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Avada Kedavra! ’THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD’ Kills Harry Potter Spin-Off Series Before It’s Even Started

The crimes of Grindelwald are apparently many but the crimes of The Crimes of Grindelwald are doubly so. This dreary snooze-fest puckers up to give the once-beloved franchise the Dementor’s Kiss, bewitching the audience with an irresistible urge to shutter their eyelids and be whisked off to that warm and welcoming valley of sleep – wherein they would miss little that couldn’t be summed up in a few throwaway sentences of recap. In two-plus-hours of screen time, this sequel to the somewhat mildly-received Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them manages little more than to draw battle lines in the sand, introducing a few new bland characters and then shuffling the deck for the inevitable, and presumably more-engaging, skirmishes to come.  Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM’

A pleasant but slight distraction from the wickedness of 2016, J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them turns back the clocks on the Harry Potter Universe to 1928 where the pesky Newt Scamander and his suitcase full of fantastic beasts have just entered New York City. Beasts earns points distinguishing itself from its predecessor by taking on a new time period, centering on an older (if still largely charming) cast and moving the action to America where new rules, regulations and verbiage (“muggles” are no more, “no-maj” being the US equivalent) prevail.  There’s hints of magic peppered throughout – James Newton Howard’s electrifying score, sharp visual tricks up the sleeve, Eddie Redmayne’s recklessly crooked smile – but as a standalone installment, Fantastic Beasts certainly stops short living up to its titular adjective. Read More

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Out in Theaters: JUPITER ASCENDING

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The Wachowskis
have been getting blank checks from Warner Bros since pulling off The Matrix in 1999 and with Jupiter Ascending have likely made their last boundless blockbuster. In 2012, Cloud Atlas turned a budget north of $100 million (though no official budget was ever released) into a pitiable $27 million domestic return, a figure almost as bad as the lowly $43.9 domestic box office cume from a $120 million investment on 2008’s Speed Racer. With their latest, they’re about to pull off their biggest magic trick yet, making a $175 budget disappear into thin air. To say the bloom is off the rose is a lie by degree. This movie’s gonna get crushed.

And rightly so. The Wachowskis have always skated by on their awesome sense of spectacle, often at the expense of a cohesive story, but Jupiter Ascending is not just their latest but their most egregious offender of complete and utter style over substance. In their defense, the style is often blindingly cool, if only for a brief moment. No scene better utilizes their captivating handle on big budget pageantry than a first act escape scene, one that reportedly took upwards of six months to film. The issue remains: why dump so much time and resource into a glorified stunt and so little into plot, character and general story cohesion? The answer is mindbogglingly unaddressed.

With Jupiter, one established Wachowski mainstay remains in their FX-driven manipulation of gravity. Bullet time has been replaced by gravity boots and Keanu Reeves’ wooden acting is subbed in by a frequently shirtless and rarely compelling Channing Tatum. Tatum plays the role of a warrior “splice” – a genetically engineered part-man, part-dog. He once had cyborg-enhanced wings but got them hacked off Maleficent-style when he bit the wrong rear end. Or was it ear end? His is a lackluster bit of back story that’s never explained or accounted for in a movie full of lackluster bits of back story that are never explained or accounted for. But such is Jupiter Ascending.

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Tatum’s effortlessly seductive (or so we’re told) Caine Wise is tasked with retrieving an Earthling woman at the center of a galactic land grab but in a guns-blazin’ fix gets mixed up and ends up with the wrong chick: a Russian toilet-scrubber by the name of January “I Like Dogs” Jones (Mila Kunis). The maid mix-up winds up COMPLETELY forgotten about as it turns out our heroine is actually an heiress of the highest order – the reincarnation of an interplanetary Tzar and somewhat recently deceased head of family to the Abrasax clan. With a hefty sum of a birthright (including, ya know, the Earth), the rest of the Abrasax fam-damily tries to win over the pea-brained January with various schemes and assaults of paperwork. You can almost hear Wachowski’s whine, “Bureaucracy’s a bitch.” After a few queues to get the ol’ inheritance files in order, many things explodes and Tatum’s dog-boy is called to the rescue – like Lassie with a six pack – more times than I’d like to report on.

In a pinch, Kunis’ Jupiter Jones is as compelling a female lead as Denise Richards’ Christmas Jones and just about as believable as Richards’ is as a rocket scientist. She’s a perma-damsel in distress, haplessly entering herself into laughably dumb situations and finding herself subsequently incapable of getting out without being rescued by her half-canine prince. It makes me wonder why the Wachowskis even bothered making a film with a female protagonist when they’re just going to make her so pathetic and pitiable. It’s an asinine step backwards in an industry that demands two forward. The gross lack of chemistry between Kunis and Tatum doesn’t help either, nor do the odd bestiality undertones.

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And just as Channing Tatum is a dog genetically spliced with a human, Jupiter Ascending is The Princess Bride genetically spliced with Star Fox, a bombastic video game of a space-set fairy tale that feels like it needed something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue in order for the studio to marry it to a budget so high. The result is a rip-off by assault; kitchen sink FX hogwash laid upon tired narrative tactics.

What is truly visionary in terms of set production, lavish costumery and creature design results in something totally and tonally defunct in the story department. As Eddie Redmayne greedily dismantles everything great about his work in The Theory of Everything as a necky, whispering, totally bratty villain, the Wachowskis make a mockery of their own legacy as storytellers. Even when they haven’t been firing on all cylinders, the sibling filmmakers have been able to provide dazzling, heady escapism. Jupiter Ascending though just makes you want to escape the theater.

D+

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Out in Theaters: THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

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To take a man’s life and dilute it down to a 123-minute biography might not be quite as daunting a task as coming up with a singular formula that describes and unites all things in the universe but it is not without its challenges. James Marsh takes on these theoretical hurdles with the problem-solving gusto of a seasoned mathematician. He attacks from all angles: emotional, intellectual, spiritual and metaphysical; delivering a film that not only gets to the core of who Stephen Hawking is but gives equal credence to the unsung plight of wife Jane Hawking. With Marsh working the material with the finesse of a Swedish masseuse – adapted from Jane’s 2008 memoirs “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen” – into something both uproariously funny and endlessly emotional, The Theory of Everything is, like its subject, a film that defies the constructs to which it ought adhere. Like Hawking, Marsh has created a film that rises above the expectations placed on it and outlives its macabre sentencing. It is quite simply an emotional powerhouse; a near flawless example of a fine-tuned biopic boasting a performance for the ages; a stunning tour de force that overcomes its crowd-pleasing elements with earnest wit and genuine, hard-won emotionality.

Behind his quirked smile and mop of ginger-brown hair, young Hawkings is a goon and Eddie Redmayne plays him with the breezy charm of a Powerpuff before his infamous affliction strikes. Aloof and smarmy, his performance is one of spot-on precision; a testament to Redmayne’s emerging talent and ability to replicate a character with physical and emotional exactitude. Hawking is a Type-A smarty pants who doesn’t study but still aces the tests and all Redmayne needs to do is cock a wormy grin to communicate the limitless knowledge trapped within that scrawny frame. Part-Goofy and part-Einstein, he’s a goober of a scholar with a heart of gold and aspirations over the moon. And there lies Jane Wilde, a wily co-ed softly won over by Hawking’s gun show of braininess and obsessively chartered persistence. After all, one can only be asked to croquette so many times before they finally submit.

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There’s a delightfully stagy homecoming ball that, while slightly hokey, showcases the humanity before the affliction; the affair preceding the infirmity; the courtship preceding all this trials and tribulations business. Hawking uneasily admitting he’s no dancer is both charming and heartbreaking – a winning equation graciously prescribed to most key junctions in the film. If Hawking’s arc is one into physical oblivion and intellectual transcendence, The Theory of Everything‘s is about overcoming hardship and finding peace in adversity.

But as the scene sets on Benoît Delhomme‘s magnificently sweltering starematography, Cinderella’s carriage turns to a pumpkin and Hawking is hit with the heavy news that he’s got less than two years to live. On the brink of his PhD and brimming with grand ideas screaming out to be proven, Hawking is a pitiable mark of the Maggie Fitzgerald degree. He’s a fighter with a flunkie body. Though Jane’s undying devotion to Hawking isn’t necessarily fleshed out in full pre-ALS diagnosis, Jane spends the rest of the movie convincing us of the earnestness of the near angelic gesture. This is after all a love story.

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As acclaimed physicist Stephen Hawking continues to hunt down his titular theory of everything, we’re given a glimpse into a kind of personal reactionary spiritualism that only peeks its head into the oeuvre of film every so often. There’s no “this is the way it is”, just a lot of “what ifs?” Hawking at first refutes the existence of God. At one point, he admits to Jane that He could be plausible. Later, he’s weary and generally indifferent. He’s a character who, though stubborn in his resolve and thrust for intellectual expansion, is never adamant about being “right.” And what could be a more important figure than a man willing to go to war with his own theories? In a time of steadfast absolutism, Hawking waged war with himself from an armchair. And then a wheelchair. A man both fundamentally hubristic and humbled, Hawking’s acute generosity of spirit paired with his occasional callousness towards those closest to him helps to make him such a scrumptiously compelling character.

It takes a skilled filmmaker to get the tear ducts working early and Marsh is so queued into fine tuning our emotional clock that he barely has to breathe to twist the knife in our side. Only thirty-odd minutes into the film, he pulls back the curtain on this whole diagnosis drama sans a lick of sentimentality and yet still beckons showers of sniffles. Hawking (understandably) throws a pity party, but Marsh never does. Flipping the formula on its head, he mines tragedy in humor, allowing the most heart-rending moments to play over beats drenched in legitimate dark comedy. Even past the ability to speak, Redmayne invites guffaws that you would never even expect to experience in a film about a handicapped physicist. This guy is going to sarcastically flip his head into an Academy Award nomination.

The performance really is next level. He’s so good, he’s gorilla glue. Taking your eyes off his work for even a moment is impossible. You might as well be eyelidless Alex, you’re watching him so hard. Confined to a wheelchair for the later half of the film, we nevertheless view him through the filter of abject understanding. Without words, he’s able to communicate novels. It’s a testament to both Redmayne’s mighty take and Marsh’s voyeuristically watchful eye that once Hawking’s words turn into blinks and eventually into robotic responses, we never lose a dollop of interest in him as a character. Nor does he lose his bite as a comedian.

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Matching Redmayne blow for blow is Felicity Jones, offering a performance that delivers nuance, pathos and barrels of complexity. Though no simple task to take on the mantle of Hawking, Redmayne’s task is clear cut. Jones on the other hand has an arguably more difficult mountain to climb; she must make Hawking’s counterpart as compelling and complex as a guy who wrote a best selling novel about f*cking time. I mean seriously, if the guy can make a theory about time (of all things) into a New York Times best seller, you better believe his woman is a certifiable magnet.

Each and every scene she flutters into and out of, Jones is a force to be reckoned with. She’s left to grapple with the plight of domesticity; to battle the oft ferocious tedium of raising a family single-handedly. Jones parries with Redmayne’s monstrous portrayal with bravado, providing a fulcrum point that grounds the extenuating circumstances of their extraordinary home life into something relatable and “normal.” He’s the scientist, she’s the soul. It’s her that makes everything relatable.

At one point, she explodes, “We’re not a normal family!” And while we know that she believes this sentiment to be true, her family – and her relationship with Stephen’s – was never defined by a conformity to society norms. From the get go, their romance was a harbinger of bucked normalcy. Not just anyone would marry a ticking time bomb. It’s upon her shoulders that the success of Theory rests and Jones handles her characters transformation with a kind of poetic ease that’s stoic and touching, motherly and equally sexual. She’s basically Imhotep the way she gains layers scene to scene. An Academy Award nomination is assuredly in store.

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What’s possibly the biggest surprise of The Theory of Everything is just how winning every aspect of Marsh’s tale truly is. It functions on so many levels, attacking so many sectors of what we look for in a film. It’s futile to resist its supreme good taste.

Marsh spares us the gory details of how time actually works (new homework assignment: read “A (Brief) History of Time”) but thanks to adroit editing work from Jinx Godfrey, we’re never really worried about how it works. It just does. Add to that a nimble and whimsical score from Jóhann Jóhannsson (another nomination ought to be assured here) and nifty costume design from Steven Noble and you have a film whose technical aspects rival its visceral impact. There are bits and bobs that don’t measure up – grainy “camera footage”, underdeveloped secondary characters – but for a movie equally given to quirks, quacks and quarks, the bumbling never detracts from the charm. Marsh’s brief history of Hawkings is at once timely and timeless, matching intellect for emotion and absolutely thriving on two stunning performances. For all the accolades it’s destined to receive, The Theory of Everything is deserving.

A

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