Tag Archives: Liam Neeson

CAPSULE: THE PROPHET (2014)

AKA Kahlil Gibran’s the Prophet

DIRECTED BY: Roger Allers (supervising); Paul Brizzi, Gaetan Brizzi, Joan C. Gratz, Mohammed Saeed Harib, , , , , Michal Socha (segments).

FEATURING: Voices of , , , Alfred Molina, , , John Rhys-Davies, John Kassir

PLOT: Based on the book of poems of the same name by Kahlil Gibran. A foreign poet, Mustafa, has been held under house arrest for several years. With the arrival of a ship, he is set free to return to his home country. Escorted to the ship by a couple of soldiers, he converses with them and with the townspeople; but circumstances change along the way.

Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While some of the segments illustrating Mustafa’s sayings/writings are appropriately abstract, taken as a whole together with the framing story, The Prophet is extremely ambitious, but not weird.

COMMENTS: The Prophet has long been a passion project of Salma Hayek-Pinault; thankfully, she had enough experience and intelligence to realize that animation was the best medium to adapt Gibran’s book, a prose poem in long form that would be a challenge to fashion into a conventional narrative.

Enlisting Roger Allers, the director of The Lion King, was a good decision, since both tales are essentially illustrated journeys of messianic figures. Allers takes the basic framing device of the title character heading to a ship that’s taking him home and expands upon it, adding new characters Kamila (Hayek), Mustafa’s housekeeper, and her daughter Almitra (Wallis), who has become a mute troublemaker since her father’s death. These two are the characters for the audience to identify and sympathize with. The film adds a political dimension—Mustafa has been under house arrest for several years, and the journey to the ship may not be quite as innocent as presented—and the ending is different than in the book, although it is spiritually consistent.

Another smart decision was the idea to have different animators bring to life the various sermons by Mustafa, eight of which have been chosen: “On Freedom” (Socha), “On Children” (Paley), “On Marriage” (Sfar), “On Work” (Gratz), “On Eating & Drinking” (Plympton), “On Love” (Moore), “On Good and Evil” (Harib) and “On Death” (the Brizzi’s). Along with giving each story its own personality, the method also retains the metaphorical qualities of the sermons—if it were done in live-action, most of the visualization would’ve probably been literalized and not worked as well.

It’s a refreshing change to have animation appropriate for both adults and children that doesn’t involve talking animals or pop culture one-liners, and is an adaptation of an acclaimed literary work, to boot. G-Kids acquired the movie for theatrical release in the U.S. and home video. The DVD and Blu-ray include two featurettes about the movie, one with interviews of Hayek and Allers, the second concentrating more on the technical aspects (although none of the segment animators are featured). There’s also an animatic used in the making of the film.

PROPHETTHE-KAMILA

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Half-baked animated fantasy Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is a kids film for anyone who mistakenly thinks that the one thing that would improve animated masterpiece Fantasia is an overwhelming number of pretentious aphorisms.”–Simon Abrams, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: THE LEGO MOVIE (2014)

Usually, movies about toys are merely an excuse for mass merchandising. Make no mistake: The Lego Movie (2014) is immersed in marketing, but that is secondary because the filmmakers wisely and creatively keep the film’s heart intact.  The Lego Movie may prove to be the best film of the year and, in its second run, can be seen for less than the price of  an actual Lego. That is a far better spend than putting a second mortgage down for most of the first-run dreck we are inundated with.

The Lego Movie is a pop culture manifesto, composed of wall-to-wall references and jokes that come at you fast and furious. Yet, the in-jokes are so judiciously worked into the fantasy at large that they leave you smiling instead of spinning. This was no doubt helped by the writing/directing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. The duo clearly were inspired by the level of imagination found in the long-popular toy. It is remarkable what a mere two artists can do, as opposed to committee-style filmmaking. Lord and Miller began their collaboration with the cult series “Clone High” (2002) and continued to the big screen with Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs (2009) and 21 Jump Street (2012).  In addition to the writing/directing team, what makes The Lego Movie so winning is the personality to be found in plastic.

As a mystic toy,  spoofs his pious screen persona, and his sense of joy in doing so is contagious. Equaling Freeman in voice work is Chris Pratt as the protagonist construction worker Emmett; Elizabeth Banks as Wyldstyle; Will Arnett as Batman; Alison Brie as Unikitty; and as GoodCop/Bad Cop. A smorgasbord of high- and pop-culture characters make appearances, from Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte) and Shakespeare (Jorma Taccone) to Wonder Woman (Cobie Smulders).

Brick City is a universe in its own right and it absorbs everything that came before it with shrewd wit, including Star Wars (with Billy Dee Williams and Anthony Daniels reprising their respective roles). The Lego Movie even does the impossible: it makes George Lucas’ characters fun again. The animation here is among the most innovative since the golden age of Disney and the Fleischer Brothers. It is also delightfully weird. It sometimes seems as if has risen from the dead, been given an orange plastic brick and an unlimited budget and let loose.

Still from The Lego Movie (2014)Emmett is the much-needed, flawed little guy hero, and probably the best example we have seen of the type since Wall-E or The Iron Giant. We root for him, as opposed to Batman (and after the last Batman movie, why would anyone cheer the caped crusader)? Yet, here in The Lego Movie even Batman is unexpectedly fresh. Even better: amidst all the dazzling effects, the viewer genuinely hopes that two pieces of plastic, Emmett and Wyldstyle, will interlock.

The most surprising thing, in a movie chock full of surprises, is the glorification of the individual over the status quo corporation. One would hardly expect such a “Piece de Resistance” from a giant manufacturer. Even Will Ferrell rises to the occasion, giving an all too rare good performance as the evil President Business of unfettered capitalism.

Reportedly, over four million digitalized lego images were used in the film, which would seem an invitation for disaster. The production not only pulls it off, but does so with shocking precision through all that hyperkinetic color splashing. The last act of The Lego Movie takes an unexpected route, and one may fear the worst, but the filmmakers pull off yet another surprise, giving us that rarity of all rarities in animated films: an ending which should not be given away.

This is an epic film whose narrative commendably refuses to take the well worn dumbed-down path so often prevalent in movies of this type. Its minuscule flaw may be that it is overly ambitious, but proves a welcome retreat from the plethora of excrement that is bankrupt in ambition. The Lego Movie pulls off the impossible:  it restores some faith in the imaginative and creative potential of the medium, at least for 101 minutes.

CAPSULE: AFTER.LIFE (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo

FEATURING: , Liam Neeson, Justin Long

PLOT: A funeral director must convince an accident victim that she is really dead.

Still from After.Life (2010)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:   I took a look at After.Life to determine its weird potential, but aside from the macabre story, I found it be a fairly conventionally psychological thriller.

COMMENTS:   Despite the pretentious dot in the middle of the title, After.Life turns out to be a well-made, offbeat picture.  Christina Ricci, while no Ingrid Bergman, delivers a credible performance even though she is slashed with cherry red lipstick and alternately nude or scantily draped in a clingy, scarlet satin slip for most of the movie.

After a violent car crash, Anna Taylor (Ricci) wakes up on a slab in a mortuary (where else?)  Eliot Deacon, a psychic undertaker (Neeson) must talk her into cooperating with the embalming process and mentally preparing herself for the afterlife.

Blessed/cursed with the gift of second sight which allows him to see the spirits of the deceased, Deacon is exasperated that he must argue and wrestle with every one of his dead clients, none of whom are at first willing accept the reality of their deaths.  Conversing with Deacon, Anna, like her predecessors, refuses to believe she’s dead despite his assurance that she’s in transition to the spirit realm, and that he’s the only one who can help her make the leap into the uncertain beyond

While sill on the steel gurney in the embalming room, Anna has several sinister forays into the ethereal plain to which she is about to permanently transcend.  Frightened, uncertain, and unwilling to depart this dimension to venture into the next, she requires a good bit of coaxing from Deacon.  Anna is a hard case and she makes quite a fuss.  Deacon has his hands full dealing with her and she proves to be his most uncooperative stiff to date.

Matters are complicated when Anna’s mooky boyfriend (Long) shows up demanding to view her body for closure.  Deacon manages to run him off, but the pesky beau just can’t seem to stay away.  He becomes a fly in the pickling balm when he insists upon clinging to the Continue reading CAPSULE: AFTER.LIFE (2009)

CAPSULE: PONYO [Gake no ue no Ponyo] (2008)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING (AMERICAN DUBBED VERSION): Noah Cyrus, Frankie Jonas, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Betty White

PLOT:  In this Japanese variation on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” a

Still from Ponyo (Gake no ue no Ponyo) (2008)

goldfish with a human face escapes from the undersea lair built by her wizard father and decides she wants to become human when she washes ashore and is adopted as a pet by a little boy.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTPonyo is an imaginative and beautifully drawn fairy tale for children that frequently sacrifices mature logic for emotional effect or visual spectacle, but it’s a bit too safe and cutesy, and more fantastic and childlike than bizarre.  Because it is told from a child’s-eye view and not simplified for adults, some grown-ups may find it weird.

COMMENTSPonyo begins with a descent into an ocean teeming with fish, squid and crustaceans; the picture’s frame becomes an impossibly dense and multi-layered aquarium of submarine life.  When the headstrong goldfish Ponyo wanders away from this underwater Eden, her journey on the back of a jellyfish runs aground when she encounters an equally thick stratum of human detritus and garbage, stirred into a whirlpool by the propellers of passing ships, and ends up washed ashore lodged in a bottle for 5 year-old Sōsuke to find.  There’s a not so subtle ecological message at play here, but Miyazaki never gets preachy, and the main focus of the film is in drawing wondrous moving images that delight a child’s imagination (and look pretty good to adults, too, even if they can’t resonate in quite the same way).  The most mesmerizing of these is newly half-human Ponyo’s gallop atop tsunami waves which turn into fish and melt back into surf as she chases after Sōsuke.  Visions of a luminescent sea goddess and a city of ships drawn to the horizon by an encroaching moon also ensnare the fancy. The animation is deliberately primitive, almost childlike, in style, appropriately looking like a children’s book come to life.  Unfortunately, the story and tone are childlike as well, resulting in a film that entrances kids but lacks a crossover magic for adults.  Grown-ups in the film accept the magic matter-of-factly, as if they were just big kids with driver’s licenses, showing no amazement when a pet turns into a little girl, or when they discover two pre-schoolers piloting their own boat unattended after a flood.  Precociously cute, infatuated with her discovery of the human world, and squealing “I love ham!,” the one-note goldfish herself is a character only a mother or fellow toddler could love.  With Ponyo, Miyazaki has crafted a film that will hypnotize girls aged four to seven.  There’s not much of a story to engage their parents, but they can amuse themselves watching the parade of pretty pastel-colored pictures for ninety minutes, and in trying to recall what it was like when the line between reality and make-believe was as thin as the skin of a bubble.

I confess that I haven’t seen any Miyazaki films previously (everyone has some gaps in their film education).  The revered animator’s most celebrated works like Spirited Away (2001) are supposed to be so fantastic as to be virtually surreal.  With the visual imagination evident in Ponyo, it’s easy to see how, working with material oriented less towards the kindergarten set, another work of his might merit a spot on the list of the 366 best weird movies ever made.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The story sounds weird, and it is weird: Like many of Miyazaki’s previous films,Ponyo is written from a child’s perspective and with a child’s sense of logic… pure fairy-tale surrealism.”–Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald (contemporaneous)