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: 4 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


Friday, June 2, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017)


Wonder Woman (2017)

Director: Patty Jenkins

Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris  Pine, Danny Huston, David Thewlis

 I know Hollywood would have us believe otherwise, but for me, Summer Blockbuster Season begins with the summer and that’s June 1st and so, to officially kick off this Summer Blockbuster Season 2017 we begin with the first big movie of the summer, Wonder Woman (2017). Here’s the thing with female laden Hollywood films, studios have little faith in them. More often than not, they tank at the box office. Examples of this are films like Supergirl (1984), Catwoman (2004), Elektra (2005), Barbwire (1996), Aeon Flux (2005) and most recently Ghostbusters (2016) to name a few of the ones that have underperformed. If you ask me, these movies tanked, not because they starred women, but because they were not very good, in fact, a lot of them are terrible. Which brought me to believe that Hollywood purposely made movies starring women terrible, because Hollywood is run by a bunch of chauvinistic pigs? And they don’t want female films to make it on the big screen. But that’s my conspiracy theory version of things.  


I applaud film studios who are trying to break with those old fashioned stereo types towards women. For example, I applaud Disney films because they are trying to break with these stereo types by putting female leads in the Star Wars movies. I applaud filmmakers like George Miller, for making Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) about Furiosa’s story rather than Max Rockatansky’s story. Point is, if you guys have been reading my blog for a while, you know I am against being gender biased, I believe men and women should be given equal opportunities in Hollywood. So yes, I am against female actresses being paid less than male actors, I am against the female prototype of the “damsel in distress” and I also believe that there should be more female voices in filmmaking, which is why I love the fact that Wonder Woman (2017) was directed by Patty Jenkins, the female director behind the Academy Award winning Monster (2003). So we have a woman, directing a film about Wonder Woman, the biggest baddest of all of the female super heroes. Is the movie any good?


There’s something really weird happening with this film, people seem to love it collectively even before seeing it. It’s like everybody has already decided that they will love it. I think it has to do with the fact that Wonder Woman was probably the best thing about Batman vs. Superman (2016), or it could be that feminism is at an all time high, or it could be that people want Hollywoods portrayal of women on films to change, whatever the case may be, I went to see the film last night and all the shows were sold out. Reviews are calling it “the best superhero movie ever made” and the best DC movie to date and all that. But was it really that good? After all the ultra positive reviews and buzz, of course my expectations were high. Did I enjoy it as much as I thought I would? 


Well, it’s not “the best comic book movie ever” but I did enjoy it. I do think it’s better than some of the films that DC has put out. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t mindblowingly good. It was just good. And that aint bad!  I am glad that it wasn’t directed by Zack Snyder, the guy who’s directed practically ever DC movie for years now. It’s not that I hate the guy as a director, but I just wanted to see someone else’s take on the DC Universe. On Wonder Woman, you fee exactly that. This is a female’s take on the super hero film, which is refreshing. Wonder Woman has a lot of heart to it, there’s romance, there’s compassion, Wonder Woman is driven by love. The film is as ‘girly’ as it should be. After all, this is the superhero film told from a female perspective, so of course, while Wonder Woman is a strong female character who kicks ass when she has too, she’s also very human, she’s concerned about the importance of human life, she loves babies, she has a sensibility to her that’s sorely missing on male laden comic book films in which super heroes destroy whole cities without so much as flinching. It was refreshing in this sense.


What is most important about Wonder Woman in my book is that it’s making a statement for women across the world, and for women in cinema in general, so of course the film makes references to gender issues. It goes into how men think vs. how women think. The ladies in the audience will be pleased, the film switches the age old “lady in distress” cinematic trope, to the lesser seen “man in distress” situation. As it turns out, it’s the woman saving the guys on this movie. The man is the supporting character, it basically takes gender roles we’ve seen in films for decades and turns them upside down and this is good. It’s not about man hating either. Wonder Woman falls for Chris Pine’s character, she finds him attractive, so it’s not about “Men suck! Long live women!”, it’s more about speaking up for women, changing mentalities, breaking with old paradigms towards women in society.


So these aspects make Wonder Woman an important comic book movie. Is it a good comic book film? Sure, it’s an origin story. It has action, it has good special effects. In essence it’s a fish out of water story, with Wonder Woman encountering society for the first time. Having been brought up in the mystical island of Themyscira, the real world is a new experience for her. She gets to enter the “world of men”, a world she immediately clashes with, having been brought up in an all female society. It’s a faithful translation from comic book to film, we get Amazonian warrior women, we get her magic lasso, bullets ricochet from her bracelets, this is Wonder Woman and she kicks as much ass as you’d expect her to. Gal Gadot owns the character and makes it hers.It’s a good beginning for the character. Here’s hoping subsequent films get bigger and better, but for now I’d say Wonder Woman is off to a good start.

Rating: 4 out of 5  


Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Illusionist (2010)



The Illusionist (2010)

Director: Sylvain Chomet

Sylvain Chomet is a very special animator that all lovers of traditional hand drawn animation should be exposed to. His style is so unique, it’s a true delight to watch. The first time I was exposed to his work was while organizing a short film festival. I was looking for some of the best short films ever made and upon my research I stumbled upon a 25 minute animated short film entitled The Old Lady and the Pigeons (1997). This short film won many awards when it was released and it’s not without merit, the short film is a wonder of animation, beautiful, grotesque and nightmarish at the same time! And this is a short film about an old lady who goes to the park every day to feed pigeons! Search it out on you tube, you won’t be disappointed! So anyways, the short film was a hit on my short film festival, people clapped and cheered at it. So of course, I searched for Chomet’s other films. I had to see this wonderful animator’s whole body of work.


This is how I came upon The Triplets of Bellville (2003). I wasn’t expecting to get my mind blown by a film about a grandmother who trains her grandson to become a world class cyclist, but there I was entranced by the awesome mix of visuals and sound. The thing about Chomet’s films is that the unique visual style of his drawings will keep your eyes glued, but so will the sounds and the absence of dialog. To Chomet, actions speak louder than words. We get sounds, we get music, but when someone speaks, it won’t be often, and usually it will sound like a language you might know, but it will more than likely be a muffled sound sounding like language, meant to transmit an idea, an emotion. Kind of like when Charlie Chaplin speaks gibberish in Modern Times (1936)? Or how he speaks "German" in The Great Dictator (1940)? You swear Chaplin's speaking in a known language, but he’s actually speaking gibberish? Like that. This is how language works in a Chomet film, which makes for an amazingly unique audio visual experience. I was very impressed by The Triplets of Bellville, which is why I was delighted to discover he had one more film in his animated repertoire: The Illusionist (2010), the film I’ll be talking about today.


The Illusionist tells the tale of an aging Illusionist who is on the verge of becoming passé, his act has become old hat, replaced by young rock and roll groups. So he decides to travel the country, searching for new venues that will appreciate his particular talent. So he travels to Edinburgh where he finds a variety of venues that give him a job, but basically, he’s a lonely guy living from gig to gig. On one of his venues, he meets this young woman whom he immediately befriends. She is extremely poor, so he decides to buy her a pair of shoes. She immediately becomes attached to the Illusionist and decides to become his traveling companion. He on the other hands becomes her protector and provider, so they become friends. But questions immediately arise, she’s a young woman, and he’s an older fellow. What are his intentions with her? Is he merely interesting in helping the girl? Is he in love with her? Is she in love with him? Is it a platonic thing? Is he just a Good Samaritan?


The Triplets of Bellville (2003) was such an exhilarating experience, a nonstop barrage of amazement, such a tour de force of animation that of course my expectations for The Illusionist were extremely high. And while The Illusionist does deliver in many ways, mostly with its visuals and over all ambiance and feeling…sadly it fails to deliver a film with substance to it. It feels like it could have worked better as a short film rather than a 90 minute film. The story is just too thin, not enough happens, to justify a full length picture. But putting aside my desires for a slightly more complex story, there’s still a lot to be enjoyed here. I mean, Chomet manages to capture Edinburgh, he makes it magical. He does something with its localization that not a lot of movies can do: it makes you want to live there. This has happened to me with some Hayao Miyazaki films, like Ponyo (2008), were I felt like I living in that little town by the sea. Well, the same thing happened to me with The Illusionist (2010). It made me want to live in this easy going, magical looking city. But yeah, that’s about all this film has to offer, the beautiful art work and animation, which I still enjoyed to the max. I mean, any love of traditional hand drawn animation will have a feast here. 


Ultimately, this is a film to be enjoyed from a purely visual perspective, it’s meant to be enjoyed simply as a visual treat, because there’s not a lot of mental stimulation, not a lot of meat with the potatoes. Sure the film does address certain themes, like when do we become obsolete? Should we adapt to the changing times? What is platonic love? But it’s all touched upon lightly, this film is more about absorbing visuals, feelings, emotions and the beautiful artistry with which the visuals were brought to life. But if I was to recommend a Sylvain Chomet film, one that would really blow you away, it would be The Triplets of Bellville (2003), it’s the superior of the two. Chomet went on to direct live action films as well, but I’ve yet to dive into those. Last words on The Illusionist (2010), it’s purely style over substance, but oh what style!


Rating: 4 out of 5   


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