Matt Damon

Review: Elysium

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ElysiumThe Pitch: Prigs In Space.

The Review: The world should be grateful for the cinematic legacy of Peter Jackson, from his seemingly never-ending tramping over hills in New Zealand to his early splatterfest horror movies (the scene with the custard in Braindead still makes me wretch just thinking about it), but he can also take credit for helping to bring the work of Neill Blomkamp to a wider audience. Blomkamp is a South African film maker who came to Jackson’s attention when a Halo movie was in the works; when that didn’t pan out, the pair produced District 9, the 2009 film that went on to box office success and a Best Picture Oscar nomination. Blomkamp has now branched out on his own, both writing and directing this follow-up which takes a similar allegorical view of world issues, and couples it with “how-did-they-do-that?” visual effects and an eclectic cast.

After two attempts to get rappers to play the lead role fell through (and imagine how different this would have been with second choice Eminem in the role), Matt Damon has stepped forward and shaved his head to play Max De Costa, career thief making an effort at rehabilitation in the slums of Los Angeles, now entirely occupied by former Mexican immigrants and policed by overzealous robots. When Max gets on the wrong side of them, his parole gets extended but also lands him in hot water at work, a chain of events that leads to Max being exposed to a lethal dose of radiation. With only five days to live, his only hope is to make it to the space station Elysium, where medical beds can cure any ailment, but the borders are closed and secretary of defence Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is willing to take any measures, including getting her earthbound agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to shoot down any attempts to gain entry. With Delacourt’s power under threat and Max being asked to help not only himself but his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), the stakes are soon escalating and Max may have to resort to desperate measures to achieve his goals.

District 9 managed to successfully blend action and high concepts and explored a number of recurrent themes in South Africa. This time the American setting is no less politically minded, but it’s immigration, healthcare and the general class divide that get the big budget treatment. Blomkamp has stated an intention to avoid being overtly political, but it’s hard not to feel that he’s on the side of the immigrants in this situation, even if that immigration process has driven the wealthier classes all the way to space. We actually get to see very little of life on board Elysium, which also naturally reinforces our sympathies towards those on the ground, and the rich and the elite are generally seen to be operating in a rather selfish moral vacuum. Where Elysium doesn’t quite work is then in gaining your sympathies in the same way as District 9; there Wikus succeeded in being an entirely unsympathetic character that still drew pathos as his plight became fully apparently, but there’s never the same level of engagement with Max and Frey’s predicament.

There are a few other issues as well, which can be summed up by occasionally over-shaky shaky-cam action scenes, a slightly convoluted plot that gets bogged down in the middle, and the accents: Jodie Foster’s magical floating one and Sharlto Copley’s so-thick-you-could-stand-your-knife-up-in-it one. There is still a lot to like about Elysium, as many of the other supporting roles work well (including the always good value William Fichtner, fresh off the back of an even slimier turn in The Lone Ranger), Matt Damon makes a reasonable anchor for proceedings and the action scenes, when at their best, are remarkably effective. The visual effects work is, by and large, stunning, and blends seamlessly with the grubby slums that make up a large part of the setting. It never quite sets the pulse racing in the same way as District 9, so the all-action finale doesn’t quite grip the same way, but it’s still original storytelling executed reasonably well, and for that in a summer clogged up with half-baked revisions of unoriginal ideas and more sequels than you can swing a stick at, should give us cause for a small celebration. Let’s just hope that Blomkamp’s next project, sci-fi comedy Chappie, has slightly more to offer.

Why see it at the cinema: The scale of the action justifies seeing this on a bigger screen, and some of the shaky-cam means you’ll have a better chance of following what’s going on if you give yourself a larger screen area to work with.

What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong language, bloody violence and gory images. I’ll be honest, I watch a lot of horror and there was one shot here that was enough to make me go “eew”. If that’s not clear, that’s a recommendation, albeit a twisted one.

My cinema experience: A reasonably busy showing on a Bank Holiday Monday afternoon at the Cineworld in Cambridge. I arrived just as the film was starting, and the opening’s so dark that it took me a moment or three to find my seat. Once settled, there were no noticeable issues in projection or sound.

The Score: 7/10

Cambridge Film Festival Review: Contagion

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The Pitch: Outbreak 2: Infectious Boogaloo.

The Review: Fear of infections is a fairly modern phenomena. While great crime dramas or romantic comedies have been the subject of movies for decades, our fear of disease in our anti-bacterial, post-MRSA world is only now really starting to provide fodder for the great and the good of Hollywood. (Maybe that great unmade Black Death movie is still out there somewhere). But after three decades of disaster movies laying waste to everything in sight, audiences expect certain things from their movies, and in those respects Steven Soderbergh’s latest delivers – up to a point.

In any disaster movie, the first thing you want to see is a high class array of talent being put in jeopardy. If there’s one thing Soderbergh does well, it’s put a cast together, and he’s obviously given the Filofax a good thumbing before the cameras rolled. As soon as the credits roll, Gwynneth Paltrow appears on screen and she’s the first in a long succession of famous and familiar faces who appear, then start coughing and looking a bit pasty and sweaty. It would take most of this review to list the ones who do well, although Paltrow does get killed off before she has chance to do any damage, but by and large the acting falls into two categories: being asked to cough and splutter before an inevitable bout of death (or, in the case of Matt Damon, standing around while other people do that), or to stand in a room looking at computer screens or a conference table surrounded by stern looking, smartly dressed men while delivering reams of medical exposition about infection rates and worst case scenarios, and everyone does that as well as you’d expect.

The alternating between coughing and general sternness is edited together at a fair lick. Regular Soderbergh contributor and Oscar winner Stephen Mirrione never lets the pace flag, with scenes finely trimmed and the scenario and the constant threat being used to generate mood. The mood itself is very tense, starting uneasily and steadily building as events escalate and the authorities struggle to keep pace with the spread of the infection. If anything, it feels a little too trimmed, and occasionally scenes that need time to breathe or resonate get lost a little as the general pace sweeps along everything in its path. The other obstacle that Contagion has to overcome is Jude Law, who appears to have been taking lessons at the “Physical Impairment and Dodgy Accent” school of acting, his performance consisting of a dodgy tooth and a dodgier accent. If you manage to work out whether his accent is Australian or Cockney, please do let me know.

Contagion has a lot it’s trying to say, about the potential of such a situation, and of how everyone from governments to pharmaceutical companies would react in such a scenario. Consequently it’s not surprise that the pacy editing and the huge number of different narrative threads mean that a few ideas feel a little underdeveloped; some characters disappear for long stretches, and their reappearance often leaves you wondering what they’ve been up to in the interim. The overriding feeling is one of frustration, as while what’s here is great, and will give you chills every time the person next to you starts scratching their head, Contagion feels as if it would have been more effective as a six hour miniseries than the hour and forty-five minutes that is actually presented. The final disappointment comes in the ending, as it feels as if a few punches have been pulled and we get to see an ending that’s already been spelled out in the exposition earlier, like a whodunnit where a signed confession is found halfway through but everyone keeps investigating, just in case. Still, Contagion will get under your skin, even if it won’t leave a lasting impression.

Why see it at the cinema: The crisp digital visuals are definitely best suited to the cinema, but the USP of Contagion is that your paranoia will increase markedly as soon as someone on the other side of the cinema starts coughing. You just don’t get that at home.

The Score: 7/10

Review: Hereafter

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The Pitch: Ghost bluster.

The Review: The question of what comes after this life has perplexed philosophers and kept religions in business ever since man conjured up fire and learned how to tie stones to sticks to make primitive tools. It may not seem the most likely topic for a writer who’s made his name with a series of Tony Blair biopics, the most famous of which also featured Helen Mirren in a royal role, of course, but Peter Morgan has not solely worked in biographical territory, and here explores the possibilities of what might be awaiting us if there is anything to come. He’s chosen to work together three disparate stories on a global scale to see what impact various tragedies have had on individual lives, and how people react to death and the possibility of an afterlife.

The three stories in question concern Marie (Cecile De France), a reporter caught up in the tsunami which hit Thailand in 2004; George (Matt Damon), a psychic who seems to be able to see people in the hereafter but is trying to hide from the gifts he possesses; and Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren), twins who have their bond broken apart in unfortunate circumstances. The global span of the film allows not only the Asian tsunami but the 7/7 bombings to be worked into the narrative. Marie is almost killed in the tsumani and experiences what she believes to be some sense of the afterlife, and she is the most active of the protagonists; the twins are also fairly active, and this offsets the very passive nature of George’s story as the three intermingle.

The script, although produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin production company, has been directed by Clint Eastwood, and his unhurried directorial style will be familiar to anyone who’s seen his back catalogue. While this allows for some lovely characterisation, especially a burgeoning love story between George and a partner at a cookery course (Bryce Dallas Howard), it does mean that the three story strands take a very long time indeed to start to draw together. Damon and Howard are probably the best actors on show, and are in stark contrast to the young boys, who would probably struggle to be first choice in a school play; their delivery early on is so stilted as to almost beggar belief that they were even cast. There’s a lot of familiar faces in the rest of the cast, but most of them struggle to make any kind of impression.

So the direction is sluggish and the script meandering; aside from those few nice character notes there’s very little else that actually rings true. It’s fair enough that the film avoids too many answers about the nature of the afterlife; that it by and large avoids questions as well is more unfortunate and robs the film of narrative impetus for long periods. Given the choice of such well known major disasters on which to hang the narrative, Hereafter doesn’t really know what it wants to ask you, or indeed what it wants you to ask yourself about the impact of these events on the lives of the characters, or anyone else for that matter. When the three stories do finally converged it feels trite and the resolutions to each are slender and in one case almost laughable. Coupled with the visual effects, which have no weight and are totally unbelievable (almost as unbelievable as the fact that they’ve been nominated for an Academy Award), and a bizarre extended cameo from Derek Jacobi as himself, the questionable choices at every turn and lack of real substance make this one to avoid.

Why see it at the cinema: The chance to see very poor quality visual effects on a grand scale doesn’t come along every day. But if you want to see Matt Damon sit in a room and describe what someone else is telling him, slowly, with no recourse to any visual cues whatsoever, then don’t miss this opportunity.

The Score: 3/10