Culver City Observer -

MOVIE REVIEW: A Mix & Match Week!

FANTASTIC FOUR • RICKI AND THE FLASH • THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL• KAHLIL GIBRAN’S THE PROPHET

 

August 6, 2015



It’s a mix and match weekend at the movies with something for everyone’s taste. And while there is some sweetness to be had, some of the tastes are proving a bit bitter.

KAHLIL GIBRAN’S THE PROPHET

A soulful and contemplative film of real beauty is the animated KAHLIL GIBRAN’S THE PROPHET. Based on nine of Gibran’s 26 philosophies set out in the best selling “The Prophet”, director Roger Allers taps into the talents of nine different animators, each with a different style, to create a montage of animated beauty. Blending art, poetry and film into one, the result is both fanciful and thoughtful with eye-popping moments of delight.

Written by Allers, a narrative through line is developed by way of a mythic story that is told through “visual chapters” as defined by Gibran’s writings.

Liam Neeson is perfection as the voice of Mustafa aka “The Prophet”, serving as our guide through the story of Kamila and her young daughter Almitra on the mythical island of Orphalese. The languid silken softness of his voice is calm and serene. And yes, I could listen to him read all of Gibran's writings and never complain or tire.

As Kamila, Salma Hayek captures the frustrated tone of a mother perfectly while Quvenzhane Wallis is as adorable as ever as Almitra, complete with huff and puffs and squeals punctuated with an earnest life affirming speech that touches the heart. Joining in the voice cast are Alfred Molina, Frank Langella and John Krasinki with each adding much to the tenor of Gibran’s philosophies and poems.

But the real beauty is the animation thanks to world class animators Tomm Moore, Bill Plympton, Gaëtan & Paul Brizzi, Joan Gratz, Mohammed Saeed Harib, Nina Paley, Michal Sofar and Joann Sfar who employ all form of artistic styles and techniques with their chapter segments. Given free rein by Allers, each animates based on how the particular writing of Gibran speaks to them.

A lyrical tapestry of exquisite emotion, KAHLIL GIBRAN’S THE PROPHET is contemplative, emotionally reflective ethereal beauty told through words and animation that is as breathtaking and poetic as it is rich, lush and textured.

FANTASTIC FOUR

Let’s just cut to the chase. But for the Atmos sound (and that’s only relevant to about four key scenes and then you still have to find a theatre equipped to play Atmos), there is nothing fantastic about FANTASTIC FOUR. Although based on the beloved comics, in this second cinematic reboot, the translation to the big screen fails miserably, due to, among others, (1) one of the worst scripts of the year, (2) miscasting all every front, (3) lackluster performances predicated upon the poor script and miscasting, (4) action and visuals that are not only bland and flat, but with the “other world” so poorly conceived it resembles a badly painted matte background from the 1930's with no texture, depth or imagination.

Culling elements from the original Stan Lee-Jack Kirby comics plus the 2004 “Ultimate Fantastic Four” revised works, screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Jeremy Slater, together with co-writer and director Josh Trank, make this an origin story in the truest sense of the word (all the way back to two of our heroes 5th grade selves), but somewhere between origin and film’s end, miss the growth spurts of life in-between.

Reed Richards is a science prodigy and in 5th grade is working on his vision of a teleportation machine, something poo-pooed by all except Ben Grimm, a fellow odd kid out who would become Reed’s best friend. Fast forward seven years to a high school science fair. While still subjected to the naysaying uninspired minds of his teachers, Reed’s work catches the eye of Dr. Franklin Storm and his daughter Sue. Storm heads up the Baxter Institute and one project in particular - that involving a teleportation device. Seeing Reed as the final link to making the Institute’s project come to life, Reed is brought to the Institute where he partners up with Sue, a begrudging Johnny Storm and former student scientist Victor Von Doom. And yes, Victor’s name fits him perfectly as he is truly the voice of doom. (Sadly, Ben doesn’t get to go to the Institute, but once the teleportation transport works, you know Reed brings his BFF along for the ride).

Unfortunately, a late night trip with the machine not only lands Reed, Johnny, Victor and Ben on a new planet, and possibly new dimension, it also transforms them with extraordinary powers. Reed has more stretch than a rubber band. Johnny bursts into flames and flies. Sue (trapped in some kind of energy field when she brings the boys back from a mission gone wrong) has the ability to become invisible and cast force fields, floating around in a bubble a la Glinda the Good Witch. And Ben has been turned into a rock creature with untold strength. Sadly, Victor doesn’t make it off the planet.

But with unknown and great powers - and government involvement - comes disaster and here is no different once gum-smacking, cud chewing bureaucrat Dr. Allen gets involved. Of course, Reed disappears from a “secure government facility” while the others are coerced into doing the government’s bidding in exchange for them working on “a cure” for what ails them and the once tight friendships have dissolved thanks to government lies and manipulations. And along the way, the government goons go back to the planet where they find Victor still alive, but now as pure energy encased in a metal suit welded to his body leading to the ultimate showdown.

Somewhere in the mix, any real story, real emotion, real friendships, get lost - if they ever existed at all - in the hands of these filmmakers. There is no connection between the characters but for initial fleeting moments between Ben and Reed and even in a world of geekdom, no one fits. Although there is a seriousness of tone, it belies the superhero genre. There is no fun, no lightheartedness to offset the horrors that unfold. Too much time is spent with actors with empty gazes looking at computer screens as they work towards building the teleportation module which looks stunningly similar to an Apollo capsule.

Assuming the roles of the FANTASTIC FOUR are Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell and Michael B. Jordan. Teller, more than anyone, is completely miscast as Reed. Both Teller and Jordan (Johnny Storm) have a gift and flair for sarcasm and comedic beats yet neither gets to flex those muscles and the attempt to turn Teller into a super-serious one note scientist fails miserably. Teller is better than this script, as are they all. Toby Kebbell fares a bit better as Doom, but the backstory necessary to predicate Doom’s view of the world is missing in the script. Kate Mara (Sue) and Jamie Bell (Ben) are completely underused.

However, the worst performances comes from Reg E. Cathey as Dr. Storm and Tim Blake Nelson as Dr. Allen, the latter of whom apparently believes chomping gum like cow cud is equivalent to a powerful manly swagger. It’s not. Cathey on the other hand is a one note piece of stone obviously trying to be Samuel L. Jackson but never even being on the same planet.

is completely under-used.

As mentioned, sound design is wonderfully effective with Atmos but key for the audience is finding a theatre capable of playing Atmos. Visual FX with teleportation module are also well done with a slick glossy feel, yet are nothing original or earth shattering.

There have been enough bites at the FANTASTIC FOUR apple. It’s now soured beyond recovery.

THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL

One of my “Must See” picks at Los Angeles Film Festival 2015 is THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL from director Marielle Heller. Opening in theatres this weekend, DIARY is written by Heller based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s novel of the same name about a very unique coming of age story circa 1976. 16-year old Minnie is in lust and having an affair with her mom’s boyfriend; and she’s keeping a daily cassette taped diary of her adventures - in a box - under her bed.

Boasting a strong cast with Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgard and as the “teenage girl” Minnie, Bel Powley, Powley is the heart of the film and carries its weight well. A revelatory emotional powerhouse, with a gift for emotive expressiveness, Powley can turn on a dime from a childish, coquettish uncertain innocence to self-perceived maturity to scowling tantrum filled child to manipulative blackmailing vixen without missing a beat. She is emotionally evocative and embraces every note of adolescence and the awakening sexual experience.

As Monroe, Skarsgard is simply divine. Going beyond the perfection of the costuming and hair of the period that in many ways captures the "Tiger Beat" cover boys of the day, Skarsgard brings an emotional authenticity that allows he and Powley to play. In one moment, Minnie is the adult and Monroe the child, but Minnie is always the aggressor in the relationship which gives Skarsgard a tightrope to walk so as not to give Monroe a “skeevy” edge.

Never a huge fan of Kristen Wiig, she won me over with her recent film “Welcome to Me” and now impresses me still more with her performance here as Minnie's mother Charlotte. Wiig gives Charlotte depth and layers that give credence to her behavior as a woman, as a mother, as a person - and then pushes the envelope with the freewheeling alcohol and drug use of the day.

Reminiscent in some respects of “Fish Tank”, which helped launch Michael Fassbender, writer/director Heller avoids the pitfalls of thematic darkness and adds a layer of lightness thanks to fantasy animations and dreamlike diary entries that enchant and entertain. Taking a cue from the novel and retaining the POV of Minnie and lacing the film with fantasy animations and dreamlike diary entries, Heller softens the free love/age inappropriate relationship between Minnie and Monroe. Where she also excels is by keeping Minnie as the pursuer with very believable performances of a doe-eyed young girl "in love" with an older man. In 1976, this was more then social norm, despite the illegality of a 16 year old and 30+ year old sexual liaison. Although shocking to have a parent bringing a 16 year old into alcohol and drug parties - and giving her the substances no less, - the chemistry of the actors and the construction of the film by Heller makes that situation also palatable and believable.

I fell in love with Brandon Trost's cinematography years ago with the little indie “Weather Girl.” He has only gotten better and more textured with his eye for lighting and lensing since then. Here, burnt orange tones infuse the film, immediately transporting you to the era while metaphorically creating the haze of Charlotte's world in seeing her children, especially Minnie. Sexual escapades are shot intimately yet tastefully and again, with light akin to eyes wide open at both the experience and the naughtiness of it. Contrastingly, and hand in hand with production design, Minnie's bedroom is softly yet brightly lit, as if reading an open book. Beautifully designed and adds not only a visual layer to the story, but its own chapter and subtext. Similarly, Jonah Markowitz' production design is period perfection both for the era and the emotional bandwidth of the characters and the film. While his work on “Quinceanera” was fine, I see more attention to detail with “THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL, and particularly the world through Minnie's eyes in her bedroom with no stone unturned for how a teen girl's world looked in 1976.

This is one diary I want to read again.

RICKI AND THE FLASH

I very quickly have to mention director Jonathan Demme’s latest, RICKI AND THE FLASH. Written by Diablo Cody and starring Meryl Streep, her real life daughter Mamie Gummer as her on screen daughter, and Kevin Kline, the real reason to see RICKI AND THE FLASH is Rick Springfield and Meryl Streep playing rock ‘n roll with gusto. We have seen too little of Springfield on the big screen, his last big foray being “Hard to Hold”, but here he shines alongside Streep as they play love interests and bandmates while Streep’s Ricki sorts out the familial drama of her children and coming to terms with herself, her dreams and life at 50-something.

Although the narrative is loose and feels like it’s drifting away at times, the music and the live performances by Streep and Springfield reel you right back in with a very human touch. Sadly, however, none of the cover songs in the film are any of Springfield’s, but I’ll settle for Springsteen, Tom Petty and the Rolling Stones! And seeing Streep and Gummer go at it is as genuine as it gets.

Beyond the visual beauty and metaphor of the film as a whole, cinematographer Declan Quinn and Demme really prove their mettle with lensing musical performances. Notable are the angles and lensing of Springfield’s patented guitar styling which brings an energy and vibrancy all their own (and which are reminescent of lensing of Springfield in his early music videos). And on stage performing live during the musical performances, Springfield and Streep are unstoppable.

 

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