Trailer For THE STAR Is The First Christmas From The Animals’ Perspective (VIDEO/IMAGES)

Shrek’s donkey is out. Mary’s is in.

That humble steed, and a whole crew of other animals, takes us on the (animated) journey of the very first Christmas in The Star, coming this fall from Sony Pictures Animation. The faith-based entry puts a comedic yet still reverent spin on the birth of Christ in a family-friendly movie for all ages.

An all-star cast includes The Walking Dead‘s Steven Yeun as Bo the donkey, Zachary Levi (Tangled) as Joseph and (fittingly) as Mary, the star of TV’s Jane The Virgin Gina Rodriguez. Big names pepper the ensemble, too, from Oprah Winfrey to Tyler Perry, Patricia Heaton, Kristin Chenoweth, Keegan-Michaely Key, Kelly Clarkson, Anthony Anderson, Tracy Morgan, Christopher Plummer, and more. (See some of the cast/character pairing in the gallery below.)

A co-production with Walden Media and Affirm Films, The Star arrives well before Christmas Eve when it hits theaters on November 10, 2017.

 

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VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (Movie Review)

valerianplanets
**1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for sci-fi violence and action, suggestive material, and brief language)
Released:  July 21, 2017
Runtime: 137 minutes
Director: Luc Besson
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Herbie Hancock, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke

This is the first movie I’ve ever enjoyed from start to finish in which I had absolutely no idea what was going on at any given moment. Congratulations Valerian, that’s some sort of accomplishment.

An eye candy crush of a spectacle, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is like two-plus hours of psychedelic sci-fi concept art come to glorious life, but unfolding more like a movie pitch than an actual movie, or a feature-length trailer that does a phenomenal job of not giving away the plot and avoiding all spoilers. Yet it’s a testament to how stunning these visual concepts are that it can still, single handedly, entertain strictly as a mesmerizing fever dream.

Director Luc Besson’s instinct to do it all with a light touch is key, too, especially since his narrative couldn’t be more random and convoluted. “It’s a mission that doesn’t make sense!” one character so accurately vents during an unintended meta moment.

Further confusing this universe set 500 years in the future is how technology can at times defy physics, space, and time (and maybe even dimensional plains?), but it all looks so mind-blowingly cool that the complete inexplicability of it all is never really a drag, nor is the movie ever really a slog.

Honestly, the biggest drawback of Valerian isn’t its stream-of-consciousness construct but, well, its Valerian. For a special agent hero described as a suave superstud lady killer, Dane DeHaan’s beach bum swagger makes him horribly miscast. He’s like a scrawny version of Keanu Reeves, and minus the dry charm. DeHaan’s a good actor (and we see that in sincere, sentimental moments) but he’s not a good fit here.

It’s a problem (or perhaps a saving grace, depending on how you look at it) when the more compelling lead isn’t the one in the title. That would be Laureline, Valerian’s partner and would-be love interest; he’s pursuing her hard but she’s not having it, more focused on being a better operative, action hero, and overall screen presence than the guy who fails to be her equal.

Cara Delevingne, a model turned moody actress, explodes with attitude and charisma in a way she never has before, making you wish this was Laureline and the City of a Thousand Planets. The title of the French comic series this is based on, “Valerian and Laureline”, makes you wonder why it isn’t. Of the two characters to reduce the movie’s namesake to, Besson chose poorly (especially since, from Le Femme Nikita to Lucy, the Fifth Element filmmaker has generally done better with female leads anyway).

An exposition-heavy final act ends up explaining a lot, so much so that you sit there thinking, “Wow, I really could’ve used this about an hour-and-a-half ago.” The clarity ends up being a bonus rather than a belated insult because, by the time it comes, it offers you something you never really needed anyway: an explanation.

Valerian and the City of A Thousand Planets may be the ultimate achievement in style over substance, validating its existence and your time with it (if barely) simply on the power of its imagination alone.

LAST JEDI Photo Shoot Stills Reveal New Guards And Costumes (IMAGES)

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(Click here for new photos and article links from Entertainment Weekly’s Last Jedi exclusive.)

Strike a pose.

Raw untreated images from an official photo shoot for Star Wars: The Last Jedi have been released. With generic scrims, backdrops, and tape markings clearly in frame, this series of pictures is clearly intended to be used in a variety of yet-to-be made promo materials. But for now, they give us fresh looks with a few firsts.

Along with Rey in her Jedi training uniform, Kylo Ren in a thick black cape, and Captain Phasma doing her thing, there’s darker garb for Luke Skywalker (an ominous sign) and a physical (rather than digital) bust of Supreme Leader Snoke. And finally, a series of images for Snoke’s new Elite Praetorian Guards.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens on December 15, 2017.

Click on any photo for larger image gallery.

 

DUNKIRK (Movie Review)

dunkirk
***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for intense war experience and some language)
Released:  July 21, 2017
Runtime: 106 minutes
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Jack Lowden, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, James D’Arcy, Harry Styles

Imagine the Normandy sequence that opens Saving Private Ryan stretched out to a full-length feature, and you start to get an idea of what Dunkirk is like.

Christopher Nolan’s first war movie doesn’t consistently move at the same intense, chaotic clip that Spielberg’s landmark D-Day invasion did, nor is it as graphic (Nolan keeps the gore at bay with a PG-13 rating), but it employs the same fundamental tactic, stripping down the narrative to its bare, brutal essentials. What’s left isn’t a traditional story arc but, more simply, a pure visceral experience.

And this time, it’s not about an Allied invasion. It’s a retreat.

Little known to American audiences (because this true story took place in late spring of 1940, about a year-and-a-half before the U.S. entered World War II), Dunkirk dramatizes the harrowing evacuation of British troops from the French beaches of the titular town. 330,000 soldiers had been cornered by the advancing German armies, escalating to a bleak moment of truth: escape, or die.

Nolan’s riveting re-creation is an arthouse blockbuster, three intimate stories from land, sea, and air, all told on an epic scale but in an experimental construct. Each one tracks different but interwoven timelines: the evacuation that took place over the course of a week, the heroic efforts of a private motor yacht that helped save soldiers on one consequential day, and two air gunners who fended off German fighters during the course of a single hour.

Dialogue is sparse and often just functional, giving us just enough to comprehend the magnitude of the impossible stakes. It’s refreshing, too, that this barebones approach is liberated from backstory and exposition. Knowing that someone has a girl or family waiting for him back home is an unnecessary empathy; enduring the horrors of war, especially under such vulnerable circumstances, is enough.

While events of the three narratives are largely separate from each other over the first hour, it’s clear they’re all headed on collision course. With such broad time disparities (a week, a day, and an hour), it’s hard to grasp how Nolan will actually bring everything together, but then as we begin to see recognizable events appear in other timelines from different POVs, Nolan’s genius becomes apparent in its simplicity.

As the interconnection starts to become clear, the drama ratchets even further – especially as Nolan cuts together similar but unrelated events in parallel. The effect isn’t nearly as complicated or ambitious as Nolan’s time-twister Memento, but the appropriate implementation of this subtle time-jumping adds another mesmerizing layer.

There’s a good deal of warfare here, but not in a combat context. Instead, the retreating Allies are simply targets, at times grouped together like fish in a barrel for opportunistic German bombers. In IMAX, the fear of being a sitting duck as German planes bear down on the horizon becomes vicariously palpable. The aerial photography is at times tangibly dizzying, too, as you feel your stomach turn with the planes, all shot in IMAX’s biggest 70mm format.

It’s hard to say how intensely this will translate to smaller screens with simpler sound systems but, for what it’s worth, I can’t recall having felt such ominous life-threatening dread – or the consequences of its toll – during other films presented in large formats. Suffice it to say, Nolan’s operatic aesthetic has created something new, and singular.

It’s tempting to draw stylistic parallels to modern war movies, but with so much of the film unfolding in action rather than words, Dunkirk’s kindred forerunners can be found in the Silent Era (Wings, Battleship Potemkin, Birth of a Nation) or early talkies like All Quiet on the Western Front.

Even so, Nolan crafts a symphonic soundscape that’s overwhelming, masterful in both artistic and technical execution, and amplified by composer Hans Zimmer’s fitting bombast that ranges from percussive propulsion to an eerie Vangelis-like spirituality.

But regarding modern examples, Dunkirk is perhaps more closely hewn to The Thin Red Line, yet where Malick’s examination was philosophical, Nolan’s is something more primal; not a meditation but a complete and total submersion.

Consequently, there’s not much to dissect here. That’s a stark contrast to the labyrinth narratives and their thematic implications that have been a hallmark of Nolan’s career (Memento, Inception, The Dark Knight, and many more). Still, with the film’s devastating authenticity, there remains a great deal to contemplate. The entire experience is certainly enough to provoke sober reflection, especially with its ending notes of heroism, nobility, sacrifice, and grace.

A Dunkirk vet, now living in Calgary, cried while watching the premiere, attesting to its veracity by saying, “I never thought I would see that again. It was just like I was there.” I believe him.

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (Movie Review)

WarForThePlanetOfTheApes
**1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, thematic elements, language, and some disturbing images)
Released:  July 14, 2017
Runtime: 140 minutes
Director: Matt Reeves
Starring: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller, Karin Konoval

About halfway through Jurassic Park, during the initial island tour the invited scientists had seen nothing but jungle, and not any of the genetically resurrected beasts as advertised. Dr. Ian Malcolm goaded host John Hammond by asking, “Ah, now eventually you do plan to have dinosaurs on your…on your dinosaur tour, right?”

Watching War for the Planet of the Apes, I felt like asking director Matt Reeves the same question, except to replace “dinosaur” and “tour” with “war” and “movie”.

As we all know, Malcolm and the others eventually got more than they bargained for with the dinos. But here, the war never comes.

War Movies arrive with basic expectations in tow: armies, battles, and strategizing, across large landscapes and staged through multiple sequences. When you throw the word “Planet” in the title, you’d even assume all of those things would be played out on a global scale.

But after exhilarating forest clash intro between Apes and Man, those things never materialize. Instead, in a story that would be more accurately titled Prison on the Planet of the Apes, the three-act structure goes from trek to prison camp to prison break.

It ultimately never amounts to much, and occasionally it’s a slog.

War for the Planet of the Apes isn’t nearly as compelling or provocative as the general raves and 94% Tomatometer would suggest, falling far short of the sci-fi concept’s vast thematic potential. Sure, there’s some taught Hollywood action here on the fleeting occasions the film goes there, but for a movie largely predicated on character moments the script doesn’t offer any that are particularly fascinating.

Caesar, the leader of the evolving apes (and lone English speaker; the rest talk through sign), is little more than a basic archetype, as are the rest of the supporting characters. Beyond the one-note whispering intensity of Andy Serkis (and the same ever-present scowl he offers the animators), Caesar makes for an unexpectedly selfish leader, driven strictly by a personal grudge and vengeful impulses, putting his vindictive mission ahead of what’s best for his species. Caesar rightly recognizes this as a flaw, but the film never adequately fills the protagonist gap that’s left.

Woody Harrelson fares better as the object of Caesar’s hatred, but his vicious Colonel is intriguing in spite of how he’s written, elevated by what Woody brings to it rather than what he’s given.

Scene after scene strives to make an emotional impact but many breathe way too much in the attempt, desperate for an elusive poignancy. The cumulative effect creates an experience that’s a lot more static than the title suggests.

For as ambitious as aspects of it are, War for the Planet of the Apes is lugubriously generic. It never earns anything it’s going for, right down to the Moses/Exodus parallel that can’t even successfully parlay into cheap sentiment.

Dialogue is flat, too, and ideas are thin. The biggest question this bloated work of self-import posits is the most obvious – “Who are the real animals here?” – so don’t hold your breath for anything thought-provoking. Reeves’ strength is aesthetic, not storytelling.

Furthermore, the Humans are slowly being wiped out by a dogged unstoppable virus. The very presence of the people-only virus within the story undercuts the whole, making this primal drama a bunch of unnecessary nonsense with a built-in outcome.

It’s all surprisingly uninspired, conventional in its beats and what it borrows from other, better movies. The lone distinction here – and it’s not an inconsequential one – is that the Ape animation is second-to-none in the world of visual effects technology and execution. Detailed in its minutiae and seamlessly blended into each environment, these apes always feel like real creatures living in a real world. No other major studio tentpole or franchise comes close.

Props, too, to composer Michael Giacchino, whose score is effectively eerie, moody, percussive, and tense, with homages to Jerry Goldsmith’s original 1968 landmark work.

But other than that, wow, what a shallow, hollow shell of a movie this is, one that some have hailed as a profound final chapter to one of the great film trilogies of all time. Such hyperbole is both overblown and revisionist. The Planet of the Apes reboot saga has barely been of consequence in its own era, making it even more difficult to imagine this three-movie arc enduring in the imaginations of future generations.

Something’s Not Right On Mainstreet U.S.A. In Clooney/Coen/Damon Dark Comedy SUBURBICON (VIDEO/POSTER)

Step aside Noah Hawley. When it comes to the Coenverse, George Clooney knows the territory as well as anybody.

While Hawley’s Fargo TV Series plays more like a mix between Coen Brothers quirk and what you’d expect from Prestige TV, the first trailer for Clooney’s Suburbicon could easily be mistaken for a new film directly from Joel & Ethan Coen. And it sort of is, as the original script was penned by the brothers before getting a rewrite from Clooney and producing/writing partner Grant Heslov.

Along for the ride in this mid-20th Century American dark comedy are other Coen vets: Matt Damon (True Grit), Julianne Moore (The Big Lebowski), and Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis). Clooney, a Coen favorite from movies such as O Brother Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty, Burn After Reading, and Hail, Caesar!, stays strictly behind the camera this time around in the director’s chair (see set photos here), but don’t be surprised if he pops up in a well-placed cameo.

After playing the fall festival circuit, Suburbicon will open in theaters on October 27, 2017.

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4K Restoration Of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS Hits Theaters This Fall For 40th Anniversary (VIDEO)

They’re heeeeere. Oh, wait, wrong Spielberg joint.

In 1977, the big sci-fi phenomenon was Star Wars, but where George Lucas went mythic his best friend Steven Spielberg went existential. Now for its 40th Anniversary, Columbia Pictures is re-releasing Close Encounters of the Third Kind back into theaters for a one-week run, digitally remastered in a 4K restoration.

Made for $20 million (a huge budget at the time, nearly twice that of Star Wars), Close Encounters earned $303 million worldwide and was nominated for 8 Academy Awards, winning Oscars for best cinematography and a special achievement in sound effects editing.

Last year in my Spielberg Retrospective, I ranked Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the Spielberg Canon as his second best movie ever, behind only Schindler’s List.

The short nationwide run will begin on September 1, 2017, followed by its premiere on blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD on September 19.

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