Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Sponge Out of Water; Mr. Turner; Kingsman; Jupiter Ascending

Call it my intertext--uncommissioned notes on movies I saw and have no immediate intention of turning into articles 

The good sponge

Someone challenged me to articulate my fondness for this bizarre animated creature, not just the two full-length animated pictures (the latest out only this year) or the longrunning series but the character himself, which with his bright lemon hue, gigantic freckles, and cross-between-dolphin-and-cheesegrater laugh, is hardly most people's idea of 'endearing.' Yet millions of kids love him--don't ask me why; I'm not a kid, much less millions of em. I can only answer for my own opinions. 

Let me put it this way: what does Stephen Hillenburg do better than Fyodor Dostoevsky? 
Why, sell unadulterated goodness. For Dostoevsky self-sacrificing innocence means a saint, usually female, and not a little dull; think Sonya or Dunya in Crime and Punishment, or Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky's attitude towards such characters can be described as ambivalent at best (perhaps the most innocent and self-sacrificing of all is Prince Myshkin, and what title does he give that novel?) whereas his attachment to and identification with less saintly characters is more decidedly intense (Dimitri Karamazov is a degenerate sonofabitch, but knows how to throw smashing parties). Dostoevsky has trouble depicting good behavior; I suspect he literally didn't know how to put them across as plausibly living, breathing human beings.

Hillenberg on the other hand--Spongebob is one of the sweetest, most loving characters in all of Nickelodeon--maybe all of narrative fiction, no matter what medium (film, print, theater, whatever), and he's an insufferably annoying little snot. 

Believable? Bet your insufferably sweet little tush he is. 

Toss in a generous helping of visual inventiveness a la Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, some meta-narrative (a pirate named Burger Beard (Antonio Banders) seeks the very book in which this story is recorded); and a fistful of genuinely awful wordplay ("like a reheated Krabby Patty you've been foiled again!" / "UNLEASH THE CONDIMENTS!" "With relish!") and you basically have a total waste of time at the movies, albeit one fleeter, funnier and far more imaginative than what's available at the other animation studios (*koff* *koff*--Pixar, Disney--). The film may not have the emotional weight of the first movie (which featured the equivalent of two boys dying (did Finding Nemo have anything as harrowing?) slowly under a heat lamp), but it does have a surprisingly poignant Plankton unused to the idea of collaborating with anyone ("No Plankton, teamwork." "Tee. Amwork." "Teamwork." "Tie 'em work." "Teamwork." "Tie 'em up." "Say 'team' like 'a sports team.'" "Team." "Now say work." "Work." "Put em together what do you got?" "Time bomb work."). And that I say is worth the price of admission right there. 

A lick of paint

Mike Leigh's latest period feature Mr. Turner takes its cue from its eponymous character, by turns unfriendly, uncompromising, absolutely unperturbed. He crosses entire countrysides in his unhurried gait, seemingly unaware of the gorgeous nature surrounding him until he spills it all out on canvas, and is subsequently  revealed to be a master of light and atmosphere effects

Along the way the film--plainly but unflinchingly--depicts some of Mr. Turner's less savory aspects: his tendency to frequent brothels; his tendency to exploit women, abandon them when they become inconvenient; his consistent neglect of his daughters, who he refuses to openly acknowledge. 

As longtime Leigh collaborator Timothy Spall plays Turner much like a root vegetable: without glamor or need for attention. Yet he commands it anyway; his very disdain draws your eyes towards him, and his rounded diminutive form, bumps and all, gives him an intriguingly textured look. 

As for the film's breathtaking visuals, I'd say Leigh wasn't trying to reproduce Turner's paintings (though the yellows do pop out of the screen) so much as he's trying to suggest the sources from which the paintings come, the complex raw material from which any painter or artist for that matter must simplify, distil, reinterpret to produce his art.  

Not a fan of the biopic; seems to me the form as it's currently practiced is too calcified to generate much interest, but this grabbed me; arguably one of maybe two recent film biographies I really like. 


Matthew Vaughn's unreasonably entertaining Kingsman: The Secret Service shows us what the recent Bond films have been missing all along: a heedless headlong sense of fun and wit and inventiveness, a devil-may-care attitude to narrative logic and humdrum plausibility, a more fruitful fealty to the laws of motion--both in casual observation and flagrant violation. Plus of course it has Colin Firth, who lends to the role of agent under Her Majesty's Secret Service far more conviction and gravitas than the movie deserves. 

Vaughn I'd say is also overqualified to goose up the genre--the bit with all those heads blowing up in a shower of animated fireworks is both hilarious satire on the current state of movie violence (often stylized to appeal to a wider audience) and rather beautiful in its silly way; and an earlier more brutal massacre in a church is both jawdroppingly extreme and (towards the end) inspired in the number of ways Vaughn (directing Firth) manages to off any number of brainwashed extremists (one thinks of the blood-spattered conclusion to Garth Evans' The Raid 2, only set in a church). Still, this trend of folks too good for the sordid duties they perform fits in surprisingly well with the film's own themes--you almost suspect Vaughn planned it that way.

Vaughn's been raked over the coals about his ending (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the film); I'd say one article had this much of a point: not so much that the princess suggests anal sex (let's not be so tightassed about the subject, shall we, and who's to say it'll only be her on the receiving end?) but that the other agent (who happens to be female) doesn't get her sex-toy trophy of a reward by adventure's end. Fair's fair, and besides, a foursome might have made for a more fun--and fitting--finale. 

The Wachowskis ascending  

Give the film this much credit: Andy and Lana Wachowski's Jupiter Ascending hits the ground running and never once looks our way to check if we've kept up. Don't feel it's arrogance or (worse) carelessness; more like a stubborn, near-suicidal integrity that refuses to believe you're too slow to follow the dense text of their narrative. 

I wouldn't call it as dense as say David Lynch's Dune, which (as was pointed out to me) exerted considerable influence on the Wachowski's production, everything from story premise (band of rival families, warring across the galaxy) to dank and decadent look; I'd also cite The Wizard of Oz, with Mila Kunis' Jupiter as intergalactic Dorothy, and Channing Tatum as her wing-shorn, hoverboard-slinging Toto (and whaddaya know, Kunis already played a witch in the source material's prequel, yet another ambitious underrated epic). As Wicked Witch, Eddie Redmayne is a serious delight, channeling Cesare (or is it Lucrezia?) Borgia by way of Baron Harkonnen--a far more entertaining turn than his underimagined, underserved Stephen Hawking in that recent award-winning biopic

By film's end all that bewildering complexity boils down to a nice little simplicity: the Witch is melted, Dorothy returned home, and even dear Toto gets his wings (as if all the borrowings weren't enough, the happy-beyond-belief finale seems to take its emotional cue from It's a Wonderful Life). We never get an idea what if anything was suppose to be the Ruby Slippers, but Jupiter does get to wear a few breathtakingly bizarre gowns, so that's all right. One thing I'd like to point out, though: when cleaning out toilets, Mila dear, you first lift the seat and then brush the bowl.  
Putting that gruesome detail aside, I'd say it's Wachowski's most ambitious and easily their most stylish: the camerawork is graceful, the CGI effects convincing and cliche-free; the shadows are lush the colors grand the silliness unbounded. If it's arguably the best thing they've ever done that might not be saying much (not a fan of their Matrix movies), but I say it counts for something anyway.  


Multiblue Blanket said...

Your review of Jupiter Ascending was spot on. The movie never cared if you were keeping up with the plot and frankly you don't need to! Kingsman was an insane amount of fun to watch and the addition of controversy about the ending was a nice touch.

Noel Vera said...

No, plot and logic wasn't needed to enjoy that.