Tag Archives: Clive Owen

CAPSULE: VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Luc Besson

FEATURING: , Cara Delevingne, , Rihanna

PLOT: A pair of hotshot space cops flirt with each other as they stumble upon a conspiracy surrounding a lost race that threatens the survival of the massive spaceport that serves as the hub of galactic peace and commerce.

Still from Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Valerian is an optical feast, presenting settings and creatures that push the edge of the imagination. However, that same imagination has hung these visual treats upon a story that is strictly by-the-numbers, with characters who are stock at their best and unfathomably shallow at their worst, rendering the film all frosting, no cake.

COMMENTS: The audience was quiet. Respectful. No laughing. No chitchat. Definitely no cheering. A candidate for blockbuster of the summer unspooled before us, and we could have easily been transplanted to a golf tournament without causing a disturbance. We sat in silence, staring at the screen like we were on a field trip to the art museum.

Actually, Valerian wouldn’t be out of place in a museum; it’s a lovely piece of pop art. Luc Besson has crafted a green-screen wonderland, ranging from the impressionist beauty of an alien beach world to a mind-bending cross-dimensional duty-free bazaar. Sometimes he is unable to restrain himself and piles the settings on top of each other; one chase scene barrels through a half-dozen environments in the space of a couple minutes. From start to finish, the film is a visual stunner.

Which is why the audience’s silence, while not necessarily reflecting quality, is so devastating. Valerian is a lot to look at, but is ultimately an uninvolving experience. The action set-pieces have no kick, the story feels boilerplate, and the leads are dangerously lacking in chemistry. People like spectacular visuals, but they’re not inclined to cheer for them alone.

At times, it feels like Besson has extracted the spine of the story from his earlier sci-fi venture, The Fifth Element, and grafted new visuals on top of it. Dane DeHaan’s hero’s journey from callow to committed is clearly intended to mirror that of . The overstuffed metropoli, aliens both corpulent and sinewy, the overwhelming power of *love*…they’re all straight out of Element’s playbook. Valerian even stops, like its older cousin, for a musical number. This one features Rihanna dancing (but not singing) and acting (but not, um, acting). What he hasn’t carried over includes any sort of stakes, much of a sense of humor, or charismatic characters. We’re supposed to take all those on faith.

Not that he only borrows from himself. The trio of duck-billed creatures who fence information feel like escapees from Labyrinth. A benevolent blue-hued race seems to have stepped directly out of Avatar (and brought some of their environmental and cultural issues with them). And overall, the film is surprisingly reminiscent of The Adventures of Tintin, another adaptation of a beloved French comic book that sacrificed character and story in favor of wondrous CGI visuals and a breakneck pace. Of course, Tintin is entirely animated, so perhaps our expectations for rich character development there are diminished. But Valerian has real actors, and this is where the trouble truly begins.

Design, as noted, is impressive, and there’s enough logic to the plot to earn a pass (ignoring, of course, the scene where a computer explains that the massive space station has traveled 700 million miles from Earth over the decades, which would put it somewhere just shy of Saturn). However, character is the gaping void of the center of the film, and the two leads bring absolutely nothing to the table. DeHaan is a black hole, delivering lines that are intended to mark him as a hard-bitten mercenary, but doing so in a voice cribbed from and bearing a look that suggests “bored 8th grader.” Cara Delevingne is marginally better, having the advantages of (a) being very pretty and (b) having only one emotion to play: cold irritation. The two are laden with banter, written to demonstrate their wit and cool under pressure, as well as to place them in the pantheon of great wisecracking romantic couples of the cinema. But DeHaan and Delevingne are nowhere near pulling it off. Their dialogue feels utterly false in their mouths, and because Besson puts their will-they-won’t-they dynamic at the forefront from the moment we meet them, the thud of their relationship is more than the film can overcome.

Besson’s instincts bend toward the weird. (Why else would you cast jazz legend Herbie Hancock as a futuristic bureaucrat?) But while his vision is undeniably heterodox , here he seems utterly unable to apply it. Perhaps the best indication of his failure of imagination comes in the very opening sequence, a montage chronicling the origin and growth of the City of a Thousand Planets. To accompany the growing alliance of humans and a variety of unusual extraterrestrials, he summons the ultimate alien: . But what song from the catalog does Besson choose? “Space Oddity.” Gifted with the limitless power of creation, he settles for the cliché; the most obvious, expected choice. And no one cheers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Little splashes of a weirder, kinkier, much better movie kept popping up throughout Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and even though they tended to vanish as quickly as they appeared, I still found myself missing them. They’re like phantasms making quick cameos from the nether, a brief flicker of a more adventurous, less compromised movie that perhaps could have been…” – Will Leitch, Paste Magazine (contemporaneous)

 

LIST CANDIDATE: INHERENT VICE (2014)

Inherent Vice has been promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Read the Certified Weird entry here.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Joanna Newsom, , Katherine Waterston, , Martin Short

PLOT: In 1970 Los Angeles, private investigator and marijuana enthusiast “Doc” Sportello investigates several converging cases while dodging a hippie-hating police detective out to get him.

Still from Inherent Vice (2014)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Paul Thomas Anderson’s work has flitted around the edges of the bizarre, beginning with the baffling ending to Magnolia, through the reader-recommended oddity Punch-Drunk Love and the existential meanderings of The Master. With this stoned adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s studiously esoteric novel, Anderson may finally have passed over to the weird side for good.

COMMENTS: I don’t think it’s a mistake that’s it’s easy to misread the title Inherent Vice as Incoherent Voice. This smoky noir in which everything connects, but nothing does, is like a comic version of William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” (the novel, not the movie); but instead of an expatriate junkie’s 1950s nightmare, it’s an American pothead’s 1960s reality of a world of alarming signifiers (Vietnam, the Manson family, Nixon rallies) that float past, occasionally colliding and combining like the hot wax spheres in a lava lamp. The plot is doled out in fits and starts, as if Doc is suffering from blackouts. He probably as; at one point he writes “not hallucinating” in his detective’s notebook as an act of self-reassurance. Characters like Reese Witherspoon’s hot-to-trot assistant D.A. or ‘s maritime lawyer plop in to drop bits of exposition without much explanation of who they are, where they came from or why they care. Like a slightly more coherent Branded to Kill, deconstructing  American detectives instead of Japanese yakuza, Inherent Vice assembles its pseudo-story out of warped genre tropes: hard-bitten detectives who inhale bong hits instead of slamming shots of bourbon; femme fatales who manipulate saps into giving them a good spanking.

Better to think of Inherent Vice not as a plotted movie, but as a movie composed of free-associated plot elements. There’s a decadent real-estate magnate with a private sex cult, Aryan biker gangs, hippie-hating flattoped cops, a disappearing surf-sax player, an insane asylum that doubles as a private prison, and a vertically integrated Taiwanese heroin consortium. For added oddness, there’s conspicuous product placement for nonexistent brands, ridiculous fang-shaped skyscrapers that pop up in formerly empty lots, and a manic Martin Short as a drug-snorting, cradle-robbing dentist. There is even resolution, of a sort: Doc discovers all of the missing persons before the end credits roll. But you may be mystified as to how he did it.

Inherent Vice is the new masterpiece of hippie noir. It rides that fine line between rationality and irrationality, heading towards a hazy neverland where universal paranoia holds sway. Not only does it ride that line, it eventually snorts it up.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an aggressively weird movie, which you should take not as a warning but as a compliment and an invitation to see it, to let its stoner vibes wash all over you.”–Bill Goodykoontz, The Arizona Republic (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR (2014)

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: , Powers Boothe, , , , , ,

PLOT: Three stories involving gamblers, thugs, private detectives, strippers, corrupt senators, and femme fatales, and other disreputable denizens of the mythical Sin City.

Still from Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It doesn’t do anything new or better to distinguish itself from its Certified Weird predecessor; not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, entertainment wise, but the original represents the Sin City franchise on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies well enough.

COMMENTS: First, the good (or bad) news: this 2014 followup does such a good job recreating the look and feel of the surprise 2005 hit, right down to renovating the rapidly aging faces of Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis to the point where they’re indistinguishable from their decade-younger selves, that you could edit the stories from A Dame to Kill For into the original Sin City and never notice the difference. The tangled timeline—some of the stories here take place before any of the events in the first movie, while others are roughly contemporaneous with it—helps with that sense that Dame is not so much a sequel (or prequel) as it is an organic extension of the original, almost as if we were viewing deleted scenes. Returning from the first film is Rourke’s Marv, that slab of grizzled muscle with a vertical nose and a horizontal chin, who unites the stories and plays a supporting role in two out of three tales; Willis’ romantic cop Hartigan, in what is basically a cameo; and Jessica Alba’s diva stripper Nancy, now an alcoholic wreck. Josh Brolin tackles a younger (yet somehow more bitter and jaded) version of the role played by Clive Owen in the original, while Powers Boothe’s corrupt politico has a greatly expanded part as the new principal antagonist for two of the three characters. There are numerous callbacks to the previous films (e.g., a portrait of Nick Stahl’s Yellow Bastard on his fathers’ wall) and origin stories (we learn how Manute got his stylish gold eye). The real stars here are the new characters, though: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Johnny, a gambler with a golden touch whose boyish looks are a welcome contrast to the craggy male miens that otherwise populate the city, and especially Eva Green’s seductress Ava. Green is frequently nude—in fact, her first appearance naked, on a diving board in front of a digital moon, is itself justification for the movie’s existence—but she is also the first female character in the Sin City universe who is a worthy adversary for a male. Her femme fatale performance is campy, but riveting, and with ruby red lips and turquoise eyes accentuating her classical black and white beauty, she’s a breathtaking update of the archetype. The digital cinematography is as crisp and beautiful as the original film: the whites of characters’ eyes sometimes appear to glow, as does their spurting blood, and there are wonderfully evocative effects like tendrils of steam that hang in midair without dissipating. There are scattered weird visual touches, the most impressive of which is a giant poker hand (you’ll know it when you see it). Overall, fans who loved their first visit should find plenty of reason to go slumming again in this City, while those who had their misgivings about the trip may find themselves depressed by the burg’s seedier aspects, now that it’s really showing its age.

Given that the new Sin City is pretty much of a piece with its predecessor, its lackluster performance with critics and box office patrons requires explanation. The core fanbase seems appeased, based on a decent 7.2 IMDB rating, so we assume that the movie failed to put casual fans’ butts in theater seats. The lesson is that nine years between installments is not exactly striking while the iron is hot, no matter how faithful to the original you make the followup.  On the critical side, Dame bashing may be partly a chance to reappraise the original, which caught reviewers by surprise with its technique. (Nathan Rabin candidly takes this tack in his review for The Dissolve). In 2005 nothing else quite leapt off the screen the way Sin City did, and the glowing visuals, star power and cinematic energy caught critics by surprise and allowed them to overlook the film’s many flaws: its painful faux-Chandler dialogue, pornographic brutality, and adolescent understanding of both masculinity and femininity. Since the visuals are no longer original, today’s reviewers appear to be looking past the screen’s gilded surface and letting their misgivings about the movie’s lack of any worldview beyond appreciation of the awesomeness of violence dictate their opinions.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…it was easy to imagine that A Dame to Kill For would try to one-up the original, to push the envelope of perversity in some fresh and jarring (if likely unsuccessful) way. Instead, Rodriguez and Miller have erred in the opposite direction, offering up a movie that feels timid, half-hearted, eager to play it safe. The former path might have been a mistake. This one feels almost like a betrayal.”–Christopher Orr, The Atlantic (contemporaneous)

 

171. SIN CITY (2005)

“It’s pretty damn weird to eat people.”–Marv, Sin City

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: , , Quentin Tarantino (“special guest director”)

FEATURING: , , , , Nick Stahl, Jaime King, , , , Brittany Murphy,

PLOT: The movie tells three stories (with some common characters) set in the mythical Basin City: in one, a police detective risks his life to stop a child-killer. In a second, a brutal, mentally ill criminal hunts down the men he believes killed the only woman who ever showed kindness to him. A final strand tells of a suave assassin who attempts to prevent someone else’s accidental killing from turning into an all-out war between the cops, the mafia, and the self-governing prostitutes of Old Town.

Still from Sin City (2005)
BACKGROUND:

  • A fan of Frank Miller’s original series of Sin City comics, Robert Rodriguez wanted to make the movie as true to the book as possible: “a translation, not an adaptation.” The actual comics were used as the storyboards. The stories selected were “The Hard Goodbye,” “The Big Fat Kill,” and “That Yellow Bastard” as well as the short “The Customer is Always Right.”
  • Rodriguez shot the opening segment, “The Customer is Always Right,” in one day as a proof-of-concept to convince Miller that he could do justice to the art style. He then used that clip to convince actors such as Bruce Willis and Benicio Del Toro to sign on to the project.
  • Rodriguez insisted that Miller receive a co-director credit on the film, but the Directors Guild of America objected to the credit (they do not allow co-directing). He then decided to give Miller full credit, but Miller refused. Rodriguez then resigned from the Guild so the co-directing credit could remain.
  • Quentin Tarantino directed a single scene in the movie (a segment from “The Big Fat Kill” involving a conversation between the severed head of Del Toro’s “Jackie-Boy” and Clive Owen’s “Dwight”). Tarantino directed for a salary of $1 as a way to repay Rodriguez for composing music for Kill Bill: Vol. 2 for $1.
  • The movie was entirely shot on Rodriguez’s “digital backlot” (green screen studio) near his home in Austin, Texas.
  • Sin City screened in competition at Cannes and won the Technical Grand Prize.
  • Plans for a sequel (based on Miller’s “A Dame to Kill For“) were announced immediately after the film was completed; the followup feature was delayed until 2014, however.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: From the very first frame—a woman in a blood-red backless cocktail dress on a balcony staring out over a steel-grey city—Sin City‘s pulp Expressionism is consistently startling and poetic. Since we’re fascinated by the weird, we’ll select the first sight of the Yellow Bastard, the bald, satellite dish-eared pedophile killer dyed the color of French’s mustard, as our unforgettable take-home image from the movie.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A marriage between the mythologies of film noir and violent comics, Sin City‘s bloody tales are set in an abstract urban hellscape inhabited by invulnerable tough guys and rough sexy dames. They play like the lost works of Raymond Chandler’s alternate universe grandson, written to scrape up a few bucks for a bottle of booze while he was down and out in Gotham City. With a cast of cannibal serial killers, jaundiced pedophiles and ninja hookers, the adventures of the hard-boiled demigods of Sin City are as fantastical as its random splotches of color in a monochrome landscape are visually unreal.


Original trailer for Sin City

COMMENTS: Sin City earns its “recommended” label almost solely on the basis of its visuals (bolstered by some finely weird touches), and not for its Continue reading 171. SIN CITY (2005)