For about five minutes at the beginning of Luc Besson’s latest gonzo science fiction romp, we are shown the building of a utopia. A montage of diplomacy, this opening shows how earthbound nations begin to cooperate in the arena of space, and then without skipping a beat, how humanity goes on to welcome various alien races as friends. The International Space Station gradually becomes bigger and bigger as more and more cultures add to its diversity; the core of the City of a Thousand Planets is already in Earth orbit. It’s a sequence of humanism to rival anything in the Star Trek archive (recalling as it does the show Enterprise’s title sequence chronicling the progression of space travel). And while Valerian goes on to dazzle with visual wonders, the opening title sequence is so much the standout that you can be forgiven for walking out right then and there.
The case for the rest of the film is weakened quite a bit by the vapid lead characters. Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevigne play agents Valerian and Laureline, titular heroes of a vintage French comic strip now adapted into this $175 million-plus-budgeted blockbuster. Their corny sub-pulp fiction banter and flirtation feels like the throwback it was intended to be, but rests entirely on a chemistry that isn’t there, and absent emotions. Co-star Rihanna may not be a professional actor, but she still shows more humanity in 10 seconds than either lead does throughout the entire movie. DeHaan is much more at home navigating sinister sanatoriums and playing the antihero than he is as a Buck Rogers-esque action hero, and Delevigne continues her quest to convincingly show an emotion on screen. At least Jane Fonda as Barbarella, who shows that there’s precedent for bizarre 1960s French pulp heroes to translate to film, had screen presence and was more in on the cosmic joke.
Trailers for Valerian billed it as based on the “legendary graphic novel”, but it’s more accurately a comic strip. And to match that, the film has a very episodic structure, all the better to slideshow its various spaced-out visual ideas and high-concept action scenes (interdimensional shopping!), all falling out of a very big and French piñata. This is the raison d’être of the movie, and the splendor of the world(s) is undeniable. It’s just a shame that a film so production designed to death didn’t invest the time to create characters worth caring about, and while there are interesting thematic elements to the plot (disrespect to one sentient race – incidentally with a coded transgender Emperor – becomes a nameless darkness that threatens the entire utopia), a story tying it all with a bow. There have been other significantly flawed but visually stunning movies this year, such as Kong: Skull Island and Ghost in the Shell. Let’s hope that future efforts balance the equation.
P.S.: Other aesthetic notes: As you can see above, long stretches of the film resemble nothing so much as a live-action take on René Laloux’ Fantastic Planet. Besson’s own Fifth Element gets a couple nods here in the form of a restaurant name and an equivalent sequence to the legendary “diva dance”. And in an ADR fail, I’m almost certain that for one important line, Laureline speaks while her mouth stays completely still.
P.P.S.: This is a semi-new category of review for the site, alongside the larger-scale film reviews with pretty pictures, editorials, franchise flashback, TV talk, and end-of-year review stuff. Mini-reviews are designed to take less time out of my schedule and hopefully a lot more are coming soon. As I see more and more movies every year (at time of writing, I’ve seen 55 2017 releases), my review productivity has gotten worse and worse. Mini-reviews are a new way to get more movie thoughts up on the site efficiently, but at the same time not just for new releases. And I know it’s a bit odd that this is the movie with which I’m coming back; there’ve been some heavy hitters I’ve missed reviewing. Perhaps pieces on some recent big names will turn up eventually; right now I’m at work on a big full-scale Fate of the Furious review. Happy viewing!
Music is the key. A while ago, I argued that to grow in quality, Disney’s live-action remakes should embrace more and more of their source material’s music. Cue an all-singing, all-dancing take on the studio’s landmark Beauty and the Beast from 1991, with that animation’s composer Alan Menken back to update the movie’s musical repertoire. Remaking the first animated Best Picture nominee is a major throwing down of the gauntlet, but this Beauty and the Beast has captured the spirit of the original, while also making smart and significant changes to craft an impressive new experience.
In 18th Century France, a Prince (Dan Stevens) selfishly rejects hospitality for an old woman, who turns out to be an enchantress. In so doing, he dooms himself to a seeming eternity as a Beast, his servants to transformation into household objects, his castle to an eternal winter, and his rule to be forgotten by his subjects. But his isolated world intersects with one of them, the bookish Belle (Emma Watson), and for the first time there’s a sliver of hope that the enchantress’ curse can be lifted. As Belle meets Prince Charming but won’t discover that it’s him until Act 3, will the Beast let this sharp-witted inventor steal into his melancholy heart? And will the castle finally see days in the sun again?
The whole picture falls apart without the foundation of Belle and the Beast’s romance, and it’s more convincing here than it’s ever been before. The key is the library scene. In the original, the Beast presenting Belle with the library was a grand romantic gesture suggested by Lumiére, whereas here, the Beast opens this world of letters to Belle with the casual manner of a boy showing a girl his back catalog of National Geographics. The two bookworms, charmingly played by Watson and Stevens, forge a genuine connection by the end of the movie.
Director Bill Condon (Chicago, vivid and a total blast) and co-screenwriter Stephen Chbosky (Rent, fun but lacking any storytelling spine) have both written movie musicals before, and that experience yields smart touches throughout. Like Love Actually or Hugo, there are several romantic subplots to track, maximizing the payoff for the inevitable happy ending. Plot holes from the original are swiftly papered over. Belle is a bit more of a modern hero. Characters in interracial relationships and others questioning their sexuality are represented without fanfare or comment. This Beauty and the Beast invites comparison with its animated predecessor, but while the two are kindred they move to profoundly different rhythms, and it’s details like these that enrich this telling.
Another great detail is that in the “Gaston” musical number, there’s a moment where people struggle to sync up their dancing. So, realism within a fantasy setting is what the filmmakers are reaching for, and what they achieve. But that also means that the most zonked out elements, chiefly the Busby Berkeley acid trip that is “Be Our Guest”, feel oddly disconnected from everything. What is there to the visuals in the sequence beyond the celluloid equivalent of drowning in confetti? The setpiece’s gimmick is that Belle is repeatedly presented with food that is whisked away before she raises a fork. Sure, that’s a tried-and-true comedy routine found in everything from A Hard Day’s Night to Spider-Man 2, but it doesn’t make any sense here. It doesn’t fit the story being told. I’m about to commit Disney heresy here, but maybe “Be Our Guest” should have been scrapped in favor of the other vintage household object showcase “Human Again” – or maybe a medley of the two. At least then a helping of humanity would fly at the audience along with the trays of bon fromage.
Yeah, that sequence isn’t my favorite. And just as a guideline, the two wolf attacks bookend what’s probably the clunkiest part of the film. But even in the weeds of these (relatively) rough patches, the cast is outstanding. (They better be, because the movie sort of gives them two curtain calls.) Emma Watson’s Belle is warm, but not soft – it’s satisfying to see how she cuts through her little “Madame Gaston” number with palpable fire. Dan Stevens’ striking eyes fit the Beast, and the character’s journey from full-on Krampus to romantic hero is sketched pretty well. (A nitpick, though: There’s a big moment where the Beast/Prince yells, “I am not a Beast!” Okay. But the film never gives him a name!) The household object characters are voiced by an impressive repertory company, of which Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson are only two. Luke Evans’ Gaston is both more appealing than his animated counterpart, and more villainous, with Evans adept at milking the comedic and threatening aspects of the role. Both Maurice and LeFou are clownish characters from the original given a humanity transplant. But the real breakout is Josh Gad as LeFou, given an entirely new arc ranging from broad comedy to soul-searching redemption.
And finally, the music in this musical. Newcomers Watson and Stevens hold their own alongside musical veterans like Evans and Gad, and the songbook itself has gotten an update. Incorporating lost lyrics from the late Howard Ashman into “Gaston” and the title song, composer Alan Menken honors his former collaborator’s legacy while also penning three original songs. (No songs are retained from the Broadway musical.) “How Does a Moment Last Forever” is poignant and sweet. “Days in the Sun” is a catchy check-in-on-all-the-characters number. And the third…
Earlier I committed Disney heresy and I think it’s time for more. I don’t think the animated Beauty and the Beast quite has a signature standout song. For me, it doesn’t have a “Let it Go” or a “Part of Your World”. But incredibly, in 2017, Alan Menken gives it one. “Evermore” is an utter showstopper, an operatic swing for the fences. In the Beast’s new and vital turn in the spotlight, Dan Stevens sells the low feelings and high notes, and Menken’s baritone ballad becomes the jewel in Beauty and the Beast’s musical crown.
I know I ragged on the “Be Our Guest” sequence before, but I approve the song itself for the iPod playlist. The slowed-down tempo is an improvement, and Ewan McGregor as Lumiére chews into the lyrics with gusto. In fact, it’s a microcosm of the contrast between the original animated feature and this retelling; the new film is slower, making for a fulfilling opportunity to see the sights. I like how several songs are given reprises to keep them in the minds of the audience, and the other original songs are present and correct, with my favorite of the classics being the elongated introductory piece simply titled “Belle”.
With an appealing cast, convincing romance, beautiful production design (I love how the design of the castle is opened up, exposed stairways and all), lavish music, and a commitment to storytelling, the Beauty and the Beast remake is in good health. As it respects the original while weaving new magic of its own, it continues Disney’s streak of live-action remakes embracing the musical landscapes of their predecessors. (But word on the street is the next one, Mulan, is dispensing with the songs!?) Be its guest, and keeping the original in mind, you might find there’s something there that wasn’t there before. 8/10.
P.S.: The influence of Jean Cocteau’s striking and dreamlike 1946 version of the story is there from time to time. The most noticeable touch: the hands affixed to the castle, holding torches. And because the end titles are translated to French, the title card is framed by the Cocteau-alike La Belle et la Bête.
P.P.S.: In the animated version, LeFou poses as a snowman at one point. Now, LeFou actor Josh Gad is most well known for voicing the snowman Olaf in Frozen. Coincidence? Also, the Beast reads a book about the forbidden love between Lancelot and Guinevere at one point, and Beast actor Dan Stevens played Lancelot in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb. Finally, Luke Evans (uber-skilled archer Bard in The Hobbit films) plays Gaston, whose preferred weapon in the animated film is a bow and arrow. Here, war veteran Gaston opts for a pistol.
Perhaps as soon as two years from now, China will surpass the United States as the biggest, most lucrative film market in the world. This is happening. And as it does, movies produced in the spirit of something like Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall will become more common. So what appears to be an easily dismissed monster flick actually stands on the vanguard of a new globalist film industry. It’s entering uncharted territory, being the first Hollywood-sourced film produced in China. Put in other terms, this is a truly collaborative production – Universal provides most of the funding, the marquee movie star Matt Damon, a couple other supporting cast members, and part of the crew; China provides the director, most of the cast, the filming locations, and the rest of the crew. And at a cool $150 million, The Great Wall is also the most expensive movie ever made in China. So given the overwhelming context swirling around, what does this landmark international cooperation have to offer?
In the 11th Century, mercenary soldiers William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) find their way to northern China in search of the “black powder” (gunpowder), with the intent to take the substance west and sell to the highest bidder. But they are caught up in a mythical war between China’s watchers on the Great Wall called the Nameless Order, and the monsters they repel, the gargoyle-esque Tao Tei. With Commander Lin Mei (Jing Tian) forbidding the vagabonds from journeying back to the west, William and Pero must decide between following their desire for riches or taking up a new cause.
Unsurprisingly, the backbone of the drama comes not only from the sickly green hell-beasts barreling down on the Wall, but also from the culture clash between the Nameless Order and the western outsiders. Excepting a couple throwaway characters confined to the first ten minutes, there are only three non-Chinese characters, so few that they become avatars. They clearly stand out; as the Order moves like a single organism, western characters long for the black powder (reminiscent of the euphemistic “red flower” from The Jungle Book), and must be humbled by the selfless unity of the Order. There’s no balance to this portrayal. One westerner inevitably screws the other over for personal gain. When that character is blown up by the very gunpowder he intended to hawk, it doesn’t feel so much like a person has died, but rather a stand-in for capitalism.
Unlike every other western character in the film, our hero William quickly comes around to the cause of slaughtering monsters. Contrary to appearances, Matt Damon’s character is not so much the white savior of China as he is the white convert to Chinese communism. And why wouldn’t he be? The thousands-strong Order’s competence and unflinching loyalty is contrasted with two lone outsiders’ doomed quest for profit. When the (significantly labeled) Nameless Order speaks Mandarin, the subtitles are presented in the most straightforward font possible: a prosaic font for a prosaic people. This solidity gets results. At every turn, communism is implicitly championed over capitalism. Strictly within the context of the story it makes sense, but as the blunt theme of this co-production it feels cowardly. I’m not railing against The Great Wall’s politics as some kind of America-fuck-yeah statement. The problem is that these politics feel so corporately mandated. Back in the 1950s, at the height of McCarthyism and the Blacklist, putting communist themes in a Hollywood movie was transgressive, subversive, and risky. Now, it’s just pandering.
The character work is functional if colorless. The film stars Matt Damon and his variable accent, toggling between his normal voice, a southern drawl, and a posh take on Irish. Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal is fun in his role as a wandering and weary scoundrel, and his double act with Damon makes for stilted but amiable banter. According to director Zhang, he insisted at the script level that the clichéd romance between William and Commander Lin be removed, and that’s to his credit. But in the finished product, all the setup for that romance makes it to the screen! The seams are visible, so the matter-of-fact statement of mutual respect is diluted a bit.
The production design is striking. As is Zhang’s signature, strong color contrasts are used in the costumes, with each Corps within the Nameless Order corresponding to a clearly defined color: red for archers, black for infantry, sky blue for spears, etc. The large-scale production utilizes visual effects well, if not outstandingly, even though the opening sequence looks like a PlayStation 3 cutscene. The Tao Tei beasts are always given heft and weight when interacting directly with human characters. The visuals are mostly aiming for a specific kind of unreality, and on balance they’re the best aspect of The Great Wall.
But the opening gambit of the film doesn’t take encouraging first steps. The awkwardly edited prologue, filled with mile-wide close-ups, contains a moment of night-shrouded action in which several characters are meant to be killed. But the editing is so confusing I could only surmise they had died by their absence in the next scene. It feels like every once in a while Zhang aims for horror, and in this opening at least, he misses wide of the mark. The action throughout is engaging enough but never really catches fire. It’s consistently competent, miles away from the dazzling action on display in Zhang’s previous work like House of Flying Daggers. Rounding out the production, composer Ramin Djawadi uses thrumming martial tones familiar from his Warcraft score, ethnic motifs, and even a couple cues reminiscent of his Game of Thrones work in a middle-of-the-road effort.
The Great Wall is weird and sort of uncomfortably timely. This is a movie that glorifies the border patrol of a massive wall, that panders to the Chinese, and in which a Spaniard is portrayed as greedy and selfish. Not such great stuff there. But the action is competently staged, and the visuals are sometimes big-screen bonkers. Even though the themes are problematic, and there are myriad things, let’s say, off about this one, the film comes out more or less okay. So, this review is not advocacy for an underrated gem (Monster Trucks), or praise for a well-oiled machine firing on all cylinders (John Wick Chapter 2). It’s an acknowledgement that aside from all the baggage, The Great Wall is an adequate but flawed medieval fantasy war movie where people blow up a bunch of grotesque monsters real good. 5/10.
P.S.: Edward Zwick was the original director attached, and retains a story credit. His Tom Cruise/Ken Watanabe-starrer The Last Samurai has superficial parallels with this film, but The Great Wall has not an ounce of the empathy and grounded grandeur of that superior movie.
Whatever else 2017 will throw at us, we’ll always have movies. And whether it’s finding the greatness that comes out of a studio factory, or keeping an open mind to new independent efforts, I’ll be there. So amidst the delights and excesses of awards season, these are the 2017 films I’m most looking forward to seeing.
First, a bunch of bonus mentions. T2 Trainspotting (one of my favorite directors, Danny Boyle, returns to the film that made his name), Pitch Perfect 3 (After the sequel improved on the first, I’m ready for more a capella antics); Free Fire (a claustrophobic 70s throwback crime movie from the director of the stunning A Field in England, it could be this year’s Green Room); Annihilation (I only called Alex Garland the greatest science fiction screenwriter of all time. No big deal! Hopefully he continues to bear this out with his next writing/directing effort); Kingsman: The Golden Circle (The first Kingsman is even smarter than I initially gave it credit for, and Matthew Vaughn is a dynamite director of action); Kong: Skull Island (Apocalypse Now with Kong as Kurtz is a great pitch, and I love the 2014 Godzilla, with which this shares a cinematic universe); Death Note (an adaptation of one of my favorite comic properties looks to be a twisted psychological thriller); Logan (the rapturous response to the first 40 minutes screened to festivalgoers bodes well for this final bow of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine); Beauty and the Beast (given the state of the Disney remake, I’m very optimistic).
10) Wonder Woman
It’s a travesty that the greatest female superhero has never headlined a movie (hell, no woman has headlined one at all since Elektra in 2005). So under any circumstances, this first Wonder Woman film is a full-blown event. Under any circumstances; it sure doesn’t help that the current DC universe project hasn’t produced a single decent movie out of three chances. (And I hope the way Henry Cavill’s charisma is repressed in the role of Superman doesn’t parallel any untapped range in Gal Gadot’s performance.) But the trailer is solid, promising a weighty World War I setting, stunning cinematography on Themyscira, and impactful action. The image of Wonder Woman walking out from a trench onto “no man’s land” is incredibly potent, and I predict some very creative uses for the Lasso of Truth. The film will either wreck shop, or prove as divisive as DC’s previous movies. Please be good. And please don’t lean on Chris Pine as some kind of “stealth male lead”.
9) The Fate of the Furious
In the past six years, the Fast and Furious franchise has reinvented itself as one of the silliest and most rewarding in Hollywood, and this first post-Paul Walker entry will surely continue that pulpy momentum. When I reviewed Furious 7, I hadn’t seen any other movies in the series. Now having seen them all, I anticipate #8 all the more because while the showstopping stunt setpieces are the franchise’s signature, its secret weapon is the use of past cast members to create a sort of gestalt ensemble. In that tradition, former villain Jason Statham will join the team! That sort of loopy idea of community (indeed, “family”) is what I look for in a Fast movie.
8) Blade Runner 2049
Following up Blade Runner is almost a thankless task. But director Denis Villeneuve might be the best fit for the material anyone could hope for. After the painful intensity of Prisoners, nightmarish Enemy, the visceral Sicario, and the brooding but beautiful Arrival, Villeneuve is on an extraordinary run of atmospheric and pointed work. The teaser shows a matter-of-fact return to this very specific world, bolstered by another return to an iconic role by Harrison Ford, and a lead performance from 2016 darling Ryan Gosling.
7) The Masterpiece (née The Disaster Artist)
Tommy Wiseau’s The Room is a legendary so-bad-it’s-good experience, endlessly quotable and inexplicable (“Did you get your promotion?” “Nah.” “You didn’t get it, did you?”). And co-star Greg Sestero’s personal account of its making, “The Disaster Artist”, is one of the funniest and most engaging books I’ve read, so the burden is on The Masterpiece to live up to the incredible subject matter.
6) The LEGO Batman Movie
After The LEGO Movie (my favorite film of 2014, incidentally), it seems LEGO’s roast/tribute of the Dark Knight is far from over. What’s most intriguing about this spinoff is its apparent willingness to engage with the whole breadth of cinematic takes on Batman. So we’ll have riffs on Adam West alongside jokes reflecting the Christopher Nolan era. And the above picture hints that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is already going to be satirized! For that alone, I can’t wait. It’s very unusual corporate thinking to let two Batman properties coexist on the big screen at the same time, making the business side of things fascinating as well. If all goes well, The LEGO Batman Movie could end up being the second-best Batman movie. That’s realistic.
5) Baby Driver
When wunderkind director Edgar Wright shows up, so do I. The sublime “Cornetto trilogy” of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End alone ensures Wright’s place as one of the best filmmakers working today, but Baby Driver looks like a bit of a change of pace. Frequent collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are nowhere to be found, and it looks to be a harder-boiled affair. Revolving around a getaway driver (Walter Hill’s 70s pulp classic The Driver is a clear reference point), the hook is that he suffers from tinnitus and listens to music constantly on his earphones during heists. So Wright has license to make a sort of jukebox musical crime movie. Sounds like a plan.
4) Paddington 2
One of the biggest surprises in recent memory, Paddington is no joke one of the best family films I’ve ever seen. Charming, funny, emotional, and thematically rich, the freshman entry is a hard act to live up to, but the humility of the story will surely make for a non-bombastic follow-up. This is just the story of a (sentient) bear and the human family who loves him, and if this sequel continues in the vein of the first, that’s all we need.
3) Thor: Ragnarok
“Think you can handle having the incredible Hulk for a dad?” That’s a line spoken by Taika Waititi’s character in a film he also directed, simply titled Boy. Boy is a charming coming-of-age slice of life set in mundane New Zealand. Its simple charms seem miles away from those of a big-budget superhero movie, but that’s what Taika Waititi has been entrusted with in Thor: Ragnarok. Also the director of heartwarming adventure Hunt for the Wilderpeople and hilarious vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, Waititi is an exciting indie filmmaker given the keys to the Marvel playground. And to bring it full circle, he’s got the Hulk.
He’s also got an unbelievable cast. Aside from returning favorites Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Mark Ruffalo, and Benedict Cumberbatch, also signed up are Cate Blanchett, Karl Urban, Jeff Goldblum, and Tessa Thompson! That’s nothing less than a murderer’s row. I’m actually an unabashed fan of the oft-maligned Thor movies (this is Marvel heresy, but the first two Thors blow the first two Iron Mans out of the water for me), and Ragnarok has a chance to wrap up the trilogy in an unforgettable bow. With Waititi at the helm, there’s no limit to the cosmic and comic territories the film can go to.
2) Star Wars Episode 8
The world is still mourning the tragic death of Carrie Fisher, and even though Rogue One already functions as an odd tribute to her, she will actually have a strong presence throughout this second sequel to the original trilogy she was so beloved in. So Episode 8 will sadly function as a kind of collective wake for Carrie.
But beside all that, it will also function as a movie. In 2015, Star Wars: The Force Awakens brought the legendary franchise back to prominence in style. With Episode 8, Star Wars is taken over by writer-director Rian Johnson, who made the brilliant Brick and the visceral Looper. He inherits new characters audiences are already heavily invested in such as Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, and Poe Dameron, and more minor ones like General Hux and Captain Phasma (who should have, you know, something to do this time around). And of course, Leia will be a prominent player and Luke Skywalker has re-entered the story. What’s particularly exciting is that now The Force Awakens has established the foundation of the story at a breakneck pace, Episode 8 can slow down and take the storytelling in any number of risky directions. The Force Awakens’ signature scene is the terrific lightsaber duel, and if Episode 8 comes up with anything as iconic, the series will be in good shape.
1) Molly’s Game
Aaron Sorkin’s body of work speaks for itself. Even ignoring TV, his screenplays for A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and Steve Jobs are masterful. (And to neglect non-masterpieces The American President, Charlie Wilson’s War, and Moneyball would be a mistake too.) With Molly’s Game, the doyen of dialogue will not only write but also make his directorial debut. And with my favorite actress Jessica Chastain in the lead role (as the real-life underground poker “queenpin” with a meteoric rise and fall), I’m very much in the bag for this. Last year Chastain starred in Miss Sloane, a movie I adore but which is also Sorkin-esque almost to the point of imitation. I look forward to seeing the genuine article, as it were.
Granted, Molly’s Game does not have an official release date yet. The year could go by without a release and I’d look pretty foolish for putting it in pole position, but this pick is a little more personal than the blockbusters that the eyes of the world will be watching. And in 2017, I’ll be watching quite a bit.