Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the sort of project birthed in the world to be an example of a high budget failure. After all, the whole thing:
- Is starring two stars who have more name recognition than most, but less box office draw than almost all.
- Is coming from a director who’s had huge successes and numerous flops.
- Is based on a property that’s really big to a very small audience.
- Looks really expensive because it is really expensive.
- Has…some competition.
- Has an entire advertising campaign based largely around hiding what the living fuck is happening in the movie.
It’s a shame because had this project been less blatantly thrown to the wolves, Valerian might have had something like a cult success. It’s rare to see a film this large feel this singular or bizarre or truly visually rich and there’s a lot going on here that is admirable. Yet it’s also not hard to see why this film is fated to do so poorly. It’s a total pacing and narrative mess and has so little charisma in and between the people leading its movie. It’s so good at things other major studio films are bad at, and so bad at things other major studio films are good at..
I’m not gonna bother summarizing all that much. Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are agents working for the Human Government in the far-flung future. They look related but are not and Valerian has the hots for Laureline. They get sent on a mission to protect the Commander (Clive Owen) (whose actual political authority is ill-defined) and get wrapped up in a mystery involving a rat/frog that shits out pearls, colonialism, and various large set-pieces.
Let’s start with what it’s good at. Valerian is easily one of the most visually impressive movies to come out on a large scale in some time. Not necessarily speaking cinematographically or from an effects perspective, both qualities are strong if not necessarily over-the-top. I’m speaking from a design and imagination perspective.
Luc Besson has crafted a truly fantastic and alien world. Every frame is showing off something different or bizarre, every detail is creative. It’s just so much fun to pick through every moment and find something new, something that shows off the real power of cinema. There’s an actual inventiveness to the world-building, too rarely seen.
You’ve also got some great set-pieces. And by some great set-pieces, I’m talking very specifically about the Rihanna shape-shifting performance in the middle, which again all goes into the imagination that this film speeds with. It’s a movie that I can’t describe to you, you really have to see it to believe it.
It’s just hard to find the core of the movie here because the movie is deliberately distancing from the people pulling you through this world. Characters like Rihanna’s shapeshifter or Ethan Hawke’s space pimp (seriously) provide way more flavor than our leads, who have trouble ever sufficiently generating a belief that they like each other, much less that they’re madly in love. Delevingne is definitely at least the more interesting screen presence, but neither generate much more than a shrug.
It’s also that the movie around them maybe just never finds the momentum to pull things forward. Valerian is afflicted with a weirdly slack pacing, an already sprawling narrative never feels zippy enough to address everything that’s happening. And it’s a shame because there is some really strong material here. No spoilers, but Valerian gets essentially into an anti-colonialist message that demands empires take responsibility for their misdeeds. Good shit, but it’s a slog to get there.
Valerian is by no means as bad as its place in the landscape might tell you. It lacks the rapid clip that its contemporaries move at, as well as the often strong character work that populates the rest of the landscape. But a movie this bold and imaginative deserves some sort of consideration.
The Little Hours
The Little Hours is perhaps one of the most literarily high-minded UCB improv shows ever. It’s not adapted from a particularly deep ASSSSCAT riff, but mostly improvised (by affiliated performers) and based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, it can’t escape the weird worlds it’s been pulled between.
Perhaps that’s why The Little Hours never fully comes together. The tale of three ribald nuns (Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Kate Micucci), the officials who run their convent (Molly Shannon and John C. Reilly), and the young man up shit creek who needs to hide out there (Dave Franco), The Little Hours seems poised to be a rollicking raunchy comedy with an unconventional setting.
Yet it’s also a surprisingly faithful retelling of that original Decameron story and plays into those dramatic beats. There’s plenty of time spent on the actual dramatic contours of these characters, poising the movie to be closer to something like a dramedy, a raunchy movie that actually wants to explore these characters.
Director/writer Jeff Baena has certainly set out for ambitious waters, and on that, I admire it. Yet I think it has troubles truly navigating what it needs to do to make it through the course it’s charted.
Much of it starts at this film’s pacing issues. It’s a weirdly slack, slow, low-energy film for the dirty, loud, raunchy jokes it’s trying to tell. You can perhaps see what the intention was. That you would break up this idyllic Italian landscape with these filthy jokes. But The Little Hours never gets up the energy to sell these jokes, delivering Andrew Dice Clay with the energy of Todd Barry, never feeling like it’s doing it on purpose.
That means from a comedy perspective, nothing is necessarily landing. It feels odd to say it, but I can literally see what they’re trying to do here and in theory I find it funny. But that pacing and the weird underplaying snuffs most of the jokes in the bed and The Little Hours never really gets more than a snort out of me. This movie is mostly improvised, and it kind of feels like talented improvisers who aren’t quite pulling things together.
Without the comedy working, the drama is mostly just hard to hook into. You care about characters and people who make you laugh, and when they don’t, the drama is just…there. Fine, I guess, nothing is bad. But not worth price of admission.
I wish I had more nice things to say, because I admire the ideas here. It’s a bold setting and it really does go off the rails in some interesting ways. But when the basic genre never feels like it works, it’s hard to recommend much about it.