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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a film set in a colorful, utterly bananas space opera universe, which is unfortunately ill-served by both Luc Besson’s direction and writing, though these problems pale in comparison to its repulsive fuckboy of a protagonist, Valerian.

(For the short version of this post via Twitter rant, see this thread.)

I didn’t go into Valerian with much in the way of expectations. I haven’t read the source material, though my housemate who has was tentatively excited about the film. Since I knew it was going to be directed by Luc Besson, I went in hoping for something as fun and charming and weird as The Fifth Element, under the assumption that it would also come with a helping of racism and sexism. Well, it is weird and colorful, if neither fun nor charming—and I’m sad to report it delivered on the racism and sexism as well.

The story is pretty simple: Major Valerian and his partner Sergeant(?) Laureline are federal agents sent on a mission to retrieve stolen property, a cute little animal known as a Mul Converter. It’s the last of its species, since the supposedly uninhabited-by-sentient-life planet of Mul was destroyed almost thirty years ago. Of course, from the start of the morning, we know that Mul actually had a thriving civilization of tall, thin people made out of glitter, called Pearls, on it. Valerian and Laureline bring the Mul Converter back to Alpha (the city of a thousand planets) and find out that a strange radiation zone that kills everyone who enters it has begun expanding at the center of the city. Their investigation of this mystery leads them deep into a cover up that someone has an interest in protecting with deadly force.

The plot sounds interesting, right? Or at least reasonably so for a scifi effects spectacle. There’s some holes in it here and there, but I thought at least the structure avoided a lot of pitfalls that tend to come with far future or space opera scifi, where things get too arcane for the audience to be able to build an understanding of the universe while tracking a convoluted plot. Unfortunately, the actors stumble through the film, delivering their lines like they’ve all been shot up with horse tranquilizers, with the only relief the occasional spittle-flecked moment of self-righteous yelling before the monotony returns.

If that had been the only problem, it would have been almost forgivable, because the background is satisfactorily bananapants for a space opera world, and unlike Jupiter Ascending, it wasn’t actively boring. However, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has a major problem that Jupiter Ascending didn’t, in that the protagonist is vomitously unlikable and tries to pull the plot off course at every turn.

See, the movie starts with agents Valerian and Laureline having a… weird encounter where they’re both in bathing suits and sort of rolling around and wrestling, at which point Valerian embarks on his ceaseless campaign to get Laureline to marry him. Their relationship made absolutely no sense from the get-go, and veered immediately into intensely creepy territory: we’re basically talking a higher-ranked coworker persistently bugging his lower-ranked partner for a relationship. It was beyond gross. Worse, at basically every turn, something would happen in the plot, and before anyone could react or move forward, Valerian would immediately twist the situation into why won’t you marry me Laureline.

This was not a romance. This was the skeevy, passive-aggressive stalking of a fuckboy who believes he’s been friend-zoned. It made my skin crawl. And from what my houemate has now told me about the graphic novels, it really feels like what got put onto film wasn’t so much Valerian and Laureline as fanfiction written by someone who fantasized all through high school about fucking Laureline. I am not here to shame anyone for their wish fulfillment fanfic; I’ve written plenty myself. But I still know it’s not something that deserves a multimillion dollar film budget and a wide theatrical release.

Valerian’s aggressive skeeviness covers the expected sexism angle nicely, with the added bonus of Valerian’s trip through the red light district, where in the far future we’re still apparently still catering exclusively to straight male tastes. There’s a burlesque performance by a shapechanging alien named Bubble that pivots neatly from the sexism and into the racism. Bubble is played by Rihanna and for all her extremely short screen time, she’s the best developed character in the entire film. She gets an actual background, and motivations. After revealing her actual alien form, Valerian asks her to go back to “normal”—as in her super sexy Rihanna form. She also [SPOILER FOLLOWS, HIGHLIGHT IF YOU WANT TO KNOW] inexplicably dies after helping Valerian in a way that feels like a complete afterthought, though before her death she’s honored to get her skills as an artist validated by Valerian. Megabarf. Bubble helps Valerian rescue Laureline from a group of apparently “savage” aliens who [SPOILER] want to eat her brain, and the coding on the costuming and aesthetic for the aliens is pretty goddamn 1940s jungle witch doctor set. So that was nice.

Valerian also suffers from a problem many big budget scifi movies have, though not as badly as Jupiter Ascending did—it contains several action sequences that add absolutely nothing to the plot, and really feel like they got tucked in because they’ve gone the requisite number of pages and we need some more explosions. It’s particularly notable during the sequences that were almost entirely CGI; I find those extremely difficult to follow, action-wise, and mentally tune them out. The VFX department is showing off in a way that the human eye can’t follow and the brain can’t care about. For example, there’s an interminable battle sequence over the planet Mul that I couldn’t have given less of a shit about because it’s unclear why the battle is being fought, who is fighting it, or what the actual stakes are.

That said, if you could just surgically remove the title character entirely, this would be an almost enjoyable film. The opening sequence, which shows Alpha being built up from its humble beginnings as an Earth-orbiting space station, was lovely, and hopeful, and fun. Too bad the rest of the movie couldn’t live up to that promise.

You’ll notice that I keep bringing up Jupiter Ascending in this review. The movies are very comparable, I think. They’re both delightfully weird space opera universes that get crushed under the weight of their own film flaws. Jupiter Ascending had great characters and then got crushed under the weight of its shit pacing; its greatest sin was being boring. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets had absolute shit for characters to serve its mediocre-but-I’m-not-expecting-great-things-really-at-this-point plot. Both of them have left me frustrated and angry because I can see the bones beneath of what could have been the space opera movie we deserve, the film that would launch us to a place beyond Star Wars. But if you held a gun to my head and told me I had to watch one of them again, I’d have to go with Jupiter Ascending because I could at least nap through the boring bits and enjoy Jupiter being charming.

 

And a small side rant:

One thing I can’t help noticing is that in both of these films, the screenwriting credit goes solely to the directors. It’s endlessly frustrating that in an industry where story is supposedly king, there’s a real desire to make people whose primary skillset and interest is in writing those stories disappear. Maybe there would have been no saving either film, but their most fatal flaws (Jupiter Ascending’s pacing, Valerian’s shitty protagonist and paper thin characters) are just the sort of things that writers, or at least good writers, focus on.

Hire some fucking screenwriters already. And listen to what they say.

Originally published at Alex Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Jul. 17th, 2017 12:25 pm
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Honestly, I wasn’t going to bother with this movie. I’m really, really tired of Spider-Man movies. This is the third reboot of the character, and the second reboot left me so incredibly underwhelmed that the only pit deeper in my soul was already occupied by Tobey Maguire’s goth hair in Spider-Man 3. Which is sad, because Spider-Man 2 has pretty much been my favorite superhero movie ever – thanks to Dr. Otto Octavian. The only thing that got me to the theater for this one was that it had RDJ in it, and I’m still not tired of Iron Man.

Which is why, going into the theater, I jokingly called this movie Iron Man 4.

Readers, I was wrong on so many levels. God help me, I finally like a Spider-Man movie again. And I think I might like this one more than Spider-Man 2. We’ll have to see if it has the staying power in my brain.

I think part of what helps is that Spider-Man: Homecoming is not an origin story. It dives straight in with Peter already knowing all about his powers and how to use them, and is more about him trying to find the balance in his life between superhero and teenager, figuring out how he relates to the wider world. So in that sense, it’s more of a coming of age story. He’s got the same trouble juggling responsibilities that we saw in Spider-Man 2, but this go around, Peter’s still in high school. And the crazy thing here is that the movie is populated by actors that really do seem believable as high schoolers. And since it’s basically a current year story, Peter’s in a science/engineering magnet school, which is a great twist on the social dynamic. He’s not bullied for being a nerd because they’re all nerds. Which means the focus gets to be more on Peter and the responsibilities of relationships versus the responsibilities of power, rather than beating the incredibly dead horse of the jock/nerd divide,

I think it’s probably also the most racially diverse MCU movie we’ve seen to date. There’s a great interview with Tony Revelori (Flash in Spider-Man Homecoming) about how Peter Parker’s school nemesis has been reworked here, and if you scroll down there’s a picture of Peter’s peer group. Which looks like an actual group of kids you might see in a big city high school. I also really adored Peter’s best friend Ned. Zendaya as MJ was delightful.

Between Homecoming and Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, the MCU is really hitting it out of the park this year. Hoping they’ll keep it going with Thor: Ragnorak, because the scripting on these last two movies has been a cut above the previous few offerings. (Civil War, I’m looking at you. I love you, but you’ve got some problems.)

So, definitely worth seeing. It’s a movie that’s really having some fun, and it far exceeds what the trailer tells you it’s going to be.

And now I want to talk about spoiler-y things! Because that’s the only way to fully explain why I loved this movie as much as I did.

Read the rest of this entry »

Originally published at Alex Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

The Thirteenth Doctor

Jul. 16th, 2017 12:25 pm
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The thirteenth incarnation of the Doctor has been announced, and it’s Jodie Whittaker.

I’m having a lot of feelings right now that cannot be expressed by just screaming endlessly on Twitter, so I’m putting them down here.

I grew up watching Doctor Who on PBS. It’s been as huge a part of my life as Star Trek. Until new Who showed up, Seven was my doctor. A big part of that was because of Ace, who was cool and amazing and I wanted to be her for a long time. Her relationship with the Doctor was different, somehow. Looking back on it, I think it’s because she had Donna-esque levels of taking absolutely zero shit off the Doctor, while still being young enough that his relationship with her was more avuncular to downright fatherly. And because she was absolutely brilliant, and the Doctor supported her in that. To the extent that he wanted her to go to the academy on Gallifrey and become a Time Lord. I think that last thing is something that’s been heavily retconned in new Who, but the idea that you don’t have to actually be from Gallifrey to be a Time Lord, and that Ace could be a Time Lord? Sign me up.

And then there was Romana. Between her two incarnations she was in seventeen episodes, but she stands out in my mind because… holy shit, a female Time Lord. Traveling around and having adventures. I loved Romana II because she got to be on equal footing with the Doctor, and had her own sonic screwdriver – I mean, how cool is that?

Looking at new Who, my favorite companions have been the ones (particularly Donna) who were able to put themselves on more equal footing with the Doctor. I think I’ve always been searching for women in the series who have that independence, who are as close to being the Doctor as they can get without actually being allowed to be the main show. The companions I liked the least were the ones who were basically doormats that existed to be the Dr. Watson-esque plot receptacle. (And you’ll notice in modern retellings of the Holmes stories, Watson’s become a much more active character in his own right, whose main purpose is no longer being the person who exists to ask dumb questions so the great detective can explain himself.)

Because let’s be honest, when I was a kid and playing pretend, I didn’t want to be the Doctor’s companion. I wanted to be the Doctor. That was why I loved Romana and Ace so much. And yes, you can pretend as many things as you like, but for all children are intensely imaginative, they’re also weirdly pedantic in certain ways. If you don’t ever see a girl being the Doctor, you come to feel that the Doctor is not something you’re allowed to be. Like when the young son of a friend of mine sadly informed one of his female classmates (this happened before we had Ahsoka and Rey, mind) that she couldn’t play Jedi with him and his friends, because girls aren’t Jedi – his parents corrected him on that one, but he made a perfectly logical conclusion from what he’d observed.

And even when you’re an adult and far more capable of saying “fuck your unspoken rules,” that comes coupled with the ability to better read those subtextual signposts about what stories you’re allowed to be the protagonist for. A better ability to fight to get out of that box also means you know how goddamn high the walls are.

Which all comes down to why I’m tearing up over the casting of Jodie Whittaker, and I wish I could tell this one to kid me. Look, one of your heroes you want to be isn’t just a (cis) man. The Doctor really can be any gender the Doctor pleases. Look, you can have adventures in time and space and be the person with the sonic screwdriver and the blue Police Box, and not just the person there to be less clever than him. And I honestly never thought this would happen, after seeing the ever-escalating manbaby shit storm each time a new Doctor was cast and someone said hey, wouldn’t it be great if the Doctor wasn’t white, or wasn’t a man, or (gasp) both? (Still waiting on the first/third of those items, and that should not be forgotten.)

Maybe I’m more surprised than I should be because I haven’t watched the last several seasons of Doctor Who after being so solidly lost by the Matt Smith episodes. I’m definitely going to go back and try the most recent season, now. I want to see the set up. I’m on board for this. I keep trying to come back to Doctor Who (have not been able to care about the show since about a year after Moffat took over) because it was a staple of my childhood, and maybe this time I’ll stick.

Originally published at Alex Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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