Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets


I wish this was a foreign language film.

More on that in a second. When this movie was coming out, I not-so-secretly hoped it would be a surprise hit, and when it wasn't, I begrudgingly skipped it in theaters. Fast forward four months -- it only needed to be worth the $5 rental on Amazon, and as a visually spectacular space adventure it was every bit as great as it needed to be. It was fun. It was different. It was colorful, and inventive, and oh-so-very scifi. And it was dragged down by its distractingly bad script -- competing with those spectacular visuals, but in a tragic way.

Based on a French comic book series; adapted and directed by in an operatic The Fifth Element tone + Avatar-level visuals. 

So while I was casually bemoaning the jarring disconnect between Valerian's script and Valerian's literally-everything-else, it occurred to me that the movie could have been a well-rounded and spectacular experience if only I didn't understand what the characters were saying -- like in Gåten Ragnarok, a Norwegian adventure flick I watched once sans subtitles. Done on a whim, it turned out to be a fascinating experiment, to see what I assume is a fairly basic adventure plot stripped of its clarity. The extra layer of ambiguity created the appearance of depth. I assume I missed a lot, but I understood it more than I expected I would, on a subtle, instinctual level.

If Valerian had been in French, and if I had watched it without the subtitles, the characters would have appeared to be deeper (at the cost of understanding what little development they do have) and the plot wouldn't have been handed out on a silver platter, but it still would have been a perfectly serviceable flick. The biggest thing I figure I wouldn't have understood is that Valerian is waiting the whole movie for Laureline to answer his marriage proposal. And that would still work since their romantic will-they-won't-they tension is obvious. Even the strangest of plot events are understandable without the exposition applied to them.

Supporting cast includes Ethan Hawke (as you can see) Clive Owen, and Rihanna. Rihanna is the only memorable one.

Like, the parallel dimension that is only visible through special goggles, or Valerian needing to find a shape-shifting alien, or Laureline sticking her head in a magical jellyfish to psychically divine Valerian's location. Even the Pearl Princess' spirit being inside Valerian comes across visually eventually. They are presented on screen in a very comprehensible way, and the dialogue explaining them only gives a name to the scifi craziness. The script is almost exclusively used for explaining things -- mostly way before an explanation is wanted. Though occasionally subtle wit plays off the dialogue, like when Laureline is advised to change out of her bikini for the mission, and shows up wearing a completely different bikini. Details like that would have been lost. They're charming moments, but in the vast minority overall.

There were whole scenes dedicated to redundant exposition, some featuring characters we never get to know at all. The ship's computer lady's sole function was to explain things to the audience. We see the Pearl Princess die the film's second prologue, and then the Pearl Emperor retells the story again later. At that point, I'm overfed with the info and getting bored. The movie needs to show it all happen because it's a hyper visual movie, and never realizes that it's telling everything too, taking up valuable dialogue time with nothingness, and devaluing the story. The veil of ambiguity that a language barrier would provide would at that point actually enhance the experience. Instead of being told what's going on and then watching it play out, it'd be a mystery; in invitation to be engaged in the story.

Pretty butterfly...

In many ways it would've helped with Valerian and Laureline's characters too. Both are underdeveloped, but also possess unique details about them that come through visually. That is to say, they would be so much more interesting if they stopped opening their mouths and speaking such dry, lifeless and/or useless words. I love how they use teamwork so casually, doing things in sync or handing off objects without having to look. I don't care for , but man, if she isn't pretty good in this. Weirdly, Laureline is a better character than Valerian, even though he gets the movie's solid-if-simple theme as a character arc. I'm giving the benefit of doubt and assuming he underplayed on purpose. The borderline deadpan thing works for him though, and I think he only succeeds in losing interest to his co-star because Valerian spends a certain amount of time invisible, or shape-shifted, or just not doing anything. The camera is a big fan of Laureline's, and she gets more to do.

Both, also, are unconventional, and I love seeing unconventional characters played by unexpected (and arguably miscast) actors leading films like this. It doesn't play by the regular action blockbuster rules, and that is always refreshing. It also totally embraces the cliches and tropes of action and scifi flicks of ye olden days. That timer stops at 1 second left with such aplomb you almost don't even notice the cliche. And the "love conquers all" theme is so cheesy, yet so unapologetic. And seriously, that opening to David Bowie's Space Oddity -- there are few quicker routes into the heart of a fan of science fiction than a sequence like that.

*Slowly realizes that I really really like this movie*

If you were to remake the movie shot-for-shot, and only change the spoken words, it could have been worlds better. Planets better. Like HUNDREDS of planets better. Probably not thousands. Let's not blow things out of proportion here. I mean honestly, even with the drag-chute of a script, the movie is not bad, and the bad script adds to the ambiance in its own way. The characters do get arcs, the plot does makes sense (which is a pretty impressive feat considering how wacky this world is), and everything that is done visually truly is spectacular. It's amazingly creative, and does the adventure thing wonderfully well, reminding me of the old, classic style of scifi adventures. It takes a gazillion pointless rabbit trails, but then the rabbit trails wind up being the best parts. The lack of convention is part of the charm.

And anyway, the scifi is so gleeful and interesting, you almost don't need the characters to be any more compelling, or the plot to be any more complex -- you don't want to distract from what you have, and what I'm sure the main point of the movie is. (To be fun and spectacular!) But as I've learned, simple plots can be engaging if they aren't over-explained, and character depth is easy to imply with strategic use of subtlety and some talented actors. Valerian is no slouch, but its script certainly leaves lots to be desired. Normally when a script lacks, the obvious solution is to add more to it, but in this case, I think a little discarding might've been a handier option.

Sometimes less is more, and sometimes more is more. This movie has the "more is more" part down in spades.

So yeah, I wish it was a foreign language movie so I could watch it without subtitles -- kinda. At this point I've seen it twice and I'm already getting used to the script's dull moments of redundant explanation, and am appreciating what character we do get, and all the other unusual tidbits that you genuinely can't get anywhere else. So I guess in the end I got what I wanted, because all I really wanted was to be able to see past the uninspired dialogue that was clouding up this unusual and visual scifi treat. And I have. And the view from here is pretty spectacular. So! Any chance of a sequel?

Friday, November 17, 2017

Justice League


It's sad that this movie feels like a small fry in comparison to Batman v Superman. It's a bit anti-climactic after most of the Justice League's members have already teamed up and fought something so powerful that it managed to kill Superman. How do you top that?

Answer: You don't. Not like this you don't. And topping BvS isn't even a high goal.

Well, you have to bring Supes () back to life. But casually sideline him because he's still OP. And you gotta find another super-powerful villain to challenge them. Then threaten the end of the world, cause that always ups the stakes. So CGI villain Steppenwolf () arrives, cued by the death of Superman, to destroy and conquer the Earth. Batman () and Wonder Woman (), aware of the coming invasion, collect The Flash () Aquaman () and Cyborg () to fight him. The characters aren't bad, and the plot is cliched but not bad, but it's put together as if by random; everyone going through the motions; no soul, no power, no passion. Just... nothing.

Them deciding to use the weird liquid in the Kryptonian ship to bring Superman back to life, like Luthor did to create Doomsday, is the most unexpected and therefore most interesting part of the movie. Which is unusual because it happens in the middle of the movie, where most superhero flicks flounder before getting to the end battle. I honestly expected Superman to show up unprompted and save the day, but they had to decide to restore him, and it took up a good portion of the movie to make happen. Still he's in it very little, and spends too much time with Lois () and yes, his upper lip (where a mustache has been CG-ed out) is distracting.

"So what happened in Justice League, Diana?" "Oh, nothing very interesting."

Superman is likeable once he gets over being woken from his nap, and even gets cheesy a few times. Is this good or bad? Well... yes. Wonder Woman doesn't have her character ruined or anything, but she's nowhere near the height she reached in her solo film. Batman is just Batman. There's nothing particularly good about him, or anything particularly bad. He's just there. Cyborg ended up being the only one to impress and be better than expected; he's equally as well-done as everyone else. Aquaman was somehow both worse and better than I expected. My highest hopes were that Flash would be my favorite, but he was exclusively used for forced comic relief that only tempted me to laugh once. His potential remains, so we'll see about that solo film.

From scene to scene Lois will change from wig to no wig. It's noticeable, and cheap, and honestly I wish she hadn't been in the movie at all. This plus Superman's erased mustache, plus Steppenwolf's appearance as some villain on loan from a video game, are the outward evidence of this film's fundamental problem: Movies this massive, this expensive, and this hyped, should not be anywhere near this small and cheap. I haven't been this underwhelmed since X-Men: Apocalypse promised the apocalypse and delivered nothing but Oscar Isaac disguised in blue silicone. To make this movie was the entire reason the DCEU existed! But now it feels like a casual afterthought to BvS and Wonder Woman.

The most exciting thing about it is the promises of more to come -- but at what point are we going to stop believing them, if more exciting promises is all they ever deliver?

This film spends $300,000,000 delivering nothing, and has nothing to stand on but flat jokes, horrendous CGI, characters that have been better elsewhere, and lackluster stakes. The best I can say for it is that it didn't make me angry. BvS did, but now I'm wondering which is worse. At least BvS tried to do something and made me feel something -- even a bad something. With this, I've never been more disengaged watching a movie in the theater. Justice League, DCEU's Big Event Movie, that's been building up for five years, just did the worst thing it could do, and made a safe landing. We were promised an Earth-shattering kaboom, and all we got was a soft, apologetic thump.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express


Every so often, the world requires a new version of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. Not because no good film adaptation exists, or because there's some new gimmick or development in the world that requires the story to be made anew, but simply because it's what's done. It's a tradition! Perhaps unnecessary, but not at all unwelcome.

Much like this face decoration.

There are two great things about this latest adaptation, and they are both . He takes the helm as lead actor and director, and the only thing that overshadows him even slightly is his glorious mustache. His directing style is so inviting yet grand; elegant yet strong. It fits the era wonderfully, and is an absolute pleasure to watch. Beautiful, but not showy, and he finagles around in the cramped train space gracefully. He directs with easy confidence, and the story is such a classic; it's a sure-fire combination for successful entertainment.

With equal confidence, he takes on the role of "probably the greatest detective in the world" Hercule Poirot; a character heavy with the baggage of many fine performances. But Branagh is more than up to the challenge, and proves the Belgian detective is far from being overdone. I expected to love his direction, but was surprised at how easily I accepted him as Poirot -- mustache and all. He disappears into the quirky, interesting role wonderfully, and is an easy stand-out among the talented and large cast. The character gets more devotion than the mystery itself, and I think that's exactly how it should be.

The rest of the cast produces absolutely no complaints whatsoever!

I'm pretty tired of seeing in movies, but even he pleased me with a nice, subtle and memorable performance. didn't disappoint as a non-Star Wars character. I can't forget because he was very nice. I really liked , and impressed. , , , , and especially were all excellent. I also liked the less-known and , but they were slightly forgotten, along with and . With so many characters it was bound to happen.

The mystery might have been done better. My sister and her husband had recently read the book and mentioned a few left-out details they noticed and missed. I only recalled the basics going in, but everything made perfect sense to me, and I left satisfied. A few additions were also made. Some -- most really -- were uncalled for, but didn't do harm to the story either. Mainly they were meant to add a little action, but I found the plot itself to be exciting and interesting enough on its own. One did create a plot hole, which can be explained away only with some reaching. Overall it's a solid, classically simplified adaptation. 

I really enjoyed those tracking shots -- from inside and outside the train.

In fact the movie as a whole perfectly fits the description of classically simple and solid. Only one thing irked me; the ending that hinted at a sequel of Death on the Nile, and took me out of the moment for a second. There's nothing ground-breaking to see here, but nothing ground-breaking is required. As far as adaptations of this story go, I don't think you can do much better. If you're willing to be left happy, than you almost certainly will be. This is a straight-forward production of excellent quality, and a job well-done.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok


It's Thor's third movie, and he breaks out of the mold, traveling to before-unseen worlds, making new friends, and getting a bold haircut. Ragnarok is the Norse apocalypse, and Thor () thinks he's got it all under control, but then the goddess of death, Hela () is unleashed, and overthrows Asgard while Thor is stuck on a forgotten planet with Loki () fighting in gladiator matches with Hulk () for the entertainment of . And, of course, the entertainment of us.

 One thing's for sure: that Led Zeppelin song is the movie's MVP.

This movie sells itself on entertainment, and sells itself BIG. Its success in that area is pretty undeniable, unless you are completely against the kind of entertainment Marvel produces. All the earmarks of Marvel Entertainment are there, and cranked up so high that it sparkles like lightning in Thor's fingers. It's full of dazzling colors and shapes and is filmed with bold visual flair; it runs a mile a minute, always moving with action, or bantering conversation, or cracking a joke. Entertaining, entertaining, entertaining -- for the whole runtime, you barely have an opportunity to stop and wonder why you should care.

That may or may not be by design, but it might as well be, because if the film slowed down enough for you to think to yourself, "Well that was fun, but when will Thor face his demons? How is his relationship with Loki gonna develop? What are the stakes here if Hela wins?" then you might begin to see that there's no meaning to be found among all that razzle-dazzle. The boxes do get ticked, but only on the most base level. Like, Thor does have demons to face in a vague "all seems hopeless" moment -- and learns the exact same lesson that 15-year-old Peter Parker did a few months ago, but with significantly less magnificence than Spidey.

It works best as an action-comedy. But even comedies need some kind of emotional grounding.

And Loki and Thor clash amusingly as Loki is bad then good then bad then good then bad and then good again. (Yes, that's an accurate number of flip-flops.) But their complicated relationship isn't explored so much as it's referenced. "Remember that time you faked your death and took over Asgard? Yeah, that made me mad." When they talk about how Loki being mischievous is just his nature, and Loki looks like he's wondering if it really is, things begin to touch on something deeper, but it goes no further than that. In the end when Thor assumes he's gone bad again and says if he was really there he'd hug him... and then he is there... how about we get to see that hug? Why is this movie so afraid of emotion?

Hela is literally destroying Asgard and killing its citizens, and in the end Thor must let Ragnarok come upon Asgard and destroy it just to defeat her. This is big, serious stuff, but it doesn't feel it. It's done so flippantly. Honestly the movie's best arc was my man 's, who goes from big doofus, to aspiring evil, to moral questioning, to cool and heroic, all as a side character. And then of course his death is careless, though I guess it was meant to be emotional. Hulk is there for the laughs, and the new girl Valkyrie () is cool and tough, but neither get more than the requisite glimpse into the depths they might have reached.

Everything look great! But, everything looks great.

But yeah -- haircut. Hulk the superstar. Jeff Goldblum just being himself. Hela's horn helmet. The wacky trash planet. Director 's overdone cameo as rock-monster guy. And they play Immigrant Song TWICE. Who needs character or themes anyway? Well, I do -- but the fact is, I enjoyed watching this movie. I was ready to be entertained and the film was eager to entertain. But now the entertainment is over and I'm left with no connection to the movie. There's nothing to hold on to. And that kills rewatchability. If I ever watch it again I'll probably sigh at the jokes instead of laugh, and wish for the Shakespearean character drama of the first film, which rises higher in my esteem with each new installment.

Enjoy the spectacle, but don't look for a heart among the spectacular chaos; you won't find one. On the surface, Ragnarok is as toned and muscled as its title hero. Underneath, it's actually as bare-boned as the slack-jawed skeleton that's hanging out with him at the beginning. There's a certain charm to being duped with so much careless glee, but the spell can only last so long.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Upcoming Movie Roundup - November

No surprise I didn't go to the theater in October. However, I did watch/have been watching the TV shows I mentioned. The Gifted turned out to be disappointing even with my mild expectations, and drags terribly and yes, has lots of meaningless drama. Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency got off to a bit of a rough start by not nailing the opening episode like Season 1 did, but it's still plenty enjoyable and I look forward to watching the episodes. Stranger Things broke my heart. There's fan-service everywhere and what remnants there are the are like Season 1 feels disingenuous. The first five episodes could have been two, and the show picks up significantly at Chapter 6, when the plot really gets started, but there's other problems that hold it back even then. I haven't written a review for it yet but I need to, hopefully soon so I can stop being sad and wondering what went wrong.

This month there is a must-see, because for some reason I still watch every single Marvel release in theaters. Although I'd see this one anyway! I wouldn't be surprised if I saw two or three of these movies this month, but I guess we'll see. What looks good to you?

Thor: Ragnarok
Nov 3rd; PG-13
This one's practically out already and already has loads of pleased reviews from critics and fans. So I have no doubt it's a good Marvel movie. That in itself doesn't mean much to me, since I've disliked plenty of "good" Marvel movies, but -- I do have high hopes for this one. I like the style of the director Taika Waititi and think his sense of humor would work excellently with Thor. And the trailer was just brimming with galactic style -- and Led Zeppelin, which is a great sign if you ask me! Looks like Thor has finally gotten a movie worthy of him! Cate Blanchett looks awesome as the villain, and I'm happy to see Loki back again, and there's also Karl Urban and Jeff Goldblum. And Hulk of course. Time to Ragnarok and roll!

Nov 3rd(limited); NR
This month in "movies I want to see because a certain actor is in them." This time featuring -- Bill Skarsgård! Ever since IT came out I've been on the hunt for more movies starring him, where he doesn't wear clown makeup the whole time, and ideally doesn't terrorize children either. This looks like a nice option: A southern romantic drama, that looks like it has just enough of an edge to make it interesting.

Murder on the Orient Express
Nov 10th; PG-13
Well I've already seen a film adaptation of this, so I know who-done-it, but I'll always be up for another version, especially a bigger-budgeted one, with big-name stars. Kenneth Branagh I seriously doubt will be able to match David Suchet's Poirot (even with that incredible mustache); him directing is the real exciting bit, since I love his style. He just seems to fit with Agatha Christie. (I wish he'd do a take on And Then There Were None, but I digress.) Practically everyone else in the movie is a recognizable name, but I'm most excited to see Daisy Ridley do something other than Star Wars. Hopefully this will be one to remember! (I should read the book before it comes out...)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Nov 10th; R
This is a nice, strange one. Black comedy, extreme violence, Frances McDormand. She always seems to absolutely fantastic, but this looks like the kind of plot that she'd really, really shine in. Also, Sam Rockwell. always a winner. This movie looks quite good actually. Not the the kind I'd necessarily go to the theater for, but I'd like to see it at some point.

Justice League
Nov 17th; PG-13
So I guess Superman's gonna wait til the end of the movie to return, because when you have Superman why do you need anyone else, right? I'm sorry, but I'm done with this. Wonder Woman and her movie was great, but I doubt she can save this movie, and I'm so done. It looks exactly the same and BvS, and I'm just done. (They're copying Stranger Things by playing a moody version of Heroes, and that's hilarious and I'm done.) I won't even be surprised if I end up going to see it because of how big it is, but if I do it will be with rolling eyes, because I'm done. And the review will likely be extremely cynical, because I am just plain done. I'm done.

Nov 17th(limited); R
This month in "small budget scifi films I want to see because I'm a scifi junkie" -- featuring Lee Pace in this scifi actioner. If I had to venture a guess, it's gonna be very typical plot-wise, but it doesn't have the worst special effects, and Lee Pace is a nice plus too. I'm beginning to wonder when I'll actually get to see all these indie scifi's I've been finding. I guess that's why it's good I list them here, so I won't forget about them!

Nov 22nd; PG
"Oh yeah, Pixar is releasing a movie this year." Remember when the Pixar releases were the biggest events of the year? Did that change just because I have a grown up taste in movies now, or has Pixar really slid down that far? Ever since Brave in 2012 every new Pixar flick I've either not seen or been disappointed with. I'm not gonna write this one off of course, but there's not any excitement either. I haven't seen The Book of Life, which is what it's drawing comparisons to, so to me it's like the Spanish version of Corpse Bride meets Kubo and the Two Strings, which is interesting enough, but also kinda makes me wish it was a stop-motion animation. I like those. Anyway, I've rambled for long enough. Keeping on eye on this one.

The Man Who Invented Christmas
Nov 22nd; PG
Granted, it's not exactly a movie anyone was asking for, but it may turn out to be one we need anyway. Dan Steven's as crazy Charles Dickens? Grumpy Christopher Plummer as Scrooge? Not bad at all. Looks fun, family friendly, and about as energetic as a movie about writing can be! I should definitely read A Christmas Carol before I see this. Anything less would just be disrespectful!