ELYSIUM. Writer/director Neill Blomkamp left a pretty outsized footprint on the cinematic landscape with his breakthrough 2009 debut, District 9. With its elegant visual effects, delicately balanced humanism and uniquely shabby dystopian aesthetic, that movie became a runaway hit and was eventually nominated for a best picture Oscar. As a follow-up, Elysium feels a little familiar, with Blomkamp going back to his toolkit both thematically and visually, but it satisfies nonetheless.
In mid-22nd century Los Angeles (looking a lot like the Johannesburg of District 9), reformed car thief Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) sticks to the straight and narrow, punching the clock at a factory, assembling military droids. He's spent a lifetime longing to escape to Elysium, a colony established by Earth's elite when the planet reached toxic population density and pollution.
When an industrial accident leaves Max with five days to live, he becomes doubly motivated to get "up there," where automated medical devices can cure diseases in seconds. He re-ups with some former associates who retrofit him with a cyborg exoskeleton and task him with stealing some very sensitive information. The heist goes sideways, and Max ends up in the crosshairs of a power hungry Elysian politico (Jodie Foster), who dispatches a marauding lunatic to pursue him. (That lunatic is played with gleefully sadistic delight by Sharlto Copley, who played the reluctant protagonist in District 9).
As in District 9, Blomkamp's mastery of digital effects takes center stage. He works on a vast canvas, producing gorgeously composed vistas of a chaotic, garbage-strewn wasteland teeming with cast-off humanity. Droids and spacecraft move in and out of frame without any suggestion that what we're watching isn't real. And like District 9, the director's narrative vision is as grand and intentional as his visual style.
Elysium can be viewed as an effective if occasionally heavy-handed allegory about class disparity. It would be inappropriate for me to assign a political agenda to art or an artist, but there are plenty of parallels to the inequities in contemporary culture. Whether Blomkamp intends this as parable or simply as a storytelling device is for you to decide.
I left Elysium thinking of it as an extension of District 9, which isn't necessarily good or bad. Some will likely find fault with the similarities in texture and tone, and I don't disagree. But those parallels demonstrate the talents of a self-assured, even masterful modern filmmaker. I like Blomkamp's style and his narrative sensibility. And he certainly knows how to make a big summer action movie with heart. R. 109m.
WE'RE THE MILLERS. Back in 2004, director Rawson Marshall Thurber struck unexpected comedy gold (OK, maybe silver) with Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. That movie worked because it took place in a half-absurd, half-realistic universe where surreal types co-existed with straight characters. The story remained grounded in real emotion, but the scenario was comically outlandish.
This time around, Thurber tries to construct a plausible scenario in the real world — emphasis on tries.
An unattached weed dealer (Jason Sudeikis) gets his stash jacked and ends up in Dutch with his idiotic millionaire boss (Ed Helms). The solution to his conundrum? Why, head down to Mexico and haul back two tons of cartel bud, of course. In a motorhome. With a fake family.
This scheme is completely implausible, of course, but it's got potential. Had it been handled with a little gravity and grit, or had any of the danger felt the least bit real, the jokes might have popped. Or if the world of the movie were completely invented, slanted toward slapstick, I might have suspended my disbelief and just let it be funny.
Instead, We're the Millers lands halfway between: We're expected to believe that the half-baked set-up, the goofy shenanigans and the lifeless, expletive-strewn dialog are all part of the world we live in. It attempts specificity but misses by a mile, ending up so broad as to be completely un-relatable.
Sudeikis plays his character as an edgy goof with a heart of gold, and he's as likeable as ever. But this material never gives him an opportunity to do more than phone it in. And Jennifer Aniston, as the stripper masquerading as a mom, is called upon to do little beyond proving she still has a bangin' body. Which is unfortunate: Aniston is a talented comedic actress and this role is almost embarrassing for its lack of depth and dimension.
There are a few funny moments scattered throughout (often thanks to Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn), but sloppy pacing, inconsistent tone and unconvincing atmosphere hamstring this one. R. 110m.
— John J. Bennett
KICK-ASS 2. Foul-mouthed, self-invented high school superheroes return to fight crime with help from Jim Carrey. R. 113m.
JOBS. There's a vague physical resemblance, I guess, but can Ashton Kutcher restrain his puppy-dog goofiness enough to make a convincing Steve Jobs in this biopic? We'll see. PG13. 127m.
LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER. Hell, not even Scorsese puts his name in the title, but the director of Precious slaps his moniker on this sweeping biopic of a butler (Forest Whitaker) who served eight presidents over three decades at the White House. PG13. 126m.
PARANOIA. Corporate espionage thriller starring Amber Heard, Liam Hemsworth, a shaved-headed Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman. PG13. 106m.
¡Andale! On Friday, ride into the Arcata Theater Lounge for the deeply silly 1986 comedy ¡Three Amigos! starring Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short. PG. 104m. 8 p.m. Sunday's family feature is the delightful 2011 revival of The Muppets. PG. 103m. 6 p.m. And next Wednesday's creature feature for Sci-Fi Pint and Pizza Night is Roger Corman's 1959 oddity The Wasp Woman. 73m. 6 p.m.
2 GUNS. Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington square off in this mildly fun, inconsequential caper picture. PG. 105m.
THE CONJURING. A stylish, old-fashioned creepfest complete with haunted house and exorcism from the director of the first Saw. R. 112m.
DESPICABLE ME 2. Reformed villain Gru (Steve Carell) and his cute little peanut minions get recruited by the Anti-Villain League in this charming animated comedy. PG. 98m.
PERCY JACKSON: SEA OF MONSTERS. Think you had teen angst? Try being the son of Poseidon. PG. 110m.
PLANES. This spin-off of Cars lacks the Pixar charm. PG. 92m.
R.I.P.D. Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges are undead cops in this action comedy. PG13. 96m.
RED 2. Retired CIA operatives get framed as international terrorists and have to fight back. Starring Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins. PG13. 116m.
THE SMURFS 2. It's a sequel. To The Smurfs. PG. 105m.
THE WOLVERINE. Hugh Jackman busts out his pecs, lamb-chops and knuckle blades again as the gruff X-Man. This time he fights ninjas. PG13. 136m.
— Ryan Burns