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The Little Prince

Yeah, this kind of works–so, I’m going to give it a pass. The framing device narrative isn’t always successful, but I appreciated it as an inventive, new spin, on an old classic. I mean, it does sputter like an old bi-plane occasionally. But, wouldn’t you know it, “The Little Prince” always roars back to life just in time before hitting the ground. Go figure. It’s charming–and the stop motion animation is beautiful. This beloved children’s novella (by Antoine de Saint-Exupery), was adapted on film once before, over 40 years ago, as a live action musical. That approach brought mixed results, but I do recall seeing it in theaters for a grade school class trip. I remember it being haunting and sad. This version cheers it up a bit, plus makes it more child-friendly. So, parents–do what you will.

The classic story of “The Little Prince”, focuses on an aviator, who is forced to make an emergency landing in the desert. There, he encounters an odd, little boy, who claims to have descended from a tiny asteroid. Soon, he’s beguiling the pilot with outlandish tales of his journeys throughout the solar system. Along with his encounters with a snake, a fox, a king…and a rose. All of them, btw, embodied by actual performers (Bob Fosse, Gene Wilder, among others). This version, from animator Mark Osborne, gives that a wraparound story of a young girl (voiced by Mackenzie Foy) moving to a new town, and attending a prestigious school, spurred on by her ambitious, divorced mother (Rachel McAdams). Then, the little girl meets an elderly, retired-pilot neighbor (Jeff Bridges)–and her entire world changes.

“The Little Prince” premiered at Cannes, and this month was given a limited North American theatrical run, while simultaneously streaming on Netflix. Director Osborne has twice been nominated for Academy Awards for his animation work, mostly recently as the director of 2008’s “Kung Fu Panda”. Obviously, no slouch. And he brings a lot of exemplary craft, and loving homage to this ambitious project. Also, James Franco voices the Fox, Marion Cotillard the Rose, Benecio del Tor the Snake, and Albert Brooks the businessman. And Irena Brignull cowrote the screenplay. She co-penned “The Boxtrolls”. I really enjoyed “The Boxtrolls”.  There are other recognizable names lending their vocal chords too. It’s a talented team, and a lovely re-imagining. So, “The Little Prince” ain’t perfect, but it gets the job done.

Grade:  B

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“Hands of Stone”?

I’m holding out hope, even though current signs are not healthy. For one thing, The Weinstein Company is burying it. Late August opening? That’s a studio dumping ground–the only thing worse would’ve been Labor Day weekend. Plus, it appears to have a running time of only 105 minutes. A film about the epic five-decade career of Roberto “Manos de Piedra” Duran? A buck forty-five? You could do a entire miniseries on him! Also, this movie was apparently in the can since 2014. What was the holdup? I guess I should be pleased that they’ve even made a feature film about, perhaps, the greatest Hispanic boxing champion ever…but I remain wary. Fantastic seems unlikely, but maybe it will be pretty good.

“Hands of Stone” is based on a damn fine book, of the same name, by Christian Giudice–I highly recommend that you read that if you are a boxing fan. It exhaustively covers Duran’s (played by talented Edgar Ramirez) legendary career, whereas I’ve read that the film has the typical Hollywood character arc. It apparently includes Roberto’s first title-winning effort against lightweight champion Ken Buchanan (played by ex-middleweight contender, John Duddy), soon followed by his welterweight title-winning victory over “Sugar Ray” Leonard (pop star Usher!). After that, the disgraceful “No Mas” rematch, followed by redemption with junior middleweight king, Davey Moore (Israel Isaac Duffus). The arc makes sense, even though Duran fought for almost two decades after all of that. Oh, and “Hands of Stone” sports a little-known actor by the name of Robert De Niro as Duran’s long-time trainer, Ray Arcel. And Reg E. Cathey is Don King. Mr. Cathey usually brings the goods. The film opens wide on August 26th, and was written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz. Ellen Barkin, John Turturro, and Ruben Blades also star. Like I said, holding out hope.

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Star Trek Beyond 3D

“Star Trek” has turned fifty, shortly after I did the same, so I hope you can forgive the difficulty I had avoiding getting all warm and fuzzy about it. I grew up with the original series (reruns, of course–I wasn’t watching at the age of one!), and I’ve seen ALL 13 films, a good half of them in the theater. This was my first 3D experience though! I’ve grown accustomed to the rebirth of the gimmick–I even own a 3D television. Some of the movies have been quite good, and others–not so hot. In fact, you can search here, and find that I didn’t enjoy 2013’s “Star Trek Into Darkness” much at all. It had too much Indiana Jones-like hijinks, while the human element felt forced. But the emotional interplay between Chris Pine’s Kirk and Zachary Quinto’s Spock was nice this time. “Star Trek Beyond” hits most of the notes just right. I hope the modest box office of this installment doesn’t prevent another chapter. I want more.

Past the halfway point through the “five-year mission” of the starship Enterprise, Captain James Tiberius Kirk (Mr. Pine, totally grown into the role) is seeking out a promotion and a transfer. He recommends his friend, and first officer, Spock (Mr. Quinto…excellent) as his replacement. But after the Enterprise is sent out on a special rescue mission, it is attacked by a swarm of small ships–and fatally crippled. Captain Kirk orders the ship be abandoned, as it hurtles towards a nearby planet, and so a number of his crew becomes stranded there. Some are held hostage by the villainous Krall (Idris Elba!), while others team up with the scavenging female warrior Jaylah (a smashing Sofia Boutella). Bottom line: Krall wants to obtain a powerful relic, Kirk is in possession of it, and a battle will ensue to keep the device away from malevolent hands.

There have been six “Star Trek” television series, including an animated one from the 1970’s, and a seventh one is on the way. “Star Trek Beyond” is the 3rd film in the current reboot cycle of the feature franchise, and, in all honesty, it does feel a bit creaky on occasion. That’s to be expected (I guess), though it’s certainly not fatal. Hey, there’s still plenty of action and special effects–and they’ve even worked some motorcycle stunts! There’s much respect and tribute given to the late Leonard Nimoy, who appeared in the last two installments as Spock Prime. And the recently deceased Anton Yelchin is given some wonderful moments as the young Pavel Chekov–he will be missed. Justin Lin’s direction is strong. Simon Pegg returns as Montgomery Scott, plus he co-wrote the script. Karl Urban is sharp and hilarious as ‘Bones’ McCoy. Zoe Saldana is the perfect Uhura. And John Cho as Sulu is given a character reveal that can only be interpreted as a tip-of-the-hat to the legendary George Takei. Listen, for a blockbuster that flaunts the word ‘beyond’, there’s really nothing much new here. But it’s as comfortable as a pair of well-worn slippers. And that’s a good thing, right?

Grade:  B-

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The Lobster

Colin Farrell is an astonishing actor, but you’d never know it if you’ve wasted your time watching dreck like “Saving Mr. Banks”, or ill-advised remakes like 2012’s “Total Recall”. The problem is…that’s the crap that people pay to see. But I’m mesmerized by his work in films like 2005’s brilliant “The New World”, 2006’s criminally underrated “Miami Vice”, and 2011’s terrific remake of “Fright Night”. That guy is incredible. And “The Lobster” proves to be a superb return to form for the actor. Also, Yorgos Lanthimos wowed me a few years back with his masterful “Dogtooth”. That film picked up a 2010 Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film (from Greece). It’s my understanding that this is his first English-language movie. That move didn’t cause him to miss a step. “The Lobster” had me squirming and laughing out loud. It’s some kind of great.

This dystopian, absurdist comedy opens in a hotel. We quickly find that single men and women are brought there to find life partners. They have 45 days to accomplish a match…or they are turned into the animal of their choice. David (the fantastic, Oscar-nom worthy, Colin Farrell…don’t hold your breath, he’ll never get one for this) chooses to become a lobster if he fails, because of their longevity and his love of the sea. There are hotel rules, like a ban on masturbation. Breaking the rules force punishments like having your hand stuck in a hot toaster. Also, similar distinguishing characteristics are strongly encouraged. So, a lisping man (superb John C. Reilly) hopes to find a woman with a speech impediment. After a series of events (involving violence, deception and death), David escapes into the woods and joins a cult of loners. They are led by a beautiful, yet harsh, woman (wonderful Lea Seydoux). The people of the woods have an opposite philosophy, that punishes physical contact, or romance, with mutilation. And then the glasses-wearing David meets a short-sighted woman (marvelous Rachel Weisz).

So far, I’ve only experienced Yorgos Lanthimos films at home. Man, would it be something to see something like “The Lobster” in an actual theater and watch folks squirm! Mr. Lanthimos penned this screenplay with Efthymis Filippou (who also shared credit for “Dogtooth”), and it’s a marvelously crafted one. Without question, the film recalls things like “1984” and “The Handmaid’s Tale”–while also being an insighful original. “The Lobster” is chock full of incredible performances, and I haven’t even mentioned Ben Whishaw as “limping man” and Ariane Labed as “the maid”. This film has a frightening and hilarious vision of a world in the not-too-distant future, that almost certainly would never come to literal fruition. But the societal metaphors in place, chronicling the choices we make, along with the ones that are heavily influenced by outsiders, are rich, poignant and cutting. I haven’t been able to shake “The Lobster”. It’s one of the year’s finest films.

Grade:  A

 

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Suicide Squad IMAX 3D

First things first. I have a question for the rabid comic book fanatics that are so crazed in anticipation for the opening of their latest over-priced blockbuster entry, that they engage in silly ventures like threatening to shut down an aggregate critics website, in order to suppress the negative notices for a violent cartoon fantasy. Primarily…what’s wrong with you? Next, as a fan of Marvel, as a childhood reader of DC comics, as one of the FEW champions of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (4 viewings, so far, and I enjoy it more each sitting), do you really believe that I wanted to attend “Suicide Squad” and find it sub-par? No…absolutely not. I wanted to LOVE IT…just like you. But I couldn’t, because it lacks a true identity. Good stuff? Sure, there’s some of that. But in the apparently not very able hands of writer/director David Ayer, there’s simply not enough of it.

So, if you’ve been paying attention, this is the third film in the ever-expanding DC Extended Universe, after 2013’s “Man of Steel”, and this year’s “BvS”. “Wonder Woman” arrives in June 2017, with the first “Justice League” film a few months after that, so…they’ve got to set up some bad guys. And gals. First up is sexy psycho Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, for better or worse, lighting up every single scene she’s in). Harley is the former psychiatrist of, and current paramour too, the legendary Joker (a wildly over-baked Jared Leto). Floyd “Deadshot” Lawton (Will Smith…damn good) never misses with a bullet, gets to battle Batman (Ben Affleck, cool extended cameo), but also has a familiar, clichéd back story, about his unshakeable devotion to his young daughter. The great Viola Davis is malevolent government official Amanda Waller, who’s bent on teaming up the villains for a big mission. So, we meet Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney…continuing his streak of stinking up franchises), El Diablo (a tortured Jay Hernandez, literally throwing fire into the proceedings) Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje…well, you figure it out), and Dr. June “Enchantress” Moone (Cara Delevingne, memorable…I guess). Then, after this collection of trailers, scored by recognizable pop and rock classics…we got “the plot”. If you want to call it that. It’s where the ideas never take off, and when the film just stops in this case. Really.

There’s other important characters too, but I’m not going to write about all of them. I mean, that’s how the screenplay feels, so why shouldn’t I? It gets to a point where “Suicide Squad” desperately mimics better movies, and that’s my main beef. You’ll probably have a difficult time summoning much interest in what exactly is going on in the film’s central story thrust, but many of you will easily detect it mimicking cult classic “Escape from New York” at midpoint…and then morphing into 1984’s comedy classic “Ghostbusters”. As if one weak retread of that this summer, wasn’t more than enough. Hey, it’s his baby…so, it all falls on Mr. Ayer. BIG, LOUD, COLORFUL, 3D, IMAX…it takes more than that. Editor John Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”, “Warrior”) usually cuts with a more even hand, but here isn’t given anything to let gel. You’ve probably heard about the misogyny. Yeah, it’s there. But…I’ve seen worse. Harley Quinn was obviously set up to be a pubescent fantasy in the trailers, so it would be silly for me to get upset about it now. But sure, she’s a feminist’s nightmare. I’ve been around the block a few times. My take is that fanboys will defend it now, claim indifference somewhere down the line, then dismiss it when the other DC entries arrive. “Suicide Squad” will have a short shelf life. Plus, I’m certain you’ll get more Joker next time. And Mr. Leto is fun. But he’s not exactly making anyone forget Nicholson or Ledger. “Suicide Squad” is boisterous, with plenty of flash to spare, but it’s also a clunky behemoth, that barely skims the origins of its characters. And, in mustering the highest possible grade I can for it, I’m probably being a bit too kind.

Grade:  C

 

 

 

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“Suicide Squad” 2nd weekend plunge?

I mean, it’s inevitable right? “Suicide Squad” raked in 135 million dollars, in a record-breaking August opening weekend (trouncing the 2014 94-million dollar cash grab, of the critically acclaimed “Guardians of the Galaxy”). So, it’ll gross a billion worldwide by the end of its run, right? Not necessarily. That’s what was expected of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” after its huge 166 million dollar opening in March. But tepid critics’ reviews, and a lower than expected audience CinemaScore, doomed “BvS” to a much more modest global take of only 873 million…330 of that domestically. With “BvS” suffering a nearly 70 percent drop-off in its 2nd weekend, those numbers should hardly be surprising.

Now listen, I’m usually not so coy, but I’ve seen “Suicide Squad”, and I’m in the process of readying my review for publication later this week. I went whole hog, and experienced it in IMAX 3D too. So soon, you are going to be able to read exactly how I feel about the latest entry in the DC Extended Universe. And, you also may remember, that I’m a champion of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, finding it quite underrated. In fact, I’ve now seen it 4 times, including the 3-hour plus “extended cut”. I expect “BvS” to be critically reevaluated over time. But will writer/ director David Ayer’s “Suicide Squad” outlive its weak critical reception? Only time will tell. For now, with an even lower aggregate review rating than “BvS”, and an only slightly higher CinemaScore grade, I’m thinking a gigantic 2nd weekend drop-off, is pretty much a guarantee.

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Sing Street

So, it appears that writer/director John Carney is getting the band together. Again. But don’t let that read as exasperation, because Mr. Carney somehow keeps pulling the rabbit out of the hat, with format, genre, and style. He has an infectious and passionate love of music. They say his films are somewhat autobiographical. I believe it. It shines through unmistakably. Somehow he pulled off what could’ve been (but wasn’t), a flimsy, throwaway narrative in 2014’s “Begin Again”. The big star cast (Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Catherine Keener), and Mr. Carney’s screenplay, really helped spark that one to life. “Sing Street” is even better. And, more than likely, you won’t know anyone in it. But you’ll recognize a lot of the songs. And also greatly appreciate the new ones.

It’s 1985 in Dublin, and the Lalor family has fallen on some hard times. Dad/husband Robert (Aidan Gillen) is only partially employed, and Mom/wife Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy) has lost some hours at work. Plus, their marriage is falling apart. Their intelligent, but wayward, son Brendan (the charismatic Jack Reynor), is a too-cool-for-his-own-good college dropout. There’s also a young daughter named Ann (Kelly Thornton). But the offspring most affected by the financial woes is Conor (a terrific Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), as he’s being taken out of a tuition-based school, and sent to the state school known as Synge Street CBS. And it’s there, under the malevolent domination of Principal Baxter (a perfect Don Wycherley), that Conor is forced to find himself. He woos a beautiful older girl named Raphina (the beguiling Lucy Boynton) by talking about his “band”, and then actually sets out to create one. It becomes the catalyst that gives him something to believe in, and strengthens his confidence and resolve. But will he “get the girl”?

Mr. Carney decided to cast a bunch of unknown actors, along with his more seasoned pros in the cast–and it was a solid instinct. There’s a realistic, and unmannered, naturalism that jumps out of the screen with youngsters like Ben Carolan, Mark McKenna, Percy Chamburuka, and the aforementioned Mr. Walsh-Peelo. The importance, and infancy, of music videos is BIG in “Sing Street”, and the original compositions on the soundtrack are complimented, and enhanced, by highly popular pop stuff from Duran Duran, The Cure, Hall & Oates, and Joe Jackson. And when “Back to the Future” is lovingly recalled, it’s sweet, nostalgic overload. Carney knows exactly what he’s doing. Oh, I guess he really didn’t grasp how to end the darn thing, and occasionally sentiment gets in the way. But the story, while familiar, maintains a crisp vitality. So, I’ve officially given up on thinking that John Carney can’t keep making trips to this particular well. He’ll just end up proving me wrong…again.

Grade:  B+

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