Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

July 21, 2017 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Colin Firth
Directed by: Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element,” “Lucy”)
Written by: Luc Besson (“Taken,” “The Professional”)

These days, original sci-fi at the movies requires a pretty big buy-in. The stuff with less fantastical elements, like “The Martian” or “Edge of Tomorrow,” tends to satisfy adult audiences with gritty, somewhat-based-in-a-possible-reality plotting, while the more “out there” stuff—think “Jupiter Ascending” or “John Carter”—lands with a thud. That any major studio is still giving money to directors to chase these wild geese into non-profitability is, I suppose, something to applaud, and even though these filmmakers have amazing visions, the fact is that the movies are either achingly bad and/or no one seems to give a shit about them.

As a master of Eurotrash action, Luc Besson is no stranger to ambitious sci-fi. From the delightfully weird “The Fifth Element” from 20 years ago or the godawful “Lucy” from 2014, his movies are at least unique if not always, well, any good. His latest film, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” is clearly a passion project, based on a French-Belgian comic you’ve never heard of called “Valerian et Laureline.” Besson has put together a visually amazing, inventive world—too bad his characters can’t carry the load.

After a prologue featuring the evolution of the International Space Station into an orbiting monstrosity known as Alpha set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” “Valerian” diverts into a dreamy, sun-soaked day-in-the-life of a race of beach-dwelling aliens, who look like albino Na’vi from “Avatar,” wash their faces with pearls, and keep as pets colorful little creatures who eat and reproduce those same pearls. When destruction comes for their world in an intergalactic war they aren’t part of, one of the aliens sends a psychic signal out through the universe, rousing our hero Valerian (a sleepy, Keanu Reeves-sounding Dane DeHaan) from a slumber and some ill-defined almost-sex with his gorgeous partner, Laureline (bland, store-brand Emma Stone substitute Cara Delevingne). They’re both some sort of intergalactic special agents, tasked with stealing some artifacts from a Jabba the Hutt-ish crime lord in an interdimensional flea market and protecting the Commander (Colin Firth) as he tries to figure out just what the heck is going on with a surge of radiation in the core of Alpha.

“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is a wonder of production design and fairly wondrous set pieces—nearly undone entirely by a pair of low-wattage leads and too-frequent diversions into goofy Looney Tunes-style cul de sacs.  The aforementioned heist in the market that spans dimensions—shoppers wander around an empty desert lot wearing goggles and transporter boxes on their hands so they can see and interact with vendors in a parallel dimension—is an amazingly batshit idea that makes me smile just thinking about it, and Besson (as usual) peppers it with weirdo military agents and obnoxious American tourists. But then, at some point, we have to get back to DeHaan and Delevingne and listen to them flatly spar about potentially getting married, despite no clear evidence of chemistry between the two. Later diversions include singer Rihanna as a shape-shifting stripper who helps Valerian rescue Laureline from what might as well be a giant stewpot in a sequence that climaxes with a cartoony eye-cross-only missing tweeting birds—none of which has fuck-all to do with the plot (that feels lifted from “Serenity” anyway). Luc Besson, you madman. If you could focus (and cast better) you’d be a modern-day cinema hero.

Paper Towns

July 24, 2015 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Austin Abrams
Directed by: Jake Schreier (“Robot and Frank”)
Written by: Scott Heustadter (“The Fault in Our Stars”) and Michael H. Weber (“The Fault in Our Stars”)

As the go-to source for screenplays on young love, screenwriting partners Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have had a sizeable amount of success. With “(500) Days of Summer,” “The Spectacular Now,” and most recently “The Fault in Our Stars,” Neustadter and Weber have, for the most part, been able to subvert clichés and avoid tropes to deliver earnest and unique films about love. With another novel adaptation from John Green, “Paper Towns” is perhaps the first truly inauthentic step from the duo.

After drifting apart from being childhood friends, Quentin (Nat Wolff) is visited by free-spirited, rebel teenager and neighbor Margo (Cara Delevingne) in the middle of the night. Needing his Mom’s car to exact revenge on her cheating boyfriend and friends, the conservative do-gooder Quentin agrees and has the best night of his life on mischievous adventures. Hoping to further nurture a childhood crush, Quentin wakes up disappointed the next day to find that Margo has vanished. He does, however, find clues that may point to where Margo is hiding and joins up with friends on an adventure to track her down.

In her first starring film role, model turned actress Delevingne is a welcome revelation. With a twinge of attitude and raspy voice, there’s a certain Emma Stone quality to Delevingne’s performance that shows a lot of potential. It’s a shame that she’s gone for the majority of the film, as her performance is the most intriguing part of the film. Something else that is welcome is Wolff finally being in a likeable role. After turning in the most annoying character of all time in “Palo Alto,” Wolff gets to play not only charming, but vulnerable and proves to be quite good at it. Unfortunately for “Paper Towns,” the levels of performance are where its successes end.

With teen films, there is always the risk that writers and directors become so concerned with being different that they pack their characters and stories with quirks and eccentricities that would never exist in real life. This is where Neustadter and Weber have been successful in the past, showing uber romantic gestures, but still believable teenage (or young) relationships. In “Paper Towns,” however, it all seems for naught.

More to the point, Neustadter and Weber do a poor job of establishing the relationship between Quentin and Margo. (What is the purpose of them finding a dead body if nothing at all comes from it?) Quentin’s alleged love for her that makes him want to go on a manhunt across the country, even after their one night of fun, rings completely false. They haven’t even talked since they were kids! Essentially what he is doing is giving in to the whims of an “eccentric” girl that ran away, which is hardly a reason the viewer to care.

Beyond all of that, there’s an annoying streak that runs throughout the film. One several occasions, gorgeous people complain about having to live up to their expectations and how people only see their coolness and their beauty. It’s a form of self-pity that is, quite frankly, obnoxious. One of the side characters in particular has one of these moments, and it is amplified by a sideplot of a relationship with one of Quentin’s best friends in a storyline that is, once again, completely unbelievable.

If there is any word that can sum up the experience of “Paper Towns,” it is “pointless.” When the entire plot of a film hinges on a relationship that is impossible to buy into, it’s really hard for the whole thing to not feel like a mammoth waste of time. There’s no fun or energy behind anything that is happening, and almost none of its relationship moments are earned. The ending has a hint of refreshingness to how blunt it is, but it also, in a way, further cements the fact that the rest of the film was unnecessary. Unrealistic, annoying, and emotionally hollow, “Paper Towns” is as thin as its title suggests.