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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

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Reviewer: Philip Price

Director: Luc Besson

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

Released: August 2nd, 2017

It’s all about context, people. As an individual who thoroughly enjoys and kind of revels in the imagining of what’s beyond our own solar system and, by default, creating something unique and fascinating out of that imagination I am always intrigued by something that looks like Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Intrigued being the key word here as there is always the potential for such an experiment or endeavor of such imagination to go off the rails in ways that it can’t maintain or doesn’t think through. With Valerian, director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Lucy) has adapted a French science fiction comic series that is no doubt close to his French heart, but while Valérian and Laureline (which would have seemingly been a better, simpler title) was first published in Pilote magazine in 1967 and went on to become one of the top five biggest selling Franco-Belgian comics titles for its publisher, Dargaud, one has to wonder if Besson’s vision is what original creators Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières imagined their imaginations becoming some fifty years later. I’ve never read the source material and this may very well be in line with exactly the kind of style and tone Christin and Mézières utilized in their original stories, but one has to wonder about the purpose of style and tone then and the purpose of as much now. Is the more irreverent and frankly, rather goofy tone in response to other science-fiction adventures being more serious or was that how it was originally intended to be read? With something of a farcical quality to it? I’m sure someone on the internet will be more than happy to oblige my curiosity with a detailed answer, but the fact of the matter is it doesn’t really matter what the original intent was or how well or not well Besson has adapted the material because we’re here now-in a post-Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets world that just so happens to exist in the same world that is post-Star Wars, and post-Guardians of the Galaxy, and hell, even post-John Carter so what is it about Valerian that differentiates itself and does it differentiate for better or worse? For me, Valerian is a step in the wrong and a rather bizarre direction. Sure, it has some interesting visual ideas and some fun sequences, but with dialogue this bad, a rather hackneyed story that attempts to disguise itself by accentuating its bizarre elements, and a completely miscast Dane DeHaan I can’t help but to feel Valerian might have been better off left on the page than having come alive only to find itself dead in the water so soon after.

In adapting forty-three year’s worth of comic stories, Besson has put together a screenplay that for the first hour or so really brings one into the world the director is creating for the audience with the titular city of a thousand planets, referred to in the movie as “Alpha,” taking shape over the course of an introductory montage set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Beginning just a few years into the future and building up through hundreds of years to thousands of years into the future where, over time, more species have come to build onto Alpha and share in the community by offering their knowledge and insights around their worlds and civilizations. It’s a pretty spectacular opening that establishes both a unique and genuinely cool idea and that is kind of where the rest of the movie falters in that while Valerian may have a lot of neat ideas floating around in its head it doesn’t know how to convey them in a way that isn’t goofy and/or through a story that doesn’t do them justice. That story I’ve been referencing so much deals with the titular Valerian (DeHaan) and his partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne) who are “spatio-temporal” agents AKA space cops who travel through time and space and the like in order to stop bad guys and bring them to justice; restoring peace and all that is right to the galaxy. This simple set-up works well enough in the first act as it provides just enough plot for Besson to execute his desired sequences around, but it is when a story becomes necessary that Valerian starts to stumble and more or less repeat itself time and time again before wrapping itself up in expected and what are conventional ways as opposed to everything else we’ve seen up to that point. After opening on the construction of this marvelous hub of co-existing species Besson then takes us to a planet called Mül where a humanoid race that looks like what might have once been a version of a character design for the Na’vi resides and seemingly breathes in little more than the beauty of their planet day in and day out. We are given some slight exposition via gorgeous visuals as a particular being, a princess of sorts we come to find, is singled out as having a reptile-like pet that one apparently feeds these valuable pearls to in order to get them to poop out more of said valuable pearls. Yeah, you read that right-it’s that kind of weird we’re talking about here. Not the so strange it’s kind of cool weird, but the so weird it’s kind of dumb strange. Seconds later these massive ships come breaking through the atmosphere of Mül, crashing down into the planet and essentially destroying the planet and all life on it save for a few of the royals that were able to protect themselves in one of the crashed ships. Years later, Valérian and Laureline are sent on a mission to recover one of the last remaining reptiles from Mül, which we learn is called a “converter”, from a black market dealer. This task immediately wreaks of something fishy, especially when they return to Alpha after a mess of a mission to find the conspicuous Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen) involved.

This all brings about the tricky line one must walk when crafting such a genre movie as it is the same conundrum that constantly faces those studios vying to be at the top of the shared cinematic universe heap. How silly is too silly? How serious is too serious? The secret to finding just the right place to land, like in life, is balance and perspective. With Valerian, it would seem Besson intends with both his direction and his screenwriting to want to create a mythic aura around these characters; to place them in a legend-like status where the adventures we’re seeing unfold will be talked about for centuries to come. Ultimately, the goal being to establish Valerian, Laureline, and their saga as something akin to those the comics originally inspired in the first place whether that be the phenomenon that is Star Wars or Besson’s own cult hit The Fifth Element. Still, Valerian is so bizarre and so…just…nutty that it never carries the necessary weight to go down with as much of a statement as those movies seemingly have. And when audiences do inevitably come around to a film that has been released over the past few years that was considered so bonkers and wacky that it was seemingly dismissed upon release only to be re-evaluated later and championed for “being ahead of its time” I hope that honor is bestowed on Jupiter Ascending or Warcraft before it reaches Valerian. Is Valerianever boring? Only when Besson doesn’t know what to do with his narrative and by default splits up his lead pair in order to allow them to continuously save one another, but other than stalling a few times in the second act I’d say no-it undoubtedly has its moments and can be rather entertaining. Is Valerian offensively bad? No, it’s fine enough, but could have easily been so much more. There are an abundance of interesting ideas going on here and even more creativity in the imagery alone-the chase sequence through what is known as “Big Market” is legitimately wonderful-yet Valerian for all its ideas and stunning imagery still doesn’t accomplish what it sets out to be from the beginning. It is serviceable sci-fi when it has the potential to be exceptional sci-fi and because of that clear line between what it is and what it could have been the film is more disappointing than anything. Again, I don’t know the source material and there could no doubt be arguments made, but based solely on what this movie in particular does there are tendencies throughout that make one believe Besson is shooting for more than just tawdry Euro cheese. There is this sense the director wants his film to be regarded as a genuine operatic space epic, but a lot of fun at the same time and has thus seemingly written the characters and much of the situational humor to mirror that of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Like I’ve said, I can’t speak to how faithful Besson is to his source material, but as far as what works well on screen in these types of films he certainly seems to be modeling his use of humor, pop songs, and attempts at real heart and the message of love and humanity that exists at the center of the film on that Marvel movie. The thing with Guardians though, was that it was written in both a more intelligent and witty fashion. The dialogue, especially the banter between DeHaan and Delevingne, is bad to downright terrible while the acting isn’t much better.

This sucks, it really does, for as much as I’m an individual who thoroughly enjoys and revels in the imagining of what’s beyond our own solar system and, by default, creating something unique and fascinating out of that imagination I’m equally disappointed when the kernel of an idea that sets these imaginings in motion delivers a reality that seemingly fails to meet the ambition it took to bring something like Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets to life. For that first hour or so it was easier to see how such ambitions might be met, but when the film devolves into a rather formulaic action/adventure film it also tends to lose a fair amount of the creative flourishes that separated the routine story from the inspiring storytelling. Of course, the entirety of the runtime is plagued by the rough dialogue and bad acting which brings us to the curious case of Dane DeHaan. I like DeHaan as an actor as he was perfect in Chronicle and has prospered more in supporting, character-driven roles such as that of his role in Place Beyond the Pines or opposite Robert Pattinson in the James Dean story, Life. I even enjoyed his turn in A Cure for Wellness as his overall energy as a performer matched what director Gore Verbinski was shooting for with that film, but as Valerian was originally written as more the typical square-jawed hero figure, who is strong and dependable as well as a charming ladies’ man DeHaan isn’t exactly the first actor to come to mind. Worse, DeHaan puts on this voice for the role that makes him sound as if he’s struggling to speak at all or, at the very least, like he’s trying to sound as stoic and cool as he possibly can, but it’s so out of whack with what the rest of the movie is trying to be that none of it melds. There is an effortless kind of charisma that is required to pull off a role such as Valerian and DeHaan simply doesn’t have that factor in his persona that allows him to inhabit the role in a convincing way that would have made his presence more effective. Coming off much more naturally is Delevingne as the beautiful Laureline who matches more what it seems her character was meant to be and the aura she was meant to embody much more so than her counterpart. It becomes evident quick that Laureline is a badass in her own right and doesn’t require much assistance from her partner-though there is naturally a love story forced between the two because, why not?- and in fact, it would seem Laureline more often than not is the one who ends up saving Valerian’s reckless self from some of the rather knuckle-headed decisions he makes. It’s nice to see old pros like Owen and Ethan Hawke show up for supporting spots in big-budget productions such as this and while I enjoyed the segment in which Rihanna is allowed to dance and emulate a handful of different styles from different eras (and sometimes different planets) it would be difficult to defend why her character’s presence is necessary beyond being a plot device that is disposed of as soon as it has served its purpose. Valerian can be fun when it allows time for its creativity to breathe and thus allow you to feel immersed in the world or worlds it is presenting and while I can’t say that I whole-heartily disliked the film or that I don’t admire what it wants to be it is still a ridiculous excursion that I couldn’t take seriously despite the fact I felt it very much wanted me to.

I love movies, simple as that. I watch them with an intent to write about them and have always enjoyed discussing the latest news and releases with others. I received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and Mass Communications/Digital Filmmaking and combined those interests when I began writing about cinema. Hope you enjoy the reviews, Happy reading!

Movie Reviews

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again ★★★★

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Released: 20th July 2018

Directed By: Ol Parker

Starring: Lily James, Meryl Streep, Cher, Christine Baranski, Amanda Seyfried, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

The iconic Swedish pop group said ‘Thank You For The Music!’. An overjoyed studio said ‘Thank You For The Box Office!’.

Sure. Pierce Brosnan singing ABBA’s SOS had a hint of the Borat (Sorry Sacha!) about it. But the summer of 2008 bared witness to a cinematic juggernaut in ‘Mamma Mia’, a jubilant jukebox musical whose sense of joy and fun proved irresistible for audiences. Considering life’s too short. Ten years on we return to the sumptuous setting of Kalokairi Greece with ‘Here We Go Again’, as the sequel fleshes out the timeline, remaining keen to create more cinematic memories.

Content with her unorthodox triple father situation in Harry (Colin Firth), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Sam (Pierce Brosnan). Sophie’s (Amanda Seyfried) fierce determination to honour her mother Donna’s (Meryl Streep) dream of renovating her surroundings into a lavish hotel, coincides with the severe turbulence she’s enduring in her ongoing relationship with Sky (Dominic Cooper).

Increasingly doubtful of her own capabilities. The dynamo duo of Christine Baranski’s Tanya and Julie Walters’ Rosie look to bolster her confidence by delving into Donna’s past, as Lily James’ enthused younger incarnation of the character guides us through her eventful youth with the dungarees intact, reliving her initial encounters in 1979 with Sophie’s dads (Hugh Skinner/Jeremy Irvine/Josh Dylan).

Previously unapologetic in its ramshackle charm and high camp. Director Ol Parker to much relief resists applying restraint to its energetic, big-hearted song and dance numbers, whilst technically and narratively tightening up the deficiencies that perhaps plagued its 2008 counterpart for the purists, with a sharper focus on emotional engagement. As a result, it may not be as quick to overwhelm us with its blindingly sunny disposition like its predecessor, occasionally labouring in its first half with its time-hopping.

Yet when those glorious highs arrive like a new take on ‘Dancing Queen’ and Cher’s stellar firework-heavy rendition of ‘Fernando’, whose cameo evoked hearty cheers in the screening i was in. They are now armed with a poignant and reflective slant, reinforcing the ingenuity in how these timeless songs are integrated into the framework, in order to offer fresh interpretations.

Lighting up the screen as a young Donna Sheridan. Lily James captures the carefree spirit and mannerisms of the character superbly, proving a solid counterpart to Meryl Streep’s original performance and Amanda Seyfried’s Sophie in the singing stakes. Speaking of Streep, much has been made about her (lack of?) involvement in this follow-up. Without slipping into spoiler territory, her gorgeous screen moments this time around epitomise why many fans deemed her an instant hit in the first film. Elsewhere, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters continue to provide fantastic farce, stealing much of the script’s zingy dialogue whilst Andy Garcia’s enigmatic hotel manager is a disarming and dashing addition.

It may not have been a sequel we were warming up the vocal chords for. Yet in striking a killer balance between emotive and euphoric. ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’ is a truly wonderful follow-up that brims with sincerity and show-stopping splendour.

Dig out the spandex and unleash your inner ‘Super Trouper’…

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Featured Review

Hotel Artemis ★★★

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Released: 20th July 2018

Directed By: Drew Pearce

Starring: Jodie Foster, Charlie Day, Sofia Boutella

Reviewed By: Van Connor

Iron Man 3 alum Drew Pearce makes his feature directorial debut with this slick future-set actioner – evoking the neon-tinged hyperbolic aesthetic of John Wick and applying it to a more stripped-down set-up akin to Joe Carnahan’s strangely forgotten Smoking Aces. Hotel Artemis sees the eponymous underworld hospital of the future come under siege by forces both outside and in, with a who’s-who of “hey – it’s….!” figures to bring its gleefully vitriolic war well and truly to life.

On Pearce’s part, Hotel Artemis knows its own playbook pretty well – tense action beats are played with coherence but don’t skimp on imagination, and the staging of it all is first rate. Jodie Foster, meanwhile, leads an engaging cast that includes a wonderfully sleazy Charlie Day, the brilliantly deadpan Sterling K. Brown, and an amusingly in-her-comfort-zone Sofia Boutella. It’s best to keep as much of its casting a surprise as possible, but there’s tons of fun to be had via mere cast reveals to keep proceedings engaging.

On the action front, though, it is strange that Hotel Artemis feels as subdued as it does as regards its own sense of internal rage. Whilst far from a bloodless PG-13, Pearce’s film never quite embeds itself as much in the hyperviolence of its world as you’d expect, or, rather, hope. It’s certainly no John Wick in that sense, and, though there is a decent share of world-building to kick things off, it’s quickly evident that this element of restraint is self-imposed by Pearce’s writing, rather than a by-product of now requisite franchise-creation. Hotel Artemis, incidentally, could easily garner itself a cheap and cheerful sequel or two, were there somehow a demand.

On the back of this pretty solid ninety minute actioner, that’s absolutely a consideration. The world it builds is fleshed out enough to intrigue, the cast are game for an intriguing balance of quirk and creepiness, and Pearce steps up to the director’s chair with unbroken confidence and a comic book sensibility that takes him deftly to the finish line. Stoker cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung astonishes as ever, and, while not his showiest work to date, Cliff Martinez’s score fleshes out the bonkers world of Hotel Artemis nicely.

Best aimed at those looking for another round of Smoking Aces-grade action – though, without quite the same singular ferocity – Hotel Artemis is a nice bit of bullet-laden fun with a lively cast and some slick visuals. It’ll never be one of the iconic points on the timeline of action cinema, but it’s a worthy stop-off on the way between the ones that are.

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Movie Reviews

Skyscraper ★★★★

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Released: 12th July 2018

Directed By: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell

Reviewed By: Van Connor

Be honest. Sooner or later, you knew The Rock was going to make Die Hard. It was inevitable. As he ascends higher and higher thought the upper echelons of the – increasingly spartan – Hollywood star system, this was always going to be coming. The only question really, was going to be whether or not it was going to be either any good, or even welcome in a world in which even a bonafide Die Hardsequel now typically ranks among the worst of whichever year it’s released in.

Alas, Dwayne Johnson is no Bruce Willis, and that quality control barrier could not be any clearer as Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno – with a dash of The Fugitive – for Skyscraper. Rawson Marshall Thurber’s adrenaline-fuelled ride takes DJ to China as amputee and former FBI tactical agent Will Sawyer, an American tasked with signing off on the security of The Pearl – the tallest building in the world. When terrorists seize The Pearl, however, Sawyer finds himself the subject of a Chinese manhunt and forced to find a way back into the building in order to save his wife and children from not only the terrorists seeking to fulfil their own agenda, but also to the out-of-control blaze that threatens to consume them all.

Johnson’s played in the sort of arena on more than a few occasions now, with Skyscraper arguably skewing closest to San Andreas as regards the sort of tone and polished spectacle you’re in for. There are some offhand nods to more classical genre archetypes – hell, it makes more Die Hard references than Jake Peralta – and there’s the requisite degree of fistbumping and utilisation of the term “brother”, but those still unsure of what to expect can rest easy on the promise of what’s essentially an Irwin Allen movie with a Neal Moritz sensibility. It ain’t clever, it doesn’t want to be, it just wants you to sit on the edge of your seat and then cheer afterwards. Which you will. A lot.

Neve Campbell brings an impressive amount to what’s an already impressively sketched out female supporting character in Sawyer’s wife (take notes, Bedelia – that’s how you handle hostage takers), and Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black) continues to make for an engaging added value element. Roland Møller, meanwhile, makes for a decent enough villain, but lacks the charisma needed to really sell the ludicrously named Kores Botha as much of an evil mastermind. Sure, he was never going to rival Hans Gruber on the scale of action movie villains, but Botha’s so thinly devised as a villain that he’s not up to the grade of Tommy Lee Jones’ Under Siege villain either. And that’s a real detriment when your action hero lead is someone as genuinely charismatic as Dwayne Johnson. Both Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Joe Manganiello took the wrong Rock movie, would be a decent takeaway.

In lieu of a captivating villain, Thurber nonetheless ensures value for money is had with a barrage of spectacle-fuelled set-pieces the likes of which will have you squirming in your seat biting your fist for dear life – IMAX could well inspire a sense of vertigo with this one. It’s a glossy-looking actioner – thanks to some smooth production design and slick visuals from cinematographer and Mission: Impossible alum Robert Elswit – and fight choreographer Allan Poppleton goes above and beyond to stage Johnson’s antics not as the all-powerful action commando, but a credible fighter dwarfed by the spectacle of what’s up against him.

It’s a good time for all. Sure, it’s in no way destined to become an enduring classic of the action genre – though, the spoilerific marketing campaign does well and truly show off what will become one of this summer’s more memorable movie moments – but it’s Die Hard on fire. With The Rock. In 2018. And if there’s an easier sell for a good time at the movies than that, it just means Dwayne Johnson has another movie out. In which case, still see Skyscraper first.

 

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