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Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

I’ve written before that director Matthew Vaughn is the best big screen filmmaker when it comes to making the most of studio money. This is the man who made Daniel Craig Bond, rejuvenated the dormant X-Men franchise, and gifted Fox a twenty-first century James Bond of its own. The first Kingsman movie was one of the best films of 2015 and was bursting with attitude, style, and perverse entertainment. It was my favorite James Bond movie that was never a Bond movie. Success demanded a sequel, and now Kingsman: The Golden Circle is upon us and proof that Vaughn may be mortal after all.

Eggsy (Taron Eagleton) is living a charmed life now that he’s earned his place within the ultra-secret, ultra-powerful Kingsman spy organization. In between battling villains and the riffraff, Eggsy tries to maintain some semblance of a normal life with his girlfriend Tilde (Hanna Alstrom), who, yeah, happens to be the princess of Sweden. Poppy (Julianne Moore) is a drug baron in the vein of Martha Stewart. She’s tired of lurking in seclusion in the jungles of Cambodia and wants the credit she deserves as the most successful businesswoman. She locates the homes of the remaining Kingsman and blows them up, leaving only Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong). Poppy takes aim at the war on drugs. She infects her own product with a deadly agent and holds the world hostage. Unless global leaders decriminalize drugs, millions of infected people will die. In the meantime, Eggsy and Merlin travel to Kentucky to seek out help from their American brethren, the Statesmen (Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Halle Berry), a clandestine spy organization that also doubles as a gargantuan bourbon distillery.

With Vaughn back at the helm I expected the best, and while Kingsman: The Golden Circle has plenty to like there is noticeably less to love. Being a sequel means that what once felt fresh will now lose some measure of its appeal and charm, and Vaughn and company do falter at times under the pressure to live up to what they established with their rip-roaring spy caper of an original. The brilliant structure of the first movie (mentorship, spy camp competition, class conflict themes) cannot be readily duplicated. There are interesting story elements here but Golden Circle doesn’t seem to know what to do with them, including with the titular Golden Circle. The villains never really feel that threatening. Poppy’s scheme is great and the 1950s diner iconography of her home is an eye-catching lair worthy of a demented Bond villain. It’s just that it feels like we never get a villain worthy of their wicked scheme. Where did she get all of this tech? Her henchmen are lackluster and a lackey with a cybernetic arm (Edward Holcroft) is no competition for Sofia Boutella (The Mummy) and her slashing blade legs. When the bad guys don’t feel like much of a challenge, it deflates the stakes and enjoyment factor of the big finale. It’s a series of ideas that need to be pushed further, refined, revised, and better developed. The first film was packed with surprises and payoffs both big and small, and the sequel feels lacking in payoffs of any kind.

The Statesmen are more a pit stop than integral plot element. You would think a majority of the film would be the international clash between Yanks and Brits, supplying some of that class friction that energized the first film. With the exception of Pedro Pascal (Narcos), you could eliminate them from the movie with minimal damage to the story. Channing Tatum (Logan Lucky) has gotten large placement in the advertisement but he is literally put on ice for a majority of the movie. The exaggerated cartoon nature of the Statesmen feels like Vaughn’s goof on American hyper machismo, but they stay at that same cartoon level throughout. They feel like parody figures, and Vaughn sidelines their involvement. The spy missions are a letdown. There’s an enemy compound atop a mountain in Italy, and all they do is walk inside, immediately grab the thing they need, and immediately run away. It all adds up to a two-hour-plus movie that’s still consistently enjoyable but also consistently unmemorable.

There are things in The Golden Circle that feel like they’re here just because of fan response rather than narrative necessity. The biggest offender is the return of Harry (Colin Firth). He served his purpose bringing Eggsy into the clandestine yet dapper world of the Kingsman, modeling as a father figure, and dying to push our protagonist onward. Bringing him back to life doesn’t serve the story except to bring back a character we genuinely liked. In this sequel, his return and subsequent amnesia doesn’t force Eggsy to retrain his former mentor. Instead he’s mostly a tag-along as another character to shoot the bad guys. Harry simply shouldn’t be here, and resurrecting him takes away from the shock of his death and the weight of his loss. They even recreate the “manners maketh man” bar fight, except the inclusion is so contrived that I thought it was all some kind of Statesman plan to ease Harry back into fighting shape. Nope. Another aspect that feels forced is Eggsy’s relationship with the princess of Sweden. This feels like an apology for the crass joke from the first movie that upset people’s delicate sensibilities (apparently this was worse than a montage of people’s heads exploding). The relationship feels forced and every time the movie cuts back to his troubles with Tilde, they feel small and annoying. It’s like Vaughn is trying to salvage a risqué joke by turning them into a committed couple. Then again the “mucus membrane” moment in Golden Circle (you’ll know it when you see it) seems like a renewed attempt at being transgressive.

The action set pieces have their moments but like everything else there are few that stand out or will stand the test of time. The film starts off strong with a brutal fistfight inside a speeding car. Even with the cramped quarters, it feels easy to follow, creatively inventive, and exciting. As the fight continues, the sequence loses its creative verve and becomes indistinguishable from any other silly Bond car chase. The big finale where the remaining Kingsman storm Poppy’s jungle compound has some cool moments, like Eggsy taking cover behind a giant rolling donut. Regrettably, the action sequences lack the snap and imagination that have defined Vaughn’s films, proving to be yet another underdeveloped aspect. The hand-to-hand fight choreography is still strong and stylish. The final fight between Eggsy and the metallically armed henchman has the fluidity, vision, and fun that were missing from the other scuffles. I’ll credit Vaughn with finding ways to make a lasso and whip look badass and integrating it elegantly with fight choreography (no easy task, right, season five of Game of Thrones?). I kept patiently waiting for any sequence that grabbed my attention like the insane church massacre.

There are two elements in The Golden Circle that rise to the level of entertainment of the first film, and one of those is literally Elton John. It starts off as a cameo with John being kidnapped and forced to perform for Poppy’s private audience. Then he just keeps appearing. He passes over from cameo to downright supporting actor, and just when you think you’ve had enough and that Vaughn has overindulged his Elton John fandom, here comes a climactic solution that is inspired and completely justifies the repeated John appearances. I howled with laughter and wanted to clap in appreciation. It was the best setup-payoff combo in the entire film. The other creative highpoint is a treacherous left turn into the politics of the war on drugs. Poppy argues how legal consumables like alcohol and sugar are far more deadly and addictive. I’ve heard all those arguments before about the hypocritical nature of the war on drugs from every armchair philosopher. Where the film really surprised me was when it gave voice to a nasty perspective I’ve heard in response to the rising opioid crisis in America. Some view drug addicts more as criminals needing to be punished rather than victims needing a helping hand and treatment. When Poppy makes her demands, there are government representatives that openly cheer her ploy, believing they can wipe out the junkie scum. This unsympathetic yet eerily resonant response felt like Vaughn and company finding organic ways to raise the stakes and bring in more sinister forces.

The movie never addresses one holdover from the original Kingsman that I think deserves at least a passing mention, and that’s the fact that every government leader or head of state in Western democracy had their head explode. That kind of public service vacuum would sow plenty of chaos and controversy, especially when people discovered that their elected leaders were complicit with the plan to kill the world’s remaining population. I feel like this was such a huge event that it at least deserves a cursory mention of some sort.

With the glut of disappointing and alternatively maddening action cinema this year, I’ll still gladly take Vaughn’s reheated leftovers. Kingsman: The Golden Circle feels like it’s succumbing to the bombastic spy hijinks it was satirizing before, losing some semblance of its identity and wit to crank out an acceptable though unmemorable sequel. It lacks the sense of danger and genre reinvention that powered the first film. Vaughn’s signature style is still present and there are fun and intriguing story elements available; however, the development is what’s missing. The cool stuff is there but Golden Circle just doesn’t know what to do with it, and so we gallop to the finale feeling a mild dissatisfaction. Apparently the studio execs at Fox want Vaughn to get started on a third Kingsman as soon as possible. I just hope he hasn’t lost his interest in the franchise he birthed. It would be a shame for something like this to become just another underwhelming franchise.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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Hail, Caesar! (2016)

hailcaesarposterThe biggest enemy of the celebrated Coen brothers always seems to be expectations. I count only two misfires during their storied filmmaking careers, but sometimes their larks are pilloried for not quite measuring up to their masterpieces. Hail, Caesar! is on par with Burn After Reading and O Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s still a fun, fizzy, and entertaining film and a celebration of Old Hollywood and its movie magic. Loosely centered on an embittered studio head (Josh Brolin), the film is a series of vignettes highlighting different 1940/50s pastiches, including the realms of Esther Williams, Carmen Miranda, Gene Kelly, and John Wayne. If you’re a fan of the old Hollywood pictures and their stars, the indulgences will play better; you can certainly feel the warmth the Coens have for the films of yesteryear. The plot kicks off with a major star (George Clooney) kidnapped, but it’s really the small side stories and moments that are most memorable, and the Coens are still unbeatable when it comes to being silly and clever. I loved a scene where Brolin asks religious advisors for approval over the script of his biblical epic and they offer legitimate notes over flawed story logic. There’s also a delightful song and dance numbers with a group of sailors lamenting the lack of ladies (“But mermaids ain’t got no gams”). The real star of the movie is Alden Ehrenreich (soon to be young Han Solo) as singing cowboy-turned-actor-turned-studio-sleuth. The sequence where his character tries to rapidly adapt into a “serious actor” on the set of some British melodrama makes for great fish-out-of-water comedy, gamely matched by an increasingly exasperated Ralph Fiennes as the director. The ending doesn’t exactly tie everything together but Hail, Caesar! is more a movie of distractions, of spinning plates, or bumbling bosses trying to hide bad behavior from the press and keep hold of their sanity. If you’re a fan of old Hollywood, there should be just enough to make you smile. If you’re not a fan, then you’ll shrug off the Coens and their latest film lark.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Hateful Eight (2015)

the-hateful-eight-posterThe Hateful Eight almost didn’t happen thanks to our modern-day views on copyright and privacy. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino sent the first draft of his newest script to three trusted actors, and within days it had spread to the outer reaches of the Internet. Tarantino was so incensed that he swore to shelve Hateful Eight and never film it. After a staged reading in L.A. with many of the eventual actors for the film, he changed his mind, to the relief of his sizable fanbase and actors everywhere. The Hateful Eight is a drawing room mystery with plenty of Tarantino’s signature propulsive language and bloody violence, but it’s also the director’s least substantial film to date.

In post-Civil War Wyoming, famous bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) is taking the outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to hang for her crimes. Along the way, he meets up with Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a bounty hunter who served in the North and carries a letter written to him from none other than Abraham Lincoln. They’re both heading to Red Rock to extract their bounty earnings. Due to an oncoming blizzard, they’re forced to make a stay at Minnie’s haberdashery, except Minnie isn’t anywhere to be found. There’s Bob the Mexican (Demian Bichir) who says Minnie left him in charge, a foppish hangman Oswaldo Moblay (Tim Roth), a quiet cattle driver Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a Confederate general, Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the son of a Confederate rebel who claims to be the newly designated sheriff of Red Rock. Over the course of one long night, everyone’s true identity will be learned, because someone is not who they seem to be and is secretly waiting to free Daisy and kill the rest.

Even as lesser Tarantino, The Hateful Eight is still an entertaining and talky stage play put to film. The setup is strong and invites the audience to play along, to scrutinize the assorted characters and determine who is telling the truth. There are plenty of twists and turns and some violent surprises to keep things interesting. The conversations of the characters are such a pleasure to listen to; I want to luxuriate in Tarantino’s language. His wordsmith abilities are unparalleled in Hollywood. There’s a reason every star is dying to snag a part in a Tarantino movie, especially now that they’ve caught Oscar fire as of late. That’s somewhat crazy to think about. Cinema’s ultimate indie voice with his encyclopedic knowledge of the medium, high and low art, has become an institution within the system and his violent period films are now looked at as year-end prestige pictures. Tarantino’s M.O. has been to take B-movies and to transform them into A-movie level talent and intelligence. Never has a Tarantino flick felt more B-movie than The Hateful Eight. It was inspired from episodes of TV and it’s easy to see that genesis in its execution. It’s a self-contained mystery that comes to a head. It’s a limited story that’s likely taken as far as it could possible go, pushing three hours. I’m a tad befuddled why this was the movie Tarantino insisted on filming in “glorious Panavision 70 millimeter.” It’s almost entirely set in that one-room interior location. The extra depth that 70 millimeter affords would appear to be wasted, unless you enjoy looking at general store items on shelves in the background. Still, The Hateful Eight is a movie that doesn’t feel like three hours and harbors enough intrigue and payoffs to hook.

I tried to diagnose why this felt like lesser Tarantino, and it’s because over the course of almost three hours we don’t have much at stake because the people inhabiting the movie aren’t really characters but tough-talking facades. Tarantino is often cited for his uniquely florid dialogue, and nobody writes dialogue like Tarantino and his naturally stylized cadences, but another of the man’s skills is how great he can write a coterie of colorful characters that pop from the big screen. You might not be able to remember many lines from Hans Landa or Vincent Vega or Django, but you remember the vivid characters. Tarantino is preternaturally skilled at building characters that feel fully realized with their own viewpoints and flaws and prior experiences. He can make characters stand out but he also has the great ability to make the larger-than-life characters feel real, which is truly genius screenwriting for characters so flamboyant. The older romance in Jackie Brown is perfectly captured and felt. It’s downright mature. This is the first time I would say Tarantino has disappointed when it comes to his characters.

There are broadly drawn folk aplenty onscreen and they still talk in that wonderfully florid language of Tarantino’s that actors must savor like a fine steak, something they can sink themselves in for and enjoy every morsel. However, the characters onscreen have never felt this empty before. They are what they are and the only real change that occurs is that many will be dead before the end credits. They don’t have arcs per se but end points. It’s all about unmasking and identifying the rogues in a room full of rogues. Beyond Warren and Mannix, we’re left with precious little for characterization beyond bravado and nihilism. The effect of how empty they are would be felt less if we weren’t stranded with them for near three hours. Trapped in a room with a group of suspicious characters can only go so far, and ultimately it’s a parlor game that cannot sustain longer staying power. I doubt I’ll ever watch this with the frequency of other Tarantino flicks.

“You keep talkin’. You’re gonna talk yourself to death,” says one of those hateful numbers to another member. I’d pay to listen to Tarantino rewrite the phone book, that’s how excellent the man is with his dialogue. The man likes to hear his words and I like listening to them too. The problem is that The Hateful Eight has no reason for its gargantuan running time. As stated above, the characters we’re getting are nowhere near as complex or interesting as previous Tarantino escapades, so the talking can grow weary. Tarantino has patented a new formula from 2009’s Inglorious Basterds that involves characters playing a game of I-know-you-know-I-know while they suss out the truth, all the while the tension finely simmers until it blows. It’s a long fuse of suspense that can pay off rich rewards, like the near-perfect tavern scene in Basterds. The dinner table scene with Candie and the skull of his favorite house slave is another good example. Once our titular eight have gathered at Minnie’s, the entire movie is this sort of scene. It may be broken up into chapters and flashbacks but it feels like one long scene.

There’s also far less at stake than there was with Basterds or Django Unchained, even Reservoir Dogs, and that’s because the protagonists had goals and we had built up far more allegiance and time with them. When they were in danger, it mattered. The danger doesn’t feel as immediate because so little else is happening. There are plenty of comparisons to Dogs, which also utilized a hidden identity and a confined location. I think the difference was that, besides it being Tarantino’s first foray as a director, the tension was felt more because the danger was immediate from the start and we cared about character relationships. I cared about Mr. Orange and Mr. White and their bond. I can’t say I cared about any of the characters in Hateful Eight. I found them interesting at points, sure, but they were all a bunch of rotten bastards with little variation short of a burgeoning understanding between Mannix and Warren. The wait at Minnie’s feels like the Basterds tavern scene on steroids, pushed to the breaking point, and yet absent the urgency.

The acting is yet another tasty dish served up by Tarantino, and it feels like the actors are having the time of their lives playing their lively scoundrels. Jackson (Kingsmen: the Secret Service) settles in nicely and always seems to elevate his game when he’s reciting Tarantino’s words. He’s icy cool in scenes where the other characters are trying to do whatever they can to fire him up. He’s less bombastic than we’ve come to expect from Jackson. For bombast, there’s Russell (Furious 7) who cranks his performance to the broad heights of his bellicose lawman. Goggins gives a sly and extra caffeinated performance that answered the question of what it would sound like if you dropped his character from TV’s Justified into a Tarantino movie. Roth (Selma) feels like he’s doing his best manic Christoph Waltz impression. Dern (Nebraska) is a racist codger with a soft spot for his kin. Madsen (Kill Bill vol. 2) seems somewhat wasted as a taciturn “cow puncher.” Bichir (The Heat) gets some laughs as a seemingly aloof caretaker. It’s Leigh (Anomalisa) who steals the show, especially in the film’s second half. Daisy is a character that relishes being bad, and Leigh takes every opportunity to enjoy the fun. Her character plays a bit of possum during the first half but it’s the second half where she lets loose and becomes unhinged, and her exasperated and grotesque responses are often played for great sputtering comic effect. It’s a boys movie but it’s the lone woman who will prove most memorable. Tarantino’s last two movies have won acting awards and Leigh just might make it three-in-a-row.

20150511105106982878uThere are also some uncomfortable elements that can deter your viewing enjoyment, which isn’t exactly a foreign charge against Tarantino’s career. At this point you can probably repeat the oft-cited accusations: flagrant use of the N-word and exploitative violence. At least the historical background provides a context for the other characters unleashing the N-word, and I’d argue it tells us something about the characters as well. The characters that use the N-word when referring to Warren are the ones with allegiances to the Confederacy and those viewpoints don’t vanish even after you lost a war. They’re dismissive and intolerant and view Warren as sub-human. It also doesn’t approach Django Unchained-levels of excess, so I let it slide (I know my perspective as a white male makes my opinion on this effectively meaningless). It was the violence that got to me, specifically the violence directed at Daisy. Tarantino’s penchant for violence goes all the way back to his ear-slicing debut, so it’s nothing unexpected. He often tells stories about violent men and women fighting their way in a world governed by violence. I accept that these characters are bad to their core. That doesn’t excuse behavior. Violence on screen can be tempered with authorial commentary, but it’s the association that bothered me with Hateful Eight. For the entire movie, Daisy is put through the physical wringer. Our very first image of her is with a black eye. She’s a nasty woman and Ruth often expresses his distaste of her by punching her in the face, which is played as dark comedy. This happens repeatedly. We’re meant to recoil from much of the bloody violence on screen but repeatedly we’re meant to laugh at the violent suffering of Daisy. Tarantino has often used over-the-top violence as dark humor, and I’ve laughed along with it. This was one instance though where I stopped laughing and starting shifting uncomfortably in my seat.

Even lesser Tarantino can still be plenty entertaining and superior to most of what Hollywood usually cranks out as product. The Hateful Eight can be exciting, funny, surprising, and plenty of things, but what it can’t be is more than a lark. Tarantino has taken stories that would seem like larks, particularly the Kill Bill series, and infused them with pathos and meditation and soul to go along with all that snazzy genre stuff. It’s disappointing that Hateful Eight isn’t more than what’s on screen, but what’s on screen is still worth watching, though I don’t know whether it’s worth watching a second time.

Nate’s Grade: B

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

jupiter_ascending_movie_poster_2Few 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.

Oh look, she's falling again.

Oh look, she’s falling again.

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.

jupiterkunisheadpiece-jupiter-ascending-mila-kunis-is-the-one-for-the-wachowskisIt’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.

maxresdefaultReserve 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

Foxcatcher (2014)

foxcatcher__spanHaunting and engaging with great performances, Foxcatcher is a dark drama based upon real events that lead to tragedy with the United Stated Olympic wrestling team. Steve Carell immerses himself in the role of eccentric wealthy scion John du Pont, a man eager to carve out validation for himself. He bankrolls the U.S. team to train at his onsite facilities, notably assisting Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) who is eager to get out of the shadow of his older brother (Mark Rufallo). This is a bleak drama that goes to some dark avenues but it’s not as applicable as the Cannes raves would have you believe. I was never bored but I did find the movie to be somewhat limited in scope. It’s really the life and times of a rich weirdo with a manufactured world around him thanks to his privilege. Du Pont sees himself as a mentor and a teacher, but really he’s just the guy writing the checks, and when his constructed view of reality is challenged, that’s when things get dangerous. He’s not as psychologically complex as advertised. Director Bennet Miller (Moneyball, Capote) ensures the film is overrun in dread so you anticipate that something very bad will happen, and as a result it can be something of a murky slow burn that isn’t necessarily worth the 130 minutes of wait. Foxcatcher is another example in the 2014 trend of the performances being better than the film itself. It’s an intriguing film with great performances, just don’t expect exceptional commentary.

Nate’s Grade: B

22 Jump Street (2014)

When 21 Jump SMV5BMTcwNzAxMDU1M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDE2NTU1MTE@._V1_SX214_AL_treet was proposed as a movie, nobody thought it was a good idea. Even its stars and writers. They used that as an opportunity to craft one of the more charming, surprising, and hilarious films of 2012, a movie so good that it was also one of the best films of a relatively great year at the movies. Now that was something nobody expected with a 21 Jump Street movie. As often happens, Hollywood looks to keep the good times going, and 22 Jump Street is knocking at the door. In Hollywood tradition, sequels usually follow the “more of the same” format with a dash of “bigger is better,” a fact that 22 Jump Street takes to heart.

Having successfully busted a high school drug ring, Officers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are the toast of their unit. That is until they let a dangerous criminal (Peter Stormare) get away with a shipment of drugs. It’s back to the Jump Street program, as their police chief (Nick Offerman) laments that everybody just needs to do the exact same thing that worked the last time. Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) has assigned Schmidt and Jenko to go undercover at the state university to sniff out where the student body is getting a powerful and deadly designer drug. Schmidt grows close to Maya (Amber Stevens), an art major who knew a girl who overdosed on the new drug. Likewise, Jenko is falling for team quarterback Zook (Wyatt Russell), or more accurately the bond they share as two athletes with a similar brain. The partnership of Schmidt and Jenko may be in trouble for the long haul if they can’t work together.

22-Jump-Street-2This may be one of the most meta movies of all time, existing outside itself in tandem to always provide a winking dose of commentary about its own silliness, excess, and corporate mentality about replicating success through the least creative means possible. There’s even a character with a literal red herring tattooed on his bicep. There are plenty of in-jokes without breaking down the fourth wall, and the meta cleverness is an entertaining way to pave over the general same-ness that goes along with the limited undercover premise. While cracking wise for its full running time, 22 Jump Street really is “more of the same.” For most, myself included, that is completely acceptable since the first 21 Jump Street was an unexpectedly witty and comically brash outing. Seeing another adventure with this same team is more than justifiable, especially with the kind of comic kinship that Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street) and Tatum (White House Down) share. Once again the guys go undercover to bust a drug operation, and once again they each get close to a different set of students, and once again their relationship takes a personal hit. It’s the same plot beats but with different jokes (like the R-rated version of Anchorman 2). The entire “going undercover as a school student” concept is so dated to begin with, and neither Hill nor Tatum can credibly pass at this point, so the entire enterprise feels like they’re squeezing the most they can while they can, enjoying the good times, the good chemistry, being silly on the studio dime, and counting their luck.

The end credits for 22 Jump Street deserve special praise just for the appearance of burning down its franchise. Throughout the film the guys are mocking the very notion of a sequel. By the end, they mock, without abandon, the idea of a franchise. We flash through an absurd array of new assignments, new sequels, and new school-setting undercover gigs, and it’s almost like a flash-forward into the timeline of the movie, like the finale of Six Feet Under. There are some amusing cameos and business satire to mock with as well as the general ludicrous nature of repeating this plot/formula (Magician school?). The end credits leave the audience feeling buzzy and giggly, a perfect comic high, and it’s the best end credit high since the original Hangover.

The real enjoyment is watching Hill and Tatum continue to mine what has become one of film’s best onscreen bromances of all time. I never would have pictured these two fitting together so smoothly, or Tatum being such an unexpectedly natural comedic talent. Thank goodness for the 21 Jump Street movies for offering us these untold comic gifts and for knowing what the main attraction is and how to properly develop it. The relationship between friends/colleagues/bros Schmidt and Jenko is the most consistently interesting, surprisingly emotional, and comically ripe subject in the film. We have two great actors and watching them butt heads is just as fun as watching them get along. In the sequel, the guys go through what serves as an analogue for a separation, wanting to see other partners. We know in our hearts these two are meant to be together, and so much of the fun is watching just how this odd coupling now seems so indispensable to one another, with Tatum’s zigs blending ever so delightfully with Hill’s zags. I could watch another movie of just these guys doing paperwork.

In the first film, Jenko and Schmidt were set up to fall back into stereotypical roles before the movie found a better solution. Jenko was going to be the jock with sports classes, and Schmidt the nerd with AP classes and drama. Then a mix-up, and they have each other’s identities, and the movie is that much better, forcing each out of their comfort zone and finding the better comic scenario. With 22 Jump Street, the movie falls back to the old social order. Jenko hangs with the football jocks and the frat brothers and gets to be the super popular student-athlete, while Schmidt is left to investigate the art majors who knew the dead coed. It has them falling back into their high school roles (popular vs. outsider) and it’s not nearly as interesting, especially after seemingly growing beyond these moments. The side characters aren’t as interesting either, many lacking material to develop beyond one-note joke machines, like Zook. I was mildly intrigued by H. Jon Benjamin (TV’s Archer, Bob’s Burgers) as a football coach obsessed with protecting the goalpost, but I wanted more. Twin stoners who talk at the same time are not enough.

channing-tatum-and-jonah-hill-drive-football-helmet-car-on-set-of-22-jump-streetThere is one supporting actor given enough material to shine and that is Workaholics’ actress Jillian Bell. She plays such a deadpan, biting, sarcastic, no-nonsense roommate who won’t entertain for one second that Schmidt is who he says he is, and she is wonderfully brutal with her insults. There’s a later scene where she keeps wrongly misinterpreting a fight with Schmidt into something else. It’s a highlight of the movie, a great example of her physical comedy skills and sense of timing, and it’s a plumb example of taking a topic that a situation that could be uncomfortable and finding the right balance to guide an audience along for the best laugh.

Like before, once the movie adapts to its action-filled climax, the jokes start taking a backseat to the action theatrics. Returning directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie) have kept their same brand of rambunctious spirited comedy alive and well, which keeps the movie’s pace brisk and always open to fresh weirdness. While some jokes don’t work as well the second time (Vietnamese Jesus, the drug freak-out fantasy sequence, though its use of Creed music almost makes up for that), this is still more sequel than retread. This is not an Austen Powers that repeats the exact same jokes with slightly different settings. Lord and Miller understand how to satiate an audience without overt pandering. They know how to build payoffs that are small and payoffs that are big, ones directly linked to character goals. There are strong comedic set pieces unrelated to any sort of meta commentary, Schmidt’s impromptu slam poem being one of them. It’s a manner of giving people what they want while still finding new ways to surprise, because otherwise comedy is dead without the subversion of expectations.

“More of the same” is the best and worst summary for 22 Jump Street, and despite 1500 words of film criticism, all you really need to ask yourself. Is more of the same good enough for you when it comes to another 21 Jump Street movie? Sure, we’d all wish for the same sort of unexpected cheeky revelation that was the first film, but then again no one had any expectations that a 21 Jump Street movie would be anything worth watching, let alone one of the best films of that year. 22 Jump Street is hilarious, witty, aggressive, irreverent, and even when it has to take on the role of action-comedy, it does so with a consistent wink, pointing toward all the sequel tropes and absurdity without rubbing your nose in every single reference and gag. The second time around Jump Street is, by definition, never going to be as fresh, but the company is still top-notch, the jokes are still layered and cracking, and the determination is high. It’s a sequel that delivers what it promises. I’m ready to take this franchise as far as it can conceivably go for two men well into their 30s-posing-as-high-schoolers. Magician school, here we come.

Nate’s Grade: B+

G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013)

GI-Joe-Retaliation-Brazil-Poster_1336503185Originally intended to be released in the summer of 2012, G.I. Joe: Retaliation was pulled back because, presumably, they wanted to convert it to 3D, but many suspected it was to add more time for star Channing Tatum after his box-office domination that year. Well, wrong on both accounts, because maybe it was merely kicked back because, get this, it’s not terribly good. I had the lowest possible expectations for the 2009 G.I. Joe movie but came away having a fun time; it was the right kind of enjoyably stupid. Well now it’s just stupid. Cobra has kidnapped the president, inserted a doppelganger, and now wants to rule the world that to an evil satellite that drops giant metal rods into space as weapons. Why are these rods not part of the Earth’s orbit after release? There are all sorts of gadgets here that make no sense but somebody thought might sell some toys. The central storyline is almost a knockoff of Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol, a small group of Joes having to clear their names. Then because that isn’t enough material to work with, there’s a mini-movie about ninja warriors avenging their fallen master in the mountains, and of all people, the RZA is supplying lengthy exposition. The action sequences are absurd without having enough style to excuse the absurdity. Everyone is a superhuman but also incompetent when the plot demands it (ninjas can shoot flying knives but not a big person jumping off a wall?). Adding The Rock is always a bonus in my book; the man is charisma personified. But the storyline of Retaliation is so sloppy, the villains so lame, and the movie lacks the high-spirited imagination to keep the stupid at bay. I was never a G.I. Joe kid so maybe those with nostalgia will be more charitable than I am, but G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a poorly executed next step for a once-budding franchise.

Nate’s Grade: C

White House Down (2013)

white-house-down-poster2Director Roland Emmerich, the maestro of the dumb fun blockbuster, is never going to get the credit he deserves but the man is something of a mad genius when it comes to putting together spectacle-rich, low-calorie but still satisfying summer entertainment. Take White House Down, the second of 2013’s Die-Hard-in-the-White-House movies. It’s really more of a buddy film contained to that famous structure. It’s not a smart blockbuster by any means but it makes up for any and all flaws with its sheer overpowering sense of fun. Stuff gets blown up real good, the action is brisk, and there are satisfying payoffs for story elements that felt like they were, at first glance, merely thrown together. You may walk away surprised at how much you’re enjoying the comedic interplay between Secret Service agent Channing Tatum and president Jamie Foxx. Plus it’s fun to see the president in on the action instead of merely as a hostage, like the earlier Olympus Has Fallen. In direct comparison, I’d have to say White House Down is the better of the two movies, both in payoff and action. It’s nice to have a movie that’s just fun to watch, that goes about its blockbuster business with precision, supplying a few decent twists, and giving us heroes worth rooting for and action sequences that are well developed and that matter no matter how ridiculous. Emmerich movies are blissfully free of self-serious malarkey, though his weakest hit, 2004’s Day After Tomorrow, got a bit preachy. His movies know what they are and know the demands of an audience. What I needed this summer was a movie designed to make me cheer the impossible. White House Down is a romp.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Magic Mike (2012)

magic-mike-posterAfter all the hype and the derision from my friends, I finally saw Steven Soderbergh’s male stripper opus Magic Mike, and it does not pain me to say, as a red-blooded heterosexual male, that I found it mostly enjoyable. I understand the detractors, many of whom were let down by the relentless, frothing hype generating the film’s box-office success. The characters are fairly shallow, and almost all of the supporting players are one-dimensional; many of the male strippers only have their abs and a name to work with as far as characterization. There’s also the general absurd nature of the world of male stripping, where women are whipped into a frenzy and men almost comically gyrate atop them, or in some instances, literally pick them in the air to swing their junk into. The last act also rushes all sorts of storylines: the rookie’s fall from grace, Mike (Channing Tatum) coming to the realization to leave the business, a hastily thrown together romance. With all that said, I was always interested in just watching the ins and outs of this profession put on screen. And when the plot falters, there are always the impossible charms of Tatum to bring me back. Matthew McConaughey is also fascinating to watch as a mixture of showman, zen artist, and sexual being. I even found the dance/stripping sequences to be worthwhile as few insights into the various characters. While being less than magical, Magic Mike’s shortcomings don’t take away from what it has to offer. That may be the most unintended inuenduous statement I’ve ever written for a film review.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Side Effects (2013)

1927Steven Soderbergh’s supposed last stop before retirement is another of his genre exercises, but Side Effects feels like a firmer success, albeit modest, for the director to go out on. It’s the story of a woman battling depression, played with terrific cageyness by Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). She gets prescribed a new drug and… does some very bad things. Who is culpable? The doctor, being funded by the drug companies? The woman who was sleepwalking at the time? The industry for blanketing patients with ads to demand their drug? After a rather slow start, the movie gets interesting and starts to try out different genres like hats. It appears for a good while we’re now going to be following her doctor (Jude Law) and his downfall as the industry turns on him and the media coverage intensifies. Written by Scott Z. Burns (Contagion), the movie has that same enticing sense of realism about how all the moving parts of a complicated industry would come into sync and conflict. Then the film tries out another identity, that of traditional thriller, with wronged parties orchestrating vengeance. I was invested until the end and felt sufficiently satisfied with the end results. Soderbergh’s smooth camerawork and cool color palate are well suited for a film about the battles of depression, and for a good while, before the thriller aspects take over, the movie is a fairly mature look at the struggles of depression and the industry that profits off it. Side Effects doesn’t seem like a closing statement for an artist as varied and unpredictable as Soderbergh, but as far as a Saturday afternoon goes, it’ll sure pass the time nicely.

Nate’s Grade: B

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