Friday, July 21, 2017

Movie Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

It's been more than a decade, but I remember watching the Star Wars prequels and wondering what I'd think of them if they hadn't been Star Wars. I know I'm not alone in this - a lot of us were preoccupied with what those movies were doing to the franchise, and we were conscious of the fact we couldn't really look past that. What would it be like to watch them divorced from the classic film series?

For better or worse, Valerian offers us a rare opportunity to answer that question. It's not just the same genre - the aliens, technology, and (tragically) dialogue would have fit in perfectly with Lucas's prequel trilogy.

A lot of that is due to like source - the comic this movie's based on was influential in the design of Star Wars. But there's also something to be said for visual approach. Valerian has a budget significantly higher than Luc Besson has controlled previously, and he spends like it's 1999. That means going extremely heavy on the CG, cutting loose with everything he's ever wanted to put on screen.

Visually, it isn't awful, but then neither were the prequels. At times, Valerian is gorgeous to look at and fun to experience, but - also like the prequels - the level of inspiration wavers. For every sequence that's awesome to behold, there's another that's dull and pointless.

Speaking of dull and pointless, let's talk about the characters. Valerian and Laureline are undermined from the start by a relationship that's explained in one of the most awkward exposition scenes I've ever seen. Aside from this, their characters would have been serviceable as stoic points of view; space-police patrolling a surreal setting they're accustomed to. When the movie drifts in this direction, it does a little better, but it always tries to bring it back to something emotional, only to sink into melodrama.

That's not surprising given the director's past: we all remember the end of The Fifth Element. But that had Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich to salvage the writing. With all due respect to DeHaan and Delevingne, they just don't have the same star power. I think Cara Delevingne comes a little closer, which makes it all the more unfortunate that the movie leans heavier on Dane DeHaan for the dramatic moments. He's not a bad actor, but he's just not the right choice for this part.

This is the part in the review I wish I could say the third lead, the city of Alpha itself, salvaged the movie, but that's another missed opportunity. The titular City of a Thousand Planets is a cool concept and what we saw of it was great, but most of that was in the trailer. I'd have loved more of the city's bizarre nooks and crannies, but we just didn't get it.

Another set piece serving as a playground for an inter-dimensional showdown was much more satisfying, despite only being around briefly. This sequence - let's just call it the third or fourth prologue - offered a wonderful barrage of gadgets, monsters, action, and mind-warping SF puzzles. Overall, the movie was at its best when it threw ideas and obscure genre conventions at the screen. It delivered an impressive volume of weirdness, and I appreciate that.

But, ultimately, it never quite worked. I think better casting decisions and a little more thought to the tone would have made a huge difference; strip out the sappy love story, and you could have had something brilliant. But as it is, you're left with a sub par, albeit fun, big budget space opera that's not as good as Fifth Element, Avatar, John Carter of Mars, Jupiter Ascending, or Chronicles of Riddick. And it doesn't even hold a candle to this year's Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Movie Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

We should really stop giving awards to actors who wear make-up. Any make-up, of any sort. Or a hat, scarf, or glasses. You really shouldn't be eligible for an Oscar if your face is obscured by any of these, since it's impossible to tell whether it's your acting or if it's sunglasses creating the character.

Alternatively, they could just give Andy Serkis a goddamn Academy Award, since he's more than earned it. Hell, he deserved at least a supporting actor nomination for Gollum fifteen years ago (not to mention a nomination for the last two installments of this franchise). But he really deserves to win for his portrayal of Caesar in War for the Planet of the Apes, the third film in this rebooted series that is far, far better than logic dictates should be possible.

You can go look up videos on Youtube that demonstrate the CG skin is nothing more than a modern update on make-up and costuming: it's his performance shining through. I'm skeptical Serkis will get the recognition he deserves, which will seem hilarious to acting students fifty years from now, when his work is studied and analyzed as the most significant of the era.

Serkis was always the lead in this series, but he's barely sharing the screen this time. War is his movie, through and through. There are only a handful of human characters with significant roles, and none come close to getting the focus Caesar's given. There's no James Franco or Jason Clarke role - Woody Harrelson's Colonel plays an antagonist, but even then, he's more a stand in for elements of Caesar's internal journey.

This is ultimately an introspective movie about an aging warrior trying to find inner peace. It has a lot in common with Logan, actually. Both even overlay classic movie templates on top of science-fiction stories. While Logan used a blend of western and road trip, War for the Planet of the Apes is modeled after POW films. There's an awful lot of The Great Escape in this film's DNA.

I'm not sure whether this is it for the franchise, or if Fox will circle around to telling an updated version of the 60's movie. Either way, War wraps up this trilogy, and it does so eloquently. If this is it, we've got nothing to complain about. If there's more, there's every reason to be optimistic they'll be great.

If you've seen the first two in the series, I highly recommend you check out the resolution on the big screen. If you've never seen Rise and Dawn, I suggest you stream them online then go see War for the Planet of the Apes in the theater.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Movie Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Before I get started, I just want to take a minute and appreciate that we're four superhero blockbusters into 2017, and the lowest rated of the bunch - Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 - is still 81% Fresh. This year has had its share of disappointments, but not in this genre. Logan, Guardians, Wonder Woman, and now Spider-Man have each exceeded all reasonable expectations.

And Spider-Man: Homecoming is the best of the bunch. Sure, Logan has a better shot at Best Picture, Wonder Woman was more timely (pun not intended - I'm fully aware that Timely Comics was the forerunner of Marvel, not DC), and Guardians was more visually stunning. But in terms of successfully accomplishing the film's goals, Homecoming is just better.

And don't think those goals were easy. Marvel had to clear a high bar with this one. They had to assure Sony the company's trust wasn't misplaced, and they had to demonstrate the world needed yet another Spider-Man series. That's a tall order, given that Raimi's series helped establish the tone and look of the modern superhero film (along with Blade and X-Men, obviously). Plus, Spider-Man 2 is often regarded as one of the genre's best. And while the Garfield reboot wasn't as good, it was already fairly close to the MCU (the tech was similar, and Sony and Marvel came close to a deal to have their universes at least partly connected).

In short, Marvel had a lot to prove.

We already had high hopes after Peter's introduction in Civil War, and Marvel was uncharacteristically upfront about modeling this after John Hughes's filmography. But that barely scratches the surface of what they delivered. Homecoming represents a fantastic reimagining of one of comics's most famous characters.

The movie captures the source material's humor and thematic elements perfectly, far better than any of its predecessors. But it actually strays quite a bit when it comes to the details. We already saw the new Aunt May in Civil War - if that feels like a departure, wait until you meet the new Flash Thompson. Or when you realize the Daily Bugle has been replaced by YouTube (at least for now - I'd be surprised if they didn't work some version of the Bugle into the sequel). This is a new version of Spider-Man built to fit in the MCU, which is only a hair's breath from our world. Anything that wouldn't fit has been transformed.

Presumably, Spidey's origin is more or less unchanged, but there's no way to know for sure. He talks about the spider but we neither see it occur, learn whether it was radioactive, or learn any details. Likewise, the movie doesn't even namedrop Uncle Ben. Instead, the movie trusts us to know Parker's origin story. It's interested in where his story goes from here.

And I loved every minute of it. I loved the new Vulture, who bears only a slight superficial resemblance to his comic counterpart. I love Parker's relationship with Tony Stark and others in the MCU. I love Peter's high school life and how expertly the movie handled Spider-Man's frustrations balancing his two lives.

Spider-Man 2 remains a great work, but - frankly - I don't think it can compete with Homecoming. I'm not sure many superhero movies can. This is one of the best movies we've seen from Marvel to date. Personally, Avengers remains closer to my heart, but I suspect Homecoming might be a little better. It's really that good.