Review – Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

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There has been a lot of buzz around the latest film from Luc Besson (The Fifth Element).  The trailers and television spots have been eye-dazzling and very encouraging.  Based on a French comic book, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets follows the efforts of law-enforcement agents Valerian (Dane Dehaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) as they must uncover the mystery behind the fate of a formerly-prosperous planet and how that fate is connected to the presence that currently threatens their home – a home which also houses thousands of other species from across all of existence.

Before I get into the film, itself, I want to talk about that title.  Yes, it’s a mouthful, but that’s not the big issue.  The title of the comic book upon which the film is based is Valerian and Laureline.  I hate to create trouble where there might not be any, but that title change is a problem for me.  Narratively speaking, Valerian and Laureline are unquestionably equals.  Sometimes he saves her, sometimes she saves him.  He’s generally the brawn while she’s typically the brain.  That’s a little stereotypical, but it’s a case of stereotyping that is generally accepted as truth and not particularly offensive to most.  Plus, both characters have opportunity to prove that they aren’t unilaterally-equipped for conflict, as Valerian thinks his way out of a situation or two and Laureline fights her way through some conundrums, as well.

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So, why is Laureline not sharing headlining status?  The title of the comic is no worse than the title that Besson settled on.  And not only are the characters a true, even-keeled team, but Delevingne arguably steals the film for herself with a cheeky, charismatic performance that’s sure to catch some attention from important people in the industry.  This is only her second high-profile role.  The first – as Enchantress in last year’s Suicide Squad – didn’t go particularly well.  It was mostly not her fault, as the writing was atrocious, but she was also unable to elevate her character above that issue.  Here, she knocks it out of the park with a turn that electrifies the screen and makes it nearly impossible to look away from her.  She exudes confidence and seems completely at home in the part.  If enough people see the film, this is the role she’ll be remembered for (so far.  We’ll see what’s in her future), rather than Enchantress.  I haven’t seen enough of her, yet, to state that I am unequivocally a fan of hers, but I can say without hesitation that I am a fan of this performance.

I want to talk about Dane DeHaan, too, but I’m not sure if I should.  I want to be unbiased, but there’s just always been something about him that irks me.  I won’t elaborate because I’m not here to insult people who have done nothing to me, personally, over things they can’t even help, but I’ve just had a hard time warming up to him as a performer.  I will say that I didn’t hate him in this movie and that nothing he did, in particular, was bothersome.  So, maybe he can win me over.  I once felt the same way about Kurt Russell, and he eventually converted me, so it’s not unprecedented.  Therefore, for now, I’ll ask you to decide for yourself about Mr. DeHaan.  I hope he does continue to change my mind with future performances.

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Nonetheless, while there are other actors of note in the film (welcome back, Clive Owen!  Where have you been?!), DeHaan and Delevingne are the stars who carry the entire project on their backs from the audience’s perspective and Delevingne does at least as much of the heavy lifting as does DeHaan.  She and her character deserve equal billing, no matter the excuses that were concocted in order to justify the change.

Digging into the rest of the film, I had much more fun with it than I expected to have.  There was never any question that the movie was going to be beautiful, and it is.  There will be a lot of comparisons to Star Wars and maybe some to the market scene in Hellboy II: The Golden Army, but, while there are nods to other science-fiction films and stories of the past, Valerian is very much its own thing.

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The biggest complaint I have seen – and the only one I’ve seen with any consistency – is that it lacks emotional depth.  And, yeah, that’s probably true.  But I really don’t care.  I didn’t pay to watch it based on any “emotional depth” I picked up on in the trailers.  I wanted an escapist adventure full of wacky aliens, quirky and cool leads, and exciting action set pieces.  That’s what I got.  And I even got some pretty decent comedy on top of all of that (the comedy is served in quality, not quantity – a wise choice), which I didn’t expect.  I’m not saying a little thought-provocation or emotional resonance would have been bad.  It just isn’t necessary for this kind of film.  I think this class of critique comes from the very truth that I keep mentioning in my reviews: Marvel has raised the game – and expectations – by crafting each of their films into a total-package offering.  That’s great, but it doesn’t mean everyone else must do the same.  The last thing we all need is for every blockbuster to be a carbon copy of every other blockbuster.  Let the filmmakers decide what offerings they wish to set out for their cinematic buffets.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets isn’t likely to win many awards (maybe some visual effects statues), but it’s still a blast.  It’s a film that needed and deserved an IMAX release but didn’t get one, which I hate.  The screening I saw was slightly out of focus and had muted colors, so I’m anxious to get this one home and really see it pop on my personal television.  I had a great time with it, anyway.  Delevingne charmed me, DeHaan didn’t offend me, and Besson redeemed himself after the credibility-straining Lucy.  There are a lot of theatrical options out there, right now, and Valerian is one of the many that are worthy of your dollar.  (But why that title?)

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Review – Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Review – A Cure for Wellness

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A Cure for Wellness is one I’ve been looking forward to for quite some time.  It comes to us courtesy of Gore Verbinski, who most people associate with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.  I more readily think of him as being the man who gave us The Ring, which is my favorite horror movie of all-time.  In my book, this man has earned a look at all of his future films from me.  I wanted to see this one sooner, but my local theater made that difficult.  Nonetheless, here I am.

When I reviewed Fist Fight, I mentioned how I was waiting for a 2017 movie to outright disappoint me.  I shouldn’t have said anything.  Not only was the very next movie an unremarkable experience, but A Cure for Wellness is even more deflating, considering who’s behind it.

Telling the story of a selfish business executive (Dane DeHaan) who gets pulled into the mysterious machinations of an insane asylum, there is plenty of opportunity within the narrative to engage, thrill, and surprise audiences.  The film struggles to do any of the three.

Verbinski seems to be going for a bit of Crimson Peak, a helping of A Clockwork Orange, and even a touch of Captain America: The First Avenger.  It’s a non-period piece that feels like a period piece.  And, I must say that the film’s tone works well and it also looks amazing.  There are a handful of shots spread throughout the length of the movie that I would count among the most astonishingly beautiful shots I’ve ever seen in a film.  There is no question that Verbinski has an excellent eye and knows how to frame a shot.  If only that were enough.

The primary issue with the film is the story by Verbinski and Justin Haythe and then Haythe’s requisite screenplay.  I also recently mentioned how intellectual science-fiction and horror, such as Arrival and Ex Machina, are gaining in popularity.  A Cure for Wellness desperately wants to be more of that intellectual sci-fi/horror, but falls short in every area that truly matters.  Most importantly is that there is no underlying, thought-provoking subtext on which to feast.  Not that that’s necessary for a film of this kind to work, but in order to be considered “intellectual”, it actually is.  In addition to that, I’m not sure there’s an original idea in the entire film.  Everything that occurs has been done in other films, leaving this one with exactly zero surprises.  If you were hoping for a roller coaster ride of twists and turns, be prepared to instead settle for a straight-line drive through the Midwestern plains.

The pacing is also a chore.  Clocking in at nearly two-and-a-half hours, the film offers little to keep the viewer invested.  None of the characters are particularly likable.  And there’s an omnipresent absence of logic in most of the events that unfold, including the one that sets the entire film in motion.  (I don’t know about you, but on those rare and unfortunate occurrences when I hit a deer with my car, I stop immediately.  What I don’t do is continue to drive at top speed, swerving like a madman until I plunge over the side of a hill.)  So, in addition to subtext, what’s one more characteristic of an intellectual film?  Yep.  Intellect.  It’s nowhere to be found in A Cure for Wellness.

I’m also going to be upfront about something else: I’m not a fan of Dane DeHaan.  I’ve never enjoyed a single one of his performances.  I don’t know if it’s because he’s actively doing a poor job or if there’s just something about him that he can’t even help that hits me the wrong way.  I tried to be objective about his lead performance in this film.  I never caught him doing anything badly (except for the final shot of the film, in which he sports one of the most forced, insincere, unnatural facial expressions I’ve ever seen) but there’s nothing special or memorable going on, either.  That’s true of the entire cast, really.  Nobody does an awful job.  But they also have no material that they can sink their teeth into and use to deliver an attention-demanding performance, either.

Though the script is as the heart of the film’s issues, when a film fails to work, it ultimately has to come down to the director.  Verbinski helped to craft the story and could (should) have taken more care into assuring that it was a gripping, mind-blowing experience.  Instead, this is the opposite, as I was dying for it to be over by the time the two-hour mark rolled around.  It’s quite possible that Verbinski is a great director (again, the look of the film is truly magnificent) but a subpar writer and that he should stick to directing and let others come up with the ideas.  A Cure for Wellness is the biggest disappointment of the year, so far, for me.  I was expecting so much more – even in the face of mostly-negative reviews.  Ah, well.  At least I’ll always have The Ring.

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Review – A Cure for Wellness