First Impressions of Valerian

I haven’t watched a movie in a theater in a while, so I decided to see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets this weekend over the other two on my wish list: Baby Driver and Dunkirk. I picked Valerian because it has mixed reviews and I wanted to judge for myself. Here are my first impressions after seeing the film:

  • It was good! It was visually stunning, imaginative, and reminded me of The Fifth Element (1997). I like the idea of inter-dimensional travel and traveling to a parallel dimension to shop, which you know humans would do.
  • The aliens were really cool, though I’m not sure why amphibian humanoids would have breasts. Are they also mammals?
  • Dane DeHaan, who played Major Valerian, basically reprised his role in A Cure for Wellness (2016), which doesn’t bode well for his acting range. He lacked a personality in both films.
  • Cara Delevingne (Sergeant Laureline) is a British actress who hides her accent well. She played Margo in Paper Towns (2015), which I loved. I take back calling her a discount Emma Watson.
  • Clive Owen is wasted in this film as Commander Arun Filitt. Anyone could have played this generic bad guy.
  • Maybe things will change in the future, but if Major Valerian were in today’s military, he would be court-martialed for seeping with his subordinates and keeping their photos as trophies.
  • Major Valerian is introduced as a daring ladies man and Sergeant Laureline as uptight and studious, yet Valerian is an officer and she’s an NCO. By the end of the film, their roles are reversed: she damns the rules and he’s suddenly reluctant to break them.
  • If the film needs to recap the entire plot at the end for the audience to understand it, like an episode of Scooby-Doo, there’s a huge problem.

I’ll post a complete review later this week!

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Rough Night: A Morally-Bankrupt Comedy

When Jessica “Jess” Thayer (Scarlett Johansson) decides to plan a wedding while running for state senate, she’ll need a little help from her college friends, Alice (Jillian Bell), Frankie (Ilana Glazer), Blair (Zoë Kravitz), and Pippa (Kate McKinnon), to pull off a wild bachelorette party in Miami. Hilarity ensues when the ladies get drunk, snort a bunch of cocaine, and accidentally murder a male stripper, all while leading Jess’ loyal fiance, Peter (Paul W. Downs), to believe she wants to cancel the wedding. In the end, they get away Scott free because, well, I guess manslaughter isn’t a thing in Florida. Comedy gold!

Since the success of Bridesmaids (2011), there have been a slew of female-led comedies, but none have quite recaptured the magic of that film. Rough Night is something of a cross between Bridesmaids and The Hangover (2009), or a gender-swap of Very Bad Things (1998). It was written by partners Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs and directed by Aniello. Aniello, a former member of the improv troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, writes and produces Comedy Central’s Broad City. This is her directorial debut. Ilana Glazer and Paul Downs also hail from Broad City.

In Very Bad Things, a bachelor party in Las Vegas goes out of control when the drunk and coked up men (see a pattern?) accidentally kill a stripper and a hotel security guard. Roger Ebert said Very Bad Things, “isn’t a bad movie, just a reprehensible one. It presents as comedy things that are not amusing” and assumes “an audience has no moral limits and will laugh at cruelty simply to feel hip.” That’s how I feel about Rough Night.

I normally don’t judge movies from a moral standpoint, because I realize people watch movies, especially comedies, to see situations and characters way outside the norm. It’s escapism. But the more I think about Rough Night, the more morally adrift it seems. There are no consequences for anything that happens in the movie. Not only are there no consequences, but everyone’s life actually improves in the end. Because it turns out the “stripper” was actually a bank robber, it helps Jess’ campaign. Alice hooks up with the real stripper, and Frankie and Blair rekindle their college romance.

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Wonder Woman: A Dark Fantasy-Adventure

Wonder Woman was written by Zack Snyder and Allan Heinberg and directed by Patty Jenkins [Monster (2003) and The Killing (2011-2012)]. It stars Gal Gadot [Keeping up with the Joneses (2016), Furious 7 (2015)] as Diana, Chris Pine [Star Trek (2009), Hell or High Water (2016)] as American spy Steve Trevor, and Danny Huston [Hitchcock (2012), Robin Hood (2010), 30 Days of Night (2007)] as General Ludendorff.

Diana/Wonder Woman is a young, fearless woman with a mysterious destiny who lives on an idyllic island with fellow Amazon warriors. They spend their days preparing for a conflict with the Greek god of war, Ares. One day, a pilot (Steve Trevor) crash lands in the ocean and Diana saves him. The German Navy is in pursuit, and after a brief battle the Amazons defeat the German search party. Diana helps Trevor get off the island and return to 1918 Europe, where she thinks Ares has orchestrated the First World War.

Wonder Woman is enjoyable and fast-paced. It’s 141 minutes but never feels that long. The action is never exhausting until the end, when of course there has to be some apocalyptic battle between Wonder Woman and Ares. Through interacting with a cast of characters from 1918 Europe and America, Diana becomes disillusioned with humanity. In the end, Trevor’s sacrifice to destroy a new poison gas developed by General Ludendorff’s chemist, Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), makes Diana realize humanity might be worth saving after all.

The “fish out of water” scenes are genuinely funny and charming. The interaction between Diana and Trevor is great, but you never really have a sense of them falling in love (they share an identical dance scene to the one between Peter Quill and Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy to establish their chemistry). It’s another “two hot people hook up”-type of romance.

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Alien: Covenant – A Messy Prequel-Sequel

Alien: Covenant (2017) stars Katherine Waterston as a colony ship scientist named Daniels, and Michael Fassbender, who plays dual roles as two androids named David and Walter, in a sci-fi horror film and the latest installment in the Alien franchise. It was directed by Ridley Scott and written by John Logan and Dante Harper. John Logan is an accomplished screen writer, but this was Dante Harper’s first screenplay. Michael Green (of Sex and the City and Green Lantern) and Jack Paglen are credited with writing the story.

So many different writers is probably why Alien: Covenant felt like so many different films. It was supposed to be a sequel to Prometheus (2012), but often felt like a reboot of Alien (1979). Minus the events on the planet’s surface, Alien: Covenant was basically an updated version of the original. It flirted with its roots as a horror film, but lacked tension and suspense.

Alien: Covenant begins in a sterile room with Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and his synthetic creation, David. They muse on the nature of creation before the film shifts to the colonization ship Covenant, which is heading toward a remote planet, Origae-6. A neutrino burst damages the ship as it is recharging, killing some colonists as well as the ship’s captain, Jacob Branson (James Franco). The crew wakes up and Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) takes command. While making repairs, pilot Tennessee Faris (Danny McBride) hears a strange signal. The crew tracks the signal to a nearby planet and decides to investigate.

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The Founder

The Founder (2016) stars Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, who took a local California fast food restaurant called McDonald’s and turned it into a global, multi-billion dollar empire. Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch co-star as McDonald’s founders Richard and Maurice McDonald. It was written by Robert Siegel and directed by John Lee Hancock, who also directed Saving Mr. Banks (2013) and The Blind Side (2009).

Ray Kroc was born in Oak Park, Illinois and he opened his first McDonald’s franchise on Lee Street in Des Plaines, where I grew up. I passed by the old McDonald’s museum hundreds of times, but never knew the story of how McDonald’s got its start. Ray Kroc himself was responsible for much of the popular mythology behind the company’s founding. His claim of being “the founder,” despite his first McDonald’s restaurant actually being the ninth, was so ostentatious, it turned out to be the perfect title for a film about his life.

The film charts Ray Kroc’s rise from struggling milkshake salesman to restaurant/real estate mogul, his tumultuous relationship with the McDonald brothers and his wife Ethel (Laura Dern), and his unshakable faith in persistence. The movie’s first half tells the inspiring story of how Kroc turns around his business prospects despite daunting odds. The second half shows him screwing over everyone who helped him along the way, even stealing a restaurant owner’s wife.

The Founder is historically accurate, for the most part. Some of Kroc’s relationships are simplified for the sake of plot, including omitting a brief second marriage before marrying Joan, the restaurant owner’s wife. In real life, Joan was not actually married to the restaurant owner as the film depicts, but to another man who became a manager at McDonald’s. It also omits Ray’s daughter, Marilyn.

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War Machine

War Machine (2017) stars Brad Pitt as General Glen McMahon, a fictional commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2009. It is a savage parody of General Stanley McChrystal and the U.S. and Coalition War in Afghanistan, based on The Operators (2012) by Michael Hastings, a sleazy reporter for Rolling Stone and BuzzFeed. Hastings’ hit piece on General McChrystal in Rolling Stone led to his resignation as Commander of the International Security Assistance Force and retirement from the Army in 2010.

The film opens as hard-fighting General Glen McMahon arrives in Afghanistan to whip things into shape and finally win the war. The narrator tells us General McMahon is a soldier’s soldier, a West Point and Ranger School graduate who eats once a day, gets four hours of sleep a night, and runs seven miles every morning.

His staff includes a civilian press adviser, Matt Little (Topher Grace), X.O. Colonel Cory Staggart (John Magaro), Major General Greg Pulver (Anthony Michael Hall), “tech whiz” Andy Moon (RJ Cyler), Navy Seal Major Pete Duckman (Anthony Hayes), Admiral Simon Ball (Daniel Betts), and Sergeant Willy Dunne (Emory Cohen). Together, they believe they can bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.

General McMahon quickly learns he’s up against some tougher opponents than the Taliban, including obstinate government officials, reluctant NATO allies, and a hostile press. Even U.S. soldiers, given voice by Marine Corporal Billy Cole (Lakeith Stanfield), are skeptical of their mission and its chances for success. McMahon must use unconventional tactics and the force of his personality to fully implement his grand plan for victory.

In the military, commanders are given a high degree of discretion over their troops. They are accustomed to getting what they want and not hearing the word “no.” Like Colonel Joshua Chamberlain says in the movie Gettysburg (1993), there’s nothing so much like God on earth as a general on a battlefield. So it’s easy to see how frustrated generals can be when constantly butting heads with civilian authorities who think they know the general’s job better than he does. War Machine artfully and humorously depicts this situation.

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The Circle: Style Over Substance

The Circle (2017) stars Emma Watson as Mae Holland, a young woman who lands a dream job at a tech company called The Circle. Skeptical at first, she comes to embrace The Circle’s vision of total openness and transparency, until ultimately uncovering the company’s nefarious agenda. It is based on a novel of the same name by Dave Eggers. The Circle is visually impressive, blending current and speculative technology to bring to life a world where the digital and physical overlap. If Apple made a movie, it would look like this. Clean, simple, elegant. Unfortunately, its message is lost in a plot thinner than an iPhone 7.

The Circle was founded by Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt) and Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and designed by Ty Lafitte (John Boyega). Since growing into a Google-esque tech giant, Ty Lafitte has faded into the background, becoming an Emmanuel Goldstein-like figure who quietly opposes its agenda. The Circle integrates everything about your life into one system, seeking to acquire an ever-increasing amount of personal data, including placing cameras all over the world to monitor and analyze all human activity.

The Circle is a progressive and hip company that provides everything for its employees on its massive campus. Parallels to Apple and Steve Jobs are obvious (Eamon Bailey even holds casual talks where he announces products to his employees). Employees are peer pressured into conformity and relying on The Circle for social acceptance, entertainment, and even health. While employees are continually encouraged to “become more transparent,” Stenton and Bailey operate in secrecy, hiding their future plans and true motivations. Their agenda is so secret, not even the film’s audience ever finds out what they’re up to.

Is privacy important? Is transparency always good? Those are the questions I thought this film set out to explore. Don’t expect any clear answers. Mae Holland is converted to The Circle’s philosophy after she steals a kayak and would have drowned in San Francisco Bay if not for the cameras secretly recording her activity. She decides to go “fully transparent,” broadcasting her every experience through cameras. Later, however, she is pressured into using this technology to find her ex-boyfriend, Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), who flees the cameras and drives off the San Francisco Bridge. Though depressed, she determines to “fix” the system. “When a plane crashes, you make planes safer, you don’t stop flying,” she tells her parents.

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