CGB Review of Jupiter Ascending (2015)

I once wrote a story about a girl who enters another world and finds out that she is the Destined One, the only person who can save two worlds.  Along the way she meets characters whose dialogue consisted of backstory and exposition about the world.

I wrote this story when I was twelve-years old.

This is my review of Jupiter Ascending!

Jupiter-Ascending

Jupiter Ascending tells the story of–well, to be honest–many things, but here’s the main plot: A young woman named Jupiter lives as a janitor with her family of Russian immigrants.  After surviving an assassination attempt on her life at a fertility clinic, she is rescued by Caine, a…(trying to keep a straight face) half-man, half-wolf splice hybrid person who tells her that she is the Queen of the Earth and must reclaim her throne from the Abrasax siblings named Balem, Titus and Kalique.  Along the way, Jupiter encounters other characters who are more interested in spouting out exposition and complicated backstory about their world than in being interesting characters with distinct personalities.

Do you have any idea how hard it was for me not to burst out laughing while typing the movie’s summary?  I only saw this movie once and I walked out of the theater after the first hour.
Have you ever seen a movie where it’s painfully obvious that key scenes are missing and the director(s) have no idea how to properly pace a story so that it flows smoothly?
Yeah, that’s basically Jupiter Ascending in a nutshell.
I took a lot of creative writing classes in high school and later in college.  In creative writing, one thing you learn that is there’s no right way to tell a story, but there are many wrong ways to do so.  Hence the best way to review Jupiter Ascending is by going over the “what-not-to-do’s” of storytelling and then explain how Jupiter Ascending breaks those guidelines.

1. Don’t let any backstory overshadow the current plot.  Jupiter Ascending puts less detail in basic character development and instead relies heavily on the needlessly convoluted history of its world.  As a result, all the exposition becomes a distraction from the movie’s central plot.

2. Create characters, not exposition-explaining pawns.  EVERY CHARACTER does nothing but monologue about how this worlds works.   Jupiter herself is just what I call a “window character,” someone who only exists as a stand-in for the audience as we learn about the film’s universe.  Window characters are fine as long as they have their own identity other than just being an observer.

3. Don’t introduce any ideas that you don’t plan on following up on. The main antagonist Balem (played by Eddie Redmayne) says, “I will harvest that planet tomorrow [Earth] before I let her [Jupiter] take it from me.” In other words, he’s going after Earth in 24 hours…and then that threat is never mentioned again. Actually Balem kind of disappears from the plot for a while.

4. Don’t drop any important characters. If you have a large cast of characters, make sure you can account for each of them.  All of the characters get rushed introductions and their personalities are so bland that it’s hard to care about any of them or what they’re going through.  As mentioned in #3, the main antagonist Balem is a major player for about 20 minutes, and then just disappears for a while because….unicorns!  The titular character Jupiter (played by Mila Kunas) is basically a damsel in distress and when she does start to develop as a character, it comes off as rushed and out-of-left-field.

If you take away anything from this review, let it be this: Please don’t name your character “Jupiter Jones.”
Just don’t.

Retro Reviews: Back to the Future (1985)

I come from a family of Dodger fans, so going to a Dodger game is a time-honored tradition.
I bring this up because after the Dodgers beat the Cincinnati Reds, they had a screening of Back to the Future at the stadium.

This is my review of Back to the Future!

Great Scott!
Great Scott!

Back to the Future tells the story of Marty McFly, an aspiring musician who is accidently sent back 30 years into the past.  When he becomes his mother’s romantic interest, he must get his future parents together to prevent altering his future.
Now according to my mother, this movie was a surprise hit.  Various studios rejected Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s script until Zemeckis’ film Romancing the Stone was a financial success.  This compelled Universal Studios to pick up the Back to the Future script and this turned out to be a great decision for Universal.
Well, I was born six years after the movie came out.  Last night was the first time I had ever seen it, so how does a film from 1985 hold up to a millennial living in 2015?

The answer: It holds up very, very well.  Back to the Future is a pretty freaking good movie!  It is such a fun and entertaining story with loads of heart.

The Hits
Time travel is a story formula that has never been done completely right, but this movie handles it with great skill.   Michael J. Fox was definitely a perfect choice to play the resourceful, dry-humored Marty.  I like that he’s not an all-out bad boy stereotype.  He’s a typical teenager with a bit of an attitude who truly cares for the people in his life.
The real standout is Christopher Lloyd as Doc.  Mad scientists characters are tough to portray without coming off as over-the-top, but Christopher Lloyd keeps his Doc intelligent and fast-thinking.  There’s a rhyme and reason to his eccentricities.  His moments of sincerity and genuine care for Marty is balanced with his quirks and bursts of ideas.
This movie has a surprising amount of subtly.  It will introduce things such as a clock tower or a neighborhood sign by having Marty pass by them without spelling out for us that those items will be important later.  This respects the audience’s intelligence without being too cryptic.
Finally the comedy is spot-on!  Every joke is well timed, the witty banter never wears out its welcome, and the heartwarming relationship between Marty and Doc never feels contrived or emotionally-manipulative.  The movie’s self-awareness keeps it from being campy, allowing it to be an entertaining adventure story.

The Only Setback
My only complaint is that I wish we learned how Marty met Doc.  Is Doc a family friend or a former science teacher or something?  The most that we learn is that Doc lets Marty use his garage so that he can practice his music.  I know this isn’t an origin story of Marty and Doc, which is totally fine, but I would have liked some context regarding how these two characters came to know each other.

Overall Back to the Future is my new favorite retro movie.   To quote my mother, “It’s as funny today as it was 30 years ago!”  I couldn’t agree more.

Saint John Bosco, pray for us.

CGB Review of Ex_Machina

“To be human is to be ‘a’ human, a specific person with a life history and idiosyncrasy and point of view; artificial intelligence suggest that the line between intelligent machines and people blurs most when a puree is made of that identity.”
–Brian Christian, The Most Human Human

This is my review of Ex_Machina!

ex-machina

When a young coder named Caleb (Domhall Gleeson) wins at raffle because–potatoes!–at the Google-esque company where he works, he gets to spend one week with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the eccentric CEO of the company.   Nathan reveals to Caleb his latest creation: A humanoid cyborg named Ava (Alicia Vikander).  Nathan assigns Caleb to conduct a series of interviews with Ava and apply the Turing Test; to put it simply, he has to measure Ava’s ability to persuade him that she is human even though she is actually AI (Artificial Intelligence).

So I watched this movie on my lunch break and was almost late getting back to work because this is an intelligent and engrossing film.

The Hits
Move over, Fantastic Chore–I mean Bore–I mean Four; THIS is the sci-fi film of the year!
I can’t wait to see Oscar Isaac in Star Wars: The Force Awakens because he is fantastic as Nathan.  He brings to life a secluded genius who feels a need to mentor and guide others as a way to overcompensate for the fact that he fails to connect with others on a daily basis.
Alicia Vikander gives one of the best performances as a robotic protagonist I’ve seen in a while.  Her voice is low-key and slightly monotone, hence reminding us that she is a cyborg, but her movements, facial expressions and careful changing of voice pitch makes her a convincing human.
Caleb starts out as a blank slate, but slowly evolves into a distrusting man who ends up questioning his own humanity in one particular scene where [SPOILER] he cuts himself with a razor to see if he is all wires or water and bone.  Self-injury is tough to do in cinema without looking exploitive, but this scene was well handled and served a purpose to his character development.
I want the soundtrack for this movie because the music matches the cool, low-lit atmosphere of Nathan’s research facility.   The eerie soundtrack has that “someone is watching you from a dark corner” kind of vibe that a clausterphobic sci-fi film needs.
A while ago, Father Robert Barron posted a video called “Planned Parenthood and the Loss of Human Dignity.”  In it, he mentioned how when the value of human life is not determined by God, but rather by who society says has the right to life, the loss of human dignity is sure to follow.
Anyway, I bring this up because there are quite a few times where I felt that some pro-life thinking worked its way into the script.
Here’s a quick example: One of my favorite scenes is when Caleb and Ava are conversing and then this happens:
AVA: “What will happen to me if I don’t pass?  What if I don’t function like I’m supposed to?”
CALEB: “Ava, I don’t know…”
AVA: “Do you have people who switch you off?”
CALEB: “No–”
AVA: “If you can’t be switched off, then why can I?”
Father Barron said that there is dangers to letting sentimentality (our feelings towards others) or productivity (someone’s usefulness in society) be a determining factor in who is deserving of human dignity and who is not.

The Misses
I didn’t feel that Nathan’s assignment to Caleb was explained very well.  By that, I mean Nathan explains it with too much techno-babble instead of keeping the explanation plain and simple.
There are a few times where the dialogue audio is drowned out by the musical score.  It’s not “God forbid a character turns their head from the camera” bad like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland; more like “God forbid a character mumbles” bad.  It’s not a constant problem, but I don’t like having to turn my volume up at 60 just to hear Nathan say, “I’m hung over.”
Any time you write a story that is essentially a think-piece, you run the risk of the ideas trying to be the story instead of the story having ideas.  Old Fashioned had this problem, and Ex_Machina faces this roadblock, as well.  Honestly I don’t think there’s a perfect solution for this issue in think-piece stories, but being aware of it would be helpful to aspiring filmmakers who want to make their audience ponder new ideas.

Overall Ex_Machina is a top-notch film from a first-time director.   An engaging script with thoughtful performances and great musical score make this worth all the praise and accolades it has received.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, pray for us.