Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Director: Taika Waititi

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffallo, Anthony Hopkins, Bennedict Cumberbatch

Within the Marvel movies, there’s the huge hits that everyone loves like Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and The Avengers (2012), then there’s the ones that people liked but don’t go bananas over, like the Thor movies. The first film was directed by Kenneth Branagh and I was really pumped for it because he’s known for doing Shakespeare adaptations and so I was like, cool, he’s going to bring that Shakespearian quality to the Thor universe, which he did. That first film was all serious and tragic in true Shakespearian fashion. It was followed by a less then spectacular sequel which really didn’t do much for me. Which is probably why the Thor franchise has never been the one to light the Box Office on fire, well, at least not as spectacularly as the rest of the Marvel Universe. Thor movies made money, but didn’t make as much as the rest. Which meant something had to be reworked, something had to be fixed, because people weren’t reacting as favorably to the Thor franchise as Disney hoped they would. So what’s a studio to do? Well, Disney did what they had to do, they tried something new for this third film to ensure its success. They made it funny. Did it work?

This time around Thor faces the takeover of Asgard by his evil sister Hella. Unfortunately, he accidentally ends up stranded on a distant planet where people are obsessed with Gladiator fights featuring The Incredible Hulk as the star of the show. Oh, and Thor’s also without his magical Hammer Mjolnir. Can he get back home to fix things in Asgard before his sister begins her reign of terror? Will he ever get Mjolnir back? And can he win in a fight against the Hulk?

With the success of films like Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Deadpool (2016), suddenly offbeat movies that didn’t take themselves so seriously were the big money makers. And so, this new Thor movie is a thrill a minute, fast paced, joke fest. It’s lighthearted and crazy and I love it and so has the rest of the world; Thor Ragnarok has turned into one of the biggest money makers in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. A huge part of the successful formula for this enjoyable film is the guy behind the camera, Taika Waititi. Who the hell is Taika Waititi you might ask. Well, he might not be a household name yet, but Waititi has been making movies for a while now. In all honesty, he’s a rather gifted storyteller. If you want to see what he is capable of, I recommend you check out a movie he made called Boy (2010), a touching and beautiful film about a boy who misses his father. Waititi acts, writes and directs his own films, yes my friends, Waititi is a creative force to be reckoned with and I have a feeling we’ve yet to discover what he can really do. I mean, if this is him working with a studios ideas, imagine when he does a project thats purely his. I predict good things from Waititi. You might remember him best for his performance in a faux Documentary What We Do in The Shadows (2014), a super funny film that follows a group of vampires who are all house mates in a flat in London. Just hilarious, highly recommend checking that film out. After seeing Waititi’s repertoire, you’ll understand perfectly well why Thor: Ragnarok is so hilarious. So remember, if you enjoy the funny in Ragnarok, Waititi is the guy you have to thank.  

What Waititi does with some of his films is he turns things around, he puts a tired idea in a new unexpected situation. I mean, there’s no more tired genre than the vampire genre and Waititi made it work. He made us see vampires in a way we hadn’t seen them before. I mean, did you ever think you’d see vampires squabbling over who should do the dishes? “Fuck that! Vampires don’t do dishes!” Did you ever think you’d see Thor being traumatized after seeing Hulk naked? Well, in this movie he does, and that’s what I’m talking about, he puts the characters we know and love in funny, unthought of situations. Situations you’d never imagine seeing them in. Situations that most movies would avoid. Not only is the film funny, but it shatters the foundations of the Thor universe to their very core. Thor goes through a life changing journey, more so than any previous films. Ragnarok shakes things up good. Nothing is sacred. All while spewing one liners. You wont feel danger or peril, but you’ll have one hell of a good time. You’ll bust a gut with the banter between Thor and The Hulk.

Speaking of the films look, well, it’s very bright and colorful. It’s very much in tune with the look and feel of two very important comic book artists who helped shape the character of Thor in the 60’s. I speak of  Jacky Kirby and Walter Simonson. Kirby and Simonson did some of the more seminal runs on Thor, they helped shape and define what Thor eventually became, the way he would look. Waititi and crew paid homage to these classic artists by giving the film a very classic look with regards to set designs and the wardrobe of some of the characters. Thor himself has a more contemporary feel, getting away from the long hair, the capes and the hammer, making him less of a Viking. So the film is a bit of the old and the new.  Speaking of the old and the retro, If you love the 80’s then you’ll love the soundtrack which is pure 80’s synth stuff. It has a John Carpenter/Stranger Things vibe going for it. Thor: Ragnarok is a film that is showing us just how important it is to put the right person behind the camera, because without Waititi, this would be a very different film. This film shows movie studios can realize when something didnt work and that they shouldn’t be afraid to go in an entirely different direction to try something new and freshen things up. Who knows, it just might work. This is a lesson the DC Universe could learn from.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Justice League (2017)

Justice League (2017)

Directors: Zack Snyder/Joss Whedon

Cast: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Amy Adams, Ezra Miller, J.K. Simmons, Jeremy Irons, Billy Crudup, Diane Lane, Amber Heard, Robin Wright

I started collecting comics when I was nine years old. I discovered the world of comic books through a neighbor of mine who had mountains of them. Back then, you were either a Marvel fan or a DC fan, it was always a clash of who had the best superheroes. Who would win if they ever fought against each other? Who was the most powerful? And it was all about those big events like Marvel’s ‘Secret Wars’ , where all of the heroes got together to defeat an all-powerful villain. Nowadays, these clashes have translated to the silver screen. Who makes the best comic book movies? Marvel or DC? Are you with Warner Bros. or are ya with Disney? Maybe you’re like me and enjoy both sides equally, I mean, why side, when you can have all the fun and enjoy the whole shebang? Cool thing is that each production company is always trying to make the biggest and the baddest comic book film ever made, all to please us, the viewer. They don’t always succeed, but boy is it fun to watch them try. Up to my writing this, I’d say that there’s no doubt that Marvel is winning the day in terms of who makes the best comic book movies. Marvel seems to have the formula figured out, and they are ahead of the game, no doubt. But DC is slowly learning from their mistakes. Is Justice League a step in the right direction?  

This time around, Batman is trying to gather superheroes to form a group of heroes to protect the earth from a coming threat. Apparently, a villain called Steppenwolf is hell bent on world domination, but in order to do so, he has to recollect three “mother boxes” that will give him the power he seeks in order to achieve his goals. Will Batman gather the team in time, and if he does, will they be enough? How can this world without a Superman confront such a threat?

For those of you not in the know, this film had a bumpy road towards the silver screen. Zack Snyder was directing it, but he suffered the death of a loved one, so he stepped down to deal with that. Warner Bros. decided to hire Josh Whedon director of Avengers (2012) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) in order to finish the film. Whedon did a couple of re-writes and reshoots and boom, we got Justice League. Warner Bros. took the opportunity to make the film a bit “lighter”, the reason for this being that audiences have felt that DC movies are “too dark and brooding”, well, at least when compared to Marvel movies, which are bright and shiny and know how to juggle heroic elements with comedy. 

This whole making DC movies lighter thing has been going on for a while now. Warner Bros. has been reactionary in this sense, they react to whatever Marvel does. And I think that’s actually part of the problem, they aren’t trend setters. They are following, reacting to whatever Marvel does. In this sense, Marvel has proven themselves the leaders of this whole comic book movie craze. Warner Bros tried making Suicide Squad (2016) lighter and funnier with some reshoots, but that turned out to be a failed experiment. With Justice League, DC finally found the right balance between comedy and super hero antics, and it’s all thanks to Whedon’s influence in the project. The funny moments are truly funny, well written and effective, so I’d say you guys can rest assured the film delivers.

In terms of these six heroes coming together, I’d say they did a good job as well. I gotta say I had a kick out of seeing all these heroes together on the silver screen. Nobody is left behind, they all shine, they all kick ass, they work together. It’s cool seeing their different personalities clash. Some are seasoned veterans, others are just learning how to be heroes. How cool is it to see Flash afraid of getting into battle? I’d say he is the one that grows the most as a character, learning how to grow into the role of a hero. Flash also has the funniest lines in the film. For the record, I like Ben Affleck as Batman. Momoa is the badboy of the group as Aquaman. Cyborg is surprisingly crucial to the story. And Wonder Woman is growing to be the leader of the pack. And speaking of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, she looks even more beautiful on this one, I have a crush on this girl. She’s just stunning on this film.

On the negative side, the villain is your typical “world domination” type, which felt very “been there done that”. The villain being a completely computer generated character didn’t help matters much in terms of giving it life, Hollywood has to learn that lesson. We want thespians Hollywood, not pixels. No matter how cool they may look, nothing will ever replace the performance of a real actor. In this type of film, the villains shenanigans are just a trigger to get our heroes in motion and what really matters is how they get from here to there, how they go about it. The McGuffin this time are three powerful items called “The Mother Boxes” and basically, they are what moves the plot along. It’s the type of film where the villains motivations don’t matter as long as we get that cool superhero action, which can be seen as a negative point. In a good honest to god great film, everything is that much better if we care about what’s moving the story along. You definetly feel the voice of two different directors, and a bunch of producers messing with the movie, as a result the film does feel a bit uneven. It feels a bit disjointed in terms of tone and style. But whatever, Justice League is a no brainer. It’s meant to be a fun movie and in that sense, it delivers every step of the way. There are surprises and cool moments that will have those geeky fans wetting their pants with joy. Stay for the two extra endings!

Rating: 3 out of 5

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Jared Leto, Robin Wright, Dave Bautista, Sean Young

What has always attracted me to Blade Runner (1982), and part of the reason why it’s one of my favorite science fiction films ever (topped only by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) are its themes. The film asks one of the most thought-provoking questions of all time: why must we die? The question of our mortality has haunted us since the dawn of time. Why are we born with an expiration date? One for the ages to be sure, but one that Ridley Scott and his crew weren’t afraid to ask back in 1982. Which is why that scene in which Roy Batty kills his creator for being unable to give him more life struck me as a great example of a film that knows its themes well and truly explores them. “You were made as good as we could make you” is the answer Tyrell, the ‘God of Biomechanics’ gives his creations. Live your life to the fullest, but rest assured, you’re going to die.  That frustration and anger we all feel at the fact that we know we are going to die is explored on Blade Runner with laser clear precision. The film really dives into its themes with reckless abandon. It asks questions and attempts to give us answers, even if said answers are dark and hopeless. And it delivers these dark explorations with beauty and poetry.

Of course, when standing on the shoulders of such a giant, the makers of Blade Runner 2049 must’ve been concerned with delivering a film that was just as compelling and thought provoking as the original. Which of course was never going to be an easy task. Ridley Scott’s film is good on so many levels, it has  memorable characters, incredible dialog, amazing art direction, incredible special effects and music…it’s that rare “perfect” film that is extremely hard to top. I give kudos to Denis Villeneuve’s for having the guts to tackle the sequel of such a masterpiece. Was Blade Runner 2049 a worthy sequel? How does it compare to the first film? Can it be its own thing?

On Blade Runner 2049 we are presented with a new Android Executioner (a.k.a. Blade Runner) called agent ‘K’, who is assigned to retire a rebellious android who is passing itself for a farmer. Agent K ends up stumbling upon a mystery, which will lead him to a discovery that can shake the very foundations of society itself. Will he take the task and open this Pandora’s Box?  

I have to give it to Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, the writers behind this sequel, because they actually came up with some interesting concepts for this movie. The concepts are so good that they could branch off into entirely different films, which says a lot about the complexities of the concepts behind Blade Runner 2049. This movie has more meat to it than 90% percent of what passes for science fiction these days. And that “meat” is merely the backdrop of the story.  The actual plot of Blade Runner 2049 concerns itself with continuing exactly where the original film leaves off, with Deckard running off with Rachel to god knows where. This makes perfect sense when we take in consideration that Fancher also wrote the first film, so he’s picking up the story right where he left it.

Blade Runner 2049 has gotten lots of praise for its visuals and I agree, the film looks astonishing. Denis Villeneuve pays huge amounts of respect to the original film. You’ll feel you are in the same world that Ridley Scott presented us with in the first film. From the crummy, dirty streets filled with mutants to the flying police cars and the nonstop rain. It was great seeing landmarks from the first film like the Tyrell Corporation Pyramids or all those neon holograms promoting every sort of product available to man. I mean, Villeneuve succeeded in recreating that visual complexity that Ridley Scott is so good at conjuring on his films. Fans of the original Blade Runner are in for a real treat. It’s got that classy Film Noir vibe we all love from Blade Runner, its still very much a science fictin film mixed with a detective story. 

I was extremely disappointed that Vangelis was not used as the composer for Blade Runner 2049 because to me, the Vangelis score in Blade Runner (1982)  is a huge part of what emotes in conjunction with the visuals, such a unique cinematic experience. Vangelis’s music is sampled and reused in 2049, but instead letting him come up with a new score, they brought it in Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, which I will admit did an amazing job here anyway. The sounds used to compliment the visuals effectively evoke that dark science fiction vibe, it’s not Vangelis, but its mind-blowing in its own way. I’ve seen the film twice already and realized just how fantastic that musical score is. So prepare yourselves to dive into an amazing audio visual experience.

Though the film is amazing in many ways, it did have some flaws. One of the things that just didn’t work for me were the unanswered plot points, purposely left that way to be answered in a possible sequel. I personally don’t like to see scenes shoehorned in there for the sake of setting up a franchise, but whatever, you might not care. The original Blade Runner wasn’t concerned with establishing a franchise, they just did the one great film. To me it feels distracting, especially if you’re not even sure if there will be a sequel at all. You'll be left wondering what happened to certain characters, so be ready for that. Another thing is that to me 2049 is not as crystal clear with its themes as its predecessor. What is Blade Runner 2049 really about? Is it trying to answer any big questions? It is not as crystal clear as the first film. For now all I can say is that it is a film that warrants a few viewings to really grasp it, which means its a film that begs to be analyzed. I missed that focus in themes I got with the original film. But even with its flaws, the film is amazing on so many other levels that it balances the pros and cons out. I do hope more people go see it because like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 isn’t exactly lighting the box office in flames. In fact, last time I checked it was having a hard time making its money back. Which is sometimes a good thing. When general audiences don't like a film, it usually means it has some brains to it, which usually means I'll like it. So there's that. It's not a film made for mass consumption, which is a good thing for some of us.    

This was a risky movie for Denis Villeneuve to make because it’s an intelligent, slow paced science fiction film, and mass audiences like their explosions and fights every five seconds and they like everything spoon fed to them. It also has a lengthy running time of almost three hours, but I’ll tell ya, I was engaged all the way through, I didn’t really notice the running time. I wanted more by the time it was over. When it's over it comes as a surprise. In that sense, it is extremely similar to the original Blade Runner, which also slammed its door on our face, making us wonder what happened to Deckard and Rachel. Well, this film answers us that question, but it leaves so many others unanswered, hopefully we’ll get a sequel, hopefully the answers will come, and hopefully they wont take thirty something years to make the next film. I love the world of Blade Runner and I hope we get to revisit it at some point. I am extremely happy that Denis Villeneuve is doing such an amazing job with the science fiction genre, he is steadily becoming the sci-fi director of this generation. I hear he wants to tackle Dune next! What can I say, after seeing Blade Runner 2049, he has my vote. Final word, even with its flaws, I cannot bring myself to give this film anything but a perfect score. One for the ages in deed. 
Rating: 5 out of 5


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Mother! (2017)

Mother! (2017)

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Harris

Darren Aronofsky isn’t a stranger to playing with themes of Christianity or religion, in fact, right from the get go with his first film Pi (1998), he was already playing with ideas of religion vs. logic. Even when he did Noah (2014) a film based on the biblical tale of Noah’s ark, he twisted the tale in a way that the film actually turned into a critical view of the bible and its teachings instead of a purely “Christian Film”. When I saw Noah, I felt Aronofksy took many fantastical elements from the bible and slapped Christians right in the face with it. What angered Christians about Noah, and part of the reason why the Christian Community didn’t fully embrace that film was because they couldn’t deny that the “craziest” elements from that film where actually in the bible to begin with. This is why I find that Aronofsky’s newest film Mother! (2017), fits right in there with the rest of his cinematic repertoire. Aronofsky has always had a strong critical voice about religion. So, how do his views on religion show up in Mother!?

Mother! is all about this couple who lives out in the sticks in the middle of nowhere. All they want is a bit of peace and quiet. He wants peace in order to work on his writing and she enjoys working on improving her home. Problems begin to develop when uninvited guests being to knock at their door to interrupt their secluded married life. Will these people ever stop coming? What do they want?

This is not a film to be watched like a regular film, it is not “linear” or even literal in any sense of the word, though it starts out that way. Mother! is a film filled with symbolisms, closer to the experience of watching an Alejandro Jodorwsky film, where you aren’t supposed to follow a story line in the traditional sense of the word, but instead, you are asked to interpret what you are watching so that you can understand what the director/writer is trying to say.  That Aronofksy has made this type of film shouldn’t surprise anyone, after all, this is the director of The Fountain (2006), also a risky film, filled with symbolisms. I say risky because American audiences aren’t used to films they have to interpret. American audiences are used to being spoon fed the plot, so I am not surprised that Mother! received such a cold reception at the box office. Aronofksy knew he was making a hard movie to sell, which is why I applaud him for taking the risk of making an honest film that will make us think. It’s so much more refreshing then repetitive dribble regularly projected in movie screens across the world.  

Paramount Pictures actually sent out a press release “apologizing” for Mother! saying that they recognize it isn’t a film for everybody, which is true. What I liked abot their press release was that they didn’t kick the movie in the gut, but rather, stood by it and its filmmaker, defending it. Calling Mother! a bold film makde by a director and actors at the top of their game.  The backlash from audiences has been brutal, but it’s probably because they don’t understand the film for what it is. I mean, sure its images are shocking, gory, and brutal, but what do they stand for? Could it be that it’s getting this backlash because it’s saying that Christianity is just as gory, shocking and brutal? I’m guessing that’s why it’s being lambasted. Because again, Christianity cannot deny that the savagery seen in the film actually reflects their own beliefs. It’s not nice looking in the mirror and realizing you’re a monster.

Kudos to Aronofsky for doing this. I mean, I was just as shocked as everyone while watching the movie and it succeeds in making you feel something, even if it is horrendous shock. But if you look past the shock, there’s something profound being said here. Not many filmmakers are as brave as Aronofsky.  People are saying its “the worst film they’ve ever seen” and that they “left the theater before it ended” but it’s not because its badly acted or because it doesn’t look beautiful. Lawrence and Bardem are amazing in it. The film looks as beautiful as any other Aronofksy movie, though darker and grimmer for sure. Still, it’s not a badly made film, far from it. 

Lawrence and Aronofksy working out a scene

People are saying its “bad” because they can’t take the shock. So if you can take shock, you’ll have no problem. If you can take strong themes, go see the movie. If you despise religion, politics and hive like mentalities, you’ll dig this film. But if you are a Christian, you’ll probably hate looking at your beliefs represented on film and you’ll hate the fact that you can’t deny that this is what the bible teaches. Awesome movie in my book. Go see it, test your boundaries then interpret what you’ve seen. I applaude Aronofsky and Paramount for making bold, different cinema, keep at it.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Monday, September 11, 2017

IT (2017)

IT (2017)

Director: Andy Muschietti

Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgard

Every generation gets their boogeyman and it looks like this generation is getting Pennywise, The Dancing Clown. Yes my friends, this killer clown from outer space has earned his rank amongst the horror elite. Pennywise is the brainchild of Stephen King who first introduced him with his hugely successful novel ‘IT’, which premiered way back in 1986. The book was then adapted into a television miniseries, where it frightened a whole generation of 90’s kids (myself included) thanks in no small part to Tim Curry’s brilliant interpretation of the title character. Now Pennywise has been resurrected via a theatrically released film. Considering how many terrible remakes we get on a yearly basis, I was hesitant to accept this one, as I always am when they want to mess around with a classic. Would Bill Skarsgard, the actor portraying Pennywise do the character justice, or was he just going to clone Tim Curry’s take on it? The same trepidation went for the director, Andy Muschietti, the director behind Mama (2003), which I’ve yet to see. Would he have what it takes to make a truly frightening movie or would this be another watered down “Horror Movie” afraid to truly scare us?

In case you’ve never seen the mini-series or read King’s book IT is all about this town in which kids keep disappearing for no apparent reason. A group of nerds and outcast who call themselves “The Losers” notice what is happening and decide to do something about it. Their explorations lead them to a discovery: there’s a strange, evil clown kidnapping the kids! Can they confront this evil entity and stop the disappearance’s from happening?

My big preoccupation with this movie was whether it was going to be truly horrifying or not. I’ve grown to learn that in modern Hollywood, an ‘R’ rating doesn’t necessarily equal intensity. Sometimes it’s just a hook to make you think the film you are about to watch is going to be “edgy” then you realize you’ve been had. In the case of ‘IT’ I am happy to say that this is a truly hardcore horror movie not afraid to shock us. In the first ten minutes, the film really shows us its fangs and lets us know it isn’t fooling around, if you stay, you are going to be horrified! So if you can’t take the heat, you better get out of that kitchen! The scares are well orchestrated, it is gory, it is intense and freaking Pennywise is a memorable boogyman! A memorable villain! My hats down to Bill Skarsgard for delivering a truly nuanced performance. Pennywise’s movements and facial gestures truly delivered a bone chilling villain, everything about him feels strange or “off”, his evil is felt in every part of the performance. Loved this villain, and I love the fact that he really goes for the jugular when the movie turns up the heat.

But apart from a strong, memorable villain, which by the way I’ve been dying to see in a film for a while now, we get a group of young characters who deliver believable performances that manage to capture that innocent age when everything is new, when you kiss for the first time, when you develop friendships that will last you a life time, and when you first start standing up to your parents. I’ve always liked that about ‘IT’, that idea that this group of friends truly care for each other, that feeling that you’re with people you can really trust in. This of course is something present in many of Stephen King’s stories like Stand By Me (1986) and Dreamcatcher (2003). King loves to tell stories of friends or a community coming together to defeat an ultimate evil, so he takes his time in writing situations where that bond, that love between characters is truly felt. Kudos to the director for seeing that and bringing it to the big screen. By the way, this film does something that all good remakes do, it gives us enough new elements so it doesn’t feel like we’re watching the same film over again.

What I loved the most about this adaptation is that it didn’t feel like a cheap horror film. It doesn’t feel like it was made by an idiot trying to scare us with cheap scares. Nope, this is a well-crafted horror film that looks beautiful, is truly frightening and has characters you care about, all without losing its edge and remembering its mission: to make you squirm in your seat. So yes my dear readers, Andy Muschietti and crew aimed to do make a truly memorable horror film and not something that you’d forget or worse yet, wish you’d never spent your time and your money on. This one was special in my book. It's filled with a lot of great moments, I think what Muschietti was aiming for was a roller coaster ride of horror and he achieved it. I was so impressed that I will be checking out Muschietti’s Mama (2003). Bottom line is IT is a fun ride, and should be experienced in a movie theater. By the looks of it, a sequel is assured, which is supposed to take place 27 years later, when the kids have all grown up. Here’s hoping they don’t give us a cheap ass sequel and maintain the same high level of quality with the next film. This film surpassed my expectations, and that’s a lot to say because normally new horror films fail to amaze me. IT was jaw-droppingly good!

Rating: 5 out of 5 

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Director: Luc Besson

Cast: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihana

My expectations were extremely high for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) because the filmmaker behind the camera was the one and only Luc Besson, a director who has proven himself time and again to be a visionary with films like The Fifth Element (1995) and Lucy (2014). And he’s also proven himself in non genre films like Leon: The Professional (1994) and  The Big Blue (1988). Besson’s always been a prolific director who jumps effortlessly from genre to genre with success. But I was extremely excited with Valerian because it marked his return to big budget, larger than life, escapist science fiction that we saw him play with in The Fifth Element, a film I was blown away by when I first saw it. I literally saw it five times in theaters! And if the trailer for Valerian was to be an indication of what we could expect, Besson was poised to wow us again. Does Besson still have the ability to amaze us?

Valerian is all about these special government agents, Valerian and Laureline, who are assigned to retrieve a creature, the last of its kind, who can reproduce a pearl that can offer limited amounts of energy to the universe. But of course, dark, evil forces (read: the government) are after it and so, the race is on to protect this little creature from certain death. At the same time, Valerian is trying to prove his love to Laureline, will he ever learn to love anything but himself?

This film has lots of pros, but unfortunately lots of cons as well. But lets start with the good shall we? The good is that the film is a visual tour de force, a barrage of ideas that never stop coming. Right from the opening sequences of the movie, where we see how the titular city of a thousand planets is formed, we are wowed with race after race of alien beings, who start forming a part of the gigantic floating city in space. I get what Besson was going for with this movie. He wanted to do something that was so filled with imagination and creativity that there is no way it could be ignored. He wanted to give us an overdose of awesomeness and for all intents and purposes he succeeded. Imagination never stops with this one; you’ll be saying “cool” every five seconds. Now considering the amount of imagination and design involved in this movie, it should have been a huge hit in theaters. So what happened? Why did it flop so spectacularly?

The flopping came as a result of some of the films negative attributes. For starters the films plot is paper thin. There is no plot here save for running from one place to the next, trying to save a cute little creature. Sadly, without much more than that in terms of story, the film turns into a beautiful looking, empty spectacle. Pretty to look at, but with no substance, Valerian turns into the classic case of style over substance. Then there’s the fact that American audiences like a little familiarity with their genre fare and you’ve got yourselves the ingredients for a perfect bomb at the box office. If a film doesn’t come from some pre-existing universe that audiences were just dying to see come to life, then they won’t care or connect, even if the film is good. Valerian and Laureline comes from a French comic book from the sixties that American audiences never read or heard of until now. For Besson it’s a lifelong dream come true to bring his childhood comic book heroes to life, but for American audiences Valerian and Laureline is something they are not familiar with at all, filing it under the “too weird” file.

Then there’s this male chauvinist thing about it. Valerian treats women like sex objects, and for most of the film he treats Laureline like crap, even though he’s supposed to have affection for her. He’s always being the quintessential “guy” telling her to “wait here” while he takes care of everything, which today is considered “passé” by savvy movie audiences. In todays modern films, women have grown past the damsel in distress cliché, but apparently, nobody gave Besson the memo. Even the title of the film is chauvinist when you think about it. The comic was called Valerian and Laureline, not just Valerian. Why kick the female out of the film’s title? Is she not integral to the film? Are they not a duo? I roll my eyes at that type of thing. Then there’s the thing about the two protagonists having zero chemistry together. They do not look like they are attracted or in love with each other at all! It’s like we’re supposed to believe Valerian is passionately in love with Laureline, but there’s nothing there to prove it to us. It seems to me that if LOVE is the theme that is going to hold this film together, and it is supposed to be, well then Besson should have made sure it was passionate and heartfelt. He should have made sure their love for each other shined through and quite honestly, it doesn’t. Valerian comes through as a selfish cold guy who cares only for himself. I mean, I get it, he’s supposed to be selfish and cold in order to learn the ways of love, but come on. At least a glimpse of their love for each other would have been nice.

But I don’t think Besson ever meant for it to be “deep” or profound, it was simply meant to be a spectacle, eye candy in its purest form. So maybe if you go in with that mentality you won’t be disappointed. There’s a couple of inside jokes in there as well for lovers of The Fifth Element, actually, the film has many similarities with The Fifth Element, certain scenes in Valerian felt copy pasted from The Fifth Element, but fear not. Valerian has so many new ideas, you won’t mind. Final say is that this is an amazing film visually, conceptually and design wise, but is totally void of the love and emotions that it professes to be about, so that in my opinion is its biggest fault and in my opinion the reason why it tanked at the box office. And that’s weird because Besson’s theme, in a lot of his films has always been love, and human emotion, so in that sense I was surprised that the film was lacking in that area. Yet, in the films defense I will say that it didn’t deserve to fail as big as it did because there is space out there for escapist films whose sole purpose is to entertain us, and in that respect, Valerian did not fail at all.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5

Monday, June 19, 2017

Angel-A (2005)

Angel - A (2005)  
Director/Writer: Luc Besson

Cast: Jamel Debouzze, Rie Rasmussen

Luc Bessson’s films have always had this strong visual sense to them, he likes to load them with amazing shots, an abundance of color and detail. But one of the things that I’ve also noticed about his films is that he cares a lot about emotion, he likes to make us feel, to appreciate each other, to enjoy life. He likes to make us remember that love overpowers anything. Remember how in The Fifth Element (1997) the final element in the equation was true love? Besson likes to show through his films that love is what makes life worthwhile, which is something I enjoy about his films. Angel-A is no exception, it’s yet another film emphasizing love for others and for oneself. The thing about Angel-A is that the first few minutes lead you to believe that this is going to be just another by the numbers film about a guy who owes money to some gangsters, but if you keep watching, you’ll soon realize that that’s just the kick off point for something far more profound and touching.

Angel-A is all about a hustler named Andre. He owes around 50 thousand dollars to various unsavory dudes out on the streets and they have all decided to come collecting at the same time. So Andre has a couple of henchmen after him looking to punch his lights out. When he sees no exit to it all, he decides to jump of a bridge. Before he does that, he looks up at the sky and asks God why he’s never answered any of his cries for help. Andre doesn’t know it, but God has listened this time. And he’s sent one of his angels to help, her name is Angela.

The premise for Angel-A (2005) is not a new one; that of an Angel being sent down from heaven to help a human who is in a particularly nasty situation. One example that comes to mind is The Heavenly Kid (1985), a film about a guy who’s got to earn his place in heaven by helping somebody on earth. The idea of an Angel falling in love for the person they are supposed to be helping has also been done before in films like Date with an Angel (1987), Always (1989), City of Angels (1998), and one of my all time favorite movies about angels: Wings of Desire (1987). But Angel-A is a different kind of angel movie. Angela is far from perfect, she’s no goodie little two shoes. She smokes cigarettes, kicks whoever’s ass she has to kick and fucks like there’s no tomorrow. Some movies play with the idea of a god sent Angel with more respect then others, this one is a loosey goosey version of an Angel. But besides that, she’s here to help Andre find his path and learn to love others and himself. Will she achieve her mission? Will Andre ever set his life on the right track?

A couple of things made this one a keeper for me. Number one is that it’s actually an unpredictable film; you think it’s going to play out one way and it goes another. I also enjoyed the fact that the film was in black and white. As an illustrator of black and white comic books, I enjoy the black and white aesthetic very much, I think it offers its own visual flare, it’s own uniqueness. Luc Besson exploits this black and white look of the film very much, the sets, the illumination, everything is done to exploit the black and white nature of the film. I loved that Paris is one of the main characters in the film. There are a few films in which the city becomes a character. Films like Taxi Driver (1976), Hirsohima Mon Amour (1959) and Lost in Translation (2003) are examples of films in which the city becomes an integral part to the films look and feel and Angel-A is one of these films. Besson chose some beautiful, iconic locations to set his film in and it just makes the movie that much more splendorous. I mean, Paris at night, there’s no way you’re not going to love that.

Then we have the final element that truly got me and it was this films heart. Besson’s films tend to be all about people truly feeling for each other, making connections in the middle of dire straits. Besson’s films are all about humans helping each other, especially when they are hitting rock bottom.  Besson’s Leon: The Professional (1994) was all about Mathilda, an orphaned 12 year old girl finding an unlikely savior in the form of Leon, a hitman. Leon accepts her into his life, even though Mathilda obviously disrupts it. On Angel-A, it is Andre who begs God for a savior and gets it in the form of Angela, the sexy as hell, six foot, chain smoking Angel. The dynamics between Andre and Angela are fantastic. The contrast between a little guy and a six foot, sexy Angel makes for an interesting visual. Jamel Debouzze (Andre) and Rie Rasmussen (Angela) have great chemistry together, I bought their unlikely romance, they manage to stir some real emotions into their performances. There’s this amazing scene that really got to me in which Angela is showing Andre all about learning to love oneself, it literally brought tears to my eyes. It’s not every day a movie can do that to me. And it’s a testament to Debouzze and Rasmussen as actors and a testament to Besson’s talents as a filmmaker who knows how to nail emotions and a beautiful looking movie home.

Rating: 4 out of 5     


Friday, June 9, 2017

Dreams (1990)

Dreams (1990)

Director: Akira Kurosawa, Ishiro Honda

Cast: Akira Terao, Martin Scorcese

When you are on your way to becoming a true Film Connoisseur, you simply have to see the works of certain directors who don’t just make movies for profit, they make films for the purest reasons, the love of the cinematic art form and to explore among other things, human nature. Legendary directors make their films because films can be honest and pure, they can be direct and undeniable. You know how the saying goes “A picture speaks louder than a thousand words”.  And so, here I am once again visiting Akira Kurosawa, one of the greatest directors who ever lived. I’m still catching up with his body of work to this day, but every time I do watch one of his films I am blown away by two things. Number one the beauty of the images, be they black and white or in color, and secondly I am blown away by how intimate his stories are. Kurosawa’s films might be about Samurai’s and temples and epic wars, but he takes his camera and whittles the story down to what really matters: human actions, human emotions, human nature.  

Going into Dreams it’s important to know that it’s an anthology film consisting of eight different stories which are all based on Akira Kurosawa’s own dreams. So this is a very personal film, with Kurosawa touching upon some very personal subject matter. Throughout the film, we have a character simple called ‘I’, who connects the short films. This character is a representation of Kurosawa himself, as he observes humanity. Basically, the film is Kurosawa’s observations on life and how he sees the world. It spans many areas of life, art, war, death, the afterlife, it’s all encompassing. Above all, what Kurosawa’s Dreams does is place a mirror against humanity, begging us to both analyze ourselves individually and as a collective as well.

For example, one of the shorts is about a nuclear power plant that blows up. The imagery of this short film is amazing because we see Mount Fuji being engulfed in wave after wave of fire and explosions. Now this story is epic in scale, but Kurosawa doesn’t focus on buildings falling and cars exploding the way that Roland Emmerich would, no, instead he focuses on a group of three people, at the shore, realizing the radioactive fallout is going to kill them and they have nowhere to go. Does life have meaning in their last few moments? Should you give up and commit suicide? Or do you enjoy your last moments of life? This is what I’m talking about! Real human emotions, important situations. The backdrop is epic, but the focus is intimate and personal, which is a characteristic of Kurosawa’s films. 

This was a film that Kurosawa was having a hard time getting made because it made revolutionary statements against nuclear energy. Producers didn’t want to produce a film that would criticize the government. So Kurosawa branched out to Steven Spielberg, who convinced Warner Brothers to distribute the film. Kurosawa had things to say about humanity and nothing was going to stop him from making his truthful film. How truthful is this film? Well, for example, on the story ‘Mount Fuji in Red’ Kurosawa basically calls the government ‘liars’ for calling Nuclear Power Plants “safe”. On the short film entitled ‘The Tunnel’, a retired military general encounters all of the soldiers who died under his command, placing the blame on him and his superiors for sending them to their deaths. And these are just two of the eight stories. The thing is that these shorts speak of undeniable truths, however harsh they might sound to whomever. But you know how things go in this world we live in, you say the truth, you get in trouble, which is the reason why I appreciate films that are brave and truthful like this one.

Aside from including beautiful, thought provoking insights on life, the film is also a beauty to look at. My favorite of the shorts has a painter visiting an art museum showcasing Van Gogh’s paintings. The artist looks at the paintings so much that he ends up going inside the paintings, walking through them, and actually meeting Van Gogh himself, who by the way is played by none other than Martin Scorcese himself! This is my favorite short film in Dreams because it talks about the creative/artistic process. Also because Kurosawa managed to successfully recreate some of Van Gogh’s paintings, its amazing. Bottom line is with Dreams you get a beautiful looking film that has a lot to say. It’s the kind of film that a director makes at the end of his career, you know, the kind that resumes everything the director has learned about life, the most important things, the themes that truly, really matter; the actions that have to be criticized; the experiences and emotions that need to be remembered and passed on from generation to generation.  Kind of like what Chaplin did with Limelight (1952) or Ridley Scott did with Prometheus (2012), films that are made by directors at the end of their career, which inevitably turn out more profound than their earlier films, because these directors have lived full lives and have so much more to say. So that’s what Dreams is all about. Kurosawa would go on to make two more films after Dreams: Rhapsody in August (1991) and Maadadayo (1993). With Dreams you get Kurosawa at the end of his career, at his most insightful, giving us his last opinion on how things are in the world. A beautiful, thought provoking film.

Rating: 5 out of 5


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