Weekly Movie Reviews: Nov 19-25, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

My husband and I both love The Fifth Element and we were really excited about Luc Besson making another space opera. We were so excited that we pre-ordered the 4K Blu-ray of the movie sight unseen and watched it the day it arrived. I’ve consistently enjoyed the movies that Luc Besson was involved in writing or directing so I was sure this one would be great and my faith was indeed validated.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is based on a French comic book and it revels in its pulpy science fiction roots. The acting is stylized for sure, but that is a deliberate choice to be campy and it still has an earnest heart. I’d only seen Cara Delevingne in Suicide Squad so I wasn’t expecting much but she was fantastic and her Laureline was my favorite character from the movie. Dane DeHaan was an unusual choice to play Valerian, who is supposed to be a suave and confident agent but I actually really liked that he was chosen instead of some traditionally masculine-looking beefcake.

The real star of the movie is the worldbuilding and production design, though. I read that Luc Besson wrote a 600-page story bible describing the world of the movie and the histories and home worlds of a hundred alien species. That level of care clearly shows in how immersive the movie is. Valerian‘s environments are fantastic, filled with color and detail and wonder, and there are so many of them. Usually movies that involve this level of CGI look fairly generic but Valerian never has that problem. The effects are so good that you almost believe that the places depicted actually exist and the movie was filmed on location. The inhabitants of the world are also designed with the same meticulousness; Rihanna’s shapeshifting character is especially amazing.

One of the major draws of science fiction is the chance to look at a world that’s different from the one we live in, but most sci-fi movies waste that opportunity. Valerian is one of the few that are really original and I wish there were more movies like it. I hope there is a sequel.

Other Movies Watched

Ghost World (2001)

Teenagers Enid and Becky (played by Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson) are about to graduate from high school and experience the real world for the first time (having decided not to go to college). Both Becky and Enid are caught up in the agonizing self-absorption of being a teenager (especially a smart teenager); they are perceptive enough to see the significant flaws in the world around them but they can’t figure out how to engage with that world without taking on the same flaws themselves. They drift apart slowly as Becky is eager to move forward with their plan of moving in together and getting jobs, but Enid is too consumed by her ennui to want to do anything at all.

Ghost World does a great job of portraying the way of thinking of a precocious teenager (mostly Enid) but be warned that is fairly uncomfortable to watch. It’s like American Beauty or The Weather Man or The Edge of Seventeen but not as satisfying. The movie does tell a coming-of-age story, but it is not one of those feel-good ones where unlikely friends push each other to grow into better people and solve their mental issues along the way. It’s depressingly realistic and the character growth mostly involves accepting how pointless and boring life can be, not finding some deeper meaning.

This review does a much better job of articulating what I thought of this movie and why it was so good.

American Made (2017)

Edge of Tomorrow was one of my favorite recent sci-fi films and when I heard that director Doug Liman and star Tom Cruise were going to be reuniting to do a movie based on historical events (another favorite genre of mine), I was thrilled.

American Made is as stylish and well-paced as I hoped it would be. Tom Cruise clearly has fun with his role as real-life CIA informant/drug smuggler Barry Seal, who can’t quite believe (but will take full advantage of) how he’s basically minting money by criminal means with full government approval. The movie’s style reminded me a little bit of The Wolf of Wall Street or Gold, where you’re fascinated by the success of the protagonist even though you find that the societal niche that they fill disgraceful. Domnhnall Gleeson is becoming one of my favorite actors; he has terrific range (see: About Time, Ex Machina, the new Star Wars episodes VIII and IX, Brooklyn) and he plays Seal’s oily CIA handler Monty to perfection. He’s sort of the living embodiment of everything that’s wrong with the world and Barry seems more like his victim than an agent he’s handling. It only helps us root for Barry when we have Monty around to blame.

This movie has a mostly comedic tone, but it never lets us forget that this is based on a real story and that people’s actions have consequences. It’s a tough balancing act given the events that it covers, but it pulls it off perfectly.

In This Corner of the World (2016)

I’m always excited about Japanese animated movies because they ones I’ve watched have been so consistently great. I think a lot of people still associate animation with stories for children but that does animation a huge disservice. In This Corner of the World follows Suzu, a resident of Hiroshima Prefecture during World War II, and her life before, during, and after the atomic bomb was dropped. Most of the movie takes place before the bomb.

The stories that animated films usually tell are not character dramas, but this movie is entirely focused on its characters. It did a fantastic job of showing Suzu’s complex inner life. It employs techniques that live-action movies can’t pull of as easily; Suzu is a daydreamer and an artist, and she slips in and out of her imagination almost as naturally as breathing. This works well to lighten the movie’s tone without diluting any of the drama and to make Suzu more relatable.

I’m sure this movie will be compared to Grave of the Fireflies often, but I don’t think they’re very much alike other than sharing the common theme of the impact on World War II on Japanese civilians. Grave of the Fireflies is about the extremes that people get pushed to during war, but this movie is about the quiet dignity of people that try to live normal lives despite everything happening around them. Suzu’s life is not particularly exceptional, even with the impact of the bomb. There is laughter and joy and sorrow and tragedy and everything else that is part of life. We’re used to looking at the dropping of the bomb as a huge event but seen from the perspective of a single woman’s story, it is both just another milestone in her life, like getting married (albeit with more lasting consequences). It makes you even more scared of nuclear warfare because realizing how it impacts a single person’s life (that we have come to like and empathize with over the course of the movie) and multiplying that by thousands or millions of real people is terrifying.

Sister Act (1992)

Whoopi Goldberg plays Deloris, a singer who accidentally walks in on her boyfriend (a mobster) executing one of his men. He orders her killed as well but she is able to get away and contact the police. In order to protect her until she can testify, the police place her in a convent where she immediately disrupts the quiet and restrained atmosphere and clashes wills with the Mother Superior.

I was expecting this movie to be a dumb comedy and it was, but a better one than I thought it would be. Yes, the story is predictable and some of the situations are pretty ridiculous, but it’s fun and the humor is actually funny (and not mean-spirited like so many bad comedies end up being). The things that the nuns and Deloris learn from each other make sense and the music that comes out of it is pretty great; I’m not sure the movie would been successful without the music. The characters are all mostly one-dimensional archetypes but they are played well and have heart. Maggie Smith in particular did a fantastic job being lovable underneath her “strict abbess” exterior, she’s not really a villain at all, despite first appearances. As befits a nun, she’s kind to Deloris despite her doubts, and she is easily persuaded by success because she genuinely wants to be the best leader she can be.

The plot that involves the murder and the mobster goons looking for Deloris is a little contrived and boring. Harvey Keitel is absolutely wasted in his role as the mobster/Deloris’s ex-boyfriend and I wish that part of the movie had been a little more engaging.

Becoming Jane (2007)

Becoming Jane is based on the true story of Jane Austen’s own romance and how it (supposedly) influenced her own work. I’m an Austen fan (who isn’t?) and I was aware that she had never married, so I knew going into this movie that (unlike her books) this wouldn’t be a happy story.

I feel like there are so many film/television adaptations of Austen’s work that they are their own genre, and this movie definitely is trying to fit into that genre. It treats Austen just like one of her own heroines, there are misunderstandings and a ball and walks in the country and so on. It’s a decent Austen-esque movie, although it lacks the wit and social commentary/satire of a true Austen story (but then, that’s usually missing from film/television adaptations as well). It echoes Pride and Prejudice most of all, Jane is feisty and her suitor Tom Lefroy is a little too sure of himself but learns better. Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy do a great job with the material they are given.

My main complaint is that I think the movie was trying to force Jane and Tom’s story into the mold of an Austen book too much. They are immediately and irrevocably in love, but it feels fake because they give it up at the first sign of trouble (I realize the movie is constrained by historical record here, but it could have done a better job of explaining the stakes). It’s too melodramatic. And the Austen depicted in this movie doesn’t seem like a writer; she’s depicted like one of her own heroines but her temperament was fundamentally different from theirs. Unlike her heroines, Austen was an artist, she chose to tread the uncommon path (especially for a woman) of writing for a living, and she was perceptive enough to write books about a variety of characters that seemed believable while also subtly satirizing the society around them. I couldn’t see any of that in the Austen depicted in this movie.

My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)

Apparently this is a classic British movie; I had never heard of it until I was looking up Daniel Day-Lewis and read that his role is this movie first got him noticed. It follows Omar, a young Pakistani-Britsh man trying to figure out what to do with his life. He starts working for his uncle who owns a chain of businesses including a struggling laundromat. Omar volunteers to take on the laundromat and hires his old friend Johnny to help.

My Beautiful Laundrette had a lot going for it and I really wanted to like it. The characters are interesting and have complex relationships with each other; Omar and most of his family are struggling with their identities and torn between competing ideas such as idealism and pragmatism, intellectualism and unabashed capitalism, fitting into British society and keeping in touch with Pakistani traditions. Johnny wants to leave his old life of violence behind as he warms to his role at the laundromat but his actions in the past have hurt Omar and his father and they need to be resolved.

Such promising ingredients should have made an interesting movie but it doesn’t tell a tight story and it meanders all over the place. I felt like I was watching a collection of someone’s home movies without knowing anything about them. The actors act so much like real people that it was hard to tell what they were thinking or feeling because there wasn’t much exposition or expression. The dialogue is very natural but it made me feel like I do when my husband’s friends from high school come over and they talk about people I’ve never met for hours. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to make of it all and I didn’t find it compelling. Also there’s this one piece of “music” that sounded just like sloshing and bubbling water (probably the laundry theme) and played at the oddest times. I found it hard to stay engaged whenever that happened.

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