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.

Lucy

July 25, 2014 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi
Directed by: Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element”)
Written by: Luc Besson (“Taken”)

There are stupid movies that are tons of fun, and there are stupid movies that are a considerable chore to sit through, offensive in their blatant stupidity. Some movies, like the recent works of Adam Sandler, seem fine with being the latter so long as Sandler gets to take his family and friends on a paid vacation to Hawaii or Africa disguised as a movie shoot. Then there are movies like “Lucy,” a brain-dead Eurotrash sci-fi/gangster mash-up filled with laughable pseudoscience, indifferent performances and nonsensical editing infuriating enough to make the swift 80-minute affair feel like an assault on the whole endeavor of movie going, making you question why you even bother leaving the house to watch this stuff.

“Lucy” opens in Taiwan, with Scarlett Johansson’s ditzy foreign student title character being forced to deliver a mysterious briefcase to a brutal Korean gangster (Min-sik Choi, channeling Gary Oldman in “The Professional”). Lucy ends up kidnapped, waking up with a plastic bag of an experimental drug sewn inside her abdomen. She and several others are to act as drug mules, smuggling the highly dangerous drug into various parts of Europe. Tied up before she’s to be sent off on a plane, Lucy is attacked by one of her captors, the violence of which ruptures the sac of drugs sending what should be a lethal dose coursing through her body. Only instead of killing her, the drug activates the unused parts of her brain, essentially turning Lucy into a superhero. Somehow unlocking her brain’s potential gives Lucy telekinetic powers, the ability to manipulate radio and TV waves, and the power to change her hair color and length at will. With the Korean gangsters on her tail, Lucy is on a mission to track down the rest of the drugs and contact Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), the world’s foremost authority on, um, speculative brain power, I guess?

Besson is a long way from the glory days of “The Professional” and “The Fifth Element” here, and, like “Taken” before it—which Besson only wrote and produced—“Lucy” feels like a cut-rate European B-movie with some big Hollywood stars slumming for the paycheck. The difference is that “Taken” powered through its pedigree with a somewhat magnetic performance from Liam Neeson. Here, though, Johansson’s default robotic vacancy and Freeman’s clear disinterest in the material do little to offset the absolute bullshit going on around them, whether its Lucy’s ridiculous escalating powers or Norman’s quackery about just what using 100 percent of your brain would lead to. By the time all the madness culminates in a shootout, a “2001: A Space Odyssey” knock off, and a cosmic thumb drive, you’re more likely to have lost some of your own brainpower along the way.

The Family

September 13, 2013 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones
Directed by: Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element”)
Written by: Luc Besson (“Taken”) and Michael Caleo (“The Last Time”)

When the critically acclaimed “Silver Linings Playbook” came out last year, many film fans were enthused about the performance and presence of Robert De Niro. It wasn’t just that De Niro turned in his best performance in years, but it was that he did such in a great project. For the better part of the past decade, De Niro has been a perpetual enemy of positive critical consensus, turning in performances in poorly received “Meet the Parents” sequels and various action films. Though De Niro has already had one of the most poorly received films of the year thus far with “The Big Wedding,” his next starring vehicle, “The Family,” is another test to see if his Oscar-nominated performance in “Playbook” was an aberration or a sign of things to come for an actor in desperate need of a career resurgence.

As part of the witness protection program, mafia boss Fred Manzoni (De Niro), his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) and their kids Belle (Dianna Agron) and Warren (John D’Leo) are forced to move to a quiet, low-key town in France. While there, the family can’t seem to avoid attracting attention and are eventually tracked down by a mob boss looking to settle a score.

As far as performances go, everyone in the cast does a fine job. De Niro slips back into a mobster role well enough, and the supporting cast like Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones (as a federal agent) and kids turn in effortful performances. The problem, however, lies in the way the characters are written and their complete lack of depth. De Niro’s character in particular seems to be going through an identity crisis with the adjustment of being out of the mob, but the idea of him writing his memoirs goes absolutely nowhere other than the serve as a narrative device for the film and to inform a bit on the past.

But the poor writing and lack of character depth is more complex than that. The children, who are now used to being bounced around from country to country, are shown at school doing various aggressive things, but without reason or explanation other than their ties of having a mafia leader as a father. There’s really no purpose Warren, for example, tries control the school through various forms of intimidation. An even bigger disservice is done to the character played by Agron. She is presented as a strong, tough, badass girl who in early scenes beats an aggressive fellow student with a tennis racquet. But later in the film, she is given a typical female storyline where her emotions are put in check when she falls head over heels in love with a guy. This of course completely undoes most of the strong and independent characteristics established at the beginning of the film.

For what it’s worth, the film sticks to a consistent tone balancing violence (mostly implied rather than graphic) with black comedy. The problem is that the comedy is not funny in the slightest. The jokes – mostly centered on De Niro’s aggressive imagination – never quite click. There’s also an abundance of typical Italian mobster stereotypes, which, while never offensive, are extremely obnoxious.

When all is said and done, “The Family” is a film that accomplishes none of its goals. The humor falls short, the violence is ineffective, and the characters are stripped of their memorability by a hackneyed script. For the time being, it appears that De Niro’s full-time career comeback is on hold.

Taken

January 14, 2009 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen, Maggie Grace
Directed by: Pierre Morel (“District B13”)
Written by: Luc Besson (“Unleashed”) and Robert Mark Kamen (“The Transporter”)

Since its released date was pushed back last year by Twentieth Century Fox a few times before landing in U.S. theaters in January 2009, one may wonder why “Taken,” a Liam Neeson-charged action thriller, seemed to finally be tossed out like an insignificant ball on a roulette table.

A theory: The studio had so many appalling movies hit theaters in 2008 (“Meet the Spartans,” “Shutter,” “Meet Dave”), it’s only natural that after being scorched so many times, they would pull their hand away from the fire.

“Taken,” however, isn’t as flawed as other Fox attempts last year like “What Happens in Vegas,” “The Happening,” and “Max Payne.” Basically, it’s a standard offering to the genre that neither scrapes the bottom of the barrel nor makes you hope Neeson wants Matt Damon’s “Bourne” gig in the near future.

In “Taken,” Neeson plays Bryan Mills, an ex-CIA agent who moves cities to be closer to his teenage daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) so he can make up for lost time. Kim lives with her stepfather and mother Lenore (Famke Jenssen) who still holds a grudge against her ex-husband for always prioritizing his job before his family when they were married.

Still, Bryan is ready to be the father he never was and starts by telling Kim he doesn’t want her to go on a trip to Paris that she has planned with her girl friend. Although Bryan is well aware of how dangerous it is for two young female American tourists to be traveling alone, he gives in when he sees how detested he is when playing the role of overprotective father.

His intuition proves to be right, however, when an underground Albanian gang known for human trafficking kidnaps Kim and her friend in Paris. With only a 96-hour window to find her (as a ex-spook he knows this), Bryan jets off to France to use his “particular set of skills” against the men who have taken his daughter.

In a quick and painless 86 minutes, “Taken” is efficient in pacing and delivers some satisfactory fight choreography but fires blanks as an innovative narrative. “Taken” feels so much like other revenge films before it, each scene becomes more and more predictable that the one it follows.

While Neeson is no Harrison Ford, his physicality is believable enough that we can endure his trek across Europe to find his child. But when screenwriters Luc Besson (“Unleashed”) and Robert Mark Kamen (“The Transporter”) give him dialogue like, “I’ll tear down the Eiffel Tower if I have to” to describe his fatherly rage, “Taken” squanders the opportunity to at least be a guilty mindless pleasure.