A world of pure imagination

Very early on in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, there is a reference to Willy Wonka’s ‘World of pure imagination’, and this is most definitely where you will spend the next two and a bit hours (although I couldn’t help wondering if the reference hadn’t been put in there just for reviewers to pick up on as their opening gambit!).

Of course, this isn’t just any imagination; this is freaky Frenchman, Luc Besson’s imagination – the man who makes Tim Burton look sane and restrained. And it’s been set free, with a reported $210m budget to help him bring it to the big screen.

The result is a visual gift that never stops giving. Unlike most sci-fi, where you get the occasional wacky alien-packed bar to set the scene, Valerian’s multiple life forms are a constant presence in all their weird and wonderful beauty, complete with no less than 2734 special effects shots.

Personally, I’d like to have seen more of the 200 different species involved in the plot, and many of them end up as little more than window dressing to a very human based story. But perhaps I’m just being greedy.

The humans carry things along nicely, with Cara Delevigne particularly (and surprisingly) impressive as the feisty Laureline, and Clive Owen doing that sinister baddie thing that only British actors seem to be able to pull off. It’s just a shame that Woodane DeHaan’s Valerian doesn’t give Laureline a better run for her money, and I found their lack of chemistry left both her and the film floundering on more than one occasion.

Fortunately, the pace, the action and the breathtaking beauty of the film more than makes up for its occasionally clunky dialogue – even when Clive Owen starts channelling Jack Nicholson’s Col. Jessup in his over-dramatic confession scene.

There will inevitably be some who will call Valerian derivative, and certainly you can see Star Wars in the Moroccan market, the braid-heavy military uniforms of the World State Federation and even the use of a garbage chute. The residents of planet Mül are also rather close cousins of the Na’vi from Avatar. However, it is worth remembering that the source material for Valerian pre-dates all of these, and it is this that was plundered by George Lucas and James Cameron, not the other way around.

While Valerian may never be hailed as a sci-fi classic alongside these earlier films, this is not for any lack of ambition. If anything you’re left with a sense that Besson bit off more than he could chew in trying to do so much in one movie. With such a rich, vivid and vibrant world around them, the pretty standard human action-adventure story was always going to come up a little short, even without its DeHaandicap.

So is it worth your time and ticket money? Absolutely. There is no denying that Valerian is a work of genius. A mad, crazy, slightly unhinged genius perhaps, but a genius nonetheless. Just don’t wait for the DVD. If ever there was a film that demanded the biggest screen possible, and even 3D if you can find it, then Valerian is it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hit and Miss Sloane

Sometimes a film that you didn’t think much of at the time, stays with you and grows on you until you feel compelled to see it again. You convince yourself you have missed something and that it is actually much better than you originally thought.

Similarly, there are other films that you thoroughly enjoy at the time, and come bouncing out of the cinema after seeing, which start to fade almost straight away. By the time you have talked about them and thought about them for a while, it becomes clear that they really weren’t the masterpiece you first thought after all.

Sadly, Jessica Chastain’s Miss Sloane falls firmly into the second category here.

Roused by a great twist towards the end, which made me want to cheer and whoop out loud, violating the Wittertainment Code of Conduct in so many ways, I came out thinking this was a great thriller. As a fan of Aaron Sorkin shows such as The Newsroom and The West Wing, Miss Sloane ticked a lot of my boxes for entertainment. It even had a few Sorkin alumni in the cast to make sure the viewer made the connection, and Sam Waterston and Alison Pill put in solid performances.

(It has to be said that Sam Waterston is one of the most effective swearers in Hollywood. It feels like watching your cuddly grandpa swear and he achieves an impact that more foul mouthed actors can only dream of).

The plot seemed fairly intelligent and had a few nice twists and turns along the way, and Jessica Chastain was suitably bad-ass as the hottest political lobbyist in town.

I came out smiling and felt properly entertained, rather than insulted by mindless SFX and bland dialogue (You know who I’m talking about, Spidey). So what went wrong?

Sadly, the great twist that I had enjoyed so much, made no sense at all when I stopped to think about it. It just wasn’t even remotely feasible. Similarly, Chastain’s performance as the titular Miss Sloane had very little depth to it once you wiped away the stylish veneer, and I became almost annoyed by the fact that the two dimensional writing had hoodwinked me so easily.

Perhaps I have been spoiled by the sheer quality of Aaron Sorkin’s writing, especially the way he makes every character count, in a way that many in Miss Sloane simply didn’t. He was certainly conspicuous by his absence here. The dialogue here was good, but it never came close to his searing wit or break-neck pace.

Now I appreciate that it is not really fair to compare Spider-Man with Sorkin, they are doing completely different things for different audiences with different tastes. However, if you are going to set your movie firmly on his turf (and even cast his actors), then you need to raise your game to match.

So even though I originally thought that this was a hit, and had even planned my DVD purchase, ultimately Sloane really was a miss.

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Baby Driver flawlessly floors it

All too often, the films we are most looking forward to are the ones that end up disappointing us the most. We build up such high expectations that when we finally get to see the film, it can only be a let down. It happened to me last year with the much-anticipated Minions movie and I was concerned that it would happen again with Baby Driver.

Cornetto Trilogy creator, Edgar Wright’s latest quirky adventure has been lauded far and wide for its inventiveness and style, with critics in awe of its unique look and feel. The superlatives have been flying thick and fast, to the point where you end up thinking that it can’t possibly be that good. Yet it is. It absolutely is. And then some…

This is near flawless film making, from the smart script to the seamless on-street action. What’s more, every single move on the screen is immaculately choreographed to the insanely good soundtrack we hear through Baby’s headphones, as he tries to drown out his tinnitus.

This is a car chase movie like no other, which puts the Fast and the Spurious to shame, not least because all the action is driven, not green screened or CGI. The music, too, is played live into the actors’ ears, so the footsteps, gunshots and every other movement are made to the beat on the set, rather than the beat being added later to sync with the movement.

By all accounts, Edgar Wright was obsessive on set, and it shows. No lounging in a directors chair, watching a monitor for him; he was strapped to the back of the speeding cars, directing the action first hand. He was also disciplined in the editing suite, avoiding the head spinning rapid cut styling that makes Michael Bay movies so hard to watch. Baby Drive is alive with breathtaking action, but that action is so slick and stylish it feels like it is choreographed by Busby Berkeley.

The result is a film that is at the same time effortlessly elegant to watch, yet keeps you right on the edge of your seat from the opening car chase to (almost) the final credits.

In its rare five star review, Empire magazine says you won’t see another film like it this year, and they are right. In fact, you may never see another film like this. While there are countless nods to its inspirations, from Blues Brothers to Walter Hill’s The Driver, from The French Connection to True Romance, this is an utterly original movie that never stops amazing you with the skill, flair and sheer attention to detail of its writer / director.

When a critic as busy as the BBC’s Mark Kermode finds time to see a film three times in the space of a couple of weeks, you know it is something very special. I have no doubt that my second, and even third viewings will also reward me with so much that I missed first time around.

If you love cinema, Baby Driver is the chance to appreciate the art form at its very best. If you love music, Baby Driver will put a spring in your step as you bounce out of the screening. But perhaps most impressively of all, if you are tired of predictable blockbuster, franchise cinema, Baby Driver could just be the movie that will renew your faith in film.

It really is every bit as original, as stylish and as accomplished as the critics would have you believe. Do not miss it.

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Hampstead Grief

I am proud to say that many of my movie reviews appear on the website of The Light Cinema, both locally and across the country. However, I don’t think they will be posting this one.

With the cinema in mind, I usually try to find something positive to say about a film (see my Baywatch review for example), but even from the most generous perspective, I cannot find anything good to say about the Hampstead.

As a so called ‘rom-com’ it was neither romantic or comedic, and I was nowhere near laughing or crying at any point during this flat, pointless 103minutes of my life that I will never get back.

Diane Keaton doesn’t seem to have moved on at all from Annie Hall, 40 years ago. She has the same cross dressing fashion sense, the same ditzy approach to life. But at 71, and without the support of Woody Allen’s priceless script or direction, it just doesn’t work any more, and all the fashion berets in the world won’t change that.

Brendan Gleeson fared a little better, but you couldn’t help the feeling that he was frankly embarrassed by some of the terrible lines he had to deliver. He seemed to be wrestling with the script like Leo and the bear in The Revenant, with about the same level of success. No wonder he wanted to be left alone; with dialogue like that I’d avoid talking to anyone too.

As for the preposterous plot, let’s not even go there. From people keeping hospital admission paperwork for 17 years, to a hardened woodsman deciding to try a mudpack face mask (producing slices of cucumber from nowhere in the bathroom), it seemed that Hampstead wasn’t even trying to make sense.

They were clearly trying to follow the well worn formula set by films such as the similarly location-titled Notting Hill. American leading lady – check. Well known British leading man – check. Heartwarming story of mis-matched lives and lifestyles – check. They even had a director with form in the genre, with Joel Hopkins having directed similar stuff, to much better effect, in Last Chance Harvey.

Yet there was no chemistry whatsoever between the leads, despite the non-stop naff ‘British rom-com’ soundtrack that ran incessantly through the film in a doomed attempt to create some. Something was clearly missing here, or rather someone. Hampstead had a great big, gaping Richard Curtis shaped hole in it that even this talented cast couldn’t avoid falling through.

It may only be five miles from Notting Hill to Hampstead, but the two films are a world apart when it comes to charm, wit and character. From very early on I found myself wanting to jump a bus up the road to browse in Hugh Grant’s bookshop for a couple of hours until it was safe to come back again.

Films like Hampstead make the idea of living off grid seem strangely attractive.

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Why you should watch Baywatch

Rather predictably, there have been a lot of critics posting sniffy reviews of Baywatch, but I can’t help thinking that they may have missed the point.

This was never pretending to be Shakespeare. It doesn’t claim to have Scorese levels of direction, Aaron Sorkin dialogue or Michael Bay style special effects. It never set out to be a modern classic that will sweep the board at the Oscars and take pride of place in your DVD collection.

This is a Baywatch movie, and it doesn’t try to be anything else. You get everything you would expect: tight swimsuits, sun drenched locations, rippling biceps, slow motion running and lots of heroic splashing about and saving people. You even get Pamela Anderson and David Hasselhoff, albeit very briefly.

We were probably the only people in the audience who were even born when Baywatch first graced our Saturday teatime TV screens in 1989, but the iconic red, high cut costumes, wooden beach towers and float-on-a-rope trailing out behind a hunky lifeguard sprinting along the beach, have passed into popular culture so much that everyone knew what they were in for.

This is a fun summer crime caper, with added TV pedigree, and while it won’t change your life, it will keep you a lot more entertained for its two hour run time than the critics would have you believe. The gags are funny, if sometimes a touch too ‘American Pie’ in their subject matter, the characters are likeable (although it has to be said the female characters could have had more to say), and the messages of teamwork, redemption and good guys beating the bad guys all work well.

Perhaps most importantly, this is a film that knows what it wants to be, and isn’t afraid to stick with it. Far too many recent films have been tonally all over the place, leaving you unsure whether to laugh or cry. ‘Snatched’ tried to blend comedy with drama and failed at both. ‘The Promise’ tried to be both romance and historical epic, and while both worked in their own way, the two ideas never really gelled together. Even the epic ‘King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’ swung wildly from Guy Ritchie East End knockabout to full on superhero conflict.

Whatever faults Baywatch may have, and there are many, at least it knows its tone and knows its audience, and it stays true to both from start to finish. Its tongue is firmly in its cheek throughout and it knows its place – even taking time to mock the plots of the original as sounding like something from a cheesy TV show.

You won’t see Dwayne Johnson collecting an Academy Award next February, and it’s unlikely that Baywatch will be featuring in The Light’s carefully curated ‘Too Good To Miss’ selection. But that doesn’t make it a bad film. And when you look at the depths plumbed by other reboots, such as the appalling ‘CHiPs’, or undo all that expensive therapy by making yourself remember Zac Efron’s previous outing in ‘Bad Grandpa’, it starts to look a whole lot better.

So leave the critics to their Cannes reviews, check your cynicism at the door, and let yourself enjoy some laughs, some excitement and some beautiful people in an exotic location. After all, isn’t that what going to the cinema is all about sometimes?

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King Arthur: East End of the Sword

I suppose if you give Guy Ritchie a budget of $175m, and a cast of thousands, then you pretty much deserve what you get. This is, after all, the man who thought that marrying Madonna was a good idea.

Apparently, he pitched King Arthur: Legend of the Sword as ‘Snatch meets Camelot’, but it feels more like a bad episode of The Sweeney for much of the first hour, as Ritchie’s chirpy Cockney mates ‘sort it aaart’ between themselves. They all appear to be channeling Ray Winstone (apart from Charlie Humdrum, who seems to want to play Arthur as a hard-as-nails version of Craig Charles’ smart-arse Scoucer).

The only exception is Jude Law, who as ever plays Jude Law, with the same condescending sneer he has in everything from Arthurian legend to AI. Plus, of course, there’s David Beckham, who despite being born in Leytonstone, singularly fails to blend in with the Queen Vic crowd when he makes his customary Stan Lee style Guy Ritchie cameo.

All told, I really wanted to hate this film, and I was certainly sinking in my seat, clutching my head many times during the first hour. Yet somehow, Ritchie’s constant bombast slowly managed to win me over, and I was surprised to find myself not only enjoying it in the end, but actually caring what happened.

Yes, the final scenes are very much like a Marvel movie, when Captain America, sorry King Arthur, slays whole armies with his magical shield, sorry sword.

Yes, the visiting Vikings sounded more like the chef from the Muppets than terrifying raiders from the north.

And yes, the whole thing was utterly preposterous from the 300ft elephants at the start to the terrible jokes about the round table at the end.

But it worked.

I don’t quite know how or why, but it did.

Perhaps Camelot still holds some magic after all.

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Hello to Jason Issacs!

If you are not scared of dentists, drowning and doctors when you go in to A Cure for Wellness, you certainly will be by the time you leave. You’ll also want to steer clear of drinking water, floatation tanks and crowds of elderly people too.

Gore Verbinski’s latest chiller plays on all these phobias and more, as it winds its way from its slow, sinister build up, to its out and out spade-in-the-head horror finale, leaving you distinctly unsettled to say the least.

Based on an original story by Verbinski and screenwriter, Justin Haythe, A Cure for Wellness features a fine performance from Wittertainment favourite, Jason Issacs, who manages to be spine-chillingly sinister and completely charming at the same time. Indeed, it is Issac’s understated performance that makes the time-honoured trope of ‘is the hero losing his mind or is everyone actually out to get him’ work so convincingly.

Young Di Caprio lookalike, Dane DeHaan, is also on top form as the bewildered city financier sent to retrieve one of his bosses from the creepy sanitarium, while relative newcomer, and the new Mrs Shia LeBeouf, Mia Goth, manages to maintain a disconcerting detachment throughout.

Sadly, the ever dependable Celia Imrie acts all the other elderly guests off the croquet lawn, and you can’t help feeling the directors missed a trick here. I’m sure there are many senior actors who would have relished the chance to ham it up one more time in what is destined to be a cult horror. Instead we get a mix of benign old duffers, constantly trying to persuade DeHaan to learn a new card game to pass the time in between their mysterious ‘treatments’.

There’s no denying that A Cure for Wellness takes a while to get going, and could certainly stand to lose a fair chunk of its two and a half hour run time. That said, the production design is so sumptuous and the strange setting so beautifully realised, that you don’t mind spending a while looking around before things start getting gory. It’s certainly worth the wait.

As the final reel begins, brace yourselves for some stomach-churning effects and some pretty twisted concepts as the truth behind the ‘cure’ is revealed in graphic detail. You’ll certainly never look at eels again in quite the same way every again.

 

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