the UK. The US has seen it on HBO, which we don’t have here in the rainy British Dominion, but that’s not a problem.

The reason “Behind the Candelabra” is not your usual biopic is quite simple: the film covers only the last decade of Liberace’s (Michael Douglas) life and even that would be a bit excessive, because the major arc of this film is the violent and bumpy relationship with Liberace and his much younger lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), while everything else seems to be sidelined. We meet the two in 1977 when young animal trainer Scott meets Bob Black (mildly camouflaged Scott Bakula) – a producer – in a gay club and the latter introduces him to Liberace after one of his sparkling and glamorous shows. The two quickly develop chemistry and not long thereafter, Scott moves in with Lee(berace) for good. We are then allowed to dip our toes in the decadent lives of Vegas performing artists and by the end of the film we are fully submerged in the sex, drugs, abuse and everything Hollywood is notorious for. By the way, not knowing who Liberace was (apart from the general knowledge of pop-culture, for anything else I was simply too young to remember) I am puzzled at how long he has managed to keep his gay nature a secret. Probably all the credit should go to his agent, Seymour Heller (Dan Aykroyd), because compared to Liberace, even Elton John looks macho.

Anyway, the film meanders through the ups and downs of Scott’s relationship with Liberace, who with each minute of the story becomes more and more possessive and very quickly reveals his dark and toxic side that would eventually bring the nature of their relationship from lover-to-lover to overlord-to-slave. In an amazing display of superb acting I got to see that Liberace surely had more than one face – a gentle lover, a caring guardian, an obsessive tyrant, and vindictive asshole; all encased in a body of a piano virtuoso dressed in sparkles.

 

Continuing on the subject of acting in “Behind the Candelabra”, I have got to give a hand to the whole ensemble for wonderful performances, especially Michael Douglas and Matt Damon who so convincingly embodied the two protagonists in the gayest possible way – and that’s a compliment, I’ll have you know. Also Dan Aykroyd, Scott Bakula and super-tanned long-haired Rob Lowe (who portrayed Liberace’s plastic surgeon) deserve to be commended for their efforts, as they have all contributed to the powerful picture the film creates.

Other than that, I think “Behind the candelabra” gives us a very important opportunity to peek behind the curtains and see that the same people we’d normally see in full drag, make-up and all, are made of flesh and blood as well, contrary to what certain religious circles would like us to think. All the gay stuff aside (and there’s a lot of it), “Behind the Candelabra” is a very solid drama that takes on a subject of toxic relationships, sacrifices, submission and undisputed dominance. As seen through Scott’s eyes, I saw that what these people had is no different to what you’d see in far too many so-called ‘normal’ relationships. We all know at least one couple with similar issues to the ones shown in this film, where one party would assume full control over the other by slowly tightening the leash around their neck.

This is how Liberace is portrayed in this film – not as a glamorous little icon in make-up behind a piano, but as a vengeful bully who would strip his partner off of any humanity and free will and make him his little boy toy, a doll to be dressed and played with. Sadly, very little is said in terms of explaining how Liberace became a domestic monster, but it doesn’t belittle the film as a whole – it is rather a trade-off for the narrow scope of the film.

In any way, the reason I think Soderbergh has done a fantastic job in “Behind the candelabra” has to do with the fact that underneath the gay coating there’s a real tragedy there. When all is said and done, nobody cares whether two guys are kissing on the screen, because Soderbergh wants us to see past the gender, right where the general problem lies. In the end, “Behind the candelabra” is a story about a sad pathetic lonely little man who was incapable of developing a healthy relationship due to some deep-seated unresolved issues. Words and actions cannot be undone, therefore by looking at Liberace’s choices and the price he paid in the end, we should be reminded to love and respect the people we share our lives with before it’s too late. After all, you can never step in the same river twice…

“Promised Land” – Gas, lies and clichés…

Redemption stories are always risky to pull off. There’s no formula for how it’s going to be received by the general public, because – I think – we all take them at a slightly different angle. Well, you could say that if, in theory, a given movie refers to a problem of a reasonable significance, more people can statistically relate to it in a way, and due to that emotional response, the film could be received better. But for a good redemption film to be successful there is a collection of boxes to be ticked off. Otherwise it stinks of a cliché from a mile away… You would think that someone like Gus Van Sant would know how to do it right, right?

Wrong! (To quote Arnie in “Commando”) Gus Van Sant’s newest achievement, “Promised Land” can be described as anything, but a good redemption story. Before I say anything else, let me be clear here, it’s not a bad movie at all. It’s paced quite nicely and would make a solid rental, but it lacks too severely for me to consider it something more than just ‘an OK flick for a slow afternoon’. It misses the mark of being anything more, though, and after “Good Will Hunting” it was supposed to be the Van Sant’s Reunion with Matt Damon that would re-contextualize our way of thinking about some important problems.

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In “Promised Land” we meet Steve Butler (Matt Damon) – a zealous salesman working for a company that deals with natural gas drilling. His job is to go to places of interest (i.e. underneath which the company thinks there lies a fortune in natural gas) and negotiate with the owners of the land, so as to acquire said land for drilling. What come naturally with it, are promises of shares in profits, loads of cash and development for the community. Whether they are lies or not is not the question here, but nevertheless we can’t help but ask ourselves that anyway.

As you might expect, Steve is no mere salesman; he’s the best. He’s so good at his job that the head-ups see him as ‘the ace up their sleeve’ and send him over to towns and communities that are the hardest to win over, and he always delivers. He has always managed to get what the company had wanted with minimal costs of the land purchase. So, what makes him so special? Oh, not much. He simply believes in what he does. He actually thinks he’s doing something good for the people he’s stealing from, because just like them he comes from a small farming town. And according to his knowledge it’s not the farming that’s responsible for the well-being of people, but the industry that most often hangs around nearby.

However, when he (and his assistant Sue, played by Frances McDormand) arrives in a town that is going to be his make-or-break within the company, things do not go to plan at all. The people seem reluctant and surprisingly well educated in the risks of drilling and, on top of that, Steve needs to face a mysterious environmental group represented by a young and vibrant Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), who seems to be hell-bent on pissing in Steve’s cornflakes. And the more he fights, the more stops he pulls, the more he seems to be losing his zeal and it looks like he’s no longer sure what he believes in…

“Promised Land” was most likely envisioned as a political commentary on the problem of gigantic corporations bullying regular small town people into surrendering their wealth – for the greater good of course. The film tries to show the dangers of rampant capitalism that supposedly is responsible for all the world’s ailments. It fails to do so, however, as “Promised Land” lacks the one thing that could carry its message into people’s heads – and that is a strong lead character.

Matt Damon really made an effort here, but in my humble view, his character lacks the charisma and the love-hate relationship we needed to develop with him was nowhere to be seen. Granted, he is a great actor, but his boyish charm did not carry the film and his metamorphosis came across as forceful and disingenuous.

 

In actuality, the whole film looked as if it was a bit divorced from reality with its obvious plot developments and character interactions. I don’t really know if it was planned from the get-go to make it look like a biblical-style tale with a moral at the end that is supposed to show me, how things are, but I can admit that it didn’t work for me. As I said before, a good redemption story needs to have certain qualities, like a strong character that forces the viewer to engage, or the subtle tone that leaves room to think. Here, the moral is so heavy-handed that “Promised Land” as a whole looks cheap and run-of-the-mill. In that, the long shots, close-ups, the depiction of the characters and the scenery is elevated to a cliché, simply due to the ponderous tone. It would seem that the trio Van Sant-Krasinsi-Damon wanted to make a political statement so much that they forgot to weave it into a compelling story. Regardless of the validity of the issue raised by the film, the reason it is never going to work is because it lacks subtlety in delivering the message and borders on propaganda. Still, “Promised Land” is a good enough movie to like, but it tries to be something it’s not… Sadly…