All posts by Boredhousehusband

MOVIE REVIEW: “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” (2017)

It’s completely unfair to compare one movie to another in order to judge it, rather than letting it stand on its own merits, or lack thereof. In this instance, however, it’s impossible not to: Both this film, and The Fifth Element (1997) were written and directed by Luc Besson. While both films are very different, they also couldn’t be more similar. In essence, “Valerian,” serves as an example of how easy it would have been for “The Fifth Element” to go horribly, horribly, horribly wrong.

Yeah, yeah, I know that’s unfair. It’s also true. Moving on:

The film tells the story of Valerian and Laureline, an impossibly young couple of badass special ops/secret agent types for the government of the galaxy in the 28th century. They get called in to recover the last living example of an animal, and in the process get swept up in a great big conspiracy on an impossibly huge space station to….[sigh]…you know, there’s not really very much plot here. The conspiracy is primarily an excuse for running and jumping and shooting and ruminations on the salvific power of love, and also a small role for Rhianna. Not much else matters here, but it’s actually not dissimilar to Titan A.E. (2000), a crappy movie written by Joss Whedon and Ben Edlund. You’d think woulda been a slam dunk, but, nope. Likewise, you’d figure Besson revisiting the same general parameters of The Fifth Element would have been a slam dunk or at least a dunk, or, you know, at least a basket, but, nope, you’d be wrong about that, too.

I’m not gonna waste a lot of time on the plot. To be fair, The Fifth Element didn’t have a lot of plot either (Evil force wants to destroy earth for some reason. Cool guy and unbelievably gorgeous badass girl stop it, with help from a priest, hinderance from a Cajun billionaire, and random histrionics from Chris Tucker), but there it works and here it doesn’t. Why?

A large part of that is charisma. Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevigne are no Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich. I can’t stress that enough: Bruce Willis was at the peak of his Bruce Willisness at the time, which has, sadly, receeded with time. Milla, though never the greatest actress, has always oozed magnetism far in excess of her looks (And her looks are pretty great on their own). He had a tired-but-still-cockshure swagger, and she had a mix of vulnerable badassitude and innocent sexyness that you can’t help but like. And they seemed to like each other.

Dane and Cara, by contrast, exude no sparks whatsoever, and the film works best when they’re not sharing the screen. Cara is very pretty, and an a very successful model, edging into acting, pretty much just like Milla was twenty years ago, and a lot of her scenes aren’t bad, but somehow, she lacks the utterly va-va-voom quality. Dane is more of a cardboard standie than he is a character. His dialog sounds like he has no idea what his lines mean, and his delivery brings to mind an early, extra-stoned Keanu Reeves. He’s not nearly so handsome, though. His first scene involves him and Cara rolling over each other in a relative state of undress that is supposed to be sexy, but is somehow more chaste than a nun doing long division. Go figure. Besson generally has a good eye for casting, but here he’s completely off his game.

Apart from Rhianna – who is awesome – there are no side-characters of note to really pick up any of the slack. I can’t say enough good things about Rhianna, though. The closest Fifth Element analogue would be the Diva, but she’s much different, much expanded, and honestly the best thing about the movie, despite only being in it for about ten minutes. When she showed up, the energy level ramped up considerably, and I thought, “Oh, FINALLY, two thirds of the way through the movie finally found its feet,” but, nope. As soon as she’s gone, it falters again.

Another part of the problem is special effects. There are a ton of ’em here. I don’t think there’s a single FX-free shot in the entire movie, and it’s plenty-high quality, easily as good or better than Avatar. The character designs are much better than Avatar, and yet, somehow, it’s all so sugarless and bland. The CGI is rather gloomily-lit, which seems the convention of the day, though I’ve never understood why, and it’s hard to get worked up about the stuff we’re seeing, despite how expansive and expensive it is. Just as Cara arguably has a better body than Milla, and yet somehow lacks that certain special something that draws you to her, this movie has unquestionably better special effects that just kinda don’t leave much impression. “Yeah, they’re beautiful. Whatever. Next?” Just out of curiosity, I showed my mom – who has no interest in, nor understanding of Science Fiction – the trailers for The Fifth Element and Valerian, then asked her which seemed better to her. She immediabely picked Fifth Element because it was so much brighter, both visually and in tone. I can’t argue with that.

There’s a trend towards increasingly practical effects and sets thanks, mostly, to Disney’s new crop of Star Wars films, but it’d been going on for a while before that. Despite being 37 years old, The Empire Strikes Back, with its oldschool spectacle still looks pretty good, if dated. The far more recent prequels look like cutscenes from video games, and in another decade they’ll look like a trip to toontown. Seriously: Remember 25 years ago when Babyon 5 blew us all away visually? Have you seen it recently? Yikes! Painful. Likewise, Fifth Element has aged well, whereas this film, for all its cutting edge splendor, looks like, well, a Lucas film. That’s not a compliment.

The soundtrack is also disappointing. Eric Serra’s Fifth Element soundtrack is – if you can find a bootleg of it – still very good listening. Combining ethnic music, opera, hip hop, house beats, orchestral stuff, electronic stuff, and kitchen sinks, it was fairly experimental, but still melodic and reassuring enoguh to really drive the story. Even without the movie, it’s memorable. Alexandre Desplat’s Valerian score is a generic orchestral fare that continues the inexplicable current trend of soundtracks deliberately not drawing attention to themselves.

Besson’s obligatory ruminations on the God-like powers of love are present, but they’re hamstrung here, again, by the limp toast nature of our ostensible stars. Besson’s a good director. He even made me care a little bit about the couple in Angel-A (2006), which had about the least likely paring in film history, and not much story beyond “Believe in yourself,” and a semi-fallen angel who lures guys into the bathroom with promises of sex, then chastely beats them up and mugs them. How can he pull that off? How can he pull off a dorky concept like “Subway,” (1986, which I saw in the theaters back then, and which was my introduction to him) and somehow blow this? I dunno.

There are odd sutures in the screenplay that suggest it was re-written several times in a hurry, possibly on the fly while making the film. What are we to make of the scene where Valerian is given title to an entire kingdom/species, which has no payoff whatsoever? Or an extended introduction to the machine part of the space station, which we then never visit, and which has no relevance in the story? Those have got to be periscopes. There’s just oodles of exposition, too. Valerian rattles off his whole life in the lengthiest, clunkiest monologue in recent memory, but it’s supposed to sound conversational. The ships’ computer does the same thing about The City. It just keeps happening.

The film is not without its good bits. The opening montage, showing the evolution of The City from 1975 to the 24th century was every bit as effortlessly clever and effective as Besson is on a good day. Rhianna, as I said, was really good. The gag with the had made me laugh my ass off. There’s a chase sequence that consists almost entirely of a tracking shot behind a guy as he runs through a series of walls that’s the best set piece in the film. Some people really like the Big Market sequence, though I found it a little distracting and confusing. The point is that there’s some good stuff here, there’s just not really a movie to tie them together.

I realize that this hasn’t been a fair review, and that all my complaints basically revolve around this not being “The Sixth Element.” It’s true that I did expect it to be the same, yet better. What I didn’t expect was, “The Fourth Element:” The same, yet worse. Devoid of everything that made the original a hoot.

ORIGINAL POEM: “Heart-Shaped Frisbee Of Love”

I’ve had enough of your compulsive lies.
It’s not that they’re malicious,
They’re just boring.
I’ve had enough of your sexed-up sighs
You think they’re erotic
But they leave me snoring

I’ve had enough of your savior faire
You’re not the biggest hat
In the hat parade
I’ve had enough je ne sais quoi
your tedious perfection
Could use a downgrade

It was a heart-shaped frisbee of love
You were my heart-shaped frisbee of love
I got pegged in the head
And now I’m dead
From a heart-shaped frisbee of love

Couldn’t believe you were such a shrew
When I thought you cared
Before my heart turned to ice
Couldn’t get enough of any part of you
Back in the forgotten days
When you used to be nice

It was a heart-shaped frisbee of love
You were my heart-shaped frisbee of love
I got pegged in the head
And now I’m dead
From a heart-shaped frisbee of love

ORIGINAL POEM: “She Said”

It was better in my day.
 
She said,
“You’re the kind of guy
Who could get in a fight
In heaven’s parking lot”
 
She said,
“That straight jacket
Looks
Looks kinda good on you”
 
She said,
“Coal isn’t
Coal isn’t that bad a present
You can throw it at the people you don’t like.”
 
She said,
“There is nothing,
Nothing more unnerving
Than Eden.”
 
She said,
“I sat and I stared
At the sun all day
Trying to search for wisdom
And the one thing I learned
Was that you shouldn’t sit
And stare at the sun all day”
 
She said,
“I’ve been to the end of my rope
So many times
I might as well
Set up a tire swing.”
 
She said,
“I wanna be the first person
To tell a joke
That’s so offensive that
I end up in a labor camp.”
 
She said something
Something about the Jackhammer choir
Something about the Jackhammer choir
But I didn’t understand it.
 
And her spirit may be free,
Her spirit may be free,
Her spirit may be free,
But her ass
Is gonna cost ya.

How do we define religion?

How do we define religion?

It’s a tricky question. The most common definition is a belief in God or gods. Of course hipster doofuses are quick to point out that Buddhism has no gods, and could constitute an atheist religion. Typically, hipster doofuses are full of ignorant bullshit, because Buddhism is overflowing with gods (And hells), they’re just not integral to the process of human attainment of Nirvana. Just ask literally any non-white Buddhist and they’ll set you straight on that. Or even just look at the little shrines in any Thai restaurant.

Just the same, assuming they were right, can you have a religion without God/gods, but just some metaphysical hoobajoobery like reincarnation?

Taking that further, can you have a religion without any metaphysical beliefs whatsoever?

If we define religion as “A series of unverifiable metaphysical beliefs that affect the way one lives their life,” which seems a reasonable definition to me, then Atheism could be considered a religion, or at the very least a quasi-religion. The obvious argument there is, “They don’t believe anything metaphysical,” but it doesn’t take any sophistry to realize that believing something doesn’t exist without proof is really no different than believing something does exist without proof. They’re both faith-based assertions, and in these cases they really do affect the way people live their lives.

This is not a new argument, nor an especially clever one, I’m just putting it out there to show how vague the definition really is. Myself, I think I lean towards the Michael Chrichton camp on the subject: That we’re all wired to believe in something bigger than ourselves as a basic survival trait. The default is God/The Supernatural, however if you get rid of that, then something else will instantly take the place, be it Communism, Environmentalism, Social Justice Warriordom, Conspiracy Theories, Bernie Sanders, Alien Abductions, Ayn Rand, Unbridled Capitalism, or whatever. These things become defacto religions, the only thing separating them is that they don’t have a metaphysical aspect.

Or do they? Ayn Rand and Communism are quite adamant about how there’s no God or anything beyond life. Both of them have meetings and are organized, and have a core set of scripture-in-all-but-name writings. One has engaged in an actual crusade (Anticrusade?) against people with differing religious views, and the other probably would if it could get away with it.

Thoughts?

I think it’s possible that I might suck.

A girl I know recently asked me which of my books was the best, so I recommended my most recent one. She bought a copy and started reading it.  As I had time to kill at the Flea Market, I opened one of my own copies and started rereading it. Knowing her as I do, I tried to read it from her perspective, and quickly realized that she’d utterly hate the first three stories, and probably be bored by a couple others.  This prompted a crisis in faith of my creative abilities.

This was ameliorated somewhat by three stories in the book that are genuinely really good, and one of which that isn’t great, but is a fun read. So I can get lucky at least some of the time, but that just puts me on the cusp of suck/not suck, it doesn’t resolve the issue. As to my friend? I’m more interested to know if she actually finishes the book than whether she likes it or not at this point, since I’m pretty sure she won’t. Basically, if she’s irritated or bored by the first couple stories, she won’t.

Or I have another friend that I gave several of my books to once. He’s not bothered to read ’em yet. This was years and years ago, back when I still only had three. He’ll never finish ’em. I don’t really blame him because he’s got a lot of crap going down in his life, but the bottom line is that if you’re interested in something, you dive right in as soon as you’ve made a little time, and if you don’t have interest, you backburner it.  This is more a question of whether I’m interesting or not rather than it is of whether I suck or not, but it still feeds into the same issue. Not being interesting is part and parcel of sucking.

All of you have read fanfic at some point. You know what I mean. “How did the Trill get their spots?” and the endless Mary Sues…ugh. I don’t write that stuff. I only do originals. Still, you get what I mean, right?

I’ve always written about what interests me, and as I’m an effortlessly interesting person (An arrogant thing to say, but I’ve been repeatedly told that by strangers over the years), I just naturally assumed my stories would be as well. In the past, when this issue has come up, I’ve blown it off and just said, “I’m writing because of the joy of writing, and if anyone reads it, that’s just gravy. It’d be nice to make some money, but I don’t care much.”  That’s always been 50% a lie, but it’s a lie I tell myself, and as long as I can concentrate on it, I can keep going.

This latest ill-advised bit of introspection is a little different, though. It’s been about two years since I’ve written anything, my longest break since I started self-publishing. I’ve got a friend’s book to finish for him (He died) and I can’t motivate myself to do it. I have a lot of unfinished stories I can’t quite get ’round to. I have friends who’ve tried to cowrite with me, and I can’t get my shit together to do it. I’m 90,000 words into a novel and too intimidated by the task to finish it. I’m not blocked, mind you, I have lots of ideas, and my writing flows when I do it. I’m just really anxious about doing it. Overthinking it. And now, on top of that, there’s the crisis of faith of whether or not it’s genuinely any good, or if I just think it’s good, and the people who’ve agreed are either just being polite, or just don’t know the difference between good stuff and drek.

And then there’s my music, which I take less seriously than my writing, but I’m still invested in. As no one ever listens to it (My latest original song has 17 views. It’s less than three minutes long. My most popular song has 360 views, and only ‘cuz it’s a Blondie cover that people discover by mistake) that’s disappointing, too. Again, a couple years ago I’d blow it off as “I don’t care,” but I do. Not as much as with the writing, but I do.

Basically I think it’s the timing. I’m 50 now. 2/3rds of my life are past. My health ain’t great. I work at a flea market, my first job in 11 years, and honestly I’m lucky to get it. The one thing that’s really distinguished me in the last 6 or 8 years is that, despite my lack of a significant audience, I’m good at what I do.  But now I’ve managed to shake myself to the point where I’m questioning that notion, and I’m just wondering if it’s worth it.

What’s the point?

I’m fishing for encouragement more than compliments here, though compliments are not unwelcome. And if you think I do suck, critiques would be welcome as well.

Science Fiction and the Question of Identity

I think for me, the most sure-fire appealing SF is that which deals with questions of identity.

Blade Runner is the most obvious example of this: Androids (Basically) are programmed with false memories of their lives prior to their activation for psychological reasons, but they know they’re androids. A detecive is hired to track them down. Along the way he meets another android who doesn’t know she’s an android because of the fake memories, and handles it not at all well. In the end, after killing off the last of the bad androids, he discovers that he’s an android, too, and runs.

Dark City is another one: a guy wakes up with Amnesia, framed for a murder he may or may not have committed. He’s got an estranged wife that he loves, and is on the run, but he notices that the map of the city redraws itself every night, and he ke keeps seeing the same people in different jobs every night, and begins to suspect that he’s never even met his wife prior to visiting the movie, that those are false memories. As it turns out, a hive-minded alien species is trying to find “The Human Soul,” for lack of a better word, by redefining people’s lives and memories dozens of times, assuming that which doesn’t change is the thing they’re looking for.

The Prisoner TV series spends 17 episodes with a character named “#6” attempting to figure out who the shadowy ruler of The Village, “# 1,” is. Ultimately it turns that #1 is, and has always been, #6 himself. (And in fact, they told us that in the opening titles of every episode: #6 says “Who is number one?” and the #2 of the week says “You are number six.”  Which actually is written, “You are, number six.” Hidden in plain sight.)

Much, if not most of Philip K. Dick’s novels and stories touch on this to some extent. The most notable case is in “A Scanner Darkly,” when undercover narc Bob Arctor is accidentally assigned the task of spying on himself by mistake. Rather than blow his cover (Even his bosses don’t know who he is), he goes along with it, and gradually suffers brain damage to the point where he’s Bob half the time, and a druggie the rest of the time. the ultimate attempt to re-fuse his identities devastates him, and turns him in to yet another person, who’s just another burned out wasteoid.

There’s a book – forget the title – where the main character is a spy who’s memory is wiped after every mission. He then has it put back in at the start of his next mission, and he’s always quite shocked to find out all the stuff he’s done.

I like hard SF, but I don’t see this as incompatible with that. I also like questions of the human soul, and this is all about that.

In the end, I suppose, a line from one of Laurie Anderson’s songs has always stuck with me:

We don’t know where we come from

and we don’t know what we are.

SF is uniquely suited to try to define the parameters of that question, even if it is fundamentally unanswerable. I admire anyone who takes a stab at it.

ORIGINAL POEM: “Wand” 4/29/17

If I could fix you
If I had a magic wand
If I could wave it
Magically wave it all away
All of the pain
All of the anger
All the confusion
All of the fear

If I could fix you
You could understand
No one’s out to get you
It’s all in your mind
You could forget it
Let it all slip away
Nothing would scare you
Well, not much anyway

If I had a magic wand
If I had a magic wand
If I had a magic wand
I could wish it away

And you could have friends!
You wouldn’t be lonely!
And some old ones might come back, too
The ones you drove away
And you could be happy!
And not fear the future
You could be the old you
Not this thing that’s eaten you

If I had a magic wand
If I had a magic wand
If I had a magic wand
I’d do that for you

But it took you so long to get to this day
That you don’t believe in your own decay
And can’t remember it was any other way
And you claim that you wish it would all go away

But do you?

What’s it gonna be?
Come on, now,
What’s it gonna be?

If I had a magic wand
If I had a magic wand
If I had a magic wand
Would you let me fix you?

If I could fix you
If I had a magic wand
You wouldn’t let me, would you?
“Because you’re not crazy,”
“Because the world is crazy,”
Because you can’t leave this life
You’ve lived it so long

So if I had a magic wand
If I had a magic wand
If I had a magic wand
I’d wish myself away