Valerian – Movie of 1000 disappointments

Valerian-1

I am told that Luc Besson is a great filmmaker, with credits like The Fifth Element, Leon, La Femme Nikita. Unfortunately, the only Besson movie I had seen to date was Lucy (my review), and so I was a bit reluctant heading out to see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

Based on a graphic novel, the movie tells the story of two young military operatives—Valerian and Laureline—sent on a mission to recover an eternal replicator (too hard to explain), but who get embroiled in an ever-shifting landscape of political and military intrigue that may involve an extinct alien race.

Woven throughout this action-adventure-mystery-thriller is a hormone-riddled romance between the leads that is so execrable that Harlequin and most YA publishers would turn it away.

I walked into this movie expecting almost nothing in terms of story; Lucy lessons learned. And that is precisely what I got.

The story is pretty easy to follow, but gives you little reason to follow it.

The action sequences aren’t particularly thrilling, and the dialogue is cliché if not outright ham-fisted. That said, I am sure the scripts were printed on very nice paper…maybe with watermarks and all that.

But whereas I had few expectations of the story, I held out some hope of being dazzled by visuals of alien worlds.

To its credit, the movie started that way, presenting us with the alien paradise of Mül, a pastel portrait straight out of a 70s acid trip.

Mul

Once we leave the wonder-world though—primarily to the space station/ark known as Alpha—the sets quickly degenerate to things we’ve seen a million times in other films.

Each of the visuals is as two-dimensional as the screen onto which they are projected, offering zero depth to the two-dimensional characters that flit across the screen like dying fish. The irony of seeing this movie in 3D is not lost on me.

So, no story and no stunning visuals, but the actors, am I right? Wrong.

I cannot put the blame completely on the actors, but they certainly earned some of it, as pretty much no one was able to imbue the wooden script with any emotion or pathos.

Dane DeHaan’s Valerian and Cara Delevingne‘s Laureline had zero chemistry, and so every attempt at love-making or wit fell flat. And if anything, Valerian comes across as a petulant child with multiple personality disorder.

Valerian plant

One of these is a sedative. The other is a plant.

No sooner does he completely thwart the military hierarchy with his own brand of pseudo-macho anarchy and independence than he delivers a grandiloquent lecture to Laureline about being a soldier who follows a code.

One of my friends suggested that Valerian should have been a film series to allow for better world building and character development. I can’t say that he’s wrong.

That said, if you asked me to watch even ten minutes more of this movie, I’d laugh in your face.

 

Happy as a verb

Happy yoda

We experience joy (n). We are joyous and joyful (adj). We act joyfully and joyously (adv). We enjoy and rejoice (v).

Our lives are marked by sadness (n). We sadly (adv) sadden (v) into sad (adj) feelings.

But to happily (adv) greet our happy (adj) world in the hopes of finding happiness (n), what do we do?

What is the action that instills happiness?

Self-help bookshelves and an internet of blogs and podcasts roll back and forth across the happy landscape, and yet for so many of us, happy is an elusive creature.

It is all well and good to say that the first step to happiness is choosing to be happy, but I have yet to see any evidence that this is the only step in the process. What comes next?

Happy

Even within our political and social doctrine, our language is vague.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

No one can rob you of your life! No one can rob you of your liberty! Good luck with the last one.

Happy is such an elusive concept that our language completely fails us by refusing to give us a verb explaining how to reach this state of Nirvana.

We grieve. We love. We anger. We frustrate.

We elate. We bore. We amuse. We abash.

We envy. We lust. We frighten.

In conferring with colleagues, it seems French and Spanish suffer the same fate.

Are humans so determined to be miserable that we are willing to idealize happiness but never expect it will happen? Talk about your negative feedback loop.

If you have yet to find happiness in your life, perhaps you can take solace in the idea that no one in human history truly expected you would.

For an end-state of such wondrous simplicity, the achievement of happiness seems monumentally difficult, which makes me wonder…

“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

—Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

What if the absence of a verb for happy is not a failing of language, but rather is a clue to a failing within ourselves? Perhaps Yoda was right.

What if happiness is not a state to be achieved, but rather is a ground state waiting to be rediscovered like some great monument buried by centuries of sand?

Perhaps happy is who we are, and for whatever reasons, we as individuals and as communities have simply buried our happiness under the detritus of our lives and society’s expectations.

Perhaps the first step to achieving happiness is not deciding to be happy. Rather, it is deciding not to be everything else.

mosaic floor

Excavations at Chedworth Roman Villa, Gloucestershire, UK. Property of National Trust, used without permission. (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/chedworth-roman-villa)

At the outset, this may seem like an insane challenge, but at the very least, everything else (the non-happiness stuff) is something we understand. It is something tangible in our lives. It is something we can tackle one step at a time to reveal the beautiful mosaic of happiness beneath.

I don’t know about you, but I find greater hope in

“Life, Liberty and the recovery of Happiness.”

Jack Reacher? Yes, he did

jr-poster

Never has a movie been more aptly subtitled than the newest Tom Cruise action thriller Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. I really wish he hadn’t.

In the tradition of Jason Bourne and Taken, this is yet another dip into the former military man living life off the grid, but ceaselessly being drawn back in to save the world or a daughter; and in the case of this film, both.

There are two basic plots in this movie. First, Tom Cruise rescues and then helps Cobie Smulders (How I Met Your Low Expectations) find out who killed soldiers under her command, ultimately uncovering what looks like an arms-dealing conspiracy with its fingers in the U.S. military.

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Back to TV for Smulders after this stinker

Complicating matters, however, is the idea that Cruise may have a daughter, played by Danika Yarosh in what appears to be her first major role. And in keeping with the schtick of man who is invulnerable because he has no ties, Cruise reaches out to his erstwhile daughter only to have the bad guys see this and take advantage.

Now, whenever watching a movie billed as Action-Thriller, you forgive a lot. If everyone did the right thing, this would be neither active, nor thrilling. But in this movie, the two supposedly smartest people in the room—Cruise’s Jack Reacher and Yarosh’s street-wise Samantha—behave incredibly stupidly, routinely telling the world “Hey, we’re over here!”

danika-yarosh-samantha-dayton-jack-reacher-2

Maybe Yarosh can act…not given a chance in this movie.

But again, this is all about the action, right?

Well, it would be if the action were more than a mere nod to those better films involving Jack Ryan, Jason Bourne, James Bond, and Rob Roy (okay, maybe the better Liam Neeson parallel is Taken). Instead, the action is sparse, predictable and formulaic. Cruise may be known for doing his own stunts, but he was at little risk of being injured on this set.

Okay, but it has thrills, right? Twists and turns that constantly kept you guessing?

The only thing that kept me guessing in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back was what time it was and how close we were to the end of the movie. From almost the opening moments, you knew exactly who the bad guys were and how they were connected to each other.

This was a film that was totally devoid of reveals and reversals. It played out exactly as you thought it would, and in some cases, the dialogue was so telegraphed that the climactic (if only in where it occurs in the movie) scene bored you because you knew exactly how it was going to play out.

How bad could it possibly have been?

With about 10 minutes left to play, the theatre in which I watched the movie brought the houselights up. It was as though they wanted to protect everyone who worked on this movie from being outed by keeping us from seeing the credits clearly.

As my friend Danny and I discussed the movie (video to come), we agreed that this was a wink or two away from becoming a very fun satire of action-thriller movies. Sadly, those ocular gestures never arrived and the movie remained a sad reflection on the genre.

It’s movies like this that will send Cobie Smulders back to television and sadly, may stunt the career of Danika Yarosh. That it won’t crush Tom Cruise’s career is a sign that he probably is Lestat.

lestat

See also:

Movie Review – Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (Danny F. Santos)

Sentimentality and Spinal Injuries (Richard Crouse)

Jack Reacher is a family guy thug in Never Go Back (Toronto Star)

Jason Bourne should have stayed home (review)

bourne poster

Super-assassin Jason Bourne is trying to figure out who he really is. In doing so, he falls into a web of deceit and potentially world-crippling black ops, including the one that gave birth to him. People try to neutralize him…silly people.

Cars race through crowded streets. Shots are fired from every direction. People die just as they start to provide answers. More shots are fired. Bourne gets answers but no real resolution or peace.

If you expected any more from a Jason Bourne movie, then you will be seriously disappointed with the latest installment of the series based the lead character of the novels by Robert Ludlum. In fact, if you want more from a Jason Bourne story, read the novels by Robert Ludlum because they are insanely better than any of the movies.

[Some SPOILERS hereafter]

In the latest installment of the series, Matt Damon’s titular character is brought out of hiding by his former nemesis-turned-ally Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), who has hacked into the CIA server and stolen the complete dossiers of the agency’s Black Ops. She wants to turn the information over to a Julian Assange kind of character, but asks for Bourne’s help, enticing him with information about his father’s involvement in his creation as super-killer (think X-Files Fox Mulder).

After a momentary “I’m getting too old for this shit” and some personal sacrifice on the end of a bullet, Bourne is alone again and we are off to the races.

Bourne cast

The CIA Director (Tommy Lee Jones) wants him dead, relying on another super-assassin The Asset (Vincent Cassel) to get the job done, while IT-savvy CIA analyst Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) sees an opportunity to advance her career and maybe replace her boss by bringing Bourne in. Oh, and in the background, there is something about the CIA having access to the personal information of everyone on the planet via the Internet and a Sergey Brin-like character.

Unless this is your first Jason Bourne movie, you know how this all plays out…and if it is your first Jason Bourne film, why should I spoil it for you?

If you are looking for 123 minutes in which to simply check your brain at the door, then this is an entertaining way to do that. Stuff blows up, people fight, lots of car chases. But nothing really happens that hasn’t happened in the previous movies. Much like a roller coaster, the ride can be exhilarating at moments, but once the ride stops, so does the exhilaration.

And that was my problem with the movie…the thrill is quite literally gone for me. Jason Bourne has become his own cliché, and the writers and directors of this series are simply repeating moments from the other incarnations.

Where they had an opportunity to do something truly interesting with this story—the moments we spend exploring Bourne’s relationship with and confusion about his father—the writer-director Paul Greengrass and writer Christopher Rouse give us the barest taste and scurry back to blowing shit up. Rather than offer any sense of discovery and revelation, they simply have a former agency hack fill in the background under threat of death.

Is toady ex machina a thing?

In the earlier incarnations of this series, I never knew what to expect. In this incarnation, I knew exactly what to expect and it was delivered each and every time with a pretty pink ribbon. Or was that faded red tape?

I’m going back to the books. At least Robert Ludlum knew how to write.

As for shit blowing up, back-stabbing political conspiracy, and disquieting Internet voyeurism, 123 minutes of Jason Bourne just can’t compete with 20 minutes of CNN.

Bourne books

Standoff (a short story)

The Inquisitor

Too much a creature of urban comforts to ever be called a Nature lover, Henry nonetheless considered himself a Nature liker. And yet, as his eyeballs threatened to dry into powdery husks, he also recognized that Nature had a dark side. And today, that dark side came with bright red epaulets.

In an exchange that may only have been minutes, but felt like hours, Henry held the gaze of his ebon Inquisitor, afraid to look away lest the wraith take wing again, strafing him in violent indignation.

Moments earlier, Henry was taking a lovely stroll along the waterfront, leaving the breezes of the beach for the verdant comfort of the giant reeds and a secluded pond.

His soft-soled shoes barely whispered as he wound his way along the wooden deck that cut a swath across the still, algae-laden waters. Instead, his silent steps were accompanied by the cheerful chirrup of so many sparrows and the steady whine of cicadas complaining about the damp heat.

Merging waters

But as he reached the half-way point, he sensed a change even if he couldn’t yet identify it. The breeze died, the sparrows silenced and the cicadas stilled until all that remained was the low throb of his heart.

And as subtly as the stillness formed, it was macheted by an agonized screech that seemed to quite literally part Henry’s hair.

No sooner had Henry arced through his ducking motion than the demon struck again, piercing eardrum and scalp with equal vigour.

Terror’s impulse to flee was tempered by uncertainty’s steely grip as Henry found himself rooted in place. That something wanted to kill him, he was certain; but the complete absence of movement around him suggested it was all in his mind. His tingling scalp, however, said that whatever was happening was on his head, not in it.

Despite the glaring sunlight that baked the path, trickling tangy sweat into Henry’s fresh wounds, his pupils stretched to their anime widest, searching the chaotic tangle for the slightest signs of movement. He had no reason to believe his tormentor had given up, but all he saw was blue sky, brown tree limbs, green reeds and black water.

Yes, these had all taken on an ominous mantel, but nothing looked capable of launching an attack.

Even as Henry contemplated giving up his search, though, the air was pierced once more with an irritated cry. It was everything he had in him not to turtle.

And that’s when he saw it, the beast with the black eyes of death concealed behind a shroud of serrated alder leaves.

Hunkered down

The expressionless face bobbed lower and turned slightly to its left, determined to take in its quarry. Its oil-drop eye blended almost seamlessly with the void its plumage left in the sky, a puncture of midnight in the midday light. The only break in the evil blackness was a splash of blood red atop its shoulder.

“A bird?” Henry questioned silently, a blush threatening to overwhelm his budding sunburn.

Sloughing his tension like a skin, Henry rolled his shoulders to massage them. That was all the demon needed.

With blinding speed, the creature was upon him again. The flapping wings were matched by flailing arms as Henry swung at his attacker to no avail, his body instinctively twisting as the assailant passed.

It didn’t take Henry nearly as long to find the bird now, the monster standing proudly on an exposed limb, cackling his disdain upon his hapless victim.

“What is your problem?” Henry cried to the skies, briefly silencing the bird, which cocked its head a little further as though contemplating the question.

Henry unconsciously mirrored the action when it squawked back.

Annoyed, Henry turned to walk away but his motion was stopped by a shrill pierce. Spreading its wings, the bird quadrupled in size, a Rorschach nightmare.

As Henry relaxed his muscles, the bird drew in its wings. The stare down began.

Redwing on a reed

Unblinking, Henry met the bird’s gaze with his own, his every emotion reflected in that dead pool of emptiness, that glistening eye. A psychic vacuum, the bird seemed to reach into Henry’s body, threatening to engulf his soul.

Mired in a personal La Brea, Henry could feel his will slowly sink into the sulfurous malevolence. Only ego and will kept him from bowing to the inevitable.

“Look, momma,” a child’s voice squeaked through the tension. “Issa red-wing bla’ bird.”

Out of the corner of his eye, which otherwise remained glued to the bird, Henry could see a small boy trundle down the path, pointing wildly with one hand while waving a camera with the other.

More importantly, Henry saw that the bird caught the arrival as well.

Glimpse

Synchronized swimmers of the air, man and bird vaulted for the boy, whose mother remained several yards away, blissfully unaware of the horrors awaiting her budding family.

Every wing beat was matched with a stride, every fluttered feather with airfoiled arm hair. And Henry knew his job was twice as difficult as the bird’s.

Not only did he have to stop the bird from harming the child, but he had to do it without knocking the kid into next Tuesday himself. But one thing at a time.

It is said that when the conditions are just right, you can stop the flight of one bullet with a perfectly timed second bullet.

Henry didn’t know if that was true. Nor did he really have the time to contemplate what conditions such a thing might require.

Pond

All Henry could tell you for certain was that once airborne, a red-winged blackbird is a thousand times more agile than a middle-aged man. That, and it takes about eight days to get the stench of stagnant pond water out of your nostrils.

He has no idea what happened to the kid.

Mad Max: Furiosa’s Movie (a review)

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If you are looking to have your mind blown away by astounding visuals and amazing stunt work, blinding sandstorm apocalypses and psychotic banshees, mind-searing explosions and grotesque examples of human depravity, then you should really see Mad Max: Fury Road.

If you’re more interested in carefully constructed characters trying to make sense of a world gone mad, learning to cooperate even with their most hated enemies if only to survive and in the process, learning more about themselves as humans, then go watch Lord of the Flies (YouTube), because Mad Max: Fury Road has none of that.

I liked the movie. I liked it a lot. But I never engaged in the movie.

Throughout my time watching it, it remained a movie that stimulated my retinas and ear drums, but never reached my brain or my heart or my gut.

(NOTE: Some spoilers may follow.)

To summarize the plot:

Tanker truck driver Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is sent on a mission to go from the Citadel, a collection of humans controlled by the self-described demi-god Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), to deliver fuel and mother’s milk (you have to see it to believe it) to Gastown, presumably another citadel situated across the desert.

As she heads off with her armed escort—this is post-apocalyptic, gang-ravaged Australia, after all—Furiosa veers off the road, taking everyone into the desert. Unbeknownst to everyone else, she has stowaways aboard; Joe’s five prized breeder women whom he is using to build his master race (think Sister Wives meets TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting). Furiosa is taking the women to security in the mystical Green Place.

Mothers of future warlords (Sister Wives meet 19 Kids & Counting)

Mothers of future warlords (Sister Wives meet 19 Kids & Counting)

Learning that this has happened and that his fertility harem is gone, Joe calls out his troops and signals Gastown to do same, and a two-pronged pursuit across the desert is on.

Further complicating matters for Furiosa is her need to fight off the marauding gangs that litter the desert-scape between the towns and who want to steal her precious fuel.

Chase into sandstorm best part of movie

Chase into sandstorm best part of movie

That gets you started on the story. Much more and we’re in spoiler territory…although, there are few revelations in this film that could get spoiled.

The one thing you may have noticed about my plot summary is the absence of Max (Tom Hardy), the title character of this film and the three originals of the series. That’s because, for about half of the movie, Max is just along for the ride (in some cases, quite literally).

Universal blood donor Max (Tom Hardy) is mostly along for the ride

Universal blood donor Max (Tom Hardy) is mostly along for the ride

Without question, after an initial misunderstanding, Max helps Furiosa in her journey—that is what Max does in these movies—but this is Furiosa’s journey and thus, her movie.

One of the challenges I have with the story and in retrospect, possibly one of the reasons the film never engaged my heart or gut, is I don’t ever recall learning why Furiosa is helping the women escape. From the outset, she seems to have a position of prestige within the Citadel, even if it is Hell incarnate. And while we do later get a sense of her long-term desire to leave, I still don’t recall the reason why she would jeopardize her escape by taking the women.

Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) just wanted a peaceful drive in the desert

Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) just wanted a peaceful drive in the desert

Although Joe is obviously angry at the betrayal, the fuel for his pursuit is the reclamation of his harem. Furiosa made her life more difficult by taking them, which would be fine if I understood why. People make outwardly rash decisions all the time in film—else there would be no film industry—but they always have an internal rationale for the decision that the audience can appreciate. That did not exist here.

Likewise, I didn’t understand why these women were so important to Joe. Yes, they were the most attractive of the fetid bunch that we see onscreen, but I am confident that they could have been replaced more easily than the fuel that was used in their reclamation. Even if it was just ego, show me that.

Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is Leader of the Pack and universal sperm donor

Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is Leader of the Pack and universal sperm donor

I’m not expecting nuance in these characters—that would probably get you killed in this environment—but I would like to understand more about the rationales inside their heads.

The other thing that kept me from engaging was—to borrow a metaphor from This is Spinal Tap—that writer/director George Miller turned the dial to 11 the moment the chase started and largely left it there throughout the movie.

There is no denying that this provided a rush, much like being strapped to the nose of a bullet train, but after a handful of minutes like that, it just becomes normal. Rather than slowly escalate through the film and let me see that the next threat was more gruesome than the last, it was just one long chase scene with the same ever-present threat.

Sure, there were moments of quiet and introspection—if nothing else to provide exposition for where we are and what we’re doing—but the transitions there were like cranking the dial from 11 to 1 and then cranking it back up to 11.

This is largely why I say there is nothing to really spoil in discussing this story…there was nothing that really shocked the audience or caught them off guard. The cinematic experience was beautifully choreographed, but someone forgot to pull up the footmarks from the floor, so the audience was always aware if the next scene was going to be a tango, a waltz or the cha-cha.

But hey, this is an action film, and if it provided one thing, it was ACTION (all caps because that’s how much action it provided).

Like the man in the old Maxell Tapes advertising, you will be blown away by this experience. But when the lights go up, you will straighten your clothes, brush your hair and find yourself completely unaffected by this movie. Just a couple of hours at an amusement park.

Oh, and as for Max, all you really need to know is: yeah, he’s still messed up about his family (see Mad Max Movie #1), but he’s largely a good guy.