Jupiter Ascending

February 6, 2015 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Eddie Redmayne
Directed by: The Wachowskis (“The Matrix”)
Written by: 
The Wachowskis (“The Matrix”)

When the Wachowskis released “The Matrix” in 1999, they created a space for themselves in the big-budget movie landscape. With an original idea and modest budget, the imaginative sci-fi thriller won four Oscars (yes, technical awards still count) and gave the Wachowskis good will in the Hollywood world. Then an interesting thing happened…The Wachowskis became divisive. The 2nd and 3rd entries in “The Matrix” franchise were not as beloved as the first and while “Speed Racer” was pretty universally disliked, “Cloud Atlas” was one of the most polarizing films of the last few years with equal parts love and hatred. One thing that can’t be contested, however, is the post-“Matrix” box office performance with “Speed Racer” and “Cloud Atlas” making $44 and $27 million domestic respectively, and both with a $100 million dollar budget. And yet here we are, over 15 years removed from “The Matrix,” with the Wachowskis being handed over $175 million for their latest sci-fi entry “Jupiter Ascending,” despite their recent box office and critical disappointments. At this point, perhaps Warner Brothers should find a better place to dump their money.

As a maid in Chicago, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) sees her life change when she is rescued by Caine (Channing Tatum), a genetically mutated, ex-military hunter, and taken to another planet where she finds out she might be the heir to controlling the planet Earth. Caine and others must fight to keep her safe from a power hungry villain (Eddie Redmayne) keen on restoring his ownership of Earth, which he believes to be his.

The first half of “Jupiter Ascending” feels like it sets a record for the largest amount of expository dialogue in a single film. Nearly every time Kunis’ character speaks in the first act or two, it is to ask a question about why, where or what something is. This leads to a series of inane responses by a rambling Tatum who spouts futuristic mumbo-jumbo that, not so shockingly, is mostly inconsequential to the plot or anything that happens thereinafter. The Wachowskis essentially use this exposition and introduction of a bunch of characters to build their own unique world, which is met with middling results.

Visually, the world they create can be stunning with great set pieces and truly impressive special effects. There’s a chase scene that happens in downtown Chicago where the duo get to flex their free flowing camera and sequence choreography muscles that is particularly exhilarating and a reminder of how unique The Wachowskis can be. Yet everything seems to be undone by the innate silliness of everything else.

Many characters in the film are spliced with DNA of other species including Tatum with a wolf, Sean Bean’s character with a bee, and an unintentionally (I think?) hilarious Elephant-spliced pilot. But it is more than just character design. One of the tools that Caine uses are gravity defying boots that allow him to surf the sky. The problem is that whenever Tatum is utilizing the boots, he moves exactly like one moves when rollerblading, making for hilarious scenes of Tatum “skating” through mid-air or around corners. It is funny every time it happens, which is a lot.

Even looking past some of the goofier elements, the screenplay is repetitive and convoluted, with the Wachowskis trying to pack in so many different details to a story and world that isn’t all that interesting to begin with. Mix that with a bunch of actors who feel completely out of place, especially a particularly dreadful Redmayne, and you get a complete disaster of a film. There’s some unintentional comedy gold here as well as a few action sequences that are legitimately impressive and fun that can help boost entertainment value, but not nearly enough to make “Jupiter Ascending” a journey worth taking.

Third Person

July 11, 2014 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Liam Neeson, Mila Kunis, Adrien Brody
Directed by: Paul Haggis (“Crash”)
Written by: Paul Haggis (“Crash”)

Writer and director Paul Haggis is no stranger to the narrative device of balancing multiple storylines and character threads and attempting to bring them together physically or thematically. It did, after all, win him a Best Picture Oscar with “Crash,” an award that remains possibly the biggest Oscar stunner of the modern era. With “Third Person,” Haggis, who has only directed two films since 2004, returns to juggling parallel narratives only to clumsily drop them all at once.

“Third Person” tells the tale of three relationships in different stages and circumstances. In Paris, a writer (Liam Neeson) has a complicated relationship with a mistress (Olivia Wilde); in Italy, a businessman (Adrien Brody) has a run-in with a woman (Moran Atias) who is trying to get her daughter back; and in New York, a woman (Mila Kunis) is trying to regain custody of her child from her husband (James Franco) after a serious incident.

Though the screenplay constantly weighs them down, some of the actors of the impressive ensemble are able to turn in good performances in spots. The most consistent of the bunch is Neeson, who finally gets a role where he isn’t kicking ass on air, land or sea. It isn’t exactly nuanced, but it’s one of the least annoying characters in the film. Brody for his part is also fine, particularly where he gets to rattle off a couple of one-liners in the film’s opening. Wilde and Kunis, for their parts, get to show off some chops, though their characters are written tremendously weak. They both get to tap into emotional breakdowns and while their reasons might be absurd (especially in the case of Wilde) they are able to show dramatic range.

The aforementioned characters, however, are just a fraction of the giant roster of people who take up screen time. It becomes a serious issue as Haggis so overstuffs the film that there are often gaps where the audience doesn’t see a certain character for 15-20 minutes – not that the audience would miss any of them. Frankly, the design of the characters and their relationships with one another seems to elicit emotions ranging from indifference to strong indifference.

As the film trudges on, the screenplay and story wither into dust as plot points grow in banality and Haggis runs through the cliché handbook to carry the film forward. The big “twist” and conceit of the film is painfully obvious early on and, for whatever reason, Haggis feels the need to take over two hours to get there. When it finally happens and Haggis pulls the rug from under his audience, it is almost insulting in its execution. If there was anything character or story-wise worth becoming invested in, the last 15 minutes of “Third Person,” including a completely nonsensical, lazy ending, would have been an offense worthy of heaving objects at the screen.

“Third Person” doesn’t really turn into a disaster until its final act. The rest is bad, but generally watchable and mostly inoffensive. In what is becoming a troublesome trend, screenwriters and directors are squandering A-list ensemble casts at an alarming rate. For Haggis, “Third Person” takes a talented cast but a tired idea and runs it straight into the ground. If there is any lesson to be learned from “Third Person,” it is that sometimes less is more.

Oz the Great and Powerful

March 8, 2013 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams
Directed by: Sam Raimi (the “Spider-Man” trilogy)
Written by: Mitchell Kapner (“The Whole Nine Yards”) and David Lindsay-Abaire (“Rise of the Guardians”)

There aren’t many movies that your grandparents could have enjoyed as small children that are still capable of entertaining audiences today, but the 1939 MGM classic “The Wizard of Oz” defies convention and remains enjoyable 74 years later. Despite displaying very little of the grammar present in modern filmmaking (like cutaways and performances that aren’t constantly projected toward the back of the theater), “The Wizard of Oz” endures. It’s curious, to say the least, that the last three-quarters of a century has failed to deliver another universally-acclaimed film set in L. Frank Baum’s enchanted Land of Oz. Yeah, sure, there was “The Wiz” and “Return to Oz,” but those remain cult hits at best. Why hasn’t some studio stepped up, eager to craft a modern classic that would also earn them enough cash to build an actual Emerald City?

Twenty-eight years after their aforementioned “Return to Oz” flopped, Disney, um, returns to Oz with the prequel “Oz the Great and Powerful.” James Franco stars as carnival magician Oscar “Oz” Diggs, a low-rent huckster working a sideshow in the dusty Kansas countryside. With the help of his put-upon hype man (Zach Braff), Oz fools the yokels with his sleight of hand and charms the ladies with a never-ending supply of his grandmother’s one-of-a-kind antique jewelry boxes. When one of his romantic encounters comes back to bite him, Oz books it for a hot air balloon. One tornado later, however, and Oz finds himself in Oz. Stumbling out of his wrecked balloon, Oz meets the witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) who tells him of a prophecy wherein a wizard named Oz will defeat the Wicked Witch. Who is the Wicked Witch, you ask? Is it naive, love struck Theodora? Her conniving sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz)? Or their rival, glittery, good-hearted Glinda (Michelle Williams)?

Of course it’s not Glinda. I mean we’ve all seen “The Wizard of Oz,” right? Anyway.

Try as he might, director Sam Raimi can’t overcome two big problems that bog “Oz” down. First, the screenplay, credited to Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire, creaks and lumbers under the weight of too much exposition and almost-certain corporate interference. It too-often lazily mirrors the plot structure of the 1939 classic. Second, and most disappointing, is that Franco is completely wrong for the part. The movie needed a natural flim flam man – someone with smarmy charisma to spare; someone like Robert Downey Jr., who was originally cast and dropped out. Franco can be a great actor, but when he’s called upon to laugh heartily like a vaudevillian rascal and shout “prestidigitation!”  he sounds more like a high school drama student getting ready to tie a classmate to cardboard railroad tracks while he twirls his mustache. “Oz” is far from a total blunder, though, and a handful of bright spots stand out. Williams’ warm and radiant Glinda, the magnificent and fragile living doll China Girl (voiced by Joey King), and the whiz-bang climax all point toward the rousing adventure the bloated script and James Franco are keeping hidden behind the curtain.

Ted

June 29, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Seth MacFarlane
Directed by: Seth MacFarlane (debut)
Written by: Seth MacFarlane (debut)

Leave it to the hysterically twisted and juvenile mind of “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane to turn something as cuddly and lovable as a childhood stuffed animal into a perverted, profane pothead in “Ted.” The live-action/animated comedy is the first feature film MacFarlane has ever written or directed since introducing us to the Griffin family in 1999. It’s no surprise since MacFarlane, who lends his voice to the title plush toy, is never afraid to push the envelope before dousing it with gasoline and lighting a match to it. Sure, on TV there are always restrictions, but the hard R rating this movie has been slapped with clearly proves to fans of MacFarlane’s bawdy humor that the guy who once insinuated the rape of a teddy bear on his hit cartoon is without a self censor. In “Ted,” there’s really no need for one since audiences probably have a good idea that this specific teddy isn’t exactly the tea party-playing type. Tea-bagging more like it.

Despite some of the jokes not always sticking their landing, “Ted” has more hits than misses when you add them all up. Playing it straight like he does in most of his comedies, Mark Wahlberg (“The Other Guys”) stars as John Bennett, an unmotivated rental car employee living in Boston with his successful girlfriend (Mila Kunis) and the teddy bear he wished alive as a young boy one magical Christmas evening. Now grown and still inseparable, John and Ted must come to terms with living separately and not spending as much time together so John can get his life together. It’s a theme we’ve witnessed before in films like “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and “Toy Story 3” (becoming a man means putting aside childish things), but now with a few more dick references, of course.

Along with MacFarlane’s usual vulgarities, random flashbacks and low-blow swipes at celebrities (heads up Katy Perry and Brandon Routh), the second half of “Ted” is sweeter than one would expect, even with a creepy Giovanni Ribisi gyrating and stealing scenes. It’s not necessarily a sign of maturity for MacFarlane, but at least he seems to understand a feature film needs more substance than a 30-minute TV show can provide. And with that, his legion of followers will continue to anticipate a “Family Guy” movie someday and – with his ever-growing fondness for bears – describe to them exactly what a Dirty Fozzie really is.

Friends with Benefits

July 22, 2011 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Mila Kunis, Justin Timberlake, Patricia Clarkson
Directed by: Will Gluck (“Easy A”)
Written by: Keith Merryman (debut), David A. Newman (debut), Will Gluck (debut)

“Friends with Benefits” might have been given the benefit of the doubt if it had at least tried to be anything besides “No Strings Attached.” Sure, you’ve probably heard the comparison a million times already, but it’s evident that what we have here is the same movie six months later. If studios are this hard up for material, don’t be surprised to see a remake of one of these two rom com in about five years.

All kidding aside, a romantic comedy with this many unoriginal ideas can easiliy write itself. Boy and girl meet; boy and girl wonder if they can base a relationship on sex; boy and girl begin to fall for each other; friendship is ruined; relationship is mended. Happily ever after. Who actually knows what screenwriters Keith Merryman, David A. Newman, and Will Gluck (also the director) did to earn their paycheck?

While Justin Timberlake does exude 10 times more charm that Ashton Kutcher of “Strings,” “Friends with Benefits” just doesn’t have substantial material to work with. At first, it makes fun of what a cliché rom-com looks like and then blatantly becomes the exact same type of film it was parodying only minutes before. Maybe that’s the kind of sarcastic storytelling this genre is going for now, but it doesn’t make a difference when everything feels so recycled.

Black Swan

December 17, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky (“The Wrestler”)
Written by: Mark Heyman (debut), Andres Heinz (debut), John J. McLaughlin (“Man of the House”)

If searching for a young director with an audacious approach to filmmaking that is unlike anyone else working in the industry today, look no further than Darren Aronofsky.

While his last film, 2008’s critically-acclaimed drama “The Wrestler,” was less bizarre than some of his earlier works including “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Fountain,” and “Pi,” Aronofsky finds his way back to an unusual narrative in “Black Swan,” a hypnotic, psycho-sexual thriller that plays like high-art horror.

Academy Award nominee Natalie Portman (“Closer”), who will definitely earn a second Oscar nod for her role here, plays Nina Sayers, a ballerina who is chosen as the fresh face of the company by her demanding director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell). Although Thomas chooses Nina as the lead for his version of “Swan Lake,” he’s not sure she has what it will take to perform both distinct parts of the classic ballet. While she is technically flawless and built to play the White Swan, Nina is missing the fiery passion needed to transform into the Black Swan.

With an overbearing (bordering on obsessive) mother (Barbara Hershey) at home watching her every move and a new ballerina (Mila Kunis) from San Francisco who might be out to take her role on stage, Nina’s paranoia begins to take effect on her fragile mental state.

Thus begins Aronofsky’s take on a metamorphosis that rivals David Cronenberg’s 1986 film “The Fly.” While not nearly as graphic in nature, “Black Swan” is just as intense and chilling. Portman, whose real-life ballet skills probably helped her earn the role, has never been better. It’s a confident performance in a beautiful and unnerving film that examines the significance of ambition and what someone will sacrifice to reach perfection.

The Book of Eli

January 15, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis
Directed by: Albert Hughes (“From Hell”) and Allen Hughes (“From Hell”)
Written by: Gary Whitta (debut)

In comparison to other films that feature lone travelers living in a post-apocalyptic world (“Mad Max,” “Children of Men,” “The Road”), “The Book of Eli” would be the end-of-days-movie-of-the-week. It spouts off religious banter as if it was poetic dialogue and relies on a thoughtless narrative and plot twist, which does nothing to tie up any loose ends.

Oscar winner Denzel Washington (“Training Day”) takes the lead as Eli, a road warrior-type who is traveling west on the desolate highways through a world destroyed by some type of nuclear war 30 years prior. In his backpack he carries the last-known Bible, a book he has kept safe from anyone who tries to take it from him. A machete and shotgun get the point across to the thieves and cannibals who try and make trouble for the isolated journeyman.

But trouble has a way of finding Eli no matter how many limbs he hacks off would-be agitators. When he strolls into a tumbledown town as cool as a cowboy on horseback, Eli is confronted by Carnegie (Gary Oldman), the leader of a renegade gang who has been sending his men for years to search for a copy of the Bible. He believes possessing the last Good Book on earth will give him limitless power and help him conquer the rest of humanity as an all-knowing messiah. “It’s not a book, it’s a weapon,” Carnegie gripes to his henchmen.

What he does not count on, however, is Eli’s stubbornness and refusal to give up his prized possession. Tracking him on the road when he escapes the town (not to mention taking along a pretty sidekick played by Mila Kunis of “Max Payne” and TV’s “That 70s Show”), Carnegie and his band of greasy-haired thugs will stop at nothing to get the faith-based text.

Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes, the brotherly duo who gave audiences 1993’s “Menace II Society” and 1994’s “Dead Presidents” before taking a 9-year hiatus from filmmaking after the dismal Jack the Ripper-inspired “From Hell” of 2001, there’s not much of a defense the Hugheses can give for their decision to stand behind this work. While there are some well-choreographed scenes, “The Book of Eli” lacks any common sense with a script penned by first-time screenwriter Gary Whitta. What Washington saw in this script is beyond comprehension. This is the type of role that someone like Vin Diesel was made for – a kind of second-rate addition to his “Chronicles of Riddick” series.

God may be all-forgiving, but for The Hughes Brothers and Washington, it’s going to take a little more time to get over this one.

Extract

September 10, 2009 by  
Filed under CineStrays

Starring: Jason Bateman, Mila Kunis, Kristen Wiig
Directed by: Mike Judge (“Office Space”)
Written by: Mike Judge (“Office Space”)

As a frustrated owner of a flavor extract company, actor Jason Bateman is as good as the role allows him to be. That’s the problem with Mike Judge’s screenplay. The majority of the characters are one-trick ponies. It works for characters like Milton in “Office Space,” but an entire film crammed with these people is just too much to bare for a feature-length film. Still, there are some humorous situtations that play out fairly well.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

April 13, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Jason Segel, Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis
Directed by: Nicholas Stoller (debut)
Written by: Jason Segel (debut)

When it comes to riding the coattails of a friend in the film industry things can go as badly as watching Adam Sandler continue to dish out subpar movies for his buddies Rob Schneider, Allen Covert, and David Spade to star in under his Happy Madison production company or they can go as fairly well for others like Greg Mottola, Seth Rogan, and Jake Kasdan. They are only three of a handful of director Judd Apatow’s friends whom he has graced with the opportunity to earn directing and writing credits in films he finances. Sometimes the project works (“Superbad”). Other times, not so well (“Drillbit Taylor”).

In the most recent of Apatow’s work as a producer, he gets courageous again by handing over the reigns for the comedy “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” to first time director Nicholas Stoller and first time screenwriter Jason Segel, who also stars in the film. It’s a hit and miss first attempt where the peeks in humor will have you laughing out loud and the valleys leaving you wondering why the film feels so bipolar.

After getting dumped by his famous TV actress girlfriend Sarah (Kristen Bell), TV show composer Peter Bretter (Jason Segel) takes some advice and drags his broken heart to Hawaii for a much-needed getaway. A trip to an island paradise, however, isn’t going to turn out as Peter expected since Sarah and her new rock star boyfriend Aldous (Russell Brand) have also decided to travel to the same location. Deciding to stay the course and test his emotional strength, Peter ends up meeting Rachel Jansen (Mila Kunis), a possible new love interest who could take his mind off of his devil-of-an-ex.

Like with all other Apatow productions, when the humor flows out naturally from the characters the film is at its most sincere and entertaining. Although it takes a while to get Segel’s character out of his self-pitying rut, once he realizes he has something to offer to the opposite sex, the film takes some interesting twists in familiar territory.

Not everything Apatow touches turns to gold, but with Stoller and Segel’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” there is enough refreshing material and awkward deadpan to call it enjoyable.