Archive for February, 2015

Whiplash (2014)

Starring- Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist

Director- Damien Chazelle

R- strong language including some sexual references


J.K. Simmons, I think maybe the reason your kids don’t call you is that you terrify them.

Aspiring to be the greatest jazz drummer in the world, Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller) enrolls in the Shaffer Conservatory of Music, the best music school in the country. During his first year as a student, Andrew is recruited into the school’s studio band as an alternate, which brings him face-to-face with Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the band’s complete psychopath of a director. It quickly becomes clear that Andrew’s relationship with Fletcher is either going to make him the greatest jazz drummer who ever lived or utterly destroy him. Maybe both.

There’s something interesting about the fact that Whiplash just lost Best Picture to Birdman last weekend, while still walking away as the third-biggest winner of the evening. I say this because Whiplash is basically the anti-Birdman. It almost directly repudiates some of that film’s more unsavory thematic ideas — a number of which subtly made their way into this year’s Oscar ceremony as well.

Don’t get me wrong — I liked Birdman. I didn’t love it. The only Best Picture nominee I liked less was American Sniper (full disclosure — I have yet to see The Imitation Game and Selma). The most important thing I have to say about it is that Birdman is complex and well made enough that it resists simplistic interpretations — it’s difficult to wrest it into an ideological football for one side or another.

Nevertheless, that film has a certain disdain about it for the culture at large — one that doesn’t seem to be meaningfully challenged or justified within the story it’s telling. It doesn’t help that, in interviews, its director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, has said almost verbatim some of the lines he put into the script — the bit where Edward Norton refers to superhero movies as “cultural genocide,” for instance.

This is where Whiplash comes in. Naturally, neither film could’ve known much about the other during production, so the fact that they deal with a lot of the same thematic material and subsequently became competitors at the same year’s Academy Awards ceremony is almost certainly a coincidence. But there’s something amazing about the way Whiplash seems to directly argue against the components of Birdman’s thematic subtext that I, personally, find disagreeable.

The center of Whiplash appears to be the disease that lies at the heart of enforcing a distinction between so-called “high art” and “low art” — both descriptors that seem to change solely upon the whims of the person using them. It’s about the problem that arises when creativity becomes a product of ego rather than expression.

Essentially, if creative endeavors are, as the saying goes, “perspiration and inspiration,” the characters in Whiplash come down too hard on the former and hardly at all on the latter. It’s true that good art is hard work, and I’m glad, if nothing else, that Whiplash shows us as much — I’ve grown tired of stories where the creative protagonist is merely naturally gifted. Whether you’re playing music, making a sculpture, writing a story, or painting a landscape, if you plan to contribute something of value, you have to be prepared for those days where your proverbial hands bleed from practicing at the drum set too hard.

But if all you ever do, day in and day out, is draw blood, something is going wrong.

It’s not that Andrew’s work ethic and Fletcher’s demands aren’t a component of greatness so much as they’ve completely lost track of their motives. You work hard at becoming great and creating good art so that you can contribute something, so that you can share thoughts and emotions with people, so you can help others get in touch with their own souls. You become great so you can do something great.

If that was ever of concern to Andrew or Fletcher, those days are long past. In the glimpses we get of both their private lives, we start to get a sense of what this is really about — ego, being the best because of the accolades, being the best because of the need to be remembered, being the best solely to be the best. Andrew turns a family dinner extraordinarily awkward with his need to one-up a relative’s athletic accomplishments. He has a poster on his wall that reads, “Some people are great; everyone else plays in a rock band.” Fletcher, of course, takes this whole affair mighty seriously, and even when he’s eased up on the brutality a bit, he’s prone to stereotypical old man rants about the kids today and their crappy music and how everything sucks because no one learns how to play skillfully anymore. Neither of them ever talks about the feeling of it, about the transcendent impact of what they’re creating, about what they hope to leave behind in this world. Hit the note. Stay in tempo. Be the best. No weakness allowed.

The thing about art is this — no matter how great the final product is, if the experience isn’t also making you a better person, you’re doing it wrong. And that’s the problem Whiplash finds at the heart of this egotistical high art/low art dichotomy that’s been established at every level of culture. Its effect is to divide us, to misalign our priorities, and to lose us in our own obsession. It’s art created solely for the self-aggrandizement of the artist. If this has no deeper meaning and no higher purpose than to arbitrarily become the best — not even the best, perhaps, but the most technically skilled — then what’s even the point? Why all this hard work? Why all this aggression? Why all this ego? If it’s nothing more than a competition, then what is it other than blood, sweat, and tears for the purpose of producing sounds your lizard brain finds appealing for no real reason? If it’s just making you a worse person, what’s the point?

And that’s the sacrifice that becomes apparent in Andrew and Fletcher’s warped understanding of what it means to be great. These are guys who have cut themselves off from everything that makes them human. They live, eat, and breathe jazz. And now, they’ve reached the point where they might be able to get an auditorium on its feet, but for what? Who cares? Plenty of other people can do that, too, and they might be saying things, they might be creating something that’ll be remembered forever. But, hey, you get your ribbon that says you were the best at a completely pointless exercise, so good for you. What does it mean? As the truth about Fletcher’s past emerges, it becomes clear that he ought to know this better than anyone — that music is about so much more than just being good at it — but he remains, somehow, oblivious.

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons knock it out of the park and are the main reason this movie works. Whiplash is the sort of film that could easily have its plot, character development, and music compartmentalized and handled separately from scene to scene, but in large part because of Teller, all three get to happen at once. Behind the drum set, playing with the band, his face tells the story. He’s fixed on Fletcher, his own reactions and motivations governed by how his director is responding to what he’s doing. The dynamic that forms between them is one of cinema’s most fascinating teacher/student relationships. Whiplash epitomizes the love/hate relationship — there’s no question that Andrew despises Fletcher almost immediately and never stops doing so. It’s also clear that Andrew has probably never respected someone even half as much, and despite his hatred, he keeps crawling back for more abuse. It’s making him better, and he knows it. And unlike the other students, he doesn’t care if he loses himself on the process — he just wants to be the best. That’s what we see in Teller’s eyes as he plays — practically (and sometimes literally) attacking that drum set, summoning up energy from the deepest recesses of his body, begging for approval from the man he hates.

Teller’s work here is very good. Unfortunately, it sometimes gets drowned out in the thunderstorm that is J.K. Simmons’ Oscar-winning performance. I’ll let everyone else argue whether or not it’s the best acting of the year, but it’s certainly the most acting of the year. One thing is clear, at least — there was a lot of great acting in 2014, but Simmons brought the sort of life into the character that has already granted Fletcher the status of minor cinematic icon. In Simmons’ hands, Fletcher is terrifying, offensive, and hilarious — often at the same time. You cower with the students when he comes barging in guns blazing over the slightest error, but you laugh a little bit when he cuts loose with his comically excessive, extraordinarily imaginative, and gleefully profane insults. He’s the sort of person who responds to mistakes by chucking furniture, then dials back and calmly asks, “Now, can you tell me why you think I just threw a chair at your head?” It’s the sort of performance that’s distinctive and immediately memorable — if anything about this movie manages to last, it’s going to be J.K. Simmons and Fletcher.

There is a small part of me that wishes the film would’ve pulled back a bit. It periodically threatens to test one’s suspension of disbelief — it’s unclear to me how a teacher who physically and verbally abuses his students to the point that some of them develop mental disorders has managed to remain employed at what appears to be an extremely prestigious school for as long as he has. There are times when the whole thing gets a bit silly — the film doesn’t quite know when the line is and periodically stumbles over it. On the whole, I think there’s a more effective version of this story that makes the same point without being quite as…heightened. You could almost make this point better with characters who are a bit more relatable, the ones who more closely resemble our own arguments about the arts and the nature of greatness.

Then again, that movie might not be half as fun, and Whiplash is a blast. I never thought a film about jazz drumming could be as intense and hilarious as this, but I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. Its grit and grimness can be a little too much at times — practicing until your hands bleed is the sort of thing that should maybe happen once, to show the degradation and increasing obsession of the character, not, like, five times in only an hour and a half — but the parts of this movie that work really, really work. If only for Simmons’ sound-barrier-breaking performance, you’ve got to see this. The music isn’t half-bad either. And underneath it all, it has some interesting, timely, and important things to say about the creative process and how it can benefit us as a species — or unwind us entirely, if we forget why we’re doing this. It might not have won Best Picture, but I suspect we haven’t heard the last of Whiplash.

   –Matt T.


Oh, yeah. This is happening. Tune in at the top of the ceremony.


GEEZ, Academy, this crap was supposed to get started at 7 p.m. This will probably come as a surprise to most of you, but I really couldn’t care less about what everybody’s wearing.

Anyway, we’re a few minutes out from the ceremony, so just in case you missed this weekend’s newspaper (or, more likely, you live somewhere other than The Middle of Nowhere and thus could not possibly ever have read it), here are my predictions for the big categories tonight:

Best Picture: Boyhood

Best Director: Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Best Lead Actor: Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

Best Lead Actress: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Of those predictions, I’m only starting to waver on Best Picture/Director. Birdman’s win at the Independent Spirit Awards yesterday probably locked its win in those categories; if there’s any ceremony you’d expect Boyhood to sweep, that would be the one. I made my predictions on Friday, and I figure it’s only honest of me to stick with them. And anyway, I really want Boyhood to win, so I’m holding on to hope. Anyway, there’s my list.

I’ll be back when the show starts. Keep hitting that refresh button!


And we are a go.

I’m interested to see what Neil Patrick Harris does tonight, though I’m pretty sure it’ll be on the safe side. They’re still only two years removed from a riskier choice starting the show with an extended musical number about the nominees’ breasts.

Though speaking of risk… Kind of want to high-five Harris for kicking it off with a joke about how white the Academy is. I expect that’s as risque as it’s getting tonight, though. Glad they’re taking advantage of the potential for big, silly musical numbers, though.


I also want to high-five whomever decided to invite Jack Black to this party. One BDSM joke later and I’m pretty sure I want him to host next year.

Also, feel kinda bad for anyone who hasn’t seen Gone Girl yet. Spoiler alert indeed, Neil.


So, it looks like the tone this year is going to be “worshipful.” That might get old after a few hours.


Best Supporting Actor. And the winner is…

J.K. Simmons, Whiplash. And all of the people were shocked. I’m kind of ticked that I didn’t get to see Whiplash before the ceremony; even without context, every clip I see makes me go, “Oh, SNAP!”


I am deeply grateful to Fifty Shades of Grey for all the dirty jokes I’m getting tonight.

…I was not supposed to have Maroon 5 assaulting my ears tonight. Can we give out another award now?



Sorry, I get juvenile about pop music I don’t like.


Best Costume Design

My Prediction: The Grand Budapest Hotel

And the winner is… The Grand Budapest Hotel. No complaints. Well-deserved.


Ugh, Neil, that pun.

Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling

My Prediction: This feels like another one that’s meant for The Grand Budapest Hotel.

And the winner is… The Grand Budapest Hotel. Once again, no complaints. It deserves the award. Personally, I think Guardians of the Galaxy deserves it a little more, but I’m not exactly an expert on makeup and hairstyling, so…


Best Foreign Language Film

My Prediction: Ida

And the winner is… Ida. I haven’t seen any of the other nominees in this category, but Ida is a great movie and totally deserved this.


Come on, Academy. You gave this guy, like, a minute. Stop rushing him off the stage.



Also, this is the only time you’re ever going to see Marion Cotillard introducing The Lonely Island. Bask in the surreal.




Best Live Action Short Film

My Prediction: I haven’t heard of any of these. I think I saw someone predict Aya somewhere, so…

And the winner is… The Phone Call. I don’t know anything about these, so I really can’t comment. I’m not sure why I’m even listing predictions here.

Best Documentary Short

My Prediction: Um…Joanna is easy to type, so I’ll say that. I don’t even know what it’s about.

And the winner is… Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. Okay.


And then, Neil took a potshot at the Academy for not nominating David Oyelowo for Selma. Masked as a light joke, but still. They might not invite this guy back, but I’m loving it. Anyway, back to the awards…


I didn’t think I was in danger of Tim McGraw tonight either.


Neil Patrick Harris is now officially hosting the Oscars in his underwear. I think that makes him the first person to do this at the ceremony since that guy who went streaking the one year. He’s really running with this thing.


Best Sound Mixing

My Prediction: I don’t even know what these words mean. I’ll say Whiplash because the sound is so apparent in that.

And the winner is… Whiplash.

Best Sound Editing

My Prediction: I don’t know what these words mean either. I’ll say American Sniper because they probably figure they’ve got to give it something, and it seems like this award goes to war movies a lot.

And the winner is… American Sniper. How in the world did I successfully predict both sound awards? I don’t think that’s ever happened.


Best Actress in a Supporting Role

My Prediction: As stated, Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

And the winner is… Patricia Arquette, Boyhood. I don’t have a single negative thing to say about this. Since when does the subtle performance in the tiny, little indie movie win these awards? Fantastic. Arquette couldn’t deserve it more.


Best Achievement in Visual Effects

My Prediction: Interstellar (short version — Academy treats this award like Best Blockbuster. Guardians of the Galaxy is, in my opinion, the best of these movies. But Interstellar is the one the Academy probably likes the most — it’s the closest this category has to a prestige pic. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the one I think should win.)

And the winner is… Interstellar. I’m not going to complain; the effects were great. I just don’t understand why the Academy keeps passing up the Planet of the Apes movies for this award.


Best Animated Short

My Prediction: I don’t really know anything about these. I’m going to say Feast, because having Disney behind you probably makes for a compelling campaign.

And the winner is… Feast. I guess this ran before Big Hero 6, which I haven’t seen yet. So, I haven’t caught this either and can’t offer any commentary.


Best Animated Film

(Another line from Neil Patrick Harris acknowledging the INEXPLICABLE [SERIOUSLY!] absence of The Lego Movie. I’m starting to wonder if the Academy specifically told him to go on an apology tour for them tonight.)

My Prediction: How to Train Your Dragon 2

And the winner is… Big Hero 6. Yeah, that one was always going to be a toss-up. I guess the Disney campaigning machine wins this round. Like I said earlier, I haven’t seen this yet, so I have no idea whether this is deserved.

The Lego Movie remains the winner in spirit. Also, I need to see Song of the Sea, like, right now.


Best Achievement in Production Design

My Prediction: The Grand Budapest Hotel. This isn’t even a question.

And the winner is… The Grand Budapest Hotel. Yup.


Best Cinematography

My Prediction: Birdman. The film is shot to look like it was done in one take. That’s the kind of showy approach the Academy goes nuts for.

And the winner is… Birdman. Told ya.

Just for the record, I’m starting to feel really bad for Roger Deakins.


Looks like we’re on to the In Memoriam segment. This always wrecks me. It’s going to be extra rough this year. I still haven’t completely accepted that Robin Williams is gone. This has been a rough year for the arts.


Best Film Editing

My Prediction: I think the absence of Birdman has me thinking this is Boyhood‘s to lose.

And the winner is… Whiplash. Hmmmm. Didn’t see that coming. Then again, there have been surprises in this category before — The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, anyone? But yeah, for this year’s Little Indie Movie That Could, Whiplash sure is walking away with a lot of awards here.


Methinks Terence Howard has forgotten his speech and is trying to disguise that with feigned awe. Come on, dude. You’ve got, like, a paragraph.


Best Documentary Feature

My Prediction: I haven’t seen any of these, but I’m hearing a lot about Citizenfour.

And the winner is… Citizenfour.


I’ve spent the night complaining about the music, so I’ll be positive now that I can: “Glory” is a pretty awesome song, and I hope it wins. On top of that, that was one heck of a performance just now.

I seriously need to see Selma already.


John Travolta SLAM!

Best Original Song

My Prediction: “Glory,” Common and John Legend, Selma

And the winner is… “Glory.”

The Academy would’ve been really embarrassed if it hadn’t won after the way John Legend and Common just blew the roof off the place.


And now, Lady Gaga’s here. Did I tune into the Grammys by accident?


I’m kind of curious why Julie Andrews, who’s standing right there, isn’t singing this.


Best Original Score

My Prediction: Johann Johannson, The Theory of Everything

And the winner is… Alexandre Desplat, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Well, I guess he had to win one eventually; it might as well have been the year he was on the slate twice. The Grand Budapest Hotel is looking like the big winner tonight, regardless of whether or not it wins Best Picture.


Best Original Screenplay

My Prediction: Boyhood. I think we’re going to find out what wins Best Picture right now.

And the winner is… Birdman. Crap.


Best Adapted Screenplay

My Prediction: Tough call. The Imitation Game.

And the winner is… The Imitation Game. With Harvey Weinstein behind it, I figured it had to win something. I haven’t seen it yet, so I can’t say whether it deserves it or not.


Best Director

My Prediction: Richard Linklater, Boyhood. Yes, I know I’m wrong.

And the winner is… Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman. And we have our no-doubt-about-it Best Picture winner.


Best Actor

My Prediction: Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

And the winner is… Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything. Yeah, that’s the right call.


Best Actress

My Prediction: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

And the winner is… Julianne Moore, Still Alice


Sneaky, Academy. So, Neil Patrick Harris’s Oscar predictions this year are preemptive apologies for everything that went wrong.


Best Picture

My Prediction: Screw it. I’m not going to fake it by pretending this isn’t Birdman.

And the winner is… Birdman. Yeah. I liked Birdman, but this is going to be really bad for its historical reputation, I think. Kind of bums me out that Richard Linklater didn’t win anything, because he’s unlikely to get nominated for these big awards again except in “obligatory indie movie categories.” Oh, well.

Anyway, quick summary of the ceremony as a whole, because I’m tired and want to get out of here: Neil Patrick Harris was one of the better hosts in recent memory. He struck a nice balance between Seth MacFarlane’s edge and Ellen DeGeneres’s decorum. It was mostly amusing, there were a couple of sharp zingers in there, against the Academy and otherwise, and he kept the whole thing charmingly self-aware — the ceremony was in perspective in a way it often isn’t.

As for the nominees and winners themselves, eh… Even having not seen a number of them yet, this was a comparatively weak field of nominees, and the ones I think are the best didn’t win, for the most part. So, I don’t think this is going to be a well-remembered year, especially after the Academy managed to get it mostly “right” last year. Time will tell what happens to Birdman; like I said, this could be bad for its reputation. It threatens to turn into “that movie that beat Boyhood, Selma, Whiplash, and The Grand Budapest Hotel.” I suppose we’ll find out.

Anyway, fun ceremony, for the most part, solid year in movies, let’s ring in the new one.

The Theory of Everything (2014)

Starring- Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, Emily Watson, Simon McBurney, David Thewlis, Maxine Peake, Harry Lloyd, Guy Oliver-Watts, Abigail Cruttenden

Director- James Marsh

PG-13- some thematic elements and suggestive material


I find that the most difficult films to review are the ones you liked even if everyone else didn’t — you feel as though you have to make a case for it in a way that no one seems to ask for when you’re disagreeing with the consensus on something well regarded. It might not be entirely accurate to suggest that The Theory of Everything was widely disliked; it was nominated for Best Picture, after all. But there’s a general consensus that it’s only okay, that it’s a stodgy, conservative biopic ready-made to win Oscars. And in all fairness, it is a stodgy, conservative biopic ready-made to win Oscars. I just happen to think that, as prestige pics go, The Theory of Everything is an extremely well-made one that deserves a bit more credit than has been afforded it.

It tells the story of Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), arguably the most famous physicist of our time, beginning with his time as a graduate student and continuing through the first few decades of his career. Interestingly, it also tells the story of his wife, Jane (Felicity Jones), and their joint struggle against Stephen’s ALS.

I’ll begin by answering the question that probably concerns the majority of people: Did it deserve to make the short-list for Best Picture? And my answer is that it wouldn’t make mine, and probably not by a long shot. Nevertheless, a movie’s worth a lot more than its Oscar nominations, or lack thereof, and that’s how I’m approaching The Theory of Everything.

The easiest way to assess it is to start by acknowledging that, yes, the majority of critics are right about what they have identified as its flaws. Primarily, The Theory of Everything simply isn’t a very adventurous film. It’s more interested in its final emotional impact than in the thoughts that accompany it, so it’s structured to include only so much discomfort as to inspire sadness and eventual catharsis. It doesn’t wrestle too meaningfully with what it means to deal with ALS, both as the person who has it and as the people closest to that person. It’s not very interested in how Stephen finds happiness in his life despite that condition. It’s not very interested in how Jane could’ve found a meaningful life in the midst of the chaos that was caring for her family. It’s not very interested in what either of them could or should have done to prevent the eventual crumbling of their marriage. It will acknowledge the flaws that they have but isn’t very interested in identifying what that means for their character and the way they assert themselves in the world. It’s only marginally interested in the contrast of Stephen’s atheism and Jane’s Christianity. It has almost no interest whatsoever in the science — in this regard, it’s clearly pitched at rubes like me in that it paints physics as something akin to magic, where the wizards sit around spouting magic words at each other until someone’s magic words sound especially pretty and they all change their minds on something as significant as the origin of the universe based solely on that. Stephen doesn’t arrive at his brilliant theories through study and research; rather, he stirs the cream in his coffee, watches it spin, and shouts, “Eureka! Black holes! Singularities! Arglebargle!” Really, there isn’t much of any unifying theme here — there’s only the situation itself and how the film is manipulating you to feel about it.

I don’t think that’s inherently problematic — if nothing else, at least the film is compelling you to empathize with an ALS sufferer and his overburdened spouse. But it is a barrier between The Theory of Everything and the far more interesting, long-lasting, and meaningful movie that it could’ve been.

And at least it doesn’t sand the edges too much. It could’ve been sharper, of course, but at least it acknowledges Stephen’s own role in the dissolution of his marriage — a step most biopics skip along the way to outright deifying their subjects. It also makes plain the trap that Jane is in, trying to raise a family and care for her wholly dependent husband at the same time and finding herself increasingly dissatisfied in a role that asks too much of her and rewards her little — while simultaneously overlooking some of her biggest sacrifices, such as the fact that she put off her own PhD for over a decade on Stephen’s account. In short, it has a tendency toward delivering all of its blows but softening them so they’re a bit more palatable. Again, this is a movie that wants you to feel more than it wants you to think.

And here’s the thing — meager though that goal might be, The Theory of Everything is really, really, really good at it. It’s excellent — albeit purposeless — storytelling that knows exactly how to get you right where it wants you emotionally. It’s much better at this than the majority of other biopics I’ve seen.

Firstly, it has an extremely uncommon focus. The problem with most biopics is that they try to capture their subjects’ entire lives and cover all of the most important event, even if what that ultimately turns into is an overlong film with disconnected scenes that don’t affect one another in any meaningful way. The Theory of Everything makes it clear what interests its creators about Stephen Hawking’s story — his relationship with his wife. That’s the core of this story, and the film rarely deviates from it. The chronology of this film is not as broad as it is in other biopics; it follows these characters through what appears to be a bit over a decade and nothing more. That’s a long time in itself, but the film is always focused on what that space has done to this relationship. It establishes both of these characters in detail, makes clear what each of them sees in the other, what causes them to fall in love, and also what causes them to fall out of love. It creates a charming, frequently adorable, but largely realistic relationship, establishes it in full detail, and then inserts the challenge of ALS into the mix and observes, broadly, what happens.

As such, Stephen’s illness is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a huge part of this story, and the film delivers it with as much skill and intelligence. Stephen’s a physicist, and a less visually adept, less detailed film would have a hard time drawing any connection between his personality and desires and the things a disease like ALS might take away from those. The Theory of Everything, though, is subtle and smart in the way it conveys the importance of motion, even to a bookworm like Stephen Hawking. It establishes his relationship with his own body, in a sense, through James Marsh’s sensitive, gentle, and fluid direction, how it focuses on such small things as a hand writing on a chalkboard, rendering them almost as poetry in motion. When Stephen receives his diagnosis, it’s as heart-breaking to us as it is to him. The film gets us to that point almost effortlessly, and that’s a difficult feat indeed.

Of course, none of it is going to get anywhere without an able cast, and that’s the one respect in which The Theory of Everything, otherwise a mixed bag, is indisputably great. Just a week ago, I made a couple of jokes about Eddie Redmayne’s hammy performance in Jupiter Ascending; after this, I feel as though I need to take all of that right back. He is absolutely amazing in this film. I have absolutely no idea how he accomplished this incredible performance. It’s a tall order to play Stephen Hawking to begin with — he’s a restricted man, confined to a wheelchair, almost entirely paralyzed, left nowadays with only his eyes to communicate. Redmayne gets a bit more than that — for the majority of the film, Stephen retains his voice, and even after he loses that, he can still manage contorted but recognizable facial expressions. Still, it requires Redmayne to make a lot out of a little — and even getting the basics down had to be difficult. His character doesn’t have full control over his mouth, so he has to find a way to make his mushy, muffled speech believable for a significant part of the film. The facial expressions had to be difficult, too; they have to get the point across, but they also have to be rigid, twitchy, and barely within control. He also has to maintain that posture, the complex slouch of a man with absolutely no control over his body — and limited control in other scenes. The film captures Stephen’s full deterioration, so Redmayne has to go scene to scene gradually becoming worse and selling that transition. The line between pulling this off and turning in one heck of a silly performance is very, very thin. Redmayne walks it with skill and grace. At a certain point, the guy just becomes Stephen Hawking.

Even removed from the inherent technical difficulty, this is still great work. In the first half hour of the movie, prior to Stephen’s diagnosis, Redmayne is still giving us a complete character — a charming, funny, intelligent guy with a touch of introversion and awkwardness while around other people, something he captures with posture, sightline, gestures, and facial expressions. And throughout the film, Redmayne is always finding the emotion behind what’s happening to Stephen, not simply replicating the man in appearance but speculating on the mind behind all of it. You know how he’s feeling at all times, and the film, largely because of Redmayne, sells you on both his highs and his lows. There’s a lot to be said about this film and its flaws, but this is the credit I’ll give it — I’ll be rooting heavily for Redmayne when the Best Actor category rolls around on Sunday evening.

But I’d be remiss to pass over Felicity Jones while I’m on this tour of praise. It’s slightly more difficult to evaluate her work here because I’m largely unfamiliar with anything she’s done prior to this. I can’t compare it to any persona she’s established in the past. But credit where credit is due — she spends the entire movie standing in the wake of an absolute tour de force performance and never comes off as the lesser actor in any given scene. And as Jane, she has to carry a lot of the plot herself — The Theory of Everything is as much her story as Stephen’s. And there’s a real complexity to the trials she endures, something more difficult to define even than Stephen’s own wants and needs. Jane is a character caught between the right thing and the smart thing, the thing she has to do and the actual strength she can be expected to have as a human being. The film is quietly aware of the surprising hardship of her situation — as tragic and burdensome as it would be, she entered into this marriage expecting that her husband would die within two years. Then, he didn’t. Jane is never so awful as to begin wishing that he would die; in fact, she fights harder for him than almost anyone else. But there’s definitely a point in the movie where she starts to see no way out for herself, no peace or comfort that she can eventually find in this life, and she’s not entirely sure what to do with that. In that sense, she deteriorates as much as Stephen over the course of the film, but mentally rather than physically. It’s all up to Jones to make that clear in Jane’s changing demeanor, and she pulls it off. Again, my feelings about this film are a touched mixed overall, but not with regard to the myriad acting accolades it’s drawn. Every last one of those is richly deserved, and I’ll be eagerly anticipating whatever either of these performers does next.

I’ve also already given James Marsh some credit for his direction, but that, too, elevates this film beyond the standard biopic. The way he places and moves the camera is graceful and gentle and greatly enhances the intimacy of the film itself. He also uses color beautifully and varies the aesthetic throughout according to the needs of the story. I think he took a script that’s only mediocre and enhanced it, finding a way to make all its big emotional moments stick. He might not lend it any thematic cohesion or tighten up the somewhat slow final third, but he gives the film as a whole a little extra punch that it probably wouldn’t have otherwise. And of course, I have no complaints about whatever he told his actors.

Overall, the goodness of The Theory of Everything is found more in its construction than its conception. It’s not a brave film, nor is it an especially interesting one, but as Oscar-ready movies about British geniuses go, it’s extremely well-crafted. It may not have left me terribly thoughtful, but it delivered a dose of pure inspiration and feeling in exactly the right amount to make it worth the trip. If only as an actors’ showcase, it ought to be seen.

-Matt T.

The Boxtrolls

Starring- Ben Kingsley, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan, Dee Bradley Baker, Steve Blum, Nika Futterman, Pat Fraley, Fred Tatasciore, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Elle Fanning

Directors- Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi

PG- action, some peril and mild rude humor


I’m starting to worry about Laika. It’s true that they haven’t made a bad movie yet — and The Boxtrolls continues that trend. But each of their films has been progressively worse than the last — and unfortunately, The Boxtrolls also continues that trend.

The people of Cheesebridge are haunted each night by strange creatures — the boxtrolls, thieves and kidnappers said to eat babies and live in an underground fortress of blood and bones. In truth, the boxtrolls aren’t monsters at all — they’re harmless little tinkerers who pilfer odds and ends from people’s garbage to build fantastic machines in their caves. And the baby they ostensibly stole and ate is quite well — they named him Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) and raised him as one of their own.

But the humans above remain terrified of them, and as the rumors intensified, they hired a local psychopath by the name of Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) to hunt them down and exterminate them.

Eggs realizes that he is the only link between the two worlds, so he ventures to the surface to tell everyone the truth about the boxtrolls, only to find that humans are not quite what he expected.

Laika Entertainment got off to a strong start a few years ago with its debut feature, Coraline, a moody, atmospheric, beautifully designed and animated film with a good old-fashioned story and some unique ideas. It was enough to leave me excited for what they did next. That ended up being 2012’s ParaNorman, which was visually incredible, using stop-motion animation so fluid and detailed that it reinvented the wheel entirely and changed my expectations for what these movies could look like. It was also thematically dense and very smart, delivering a vital message so subversively that it was directly incriminating. Unfortunately, it was also light on story, entering climax mode about half an hour in and never really leaving it.

And now, we come to The Boxtrolls. And sadly, it’s the first of their films that I can’t really recommend on any level other than its visuals.

Not that the story or characters are actively awful, just that there isn’t much there. After the subversive intelligence of Laika’s last two features, I was surprised at how little is going on underneath the surface of this film and how clumsily it delivers the themes it does have. The climax of this movie — particularly, its heroes’ defining moment — seems to have come from a different film entirely. All of a sudden, the entire story hinges on questions of identity and venturing out of your comfort zone that the rest of the film didn’t seem to be asking at all. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out there were substantial rewrites during production; something about this film seems very cobbled-together. There isn’t a whole lot of character development and no easily discernible arc to the proceedings. Things happen, and they mostly don’t mean a lot.

As for their characters, there are a handful of interesting ideas but nothing that’s developed to fruition. Winnie (Elle Fanning), the human girl Eggs meets who teaches him about the ways of his own people, would be a paragon of sweetness and grace in any other movie; here, she’s this morbid, strangely violent person, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t at least a little bit funny. Laika also has a history of weaving redemptive themes into its films, and in The Boxtrolls, it seems to be playing with that trope a little, having it manifest mainly as comedy — Snatcher has two henchmen who are constantly debating the nature of what they do and whether or not they’re the heroes. (“Do you think they understand the duality of good and evil?” the slow-witted, muscular heavy asks while observing captured boxtrolls.) Everyone else is…just okay, really. Eggs has about the personality you’d expect for a character in this situation — fish out of water, doesn’t understand our social customs, basically a nice kid, good heart, not very interesting. The boxtrolls are pretty much just the Minions from Despicable Me — they share a collective personality that’s manic, troublesome, haphazard, and goofy but don’t take on much individuality from one to the either. The villain, Snatcher, isn’t awful — Ben Kingsley is clearly having a ton of fun voicing him — but there’s no particularly interesting psychology behind him or any real personality beyond being loud and menacing and obviously evil in that way kids’ movie bad guys are. The film tries, at the last minute, to weave him into the abrupt theme of identity and accepting what you are, but it couldn’t be more forced.

It’s just never particularly involving the way Coraline and, to a lesser extent, ParaNorman were. Fortunately, the visual artists at Laika are continuing to improve their act, and good grief I just don’t know how they do any of this. The Boxtrolls, like their other films, is filmed in stop-motion, and it’s every bit as ambitious as ParaNorman. It has the look and feel typical of this style of animation, but it’s so fluid and seamless that it’s almost impossible for me to accept it wasn’t done in a computer. The environment is huge, and the film matches it with equally enormous machines and massive set pieces; the characters are complex in their designs and don’t move with the staggered quality typical of stop-motion. There are extremely ambitious action sequences and individual shots where so much is happening, both in the foreground and the background, that it’s hard not to start looking for the corners the animators cut. Personally, I didn’t find anything.

The vision they’re creating is a unique one, too. Actually, The Boxtrolls might be the most uniquely disgusting kids’ movie I’ve seen this side of the early Nickelodeon era. The boxtrolls live in garbage and eat bugs, and just about every single character, human and otherwise, spends the entire movie covered in a layer of filth. I’m pretty sure I could see the sweat evaporating off the Snatcher’s skin — also, his weakness is that he’s allergic to cheese, and whenever he’s exposed to it, he swells up to the point that he looks like a giant mound of ripe pimples. It’s nasty. Just in general, the movie is going to turn you off cheese; it always looks disgusting (and in a town called Cheesebridge, it’s perhaps not surprising that you see it a lot). I don’t know how it’s possible, but this movie has a smell. You can sense the rotten eggs and body odor wafting off the screen. I don’t know why I mean that positively, but I do. At least communism is an ethos, I guess. It decided it wasn’t going to look or feel like and other kids’ movie, and I respect that, even if it decided it was going to look like the bowl of an underserviced public toilet.

The point is, the movie has a unique world and tone, and the visual artists render it gorgeously (well, you know what I mean, anyway). The film itself has a couple of interesting ideas and is never terrible, just half-baked. On that level, I can afford it a passing grade. At the same time, I have to hope that this is as low as Laika gets, because any lower and it’s going to be a disappointment.

-Matt T.

Lucy (2014)

Starring- Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Pilou Asbaek, Analeigh Tipton

Director- Luc Besson

R- strong violence, disturbing images, and sexuality


You know that moment when you meet the enemy and the enemy is you? I’m having that right now. It just hit me that between 2014 and the start of 2015, I saw four original sci-fi films and recommended exactly one of those. And Lucy is not giving me the opportunity to buck that trend. Does this mean the nerds have finally won? Because it feels a lot like losing.

Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is an American studying abroad in Taiwan when a couple of bad moves land her in the clutches of a local crime syndicate. They knock her out, and when she wakes up, she finds that they’ve cut her open and stashed a sack filled with new, experimental drugs inside her. When a lecherous guard beats her down after she rebuffs his advances, the sack splits open, and the drugs disperse into her body. Almost immediately, something strange begins happening to her. She sees things, she thinks quickly, she develops a variety of unusual abilities. It soon becomes clear that this heavy dose of the drugs has expanded her mental capacity beyond what is possible for the ordinary human being — and not only that, her mind is continuing to grow.

I’m going to be totally honest with you — I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about this movie. I didn’t dislike it, exactly; I’ve had way more insufferable experiences at the movies just this last year. I don’t like it either. And I’m also aware that a lot of the parts of me that like it do so for entirely the wrong reasons. It’s one of those movies that has some merit but is also deeply, fundamentally flawed — occasionally in ways that are more entertaining than they have any right to be.

The fundamental problem is that Lucy is a movie that very, very much wants to say big, important things — not just about some social issue but about the meaning of life itself. And when the last line of your movie is “Human life began a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it,” you definitely want a stronger reaction from me than “Wait, what, I do?”

I don’t like the word “pretentious,” because by its very definition, it’s something that puts its user in too high a position and that assumes too much about the process behind the work at which it is directed; and anyway, people mostly use it as an easy way out of engaging anything that’s too difficult for them. If any movie was ever going to get me close to using it, though, it’s Lucy. Everything that happens in this movie is bathed in SIGNIFICANCE. The effect is like someone got The Tree of Life mixed up in the negatives for a comic book movie. Lucy is primarily an action-fest, but it cuts everything together with nature images and painterly effects sequences. It’s stuffed to bursting with visual metaphors, all of which are obvious even by my simplistic standards. Lucy’s boyfriend tries to coax her into delivering a mysterious package for him; this is cut together with shots of a mouse sniffing around a trap. When the gangsters descend upon her, we see clips of a cheetah stalking a gazelle. Morgan Freeman rambles off scientific exposition about the nature of life in certain environments, and the film barges in with nature shots and images of tornadoes and volcanoes and tsunamis. Early on, the style of the film appears to be: Character says thing, movie intrudes with visual depiction of something emotionally similar to that thing, all of this is important for some reason. When the film manages to establish some sort of rhythm in the way these scenes are cut together, it almost works (for all my complaining, that bit with the cheetah actually does ramp up the tension a bit), but when it fails, it takes you out of the moment entirely. The movie trains you to anticipate the moments where this happens, and you groan when they arrive. It also abandons this approach entirely at about the halfway mark, which makes you feel like you just watched two completely different movies — the first an unusually esoteric sci-fi film, the other Taken by way of The Matrix.

And what’s especially strange about this is that the aesthetic is dropped at precisely the moment where using it would actually make sense. Lucy gets these incredible powers, and as they develop, she can go everywhere, see anything, understand everything. And this is the moment where the film suddenly begins limiting its visual approach solely to what’s directly in front of its characters at that time.

That’s typical of what’s wrong with the movie on the whole. Almost everything it does is actively inimical to its purposes, whether that’s using up all of its interesting ideas on scenes where they don’t matter or selecting the wrong framing devices outright. I think that one of Luc Besson’s biggest weaknesses as a director is that while he has interesting ideas and occasionally wrestles with big questions, he only ever wants to do that within the context of action movies, and that doesn’t always suit his intentions particularly well — least of all here. There’s a moral identity at the core of this movie that’s screaming to come out — one posited as the solution to the question the film thinks it’s answered with that last line, the ideas surrounding what it means to be human, what we ought to do with the life we have left, the nature and purpose of knowledge, etc. But because it’s all placed within this context of car chases and shoot-outs, none of it has room to breathe and some of it gets squashed outright. Besson wants to have it both ways here, but placing Lucy as the solution to mankind’s problems require us to view her as some kind of moral/intellectual figurehead, which means we can’t spend time questioning the things she does to survive all that deeply. So, when she shoots a man in order to get a ride to the hospital, there’s an awkward aside where, off-camera, we hear him whine, “My leg.” When she arrives at the hospital and shoots a patient on the operating table in order to get her own wounds attended to, the film needs to have her establish that she read the guy’s brain chemistry or whatever and determined that the doctors couldn’t have saved him anyway. When she leads an incredibly reckless car chase through a public area, it’s all hand-waved as her understanding the laws of physics and being able to think and react and read her environment so well that she somehow knew she wouldn’t actually hurt anyone. The movie just feels resistant to questions, constantly finding some way to weasel out of them.

And I might be okay with that if it was buying itself space to explore any of its bigger ideas, but honestly, I have no idea what this movie’s even trying to say. Lucy escapes her captors and travels to meet with some scientists so she can share her world-changing knowledge with them, but the film never even comes close to defining what she actually knows that we don’t and how she expects that’s going to advance the human civilization. The movie makes all of this seem very important but can’t quite define why; any statement it’s making about the future of humanity gets lost in that. Then, there’s Lucy’s condition itself, which is almost as loosely defined — her powers are so incredible at the outset that, by the time the film is wrapping up, they’re almost impossible to understand or even differentiate. There’s a whole lot of big, important imagery and even more obvious metaphors, but it’s still not clear to me exactly what Lucy becomes and how I’m supposed to feel about that. Her departure from basic humanity is handled with just as much hand-waving; she starts dragging a police officer around with her, apparently to remind herself of what love is or something, and that’s as close as the movie comes to showing us her feelings.

It’s just as unsatisfying dramatically as it is thematically. It ends up being a story with a handful of simple objectives that lack any defined stakes and are too beholden to the action movie format — the Taiwanese gangsters pursue her throughout the film, providing it with plenty of opportunities for more gunfights. The climax turns into a series of surprisingly beautiful sequences conveying the origin of the universe…cut into an explosive hallway shoot-out that’s just as boring as it is needlessly destructive.

The movie isn’t boring, necessarily, and I don’t hate it nearly as much as it might sound like I do. But I kept watching mainly out of idle curiosity — it’s original enough as a film that I was, at least, interested in where it was going next. But the answers are never as interesting as the questions, and the unpredictable steps the film takes are always swept up in other decisions that are far less unique — again, somewhat encapsulated in the climax, which is 50 percent generic action and 50 percent wild, scientific/philosophical weirdness. Its overall strangeness as a film definitely helps it out in a way that’s partly deliberate and part…not. The farther it reaches philosophically, the more it threatens to become outright silly — in order to show us the magic of existence, there’s a montage of…animals humping. Also, just about everything Lucy says in her phone conversation with her mother qualifies. (“I remember the taste of your milk in my mouth” is one of the year’s great bad lines.)

On a more complimentary note, there are moments that function pretty well independently — from the most part, Besson knows how to establish the most basic emotional needs of any given scene, and apart from the goofy aesthetic, the movie gets off to a fairly strong start. But as it goes on and its characters become more unique and their situation more dramatic, the film somehow does the exact opposite, becoming more mundane and simplistic — which doesn’t stop it from attempting these bold statements on humanity’s biggest, most difficult questions. Lucy just isn’t anywhere near as smart or imaginative as it needs to be.

-Matt T.

Birdman (2014)

Starring- Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan, Merritt Wever

Director- Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

R- language throughout, some sexual content and brief violence


Birdman represents a significant stylistic departure for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu — a fast-paced, energetic, weird comedy where nearly all his other films are dark, weighty, serious dramas. Nevertheless, it’s still immediately recognizable as an Inarritu joint on one important level — it’s a compelling, well-acted story that also just so happens to be a gigantic mess. Not only that, it’s a gigantic mess in the exact same way that his films have always tended to be — it’s confusing, arguably a bit pretentious, and thematically all over the map.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) rose to fame decades ago playing the superhero Birdman in a trilogy of films. Now, he’s a washed-up, half-insane has-been desperately trying to recapture his former glory. To that effect, he’s in the process of mounting a comeback, this time on the stage, via a Broadway play that he wrote and plans to direct and star in. However, one obstacle after another threatens to upend his last grasp at relevance — from his daughter (Emma Stone), a cynical recovering drug addict; to a combative, self-important actor, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton); to a theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) who despises him and has promised him an ignominious end. And as one thing after another goes wrong, Riggan finds his sanity gradually slipping away as the Birdman persona starts to take over.

There are still a few of Inarritu films I haven’t seen, but the ones I have left me in exactly the same place as Birdman. They were largely enjoyable in the moment, at least in that they engaged me and had my desires appropriately aligned with those of their characters. All of them fell apart in retrospect, left me entirely confused, or came off as pretentious in the way they dressed up somewhat banal ideas. Birdman has me somewhere between the first and second of those. Inarritu is a talented filmmaker, to be sure, but the more I watch his movies, the more I think he should just tell a story and not try so hard to say things, because it’s almost always in that effort that he loses me.

There’s a lot of quality filmcraft on display in Birdman. It’s a lot of fun to watch. I think the actors are the main reason for that. This is ultimately a movie about show business, and it’s very smart in how it casts these roles to that purpose, developing a meta-level where almost everyone in it is self-criticizing or at least self-deprecating in some way. The obvious one is Michael Keaton in the lead role; his part is practically autobiographical. Riggan and Keaton share much of their history — both got big breaks as comic book superheroes, neither one sustained significant fame afterward, and now, much like Riggan, Keaton is in the early stages of a comeback (though his has been quite a lot more successful than Riggan’s, obviously). Then, you’ve got Edward Norton’s character, seemingly an exaggerated version of the person I’ve repeatedly heard Norton is — a disturbingly committed method actor/prima donna, doesn’t take suggestion well, generally very difficult to work with, and so on. Even Emma Stone, I think, is doing this, albeit in a much smaller way. Her most significant work thus far has been more comedic, and her comic persona has always had a layer of loathing and condescension just beneath the surface; in Birdman, she lets it all out in the open. Her character here just hates everything, or at least pretends to.

Letting established talent fill out the supporting roles leaves the film without any blank spaces in its cast — Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough as actresses suffering under Riggan and Mike’s chaos, Zach Galifianakis as Riggan’s overburdened producer, Amy Ryan as his concerned but distant ex-wife. They’re all good enough that no one in the movie registers as a non-entity; they all have the level of personality that suggests lives outside of the story being told.

Inarritu works well with them to get the tone he wants — and for what it’s worth, Birdman at least feels very different from everything else he’s made. It wears its darkly comic undercurrents on its sleeve; from the outset, it’s strange and off-kilter, with a weird energy about it. There’s real wit in the dialogue, and Inarritu stages things so that we usually get exactly the right shot and exactly the right angle at exactly the right time in order to get the laughs. A particular highlight is an extremely awkward fight scene at the midway point, as are some of the moments where the line between Riggan and the over-the-top Birdman becomes difficult to distinguish. And Inarritu also gets plenty of feeling where he needs it — if nothing else, you know what the characters want and why and are able to get invested in that. And he does it without resorting to the pervasive sadness and bleakness of some of his earlier films. (Seriously, if I hadn’t liked the characters so much, I would’ve found it hilarious how many terrible coincidences happen in Babel.)

It even looks good, for the most part. It has a rather unique visual approach, in that the entire thing is filmed to look as though it was all done in one take, and I haven’t yet decided how much of a gimmick I think that is. Part of me appreciated the energy it brought to some scenes; another part of me found it tedious in others. Part of me thinks you could make a good argument for its use throughout; another part thinks it would’ve been best employed selectively. On the whole, I think it contributes more to the film’s bizarre energy than it detracts, so I give it a pass. At any rate, with Emanuel Lubezki behind the camera, at least it’s all going to look very pretty. There’s a brief effects sequence where Riggan imagines a Birdman movie unfolding around him that really showcases the film’s largely stellar visuals.

But this movie also has plenty on its mind, and that’s where it crumbles. It’s the sort of thing that left me confused enough to start digging into other perspectives, trying to make heads or tails of it thematically. After perusing those, I’m still confused, and I’ve decided that’s because, in my opinion, the movie doesn’t clearly say much of anything despite its best efforts. I think it might be a case of it having bitten off more than it can chew — it nearly reduces its characters to philosophical pawns that are constantly articulating viewpoints at one another, and it turns into much more than the film can adequately convey without becoming five hours long. There are some periodically interesting debates going on here, about the search for meaning in our lives, about our perspectives on art, about the separation between celebrity and performance and creation. There are a lot of essays to be written about the points the movie ultimately makes on any of these, but I don’t find any of them compelling simply because the fact that the movie supplies so little proof to back up all of its talk leaves all interpretations hollow at best and contradictory at worst. Some of its detractors have accused it of having a pretentious, juvenile worldview, one where there are only celebrities and artists, where there are only dumb genre films and serious art that meaningfully explores the human condition (and for what it’s worth, a handful of somewhat pompous statements on Inarritu’s behalf have not helped this impression). Then again, the film allows another character to call out Riggan on this fact — that all the “real human emotions” he’s telling a story about are going to solely be those of the elite. On top of that, the character to whom Inarritu gives a number of lines about “real art” that very closely mirror those he’s said in real life is Mike Shiner, who is not exactly portrayed as the greatest person. At the same time, as much as the characters are willing to entertain this debate within a certain spectrum, they all seem to have a shared disdain for creative endeavors they consider lesser, and when given the opportunity to challenge that, the film itself stays quiet. The issue, ultimately, is that Birdman gets pulled into a maelstrom of ideas it simply can’t hope to resolve — and what hopes it has are dashed when it fails to render them as something concrete within the story rather than a constant, verbal debate between the characters. This all sounds like window dressing, I know, but since the primary emotional thrust of a story is in its arc, it’s actually quite fundamental. Watching the final scene — which complicates things even further, by the way, by blurring the line between the figurative and the literal in a way the rest of the film simply doesn’t — it’s impossible for me to even begin to imagine what I’m supposed to feel, what I’m supposed to think everyone learned or didn’t learn from the experience, what particular catharsis is attached to any of this. And thus, the experience of the film is frustrating, not satisfying.

So, basically, it’s what I ought to have expected. On the whole, it’s an interesting new direction for Inarritu, and I hope he continues to play with tones other than, you know, being almost comically depressing all the time. Like most of his work, Birdman is super watchable, and I don’t regret the two hours I spent on it even a little bit — it’s funny and stylish and not totally brainless, even if it’s got more ambition than skill when all is said and done. It also isn’t quite what it aspires to be, though, and that’s pretty noticeable throughout. Mostly, it’s an entertaining little movie — and if it ends up winning Best Picture, that’ll be just about the worst thing that could happen to it.

-Matt T.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

Starring- Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Christina Cole, Nicholas A. Newman, Ramon Tikaram, Ariyon Bakare, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Frog Stone, David Ajala, Doona Bae, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Edward Hogg, Tim Pigott-Smith, James D’Arcy, Jeremy Swift, Kick Gurry

Directors- Andy and Lana Wachowski

PG-13- some violence, sequences of sci-fi action, some suggestive content and partial nudity


What we have here is a classic bad story vs. good visuals movie, and in the case of Jupiter Ascending, I’m still not sure which one of those I should allow to claim victory. Either way, the film is a pretty big disappointment and one I’m glad to have gotten over with right at the beginning of the year.

Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) lives in one of New York City’s bad neighborhoods. Technically an illegal immigrant (she was born in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean during her mother’s passage to the United States), she and her family barely scrape by cleaning houses and doing other small jobs. She decides to sell her eggs, under the name of a rich friend, for a little extra money on the side, but when she arrives at the clinic, strange creatures attempt to kill her. Just as quickly, an alien bounty hunter named Cain Wise (Channing Tatum) bursts in and rescues her.

Jupiter then learns the truth of her universe — the human race did not originate on Earth but elsewhere in the cosmos, eons before anyone thought. Those advanced humans discovered that they could achieve immortality by consuming the life forces of their own kind, so they began to seed other worlds, including Earth, with life. Every few millennia or so, they harvest these worlds — a process that never ends well for those living on them. The intergalactic corporation Abrasax Industries is the chief purveyor of harvested life forces. It also holds the deed to Earth.

However, the member of the Abrasax Industries who owned Earth was murdered thousands of years ago, and in her will, she left it to her recurrence — the first genetically identical human to emerge somewhere in the galaxy, an event considered to be akin to reincarnation. That’s Jupiter.

And because of that, the original’s three children are quite intent on murdering Jupiter in order to claim the deed to Earth and their mother’s assorted other planets.

So, basically, it’s complicated.

I think I may have allowed myself to anticipate Jupiter Ascending more than I should have. That’s the power of my love for silly, Star Wars-y space operas and my desperation for original installments in the genre. I should’ve anticipated that it would disappoint me — even if the February release date didn’t clue me in, I think that, generously, I’ve only liked two of the Wachowski movies I’ve seen, and even then, only just. Either way, I badly need starships and weird aliens and laser guns and space battles, and I’ll take them where I can get them, especially if what I’m seeing is a totally original vision instead of a franchise piece.

And for a while, Jupiter Ascending delivers. Actually, the film never reaches a point where it’s entirely without merit; it’s always delivering the goods on some level, however small. There was a moment about half an hour into the movie where Cain and Jupiter are involved in this crazy, gravity-defying sky battle over New York City where I distinctly remember thinking, “This is a total blast; what movie did all those other critics see?”

I mean, if you can say one thing for the Wachowskis, it’s that whatever they make is always going to look good. It’s not just that the effects in Jupiter Ascending are top-notch — and they are — it’s that the film is a whole is masterfully designed from top to bottom. This is a movie that revels in the classic tropes of yesteryear’s greatest space operas, from the ornate sets and costuming to the unique sci-fi vessels and technology, all of which appear to be functional pieces of machinery without succumbing (for the most part) to over-design and visual chaos.

   Jupiter Ascending has plenty of the sci-fi nuttery I want out of a movie like this. How can I completely hate any movie where Sean Bean plays a genetic experiment who’s part bumblebee? That crap is amazing. There’s also a dude with an elephant head and some weird, spindly aliens who can turn invisible. The best of it is Abrasax’s henchmen, an army of giant, flying dragon-lizard-things. I live for this kind of thing; I really do. The technology is just as amazing; Cain’s anti-gravity boots have just replaced Back to the Future’s hoverboards as the sci-fi gadgets I need to be real right now. None of this stuff is just a one-off thing either; the movie constantly remembers the characters’ inventory and what they can do with it.

These inventions get thrown into action sequences that are, for the most part, really quite fun on their own. After all, the Wachowskis did direct The Matrix — no one’s going to argue that they don’t know their way around a fight scene. The action in Jupiter Ascending is shot and edited well and constructed with imagination and scale to spare.

That’s enough to keep the movie fun for about half an hour, but then, it begins to lose steam. The story and characters just plain never take hold. The movie got plenty of “oohs and ahs” out of me, but I never actually cared, and once it got to the point where it had established its characters and world and no longer had anything new to show me, I started to feel that.

The sad part is that the story has potential — it is, at the very least, unique in its tone and style. I usually leave dumb sci-fi blockbusters feeling like they were made primarily for teenage boys; this one feels like it was made for teenage girls. If Disney Animation ever made a sci-fi epic, it’d probably be pretty similar to this. Like a lot of Chosen One stories, it exists mainly a piece of wish fulfillment, but it isn’t half-bad at pulling that off — it’s not a challenging movie, but it manages to have its cake and eat it, too, without really stepping on anyone’s toes. So, we get a poor girl who gets whisked off into space and has adventures with an attractive and charming rogue, becomes royalty, wears a lot of fancy outfits, saves the day, and so on. And in between, there are dogfights and explosions and elephant people. It’s harmless, and I don’t mind it.

Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work. Its most obvious problem is apparent from the plot description alone — Jupiter Ascending is ridiculously complicated, far more so than it can easily afford to be. It’s one of those movies that presents viewers with enough information that I’m sure there are answers to all of the questions I still have about it, but keeping track of all of it requires the level of mental engagement I’d rather be spending on the characters or the themes instead of the mere premise. And anyway, it’s not enough for me that I understand the literal details of what happens; I want to know the whys and hows of everyone’s motivations and the actions they undertake in pursuit of that. Figuring out the specifics of the three-way Abrasax Industries fight over Jupiter’s deed is basically impossible; I’m still not sure what some of the villains were hoping to accomplish and in what way.

I’m not really sure the film knows what it’s about either. Wachowski movies are usually entertaining one big philosophical idea or another, and while they may not always resolve it intelligently (their answer to most questions appears to be “violent revolution and/or borderline anarchy”), you can usually expect to wrestle with something after the credits roll. I’m fine with the fact that Jupiter Ascending is simple and not trying to inspire much deep thought; I’m less fine with the inconsistency of its character and story arcs. The beginning of the movie telegraphs that Jupiter’s arc will be abandoning cynicism and learning to believe in true love; the end of the movie, on the other hand, signals that it was actually about coming to appreciate the good things in her life; and the film itself seems structurally to befit questions of leadership and responsibility. The only consistent through-line is the matter raised by Abrasax Industries of the predation somewhat inherent in the modern world and its systems, but that’s not something that’s explored in particular depth or that has much to do with Jupiter herself.

The characters placed at the center of this aren’t terribly interesting either — which is probably the least surprising among these film’s flaws, as the Wachowskis have always struggled on this front (I don’t know how anyone tolerates the monotone philosophical droning that makes up 95 percent of The Matrix). These aren’t the siblings’ worst characters, but neither the writing nor the actors bring any real depth to them. Jupiter is given just enough personality to have presence, but she’s painted broadly enough for audiences to project upon her; nevertheless, the aimlessness of her arc makes even that a touch unsatisfying. Mila Kunis isn’t bad in the part, exactly, but she tends to modulate back and forth between camp and seriousness instead of successfully combining both. As her sidekick for most of the movie, Channing Tatum continues to prove to be somewhat director-dependent — I can’t hate him after his marvelous work in the 21 Jump Street movies, but here, he disappears back into the non-presence that defined his early work. Sean Bean doesn’t do much of anything other than deliver exposition, and honestly, he could be written out easily enough. And as the main villain, Balem Abrasax, I’m surprised Eddie Redmayne didn’t Norbit his way out of the ongoing Oscar conversation; he is really, really bad in this. It’s not that he’s a bad actor — far from it — but he took a risk here that just didn’t pay off. His performance is pitched at full camp, half effeminate mumbling and half LOUD NOISES, and the Wachowskis don’t manage it well (the camera seems to retreat the second he reaches shouting mode, like the directors know he’s getting out of control and are running full speed away; they’re the only scenes where the editing gets a bit jarring).

Overall, Jupiter Ascending is an impressive creation, but it can only be enjoyed distantly, on the levels of its direction and imagination. It’s rarely if ever involving on a deeper level and, for me, marks 2015’s first major disappointment. I guess I’ll just have to keep my fingers crossed for that new Star Wars movie.

-Matt T.