Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: Movie Man Jackson

Because the galaxy couldn’t hold 1,001 planets. The 28th century spawns Alpha, an intergalactic space station home to tons of creatures living peacefully together. Maintaining order throughout the galaxy are special operatives Valerian (Dane DeHann) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne). They are a duo who could be more; Valerian is finally ready to put away his player ways and wishes to marry Laureline.

Before their future can be properly assessed, the two get assigned to solve a mystery happening in the heart of Alpha. It’s a mystery that if unsolved, is certain to end all life not only on Alpha, but in the whole entire galaxy.

In some corners, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is jokingly being referred to as “the most expensive independent movie made,” pulling in less than 20 million opening weekend on a production budget of at least 150 large. Honestly, it’s been destined to be dead on arrival in the United States since the first trailer,  and no amount of 10-minute showings before Spider-Man: Homecoming changed that. Being dead on arrival doesn’t mean that Valerian is bottom-barrel bad, but, in a way, one almost wishes it were. Just so there would be more to talk about.

What is there to talk about? The visuals. Director Luc Beeson (Lucy, The Fifth Element) crafts a movie that looks very unique even in a cinema landscape that has seen numerous space opera/otherworldly features of late like Star Wars, Star Trek, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Avatar. It takes a little while to get used to the amount of green screen, but the easiest way to describe what Beeson does here is thinking of Valerian like a moving painting. This mostly applies to early scenes in a desert setting that stand out vividly, and in later scenes Beeson comes up with a few sequences of action that are sharp and, most importantly, coherent.

Coherent isn’t a word that’s all that applicable to Valerian’s story, however. Also written by Beeson, his film starts out compelling enough and builds the mystery with enough intrigue…but it doesn’t last. Specifically, the side plots never really connect to the main story at hand, and it isn’t until well into the second half when Valerian begins to funnel its focus into the A plot. A plot, in essence, that involves some predictable shady dealings by a character in power seen many times over.

Concealed from much of the trailers, Valerian additionally moonlights—surprisingly heavily— as a love story between the characters played by DeHann and Delevingne. They are passable together, though the two lack truly great chemistry with one another, and anytime their romance is asked to carry large chunks of the runtime, Valerian suffers. Delevingne is solid; looking and acting the part as a believable, hold-her-own, rough-around-the-edges operative. It’s hard to unequivocally say the same about Dane DeHann’s work, unfortunately.

DeHann’s a capable and talented actor (in my opinion), but his best work seems to come in off-kilter and/or tweener/antagonist roles. As Valerian, he’s hard to take seriously as a hero and galaxy lady-killer, and rather unlikable for at least half of the movie. Even his voice sounds odd in the way a person tries to portray someone sounding cool. While playing more like cameos than notable characters, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, and Herbie Hancock nonetheless add to the unique world that is Alpha.

A gorgeous looking universe without boundaries needs heroes without limits. It also needs a tighter story and a better lead performance. That about sums up this space jaunt that is Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. 

C-

Photo credits go to highsnobiety.com, collider.com, and theverge.com.

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Lawless: Movie Man Jackson

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Subtitles. Lots of them. In 1930’s Virginia, the Bondurant brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy), Howard (Jason Clarke), and Jack (Shia LaBeouf) run things in Franklin County. They make a living running a bootleg moonshine operation during the Prohibition era. They are outlaws, living by their own rules, but not really going out of their way to make trouble. So, they’re your honorable outlaws.

Everyone wants a cut though. And the person who wants it is Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), a slimy new deputy from Chicago who has no fear in going up against the “indestructible” Bondurant boys. What results is a clash between the clan and the corrupt law, and there’s only one way it will end: In tons of bloodshed.

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Lawless is straightforward. And yet, if someone asked me what the film is about, I would honestly probably struggle with giving a summary. That’s because the storytelling isn’t the real draw or strong point, but the overall world and locale is. What Lawless lacks in narrative, it makes up for in production.

With a limited feature filmography, director John Hillcoat (The Road, The Proposition) has proven that he’s really adept at creating worlds in his films. Whether it be a traditional western setting, a post-apocalyptic wasteland, or a 1930’s boonie town, all of these worlds are fully realized and immerse audiences with their legitimacy. Though it has a pseudo-western feel, and certainly the ol’ gunslinging and ruthless violence of that genre, it’s not a western. It’s a crime movie set in the prohibition era, an era that isn’t depicted all that often in cinema. Along with a superb soundtrack, it makes Lawless a pretty fresh viewing experience, all things considered.

But the production solely doesn’t make up a movie, and it is other areas where Lawless could have used a little more precision. As stated, Hillcott’s piece—storywise—is pretty straightforward. No twists or random occurrences, etc. Everything is pretty much set up as is with no extra meaning, which is completely fine. However, while there isn’t a lot going on per se, there is a feeling that yours truly had when watching in which I wasn’t really sure in what the goal was. For as much as the movie is perfectly content in being a violent but beautiful romp through the Virginia backwoods, a few moments exist in which emotionally, there is nothing of value. These moments are introduced just enough to dull the blade that Lawless carries.

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This is where the struggle to give a summary part comes into play. In my opinion, one could argue that Lawless is as much of a coming of age story/romance as it is a gritty Wild West—err—Deep South revenge story. If those parts worked, Hillcoat may have had a perfect film, possibly even an Oscar one. Alas, it just isn’t meant to be.

But, when a cast featuring Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Guy Pearce, Dane DeHann, and even Shia LaBeuof is assembled, disappointment with the script can’t completely mar what they bring to the table. Beware…there is a little bait and switch with LaBeuof and Hardy, and also with Gary Oldman, who appears for a memorable but shocking maximum of five minutes. While he still will likely never shed his kid role as Louis Stevens, Shia does turn in strong work here. His love story with Wasikowska’s character is hardly believable, and the two just feel forced together because there needs to be a love angle. But, he does well with most everything else; it just takes a little time to realize that this is his character’s story first and foremost.

Is there a more physical actor than Tom Hardy? That doesn’t mean that he’s throwing haymakers like Mike Tyson, but it does mean that he is entirely believable as the toughest guy in the room. Screen presence can be had in a multitude of ways, and Hardy has it not just in skill but in physicality. Like LaBeouf’s character however, his character’s romance with another female in the form of Jessica Chastain comes off as uninspired (Chastain and Wasikowska don’t really do anything). He’s great…just make sure to turn on the subtitles. I may have been really frustrated if I viewed this first in theaters. As for the others, Jason Clarke is less developed, but still delivers, even when he just grunts his way through his dialogue. Guy Pearce’s performance may be polarizing to some, I personally believe his detestable villain role is outstanding. Not to mention probably needed to fully draw the audience to the brother’s side.

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Like most strong moonshines, Lawless doesn’t always leave a great feeling behind. But typically. if someone’s drinking moonshine, I imagine they’re doing it for a specific reason (getting drunk fast). Same with Lawless. When yours truly is in the mood for a 1930’s period piece, this does the job well enough.

Grade: B

Photo credits go to collider.com, dispatch.com, blogs.wsj.com, and blueridgecountry.com

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Chronicle: Movie Man Jackson

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“You do not feel guilty when you squash a fly…and I think that means something.”

Regardless of who you are, at some point the thought of “What if I had superpowers?” has probably permeated your brain. The movie Chronicle gives us a chance as an audience to witnesses this discovery and subsequent aftermath. It starts as most “superhero” films do, and that is in high school. Andrew Detmer is your average, introverted, loner teen who is consistently bullied and really has no friends. In addition to your average teen struggles at school, his mother is gravely ill, and his father is a heavy alcoholic who inflicts physical violence upon him from time to time. In response to all of this, Andrew has begun to chronicle his life on camera, as it serves as a barrier somewhat between him and the outside world.

His only real contact he has is his wiser-than-he-believes cousin, Matt Garetty. Matt does his best to get Andrew to open up more and have some fun, and mentions a rave later that night. Despite being resistant, Andrew attends with Matt. A short time there, Matt and his ever-popular classmate, Steve Montgomery, stumble across a peculiar hole that releases strange sounds. Needing to get this on camera, they find Andrew and the three delve deeper into the cavity, and come across a large radiant crystalline object. It looks like bad news but the group is too close now not to be affected by its effects, which include intense pain and nosebleeds. The camera cuts and loops and fades to black. Presumably weeks later (seconds in the film) we see all three teens now back on camera, playing around with the addition of telekinetic powers. Things seem all well and good, but is this new-found power in the wrong hands?

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Chronicle is truly a different spin on this superhero genre. I hesitate to call it a superhero film because the three main characters are in no way, shape, or form superheroes. They are not particularly heroic, or come from a hero’s mold. There is no huge introspective moment that makes them question “Why us?” They are just random teens who happened to encounter something out of this world and now possess amazing abilities. What I have said may sound like a negative, but it could be further from the truth. I found this unique and different, and truth be told it felt “realistic.” If I was bestowed with the same abilities, I would not go and rush out to fight crime or anything; I would probably play a few pranks just as these characters did and generally keep a low profile. Of course, there would be times where I would help a person in need, but I would do my best to remain the same guy.

As mentioned, the main character in this film uses a camera to capture everything in his life. If you have not figured it out by now, much of Chronicle is shot in the “found footage” style, similar to Cloverfield, The Blair Witch Project, etc. This is sort of misleading though, as we are not watching something that has been found. Rather, we are watching it as it occurs. Still, the amateur angles and shaky camera accustomed to this genre is present, mainly in the first third. As the characters start to harness and strengthen their respective powers, the camera work becomes a lot more stylistic, smooth, and traditional, with over-the-shoulder shots and wide-shots to name a few. It is a nice little touch that makes sense. While I found the filming solid, those who are averse to this technique may want to stay away. However, the ending suffers from a cinematography standpoint. It is shot from multiple perspectives, and makes what should be a climatic ending fall into anticlimactic territory.

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If you ever hear me complaining about a movie’s length, nine times out of 10 it is because it is too long. With Chronicle, this is the one out of ten example. At a brisk 84 minutes, this film really could have used an additional 15-25 tacked on. Surprisingly, the character development is not totally compromised with the movie’s length, which is critical with movies like this, but could have been even more fleshed out with more run time. What is compromised is why certain characters get to certain places within the story. When one character finally turns, it feels rushed, especially when the turning point itself seemed laughable.

Compared to everything else, why did he turn there? Just minutes ago the character in question was having a great time and things seemed to finally be coming together. There were some slight allusions that pointed to this “heel” turn (wrestling term), but upon my first viewing a year back, it seemed random to execute it there, and it still seems out of place now. Ultimately, it is just part of the flawed last third of the film. While I did praise the film for serving up a unique take on the subject matter, there is a period in the film that feels like America’s Funniest Home Videos. This would be OK if it lasted for five or so minutes, but it goes on for 10 or 15. Some of that time could have went to more story and/or character development.

The acting from two of the three leads is a joy to watch. Dane DeHaan plays the teenage angst-filled role of Andrew perfectly, and it is easy to see why he could be a very intriguing man in Hollywood for years to come. He may never be a true leading man but can serve as the foil with ease. Michael B Jordan has already achieved widespread acclaim for his role in Fruitvale Station, and as Steve he has a lot of charisma, screen presence, and general likability which should serve him well in the future. As Matt, Alex Russell isn’t terrible but not as interesting either. I enjoyed him, but he definitely paled in comparison to the other two. In a smaller role, the actor portraying the alcoholic father definitely did his job well. He came off as extremely unlikable and easy to hate in his limited screen time. Aside from these characters, no one else stands out due to the focus on the three main characters.

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I say Chronicle deserves a watch despite the flaws. If you are open to a unique take on the genre and can stomach the nontraditional filming, you should enjoy this by and large.

Grade: B-

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