A half-bag of grab-ass?
An ass-bag of grab-half?
Whatever it is, we’re doing it. Ready? Let’s go.
There are a few advantages to being on West Coast time. Sporting events are broadcasted earlier, you get to laugh at all the heathens on the east coast for not taking it easy like us cool people and…that’s about it really. But the latter is truly the best of advantages, indeed.
A disadvantage, however, is when you’re sitting in your hotel room at 8 p.m. dealing with massive jetlag and there are no more sporting events on TV because they all finished early, and all of the prestige shows on HBO are on hiatus due to the holidays, so there is quite literally nothing on.
Almost nothing, anyway.
Stick It was on.
That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, my glorious overlord Tek5 has paid me quadrillions of dollars to write about Stick It. In case you haven’t heard of it, Stick It is about Haley Graham (Missy Peregrym), the edgiest 90’s teen living in the year 2006, who gets in trouble with the law after doing sweet BMX tricks right into somebody’s under-construction mansion. She’s given two options by the judge: go to jail, go directly to jail, or return to her old gymnastics academy. I’m not sure if being a former gymnast gives her an inherent advantage to doing sweet BMX stunts, but I’m just going to guess that’s a yes.
Anyway, Haley says that she’d rather go to juvee, but her father says otherwise. This leads to an excellent exchange between them:
“I remember when you were a good kid,” her father says.
“I remember when you were a good dad,” Haley spits back.
That right there is true edge.
So off she’s swept, to a state of the art gymnastics academy run by the formerly legendary gymnast Burt Vickerman (Jeff “Coach” “Craig T. Nelson” Bridges), who’s not going to take any of Haley’s edgy attitude…or is he?
Now, I may be summarizing all of this in a very sarcastic manner, but I’m here to tell you that Stick It is – surprisingly, I might add – a passible sports movie. Sure, I went to take a shower for about 20 minutes of the runtime, so there may or may not be some holes in my memory of the film, but just trust me on this one. It’s a structurally sound movie, with actual character progression and little reveals that make the interpersonal relationships fairly interesting, and important things happen every ten minutes or so. The writer/director (Jessica Bendinger) also wrote Bring It On, and the cinematographer (Daryn Okada) is best known for Mean Girls, so it’s firmly planted in that early to mid-2000’s aesthetic that still kind of looks like the 90’s but isn’t.
Is Missy Peregrym at least a foot too tall to be an actual gymnast? Yes, she looks like a swimmer out there, especially during the competition scenes. Are you wondering how much money Jeff “Coach” “Craig T. Nelson” got paid to be in this movie during its entire runtime (minus the time you’re in the shower)? Oh, of course. It’s not a great movie, but there’s something to be said for a structurally sound movie that does exactly what it sets out to do, since that in and of itself is very difficult to do. The final sequence has a nice subversion of the old “protagonist faces their nemesis” sports movie trope, and it’s unique to its own sport and raises an interesting question about the way in which a competition is held. That’s really sports movie must, and it pulls it off well.
And, I’ll leave this section with one of the best quotes from the whole movie: “Go ahead, scratch. You're all zeros anyways.”
So on the flight back to the east coast I popped on the majority of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, this year’s sci-fi bomb from Luc Besson (The Fifth Element). I have some thoughts.
Before I get into this, I want to make something clear: making movies is exceptionally difficult, and that difficulty is amplified on $100 million projects. People put years of their lives into these movies and work long hours, hoping that what they’re making is quality entertainment and will capture an audience. I cannot, for the life of me, imagine the herculean effort it takes to make a movie like Valerian, with all the moving parts it has. Greater still is the responsibility of introducing an entirely new universe to an audience who hasn’t really heard of the foreign comic book series and who are becoming less and less inclined to take risks on unfamiliar entities at the box office. The people that made this film have my utmost respect.
That being said, a lot of decisions made in this movie are confounding.
I say “a lot” because there are a few sequences in it that work really well and show a potential that is immediately contradicted by other scenes within the movie. Valerian is about two government operatives, Valerian and Loreline (Dane DeHaane and Cara Delvingne, respectively) who must investigate a strange presence on Alpha, the city of a thousand planets, and how it connects to Valerian’s dreams.
You might be wondering what I mean by “contradicted,” so I’ll give an early example. The opening montage of Alpha’s evolution is wonderful, as it shows different ships from different countries on Earth connecting, and the main members of each vessel shaking hands. As the technology changes over the centuries, so does the dress and interior of the ships, until the first alien beings make contact, shaking hands with the humans aboard the now large space station. It’s all played to David Bowie’s Major Tom (let’s assume I did a great vocal Bowie impression and move on), which works really well in this case. Well this is great, I thought to myself, all of this exposition handled visually without the need for a character explaining anything about the station in a voice-over. Then Rutger Hauer shows up on screen and explains what Alpha is and that it’s time for it to leave Earth’s orbit. Now, this isn’t bad per se, but it shows a stunning lack of awareness at how well the montage had set up the history of the station without resorting to the tried and true expository monologue. Rutger Hauer is a really cool dude, but he isn’t necessary in that situation. Just show Alpha leaving Earth and keep that visual story intact.
I think the huge issue with the movie is its main characters. Dane DeHaane and Cara Delvingne deliver 100% of their dialogue with a smirk and a sarcastic tone that I’m not sure is intentional. However, their performances are the least of the characters’ problems, the main one being that Valerian is a walking workplace harassment case. In his introductory scene with Loreline he does nothing but harass her, both physically and verbally. What’s stunning about this is that there’s no way to misconstrue what occurs in the scene as playful banter; Valerian harasses her, and Loreline continuously tells him that she’s not interested. She’s not being purposefully obstinate, she’s firmly telling him “no” and Valerian won’t stop. It’s a crazy way to introduce the protagonist of the movie, and it instantly makes him unlikeable.
The next sequence doesn’t do him any favors, either, as he asks for her hand in marriage. Yes, immediately after harassing Loreline, he proposes during a mission they are involved in. It’s a really bad series of events that end with Loreline doing one of those “oh, that Valerian” eyerolls that immediately contradicts her previous actions in her scenes. It’s a forced moment that tries to smooth over a huge problem with how poorly Valerian is introduced.
Our next sequence takes place in a clever little set piece on this enclosed portion of desert that’s used as a VR marketplace for tourists. It’s actually a very fun and creative chase scene through this expansive VR world that’s pretty interesting to look at. It again shows the flashes of potential that could make this a good movie.
However, a monster is released in the physical world and Valerian and Loreline have to escape. They are barely able to make it onto their space ship, and in the process the rest of their team get brutally murdered (PG-13 rating means there’s no blood, but trust me) by the monster. You would think this might be a traumatizing sequence for our two heroes. You’d be wrong, since the moment – the very next shot, actually – after they leap to safety onto their ship, Loreline declares, “Ugh, it ruined my dress.”
You just witnessed the slaughter of all of your teammates.
“Ugh, it ruined my dress.”
The movie has close-ups of characters – which they spent time developing personalities for – being torn to shreds by this creature.
“Ugh, it ruined my dress.”
“But Sam,” you righteously declare, “why are you criticizing something in this movie that Marvel does all the time? Quips like that are the main thing people criticize about those movies nowadays.”
So first of all, if all you’re criticizing about the Marvel movies are their quips, you’re not looking at those movies close enough. Second, and I want to make this absolutely clear, there’s nothing wrong with quips. There’s nothing wrong with characters making snarky remarks in the heat of the moment. However, the reason they work in the context of Avengers, even while the heroes are fighting a city destroying force, is that their movies do not take the time to develop character personalities only to murder them brutally. There are no close-ups of civilians dying left and right while the Avengers make quips. When you make the decision show that kind of stuff, it has to have gravity. It has to have impact. The only person who is shown in detail to die brutally in Avengers is Coulson, and his death has a major impact on the story. If you show deaths like the ones during the opening of Valerian on screen and the only reaction from your leads are, “Ugh, it ruined my dress,” that doesn’t make them funny or likeable. It makes them assholes.
Now you could make the argument that they’re supposed to be assholes in the movie. Their “arc” is that they learn to be more heroic. I don’t see that, because the incident is never brought up again. They’re never called out on it, there’s never a close-up that even hints that they might have further thought of the sacrifice of the other members of their team. Their Director’s only comment is that they’re late for the next mission as Valerian and Loreline escape the planet.
So to keep a tally here:
One more thing and then we’re done. I haven’t read the comic series, as previously stated, but I’ll bet that this is a pretty faithful adaptation of how the stories were structured in that series.
I don’t think it works as a movie narrative.
What you can do, in a serialized narrative, is use entire story arcs as a small support mechanism to hang the world building around. You can move the story forward just a little bit every issue and use new developments as a means of interacting with new characters and different parts of a big, sprawling world. A good example of this is the first “volume” of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series. The overarching story isn’t as important as introducing all of the characters that we will be accustomed to later on in the series.
The problem with lifting this type of structure and putting it into a movie is that movies are, in and of themselves, short stories. They have to have major occurrences in a shorter amount of time than a serialized comic, which means condensing the stories and cutting out stuff that is unnecessary to the narrative or doesn’t fit what the filmmakers are trying to say. Much of Valerian has occurrences in the plot that are necessary only in the sense of world building. The best example is when Loreline saves Valerian after a crash and is immediately captured by another race of beings in Alpha. Apparently, he can’t enter their realm for fear of a diplomatic dispute, so he goes searching for a shape shifter. After an appalling Rihanna striptease overseen by pimp Ethan Hawke (it’s as weird as it sounds), they enter the area with Rihanna disguised as the race of beings…only for Valerian to leap out and murder every single person in the throne room after Loreline’s life is put in danger. How about that for diplomatic issues, right? I didn’t catch all of the film, since my plane landed sooner than expected, so I’m sure Rihanna comes into play at some point at the end of the movie. However, the reason for getting her is necessary only to “build the world.” It would be effective in a comic serial, but movies have different needs.
This article was written by Samuel Becker: writer for hire, Tek5 Filmscore Critic, and general hypocrite.
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