Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Jupiter Ascending and Kingsman: The Secret Service

If The Matrix and its sequels were cyberpunk/anime/martial-arts/John Woo mash-up commentaries on the Hero’s Journey, Jupiter Ascending is a mid-century-sci-fi-paperback-cover/30s-40s comics/modern-YA-fiction mash-up exploration of Cinderella.  The story of Cinderella is not quite as deeply embedded in human storytelling as the Monomyth, but it’s close.  Numerous fairy tales from multiple cultures follow the same pattern, a set-up and progression still visible in everything from Jane Eyre to Twilight to Fifty Shades of Grey.  The whole “princess” fantasy has been under attack for decades for its supposedly destructive effect on the dreams of young girls (and there’s certainly been some terrible versions out there), but it’s far too universal an archetype to ever go away.  So in JA, the Wachowskis decide to celebrate the story, retelling it with all the over-the-top gusto they can muster.  The result is a massive, over-long space opera, filled with weird make-up, unpronounceable names, campy performances, and cheesy dialogue.  I pretty much loved it.

Here is a movie made on a massive Hollywood budget about stuff so geeky it will never be cool, but filmed with such unabashed love it will always have a cult audience.  It’s like Guardians of the Galaxy played (mostly) straight (and with an admittedly weaker cast), with a big ol’ homage to Brazil and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy tossed in the middle for no reason.  And that action sequence through the buildings of Chicago is the best use of the city’s skyline I’ve ever seen, with Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum bouncing off the Sears/Willis Tower, the Old Chicago Water Tower, and the tracks of the L, in such a tangible way that anyone who has ever visited the city should get a little thrill of recognition.  (Now if only it was edited a little cleaner so I could tell what was happening, I’d call it one of the best action sequences in years.)  

As for Cinderella (here called Jupiter Jones), the Wachowskis decide to avoid doing the obvious “feminist” thing by making her a kick-butt action hero.  Instead, she remains a regular, working-class girl to the end, even keeping her old job cleaning toilets.  The central appeal of Cinderella has always been her ordinariness, and here the Wachowskis get to use that to affirm lower class life in the face of the evil industrialist space-aristocrats.  It’s the kind of simple populist leftism they always engage in, but here it ends up kind of sweet.  The question they seem to be posing is, Why do only boys get to have big special effects movies where they can imagine themselves being superheroes with secret identities who save the girl and beat the bad guys?  Why can’t girls get a fantasy about being secret royalty, and end up with a hunky space-boyfriend who calls them “Your Majesty” and can kick bad guy butt if they ever need him to?

Somewhat like the Wachoswkis, director Matthew Vaughn and original-comic-writer Mark Millar have filled Kingsman: The Secret Service with a mash-up of things they love about James Bond and the whole super-spy genre: suits, gadgets, supervillains with mountain hideouts, henchmen with strange deformities, etc.  They pack their movie with giddy references and in-jokes, bright colors and loud music, and numerous wild action sequences (Vaughn is partial to that speed-ramping/camera-whipped-’round in the middle of the fight style that pal Guy Ritchie pioneered, and Edgar Wright parodied in The World’s End).  Vaughn is intent on becoming a real stylist, and Kingsman is a far more stridently and, I would say, successfully directed and edited film than Jupiter Ascending.

Thematically Vaughn+Millar even set up a clever opposition between old-school gentlemen spies, nattily suited and code-named after the Knights of the Round Table, and the housing project hooliganism of young recruit Eggsy (Taron Egerton).  This sets up Colin Firth as the avatar of all that was admirable in the old English aristocracy (stiff upper lip, calm under fire, courtliness of manner), while allowing Eggsy to assert the proper rights and abilities of the under class in the face of the other snobby toffs in the Service.  The problem is Vaughn+Millar don’t actually care about this theme, or much of anything concerning actual human beings, and any sense of gentlemanliness as a virtue is tossed aside by the filmmaking in favor of aggressive vulgarity.  The movie feints at some form of emotional connection (both Firth and Egerton are strong, and have excellent chemistry), but by the climax, the very idea of treating characters as people has been laughed off the screen.  Eggsy is set up as a kid who loves his mum but is cowed by his abusive stepdad, and when the movie drags in the hoary legend of spies required to shot their pet dogs, we’re meant to consider his failure a moral victory.  But the movie itself exhibits no such sympathy toward any of its human characters; within five minutes of that scene, we’ve watched an entire congregation of Westboro Baptist-types be mind-controlled into slaughtering each other with their bare hands.  And we are absolutely meant to get off on this spectacle, because it’s just so awesome.  Sure, the whole thing turns out to be a lefty-populist attack on the 1% just like Jupiter Ascending, if that's what you're into, but here the big political statement is delivered by watching hundreds of (wealthy and powerful and therefore evil) heads blow up like fireworks set to Pomp and Circumstance.

The general crassness at the heart of the movie hits its peak during the grand finale, when Eggsy requests a kiss from an imprisoned princess and she offers him anal sex instead.  After saving the world, he runs back to her cell where she lies waiting, and in porny POV shot we watch her flip over and lift her naked butt to him and--cut to credits.  It’s exactly the kind of nasty little joke Mark Millar specializes in (whether he’s the one who came up for it here or not), and it curdles the rest of the film for me.  I’m on record on this blog as enjoying Matthew Vaughn's past work, but (aside from X-Men: First Class) I think I’ve outgrown him.

Each of these movies is a potpourri (too fancy a word)--a goulash of ingredients I enjoy, but one of them is sweet in the middle and one is just nasty, and I know which I prefer.

Jupiter Ascending:  Rating: 7/10.

Kingsman: The Secret Service:  Rating: 5/10.

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