Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

It is going to kill me to write this review. Of all the movies this summer, this is the one I was really waiting for; the first big Luc Besson (Léon: The Professional) film in years. I still think you should go see it, but I’ll get to why later. First the painful part.

The source material for Valerian predates and influenced a good part of the ‘classic’ scifi movie cannon, but it is coming to market long after they got to establish themselves. So what we see appears to be part Fifth Element and part Avatar, with healthy doses of Star Wars and Babylon 5 thrown in for good measure. It is visually stunning, no question. It also has some of the best depictions of AR done yet on film. But for all its inventiveness it feels a bit like a pastiche of what you already know even if the comic influenced them first. But that isn’t where the move is weakest.

The main weakness isn’t even in the plot. The plot is relatively obvious by design. There is no pretense about who is good and who is evil in this tale. Clive Owen (Words and Pictures) is about as subtle as a nuke in his role. And are you really unclear that the species experiencing genocide is probably on the side of right? The story, at its bones, is interesting and has captivated audiences for years in comic form as a classic good and evil struggle. Besson could have softened that a bit, grayed out Owen’s role, in particular, to help raise the emotion and tension of the decisions, but it could have worked either way.

No, the weakness of the film is squarely on the acting of the two main characters.

Because there are few character surprises, the strength of the film has to rely on the chemistry between Dean DeHaan’s (Life After Beth) and Cara Delevingne‘s (Suicide Squad) characters. Much like the Bruce Willis/Mila Jovovich interchanges in Fifth Element, it isn’t so much what is happening around the main characters as much as what is happening between them. And, sadly, there is bloody nothing happening in that space for DeHaan and Delevingne. Zip. A gallon jug of liquid nitrogen couldn’t cool their romance any more than it already is. They don’t even seem to react at the carnage they leave in their path during their normal day-to-day assignments. It may be, in part, the directing, but, frankly, neither of these actors has impressed me much in their previous roles. So let’s say it is as much a casting as an acting problem, which still is at Besson’s feet.

All that said, you do have to see this film for a couple reasons. First, it is a big screen experience, no question. The level of detail and artistry on the screen has rarely, if ever, been matched. Second, it is one of the few original ideas out there in the tentpole space. Everything we’re being fed this year is spin-off, sequel, prequel, or remake. Besson is giving us something new. That is a gift in these days of recycling properties and studios too scared to try something new. They need a reason to gamble and that means showing them “new” can sell. Go in knowing you’re there for a visual ride and you’re fine.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Authors Anonymous

It isn’t that there aren’t some good moments in this Chris Guest wannabe about a writing group, but it is too uneven and unsatisfying to outright recommend. That said, if you are in a writing group, you will probably find a lot that is familiar.

Delivering the comedy is a host of recognizable faces. Kaley Cuoco (Why Him?), Chris Klein (Wilfred), Teri Polo (The Hole), Dylan Walsh (Unforgettable), Tricia Helfer (Lucifer), Meagen Foy (La La Land), among them. And, in one of his last performances, Dennis Farina provides his trademark bruised, tough guy.

Director Ellie Kanner is better known for her casting prowess than she is her directing. I can’t honestly say that either aspect shows itself well in this movie. While the individual roles are cast well, the chemistry of the group is off. You don’t really believe these individuals would associate with one another for a long time. That is as much on first-time writer David Congalton as it is on Kanner. The understanding of the current state of publishing just isn’t there. This feels like it was written more than ten years ago, though it was only completed in 2013.

Part of my problem with this flick the use of improvisation for dialogue. The movie bounces between mockumentary-style interviews and long, fly-on-the-wall moments. As I’ve mentioned before, I often find this mixed approach forced and unsatisfying. Authors was no exception.

It isn’t an unwatchable film, but it just doesn’t really connect for me. Even with the two codas during the credits, I’m left feeling a general wondering at why I spent 90 minutes getting to that point. You may find the humor and situation more engaging than I did, but I can’t recommend it.

Authors Anonymous

Love Affair (to Remember)

Ever been watching a film and thought, “I’ve seen this before?”

I recently caught a presentation of Love Affair (1939) with Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, directed by Leo McCrarey. About 10 minutes in I realized it was reminding me of something else I’d seen not too long ago: An Affair to Remember (1957) with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, also directed by Leo McCrarey.

You aren’t misreading, McCrarey directed both. It is an incredible example of a director getting a complete do-over later in his life with (almost) the same script, but an entirely different life view and technology advantage. The result is, in many ways, two entirely different films with almost the same plot and words. I don’t know of any other film pairing that could whet the appetite of a film lover more than the chance to see that in action, especially with such big names attached.

I recommend both movies for different reasons. Love Affair has the energy and sensibility of The Thin Man pairing of Powell and Loy. An Affair to Remember is quite a bit more serious and emotional. Both are gorgeously filmed and well executed. And, as dated as both are in some ways, they stand the test of time rather well because they focus more on the emotions than the culture of the era.  Make time for both of these at some point. Together, they are fascinating nuggets of film history; on their own, they are just good films as well.

I could spend an exhaustive amount of effort going through the comparisons, but the folks at Spectrum Culture have already done so, and it is an excellent, if spoiler-ridden, read. So if you want detail before or after you dig these films up, here is a link to the article:

Re-Make/Re-Model: Love Affair (1939) vs. An Affair to Remember (1957)

Love Affair An Affair to Remember

Japanese Story

Toni Collette (xXx: Return of Xander Cage) and Gotaro Tsunashima (The Great Raid) drive this meditation on life and love in the wilds of Australia. It is an odd story, and not one everyone is going to enjoy watching, but despite its meandering plot, some odd story choices, and lack of answers on a number of questions, it manages to come to a point.

If you are a fan of Collette, it is another well-delivered performance, though not a lot of new ground for her efforts. Tsunashima also has a number of wonderful moments held in tight control. If you like Australian film, it is a bit more on the accessible side of that sub-genre. If you are interested in culture clashes, it definitely has something for you.

Relative unknowns, director Sue Brooks and writer Alison Tilson, repaired on this movie. As may be clear, the result is uneven, but the emotions are wonderfully subtle. It is a reasonable pay-off for a 95 minute investment, and I’m betting you really don’t get ahead of it, which is part of how it remains interesting throughout.

Japanese Story

War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes is the first of this rebooted series that I actually went to the theater for. Like many, I was massively dubious when Rise of the Planet of the Apes hit screens back in 2011. Why bother remaking what was a wonderful, if campy, bit of social science fiction from the 70s? And, like many, I was massively surprised by the result (even with its one really huge leap of logic).

Matt Reeves and Mark Bomback’s  script for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes continued to build on the world and characters, while improving the writing, and I got a bit more hooked. So I was willing to gamble on this third in the series, which had another Reeves/Bomback script, especially as the reviews were coming out massively positive prior to the release. And they’re not wrong.

This may be an action movie, but it is a movie first and action second. It is an intense piece of commentary on what it is to be human, what the value of war is, and how fundamentalist and biased beliefs, of any kind, on any side, only lead to destruction. Despite its 2.5 hour running time, it doesn’t feel long. And the final hour leading to the climax fairly bolts along. But without the heart beneath the skin of this film, it wouldn’t have worked.

Andy Serkis’s (Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens) Caesar is interesting to watch. Technology aside, it is about the directing by Matt Reeves and Serkis’s efforts. Caesar’s voice is practically flat through the film. His emotion is all in the eyes, mouth, and gestures, which is an interesting choice. It keeps him alien but accessible. We understand his emotions even if we don’t necessarily understand how he thinks all the time. It was a clever choice. It is also in direct opposition to Steve Zahn’s (Captain Fantastic) highly recognizable, and entertaining performance as Bad Ape. Or Karin Konoval’s emotive turn as Maurice.  

Wood Harrelson is the lone performance in this movie that I had trouble with. He isn’t quite intense enough, and yet also not laid back enough to feel believable. It is just a shade off, but it made him more a stock character, despite his rich backstory, than the charismatic leader he needs to be. It works, but I think they missed an opportunity for something truly impactful with him.

But this isn’t just about what’s new in the Apes universe. The movie is loaded with nods to the original series, which are fun to spot. The script never forgets it is a riff on something we might know well and it manages to reference major points without pulling you out of the tale they are telling. And their riff is a clever one indeed.

Something else to realize is that the film is definitely crafted for the big screen. It is loaded with wide, beautiful shots for both background and action scenes. It is also the kind of film that deserves to be supported because it is good; it isn’t just a hollow summer film. You’ll definitely have fun, be entertained, and even a bit touched. It completes the story begun in Rise, but allows for there to be future tales as well. Apes has everything you need and it is a step above a lot of the drivel summer usually throws at us. So get out and see this on the big screen. It is definitely worth the time and effort.

War for the Planet of the Apes

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2015)

I’m sure you’re thinking, “Really, yet another Midsummer Night’s Dream?” Or, perhaps, “Shakespeare? Honestly, why do I need to see this?” The answer to both is: Julie Taymor (The Tempest).

Taymor is one of the most visionary stage directors of our time. She employs simple techniques to create magnificent effects. Think the puppets in The Lion King, which have become her trademark. Midsummer certainly leverages that aspect of her talent, but also her ability to distill a play to its essence and manifest it. The opening moments of this filmed performance will grab you and make you wish you’d been in the audience. She takes several minutes before the first piece of uttered dialogue to visually create the world and your expectations, to invite you into a magical realm, to escape for a while into the silliness of this comedy.

There are a number of solid performances, but chief among them in Kathryn Hunter (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). Her Puck is brilliant and carries the show well through acting, voice, and movement. As Oberon, David Harewood (The Night Manager) brings both a power and heart to the self-important ruler, though it is still rather hobbled by the plot he must walk.

The Mechanicals, led by Max Casella’s (Jackie) Bottom, are suitably absurd, and each has their moment. But it is Zachary Infante (Carrie Pilby) as Flute that really shines in one of the play’s most important moments near the end of the film.

The approach to filming the play is done rather well, capturing both an audience feel and “in the action” keeping it from feeling too static. There are a few moments that I’d rather have seen from long shots, to really appreciate the staging, but generally, the cameras floated among the characters like the fairies in the play.

So here’s the truth: The play isn’t perfect. Frankly no Shakespeare is. Sensibilities have moved on and the plays tend to be a bit longer for their purpose than modern times tends to care for and, clearly, a little too forgiving of cultural mores that are well out of date. In the case of Midsummer, the opening scene and the overlong wrap-up probably will grate a little. You are also forgiven for wondering why the heck we have to sit through the mechanical’s presentation while the Duke and co. heckle them. The Mechanical’s play is funny and, really, it is used to get to the single moment with Flute, whose declaration of love is one of the most heart-felt in the entire play, which is full of overblown histrionics by design. That moment brings it all back to earth. More generally, in today’s terms, Shakespeare had written himself into a corner and needed to wrap up the threads and entertain the cheap seats. However, to be a little more fair, the original intent of the play was about (and for) the wedding.

If you’ve never seen Midsummer, this is a great one to start with. If you have, it may well become your favorite interpretation on a broad scale. There have certainly been better and more memorable individual performances of characters in this play, but as an overall delivery, this version is truly extraordinary and wonderful to watch.

A Midsummer Night

A few decades ago…

Back in 1981, a whole different century, I began working out as a matter of sanity and as a substitute for sleep. Hey, I was young, stupid, and living on adrenaline.

Five years later, June of ’86 , I had my first (and only) portfolio created for my acting career. The photographer was great and among the shots was one that has lived in infamy as: Leatherman. It got passed around my friends and beyond for a while back then. Thank god the internet was nascent or it probably would have been sent much further. Uploading at 300 baud was not fun.

As it turns out, my twice-a-day, six-days-a-week workout schedule is something I got accustom to and managed to continue even till today (if you’re doing math, I’m starting my 36th year shortly). For the heck of it I decided, if not to recreate the portfolio piece this summer, to see how well I’d held up. I realize this is the worst of ego gone rampant, but WTF, I hardly ever take pics anymore or allow people to take pics, so why not?

So, here I am again just over 31 years later. The hair is shorter (and thinner) and, yeah I was ridiculously underweight back in ’86 (and got worse till the following year, which is another story), but the pic came out not too bad for someone who’s hit their mid-50s.

So, I’ll see you again in another 30 or so years and have a good laugh over it all atrophying…

 

Speech & Debate

If you ever spent time in a fringe club in High School or, in particular, worked for the school paper, in drama, or on the forensics team, this movie will ring many bells for you. Even if you haven’t, it captures the frustration and sense of awakening that everyone goes through at around that age, and, for some, the need to act. It is on that point where the reality of this tale gets delightfully stretched…but only a little.

The three young leads that carry the film are an unlikely crew thrown together by need. Their surety and fearlessness tested at every turn, they simply move forward until they can’t.

Sarah Steele (Adult Beginners), reprises her role from the original stage production while Liam James (The Way Way Back) and Austin P. McKenzie (When We Rise) join her to complete the group. They are all endearing and frustrating in their ways, and each has their own challenges outside the main plot to overcome. Together they find a sense of strength and belonging, as you’d hope.

This film began life as a well-received Stephen Karam play before he adapted it for this film version. As a credit to his writing, you’d never know it started in a different medium.

The adults in this story are definitely secondary characters with small, implied storylines of their own. Kal Penn (Designated Survivor), Janeane Garofalo (Wet Hot American Summer: First Days of Camp), Skylar Astin (Pitch Perfect 2), suggest rich, unseen interactions in particular.

This is a funny and painful romp through old memories and the new ways of the world (and how they haven’t really changed). Or, if you’re contemporary to the characters, a reminder that everyone is struggling through the same junk and can do so in quiet or with style. Regardless, watch through the end of the credits for an amusing coda.

Speech & Debate

Song to Song

Calling this a movie is a bit of a stretch. It is more of a tone poem than a traditional story, which is somewhat appropriate given the title and Rooney Mara’s (The Discovery) comments in her voice over. There is a tale to be gleaned from the visuals, dialogue, and brief scenes, but it isn’t straight forward. The result feels like an extrapolation of Eyes Wide Shut, but with a more complete result.  At 2+ hours, that is both an impressive achievement by writer/director Terrance Malick (Knight of Cups) and a lot of effort for the audience. I’m not sure it is effort that is well reimbursed.

Whether or not you like Terrance Malick’s style, he can surely put a cast together: Michael Fassbender (Assassin’s Creed), Ryan Gosling (La La Land), Natalie Portman (Jackie), Cate Blanchett (Carol), Holly Hunter (Top of the Lake), Bérénice Marlohe (Skyfall), Val Kilmer (Twixt), Benicio Del Toro (Sicario), Linda Emond (3 Generations), Tom Sturridge (Far From the Madding Crowd). Then there are music icons like Iggy Pop (Gimme Danger), Florence Welch, Patti Smith, and others.

In other words, a whole heck of a lot of talent went into the creation of this piece. It is also down to Malick’s editing of the moments that the story becomes at all apparent. But as a movie it is middling and as an entertainment it is lacking. Basically, you have to love these actors or Malick to want to spend over two hours to get to the point and resolution. So this one is up to you…I had to respect the film making, but I can’t say I really enjoyed the experience enough to recommend it unreservedly or even with enthusiasm for anyone who isn’t more interested in craft than they are experience.

Song to Song

Spider-Man: Homecoming

So here we are: the third bite at the apple for Sony. Say farewell to the Rami trilogy and the misfired Amazing Spider Man duo. I have to admit, when I heard this was all in the works, my enthusiasm was low. The trajectory of the character has been driven at Sony more by the drive to hang onto the rights than to make good films. But let’s put that aside for the moment. The fact is this reboot is really quite good and finally has a young kid playing Peter Parker at the right age for a change.

From the casting of Tom Holland (The Secret World of Arrietty) to starting off with The Ramones for the soundtrack to kick it all off, this co-release with Marvel really hit all the right marks. Holland is young enough to really feel like a gangling 15  year old who, limbs at all angles, fearlessly swings around NYC and environs trying to do good. He isn’t an antihero like Deadpool, but he isn’t the typical superhero either.

And this is where Marvel and the six credited writers (yes, six) really deserve some applause. They know that we’re fatigued with these films. They know that we find it all just a bit silly. They play into that idea, allowing Peter Parker to be both superhero and little hero. He bumbles around and is more an Everyman than ever before. It really helps sell the movie as both a fun ride and as something relatable. But they also weave him into the Avengers universe with clips from Captain America: Civil War so that we have context. It works wonderfully. But, most importantly, it isn’t entirely predictable. It keeps throwing in curve balls and surprises, and of course, humor. I have no idea who to really credit with all that given the number of people involved, but that it all works together with that many cooks is a feat unto itself.

Along with Holland are some great, supporting roles. Michael Keaton’s (Robocop) role is particularly nuanced. He starts in the prologue with solid motivation, and then, like many things, it morphs into something else. And the prologue is worth mentioning as it winds back the clock to just after the first Avengers movie, in a world shattered and newly aware of aliens and superheros. Spider-Man can play-out in parallel to the movies that followed, though the Civil War reference gives them a bit of a time paradox problem, but just blink through it and it won’t bother you too much.

There are other main adult roles. Marisa Tomei (Love the Coopers) is sadly underused in this movie, though she definitely has some important moments, and is there in Peter’s mind at all times. Jon Favreau (Chef) however, gets a bit more screen time and his own little subplot through the movie. And Robert Downey Jr. (Avengers: Age of Ultron) gets some moments as well. The biggest surprise in the adult cast for me was the very nice turn by Donald Glover (The Martian). I’ve like the actor for a while, but he delivered this part, small as it was, with great skill. There are other surprises as well, but I won’t expose them here.

The film really focuses, rightly so, on the younger cast. Jacob Batalon quietly carries a lot more of the story than you expect. Laura Harrier and Zendaya add some nice confusion and, let’s say goals for Peter Parker to focus on. Only Tony Revolori (Dope), really feels forced in this group. Here I mainly blame director Jon Watts (Cop Car) for not holding him in check.

This is a rocket-fueled adventure, but very much from an adolescent’s eyes, even if there is plenty for adults to both relate to and enjoy. It is a great addition to the Marvel Universe, but I am dubious that Sony will recognize what they have and keep their mitts off of it. We’ll see if they can sustain the franchise this time. They have made it clear it is only leaving their hands when they’ve turned to dust, so that means a movie every three years, regardless of quality or value. If I sound concerned, suffice to say that whispers from the industry already suggest that the future is heading off the rails, which would be a damned shame. They really have something here, and a star that can sustain them for a good long while before he’s too old to play the part. Here’s hoping they see that and protect it.

Meantime, go and give your summer a kick to get it rolling again after several weeks of disappointing releases.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

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