Jupiter Ascending: Have the Wachowskis lost their way?

There’s a moment in the Wachowski siblings’ latest epic film where the main character realises bees respond to her and protect her. It’s quite tender and touching. A quieter moment in an otherwise epic – and thoroughly bonkers – sci-fi action film.

To say Andy and Lana Wachowski have been getting weirder of late is an understatement. Either that, or they’ve got to the point where they can now – as Sinatra once said – do it very much their way. A couple of years ago they tackled a book widely considered unfilmable (Cloud Atlas) and did a commendable, perhaps even brilliant, job. They delved into some big themes, jumped across time zones and dealt with constant shifts of tone, all whilst keeping the focus on the human side of things. And of course we all know just how good the first Matrix film was. Great concept, great story, with some exhilarating individual moments and scenes.

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And so on to their latest… Jupiter Ascending. One of their hits or a giant misfire? Well the truth is it’s somewhere in-between. Plot wise it’s utterly ludicrous. Although perhaps no more so than other sci-fi films, so maybe it’s the way it’s told and the performances, which we’ll come to in a bit.

After a bit of setup backstory we quickly meet Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), living out her life as a cleaner. We jump between her grim life and also get introduced to ‘the bad ones’ of the film, three siblings from the Abraxas family, a bunch of power-hungry, rather mad intergalactic royals; Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) and Titus (Douglas Booth).

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Through certain events the Abraxas lot discover Jupiter is the descendant/reincarnation (or something like that) of their family line, and she actually stands to inherit the earth ahead of all of them. Earth being the most profitable planet in their collection in terms of ‘mining raw materials’ (see the film to understand those quotation marks).

Obviously Jupiter has no idea about any of this until handsome splice (part human, part wolf) soldier Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) walks into her life. He thens whisks her into space for further adventures (with his top off a lot, naturally). Let’s leave it there plot wise, shall we? Beyond that it starts to go off the wall and then some.

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Getting a handle on a Wachowski film is the thing. With most directors you’ve got an idea of their style and material they get drawn to. With these two, the best you can say is they like characters that are fluid in terms of their sexuality and gender and race and colour and all that stuff. They love sci-fi and pushing the limits of what special effects can do. However, this does not make a good story, it just augments it.

I think, what it looks like they’re going for with Jupiter Ascending, is a fun thrill ride. A space adventure – and a bit of a love story. In that respect it delivers. It is fun, and thrilling and adventurous. It has funny moments and a few really odd ones (a sort of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy/Brazil moment in the middle of the film is, tonally, very confusing and kills the pace of the movie dead). On the plus side, it looks gorgeous. The sets are beautifully detailed and stunningly realised. And the effects are thoroughly immersive (particularly Caine’s rather fetching anti gravity boots).

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By and large, the characters are not vastly fleshed out. They probably suffer in that respect due to the vast amount of world building the Wachowskis have to do in the film’s first third. Kunis and Tatum are compelling enough leads (albeit largely lumbered with some particularly clunky, soap opera-esque dialogue, particularly Kunis) and Redmayne, after the emotional heavy lifting he did as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything (which recently won him an Oscar), is clearly having the time of his life as the big baddie, really cutting loose going full out Emporer Palpatine. With his creepy, withered voice you half expect him to say something like, ‘Oh, I’m afraid the Death Star will be fully operational when your friends arrive.’ It’s that sort of performance.

His siblings, Titus and Kalique fare less well. Or just have a lot less to do. Each gets a scene or two, but it’s not much, after which they’re pretty much forgotten. You half wonder if the Wachowskis overcomplicated it having three siblings. Why not just have Redmayne’s Balem as the main antagonist and give him more scenes facing off against the strong and silent Caine? Actually, come to think of it, the same happens with Sean Bean, he turns up for a few scenes as Caine’s buddy Stinger (half man, half bee… keep up), then he bows out for an early bath and an easy pay cheque.

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Tonally, the whole thing feels like it sits quite well with the first Star Trek film of recent years (the J.J. Abrams’ one) or a slightly more melodramatic (less funny) Guardians of the Galaxy. Frankly, it’s no Matrix, but then what is? However, if you judge it on its own terms as a bit of a caper in space with some fun action set pieces, you’ll probably enjoy it.

So, get in the popcorn, leave your ego at the door and sit back and take it all in.

Oscars 2015: As the dust settles

So that’s the Oscars done for another year. Were they everything you expected? Did the actors and films you’d hope get recognition actually get it? And, more importantly, does it all even matter?

In answer to the last question, probably not, but industry acclaim is often (but not always) indicative of a job well done. And who wouldn’t want a big shiny award for their efforts?

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This year it seems Grand Budapest Hotel cleaned up (production design, best score, costume design, makeup and hair). As did Birdman (picture, director, original screenplay, cinematography) and Whiplash (supporting actor, film editing, sound mixing).

Eddie Redmayne took Best Actor for The Theory of Everything and Julianne Moore Best Actress for Still Alice.

So, were these all worthy winners? Were any overlooked or snubbed?

Yes, yes and yes.

There’s always going to be unhappy people come awards season, but I think Birdman perhaps did a little too well – although it does seem typical Oscar material. Last year my film of the year was Nightcrawler, which got barely a look-in, although it got a nomination for Original Screenplay and it would have been nice to see it beat Birdman, but this was a tough category and all entries there were outstanding ones.

Talking of tough categories, Best Actress was apparently a shoo-in for Julianne Moore for Still Alice. I’ve not seen the film yet but it sounds very ‘Oscar worthy’ in terms of the material and her performance. Literally all of the other nominees could have won in my book, they all were fantastic (Rosumund Pike – Gone Girl, Reese Witherspoon – Wild, Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything, Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night).

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I’m pleased Redmayne took Best Actor. His performance was truly astonishing and a thoroughly affecting one as Stephen Hawking, edging out Keaton’s washed up actor trying to reinvent his career in Birdman. And out of a category with five nominated, two were Brits (the other being Cumberbatch for The Imitation Game) which was pleasing to see.

Given the experimental nature of Boyhood or the electric performances in Whiplash it would have been nice to see either take Best Picture, but losing out to Birdman is something I can grudgingly accept with a ‘well played, sir’.

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Best Supporting Actress went to Patricia Arquette for Boyhood. Now I haven’t seen the film but I’d have really liked to see Kiera Knightley take this category for her underrated performance in The Imitation Game, or perhaps Laura Dern for her tender one in Wild.

I could go on and on, but let’s stop there. To sum up, not a bad list of winners. Not too many surprises or upsets. There’s some I would have preferred to win over others, but I’m not too cut up about it all.

What was your reaction to this year’s winners and losers?

Oh, and a final note, The Lego Movie should have won for Best Original Song. In that respect, everything is not awesome.

Until next year.

The Theory of Everything: Redmayne and Jones dazzle and delight

And so there was a big bang and then… A brief history of Stephen Hawking came to pass. An as Englishman I sometimes forget that, as a global power, we punch massively above our weight. Particularly when it comes to producing bona fide geniuses.

In recent months The Imitation Game hit the cinemas, charting the life of the brilliant Alan Turing, the man who cracked the enigma device during WWII – expertly played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

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And now we have another Englishman stepping into the ring… Eddie Redmayne. Putting in a very fine performance as Stephen Hawking. Based on the book Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen by his wife Jane Wilde Hawking (Felicity Jones), we cover a lot in this film. From his early beginnings as a student in Cambridge through to worldwide fame and recognition.

Right from the off we delve straight into the main factors that shaped who he was. His professor (David Thewlis) at Cambridge sets the class a task of ten impossible questions, everyone fails except Stephen who, in a bit of a rush, answers nine of them on the back of a train timetable.

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Within the first few minutes of the film we also meet Jane, the woman who becomes the loving constant behind the man. Felicity Jones is yet to put a foot wrong in her career and as Jane she is perfectly cast: elegant, womanly, beautiful and with a bit of an edge. Stephen, like the rest of us, become instantly captivated. And as a couple they suit each other well, as Redmayne and Jones have a very natural and believable chemistry.

As Stephen’s condition (motor neuron disease) worsens, Jane becomes the driving force of the narrative, caring for both Stephen and their growing brood of young children (apparently sexual organs are unaffected by the disease as they operate using a completely different system).

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Together, the writer Anthony McCarten and director James Marsh weave the story together well. It trots along at a good pace and we’re not overwhelmed by the science and maths of it all. Like Interstellar a few months ago, science serves the story. Indeed, the consultant on that film, Kip Thorne, gets a mention here, as someone with whom Stephen has a bet. The prize being a subscription to Penthouse magazine. This point is telling as we get an insight into Stephen’s character, as he has quite a devilish sense of humour. All the more heartwarming given his condition.

It might seem trite to say but Redmayne really transforms himself, going full Verbal Kint and then some. To give a performance where for half the movie you have to greatly limit the way you speak must have been tough. In some ways it’s like actors who have to wear a mask that covers all or part of their face; in that you have to find other ways to convey the emotions of your character to the audience. And Redmayne does just that, bookish, shy, inquisitive and intelligent and at times intense, yet disarmingly likeable. Characters are drawn to him. This is evident with his fans and admirers, but more specifically with those closer to him: his speech therapist, his professor and old Cambridge friends and, obviously, his wife Jane.

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This is where Marsh treads a masterful balancing act as director, blending together the relationship and affection Stephen and Jane have for each other, whilst at the same time keeping the audience drawn into Stephen’s rise as a world-renowned theoretical physicist.

As far as biopics – and indeed films in general – go it’s spirited, heartfelt, tragic and engaging; part love story part think piece. It’s one of those that will have the words ‘feel good’ and ‘life-affirming’ plastered all over the marketing material. But for once, without sounding cynical, that’s spot on.