Elysium Movie

A critical digest of the week’s latest U.S. theatrical releases. Where applicable, links to longer reviews have been provided.

Elysium
Distributor:
Sony
So close and yet so far, the colony of Elysium hovers just outside Earth’s atmosphere, a mere 19-minute shuttle ride away but figurative light years for the downtrodden proletarian masses of the 22nd century. So begins the much-anticipated second feature from South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp, whose 2009 “District 9” was one of the few recent sci-fi/fantasy pics (along with “Inception” and “Children of Men”) that deserved to be called visionary. Here, Blomkamp delivers a less dazzling but nonetheless highly absorbing and intelligent, socially conscious bit of futurism, made on a much larger scale than its $30 million predecessor, but with lots of the same scrappy ingenuity. Result confirms the helmer as much more than a one-hit wunderkind and should easily surpass “District 9’s” $210 million worldwide haul, if not its massive profit margin.
— Scott Foundas
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Planes
Distributor:
Disney
A “Cars” spinoff that seems to have taken an unfortunate detour through “It’s a Small World,” “Planes” is so overrun with broad cultural stereotypes that it should come with free ethnic-sensitivity training for especially impressionable kids. Produced outside the auspices of Pixar and showing it in every uninspired particular, this formulaic underdog story — about a lowly cropduster who dreams of joining the fast flyers in an international air race — feels heavily geared toward small fry at the expense of grown-up interest. Diverting in bits and pieces, but absent the heart, soul and ingenuity one associates with the best of Disney animation, the endlessly merchandisable picture could very well soar at the box office, but it won’t stick the landing where word of mouth is concerned.
— Justin Chang
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We’re the Millers
Distributor:
Warner Bros.
“We’re the Millers” is about four unfortunate individuals tricked into going on an excruciating road trip in exchange for a hefty payday, a description that is offered here less as plot summary than as a possible explanation for why the actors look so trapped. Probably the worst movie to prominently feature an RV since “RV,” this tiresomely vulgar outing throws together a drug dealer, a stripper, two teens, a testicle-biting tarantula, a gaggle of gun-waving Mexican stereotypes and scarcely a single laugh amid all the ensuing pot-smuggling, booty-shaking, heart-tugging shenanigans. “We’re the Filler” might have been a more apt title for Warners’ mid-August dud, which should run out of B.O. gas once word gets out.
— Justin Chang
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Lovelace
Distributor:
Radius-TWC
The late star of “Deep Throat,” Linda Lovelace, titled her 1980 autobiography “Ordeal,” but, for the most part, “Lovelace” goes down smooth. Reducing an immensely disturbing, politically byzantine tale to a series of cartoonish vignettes, this celeb-studded biopic squanders a gutsy performance by Amanda Seyfried while making ’70s porn look scarcely more sleazy than a movie-of-the-week melodrama from the period. Co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman forsake the truth-telling spirit of their past work in documentary, relying on jumbled chronology and long ellipses to smooth over the Lovelace saga’s many rough edges. Commercial rewards appear doubtful nonetheless for the Radius-TWC pickup.
— Rob Nelson
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Prince Avalanche
Distributor:
Magnolia Pictures
Insinuatingly low-key, minimalist Icelandic seriocomedy “Either Way” gets a slightly broader yet perhaps even more satisfying U.S. translation in “Prince Avalanche.” Despite the presence of A-listers Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as ill-matched road workers toiling in a recently burned Central Texas forest area, David Gordon Green’s latest is closer to his poetical indie dramas than to his Hollywood efforts (“Pineapple Express,” let alone “Your Highness”). But both paths actually harmonize in a warmly enjoyable dual-character study whose mix of comedic and serious elements should get the good reviews needed to bolster middling commercial prospects.
— Dennis Harvey
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In a World …
Distributor:
Roadside Attractions
To call Lake Bell a magnetic, intelligent, blithely screwball leading lady in the Carole Lombard tradition might be selling her short. With “In a World … ,” a rollicking laffer about the cutthroat voiceover biz in Los Angeles, she proves herself a comedy screenwriter to be reckoned with. She’s also a curator of talent that makes her debut feature a giddy, inside-Hollywood romp. Star power is limited — Bell and casting director John Papsidera have put together an A-team of supporting thesps — but word of mouth can only help a film with too many laugh lines to be absorbed in one sitting.
— John Anderson
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Chennai Express
Distributor:
UTV
The humor is pretty one-note in Rohit Shetty’s comedy/romance/actioner “Chennai Express.” Cast as a sheltered 40-year-old suddenly thrust into multiple perilous situations, superstar Shah Rukh Khan repeatedly reacts with craven cowardice and flashes of false bravado; though played for laughs, his behavior comes across more as moral laxity than hilarious evasiveness. It doesn’t help that co-star Deepika Padukone is so likable as the rebellious daughter of a southern don, rendering the antipathy between their characters somewhat gratuitous. This North-South culture-clash laffer set an opening-day B.O. record in India with $1.1 million (beating the previous champ, “3 Idiots”), but elsewhere, its popularity may depend on audiences’ willingness to wait two hours for Khan to transform into his heroic self.
— Ronnie Scheib
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The Gardener
Venue: 
Quad Cinema, New York
Exiled Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf and his son Maysam debate the personal and political roles of religion in entertaining docu “The Gardener.” Taking their cameras into the magnificent gardens of the Baha’i Faith’s headquarters in Haifa and Akka, Israel, father and son gather testimony from followers of the peace-promoting denomination and combine it with their own reflections to produce a stimulating and highly accessible cinematic conversation.
— Richard Kuipers
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I Give It a Year
Distributor:
Magnolia Pictures
Skillfully customizing a traditional chassis and then souping it up with bawdy, “Bridesmaids”-style humor, “I Give It a Year” is a racy British laffer that updates shingle Working Title’s romantic-comedy house style for the 2010s. Under the stewardship of debutant writer-helmer Dan Mazer (a longtime Sacha Baron Cohen collaborator), Rose Byrne and up-and-comer Rafe Spall star as mismatched newlyweds whose marriage seems doomed from the start.
— Leslie Felperin
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The Good Son: The Life of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini
Distributor:
SnagFilms
Plenty serviceable as a belated documentary addendum to “Rocky,” director Jesse James Miller’s bio of ‘80s-era World Boxing Council lightweight champ Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini connects on emotional levels in the telling of an up-from-nothing brawler whose colorful career climaxed in tragedy. Pic’s late-reel conceit of filming the meeting between Mancini and the son of the man he beat to death in the ring may sound contrived on paper, but it plays beautifully on screen, adding to the pathos of a film whose heart is in the right place throughout. Boxing buffs will weigh in toward lightweight VOD and DVD receipts.
— Rob Nelson
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The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear
Distributor:
Icarus Films
Tinatin Gurchiani’s accomplished first feature, “The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear,” offers an impressionistic, somewhat poetical view of current life in her native former Soviet territory. Those already well-versed in Georgia’s recent history will get the most from a series of real-life character sketches occasionally cryptic for their lack of contextualizing explanation. But the docu’s ample human interest and handsome lensing, despite much visual evidence of a struggling economy, will hold interest for most viewers. This North American pickup for distrib Icarus Films looks commercially iffy, but the pic should score artscaster sales and bolster the helmer’s next career move.
— Dennis Harvey
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Zipper: Coney Island’s Last Wild Ride
Distributor:
Cinema Guild
Once an amusement mecca for working-class New Yorkers, immortalized on film in Paul Fejos’ “Lonesome” and Harold Lloyd’s “Speedy,” Coney Island now receives a cinematic lament for its populist demise in “Zipper.”  The title refers to a Coney Island ride, a homey focal point in the big-money battle raging around it, as Amy Nicholson’s pic joins a long procession of Gotham documentaries chronicling the transformation of viable, affordable, idiosyncratic neighborhoods into generic high-rise enclaves for the rich. Uniquely accessing an endless flow of rampant hypocrisy, the Aug. 9 release should amuse audiences even as it horrifies. 
— Ronnie Scheib
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Jug Face
Distributor:
Gravitas Ventures
Vibrantly lensed in rural Tennessee, “Jug Face” is an impressively oozing slab of indie horror that bodes well for the future of first-time writer-director Chad Crawford Kinkle. The brisk, brief feature appears more atmospheric than terrifying, but its bare-bones tale gets under the skin, telling of a pregnant teen whose impending sacrifice to a backwoods community’s worship pit causes hell to break loose. Creatively frugal f/x and a fine performance by saucer-eyed Lauren Ashley Carter as the freaked-out heroine should translate into solid word of mouth among low-budget horror buffs and a modestly successful VOD gross.
— Rob Nelson
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The United States of Autism
Distributor: The Tommy Foundation
Resolutely upbeat producer-director Richard Evert, the father of an autistic boy, journeys cross-country 11,000 miles in “The United States of Autism,” knocking on 21 doors to speak with other families with autistic children. In the informal interviews that follow, involving much hugging and friendly horseplay, many parents say they are blessed, claiming to have learned valuable lessons from their autistic kids. Sometimes the children speak on their own behalf, as when two brothers describe their disease, one labeling it “cool” and the other considering it an unmitigated disaster. The documentary clarifies the breadth of the autism spectrum, from those who lack basic language and/or motor skills to those at the high-functioning end who do not seek a “cure” but rather social acceptance in the name of neurological diversity. Doctors and scientists attest to the huge increase in autism cases, but Evert seldom enters into questions of causes or treatments, concentrating instead on the inspirational aspects of his quest.
— Ronnie Scheib

Kid-Thing
Distributor:
Factory 25
Fiercely independent and utterly asocial, the freckle-faced, 10-year-old girl at the center of “Kid-Thing” hardly invites viewer identification. Barely parented by her goat-tending father, she basically runs wild, wandering the woods, shooting cows with a paint gun and busting things with a baseball bat. When she encounters a woman trapped in a well who begs for help, she is uncertain what to do. Spearheaded by phenomenal pint-sized lead Sydney Aguirre, this challenging third feature from the Zellner Brothers retains much of their provocative trademark idiocy but navigates darker waters, potentially broadening their loyal fanbase.
— Ronnie Scheib
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Blood
Distributor:
Image Entertainment
A quartet of justly regarded British actors elevates Nick Murphy’s sophomore feature “Blood,” but only to the level of superior TV fare. This quality crimer lacks the pulse-racing peril that might seal the deal with thriller aficionados, and the title turns out to be more about the family ties that bind than rivulets of red. Falling somewhere between arthouse and mainstream, commercial prospects look little better than Murphy’s 2011 debut, “The Awakening.”
— Charles Gant
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Off Label
Distributor:
Oscilloscope Laboratories
Squandering the chance to offer a coherently investigative p.o.v. on the widespread use and misuse of psychotropic pharmaceuticals in the U.S., “Off Label” is a pretentiously poetic docu-mosaic whose choices appear to have been made for pseudo-artistic rather than principled reasons. The pic’s seemingly random portraits of eight people whose lives have been variously affected by prescription drugs fail to bring a thesis into focus, further obscuring the already complex issue of mental illness treatment via pills. Arguably irresponsible and ill suited even to the smallscreen, the pic deserves to settle for limited fest play.
— Rob Nelson
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