Monthly Archives: February 2015
Many movies follow a proven formula very closely, but sometimes a well written, well executed formulaic movie can remind you how appealing that formula can be, and that is McFarland USA, an inspirational Disney sports film that warmed my heart. Kevin Costner stars as a science teacher and sports coach for a working class California town mostly populated with Mexican-American immigrant families. He sees the endurance and speed of several students and decides to form a cross-country team, even though he’s never coached anything related to track in his life. What follows is a mixture of the inspirational teacher film and the inspirational sports team film. Thankfully the screenplay and director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) take their time to flesh out the runners, giving them personalities and different degrees of depth, troubled by real-world problems without easy answers. The movie works as a great tool for empathy as it respectfully illuminates the limited economic opportunities and backbreaking labor of so many Mexican-American immigrants toiling in our fields. The movie creates an amiable sense of community and even though moments can feel contrived, I always had a smile on my face. The people came across as people, complicated, proud, hopeful. It opens up a world and showcases just how hard these people work to assist their families. Costner is a stable anchor for the film but it’s his young cast that really give the film its lift. The emotions are genuine and the uplift is earned, thanks to careful plotting and generous characterization. McFarland USA is a feel-good movie that’s better than good and a perfect film for the whole family.
Nate’s Grade: B+
There’s a reason that race is regarded as the “third rail” when it comes to American politics. A half-century after the marches and protests, chief among them the influence of Martin Luther King Jr., the world feels just as fractious as ever when it comes to race relations. The inauguration of America’s first black president was seen as a significant touchstone, but optimism has faded and recent headline-grabbing criminal cases, and the absence of indictments, have prompted thousands to voice their protest from assembly to street corner. Race relations are one of the thorniest issues today and will be for some time. Two recent films take two very different approaches to discussing race relations, and they’re clearly made for two very different audiences. Selma is an invigorating, moving, and exceptional film showcasing bravery and dignity. Where Selma is complex, Black or White is a simplified and misguided sitcom writ large.
In 1965, Alabama was the epicenter for the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) has his sights set on organizing a march from Selma to the sate capital in Montgomery. His wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), is worried about the safety of their children, as death threats are sadly common for MLK. He needs to turn the tide of public perception to light a fire under President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to get him to prioritize legislation that would protect every citizen’s right to vote.
Without question, Selma is one of the finest films of 2014. It is powerful, resonant, nuanced, political, immediate, and generally excellent on all fronts. It’s a rarity in Hollywood, namely a movie about the Civil Rights movement without a prominent white savior. This is a film about the ordinary and famous black faces on the ground fighting in the trenches for their freedoms. There are compassionate white people who heed the call, don’t get me wrong, but this is a movie told from the black perspective. I suspect the portrayal of President Johnson had something to do with Selma’s poor showing with the Oscars, though I can’t fully comprehend why. Yes, Johnson is portrayed as a man who has to be won over, but he’s on MLK’s side from the beginning. He is not opposed to legislation to protect voting rights; he’s just hesitant about the timing. Johnson says, “You got one issue, I got 100,” and the pragmatic reality of pushing forward legislation through a divided Congress was real. Johnson was not opposed to MLK’s wishes; he just wanted him to wait until the political process would be easier. In fact, in my eyes, Johnson comes across as compassionate, politically savvy, and he clearly makes his stakes on which side of history he’s going to be associated when he has a sit-down with the obstinate Alabama governor, George Wallace (Tim Roth). Like the rest of the varied characters in Selma, it’s a nuanced portrayal of a man in the moment.
The march in Selma is a moment that seems like an afterthought in the narrative of the Civil Rights movement, dwarfed by the Montgomery bus boycott and the March on Washington. The movie does a great job of re-examining why this moment in history is as significant, an eye-opening moment for the nation to the brutal reality of oppression. The opposition is entrenched, thanks to a stagnant system that wants to hold onto its “way of life.” It just so happens that way of life meant very different things for black people. The movie is politically sharp, with dissenting perspectives arguing over the next course of action in Selma and the national stage. Selma is another in the current crop of biopics eschewing the standard cradle-to-grave approach to highlight a significant moment that highlights exactly who their central figure is (Lincoln, Invictus). With Selma, we get a battleground that allows us to explore in both micro and macro MLK, the man. The courage of ordinary citizens in the face of violent beatdowns and police bullying is effortlessly moving and often heartbreaking. There is a moment when an elderly man, reflecting upon a recent family tragedy, cannot find words to express his grief, and my heart just ached right then and there. I teared up at several points, I don’t mind saying.
There isn’t a moment where I didn’t feel that director Anna DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere) was taking the easy road or pulling her punches. The screenplay respects the intelligence of the audience to sift through the politics and the arguments, to recognize when MLK is igniting a spark, and just how complicated and fragile the Selma situation was back then. Here’s a movie ostensibly about MLK but spends much of its time on the lesser known individuals like James Bevel and Congressman John Lewis, who walked alongside the man, taking time to flesh them out as people rather than plot points. MLK’s wife is also given an important part to play and she’s much more than just being the Wife of Great Man. DuVernay’s direction is impeccable; you feel like she has command over every frame. The sun-dappled cinematography by Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year) makes great use of shadows, often bathing its subjects in low-light settings. The score is rousing without being overpowering, just like every other technical aspect. This is a prime example of Hollywood filmmaking with vision and drive.
With respect to the Academy, it’s hard for me to imagine there being five better performances than the one Oyelowo (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) delivers as the indomitable Martin Luther King Jr. It is rare to see an actor inhabit his or her character so completely, and Oyelowo just sinks into the skin of this man. You never feel like you’re watching an actor but the living embodiment of history made flesh. This is a complex performance that shows refreshing degrees of humanity for a figure sanctified. He was a man first and foremost, and one prone to doubts and weaknesses as well. An excellent scene with top-notch tension and peak emotion involves MLK and Coretta listening to a supposed tape of Martin’s infidelity. In the ensuing tense conversation, both parties acknowledge the reality of his affairs. It’s a scene that’s underplayed, letting the audience know she knows, and he knows she knows, but not having to rely upon large histrionics and confrontations. It’s the behind-the-scenes moments with King that brought him to life for me, watching him coordinate and plan where to go with the movement. Oyelowo perfectly captures his fiery inspirational side, knocking out every single speech with ease. It’s a performance of great nuance and grace, where you see the fear in the man’s eyes as he steps forward, hoping he’s making the best decision possible for those in desperation.
There isn’t one bad performance in the entire film, and this is a deep supporting cast including Wendell Pierce (HBO’s The Wire), Tessa Thompson (Dear White People), Common, Giovanni Ribisi, Dylan Baker, Lorraine Toussaint (Netflix’s Orange is the New Black), Stephen Root, Cuba Gooding Jr, Jeremy Strong, and Oprah Winfrey.
It’s been weeks now since I watched Selma but there are still many moments that I can recall that still have a tremendous power on me even in mere recollection. The opening sequence of the Birmingham bombing, a moment of horror frozen in chaos and debris, is a gut punch of a way to begin a movie about human beings fighting for equality. The sheer brutality of the response from the Selma police force and associates is horrifying, and a true pivot point for the movement in the eyes of the public. More so than anything else, Selma brilliantly and beautifully recreates the suffocating reality of injustice that was so prevalent for many African-American citizens, especially in the South. This is an era where people are being lynched with impunity just for being “uppity.” There was a supreme danger in simply standing up for equal rights, and many suffered as a result. The movie recreates this mood, this permeating feeling of dread and outrage and sorrow, so expertly and so artfully. From an early scene with a middle-aged black woman jumping through hoop after arbitrary hoop just to register to vote, you quickly realize that this vehemently hostile environment was never going to settle things on their “own time,” as apologists are prone to citing in lieu of federal intervention. Selma makes it abundantly clear why MLK felt the movement just could not wait, as Johnson requested. People are senselessly dying and being beaten all for the right to fairly vote. You feel the same sense of urgency with every scene, whether it’s cold-blooded murder, noxious intimidation, or reciprocation that goes above and beyond any sense of responsibility, you understand exactly the terror it was to be black in the South during this time period.
Another potent point of acclaim for Selma is how relevant it is to our own world today. While 12 Years a Slave was an often stirring and very professionally made biopic that exposed the ugly reality of slavery, it was not a film that screamed “immediacy.” Slavery ended in this country over 150 years ago, and while we’re still dealing with the repercussions of treating other human beings as property, it’s an easy film to dismiss in a backhanded, “Well, that was so long ago, and we’ve come so far” manner. The actions of Selma and MLK are still being felt to this day. We live in a world where many feel the justice system has its own separate-but-equal division, and the recent controversial grand jury decisions in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner cannot be ignored. The reality for many black men in this country is statistically far more dangerous than others, fueled by a culture of entrenched racial bias that assumes the worst at first. The transit officer who executed Oscar Grant (detailed in the harrowing 2013 film Fruitvale Station) served eleven months in prison for a crime that had scads of witnesses. Garner’s death is captured on video, and yet even the Staten Island coroner’s report of “homicide” wasn’t enough to convince a grand jury that there was sufficient cause to at least go to trial. It’s been noted that prosecutors could get a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, of the 30,000 cases that were not prosecuted in this country, only 11 were because a grand jury did not return an indictment (.0004%). However, grand juries rarely indict when a police officer is accused (In Dallas between 2008 and 2012, there were 81 grand jury investigations of officer shootings and only one actual indictment). It’s hard not to feel like these things don’t add up.
Then there’s the all-important struggle of voting, central to Selma and the plight of African-Americans in the South. You would think with Johnson’s passage of the Voting Rights Act that we wouldn’t be litigating the same issues of the past, but the Supreme Court determined that this country is far different then it was in the 1960s and there was no need for the Voting Rights Act today. Within hours of striking it down, scads of new legislation appeared in the (primarily Southern) states that had been limited beforehand because of their past history of discrimination. The right to vote is just as relevant as it was during MLK’s time and there are forces trying to stifle that right, to throw up new obstacles, new hoops, new challenges, all in the name of “polling security,” never mind that the cases of in-person voter fraud are so rare as to be one in every 15 million voters. It’s a solution without a cause, and it’s why many see it as a disingenuous political ploy. It’s the twentieth-century, and yet the struggle for equality frustratingly repeats too many of the same battles. It’s this historical and contemporary context that gives Selma its extra surge of relevancy, reminding how far we still have to go, reminding the world that MLK’s work is by no means complete and that it is up to the rest of the populace to fight for the kind of country that he spoke of in his “I Have a Dream” speech.
It is this complex, complicated, and dire reality that hobbles another movie that tackles modern-day race relations, Mike Binder’s imprudent Black or White. The plot of the film, inspired by a true story reportedly, centers on Kevin Costner as Elliot Anderson, a rich lawyer who has custody over his biracial granddaughter Eloise (the angelically adorable Jillian Estell). Now that Elliot has lost his wife, Eloise’s other grandmother, Rowena Jeffers (Octavia Spencer), wants joint custody so Eloise can spend time around “her own people.” The two of them push and pull and lock horns over what’s best for their grandchild, which gets more complicated when her biological father (Andre Holland, who is actually in Selma as well) comes back into the picture.
Right away you can tell very early on that there will not be anything approaching subtlety in the world of Black or White, its own title serving as the first clue. The characters are sketched broad and the premise feels like a weird mishmash of Archie Bunker appearing in a court drama. It’s a preachy movie that doesn’t have a deft hand when it comes to crafting a message that rises above easy observations disguised as something deeper. Eloise’s father, Reggie, is so poorly underwritten that he feels like he stepped off the set of some after school special. He’s addicted to crack, a lifelong screw-up, and a general disappointment that has never been present for his daughter’s life. He even smokes crack out in the open on the front porch across the street from where his mother lives. At one point, Anthony Mackie’s character berates Reggie for being a walking stereotype. Just because Binder calls attention to it doesn’t excuse it. But he’s not alone, because Spencer’s sassy black matriarch character and Costner’s gruff and frequently soused character are right there with him. The frequent arguments feel like they should be punctuated by studio audience hoots and applause, that is, if you could hear them over Terrence Blanchard’s relentlessly overpowering musical score instructing the audience exactly how to feel with every clunky moment.
In a way, the overbearing musical score gets at the major problem of Black or White, which is that a complicated case is being told from the safest point of view. Elliot is more akin to Clint Eastwood’s character from Gran Torino then, say, Archie Bunker. He’s irritable and prejudiced and old-fashioned and wary but balks if you call him a bigot. I mean he’s polite to his Hispanic housekeeper. The more you examine the character the more you realize this is a movie designed to coddle an older generation (my tiny theater was packed with patrons over 60). The movie doesn’t challenge anybody and actually rewards Costner’s character and his outdated viewpoints. The opening conflict over his refusal to share custody with Rowena makes no sense. She’s an excellent grandmother, caring, nurturing, a fine role model as well for her perseverance and starting several small businesses out of her home. Not only that but Rowena is surrounded by a large family of relatives that adore Eloise. It’s contrived that these two could not agree on shared custody when they both have much to offer the girl. The only way any of this works is if Reggie is somehow responsible for the death of Eloise’s mom. Perhaps he introduced her to crack and she overdosed. Unfortunately, it’s never explained in the slightest, and so Elliot’s hostility for the entire Jeffers clan seems petulant, especially with the happiness of his granddaughter in the balance. Without better context, his rampant anger seems to be guilt-by-association overkill. To his credit, Rowena has a major and annoying blind spot when it comes to Reggie’s stability as a parent. In fact he’s so obviously still on drugs that her ongoing refusal to accept reality harms her character irreparably.
In the end, Black or White isn’t so much a film that about race relations as it is about privilege. Costner’s would-be bigot doesn’t have a problem with black people, just as long as those black people abide by his rules of conduct and expectation. It’s the same kind of qualification he’s never had to consider for himself, and one the intended audience will likewise miss. He comes from a wealthy position and Rowena and her family are likely lower middle class at best. He has a world of class privilege at his disposal that the loving Jeffers family does not, and because of that he feels they are less suited to raising little Eloise. Perhaps he’s worried about Reggie re-entering her life, but what animates Elliot Anderson is spite. He’s consumed with the overriding assumption that he must be right in all things. While the film draws many heavy-handed parallels between Reggie’s drug abuse and Elliot’s alcoholism, it clearly presents the both of them on completely different planes of judgment. One of them is ultimately redeemable and the other less so. Elliot’s perspective is essentially he can provide more and therefore more has to be better, but his definition of more is a private school, a housekeeper, a tutor who is treated as a caricature of initiative. Rowena provides a large and loving support system, but apparently they are less valued in the eyes of Elliot. And if you needed any more of a clue that Elliot and his sense of privilege are the unbeknownst star of the movie, he gets to deliver the big speech at the end that Says Something Meaningful. It feels a bit odd that the one character that uses the N-word in the film (albeit there is context) is the one telling lower-class black families how to live.
I don’t doubt the sincerity of writer/director Mike Binder (The Upside of Anger); I don’t think he purposely made a film to make older, primarily white Americans feel better about thinking what they do about these troublesome times. It’s not a nefarious movie but it is misguided and will provide cover for a certain selection of audience members who wonder why nobody is asking the old white guys their opinions on modern race relations. Even overlooking this charge, Black or White is just overblown melodrama that has to constantly explain everything to you at all times and guide you through every strained point. Selma and Black or White are both aiming at hearts and minds, looking to add to the conversation on contemporary race relations, but only one of them works as both an eye-opening message of empathy and as an exceptionally made film itself.
Black or White: C
Thank goodness there won’t be any more of these turgid, laborious, and insufferably awful movies that stretch the loose definitions of cinema. Atlas Shrugged Part III concludes a storyline that did not need the bloated, Peter Jackson-style treatment. Mostly because after four hours, the series still fails to justify its film existence. The production values are pretty low, the storyline consists of robotic characters spitting out ideologies rather than dialogue, and the romance between Dagny (our third actress playing the part) and Henry Reardon, which was a focal point for two movies, is casually brushed aside so Dagny can swoon with the mysterious John Gault. The needless subtitle for the film is “Who is John Gault?” and the answer is an innovator who invited the world’s richest CEOs to escape to a magic kingdom of their own. Analyze that hilarious reality. It’s an island of the 1%, but what does being experts on derivatives do when it comes to individual survival in the wilderness? Do these people plant their own vegetables, build their own homes, or do the menial labor they are not accustomed to? Where did they get the materials for all the goods for this libertarian paradise? Nothing about how this world operates makes sense. If the government, set up to be nefarious and inept, was concerned about Gault why can’t they find them with their wealth of spy resources? The entire Atlas world, transported to a near future that still relies heavily on logistics of the past, strains credulity, from the rise of rail to the idea that a copper shortage is crippling the country’s power supply. This is the kind of film where the good guys (business elites) dress in plaid and drive pickups, whereas the bad guys (government) wear suits and smoke and drink in darkly lit restaurants. This is the kind of movie where “Project F,” a nefarious torture device created by the government, is literally nothing more than a glorified car battery. Then there’s the climactic moment when Gault becomes a full-fledged messianic figure, something in sharp contrast with author Ayn Rand’s views on religion. In fact, Jesus is a prime example of self-sacrifice for the benefit of others, which conflicts greatly with the Randian viewpoint that selfishness is all humans should seek. The entire film is about cognitive dissonance, from the characters, the filmmakers, and Rand herself.
Nate’s Grade: D-
It’s hard to be ignorant of the publishing phenomenon that is 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James. The erotic trilogy became notorious for its numerous and often outrageous sex scenes. I have many female friends, and relatives, who read the series, and while not a one will admit to finding the series ostensibly “good,” they each read every book. In a way it reminds me of another popular yet critically maligned romantic series – Twilight. It should be no coincidence then that Grey began its early life as Twilight fan fiction. The movie adaptation was a hotly followed topic. After all, people argued, how could it possibly be rated R? How could you adapt it to the screen? With a female director (Sam Taylor-Johnson, wife to actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and a female screenwriter (Kelly Marcel) to steer the adaptation process, I figured I would at least get a sense of exactly what was so uncontrollably appealing about the series. For a film designed to be titillating and provocative, I came away wishing it had more action (of any sort) because the movie was just so freaking boring.
Anna (Dakota Johnson) subs for her sick roommate and gets to interview playboy billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). He takes an interest in her innocence. And so he runs into her at the hardware store where she works, he fetches her after a drunken text on her part, and whisks her away to his luxurious Seattle high-rise. Before things can get frisky he has to share a secret. He’s a dominant looking the world over for women who are willing to submit to him and be his submissive. The world of sadomasochism is a new one for Anna, a 22-year-old on the verge of graduating college. However, she’s drawn to Christian and accepts his terms, and that’s when the sex gets taken to another level.
So much of the film is the drawn out flirtation between two characters that I found painfully uninteresting. Wasn’t this supposed to be the exciting and sexy story of risqué sex and overpowering urges? I’m by no means the target demographic but I felt unmoved by the onscreen sex because it was so sedate by Hollywood standards. I’ve seen more enthusiastic and engaging sex scenes skimming the channels of late-night cable TV. It certainly doesn’t even come close to rivaling some of the steamier sequences of films past, like 9 ½ Weeks, The Dreamers, Henry & June, Last Tango in Paris, The Piano, Risky Business, Sex and Lucia, Don’t Look Now, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Dangerous Liaisons, sex, lies, and videotape, Little Children, Mullholland Drive, and Secretary. For fans of romance with BDSM, please give 2002’s Secretary a chance since it is 500 shades superior to E.L. James.
I understand that most erotic TV series and films are readily designed for men, and 50 Shades was designed for women, and there are differences in approach and stimulation, but for a product that is famous for the degree of kink involved, I was sorely disappointed by the results. In short, the movie needs more kink. It plays out as an introductory guide to bondage and S&M. This aspect isn’t even explored until the very end. It’s too timid to really give in to the thrills of its premise and likewise the demand of its readership. There’s a lot of nudity, mostly from Johnson, but the sex scenes themselves are rather ordinary and sedate, all things considered. There are four of them in total for those curious readers wishing to keep track (I also tried keeping track of the times Anna bit her lower lip but lost count). The sex scenes are filled with plenty of moaning but not a one of them builds up to climax, a strange omission since we’re tracking Anna’s pleasures. I wasn’t expecting the graphic, and graphically drawn out, onscreen sex of Blue is the Warmest Color, but I was certainly expecting more after all the hubbub. In the end, a sexy movie is going to be known for its sexy scenes, which may or may not include sex (I feel like fans are going to be justifiably irked by the absence of full-frontal male nudity – come on, give the fans a bone here). 50 Shades of Grey is ironically far too tepid to register as much more than sub-soft core eroticism.
Then there are the characters, both of which are too one-dimensional, and also boring, to bring much interest. Cinema has always been interested in good-looking people getting it on, but unless there’s careful attention to plot and character, then you’re just recycling the same soft core setups. It is wholly transparent that James’ novel began as Twilight fan fiction because the couple occupies the same unhealthy relationship roles. The female lead is a stand-in for the audience/readers; she’s a mousey, shy, normal girl who gets swept away by a brooding and dangerous man who tells her he’s no good, insists she should not be with him, but cannot help himself falling for her because he sees her inner beauty. He’s more male chauvinist than complex character, and his obsession is less a sign of a tortured psyche and more, as displayed, a clear indication of a sexual predator. Anybody who requires his paramours to sign legal documents about what he can put inside them seems like somebody not worth knowing. He tracks her down across the country when she dares to see her mother because Anna didn’t ask his permission. Control freak or a budding sociopath? With a lack of tawdry sex scenes, the far majority of the film is Anna and Christian ramping up their almost endless sexual tension, which the movie will hit you over the head with. I didn’t feel a single thing between the two of them, partly because of how poorly written they are and also because of the lack of chemistry. We watch her bite her lip a thousand times. We watch her stammer. We watch him stare rather intently like a shark. The filmmakers are doing the work for us rather than allowing a romance to blossom organically. It’s cajoled and manipulated and feels inauthentic in every sense, even before the trip to the playroom begins.
There is one standout scene that is actually sexy, and apparently it’s quite different from the source material. As Anna and Christian go over his legal language for his submissive, they treat it as a business meeting with an arch sense of professionalism. It’s one of the few times Anna displays a spark of personality, as well as decision-making, as she goes line by line and says what she will and will not do. It’s played with a wry sense of humor but there’s also a sexy undercurrent throughout the scene, where these two adults are having fun with the preliminaries. If the rest of 50 Shades of Grey had this same sense of personality and fun, it might have worked as an engrossing erotic fantasy.
Johnson (Need For Speed) is an enjoyable screen presence even if there’s absolutely nothing interesting about her character. Anna is so absent a personality that it makes it easier for the story to present someone else doing all the work for her, pushing her, prodding her, giving her form. Johnson plays a lot of scenes for laughs, which work in a titter-generating way. I kept hearing Patricia Arquette’s voice whenever she spoke, but I may be alone in this unusual observation. Dornan (TV’s The Fall) on the other hand is terribly wooden. Again, he’s playing a rather terrible character with rather terrible dialogue, but it’s hard to feel any authentic sense of passion from the guy. It’s hard to say whether these actors are miscast or whether there could ever possibly be a suitable matching because of how lacking the simplistic characters are. They’re archetypes, and ones the movie has to keep persuading you are totally hot for one another.
So what is it that makes this property the would-be blockbuster that it is? The story arc has been done before for decades, going all the way back to Rudolph Valentino’s Son of the Sheik: the mysterious prince who comes and sweeps the princess off her feet to his exotic world of privilege. 50 Shades isn’t reinventing the wheel but it has struck a chord, and perhaps it’s the wish fulfillment angle, the introductory angle to a world of BDSM, or the plain Jane ordinary heroine that acts as a cipher for readership. The books are the books and the movie must be judged on its own account. I’m sure most of the series’ fans will be pleased one way or another, though I doubt many of them will find the movie an improvement over the book. Then again it does strip away James’ wretchedly torrid writing. If it wasn’t for the 100 million books sold worldwide, this movie wouldn’t be generating any of the hype it is, but is that the film’s fault? The hype machine unfairly builds expectations that will fail to be met, but then again it’s the over-saturated exposure that has ensured 50 Shades of being a Valentine’s weekend event for half the planet.
Surprisingly boring and rather tepid, 50 Shades of Grey feels too callow to be the provocative film experience it wants to be. It needs more of just about everything; more characterization, more organic coupling, more story, more romance, more kink. It is lacking in too many areas, though the production values are sleek, like it’s the most technically accomplished episode of Red Shoe Diaries. It’s a tedious story of the hazards and joys of giving up control, but I didn’t care about the characters. I need more than pretty people staring at each other for an hour while a breathy remix of a Beyonce song plays over the scene (to be fair that Beyonce remix is hot). The actors don’t connect together and the Christian character comes across as more of a monotone jerk than wounded bad boy. I’m sure 50 Shades has pushed millions into exploring aspects of their own sex lives they would not have felt comfortable exploring beforehand, and good for them. My friend Angie quipped that, if nothing else, the release of 50 Shades of Grey will cause a spike in battery sales for its opening weekend. It’s a shame then that the movie is too limp where it counts to be serviceable.
Nate’s Grade: C
Few would dispute the imaginative powers of Andy and Lana Wachowski. They probably got a free pass from Warner Brothers after creating The Matrix, one of those culture-changing movies that come along so rarely. I was leery of Jupiter Ascending, their newest original science-fiction opus, when Warner Brothers delayed its summer release by nine months. The trailers and commercials were also doing a dandy job of hiding what exactly the movie was about besides cool visuals. I was holding out hope, thinking that maybe Jupiter would be silly but fun in a Fifth Element way, but instead ladies and gentlemen, we have an heir to 1980’s campy Flash Gordon.
Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is an unhappy maid who cleans toilets for a living. Then one day she becomes the most important person in the universe. She discovers she is the reincarnation of the matriarch of House Abrasax, whose three children, Titus (Douglas Booth), Kalique (Tuppance Middleto), and Balem (Eddie Redmayne), are fighting over their inheritance. The biggest prize of them all is Earth, and now the appearance of Jupiter complicates ownership. Various alien species are sent to kill her, but Jupiter has a savior in disgraced galactic solider Caine Wise (Channing Tatum). He’s a “splice,” a result of gene splicing people with animals. He rescues Jupiter and they head off world to explore the much larger, much stranger universe.
Right away, mere moments after leaving the theater, I knew the first step to make Jupiter Ascending a significantly better movie: completely remove the title character. First off, her name is awful and makes me think she’d be a character in the Jetsons universe. Mostly, she’s a terrible protagonist because she is merely a fairy tale wish fulfillment masquerading as a person. Her normal life is miserable but secretly she’s a space princess who is the reincarnation of a space queen. Allow me to momentarily pause and question this line of monarchy and inheritance law. Apparently Jupiter shares some genes with the deceased Lady Abrasax, but she has no direct bloodline. Does that automatically thrust her into another family’s inheritance squabbles? Why should they even consider her claim valid? Why does that place her at the top of the pecking order? When did we start recognizing reincarnation with inheritance law?
Back to the matter at hand, Jupiter is an annoyingly weak character that’s supposed to follow the arc of weak to strong, inactive to active. Except she doesn’t. Beyond accepting her incredible new position, there’s really not much that changes for her. She remains, from start to finish, weak-willed, gullible, always in need of saving, and so wretchedly annoying and without merit. Her cousin arranges her with a doctor for Jupiter to donate her eggs, but he expects a majority of the money. Why does she need this middleman in this arrangement? It’s another reminder how dim the character is and devoid of agency. And then all of a sudden a romance materializes between her and Caine because of course it does. I use “materializes” because there is no actual setup of any kind beyond the fact that Kunis and Tatum are attractive specimens. Their romantic dialogue will produce dangerously violent eye rolls.
The Wachoswkis are certainly imaginative filmmakers but their ambitious world-building impulses get the better of them and their story. The imagination is on full display when it comes to the visuals, the production design, costumes, and alien designs. There’s a grand mixture of creatures big and small, and even an elephant pilot because why not? However, the storytelling meant to house these cool things is notably deficient. Jupiter Ascending feels less like a story that naturally develops and whose complications arise in a semi-logistical fashion. It feels like somebody guiding you on a tour of Weird Stuff. It’s not so much a story as a collection of Weird Stuff, Weird Incidents, Weird Places, and Weird Creatures. You feel like you’re being skipped off from one exhibit to another, especially when Jupiter is kidnapped and threatened by each of the three Abrasax children in a row. Seriously, the entire scenario is on repeat, so when Jupiter continues making naïve choices, you can slap yourself extra hard having been through this purgatory just moments before. It’s only a matter of time before she gives in to whatever Abrasax demands again. There’s a general sense of repetition to the plot compounded by Jupiter’s incessant need to be saved (she seems to be falling a lot, out of spaceships, buildings, vehicles, etc., which also gets tiresome). The scheming Abrasax children seem to just slide in and out as the plot requires, with little in the way of resolution.
It’s impossible to discuss the film without acknowledging how damn goofy the whole enterprise comes across. Caine is part wolf, part albino, part human, and apparently part angel since he got his wings removed as a punishment. Does that seem like a good combination of elements or like the aftermath of a drunken writing session? Let’s just run down some of these names: Jupiter Jones, Balem, Kalique, Stinger, Gemma Chatterjee, Phylo Percadium, Chicanery Night (!). To be fair, it’s not like Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader are less preposterous names. Caine has a pair of anti-gravity boots but they’re really just hovering rollerblades. There’s just something silly about watching a guy rollerblade, even if you attach a futuristic spin to it. There’s a hidden factory beneath the stormy Eye of Jupiter, and yet this same important factory seems ready made to fall apart if the slightest projectile pierces its exterior (it’s the Death Star all over again). There are weird small aliens, weird alien bounty hunters who can turn invisible but don’t, weird space police that are really bad at their jobs, weird robots with human faces, and there’s also weird stereotypical Russian immigrants for Jupiter’s obnoxious family. Perhaps all the goofy camp will enchant you but I never got onboard mostly because the story and central characters left me so thoroughly unengaged.
Another ongoing problem is that the Wachowskis are constantly telling you things rather than showing you and allowing the story to organically develop. There are no less than three times when Character A looks at Character B and literally verbalizes what they are thinking or feeling in this moment. It’s lazy screenwriting, beholden to constantly having to explain everything to an audience because either you think they are dumb or your plot is far too convoluted; either way, a problem. Such sample pieces of dialogue include these informational asides: “Bees are genetically programmed to recognize royalty,” and, mere seconds later, “Bees don’t lie.” There you have it; bees don’t lie. Now you know.
The most frustrating part of Jupiter Ascending is that there is a genuinely interesting movie buried under so much of this silly nonsense and ear-clanging noise. The starting premise that Earth is nothing more than a stock portfolio for an alien species, that’s good. The idea that a trio of siblings is squabbling over who gets their galactic inheritance, which includes the deed to Earth, that’s good. The idea that human life is seeded on planets merely to be harvested into an eternal youth elixir for the rich and powerful, that’s even better. It’s not exactly a nuanced critique of capitalism but it’ll do. I’m disappointed that we don’t find out more about a larger market for this rejuvenation technique. There has to be more customers for such a miracle product than one rich family. If this were an intergalactic King Lear or even a space version of Margin Call, it would be far more exciting and creative. Instead, the bigger ideas are grounded into pulp so that we can have more CGI-drenched action sequences. There’s one segment that tonally breaks away from the film, diving headlong into Douglas Adams-style satire on bureaucracy. Like most of the film, it has its moments of entertainment, but it comes from nowhere and has trouble fitting with everything else. I’ll give credit where it’s due and praise the special effects, as well as the overall production design. It’s too bad that the action too often feels like a bunch of pixels exploding, failing to provide a sense of immersion. It’s hard to get a feel for most of the action and its use of space, save for portions of the finale. There is one very fun and well-choreographed fight between Caine and a… dragon… sentry guy (I don’t really know what to call these winged henchmen). That fight is exciting. It’s a shame there aren’t more of them. Bring on more dragon sentry guys.
Kunis is certainly miscast on the part, though I doubt any actress could pull off such a lackluster heroine who is always needing to be rescued. Kunis is more adept in the realm of comedy (Ted) or seduction (Black Swan), neither of which is featured with Jupiter. Let me say one more reason this Jupiter Jones character is awful; part of her struggle concerns whether or not to marry a playboy space prince. I don’t know if the Wachowskis believed that Jupiter was supposed to be a “strong” figure, but reducing feminine value to her being married feels rather reductive for sci-fi (not that there isn’t a storied history of women being treated as objects of fantasy in the genre). Tatum’s (22 Jump Street) remarkable charms are dulled by his silly albino beard and general guard dog characterization. He’s less a character than a protector who inexplicably instantly falls in love with his charge. Both actors will no doubt rebound in short order.
Reserve some pity for poor Eddie Redmayne, a man who will be experiencing the highs and lows of acting this month. He’s the frontrunner to win Best Actor for his stirring work as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, which is what makes his performance here even more astonishingly awful. He speaks in this effete whisper for the entire movie, one that is hardly audible at all, except for the occasional line where he screams and spasms, making the contrast all the more funny. He constantly holds his head back like he’s in danger of nosebleeds. This is a performance of such startling misdirection that I physically felt bad for Redmayne. He seemed to be reaching out to me, pleading through his glassy eyes, communicating, “Help me, help me.” Even if his character’s vocal range wasn’t so nonthreatening, Balem makes for a terrible main villain. As a rich lord with power at his disposal, he works, but late in the movie all of that is removed, and he has to be a physical threat. After 90 minutes of watching him on screen, you will never be able to see him as a credible physical threat, and even the movie doesn’t fully treat him this way, and yet the plot still places him in this role. He’s not a heavy. Balem is laughable but he’s another component of a generally laughable movie.
Jupiter Ascending is a rarity in Hollywood, a big-budget epic that overpowers you with a singular sense of style and imagination; it just so happens that so much of the creative fireworks are laughably terrible. The Wachowskis don’t do anything in half-measure, and the film is put in overdrive. There’s a mess of characters and peculiar details to make this world feel larger than life and tethered to the idea of fun. Then why oh why did we have to be saddled with such boring, one-dimensional characters and a secret princess storyline lifted from countless sources? In the past, the Wachoswkis have found ways to turn pop philosophy and pop-culture into an entertaining alchemy that separated them from the sci-fi pack of imitators, which were legion. I still have great fondness for the original Matrix (you can keep the sequels), V for Vendetta, and especially Cloud Atlas of late. The Wachowskis are ambitious filmmakers and they have the imagination and narrative sensibilities to achieve great things. It’s just that with Jupiter Ascending it feels like their real passion was in all the background artifacts, the minutia of the worlds, the alien costumes and makeup, the histories of worlds. It certainly wasn’t on a story or characters or a credible romance. And yet even after all of these words, I have to admit that Jupiter Ascending is entertaining, just not in the way its creators may have intended. It reminds me of 2014’s disastrous Winter’s Tale, a passion project that was so baffling and bafflingly terrible. If you’re curious and willing to part with some money, gather some friends and check out Jupiter Ascending. Just make sure you’ll have suitable time planned afterwards to discuss its particular brand of big screen lunacy.
Nate’s Grade: C