Side by Side: Kingsman and Jupiter Ascending

The spy movie “Kingsman” and the sci-fi “Jupiter Ascending” share more in common than being B-movies.

Sometimes the hate or love for a film just doesn’t make sense. In “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “Jupiter Ascending,” you have two wildly creative films that both look like video games, are trashy fun, feature outlandish performances and stunning special effects, and yet one is considered genuinely good and the other is a cult film, but only because it’s so terrible.

I’ll flip that script and say I believe “Jupiter Ascending” to be a genuinely good movie. Everything about “Jupiter Ascending” is bananas, but the Wachowskis have made an endlessly inventive film that begs pouring over their imagination. Channing Tatum plays a hunter spliced with the DNA of a wolf, and he sports pointed ears, a scruffy blonde goatee and gliding rocket boots, but he fights and acts with the acrobatics of Magic Mike, employing his senses and a holo shield to evaporate pale nymph monsters. Eddie Redmayne gives the definition of a scene-chewing performance, but he seems to know what movie he’s in, curling his fingers in a lilting, vampiric performance. His voice raises octaves as he strives for range, and it never grows tiresome despite how it grows out of proportion. Even the human characters on Earth are colorful, cartoonish Russian greaseballs that make the film ever livelier. And they’re matched by the CGI spectacle of lush palaces and exotic gowns that put “The Hunger Games” to shame. At the same time, we’ll see Tatum flying in front of tacky green screen backdrops made to represent the Chicago skyline, and the film’s artificiality and B-movie charm shine through.

“Kingsman” has just as many quirks and goofy scenarios that extend far beyond the realm of believability, but Matthew Vaughn, as in “Kick-Ass,” has a tendency to confuse pure lunacy and anarchy for style, and gratuitous cartoon violence for humor. “Kingsman” doesn’t actually have sensational stunts. Rather, we see a delirious whooshing of the camera (accomplished digitally) rather than traditional action editing. It allows Vaughn to whip projectiles across the room or zoom in ultra close on various gadgets. One scene has Colin Firth knocking a tooth out of a thug’s mouth, and the tooth hangs in the air in slow motion before flying past another thug’s dumbstruck face. Another is the hyper-violent bloodbath that takes place as a result of Valentine’s mind control. Is there anything about this scene that’s funny other than it’s set to the tune of the “Freebird” guitar solo? And why exactly does Samuel L. Jackson talk with a lisp in this movie?

I still had fun with both of these films, but what’s interesting is how each film approaches class dynamics. It’s rare for movies this trashy to actually have credible substance about society, and yet the fact that they do goes a long way to elevating them beyond their frivolous fun.


Britain of course concerns itself far more with class and upbringing than Americans do generally, so perhaps in Britain this isn’t so revolutionary. But across the pond, “Kingsman” raises some interesting questions. In the film, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) comes from a working class background. When he arrives at the Kingsman training facility, all the other selected candidates are pompous, posh and preppy. They ask whether he’s an Oxford or Cambridge boy, which to anyone in England, coming from “Oxbridge” is an obvious sign of class and snobbery. The film shows that becoming a “gentleman” has little to do with your roots and everything to do with your actions. The film’s set pieces have stakes because they’re as much tests of character as they are feats of strength.

As for Jupiter (Mila Kunis) in “Jupiter Ascending,” the Wachowskis make a point to say that Jupiter was born over the Atlantic, literally without a country and that she’s “technically,” an alien. She explains how astrology has been a guiding factor in her upbringing, and each morning she complains saying, “I hate my life,” as though had she been born under different circumstances, things wouldn’t be so bad. Of course, Jupiter will find that all the wealth and royalty in the world will not make her want to change her heritage and her life.

Both evil plots are also governed by class dynamics. Valentine’s plan is to create a “culling” on Earth, in which the population whittles itself down through mass murder, leaving only the wealthy elite (like Eggsy’s privileged classmate) to survive. The culling process in “Jupiter Ascending” is a bit more sci-fi. The royal families have claims to individual planets, owning them and harvesting their resources like farms in order to extend their lives, but it’s still a process that favors the rich and treats other human beings as second class citizens made to serve.

People have been pointing to the libertarian politics in something like “Captain America: Civil War,” and yet Marvel deliberately makes their films wishy-washy and bland, scrubbed of an explicit position. The Wachowskis and Vaughn may have appeared to make innocent, meat and potatoes action films, but they’re far more sophisticated. Rather, because these are films “of the people” that reject sophistication, let’s just say they have a lot more character.

Side by Side: Lolita (1962) and Eyes Wide Shut

Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Lolita” are the two most sexual movies in his filmography. How do they stack up?

eyes-wide-shut-KidmanThe opening shots of Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” are a tease. Nicole Kidman strips off her slinky black dress in a quick moment of voyeurism and sexuality. A strangely lilting waltz plays over the top, and Kubrick drops us not into a boudoir or a ravishing sex scene but the mundane act of a married couple getting ready for a night out. But the real tease comes in its opening sequence amid something of a slice of heaven. The opulent party at the home of Victor Zeigler (Sydney Pollack) is bathed in blinding white light and a soothing haze lingers over the whole room. Kubrick catches the moment with a lingering focus, slowly observing and backtracking his camera into the gleam.

Kubrick’s “Lolita” opens with two teases of its own. The first is an iconic one a good 20 minutes deep, in which Prof. Humbert Humbert (James Mason) gets his first look at the underage vixen that is Lolita (Sue Lyon), perched languidly in a sun bathing hat, sunglasses and a frilly bikini. The shot is as deceptively alluring as Kidman’s. But the real tease is the opening sequence in which Humbert enters into the sprawling mansion of Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), the site of a long deserted orgy. Quilty’s cluttered home of paintings, pianos and ping pong tables looks like it could belong to Charles Foster Kane. He even drops a quick line about being Spartacus, this being the movie Kubrick made following his ancient war epic. But the hint of glamour and sense of building tension seen here does not begin to set the tone for the remainder of “Lolita”.

“Eyes Wide Shut” and “Lolita” are the two most sexual films in Kubrick’s filmography. There’s no sexuality in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, or in “The Shining”. There’s plenty of nudity in “A Clockwork Orange” but none of the “‘ole in and out” is really about sex. And any sexual tension found in “Spartacus” may be purely accidental.

What’s remarkable is how uninterested he is in sexuality in both “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Lolita”, how he uses the tantalizing possibilities as a diversion. “Eyes Wide Shut” was billed as a steamy sex romance between Hollywood’s then biggest power couple, but Kubrick uses orgies, prostitution, and bedroom pillow talk to stage an elaborate metaphor about fidelity. Similarly, “Lolita” was billed as the movie that simply could not have been made, one so scandalous in its subject matter, that how could it ever pass censors? And yet the film is often a farce, focused on the mundane and the ordinary slices of marriage and suburbia over the scandal.

Kubrick may be most interested in how dangerous sexuality can be. The first truly provocative sexual scene in “Eyes Wide Shut” involves Tom Cruise as Dr. Bill Harford tending to Zeigler in one of his many “house calls”. A ravishing model type is completely nude and passed out in a chair after having done too many drugs. But the scene is tame. Cruise plays everything so cool and professional, calm and reassuring that he saps the moment of its sexuality.

As for Humbert Humbert, he so quickly allows sexual desire for Lolita to warp his mind, to the point that he’s punished for even entertaining such thoughts. He’s now married to the shrill, needy and pitiful Charlotte (Shelley Winters), only to realize that Charlotte has no intention of bringing Lolita back into their lives. The whole point of this sham marriage was to remain close to Lolita, and when that’s in jeopardy he begins conceiving “the perfect murder”. Just that stray thought causes him to drop his guard, allowing Charlotte to find his diary and secret affections for her daughter.


There’s a spiritual sensation to sex in each of Kubrick’s films as well. “Eyes Wide Shut” is very clearly something of an existential journey. Cruise’s Bill is an affluent figure dragged through set pieces that are luxurious, grounded, dreamy, seedy, erotic, and plain bizarre. Each seems detached from the other, and Kubrick has erased a strong sense of time that would unify them. What’s more, we’re kept in the dark as much as Bill is. His keyboard playing friend hints to him about some of the most beautiful women he’s ever laid eyes on, but as he walks into that ancient, foreboding mansion, Kubrick doesn’t tease us as to what to really expect there. We’re going in dark, and when the pagan ritual and orgy does arrive, we’re made into spectators. Only a handful of films manage this much nudity and sex and feel completely sterile.

That aspect of course was what turned off so many critics to “Eyes Wide Shut” upon its release. It’s a movie with no heat, one wrote, but then Kubrick was always polarizing. Everything about the movie is a diversion away from sex, and given Bill’s many opportunities and temptations, he never succumbs. The orgy and everything in between is a stigma for his own fears and insecurities about his wife and marriage. The heat then is in the tension and conspiracy, how temptations may come back to punish Bill.


Humbert’s journey is less spiritual, but still profound. Kubrick uses Lolita and Quilty to toy with him, to drive him to madness. Humbert starts by dancing around the news of Charlotte’s death and how to best approach Lolita, but she can play coy and read him like a book. Her dialogue, all carefully within Production Code standards, toes the line between daughterly affection and something more lewd. Once they’ve relocated to Ohio, their affair gets a little less subtle, and even the neighbors begin to pick up on it. Soon Humbert’s hapless etiquette and politeness make him look tone deaf and alien. He’s overprotective and hyper attentive to Lolita in exactly the way she demands, but then she’ll never be satisfied, forever toying and always disappointed. By the end Humbert has grown into a lunatic, paranoid and crazy-eyed at even being away from her. Kubrick makes this all happen in economic one-takes, like when Quilty obsessively calls Humbert and the phone’s cord stretches across the room like a noose.

And for movies so largely about sexuality, they each end on a frigid note. Zeigler brings Bill into his billiard room to carefully explain out everything that’s happened over the last 24 hours. When Humbert and Lolita meet again after years of being apart, she plainly explains she’s married, pregnant, and even has glasses that make her look remarkably like her mother.

Dramatically, both of these scenes are something of a let-down, or an anti-climax. Kubrick has tied up all the loose ends in a way that’s largely less interesting than everything building up to them in either film. And yet these endings are by design. They remind of the after-effects of sex, the letdown that occurs outside of the moment.

Cruise and Mason are both weirdly perfect casting choices. Mason is so hapless and bland as Humbert, and you can see him straining in just about every moment to tolerate Charlotte and her friends. He gets some broad strokes of physical comedy as he so delicately and quietly tries to set up a rollaway cot in his hotel room while Lolita is sleeping. He never seems comfortable in his own shoes, and Kubrick is able to mold him like clay in his hand.


Cruise in “Eyes Wide Shut” is something of a revelation. Here is an actor who tries so hard in every role to be liked, who gives his all and never melts into the role, namely because he’s Tom friggin’ Cruise. Kubrick isn’t blind to Cruise’s celebrity, and the performance he elicits from Cruise forces him to be a blank slate and a pretty face. Cruise is so cool and confident with all the women he encounters and all the opulence and luxury he places along his spiritual journey, but you can see him squirming. You can see how thoughts of his wife’s illusory betrayal – which he imagines in hazy, black and white flashbacks – constantly weigh him down as he tries to keep a straight face.

The one performance in “Lolita” that doesn’t really fit into “Eyes Wide Shut’s” equation is Peter Sellers as Quilty. Sellers is so good in every moment he’s on screen. It rivals his work on Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove”, but here he gets to play so many more characters and in so many different ranges. First he’s the effete and cultured dramatist creating sparks with the hotel’s bellhop and admiring the “lilting, lyrical” quality of Lolita’s name, all the while keeping a demonic looking muse in tow who never speaks a word. Then he gets the opportunity to turn in something of a Brando impression, sheepishly rattling off friendly pleasantries as a way of toying with Humbert’s mind. He displays a remarkable cadence in every word he says. Just watch him blinking and fiddling with his glasses; even Kubrick can’t look away.

All these performers are hot commodities in movies that have no desire for their sex appeal. Their casting is as much a tease as Nicole Kidman’s back, and though it’s not sexy, it’s remarkably scandalous.


Side by Side: Birdman and Whiplash

“Birdman” and “Whiplash” are both technically impressive films about characters looking to feel they exist

All throughout cinema history we see protagonists who wish to be remembered, who wish to become something great. Marlon Brando said in “On the Waterfront”, “I coulda been somebody. I coulda been a contender!” Their means for greatness are always different, but their ends are never the same, and it lets us know just what kind of movie we’re watching.

Two films released this month that are both receiving Oscar buzz but are miles apart in terms of tone and style have protagonists who share these feelings of greatness in their own ways and to their own ends. “Birdman Or (the Unexpected Virtues of Ignorance” and “Whiplash” are fiery dramas that lead to realizations that some of the things in life that feel most real and make people feel most alive, are pain and death. Continue reading “Side by Side: Birdman and Whiplash”

Side by Side: The Double and Enemy

Two films were released this year about people who look identical, but they’re highly different films.

“You’re in my place.” That’s the opening line to “The Double,” and it’s the on-the-nose thesis to both that movie and a similar film also released this year, “Enemy.” In each film, a timid and lonely protagonist comes face to face with a more confident doppelganger, causing the original’s life to unravel.

Two copycat movies in a given year is a jarring coincidence, but to call them doppelgangers of each other would be a misnomer. However, it certainly doesn’t help that both are based off books called “The Double” and that neither is particularly good.

More so than a replica of “Enemy”, “The Double” is actually a pastiche of Orwellian dystopias, most notably Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil”. Director Richard Ayoade’s first film was yet another cinematic pastiche (or homage if you prefer) called “Submarine” that reimagined the French New Wave with its own dark comedy turns. This new film owes Gilliam a lot, with drab colors and cold, boxy, ‘80s machinery and technology filling every part of the set design. Continue reading “Side by Side: The Double and Enemy”

Side by Side: Wings and Cimarron

Two of the earliest Best Picture winners, “Wings” and “Cimarron,” are ambitious, but have not aged well.

“Welcome to a merry little war,” reads one intertitle in 1927’s “Wings,” the Best Picture winner at the first ever Oscars. “Wings” goes to show that war movies winning Hollywood’s biggest prize are as old as the award itself, but this war film looks fondly and lightly on World War I, an otherwise grim and consequential period of American History. “Wings” sets the spoils of war and the global turmoil as the backdrop to a sprawling, action driven melodrama and feels somewhat cheaper for it.

“Wings” has this in common with 1931’s Best Picture winner, “Cimarron,” a Western about the pioneers at the Oklahoma Land Rush in 1889 who built the settlement, town, region and then state from the ground up. It too has a complex setting of moral ambiguity, racial intolerance and gender inequality made weaker by a muddled narrative of nostalgia, conquest and a shoot-out or two.

To ask that both “Wings” and “Cimarron” be progressive is probably a stretch for movies as old as they are, but these are Best Picture winners forever given a place on film history lists, and although they hold up better than could be expected, they’re troublesome entries among many other great films in that time period and throughout Oscar’s legacy. The curious cinephile will find some surprising spectacle and production value in each film, but both “Wings” and “Cimarron” are ultimately non-essential in the Best Picture canon. Continue reading “Side by Side: Wings and Cimarron”

Side by Side: Rome Open City and Los Olvidados

Roberto Rossellini and Luis Bunuel’s films are early examples of neorealism.

Luis Bunuel opens his 1953 film “Los Olvidados,” or “The Young and the Damned,” with a disclaimer that explains his film is true, not optimistic and leaves everything to society’s progressive forces to solve. The film is about the poverty, crime and hardship that’s befallen Mexico as a result of the institution. It could very well be the same description as Roberto Rossellini’s “Rome, Open City.”

With “Rome, Open City” in 1945, Rossellini effectively invented the film movement known as “neorealism.” These films shot on location with non-actors and focused on ordinary lives as they were in the world. And starting in 1945 immediately after the war, Rossellini’s War Trilogy that included this film, “Paisan” and “Germany Year Zero”, were scathing indictments and portraits of the Italian lifestyle that had grown out of the war. Its early protagonist Pina (Anna Magnani) is the fiancee of an Italian insurgent named Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), and his associate going under the alias Luigi Ferraris (Marcello Pagliero) is being hunted by the Nazis.

But mostly, their casual scheming and getting around officers is a way of life. We see kids playing football in an alley, hiding rebels, talking on the phone with the certainty that the Gestapo are listening, and parenting with all the salt of an Italian household. Even the kids take an involvement in the war, sneaking home late under a secret underground pathway of rubble after staging an explosion on the far side of town. There’s a beautiful shot of them returning home that highlights the poverty and the valor that came out of the war effort. Continue reading “Side by Side: Rome Open City and Los Olvidados”

Side by Side: Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima Mon Amour

Alain Resnais’s first two features are polarizing art films that cast a spell on the audience but don’t demand to be solved.

The Marienbad Game is a short, two player card game in which cards, or match sticks if you prefer, are dealt in rows of 1, 3, 5 and 7. Players can pick up any number they wish in a turn so long as they draw from the same row. The person forced to pick up the last card loses. The rules matter not, because “Last Year at Marienbad’s” “M” (Sacha Pitoeff) always wins. The film’s patrons speculate and strategize fruitlessly, because the brain teaser seems to have no obvious answer.

Neither does the movie, and Director Alain Resnais, who was still making films but passed away in March, would laugh at the idea that a film or work of art needs to be scrutinized and solved (see: Christopher Nolan, J.J. Abrams, Joss Whedon). “Last Year at Marienbad” resists interpretation.

The film is about a man seducing a woman at a luxurious hotel by trying to convince her they’ve met a year before. He tells an elaborate story rife with details and she plays along while continuing to deny any recollection of their meeting. That description makes it sound like a romantic comedy, but the movie is a gloomy, sprawling and sumptuous fantasy. It’s also a polarizing, yet hypnotic dream of a movie that meanders and blares endlessly.

Continue reading “Side by Side: Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima Mon Amour”

Side by Side: Happiness and Election

Todd Solondz and Alexander Payne’s breakout films have a lot in common in depicting suburban life.

Of all the depressing, pitiable people in “Happiness,” Todd Solondz’s absolutely disturbed black comedy of suburbia, sex, sickness and sadness, the one I feel the worst for is Trish Maplewood.

Wait, which one is Trish (Cynthia Stevenson)? Is she the sister caught in arrested development, the smug, narcissistic poet who secretly suspects she’s talentless or the woman who described a case of rape and murder over an ice cream sundae?

No, Trish is perhaps the only one in “Happiness” without a crippling sex addiction, perversion, loneliness or self-destructive tendency. Her fatal flaw seems to be that she’s too normal, and worse yet that she managed to fall in love with a monstrous creep.

Trish is like the control group in Solondz’s examination of twisted individuals, the least interesting and noticeable figure of the bunch. We arguably identify with her the least because there’s the least to latch onto. Part of what makes “Happiness” so affecting though is that there’s a little bit of something we can relate to in each of the other dark characters because each has a little bit of normalcy.

She’s not unlike Jim McAllister’s wife Diane (Molly Hagan) in Alexander Payne’s “Election,” a simple house wife who exists in the background. We learn some about her, her desires, her sex drive and what she loves about her fairly awful husband. But for all intensive purposes, she’s nobody.

Released a year apart in 1998 and 1999, “Happiness” and “Election” are both complex satires of those nobodies, simple people in ordinary middle American neighborhoods, people who in their own strange ways feel universally relatable. For those who have levied claims that Payne is mocking and trivializing the simpleton schmucks in his films, that’s absolutely accurate, and it feels no less honest.

Continue reading “Side by Side: Happiness and Election”

Side by Side: The Sea Inside and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and “The Sea Inside” both look at devastating disabilities, but their characters have internal differences.

A disabled person should not be defined by their disability. This much we know, especially in the movies. But should they be defined by the fate they’ve chosen, or should family, friends and society have an impact on what someone stuck in this position should be able to say and do with their life?

“The Sea Inside” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” are two Oscar nominated foreign films about people who have suffered accidents and are now rendered immobile, but not incommunicable. Yet they differ in terms of how they express themselves, their internal dreams, ambitions and wishes for their body, and the movies follow suit.

Alejandro Amenabar’s “The Sea Inside” won the Foreign Language Oscar in 2004 for Spain, and it’s a tear-jerking crowd pleaser about an overall good man who simply wants to die, not out of misery but out of tranquility.

Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” on the other hand is much more surreal, art house and assertively French. Its themes and its story may scream Oscar bait, but its presentation certainly does not. That however did not prevent it from picking up four nominations in 2007 anyway. Its character is miserable enough that he would likely kill himself if he could, or if he could communicate it, but his reasons are much more cynical.

I watched these two films in succession because my sister is currently in a summer psychology course. It points out through these films that there are numerous thought processes that would influence a person to want death, and neither of them have strictly to do with circumstances.

What I found curious about the films is that each plays with its melodramatic overtones, and the tearjerker is not always the most exploitative, nor is the art film the most firm. Continue reading “Side by Side: The Sea Inside and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”

Side by Side: Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama Tambien

“Y Tu Mama Tambien” and “Amores Perros” are both early 2000s Mexican films, but they have more differences than they’d appear on paper.

At the dawn of the 21st Century, two directors emerged out of Mexico City with gruff, intimate films in their native tongue, but each with sprawling stories, symbolism and philosophies.

The first, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, made his debut film “Amores Perros” and has since moved on to Oscar bait with his films “Babel” and “Biutiful.” Critics have noted that his films have gotten grimmer, darker and more depressing as he’s grown as a filmmaker, but his next film, 2014’s “Birdman,” will be an American comedy.

The second, Alfonso Cuaron, had already been established with big budget titles, but returned to Mexico for the frankly sexual “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” a road-trip, coming of age story that could’ve never been made in Hollywood. Cuaron has now entered into the upper crust of blockbuster filmmakers with arguably the best Harry Potter movie “The Prisoner of Azkaban,” “Children of Men” and his upcoming space epic “Gravity.”

On paper, the two films are strikingly similar, a good starting point for Mexican cinema in the 2000s. In fact, both launched the career of actor Gael Garcia Bernal. But which is really the more depressing or the tougher sit? Neither film can be easily classified into the indie, foreign art film genre so easily, and although each is a striking example of how each filmmaker would grow and develop, neither can be so easily pigeonholed as equal entries into their broader, on-paper filmographies.

“Amores Perros” and “Y Tu Mama Tambien” may sound so similar because on a fundamental level, they’re both love stories. In tragic ways, they depict nuance, naiveté, betrayal and heartbreak.

“Y Tu Mama Tambien” especially is anchored on these themes. The first scene is an intensely passionate love scene between Tenoch (Diego Luna) and his girlfriend, in which he stops her and makes her promise she won’t cheat. Cross that with the frankly hilarious sex scene in which Julio (Bernal) and his girlfriend have sex while her parents wait for them to leave just downstairs. In each instance, sex is built on mistrust, a bad omen for any road trip. Continue reading “Side by Side: Amores Perros and Y Tu Mama Tambien”