Home » New films: Elysium, Planes, and Blue Jasmine
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New films: Elysium, Planes, and Blue Jasmine

Written & Directed by Neill Blomkamp

Neill Blomkamp is a brilliant director. Four years ago he exploded out of relative obscurity with “District 9,” a not even thinly veiled analogy of South Africa’s apartheid years, with humans and aliens living separate and unequal lives. One of the most noteworthy accomplishments in that remarkable film was that it cost $30 million, which in Hollywood terms would barely pay for a low rent romantic comedy, let alone an effect-heavy alien drama.

But for all of its visual artistry and bang for the buck, it did have some narrative flaws – plot developments that really didn’t make a lot of sense if you dwelled on them. His new film “Elysium” is similar in that regard – it’s good looking, with a gritty realism we saw in “District 9,” and with an interesting and politically obvious premise – but it’s still flawed at the narrative level. And at $115 million for its production budget, it’s far less of a bargain, with much of that increase probably going towards an A-list cast which includes Matt Damon, Jodie Foster – alongside Blomkamp’s “District 9” lead Sharlto Copley.

Elysium is a futuristic space station – a refuge for the rich and powerful at a time when the earth has become overpopulated, over populated, and generally undesirable as a place to live. This isn’t eons into the future – we’re shown Elysium already in existence approximately 100 years from now. And while there’s an obvious narrative here about the way we treat our planet, it’s not a conceptual stretch to think of rich people trying to segregate themselves – we already have extremely high end gated communities and every few months we read news stories about somebody’s latest plan to build offshore islands in international waters, for rich anarcho-capitalists.

Naturally, the citizens of earth look to Elysium with jealousy and lust. For one thing, they have machines that can supposedly cure every illness – and not just in hospitals, they’ve essentially done away with hospitals by having these machines in every home – a fact that isn’t really stressed in the film. But these are machines you could start your day with – a little juice, a lot of bacon, and a machine that immediately restores a perfect cholesterol balance.

What is stressed in the film are the leads’ urgent need to access such a machine – and this is one of the narrative flaws. We’re beaten over the head with this – not only is Damon’s Max exposed to a lethal dose of radiation but he reunites with a childhood friend whose own daughter has leukemia. And we’re reminded of these things every two minutes. We’re even given an earlier example of an illegal immigrant to Elysium who’s only concern is treating a child with a physical disability just in case we don’t understand the motivation well enough later in the film.

Which highlights another question – if you had something your neighbors wanted so very badly that they would invade you for access to it, and it was that readily identifiable, even within your generally elevated way of life – wouldn’t you be better served giving them one of their own? Here’s a subset of society at large that has the means to build an entire orbiting space station with a land mass to rival a small country, and the resources to equip every home with the perfect body-repairing station – something that people are willing to die trying to access by invading their space. Wouldn’t it make sense to send a few machines to earth to quell that urgent desire? That’s one of the problems in making the differences between the two societies so very specific – but it’s not the only such problem in the film.

It would also be easy to discuss “Elysium” in terms of being derivative of other recent films – but that’s an almost pointless and unfair exercise. While it may be like the recent “Total Recall” remake, it’s also like the almost 90 years old “Metropolis,” which in turn reflected Plato’s “Republic.” In short, it’s a story about haves and have nots and the conflicts between them, and is as old as storytelling.

It’s a well made and well acted film, that looks good – often reminiscent of “District 9” in the dirtier, more run down earth environments. And there are some interesting aspects and ironies in the story telling that help the film. But there are also problems in the narrative that stop the film from being better than it is. If these kinds of logical inconsistencies or minor plot holes don’t tend to bother you, then this might even be your favorite movie of the year, but it’s likely to be seen by others as another near miss in a summer of many near misses.


Directed by Klay Hall

There’s something very flat about “Planes.” It would be easy to write a review full of cheesy lines about it failing to take off, or never soaring to great heights – but it’s easier to just say it’s flat. There’s no great exuberance and even the animation is unimpressive.

This is Disney going it alone in trying to replicate the success of the Disney/Pixar “Cars” movies. We’re given a small town populated primarily by talking planes and a small crop-duster that yearns to be a racer, up there with the big boys. It’s a very simple story and one that had potential – if it hadn’t overshot that mark.

The film starts out by showing the kinds of air races that take part on static courses – where people can actually visit and watch the action as planes go for both straight line speed and maneuverability, as they bank around pylons and fly a course. Air races like these have been held for decades. I don’t know if the 2011 deadly crash at the Reno Air Races caused the story to be switched up, but suddenly “Planes” becomes about a round the world endurance race. The inherent problem being that the kinds of planes that are suitable in the first context, and which the planes in the film are modeled on, aren’t really the kinds of planes that would be suitable in the second context. So we end up with a film about little planes can could probably fly a few hundred miles, embarking on trans-oceanic legs of thousands of miles at a time.

That may seem picky to those who don’t require accuracy in their kids’ film – after all these are also planes that can talk. But it’s bothersome in the same way as a film about talking ants who only have four legs each (“A Bug’s Life”). The other issue is how the story resolves itself. Without going into too much plot-spoilering – there are obviously good and bad forces at work here, including characters who are hell bent on keeping our unlikely hero, the little crop-duster, from winning the race. But what’s odd as a message for kids is that the film seems to promote the idea of facing cheaters by cheating back, only cheating better.

None of which is likely to stop “Planes” from making a ton of money. It’s an animated spinoff of a popular film at a time of the year that parents and small children look for exactly that. But it’s also a film that looks more like it was originally slated for straight to video release and it’s not likely to be much more satisfying than dipping back into the Pixar home library.


Blue Jasmine
Written & Directed by Woody Allen

Which brings me to the best film of the week – at least for adults. That said, it’s not an especially happy film, despite often being quite funny. But if you like your films to be escapist fun that leave you with a broad smile on your face, this isn’t likely to be your cup of Stoli martini.

Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, a woman who has had the apparent misfortune to have been married to a Bernie Madoff type of financier and who has subsequently lost everything. This forces her to seek refuge at her sister Ginger’s decidedly more blue collar apartment in San Francisco. Much of the backstory is told through flashbacks, as Jasmine struggles to find a place in Ginger’s (Sally Hawkins) world, surrounded by Ginger’s friends – who are the kind of people that Jasmine, in what she would think of as better times, would have barely acknowledged. Both were adopted and since launching herself into high society, Jasmine has avoided Ginger much as she would have avoided opening the hood of any of her husband’s collection of cars.

Blanchett and Hawkins are supported by another interesting Woody Allen collection of cast members, including Alec Baldwin as the corrupt husband, Andrew Dice Clay as Ginger’s ex-husband, Bobby Cannavale as Ginger’s boyfriend, Max Casella as the boyfriend’s friend (who has done a ton of work since, but who I still think of a Dougie Houser’s sidekick Vinnie Delpino), and Peter Sarsgaard as a potential love interest for Jasmine.

But this is primarily about Blanchett’s Jasmine and it’s a wonderful performance of a troubled and broken woman. In an interesting coincidence, it’s one of the best performances of the year and brings to mind Greta Gerwig’s performance in “Frances Ha” – where Gerwig was also in Allen’s last film. At this point in the year, it’s hard to imagine Blanchett not being in assorted end of year “best” lists and it’s an easy film to recommend based on her performance.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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