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.”

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

The Neon Demon

'The Neon Demon' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 24, 2016 

[Theater]

Written by: Nicolas Winding Refn; Mary Laws; Polly Stenham

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn

Elephant in the room: there are more lines of dialogue in Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film than there were in his last. That wasn’t enough to stop The Neon Demon from scoring Refn his second-straight booing at the Cannes Film Festival. The film is still delicate as fine china when it comes to plot but this is Refn as I like him: at least somewhat accessible. Booing him this time seems more like a ritualistic exercise than a just reaction.

Cautionary tale about a teen who puts her high school career on hold to take modeling gigs in Los Angeles epitomizes the Refn-ian vision: lots of bright, pretty colors colliding and compensating for the stark lack of light elsewhere on screen (i.e. each time there’s an alley, a corner or anything capable of throwing shadows); a heightened sexuality that frequently veers into the perverse before fully tipping over into depravation. Most characters stare more than they speak, their inactivity designed to draw attention to form, not function. A psychosexual soundtrack courtesy of regular collaborator Cliff Martinez.

Yeah, so . . . about that staring obsession. Unlike in Only God Forgives it actually serves a purpose here. The pulpiest bits of the story concern the danger young Jesse (Elle Fanning, who celebrated her 17th birthday during filming) finds herself in when she becomes the object of a make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone)’s affections. Jesse’s natural beauty starts posing a major threat to other models, specifically Sarah (model-turned-actress Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), women terrified that their time in the spotlight is quickly coming to an end with the arrival of such an angelic, naive presence. Long, lustful stares carry a tension that’s more palpable than it is logical: are we really supposed to believe one of these women is better looking than the other?

Passing glances evolve into death stares as Jesse catches the eye of Alessandro Nivola’s brutally cold fashionista. If haughtiness is an indication of expertise, this guy has had all the experience. Refn, self-described as a pornographer, remains steadfastly committed to the physique: cameras ogle over Jesse’s long legs and Rapunzelian hair constantly. As we transform from viewers to voyeurs, we become haunted by this combination of wanting to stop watching but being physically unable to do so. There’s just something so watchable about The Neon Demon, an obsession to know more that gave me flashbacks of the 2011 haunting beauty that was Drive.

Refn may still be a few challenging movies shy of earning comparisons to contemporary provocateurs like Gaspar Noé and Lars Von Trier (a fellow Dane), but here he is, persisting anyway. Once again the world as he sees it is a brutal, cruel construct, a jagged jumble of broken hearts and heinous acts carried out in the name of self preservation. Malone’s necrophiliac tendencies demonstrate the depths to which these women will sink to obtain whatever it is they perceive Jesse having over them. (What that was was never clear to me but then again, it’s been awhile since I last thumbed through an issue of Vogue.)

The Neon Demon doesn’t break much, if any, new ground in its exploration of the vacuum of happiness that is the fashion industry. It’s neither a history lesson nor a revelation. Perhaps the movie is best when we consider the specifics of the clichés, like how Keanu Reeves takes a stock character and turns him into something we come to fear or the metaphorical beauty of Jesse’s fall from grace landing her at the bottom of an empty pool. Or how uncertain we are that her fellow models are even human. Given the potency of this hallucinogenic trip, it’s safe to say that in 2016 Refn is found reaching for his 2011 highs rather than stooping to his 2013 lows. Thank the neon demons for that.

Recommendation: The Neon Demon represents Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s most female-driven film so far. Some have dismissed this as a sexist, sadistic bit of pretense but that’s overly harsh. It may not be the most original film, nor one where we get all the answers to life’s problems but on the basis of its twisted, mesmeric visuals, The Neon Demon is further proof that Refn is a director to keep an eye on going forward. A great leap forward for the young Elle Fanning, as well. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “She’s a diamond among a sea of glass.”

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

Pan

Release: Friday, October 9, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Jason Fuchs

Directed by: Joe Wright

We’re off to Never, Neverland, but unfortunately not quite like in Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman.’

No, Joe Wright’s reboot of a Disney classic is a lot more subdued. This spirited adventure is, at best, an acoustic interpretation of that song and, come to think of it, why didn’t they use that as one of the crazy chants Blackbeard’s band of lunatic pirates sang with all their hearts in the beginning of the movie? Rather than going with a more overt but potentially hilarious modern metal classic they went with Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and The Ramone’s ‘Blitzkrieg Bop.’

Oh no, it’s another The Great Gatsby — all flash and flesh but no heart or soul; production value worth millions but a story that’s worth a dime a dozen. While Baz Luhrmann’s stylistic flourishes served at least some purpose — the life and times of not only the great Jay Gatsby but the indomitable spirit of the roaring twenties coincided beautifully with his lavish and dynamic directorial style — the excess of excess here in Pan more often than not distracts from a story that has very little new to say, despite being an origins story.

Pan begins in literal darkness, in a London orphanage where young boys just like Peter (Levi Miller) have been dropped off at the stoop and bid adieu by their parents for various reasons. Bomber planes are attacking the city during the height of World War II but amidst all the aerial chaos there swoops and dives, glides and gallivants a flying pirate ship in search of more boys to abduct. The orphanage turns out to be the last stop for these poor boys in this world as they are systematically turned over to the evil Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) who then transports them to Neverland, a mystical realm he rules over with a mischievous grin and magnificent wig.

Eventually Peter is snatched up as well and taken to this land beyond space and time, but when he gets there seemingly nothing exists beyond the vast expanse of mines and misery as Blackbeard is still searching for more fairy dust, the only thing that will allow him to live forever youthful. After only a single day in the mines, Peter proves himself a rebellious tyke as he gets into a confrontation with several of Blackbeard’s minions over who was the one to find the most recent chunk of fairy dust. When he fails to convince anyone that it was in fact him, he’s forced to walk the plank. Instead of dying immediately upon impact, Peter finds out at the least ideal time possible — right before he hits — that he can fly. (Aren’t movies great?)

Blackbeard, meanwhile, is convinced this is the moment he feared: when the prophecy of the son of a human female and a male fairy returns to Neverland to kill him is fulfilled. The relationship between Blackbeard and Pan is tabled in favor of the gravitational pull Peter feels towards his mother whom he’s never had the chance to know. I suppose that makes sense given where we are on the Peter Pan timeline, but the former relationship would’ve been so much more interesting to explore. Striking a deal with fellow miner James Hook (Garrett Hedlund), Peter says that as long as Hook helps him find his mother he will help Hook and his goofy accomplice Smee (Adeel Akhtar) escape Neverland for good.

That’s before they get lost in the surrounding jungle and find themselves at the mercy of Rooney Mara’s Tiger Lily, who’s unfortunately become the bane of many critics’ experiences, and her clan of untrusting Piccaninnies, all donned in garb that wouldn’t look so out of place in an old-fashioned Gatsby get-together. Mara, while remaining a likable enough presence, absolutely does not justify the film’s awkward quota of white women as her emotive power becomes reduced to flat and uninspired line readings. And while this radical bit of casting does stick out, it’s not as offensive as Pan failing to justify itself as anything more than another cash-in on the current trend of remaking classic animated films as live-action spectacles.

Pan, despite its visual wonder — the exploration of the Fairy Kingdom ought to earn the film at least an Oscar nod for Best Production Design — is a chore to sit through, frequently lapsing into giddy fits of excitement or faux-terror that are aimed squarely at the little ones while willfully ignoring the grown ups in attendance. Its many characters come across as stenciled cut-outs of virtually every children’s movie version of the good guys and bad guys. Children probably won’t recognize their genericness, but their parents should. The parents who thought Pan could actually massage their initial hesitation into bittersweet nostalgia.

The child inside me thought it could work. The child inside me is a little disappointed. At least Jackman and Miller fare pretty well. The former is suitably sleazy while the latter is an inspired choice to play the titular character. Hopefully we’ll see him in the sequel(s). Considering how poorly Wright’s reimagining has already performed, I’m not sure how long the wait will be for future installments but something tells me it could be longer than a single night’s sleep.

Recommendation: Pan‘s a film for kids of this generation but unfortunately not for those growing up with Peter Pan. A loud, colorful and rushed production filled with silliness but lacking in heart or originality. I’m starting to think that while Peter himself may never age, remaking and rebooting his story has had its time. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “Have you come to kill me, Peter?”

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

Comet

Release: Friday, December 5, 2014

[Netflix]

Written by: Sam Esmail

Directed by: Sam Esmail

Comet can pretend it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event but the stars shone so much brighter in the universes it has been melded by, spectacular constructs like the intricate and heartrending Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and 500 Days of Summer.

Bearing the heartbreak of the former while resembling more of the latter’s narrative nonlinearity and sophistication, Comet isn’t exactly a bad film when comparisons to romantic dramas of that ilk occur so naturally. It’s just unfortunate there isn’t much beyond a different cast that distinguishes Sam Esmail’s work. Of course, the case could be made that his film pays homage but where exactly does one draw the line between dedication and duplication? A few colorful, creative scene transitions beautified by special effects don’t quite cut it for this cynic reviewer. Oh, and the film is supposed to be set within a parallel universe. Although a bit hokey, that angle is one I can work with.

Prior to what is purported to be a spectacular meteorological event, Dell (Justin Long) bumps into the beautiful Kimberly (Emmy Rossum) as they wait in a line to access a park that will provide the ideal vantage point. Caught up in one of his verbalized streams of consciousness stating his lack of faith in humanity, as only a character played by Long can, Dell is saved from being hit by a passing car by the new girl. He spends the remainder of this evening pining after her, lamenting the fact she’s already spoken for by some guy who happens to look good but quite clearly has no personality. He decides the meteor shower can wait until he’s finished his stalking.

Comet then jettisons us out of this present tense and into another, one somewhere in the near future (this film covers a six-year period), where the two are now an intimate couple. Times haven’t changed so much as the dynamic of Long and Rossum’s interactions. We’re privy to heated arguments, weird phone calls, insults stemming from two people slipping out of love and into something more akin to hostility. Resentment. Chain smoking cigarettes becomes a motif. And Long’s character doesn’t become much more likable, though he is certainly interesting. This is probably one of his better performances, though it’s veiled behind pretentiousness and petulance. Conversely Rossum magnetizes with her quick wit and hipster glasses.

Then the narrative shifts yet again, sending us back into a place where things were more romantic. The story constantly moves and changes, with almost every scene introducing a different phase in the relationship. And the process is far from chronological. That the film manages to maintain our interest at all stems from an incisive, brutally honest script that lays bare all the faults — some of which are all too apparent and others that are created through the simple but terrifying passage of time — of a relationship that seems to have been contrived from the very beginning. Who shakes hands to formally kick off a relationship? Who does that?

Apparently this couple. Comet would be a memorable picture but — at the risk of repeating myself — it’s far too reminiscent of Tom and Summer’s experiences together and the slide into their own private oblivion. Whereas 500 Days of Summer justified its experimentation with practical structure (“500 days” prepared us for the inevitable) Comet seems to just drag on and on, never seeming to settle on a pattern or even pretending like one would make any difference. It’s a shame because the performances are strong, the cinematography gorgeous and emotions do run high. Truly, it’s difficult at times to believe Rossum is in fact not in a real relationship with Long but the director himself. (I’m sorry, was that a spoiler?)

Comet has its moments of brilliance but it’s a true challenge shaking the feeling of déjà vu. Of course, there are worse fates for a film steeped in a generally predictable and melodramatic genre.

Recommendation: Visually dazzling and capably performed, it’s frustratingly difficult to ignore Comet‘s contrived nature. For great performances from its two stars, I do recommend a viewing. But be advised, you probably should have a high tolerance for Justin Long. He tested my patience at times and there’s a good chance he will yours. Emmy Rossum is a newcomer to me and she’s a delight. I’d recommend it more for what she puts forth actually.

Rated: R

Running Time: 91 mins.

Quoted: “Why does it feel so impossible to let you go? It’s an addiction, you know. That’s all it is. It’s a biochemical addiction. It’s so stupid. If you think about it relationships are totally narcissistic. Basically, you’re just looking for someone who’ll love you as much as you love yourself. That’s all it is.”

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

The Wind Rises

The-Wind-Rises-Poster

Release: Friday, February 21, 2014

[Theater]

Hayao Miyazaki’s final film is poetry in motion. It was also Oscar-worthy this year, receiving a nomination for Best Animated Feature. Unfortunately the spotlight fell upon Disney’s Frozen in a move no one is really going to call surprising. It is unfortunate only because this is a film that deserves more than just the tip of the hat. Its a hats-off kind of motion picture event, not just because of the gorgeous animation but due to its epic sweeping narrative that has the presence of mind to include a heartfelt romance, engaging historical context and a dreamlike, thought-provoking perspective.

The Wind Rises is the Japanese artiste’s eleventh outing as a director whose filmography dates back to 1979 and includes the likes of critically and commercially successful animations such as Castle in the Sky, Porco Rosso and Spirited Away. If Miyazaki’s other works are as colorful and emotionally satisfying as this film — and according to major sites, they seem to be that way — we are looking at a unique director insofar as he’s in a tier of consistently satisfying filmmakers that a great many will fail again and again at breaking into.

His swan song concerns the fascinating life and career of a hardworking and intelligent Japanese youth named Jiro (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the English language version), as well as his quest for finding love and happiness in the arms of a woman.

The film opens with a young boy going for an early morning joy ride in a single-propeller plane mounted to the top of his parents’ home before things take a turn for the ugly. As it so happens, this all occurs in a dream sequence. One of the focuses of Miyazaki’s film is that Jiro tends to live a life filled with these. Unfortunately he is also acutely near-sighted, a condition that disqualifies him from ever becoming a pilot. So he decides to dedicate his life to working on planes. In time he would carve out a career as one of the world’s leading aerospace engineers. His efforts almost single-handedly propel his country into the forefront of technological advancement during the years of World War II.

The Wind Rises is filled to the brim with gorgeous animation. You’d have to dig deep to find another film not made by this master of animation that is as vibrant and passionately detailed as it (okay, one that’s also not this year’s Oscar winner). The sky is a robin’s egg blue canvas upon which planes streak like paintbrushes in little strips of white, diving and soaring. The places in which major character developments occur epitomize the romanticism in Miyazaki’s farewell film. Sunsets bleed oranges and reds. After watching, one tends to carry around in their memory vivid snapshots of the film’s strongest images, including the one found on the movie poster.

Color doesn’t just apply to the artwork, though. Characters bubble with eccentricities, and this includes our protagonist. Although Jiro remains as a relatively static character in terms of his genuine likability and affection for aircraft, it’s his obsession that makes him a curious specimen. As previously mentioned, he daydreams often and is frequently teased about this by some of his peers, including another brainiac named Honjô (John Krasinski). Jiro’s boss straight out of school is a comically short and ill-tempered man (Martin Short) who grows to appreciate Jiro as a company asset. This man’s greatest quirk is his hair, bouncing up and down whenever he moves or yells. Other, lesser characters are also imbued with some cartoonish elements as well.

What really distinguishes this anime, though, is its level of realism. A great many films that fall into the category of ‘anime’ tend to really overdramatize the stories they tell — such is the appeal of the genre. Characters’ voices are manic, their mouths and bodies move frenetically and the action surrounding them often can be chaotic to the point of causing headaches. By contrast The Wind Rises is patient, perhaps even a little plodding at times. At over two hours in length, it’s a sprawling journey that not only pays homage to a troubled nation in a time of great crisis, but one that features a tender love story at its center.

When in the earlygoing Jiro helps save a young girl named Naoko (Emily Blunt)’s maid by carrying her from the site of a train accident following a massively destructive earthquake, he seems to win her affection then and there. It would be many years before a chance run-in with the same woman, Naoko, would reunite the two. The couple’s passion for one another feels real and honest; sweet and worth the time required to buy into it.

Slow pace aside, The Wind Rises is a breathtaking production wherein style beautifully complements the spectacle.

the-wind-rises10

4-0Recommendation: Here is a thoroughly engaging film that many should spend the time watching, in whatever format they possibly can. It’s historically significant and emotionally rewarding. I, for one, have a great deal of homework to do as I attempt to go back and invest myself in Miyazaki’s other equally praise-worthy films that have been created over the course of several decades.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 126 mins.

Quoted: “Airplanes are just cursed dreams, waiting for the sky to swallow them up.”

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