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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

Unleashed – Review

16 Jun

I’ve talked about Luc Besson quite a bit in these reviews, and that’s because he’s a powerhouse when it comes to the action genre. Not only can he direct a great action film, but he has written some modern action classics. People may have seen more of his movies than they even thought. Today, I’m going to be looking at the 2005 film, Unleashed, which was written by Besson and directed by Louis Leterrier, who is known for his work on The Transporter (also written by Besson) and more recently on the Now You See Me films. Unleashed marks a high point in Jet Li’s career as well as this is widely regarded as his best English language film. Could it be possible that it actually is? Well I say it just might be.

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Deep in the pits of the underground crime world of the United Kingdom, there lies a small cage in a warehouse that is inhabited by Danny (Jet Li), who as a young boy witnessed his mother being murdered only to be picked up and “raised” by a small time gangster named Bart (Bob Hoskins). Throughout his life, Danny is trained to be a human attack dog, implementing brutal martial arts to beat on whoever Bart commands. After an attack on Bart’s life, Danny escapes and finds his way to Sam (Morgan Freeman), a blind piano player, and his musician step daughter Victoria (Kerry Condon). The trio soon becomes a close knit family, with Danny learning more and more how to be a part of society, but Bart is still alive and well and wants his attack dog back. This forces Danny to stand up for both himself and his new family and rid himself from Bart and his goons once and for all.

First and foremost, this is an action film, and a very good one at that. Jet Li is known for his highly choreographed, flawless martial art performances, which makes Unleashed stand out. The whole point of Danny’s character is that he’s raised as some street fighting attack dog, which means that he fights like some sort of rabid animal. This makes for some vicious action sequences that made me cringe more than a few times thanks to some nasty sound effects. People don’t just get hit, they get completely obliterated in a barrage of fists that would make even the most skilled of fighters think about what they are doing with their lives. A lot of this has to do with the incredible fight choreography by Yuen Wo Ping, who worked as choreographer on The Matrix and Kill Bill.

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So while Unleashed exceeds expectations in terms of its action, there’s also a lot of heart. After a gleefully violent first act, there’s a break of about 25 minutes to a half hour where the action completely comes to a stop. Normally, I’d say that this would be where you can go get a snack because it completely disrupts the pacing. The crazy thing is that it doesn’t disrupt anything. In fact it adds a hefty layer of character and succeeds in turning otherwise throw away characters into people that you absolutely need to see win over the bad guys. Anything else would be completely unacceptable since you grow to love these characters so much. I wasn’t expecting this from this film, but it sure was a pleasant surprise.

It’s also worthwhile to talk about the performances in Unleashed, because like everything else, they offer a lot more than you might expect. First of all, Jet Li completely goes in a different direction with his performances of Danny. Unlike his normal heroic performances, Li plays an incredibly damaged individual who has a lot to learn about himself and life, and he plays it very convincingly. Morgan Freeman and Kerry Condon are good as the people who welcome Danny into their lives, but the real performance powerhouse is brought forth by Bob Hoskins. Hoskins was a fantastic actor, and I never really hear his name come up in relation to this movie. He seems to be having the time of his life playing the villainous Bart, who is one of the easiest villains to hate that I’ve seen in a while. He absolutely knocks it out of the park in this movie.

Unleashed is an action movie that stands above the average films in this genre. It has bone crunching action, but it also has a lot of heart and some excellent performances for some really great characters. When a movie like this really makes you care about the people and what may happen to them, you know you’ve found your way to something special. Isn’t that what movies are all about? Losing yourself in a story with great characters and real emotion. It also helps the Jet Li kicks major ass. This is one hell of a good movie.

District B:13 & District 13: Ultimatum – Review

16 Jun

What happens when you have action film master Luc Besson and combine his talents with gravity defying parkour and limb snapping martial arts? The result is an action movie that seems to have been forged by the gods for the gods, high on top of Mount Olympus. District B:13 is a prime example of how action films should be made, and like many action movies, it got a sequel. District 13: Ultimatum is also a marvel because it’s a sequel that actually compliments the first film well instead of just getting pooped out in the name of money.

Let’s start in 2004 with District B:13.

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In the not too distant future of 2010 (remember this movie was made in 2004), the French government constructs a wall around a particularly violent ghetto, District 13. Three years later, most government run buildings and organizations, including the police, have disappeared from the ghetto leaving the people to fend for themselves. Leïto (David Belle) is a “criminal” from the ghetto who spends his days fighting against the gangs that run the city. When he finally gets mixed up with drug lord Taha (Bibi Naceri), his sister is taken and turned into an addict. Leïto soon meets police officer Damien (Cyril Raffaelli), who has a mission to infiltrate Taha’s gang to procure a neutron bomb that belongs to the government, but is set to go off within 24 hours. Taha wants the bomb, Leïto wants his sister back, and Damien wants to complete his mission, so the two team up to bring Taha’s reign of terror to an end and save Banlieue 13 from certain destruction.

This movie is, in my definition, a perfect action film. It’s fast, over the top, and well edited and shot. The parkour scenes flow together very smoothly thanks to Pierre Morel’s direction and steady hand behind the camera. The film editing also works with the kinetic movement of the characters and the narrative, jumping from scene to scene with chaotic precision. The stunts were also all choreographed by one of the costars, Cyril Raffaelli, and his work is out of this world. Not only are the action scenes some of the most unique martial arts you’ll see, but the parkour literally seems to defy gravity at times. There’s so much to look at and laugh in amazement.

District B:13 pretty much has everything you’d want in an action movie. I’ve heard complaints that the story is pretty weak, and I’d have to agree that it does have a very weak story. Let’s be honest though, I wanted to watch this movie for the action and the stuntwork and some cool cinematography. That’s exactly what I got, and the story is passable with a pretty strong message at the end. This is a movie I’ll be sure to watch over and over again.

In 2009, District 13: Ultimatum was released, which reinforces the theory of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

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After waiting three years for law and order to finally come to District 13, Leïto recognizes that it may never come and still works at bringing down corruption wherever he finds it, from police to drug lords. Leïto soon finds himself in the possession of a video that proves corruption on a massive scale stemming from the government’s sort of private secret service. Damien, who is needed out of the picture, is placed in jail and is in need of Leïto’s help. As if breaking out of jail wasn’t hard enough, they are soon faced with a much bigger problem. The leader of the the department titled DISS, Walter Gassman (Daniel Duval) is working to get the president (Philippe Torreton) to bomb sectors of District 13 to create a new section of high rise apartment buildings and businesses.

As you can probably surmise from that summary, this sequel is a lot more intricate and complex than its predecessor, which isn’t necessarily the best thing for a movie like this. What made the first film such a success was the acrobatics and well choreographed fight scenes, not an overly complex story of interdepartmental corruption. Sure, that was part of it, but it didn’t completely take over the movie. Do not get me wrong, though, this is still a superior action movie. The fight scenes are still completely off the wall, if not as skillfully shot and there is even a great use of vehicular stunt work, which was probably the most memorable part of the movie.

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District 13: Ultimatum doesn’t quite match the level that the first film did, but it is a worthy sequel. The action and choreography gets a little bit bogged down with a convoluted story that sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t, and feels a bit recycled at the same time. It was still great seeing the two protagonists teaming up again to save District 13 once again. The simplicity of the story worked well in the first one by allowing it to keep up a fast pace. This one is not as fast or exciting, but still worth a watch.

District B:13 and District 13: Ultimatum are great examples of how to properly do an action movie, and even how to construct a sequel that doesn’t feel forced. This is why I consider Luc Besson to be the king of the action genre and that the best action movies do seem to mostly stem from Europe.

 

Nil by Mouth – Review

3 Mar

Everyone knows about Gary Oldman’s acting career. He’s been in so many movies as great as The Dark Knight Trilogy and as awful as the 2009 “horror” film The Unborn. He’s one of those actors that seems to turn up everywhere, but he always brings an air of seriousness to all of his roles. I’ve just recently learned about his work in directing after reading about his 1997 directorial debut Nil by Mouth. I didn’t really know what it was about, but being a fan of Oldman’s, I felt it was worth checking out. That being said, this is a surprisingly gritty, disturbing, and genuinely upsetting film.

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Set in the working class environment of South London, this film examines the life of a small, but poor family. Billy (Charles Creed-Miles) is a heroine addict that struggles with both his finances and his addiction, mostly using one to help the other. Billy’s sister is Val (Kathy Burke), a relatively unhappy woman who is married to Ray (Ray Winstone). Ray is a thief, an addict, and violent, many times taking out his rage on the pregnant Val. After a vicious night between the two, the family really seems that it is finally ready to break down and leave everyone on their own.

When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997, Nil by Mouth was received with much critical acclaim and Kathy Burke winning for Best Actress. This is really no surprise to me since this movie tackles subject matter in an unflinchingly realistic way. As I was watching it, my mind kept going to Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, although the main protagonist in that movie is a kid and it was released two years later in 1999. It still deals with the same ideas as poverty and the breakdown of a family. There were many times in this movie that it got so intense and real that it stunned me.

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Like I said before, Kathy Burke won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for this movie, but that isn’t where the excellent performances end. Everyone in this movie seems to be working their hardest to completely sell their roles to you. Burke has a lot of different levels she plays at and Ray Winstone matches her perfectly by showing an aggravating and complex character. He has become one of the most hated characters for me because Winstone makes him so real. Charles Creed-Miles also works well as the pathetic drug addicted thief who I really couldn’t help feeling sorry for.

To really make Nil by Mouth work, Oldman had to create a certain kind of uncomfortable atmosphere that isn’t really easy to do. Many of the scenes are shot in dark side streets of London, the kind of streets that you wouldn’t want to find yourself alone at night. When we’re not in some alley, we’re in cluttered, tiny apartments that seems to have a few too many people in it. That being said, certain scenes have to appear comfortable and livable since this is just the way of life for these people. It’s an odd combination where I would be disgusted one moment and then almost feel at home the next.

Nil by Mouth can definitely be classified as a film that isn’t easy to watch, nor is it particularly entertaining. It is, however, a film that seems to be a very deep and personal project of Gary Oldman’s, and that comes through in how realistic and honest everything is in the movie. This may be one of the realest movies I’ve seen and it certainly isn’t afraid to throw a rotten piece of life into your face. While it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it’s an intense experience nonetheless.

Lucy – Review

14 Aug

Luc Besson is one of those film makers that you either love or hate, or don’t even realize who he is and how many movies you’ve actually seen that he’s been involved with. Personally, I think he’s great. Many of his action films that he either wrote, produced, directed or any combination of the three are normally very enjoyable in that switch your brain off kind of way. It is true, however, that he hasn’t really made an “excellent” film since the days of The Professional and La Femme Nikita, and Lucy certainly isn’t breaking that pattern. I will say that, like The Family and The Transporter and Taken, this is a fun movie that you definitely need to turn off for and just buckle in for the ride.

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Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is not having a good day what with being pressured by her boyfriend to be the middle man during a transaction with the sadistic Korean drug lord, Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik). The deal goes down well, but now Lucy is left in the custody of Mr. Jang to serve as a mule in order to get Jang’s new drug into the hands of people all over the world. What Jang wasn’t counting one was the surgically implanted drug packet breaking inside Lucy’s stomach and barraging her with the effects. Soon, Lucy begins evolving into something more than the human capacity could possibly handle and teams up with the world renowned psychologist Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) and French police captain Pierre (Amr Waked) to figure out how to stop her brain from overloading her body’s nervous system, but also to get her revenge on Mr. Jang for causing all of this in the first place.

Before anyone even needs to say anything, of course this movie’s premise is total bullshit. It’s been proven that humans use more than 10% of our brain capacity leaving that idea to be nothing more than an outdated theory. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not a really cool idea for a movie. In fact, Lucy is pretty similar in idea to the 2011 film Limitless starring Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro. Think of Lucy as Limitless on steroids. There’s plenty of really cool action in this movie and some pretty neat special effects. Plus, Scarlett Johansson, who has already shown this in the multiple Marvel films she’s been in, can be a complete badass if the occasion calls for it. It’s everything you’d expect from a Luc Besson movie, with a bit of a philosophical twist.

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One thing I do have to complain briefly about is the time spent in between all of the cool things. The gripe I have with Besson’s films, save for one or two, is that he knows how to craft really cool ideas and scenes that make for a memorable movie, but the down time in these movies really leave something to be desired. This is true also with Lucy even though there isn’t a whole lot of down time to be had. When there is, however, it is anything but interesting and I found my mind drifting when I should have been paying attention. Also, it’s kind of odd to have philosophical discussions in movies like this, especially when the premise is already complete ludicrous. I found the attempts at philosophy a little heavy handed and unnecessary. All you need to do for this movie is check your brain at the door and don’t listen to anything deep Besson wants you to hear. This is an action movie to the core and that’s it.

After saying all that, I really do have to say that this is a totally kick ass movie. I’ve liked it a little more since I’ve seen it, even though I don’t think I’m ever going to really love the movie. There’s one scene in particular where Lucy, without aiming at all, shoots through a door a few times, almost with precision. I knew what was going to happen, but it was so cool to see the accurate effects of her shooting even through the hard wood door. The movie is filled with awesome scenes like that, and it’s so much fun to watch Lucy evolve more and more, making her enemies nothing compared to her. Besson really outdid himself on the cool factor for this film.

Lucy isn’t particularly a great film, but in terms of summer popcorn fun, you can’t really go wrong here. I’ve heard a lot of talk about how the movie doesn’t really have a point and the science doesn’t even make sense. It makes me wonder when people forgot that going to the movies was supposed to offer a couple hours of FUN. Notice the emphasis on fun. To those of you who know how to have a good time at the movies and check your brain at the door, Lucy will provide you with some quick and memorable entertainment, despite its major scientific and narrative flaws. For those of you who can’t get the sticks out of your asses, may I offer you some Godard and tea?

 

Colombiana – Review

3 Jan

I don’t really like judging action movies too hard. There are some that are actually excellent pieces of film making, but then there are others that can only be seen as popcorn entertainment. Colombiana belongs in the latter category. Although it tries to be something more than it actually is, I feel like everything in the movie is recycled and the pieces don’t always fit to form a perfectly clear bigger picture.

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As a young girl, Cataleya (Zoe Saldana), sees her mother and father gunned down by men sent by Don Luis (Beto Benites), a powerful cartel boss. Sworn to avenge her parents, she is trained by her uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis) to become a powerful assassin. Now that Cataleya is older and more experienced, she finally targets Don Luis and tries pushing him out of his hiding spot so that she can attack. This may prove to be a more difficult task since Don Luis has a connection that he is willing to use in the CIA.

The best way I can describe Colombiana is that it’s a combination of Léon: The Professional and La Femme Nikita, both of which are Luc Besson films. Well, what do you know? Colombiana was written by Luc Besson. I have great respect for the guy. He has created many fantastic action films that are both fun and memorable, but this is a pretty lazy attempt when it comes to creativity. I haven’t just seen all of this before, I’ve seen it in movies of the same writer and they are completely recycled ideas.

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Everything about this movie is pretty ho hum including the performances.  Zoe Saldana is beautiful, but nothing really special, even though she definitely has the ability to be a believable leaden lady. Part of it has to do with the dialogue she was given to work with. Cliff Curtis has some dramatic scenes that are easy to get into and Jordi Mollá is more interesting than the main villain. None of these performances are what I would call bad, but the writing by Besson is surprisingly dry and cliché.

A point I will give the movie is that the action can be really cool. There’s one fight that happens in a bathroom that abandons all filmic style and tries to play as real as possible. The choreography isn’t overly stylized, like a lot of the gun play in the movie, but actually looks like a fight of this kind would look like. The stylized violence can be pretty fun, with a surprising scene involving a rocket launcher being a high light for me. I feel that maybe Besson and directer Olivier Megaton both really just wanted to make a really cool looking action movie and didn’t really think worrying about the script would be too much of a concern.

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I can’t recommend Colombiana. It has its moments of fun, but the rest of the movie is a stereotypical mess. I didn’t care about the villain or Cataleya’s main mission. All I really wanted was to see the next cool action sequence. Quiet moments of dialogue that were used to create drama turned out to not be dramatic at all and even stale some of the performances. Zoe Saldana is beautiful and some of the action scenes are really cool, but there are much better action movies out there to watch than Colombiana.

Nikita – Review

31 Oct

Who would have thought that when Luc Besson made this French action thriller in 1990 that it would become a phenomenon spawning an American and Japanese remake along with a television spin off. We can’t forget where it all began, and this is it. It’s an action movie with more heart and soul than one may think, and this may, unfortunately, lead people to believe that Nikita is boring. They couldn’t be more wrong.

After murdering a p0lice officer during a robbery gone awry, drug addict Nikita (Anne Parillaud) has the choice of either death or committing herself to the French government and work for them as a sleeper agent. She trains in a secret facility with her mentor Bob (Tchèky Karyo) and after years of training is released back into the world with a code name: Josephine. She soon sparks a relationship with an unassuming Marco (Jean-Hughes Anglade), but is just a suddenly called for assignment, sending her now stable life careening out of control.

This movie is written and directed by Luc Besson, who I would call a powerhouse of the action genre having directed films such as Leon: The Professional and written The Transporter series, Taken, and From Paris with Love. This is one of his older movies, but it still helped redefine a genre after the macho action films of the 80s. Audiences were treated to a different kind of hero in Nikita, a social misfit turned sleeper agent who is a woman. That’s the big thing. Gun toting women weren’t the norm at this point in time. In this way, Nikita can be seen as inspiration for films like Kill Bill. In that light, much respect has to be given to this film.

 

Nikita is special, though, for how it handles the story. Instead of the movie being all about Nikita going into various foreign locales and shooting anything that moves, the viewer gets a character study. The character arc is immense. A drug addict becomes an agent who then yearns for a normal life. It was great watching a character as deep as this change and progress as the story went along at it’s relatively slow pace. It gave me a lot to think about when it comes to the actual stress of classified government work, the treatment of these employees, and the ethics behind their missions.

With this impressive character arc comes an impressive performances and memorable action set pieces. Anne Parillaud knocks it out of the park giving, I think, on of the best performances in an action movie. She’s both funny and disturbed, but if you want to talk disturbed, look no further than Jean Reno as Victor the Cleaner. He is brutally violent and doesn’t seem to be affected by it. You’ll see him in a list of best action characters if I’m to ever make one.

 

The action scenes are great without being crazy. While they aren’t totally down to earth, they do stay in a realm of realism that isn’t very common in modern action movies. There is lots of shooting and some blood, but never is there ridiculous combat and jumping off walls. It gave the film a more realistic tone that worked better with the themes and the characters. But don’t get me wrong. I love over the top action.

Nikita is an action movie that surpasses most. It is intelligent, emotional, and real. Don’t mistake the slow pace as boring. If you look into the characters and invest yourself into the plot, you will have a great time with this movie. If all you want is gunplay and explosions, the look to something else. This is a thinker’s action movie that proves the Luc Besson is this genre’s master story teller.