Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Besson; 2017)

Even if you don’t immediately recognize the name Luc Besson, you will most certainly recognize at least a few of his movies.  In 1990 the French director brought us La Femme Nikita, not his first film, but the first most moviegoers are likely to recognize, in 1994 he gave us Leon: The Professional,  and 1997 The Fifth Element.  He also wrote the first two films in the Taken series.  That’s a damn good resume for someone who isn’t a household name outside of Europe.  While he has been steadily working in some form in the film industry this entire time, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is his first major cinematic directorial release in some time.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is based on the French comic book series “Valerian and Laureline” which was initially published in 1967 and has since influenced a lot of modern science fiction including Star Wars and the aforementioned The Fifth Element.   Valerian is very much a space opera as opposed to more real world based science fiction.  There is no explanation of the science behind the events and gadgets used in the story, it’s just enough that they exist and that they evoke a reaction.  Valerian, therefore, really has more in common with classic fantasy like “Lord of the Rings” than it does with harder science fiction like Blade Runner or “Star Trek”.


Major Valerian is brought to life on screen by Dane DeHaan who appears to be doing his best Keanu Reeves impersonation.  He speaks and intones so much like Keanu for the entire film, I kept waiting for the “Whoa!”  Valerian’s partner and love interest Sergeant Laureline is played by Cara Delevigne whom we last saw as The Enchantress in Academy Award winning mess which was Suicide Squad.  She gives a better performance here than she did in last year’s film, but it still seems like Besson like Snyder last year is more interested in making sure we see what a fantastic body Delevigne has than how well she can portray a character.  As a heterosexual male I can definitely appreciate a good looking woman on screen, especially when she’s portrayed as a strong equal, if not superior, of any given man, alien, or robot around her, but when every scene comes up with an excuse for her to be wearing essentially underwear and even her full body combat suit she wears later is contoured to show off every last bit of her figure, it gets creepy and distracting.  I say this as more of a commentary on Besson as a director, though, and not of Delevigne’s performance, as she shows here she can have a very commanding presence on screen, and in my opinion was the best actor and character in the film.  Of the supporting cast, Rhianna gives the most interesting performance, but her character leaves the film far too quickly in my opinion, only staying around for a couple of scenes, and she is also as much a voice actor as a physical presence due to the very interesting nature of her role which I won’t spoil here.

The writing of the film is a bit of a mess, though a fun mess, trying to include a bit too much and therefore not fleshing out anything as much as it needs to be and leaving far too many frayed and swinging plot threads.  The main story surrounding the mystery regarding the destruction of a paradise planet 30 years before the film’s events is a good anchor for Valerian‘s story, and to the writer’s credit all the subplots branch into and out of this main plot fairly seamlessly and thoughtfully.  The problems come in when those subplots themselves are just left open.  Characters vowing to destroy our heroes are never seen again.  Interesting backstories are brought into play, only to be left by the wayside due to the interests of the main plot, and so on. In addition, certain major beats in the story make little sense or can be downright contradictory when a bit of thought is put into them, making one wonder how they made their way into the story in the first place.


The spectacle on display in Valerian is absolutely top notch.  If nothing else can be said about the film, it is most certainly a delight for the eyes with its highly creative settings, creatures, gadgets, and situations which involve every environment you can think of including multi-dimensional settings which can have our characters in multiple environments at the same time (this was my favorite part of the film), more alien, truly alien sometimes, beings than you can take in in one viewing, and a near overload of motion and color.  This is a space opera nerds dream come true in many ways, though lovers of more traditional hard science fiction may roll their eyes at much of what is going on, and those who don’t care for science fiction in any form will most likely not understand why anyone would want to see this.


Final verdict:  Valerian is a mess, but it is a beautiful and fun mess.  The plot makes just enough sense to hold the story together and keep our interest, but it falls apart upon any sort of inspection whatsoever.  The acting is all over the place from Dane DeHaan channeling Keanu Reeves to play his role for him to Clive Owen’s cartoonish villainy to Cara Delevigne’s actually nuanced performance marred by the oversexualization of the actress (though, oddly, not the character).  If knowing a film is visually creative with non-stop action and neat takes on science is enough to pique your interest, then you should definitely see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets in the theater, in IMAX and 3-D if possible, where it is really meant to be seen.  If a strong story, character development, and some grounding in reality are necessary for you, though, Valerian is one to avoid, even when it comes out for the small screen in the future as then even its strengths won’t truly be on display as they are meant to be.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts; 2017)

Spider-Man: Homecoming is called such because it is the first Spider-Man film since Marvel originally sold the rights to the character and those surrounding him to Sony way way back at the turn of the millenium.  Since then Sam Raimi has made three movies featuring the character being played by Toby Maguire, one of them actually really good, and Andrew Garfield took on the role twice, and was meant to play him a third time, but Sony realized they didn’t really know what they were doing.  So, while Sony did not give the rights to Spider-Man back to Marvel, they did turn to Marvel for help, and the result is an agreement in which Sony retains the rights to produce and distribute the Spider-Man solo films, but Marvel gets to include him in their cinematic universe, Sony gets to include the Marvel Universe in their films,  and Marvel oversees the writing on the solo films so that the character and the world he is in are done justice.  Spider-Man has left his bubble created by Sony and has come home to the world he began in.

We got to see a bit more than a glimpse of Marvel’s take on Spider-Man last year in Captain America: Civil War. and regardless of what you thought of the film as a whole, though it was well received, you were looked at really funny if you didn’t agree that Tom Holland was a fantastic choice as the actor to portray the wall-crawler, and that the writing of the character was spot on.  Now we get to see how Tom Holland does when he has to take the spotlight for more than twenty minutes, and when given the chance to anchor an entire story surrounding him, Tom Holland shines even more brightly.


Spider-Man: Homecoming is more than just a superhero movie, it is also a coming-of-age character piece which uses the superheroic conflict as the means through which our teenage protagonist grows into, if not manhood, then at least his next stage in life.  Tom Holland gives us a spot on Peter Parker and Spider-Man, showing his vulnerability, his awkwardness, horrible luck, and his friendly but nerdy nature as Peter Parker, then changing into the wise-cracking, blustering superhero when the time comes as a means to hide what is really a lack of confidence.  This is a facet of the character that has been missed in all the earlier cinematic incarnations, the fact that his jokes are really just a way of covering up his inferiority complex, and it is fantastic to finally see it realized on the big screen.  Another part of the character that we apparently needed Marvel on board to see is his remarkable intelligence, and that we get here, too.  Only his youth and inexperience keep Peter Parker from being one of the preeminent brains in the universe of Marvel comics, and we see that in Spider-Man: Homecoming, as well, both his genius and the inexperience that holds him back.

A character piece is best when there is more than one strong character, however, and definitely get quite a few here.  I could write quite a bit about the crew of high school friends that surround Peter in his everyday life or about Marisa Tomei’s unique but great take on the now not-so-decrepit Aunt May because they are all very well written and acted, but instead I’ll tell you that Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes a.k.a. Vulture is not only a very well written and well rounded foil, I believe that he is the best villain yet in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (though, not quite the Netflix shows).  While he may not have near the charm of Tom Holland’s Loki, he makes up for that in being a real person. This is the first Marvel villain with real motivations, real ambitions, and isn’t just a stereotyped cartoon that is around solely for the good guys to overcome.  Vulture in the comics is not only a bad villain, he is one of the worst villains ever put to page in 4 colors, however he is a good foil for the very early Spider-Man still learning his powers.  Spider-Man: Homecoming realizes this, modernizes the character, makes him far more threatening than just an old man in a suit that can fly, but not so threatening that The Avengers would take much notice of him. While this would probably be enough to make a good foe for Spider-Man’s first solo outing, they go the extra mile and make him a character with motives we understand and can even see ourselves going along with under the right circumstances as well as a character who challenges the teenage Spider-Man’s intelligence and ethics, allowing Peter Parker to grow as a person as well as as a superhero.


But, if you go to a comic book movie to see action and characters are just a nice bonus, you still will not be disappointed.  The film spreads out its action set pieces at excellent intervals and all of them show off the agility, strength, intelligence, and big mouth of our favorite costumed arachnid.  Special effects have advanced a bit since Andrew Garfield’s turn in the red and blue suit, and an awful lot since Tobey Maguire’s day, and we can get a real sense of the speed Spider-Man has, as well as the limitations in scenes such as a hilarious bit in which Spider-Man finds himself in the countryside rather than the city and realizes he can’t swing on his webs to the rescue, like never before.  The action bits take on true creativity as Spider-Man and Vulture learn from one another over time and learn to counteract the regular strategies the other uses, making for action that relies on the intelligence of the pro and antagonist as much or more than on their superpowers.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is not content to be just a good action movie and character piece, though, it also is finally a well realized coming of age story.  It’s not a movie about beating the bad guy as much as it’s a movie about Peter Parker growing into the man he needs to be.  This is going to be a journey made over multiple films, so I don’t think this movie is meant to show us the end of his personal growth, but the true catharsis at film’s end is not that Spider-Man beats the bad guy, but how, and what he learns from this in his life as Peter Parker.


The film does have some flaws.  The fact that it is in the Marvel Universe and the writing was overseen by Kevin Feige added a ton to the film, but the way Iron Man and Happy Hogan were included in the action was awkward.  Happy is given a role of Peter’s watchdog, which seems odd enough on its own, but then he performs these duties by acting as if he doesn’t want them.  Tony Stark himself, also, only seems to be in the movie as less a mentor and more a harsh critic until the end when he suddenly turns 180 degrees without our being shown the change of heart.  This all adds up to a really awkward and unnecessary tie in to the rest of the MCU which probably would have been best left out and merely hinted at.  They also do something odd with an incredibly iconic Spider-Man character, nearly as iconic as Spider-Man himself, that makes for a character who may as well be someone else entirely, just with the same name, and while we will have to wait and see how that plays out in future films, it just seems like a really unusual decision in a film that otherwise manages to nail nearly every major part of the Spider-Man mythos.


Final verdict:  Spider-Man: Homecoming finally brings us the Spider-Man from the comics to the big screen, and does so in a way that isn’t merely action packed, but also thoughtful and with characters as well rounded and authentic as you could hope for in a comic book movie.   I left the theater knowing that I had just seen the best portrayal of Spider-Man himself ever put on screen, but not sure if the movie itself was better than Spider-Man 2, my favorite of the previous Spider-Man films.  I decided that not only was it better, but that it was a great movie for all the same reasons, just that they took everything Spider-Man 2 did to another level.  Yes, I did say Spider-Man: Homecoming is a great movie, and therefore I wholeheartedly recommend it to all but the most ardent detractors of the modern superhero movie.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Snyder; 2016)

Could it be possible that the ancient Greeks didn’t actually worship Zeus, Hercules, Aphrodite, and the rest of the Olympian crew?  That they were just popular stories that we mistake for worship today due to their prevalence?  I can very much see our superhero stories being mistaken for worship two thousand years from now when the remains of our society are being uncovered, because Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and their crew serve very much the same purpose as those stories with the Greek pantheon in them.  This is even more the case with the superheroes from DC than from Marvel, as the DC heroes are far more powerful, far more perfect, far more pure than those in the Marvel universe.  If Zack Snyder has given us a glimpse into the modern day version of the ancient gods, then all I can come away with from Batman v Superman is that the gods must be crazy.

A popular, common, and personal favorite theme in superhero stories is the idea of what it means to be a hero.  Do heroes kill?  Do they lie?  Is there any part of a code of honor that can mean they aren’t a hero?  Some of the greatest superhero stories ever written tackle questions along these lines, and while the questions aren’t possible to ever answer, pondering on them can make us evaluate our own ethics and actions, make us examine our own lives and see how badly we find ourselves wanting. I thought that perhaps Batman v Superman was trying to explore these themes early in the film, as our characters both seemed to be more interested in power than in morality.  Superman is powerful, therefore he must be killed, and from Superman we get what seems to be a self absorbed alien who wants to be good but has no idea what we silly Earthlings want from him.


This trial thing seems so inefficient.  Why don’t you just punch things really hard?

As the film went on, though, I could see that it was just that the writers (Terrio and Goyer) and director (Snyder) had no idea how to give a character, any character, a meaningful motivation and had the characters do whatever was cool for the moment.  This is made even more frustrating as the tone of the film is intensely serious with nary a joke to be found (okay, there are one or two, but none are good enough to remember) and the film does actually try to touch on serious themes involving power in religion and politics, but can’t help but fail in these explorations as the characters themselves seem to have no good reason to be taking any of the actions they are.

This lack of motivation leads to another problem with the characters, and that is the fact that these people don’t really resemble their counterparts from the comic books.  This isn’t always a problem.  Heath Ledger’s Joker only barely resembled the Joker from the comics, but it was such a well written character and fantastic performance that it didn’t really matter.  It was a brilliant revisioning of a classic character.  Here, though, we just have characters with only a passing resemblance and no consistency.  Batman doesn’t kil, unless he does occasionally, and Lex Luthor almost seems to be the most consistently moral person here, until he completely and totally contradicts everything that motivates him toward the climax of the movie.


I also have hair again.  Why do I always have hair in the live action versions?

Batman v Superman is far from a complete failure.  While the writing is sloppy, Ben Affleck as Batman gives his all in trying to turn the mess of a script into a strong performance, as does Amy Adams in her  turn as Lois Lane (not true for Cavill as Superman nor Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, unfortunately).  The special effects and action sequences are a lot of fun and completely over the top, for the most part in a fun way, though occasionally even the special effects fall into the lack of consistency trap and go a little too over the top (the Batmobile apparently can drive through concrete and steel buildings without even slowing down).  Finally seeing Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) on the big screen doing her thing as well as has ever been done live action is also a real treat, but I fear this is only largely due to her relative lack of screen time.

Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice is a fun film, and if all you care about in your fun is bombastic fights and special effects then I have no qualms about recommending you see this film, and seeing it in the theater on the biggest screen possible.  If, however, things like theme, character motivation, and consistency in tone mean anything to you, the movie is going to be at least a little of a let down, the amount of a let down being equal to just how important those things are to you.

Rating:  5.5 out of 10

Deadpool (Miller; 2016)

The movie Deadpool has a character named Negasonic Teenage Warhead.  Go see it.


You need more of a reason?  Fine.  Inara from Firefly is in it, too.


She’s hot.

Wow, you really like reading.  All right, I guess I can give you a little more info.  Deadpool is a really simplistic movie, there is only the main plot to follow and no subplots or side stories whatsoever, but simplicity does not mean it doesn’t have style.  If you’ve paid any attention whatsoever to Deadpool‘s marketing campaign you already know that this style is over the top crude metahumor, and from the first moment of the opening credits it is delivered in buckets – bloody, hilarious buckets.

Ryan Reynolds embodies Wade Wilson a.k.a. Deadpool perfectly in the film, it’s the absolute perfect match of character to actor.  This is not at all accidental, as Reynolds is a huge fan of the comic book character and played him once before in the movie X-Men Origins:  Wolverine.  That film botched the character of Deadpool so badly that Reynolds has been petitioning Fox ever since to allow him to do the character right, and now we have the redemption of the character Reynolds and the geekier members of the audience have been waiting for.

The film really is so much fun, and so pure in its, um, impurity that there’s little really to say aside from go see it if your sense of decency doesn’t put too much of a dampener on your sense of humor, but I do feel I need to add to the warning many are giving out there to not under any circumstances take young children to see this film.  They will want to see it, and not just because its another guy running around in spandex, but because Deadpool has appeared in cartoons aimed at children, like the Ultimate Spider Man show, and in the context of those shows the character keeps his sense of humor and self referential commentary, but loses the gore and the crudeness.  That, however, is not the main reason I am emphasizing the warning.  Most parents by now have heard that this film is very rated R and I can’t tell you if your child can handle the sex and violence rampant in Deadpool.  What many aren’t saying, though, is that the character of Deadpool is not a hero.  If there is an overriding theme to the movie of any weight, this is it, and while it’s brought up over and over again, it’s still over the heads of most 8 year-olds that there is a difference between a protagonist and a hero.  If your child is not sophisticated enough to understand this difference, this element of the movie when combined with the insanity in a very fun way of the rest of the film could lead to some very confused child brains.

Deadpool is a fantastic film because it is so fun, and so different.  In an age where superhero stories are getting either more serious or more complicated or both, it’s great to see one that revels in fun and simplicity, yet still remains very, very, very adult.  I understand that, as a surprise to no one, it has already been greenlit for a sequel.  Here’s hoping Dead2pool doesn’t forget what made the first one a fantastic watch.

Rating:  8.2 out of 10  (these ratings are an intensely scientific formula and don’t come at all out of my ass)


You’ll see a lot of this, ladies.