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Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

The difference between the film and its equally expensive contemporaries is Luc Besson’s playful, childlike naïveté.

3.0

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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Photo: STX Entertainment

Director Luc Besson’s Valerian and the Planet of a Thousand Cities is an unabashed exercise in wall-to-wall eye candy, irretrievably drunk on the power of image-making. Within the first five minutes, the question is less whether Besson’s screenplay “works” and more whether the film’s clearly elephantine budget can possibly sustain itself for the next two-plus hours.

Such as it is, the storyline itself barely merits acknowledging: Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are 28th-century space cops, armed with the expertise and tools to jump from one dimension to another as required by their missions—handed down by an inter-species federation, based in a gargantuan spaceship-complex, presided over by Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen). Valerian wakes with a start after a nightmare in which he witnesses the destruction of a peaceful oceanic planet, whose inhabitants resemble the Na’vi from James Cameron’s Avatar. From there on out, the screenplay is one long string of chase sequences and near-misses, action-figure-ready creature reveals, and painfully leaden one-liners.

At first glance, this film would appear to mimic any number of other sci-fi extravaganzas, but to call its world formulaic or derivative would be fairly ignorant of how it got here. While George Lucas’s original Star Wars harkened back to 1920s adventure serials and airborne World War II movies, for European comic fans it unmistakably ripped off Jean-Claude Mézières and Pierre Christin’s graphic novel Valerian et Laureline, which ran from 1967 up to 2010. Besson remedied the offense somewhat by contracting Mézières to help design his no-less-flamboyant classic The Fifth Element, whose futurist aesthetic owed as much to Mézières as it did to Jean-Paul Gaultier.

If every page in this film’s screenplay is fodder for still more CGI-swollen psychedelia, the sensibility between characters (human or extraterrestrial) is surprisingly antic, somehow undercutting the pomp assumed by an event movie of this scale. Besson is a preternatural showman, and this is one of his signatures: Even his debut feature, Le Dernier Combat, managed to undercut the pressure of its post-atomic-holocaust milieu with Three Stooges-worthy physical comedy and over-the-top sight gags.

Weirdly comparable in their elvin looks, DeHaan and Delevingne seem to opt out of the verisimilitude question, accommodating the pixelated terraforms rendered around them without betraying skepticism about the material. DeHaan at first seems painfully ill-cast, but the plucky, airheaded nature of Valerian’s interactions with Laureline (to whom he proposes in their first scene together, and who inevitably comes around to saying “yes” by the grand finale) effectively goad the audience into playing (as opposed to buying) along. The film makes it impossible to determine whether this “problem” lies with the script or the performances—and that’s a good thing. With so many hundreds of millions of euros hanging in the balance, you’d think this core of un-self-seriousness would imperil the film’s experience, but it somehow instead manages the uncanny feat of humanizing it.

Long before a gooey blue shapeshifter (embodied in her human form, and voiced, by Rihanna) has helped Valerian sneak into a Lewis Carroll-worthy sacrificial alien banquet, viewers will have had ample opportunity to decide whether this is the ride they lined up for. The critical lens to be applied here is obvious: In the crowded marketplace of mega-budget summer tent poles (which have steadily relied on militarism, mass murder, and soft-Randism to sell their tickets for the better part of two decades now), the political symbolism of Besson’s script feels facile and rushed. The androgynous denizens of the coral-reef society obliterated in the first act become refugees against the Federation that employs Valerian and Laureline; that Filitt is, in fact, one of the bad guys will surprise nobody who’s ever seen a film before.

As in The Fifth Element’s cheesy climax, capital-L love conquers all, but that’s also no spoiler: These invocations of statelessness and genocide are just means to the end of delivering state-of-the-art, soda-slurping entertainment. While Valerian and the Planet of a Thousand Cities manages that for a surprisingly brisk 137 minutes, the difference between it and its equally expensive contemporaries is probably Besson’s playful, childlike naïveté.

Cast: Cara Delevingne, Dane DeHaan, Elizabeth Debicki, John Goodman, Ethan Hawke, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Rutger Hauer, Mathieu Kassovitz, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu Director: Luc Besson Screenwriter: Luc Besson Distributor: STX Entertainment Running Time: 137 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2017 Buy: Video

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Review: A Land Imagined Is a Noir-Tinged Rumination on Identity

Writer-director Yeo Siew Hua suggests that becoming another person is as easy as dreaming it.

3

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A Land Imagined
Photo: MM2 Entertainment

Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined begins with an extended montage of looming buildings and structures, as well as work sites of Singapore’s vast land-reclamation projects. This simple visual motif effectively captures not only the sense of insignificance that comes with living in an urban center teeming with people (workers appear like dots within the wide shots), but also lays the groundwork for the film’s sudden shift in perspective.

Yeo’s Golden Leopard-winning film opens in dreamy noir-like fashion before blooming into a sobering social drama concerning the lives of Singapore’s ignored and exploited immigrant and working-class communities. After a police detective, Lok (Peter Yu), spends the first third of A Land Imagined searching for a missing construction worker, Wang (Liu Xiaoyi), Lok’s partner rhetorically asks why looking for a lowly laborer is worth the time and taxpayer money. Yeo makes an empathetic rebuttal to that thought by subsequently launching into a depiction of Wang and his downtrodden existence immediately before his disappearance.

Wang, though injured, can’t afford to miss work, so he continues to drive a shuttle for other workers. Through the depiction of Wang’s grinding daily routine and search for a side hustle, Yeo shows how the man is at the mercy of his employers. In keeping with the strain of noir from Lok’s storyline, the company Wang works for and whom the dredged land is ultimately for is an eerily nebulous entity, like something out of a Fritz Lang production. Wang appears as an unwitting pawn in a larger scheme, though, paradoxically, the moments of relative escape spent with a fellow worker, Ajit (Ishtiaque Zico), and the mysterious Mindy (Luna Kwok), the manager of a cybercafé Wang frequents, prove that he leads a life of his own.

The presence of the Bangladeshi Ajit in A Land Imagined and the fact that the undocumented Wang hails from mainland China are just two factors that point to Yeo’s grasp of Singapore as a globalized state with shifting notions of identity—an understanding that’s complemented by the film’s narrative structure, which shifts perspective between Lok and Wang throughout. Each character operates on the fringes of Singaporean society and deals with similar feelings of estrangement. At one point, Wang tells Mindy after a late-night swim at a local beach that the sand comes from various different countries around Singapore. And this idea of the island nation as not having a set identity is one that’s cannily rhymed to the film’s structure.

The shift back and forth between the narrative’s central characters, and how one of those characters is affected by the life of an itinerant worker, brings to mind João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa’s Araby, but A Land Imagined doesn’t contain itself completely to the realist tradition of that film. Yeo adopts a more ethereal approach, even implying early on that Lok’s storyline is a projection of dreams that Wang once had. The elliptical narrative, coupled with the explicitly noir passages—marked by stylized and shadowy cinematography—that follow Lok and Wang around a hazy and languid cityscape, give the impression that A Land Imagined exists in a kind of dream state. The film may be coy about definitively stating if Lok is Wang’s dream-self, but this question is ultimately irrelevant. In a diverse land where identity is inherently foggy, Yeo suggests that becoming another person is as easy as dreaming it.

Cast: Peter Yu, Liu Xiaoyi, Luna Kwok, Ishtiaque Zico, Jack Tan, Kelvin Ho Director: Yeo Siew Hua Screenwriter: Yeo Siew Hua Running Time: 95 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Out of Blue Plays Out Like a New-Age Law & Order

Carol Morley’s film wants to blow our minds, but it succeeds only at rousing our boredom.

1.5

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Out of Blue
Photo: IFC Films

Carol Morley’s Out of Blue begins with images of a supernova as an ostensibly brilliant astrophysicist, Jennifer Rockwell (Mamie Gummer), wonderingly intones that we’re all made of stardust. This meaningless observation, cribbed from Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” is an appropriate opening to a film that proves to be every bit as trite, over-reaching, and goofy as its opening lines. With its endless references to black holes, the multiverse, and Schrödinger’s cat—the last of which is outlined in detail not once but twice—Morley’s film wants to blow our minds, but it succeeds only at rousing boredom.

Loosely based on the novel Night Train by Martin Amis, Out of Blue attempts to combine the heady philosophizing of True Detective with the metaphorical surrealism of Twin Peaks, but Morley’s writing is so ham-handed and her directing so nondescript that the film ends up feeling more like a protracted new-age spin on Law & Order. It doesn’t speak well of Out of Blue that the film is at its most compelling when it’s just straight-up ripping off David Lynch’s stylistic idiosyncrasies, such as in a dream sequence where Jennifer lip-synchs to an old-timey country song on a bandstand that looks nearly identical to the Roadhouse stage.

The film’s plot is also suspiciously reminiscent of that of Twin Peaks: An enigmatic detective, Mike Hoolihan (Patricia Clarkson), investigates the brutal murder of a pretty young blonde (Gummer), which brings her into contact with an assortment of local oddballs. Out of Blue, though, lacks the regional specificity of Lynch’s series—Morley’s film is set in New Orleans but you wouldn’t know that from what’s on screen—and its eccentrics, some of them played by fascinating character actors like Toby Jones, Jacki Weaver, and James Caan, are vaguely drawn. But the biggest misstep is Mike herself, a cipher who spends much of Out of Blue muttering clues under her breath and staring into the middle distance.

Of course, Mike has a dark past herself, one which is intertwined with the mystery she’s trying to solve. Clarkson does her best to imbue the role with a certain offbeat gravitas, but Mike is too confusedly conceived to generate any real interest in her backstory, much less to carry the narrative. Morley hangs a lot of eccentricities on the character—she drives a vintage car, listens to the Eels, and, in one particularly baffling scene, climbs on stage at a strip club and starts writhing on the dancers—but none of these cohere into a comprehensible whole. All the way to the end of Out of Blue, Mike’s quirks exude a grab-bag-like feeling, ensuring that she remains an enigma amid the comings and goings of so many wacky side characters and all the pseudo-metaphysical blather of Morley’s muddled script.

Cast: Mamie Gummer, Patricia Clarkson, James Caan, Jacki Weaver, Toby Jones, Aaron Tveit, Jonathan Majors, Alyshia Ochse, Gary Grubbs, Yolonda Ross, Lucy Faust, Brad Mann, Thomas Francis Murphy, Carol Sutton, Lawrence Turner Director: Carol Morley Screenwriter: Carol Morley Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 109 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: Genesis Lyrically Captures the Heartache of Sentimental Education

Philippe Lesage’s film understands that we submit ourselves to the perils of affection because of its outweighing graces.

3

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Genesis
Photo: Productions l'Unite Centrale

Writer-director Philippe Lesage follows up The Demons with another coming-of-age saga that fixates on the relatable, if grim, blues of self-awakening. Primarily following the teenaged Guillaume (Théodore Pellerin) and his college-aged sister, Charlotte (Noée Abita), Genesis charts how both are shaped by their experiences with sexual desire, subtly observing their behavior and, occasionally, the darker side of affection.

Guillaume commands much of the film’s attention. From the first shot, in which he stands on a desk in his all-boys boarding school and leads his mates in a barroom shanty, it’s obvious that Guillaume is a charismatic class clown who knows how to force all eyes onto himself. Yet the teen can also be withdrawn and introverted, and his relationships with his friends and teachers are constantly in flux. His puckish behavior is often celebrated by classmates and even some teachers, like the sardonic Perrier (Paul Ahmarani), who in one class invites Guillaume to do his impersonation of him, which the teen performs with hilarious specificity and to the initial delight and then discomfort of the professor.

Wounded by the boy’s exposure of his flaws, Perrier subsequently singles out Guillaume for harassment, berating him without cause and even screaming at the kid over the slightest perceived transgression. Guillaume’s peers are less extreme, but the same kids who applaud his classroom antics are also quick to ignore him inside their shared dorms or in social situations, content to simply use him for amusement during class time.

Guillaume’s awkward relationship to others at the boarding school is exacerbated by his closeted sexuality, which isolates him from the heteronormative activities of his friends. In one scene, Lesage films the boy in slow motion as he wanders through a house party surrounded by boys and girls kissing, trying to fit in by cautiously snaking his arm around a girl, who casually shrugs him off as he keeps walking. Like much of Genesis, the moment is at once thematically obvious and beautifully moving, with the sudden swell of morose pop transforming the scene into a lyrically intense expression of the boy’s sentimental education. The impeccable blocking places the other kids in every square inch of the room save for a pocket of dead space around Guillaume, poignantly emphasizing his loneliness.

Charlotte, by contrast, seems to have an easier time of things. More carefree and confident than her brother, she’s at first hampered only by her inane boyfriend, Maxime (Pier-Luc Funk), who broaches the subject of an open relationship with a forced sense of casual suggestion, only to later sobbingly backtrack after she kicks him to the curb. Charlotte ends up with the older Theo (Maxime Dumontier), whose charming demeanor and respectfulness suggests actual maturity. When Lesage films Charlotte in a club using the same slow-mo style that he did for Guillaume’s glum traipse through the house party, the tone is considerably brighter, with the young woman free and ebullient about her contentment.

Soon, however, Charlotte must also contend with the fallout of various sexual stresses. Lesage grapples with matters that are all too common to darker coming-of-age stories, and he captures the film’s most harrowing scenes in single takes. Yet if the filmmaker doesn’t shy away from plainly depicting such horrors as sexual violation, he avoids wallowing in the misery he piles onto his characters. Guillaume and especially Charlotte suffer, but Lesage pulls focus onto the aftershocks of trauma rather than the traumatic events themselves. Sometimes Genesis even ducks reinforcing the bleakest of expectations, as in a scene of Guillaume baring his soul to his classmates that ends in a surprisingly warm fashion.

Indeed, the bright colors and sedate direction of Genesis isn’t an ironic contrast for the difficult content within but a cue for the perseverance of hope in trying times. That optimism is borne out in the final act, which shifts focus to Felix (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier), the protagonist of The Demons, now a cheery teen attending what appears to be a bible camp. As he plays guitar with counselors and plays around in camp, he gravitates toward Beatrice (Émilie Bierre), a young girl who’s clearly as interested in him as he is in her. Compared to the more vicious heartbreak facing Charlotte and Guillaume, Felix and Beatrice’s budding feelings are presented innocently and sweetly. Their first flirtations end the film on a hopeful note that suggests that not all stories of young self-discovery need be solemn, and that we submit ourselves to the perils of affection because of its outweighing graces.

Cast: Théodore Pellerin, Noée Abita, Édouard Tremblay-Grenier, Maxime Dumontier, Jules Roy Scicotte, Pier-Luc Funk, Paul Ahmarani, Antoine Marchand-Gagnon, Émilie Bierre Director: Philippe Lesage Screenwriter: Philippe Lesage Running Time: 130 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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