Jupiter Descending

Jupiter Ascending is currently playing in theaters

Jupiter Ascending

 

Jupiter Ascending (2015) – Rated PG-13

In a bright and colorful future, a young destitute caretaker gets targeted by a ruthless son of a powerful family that live on a planet in need of a new heir, so she travels with a genetically engineered warrior to the planet in order to stop his tyrant reign.”

I was blown away by Jupiter Ascending. Sadly it was not in a good way. I adored the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas and though it was one of the best films of that year even if the science fiction segments were the weakest link. This caused me to have hope for Jupiter Ascending and yet, where Cloud Atlas was imaginative and heartfelt, Jupiter Ascending is an utter mess.

We begin with the beautiful Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) scrubbing toilets. I mention beautiful because she in no way appears to be the destitute maid/cleaner that the movie would like to portray her as (and that toilet didn’t really need cleaning). This is the equivalent of the high school movies about the ugly duckling who takes off her glasses, lets down her hair, and is suddenly the prom queen.

Intergalactic Skate Boy (TM) Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) arrives to rescue her from mysterious space baddies out to capture or kill her. The Wachowskis clearly wanted to make this a Silver Surfer movie but lacked the rights. Finding himself outnumbered, he seeks help from former colleague, Stinger Exposition (Sean Bean).

Jupiter finds that she is the reincarnated heir to the galactic throne currently shared by three siblings, Female Exposition Abrasax (Tuppence Middleton), Male Exposition Abrasax (Douglas Booth), and Screaming Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne). As you might guess from my description, there is a LOT of exposition in the movie.

The movie flow is Exposition dump – action sequence – pretty scenery – rinse and repeat. There is actually only one scene that does not fit that mold and is so out of place, it feels lifted from another movie. That sequence is a wonderful Catch-22 involving the paperwork behind Jupiter’s birthright. It is surreal and good for a laugh. The problem with it is that it IS actually lifted from another film, Brazil to be precise. The Wachowskis can call it an homage though because they stuck Terry Gilliam in it with a wink and a nod.

I applaud them for replacing the Bondian unnecessarily slow dipping mechanism with an unnecessarily slow rising mechanism. Beam me up, Scotty but feel free to take several minutes to do so. I’m surprised that the characters didn’t look at their watches or tap their feet as they rose.

Also the villains are confounded by Caine’s shoes but never take them away from him. Why not let him keep a gun, too? Hilariously, in the third act (VERY VAGUE SPOILER), it appears that the villain has honestly, and ridiculously, chosen to live in what amounts to a glass house. How this person survived so long is a question for the ages.

The movie is very pretty but is effectively Cloud Atlas’ Matrix Revolutions. You know, the two Matrix sequels made by the Wachowskis that made you question whether The Matrix was actually as brilliant as you thought it was.

 

Blue Ruin of Some Cleanskin

Blue Ruin and Cleanskin are currently available on instant Netflix

Blue Ruin

 

Blue Ruin (2013) – Rated R

Bad news from the past unhinges vagabond Dwight Evans, sending him on a mission of bloody retribution that takes him to his childhood hometown.

“I’d forgive you if you were crazy, but you’re not. You’re weak.”

This is writer/director/cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier’s sophomore production. He had previously made Murder Party in 2007. I have not seen that film but Blue Ruin is a great study of what can be done with a good idea, even on a tiny budget.

There is a great economy of storytelling in Blue Ruin. In just the first few minutes, Saulnier and Macon Blair, who plays Dwight, convey a pretty accurate picture of a homeless beachcomber. Dwight receives the news that the murderer of his parents is being released from prison.

What follows is something I won’t go into detail about as the turns are an absolute delight. I will just say that this is a fairly interesting and somewhat realistic look at the directions revenge can go.

Watch it – you won’t be disappointed.

Cleanskin

 

Cleanskin (2012) – Not rated

A burned-out secret service agent must pursue a deadly suicide bomber and dismantle a terrorist cell that is wreaking havoc on the streets of London.”

Does Sean Bean, aka The Human Spoiler, die in this movie too? Sorry, I’ll leave that for you to find out.

Cleanskin is a wonderfully violent terrorist thriller that, unlike American Sniper, assumes that both sides are human. More importantly the main characters on each side are being constantly manipulated and lied to, leading to some pretty thorough disillusionment.

Obviously the credit for this film goes to Hadi Hajaig as he is not only the director and producer but also the writer and editor. The film and script are very intelligent. The story is split pretty equally between Ash (Abhin Galeya), a muslim student who keeps getting in deeper and deeper with some radicals, and Ewan (Sean Bean), our burned-out agent hunting down the terrorists.

Abhin Galeya is quite good as our angry young idealist. Sean Bean is marvelous as always and it is nice to see him in a lead role. It is also nice to see Charlotte Rampling as Charlotte, Ewan’s boss.

Cleanskin has a very exciting climax and an even more interesting denouement. Don’t worry about looking up the title, they explain it towards the end. Cleanskin actually seems to be what 24: Live Another Day should have been, albeit British.

Silent Hill: Revelation

Silent Hill: Revelation is currently available on instant Netflix.

One-Line Review: The only Revelation is just how bad this film is.

Silent Hill: RevelationSilent Hill: Revelation (2012) – Rated R

“Haunted by shocking nightmares and unsettled by her father’s disappearance just before her 18th birthday, Heather goes on the hunt for him — and discovers a disturbing truth about her own identity in this suspenseful sequel to the hit horror flick.”

Never having played the Silent Hill franchise, I am unable to speak to how faithful the movies are. Christophe Gans, who made the excellent French thriller, Brotherhood of the Wolf, was tapped to direct Silent Hill (2006). He, together with writer Roger Avary, turned out a savvy, surreal horror movie that, while it often lacked sense, offered some seriously creepy visuals and some spooky thrills.

Roger Avary was supposed to write Silent Hill: Revelation as well but went to jail for vehicular manslaughter. The project sat in limbo for a while until the studio hired Michael J. Bassett (Solomon Kane) to write and direct. As you can see from the poster, Silent Hill: Revelation plays up the 3D angle (which is of course missing from Netflix).

The 3D aspect is in your face throughout the film, making Silent Hill: Revelation more of a gimmick than a movie. Perhaps this worked better at the theater in 3D but on a home screen, it looks really cheap and shoddy.

The special effects are completely balanced. For every creepy nurse or pyramid-head, there is a poor effect that takes you out of the picture. Ideas that were great on paper, mostly the ones involving mannequins, are carried out ineptly. imdb states that most of the effects were practical with only a little CGI. My guess would be that the ineptness/cheapness stems from the CGI side and the 3D effects.

Performances are just okay. Adelaide Clemens and Kit Harrington are the leads but Radha Mitchell and Sean Bean return from the first film and are joined by genre veterans Malcolm McDowell and Carrie-Anne Moss. Unfortunately the bigger names appear only briefly (particularly Radha Mitchell) and have little impact. It was amusing to watch Sean Bean meet his normal fate almost immediately (albeit in a dream sequence).

Even the scenes that work here, such as the nurse sequence, leave you thinking that it could have been handled better. It’s often said of actors that they are just there collecting a paycheck but here that appears to be true of the director.

 

Age of Heroes – Special Forces week

Age of Heroes is currently available on instant Netflix

Age of HeroesAge of Heroes (2011) – Not rated

“Inspired by real events, this thriller follows members of Britain’s newly formed No. 30 Commando unit as they infiltrate Nazi-occupied Norway, intent on stealing German radar technology that could prove crucial to the Allied war effort.”

“You are here because you are scum.”

Well I could start this off with, “they don’t make them like this any more” but outright theft/homage/pastiche would be more accurate. Pulling prisoners for a special mission comes from The Dirty Dozen. The training instructor character and dialogue are ripped straight from The Wild Geese (1978 – also available on instant Netflix).

Age of Heroes seems a deliberate throwback to 60s and 70s WWII caper movies. We get an introduction to our characters, a prison scene, training scenes (not a montage thankfully), spend some time on the plan, and finally jump into action for the second half of the film.

For humor value, I’d like to see one of these movies where everything went according to plan. Here things go hilariously awry very quickly. Yes, they land in the wrong place. Yes, they suffer casualties before hitting the ground. Yes, they lose much of their kit. Yes, the radio is the first item to go missing. Naturally, that is just the beginning of their problems.

Sean Bean is 52 here but they’ve gone to a great deal of trouble to ‘young’ him up. He is his usual tough, gruff self but the star of the film is actually Danny Dyer as Cpl. Bob Rains. Cpl. Rains was, of course, in prison for insubordination. Danny Dyer is quite good as the lead – a big change from his normal supporting roles. Izabella Miko does a nice job as Jensen, the commando’s enigmatic contact.

The Norwegian landscape is quite beautiful and filmed to good effect. Age of Heroes doesn’t have a Hollywood budget but does well except for the flight scenes and a particular explosion. Fight scenes are exciting and the film is briskly paced. Age of Heroes is not a classic but is an enjoyable WWII caper film.

People Watch: Look for James D’Arcy playing a real-life Lt. Commander Ian Fleming (yes the author of the James Bond novels). He recently did a great job impersonating Anthony Perkins in Hitchcock.

 

Bravo Two Zero – Special Forces week

Bravo Two Zero is currently available on instant Netflix.

Bravo Two ZeroBravo Two Zero (1999) – Rated R

“Based on Sgt. Andy McNab’s riveting book of the same name, this dramatic BBC miniseries tells the true story of a Special Operations mission to destroy Saddam Hussein’s SCUD missile bases during the Gulf War in 1991. The eight-man patrol, the most decorated in the British service since the Boer War, faced communications breakdowns, enemy attack and freezing weather without adequate gear. Conditions were so severe, not all of them returned.”

“Under the Geneva Convention, I’m afraid I cannot answer that question.” – “Fool! We are not in Geneva.”

First I have to confess that I really like Sean Bean and he is never better than when he is playing a fantasy warrior. He has played the emotionally torn Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring, the righteous but unyielding Ned Stark in Game of Thrones, and the naive yet devious Ulrich in the underrated Black Death. All are the same archetype yet all are very different individually – that is the mark of a good actor. This week I’ll get to see Sean Bean as a more modern warrior in this and Age of Heroes.

Bravo Two Zero wastes little time as the team is called up and, after a few minutes, moves straight into the planning phase of the mission. Bravo Two Zero is based on the book of the same name by Andy McNab (played by Sean Bean in the film). It tells the true story of an eight-man SAS team dropped behind-the-lines in Iraq with 209-lb packs (yes, being a former hiker, that was the detail that impressed me.).

The script has plenty of wonderful military detail without becoming too bogged down in jargon. Since Bravo Two Zero is autobiographical, we get a lot of Sean Bean voice-over. It might have played a little more dramatically without but who am I to quibble. Almost the entire story is told from McNab’s point of view. While this is laudable, it leaves out some very interesting events that are concurrent but not witnessed by McNab.

Author’s Note: In addition to McNab’s book, other people involved wrote somewhat conflicting accounts of this patrol. The Real Bravo Two Zero, Eye of the Storm, Soldier Five, and The One That Got Away.

I really liked that the BBC production managed to trod the fine line between showing torture and reveling in it. Some of the scenes are, of course, hard to watch. The fire fights could have used a little Hollywood punch but were quite adequate. Bigger battles use Gulf War file footage.

All in all, Bravo Two Zero is a little dry but a worthwhile watch.

Awesome Game of Thrones – HBO No Go

We just finished the first season box set of A Game of Thrones last night. Unfortunately neither this nor any other HBO series is available on instant Netflix.

Game of Thrones

“Originally airing on HBO, this live-action fantasy series — based on George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels — charts the violent efforts of competing noble families to gain control of the vacant Westeros throne.”

You might think from the cover shot that Sean Bean is the star of the series. If there is a central character then yes Sean Bean’s Eddard Stark is that character but the brilliance of Game of Thrones lies in the depth and breadth of its ensemble cast. Everyone is really good, from veterans like Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister) and Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister) to newcomers Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark) and Maisie Williams (Arya Stark).

The standout here is Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister. He is an absolute delight and steals every scene he is in. He won an Emmy for his role. The fabulous clockwork map titles also won an Emmy and the series was nominated for eleven others.

Game of Thrones is a fantasy in the same sense that the new Battlestar Galactica was science fiction – it is true but it’s more of a milieu to discuss other topics. For Game of Thrones, this is a showcase  for politics. King Baratheon is obviously modeled heavily on King Henry VIII. There are a number of other historical parallels such as the Borgias and the Mongols, though each of George R.R. Martin’s characters are fully fleshed. My wife, who has read the first book, said that the show is accurate albeit with some compression of events.

The set design, writing, direction and cinematography are outstanding. Pacing is somewhat stately – this is definitely NOT a hack and slash, in spite of having recent Conan the Barbarian, Jason Momoa, playing Khal Drogo. Boy does that guy have muscles. The fantasy elements are very light but fit well into the storyline.

I watched this on Blu-Ray and the picture quality was phenomenal. This is one of the best looking Blu-Rays I own. If you still get discs from Netflix then I highly recommend putting this in your queue. I would really like HBO to offer HBO Go as a stand-alone service. I’m certainly not paying for cable TV and almost another $30 on top of that for HBO. Alternately I’d like to see a similar service from Showtime. Or perhaps just an ability to purchase individual episodes just after they air like I do with Walking Dead from Amazon.

Black Death – Christopher Smith

 

Black Death (2010) – Rated R

“Sean Bean stars in this historically rooted horror-thriller as Ulric, a church-appointed knight in the age of the Bubonic Plague’s first wave who’s tasked with investigating rumors of a woman (Carice van Houten) who can bring the dead back to life. A young monk (Eddie Redmayne) named Osmund is aiding Ulric on his quest to root out the necromancer — and to determine whether or not she has ties to Satan.

“The fumes of the dead hung in the air like poison. The plague, more cruel and pitiless than war, descended upon us. A pestilence that would leave half our kingdom dead.”

I love the prologue to this movie. As it goes on about demons and witchcraft carrying the plague, you see a rat scurrying about – the true carrier of the plague. Okay it was actually fleas but that is a much harder visual to pull off.

I was lucky enough to catch Black Death in the theater at a promotional showing for Actionfest 2011. I had really been looking forward to it since every Christopher Smith film I’ve seen has been better than the last. He did the underground horror Creep, the horror comedy Severance, and the horror sci-fi Triangle – all of which I’ve enjoyed.

The only trepidation I had was that this was coming out at the same time as the extremely similarly themed Season of the Witch. Here is the Netflix description for Season – “In 14th-century Europe, a courageous knight leads a group of weary warriors across impossibly treacherous terrain in order to transport a suspected witch believed to be responsible for spreading the devastating Black Plague.

Now Hollywood often has sets of movies like that (Deep Impact, Armageddon) and often one is very good (Dangerous Liaisons) and the other not so much (Valmont). In fact next year we get no less than three Snow White adaptations, not counting the currently popular TV show Once Upon a Time.

Not only are both films about the possibility of a witch causing the Black Plague but both feature an action star as a knight (Sean Bean, Nicolas Cage) with an innocent religious sidekick. Both have former 70s horror stars as high level clergymen (David Warner, Christopher Lee). To be fair Black Death was done and released in the UK well before Season of the Witch but I think it got short shrift here in the States because of Season of the Witch. As before one is very good (Black Death), the other not so much (Season of the Witch).

I found the script to be excellent and a nice bit of a history lesson vis a vis early Christianity (though my wife thought the script beat you over the head with it – my head must be thicker). The one problem is that there is an unbelievably ridiculous plot twist that almost ruins the movie. It’s a case of Ulric’s party doing something they would never do simply because it says so in the script.

I loved a lot of the small touches. One of my favorites was how not everyone rode on horseback. The company is not comprised of a troop of knights but of a knight with a number of men-at-arms. The men are pretty rough and tumble with a fair number of scars and functional rather than pretty armor. Combat, like life, is nasty, brutish and short.

People Watch: Look for Black Adder comedian Tim McInnerny in a far more serious role as Hob. Also not only did Sean Bean go on to appear in Game of Thrones but so did Carice van Houten. In this she plays Langiva (no character name should have an anagram like that) and in Game of Thrones, she is Melisandre. Also Emun Elliott who is Swire here is Marillion in Game of Thrones.

Ronin – Robert De Niro week

This week I’d like to celebrate one of our great American actors – Robert De Niro. Netflix has a slew of instant movies featuring De Niro including Ronin.

Ronin

WATCH: Ronin (1998) – Rated R for strong violence and language.

“Director John Frankenheimer helmed this action thriller at full throttle. A briefcase with undisclosed contents — sought by Irish terrorists and the Russian mob — makes its way into criminals’ hands. An Irish liaison (Natascha McElhone) assembles a squad of mercenaries, or ronin, charged with the thorny task of recovering the case. But the team, led by an ex-CIA agent (Robert De Niro), mistrusts one another. Can they accomplish their mission?”

“You’re scared!” – “Of course I’m scared. You think I’m reluctant because I’m happy?”

Wow! I’d say that they don’t make action thrillers like this any more but the French still do (Taken is marvelous). Ronin is an exceptional thriller with REAL car chases. There are two very good car chases and one AMAZING car chase (Formula 1 driver Jean-Pierre Jarier was one of the drivers) in this film. No green screen, only practical effects, no spastic jump cuts, no inappropriately sped-up photography – this movie is a real throwback.

Director John Frankenheimer crafts a marvelous movie here. He strikes a good balance between action, acting and exposition. He was responsible for a slew of classic 60s and 70s thrillers including The Manchurian Candidate, Black Sunday, The Train and Seven Days in May. It is sad to say that he directed only one more feature film after this one – the execrable Reindeer Games.

The cast is wonderful. Robert De Niro dynamically plays an incredibly competent freelance operative and you can’t help but take him seriously through the whole film. Jean Reno does a good job of underplaying here and complements De Niro well. Natascha McElhone plays a very strong female – thankfully not your standard damsel in distress. The rest of the ensemble cast (Sean Bean, Stellan Skarsgard, and Skipp Sudduth) is excellent as are Michael Lonsdale and Jonathan Pryce in smaller roles.

Ronin is excellent and I highly recommend it if you enjoy an action thriller with some intelligence, good acting and character development.

People Watch: Yes that really is Olympic star Katarina Witt as Natacha.