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


Oz: The Great and Powerful Review

Have you ever wanted to be someone else? Have you ever been tired of your normal, everyday existence and instead yearned for a life of excitement? This question is especially poignant in regards to Oz because it lies at the heart of the protagonist’s struggle and also sums up the film’s own aims as well. Aspiring magician Oscar Diggs wants, above all else, to be a legendary performer, while the film itself wants to be Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland so badly that you can almost see the strain. Oz: The Great and Powerful bills itself as the first movie event of the year, yet in reality it’s nothing more than a fizzling disappointment.

Sam Raimi, who has earned a place in the hearts of generations of horror fans for his work on the iconic Evil Dead series as well as a host of other admirable accomplishments, directs this foray into calamity and frustration. James Franco as wannabe wizard Oscar Diggs strikes the wrong note with his slightly overblown and overacted performance which seems disingenuous in all the wrong circumstances. While it’s established that Diggs is nothing but a glorified conman who frequently hides behind a facade of grandeur, he never readjusts when he’s trying to be sincere which makes the tone come across as goofy in many cases. My suspicion is the Franco’s overacting is a compensation for having little to no visual cues when the scenes were shot, as a result of many of the set pieces and even characters being computer generated. In addition to Franco’s floundering, it seems as though the only reason that Mila Kunis was involved in this production at all was to see if Raimi could squeeze her into a pair of tight leather pants. Indeed, even though her performance wasn’t unwatchable, she seemed to have a lot of the problems that Franco did and there were many other, better choices for the role.

The question at the front of my mind after having seen Oz is this: If the vast majority of set pieces and characters are computer generated (not particularly well, I might add), why didn’t they just decide to animate the entire thing? Instead of the seamless interplay between real world and computer generated objects- a la Avatar (2009)- Oz ends up looking like a 2013 production of Space Jam and frankly, it’s extremely distracting. Computer generated characters move fluidly enough on their own, but when interacting with or even standing near actual people, they suddenly take on this unsettling, uncanny valley-esque range of motion. More surprising is the fact that a Walt Disney Studios film like this one has such shoddy animation, when Disney has consistently produced some of the best animated films around. On the other hand though, maybe we’re supposed to take all of this in through a filter of irony. Just as the original 1939 Oz looks charmingly dated by today’s standards, perhaps Raimi wants to make an artistic statement and come full circle by making his prequel look like complete ass. Yep, and maybe I will declared King of England.

I mentioned a moment ago that Oz bloodily rips off Alice In Wonderland, which in reality is no surprise with the involvement of art director Robert Stromberg, who leant his distinctive visual style to both Alice as well as Avatar. Stromberg’s imagination generally yields impressive outdoor expanses and lush vistas, and while they certainly return in abundance in Oz, their downfall seems to lie in their technical execution rather than their artistic realization. Likewise, Raimi actually wanted Johnny Depp to play the wizard. Allegedly, Depp was initially intrigued by the role, but as fate would have it, he was already busy working an another 2013 release, The Lone Ranger. If Depp had taken the role, they might as well have renamed the film to “Alice in Wonderland 2: We’re really phoning it in now.”

I think that a lot of what was wrong with this film stemmed from the fact that we all knew how it was going to end. I mean, we knew how it was going to end anyway- this is a Disney movie after all- but more than that, we know that the wizard has to save the day so that the events of The Wizard of Oz can occur. Sadly, the plot is so predictable and bland that there’s really not much to save it from stagnation. Though Oz was a miss, hopefully Raimi will be able to redeem himself soon as financier of the highly anticipated Evil Dead remake in early April.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Black Swan: Is This Real Life?

Have you ever considered if others see and experience the world differently from the way you do? Have you ever wondered how an autistic, blind, or deaf person may perceive reality? Have you ever thought to yourself “Is this real life. Is this just fantasy?” A great many thinkers spanning from Plato to Thomas Nagel have attempted to define the true nature of reality and how we perceive it. Today, we’ll take a look at subjective reality with the help of one of my favorite films, Black Swan.

Natalie Portman plays Nina, a ballerina who strives above all else for the perfection of her craft. Unfortunately for Nina, she realizes too late the all definitions of perfection are arbitrary because there is no objective standard to which she can be held. In her futile pursuit of perfection, our protagonist slowly looses her sanity, which manifests itself as hallucinations and false memories, among other terrifying symptoms. The question that we must ask ourselves is whether or not Nina’s experiences are any less real, simply because they may not be a shared experience or may not be relatable to a third party.

The term for the idea that the nature of reality is dependent upon the perception of the individual is ‘subjective reality.’ One of the oldest advocates of subjective reality is Plato, who gives us the “allegory of the cave” to illustrate his point.

Plato asks us to imagine a group of people who have been chained to the wall of a cave since birth and who have watched shadows flicker endlessly on the wall opposite them. To these people, the shadows on the wall represent everything that they know about reality. If a prisoner were to be set free and was finally able to look at the objects creating the shadows, Plato asserts that the prisoner would not recognize the objects and indeed would not be able to name them. We, as a third party (and not having been trapped in a cave), would be able to identify the objects creating the shadows at a glance. The prisoner, however, would believe that the shadows he had been seeing his whole life were more ‘real’ than the the actual objects were. In short, Plato’s allegory of the cave provides one of the oldest instances of support for the idea of subjective reality.

A much more modern philosopher, Thomas Nagel, put his thoughts on subjective reality into more simple terms. In his famous essay, What is it like to be a bat?, he argues that each and every individual organism had a unique point of view from which they see the world. Furthermore, no organism can gather experience from the point of view of another organism. The only reality that an individual can truly know is one based on his own experiences and perceptions. He asserts that human consciousnesses are closed-off from one another, and although there may be similarities, which practically speaking, allows society to function, it is impossible for two different individual’s perception of reality to be the same because they experience reality from different points of view.

In the case of Nina in Black Swan, the only thing that she can know for sure is that the living hell induced by her hallucinations are just as real to her as our own realities are to us. It may be slightly more accurate, however, to say that Nina experiences a kind of dual-subjective reality. That is to say, the individual is incapable of synthesizing information into one coherent reality, and instead makes several different interpretations of reality instead. It is important to note that even if she was the victim of terrifying hallucinations brought about by the pursuit of the unattainable, or if she experienced a form of dual-subjective reality, all of her experiences were real to her, and that really makes all the difference.

Reality is Perception

Perception is Subjective

Therefore, Reality is Subjective

Ted Review

Seth MacFarlane’s particular brand of irreverent humor translates well to the big screen in this raucous summer flick. Fans of MacFarlane’s monolith comedy series Family Guy, American Dad, or The Cleveland Show will find the world of Ted just as filled with off-color topical references and random cutaway gags as any of his other works. The fairly predictable plot focuses on late-twenties burnout John (Mark Wahlberg), as he tries to balance his relationships with girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis), and Ted (voiced by MacFarlane), the teddy bear he wished to life as a child.

For a movie that could have relied heavily on teddy-bear sex humor and immature comedy, Ted has a surprisingly acerbic wit that makes the occasional use of such humor a little more forgivable. The film’s best moments often come from the fanatical friendship between John and his best friend, and some cameos from Sam Jones (Flash Gordon) and Ryan Reynolds had me laughing out loud. Wahlberg seems to have been typecast a bit for this role, but his delightful turn in Ted more than justifies it.

MacFarlane has stated that he wanted to take the CGI effects mastered by James Cameron and Ridley Scott and implement them to make a live-action comedy, and the results here are superb. Wahlberg’s performance meshes extremely well with Ted’s animations, as evidenced by an uproariously funny hotel room fight scene. In fact, it’s surprising at points how well MacFarlane’s humor translates from animation to live-action.

With any luck, other live-action comedies will look to Ted as an example of how to use animation effectively: not as a means for easily overblown humor, but as a way to add depth to a story by creating characters that are genuinely funny. MacFarlane’s obvious mastery of this concept is likely what has endeared his work to television fanatics all over the world, and its use in Ted is refreshing and welcome.

Anyone who’s familiar with MacFarlane’s other work and enjoyed it will love Ted. A strong showing from the cast, combined with a smart and witty script, make this film  worth an evening out.

Rating: 4 out of 5