VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS/DUNKIRK/WISH UPON/THE BEGUILED
VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS / DUNKIRK / WISH UPON / THE BEGUILED
After a hot streak of excellent films of all types—not just big-budget tent-pole blockbuster-sized wildly-hyped studio releases, but some quirky, quality, smaller-budgeted dramas, too—cinema’s lucky cavalcade of excellent, entertaining and highly-recommended summer movies comes to a screechy, irritating, unnerving and somewhat surprising halt in mid-July and mid-summer, 2017, with three major disappointments and one quality film that succeeds, but with some reservations about its somewhat scattershot direction and storytelling style. It would be best to simply skip altogether the wildly disappointing “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” the horribly and horridly clichéd and by-the-books and instantly forgettable horror film “Wish Upon,” and the wholly misguided, directionless and snoozefest “The Beguiled,” but “Dunkirk” is indeed recommended, and is a quality film, but it’s a type of recommended and quality film that still comes attached with some major questions and warning signals—something that occurs with many of “Dunkirk” director Christopher Nolan’s films. Thus, this midsummer warning: Go see “Dunkirk,” but in place of these other three new movies, please instead go see “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “The Hero,” “The Book of Henry,” “Wonder Woman,” “Spiderman: Homecoming,” or “War for the Planet of the Apes” if you haven’t seen these films yet.
VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS
Starring Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Sam Spruell, Clive Owen, Herbie Hancock, Rutger Hauer
Written by Luc Besson
Based on the comic book series “Valerian and Laureline” by Pierre Cristin and Jean-Claude Mezieres
Directed by Luc Besson
Produced by Luc Besson and Virginie Besson-Silla
Cinematography by Thierry Arbogast
Edited by Julien Rey
Music by Alexandre Desplat
Unpredictable, frenzied and slightly crazed—usually handling all three of the qualities in a good way—director, producer and writer Luc Besson completely, wholly and, in the end, embarrassingly loses his way on all three of those levels—directing, producing and writing—in a humongous, resounding and disastrous manner with his failed epic mess of a science fiction movie “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” resulting in a scattershot misfire that cannot be recommended on any level—even on a level of heading out to the theaters and just trying to enjoy or laugh through a catastrophic, B-movie, campy flop blockbuster. “Valerian” is such a meandering, plodding, thunking, cringe-inducing big-money mess, it’s not even enjoyable on an “it’s so bad it’s fun” level, so, please, don’t even try to find some enjoyment even on this cynical approach. It’s just simply a mess.
And that’s disappointing for several reasons.
First, the movie is based on a popular French comic book series, “Valerian and Laureline” that has its legions of fans, and has legions of fans who have been waiting and hoping for a quality film adaption for several years.
Second, it’s difficult—and disappointing, of course—to criticize Besson usually, because he so openly, obviously and outrageously takes delight in taking risks and chances and stepping over lines and being so delightfully non-traditional—and his risks, chances and inventiveness has indeed worked more than it hasn’t—and he has failed before, it should be noted. Thus, “Velerian” marks a noticeable failure with Besson’s usually original approach to filmmaking.
Third, if “Valerian” tanks at the box office—and there is the chance that it might—then that could mean outright disaster for Besson’s film production company EuropaCorp, which is one of the many producing companies that financed and supported “Valerian.” EuropaCorp has suffered through a series of major flops recently, its stock price is tanking, and Besson and his other studio executives had placed much hope in having “Valerian” turn around the company’s fortunes, according to Variety. Now, that could all backfire, and if “Valerian” flops, that could mean further troubles for Besson’s company.
Fourth, “Valerian” could have provided a mid-July, mid-summer boost to the summer movie box office, in the wake of the release of most of the super-hyped-and-buzzed-about blockbuster franchise and sequel releases, but, again, that industry hope could also backfire big-time.
And fifth, sci-fi and fantasy fans were hoping that Besson—twenty years later, mind you—could once again find that movie magic elixir akin to the quirky, goofy, fun and funny mixture of styles and themes that lifted up and propelled Besson’s much-loved—and, in time, successful and well-received—sci-fi success from 1997, “The Fifth Element.” Alas, “Valerian” is indeed no “Fifth Element,” and for much of the exhausting time spent suffering through “Valerian,” it’s almost somewhat surprising that Besson failed on such a huge level while also succeeding so well with “Element” twenty years ago. Yes, yes, every director throughout film history has his or her share of ups and downs and successes and failures—of course—but the contrast between “Element” and “Valerian” is striking and astonishing—mainly because Besson had the money, the freedom, the source material and the time to actually make “Valerian” into another “Element”-style success. Alas, again, he didn’t, and “Valerian” lands with that resounding thud.
The first and most striking failure with “Valerian” is the simple task of casting the two leads, Major Valerian and Sergeant Laureline, two police officer/detective/spy/agent/operative soldiers with a ragtag federation that strives to govern and expanding and increasingly diverse universe of planets, galaxies, beings—and cultures. It’s very difficult to say, always, when actors are miscast and then even fail terribly in their assigned roles, but it has to be said, simply and starkly—because it’s obvious from the first scenes, and in every scene thereafter, straight through to the end of the movie, that Dane DeHaan as Valerian and Cara Delevingne as Laureline are entirely wrong for these characters, and for this movie.
DeHaan looks like he’s eighteen, and he acts and looks just young in general—that’s no offense to him, as it’s a compliment, really—but that look and demeanor is completely wrong for the role of Valerian. DeHaan does not have the acting ability, the presence, or the charisma or style to handle what this character should represent, he never registers as an epic sci-fi movie lead actor or lead character, and, sorry, but he channels the worst of Keanu Reeves’ consistently over-the-top attempted-cool-dude persona, which rarely worked well anyway, Mike Myers’ Wayne from “Wayne’s World” in his delivery, and the worst of Johnny Depp’s lazy recklessness in crappy roles, Tom Cruise’s worst smirking and snarking general obnoxiousness, and the worst aspects of the smarminess of Matthew McConaughey’s younger slacker characters. As a result, DeHaan is just difficult to connect to, care about, like or even believe in as a hero character. He’s a kid, basically, and that’s how DeHaan should have played him—as a kid. A better approach would have been to play the character as Asa Butterfield, Logan Lerman and Daniel Radcliffe—all quality actors who SHOULD have been cast as Valerian—displayed in a series of other, better sci-fi, fantasy, horror and drama films. DeHaan simply is not up to the task, and his consistent smirking, snarking, smarming and attempted-Harrison-Ford-style half-smiling and lovable-rogue schtick wears out before the movie’s first half-hour, and that’s saying something, because the first thirty minues of “Valerian” is mostly watchable and enjoyable. However, it should be noted that things in general start to go horribly wrong on all filmic levels after that opening act, and DeHaan’s smirking just makes everything worse.
Delevingne is indeed an astonishing beauty—sultry, sexy, tough, beautiful—and her pretty presence does attract attention. But, as everyone knows from literally the first days of film history, acting is more than just a pretty face. Alas, even one-hundred or so years later, film producers and directors haven’t seemed to have learned this lesson—with males or females—and pretty faces who can’t act are still cast to embarrassing effect in scores of films. This is not to bash Delevingne as a person or enact any type of attack—she does try very hard, she is physically tough and that is impressive on a strong-feminist level, and, again, she does indeed have a great presence on screen. However, she is unable to maintain a consistency with the actual character of Laureline, she does not seem to strike any sense of chemistry with DeHaan (who also fails to strike up a chemistry with Delevingne), and her delivery, much like DeHaan’s, is often wooden and stilted.
And further down the acting and casting line in “Valerian,” and continuing the problems in these areas, the singer Rihanna is an embarrassing flop as an alien shapeshifter character who arrives late in the movie to help Valerian. Her line readings are worse than Delevingne’s, and she is wooden, characterless and just dead-on-arrival with a character that should have stolen several scenes in the movie, including an attempted pick-me-up dance sequence in which her character changes costumes and forms in seconds while dancing around a small stage. Alas, even that mid-movie song-and-dance number—with an actual singer—falls flat, as it seems clumsily dropped in to the movie, has nothing to do with the overall plot, does nothing to enhance or move along the plot, and just seems gratuitous. Rihanna, somehow, doesn’t even shine in this song-and-dance number.
And even poor, apparently-confused Clive Owen—one of the best actors from the last twenty years and The Man Who Should Have Been James Bond After Pierce Brosnan—falls flat in a thankless villain role that is so clichéd and unoriginal, well, again, it’s just embarrassing again. Even Owen’s futuristic, militaristic, Nazi-ish, over-done space military costume—with all types of medals and adornments and militaristic thingamajigs—is clichéd. This should not happen to Clive Owen, and this great actor deserves better. However, to Owen’s credit, major actors never know what they’re getting into when piles of cash are offered for what looks like a dazzling, epic, colorful sci-fi blockbuster. Look at Eddie Redmayne in the horrible mistake “Jupiter Ascending,” look at Mila Kunis and James Franco in that horribly unfortunate recent “Oz” movie, and look at every single actor in the horribly unwatchable “Cloud Atlas.” All were huge failures filled with quality actors who just could not get by the mountains of problems enveloping these movies.
The only actors who rise above the mess in “Valerian” are Herbie Hanccock, who is excellent as a defense minister type who is the voice of reason in the federation, and Sam Spruell, who succeeds as a good-guy military leader who, like Hancock’s character, is often the voice of reason. Alas, if actors with the same abilities displayed by Hancock and Spruell were cast as Valerian and Laureline, “Valerian” could have been a different movie on the acting level.
However, Besson fails with his writing and directing of “Valerian,” too. The dialogue is relentlessly clunky, stilted, clichéd and questionable throughout the film. The script is all over the place, scattershot, full of overlying and overlayering and over-done plots, subplots, sub-sub-plots; it tries to do too much; it’s far too meandering and confusing; and Besson borrows too obviously from too many prior sci-fi movies, including—again, too apparently—the “Star Wars” series, the “Star Trek” series, Besson’s own “Fifth Element,” “Bladerunner,” and about one-thousand other science fiction movies. Ridley Scott should always be praised for the visionary futuristic ambiance, mood, atmosphere and visual feast that he displayed in “Bladerunner,” of course, but every single director who has ripped off Scott’s movie’s vision in hundreds of subsequent sci-fi films should be ashamed of himself or herself. It’s twenty years past the time for sci-fi directors and writers to please stop ripping off Scott and “Bladerunner” in presenting these dense, over-populated, overly-busy, flying-car-filled rainy, dark and eccentric futuramas on screen. Please—just “Bladerunner’s” vision rest with that film (even though, alas, there’s a “Bladerunner” sequel already finished, alas).
Besson borrows from his influences, but he does try to modernize these borrowed qualities with modern-day, state-of-the-art, high-techology special, visual, computer, motion-capture, make-up, green-screen, animated, virtual reality and prosthetic effects throughout “Valerian,” and, it must be stated, this is the one area where “Valerian” succeeds: the special effects. However, sadly for the literally hundreds of talented, creative, hard-working special effects artists who worked on the film, while their hard work succeeds, and does succeed on a very high level—an above-average level—special effects alone cannot carry a film, and, once again, the many glaring deficiencies in acting, writing and directing in “Valerian” simply cannot meet the high quality level of the film’s special effects, thus making the movie a wonder and a beauty to look at—but with overall empty results on a filmic whole.
Simply, because to go into “Valerian’s” plot too deeply could induce the same level of squirming and discomfort moviegoers will feel about ninety minutes into the movie, Valerian and Laureline are tasked with recovering a device that is essential to peace between warring factions; to stop a growing radioactive biological threat at the Alpha international space station that has become an outer space floating city, space station and unintended mess of a habitat for thousands of interplanetary beings; to save a race that appears to be on the verge of extermination; to rescue a kidnapped commander whose kidnapping doesn’t really make any sense; and to possibly do some other things, save some other things and fight some other things. As noted, the plot is too confusing, layered, convoluted to make much sense in the end, and it’s all so numbing, viewers will be challenged to invoke much caring about the goings-on.
In the end, which can’t come soon enough, “Valerian,” with its estimated $180 million independent, non-studio-funded budget—which some have said results in the most expensive independent movie in film history, not counting additional advertising, promotional and marketing costs—proves that, sometimes, raising too much money, having too much independence and having too much creative non-control and undisciplined freedom can be too much of a bad thing. The budget should have been smaller, the plot more disciplined, the directing more controlled, the actors completely recast, and the entire film should have followed the movie’s quite-excellent thirty-minute opening act, which, for one, brief, shining moment, promised some hope that the old, risk-taking, inventive Besson had indeed arrived with another “Fifth Element.” Instead, in the end, “Valerian” will prompt moviegoers to reach for a different fifth—a fifth of whiskey, perhaps—to take a long swig and ease the pain.
Starring Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Cillian Murphy
Written by Christopher Nolan
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Produced by Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan
Cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema
Edited by Lee Smith
Music by Hans Zimmer
“Dunkirk,” a stirring, heroic and ultimately satisfying war film based on the true story of the dramatic rescue of hundreds of thousands of British and French soldiers at Dunkirk, France, during World War II, is indeed a quality achievement for Nolan and his cast and crew; an heroic war film that celebrates great British resolve amid seemingly tragic and dire circumstances, and a high-tech achievement in special effects, visual effects, realistic war scenes, physically difficult action, fighting and stunt-oriented scenes, and a film that simply tells a great story based on true-life events. It’s difficult to criticize a film with all of these qualities, yet there is a glaring “however” with Dunkirk—just like there is with all Christopher Nolan films.
Nolan is a talented, creative and high-achievement director who chooses high-quality, high-achieving, high-falutin stories, concepts and projects for his films—but that constant striving for that higher level can backfire amid his successes and can simply backfire completely at times. The reason is often Nolan’s somewhat-irritating style of directing—a style that can sometimes appear scattershot, confusing, trying to do too much, trying to cram too many plot elements into one story and one film, and often busily, dizzyingly veering, swerving from one set of scenes or action sequences too quickly, too confusingly and too self-knowingly. His films can sometimes fall amid the weight of his high-minded goals. “Inception,” “Interstellar” and “The Dark Knight Rises” were all interesting, fun to watch and discuss, and noble films, but each suffered a bit under their own weight. They’re not terrible or bad films, but high-quality, well-done films with high-level intellectual nitpicky points of dispute.
Alas, “Dunkirk,” even though it’s an above-average film, is recommended, and is a wonderful homage and testimony to the courage, bravery and heroism of thousands of people during a horrible world war—none of that is in dispute—the film can at times seem to be doing too much, seems to involve too many characters, seems to veer awkwardly from one set of scenes to another set of scenes, seems to be trying to do too much, and is directed in a manner that at times can be confusing and difficult to follow. One part of this difficulty in this generally-excellent film is the script and dialogue, which is often deficient in fully and clearly explaining just what is going on—a few pages of dialogue more clearly explaining just what is happening would have helped “Dunkirk” in general.
Nevertheless, despite Nolan’s quirky direction and the lacking script and dialogue, the movie is full of engaging, thrilling, action-packed war sequences—some of which could be too realistic and squeamish for those with a sensitivity to full-on war scenes, which can be discomforting for many people—and some excellent acting from a bevy of actors who make up a quality ensemble.
The message of “Dunkirk” is clear, and although simple, is always important: War is hell. And many people, presented with the very worst wartime circumstances during the very worst times of horrific conflict, can indeed muster that courage, heroism, bravery and hard work and band together to rescue their comrades, their countrymen, their comrades in arms, and people can prove that they have that ability to live and fight another day. “Dunkirk,” in the end, drives home this point, and in the end, the film drives toward a very satisfying, heroic conclusion that will prompt moviegoers to leave with a heavy heart for those who gave their lives in war, but also with a smile for the fact that the good guys won and vanquished the bad guys for one brief, shining period.
Starring Joey King, Ki Hong Lee, Sydney Park, Elisabeth Rohm, Ryan Phillipe
Written by Barbara Marshall
Directed by John R. Leonetti
Produced by Sheryl Clark
“Wish Upon” is one of those by-the-books, cookie-cutter, formulaic horror films that is instantly forgettable the moment you get up from your seat. You may wish upon your memory bank to come to life and remind you just what it was that you just watched after escaping from this movie’s relentlessly brutal, ugly, negative, downer, depressing atmosphere. Was it “Final Destination?” Was it “Saw?” Was it “Final Destination 2 or 3?” Was it “Ouija,” or any number of other movies based on a Ouija board? Was it about five-hundred other similar horror and suspense movies? You may have to run back into the theater and check the end credits to make sure that you didn’t dream the previous ninety minutes.
Is that cruel, insensitive or rude to the filmmakers who worked on “Wish Upon?” No, it is not. Because “Wish Upon” brings nothing new, is borrowed from, or ripped off from, hundreds of other similar movies, is so relentlessly ugly, depressing and violent, the movie is difficult to watch, the movie is just generally unoriginal and clichéd, from start to finish, and, irritatingly and annoyingly, the movie is one of those stories that is filled with dumb people doing dumb things for no clear reason other than to set up the next scene where, randomly and seemingly without any clear connection or motive, someone dies in an ugly manner. There are sadist and goremongers out there who strangely—and sickly, some think—love to simply watch gory, negative and depressing movies filled simply with people getting killed in various manners without much more to the plot, story, characterization or movie in general. Some horror films are just simply built around people getting killed in ugly manners. That’s not a good movie, if that’s all there is. Of course, movies need strong stories, characterization, background, plots, subplots, messages, themes, original approaches, suspense, genuine horror, genuine supernatural creepiness, strong acting and strong direction to lift up the horror from simply people getting killed in ugly ways. There are of course scores of quality, scary, creepy horror films—hundreds of them, of course—who succeed on all of these levels—with the requisite body counts of people getting killed in inventive ways.
“Wish Upon” is not one of them. The story tells of a high school student—well-played by the, yes, likeable and quite cute Joey King, who carries the movie with some help from, yes, a quality cast of actors playing her high school friends, acquaintances and enemies—who finds a supernatural device that grants its owner seven wishes. Those wishes come with a literally deadly prices, as each wish connects to the murder of someone. However, the story goes haywire early as King’s character learns about the device’s rules—but she doesn’t listen to anyone, she keeps making wishes, she keeps making things difficult, and she descends into either self-aborbtion, self-centeredness or madness—the viewer doesn’t know, entirely, because it’s never made clear what the main character’s motive are, exactly.
King, as noted, does a great job, and so do the ensemble group of young actors playing her high school comrades—they are all quite good actors, actually—but the acting in “Wish Upon” just cannot save a script that is too clichéd, too familiar—and too confounding in its continued portrayal of people simply doing dumb things, which does occur frequently in too many horror movies.
Filmgoers will leaving “Wish Upon” wishing that they had not just sat through that movie, wishing that there are not seven more sequels—and wishing that studios would please stop green-lighting clichéd, unoriginal horror movies like this one.
Starring Colin Ferrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning
Written by Sofia Coppola
Based on “A Painted Devil” by Thomas P. Cullinan
Directed by Sofia Coppola
Produced by Youree Henley, Sofia Coppola
“The Beguiled” has to be one of the more strangely disappointing films of 2017—a film with a list of high-quality cast of actors, a director beloved for her independent qualities, a story that presents all types of storytelling possibilities—Southern Gothic drama, Southern Gothic horror, war film conflict, Civil War subplots and messages; a source novel rich in character, story, plot and period possibilities; and the potential for some interesting takes on male-female psycho-sexual conflict, angst and analysis. Nevertheless, director Sofia Coppola’s new take on Thomas Cullinan’s “A Painted Devil”—which was made into a somewhat average 1970s film with Clint Eastwood—fails to capitalize on any of these potential resources. Coppola’s “The Beguiled,” alas, doesn’t give its actors anything interesting, original, solid or even intelligent to work with; the direction is actually somewhat tame, lifeless and boring; none of the characters are likable, interesting, layered and none of them do much to propel the lifeless plot; the plot, story, characterizations and dialogue are all clunky, tired, clichéd, and, alas, even laughable at times; and there is little in probing messages, themes, morals or lessons. Coppola also directs and edits and films at a pace that is so plodding, tiresome and slow-moving, the movie actually becomes boring and lifeless.
Something seems to be missing while watching “The Beguiled,” and that overall missing filmic quality is storytelling—there simply is not much of a story to tell in this version of this story. Colin Ferrell plays a Civil War soldier who is wounded and takes cover at a girls’ school led by a prissy, uptight and over-protective headmistress coldly and calculatingly played by an inexpressive and bland Nicole Kidman, and who proceeds to attempt to seduce—sexually and intellectually and resourcefully—Kidman and the various other women and girls who are living at the school amid the continuing war. Eventually, things go awry for entirely dumb reasons—reasons that are so dumb it’s difficult to care about the characters or their dumb actions—and the girls take drastic action to preserve themselves and the school. And suddenly, abruptly, completely out of nowhere—that’s it, and the movie ends. It’s all too simple, too quick, too pat—and far too empty. The movie needed more subplots, more war action, more interaction with the ongoing war, which is never seen and only faintly heard in the distance, and the movie just plain needed more, more, more at every level—script, dialogue, plot, subplots, backstory, story development, character development, plot development, characterization, explanation, direction, even overall production.
“The Beguiled” actually seems like a film that suddenly had to end either because the script was not complete, or the production budget was not complete—and that’s not a snarky comment. The movie and the story simply ends far too soon, and far too abruptly. This is one movie that actually needed more—and more time to explain and process the proceedings more thoroughly.
As it is, “The Beguiled” ends so suddenly, and without any level of proper moviegoing satisfaction, the movie, again, stands as one of the more strange, unexplainable and confusing disappointments of 2017.
If you walk out of “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” “Wish Upon” and “The Beguiled” confused and wondering what the heck just happened, you might first think it’s the heat, and you just suffered some type of heatstroke, but once you find some air conditioning, get a cool drink and eventually recover with one of the other summer of 2017’s successful films, you’ll realize it’s not the heat, but the horribility.