Monday, July 31, 2017

7 Days in May | Valerian, Underworld, and Hidden Figures

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

I was a little nervous about Valerian. The trailers looked fantastic and I like the two leads quite a bit, but I'm never sure what I'm going to get from Luc Besson. That's especially true when he's only producing, but he also directed Lucy and I hated that movie. I was getting a similar vibe about Valerian that I did about Jupiter Ascending, another attempt at a bold space opera by unpredictable (in the sense that I can't predict whether I'm going to like any given film of theirs) filmmakers. I enjoy Jupiter Ascending, but it wasn't as cool or cohesive as I'd hoped it would be. And I was concerned that I'd feel the same way about Valerian.

I didn't love Valerian, but I like it quite a bit and it works a lot better than Jupiter Ascending. People seem to be divided on Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as the leads, but I love both those guys. DeHaan was an effective Harry Osborne in Amazing Spider-Man 2 and I'm a huge fan of The Cure for Wellness that also had him in it. I hear the complaints that he's channeling '90s Keanu Reeves and I'm not going to say that it's not true. What I do push back on is that this is a bad thing for a big, fun adventure movie. I'm not as familiar with Delevingne's work, but she brings a lot of personality to Laureline and totally works for me as the soul of this movie.

I agree with the criticism that there isn't a lot of romantic heat between the two leads. That's the film's biggest weakness. There's a big chunk of backstory missing in which Valerian has supposedly turned from a Bond-level womanizer to being ready to settle down in a committed relationship with his current work partner. The movie tells me that this is true and eventually convinces me that Valerian at least believes it to be true, but I never see it or feel it myself. And since I don't quite believe it, I wonder why Laureline does. That's the only thing that keeps me from full-heartedly loving the film, though. The rest is awesome.

It's gorgeous and every scene change brings new ideas and things I've never seen before. It may be the only time that I've ever watched a movie in 2D (always my preference) and thought that I should go back and watch it again in 3D. I want to immerse myself in the world even more.

The movie is also funny and exciting and I love how it's about overcoming fear and selfishness with love and compassion. As I watch it more, I expect that my problems with the central romance will become less important. I may not care whether Valerian and Laureline smooch, but I'm fully on board with their work relationship. They make a great team and I want more.

Underworld: Blood Wars (2017)

I'm a big fan of the Underworld series. Kate Beckinsale is one of my favorite actors anyway, but a big, action-packed soap opera set against a centuries-long war between vampires and werewolves is also totally my bag. One of the problems that the series keeps running into though is major characters played by actors who decide not to return for their roles. The movies have been very creative about working around this (never just killing off these characters, but using them as MacGuffins to build whole movies around), but at some point, the story and I have to face the fact that we're never going to see these characters again. And that's disappointing.

But one thing the series does well is anchoring itself in Beckinsale's Selene. The other characters can come and go, regardless of how important they are, because the story's honest about how their coming and going affects Selene. That's especially true in Blood Wars.

It's easily the weakest entry in the series so far. We've seen all of these politics multiple times before and there are big questions that feel like they should be answered in this film, but aren't. The movie introduces a new group of vampires to the world, though, and they're really cool. And I just generally like spending time with Selene in this world. It's not a great film, but it's good enough for fans.

Hidden Figures (2016)

Trying to get caught up on some movies we missed from the beginning of the year. Hidden Figures is as powerful as everyone says. Simultaneously uplifting and frustrating in exactly the ways that it's trying to be.

What's cool though is that it's also frustrating in some surprising ways. In addition to stories of casual, systemic racism (which are always more powerful to me than the overt, aggressive kind), the movie makes a rather depressing statement about what spurs the white characters towards progress. Since NASA is literally about reaching for the stars and making scientific progress, I guess I expected the movie to depict social progress as some kind of natural result of that.

That's very much not the case though and the film spends quite a bit of time reminding us that the '60s space race was a product of the Cold War. Whatever justice the main characters experience by the end isn't a product of compassion, but fear. It takes the common enemy of the Soviets to motivate the establishment and help it see the value of its non-white allies. Progress is made and that's why Hidden Figures is an encouraging story, but I like that the movie complicates, rather than romanticizes what sparks that change.

One Crazy Summer (1986)

Continuing to introduce David to '80s John Cusack. This one's from the same director as Better Off Dead and it has Demi Moore and Bobcat Goldthwait. It's more even than Better Off Dead and funnier too, in general. I love Better Off Dead, but there are parts that bore me or make me groan. Much less of that in One Crazy Summer and the Godzilla gag - which takes its time to build and then pays off spectacularly - is awesome and hilarious.

Out of Bounds (1986)

I didn't care for this that much in the '80s, but the soundtrack was on regular rotation in my boom box and I wanted to revisit it as long as we're watching a lot of Brat Pack movies.

It's still not so great. Anthony Michael Hall is trying really hard to leave behind his nerd image from Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. And he succeeds, but at the cost of any humor - or really, humanity - whatsoever. His character Daryl Cage is a deadpanned cipher and it's impossible to like or care about him.

The movie is almost saved by Jenny Wright (Near DarkYoung Guns II) as Dizz. She's a lot of fun, but it's impossible to see why she sticks with Daryl for more than a few seconds. I was invested in seeing her make it through the movie, though.

And the soundtrack is still pretty awesome. Siouxsie and the Banshees actually appear in the movie singing "Cities in Dust" and I think that Out of Bounds was probably my introduction to them. Likewise The Cult, who's "Electric Ocean" gets played. There's some Smiths and Belinda Carlisle in there, too, and Stewart Copeland and Adam Ant team up for the title song. Copeland also does the score and if you like his stuff on the Equalizer TV series, you'll love this.

Managed Money (1934)

Sometime last year I found a DVD of Shirley Temple movies that we picked up somewhere. I started working my way through it and totally saw why the country was so charmed by her. She was cute and precocious and just generally pretty awesome.

A few of the movies were in the series of shorts she did with fellow child actor Junior Coghlan (Billy Batson in the Adventures of Captain Marvel serial). Coghlan was the star of the films, playing a high school kid, and Temple was his little sister. I liked them. At only 20 minutes each, they reminded me of a family sitcom and were actually pretty funny.

Anyway, my DVD set only had three of the four shorts on it for some reason, but Amazon Prime has the last one, so I finally watched that this week. Coghlan and a pal are trying to prospect for gold so that they can afford tuition at a local military school. Temple stows away on the trip and hilarity ensures. It's minor fun, but it's still fun.

My Darling Clementine (1946)

I sort of watched this earlier this year, but needed to come back for a closer look. We covered Tombstone and Wyatt Earp on Hellbent for Letterbox, so I got curious about other versions of the same story. My Darling Clementine is a big one, because John Ford directed it and Henry Fonda plays Wyatt. But I was shocked by how little it has to do with actual events. It's a "highly fictionalized" account of the Tombstone story in the way that The Outlaw is of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett's. Which is to say that it's pretty much just taking the names and doing it's own thing with them. I wanted to watch it again without having the more historically interested films fresh in my mind; just so that I could appreciate it on its own merits.

It still bugs me that these unrecognizable characters have such recognizable names. And I don't really care about Wyatt's interest in Doc Holliday's (Victor Mature) ex-girlfriend Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs). Fonda is pretty dull as Wyatt, actually, and the script doesn't help by delaying his vengeance for an early tragedy way too long. But a couple of things make the movie worthwhile.

One is the gorgeous black-and-white photography by Joe MacDonald. Ford has moved Tombstone to the opposite end of Arizona to take advantage of Monument Valley and MacDonald shoots it wonderfully.

But the other cool thing about the film is Mature as Doc. It's really Doc's movie, down to the title. Wyatt falls in love with Clementine, but he's not the "my." That's Doc, who used to love Clementine before giving up his surgeon's practice (he's no dentist in this version), moving West, and becoming a wreck. Clementine represents all that he's given up while Linda Darnell's saloon gal represents what he's currently settling for. Mature gives a good performance and it's effective if not exactly heart-wrenching.

Overland Riders (1946)

After we covered Tarzan the Fearless for Greystoked, I got interested in seeing some more Buster Crabbe. Especially a Western. This was the first one I could get my hands on, and I'll probably skip watching any others. Crabbe is great in it; he's good-looking and charming and I loved every second that he was on screen. But good-looking, charming cowboys are easy to come by and Crabbe can't save the mediocre script about yet another land-grab by a ruthless rich dude who's just dumb enough to get caught in under an hour.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

It's embarrassing that I've lived this long without seeing Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but that's finally corrected now. Not what I expected.

I keep seeing it on lists of Westerns, but it doesn't belong there. Even if you open the genre to include films like The Lusty Men and Hell or High Water that are set in modern times, those movies are at least interested in the same themes as traditional Westerns. Sierra Madre is doing something totally different, which is to its benefit.

I also hear it described as an adventure film, but that's misleading, too. It has one or two exciting scenes, but it's much more interested in the drama between the three leads as they (to varying degrees) become corrupted by the gold that they're pulling out of the ground. I expected way more shootouts and defending the claim and not nearly so much looking suspicious and talking to yourself.

Which brings me to Humphrey Bogart's character who I assumed would be the hero of film. Heh!

So it subverted my expectations for it in almost every way and I admit that I had to jog a little to keep up. But I did and I like it. In fact, part of the fun was figuring out just what kind of movie I was watching. It's a great script full of memorable, hugely dramatic moments and the actors are all up to making the most of them. Bogart's awesome and draws my attention every time I see him, but Walter Huston is a total scene-stealer and Tim Holt sticks in there and quietly holds his own, too.

Song of the Week: "Everything Now" by Arcade Fire

I was gonna throw on something from Out of Bounds, but I can't stop listening to this song. It's catchy as hell and I love the message.

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