movie reviews April 2014

transcendenceunder the skinDom HemingwayTim's veneeroculuscaptain America: the winter soldierbad wordsThe grand budapest hotelnoahthe railway manthe other woman

Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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The Other Woman
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

Women also can taste the sweet fruit of revenge … and have fun doing it. Thus is the plot of The Other Woman.

Cameron Diaz, emitting her hard-cast coolness, is Carly Whitten. She offices in a modern high-rise, does big-time lawyering, trades relationship stories with her assistant Lydia (Nicki Minaj) and goes through men like a subway turnstile. But one guy has given Carly reason to pause.

Mark King (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a high-rolling investor, making millions with other people’s money. He’s got a nice suburban spread and a wife, Kate (Leslie Mann). Kate adores Mark, to the extent of signing whatever paper is put before her and believing every late-night work stint and weekend jaunt with clients he says he must do is true.

When Mark and Carly have a fight with Mark claiming he has a plumbing problem at home, Carly’s father  — a nicely weathered Don Johnson — suggests she go visit him to see if she can help with the pipes. A knock on the door brings Kate and Carly face to face, and Mark’s addiction to cheating begins to be revealed.

A confused Kate comes to visit Carly, the start of a hilarious coupling of two women, totally different in backgrounds and outlook, but sharing a wound from a guy who lied to them. As Kate “forces” Carly to be her friend, to help her understand, to fight back, the on-screen chemistry between Diaz and Mann works so well that The Other Woman becomes one of the funniest films of the year. Kate wants to drown her sorrow with her newfound friend, so desperate to have someone help her understand that she ignores the “mistress” part of Carly, and Carly, touched by Kate’s innocent cluelessness, reluctantly lets her in.

The pair then discover another of Mark’s triumphs, finding camaraderie in the sweet bimbo-ness of Amber (Kate Upton) and the three plan their path to reign down revenge on Mark as only a lied-to woman can.

For most of the film, this is all great fun. It’s only in the last 10 minutes of The Other Woman does the tone shift when Mark realizes that his scheme to hide millions and continue his player ways will disappear. Mark loses his deft composure a little too much, proving that physical comedy isn’t Coster-Waldau strength in acting. Still, the humor in The Other Woman makes the laughter re-forge the bonds of sisterhood and give a philanderer reason to worry. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 04/28/14)


The Railway Man
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

“Only those who have been in war know war” is a truism that has never sunk to depth of being a cliché. Perhaps that’s because war proves to be so repetitive and entrenched in the human realm. Also because many an individual who has defied death in war continues to suffer long after that war has ended.

The mental anguish of a warrior having left the battlefield and attempting to become “normal” again has been explored in films though not as much as one might assume. From The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) through The Deer Hunter (1978) to In the Valley of Elah (2007) there’s the reach to capture the men, and the women who love them, attempting to re-knit a torn soul. Director Jonathan Teplitzky brings The Railway Man into that journey with the help of British World War II veteran Eric Lomax by putting to film his memoir.

In post-war England Lomax (Colin Firth) keeps the pain at bay by collecting railway timetables and hanging out with his close friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård) at the local veterans club. Lomax knows the railways of England and in one such outing into the countryside he meets Patti (Nicole Kidman). Lonely and aching to fight against the sterile middle-age boredom of routine, they fall in love.

Patti’s delicate flirting to lure Eric is perfectly paced in a way one would assume the proper English would take. Kidman is stunningly beautiful with just a hint of makeup, and Firth conveys all the release and fear one man could hold by finding love while dealing with the ongoing suffering of remembering. It is a tender relationship barely hinting of troubles ahead.

But before long, the pain wins out and Eric withdraws into himself as Patti grasps for answer to restore him to the person she fell in love with. She solicits Finlay for Eric’s story, knowing that it has to do with the war. He grudgingly provides the information.

Through flashbacks, Teplitzky unfolds Lomax’s experience after the British surrender to the Japanese in Singapore in 1942. Considered without honor for surrendering, the Japanese march the British soldiers to Thailand to build a railway across Burma to India. The young Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) is spared, along with Finlay and others, the more dire physical labor because of their technical training. But such a status ends when Japanese soldier Nagase (Tanroh Ishida) discovers a crude radio by which Lomax and others listen to in gauging the progress of the war. Lomax steps forward to accept primary responsibility. For that he suffers horribly until being liberated.

The brutality of the Japanese guards, the death-inducing misery of prisoners building the railroad in an unforgiving jungle and Lomax’s torture — including waterboarding — induce a seat-squirming reaction particularly when compared with Firth’s artificial passivity decades later as he attempts to convince himself that it’s all in the past.

Lomax’s languor doesn’t sit well with Finlay especially after giving up the story to Patti and awakening his own demons of guilt. Finlay forces Lomax — in a dramatic way — to return to Thailand to seek out the older Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada) who conducts tours of the old Japanese compound where Lomax was tortured as he suffers his own despair over war-time crimes.

It is here where the film receives criticism by deviating from what really happened between Lomax and Nagase in both action and the intent of Lomax as described in his book. Still, what Teplitzky recounts heightens the reconciliation that comes between Lomax and his primary torturer. It speaks of the human capacity to forgive, validates the love shared by Lomax and Patti, and becomes a more powerful antidote to the dangers brought on by fear than any war could resolve. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 04/27/14)


Transcendence
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Oscar-winning cinematographer Wally Pfister (Inception) makes his directorial debut with a tale of techno-apocalypse suitable for his signature visual style and effects. But the script, written by actor Jack Paglen making his feature screen writing debut, provides only simplistic observations of the important issues it attempts to examine.

The story Paglen presents is a derivative mishmash that is overly complex. It pulls in various cultural phenomena — all hot topics about a decade or so ago — and gives bit parts to the likes of Lukas Haas, Xander Berkeley and Wallace Langham, which make it seem as if the smaller machinations of the film have gone unrealized or ended up on the floor of the editing suite. If that’s the case, it’s a small mercy for a plot already tasked with a convoluted sense of importance.


An anti-technology Earth First!-type radical fringe group, led by the tattooed and eye-lined Bree (Kate Mara), is targeting specialists in artificial intelligence (AI). The humorless Dr. Will Caster, played just as humorlessly by Johnny Depp, is hit with a radioactive bullet after his own Ted talk is disrupted. Ignoring the horrifying results of every cautionary tale in which a loved one is brought back to life, Caster’s wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany — but at least this time he’s real) essentially “upload” Caster’s consciousness to his AI system before his physical self deteriorates, helping him reach what he called in his research “transcendence” or a god-like state.

Caster’s overreaching digital version is nothing like his original, organic being, as pointed out by Waters, but the grieving Evelyn continues to do his bidding, isolating herself with him on a solar-powered compound that includes a replica of their house and its anachronistic comforts. As Caster infiltrates every nook and cranny of the Internet, he grows more controlling, using his power to create his own super-strong zombie army and also keeping tabs on his wife. Stopping him now requires the renegade luddites to cooperate with their sworn enemies, Waters and Caster’s former professor, Joseph Tagger, played by the shopworn Morgan Freeman.

Transcendence works really hard to make facile philosophical, metaphysical and technological points. That could be because its actual focus isn’t really on technology or the Internet. Take away all the pseudo-technology, and what’s left is something akin to a Nicholas Sparks vehicle, but with all Pfister’s usual saturated colors, shadowy scenes and grand landscapes, now the domain of cinematographer Jess Hall. (PG-13) Rating: 1 (Posted on 04/26/14)


Under the Skin
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Perhaps you've heard of this plot before: female alien comes to earth and uses her desirable human exterior to lure unwitting males to their deaths.

In Under the Skin, Brian Glazer (Sexy Beast) takes this über-hackneyed sci-fi premise and crafts an utterly original, mesmerizing vision that defies genre boundaries as surely as it resists simplistic interpretation.

Although based on a novel by Michel Faber, the film borrows little more than the basic plot: a nameless female alien (the credits call her Laura) in the form of Scarlett Johansson — camouflaged beneath a cheap shag wig, fake-fur jacket, and skin-tight jeans — trolls the streets of Glasgow and the Scottish Highlands in a white panel van, using various pretexts to persuade men to climb in and accompany her back to her place, a place you really don't want to go. From Faber's plot, Glazer and co-writer Walter Campbell have stripped away exposition, backstory, even most dialogue, relying, instead, on images and a dense soundscape to convey the experience of encountering humanity for the first time.

Glazer makes clear from the start that this is not going to be an easy trip. A prologue guaranteed to winnow willing from unwilling viewers opens on a tiny point of light that expands and multiplies, remaining abstract yet suggestive of a cell? a planet? a halo? a pupil? before resolving into an eye.

And that eye is appropriate since much of the film is concerned with watching, with the gaze, with surfaces. When the alien is not engaged with potential prey, Glazer includes long scenes without dialogue as a stationary camera records Johansson's expressionless face blankly staring out on the sea of humans streaming around her vehicle.

On a few occasions, Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin turn that lens around and let I — along with Johnnie Burn’s ambient soundscape and Mica Levi's buzzing, thumping electronic score — create the impression of being submerged in urban human culture without a guide or interpreter.

All of which sounds very detached and cerebral.

Except it's not.

As it turns out, the alien, revealed in at least one devastating scene to be utterly lacking human empathy and pity, is not immune to human culture. An unexpected encounter with one of her pick-ups leads from instinct to feeling, from outsider to insider. Johansson’s triumph is in her ability to convey these changes in silently, in passing glances and subtle gestures.

In a typical alien-encounters-humanity flick, such a moment would herald a happy ending. In Glazer’s hands, burgeoning humanity embodies wonder, but also vulnerability, increasing confusion and, ultimately, heart-breaking tragedy. (R) Rating: 5 (Posted 04/21/14)


Dom Hemingway
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

There's a more interesting story in Richard Shepard's latest film than the one the American writer/director presents. Not that deeply embedded in Dom Hemingway is the tale of a Cockney safecracker whose wife dies from cancer while he's serving time in order to protect his crime boss. But instead of making this the focus of the movie, Shepard, doing his best Guy Ritchie impersonation, fixates on caricature and cartoon, dodging all substantive material except cheap sentiment after all else is exhausted.

It's not as if Shepard isn't capable of handling serious material. He took a straightforward approach to matters of life and death and morality in his overlooked 2005 movie The Matador, which revealed a depth of acting skill from Pierce Brosnan not often seen.

In Dom Hemingway, a beefed-up, mutton-chopped Jude Law plays the title character. He gives it the full Cockney brass treatment, as if trying to make up for its lack in his performance in the 2004 remake of Alfie. And though Law takes the character to the extremes of rage and ruefulness, there's not any nuance in the performance.

When the film opens, it seems as if Dom is tolerating his incarceration well enough. He delivers a monologue on the “exquisite” nature of his manhood as he receives a favor from one of his fellow inmates. This sets the film up for its egregious violation of the principle of Chekhov's gun, which requires that you use the gun in the execution of the story if you even just mention the gun.

Then, Dom, wearing clothes that make it difficult to discern era, is released. His first act of freedom is the most interesting: he beats up the man who married his wife after she divorced him while he was in prison, which doesn't endear him to his estranged daughter (Emilia Clarke). He also hooks up again with best friend and dandy Dickie (Richard E. Grant).

What happens after this seems mostly happenstance. There's no discussion of big plans, or final heist. But Dickie still has ties to their former boss Fontaine (Demian Bichir), who, it turns out, owes Dom for not grassing him up. Still, Dom gets into trouble with Fontaine's girlfriend Paolina (Madalina Diana Ghenea), but not in the way you would think., given his speech at the beginning of the film, and then just muddles through the rest of the film. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 04/21/14)


Tim's Vermeer
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Penn Jillette and his mostly silent partner Teller have made careers as debunkers. As illusionists, they exposed the very tricks they performed on stage, and then in their Showtime documentary series that aired from 2003 to 2010, they took on a variety of topics, which they deconstructed under their very public libertarian- and free market-leaning political philosophy.

In the documentary Tim’s Vermeer, with Jillette as narrator and Teller as director, they present what they consider indisputable proof of a subversive theory regarding the photo-realistic painting of Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer (Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Music Lesson). But, notwithstanding a small but convincing appearance by the British artist David Hockney, their smugly presented discovery has very little to say about art in the 17th century.


Instead, the documentary concerns itself with the limited subject of the technique that Vermeer may have used — primarily the camera obscura. In 2001, art historian Philip Steadman made the case for Vermeer’s use of the optical device. That same year, the delightfully forthright Hockney also published a book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, in which he posited that artists, including Caravaggio, Velázquez, da Vinci and other hyperrealists, Vermeer among them, used optics and lenses to create their masterpieces.

These controversial theories sparked an obsession in Jillette and Teller’s friend Tim Jenison, co-founder of NewTek, the San Antonio–based digital video company, who was already fixated on Vermeer’s photorealistic painting style. When Penn and Teller begin to capture Jenison’s investigation into Vermeer’s techniques, he’s already built a version of the camera obscura and tested it by replicating a photo in oil paints, his first ever painting, that uses a color-matching trick not unlike a paint-by-numbers kit.

Jenison’s idea of undeniable evidence stems from his ability to reproduce Vermeer-like effects on canvas. His mission is to paint a copy of The Music Lesson using only technology and materials Vermeer could have used. To that end, the film follows him for five years as he tests his theory by building a clone of Vermeer’s studio in Delft, Holland, in a building in San Antonio, including similar styles of furniture, textiles and even the stained glass window. He learns to grind pigments and spends an inordinate amount of time forging his own glass lens.

It’s in this tinkering that the movie has something to say. Jenison is insatiably curious and good-natured, which is required when his projects don’t succeed on a first or second try. He’s also persistent, which serves him well on the days he must devote to the multitude of small details. But for all his genius and innovation and the time he devotes to Vermeer, he (and subsequently Jillette and Teller) still misses the point: Vermeer got there first. And that puts him in the same league as any of those onlookers in any museum gallery at any time of day proclaiming, “I could paint that.” He just took it further. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 04/14/14)


Oculus
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

In Oculus, the latest in the recent trend of old-fashioned ghost-story horror flicks (Insidious, The Innkeepers, The Conjuring), writer-director Mike Flanagan gets so caught up in his tricky narrative structure that he ultimately abandons sense and thematic purpose, settling instead for a series of familiar horror tropes.

Which is a shame because the film sets up some potentially powerful dynamics behind its paranormal shenanigans.

Eleven years after witnessing their parents‘ brutal deaths, 21-year-old Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) and older sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) are reunited when Tim is released from the mental institution where, found guilty of his parents’ murders, he has been held ever since.

After a decade of psychotherapy coming to terms with the past, Tim discovers impetuous Kaylie has been hot on the trail of an antique mirror that hung in their home eleven years ago and that, she believes, is responsible for the tragedy. In fact, she has obtained the mirror, brought it back to their family home, and now expects Tim to help her prove the thing is haunted before destroying it.

As she shows off the ghost-hunting gear she’s amassed — tripod-mounted digital cameras, a phalanx of alarm clocks, computerized temperature gauges, and a preposterous and obviously foreshadowing fail-safe device — she rattles off a list of the mirror’s victims extending back four centuries. The mirror, she claims, controls people’s actions by influencing their perceptions, leading, inevitably, to horrific ends.

Here, Flanagan has an opportunity to delve into the nature of memory and how we determine our own realities. Separated for years, these siblings have constructed distinct and conflicting memories of their shared trauma. In a telling scene, for every story of mirror possession Kaylie presents, Tim produces a feasible psychological interpretation. Clearly, both have found ways to make sense of the ghosts that still haunt them.

But are those ghosts real? Or has Kaylie simply found a way to process memories too traumatic to face?

Unfortunately, Flanagan is uninterested in this question.

He and co-writer Jeff Howard are much more interested in presenting their audience with a mind-bending experience. The present-day experiment is intercut with a series of short flashbacks that relate the original grisly events. As the experiment proceeds, these flashbacks become indistinguishable from reality, mirroring and even begin bleeding into the present as Kaylie and Tim begin showing up in scenes with their younger selves.

While the editing (also Mike Flanagan) and reality-bending elements are technically impressive, they ultimately lead nowhere. Questions about the mirror’s nature don‘t last long since objective shots have clearly established that, yes, the mirror is haunted. Why? Who knows? How? Ditto?

This leaves Flanagan to resort to old stand-bys: sudden appearances by blank-eyed corpse-like figures and simple gross-out scenes (under the mirror’s influence, is Kaylie taking a bite out of an apple or a light bulb? Doesn‘t matter. You get to see it both ways).

The further Flanagan removes the events from any grounding in reality, the less they seem to matter. And it’s hard to make an audience anxious when they just don’t care. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 04/12/14)


Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

It's a bit of a surprise when Captain America: The Winter Soldier- — sequel to 2011's Captain America: The Original Avenger, third film in the franchise to feature the defrosted WWII super-soldier, and overall ninth installment in Marvel's burgeoning Universe — starts small, real small. No alternate worlds or immortal demigods, just a tense black ops mission as the Captain recovers a hijacked government vessel from Algerian pirates.

Such a real-world threat and its conventional solution announce that Captain America: The Winter Soldier will be playing against the bombastic comic-pic formula by presenting what turns out to be a genuinely thrilling ‘70s-style conspiracy flick that pits a few (almost) ordinary humans against a post-9-11 political culture of rampant technology and government secrecy.

At the center of this paranoid vision is Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), the 90-lb-weakling-turned-Nazi-fighting-G.I.-Joe, who was frozen at the end of WW II, awakening to a 21st century in which distinctions between freedom and fascism, good and bad, friend and foe are a whole lot murkier than they were in the good old days of Axis and Allies. Now working for the anything-but-transparent government intelligence organization S.H.I.E.L.D., Rogers is finding it increasingly difficult to blindly follow orders since, being the equivalent of hired muscle, he’s rarely privy to the agency’s big pictures or secret agendas.

His doubts are raised further when director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) let’s him in on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s biggest picture: It’s preparing to launch three colossal weaponized high-tech drone airships, known as helicarriers, that can assess and preemptively neutralize threats of any kind, down to individual citizens on the street. When Fury defends the program as security for a new world, Rogers replies, “This isn't freedom. This is fear.”

That fear is multiplied when a rogue group within S.H.I.E.L.D hijacks the drones and, in a twisted form of utilitarianism, plans to kill millions of people in order to secure the remainder of the population. In a real world of drone surveillance and preemptive warfare, this is no cornball comic book threat. These are not aliens or warring gods. These are the folks who do the real dirty work — the bureaucrats, rank-and-file soldiers, agency tech guys.

In keeping with this only slightly fictionalized world they have created, and perhaps reflecting their TV backgrounds, directors Anthony and Joe Russo keep the action just as grounded as the plot. An assassination attempt on a car-bound Nick Fury is bracing and kinetic, more like something out of Bullitt than a 21st century super-hero flick. And despite the super high-tech abilities of the smart car he’s driving, Fury’s survival ultimately depends on human smarts.

Likewise, former Russian spy Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansen) is a suitably grounded partner for Captain America, relying on skills and brains, not super-powers to disable her foes. If some of the MMA-influenced fight scenes rely a bit too much on tight, shaky hand-held shots, they still come across gritty and visceral. And human.

Ultimately, however, this is the Marvel Universe, and attention must be paid to other franchise plot lines and, especially, to next year’s Avengers blockbuster. This appears to have forced the Russos and the screenwriting team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (The First Avenger, Thor: The Dark World) to tack on several extraneous characters and scale things up for a big finish.

Falcon (Anthony Mackie) is given a great-looking pair of mechanical wings but nothing much to do. Similarly, Rogers’ next-door neighbor and potential love-interest Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) is introduced, abruptly identified as undercover Agent 13 then brushed aside. Even the ostensible villain, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) feels a bit superfluous, just another hired gun, sporting a metal arm and Eddie Vedder haircut.

When he and the Captain finally go toe-to-toe — amid CGI effects galore — it’s less impressive than exhausting, even a bit unnecessary. After all, the true villains are wearing suits and sitting behind desks. In fact, the film’s real coup is in casting Robert Redford against his Three Days of the Condor/All the President’s Men image as ingratiating S.H.I.E.L.D secretary Alexander Pierce. The banality of evil, indeed. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted 04/12/14)


Bad Words
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

The actor Jason Bateman’s directorial debut starts with the promise of a smart, edgy comedy. Exploiting a technicality in the rulebook of the Golden Quill Spelling Bee, 40-year-old Guy Trilby (Bateman) forces his way into a regional competition. Armed only with a sharp tongue (and possibly an eidetic memory), he mercilessly slaughters his pre-teen competition by both inciting them to mistakes and spelling all his own words correctly. Upon winning the competition and qualifying for nationals, he hightails it out of the building to the getaway car driven by his blogger sponsor Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), in it for the first-hand scoop but still affronted at an angry parent’s reaction to his victory.

With a self-aware nod to the action sequence through a slow-motion chase to the car, the scene is the champion of nerdy hipness. With no sense of shame, Trilby delivers barbs that hit a little too hard, especially right out of the gate, but at this point his motive seems clear — to unnerve his competitors with outrageous statements in order to take the spelling bee. But what’s really grand about this opener is the tease of the film’s potential, which is, unfortunately, not realized.


Before Andrew Dodge's screenplay drops its brick of a plot, Trilby is a slick, take-no-prisoners operator, and his assurance in his ability to win the national spelling bee is infectious. But spend enough time with him and he becomes tiresome; a one-note character without sufficient motivation to keep up his continual affront or explain his bitterness toward everyone. Dodge's reasoning behind Trilby's behavior just isn't clever enough or important enough justify it.

Finally, Hahn gets an interesting role. She brings her quirky charm to Widgeon, portraying her as both savvy (she breaks Trilby's story) and vulnerable (she falls for his bad boy charm). Other comics don't fare as well. Allison Janney plays it straight as the director and former winner of the Golden Quill, and Ben Falcone is restricted to straight commentary as play-by-play analyst. Founder of the spelling bee and linchpin to the story, Philip Baker Hall displays his typical grouchiness, but really could be played by anyone of the same generation.

Despite all this available comedic talent, Dodge focuses most of the film on the budding relationship between Trilby and precocious contestant Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand). There's one twist between them, but that doesn't stop this section of the movie from being utterly embarrassing by going too far and yet not far enough. If Chopra really wanted to stop Trilby from winning, wouldn't he just have to accuse him of inappropriate behavior? There's certainly enough here. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 04/03/14)


The Grand Budapest Hotel
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Ralph Fiennes is Monsieur Gustave, the swishy concierge at the pastel fairytale Alpine resort of the film's title. Notwithstanding his implied proclivities, his raison d'être is to serve the hotel's clients, paying particular attention to the disproportionate number of wealthy dowager guests. Among these favored guests is the Countess Madame Desgoffe-und-Taxis, or Madame D. for short, played by Tilda Swinton, scarcely recognizable behind wrinkled prosthetics and under a silver Dairy Queen swirl of a wig.

When Madame D. dies under suspicious circumstances, Gustave enlists the help of his protégé, Lobby Boy Zero (Tony Revolori) to help him claim an inheritance, a valuable oil painting, and also escape the skullduggery of Madame D.'s son (Adrien Brody) and his relentless, daredevil goon (Willem Dafoe).

That's a lot of plot, and this being a Wes Anderson vehicle, it's not a straightforward caper. To start, storytelling is filtered through nested frames set decades apart, jumping so quickly from one to the next it's difficult to get oriented in either location or character. It's as if writer/director Anderson expects multiple screenings in order to glean the significance of what he shows before the story unfolds.

It's a device that wants to explore the nature of storytelling without the burden of doing it well for itself. It's also a waste of Tom Wilkinson's considerable talent as his cameo as the author of the book on which the film is based too quickly flashes back to a younger iteration, played by a less impressive Jude Law.

Once settled into the tale, as told to Law's young writer by the older iteration of Zero, now played by F. Murray Abraham, it picks up momentum. Fiennes commits fully to the role of the accommodating concierge and delights with a surprising sense of comedic timing. But in typical Anderson fashion performances are intruded upon by the plot being told in fits and starts and interruptions from the set design. For example, both a funicular and a small elevator are fetishized.

The timing of the main story is a bad match for Anderson's form of ironic storytelling as well. His scripts tend to skim over serious emotions. So setting his story in pre-WWII Europe is a disconcerting choice. There's a bit of a Mel Brooks feel to the fake Nazis that may or may not be intentional — it's hard to tell.

The result is that despite the considerable talent of his impressive cast, the characters remain shallow and static. This frustrating lack of sentiment makes them seem not very far removed from sociopathy. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 04/03/14)


Noah
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Darren Aronofsky’s latest film Noah starts at the beginning, and also ends there. It’s meant as an eco cautionary tale, as told from the perspective of a ruined mythical landscape purged by an extreme weather event to those of us living at the tail end of the next iteration, currently witness to singular events of initial devastation caused by changes in our own climate. The film’s message could be interpreted as misanthropic; focused as it is on the caretaking of the diversity in the animal kingdom — rendered in creative CGI combinations — and the question of whether humankind should be allowed to continue in a new world after it destroyed the previous one.

But the screenplay, written by Aronofsky and his regular collaborator Ari Handel, is unquestionably humanist. By placing this existential problem squarely on the brawny shoulders of the embattled title character, played by Russell Crowe, it ensures that the inner conflict and personal drama is as vivid as the spectacle.

The story is loosely based on the verses about Noah and the Flood in Genesis, and pulls in other characters from the Old Testament, such as The Watchers, golem-like creatures, their leader voiced by a fiery Nick Nolte, that help Noah and his family build the ark as well as defend it against Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) and his horde of miscreants. This tribal war drives the action in the first part of the movie, but it's a relief when its relentless action makes way for the more psychological final acts involving only Noah and his family.

Aronofsky and Handel also take creative license with other Biblical narratives. Once on the ark, Noah regales his family with the story of creation, illustrated in a way that's as appropriate for this movie as it was out of place in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. The parable is an interesting mash-up of evolution and creation, and instead of it ending with an encouragement for his sons to procreate; Noah uses the lesson to justify why they must be the last humans to walk the earth.

This causes a showdown between Noah and his wife (Jennifer Connelly), as well as his oldest son's wife (Emma Watson). The two dominate the scenes aboard the ark, protecting their secret machinations against Noah's mission. More threatening than Winstone's lizard-chomping son of Cain, Noah is a dangerous man, chosen here not for his righteousness but for his adherence to the creator's requests as they appear to him in astonishing watery visions. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 04/03/14)



 

 

 



Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com
Beck Ireland can be contacted at beck.ireland@gmail.com
Mike Ireland can be contacted at mike.e.ireland@gmail.com


 

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