Tuesday 7 July 2015

View On Demand round-up: Jupiter Ascending, Kajaki, and Elery

Jupiter Ascending
Director: The Wachowskis
Starring: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne
Running time: 127 mins
I’m guessing the Wachowskis re-watched Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon from 1980 and despaired that it simply wasn’t camp, outrageous or over the top enough; that the actors weren’t chewing enough scenery (even Brian Blessed) and that the dialogue was nowhere near sufficiently risible. There and then they vowed to create a CGI-soaked space opera that put all that right. Unfortunately, their film was a great folly that made a large number of critics cringe (it’s at 25 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes) and forced multiplex audiences to stay away in their droves (a $19million US opening on a production budget of $179m). And that’s a shame because Jupiter Ascending is one of the year’s more interesting blockbusters. 

Yes, it’s flawed for all the reasons set out above but at least it has ambition, a grand operatic charm and a kind of lunatic joy to it. It’s certainly entertaining (although you’re not always laughing with it), never stops to take a breath and everyone in the movie seems to be having the time of their lives. Say what you like about them but the Wachowskis don’t do boring. 

Without delving too far into the plot (trust me, that way madness lies), all you really need to know is that humble Chicagoan house cleaner Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is the reincarnation of the queen of the universe and therefore the rightful owner of planet Earth. Her “children” – galactic royalty living in Jupiter’s red spot – aren’t very keen on that fact and want her dead. It’s a great big silly-arsed mess but I enjoyed it more than I did Avengers: Age of Ultron (a soulless, overstuffed misstep), Jurassic World (a vastly inferior remake of the original film) or San Andreas (great CGI but little else). It’s also refreshing to encounter a blockbuster not based on a children’s toy, a series of novels, a theme park ride, a comic-book or TV show. 

I’d particularly like to commend Eddie Redmayne’s turn as Balem Abrasax. It really is fantastically bizarre – like a Doctor Who villain from the 1970s complete with ridiculous accent and weird shouty moments THAT JUST SEEM TO COME OUT OF NOWHERE! The Oscar winner’s performance isn’t even the most eccentric thing about Jupiter Ascending. In a movie that includes “Bees are genetically designed to recognise royalty” as an actual line of dialogue spoken by a proper actor (Sean Bean) how could it bee, er, be?    

Rating: WW  

Director: Paul Katis
Starring: Mark Stanley, David Elliot, Malachi Kirby 
Running time: 108 mins
About half-an-hour into this adaptation of a true story from the war in Afghanistan, I’d pretty much decided it wasn’t going to be my cup of tea. No fan of ill-judged British military interventions (or their fictionalisation) at the best of times, I was further put off by the cast’s clunky performances, an exposition-heavy script and characters that were an indistinguishable melange of banter and blokeyness. At least the wretched American Sniper had the decency to be well acted, I thought, before seriously considering pressing the stop button. 

An hour or so later I was glad I stuck with it because, although slow out of the gate, Kajaki turns into a very fine drama indeed. In fact, to call it utterly gripping would be to damn it with faint praise. Set in 2006, it tells the story of three soldiers from 3 Battalion, Parachute Regiment leaving their outpost near the Kajaki Dam in southern Afghanistan to disable a Taliban roadblock. However, as they traverse a dried-out river bed, one of them steps on a land mine, left over from the Russian occupation in the 1980s. Desperate to help him, his colleagues soon discover they are trapped in an unmarked minefield and that every move could result in blown-off limbs or even death. 

Suddenly, an unremarkable war story turns into an intoxicating mix of horror movie (the men and those trying to help them could be maimed or killed at any time) and stage play (the focus narrows to concentrate on the soldiers, the mine field and little else). It’s incredibly powerful stuff as they try not only to avoid the mines but keep the injured alive long enough for them to be winched out by a helicopter that always seems to be “10 minutes” away. Within moments, all the banter switches to gallows humour and it’s as sad and heartbreaking as it is funny. Director Paul Katis does a fine job of keeping the tension, terror and desperation at fever pitch. At times the film’s second half plays out like an extended version of the infamous Russian roulette scene from the Deer Hunter – you know what’s coming, you just don’t know quite when. 

Glad to say the acting improves further in, too, with Mark Stanley as the ridiculously heroic Tug particularly impressive. Ultimately, though, what I liked about Kajaki most was its refusal to play the simplistic “goodies and baddies” game. What 3 Battalion are up against is the history of a country meddled with far too much by foreign powers, including the UK, and it’s that, rather than the Taliban, that rises up to bite them on the arse.  

Rating: WWW

Director: Joe Lynch
Starring: Salma Hayek, Hiroyuki Watanabe, Laura Cepeda
Running time: 92 mins
Salma Hayek is the titular Everly, a prostitute who has been working with the police to bring down the local Yakuza. Unfortunately, her plan is discovered and the gangsters’ head honcho Taiko (Hiroyuki Watanabe) – who is also her former lover – puts a price on her head. It makes Everly a target of not just his goons and hitmen but also other sex workers operating out of the same building. Unable to escape, she turns the situation to her advantage, hunkering down in her apartment and – making use of the vast number of firearms stashed there – ambushing anyone who turns up with murder on their mind. Cue gun fights, explosions, knives, swords, torture, lots of blood, hydrochloric acid, martial arts and some sort of bazooka thingy. 

It’s relentless for 90 minutes – maim, kill, breathe, maim, kill, breathe – and unfortunately gets old pretty quickly. Director Joe Lynch is clearly interested in making a modern-day exploitation movie but the likes of I Spit on Your Grave and Last House on the Left were not only raw and prurient but also suffused with black humour and satirical intent. Elery is a vapid and vanilla experience by comparison. The scene I did enjoy featured a monstrously entertaining double act called The Sadist and The Masochist; the former an expert in torture, the latter his pet sociopath. It was like the pair had wandered in from a far better film. Meanwhile, Hayek is always worth watching and she takes to the role of kickass action hero with real gusto. Despite that, though, Elery is little more than Kill Bill for dummies.

Rating: W


WWWW = Wonderful
WWW = Worthwhile
WW = Watchable
W = Woeful

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