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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Sinister: Movie Man Jackson

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Some crimes are not meant to be solved. Or written about. True crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is attempting to reignite his floundering career; it has been 10 years since he’s had a bona fide hit. Hoping to draw inspiration for his latest novel, Oswalt moves his family into a home in which a terrible crime that he is researching took place.

Immediately, mysterious snuff films turn up in the attic that give additional insight into this matter. Turns out that a series of grisly crimes have been committed within decades of each other, having similar connections. The connection is all is a vague face and ominous symbol that appears in each film. Something isn’t right here, and unwittingly, Ellison may have stumbled into a timeline from which he and his loved ones cannot escape from.

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An opening scene can be so powerful, so effective in setting the tone for the rest of the movie, especially in the horror genre. From the get-go, Sinister sets up an eerie tone with its unforgettable opener. It’s a tone that’s present in just about every moment of the movie. In other words, it does its job as a horror, to a really exceptional level.

Directed by Scott Derickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), Sinister is a very tight looking film. Obviously, the standout from a technical perspective are the snuff videos, each being as unnerving as the one that preceded it, if not more so. The violence is implied, not explicit, and the effect is stronger because of it. As a whole, Derrickson definitely subscribes to the less is more approach. Yes, there are cheap scares, and a particular moment with ghastly children is more eye-rolling than frightening, but a fair amount of them are actually legitimate, instead of the “loud noise made by a cat” variety.

Despite the bulk of the runtime taking place in some type of dimly lit home, I’d hesitate to use the word “claustrophobic.” There’s no “confinement” per se, but Derrickson makes the viewer wish there were, only because there are so many avenues to which the horror can infiltrate into. Sound design and score are superb. Both only better the feature.

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Derrickson not only directs Sinister, he also writes it, and he manages to make a pretty compelling mystery all in all. The mystery doesn’t really lie in what’s going to happen, but rather, how. While the end result can possibly be too predictable (and certainly a tad rushed) for some, I personally find the ending to be extremely effective and frightening. Sometimes, the predictable ending is the best one.

Derrickson does a good job with the plot, but does an even better job with the characters. Granted, none except Hawke are layered, but they aren’t cliched, either. Hawke turns in a truly committed performance that gets more and more unhinged as the plot gets…more sinister. His character may lack a little common sense, but Elliott is not without reason for doing what he does, even if it is very very misguided reason. The rest of his family is perfectly solid; those who play the kids aren’t annoying kids in horror who can’t act, and the wife, unremarkable on her own, has a few compelling scenes with Ethan.

Two supporting characters in particular standout in this horrific tale aside from Hawke. Vincent D’Onofrio has probably less than five minutes total, and though he’s relegated to exposition, he manages to be somewhat more than an information dump. It’s James Ransone as “Deputy So and So,” however, who balances the delivery of information with being an interesting character one doesn’t know what to make of, while bringing a little humor that doesn’t undermine the movie.

Ethan Hawke in a scene from the motion picture "Sinister." Credit:  Summit Entertainment [Via MerlinFTP Drop]

Much like the image Ellison gets exposed to, Sinister stays in the head of the viewer long after viewing. Easily one of the best horror films of the decade.

A-

Photo credits go to imdb.com, inquisitr.com, theathleticnerd.com, and usatoday.com.

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The Magnificent Seven (2016): Movie Man Jackson

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Sometimes it takes an army. Other times, it takes only seven people. Some time in the 1870’s, the town of Rose Creek is under hostile takeover. Industrial businessman Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) is interesting in mining the town for gold. He gives the residents two choices: Either accept his payment of $20 per acre, or die trying to defend it.

The townspeople want to defend, but few know how. After losing her husband to Bogue and his henchman, widow Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) looks to hire some assistance, starting with Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), supreme bounty hunter. From there, Chisolm treks the Old Frontier for help, settling on gambler Josh Farraday (Chris Pratt), Confederate deadeye Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), his partner and assassin Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), Native-American warrior drifter Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), and Mexican wanted outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). Together, The Magnificent Seven provides a fighting chance for residents to keep their town.

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The season of fall officially began Thursday, September 22nd for the northern hemisphere. The season of fall began for Hollywood a couple of weeks ago. However, at least out here in Columbus, Ohio, summer doesn’t feel like it has left yet, weather-wise. And for a little over two hours, The Magnificent Seven makes one feel like we’re still in blockbuster season. In a point almost certain to be made in a lot of positive reviews, The Magnificent Seven is one of the movies summer 2016 needed.

Doesn’t mean it is flawless, but darn entertaining. I didn’t expect anything less from director Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer, Olympus Has Fallen). His movies, sans Training Day, may lack substantial substance but he’s always had a great eye and hand behind the camera. That doesn’t change here. The Western setting is fully realized, from the garb to the firearms to the alcohol. And when the quick draw action and prolonged gunfights goes down, it is thrilling, with the high point being a PG-13 limit-pushing climax where no one is safe. The Magnificent Seven 2016 absolutely benefits with today’s camerawork.

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This isn’t a shot-for-shot remake (thankfully), and even calling it a remake is somewhat misleading. But this is the retelling of a story that will probably always be retold every 40-50 years. That is to say that the story written by True Detective showrunner Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk follows the same beats as the 1960 and 1954 version, with a little more lightness and surprisingly good humor during the quieter moments. Putting it under a modern comparison, Fast Five (especially with the diversity aspect) and The Avengers come to mind, without the lore those movies afforded themselves as franchises.

Don’t go expecting to be blown away by any characters. A few have some interesting backstories that are briefly hit on, but by and large the actors are being seen and not the characters they portray. It’s not a bad thing, if only because everyone is having such a great time. Each member of the seven gets time to shine, some brighter than others. Denzel is a great lead as Chisolm, believable as the one guy who could get this group to work cohesively. He’s got some connection to the film’s main villain, played well by Sarsgaard. I think the finale could have had more emotional punch if their connection and why Chisolm is driven to take down Bogue was revealed earlier, however.

Hawke is good, even if his character’s struggles are only briefly touched upon. Though this is obviously a different movie, there’s something awesome about seeing him in scenes again with Washington 15 years later. D’Onofrio is easily the oddest of the bunch, yet lays a claim for being the most memorable as well. This film could be the vehicle to launch lesser stars like Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, and Byung-hun Lee into more prominent positions in Hollywood. Chris Pratt’s already in a prominent position, and he’s just a engaging personality here.

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Is the Western making a comeback? That remains to be seen, but The Magnificent Seven certainly could be an ignition starter. Anyone hankering for a traditional and explosive jaunt into the Old Frontier will find it here.

B+

Photo credits go to pgr.com and filmandtvnow.com

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Boyhood: Movie Man Jackson

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“A bit of decisiveness goes a long way in this life.”

Life, in all of its frequent “nothingness,” is really something to behold. Boyhood isn’t so much a story, but a presentation of life, of both the smaller moments and the larger ones. Young Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) is introduced to the audience as a six year old in early grade school. Along with his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and single mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), they live a pretty simple existence in Texas.

Life is anything but simple though, as Mason’s eyes see quickly. Girls, identity, a father-son relationship, and other happenings give meaning and ongoing experience. The key is however, that all of these happenings shape our existence, and are all very, very important, not to mention astonishing.

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There are coming-of-age movies, and then there is Boyhood. As stated previously, it doesn’t really feel so much like a movie as it does an exhibition of 12 years of life, a literal coming of age on a screen. Being as it was filmed, as everyone I’m sure has heard 100 times, over a 12 year period, part of its allure is seeing the natural aging and actual changes of its stars. There is something awesome and crazy about seeing Ethan Hawke as he was in 2000-2001 and knowing that he either was filming, getting ready to, or just wrapped up work on Training Day. This is intriguing and original, but it never comes off as a gimmick to mask issues in the movie. Rather, it only enhances its positive qualities, to which there are many.

A story exists here, just not of the “here-to-there” variety. Directed by Richard Linklater (School of Rock, Before Trilogy, A Scanner Darkly), it is very loose, free-flowing, and has no interest in being conventional in its storytelling. Even its timekeeping method is unconventional; aside from the once-in-a-while age and year announcement, Linklater prefers to leave the audience to decipher the year through visuals such as video games, music, and books.

Events appear to happen organically, and this is reflected in the editing. There is no fade to black or rapid splice/cut that signals a new year, it just occurs. It is similar to an individual’s birthday in a sense. Eventually, these yearly markers just blend in to one another, the only representation of them occurring being the visible weathering. Clocking in at almost three hours, there is never a noticeable feeling of this overstaying its welcome. Perhaps the last part of the film could have ended slightly earlier, as yours truly believes it would have made for a more sound ending, but this is just a matter of preference.

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Paraphrasing the great Mark Hobin here, Boyhood may be titled as such, but it “really could just as easily been called Fatherhood, Motherhood, Girlhood, etc.” Still, the events comprising of this presentation are seen through the eyes of Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane. Much like how he literally matures physically on screen, so does his acting skill. Really, it hardly even feels like acting, and for this film, that isn’t a bad thing. Coltrane just carries himself like a normal and average kid, realistic and true to form. Honestly, this feels as if this movie is his actual life, and he is just going along with it. His career is going to be interesting to watch.

From the moment Patricia Arquette appears on screen, it can be seen that the work she will turn in will be something special, and it truly is. And while it may not be true bravery, if such a thing as “Hollywood bravery” exists, Arquette deserves a 10 for submitting herself and seeing herself change, which can probably be a little jarring. But back to the work she does: it is touching, saddening, and introspective. Like any truly great performance, the work is of high quality throughout, but there is one scene in particular near the end that stands out and will likely be remembered for years and years.

People often say that the father figure is the most important one in a son’s life. Every time Ethan Hawke appears on screen, it is important, and not because he is necessarily saying important things, which he does do. It is simply the fact that he is there, for his son, and for his daughter. He is the fatherly yin to the motherly yang. There is a real regret and realization of limitations that Hawke conveys effectively, but he doesn’t let that serve as an excuse for failing to be there for his youngsters. It resonates just as strong as Arquette’s performance.

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Yours truly’s favorite show of all time is probably The Office (US version). One great quote occurs near the end of the series, where Pam opines that “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point?” There will likely never be another Boyhood, something that cherishes and takes pride in something so ordinary such as growing up. It is a film that even challenges the conventions of what a film is in some cases. Regardless, whatever it is needs to be witnessed.

Grade: A-

Photo credits go to impawards.com, hitflix.com, aintitcool.com, and joblo.com.

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Training Day: Movie Man Jackson

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“S**, you can shoot me, but you can’t kill me.”

In most professions, the first day is the “training day,” and it is the easiest day of one’s employment. For officer Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke), his Training Day (unbeknownst to him) may be his last day as a living human being. Jake is looking to get into the undercover unit, and his final evaluation involves his observation and participation under the watchful eye of veteran detective Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington), a man who knows the streets of Los Angeles like the back of hand.

In Alonzo’s mind, precarious streets call for questionable and equally precarious methods. It becomes apparent quickly that this is not what Hoyt was expecting. In the City of Angels where danger is prevalent at every corner, the biggest danger Hoyt may have to deal with could be the very man he is supposed to learn from. This is Officer Hoyt’s day of reckoning.

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Let’s face it. Police corruption isn’t a foreign concept in movies, and it never will be. It is an common subject to fall upon and explore within a movie, and it is at the crux of Training Day. When is the line crossed? Should the line be crossed (within reason) if it begets results? These are common threads found in other works, and they are found here, making Training Day a pretty basic story when you think about it. With that said, it is a very compelling watch, with almost all credit attributed to Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke.

There isn’t much more that can be said for Denzel’s performance in this. Simply put, it is one of the better performances of the 21st century in my humble opinion. The great thing about it is that up to that point in time, Denzel never did anything in his filmography like his portrayal of Alonzo Harris, and it is clear to see that Washington has the time of his life in the role. Alonzo is equal parts charismatic, comical, reprehensible, and intelligent, sometimes all at once.

And even though his character is a bad person all in all, Denzel and the writing for the film as a whole do a wonderful job of taking a semi-slow burn to things. On my initial viewing years back, it wasn’t until a certain point in the film where his character was utterly unredeemable, and that is quite the job done by everyone involved to toe the line just enough to still see his point of view in certain situations. Know how every Oscar winner has one moment that is shown in the “and the nominees are” moment of the show? There are easily four, five, or six scenes featuring Denzel that could have been shown there. It still may be Washington’s best role to this point in his career.

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A villain needs a hero to play off of though, and Ethan Hawke is no slouch here and just as deserving of praise. In some respects, Hawke’s role as Jake is harder than that of Denzel’s despite not being as dynamic. Hawke has to sell his character’s naivete in a reactive state more times than not and doesn’t get to shoot off at the hip like Washington’s. But he’s so great and so intense when the script calls for him to stand his ground. Additionally, he is just so easy to get behind because we have all been in the same situation that Hoyt finds himself in, being in that we want to desperately have something or be something so bad we’ll do damn near anything to make it happen. He’s a good guy that has his preconceived notions flipped immediately, and Hawke captures the struggle as well as anyone could.

Whether in a car, a diner, or on a bust, Training Day is at its best when Washington and Hawke are allowed to just carry things on their shoulders, which is fortunately most of the movie. There are other supporting characters with thankfully very little to do, as many of these bit actors are musical artists who aren’t exactly natural on screen. For most the runtime, the movie is conventional in a story progression sense and it does what is needed to move along the story in a respectable way. It is only in the second half of the movie where the writing takes a step back, mainly on reliance to a specific plot device and coincidence. With a film so gritty and uncompromising, how the last third syncs up with the rest of the film comes off more incongruent than it should. On multiple watches, it is the type of moment that is analyzed more and more in a nitpicking fashion as opposed to the first watch.

Antoine Fuqua is at the directorial helm here, and while there isn’t a ton of cinematic flair involved aside from an underrated ending fight, his nails the feel and tone of inner city Los Angeles. No easy route was taken, like filming in New Mexico and passing it off in the movie as LA. Everything is shot on location, with many scenes in the literal heart of no man’s land (Crenshaw and Baldwin Village). To further add to the authenticity, actual gang members were cast in exchange for using the location for shooting, so things feel as real as they could in a controlled movie setting. It is a level of commitment to this that shouldn’t go unnoticed.

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Training Day is one of the better crime movies around only with the smallest of flaws, presenting a simplistic yet gripping story raised to tremendous heights by the work of Washington and Hawke. It is not a training day I’d want to subject myself to even once, but it is a day I’d gladly rewatch again and again.

Grade: A-

Photo credits go to movieposter.com, totalfilm.com, hotflick,net, and filmjackets.com.

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