Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

There’s always a lot happening in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, even if little of it seems to make sense.

Indeed, this visually ambitious science-fiction epic from French director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element) values spectacle over substance, with the dazzling technical proficiency unable to compensate for a pretentious storyline that becomes lost in space.

Following a stunning opening sequence, the bulk of the film takes place in the 28th century and follows the adventures of Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner, Laureline (Cara Delevingne), who are cops charged with maintaining peaceful coexistence among humans and creatures in a distant galaxy.

Zipping between solar systems and other dimensions, their primary threat comes when they travel to Alpha, a bustling city of diversity that’s being threatened by a mysterious force. Their perilous investigation leads to encounters with a military commander (Clive Owen) whose motives are cloudy and a shapeshifting extraterrestrial (Rihanna) who masquerades as a dancer. Soon, the fate of the universe is at stake.

Besson’s vision and audacity are commendable. His big-budget array of computer-generated effects are impressive, as is his committed depiction of an imaginative futuristic world filled with elaborate cityscapes, high-tech weapons and gadgetry, travel between dimensions, and alien species both friendly and hostile.

However, his screenplay, based on an acclaimed French comic-book series, finds character development in much shorter supply amid all the surreal visual chaos. Some playful banter between the two leads is hardly sufficient to generate emotional investment.

Although Besson doesn’t cut corners, the dense narrative requires more attention than most viewers are likely to supply. “It’s our mission that doesn’t make any sense,” laments a defiant Laureline who, along with the rest of us, needs only to wait for the gap to be filled, until a couple of final-act monologues.

The result is intermittently exciting and amusing, with offbeat touches (and an eclectic supporting cast) surrounding an uneven mix of chases, shootouts, and muddled social commentary.

The film obviously is intended to launch a franchise (the realization of which will be determined by box-office performance, of course), and perhaps this installment is intended primarily to lay the groundwork for what’s to come. Whether moviegoers will agree to another intergalactic voyage with this crew is the bigger question.

 

Rated PG-13, 137 minutes.

Capsule reviews for July 21

The Fencer

Featuring lessons about both the basics of fencing and Estonia’s position in World War II, this sincere if heavy-handed Finnish drama tells the true-life story of Endel Nelis (Mart Avandi), a new physical education teacher at a small school in rural Estonia. But his upstart fencing club is jeopardized by a principal (Hendrik Toompere) with ulterior motives, various sociopolitical obstacles, and with a secret from Endel’s past that has him constantly looking over his shoulder. The film is an awkward mix of sports underdog saga and political thriller, yet even when its edges are soft instead of sharp, the crowd-pleasing result provides depth and historical insight. (Not rated, 99 minutes).

 

Girls Trip

If success is more about the journey than the destination, then this raunchy yet sentimental comedy about the bonds of sisterhood is modestly successful. Because there certainly isn’t much subtlety or surprise in this adventure of four ex-college friends who reunite for a weekend at the Essence Festival in New Orleans, where chaos and debauchery ensue while the ladies deal with past wounds and rekindled friendships. It’s familiar territory for director Malcolm Lee (The Best Man), yet amuses primarily because of its scattered big laughs, unique cultural perspective, and the breezy chemistry between its stars including Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Regina Hall, and Tiffany Haddish. (Rated R, 122 minutes).

 

Killing Ground

The setup outweighs the payoff in this low-budget Australian thriller that might make you reconsider your next camping trip. The nonlinear concept follows two young families who become entangled with the sadistic perpetrators of a violent crime in the woods, with one couple becoming the victims, and the other essentially the witnesses. The screenplay by rookie director Damien Power jumbles the chronology to mostly clever effect, essentially starting with near the beginning and the end, and culminating in the middle. Yet that narrative strategy starts to feel like a gimmick to disguise the formulaic nature of a story that culminates in some obligatory blood and gore. (Not rated, 88 minutes).

 

Landline

The amusement is more scattered than sustained in this heartfelt comedy about a mildly dysfunctional family dealing with a philandering patriarch. It takes place in 1990s New York, where Dana (Jenny Slate) is engaged to Ben (Jay Duplass) but dealing with commitment issues, while her younger sister (Abby Quinn) discovers that their father (John Turturro) is having an affair. The lighthearted period touches of director Gillian Robespierre (Obvious Child) give the material a well-defined sense of time and place. Yet in this case, the blend of raunchy comedy and darker domestic drama is awkward, becoming caught up in final-act contrivances that essentially lead to ambiguous shoulder-shrugging. (Rated R, 93 minutes).

Capsule reviews for July 14

Blind

A noteworthy cast is squandered in this woefully absurd redemption story from rookie director Michael Mailer (son of Norman) that indulges heavy-handed melodrama at the expense of any realistic exploration of contemporary relationships. It centers on a blind writer (Alec Baldwin) still bitter after losing his sight in a car crash that killed his wife. Then he finds an unlikely connection with the wife (Demi Moore) of a corrupt executive (Dylan McDermott) serving jail time for a deal gone bad. Their subsequent affair proves therapeutic for both, although not for moviegoers, who must endure an aggressive parade of pretentious clichés while wondering who to root for. (Rated R, 105 minutes).

 

Lady Macbeth

It’s not Shakespeare, but rather a 19th century Russian novel that provides the inspiration for this chilling low-budget period drama of female empowerment run amok. In a rural British estate, teenager Katherine (Florence Pugh) is trapped in a subservient marriage to an impotent older husband. When he’s away on business, she starts a passionate affair with a servant (Cosmo Jarvis) that prompts vengeance against the men who have suppressed her. And indeed, hell hath no fury like this scorned woman during a riveting final act of psychopathic rage. The gritty result is an uneven exploration of gender politics and socioeconomic class, but Pugh is a powerhouse. (Rated R, 89 minutes).

 

Lost in Paris

There are perhaps worse problems to have than the titular quandary, which in the case of this breezy French romance — marking the latest collaboration of married filmmakers Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon, who also star — finds a happy ending for all of those astray. Gordon plays a Canadian librarian summoned to Paris by her aging aunt (Emmanuelle Riva). Among her ensuing quirky encounters, Fiona meets an outspoken homeless man (Abel) who changes her life in unexpected ways. Slight but amusing, the innocuous film takes advantage of its surroundings, highlighted by a throwback style of slapstick and vaudeville-style comedy accompanied by a charming dose of romantic whimsy. (Not rated, 83 minutes).

 

Swallows and Amazons

Celebrating childhood innocence and the power of imagination, this old-fashioned charmer might ultimately appeal more to nostalgic adults than kids in the social-media age. It takes place in 1935 at a remote British lake, where five siblings, while their mariner father is at sea, convince their mother (Kelly Macdonald) to let them sail to a nearby island, which leads to an adventure involving fake pirates, possible real-life spies, and strange new lands. The film, adapted from a series of children’s books, overdoses on cuteness and might peeve cynics with its anachronisms and twee tendencies. Yet it captures the mischievous sense of discovery for its wide-eyed youngsters. (Not rated, 97 minutes).

 

The Wrong Light

If only some manipulative filmmaking hadn’t gotten in the way, this documentary exposing the unethical tactics of a Thailand charity could have been more impactful. Nevertheless, it offers a compelling glimpse into Mickey Choothesa, who founded an organization as part of a crusade ostensibly to stop sex trafficking of underage girls. However, what starts as a celebration of those efforts veers in a different direction once his stories don’t check out. Some eye-opening revelations spark the appropriate outrage. Yet eventually, the film isn’t about Choothesa or the innocent children as much as it is about the directors, whose journalistic motives likewise invite scrutiny for their authenticity. (Not rated, 78 minutes).

A Ghost Story

Given its generic title, fans of mainstream horror might be shocked by A Ghost Story, and not in the ways they suspect.

This elliptical tale of apparitions from the afterlife by versatile director David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon) isn’t scary in the conventional sense, although it’s certainly haunting in ways that resonate beyond the usual jump scares and cheap thrills.

The filmmaker carefully crafts a character-driven examination of the grieving process that’s both poignant and provocative, for those with the patience to withstand its downbeat and deliberately paced approach.

The story begins with an unnamed couple, played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, bickering over whether to move out of their modest rural Texas house. The husband subsequently dies in a car accident, prompting his widow to grieve and eventually move out. But he remains behind, in the stereotypical form of a ghost represented by a corpse in a white sheet, struggling to come to terms with his own death and the presence those who later live there.

The first half of the film essentially follows the married couple through the bereavement period that follows his death. Then the screenplay detours into a Malick-style meditation on memories and the passage of time, through the eyes of the ghost and its beloved house, which spans generations.

Lowery not only subverts genre conventions — with some playful touches that break up the mostly solemn proceedings — but his ambitious vision makes a powerful impression with its meticulous attention to imagery and atmosphere.

Hypnotic yet ambiguous, the result isn’t for all tastes. The film is excessively slow-paced, with Lowery favoring long takes (often static and silent, in a narrow aspect ratio) with little verbal communication. During one early stretch, we watch Mara, without saying a word, devour a sympathy pie straight from the tin for several unbroken and intentionally painful minutes.

In fact, Will Oldham is the actor with the most dialogue, and he appears in only a single scene while delivering a rambling existential monologue at a house party — under the watchful eye of the titular specter, of course.

Even when it’s difficult to grasp exactly what A Ghost Story is trying to say in some of its more head-scratching segments, the film commands appreciation for its vision and audacity. You might not see ghosts the same way again.

 

Rated R, 87 minutes.

Capsule reviews for July 7

Austin Found

The premise might feel ripped from the headlines, but this lackluster comedy too often seems to come straight off the assembly line instead. It follows an overbearing pageant mom (Linda Cardellini) who desperately schemes for fame and fortune by arranging for her ex-boyfriend (Skeet Ulrich) and his simple-minded friend (Craig Robinson) to kidnap her precocious daughter (Ursula Parker), and then benefiting from the resulting publicity. As things come unraveled, the uneven screenplay struggles to generate much emotional investment in its off-putting characters or their plight—awkwardly shifting between broad comedy, misguided poignancy, and sensationalistic media cynicism. Either an edgier or softer approach would have been preferable. (Not rated, 104 minutes).

 

City of Ghosts

Perhaps the biggest compliment for this provocative and timely documentary from director Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land) is that it might change your perspective about the Syrian refugee crisis. That’s the intent in chronicling the harrowing efforts of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a collective of courageous grassroots journalists who risk their lives to share the truth about living conditions in their ISIS-controlled hometown. The powerful film is a tribute to their work, but also provides new insight into the Syrian conflict and explores the evolution of activism and journalism in the social-media age. It skillfully handles difficult subject matter in ways both suspenseful and sorrowful. (Not rated, 93 minutes).

 

Hickok

This compendium of Western clichés isn’t a comprehensive biopic about the notorious Old West gunslinger, but rather focuses on the brief period during which he served as marshal of Abilene, Kansas, in 1871. That’s when “Wild Bill” Hickok (Liam Hemsworth) tries to sort out the riffraff in a small town beset by violence while reconnecting with an old flame (Cameron Richardson). He has the support of the mayor (Kris Kristofferson), yet runs into trouble with a bar owner (Trace Adkins) and his bandits seeking revenge. Despite some stylish shootouts, the mildly compelling if haphazardly assembled oater lacks historical context and fires too many narrative blanks. (Not rated, 88 minutes).

 

The Little Hours

The filmmakers behind this raunchy comedy about promiscuous nuns need to confess — not for their blasphemous subject matter, but for not carrying their mischievous one-note premise successfully to feature length. However, there are some scattered moments of deadpan hilarity within this story of a 14th century servant (Dave Franco) forced to flee to a convent, where he poses as a deaf-mute while trying to resist the flirtatious advances of the resident sisters (Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza and Kate Micucci). The subversive script by director Jeff Baena (Life After Beth) deserves credit for audacity, yet the outrageous laughs start to wear thin well before the finish. (Rated R, 90 minutes).

 

Swim Team

The title might be ordinary, but the same can’t be said of the Jersey Hammerheads, a competitive Special Olympics swimming program in New Jersey that consists entirely of young athletes on the autism spectrum. The heartwarming film follows their inaugural season as the team brings out the best in its swimmers both inside and outside the pool. Specifically, it focuses on three athletes whose participation leads to improved social skills and self-esteem, in addition to gold medals. The glossy treatment leaves some unanswered questions, yet it’s easy to root for the inspirational youngsters, whose moving stories just might change your perspective regarding inclusion and disabilities. (Not rated, 100 minutes).

Despicable Me 3

The strategy for Despicable Me 3 is familiar among erstwhile successful franchises desperate to keep the wheels turning — fill every frame with nonstop chaos, toss in some new characters regardless of relevance, and don’t stray too far from the original formula.

Indeed, the financial prosperity of the animated series is on solid ground even as it offers diminishing creative returns. And this third installment — or fourth, if you count the unfortunate Minions spinoff — continues to feel more familiar than fresh.

As this film opens, reformed supervillain Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) is unable to capture his new nemesis, bitter former child star Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker). So he’s fired from the Anti-Villain League by his ruthless new boss (Jenny Slate).

Returning home to his wife (Kristen Wiig) and three adorable daughters, Gru contemplates his future when he’s visited by a stranger named Dru (also voiced by Carell) claiming to be his long-lost twin brother. Dru wants Gru to return to his evil ways and form a partnership of sorts. But when Bratt’s nefarious plan is unleashed, Gru’s loyalties are torn.

The first Despicable Me, released in 2010, was imaginative in both conception and execution, with Gru as a delightfully subversive antihero. Yet none of the subsequent films has provided the same level of energy or laughter.

Under the guidance of returning directors Pierre Coffin (who also voices the ubiquitous diminutive minion sidekicks) and Kyle Balda, the latest film is at least as visually impressive as its predecessors, with crisp and colorful backgrounds to go with sharply detailed characters that include exaggerated physical features.

The villains have always been the stars of this franchise, and the new installment is no exception. Bratt’s obsession with the worst of 1980s fashion and music trends provides some intermittent hilarity, not to mention a rooting interest for moviegoers of a certain generation who might be chaperoning those in the target demographic.

However, despite some amusing sight gags and one-liners, the screenplay is uninspired and mostly reliant on old tricks. We’ve already seen Gru’s transformation from criminal mastermind to cuddly father to reluctant hero, and with nothing substantively new to offer, the periphery characters steal the spotlight. There’s not much despicable about Despicable Me 3, and that’s part of the problem.

 

Rated PG, 89 minutes.

The House

Maybe it’s appropriate that The House feels like an overextended comedy sketch, given the late-night television roots of stars Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler.

Yet the desperation in the plight of their characters seems to extend to the film as a whole, a thin and uninspired suburban satire that’s more obnoxious than amusing.

Scott (Ferrell) and Kate (Poehler) are ready to send their precocious daughter (Alex Simpkins) off to the expensive private school of her choice on a full scholarship, only to see the approved public funds pulled at the last minute by a slimy city councilman (Nick Kroll).

Left without a backup plan, but determined to fulfill their daughter’s wishes, the pair hatches a plan with Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), Scott’s equally distressed friend who’s facing foreclosure after a nasty breakup. After a failed weekend in Vegas, they opt to open a full-fledged casino in Frank’s basement to raise the money from their high-rolling neighbors. Naturally, with such high stakes involved, it’s not as easy as these mild-mannered cohorts envisioned.

The characters conveniently lack common sense as their scheme unravels in predictably outrageous fashion in a town that apparently has only one dimwitted cop.

We’ve seen this shtick from Ferrell before, as the bumbling, uptight and overprotective father. Poehler is squandered in what amounts to a hapless sidekick role, and Jeremy Renner pops in briefly, for some reason, as a deranged mobster.

The film offers a half-hearted examination at the effects of rising tuition costs on middle-aged families and impending empty-nesters. Yet that credit seems generous for a project that consistently relies on low-brow vulgarity in lieu of clever gags.

The incoherent result seems to have suffered from some egregious post-production tinkering, which undercuts even further the few scattered genuine laughs in the directorial debut of screenwriter Andrew Jay Cohen (Neighbors). In particular, the final half-hour seems to have been pieced together on the fly.

Perhaps the biggest issue is that the film requires an outrageous suspension of disbelief when it needs some level of realistic grounding in order to generate sufficient emotional investment. Indeed, moviegoers will be the losers if they gamble on The House, a strained comedy that quickly cashes in its chips.

 

Rated R, 88 minutes.

Capsule reviews for June 30

The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography

You don’t have to be an artistic type to appreciate this affectionate documentary from director Errol Morris (The Fog of War) chronicling the life and work of the New England portraitist who was inspired in part by a friendship with Allen Ginsberg. The film mixes an engaging interview with glimpses of her work, which was unique because of Dorfman’s use of a rare Polaroid camera. As she approaches retirement, her archives are a treasure trove of bittersweet nostalgia, as the proliferation of digital cameras has rendered her antiquated equipment almost obsolete. It’s repetitive at first, but provides valuable exposure for the artist and her craft. (Rated R, 76 minutes).

 

Pop Aye

Deliberately paced but consistently charming, this offbeat road movie takes place in Thailand, following an architect (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) enduring a midlife crisis. He impulsively buys a former circus elephant with ties to his childhood, then takes it on a nostalgic odyssey across the country to reconcile with his family. Some quirky happenings along the way, including an encounter with a suicidal homeless man (Penpak Sirikul), launch a contemplative examination of loneliness, aging, mortality and regret. The sharply observed screenplay by rookie Singaporean director Kirsten Tan adeptly balances gentle humor and poignancy. And even if the result is sometimes uneven and aloof, the pachyderm steals the show. (Not rated, 104 minutes).

 

The Skyjacker’s Tale

Despite its dubious moral stance, this Canadian documentary takes an intriguing look at issues such as terrorism, colonialism, American foreign policy and the justice system. It chronicles the story of Ishmael Muslim Ali, a Vietnam War veteran and native of the U.S. Virgin Islands who was one of three men convicted for a 1972 country-club massacre in which white business executives were murdered apparently over lingering racial tensions and socioeconomic disparity. Then he escaped to Cuba by hijacking a commercial airliner, claiming unfair treatment. Through interviews and re-enactments, the film capably examines the ethical complexities of Ali’s actions and their broader ramifications, which still resonate today. (Not rated, 75 minutes).

 

13 Minutes

The title refers to the time by which a Munich bomb attack missed killing Hitler in 1939. Yet this German drama about the perpetrator from director Oliver Hirschbiegel (Downfall) lacks the audacity of its protagonist. Georg Elser (Christian Friedel) was arrested by Nazi authorities after the explosion that killed a handful of bystanders following a speech. He eventually confesses and reveals his motives, revealing a resistance among ordinary Germans to fascist ideals. Considering its true-life source material, the film’s structure mutes its suspense with intermittently compelling flashbacks. While the film explores the moral complexity behind Elser’s actions and subsequent legacy, the result lacks consistent intrigue. (Rated R, 114 minutes).

 

2:22

Take Groundhog Day, subtract the comedy, add in some pretentious metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, and you’ve got the idea behind this muddled thriller. It follows an emotionally disturbed New York air-traffic controller (Michiel Huisman) who begins having visions about the same series of tragic events every day at the titular time. While trying to decipher the patterns behind his troubles, he meets an passenger (Teresa Palmer) aboard a plane that he almost caused to crash, who apparently finds his mysterious affliction alluring. That’s among the many contrivances that diminish the potential for emotional investment in the characters — or figuring out what’s happening to them and why. (Rated PG-13, 98 minutes).

Baby Driver

A film aimed at fanboys and genre aficionados positioned amid a seasonal whirlwind of big-budget sequels and remakes seems like a gamble, yet Baby Driver might be cool enough to pull it off.

After all, both the characters and the concept in this stylish heist thriller from British director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) are subversive and clever, with intensity and attitude to spare — even if the setup ultimately is greater than the payoff.

The film follows a socially awkward misfit nicknamed Baby (Ansel Elgort), who remains quiet while hiding behind a perpetual pair of sunglasses and earphones, the latter due to a hearing impairment stemming from apparent childhood trauma. But his skill behind the wheel speaks volumes, especially to Doc (Kevin Spacey), a ruthless crime boss who hires him as his getaway driver.

Baby’s quirks and offbeat musical tastes puzzle the more experienced accomplices who ride alongside him. He comes out of his shell after meeting a diner waitress (Lily James) with vulnerabilities of her own. Yet when he signs up for one last job before going straight, Baby realizes that he might have been set up to fail all along.

The film is not so much directed as choreographed to its awesomely diverse soundtrack. The frenetic barrage of four-wheeled chase sequences — the first of which is the most exhilarating — is accompanied by a steady chorus of shifting gears and squealing tires.

Visually inventive and meticulously edited, it’s as much a showcase for its characters on four wheels as those with two legs, providing a visceral excitement while toying with clichés.

Although Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) doesn’t check the boxes of a traditional action hero, he finds sympathy in a young man with a most unscrupulous job. Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm are among those seeming to relish villainous supporting roles.

Wright’s screenplay glosses over much of the character development for anyone other than Baby, and doesn’t hold up to much logical scrutiny. A subplot involving Baby’s relationship with his disabled foster father (C.J. Jones) never gains much traction.

Still, even if it’s not as compelling when the engine isn’t running, the film is consistently amusing. Just like its title character, Baby Driver very much finds its own rhythm.

 

Rated R, 112 minutes.