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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – Review

26 Jul

Comic book movies are everywhere nowadays, but the only companies you really see flooding the market are Marvel and DC. There’s so many more companies with so many more stories to tell, so I always welcome a world that I’ve never had the pleasure of traveling to before. In 1967, the comic series Valérian and Laureline was created by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières and ran until as late as 2010. This series tell the story of special spacial-temporal agent Valérian and his partner Laureline as the travel time and space protecting the universe. There’s so much material to work with and with someone like Luc Besson in the director’s chair, I was all for this. Besson’s work has been known to be hit or miss, and this one is a slight miss for me. He was on the right track with something that could’ve been a modern day space epic, but got way too distracted somewhere down the line.

After being awoken from a dream where a planet and its inhabitants are destroyed, Special Agent Valerian (Dane DeHaan) along with his partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are assigned to infiltrate a black market ring and extract an object called a converter. After completing the mission and being nearly killed in the process, the duo return to Alpha, a giant space station that is the home to millions of people from many planets, hence the nickname of the City of a Thousand Planets. The agents are informed by Commander Filitt (Clive Owen) that there is an infection spreading on the space station which is a major concern to all the races that live on the space station and that this converter may be the key to stopping it. During a meeting with the representatives of the station, Filitt is attacked and kidnapped by the same people that Valerian dreamed about. With the converter and their Commander missing, Valerian and Laureline have to travel into unknown territory on the space station, avoid the seediest of characters with ulterior motives for the agents, and uncover a major conspiracy that could potentially destroy Earth’s relationship with the other planets.

The first 40 to 45 minutes of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets had me hooked. I was loving the visuals and the world that was created for this movie. It was definitely a film to see in 3D, and I found myself easily getting lost in the environment. This is a stunningly beautiful movie with some of the best special effects you’ll see all year. There was a real sense of swashbuckling adventure that can easily serve as a reminder as to why I love action adventure movies, especially in heavy science fiction universes like this one. I was really prepped for a rollicking time at the movies with this, but we weren’t even an hour into this movie’s bloated 2 hour and 17 minute run time. Once we get to Alpha, things start going sour and that heavy feeling of disappointment began weighing down on my chest.

Let’s rewind a little bit here. While the first hour or so of this movie is solid action and adventure, I do have to talk about Dane DeHaan as Valerian. There’s something about how he delivers his lines that’s a weird combination of overdone and totally dry. It’s like he’s enthusiastically underperforming at every chance he gets. It was an awkward performance, and while he did fine at the more action oriented work, his lines with Delevingne were just awkward. Part of this may be because they had very little chemistry and the writing was just plain weird and on the nose. Cara Delevingne is a lot more tolerable than DeHaan, and her scenes provide some of the funnier and more memorable parts in the movie. There are a couple memorable performances by Ethan Hawke and Rihanna, but they are completely pushed to the wayside and forgotten about as soon as their minimal usage is complete. It’s unfortunate that some of the best characters get so easily forgotten about. I’d like to say something about Clive Owen’s performance, but it was so standard, there’s really nothing to comment on.

Back to the plot and all of its shortcomings. Once Valerian and Laureline make it to Alpha, I expected the plot to thicken from there. It does start to get intriguing, but after the Commander gets kidnapped the movie devolves into a series of scenarios that don’t really have a connection with the main plot involving the converter and the aliens from Valerian’s dream. First Valerian gets lost then Lareline gets lost and then the plot gets lost and I just started losing interest. I haven’t seen a movie this distracted in a long time, but to be fair there’s a lot of really cool stuff to look at on this station it’s pretty easy to get lost. Once the plot finally refocuses I was relieved but I kind of lost interest in it at that point. It took a while to really get myself invested in what was happening after being sidetracked for so long.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is ultimately categorized as a disappointment for me. The action is a lot of fun and the special effects are fantastic. There’s nothing wrong with the world that Besson created, but there is major problems with how he tells the story and the how he wrote the characters. Dane DeHaan is pretty bad as Valerian and it was hard to get back on the main plot after aimlessly running around Alpha for so long. I had much higher hopes for this movie, but it’s a classic example of style over substance used poorly and storytelling that is shot out of an airlock.

Final Grade: C

Elizabeth (1998) and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

19 Jul

Queen Elizabeth I, also known as the Virgin Queen, was England and Ireland’s monarch from the year 1558 to her death in 1603. Since then, she’s become one of England’s most iconic leaders, which certainly doesn’t mean she was loved by all. In fact, she was a very divisive and often controversial queen. That being said, there’s a lot of material to work with if anyone were to create a big budget movie about her reign. Well, lucky for us we have two. Elizabeth was first released in 1998 and it’s sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, was released in 2007. Now, I’ve been wanting to watch these movies for a long time, and I’ve finally gotten around to it. The question remains, still, on wether or not they’ve lived up to the hype that I’ve built for myself.

Let’s start out in 1998 with Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth.

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When Queen Mary I dies in 1558, the next in line of succession is her half sister, Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett), a young woman who is now in way over her head. At her time of coronation, England is in a terrible state. Her army is all but useless, debts plague the entire country, and there’s heated violence between Catholics and Protestants. With Elizabeth being a Protestant, there are many Catholics in her court that want her off the throne. One of these people is the influential Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston), a scheming duke with his ultimate goal of wearing the crown. With everything collapsing, Elizabeth surrounds herself with trusted advisors and defenders like William Cecil (Richard Attenborough) and the cunning Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush). Even with these powerful minds surrounding her, her dedicated and unlawful affair with a member of her court, Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), might prove to be her ultimate downfall.

I have a weird past with this movie because I remember being young when this movie first came out and thinking it looked pretty cool. I don’t know where I saw advertisements for it, but I was always stricken by the colors, the architecture, and the costumes. Now, all these years later I’ve finally seen it and it’s pretty much exactly what I thought it would be. Elizabeth is a damn fine movie that tells an interesting, albeit fictitious, look at the early days of Queen Elizabeth’s reign before the Golden Age really began, and how the naïve girl who is crowned at the beginning of the movie turns into the rock solid monarch she is known for being. It’s a great story that’s full of political intrigue, war, corruption, and romance. That’s really all you can ask for in a movie like this, and it’s done very well. Never did I feel like I was getting cheated out of something watching this movie. It hits all of the marks splendidly.

There are few elements of the movie I have to especially give more notice to. First of all, Cate Blanchett’s performance is fantastic. This was the movie that really started her career in the way that we know it today. She was acting before Elizabeth, but this is the role that got her noticed. Her arc throughout the story is an expressive one and it’s great to watch all of the changes happening to her and her reactions to them. It’s a very expressive performance that’s worthy of all the attention it receives. The costume design and make up rank up with the best of the best in film history. They are absolutely out of this world, along with the set design which honestly must have been a nightmare. Finally the collaboration of Kapur and cinematographer Remi Adefarasin makes this film truly look as beautiful as it does.

After years of wondering about this movie, it’s a relief to finally see it. Elizabeth is a really good movie about an interesting and violent time in England’s past, and also about the monarch that would come to unite the country. It’s a beautiful film to look at, but also has a great story performed by great actors to back it up. It often feels Shakespearean in it’s scale, and you really can’t go wrong with that.

The sequel didn’t come until nearly 10 years later, with Shekhar Kapur returning as director. This is, of course, Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

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While the first film began with the early days of Elizabeth’s reign in 1558, this film starts much later on in 1585. By this point, Elizabeth has established herself as a very firm and respectable leader who isn’t easy to persuade or frighten. She is surrounded by loyal subjects like the ever present Lord Walsingham and her favorite lady-in-waiting Bess Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish). When not being attended to by the people of the court, she s regaled with stories by the explorer Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), who has plans of starting a colony in the New World. While this loyalty makes her stand tall, enemies are still lurking on all sides, with the Spanish led by King Philip II (Jordi Molla) and his Inquisition being the most relevant threat. His plan violence and schemes soon find their way into Britain with his support going to the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton) and an assassination attempt that may be enough to spark a war.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age is definitely an impressive sequel, which is a good thing to say since it had the challenge of following up its beloved predecessor while also recreating history using a fair amount of both fact and fiction. There’s a lot of things going for this movie including the return of director Shekhar Kapur and the lead actors Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush. There’s also some excellent additions like Clive Owen, Abbie Cornish, and Samantha Morton. The inclusion of foreign powers like the Spanish and the English spies that supported them also makes for really good intrigue and action to push the movie along, while there’s also the romance that you would come to expect with this kind of movie. The ingredients are all there, but it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the original Elizabeth.

One thing that is missing from The Golden Age is the beautiful set design that the first film had. I understand that Elizabeth is now a completely different monarch than she was in the first film and the set is meant to reflect the personality she puts on as she leads her people, but I really miss the colors and the vastness of some of the room in the palace. There’s also nothing really new added to this movie and it feels like something of a retread in certain ways. By that I mean that I mean all of the same themes of the first film are explored, but in some different ways. I think I just wanted more from this one in the ways that the first film succeeded.

Still and all, Blanchett returns with another powerful performance and the costume design are all on par with the original. It’s important to look at sequels as movies in and of themselves and not just follow ups, so in that way Elizabeth: The Golden Age is a very good movie, but compared to Elizabeth it’s a weaker entry. That being said, I still had a good time watching this movie and for fans of the first film, it’s still worth a look.

Watching movies like this are really great at pulling you into a time period and recreating history in the most lavish of ways. Anyone who hasn’t had the chance to watch the Elizabeth movies should really get right on that. They have quite a bit to offer and something in there for everyone.

Blood Ties – Review

28 Jun

A little while ago I reviewed a movie called Contraband, directed by Baltasar Kormákur, which was based off of an Icelandic movie called Reykjavik-Rotterdam, also starring Kormákur. I wasn’t a huge fan of Contraband, and now we have a very similar situation. In 2013, Blood Ties was released which was directed by Guillaume Canet. This movie is actually a remake of a French film called Deux frères: flic & truand, also starring Canet. Much like my reaction with Contraband, I thought this was a pretty subpar film, even though there were a few great scenes and memorable performances. It just wasn’t enough to completely save the movie.

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The year is 1974 and small time criminal Chris (Clive Owen) is released from his 12 year prison sentence with the hopes of starting his life anew. Part of this means reconnecting with his estranged brother, Frank (Billy Crudup) a New York policeman who disapproves of Chris’ choices and lifestyle. While trying to hold onto a job, Chris once again falls into a life of crime, but also catches the eye of Natalie (Mila Kunis). The two quickly begin a serious relationship, but Chris’ criminal doings often put a strain on it. Meanwhile, Frank begins to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend Vanessa (Zoe Saldana) after her husband Anthony Scarfo (Matthias Schoenaerts) is arrested by Frank. As the two very different brothers try to keep their lives on track, they are frequently getting into small battles with each other, with much more extreme violence always seeming to lurk around the corner.

I want to get the good stuff out of the way first. The whole reason I was drawn to this movie in the first place is the outstanding cast. Besides the name I’ve already mentioned, the movie also stars Marion Cotillard as Chris’ ex-wife and James Caan as Chris and Frank’s father. Each and every one of these actors give great performances. Owen gives a very subtle but believable performance as Chris, which only reminded me why I think he’s one of the better actors working right now. I also have to give a lot of credit to Saldana for really owning her role, and I’m confident in saying she gives the best performance in the entire movie. Crudup also has a strong performance and plays all of the complications and troubles of Frank very well. There is absolutely no faults to be given to the cast, and they’re probably the only real reason to watch Blood Ties, to see these A-list actors in a role you’ve probably never heard they were in.

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The biggest problem I had with Blood Ties is that I felt I was watching it for the thousandth time when this was the first time I ever saw it. This is a story that has been told countless times in a variety of different ways, and for the most part, much better. This movie is a remake, but it feels like it could be a remake of many other different movies. The whole crime genre has a lot of cliches attached to it, and Blood Ties seems to be an amalgamation of all of them. It’s actually pretty astounding how familiar this movie is. From the two brothers with different ideals, to the aging father who actually does know best, all the way to love triangle with criminal elements. It’s all been seen before.

The characters themselves also sort of lend to the problem of familiarity. While they were interesting at points, I could tell exactly where their paths were going to lead. Crudup’s character is the most fine tuned person in the whole movie, and while some of his arc is predictable, he plays the role with confidence and makes the movie all the better for it. The same can be said for Saldana’s character, who shares a very similar and close arc with Crudup. The biggest disappointment is Owen’s character who is, for the most part, completely one dimensional. He’s the criminal with the heart of gold, and it’s such a tired cliche, I really couldn’t get into his character despite his performance being strong.

I really wanted to like Blood Ties a lot more than I did. I mean, just look at the cast. It’s absolutely fantastic, and all the actors do a fine job. The problem is that the whole story it’s trying to tell is played out and has become far too predictable. If you’re going to tell a story like this, there has to be something in there that disrupts the formula and adds something new. This film felt like a clip show of cliches that other movies perfected. I can’t even say this movie’s worth watching for the cast because it feels like more of a chore than entertainment.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead – Review

25 Feb

Noir is something that will hopefully never go out of style. It’s far too cool to just disappear off the face of the earth without a trace of hope that it may return. There’s so many interesting things you can do with the noir genre, and Mike Hodges’ I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead certainly does something different to it. Hodges may best be known for directing the British gangster classic Get Carter, so it was exciting to see what he would do with a more modern gangster/noir film. Well, the result is many things. It’s weird, boring, tedious, and strangely thought provoking.

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Will Graham (Clive Owen) was a notorious gangster before suffering some mysterious mental breakdown that prompted to leave London and start a new life as a drifter devoid of any complicated moral responsibilities. This decision to leave town is met with the risk of leaving his irresponsible brother, Davey (Jonathan Rhys-Myers) to fend for himself. After a night of partying and an especially brutal encounter with a car salesman named Boad (Malcolm McDowell), Davey is found dead in his bathtub of an apparent suicide which prompts Will to return to London to get to the bottom of what happened to cause Davey to do such a thing. Coming back to his old city starts some trouble with his old friends, relationships, and enemies, but Will’s main goal is to track down whoever is responsible for pushing his brother over the edge.

As far as gangster movies go, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is about as minimalist as you can get. The pace of this movie is deathly slow and the overall mood is so quiet, you could hear a pin drop. Along with the whole noir aspect, there’s also touches of New Wave and British Realism thrown in, which is an odd combination to mix with noir. I’m not saying this is really a bad thing, but it does make for a movie that isn’t really too much fun to watch. The not even two hour run time feels stretched to the lenghths of Goodfellas‘ run time with so many scenes of quiet conversations and brooding moments of Will walking down the dark London streets. Since there are so many scenes like this, the conflicts of the movies often feel minimized to a huge degree.

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When I say that there is very little conflict in this movie, I sort of mean it, but at the same time I recognize the other kinds of conflict. For example, we hardly see Boad in the movie. He gets maybe 10 minutes of screen time in total. There’s also another gangster that feels threatened by Will’s return, but we only ever see him talking to people in his car and nothing ever really comes out of his storyline besides an ending that serves to confuse the viewer. The conflict really lies in Will’s character and his troubles readjusting to life in the city while also trying to stay clear of his criminal past. This is hard since he wants revenge for his little brother. This movie’s really about inner conflict and regression, rather than a simple revenge story. Like I said before, this movie isn’t really fun to watch. It’s more fun to talk and think about it once it’s over.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is a pretty deep movie, but it’s important to remember that just because a movie is super slow doesn’t mean it’s super intelligent. There are plenty of interesting points in this movie, but the execution of them feels so slight that they might as well not have happened at all. The main force of pain for Davey is one of the most daunting things to ever happen to somebody, and it’s something that I don’t see in movies too much. There’s a very interesting premise that almost makes up for the whole movie. The rest of the ideas and conflicts either get fixed to soon or conclude in the most enigmatic of ways. I get that was the whole point of the movie, and I’m not meant to feel satisfied at the end, but I don’t know, it just didn’t feel right.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is a strange exercise in low key film making and it’s one that doesn’t really mix all that well. The acting and the dialogue is all great, and the premise takes a story that could be generic and makes it more interesting. The only problem is that it movies too slow, thinks it’s making a much bigger and complicated statement than it actually is, and resolves conflict too easily or not at all. It’s not completely ruined or wasted, but I wanted a little bit more out of it. I can’t really recommend watching it, but some people may find it interesting.

Closer – Review

28 Nov

I love the feeling when the credits of a movie begin to roll and I feel like I just got the shit kicked out of me. That may sound weird, but it’s evidence that the movie achieved some sort of strong emotional response. That’s how I felt at the end of Closer, a brutal war of words and deception among four lovers, where love is often absent and lust is the puppet master.

After helping the eccentric Alice (Natalie Portman) after getting hit by a car, obituary writer, Dan (Jude Law), becomes romantically involved with her. Everything seems to be fine once his true lustful nature is revealed when he meets a photographer named Anna (Julia Roberts). She denies Dan at first and meets another sexually frustrated individual, dermatologist Larry (Clive Owen). Soon, the lives of these lovers intersect through their lies and deceitful acts of love and hate.

This is a dirty tango of words with dialogue that aims to stab the characters through their hearts. I would argue that this isn’t a love story, but more so, a story of hate. Many times do the characters flip between love and hate, lust and disgust. This isn’t a “romance” movie you’d want to go on a first date to see.

Across the board, the performances in Closer are intense and feel legitimate. For me, Clive Owen and Julia Roberts are the real stars of the show, but this doesn’t mean that Natalie Portman and Jude Law shouldn’t get recognition. All I can say is that the scenes between Clive Own and Julia Roberts explode with passion and emotion that I haven’t seen much of recently.

What also adds to this passionate intensity is the expertly written dialogue written by Patrick Marber, who also wrote the stage play, and the fluid camera work and framing by master film maker Mike Nichols. One scene in particular is a beautiful long take through the apartment of two characters. It gives the scene a touch of realism and genuine life. It played so naturally that I didn’t notice at first. The dialogue is sensual, jagged, and rarely tender mixed together in a cauldron of unpredictability.

As an adult “love” story, you may not be able to find anything better than Closer. Well, maybe you can, but this might just turn out to be my favorite romance, if you can call it that. It’ filled with human drama and surprising emotional conflicts that keep the viewer guessing where the plot is going to go. If you can get you hands on this movie, I highly suggest you check it out.