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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Watching the trailers for French maverick Luc Besson’s latest, the sci-fi opus Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, I was wondering where it would fall on a scale between Besson’s own funky, enjoyable Fifth Element and the lackluster and laughable Jupiter Ascending. It looked to tell a big story in a big world and with its director’s quirky visual hallmarks. It should at least be fun, I reasoned, and it is for a while. Unfortunately, Besson’s film (the most expensive European production in history) is a movie that almost needs to be seen to be believed but I wouldn’t actually advise people go see it. Perhaps a better title for this movie would have been Valerian and the City of a Thousand Better Ideas.

Based upon the comic series by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres, we flash forward to the twenty-eight century with agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sgt. Laureline (Cara Delevingne). Their mission is to retrieve a special alien something-or-other that will relate to a larger conspiracy involving the eradication of an alien home world.

Besson’s face-first dive into the wacky world of sci-fi will frustrate the hell out of you, chiefly because it does such an amazing job of creating a vibrant, weird, wild, and luscious world brimming with alien life only to toy with interesting subjects and then indifferently discard them. The elements are all there, it’s just that Besson doesn’t integrate them in meaningful ways, retreating back to being an overly caffeinated, erratic tour guide. My friend Ben Bailey and I came up with several different revisions that would have instantly improved the movie, and that only took us twenty minutes after leaving the theater (more on that below in full detail). Over the course of 137 self-indulgent, hyperactive yet meandering minutes of story, I am stunned at the level of ineptitude.

It’s not all bad, and in fact the first 30 minutes are some measure of good to great. The prologue is a thing of beauty and the highlight of the movie (if you walked out immediately after, when the title popped up, you would be better off). Set entirely to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” we visually chart the history of man’s habitation of space. Stock footage of 1970s space missions gives rise to the early twenty-first century construction of a working space station. The station’s captain accepts each new national group with a magnanimous handshake. Each scene is a jump forward in time, wordlessly building a stronger sense of community and the accomplishment of man’s dreams. Eventually this greeting also extends to First Contact and different alien species come aboard, and they too are given the same handshake of peace. It’s an earnest sequence that comes across as genuinely moving and uplifting. Finally, we see that the space station has, over the course of hundreds of years, collected into a massive floating home to thousands of alien species that came from far to explore and intermingle.

The next part is also wordless, following the idyllic existence of a planet of Na’vi-like lithe, blue-skinned alien natives who frolic along a beach and collect pearls. It’s another rather sincere visual sequence. This tranquil CGI world comes to a screeching halt when fiery debris begins to rain down from the atmosphere, followed by a gigantic alien spaceship that crashes and causes an extinction-level event. One of our lithe aliens is trapped behind and comes to terms with her fate. She sends out her spirit in one last radiant burst before the pyroclastic cloud engulfs everything. These two sequences engender good will with the audience and show the potential power of Besson’s transporting vision.

Shortly afterwards we get the first major set piece of the opening act, an inter-dimensional bazaar known as Big Market. In one dimension it’s just a large expanse of empty desert, but with the right gloves and glasses visitors can interact with alien vendors and shop to their hearts content. It’s a fantastic setting and Besson takes time to set up the different particulars and rules and then lets it loose. It’s exciting and imaginative and the only sequence where the character of Valerian feels in trouble or at a disadvantage. It’s a wonderfully knotty sci-fi set piece with multiple points of action interweaving into a satisfying spectacle. There’s even a fun alien crime boss voiced by John Goodman. I whispered to my friend that this was already better than Jupiter Ascending. I regrettably spoke too soon.

Everything afterwards is a cascading mess that assaults your senses and wastes your time. There isn’t a strong narrative drive to the movie, never felt more than during its protracted second act that is nothing but a series of wearisome narrative cul-de-sacs. The movie errs significantly by establishing Clive Owen as an obvious villain so early (he’s torturing a Na’vi-like alien in the friggin’ first act). Owen’s character becomes the supposed MacGuffin that propels the characters forward. They have to retrieve him, but when the audience already knows so early that he’s not worth the effort, the sense of urgency deflates, not that there was much of a sense to begin with. The movie quickly adopts a flippant attitude where it feels like nothing matters, and so nothing does. We jump from one detour to another as if they were single-issue comics that Besson was determined to realize on the big screen. The characters never feel in danger because Besson deploys contrived solutions at every turn. A special jellyfish on the head is a solution to finding a missing Valerian. Simply jumping down a floor grate is a solution to charging aliens. It’s like Besson throws his characters into dilemmas and merely points to the exit door conveniently there the whole time. That’s not satisfying or entertaining. It makes the movie feel episodic, listless, and like it’s just filling up time. What started so promisingly rapidly degenerates into overly exuberant camp nonsense.

Another major issue is that the main characters are awfully boring and miscast. Valerian is supposed to be a charming rogue, a swaggering playboy, a fearsome cop, and none of these attributes work with DeHann. The guy has been excellent in other movies but is entirely unbelievable as the title hero, intimidating nobody and impressing even less. He’s supposed to be a talented expert operative but the results on screen don’t back up the praise. His combat moves require a large suspension of disbelief. DeHann (A Cure for Wellness) speaks in a baffling 90s Keanu Reeves voice for the entire movie, relegating his entire emotional range to a grating monotone. Valerian isn’t charming whatsoever but Besson seems to think an audience will fall for him. He’s an irksome misogynist who sets his sights on his partner, Laureline. Their “romance” is unconvincing and hindered with some laughably clunky dialogue. The movie runs like you have a pre-existing relationship with these characters, but we don’t know them or their back-stories or their shared history. He’s immediately hitting on her and proposing marriage in the first act, though it all seems like a sleazy scheme just to sleep with her. Delevingne (Suicide Squad) has a striking look to her but I can’t tell if she can act yet. Granted the roles I’ve watched ask her to mostly serve as a model. Her character is stiff and unemotive and equally boring, though slightly more convincing as an aloof badass. It’s a shame she gets sidelined as a damsel needing rescue when she seems far more capable than her partner. These two are the living embodiment of prioritizing attitude over characterization.

There’s a very late moment when Besson has his two lead characters just spout transparent exposition at one another to communicate themes and character arcs, and it took everything I had not to laugh out loud. Laureline is about to give an alien something valuable and Valerian pulls her aside and tells her they can’t. “I follow the rules,” he says, and I snapped my head back in alarming whiplash. What? This dolt has been breaking everything and doing whatever he has wanted for hours, and now at the last minute Besson is trying to force him to articulate a paradoxical character description? Being saddled with these two distant, glib, irritating leads is bad enough, but DeHann and Delevinghe have as much chemistry as a batch of dead fish. No danger of sparks flying here.

Before I got into some spoiler detail with my suggestions on how to improve Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, let me appreciate some of its virtues. The movie is often a technical marvel bursting with detail at every edge of the frame. Besson’s quirky sense of humor and playfulness is on display from the imaginative alien designs to the lived-in settings. The movie isn’t afraid to get weird, and some of those details are delightful like a two-barreled gun that can point in different directions. There’s even a small creature that will poop out copies of whatever it eats. Even when the characters and story let you down, the visuals provide a reason to keep going. I enjoyed Rihanna’s shape-shifting alien, a burlesque dancer whose routine feels almost like a medical test to determine which Rihanna fetish works best for you (rollergirl, French maid, naughty nurse, S&M kitten, torch singer, school girl?). Part of her appeal is that she’s the only supporting character in the movie. Her presence changes the character dynamics of Valerian and Laureline and gives us somebody new to hang onto. I liked the dopey aliens that resemble the sloth from the Ice Age movies, and I especially enjoyed a surprise payoff for their insistence that Laureline wear a stupidly large hat. Whether these moments are enough to cancel out the rampant excess will be up to the individual moviegoer.

This next section is going to involve spoilers, though I don’t think this is a movie where knowing the plot is going to really ruin the experience. Still, you have been warned, and if you wish to remain spoiler-free, please skip to the last paragraph (though do come back later).

I was beside myself in frustration because it feels like there are story elements ripe for the plucking that would have instantly improved Valerian and Besson is just too oblivious. Firstly, none of the characters that Valerian and Laureline run into seem to matter in the slightest. That alien mob boss who swore vengeance? Never returns. The aliens that kidnap Laureline and offer her up as a tasty treat to their king? Never return. Besson’s Fifth Element benefited from establishing different groups of characters with conflicting purposes that would continually run into one another and complicate matters. It makes the movie much more fun and it allows characters to have greater meaning than one-off appearances. We should be building a team and gaining a new member from every new location visited, which would make the visits more meaningful and lighten the time spent only with Valerian and Laureline. My first solution would be to bring back these different alien antagonists in comical and bungling ways, especially for Act Three. Another solution is to radically change the angelic, Na’vi-like ethereal aliens. It’s revealed they’ve been hiding on the station for decades (though not in a different dimension, another missed potential payoff). They just want to go home, though whether that’s a replication or a different dimension is unclear. What if these peaceful aliens didn’t forgive humanity for obliterating their planet? What if the key to bringing back their home world was to suck the life force out of the space station or Earth itself? That would flip the script and make you question whether these displaced aliens are morally justified in their actions. It would also set the stage for a rollicking third act that culminates in a frantic chase through all the different levels and communities introduced throughout the film, complete with the various antagonists complicating matters with their own motivations. This would all be infinitely better than the third act we get, which left me flabbergasted at how slack and uninspiring it is (defusing a bomb?). Why build up this strange and wonderful world and do nothing with it by the end?

Getting back to my original question: is Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets better or worse than the Wachowski sisters’ misfire, Jupiter Ascending? Besson’s latest certainly looks lovely and is crammed to the rafters with ideas, several of which you desperately wish had garnered more attention and development. This is an overstuffed movie, especially at 137 minutes, and yet it will leave you seriously wanting. The disinterested lead actors slog their way from one uninspired chase scene to another, gallivanting in a world that will have no real significance once we move onto the next expensive set. It all feels like manic decoration meant to stimulate and distract from the glaring deficiencies with characters and story. It starts out great and then degenerates into kitschy futuristic junk. It feels like somebody made a PG-13 Barbarella but mandated that nobody ever smile. DeHann is grossly miscast as a rakish rogue and his onscreen relationship with his leggy costar is painfully realized. I think I respect Jupiter Ascending more because that cinematic world could have sustained something interesting and they took it all seriously enough even when things got absurdly silly. Valerian is so flippant and stuck with sourpuss leads. A better movie was within reach, which makes it all the sadder that Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is reluctantly the movie we get, a visual spectacle that bores as it overwhelms. If you put this movie on mute and did some peyote, maybe it would achieve its true artistic value.

Nate’s Grade: C

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The Magnificent Seven (2016)

magnificent-seven-poster-2016Obviously the new Magnificent Seven remake was never going to be as good a Western as the 1960 original, or as good an action movie as its source material, Akira Kurosawa’s legendary Seven Samurai. Once you accept that, the question becomes whether simply being an enjoyable Western action movie qualifies as a success given its storied pedigree. If you can’t do better than the original, why bother making it as my friend Ben Bailey would question. The answer is of course blunt (money) but the conundrum is how does one improve on classic film masterpieces? I think the new Magnificent Seven found its footing by accepting its unquestioned ceiling and instead going down a different path, instilling the essence of what made the older films so superb, and just trying to be the best B-student it can be with its new set of guidelines for broad entertainment.

The dusty town of Rose Creek falls under attack by ruthless industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who wants the land for his mining company. He installs loyal toadies as lawmen for the town and to ensure any troublemakers are put to “justice.” Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) wishes to avenge her fallen husband and recruits a famous outlaw, Chisolm (Denzel Washington). He agrees to help and rustles up a powerful posse of gunslingers to defend the town from Bogue and his cruel forces.

There’s a reason this story still works as well as it does and that’s because the structure is ready-made for payoffs and audience satisfaction if the director and actors are capable. Act One establishes the threat and our two main roguish heroes, and then Act Two starts off with the gathering of the team, routinely one of the greatest sequences in screenwriting, and then the Act Two midpoint involves toppling the corrupt thugs controlling the town, and Act Three is the culmination between the forces of anti-hero good versus evil over the ultimate battle for the town. It’s an against-all-odds underdog tale with good but possibly doomed forces against a villain used to steamrolling through vulnerable citizens. I don’t care whom you are, that story structure worked then and it still works now. Fuqua and company don’t break a winning formula and know what strengths they have and how best to maximize them for top entertainment value.

magnificent-seven-2016-castThe biggest asset is this glorious cast, headlined by Washington and Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy). There isn’t admittedly much to these characters from a development standpoint. They’re given back-stories, though some of them are fairly airy and provide a bare minimum of effort. Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) in particular just kind of shows up and everybody shrugs and says, “Why not?” more or less. Also, while on this subject, it’s a bit contrived that when the bad side has their own villainous Native American that the script has to conspire for the only two Native Americans to face-off, especially when we’ve been given no history or connection between them prior to this climactic showdown. Back to the main cast, Washington settles into his suave badass persona we’ve come to expect from the man. He even fades into the background at times, ceding space for the other characters to have their moments. Make no mistake, though, because Washington’s character is a strong central anchor for this movie and even on autopilot this actor still produces attitude with style and gravitas. There’s also the simple pleasure of just watching Washington in a Western. The man was made for this setting of taciturn badasses. The brightest star of the picture is Pratt, expertly cast as a charming rogue with a big personality. What the characters lack in development they make up for in colorful personalities, which is acceptable in a genre that rewards memorably outsized figures of entertainment. Pratt is a fun rascal with a penchant for sarcasm and playing around with his prey. Every minute Pratt commanded the screen was a minute that captured my full attention.

The rest of the cast is solid and make the most of their screen time, putting in memorable supporting performances to compliment the stars. Vincent D’Onofrio (Jurassic World) is basically like a human equivalent of a bear or yeti. He’s this massive and animalistic creature and I appreciated D’Onofrio’s gusto in embracing the peculiarities. In a film of great casting and memorable characters, he nearly steals the movie. Ethan Hawke (Boyhood) has one of the more credible character arcs in the film as well as the best name (Goodnight Robicheaux). He’s haunted by a lifetime accumulation of killing. His flinty co-star Byung-hun Lee (RED 2) is the strong silent type and the two of them have a nice gunslinger chemistry, nicely contrasting but still a believable brotherhood in arms. Bennett (Hardcore Henry) is going to break out in a big way in 2016. She has a very arresting face (it’s her eyes) and an instant screen presence, which is hard to do with these guys soaking up much of the oxygen. She also gets to prove her mettle and not be treated as a romantic object, so hooray. My one concern with Bennett was that the costume designer had let her down, as it seemed the top of her gown was dangerously close to slipping off her shoulders at several key points. I understand this is designed to squeeze in a slight surge of sensuality for what is very much a PG-13 action flick but it became distracting with its obviousness. Bennett deserved better, though she might be another figure of T&A with her role in The Girl on the Train. We shall see (maybe much). The only sore spot is the villain, a wasted Sarsgaard (Black Mass) who never quite lives up to a diabolical nature worthy of the attention of our colorful cadre of anti-heroes. He’s a bully but he doesn’t seem formidable enough or that interesting.

magnificentsevenFuqua (The Equalizer) hasn’t been the most consistent stager of action with his up-and-down career but he puts out all the stops with The Magnificent Seven to great effect. The action sequences are robust and shot with great attention to geography and escalation. I knew exactly what the stakes were with each sequence and gun battle, and I knew the different people and their placement and the goals. With a crew of seven and counting, it can be difficult to adequately find room for each of the fighters to be well utilized and have at least a moment that matters (just look at what happened with Suicide Squad). The second half of Act Two is our team plotting how to compensate for the overwhelming forces coming down their way, and the plotting produces plenty of opportunities as the audience watches the setups and waits for the payoff jamboree. There are little payoffs, big payoffs, crowd-pleasing payoffs, character arc pleasing payoffs; it’s an action movie that knows the climax should be the best part, and it doesn’t disappoint. The town may be in rubble and strewn with corpses by film’s end, but you’ll be happy and content from the wealth of tense and smartly directed action. Helping things along, Fuqua’s Wild West photography is often strikingly beautiful with its use of natural light.

The Magnificent Seven makes up for its lack of originality and rich characters in colorful personality and the sheer scope and intensity of its action. It can’t contend with John Sturgis and Akira Kurosawa, but what modern movie can? I don’t fault the movie for failing to live up to the standards of two classics in two different genres. I instead credit the movie for knowing its strengths and knowing how best to develop and deliver them for maximum mass appeal enjoyment. The cast is wonderfully selected and given fun characters to dig into, and the onscreen camaraderie of our seven might not rise to the level of magnificence but it’s pretty good by all accounts. That’s a rather keen summary of the movie writ large; with modestly recalculated expectations, the movie may not be magnificent but it’s plenty good and plenty entertaining. Washington and Pratt are stars making full use of their broad star appeal. The action sequences are well staged and peppered with payoffs, and it’s worth congratulating the team on having several parallel lines of action and keeping all of the shifting particulars understandable for its audience. The Magnificent Seven is about as good as I expected any remake to be, and while it doesn’t rise to those storied heights it does achieve its goals with vigor and style.

Nate’s Grade: B

Boyhood (2014)

MV5BMTYzNDc2MDc0N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTcwMDQ5MTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Richard Linklater is one of the most experimental filmmakers in the indie community, but just about everyone was caught unaware when he announced the completion of his newest project, Boyhood. For the past twelve years, Linklater and a small crew had been shooting a secret movie chronicling the life of a boy from age six to eighteen. The ensuing twelve years gave Linklater plenty of time to examine his narrative, and he also happened to make nine other movies while working on Boyhood. Now his covert pet project is playing to near euphoric reviews and plenty of early awards buzz. As big a fan I am of Linklater as a storyteller, especially with his brilliant Before trilogy, I feel hesitant to find fault in such an ambitious, sprawling project. This is a very good movie all around, but I have enough remaining reservations that keep Boyhood from being in the same league as Linklater’s best work.

Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s own daughter) are living with their Mom (Patricia Arquette). She’s struggling to get by, with little help from their Dad (Ethan Hawke), who took off to Alaska to find work but really as a means of shirking responsibility. Dad comes back into their lives, Mom enrolls in school to provide a better life for her children, and along the way and many moves there are bad stepfathers that come in, new children and step-siblings, new schools, new boyfriends and girlfriends, and all the moments that add up to comprise a life.

Boyhood is less a film and more a cinematic experience that’s hard to replicate. It thrums with the natural rhythms of life, rising and falling on the small moments. Now there are a few larger scenes of drama, mostly concerning breakups and an abusive alcoholic stepfather, but otherwise the film follows the natural progression of not just Mason but his enter sphere of influences, namely family members, friends, girlfriends, etc. It’s a portrait of time beyond all else, and Mason’s parents are just as interesting to follow. Like their children, they too are in over their heads, looking for proper footing and a sense of identity, and in the ensuing 160-some minutes, we won’t just watch a boy become a man but two adults become responsible, accomplished, and determined caregivers. There is much to take in and to immerse one’s self in the refreshing minutia of life itself. The film feels authentic at every step, sometimes to its own detriment (more on that below), and it’s quite easy to plug into this relatable family drama and become engrossed. Don’t let the hearty length scare you, we are moving through 12 years and as such the segments don’t overstay their welcome. After every time leap, there’s a small game of trying to play catch up, noting all the differences, not just the actors growth spurts, but the new touchstones; before Mom was arranging a date with her psychology professor, and now they’re coming back from their honeymoon. It also allows us to watch the subtle transformation of characters but also watching the long consequences of anger. Dad takes Mason and Samantha out and is floored by the revelation that neither remembers a family camping outing that was filled with laughter. What they remember, starkly, are the shouting matches between mom and dad. It’s a definite wake-up call.

boyhoodBecause of its in-the-moment nature, it’s difficult to single out storylines that play out significantly better than others. Each person is going to respond better to different moments, the points of relatability and comfort. I loved a scene where Dad plunges into the awkward territory of having the Sex Talk with his teen daughter. It’s just as awkward and funny as you’d expect, but they plow along and it’s a small moment where Dad shows his own growth as a responsible parent, a man who understands the world his children will enter and the pitfalls that await, who wants them to do better than he did. It’s a funny scene sure enough but it’s also a clear shift in Dad as a character. The allure of realism is rarely broken throughout the film, which imbues the film with a bracing sense of honesty in its details. There aren’t any big inspirational speeches (maybe one by a teacher), mostly talks meant to bridge the gap of understanding. There aren’t any eureka moments, in fact Mom even bemoans the absence of feeling something more significant when her children have left the nest. There aren’t any singular-defining dramatic moments because we are all the sum total of many moments, good and bad. The greatness of Boyhood is that it is a film of moments but moments you want to indulge in, like lingering nostalgic memories. It’s a richly pleasant experience.

My friend and critic colleague Ben Bailey asked me whether this story would have been irreversibly different or worse had they just cast several young actors or used makeup as a primary force to illustrate the passage of time. After giving it a good ponder as any critic should, the conclusion I came up with was a surprising… “No.” With the 7 Up documentary series, or Linklater’s own Before trilogy, the passage of time is also a reflection of us, allowing us to likewise catch up with the familiar faces but reflect upon our own lives. Plus it’s a work in progress, a series that matures and evolves and with each additional segment becomes a stronger and more compelling whole. With Boyhood, we get the entire passage of time all in one movie, and it just doesn’t play the same. With the other series I’ve mentioned, we get entire movies to dig into these people at different pit stops in their lives. With Boyhood, it’s less so. Here we get the (to our knowledge) full story, and watching the actors age is its own interesting experiment, but is this story really aided by this approach? I have my doubts, at least to the degree to justify the 12-years-in-the-making gimmick that has captured most of the media attention. It’s just as interesting to compare and contrast the other actors, notably Mason’s onscreen parents. 2002 Ethan Hawke is still the young reckless heartthrob, whereas 2014 Ethan Hawke has a bit of a paunch, lines around the eyes, and the gradual acceptance of his changing life style. But does the gimmick add any greater thematic impact to the film other than the odd notoriety of watching a visual yearbook for a select series of actors?

boyhood-ethan-hawkeThe other quibble I have is larger, mostly that the movie is tied to a character that is rather something of a bore. As a child, Mason is more reactionary to the world around him, taking in all these experiences, especially the hurtful remarks of adults and the long-term effects of all that marital discord and abusive stepfathers. He’s quiet, a bit lackadaisical, generally procrastinating and stretching rules, but he’s really just a boring kid who grows into a boring teenager. Now there are certainly plenty of relatable qualities to him that extend beyond his external situations and family conflicts. Plenty will be able to relate about the struggle to fit in, the points of self-discovery, and the initial buzz of a romantic mingling, among other coming-of-age moments. The problem is that Mason is struggling with finding his own onscreen identity. It would be foolish to have this kid suddenly know with divine clarity who he is and what he wants to be, but would it be breaking the confines of realism to give this character a personality? He ends up becoming this blank canvas for the audience to project themselves onto. If we’re going to spend nearly three hours watching the emergence of a character, it needs to be someone the audience can engage with so that their journey has a lasting emotional impact. Mason is an ordinary teenager, which means he’s an otherwise shrug-worthy figure for this massive of an undeserved spotlight.

Perceptive, funny, warmly affectionate, and well made in just about every capacity, Boyhood is an enjoyable movie from start to finish, another fine achievement for director Richard Linklater. It is a movie about a young man coming into his own, but it’s also a film about those around him doing likewise, maturing, aging, but mostly gaining some stronger sense of themselves and stepping out to make this happen. It’s a tale of life told in micro and macro, and while it lacks the cumulative impact or the 7 Up series of the Before films, it certainly has enough measured drama and honest reflections to stir a bevy of feelings with its audience. I only wish the main character was a more interesting focal point for this twelve-years-in-the-making project, especially with all that added time for Linklater and company to double back and alter their narrative. The character quibbles, and the ultimately unnecessary gimmicky nature of its conceit, are enough to blunt its overall longstanding resonance for me, but this is still a very fine movie and one that no other filmmaker working today could deliver. I just wonder what other secret films Linklater is keeping from us.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Getaway (2013)

105442_galThe biggest problem with Getaway was also likely its main selling point to gear heads: it’s one long 90-minute car chase. That may sound like a good thing to audiences that love them some high-speed thrills, but back up a moment because this scenario could be like getting sick from eating too much ice cream. Car chases are one of the greatest things in movies, but they are still dependent upon execution and overall context within the narrative. If you got nothing but relentless car chases, wouldn’t that start to get boring? And so it is with Getaway whose endless stream of car chases becomes one long, plodding, monotonous blur of tedium.

Brent Magna (Ethan Hawke) is a former racecar driver looking for a fresh start in Bulgaria. One day he comes home, sees the Christmas decorations shattered, and is told that his wife has been kidnapped. The mysterious The Voice (Jon Voight in constant close-up) threatens to kill Brent’s wife unless he plays along. As per his orders, Brent hops into an impressive stolen car, outfitted with cameras so The Voice can keep tabs. Brent is ordered to drive around the city wildly. At one point, The Kid (Selena Gomez) pulls a gun on him, claiming that the car belongs to her. She’s forced inside the car and the two unlikely partners are made to do the bidding of The Voice.

97947_galA major problem for the movie being stuck in neutral is that it’s directed by Courtney Solomon, the man who previously helmed notorious stinkers like Dungeons and Dragons and An American Haunting. The action sequences are so badly edited together that often it’s a collage of fast-paced imagery without feeling the impact. It’s hard to tell what’s going on much of the time, so you just give up. There is one extended uncut scene of high-speed driving, but ordinarily Getaway is replete with confusing quick-cuts. More so, Solomon has difficulty properly staging the action sequences to draw out tension, falling back on speedy resolutions and rote action tropes. He doesn’t have a strong feel to visually orchestrate action. I cannot recall one action sequence that grabbed my attention, partly because they just run together into a flavorless meringue. The most annoying feature is Solomon placing a series of cameras all over the interior and exterior of Brent’s car. The movie frequently cuts around these security camera POVs, which are visually unappealing and remind you of a lame reality TV competition show. I think the camera aspect was included to give a grander visceral aspect of the car chases, to put you in the middle of the action. However, isn’t that the point of a really good car chase anyway? Shouldn’t proper execution make me feel thrills rather than dumb camera angles glommed onto the car? I would argue that Getaway was sold on the notion that the added Webcams make it “found footage-y.”

The scenes that aren’t car chases end up becoming respites, something to strangely look forward to, and judging by the atrocious dialogue, this is not a positive. Another problem is that the car chases are all relatively the same. It’s alleys, it’s streets, sometimes ice rinks, but we’re in Bulgaria and the particulars of the car chases will not budge. There is nothing to distinguish Car Chase #13 from Car Chase #86, and so it all just becomes bland even with all the vehicular mayhem. The stunt work is certainly impressive but I just wish it had been put to far better use.

Then there’s the matter of the characters and plot, or rather, the complete lack of them. The movie doesn’t waste any time, putting Brent in his muscle car and speeding around by minute two. I can almost respect that expediency, but it comes at a severe cost. All we know is that the guy drives good, which will be self-evident in seconds, and that his lovely wife was kidnapped by bad people who want him to drive. That’s it. Naturally, having one dude in a car doesn’t lead to great moments of characterization, and so we’re given the plucky teenage misfit partner played by the absurdly miscast Gomez (Monte Carlo, Spring Breakers). This character is annoying from the start and played by an actress who cannot convincingly portray an edgy character. So she comes off as artificial and irritating. It’s uncertain at this point whether Gomez can step outside her doe-eyed Disney Channel branding, but this awful movie certainly isn’t helping. Being stuck in the car with these two terribly written characters is like being trapped on a long vacation with the relatives you hate.

105443_galThe plot is about as simple as you could think, and then most of it fails to make much sense. The car belongs to The Kid. The bad guys want to hit up her dad’s bank, stealing funds about to be liquidated, and then this all requires Brent to drive like a maniac throughout Bulgaria, where the country apparently hasn’t invented helicopters yet to track speeding cars. The plot really is the thinnest tissue to get the movie from one loud car chase to the next, with some asides where Gomez can spit out a few adult profanities (no F-bombs kids, this is still PG-13 after all). The conclusion makes little sense (spoilers). In the end, the villainous Voice congratulates Brent and his sidekick for winning, vanquishing his greedy scheme. Okay, but the Mr. Voice goes one step further claiming that this was his plan all along, to push Brent to his full potential that he always knew he was capable of. What does this mean? This man staged a highly elaborate heist, hired men with fierce firepower, and installed all this fancy technology just to make Brent a more self-actualized individual? This ending clearly points to a conclusive lack of an ending. Once the car chases were over, the screenwriters looked at each other and said, “Now what?” and that was when they typed “The end.”

I’m struggling to come up with any verifiable positives I can say about Getaway. I suppose if you’re an auto aficionado, you’ll get a kick out of watching Brent’s car, a Shelby Super Snake Mustang (I readily admit to looking this up because I don’t care about cars), in action. Other than that, unless you have a strong desire to watch Voight’s mouth in extreme close-ups for 90 minutes (you know who you are), there really isn’t anything of value to be found in the wreck that is Getaway.

If you’re a car chase junkie, I think taking a shot with Getaway could be just the trick to sober you up. It’s one long 90-minute car chase but made so ineptly, at every angle of filmmaking, that it gets so monotonous and boring far too early. When you don’t have characters to keep your interest, a plot that makes sense, action sequences that offer some variety, editing that makes the action coherent, and direction that hamstrings the viewer to lousy dashboard-esque cameras, then it’s easy to fall asleep to the sounds of near-constant vehicle crunching. Getaway is a terrible action movie, a terrible movie in general, and proof positive that action fans should be careful what they wish for.

Nate’s Grade: D

The Purge (2013)

The-Purge-posterSci-fi cautionary tales have been an outstanding way to provide commentary for contemporary anxiety. Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont, and the recently departed Richard Matheson were masters of this. A movie can make you think as speculative fiction while still following a thriller/horror blueprint to entertain the masses. And so writer/director James DeMonaco (Assault on Precinct 13, The Negotiator) wades into these waters with The Purge, a home invasion thriller that has a premise that, on the surface, might make you scoff. In 2022, the United States has practically solved unemployment and crime thanks to a nifty little holiday known as the Purge. Every year, for a twelve-hour window, law is rescinded and so are emergency services like police and firefighters. For those 12 hours, good American men and women are allowed to engage in just about every sort of crime up to and including murder. It’s designed for people to release all their aggression and darker impulses, thus allowing for a safer, happier 364 and a half days a year.

James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is the top salesman when it comes to hardcore home security systems, the kind with the thick metal doors over your windows and doors. He lives in one of those finely protected homes with his wife, Mary (Lena Headey), and children, Max (Max Burkholder) and Zoey (Adelaide Kaine). They’re prepared for a long night behind barricades. Then a wounded black man (Edwin Hodge) runs through the cushy neighbor, crying desperately for help. Charlie offers him refuge inside the Sandin abode. Shortly after, a group of masked vigilantes, led by a lad who looks like Patrick Bateman, knock on the Sandin home. The bloody ma is their “bait,” and these angry folk demand he be returned to them, or else they will be coming in and sparing no one.

103568_galThis high-concept thriller is a well-crafted suspense piece, with several well-developed sequences that squeeze out tension. The premise involves some mighty suspension of disbelief but you’d be surprised how easy it is to accept and move on. The kids provide dissenting voices, mostly Charlie, and we get a lean history of the Purge and all the information we need to go forward, at least for this night. I liked how it’s become a common passing greeting to say “Stay safe” to people on the day before the Purge. Little details like that make the world feel more thought out. I like that engaging in the Purge is thought of as one’s patriotic duty. There are some tantalizing moments of dread as well, like a neighbor sharpening his killing tools outdoors. But really the movie comes down to its suspense, broken up into a series of different goals. James wants to protect his family and return the “bait,” but first he needs to find him and subdue him. Charlie wants to save him and get to him first. It’s your standard people-groping-in-the-dark kind of picture, but when given a strong sense of urgency and some good actors, it can be plenty suspenseful. DeMonaco does a fine job of making sure his story doesn’t get too confusing, tasking the audience with keeping track of too many participants. So when we have Zoey’s bad boyfriend (Tony Oller), he’s dealt with before the manhunt begins. When the home invasion kicks in, the manhunt is over. When it looks like Zoey is heading straight for the stranger, it’s a storyline that culminates very quickly. There’s a good sense of clarity throughout The Purge, which aids the effectiveness of the thrills.

For the first half of the movie, things snap together well enough that you just accept the premise and its implications, forgoing the nitpicks that wait. It isn’t until the third act where you start to disengage from the film and pick it apart. As a cautionary tale, it has some interesting ideas about class warfare; the main villain is right out of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist playbook. But the ideas and moral commentary fade as the movie becomes more a standard, albeit effective, suspense thriller. I really appreciated the argument that unemployment is so low because the Purge takes care of the sick, homeless, and poor and disadvantaged, those chiefly who cannot defend themselves and are easily targeted. It’s an eerie extreme that doesn’t feel too many steps removed from the last presidential election where Republican primary debate audiences cheered the hypothetical death of the poor. But then the nitpicks do come and once they do it’s like a rushing tide that cannot be stopped. Why do people have stockpiles of guns but no bulletproof vests and gear? Why wait for the bad guys to get in when you and your armed, well-defended family in your home fortress can preemptively strike? Why would you order the Sandin family to return your “bait” and then turn off their power? Doesn’t that make it much harder? Why would killing your girlfriend’s father win her over? Do you think she’s really still going to be your girlfriend after that? How big is this house that people get lost in it constantly? Who hides under the bed in this day and age? And, when hiding from intruders who wish to kill you, why in the world would you keep your flashlight on?

It’s late in this last act that the film tries to go one step too far. The home invasion commences, the struggles are pretty dandy to watch with some creepy imagery, and then DeMonaco has to go beyond that, introducing a secondary set of antagonists that at once feel obvious and poorly set up. The family asks, befuddled, why these new antagonists are doing what they’re doing, but they, and you, will not get a straight answer. It’s really designed to be shocking and little else, and so it feels tacked on and unnecessary. The last ten minutes of the film fumble the momentum of the movie. It’s a stumble at the finish line and leaves some lingering doubt as you assess the effectiveness of the whole movie.

103574_galSo the premise begs the question: what would you do with a lawless 12-hour window? I think most human beings would be too timid to embrace their animal side. Morals and ethics factor in, naturally, but really I think it’s just good old fear, the fear that anyone else can snuff you out with impunity, and engaging in the Purge also makes you a target. I think most people would probably try and engage in heists, but then the bank would be crawling with twenty different heist teams squabbling over who gets the loot. The banks would also surely increase their security astronomically.

The premise, while intriguing, also permeates with scads of ambiguity. Purge hours are from 7 PM to 7 AM, but what if you’re in the midst of committing a crime and go over the window? To use the bank robbery example, what if you get the money but fail to leave the bank by 7 AM, or even have? At that point, are you considered a criminal? Does the money go back to being counted as stolen goods or if it was pilfered during Purge hours it doesn’t count? Then there are the psychological ramifications of said Purge. If your neighbor raped your wife, Scott-free, you cannot tell me that vengeance isn’t going to play a key part in next year’s Purge. Seeing that face every day, acting “neighborly” while knowing what happened, plotting, waiting, and while the rapist neighbor prepares for the attack as well. Actually, that sounds like a pretty decent sequel (you can have that one for free, Blumhouse). How much Purge-related violence is just retaliatory vengeance? How do people stay in this country? If I as rich and could afford a super pricy security system, perhaps I’d rather take a weekend getaway to Canada instead. Or just stay for good.

The Purge is an effective little thriller until it isn’t, which thankfully only unravels in the concluding ten minutes or so. Until then, DeMonaco gooses his film with enough scares and thrills to justify a sitting, leaving an audience mostly satisfied until they exit and start to pick the film’s nature apart. I would have liked a bit more moral inquiry, political commentary, and some headier looks into these New Founding Fathers running the country, but I was satisfied with the suspense thriller I got. It’s modest, proficient, and well developed with its suspense, so I can’t be too picky. Then again, with this premise, The Purge could have been a lot more than what it is, a lot more disturbing and a lot more contemplative. But I’ll settle for effective and call it a day.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Before Midnight (2013)

before-midnight-posterIf you’re a fan of writer/director Richard Linklater’s previous movies (Before Sunrise and Before Sunset), as I am, then a new Before movie is a cause of celebration. It feels like we’re checking in with old friends. It’s fascinating to take stock of these characters and their new points in their lives, now approaching middle age. This series is becoming the dramatic equivalent to the 7 Up documentary series that periodically checks up on its subjects every seven years in their lives (56 Up came out this year). Individually, the films are wonderful, but when taken as a whole, the series becomes something truly special, something indelible and sweeping and transporting. Before Midnight is a wonderful movie, brimming with heart as well as ache. It’s also one of the best movies you’ll see this year and another touchstone to the impressive legacy of the series.

In 1995, 23-year-olds Jessie (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) met on a train and spent a magical day strolling through Vienna and essentially falling in love. In 2004, Jessie was touring Paris on his book tour, having turned the events of that Vienna night into a successful novel. Celine meets him and the two pal around, reconnecting, with Celine revealing how much that night meant to her as well. Now, in 2013, Jessie and Celine are together, though unmarried, and have twin seven-year-old daughters, Ella and Nina. They’ve been vacationing in Greece for a month while Jessie works on a new novel. Over the course of one long day, the couple will try and stir old passions and question whether they still share the same commitments.

Before MidnightWe’re watching the evolution of two human beings, and your response will vary depending upon your own life’s stopping point at the time of viewing. I must say, as a man now in his early thirties, that I enjoyed Sunrise and Sunset even more, finding greater thematic resonance to the characters, their anxieties, and the concern about faking your way through the “adult world.” I imagine I will find these movies even more emotionally engaging as I continue to age and cross similar hurdles as the characters do. For fans of the series, we’ve already invested 20 years and four hours of screen time with these characters. There’s more at stake when they fight. Watching the other movies beforehand, which I heartily recommend for multiple reasons, also provides stirring points of contrast, the romanticism of youth, the exuberance of promise. What Before Midnight does, and does so exceptionally, is take the romance of the earlier films and put it to the test. There’s a lovely dinner scene with several couples, and you realize that each one is an analogue for Jessie and Celine: the teenagers, the middle-aged couple starting out, the older couple discussing the demise of their previous spouses. It’s hard not to contrast the different stops and the different realities of love by the age.

Fair warning, Before Midnight is the least romantic of all three movies (I want a new movie every 9 years or so until the last one is essentially Amour). The first movie was them connecting. The second movie was about them reconnecting. The third movie establishes that they’ve been together for nine years and have a pair of twin daughters. The focus of Midnight is the struggle of maintaining a long-term relationship, something rarely given such thoughtful, perceptive, and compassionate depth on screen. We’d all rather watch lovebirds make goo-goo eyes at one another while we swoon appropriately, but Midnight’s many battles, small and large, new and ongoing, explore a relationship reality that many should find alarmingly relatable. While the particulars may be different, you may be surprised at how similar these conflicts can be. Exclude stuff like vacationing in Greece, the cushy jobs, and look to the mounting difficulty to retain that spark, a reminder of why you fell in love long ago, with the responsibilities of parenting and work stretching you in different directions. Routine can quickly transform into malaise. Jessie has a teenage son from a previous relationship, and this pushes him into great remorse when the kid departs, making him feel inadequate as a parent, which leads him to suggest unlikely relocation scenarios. Celine, being something of a worst-case scenario creature, notes the moment, saying this is when couples start falling apart. She’s worried he’ll resent her for choosing against a cross-country move. However, as the movie progresses, you realize there are already enough long-simmering resentments between the couple. This is a hard movie to watch at times because Jessie and Celine both go for broke when they argue, and it can get ugly (he dismisses her feelings as “crazy”; she vents about his lack of virility). Ending on a moment of ambiguity, like the other films, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume you just watched a two-hour breakup movie. Their problems don’t really seem resolved but I guess we’ll see in nine years, won’t we? Hopefully the next one isn’t called Before Divorce.

600full-before-midnight-posterThe hallmark of the series, its sparkling conversation, is alive and well, with added maturity and reflection. When you get dialogue this good, this fluidly natural, this engaging, I could listen to them talk for days. In my mini-review for Before Sunset I compared it to listening to birds sing. The shots can last upwards of ten minutes as the camera just slowly walks ahead of Hawke and Delpy as they converse. In the first film we got a foot-tour of Vienna, the second Paris, and now Greece. The sights, while nice, are incidental because I was consumed with the dialogue, which spills so effortlessly from Hawke and Delpy, relishing playing these characters once more. Their give-and-take is often breathless, with nary a pause between them, and it can become overpowering for the uninitiated (lots of old ladies, I have found, dislike this movie, though when asked, none have seen the previous two). But there’s such added dramatic subtext now that we’ve jumped ahead in time. Rather than yearn for the characters to get together, now we’re assembling what we can of their history together and the durable conflicts. The exposition never feels forced, and each new bit provides another prism to view the character actions. You’re studying the characters, parsing their words, sizing up their honesty, and analyzing the various tests and dodges they dole out to one another. It’s a more active experience than you might expect for watching people talk a lot.

Hawke (The Purge) and Delpy (2 Days in New York) are so exquisitely natural with these characters and together and never better. They know these people inside out, and they should because both are credited yet again as co-screenwriters with Linklater. I’d expect another Oscar nomination in their future, much like Before Sunset. Delpy has a wonderful faux youthful voice she uses for hilarious disdain to narrate Jessie’s female fans. Both actors go a long way to flesh out their characters, provide degrees of new wisdom and worry while making us care about their problems. One character does not have the moral high ground, which makes their arguments all the more challenging to process. I don’t want to make it sound like Before Midnight is some twenty-first century Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? There are innumerous moments of humor and grace and compassion, but the louder ringing of the raging conflicts can swallow them up. I also found it intriguing that this is the first movie in the series with nudity from our couple. Granted, it would seem somewhat forward if it happened in Sunrise and Sunset considering the narrow timeframes. As presented in Midnight, it loses erotic context and becomes another indicator of the struggles of maintaining passion.

I want to reiterate that I really hope that Linklater and his stars continue to bless us with a new film every decade, checking back on the lives of Jessie and Celine. The next one, if we continue the nine-year tradition, will deal with them turning fifty, which seems like a grand opportunity for some existential ennui. Also, Jessie son from a previous marriage will be roughly the same age Jessie was in 1995’s Before Sunrise. That could provide another interesting perspective for dad. I’m just not ready to say goodbye to these characters yet. Much like the 7 Up documentary series, the movies provide a point to reflect on our own lives, how we’ve changed and grown, the setbacks and triumphs, surprises and sadness. Catching up with the series, I viewed the movies very differently than I did when I first watched them. The art remains the same but the frame changes; we change. The glorious aspect of Linklater’s series is that we get to chart that change, checking back with old friends we’ve grown with. The movie’s attention to character and the relatable problems of middle age and long-term relationships is rich, nuanced, and just about everything This is 40 should have been and wasn’t. Before Midnight may lack the idealistic romanticism of previous entries but it substitutes a soulfulness to a series that has always been mature beyond its years. Approaching half a life lived, the characters still have plenty of life in them, plenty of dreams worth pursuing, and plenty more hurdles to go. It has been an ongoing privilege to get to spend time with these two. I pray this is not the end but just another stop on what ends up being one of cinema’s definitive statements on love through the ages.

Nate’s Grade: A

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