This Is a Movie Review: Tulip Fever

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At the end of Tulip Fever, I thought, “Oh, that’s what that was all about.” It ultimately becomes clear that there is an incredible amount of kindness inherent to the main characters. They struggle because they find themselves in situations that are far from ideal and beyond their control, but they ultimately find a way out. That is a fine bit of satisfaction. But for the first 95%, the floral mania is totally confounding and there is little in the way of enjoyability beyond the (not-that-out-of-place) comedic relief from Zach Galifianakis and Christoph Waltz’s nicknames for his penis.

I give Tulip Fever 1 Bulb Just Barely in Bloom.

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets’ is Confident and Visionary in a Way All Films Should Aspire To

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This review was originally posted on News Cult in July 2017.

Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Herbie Hancock, Sam Spruell, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke

Director: Luc Besson

Running Time: 137 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Lasers, Gunplay, and the Accompanying Alien Splatter

Release Date: July 21, 2017

My quick pitch for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is “Star Wars but more European and colorful.” Now, don’t take that mean it is overly derivative. Most great modern stories are just variations on the classics, space fantasies especially so, Star Wars more than any other. Even if a movie finds inspiration from the tales of the Jedi, there is a genuinely strong chance it has a fair degree of originality. Valerian’s source material predates Star Wars, as it is based on the long-running French comic series Valérian et Laureline, which was first published in 1967 and, in the vein of John Carter, was by all accounts an influence on George Lucas. I cannot speak to how closely the film hews to the original, but I can say without hesitation that the result is the delightfully unfiltered vision of Luc Besson.

After I first watched the trailer for Valerian, my take on its prospects for success was that while it looked spectacularly unique, there was no way it could be a box office hit. It would be too lavish, too weird, too alien. But here’s the thing: that’s a bunch of baloney. If people who like movies want to be entertained, they need to go see Valerian. It is such a crowd-pleaser. Yes, it is a little more out-there than your average blockbuster, but it is not as impenetrable as something like Jupiter Ascending. The plot is straightforward and weighty enough to be neither confusing nor laughable, and if folks cannot appreciate the beautiful production design, fleet-on-its-feet action, and overall good vibes, then I don’t know what’s what.

The opening montage set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” could be overly on the nose but is instead an ode to the human (or human/alien/all sentient beings) spirit. Over the course of decades on a satellite orbiting Earth, a trio of astronauts keeps welcoming a new trio of astronauts from all corners of the globe. After a century or so, the new entrants start to become extraterrestrial. Eventually, the station becomes so popular that it must break away from Earth’s gravitational pull and become an intergalactic hub: Alpha, the titular city of a thousand planets. The international/interplanetary cooperation is inspiring. This is not quite a utopia, but the effort of all involved to make it as close to one as possible is palpable.

The central conflict is a classic of the genre: an entire planet has been wiped out, and its surviving residents seek a new home. A device exists with enough energy to create a facsimile version, but its power makes it life-threateningly dangerous, and it may very well be in the wrong hands, so government operatives Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are on the case. Often in this type of story, the destruction or conquest of another planet would be at stake, but the displaced here are a profoundly peaceful collective; in keeping with the utopian spirit, their goal fits this future’s high ideals.

There is a love story between the two leads that could have easily felt shoehorned in, but instead it is part and parcel of getting Besson’s message across. Despite a long list of past conquests, Valerian proposes to Laureline within the first ten minutes, desiring to prove that he is noble enough to turn their professional partnership into a life one. Their flirtation is playfully teasing, though their chemistry is never quite steaming. Still, their loyalty to each other ultimately demonstrates a high-minded connection of the variety that has united the peoples of Alpha.

In their travels to restore the balance of the universe, Valerian and Laureline come across a number of instantly lovable characters, both CGI and humans playing dress-up (or in some cases, both). There is an implied foundation of tolerance insofar as every interaction feels so lived-in and in how every outfit plus every style of skin (or whatever the alien equivalent of skin is) is matter-of-factly accepted. Clive Owen, Herbie Hancock, and Ethan Hawke each play some degree of against type, but the biggest delight is Rihanna as a shapeshifting alien dancer named Bubble who aids Valerian and Laureline in a crucial escape mission. For those who have been waiting for the Barbadian singer to have an iconic cinematic moment, your time has come. She is the best part of the film, with her malleable nature fully inhabiting the theme that you can be and do whatever you want as long as you are fighting for what is right.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is Recommended If You Like: Star Wars, The Fifth Element, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Art and Vocation of Filmmaking

Grade: 4 out of 5 Handshakes

This Is a Movie Review: A Cure for Wellness

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This review was originally published on News Cult in February 2017.

Starring: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth

Director: Gore Verbinski

Running Time: 146 Minutes

Rating: R for Doing Everything It Can to Get Under Your Skin

Release Date: February 17, 2017

A Cure for Wellness is the type of movie I would like to rate 5/5 on the strength of its ambition and singularity of vision but that I must admit its reach exceeds its grasp. It feels like the film that director Gore Verbinski (The RingRangoPirates of the Caribbean) has been waiting his whole career to make. Verbinski has been behind enough hits to have sufficient cachet for a risk here and there, but how he ever convinced a major studio to produce something as dark, disturbing, and inscrutable as Wellness is could prove to be one of the great mysteries in the annals of cinema history.

The whole affair starts out sufficiently intriguing and easy-enough-to-follow: rising financial executive Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) has been sent to the Swiss Alps to retrieve his CEO, who seems to have lost his mind while staying at a resort with a cult-ish devotion among its clientele. He hot dogs his way into the place, expecting to be in and out in time to catch the red-eye back to New York, but a freak accident results in his unwittingly becoming a patient himself. In a way, this is a long, fantastical PSA about the importance of wearing your seat belt.

Lockhart does manage to get in touch fairly quickly with his CEO, who goes on one of those rants about how it is really the world that is sick but then violently shifts to amenability towards going home. Ultimately, though, the status quo stays in place. This elliptical encounter sets the tone for the whole plot.

A Cure for Wellness sets itself up as a classic gothic European castle mystery with a 21st century anarchic twist. There are movies that have strange elements just for strangeness’ sake, but in this case there appear to be more concrete purposes. What is the motivation of chillingly cool and collected facility director (Jason Isaacs)? Who is this girl (Mia Goth) who is so much younger than all the other residents, and why does she receive preferential treatment? What is the deal with the eels? For the most part, each of these questions is sufficiently answered, but the twists may be too unnecessarily stomach-churning for some viewers. Also, the resolution is painfully stretched out – Lockhart is given an absurd number of opportunities to dish out his revenge.

If nothing else, this exercise in ghastliness is worth it for the beautiful cinematography courtesy of Bojan Bazelli. The days are perpetually cloudy, making for a striking mix of drab, foreboding, and sublime. Tableaux are carefully, lovingly designed – an overhead view of water aerobics may be the shot of the year. This is the world in a microcosm, as argued by A Cure for Wellness: ugly, breathtaking, and irrevocably tied to the past.

A Cure for Wellness is Recommended If You Like: The pop philosophy of Fight Club, the creepy crawlies of Slither (2006), the nasty secrets of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Grade: 3 out of 5 Suspect Diagnoses