'Valerian': Eye-poppin' space odyssey

By Tom Von Malder | Nov 29, 2017
Photo by: Lions Gate Entertainment Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne star in "Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets."

Owls Head — Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Lionsgate, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 137 min.). Based on a French comic that director-writer Luc Besson ("Fifth Element," "The Professional") first read at age 10, this space opera  is full of sometimes astonishing and always entertaining visuals, while the story and acting are more of the just OK variety. The young leads -- Dane DeHaan ("The Amazing Spider-Man 2") as Major Valerian and model Cara Delevingne ("Suicide Squad") as Sgt. Laureline -- bring a breeziness to the film, while the rest of the cast includes both veterans, like Ethan Hawke, Clive Owen and Rutger Hauer, and relative film newcomers, like musicians Herbie Hancock and Rihanna. Hauer gets a one-scene cameo as president of the World State Federation, while Rihanna plays the intriguing Bubble, a  shape-shifting glamour pod.

The film opens by showing the development of the International Space Station into the humungous Alpha, the so-called City of a Thousand Planets, which has grown so large by 2550 that it has been cast off into space so that its orbit would not decay and wipe out Earth. Along with the space station's size, we see the development as a series of different species are greeted as they come aboard. The film then shifts to the tranquil setting of the planet Mul, where the peaceful Pearls live in a paradise, fueled by small, but very powerful energy balls they harvest form the ocean. One day their world is shattered as a conflict in space above their planet causes destruction, when destroyed spaceships crash onto the planet. The death of Princess Lihio-Minaa (Sasha Luss via motion capture, as are all the Pearls) sends a flash of her psychic energy, which arrives in the mind of Valerian, who has been spending time on a holographic beach with his shipmate, Laureline, whom he has been hitting on.

Valerian and Laureline are dispatched to the Planet Kirian, a desert world that holds the entrance to the Big Market (a Besson addition to the story), a 500-level, vast bazaar that actually is located in another dimension. They are to retrieve a stolen object, the last known Convertor from planet Mul. A Convertor can replicate in quantity anything it eats by literally pooping the duplicates out. However, the hand-sized creature in adorable. The Big Market is a tricky sequence because parts of it are shown from three viewpoints and parts of Valerian are literally in two dimensions at the same time. Their next assignment is on Alpha, where all the previous strains of the film come together, as a zone that is increasing in size on the station is viewed as a threat. In his journey on Alpha, Valerian ends up on colorful Paradise Alley -- among the many exotic creatures is even a brief glimpse of Jessica Rabbit -- and Laureline is captured by the Boulan Bathors, an isolationist society that is centered on food and the gastronomical arts. They are larger, semi-comical creatures also created through motion capture.

The extras are solid and include a five-part making-of look at creating the film, which has 2,734 special effects shots. Covered are the comic's creators, production and stunts, the Valerian and Laureline partnership, the various aliens and humans, including the three comical Doghan-Doguis, and the visual effects, which were farmed out to WETA (the Pearls, Bolan Bathors), ILM (Big Market sequence) and Rodeo FX (Alpha). The film can be watched in an "enhancement mode," with branching to 14 enhancement pods, which give background on actors, the Paradise Alley designs, a tour of the Intruder ship with actor Kris Wu and a look at the Convertors and the robot K-Trons (think "Battlestar Galactica"), or the pods can be viewed by themselves, totaling 35:38. Finally, there is a photo gallery. Grade: film  and extras 3.25 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Birth of the Dragon (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 95 min.). This is an entertaining movie if one does not put too much thought into what a wasted chance it is. In November 1964 in San Francisco, Kung Fu teacher Bruce Lee(played well by Philip Wan-Lung Ng) had a celebrated fight against Kung Fu master Wong Jack Man (a fine Xia Yu) from Henan Province in China. The fight had such an effect on Lee that he changed his fighting and teaching style thereafter and became an international icon. However, this film, directed by George Nolfi, makes the epic fight secondary to a romance between a fictional Caucasian student of Lee's (Billy Magnusson of "Bridge of Spies" as Steve McKee) and the Oriental girl (Jingjing Qu as Xiulan Quan) he falls in love with. In fact, the film has the fight only occur to obtain Quan's freedom, as she is a Bi Nu in servitude to Auntie Blossom (Jin Xing), who controls Chinatown.

Master Wong has come to San Francisco to serve penance as a dish washer after almost killing a Tai Chi opponent during an exhibition fight. Lee, who comes off as very arrogant, is teaching both Chinese and Caucasians to fight with Kung Fu, with the object a quick disabling of their opponent. He believes Master Wong has arrived because he objects to Caucasians being taught Kung Fu. Master Wong has been taught that Kung Fu comes from a person's chi, that it is more than fists, but rather a way of thinking and living. He believes Lee lacks soul in his form of fighting. McKee convinces Master Wong to train him and eventually to help earn Quan's freedom. While we see Lee making a film in his spare time and starting to be sought for a TV series, the setting is nine years before his film, "Enter the Dragon."

The only extra is a brief, four-part behind-the-scenes look (5:54) that, at least, shows some of the wire work while discussing the stunts and the fight. Grade: film 2.5 stars; extras 1/2 star

Good Time (A24/Lionsgate, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 101 min.). This film, by brothers Josh and Benny Safdie ("Heaven Knows What"), is fascinating in a gritty, stylized way and features a standout performance by Robert Pattinson ("The Twilight Saga" franchise), who disappears into his role as one of two misguided brothers who rob a bank and then get separated as Nick (co-director Benny Safdie), the developmentally disabled one, is caught by the police. The film deals mostly with his brother Connie's (Pattinson) efforts to find and release him.

The film starts in mid-story, with Nick being interviewed by a psychiatrist (Peter Verby) and getting angry over some of the word associations and even over the doctor's note taking. Connie interrupts the session and the next thing you know, the brothers are robbing a bank of $65,000 (we learn a bit later that it is to buy a farm for Nick to live on). After the robbery, there is a police chase, with only Connie getting away. After Nick gets beaten up in jail, Connie learns he is at Elmhurst Hospital and takes steps to free his brother, as he knows he will not be able to survive in prison.

From this point, the film becomes a series of wrong turns, sometimes comic and sometimes leaving the viewer to wonder when violence might break out. Connie makes one big mistake that pairs him up with Ray (Buddy Duress, whose prison journals the film is partially based one). Connie takes advantage of a Haitian woman and her 16-year-old granddaughter (Taliah Lennice Webster as Crystal), including sexual abuse of the minor, and of his girlfriend (Jennifer Jason Leigh as Corey) to use her mother's credit card for $10,000 bail money. (In the film, the Safdie Brothers use a real bail bondsman.) Later there is a run-in with a drug dealer and the search for some discarded cash in an amusement park, which involves Barkhad Abdi as Dash, the park security guard. The latter comes after a lengthy sidebar that provides Ray's backstory.

Extras include audio commentary by the two directors, producer Sebastian Bear-McClard and actors Webster and Duress; a making-of featurette (18:12; the title is prison slang); and a music video of "The Pure and the Damned," sung by Iggy Pop, who appears in computer-altered form. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 2.5 stars

George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn (Arrow, 3 Blu-ray + 3 standard DVDs, R, 326 min. + extras). This cleverly named compilation collects three films Romero made between his classic "Night of the Living Dead" and its sequel, "Dawn of the Dead." The films are "There Is Always Vanilla" (1971, 92 min.), originally released as "The Affair," Season of the Witch" (1972, 89 min.), aka "Hungry Wives" and "Jack's Wife," and "The Crazies" (1973, 103 min.). The first two are rather "lost" movies, which Romero says in the bonus material that he does not feel are very good, while the third comes close to the zombie genre, with a military bio-weapon either killing or driving insane the inhabitants of a small town.

"There's Always Vanilla" began as a half-hour screen-test for actor Ray Laine, who plays drifter Chris. The film was fleshed out to feature length, including plenty of narration by Laine, who speaks directly to the camera. The film details Chris' affair with TV advertising model Lynn (Judith Streiner), a relationship that is doomed to failure. During the film, Chris takes his father out for a night on the town and finds him a woman for the evening. The funniest bit is Chris' job interview at an advertising agency. The film is often cinema verite -- it uses a lot of filming TV commercials, which is what the production company actually did in Pittsburgh -- and does capture a sense of the time, but the story is not much. In an archival interview (15:56), Romero says making the film was "not a fun experience" and that he does not think of it as a complete film. It also is the only film of the three that he did not write.

Other bonus features are audio commentary by Travis Crawford (he does this duty on all three films); a new making-of featurette (29:43) with producers John Russo and Russell Streiner, actors Judith Streiner and Richard Ricci, and sound recordist Gary Streiner; a locations photo gallery with audio commentary by Romero historian Lawrence DeVincentz (11:30); and a collection of photo scans (1:09).

Laine also appears in "Season of the Witch," playing Gregg Williamson, the guy who eventually beds restless housewife Joan Mitchell (Jan White). Joan's husband is so inattentive that the film opens with her imagined scene of her walking well behind him through the woods, and then having a collar and leash placed on her. Gregg had been hanging out with her daughter, Nikki. Also to fill her empty days, Joan starts dabbling in witchcraft, making the Donovan title song perfect  for the scene in which Joan goes shopping for implements to use in spell casting. The film does have several night intruder scenes that turn out to be nightmares, but that are very well done. In the above-mentioned interview, Romero said the production company ran out of money to complete the film as he would have liked.

In addition to Crawford's audio commentary, there also is a 104-minute version of the film (the original 130-minute version has been lost) and a February 2016 video conversation between Romero and filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro (55:40). Romero died in July.

The final film and the best, most complete of the three, is "The Crazies," which begins with a crazed father going after his two children after apparently having killed his wife. He also sets their house on fire. It turns out he is one of the first victims of the Trixie bio-weapon that was released into the local water supply when a military plane crashed the week before. The story centers around a couple, volunteer fireman David (Will McMillan) and nurse Judy (Lane Carroll of ""I Drink Your Blood," David Cronenberg's "Shivers"), who is carrying David's child. Much of the film shows the military invading the town and rounding up people with no explanation. Some people resist, leading to gunfire and deaths, while many of the infected start attacking other people. The film does get a bit boring around the hour mark.

In addition to Crawford's audio commentary; there is a guided tour of the Evans City locations used with DeVincentz (12:24); a look at Lynn Lowry's career and the film (s15:54: he plays Kathy); a Q&A with Lowry at the 2016 Abertoir Film Festival in the U.K. (35:52); an audio interview  with producer Lee Hessel (4:32); very grainy behind-the-scenes footage with optional commentary by DeVincentz (6:26); alternate opening titles; and two image galleries. The set is probably only for Romero completists, but the supplemental material is very good. There also is a limited edition, 60-page booklet with new writing on the films by Kat Ellinger, Kier-La Janisse and Heather Drain. Grade: Vanilla 2 stars; Season 2.5 stars; Crazies 3 stars; extras 3.75 stars

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