Friday, 30 August 2013

'The Way, Way Back', 'Elysium' and 'Planes' (sort of): review round-up

'The Way, Way Back' - Dir. Nat Faxon & Jim Rash (12A)

The words "Twentieth Century Fox Searchlight presents" or (better still) "from the makers of 'Little Miss Sunshine'" rarely herald something good. There's a certain quirksome, brightly coloured, ensemble cast-powered American Indie - usually with a sun-faded blue and yellow poster - that comes out every year bearing these stark promotional slogans (or warnings, as I call them). They usually have boring-straight-man-Steve-Carell in them somewhere ("I'm an actor!", these appearances seem to scream) and Alison Janney is never far away - though she's completely superfluous in the latest of these jangly guitar music laden monstrosities, 'The Way, Way Back', which adds to the feeling that a perfunctory box ticking exercise has informed some of the decision making from writers-turned-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.

This one can be summed up as being about a kid (Liam "one expression" James) who is entirely miserable and unsympathetic in the face of constant, unearned kindness and compassion from almost everyone he meets. Sam Rockwell runs a water park and wants to be this kid's best friend, for... reasons, I guess. It's never clear why. He just starts following him around and smiling at him in a way that should register as creepy. Likewise, everyone at the water park - customers and employees - loves him. Amanda Peet wants to dance with him. Alison Janney is desperate for her son to be friends with him, while her daughter (the three first-name sporting AnnaSophia Robb) is equally desperate to be his summer girlfriend, hanging around looking longingly at him in spite of his clear lack of social graces and charisma.

The cherry on the cake here is that he hates his mother's (Toni Collette) new boyfriend (Carell), as children his age are liable to do. But whereas most kids in his position form an irrational hate they can't reasonably express about a person who's probably decent enough, this kid actually has sees first hand evidence that this guy is a douchebag and gets to shout about it at a garden party - re-framing the story from "angsty teen who needs to grow" to "crusader teen who knows better than the grown-ups about everything".

He should be a sympathetic character. We've all been awkward, moody teenagers. But this kid is his own worst enemy in a world that's throwing nothing but well-intentioned metaphors and sunshine in his direction for the most part... and he doesn't even really learn anything or change at all by the time the credits roll. He enters the film a moody, entitled little shit and exits the film in the same fashion. At the start Carell tells the kid he's a 3/10 and that he needs to put himself out there more and smile occasionally. Well, this is the story of a kid or goes from three to, charitably, a four and a half over an hour and forty minutes that will have you thinking "shit, even Sam Rockwell is bad in this" and "did these guys really write 'The Descendants'"?

'Elysium' - Dir. Neill Blomkamp (15)

It isn't 'District 9' but Neill Blomkamp's follow-up is as ambitious and imaginative as it is clunky. There's a lot of ham-fisted, panto-quality, over-acting involved - notably from Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as "Spider" and Jodie Foster, who seems to be playing a Disney villain in a film happening in her own imagination - while the childhood flashback sequences are a bit cheesy and obvious and, I'll concede, its movement between irreverent, splatter-gore comedy and cloying, string-music backed scenes of children on crutches in peril speak of a tonal mishmash. But it's also got some decent dystopian world building and spectacular design work, as well as some interesting politics for a mainstream blockbuster - with our hero, Matt Damon, framed as an insurgent against the robot drones, unhinged mercenaries and satellite surveillance footage of the film's privileged bad guys - white, wealthy elites living far above a shanty town and predominantly Hispanic Los Angeles in the shiny, clean space station paradise of the title.

The man who once nearly directed a Halo movie, based on the Microsoft video game, continues to borrow heavily from recent sci-fi hits of that medium - notably with elements of Mass Effect and Halo itself. There're some very video gamey future-weapons too, and the plot sees Damon effectively level-up into an augmented mech warrior for some hi-octane fight scenes against Sharlto Copley's crazed henchman that make me question whether I'd rather be playing 'Elysium' than watching it. But it's a solid and entertaining action movie with ideas and a high-concept, so overall I'm enthusiastic about it despite a great many shortcomings.

'Planes' - Dir. Klay Hall (U)

Now, I can only kind of review this - so take my opinion with a greater than usual pinch of salt - but I took my aviation-obsessed 2 1/2 year-old brother to see 'Planes' and he got bored after about 15 minutes, and we left the screening after 30. So I haven't seen the entire movie and usually wouldn't give too strong an opinion based on that. However, I wanted to note that this movie seemed to fail with its target audience: on a plane-mad toddler who will patiently watch actual YouTube footage of a helicopter take off with wide-eyed glee for a very uneventful ten minutes. Sadly, he just couldn't be bothered with the exploits of Dusty the Cropduster and I can't really blame him.

From my end I can only say it's very clear that the film was produced by Disney's straight-to-video people and not by Pixar. It's flat, not particularly detailed and the animation lacks finesse. And, on top of that, it's basically a re-make of the first 'Cars' with a less flawed, more bland central character. That's right: a re-make of 'Cars' made by less talented people. Shudder.

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