Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: A Wild Ride Appropriate for Most Ages

Movie Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a wild ride. The vast number of alien species represented in this amazing science fiction film is just ... wow! I doubt film makers reach a thousand, but the creativity in this film just boggles the imagination, so you quickly lose count.

The story line takes place in the 28th century and involves humanity's outreach to the abundance of alien species at our doorstep, welcoming them to space station Alpha as it makes its way outward from the Solar System. But everything isn't peace and happiness, as interaction between humans and aliens sometimes involves conflict. And in one instance, an innocent race of peaceful aliens is sacrificed to save the human mission.

Major Valerian (played by Dane DeHaan) and his partner Sergeant Laureline (played by Cara Delevingne) are sent on a dangerous mission to retrieve the last member of a species of gem converters from a devastated planet. When they return successfully, they must save their commander (played by Clive Owen), who has been abducted on Alpha in a suspiciously infected area. What they discover hiding in the infected area changes everyone's understanding of one of Alpha's past missions and its future relations with the thousands of species it has encountered to date. Getting from beginning to end of this tale is an incredible journey!

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a majestic panoramic view of humankind's future in space while making a metaphoric statement about advanced civilizations' cruel treatment of those who are far less advanced. It uses sweeping vistas, imposing set designs, and daunting visual effects to take viewers on a fantastic trip through time and space, introducing us to amazing species and colorful (literal and figurative) characters. You won't leave watching this film unimpressed.

This film also doesn't take itself especially serious. There is plenty of humor in the story to lighten the atmosphere.

As a fan of science fiction and fantasy, I highly recommend Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets for teens and older audiences. Younger audiences may also appreciate it with adult supervision.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Criminal: Not a Fun Spy Romp, But Great Character Depth and Plot Complexity

Movie Review: Criminal (2016)
Version: Library borrow

What starts off with a small role for Ryan Reynolds opens the door for a huge role for Kevin Costner in 2016's Criminal, a gruff yet thoughtful action thriller set in the gritty streets of London.

The pace sets quickly with Bill Pope (played by Reynolds) chasing down leads on a shadowy hacker with nuclear launch codes to sell, driving through the streets of London and gunning down bad guys. But he quickly reaches his end in an empty warehouse, where he is brutally tortured for the information he has and then left for dead. Britain's MI6 and the CIA rescue him and keep in alive long enough for Dr. Franks (played by the stoic Tommy Lee Jones) to transfer his memory to an agent who can act on his leads. But the CIA doesn't want to try this untested technology on just any human. They reach out for someone expendable, someone who would be no loss if things got ugly, turned deadly. Jericho (played by Costner) is a dangerous convict with no emotional connection to others, a killer without remorse, basically an animal who is chained to the center of a cell to keep him away from any other human contact. The CIA's Quaker Wells (played explosively by Gary Oldman) has him transferred to London, where the technology is brutally applied to Jericho's mind, and he is set free to fund the hacker "The Dutchman" (played by Michael Pitt). Little by little, Pope's memories filter into Jericho's mind, giving him clues where to find The Dutchman and a bag of money promised to him. It also exposes Jericho to Pope's memories of his wife Jill (played by Gal Gadot) and his daughter Emma (played by Lara Decaro), and where they live. The hunt is on, and so is a slow evolution of Jericho from desperate killer to loving husband and father in search of redemption and saving the world from the threat of bad guys who want access to American nuclear launch codes.

This isn't your usual spy thriller nor your normal action film. It starts out fast and furious like a typical spy film, then settles back to an earthy, gritty, dark, and dank deep-state conspiracy sci-fi pic, only to evolve again into a human-interest story about a man fighting for his identity and his soul while being pursued by people on all sides obsessed with hunting down a guy with secrets to sell. Caught in the middle is the mother and her daughter, engaged with a dangerous man with hints of the husband and father they think is dead yet can only slowly hope live inside another man they really don't know.

Kevin Costner often plays very thoughtful characters and he brings that sensitivity to this otherwise unseemly role. He is violent, careless, intruding, and self-absorbed on the one had, while on the other you can see the wheels turning in his mind as the Pope character begins to influence Jericho's persona. And this makes the film a multidimensional experience, giving you hope for the character as you follow his progress through his seemingly impossible mission. He has been severely wounded by the surgical procedure to force the technology on his, he has bad headaches, and you can't help but feel for Jericho. And Costner pulls off the role, probably not the kind of character he might have chosen to play earlier in his career, with precision and excellence.

It's a pity that Reynolds' role was so short, because he's becoming known more recently for taking on action films and he's pretty good in them. His role as Bill Pope is no exception. I would like to have seen him more in this film.

Gal Gadot also shines in her role as the frantic mother and grieving wife, not to mention the fearful hostage and then the hopeful cohort to Jericho.

Gary Oldman is the badass of bad guys, forcing Jericho to undergo the procedure and then releasing him to find The Dutchman, promise Jericho the hidden stash of cash if he finds The Dutchman, and then when he thinks MI6 has located The Dutchman, abandoning Jericho in the streets of London. These are the roles Oldman has become more recently familiar with, and he plays it deftly here.

So, while Criminal is not a fun romp as spy thrillers go, it is a good film for its depth of characters and complexity of plot. I'd recommend it for older teens and adults. It might be too violent for youngsters.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

The Hitman's Bodyguard: A Thrill Ride, But Alas, It Can't Be for Everyone

Movie Review: The Hitman's Bodyguard (2017)
Version: Library borrow

I thought The Hitman's Bodyguard is supposed to be a comedy. You might say there are humorous moments, but it is more a trash-talking spy movie than a comedy, and with f-bombs a prominent feature, it definitely isn't something the whole family can watch. What's interesting is, Samuel L. Jackson is famous for using the f-bomb, but it is Salma Hayek playing his wife in this film who does most of the f-bombing.

In any other instance, The Hitman's Bodyguard would be a decent spy film. Ryan Reynolds plays Michael Bryce, a former CIA agent who turns freelance "Triple-A" bodyguard who loses his top-tier rating when someone he was guarding is killed at the last moment. Two years later, he finds himself called in by Amelia Roussel (played by Elodie Yung), his former and angry girl friend, to guard Darius Kincaid (played by Samuel L Jackson), the one man who can provide evidence to convict Belarusian dictator Vladislav Dukhovich (played by Gary Oldman) at the World Court at The Hague in The Netherlands. From the get-go, Bryce and Kincaid are at odds, Kincaid the guy who can't be killed and Bryce the guy who lacks self-confidence, although it's obvious he is talented and skilled. And from the get-go, Dukhovich's organization of henchmen is after Kincaid to keep him from testifying. The World Court has 27 hours for Kincaid to arrive and provide testimony, so the story is the struggle for Bryce to keep him alive long enough to testify, while Kincaid struggles to keep Bryce from getting in his way.

Meanwhile, Bryce has a personal struggle trying to repair his failed relationship with Roussel while Kincaid, seemingly a person with failed personal morals, tries to give him worldly advice about love and relationships. The stories of how the two met the loves of their lives is very interestingly told, and it turns out Kincaid has a very passionate and agile wife, while Bryce has a very passionate and righteous wife. This is a side story on its own worth seeing.

What makes for humor in The Hitman's Bodyguard is the give-and-take between Bryce and Kincaid, mostly given to Jackson's usual on-film character persona. It's almost as if the film were written around that persona. If it weren't for that, this film would be a straight out action film, and there are loads of action, which is actually the fun part of the film. The final third action sequences through the streets, alleys, and canals of Amsterdam are must-see sequences of stunt work!

Ryan Reynolds's laid back charm is a good counter to Samuel L Jackson's smooth-talking grit. They make a good pairing for this otherwise strained twosome. There's a great scene where Bryce gives up in frustration and sits at a bar talking to the bartender about his untenable situation while chaos runs amok around him, gun fire raging, cars crashing, people flying, bombs bursting, buildings crumbling, tables splintering, the bartender disappearing before his eyes behind the bar for safety, and Bryce barely blinking an eye. In the distance, Kincaid is fighting off several dozen bad guys on his own, tearing down the street in the background. It's a great scene.

But the final action sequence steals the cake, with the countdown to Bryce and Kincaid working in unison trying to get into the World Court within the last few seconds, just in time. And even then, it isn't over.

This isn't just any action movie. Not by a long shot. And it isn't a comedy. Not by a long shot. It's too bad it's laced with f-bombs, because I think otherwise kids could enjoy the thrill ride that The Hitman's Bodyguard is, too.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie: Good for a Giggle or Two

Movie Review: Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is as juvenile as you might expect it to be. Well, it is a movie for juveniles. But it is juvenile in a fun and upbeat way, so if your kids want to see it, you really don't have to worry. It's fun for them and you should get a few laughs out of it, too. It's full of enthusiasm and over-the-top kid pranks that kids can appreciate but are unrealistic, so don't worry that yours will get any crazy ideas. And it's great animation.

The gist of the story is that the two main characters, George and Harold, pull pranks at school because principal Mr Krupp makes school so miserable it's the only way to survive. And they pull epic pranks, mostly at the expense of Mr Krupp. Now, Mr Krupp doesn't like anything that kids like, especially arts programs, and especially the comic books the George and Harold write and draw involving a superhero named Captain Underpants. Mr Krupp's act of revenge against George and Harold is to assign them to separate school rooms, at opposite ends of the school, threatening to end their lifelong friendship. Sneaking into his office, they discover a drawer full of objects they have owned that Mr Krupp has taken from them, including a plastic hypnotizing ring, which they accidentally use to hypnotize Mr Krupp into believing he is and acting like Captain Underpants. And so the fun begins, as the belligerent Mr Krupp becomes the benign but blundering superhero of their dreams at the command of their every whim. Their only problem comes when Captain Underpants acts beyond their control to hire Professor Poopypants (I told you this was juvenile!) as the new science teacher, who then becomes the evil genius out to remove laughter from every student at school.

The only name I recognize among the voice actors is Kevin Hart as George. But everyone else delivers good performances in this entertaining ensemble cast: Thomas Middleditch as Harold, Ed Helms as Mr Krupp and Captain Underpants, and Nick Kroll as Professor Poopypants. The animation is well done, too. Nothing is done in proportion, which is usual in animation, but this is taken to extreme, which if you think about it, is appropriate for "the first epic movie". Everything technical about this kid-friendly film makes it a fun romp, and all kids, except perhaps the serially serious, will love it. And even the serially serious have a character they can appreciate: Melvin, who doesn't get any of George and Harold's jokes and pranks. Be careful of him, he becomes Professor Poopypants's accomplice!

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is based on the popular book series, but you don't really have to have read the books to enjoy the movie. Cuddle up with your little ones some cold evening and enjoy a giggle or two.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Atomic Blonde: Be Prepared to Be Blown Away

Movie Review: Atomic Blonde (2017)
Version: Library borrow

If you see Atomic Blonde, strap in -- it's going to be a wild ride. My wife said, "This is more amazing than John Wick!" I'm not sure it's more amazing, but it certainly has as much action and the plot has as many twists and turns. There are fewer changes of ammo and fewer dead bodies left by the end of the film, but Charlize Theron is deadly and packs just as powerful a punch. If you liked either or both of the John Wick movies, you'll like Atomic Blonde, too!

The Atomic Blonde is Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), a sensual but savage MI6 secret agent sent by London to cold war era Berlin to track down a list of compromised double secret agents. An asset called Spyglass (played by Eddie Marsan) has it and local MI6 agent David Percival (Played by James McAvoy) hasn't been able to secure the list yet, so London sends in their best to intervene. Overlooking the interests of MI6 is Eric Gray (played by Toby Jones) and for the CIA is Emmet Kurzfield (played by John Goodman). The Soviets and East Germans want the list, too, and there are several crossings into and out of East Berlin, aided by the underground. But there are also double crossings and crossed allegiances. This story will have your head spinning by the end.

This is a great cast, from the electrifying Theron, to the stoic Jones, to the smarmy Goodman, to the intense McAvoy. The second string is equally good, rounding out the telling of this exciting spy thriller. And set decoration should get high kudos for creating every inch a dramatic backdrop for a dangerous city under siege.

From beginning to end, this film keeps you guessing about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys -- and who will win in the end. James Bond has nothing on Atomic Blonde for action, drama, thrill, or good versus evil. My advise: See Atomic Blonde and be prepared to be blown away.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Escape from Darkness: Follow-up to Dark Charity Is Just as Riveting

Book Review: Escape from Darkness by J.L. Higgs
Version: Author provided

Escape from Darkness is another riveting read by author J.L. Higgs, book two in the United Earth Charity series, the followup to Dark Charity. If you loved book one, you will love book two. If you haven't read book one yet, it's a must read. Here's my review of it.

In Escape from Darkness, Ginny (Virginia) and Richie (Richard), now married, run the United Earth Charity. There are two parts to the charity: One part that does good deeds around the world, another part that runs interference for the charity when it runs into corruption -- the security side. The two don't always communicate well because, well, they're busy. Ginny has hired a new employee, Corey, who it seems has some dark secrets buried deep inside her subconscious about her past that concern the child slave camp where Ginny was held against her will in book one. Everyone on the staff wants to help her solve the mysteries of her past, including investigator James, who also develops a very close relationship with her. And complicating things are Corey's past boyfriend, who left when he found unexplained ugly scars on her body, and a co-worker, who was always thinking more of herself, both who suddenly want to help, too. Meanwhile, Gramps who raised Corey doesn't seem to remember her anymore and these crazy dreams about this young girl caught in a nightmare won't go away. Just as unsettling, someone strange is following her. And Ginny and Richie are trying to put an end to the slavery camps and help Corey. And there's this nettlesome corruption to work around. All blend into one amazing tale of mystery and drama and courage. You won't want to put it down.

Did I tell you there's a love story tucked into the middle of the story?

J.L. Higgs is a wonderful storyteller, creating vivid settings with great characters and amazing plot twists to develop story lines you can't second guess right up to the end. And that has you glued to the pages from beginning to finish. Escape from Darkness is one of those engrossing tales.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Fault in Our Stars: Young Love in Tragedy Played with Perfection

Movie Review: The Fault in Our Stars (2014)
Version: Library borrow

Through the coming attractions previews on a couple of older movies, our family ran into some movies we had missed in the past. A seriously great film we picked up at the library is The Fault in Our Stars, the story of two teenagers who meet at a cancer support group, which leads to hanging out more together. What becomes a close friendship based on a shared life-and-death experience leads to a love-lost-to-death relationship, but not in a way you expect as you make your way through the story.

Hazel is undergoing continued cancer treatments with little hope for recovery, Augustus has lost a leg to cancer but is full of enthusiasm for life, always lifting her spirits. She has "wasted" her special wish earlier in life to go to Disney World, so he uses his to take her to Amsterdam to meet their favorite author, where they finally fall helplessly in love. Fouling their experience, they find their author isn't what he purports to be. Finally returning home, everything turns for the worse. But is their hope?

Hazel is played with perfection by Shailene Woodley, sometimes bright and hopeful, sometimes full of despair. Augustus is played with eloquence by Ansel Elgort, philosophical and brave and the supportive partner. Willem Dafoe plays an acerbic and acidic author darkened in his outlook on life by experiences he refuses to share.

This is really a story about star-crossed lovers whose crossing is destined too soon to pass in the night, but it's also about the passionate love of life and the unfairness of conditions beyond your control. It depends almost entirely upon the quality of the lead actors to pull off the story, and they do it with excellence. There is real chemistry between Woodley and Elgort, and thus you feel a passionate connection between Hazel and Augustus, for whom you yearn for a long life together. Yet The Fault in Our Stars is actually a tragedy, and so, like Romeo and Juliet, it is a love story that will not be.

The Fault in Our Stars will always be one of my favorite movies because it's the first time my daughter -- usually an animation and action film fan -- actually asked to see a romance film. Is she growing up a bit? Watching it with her, it was sort of like my first dance with her, seeing the young lady in her blossom just a little. (Don't tell her I said that!)