Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets


If it looks like a duck…

(2017) Science Fiction (Europa/STX) Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Sam Spruell, Alain Chabat, Rutger Hauer, Peter Hudson, Xavier Giannoli, Louis Leterrier, Eric Rochant, Benoit Jacquot, Olivier Megaton, Gerald Krawczyk, Pierre Cachia, David Saada, Hippolyte Burkhart-Uhlen, Elizabeth Debicki (voice), Sasha Luss. Directed by Luc Besson

 

Luc Besson is often called a visionary filmmaker, mainly for his watershed 90s sci-fi epic The Fifth Element. Besson was heavily influenced by the French comic book Valerian and Laureline which also seems to have been influenced by the iconic French magazine Heavy Metal. He hasn’t attempted a sci-fi tale on the same grand scale up until now however.

Two agents – Valerian (DeHaan) and Laureline (Delevingne) – are hard at work in the gigantic multi-species space station/city known as Alpha (which began life as the International Space Station – try to keep up). This intergalactic symbol of peaceful co-existence is being destroyed from the inside out and seems to be linked to the destruction of a paradise-like planet centuries earlier. Valerian and Laureline who have a nascent romance going (mostly in Valerian’s head) must navigate a variety of exotic alien races and cultures along with a conspiracy of far-reaching dimensions in order to save Alpha and quite possibly the universe.

Sounds like a simple enough movie but trust me this is only a bare scratching of the surface. The plot is somewhat convoluted and is confusing as all get out until late in the game. Because this is a two hour-plus movie lots of frustrated viewers will have ceased caring much by the time things become clear.

At least there will be some breathtaking visuals to keep them entertained through the confusion. Besson has always been a particularly visual director and he is in his (fifth) element here. The mainly computer-generated images are massive in scope and detail. Those who have seen the trailers for this thing and ended up plunking their hard-earned dollars at the box office were no doubt taken as I was by the gorgeous visuals.

But in all honesty there really is little beyond that to recommend the film. There is almost zero chemistry between Delevingne and DeHaan and both seem to be terribly unsuited for their roles. The comic book this is based on has Valerian as a raven-haired badass while Laureline is a buxom beauty with flowing, flaming red hair. Certainly I’m not against a filmmaker eschewing slavish devotion to source material visuals but the whole scope of the characters change from four color printed page to celluloid and that seems to be kind of a waste of good material.

This was one of the biggest disappointments of the past summer for me, and that’s saying something considering how many underwhelming blockbusters there were this year. I had high hopes that Besson would be able to shepherd this largely unknown in the U.S. source material into a big time franchise but alas it was not to be. Clunky dialogue and weak performances doomed this with critics and the lack of big names doomed it with American audiences. The movie so badly under-performed that it caused a major executive shake-up at the studio that made it. Considering that Valerian and Laureline have influenced a lot of the big budget sci-fi films of the past fifty years (including the original Star Wars) it’s a shame that it didn’t get a better movie to represent it.

REASONS TO GO: The special effects are amazing. There is a great deal of imagination displayed throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: There is little chemistry between DeHaan and Delevingne. The movie is a bit too convoluted and a little too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity as well as plenty of sci-fi violence and even a bit of slightly suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With a budget of $210 million U.S. this is the most expensive film ever made in France – to date.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fifth Element
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Love and Saucers

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Taken 3


Liam Neeson manages to keep a straight face while reassuring Forest Whitaker his beard looks okay.

Liam Neeson manages to keep a straight face while reassuring Forest Whitaker his beard looks okay.

(2015) Action (20th Century Fox) Liam Neeson, Forest Whitaker, Famke Janssen, Maggie Grace, Dougray Scott, Sam Spruell, Don Harvey, Dylan Bruno, Leland Orser, David Warshofsky, Jon Gries, Jonny Weston, Andrew Borba, Judi Beecher, Andrew Howard, Cedric Cirotteau, Catherine Dyer, Jimmy Palumbo, Nazareth Dairian, Stefanie Kleine. Directed by Olivier Megaton

Sequels essentially come in two varieties; cash grabs made to capitalize on the popularity of the original film, or story extensions which continue the story from the first. Often the second kind can be an effective money maker for the studios, while the first kind can occasionally be surprisingly resonant with audiences. Generally speaking, however, all sequels are made – without exception – because the studios or the producers believe that there is a market demand for them.

The first two Taken films were very successful. In them Bryan Mills (Neeson), a former special ops military sort, sees his daughter Kim (Grace) kidnapped in the first film by sex traffickers and goes to Paris to kill everyone who looks at him cross-eyed and rescue his daughter; the second film has the ex-wife (Janssen) kidnapped in a revenge scenario by the dad of the kidnappers in the first film which leads to much of Istanbul being depopulated.

In this one nobody gets kidnapped. Ex-wifey is murdered and Bryan framed for it. No exotic locations, no family vacations, just Bryan tearing through Los Angeles looking to find out who done it and who is going to get his ass kicked all over Southern California. With a persistent detective (Whitaker) chasing him, ex-wifey’s husband (Scott, taking over for Xander Berkeley) trying to assist him, Russian mobsters led by the sadistic Oleg Malenkov (Spruill) slithering about, his buddies Garcia (Harvey), Smith (Bruno) and Sam (Orser) lending their own particular sets of skills when needed and Kim generally getting in the way, it’s going to be a very bad day in SoCal until Bryan gets to the person responsible for all his woes.

Now, before you wonder about the size of the rating I gave this, keep in mind that you don’t go and see an action movie for deep personal insights, innovative storytelling techniques or snappy dialogue; while sometimes any or all of those occur in an action film, it’s icing on the cake when they do. Mainly what we go to see action films for is to turn off our brains, sit back with our ice cold soda and buttered popcorn and bliss out to car crashes, flying bullets and villainous asses being properly kicked. We want to cheer for the hero, boo the villain and leave the theater feeling that all is right with the world.

It’s a fairly low bar to set from a certain perspective but there is absolutely nothing wrong with forgetting your troubles for a couple of hours in the multiplex and this is the kind of tonic you’re looking for if that’s what you’re after. Neeson is the most personable action star working at the moment with perhaps the sole exception of Dwayne Johnson and he certainly gives us everything we’re looking for in an action hero in all three of the Taken movies, this one included. Bryan is kind of a sweetheart most of the time, showing up at his college-aged daughters apartment a few days before her birthday with a gigantic teddy bear in an effort to be unpredictable. His effort fails miserably but throughout the movie he seems like a genuinely affable guy you’d want to shoot pool with.

You’d also want him at your back cracking skulls with the pool cue if necessary and while Neeson is in his 60s and moves like he’s in his 60s during a foot chase early on in the movie, he gets all the other stuff dialed in perfectly. He doesn’t have the physique of an Arnold Schwarzenegger or the fighting techniques of a Jet Li or even the hangdog smartass attitude of a Bruce Willis but he sort of fits in the mold of a nice guy with skills who has been pushed where you should never push him.

The supporting cast, for the most part, is all right. Whitaker, a fine actor in his own right, is full of idiosyncrasies and tics and business that occasionally distracts from the matters at hand but he is a very smart performer who knows that he is supposed to be the Sherlock Holmes here and Whitaker would make a crackin’ Sherlock in my opinion.

What every action film has to nail are the action sequences – the car chases, the fights, the gun battles. Even if everything else doesn’t work a movie of this genre can be redeemed by its action sequences. For the most part, the sequences here are well put together, particularly the assault on the Russian mobster’s fortress-like apartment near the end of the movie. However, it also must be said that there’s nothing in the action sequences that particularly stands out.

While I admire producer/writer Luc Besson for leaving the mold of the first two movies and going in another direction, the one he took was a path too well-traveled by Hollywood. We’ve seen the hero framed for a murder he didn’t commit and then have to battle bad guys and cops alike to clear his name how many thousands of times, and frankly this doesn’t add anything to that tired old genre. However, it doesn’t disgrace itself either.

This is the weakest of the trilogy if only by a little bit but it still has enough going for it to be worth seeing if you’re into action movies and particularly the sort that Neeson tends to do. While so many of the twists here are horribly telegraphed and if you are unable to figure out who’s behind all this you really need a year or two of remedial movie watching, it still bears a bit of attention although chances are you won’t remember much of it twenty minutes after the credits start rolling.

REASONS TO GO: Nice action sequences. Neeson is a charismatic performer.
REASONS TO STAY: Very cliche story. Neeson beginning to show his age in some of the more physical aspects of the role.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of strong language but mostly, lots of shooting, stabbing, punching, kicking and general mayhem.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Neeson uses a number of different firearms in the movie, he is a staunch advocate for gun control in real life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 10% positive reviews. Metacritic: 25/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Three Days to Kill
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Oscar Gold begins!

Taken 2


Taken 2

Maggie Grace doesn’t react well to the critical pasting her latest film has taken.

(2012) Action (20th Century Fox) Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen, Rade Serbedzija, Luke Grimes, Leland Orser, Jon Gries, D.B. Sweeney, Kevork Malikyan, Alain Figlarz, Ergun Kuyucu, Alex Dawe, Luenell, Olivier Rabourdin. Directed by Olvier Megaton

 

There is an old saying – let sleeping dogs lie. This is particularly true when said sleeping dog is a former CIA operative with a particular set of skills that tend towards the mayhem-inducing.

Bryan Mills (Neeson), the said ex-company operative, wants nothing more than to be a dad. He is trying to help his daughter Kim (Grace) get her driver’s license after two failed attempts. After all, when you live in L.A. you gotta have wheels. Especially when you were kidnapped by Albanian sex slavers in Paris and had to be rescued by your Dad who put half of Albania in the ground to do it.

Of course, even these lowlifes have parents, brothers and sisters who mourn their loss (yes, despicable white slavers have parents too). One in particular, Murad Krasniqi (Serbedzija) is about as scummy as the ones Bryan slaughtered and it is him who declares that he will get “justice” which in this context rhymes with “blengeance.”

Bryan, who these days is a security consultant, is protecting a powerful potentate visiting Istanbul. Just before he leaves, his ex-wife Lenore (Janssen) who will henceforth be referred to as “Lenni” since that’s what Bryan calls her, is upset because a planned trip to China with her new husband got canceled because…well, her new husband (and about to be new ex-husband) is a dick. Bryan, a sweet hearted sort, offers to fly Lenni and Kim out to Istanbul where they can vacation once his job has concluded.

At first it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen but Lenni and Kim decide to surprise Bryan by showing up anyway and thus the family vacation starts. At first there is a bit of sight-seeing and a little more matchmaking – Kim really wants her parents to get back together again, despite her overprotective dad busting in on a make-out session between her and her somewhat too-polite-to-be-true boyfriend Jamie (Grimes).

Unfortunately, nothing ruins a family vacation than a bunch of Albanian thugs kidnapping the family for the purpose of making the father watch the mom die slowly and selling off the daughter into sexual slavery like she was supposed to be in the first movie. However, apparently Murad didn’t see the first movie or he’d know that messing with Liam Neeson is tantamount to asking for your ass to be kicked and having everyone within a three mile radius gunned down.

I really liked the first Taken. Not only did it establish Neeson as an action star, it was one of French action film producer Luc Besson’s best films yet (and remains so to this day). It was hyper-kinetic and even though there was a bit of suspension of disbelief overload (which also exists here) it was a fun piece of action entertainment.

Here while Neeson continues to take center stage (as he should) there’s more emphasis on his family than before. Janssen’s Lenni goes from uber-bitch to sympathetic character and the sparks fly between her and Bryan. Also, Grace’s Kim goes from being whiny and helpless to capable and skillful. She drops grenades on people and drives like Remy Julienne during a particularly fine car chase sequence.

The action sequences are strangely not quite up to the level of the first film, although the car chase comes close. I will say I like Serbedzija as the villain over the mostly disposable and faceless Albanians from the first film.

However while pretty good, this isn’t great and the first film was great. Certainly Taken 2 will not disappoint action fans and those who love the genre should be urged to go see it if they haven’t already (and given the box office numbers it appears that they have). There is certainly enough to warrant interest in an already proposed third film in the franchise. Hopefully Taken 3 will find someone else besides Neeson’s family to take however.

REASONS TO GO: Neeson one of the most dependable action stars today and Grace steps it up a notch. Nice Istanbul locations.

REASONS TO STAY: Action sequences not quite as kinetic as first film. Stretches believability in places.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots and lots of violence, as well as a bit of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The budget was triple the one of the first film (from $26M to $80M) and seems to have been worth the uptick in cash as the film is doing big time box office and has already gotten a green light for a Taken 3.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/17/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100. The reviews have been mixed to bad.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Tourist

ISTANBUL LOVERS: Many of the exteriors were filmed in Istanbul, a beautiful and squalid city that rarely gets the screen time it deserves.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Cold Weather

Colombiana


Colombiana

Zoe Saldana does her gratuitously sexy dance.

(2011) Action (Tri-Star) Zoe Saldana, Jordi Molla, Lennie James, Michael Vartan, Cliff Curtis, Amandla Stenberg, Beto Benites, Jesse Borrego, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Angel Garnica, Ofelia Medina, Callum Blue, Sam Douglas. Directed by Olivier Megaton

Revenge can be an all-consuming emotion, one that can change your life and become a focal point. When that happens, you run the risk of losing yourself – and your humanity – in your quest for vengeance.

Catelaya (Stenberg) is a 9-year-old girl whose parents owe money to a Colombian crime lord named Don Luis (Benites). Her dad Fabio (Borrego) also has some sort of microchip that Don Luis wants…very badly. So badly that after Fabio settles up his debt, Don Luis sends his right hand man Marco (Molla) to execute him and his wife (Addai-Robinson).

Fabio gives Catelaya the microchip and an address in America, telling her to go to the American embassy in Bogota and give them the microchip. He then kisses his daughter goodbye and goes to meet his maker.

Catelaya gives Marco the slip (although not before plunging a butcher knife through his hand) because apparently she’s a junior parkour champion and goes leaping and cavorting through the barrio like she’s on ESPN.  Eventually she makes it to the embassy and is shipped to the United States, but escapes from the DEA and makes it to Chicago where her Uncle Emilio (Curtis) lives. There she brashly tells him she wants to be a killer and he reluctantly agrees to teach her.

Fast forward some years later and Catelaya (Saldana) is now a full-fledged assassin, having performed 22 murders of Don Luis’ men who were involved in the murder of her parents. On each of them she left a calling card – the drawing of an orchid (the one she’s named after) in lipstick. It takes the feds in the form of Agent Ross (James) two years to figure out that the killer is a woman and two years to realize she’s sending a message to someone who isn’t them.

Once Ross publishes in the papers what Catelaya is doing, Don Luis gets the message loud and clear and sends Marco and his goons out looking for Catelaya and what’s left of her family. Now it’s a race for Catelaya to flush out Don Luis before Marco finds her and finishes what he started.

This is yet another action film from producer/writer Luc Besson, who has the Transporter and District B-13 series to his credit, as well as movies like La Femme Nikita and Taken to his credit. He is known for a style of action movie that is frenetic and often has female heroines who are damaged goods, as in this one.

Saldana has the lithe athleticism you need to make the action hero moves; she just doesn’t have the personality for it, at least here. She’s supposed to be cold, calculating and emotionless but sexy when she wants to be (she has a running relationship with an artist played by Michael Vartan that seems to be all about sex) – which seem to be at odd times where there are gratuitous shots of her dancing alone or showering which I would never imagine Liam Neeson or Jason Statham doing.

Megaton and Besson are both very good at the action genre and the action element doesn’t disappoint, from the early parkour sequence to the final shoot-out. There is nothing here that really sets the bar any higher in the genre, but it is all competently done and keeps the movie’s pace frenetic.

The plot, like a lot of these sorts of films, have enough holes to drive a Hummer through but that’s ok; most people who are interested in movies like that generally don’t give a hoot about plot. The characters tend to be cliche which is pretty much standard procedure for action films. Nonetheless this is solid entertainment which doesn’t require much intellectual investment from the audience which in these troubled times can be exactly what the doctor ordered.

REASONS TO GO: Some very well-choreographed action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: Saldana doesn’t convince she can carry the film.

FAMILY VALUES: Like most action movies, this has it all – violence, bad language, a little bit of sexuality and a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film has been criticized for portraying Colombian culture as violent and crime-oriented.

HOME OR THEATER: While the opening chase sequence looks impressive on the big screen, the rest of the movie is definitely home theater-friendly.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Harry Brown