Sunday, March 30, 2014

"Noah" Review

WARNING: Spoilers Ahead!

2014 seems to be ushering in the age of the mediocre biblical epic.

February brought us the underwhelming Son of God, which was essentially a glorified made-for-TV movie. Later this year, Christian Bale and Ridley Scott will look to enter the next Oscar race with Exodus: Gods and Kings, about Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt. Until then, Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky offers us a re-imagining of the tale of Noah’s Ark.  

In Noah, the titular character (Russell Crowe) is chosen by God to save creation before a massive deluge wipes the earth clean of human wickedness.

Apparently that wickedness doesn't include the first half of this movie, which is one of the worst hours of fantasy cinema I've ever seen.

I know it is Aronofsky’s own vision of the story, but it’s just such a departure from the source material that it’s nearly impossible to buy into. I could talk all day about the unforgivable differences, but I’ll spare you. Just know that there are giant rock monsters, magic gold stones, a magic snakeskin, a mine that looks like something out of the 1950s, an old man who can magically heal reproductive organs and a massive army which tries to steal the ark away.

I must’ve missed those chapters in Genesis.

It’s not until everyone’s been on the ark for a while that things start to turn around for this film adaptation.

After months adrift, Noah becomes so blinded by his duty to God that he forgets his duty to his family. He believes that humanity is meant to die out with the last of his line. Noah still has his three sons from the Bible – Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll) – but only Shem has a wife.

Emma Watson turns in her finest performance to date as Ila, Shem’s wife. For fear of giving too much more away, I’ll just say that the dysfunctional family dynamic works like a charm here - especially between Watson, Crowe, and Jennifer Connolly who plays Noah’s wife Naameh. 

These are three players at the top of their respective games.

Watching Noah’s psychosis unfold in these moments is a treat because Crowe plays it so well. I can’t imagine anyone tasked with saving the last of God’s creation NOT getting a little stir-crazy after months at sea with the family.

Aronofsky’s script lends depth to the character that we don’t quite get from the writings in scripture. I guess you could say Noah is the Dark Knight of biblical epics for about half of its run time. 

That’s not such a bad thing because again, this is only a movie. I like movies that have layered characters, and I love watching the relationships between these kinds of characters unfold. If judged solely on that merit alone, then Noah succeeds wonderfully.

If judged solely on how close it sticks to scripture, especially in the first hour, then Noah deserves to be washed away in the flood.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

"The Reel" Needs Your Help!

If “knowledge is the spice of life,” then my stew doesn't quite have the kick it deserves.
By helping me take The Reel to the next level, you’ll get more of what you want – engaging, accessible, easy-to-read movie reviews that can save you time and money.
I’m an Honors scholar, and as such I have seemingly damned myself to the successful completion of a Capstone Experience / Thesis project in order to be a graduate of the Honors College.
I am in the midst of researching Hollywood’s place in an increasingly viral world; how emerging social technologies are influencing the way we watch, discuss, and gather information about movies.
I want to try and examine the extent to which a budding, young film critic in Kentucky can influence the Hollywood box office. Is that even possible? 
The fact that this kind of question can even be asked just goes to show how far the entertainment industry has come in the last 5-10 years. 
I've assembled a brief, 8-question online survey that takes probably 10 seconds to fill out. That means you can easily do it between commercials of the UK-Louisville game this weekend.
One can only stand so many ads for Reese’s and Allstate.  
To demonstrate the context and nature of the survey, think about your social media usage. Look out for questions similar to these:
“Do you discuss movies most often on Twitter or Facebook? Have you seen or avoided certain movies based on The Reel’s recommendations?” 
The survey has been built using Qualtrics software. Feel free to share it with friends, family, and anyone else with a Facebook or Twitter profile.
It’s my hope that the results of this survey tell me the most effective way to reach my audience. Since my content is primarily generated online, I look forward to learning how I can frame my posts so that you can see and interact with more of them.
The Reel has seen nothing but tremendous success since I first started nearly a year and a half ago.
I wish to thank all the devoted readers who look forward to the new reviews each week. 
It’s the impromptu discussions, emails, tweets, and high-fives that have kept me going, especially when this fun hobby I set out to have occasionally starts to feel like work.
There’s a great, big community of young cinephiles out there who love movies just as much if not more than I do.
I call on all of you now to help me learn more about my job so that I can better serve you as your first source for movie reviews and news.
Take my survey now, and help me continue to save you time and money in the future.
Keep telling your friends about The Reel, keep watching and discussing movies however you do, and always remember to keep me in the loop. 

Continue hitting me up on Facebook by liking “The Reel Movie Reviews” page and following my Twitter feed @thereelbennyc.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

"Muppets Most Wanted" Review

Muppets Most Wanted starts with a hilarious, self-referential song about how sequels are always inferior to their predecessors.

It’s a promising start, but the film inadvertently proceeds to prove that point for the next two hours.

Something about the 2011 Muppets film made it irresistible, and that “something” is missing this time around. The creative team behind The Muppets effectively reintroduced the characters for a new generation of fans, while also reminding the old devotees why they fell in love with Kermit and the gang in the first place.

A lot of heart went into the first film. The love that director James Bobin and writers Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller had for the characters was palpable in every frame. That reverence is somewhat lost in Most Wanted, the first direct sequel in Muppet movie history.

After preventing a greedy oil tycoon from bulldozing their old theater, the Muppets team up with Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) to take The Muppet Show on a world tour. Dominic has ulterior motives, however. He teams with Constantine – a Kermit doppelganger and also the world’s most dangerous frog - to steal the Crown Jewels of London with the Muppet tour as a guise. If that wasn't enough, Kermit is framed for Constantine’s crimes and spends the entire film trapped in a Russian gulag.

There’s almost too much going on, and if it all sounds a little contrived, it is. The Great Muppet Caper featured a somewhat similar scenario in which Kermit and Fozzie Bear pose as news reporters who track down the culprits of a London jewel heist.

The contrivances in “Most Wanted” are reconciled by the Muppets’ trademark self-referential humor, loads of surprising celebrity cameos, and endearing performances from two of the three human leads.

Gervais’s character isn't conniving enough to be taken seriously as a villain, nor is he particularly silly or lighthearted enough to take Segel’s place as the Muppets’ closest human companion. There’s also a late revelation about his criminal standing that you’ll probably see coming from a mile away. Suddenly, Constantine’s number 2 isn't so clever after all.

The opposite is true for Ty Burrell and Tina Fey, who star as Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon and gulag warden Nadya, respectively.

Burrell, of Modern Family fame, evokes side-splitting shades of the bumbling Inspector Jacques Clouseau as he and Sam the Eagle stay hot on the tail of Constantine, Badguy and the rest of the Muppets as they traverse Europe. Burrell’s a better Clouseau in this unrelated Muppet film than Steve Martin was through two Pink Panther remakes.

As Nadya, Fey appears to run the happiest gulag in Soviet history. How could you not when your secret crush – a talking, green, felt frog – is held under your jurisdiction indefinitely?
For those inmates who misbehave, “The Wall” is a particularly hilarious form of punishment at Nadya’s disposal.

Despite some issues with over-plotting, Muppets Most Wanted is by no means a total misfire. The affectionate creative team is still here, but without Segel’s participation, the classic spirit of the characters isn't as strong in this film as its predecessor.


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

"300: Rise of an Empire" Review

To put it about as bluntly as a slow-motion spear to the gut, 300: Rise of an Empire just isn't very good.

If this film were a newborn baby in Sparta, they’d cast it out for the iniquities it possesses compared to its predecessor. The original 300, which was a huge commercial success back in 2007, was based on the popular 1998 graphic novel of the same name by Frank Miller (Sin City).

Rise of an Empire is inspired by source material that hasn't even been published yet. Miller is currently working on Xerxes, a sequel to the 300 graphic novel which is said to tell the story of the god-king’s origin and rise to power. That publication still has no release date in sight, which means that screenwriters Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad (both veterans of the first 300 film) were forced to take huge creative liberties with the story for Rise of an Empire. I can’t say if that’s necessarily a bad thing because there’s nothing to judge it on except by the merits of the first movie.

Sure, Rise of an Empire captures that sexy, hyper-stylized design that 300 spawned in countless film and television rip-offs since its release. If judged on its own, Rise of an Empire expands the franchise’s story with a timeline that takes place before, during and after the events of 300. That makes it both a prequel and a sequel.

We learn more about Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) as a character, which is cool. I loved seeing this edgy take on his humble beginnings and learning how he became the sovereign of all Persia. However, Eva Green (Casino Royale) is by far the film’s crown jewel. Her performance as Artemisia, commander of the Persian navy, is bold, tough, sexy, and terrifying all at the same time. She’s definitely the most fun in the bunch. The writers lend some complexity to her character as well. Here, Artemisia is a child slave who eventually proves her worth to Xerxes and becomes the most feared naval commander in the Persian Empire.

One of the biggest missing pieces here is a charismatic leading man. Gerard Butler’s over-the-top performance was what made 300 so enjoyable. Here, Sullivan Stapleton (Gangster Squad) steps in as Themistokles, a Greek general who leads his naval fleet against that of the Persians and Artemisia. Rise of an Empire could have been a major star vehicle for Stapleton, just like it was for Butler a few years ago. Right now, the guy lacks the screen presence for us to buy into his role. Where Butler frequently roared the fun but ridiculous vernacular copied by gym bros everywhere, Stapleton just grits his teeth like he’s constipated.

He does get the token sex scene with Green though, even if it’s kind of bizarre and feels tacked on for the sake of sticking to the modern “sword and sandal” clichés. Apparently all these movies, from 300 to Immortals to the Spartacus television show, have to have a wild sex scene in them now.

The first 300 also had a variety of locations and enemies for the Spartans to confront, which was cool because you never knew who or what they would face next. All the action in Rise of an Empire takes place purely on the high seas. It’s like a graphic “Spartans of the Caribbean” video game that gets old quick.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

"Need for Speed" Review

With star Aaron Paul at the peak of his popularity coming off of Breaking Bad, I definitely feel the "need" to catch him in his first big project since the show's finale.

Paul, a hot supporting cast, and unsimulated street racing stunts generate just enough "speed" to make Need for Speed worthy of a recommendation, even if the story stumbles over a few potholes along the way.

You might recognize the title because the film is based on the popular series of racing video games from Electronic Arts.
I'm unsure how much that writers George Gatins (She's Out Of My League) and John Gatins (Real Steel) actually borrowed from the individual games. I've always been a less-than-casual "NFS" player. 

But I do know that, if nothing else, all you need are fast cars, curvaceous tracks, and dozens of cops in hot pursuit (see what I did there?).

The film adaptation certainly has plenty of all three, but between each chase there is a love story centering on Paul's troubled, blue collar Toby Marshall and Imogen Poots' (That Awkward Moment) privileged Julia Maddon.

Things really heat up when Julia calls shotgun on a cross-country road trip/car chase with Toby as they head from New York to California for a race that could save his family's old auto garage.

But the stakes don't end there. Dino Brewster (Captain America: The First Avenger's Dominic Cooper) is a sleazy, exotic car dealer and key figure from Toby's past. Revenge drives Toby to San Francisco to take on Dino in the big race.

The story is a highly clichéd, rags versus riches tale. The blue collar hero wins the affections of the rich girl while battling huge odds against the even more rich and resourceful villain.

We've seen it almost a hundred times in other sports movies before.

Clichés aside, it appears that the actors had a blast making this movie. The chemistry between the cast is strong. I could tell when I was almost moved to tears during an early racing sequence with Toby, Dino and Pete (Beneath Hill 60's Harrison Gilbertson).

Rapper Kid Cudi, Ramon Rodriguez (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) and Rami Malek (Short Term 12) round out Toby's wisecracking supporting crew. Malek nearly steals the film when he quits his desk job in downtown Detroit to join Toby on the road.

On several occasions, Benny (a witty airplane pilot played by Cudi) remarks that he wants to be called Maverick when hailed over a two-way radio. 

A pilot called Maverick with a "need for speed" sounds vaguely familiar. I'm not surprised that the writers made that Top Gun joke, but I am a little disappointed that Paul never uttered the word "bitch."  

At the end of day, what really sets Need for Speed apart are the spectacular stunts they pulled with the cars. Director Scott Waugh (Act of Valor) wanted the crashes to feel as authentic as possible, so he made them as authentic as possible.

Not a single dent, scratch or busted windshield is faked with CGI. Every wreck was filmed for real.

Granted, they were orchestrated by professionals in closed environments and should never be attempted by any of us viewers, no matter how badass you feel driving your 2004 Cavalier home after the show.

Not that I'm admitting to anything...


Saturday, March 1, 2014

"Non-Stop" Review

As the latest actioner from crowd-favorite Liam Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, Unknown), Non-Stop isn’t bad February entertainment as much as it is simply unexceptional.You could do much worse than this whodunit, but Neeson has proved before that he can do much better too (see Taken).

The talented cast is mostly squandered with a preposterous premise. Neeson plays United States Air Marshall Bill Marks, a man battling demons of his own as he boards a trans-Atlantic flight from New York to London. He’s an alcoholic driven to near ruin as he copes with a family tragedy. On the plane, Marks begins receiving text messages (is that condoned on planes now?) from someone saying that they’ll kill a passenger every 20 minutes unless $150 million is wired into an offshore bank account. TSA runs the numbers and find that the account is under Marks' name, and so the cat-and-mouse game ensues.

By the third act, the troubled Marks earns the trust of everyone on board and brings the story to a climax full of physics-defying stunts and far-fetched revelations.

Really though, what else do you expect from a Neeson action picture?

The plot is to make it look like an emotionally unstable U.S. Marshall caused the deaths of 150 people, among them Julianne Moore , Corey Stoll (House of Cards), Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) and Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave). Not a bad idea on paper, but it lacks some “oomph” in its execution. Besides, any villain who honestly tries to make an example of Qui-Gon Jinn as a crack in America’s security infrastructure must be a bonehead.

My favorite sequence showed a flurry of texts coming Marks’ way that were displayed onscreen. As the text boxes fade into the background, they still remain visible as new messages arrive. Eventually there’s a barrage of unnerving texts surrounding Marks on the plane like a prisoner, as if he has no hope of escape or otherwise doing anything to save the passengers.

Non-Stop doesn’t quite have the earth-shattering twists of a classic Hitchcock film or Agatha Christie story. If you have any penchant for dissecting murder mysteries at all, you can probably predict who the killer is in the movie’s first 7 minutes. I did, but there are enough red herrings along the way that I was forced to think twice. In fact there are enough to nearly make your head spin.

The final reveal misfires for this reason. A big punch would’ve elevated the film, but so much time is spent incriminating a small handful of characters that it’s really no surprise that one of them turns out to be the real culprit. A little bit of brain is better than none, so don’t hold it against screenwriters John Engle, Chris Roach and John W. Richardson for putting out a late winter action movie that actually makes you think a bit. That, combined with some intense, albeit hammy, action scenes make Non-Stop a mildly diverting night out at the movies. Heck, it might have a bit more edge as your next in-flight entertainment.