Tuesday, July 25, 2017

2701: A Space Oddity

Prolific French filmmaker Luc Besson brings to the big screen the French sci-fi/action comic "Valerian and Laureline" by replacing Laureline with a gigantic space station hosting “thousands” of alien races in ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.'  V&TCO1000P is easily Besson’s most ambitious, sprawling, visually stylish and expensive gamble, I mean project, since ‘The Fifth Element’ starring Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich some 20 years ago.  Being a fan of T5E I marked this movie on my “to see” list ever since I initially saw its colorful and swashbuckling trailer packed to the gills with unique aliens and gee-whiz futurama, but in the deep recess of my mind lurked the nagging fear that it would turn out to be another ‘Jupiter Ascending.’  Therefore, I took care not to dial my expectations up too high.
Aside from the fact that I never read the comic which inspired it, that is perhaps why I enjoyed V&TCO1000P so much.  Major Valerian (Dane DeHann) and his comely and sassy blonde sidekick Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are elite agents of a special Space Police unit operating out of a giant space station named “Alpha” which hosts innumerable alien races (think Babylon 5 but much, much bigger) living in peaceful harmony.  A seemingly routine mission to recover a valuable device (a power converter) on a desert planet thrusts Valerian and Laureline into a web of deceit and intrigue involving a race of lithe, androgynous and translucent-skinned aliens.

Critics have faulted V&TCO1000P mostly for its weak and contrived story but come on, this is a Luc Besson movie we’re talking about.  While the plot isn’t exactly awesome or original for that matter, it is much more conventional and straightforward than, say, Besson’s ‘Lucy.’  With its campy humor, wild-eyed fantasy and high-tech Avatar-esque visuals, V&TCO1000P is a rollicking space opera that’s fun for the whole family.  I’ve learned long ago that Luc Besson movies are visceral experiences; don’t overthink them and just sit back and enjoy the ride.  Oh, and don’t forget the popcorn.

Grade: A 

No Small Miracle

The 1940 “Miracle at Dunkirk” is the subject of Christopher Nolan’s latest big budget feature, a vast sweeping WWII epic and passion project from the acclaimed British director best known for the ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy and a couple of FX-heavy sci-fi mindbenders that start with an “I,” ‘Inception’ and ‘Interstellar.’  In turning an ignominious and unmitigated military disaster resulting from German “shock and awe” (aka Blitzkrieg) lightning warfare that brought France to her knees in a little more than two weeks into a symbol of British defiance, individual heroism and selfless sacrifice, the story of Dunkirk just begs to be re-told (there was a 1958 version apparently which I haven’t seen) to a modern audience who sadly know too little about world history.
The narrative of ‘Dunkirk’ is divided into three distinct but related parts.  “The Mole” follows a lowly British PBI (poor bloody infantryman) named Tommy (aren’t they all?) as he attempts to survive repeated Luftwaffe air attacks and reach “Home Sweet Home.”  “The Sea” is mostly told from the POV of a British naval officer (Kenneth Branagh) overseeing the evacuation effort and a yachtsman (Mark Rylance) who answered the call to join the hastily assembled fleet of private fishing vessels, yachts and ferry boats sailing toward Dunkirk.  Lastly, “The Air” is seen through the eyes of a RAF Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy) who risks running out of fuel before he can return to base in order to provide air cover for the helpless (“where is the bloody air force?!”) Tommies who can only anxiously peer into the sky at the sound of approaching German bombers.
While the non-linear storytelling and down-in-the-dirt POV are effective in conveying the realism, chaos, fear, heroism and, yes, even cowardice one would expect in the unforgiving crucible of war and make for a harrowing viewing experience, the juxtaposition of the three subplots and the rapidly shifting perspectives achieved through cut scenes in editing prevented the movie from reaching greatness.  Even though the three parts did come together at the end (and two of them intersected at another point earlier in the film), it lacked the dramatic impact and emotional resonance of more linear war movies.  Nolan shouldn't have given 'Dunkirk' the ‘Memento’ treatment, but do go see it anyway because films such as this should really be watched on the big screen (unless you have a state-of-the-art home theatre system and don't mind the wait) so you can hear and feel the rumbles and reverberations of every explosion deep down in your very bones.

Grade: A- 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Ape-pocalypse Now

The rebooted ‘Planet of the Apes’ trilogy comes to a fitting if somewhat sad conclusion in director Matt Reeves’s ‘War for the Planet of the Apes,’ the follow-up to ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ (2011) and ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ (2014) which tell the story of how a human-engineered “simian virus” decimated humanity and made monkeys and apes the dominant species on earth.  A modern take on the POTA franchise of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s with prosthetic made-up apes featuring Roddy McDowall (few remember the 2001 Tim Burton remake starring Mark Wahlberg and Helena Bonham Carter), this new trilogy combined cutting-edge computer animation with facial mapping (notably Andy Serkis’s) to give the various apes in the films a hyper-realistic yet all-too-human quality.
So the (ape) shit finally hits the fan  in WFTPOTA and the war is on.  Going by its action-packed preview trailer one could easily come away with the impression that the conflict between homo sapiens and apes comes to a head and all hell breaks loose, but it’s actually quite a bit more complicated and nuanced than that.  Without giving away too much of the plot, suffice it to say that Woody Harrelson’s character (simply referred to as "The Colonel"), inspired by Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in ‘Apocalypse Now’ and Caesar’s key nemesis in the film, didn’t have the luxury of solely focusing on wiping out ape-kind.  There’s a bigger picture at work here.
Even more so than the previous ROTPOTA, Caesar carries the weight of his people’s deliverance on his tired shoulders while Woody Harrelson’s “Alpha-Omega” paramilitary faction seeks to enslave and ultimately destroy them.  This Caesar isn't one to cross the Rubicon and challenge the humans in a war of annihilation where only the strongest survive.  Like Jesus, Caesar is more likely to extend an olive branch to his enemies with turn-the-other-cheek humility and grace, even if they shove it right back in his face.  Is peaceful coexistence between humans and apes even possible?  Not if "The Colonel" still draws his last dying breath.

Grade: A


The Wishing Box

Teenagers love scary movies, even the bad ones.  It’s hard to go to a horror movie nowadays without noticing that a majority of the audience seems to be 20 or under, and a good portion of that even much younger.  Now that I think of it, I was probably one of them back in the day, since I’ve been a horror aficionado/gore-hound for as long as I can remember.  It’s no surprise, then, that the folks behind the ill-fated teen-centered horror flick ‘Wish Upon’ believe they had a built-in audience for their movie.  Well, they were dead (excuse the pun) wrong.
‘Wish Upon’ recycles the well-worn tropes of the “101 ways to die” ‘Final Destination’ franchise, providing it with a new twist by replacing the Grim Reaper with an evil octagonal Chinese demon box.  This weird and somewhat creepy music box, as the movie’s young protagonist Clare (Joey King) discovers, can fulfill all her adolescent dreams, such as literally causing the mean girl tormenting her in high school to rot and making the boy whom she secretly crushes on dump his hotter girlfriend and fall for her.  However, every wish has a price and Clare comes to the belated realization that her shallow and selfish desires are better left unfulfilled as they could very well consign her soul to damnation.
‘Wish Upon’ is a dumbed-down ‘The Box’ without the moral dilemma or surreal artsy trappings, a horror-lite clearly aimed at the 25-and-under demographic.  It’s a rather vacuous and gimmicky movie, but hardly an unexpected one considering such films’ relatively low budget.  I’m sure its disappointment at the BO will not discourage producers from making similar movies in the future, but I will have to try a bit harder steering clear of them though I fear I may not be able to resist ‘Happy Death Day.’  I’m so easy.

Grade: C


Requiescat in Pace

In so many ways they never truly die....



Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Diary of a Teenage Superhero

Our friendly neighborhood web-slinger returns to the big screen once again in ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming,’ the second reboot and third Spidey film franchise in the last 15 years.  The first trilogy from ‘Evil Dead’ writer/producer/director Sam Raimi starring Tobey Maguire was an unqualified success even if the last film fizzled out, but the reboot with Andrew Garfield as the wise-cracking superhero disappointed both critically and commercially and was canceled after just two installments.  This prompted Sony Pictures, which owns the rights to the title as long as they keep rebooting it every 10 years or so, to collaborate with Marvel Studios and properly integrate Spider-Man into the rich and highly successful MCU.  It turned out to be one of the best decisions Sony ever made (are you listening, ‘Fantastic Four’ rights owner 20th Century Fox?).
After his well-received debut in ‘Captain America: Civil War,’ Tom Holland takes over the mantle in the brand spanking new franchise as the youngest Spider-Man to date.  Holland’s Peter Parker is only a geeky 15-year old navigating through the minefields of adolescence and high school like any other teenager, except he’s not your typical high school sophomore.  After his brief stint as a probationary Avenger on “Team Iron Man” in ‘Captain America: Civil War,’ Peter Parker is eager to further develop his crime-fighting skills on the not-so-mean streets of Queens, New York, but his mentor Iron Man just told him to “settle down and get back to school, kid.”  It’s like giving a kid his first taste of ice-cream and then taking it away.  Not to be discouraged, Spider-Man keeps patrolling the neighborhood and is finally rewarded for his perseverance when he stumbles upon the arms-dealing schemes of the Vulture (Michael Keaton) and his henchmen, who came across some cool Chitauri tech while pulling clean-up duty after the Battle of New York in the first Avengers movie until Tony Stark’s Department of Damage Control rudely stepped in and took over jurisdiction.
The verdict is in.  ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ is a refreshing take on my favorite Marvel superhero.  It is entertaining, fun and a highly promising start to a Spider-Man franchise that had gone stale for so long.  Tom Holland (who first opened my eyes in this moving film: The Impossible) is great and bestows Peter Parker version 3.0 with a wide-eyed wonder and youthful exuberance we haven’t seen to this extent before.  He’s also terrible at keeping his identity a secret, as you’ll see throughout the movie (and the last line in the movie is classic).  But let’s cut the kid some slack shall we?  He’s new at this superhero gig.

Grade: A

Gru & the Gang Part III

In the genre of family-friendly CGI animated movies, the ‘Despicable Me’ franchise is easily among the most beloved and successful. The four films released to date (including the ‘Minions’ spin-off) have already garnered over $3 billion worldwide, making it one of the most lucrative animated franchises of all time.  So what gives DM its widespread appeal?  The legion of unintelligible but lovable Twinkie-like minions, surely, but let’s not give the other characters short shrift because DM is a family affair with Gru, Lucy and the three girls who give the franchise its heart.
DM3 sees villain-turned-agent Gru (Steve Carell, voiced by that is) foil the pink diamond-thieving ‘80s supervillain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), only to be fired by the new head of the Anti-Villain League for failing to apprehend him.  Along with Lucy (Kristen Wiig), who resigned A-VL in protest as a show of solidarity, and his three adopted girls, Gru visits his long-lost twin brother in the kingdom of Freedonia and is tempted to return to the life of supervillainy he thought he left behind until Bratt re-enters the picture and successfully steals the pink diamond to power his giant robot for the purpose of destroying Hollywood in revenge for canceling his ‘80’s TV show.  And that, my dear readers, is the story of DM3 in a rather compact nutshell.
I won't lie to you.  The “laws of diminishing returns” is at work in DM3 here.  The story isn’t all that great and the series is suffering a bit of fatigue.  But that’s to be expected and perhaps unavoidable in the final analysis.  What’s important is that DM3 should give fans of the DM franchise what they wanted and keep them happy, and it did that admirably well considering the fact that it made nearly $450 million worldwide after only its second weekend.  As for me personally, what I particularly liked about DM3 are its throwback ‘80s soundtrack and Japanese-inspired Giant Robot mayhem.

Grade: B 


Monday, July 3, 2017

License to Drive

Like many of you, I've been a big fan of British director Edgar Wright ever since his breakthrough zomedy hit ‘Shaun of the Dead’ back in 2004.  His two follow-ups in the so-called “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy,” the buddy-cop shoot-em’-up action-comedy ‘Hot Fuzz’ (2007) and end-of-the-world bodysnatcher apocalyptic comedy ‘The World’s End’ (2013) were also great, even if SOTD is still considered to be the best among them.  Likewise, his movie adaptation of the graphic novel ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World' (2010) was brilliant if underappreciated.  I was therefore disappointed when he was attached to direct the ‘Ant-Man’ movie, then abruptly left due to “creative differences.”  No matter, because as his latest film ‘Baby Driver’ has shown, the 43-year old Wright is better off writing original material than having his quirky genius crimped by a major studio like Marvel anyway.
Set in Atlanta (like last year’s ‘Triple 9’ reviewed here: 999), BD dispensed with Wright’s long-time British partners-in-crime Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in favor of a much more American cast boasting some major league talent in the forms of Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx and a couple of Jon’s (Hamm and Bernthal).  The film also features two young newcomers in baby-faced Ansel Elgort and the hot-to-trot Eiza Gonz├ílez and gave them a chance to shine, the former as a reluctant getaway driver with the mad skills and cool nerves of a NASCAR driver and the latter as the saucy and spicy Latin “Bonnie” to Jon Hamm’s Clyde.
While BD’s plot isn’t exactly new being a variation of the “decent fellow who wants to leave his life of crime behind but finds it easier said than done” theme, Wright managed to give it a fresh spin with its unique protagonist and colorful cast of criminals.  In many ways this movie is also Wright's homage to heist movies, rom-coms and funky soul music from the 60's and 70's.  Not only does BD work as an entertaining cops-and-robbers flick but also a romance with plenty of heart and soul (music), as Wright proves once again that he has a singular talent for blending comedy with humanity and a healthy dose of gratuitous R-rated violence.  I love it.

Grade: A