In Theaters: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

PG-13, 137 minutes, Sci-fi

StarringDane DeHaanCara DelevingneClive OwenSam Spruell

I’ve been looking forward to this movie all year. I don’t even remember when the trailer came out for it, but I had been saving my pennies ever since. My eyes practically bulged out of my head. Science fiction! Fantastic worlds! Luc Besson! W-w-wait–LuC BEssON is MAkIng aNoTHer ScI-FI mOVie????1 I’VE GOT TO SEE THIS!!! After the utterly awe-inspiring impact that The Fifth Element has left upon my soul, I just HAD to see Valerian on the big screen before it was too late.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is not only a crack-filling mouthful of a title, but it adds just enough curiosity to this movie to make you run out into the streets and yell, “WHAT?” The story follows agents Valerian and Laureline as they enter the city of Alpha in order to investigate an uninhabitable zone that threatens the stability of all life on the interplanetary vessel. The only thing standing in their way is the entire galaxy. No big deal.

I hadn’t even heard of the source material before: a French comic series that ran for over forty years. Apparently, I need to read more French comics (I’m looking at you, Snowpiercer). But the two real reasons my very soul cried out for my eyes and ears to digest this film were sci-fi and Besson. I couldn’t help myself. I mean–THE FIFTH ELEMENT.

I sprung for 3-D. I admit it, I’m a hypocrite as I absolutely HATE the 3-D trend. But just look at that trailer! Can you really blame me? Can any sci-fi fan REALLY put fault upon me? Was it worth it? The extra cost and the mind-numbing disorientation that the 3-D movie scarfully (that’s a word! …now) inflicted upon my brain jelly? Well… no. Don’t get me wrong: I did enjoy the movie, but it was just an okay movie. And despite the epic scenery, the movie was not shot in a manner that accentuated the screen popping effects.

The film itself was unfortunately dark. Despite a scene shot in a bright desert, the movie as a whole is set in the darkness of space, the alleys of a major city, and the underworld. Perhaps it was just my eyes, but this really screwed up the 3-D experience as I felt more like I was watching a high definition VHS tape with tracking issues. I’m not going to fault the movie for this, but I am going to seriously warn you away from the extra cost. This movie in 3-D simply isn’t worth your money.

What I did like was the sense that a vast array of cultures existed inside of Alpha. After forty years of comics, there’d darn well better be some depth to the setting. Unfortunately, despite all the visual set-up, only a couple of these cultures were touched upon. I got the feeling that everyone involved behind the scenes felt obligated to pay homage to the source material. Notable, but not entirely practical to the confines of a single movie.

The defining moment to this story has to be the struggle of the alien race that starts off the whole conflict. They’re unique and peaceful and seeing tragedy befall them really pulled my heartstrings. The open sequence involving these people really made me happy to be watching this movie. Sadly, it was the highlight of the story as I began to notice some… shockingly familiar storyline.

LUC, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE? Look, I’m not calling this a stinker, but there comes a time when you write a story and you realize it’s the same friggin’ thing you wrote twenty years ago. Luc, I’m looking at you. You know what you’ve done! This is The Fifth Element. You know, that movie you did about space stuff? If you had paid homage to it by putting a Mangalore or a Zorg logo in the background, I would have publicly guffawed. But there are just too many parallels to ignore: the world ending, the military police, everything that looks like New York in 2263, the blue diva, the kissing sequence at the end–ARGH! I mean, how do you have forty years of comics and you set out to remake your own movie? Oh, no. Wait a second here, was Valerian and Laureline the inspiration for The Fifth Element? DON’T DO THIS ME, LUC!

The one things I really wanted from this movie was the characters. I’m sorry, folks, but since I had such high expectations for this film simply because I am a massive Fifth Element fan, I have to compare the two. In The Fifth Element everyone fulfills their quirky and memorable role to a T–right down to the friggin’ cat! But a lot of the characters in Valerian were basically just cardboard cutouts. And Bubble was uselessly unique–just watch and you’re find out what I mean. I found her to be the most frustrating character of all.

I will confess that I could not stop myself–for days–from laughing at Laureline’s changing scene. She is held prisoner by a barbaric race that insists she dress up. Stubbornly, she refuses, but her caretaker cannot be dissuaded. Hilariously, she encourages Laureline to continue. If you don’t laugh at this scene, I daresay you haven’t got a funny bone in your entire body. So as far as memorable characters go, at least I got one.

On an off note: the dynamic between Valerian and Laureline struck me as… odd. From early on, Valerian proposes the idea of marriage to Laureline, but she dodges around his advances. That itself wasn’t odd, but the proposal was. What is wrong with me? Since when should the idea of marriage strike me as out of the ordinary. You know what? Screw you, modern society. Quit raping normal values already.

With the decade-long surge in the popularity of comic book films it was inevitable that all kinds of stories would make it to the big screen. But whereas Marvel is succeeding, other companies struggle. The French market appears no different. While this wasn’t a bad movie, it did have its share of flaws. I can tell you right now that this probably would have been success if it had premiered as a quirky streaming series, but unfortunately the box office outlook is nothing short of grim.

Rating: Watch it.

Watch: Visually stunning, offbeat, and full of potential. That changing scene is hilarious.
Don’t watch: Flawed story, too dark, and overly condensed material. Rihanna needs to stop acting. Period.


Flop Friday: You Don’t with the Zohan (2008)

PG-13, 113 minutes, Comedy

StarringAdam SandlerEmmanuelle ChriquiJohn TurturroNick SwardsonRob Schneider

If there’s two things I can count in an Adam Sandler movie is his devotion to former Saturday Night Live veterans and making Jewish references. Sometimes he hits, sometimes he misses, but the real enjoyment comes from seeing “the band” get back together. Perhaps it’s because we live in a time where actors are always trying to out-do one another, but love seeing acting troupes (B-list or otherwise) work together time after time.

Merging comedic and Jewish cast members alike into a crazy story about counter-terrorism, Adam Sandler plays Zohan, a humus-obsessed nearly-invincible sex-addict special forces operative who just really wants to cut hair. After faking his death in Israel and fleeing to America, Zohan quite literally screws his way onto the hair-styling scene. But when an old foe returns, Zohan must face the life he left behind.

Just like that bully who stomped on my LEGOs in the 2nd grade…

It’s just that… Zohan doesn’t really work for me. I’m sure there was landslide of criticism about the religious and sexual motifs prevalent in this film, but that’s not what I want to focus on. Although, reflecting back upon that it was REALLY FREAKING WEIRD. But what I do want to talk about is the bizarre call for peace this movie slaps you across the face with. Look, it’s 2017 and back when this movie was created (2008) things were basically the same. The Middle East is at war and no one likes each other. Fantastic (note: sarcasm). But why would you come up with this utterly bizarre way of stamping a “coexist” on the audience’s brain? “Don’t panic just style and screw.” “This MUST work!”

Having semi-recently seen good Adam Sandler movies like Hotel Translyvania, Pixels, and Blended and fondly remembering older ones like Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison, I just have to say one word: WHAT?!?!? Crude humor works in the other movies, but I can’t help but wonder if something simpler like slapstick or dark satire would have worked better in Zohan. I know they can’t all be hits, but I expected more Sandler and especially from Robert Smigel, creator of the brilliant Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.

Legends are made, not born.

It’s not like there was anything really wrong with this movie other than it’s touchy subject matter. But perhaps that was the point all along: make a risky maneuver in order to promote brotherhood and hopefully entertain in the process… No matter how many known actors, musicians, and entertainers fill the screen, I just can’t get on board for free lovin’ with every ’80s hairstyle.

Rating: Don’t bother.

Watch: If your wires are crossed and your circuits have shorted.
Don’t watch: Religiously offensive to some and because why would anyone want to watch Sandler screw little old ladies?

Kick-Ass (2010)

R, 117 minutes, Crime

StarringAaron Taylor-JohnsonChloe Grace MoretzMark StrongNicolas CageChristopher Mintz-Plasse

We’ve all wanted to stand up for something. We see the kids getting bullied, friends go through hardships, and jerks cut us off on the freeway, but have we ever really put ourselves in the position to seek justice? Or perhaps to enact our own version of justice…?

Kick-Ass plays off of a bizarre trend (okay, so maybe it’s just me that thinks it’s bizarre) where average citizens dawn masks and capes in order to fight crime. No, I mean it. Real people. Like, this is a thing that actually happens. Except, of course, our story takes the reality of the trend and mashes it with the glitz and glam of comic books. What comic book nerd hasn’t thought of running around stopping purse snatchers and metallic supervillains who have tapped into the power of the Dark Arts?

I just wanted to find Mr. Bitey!!!

Meet Dave (Taylor-Johnson), better known in this case as Kick-Ass.  Dave gets the idea to go vigilante from the pages of his favorite comics because he keeps getting robbed. When his first attempt at being a superhero doesn’t go so well, he gains the attention of other like-minded individuals. Before he knows it, Kick-Ass becomes embroiled in a war against a drug lord that turns out to be more than he can handle.

Although this movie plays off comic panels with familiar notations like “Meanwhile…” and “Elsewhere…” the stand out aspect is actually the color-coding of the main cast. When on screen, each hero pops against the background thus gaining territory over the frame. The bright colors are reminiscent of the drawn inspirations, because let’s face it–what superhero looks good on paper without bright colors? Don’t answer that…

Hey, look! It’s Batman! Wait, why does he have a sniper rifle and a Fu Manchu?

On the controversial side, this flick does a grandiose job of making cute, little Mindy/Danger Girl (Moretz) into a stabbing, swearing, slicing, killing machine. Moretz filmed this movie when she was still about 12 or 13. Her age and her acting caused some people to fret as they didn’t think she should be depicted as dropping f-bombs and hacking people to bits. Ah, Hollywood…

Overall this title isn’t going to outshine the rest of the Marvel line-up. It isn’t even going to involve the rest of the Marvel line-up. It plays outside of the rules by being a superhero movie that isn’t technically a superhero movie. It’s coarse and it’s unfair. It’s introspective and it’s hormonal. It’s… mortal. It’s more just a movie for the rest of us.

Rating: Watch it.

Watch: Offbeat superhero film about people who aren’t superheros.
Don’t watch: Violence, gore, and free-flowing swearing (mostly involving a 13 year-old girl).

Die Hard (1988)

R, 131 minutes, Action

Starring: Bruce WillisAlan RickmanBonnie BedeliaReginald VelJohnson

If there’s one role that’s imprinted on my mind that Bruce Willis always seems to be whenever he acts, it’s got to be John McClane. Last Man Standing, The Fifth Element, The Whole Nine Yards, 16 Blocks–he just seems to be in the same character. Maybe that’s how he’s always been. Who knows? Maybe I’ve typecast him mentally. Either way, I can’t think of Bruce Willis without thinking of Die Hard.

John (Willis) is New York cop.  After his wife relocates to Los Angeles, he has to fly in to make her work’s Christmas party. An expensive party set in an expensive office building, the employees get to drink, screw in back offices, and even do lines of coke off coworker’s desk. They’re out of control. John ignores them as he focuses on his real objective: getting his wife back.

It isn’t long before a group of terrorists lead by a man named Hans Gruber (Rickman) take over the building. Woah, that came out of nowhere, didn’t it? They set out to rob the company of all its assets in an act of revenge. When John sneaks away from the machine gun toting criminals, he begins stalking through the building in order to pick them off one by one. But these guys aren’t playing around. They’ve brought some seriously large arsenal and they aren’t afraid to bring down the entire building.

For some reason I watched this as a child. I watched a lot of adult movies as a child. Some might find that normal, but I wouldn’t want my kid watching something like this until s/he was older. It’s violent, it’s curse-laden, it’s political–it’s adult. A kid couldn’t really appreciate it. So why the heck was I allowed to watch it?

Anyway, this movie and it’s over-the-top use of practical effects are great. Guns, explosions, car crashes, blood, and one heck of a set. The set is a fine piece of work done up to look like a classy office building and they just friggin’ trash it. You really believe that they filmed all they could before they ceremoniously sent off the set a blaze of glory. With an army of vehicles involved, crowds of extras, and everything they trashed during production, you really get the sense that this is a big budget deal. They just don’t make movies like this anymore!

The characters may have all been fairly flat, but they were still memorable. The overly excited hacker who smashes bad sports puns into murder scenes, the angry German brothers that don’t get along yet fight violently for each other, and cold, manipulative Gruber in charge of every situation he finds himself in. It’s enough to make you think the archetypes for modern villains started right here.

Through and through, this is a guy movie about one man facing off against a team of angry sociopaths. He’s a cop who does his job and protects those he cares about and that gets my thumbs up. So sit down, enjoy, and welcome to the party, pal.

Rating: Watch it.

Watch: Classic Willis and memorable bad guys.
Don’t watch: Because you’re 5 years old.

First Blood (1982)

R, 93 minutes, Action

Starring: Sylvester StalloneBrian DennehyRichard Crenna

As I slogged through The List I came upon the first of the John Rambo movies. I never got around to watching anything from the series, but as a kid it was hard not to know about the shirtless commando with a band around his head, massive machine gun in hand. I’d seen Terminator. I’d loved Alien. I’d yippie-kye-yayed at Die Hard… but still I hadn’t touched the Stallone movies.

So making it to The List was First Blood… and somehow it’s a Christmas movie. John Rambo (Stallone, of course), is released from the military and sets out across America. In perhaps one of the most ridiculous incidents that started a local war, a small town sheriff (Dennehy) decides he doesn’t like soldiers and kicks Rambo out.  Stubborn, Rambo returns and winds up in jail. His PTSD kicks in and all Hell breaks loose.

Rambo escapes and with the help of the shiniest knife imaginable he maims and murders most of the local police force in the woods. The National Guard and the Army are called in, yet Rambo proceeds to destroy half of the town in order to exact revenge on the sheriff who persecuted him so.

Sounds messed up, right? It is! This movie amazed me… It’s shock value at its most tragic. Though not the most notable film in the series (I believe that to be the second one), this entry is just one crazy out-of-control ride through a soldier’s waking nightmare. By the end you can’t help but feel a little sorry for the guy.

This movie isn’t as gory as you’d expect, but the real sobering truth here lays in the absurd horror of the situation. Can you imagine getting ready for Christmas when all of the sudden your home town goes on lockdown? Police are dying; soldiers are swarming everywhere; stores start blowing up? It’s the Chrispocalypse!

I can’t help but wonder if the book this film was based on puts the whole situation in a more digestible light. It feels like it went from zero to crazy in no time flat. Having not been in war, it’s harder for me to understand Rambo’s trauma, so skipping to the killing made it feel rushed. After all it’s a guy movie, so who needs all that mushy exposition and crying crap? MAKE SOMETHING BLEED!

I bought this during Black Friday after I had seen it, so obviously I don’t think it’s too bad. It’s sure rough though, which has made me curious about the book. Perhaps someday I’ll get to that, but for now I can say that I’ve watched one of the weirdest movies set during the Christmas season.

Rating: Watch it once.

Watch: Because you love mayhem.
Don’t watch: Because this movie is utter mayhem.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

PG-13, 112 minutes, Action

Starring: Michael CeraMary Elizabeth WinsteadEllen WongJason Schwartzman

I think it’s about time that I talked about one of my favorite movies.  It’s been about two months since I started this blog, yet I haven’t reviewed anything that I know well, much less absolutely loved.  I think it’s safe to say that something I’ve seen dozens of times, inspired me to read the source material, and would place somewhere in my top ten favorite movies of all time is one that I love.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World shows us how out of control love can be.  Reeling from the loss of his previous girlfriend, bass guitar zero Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) decides to date a high school girl, Knives (Ellen Wong).  Knives becomes obsessed with both Scott and his band just as Scott becomes obsessed with the new girl in town, Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).  Scott leaves Knives hanging in the lurch while he pursues the new relationship, but unbeknownst to him seven foes are lurking in the shadows.

All of Ramona’s exes have banded together in order to challenge Scott to mortal combat with the hope of defeating him in the name of Ramona’s greatest ex, Gideon (Jason Schwartzman).  Scott realizes he’s bitten off more than he can chew when his own exes join the melee and the fate of his love life depends on his highscore.

I am heartbroken to admit that I skipped over this movie when it was released on the big screen.  For that, I will admit my huge error in judgement.  Having watched it at her sister’s house, my wife bought it and rushed home for me to see.  She was that confident that I’d love it.  And she was right!

The insanity of the cinematography is probably the most noticeable.  Coming off the pages of six-book comic epic, Scott Pilgrim explodes into the cinematic world with flashy visual and cartoon-ish effects.  The very essence of video games, music, comics, and pop culture are so well sewn into this moving tapestry that at first the bizarre effects may seem shockingly out of place, but it doesn’t take long for your mind to jump right into the fun of it all.  Sound effects are spelled out on screen, animated backstories are presented as comics, travel occurs between dimensions, and the unseen announcer enthusiastically declares the defeat of a foe.  This movie is a trip.

Scott feels real.  He’s a loser who has to face something completely out of the norm while fulfilling his completely normal fickle urges and his weaknesses in both mind and body are relatable.  That being said, Scott is a total jerk who winds stringing along a series of girls who find him to be a disappointment.

Our other main players, Knives and Ramona, are perhaps expected seeing as one is truly devoted but immature and the other is seemingly unreachable and not worth the effort.  We’re given the potential good and possible bad and the whole time I was forced to ask who would be the better choice.  The filmmakers felt it themselves as the alternate ending has things going a completely different direction.

Now the source material is worth mentioning.  Often when I enjoy something enough I seek other forms of story consumption.  So after watching the film, I turned to shelves of my local library to hunt down the original comic.  In some ways I was not disappointed, but in other I most certainly was.  The truly screwed up menace that Scott really is deep down is showcased in the comics.  There was simply more room to flesh out the story on paper.  But what I did find myself entranced by was the side stories Scott’s exes brought to the universe.  Sadly, this was almost all cut for the film version, but so were numerous other strands that bogged down the story.  In the end, the film is the far superior version of the story.

It’s been five years since I saw this movie, but I still suggest and reference it all the time.  So now I’m telling it to the world.  This movie is worth the time.  Maybe you won’t all like it, but I’m hoping you’ll find something good about it.  This movie isn’t just fun and entertaining, it’s one of the best there is in an industry saturated with a whole lot of garbage.

Rating: Movie favorite.

Watch: Video games, music, and love clash in this zeitgeist masterpiece.
Don’t watch: If you hate having a good time.

Vice (2015)

R, 96 minutes, Action

Starring: Thomas JaneAmbyr ChildersBruce Willis (sorta)

I’m not on a crime kick right now.  Interests shift and that’s alright.  I know I’ll come back to it, because quite frankly there is something so… attractive about the power that comes with crime.  I’m too much of a coward to bother with it myself, but I can safely say that there is a decent enough following that various media companies have picked up on.  Imagine robbing a bank or taking a joy ride.  Imagine killing that annoying boss or becoming a vigilante like Batman.

Imagine Vice, an all-encompassing experience that lets its users do whatever they want for the right price.  In the city of Vice, the law has no power as there are no rules to break.  But that doesn’t mean the law is happy about its existence.  Roy (Thomas Jane) is a detective stuck in the throws of early ’90s fashion and stereotypically pissed off about everything.  Hell-bent on shutting down the capital of debauchery, he feels people will begin to stop recognizing the line between fiction and fantasy.

Meanwhile, the owner of Vice (Bruce Willis) is militantly defensive of his haven.  As Roy begins to poke around in other people’s affairs, it becomes apparent that he is a threat to everything Vice stands for; a threat in need of neutralizing.

This is an amazing concept.  While not quite a virtual city, Vice is a fantasy realm full of robotic servants designed to play along with the experience.  There are clean up crews and engineers that maintain the infrastructure, programming the servants with realistic memories and resetting them on a regular basis to keep the illusion fresh.  Imagine if something like this existed.  The insanity of the potential alone would rake in more money than could ever be conceived.

However, the movie… really wasn’t that great.  It was just… stiff.  Everything about it was stiff.  Thomas Jane is so grizzled, perhaps stuck in a Frank Castle mindset, that there is literally nothing I could find in his character to care about.  And Bruce Willis is just about a cameo in this film.  The bulk of the drama lies on Ambyr Childers’s character Kelly and her search for the truth about her past.

I guess I expected the filmmakers to showcase Vice a little more.  We begin with a bank robbery scene and there’s a murder, but our cast of characters spend next to no time playing out their own fantasies.  Shouldn’t our protagonist suffer temptation?  Shouldn’t the villain be pulling the strings?  It just felt incomplete and if it’s the beginning to a series (which I’m sure it’s not), then it had a poor time getting off the starting block.

I can’t help but wonder if sometime down the line some scriptwriter is going to be like, “Hey, remember Vice?”  If that happens and if they greenlight a remake my sincerest hope is that they give this thing a complete overhaul and the treatment it deserves.

Rating: Don’t bother.

Watch: Cool dystopian-esque concept.
Don’t Watch: Because it wasn’t written to be cool…

Jinn (2014)

PG-13, 97 minutes, Action

Starring: Dominic RainsSerinda SwanRay ParkWilliam Atherton

Djinn… These magical creatures are sometimes associated with granting wishes… Or granting Issac the ability to summon Judgment which devastatingly nukes the planet, yet somehow keeps both the party and the ground safe while inflicting major damage upon Saturos and Menardi. But this isn’t a Golden Sun walkthrough… Oh, how I wish it was.

Jinn is the story about Shawn (Rains), a man who suddenly finds himself in a world he never imagined. His life is going according to plan with his successful job as a car designer and his happy marriage. However, a mysterious message he receives from his dead father warns of impending danger.

After being accosted by creatures of the dark, Shawn finds himself under the protection of the angel Gabriel (Park). Gabriel’s power is able to keep the beasts at bay, but their assaults only increase in intensity. Shawn comes to realize that a greater power is growing within him and the war against the jinn has just begun.

So the cover of this DVD was pretty cool: a hunched figure lurking in darkness. It makes you wonder what’s going on. The title inspires thoughts of magic, further adding to the mystery. The description lends itself to a great mythical battle of the ages. But this movie is really an hour and a half long car commercial with the director’s name slapped on everything.

Seriously, dude? You credited yourself over a dozen times in one of the longest credit rolls I can think of. I know your name so well that I’ll stay away from it in the future. You made a movie and you were very integral in it’s completion. Good job. No, seriously. That’s a lot of work and you should be proud of it. But have some dignity and show respect to your own work. You can say, “I wrote, directed, and produced this.” Cool, but chill the frick out after that. If you’re the director, then of course you had a hand in sound and visuals. It’s your job. However, as a director it is also your job to assign leaders to those teams and to guide them with your vision. That’s still under the one director’s credit, not a dozen. Give your team the credit they deserve instead of being a glory hog.

Enough ranting at the director. Overall I really didn’t care for this movie. I guess I hyped myself up thinking it would be a grand epic set in the past. Unfortunately it only turned out to be the first chunk of story in a proposed series set in modern times. It wasn’t that great of a beginning either. The acting was amateur-ish and the story wasn’t interesting enough to keep my full attention. I just found the whole thing boring.

This film is also on the sacrilegious side. “Jinn” is used as a fancy term for demon, so an angel must protect the “chosen one.” Except our angel is being supported by a Catholic priest… who wears all the major religious symbols mashed into one more complicated symbol. I have to argue that one symbol should have been chosen instead of having the movie fall into such a politically correct non-committal “everything is great” cop out.

Did I like… anything? Well, the demons were cool. They’re basically made of fire and smoke and they looked good. However, there’s no way I could ever suggest this movie to anyone. It’s not even good-bad. During the credits, the promise of the jinn returning made me fearful that it wasn’t a promise, but a threat.

Rating: Don’t bother.

Watch: If you’re asleep.
Don’t watch: Boring story; not enough good action; nonsense.