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.

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.

Sleight

May 7, 2017 at 4:59 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Fandango called this film a combination of “Chronicle” and “Iron Man,” but I don’t think that’s quite right. To my mind, it is more closely aligned with urban black films from 1991’s “Straight Out of Brooklyn” to 2015’s “Dope.” The young guy, simply wanting to get out of poverty and take care of his family, gets involved with drug dealers and things go awry. The tropes are all too common and well-tread. J.D. Dillard, making his full-length directing debut, certainly gives the genre a twist by adding in superhero/sci-fi elements, but this film never strays far from its genre. That’s a shame because it is as its most interesting when it is at its most fantastic. If Dillard had more fully embraced the fantasy elements, he may have made a more interesting film. That’s not to say this was a bad film, but it never felt like it lifted too far above the cliché. The story went exactly where you might expect but never got as gritty or as scary as most films in the genre and it felt like nothing real was ever at stake. In the end, that’s the film’s biggest problem; it’s just lite. Dillard made a gangsta-lite film and a sci-fi-lite film. The result is that it isn’t very satisfying in either genre. The one way that I would compare it to “Chronicle” is in its intentions. I don’t think anyone made this film believing it would make a ton of money or win any awards or make them famous. I think they hoped it would serve as a resume to Hollywood, getting their names out there, building some buzz and generating other, bigger work for them. Tiny as “Chronicle” was, it launched the careers of Josh Trank, Dean DeHaan and Micheal B. Jordan. “Sleight”‘s lead actor, Jacob Latimore, does a fine job and probably deserves more exposure. The rest of the mostly unknown cast do fine but nobody stands out as a superstar. Of course, neither did Jordan in “Chronicle,” so perhaps they just need the right material. This film just doesn’t seem to have the buzz that “Chronicle” generated, even though I actually liked it slightly better. I hope to see Latimore and Dillard in the future; they both deserve more exposure. I’m just not sure this film is going to give it to them.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

May 7, 2017 at 9:55 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Vol. 2 is the right signifier for this film, not only because it cleverly hearkens back to 80s mixed tapes but also because this really is just a retread of the first film. It is exactly as entertaining as that one but not an ounce more. James Gunn is the right director/writer for these films. His sense of timing, humor and pacing are well-fitted for this series. But he has found his formula and doesn’t seem the least bit interested in breaking out of it. Given the films’ success, I can’t really blame him. He has gathered the same crew of actors (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker and Karen Gillan) and essentially put them through 2 ½ hours of more of the same. It is a fast-paced fun ride, full of good laughs, but it isn’t anything different from the last one. We are treated to a dazzling special effects overload (I was particularly impressed by the CGI used to make Kurt Russell look younger– it’s the best I’ve ever seen) and an over burdened plot that is equal parts silly and irrelevant. Marvel has dug deep to introduce us to some pretty obscure characters here (most of whom had a brief moment of notoriety in the 70s), including Ego, Mantis, the Watchers, Howard the Duck, the Grandmaster, and what appears to be a reference to Adam Warlock. In addition to obscure comic book characters, we are treated to a variety of random actors playing them (sometimes just as voice overs), including Sylvester Stallone, Michelle Yeoh, Seth Greene, Ving Rhames, Rob Zombie, David Hasselhoff, Miley Cyrus, Jeff Goldblum, Stan Lee of course, and the entirety of James Gunn’s family. And, like all Marvel movies, this one has post-credit scenes. In fact, it has 5 of them. So, if you are interested in that sort of thing (some of them are very funny), you will want to stay until lights up in the theater. It may all seem like a bit much, but that is part of the fun. The absurdity of it all just adds to the experience. The first film was a great, fun way to spend a couple of hours and this one is also. It isn’t anything new but, then, I guess it doesn’t really have to be. Especially when what it is works so well.

Colossal

May 1, 2017 at 9:00 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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After a month of just not been particularly inspired by anything out there (I did try to watch “After the Storm” but slept through so much of it, I wasn’t able to write a review), I thought I would give the quirky new movie, “Colossal,” a shot. This is by far the largest film from Spanish writer/director Nacho Vigalondo (“Open Windows,” “The ABCs of Death”) and I have not seen any of this other work. So, I don’t know if this one is typical of him but it’s certainly not typical of anything else. I don’t want to give much of the plot away, as the real joy I had with this film was in trying to figure it out. Basically, a giant monster appears over Seoul and it is apparently being unconsciously controlled by Anne Hathaway. Strangeness ensues from there. The cast for the film is incredibly small. With the exception of some minor background characters, there is only Anne’s character, her boyfriend (played by Dan Stevens from “Downton Abbey” fame), the bar owner she grew up with (Jason Sudeikis from SNL, “We’re the Millers” and the “Horrible Bosses” movies), and two of his friends, played by Tim Blake Nelson (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) and Austin Stowell (“Bridge of Spies”). And even that felt like a bit too much. I can’t see the value the two friends brought to the film at all, other than to distress the audience with their utter inaction. But, perhaps that was the point. This whole, odd production felt like it was playing at being a giant (excuse the pun) metaphor, even if I wasn’t sure what the metaphor was. Hathaway’s character is clearly an alcoholic and, for much of the film, I thought the monster was a metaphor for the destruction alcohol can cause in a person’s life; it can lay waste to your soul (get it? Soul/Seoul?). But, then the film suddenly took a much, much darker turn. Then the metaphor seemed to be playing at something much more disturbing and less clear. In the end, I couldn’t figure out what Vigalondo was trying to say and how the pieces were supposed to fit together. In particular, the ending just didn’t seem to fit. As satisfying as it was for the audience, it belied the whole metaphor because it bore no resemblance to real life and felt to me like it minimized the problem it seemed to be exploring. Hathaway does a good job of being the same charming, slightly goofy character we have seen before but the real strength of the film is in Sudeikis’s performance. He has real acting chops, beyond just comedy, and he gives a powerful performance in this genre defying film. The trailers make it look like a comedy/sci-fi film but it’s really a drama, and one grimly determined to get its message across. Vigalondo is trying to take on a colossal topic and I give him real credit for telling his story in a unique way. There are things that do really work here. It’s just not enough for me to recommend the movie. That isn’t to say I wish I had skipped it. I am actually glad I saw it; I just wouldn’t see it again.

Life

April 2, 2017 at 10:08 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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The late-winter doldrums (between last year’s Oscar bait in January/February and the blockbuster season, starting in May) can always be a bit lean. Occasionally, we get a few independent gems during this period. Films that were too small to justify a release during busier times of the year (“Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring” would be a classic example). Or we might get riskier films that the studio is afraid might flop (like last year’s “Deadpool”). This general dearth is what has brought me to the rather ironically named “Life.” I could have chosen this or “Ghost in the Shell” but, as one of my friends put it, at least this one has Ryan Reynolds. That really wasn’t quite enough, though. This space horror takes place entirely on the International Space Station as 6 astronauts do battle with a rapidly growing space flower. I’m sure that’s not how the studio would want to describe this alien but this ain’t no capital A Alien. While clearly an homage to Ridley Scott’s horror/sci-fi classic, this film lacked virtually everything that one had: atmosphere, escalating tension, real terror and (oh yeah) an actually scary monster. This film’s see-through, “Little Shop of Horrors” knock-off was kind of hard to find frightening. It also didn’t help that I kept thinking of ways they could have killed the thing if they were just following any reasonable protocols. Like, why the hell wasn’t the lab with the unknown alien life form in it attached to an airlock? The film also had a painfully slow build up. It took 40 minutes to get to any action. That’s a lot of time in a film that’s only 1:45 long and seeing the crew members joke with each other and talk to cute kids didn’t make me like them or care about their deaths. The film ended with a haunting twist ending that was neither haunting nor much of a twist. Who didn’t see that coming? I was also really bugged by the fact that they seemed to keep calling the Japanese crew member Cho, which is a Korean name. That drove me crazy. Well, it turns out they were actually calling him Sho (apparently the character’s name was Sho Murakami, which is Japanese). But I am still going to bitch about it because that’s what type of movie this was. It really is a shame to waste a simple, vital name on such an inert movie; “Life” was, in the end, utterly lifeless.

Arrival

November 15, 2016 at 12:53 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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In the range of Sci-Fi movies from flash-bang, special effects overload (think “The Fifth Element”) to slow, moody and ponderous (think “Moon”), this one lands somewhere just north of middle. In mood and theme and pacing, it very much reminds me of “Contact.” It isn’t devoid of action but it’s filled with more big ideas than big explosions. The short story that the film is based on, “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, was the winner of three prestigious science fiction literary awards in 1999. It draws heavily on mathematics and modern linguistic theories to construct a plausible, but very science-fictiony, story about how an alien language might look and how it might influence us. So, yeah. No Bruce Willis in this one. Instead, we getting acting heavyweights like Amy Adams, Forest Whitaker, and Jeremy Renner (who may be making his bread off of franchises like “The Avengers” and “Mission Impossible” these days but, all you have to do is rewatch “The Hurt Locker” to understand how powerful he can be). The three of them do an admirable job, well below their skill levels, of bringing these characters to life. This isn’t Scorsese but it’s a cut above your regular genre fiction. The plot is complex and interesting and the twist, which is revealed slowly, is a gratifying one. Director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners,” “Sicario”) isn’t going for shocks here, he’s going for quieter surprises, so don’t expect a “Shutter Island” moment. The reality of the twist is in its implications more than its reveal. The short story spends more time on those implications and why certain choices aren’t made differently. Chiang is posing a question and asking us to consider how language shapes our perception and what free choice really is. Unfortunately, the film only hints at some of these issues but then, I guess, it couldn’t have delved too deeply. After all, it did need to leave room for an explosion somewhere.

Star Trek Beyond

July 23, 2016 at 2:53 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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For those of you familiar with the Star Trek canon, this film will be exactly what you expect it to be, for better and for worse. Though widely more popular than the last one (“Into Darkness”), I liked it less. Perhaps, I am experiencing sequel fatigue, but I recall having the same reaction to the latest James Bond film after really loving the previous one. I think I am just craving something new and I didn’t really find it here. Much has been said about director Justin Lin (the ” The Fast & The Furious” series) and his style and it was noticeable here in the pacing, which was faster and more unrelenting than previous Trek films. For me, that fast pace is entertaining but led to little plot development; the film was a series of rapidly presented problems that were almost as rapidly resolved. However, what I was most aware of was how this story line seemed like best-of clips from so many Star Trek films before it. We have the one maniacal leader who has an irrational/poorly justified hatred of The Federation (or Jim Kirk, in particular) and who is somehow capable of getting others to mindlessly die for his cause. Inevitably, after the rest of his group is defeated, he ends up mano-y-mano against Kirk (or, as in the last movie, against Spock). Throw in a good henchman, wisecracking banter and maybe crash the Enterprise into a planet while you are at it, and you pretty much have the components of most of the films (“Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and “The Voyage Home” being the two notable exceptions). If they want to stick to the formula, fair enough. But, if you are not going to engage me with a plot that surprises me, give me more depth. Slow the film down. Have less unrelenting action and more opportunity to get to know the characters (and introducing Sulu’s husband doesn’t really count as getting to know the characters) and to create tension. I can’t help but think of the great “Wrath of Khan” and the final battle scene in the nebula. The film had invested in all of those characters enough that there was real tension in that scene and, because it unfolded so slowly, that tension really built.  It’s true that they had an advantage because Khan was an established character but Trek has the Klingons or the Borg or many others they can draw on. “Wrath” was a very slow paced film by this today’s standards but the pacing allowed me to invest in the action in a way this film never did. This one was like a roller coaster. I just hung on and then it was done. I mean, I enjoyed the ride but it’ll never stay with me. That nebula scene still does, even 35 years later.

The Lobster

May 30, 2016 at 6:26 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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I feel that I need to start with a caveat: I did not like this movie but everyone else did. It has a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes and it won the Jury Prize at Cannes last year. The person I saw it with loved it. Some of my favorite film critics loved it. Everyone loved it, it seems, except me. Now, granted, this is not your average film going experience. Set in some bizarre parallel universe, it takes place in a society where being single is outlawed and the punishment is to get turned into the animal of your choice. Colin Farrell’s character has been sent to “the hotel” to find a new mate after his wife left him. If he fails to within 45 days, he will be turned into a lobster. This sounds like it might be funny and maybe it would be, if it weren’t all so damned bleak. Various hotel guests, including John C. Reilly (“Wreck-it-Ralph,” “Step Brothers”) and Ben Whishaw (“The Danish Girl,” the recent “Bond” films), shuffle around giving such understated performances that they all appear heavily sedated and hopeless. When the story shifts unexpectedly, we are introduced to characters played by Léa Seydoux (“Blue is the Warmest Color,” “Spectre”) and Rachel Weisz (the “Mummy” movies, “Oz the Great and Powerful”). Given the circumstances in which we meet them, we might have expected more emoting. That would be a mistake. Director Yorgos Lanthimos clearly wanted quiet, introspective, minimalist performances. Unfortunately, they left me feeling completely uninvested in any of the characters which, given the grim arc of the storyline, may have been a good thing. Lanthimos is a critical darling, who is well respected for his complex and difficult movies, like “Dogtooth” and “Alps.” He uses fantastical imagery to explore deeper issues but, here, the metaphor felt lost for me. He is clearly saying something about dating in our modern age and the obsession we have with finding mates through the matching of random characteristics (he’s talking to you, OKCupid). And, on another level, he seems to also be making commentary about fascist governments, resistance groups, sex laws and hypocrisy. It’s all heady stuff but, for me, it all fell flat because I could never get beyond the silliness on screen. It was neither funny enough to be parody, nor grounded enough to be commentary. Add to that the empty, shuffling performances and nothing resonated with me at all. I was bored for two very long, checking-the-clock, hours. It’s a shame because I feel like I missed out on something that others enjoyed. Clearly, they were relating to the film on a level that I could not. Perhaps, that makes my review suspect. So, in fairness, here is a link to A.O. Scott’s review from the NYTimes. I’ll let you decide who’s opinion feels like the better fit for you.

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