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Robert Horton

‘Elysium’: Matt Damon as Sci-Fi Spartacus

Matt Damon’s hero prepares a data dump (with Wagner Moura, left, as his programmer)

Elysium hangs in orbit, a giant spinning space station of deluxe McMansions and WASPy country clubs; it’s a brief supersonic ride from the filthy, overpopulated Earth of 2154.

Elysium looks like the most boring place imaginable. But every home has a healing machine (like the auto-surgery modules in Prometheus), which is handy if one has absorbed a lethal dose of radiation and has five days to live. In Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, such is the dilemma of Max (Matt Damon), a worker-drone on Earth who must find a way to get to Elysium and fix his decaying body.

Already you can see the outlines of Blomkamp’s allegory, a world divided between the haves and the have-nots (such a remarkably consistent vision in futuristic fiction, from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine through Metropolis and Avatar). If this lacks the startling originality of Blomkamp’s 2009 District 9, which shredded the imagery of apartheid in Blomkamp’s native South Africa through a savage and funny alien-invasion scenario, the Elysium setup is still workable enough to qualify as satisfying old-school science fiction.

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‘We’re the Millers’: Won’t Somebody Please Help Poor, Lost Jennifer Aniston?

Jason Sudekis and Jennifer Aniston as a fake couple heading a fake family

Jennifer Aniston gives every indication, onscreen and off, of being a hardworking and good-natured person; alas, her utter niceness has led to a dire series of post-Friends vehicles, films in which her capricious comic timing is squandered on very watered-down material.

Every now and then one of these movies tries to add some “edge,” which must be welcome to an actress stuck in the America’s Sweetheart loop. With the notable exception of The Good Girl, these attempts only remind us how nice Aniston is and how far short she falls of such knotted-up characters. Case in point: We’re the Millers, a predictably raunchy comedy with a farfetched but not impossible premise: Drug dealer David (Saturday Night Live veteran Jason Sudeikis) must make good a debt to his slick supplier (Ed Helms) by bringing a huge load of marijuana across the border from Mexico. David’s idea: Hire three strangers to pretend to be his nauseatingly clean-cut family, the better to escape detection while driving through customs in a motor home.

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‘Blackfish’: Why Do We Continue to Enslave the Orcas?

Tilikum the killer whale at SeaWorld

My childhood hero Namu was the second killer whale kept in captivity (he came to the Seattle waterfront on my birthday in 1965), and we owe him a lot. The world understood almost nothing about these fantastic creatures until Namu proved how bright, social, and instinctively friendly killer whales are. That was good. The problem was, everybody saw how the trainable and lovable animals could be used to make money. And that has led to a decades-long controversy that ought to have been settled by now.

Blackfish should be the final word on the subject, even if it probably won’t be. This relentless documentary circles around the 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau, a supremely experienced SeaWorld trainer who was killed in a performing tank by Tilikum, a 12,000-pound whale. But that death is the starting point for a film that makes a couple of general thrusts: Killer whales should not be kept in captivity, and the sea parks that own them have done a suspiciously incomplete job of informing their trainers and the public about how they operate their businesses.

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‘The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear’: Hollywood Dreams in the Former USSR

One of Tinatin Gurchiani’s young interviewees

If minimalism was an economic necessity for filmmaker Tinatin Gurchiani—she had a few thousand dollars to spend on her first feature—it also fits her purpose. Her documentary is a narrow-gauge look at a sliver of real life in small-town Georgia in the former USSR. Gurchiani visits a rural community in the Caucasus and puts out a call to young people who might want to appear on camera. The very first fellow we see onscreen is much older than that demographic, an early indication that curiosity about being in a movie trumps all other considerations. He admits he has never done a film, but has always thought he might be good for, say, Jean-Claude Van Damme sorts of roles; he’s got some of those moves. Can he do the midair splits, asks the offscreen director? In the past, yes, answers our modest-looking villager, who looks more like a figure from a 19th-century lithograph than from a chopsocky action picture. He’d have to start practicing again.

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‘I’m So Excited’: Almodóvar Takes Flight, Then Stalls

Cecilia Roth plays the diva onboard

The plane is in the air, and the coach passengers have been sedated for the duration of the flight. This is a wacky Pedro Almodóvar touch—especially the way the flight crew accepts this as standard procedure—and it fits the movie’s overall feeling of not quite existing within the known universe. (Actually, putting passengers to sleep during a long flight is not a terrible idea, even if the plane isn’t experiencing mechanical difficulties.) But this trip has gone wrong. The flight crew is panicked over the stuck landing gear and worried about keeping the first-class passengers distracted. On both points, there’s a great deal of tequila involved.

I’m So Excited has been touted as a return to Almodóvar’s zany early work such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and in some ways that’s true. It’s crammed with explicit sex jokes, suggested sex acts, and a brazen attitude toward hedonism at 30,000 feet. The members of the crew are tangled in illicit relationships; the conscious passengers are a roster of eccentrics and rogues. We lack only a guitar-playing nun and a teen needing a kidney transplant.

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‘Hannah Arendt’: Bearing Witness to Banal Evil

Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) as witness to history

In an otherwise conventional approach to her biopic, director Margarethe von Trotta makes an exception for one key aspect of the story. It’s a crucial decision. Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) is already an esteemed professor and public intellectual when she talks The New Yorker into hiring her to cover the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel in 1961. This is where von Trotta makes the exception: Eichmann is not played by an actor, but represented by the extensive newsreel footage of the trial. A small thing, but critical: An actor might have brought some distinction, some charisma, to the role of the Nazi war criminal.

That could have worked against Arendt’s famous observation about Eichmann’s very ordinariness. She coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the particular horror of the Nazis’ tidy organization of genocide. Instead of the aberrant monsters of the final solution, she proposed a population of bland bureaucrats with blood on their hands. This bold assertion, and the sometimes angry fallout that came after, is at the core of Hannah Arendt. The subject’s a good fit for von Trotta, whose career has frequently taken a political slant; here she casts a merciless eye on how the political is inevitably personal.

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‘Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story’: A Master Illustrator’s Fall From Grace

If you don’t know the name, you know the line. That is to say, you’ve surely seen the effortless drawing style of Tomi Ungerer—prolific children’s-book author of the 1950s and ’60s—whose life gets an enlightening treatment in this documentary. It doesn’t venture into the dark recesses of Crumb-land, but Ungerer has a story and a career outside the normal job description for “children’s-book author.” Far enough outside, in fact, to be exiled from that world for almost 30 years.

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‘More Than Honey’: Won’t Someone Please Save the Bees?

The bees! Not the bees!

Instead of making the underperforming White House Down, perhaps director Roland Emmerich—the master of disaster behind 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow—should’ve stuck with his usual instinct for large-scale destruction. He should’ve made a movie about bees.

More Than Honey demonstrates why the subject is ripe for apocalyptic treatment. Banish all thoughts of The Swarm, the ’70s Michael Caine flop about killer bees taking over; the real threat is not that bees will attack us, but abandon us. Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying that if bees were to disappear from the Earth, humankind would die off after four years—and while the attribution might be apocryphal, the observation points out how the agricultural grid is dependent on those tiny, buzzing ministers of fertility.

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‘The Unspeakable Act’: When Brooklyn Siblings Get Too Close

Unhealthy proximity? Tallie Medel and Sky Hirschkron

It doesn’t take long for The Unspeakable Act to go there. We’ve barely been ushered into the Kimball family unit, a normal-looking Brooklyn clan, when teenage daughter Jackie (Tallie Medel) casually introduces the subject that she elsewhere describes as “the I-word.” Jackie is troubled—distraught, actually—that her brother Matthew (Sky Hirschkron) has his first steady girlfriend and is leaving for Princeton soon. In the plainest way possible, she tells us about how difficult is it to be in love with a member of one’s own family.

That’s right. The I-word is incest, but the idea that this taboo subject can be treated only sensationalistically is quickly dispelled by writer/director Dan Sallitt’s approach. This quiet microbudget film sails along as smoothly and easily as Jackie’s bicycle glides through Brooklyn in the opening shots.

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‘Maniac’: Elijah Wood in a Creepy, Needless Remake

Elijah Wood continues to seek roles as far from Frodo as possible

The 1980 Maniac is one of those periodic exploitation concepts that pay off handsomely: low budget, killer title, horrified reviews that can be used to drum up interest, and good timing (the malaise era was at its death-gasp nadir). The thing made a huge profit.

A remake can’t capture that nervy, subversive vibe—there’s no surprise left. That’s partly why the recent reboots of Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre felt misjudged; the budgets were too high, the acting too competent, the properties already too enshrined in pop culture. This Maniac remake is grungier than those efforts, so I suppose it has that going for it. But without the original barrel-scraping atmosphere, even beachcombers of bucket-of-blood horror might be tested by its single-note idea and approach.

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‘Berberian Sound Studio’: Toby Jones Gets Lost in Rome

Toby Jones’ soundman unravels in the studio

We don’t learn exactly how a fussy English bachelor gets a job as a soundman on an Italian horror movie in ’70s Rome. That’s his profession, and the evidence suggests he knows his craft. But this gig is wrong on so many levels. The longer Berberian Sound Studio goes on, the less it matters how this ill-advised assignment came about. Because this experience unfolds more as a dream than a credible story. And the dream is a nightmare.

That’s the way it goes for Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a mild chap whose warm, loving letters from home are written not by a wife, but—as we discover when he reaches the bottom of the page—by his mother. Of course. Utterly at sea among the floridly warm-blooded Italians in this post-production studio, he’s just as uncomfortable with the content of the film he’s dubbing. It’s a giallo, as the Italians call their style of horror, and the sadistic material onscreen is discomfiting. Though, being British, Gilderoy remains as detached as possible while actresses record their terrifying screams for his microphones.

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‘The Lone Ranger’: Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Old West

Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer

Is there anything as surefire as the William Tell Overture? I mean, who messes that up? Whatever the Disney people do with the new big-budget version of The Lone Ranger, at least they’ll get the famous music right, right? Well, funny story. The music—and so many other things—are all wrong about The Lone Ranger, a mechanical contraption that never decides what it wants to be. The Lone Ranger’s squeaky-clean image and code of behavior are hopelessly square for the 21st century, but the movie hasn’t come up with anything viable to replace what worked in those thrilling days of yesteryear.

The casting is promising: Johnny Depp is Tonto, which means the masked man’s Indian sidekick is not a sidekick anymore. (Somewhere, Jay Silverheels is smiling—top-billed at last.) And Armie Hammer, who played the computer-generated twins of The Social Network, has the strong jaw and straightforward manner for a credible John Reid, aka the Lone Ranger. As it happens, Hammer plays the tenderfoot card and not much else, while Depp is busy doing his actorly fiddling. We first meet Tonto in old age, recalling his past glories (this is merely the first echo of Little Big Man), but for most of the film Depp is covered in tribal makeup, fur, and a dead crow he wears atop his head; it’s hard for his impish personality to break the surface.

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’20 Feet From Stardom’: Background Singers in the Spotlight

Darlene Love

Who dreams of being a backup singer? Our culture is made for the star, the frontman, the diva—with or without Auto-Tune. This might be why 20 Feet From Stardom, an otherwise delightful documentary, is tinged with an air of disappointment. Meeting the full-throated likes of Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, and Lisa Fischer, we understand these are masters of their craft. But the question nags: If they are masters, why aren’t they stars?

20 Feet engages that question, although somehow it’s a shame we have to ask it. Why wouldn’t it be enough to make a nice living, meet interesting people, and bring beautiful song into the world? If the soulful Fischer doesn’t have the killer instinct it takes to sacrifice everything for the spotlight, maybe she’s got it figured out. The film includes some who made the leap, including Darlene Love and Sheryl Crow, but the focus is mostly on the folks who’ve made a career out of being in the background. Like the 2002 doc Standing in the Shadows of Motown, it’s got a built-in hook: all that great music, served with annotations from musicians.

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‘The Secret Disco Revolution’: History You Can Dance To

From left, Julia Hladkowicz, Kito Lightbourne, and Reg Taylor play disco’s latter-day saviors

Do a little dance. Make a little love. Get down tonight. If you suspect that this nugget is not merely the chorus from a disco song but also philosophy to live by, you might be ready for The Secret Disco Revolution. This documentary attempts to place the glitter ball and “The Hustle” back in their proper cultural context. Or any cultural context. Director Jamie Kastner straps on his platform shoes and pukka-shell necklace and goes to bat for a much-maligned musical era, which, he argues, has more social significance than we give credit.

There was a secret agenda behind disco, Kastner suggests: The music was a Trojan horse for the advancement of gay rights, African-American artistry, and women’s sexuality. All of a sudden, “Right Back Where We Started From” might need another listen. Kastner plays it tongue-in-cheek. To balance the erudite academics on screen, he includes vignettes of three actors, costumed as the worst Mod Squad imitators ever, who wander around carrying a disco ball while a narrator describes—in hilariously sober tones—the plan to smuggle the gay/black/female revolution into America.

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‘The Bling Ring’: Sofia Coppola’s Beverly Hills Heist Movie

Emma Watson (with Leslie Mann at right) does the perp walk

If we lived in the days when directors cranked out a couple of titles a year—or even one per annum—then it might be less dispiriting to report that The Bling Ring is Sofia Coppola’s latest movie. But Coppola has made just three features since Lost in Translation, her 2003 breakthrough, poking along through the period frou-frou of Marie Antoinette and the art-movie lethargy of Somewhere. She’s in her early 40s now, and somehow ought to be past The Bling Ring.

But here it is. And it’s not a terrible movie, exactly. It’s even fun at times. Certainly the real-life case of teenagers who robbed the houses of L.A.’s most vacuous stars must have sounded ripe for a satirical spin around the block. The youthful thieves went on their spree in 2008–09, and their targets included Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Orlando Bloom. One senses Coppola’s interest is especially piqued by the inanity of these victims: The robbers couldn’t even pick cool dumb celebrities, just dumb dumb celebrities.

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