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Posts Tagged ‘the Wachowskis’

By Jove, what’s this? Another movie from the Wachowski siblings, consigned to the outer wastelands of the release schedule? (By which I mean February, of course.) At this point, all the quality movies hoping for glory in the awards season have been released (and probably re-released, in some cases), while it’s still a bit too soon for even the earliest blockbusters to be coming out. What tend to emerge at this time of year, blinking and unloved, are the films which the studio really don’t have much faith in: things which are looking like big-budget follies, in short.

The omens for the Wachowski’s Jupiter Ascending are slightly ominous, when you look at it that way. This big, lavish fantasy movie was originally scheduled for a release last June, and trailers for it had actually started to appear in front of other films. But at practically the very last minute it was pulled and knocked back to this year, supposedly so it could have its special effects and plotting touched up. Even if you buy this explanation, early February is not a prime release date for a $176 million movie made by two writer-directors of substance.

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Oh well. Jupiter Ascending dispenses with the traditional voice-over and/or series of captions explaining its universe in favour of something more quirky and personal, although boiling the plot down into something easily summarised is a formidable challenge. Basically, Mila Kunis plays Jupiter Jones, a young second-generation Russian immigrant working as a domestic cleaner in present-day Chicago. She is not very happy with her lot in life.

However, things change when she finds herself menaced by strange, inhuman forces (she’s having her eggs harvested at the time, which I suppose has a vague thematic resonance, but no strong bearing on the plot). Fortunately she is rescued by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a half-man half-Airedale Terrier bounty hunter from space, who zaps the bad guys and whisks her off on his anti-gravity skates, before explaining what’s going on.

The truth is simple (if also somewhat bonkers): Jupiter is the genetic reincarnation of a 90,000-year-old space princess and, as a result, is de facto royalty in the strange interstellar milieu the movie depicts. She is also the recipient of a prime piece of planetary real estate (here’s a clue: you most likely live on it) and an unwilling participant in the power-games of an immensely wealthy family of space tycoons. Chief amongst these is Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne), who is most put out to have lost a potentially profitable planet. However, as well as a vast fortune he also has a private army of flying space-crocodiles on retainer, which he is not afraid to deploy in defence of his interests…

You know, I’ve liked the Wachowskis ever since the first time I saw The Matrix, quite a few years ago now: I was one of those people more than willing to give the Matrix sequels a chance, I thought V for Vendetta (which they wrote) was better than many gave it credit for, and their last movie, Cloud Atlas, was probably the film I enjoyed most in 2013. Anything they do is going to be interestingly different, at the very least.

But this movie? Hooooo boy! Now, I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy it, because I did. I went with a friend and by the end we were hooting with laughter at everything unfolding on the screen. The slight problem, perhaps, is that Jupiter Ascending is not really intended to be an outright comedy film. It’s just that the film is so, so way out there in some of its ideas, and especially in the way it’s unafraid to stack them on top of one another, that it eventually simply becomes absurd.

This being the Wachowskis, the film is never less than ravishing to look at: the special effects, costumes, and production designs are all gorgeous. But it’s as though the siblings have availed themselves of a very large tank full of extravagant visuals, bizarre plot ideas, and very bad acting, and are using a high-pressure hose to spray the contents indiscriminately across the screen for 127 minutes. The results are bracing, but also very weird.

There are perhaps a few similarities with their greatest work, as this is the story of an ordinary person who discovers they are actually of great significance in a world they are initially ignorant of, a world in which human life has a slightly sinister quality, as a resource to be exploited. But the rest of it is all over the place: it looks a bit like Flash Gordon and a bit like Dune, there are lengthy discussions of galactic inheritance and tax law to gladden the heart of any Phantom Menace admirer, there’s a very Hitch Hikers-y sequence on a planet of bureaucrats that also brings to mind Brazil – at which point, of course, a heavily-disguised Terry Gilliam wanders on for a cameo appearance. And why not? It makes as much sense as anything else. In the midst of all this Jupiter’s main preoccupation seems to be coming on to her dogged (and doggy) guardian, in a manner I found slightly needy. Needless to say, he seems to have incipient republican inclinations.

Off on another sound-stage, meanwhile, the protracted squabbles of Jupiter’s extended family of comedy Russian-Americans are interrupted by flying space-crocodiles crashing through the ceiling, on a mission from Eddie Redmayne’s character. Everyone seems to be assuming Redmayne is a mortal lock for the Best Actor Oscar, for his performance as Stephen Hawking in that film I haven’t seen. Well, if he doesn’t get it, it may be because tapes of Jupiter Ascending are doing the rounds, as his performance here is quite extraordinarily OTT. I suspect the reason most of the scenery is computer-generated is simply to stop Redmayne from chewing on it, not that anyone else in the film is particularly restrained.

It’s not immediately obvious whether Jupiter Ascending is genuinely intended to be a piece of soaringly camp nonsense, or if it’s just a seriously-intended genre movie which has had something go very, very wrong with it. The fact that the plot still doesn’t quite hang together suggests the latter, but if the film has a serious message to impart it’s not very clear what it is. There seems to be a suggestion that you can be perfectly happy sponging out someone else’s bog all day, provided you know that deep-down you’re a space princess (personally, I sort of doubt this), while the film does seem to have some interesting, if half-formed ideas about how post-scarcity societies are really going to function – even to the point of implying that a truly post-scarcity society is impossible in a finite universe. This does tend to get drowned out by some bog-standard egalitarian anti-capitalism, which sits weirdly with the generally pro-monarchical tenor of the film (Jupiter gets off on Dog-boy calling her ‘your Majesty’).

I remember a review of Spielberg’s 1941 wherein the writer suggested the principal pleasure of the film was simply watching the director play with the resources of a big-budget movie like a kid with a train set. I think much the same applies to Jupiter Ascending: the plot is barmy, and in places baffling, but it looks stunning, the action is superbly mounted, and there are so many incidental pleasures along the way (Tim Piggott-Smith comes on as a half-man, half-badger alien). Jupiter Ascending is probably a terrible film, but it’s the most brilliant terrible film I’ve seen in ages. I hope it does well enough for studio bosses to keep giving the Wachowskis money: the world of cinema would be a much poorer place without their particular brand of inspired madness.

 

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The cinematic calendar used to be so straightforward: big films across the summer and – to a lesser extent – at Christmas, Oscar-bait early in the year, and unpretentious genre movies the rest of the time. That was what you could pretty much expect down the local multiplex, but things seem to changing – the onset of blockbuster season has been creeping earlier and earlier in recent years, while I’m seeing signs of an odd phenomenon developing in March. This month seems to be turning into a dumping ground for huge and expensive studio releases which the producers seem to have lost all faith in, an elephant’s graveyard of the overblown and underscripted.

This is largely based, I must say, on the fact that it was this time last year that John Carter of Mars came out, and currently we are enjoying the presence on our screens of Cloud Atlas, directed by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings. The sheer scale and scope of this movie, not to mention the stellar cast list, would normally suggest a major release. As it is, the movie seems to have been slipped out by people who don’t really know what to do with it. This may be because Cloud Atlas is barking, barking mad.

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How to describe this movie? It does not have a plot. At least, not one; it has six, with tenuous connections linking them.

  • In 1849, a young man (Jim Sturgess) assisting his father’s slave trading activities in the South Pacific falls foul of the avaricious intentions of a corrupt doctor, with his one chance of survival lying in the hands of a former slave.
  • In 1936, an ambitious and amoral young musician (Ben Whishaw) finds work as the amanuensis of a distinguished and elderly composer. However, when the older man attempts to take the credit for his employee’s original work, he finds himself in an impossible situation.
  • In 1972, an investigative journalist (Halle Berry) discovers a conspiracy to smear the nuclear power industry by certain other vested interests. It quickly becomes apparent that the conspirators are more than happy to kill to protect their secret.
  • In 2012, a literary agent (Jim Broadbent) finds himself pursued for non-existent royalties by the gangster relatives of a former client. However, his choice of refuge leaves a lot to be desired…
  • In 2144, a clone servitor (Doona Bae) is rescued from her corporate enslavement and shown something of the wider world which she inhabits – a world which some people believe she has the power to greatly change for the better.
  • And in a far more distant, post-apocalyptic future, a tribesman (Tom Hanks) belonging to  a primitive tribe strikes an alliance with an emissary from a more advanced civilisation, one that may affect the fates of every surviving human on Earth.

The movie cuts between these different stories across its very considerable running time. Oh, but if only this film was as straightforward as that makes it sound! In addition to the simple narrative links between the different plots – one character appears in two of them, Whishaw’s character reads a book about Sturgess, Doona Bae watches a movie adaptation of Jim Broadbent’s experiences, and so on – there are all sorts of other odd things happening. The main characters of all the stories share the same suggestive birthmark, and one character appears to have prophetic dreams concerning one of the later stories.

Most obviously, however, the film is mainly held together by the fact that the same actors appear in different roles in the different stories. So in addition to the tribesman, Tom Hanks plays the murderous doctor in 1849, a nuclear physicist in 1972, and so on. Just to give you an idea of the sheer scope and bounding absurdity of Cloud Atlas, in this film Hugh Grant – Hugh Grant! – plays a slave trader, a hotel manager, the nuclear plant boss, Jim Broadbent’s dodgy brother, a Korean restaurant manager – not the manager of a Korean restaurant, but a Korean man who manages an eating-spot – and a cannibal warlord.

I have to confess that, after a while, each appearance by one of the ensemble cast in a new guise was greeted with hoots of laughter at the screening I attended. This comparison-wrangling idea seems to have caught on, with the Wachowskis describing this movie as ‘Moby Dick meets 2001: A Space Odyssey but one British critic riposting with ‘Little Britain meets Blake’s 7′ (if I’d taken my own Comparison Wrangler to this movie I suspect his head would have exploded). I must confess that I tend more towards the latter view, with the important provisos that I actually like Blake’s 7, and that some of the more outrageous dressing-up seems to be intentionally played for laughs.

I mean, I can’t imagine any meeting by sane and intelligent movie creatives where they sat around and said ‘Okay, we’ve got this character of a middle-aged English nurse, a real battleaxe of a woman, who shall we get to play her?’ and the choice of – wait for it – Hugo Weaving could possibly be intended seriously. The same probably goes for Ben Whishaw’s appearance as Hugh Grant’s wife. Even so, I honestly have no idea what to make of Tom Hanks’ brief turn as a thuggish, shaven-headed  author, where he employs an accent that honestly defies description – is it meant to be Cockney? Irish? Pakistani? I truly had no idea.

Of course, this also leads the film into dodgy territory, as many of the cast pop up in – er – trans-ethnic makeup at various points. Halle Berry probably gets the medal here, playing characters of four different ethnicities and both genders at different points in the movie. The film never seems to be doing so for intentionally comic effect, and no-one actually blacks up, but even so I think this is probably questionable, and definitely adds to the vaulting weirdness of the experience.

That said, taken on their own terms and overlooking all the fun and games with casting and makeup, several of the stories work really well on their own terms – as vignettes, if nothing else. Being the kind of person that I am, I most enjoyed the Wachowski’s attempts at industrial dystopian and post-apocalyptic SF, which are visually superb and include some brilliantly-mounted action, but the Broadbent-led section is also hugely entertaining and the most comedic in tone. One thing you can say about Cloud Atlas is that its genre-hopping and tone-switching mean that it really does have something for everyone somewhere in its running time.

I had feared this movie might be pretentious and smug, but I didn’t find this at all – I found it to be terrific entertainment, with literally never a dull moment even across three hours. If it had been an hour longer I think I would still have thoroughly enjoyed it. It is by no means perfect, either in the specifics of the individual stories (the degenerate argot used by Hanks in the post-apocalypse really needs subtitles), or in its wider message: I still have no idea what the film as a whole is trying to suggest, beyond a vague universality in human aspirations and the challenges we face across the ages. Nevertheless, the insane ambition and vaulting oddness of Cloud Atlas, together with the fact that this is a technically superb film, combine to make it one of the most unexpectedly enjoyable experiences I’ve had at the cinema in ages. An early contender for film of the year.

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