Archive for September, 2015

Jupiter Ascending Review

Saturday, September 26th, 2015

The Wachowski’s have had an … interesting career. They had a dynamite blockbuster in The Matrix, a movie which is still enjoyable a decade and a half later (wait, seriously? OK, then). But they’ve followed it up with unimpressive results. The first Matrix sequel did well, mainly because of the name, but got mediocre reviews. I enjoyed parts of it, but it was a bit long-winded. The third was lambasted and deservedly so. I haven’t watched it since my first viewing in the theater and don’t really feel a pressing need to see it again.

Speed Racer has its defenders but is generally poorly regarded. I have not seen it. Cloud Atlas did not do well even though, in my opinion, it was an excellent movie (my opinion has improved since that review with a second and third viewing).

Which brings us to Jupiter Ascending, one of this year’s biggest flops. Jupiter was flogged by critics and it’s not hard to see why. It spends enormous amounts of time on exposition. The dialogue is frequently poor. The plot is complex and confusing and turns on two nearly identical threads. And it ends on a weird note, with Spoiler Warning Jupiter returning to her grungy job while massive crimes against humanity continue across the Galaxy.

However, despite all this and despite the negative reviews, I did actually find a lot to enjoy about the movie. The visuals are simply gorgeous. It’s not just that the effects are great, it’s that they are used well. This feels like a real fleshed out universe. The actors do their best with the material (with the exception of Redmayne). The ideas driving the plot are original and the plot unfolds like a poor man’s Dune, with plenty of intricate politics and personal strife. There’s a really nice sequence where Jupiter goes through the Galactic bureaucracy that gives you a feel for how ancient and complex the Universe is.

In fact, the universe Jupiter creates is so interesting, I find myself agreeing with what James Berardinelli says in his review:

One of the key aspects of any science fiction or fantasy saga is world (or universe) building. This process refers to the creation and development of the reality in which the story transpires. More than mere background, it informs plot development, character motivation, and nearly everything that transpires during the course of the narrative. Jupiter Ascending, the latest eye-popping stepchild of the Wachowskis, excels at universe building. The problem is that the backstory is too large to contain what appears on screen during the course of a 127-minute motion picture. Put another way, Jupiter Ascending feels like a truncated, Cliffs Notes version of something that might have worked a lot better as a mini-series. Two hours is too short for this tale and the end result suffers greatly because of that restriction.

The more I’ve thought about this, the more I think James is onto something. Jupiter Ascending is an OK movie. But I think it would have made a great TV series. In a TV series, the narrative would have had time to sprawl. The characters could develop more naturally. The complex politics would have room to ebb and flow instead of being introduced with the subtlety of a bazooka and resolved with a repetitive series of last-minute rescues. Jupiter could have been introduced to the Galactic civilization gradually, with the layers peeling away bit by bit rather than being ripped off every 15 minutes.

Most importantly, a TV series would have solved the huge problem with the ending. There’s no way to talk about this without spoilers so don’t read this until after you’ve watched the movie or if you have no plans to.

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Of Miracles, Men and Red Armies

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

By sheer coincidence, I happened to recently watch two documentaries about the Soviet Union’s hockey team. The first, Red Army, is good. It focuses mostly on the team after the Miracle on Ice and how they entered the NHL.

The second, Of Miracles and Men, revolves around the Miracle on Ice as seen from the Soviet point of view. It interviews most of the Soviet principals with a particular focus on Viacheslav Fetisov as he returns to Lake Placid with his daughter. It is simply excellent, describing the rise of Soviet hockey, the way they reinvented the game and going blow-by-blow through the Miracle on Ice. Even for someone who is not a particularly avid fan of hockey, I found it fascinating.

Joe Posnanski has a great review of it, particularly one of the most important moments:

For instance, almost in passing, the documentary shows Bobby Clarke’s famous slashing of Valeri Kharlamov in the 1972 Summit Series putting the Soviet Red Army against Canada’s best player. Now I’ve always had just one perspective on that slash, and it comes from a friend, a big hockey fan, who often refers to it as one of his favorite ever hockey moments. From his viewpoint, Clarke’s slash — which broke Kharlamov’s ankle and was apparently ordered by assistant coach John Ferguson — was something close to heroic. The Soviets were on the verge of winning the series, they were embarrassing the Canadians in their own sport, something had to be done. Bobby Clarke did it. He knocked Kharlamov out of the series, and Canada came back to win. “Hockey’s a rough game,” my friend likes to say. “And Bobby Clarke did what had to be done.”

The doc shows the slash, instead, through the eyes of the Soviet players. The way they saw it was like this: The Soviet Union was playing a new kind of hockey, a beautiful brand hockey, one of passes and angles and teamwork, a huge contrast in style from the rough-and-tumble, drop-the-gloves game the Canadians played. The irony of this contrast is rich, of course. It was the Soviet Union that had a reputation of steel and tanks, and Canada with a reputation as the nicest country on earth. But seeing Clark purposely crack Kharlamov’s ankle, seeing the way the Canadian’s bullied and punched, seeing the gorgeous passing of the Soviets … well, let’s just say you can almost hear a tender hurt in the voice of Kharlamov’s great friend and teammate Boris Mikhailov when he says, “Yes, Kharlamov plays better than you, but why injure him? Why hurt a person so brutally?

One of the many reasons to be glad the Cold War is over (and hope Putin doesn’t start it up again) is that you can appreciate just how amazing the Soviet hockey team was. They were playing a game that was a level beyond what anyone else was doing. They were beating teams — good teams — by football scores. In the 1980 Olympics, they won games by scores of 16-0, 17-4, 8-1 and 9-2. Their average margin of victory was eight goals, which is insane. The year before, they defeated an NHL all-star team that included 20 future Hall of Famers. Sports rarely see that kind of utter total dominance.

The beauty of the documentary is that by showing how dominant the Soviet team was, it shows just how miraculous the Miracle on Ice really was. The US team played well, yes. They played much better than they had earlier when they got stomped 10-3. But even with that improvement, the Soviets totally outplayed them, dominating possession and peppering Jim Craig with 39 shots (to the US’s 16). An unlikely goal at the end of the 1st period and two great goals in the second gave the US one of the most unlikely wins in sports history. On such things does history turn.

Granted, the Soviet juggernaut was only possible in a totalitarian country where hockey players could be ordered to train incessantly (Louis CK has a routine where he talks about how countries can achieve great things if they just don’t give a crap about people). And for the Soviet team, which did nothing but practice 11 months of the year, to be called “amateurs” was ridiculous. But there was beauty in that terribleness. Which, of course, made it all the sweeter when the US beat them. And “Of Miracles and Men” does a really good job of driving home both of those points.