When a Song Gets Bigger than the Movie: Stay Alive

This one is for all the daydreamers and travelers out there who want to be anywhere but stuck at home right now.

The song ‘Stay Alive’ is one of several the Argentinian-Swedish indie folk singer/songwriter José González contributed to the soundtrack for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a 2013 adventure drama/fantasy starring Ben Stiller, Sean Penn, Kristen Wiig and Adam Scott. The movie is an amazing journey, taking audiences on a globetrotting adventure when Life magazine photographer Walter (Stiller) embarks on a search for a famous photographer whose work is to be included in the final print edition of the mag, which is about to transition into digital form. While a lot of critics were divided on Stiller’s direction and the whimsical, disjointed narrative, few took issue with the visual composition.

What’s more amazing than the cinematography and scenery is that, even after all these years, it’s the music that stays with me. Few soundtracks move me in the way The Secret Life of Walter Mitty did. Put together by Theodore Shapiro, it features, among others, Of Monsters and Men, Arcade Fire, Jack Johnson and David Bowie, so there is no shortage of inspiring songs I could have used here.

But ‘Stay Alive’ — and I do stress the fact this is the one without the gerund, because f**k The Bee Gees — is just one of those songs that marks a moment in time for me. From the opening piano keys and the ticking clock, through to the drum-fed crescendo, the poetic lyrics written by Ryan Adams and Shapiro and vocalized by González, it’s a quietly profound song that swells with great hope. It’s a meditation on life and love; a journey toward fulfillment that both compliments the physical journey Stiller goes on and transcends it. Indeed, this song captures the spirit of the movie best.

Then again, I have a propensity for being dramatic and often suffer delusions of grandeur so, I don’t hold it against anyone for not being moved in the same way.


Stay Alive (lyrics by Ryan Adams and Theodore Shapiro)

There’s a rhythm in rush these days
Where the lights don’t move and the colors don’t fade
Leaves you empty with nothing but dreams
In a world gone shallow
In a world gone lean

Sometimes there’s things a man cannot know
Gears won’t turn and the leaves won’t grow
There’s no place to run and no gasoline
Engine won’t turn
And the train won’t leave

Engines won’t turn and the train won’t leave

I will stay with you tonight
Hold you close ’til the morning light
In the morning watch a new day rise
We’ll do whatever just to stay alive
We’ll do whatever just to stay alive

Well the way I feel is the way I write
It isn’t like the thoughts of the man who lies
There is a truth and it’s on our side
Dawn is coming
Open your eyes
Look into the sun as the new days rise

And I will wait for you tonight
You’re here forever and you’re by my side
I’ve been waiting all my life
To feel your heart as it’s keeping time
We’ll do whatever just to stay alive

Dawn is coming
Open your eyes
Dawn is coming
Open your eyes
Dawn is coming
Open your eyes
Dawn is coming
Open your eyes

Look into the sun as the new days rise
There’s a rhythm in rush these days
Where the lights don’t move and the colors don’t fade
Leaves you empty with nothing but dreams
In a world gone shallow
In a world gone lean

But there is a truth and it’s on our side
Dawn is coming open your eyes
Look into the sun as a new days rise

When a Song Gets Bigger than the Movie: Walking on a String

‘Walking on a String’ — a collaboration between The National frontman Matt Berninger and solo singer/songwriter Phoebe Bridgers.

This song is featured in the Zach Galifianakis comedy Between Two Ferns: The MovieIt plays during a short scene where Team Two Ferns gathers at a bar.

I have been a fan of The National for quite some time, since my friend turned me onto their third studio album Alligator (2005) back in college. If Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler were born in Ohio, you would get Matt Berninger. Their voices are uncannily similar. But then you add the ethereal beauty of Phoebe Bridgers to the soothing baritone of Berninger and . . . well, I’m sorry; I love Zach Galifianakis but this song is just so much bigger than the movie. It pretty much eclipses the movie by some measure, and to be clear I don’t mean that in the sense it became more popular but rather in terms of emotive power. But I prefer to think of it this way; I would have never heard this song if I never watched Between Two Ferns: The Movie.

Berninger: “[Zach] had an important scene in a honky-tonk bar in middle America and needed a band and a song and said I could do whatever I wanted. My wife Carin and I wrote the lyrics really quickly and I called Tony Berg to produce. I didn’t realize he was in the studio [with Phoebe] at the time but she graciously let me crash her sessions and that’s when we had the idea to turn it into a duet.”


Walking on a String (lyrics by Matt Berninger and Carin Besser)

The things you said are hanging in the middle of my mind tonight
I can’t turn them off
I try to worry for your soul but I forget to
All the time
I’m in a twisted web and I can’t pull my
Head from it

I think about you walking on a string
It always brings me back here
Into the garden
By the hand
You’ve always had me
Walking on a string

I knew that I was dead before you touched my lonesome skin
You’re never running out of ways to warm your way back in
I hang my head and feel the oxygen drain
I think about you walking on a string
And it always brings me back here

Into the garden by the hand
Anyone who knows what love is will understand
You’ve always had me
Walking on a string

In a web, I can’t escape it
You’ll always warm your way back in
To my lonesome soul and take it
You’ve always had me walking on a string

In a web
I can’t escape it
You’ll always warm your way back in
To my lonesome soul and take it
You’ve always had me walking on a string

Ad Astra

Release: Friday, September 20, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Ethan Gross; James Gray

Directed by: James Gray

Ad Astra is not the increasingly familiar, inspiring saga of human achievement the marketing has been pitching it as. It’s something much more honest and intriguing — a terrifyingly lonely quest for truth that dares put us in our place and puts potential limits on our endeavors to “conquer” the Final Frontier.

Hauntingly beautiful and just plain haunting in many respects, Ad Astra (the title an abbreviation of the Latin phrase per aspera ad astra — “through hardships to the stars”) plots its moves deliberately and yet boldly, focusing not on the stars but rather the ultimate in strained relationships. It’s a grand star-strewn metaphor about a son’s physical and emotional search for the father who may or may not have abandoned him in the noble pursuit of his own, fatally unshakable beliefs — intelligent life exists somewhere in this vast chasm, I just know it dammit — one that traverses billions of miles, straddles a number of celestial bodies and asks some big, heady questions about our place in space along the way.

Co-written by director James Gray and Ethan Gross the film is very moody, swelling with so much melancholy and inner turmoil you just want to give it a hug, but this isn’t a pure mood piece. Ad Astra also has a comet of pure entertainment value streaking through it, this deliberately paced, profoundly ponderous sojourn constantly aware of its more plodding tendencies and therefore joltingly — and yet wonderfully fluidly — breaking itself up into episodic, exciting conflicts both man-made and space-provided: from incompetent leaders, raging baboons and pirates on the Moon, to Martian bureaucracy and the blue dusty rings of Neptune, everything and the floating kitchen sink is thrown in the direction of Brad Pitt, playing an emotionally compartmentalized Major on the hunt for his ultra absentee father, long thought to have perished as part of the ill-fated Lima Project, but new evidence suggests he’s not only alive but potentially the source of the devastating energy surges that have been throttling Earth for years.

The ruggedly handsome Pitt, one of the last of a dying breed of bonafide movie stars, becomes Roy McBride, a military man of Neil Armstrong-like unflappability and Rockefellerian royalty. The latter makes him uniquely qualified for a top-secret mission in an attempt to make contact with the Lima crew — namely his father, the revered H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) — while his inhuman ability to stay calm no matter the circumstances is proven in a white-knuckle spectacle of an opening, wherein a routine service job on Earth’s mighty space antenna is interrupted by one of those powerful energy surges, flinging bodies to their deaths and/or into low Earth orbit. (For the acrophobic and the vertigo-susceptible, it’s advised you look away during this scene.)

Ad Astra pairs its desperate, outward-bounding voyage with an intensely personal journey inward, a familiar dichotomy somewhat alleviated of cliché thanks to the committed and understated performances. As an exploration of masculine pride and guilt the movie proves toughness, strength and conviction are tragically finite resources in the vast reaches of the Universe’s foyer. Pitt and Jones, consummate actors ever, here are committed to going cold so much you’d think their body temperatures dropped as a result. They create a tension between parent and child that truly matches their inhospitable environment. There’s a tussle near Neptune — and damn it if it’s not one of the most pathetic things you’ll ever watch. That’s a compliment to the movie, to the direction.

The performances are just outstanding. Pitt’s in particular is a major factor in Ad Astra‘s sobering vision of not just our fragility but our arrogance in space. Behind Pitt’s eyes is a frightened boy shook well before he ever took flight. Jones as Clifford, a shell of his former self and yet somehow more statuesque and brutally resolute in his objective. These two impact the movie like the energy waves battering our Solar System and our planet.

It’s just unfortunate that comes at the expense of others, such as Liv Tyler, playing the earthbound Eve, who can only get a word in edgewise in dream-sequences and flashbacks. Meanwhile Ruth Negga‘s Helen Lantos, a 100% Martian-born native who has only been to Earth once as a child, plays an integral role in the emotional maturation (or deterioration, take your pick) of Roy’s mission. And Donald Sutherland is an actor I enjoy so much five minutes with him is both welcomed and nowhere near enough. He plays Clifford’s former colleague, an aging Colonel who helps Roy get from Earth to the Moon, where the pair will confront the true cynicism of our species head on, where Mad Max-inspired chaos reigns.

The specifics of this all-time dysfunctional relationship must, almost unfairly, compete for your attention with the unforgettable imagery provided by DoP Hoyt van Hoytema, who, in searing both dreamscapes and nightmarish visions into your consciousness, may have just eclipsed his own already ridiculous benchmark set in the 2014 galaxy-spanning Interstellar (an obvious visual and to some degree thematic forebear of Ad Astra, along with the likes of Apocalypse Now and 2001). If there is any reason to see this movie, it’s the opportunity to watch a certifiable genius — a modern Bonestell — work his magic.

“I just need some space to think.”

Recommendation: Director James Gray is on record saying he aspired to create “the most realistic depiction of space travel ever put on film,” and with the help of Ad Astra‘s understated but brilliant performances and the typically mind-blowing work of Swedish cinematographer Hoyt van Hoytema, he certainly seems to have achieved that. As a movie of extremes and limitations, this certainly isn’t a populist movie. Ad Astra is a colder, harsher vision of our cosmic reality. Maybe I’m just a cold person, because this is going to go down as one of my favorites all year (not to mention it features one of the best promotional tags I’ve come across in some time). 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 122 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Alpha

Release: Friday, August 17, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt

Directed by: Albert Hughes

As the dog days of summer are finally upon us, you might consider taking a walk somewhat off the beaten path by checking out Albert Hughes’ Alpha. A prehistoric epic adventure set 20,000 years ago in unrecognizable Europe, it offers a tale of suffering, survival and unexpected alliances, chronicling a young boy’s harrowing journey back home and the help he receives along the way after he becomes separated from his tribe.

Visually hypnotic, lavishly costumed and boasting a rich, ambient sound design, Alpha represents something of a dying breed of cinema when it comes to its more technical aspects. It feels far more like an artifact from a long forgotten period than a movie released in 2018. The last ice age as a setting — as much a mystical concept as it was an actual reality — reminds us of how nice it is to get away from civilization for awhile. Hughes harnesses the sheer scale of this brave new world in a few breathtaking shots of the British Columbian landscapes (a great substitute for paleolithic Europe) before homing in on a more specific purpose: what conditions might have precipitated this profound and unshakable bond we now share with dogs?

Despite its PG rating, Alpha traverses some pretty harsh terrain. Eons ago the world was a more natural place but also more hostile. Lifespans were generally characterized as short and brutal. We get a sense of all of that in this film, though the camera tidies themes up a bit by keeping most of the grisly details out of frame. Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Keda, a teenager with a lot to live up to being the son of tribal chief Tau (Game of Thrones‘ Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). The epically bearded Icelandic actor imbues him as a demanding leader but also as a deeply loving father.

He is to lead his equally epically-bearded cadre of hunter-gatherers on an annual expedition to bulk up on food supplies for the coming winter. Throughout the early stages they frequently reference “the great beast.” Chief Tau insists it is Keda’s time to learn the ways of his people, while Rho (Norwegian model and actress Natassia Malthe) is less convinced of her son’s preparedness. Keda takes his initiation beating all the same — as if this custom can actually prepare him for the physical ordeals he is about to endure over the course of several grueling months.

Alpha charts a path through the vast and spectacular wilderness so easy to follow no amount of snowdrift will disorient you. Given its economic narrative, there isn’t much room for depth and nuance beyond the broad strokes of demonstrative acting. There isn’t a great deal of personality to the human characters but Smit-McPhee manages to impress in a quiet, unpretentious capacity. Like the punishing elements that surround him, he feels natural, authentic — especially in moments of peril. The authenticity goes beyond the visual. Alpha even touts its own language, with linguistic anthropologist Christine Shreyer tasked with approximating the kinds of sounds these very early people might have used to communicate.

Of course, Alpha won’t set the world on fire. It is effective for what it is — perhaps even powerful given its ostensibly restrictive MPAA rating — but I won’t hold any pretense this historical drama will siphon off even a modest chunk of the steadily superhero fatiguing public. And that is regrettable given how refreshing Alpha often feels.

Recommendation: To some extent Alpha feels like a more sanitized version of The Revenant, and while that might sound like damning with faint praise again I reiterate its PG rating. It is quite impressive what the film is able to do within those confines. And speaking of limitations, the other thing I really like about Alpha is that “epic adventure” is not a misnomer. It is indeed that, only captured in 96 quite fleeting minutes. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 96 mins.

Quoted: “Pain will journey with us.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Your Name.

Release: Friday, April 7, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Makoto Shinkai

Directed by: Makoto Shinkai

To say Makoto Shinkai’s massively acclaimed anime is ambitious would be an understatement. Your Name. seems to be an opus on everything from teen awkwardness to the relationship between time and memory to astrology. At its core it’s a grand romantic tale but fastened to that are numerous other bells and whistles that make the prospect of caring more of an ordeal than it ought to be.

Your Name. tells of a country girl named Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) who’s grown tired of her adolescent life in the hills and yearns to live the life of a handsome city boy, perhaps someone like Taki (Ryûnosuke Kamiki) who lives in Tokyo. One morning Mitsuha awakens to find she has body-swapped with this boy and he with her. Dismissing the phenomenon initially as a dream, both are soon corrected with reminders from their own friends of how strange they have been acting recently.

That they seemingly can’t control when this happens, or even explain why it’s happening, is disconcerting to say the least. But as they experience the switches over and again the pair learn to establish “ground rules” so as to not leave too much of a footprint in one another’s daily lives. The opening third of the film is spent playing in this esoteric sandbox, approaching concepts like astral projection (or something like) pragmatically so that all of this, merely the set-up for the film proper, can feel both whimsical and “believable.”

Indeed, Your Name. doesn’t really get going until the body swapping stops and the perspective switches to that of Taki, who has once more become fidgety in his mundane existence. Determined to find a way to actually, finally meet this mystery girl, Taki begins exploring all his options. Understandably, his friends become concerned over his obsession. Armed with only a drawing and his rapidly fading memories, Taki makes the trek out to the fictional town of Itomori, only to find it destroyed in the aftermath of a comet that fragmented and collided with earth three years ago. For Taki, distance seems to be no object to finding true happiness. But traveling through time, well that’s another prospect entirely. Will they ever find a way to reunite?

More importantly, will anyone care by the time they do? I still haven’t really addressed the proper, metaphysical significance of that cosmic event, but at this point I’m starting to mimic Shinkai’s worst habits, I’d be stuffing more …. stuff into an already exposition-heavy review. Not that a more complete examination of the plot would rob potential viewers of the surprises in store, because quite frankly there are too many twists and turns to remember, much less ruin. Perhaps this is me not doing my due diligence here, but there’s so much about the film that I just don’t understand and have come to accept as that which I never will. Like how we make the leap from Mitsuha wanting to BE Taki to her actually falling in love with him. Or how each can forget the other’s name seconds after learning what it is.

The mental gymnastics that are required to keep up with everything ultimately make this romantic epic a chore to sit through. And it’s not enough to have a labyrinthian plot to sort through; we have to try to make sense of it alongside two prototypically “annoying” and angsty characters. It is all a little too precious and pretentious. But, to damn with faint praise here, at least the photorealistic animation makes all that mental taxation somewhat worthwhile.

Recommendation: I’ve often described my reactions to anime as something like binary code: there are ones and zeroes. I either love these films — like, really, really love them — or feel totally turned off by them. Alienated. If you are anything like me in that regard, you might do some research on the film before you buy a ticket. Shop around for similar films, maybe things you’ve seen before and make an informed decision. There’s a ton of stuff to absorb here. I can’t even say Your Name. is a “bad movie;” it’s just a little overwhelming, especially for those of us who aren’t devotees. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 106 mins.

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Moana

moana-movie-poster

Release: Wednesday, November 23, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Jared Bush

Directed by: Ron Clements; John Musker; Don Hall; Chris Williams

Moana might just be Frozen‘s spiritual, tropical sequel. But to be honest, I’m only just guessing that — I never saw Frozen. Couldn’t stand the hype. When hype for a film made by a film company I generally do not care for reaches Frozen levels, I tend to break out in hives. So I, you know, let it go.

I was similarly skeptical of Moana but eventually was won over by the casting of The Rock as a demigod named Maui, a boastful but affable caricature of the man himself who plays a major role in Moana (newcomer Auli’i Carvalho)’s voyage. Turns out, Carvalho and Dwayne Johnson go together like peanut butter and jelly. These two are wonderful together and they make a thoroughly clichéd adventure more palatable. (Plus Maui sports tattoos that come to life and with which he frequently interacts. Such was the novelty of the concept I was left wondering what Mike Tyson’s face tattoo would say or do.)

Moana is a film about empowerment and finding your higher calling in life — not exactly a first for Disney. But their latest finds separation by not only introducing a confident young woman but through an exploration of a culture that is woefully underrepresented in modern cinema. The Mouse House has often gotten by with formulaic storytelling dressed up in different outfits, and in Moana we don the cloth of a deeply spiritual Polynesian tribe. Our heroine, in a time-honored tradition, must confront her own limitations by putting herself through a series of physical and often emotional tests that will determine not only her future but that of her own people, a once-proud band of intrepid voyagers who have come to settle on the island of Monutui.

Moana, heiress to and the daughter of Chief Tui (Temuera Morrison) and Sina (Nicole Scherzinger), has a great fondness for the ocean. She’s captivated by its beauty and its infiniteness. Constantly drawn to the water’s edge as a child, she one day discovers a gem stone in the shallows, which happens to be the heart of an island goddess named Te Fiti. The stone was stolen by the demigod Maui in his attempt to gift humanity with the power of life and in a resulting fight it was lost to the depths. Now the ocean has seemingly chosen Moana as the one to restore it and to rid the Pacific islands of the darkness that has slowly been spreading ever since, a darkness that eventually hits Monutui.

When vegetation on the island starts dying off and fish become scarce, Moana suggests venturing beyond the reefs to search for what they need. Her father angrily rebuffs her, reminding her that her place in society is not on the ocean, but rather on land to take care of her people. With the encouragement of her eccentric grandmother Tala (Rachel House) who shows her a secret cave in which a fleet of boats have been permanently stored away — proof positive of her people’s history — Moana sets out on the open water, along with a mentally defective rooster named Heihei, to find Maui and to restore Te Fiti’s heart. When she finally encounters the demigod she starts to gain an understanding of what she has gotten herself into.

You see, Maui has lost his hook. And no that’s not a euphemism for him going insane. Although he is a bit kooky. Wouldn’t you be, though, if you had been stranded on a desert isle for an unspecified amount of time? Look what happened to Tom Hanks. Isolation is cruel and unusual punishment; it has turned a pro wrestler into a legitimate American Idol contestant. That’s right: The Rock can sing. And he can sing well. His moment comes in the form of ‘You’re Welcome,’ an upbeat little diddy that, resist as you might, will get your toes tapping. In it, he regales us with tales of badassery and tattooery. He’s “a hero of men.” But he’s lost his hook, the thing that gives him power to physically transform, to the monsters dwelling in the black depths of the Pacific.

Thus we get yet another one of those “You scratch my back, I scratch yours” subplots that Disney Animation animated films are so fond of, but rather than pad the run time the journey to the briny bottom gives us more insight into the mystical qualities of this universe. Down there we also get to meet Jemaine Clement‘s vainglorious crab Tamatoa. He gets a musical number of his own, also fun. Maybe now is a good time to point out how neither of these songs quite measure up to that of Carvalho’s ‘How Far I’ll Go.’ In fact ‘Shiny’ feels tedious when compared. Carvalho is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years. Her singing only serves to reinforce her character’s mental tenacity. It’s actually pretty inspiring. And every bit as empowering.

Moana is 100% devoted to character. The adventure itself not only builds it, but the film centers around a strong, likable young female. Not a damsel in distress. Not a drama queen. A real human being with hopes and aspirations, quirks and flaws. Apparently there were efforts made by the filmmakers to reduce the role gender would play in the narrative. A first draft, written by Taika Waititi, identified Moana as the only daughter in a family of five or six brothers, a detail that was later changed to her being an only child so greater emphasis could be placed on her journey of self-discovery. Despite those efforts Moana has a distinctly feminist lean. Many female characters play a crucial role in the film, be they the village crazy, a giant Monterey or an angry deity. Best of all, Moana’s success or failure isn’t measured based on her ability to attract a love interest. There’s nary a romantic subplot at all, for that matter. That feels more refreshing even than a splash in the ocean on a hot sunny day.

oops

4-0Recommendation: Fun, lively, visually spectacular, and boasting some great (original) music, Moana is a great one for the whole family. Even when I don’t typically go for Disney Animated Studios stuff, I had a blast with this one. I’ll thank Dwayne Johnson and a fun supporting cast for that. The film also serves as an impressive calling card for the Hawaiian newcomer. Highly recommended. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “If I was called Sebastian and had a Jamaican accent, you’d help me.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang

sky-ladder-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 14, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Directed by: Kevin Macdonald

If you have never heard of Cai Guo-Qiang, you are primed for a transcendent experience in Sky Ladder, a Netflix exclusive that delves into the personal and professional life of this blisteringly original Chinese contemporary artist.

In this quietly unassuming but bold and visually-oriented documentary from Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland; Touching the Void) we’re introduced to a modern Picasso, a visionary who expresses himself on the largest scales imaginable, through pyrotechnics and gunpowder. Across the world he has bathed cities in the light of his colorful, provocative works — the Illumination project in Berlin; the opening of his Ninth Wave exhibit in Tokyo; the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing; a message of peace and unity in a post-9/11 New York — and though the film is ultimately concerned with the artist’s fourth and most recent attempt to realize the most elaborate and challenging project of his career, the Sky Ladder, it finds time to showcase many of his other elaborate works along the way.

While tracking the progress of Guo-Qiang’s looming super-project in the present tense, Macdonald reaches back into the past, giving the artist plenty of room to breathe so he feels comfortable sharing his experiences growing up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Guo-Qiang is every bit the intellectual his exotic displays of organized chaos suggest he might be (and every bit the kind of creative free thinker Mao Zedong wished to eliminate under his regime), but more importantly he’s a man who has traveled a long and weary road. Not only is he a deep thinker and among the marquee names that have helped increase the visibility of modern Chinese artists, but the man is also easily relatable. He is a devout family man, willingly sharing his stories with his eldest daughter. Later we see him making a visit to his father, who has been stricken with a serious illness. The Sky Ladder project is also dedicated to his late grandmother, who died a month after watching it come into fruition in June of 2015. She was 100 years old.

Macdonald balances elements with a deft hand, making sure the creation around the creator doesn’t become preoccupied with the way it presents itself. This is a quietly profound story dealing in complex themes like Chinese culture, philosophy and government censorship whose framework stays on just the right side of simplistic. After all, Macdonald needn’t have slaved over finding ways to spice up the material. Guo-Qiang’s canvas — typically metropolitan skylines — does the work for him. His explosion projects punctuate the narrative with bursts of revitalizing energy as we sift through all of the elements that have come together in just the right way for the man to make a living out of blowing things up.

And yeah, about that . . . why explosions? Some context might be helpful: gunpowder, thought to have been discovered by 8th Century Taoists in search of immortality, was identified by the Chinese as the earliest chemical explosive (“fire magic”) before Europe and eventually the rest of the world began to fully realize its potential utility. We’re all familiar with its most common usage. Guo-Qiang explains how growing up in the Fujian province of Quanzhou led to his fascination with the stuff. Gunpowder in China has many practical uses, be they celebratory or otherwise. He noticed that its combustible properties could be channeled into positive forms of self-expression; to him the possibility of creation was just as readily apparent as that of destruction. These epiphanies would alter the course of his personal and professional life forever. Where he once followed in the footsteps of his father, a calligraphist and painter of some note, Guo-Qiang would soon start blazing a path all his own.

There are a great many reasons to get into this documentary. Firstly, it will require no more than 76 minutes of your time. I’ll say it again, too: this is a sensory experience to the point where the account feels more cinematic than journalistic (one can only imagine what this would have been like to watch on the big screen). Sky Ladder is not only a great escape into the wonders of modern art, it’s also an education. This is the epitome of redefining what art is and what it can be. The caveat to his form is its temporariness. Given that fireworks never seem to last long enough, the amount of resources and energy he pools into realizing these often fleeting visual spectacles tends to boggle the mind.

To top it all off, there’s a strong psychological component to the way his live shows and the grander scope of the narrative coalesce. For Guo-Qiang, many of the barriers he has had to overcome in his life have been political. It’s a shame, if entirely unsurprising, that we learn not everyone has been so eager to embrace him as a god among men. His form is entirely dramatic and can’t be packaged in traditional museums. Perhaps it’s enough to say that if, like me, your experience with “explosion projects” is more or less limited to your local Fourth of July displays, you absolutely owe it to yourself to discover what this uniquely hypnotic, visual feast has in store for you.

Recommendation: Must-see documentary for the artistically minded. (And even those just looking for “something cool to watch on Netflix.”) Incredible displays of immense complexity, color, power, emotion and originality. I have never seen anything like this before. Interested in more? I recommend visiting Mr. Guo-Qiang’s official site here

Rated: NR

Running Time: 76 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.upperplayground.com 

The Little Prince

'The Little Prince' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 5, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Written by: Irena Brignull; Bob Persichetti

Directed by: Mark Osborne

The Little Prince is a gem. It’s a crime it never received a theatrical release. It’s a heartwarming journey rivaling anything Pixar has created on an emotional and intellectual level, and perhaps it’s the complex, multi-layered animation that truly sets the film apart, interweaving crude stop-motion with crisp, computer-generated imagery to produce an aesthetic you’ll struggle to find elsewhere.

Kung Fu Panda director Mark Osborne’s enchanting tale is a reimagining of the 1943 French novella of the same name, penned by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a successful commercial pilot (and novelist, poet, aristocrat and journalist) prior to World War II. The man once traveled to American shores in an attempt to convince the government to bring the fight to Nazi Germany following his disenfranchisement from the French Air Force in the early 1940s. He spent a little over two years in the States writing what would later become three of his most popular works. He later would re-join the Force only to disappear mysteriously soon thereafter à la Amelia Earhart.

Saint-Exupéry’s experiences as an aviator factor into this modern interpretation of The Little Prince in curious ways. (It should be noted, however, that his original story was published before he enlisted.) Fantastical elements are of course front-and-center and the story is entrenched in the stresses of modern living, but under the surface lie untold mysteries and tales of bravery, heroism and self-discovery. Strong emotional hooks are drawn from an impressive, inspired voice cast and Osborne’s touch, though ultimately nothing unique, is just confident enough to steer the story in a direction that, come the end, very well may have you in tears. The good kind, of course.

We’re introduced to The Little Girl (Mackenzie Foy, who thus far has Interstellar, The Conjuring and Ernest & Celestine on her résumé, and at the time of writing she’s yet to turn 16) who lives in a very grown-up world driven by rules, schedules and obedience. Her Mother (Rachel McAdams) wants her to attend the prestigious Academy so she can grow up and become an essential, contributing member of society. The initial interview does not go well as the panel, led by Paul Giamatti‘s intimidating and overly harsh instructor, springs an unexpected question upon her that causes her to panic. Mother has a Plan B: make her daughter cram so much studying into each and every day of her summer vacation she’ll be sure not to have any distractions (i.e. friends).

Mother draws up an impossibly elaborate Life Plan and constructs it so that each minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year is accounted for. Soon enough, The Little Girl rebels. She befriends their eccentric, hoarding and elderly neighbor, The Aviator (Jeff Bridges), who is introduced as the scourge of this SimCity-esque neighborhood — one comprised of identical blocky houses and roads filled with cars driving identical speeds and in organized right-angled patterns. Mother looks at the situation like so: “Just think about [his] house being the reason [ours] is available. This is the place where you’ll learn to grow up and become Essential.” (I paraphrase.)

The Aviator is a wonderful creation, and Bridges brings the character to life in ways that are difficult to fathom. Practically speaking, his performance is little more than a voice laid over/synced up with a cartoon character. It’s not the genuine article, and yet, he is mesmeric as he regales The Little Girl about his past experiences with an enigma he calls The Little Prince, whom he met after crashing his plane in the Sahara Desert many years ago. The Little Prince (voiced by the director’s son Riley) shows him a world where everything is possible, a reality that The Aviator has been trying for years to communicate to anyone willing to listen. Finally he has found someone who will, even if her intelligence means she’s skeptical about certain details.

The Little Prince is a space-traveling young lad who once lived on a tiny planetoid, a celestial object so small you could traverse on foot in a matter of minutes and whose existence is constantly being threatened by hungry tree roots eager to take over the entire planet. He left this world and a Rose he fell in love with (voiced by Marion Cotillard for some reason) in search of greater truths amongst the cosmos. In the present day, The Little Girl decides it is her responsibility to track down The Little Prince and prove to The Aviator that he still does exist, and that even though he has grown into a jaded, passive adult, he never abandoned the child within.

The Little Prince astounds on a visual level. It is an exercise in contrasts, the real world from which The Little Girl temporarily escapes suffocating with its seriousness and sterility, while the universe expands into this wondrous, strange space in which individual worlds are populated by simplistic, insulated communities comprised of childless, passionless adult drones. Scale is quirkily reduced to something almost tangible. We’re not talking interstellar travel here, more like a weekend road trip amongst the stars. You’ll find the stop-motion animation reserved for backstories concerning The Aviator’s relationship with The Little Prince while the rest operates in a pristine, colorful world that gives Disney a run for its money.

Much like a Roald Dahl creation, The Little Prince refuses to condescend to its pint-sized viewers. It strikes a delicate balance between entertaining youngsters while providing the more jaded a few different ways to look at the lives they’ve shaped for themselves. Occasionally the chronicle trips into the realm of the pretentious with a few overly-poetic spits of dialogue that attempt to spice up an already fairly advanced narrative. It doesn’t have to try so hard. The exploration of just what it was that caused the kid in us to go away is profound enough on its own.

The Little Prince

Recommendation: The Little Prince offers adventurous viewers something a little different. Generally speaking the story arc isn’t something you’ll be experiencing for the first time, but it’s the incredible nuance and the textures and the layers to the animation that make it one of the most original works this former animated-film-skeptic has seen all year. Stellar performances abound. There’s even a cute fox voiced by James Franco, a Benicio del Toro-sounding snake and Albert Brooks is along for the ride so the cast is reason enough to check it out. Also, stop-motion. Have I mentioned how awesome the technique is? Yeah, it’s pretty awesome. Available on Netflix.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “It is only with heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Star Trek: Beyond

'Star Trek - Beyond' movie poster

Release: Friday, July 22, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Simon Pegg; Doug Jung

Directed by: Justin Lin

If this is the movie in which we go where no man has gone before, why does it feel like we’ve been here already?

Star Trek: Beyond, a beautifully crafted feel-good blockbuster, the third such film in a post-modern interpretation of the world’s second most popular star-themed science fiction property, is undeniably an impressive visual spectacle and a lot of fun to boot, but if it had any interest in remaining a topic of discussion amidst all the excited chatter about the year’s two other significant event pictures — Suicide Squad this August and Rogue One (ya know, that Star Wars spinoff thing) in December — it needed to do more than just rely on old-fashioned cast-and-crew camaraderie. Despite a solid 120 minutes of action and intergalactic intrepidity, each aspect strong enough to elevate a lesser narrative on their own, the new adventures we’re sent along in Beyond just aren’t enough to send the film into another dimension of greatness.

The best thing that can be said about Fast-and-Furious director Justin Lin wrestling control of the captain’s chair from previous helmer J.J. Abrams is that he was at least willing to conform somewhat to the rules and pre-established formula. More crucially, he manages to avoid inflecting the wrong intonations, such as those found in a universe in which car enthusiasts with criminal records end up doing favors for government officials unwilling to get their own hands dirty. This franchise’s sense of identity is also not lost in the hands of writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, an impressive feat considering how often the former is writing out of his comfort zone — though let’s not kid ourselves, these new Star Trek films aren’t exactly the stuff of bonafide sci-fi drama — and how little experience the latter has in writing for the screen, particularly at the blockbuster level.

In Beyond events accumulate in a way that proves to be, so far anyway, the ultimate test of the moral, emotional and psychological fibers of the crew and leadership of the mighty USS Enterprise. It also poses yet another challenge to the structural integrity of that very ship, subjecting the iconic vessel to one hell of a spectacular crash sequence that is sure to remain on everyone’s minds come the end of the year. Halfway into a five-year exploratory mission, James Kirk (Chris Pine) has grown restless and jaded with his captainship. He’s thinking there could be other ways in which he can distinguish himself from his father, the great George S. Kirk.

When they dock for supplies and some much needed rest at a nearby hub called Yorktown — a floating city protected from the vacuum of space by a transparent spherical shield — Kirk seeks the counsel of Commodore Paris (Shohreh Aghdashloo) as well as a promotion to Vice Admiral. It is here that Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) receives some life-changing (and potentially mission-altering) news of his own. Their uncertain futures become inextricably linked, leaving us to question whether one could survive, much less function, without the other. It’s entirely too easy to answer that.

Fortunately the considerably more intense, more tangible crux of Beyond does a lot of the heavy lifting. Beyond has a great big baddie in Idris Elba‘s menacing warlord Krall, on the hunt for some macguffin he needs to fire a weapon large enough to pose a serious threat to the continued existence of the Federation. After the Enterprise encounters and rescues a lone alien named Kalara (Lydia Wilson) who claims her ship has been stranded and needs help getting back, the crew are ambushed by a swarm of vessels that all but dismantles the Enterprise in one of the year’s most compelling attack sequences. There’s little you can do to prepare for these 15 minutes of pure drama. Even more impressive than the sheer scale and graceful movements of Krall’s battalion is the fact that the moment never disintegrates into a pixel party. State-of-the-art graphics rendering, the polished gem of a massive collaborative effort, makes you feel as though you’re swimming through stars and nebulae. (I didn’t see the film in 3D and now regret that decision.)

In the aftermath the crew find themselves disoriented and spread throughout the thick jungle of a nearby planet that they jettisoned to in their cute little individual escape pods. Not all of Kirk’s crew have remained out of Krall’s clutches, however, and the majority of what turns out to be a protracted second act finds the splinter groups trying desperately to reunite. Admittedly, the set-up allows us to become privy to a few conversations between characters we otherwise might never get, particularly between Spock, whose sense of humor is improving, and Karl Urban’s sardonic Bones.

Elsewhere, an isolated Scotty (Simon Pegg) encounters the mysterious Jaylah (Sofia Boutella). Boutella, covered in a striking combination of starkly colored make-up, instantly bolsters an already strong cast. As a warrior with a lot of pain and loss in her recent past following her own encounter with Krall, Scotty thinks she will be integral in helping the crew not only reunite but escape the planet. Despite her vows to never go near the prison camp Krall has established on this planet, Jaylah finds herself with no choice but to be brave, soon carving out her own role in the fight back against Krall’s plans to wipe out the Federation.

One thing that’s certainly surprising is how difficult it is to watch the film without thinking of the untimely passing of young Anton Yelchin, who has for three films enthusiastically embraced the spirited, brilliant Russian ensign Pavel Chekov, a character that in the long run is fairly minor. He has a significant role to fill here though and there’s no denying the tragic circumstances of his demise change the way we interact with him whenever he is on screen. We don’t so much watch him continue to build upon an innately likable persona as we do savor the opportunity.

Of course there’s more to cherish than the stereotype-shattering Russian who enjoys Scotch as opposed to vodka. In spite of itself Lin’s epic space saga often finds the time to thrill on ambitious new levels while paying tribute to the legacy that precedes it. If it can find ways to eliminate some of its more annoying habits like recycling boring clichés and hackneyed storytelling devices, then I see no reason why this franchise can’t live long and prosper.

Anton Yelchin and Chris Pine in 'Star Trek - Beyond'

Recommendation: Not the most inspired event film ever but it gets the job done and in style. Star Trek: Beyond works hard to deliver the fan service and in so doing tends to become something that will be harder to fall completely in love with for anyone who completely misses the significance of the unearthing of the USS Franklin. It is the beneficiary of some exemplary computer graphics technology and the action setpieces are universally thrilling, especially the final battle. If we’re to judge each of these entries based on that alone, this may be the best yet. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 122 mins.

Quoted: “This is where it begins, Captain. This is where the frontier pushes back!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The BFG

'The BFG' movie poster

Release: Friday, July 1, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Melissa Mathison

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Great Gallywampers and fiddly tweezlesticks, I is very pleased indeed that Steven Spielberg has delivered the goodles in his very first venture into Roald Dahl‘s brilliant imagurnation. The BFG is breathtaker beautiful, and not just thanks to its scrumptioutious imagery, neither. It recalls the warminess and serenity of Brian Cosgrove’s 1989 animated adventure and ‘n fact it mighty jus’ be more endearin’ because of the live-action interplayery.

No, don’t worry, I’m not gonna speak in Dahlian tongues for the entire review. That’s just my overly dramatic way of expressing relief that The BFG turns out to be the real deal, rather than a pale imitator. The story is clumsier than you might expect with a Spielbergian production — we find as many lulls in the story as we do frobscottle-induced farts (excuse me, whizzpoppers) — but that’s merely the product of a director’s faithfulness to the source material. Spielberg otherwise hits every major note with an assured and playful touch, his knack for conjuring powerful feelings of wonder and awe giving this sweet summer diversion a personality all its own.

Indeed, The BFG is mostly a success in that it doesn’t create any new problems. It merely inherits those of its ancestor — namely, the aforementioned inconsistent and at-times sluggish pace and a few leaps of faith in logic in service of a narrative that just may well be Dahl’s strangest and most fanciful. Story concerns a young girl named Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) who is whisked away one night from Mrs. Clonkers’ Orphanage by a huge, hooded creature and to Giant Country, a wondrous place filled with beauty. Do I smell a Best Visual Effects nomination? I do, as a matter of fact: that sequence in Dream Country by the dream tree is simply mesmeric.

But Giant Country isn’t total paradise, it’s fraught with danger as well. The other giants among whom the BFG ekes out a quiet existence as a Dream Blower are much larger, meaner and they eat human beings (or, beans, rather). After learning she’s not leaving Giant Country anytime soon, Sophie encourages her big friendly giant to stand up for himself and to rid the land of these brutes, led by Jemaine Clement‘s Fleshlumpeater, once and for all. The pair seek the help of the Queen (Penelope Wilton) and her Royal Army back in the real world to do just that.

As is the case with a great many Dahl adaptations, the suspension of disbelief is a requisite and that ability serves viewers well here, especially as the fearless Sophie encourages the two worlds to collide. The performances anchoring the film are so good they allow us to overlook many a flawed concept. And there are more than a few. Spielberg’s potential new muse in Mark Rylance loses himself in the role as the titular giant and very well might have upstaged David Jason’s original voice performance that made the larger-than-life being an unforgettable creation. His spoonerisms and awkward turns of phrase were a highlight of that original as they are here as well, and once again it’s a joy watching ten-year-old Sophie trying to update and expand his childlike vocabulary.

Rylance doesn’t do it alone, though. He gets tremendous support from the young Barnhill who embraces Sophie’s wide-eyed curiosity about the strange world surrounding her with real gusto. She’s also brilliant at balancing the heartbreak of growing up without parents with a sense of maturity that makes her as well-rounded a character as you’re likely going to find with a child actor. All those years ago Sophie had already been made a strong character thanks to Amanda Root’s precociousness and intellectual curiosity, and those qualities are only bolstered by Barnhill’s live-action incarnation. Most importantly, the quasi-parental bond between the two isn’t lost in translation. The problem of loneliness is resolved with respect for Dahl’s affinity for the weird very much intact come the tear-jerking conclusion.

One of the challenges Spielberg is up against with his take on a Dahlian classic is finding an audience outside of those loyal readers and those who keep the 1989 made-for-British-television special close to their heart. The BFG is certifiably obscure material but perhaps with names attached like Spielberg and Rylance it can reach for broader audiences. This uplifting, sweet tale of bravery and dream-making certainly deserves them.

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 7.45.12 PM

Recommendation: The BFG, as I have suspected since the announcement was first made, represents an ideal union of director and material. The world created by Roald Dahl is practically tailor-made for one of the world’s best when it comes to imaginative, inspiring filmmaking and the end product, while not perfect, is about as good as could be expected. The performances are wonderful and if you’re tired of the summer blockbuster trend, I have to recommend The BFG. Like, immediatarily. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Why did you take me?” / “Because I hears your lonely heart, ‘n all the secret whisperings of the world.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.joblo.com; http://www.imdb.com