NOAH

Noah-poster-405x600If you are going to make a movie about NOAH then why are you so afraid of saying the word God. Darren Aronofsky’s telling of the tale of the biblical flood does a fine job of recounting the story. He has the advantage of pretty much everyone knowing how it goes. So any shortcomings in story development may be excused. We know how this goes, so we can fill in the blanks. Maybe that’s a really good thing. It allows the viewer his own imagination in filling in details. But from beginning to end none of the characters ever say God. The refer to the deity as “The Creator”. There’s not necessarily wrong with it. It’s just an odd choice. Maybe that’s why some Christians are not happy with this interpretation. Then there is the scene where Noah recounts the creation story. The words are a pretty standard retelling of the beginning of Genesis. The images seemed to come more from a documentary about evolution rather than a bible story. Not that I agree with any criticism directed at Aronofsky based on these choices, but I see why some may be upset. I have other quarrels. None are huge. Things like a lot of melodrama. Things like questionable casting choices. Not sure about Jennifer Connelly as Noah’s wife. Not sure about Emma Watson as Ila. Not sure why everyone in ancient times had to speak with a British accent. Even Connelly who is decidedly not British and sometimes her accent slips. Not sure why everyone has to be so “pretty”. Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah. That seems like a no brainer. Two things I am sure about are the talents of Russell Crowe and Ray Winstone. They are the best things in the movie. Winstone plays the King of those who are about to be wiped off the face of the Earth. He’s pompous and mean and perfect. Crowe makes this movie worth watching. He is righteous without being pious. He wrestles with his decision to kill his granddaughters like a man truly torn between family and faith. NOAH isn’t a great movie. It’s just a pretty good one. — Alan Yudman

 

Russell Crowe is that rare movie star who’s as unlikeable on-screen as off, and that works to his advantage here, since he’s playing the ultimate misanthrope: a man who wants to extinguish all humanity. Crowe’s impulse is at the heart of this impressive, ridiculous, spectacular, talky, eye-dazzling hybrid — a mash-up of biblical epic, art film, and teenage romance that doesn’t quite come together, but not for lack of earnest attempt. Anyone who expected a traditionally “religious” movie a la sanctimonious crap like SON OF GOD from Darren Aronofsky must not know this is a director who goes his own way. From a handful of verses in Genesis and scattered references in other Bible chapters, he has created a meditation on sacrifice, sin and obsession that blurs the lines between God and Man. Noah’s seemingly crackpot determination to remake the future without human beings can make sense in light of all we know about how very very badly people have screwed up Creation. But the idea of washing away our sins in the tide with only “innocent” animals remaining doesn’t hold water, as it were, when it comes time for Noah to slaughter babies. (Unlike the Abraham and Isaac story, it is Noah himself who stays his hand here.) The humorlessness of Crowe’s performance is deliberate, off-putting but necessary. The other actors seem like mere pawns: as Noah’s wife Jennifer Connelly suffers, Logan Lerman does his puppydog thing as Ham, someone named Douglas Booth is a cipher as Ham’s brother Shem. Only Emma Watson cuts through the gloom, especially in one lovely moment when she realizes she’s pregnant. I’m still not sure what I thought of NOAH, which may be a tribute to its complexity. — Jeff Schultz

MUPPETS MOST WANTED

muppets most wantedWhat’s not to like? Beloved characters and a cavalcade of cameos whipped up into a frothy romp that gets in some gentle pokes at Hollywood but never turns cynical. The Muppets’ basic goodness is too great a force to be undermined for long by villainy — and, this being a kids’ movie, even the villains are redeemable. (Or, as regards Ricky Gervais and “Constantine”, the anti-Kermit, they get their just rewards comically.) MMW is also a full-on musical, with a bunch of clever original numbers like the self-tickling opener “We’re Making a Sequel”, not to mention the hilarious sendup of “I Hope I Get It” from A CHORUS LINE performed by Gulag inmates. (Another song, punctuated by the voice of a prisoner in solitary confinement whom we can hear but not see leads to one of the best celebrity reveals at the end.) The funniest line in the movie is, “Goodnight, Danny Trejo”. Why would that make the audience burst out laughing? You’ll just have to see for yourself. — Jeff Schultz

DIVERGENT

Divergent-posterIt is quite unfair to DIVERGENT. Most people are comparing it to The Hunger Games. A story about a dystopian future society where people must compete to survive and strong female character as the lead. As comparisons go that’s about as far as anyone should go. Shailene Woodley is a fine actress, but she is no Jennifer Lawrence. Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn are nice supporting actors, but really? They cannot compare to Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, etc. In “the city” there are five factions. Woodley grows up as part of the selfless group that helps everyone and runs the government. Each teenager takes a test to see which faction to which they belong. You can go against the test and choose one of the other factions. Choice is apparently important. But some get no results from the test, they are classified as Divergent and a threat to the order of society. Woodley is Divergent. She also chooses to join the warrior faction rather than the one in which she grew up. Confused yet? I was not totally lost because the film does a decent job of spelling things out, but when they start casually referencing the factions by name it can be difficult to keep track. Woodley is fine Everyone is fine. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t seem to be sticking or making me think. It doesn’t break ground, it doesn’t take risks. It’s just a better than average futuristic sci-fi adventure. And there is nothing wrong with that. — Alan Yudman

 

MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN

The big studios have tried to recreate several 1960’s and ’70’s cartoons on the big screen. And most with minimal success. Ok, I’m being kind. Most have absolutely sucked ass. Rocky & Bullwinkle, The Flintstones, Underdog, Scooby Doo and The Green Hornet (I know it’s not a cartoon, but it was cartoon-like and I couldn’t resist taking another swipe at the turd of a movie). Into the ring steps MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN. In case you don’t remember, the cartoon aired as part of The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show along with Fractured Fairytales and Dudley Do-right (another crap movie). Mr. Peabody is the world’s smartest dog who is a Harvard educated master inventor among other talents. He adopts a boy, Sherman. To teach him about history, Mr. Peabody invents The Way Back machine. It’s a time machine that they use to travel to actual events in history so Sherman learns exactly what happened. Back to those other failures. They either were live-action remakes or combined animation with live action. Mr. Peabody & Sherman is all cartoon and all wonderful! The story is completely faithful to the original Jay Ward concept/conceit. Peabody is smart and smug about it, but in a loving kind of way. Sherman is wide-eyed and innocent and just clueless enough. Peabody is given to making historical puns that are always quaint. The writer and director know not to overreach or to try to make it something it’s not. It’s a movie for kids, but enough there for adults to keep them interested. The voice work is perfect. Ty Burrell recreates Peabody’s voice almost perfectly. Perfect cadence, perfect amount of snark and always with an undertone of love for Sherman. There’s a message about being proud of who you are and tolerant of others. But mostly there’s laughs and sweetness and entertainment. And isn’t that what we go to the movies for anyhow? I saw it in 3D and while it was good, I don’t think it is necessary. This isn’t too intense for the little ones, but some of it may sail right over their heads especially when it gets “sciencey”. I cannot begin to describe how happy I was walking out of the theater. I was hoping they didn’t screw it up and congratulations and admiration to writer Craig Wright and director Rob Minkoff. They not only didn’t mess up something I loved as a kid, they made me love it even more! — Alan Yudman

BAD WORDS

There are comedies that start out nasty-funny like ELECTION that keep their bite all the way through to the bitter ends. More often, these kind of comedies go soft in their third acts, and that’s the story here. It’s sort of a reverse IDENTITY THIEF, Jason Bateman’s enemy-turned-frenemy-turned buddy movie — only with a kid instead of Melissa McCarthy. Ten minutes in, you know what the first plot turn will be, and shortly after that (long before it’s made evident) you see the second one. It’s dispiriting to correctly guess so early that we’ll be winding up in mush. There are laughs, but they all belong to Bateman when he’s being insulting. As he turns into the kinder, gentler, misunderstood avenger that Hollywood demands, he’s not as entertaining. Bateman is talented enough to juice up wan material. So is Philip Baker Hall, here in a pretty thankless but key role. Alison Janney is tough and no-nonsense. Rachael Harris is fun to watch reacting to Jason’s description of her vagina as an elephant’s trunk (“grey… distended…”). And the kid, Rohan Chand, is a natural. The movie doesn’t deserve bad words. But not high praise, either. — Jeff Schultz

TRUE DETECTIVE

Matthew McConaughey has said this eight-hour HBO series is a 450-page film. Certainly it confirms what we already knew: that television is now the premiere writer’s medium, which at this level of quality is video’s equivalent of the novel. The quality, of course, not only in the screenplay, but in its two astonishing (overused word, but accurate here) lead performances. At first, you’ll be tempted to say merely, “It’s Matthew’s world; we just live in it.” But while McConaughey has the flashier role and descends so far into the dark night of the soul it’s preternatural, make no mistake: Woody Harrelson is totally holding his own. He’s not just the “regular guy” providing contrast to Matthew’s hot mess— he’s deeply flawed, almost thuggish at times. That the two detectives manage to connect at all is miraculous, and miracle too is the almost imperceptible evolution of their relationship into something approximating close friendship. That said, our hunger for an outcome to the story (and the relationship) that would rise to the level of the dread-filled sense of evil that precedes it… misses the mark. A story resolution out of tv crime drama (CSI: Baton Rouge?) with a final pursuit through an endless series of maze-like obstacles to reach the killer takes it all down a peg. But for McConaughey’s “time is a circle” monologue alone (and the many other sequences like it), this is a clear cut case of crazy good. — Jeff Schultz

What starts out as a seemingly better than average crime procedural quickly becomes so much more. This eight episode HBO series explores rabbit holes. Among them: addiction, grief, psychosis and so much more. Matthew McConaughey is Rustin Cohle and Woody Harrelson is Marty Hart. Both are detectives with the Louisiana State Police. They are called to the scene of a particularly bizarre murder scene. They investigate, find their suspects, arrest said suspects and realize they may have the wrong guy and a much bigger case. But it’s also about the relationship of the Rust and Marty. They aren’t buddy-buddy like most TV cops. More like they tolerate each other as an means to an end. Marty is a cheating, drinking SOB. Rust is deeply thoughtful and has gone a bit off the deep end because of the death of his daughter. The script is absolutely fantastic, but Harrelson and McConaughey bring it to life. It’s a treat to see two such talented actors every week on TV, rather than having to wait for their next film. Harrelson is fantastic, maybe the best thing he’s ever done. But, McConaughey is other wordly. If you thought his Oscar was a fluke, watch him here. He chews up the screen and spits out diamonds. Just polish off his Emmy now. There isn’t a better performance on TV and there won’t be this year. McConaughey uses his good ole’ boy Texas twang to sell us the current day Rust who has become a drunk bartender and pretty much fallen off the map. Then he uses it to hide a deep and troubling thoughtfulness about life and existence. It’s a pity that he won’t be a part of next season’s TRUE DETECTIVE, because he’s going to be an extraordinarily tough act to follow.  — Alan Yudman

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

Wes Anderson with a budget and a historic backdrop. His scenarios from film to film could hardly be more different, but here as in his other movies it’s easy to spot the Wessian whimsy. This Mittel-European slice of pastry comes with a bitter lemon center that reflects the passing away of an old world under the advancing jackboots of the Nazis. Restrained, almost unemotional, but at times very funny, it has a dream cast of thousands fronted by an expansive Ralph Fiennes and featuring little-known Tony Revolori, who plays F. Murray Abraham’s character as a young lad with the deadpan expressiveness of a Buster Keaton. There’s at least one art school reference (the movie theater usher right out of Edward Hopper), an allusion to Shakespeare (the three witches, right?) and a toy-like model of a funicular that looks like an early silents contraption built by Melies (you know: HUGO). If the movie seems to evaporate on you after a few days, it may be because Anderson never browbeats, leaving the richness of his vision to be discovered, perhaps, in multiple watchings. — Jeff Schultz

If you don’t recognize this as a Wes Anderson movie within the first few frames, then you are either not an Anderson fan or not paying attention. The quirky-great auteur has an unmistakable style. His sense of humor, the innocence of some of his characters and his penchant for not feeling it necessary to put the camera up his actors nostril’s are what make him so unique.  THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is no different. And is better for all of it. Anderson once again creates a world that is totally fictitious and totally believable. It also is populated by some of Anderson’s troop of actors such as Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray (Bob Balaban also has a small part and both he and Murray are better used here than in any part of The Monuments Men).  Ralph Fiennes is Gustave H. Concierge at the Grand Budapest and servicer of elderly women. One (played by Tilda Swinton) dies and leaves M. Gustave a priceless painting. He is then accused of murder, goes to jail then plots and executes his escape. He is assisted by the Lobby Boy Zero (that’s his name, not the content of his personality). That’s the basics of the plot, but in typical Anderson fashion it’s the journey to the plot that is more than half the fun. Grand Budapest ranks as one of Anderson’s finest films.  It lacks the sweet innocence of Moonrise Kingdom, but makes up for that with a wickedness that constantly entertains. Check into this Hotel before it closes. — Alan Yudman

NON-STOP

The punchy title suggests this will be TAKEN on a plane. Instead, I merely felt taken for a ride. What should have been a tight little thriller a la RED EYE turns into an overlong who’s-doin’-it that keeps doubling back on its list of suspect passengers, none of whom is very interesting. It’s like being trapped on a flight that has to circle endlessly before landing, as air marshal Liam Neeson dithers and miscalculates his way toward catching the perp. Is Julianne Moore to be trusted? Hard to say, with a part so underwritten. Is Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o really in this movie? Barely, beyond her coffee-tea-or-milk stewardess duties. At least one “gotcha” moment – a text message revealing that Neeson has not, in fact, killed the villain – is thrown away. The post-crash rescue operation lacks any proportion to the urgency of the disaster and looks underpopulated. And there’s way too much low-key talking. RED EYE had the great advantage of being only 85 minutes (and much of that was the credits). At almost two hours, NON-STOP doesn’t arrive at its destination until the audience has placed its tray tables into their upright and locked positions — and gone to sleep. — Jeff Schultz

NEBRASKA

Family. Regret. Dignity. Love. Understanding. These are just a few of the themes covered in the amazing Nebraska. Alexander Payne does a masterful job telling the story of a man determined to cash in what he thinks is a million dollar sweepstakes ticket. Bruce Dern is both simple and complex in his performance and Will Forte is fantastic as his son. Payne brings these and other characters to life, gets you to think you know them, then brings them into focus through a series of moments that make you realize you don’t know as much as you think you do. This is a grown up movie that requires full attention to catch important story details…put down the smart phone to fully appreciate it. The screenplay is a subtle yet powerful one that underplays some of the movies most important moments…and that makes those moments more powerful. Out of all the movies I saw from last year, this one was my favorite. — Stormy Curry