Mladen and Del review: ‘Jupiter Ascending’

Image courtesy of Warner Brothers.

“Jupiter Ascending” Starring Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, and Tuppence Middleton. Directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski. 127 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Mladen’s take

Ignore the critics – except me and Del, if he agrees with me – on this one. “Jupiter Ascending” is a good movie. You just have to be patient.

Like another solid film, “Cloverfield,” with a crappy beginning, “JA” starts poorly, but makes up for its first 15 minutes with good acting and spectacular, if sometimes overwhelming, visual effects for the duration.

The plot: Housekeeper Jupiter Jones, portrayed by Mila Kunis, becomes a pawn in a power struggle between three well-heeled siblings. Rather than agreeing to share, each sibling maneuvers to gain legal ownership of Earth. Why is Earth important? Us. Mankind is valuable to the feuding House of Abrasax because we’re the essential ingredient of Fountain of Youth baths that the siblings, and others who can afford the gene-repairing topical, use to live forever. Each sibling wants Earth to himself, or herself, to harvest Homo sapiens for a profit. The problem? Jupiter, a “recurrence,” is technically Earth’s owner. She has to sign over the rights before anyone can start distilling people for their life forces. Add Caine Wise, played by Channing Tatum, as Jupiter’s guardian and, eventually, main squeeze, and you’ve the ingredients for a raucous, FTL-traveling, city-busting movie that hits the Bull’s Eye more often than it misses.

“JA” owns its watchability to Kunis. She’s wonderful. Along with a pretty face and lovely voice, her acting renders the movie’s silliness and science implausibilities perfectly acceptable.

When Wise explains to Jupiter how his airskates work, she retorts with a straight face that all she heard was “gravity” and “surf,” or something to that effect. With a throaty giggle, Jupiter wonders at the beauty of a swarm of bees becoming an extension of her arms so that they look like wings. Her ability to playful neutralize an event’s absurdness comes into play throughout the film and it works every time.

The film’s principal weakness, one shared today by all movies of the sci-fi kind, is its CGI battles. So much happens so fast and each component of the battle rendered in such fine detail that the contrast between elements of the fight disappears. Sound effects, however, are superb. Also helpful would have been a battle between capital ships, but that ain’t a big flaw.

I found it goofy that the Wachowskis decided to keep Wise’s shirt off as he fought mercenaries on Earth, traveled through space in a dimension-busting vessel’s cargo hold or something like that, and then fought a squad of palace guardians on another planet. He’s buff, but come on. In the name of gender equality, the script writers could have devised a reason to put Jupiter in a bikini for 20 or 30 minutes.

Finally, I wasn’t entirely enamored with the film’s fusion of sci-fi with mythology-like creatures. It was sort of Thor-ish and Lord of the Ring-esque. The movie also had bits of “Brazil,” lots of machines shape-shifting Transformer-like and a couple of other movies that slip my mind.

“Jupiter Ascending” is frenetic and worth seeing. It’s been unfairly, and spitefully, panned like one of the Wachowski’s other good films, “Speed Racer.” “JA” is an epic for the big screen, but I plan to add it to my Blu-Ray library. I imagine I’ll find something fresh every time I watch it, which is typical of Wachowski productions. The grade? B for Better than Bargained for.

Del’s take

They hate Channing Tatum’s eyeliner.

The plot, they say, is too complex.

One of them called the movie a “hot mess.”

Another suggested the Wachowskis should be banned from moviemaking.

Bottom line? As usual, they don’t know what they’re talking about.

The folks who write reviews on Airbooks as they sip Merlot from soap bubble-thin crystal fairy goblets are having a hard time embracing “Jupiter Ascending,” the raucous actionfest engineered by the Wachowskis. That suits me fine. Sometimes you just want to be entertained, not edified. That’s the kind of movie the Wachowskis have given us.

Mladen summed up the plot nicely. You do have to wade through some explanation before things kick into gear, but so what? Are we no longer capable of embracing complexity? I do every time I sign into my phone.

“Jupiter Ascending” is gorgeous to look at. Virtually every frame is a visual extravaganza that will leave you swooning amid its depth and color. In terms of its visual composition I’d compare it to “Casshern,” another beautiful movie.

And it continues the Wachowskis’ assault on the oppressive, soul-smothering system they believe enslaves us all, a theme they explored in the “Matrix” movies, “V for Vendetta” and “Cloud Atlas” (which, by the way, was another criminally underrated Wachowski project). Jupiter is an individual trapped between forces much larger and stronger than her own puny self. She fights back with pluck and virtue, and in the Wachowskis’ universe there can be only one outcome.

Mark your calendars, folks, because on this date Mladen and I agree: “Jupiter Ascending” is well worth seeing in the theater, then owning once the DVD is released. Everyone in our group enthusiastically embraced the movie, the fairy cup sippers notwithstanding.

I too give it a solid B, maybe a B+, for sheer entertainment value.

Mladen Rudman is a former journalist and technical editor. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.

Image courtesy of Warner Brothers.

“Speed Racer” Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski. Starring Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci, John Goodman, Susan Sarandon. 135 minutes. Rated PG.

Del’s take

I hate animated films about as much as I hate films that synthesize animation with live action. And unless it’s “Batman” I am sick to death of comic book- and cartoon-inspired movies.

But instead of throwing up my lunch I simply threw up my hands and went with the hackneyed, cliched and utterly simple-minded “Speed Racer,” a movie in want of an audience dumb enough to enjoy it.

Despite its lurid color palette and fairy-tale plot, “Speed Racer” isn’t something kids will digest with their Happy Meals. Rather, it’s suffused with pell-mell destruction and adult themes of corruption, blackmail and death, most of which will go over the kiddies’ heads. But Mommy and Daddy can expect a grinding case of road rage over the money wasted on this interstate highway pileup of a flick.

The story goes like this: Young Speed (Emil Hirsch) grows up idolizing his older brother, Rex (Scott Porter), who is killed in a horrific wreck and accused of racing dirty, thereby sullying the family name. When Speed follows in Rex’s footsteps he is wooed by a large racing conglomerate headed by Mr. Royalton (Roger Allam), who threatens destruction upon the Racer family when Speed turns down his offer. Meanwhile the Togokahn racing organization, facing a hostile takeover by Royalton Industries, vows to win a final race, The Crucible, a cross-country destructo-derby where dirty tricks are the norm. They enlist Speed as a driver. If Togokahn wins the price of their stock will rise, bankrupting Royalton and exposing their race-fixing, and salvage the Racer family name.

Sounds like any number of little-guy-vs.-big guy potboilers, but what puts “Speed Racer” behind the pack is its lack of focus, thuddingly dense dialogue, dismissal of simple physics and jarring cinematography.

Where to begin? The brain swoons at the prospect. Is this a children’s movie or what? Should adults take it seriously? Are the overblown CGI effects a kind of commentary on the illusory nature of reality or merely the product of overzealous computer geeks?

Ultimately “Speed Racer” comes across as a rendering of “The Matrix” on Ecstasy, which is no coincidence: It was created by the Wachowski brothers, who guided the perpetually dazed and confused Keanu Reeves through his role as Neo in the otherworldly “Matrix” trilogy.

But unlike the original “Matrix” and the immensely satisfying “V for Vendetta,” the Wachowskis’ efforts are less successful here.

“Speed Racer” does not earn the checkered flag.

Mladen’s take

Ignore the bona fide movie critics, and Del, who pan the latest Wachowski brother’s effort. Rent “Speed Racer.” Make sure your subwoofer is working.

The plot is difficult to discern and the storytelling as blurry as the race scenes but what’s the big deal? No film is perfect.

Flashing unearthly psychedelic colors make the pseudo-animated movie a vivid delight. “Speed Racer” juxtaposes the dark plot with the cheerfulness of bright colors to say that shiny surfaces often disguise the evil beneath.

Pleasing-to-the-eye Christina Ricci, as Trixie, plays the role of an indomitable but discreet instigator with effective lightheartedness.

The actors portraying Spridle and ChimChim – or however the hell their names are spelled – add humor to the movie.

And, no kidding, John Goodman as Pops looks exactly like Pops in the “Speed Racer” cartoons.

Racers employ all sorts of dirty tricks against each other to keep, or get, lucrative corporate sponsorships. Races are fixed by bookies, an idea that the film’s makers could have ripped off from watching BCS college football computer models at work.

The vehicles depicted in the movie are beautiful. Powered by interlocking dihedral fusion c60 bucky balls or some such thing, the machines handle turns, loops, dips, jumps, sand, ice, rain, hot, cold, sideswipes, rearenders, frontenders, rocket-propelled grenades, hypoxia and the common cold with ease. It’s a wonder the driver’s weren’t fitted with G suits. Yes, the powerful Mach 5 and, later, Mach 6, have the gadgets featured in the cartoons and even some of the sound effects. Remember the “sproing” of the doohickeys that make the Mach 5 jump?

I would have preferred that “Speed Racer” the movie use as a plot something other than big business corruption and one boy’s push to keep the spirit of racing alive. What nonsense. All sports at all levels are about making money.

In fact, a pure action movie with no moral would have been ideal.

So, here’s the story for “Speed Racer” the sequel. A CG race against the Mammoth Car with the Car Acrobatic Team as its escort will blow off peoples’ socks. A subplot involving Racer X and the evil scientist who created the armored and tracker Car With A Brain must be worked in somehow. Finally, it would be helpful if in the sequel Speed reacts to Trixie’s sexiness with a thrill rather than dour sentimentality.

“Speed Racer” is worth watching. I’m thinking of adding it to my meager DVD collection, though not until the price drops to $5, or less.

Mladen Rudman is a former journalist and technical editor. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.