Sunday, March 30, 2014

NOAH Review

Forget Paramount's horrible marketing strategy. Forget Glenn Beck. Forget everything that's been and said and done surrounding the film prior to its release, relating to Christian audiences, blasphemy, whatever else. This is a Darren Aronofsky film first and foremost. Let's start there. A clean slate, just like the earth after the flood.

The darkest biblical tale from the Book of Genesis, the story of Noah and the ark, is the premise of the writer and director's sixth feature. God, unsatisfied with his creation and what man has done to ruin it, decides to wash away the earth with a catastrophic flood, leaving Noah the task to start anew with his family and a boatload of animals. Aronofsky, who penned the script with frequent collaborator Ari Handel, takes liberties with the original story, adding in fantasy elements wherever the bible left holes. God is only referred to as the Creator and there are Watchers, towering rock monsters who help Noah build the ark. Aronofsky takes this age-old epic and applies it to the way we live today, with a ferocious message on anti-war and environmentalism, demanding the question of an almighty power doing this all over again to a world we seem so hellbent on destroying.

The acting is solid across the board, led by Russell Crowe who commands the screen as the chosen Noah, shouting his aggravation to the skies, and brooding, steadfast with his determination to the task. His wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), presents a symbol of humanity and the fragility of life, who questions her husband's unwavering fate to God when faced with the most shameful of deeds -- that is, killing one's own in order to keep in God's vision of a world free from man. There are also Noah's three sons, Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japeth (Leo Carroll), along with an orphaned girl who the family takes in, Ila (Emma Watson, further proving her post-"Harry Potter" acting chops). She is to be Shem's wife and becomes the most crucial of all.

The visual effects ramp up as the stakes heighten, and a presentation of the dawn of time recalls Aronofsky's experimental side. And the score from composer mainstay Clint Mansell is robust and gorgeous. Technically speaking, the film is a marvel. Yet while there's a whole lot of howling and shockingly blunt violence in spurts, the whole ordeal surprisingly lacks a level of dramatic tension. And if Aronofsky wanted to deviate from the bible, he could've gone a whole lot weirder -- and it probably would've worked better if he had. 

"Noah" shares the mad obsessive nature of the protagonists from "Pi" and "Black Swan" and the clunky, overreaching ambition of the director's lesser work, "The Fountain." While a fine display of grandiose filmmaking, the spectacle doesn't work as much else. It's been a lot of hubbub over a movie that isn't actually all that interesting. Aronofsky should do himself a favor and get back to the art house.

Monday, March 24, 2014


"The Muppets" was one of the best films of 2011, brimming with life, inspiration and a magical feel-good air that was infectious and impossible not to love. "Muppets Most Wanted" isn't that movie, but it seems to know that, too. The clever, tongue-in-cheek opening number about sequels never being as good as the original makes the movie still very hard not to like, but by the end you also can't hide the feeling they were absolutely right. The first one was lightning in a bottle, the reinvention of a franchise and this teeters on the brink of merely holding up and paling in comparison.

And it starts with the premise. The opening number teases the idea of stories to pursue, with Ricky Gervais' character jumping in to suggest a world tour for the newly reunited Muppets gang. Of course, Gervais plays a guy named Dominic Badguy who insists he's a good guy, wanting only the best for the Muppets' success. Not the case. He teams up with a Kermit look-a-like, Constantine, to use the Muppets as a cover-up for their mastermind burglary scheme. Constantine switches places with Kermit, who gets locked up in a Russian gulag run by Tina Fey. Oh no!

I guess without Jason Segel co-writing the script with Nicholas Stoller (James Bobin returns to write and direct, too), this international crime caper plot is what they landed on, and it runs out of steam -- and most notably, jokes -- rather quickly. It also feels a little dated and not to mention odd. Ty Burrell plays an Interpol investigator, who resembles Inspector Clouseau from "The Pink Panther." He's a hilarious hoot, donning a French accent, while Fey is downright adorable as the gulag guard who secretly pines for Kermit. It's Gervais who phones it in, and unfortunately, it's Gervais and Constantine who get the majority of the screen time during the film's first and second acts.

The ill-conceived idea to place the emphasis on the villains leaves the poor Muppets hanging on a limb with Kermit separated far, far away. Bringing the gang back together again (again!) feels great by the film's end, but it's a bit tiring getting there. The songs, from Bret McKenzie, are still fun but are more forgettable than anything the first "Muppets" churned out, especially one Oscar-nominated tune in particular.

The cameos are fast and frequent -- blink, and you'll miss one -- but they feel flung at the screen, as if testing to see if any of them stick, as opposed to the original's team of cameos, which felt more special and sincere, a collective team effort to revive something cherished and great. For example, Usher shows up as, you guessed it, an usher, but the minute he walks off-screen, I can imagine the hefty check just waiting for him on a silver platter.

But even amid all the complaints, it's still light and entertaining kids' fare that only disappoints if you read too much into it (like I just did). Besides, if you look at the entire Muppets canon, this sure isn't bad for a seventh sequel.

Saturday, March 8, 2014


Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is a delightful farce, a wonderful romp and a screwball caper. It's fanciful and funny, but it's also perhaps Wes Anderson out-Wes Anderson-ing himself. I haven't seen everything out of the writer/director's canon, but I think I've seen enough, from his very best ("The Royal Tenenbaums," "Fantastic Mr. Fox," "Moonrise Kingdom") to his lesser efforts ("The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou"). It's certainly safe to say since 2009's animated entry, he has solidified, even more than before, a stylistic signature. With "Grand Budapest," the film comes standard with all the tropes we recognize with characters and cameras only moving at right angles, framed in pretty little boxes, with swiveling, pivoting cameras and swooping zooms, tiny miniatures and a cast of familiar faces (Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman). The filmmaker is who he is, and with this latest outing his style has been refined to pinpoint precision.

Set in a fictional European town in between the world wars, the story is told through the visit of a young writer (Jude Law) to the now rather decrepit Grand Budapest, long past its glory days in the 1930s. He meets a man named Zero (F. Murray Abraham) who recalls his extraordinary tale of when he was a young lobby boy (played by newcomer Tony Revolori) under the wing of head concierge Monsieur Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes). Fiennes excels in the role with rapid-fire poetics and dialogue, an operatic man who acts as if all the wrongs in the world can be righted with proper manners. Etiquette, above all, defines his charmed era, which he refuses to believe is soon coming to an end, with darker times on the horizon.

When we switch from the older Zero recalling his tale to back in the day, the film switches from widescreen to a 4:3 aspect ratio, and cinematographer Robert Yeoman uses both to great effect; most recognizably the latter as every shot is squared off and perfectly symmetrical. And it's all set to a bouncy, delectable score from mainstay Alexandre Desplat. The winding tale springboards from the death of the 84-year-old Madame D (a hilariously elderly Tilda Swinton), one of the many female residents of the hotel Gustave had relations with. At the reading of her last will and testament by Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), it's discovered that the Madame left her most prized possession, a Renaissance painting called "Boy with Apple," to not her ruthless son Dmitri (Adrian Brody), but instead Gustave. This puts Dmitri in a fit of rage, along with his dastardly henchman Jopling (Willem Dafoe), a man so cruel he'd even throw a cat out the window.

Gustave and Zero steal the painting, which launches an extravagant manhunt led by an Inspector played by Edward Norton, not dissimilar to the Scout Master he played in "Moonrise Kingdom." Zero at the same time is falling for his true love, the sweet bakery girl Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) whose Mendl pastries come into smart play. It all gets a bit nuts and slapstick, but the production design pops, and the characters lay into the humor and fluffiness of it all. The absurdity reaches its peak during a prisonbreak that looks straight out of an old cartoon, led by a bald, tattooed Harvey Keitel. While for a second you might think there's no real depth of feeling, the darkness lurking beneath the candy-colored confection, like a sweet pastry from Mendl's, rears its head.

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" is like a wind-up dollhouse with so many trinkets and moving parts, it's a marvelous contraption. But with spurts of coarse language, shocking violence and the impending gloom of war, there's an important line from older Zero recalling his hero, Gustave: "He was a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity."

Monday, March 3, 2014

86th Annual Academy Awards Recap

Ellen DeGeneres returning to host for the 86th Annual Academy Awards hands-down showed how to effortlessly wrangle a younger, wider audience, something the academy has been desperately trying to do since their ill-fated host selection of James Franco and Anne Hathaway. Well, this year without even meaning to, it's happened. (Or at least I'm assuming that is what the result will be.) And it all starts with that A-list selfie, featuring the glowing faces of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep, Kevin Spacey, Lupita Nyong'o, Jennifer Lawrence, Jared Leto and more with Bradley Cooper holding out the phone in a moment of pure unadulterated fun. As was the goal, it has garnered the most retweets on Twitter of all time and, as Ellen later confirmed in the telecast, even momentarily crashed the social media site.

Ellen channeled the feel-good spirit of her daytime talk show, interacting with the audience, relating to celebrities -- who actually seem to really like her -- and strolling the seats with casual banter, even walking around with Pharrell's now-famous hat collecting money from the likes of Harvey Weinstein for the pizza she ordered. Yes, the pizza she ordered. The pizza that actually came, and which was eaten up by the likes of Harrison Ford and Martin Scorsese.

These two moments made her hosting gig actually memorable, and also proves that, really, no awards show nowadays is complete without the incorporation of social media. Cate Blanchett's acceptance speech even included the word "hashtag." Never in a million years, right? Ellen's opening monologue actually wasn't that strong but was totally compensated by her throughout-the-show bits. Most hosts do their monologue and then bow out for the rest of the telecast. Not Ellen.

Now to the awards. "Gravity" bordered on a sweep, nabbing all the awards it was nominated for except two, totaling in at seven. They were sound mixing and editing, cinematography, visual effects, score, editing (over "Captain Phillips") and then Alfonso Cuaron for best director, who delivered a heartfelt speech and a spout of Spanish. The only technical category it couldn't dominate was production design because Catherine Martin is an unstoppable force and flamboyancy never loses.

"The Great Gatsby" took home two awards for costume and production design. Also coming in at two was Disney's "Frozen" for best animated film and best original song, "Let It Go."

"12 Years a Slave" and "Dallas Buyers Club" tied for three wins each. "12 Years" topped the night with a best picture win; Brad Pitt introduced an exuberant Steve McQueen who ended his speech with a literal jump for joy in the air. Lupita Nyong'o beat out Jennifer Lawrence for "American Hustle," but even though she lost, J-Law still managed to steal the show. The girl tripped, yes, again, to the point where Ellen even made a crack about it in her opening. "I think we should bring you the Oscar" if she were to win.

John Ridley won best adapted screenplay for "12 Years," and then I was particularly elated when Spike Jonze won the sole award for "Her" in best original screenplay over "American Hustle."

"Dallas" took home two of the other acting awards for Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey, the former thanking his mom and calling out support to anyone who's ever felt segregated against while McConaughey went full McConaughey with a (lovable) rambling about goals and show business. Both speeches were great in their own ways, and Cate Blanchett also shined with her best actress speech for "Blue Jasmine," noting women empowerment in films. Nyong'o had the most gorgeous, tearful speech of them all. "No matter where you're from, your dreams are valid," she said.

The four nominated-song performances were all stand-outs and didn't slow down the show. The internet went into a frenzy when John Travolta absolutely butchered Idina Menzel's name. Adele Dazeem? Pharrell got Lupita Nyong'o, Amy Adams and Meryl Streep all to dance, an instantly GIF-able moment.

Eyeroll-inducing moments, though, were not absent. Instead of fading away to black and going to a commercial following the In Memorium segment, Bette Midler emerged and sang the bizarre and jarring song selection of "Wind Beneath My Wings." Also bizarre was the show's entire theme of heroes, a broad, sweeping theme that only existed to give us pointless, brainless montages. And while Pink's rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" was well-done in honor of the 75th anniversary of "The Wizard of Oz," it felt like its sole purpose was to bloat the show. Yet, amazingly enough, the show clocked in right at time at exactly three hours and 30 minutes.

It's interesting we have a year where the film that won best picture didn't win either editing or directing, which are otherwise precursors to what takes the top honor. Yet "12 Years" coming out on top was more than fitting, and "Gravity" reaped what it needed to. And this left "American Hustle" perfectly left out and empty-handed. Isn't that justice, after all, for a movie that seduced critics for seemingly no reason? Sweet justice indeed.