Friday, February 6, 2015

Jupiter Ascending, Sponge Out of Water, A Most Violent Year, Two Days One Night Reviews

Jupiter Ascending
Dir. Andy & Lana Wachowski

Since The Matrix was released over 15 years ago, it seems like the Wachowski Siblings' entire career has been saved by the prestige of that single iconic sci-fi movie. After the major big-budget failures of Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas, it's astonishing that Warner Brothers even dared to give them another chance, especially with something as bonkers as Jupiter Ascending. The movie stars Mila Kunis as "Jupiter Jones," a toilet-cleaner who has no idea she is, genetically speaking, the queen of Earth. Similarly to Sarah Connor in The Terminator, she finds herself surrounded by people from another world, either trying to save or kill her, telling little-old-her that she is important to the survival of the human race in the future. The "Kyle Reese" character here is Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) a half-man, half-wolf, Spock-eared badass on rocket skates, and the "Terminator" this time around is played by Eddie Redmayne, who wants to harvest Earth. The problem is that whereas James Cameron's film had a tight, well-written script, with developed characters, high-stakes action, and some kind of underlying logical structure, Jupiter Ascending has none of those things and may very well mark the end for big budget Wachowski features.

While it fails on almost every level, at least it was an ambitious failure. There are some interesting ideas that bubble up regarding capitalism (in space!) and living as a woman in a male-dominated society (in space!), but the problem is that Wachowskis stuffed so many pulpy sci-fi ideas into the movie that it ends up feeling as lifeless as the Star Wars prequels - which is yet another instance of a young sci-fi director who peaked early and struggled to continue making quality films. Rocket skates, invisible alien things, random jet-bike assassins, some lizard guy - it looks like every thought that poured out of the Art Department ended up in the final film. Not helping things is the total lack of chemistry between Kunis and Tatum in a totally un-earned love story, and the movie in general is so convoluted that it's hard to even keep track of all the random plot threads of this crap heap. Sure, there were some beautiful, desktop-worthy visuals, and some of the action concepts were kind of fun, but this nearly humor-less, unexciting space opera falls completely flat.

(I do have to say though...Michael Giacchino's score, if you listen to it outside of the context of the movie, is AMAZING, and if it were the score for Episode VII I'd be completely happy. Seriously, I can already tell it will be among my most listened-to scores of the year. I can't wait to hear what Giacchino does with Jurassic World!)

Rating: C-

The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water
Dir. Paul Tibbitt

Like most of my generation, I grew up on Spongebob. I didn't just tune in and have it on in the background like an assortment of other shows - Spongebob Squarepants forever shaped my sense of humor and to this day I can recite lines verbatim. It was more than a cartoon - its presence in my life marked a transcendental period of anarchical tomfoolery not dissimilar to how old bucks talk about the Marx Brothers or the Three Stooges. And I definitely am not alone; if you mention "canned bread," "Yellow! Pink!" or "My LEG!", you can bet a vast majority of millennials will know exactly what you're talking about. Sadly, for me, the first Spongebob movie came out just as I was "outgrowing" animated movies and shows, thinking I was too "cool" for that baby stuff. But now, my childhood nostalgia rebound has surfaced, and looking at the promised "Roger Rabbit" concept of my favorite sea critters coming to OUR world seemed ripe for bizarre, anarchic antics. Unfortunately, in one of the biggest false-advertising moves I've seen in a long time, about 85% of the movie ultimately takes place under the sea, back in Bikini Bottom, in regular 2D animation, feeling like nothing more than a mediocre, extended episode of the show. What a rip! my pants.

While the flick is sporadically funny, and harks back to some classic moments from the show, it was overall a definite disappointment. Despite the original writers coming back, and having a number a bizarre, trippy moments clearly pandering to the "nostalgic stoner" demographic (if there is such a thing), it just felt overwhelmingly 'meh' to me. The one song in the film was terrible, and the plot, of Plankton trying to secure the Krabby Patty formula, is such an overused trope at this point. The characters are all still their usual funny selves, and their facial animations are still hilariously exaggerated, but the film presents nothing new from the show that I once devoured as a kid. When the characters eventually get to the surface, the 3D rendering is awesome, but by that point, I was just exhausted from the 'same-old' stuff, and what little time is spent on the surface deals more with action set pieces than clever jokes. I was hoping for something a little more unique...sadly Sponge Out of Water was a disappointment, even with Antonio Banderas as a pirate.

Rating: C

A Most Violent Year
Dir. J.C. Chandor
Watch Trailer

J.C. Chandor's last film, All is Lost, was a straightforward survival story with next-to-no dialogue; A Most Violent Year on the other hand, is a highly complicated "survival" story (in the business sense) filled with wall-to-wall dialogue. The films couldn't seem more different on paper, which goes to show the range of this burgeoning talent. The film, set during New York's most violent year on record, 1981, stars Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) as a heat and fuel supplier who, despite his wife's (Jessica Chastain) hinted-at mob connections and his competitors' ruthless tactics, wants to "stay straight" and not get involved with the crime world.  Keeping a keen eye on Isaacs' business is a detective (David Oyelowo), who's more weary about his own ass than the safety of anyone working for Isaac. With great performances across the board, beautiful cinematography, a troubling story that's all too prevalent 35 years later, and some memorable action beats, this is, to me, a vast improvement over All is Lost, even if its deliberate pace and long pauses take some getting used to.

Although this is a real slow burn of a thriller, I really liked this movie and its themes. Isaac is great in the film, with a role that no doubt would've been given to a young Al Pacino back in the day, as he builds his business and reputation the "right" way, though often at the cost of the safety of his co-workers. And Jessica Chastain, as always, is fantastic, and the wavering power dynamic that plays between the married couple makes for great drama. Besides a final chase sequence, the movie does lack momentum though;  if you have the patience, I definitely think A Most Violent Year is a most welcome addition to the "American Dream-gone bad" genre.

Rating: B

Two Days, One Night
Dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne
Watch Trailer

The Dardenne Brothers are favorites at the Cannes Film Festival, having been awarded the coveted Palme d'Or twice for Rosetta and L'enfant, but Two Days, One Night is my first experience with the directing duo. The films follows Sandra, a wife/mother of two who's in a bit of a pickle. Her job is on the line after she had a breakdown due to depression, and ultimately her fate to continue working is placed in the hands of her coworkers through an anonymous vote to either keep her on, or to get a major pay raise. Sure, this device may seem to be sort of a "gimmick" at first, but once you get over the believability of such a harsh ultimatum, I thought Two Days, One Night was a great examination of human morality, centered around a heartbreaking performance from Marion Cotillard, who takes the two days before the vote to go door-to-door and essentially ask each person if they will vote for her come Monday, hoping a face-to-face will gain their sympathy. That'd be tough enough for anyone to do - to request others lose their bonus for you to keep your job - but factor in her depression, and the film takes on a whole new level of intensity.

Its naturalistic acting and themes of depression, poverty, and class reminded me of some of the great Italian Neorealist films like The Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D, only set in contemporary France. Cotillard is fantastic as always, and despite the repetitive nature of the story, each character poses a new challenge, especially knowing the fragile state of mind Sandra is in at any given moment, and ends up as a very interesting (to me at least) look at human nature and our conflicting desires for both self-interest and empathy.

Rating: B+

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