Noah: After the Flood

by Ethan Alter March 27, 2014 1:20 pm
<i>Noah</i>: After the Flood

Like the unseen, but omnipresent Creator referenced throughout Noah, Darren Aronofsky works in mysterious ways. Far from the $100 million art film many assumed the director of such cult fare as The Fountain and Pi might have made, this re-telling of the Great Flood myth instead turns out to be a 21st century version of one of those big-screen Bible epics from the '50s and '60s, right down to the occasionally clunky dialogue, stiff performances and dubious special effects. But -- and this is important -- in its best moments Noah also offers the same majesty and awesome sense of narrative and emotional scale present in the finest examples of that dormant genre (think perennial favorites like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments), as well as superior blockbusters in general. Along with fans of Aronofsky's edgier pictures, those expecting a literal translation of the Biblical verses may leave disappointed, as the director has produced a lavish, commercially-minded embellishment of a tale that was already quite fantastical to begin with.

Divergent: The Road Not Taken

by Ethan Alter March 20, 2014 3:06 pm
<i>Divergent</i>: The Road Not Taken

Even by the standards of most wanna-be franchise-starters, which focus almost as much on setting up sequels as they do on the movie at hand, Divergent contains an absurd amount of throat-clearing in place of actual story. Imagine the Capitol training sequence that constitutes roughly 30 minutes of The Hunger Games's screentime stretched out to almost two hours -- with about twenty minutes left over for a chaotic battle sequence... and you've got the basic narrative arc of this launching pad for a new YA-adapted blockbuster trilogy that hopes to succeed where so many (The Mortal Instruments and Beautiful Creatures among them) have failed.

Bad Words: Under His Spell

by Ethan Alter March 14, 2014 6:00 am
<i>Bad Words</i>: Under His Spell

The title of Jason Bateman's directorial debut, Bad Words, isn't the only thing that's reminiscent of another dark comedy about a not-very-nice-person, 2003's holiday classic, Bad Santa. Both films seek to get a lot of comic mileage out of watching their central creeps treat everyone around them -- adults and, especially, children -- like dirt as they put in motion a scheme for personal fun and profit. Where Bad Santa has the courage of its convictions, though, Bad Words gets squishy and sentimental as it approaches its endgame, operating on the mistaken assumption that it needs to explain its anti-hero's pathology and, thus, let him off the hook for his behavior.

Veronica Mars: Back in the Neptune Groove

by Ethan Alter March 13, 2014 2:39 pm
<i>Veronica Mars</i>: Back in the Neptune Groove

In hindsight, it's a good thing that Rob Thomas's original plan to extend the lifespan of his low-rated teen detective series Veronica Mars by packing the title character off to the FBI was deep-sixed by CW executives, and not just because the ten minute pitch reel for that version of the character is pretty terrible. Making the ever-intrepid Veronica a Fed might have been a logical career path for her, but it also would have cut her off from the life blood of the show: the sunny, seedy town of Neptune, CA, which provided her with plenty of mysteries to solve as well as a deep bench of richly-drawn characters to befriend or bedevil her. Thomas himself clearly recognizes how important Neptune was and is to his heroine, because he smartly makes that relationship the central focus of the long-awaited, fan-funded movie, also called Veronica Mars, which continues Veronica's story by bringing it all back home.

300: Rise of An Empire — This Is… a Repeat!

by Ethan Alter March 7, 2014 6:00 am
<i>300: Rise of An Empire</i> — This Is… a Repeat!

Zack Snyder may be off ruining Superman, but his slow-mo, ultraviolent aesthetic lives on in 300: Rise of An Empire, a semi-sequel to the director's 2007 hit that's such a close replica of its predecessor, it's practically a Gus Van Sant-style remake. Though it technically tells an "original" story with "new" characters, Empire (which Snyder produced and Israeli director Noam Murro directed) shares not just the same stylistic flourishes and war-mongering tone as the original, but also several recurring faces (most notably Rodrigo Santoro's Persian god-king Xerxes and Lena Headey's Queen Gorgo, widow of Gerard Butler's butchered Spartan king, Leonidas) and a "Why We Fight" narrative that mostly runs parallel to the events of the first movie, only branching off in the final 20 minutes. Honestly, the only significant difference between the two films is the dominant color scheme; where 300 was all deep reds and golds, Rise of an Empire is a milky blue, reflecting both the shade of tunics that the Greek warriors wear, as well as the fact that the bulk of this film's CGI-enhanced action occurs at sea.

The Grand Budapest Hotel: Welcome to the Hotel Europa

by Ethan Alter March 7, 2014 6:00 am
<i>The Grand Budapest Hotel</i>: Welcome to the Hotel Europa

Not since the Overlook has there been a cinematic hotel as immaculately constructed as The Grand Budapest Hotel, the titular lodging glimpsed in Wes Anderson's latest confection. That shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone even remotely familiar with the director's work, which consistently features some of the most lavish, yet carefully precise production design seen this side of an Architectural Digest layout. Still, even by Anderson's standards, the Grand Budapest is a honey of a setting: a rustic 1930s-era retreat perched amidst the picturesque hills of Zubrowka, the Eastern European nation that, on a map, would probably be located somewhere between Freedonia and Latveria. A private funicular deposits you on the hotel's stoop and, once you pass through the front doors, you're inside an opulent, high-ceilinged lobby, with the well-trained staff buzzing about, directing you to the dining room, spa, outdoor deck or your own quarters. Though it overlooks the outside world, the Grand Budapest functions as its own little universe where time itself seems to stand still.

Non-Stop: The Air Up There

by Ethan Alter February 28, 2014 6:00 am
<i>Non-Stop</i>: The Air Up There

During the course of his unlikely late-career stint as an action hero, Liam Neeson has logged plenty of flight time traveling to exotic locations like France, Turkey, Alaska and Germany to kick ass. So it's understandable that the nearly retirement-age actor is cashing in some of those frequent flier miles by saying yes to Non-Stop, a thriller that keeps him in a confined space (specifically a transatlantic airline) instead of traipsing through the urban and/or natural wilderness. The other benefit of keeping the action confined to a single set is that the filmmakers have more money to recruit a higher-caliber cast, which is how this glorified B-movie is able to recruit such noted thespians as Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Corey Stoll, Michelle Dockery and current Oscar nominee Lupita Nyong'o. It doesn't give these folks anything challenging to do, mind you, but if you're going to be stuck on a six-hour New York-to-London flight, it helps to enjoy the company of the passengers and crew.

About Last Night: Sexual Predictability in Los Angeles

by Ethan Alter February 14, 2014 8:02 am
<i>About Last Night</i>: Sexual Predictability in Los Angeles

Forget Ice Cube. Based on the evidence provided by About Last Night, Ride Along should have partnered Kevin Hart up with Regina Hall. Where the rapper/actor spent the duration of that hit buddy cop comedy reacting to his co-star with barely concealed disdain, Hall, a veteran of the Scary Movie franchise along with other mid-level comedies, enters this rom-com ready to play. The result is a spirited back-and-forth of verbal volleys that both actors are clearly enjoying as much as the audience. Hollywood's been grooming Hart for some time now to be a big-screen comedy star on the level of Eddie Murphy, but this is the first time he's really been challenged to deliver an actual performance as opposed to acting out an extended stand-up routine and it's a direct result of Hall going head-to-head with him instead of letting him coast.

<I>Winter’s Tale</i>: If You Are Looking For Romance On Valentine’s Day… Look Elsewhere

Admittedly it's my fault that the only things I knew about this movie is what I'd garnered from the trailer, as I somehow missed this book when it came out in the early '80s, even though it is entirely the kind of story my pre-teen self would have adored. Perhaps if I'd even seen the book cover I'd have been more prepared for the fantasy elements of this story, as the trailer made it seem more like an epic love story about a man who stayed alive in order to see the woman he loved again. It also led me to believe this was a reincarnation tale, or something of that ilk, not a tale of a battle between good and evil. After sitting through the two hours of the movie, I feel like that time could have been better spent sitting down and reading the beloved book, because the special effects elements make this lofty tale into a silly parade through time.

Endless Love: Dare Not Speak Its Name

by Ethan Alter February 14, 2014 6:00 am
<i>Endless Love</i>: Dare Not Speak Its Name

The latest version of the teen weepie Endless Love departs so completely from Scott Spencer's 1979 novel and Franco Zeffirelli's 1981 film version, it's less a remake or adaptation than a top-down reinvention. Essentially, what writer/director Shana Feste and her co-scribe Joshua Safran (a.ka. the Smash Season 2 mastermind who gave the world the glory that was Hit List) have done is taken the material and run it through the Nicholas Sparks machine, flattening out the wrinkles that made the original story vaguely interesting and delivering up the same glossy, generic pap that passes for big-screen romance these days.

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