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Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets

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Because “Valerian and Laureline” would be far too progressive for 2017


In response to Robbie Collins of Radio 5 Live: yes, the “choreography” of the Big Market scene is sophisticated and spectacular – but we don’t have any stake in what is happening so we don’t care. Indeed, the “chase sequence” that barrels through each biome of Alpha is remarkable – but it isn’t a chase sequence – Valerian is progressing literally in a straight line toward a stationary target which we see at no point – the opportunity to introduce us to these remarkable environments gradually, with atmosphere and anticipation, to establish any kind of involvement in any part of this setting, is completely missed – we are given a theme park ride through what could have been a remarkable piece of world-building, and it is entirely forgettable.

In the absence of multi-dimensional characters, adequate plotting and a compelling structure, without subtle editing, we are left indifferent and unengaged with the action, with what happens to its actors, whose dialogue therefore becomes so conspicuously screen-written that there is no suspension of disbelief. This could and should have been beyond comparison to The Fifth Element – there is such richness to it – but TFE manages pacing of scenes, plot arcs, character journeys, that elevate its pulp far beyond the popcorn banality of Valerian and into the realms of emotional engagement.

Also, dated though it may now be, TFE felt extremely hip. This was a function of the directorial and editorial decisions as much as misé-en-scene (consider how much more dated it might feel if only its aesthetic/cultural inspirations of the mid 90s were responsible for that funkiness). So can you call Valerian “retro” in its aesthetics? What era does it recall? Perhaps in future it may look, retrospectively, like the extemporal infinite present of the 2010s, amalgamating cultural hallmarks of the previous 60 years into one big grey sludge. Surely they could have drawn more on the era in which the source was written?

Not that it’s anyone other than James Cameron’s fault that the most important alien species in the film now recalls Avatar’s smurf-likes rather than, say, the terrifying entities of Forbidden Planet and other Moebius creations. In summary, for a fan of Luc Besson and The Fifth Element, I would argue this movie is all the more disappointing. I did quite enjoy the opening hour or so, even if the dialogue just didn’t work for me, and completely handicapped the two leads. But damn did it just get boring. This was the first time I’ve lifted three sets of arm-rests and laid down in case I dozed off in the cinema.


Written by James P. Campbell

05/08/2017 at 21:08

Wonder Woman

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This movie has the capacity to both satisfy and frustrate in the same beat.

The Sun-reading Neanderthal in many men will go hoping for some side boob and serious thigh action, and they will not be disappointed. What’s wrong with that, anyway, in this cinematic age of gender-blind flesh fetish? After all, don’t many women go to witness the fitness too? Similarly, the quivering pre-orgasmic schoolboy in them, the Robert Crumb if you will, may achieve climax at the sight of all the female physical power on show.

But why must it be delivered in waxed, contoured, filled and pouting form? While Robin Wright Penn manages the chew her way through the gristle of dire dialogue with neck sinews and manufactured scars popping, and perhaps even a hint of grime or sweat, why must Diana never perspire? Never blush, nor grunt like the magnificent athlete she is? Why must every violent action she undertakes be punctuated with simpering poses not unlike an imaginary Kendall Jenner fashion shoot?

Gal Gadot does a fine job of working through the stylistic and conceptual conflicts. Diana is, after all, an ingenuous, dewy-eyed goddess, unperturbed by discovering modernity and oblivious to how (ironically) her innate inability to perspire and consistently immaculate make-up so utterly conforms to its unrealistic expectations. Her dead-pan expression, as she marches out of Selfridges wearing a fabulously chic period twin set while gripping a vicious shortsword and shield, is only surpassed by her stoic blank stare of determination while mounting the trench ladder to confront No Man’s Land, surely to be disintegrated by a monsoon of machine gun fire.

But no, dear reader! She is not even grazed by a single round, nor can she be bested by entire batteries of artillery. When not on one knee, resisting Newton’s laws of mechanics against explosive force, she struts to the enemy line with the bombastic swagger of a reality television “star” offering some sexy young German a can of Pepsi. If only it were that simple, Gal. In fact, you’ll need to slay the God of War himself in order to cool the rage and lust for murder that burns in the heart of every Kraut, thereby ending the War to end all wars.

I suppose it’s incredibly facile to balk at the cartoonish assault on historicity of a comic-book adaptation, but it remains unpalatable to reduce such horror to a binary battle between bloodlust and love, and have its resolution achieved by a supermodel on a rampage. The historian in some of us might take solace in the fact that the First World War was not characterised as a struggle between good and evil, but rather as a senseless and epic slaughter. They might also vomit a little inside their mouth and swallow it again when confronted with SS Commandant Ludendorff, nevertheless.

The feminist in you, who went hoping that this might finally contain a female action hero who can stand toe to toe with the best solely on the basis of her character, strength of action, intellect or charisma, might leave with a trickle of blood from one nostril, and the aura which precedes a migraine. Marvellous though it is that Wonder Woman saves an entire town of civilians, and a platoon of soldiers trapped in hell, all on the back of her own initiative and thrashing muscle, what are we to make, dear reader, of her ultimate moment of truth? The zenith of her self-actualisation comes when she realises that love, as she has now experienced it, is a more profound force in human affairs than violence. The love of her boyfriend, who turned Kamikaze, despite his love for her, because of his ultimate love for goodness and truth. The love that leads her, in the grip of despair at losing the man with whom she chose to have premarital relations, on a flame-scorched murder-spree (pffft, women, eh?).

I cannot recall another superhero who chooses to save the world because of love. Is it necessary for a female hero to be motivated by her emotional landscape? Can she not make choices based on what is reasonably rational, what is morally sound or what is common sense? Would that not ring true to the audience? That said, many an action hero of the male species has been driven by jealous anger or thirst for revenge. Why not Wonder Woman? Sadly, she has to expound that the ultimate goodness in the hearts of people is their capacity for smoochy smoochy snuggles before she can eviscerate the bad dude with his own solar beam.

Which brings us to my final point. For all these observations, it remains a mildly entertaining diversion, made all the more watchable by the presence of the evergreen and magnificent David Thewlis. Some may know him only as Remus Lupin, or the bad chap from the new Fargo, but ever since seeing Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993) I’ve elevated him to the honorific ‘Best Thing to Come from Blackpool’. I shan’t spoil the plot but let’s just say there’s some spicy meat. Yeah bwai. He makes mincemeat of what continues to be a chewy old script.

Three perfectly manicured nails out of five

Written by James P. Campbell

18/06/2017 at 19:55

The Jungle Book

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‘…or, How The Walt Disney Co turned me into a bilious hatemonger’

Jon Favreau cannot direct actors, conceive an effective shot or establish mood. Justin Marks cannot develop a character, write dialogue or tell an interesting story. Sarah Finn has no idea whom is appropriate for a given role. John Debney is a hack whose derivative and heartless score can’t manufacture emotional involvement. Neel Sethi, please never act again.

Neel, I know your lines were expositional subtext-free excrement and Jon told you just to shout in monotone, but your performance is so vacant and your characterisation so unsympathetic that the only thing stopping me from walking out was a vain hope that Shere Khan might tear off your face and prove the existence of something inside you. Describing what is happening to you, Neel, is not the same as pretending to have feelings. You make Keanu Reeves look like Laurence f’ing Olivier.

Oh, and Jon, no amount of effort from the incredible army of visual artists and stellar voice casts can disguise this steaming bolus of excrement. King Louie as Colonel Kurtz-meets-King Kong? Give me a break. You just dug up and joyously violated the still-warm remains of a classic. Shame – shame on you. And all the critics who seem clearly to have lost the plot.

Written by James P. Campbell

01/05/2016 at 15:36

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The Counsellor

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The ingredients have fine provenance but is it going to be delicious or a disaster?

Written by James P. Campbell

18/08/2013 at 09:52


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The character of Lady Kaede, played by Mieko Harada, is one of the most sinister creations I’ve encountered. Unfortunately there are no clips readily available of her best scenes in Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. Suffice it to say she incorporates the worst qualities of Lear’s Cornwall and Lady Macbeth, embodied in a form which set the paradigm for horrifying little women in Japanese cinema.

Written by James P. Campbell

16/08/2013 at 23:44

Hiroshima Mon Amour

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At a performance of the short ballet, Sea of Troubles (MacMillan, 1988), the score reminded me of these opening passages from Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (which I found infinitely more arresting). Professor Emma Wilson gave a glorious lecture on this film, and these scenes in particular, with quite an emphasis on their textural quality – riffing on a few themes from Laura Marks. The music hauntingly sticks to these scenes in my memory, bringing it all back vividly.

Written by James P. Campbell

16/08/2013 at 23:30

Page Eight

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Very hush-hush. The world of secret intelligence is one of private encounters behind closed doors: very hush-hush. There is something inherently dramaturgical about such scenarios, whose language games unfold in the absence of extras and their entire hubbub. This works to David Hare’s advantage: prolific he may be, at a writing desk, but his directorial prowess is oft maligned. Here, that singular theatrical flair produces character-driven drama, whose plot is intimate to the protagonist, propelled by his discoveries and self-reinventions. Don’t expect pretensions to international espionage intrigue, or the genre conventions of conspiracy thrillers. Page Eight is really about the climacteric of one senior officer’s life and the changing constitution of our security services.

Page Eight

Catch my review from EIFF 2011 at The Ooh Tray.

Written by James P. Campbell

26/06/2011 at 12:56