Category Archives: Reviews

Reviews of books, movies, music, and maybe even games.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is easily the least enjoyable film I’ve seen this year. It started off pretty well, and then our main characters took the screen and the movie began to plummet through my ratings, landing squarely at the bottom long before the final credits rolled.

At least two people walked out of the showing early and did not return. Perhaps they could no longer stand the embarrassment of continuing to watch the movie, or maybe they stepped out to use the restroom, and found that the smell of disinfectant was such a refreshing change they prolonged their excretory lounging by an hour.

Harsh? Yes, that’s pretty harsh. The movie earned it.

I really wanted to enjoy this movie. I was prepared to ignore major failings in order to get an awesome space opera fix. I brought my extra-strength suspenders of disbelief, and tried to pretend I didn’t care about character motivation, but it wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough. I found myself actually cringing in my seat, physically curling up in a sort of full-body wince, over and over, right up until the last scene, which was one of the worst of the film.

Here is a quick list of the movie’s top failings:

  • Infodumps! And not just maid-and-butler dialog, either. There were scenes that played out like a bored kindergarten teacher reading a Wikipedia article to a room full of robots.
  • Dane HeHaan¹, who played Valerian, sounded like he was doing a Keanu Reeves imitation, except he left out all the emotion.
  • Cara Delevingne², the actress who played Laureline, totally convinced me that Laureline was an android.
  • Half of the film’s dialog was throwaway lines like “bring thrusters up to full” or “scanning for DNA now.”
  • The romantic arc was obviously written by somebody who has never been in love, but who has heard lots of nice things about it, and maybe read a saucy book once.

There were some things that the film did well, of course:

  • The special effects were nice.
  • It was projected in an establishment that serves popcorn.
  • It was about the right length for a movie.
  • The colors were vibrant, and were on the screen instead of in my lap.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets deserves top billing in a future season of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It was only slightly less painful to watch than Cry Wilderness or Starcrash. It clears my Threshold of Disappointment³, obviously, and does so with such aplomb that I almost feel like apologizing to Transformers: The Last Knight.

¹ Dane Dehaan is a fine actor. I can only surmise that the director very vehemently demanded the most wooden performance possible.
² Cara Delevingne was one of the best things about Suicide Squad. Again, it’s my theory that Besson⁴ required her to pretend to be a replicant with poor social camouflage, and trouper that she is, she nailed the performance.
³ Some people will love this film, and will be quite angry at how disappointed I am with it. It’s important to realize that our reactions to art are mostly due to what we bring with us. The art only activates what’s already in our heads and hearts. I really wish I had a bag full of “You’ll love Valerian” with me in the theater, but I did not.
I have loved some of Besson’s other work, particularly The Fifth Element, which is still one of my all-time favorite films. 

War for the Planet of the Apes

On Saturday I watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes back-to-back. I enjoyed both of those movies quite a bit more now than I did when I first saw them, and the refresher course made War for the Planet of the Apes much more enjoyable. I hadn’t realized just how much character continuity we have among the community of apes before. That alone helps the story along a lot.

This film is best considered as part III of a trilogy, and that entire trilogy functions as a prequel to 1968’s Oscar-nominated Planet of the Apes. Or rather, as a prequel to a potential remake, which we don’t actually need but will almost certainly get (I’m giving the 2001 film a wide miss. It doesn’t seem to fit here.)

I’m amazed at how Caesar, Luca, Rocket, Maurice and the other apes have crossed the Uncanny Valley and become real-world people to my eyes. The actors behind the motion-capture did fine work, and the animators are obviously sorcerers who have made some sort of dark pact with an eldritch god of cinema.

War for the Planet of the Apes doesn’t quite clear my Threshold of Awesome, but it’s a very near miss.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

I am quite glad to have a Spider-Man movie that doesn’t tell us the Uncle Ben story. Spider-Man: Homecoming clears my Threshold of Awesome, and comes in at #5 for me for the year.

This film does what the best YA books do—it gives us a story in which young people are the focus (right down to the various tropes whereby grown-ups can’t or won’t help out) without depending on that focus for appeal. Young people and old people alike will enjoy the movie not because of the young cast, but because of how the characters drive a great story.

Is it the best Spider-Man movie we’ve ever had? I don’t know. The first two Spidey films of this century are still close to my heart, and Captain America: Civil War remains my favorite concentrated dose of Spidey, probably because of the wide variety of opponents and the delightful back-and-forth banter.

I’m absolutely not dissing Spider-Man: Homecoming, however. Like I said, it clears my Threshold of Awesome.

Transformers: The Last Knight

Transformers: The Last Knight was a waste of some pretty cool robot fight choreography, and an absolute squandering of Anthony Hopkins and Isabela Moner.

This doesn’t surprise me, given the track record of this less-than-meets-the-eye cinematic franchise, but I was still disappointed.

The plot is far too convoluted for a straightforward McGuffin match-up¹. There were three times more speaking-role characters than the average audience member (myself included) is likely to have emotional space to care about. Making the film longer (2 hours 28 minutes) doesn’t solve the problem. It means we’ll all be tired, exhaustedly awaiting the end of the movie about 38 minutes before it shows up.

“Leave them wanting more” does not mean “leave them wanting more of their day back when they leave the theater.”

Fortunately, the actors all turned in solid performances, especially Isabela Moner, who was one of the very best things about the film. Sadly,  she’s completely absent for Act II, but when she does return in Act III she masterfully acts far above the hackneyed plotonium the writers deployed to work her into the climactic battle.

My biggest complaint lies with the mythos. Tying the Transformers into Arthurian legend may have seemed cool and clever at some point, but it fell completely flat for me². Stanley Tucci played Merlin quite well in the prologue, doing an outstanding job with “drunken charlatan thrust into the wrong movie” but the humor said to me “this is going to be bleak, so let’s loosen you up with some laughs. Here, have an inebriated wizard!”

I said earlier that the robot fight choreography was good. It was! Bumblebee’s entrance was pretty epic, and although I couldn’t always keep track of which Transformer was which, I was able to see what they were doing, and on several occasions they did cool things. Somebody told Michael Bay to hold the camera steady, I suppose.

Transformers: The Last Knight is the first film this year to cross my Threshold of Disappointment. I feel bad for the many people responsible for the good parts of this movie, because they deserve to have those parts show up in a less disappointing film³.

¹ “McGuffin match-up” is what I call it when the characters have to find multiple important plot-thingies (‘McGuffins’) and put them into the hands of the right people in time to save the day.  
² “Secret history” stories often fall flat for me, usually when they take great moments in human history and tell me it was actually aliens, or when they take human atrocities and tell me the terrible people were all vampires. Actual heroes and villains from history need to remain human. That’s how actual humans learn to be heroes.
³ I also feel bad for the boy who, as the crowds were exiting the theater, was telling everyone within earshot that this movie was awesome. To my long-time-parent ears his tone suggested that his opinion of the film’s awesomeness was actually kind of shaky, but he couldn’t bear the thought of not having seen a good movie. Nobody jumped in to validate him, but neither did anyone smack him down. I guess we all chose the kindness of silence, tacitly agreeing to let him find his own way through dawning disappointment.