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Column Fri Feb 06 2015

Jupiter Ascending, Seventh Son, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, Red Army & Girlhood


Jupiter Ascending

I don't know if I've always felt this way, but I'm certain that of late I am most forcefully drawn to science fiction, fantasy and horror that does a thorough and impressive job of world building. I'm not just talking about building CG environments; I mean establishing a logic, rules and other elements that filmmakers use to nest their story — however wacky — and take me someplace that doesn't feel wholly derivative and show me something that maybe I've never seen, or at least never seen does quite like they do it. Whether they are working in worlds built from other source material (Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas) or ones they built from scratch (The Matrix trilogy and now Jupiter Ascending), The Wachowskis — Chicago's own Lana and Andy — are at the top of their game of dropping us into a place and situation and having us learn where we are and what can happen as we go. And it always sucks me in completely and makes me want to live there forever.

With Jupiter Ascending, the Wachowskis are actually using a modified version of the Matrix template. For reasons we don't always understand, everybody wants to get their hands on a young woman of Russian descent named Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), whose greatest accomplishment to date is making a little money working with her mother as a cleaning lady. Her father died when she was very young, but somehow it is discovered that Jupiter is the living reincarnation of a long-dead alien queen, whose children — Balem (current Oscar-nominee Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth), and Kalique (Tuppance Middleton) — are in a bitter squabble over who will run certain corners of the universe.

When it's discovered that the queen may have returned in the body of this earthling, apparently that means control of Earth — which is for some reason important to these folks — would revert back to her, so the children attempt various means of wrenching control in their favor. Some simply want her dead, while others try to woo her and get her to sign over her control to them through various devious means. This controlling alien race are apparently real sticklers for bureaucracy and doing things by the book, so simply taking control of Earth doesn't appear to be an option. To protect Jupiter from being slaughtered, a genetically engineered, human-wolf-like hybrid creature named Caine (Channing Tatum) comes to Earth to protect her and get her somewhere safe, while various siblings and their vast array of alien underlings attempt to grab her as well.

For a good portion of the first part of Jupiter Ascending, the world on display is Chicago, which is shot so beautifully and such an array of high-altitude angles, it looked like a city I hadn't seen before let alone lived in for nearly 30 years. In a far more elegant but no less impressive way than was done in the third Transformers movie, watching alien spaceships zip between Chicago's stunning skyline, crashing into buildings, using familiar landmarks as their battlefield makes you feel proud to be here. But even for non-residents, the camera work and technical splendor that goes into making these ships (which at times resemble certain exotic fish) exist among the city's structures and geography is beyond impressive.

There's also just a general sense of playfulness and creativity that permeates every sequence in Jupiter Ascending. The writer-directors are two lifelong genre fanatics doing what they love best: creating characters and situations and an interplanetary hierarchy that are all tossed at each other to see which survive. There are a whole lot of action sequences, often somehow involving Caine's gravity boots; alien tech and massive cities that will absolutely need to be paused and examined in detail when the Blu-ray arrives; the welcome presence of Sean Bean as Stinger (he's got bits of bee in him), an old comrade of Caine who assists in getting Jupiter off earth; and an extended sequence that is a clear nod to the red-tape aspects Terry Gilliam's Brazil, complete with a cameo that pretty much hits the nail on the head.

People have made fun of Redmayne's whispery delivery, punctuated by the occasional yelling at full volume, but I found his performance intentionally hilarious. When you perceive yourself to be the most powerful man in the universe, you don't have to raise your voice above a whisper (which should not be confused with mumbling; Redmayne certainly does not mumble). And if your exact orders aren't followed to the letter, then and only then do you raise your voice. There are more problematic performances in Jupiter Ascending than Redmayne's, beginning with the foppish Booth as Titus. As menacing as he attempts to be, I never found him a credible threat in the slightest.

Jupiter Ascending is about embracing the freedoms that the science-fiction genre affords filmmakers, few of whom actually take advantage of it. But the Wachowskis aren't just your run-of-the-mill filmmakers. They possess a proven gift for getting the details right, sometimes at the expense of the big picture, but not in this case. There are underlying messages and social commentary about consumerism, the destructive lengths people will go to for certain natural resources, and of course an almost fetishistic embracing of bureaucratic culture. And most of it works.

The unwarranted emphasis on Jupiter's extended family never really amounts to much, besides failed attempts at humor. And there is so many characters with ulterior motives willing to double cross Jupiter at a moment's notice that I essentially lost track and stopped caring, opting instead to trust no one, which is rarely a fun way to watch a movie. But if you walk into Jupiter Ascending with a willingness to be taken on a ride — a trippy, weird, sometimes ridiculous ride — I truly believe you'll have a blast, the kind that the Wachowskis tend to make possible time and time again.

Seventh Son

On the shelf for a couple of years, Seventh Son is the latest in a series of miserable mish-mash of fantasy tropes Jeff Bridges has made recently (Tron: Legacy, R.I.P.D., The Giver) in which he seems intent on stripping away all the goodwill he's built up among movie lovers over the decades and actively making us hate his mumbly ass. Yet again playing a guru mentor to a much younger, handsome apprentice type, Bridges is a "spook" named Master Gregory, whose mission it is to tame or destroy all manner of dark forces in the land and pass down this knowledge to his young charge.

Ben Barnes (Prince Caspian in the Chronicles of Narnia movies) is Tom Ward, the seventh son of a seventh son — a designation that apparently is best suited to become a spook — and the latest in a long, ill-fated line of apprentices that Gregory has snatched up, trained and lost to evil witches, ghosts, monsters, dragons and whatever else the filmmakers felt like tossing in the kitchen sink of nasty creatures that terrorize this unspecified place and time. The film opens with the meanest witch of all, Mother Malkin (an appropriately goth'ed-out Julianne Moore) escaping from her long imprisonment by Gregory and killing his previous trainee (Kit Harington, in what essentially amounts to a cameo).

Malkin quickly gathers her evil minions, which includes her witch sister (Antje Traue), her half-witch daughter Alice (Swedish actress Alicia Vikander from A Royal Affair) and guys who can transform into mean animals, played by the likes of Jason Scott Lee and Djimon Hounsou. Both Malkin and her sister can transform into dragons because, I'm assuming, dragons were still hip when they started shooting this movie 27 years ago. Like all master-apprentice movie scenarios, the young one fails and fails and is reckless and emotional and can't perfect the use of weapons he's given, until miraculously, he gets it all. He also has no problem putting his small team (which includes a snaggle-toothed beast of burden named Tusk, played by John DeSantis) in danger by befriending and eventually falling in love with Alice — because the only thing missing from this steaming pile of a movie is a love story.

Featuring a fairly credible cast and directed by Oscar-nominated Russian filmmaker Sergey Bodrov (Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan, Prisoner of the Mountains) in what I believe is his first English-language movie, I was willing to go along with Seventh Son if there had been even a spark of creativity or originality. The creature designs and battle sequences are a confusing mess of swordplay, bad special effects, clanging metal, spirits, exploding witches and Bridges' odd facial hair. It's real easy to lose interest in this laughable, wobbly plot and the even more embarrassing performances from Bridges and Moore.

The entire time I was watching this, I couldn't help but think that I'd seen something remarkably similar not long ago, and then it hit me that certain plot elements were not unlike the highly forgettable 2011 Nicolas Cage vehicle Season of the Witch, and then my mind found other places to wander as Seventh Son wound down. If you need further proof that February has become the new primary dumping ground for the studios, here you have it. This one is fairly appalling.

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water

It's hard to believe that the The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is more than 10 years old, not to mention that the original cartoon series is more than 15 years old, but the whole undersea gang are still going strong. I'll admit, my exposure to the SpongeBob phenomenon has been limited, but you've have to be living under a coral reef not to have stumbled upon the occasional episode. Even though I loved the first film immensely, it was basically my introduction to the whole SpongeBob world.

If there is anything bad to say about the latest cinematic effort, The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, it's that there's nothing particularly special about it, despite the inclusion of a big "payoff" involving the characters all coming to the surface world and becoming a part of a live-action sequence in which the characters are CG creations meant to approximate the look of three-dimensional characters. An additional bit where all of the animated characters become superhero versions of themselves seems a tad desperate and unnecessary. Truth be told, the standard-issue animated material is funnier and far more inventive, as it always has been.

The story should sound familiar to SpongeBob fans. SpongeBob (faithfully voiced by Tom Kenny) is working for Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown) at his burger joint, the Krabby Patty. The villainous Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) is still trying to steal Krabs' secret formula, but this time he's got a little help from an unknown entity that turns out to be the surface-dwelling pirate Burger-Beard (Antonio Banderas), who runs a food truck serving burgers. Since the undersea community of Bikini Bottom are addicted to Krabby Pattys and somehow no one has actually memorized the secret formula, it isn't long before the entire town falls into Mad Max-like End of Days. (Says one character: "Welcome to the Apocalypse. Hope you like leather.")

Watching series regulars like Mr. Krabs and Patrick Star (Bill Fagerbakke) turn into roving, jonesing maniacs is the film's true highlight. Going to the surface is a great visual gag, but I'm not sure it's particularly funny. Director and longtime show producer Paul Tibbitt has a real gift for keeping things moving, keeping the jokes flying, and striking a great balance between humor for kids and material only adults are going to process. The film honestly doesn't benefit from or take advantage of the 3-D experience, but it certainly isn't distracting.

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water relies a little too much on the gimmick of the characters entering the human world, and doesn't have the comedic zing I remember from the first film or from some of the show's best episodes. But that doesn't make it a bad film at all. It's highly watchable, exceedingly entertaining, and still makes me enter a state of giggle that is hard to shake for 90 minutes. Trust me when I say, you could do a lot worse in the "family friendly" film department.

Red Army

I'm not a die-hard hockey fanatic nor an expert in Soviet politics under communist rule, but there's something absolutely fun and fascinating about a film that heavily incorporates both into the story of the legendary Soviet ice hockey team known as the Red Army. Since I am a red-blooded American who was alive and aware in 1980, I watched the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid when this team somehow lost to the American team for the gold medal. After watching Red Army, I now realize that if those two teams played nine more times, the Soviets would have absolutely won all nine of those matches easily.

From director Gabe Polsky (who co-directed 2012's The Motel Life), Red Army collects a treasure trove of archival footage, most of which was acquired in present-day Russia, and features new interviews with the Soviet players (most of whom came to the United States when the Iron Curtain fell), including team captain Slava Fetisov, who was adamantly against the removal of long-time coach Anatoli Tarasov in favor of a state-sanctioned lackey, whom the core five teammates essentially ignored and continued the drills and practices established by Tarasov. For a time, almost shockingly, Fetisov (who played for a time for the Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils) returned to Russia to be the Minster of Sport under Putin. And much to the director's amusement, Fetisov has a healthy disrespect for Polsky during the interview process.

The film chronicles a style of training and play that simply didn't exist in sports outside of the Soviet Union. From a young age, young men (boys, really) were isolated and trained not just in hockey, but in ballet, chess and a host of psychological exercises that sharpened their minds as well as their bodies. If you are a hockey enthusiast, you've probably never seen team play the way the Red Army did. In most North American team sports, playing as a unit is encouraged but somehow individual effort is what most often gets recognized. But the Red Army played with a single mind, resulting in plays and strategies that had simply never been seen on the ice prior to the occasional game played in the Western world — often in Canada.

Red Army is a thorough examination of the techniques, politics and eventual collapse of this remarkable team, and gives us some insight into where the players landed in the years after the team disbanded and how difficult is was for those who went on to play in America to adapt to our rather sloppy, selfish way of playing. They were national heroes to the citizens of the Soviet Union and wrenches in the works to the Soviet leadership and KGB, as they gained in popularity and influence. I promise you, rare is the sports documentary as intriguing and informative as Red Army. Seek is out if it comes to theater near you, even if it involves you strapping on skates to do so. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Red Army director (and Chicago native) Gabe Polsky.

Girlhood (Band de Filles)

With three features to her credit, I think it's safe to say that French writer-director Céline Sciamma has an affinity for making films about young, remarkable women attempting to figure out who they are and their place in the world. Beginning with Water Lilies and Tomboy, and continuing into her latest work, Girlhood, Sciamma gives us protagonists living in environments hostile to their way of living. In the case of Girlhood, we follow the ever-changing world of Marieme (newcomer Karidja Touré), who is a loner 16-year-old who looks after her younger siblings, while her abusive older brother comes and goes as he pleases from their cramped apartment in a Paris housing project. Her mother is always working, so we almost never acknowledge her as a presence or factor in their lives.

Marieme spends the film bouncing from girls football player to caretaker to member of a girl gang (led by the electrifying Lady, played by Assa Sylla) to loving, secret girlfriend (to her brother's best friend) and ends the film as a key member of a drug-dealing crew. She's a chameleon, capable of changing her look and demeanor to suit the situation and to improve her chances of survival. She shifts from tough jock to breathtaking beauty to butch moll in the space of the brief time we glimpse her life.

More than simply a coming-of-age story, Girlhood traces a young woman whose adulthood is unceremoniously thrust upon her. The film is gritty, abrasive, sometimes violent and difficult to watch, but it captures an economic reality in urban France that is strikingly similar to its American inner-city counterpart. There are moments of joy and celebration, but there's never any doubt that the lives of these young women is on the verge of taking a turn for the worse very soon. Marieme's search for person redemption and safety is a long and painful one, and director Sciamma takes us through an authentic, perilous account of her journey. Girlhood is a remarkable, necessary tale of survival, the likes of which we rarely see on any size screen. The films opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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