Movie Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

From Luc Besson, Director of such varied films as Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element comes a movie that was reportedly one of his personal passion projects Valerian and The City of a Thousand Planets. Adapted from a long-running French comic Valerian is an expansive space opera set in a universe with a vast number of alien species fantastic technology and a complete lack of any sort of engaging characters. The title character Valerian is an officer for the Federation of Human Worlds. Along with his partner, Sgt. Laureline he is effective a galactic cop, chasing down bad guys and enforcing the law. His character is supposed to be a ‘bad boy’ the sort of rogue that women can’t resist and who infuriates his superiors. We know this because he tells us so in one of the movies many ‘as you know, Bob’ moments of infodumping.

I am avoiding describing the plot not because of spoilers, though that is always a consideration in my reviews, but because at its heart the plot is a mess of clichĂ©s and overly-predictable plot twists; Valerian is a plot driven story with a terribly plot doing the driving. Where a plot driven movie like Dunkirk establishes in the very first scene what the plot is, (surrounded by the enemy and needing to escape), Valerian tries to make their a mystery and only end up making a mess. The characters bounce chaotically from one situation to another bumbling their way through with the very nature of their personalities changing in a futile attempt to create drama. Obstacles in this story are overcome by either a James Bond-like reliance on gadgets that unlike a Bond film are not established before the save the day, convenient friendly aliens with supplying exactly the skill sets needed at the time they are needed, or by daring and do that takes place in front a green screen. (Digital stunts are the most boring of all ‘action.’)

In addition to and numerous writing failures present in the film the lead actors, who are barely adequate for their jobs (And I may be overly generous there), share no chemistry on screen, either as partners or lovers.

I was utterly bored watching this film, checking my watch often to compare the ‘progress’ of then plot against the running time, and when the exposition heavy ending finally arrived I was relieved.

This is a movie I cannot recommend.


Is it Dead?

McCain’s refusal to vote for the idiotic ‘skinny’ repeal bill would seem to have killed the GOPs long promised but never planned repeal of the ACA but the ultimate question if is the repeal effort truly dead?

Like the killer in a bad 80s slasher movie this repeal effort has been declared dead several times already only to rise up again and threaten millions. Given that history how can we know if it is dead now or merely waiting to shamble forth?

I’ll give you the clue I look for and until I see that clue I will not consider their efforts over.

Are the Republicans working on tax cuts through a reconciliation bill?

The arcane rule of reconciliation as I understand them only allow 1 such bill per budget. The repeal was working off the 2016 budget and the tax reconciliation will work on the 2017. Once they move on to cutting taxes the rules will not allow them to go back to a closed budget year.

So watch what they are working on. Keep your powder dry and a weather eye open. That slasher may yet rise again.



It is not a Distraction

Yesterday President Trump tweeted about banning transgendered persons from the U.S. Military and a number of people declared that the tweets were meant as a distraction, either from the Senate attempting to repeal the ACA or from the Russian election interference investigation. I am not persuaded. Chiefly I don’t agree because it would require a level of coordination and competence that this administration had not displayed but also because it doesn’t fit with what I believe is going on inside this very dysfunctional White House.

In my opinion there are thee factions vying for access, influence, and attention from our man-baby narcissistic president. When you see the president making statements or signing executive orders it can usually be seen as a victory by one of these factions. Understand the factions and you understand who is winning at the moment. Here are the factions presented in no particular order.

GOP Establishment: Centered around Chief of Staff Reince Priebus this faction represents the core Republican Party, you can be assured it’s looking to undo what the Obama Administration had done, cut taxes, and defer to big business in many matters. The recent hiring of a new communications director outside of the traditional GOP personnel along with spokesperson’s Spicer resignations might indicate that this faction is losing influence.

Family Interests: Centered around Ivanka Trump, Jarad Kushner and the president’s other adult children this faction is all about what is good, personally and financially for the Trumps. Their aim appears the be to make the post of president yields as much money as possible for their various enterprises and leverage its prestige to expand their financial dealings. Currently this faction is at the heart of the Russian scandal and appears to be having serious difficulties.

Alt-Right/Ethno-Nationalist: Centered around Steve Bannon this faction represents , in opinion, the most dangerous elements within the Trump administration. This faction is concerned with ‘a clash of civilization’, ‘The West’ versus other cultures, and a near maniacal reverence for a historical version of white western culture that never truly existed. Hostile to diversity, equality, and the modern nation/state they appear to be more interested in tearing down than creation.

(The Legislative Branch has its own factions and they have their own goals and motivations. Perhaps I’ll cover them in another post someday.)

Yesterdays announcement may have come from Trump’s phone but it reeks of Bannon and the alt-right. Of the three factions they are the most focused on traditional masculine and feminine roles. (I think that Vice-President Pence and his social evangelicals have only minimal influence in this administrations and his presence was the work of the GOP establishment.) The wide-scope of the immigration bans is also the work of the Bannon Faction, this latest ban, an attempt to turn back the clock on rights and enforce traditional gender roles, is precisely the sort of thing that motivates the alt-right. It’s not coordination it is that we have several factions in and outside of the administration trying to do all sorts of things and we need to fight several fronts at once.


What is it About the Genre Movies of the 1950s?

If you are a fan of genre films, Science-Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror there a better than even bet that no matter your age the movies produced during the decade of the 50s holds a special place in your heart.

While Universal Horror started in the 1930s with Frankenstein and Dracula by the 1940s they were already being seen as kids movies with their stories becoming more simple and more focused on spectacle. Remember the first ‘shared universe’ of movie is the Universal Horror franchise as the monsters frequently were thrown into the same movie for bigger and bigger fights and thrills.

However once we get to the 50s there is change in the movies. There still were not ‘prestige’ pictures. These productions did not boast A list stars, they struggled with budgets that were too small, and were rarely taken seriously by the critics. And yet these films are ones we still watched more than half a century later. These are the films, beloved and respected, that soulless corporate executives, produced from business universities and without creative artistic drive, that are rebooted, reimagined, and recreated into tent-pole films without the heart, soul, or intelligence of the originals. But why do we love those originals so much? What makes them so different from the bigger budget, more star-driven, and more elaborate movies of later decades? After all how many 70s SF movies, a prolific decade even before the KT Impact of Star Wars, are still being rediscovered today?

I think the answer lies in cynicism, or rather the lack of that bitter philosophy. When we left the 50s behind America entered a period of profound cynicism. The 60’s brought the Vietnam War, civil strife, televised police brutality, and a collapse of established social conventions. The 70’s grew darker with awareness of global pollution, economic shocks, military defeat, and of course Watergate. Distrust of government and nearly all institutions infected nearly ever aspect of our culture including cinema. All our films, including genre ones, took a dark turn surrendering to nihilism and cynicism that masqueraded as wisdom. The 80’s brought us the summer blockbuster, technically born in the 70’s The Godfather, Jaws, and Star Wars, but it took the studios several years to begin chasing them in earnest. Light summer fare that ignored both the cynicism of the 60s and 70s but avoided serious thoughtful stories instead providing adventure as escape.

It’s now surprise that the movies of the 1950s appeal to an idealism that has been absent for far too long. Now we have to be honest and recognize that the 50s were not the idyllic American Summer. It was a period of repression, conformity, and suppressed individuality, but the lure of simplicity is powerful. Against that social conformity genre films of the 50s expressed not only an optimism stripped away in the follow years, but through movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Them!, and many others they critiqued the culture and ourselves. How could such films not last the ages and not continue to find new and wider audiences?


This Opera is not Over

Today the U.S. Senate will vote to advance to debate a bill repealing the Affordable Care Act, AKA ObamaCare. There are two bills under consideration by Senate leader McConnell and as of the time of this writing, the freaking morning of the vote, it is not know which bill or bills the Senate will be voting upon.

Consider that for a moment, the forces pushing and pulling at the GOP are so implacable that they are moving forward on legislation that they not only have not read, have not studied, and for which the parameters are unknown but that the exact bill is unknown. Because their margin of votes is tiny, by using reconciliation they avoid the legislative filibuster, they have even brought Senator McCain, still recovering from surgery and fresh off his diagnosis of an aggressive and dangerous cancer, up from Arizona to supply his single vote. (Presumably in favor of stripping healthcare from millions of Americas as he fights for his life with those same resources he is about to strip from thousands that voted for him.)

Whichever bill is advanced, the repeal and replace that will cause about 22 million to lose their healthcare insurance or the repeal and delay that will make that number as high as 32 million, it will be a disaster for individuals, the United States, and the Republican Party. If it’s such a disaster why are they doing it?

Because the GOP politicians, individually, are trapped.

One the House side migration, the rural/urban divide, and gerrymandering, quite a few GOP representatives come from ‘safe’ districts where the Republicans simply cannot lose the general election. However this does not free up the GOP rep to vote as he please, it rather forces him or her further right with each election cycle. Knowing that no one from their ‘left’ can threaten them these representative fear their ‘right.’ To be challenged in their primary is their greatest fear and failing to vote for the end of the hated ‘ObamaCare’ will almost certainly provoke a challenge. That they can lose. It doesn’t matter that this issue is so grave and so damaging that it can flip a safe district. If they do not survive the primary the general is meaningless. So they dig their own graves hoping for a miracle to save them. Moderate Republicans are even more vulnerable to this process as they are already viewed with suspicion by the party members at large.

Senators, facing statewide election and not gerrymandered districts, are less prone to this process but even at the state levels the same forces are at play, some states tilt so far ‘left’ or ‘right’ as to be consider ‘safe.’

I do not know where this will end. Until they are working on and debating the next big bill, likely to be their true love, taxes, the fat lady has not sung.


Quick Comic-Con Post

Of course I am referring to the San Diego Comic-Con and I did not attend. My preference for conventions are for the smaller cons where there is a more social vibe. That is not to diss Comic-Con, I have friends who love and I hope it stays in town big, and messy, and wonderful. It is just that for my happiness the ideal size is usually under 10,000 people.

The best thing about thins years Comic-Con from a personal perspective was that I did get to have dinner with my friend, her SO, and my sweetie-wife. We had good food, good conversation in a nice little place well away from the con.

Now, it’s Monday and it’s time to revise a short story and do more work on my novel.


I hope your coming week is fun and happy.


Movie Review Dunkirk

It is no secret that I am a fan of filmmaker Christopher Nolan. That is not to say that every film of his works for me. His first film, Following, relies too much on perfect planning by its principal antagonist and trains credibility while Interstellar is too cynical for the subject matter. Neither are bad movie but simply do not work as well for me as the rest of his catalogue.

Dunkirk is the story of the evacuation of the English and French armies from the continent after the German victories over them at the start of World War II. (At least for the Europeans, the war had been underway for sometime in Asia.) When the film opens 400,000 men are trapped against the sea with the German army closing for the kill. There aren’t enough ships and the lack of infrastructure is hindering rescuing the men. The Allies are facing a military disaster that could end the war. The 26 miles of the English Channel, Britain’s historic moat, now is working against the United Kingdom.

Nolan, who produced, wrote, and directed Dunkirk, structures his movie along three main story lines; The Land (Called ‘The Mole’ after the term for a long jetty reaching into open water), The Sea, and The Air. Each story-line takes up a different about of time for the characters involved, on Land one week passes, on Sea the story takes up one day, and in the air the story concerns itself with one hour. In typical Nolan fashion these three disparate time scales are told simultaneously with the films edits carrying the audience forward and backwards in time, often seeing the same events from different perspectives, until all the plot lines synchronize during the films climatic final act.

I can think of no better example than this film of a story that is plot versus character driven. The events of the story are not set into motion by the choices or natures of the characters, but rather this is a survival tale with characters struggling against implacable, impersonal forces bent on their destruction. (I think it is not by accident that we see no enemy face and hear no enemy voice throughout the film. It very nearly turns this into a man versus nature plot with the German Forces acting as a force of nature.) Dunkirk is also filled with up-close, personal, ugly death. It is a film that some have considered brutal but for me this is one of its strengths. Not only does that heighten the drama for the character we are invested in but it gives an unflinching stare into the horror that war and deglamorizes that inhumane endeavor.

I enjoyed the film and I think it is powerful, emotional, and inspiring, but I also can see that this is not a movie for everyone. The lack of a character driven story will make it difficult for some people to become invested in the film, the brutal nature of war will be repellent to some, and the non-linear structure will be difficult, but for me this movie is worth working as an audience member. It embraces the tragedy and triumph of one the war’s most important moments and one that has rarely been depicted on the screen. It is worth the ticket.


Rejecting Labels

There are a lot of ways to label people classifying them and placing them in prescribed boxes. Some are verb based, describing people by the actions that they perform such as actor, writer, athlete and so on. Other methods of classification are trickier, relying upon what someone believes, working off their philosophical and political principles. It is this second set of labels that I do not apply to myself.

The trouble with these labels is that the moment you self identify with any one of them it does more that act a short hand for what you may believe it also acts are a boundary for what you are not allowed to believe.

If you self identify as ‘conservative’ then you are expected to not believe in universal healthcare, or social safety nets.

If you identify as ‘liberal’ then you are expected to stand against the death penalty.

The list and possible boundaries are nearly endless. As a public artist I am not going to place such labels on myself. That is not to say that I do not have strong political philosophical positions, clearly anyone who reads this blog knows that I do. But I do not want to be compared and found wanting against an arbitrary definition. Others, speaking of them or me, can use whatever classification works for them. I will continue to argue and put forth the ideas and concepts that I think are right and that work. Call me ally or not, call me an opponent or not, I will stand for what I believe in look to those principles rather than easy labels.


John McCain A Lifetime of Service

This week it was announced that John McCain the senior senator from Arizona has been diagnosis with a brain cancer, and worse yet one of the more aggressive varieties of that terrible disease. The 5-year survival rate for patients over 55 is truly bad; the statistics I have read place the number around 2 to 5 percent. Senator McCain has beaten long odds before and I hope he triumphs one more time.

That’s not to say that I am a supporter of the senator. As a politician he has too often been on the wrong side of an issue, he has too often played the team player instead of living up to his image as a maverick, but he is by far not the worst politician in our current political environment.

It should also be remembered that this man has spent a lifetime in service to his country. As naval pilot he has survived the loss of multiple aircraft, survived the heart of the terrible fire aboard the USS Forrestal, and endured years of captivity and torture. When his North Vietnamese offered him a chance to go home early, outside of the proscribed rotation for returning Prisoners of War, an opportunity he knew would give them tremendous propaganda value because he was the son of an Admiral, he refused, insisting he be released in the same order as al the other POWs.

There are many reasons why I do not think John McCain has been a particularly good politician, many way in which I think he has not served the public good, many errors that have made use less safe and less free, but he has always been an opponent and never an enemy. Too often in our politics we take those terms as synonyms.

I wish him a full and speedy recovery.


The Productivity, Practicality, and Camaraderie of Writers Groups

Monday night was the most recent meeting of the Mysterious Galaxy Writers Group. It is a support group that I have been a member of since its inception and one that credit for a substantial amount of growth as a writer.

Writers groups are not for everyone but I think that when they work they are tremendous tools for many writers. Ours runs on a fairly informal basis and focuses on live readings and immediate critiques. At each meeting anywhere from three to five of our members will read about 1200-1500 words of their material and then in round-robin everyone else will give their feedback. It’s roughly the Milford Method in that the author says nothing, except answering direct questions from the others, and there is very limited ‘open discussion’ among the others. Each person gives their feedback, usually taking just two or so minutes and then on to the next.

The benefits of such a groups really come down to three main areas.

Learning to give and take critiques. It’s an old saying but a very true one that the value of critiques is not the ones you get back but the ones you give out. Of course getting feedback on a piece can be powerfully useful. We all have blind spots about our material and those alternate viewpoints help. But learning to see what doesn’t work in other stories makes it easier to spot those same flaws in your own.

Being a member of a writers group can help make you more productive. In addition to the positive feedback when people like your work there is also the expectation game. If others are expecting more of a story then you are more likely to work your way though the rough patches instead of giving up and getting distracted by the next shiny idea. Truly I feel the most important skill any writer needs to master is the ability to get to the end of the tale.

And not least important is the friendship. Writing can be a lonely craft and one that is not easily understood by those who do not feel the call of the muse. Spending time with others who suffer the same troubles, doubts, and joys can be invigorating. Never underestimate the importance of morale, to an army and to a person, especially your own. The friendships I have forged through my group are powerful and I hope I have been as big as help to them as they have been to me.

If you form a writers group here are a few bits of advise I think you may find helpful.

Be collaborative, with the work and how the group functions.

Be Supportive, and if there are members who enjoy tearing down others’ work, do not suffer them. These things work much better if the member is there to help each other and not satisfy their own ego.

Find something praise in every critique. It’s hard hearing the bad stuff, make it easier with compliments on what did work.

Avoid saying that ‘this is wrong.’ and ‘that’s a mistake.’ Rather phrase things what did and did not work for you. This is art not physics.

And most of all, have fun, enjoy the process.