A review of film Elysium by auteur Neill Blomkamp who brought us the critically acclaimed District 9

A rich wealthy set live in a space station in the sky and a poor set live on a dirty, poverty stricken and polluted earth but want to join the world in the sky. (SPOILER ALERT)

First the world – Elysium is clean and white with spooky inhabitants from a Stepford Wives Marriott Hotel holiday advertising campaign. Earth is full of dirty foreign language speaking people be they criminals or workers facing poverty. Both Elysium and Earth are manned by robots. In Elysium, robots serve and protect people. On Earth, robots victimise and control humans. Beyond this, we know nothing about the robots who have no real role. All Earth humans are united by their desire to go to Elysium even though they are illegal and end up either being killed or deported. Why still a popular destination you ask? Apart from it being a holiday resort. Elysium has this medical gadget that can cure anything. Yes, I mean anything and a lot of people on Earth including the hero need this gadget and this essentially makes up the emotional objectives for Elysium’s plot. In sci-fi, audiences are accustomed to ideas from great films being recycled but really desire upcycling. This is where great ideas are transformed into something new because they are used in an unexpectedly imaginative way that is relevant to a film’s unique plot and characters. Elysium itself is a mishmash of recycled Kubrick’s 2001’s space station, Verhoeven’s Robocop, Star Trek and The Matrix which identifies the difference between the clean sanitised fabricated world created by the agents set against the stark existence of the humans. Both the world of Earth and Elysium recycle ideas from these films but lacks believability because it resorts to sudden introductions of circumstances to aid its plot rather than developing and revealing a richer whole.

Second, the plot and characters (the show not tell) – At the outset, Matt Damon who plays the hero Max De Costa is needlessly attacked by a robot who behaves suspiciously like a human being rather than a machine. Max hurts his wrist and goes to hospital where he comes across childhood sweetheart Freya who looks down on him because he is a blue collar worker. The love relationship or even affection between Freya and Max is not believable and is later highlighted through tattoos. The inciting incident involves the hero stupidly walking into getting a massive radiation hit which means he needs to be cured by the miracle medical gadget and the nurse girl he seems to love has a daughter with leukemia who also needs to be cured. The hero selfishly only thinks about curing himself and Freya selfishly only thinks about her daughter. But they both need to go to Elysium. Convenient. The hero also has a friend who does a lot for him but we know nothing about him or their relationship other than some random statements about stealing cars. He dies so no need to worry about him. Jodie Foster plays Secretary Delacourt on Elysium. Delacourt pats rich children, hands out gifts and has a litany of empty statements to explain villainous acts as a quasi-military leader. Delacourt justifies ordering the murder of earth civilians trying to get on to Elysium by asking the local president if he has kids? Oh yes, if I had kids, I would definitely recommend blowing up people but hey if I didn’t have kids, I might say don’t blow up people. This requires further thought I think. Secretary Delacourt is not developed and neither is her appearance. A military leader who wears short hair and loose fitting Giorgio Armani suits. She also seems to have an out of the blue character change nearing death. I am not sure what the change is but it is undeveloped. Both Matt Damon and Jodie Foster are wasted in this film.

Many of the characters are undeveloped, inconsistent or switch roles and traits for no real reason. On Elysium, the wealthy appear to do little other than be girls in a swimsuits sipping cocktails in a pad by a pool or be near girls in swimsuits but do occasionally allow the military genocidal leader to give gifts to their children. Basically, there is no difference between the people of Elysium and Earth – they are all out for themselves and therein lies the problem. On earth, there is a character called Spider who everyone thinks you should avoid. Spider is a gangster, no sorry he is a trafficker, no sorry he is a hacker, no sorry he is a revolutionary. Spider suggests a revolutionary idea called equality. So a confused criminal gangster/trafficker/hacker/revolutionary not the hero introduces the major change in the Elysium’s plot. The idea only sees the light of the day due to circumstances not real choices made by Max, the hero. This is because Max does not have higher ideals other than saving himself and regularly having boring fights with a psychopathic mercenary killer Kruger played by Sharlto Copley until the end. Max also dies pointlessly despite the existence of the miracle medical gadget. The hero’s sacrifice helps everyone to finally become a member of Elysium. Prefer to die?

Recommended script change – Spider and Max should have both been involved in getting people to Elysium. Spider does it for money but Max wants to stop the pointless deaths and deportations of the masses on earth because each attempt has failed. His love for Freya and her daughter and people in general force him to get up there to sacrifice himself to stop more people from needlessly dying. This would mean very few changes to the present story but it would mean the hero has pronounced values and emotional objectives with a plot that conflicts with the material objectives of Spider and the as yet undefined Elysium citizens.

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Strong female characters work

This is a new series of reviews highlighting great films where female characters are given intelligent, entertaining and personality-led roles.

I start with Isla Fisher who plays illusionist Henley Reeves in new film Now You See Me. The opening trick of Henley Reeves far outshadow those of her male counterparts. Her big act is a daring trick which does involve wearing a flimsy sexy female outfit but there is a genuine reason. Henley Reeves has to escape being chained from a glass cage soon to be infested with ‘flesh-eating’ piranhas. She only has a minute. I will say no more other than set the scene of her need to show the danger she faces. In another scene, she is being chatted up by older illusionist played by Woody Harrelson but it’s not what this scene is about. In both cases the male and female audience can share in the fun. As the film is still at theatres, I apologise for limiting my analysis of the script and scenes. Suffice to say the character of Henley Reeves is surprising, humourous, intelligent as well as sexy.

This and other great films show strong women characters are exciting not the female characters forced to feed banal fantasies of gratuitous sexual services to attractive and really offensive unattractive boys/men, it alienates a lot of women in the audience who under no circumstances will be prepared to do any of these things, no really!

I will be going back to review the leading female character in Avengers Assemble next. I apologise for the back-to-front review writing but I am starting to write up my studies into legible notes.

Hidden Tools of Comedy by Steve Kaplan

I finished reading Steve Kaplan’s book on comedy The Hidden Tools of Comedy and now those pesky little comedy tools have nowhere to hide!

As a summary. The Hidden Tools of Comedy shows you how comedy writers write from the viewpoints of authentic characters in ordinary conflict situations that amuse and embarrass the audience and other characters watching them. The strength of good scriptwriting books is that they try to tell us all the great factors which help to create highly watchable comedy and drama. By showing us what isn’t comedy, Steve also teaches drama and he also delves into the history of comedy and archetypal comedy characters. He uses real scripts from funny and not so funny movies – ie drama. Steve also reveals a little of what goes on in his classes. The most important aspect for me is that this book is written for actors, writers and directors without any distinction. Great films live on because everyone not just the writer/s, actors and director/s are working to make the story and the characters who fire up the story believable. Steve Kaplan places a great emphasis on how all characters including secondary characters must feel and be authentic as they respond to real situations. He gives examples of how authenticity is what adds real value to a story. The characters in these ordinary but amusing or conflict-led situations are the ones we talk about. I believe it is only when we see real characters that we start to see how human beings on film and stage feed off each other as much as they do in life. Perhaps it helps us to see beyond the mundane situations and instead look at how people respond to each other. Steve shows how comedy finds ways to make terrible situations better by helping us to laugh at the things that we sometimes find yucky or hard to stomach. The book is a must for comedy writers/actors/directors. Don’t just believe me, there are a lot of funny writers/performers/animators, yes animators who have worked with Steve including David Crane, Ellen Sandler, David Fury, Disney. The list goes on…and on…and on…

Some of Steve Kaplan’s book was tough for me. No more bad puns he insists especially those that have nothing to do with the story. Oh alright then! Instead let the character and the story lead. Anything negative – The very beginning felt a tiny bit repetitious. Did I say repetitious? He tells you to steal great work and pay homage. Didn’t someone else say that? On top of this, I had another hairy moment when the book reminded me of that one time when I wasn’t at band camp and I was asked to rewrite bits in my work. You know to add more funny even though it detracted from my story. The truth is my characters must be real otherwise neither me or any potential audience can engage and it is my work that will lose its authenticity. It is our job as writers/actors/directors to maintain the truth in our work. It is no good me saying it’s tough. It is what needs to be done.

Hidden Tools of Comedy is a great practical book that debunks the myths, suggests some other useful books but I believe any writer who sits down and runs through the films and exercises mentioned, will be on their way to writing funny that is real for them as well as other people.

I first learnt about some of Steve Kaplan’s comedy tools because I read an article by someone who had been lucky enough to have been to a Steve Kaplan seminar. I was hooked because they made so much sense. I still went off to watch the comedies suggested and discovered all of his tips added up. I became a fan. I know most writers never have money to go to writing seminars because we get paid nothing or very little for our craft but this book is a cheap way to test out if your comedy works.

In the meantime, if your a rich writer or just want to know more from the man himself, the link to his page is: – http://kaplancomedy.com

Dancing Around Duchamp at London’s Barbican

Photograph of Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain&...

Photograph of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”. (Urinal “readymade” signed with joke name; early example of “Dada” art). A paradigmatic example of found-art. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The free thinking that took shape when MarcEl Duchamp met composer JOhn Cage met choreographer MErce Cunningham, visual artists RobErt Rauschenberg and Jasper JOhns from the 1950s till the modern art inventor’s death, informs the multi-media exhibition Dancing Around Duchamp.

The two-floor exhibition is a serious endeavour, more so, when it seeks to unite works that spanned art, theatre, dance, film and music with Duchamp’s inexorable pursuit of experimentation. It captures the thought processes, techniques and experimentation of chance and collaboration which takes this philosophical and intellectually led exhibition beyond the ordinary. The ambitious piecemeal curation is a meditative collection documenting the experimental processes of these artists who contributed to the Dada movement born out of negative reaction to the brutal horrors of World War I.

The exhibition is designed so that selected works of art can be viewed alongside timed sequences of John Cage’s compositions. Designed for Cunningham’s dance choreographies, Cage’s set pieces interfere with and enrich the visual experience. Unfortunately, the Barbican’s ‘Dancing Around Duchamp’ only has the dancers operating on selected days. A fact that is not made clear, if like me, you have made the journey to see the exhibition on the wrong day. The lack of dancers at ‘Dancing Around Duchamp’ does however, afford other opportunities.

John Cage’s timed pieces weaved in and out of the art and my internal thought processes. Timed interventions, visceral samples that reference their way into the musical art of today be it silence, the sounds of life, ordered notes, poetry and the natural world. The compositions linger.

Upon entering, the impact of the Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, commonly known as the Large Glass, looms large in size and shadows. It is however compromised. I first experienced feelings of being short by the positioning of the ‘Large Glass’ downstairs because the shadows seemed an important part of the whole. The top section including the bride was obscured. My feelings were confirmed upstairs. The space afforded to The Bride is not extended to the ‘Large Glass’ even though the installation’s artistic expression needs space in order to be fully realised. The power of the bride’s shadows are diminished, blurred remnants dumped underneath a stairwell to give room to Duchamp’s paintings. Confirmation, if it is needed, is found in one of Jasper Johns’ paper works upstairs. This work itself is inspired by Duchamp’s use of shadows and perspectives for the ‘Large Glass’.

The exhibition is a triumph of perspectives, inspirations, processes and selected themes upstairs. Chess is the metaphorical representation of the players playing with interventions by chance and purposeful collaboration. Documents of John Cage revival of the works of the then forgotten Erik Satie and Schoenberg reference the need to revise secondary opinions about art and artists. Jasper John’s NO references the abstract work of this period. No is also an imprint, a string a shadow that also makes room for an imprint of Duchamp’s bronze female fig leaf. John’s The Medallion dedicated to Duchamp’s wife Teeny on NYE 1976 is an iconic work casting a spiralling eye on the death of the liberal 70s.

I found myself in pursuit of more Jasper John pieces because of this exhibition. But John’s bronze figures confronted me with the problems of being a product of my time. The bronze painted tins and paintbrushes in a tin were now common images found in fashion and interior magazine photoshoots. I tried different perspectives but every which way I looked, I could not get past the feeling that these bronze figures were now nothing more than the art of selling images. This pop art was now a by-product of the ubiquitous consumption of great art. Advertising’s continual re-appropriation and misappropriation of art would leave me with nothing more than a metaphorical toilet but not Duchamp’s urinal.

A curator has a difficult job to not detract the viewer from the holistics of an artistic journey. An exhibition is expected to reference and contextualise the era in which it was created to find it’s resonance and influence in the present. The authorial voice of the curated exhibition has been lost to create space for art but none for contextualising its purpose. The exhibition does not lack intellectual breadth and nor did it seek to lead me by the hand but the exploration of rich ideas and ideals are to be found in the accompanying catalogue. For this, you must pay £35.

The collaborative efforts which released ideas from the tyranny of convention and instead laid bare the alter of free thinking are only suggested. But at least they are to be found at this exhibition. It is on this note, artists and free thinkers are invited to meditate on the creative breadth.


Django Unchained

English: Quentin Tarantino in Paris at the Cés...

English: Quentin Tarantino in Paris at the César awards ceremony (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Quentin Tarantino’s potent themes of betrayal and revenge return in the trail blazing screen epic Django Unchained – the Pulp Fiction of modern spaghetti westerns.

Django Unchained is driven by a tight plot with strong believable characters united in either a fight for freedom or to maintain oppression against a backdrop of slavery. Tarantino focuses on establishing the main characters but the film lacks tension as the main characters agree common objectives and therefore have no real conflicts. German bounty hunter Dr Schultz (Christoph Waltz) rocks up to buy slave Django (Jamie Foxx). Schultz asks Django to help identify three men for bounty and Django asks for help to find his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who speaks German. This fact alone bonds the two men during a campfire story as the two face situations which carry all the hallmarks of clever Tarantino twists. The rest is history as Django becomes Schultz’s partner and the fastest gunslinger in the south.

Tarantino focuses on the perilous situation the characters must face to achieve their objective. Schultz explains the legal status of casting people as the property of slavers to Django and how this law will be used to prevent him from leaving the deep south alive with his wife Broomhilda.

The film changes when Django and his counterpart visit the barbaric slave plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) posing as experts on Mandingo fights (slaves fighting to the death for their masters). From this point on, Tarantino’s script creates high level tension as the stakes rise as the characters play out conflicts over status and objectives. Schultz negotiates with Candie while he and Amerigo Vessepi (Franco Nero – the original Django character) engage in the brutal practice of Mandingo fights in Django’s presence. The character of Django is modelled on Sergio Corbucci’s Django. But Tarantino’s Django is a thoroughly modern character who is comfortable in himself and with his ally. Both are at odds with the barbaric slaver society hiding behind politeness. One scene has a horde of burning torch slavers hide behind thin veils of badly designed Klu Klux Klan outfits.

The peril is close enough to smell as the two ride into the deep south – Mississippi, a place still reported for scenes of racial hatred (not just in the film Mississippi Burning) to get Broomhilda. The hatred for Django grows and the unnecessary cruelty of the southern slavers heightens the tensions leading to the big house. Schultz and Django differ on how to deal with slaver Candie who Django challenges as an equal at every turn to the consternation of Candie’s slaver staff.

Tarantino is one of the few screenwriters whose scenes add character complexity in direct correlation to the number of people he manages in a scene. Here black head slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) insults Django. Jackson changes the scene with the flicker of his eyes as he suspects Django. Stephen humiliates Broomhilda at dinner to provoke a reaction from Django who must hide his feelings while Schultz finds a way to buy Broomhilda.

Tarantino screenplay effortlessly distils the complicated sexual and power structures of southern slave households. The top servants mimic the cruel values of their masters. Some serve sex while head servant seeks to maintain his position. Tarantino’s own cameo is not without humour. He helps Django who in turn blows him up.

The final acts sees Django release the tension when he shoots the blood out of his enemies Tarantino-style. Django returns the false politeness hiding the brutality of the slavers when he asks one of the servants to say goodbye to her mistress as he literally blows her out of shot. But the best is saved for the collaborator Stephen who is kneecapped and blown up with the big house as Django watches the scene in a blaze of glory.

The final scene has Django find the time to let Jamie Foxx’s own horse show off Trigger-like dressage skills. This serves not only to impress wife Broomhilda but prove that Django’s new hero status makes him fearless. Both ride out to freedom away from the barbarity of the burning south.

In response to criticism of the film and Quentin Tarantino. The author of this review points out that historical films are fiction. Films creatively represent the screenwriter who selectively fuses history to create a fiction which appeals to an audience. This macro relationship becomes a microcosm in the dark cinema. A film provokes a subjective reaction from an individual viewer not society or history. The writer of this piece has some knowledge of slavery after working on a project. The historian was asked to research an area where information existed but had been withheld. The information revealed the barbarity, exploitation and engendering of racist ideas by slavers. These historical facts had been buried. History itself is therefore neither accurate nor human. Historians and journalists cannot suddenly expect auteur Quentin Tarantino to pay the price for years of neglect on this subject. 

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