People often ask me what a particular movie is about. Sometimes this is a straightforward question to answer. THE AVENGERS is about superheros coming together to stop an alien invasion. THE KARATE KID is about a wimpy outsider who learns discipline and confidence from an unlikely teacher. But many of my favorite movies aren't so simple to describe.
Sometimes, what a movie is about is far less important to me than how it makes me feel or what it inspires me to think about. For a film to work in this way, it may not be a successful or interesting narrative. It might fail in many spectacular ways. But a movie that hits me with a few inspired moments can still wind up being pretty special.
VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS is full of problems. The leads are too young for their roles and they lack chemistry. The villain's motivation only becomes clear when he expresses it directly in dialogue that amounts to "this is why I'm evil." There's nothing memorable about the score and much of the CGI world is so overstuffed with detail that it becomes a blur. And still, it had moments that I loved.
VALERIAN is based on a French comic book. The film may lack compelling leads, but it's not short on ideas. I absolutely loved the parade of alien species that the film introduced as it set up the world of Alpha. Years from now, I won't remember much about this movie, but I'll not likely forget the sense of wonder that it inspired with a simple montage of alien species meeting each other for the first time.
I can understand why the movie is failing at the box office. Not only is it based on a property that's unknown to American audiences, it's also just a shabby story. Maybe that Chinese funding will help it to succeed in China. But all of that is a shame, because VALERIAN does construct a handful of outlandishly creative moments that would win over audiences if they emerged from a stronger film.
On the other end of the spectrum from VALERIAN'S CGI bluster sits David Lowery's A GHOST STORY. That film could be described as slow and meditative (or dull and self-important if you are being less kind) and it's also got problems. WIll Oldham's drunken, half-baked party philosophy needs a counterpoint and doesn't get one, making it feel like the author's statement of intent. Lowery's use of long takes worked when I was feeling the movie's vibe. But when I wasn't, the slow, motionless shots inside of the Ghost's house just set my mind adrift.
One scene in A GHOST STORY seemed so culturally insensitive that it took me out of the movie and had me wondering about Lowery and his background. I don't always mind being pulled out of a movie to think about the movie-making--I love marveling at good stunt work or particularly effective cinematography--but I didn't enjoy having the spell broken during this film that is all atmosphere to begin with.
But I still walked out of A GHOST STORY thinking that it was one of my favorite films of the year. Why? Because of three moments where the film did something special and made a point in a way that only a movie can. I won't give them away, but those moments captured something essential to me, and they burned themselves in my brain as nearly perfect realizations of very specific ideas.
Both of these experiences reminded me that moments can be transcendent, even when all 90 or 120 minutes of a movie are not. I go to see movies to experience those moments when the images, sounds, music, movement, and story all come together to express something unique or true or hilarious or insightful. The one thing I remember from THE AVENGERS is the moment when the Hulk slams Loki into the floor like a rag doll. Re-watch the KARATE KID's climactic fight and pay attention to how the music and the camera work and the insert shots of people in the audience all build to a perfect crescendo. If you have a high tolerance for plaintive storytelling, go see A GHOST STORY and see if there's not a moment in there that speaks to you about what it feels like to accept a truth that you'd rather ignore.
I can always tell you what a movie is about, but sometimes it's a conversation centered around one of these moments that makes sharing the experience worthwhile.