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.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Transporter Refueled

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Synopsis: A reboot of the story of transporter Frank Martin.

Release Date:  September 4 2015

Thoughts: My first thought when seeing the trailer for The Transporter Refueled was more surprise than anything that the franchise was getting a reboot a little over ten years since the first film was released.  Then I remembered that Sony has rebooted Spider-Man TWICE in the last two decades and decided to give this one a (slight) pass.  After three films, original star Jason Statham (Spy) declined to reprise his role as special-ops badass Frank Martin so newcomer Ed Skrein hops behind the wheel in the part.  Skrein seems to have the same steely grimace the role calls for and with its early September release I can see the film turning a small profit but not breaking any box office records.  I opted out of this franchise after the first film but after a summer of heady action films this could be a nice excuse to check my brain at the door and let The Transporter take me away. 

Movie Review ~ Lucy

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman, accidentally caught in a dark deal, turns the tables on her captors and transforms into a merciless warrior evolved beyond human logic.

Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-Sik Choi, Amr Waked

Director: Luc Besson

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Viewing Luc Besson’s Lucy I found myself asking the age old question many film critics face: is it worse for a movie to be merely bad or simply boring? I’m of the mindset that I’d prefer to sit through what would be considered a bad movie over a film that can’t keep my interest for more than a few minutes at a time. Like the shiny bit of foil that a trapped raccoon would rather grasp in its claws than release and be set free, Lucy is a 90 minute exercise in European bonkers cinema that’s as nutso as the day is long but fires on all cylinders.

The second film of 2014 that affords star Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin) the opportunity to capitalize on her ability to make dazed cluelessness look arty, Lucy is first and foremost a nice return to form for writer/director Besson. Known mostly for his string of flashy visual feasts in the 90s (La Femme Nikita, Léon: The Professional, & The Fifth Element) before turning his attention to less bombastic directorial endeavors, Besson has been dipping his Gallic toes into the artpop cinematic waters by writing/producing a string of surprise action hits (The Transporter and Taken series of films) during the last decade. Though 2013’s The Family fizzled, it had numerous visual hints that Besson was reclaiming his style.

An action film with such a short run time has to really blast out of the gate and Lucy surely does that. Opening in Taiwan as dopey Lucy’s (Johansson) bad choice in men gets her handcuffed to a briefcase full of a powerful synthetic drug, it isn’t long before she’s an unwitting drug mule for a freaky gangster (the dependably psychotic Choi Min-Sik, I Saw the Devil, Oldboy). When the drug is accidentally released into her system, its mind-altering effects take over, allowing Lucy to tap into the full potential of her brain capacity.

Besson’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink script keeps things moving so fast that audiences don’t have time to sort out the logic from the looney. Intercutting the film with a plethora of overwhelming visuals signifying the amount of information we’re presented with daily, Besson keeps things deliberately off-kilter as Lucy hops countries, teaming up with the French police (Amr Waked) and a noted scientist (Morgan Freeman, Now You See Me, more invested here than he has been in his last five films) to make good use out of her knowledge while staying several steps ahead of the gangster and his henchmen.

As it moves toward a trippy ending with the focus of a laser beam, Lucy’s journey is persistent in its engagement. My overall recommendation of the movie comes with the caveat that one critic’s engagement is another’s piffle of an eye-rolling action adventure. Held up against some of the dreck released in recent months that takes itself too seriously, Lucy is overall worth the headaches it may cause.

The Silver Bullet ~ 3 Days to Kill

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Synopsis: A dying Secret Service Agent trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter is offered an experimental drug that could save his life in exchange for one last assignment.

Release Date:  February 21, 2014

Thoughts: When I first saw the trailer for 3 Days to Kill I kept thinking what a great Liam Neeson impression Kevin Costner was doing.  Then I started to wonder if Neeson had turned this one down.  Then I thought about the plight of the Black rhinoceros.  Then the preview was over and I went on with my life.

It sort of makes sense that this looks like the kind of Euro-trashy action film that Neeson would have sunk his teeth into because both 3 Days to Kill and Neeson’s Taken films were written by Luc Besson (The Family), a director that favors style over any sort of substance.  The beginning of this trailer has a few good moments before forgetting totally what kind of film its trying to market itself as.  The once bankable Costner is clearly hoping for the kind of career renaissance Neeson enjoyed but taking his also-rans isn’t going to get the job done.

Movie Review ~ The Family

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The Manzoni family, a notorious mafia clan, is relocated to Normandy, France under the witness protection program, where fitting in soon becomes challenging as their old habits die hard.

Stars: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo, Domenick Lombardozzi

Director: Luc Besson

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going in to see The Family.  As a fan of Michelle Pfeiffer, I knew that my seeing this was an inevitable event but based on the trailer and seriously boring title I just didn’t know how the whole thing was going to turn out.  Would it be another in a long line of Robert De Niro films that seemed to get made only because he signed on the dotted line?  Or would it be the kind of daring European action film that director Luc Besson first rose to fame for?

Well, it turns out that the movie can’t ever really decide what genre it wants to fit into so it instead just lays down and rolls around several different themes all at the same time.  That may not work for most movie audiences and it’s not surprising that people are coming away from the film feeling a little empty, but I found the film to be an interesting potpourri of tones that worked more often than not – even if it’s more than a little odd.

Moving into a new European town after an incident necessitated their hasty retreat; a family in the witness protection program find themselves in the quaint/quiet town of Normandy in France.  Taking up residence in a money pit-esque dwelling, the Manzoni’s clearly are getting old hat at the process of moving from one town to another.  Dad (a more low-key than usual De Niro, Being Flynn, Silver Linings Playbook) just wants to settle in and write his memoirs, to the horror of the long-suffering FBI agent (Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln, Hope Springs) assigned to their case.  Michelle Pfeiffer (Dark Shadows, People Like Us) is De Niro’s wife with anger issues of her own, eventually turning to the church for help, spilling her secrets in confession that leads to a moderately nice payoff.  The kids (Diana Agron and John D’Leo) are fashioned as doppelgangers of their parents and both give off a playful vibe, even as they find themselves in hot water at school.

As the family is getting acclimated to their new town, we also follow a creepy crime henchman (Jon Freda) that continues his hunt for De Niro and his brood after De Niro became a turncoat to his Mafia family.  It’s in these scenes that wind up leading to an out of left field tension filled finale that the film may confuse some people.  The passages with the family are given a light touch that belies the darker tone brought on by Freda’s intense chase.

For me, it worked.  I enjoyed that the film feels different than what it would have been were it produced in your typical Hollywood fashion.  That it was made in Europe by a European crew and director has given the film a golden hue and the chance to take risks with its twists and turns.  By the time the film reached its finale I wasn’t sure how it was all going to work out for everyone involved.

Sure, the film has several extraneous storylines that could have been trimmed to keep the running length to 90 or so minutes but the actors play these moments so well that it’s forgivable.  It may be harder to forgive one of the most laughably contrived cases of coincidence since, well, ever, but by that point the movie had won me over enough to just brush it off.  There’s also a wonderfully weird bit where De Niro is feted by a local film society who has asked him to come and speak to the finer points of the classic film…no…no…I won’t spoil that moment for you.

Returning after several years of being absent from the director’s chair, Luc Besson (Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element) brings his trademark cinematic flair to The Family and navigates it’s up and down and crisscrossed tones with ease.  I’ve always enjoyed Besson’s creative way of cutting from one scene to the next and he keeps the pace going, even when his screenplay based on the novel Malavita doesn’t fully support itself.

The Family isn’t a movie that you’ll need to see in the theaters but would make for an interesting watch when it finds its way into the home viewing market.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Family

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Synopsis: The Manzoni family, a notorious mafia clan, is relocated to Normandy, France under the witness protection program, where fitting in soon becomes challenging as their old habits die hard.

Release Date:  September 20, 2013

Thoughts: Despite having one of the most lackluster titles in film history (why not just call it, That One Film with Robert DeNiro and Michelle Pfeiffer?) it’s hard for me to feel like I want to pass up a movie with Pfeiffer (Grease 2, Dark Shadows) because she works so rarely now and seems to choose projects that are of real interest to her.  True, they may not always be on the money (see Dark Shadows) but they are rarely boring.  DeNiro (Silver Linings Playbook, Being Flynn) is another story with the veteran actor making some ghastly films in the past decade.  Another bit of interest is that the film is directed by French auteur Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, La Femme Nikita, The Professional) who has stuck to producing action flicks (Taken 2, Lockout) so his return is welcome in my book.  Looking like a dark mix of mafia comedy, The Family (originally titled Malavita) probably won’t rank as career highs for anyone involved but it might turn out to be a decent romp.  We shall see.

The Silver Bullet ~ Taken 2

Synopsis: In Istanbul, retired CIA operative Bryan Mills and his wife are taken hostage by the father of a kidnapper Mills killed while rescuing his daughter.

Release Date:  October 5, 2012

Thoughts: This sequel to the unlikely 2008 hit finds Neeson once again forced into action as his wife is kidnapped by the family of the men he wiped out in the first film.  The original Taken was a curious film that seemed to strike at the right moment – a vigilante justice tale that benefited from stylish direction and a fiercely committed performance by Neeson. Though a nice distraction, it was nothing special in the action canon.  However, considering the routine nature of many similar action titles Taken seemed to nestle itself well amongst its peers.  The sequel looks to be more of the same with big chase scenes and a melting pot of accents/nationalities in the cast.   If this one does well, I’d be worried for other family members that may get snatched in future installments.