Tag Archives: Paper Towns

Brad’s Status (2017): A Self-centered Midlife Crisis

At some point in life, we look at what we have and wonder, “What else could I be?” It’s natural to compare ourselves to others and think about the alternate lives we could have led. Written and directed by Mike White (Year of the Dog), Brad’s Status is about a middle-aged man doing just that. When Brad (Ben Stiller; Zoolander) takes his son Troy (Austin Abrams; Paper Towns) to visit colleges, he starts to think back to his own college days and where his close group of friends ended up. One is a political commentator and author of several best-selling books, another owns his own hedge fund, and the last sold his tech company and retired to Hawaii at the age of 40. Brad, on the other hand, started a small non-profit and lives a normal life in Sacramento with wife and son.

Brad’s Status is the quintessential midlife crisis film. Brad feels like he missed his potential and his comparisons to the illustrious lives of his college friends are relatable because of his chosen profession. While others chose the money and power of politics, finance, or tech, he chose service to others and is now living through the consequences of that decision. The central question is not only what could he have done to become successful, but rather how could he have done the most good. Does his non-profit, scraping together financing from reluctant donors, make a difference? Brad’s only employee turns in his two-week notice and remarks “I’d rather make a lot of money and donate it than beg people for their money.” The realities created from a life of service versus self-interest and how decisions made for altruistic reasons can lead to middling personal outcomes is the film’s most sympathetic angle.

Stiller and Abrams have natural chemistry as father and son.

To a certain extent, Brad’s struggle is an exercise in solipsism. He only views the world in terms of how it affects him, sometimes even forgetting about his loved ones. This disregard can become callous when he looks at the effect of his relationship with his wife. One of his friends had a career-focused, ambitious spouse that, in Brad’s mind, forced his friend to push himself further in comparison. Brad’s wife is a loving, supportive partner but he wonders if her contentedness with their middle-class life held him back. This is the kind of reasoning that can often make Brad an unlikable character. He can resort to blaming others for his own failings. When issues with his personal success turn outward, it makes him seem less like tragic figure suffering for a noble cause and, especially when he is ungrateful towards his caring wife, more like a self-centered asshole.

Thankfully, the supporting cast eventually calls Brad on his bullshit. It’s a relief when even the college aged characters burst his bubble of self-absorption and point out his narrowmindedness, but his son is the main catalyst for change. Despite his age, Troy is a calm, self-assured individual and without his father’s crippling self-doubt. The realistic interplay between father and son is heartwarming as Troy’s confidence gives his dad hope and purpose. Regardless of his current position in life, Brad still made an impact on the world through raising his son. Some of the conclusions White comes to may be cliché, but his belief in the value of family and parenthood over material wealth still holds weight. It may not overcome a degree of navel-gazing, but, in an age of increasingly exhibitionist behavior, Brad’s Status is a worthwhile reminder of what defines true success.

3/5 stars.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

When people first came out of screenings of Avatar, they spoke of wonder and amazement. They talked about being transported to a world unlike anything they had ever seen before and in a way they had never experienced. But I never felt that way. To me, it was derivative world with an even more derivative plot. The most noticeable thing about the CG world was just how expensive it must have been to render. Not creatively challenging. Expensive. I mention this because I think I finally understand how those people felt back in 2009. Luc Besson (Léon: The Professional) has done what James Cameron tried, but couldn’t accomplish. In Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, he adapts a comic series with incredible devotion. The story follows Valerian (Dane DeHaan; A Cure for Wellness) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne; Paper Towns), special agents of the human empire in the 28th century. The titular city floats through space and houses millions of individuals of all species living in all biospheres, but there is a problem. Deep within the city is a growing radioactive zone and none of the soldiers sent there have come back alive. Valerian and Laureline must find out what is causing the disturbance before it threatens the lives of the city’s many inhabitants.

The city is a believably massive and maze-like entity.

Besson’s visuals are on another level entirely. These are some of the most creative and hyper-detailed renderings ever put to screen. Some of these may be pulled from the original comic, but it’s clear that Besson and his team of concept artists put a staggering amount of labor and love into every frame. Opening scenes of a peaceful, primitive species on a beach planet are genuinely awe-inspiring. Water shimmers and color radiates with life. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Besson uses every spectrum of the rainbow and doesn’t succumb to the dull tones used to make a film seem “realistic”. There is so much sheer variety in the film’s settings. While Avatar only featured a jungle, Valerian has deep sea exploration, life-sized nervous systems, and the most gorgeous semiconductor manufacturing you will ever see. All of these environments have the originality and detail to sustain entire films of their own, but they have mere cameos here because there is so much other creativity to show. There is even an inventive spin on the standard seedy desert flea market sci-fi trope. The market is situated in the middle of the desert, but visitors need to use special virtual reality gear to phase themselves and their belongings in and out of the market. With the equipment on, the area is a bustling bazaar filled with diverse species selling anything you could want, legal or not. Besson uses this as the perfect setting for a heist. As Valerian sneaks in and out of the virtual reality, the tense subterfuge is contrasted with images of him walking through an empty desert to comical effect. This is just one of the many examples of how the incredible effects elevate common scenarios.

This is only one of the many, varied locations.

It’s a shame that the beautiful images have to feature two disappointing leads. DeHaan and Delevingne only have a small fraction of the chemistry the script demands of them and fall too easily into archetypes with DeHaan as the overconfident asshole and Delevigne as the uptight one. DeHaan’s cocky delivery never has the charm needed and Delevigne is relegated to nagging and rolling her eyes. The plot itself mostly serves as an excuse to traverse the varying environments within the city. While it does feature endearing side characters, particularly a trio of enterprising informants, the film’s narrative and its mismatched leads are a disappointment. Fortunately, this is a movie where the strengths can mask the flaws. The unbridled artistry that went into every landscape and every character create a computer-generated world of pure delight. For those who can overlook mediocre writing, Besson and company have produced visuals that will be talked about for years to come.

4/5 stars.