Film reviews: Elysium, The Kings of Summer, Lovelace, What Maisie Knew

Whenever I hear the words “In the late 21st century” intoned over a movie’s opening, I reach for my scepticism. Late 21st century? The creator of Elysium, Neill Blomkamp, who made the memorably eccentric, hyperkinetic doomsday epic District 9, clearly believes we’re most of the way there already. His Planet Earth is polluted and overpopulated: check and check. Poverty and conflict are rife: ditto. And “Elysium” is a space station built like a Donald Trump brainstorm. Miles of country club luxury, filled with the elite at play, nestle inside the lining of a giant Kubrickian wheel. Only a matter of time, and transport logistics, before this Last Trump becomes tomorrow’s alternative off-world lifestyle.

Earth the poignantly forsaken motherland is already a modern screen obsession (Oblivion, After Earth). In Elysium the story has, at least, a densely textured vision and a kind of manic conviction. The story fast-forwards to 2154, when shaven-headed worker Matt Damon has a near-fatal accident in the factory where he and his Metropolis-like fellow drones troop in daily from squalid townships. Damon has already been duffed up by android cops. For a better life, he accepts a dangerous shuttle mission to Elysium.

The crazy anarchist in the grungy beard – all-stops-out mummery from Brazil’s Wagner Moura (Elite Squad) – forges his travel papers and fits his biomechanical body armour. The pretty girl friend (Alice Braga) with the leukemic child will go along. But what welcome will be extended by Jodie Foster’s Secretary Delacourt? She is Elysium’s ruthless, super-chic security head, for whom Foster borrows Christine Lagarde’s haircut (the “IMF bob”?) and an Anglo American accent borrowed across decades from, my hazard, Dame Judith Anderson.

On top of everything – like a large olive placed on a bubbling casserole – is Sharlto Copley. The mesmerising, wheedling-voiced Afrikaner lead from District 9 plays a terrestrial hit-man sacked by Foster, then rehired to stop Damon and co turning an illegal shuttle trip into an Elysium overthrow.

You don’t know where to look next, or to listen, in this movie. Every actor seems to have come from a different rehearsal room. (Damon’s underplaying is light years from Copley and Moura’s scenery-chewing.) Phrases such as “maxillofacial avulsion” – referencing a nasty accident crafted by the make-up department – are tossed around in a purpling script. Production design is an eclectic delirium. In the last scenes the different styles bravely try to come together in a harmonising inferno. But it is bit like Hieronymus Bosch being asked to provide a wrap-up artwork incorporating, in one tidy tableau, all his varied, overweening visions of hell.

Written and directed by two people you never heard of, The Kings of Summer has the production values of a home movie. It was shot in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, a town barely larger than the plot, which could be summarised on the back of half a postage stamp.

The reasons for raves at the Sundance Film Festival? The film’s charm, freshness, wit and skewiness of vision. Stand By Me’s funky pastoralism meets the nerdy-droll adolescent musings of Submarine in Chris Galletta (writer) and Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ (director) comedy about runaway kids. Skinny, good-looking Joe (Nick Robinson), a sweet soul stuck with a single dad, and swarthier Patrick (Gabriel Basso) run off to the woods to build a house. Bird-like Biaggio (Moisés Arias), weird and a little antic, joins them for tragicomic relief.

Young people making their first feature are like earthlings landing on a new planet. The woods depicted here are lovely, dark and deep, though as unreal as sci-fi if given a moment’s thought. (The hideaway is built within hiking distance of the boys’ homes, so how come the police “manhunt” doesn’t find them?) The new house is habitable after one skimpy montage: card-trick shots of hammers, nails and planks flying about in DIY uproar. Later the wild animals get a montage too. Only a cottonmouth snake gets an extended look at the script.

What’s enchanting? What’s enrapturing? The dialogue; the po-faced passion of escapade; the boys’ faces in the ferment of liberation; mainly and Mark-Twainly the comedy of growing up – so American – among kids already convinced they’re more grown-up than mom and pop ever will be.

Amanda Seyfried and Peter Saarsgard are good as the Beauty and Beast of the 1970s porn industry in Lovelace. Linda Lovelace, real name Boreman, got famous through Deep Throat, opening wide her capacious jaws to – as a Pinter character once called it – consume the male member.

Predatory jaws were big in that decade, which romped on through Jaws and ended with Alien. But the “monster” in this dramatised biopic from documentarists Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman is less Lovelace than the man demonised in her source autobiography: husband and promoter Chuck Traynor. Saarsgard gives him a creepy charisma: the bedroom eyes, the hippy hair (piled and wild), the all-sanctioning libido that makes the world an orgy room. The film wimps out, arguably, with the other demons of Lovelace’s story, including Deep Throat director Gerry Damiano (played by a cuddly Hank Azaria). Sharon Stone steps in at beginning and end. As the heroine’s mom, steely, controlling, neurotic, she is only a make-up layer away from Snow White’s stepmother.

The rock-singer mother in What Maisie Knew – talk of monsters – is played by a scary-looking Julianne Moore. The actress’s facial bones seem to have been built up. She wears gothic hair and banks of mascara. She resembles Lon Chaney Sr in drag.

The rest seems a little faint by comparison. The week’s second directing double act, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, film screenwriting duo Nancy Dayne and Carroll Cartwright’s Henry James update with a subdued gaze and a sweetness that finally turns cloying. Onata Aprile, wearing a puzzled pout that doesn’t go the dramatic distance, plays the seven-year-old pulled between parting parents. Moore and Anglo-flake husband Steve Coogan drag Maisie through divorce courts, then share her in custody spells with their respective lovers (Alexander Skarsgard, Joanna Vanderham). For music we get plinky-wistful synthesisers and drifts of folk song. Whenever Moore is off screen – the only character with size-10 oomph – the film risks evaporating altogether. Moral: it isn’t that easy to modernise Henry James. All of his characters, each in his or her subtle fashion, were monsters: which is why we found and still find them fascinating.

Philip French, The Observer’s peerless film critic, retires next week. For this colleague that marks a true epoch’s end. For 40 years I enjoyed the discernment and companionship, in the front row of press shows, of the best-informed cinephile in newspapers. Philip was broad in his taste but focused in his perceptions and contagious in his passions. He was an early warrior for Heaven’s Gate, in the days when it mattered. How wonderful that that story came full circle, trailing triumph with the film’s re-release, in the closing month of a distinguished reviewing career.

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