Monday, August 12, 2013

Escape from "Elysium"

There aren’t many laughs in “Elysium,” a sci-fi thriller with an activist conceit that takes itself too seriously to allow its protagonists the Hollywoodian luxury of zinging a nemesis.

Writer/director Neill Blomkamp envisions a 22nd century world where the Earth has become the wrong side of the tracks and where the rich have moved into the ultimate gated community – in orbit.

Matt Damon’s character Max, a paroled car thief, is living in the squalor of a Los Angeles slum where android cops stop and frisk. Max reconnects with childhood friend Frey from their days in foster care, a girl we are supposed to believe Max has been pining for ever since. When Frey tends to a wounded Max, she discovers he has a tattoo replicating a rudimentary drawing she once made on young Max when they were six or seven and which meant “Max and Frey forever.” Blomkamp reprises the earlier scene in what amounts to a brief, yet annoying, example of cinematic overkill. Hey, Blomkamp: We remember. We get it. No need to insult our intelligence.

There is plenty of action in “Elysium,” and even a few scenes guaranteed to make moviegoers misty. Such is the sentimental shlock served up in the guise of science fiction: Max, the car thief with a heart of gold, still true to a childhood crush.

Not only was the filmmaker unsure of the average moviegoer’s acumen, he apparently could not decide how to make an original piece of cinema. Instead “Elysium” resembles a cinema scavenger hunt, cobbling together “Robocop,” “Terminator,” “Iron Man” and even “Escape from L. A.”. By attempting to ape those franchises “Elysium” hamstrings its own screenplay and guts its flawed forays into social commentary.

A buff and blonde Jodie Foster plays the heavy while Faran Tahir, an actor of Pakistani ancestry, embodies the ineffective voice of reason. But Foster is boring in her role here. Ditto Damon. The scene-stealers are Sharlto Copley, a sociopathic CIA agent, and Wagner Moura, a coyote whose operation shuttles nonresidents up to the orbiting habitat. Diego Luna gives a palpable and rich performance in a minor role.

The lingua franca of 22nd century Los Angeles is pretty much español and many of the early scenes feature this language exclusively. While that certainly also has its mercantile considerations, it remains an insightful touch and likely the most plausible aspect of the L.A. depicted in “Elysium.”

Sunday, August 4, 2013

"2 Guns" loots little known 1970s classic

For pure cinematic entertainment of the action variety you cannot go wrong with “2 Guns.”

In this latest iteration of the buddy flick, Denzel Washington, as an undercover DEA agent, and Mark Wahlberg, as a naval intelligence operative, team up – reluctantly, as the trope demands – against a motley crew of corrupt or compromised government types and a Mexican drug lord with an angus avocation. It is a caper that morphs from a south of the border sting to a heist in Tres Cruces, New Mexico, to a hostage swap and finally to a dos mas Mexican standoff.

Along the way, Bill Paxton reinvents his on-screen persona in the role of a ruthless enforcer tracking stolen millions. Paxton’s loquacious sociopath is played with an unhurried relentlessness. The veteran actor’s gentle drawl uncannily heightens the cold-bloodedness of each spoken threat.

Although Washington mostly mails it in – only occasionally flashing the visceral sincerity that marked his outstanding performances in “Flight” and ‘Training Day,” the actor’s effortless cool is always front and center. Wahlberg on the other hand absolutely delivers in a role tailor-made for his familiar brand of Everyman action hero shtick. Both actors benefit greatly from the hip and quirky dialog in Blake Masters’ screenplay, based on the Boom! Studios graphic novels by Steven Grant, according to

Director Baltasar Kormakur has created a well-paced film. The cinematography by Oliver Wood presents a visual feast. There are details like a single spent brass casing, which subtly heightens suspense as it foreshadows the impending harsh interrogation technique preferred by the enforcer. There are sweeping panoramas like the aerial shot of the footprints illegals make in the virgin sand of the Mexican wasteland, an alea iacta est image that emphasizes life-and-death choices while reflecting on one of the largest political and social issues of the day. It is one of a handful of scenes in this picture where the Icelandic director dares to overlay the more cartoonish aspects of Hollywoodian action with a serious message. The most obvious scene is when Washington's wounded DEA agent gets the drop on a pair of borderland vigilantes, identifying himself with a gun for effect and, for irony, a greeting in Arabic.

Kormakur once claimed he would never sell out to Hollywood by making movies he is not proud of. Having certainly mastered the art of balancing pretty images of orange-flamed explosions with his characters’ snappy braggadocio, Kormakur can be proud of “2 Guns.” He has made a darn good flick, even if the director failed to elicit much of anything new from Denzel.

Who really deserves the writing credit?
However, this is not the first film in which a bank in Tres Cruces, New Mexico, was robbed. The plot of "Charlie Varrick" (1973), directed by legend Don Siegel, is set in motion by just such a heist. Interestingly, there are further similarities that go beyond homage.

In "Charlie Varrick" the robbers also make a much bigger haul than they expected and are subsequently pursued by a mob enforcer with pronounced sadistic traits. "2 Guns" even reprises a scene from the movie released 40 years ago, in which the hapless bank manager weeps as he is "advised" that those whose money has been stolen are unlikely to believe in his innocence.

"Charlie Varrick" is based on the John Reese novel "The Looters." How ironic "2 Guns" borrows from a film based on a book by that title. It may be hard to be proud of it after all.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Flash Novel Reject

The following is my entry to Toledo City Paper's socalled Flash Novel contest – a novel in three sentences. It was not selected as a winner. Perhaps it is too long for a three-sentence "novel." Maybe the subject matter was considered not compelling enough (another contest criterion). Or, as my wounded ego is telling me, maybe those judges just don't know from good writing...

The End of the Affair

In the middle of their lovemaking he laughed out loud.

Such a spontaneous outburst of bliss – for that was precisely what it was – had never happened to him during sex before, not that he was all that experienced in bed let alone here on her living room floor for that matter, and it startled him so thoroughly that he was temporarily unable to proceed.

She, too, was surprised, and being much more experienced than he – her BFF chalked up her promiscuity to low self-esteem – felt not at all pleased at such unheard-of mirth on her throw rug and became instantly defensive and angry that her man would mock her (WTF) at the moment she was approaching ecstasy and instantly she knew she needed to flee his sweaty torso, although to where she did not know, since how could you run away from what had just happened, and that inability to imagine a refuge paralyzed her for a moment in which she watched her lover’s beatific countenance morph into a mask of anguish and despair as he recognized her misinterpretation of his innocent albeit ill-timed laugh and correctly sensed that she would never again trust him, nevermore be his to love.

You can check TCP's actual winners right here and decide for yourself if my fiction fragment has comparable merit.