With extinction events hitting Earth every opening weekend, it's a full on Armageddon summer at the movies. But the intriguing Elysium offers a slightly different take on the dystopian future: a world we only wish had ended.
Director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) offers a mid-22nd century Earth that almost no one will want to live on, with its poverty, rampant crime and general sense of hopelessness. (Shooting the film in a garbage dump certainly adds to the grim authenticity.) It's a dead land ceded to the forsaken by the rich, who've taken their money – and all the trees, apparently – and created a glorious space station called Elysium, a torus-shaped new Bel Air just outside of Earth’s orbit. And when those dirty, desperate Earthlings take their rickety rocket ships into space to try to breach Elysium's border, the outpost's defense secretary, Delacourt (Jodie Foster), has them blown out of the sky.
So, no, the politics in Elysium aren't subtle. Blomkamp nearly gives his audience a concussion, so hard does he hit us on the head with issues of poverty, immigration and universal healthcare, but that's the man's style. After all, District 9, an inspired story about a government worker infected with an alien virus, was also an allegory about apartheid from the South African-born director. Elysium isn't nearly as deft a social commentary as District 9, but it's still a broadly entertaining action movie.
It helps that the film stars one of the best actors working, Matt Damon, as reformed thug turned assembly line worker Max. Damon is rangy and raw in his performance, playing a man who used to dream of going to Elysium as a child, but who now knows with bitter certainty that he'll never get there. That certainty crumbles when Max gets a lethal dose of radiation poisoning on the job, and is told by computers that he has five days to live. Suddenly, getting to Elysium, where ubiquitous "med pods" heal all sickness, is a life or death prospect.
The action then launches forward in a mad rush, as Max gets caught in a plot between the viper Delacourt, her henchman, Kruger (District 9's Sharlto Copley) and Max’s boss, Carlyle (William Fichtner). This is not Foster's finest performance, as she struggles to seem menacing, but Copley is absolutely convincing as a mercenary who happens to really like his job. When he turns on Max's childhood friend, a nurse named Frey (Alice Braga) who has reasons of her own for getting to the space station, there isn’t much hope that the interaction will end well for her.
That's what gives Elysium such visceral impact, knowing that there's real peril for these characters, with real implications for those suffering on Earth. If Max can make it to Elysium he won't just save his own life and buck the authorities in the process, he could potentially destroy the entire caste system. But even if his (or Blomkamp's) politics aren't to your taste, there's still much to enjoy with the movie's gritty fight scenes and Damon's Bourne-like lethal efficiency. As disturbing as its vision of the future is, Elysium is still a solidly good time.
Don't let the fact that it almost went straight to DVD fool you: Planes is a sweet, enjoyable kids' film that adults won't hate. While it is from the folks who delivered two of Pixar's least estimable efforts, Cars and the terrible Cars 2, the change in perspective does wonders for this film.
Dane Cook provides the voice of Rusty Crophopper, a crop duster who wants to compete in an international race with planes built for speed. While the plot sounds uncomfortably similar to the snail-goes-to-NASCAR heroics of Turbo, Planes focuses on more personal touches, as Rusty bonds with his fellow racers Leadbottom (John Cleese) and the hilarious El Chupacabra (prolific voice actor Carlos Alazraqui), who's in love with a racy metal bird named Rochelle (Julia Louis-Dreyfus).
Having actual voice talent in the cast (rather than just famous names) gives the movie real lift, along with the often lovely animation, as acrophobic Rusty flies low over oceans, through mountain ranges and over the world's most dazzling cities. The 3D effects are more atmospheric than in your face, which works well with the subject matter. True, Planes may not be the deepest or most memorable Pixar effort, but it sure as heck isn't a clunker like Cars 2.
But Skip All of These:We're the Millers
You've seen this movie. I mean, you may not technically have seen this one, in which Jason Sudeikis hires his neighbors to play his family so he can smuggle some choice Mexican weed across the border, but trust that there's nothing new here. We're the Millers puts its cool, game cast in moldy, sitcommy setups that don't leave room for a lot of laughs.
The best moments belong to the naturally funny Sudeikis and British actor Will Poulter (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader),who plays Kenny, the dork who lives downstairs from dealer David. They get a few opportunities to break out, giving flat scenes a bit of life. But poor Jennifer Aniston is relegated to being the straight woman as stripper Rose, the ostensible mom. Those interested in seeing how hot she still is won't be disappointed – if that bod isn't a walking endorsement for kale diets then nothing is – but that's about all she gets to do.
It's not that We're the Millers is unpardonable, though there are a couple of gross-out jokes that won't sit well with more sensitive viewers. It's just so disappointingly unambitious. Wait for cable, if you wait at all.
Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters
Based on Rick Riordan's kids' lit series about a summer camp for demigods, Sea of Monsters could not be dumber. It certainly doesn't deserve a star like the talented Logan Lerman, who earned a place in many a moviegoer's heart with his lead role in last year's The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Lerman plays Percy, son of Poseidon, who joins his friends on a quest to find the mythical Golden Fleece. But even he – and certainly his costars – seems over-matched by scene after scene of green-screen action, the 3D effects overshadowing them at every turn. That the movie is poorly paced with jokes that fall like Icarus only adds to the misery. Skip this one and buy Riordan's charmingly adventurous books instead.
Amanda Seyfried gives it all she's got in this biopic about Linda Lovelace, the late star of porn hit Deep Throat, but this film cares far more about what went on in Linda's bed than in her head. Lovelace begins conventionally enough, with Linda meeting her future husband/manager Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard) in her early twenties. Within minutes he's seduced her, convinced her to do pornography, and turned her into a star. Then the film rewinds back to the beginning, replaying the same scenes, but this time revealing how manipulative and abusive Traynor truly was. But even then it doesn't delve into Linda's motivations or feelings, trading complexity and respect for its subject for dirt on whether Linda slept with Hugh Hefner. After breaking from Traynor, the real Lovelace found her voice and wrote extensively about her experiences. It’s a shame that her own biopic isn't all that invested in what she had to say.