More AFI DOCS Pieces – Interview (“Strad Style”) + Review (“ACORN and the Firestorm) – and Criterion Blu-ray (“Cameraperson”) @hammertonail & Review of “Dunkirk” @filmfesttoday

Last week, Hammer to Nail published three more articles of mine: another review from the recent AFI DOCS festival, this time of ACORN and the Firestorm; an interview (also from AFI DOCS) with Stefan Avalos, director of Strad Style; and a review of Criterion’s new Blu-ray release of Cameraperson.  In addition, Film Festival Today published my review of Dunkirk (I seem to be one of the rare film critics who did not adore the movie, though I liked parts of it). Here are links to all four pieces:


“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” Offers a Mass of Unpleasant Absurdity

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Luc Besson, 2017)

Based on a popular (in France) series of graphic novels by Pierre Christin, director Luc Besson’s latest ridiculous confection offers sci-fi spectacle of technical wizardry and artless design. Oh, sure, there’s thought behind the production, but it’s of the variety that more equals more, regardless of narrative cohesion. Add a healthy dose of derivative visuals and characters, with a chaser of hallucinogens (of the bad-trip variety) on the side, and you have a recipe for cinematic lunacy that never manages to make you overlook its idiocy in the service of pure entertainment. I have seen plenty of terrible movies in my time that have nevertheless delivered some kind of joy ride. Not so here, courtesy of the mess of a screenplay – filled with forced jocularity and expositional dialogue – and deeply flawed central performances.

We begin with what passes for a clever montage that takes us from the dawn of humanity’s space program through the building of an international space station, all the way through 2150, where we make contact with extraterrestrials. We then jump forward 400 years to a time when that same space station, released from its orbit around Earth, has become Alpha, the city of the title, filled with representatives from many (perhaps a thousand?) planets. But Alpha is not really the focus of the story (though the action will be set there), title be damned. Instead, we then cut to a planet named Mül, where pale humanoids frolic in the waves with dog-like armadillos until a spaceship from above crashes through the atmosphere and annihilates their world. How? Why? Fear not, for all plot points are eventually explained, even if their logic is not.

But even these inhabitants of Mül are not our main characters, Instead, we get Valerian, a special agent of the intergalactic government, and his trusty girl Friday/romantic interest, Laureline, whom we meet in medias res as they are on their way to a mission that will, miraculously, relate to the scene we have just witnessed on Mül (coincidence and bad exposition tend to go hand in hand in screenplays of this kind). Dane DeHaan (A Cure for Wellness) plays Valerian; Cara Delevingne (Paper Towns) plays Laureline. Both are miscast, though she less so (in fact, there are moments when she is almost good). Together, they form an irritating duo, doing their best Han Solo/Princess Leia routine with smirk and banter. It hurts.

Recalling the plot also induces pain, so let’s stop. Poor Clive Owen (Children of Men), among others, shows up, slumming, but cannot do much beyond snarl. Even Rihanna makes an appearance, just in time to perform the ritual self-sacrifice of the person of color on behalf of the white folk. Occasionally there are flashes of wit and even artfulness, but they get lost in the totality of the special effects, which seem the real raison d’être of this mess. Besson (Lucy) once seemed poised, years ago, to marry Hollywood pulp with a Gallic flair in films like SubwayLa Femme Nikita and The Professional (his best film, however, is his very first, The Last Battle). Now he just takes pulp, puts it into a high-speed blender, and hopes for the best. It is not a recipe for narrative success. though I suspect the energy it releases may appeal to some. If that’s how you like your shake, enjoy, and don’t let me stop you.

Another AFI DOCS Review (“STEP”) + Criterion Blu-ray (“45 Years”) @hammertonail & Review of “A Ghost Story” @filmfesttoday

Over the past week, Hammer to Nail has published two more articles of mine: another review from the recent AFI DOCS festival, of STEP; and a review of Criterion’s new Blu-ray release of 45 Years.  In addition, Film Festival Today published my review of A Ghost Story last Friday. Here are links to all three pieces:


Apocalypse Ape: In “War for the Planet of the Apes,” We Continue to Root for Our Own Destruction

War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2017)

Lest one be confused about the timeline of the current Planet of the Apes franchise, War for the Planet of the Apes (#3) opens with title cards that remind of us how we got here. First, there was Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in 2011, in which Caesar, a young chimpanzee raised by humans, was exposed to a manufactured virus that raised his intelligence and gave him the power of speech. Next, with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, in 2014, we discovered how that same virus wiped out 90% of humanity, allowing a community of super-smart simians (led by Caesar) to flourish in the woods near San Francisco. Now, after another three years (in audience time, not movie time), we find that same community under siege as the remaining humans make one last push to regain their dominance, all the while suffering from a new symptom caused by a mutated form of the virus that set this all of this in motion to begin with.

This entire universe is inspired by the original movie series, begun in 1968 (containing five films, total), which was itself loosely inspired by French author Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel, La Planête des singes. Both that first series and this current one (not so much the novel) focus on how humanity’s technological hubris has led to our downfall. As apocalyptic tales go, Planet of the Apes 2.1 (we would all like to forget Tim Burton’s misbegotten failure of 2001, but it did, alas, happen) is an example of gripping, well-realized storytelling, though neither Dawn nor War can quite compare to Rise, which was near-perfect in its reimagining of the premise. Still, War is an extremely competent action-thriller, though a little too in love with its Apocalypse Now metaphors.

The film opens with a brazen, unprovoked attack on Caesar’s forest idyll by the humans, who have enlisted renegade gorillas as helpmates. These apes have the word “donkey” (as in, Donkey Kong) scrawled in white across their backs. It’s degrading, but the events of Dawn – featuring an internecine conflict among the newly sentient simians – left some unhappy with Caesar’s leadership, which explains the species betrayal. Despite this assistance, the humans lose, though the defeat presages victories to come, as it reveals the exact location of Caesar’s hideout. A series of violent skirmishes ensue, with tragic consequences, and before long the humans have the upper hand. They are led by Woody Harrelson (Wilson), as a man known only as “The Colonel,” whose ruthless tactics prove successful, time and again.

Harrelson is all bold swagger, bringing his usual powerful charisma to the screen, but here he is almost undone by the director’s constant in-your-face references to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 cinematic mess of a masterpiece about the Vietnam War. From the 1970s rock-n-roll Harrelson plays on his turntable, to the close-ups of the back of his bald pate as he shaves, to the hazy panorama of oncoming helicopters, it’s just too obvious an homage. We get it: he’s Kurtz, with the same arrogance and madness. Kong: Skull Island, earlier this year, trafficked in similar imagery, so maybe director Matt Reeves just has the unfortunate bad luck to come second.

Beyond that, however, Reeves (who directed Dawn, though not Rise) and his team of digital wizards and motion-capture actors are fully in charge of the narrative, creating a chilling and compelling vision of a world in which we humans are the villains. I have been constantly amazed at the ability of this series to make me root for those who would destroy me and my kind. And yet here we are, crying at each ape death and cheering for each ape triumph. Andy Serkis (Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series), as Caesar, is a large part of the reason why, yet so are the screenplays, which, in each film, brilliantly set up character and situation so that we fully identify with the apes. We may be dying, but boy, can we make a movie!

“Okja” Offers a Beautifully Crafted, Profound Lesson on Life and Love … Sandwiched Between a Ham-Handed Construct and Terrible (Adult) Performances

Okra (Bong Joon Ho, 2017)

What arbitrary carnivores we be, O humans! Some animals we venerate, some we eat; some we domesticate as companions, others we beat. From culture to culture, our attitudes towards certain species vary, with the customs of one place horrifying the denizens of another. Eat cow? Blasphemy! Eat horse? Repulsive! Eat dog? Unspeakable horror! Who gets to set universal parameters of decency? Which nation is the most righteous? One thing is for sure, which is that while we bicker, globally, about our role as stewards of the earth, the animals, themselves are but pawns in our games of chance. My little rescue beagle gets to have a great life going to doggie daycare and sleeping next to her favorite (I hope!) human, while hordes of pigs live in cramped quarters awaiting slaughter, with nary a spider’s web in sight to save them. It should be enough to give one at least some pause before eating any kind of mass-produced meat.

These issues and more form the backdrop of Bong Joon Ho’s latest film, a Netflix original production (and you can watch it on Netflix now) entitled Okja (which WordPress keeps trying to autocorrect as “okra” – if I miss any of those, I apologize). Bong (Snowpiercer) is a director of great cinematic vision, and a master of integrating digital and practical effects. Okja is the name of a genetically modified “super pig” – with opaque origins – who is sent to a farm in South Korea to be raised in nature, away from her corporate owners (over 20 of her siblings and cousins are sent to different parts of the planet), in order to grow up in as healthy an environment as possible. By the time we meet her, she is living the blissful life in the company of 14-year-old Mija, with whom she shares a close bond. Looking like a cross between an elephant, a rhino, a beagle and, yes, an actual pig, Okja is a CGI wonder, with beautiful, thoughtful eyes that bespeak a deep intelligence. It’s not her brain that people want, however, and she sadly has an upcoming date with death that seems hard to avoid.

We learn the idea behind Okja’s conception in the film’s prologue, in which Lucy Mirando, new CEO of a giant (and hated) multinational food conglomerate – named “Mirando” after her family (and a clear stand-in for Monsanto) – desperate for the next new thing, hatches the super-pig plan, hoping to develop a new “super food.” Since consumers shy away from GMOs, however, Lucy and her minions need to hide the breeding program under the guise of all-natural farms. Hence, Okja’s placement with Mija. What no one at Mirando pauses to consider is how this super-smart creature (and her caretaker) might feel about her destiny. And so we embark on an adventure – a mix of thrills, laughter and tears – that will involve an eco-terrorist group, forces of law and order, the media, and Mija and Okja. The ending holds some tragic surprises that remind us of the issues I raised in the opening: no matter how many animals might escape misery, there are far more who do not. How you feel about that – and about our treatment of animals, in general – will probably determine how you feel about the movie. Personally, I loved the message, and I loved Okja.

What I didn’t like so much were the human actors, nor much of the scripted plot. Beyond the delightful girl who plays Mija (An Seo Hyun, Monster), the adult performers all appear in the grip of some ham-induced mania (could it be the pig?). Jake Gyllenhaal (Demolition), as a television personality, is by far the worst, for some reason choosing to channel Richard Simmons in a nonsensical pantomime, but he is hardly the only actor determined to over-chew the scenery. Tilda Swinton (A Bigger Splash), as not one, but two Mirando sisters, fares no better (her prosthetic teeth there to help the chewing, no doubt). Even Paul Dano (Love & Mercy), usually so reliable, is trapped inside caricature. Perhaps the only one, beyond Okja and Mija, I could stand to watch was Giancarlo Esposito (Gus Fring on AMC’s Breaking Bad), who’s relative stillness was a welcome relief, but even he was prone to the occasional overreach. As for the story, itself, it careens too wildly between hilarity and genuine tragedy to entirely gel, and often forces characters to behave as per the screenplay’s requirements, rather than as they might were they genuine people.

So, it’s a flawed film. But watching Mija and Okja frolic is well worth sitting through the stuff that grates. Their love – familiar to anyone who has shared moments of joy with a non-human friend – brightens the dark spots, lending a grace and profundity to the rest of the mess. And if the movie makes you consider, for even one moment, where your food comes from and what you might be prepared to do to guarantee at least some semblance of dignity and/or quality of life to that which nourishes us, then it will be a success, no matter its clumsy machinations. See it for Okja, then, and marvel at her penetrating, brilliant eyes.

Still More AFI DOCS (1 Review + 1 Interview) @hammertonail & 2 Current Reviews @filmfesttoday

This week, Hammer to Nail published two more of my pieces from the recent AFI DOCS festival: a review of the Indian documentary An Insignificant Man and an interview with one its two co-drectors, Vinay Shukla. Also this week, Film Festival Today published my reviews of The Big Sick and Spider-Man: Homecoming. Here are links to all four articles:


“Reel Talk” – with Chris Reed and Jeffrey Lyles – on “Baby Driver,” “The Big Sick,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “War for the Planet of the Apes”

Christopher Llewellyn Reed, “Reel Talk” host, w/ Jeffrey Lyles, publisher of website Lyles Movie Files

Welcome to the sixth and final episode of the 2016-2017 season of Dragon Digital Media‘s Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed. My guest this time was Jeffrey Lyles, former film critic for The Gazette newspapers and now publisher of the website Lyles Movie Files, where he reviews TV shows, action figures, wrestling, and, in his own words, “a little bit of everything else.” We reviewed four new films: Baby DriverThe Big SickSpider-Man: Homecoming and War for the Planet of the Apes.

In Howard County, Maryland, you can watch the show on Channel 41 (if you’re a Verizon customer) or Channel 96 (if you’re a Comcast customer), and you can watch it online from anywhere. You can also still catch the firstsecondthirdfourth and fifth episodes of this current season, plus all six from last year (firstsecondthirdfourthfifth and sixth), as well as the six episodes from my first season with Reel Talk (Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4Episode 5Episode 6). Enjoy!

The fantastic Dragon Digital Media team did their usual superlative job putting this together, especially producer Karen Vadnais and director Danielle Maloney, as well as floor manager Anthony Hoos. We’ll be back in the fall with a a new season, so stay tuned. Until then, have fun at the movies!

More AFIDOCS Coverage (3 Interviews & 1 Review) @hammertonail + AFIDOCS Recap & 1 Current Review @filmfesttoday

Here is what I had published at Hammer to Nail last week from the recent AFI DOCS film festival: 3 interviews, with Rebecca Cammisa of Atomic Homefront, Matthew Heineman and Abdelaziz Alhamza of City of Ghosts, and Ricardo Martensen and Felipe Tomazelli of Cine São Paolo; 1 review of that same Cine São Paolo (the other two films were reviewed the week before). Film Festival Today published my recap overview of the festival, plus 1 review of a film currently out in theaters, Despicable Me 3. Below are links to all 5 pieces: