The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

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2017 #35

Whoa there! Hold your horses! Before The Darjeeling Limited, we need to talk about…

Hotel Chevalier
(2007)

2017 #34a
Wes Anderson | 13 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 15 / R

Hotel Chevalier

The short film that exists as a kind-of-prequel, kind-of-Part-One to The Darjeeling Limited. It’s probably best remembered for its controversies — around whether or not it was attached to the feature’s theatrical release (it was, then it wasn’t, then it was); and around Natalie Portman’s ass, firstly because oh my God you get to see Natalie Portman’s ass, then later about whether or not she regretted baring it (long story short: she didn’t). The former issue annoyed fans at the time for reasons that, a decade later, are immaterial (though if you’re interested you can read about it here). The latter… well, frankly, I guess it got a lot of attention because, a) men are men, and b) what else there is to talk about from the short isn’t necessarily all that obvious.

In it we’re introduced to Jason Schwartzman’s character from The Darjeeling Limited, one of the feature’s three leads, who here is seen lazing about in a Paris hotel room when he gets a phone call from a woman, who shortly thereafter arrives. Then they talk and stuff. All shot with director Wes Anderson’s usual style, because obviously.

Natalie Portman's ass not pictured

Hotel Chevalier exists in a weird in-between state, where it’s almost essential to the main film (the feature includes numerous callbacks to it; some inconsequential, others that I’m not sure make sense without seeing the short), but it also feels like the right decision to have left it out of the film. Its setting and the presence of only one of the trio of main characters mean it feels like a different entity, and if it had been in the feature itself, even as a prologue, it would’ve shifted the focus onto Schwartzman as the primary character. I don’t think that would’ve been right.

So maybe it’s just a glorified deleted scene, then? Or maybe there was something I didn’t get and I’m doing it a disservice. The thing it most reminds me of, watching in 2017, is those Blade Runner 2049 shorts: it informs the main feature without being an essential component of it. So, while I didn’t dislike it, I don’t know how much it has to offer outside of setting up part of The Darjeeling Limited. Unless you just want to see Natalie Portman’s ass, of course.

3 out of 5

You can watch Hotel Chevalier on YouTube here.

The Darjeeling Limited
(2007)

2017 #35
Wes Anderson | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Darjeeling Limited

So, the film proper. It’s the story of three estranged brothers (Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartzman) who reunite a year after their father’s funeral. One of them has organised a train trip across India so they can reconnect, although he also has an ulterior motive…

My impression has always been that The Darjeeling Limited is a lesser work on Wes Anderson’s CV. I don’t remember it making much of a splash when it came out — maybe I’m wrong, but “another film where Wes Anderson does what Wes Anderson does” was my impression at the time — and I don’t think I’ve seen it discussed a great deal since. As someone who still feels new to Anderson’s world and is working through his oeuvre in a roundabout fashion, I don’t necessarily disagree with this sentiment. If you want to find out what’s so great about Anderson, there are certainly other places to start.

Brothers on a train

That said, I did enjoy the film. Anderson’s mannered camerawork, kooky characters, and shaggy dog storylines seem to have gelled well with my own sensibilities. Conversely, finally getting round to this review nine months after I saw the film, I can’t remember many specifics. It’s a movie I’ll likely add to my Wes Anderson Blu-ray collection someday (for comparison, I can’t definitely say the same about Rushmore), and will be happy to revisit, but for the time being I’ve exhausted what little thoughts I had about it.

4 out of 5

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Comedy Review Roundup

Featured

Let’s have a laugh (or, perhaps, not) with…

  • Police Academy (1984)
  • Black Dynamite (2009)
  • Four Lions (2010)
  • Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)


    Police Academy
    (1984)

    2017 #27
    Hugh Wilson | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Police Academy

    I watched some of the Police Academy movies when I was younger — yes, plural — but I never saw the first one. It never seemed to be on TV (though the second always was), and the fact it’s rated 15 (weren’t all the later ones, like, PG?) would surely mean my parents would never have let me rent it (I’m pretty sure I never saw any of the series after I hit double-digits age-wise). So there was an element of box ticking in finally seeing the original — a film that Roger Ebert gave zero stars.

    It doesn’t start well: the opening credits incompetently cover up the onscreen action. That’s not for the sake of a joke, like in, say, Austin Powers 2 — it’s not overt or thorough like a joke — it’s just poorly done. From there… it might be generous to say that things pick up, but they’re not so bad. In fact, I passingly enjoyed it. It’s not aged particularly well, but there are some funny bits. Remember the sound effects guy? I used to love him when I was a kid. There’s surprisingly little of him here, though. I guess he got amped up for the sequels.

    Police Academy isn’t some masterpiece that’s been buried under the weight of its increasingly shite sequels, but it isn’t that bad as an hour-and-a-half of mindless comedy.

    3 out of 5

    Black Dynamite
    (2009)

    2017 #47
    Scott Sanders | 81 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Black Dynamite

    A spoof of cheap blaxploitation movies, Black Dynamite hits every nail on the head. I’ve not actually seen many films from the genre (the original Shaft may be the extent of it, unless Live and Let Die counts), but you only need a passing awareness of the ludicrousies of low-budget ’70s genre cinema (the third act sidesteps into a spoof of kung fu movies) to get the overall joke. Plus there are plenty of generally funny riffs and sequences for the layperson to laugh at, the highlight being a deduction scene that makes no sense whatsoever. At a brisk 80 minutes, it’s hard to go wrong.

    4 out of 5

    Four Lions
    (2010)

    2017 #65
    Chris Morris | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK & France / English, Urdu & Arabic | 15 / R

    Four Lions

    A comedy about Muslim suicide bombers? You don’t need me to tell you all the different minefields that idea is tiptoeing into. But it’s by the guy behind Brass Eye, so it less tiptoes more bounds, and barely puts a foot wrong either.

    The most important point, of course, is that it is very, very funny. There’s a stream of good one-liners and exchanges. But it also winds up making you feel for some of these guys, which, considering their goal, is a feat unto itself. At the same time, the attempted emotional pull in the third act doesn’t quite come off — asking us to care for “the stupid one”, who’s merely been the butt of jokes until that point, comes a little out of left-field. I mean, if we’re suddenly meant to be concerned about his (mis)treatment, why have you been making us laugh at him all along?

    Anyway, if you just ignore that unwarranted about-turn, Four Lions is absolutely hilarious.

    4 out of 5

    Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
    (1986)

    2017 #50
    John Hughes | 103 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15* / PG-13

    Ferris Bueller's Day Off

    Is this or The Breakfast Club the archetypal John Hughes movie? Argue amongst yourselves — I’ve never seen The Breakfast Club. I hadn’t seen Ferris Bueller until this year either (I mean, obviously — it wouldn’t be here otherwise), though I’m not sure why. Despite it being quite well-known and referenced, it just didn’t seem to come up that often. (Incidentally, are references to it on the increase? Both Deadpool and Spider-Man: Homecoming had significant riffs on it within the past couple of years.)

    Anyway, for those as in the dark as I was, it’s the story of cool kid Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) who has an elaborate plan to bunk off school for the day, which involves persuading his best mate Cameron (Alan Ruck) to ‘borrow’ his dad’s Ferrari and head off into Chicago with Ferris’ girlfriend (Mia Sara). Meanwhile, the school’s suspicious principal (Jeffrey Jones) tries to catch Ferris out.

    Going back to what I was saying a moment ago, part of why I didn’t watch it before was that I felt like I’d find it annoying. Turns out, not so much. Ferris is indeed a bit of a dick, but I’m not sure the film doesn’t know he is. Because he talks to camera and makes the viewer his confidante, the assumption might be we’re meant to admire him, but there’s an almost “unreliable narrator” aspect to him. Or maybe I’m projecting that because I didn’t like him but did enjoy his antics, who knows.

    5 out of 5

    * The film was reclassified as 12A for a 2013 theatrical re-release, but I watched it at home, where it’s still technically a 15. Ah, the oddities of the BBFC. ^

  • Life (2017)

    2017 #123
    Daniel Espinosa | 104 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Japanese | 15 / R

    Life

    Aboard the ISS in the near future, a team of astronauts receives a probe returning from Mars with samples from the surface. Included among them are some living cells — the first proof of extraterrestrial life. The cells begin to quickly evolve into a living organism, thrilling the scientists… until it turns nasty and begins to attack the crew. That feels like a spoiler, but this is a sci-fi horror and that development is kind of inherent in the genre.

    Playing like a cross between Gravity (a near-future thriller where space technology is almost identical to our present capabilities) and Alien (a violent alien lifeform attacks the crew of a space vessel), Life clearly aspires to be little more than a straight-up sci-fi/horror thrill ride, and on that score it’s a pretty effective piece of entertainment.

    Of course, it’s not without its niggles. It could’ve nixed some of the stupid-ass dialogue, like one of the crew commenting “it’s so cold” while they’re shivering and their breathe condenses. More fundamentally, as the organism rapidly develops none of the scientists seem all that concerned by this, sticking to their initial feelings of awe and wonder. Surely there should be some worry about its potential? Perhaps the film was supposed to be saying something about humanity’s hubris when it comes to nature — that we wouldn’t worry about such a small organism, because why would we? — but I’m not convinced that’s a theme being actively invoked. Or maybe it was: comparing his movie to that other recent first contact flick, Arrival, director Daniel Espinosa notes that Denis Villeneuve’s film “is a great, beautiful, cinematic essay about philosophy. Mine is a rollercoaster with some underpinnings of philosophy.” Well, they’re under enough that you can ignore them entirely if you like. There are certainly some even bigger ideas it could’ve chosen to tackle — see the ghost of 82’s review for some interesting thoughts on that.

    In space, no one can hear you rip off other movies

    Still, we shouldn’t really judge a film for things it wasn’t aspiring to do. As a “rollercoaster”, this is decent entertainment. It builds to a helluvan ending too, which naturally I won’t spoil. That said, spoilers follow, because there are some interesting comments by Espinosa about the ending here. Two points jump out at me. One: the alien doesn’t kill David — why not? Espinosa says David didn’t fear it; in fact, he has a connection to it. Personally, I’d say that’s not apparent in the film at all. It would certainly make the ending more interesting if it were true, but I’m not convinced it was actually set up. Two: nowadays we’re so trained to expect sequels that we don’t consider the implications of ambiguous endings anymore (certainly not on blockbuster-sized movies, anyway). We don’t think about what it might mean, we just wait for a sequel to tell us. At best, we consider the ending in terms of “what’s the next two-hour genre-friendly story here?”, which is equally as limiting. He might well have a point there.

    I have no idea if Life is getting a sequel to tell us what happens next or not. I believe the writers wanted one, but I’m not sure how well it did at the box office in the end. I’m not anxiously anticipating a follow-up, but I’d watch it. Life isn’t interesting enough to be a great movie, but it’s an entertaining thrill ride. My score is a smidge generous, but I did enjoy it overall.

    4 out of 5

    Life is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)

    Twin Peaks : The Return

    ICYMI, Film Twitter has been getting itself in a bit of a tizzy over the past couple of days about David Lynch’s return to TV… film… TVfilm!TV!!FIL— you get the idea.

    So, respected British film magazine Sight & Sound went and named Twin Peaks: The Return as the second best film of 2017. Except it’s a little more complicated than that, in the sense that their list is voted for (i.e. no one person or team specifically decided to place Peaks at #2) and that voters were expressly told they could include TV series, or indeed any other form of visual art (although Peaks was the only non-film to make the top ten, Sight & Sound have since tweeted a list of music videos, computer games, and other such things, that also received votes).

    Some people seemed to find the very notion of counting Twin Peaks’ third season as a film to be personally offensive. It must’ve been like rubbing salt in the wound when respected French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma went and ranked it 1st on their list.

    Happy times in Twin Peaks

    Many digital column inches have been spun out of this, naturally. Two of the more interesting / accurate ones I’ve read are Matt Zoller Seitz’s 25-tweet thread/rant and Vadim Rizov’s kinda rebuttal at Filmmaker Magazine. For my part, it’s nine years almost to the day (just one day short!) since I wrote this piece on the TV vs. film shebang, albeit from a slightly different tack (TV movies vs. ‘real’ movies). My main point was that it’s a kinda arbitrary distinction nowadays. That’s only become more the case in the almost-decade since.

    Similarly, I think most of the handwringing over Peaks’ inclusion in these lists has been stupid. As I said, Sight & Sound specifically okayed the inclusion of TV — The Return wasn’t singled out as “yeah, it’s TV, but it’s so good we’ll count it as a film”, a notion that’s been projected on this news by some commentators (mainly TV critics) so they can then take great offence at it. But if Sight & Sound’s voters had considered any other season of 2017 TV to be worthy of inclusion, it had just as much chance of making it in. I don’t know what Cahiers’ rules were, but I’m going to assume they were similar — and they’ve included TV before (of all things, the first season of 24 made their top ten back in 2002).

    Personally, I’m not really sure where I come down on the issue of Twin Peaks: The Return in particular. I mean, it’s definitely a TV series, isn’t it? But it’s also virtually an 18-hour movie, isn’t it? Can it be both? Why can’t it be both? As I said, I kind of err towards the broad position of “why differentiate?” As someone put it in a comment I saw somewhere else, it’s all linear non-interactive visual media. Still, I probably won’t be including it in my own year-end best-of list, but is that because I don’t think it should be on a movie best-of list or because I wasn’t wholly convinced/entertained by it as a work?

    Uncertainty

    And if you were wondering what I did think of it in more detail, here are all the posts I reviewed it in while it was airing:

    Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends (2014)

    aka Rurōni Kenshin: Densetsu no Saigo-hen / Rurouni Kenshin Part III: The Legend Ends

    2017 #155
    Keishi Ōtomo | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

    Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends

    Picking up where Kyoto Inferno left off, The Legend Ends is the second half of the two-part conclusion to the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy. With the villainous Shishio (Tatsuya Fujiwara) on his way to conquer Japan, Kenshin (Takeru Satoh) returns to his old master, Hiko (Masaharu Fukuyama), to learn the final tricks of his unique fighting style. All the previous film’s various characters (including ones I thought had died) have their role to play in getting Kenshin into position to battle Shishio again and, hopefully, defeat him once and for all…

    The Legend Ends is, unfortunately, not all it could be. The first hour or so essentially goes nowhere. The idea of Kenshin returning to the man who trained him to learn a final technique to defeat the big bad (aka the plot as outlined in the blurb) is a good one, but the way it plays out in practice kinda sucks: Kenshin washes up on a beach and it’s his teacher who happens to find him — what a stroke of luck! And the lesson Kenshin learns has bugger all relevance, as does that entire character in the end — even when nearly everyone who can fight shows up as part of the big finale, Hiko’s not among them.

    Spot the period-accurate boom mic

    The second half is better, in particular the climax — it’s one big sword fight, of course, which is exactly how it should be in a film like this. Throughout the film the action is all excellently choreographed and staged, but the finale is the pinnacle of that. But aside from the thrilling combat scenes, the movie just doesn’t hang together as a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. On a literal level the conflicts are resolved and characters are reunited, etc etc, but the way it goes about that business is, from a character or emotional perspective, lacking in impact. It’s a shame.

    As is a common fate among so many trilogy-closers, I thought Rurouni Kenshin 3 was sadly the series’ weak link. That said, it’s not a bad action movie — if you’re only in it for the swordplay then it satisfies with bells on; it’s the storyline around that is disappointing. Even while a significant chunk of its running time is somewhat underwhelming, at least the killer climax provides a suitable finale to the trilogy. Or it did until earlier this year, when they announced a fourth movie. Although my score errs on the harsh side, I’m still looking forward to Kenshin’s adventures continuing.

    3 out of 5

    Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno (2014)

    aka Rurōni Kenshin: Kyôto taika-hen / Rurouni Kenshin Part II: Kyoto Inferno

    2017 #149
    Keishi Ōtomo | 139 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

    Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno

    The first live-action Rurouni Kenshin film was such a success that they followed it with a two-part sequel, filmed back-to-back and originally released six weeks apart over the same summer. This is the first half.

    After the events of the first film, former assassin Kenshin (Takeru Satoh) is living a peaceful life with his newfound friends, until he’s summoned by the government to take on a mission. Turns out one of Kenshin’s former assassin colleagues, the vicious Shishio (Battle Royale and Death Note’s Tatsuya Fujiwara), is amassing an army to take down the government that left him for dead. Well, less left him for dead, more killed him after they won the war because he was too nasty to let stick around. Previous efforts to stop Shishio have failed, so now they want Kenshin to sort him out. Our peace-loving hero initially turns the job down, but events conspire to convince him he must act, and so he sets off alone to once again face the demons of his past.

    Kyoto Inferno is one of those sequels that benefits from the its predecessor establishing the world of the story and the characters that inhabit it, meaning it can launch off on its own grander scale. Partly we see this in a material sense: it looks even more expensive than the first one, right from a fabulous fire-strewn opening location, and keeps up the visual impressiveness throughout. But it’s also in the scope of the story and the way it stretches the characters, both old and new. It really puts Kenshin through the ringer, testing and questioning his beliefs and principles, and his fighting skills too. As a film it finds power in that — whereas the first movie established his persona and gave it a bit of a work out, here he’s stretched to breaking point.

    Sword fights a-go-go

    Despite being only the first half of a four-and-a-half-hour epic, when compared to the original film the story here feels more streamlined, focussed, and pointed. It’s not perfect in this respect — at one point Kenshin’s mate Sanosuke sets off to help him, only to disappear from the movie until he suddenly appears during the final battle — but such lapses are few and do little to impact the overall flow. As a villain, Shishio is more of a force and a challenge for our hero, not least because he has an army of henchmen, as well as a literal army, on his side. The fights are even more accomplished, spectacular, and epically staged than in the first movie, not least the huge climax that sees a pair of armies duke it out in the streets of the titular city.

    Kyoto Inferno is unquestionably a first half — it ends on a handful of cliffhangers. That kind of thing sometimes irritates me, but it can work when done well, and I think this will turn out to be one of those good two-parters. It feels like a well-shaped movie in its own right, starting and paying off some of its own subplots rather than just leaving everything hanging. Some of these conclude in a way that is both an ending and indicates where the story will go next, which is a most deft bit of structure. The whole affair builds to a significant climax (the aforementioned battle) and a major turning point in the narrative, rather than just pausing events at the halfway point as lesser two-part movies do.

    Shishio and his hench-friends

    I enjoyed the first Rurouni Kenshin a lot, but this follow-up is even better. It expands the world of the story and deepens the characters, making for a more rounded and exciting movie. As mid-parts of trilogies (and/or first halves of two-parters) go, it’s more of a Dark Knight than a Matrix Reloaded; more of an Empire Strikes Back than a Dead Man’s Chest; more of a Two Towers than a Desolation of Smaug. Hopefully the next film can stick the landing…

    5 out of 5

    Tomorrow: the legend ends in The Legend Ends.

    Rurouni Kenshin (2012)

    aka Rurōni Kenshin / Rurouni Kenshin Part I: Origins

    2017 #143
    Keishi Ōtomo | 129 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

    Rurouni Kenshin

    Based on a manga series that was previously adapted into an anime known in the West as Samurai X, this live-action adaptation was first brought to my attention by Total Film’s list of “50 amazing films you’ve probably never seen”, which cited its “stunning action sequences” and “beautifully choreographed sword-scraps”.

    Set in the late 19th century, the film is the story of Kenshin Himura (Takeru Satoh), who ten years ago went by the name Battosai and was a renowned fighter in the successful rebellion that brought Japan into a modern new age. Disgusted with his actions, he vowed never to kill again, becoming a wanderer (the rurouni part of the title) helping those in need, fighting with a blunted sword. When he arrives back in Tokyo, Kenshin finds that a murderer has adopted the name Battosai, whose killings are likely connected to powerful businessman Kanryu (Teruyuki Kagawa) to protect his illegal activities. Kenshin falls in with Kaoru (Emi Takei), the young owner of a fencing dojo under threat from Kanryu’s plans, and eventually teams up with acquaintances old and new to stop Kanryu and co.

    Kenshin and Kaoru

    I’ve never read or seen a version of Rurouni Kenshin before, so I don’t know how faithful this is as an adaption, but they’ve certainly crammed plenty of plot into its two hours. Viewers need to be a bit attentive to keep track of who’s who, and who’s working for who, and what their motivations are — for example, characters who initially appear to be villains, both because of their actions and our expectations of the story, are revealed to be good guys in short order. Having two characters called Battosai, one of whom has since changed his name but is primarily known by his old moniker to some characters, doesn’t help matters.

    It’s worth the small effort though, because, a few languorous patches aside, Rurouni Kenshin is a very entertaining movie. The heroes are a likeable bunch, even if Satoh looks too fresh-faced to have been a hardened warrior a decade earlier. I guess everywhere likes their pretty-boy leads. He also carries a little too great a sense of naïveté for that persona, but maybe that’s just faithful to the character as written. At least he seems to know his way around a fight scene. On the other hand, the villainous Kanryu is a delightful addition to the proud line of scenery-munching nemeses, his quirks underlined by a jaunty theme from composer Naoki Satō. He employs a couple of physically intimidating henchman too, which naturally serves to fuel the action sequences. As promised, these are excitingly staged, full of quick choreography and slick stunts. Couple their impressiveness with the large cast and varied period locations, and it gives the whole thing a glossy, big-budget feel.

    Ready for action

    In the years since it appeared on Total Film’s list with the note “worth importing”, Rurouni Kenshin has become much more widely available: in the UK it’s been available to stream and buy on disc for a couple of years now, and it even made it to the US in 2016. It still deserves more attention, I’d say, especially for anyone who likes a good bit of sword-based duelling.

    4 out of 5

    Tomorrow and Monday: reviews of the two-part sequel.

    Zatoichi the Fugitive (1963)

    aka Zatôichi kyôjô-tabi

    2017 #159
    Tokuzô Tanaka | 86 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

    Zatoichi the Fugitive

    His sword is shiny and ice-cold. The only thing it won’t cut in this whole wide world is oil and the bond of lovers.

    The fourth film in the Zatoichi series finds the blind masseur (Shintaro Katsu) with a bounty on his head, which only increases when he kills the first person who tries to claim it. Travelling to a nearby village to apologise to the guy’s mother, Ichi finds himself in the middle of a yakuza scheme to grab territory from a young boss. There’s also the small matter of a ronin (Jutarô Hôjô) and his companion, Ichi’s old love Otane (Masayo Banri).

    That’s the straightforward version — much of the plot is an overly complex account of yakuza plotting that, frankly, I sometimes struggled to follow. Especially at the start, there are so many bosses to keep track of, with broadly similar names, all of whom are more often referred to in dialogue than established on screen. I got my head round it eventually, but it took some work. It makes stretches of the film a bit dry and awkward, however.

    Fortunately, that’s not all that’s going on. Otane is back from films one and two, but she’s different to how Ichi remembers her. Rather than just bringing back a familiar face for the sake of it, the film uses her to make a point about how people aren’t always who we think they are — a bit like Ichi himself, in fact. I imagine this would be even more effective if I’d watched The Fugitive closer to when I watched her previous two appearances, but there’s enough information recapped within the film to get the gist. It also continues what seems to be a definite theme of the Zatoichi films (at least so far) about past people and actions coming back to haunt our hero.

    The bond of lovers

    However, the best part of the film is the final 20 minutes, a tour de force of emotion and action that sees Ichi surrounded and, enraged into action, taking down an army that stands between him and vengeance. Said vengeance comes in the form of a one-on-one sword duel, of course. Obviously we know our hero will triumph, but it’s still a tense scene, especially as it seems to be a rare occasion when Ichi’s been out-fought. This third act elevates the whole movie, its very existence justifying everything that came before.

    Reading other reviews, I’ve seen The Fugitive described as both “one of the weaker installments in the series” and “thus far the best [of the series,] a spectacular action-packed entry that deftly showcases why this series matters so much.” I think this stems to which you weigh heavier between the first-rate climax (plus a few choice sequences before that) and the occasionally dry plotting earlier in the movie. For me, the way it eventually comes together and concludes makes it all worth it.

    4 out of 5

    Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

    2017 #160
    Luc Besson | 137 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.40:1 | France, China, Belgium, Germany, UAE, USA, UK & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

    Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

    Luc Besson returns to the sci-fi genre that he so memorably visited 20 years ago in The Fifth Element for another colourful, crazy, adventure romp. Based on the French comic book series Valerian et Laureline, it sees special agents Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) on a mission to protect Alpha, the titular city, from forces that threaten to destroy it.

    Valerian got a pasting from critics and was a flop at the US box office, a particular problem when it’s apparently the most expensive independent movie ever made. Fortunately for it, it did alright internationally, to the point where home video sales could still secure a sequel (Besson has already written a second and has moved on to developing a third!) While it’s far from a perfect movie, it deserves to find an audience. It’s probably a bit too barmy — a bit too European, even — for mainstream US tastes, but there’s a lot to like here for those who are so inclined.

    The main selling point is the imagery. Simply put, it’s incredible. There’s so much going on, all the time. There’s background detail galore. It whizzes through worlds that could be the entire setting for some other story. There are dozens, probably hundreds, of alien species thrown around. It’s so casually inventive, as if it’s got imagination to spare. And it’s mostly vibrantly colourful too, a real comic book of a movie in the traditional sense. All that depth and detail looks particularly amazing in 3D, it must be said, especially during the action sequences that whoosh though intricate, layered environments at breakneck speed.

    Valerian, without Laureline

    This visual exuberance sometimes comes at the expense of the plot. The main storyline is pretty straightforward — for example, there’s a third-act twist that’s obvious from the moment the character it concerns first appears on screen — but it keeps getting distracted by total asides, as Besson meanders off course to showcase some other species or environment or set piece he and his army of designers have cooked up. If that kind of shaggy storytelling annoys you then Valerian is set to get up your nose, but if you go along for the ride then Besson’s showing off can be delightful.

    Some of the other screenwriting details suffer even more, however. It almost engages in some interesting themes about colonialism and that kind of stuff, but instead more nods its head in their direction than actually says anything about them. More overtly, a lot of the dialogue is atrocious. In fact, it’s so bad that you begin to wonder if it’s deliberately ultra-mannered and you’ve just missed some kind of joke. It doesn’t help that DeHaan feels at least somewhat miscast as the cocky heroic lead. Or possibly that’s the point — that Valerian isn’t as irresistibly attractive and amazingly competent as he thinks he is. Model-turned-actress Delevingne, on the other hand, is surprisingly good.

    You’ll notice that Valerian and Laureline are (a) co-leads, and (b) both in the name of the original books, and yet the female half of the duo has been ditched from the film’s title. Unfortunately, that does indicate the film’s sometimes-dated attitude towards gender politics. On the bright side, Delevingne manages to imbue Laureline with a feistiness that allows her to mostly hold her own against the men, and — despite the old-fashioned shape of a romantic subplot — Besson’s screenplay lets her be a capable agent in her own right as well. Still, Laureline vs. the Space Patriarchy would not be a wholly unapt alternative title for the film.

    Laureline vs the Space Patriarchy

    These less-good aspects of Valerian glare out at one rather, and make me want to declare that much of it is kind of rubbish, really… and yet I rather enjoyed the whole shebang. Perhaps it just takes a rewatch or two to settle into the film’s own particular rhythm? Even if that’s not the case, I’d still rather have the messy ambition of a Valerian than another dozen run-of-the-mill Hollywood CGI extravaganzas. Fingers crossed for those sequels.

    4 out of 5

    Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is released on disc in the UK today.

    Hail, Caesar! (2016)

    2017 #23
    Joel Coen & Ethan Coen | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK, USA & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

    Hail, Caesar!

    The Coen brothers’ ode to the golden age of Hollywood provoked mixed reactions from their faithful fans (i.e. all film critics and most moviegoers) — some say it’s just a lightweight romp, others that there’s more meat on its bones.

    Well, maybe there are indeed hidden depths here, but I think I’d prefer it as just a zany caper centred on Josh Brolin’s character, surrounded by the game all-star supporting cast, rather than having lengthy asides where a room of kinda-recognisable supporting actors discuss economics and communist philosophies and that kind of thing. Is that shallow of me? Maybe. But the movie is so entertaining when it’s riffing off classic Hollywood staples and making light work of many an amusing scenario, it’s tough not to want it to be no more than that.

    Fundamentally I enjoyed it (those handful of political longueurs aside), but I’m not entirely sure what to make of it as a whole. I can believe there’s a deeper reading there if one looks to interpret it, but I’m not sure I’m bothered — I’m satisfied with it being merely a comical tribute-to-old-Hollywood caper, thanks.

    4 out of 5

    Hail, Caesar! was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.