“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.

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:

Enjoy!

“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. We’ll be back at the start of May with another episode, 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:

Enjoy!

“The Beguiled” Entrances, Though from a Distance

The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola, 2017)

With a feature-filmmaking career that began in 1999, with The Virgin Suicides, and has continued since then with Lost in Translation (2003), Marie Antoinette (2006), Somewhere (2010), The Bling Ring (2013) and now The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola – the youngest child, and only daughter, of filmmakers Francis Ford and Eleanor Coppola – has proved herself adept at a certain kind of dreamy exploration of female awakening, be it of the sexual or self-actualized variety, often in reaction to the male-dominated world. Her films are peopled by women – usually young – struggling with issues of personal agency and identity. Men play important parts in these stories, as well, but are often there as dramatic obstacles or opportunities in the path towards whatever destiny awaits. And though Coppola has come under some criticism over her lack of racial diversity in her films – and in The Beguiled, in particular – hers is one of many needed feminine voices in the cinematic patriarchy, articulating her characters’ often inchoate longing for something just beyond their as-yet-unarticulated understanding. And though I may not entirely agree with the Cannes Film Festival jury’s decision to award her its 2017 Best Director Prize (making her only the second woman ever to win) – as I find her latest work narratively remote, if also fascinating – I nevertheless concur that Coppola is in full control of her visual aesthetic and the performances of her actors. Based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Thomas Cullinan (which was previously adapted for the screen in 1971), it’s a glorious, wild affair, much like the tendrils of Spanish moss that fill many of the exterior compositions.

The year is 1864 – “3 years into the Civil War,” as a title card informs us – and we are in Virginia, at the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Girls. Only five students remain, with but one teacher plus the headmistress as the two adult chaperones. The slaves, too, have long since fled, leaving the women especially alone (simultaneously removing racial tension from the story and opening Coppola up to charges of insensitivity), seemingly helpless. When one of the youngest girls, Amy (Oona Laurence, Lamb), comes across a wounded Union soldier in the woods – played by Colin Farrell (The Lobster) – she is at first afraid. Very quickly, however, he charms her with his gentle manner, and she agrees to help him hobble to the school. There, he collapses, and though the women consider handing him over, as a prisoner, to the nearby Confederate army, they agree to first heal him. Or rather, their formidable leader Miss Martha – played by the ever-powerful Nicole Kidman (Lion) – decides on the course of action, and undertakes the surgical repair of the soldier’s leg, herself. Seemingly capable of everything, she nevertheless swoons a bit as she cleans his body, lingering a little here and there.

And so the movie goes, with each character – even the small ones – confronting an unexpected rush of emotion and desire brought on by the mere presence of a captive male in their midst. Miss Edwina, the teacher – played by a restrained Kirsten Dunst (so fine in Season 2 of Fargo) – is more distraught than most, though the oldest of the girls, Alicia (Elle Fanning, The Neon Demon), is equally intrigued. The soldier, whose name, we learn, is Corporal John McBurney, flirts with all, indiscriminately, though his reasons, other than hoping that they not give him up to the Confederates, are unclear. Is he simply a man taking advantage of women, as is the wont and cultural prerogative of all men? Does he actually like any of them? Is he tired of war and looking for a refuge? It is to Coppola’s credit as writer and director that she successfully keeps us guessing, even after the film is done, about his motivations. The women, too, emerge as individually robust characters, each with her own distinct personality, who merge, collectively, into a daunting foe for Corporal McBurney once things turn ugly.

Which they do. Much has already been written about this film’s place in the Southern Gothic genre. Everyone is an hysterical mess, ravaged by loneliness, war and hormones. Add a drop of Y chromosome, and hysteria approaches madness. Coppola and her cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd (The Grandmaster) often bathe the proceedings in gorgeous, calming natural light, as if in contrast to the roiling emotions within. They also have a penchant for studied compositions, frequently framing the women in tableaux vivants – and otherwise offering  up still lifes of various object and food, throughout, as well – as if to empathize that all that follows is part of a carefully constructed play within the movie, with each person playing a preordained part. It’s beautiful to behold, if also stifling, which is its point, I assume, but also dramatically inert, at times. I loved much of what I was watching, but felt simultaneously detached. This estrangement from the story left me laughing when things turned outrageously gory, rather than horrified. Was that the right reaction? I’m not sure. But it’s the feeling of distance that ultimately left me less enthusiastic, by the end, than I thought I would be, given my positive reaction at the start. All the while, I remain in admiration of Coppola’s technique. Strong women confronting a man’s world? Nothing wrong with that.

The Bouncy “Baby Driver” Speeds Marvelously Along, Occasionally Slowed by Soggy Sentiment

Baby Driver (Edgar Wright, 2017)*

If only the entire movie were as good as its first act, Baby Driver would be a near-masterpiece of dazzling mise-en-scène and editing. Snappy, brisk and wildly inventive in its opening third, the film, from British director Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz), follows “Baby” (Ansel Elgort, The Fault in Our Stars), a getaway driver for a bank-robbing team headed by the shadowy Doc (Kevin Spacey, Elvis & Nixon). As two men and one woman make their way inside the target, Baby sits in the front seat, jamming to the tunes on his iPod. Wright cuts each shot to the sharp beats, shifting angles and frame sizes in a dizzying display of filmmaking bravura, subsequently upping the ante even more when the gangsters jump back into the vehicle, prompting one of the best car chases to make it to the screen in years (with more to come). Get ready for a wild ride, the director proclaims in bright, bold letters, and then more than delivers the goods. Later, Wright shows he can handle staging and blocking, as well as editing, when his camera pursues Baby on a single-shot pedestrian coffee run. Is it too much style, in danger of overwhelming the substance? You bet! Is it terrific fun, so you almost don’t care? I’ll see you and raise you another.

Unfortunately, this virtuosity falters midway through, when the script turns maudlin, and for a while we fear that Wright has lost his way. Fortunately, the ending sees him return to form, though the final scenes are still a bit soggy. Joining Elgort and Spacey – both excellent – in the madcap mayhem are Jamie Foxx (Django Unchained), Eiza González (El Rey Network’s From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series), Jon Hamm (AMC’s Mad Men), and Lily James (Cinderella), among others in a great supporting cast. If you like your adrenaline rush set to a catchy soundtrack (in many ways, the film feels inspired by Wright’s favorite playlist), and don’t mind the messy middle section, then this could be the film for you. Be forewarned, however, that like so many action-oriented films of today (and yesterday, to be fair), the gun violence is extreme, if cartoonish. Only you can be the judge of whether cinematic entertainment justifies the collateral damage … or not. I can guarantee that you won’t need caffeine when you leave the theater, however.

*Adapted from a capsule review I wrote for my post-SXSW coverage at Film Festival Today.

AFI DOCS (1 Interview/2 Reviews) & 1 General Interview/2 Reviews @hammertonail + 2 Reviews @filmfesttoday

In the past two weeks, here is what I’ve had published at Hammer to Nail: 1 phone interview (with Jeff Malmberg, co-director of Spettacolo) plus 2 reviews (Atomic Homefront and City of Ghosts) from the recent AFI DOCS film festival; 1 phone interview of a just-released film (with Eddie Rosenstein, the director of The Freedom to Marry) plus 2 reviews of just-released films (Score: A Film Music Documentary and Abacus: Small Enough to Jail). Film Festival Today published one review last week (The Book of Henry) and one this week (The Hero). Here are links to all 8 pieces:

Enjoy!

@BaltimoreSun’s @RoughlySpeaking Podcast on Female Action Stars + Reviews of “The Mummy” and “My Cousin Rachel” @filmfesttoday

On Thursday, June 8, 2017,  Linda DeLibero – Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and Christopher Llewellyn Reed (that’s me) – Chair and Professor, Department of Film & Moving Image, Stevenson University – joined Dan Rodricks on his Baltimore Sun podcast, “Roughly Speaking,” to discuss the new Wonder Woman and other female-centered action films, including the World War II classic Mrs. Miniver, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this month. Here is the link to the show. Enjoy!

Also this week, in addition to the review I published here on my blog (of It Comes at Night), I reviewed both The Mummy and My Cousin Rachel for Film Festival Today. Check them out at the links, below: