Tomorrowland

Tomorrowland Poster


I try to go into most movies without any preconceived notions, simply waiting to be impressed. If anything, I was even a little excited for Tomorrowland, because if there’s one fictional sub-genre I can get behind, it’s sci-fi. Despite it appearing in the trailers as a massive Disney advertisement for its own theme park, I saw George Clooney looking grim and Hugh Laurie acting evil, so I though I might as well go in with a good attitude. What a quaint notion that seems now. Lesson learned, though: never have a good attitude about anything, if it can be helped.

As a product of the early 2000s myself, I’ve got a certain amount of nostalgia for director Brad Bird’s work. He directed The Iron Giant back in 1999, which pulled at my juvenile heartstrings even then, as well as The Incredibles in 2004 and Ratatouille in 2007. Though Bird technically made the transition from animation to live-action with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol in 2011, I can’t help but feel that something was lost along the way.

From a conceptual standpoint, the art design looks really sleek and cool and sci-fi, and in all honesty, the futuristic city of Tomorrowland seems pretty well realized. In practical terms, however, the CG quickly begins to look laughably fake. I don’t know if I’m just noticing it more frequently now, or if RealD 3D just makes everything look like shit, but I’m appalled at how many 3D films this year look visually repulsive. Seriously, sit too close to the screen and you can see the virtual stitching starting to come undone. It’s like the Star Wars prequels all over again. Maybe I’m being over critical and maybe the sensible, 2D version looks fine, but all I can say for certain is that we badly need to get over this 3D fad before we all contract haemolacria.

Before I get into the minutiae of what ardently destroyed the experience for me, I want to briefly mention the cast. George Clooney, to his credit, really does try the best he can with the pile of trash of a script that he’s insolently been asked to work with.

Likewise, it’s good fun to watch Hugh Laurie hamming it up as the bad guy, delivering the most tortured one-liners ever put to film and slap-fighting Clooney near the end. And even though I was initially down on Ellen Page wannabe Britt Robertson, I kind of warmed to her when I realized that she was trying to act in front of a featureless green screen for ninety-five percent of the movie. She might be forgiven, then, for seeming to over-react to a comical degree in nearly every situation, but one must bear in mind that there was actually nothing for her to react to. Maybe she should have been in charge instead of Bird, since apparently her imagination was way more exciting that whatever was happening on-screen.

And now we’re getting to it, I guess. I’ve danced around this issue long enough. The story. It was only during the credits that I discovered who was responsible for this train wreck: none other than Damon “Prometheus-ruiner” Lindelof. Well, that explains it! I thought. Lindelof’s putrid fingerprints are all over the script, from the insipid, directionless characters to the pedestrian, pseudo-philosophical “fate is what we make it” ending.

The first awful character we’re properly introduced to is Robertson’s Casey Newton: a precocious, tech-savvy young woman, completely without flaw and who, through optimistic energy alone, is able to alter the fabric of space-time. I wish I were making that up. Then we’ve got Clooney’s character, Frank Walker, who’s a bit more well-rounded, being a jaded cynic, basically resigned to the fact humanity is shafted—I found him the most relatable, incidentally. So what happens when you toss these two powder-keg personalities into the same situation? Nothing much at all, frankly, but that might have rather more to do with their dialogue sounding like it was written by someone who’s never interacted with another human being.

My real problem is twofold: 1) neither character is deep or complex enough for me to feel more than superficially invested in their struggles, and 2) neither character really has anything to do, specifically Clooney’s, until right at the very end. The story is your typical “sightseeing tour” affair, with the characters visiting exotic locations with nothing much to do once they get there. In fact, Casey Newton asks at one point, “am I supposed to be doing something?” An appropriate question, to be sure, but I would have extended it to every animal, vegetable, and mineral in the plot up until that point. Hilariously, there’s this ongoing subplot involving the two leads being hunted by kill-droids from an alternate dimension (which sounds way more interesting than it actually is), but it’s blatantly obvious that its entire purpose is to contrive a reason for the protagonists to move along to the next boring set-piece when the story is done cramming exposition down our throats at the current one.

And for a rollicking sci-fi fantasy adventure, there’s a hell of a lot of half-baked exposition that Lindelof insists on spoon-feeding us. The action is so choppy and stop/go/stop because he has to slam on the breaks to crowbar in even more expository bullshit. Show us, Lindelof, don’t just tell us. The indecisive tone doesn’t help the fractured pacing either, as scenes in which multiple people get atomized with no remorse are juxtaposed with scenes in which Hugh Laurie struts around uttering the aforementioned tortured one liners. Speaking of, let’s get around to my other major sticking point, the evil plan.

For the vast majority of the movie, the Earth is threatened with destruction in a wholly unspecific way, allegedly due to a big machine that George Clooney built while he was bumming around an alternate dimension. Neither Lindelof nor Clooney seem to know exactly what the big machine actually does, but the consensus seems to be that it can predict the future somehow. No one knows why the world is going to end though, so they’ve got to travel to the source to figure it out. Once there, Hugh Laurie reveals that he’s the one who’s seeding trans-dimensional bad-vibes to Earth, which is making everyone get really depressed or aggressive or something. But here’s the thing: Hugh Laurie outright admits that even if Earth gets destroyed, it won’t have any impact whatsoever on Tomorrowland. So my question is, why continue to do it even if you know it won’t make any difference to you and yours? Just for kicks? The whole thing is such a contrived, unintuitive mess from start to finish that it’s making my brain hurt just trying to remember it.

And at the very end of the movie, when George Clooney is giving a bit of an epilogue after the big machine gets destroyed, he says something to the effect of, “this is going to be a lot harder than destroying a big evil tower.” Okay, great. Thanks for drawing attention to how idiotic the plot was, Lindelof. But why don’t you change it and make it less idiotic instead of sitting there, grinning and pointing at the massive shit you just took? Lindelof’s absolute delirious contempt for his audience is nothing new, but this reaches a whole new level of awful.

So, to make a long story short, my hopes of a sci-fi fantasy epic were DOA, Damon Lindelof demonstrated what he thinks of the people who see his movies, Disney gets to masturbate over it’s own intellectual property for a while, and 3D is still terrible. See you, space cowboy…

Rating: 2 out of 5

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Mad Max: Fury Road

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I’m rolling up to the Mad Max party pretty late, I admit. I’ve had a lot on my plate recently, so it was certainly gratifying to sit down to a screening of Fury Road and enjoy the mind-numbing catharsis for a while, and if there was ever one word to perfectly describe this fourth installment of the franchise, “cathartic” would certainly be it.

Written, directed and produced by the famed Dr. George Miller (he actually does have a medical degree), Fury Road is undeniably biggest, most brash and in-your-face film of the year so far. The sheer density and scale of the world that Miller has managed to create is remarkable in itself, but becomes even more so when the film proceeds to deliver some of the most deliriously fun-to-watch action sequences that I remember seeing, full stop. Critics have described the direction, especially in regards to Miller’s action sequences, and practically balletic and, indeed, the marvelously fast-paced and beautifully impactful action all takes place at break-neck speeds as the combatants hurtle across the dessert at mach 10.

And can I just take a moment to say how damn gratifying it is to see an action film without a color palate consisting of mainly shit brown and dishwater grey? The rich, vibrant primaries offset with the oil blacks and stark whites are really a joy to see from a visual standpoint. Even more importantly, Miller internalizes the concept of “show, don’t tell,” and allows the rich and detailed mythos of the film to be communicated visually, rather than stop the action to shove exposition down the audience’s throats like Tomorrowland or Jupiter Ascending, to use recent examples. The fact that things aren’t out-and-out explained to us makes them all the more intriguing. From characters and costumes to settings and action-setpieces, everything in Fury Road’s universe is lovingly designed and detailed, yet it all makes sense within the context of the world. Nothing seems out of place, and everything is there that needs to be there.

Speaking of, I’m pleased to report that Miller brings back all of that delightful homoeroticism that characterized the series after the first Mad Max. You know: all these characters running around either S&M gear or mostly naked, a sort of fetishistic reverence for the leadership, and in this one, Nicholas Hoult and Tom Hardy spend the first forty-five minutes attached to one another with a chain and a hypodermic full of blood. Tell me that’s not somehow symbolic!

Regular readers will know that it almost killed me to say so many nice things about a movie, so now let’s move on to the shitty parts before I start hemorrhaging internally.

Some cretinous pleb on tumblr claimed that Fury Road was the pinnacle of cinematic storytelling, and I had a good old pretentious chuckle over that. The story deserves close examination because, as is the case with a lot of bombastic action films, the narrative is basically just an excuse to string together some barely connected action sequences that will (hopefully) distract the audience from how insipid the plot actually is. And that’s certainly the case with Fury Road, for what it’s worth. The story can basically be summarized thus: the good guys steal the bad guys’ mcguffin(s), and the bad guys are willing to expend virtually unlimited recourses to get them back. So far, so standard.

From there, it really is just your typical, loosely-connected string of setpieces serving as little more than an excuse to show off the high-octane action, most of which takes place in featureless desert, occasionally swapped out for a slightly different bit of featureless desert, but at night this time.

As is usually the case with these films, Max himself is by far the least interesting thing in it. Then again, the beauty of the Mad Max franchise has always been more about the insane world and less about Max’s more-or-less generic character. This does lead me to question, however, whether Max’s presence is strictly relevant to the plot. Realistically, you could take Max out all together and you’d be left with pretty much the same film. I assume the intention was to retain brand recognition, but if that’s the case, it’s a pretty cynical approach on Miller’s part.

On that note, I was actually kind of disappointed at how archetypical and one-dimensional Miller’s characters tuned out to be. We have Max, of course: the gruff, stoic action hero who thinks a sure-fire way of acting cool is to show as little emotion as possible. Then we have Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, who frequently reminds us that she’s seeking “redemption,” though never actually mentions what she wants to be redeemed for. We’re left with a weird scenario in which Furiosa is willing to risk life and limb to achieve her goal, but we don’t actually get a glimpse of her motivation for doing so. Sure, she want’s to be redeemed, but practically speaking, that’s little more than providing a perfunctory and slapdash justification for why the conflict exists at all. The whole story revolves around Furiosa and her decisions, but it’s a shame that she comes across as little more than the stereotypical supercilious bad-ass action chick.

To my mind, the character with the most potential for development was Nicholas Hoult’s Nux, a rather bumbling and inept War Boy, bred specifically to be a member of the main baddie’s personal army. Hoult gives quite an admirable performance, but his character, too, is marred by rushed development and an unfulfilling arc. Nux is originally a zealot, a War Boy obsessed and devoted to his leader, Immortan Joe. At the drop of a hat, however, and a casualness with which one might change a boring TV channel, Nux switches sides and joins Max and Furiosa on their quest for not-particularly-justified redemption. My point is that Nux’s realignment carries no emotional weight because it seems as though the only reason he made the choice that he did was because the plot demanded it, and not, as we might expect, because he felt remorseful or conflicted about his actions.

But there’s me going on and on about the minor flaws in what is otherwise an extremely well-made film. Sure, the characters are kind of flat, and their motivations and arcs don’t make a lot of sense, but the simple fact is that Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the most fun and all-around entertaining movies that I’ve seen in a really long time. In many ways, it serves as the perfect counterpoint to, say, Age of Ultron’s cold, superficial and ultimately boring action and story. Amazing, isn’t it? You put a bit of heart and passion into your film and, lo and behold people like it, and rant for way too long about it on a tin-pot movie blog that no one will ever read.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Beat Breakdown #1: Argo

Here’s a new series I’m going to take a crack at. It works like this: we’ll start by taking a look at the screenplay of an Oscar-nominated or Oscar-winning feature film, and try to identify and briefly discuss the important beats. Maybe I’ll keep up with this feature, maybe I won’t. I’m just such an unpredictable, free-spirited type of guy, you know?

In any case, today we’ll be taking a look at the the Oscar-winning 2012 political thriller Argo, written by Chris Terrio and directed by Ben Affleck.

Argo Pic Horizontal


A .pdf of the screenplay can be found here.

PLOT SYNOPSIS

The film opens with the famed attack on the US embassy in Iran in November of 1979. During the attack, fifty embassy staff members are taken hostage, though six manage to escape and hide inside the home of a Canadian ambassador. Meanwhile, CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck, begins concocting a daring, go-for-broke rescue mission involving secreting the six erstwhile captives out of the country by posing as a film crew scouting for exotic locations.

INCITING INCIDENT

(Pages 1-9) The action begins immediately as a group of angry Iranian activists break down the gate of the American embassy in response to Jimmy Carter’s decision to grant the Shah of Iran asylum during the Iranian Revolution. Instantly, we’re faced with a simple and effective conflict: the bad guys have taken hostages, and the good guys want to get the hostages back. If simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, then this snappy, effective opening might luncheon with the Queen.

PLOT POINT ONE

(Pages 27-44) So things have gone to Hell in a hand basket, as they inevitably must, and Tony Mendez is called to action (literally, on the telephone) to restore the status quo—that is, rescue the hostages before they’re ground up for fertilizer. In what we experts (read: random pleb) refer to as the “Eureka moment,” Mendez is on the phone with his kid one night when he notices Planet of the Apes playing in the background, thus providing the inspiration for the hair-brained scheme that is to follow. From there, we’re treated to a sort of odyssey of colorful characters and clandestine meetings as one-by-one the various specialists are brought on board Fellowship of the Ring style to aid in what would eventually come to be known as the Canadian Caper.

MIDPOINT

(Pages 80-86) As per usual with your standard three-act dramatic structure, things get real bleak real fast in the second act. There’s an almost audible clunk marking the shift of tone between the Happy Hollywood Fun-Time Hour in the first act and the point where we spend the rest of the film with the escapees in Iran, miserable, hunted, and afraid. The juxtaposition between the two, however, is a masterful touch, serving to drive home how high the stakes actually are. Of course, what is a Hollywood film without some good old-fashioned sensationalism? Accordingly, the story has to contrive an excuse for the hostages to go out in public, resulting the bazar sequence, wherein the escapees attract unwanted attention from an antagonistic shopkeeper, nearly blowing their cover in the process.

PLOT POINT TWO

(Pages 87-92) One of the other major plot points takes us back to the States, allowing us to get embroiled in the administrative side of things. There’s an ongoing conflict between Mendez and his supervisor, Bryan Cranston’s Jack O’Donell, who, like any good authority figure in a governmental hierarchy just can’t resist stepping on the toes of his subordinates. O’Donell threatens to shut the operation down on the grounds that it’s too risky, but Mendez is loath to see all of his hard work go to waste. Even with its predictable outcome, this sub-plot is handedly well and its last-minute resolution adds an extra basting of adrenaline to the conclusion.

CRISIS AND CLIMAX

(Pages 95-113) When we talk about the crisis, we’re referring the chain of events, often becoming incrementally tenser, leading up to the climax. The climax itself, however, is the point of no return. Argo’s crisis, that extended and incredibly tense sequence during which the escapees, accompanied by Mendez, waltz their Western-sympathizing selves through a remarkably airtight security checkpoint. For the sake of drama, all the possible ways in which our motley crew can be sniffed-out are avoided or solved at the last possible moment, allowing them hightail it to safety while still retaining possession of their limbs. The climax itself occurs moments later, at the point when their plane actually takes off. The wheels leave the tarmac, the perusing Iranian officials shake their fists with impotent rage, and the audience can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the six luckiest McGuffins in all of existence got away safely.

DENOUEMENT

(Pages 114-122) It’s wheels-up in Iran: cut to reaction shot of CIA staff members going berserk in celebration. Not exactly original, but it gets the job done, I suppose. As the audience decompresses from the tense excitement of the preceding sequences, we learn which governmental department gets the credit, who has to share, and who’s bummed about it. Moreover, Mendez himself is bestowed certain honors, but owing to the degree of secrecy surrounding the whole enterprise, they’re supposed to be classified. Ah, but surely reuniting with his family after such a close brush with death is enough reward for old Mendez, who we’ve all come to love and respect. So all’s well that ends well, except for the other fifty-two hostages, obviously.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers-Age-of-Ultron-Poster


Glancing at a “news” article recently, I read that Avengers: Age of Ultron is the highest-grossing U.S. film release of the year. In other news: water is wet. For God’s sake, this is a non-story considering the drivel it was competing with during Q1. According to Wikipedia, Age of Ultron is the eighth highest-grossing film of all time but, as we know, just because something is successful doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good.

After the heart-stopping success of the first Avengers film, Joss Whedon reprises his position as both writer and director. If you’ve seen The Avengers, you’re essentially in for more of the same; that is, a heavy emphasis on frenetic, computer generated action sequences. Indeed, they deserve an in-depth focus because that’s basically all that’s on offer. Like The Avengers, we’re treated to a slew of highly choreographed, fast-paced, but ultimately superficial fight scenes, all of which fail to disguise the fact that the plot is an insipid, go-nowhere sightseeing tour of exotic locations.

The problem with a lot of the fight scenes in Age of Ultron is that there’s no weight or impact to what we’re seeing. The heroes dispatch the enemies with such expediency that it hardly makes a difference whether the bad guys are there or not, meaning that any dramatic tension dissolves right before our eyes.

Before the advent of CG, there was a school of thought that dictated that superhero movies were an unwise proposition because even with the most intricate practical sets, it was still a tall order to capture the larger-than-life spectacle of comic books. Now, however, I can’t help be feel that we’ve gone too far in the opposite direction as we find ourselves living in a time when the average superhero movie can be made of ninety-five percent green screen.

Chunks of rubble and smashed scenery fly around like they’re made out of cotton, and the over-reliance on computer generation means that everything has a weirdly clean, unreal-looking quality to it in a way that reminds me unsettlingly of the Star Wars prequels. I noticed a significant visual downgrade as soon as the action sequences started up, although I did have the misfortune of seeing the film in gimmicky RealD 3D bullshit vision—which inevitably makes everything look atrocious—so I’m willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt there.

So, the action is more of the same, but what about the characters? Well, that’s where Whedon really decided to knuckle-down and ruin everything. A critic I like once made the observation that Whedon has no conception of character voice, meaning that the dialogue of each character is virtually interchangeable with the others. And more to the point, enough with the fucking quips, Whedon! Not every character has to make some pedantic retort or vapid observation every time they open their mouths!

I felt like I was watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer where every line of dialogue is some smarmy insipidity that makes you want to kick the offending character’s teeth in. It’s almost like Age of Ultron was written by the same amateurish, ham-fisted—oh, wait. Come on, Whedon. Give us a little substance, for God’s sake—not the adventures of the Bland Brigade.

A big problem with the film is the introduction of the new character, Vision. He’s some kind of android, I guess, infused with the power of one of the infinity stones, but despite establishing that the Avenger’s couldn’t possibly defeat Ultron without Vision’s help, he contributes nothing during the final showdown. Excuse me, that’s not entirely true. He punches him. Once. Ultimately his presence would have meant precisely as much whether he was there or not, apart from Disney having a new toy to sell, obviously.

There’s also been an attempt to characterize Black Widow and Hawkeye, and while I can appreciate the intention, Natasha Romanov’s character seems to have done a complete 180 in between films. From uttering the line, “love is for children,” in The Avengers to “I adore you,” in Age of Ultron, she didn’t seem to undergo an arc so much as Whedon decided to arbitrarily fuck around with his own canon for the sake of poignancy.

I mentioned the plot a moment ago, so let’s refocus our sights. Weirdly, the events of Age of Ultron are decidedly scaled-down compared to those of the first, mainly due to a reliance on telling rather than showing. The alien invasion of New York is swapped for a rouge AI trying to do…what, exactly? Kill everyone, presumably—but his motivation for doing so seem incredibly poorly justified, despite multiple villainous monologues filled-to-bursting with meaningless pseudo-philosophical bullshit.

We’re told on multiple occasions that if the villain succeeds, billions of people will die. The most we see in the film, however, is one little town being terrorized via some kind of anti-gravity device. My point is that it would have helped if we had seen or heard a demonstration of the destructive capability of this plan (like the destruction of Alderan in A New Hope, for example) instead of just having to take Captain America’s word for it. There’s also an early setup about a growing anti-Avengers sentiment among the populace, complete with anti-iron man graffiti on some walls, but that aspect of the plot is quietly dropped and never referenced again.

The larger story, furthermore, is rife with plot holes, mostly concerning Ultron’s evil plan. For example, consider the impossibility of destroying a true, adaptive AI that’s been established to already be inside the Internet, replicating itself. Tony Stark brings it up at one point, but seems to forget about it just as quickly. And again, was Ultron not forward-thinking enough to station one, or five, or ten robots outside of the town that his consciousness could inhabit as a contingency? The devil is in the details, Whedon. Perhaps with a little more polish, the script wouldn’t seem like it was rushed out in a week in an attempt to capitalize on a pre-existing franchise.

I think the reason that the first Avengers film worked was because we were all collectively taken in by the massive lead up, and were mostly happy to see the characters that we had come to love play around in a big, explosive blowout of a film. As cathartic as The Avengers was, it was totally inept when it came to actually telling a story—a problem which is compounded to a rather worrying degree in Age of Ultron.

Some might respond to the points I’ve raised by saying “it’s a superhero blockbuster. What did you expect?” But to them I would respond by saying that excuse doesn’t brook with me when Avengers: Age of Ultron exists in the same world as The Dark Knight.

Disney has the luxury of having no real competitors in the superhero genre at present, but if they keep pumping out more toothless work like this, then I wouldn’t be surprised if the public eventually recognizes it for the schlock that it is.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

CHAPPiE

Chappie-Movie-Poster

You know, even after three feature films I still can’t decide if Neill Blomkamp is actually a good director. From a conceptual level, he works wonders; the worlds he creates are rich and vibrant, and his 3D motion capture and visual work are second to none. The problem, however, is that significantly less consideration is afforded to how all those different pieces ought to fit together and, as far as his films are concerned, I’m kind of let down by how much the seams seem to show, as it were, as he tries to fit all the parts together.

I’d like to tell you that Chappie is a hard sci-fi exploration of the concept of artificial intelligence and its implications in a quickly changing and increasingly modernized world—but I can’t, because that would be lying. The actual film is about a robot adopting a thuggish affectation and then shooting up other robots. So forgive me if I sound bitter, but I can’t help but feel like I’ve been sold a lie here. Even the trailer boasted promises of uncommon substance, including a voice-over of the film’s title character proclaiming, “I am consciousness. I am alive. I am Chappie.” Suffice it to say the reality of the situation is that what we ultimately got was a much shallower and garish production, unfortunately devoid of any real substance.

As I mentioned before, the 3D animation in all of Blomkamp’s films, not just Chappie, is unrivaled, owing chiefly to the fact that Blomkamp’s background before he entered the film industry was, in fact, animation. Much like Oblivion and Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski, their backgrounds are in visual design, not writing, meaning that they generally have gorgeous-looking films that are riddled with plot holes and sloppy development. There are a lot of instances when the film just sort of glosses over the details only to move rapidly on to the next major point, hoping that the audience didn’t notice; and although I sometimes don’t mind the “artful dodge” technique (like in Looper, for example), in this instance it really took me out of the experience.

It seems strange, but in each of Blomkamp’s films, I can almost point to the exact moment when the story takes just slightly too large a leap, which ultimately ends up losing me. In District 9 it was the fact that the allegorical drama I’d been watching suddenly turned into an action movie apropos of nothing; In Elysium (probably my favorite of the three) it was the magi-technological wonder-machines that instantly repaired Sharlto Copley’s mangled neck-stump; and in Chappie, it was the inexplicable discovery of human consciousness uploading—mere days after the invention of a primitive AI, mind—that was somehow attained thanks to the computing power of, like, six PlayStation 4s stacked on top of one another.

In all honesty, the film’s ending devolves into narrative gibberish. It’s like listening to a five year-old kid recount his imaginary adventures during playtime. Any pretense of realism is dropped so that everything can be wrapped up in a neat, nice bow, which was a weird shift of tone that really threw me for a loop. Blomkamp is a fan of what you might call ‘soft’ sci-fi, and indeed, the science in Chappie is so soft that you could spread it on your toast and have it for breakfast.

Even without the more substantial plot elements and thematic exploration that I would have like to have seen, the film wasn’t all bad. The always-excellent Sharlto Copley does a lot of the mo-cap and voice action work for the character of Chappie, and to his and Blomkamps’s credit, it’s all pulled off beautifully. Likewise, it’s always a joy when you get to hear some genuine accents in a Hollywood movie, and Blomkamp’s dedication to his South African heritage is genuinely praiseworthy.

After having given it a bit of thought, I think I’d really like to see Blomkamp team up with someone like Dan O’Bannon, or with Ridely Scott to a lesser extent, to function in a sort of “ideas-man” capacity, much like George Lucas was the ideas-man during his collaborations with Stephen Spielberg. Either that, or Blomkamp really needs someone who can fill in the gaps that are missing in his stories, as well as the general world building.

Blomkamp’s movies are generally fun, and Chappie, at the very least, holds interest, but I was really quite disappointed that the film turned out to be just another slick, Hollywood action movie with the central conceit: hey, wouldn’t it be funny if a robot acted like a gangster?

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Kingsman: The Secret Service

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I was watching Kingsman: The Secret Service a while back and I remember thinking, “Damn, this feels a lot like Kick-Ass.” Turns out, I surprised myself with my homing missile-like powers of observation because, as I discovered after the fact, Kingsman and Kick-Ass were both helmed by director Matthew Vaughn, also the man behind X-Men: First Class.

Kingsman is incredibly loosely based adaptation of a comic series simply titled The Secret Service, created by Mark Miller and Dave Gibbons. Kick-Ass, lest we forget, was also based on a comic series co-written by Miller as well, which is fine, in as much as we know, more or less, what to expect as far as Vaughn’s stylistic sensibilities are concerned.

The film is a throwback to a number of genres, chiefly the spy-thriller of yester-year, though part of the problem is that it’s trying to keep too many balls in the air at once. Part coming-of-age drama, part action comedy, and part spy thriller, the tone is all over the place like the results of a darts tournament for the blind. Perhaps the best illustration for this claim can be found within the first ten minutes of the film: the opening scene depicts a daring rescue mission, complete with blaring rock music and exploding typography loudly proclaiming the title; the second scene depicts a grieving widow soberly being given news of her husband’s death; and the third presents a Kick-Ass-esque action sequence with weirdly timed a presented comedic elements.

Screenwriting tip: the first few minutes of the movie are vital when it comes to setting the tone. It sets up what the audience comes to expect from the film, so that you can either go ahead with building your dramatic tension, or subvert the audiences’ expectations later on. Kingsman doesn’t know what it wants to be—and it shows— as it flits disconcertingly between largely unconnected aspects of the story. What am I supposed to be feeling, movie? You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Talking of story, I can’t seem to wrap my head around some of the more fantastical elements of the plot, mostly because the mostly sober interactions between Firth and his protégé, played by Taron Egerton, keep body slamming to tone back down again. The plot largely centers on a lot of nonsense involving Samuel L. Jackson as some sort of tech-geek cum eco-terrorist wanting to kill everybody, but in a more practical sense, it’s just a largely vestigial framework around which a bunch of contrived action sequences are strung like glimmering Christmas lights.

Frankly, it feels like writers Vaughn and Jane Goldman came up with all the big, showy set pieces, knocked off for lunch, and never came back. Significantly less attention has been afforded to the details of the plot, and it seems like no one really knew or cared how the characters got from point A to point B as long as some people got shot along the way. Sometimes it’s the little things that take me out of a story, as was the case here. From the jaw-dropping stupidity of the villain’s master plan to the way in which none of the cadets reacted in the slightest once they discovered that their training entailed killing them off in order to determine who among them was the most capable, my reaction was generally the same eye-roll and inward sigh of frustration.

But I can occasionally get behind a stupid premise if the idea is done with passion—the Roger Moore era James Bond movies spring to mind—but what I simply can’t abide is attempted humor that just isn’t funny. Nothing is more tortuous to sit though than a film that thinks it’s funny when it isn’t. Kingsman, unfortunately, is one of these movies. It really just drove me up the wall when joke after joke, obvious remark after obvious remark, kept falling flat. And Samuel L. Jackson’s lisp? I bet that was much funnier in the writing room, wasn’t it, guys?

Kingsman subscribes to that incredibly lowbrow, groan-inducing, lowest-common-denominator kind of humor that permeates shows like Family Guy, and I know I sound pretentious as hell right now, but the fact is that I wouldn’t have a qualm if Kingsman had actually made me laugh. But it didn’t. And now we’re here.

Some computer-generated special effects that scream, “Our budget dried up faster that we’d hoped,” certainly didn’t improve matters but, in truth, I had checked out long before that.

The bubblegum-pop infused, blood-lusty action sequences of Kick-Ass are here, but they’re stretched over a hollow, token framework of a story that has far too many plot holes and logical dead-ends for my liking. More than entertain me, Kingsman: The Secret Service just made me weary.

Rating: 2 out of 5

Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter Ascending Poster


If it wasn’t apparent already, the Wachowskis are nothing if not massive nerds, so it’s easy to see how the prospect of creating their own complex and detailed worlds, as we see in The Matrix franchise and indeed in Jupiter Ascending might appeal to them. There’s a difference, however, between telling a compelling a story and just showing off all the cool stuff they’ve made, and I’m afraid to say that Jupiter falls into the later category.

As we know, film is a visual medium and, given the stylistic flair present in their other work, the fact the Wachowski’s understand that fact is laudable. But like so many other filmmakers operating today, they’re not so much using special effects to tell a story as they are using a story to tell special effects. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep on saying it: visual effects just don’t impress audiences any more and, in truth, haven’t really done so since maybe the late 1970s. As part of the whole original mythology the Wachowskis built for the film, nearly every piece of on-screen tech—from ships to clothing, space stations to aliens—is over-designed clutter. Now, I’m no artist, but I do know that the most vital aspect of visual design is the silhouette; the audience needs to know who or what they’re looking at at a glance.

For good examples of successful visual design, look no further than the original Star Wars movies. For instance: the Death Star? Circle. Star Destroyer? Triangle. Millennium Falcon? Sandwich with a bite taken out of it. What we have in Jupiter Ascending, however, is something akin to visual diarrhea. If a thing can be designed it’s almost always over-designed to the point where any given frame is so jam-packed with meaningless clutter that it’s nearly impossible for the audience to tell what’s going on, particularly during what one might charitably refer to as the action sequences.

Which brings me nicely to my next point. When it comes to the Wachowskis, it’s their original works that you have to watch out for; Don’t get me wrong, I like the Matrix movies, but I wouldn’t exactly call them the benchmark of cinematic storytelling. Whereas V for Vendetta, based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore, as well as Cloud Atlas, based on the David Mitchell book, are not only more adequate from a writing standpoint, but are also just better films in general.

It’s clear that the Wachowskis are fans of the Dune series, given that Jupiter Ascending shamelessly rips it off to a rather frightening degree. Fair enough, though; I mean, Dune is great, but what I could do without is the simultaneously inanely dense and utterly childish mythos that permeates the film.

Now here’s an interesting little point/counterpoint scenario we can work through together. On one hand, the massively complex and intricately crafted world of Game of Thrones and, on the other, the unapologetic shambles of Jupiter Ascending. Apart from the obvious—that is, being actually good—what makes something like Game of Thrones succeed where Jupiter falls short? There are a few reasons: one is that while Game of Thrones has seven books through which to sprinkle exposition, Jupiter Ascending has only a few grim, tortuous hours during which it has to shoehorn in a bunch a totally irrelevant and not particularly well thought-out exposition which functions as little more than filler. The other reason, simply put, is characterization. Game of Thrones has a collection of interesting and diverse characters, most of which change and grow over time in an engaging way. Jupiter Ascending, alternatively, has no characters to speak of.

Let me explain. I was re-watching Mr. Plinkett’s reviews of one of the Star Wars prequels (because I have that kind of time), when he mentioned a sort of test he sometimes used to illustrate characterization, or lack thereof, in a film.

The test is this: Without describing a given character’s appearance or occupation, how might you describe them to someone who has never heard of the film or franchise before?

I was certainly given pause for thought as I considered this question after having seen Jupiter Ascending. Virtually all the characters are interchangeable, uninteresting, and one-dimensional, and I think it might have been a standing order on-set to display as little emotion as possible. If the characters themselves don’t seem interested in what they’re doing, why should I?

To add to the film’s laundry list of problems, the plot as a whole is as monotonously one-note as the characters are—so at the very least, I guess it’s being consistent. There’s a really severe case of “second verse, same as the first” going on, which can be illustrated by four separate instances in which Mila Kunis finds herself in a situation she doesn’t want to be in, whereupon Channing Tatum bursts through a bit of wall or ceiling or floor and rescues her. Is that supposed to be a joke, movie? Because I am absolutely not laughing.

If the film has one saving grace, it must be Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne’s delightfully hammy performance as incorrigible evildoer Balem Abrasax. But again, Balem Abrasax ain’t no Vladimir, Baron Harkonnen, and the little light that Redmayne does bring to the production isn’t nearly enough to compensate for the film’s other massive faults.

Jupiter Ascending is lighthearted and campy, but it’s also interminably boring and a real grind to sit through. Predictable, monotone, and visually off-putting, this is decidedly not the rollicking space adventure that I had hoped it would be.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5