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

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

For F*** Magazine

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016)

Director : Antoine Fuqua
Cast : Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Peter Sarsgaard, Haley Bennett, Matt Bomer
Genre : Action/Western
Run Time : 2 hrs 13 mins
Opens : 22 September 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

the-magnificent-seven-posterDirector Antoine Fuqua is heeding the Village People’s sage advice: “go west”. In this western, the townspeople of Rose Creek are threatened by the avaricious land robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard), who plans on intimidating them into giving up their settlement. Emma Cullen (Bennett), whose husband Matthew (Bomer) was killed by Bogue, desperately engages the services of bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Washington) to take on Bogue. Chisolm assembles a team of men to take on Bogue and his army. They include gambler Joshua Faraday (Pratt), sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Hawke), tracker Jack Horne (D’Onofrio), knife-throwing assassin Billy Rocks (Lee), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Garcia-Rulfo) and Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Sensmeier). Chisolm and his team have to get the Rose Creek residents into fighting shape so they can defend their home from Bogue’s forces.

A remake of 1960’s John Sturges-directed The Magnificent Seven has been in the works for a while, with Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Costner attached at one point. The Magnificent Seven is itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 classic Seven Samurai. Working from a screenplay by True Detective creator Nick Pizzolatto and The Equalizer scribe Richard Wenk, Fuqua strives to create a film that’s true to the spirit of its revered forebears, while also having enough vim and verve to attract todays audiences. The ethnically-diverse cast might seem like a politically correct update, but Fuqua maintains that the reality of the old west was “more modern than the movies have been”, with black cowboys, Asian railroad workers and Native Americans all around. With ethnic minorities still not getting the representation in Hollywood productions that they desire, this is a nice step forward.

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While it is significantly faster in pace than the 1960 film, there are times when this Magnificent Seven drags its hoofs. At 133 minutes, it’s longer than it strictly needs to be. There is the feeling that the film never quite hits its stride, even by the time the protracted climactic battle takes place. That said, it’s still sufficiently entertaining, thanks to the dynamics of the appropriately stellar cast. Mauro Fiore’s cinematography has an old-fashioned sweep to it, the Rose Creek set is reasonably authentic and the action scenes are thankfully light on the shaky-cam. The fight choreography can get pretty elaborate, with lots of trick shots and fancy knife-flinging on show.

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For a film that celebrates old-school machismo, there isn’t too much obnoxious posturing to be found. Washington’s subdued authority makes him the ideal team leader, and he does have a similar quality to Yul Brynner in the 1960 version. He cuts a striking figure astride a horse, and projects manliness without resorting to chest-thumping bravado.

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One can tell that Pratt is having the greatest time here, stepping into the Steve McQueen role. He turns the roguish charm up to 11 and is absolutely irresistible as the wily card sharp, in no small part because he’s enjoying himself that much. There are snarky quips aplenty, and Pratt makes them work without coming off as annoyingly glib. Hawke’s Goodnight probably has the most depth out of all the characters. He’s the tormented veteran stricken with PTSD, and Hawke ably conveys that Goodnight is attempting to conceal his trauma beneath a cool veneer. There is some emotional resonance to the buddy pairing of Goodnight and Billy, who are established as being inseparable. While Lee, being the cool cat he is, fits right in with the others, the character still feels like the designated Asian martial arts guy on the team.

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Both Garcia-Rulfo and Sensmeier don’t have a lot to do, but if this were a boyband, Sensmeier definitely would be ‘the cute one’. D’Onofrio is delightful as Horne, who’s pretty much Chewbacca if he were a human being. He may be able to kill with his bare hands, but he’s still reasonably endearing. Bennett’s character is given a satisfying amount of agency, and is neither extreme of wailing damsel in distress or gun-slinging, rooting-tooting Annie Oakley type.

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The biggest difference between this and the 1960 Magnificent Seven is the primary antagonist. While the predecessor had a Mexican bandit played by Eli Wallach, Sarsgaard’s Bartholomew Bogue seems like a deliberate invoking of present-day Wall Street wolves. It’s not a subtle turn by any means and the character’s intimidation factor comes from the fact that he has an army at his disposal, not because he’s actually all that scary. Sarsgaard is an apt choice to play a snivelling, weaselly one-percenter, though we would’ve appreciated it if he could also throw down with the heroes.

This film features the final work of composer James Horner, who died in a plane crash two years ago. He had composed the score as a surprise for Fuqua; Simon Franglen wrote the additional music. It’s not a patch on the iconic Elmer Bernstein music from the 1960 version, but it gets the job done. While most film music connoisseurs have grown tired of Horner’s repeated use of the four note ‘danger motif’, which is very present in this score, we have to say we’ll miss hearing it.

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The Magnificent Seven is not the breathlessly entertaining romp we hoped it would be, but it isn’t a shameless desecration of the classics on which it is based either. Its political allegories and inclusive casting justify its existence somewhat, and it manages to be nigh-riotously funny and pretty darn intense at the right moments.

Summary: It’s ungainly at times, but an extremely fun cast make The Magnificent Seven ’16 a decently entertaining diversion, even if it won’t be viewed as a classic.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Regression

For F*** Magazine

REGRESSION

Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Cast : Ethan Hawke, Emma Watson, David Thewlis, Lothaire Bluteau, David Dencik, Aaron Ashmore
Genre : Thriller
Run Time : 107 mins
Opens : 3 December 2015
Rating : NC-16 (Sexual Scenes)

Ethan Hawke is out to unearth diabolical secrets in a small town in this mystery thriller. Hawke plays Detective Bruce Kenner of Hoyer, Minnesota, who is investigating the case of John Gray (Dencik). Gray confesses that he sexually assaulted his daughter Angela (Watson) but has no recollection of it. It is 1990 and the wave of “Satanic panic” sweeping America is at its height. Kenner begins to suspect that a devil-worshipping cult might have a hand in the case. Psychology professor Kenneth Raines (Thewlis) is called upon to perform “regression hypnosis”, a therapy intended to unlock repressed memories. Kenner goes to meet with Angela, clearly troubled and now under the care of Reverend Murray (Bluteau). Nobody is above suspicion, including Kenner’s partner, Detective George Nesbitt (Ashmore). As Kenner becomes more preoccupied with the case, he is afflicted by horrifying nightmares – but are they just dreams or something far more sinister?

            Regression is written and directed by Spanish filmmaker Alejandro Amenábar, whose best-known English language film is the Nicole Kidman-starring supernatural thriller The Others. While gloomy, oppressive atmosphere abounds in Regression, actual thrills and scares are scarce. The film claims to be inspired by true events, but it’s referencing the “Satanic panic” of the 80s and early 90s in general rather than any specific case. During this period, many Evangelical Christians were convinced that devil-worshipping, baby-sacrificing cults were operating right under their noses. Regression does that old dance of “maybe something supernatural is afoot, maybe it’s all perfectly explainable,” going around in circles until it reaches its predictable, unsatisfying reveal.

            Hawke has repeatedly proven himself as a talented leading man, but the Bruce Kenner character is a bland protagonist, the likes of which we’ve seen many times before. He’s basically every movie detective ever, yelling at suspects during interrogations, letting the case get under his skin, in danger of being consumed by his quest for the truth, etc. He doesn’t seem to be very good at police work either: if leaping to conclusions were an Olympic sport, then Bruce Kenner would be a gold medallist. This is a movie in which the main character amounts to little more than a plot device.



            Watson is the big draw here, and while she’s certainly competent, she doesn’t get very much to do either. Angela is the scared little girl, the weeping victim. Watson is believable as a small town girl, affecting a convincing accent, but the question of whether Angela is a survivor of unspeakable trauma or is stringing everyone along failed to hook this reviewer’s interest. There is a modicum of amusement to see Thewlis and Watson together onscreen, meaning it’s a Hermione and Remus Lupin reunion. Hoyer is presented as a small town in which everyone is some degree of creepy, though nobody is memorably so. Even Dale Dickey’s crazy cat lady hysterics as Angela’s grandmother Rosie fail to enliven the proceedings.



            Regression partakes in a laundry list of horror clichés, including an obvious, heavy-handed score by Roque Baños, eerie visions of dagger-wielding hooded cultists in white makeup and a jump-scare-by-cat. At the same time, it very much wants to be taken seriously as a grim exposé of how mass paranoia can cloud perception. The hallucinogenic haze never wraps itself around the audience, the spooky misdirection pointless rather than intriguing. Amenábar tries his darndest to sell the movie as a suspenseful mind trip, but most viewers familiar with the genre won’t be fooled for a second. Offering neither riveting tension nor all-out scares, Regression is dour and unsatisfying.

Summary: Regression is ominous in its atmosphere but obvious in its plotting, actors Hawke and Watson unable to imbue it with any energy.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Good Kill

For F*** Magazine

GOOD KILL

Director : Andrew Niccol
Cast : Ethan Hawke, January Jones, Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood, Jake Abel, Peter Coyote, Alma Sisneros, Alma Sisneros
Genre : Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 102 mins
Opens : 28 May 2015
Rating : NC-16 (Coarse Language and Sexual Scenes)
            “The war machine keeps turning” – so sang Black Sabbath in their antiwar anthem “War Pigs”. In the 21st century, the war machine has evolved and the last several years have seen an increase in the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in warzones. Major Thomas Egan (Hawke) is a U.S. Air Force pilot who has been flying UAVs since the demand for manned fighter jets has decreased. It seems like a cushy job, flying the drones via remote control from a base in Las Vegas, far from the thick of it. However, Egan has become disillusioned and longs to be back in the air for real. His work takes a toll on his relationship with his wife Molly (Jones) and when his new co-pilot Vera Suarez (Kravitz) realises the job involves more than she’s bargained for, Egan begins to question the nature of his missions. When the unit is ordered to run ethically dubious missions for the CIA, even Colonel Jack Johns (Greenwood), whom Egan and Suarez answer to, has second thoughts of his own.
            The relationship between Hollywood and the military is a fascinating one. Hollywood is perceived as being run by liberals, but maintaining ties with the military and portraying them in a positive light is key to getting permits and clearances for filming on military installations or gaining privileged access to equipment and personnel. There was even a recent superhero movie that ran army recruitment ads in the theatre before the feature. Good Kill is written and directed by Andrew Niccol, who helmed the underrated, searing arms dealer drama Lord of War. Niccol’s best works, like Lord of War and sci-fi flick Gattaca, examine relevant sociopolitical issues in addition to being stylish and entertaining. Drone warfare is as topical as it gets – the collateral damage resulting from a covert drone strike was recently a major plot point in the fourth season of TV series Homeland. Good Kill spells out its themes in the biggest, blockiest letters available. Watching drone pilots cooped up in a small box flying missions from thousands of miles away does sound somewhat boring, and perhaps this lack of subtlety is compensation for it.

            Niccol takes particular relish in juxtaposing the shiny decadence of the Las Vegas Strip with the life-and-death stakes of the Air Force drone missions being controlled just a few miles out from the casinos and strip clubs, the partygoers oblivious to the war on terror being waged from next door. He has succeeded in creating a war movie unlike any before it, presenting post-traumatic stress disorder and the questioning of authority in a new look but with the same queasy flavour. The disconnect is a big part of it – the targets on the ground are mostly faceless, but so is the ominous voice of Langley, Viriginia over the speakerphone, the CIA portrayed as a shadowy éminence grise. Colonel Jack Johns, played by Bruce Greenwood, gives a big bravura speech to a gaggle of recruits that is gloriously on the nose but yet not out of place in the context of the film. With lines like “this aircraft isn’t the future of war. This is the here and f***ing now” and “war is now a first-person shooter”, the audience is brought up to speed with the changing landscape of combat in layman’s terms, and there’s also the sense that the Colonel is desperately trying to convince himself.

            Ethan Hawke is on a roll following his Oscar nomination for Boyhood, Good Kill reuniting him with Niccol, who directed the actor in Gattaca and Lord of War. Hawke has the unique challenge of playing a shell-shocked soldier who never steps foot into the battlefield and the film is carried by the tormented humanity he imbues the character with. Bruce Greenwood brings his trademark blend of paternal warmth and no-nonsense grit to the role of Colonel Johns, who despite moments like the abovementioned speech, is never a stereotypically over-the-top hard-ass. Unfortunately, January Jones’ character Molly is every bit the stock type of the nagging wife who doesn’t understand the psychological torment her husband suffers as a result of his occupation, even with the requisite scenes that are meant to make her sympathetic. Zoë Kravitz’s Vera Suarez is an archetype as well, the recruit who has her idealism broken down piece by piece. She handles the emotional beats well and is excellent opposite Hawke.


            Good Kill has a lot to say and it does seem like Niccol has taken the effort in understanding the various sides of the drone warfare argument. However, it doesn’t quite need 104 minutes to say what it does and while it is bereft of the raw bombast of most war films, it is still painted in very broad strokes. Even with these shortcomings, the film still is adequately unsettling, tense and moving.
Summary:A different breed of war film, Good Killcan get heavy-handed and repetitive in its exploration of the moral implications of drone warfare, but still has its powerful moments and is anchored by a superb leading performance from Ethan Hawke.
RATING: 3out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong
            

Cymbeline

For F*** Magazine

CYMBELINE 

Director : Michael Almereyda
Cast : Ethan Hawke, Milla Jovovich, Dakota Johnson, Penn Badgley, Anton Yelchin, Ed Harris, John Leguizamo, Delroy Lindo, Bill Pullman
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 99 mins
Opens : 30 April 2015
Rating : NC-16 (Some Violence)
Shakespeare is the gift that keeps on giving, artists of all kinds continuing to find inspiration in the Bard’s work centuries after his death. The play Cymbeline provides the basis for this crime drama, which updates the setting of Ancient Britain to the present day. Instead of being the King of Britain, Cymbeline (Harris) is the leader of the Briton biker gang. His daughter Imogen (Johnson) is in love with the lowly Posthumus (Badgley), whom Cymbeline has taken on as a protégé, and has married him in secret. An enraged Cymbeline exiles Posthumus. Iachimo (Hawke) bets Posthumus that he can seduce Imogen and bring him proof. In the meantime, Cymbeline’s wife the Queen (Jovovich) hatches a plot to murder Cymbeline and have Cloten (Yelchin), her son from an earlier marriage, marry Imogen so he can usurp Cymbeline’s place as head of the gang. Also under threat is the fragile truce between Cymbeline and corrupt policeman Caius Lucius (Vondie Curtis-Hall), the King’s empire slipping through his fingers.

            Cymbelineis adapted and directed by Michael Almereyda, known for his 2000 film adaptation of Hamlet. Almereyda’s Hamlet, which starred Ethan Hawke in the title role, was also a setting update – Hawke delivers the “To be or not to be” soliloquy while wandering the aisles of a video rental store. With Cymbeline, Almereyda was clearly inspired by Kurt Sutter’s TV series Sons of Anarchy, which revolves around a biker gang and takes inspiration from Hamlet. Cymbeline was even titled “Anarchy” at one point. Alas, it’s very clear that Almereyda is struggling to jam a square peg into a round hole, but not for lack of trying. The film strains to make its re-contextualisation a successful one, ultimately failing. Cymbeline is generally not regarded as one of Shakespeare’s greater plays and it has been noted that it recycles elements from the Bard’s earlier works, including Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Hamlet.

            Second-rate Shakespeare is still high art, and this adaptation retains most of the original dialogue. Hearing the signature iambic pentameter outside of its intended context can be jarring if handled clumsily, and this take on Cymbeline has butter fingers. The original text has been abridged but not streamlined, the dense, labyrinth plot still pretty confusing. While Ethan Hawke looks like he knows what he’s doing, Penn Badgley and Spencer Treat Clark often deliver their lines as if they were reading the ingredients off the back of a shampoo bottle. Anton Yelchin bites into the Cloten role with glee, but his whiny performance gets annoying pretty fast. Regardless of how good an actor one is, it’s impossible to make the line “On her left breast/A mole cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops/I’ th’ bottom of a cowslip” sound naturalistic in a contemporary context, and perhaps it was never meant to be that way.

            Ed Harris as the tough leader of a biker gang? Sure, we’ll buy that. Ed Harris as the tough leader of a biker gang trying to make the line “Thou took’st a beggar; wouldst have made my throne a seat for baseness” sound like something the tough leader of a biker gang would actually say? That’s a harder sell. Both Milla Jovovich and Dakota Johnson are very stiff throughout the film, Johnson playing Imogen with an “ugh, whatever” air. Jovovich does get to perform an appropriately moody cover of Bob Dylan’s “Dark Eyes”, one of several atmospheric touches that are limited in their effectiveness thanks to everything else.

            We know we sound like a broken record, going on about how awkward and stilted the film comes off in its presentation, but that’s because Cymbelinecould have been saved. It could have worked as a dramatic romance set against a war between a biker gang and corrupt cops, had Almereyda not been so precious about retaining the original text. There’s an attempt at verisimilitude, with characters scrolling through photo galleries on their iPads and looking up locations on Google Maps, but it still rings false. Re-contextualisations can work, if they’re handled deftly enough or if they revel in the silliness of the premise and spin a colourful alternate world around the story. Cymbeline is neither and falls flat because of it.

Summary:Some excellent actors and several mediocre ones are all left high and dry by this unwieldy adaptation that most audiences will find alienating and odd.
RATING: 2out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong