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Movie Review: “Jupiter Ascending”

The trailers for “Jupiter Ascending” were works of art. I’ve seen a lot of movie promos, but few have grabbed my attention like the artfully composed teasers for Andy and Lana Wachowski’s latest high-dollar project. Despite disappointing reviews, I figured I’d give it a shot – after all, it looked like a nice distraction in the midst of art-movie season (and bitter New England wintertime).

Simply put, “Jupiter Ascending” is a hot mess of a movie. It’s gorgeous to look at and laced with elements of real genius…but beyond these flashes of brilliance, it finds itself bogged down by a cataclysmically terrible script, a legion of bad casting choices, and a scattershot plot.

Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is working as an unassuming housecleaner when her life is abruptly upended by alien attackers. Enter love interest Caine (Channing Tatum, whose character was probably introduced in the pitch meeting as “Space Meathead with Heart of Gold”), who informs Jupiter that she is actually the genetic reincarnation of a long-dead galactic queen. Since the queen (the head of the Abrasax dynasty) bequeathed her holdings to her “future self,” Jupiter is the rightful heir to Earth and dozens of other worlds. Alas, she must first contend with the treacherous Abrasax children, who will stop at nothing to reclaim what they believe to be their inheritance. The worst of the bunch is evil astro-corporatist Balem (Eddie Redmayne, trying very hard to come off as Young Voldemort; it doesn’t work), who’s ensconced on the planet Jupiter with a squad of dragon-men at his command.

If this all sounds convoluted, that’s because it is.

Kunis, while charming as ever, feels out of place as a dramatic figurehead. Given its premise, this film doesn’t need an “endearing fish-out-of-water” as its lead; it requires someone who can unironically pull off a “regal” demeanor (Keira Knightley or Saoirse Ronan would’ve been perfect). Tatum’s contribution to the film consists primarily of “rescuing Jupiter when she falls from high places.” Sean Bean pops up as an old soldier (spoiler alert: he actually doesn’t die this time), but sadly he doesn’t have much to do.

To its great detriment, “Jupiter Ascending” can’t help feeling reminiscent of 2011’s ill-reviewed “Green Lantern.” Both films juxtapose a vivid vision of contemporary Earth alongside highly developed alien cultures. When the human/alien worlds inevitably intersect, a lineup of exotic characters starts giving data-dumps to the protagonist, who then spends most of his or her time wondering “WHY WAS I CHOSEN? WHY ME?” out loud. The Wachowskis (responsible for “The Matrix” trilogy and the film adaptation of “Cloud Atlas”) seem to have forgotten the “show, don’t tell” mantra that made their early work so compelling. (Who can forget the image of Neo waking up from the Matrix to find himself in a future-industrial hellscape?) Over and over and over again, “Jupiter Ascending” lapses into longwinded exposition of plot points, most of which lack any ultimate payoff. By contrast, “Guardians of the Galaxy” worked precisely because it assumed its characters – and its audience – were competent enough to figure out the “rules of the game” as the story unfolded. This isn’t exactly Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: it’s not hard to figure out what’s going on.

As if that weren’t enough, the script is shot through with deficiencies of the most appalling sort. Lack of character development? Check (the Wachowskis have never been particularly good with this). Crammed-in “love story” that becomes inexplicably central to the plot? Check. Unresolved narrative arcs designed to lay groundwork for future sequels? Check. And the list goes on.

That said, “Jupiter Ascending” isn’t altogether terrible. In fact, it’s remarkably entertaining, and a good rainy-day movie (calling it a good movie might go too far, though).

This movie is beautiful – breathtakingly so. In this age of gratuitous CGI overuse, it may seem silly to describe any big-budget sci-fi production as “beautiful,” but no other word seems appropriate. Imagine the production values of the jungles in “Avatar,” applied to massive cityscapes and alien spacecraft: the quality of the effects and art design is that impressive. Powered by such grandiose visuals and Michael Giaccino’s booming score, “Jupiter Ascending” manages to be an imagination-igniting voyage, if not a successful work of art.

From a philosophical standpoint, “Jupiter Ascending” is actually rather unique in its traditionalism. With Balem as its primary antagonist (a galactic Gordon Gekko, so to speak), the film offers a critique of the profit-oriented market culture that characterizes the modern age. Such swipes at the contemporary liberal order certainly aren’t unique to “Jupiter Ascending” – but the alternative the movie depicts is far more Burkean than Marxist. Here, there’s no fetishization of power; indeed, in the tradition of Rome’s Cincinnatus, Jupiter repeatedly rejects the mantle of authority thrust upon her. Happiness is found in hearth and home, and in fulfilling one’s designated life role (indeed, social stratification is taken as a given – even as a genetically-based imperative). If nothing else, it’s an interesting counterpoint to the redistributionist ideals advocated by other works in the genre (2013’s “Elysium” springs to mind).

Is it worth seeing? With expectations properly calibrated, perhaps. It’s no future classic, though it’s a shame some of these concepts and designs probably won’t get a second outing. Truly original sci-fi is hard to come by, and for all its many cinematic failures, “Jupiter Ascending” can’t help but spark a sense of wonder.

But unfortunately, sometimes wonder just isn’t enough.

VERDICT: 5.5/10
While its concepts are grand, and its visuals are magnificent, “Jupiter Ascending” can’t quite overcome its defective writing and plot.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2015 in Sci-Fi

 

Movie Review: “American Sniper”

Clint Eastwood’s biographical study of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle – a sniper credited with over 160 confirmed kills, the most in U.S. military history – will likely be remembered as the “Saving Private Ryan” of the Iraq War. This will undoubtedly seem high praise for a film which just opened in wide release: “American Sniper,” however, not only offers an exceptional character study, but brilliantly captures the conflicted cultural ethos surrounding a war to which most Americans paid less and less attention as time dragged on.

The movie traces Kyle’s journey through four tours of duty in Iraq, juxtaposing visceral battle sequences with snapshots from his turbulent relationship with his wife (Sienna Miller) and children. Bradley Cooper, in the central role, displays a previously undemonstrated acting range. Gone is the suave grifter of “Limitless” and the manic outpatient of “Silver Linings Playbook: Cooper’s Kyle is every inch the stoic SEAL, driven by a black-and-white moral code and an iron personal will. And much as I may fume over Jake Gyllenhaal’s Academy snub or admire Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent turn as Alan Turing, Cooper deserves the Oscar win for the sheer dramatic gravitas he brings to a complex figure.

This film is not, as some critics have charged, an uncritical look at its subject. It is suggested – though never directly voiced – that Kyle suffers from an unhealthy affection for the battlefield, one which goes beyond a sense of patriotic duty to a kind of self-realization through warfare. In so doing, “American Sniper” lapses neither into crass jingoism nor “Full Metal Jacket”-style nihilism, but rather provides a trans-political look at the human beings placed into a conflict not originally of their devising.

But if the movie probes the darker corners of Kyle’s character, it is an equally stark indictment of a society that is fundamentally dissociated from its warriors. Gone is the sense of public participation which characterized past conflicts: Kyle and his comrades are sent on long tours of duty (characterized by eruptions of sudden violence from a hostile local populace), shunted into underfunded VA hospitals when injured, and ultimately expected to readily re-assimilate into a comparatively disengaged society. The question Eastfield’s film never really answers is whether the norms of enemy dehumanization required for effective battle are reconcilable with contemporary cultural standards…and if not, whether such re-assimilation is even possible. When the patriotic slogans are said and done, “American Sniper” asks its audience, are you – and your society – truly prepared to reengage those you sent to fight on your behalf, for a cause you believed was just?

And that is a question no film director will ever be able to answer, because its answer rests with the American people.

The film is combat-heavy, and more time could perhaps be allocated toward the tortures of Kyle’s readjustment and reintegration. That said, “American Sniper” contains some of the best film editing I’ve ever seen: the battle scenes are breathtakingly kinetic and superbly paced, topping both “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Act of Valor” in sheer intensity. The climactic battle sequence – which unfolds during a raging sandstorm – is a nail-biting tour de force, utterly engrossing in its fiercely violent desperation.

As one might expect, this is not an easy movie to watch. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of dark things unfold onscreen, but few compare to the horrors “American Sniper” holds up as examples of the evil that Kyle and his companions face. Yet anything short of brutal honesty would be a deep disservice to the film’s haunting takeaway: at its heart, “American Sniper” is a story of soldiers who face things we cannot imagine, only to return to a public that cannot comprehend.

VERDICT: 9/10
A ruthlessly wrenching, thought-provoking depiction of modern warfare and its intersection with culture, successfully anchored by an exceptional Bradley Cooper performance.

 
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Posted by on January 18, 2015 in Contemporary

 
 
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