Valerian and the movie of a thousand problems

Luc Besson’s crowd funded blockbuster tries too much and fails at pretty much all of it

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It’s hard to keep a level head when reviewing films intended for children or families, or indeed any film that is targeted toward an audience of which I am no part. Yet despite being neither a child or a family I sat through the entirety of Valerian: City of a Thousand Planets, a sprawling Sci-Fi epic from visionary director of Leon, The Fifth Element. The film follows the story of Valerian, yes that’s his first name, who is a nondescript Agent for some sort of Human Galactic agency. Valerian wears its influences on its sleeve, unfortunately the Star Wars movie it seemed to be replicating was The Phantom Menace.

Now it can be common to forgive a film for children for not being a perfect piece of cinema, but there were simply too many glaring faults in Valerian to pass off as unimportant. The film opens by vomiting exposition into your face and far from snappy dialogue that is heavy handed and obvious whilst still somehow remaining vague and confusing.

I have talked at length in my review of Kubo and the Two Strings about the importance of a real danger in kids films. It is my opinion that fantastical heroes must be genuinely threatened in order to have any sort of impetus. Valerian is thrown straight into the thick of it from the film’s start, by the end of the first action scene our protagonist has already fell down twenty stories, been chased by mobsters and security agents and jumped from an armour plated magic school bus to a spaceship and came out completely unharmed. The hero of our story is constantly being thrown into what could be the climax of another movie and coming out unscathed. It’s as if the filmmakers are so afraid that you’d get bored watching so they have to throw in another action set piece conceit. It is an overload of half baked heroic schemes and pay off without any of the set up. When your entire movie is a climax, none of it is.

The humour found in the film is massively low effort, if ever there was a movie to demonstrate that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit it is this. Laureline has one weapon in her arsenal and it is a brutally unfunny one two punch of an eye roll and a muttered “oh great!” Meanwhile Valerian has managed to weaponise smugness in such a way that it killed my enthusiasm for what I was hoping to be a fun film within five minutes of the movie starting. He has a collection of niche-gadgets that would make Adam West’s Batman blush, including a saliva activated spider bot designed to break people out of cocoons (not kidding) but the film fails to make light of these things. It’s goofy fun that takes itself seriously, it is the antithesis of Kingsmen, the James Bond Jr of cinema, it is Spy Kids for people who thought Spy Kids was too interesting and funny. The only actor who seems to realise what tone the film should be going for is Ethan Hawke who plays a sleazy pimp (in a film aimed at kids). The man overacts and cherishes his lines like he’s Oldman in The Fifth Element, adding the self aware campiness that the film is sorely lacking throughout, unfortunately he is only on screen for one scene, overshadowed by the introduction of the “surprisingly-okay-in-this” Rihanna’s character.

Being based off of a comic book series it is possible that the story of the film is a number of smaller comic adventures stitched together through a single narrative, explaining the disjointed feeling of the film and the endlessness of the adventure. This could work if the narrative connecting the separate parts of the film wasn’t just Avatar.

It is clear that there was a lot of heart put into this movie, there are incredibly detailed set pieces and worlds that are designed, and the camera holds on to plenty of shots that I’m sure are filled with easter eggs for comic readers but there is simply too much of it. Much like Ghost in the Shell the film makes too much of an effort to make each shot some sort of interesting that it fails to grasp the possibility that less could be more in some instances.

I try to avoid talking about gender issues in these reviews, but films that are aimed at children and teens should be under harsher scrutiny to produce more socially progressive messages due to the impressionable nature of their audience. The way in which Laureline’s character is used as a lazy golden chalice for our protagonist is insultingly outdated. In short, Valerian has to prove himself by saving the world in order to get Laureline to marry him, despite their non-existent chemistry, his arrogance in her presence, his inability to look at her as an equal despite her saving his life multiple times and her apparent indifference to him as a person. Laureline had the potential to be a headstrong character with her own motivations but instead simply became an extension of Valerian’s and a tool used to propel the story. However this could simply be traced back to poor acting. It is also worth noting that movie is based off the comic ‘Valerian and Laureline.’

The 3D effects were unnoticeable despite numerous space battle scenes and asteroid belts, it added no depth to an already shallow film. This is one of those rare movies that could have actually benefited from 3D but seemed to forget that it had the option to use it. It appears to me that this might signal the end of 3D cinema releases until cinema falls into another crisis in ten years time.

 

Recommendation

Small children who want some goofy alien designs may enjoy this movie, its action scenes are well shot enough to be clear and it’s not dizzyingly awful on a surface level. However if you notice how stupid the writing is, how bland the characters are, or have any sort of standards whatsoever you will quickly become annoyed by this film.

Valerian tries to be too much, it is the Star Wars/ Spy Kids blend that no one asked for draped over an Avatar chassis. It has heart and ideas but they’re lost in a sea of bad writing, Deus ex-Machina and kiddie friendly fluff.

With King Arthur, Guy Ritchie has once again made a comedy without any jokes in it

On second thought, let’s not go to Camelot. ‘Tis a boring, boring, boring place

It is difficult to write a review of a film such as King Arthur, as I am going off of only my vague recall of what I remembered happening and my notes made immediately after the screening. The morning after seeing this movie I found that I had pretty much forgotten what happened in it. It was just that middle of the road and average that moments dissolved from my mind like the lady of the lake’s tissues.

The film of King Arthur is based on the old English legend, of the son of a slain king, prophecised to be the only one who can pull the sword from the stone, pulls the sword from the stone and goes about using the sword to overthrow the corrupt king who killed his father. Simplicity in its most recognisable form, a story we’ve all heard a thousand times.

Much like Universal’s upcoming monster cinematic universe, this film is a laughable attempt to start a franchise, yet marketing wise you would not be scoffed at for not knowing that this film was even released, there really is nothing to the film’s presence other than over saturated images of Charlie Hunnan with the clarity turned to 100. The trailer was a garbled mess of unconnected images and sound bites. Even when put into the context of the film at large the trailer shots do not have any real connection to anything that happens in the film. There are giant elephants because magic and a giant snake because magic and giant bats because… it never really explained the giant bats. The film is such a rush job that has been savagely cut up by editors that much goes unexplained and remains unsatisfactory. Characters mention the fabled name of Merlin time after time despite him not appearing in the film in a transparent attempt to build anticipation for the ‘never going to happen’ sequel.

“Oh, I wonder which one of the sidekicks is going to be Galahad” the film wants you to ask, “and who will be Lancelot? Oh I can’t wait for King Arthur: Knights of the Roundtable, coming 2019,” not realising that nobody cares because the absolute bare minimum of effort has been put into making fun or interesting characters.

Viewers are expected to care about Arthur avenging his father when his father has only been present for one scene in the movie and hasn’t done anything to earn our empathy. Instead of developing a meaningful relationship with his father we instead are shown the same death scene 10 or 11 times to reiterate the point that “yes, his dad is dead, you should care about it.” It’s lazy, patronising and downright insulting to viewers to have your entire protagonist’s motivation be so cut and dry and to portray it as if it is some sort of cinematic feat of excellence. It’s boring, cliche, repetitive and uninteresting, it doesn’t need to be constantly revisited to remind us of what we should be caring about.

Likewise, Jude Law’s evil King is forced to “pay the price” toward the end of the film, killing his own daughter in order to gain more power. It is played off as an emotional moment, and it could have been moving if it wasn’t for the fact that until that moment I didn’t even know he had a daughter. The king also has some sort of elemental fire power, I think. I’m not too sure because he only used it once in the film to light a candle. Much like the giant snake that appears in the final battle there is no explanation for things that greatly impact the narrative.

In the action scenes the fight choreography is unabashedly stylistic but lacks any substance or weight. At times the film looks like a cut-scene from a Devil May Cry game. The film replaces good choreography with slow motion CGI close ups of moments of detail; an arrow lodging into a shoulder, a sword slicing through a sleeve. It’s a clear disguise to hide the shortcomings of the scenes themselves.

Guy Ritchie is an interesting director with a unique comic voice, his quick paced editing and snappy dialogue works well in comedies like Snatch and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels When put into a semi serious context it takes on an uneasy quality. You can’t take it seriously because you know he doesn’t respect his own story, but you can’t laugh at it because there are no jokes in it. Watching Guy Ritchie’s latest two movies are like listening to Kevin Bacon use English slang in EE adverts, it just doesn’t sit right.

Recommendation

Much like when watching The Man from UNCLE, I could not wait for King Arthur to finish. It was long stretch after long stretch of boring set pieces, occupied entirely by dull characters whose dialogue was quick but unclear. There were some interestingly edited scenes of exposition but they were a mismatch with the tone of the film which seemed to want to be taken seriously yet was constantly making fun of itself.

Guy Ritchie seems to want to write cocksure, confident protagonists but King Arthur just comes across as a smug prick, despite constantly shirking his responsibility and acting as a passenger while external sources perform all the heroism for him. King Arthur is a film that most people could sit through, you may even laugh a few times, but you will not be excited by it, you will not be moved and you definitely will not remember it in a few months time.

The DC Universe finally lightens up and makes an enjoyable film

Wonder Woman stands out amongst previous DC films like a Pterodactyl in a backyard aviary.

One of my favourite aspects of film reviewing is that rarest of feelings, It is the slow creeping realisation that a film of which you had no interest in actually begins to show signs of quality.

It starts with a few reluctant admissions to yourself; “alright, that was kind of cool, I’ll give it that,” progresses to some slight admiration; “that’s a nicely framed shot,” “This actually feels like a different world,” eventually the film has got a hold of you. You find yourself smiling like an idiot while you watch Amazonian women flipping off of horses and firing arrows. You’re having a good time that you didn’t expect to have. Two hours that you had set aside to watch a film to form an opinion on becomes two hours of enjoyment and engagement that you were not prepared for. It’s like gaining time, it’s a liberating, exciting feeling that reminds you of why cinema is so important.

This is not to say that Wonder Woman is the best film I’ve ever seen but it is so far and above other DC fare that I am having a hard time keeping a sense of perspective in my discussion of the film. Even the smoggy air of a Shanghai industrial estate will taste like the sweetest breath to a man who was close to drowning.

Wonder Woman starts exactly as it should, with the briefest possible connection to the larger DC Universe: here’s modern day Diana Prince, she gets sent an old picture of herself by Bruce Wayne, the old photograph starts a flashback and we hear nothing more of Zach Snyder’s modern day disasterpiece. The film stands alone as a film about Wonder Woman and her exploits in the early twentieth century. The film does not fall in to the usual Super Hero movie trap of clinging to a desperate relevance to the larger cinematic universe.

And it is not just temporally that the film separates itself from its feeble forebears, the film also adjusts its tone to suit the subject. The film has fantastical elements in the form of its hero’s origin and so it fully commits to making this world appear realised, and incredibly fun.

Diana Prince, here is more Superman than the Man of Steel, she is an alien to this world she wants to save, she is naively optimistic and unflinchingly heroic. She does not sit around brooding about the morality of what she needs to do, she simply acts on her simple principles and impulses and saves any lives she can.

A major issue I had with Batman Vs Superman and Man of Steel is that the titular heroes damage the world much more than they fix it. In this case Wonder Woman has been placed into a broken world and goes to work helping anywhere she can. She acts like a hero. People in war torn villagers cheer her, soldiers in the trenches look up to her, young girls and boys can watch the film, be entertained and be inspired. It may sound saccharine to say but, to be fair, this is a character named Wonder Woman we’re talking about here.

The film does not bog itself down in politics, there are no scenes in supreme courts with wheelchair suicide bombers. There is no faux-philosophising villain with mixed motivations, there are distinctly evil villains with whacked out faces and undeniably good heroes with perfect jawlines fighting against evil. There is colour in the costumes, there is fun and lightheartedness in the writing without resorting to Marvel style pop culture references (Remember when Wong listened to All the Single Ladies in Dr Strange?). Where DC films have revelled in grey morals and grey scenery Wonder Woman is crisp and clear, funny in a simple fish out of water way and not trying too hard.

The characters of the movie are exactly that. Characters. They have clear motivations and are understandable in the way they act. Gal Gadot and Chris Pine both assign their respective characters hearts and flaws, their performances are well matched and charismatic. There is something so cinematic about this movie, its classic Hero’s journey structure, its simple romantic sub plot (in which the man is the object of affection) and its unambiguous villains make it endlessly appealing. The film could entertain children, which should be the first box each superhero movie ticks. It has a great soundtrack which is teased throughout the film. It is paced and structured like a film with an end goal, actions lead into each other, it’s an enjoyable and simple film. It could be criticised for being overly simplistic, but superhero films have been missing that clarity as of late, not every super hero movie should try to be as meaningful as The Watchmen, sometimes it just needs to be as fun as The Rocketeer.

Many articles have been written about the power of the feminist ideals that Wonder Woman represents, the truth is that there is hardly any overt feminist ideology in the script. Wonder Woman’s presence as a badass role model for girls is enough of a statement on its own. The film seems to understand that it needn’t bash people over the head with its cause to have an effect.

 

Recommendation

Wonder Woman is head and shoulders above any other DC film since Chris Nolan had control and taps into that superheroic niche in a way that Marvel has been failing to do lately.

Fight scenes are well choreographed and varied and it is one of those epically rare films that uses slow-mo effectively. The villains are fantastically villainous and the heroes brilliantly heroic. It looks the part all the way and embraces its separatism from the DC universe to become a single cohesive story.

Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is still goofy fun, it’s just a lot shallower

Isn’t nice to have a sequel that is just called 2? No faffing around with words like revengeance or requiem. It’s just the second instalment of a series, there’s still a galaxy to guard so they’re going to do it. Twice.

How do you follow up a wildly successful, critically acclaimed surprise hit? Guardians of the Galaxy was Marvel’s wild card, a strange mish-mash of sci-fi and superhero tropes with an ensemble cast of oddities in a comedic world. It was a film that found a significant cohesion between the comedy and action, held together by performances and an incredible soundtrack. It stood on its own, as a film set in a faraway galaxy, it was free from the tie-ins of the Marvel cinematic universe. That meant it was able to bore its own path, set its own tone that needn’t adhere to previous Marvel fare. It was colourful, light hearted and other worldly in a way that Marvel films haven’t been since Iron Man.

The film, which I still maintain is the best Marvel movie to date, was always going to be a tough act to follow and Vol 2 has displayed the issues that face sequels to highly popular movies. The first half of the original followed the traditional Marvel route, with the first half dedicated to the establishing of the team, but instead of an origin story detailing how a person became a superhero, Guardians followed a group of superheroes forming a team, it was fresh and different to other franchise starters. Vol 2 faces the problem of having to come up with a first half to its story and this is where the issues begin.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 has more of a Star Trek feel to it than a movie, its structure is more that of a TV show, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case, it makes the whole first half of the film feel limp and directionless. The real threat of the film is not revealed until over an hour in and at that point the film has been spinning its wheels, making jokes and reintroducing you to characters you never forgot about.

It’s enjoyable, I will never refuse it that, the jokes are funny and the characters are as likeable as ever. Though the humour is enjoyable in the way a Big Mac is, you know what to expect and you get it, but when you think about it, it’s hard not to taste how manufactured it all is. Baby Groot is an unashamedly obvious example of this. People who saw this teaser poster may have had their suspicions that the movie would shoe horn the little devil in as much as possible and compromise the final product. The first scene of the movie is a perfect example of this, a long CGI ridden, tracking shot of Groot dancing while everyone else fights in the background, it’s funny and cute for the first few seconds but drags on for minutes and adds no new layers to the joke. The film is giving people what they want and only what they want, adding nothing new to the universe in favour of playing it ‘safe.’

In a sense the film is a pandering hodgepodge of elements that made the first film great. Take Drax for example, Drax’s character was a great strength of the first movie. His deadpan delivery of his lines and slow discovery of what irony is was a great introduction to the character. He was a brooding and serious laughing stock. This contrast was what made him so fun to watch. In the return, he is nothing but a joke machine, all his lines are comical to the point where the contrast which made the character great has entirely dissipated.

The film as a whole, is treated as such. All the contrast is gone, it is filled with crowd-pleasing moments that Mary-Sue our characters into unbelievable territory. Any and all possible moments for character development are squashed by badly overwritten dialogue that smashes you over the head with its meaning. Subtext is missing and brought to the foreground, characters make each emotion they feel plainly obvious and then feel the need to say it again. This feels like a film that was heavily dumbed down to appeal to a larger audience, from the complete lack of subtlety, the abundance of the one-note Baby Groot and to the morals of the story which amount to nothing more than “we’re a family and a family sticks together” Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 feels too much like teen fiction.

In addition to all this, the ending of the movie is a transparent attempt to force viewers to invest in a new group of characters that have no real impact on the story, just so that there is some anticipation for the latest MCU tie in, which stars these characters no one has heard about.

Recommendation

Everything that you loved about the original Guardians of the Galaxy is still there, its eighties vaporware aesthetic, its charming characters and fun action scenes. It’s just all a lot bolder and a lot more obvious, in traditional sequel fashion. And in traditional Marvel fashion the villains are either too overpowered or too underpowered to the point where you lose interest.

The film constantly compromises its misfit charm for what is a safe bet. It’s a sterilised version of what we had before and there is so much going on that moments are not given time to land. It is less removed from the trappings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe than the first but for the most part it does stand up on its own. For all intents and purposes it is a fun watch and all the actors involved easily so themselves justice, but expecting it to approach the first in terms of quality is just asking to be disappointed.

Ghost in the Shell has nothing interesting to say

The remake of the beloved 1995 anime classic is as forgettable as they come and about twice as long

Remakes are a huge part of Hollywood cinema, they have cemented their place as one of the largest contributors to the box office. Along with this they have also bought themselves a reputation for being notoriously shameless loose adaptations of stories previously held dear. Easy to write and even easier to market, the remake is a large-scale shortcut for film distributors. They have a pre-built target audience and recognisable imagery and characters that needn’t be cultivated in production. A teaser poster here, a leaked photo of a costume there and the internet hype machine will market the film for you. Nostalgia is the most important tool in this time of auto playing, subtitled videos on news feeds. People must be convinced that something is worth their time before they even click the link. What better way to provide this than by inserting into it something of which they are already a fan of. Yet it is possible that you could have the next Mad Max Fury Road on your hand, rather than the next Dark Shadows.
Ghost in the Shell is a phenomenally interesting marketing case study. One of the most successful anime films of all time that garnered a cult following due to its look, style and world building. 22 years on Paramount Pictures decided on a live action remake, piggybacking off the name of the original to create a film with only remnants of its look, style and world building. Far from an anime purest myself, I was not the biggest fan of the original, but Ghost in the Shell (2017) was nothing short of miraculous in how it allowed me to appreciate the 1995 version’s uniqueness. The remake demonstrates just how cookie cutter and homogenised an interesting story can become when given the committee treatment of Hollywood. The film retains most of the surface level factors of the original while removing any of the more ‘out there’ ideas put forward by the original.

The film stars Scarlett Johansson in the role as ‘the biggest star that would answer our calls’ playing Major, a cybernetic body hosting the consciousness of a woman. Using this chassis she fights crime along with a plethora of cybernetically enhanced police officers in a futuristic caricature of what can only be implied to be Japan.

There has been much controversy over the choice to cast the white American Johansson in the role of a Japanese law enforcing robot, many people see it as whitewashing of the mainstream media but that is another debate for another time. In terms of the film experience the biggest issue with the casting is that there is no geographical clarity, the film seems to attempt to sidestep the idea that Johansson is out of place by surrounding her with as many different nationalities as possible. While it is possible that this is an attempt to comment on multicultural society in a future world it is far more obvious that is a transparent attempt to cover up the flaw that it would look stupid if Johansson was the only non Asian in the cast. Like trying to correct mistakes with a pen, the heavy-set ink marks don’t hide the mistake, they just make it stand out more.

It all speaks to the consistent thread that runs through Ghost in the Shell like a poisonous gas, and that is incongruousness. Nothing in the film matches with anything else. It is a disjointed film on every level, from its screenplay to its mise-en-scene to its cast. It makes for a confusing, tonally impotent film experience that had me wishing it would hurry up and end fifteen minutes in. The original portrayed a detailed futuristic city filled with neon lights, dirty slums and holographic advertisements. The remake took this concept and ran with it, making every frame of the film so dense with world building visuals that there is absolutely no room for air. There is always so much on screen that the eye is drawn all about the place. Never having a single point of focus makes each scene a headache causer, it all merges into a blurry neon haze of disinterest. There are some interesting visuals in the film but they are lost in a sea of windowdressing. When it comes to visual world building sometimes less can be more.

Narratively the film is also all over the place, it begins with a scene of expository vomit before jumping right into a convoluted story about bot hacking that is never given any sort of weight. It then goes on to fully abandon the bot hacking storyline in favour of a conspiracy thriller and a journey of self-discovery for Major. That is all before its action climax and subsequent saccharine ending. It abandons the original movies idea of having a psychopathic villain with a eugenicist’s distorted world view in favour of a feebly humanised misunderstood bad guy. It then goes on, like so many unthrilling thrillers, to shift villainhood onto a large faceless corporation, removing any sense of scale to the threat. This would be forgivable on the whole if any of the action in Ghost in the Shell was exciting or visually interesting but the truth is that it is for the most part pretty basic action, bolstered by often strange looking CGI and infuriating slow-mo.

Recommendation

Ghost in the Shell (1995) is by no means a perfect film, it is too on the nose with its message, it waits too long to reveal its purpose and it is mainly comprised of scenes of expositional dialogue with little actually happening. Yet its flaws are its own, an example of vision overshadowing sense, it is too indulgent in its message because it is too interested in the ideas within, but at least there are ideas.

Ghost in the Shell (2017) is a product of a homogenised vision of what a film should be. It is the ghost of a generic thriller in the shell of a cyberpunk Japanese anime, with all the oddities and differences removed. It is bogged down with story points that have been done a thousand times before and restructures an odd, disjointed story into an odd, disjointed story that will be forgotten about in two months.