Sunday, July 23, 2017

Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Image courtesy of STX Entertainment. 
Filled to the brim with eye popping visuals and sequences that act as proof that director Luc Besson has a vivid imagination, "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets," nevertheless, falls short as the picture unloads a whole bunch of exposition and virtually non-stop frenetically energetic action sequences on a story that is not that captivating and, frankly, feels like the leftover plot for a long-lost "Star Wars" movie. There's much to see in "Valerian," but it's a picture that is overstuffed in several departments, while leaving viewers malnourished in others.

For starters, Besson is a director whose visual style can often make for a compelling and exciting piece of action cinema. But when he lets his worst impulses get the better of him, his pictures feel crammed with an overabundance of style and wild pageantry at the expense of story and character.
For every "La Femme Nikita," "The Fifth Element" or, most recently, "Lucy," there's an "Angel-A," "The Family" or the much beleaguered Joan of Arc tale "The Messenger." And "Valerian" is, unfortunately, more in line with the latter three than the former.

This is not to say that the film is an outright bust. As I've mentioned, there's a whole lot going on in this film visually - and a decent portion of it is stimulating to the eye. As the film opens, we are privy to an oceanic world filled with creatures who appear to have been stolen away from the "Avatar" effects department and have small lizards for pets whose bowel movements release crystals that fuel their planet. Or, there's a later sequence during which the titular character (Dane DeHaan) is chasing after a group of individuals and he travels through walls and what would appear to be other dimensions in his pursuit. It's a dazzling sequence.

As the film opens, the caddish Valerian - a top military operative - has proposed to his partner, Laureline (Cara Delevingne), and she doesn't appear to exactly jump at the offer. However, a series of nearly inexplicable plot threads later, the duo are pursuing some of the aforementioned "Avatar"-looking creatures, who have kidnapped a possibly nefarious general (Clive Owen) and are in search of a crystal that can restore their planet, which we see destroyed at the beginning of the movie.

In the meantime, special effects abound. Laureline is kidnapped herself by a group of gigantic, ogre-like beings who attempt to feed her to their king. And Valerian finds himself attempting to free a shape shifting slave (Rihanna) from her pimp-like captor (Ethan Hawke), but not before a long, drawn-out sequence during which the slave dances for Valerian. Around nearly every corner is a new digitally created creature waiting to be discovered and most of them are examples of impressive visual effects. However, many of these creatures are voiced by individuals who are spastically overacting.

So, while "Valerian" is undoubtedly a triumph in the visuals department, its story - which is a fairly routine galaxy-hopping adventure in which a planet's fate hangs in the balance that feels assembled out of the parts of better films, such as "The Fifth Element," "Star Wars," "Avatar" or even one of the "Guardians of the Galaxy" movies. It's not a bad movie by any means, but it's slightly overlong and entirely too busy at all times - but yet not conveying anything in terms of story, theme or character that matches its imaginative visuals.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Review: Dunkirk

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Christopher Nolan's lean and impressionistic "Dunkirk" is at once an propulsive and intense imagining of the titular battle and a free floating war film that also recalls the work of Terrence Malick, especially "The Thin Red Line."

There's little in the way of characterization and you might not even catch any names as the picture's British and French soldiers scurry around the beach or attempt to survive the waters of Dunkirk as the Germans close in and their planes unload artillery.

In the early summer of 1940, British soldiers were evacuated from the small city in northern France, but became trapped in the harbor as the Germans had nearly pushed Allied forces out to sea. As the picture opens, a young soldier played by Fionn Whitehead flees as the Germans open fire on him and several of his fellow soldiers on the streets of Dunkirk. He makes it to the beach, where the evacuation is set to begin, and the film quickly kicks into motion.

During the course of the picture, we follow several characters - Kenneth Branagh's valiant Commander Bolton, a courageous fighter pilot played by Tom Hardy, a shell shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) and a civilian (Mark Rylance) with a teenage son who pilots a small boat to Dunkirk in an attempt to save as many men as he can. None of these characters could be considered the lead character and there are long stretches when they hardly speak, but rather react to the situations taking place around them.

Those with phobias might not be able to handle "Dunkirk" as confined spaces, drowning, fire, heights and all other manner of horrific scenario play out as the film's numerous characters scramble across Nolan's vast canvasses. The picture looks incredible, from the dizzying fighter pilot sequences to the long shots of thousands of men lined up on the beach awaiting rescue boats.

Rather than platitudinous speeches or bombast (well, the score can occasionally be described as such), "Dunkirk" celebrates the communal heroism of that day, but also the fear and horror. For every scene in which Rylance and the two young boys on his boat make their way into the heart of a battle for which they are not prepared, there's another in which a group of young British soldiers hiding out in a boat turn on one another and threaten to kick a Frenchman out, a move that would certainly lead to his doom. In other words, Nolan's film provides a variety of scenarios displaying a range of human reactions to a tumultuous event.

Nolan is among the most revered of Hollywood's big budget filmmakers. His pictures often combine crowd pleasing action or science fiction stories with big names and he manages to make them - for lack of a better phrase - thinking man's pictures that address a mainstream audience. But while I've enjoyed his "Batman" movies, "Interstellar" and "Inception," "Dunkirk" is - in my opinion - his best work since 2001's "Memento," which still stands as the director's finest hour.

"Dunkirk" is ambitious, occasionally terrifying, visually awe inspiring, rousing and incredibly choreographed. It's among this year's best films so far.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Review: Wish Upon

Image courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.
"Wish Upon" takes a tiresomely familiar horror movie trope and does pretty much exactly what you'd expect it to do. The result is a movie that verges between gruesome death scenes that rely heavily on edits to avoid an 'R' rating and elements that are so wrong headed or jaw droppingly silly that even a genie in a bottle couldn't fix the picture.

The film opens with a young girl witnessing her mother's suicide and, some years later, suffering as an outcast at her high school. Clare (Joey King) does pretty much everything that heroines of these types of films tend to do - swoons over the hunky athlete, sneers at the snobby girls who go out of their way to mistreat her and pals around with two girls who act as the kooky sidekicks and are called upon for the occasional punchline.

Oh yeah, there's also Clare's father - Jonathan (Ryan Phillippe) - who, for some unexplainable reason, is obsessed with dumpster diving (and in front of his daughter's school no less, while all of the students are congregated outside) and, on occasion, plays saxophone solos in his living room that sound like the missing tracks from a 1980s Kenny G. record.

Clare discovers a music box with Chinese letters on it - so, naturally, she finds the one Asian guy in her class, who - of course - is friends with a tattooed Asian woman whose friend - naturally - is an expert in such things. If the title "The Chinese Connection" hadn't already been taken, this film might have qualified. They tell her to avoid the box as it appears to be haunted by a demon who grants wishes or some such thing.

Of course, Clare ignores them and proceeds to become an increasingly unlikable lead character - although, it would seem that we are supposed to sympathize with her - who continues to make demands of the music box, regardless of the fact that several people close to her have seemingly died as a result.

To make matters worse, the characters are constantly forced to regurgitate near-absurdist dialogue - for example, a scene during which a boy tells Clare, whom he's trying to seduce, "I just wanted to think of something dope to say before I kiss you." Also, Clare and her pals tend to refer to each other by names that sound better suited to the 1990s.

"Wish Upon" follows the well trodden path that you'd expect from this type of teen thriller, right down to the final shot. It's not particularly scary, its "villain" is woefully vague (some of the best horror movies include evil presences that lack an explanation, thereby making them more frightening, whereas this one provides a backstory regarding a ghost and then pretty much drops it) and many of the characters are wooden caricatures. If there's anything to recommend in the film, it's watching Phillippe go to town on those smooth jazz solos and, during one particular sequence, dodge a deadly flying tire. Such are the joys of "Wish Upon."

Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Matt Reeves concludes this remake trilogy in mostly high style as "War for the Planet of the Apes" doesn't disappoint as a thematically resonant film about the dark places that mankind will go to survive, but also an entertaining summer action movie. However, there is an ongoing homage in the picture to a specific Vietnam War movie classic that is, at times, so over the top that it threatens to knock the movie off its course.

This is - to be sure - a war movie and from the film's very first frames, we are thrown into combat as Caesar and his apes fend off an attack by soldiers who are led by a crazed military man known as The Colonel (more on him later). As Earth's population on all sides continues to dwindle, both Caesar and his kind and mankind wage constant war against each other, although Caesar (again brought to vivid life by Andy Serkis) would be content if man would simply allow the apes to live undisturbed in the woods. Unfortunately, The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) isn't having any of that and wants nothing more than to eradicate the apes.

The picture follows the time honored blockbuster scenario in which a film's hero - in this case, Caesar - must rescue someone and, in this case, it's his family and entire species, who are all captured while making a trek to safer land, kept in cages and forced to undertake back-breaking manual labor by The Colonel and his gung-ho men, who have no feeling toward their fellow creatures.

For the most part, "War" is a fun summer movie that is a little more thoughtful than you might expect. However, it takes a detour once Caesar and a few of his top lieutenants stumble upon The Colonel's well-guarded fortress. Harrelson - who, early in the picture is seen shaving his head with a razor blade because, well, that's what villains do, right? - is very clearly cut from the same cloth as one Colonel Kurtz.

So, not only do we get all of the "war is hell" speeches that you'd expect, but Harrelson plays Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe" on a boombox at one point in the picture and, most unfortunately, the words "Apocalypse Now" are literally graffiti'd on a wall. And this wall is shown at least three times during the course of the movie - you know, just in case somebody didn't pick up these overt references the first umpteen times around. There's also at least one other sequence that is a callback to Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket." It could have been conceptually interesting for Reeves to draw parallels between these classic Vietnam movies and the "Apes" pictures, but it's done so blatantly here that it doesn't have the intended effect.

But "War" manages to triumph elsewhere, most notably by using a digitally created character as the film's protagonist and giving it human qualities that make us empathize with it as if it were a flesh and blood actor. This isn't Serkis' first rodeo for this type of character - and it's been said before and let's say it again: the work he does is impressive. Caesar is a truly well rounded character. So, while 1968's original classic "Planet of the Apes" still remains the gold standard for me in this series, Reeves' two "Apes" films have been part of an impressive blockbuster trilogy and "War" is a fitting - and often powerful - coda.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Review: A Ghost Story

Image courtesy of A24.
David Lowery's "A Ghost Story" is a film that is likely to draw wildly mixed reactions. I've seen reviewers who loved it and others who wanted to pull their hair out - and I can understand both responses. During the film's first 30 minutes, it wasn't particularly working much for me, but the picture eventually settles into a rhythm and, ultimately, there's a fair amount to admire, even if not all of its pieces completely fit.

Yes, this is a movie in which Casey Affleck plays a husband who dies and then returns to the home where he and his wife (Rooney Mara) lived and spends the rest of the picture as a ghost wrapped in a sheet, observing how life goes on without him. But no clay is whittled and the Righteous Brothers are nowhere to be heard - in other words, this isn't a Hollywood drama in which a heartbroken widow makes contact with her dead husband and all is set right.

"A Ghost Story" alternates between melancholy, creepiness and mind-expanding theories about time. There are some haunting moments when Affleck's ghost wanders lonely through fields trying to make his way home or watching his wife pack up and drive away, only to be replaced by new tenants in the home where he once lived. It also features unsettling sequences when the ghost - always clad in that white sheet - paces back and forth through the house - and we have to remind ourselves that we're not watching a horror movie.

Late in the film, a party is thrown in the house, where Will Oldham ("Old Joy") expounds on the meaninglessness of life in a world where, one day, a masterpiece by Beethoven could be forgotten if human civilization crumbles. It's a speech that is by turns fascinating and pretentious, but it sets the stage for a curious series of sequences during which Affleck's ghost inexplicably witnesses how his home came to be constructed - from a scene involving settlers from many years past to the construction of a building in the future, where he is left to roam its halls. Then, time circles back again and he watches his own life with his wife pass by.

"A Ghost Story" is a film that requires some patience. Admittedly, I found mine tested during the film's early scenes. I recently praised "Twin Peaks" for an absurdist sequence during which a guy endlessly swept a floor, which felt right for the moment in which it occurred. In Lowery's film, there's a scene in which Mara eats nearly an entire pie in real time while Affleck observes her that might send moviegoers running for the exits. Eventually, the film finds its rhythm, but it takes more time than it should.

Lowery is an up-and-coming filmmaker who jumps back and forth between low budget indies and studio films - his debut was "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," a film also starring Affleck and Mara that I mostly liked, and the remake of "Pete's Dragon," which I missed. His third feature is daringly uncommercial and I can appreciate the abstract manner in which it ponders such themes as death and time.

It's not quite the triumph that some have proclaimed it, but I also wouldn't agree with its detractors. "A Ghost Story" is a curious item that initially frustrates, but ultimately absorbs, and could be a rewarding experience for those with a taste for the offbeat.

Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
On the one hand, there's not a whole lot of justification for a third reboot - and seventh film - following the adventures of Spider-Man in a period of 15 years. That being said, this latest upgrade of the superhero is enjoyable - mostly due to the fact that the lead actor (a spunky Tom Holland) is age appropriate to the character and the picture focuses just as much on Peter Parker as dorky teenager as it does on his being a Spandex-clad hero. Not surprisingly, the sequences that involve the lead character doing things that kids do tend to be more amusing than the ones loaded down with special effects.

However, the picture initially focuses on its villain, rather than its protagonist - that would be Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton, chewing the scenery), a blue collar construction guy overseeing the clean-up of some mess made by the Avengers at the film's beginning. He stumbles upon some sort of weapon in the rummage and - well, you know - absolute power corrupts absolutely and all that.

Years later, he has somehow managed to transform himself into a successful arms dealer and dons a costume that enables him to fly around and wreak havoc. Despite Keaton's commitment to the role, his Vulture character is underwritten. At a later point in the film, we see him as a dedicated father and husband, so there's a disconnect as to why he's so sinister in his spare time.

Meanwhile, Parker is a geeky high school kid whose pal, Ned (Jacob Batalon), has discovered his secret, while his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) is still in the dark regarding his web-slinging abilities. Also, Peter - thanks to his appearance in the previous "Avengers" movie - is now taking part in an internship (don't ask) with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Jon Favreau's Happy Hogan is his point-guy, much to the latter's chagrin.

Although the film is, on the whole, enjoyable, some of the aforementioned elements are what - at times - drags "Homecoming" down. As I've mentioned in other reviews of comic book movies, the whole notion of "world building" - that is, other Marvel characters wandering in and out of the proceedings and plot threads spanning across multiple pictures - is one that is supposed to create a complete cinematic universe. I get the concept - but, to me, the whole thing feels less like a storytelling device and more of an advertising ploy. It's the equivalent of Amazon or Netflix telling me, "if you liked this title...." And it's still annoying.

Regardless, "Homecoming" manages to make up for such elements by being charming and clever, due to the filmmakers' wise decision to allow Parker to be a teenager. So, while he exudes confidence while halting bank robbers and purse snatchers, he's a nervous wreck when it comes to talking to a girl on whom he has a crush. And literally every discovery that he makes regarding his own powers is - per his own description - "awesome."

There are a few sequences that make good use of Spider-Man's ability to fly through the air - most notably, a vertigo-inducing scene during which he climbs the Washington Monument to save some fellow classmates on a field trip. But there are also a few moments where the special effects are a bit out of control - namely, a scene during which our hero clings to the outside of a plane in which Vulture is attempting to steal some weapons.

All in all, "Homecoming" is a mostly fun attempt at rebooting a franchise that, frankly, could have been left alone for a while. Holland gives the character of Peter a lively makeover and the film cheerfully relaunches his story as a teen drama that just happens to feature some expensive set pieces. In other words, this is a mostly enjoyable summer movie and not as much of a retread as you might have thought.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Review: Okja

Image courtesy of Netflix.
Bong Joon-Ho's "Okja" is the heart warming, gloriously silly and completely bonkers giant pig story involving evil corporations, animal rights activists and the best use of John Denver in a movie that you never knew you needed. No, seriously, the film took the Cannes Film Festival by surprise and it's no wonder - it's difficult to adequately describe this picture, other than to say it's pretty wonderful.

Joon-Ho's films tend to flirt with genre, but they're also too unclassifiable to stamp them with one defining label. His marvelous "Memories of Murder" was a haunting serial killer thriller that had moments of outrageous humor, "The Host" was often funny but was also a monster movie, "Mother" was a mother-son relationship drama and a thriller and "Snowpiercer" was a futuristic science fiction thriller, but also a 99-percenter movie of the moment.

"Okja" can best be described as "E.T.," but with a massive grey pig. As the film opens, corporate monster Lucy Mirando (a wacky Tilda Swinton, relishing the villain role) announces a program to end world hunger that includes the breeding of a type of massive pig that was discovered in a far flung corner of the world. Chosen farmers from around the world will tend to the pigs - whose meat, Mirando promises, will be succulent - and ensure that they are treated in the most humane manner. In 10 years, one of them will be chosen as the winner, meaning that the farmer will be given the top prize and his pig will be the most likely to be slaughtered first.

In Korea, a young girl named Mija (An Seo-hyn) lives with her grandfather (Byun Hee-Bong) and her beloved friend, Okja, a massive pig that looks more like a hippopotamus, but is gentle and good natured. Mija and Okja play together in the forest and the pig enjoys it when the young girl throws pieces of fruit into her mouth. In an early sequence detailing the depths of their friendship, the young girl falls off a cliff and the pig puts its life in grave danger in order to save her.

So, when members of the Mirando corporation - including a wildlife TV host named Johnny Wilcox (played by Jake Gylenhaal with a comedic touch of which I wasn't formerly aware) - show up to award Mija's grandfather for Okja, we know that this doesn't bode well for the family. Needless to say, Okja is taken to Seoul - with plans to ship her to America, where she'll be brought on stage for an unveiling of the new brand of meat. Mija runs away from home to save her friend, kicking off a series of misadventures that are - to say the least - colorful.

First, Mija runs after the truck carrying Okja away in a virtuoso feat of cinematography. Joon-Ho's camera swoops and swirls as the young girl attempts to follow the truck on foot. Then, she finds herself allied with a group of animal activists led by a sympathetic Paul Dano, who is great here, and Rooney Mara. A sequence during which police officers armed with darts chase the girl, Okja and the activists - who use umbrellas to shield the beast from the darts - through a shopping center to the tune of John Denver's "Annie's Song" is one of the film's truly magical moments.

"Okja" contains more than a few laugh out loud moments as well as several others where you'll feel your throat tighten. There's a completely unexpected moment involving a bond between a pair of animals, their baby, Okja and Mija near the film's end that is absolutely stunning in the way the film manages to elicit emotion through the utilization of special effects.

For a movie that tells the story of a young girl and a gigantic pig, "Okja" has a fair amount on its mind - everything from corporate responsibility and the humane treatment of animals to loyalty and whether a cause that martyrs others can still be considered doing the right thing. The film is moving when it needs to be, silly and satirical at other points, exciting and suspenseful. Its special effects are impressive and always in service of the story. The film is, so far, the year's most pleasant surprise. It's currently available to stream on Netflix and in select theaters, so I'd encourage you to seek it out.