“Jupiter Ascending,” Wachowskis Descending

Screen Shot 2015-02-10 at 10.09.50 PMThis week on The Screen Addict: the Wachowskis disappoint with Jupiter Ascending, Julianne Moore makes an Oscar run with Still Alice, the sneaky-terrific A Most Violent Year, and Jude Law gets in deep in Black Sea. Plus, all the usual features return, including a look at where the Best Picture race stands today.

Jupiter Ascending is a space opera that feels both too silly and too generic
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Ever since the massive success of the Matrix films, the Wachowskis (Andy and Lana) have been fighting an uphill battle to come up with another hit. Their post-Matrix output has plenty of defenders, but most critics have been lukewarm, and audiences just plain haven’t cared. I am not the biggest Wachowski fan in the world, but their output is undeniably unique—these films feel sincere in ways most modern sci-fi films don’t, and while that results in some messiness, their work is normally innovative, intelligent and ambitious.

Unfortunately, their new space opera Jupiter Ascending is none of those things. It has plenty of unabashed silliness—as you might expect from the Wachowskis—but it feels too familiar in every other respect. Truly outrageous scenes are casually thrown in between a lot of familiar nonsense, and when the film finally gets to the action sequences, something the Wachowskis have been great with in the past, it completely drops the ball. It’s just a mess, and not a particularly endearing one. It clumsily bounces between tones and styles for two hours, and never arrives at anything resembling a point.

The plot concerns Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), the daughter of a Russian immigrant who lives a rough existence as a housekeeper in Chicago. Meanwhile, in space, some kind of alien royal family is fighting over the rights to Earth, or something. They are currently held by Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne), which gives him the power to harvest it at his will or perhaps produce the film Earth: The Movie someday. However, it turns out the rights to Earth really belong to Jupiter, for she is the reincarnation of Balem’s mother, who was murdered many years before. One person who knows this is Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a space soldier who is part albino, part wolf and part human. (Yup.) He decides to protect Jupiter from Balem and his cronies. Laser guns are shot. Space ships are flown. There are various alien costumes that seem like they were grabbed from the dumpster outside the Star Wars set. This is a universe that likely makes a ton of sense to the Wachowskis, but absolutely no one else.

And yet, through all the confusion and the silliness of the plot—why yes, Channing Tatum does shoot up various ’50s-style CGI aliens in a Chicago fertility clinic, thank you for asking—it never becomes the transcendently silly movie many may want it to be. Every scene has very little to do with what comes before or after, but it moves forward with too straight a face, and only when Redmayne’s antagonist shows up does it enter truly entertaining levels of insanity. The performance is not good, and it’s completely divorced from what every other performer is doing, but it’s unhinged in a way the rest of the movie is not. At least he’s actually trying for something, even if he’s unable to achieve it.

The other actors more or less just fade into the heavily CGI’d background, but it’s hard to blame them. It’s difficult to see anyone succeeding in Kunis’ role, but she’s able to pull off the relatively impressive feat of leaving with her dignity intact. Tatum also comes off well, which might be even more impressive considering the makeup he has to wear, along with the exposition he has to constantly spout. Ultimately, though, they are two performers going to war against a movie that does almost nothing to help them. Occasionally you can see glimpses of what the Wachowskis are trying to accomplish, but Jupiter Ascending just doesn’t have the discipline to stay on track. Or to even pick a track to begin with, for that matter.

Other new releases:
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Still Alice is a very simple movie, but that simplicity serves it well, and only makes the final destination all the more impactful. In an Oscar-nominated performance, Julianne Moore plays an NYU linguistics professor who slowly, and brutally, is overcome by early onset Alzheimer’s disease. It’s every bit as heartbreaking as it sounds, and—a word of advice—it will do a number on you if you decide to see it at 10:45 a.m. That is far too early to deal with such emotions.

–Here’s a darn good movie that got lost in the end-of-2014 shuffle: J.C. Chandor’s thriller A Most Violent Year, which is essentially about a man (Oscar Isaac) who spends two hours trying really hard to not become a gangster. It’s a slow, brooding film that lacks the fireworks its genre (or title) might suggest, but it’s another example of just how talented and diverse a filmmaker Chandor is. He’s especially skilled at getting great performances out of his actors, and this film features first-rate work from Isaac and Jessica Chastain.

–Part heist movie, part survival thriller, Kevin Macdonald’s Black Sea follows a fantastic Jude Law as he hops aboard a submarine full of unstable Brits and Russians (and Scoot McNairy) to find several million in Nazi gold that was lost during World War II. It isn’t the most graceful film from a plotting standpoint, but it’s an impressively tense and claustrophobic piece of filmmaking. It was buried by the American Sniper avalanche during its theatrical run, but if you can catch it on streaming down the line, it’s more than worth your time.

The Birdman Rises
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For most of this Oscar season, most experts have had Richard Linklater’s Boyhood as the likely frontrunner for both Best Picture and Best Director. However, things have changed in the past couple weeks, and after putting together a streak of guild award wins, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman seems to have surged ahead of the pack. This does not mean it will win it all, but it’s a reminder of how long and utterly absurd the campaigning season is. It seems every year we go through three or four frontrunners before landing on the winner, and this year is no different. Heck, back in fall many were saying the race was over and Selma was going to run through awards season uncontested. A few months later, a botched awards push by Paramount and an idiotic smear campaign have all but pushed it out of the running.

Now, here we are, looking at a likely two-horse race between Birdman and Boyhood, and considering the way Oscar season normally breaks down, this feels utterly appropriate. It’s a battle between a movie that constantly acts like it’s accomplishing something important (Birdman) and a movie that actually becomes profound through more subtle means (Boyhood). I was mixed on Iñárritu’s film when I saw it, but upon further reflection it has only soured on me. It’s a technically impressive and well-performed bit of nothingness that attempts to poke fun at self-importance, but ultimately winds up feeling self-important itself. It works best as a backstage comedy; there’s something inherently amusing about throwing these performers together in an environment like this and seeing how it all damn near bursts at the seams. But for most of the second half, when it actually attempts to say something, I completely lost interest.

However, it’s interesting that Birdman seems to be the only Best Picture nominee that hasn’t had a few handfuls of mud thrown in its direction. (I suppose there’s Grand Budapest Hotel, but I have a hard time seeing the Academy suddenly hopping aboard the Wes Anderson train.) Boyhood has been under attack the last few weeks thanks to a series of profoundly dumb hit pieces and criticisms. And then there is the literally unparalleled success of American Sniper, a film that has been on the forefront of the American consciousness for the whole year so far, and now it’s suddenly possible that Clint Eastwood’s film could sneak up from behind to win the big prize. All this has added a bonus level of intrigue to last couple weeks before the ceremony, and as dumb as it all is, I can’t help but get swept up in it year after year. Right now, Birdman is probably your clubhouse leader, but we still have a couple weeks to go.

Trailer of the Week

Of all the ’80s movies that could possibly be remade, I suppose there are things that could be done with Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist. The problem is, most modern remakes choose not to actually expand on the premise of the source material, and part of me is afraid that’s what we’ll wind up with here. Director Gil Kenan is something of an unknown commodity, and I’m generally suspicious of a project like this anyway. The trailer doesn’t do too much to win me over, but it’s got a trio of great actors (Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt and Jared Harris) leading the way. However, if this just becomes a series of jump scares interrupted by references to the original, you can probably count me out.

Classic of the Week
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I have in my possession a Warner Bros. 50 Film Collection I’m slowly working my way through, and this past weekend I decided to pop in John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and I’m here to boldly state that it was really quite good. Great, in fact! Above all, I was struck by just how thoroughly dark the whole thing is, and it’s further proof that the happy-go-lucky image many of us youngsters have of old Hollywood could not be further from the truth. The story of three men prospecting for gold in Mexico starts off like a rousing adventure movie, but the situation devolves quickly. They find gold, of course, and the three men (led by Humphrey Bogart) are overcome by greed, fear, paranoia, and the threat of violent bandits roaming the Mexican wilderness. It also could make for a fun double feature with the aforementioned Black Sea, which similarly follows men who are driven to madness by a search for gold. Sierra Madre is a million times better, of course, but comparing things is fun.

New to Video/Streaming
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If you find yourself searching through your On Demand options in the next few days and you don’t want to deal with any of that pretentious Oscar crap, you may be in the perfect mood for John Wick, a terrific little action film that makes perfect use of Keanu Reeves in the leading role. The premise is simple: a former hitman decides to take revenge on local criminals after a small group of them break into his house and kill his dog. There’s a bit more to it than that, but the main reason to see John Wick is the action, and it is glorious. It’s the rare movie that actually lets you watch as various stuntmen and actors beat the crap out of each other, and it’s beautifully captured by director Chad Stahelski and cinematographer Jonathan Sela. This film also gets bonus points for creating an elaborate criminal underworld that uses its own currency and operates out of a hotel in the middle of town, and somehow it kind of makes sense!

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