Review by Ken Burke Blue Jasmine
Woody Allen’s back in serious mode with a Blanche DuBois-styled character masterfully portrayed by Cate Blanchett in a story about loss and its hurtful impact.
In 2154 the Earth is a miserable place to live so those who can go escape to a space station which holds the needed technology to restore health to desperate Matt Damon.
[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews. This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.
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|"Rosebud" from Citizen Kane|
What constitutes a masterpiece in the realm of cinematic expression? There’s certainly no way to quantify that as “expression” itself is an aspect of subjective activity, just as is the response to it. In baseball, the top players are referred to as “5 tool” (referring to hitting for power, hitting for high average [preferably at .300 or better], speed [when chasing flying balls and base running, including steals], fielding, and throwing [these last two might seem to be part of the same skill but they’re separate, as some can seem to catch a firefly—let along a fly ball—as it attempts to sail over a wall but then can’t throw back into the playing field as well as others who are better at cutting down a runner trying to advance or score), but for me in films I’d say the excelling ones would be “6 tool”—encompassing script, performance, cinematography, editing, other production and post-production areas (which I’m sure must feel insulting to everyone from soundtrack designers to makeup artists to art directors in that I’m singling out only 2 aspects of the filmic creative process then lumping everything else together—and I don’t mean to demean the needed skills of everyone involved in the collaborative process that is cinema—but as a medium grounded in imagery, as film has been from its infancy, the photography must always be appropriate to the subject matter and engaging in its own right while properly-paced editing is the fundamental structural element that transforms recorded theatre into true cinema, making these 2 essential visual aspects of film the absolute necessities no matter how eloquently a line is delivered or how fully-understood a costume or set has been designed; I may never have another conversation with a sound effects specialist or computer graphics animator again after making these pronouncements, but I’ll stand by them), and directing as the “One Ring to rule them all,” not in the darkness of the Land of Mordor but in our theatrical projections, where the finest achievements of studio-based and independent visionaries come to light.
(My constant collaborator, Google Blogspot, has apparently decided to format the next paragraph for me ↓; sorry about the sloppy spacing at the beginning and end.)
(My constant collaborator, Google Blogspot, has apparently decided to format the next paragraph for me ↓; sorry about the sloppy spacing at the beginning and end.)
Thus, the ideal cinematic masterpiece for me is one in which all of the above elements are in harmony, constantly satisfying and delighting their audiences (even if those emotions are in appreciation for delving into the dark recesses of the human experience, not just the joy of love or victory) with the synergistic harmony of the necessary creative components, yielding the greatness we associate with Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942), The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980) Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992), and others at their level of arguable perfection, whether the intention is comedic (Some Like It Hot [Billy Wilder, 1959]), dramatic (There Will Be Blood [Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007—even with the milkshake metaphors]), or some combination of the 2 (Fargo [Joel and Ethan Coen, 1996]), just as some directors are better with light-hearted fare (even though touches of pathos may be present, as with Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush ), others with the grim aspects of life (I could offer the whole career of Ingmar Bergman, but I’ll just note Persona ). One writer-director (and for much of his career, actor) who has triumphed and produced several of what I would give my miserly 5-star—therefore, masterpiece—ratings to is Woody Allen, whose work has best been received in the comic vein (Annie Hall , Manhattan , The Purple Rose of Cairo , Vicki Christina Barcelona , Midnight in Paris ) but has also been equally successful when mixed with aspects of tragedy (Hannah and Her Sisters , Crimes and Misdemeanors ) or played serious from the start (Another Woman —which my fellow critic and good friend Barry Caine says has notable resonance to the film under consideration here, but I’ll have to take his word for it because it’s just been too long since I’ve seen it). With his latest triumph, Blue Jasmine, Allen shows another aspect of successful films that may not be full-on masterpieces but are so powerful because of one outstanding element—in this case the Oscar-worthy acting of Cate Blanchett—that other shortcomings can be overlooked or minimized due to the rising tide of that 1 great ingredient (other films that work in this manner for me include Lincoln [Steven Spielberg, 2012], where the overall experience seemed too much of a history lesson forced to contemporary parallels but the acting of Daniel Day-Lewis is so sublime as to almost encourage ignoring any other distractions, and To the Wonder [Terrence Malick]*, where the concept is so poetic as to be ambiguous but the cinematography is so dazzling as to put you into a transcendental state even if you’re not always sure what’s going on up on the screen). Such singular-triumph encounters may not always lead to masterpiece status in the estimations of all critics and audiences, but they propel the film in question into such accomplished territory that the debate between 4 and 5 stars (for those who prefer their aesthetic decisions in a larger range of steps, as I do) becomes almost academic because there’s so much richness in the dominant element that you can somewhat (or completely) forgive other compromised aspects that keep the whole vehicle from automatic 5-star territory.
(* Lincoln reviewed in our December 28, 2012 posting, To the Wonder in our May 3, 2013 posting.)
Such is the experience of Ms. Blanchett completely dominating Blue Jasmine, even though the role has been praised by many for its reincarnation of Tennessee Williams’ iconic Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire (first brought to Broadway in 1947, memorably adapted to film by Elia Kazan in 1951) rather than being a fully original creation on Allen’s part (there’s a particularly good analysis of relationships between these two works with some nice clips [although one of them has already been busted, but you can get Blue Jasmine clips from me from the suggested links below] at http://www.awardsdaily.com/blog/oscar-flashback-woody-allen-blue-jasmine-and-a-streetcar-named-desire/; I swear I wrote all of my chatter before even doing a curious search for this topic and stumbling upon this link—but you’ll soon see that the better comments are in Sasha Stone’s analysis anyway). Certainly there are similarities between the 2 women: Both suffer severe financial reverses which cause them to leave their former comfortable lifestyles to seek refuge with their sisters, Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in Jasmine’s case, Stella for Blanche; both have former husbands who committed suicide; both see themselves as more sophisticated and genteel than their working-class siblings; both of their sisters are involved with men that the upscale pair look down on, Stanley Kowalski in Stella’s case—a true cad in attitude and action—while Ginger is divorced from Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), a boorish construction worker, and engaged to Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a mechanic whose tastes run to beer and prizefights rather than Jasmine’s flair for high style and vodka; both encounter sensitive, available men who are ultimately repelled by what they find in their new potential mates; both suffer from bouts of trauma-induced madness that make it impossible for them to function in their new surroundings. Clearly these overlaps are evident, but Allen’s not attempting Streetcar redux here; rather, he’s allowing his noted influences to manifest themselves in an “inspired-by” mode, just as he previously did in many of his films, including parodies of Russian literature and film (and a closing touch of Persona—he also tried to seriously emulate Bergman’s explorations of the stifling nature of human relationships with Interiors , which was not as successful as his other influence-inspired explorations, despite its Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay) in Love and Death (1975), Fellini in Stardust Memories (1980), German Expressionism in Shadows and Fog (1992), French New Wave in Deconstructing Harry (1997), Hitchcock in Match Point (2005), as well as variations on documentary procedures in Zelig (1983) and Husbands and Wives (1992). Further, this is essentially Jasmine’s story—although Ginger provides a stabilizing subplot—with no ongoing intrusion on her suffering-aristocrat-consciousness by Ginger’s men Augie or Chili—although the former inadvertently ends Jasmine’s romance with aspiring-State-Department-ambassador/beau, Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), and the latter keeps nudging her to move out of Ginger’s small apartment so that he can move in, but neither of them impose the emotional nor physical violence that Stanley unleashes on Blanche, nor do they have the presence in this story that Brando’s incomparable characterization had in the original stage and screen versions of Streetcar (however, 2 more connections to Williams’ masterpiece [what constitutes that designation in theatre would require a separate discussion, but it certainly begins, as Shakespeare informed us in Hamlet, with the understanding that the quality of writing of “the play’s the thing” that underlies all other aspects of the art] also deserve mention, one clearly intentional and the other possibly serendipitous or maybe even inspirational: the first is the use of Dixieland-style jazz under Blue Jasmine’s opening credits, evoking a sense of New Orleans which sets a Streetcar-type tone [despite this film being set entirely in the NYC area and San Francisco] and the second being Blanchett’s noted turn playing Blanche in a 2009 tour of Streetcar [directed by one of Bergman’s master screen presences, Liv Ullman, a woman who was never even nominated for so many Oscars that she richly deserved to win] which traveled from Sydney in Cate’s native Australia to Washington, D.C., to Brooklyn in 2009, earning her the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Actress in a non-resident production and praise from the New York Times as “Performance of the Year”).
Jasmine is a woman of considerable self-investment, so when her formerly-privileged life of wealth and status comes crashing down with the arrest of her Bernie-Madoff-like freewheeling-financier husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), and the confiscation of all of their resources she’s forced to relocate to the West Coast to bunk in with her long-forgotten sister (although we don’t learn her back story immediately but rather through a constant series of flashbacks, usually triggered by some chance remark in the present so these scenes of her past may be colored by her subjective memory of them as well) while she tries to rebuild a life that has left her with no marketable skills (although she attempts to learn about computers in an adult-ed class in hopes of gaining an interior-design degree online and is forced to take a job as a receptionist at a dentist’s office, with little success at either project—her previous major, before being swept into marriage with Hal and not completing her degree, was anthropology, an area of study that suited her sophisticated self-image but left her with virtually nothing of use besides familiarity with trends in high society—although she was trying desperately to take some control of her desk job before leaving in a rightful huff after her boss, Dr. Flicker [Michael Stuhlbarg], tried to grope her—he’s a desperate case himself as noted by remarks such as “Have you ever gotten high on nitrous oxide?”). Upon her chance meeting with Dwight she lies her way right into the interior design career—and creates a dead surgeon as her former husband to counter Dwight’s widowerhood—which almost leads to a new life, marriage to an up-and-coming-embassy-man-with-sights-on-a-political-career, and relocation to an exquisite home with a breathtaking view of San Francisco Bay, but a chance meeting with Augie on the way to pick out her engagement ring brings all of that to a halt, as he’s still fuming over the lottery money he lost in a Hal-investment-gone-sour (a likely factor in his breakup with Ginger, given that she still defends her sister’s supposed uninvolvement in Hal’s illegal acts) so he unloads enough conflicts with her fake story for Dwight to halt all plans and Jasmine to flee from his life on the spot. Ginger has a similar problem when she decides to take Jasmine’s advice about upgrading herself, falling into a quick romance as the result of her own chance meeting with sound engineer, Al (Louis C. K., one of the hottest comedians on the scene right now in a completely serious role, as are all the others in this film, where the only laughs come at Jasmine’s expense as she flaunts her overbearing lifestyle to the “underlings” in her sister’s circle), until his married status catches up with him, so she welcomes Chili’s return to her life in a manner much more upbeat than Stella dragging herself back to her obsessive connection with Stanley in the theatrical version of Streetcar (she rejects his “Stella!” pleas and stays in her neighbor’s apartment in Kazan’s version, in keeping more with early ‘50s movie morality of needed punishment for his vile acts back in the days when the restrictive Hays Code still had some control over screen content). This just leads to Jasmine wandering S.F., babbling to herself about her life and its discontents with no particular place to go (credit to Chuck Berry for that phrase) as we leave her in final fade-out.
Jasmine’s downfall is the result of Hal’s philandering and crooked lifestyle (over the course of their marriage he’s had several affairs which she finally discovers but what pushes her over the edge is the one with a teenage au pair whom he claims to be in love with and took to Paris for a clandestine rendezvous), although we never know for sure how much of her self-distancing from his manipulations with other people’s money was based on true lack of knowledge of his methods or was calculated “ignorance” so as continue reaping the benefits of his material success. What we do learn at the very end of this downward spiral is that she’s the one who squealed on him to the FBI in a fit of anger at the affairs, which led to his arrest and subsequent in-cell suicide, then the complete alienation of their son (stepson for her as the result of Hal’s previous marriage which is only alluded to in a quick comment by Jasmine) who notes his own problems with drugs and lost direction after dropping out of Harvard in shame from his father’s crimes until being helped back to stability in the 1 successful marriage that emerges from this collection of wrecked lives (after Jasmine runs away from Dwight’s angry shock she makes her way to an Oakland music store where Danny [Alden Ehrenreich] works, after learning that from another of Augie’s outbursts, but he rejects seeing her again). At one level, Blue Jasmine is a terrible tale of self-delusions, bitter disregard for the dignity of fellow human beings, and justification for settling rather then aspiring because there are so few chances at anything decent really coming to fruition in the difficult circumstances that define most of our lives (even though both Jasmine—whose real name is Jeanette but she changed it as she went about her conscious self-reconstruction—and Ginger were adopted from different birth parents, Ginger always knew that they preferred her sister who seemingly got all of the breaks, until it all recoiled on her leaving her broken while Ginger simply accepts Chili as her best hope in a situation where she’s trying to support herself and 2 kids on a grocery clerk’s salary), but in the level of deeper considerations this is a meditation on the shallowness of material comforts (a useful theme during this time of continuing slow recovery from the Great Recession, with millions still un- or underemployed even as banks and corporations are stockpiling loads of cash that’s being kept off the market rather than being invested in needed growth areas) and their lack of resonance, especially when their manufactured comforts can disappear so easily.
Blue Jasmine isn’t easy to watch—unless you just want to gloat over the earned come-uppance of a once-secure-power-wielder (who’s now “too poor even for Brooklyn” yet “somehow” flies cross-country in first-class)—nor is it a fully-balanced masterpiece (Dwight’s anointed character is a way-too-convenient plot point and the easy-sex-escapades of Ginger and Al also seem a bit too calculated a parallel with Jasmine’s failed salvation through Dwight as well as a means of giving a little more presence and screen time to Sally and Louis), but overall it resonates with searing quality because of the powerful central presence of Blanchett, whose acting here matches anything she’s done previously (including her Best Supporting Actress Oscar win as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator [Martin Scorsese, 2004] and her fabulous turn as one of the Bob Dylan avatars in I’m Not There [Todd Haynes, 2007]), allowing us to better understand what drives and undermines a character/human being such as Jasmine so that we don’t forgive her self-made crises but we do better understand and appreciate what brings such a complex creation into existence—haughty attitudes, quick temper, over-reliance on alcohol and anti-depressants, yet still a sense of entitlement that harks back to her plush Manhattan life when even a 5-day visit from Ginger and Augie pushed her limits of tolerance. For my usual musical commentary to finish off the review, I should just plug in some version of “Blue Moon” because it’s such an important memory in Jasmine’s life (she constantly tells everyone she [thinks she] meets about how it was playing when she first encountered Hal), but I think a more appropriate tune would be The Eagles melancholy “Lyin’ Eyes” at http://www. youtube.com/watch?v=S67CTVVv3KQ, as it gets more to the heart (however faint it may be) of someone like Jasmine: she’s not evil, just horribly spoiled and now forced to live with the payback for her previous thoughtless actions (unlike the woman in the song who schemed for easy wealth, knowing full well what her consequences were likely to be). Jasmine does lie to protect her fragile grip on reality but she has no “kindness of strangers” to depend on, only assumptions of her worthiness for a soft landing from the crises for which she has no “life-owners” insurance; however, her situation may evolve into a trip to Napa County, not for fine wine tasting but, like Blanche, for accommodations in a well-known institution where the walls are as soft as the beds.
No one’s lying in Elysium (Neill Blomkamp) because in the future Earth of 2154 everything is well known to everyone: life on this planet has become a living Hell of disease, poverty, over-population, and environmental disaster while the privileged 100,000 or so of humanity’s elite have relocated to a space station called Elysium orbiting between Earth and the Moon, where everything is clean and comfortable, all illnesses can be quickly eradicated with a simple body-scan device, and nobody has to think too much about Desolation Row down below. This is the way that our species—or at least its social structure—has evolved in just a bit over a century from now, with the plausible scenario that it would be more likely to build a floating, well-appointed new home for the elite rather than attempt the impossible of pleasantly colonizing a barren celestial sphere such as the Moon or Mars. We don’t see too many of this truly upper-class, except for Secretary of Homeland Defense Jessica Delacourt (Jody Foster) who has aspirations of replacing President Patel (Faran Tahir) in a coup—as an indication of the manufactured gap between these ultimate haves and the abandoned have-nots this floating colony has declared itself a separate entity from Earth in an effort to deny the sharing of scarce luxury resources with the commoners—so she’s harshly focused on keeping everything peaceful and prosperous as her citizens live in marvelously-manufactured comfort while she oversees the security forces that ensure that none of the Earthly rabble find their way into paradise (you don’t have to think twice to realize the connection of this situation to the current fierce debate over immigration into the U.S. and disparity between those seeking citizenship here—just as Elysium has its own citizenship status, leaving all Earth-dwellers as “illegal aliens”—and those Americans privileged enough to be born in this country to existing citizens, but at least you’re being encouraged to think at all, which is more than I can say for such current gems as Grown Ups 2 [Dennis Dugan], We’re the Millers [Rawson Marshall Thurber], or Pacific Rim [Guillermo del Toro; this last one did earn an actual Two Guys review, posted on August 8, 2013, while … The Millers may get a mention in my next posting, but even the presence of Chris Rock isn’t enough to drag me into the usual level of Adam Sandler-David Spade humor]). What we do see plenty of is soul-deprived life on Earth where living conditions are horrible, the available work for those lucky enough to be given jobs is the kind of menial but dangerous labor that Jasmine would have fainted just thinking about, and the police force is staffed by surly robots who aren’t hesitant to break a forearm bone on our protagonist, Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), for the sin of sarcasm, possibly because he’s an ex-con who may be targeted for harsher treatment than usual as he’s already identified as rebellious or maybe everyone gets treated this way so as discourage crime even before it occurs. However, broken bone or not, if Max wants to keep working he’s required to do it now, although he does get patched up later, in what laughingly (or cruelly) is referred to as a medical facility, by an old friend from childhood, Frey (Alica Braga, the Brazilian niece of Sonia Braga, a great actor with a solid career but most memorable for me when she plays 3 important roles in Hector Babenco’s marvelous study of the intersections of politics and identity in his 1985 adaptation of Manuel Puig’s fascinating Modernist novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman), a single mom with a very sick daughter, Matilda (Emma Tremblay), but no passport to the hallowed halls of Elysium for the quick fix available to all of these sky “gods” (their existence is clearly a comment on the vast gulf of resources that separates the elite from the condemned but given that there are so few of them compared to the vast billions on our planet I can’t even call them 1%’ers because we’d need a few more decimal points in the number for it to be accurate). In fact, early on we see what happens when some desperate Earthlings attempt to highjack a spaceship for the quick run to Elysium, only to be easily destroyed by Delacourt’s crack troops (Darth Vader would be pleased with their marksmanship, considerably more accurate than were most of his cloned soldiers).
Soon, however, things get much more complex for Max as he’s exposed to a lethal dose of radiation through a machine malfunction at work, so now he’s got nothing to lose in an attempt to go skyward because if he can’t access the almost-magical healing table in the heavens his life will terminate in 5 days. Working with some rebellious outcasts (well, just about everyone on Earth would fit that description in attitude but some like Max and his cohorts are simply willing to take action rather than stagnate in the status quo) our desperate protagonist attempts to kidnap an important businessman, John Carlyle (William Fichtner), as he’s preparing to leave the land of the outcasts for a quick shuttle to Elysium, but only after Max has been merged through some crude surgery with technology that allows him to download all of the counter-programming that Carlyle has developed to override Elysium’s prime computer system (a scheme hatched between Carlyle and Delacourt to entrench themselves in ultimate power) into his own brain—or at least a data storage unit that seems to now be connected to his neural system (a bit like Princess Leia storing the Death Star plans in R2-D2 in what has come be known as Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope [George Lucas, 1977]—believe me, there’s little in Elysium that conveys anything as upbeat as what underlies the Star Wars movies, but the plot comparisons just continue to be apt). Max’s goal is to invade Elysium to get himself and Matilda to the needed healing machines but he also has the secret weapon of his newly-acquired information as a means of changing how the system operates to essentially enslave the Earthlings. Of course, that’s a huge task just to get into Elysium air space without being vaporized, but Delacourt wants to take no chances with this threat to not only her skybourne homeland but also her political aspirations so she calls in a more direct threat to Max’s plan, mangled but vicious “hired gun” Civil Cooperation Bureau Chief Kruger (Sharlo Copley, South African like Blomkamp with his acting debut in the director’s first feature, District 9 , another situation of sci-fi structure being used to make sociopolitical commentary, as stranded aliens are kept in apartheid-like segregation conditions on Earth until their debasement leads to retaliation). Max and Kruger clash in more intimate mano-a-mano fashion so that the representative confrontation between the forces of abusive power and the sympathetic-but-outmatched-rebels can be given more personalized faces, as well as allowing for the commentary about Kruger that he’s a renegade to his own kind taking payment from the sky lords simply for his own material advancement and to give him the chance to indulge his innate homicidal tendencies. Once the necessary battles are over, though, Kruger and Delacourt are dead (her by his hand, as there’s no honor among thieves after all), Matilda been successfully cured of her leukemia, and Max has sacrificed his own salvation in order to complete the upload of his manipulated data into Elysium’s all-controlling computer (an act that will kill him, an outcome he’s aware of) which results in all of Earth’s grubby inhabitants being granted citizenship in Elysium so that effective medical units rush down to the planet (there seems to be no override or reset to counteract Max’s “cleansing” of the files so that the new order is in place immediately and hope for revival of both our living environment and the stability of those who inhabit it shines brightly through the dust of previous desolation as the final fade-out comes to pass).
If you note a tone of sarcasm in the end of the previous paragraph, it’s because—for all the relevance that Elysium constructs in its parallels to our present contentious debates about immigration and “worthiness” to be “legal” in the more desirable surroundings of upper North America—the playing out of the plot is just too obvious to me. (As with World War Z [Marc Forster; review in this blog in the June 29, 2013 posting] where the tension is well-constructed and well-played, but is there any sense for even a second that Brad Pitt won’t complete his mission to save humanity from a zombie-causing disease—just as Matt Damon here is not the sort of presence that you could truly worry about failing in his quest to better the situation that troubles everyone else he’s fighting for; yes, he does die in the process of completing his mission so there’s nobility in his sacrifice, but he literally saves the vast rejected members of the human species in the process so it’s not like his personal death—almost guaranteed by the previous contamination circumstances and death-by-downloading now programmed into his neural system, short of a standard last-second genre rescue [such as we get in a classic Futuristic Sci-Fi movie, Escape from New York (John Carpenter, 1981) where Kurt Russell’s Snake Plisskin has his brain-exploding detonation device deactivated just prior to his extermination after saving the President from a horrible fate]—is so much of a surprise, nor is it in vain, although it would have been nice for the world’s savior to have been able to enjoy the well-gained fruits of his labors for awhile). I like the message that every human being has dignity and no social structure should be constructed so that vast numbers of people are prevented from a reasonable possibility of sharing in a society’s resources and comforts—and I certainly praise Elysium’s production values where both the ravaged scenes of Earth (shot, sadly, around Mexico City, where I’m sure that there wasn’t a need for extensive CGI-enhancement) and the luxurious environment of Elysium (ironically, also shot in other suburbs of Mexico City—with the shooting of this film itself seeming to stand as a metaphor for what it depicts—as well as in Vancouver, Canada) are rendered in compelling fashion, just as the battle scenes are well-staged and the sense of relief is genuine for the healing of Frey’s daughter. Further, just as we get a reasonable insight into justified rejection of the 1% entitlement attitudes of our society’s elite in Blue Jasmine we get a satisfactory villain in Elysium with Foster’s Delacourt, standing in for all of her culture’s determination that resources must be reserved for only the “deserving” even as uncountable numbers of fellow humans are rejected out of hand to protect what should belong to only “us” (just as the USA sadly monopolizes a vast proportion of the planet’s riches although we account for only about 5% of its burgeoning population).
(Blogspot layout again in the paragraph below ↓; I've learned to embrace the inevitable.)
(Blogspot layout again in the paragraph below ↓; I've learned to embrace the inevitable.)
But despite all of that potential and the fine orchestration of Damon working his way through various levels of opposition in order to achieve the liberating software download, it just feels to me like so much formulaic-crisis-and-resolution pumped with a current-events context that results in an unlikely immediate transformation, in the same manner of dramatic-but-fantastic-conclusion of earlier similar stories in which a desolate planet is transformed into a Garden-of-Eden-rebirth-location in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Nicholas Meyer, 1982) or Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990—rather than the recent remake [Len Wiseman, 2012; review in this blog in our August 15, 2012 posting])—where the entire environment of Mars is made suddenly human-inhabitable. Both of these movies are nice “fictions” but a bit short on the “science” aspects, yet they’re both more appropriate to the broader fictional contexts that they inhabit when compared to Elysium where there’s an intended message of sharing what does exist in our current world as a hope of bringing some balance of sustenance and dignity to as many as possible rather than reserving the gifts of life for the “elite” as designated by insider-deciders such as Delacourt (or Jasmine’s preferred circle). Obviously, the space-station society of Elysium in this current movie is intended to evoke the afterlife dwelling of the blessed dead in Greek mythology, islands/fields/plains at the ends of our world where the great river Ocean supposedly circled the flat disc of the planet (and connects, subtly, to Blue Jasmine again in its own connection to A Streetcar Named Desire in that Stanley and Blanche live on a street named Elysian Fields). However, even with all of its sophisticated technology, it seems as unlikely to me that this small slice of privileged humanity could rescue the entire polluted planet from which these “superiors” escaped as does the premise that these overlords had no override procedure to reverse the sea change of citizenship that Max unleashed with his dramatic concluding download. Unlike in the simpler, more sentimental (and certainly more slapstick) WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008), where Earth is abandoned (except for 1 hearty plant) but then reclaimed by that group of privileged humans who long ago escaped on a massive luxury-liner-type spaceship, the billions of deserted rabble in Elysium need not only drastic doses of medical care but also a refurbishing of the planet’s ecology and a complete restructuring of the sociopolitical structure, given that what we have is a satellite which has established itself as a separate country/planetoid which has now granted citizenship to the entire behemoth from which it sprung (sort of like if the USA somehow expanded its borders worldwide so that Obamacare and the EPA have to reclaim all that’s wrong in our collective consciousness, not just in Mexico and other realms of Latin America but everything else in all directions—I’m surprised the Tea Party hasn’t organized massive protests against this movie, which obviously has found an audience with its command of the domestic box-office during its opening weekend [almost $40 million, plus another $11 million in the international market]).
All of this saving of the lost and abandoned isn’t something I (not-even-closeted-socialist that I am, although I know Obama’s not nearly as far to the left as he’s accused of being so don’t taint him with my brush) am opposed to, just dubious about in a movie that’s clearly in the fictional realm but overflows with pointed commentary toward actual social situations (just as the director insists that it’s intended to be) that our society is currently struggling with. I’d like to think that some treasure-house of hope could that easily provide a rescue for all of the current after-thoughts on Earth, but the improbability of that scenario—even in a fully-fictional setting—just frustrates me when seeing such an easily-available solution just waiting for the salvation of the dispossessed of now or the future. Suddenly unleashing an oxygen-rich atmosphere on Mars to break the air-monopoly of an evil industrialist in the older Total Recall is fun but fully fantasy; bringing hope for the uplifting of those already living in squalor and unearned massive death in the near future of Earth (also implying the ability of making such a positive impact on our contemporary parallels) leaves me frustrated that something as simple as the reprogramming of a master-computer system could bring about such global relief while I know that in reality a minority cabal of politicians with the power to block any reforms in my own nation sits in Washington right now determined to prevent “illegal” Hispanic “aliens” from gaining citizenship or huge sectors of the population—“illegal” or not—from getting affordable health care because it’s “bad for business.” I just get sad, frustrated, and angry that such a Max-related cure for what ails us is so unlikely that this society (and the manner in which it and others like it drive the economies and priorities of Earth as a whole) will be damn lucky to even make it to 2154 for there to be some hope of an Elysium-like escape even for the luckiest less-than-1%, let alone for everybody else.
If Elysium were more of an extreme fantasy such as movies I’ve already named or something like The Matrix trilogy (Andy and Lana Wachowski; 1999, 2003) or The Terminator series (James Cameron, 1984, 1991; Jonathan Mostow, 2003; John D. Brancato, 2009)—although neither of these may be as fanciful as I hope if the predictions of a super-intelligence Singularity state of machines becoming sentient in possibly the next 30 years or so prove to be accurate (more on this at http://www.singularity.com/, among other sources)—then I think I could just enjoy it as most of the positive reviews seem to do as a momentary escape from the doldrums of life that offers an intelligent blend of action and awareness of actual impending problems (rather than fictionalized messing around with the space-time continuum as we get in the rebooted Star Trek [J.J. Abrams, 2009]), but after the conquest of Elysium is successfully carried out, allowing a new dawn for the embattled Earth, I can’t help but hesitate to embrace such optimism for the solution to problems plaguing us now (but, as is often in fiction, set in another time or location period so as to diffuse criticism of perpetrating a particular political agenda). If you can shut down such distracted thoughts, though, I think you’ll find Elysium to be well worth your time as a well-produced tale of a clash of cultures, with well-modulated sequences of finely-timed action and a satisfying climax of open-mindedness activating open borders. However, if you make the mistake of reading/watching a current news report in print, video, or Internet, you may find it hard to maintain that enthusiasm for such a miraculous future solution to our current escalating ills. If you need help with that, may I suggest a listen to what I alluded to much earlier, Dylan’s Desolation Row (from the 1965 Highway 61 Revisited album but recorded here live in London on May 27, 1966) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3EydF-yem4 to get inspiration toward just celebrating outcast status in case there are no Elysium-level resurrections coming down the road anytime soon (which, in cosmic terms, could easily extend into the next century).
Elysium and Blue Jasmine may not celebrate life as we hope to know it (although the former does try to offer us a form of reclamation that the latter has no options to explore—except for the hope that lowered expectations might provide Ginger and Chili with an agreed-upon level of discounted satisfaction) but at least they give us some alternative to the summer strains of cinema that just focus on explosions and expletives. If you want something more to think about than whether to put butter on your popcorn, these two films may be some of your best options.
If you’d like to explore Blue Jasmine further here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55QuPk5wMUM (14:20 min. interview with actor Cate Blanchett about making Blue Jasmine and a other films [audio is a bit low])
If you’d like to know more about Elysium here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9WG922xIrM (7:54 featurette from the Fact or Fictional YouTube site exploring whether the 2154 Elysium space station would actually be a viable possibility or not—explaining why there would be a lot of problems for this to ever be an actuality)
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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.