Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

July 23, 2017 at 10:50 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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½

Based on a set of French comics that ran from 1967 – 2010, the film focuses on a Flash Gordon-type hero named Valerian and his partner, Laureline. They do amazing things and save the good guys from the bad guys. That’s hardly a revolutionary story line, though it doesn’t need to be. We go to films like this for a lot of reasons but being surprised isn’t typically one of them. However, we do expect to be entertained. And, in a movie so full of spectacle and action, I am sorry to say that I was bored, almost from the first scene to the last. The backbone of any good film is an engaging plot; it draws the audience in, creates the context for everything we see, and defines what’s at stake for the protagonists. But, right from the start, it’s clear that the emphasis is on surface over substance. Whole scenes are unnecessarily convoluted just as an excuse to play with more visuals and the plot as a whole makes virtually no sense. Similarly, the dialogue and character development feel frankly adolescent. Valerian and Laureline are supposed to be falling in love but the actors had no chemistry. In fact, none of them appeared to be trying particularly hard. Dane DeHaan, who played Valerian, is a terrific actor; watch him in “Kill Your Darlings.” But, here, he seemed to be channeling Keanu Reeves, as though Luc Besson thought he was making his own sort of “Matrix.” Besson, who is best known for directing “The Fifth Element,” shows all the subtlety here that he did there, though at least that film was visually arresting at times. Filmed almost entirely against a blue screen (there could not have been more than 3 or 4 actual sets in this whole film) for a whopping $180M, you would think “Valerian” would at least be fun to look at. You would be wrong. The imagery was all too much too often and without a coherent whole. Visuals were created just because they looked good and not because they served a consistent vision of this universe. The film lacked an internally compelling aesthetic. Also, because the characters all lacked depth, it did not matter that the CGI was good. None of their emotions meant anything. I kept thinking about the most recent “Planet of the Apes” and the character of Caesar. He was such a real and complex character that the CGI served to bring him to life. But CGI cannot animate the lifeless. As a tool, it can add new dimensions to film and allow the director/actors/audience to explore core truths in new and compelling ways. Or it can simply be gratuitous overload; visuals for the sake of the fact that you can create them. That’s what we have here. This film is all surface with nothing below a very thin veneer of pretty. Why bother? There are so many other better films to see. I can’t give this film a ∅. I mean, it didn’t offend me. It just felt like an 137 minute waste of time.

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War for the Planet of the Apes

July 15, 2017 at 9:25 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Director Matt Reeves made his name as the writer and director for the “Felicity” t.v. series. He then went on to direct “Cloverfield,” “Let Me In,” and the last “Planet of the Apes” film.  “The Batman” is next on his roster. Reeves brought a much needed depth to the previous “Apes” film. The first one had little to offer beyond the (then revolutionary) CGI. The story itself was painful. Reeves is now also the writer of “War” and has further developed the story established in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” Taking place just 2 years after that film, we are in the middle of the war between humans and apes that started at the end of the “Dawn.” Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his troop have been hiding deep in the woods until they are forced to look for a new, safer home. This film is less of an action/sci fi film and really more of a psychological drama. It explores how someone deals with trauma, battle fatigue, mistrust, rage and hatred, while still trying to be a leader to his people. The CGI is now good enough that a film like this can allow for a whole range and depth of emotions to play across a character’s face and Andy Serkis is a master actor. Though Reeves has cleverly evolved Caesar’s speaking abilities with each film, he does not rely on dialogue to convey most of the emotions we see on screen. Instead, we get beautiful close ups of Caesar’s and the other ape’s faces as they wrestle with complex and sometimes heartbreaking emotions. This film works because Caesar is such a beautifully realized character. The action scenes are fine, though nothing stands out as being as impressive as the Golden Gate Bridge scene from the first film. Also, there was a welcome amount of humor in an otherwise very serious story. But those are not the reasons I am recommending this film. Rather, see it because it completes the story arc in a really satisfying way. Though I am sure there will be more in the series, this trilogy is a better character study than most. See this film because it is beautifully acted. See it because it is touching. See it because I was surprised by how moved I was by its final moments. See it because great acting is always worth watching.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

July 9, 2017 at 10:53 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

The Spider-Man franchise, in its various incarnations, has been the gold standard for superhero franchises, having brought in just over $4 billion in its 15 year run. Not bad for a kid in tights. So, expectations have been high for this reboot, especially after the Andrew Garfield one failed to take off. Right from the start, they were off to a good start because Marvel was back in control of the franchise and they have shown a deft hand at translating even the goofiest of characters to the screen (think “The Guardians of the Galaxy), where others have failed, even with hugely popular characters (think “The Fantastic Four”). Marvel chose to bring Spider-Man right back to his roots. What made him unique when he debuted in 1963 was that he was an awkward teenager, so unlike the cool and supremely talented heroes we had seen in comics to date. I think this is part of why Garfield’s Spidey never worked; he was too cocksure and smirky. Nothing about him read awkward teen. This time, Marvel hired the youngest actor yet to play Peter Parker, 21 year old British actor Tom Holland (“The Impossible,” “In the Heart of the Sea”). Unlike previous actors, Holland is able to believably play a 15 year old. In fact, the real contribution of this film to the genre is in just how different its hero is. This Spider-Man is every bit the nerdy, self-conscious, angst-ridden teen. He is impulsive, eager to please, clumsy and incredibly endearing. Holland’s charm as the character is what makes the film work. The storyline is not particularly better or worse than any of the other films. Again, the writers have dragged out a couple of classic Spider-Man villains. This time it is The Shocker and The Vulture. Robert Downey Jr’s cameo as Iron Man adds some humor and deeper context, but only if you are a fan who has watched all the other Marvel movies. Otherwise, he looks like a confusing add-on. Far funnier were Chris Evans’s cameos as Captain America. They were brilliantly clever (make sure you wait until after the final credits to see the last one). But the real star to watch was Michael Keaton as The Vulture. Keaton is having a well deserved revival after “Birdman” reminded everyone of how brilliant he is. He imbues this villain with just the right balance of menace, cynicism and blasé attitude. He is the perfect foil for Spider-Man’s goofy energy, wide-eyed wonder and perkiness. I found their in-costume battle scenes to be a bit dull, but when they were face-to-face, sparring verbally, that was just a joy. Keaton commanded every one of those scenes, but that’s okay because he should have. This geeky boy, despite his super powers, was no intellectual match for his enemy. I love that Marvel was willing to give us such an incomplete hero here. Usually, super heroes are all so automatically super and heroic. Even previous Spider-Men (Men? Mans? What’s the right grammar here?), had a “learning my powers montage” or two and then were remarkably proficient. I loved that this film chose to tackle the character so differently. As an action movie, this was about par with the most of them and not nearly as good as the likes of last month’s “Wonder Woman.” But, as a character study, this is really one of the best superhero films we have had to date.

Baby Driver

July 2, 2017 at 5:20 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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It was impossible to not think of Nicolas Winding Refn’s brilliant “Drive” throughout this film. Both tell the story of a getaway driver who tries to leave the life after falling in love. And Refn’s film was so vital and bold that it feels like I saw it yesterday, even though it was almost 5 years ago. This was hardly a fair thing to do to “Baby Driver,” which can only suffer by comparison. That film was brilliant; this one was merely very very entertaining. But worth the price of admission, none-the-less. Beyond the similarities in story, these films could not be more different. The tone, temper, pacing, acting, and visual palettes were virtually opposite each other. Refn’s “Drive” was a sort of minimalist masterpiece. The pace was deliberately slow and brooding and all of the acting was appropriately understated. Scenes seethed with unstated tension. And the lighting was dark, long night scenes, and lots of orange/red hues. But “Baby Driver” goes in the opposite direction. Director Edgar Wright (“Sean of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz,” “Scott Pilgrim vs The World”) loves excess and draws over-the-top performances from his actors. From the first moments of the first scene, “Baby Driver” takes off and keeps going at an almost unrelenting pace for its entire 113 minutes. Every single performance is bursting with energy. Where Ryan Gosling’s driver was all coiled potential energy, Ansel Elgort’s Baby cannot stop moving. He is endless kinetic energy. The villains are equally as manic. Jon Bernthal’s Griff made his “Punisher” from the “Daredevil” t.v. series seem realistic by comparison. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it adds to the fun of a film that is clearly just meant to be fun. Jon Hamm appears to be having the time of his life as the absurdly one-dimensional Buddy. This film is all flash and buzz and hi-octane energy. It’s a cotton-candy thrill ride that knows how to be that, exactly that, and nothing more. Go, settle into your seat with a big bag of popcorn, and enjoy the ride.

 

Okja

July 2, 2017 at 4:47 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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You could possibly accuse me of cheating with this review, as the film has been released on Netflix and will not ever get a wide-release in the U.S. That said, Bong is a major director, this film has had wide-release in other countries and was shown at Cannes. So, I decided to treat it like any new release. Plus, it is one of my favorite films of the year, to date. Bong Joon-ho is responsible for some of my favorite Korean films, including “The Host” and the beautifully creepy “Mother.” He has an eye for the bizarre and loves a fantastic parable, as in the less successful “Snowpiercer.” Here, he takes on factory farming, evil corporations and mass consumption, in general. At times his message is as poignant as it is pointed. And at other times it feels a bit one-dimensional; his depiction of The Animal Liberation Front seems like propaganda, better suited for one of their flyers. But, look beyond that and what you’ll find is a remarkably funny, heart-wrenching and provocative story. Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) is CEO of a company that has secretly bred genetically modified pigs and now wants to send them all to mass slaughter. But 13 year old Mija (Ahn Seo-Hyun) has fallen in love with one of them. When the evil corporation takes Okja away, Mija goes on an epic journey to get her back. Swinton loves playing extreme characters and does a brilliant job of it, she was the best part of “Snowpiercer,” and she does not disappoint here. Jake Gyllenhaal also gives a full on, over-the-top performance as the far less than stable Johnny Wilcox. But the real credit goes to the young Ahn and the CGI team that created Okja. The creature was genuinely beautiful and expressive. The love between the two felt completely believable. In Ahn’s hands, Mija is an incredibly strong and unrelenting hero, and you can’t help but root for her every step of the way. This film was equal parts social commentary, laugh-out-loud comedy and non-stop action film. Every scene was a joy to watch. It will surprise and amuse and maybe annoy you, but it is unlikely to ever bore you.

Wonder Woman

June 4, 2017 at 10:28 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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I don’t think I need much from a movie in this genre. Mostly, it just needs to be fun. Some great visual effects, frequent and creative action sequences, and humor are really probably all I need. It’s an added bonus if there is a great story arc and compelling, multilayered characters. In DC’s newest superhero movie, and the first ever with a female lead, we get a lot of the first three things on my list but not much of the second two. Humor has mostly eluded DC until now. Their cadre of films (The “Dark Knight” series, “Man of Steel,” “Batman v. Superman,” “Watchmen”) have all been pretty grim affairs. Fortunately, under the direction of Patty Jenkins, they seem to have finally found their sense of humor. Jenkins, who has only directed one other feature film (2003’s brilliant “Monster”), knows how to develop strong female leads, as she did in that film and on the tv series “The Killing.” Here, she uses Gal Gadot to great effect, giving us strong doses of her emotional strength, physical strength and compassion. This film works largely because she works so well in the role. There is nothing campy or silly about this Wonder Woman, which then gives space for humor that feels more like laughing with, rather than laughing at, the characters. Jenkins’s visuals were also dazzling. I loved the choreography of her fight scenes and the way she continually slowed down the camera so that we could watch what was happening. Some might find that technique affected, especially with how frequently she used it, but I loved it. Far too often in CGI films, action happens too quickly for the audience to track it. Here, we were able to see all of the great dexterity and grace that Gadot and Jenkins instilled into this character’s fighting abilities. I found myself smiling over and over again at the creativity and fun of those scenes. More and more often, comic book films are able to look like the actual comic book panels that inspired them. The 12-year-old boy in me loves that. What I did not love quite as much was the silly gods-heavy plot line, which effectively minimized the travesty of war by laying the blame conveniently not at our feet. It also set up the very corny, saccharine ending that made me groan out loud at one point (actually, I think I said, “Oh, come on! Really?”). Fortunately, the worst of it comes in the last five or so minutes of an otherwise thoroughly entertaining and thoroughly fun adventure. I hope this film brings us a great deal more of all three of these women: Gal Gadot, Patty Jenkins and, of course, Wonder Woman.

 

Alien: Covenant

May 21, 2017 at 7:42 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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The genius’s curse. A filmmaker redefines the industry with a groundbreaking film. The second in the series is as good as, or better than, the first. And then it all goes down hill… And we end up with “The Godfather, Part III,” ewoks and Jar Jar Binks, and now “Prometheus” and “Covenant.” In fact, it seems that Ridley Scott has fallen into the same trap that George Lucas did– the need to over explain, and therefore over complicate. Everything was fine when the Force was just the Force and evil aliens wreaked havoc on unsuspecting crew members. But now we have midichlorians and an unbelievably complicated backstory about how humans and the aliens came into being. It is all so ponderous and complex that it cannot help but slow the story down. When this film is focused on the aliens, it works. Scott has faithfully captured HR Giger’s imagery beautifully. We spin through disorientingly similar passageways on spaceships and in dead alien cities. There are some great scary moments and several good jumps to be had, just not nearly enough of them. These scenes, which helped to make the first movies such classics, are painfully few and far between. The rest of the time, we get Michael Fassbender talking to himself about life, morality and who cares what else. Too much of this film was tedious and sometimes baffling. There was an air of weightyness that hung over the whole story, as though Scott has something important he wants to say. Unfortunately, that becomes the focus of the film. The audience would have been better served had he simply made another really good horror film. It seems that, as soon as a director understands that they have created something important, they shouldn’t be allowed to keep working on it. The line between importance and self-importance seems to be an awfully thin one that is just too easy to cross.

Kong: Skull Island

March 12, 2017 at 11:25 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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In order for this film to work, you must concede from the start that it’s a comedy. Not a standard set-up & punch line comedy, but a comedy none-the-less. If you can allow for that, I think you’ll enjoy the hell out of this film, as I did. It was such goofy, over-the-top fun from start to finish and it was just so clever on so many levels. This is the first blockbuster film from director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (“The Kings of Summer”) but he is the right director for this type of film. He’s a very visual filmmaker and has a great eye for finding the humor in the melodramatic: the slo-mo choreography of the choppers, images reflected in aviator sunglasses, perfect 70s vest jackets, the Nixon bobblehead, the list goes on. He had me laughing continually over small, clever details. But he also has an eye for the grand, as well. The visuals of the island and its various creatures were just stunning. This was the most beautiful, fully realized version of Skull Island to have appeared in any King Kong film. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, this film pays homage to multiple other films, but none more humorously than “Apocalypse Now.” Over and over again, it references the film: the boat going down the river, the music blaring from the helicopters, the compound and tribe where they find the “gone native” soldier. The film even names two characters Marlowe ( Martin Sheen’s character in “Apocalypse Now.”) and Conrad (Joseph Conrad was the author of “Heart of Darkness,” upon which the film was based). The theme of descent into the jungle (and therefore madness) is straight out of that film. Even the soundtrack was a clear nod to the heavy 70s soundtrack that was part of what defined “Apocalypse Now.” There were other nice nods to earlier films, particularly other monster movies, like when John Goodman’s character referred to Kong as a “massive unidentified terrestrial organism.” This was a reference to the exact same term used in the 2014 Godzilla movie; it was given as a name (MUTO) for the creature Godzilla fought. Speaking of that film, my chief complaint there was that it went only half-in on the campiness: the monster was full camp but the acting and dialogue were so self-serious. That is not the problem here. Everyone is having fun with the silliness of it all. Nobody behaves in any way remotely realistically and I could care less. That was the main problem with Peter Jackson’s 2005 “King Kong;” it was such a sentimental and loving homage to the original that it lacked any real spark of it’s own. A monster film should not take itself seriously and this one certainly does not. It is ridiculous from start to finish but it should be and I enjoyed every single scene of that ridiculous ride.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

November 19, 2016 at 1:41 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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Rebooting a very successful franchise can be a risky gamble; just look at Star Wars. Fans have incredibly high expectations. They love the world just as it is but they don’t want a retread of what they have already seen. How do you create new characters who do not look like shadows of previously beloved ones but can still find a place in this world? How do you even reenter this world in a way that feels fresh and familiar at the same time? To her credit, JK Rowling has done a fairly good job of doing exactly that. We are brought back to the world of Harry Potter, only we have been transported to 1920s America and introduced to whole new set of characters. The four main protagonists (two men and two women) are sufficiently different from Harry, Hermione and Ron, so as to not feel like cheap copies. Also, the arc of this story is utterly different from the Potter series. Much credit should be given for her ability to create such a different look into the same universe. That said, I am not sure that this one is as compelling as the original. Newt Scamander is not nearly so engaging a character as Harry Potter. He lacks the sense of destiny that was a driving force in the original books. Also, where Harry was a moral compass (righteous, brave, charismatic and unflinching in the face of destiny), Newt is timid, painfully shy and prone to tears (he reminded me more of Redmayne’s “Danish Girl” than anything else). He’s likable as a character, but only in a “hey, buck up. You’re better than you think you are” kind of way. The audience likes him because he seems vulnerable and misunderstood. He does not command attention the way Harry Potter did, nor does he seem to have the hidden potential that drove our interest in Harry. In addition, this story lacks some of the fundamental tension of the original series. There is no great rising danger that we know is coming (though we are given hints of a potential future villain). Rather, this story is more of a goofy romp around New York, full of slapstick humor and dashes of sentimentality, that may work more for other audiences than for me. The story worked best when it strayed back into darker territory, as it did with Samantha Morton (“Sweet and Lowdown,” “Minority Report”) as the anti-witch evangelist and Ezra Miller (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” and The Flash in the new DC movies) as her disturbed son, Credence Barebone. The name is classic Rowling and the character is full of pain and menace, played perfectly by Miller. We are introduced to a lot of new, silly creatures but also to one terrifying one, an obscurus. It isn’t quite as good as a dementor, but it’s pretty good. In fact, my main takeaway from this film is that, it isn’t as good as the original series yet, but it could be. This film was fun and mostly silly. If the next ones get darker, as the original series did, then I think there is real potential here.

Doctor Strange

November 5, 2016 at 10:30 am | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been so successful for everyone, not least of all Marvel Comics, who was on the verge of bankruptcy 15 years ago, that they must have a full time employee at Marvel whose only job is to dig through every remaining character in their pantheon, looking for their next gold mine. The current list of Marvel characters that have been featured in recent film or television include Captain America, the X-Men, Iron Man, Thor, Spider-man, Ant-Man, The Black Widow, The Black Panther, The Falcon, The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Hawkeye, Daredevil, The Vision, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Nick Fury and the list goes on. At this point, they have to dig deep into their archives to find new material. Fortunately for them, they have more than 50 years of it. Doctor Strange is what you might call one of their B- List characters. He was created in the 1960s and languished in obscurity until he was rescued in the 80s by artist Marshall Rogers. Briefly, he had a cult following before slipping into the background again. Well, Marvel has now revived him for a film series of his own, inspired heavily by Rogers’s art and the visuals of films like “Inception.” The end result is a better-than-it-should-be romp through a lighter, funnier, campier film than either “Inception” or the comic book ever were. There is certainly plenty of magical action (I wish the magic from “Harry Potter” had looked half this good) and the final battle was a visual delight that must have been murder to film but was sheer fun to watch. There was also room for back story, pensive introspection and life lessons without slowing the plot down. In the end, the lighthearted tone eases the audience through the sillier aspects of the story and keeps things going at a jaunty pace. Doctor Strange will never be much more than a bit player among superheroes but this film shows Marvel’s genius at lifting him up enough to at least get a trilogy out of him. He may not be cinematic gold but he’ll be worth a few silver.

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