Natalie Belz

Natalie Belz is an avid movie geek who writes awesome movie reviews in Hillsborough, North Carolina. She's thirteen but aspires to be older one day. She welcomes comments and responses at nosebelz@gmail.com

Elysium: Neill Blomkamp’s Latest Masterpiece

Ever since I saw District 9, the sci-fi thriller released in 2009, I have desperately craved a sequel or at least another film directed by Neill Blomkamp. Elysium was announced in early 2011, but the obsession over its August arrival began at the beginning of this summer. I’m an avid Tumblr blogger, and I have to admit, the only reason I joined the social-media website was to feed my hunger for District 9 and share my obsession over every actor, director, cultural impact and all-in-all breakdown of the movie. When the people I followed and tags I tracked began raving over the second film by Blomkamp and actor Sharlto Copley, I was hooked. Before the movie even premiered, I had read enough reviews, seen enough screenshots, watched enough interviews and researched production and actor background to know exactly what to expect in every aspect of the film—except for the well-guarded plot details.

On August 8, I finally saw Elysium’s premiere at a local theater with a few friends and my movie-geek father. We arrived about an hour early, but the wait seemed like forever. First lingering outside and candy-buying, then lingering inside the empty theater (of course, it was almost full by the time the movie actually started), hanging around the lobby on a movie-poster hunt (sadly, no posters were available for this fangirl), then previews, and finally it began.

Elysium portrays a dystopian future set in 2154. Lower-middle class people live on a rundown Earth, and the wealthiest 1% live on a space station, a manmade paradise complete with swimming pools, giant houses, greenery, wildlife and great healthcare. Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), an Earth-dwelling factory worker, dreams of getting up to Elysium with his childhood friend, Frey (Alicia Bragg). But the people of Elysium don’t want worthless immigrants using their healthcare. That’s where the coldhearted Elysium officials come in, to protect the people and hide the discrimination and inhumane treatment of any outsiders who attempt to enter the Elysium airspace. Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster), head of Elysium protection, fights against the immigration using brutal tactics, such as her top agent, Kruger (Sharlto Copley!!!). Max’s mission is to hack into the Elysium system and allow non-Elysian access to medical care, for himself as well as Frey’s daughter.

Neill Blomkamp, the South African director of Elysium, only recently came to light in the world of cinema with the release of District 9. Besides making use of absolutely stunning CGI graphics and animation, Blomkamp is a one-of-a-kind sci-fi enthusiast with tactics and styles that will impact the art of summer-blockbusters and sci-fi galore forever. Elysium is an example of his attention to detail. He doesn’t just build a set to throw a scene into, but works opposite, building a world that’s incredibly realistic, accurately depicting culture and human life, and creating a plot around that. His general idea of human mutation or transformation combines his view of people, both in anatomy and humans as a race, with advanced, technology and/or other creatures (like aliens). Blomkamp’s backdrops are grungy, slum-like settings overlaid by futuristic technology. The squalor of shanty towns complete with graffiti, dirt, blood, rust, trash and miserable human (or alien) inhabitants is partnered with unbelievable weapons and robots.

One thing lacking in District 9 that makes Elysium all the more spectacular is a good old-fashioned villain. I nominate Kruger, the South African militia-based character, as the greatest bad guy of all time. Kruger is the violent, horrifying, gruesome and all-around creepy psychopath who hunts down Max. He’s absolutely terrifying, riveting whenever he is on screen. A fantastic performance by Blomkamp’s film-partner and long-time friend, Sharlto Copley. Playing the star in District 9, Copley basically invented Wikus Van De Merwe on-screen, improving every line the entire movie, quite a feat for his first big acting gig. Never before setting foot in front of the camera (except in several short films), he proved you don’t need to be a professional to be an incredible actor. His insane natural talent and character work makes Kruger a one-of-a-kind in Elysium. He blows away every scene he’s in, with his exotic Afrikaans accent and fiery, violent nature. He was certainly the most distinct character and greatest performance in the movie (sorry, Matt). In a few years’ time, the rising star’s name will probably become very well-known in Hollywood.

Matt Damon is an outstanding actor, don’t get me wrong. But the downside to Elysium is the lack of strong characters. I thought, besides Kruger (who was, like Wikus, an invention of Copley’s), many of the Elysium characters are rather two-dimensional, despite the starry cast. Even Max isn’t as creative or original as Kruger. This inconsistency may be one of Blomkamp’s directing flaws, perhaps, but every director has them. Despite the lack of depth and the film’s poor dialogue, Matt did his best and brought enough life to Max to make him as enjoyable to watch as an otherwise dull character can be. Jodie Foster, too, clearly represented the Elysian attitude and motivation in Secretary Delacourt’s character. With her almost-robotic voice and passion for Elysium protection, she is at least somewhat more lovable than Kruger (but who wouldn’t be?).

I was a bit traumatized by the violence and gore in Elysium. People get shot, people explode, faces blow up, and faces are restored with Elysium’s ridiculous technology (spoiler: I will probably never be able to forget seeing Sharlto’s pretty face in a fleshy, mushy, bloody heap on top of his body, and then the every tiny chunk of his blown-up face molding back together as if being melted in reverse). I left the theater, speechless, blown away by the incredible CGI, intensity of the film, Copley’s performance, District 9 nostalgia and shockingly disgusting graphics (that many of you may remember from District 9; a notable Blomkamp element). But I also left quite inspired. Although I am merely a review and fanfiction writer, I would absolutely love to work with film and directing one day. Elysium made me feel as if that dream were possible, I left in a daze. Elysium is a cinematic masterpiece with its intense science fiction elements and stunningly beautiful (and quite believable) visuals that will knock you off your feet. Blomkamp accomplished something similar to what Guillermo del Toro was aiming for: action, a good plot and an edge-of-your-seat thrilling experience.

I would like to see Sharlto Copley in more of his movies. He brings a heart and depth that Neill Blomkamp otherwise has a hard time accomplishing. As a cinematic duo, Copley and Blomkamp can deeply impact the art of Hollywood film.

Image above designed by Sharm Murugiah

Pacific Rim: A New Kind Of Summer Blockbuster

This is the second half of a double feature review by Natalie Belz.  Here’s yesterday’s review of Despicable Me 2.

For months I’ve been hearing about Pacific Rim from friends and followers on Tumblr, the all-things-pop-culture social media site for sharing spoilers and trailers and celebrity craze. Every few posts on my feed would be “Name Your Jaeger,” “Who’s Your Jaeger Co-Pilot?” or “Warning: Kaiju Attack.” I trust the opinions of the seemingly intelligent Tumblr-users, but it took me a while to finally decide to go see the hit movie for myself. My Elysium obsession has kept me from fully appreciating any other 2013 film. Neill Blomkamp’s (District 9) second movie is said to hit theater on the August 9, and I couldn’t be more excited. But alas, I did manage to find some room in my completely empty schedule to go see Pacific Rim on Monday this week.

I have to say, I was a bit disappointed. IMDB’s 4-star rating was an exaggeration (Maybe 3 1/2 would have been more suitable?), as was the feedback I got from Tumblr. But what can you expect from die-hard fans of Sharknado and The Avengers?

Pacific Rim, released on July 12 (Warner Bros./Legendary Pictures), is an all-out action/science-fiction directed by Guillermo del Toro. Large, monstrous beasts called Kaiju have emerged from an inter-world portal that has opened up at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. At first there are only a few, but soon, more and more larger and larger Kaiju begin to attack coastal cities like Sydney and San Francisco. Eventually, the whole human race comes together to stop the Kaiju by creating giant robots called Jaegers. A Jaeger requires two pilots who can “drift” together, which means entering a mental state in which both pilots’ brains could work together to move the arms and the legs of the robot. But when the Kaiju begin to get too big for Jaegers to defeat them, the Jaeger project is abandoned, and the humans build a wall that—alas—proves incapable of holding back the Kaiju. The Jaegers are then sent to Hong Kong, where, as a last attempt to save humanity, they try to destroy the portal between our world and the Kaijus’. The movie stars Charlie Hunnan, Idris Elba (The Wire’s Stringer Bell) and Rinko Kikuchi.

Pacific Rim opens with a brief description of the terrors that have begun to emerge from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, and then bang, straight into the movie’s over-the-top action. The premise of the movie was it’s insane, Japanese-monster-movie type action, with huge, metal robots fighting gigantic Godzillas in the streets of Hong Kong. Half of the time I was watching the man-made robot blasting the seemingly undefeatable creatures from the deep with plasma hand-cannons and ripping them apart with sword-arms, an almost comical, classic form of entertainment. Big things fighting other big things in a city. But wasn’t that what Pacific Rim was basically about? Before going to see it myself, I’d read several reviews and interviews with the director, Guillermo del Toro, who based the movie on old-fashion action-adventures, and claims to have intended to make the movie about nothing more than that, reviving the style to summer blockbusters.

As far back as I can remember (which isn’t very long) the summer hits—science-fiction, action, adventure, fantasy, etc.—have always been very Hollywood in every aspect. They have formulaic plots, predictable romance, good guys and bad guys, and loads of action. But as I watched Pacific Rim it seemed that Del Toro’s intentions weren’t to create a Hollywood hit or an artsy, indie film, but simply to revel in the sheer entertainment of robot fight scenes and gigantic monsters that shoot acid and have glowing blue blood. It may have been just me, but I certainly saw some visible symbolism in the Kaiju vs. Jaeger scenes—titan-sized Gods vs. Demons, standing in a storm in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with great waves crashing around, were a picture of the cosmic clash between good and evil.

Besides showing off science-fiction special effects, Pacific Rim has the same theme of connection—the establishment of bonds between characters—as Avatar (the alien movie released in 2009). Throughout Pacific Rim, there’s almost an alchemy of spirits, whether it’s people’s minds bonding, people becoming one with their robo-bodies, monsters swarming and sharing info like a hive, or a man bonding his mind with that of a monster’s. This theme plays out in other more subtle ways, too. Hidden examples of real-world bonding between two things, animals or people, such as in relationships between family members (brother/brother, father/son, mother/unborn fetus, etc.) or the natural bond between man and woman are also present in Pacific Rim. And if I’m not mistaken, this idea of harmony between all things, even things like the human world and an alien world, is based on the Eastern philosophy of everything having a spirit that embodies our world that can synchronize and flow together to create something new, like two people coming together to work a giant robot, or the alien creatures having two brains to move their massive bodies.

As far as imagery and overall rhythm of the movie, Pacific Rim is very colorful, futuristic, but not as utopian as the Star Trek films. It isn’t exactly dystopian like Blade Runner, although the dark streets of Hong Kong, with the rusty walls of the Jaeger base, did resemble the noir style of Blade Runner. It also borrows a lot of Tony Stark’s hologram, touch-screen technology and metal suits. Most of the movie is insane CGI animation, and the same “Jaeger Battle” soundtrack was played throughout the entire film. So not much to go on, there.

What Pacific Rim tries to accomplish—an old-school Japanese-style action movie with a hint of depth—it mostly succeeds in. It is, of course, very over-the-top, but not unconsciously so. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, like most summer blockbusters, and it delivers a worldview of harmony. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not much more than it is on the surface, and the dialogue is contrived and doesn’t make much sense, but it is entertaining. It’s exciting, and it was worth seeing even though I was occupied with nothing else to do.

Plus, in addition to watching Pacific Rim, I witnessed the first ten minutes of The Conjuring (which I really want to watch the rest of) and got another Elysium trailer beforehand. I also recommend Elysium, even though I haven’t seen it. It’s the greatest movie ever.

Despicable Me 2: Movie Review

This is Part 1 of a double feature film review by Natalie Belz. Tune in for a review of Pacific Rim tomorrow morning.

I did not really want to see Despicable Me 2 when my father took me to the theater last Monday. We were going with Grammy and Sydney, two very good friends, and their cousin, so I felt obligated to go. When we met up at the theater, Grammy gave us funny, plastic minion McDonald’s toys that blew “fart guns.” These were fairly entertaining to play with throughout the movie.

The sequel follows the much beloved Despicable Me of 2010. I’d never seen the original, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The movie follows ex-evil villain Gru, who is now a father and “jelly-jam” maker and has no time to waste on evil schemes and science-y weapons and ray-guns and over-the-top flying mobiles with their fantastic features. Instead he enjoys his humble life fathering his adopted daughters Agnes, Margo and Edith. The inevitable twist comes when he is recruited (kidnapped) by the Anti-Villain League, who want him to partner up with the young, red-headed agent Lucy Wilde (wonderfully voiced by Kristen Wiig).

Despicable Me 2 is greatly entertaining as a children’s movie. Enjoyable to children as well as adults of all ages, it is chock-full of quick, clever humor and fabulous animation. The characters are quirky and lovable. Lucy Wilde is a spunky, easily excitable woman who many a minion and ex-evil villain can fall in love with. Gru’s adorable daughters are also memorable for their sweet attitude toward Gru and his minions, ninja skills, fluffy unicorns and first crushes. And yes, the minions—the iconic, unforgettable, and hilarious little, yellow things are back, dominating half the comedic aspects of the films.

As far as wild children’s humor goes, Despicable Me 2 is all over the place. But look closely. Between silly minion dialect and “sheepbutt” jokes, you’ll find Alien references (chicken popping out of Gru’s chest), pole-dancing minions, ditsy, goofy romance and subtle Eminem praise. The older you are, the more you will laugh at the layers of comedy. For not usually taking much interest in children’s movies, I definitely had a smile plastered to my face the entire time.

For meeting every aspect a Disney cartoon strives to meet, it still failed in the one way that many (especially recent) Disney movies do—originality. I’m not much of a fan of sequels, especially to good movies that had closed-endings. Despicable Me, from what I’ve heard, was very good and quite popular. And oddly enough, Despicable Me 2 was predicted to be even better. But the fact still stands that it followed a common children’s film plot and shared similar elements with the first movie. Gru, the protagonist, is dragged into a wild mission involving a great threat to humanity. His love interest gets involved and is eventually threatened. Our love for the minions is somewhat exploited. But for being a standard cartoon, it was still very good. Very, very good. It didn’t try too hard in any way, and Gru’s desire to leave his crazy, villainous ways behind and newfound father complex create a wonderfully heart-warming story. Not to mention finding the love of his life.

I generally dislike going to see cartoons or children’s movies. I was completely raised on Hayao Miyazaki’s movies and, now with the freedom to go see them, have a hard time adjusting to Disney, Pixar and other similar production companies. Studio Ghibli can make a hardened critic out of anyone.

I did see Monsters University. I thought it was good, too. As good as Despicable Me 2, anyway. Another notable animation of this year that I saw was Wreck-It Ralph. A newfound family favorite across the nation, Wreck-It Ralph shared many qualities with Despicable Me 2. For instance, the protagonist, Ralph, was a “bad-guy” who suffered from the villain stereotype and wanted to drop his wrecking ways. He, like Gru, also developed a fatherly attitude to the movie’s adorable, iconic little-girl character. In Wreck-It Ralph, it was the candy car racing Vanellope von Schweetz, who was shunned by all the other characters in her videogame, Sugar Rush. In Despicable Me 2, Gru found his softer side with his three adopted daughters. Being a fan of John C. Reilly and videogames, I found Wreck-It Ralph to be superior.

I quite enjoyed the romantic side of Despicable Me 2. Lucy Wilde was a great love interest—she was red-headed (like myself), tall, skinny, and a bit goofy, and way out of Gru’s league. But her relationship with Gru was very sweet. Her admiration for him and easily excitability let us all fall in love with her at the end. She really wrapped up the movie, and brought out much of Gru’s romantic nature. Next to her, the second side of the romantic aspect in the movie, was Margo’s cute adventure with her crush, something any middle-school girl could relate to. It played a key role in exposing Gru’s protectiveness toward his daughters.

Though it is well made, Despicable Me 2 will never be my favorite movie. It just didn’t stick, and after writing this I probably won’t think of it or see it again. I’m just not the kind of person to take much interest in those kinds of movies. And if you ask me, it wasn’t the great summer Disney movie that would have enough impact to eventually change the way cartoons are made/viewed. But it was good, entertaining and absolutely hilarious. Not overdone or over-the-top, and not too much like the original. It’s worth seeing if you have enough money and time to go see a movie at a regular theater.