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VALERIAN: CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (2017) dir: Luc Besson

20 Aug

“Star Wars meets the Care Bears” was my dad’s perspective of Valerian. He took me to the local cinema in Cumbria, which cost only six quid and had very comfortable seats. It’s not to everyone’s taste but I enjoyed Valerian. It was one of the most imaginative movies I’d seen in ages – if not ever, as I don’t usually watch fantasy movies. However, while I was in the cinema, I was considering putting it on pause and going out to buy an ice-cream. I don’t think the vibe was coming from the movie itself, but instead from the bored unimaginative adults in the audience.

The plot to the movie was somewhat tangled. In the opening sequence we were introduced to the vast leaps mankind will make in centuries to come. Alpha, a space station cast out from Earth’s gravity into deep space, the culmination of space sophistication. Next we arrived at a beautiful island paradise where the bald people sparkled and had long, slender, blue limbs. They were really into their pearls and had these little dragons which ate and pooped pearls out in multitudes. Suddenly the utopia was disturbed by objects crashing through the atmosphere. A giant manmade-looking structure careered through the sky and sent a fireball that destroyed all living creatures. As she died, the Emperor’s daughter sent out a wave of energy from her body.

Valerian is lounging on a virtual beach simulation when he is struck by the energy from the pearl girl. She is appearing in his mind. In his reality, he has Cara Delevigne – playing Laureline, with an acquired American accent – and a computer simulated voice telling him it’s time to quit the beach simulation. I think the credibility of the reality Luc Besson presents to us dissolves with the beach. As Valerian and Laureline wrestle, they appear to barely know each other, plus not a drop is spilled from the cup they’re holding and passing back and forth. It’s Laureline’s birthday, Valerian has forgotten, and frankly nobody seems to care. If that cup of orange liquid had ended up all over one of the cardboard cut-out characters, we may have had a different movie.

Valerian and Laureline must fly their spacecraft to a planet and retrieve a converter. Before they set off from their sand vehicle, Valerian proposes marriage to Laureline. If some bloke in a bar has ever proposed marriage (it happens to me regularly), you’ll grasp the level of awkwardness. On the planet is a vast open space that contains ‘Big Market’. It exists on another dimension so not visible to the naked eye. With virtual reality glasses a million shops and stalls become apparent. With special gloves a human can pick things up and transport them back to this dimension via a box. The special effects are beautiful. All the strangest urban environments on Earth are converged into an imaginative fantasy world. They get the converter. It turns out to be one of the baby dragon creatures Valerian saw in his dream with the pearl girl. Valerian also secretly steals a pearl. They make it back to their vehicle but a variation of Jabba the Hut has sent his hench dinosaur to this dimension for a potential sequel. It chases the vehicle. The inhabitants of the vehicle all die just as Valerian and Laureline escape to their spacecraft. Can we return to this moment toward the end of the review, please?

Fast forward to Alpha: city of a thousand planets. Home to some interesting alien species. The beautiful special effects were incredible. The city is a series of habitats for the various fantastical creatures. At the centre of Alpha is a mysterious radioactive zone that will wipe out the entire space station within a year if not resolved. Nobody has returned from there alive.

Laureline gets to keep the converter for safe-keeping though everyone thinks the Commander has it. The sparkly long-limbed, bald, blue creatures from Valerian’s dream put everyone to sleep and take the Commander, so presumably they thought the Commander had the converter too. Valerian has discovered that the pearl came from Mül planet, which was destroyed thirty years earlier. Valerian and Laureline have also discovered that nobody knows anything about Mül. It’s classified information. Valerian sets off in search of the Commander. He runs into trouble as well as walls (but, as my father pointed out, he groans at the hard seat as he sits down). Laureline then shows an ounce of passion and jets off after him. Unfortunately, not long after their ‘stay with me’ moment of revival where she saves him, she grabs a butterfly bait and is reeled up to another level by these gross-looking monsters. Valerian has to follow to save her. My dad noticed that he shoots the monster whose fishing line he is dangling from above a deep precipice! Doh!

By the time he can do anything, Laureline is being dressed for dinner in the zone on the other side of the door, so he follows the instructions of the computer voice and goes to a neighbouring nightclub. Here he meets Rihanna who is a shape-shifting exotic dancer called Bubble. Bubble engulfs him and turns them together into one of the monsters. Undercover, they covertly enter the zone where Laureline is being held, and stand in a ritual of holding food to be offered to the ruler. When it gets to Laureline’s turn to offer food, the lemon she is holding on her tray turns out to be seasoning for her brains, about to be clipped out of her skull. Fortunately the monster is stupid and puts the lemon on her hair  – showing in the centre of a giant white hat – instead of her brains, therefore Bubble and Valerian can rescue her. They all escape but Bubble dies.

Next they meet the long-limbed graceful blue creatures who tell them that Valerian’s body is the home to their deceased daughter’s soul. They explain what happened with the planet Mül. They’re obviously very peaceful beings. Nobody likes the Commander much when he wants to kill them all. Valerian is reluctant to give them the converter because he’s a stickler for rules. He’s not supposed to give them government property (he wasn’t supposed to steal the pearl though, hey?). In the end, they give the creatures from Mül both the converter and the pearl. The converter then eats the pearl and poops out thousands of pearl replications, which can generate enough power to re-establish Mül. Happy ending? Not yet. There’s a bit of a war between K-tron robots and everyone else. With many people killed, Valerian and Laureline share a cringe-worthy kiss. Happy ending.

As much as I loved the wonderful Mül existence and will daydream about Alpha and the entire multi-dimensional scenario for several weeks, the movie fell short because the characters were far from multi-dimensional. They’ll survive in a two-dimensional universe but not three or more. They were flat outlines who’d eaten their script and pooped out versions of it until Besson called it a wrap. The dialogue was forced like there was foreboding about it. I’m not sure the acting was terrible exactly but rapport was lacking like hot, damp, smelly breath on the eyelids. At the end there was a weird sense of time distortion. Gee, had it been Laureline’s birthday the whole day? Should we care? When the people in the vehicle were all killed, Laureline was excited by her swell converter pet. The psycho! However, when the bald blue beings were threatened with extermination, outrage, how terrible! They weren’t easy characters to make believable. The jarred script didn’t create the kind of hero that Valerian the man (Dane Dehaan) had potential to be. The movie could’ve been an incredible Goonies-style adventure. If only that orange liquid had drenched one of them as they wrestled in their initial scene together, we may have loved them. And our love might have grown for them more than their feigned love for one another.

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KIMI NO NA WA (Your Name) – (2016) Makoto Shinkai

5 Nov

My life is perfect. I know it. I don’t need other people to know it. I don’t even tell my friends how perfect my life is in order to protect it. They don’t need to know. Yet improvements continually occur. In Shinjuku tonight a leap was made. I took the Yamanote line—with the green trains—to the biggest and busiest station in the whole world. I came out the most convenient exit, then stomped across the road to a sushi restaurant. The seats with the view I sought were taken. The staff sat me round the counter with my back to the window from which a view of Kabukicho and its neon lit streets can be seen.

Outside the sushi restaurant, looking towards Kabukicho, lies one of my favourite urban scenes. Trains snake through buildings above the road, framed by electric signs and bright flashing lights, in linear chaos. I made my way to the movie theatre. Your Name is one of the most popular Japanese anime movies within Japan. I decided to add to the billions of yen in revenue it’s made. 16 billion yen to date. My theatre ticket was ¥1800. Does that mean 9 million tickets have been sold since it was released in August? That’s difficult to imagine.

The leap I took tonight was going to watch a movie entirely in Japanese. It’s an accomplishment. Obviously I might have not understood it all. I might not have understood any of it. In the end the gist was clear throughout the entire thing though the detail was lost in places. There were quite a few jokes I caught onto. A Japanese spirit entered my body and gathered the meaning without my having to translate.

Spirituality is rife in Japan. Shinto is Japanese organised nature worship. It comes from ancient tribal practices and consists of ritual spells and honouring spirits. It was outlawed outside officiated shrines. Shinto is widespread yet nobody owns it. Superstition surrounding a belief in spirits makes it prone to being laughed at. They don’t explain it so that the outside world can’t ridicule it. At its heart is purity. Everything involved in its rituals is kept special and sacred: pure.

Mitsuha and her younger sister are miko. They’re young girls, with pure souls, who channel the work of spirits. Somehow, after performing a ritual, Mitsuha and a boy called Taki find themselves in each other’s body. Taki feels himself up in Mitsuha’s body. Mitsuha as Taki emerges looking flushed from a bathroom experience. What would you do if you were a high school student in the body of the opposite sex?

Mitsuha lives in a traditional area in the countryside. Taki lives in Shinanomachi in Shinjuku. We can tell it’s Shinanomachi because we recognise the surroundings. We’re familiar with the Tokyo we see in this movie. Shinanomachi is one stop along from Sendagaya, where the Olympics are taking place, in fact when the new stadium is built it will probably be accessible from Shinanomachi too.

There is a place in the movie where a character is stood right by my work looking at the same view I have from the window. If they were to turn their head, they would be looking directly at me. This kind of appeal about the animation (anime) is widespread. It touches the heart of everyone in Tokyo. We’re acquainted with Roppongi and the National Art Museum. The parallel orange Chuo and yellow Sobu, the green Yamanote lines, the most idiosyncratic non-bullet trains in Japan. They’re like the Victoria and the Circle lines. Likewise the skyline of Shinjuku is loved by many people. Yes, there really are trees everywhere, and abandoned rowing boats. The shadows of skyscrapers pass over them and us.

Switching spirits is explored in the animation by creating shadows around birds flying above the lake. Birds are a universal symbol of spirit. Drawing attention to their shadows draws attention to the impression the birds make. Almost more important to body swapping is the impression the teenagers leave for one another. The pictures Mitsuha draws when she’s Taki. The writing Taki leaves on Mitsuha’s hand. Impressions are reinforced by a fleeting observation of a leaf falling to float on the water’s surface. Something bigger casts off our bodies and they come to rest in perfect unison together. Coincidence. Getting a glimpse of a loved one through train doors which align in perfect synchronicity.

Outside of Japan this movie will find appeal because it documents everyday life: breakfast time, leaving the apartment, wandering round Shinjuku. The images are utterly gorgeous. That’s what the interior of a typical classroom is like. That’s what the views from the mountains are like. That’s what a cafe in Roppongi is like. That’s the magic of Japan. Old Japan, countryside Japan, the new Japan found in a cosmopolitan city. Our lives, seen through our eyes, from the perspective of another person who is looking afresh at the way we live.

Within Japan I guess part of the appeal of the movie is how reassuring it is to see one’s own lifestyle turned into a beautiful animation. Japanese people strive so hard to make every little detail about their lives perfect. To see the way we live turned into fantasy is wonderful. Taki prevents Mitsuha from being obliterated by the comet. Life is fragile. Life is designed by some unseen force. We cannot take even being ourselves in our own bodies for granted. We can strive for perfection – though unforeseen change can strike at any moment.

THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED (1926) dir. Lotte Reiniger

15 Aug

When the Aubin Cinema in Shoreditch first opened, back in May 2010, it felt like a special secret. Luxurious, with some of the best acoustics to be found in a cinema, grey velvet sofas and wine coolers, yet to be discovered by a horde. The Adventures of Prince Achmed screened one Saturday morning. There was nobody else in the audience to behold its wonders but one small boy and his father.

 I hadn’t read any blurb about it, just happened upon it (so to speak), becoming utterly captivated by the quality of the animation. It’s lush! In fact, the only thing more beautiful that I’ve seen in a cinema was Voyage de la Lune, with a score by Air, restored in colour. That made me cry, it was incredible, the hairs on my neck stood on end, my whole self trembled. Still, The Adventures of Prince Achmed was thoroughly awe imposing, a sublime endeavour to encounter in the cinema. At the time I knew nothing about it; I supposed it to be a new release.

It’s possible to watch it from the comfort of your laptop via China. I tried it before embarking upon writing this. It’s better to find a copy with the subtitles translated into English (unless you speak German). Otherwise, expect the experience to be lovely and moving but also confusing, like visiting the ballet without first reading the programme, or playing poker without learning the rules. It’s the kind of film a young child might enjoy but you would have to talk them through it. “Now what’s happening? The sorcerer and the witch are fighting each other. Now they’ve turned into a lion and a snake,” catch my drift? (Watch out for the harem scene).

Yes there is a sorcerer and a witch and – in case that wasn’t magic enough –  Aladdin and a goddess called Pari Banu. Outrageous! I probably shouldn’t confess it but the shadowy Achmed is hot! He has a flying horse; it makes me go shivery. Every girl wants to be Pari Banu, let’s face it, she’s the best dressed silloette, even if her clothes resemble creepy doilies. It’s possible to imagine how opulent she would be if she were out of her world and not on top of a light box. Of course, Achmed and Aladdin win in the end. They get the ensorcered lamp back, everyone gets married, but Pari Banu, the shady figurine, has bird-power and settles for nothing less. No pleasing some.

It was a surprise to learn that The Adventures of Prince Achmed is ancient. It has an eternal quality that too few films ever have. Perhaps it is the most timeless film of all time (if some things are more timeless than others). Lotte Reiniger based the story on 1001 Arabian Nights. She worked on the film with other well known avant-garde animators. It was filmed frame by frame. To date it remains the oldest surviving animation. It is remarkable. A more electronic score would probably be of  benefit to the modern ear but the original is fine. The hues of the background linger on the palate with synthesia, sinister characters live on long inside our hearts with exquisite elegance, sixty-five minutes of mystery, silent visual poetry.

DARK SHADOWS (2012) dir. Tim Burton

15 Aug

Johnny Depp in serious role shocker! Not really. This time he plays Barnabas Collins, a vampire over 200 years old, who has come to the rescue of the current Collins family led by Michelle Pfeiffer. Barnabas belongs to a time where women had ‘good birthing hips’. His eccentricities no more and no less the idiosyncrasies of Depp’s particular style. Barnabas Collins is as equally as likeable (fanciable) as any other character that the actor has played.

It’s similar to Sleepy Hollow, a 1999 Burton/Depp movie, although with more darkness. Sleepy Hollow was essentially bright with sinister places dark for contrast but Dark Shadows is sultry, gloomy and mysterious. Shots of quaint fishing boats bobbing about during the day appear creepy.

Set in 1972, my favorite thing about the film was Pfeiffer’s hairstyles. Quasi-early seventies beauty styling is hot! Alice Cooper gets a cameo and the rest of the soundtrack contains The Carpenters, Deep Purple, Iggy Pop and Elton John. Chloe Moretz, playing teenage daughter Carolyn, is proving herself to be an incredibly gifted young actress, even if this is the least dynamic role she has been cast in up until now, sulking in her room with its cosy rugs, geometric patterns and lava lamp.

The Prologue to the film explains that 200 years ago the Collins family emigrated from Liverpool. As the family board the vessel that will bring them across the Atlantic, a young girl stood staring, is told to avert her eyes; when they arrive in America she becomes the servant of the Collins family. The girl, Angelique, is a witch. She murders Barnabas’ sucessful parents using her magic. Barnabas then sets out to master the dark arts. When he falls in love with another woman, Angelique puts a spell on her, prompting her to take her own life, simulateously evoking a curse on Barnabas to become immortal, to become a vampire. She accomodates revenge by arranging for him to be buried deep in the ground where he will not die: a fate worse than death.

Centuries later the coffin is accidentally dug up. Barnabas sets out in search of his distant Collins descendants, who still live in spooky Collinswood Manor, doing very little. David, a young boy who sees ghosts, is refusing to accept his mother’s death. His father is putrid. His live-in psychiatrist (Helena Bonham-Carter) is an alcoholic. His newly arrived governess, Victoria, a mystery. The family fishing empire was long since superceded by another company: a company run by a certain Angelique.

Barnabas reveals his true identity to the head of the family, Elizabeth (Pfeiffer). She makes him promise to keep his freakiness a secret, leaving room for plenty of farce with misunderstandings of twentieth-century life, associating the signature MacDonalds ‘M’ with Mephisopheles (helper of the Devil); avoiding sunlight; drinking blood via murder; wanting to court a woman ‘in these times… er… places’. There were no great surprises to the plot, no dramatic revelations, all was as gothic, charming and enchanted as expected.

MAGIC JOURNEY TO AFRICA (2010) dir. Jordi Llompart

15 Aug

I was drawn to this film for the ‘pure cheese’ factor and… I was right it is laughable. It’s a successful contender for the worst movie ever made, perhaps only closely surpassed by Troll 2, but nevertheless beating a majority of all films known to mankind in claiming a stake.

Jana, who lives in the Barcelona hills, speaks with ‘a mouthful of plums’ and is typically inquisitive. I imagine she’s around the age of ten or eleven, at that clever-clogs age where she has the answer to everything and if not the answer, then at least asks a better question than you did. She looks like Alice in Wonderland and is simply perfect in every respect.

One day, when at a restaurant, she meets a dodgy African boy out stealing mobile phones, getting into trouble. We all know that poor children who get into trouble aren’t being themselves. She worries herself about him for days, until a faery in the form of a butterfly appears in her room late at night, with words of wisdom so wise that they don’t make any sense.

The faery tells her that the boy, called Kabbo, is in hospital so she goes to try to make friends with him. When they go back to see him again, they find that he has gone home to Africa, hence the title ‘Magic Journey to Africa’ (bit of a misnomer really, Magic Journey in Africa would fit more accurately). Africa, of course, for the purpose of the film, is a relatively small undiverse place, undeviating from desert and watering-hole.

She mysteriously finds herself amongst the clichéd but beautiful Afrika-ka-ka-ka of fables and folk tales. There’s an enchanted flower for whom she makes it rain. She stops to have a chat to an animated wild-cat who has made a mandala out of sand. He talks to her in a colonial British accent. Their conversation goes something like this:

Jana: I haven’t come alone. My lucky winged horse has come with me.

Wild-Cat: Are you nuts? That’s a stuffed animal. This is Africa not Disneyland!

It turns out that Jana has a flying horse who has wings, a blue mane, wears eye-liner and gives advice, all whilst disguised as toy. Plus she takes a trip on an actual zebra. Some people have it all.

She eventually finds Kabbo in his tribe, talking to the ancestors, talking to the tree in the sky. He’s letting his inner self out. She asks the boy questions about why he wants to live in a place where there is nothing and nothing to do. This made me laugh. It might be the wilderness but try getting out of Barcelona a bit more often. There’s more to life than avoiding pickpockets and lazying in the park, deciding where to go next, in the sunshine during siesta.

Although the extent to which the scenes in the tribe are patronising did make me wonder (or even if the film is offensive full stop), the amazing thing about Magic Journey to Africa is not the acting (young heroine does splendid), nor the edit abruptly ending dialogue, nor special effects. What is remarkable, what gives it must-see charm and attraction, is that it is more or less exactly what you might anticipate a pre-teen girl to write if asked to come up with a film script. It was, in fact, the work of director Jordi Llompart. Morally guiding narration, a psychedelic close-up of an elephant’s eyelid, I expect giggly kids and stoners will love its overly sweet and quotable aura.