Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (cinema)

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Oooh boy. I really watched the last three movies in the wrong order. I had reservations about all three, but thought this would be the easiest to enjoy. It was hands down the worst though (and Atomic Blonde was the best by a few million million miles). I’m not going to comment on the source material; I know Luc Besson’s been wanting to get this adapted for years. But as is often the case with these things: the director’s idea of what’ll look cool based on decades of mulling it over isn’t always something that translates into a good movie (bitter about the Star Wars prequels still, moi?). Style over substance is the order of the day.

And it does look cool, to be fair. That’s a thing it does with aplomb. It’s as beautiful and shiny as space should be, the design of all the alien species and the spaceships are really neat, and the CGI is obviously fantastic (if at times a little more than is necessary). An important alien species is the Pearls, whose skin is iridescent, and the design and appearance of them is really impressive (though it has shades of Avatar, which I’ve not seen largely because of CGI creepiness). Bits made me think of Star Wars in a good way: the opening pan and accompanying soundtrack, the garbage chute… The three information-selling aliens were adorable and had more character than everyone else in the movie. And I actually cackled when I realised Ethan Hawke was in it, doing more  acting than the rest of the cast combined. Also the pasty General and his officers were good eggs — he could actually pronounce an umlaut, so we were clear it was a planet called Mül not ‘Mule’. And the Converter was cute. And the Pearls were great. The only piece of design that really bugged me was that Clive Owen seemed to be taking fashion tips from this guy:

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Hark, a Vagrant 266

But I’m struggling to enthuse here. It was slow, it was obvious, and Valerian was utterly unlikeable. A Nu!Kirk fratboy who doesn’t understand the difference between commitment to a relationship and commitment to a job, who claims to do things ‘by the book’ when… uh, evidence points to ‘no’, and who ultimately agrees to do the right thing because he’d still quite like to get his end in </nini legs-in-the-air voice>. Laureline was fun enough, but my god did it all need updating for the 21st century. “Gentlemen and lady.” Really? Laureline saves Valerian’s ass, then gets distracted by the “pretty butterfly!” Eeeesh, Bubble’s ‘arc’ was grim, too. Valerian nervously bats aside the attentions of beautiful women in Paradise Alley; he makes a snide comment to the trans* woman and recoils in horror from the fat woman. The opening scenes, which should be a lovely montage of ambitious space exploration and working together, are given a sour taste as the white people welcome first the Chinese, then all the other ‘colours’ of planet Earth, one at a time, because evidently this kind of co-operation can only happen in space. It wouldn’t have been hard to write all of this very differently, and even if I’m generous and attribute it to the source material it doesn’t affect the plot one bit. I mean, in terms of Bubble’s pep-talk about Valerian’s relationship with Laureline, Spider-man: Homecoming did the same thing better, and with more genuine emotion between a teenager and a super-suit in 30 seconds than this movie manages in its entirety.

Look, I liked John Carter. I really liked Jupiter Ascending. And what was for years Luc Besson’s consolation prize, The Fifth Element, is probably in my top 20 movies I’ll watch anytime, anywhere. But these movies actually had likeable characters, and the world-building that weighed them down felt worthwhile — and it either made sense or didn’t need to make sense. Admittedly, John Carter struggled to update its princess to let her be what a modern audience might expect, and Valerian has the same problem ten times worse. They both suffer from Heinlein-itis: women can be really strong and intelligent and competent, but men are always better at these things, they just need women to provide the emotional smarts and empathy. And essentialism of this kind just sucks wherever it appears. I don’t care what the source material did. You’re making a sci-fi movie in 2017. Do better.

The darker aspects of the world were all thoroughly glossed over, apart from the villain’s crimes — but their presence meant that the world’s less appealing aspects (slavery, prostitution, etc) couldn’t just be ignored. Oh, but if you don’t guess who the villain is and what he’s done within five minutes of him being onscreen then it’s because you’ve already nodded off. And, assuming that’s intentional, that means there’s no need for everyone’s shocked faces at the end as they realise what our baddie did. Again, there might have been an interesting real world political point to make here, but all I find I’m left with is someone ranting about ‘economy!!’ and ‘soldiers!!!’

Scratch the surface of any of the plot and it makes no sense. The script is lacking, to woeful, to absent. The acting is wooden and superficial. It does look nice. But that is nowhere near enough to save it. Give me Jupiter Ascending any day.

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Review: The Dark Tower (cinema)

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I loved books 1–4 in this series as a teenager. When the final 3 at last came out I devoured them, though with a greater awareness of what I found disappointing or frustrating about them. Recently, I read the spin-off The Wind Through the Keyhole and enjoyed a whole lot of nostalgia for the world(s within worlds). And, oh my god, I was so excited when they announced the casting for this. But like everyone, my dread has been growing the closer we got to the release date because we’ve had little more than one trailer in terms of marketing. And because I didn’t want to read too deeply into rumours or details of what they might have changed, I went into this having only the barest sense that: this was sort-of a sequel to the books, it was a stand-alone film, and it was bafflingly awful to many people who’ve seen it.

Well, it wasn’t quite that bad (I thought I’d need to apologise to He Judges afterwards but he claims to have rather enjoyed it and now might read the books!). I’d still rather have the Netflix/Amazon/HBO series, that includes all the weird and wacky Arthurian-cowboy-post-industrial-radiation-hellscape details I know and love (lobstrosities! Deranged trains! Very lost Elton John-soundtracked priests! EPIC flashbacks!). But bits of this movie did genuinely get the feeling of the books, which is more than I’d expected in the end. And oh, I’m still thrilled about the casting. Idris Elba is the perfect Roland — solemn, takes himself a little too seriously, is bad at interacting with new things, but can convince you he does still have a heart under that gruff exterior — and tbh I never thought of Matthew McConaughy as an actor I wanted to see do more than one-note, inexplicably-wants-to-see-the-world-burn evil. And Tom Taylor as Jake did a good job holding it all together.

Having said that, I don’t think that telling the story from Jake’s perspective was necessarily the way to do this. The beginning dragged. There’s no easy way to explain Mid-Earth and its history, but a prologue from Roland’s perspective might have helped. Heck, lean in to the fact that this is a sequel to the books: how did he lose Jake before (again, and again, and again)? It’s never quite clear how much Roland and Walter remember their pasts, but given that it seems to be referenced later in the movie I’d have just gone for trusting your audience and showing it head-on, rather than leaving clues dangling that are only for the people who’ll see them coming. This applies to a lot in the movie. The Crimson King and Walter are essentially combined, but this is never explained: you know what ‘all hail the Crimson King’ means if you know. Same with the talking raccoons. My god, for a moment in the woods I really, truly let myself believe there was going to be a billy-bumbler. What can I say? I’m an eternal optimist.

But as much as there was a huge amount that just wasn’t explained, there were still enough changes that it was disorientating even when you have ploughed through all the books and all their ongoing retconning and layers. Walter’s evil plan involving children who have The Shine (just in case you forgot it was Stephen King guys!) never really worked for me. This might be because I have no recollection of the rat people (was that a thing in the books? ETA: ah yes, the Low Men, not one of the reasons I ever cared about the world or the story…), or because Topher from Cabin in the Woods was there being Topher, or because I was too busy going ‘THAT’S THE WIZARD’S RAINBOW!’ or because Roland seemed surprised to learn where Walter was even though the night before he’d watched the firey beam of children’s screams arc across the sky to the Tower… Adding this in as an element felt, well unnecessary, although I take it that in a stand-alone movie they wanted to show how Walter represented a more immediate threat to the Tower. Again, maybe address the story cycle directly: is this something that Walter learned of on their last go around the Wheel, and he’s now trying to bring his plan forward by exploiting a resource he’d not previously been aware of? It might have been a way of ensuring that your audience started off on even footing is all.

Other problems: no Susannah. Yeah, this is a problem. Pretty much every woman with a speaking role dies or is injured (except the lovely medical staff in NYC). And casting Idris Elba was initially hailed by lots of fans as a chance for the story to reassess some of the more problematic racial aspects the books hamfistedly addressed. But you can’t do that without Susannah. I like to think that the old bum who warns Jake is Eddie, so it would have been nice to even have a shout-out that referenced Susannah: they managed to fit enough other things in for the fans (Roland’s excitement about painkillers for example). But there wasn’t even that. Nor was there a hint of interest in the implications of a strong, powerful black man striding into our New York as a Gunslinger. Missed opportunity. The real world implications are important to the books, and would have updated easily and effectively.

I did enjoy quite a bit of the movie despite this: Roland and Jake had exactly the right dynamic, especially when it came to Roland’s interactions with anything new.

Jake: You had fairgrounds in your world?
Roland: No one knows what this is.
Jake: It’s a fairground.

Roland in the hospital, popping painkillers and glugging sugar; Roland loading himself down with bullets and doing his Gunslingery thing; Roland getting himself injured and pushing through the pain because that’s what Roland does. These were the moments that reminded me why I made myself read all the books, and they actually made me want to read them again. The movie just about managed to squeeze in his thawing, and the way he comes to care for Jake, but it wasn’t given much space. For any viewer who wasn’t at all interested in filling in those gaps by reading the books I can’t imagine it did much. And yet the movie had so much time to play with! It was short. And yet the beginning still dragged.

So, it wasn’t nearly as awful as I’d been expecting. But what saved it was largely what I’d expected would make it bearable anyway: Idris Elba as Roland Deschain. Supplemented by the surprisingly good Tom Taylor as Jake. But even when I was enjoying it, I was constantly wishing for more colour and more ambition. It’s like the only way it finally got made was by someone giving up and saying ‘this can’t be done, just write some fanfic that sort of covers it and we’ll make it monochrome and moody and people will get the idea’. No. Gilead should be colourful, even in its dying throes. The Tower stands at the centre of a field of red roses. The sandalwood handles of Roland’s guns are a warm and polished ochre. The denim is blue and the grass is green. But here, everything was grey and timid, going for the lowest common denominator and expecting the least from its audience. It’s a pity, because what I always loved about the books, even when they descended into self-referential farce, was the scope and ambition of the world-building. Sure, half the time it barely made any sense, but if you centre it on characters who are worth following then it’s all bearable. I had to go and see this movie because those characters used to mean so much to me, and I can’t quite say that watching it was a total waste of my time because there were still just enough flashes of the Roland and Jake I came for.

Review: Atomic Blonde (cinema)

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Okay. Okay. Now I want to drive around at speed, punch things, and listen to ’80s music LOUD. It’s like my normal state, but MORE. This movie looked and sounded gorgeous. Blaring synth-pop tunes and flickering projectors, neons, and fluorescents tried to smother the violence, but the violence won out. You think Daredevil’s corridor fight looks tiring? You ain’t seen nothing. And between it all Charlize Theron smiles a wan smile and looks at you from beneath her too-long fringe. And you think: yes, please punch me in the face too.

To be honest, it took a little while to win me over to this extent. The way the music and the fight scenes intersected was telegraphed in such a stylised way that it bugged me at first, as did the stilted dialogue and self-conscious posing of Theron and James McAvoy around their ever present cigarettes and vodka. When she wasn’t speaking, Theron’s face said so much, but then something that wasn’t convincingly an English accent came out of her mouth in a clipped monotone and I wished repeatedly that the movie had no dialogue. This feeling faded — and I can’t decide if in the end my suspicions were validated or made redundant — and about a third of the way into the movie it hit its stride; basically once Lorraine had managed to gain some control over her mission.

It’s a movie that will benefit from rewatching (though perhaps I’m just bad at guessing the twists in spy movies), though it will mean rewatching the bad with the good. There’s a trope that’s embedded firmly in the genre that coincides with a trope that occurs too frequently across various media anyway. It wasn’t ‘as bad’ as I’d expected, having been spoiled, but frankly it remained unnecessary; and perhaps by not being ‘bad’ in the way I’d expected, it ended up being worse for being lazy in a different way.(1 – spoilers)

Anyway, probably because I knew it was coming, I let myself compartmentalise that part of the story, and I’m a little ashamed with how much I enjoyed the rest. It wasn’t terribly afflicted with the male gaze, but with mirrors everywhere it maintained a sexy, stylised look that I’d argue was a rung or so above Music Video. In the action scenes, and the less people talked, it felt less like a comic adaptation (and in this case I’m saying that’s a good thing). The action was where it shone: you could feel the bruising impact of each blow; you knew how much harder Lorraine had to work to land the kind of punch she needed to; but you knew she was capable of it. The stairwell fight and its follow-up were exhilarating and horrifying in equal parts.

By the end, what was a fairly simple premise — that many might have guessed the twists to earlier than I did — was wrung to a taut, smart finale. With all of Lorraine’s antagonist’s monologuing about the nature of ‘truth’, her contemptuous silence told you all you needed to know. His musings barely scratched the surface of her own experience.

She was a compelling hero, and Theron’s skills brought out layers of vulnerability as well as cunning that a lesser actor wouldn’t have managed. If it wasn’t for the specificity of the setting (as with so many Cold War movies) I’d be eager for a sequel that took care to avoid some of the tropes this one languished in. As a stand-alone it’s good fun though, and I’ll happily watch it again. It’s just not as revolutionary as it might have been, sadly; though it’s still smarter than a Bond movie.


(1) spoilers

Of course I’m talking about Delphine’s death. So soft and sweet and naïve — of course she wasn’t going to make it through. She managed more fight than I expected, and indeed was around longer than expected. But these were manifestations of the lazy storytelling I’m talking about: the movie wants you to think she means something to Lorraine. It wants you to see how close she came to winning, to living, to being rescued. But when you know from the beginning that she’s going to die, because not only must the love-interest die, but we must bury our gays, it’s … shall we say, very hard to let yourself get involved? Though tbf she did a lot better than Irina in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy…(and I love that movie too).

Review: Pom Poko (1994)

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Ok, I don’t think this is an uncommon response for those unfamiliar with the tanuki, but it took me a while to come up with more than: “I never thought I’d see so many raccoon scrota in one movie.” Apparently the connection between the raccoon dog/tanuki and enormous ball-sacks emerged relatively recently in Japanese folklore and popular culture, and is to do with the process of hammering out gold leaf inside a tanuki skin. Cool. There’s no indication of that connection in Pom Poko though, where the focus is very much on the legendary transformative abilities of the animals, which are put to use here to try to defend their land from human development.

Part precursor to Princess Mononoke, part Ghibli does The Animals of Farthing Wood, this is a strange blend of cute woodland shenanigans and the bleak realities of urban expansion. These two sides are represented in the art, as stylised and beautiful as we’ve all come to expect from a Ghibli movie, and from Isao Takahata himself. Generally, when they’re around humans or human activity, the tanuki are depicted realistically; when they’re experiencing strong emotion (grief, fear, joy) the crowd becomes more of a caricature, apparently in the style of surrealist manga. Most of the time though, they are anthropomorphised as above, the slightest details of hairstyle or accessory enough to make each individual stand out.

Now you’re just showing off…

Structurally, the movie is told in what might be described as chapters, although the narrative voice-over treats it more like a chronicle of the years since the tanuki were forced to band together to seek a solution for their shrinking habitat. At first, they fight each other, then they try to learn about the humans from television, and to rediscover the art of transformation. This leads to increasing levels of interaction with the human world as their abilities improve: initially they transform into trees and other objects in order to force road accidents at the construction site. This develops into more elaborate types of hauntings and apparitions at shrines, before culminating in a wild display of spirit activity in the nearby town (that unfortunately all goes a bit Beetlejuice on them). Their last act is to show the encroaching humans what the forest once looked like to all of them, before it was bulldozed for housing estates.

The story does end up dragging because of the necessarily repetitive nature of the tanuki’s attacks on the humans. They have a ‘five year plan’ that is begun early, but the movie still covers several years in the lives of the tanuki protagonists. Their lives revolve around the seasons — initially, they practice abstinence in order to keep their numbers steady, but after a year of this, followed by a series of small victories, self-control is lacking the following spring. See also: any comments section under an article connecting global warming to an ever-increasing human population. The tanuki are human-like also in their adoration of television and tempura, their disagreements over whether the solution to their problem should be a violent one or a peaceful one, and in the divisions between those who are able to transform and those who are not. I don’t know if it’s relevant to Japanese culture in the same way as British culture, but by the end of the movie I wondered whether the whole thing was actually meant to be a comment on class as much as on environmentalism. The tanuki who can transform become normal middle class humans: busy and tired with work and commuting, some of them selling out their old lands for easy money. Those who could never transform simply become urban wildlife: living fast, making lots of children and dying young. Additionally, there are the foxes (kitsune), who long ago gave up on their fellows who couldn’t transform, and moved wholesale into the human lifestyle, exploiting whoever they can, and clearly being depicted as suave and successful in their new lives. At the end, the main character, Shoukichi, sees his old friends frolicking gleefully under the moon on a golf course: after a long day in the human world, he sheds pieces of his human identity bit by bit, racing to join them in their carousing and singing. Concern for the tanuki is deflected by the voice-over, as we witness their success within the human world, and instead the movie ends with a reminder to think of the real animals, who can’t transform: rabbits, deer and others.

The movie is funny and surreal and, of course, looks utterly gorgeous. The characters aren’t deep enough that I ever felt it tugging hard on any heart-strings, but they’re a likeable bunch nonetheless. The blend of whimsy and brutality works fairly well; the animals, even with their anthropomorphic qualities, are made animal in a way I don’t recall seeing done so well since The Animals of Farthing Wood adaptation (though that certainly did do individualism and personality in more depth). Their lives are not bloodless and nor are the human lives they are at strife with. As with the sympathy shown to Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke, the humans living in the town nearby are shown to be as much at the mercy of the developers as the animals are: one says he’d happily leave only he can’t afford to live anywhere else. The workmen scared away by the tanuki are constantly replaced by more workmen. Maybe it’s ironic that the pressure already put on the environment by the human community ends up being added to by the foxes and raccoon dogs who transform to join their society.

Uncomprehendingly, a family that sees the tanuki close by their house marvel at the sight of them so near, and wish they could see them more often. There’s no answer or solution or happy victory at the end of Pom Poko: mingling folklore, environmentalism and a distrust of the distant bosses it remains contemporary, despite also feeling very early ’90s in some ways. The tanuki ultimately accept their fate with either the aggressive lack of compromise or the cheerful optimism with which they lived. It’s up to the viewer to take away a message from the film or to let the same thing keep happening.