Thursday, July 20, 2017

Movie Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

In 1967 Valérian and Laureline were introduced to French audiences as a science fiction comic. The series written by Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières ran until 2010 and was very influential in science fiction around the world, notably with Star Wars and The Fifth Element.  Valerian and Laureline are classical heroes and partners as well as a couple in a universe that spans time and space. Their adventures fall into the opera category of science fiction since their story is a saga combined with rollicking action.

The only thing holding such a story back from a Hollywood treatment was how big the special effects budget would be. French director Luc Besson had longed to do a movie based on the comic but in many ways felt it couldn't be done until he saw Avatar directed by Canadian James Cameron. He felt it pushed everything to a higher level and it pushed him to improve a script treatment he had already written of the material.

Still, it took till 2012 for Hollywood to announce the project was in development and Besson in 2015 in his first tweet indicated he would be directing. The movie would be a U.S./France co-production handled by Besson's own EuropaCorp production house and STX Entertainment and have a budget of $180 million. To get the film tax credits for producing the biggest film in French history, Besson convinced the French government to allow it to be filmed in English. The change in law netted not only the tax credits but a $50 million investment by the Chinese in Besson's film and more in his studio. Chinese money is awash in Hollywood.

Luc Besson is not ordinary director. His cinéma du look style is completely recognizable in the work he does. It is a spectacle over narrative that is a visual treat. The Fifth Element encapsulates a lot of that style. In addition to his artistry, Besson has become a full service studio producing such European movie successes as the Taken series. The business side of things allows Besson to pick work as a director that appeals to him such as Lucy in 2015 that starred Scarlett Johansson.

In 2015 a series of casting announcements were made as it was revealed that Dane Dehaan (Chronicle) and Cara Delevingne (Suicide Squad) would star as Valerian and Laureline. The cast was rounded out with Clive Owen as Arün Filitt and Rihanna as Bubble. It is difficult not to contrast the casting with Besson's other sci-fi movies which included Scarlett Johannson in Lucy and Bruce Willis in The Fifth Element.

A lot depends on our actors making us believe and while relative newcomers can do this, a veteran performance by Bruce Willis can offer gravitas where dialogue might fail you.  The only way that Dehaan as Valerian or Delevingne as Laureline could stand out is with a total buy-in on what the extravaganza. It is possible for a young actor to do this. The best example is Milla Jovovich in the Fifth Element. She learned 800 alien words and was adorable in emotional and physical length she went to make the audience believe.

It is hard not to think Dehaan is channeling Keanu Reaves. You can actually hear it in the voice. As for Delevinge, she in great in action but her emotional range never takes off because the script hold her back. The proposal of marriage by Valerian to Laureline, a demonstrated Lothario, seems destined for failure although their work partnership seems to be a confident one. And what work they do. As human agents of space and time, their adventures are a visual and action packed treat. Seeing this movie in 3D is entirely appropriate.

The cinematic spectacle and action keep people from focusing to heavily on the rough patches. Rihanna's role is an amazing dance filled with costume changes but the dialogue is a bit wooden. Her sizzling performance though with accompaniment by Ethan Hawk is a highlight.

It is all quite the spectacle and like The Fifth Element might take a few times to catch all the Easter Eggs and tidbits tossed into the mix. For example, there is a lift right from the Taken series of movies staring Liam Neeson which director Besson is connected to. Good luck is the key to finding it.

The aforementioned Chinese money and international release may produce a sequel for this movie unlike The Fifth Element. If this the case, the relationship between Valerian and Laureline needs more definition and for heaven's sake, don't leave her name off the title. It was after all the full title of the comic. And ultimately, it was Delevinge as Laureline who drove the back half of the movie past the finish line.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Winnipeg Fringe Festival July 19 to July 30

It is hard to believe as Winnipeg Fringe Festival begins Wednesday, July 19 that this is the 30th year of the summer theatre program. In 1988, the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre became the only regional theatre to run a fringe and over the years it has become the second largest in North America with 170 companies performing. It is the second oldest after Edmonton which was founded in 1982.

It has come a long way since the inspiration of Edinburgh Fringe which is the granddaddy of them all. Canada now has more fringe theatre festivals than anywhere else in the world and attract artists from many countries. The acting companies are picked by lottery, are unjuried and can keep 100% of box office.

What does this mean for Winnipggers? It means that much of the downtown centered around Old Market Square and up and down three streets near RMTC's building there are thousands of people adventuring out to see a wild and woolly variety of theatre performances. Reviews by media, on social media or friends and family telling each other results in many sell outs.

There are times when Winnipeggers get down on themselves but Winnipeg Fringe is one of those times we do it better than almost anyone. The downtown is alive and well and there is something for everyone.

Here is to 30 more years.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sport for Life Qualico Training Center

It is worth noting that the gigantic new sports facility built in downtown Winnipeg and just completed this week has taken years to get done, caused controversy every step of the way, cost millions and will be probably be a legacy facility in much the same way as the Pan Am Pool, Pan Am Stadium and Shaw Park are today.

In 2010, the Manitoba Sport Federation had no choice but to move from its Main Street offices when Wawanesa Insurance announced that they needed the space for their expanding downtown head office. The MSF dreamed of a high performance center but the cost of land and the desire to stay central made them look away from a high profile street such as where they were. To that end, they looked at the Exchange district to a building abandoned in 2008 with the demise of the garment industry.

At 145 Pacific Avenue, two older buildings were acquired and the better preserved building constructed in 1913 was renovated to serve as the new Sport for Life Centre. The 84,000 building housed a sports medicine component, some elite training, sports offices plus the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame. This was to be phase one with phase two to come when money was raised.

Alas the next door building was structurally unsound so the city granted a demolition so long as it didn't become a surface parking lot. This was the common thing for property owners to ask for: demolition and then a surface lot forever. After the sport building went up, it came as no surprise to anyone that the flattened area beside became a parking lot.

City Hall eventually called Sport for Life on this and said if they were going to use the site next door for a parking lot that they should not be exempt the landscaping required by law. The centre wailed at the rules that had been bent for them for five years and said they were just about to start phase 2 and should not have to do work that would be bulldozed later.

Unlike other developments that promised to get work under way and didn't, Sport for Life began construction two years ago and took this long to get done. The 124,000 square foot addition was so large that it spanned across Martha Street towards the Ukrainian cultural center. Combined with street and sidewalk improvements in the Exchange area, the size and the scope of the project is quite awesome.

The $23 million dollar building leveraged a need for facilities for the upcoming Canada Summer Games and now contains three full basketball courts, a three lane track, a public gym, 88 underground parking spots, aerobics and high performance training rooms. All three levels of government contributed to the centre as well as private donors.

The Canada Summer Games will see both basketball and volleyball played there. However, as a legacy facility of the games, it will be years of trained athletes who will benefit from the 200,000 square foot combined space of a building.

Winnipeggers are right to hold doubts about promises made on projects. We often see lengthy delays, cancellations or requests for ever greater amounts of public money to see things get completed. We see grabs made for surface lots and then shrugs of shoulders as years go by as people squat on the land. Seems always easier to knock down a building rather than finding a surface lot to use.

There are always complaints about lack of parking or traffic but in the case of the Qualico Training Centre, it probably gained more more spots from the renovation. As far as traffic goes, we need better ways of getting people to and from places they need to go so that it is convenient and affordable. That is achieved either by having amenities close by or have transportation systems that move a lot of people.

The Sport for Life centre will make it easier for people to not have to head down to the University of Manitoba every day. More bus routes head downtown from every direction of the city and this should ease travel down Pembina.

It took 12 years to get this project done and sometimes it looked like it was going to fall short and that the city was once again going to end up having knocked a building down and accomplished nothing. In this case, something special happened and should be producing great things for years to come.

Monday, July 10, 2017

2017 Soca Reggae Festival July 14 to July 16

In summer it sometimes seems that The Cube at Old Market Square has something every weekend. And indeed Jazz Fest and Fringe Festival occupy the area for weeks between the both of them. There is one other festival though that has consistently used Winnipeg's downtown site and that is Soca Reggae Festival.

For the last 12 years, Soca Reggae Festival has brought the sounds of calypso, reggae and Trinidad and Tobago's soca music to Winnipeg. This year's featured guest are Everton and Isha Blender in their first appearance in the city. The shows begin on July 14 at noon and run to Sunday at 10 PM. Food trucks line the street leading into festival grounds and the price range up to $10 in evening. Caribbean vendors are also present.

There is a beverage center to enjoy alcohol but Soca tends to attract a lot of families during its run. In the evenings though, the shows are high energy. Guests are told to bring lawn chairs.

Soca Reggae Festival is another reason to get out and enjoy live music in Winnipeg.

Friday, July 7, 2017

2017 Winnipeg Folk Festival

Since 1974 the Winnipeg Folk Festival has been one of the most looked to events of the year for outdoor live, immersive, multi-staged, camping music festivals in North America. Coming on the heels of Country Fest in Dauphin a week earlier and Jazz Fest weeks before that, it has been important for the festival to go beyond in what it presents. The entertainment dollar has a lot of competition.

Folk Festival is a very family friendly event which can't be said about about a lot of music events. They try to present a lot of firsts for artists as well as bringing in established and favourite artists like Bruce Cockburn, Feist and Bare Naked Ladies. And let's not forget about the attraction of Bird's Hill Park. The camping and music inside a naturally beautiful area is an extremely enticing formula. The Festival didn't get to go 44 years by not having some gifts from the start.

The Folk Fest started Thursday and runs through the whole weekend. Some people went up Wednesday including many on bikes. Site improvements have helped create an intimate environment for everyone including vendors and sponsors.

The weather can be a challenge but this weekend looks to be perfect for for one of Canada's greatest music festivals.