Movie Review ~ Valerian and the City of 1000 Planets

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A dark force threatens Alpha, a vast metropolis and home to species from a thousand planets. Special operatives Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe.

Stars: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Rutger Hauer, Elizabeth Debicki

Director: Luc Besson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 137 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Plenty of people (aka snobby critics) are going to tell you how terrible Valerian and the City of 1000 Planets is before you’ll get a chance to see the movie and judge for yourself.  That’s too bad because while Valerian admittedly has its hefty share of major problems, every now and then something kinda brilliant happens.  Popping into theaters showing movies that reek of summer sameness, Valerian at least has some imagination up its over-the-top and messy sleeves.

I’m not familiar with the French science fiction comics series Valérian and Laureline, created by writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières, that inspired director/screenwriter Luc Besson (The Family).  From what I hear it remained tremendously popular since it was originally published in 1967 all the way through to its final issue in 2010 so its no wonder that studios interested in selling their film globally would invest in what Besson had in mind.  Even if it tanks at the US box office (which, sadly, it will) it most surely will turn a profit in the international market.

The screening I attended had some major 3D projection issues during the five-minute montage that opens the film, showing the progression of space habitation as the years tick away. Passing by in a blur (literally) the universe evolves to welcome all forms of alien life from around the galaxy.  The generally well-rendered CGI beings that Besson introduces us to first are Avatar-ish chrome domes living in a pastel colored planet that get major feels from pearls pooped out of a cute creature.  I’ll let that last sentence sink in a moment.  Have you recovered?  Let’s move forward.

Just when the planet and its inhabitants are threatened by objects crash landing from sky the film cuts quickly to Valerian (Dane DeHaan, Lawless) who has just awoke in a cold sweat.  Was it all in his head or is he in possession of historical knowledge hidden deep within?  Before we get to that answer Besson makes a costly error out of the gate by awkwardly introducing us to Major Valerian and his partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne, Suicide Squad) with a battle of the sexes sparring that would have seemed trivial on Moonlighting. DeHaan and Delevingne have zero chemistry, radiating genial brother-sister admiration much more than any carnal craves.

Valerian and Laureline are mid-mission in a race to obtain a precious element (no, not The Fifth Element) that winds up playing a big part in explaining Valerian’s other-planetary visions.  There’s not enough megabites in this blog to go into details on where Besson takes our plucky hero and heroine but I can tell you that it involves singer Rihanna (Battleship) as a shape shifting blue alien that has Ethan Hawke (Sinister) for a pimp, a race through an underwater world of sea monsters, Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby) strangely voicing a male alien royal, and Herbie Hancock as Valerian and Laureline’s exhausted boss.  To all you Rutger Hauer fans, don’t blink or you’ll miss his barely there cameo.

This film is without a doubt totally cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs but it’s sheer brazen wackiness is what winds up keeping it afloat when Besson’s script falters and its stars stall out.  There’s barely a moment when things are at a standstill and yet the action onscreen is delivered with such fervent fury throughout I was never not entertained in one way or another.  How much you get out of the film is entirely dependent on how much you’re willing to just go with the flow and know that everyone else in the audience thinks its as bizarre as you do.

I was wanting an immersive experience for Valerian so I opted for a seat close to the screen, only to move the back row 20 minutes in when I was started getting seasick.  Besson’s never been a filmmaker that knows what subtle means (I mean did you SEE Lucy?) and in many ways, that’s what helps this one wind up in the Good Bad Movie category.  Laughably overlong at 137 minutes, you’ll have to be in the right frame of mind to like it but if you’re up for a nutso ride into Besson’s candy-colored brain then this is the movie for you.

Movie Review ~ The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Peter Parker runs the gauntlet as the mysterious company Oscorp sends up a slew of supervillains against him, impacting on his life.

Stars: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz, Colm Feore, Paul Giamatti, Sally Field, B.J. Novak

Director: Marc Webb

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 142 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: With the arrival of this sequel to a 2012 reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, I’m still not at all sold that the world needed a re-imagining of the series so soon after the Sam Raimi trilogy of films released between 2002 and 2007. That being said, with a more forward moving plot and a collection of interesting characters, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 shows a marked improvement over the moody and overly emo blockbuster that arrived two years ago.

I find that the first entries in most superhero series are always tricky because it’s necessary to tell an origin story detailing how the central character (or characters) became the caped crusaders or men of steel we know them to be. Very few films have been successful in that regard, with 1978’s Superman being the gold standard of origin story films in my book.

The Amazing Spider-Man faced an uphill battle because in my mind it had to provide some rationale for why we needed to go back to square one with Peter Parker and his arachnid powers. It couldn’t make the case and though it made a truckload of cash for Sony/Marvel and had some impressive special effects, it was slow and housed an uninteresting villain that provided more yawns of boredom than gasps of excitement.

The sequel sets to out to right some of those wrongs but winds up overcompensating for its lackluster predecessor by stuffing so much into its first hour that audiences should buckle up for tonal whiplash. Returning director Marc Webb and screenwriters Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek, People Like Us), Roberto Orci (Star Trek: Into Darkness), Jeff Pinkner have great difficulty finding their bearings in the further adventures of Peter Parker and it’s not until well into the second act of their film that they get into the groove.

Opening with a whiz-bang flashback prologue that shows what really happened to Peter Parker’s parents (Campbell Scott & Embeth Davidtz) after they mysteriously left him with Aunt May (Sally Field, Lincoln) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) we jump right into a present that finds Peter (Andrew Garfield, less troubled here but still a tad whiny) and Gwen (Emma Stone, bringing valuable sparkle to her role) trying to navigate their relationship. Haunted by a promise he made to her dying father, Peter struggles with honoring his word and the love he feels for Gwen.

At the same time and in true sequel fashion, more time is spent on introducing several new villains to the mix than with our hero. The first foe Spidey has to deal with is Electro (Jamie Foxx, Annie) who starts the film as a dopey nerd desperate for attention that finds himself at the business end of a tub of electric eels. Foxx plays these early scenes as such a simpleton it borders on insulting stereotype though he does manage to find good but hardly electrifying moments when he gains his evil powers.

Also appearing is Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan, Lawless, Chronicle) who, after the death of his father (Chris Cooper, August: Osage County) returns to manage Oscorp, the mega company that employs Gwen and seems to be the breeding ground for villains out to take over the world. Dying due to a genetic disease, Harry needs Spider-Man’s blood to save himself…a problem made more difficult when he discovers that Spidey is really his childhood friend Peter Parker. DeHaan and Garfield are both talented young actors, so it’s guffaw inducing to watch scenes that have them spouting douche-y dialogue with numerous “bro” and “dude” interjections.

There’s something to be said when the most interesting character has no superpowers at all. Showing once again why she’s such a value add to any film, Field makes the most of her limited screen time by creating a character designed to be the voice of reason but delivering her material with an honesty that seems out of place in a film otherwise populated with some fairly generic dialogue and plot developments.

Composer Hans Zimmer replaced James Horner and the resulting score creates an excitement the original was lacking. Aided by super producer Pharrell, Zimmer’s score is just as impressive as the special effects which are deployed in a spectacular fashion whether it’s in Spidey’s high flying opening pursuit of a gang of thugs or a final showdown with Electro at a power plant. T

he final third of the film is pure action, leading to a series of endings (there are at least three) that signal change is ahead for Parker and company. With a third entry on its way in 2016, there’s little doubt Spidey will spin his web for years to come and if this sequel is any indication, the series will continue to improve.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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Synopsis: Peter Parker runs the gauntlet as the mysterious company Oscorp sends a slew of supervillains up against him.

Release Date:  May 2, 2014

Thoughts: While I wasn’t married to the idea of Tobey Maguire being the one and only Spider-Man forever and ever, I wasn’t convinced in 2012 that Sony needed to reboot our webbed hero with The Amazing Spider-Man.  The film, while impressive visually, was missing that special spark that all lasting superhero films need to stand the test of time.  History has shown that some franchise films need to work out some bugs at first so I’m going to put faith in director Marc Webb and the creative time that this second go ‘round with Spidey hits the bullseye.  Adding rising star Dane DeHaan (Lawless, Chronicle, The Place Beyond the Pines), Paul Giamatti (Saving Mr. Banks), and Jamie Foxx (White House Down, Django Unchained) to the mix, this special New Year’s Eve preview is shorter and more compact than the longer trailer released a month ago, truly teasing the audience with images of the nasty baddies that await them when the film is released in May.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Devil’s Knot

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Synopsis: The savage murders of three young children sparks a controversial trial of three teenagers accused of killing the kids as part of a satanic ritual.

Release Date:  TBA 2014

Thoughts: Aside from a Broadway musical, I’m not sure if any visual art hasn’t taken a stab at the crime saga surrounding the West Memphis Three.  After the three landmark Paradise Lost documentaries and one recent feature documentary (West of Memphis) the story has now been adapted into a film starring two Oscar winners under the direction of an Oscar nominated director.  So why doesn’t the first trailer for the big screen treatment of Mara Leveritt’s well-researched investigative novel land better?

For me, it’s because I feel it’s all been done before using the real life players that have been involved in the tragedy.  We’ve seen the faces of the murdered children and the three young boys that were targeted as their killers.  We’ve followed their families, seen the pain of loss, and the gnawing feeling that the real person or persons responsible remain unpunished.  Can good actors like Reese Witherspoon (This Means War, Mud) and Colin Firth (Arthur Newman) get across that same emotion?

Originally positioned as an awards contender, after some early screenings the buzz is considerably lower and who knows how large of a release this will even get.  That’s too bad because this has a fantastic cast…however I think they’re simply stuck in a re-telling of events we’re familiar with.

Movie Review ~ The Place Beyond the Pines

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A motorcycle stunt rider turns to robbing banks as a way to provide for his lover and their newborn child, a decision that puts him on a collision course with an ambitious rookie cop navigating a department ruled by a corrupt detective.

Stars: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne, Mahershala Ali, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Ben Mendelsohn

Director: Derek Cianfrance

Rated: R

Running Length: 141 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  The ads for The Place Beyond the Pines would have you believe that Gosling is the star of the show and I’d say that’s about 1/3 right.  In actuality, Gosling is just one part of a film that is essentially a three act saga that winds up feeling a little Scorcese/Coppola-lite.  It’s not that director Cianfrance’s second narrative feature doesn’t have its good moments, because when you factor in some hard hitting corruption mixed with cops and robbers mayhem it certainly does.  No, what keeps the movie from being fully satisfying is its hesitation to move toward completion in the face of a slightly saggy running time.

Reteaming with his Blue Valentine star (and I’ll say again that Gosling was unjustly overlooked for an Oscar nomination for his work in that tough love movie), Cianfrance decides to go big or go home as he follows the lives of two different men across fifteen years – both are men trying to do good from different angles so the movie really emerges from the Venn Diagram this creates.

Opening with Gosling as a tattooed cyclist faced with finding a way to support a child he didn’t know he had, the film gets off to a rough start with a soundtrack that drowns out our actors and asks us to strain to hear what Gosling and co-star Mendes are softly murmuring about.  Director Robert Altman made overlapping dialogue his calling card and I’m hoping that Cianfrance isn’t taking it a step further with a film where you may need the benefit of closed captioning to figure out what people are saying.  It really doesn’t matter all that much because the basic thrust of this slice of life is the standard “man turns to crime to support family” set-up.

Don’t get me wrong, Gosling plays this troubled guy like a pro and the further he ventures away from the right side of the law (with the help of a slightly askew but nevertheless fascinating performance from Mendelsohn) the more we fear for his future.  That future collides with rookie cop Cooper (fresh from his Oscar nominated work in Silver Linings Playbook and before May’s The Hangover Part III) and that’s when the film takes its first of many turns.  Cooper’s cop is a do-gooder, unfazed by the temptation of corruption and naïve to the danger this poses to his career and family.  With a new son of his own and a wife (Byrne, Bridesmaids) who just may wear the pants in the family, Cooper doesn’t let himself get pushed around by his comrades headed up by Liotta who hasn’t yet met a scumbag he can’t play like a harp.

It’s from Cooper’s story that the film takes another jump and I think I’ll leave where that leads to your discovery.  I will say that it’s in this third act where the  movie will either seal the deal or leave you cold – the more I ponder the film the more unhappy I grow with it because of this section that feels too on-the-nose, too pre-destined to really be believable.  One interesting thing about the final section is that it features Cohen (TV’s Smash) and DeHaan (Lawless, Chronicle), both of whom may remind you of A-Listers Channing Tatum and Leonardo DiCaprio, respectively.

Cianfrance and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt keep the movie going at breakneck speed but when it drags during its 141 minute run time the film struggles to right itself with a conclusion that satiates.  I’m not a person that needs all the questions answered by a film and actually prefer that not everything is explained but The Place Beyond the Pines feels like it never knew the answers to begin with.  Instead of creating characters and situations that feel new, Cianfrance and co-screenwriters Ben Coccio and Darius Marder look back at any number of crime archetypes found in film.

A trip to The Place Beyond the Pines may not be essential or necessary but the movie’s not a total wash so I don’t want to outright discourage a viewing of it should the interest be there on your part.  Despite the dialogue problems I mentioned above, the film has an unobtrusive score from Mike Patton that works with the sparse world Cianfrance has created.  Aside from a make-up design that ages all the women but seems to make the men younger, performances are sound and the movie does have several scenes with a decent amount of payoff.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Place Beyond the Pines

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Synopsis: A motorcycle stunt rider considers committing a crime in order to provide for his wife and child, an act that puts him on a collision course with a cop-turned-politician.

Release Date:  March 29, 2013

Thoughts: Reteaming with his Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance, star Ryan Gosling throws himself into yet another troubled character seeking some sort of redemption from the people he loves.  Gosling was majorly snubbed by Oscar voters for his work in Blue Valentine and continues to be a star that rightfully earns his solid reputation with each film he makes.  I’m also looking forward to seeing what Bradley Cooper does with his role coming off of the strong showing he made in Silver Linings Playbook.  Clocking in at 2 hours and 20 minutes, The Place Beyond the Pines will hopefully be as entertaining and interesting as its stars.