Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

For F*** Magazine

VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS 

Director : Luc Besson
Cast : Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Rutger Hauer
Genre : Action/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 2h 17m
Opens : 20 July 2017
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

20 years after The Fifth Element, Luc Besson takes another crack at the space opera subgenre with this sprawling sci-fi epic. It is the 28th century, and Major Valerian (DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Delevingne) are Federation operatives tasked with keeping the peace across the cosmos. Valerian is drawn to Laureline, but because of his reputation as a serial heartbreaker, Laureline rebuffs her partner’s advances. The minister of defence (Hancock) sends the pair on assignment to Alpha, a bustling space station metropolis home to 30 million inhabitants of every conceivable species, nicknamed ‘the city of a thousand planets’. When Valerian and Laureline’s superior Arün Filitt (Owen) is kidnapped, they must get to the bottom of a long-buried conspiracy. Along the way, the pair meets colourful characters including the shape-shifting nightclub singer Bubble (Rihanna) and her sleazy pimp Jolly (Hawke).

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is based on the classic French comic Valerian and Laureline, created by writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières and first published in 1967. When writer-director Besson was growing up, the comics were a favourite of his, and they became a strong influence of The Fifth Element. Mézières was a concept artist on that film, and pre-dating that, many French observers noted strong similarities between the aesthetic of Star Wars and that of Valerian and Laureline. An anime adaptation called Time Jam: Valerian and Laureline was made in 2007, but a feature film adaptation hasn’t been made until now.

This is clearly a labour of love for Besson, and it’s abundantly obvious that lots of people put staggering amounts of effort into bringing this film to fruition. Environments bursting with imaginative detail are all over the movie. There is extensive, expansive visual effects work from vendors including Weta Digital, ILM, Rodeo FX and Hybride. While the film is fun to look at, after a certain point, it becomes exhausting, as if one has gotten indigestion after a feast for the eyes. This is yet another example of an adaptation being late to its own party – in between 1967 and now, audiences have seen similar visuals in many sci-fi films and TV shows. Beyond the obvious Star Wars and Star Trek connections, Valerian is also quite reminiscent of the Mass Effect video games. There is a race of slender, sylph-like tribal aliens with translucent, glowing skin, which will instantly conjure up memories of the Na’vi from Avatar.

Besson busies himself far more with the world-building than with developing the story. The plot is surprisingly difficult to follow, until everything is laid out in an exposition-heavy scene towards the film’s conclusion. While the action set pieces and chases are relatively thrilling, every other scene feels like a diversion, and it seems like we take extended breaks from furthering the plot to poke around some corner of some extra-terrestrial city. Our heroes don’t go through that grand an arc, and because of the episodic nature of the central adventure, it seems like we’re watching a stretched-out episode of a TV series. Audiences might be tired of origin stories, but perhaps that would have served this well, since most viewers outside France aren’t overly familiar with the property.

The film’s biggest weakness is the casting of its two leads. At every turn, DeHaan and Delevingne look woefully out of place amidst the dazzlingly designed surroundings. Valerian and Laureline should be swashbuckling action heroes, charismatic, larger-than-life figures. DeHaan and Delevingne aren’t the obvious picks to lead a sci-fi action adventure, and that’s a significant problem. Leaning into, instead of rejecting, the archetypes would play better, since this is something of a tribute to the space opera genre. Beyond their inability to convincingly inhabit the other-worldly environments, DeHaan and Delevingne have minimal chemistry with each other. The bickering rom-com relationship is tiring rather than tantalising, most of their interaction consists of Valerian harassing Laureline, and a lot of their dialogue borders on Star Wars prequel, Padmé and Anakin cheesiness.

The movie is packed with characters, but none of the supporting cast has that big an impact on the story. Owen does next to nothing, and Kris Wu stands around the control room a bunch. Hancock mostly appears as an image on the screen giving orders to our heroes via video call. Rihanna gets an extended dance sequence, which is entertaining, but is yet another moment when it feels like the story comes to a screeching halt to turn its attention to a distraction. Her character Bubble is sympathetic and is more interesting that either Valerian or Laureline, but she’s only in the film for a bit. Hawke has fun as the cheerfully cruel Jolly, but it amounts to little than a cameo.

Valerian serves up spectacle in spades, and packs in a lot of weirdness that’s sufficiently different from standard Hollywood blockbuster fare. However, it can’t help but feel derivative, even if its source material is a progenitor of the media that this film appears to borrow from. This is meant to be a light-hearted jaunt, but a key plot point centres on war crimes and genocide. It’s often close to being immersive, but is hampered by marked unevenness and miscast leads.

Summary: Visually, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets serves up bang for your buck, but no matter how dazzling the effects or how thrilling the action, you’ll have a hard time believing Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as space-hopping super agents.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Suicide Squad

For F*** Magazine

SUICIDE SQUAD

Director : David Ayer
Cast : Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Karen Fukuhara, Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje, Cara Delevingne, Jay Hernandez, Adam Beach, Ben Affleck
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 2 hrs 3 mins
Opens : 4 August 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

Suicide Squad posterThe heroes of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) have been pretty sullen thus far, so here we get to know if bad guys really have more fun (spoiler: they do). Government official Amanda Waller (Davis) assembles ‘Task Force X’, a covert team of supervillains coerced into doing her dirty work. On the roster are hitman Deadshot/Floyd Lawton (Smith), the unhinged ex-psychiatrist Harley Quinn/Harleen Quinzel (Robbie), cannibalistic beast Killer Croc/Waylon Jones (Akinnouye-Agbaje), Aussie bank robber Captain Boomerang/Digger Harkness (Courtney), pyrokinetic gangster El Diablo/Chato Santana (Hernandez), assassin Slipknot/Christopher Weiss (Beach) and the possessed archaeologist Enchantress/June Moone (Delevingne). Wrangling the team are elite operative Rick Flag (Kinnaman) and swordswoman Katana/Tatsu Yamashiro (Fukuhara). When a powerful mystical entity throws Midway City into chaos, Task Force X are sent in to mitigate the situation. Between the in-fighting, Waller’s machinations and the intervention of the Joker (Leto), the object of Harley’s affections, it will be anything but smooth sailing.

Suicide Squad group shot 1

This year’s Batman v Superman took quite the beating from critics and while many conceded that the extended Ultimate Edition was a massive improvement, the damage was done. The DCEU has a great deal of catching up to do, seeing as how Marvel continues to rule the roost at the cinemas. A Suicide Squad movie is a step in the right direction: it’s smaller than your typical superhero blockbuster so it won’t feel bloated, DC has a rich menagerie of villains to play with, and it won’t take itself too seriously. Writer-director David Ayer is an excellent get: he has a proven track record of grimy, street-level flicks carried by characters who wouldn’t normally be considered likeable. This is messy fun, akin to splashing about in mud. It’s not always pleasant, nor is it meant to be, but it’s enjoyable in its own way.

Suicide Squad Margot Robbie and Jared Leto

There’s plenty of dark comedy to be mined from the inherent dysfunction of the titular team, and while some of the jokes feel crowbarred in, the tone is generally appropriate for the material. The dialogue occasionally sounds like it’s trying too hard to sound tough, but the interplay within the team is engaging. At 123 minutes, it’s a smidgen too long, with multiple flashbacks required to fill the audience in on the backstories of our many characters. However, it scuttles along at a satisfactory pace and the action flies thick and fast. It’s far from the most aesthetically pleasing comic book film and it’s easy to see why several design choices (most having to do with Joker and Harley) have been decried by fans. However, there are moments that are visually exciting, and the lack of polish belies a healthy amount of visceral thrills.

Suicide Squad Will Smith and Joel Kinnaman

Ayer does a decent job of juggling quite a number of characters, by delineating which ones are worthy of exploration, and which ones just serve to fill a slot on the attendance sheet. The film retains the key component of Deadshot’s attachment to his daughter, and casting Will Smith means no matter how many times the character proclaims he’s a “bad guy”, we’ll have at a least a little sympathy for him. The emotional moments don’t work as well as they should, but Deadshot is appropriately quippy and cocky, with Smith’s charisma serving as a rallying point for the rest of the film. Does his star power pull one out of it? It turns out, not as much as you’d expect.

Suicide Squad Margot Robbie

Harley Quinn is a fan-favourite for many reasons, and when the character was reinvented during DC’s New 52 comics reboot, writer Adam Glass even received death threats. As such, Robbie’s performance won’t fit the ideal Harley in everyone’s heads, but this reviewer feels she displays a good understanding of the character, sprightly physicality and is immense fun to watch. Harley’s twisted joie de vivre is faithful to the source material, even if the outfit she sports for the bulk of the movie isn’t.

Suicide Squad Jared Leto

The Joker is wisely not overused. Leto’s on-set antics, including mailing a severed pig’s head to co-star Davis, raised a lot of eyebrows. He makes for a fine Joker who feels like he fits right into this particular cinematic universe, and it might sound silly, but this reviewer was thrilled to hear Harley call the Joker “Puddin’” and “Mistah J” on the big screen. It’s not as virtuosic a performance as the late Heath Ledger’s, but it fits the requirements of the story. Similarly, the way Batman is used in the narrative is just right – it’s not a sizeable part, but he does make an impact and provides connective tissue to the rest of the DCEU.

Suicide Squad Viola Davis

A key factor in making the audience buy the outlandish premise is by putting someone scary enough in charge, and Davis’ authoritative presence anchors Suicide Squad. Her Amanda Waller is nigh perfect, no-nonsense and manipulative without being one-note, and Davis’ gravitas is a force to be reckoned with. Kinnaman is probably a better fit for the straight arrow soldier than the originally-cast Tom Hardy would’ve been.

Suicide Squad Jai Courtney and Karen Fukuhara

Courtney is a hoot here – he may have had little success as a cookie cutter action hero, but as the crass Aussie thug, he’s right on the money. Hernandez provides a surprising amount of heart as the repentant former gangster, while Akinnuoye-Agbaje competently fills the role of burly big guy (Croc’s head just seems too big for his body). Alas, Delevingne isn’t convincing as an archaeologist or as an ancient witch. The central antagonist, whose identity we shan’t spoil, serves as a formidable physical and psychological threat to the Squad while not requiring too much characterisation, so we can focus on the team members themselves. It’s also convenient that the villain’s minions are faceless monsters, so they can get shot at and hacked apart in graphic fashion without breaking the PG-13 limit.

Suicide Squad group shot 2

Suicide Squad has its flaws, but the film scores a victory in not trying to ape the Marvel Studios formula. Like its central characters, it’s unpolished and rough around the edges. It’s spirited and entertaining without sacrificing too much of the graveness that has become DC’s calling card at the movies. The story is relatively easy to follow even for a neophyte, but fans will be rewarded with a couple of cool cameos and plenty of Easter Eggs, including a respectful nod to writer John Ostrander, who co-created the Suicide Squad team in the comics. Stick around for a mid-credits scene after the main-on-end titles.

Summary: It won’t please everyone, but Suicide Squad is an ideal marriage of director and comic book property. Jump on in and get messy.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Pan

From F*** Magazine

PAN

Director : Joe Wright
Cast : Levi Miller, Garrett Hedlund, Hugh Jackman, Rooney Mara, Amanda Seyfried, Leni Zieglmeier, Adeel Akhtar, Cara Delevingne, Jack Charles, Na Tae Joo, Nonso Anozie, Kathy Burke, Kurt Egyiawan, Lewis MacDougall
Genre : Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 112 mins
Opens : 8 October 2015
Rating : PG (Some Frightening Scenes and Violence)

The boy who would never grow old is also apparently the well that would never run dry, as here we are with yet another return to Neverland, this time to see how Peter Pan began. Peter (Miller) is an orphan in World War II-era England, who alongside his best friend Nibs (Lewis McDougall) bedevils the strict nuns who run the orphanage, holding out hope that his mother will one day return for him. One night, Peter gets spirited away via flying pirate ship to the magical realm of Neverland, where he is forced to work in the mines run by the flamboyant, tyrannical Blackbeard (Jackman). Peter befriends fellow miner James Hook (Hedlund) and along with Smee (Akhtar), they escape the mines. They run into Tiger Lily (Mara), princess of the Piccaninny tribe, who helps Peter discover his destiny and unveils the mysterious truth about Peter’s mother. With Blackbeard closing in, Peter must overcome his doubts and embrace his place as Neverland’s saviour.

Since Peter Pan’s creation by author J.M. Barrie in 1902, the character and the mythos has been adapted and reinterpreted innumerable times for the stage and screen. Pan hops aboard the “revisionist fairy-tale” bandwagon, recounting Peter’s secret origins. “This isn’t the story you’ve heard before,” the opening voiceover by Peter’s mother Mary (Seyfried) proudly proclaims. The thing is, the embellishments add very little to the story as we know it, with allusions to events that will unfold later on coming off less as knowing winks and more as on-the-nose insertions. Peter Pan’s early days as an orphan give the story a Dickensian spin and the visual of a flying pirate ship taking on RAF and Luftwaffe fighter planes during the Blitz is fun, but ultimately relatively pointless. That’s a good way to sum up Pan – “fun, but ultimately relatively pointless.”

Director Joe Wright set out to craft a family-friendly live-action fantasy adventure, and it turns out there aren’t that many of those in theatres these days. It is a positive sign that Pan avoids being dark and grim and embraces the joy that has become associated with Peter Pan. Visually, it is pretty to look at, production designer Aline Bonetto crafting some dazzling mini-worlds. However, it isn’t anything radically inventive, the look of Neverland’s various environs owing a lot to previous versions of the story and other fantasy films. Complaining about computer-generated imagery has become tiresome in and of itself, but the synthetic feel of the settings and creatures undercuts the whimsy and wonder the film is aiming for. There is a frustrating lack of soul behind the visuals, and this reviewer found himself switching off at times because there wasn’t anything to, pardon the pun, hook on to. The most egregious offenders are the skeletal Neverbirds, which look like rejects from The Nightmare Before Christmas and are straight-up cartoony in appearance, never seeming like they convincingly inhabit the landscape.

There are things about the film that work, chief of which is the title character. Australian child actor Miller is a revelation as Peter, fearlessly holding his own opposite Jackman and the other adult cast-members. There’s a fine blend of confidence, impishness and vulnerability in his performance which made this reviewer never question that he was the right choice to play Peter Pan. Miller also has enough personality such that he doesn’t come across as a too-cutesy production line Disney Channel moppet. There’s a messiah element to this interpretation of Peter – his mother is even named “Mary” – but that symbolism isn’t very meaningfully explored. Wait, Mary Darling was the mother of Wendy, John and Michael…it can’t be the same Mary, can it? This is confusing.

Jackman appears to have been paid in scenery, which he wolfs down with gusto, going the full Tim Curry as Blackbeard. He’s clearly having the time of his life, rocking the over-the-top Jacqueline Durran-designed costumes. He even gets to lead a chorus of miners in singing Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit – a delightfully bizarre anachronism that effectively highlights the “outside of time” nature of Neverland. There was never any question as to whether or not he would be entertaining and Jackman’s sinister glee papers over some of the cracks in the well-worn story.

Captain Hook is reimagined as a charming rogue very firmly in the Han Solo mould, with Hedlund drawling and smirking his way through the part. Hedlund is pretty bland, lacking the dangerous charisma that should hint at Hook’s destiny as Peter’s arch-nemesis. The “friend-turned-enemies” plot device is kind of tired and is yet another example of an attempt to put a spin on things that is only semi-successful at best.

Mara is also quite stiff as Tiger Lily, the Princess Leia to Hook’s Han, even though she does get to partake in the action. There was a degree of controversy surrounding the casting of a, well, lily-white actress in the part, seeing as the Piccaninny Tribe are analogous to Native Americans. In the film, the tribe is composed of various ethnicities and we even get Korean actor Na Tae-joo as martial arts fighter Kwahu, who seems awfully reminiscent of Hook’s iconic Rufio. It’s a shame that the role was whitewashed, since there really is no justification for Tiger Lily not being played by a person of colour, especially given the dearth of roles in Hollywood for actors of Native American origin. On the other hand, the typically-white Mr. Smee is played by Adeel Akhtar, a British actor of Pakistani origin. Akhtar displays solid comedic chops, his Smee doing a fair amount of the expected bumbling about.

Under the guise of reinventing the story of Peter Pan, Pan walks a well-trodden path, presenting a bog-standard hero’s journey/chosen one plot that just happens to be set in a fantastical location. There are entertaining sequences, a few genuinely creative sparks and good performances, but the CGI-heavy visuals are insufficiently enchanting and screenwriter Jason Fuchs doesn’t make many worthwhile additions to the mythology. “To live will be an awfully big adventure,” Barrie famously wrote. We guess a medium-sized adventure will have to suffice.


Summary: A middling fantasy adventure that never quite takes flight, Pan is another revisionist fairy-tale that doesn’t fully justify its existence, but should be fun enough for the tykes in the audience.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong