Monday, December 29, 2014

Angelina Jolie and a Ballsy Theme Help "Maleficent" Play Up

Angelina Jolie acts opposite her daughter Vivienne in Maleficent.
It would be easy to pre-judge Maleficent as just another piece of junk on the increasingly growing list of live-action cash-ins adapted from animated classics. I did that myself when the film came out, but I recently caught up with it on DVD, and while I can't say I think Maleficent entirely works, I was pleasantly surprised by how ballsy an adaptation it turned out to be.

Growing up, I always thought Sleeping Beauty, its villain especially, was dumb. The idea of the villain cursing a princess to an impending deep sleep because she was mad she didn't get invited to the girls christening just seemed lame. The creators of Maleficent seem to have realized this, as they've altered the story to make the title character's decision to curse an infant far more understandable.

Here, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is originally a kind fairy whose actions are motivated by revenge against the girl's father Stefan (Sharlto Copley), a former love interest who, in his power-hungry quest to ascend to the throne, drugs her and cuts off her wings to garner favor with a dying king looking to name an heir. When Princess Aurora (Vivienne Jolie-Pitt as a child, Elle Fanning as a teen) is left in the hands of three bumbling fairies, Maleficent begins to covertly care for the girl as a sort of fairy godmother, coming to regret her curse and yet seemingly powerless to stop it.

Despite this being a Disney film, the wing-cutting plays like a metaphor for rape, a fact that Jolie herself commented on in a BBC interview, saying it was a story about "how the abused then have a choice of abusing others or overcoming and remaining loving, open people."

That's some heavy stuff for a kids' movie, and while I certainly question if it’s appropriate, that aspect of the film works pretty well due to the conviction of Jolie's performance. Although this is clearly a money gig for her, Jolie brings her A-game and single-handedly elevates the movie. The woman is a phenomenal actress, and she’s more than capable of bringing nuance on cue, but there’s something about the playful wit she has on screen that registers especially well here.

Sticking with positive attributes, I did enjoy the twist the film puts on the traditional fairy tale ending, even if it was lifted straight out of Frozen. There’s also brevity to the film that definitely bodes well – Maleficent is the rare film in this genre that doesn’t overstay its welcome. However, that is sort of a double-edged sword – there’s a whole lot of telling and not much showing.

All that being said, I have one big issue with the film, and that is how severely it sucks the magic right out of this classic fairy tale. A lot of that starts with character. While Maleficent is fleshed out nicely and Aurora fairs ok (even if she’s basically a pleasant plot device), almost every other character suffers in this translation. This interpretation of Stefan is a disaster, and as much as I’ve liked him in other things, Copley doesn’t deliver here. I’m not sure how much of that is his fault – there’s no dimension to the role – but he’s far too important to the story to feel so blah.

Meanwhile, the concept of giving Maleficent’s raven sidekick occasional human form is interesting but ultimately very awkwardly handled. And then there’s the fairies – the totally tone deaf fairies. These three were a treasured part of the the Disney animated classic, but here they are an annoying afterthought.

Outside of some flourishes by Jolie, there’s just no fun to any of this, and fairy tales, especially ones marketed to kids the way this film has been, should be fun. There's still a lot to like here thematically, but Maleficent is not as fleshed out as it needs to be, and there's ultimately a sense of ambition overreaching grasp. B-

Sunday, December 21, 2014

"Draft Day" Wants to Be Football Movies' Answer to "Moneyball," but Falls Way Short of the Goal

Kevin Costner does his best to make Draft Day enjoyable.

Draft Day is to football as Moneyball is to baseball.” 

That’s how I imagine Draft Day was pitched and sold, but while both films focus on the front office maneuvering and domestic issues of general managers, they don’t represent a correlation worthy of a verbal reasoning test. Better to say Moneyball is to a great film as Draft Day is to some ludicrous fantasy scenario with overzealous editing tricks that’s propped up and made serviceable by the charms of Kevin Costner. That probably wouldn’t get put onto any test either, but at least it’s honest. 

Costner plays Sonny Weaver Jr., the GM of the Cleveland Browns who has drawn the ire of fans for firing the beloved long-time coach of the team, a man who also happens to have been Sonny’s dad and who also just happened to die a week before the draft. 

With the seventh pick in the draft, Sonny is debating between Vontae Mack, the flashy linebacker he’d like to take, and Ray Jennings, the running back the fans and current coach of the team (Dennis Leary) want him to choose. Then he gets a call from the Seattle Seahawks with an offer: they’ll give him the first pick in the draft, which he could then use on heralded quarterback Bo Callahan, for his next three first round selections. Despite having a veteran quarterback coming off an injury who he believes in (Tom Welling), Sonny makes the deal because his owner (Frank Langella) has told him to make a splash. Then he spends the rest of the movie trying to convince himself why taking Callahan is a bad idea. 

For most of its length, Draft Day is satisfactorily amiable, even if it goes way overboard with overlapping scene editing and all the damn domestic issues plaguing Sonny on this of all days. That his budget person/secret girlfriend (Jennifer Garner) would tell Sonny she’s pregnant – on this of all days – seems odd enough, but then throw on top of that the fact that his mother would throw a stink about spreading his father’s ashes on the field – on this of all days – and it just comes across as a wee bit much. I mean seriously – on this of all days? 

However, the film really runs into problems with the climax, which takes a look at the far-fetched domestic pile up, and says “You want to get ridiculous? Fine. I’ll get ridiculous. Nothing is more ridiculous about this movie than me. ‘Ridiculous’ is my middle name.” (warning: spoilers coming). 
Draft Day employs a whole lot of overlapping split screens to liven
up what is mostly a series of phone conversations.
Convinced that Callahan doesn’t have what it takes, Weaver goes with his gut and takes Mack. When Callahan starts falling down the draft board, it begins to look like Seattle could end up with the consensus number one pick and Sonny’s next to first rounders – a true boon for Seattle’s GM, who has been getting crushed by the fans for giving up the rights to drafting the league’s next great quarterback. 

That's when the movie starts slinging bullshit. It becomes obvious Callahan will fall to the Jacksonville Jaguars at six, but their rookie GM is shitting his pants, unsure of what to do and nervous to pick Callahan since other teams are passing on him. Sonny calls the guy and offers him a safety valve against making a disastrous selection – trade Cleveland the sixth pick for three years of second rounders. Miraculously, the Jacksonville GM takes the deal, and then Sonny calls the Seattle GM. He offers him the chance to trade for the sixth pick, draft Callahan and calm the vitriol of the Seattle fans, provided he return the three first round picks back to Cleveland. Seattle takes the bait, Cleveland picks Jennings, and Sonny comes out of the whole thing looking like a genius. 

The problem here is that this whole climax is utter nonsense – it’s the type of thing only a genie could make happen, and even then I’m not sure. There is no way in hell the Seattle GM would just cave and give up the picks like that. He’d probably call the bluff, noting that Weaver passed on the quarterback once, and he’d probably do it again. 

And even if the Seattle GM would be spooked into doing what Sonny wanted, there is no way three second round selections would garner a top 10 pick in the draft. And even if the rookie GM was an idiot willing to do that, he’d still have a slew of advisers telling him, ‘No.’ And even if the team in Jacksonville did decide to trade the pick, they’d almost certainly use all of the allotted ten minutes to find a better deal (perhaps with Seattle, who would have all sorts of picks to deal). Instead, they trade with Cleveland before they are even on the clock – an awful decision that occurs solely so the movie can allow Sonny enough time to call Seattle and make a trade. 

Although it was criticized for being too inside-football for mainstream audiences, Draft Day, like Moneyball before it, tries to make things as digestible as possible. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but unfortunately, while Moneyball opted to focus on the simpler aspects of a complicated system, Draft Day flat out dumbs things down. Although reality isn’t something I really require in my movies, and it’s definitely not something I require in my sports movies, Draft Day is just too damn much to take. C-

Friday, December 19, 2014

Phillip Seymour Hoffman Delivers One Final Great Lead Performance in the Brilliantly Measured "A Most Wanted Man"

A Most Wanted Man reminds us (as if we needed reminding) 
that Phillip Seymour Hoffman was an acting titan.
The life of a spy is not a glamorous one. It is not a life filled with globe-trotting chases, torrid love affairs and action-packed shootouts between dapper physical specimens, but rather a great deal of clerical work, slow surveillance and back-alley conversations between anonymously ordinary folk. It doesn't get the heart pumping; it systematically devours it. At least that's the approach taken by novelist John le Carré, whose take on espionage features a lot of political maneuvering and frustration, but very little sense of fun and adventure.

While that probably doesn't sound like the best sales pitch for a film, it's most certainly an apt one. And although such an approach might not seem the best for a movie, I can tell you that films based on le Carré's work have been some of the best of the last several years.

That doesn't mean they're for everyone. For instance, while I found Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to be one of the more rewarding films of 2011, Candace fell asleep around the halfway mark. It's hard to blame her -- we watched it in the middle of a five-film binge, and, on top of that, it is dry, dense and not easily penetrated (I had a similar experience with Zodiac, another moody, slow burn that I should really revisit at some point). 

I say all this as a lead up to a review of A Most Wanted Man, the latest le Carré adaptation and one of my favorite films of 2014. It's cut from the same cloth as Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, but the story isn't half as sprawling, so it feels more focused. For what it's worth: Candace did not fall asleep.

The story revolves around the efforts of an off-the-books terrorist investigation unit in Hamburg, Germany led by the disheveled and jaded Gunther Bachmann (the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Gunther prefers to play the long game, collecting information and making contacts within the Muslim community. This puts him at odds with Mohr (Rainer Bock), the leader or a rival unit with a more aggressive and entirely short-sighted approach, not to mention his superiors, men who allowed the 9/11 attackers to operate a home-base in Hamburg right under their noses and have thus developed an itchy trigger finger.
Willem Dafoe and Rachel McAdams bring dimension to their roles.
When Chechen-Russian immigrant Issa Karpov (Grigori Dobrygin) arrives in Hamburg seeking asylum and a large inheritance of dirty money, he becomes a prime target for both units. However, while Mohr wants to bring him in on suspicions of being a jihadist and go to work on him, Gunther wants to keep Issa free and covertly coerce him into donating his money to a supposed Muslim philanthropist (Homayoun Ershadi) to see if the philanthropist will reroute some of the funds to a shipping company Gunther believes to be a front for Al Qaeda.

The idea is to ensnare the philanthropist then use him to get to the actual terrorists, and a tacit agreement with a string-pulling CIA agent (Robin Wright Penn) buys Gunther three days to do things his way. That's no easy task considering he must turn a banker (Willem Dafoe) and Karpov's human right's lawyer (Rachel McAdams) in time to carry out the scheme. Plus, there's the question of if Gunther can even trust these outside officials to stay out of his way, especially in light of a previous failure in Beirut brought on by such bureaucratic cooperation.

This material fits director Anton Corbijn like a glove, as his last foray behind the camera was the similarly muted and restrained, yet atmospherically textured The American. Like that under-appreciated George Clooney gem, A Most Wanted Man is first and foremost a thoughtful and tightly-calibrated character study of a weary professional in a shady, soul-crushing line of work.

It's also a fitting last lead role for Hoffman. Perhaps the preeminent actor of his generation, Hoffman was an actor of tremendous range, but he specialized in playing bleary-eyed, inward sad sacks fighting against irrelevance. It's clear Gunther has made many personal sacrifices for his work -- for proof, just look at his relationship with his second-in-command (Nina Hoss), a woman with whom he shares a shorthand banter and more than a few longing looks. A scene in which the two share a kiss to avoid blowing their cover is as sad as it is charged, because it hints at the connection both have given up in their commitment to "make the world a better place."

Hoffman is as controlled and precise as he's ever been here, and yet the film grants him one last opportunity to nail blustery rage in his final scene. It's the tonal opposite of the scene that concluded Zero Dark Thirty, but intriguingly still hints at the same thematic point -- the hopelessness and disillusionment inherent in the spy game, a profession that takes and takes, but rarely gives back. A

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Both "Under the Skin" and "Snowpiercer" Prove Memorably Off-Beat, But Earn Vastly Different Grades

Under the Skin has been hailed as a masterpiece by some. Not me.
As I stated in my review of Sex Tape, the more movies I see, the tougher it is to sit through mediocre ones with nothing interesting going on. There’s a lot of cookie cutter stuff out there, films aimed right down the middle that are shot, acted and scripted just well enough to be passable entertainment.

Yet I still watch plenty of movies, and I try my best to review them when I can, because everyone once and a while, a movie hits a nerve or does something really cool or surprising, or, even better, something truly worth remembering or discussing.

That doesn’t always mean the movie is good or that I even enjoyed it. A few months ago I caught a really bizarre flick called Under the Skin. It features Scarlett Johansson as an alien who preys on young single men in Scotland so that she can take their insides and send them up to the home planet leaving only their skin behind.

The logline sounds cool, and the film is popping up on a slew of end-of-year top 10 lists, but I found the film pretty boring and opaque. It’s just a bit too ponderous for me, but at the same time, I respect the audacity of writer/director Jonathan Glazer’s filmmaking. Under the Skin features some striking imagery and haunting sequences, and it manages to remain intriguing despite the drawbacks of being such an arty endeavor.

Much of the credit for that belongs to Johansson who delivers a nicely calibrated piece of acting that serves as an interesting counterpoint to her stellar vocal performance in last year’s Her (that one was all voice, this one is almost entirely physical). A few years back, when her sexpot ScarJo vibe was at its apex, it seemed like she might be destined to follow in the footsteps of Jennifer Lopez, a gifted actress whose screen credibility was destroyed be her off-screen persona. That didn’t happen, and Johansson has emerged an actress equally at home in big budget action films as she is in these more personal independents.
Snowpiercer has a game cast of great actors.
Of course, I prefer when a movie does something unique, and I actually enjoy it as well. Snowpiercer, the English-language debut of writer/director Bong Joon-ho, is a prime example.

Set in the aftermath of an experiment that brought on an ice age that killed almost all life on Earth, the film takes place entirely on the Snowpiercer, a massive train that continuously loops around the globe and that is inhabited by an elite class in the front and a poor class in the back.

Conceptually, the film is relatively familiar end-of-days tale with the interesting twist of setting all the action aboard a locomotive. It also joins the growing number of futuristic science fiction films that make overt social commentary on the haves and have-nots (see also Elysium and In Time).

But what distinguishes the film isn’t so much the story it tells, but the way it tells it. The film moves along a predictable path with the insurgents moving from the back of the train to the front, but the moments and beats it hits along the way are just so specifically and wonderfully weird. In his review of the movie, pal Nate Adams wrote of the film’s “odd, shaggy loose strands,” calling particular attention to a scene in which the rebels come face to face with a mob of armed opponents who, in lieu of immediately attacking, make a spectacle of ritually gutting a fish.

It’s a great moment, but there are many others as well – like the way both sides in the aforementioned battle (once the fish gutting is out of the way) stop the violence to recognize the milestone of the train completing another orbit around the world, or the oddity of the bald guy pushing a cart full of eggs or the crazy frequency Tilda Swinton is operating on in this thing.

There is just so much interesting stuff going on throughout Snowpiercer that it’s hard not to be entertained. The plot has a clockwork precision to it that impressively becomes clear during the final 20 minutes. But what really seals the deal and elevates the film from “hey, that’s cool” to “man, this is downright transcendent” is the way Jong-ho intermixes the craziness with shockingly good character beats, most specifically the last act monologue by Chris Evans who plays the defacto leader of the train’s poor inhabitants. It’s a moment you won’t easily forget, and it’s definitely a peak moment for Evans, an actor who just seems to be getting better and better.

Due to producer dissatisfaction over the final cut of the film, Snowpiercer barely got much of a theatrical release. That’s unfortunate, but Netflix and Redbox have it, so you should definitely check it out. It’s totally worth seeing, but more than that, it’s pretty damn good too.

Under the Skin C, Snowpiercer A

Thursday, December 4, 2014

David Fincher Masters Multiple Tones in Excellent "Gone Girl"

Gone Girl is one hell of a ride.
It’s extremely difficult to review David Fincher’s Gone Girl without spoiling much of the film’s twist and turns. What I can say is that it’s the type of tale that in lesser hands could easily play like a Lifetime movie, but that with this talented cast and crew is actually one hell of a ride. In many ways it reminded me of Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, another incredibly engaging, darkly amusing melodrama that was far better than it should’ve been.

Much has been written about Gone Girl already – with its most fervent fans arguing it taps into the zeitgeist, taking a satiric look at American values, idealistic marriages and tabloid culture, while the naysayers argue it’s just trashy fun.

I’d call it all of the above. While it’s clear this is a crackerjack genre piece above all else, Fincher weaves in some really potent ideas, particularly pertaining to gender politics, the importance of perception over truth and the ways quirks in a romantic partner can seem cute at first but then grate over time.

As one expects from a Fincher outing, the below the line aspects are all top notch. The cast is great too, with Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike perfectly cast as Nick and Amy Dunne, a seemingly perfect couple with a crumbling marriage. The plot takes off when Amy goes missing and clues begin implicating Nick may have murdered her.

Affleck, so often miscast in traditional hero parts, has always faired best when exploring flaws and humanizing asshole tendencies, while Pike puts her natural screen chilliness, an occasional detriment, to great use here. I’d argue they both put up career best work, hitting each note perfectly in roles that run the gamut from intense drama to dark comedy.

The supporting cast is uniformly great, but special mention should be made of Carrie Coon as Nick’s supportive twin sister (she should really be a player in this year’s Best Supporting Actress race) and, oddly enough, Tyler Perry who, despite his boisterous screen history, totally nails it as Nick’s collected, cut-the-bullshit attorney.

There are some plot holes here that can drive you nuts, most particularly the way in which Amy gets out of a sticky situation with a former flame (there were cameras everywhere!), but I think that maybe that’s part of the point – a way to emphasize how perception and plays at emotion really do trump cold hard logic, sense and facts. This is amazingly illustrated by a late-in-the-game interrogation between Amy and the leader investigator in the film (a great Kim Dickens).

I’ve read some claims that this is a misogynistic film, a nightmare scenario that validates man’s worst fears about getting married, but that’s mostly a crock. While it does play with those notions, the book and script were written by a woman (Gillian Flynn) and Gone Girl has three of the strongest female roles and performances you’re likely to see this year.

Really, Gone Girl is a “have your cake and eat it too” movie – a totally tongue-in-cheek exercise in dark comedy that also manages to be a thrilling and involving drama that gets audiences feeling major sympathy for the wronged party. It’s thought provoking, amusingly horrific and tragically affecting all in one.

Needless to say, I’m a big fan of Gone Girl. It’s definitely the most fun I’ve had with a movie in 2014 and a no-brainer inclusion on my end-of-year best list.A

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part I" Changes Up Franchise Formula to Mostly Positive Results

Katniss becomes the face of the revolution in Mockingjay -- Part 1.
In a post Harry Potter world, The Hunger Games series is far and away the best of the onslaught of YA adaptions. I outlined my thinking on this in my review of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, but the gist is this: even though the plot here is just as high concept and ludicrous as those found in many of its contemporaries, there is a credibility to the series because it keeps everything on the human scale rooted in a great lead character played by an actress at the top of her game. As this series goes on, it's getting easier and easier to say it -- Jennifer Lawrence is outright iconic.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part I is another winning entry in the series, which is really saying something given all it has going against it. For starters, it doesn't center around a Hunger Games, and so it doesn't have the structure the first two films had. This adaptation was already going to have a meandering quality to it because of that, but then there's the fact that it's also being split into two films, which has only made it worse.

Splitting films has become a thing in Hollywood, but it almost always makes the films feel incomplete and is almost never necessary. At least with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, there was a practical reason -- that book was huge and had the responsibility of tying together so many plot strands that making one satisfying movie would've been impossible. On the opposite end of that spectrum is Breaking Dawn, a two-part film in which so little happens, it's amazing they couldn't do the whole thing in about 75 minutes.

Mockingjay falls squarely in the middle of these two extremes. Splitting the book into two films certainly affords the opportunity to explore character in a way one film never could, but I'm pretty confident the narrative would've been better served without the split. Although the total Mockingjay experience is going to clock in at well over four hours, it probably would've worked best as a three-hour epic. At least 20 minutes could have been chopped off of this first part without doing harm (especially the manufactured drama about Prim's cat and the rescue mission that eats up most of the final quarter of the film and was no doubt trumped up from the books as a means to give this film an exciting ending).

But there's no use talking about what could have been. Mockingjay -- Part I is still an involving film, but fans of the series should know that it's definitely a major step back in the action department. While the first two films hinted at political maneuvering, this film puts such manipulations front and center.
Mockingjay -- Part I gives these frequent costars a chance to 
share some scenes together.
Other than Katniss, the two focal characters in this film are Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the games-maker from the last film who conspired to spring Katniss from the arena, and President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), the leader of the militaristic District 13 that is leading the revolution against the Capitol and President Snow (Donald Sutherland). In lieu of tournament with kids killing each other, the film spends a great deal of time showing their attempt to unite the districts and incite war with Katniss cast as their troop-rousing mascot. A great deal of effort is put on the PR aspects of war, so, in many respects, this latest Hunger Games film has more in common with something like Wag the Dog than it does with its direct predecessors (which explains why Danny Strong, writer of the political HBO films Recount and Game Change, has been brought on as a a co-writer).

The cast for this series is a huge strength and just keeps getting better and better. Julianne Moore is a solid addition and giving an actor as great as Hoffman more to do is always a great idea. Woody Harrelson gets some new notes to plays as a sober Haymitch, as does Elizabeth Banks as a humbled Effie, who has been added on here in a well-considered streamlining move (her role in the books was filled by lesser characters who had already been marginalized in the previous films).

As indicated above, Lawrence is a dynamo, and it's great to see her do bad acting when filming canned ads for the revolution, only to then see how moving she can be when giving a speech in the heat of battle or singing a soulful and moody song from her youth that is then morphed into a rallying song by the propoganda machine (major props to Lawrence and The Lumineers for bringing those book lyrics to life). Meanwhile, Josh Hutcherson remains the a stealth weapon of the series, conveying a lot of subtext in each of his interview scenes. On the other end of the barely-a-romantic-triangle triangle, Liam Hemsworth remains the weak link in the cast, but I'm not sure how much of that is on him, and how much of that is on the poorly defined character. For what it's worth, he does deliver in his big speech about the bombing of District 12.

Outside of the unnecessary splitting of the narrative, my biggest gripe with the film involves a deviation from the book that definitely rates as as a spoiler (you've been warned). While inter-cutting a rousing victory speech from Coin with Katniss watching a writing Peeta is a fantastic, theme-appropriate way to end here, I'm not a big fan of the overt acknowledgement that Snow allows this rescue mission to occur because of his "brainwash Peeta to hate Katniss" plan (which was more of a safety net in the books where the conversation between Snow and Katniss never occurred). It seems highly unlikely that Peeta would've actually been able to kill Katniss, and I just don't see how a shrewd villain like Snow would take that chance considering how much of a PR victory it would represent for the opposition otherwise. That's especially true considering he didn't bother brainwashing the other two captives. Why not just kill those two if he was going with this Peeta plan? Or, better yet, why not just kill all three? The whole thing worked better when it played like Snow was semi-duped as opposed to actively stupid.

While I'll probably always believe the series would've played best as a trilogy, Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part I is another good entry in an increasingly impressive series of films. B+

Friday, November 7, 2014

"Sex Tape," A Raunchy Comedy Without Much Raunch or Comedy

Is Jason Segel playing older of Cameron Diaz playing younger? 
It’s getting harder and harder for me to watch blandly mediocre movies. If a film is  mediocre but has something interesting going on (acting, action, dialouge, editing, cinematography, anything) – cool. Hell, even if a film totally doesn’t work but really goes for it or has some worthwhile element – cool.

But movies like Sex Tape? Not cool.

Sex Tape is a would-be raunchy comedy from director Jake Kasdan that stars Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel as a married couple that looks to rekindle their sex life by making a sex tape, only to send it out to a number of friends and family due to a convoluted plot built around i-syncing. This is a return to formula of sorts – Kasdan last directed this duo in the successful Bad Teacher, a middling raunchy comedy that at least had to good conscience to be intermittently funny and charming.

This film has no such conscience. There’s nothing all that awful about Sex Tape, but the characterizations are surface level, the resolution is hooey and the comedy aspects just don’t hit at all. Although the particulars are different, the whole thing plays like a poor-man's version of Date Night, which was sort of a poor man's version of True Lies (or any number of movies built around a marriage vastly improving after a night of hijinks).

It’s a frustrating film, because the script has been partially credited to Segel and Nicholas Stoller, two funny and emotionally resonant collaborators who, even at their worst (The Five-Year Engagement), have been far more hit than miss.

A strong correlation can be made here between Sex Tape and a real sex tape. It probably seemed like a better idea during the planning stages, and it was likely a lot more fun to make the thing than it is to watch it. D

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Hardy Makes the Modest "Locke" A Compelling Ride

Locke is a film entirely set in a car.
Locke is 84 minutes in a car with one character who makes a series of phone calls during a long drive to London. That’s it – that’s the extent of the movie – so it's kind of hard to review.

I suppose many people would call the film experimental, but it’s a pretty straightforward domestic drama about a guy who made a mistake and is now paying the piper in an attempt to do the right thing.

Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is foreman who is supposed to be supervising a historically big concrete pour in Birmingham, but has instead decided to travel all the way to London to be with a colleague he knocked up during a one-night stand because she has gone into premature labor. This decision puts him in a perilous situation at with his bosses and work associates, not to mention his wife and kids, all of whom he spends time talking to on the phone during his life-altering drive.

Given the constraints of the plot, the movie hangs entirely on Hardy’s shoulders, and he’s more than up for the task. Although he’s best known for live-wire performances in the likes of Bronson and The Dark Knight Rises, Hardy easily inhabits this regular guy, somehow making Ivan compelling by remaining calm and systematically in control even as his life spins wildly out of control.

Locke is a modest film, the kind that nobody’s bound to put on a top ten list, or much remember five, ten years from now. Although it’s an interesting watch that maintains a palpable tension throughout, it’s mostly a well-done exercise that’s fated to be resume padding for Hardy and writer/director Steven Knight. B-

Friday, September 12, 2014

Middling "Lone Survivor" Disappoints Despite Great Craftsmanship

The actors in Lone Survivor do some heavy lifting to make up for
thin characterizations.
Given the fact that director Peter Berg got Universal to bankroll Lone Survivor by making Battleship in a “one for me, one for them” deal (as mentioned in my review of that train wreck), I’m kind of surprised at how middle-of-the-road a film it turned out to be.

I was expecting something with a bit more bite, something that was character focused and challenging, but Lone Survivor is basically a jingoistic love letter to Navy Seals. It’s a lot more Act of Valor than The Hurt Locker. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s certainly a disappointing one.

Based on Marcus Luttrell’s book of the same name, Lone Survivor details how he and three other Seals came across some sheep herders while on a mission in Afghanistan and, instead of killing them or leaving them for dead, decided to let them go. This humanistic act compromised their mission, cost three of them their lives, and led to the death of 16 others who were attempting to rescue them. Luttrell made it out alive, but only due to the protection of some brave Pashtun villagers who helped him due to their traditional belief in Pashtunwali, a code of honor that grants visitors refuge from enemies.

The film kicks into high-gear right when the foursome comes across the herders. The debate over how to handle the situation is given proper weight, and the 40-minute firefight that follows is a truly visceral experience, an all-time example of battle depiction on film that manages to capture the harrowing tension and confusion of the moment all the while maintaining a plausible choreography. 

The problem with the film has to do with everything outside this extended sequence. I’ve often heard critics take issue with Saving Private Ryan, acknowledging that although it has classic battle scenes at the beginning and at the end, everything else is sentimental bullshit.

More on the concept of Pastunwali would've been welcome given it's
importance to Marcus Luttrell's survival.
A movie like Lone Survivor really illustrates how ridiculously off base that argument is. Saving Private Ryan does indulge in some ill-advised schmaltz with its graveyard denouement, but it also has a script that works to tangibly develop its soldiers into believable people.

Lone Survivor does not. Its setup is all cookie cutter, with most of the early screen time dedicated to scatter-shot rah rah initiation rituals in lieu of authentic character moments. That’s understandable given the fact that the film wants to honor all the men who sacrificed their lives, but such an approach ultimately leaves things feeling half-baked.

The film also would've benefited from devoting more time to the concept of Pastunwali, which is really only highlighted by a sentence or two at the end of the movie. We never see Luttrell’s discovery of why these people helped him, an odd decision given the intriguing circuitry to the fact that his salvation was brought about by the same type of stick-your-neck-out compassion that caused the death of his fellow soldiers.

Although their roles are thinly written, a special note has to be made of the central quartet of actors. Mark Wahlberg anchors the film nicely as Luttrell, and he really sells the desperate confusion during the Pashtun village scenes. Meanwhile, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch and especially Ben Foster do a great job with what they’re given here, implying all sorts of humanity that’s simply not on the page.

In all, I’m OK with Lone Survivor. I appreciate the craftsmanship, think the actors perform admirably and love the way Berg and his crew put you in the moment. However, I feel like this adaptation is ultimately a missed opportunity. In real life, this is a moving, thought-provoking and life-affirming story. On the screen? Not so much. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"Muppets Most Wanted" Plays to Brand's Strengths

The Muppets agree to make a world tour their next adventure.
Early on in Muppets Most Wanted, Kermit encourages Miss Piggy, Gonzo and the rest of his pals to play it safe and stick to their strengths. He argues that even though they are relevant again due to the success of the Jason Segal-led The Muppets (a fact that is emphasized by the opening number “We’re Doing a Sequel”), they are still in a perilous spot popularity-wise, so they shouldn't do much to shake up a formula that works.

He’s talking about the on-stage acts they’ll be delivering during their world tour, but it’s also a meta moment that aptly describes Muppets Most Wanted, a film that doesn't do anything innovative but coasts along amiably on the strength of some giddy puns, a zany energy, a slew of celebrity cameos, and (most importantly) a helping of charming original tunes.

The film focuses on the evil plot of Constantine the frog, a master criminal who looks like Kermit with a mole on his cheek. With the assistance of his number two (Ricky Gervais), Constantine escapes jail and then kidnaps and replaces Kermit, all the while using the cover of a Muppets World Tour to pull off a number of heists culminating in the theft of England’s Crown Jewels. Constantine makes for a poor Kermit, but none of his pals notice (except Animal) because the less structured impostor allows them to do whatever they want with the show.

Meanwhile, Kermit is trapped in a Siberian gulag, helping prisoners like Big Papa (Ray Liotta), Prison King (Jermaine Clement) and Danny Trejo (Danny Trejo) put on a revue at the behest of the warden (Tina Fey). And CIA agent Sam Eagle is working with a Clouseau-like Interpol agent (Ty Burrell) to track down the thieves behind the growing number of heists.

This gag single-handedly justifies this whole movie. 
The narrative is predictably disposable, but the film shines in similar ways to its predecessor. Director/writer James Bobin and co-writer Nicholas Stoller once again deliver fun that's amusingly meta, sneaking in some pretty big laughs  (the appearance of Rizzo and Robin and the sight gag of Kermit and Miss Piggy’s future kids) amidst the mostly knowing chuckles.

Although there’s nothing here that approaches his Oscar-winning “Man or Muppet” or even “Life’s a Happy Song,” Bret McKenzie has littered the soundtrack with some really clever and fun songs, especially “I’ll Get You What You Want” and “Interrogation Song.”  Likewise, while none of the celebrity cameos work as well as the Jim Parsons scene in The Muppets, three or four of the 20 or so included here come close.

As I said, the movie plays to the strengths of the Muppets. Nothing overly special to see here, but a comforting adventure with some old friends – the type of family film that doesn't hit the heights of something like The Lego Movie, but that will play well on repeat viewings with the kids. B-

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Irreverent and Heart-Warming "Guardians of the Galaxy" Demonstrates the Mastery of Marvel

The chemistry of the central team makes Guardians a roaring success.
With Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and X-Men owned by other movie studios, Marvel was forced to focus on lesser known superheroes when it began releasing films as an independent studio six years ago. Many questioned their plan to build multiple movies in an interconnected universe around the likes of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, but Marvel pulled it off with aplomb.
Since taking those initial risks in the lead-up to The Avengers, the studio has been coasting a bit, chugging along on the strength of sequels as they put the pieces in motion to continue cultivating an expansive Marvel Cinematic Universe.
But could they get people to show up for a truly obscure property, and what did it mean for the company's long-term hopes if one of their films failed? The answer to the first question is a resounding yes, and the answer to the second question will have to wait until next summer, because Guardians of the Galaxy is a smash hit, and a deserving one at that.
One of the things I've enjoyed most about the Marvel output thus far is how willing they've been to mix things up by embracing elements from other genres. Captain America: The First Avenger was a period war film, more reminiscent of Indiana Jones than a typical run-of-the-mill superhero outing. Thor played up the Shakespearean overtones, and from what I've heard, Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes more than a few cues from the political espionage thrillers of the '70s, while next summer's Ant-Man is said to be a heist film.
This marks the third sci-fi franchise to cast Zoe Saldana as the female lead.
Although Guardians hits most of the beats you might expect in the super hero genre, it's actually more of a space adventure in the vein of Star Wars. In fact, one could argue this is practically the Star Wars film fanboys were hoping to get back when George Lucas announced he'd be making a prequel trilogy.
Like Star Wars, Guardians focuses on a rag tag team of assorted underdogs ultimately growing into a pseudo family with the common goal of thwarting an intergalactic evil. The team includes a kick-ass princess, a tough-talking mercenary with a gigantic partner whose vocal intonations only he understands, and a leader with a mysterious lineage. There's no robot side kicks -- instead they've got a bad ass warrior looking to avenge the death of his family -- but, overall, it's pretty damn familiar.
That being said, this isn't just some Star Wars clone. Even though they are similar in broad strokes, the lead characters here are all uniquely defined and well inhabited, and beyond that, they are surrounded by a world that is densely populated and  feels authentically lived in. Besides Guardians operates on a way loopier energy -- in truth, it plays like a film you'd find in the middle of a spectrum that had Star Wars at one end and Spaceballs at the other.
As Peter Quill/Star Lord, Chris Pratt officially announces himself as a movie star, proving more than capable of carrying a blockbuster on his shoulders. He's been doing a nice job of modulating his ascendance in Hollywood over the last few years, parlaying his successful comedic performance on Parks and Recreation into a number of diverse film roles in the likes of Moneyball, Her and Zero Dark Thirty. With this, The Lego Movie and next year's Jurassic World, things are going into overdrive for the hardworking actor.

A post-credit cameo by Howard the Duck is a nice nod to the last time a
Marvel property this weird made it to the big screen. That film was produced
by George Lucas, whose Star Wars clearly influenced Guardians.

But the best-in-show work involves the motion capture characters. Watching Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), it's hard not to think of Jar Jar Binks -- how this movie could do this type of thing so perfectly after The Phantom Menace flubbed it so badly is astonishing; and I don't just mean that in reference to the quality of the special effects.
Some reviews have commented that the film wastes many of it's best known actors in little roles (and this beside casting the two biggest draws as CGI characters). However, while that is sometimes true (Glenn Close's presence is pointless), the likes of John C. Reilly and Benicio Del Toro get to steal a few scenes while adding a believable depth to the proceedings.
The film isn't all perfect. Freshness and tone represent the film's greatest strengths, but there are parts where Guardians gets a little too quippy, and it's ultimately just another in a long line of action movies that require the heroes keep a powerful doohickey out of the hands of the bad guys (snore).
Furthermore, this is yet another Marvel movie where said bad guys barely rate. Thanos (Josh Brolin) is little more than window dressing, and Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) is only a marginally better version of Malekith, the super shitty baddie from Thor: The Dark World. However, I will give the film one thing -- it does include Yondu (Michael Rooker), who, in just a few scenes, becomes the most interesting non-Loki antagonist the Marvel movie universe has to offer (for those keeping track of the Star Wars parallels, he's kind of the film's Jabba the Hut).
I could probably go on and on about the film for quite a while, but all you need to know is that it works like gangbusters, mostly because the central characters are so fun to watch together, but also because it has a lot of heart. There was a real chance for disaster here -- two of the five leads are a tree who constantly says "I am Groot" and a short-tempered raccoon -- but writer/director James Gunn and his cast and crew have really pulled off something special. A-

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Time Capsule Review: "Casino Royale"

I recently stumbled upon some reviews I did back in college for the La Salle Collegian. In the interest of condensing all of my reviews on this site, I've decided to upload them sporadically. I've chosen not to update them, mostly because I like the concept of reviews as time capsules for how we feel about movies at the time we first see them.

Below is a review of Casino Royale, which I originally reviewed in December of 2006. The film relaunched the James Bond series with Daniel Craig in the lead, resulting in what I believe is the greatest run on Bond movies in the franchise’s 50 plus years. Other than a ridiculous torture scene, Casino Royale is perfect, which is why you’ll see I called it the greatest Bond film (although Skyfall challenged that title six years later).
The whole movie, and really a great deal of this Daniel Craig run of
Bond films, hinges on the relationship with Vesper Lynd.
After 44 years in Hollywood, James Bond has finally received a notable makeover. Obviously, he’s changed a bit over the years, with five different actors and various levels of campiness pervading the first 20 films.
However, with the hiring of Daniel Craig, the sixth actor to play the super spy, Bond’s gone through his most significant changes ever. He hasn’t just gone blonde; no, with Craig drinking the martinis and wearing the tux, Bond has also made a play for three-dimensionality.
While it will always remain debatable if Craig’s portrayal is as good as Connery’s iconic depiction, one thing is certain: Craig is without a doubt the best actor to carry a license to kill. Connery may have an Oscar on his shelf, but he’s got a sliver of the range that Craig, a long-time character actor who’s given great performance after great performance in films like Road to PerditionLayer Cake and Munich, brings to the table.
Turns out that range, which would’ve been unnecessary in many past Bond films, is of utmost importance in the latest Bond outing, Casino Royale. This is a Bond that screws up, bleeds (a lot) and gets down and dirty with his kills. He barely uses gadgets and when asked if he wants his martini shaken or stirred replies, “Do I look like I give a damn?”
Most importantly, although he’s a cold-blooded killer, he shows surprising sensitivity and genuinely falls in love. Craig pulls all of this off, but he can’t be given all of the credit. After all, the excellent script is what demands these things of his James Bond.
Like last year’s Batman BeginsCasino Royale aims to reboot the legend of its hero. The film opens very stylistically, with director Martin Campbell (who helmed Goldeneye, the best Pierce Brosnan flick) utilizing black and white, grainy film stock and obtuse camera angles, as Bond gets his first two kills to achieve double-O status.

Once the color kicks in, so does the plot. The film is divided into three acts. The first, the most Bondian by previous movie standards, has two thrilling chase scenes, and shows Bond at his smoothest, upstaging bad guys and charming one of their wives, while trotting all over the world looking to identify his mark: Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen).

Le Chiffre needs to win the pot at an exclusive poker game at the Casino Royale in Montenegro, as he recently lost a good bit of some very bad people’s money (due to the meddlings of Bond in the first act). A great poker player, Bond gets shipped to Montenegro with an accountant named Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) along for the ride.

The second act slows things down considerably, taking place mostly at the poker table. Despite minimal action, this portion is tension-packed, both at the table in interchanges between Bond and Le Chiffre, and in the fatal way Le Chiffre attempts to take Bond out of the game. The budding romance between Bond and Vesper further builds the tension.

I won’t get into the third act, other than to say it goes in an unexpected direction, showcasing a fallible Bond scraping to keep things together.

Bond hasn’t been this real since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the last time producers attempted to humanize him with an actual love interest (as opposed to a sexual conquest). It works a lot better in this film, with Craig successfully essaying a Bond that still hasn’t learned to detach himself from life.

For her part, Green cuts out a memorable character. She’s vulnerable, conflicted and, to appease the purist, beautiful. She goes toe-to-toe with Craig in their verbal bouts, and is totally believable as the woman who could melt the heart of such a cold secret agent. She’s a big reason why the romantic relationship, and thus Bond’s conflict, works so well.

Mikkelsen does a good job showing the desperation of Le Chiffre, a man with a tell even worse than Malkovich’s in Rounders. Dame Judi Dench, the lone holdover from the Brosnan days, is given much more to do this time around as M, and she’s perfectly matched with Craig. In a smaller role, the dynamic Jeffrey Wright shows up as Felix Leiter, a mainstay in the Bond tradition. It is noteworthy that Felix and M seem to be the only two returning characters; Moneypenny and Q are nowhere in sight.

Over the years, the James Bond series has adhered to a very specific formula. While a handful of the films have been good in their own right, specifically the first few Connery films, the rest have managed to coast along on explosions, babes, charm, ridiculous schemes and gadgets.

Casino Royale screws with the formula by adding a sense of reality to the world Bond inhabits, while simultaneously adding depth to the super spy himself. It’s a welcome change of pace, and the series seems to be headed in an exciting new direction with a riveting leading man. So, if you’re looking for an action film in the midst of the holiday season, Casino Royale is the film to see. It’s the best action film of the year, and the best Bond film period. A

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Capsule Review: "In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale"

I recently stumbled upon some reviews I did back in college for the La Salle Collegian. In the interest of condensing all of my reviews on this site, I've decided to upload them sporadically throughout the next few weeks. I've chosen not to update them, mostly because I like the concept of reviews as time capsules for how we feel about movies at the time we first see them.

Below is a review of In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, which I originally reviewed in January of 2008. At the time, my friends and I anticipated the terrible films Uwe Boll “adapted” from video games, but in retrospect this was the peak of his career for us.

In the six years since In the Name of the King was released, Boll has worked at a furious clip, direction 20 films and producing even more according to IMDb. Unfortunately, his burgeoning near-competence behind the camera has led to films that, while still pretty damn bad, just aren’t as fun.
See the film for this scene alone. 
This review demands a prologue. Not because its subject, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, is of any great weight or depth; in reality the film is nothing more than a very poor Lord of the Rings rip-off. No, this review deserves a prologue because of the man, nay, the legend-in-the-making, behind its splendor: Uwe Boll.

Here’s an abbreviated biography for you. Boll bought up the film rights to a bunch of lower-end videogames a few years back, and he’s gone through them one by one, making some of the most god-awful films of the last decade. So far he’s “directed” five of these properties—House of the DeadAlone in the DarkBloodRayneIn the Name of the King and a straight-to-video BloodRayne sequel—but a quick look at his Internet Movie Database page shows that there is far more to come (including four more this year alone).

Each of these films has bombed terribly, both critically and commercially, and rightfully so. Everything, from the scripts to the acting to the scores, hell even the blocking, has been laughable. And yet somehow, through the magic of some sort of tax loophole in Germany, he’s kept procuring bigger and bigger budgets.

Even more amazing than that, Boll has managed to get a whole slew of name actors to appear in his dreck, including Christian Slater, Stephen Dorff, Michael Madsen, Michelle Rodriguez and Sir Ben Kingsley, an Oscar winner. Under his inept direction, these performers have given the worst performances of their careers (I can only assume the paychecks were well worth it).

All the while, Boll has garnered a serious reputation as the worst filmmaker alive. Drawing unfavorable comparisons to Ed Wood, he’s elicited the scorn of the gaming community and pretty much become a punchline. At one point he even challenged a few of his more fervent critics to boxing matches (he blindsided all of them, as they had no idea he was an amateur boxer).

I consider myself a serious cinephile, and so I know I should despise Boll because he’s amassing money and talent that could be far better used elsewhere (give the guy credit, he’s a decent producer). However, against the odds, my friends and I have become fervent fans of the man we affectionately call Uwe. He may make terrible films, but he’s the king of guilty pleasure; his films are hilarious in ways that Walker, Texas Ranger doesn’t even begin to compare to it.

Take In the Name of King, for example. The beats of the story are okay: A sorcerer joins forces with the king’s evil relative to take over the kingdom and kills the son of an honest farmer in the process. The farmer (who turns out to be more than a farmer) joins the king’s cause to rescue his kidnapped wife and save the kingdom. Throw in some epic battle scenes, a few comic side kicks and some family dynamics and you got yourself a movie. Sounds clichéd but not all that terrible, right?

However, Boll couldn’t just make himself a lame, but serviceable, movie. No, Boll had to inexplicably add ninjas, Cirque du Soleil jungle women and a ridiculously cheery score. He had to switch the color saturation midway through for no apparent reason and encourage a multitude of nonsensical editing choices. He had to commission a terrible script with horrible lines like, “Those who you fight, we will help you fight them” and direct every one of his performers to overact to the hilt. But you know what? Boll’s decisions to do these things took a film that could’ve been inane, and made it into an extremely fun experience.

The chief enjoyment in this film derives from the actors giving life to Doug Taylor’s terrible screenplay. With Jason Statham, John Rhys-Davies, Burt Reynolds, Matthew Lillard, Ron Pearlman, Brian J. White, Leelee Sobieski, Claire Forlani and Ray Liotta, the cast sounds solid. Some of them defy the odds, and manage to be just that: Statham (as the farmer called Farmer), Rhys-Davies (as the king’s right-hand mage) and White (as the king’s right-hand commander) all turn in competent work, and manage to not embarrass themselves.

However, everyone else is pretty damn terrible and, thus, enjoyable. Reynolds, who looks totally out of place in the setting and kingly garb, is an utter treat as King Konreid. At one point, upon hearing some mumbo-jumbo from Rhys-Davies, Reynolds hilariously responds with, “What the hell does that mean?” Might as well be a sly statement on half the stuff that happens in the film. Furthermore, Reynolds has what is potentially the funniest deathbed scene in memory, during which he talks about seaweed being good for crops and all sorts of crazy nonsense. It’s truly a sight to behold.

As the evil mage Gallian, Liotta is just as bad. To his credit, he brings intensity to the role, but his scenery chewing and reaction shots are pricelessly bad. The conviction he gives to lines like, “When I am king we won’t have a word for madness. We’ll just call it power,” makes them even loonier.

Lillard plays the conniving Duke Fallow and is also a “standout.” Playing most of his scenes like a drunk, he delivers a ridiculous portrayal that, in fairness, is intentionally meant to cull laughter. His character’s pointlessness (Gallian doesn’t actually need him), which I’m pretty sure is unintentional, does add to the proceedings.

To be fair, this is Boll’s best movie to date, and he could be well on his way to making a mediocre movie, and then, fingers-crossed, a competent one. But for now, I’m happy that he’s churning out the total camp-goodness. D

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Aronofsky Ambitiously Adapts Bible Story With "Noah"

Here's a picture of Russell Crowe running from bad guys, because there
aren't any good pictures of rock monsters (this article delves into why).
Darren Aronofsky makes a very particular type of film. The word visionary gets thrown around a lot when describing directors, but with someone like Aronofsky, the designation is warranted. He employs an artistic approach, one that is sometimes opaque, often impressionistic and always overflowing with ideas.

In general, Aronofsky doesn’t build films in predictable ways, concerning himself more with provoking reactions by ambitiously exploring various emotions, themes and concepts than with things like story, character and traditional structure.  He’s not afraid to go big, which is why he does things like include gigantic rock monsters in his adaption of Noah’s Ark.

Yes, you read that right. Noah, Aronofsky’s retelling of the well-known tale from the Book of Genesis, has rock monsters. I know it sounds ridiculous, and initially it certainly plays that way, but it actually has a way of making the story more plausible. At least, it helps explain how Noah (Russell Crowe) and his small family could build such a gigantic ark – when you’ve got a bunch of rock monsters to do most of the labor, it’s not so impossible. And really, if you’re willing to make the giant leap of believing in God, it’s just a small step to buy into the notion of fallen angels turned to rock as punishment for attempting to help humans after they were cast out of the garden.

That’s the thing about Aronofsky – at their most bizarre, his films are unexpectedly penetrable – even when he’s jumping down rabbit holes, he’s guiding us along readily, not leaving us in the dust and challenging us to catch up the way someone like Shane Carruth does with something like Upstream Color (which I reviewed here).

Honestly, the rock monsters aren’t the most surprising part of the film. Instead, I’d point to the reimagining of Noah as a stubborn and self-righteous brute who deems humanity unworthy of a second chance but is then tormented by survivor’s guilt in the aftermath of the storm. He condemns his middle son Ham (Logan Lerman) to a life of loneliness when he does not help him to bring a woman onto the Ark and threatens to kill the child of his eldest son Shem (Douglas Booth) if the baby is a girl since that would allow the possibility of repopulation. Like the rock monsters, this interpretation has biblical precedence, but it does clash strongly with the pious interpretation of Noah most are familiar with. It plays like a critique on modern day religious zealots, but it also humanizes the story, exploring the toll such a horrible task would take on even the most decent of men.

For the latter half of the film, Noah is very Jack Torrance-like, but early on, he’s portrayed as the one upstanding and honorable man in the world. He comes from the line of Seth, while the vast majority of humanity comes from the line of Cain, who killed their brother Abel. Although Noah is a vegetarian who forages only for what his family needs to survive, the descendants of Cain are meat-eaters who have destroyed the land with industrialism. And thus it is clear – Noah was the first environmentalist.

At one point, Noah tells his family the creation story – it’s a beautifully realized scene that visually combines creationism with evolution. In so doing, he indicates that when the creator looked out at what he had done, he saw that it was good and made man in his image to protect the world. However, the film’s antagonist Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) tells a different version of the story. In his version, the creator looked out at what he had done, felt something was missing, and so he made man in his image to hold dominion over the world.
There’s a clear distinction there, and Tubal-cain raises a worthwhile objection to the idea of saving mere animals while leaving woman and children to die. Unfortunately, he’s broadly drawn and undeniably evil, so his viewpoint isn’t given the fair shake it might’ve been given with a slightly less barbaric approach. I think the film is aiming for us to see a middle ground – to disagree with the wasteful and destructive ways of Tubal-cain and his kind but to be wary of the radicalism that Noah descends into – but it gets muddied a bit given the lack of nuance from the villain.
Noah is a very easy film to laugh off or laugh at. Ham could be dismissed as a pouty horn dog out for a piece of ass, the Lord of the Rings style battle scenes could easily distract, and I mean, come on, rock monsters. Oh, and I can’t forget about Tubal-cain randomly grabbing live animals and taking a bite (putting that appendix to use I guess) and Anthony Hopkins as Noah’s grandfather Methuselah, a guy with super powers who just wants to eat berries. And did I mention the rock monsters?
However, there’s a clear effort to engage the material here, and Russell Crowe is more than up to the task of portraying the various shades of this complex and flawed Noah. The story of Noah’s Ark is so well established at this point that it barely has any impact for modern audiences – but somehow Aronofsky has adapted it in such a way that it actually registers. He digs deep to deliver a film that makes you think and makes you feel.
That’s pretty impressive. Even when the film seems a bit bloated, the CGI overwhelms the story and the script doesn’t live up to its ambition, Aronofsky is still doing his thing, provoking reactions with a big approach to big ideas. Sometimes this works like gangbusters (Black Swan), and other times, it’s a bit less successful (The Fountain). Either way, it’s always interesting, as it is here with Noah, and I’ll take that any day of the week in lieu of a more traditional, snore-worthy adaptation. B