Archive for February, 2015

Jupiter Ascending

Posted: February 12, 2015 in Film reviews
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Directed by The Wachowskis. Starring Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum.

Kunis is the titular Jupiter (Jones to give you her full name) a down at heel Russian immigrant working in Chicago cleaning toilets and sharing a house with her large extended family. Her life is dull and her only ambition is to buy a telescope in remembrance of her murdered father who loved the stars and the planets (hence the name). What Jupiter doesn’t realise is that the Earth is one tiny part of a universe wide commercial enterprise, with human beings as the ultimate resource when they’re “harvested” by the more advanced humans who’ve seeded life on myriad planets throughout the galaxy.

Jupiter is also unaware that she’s a ‘resurgence’, the genetic reincarnation of the matriarch of one of the universe’s biggest corporations, the House of Abrasax, as such she is classed as royalty, which is potentially bad news for the three squabbling heirs of Abrasax, one of whom may have murdered their mother.

One of the three, Balem (Eddie Redmayne) has sent alien killers to take care of Jupiter, but she’s saved by Caine (Tatum) a half man/half wolf mercenary hired by another of the siblings, Titus (Douglass Booth) to find Jupiter. Rather than turn her over to Titus, Caine takes Jupiter to see his former mentor Stinger (Sean Bean) who’s half bee………anyway, Stinger realises that Jupiter is royalty and the three try to escape Earth to ensure that Jupiter can ascend to her rightful throne.

Can Jupiter claim her crown? Can she save the earth from a fatal harvest, and will Sean Bean survive to the end of a film for once?

If you see one film about an antihero in jet boots, watch Guardians of the Galaxy. If you see two films about an antihero in jet boots, watch Guardians of the Galaxy again. If you see three…ok, at that point you can watch this.

And so The Wachowskis who, for better or worse, gave us the Matrix trilogy, turn their attentions towards space opera, and what a confused mess it is. They’re clearly very imaginative people (or at least think they are, I’m not sure how creative you have to be to call a wolf man Caine, a bee man Stinger, and an elephant alien Nesh) but the true test of any creative person is the ability to hone your vision. Having a thousand cool ideas and throwing them all at the screen is a recipe for disaster, and make no mistake this film is a disaster, which isn’t to say it isn’t enjoyable on a purely laughable level, but it’s still a fail.

Much like the second Riddick opus, this is a film that tries to show you the breadth and depth of a universe teeming with life in just a couple of hours, trotting out crazy sounding names, describing huge empires and hokey religions to the point where you get sensory overload. George Lucas gets lambasted a lot, and frankly I’ve lambasted him myself plenty of times, but the beauty of Star Wars is in its simplicity, you start small and then build. Jupiter Ascending is so grand in scale from the off that it has nowhere else to go so just coasts along on a plateau of banal opulence.

The script is bad, and not just because of all the “Krinkwim of thawlass will see you now” malarkey. Maybe it’s Kunis’ delivery but her “I love dogs” line when Caine tells her he’s more dog than man, is cringe worthy, as is Sean Bean advising that the reason all his pet bees are flying around Jupiter is because “Bees recognise royalty”. In fact most of the dialogue is similarly clunky, and all the spectacle in the universe can’t cover that up.

Similarly the visuals don’t conceal plotting that is as linear as they come, not to mention repetitive. Jupiter is captured/meets with one of the siblings who, with varying degrees of subtlety, tries to manipulate/kill her before she’s rescued in the nick of time by Caine. It’s basically the same film three times over (actually probably nearer 4 or 5 times over), although there is a surreal interlude when it turns into a Terry Gilliam film (complete with Terry Gilliam). And then there are the contrivances. Balem having his secret base inside Jupiter (as in the planet, the film doesn’t turn into The Fantastic Voyage or anything) is painful. “Do you see what we’ve done!” shout The Wachowskis. “Aren’t we clever!”

No, you really aren’t….

Cast wise it would be difficult to suggest anyone stands out. Kunis has her strengths, but playing downtrodden cleaning women who become intergalactic queens is not amongst them, though she isn’t helped by a script which requires her to do little beyond wear a succession of glamorous outwits whilst asking a succession of questions. Tatum tries his best, and has a few amusing moments, but on the whole he’s there to take his shirt off and swoop in to rescue Jupiter every 23 ½ minutes. As for Eddie Redmayne…I’m not quite sure what he was going for, but his hushed delivery broken up by occasional screams of petulance is so ludicrous it has to be seen/heard to be believed, and one hopes he was just the only one who realised how ridiculous and camp the film was.

Of course ridiculous and camp are fine if you handle it in a knowing way, take Flash Gordon for example, the prevailing feeling of Jupiter Rising, however, suggests that the Wachowskis thought they were making a startlingly original, epic and utterly straight faced missive about corporate greed and consumption.

On the plus side, visually it looks great, and whilst it’s not always exciting it’s rarely dull because The Wachowskis were clearly working to come kind of mathematical formula that ensures the film never goes more than five minutes without an explosion, or a change of planet, or a change of Kunis’ outfit, or Balem whispering…

Jupiter Ascending; You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wonder why an elephant is flying the ship, but mainly you’ll probably wish you were watching Guardians of the Galaxy…

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Kingsman: The Secret Service

Posted: February 8, 2015 in Film reviews
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Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Starring Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L Jackson, Michael Caine and Mark Strong.

Gary “Eggsy” Unwin(Egerton) is a troubled young man living on a council estate in London with his mother and step father, a violent criminal who treats Eggsy and his mum like dirt. Despite being a bright kid he did poorly at school, and though he joined the marines he quit half way through his training. Now he spends his days hanging out with his friends and getting in trouble with the police. After one particular brush with the law he finds himself arrested and facing the prospect of jail. His only chance of escape relies on a medal he was given by a mysterious man when he was a child, and just after his father, who he thinks was just a solider, died.

Before you can say “Really 007…” Eggsy finds he’s been freed, courtesy of Harry Hart (Firth) the man who gave him the medal as a child and a gentleman spy working for an organisation known as Kingsman. Working behind the front of a Saville row tailors, Kingsman was set up after World War 1 and is affiliated to no government. Harry thinks Eggsy has what it takes to be a Kingsman, much as his father did, but when he arrives for training Eggsy finds himself surrounded by fellow potential Kingsman who had a better upbringing, better education, and who, in some instances, look down their nose at the working class boy they feel is inferior.

Whilst Eggsy struggles to get through the Kingsman selection process, Harry begins investigating eccentric billionaire Richmond Valentine (Jackson) who may or may not be involved in a series of high profile kidnappings, and who may or may not be a megalomaniac out to destroy the world.

Can Eggsy prove himself worthy of Harry’s belief in him, and even if he can, can the Kingsman agents prevail against Valentine and his lethal henchwoman?

Since Sean Connery first uttered the immortal line “My name is Bond, James Bond” film and TV have fallen over themselves to come up with a succession of spy heroes, some have been deadly serious, but many had been comedic; from The Man from UNCLE to Get Smart, Matt Helm to Derek Flint, from Austin Powers to Jason Bourne the one thing they all share, to a greater or lesser degree, is a molecule or two of 007 in their DNA, and Kingsman is no exception.

But, this is no parody like Austin Powers, there’s no sly winking at the audience here, nor is it a deadly serious, gritty affair ala Jason Bourne, instead what we have is a curious mix of sixties spy cool— riffing on The Avengers (the John Steed rather than the Marvel version) The Man from UNCLE (UNCLE also operated out of a tailor’s shop) and Harry Palmer (if only in the glasses and the presence of Caine)—Roger Moore era ridiculousness (and I mean that as a compliment)—and a very modern attitude to foul language and violence in the Kick Ass vein.

What’s amazing is how well these disparate elements fit together. Perhaps it comes down to something as simple as the fact that this is a film that respects its heritage. It isn’t embarrassed to channel all those old time spies, doesn’t feel the need to apologise, to cast a knowing glance at the audience, or to play down the more ridiculous elements in favour of gritty realism. Instead this is a film that feels comfortable in its own skin, and even if it just stray close to the edge at times its confidence in itself just about stops it from driving off a cliff.

This is a film that harks back to an era when, as Harry Hart intimates, spy films were more fun.

And at the heart of what makes the film succeed are a host of great performances. Starting with Colin Firth. Forget Mr Darcy, forget the monarch with a speech impediment, even forget Bridget Jones’ Mark Darcy and his brilliantly rubbish fighting skills, because Harry Hart is lethal with a capital L. In unarmed combat, with a gun, and most especially with an umbrella. He might be 10% Bond, he might be 10% Harry Palmer, but on the whole, more than anything, he’s John Steed, dashing, debonair, polite, honourable and quite possibly the deadliest man alive, and Firth plays every element wonderfully, he has Harry’s urbane honour down to a tee, and he utterly convinces in every fight scene, most especially the bit in the church…trust me when I say, whatever you think is going to happen in the church, be ready to be surprised! Firth is brilliant, and if you offered me a whole series of Harry Hart films right now I’d bite your hand off.

Coming close to stealing the show is relative newcomer Egerton who brings a brash cheekiness to his role as Eggsy, and in many ways the film hangs on how convinced you are by his transformation from baseball cap wearing lout to bespoke suited gentleman spy. Personally I think he’s great, and there’s more than a hint of a very young Roger Moore about him, and when he’s in full on spy mode there’s a quite definite twinkle in his eye.

Jackson paints his villain with fairly broad brushstrokes, but there is more to his portrayal than just a lisp, similarly Caine just turns up and plays Michael Caine, but as I said in my review of Interstellar, he does is so well! Plus he does get to cut loose a bit in his final scene. I’d give special mention to Mark Strong as well, playing the Kingsman equivalent of Q, plus it’s nice to see Jack Davenport get to be James Bond…if only for five minutes, and it’s always great to see Mark Hamill!

One of the films failings is in its portrayal of women. Samantha Womack as Eggsy’s mum does her best, but can’t rise much above portraying a victim and giving Eggsy someone back home to fight for to. Sophie Cookson as fellow potential Kingsman Roxy, and Sofia Boutella as Valentine’s lethal blade-legged henchwoman Gazelle, both do well, but rarely rise above just being sidekicks.

And then there’s the Swedish princess…some have said the film makes a huge misstep in the final few minutes, and I can see their point of view. For all the bag language and violence it’s the final scenes where the film threatens to go too far, but in hindsight it strikes me that the ending does fit with the general tone of the film. As I said, for all its sixties cool, this feels very much like a 70’s era Bond film, only one taken to extremes, and frankly this is never truer than the end!

Exciting, funny, cool, violent, sweary, visually stunning in parts with more than a few wonderful set pieces, this might not be a film for everyone, but if you’re a connoisseur of all things spy, and you have no great aversion of potty mouths and cartoon violence, this is one heck of a treat.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’m off to Saville Row to get myself a bespoke suit and some exploding shoes…

Ex Machina

Posted: February 1, 2015 in Film reviews
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Directed by Alex Garland. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander.

Caleb (Gleeson) is a computer programmer working for a company named Bluebook, the world’s largest search engine. When he wins a companywide competition he is invited to spend a week with the CEO of Bluebook, Nathan (Isaac).

Nathan lives a near solitary existence in a high tech house located in the middle of nowhere, and Caleb has to be taken there by helicopter. When he arrives Nathan advises him that by virtue of winning the completion he has won a very special prize, he will be the human component in a Turing Test (the test to determine whether a machine has true artificial intelligence in case you didn’t already know that/haven’t seen The Imitation Game). Whilst Caleb is expecting to be faced with a computer, he is actually introduced to Ava (Vikander) a humanoid robot with the face of a beautiful woman.

As the week progresses Caleb finds himself bonding with Ava as he tries to assess whether she is truly alive, meanwhile he finds Nathan’s behaviour increasingly erratic as the enigmatic genius becomes more messianic, whilst spending increasing amounts of time blind drunk.

As it becomes clear that if Ava fails the Turing Test Nathan may well scrap her, Caleb is forced to choose between man and machine, but is anyone in the house quite who they appear to be?
And so after many years of scriptwriting (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Dredd, Never Let Me Go…) Alex Garland steps behind the camera for his directorial debut (although he did the script as well) and an assured debut it is. Whatever your view of Ex Machina is it would be hard to deny that it doesn’t feel like a debut, so accomplished is every facet of the production.

Given that, expansive vista outside of the house aside, most of the action takes place inside of Nathan’s minimalist home, Garland makes every shot look beautiful. The house is filled with reflective surfaces and Garland uses them to the full, with characters frequently shown alongside their reflections— a commentary on each character’s duality perhaps?—or in shadow—suggesting none of them are quite what they appear to be maybe?

This means that what could have been a very sterile, very workmanlike film instead looks as beautiful as last year’s Under the Skin, another film about a beautiful woman who isn’t actually human but who fools others, and maybe even herself, into believing she is.

And this is before we get to the script, which given Garland’s pedigree is, for the most part, very solid. This is a science fiction film very much in the hard sci-fi mould, and the script convinces…mostly. Strangely the notion that Nathan has created a thinking machine is less of a stretch than the fact that he’s created a thinking machine that looks like Alicia Vikander, but the film convinces for the most part in its near future setting, so that nothing we encounter seems that impossible. It’s a thought provoking film that doesn’t let its ideas run away with it, Garland could have let things get bogged down in large chunks of exposition, but for the most part he’s content to let us see snippets of conversations between Caleb and Nathan, or Caleb and Ava. This is great from the perspective of not letting the film get bogged down, and keeps the running time pacey, but does mean that, at times, you’re left wanting more. In particular it would have been nice to see more interaction between Ava and Caleb.

Whilst not strictly speaking a three hander Gleeson, Isaac and Vikander share the bulk of the action and dialogue and all three are excellent. Gleeson is quietly impressive as the doe eyed innocent who, right from the off seems out of his depth, but who grows as the film progresses into someone willing to take decisive action. Isaac is terrifying as the full on Nathan, his shaven head and full beard making it clear this is a man whose personality is off kilter, even before he starts misquoting Caleb and drinking himself into a stupor. Nathan is a genius who’s clearly spent too long alone with his own thoughts, and Isaac nails the role without ever having to resort to hamming it up. This leaves Vikander as Ava, portraying an almost childlike innocence side by side with a hint of something darker and more manipulative behind those doe eyes. She’s wonderful, every movement and gesture filled with meaning, her transformation into the android Ava completed by some wonderfully understated cgi.

I enjoyed it a lot, but for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on I feel I should have liked it even more. Maybe it’s because, whilst Garland’s script contains more humanity and humour than you’d get in most hard sci-fi, this still feels a trifle clinical in places, and whilst there is an intriguing twist in the tail, nothing that happens is that unexpected if you’re at all familiar with the genre.

Well directed and superbly performed, this is a thought provoking, intelligent science fiction film that looks gorgeous, and whilst it isn’t perfect, its flaws are few and far between.

I recommend you ava look at this…