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WITH his second feature film after District 9, writer-director Neill Blomkamp cements a specialty for himself in science fiction that is also, front and centre, social critique. With explosions.

Elysium is set in 2154 in a world where the term "social strata" has been rendered literal. The Earth, polluted, over-populated and disease-ridden, is unfit for habitation by the ultra-wealthy. So they live above it all in a wheel-like space station, where they can maintain a lifestyle of sunshine, manicured lawns, mansions and at-home medical units where cancer can be cured as quickly as it takes to photocopy a prescription.

On the ground, things are more dire, especially for ex-con Max (Matt Damon), who commutes through the sprawling squalor that is shantytown Los Angeles (reminiscent of the South African townships of District 9). Max is routinely brutalized by robot cops, ignored by robot social workers and given dangerous assignments in the robot factory where he works. After suffering an industrial accident involving heavy radiation, he is given five days to live. With nothing to lose, he joins an old criminal confederate who has a plan to stage an invasion of Elysium, where Max can be cured. Raising the stakes for Max is his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), whose terminally ill daughter could also stand to be on the upper tier of Earth's two-tier medical system.

This places Max on a path with Elysium's ruthless Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster, who doesn't seem to have a real handle on the icy villain thing) and her brutal Earth minion Kruger (District 9's Sharlto Copley, who very much has a handle on the psychotic killer thing).

Blomkamp's script is certainly pertinent, simultaneously evoking the immigration debate currently raging in the U.S., as well as the widening divide between the ultra-wealthy and the rest of us. The depiction of Elysium's Bel Air-like environs are deliciously satiric.

But Blomkamp cannot resist the lure of tech, whether it is the muscle-enhancing exo-suit Max has drilled onto his body, or the mountain of visual effects going on behind the camera. By the time the finale comes, we're a little exhausted by all the robotic smackdowns, the explosions and the sundry violence. ***1/2


The Family

FRENCH director Luc Besson's The Family opens with the murders of an innocent family -- mom, dad and two kids -- and then subsequently invites us to have a grand old comedic time following the adventures of a former mob chieftain (Robert De Niro) hiding out in a small village in Normandy with his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) and two kids. (Yes, De Niro's clan were the intended victims of the opening massacre.)

But this movie's weird tonal shifts between comedy and violence go uncomfortably beyond the usual dark comedy tropes and create a jarring dissonance.

Imagine listening to La Vie en Rose and gangsta rap simultaneously for two hours and you'll have an idea of what to expect.

Perhaps the best way to read this odd movie is to think of a small-town French community decimated by the intrusion of an American mob family as the ultimate metaphor for Besson's Americanization of French cinema. *1/2


Kick-Ass 2

THE 2010 movie Kick-Ass was a fascinating oddball in the ever-expanding superhero genre. Matthew Vaughn's entry set the story more or less in the real world, where no one possesses extraordinary mutant/extraterrestrial/supernatural powers and a gun usually trumps good intentions.

In a crime-ridden city, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) rose up to take the challenge of becoming the costumed vigilante of the title and promptly found himself outclassed by the bizarre father-daughter team of Nicolas Cage's Big Daddy and Chlo´ Grace Moretz's foul-mouthed tween, Mindy/Hit Girl.

In the sequel, Dave and Mindy are in the same high school, facing retribution from spoiled mob scion Chris D'Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who vowed revenge for his vanquished crime kingpin dad.

After receiving martial arts instruction from Mindy, Dave drifts into a loose super-friends association with a gang of would-be vigilantes calling themselves Justice Forever. The gang is led by a former mob enforcer born again into a self-styled hero who calls himself Col. Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey).

Meanwhile, the unhinged D'Amico changes his costumed persona from "Red Mist" to "The Motherf -r" and assembles his own league of costumed bad guys. The sequel contains its share of violent shocks, but Wadlow seems to be constantly whittling down the strangeness of the original property. Dave and Mindy seem to endlessly debate the question of whether Mindy/ Dave or Kick-Ass/Hit Girl are their true identities. Carrey and Mintz-Plasse take turns chewing scenery. And every minute, another costumed kook seems to appear on the screen.

Thus, the "real-world" premise of the first film slowly disappears from view to be replaced by a fog of the familiar: teen angst and violent excess. **1/2



PRISONERS centres on a double child abduction, so you can assume correctly that Quebec director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies, Polytechnique) is following the precedent of making darkly compelling movies you never want to see more than once.

Set in a bleak autumnal Pennsylvania, the film drops us into the living nightmares of two families. The daughters of Kelly Dover (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) stroll away from the Birch home after a Thanksgiving dinner, and seemingly disappear off the face of the earth.

Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a police detective with a nervous twitch and a perfect record for solving crimes, is put on the case. He finds a suspicious RV that was seen parked in the vicinity of the girls' homes. Its driver is even more suspicious, a man-boy named Alex Jones (Paul Dano) who crashes his vehicle in a panic upon police approach. His aunt (Melissa Leo) insists the young man has a mental age of 10.

While he is suspicious as hell -- and Dano makes the character maddeningly ambiguous -- there is no evidence to hold him.

Dover launches a surveillance of his own. And when he gets an opportunity to subject Alex to what the American intelligence community refers to as "enhanced interrogation," he does so with grim, scary resolve.

Prisoners is first and foremost a crime drama in which Villeneuve slowly ratchets the suspense by making the audience privy to clues the characters do not have the opportunity to put together.

But thematically, it is very much in Villeneuve's wheelhouse. Like Polytechnique, the director's painful recreation of the murders of 14 female students at Montreal's âcole Polytechnique in 1989, it is about the repercussions of an act of senseless madness, especially in its examination of perceived masculine inadequacy in the face of evil, which here is taken to its self-destructive extremes by Jackman's unhinged dad.

Like Incendies, it's a personal story with wider social implications, especially related to the topic of torture. The running time is apparently Villeneuve's major surrender to Hollywood studio excess. Its 153 minutes is double that of the spare, tense Polytechnique, and it leaves us feeling not so much overdosed on suspense as just plain exhausted.***1/2

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 19, 2013 C16

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