The Adjustment Bureau

 

The Matt in the hat.
 

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

Having not seen it since it came out, I’d been meaning to rewatch and review The Adjustment Bureau for a while. It had its terrestrial premiere last night and so I figured I’d strike whilst the iron was lukewarm. The main impetus for this review, however, was this rather nasty piece appearing in The Guardian. The writer, Stuart Heritage, basically slates the film in the smug, snarky way that I’ve just got so sick of reading lately. You should know by now that I love a good sneer, but the way these people write makes me seriously doubt their love of film and/or journalism. If it’s so fucking tortuous mate, Burger King are probably hiring. Anyway, the whole piece made me furrow my brow at the odd things he picked up on and his statement about the script being made up of insipid nothings and cloying Hallmark mawkishness. Well, them’s fightin’ words.

“Who the hell are you guys?”

“We… are the people that make sure things happen according to plan.”

The Adjustment Bureau follows Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon) as he runs for the Senate. He meets a dancer named Elise (Emily Blunt) and they instantly fall for each other. However, they lose contact and Norris becomes obsessed with finding her. Little does David know that there’s a shadowy agency called The Adjustment Bureau who are hell-bent on keeping them apart. Matt Damon is the likeable everyman he’s been in other films and he plays it well here. OK, so the “unlucky honest politician who sincerely wants to make the world a better place” angle is hackneyed, but you feel for Norris. He’s got some actual humanity to him and Damon’s a huge part of that. Emily Blunt isn’t really stretching herself either (acting wise- some of her ballet moves must require a ridiculous level of flexibility) but again, it works. The two make a believable pairing and you want them to succeed.

The thing I like about Bureau is that it’s basically something like The Notebook put through a sci-fi thriller filter. How many romantic films have you seen where the two leads meet randomly, sparks fly and after that they just can’t quite seem to get it together, constantly getting separated by various obstacles, misunderstandings and general bad luck? The film even goes so far as to include elements like her having a fiancé (i.e. a relationship serious enough to be an obstacle to our power couple, but still has enough wiggle room to be broken off) and him having a close friend who, like totally understands bro, and is there to confide in and give advice. In an age of an “Ah, fuck it, whatever” approach to greenlighting and moviemaking, The Adjustment Bureau tries something new and, to my mind at least, succeeds. The film isn’t about two special and attractive people who are just perfect for each other. It’s about every lightning bolt encounter and the start of a fresh, passionate and exciting relationship. It’s a universal message. Shit, I’ve felt something similar and the notches on my bedpost barely qualify as a scuff. Usually, our two romantic leads are sketched as broadly as possible so as to appeal to the largest possible audience. It’s the same here, except it’s not stupid things like “he’s too much of a manchild” or “she’s clumsy”. It’s smartly done. The misunderstandings and bumps along the way inherent to romantic films are personified by the Bureau, meddling and twisting things to fit some big plan. 

One of Heritage’s odder points is that the only reason the film works at all “is thanks to the audience’s knowledge of the actors, who play concentrated versions of their on-screen personas.” This may seem incredibly obvious, but casting a film can often be seen as filmic shorthand and it’s a form of storytelling in its own right. Elements of both an actor’s personal and professional life are often used when it comes to casting. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man worked because we knew of his insane drugs n’ partying lifestyle beforehand. It fed in to our opinion of Stark and it was a bunch of backstory we brought to the party, fleshing the character out without the need for endless flashbacks and expository dialogue appearing in the film. Pre his recent McConnaissance, you could bet that if Matthew McConaughey signed onto a film, it’d be a dime-a-dozen tossed-out “feelgood” picture featuring him leaning on the poster, because that’s all he did for about 10 years. Same here. Damon and Blunt has been stunt cast to save time. They’re both naturally amiable leads who are easy to root for. They’re everypeople. The film moves at a quick pace and the sooner the audience is on board and buys into the central relationship, the better. 

All this chin-stroking and white knighting may lead you to believe that this is the sort of film I want to be buried with. It isn’t. It’s not perfect and has its fair share of flaws and things that stop it from true greatness. The sci-fi element of the Bureau and their powers don’t always mesh convincingly with the standard romantic thrust of the story. Especially when it turns out they have magical hats (cough). I’m not a huge fan of the massive religious overtones at the end, either. Religious symbolism/allegory is fine by me, but when it’s just bunged in at the end in a climactic speech instead of woven carefully into the film, it gives the impression the film is reaching for more and more things that might possibly resonate with the audience. With that particular point, to the film’s credit, it doesn’t explicitly say that they’re angels or whatever, thus avoiding some unfair It’s A Wonderful Life type comparisons.

“I don’t care what you put in my way, I’m not giving up!”

The Adjustment Bureau is a great film. Script wise, the dialogue could have done with a little tightening up here and there as some of the exchanges do border on the wrist-slittingly saccharine, but what the hell, it’s a romantic movie at heart after all- some things you can let slide. As well as doing a decent job of writing, it’s well directed by George Nolfi, who keeps the pace brisk and the tone consistent. The whole cast do what the do best and you can’t argue with that. I like romantic films but I’m often frustrated by how hollow and stupid they are. The Adjustment Bureau proves that with just a little effort and creativity, you can make the hackneyed and well-trodden feel fresh and exciting. Highly recommended. 

Elysium

 
#OccupyElysium
 

Elysium (2013)

I’ve been looking forward to Elysium for a long damn time. District 9 blew my mind when I saw it back in 2009. It was a fresh, compelling, brilliant piece of sci-fi that, to my mind at least, hasn’t been equalled by much since. Writer/director Niell Blomkamp has been disappointingly quiet since then, but thankfully he’s back with another true blue science fiction title with an actual brain.

“They will hunt you to the edge of the Earth for this.”

Elysium is set in 2154. Earth is now choked with pollution, disease and overpopulation. The wealthy and privileged got the fuck out of Dodge and live aboard Elysium, a utopian space station full of lush plant life, massive mansions and, crucially, amazing healthcare that can eradicate cancer, reconstruct grievous injuries and basically fix any ailment going. Matt Damon stars as Max Da Costa, a working stiff with a criminal past who dreams of leaving the dusty, grotty Earth behind and living on Elysium. However, Elysian Secretary of Defence, Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster) exists to keep a lid on immigration and will viciously protect its borders. After Max absorbs a lethal amount of radiation in an accident at work, his pipe dreams become imperative as he needs Elysium’s healthcare to survive. He pulls one last job in an effort to buy his way onto the space habitat and ends up with childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) and her sick daughter in tow. Things get more complicated when Elysian agent and violent psychopath Kruger (Sharlto Copley) is sent to hunt Max down.

It may be set in the future, but Elysium‘s themes and social commentary are ripped straight from the present. Things like immigration, the gulf between rich and poor and socialised healthcare are all woven into the story. I would say that Elysium is quite an angry film at heart as is certainly not afraid to confront the audience with the points it wants to make and some uncomfortable truths. Matt Damon is on form here as Max. He’s a likable, sympathetic character that you really feel for. Damon is a damn fine actor and continues to be great in everything I see him in. Same can’t be said for Jodie Foster. I’m not quite sure if she remembers how to act. She’s normally decent, but it seems like she’s gone for cold and removed with Delacourt, overshot the acting sweet spot and ended up next to comatose. The polar opposite of that is Sharlto Copley, who plays the insane and dangerous Kruger with a sick glee. He’s seriously intimidating in this film and it’s another big fat tick in the “Sharlto Copley is the best thing ever” column. He owns the film. I liked Alice Braga’s role. She plays a similar character to the one she played in 2007’s I Am Legend and it works just as well here. You immediately root for her. Props go to William Fichtner’s oily CEO too. What a rat bastard.

As a writer, Blomkamp reminds me of Andrew Niccol. They both usually have a serious social/political point to make which acts as the core for when they’re making a film. They also can both be a little heavy-handed in making that point. Thematically, Elysium is similar to Niccol’s In Time as they both deal with the rich and poor divide and have a Robin Hood/giving back to the masses vibe. Directorially, Blomkamp stands alone. He’s an innovative, intelligent director who manages to inject his films with a energy and heft. He’s great at visuals too. There’s an amazing slo-mo shot of a bodyguard droid getting torn apart by airbursting, splitting rounds that’s absolutely gorgeous. Elysium itself is fantastically designed too. It’s a 2001-esque rotating wheel that’s like Beverly Hills inside. Unlike most modern sci-fis Elysium takes its time building its world and it pays off. The slums of Earth feel very real and Elysium has an intentional artificiality and has a real Stepford feel to it.

Action meatheads like m’self will be gratified to know that Elysium isn’t like a flat Powerpoint presentation of all that is wrong with the world. The film has some kick-ass action sequences too, that prove to be thrilling. Most of the fun is thanks to the awesome sci-fi weaponry and Max’s exoskeleton rig which grants him superhuman strength. Seriously, can Blomkamp do a videogame or two, please? The fun, gory weapons in this and District 9 would be perfect for a game. Somebody call him. Anyway, the action feels like it happens organically, almost as if the story came first and action beats were added where it made sense. Fancy that! Fancy not starting with action sequences and then trying to tie them all together somehow.  As with District 9, the effects are amazing and often border on photo-realism. A character has to have pretty severe reconstructive surgery at one point and I was stunned at how amazing and convincing the effects were.

If I had to pick holes in it (and I do, it’s kinda my thing), I would say that Elysium isn’t without its problems. It took me a while to get properly into it, although I’m not sure why. I was appreciating the acting/effects whatever, but I didn’t feel actually involved in it all until later in the film. Perhaps a second viewing would clear that up. Whilst not bashing you over the head with its message like the first half of District 9 did, it still bangs on about its messages a little too much where a deft touch would have sufficed. I suppose this is to really spell these important issues out for the plebs out there. Elysium succumbs to a trend that I’ve noticed in quite a few recent films- clumsy flashbacks and pointless reminders. I’m being intentionally vague here, but we flash back at a pivotal moment in the film to a moment we’ve already seen and should have taken on board. To me, it slightly ruined the moment as the film didn’t have enough confidence in the audience to remember something that happened in the first half of the film. Instead of concluding a thematic arc quietly and neatly, it instead has to draw attention to it through a neon bullhorn, which tarnished the scene slightly.

“”There’s nothing left down here. They have it all on Elysium, food, water, medicine, and they’ll do anything to keep us out. It’s time to change everything.”

Go and see Elysium. It’s a smart, enjoyable sci-fi piece that has a lot to say for itself. After a disappointing summer, Elysium is a breath of fresh air. I look forward to 2015’s Chappie (also starring Sharlto “The Man” Copley) with great anticipation. Highly recommended.