movie reviews July 2017

okjathe herothe big sickspider-Man: homecomingvalerian and the city of a thousand planets

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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Back in 1997, French director Juc Besson made waves when he turned the visual style he had established in Leon: The Professional and La Femme Nikita to the sci-fi genre. Its eye-popping effects and frenetic energy made The Fifth Element a box office success and, over time, a cult classic with a devoted audience.

Now Besson is back with another big-budget, high concept blockbuster. But things have changed over the past 20 years, and what might have dazzled in the 20th century can feel staid, even derivative in the 21st. In Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, an adaptation of a French comic that originated in the ‘60s, Besson blatantly borrows from sci-fi milestones such as Star Wars, Avatar, and Blade Runner. The result, despite state-of-the-art effects, is largely a sluggish spectacle devoid of compelling characters or plot.

The film opens with an affecting opening montage, set to David Bowie's "Space Oddity," in which world and galactic unity is achieved through space travel. Initial scenes of American and Soviet spacecraft docking and their crews shaking hands progresses, over centuries, to meet-and-greets between various forms of intergalactic life, the space station simultaneously expanding into what is essentially a small planet composed of thousands of interconnected space vehicles.

A similar power is found in an early scene in which a purplish (though very reminiscent of Avatar's blue Na'vi) elongated alien wakes, washes her face in a bowl of opalescent spheres, feeds her almost cartoonish space-pet, then emerges into a world clearly alien yet somewhat familiar, as though an entire planet were a serene, secluded beach with multiple suns hovering over the horizon and giant conch shells rising like islands from its placid waters.

When fiery apocalypse falls from the sky onto this utopian scene, there is a sense of loss, a loss the remainder of the film is unable to redeem.

Unfortunately, once its heroes — intergalactic and inter-dimensional police Valerian and his partner Laureline — appear, the film heads in a number of seemingly random narrative directions, most of them dead ends. While the lovely aliens from that endangered beach world will return by film’s end, the path there is so long and circuitous that few viewers will likely care by then.

It doesn’t help that Besson has cast his two leads with a couple lacking even the faintest hint of chemistry. As Major Valerian, Dane DeHaan (Chronicle, A Cure for Wellness), remains expressionless and virtually monotone throughout, while Cara Delevingne creates hints of character for Laureline but is given little to say and little more than a green screen with which to interact.

Besson’s screenplay attempts to compensate for plot and casting weaknesses with feeble attempts at humor and screwball comedy (as well as a number of thankless cameos by Herbie Hancock, Rutger Hauer, Ethan Hawke, and Rihanna), but there is little that can prevent the film’s optimistic first third from unraveling into a mere space oddity. PG-13 Rating: 2  (Posted on 07/25/17)

Spider-Man: Homecoming
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Here he comes again: the third live-action Spiderman to launch a franchise in the last 15 years.

Of Marvel's pantheon of superheroes, it's Spider-Man who seems to return relentlessly to the big — and small — screen.

While not the biggest, strongest or fastest of the heroic bunch, Marvel's Spidey may be the most beloved. The archetypal high school nerd, taunted and rejected by the jocks and the cool kids, Spider-Man's alter ego Peter Parker has always seemed the most relatable. And while times, technology, and fashions change, the essential struggle of adolescence remains.

Inspired by TV's Freaks and Geeks and The Breakfast Club, Marvel and Sony Pictures' Spider-Man: Homecoming positions the web slinger securely in the ever-widening Marvel Cinematic Universe with a fast, funny romp that never forgets what drives its protagonist (and most any other teen): the nagging sense that he just doesn't fit in.

In a wise move, the film skips the origin story completely. The radioactive spider bite and the loss of Uncle Ben already felt repetitive in 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man.

Instead, Homecoming follows close on the heels of Captain America: Civil War, in which Spidey was recruited by Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) to fight with the Avengers. Now back in Queens, living with Aunt May (the vivacious Marisa Tomei is not your father's Aunt May), Peter Parker (Tom Holland) once again finds himself on the outside looking in.

Despite his temporary Avenger status, Parker can't even get Stark on the phone, having to settle instead for watching smart phone clips of his adventure when he's not snagging car thieves and purse-snatchers. His high school experience is re-imagined as multicultural and class-driven. He's not bullied by thick-necked jocks, but by the rich kids, one of whom, Liz (Laura Harrier), is the object of his silent crush. There's also an "MJ" (Disney TV alum Zendaya) who more closely resembles Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club than Kirsten Dunst.

These class lines also define Spidey's world. The villain this time around is no devourer of universes. He's a regular guy who, like Parker, feels he’s been squeezed out by the "haves." After being pushed out of a job cleaning up after The Battle of New York, blue collar salvager Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) uses alien technology swiped from the battle site to create powerful weapons for the black market and, eventually, to power a pair of huge rocket wings (a wry nod to Keaton's middle-aged Birdman).

What director John Watts and his unlikely screenwriting committee (six credited writers) get right is the goofy humor and mid-battle banter of the comic. For his part, Holland manages to capture the sense of wonder of a character discovering his powers, even when he's plummeting from a rooftop or trying to manage an unruly spider-suit (a high-tech gift from Mr. Stark).

If the climactic battle between Toomes (no one seems to call him "The Vulture" here) and Spidey is predictably overblown, the car ride to the titular dance that precedes it captures the collision of high school angst and super villain menace perfectly. In the first face-to-unmasked-face meeting between superhero and villain, Toomes drives Parker and his date to the school dance. As the two make conversation and discuss curfew times, the measured tones and carefully chosen words echo the unbearable sounds of worlds, identities, and responsibilities colliding. In other words, the enduring challenge of adolescence. PG-13 Rating: 4 (Posted on 7/20/17)

The Big Sick
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

The unfortunate title of Michael Showalter's (The Baxter) latest film sounds more like the day-after sequel to The Hangover or an early Judd Apatow gross-out film (Apatow is one of the producers) than a romantic comedy. But the malady it refers to is not the result of binge drinking the night before; it's adult-onset Still’s disease, a rare inflammatory syndrome that puts one of the leads in an induced coma. Sounds romantic, doesn't it?

The script, written by Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley") and Emily V. Gordon, is based on events from their own budding romance — the two have been married for a decade. Nanjiani plays Kumail, the fictionalized version of himself, while Emily Kazan, frequently cast as a bit simple, takes on the role of Emily, still naïve but with more edge.

Inspired by the real-life romance of the real-life Nanjiani and Gordon, the relationship, showcased in the first 30 minutes or so of the movie, is a delight to watch as it builds momentum. The two meet when Emily heckles Kumail's act, and after the initial hookup keep up the pretense that neither wants to be in a relationship, all while they continue to contrive reasons to get together. In what might be the funniest gag in the movie, featured in the trailer, of course, Emily tries to escape spending more time with Kumail by requesting an Uber, but it turns out that Kumail is her driver.

Once we're introduced to Emily's parents, played by the ever-formidable Holly Hunter and a sympathetic Ray Romano, we realize there's no mystery behind Emily's likable charm. Having flown from North Carolina to Chicago to be at the bedside of their comatose daughter, the two pick up the baton of romance, allowing the sharp edges of their worry and frustration to ricochet off each other and those around them.

Less poignant are the scenes that feature Kumail's parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) and their repeated attempts to interest their son in an arranged marriage. Now that consenting adults can have sex in their on-screen relationships, the romantic comedy has suffered from a lack of barriers to getting together. Recently, cultural differences have provided good break-up material, but as we witnessed in this year's breakout horror film, Get Out, their more effective use is when they can cause bodily harm.

The joke that is the procession of young Muslim woman invited to drop in during family dinner isn't as funny as it's played to be when you consider the situation from their point of view. The talented actor Vella Lovell is particularly endearing as someone willing to settle for the slightest twinge of chemistry so she can stop participating in the process, revealing a maturity beyond her years. That's something that Kumail, who retreats from the truth in all his relationships, just doesn't possess. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 7/20/17)

The Hero
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Writer/director Brett Haley's (I’ll See You in My Dreams) latest feature finds mostly forgotten cowboy actor Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott) in the midst of an existential crisis. Literally, Lee will cease to exist in a matter of months if he declines treatment for his cancer. And why go through the bother of treatment? Lee doesn't figure in the lives of his ex-wife (Katharine Ross) and daughter (Krysten Ritter), probably as a result of ghosting them years before. It seems as if the only person who might notice if Lee disappeared altogether is his drug dealer friend (Nick Offerman).

It's at the drug dealer's Malibu pad that Lee meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon), the type of cat-eye-eyeliner-lidded, tattooed Gen X hipster who wears a uniform of bemused cynicism like some women wear Chanel No. 5 — the base layer isn't musk; it's irony. (It's the same character Prepon has essentially been playing since she returned to contemporary times after her television breakthrough in "That '70s Show.") Of course, she and Lee hit it off immediately.

On their first date, Lee invites Charlotte to a chintzy ceremony held by a small but earnest group Western fans. He's there to accept a lifetime achievement award based on a movie in which he played an anonymous cowboy referred to only as “The Hero,” but not before Charlotte spikes their champagne with the psychoactive drug MDMA. Bolstered by the euphoria caused by the drug, Lee invites one of the fans up on stage with him, a moment which instantly goes viral, giving him new cachet in Hollywood.

Although it was filmed more than 50 years ago, Lee still dreams about embodying The Hero. It's those scenes, shot in earthy colors in beautiful widescreen by director of photography Rob C. Givens that provide a visual poetry for the film. But despite hinting at understanding the relationship between dreams and movies, Haley, along with co-writer Marc Basch, do most of the heavy lifting in the temporal narrative, preferring punchlines to emotional wallops. Real hits to the gut, such as when Charlotte uses the details of Lee's ageing body for her standup routine, are quickly smoothed over in the dash toward a tidy and happy ending.

After working with Elliott on his previous feature, Haley wrote this specifically for the sonorous basso, who has made a career late in his life out of little more than an iconic mustache and the cultural bias that bestows authority on the lines he delivers in that unmistakable laid-back and folksy manner. From The Stranger in The Big Lebowski to the voice of the beef lobby that tells us what's for dinner, the character actor has been playing the guru of plain talk for decades. Still, despite the film's failings, it's a relief to finally see Elliott in a role in which he has more questions than answers. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 7/20/17)

Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Like its titular creature, Okja, the latest film (streaming on Netflix) from South Korean co-writer/director Bong Joon Ho (The Host, Snowpiercer), is a mash-up of peculiar parts, which never convincingly fit.

The fictional creature is a genetically engineered pig, a creation of the ruthless Mirando Corporation (the similarity to Monsanto is no coincidence), an agri-business trying to change it's public face by offering a food product with an appealing face. Okja is one of twenty-six such piglets distributed around the world to be raised in disparate climates, then gathered together again ten years later for a beauty contest, the winner of which gets the honor of leading its brethren to the slaughterhouse.

If that seems to make little sense as a business strategy (or as a film premise), get used to it because the world in which Okja unfolds is dictated more by plot requirements and polemics than any consistent internal logic. Yet as presented by CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) in a parody of the sort of tech launches popularized by Apple, it all breezes by in a swirl of references to "love," "care," and "the environment." As it turns out, this is the film's most restrained satire.

Ten years later, a massive mature Okja is introduced as the pet of preadolescent Mija (Seo-hyeon Ahn), an orphan being raised by her dotty grandfather in the wooded mountains of Korea. Looking like a hippo whose head has been replaced with that of Falkor the Luck Dragon from The Neverending Story, Okja has become Mija's constant companion as she traverses the mountainside. This portion of the film works best, relying as it does on Ahn's fine, understated acting and special effects that, if not entirely convincing, make Okja appropriately endearing.

This bucolic existence is destroyed when Mirando comes calling for their property in the form of Dr. Johnny Wilcox, a Steve Irwin-style TV zoologist who's been hired to shill for Mirando. Okja is carted off, and as Mija heads out to rescue her pet, they find themselves assaulted from all sides by a world of adults who are cruel, selfish, and stupid, At the same time, the tone of the movie shifts drastically from a gentle children's fantasy to a dark satire of the meat industry, GMOs, the corporate forces that try to ease our guilt about eating our furry friends, and even the animal rights activists who attempt to intervene.

Unfortunately, the satire is so broad, so dark, and so obvious that it taints everything it touches.

A disturbing scene in which Okja is assaulted inside Mirando's secret lab and grisly slaughterhouse sequences seem gratuitous, especially in an age where the means of corporate meat production has been widely exposed.

As he did in the overrated Snowpiercer, Bong populates the adult roles with respected performers overacting to the point of shtick. Swinton, one of Bong's favorites, plays Lucy Mirando mostly through costuming, including a Gwyneth Paltrow 'do and braces that add a ridiculous and pointless lisp to her dialogue. She also shows up, for no particular reason, as Lucy's twin sister Nancy, defined primarily by her icy demeanor and a Hillary Clinton wig. But Swinton has nothing on Jake Gyllenhaal, whose Dr. Johnny Wilcox is so jittery and over-the-top that his scenes are nearly unwatchable.

The most puzzling questions Bong raises, however, remain after the movie's end:

Who is Bong's intended audience? While the early scenes of Mija and Okja suggest a preadolescent audience, the multiple F-bombs and grisly slaughterhouse details are clearly adult fare.

And if the film's point is that animals’ lives are to be cherished and protected, why do the only animals worth saving here have essentially human features? Why can't Mija save a regular pig?

Oh, yeah. That movie, Babe, was released over 20 years ago. Unrated. Rating: 2 (Posted on 07/07/17)


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Mike Ireland can be contacted at


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