Still Alice (GFF 2015)

Still AliceAt the age of fifty, it is perhaps unsurprising that Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is struggling to remember the occasional word — as an esteemed linguistics professor at Columbia University she is presumably aware of tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, which becomes more prevalent with age — but when she forgets where she is while running a well-trodden route she begins to worry that something else might be behind her forgetfulness. Alice is diagnosed with familial Alzheimer’s, a rare form of early-onset dementia with devastating implications for her offspring. Having confided in her husband prior to diagnosis, Dr. John Howland (Alec Baldwin) helps her break the news to their three grown children, Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish) and Lydia (Kristen Stewart).

Few diagnoses can carry quite the same weight as Alzheimer’s Disease, surely a fate worse than death that leaves your body intact while ravaging your mind one memory at a time. It impacts different people in different ways but always to the same end — ultimately robbing the sufferer of their achievements, relationships and their very sense of self as they forget more and more of their lives. And yet, Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer’s adaptation of Lisa Genova’s novel of the same name seems to suggest that for Dr. Alice Howland the diagnosis is especially tragic. As an independent, intelligent, successful linguist her inability to remember the word “lexicon” is Alzheimer’s Disease at its cruelest.

It’s hard, however, to take issue with Moore’s performance. Having researched the subject and interviewed a number of sufferers she is certainly convincing in her portrayal of a demented and tormented soul. At first simply absent-minded, misconstruing a conversation or misplacing trinkets, she soon begins to feel the full effects of the disease. Although she attempts to conceal and even counteract the progressive symptoms with memory games and messages to herself, episodes of unintentional rudeness, moments of crippling confusion and a movement towards compulsive behaviours begin to take an impact on her family too. In many ways Bosworth’s Anna takes the brunt of it onscreen, but for audiences its Baldwin and Stewart whose pain will be most keenly felt. A third-act scene between the two of them, in which Stewart returns home to help look after her mother, it truly heartbreaking.

And yet, as moving as the movie is it’s difficult to escape the feeling that it’s also a being a little patronising, too. The Howland’s affluent lifestyle is such that they never need to worry about the financial repercussions of losing half of their income, even though they have recently put two children through university and are now in the process of subsidising their third’s acting career — all while employing a cleaner-cum-carer. Alice may worry for her children’s futures but her concern seems unwarranted. Given how many people Moore is reported to have spoken to in preparation for the role it’s disappointing to see the Alzheimer’s community all but ignored within the film — Westmoreland and Glatzer largely limit their discussion of the disease to doctors and lecturers, conceding only so that Alice can speechify to a crowd. As a scene its supposed to be rousing — Alice loses her place on the page, but finds it again without help — but it just comes across as condescending.

An incongruously noble portrait of a fundamentally ignoble affliction, Still Alice only ever brings Alzheimer’s Disease into soft focus, when ideally it should be spotlighting an underrepresented form of dementia. It seems preoccupied with articulating the indescribable when the real horror should surely be purely experiential. That the film is unsatisfying it inevitable — Alzheimer’s and narrative don’t exactly go hand in hand — but it’s unfortunate that it should also be unmemorable.


It Follows (GFF 2015)

It FollowsLeaving the apparent safety of suburbia and travelling into the city to meet a man, Jess (Maika Monroe) encounters a strange and sinister force that soon follows her home, to the house she shares with her mother and her younger sibling, Kelly (Lili Sepe). A creature that stalks its prey, always on foot and rarely in the same form twice, it always catches up with her eventually, wherever she tries to hide. With the help of her sister’s friends, Yara (Olivia Luccardi) and Paul (Keir Gilchrist), and neighbour Greg (Daniel Zovatto), Jess and Kelly set out in search of answers — by trying to track down Jess’ recently disappeared boyfriend (Jake Weary) — before seeking refuge at Greg’s familial holiday home miles out of town.

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the scariest. What if there was someone following you, wherever you go, with malicious intent? Unstoppable monsters are nothing new in horror, but there’s something about the antagonist of It Follows that stands it apart from the typical boogeyman and the usual forces of darkness. Directed by David Robert Mitchell, It Follows feels more akin to J-Horror than its Western relation, only instead of a cursed videotape or cornea it posits a cursed seed, to be passed on through intercourse. But what is “It” a manifestation of? Scripted references to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Tomb” would seem to suggest the slow march of time, and the inevitability of death and decay, but the premise speaks to a sexual dimension too. Whether it’s a spin on Original Sin or the AIDs epidemic,”It” seems to be the personification of a stigma you just can’t shake. After all, the fact that only the cursed can see their assailant leaves them ostracised from society and facing down death alone.

Only Mitchell’s second feature, It Follows is an astounding achievement. While not exactly innovative, it feels remarkably fresh and remains incredibly frightening. The sight of lumbering strangers is a familiar one, as fans of zombies, slashers and even The Borg can attest, but “It” redefines the implications of this slow-motion chase. Yes you can run, drive, sail away, but however far, fast and frequently you travel you will have to stop eventually — otherwise what is the point in escaping death if not to reclaim some sort of life? Even if you are successful in passing the curse on, however, you can never truly rest in the knowledge that “It” has left you alone, for a mistake further down the chain will leave you the target once again. It’s easy to appreciate what this means for the characters because the audience is forced to be equally ever-vigilant, and even the most innocuous scenes and encounters are mired in dread as viewers search the screen for that tell-tale shuffle. Whereas most horrors these days depend on intermittent jump-scares to stimulate their audiences, It Follows builds and maintains an oppressive atmosphere of tension that seems determined to stress you out.

Maika Monroe is exceptional as Jay, building on her recent success in The Guest (which — coincidentally — also featured a heavily synthesised score) to very encouraging effect. More than just a simple scream queen, though she can undoubtedly shriek with the best of them, Jay is a complicated character who is called upon to make some incredibly difficult decisions. Usually love triangles hold precious little interest, but forced to choose which of the men in her life to curse forever Jay’s dilemma becomes suddenly intriguing. Her relationship with Paul, her younger sister’s friend, proves particularly fruitful, positioned as he is as the film’s ingenue. Smitten — and a little obsessed — with Jay, he spends much of the movie pining after her, repeatedly offering to place himself in mortal peril for her own peace of mind — if only she would have sex with him. It might have felt predatory, or at least pathetic, but there’s an innocence to Keir Gilchrist’s portrayal that prevents Paul from coming across like a total loser. The film is just as interested in its characters’ lives as their deaths, and unlike more conservative horror films, It Follows isn’t looking to punish promiscuity, more often than not using sex as a means of salvation.

It’s not often these days that you get to pronounce a horror movie genuinely horrifying, but It Follows really is as scary as everyone is saying. Like The Babadook, like The Descent, like Ringu, Mitchell’s film is your new nightmare. Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the cinema.

For my full coverage of GFF 2015, visit HeyUGuys.4-Stars

February 2015 – That’s such a Boromir thing to say

The InterviewAlthough much of this month has been spent preparing for, commuting to and writing about the Glasgow Film Festival, I did have time to catch up on February’s wide releases before getting stuck into the programme.

February started strongly with Selma, Ava DuVernay’s rousing account of Martin Luther King’s march to Montgomery, and The Interview, perhaps the funniest satirical action-comedy since South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. Either might have made my film of the month, but as moving as Selma might be I doubt it didn’t have quite the same impact as the movie that nearly broke freedom of speech and almost ruined Sony in the process.

Things tapered off a bit after that, with the disappointing Shaun The Sheep Movie, the vanilla Fifty Shades of Grey and the inconsistent Project Almanac. Only Jupiter Ascending really made an impression, though that was as much for its inanity as for its intelligence.

Glasgow Film Festival also started strongly, with Noah Baumbach’s unexpectedly crowd-pleasing comedy drama While We’re Young. Over the first weekend I also watched the excellent Theeb, the surreal Wild Tales, the moody Monsters: Dark Continent, the cantankerous Grump and the tender Short Skin, reviewing most for HeyUGuys and covering the left-overs for this blog here.

I ended the month with another marathon, rounding off my experience of GFF 15 with Fright Fest films The Samurai, Clown, It Follows and The Woods, a documentary about the making of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. At the time of writing it had been an unusually consistent year, setting the bar astoundingly high for Edinburgh International Film Festival in the summer.

Film of the month: The Interview

Wild Tales (GFF 2015)

Wild TalesOn a crowded flight two neighbouring passengers (María Marull; Darío Grandinetti) realise that they both have an acquaintance in common. At a late-night diner a young waitress (Julieta Zylberberg) recognises an old tormentor (César Bordón), but refuses the cook’s (Rita Cortese) offer to plot long-overdue revenge. Having reprimanded another driver (Walter Donado) for slowing him down, a businessman (Leonardo Sbaraglia) soon finds himself regretting his actions when a breakdown leaves him stranded and vulnerable. His car unfairly impounded, a demolitions expert (Ricardo Darín) spends his daughter’s birthday refuting the fine. After a hit-and-run perpetrated by his son, a wealthy father (Oscar Martínez) bribes his caretaker into taking the blame. A wedding party is rocked when the bride (Érica Rivas) learns of her groom’s (Diego Gentile) infidelity.

These six standalone segments comprise Wild Tales, television and film writer-director Damián Szifrón’s darkly comic anthology film and his native Argentina’s shortlisted entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards. The collection opens confidently with Pasternak, an assured if not slightly absurd tale of revenge at twenty thousand feet that effectively and efficiently sets the scene for what is to come. Each short is self-contained, stylishly shot and conspicuously Spanish (or Argentine-Spanish, to be precisely) — making for an altogether more cinematic sextet than those traditionally televised at home on British TV. Think Crackanory or Inside No. 9, only with five times the budget and a tongue in each cheek instead of just one and you’re almost there.

Pasternak is followed by The Rats, an atmospheric and very amusing story of aiding and abetting. Both, however, are eclipsed by The Strongest, a superb little short that pits tailgater against road-hog in a story so simple yet so perceptive that it might have been written by Stephen King. It’s the closest Wild Tales comes to being genuinely unsettling, combining as it does both a primal fear with a relatively plausible setting; even as the violence escalates (and the verisimilitude deteriorates), Mario — the road-hog — continues to intimidate. The Stranger is so good, however, that it cannot possibly be outmatched, and though entertaining the successive instalments do suffer by comparison. Little Bomb and The Proposal have their moments, but neither has quite the same impact.

At just over two hours in length, Wild Tales is too long, particularly for a series of shorts without cross-over or even a defining theme. Front-loaded as it is, the obvious answer would be to sacrifice a story from the film’s back half in the name of brevity. Though Little Bomb and The Proposal might lack the same surrealism, they are satirical enough to compensate; instead, it’s the final short — Until Death Do Us Part — that feels like the weakest link. The performances are strong enough — Rivas in particular is a deranged delight — and it’s perfectly well staged — the filmmakers make great use of the venue — but the premise feels a little staid and ordinary when you consider what insanity came before. Perhaps if Szifrón had saved the best until last, however, it wouldn’t feel like such an anti-climax.

That said, even in its weaker moments Wild Tales remains deliriously good fun, with more than its fair share of stand-out moments. Inconsistency is to be expected, but what is truly impressive is just how comprehensive the collection ultimately feels. No wonder it was nominated for an Oscar.

For my full coverage of GFF 2015, visit HeyUGuys.4-Stars


Monsters: Dark Continent (GFF 2015)

Dark ContinentTen years have passed since Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able) limped across the US-Mexico border to find that extraterrestrial MTRs had broken quarantine and spread into the States. In that time the creatures have made it as far as the Middle East, exacerbating the war on terror as American troops work to neutralise both local insurgency and the wider alien invasion. New recruits Michael (Sam Keeley), Frankie (Joe Dempsie), Shaun (Parker Sawyers) and Inkelaar (Kyle Soller) — lead by Sgt. Frater (Johnny Harris) — are deployed on a rescue mission after four American soldiers are deemed missing in action.

There was a time when every science fiction series seemed to be switching genres with each new instalment, usually starting life as a horror only to be reformatted into an action movie before finally descending into parody. (Except Terminator, anyway, which made the transition into action-comedy with relative success.) Essentially a romantic drama, however, Gareth Edwards’ Monsters seemed to buck the trend, focusing on the developing attraction between two survivors while keeping the aliens themselves confined to the background. Tradition has now been restored by Tom Green — a British television writer best known for E4’s Misfits — who has directed a war movie for a sequel.

At first, it seems as though Monsters: Dark Continent couldn’t be more different from its predecessor, to the extent that you begin to wonder whether it was developed explicitly as a sequel to the 2010 movie or simply tagged Monsters to bank on whatever brand recognition the title might be presumed to hold. Where Monsters was quiet and contemplative Monsters: Dark Continent is brash and unabashed; where the first teased its MTRs the second flaunts them; where McNairy and Able humanised the drama Michael Parkes and company soon have you rooting for the enemy. Given the manner in which Monsters analogised Mexico-American relations you might expect the sequel to satirise the Iraq war (it is a prolonged invasion after all), but for the first hour at least it’s more American Sniper than Starship Troopers.

Just as Green helped audiences sympathise with juvenile delinquents in Misfits, however, he eventually manages to redeem Parkes, who as the regiment’s situation deteriorates is stripped of both his bravado and brothers-in-arms. It’s a strong, surprisingly sensitive performance on Keeley’s part, and Parkes’ non-traditional hero’s journey from alpha male to whimpering mess is a counter-intuitive but compelling one. These days anything — including Evans’ original — with a big creature in it is reflexively labeled Lovecraftian by lazy commentators, but Dark Continent truly justifies the comparisons, seeing as it does a mortal man unmade by his experience of the supernatural. Keeley is equalled only by Harris, whose own struggles as Sgt Frater — a serial tourer — successfully undermines the first act’s apparent propaganda.

It all comes together at a terrorist compound where the surviving soldiers are being held captive. Given that the monsters were previously shown to seek out light sources their migration to the desert seems a strange one, but their arrival at the facility — attracted by the security lighting — re-establishes the characteristic. Parkes and Harris escape on motorbikes, finding themselves at a burnt-out school bus filled with the smoldering corpses of small children and flanked by the remains of a young MTR. It’s a shocking sequence, but leads to a scene of almost absurd beauty — similar to the petrol station set-piece from the first film — in which simultaneous funeral rites are performed by Persian women and an adult alien — both overlooked by Parkes. Green never quite reconciles his parallel between terrorists and extra terrestrials, but the general theme seems to be that there are no monsters, only misunderstand motivations.

Monsters: Dark Continent won’t be to everyone’s tastes, and even fans of the original might struggle to re-connect with the mythology. (Unlike Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, there are unlikely to be many who view the sequel as superior.) That said, for all of its differences Green’s film at least feels like a spiritual successor to Evans’, and providing you make it through the first half — warning: it’s a long one — there is still plenty to admire.

For my full coverage of GFF 2015, visit HeyUGuys.3-Stars


While We’re Young (GFF 2015)

While We're YoungChildless couple Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are feeling out of touch. Their friends — almost all of them parents — are changed people, while the generation below always seem one step ahead. They realise that they haven’t embraced technology but inherited it, only to find that the youth which they desperately yearn to emulate have eschewed smartphones and social media in favour of a more authentic, experiential and experimental existence: namely board games, record collections and homemade ice cream. When they meet Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) after one of Josh’s lectures, they are immediately seduced by the younger pair’s vigour and vitality, together agreeing to help Jamie with his documentary film while living vicariously — and later viscerally — through their adventures.

While We’re Young is, unsurprisingly, preoccupied with age. Josh’s attempts to edit his decades-in-the-making documentary are scuppered by his subject’s his ever-changing appearance; Cornelia’s body clock is standing in the way of her having children; while their friends are being slowly infantilised by their own offspring. Jamie and Darby, meanwhile, seem almost ignorant of it, living an strangely timeless existence that is almost too hipsterish for words. (Or, as Watts’ character puts it, “It’s like their apartment is full of everything we once threw out, but it looks so good the way they have it”.) Together they go on organised walks through the subway, attend urban dance classes and experiment with hallucinogens, much to the bemusement of their stay-at-home peers.

Ben Stiller has rarely been more likeable, or sympathetic, as Josh. His professional concerns might be rather more esoteric but it’s easy to relate to his personal conflict, particularly his ongoing attempts to reconcile his mental and physical ages. On the one hand he’s still a lost boy trying to make sense of the world and earn the respect of his father-in-law, while on the other he’s an old man in a hat who has just been diagnosed with arthritis in his knee. He has terrific chemistry with Driver, who impresses without really surprising as another fast-talking, bohemian polymath, but it’s his relationship with Watts that really delights. She plays a producer, though not a partner on her husband’s own film project, who can’t decide whether she wants children or not. As a role it’s slightly underwritten, but Watts — quickly redeeming herself after a string of critical disasters — works wonders with it.

The true revelation, however, is director Noah Baumbach, a Wes Anderson alumnus who — following a co-writer credit on the superb Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted — seems to have finally found mainstream success. The starrier cast goes some way towards solving The Gerwig Problem (with Seyfried allegedly replacing the divisive Frances Ha actress), instead drawing more flattering comparisons with last year’s Say When, and despite an early flirtation with pretension in the form of a lengthy quotation from Henrik Ibsen’s “The Master Builder” (nothing to do with The LEGO Movie, apparently) it constitutes his most accessible and affecting work to date. Rather than pass judgement on either generation Baumbach instead lets his characters speak for themselves, and through the prism of authenticity in documentary filmmaking seems to conclude that there is no right answer.

While We’re Young is the perfect opening film, kick-starting Glasgow Film Festival 2015 with just the right combination of credibility and commercial viability. Funny, touching and intelligent, it showcases the talents of everyone involved.

For my full coverage of GFF 15, visit HeyUGuys.4-Stars

Project Almanac (2015)

PROJECT ALMANACDavid Raskin (Jonny Weston) is desperate to get into MIT, but while his application is ultimately successful unexpected funding cuts leave him unable to afford the tuition. Searching his late father’s files for fresh ideas, hoping to poach something suitable for a different scholarship programme, David happens across an old video which would seem to place him — now aged 17 — at his own seventh birthday. Finding blueprints for a temporal relocation device in the basement, and emboldened by the knowledge that they have already succeeded, he, Jessie (Sophia Black D’Elia), Adam (Allen Evangelista), Quinn (Sam Lerner) and sister Chris (Virginia Gardner) decide to build a prototype time machine. At first they travel back days and weeks to right wrongs and place winning bets, but when David manufactures a romance between himself and Jessie his actions have tragic repercussions for everyone.

Previously titled Welcome to Yesterday (still a superior title) and slated for release in early 2014, a renamed Project Almanac time-travelled to the following year when Paramount went into partnership with MTV Films. Likely pitched as a cross between Chronicle and The Butterfly Effect, it uses the now ubiquitous found footage format to document teenage kicks at the expense of the space-time continuum. Despite being poorly conceived in just about every respect — from the nonsensical time-travel mechanics to the impossible camera angles — it’s hard to straight-out dislike David and his band of age-appropriately selfish, short-sighted friends. Why don’t they use their machine to go back and kill Hitler? Well, because none of them speak German, d’uh.

As with Chronicle, there’s something quietly compelling about watching kids dick about with superpowers, whether alien or technological in origin. The fun the characters are obviously having outwitting teachers and peers alike really translates, while the ingenuity of our young geniuses proves just convincing enough to impress, whether it’s stripping a games console for its graphics card or using a hybrid car’s battery to power their device. Refreshingly, the film’s centrepiece isn’t a blurry, high-stakes special effects bonanza but a concert — organised by David to fit into a five-minute toilet break — that inadvertently changes everything. Backstage passes bought after the fact on eBay raise the characters’ profiles upon their return to the present day, while a missed opportunity prompts David to break his own rule about never time-travelling alone.

Although often entertaining, there’s no denying that Project Almanac is also infuriating: the plot is unforgivably contrived (forget the time machine in the basement, it’s hard enough to believe that David would mistake Jessie’s bag for his own), the camera work is unnecessarily convoluted (the lengths Chris must go to in order to hold onto it are quite simply obscene) and the internal logic is completely incoherent (despite returning to the same point in time over and over the friends never encounter their ever-growing number of doppelgangers). It all falls apart the moment David goes it alone, taking the camera with him despite the fact that all he is doing is slowing himself down and incriminating his friends in the process. The last twenty minutes or so make absolutely no sense whatsoever — emotionally, narratively, scientifically.

Naturally, there are stronger time-travel movies out there, both better developed and more ambitious in scope than Dean Israelite’s Project Almanac. (It is a Platinum Dunes production, after all, so it was never going to be great.) But while it might pale in comparison to Back to the Future, Donnie Darko or even The Butterfly Effect there is still plenty of timey-wimey fun to be had.


Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

Fifty Shades of GreyWhen her best friend can’t make an appointment Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) offers to go in her stead, travelling out to Seattle in order to interview benefactor Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for a planned profile in their college newspaper. Over the course of successive encounters — some official, others less so — they begin to act on their mutual attraction, Christian eventually introducing Ana to the physical pursuits he was alluding to during the interview, specifically those relating to his unusual sexual practices. He wants her to sign a contract, to consent to being subjugated by his dominant. She, meanwhile, wants to negotiate, to find some room for a loving relationship outside of the padded walls of his strictly managed playroom. But who will submit first?

Like Christian Grey, 50 Shades of Grey did not have the best start in life. Originally conceived as Twilight fan fiction, the story of Bella Swan and Edward Cullen soon became the story of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, as author E L James — previously fan labourer Snowqueen’s Icedragon — found fame and fortune of her own, albeit fame and fortune mired in more controversy than pious, sparkly Mormon Stephanie Meyer could ever dream of. Seen variously as a gross misrepresentation of BDSM practices and a glorification of domestic abuse, the books — and now the film series, too — have been subject to harsh criticism and impassioned protests, while the quality of James’ prose has also been called into question; anyone who has tried to read 50 Shades of Grey, let alone the entire saga, knows it to be improbably plotted and poorly written, even for pornography.

While the book rubbed religious communities and literary circles up the wrong way, however, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film adaptation seemed to be doing everything in its power to disenfranchise fans as well. Readers were enraged by everything from casting (and re-casting) decisions to the film’s classification, while news that Jamie Dornan’s contract vetoed any nudity sent the forums into a veritable frenzy. It wasn’t just the fans that hated the two leads, either, as it soon transpired that neither Dornan or (Dakota) Johnson could stand to be in the same room as the other, even for the purposes of promoting the film. It was also revealed that Taylor-Johnson was fighting a daily war with James over the content of the various sex scenes. These conversations eventually lead to reshoots, so that more material could be added, presumably to make the movie more explicit, ultimately landing the film with an 18 certificate in the UK, though Americans of any age could still watch as long as they were accompanied by an adult. “Mommy porn” this most certainly wasn’t.

Thankfully, 50 Shades of Grey was to prove a pleasant surprise for all, not least Universal Pictures who have already made a record-breaking fortune from it despite the restrictive UK rating and sniffy reviews. Not only is 50 Shades of Grey likely to placate fans looking for a bit of naughty fun but it might even win over those who couldn’t get to grips with the source material. The director — working from a screenplay by Kelly Marcel — has excised the worst of the dialogue and nigh exorcised Ana’s inner goddess, meaning that any embarrassed laughter is more than likely intentional — and there is laughter to be had. There are some standout scenes, from a well-played drunken phone call to a tense and witty contract negotiation that in the book (where it was printed in full) proved tepid and interminable, while Ana’s first exposure to Christian’s Red Room of Pain is genuinely…well, sexy. If anything, Fifty Shades of Grey is testament to the power of cinema; in no rational world should acrimonious actors, a derivative story and a director under duress conspire to create a watchable, let alone perfectly good movie, yet on celluloid the illusion is all but complete. It of course helps that Danny Elfman’s score is genuinely, legitimately great.

That said, 50 Shades of Grey is unlikely to go down in movie history — it’s overly long and far too repetitive, for a start — but if it does it won’t be as a complete disaster. Unexpected though it may be, there is real artistry to be found. The question now of course is whether or not that success can be sustained. There are still two films to go, at least, and while audiences may well be left wanting more there’s a good chance the cast and crew are wishing for anything but.


Jupiter Ascending (2015)

Jupiter AscendingChicago-based cleaner Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is an alien, in both the international and intergalactic sense. Born to Russian immigrant parents, she works in her family’s cleaning business, completely unaware that she is also heiress to an extraterrestrial empire. Jupiter is genetically identical to the late matriarch of the Abrasax dynasty, entitling her to an estate which includes the planet Earth, but in her absence siblings Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth) and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton) are scrambling to secure the respective systems for themselves. Titus dispatches a genetically engineered warrior named Caine (Channing Tatum) to locate Jupiter first, but after the bounty hunter’s saved her from Balem’s assassins he gets waylaid, warming to his quarry and becoming embroiled in a larger conflict between the House of Abrasax and the authorities.

Recurrence is a theme that, well, recurs throughout the Wachowskis work. In The Matrix: Reloaded Neo is revealed to have met the Architect not once but six times, on each previous occasion choosing to maintain the status quo and prevent a system crash before finally opting for another course of action, while Cloud Atlas followed the same six souls through a series of reincarnations, as some continued to make the same mistakes as others sought some sort of redemption. Andy and Lana Wachowski have so far explored human spirit from a technological and spiritual perspective, but with Jupiter Ascending they this time approach it with a biological slant. Their latest film posits that across the vastness of time and space some genetic codes are repeated at random — something the laws of probability would not permit on Earth but mathematically at least might be possible across a multitude of planets.

Their other major (related) preoccupation seems to be the recycling of human matter, and once again the siblings find a way to incorporate quasi-cannibalism into their plot. This time, however, the deceased aren’t fed to the living by mechanical overlords or South Korean slavers but monetised: stockpiled and sold by alien nobility for their dermatological properties. (To bathe in ‘nectar’ is to buy oneself more time, the greatest commodity of all.) We’re no longer seeing human beings as fuel or fabricants, but as farmed produce nearly ready for harvest. This is in addition to other notable similarities, from certain narrative beats (chosen ones and such) and stylistic influences (steampunk, mainly) to returning Cloud Atlas cast members (James D’Arcy and Bae Doona). The Wachowskis are auteurs through and through, and one of the principle joys of Jupiter Ascending is seeing how it compares and contrasts with the pair’s other works. Up until a point, anyway, as there is no denying that it is unfortunately the least successful of their films to date.

That’s not to say that Jupiter Ascending is not breath-taking or thought-provoking because it is. The Wachowskis are, after all, visionaries of the highest order, and their latest film once again proves that they can reinterpret ancient philosophies and create new mythologies like no other filmmaker working today — they’re also instant masters of 3D. Who else would Warner Brothers trust with such large sums of money to create an original science fiction film, save perhaps for Christopher Nolan? Whether it’s watching Channing Tatum weave in and out of skyscrapers while wearing anti-gravity roller-blades, Sean Bean and his bees recognise Jupiter as their queen or winged giants bow down to a wild-eyed Eddie Redmayne there is such delight to be had in their singular imagination. Unbound by genre, fashioned and reason, they are free to cut from Russia to space, segue into Gilliam-esque satire and have Belle‘s Gugu Mbatha-Raw cameo as a another hybrid ‘splice’. There is something incredibly pure about their mode of storytelling, as though it was produced through some sort of unvetted free-association exercise in wish-fulfillment and not with one eye on the box office and one foot in their producers’ office.

That said, while Jupiter Ascending might be as ambitious and unabashed as the rest of the Wachowskis’ output — they’ve not been this “out-there” since Speed Racer — it lacks even that film’s coherence and consistency. Despite their proven track record when it comes to balancing different tones and making esoteric ideas accessible to general audiences, they’re clearly struggling to integrate the different spheres of Jupiter’s world and explain the plot’s complexities. Not enough time is spent with Jupiter’s parents in Russia or in her job as a cleaner to make these essentially subplots feel important to the story, while their decision to drop each of the Abrasax siblings after their allotted screentime leaves the narrative feeling episodic and directionless. It might be that Jupiter Ascending simply requires repeated viewings to truly unravel, but even so the story is particularly impenetrable — full of technobabble and irrelevant background detail designed in lieu of a sequel or series to confuse and confound. If Caine’s genes are crossed with those of a wolf, why does he have wings? If splices are used in the military, why does Mbatha-Raw’s assistant have the ears of a deer? What is the genetic advantage of having an elephantine pilot? Happily, it’s not too hard to imagine awe-struck seven year-olds coming up with improvised but perfectly reasonable answers to these questions. Well…well…BECAUSE.

Overall, however, the Wachowskis are to be commended. In a sea of sequels, remakes and literary adaptations Jupiter Ascending stands out as something fiercely original. It may deal with familiar archetypes and tropes but there’s no confusing it for any other existing franchise. It’s a curiosity, and in a year that brings us spoiler after spoiler for films like Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens that it something to be encouraged.


Shaun The Sheep Movie (2015)

Shaun The SheepIn need of a holiday, Shaun (Justin Fletcher) conspires to lull the farmer in charge (John Sparkes) into an early sleep so that he and his fellow farm animals can enjoy some well-earned time off. His plan goes disastrously wrong, however, when the caravan Shaun is keeping him in comes loose of its holdings and rolls downhill into the big city. With food running out, Shaun mounts a daring rescue mission, quickly drawing the attention of Animal Control (Omid Djalili) when he and the other sheep arrive at the local bus station. The farmer, meanwhile, having crashed his caravan, wakes in hospital with no memory of who he is or how he got there, instead putting his innate shearing skills to use as a celebrity hairdresser.

Of the four Wallace and Gromit shorts wheeled out every bank holiday weekend, including the one from a few years back whose name escapes me, A Close Shave is undoubtedly the weakest film. It is therefore slightly surprising that for their first spin-off movie Aardman Animations have chosen to focus not on Feathers McGraw, the penguin thief behind The Wrong Trousers, or The Cooker, the picnic-foiling moon-bot from A Grand Day Out, but Shaun the Sheep…who ate some soft furnishings and wore a jumper made from his own wool. The character already has a stop-motion television series to his name, and a Christmas special due out later this year, so surely the showrunners must have had a good reason for furthering his adventures to feature length on the big screen? But what exactly do they have in store for Shaun The Sheep: Bigger, Longer and Unshaven?

Well, they’ve certainly thought up some new puns. Aardman’s animations are renowned for being quintessentially British, painstakingly produced and packed to the Plasticine rafters with background detail — and Shaun The Sheep Movie is no different in this respect. It’s sweet and charming and will make you smile fondly with its knack for innuendo and wordplay, but unlike Chicken Run, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! it’s never anything more than mildly amusing. Strangely for a studio who have in the past thrived on silent characters, the problem seems to be that nobody in the film speaks — not even the human characters — seriously limiting the storytelling possibilities and opportunities for characterisation. But while Gromit is one of the most expressive and beloved animated characters in British cinema despite his muteness, Shaun is nowhere near as easy to read or endear to because of it.

It seems almost blasphemous to accuse an Aardman film of being characterless — after all, Creature Comforts thrived on breathing life into an assortment of everyday animals in mundane situations — but Shaun The Sheep Movie has almost no personality whatsoever, from its awkward and uninspired title to its indistinguishable cast of interchangeable sheep. Indeed, one running gag sees supporting characters put to sleep by their repetitive antics. Not even the film’s resident dog, Bitzer, makes an impression; young fans might recognise him from the television series, but franchise newcomers are unlikely to remember him or anyone else with the fondness of past Aardman creations. Of course, it might just be that directors Richard Goleszowski and Mark Burton are making the film for existing fans only, and Shaun The Sheep Movie might well be entertaining enough to hold such an audience captive, but with the animation genre having taken such great strides towards being truly universal in scope (suitable for children and adults aged four years or over) it is notably, disappointingly meek.

While by no means baaaaaad, Shaun The Sheep Movie is unlikely to be remembered as a classic. With posters for animated movies appealing to audiences with words and phrases like “eye-popping” and “hilarious” it’s a shame to see Aardman settling for “simple” and “genial”. Parents may well feel fleeced.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 951 other followers