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Gone Girl (2014)
1 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Another memorable, exciting, challenging thriller from Fincher, 13 October 2014
8/10

Directors don't become synonymous with genres as often as they used to in Hollywood's Golden Age, but play the word association game with "David Fincher" and you're bound to get "thriller" back as a response. There's little doubt that if you're producing an intense, dark, mystery-driven film, Fincher's your first choice, and he proves it yet again in bringing another popular book to the silver screen in "Gone Girl." For those who know nothing about the novel (as I did), Fincher's involvement should be your first clue that this is beyond run-of-the-mill mystery stuff, that somewhere in this story of what appears to be a "did-he-or-didn't-he" murder case lurks a sinister and sadistic turn.

Based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, "Gone Girl" stars Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, a writer/professor and co-owner of a bar living in the heart of Missouri, whose marriage to Amy (Rosamund Pike) has been rocky of late. When Amy disappears, the search to find her becomes a media circus, and before long, all eyes turn to Nick as her most likely killer.

Under Fincher's direction, the entire film is covered by an unsettling fog, with a good portion of the credit belonging to his collaboration with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who scored "The Social Network" for Fincher and won an Oscar. He creates a bleak portrait of what most would consider a quaint Midwestern setting and creates doubt and intrigue at every turn, while also satirizing Middle America and mainstream media.

With its crystal clear premise, "Gone Girl" holds its audience captive, inviting you to see if you can figure out what really happened, confirming a few of your suspicions here and there until suddenly you have no idea what happened to the movie you had bought a ticket to see. It's not a radical or misleading transformation from the first act to the second, but one that will remind audiences that the truth isn't exactly black and white in the way most movies would have you believe.

It's weird to call Affleck perfectly cast in this movie, but he has just the right balance of sympathy-worthy leading man qualities and totally unlikable smugness. Normally George Clooney is your guy in this case, but Clooney would be too lovable and handsome to play Nick. Affleck's reputation, having gone from pretty-boy movie star to tabloid fodder to esteemed director, definitely works for him in this film. You see bits of the "Argo" actor you really enjoyed rooting for, and bits of "Daredevil" and the cocky, dumb Kevin Smith roles. "Gone Girl" wants you to question and scrutinize Nick yet also feel like there's no way he could be a murderer.

On the other side, few people will forget who Rosamund Pike is after seeing this movie. Although she's been in a fair number of films and always been a good actress, "Gone Girl" showcases the true extent of her range, and is finally the perfect storm of a film to elevate her profile. Carrie Coon as Nick's twin sister, Margo, is another great casting find; the Chicago-based actress will surely see more big-time supporting work in the future.

With Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris rounding out the supporting cast, it's safe to say this is one of the more unusual ensemble casts for a big adaptation in recent years.

When it comes to differences between the book and the movie, only so much criticism can be leveled against Hollywood as this is a very (very) rare case in which Flynn – on her own – adapted her book for the screen. Obviously she doesn't have final cut, but most of how the story plays out on screen can be attributed to her. Given the movie is totally enthralling, she obviously has screen writing chops. You could argue that it's a bit long, but otherwise, the movie never feels hindered in the way that overly loyal adaptations tend to do.

Most thrillers operate using a formula that ends with a twist or an epiphany that ultimately satisfies the viewer. "Gone Girl" doesn't work that way, which is both a great strength and a great weakness. On one hand, it will simply be too weird and dark for many people; on the other, it uses conventions to highlight issues and ideas that go well beyond the scope of what other films in the genre ever dream to accomplish. More than a great thriller, "Gone Girl" speaks to the challenges of the modern marriage, issues of the victimization of women, the media's tendency to sensationalize stories and more. It's a trade-off that makes "Gone Girl" pretty unforgettable, regardless of personal opinion.

~Steven C Thanks for reading! Visit my Movie Muse Reviews site for more

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
Captures the intriguing premise and spirit of the book despite missing character depth, 3 October 2014
7/10

Young adult sci-fi adaptations have run rampant since "The Hunger Games," and "The Maze Runner" is the latest attempt to copy that model and hook the same audience. James Dashner's tale of young boys trapped in a glade surrounded by a giant maze is much simpler than "Hunger Games," so while it can't achieve anywhere near the kind of character depth, it certainly has a chance to be as entertaining.

Viewers are advised to look to "Maze Runner" for a fun, sci-fi themed, mystery-driven movie. Director Wes Ball gets the most out of it in this sense; he knows how to use the camera to add intensity to a story. He will undoubtedly go on to make more good action movies. As for building the emotional connection, however, it's almost entirely absent, though a lot of this can be attributed to the script, which favors plot points over character-building moments.

To be fair, there's a lot of explaining required in "Maze Runner" as with much of the futuristic sci-fi bestsellers. Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) awakens in an elevator shaft that takes him to the Glade, where he's greeted by an entire village of boys who live surrounded by a mysterious maze. All of them arrived just as he did, with no knowledge of anything that happened to them before they got there, but they believe they need to find a way out. Especially curious, Thomas starts a chain reaction of events that lead to some answers.

Although Thomas spends a lot of screen time with each of the boys he meets in the Glade – including Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster of "Game of Thrones"), Gally (Will Poulter), Alby (Aml Ameen), Chuck (Blake Cooper), Minho (Ki Hong Lee) and eventually a girl, Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), whose arrival really shakes things up – they mostly talk about the plot together, or explain things to the audience about the maze or any of the mysteries surrounding it. The few character-building moments are really wedged in. O'Brien is perfectly likable as Thomas, as are most of the others, but "Maze Runner" clearly leans on its premise and entertainment value.

That's okay, because it has enough of an intriguing mystery, enough creative art direction and enough of a dark and creepy factor to pass muster with folks over the age of 18. Those who haven't read the entire series will likely find a less-than-satisfying ending, but these stories are written in threes these days (with the third part split in half, of course). Fans of the books will be a bit surprised by some of the changes, but ultimately should feel the story stays true to the spirit of Dashner's books.

Thanks for reading! Visit my site for more ~Steven C

Divergent (2014)
"Divergent" finds a happy medium between great and awful YA adaptations, 3 September 2014
7/10

In the world of young adult book adaptations with a fantasy/science fiction edge, "Divergent" is one of the few to actually fall in between really good and intolerable. It's no "Hunger Games," but director Neil Burger ("Limitless") and writers Evan Daugherty ("Snow White and the Huntsman") and Vanessa Taylor ("Game of Thrones") do a respectable job bringing the Veronica Roth novel to life with maturity and actual filmmaking talent.

Having read the book, it's kind of in the same boat. It's not as good as the first "Hunger Games" book but it has that same adult, ultra-violent tone with romantic subplots that don't overtake the plot but rank a clear second to it. The dystopian world of "Divergent" is far more complicated than "Hunger Games," which widens in scope as the trilogy continues instead of turning the whole world it has built on its head in book one as "Divergent" does. Essentially, "Divergent" the movie is as good as the material allows it to be, meaning its faults run as deep as those of its source material.

That said, "Divergent" is an intriguing and engaging story, even if it feels unpolished at times. Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) is a teen living in one of society's five factions in dystopian Chicago. She has reached the age when young people are tested to find out which faction (all of which are based on different virtues) they are best suited to, though in the end they are given a choice no matter what the results say. When Beatrice takes the test, her results are inconclusive. This means she's divergent; she doesn't belong in just one faction, and in a world where everyone is supposed to fit in a specific place, this is dangerous. She chooses to leave her selfless faction, Abnegation, for the bravery and free-spiritedness of Dauntless.

Woodley's talent and career trajectory suggests that Summit Entertainment was going for the next Jennifer Lawrence-type to play Tris and she's as good as it gets. With the book being told from the Tris' perspective, it's incumbent on her to communicate the many feelings that Roth so excellently expresses in the book and she does. The rest of the cast isn't too bad either, though only Theo James as Four, Tris' Dauntless mentor-turned-love interest, gets much of a platform. He's every bit of mysterious, dark and handsome as the part necessitates.

"Divergent" sacrifices these side characters in the name of bringing all the memorable plot points of the story to life and explaining Roth's highly intricate dystopian world. There's nothing simple about the faction system for those who haven't read the books, so it eats up some screen time. And with so many scenes and moving pieces, there's little breathing room in the screenplay. The other initiates that Tris befriends (or tangles with) in Dauntless who keep the story grounded in a lot of ways don't develop in the film so that parts including Tris' experiences in the fear simulations, the capture the flag scene and more can all have space in the final cut. "The Hunger Games" took a similar philosophy, to let the main character be the real emotional focus of the film and to shut others out, but again, "Divergent" is more complicated, and the story doesn't have emotional turning points in the same way "Hunger Games" does.

Artistically, however, the adaptation does a nice job, even if it borrows on the "Hunger Games" aesthetic a little. Burger nails the test and fear simulation scenes, in which Tris experiences a lifelike simulation induced by a serum. He gives them the eerie, larger-than-life quality they require but in a natural way that outdoes the average film's creepy nightmare sequence. The adrenaline rush of Tris' dauntless adventures also comes through. Speaking as a Chicagoan, it would have been nice to see more of the city's actual aesthetic in the film, which is essential to this series, but there's more potential for that in the sequels.

So many young adult novel adaptations have been made, and maybe barely 10 percent manage to become "Twilight" or "The Hunger Games." It isn't and won't become those (even though it's better than "Twilight"), but "Divergent" proves there is room for a successful middle ground in this genre, something it desperately needed.

~Steven C Thanks for reading! Visit my site for more

Another fun and clever modern "Muppets," but missing heart, 21 August 2014
6/10

The Muppets stormed their way back to the big screen and the hearts of audiences everywhere in their 2011 "reboot" (of sorts) with the help of funnymen Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller ("Forgetting Sarah Marshall"). An upbeat, emotion-filled comedy, the story of "The Muppets" mirrored the way Jim Henson's creations had gotten lost in popular culture. Now that the gang is back together again, the question of where to go next is one "Muppets Most Wanted" struggles to address.

The return of James Bobin to the director's chair and Stoller to the script brings the same subtle, clever, goofy and tongue-in-cheek humor of "The Muppets" into this sequel, announced in grandiose fashion with a classic Muppets-style Broadway number titled "We're Doing a Sequel," which begins just minutes after the last film ended. Composer Bret McKenzie, who won an Oscar for the 2011 movie, also returns to keep up the musical continuity.

With the voice, brains and funny bone intact, "Muppets Most Wanted" should be another joyful movie experience, but something is definitely missing in the film, and the top suspect on the list is heart.

The story doesn't build the same kind of emotional foundation its predecessor did, and that's really the biggest difference. The plot starts rolling when the Muppets are approached by Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), who in spite of his last name, convinces the gang to sign off on a world tour. A reluctant Kermit agrees, as his friends are eager to build on their return to fame. When they arrive in Germany, Kermit is framed as Constantine, the most wanted criminal in the world who happens to be his doppelganger plus a mole on his face, and thrown into a Siberian prison. Meanwhile, Constatine takes Kermit's place, using the Muppets as a cover for his and Dominic's nefarious purposes. A clever plot, certainly, but not a warm one.

Just look at the three main human characters, for example. Gervais' Dominic, Tina Fey as prison guard Nadya and Ty Burrell as Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon are character/caricature roles, completely different than Segel and Amy Adams, who were main roles and lovable (human) characters. Although it can and should be argued that the Muppets are the stars of their film, the human characters manipulate the plot and often take attention away from them.

Subplots also abound. We follow Kermit in prison, Constantine and Dominic, the rest of the Muppets including Miss Piggy's frustrations with her frog-lover, Jean and Sam the Eagle as they investigate crimes – they're all fun and light and have their moments (especially for kiddos) but the movie leans hard on silly and clever without the emotion to weight it down.

No emotion also makes it difficult for McKenzie to do his job as composer. Only one song counts as a ballad and captures any semblance of feelings and it belongs to Miss Piggy, who really isn't a main character for most of the movie. The other songs are well-written, fun and catchy, but in the context of the movie they play a very limited role, nothing like what "Life's a Happy Song" did for the first film.

Any good family movie needs a balance between humor and heart, and the scales are tipped in "Muppets Most Wanted." Fortunately, the cleverness is strong enough to fuel the movie along to the point that it's an easily tolerable watch.

~Steven C Thanks for reading! Visit my site for more!

Boyhood (2014/I)
0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
A unique work of genius that will change everything you think about film, 18 August 2014
10/10

Calling "Boyhood" "unlike anything you've ever seen" is stating the obvious, yet there is almost no other way to describe it in as many words. Making a film over the course of 12 years with the same cast, Richard Linklater has transformed everything we know about filmmaking, in some ways challenging the very definition of "film." It sounds simple: tell the story of a boy growing up in close to real time by filming him every year of his life instead of having him play a younger version of himself or casting another actor in the role. But "Boyhood" accomplishes so much more than the mere use of an edgy approach to storytelling. It turns out that watching a character grow up on screen has a radical effect on how we perceive the character, how we relate to him and how we connect to him. It's a completely different experience for the viewer.

As such, Ellar Coltrane has the coolest keepsake/chronicle of his childhood anyone could ever ask for as the star of this movie. He plays Mason, ages 5 through 18, who along with his big sister (Lorelei Linklater, Richard's daughter) lives in Texas with his mom (Patricia Arquette) and occasionally visits with his dad (Ethan Hawke). The film chronicles his growing pains and formative experiences, from trouble with his stepfathers to life transitions to adventures with his dad.

"Boyhood" is easily the closest that fiction has ever come to cinema verite. It often feels similar to watching a documentary. Linklater tells the story in chronological order, unlocking the true potential of his film in doing so because jumping back and forth would have given off the appearance of significantly more editorial control, damaging the powerful realism of the project.

What makes "Boyhood" more than just a really successful filmmaking "gimmick," however, is the power of its nostalgia and the universality of Mason's experience. Linklater didn't just pick a random kid and film his life; he crafted this story. The film's realism, the fact that it reflects pieces of our own life experiences back at us, is not a byproduct of this storytelling technique, but by Linklater's own design. Not just any director could've undertaken this project and achieved the same poignant result. His filmmaking experience ("Dazed and Confused," "Before Sunrise" and its sequels, and "Bernie") shows he has a real knack for playing with time and realism in his films.

This in mind, Linklater's prowess as an editor really shines in "Boyhood." When you endeavor to make a film over the course of 12 years, you can't possibly know what you will need in the final every last piece of footage has been collected. Making sure at the time of filming that he had the right amount of footage to choose from later on and being able to tell one story from disjointed periods of filming takes the keenest of skill.

A lot of the brilliance of the film is how past and future Richard Linklater work together. Past Linklater, the man behind the camera each of those years, understood the value of capturing footage that would put a distinctive time stamp on each year of filming. Future Linklater, the editor piecing the entire film together, used the powers of hindsight to sort through this footage and include scenes or bits of dialogue that add powerful nostalgia to the movie.

For example, a short, wordless scene shows younger Mason, Samantha and their step-siblings at the midnight book release of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" in July 2005. Linklater soaks up the entire ambiance of this moment, which has nothing to do with the plot, and then however many years later, edits it into the movie in such a way that the millions who felt connected to those books when they were first released feel an instant, deep connection to it watching the film. He captured a collective cultural memory as it was happening and weaved it into the greater story of one child's life, not unlike the way we experience these moments in our own life. They happen once and they become memories. Similarly, Hawke's character is very politically outspoken, so we get treated to his thoughts at the end of the Bush presidency and the beginning of Obama's, reminding us of public sentiment during these years.

The fascination with watching years of our lives in the form of Mason's play out in just hours is the film's hook, which allows the story flexibility to be more true-to-life. As moviegoers, we are conditioned to wait for the other shoe to drop, the scene of heightened melodramatic tension – there's almost none of it. The ratio of actual drama in our own lives to actual drama that happens in this film is virtually the same. Hawke's character, for example, isn't the deadbeat dad stereotype who comes back to cause problems for Mason and his family. He's more complex and less predictable. There's no full-circle effect in this movie or plot twist of thematic significance, just a straight linear story of how things change (or don't) with time with a few meaningful reflections at the end.

Most films need those plot devices to be interesting. "Boyhood" doesn't. That's what makes it so unique, like dictionary definition of unique a.k.a. purely in a category of its own. Filmmakers could imitate this concept, but they probably would struggle to reach the same degree of authenticity, to have both the foresight and the hindsight, the ability to plan ahead and be flexible, to make a cohesive product. So Linklater didn't just make a cool film, ground-breaking film; he has transcended the very notion of what filmmaking can be.

~Steven C Thanks for reading!

6 out of 12 people found the following review useful:
Honesty and emotional truth makes up for thematic spoon-feeding, 10 August 2014
8/10

Zach Braff is the kind of guy who should be making films more often than every 10 years. "Garden State" put the very notion of "finding yourself" indie films on the map, at least for a certain generation. "Wish I Was Here" comes one too many of those films later to have the same kind of impact, but Braff's ability to emotionally connect to his audience still rings true.

One theory to explain the 10-year gap could well be how intensely personal his films are. There are so many autobiographical projections in his stories, with "Garden State" being deeply connected to his home state of New Jersey and "Wish I Was Here" playing heavily off his Jewish roots. The added dimension of Braff's brother Adam co-writing only enhances the movie's genuine, personal feeling.

The film takes place on the opposite coast. Aidan Bloom (Braff) is a 35-year-old father of two struggling to be an actor in L.A. while his wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson) works a tedious data job. In order to send their kids, Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) and Grace (Joey King) to a good school, they rely on help from Aidan's father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), who insisted they go to an Orthodox Jewish day school.

When Gabe reveals his cancer has come back, he tells Aidan that he's decided to put the rest of his money into treatment, meaning his grandkids can no longer afford to attend their school. After the school refuses to provide any aid to the Blooms because Aidan's career is his "choice" and other families have greater needs, Sarah suggests that Aidan homeschool his kids, and their adventure of self-discovery begins.

The moment the film comes out of the gate it announces its intentions to be very existentially straightforward with the audience. Braff's voice-over narration recalls childhood memories of when he and his brother (Josh Gad) would pretend they were heroes and saying 'what if we're not the heroes, what if we're the ones meant to be saved?' "Wish I Was Here" is anything but subtle, but it doesn't mean Braff's not on to something.

Although the plot revolves around the homeschooling concept, that's far from the film's core, or what anyone will remember about it long after seeing it. Instead, it's about a man trying to reconcile the dreams of his younger years with the truth of his present. It's about learning not to be afraid, and about remembering what's important in life. You could almost go so far as to say these are plot points, because that's how much they guide the movie.

Yet for all this thematic heavy-handedness, Braff cuts to the core with a intuitive, humorous and thoughtful script and an eclectic cast that has latched on to his style of humor mixed with emotional transparency. Patinkin, for example, give such an earnest portrayal of a grandfather where you can't stand him and love him all the same. Hudson hasn't seemed this down to earth in her entire career. King, barely a teenager, is sure to be around for a long time.

So there might not be much room for thematic interpretation, but the issues and emotions of "Wish I Was Here" are incredibly true to life, albeit occasionally exaggerated for comedic effect. Aidan deals with the issues of being a father, a husband, a son, a brother, and an aspiring actor. These challenges are universal and they play out with a certain degree of thoughtfulness and sincerity. As such, "Wish I Was Here" is the kind of crowd-pleaser that will resonate with just about anyone, no matter how much you "like" it. It is too truthful to dismiss.

3 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
Quirky, funny and lovable, "Guardians" pulls of being geeky and cool, 4 August 2014
9/10

After years of success bringing earthbound superheroes to the big screen, Marvel Studios opened eyes when it first endeavored to make a film out of "Guardians of the Galaxy." If Iron Man was once considered an obscure Marvel hero, these guys were total D-league. Yet surprising to no one, the studio's creative process has yielded another hit, even with this ragtag group and set in a galaxy far, far away.

Although an ensemble superhero film, Peter Quill a.k.a. "Star Lord" is the clear main character of "Guardians," a human boy abducted by alien mercenaries as a child who has become an adult skilled in scouring the universe for items of value and turning a profit. When he snatches a prized orb, however, he discovers it isn't just some average bounty; Kree warlord Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) wants it badly and sends Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an assassin and daughter of the titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) to retrieve it. On the planet Xandar, Star Lord and Gamora get tangled with bounty hunters Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a genetically engineered raccoon and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a tree-like humanoid, and they all find themselves imprisoned by Xandar's Nova Corps, where they soon unite in common cause – getting a huge payday for the orb.

Sounds like overblown science fiction, but "Guardians of the Galaxy" is far from it thanks to director and writer James Gunn ("Super," "Slither"), who, with co-writer Nicole Perlman, utilizes humor as a way to ground the film in something universal (in the non-sci fi sense of the word). The tone of the movie is irreverent and silly, fitting for such the "rag-tag group of heroes" motif and unusual for the genre, which tends to overestimate the average audience's interest in alien species and the names of planets.

Start with the "Indiana Jones"-style opening, which is a fairly common technique. Following a brief prologue with young Peter Quill watching his sick mother die, we next see him landing on a strange planet and using some of his gadgetry to search for the orb in a mysterious cave. But then, he puts on his Walkman and headphones (his only belongings from Earth) and "Come and Get Your Love" plays over the title sequence, which features Pratt boogying his way to the orb – an unusual twist on a normally serious-toned genre to say the least.

Humor is truly the movie's backbone, and the script takes a page from "The Avengers" in terms of playing up the dynamic of the various personalities in the group. The difference here is these characters don't just have egos, they have unusual quirks. Quill is a stubborn dancing fool; Rocket a cynic with a quick temper and a complex; Groot a powerful simpleton with a soft heart; and Drax (Dave Bautista) a vengeful literalist. This lovable cast of despicable characters, together with jokes based on "Earthly" references, and the humor exudes a freshness and fun seen in few action movies, let alone space operas.

Also compared to other "space operas," "Guardians" doesn't downplay the sci fi elements or dismiss the movie/comic nerd's interest in the geekier aspects of the film; it complements them. They serve as context pieces rather than focal points of the story. The imaginative art direction abounds in each and every digital set piece, but no time gets wasted on explaining any of it. You don't have to understand the complex history of the Kree and the Xandarians, for example, to appreciate or take interest in the plot, but if you look and listen close enough, you'll get a taste of it. All compliments to Gunn, and to Marvel for backing another small-budget filmmaker on a film of tremendous scale.

"Guardians of the Galaxy" could fairly be hailed as the first great alien-filled interplanetary sci-fi movie since "Star Wars." As outrageous an assertion as that sounds, when you look at films such as the "Riddick" series, "John Carter," or "Green Lantern," it's not such a reach. It also doesn't lack for heart and cares deeply about its characters, which should strengthen the comparison. Only the "Star Trek" reboot seems to have done something similar, but that had a pre-established brand – "Guardians" has a just a handful of Marvel Comics readers.

The likely box office success of "Guardians" compared to some of those aforementioned films, for example, speaks volumes to the way that Marvel Studios has gone about its business. Just compare this film to the studio's last, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" – night and day, but both outstanding movies. The fact that the minds and string-pullers behind both movies are the same is astounding, but edge to "Guardians" for being the riskier of the two. The intergalactic components of the Marvel comic universe are now completely available in the cinematic one, when for many years it was largely seen as a pipe dream to sink money into a "Star Wars"-like project and expect a worthwhile return on investment.

Although it makes its mark more with humor than science fiction, fans should be grateful for the doors "Guardians of the Galaxy" could open for the genre. At the very least, it will make for one wickedly awesome (and hilarious) cross-over with the Avengers in a few years.

~Steven C Thanks for reading!

Noah (2014)
4 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
A grand and insightful interpretation of an ancient tale, if not a little strange, 4 August 2014
7/10

The story of God telling Noah to build an ark, all the animals coming aboard in twos, and then there being a great flood, has largely been deemed children's stuff. Given the last on-screen version of this story was the Steve Carell family film "Evan Almighty," this stigma of biblical films has held true. That brings us to "Requiem for a Dream" and "Black Swan" filmmaker Darren Aronofsky's version.

"Noah" has long been a passion project for Aronofsky, who clearly saw something profoundly cinematic in this story and wanted desperately to challenge the cookie-cutter version told in Sunday schools all over the world. Indeed, Aronofsky has crafted a mature telling, one that creates a rich mythology around the biblical verses and stages a mighty battle for the redemption of humanity, with the essence of man's true nature at stake.

The story imagines Noah (Russell Crowe) and the flood as the critical final chapter of a narrative arc that started with creation and included the expulsion from Eden, with humanity descending from two men: Cain, the one who killed his brother, and Seth. Noah and his family descend from Seth and are protectors of creation, but they are the last of his lineage, so "The Creator" sends Noah visions of a flood – and you know the rest. What you might not know, however, at least according to Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel, is that angels who were sympathetic toward man and defied The Creator were banished to Earth to live as rock monsters.

The science-fiction/fantasy approach of "Noah" is reminiscent of Aronofsky's polarizing film "The Fountain." He crafts this world with the best of artistic intentions, but just in playing around with sensitive material, he walks the fine line between creativity and irreverence. "Noah" is best enjoyed when thought of as a creative, fantastical interpretation of what happened between the lines of the Old Testament.

The main plot points of this story are quite well known, so creative interpretation is everything. "Noah" doesn't lack for creativity, but the various "interpretive" plot points drag things out on occasion, and in some cases get weird. The film's final act, after Noah and family board the ark – yes, after – evolves into a horror thriller of sorts and warps our perspective of the protagonist quite a bit. Aronofsky has expert intentions here that can be admired amid the strangeness of this shift in tone, but it may sour some folks.

Even more radical are Noah's vision sequences and a scene that depicts the days of creation. You can see Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream" roots here, his penchant for grotesque imagery that is bound to stay with you well after the movie. Although this merely adds artistic value to "Noah," which would otherwise just be a biblical blockbuster, it is memorable.

Although talented, the rest of the cast largely serves the purpose of expounding on Aronofsky's interpretation. Much of what happens to them serves as a side-plot exploration of the deeper ideas of mankind's nature. Ray Winstone as Tubal-Cain epitomizes our evil inclinations, for example, while Noah's son Ham (Logan Lerman) is the "Luke Skywalker" of the story, with everything hinging on which way he will lean.

"Noah" is a film of astounding visuals designed around philosophical ideas. As such, it's entertaining to watch and ripe for discussion, but the story operates almost exclusively to make these thematic points rather than to provide the most enjoyable narrative possible. At the same time, working within the confines of a story thousands of years old, Aronofsky and co. undoubtedly bring something new to Noah and the ark that brings its message into a mature, modern context.

~Steven C Thanks for reading! Visit moviemusereviews.com for more

3 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
"Apes" does it again with riveting emotional storytelling, 26 July 2014
9/10

Four years ago you never could've predicted that "Planet of the Apes" would be rebooted to critical and financial acclaim, let alone become perhaps the most promising franchises born after 2010. If "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" was a consummate origin story, then "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is a consummate next step in a larger story, and proof that a movie franchise can evolve more gradually and still be grippingly entertaining.

The sequel picks up well after the end of "Rise," which implied that a simian virus wiped out a large portion of the earth's population. At this point, the apes have established a village outside San Francisco and their intelligence has grown (as has main ape Caesar's vocabulary). When a band of human survivors stumbles across some of the apes, Caesar (played fabulously once more by leading mo-cap actor Andy Serkis) confronts the colony of human survivors (led by Jason Clarke and Gary Oldman) and issues a stern warning to the humans to let the apes live in peace. However, the apes' home is situated next to a dam — the humans' only hope for a power source and theoretically their only way to survive.

"Rise" writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver return and they've remarkably crafted a story as straightforward, suspenseful and emotional as the original (with some help from 20th Century Fox A-list screenwriter Mark Bomback). The entire movie we wait for the other shoe to drop as humans and apes must get along but don't entirely trust each other, and a few dark characters on both sides undermine the good guys: Caesar and Clarke's Malcolm.

Caesar is the linchpin of this series. James Franco's character not being part of it says everything you need to know. The fact that the movie spends more time acquainting us with the ape characters than the human ones demonstrates that the creatives behind the film know it too. They should pass that information along to Paramount for the "Transformers" franchise.

The story is packed with character-building, suspense, painful misunderstandings, betrayal, hope, violence and justice. You really feel the roller coaster ride of the story in your guts, a vicarious feeling that too few blockbusters create, even the really entertaining ones. Caesar is the kind of character that all blockbusters should have and he's entirely done in CGI. That tells you just how crucial good storytelling is to creating characters. They don't have to be human. Not to take anything away from Serkis' brilliance, but Jaffa and Silver should teach a class on screen writing that should be mandatory for the rest of Hollywood's big studio writers. They way they create empathy and stick to basic storytelling tenants in a crude yet effective way is so laudable. And undoubtedly Bomback ("Unstoppable," "The Wolverine") helped ratchet up the entertainment factor.

Director Matt Reeves picks up on all these terrific moments in the script and nurtures them. He lets the plot breathe and gives it time to snowball, and by the time it does, the audience is so invested in the outcome that the ending doesn't have to be great, it just has to give us what we want, which it does.

"Dawn" is also thematically stronger than "Rise," taking the idea of both apes and humans having both good and evil tendencies to the next level. It's elementary stuff about human (and ape) nature but in this premise it clicks especially well. Through the eyes of a growing civilization of apes and humanity rebuilding we see the chance for a fresh start for human and ape-kind in, which makes the conflict between them so maddening throughout the film yet also riveting.

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" propels the slow-build of this franchise to the point that it almost feels more like a first entry than a second. That's a good thing. So often franchises work in trilogies, but Fox could turn this into a four-film arc easily with the right story. So far, however, the scope has been kept small, allowing for character moments and that emotional connection. They will have an opportunity to blow the lid off everything, but hopefully Fox has learned a thing or two and will continue to make this about Caesar rather than just a war of apes and humans.

~Steven C

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1 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Pulls off the near-impossible feat of being as good as the first, 26 July 2014
8/10

The mystery of making a great comedy sequel has been solved. The catch? Now that it's been done, it can never be done again.

"22 Jump Street" is on par with its predecessor. What it loses in freshness it makes up for with sheer wit. The first movie was a genre sendup nothing short of genius, and Michael Bacall and Jonah Hill, who whipped up the first film's story, have gone all in on the sequel: no, not bigger and crazier, but more tongue-in-cheek and self-aware.

If directors Christopher Miller and Phil Lord ("21 Jump Street," "The LEGO Movie," "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs") hadn't earned carte blanche already, making one of the only good comedy sequels of all time will. This feat is so hard to achieve, it arguably warrants "22 Jump Street" a perfect rating. But the reality is that the film is more of the same, it just knows it, and the filmmakers package it exceptionally well.

In fact, in the first self-aware scene, Schmidt (Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are debriefed by Dep. Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) — in and of itself a replica of a scene in the first film — who tells them how their first mission was a big success, and no one expected it, so now the department is throwing more money at them in hopes of a bigger success, and he encourages them to do "the exact same thing." This becomes a motif of the movie, so it knowingly replicates itself. By and large this works (both actually and in the meta sense) though there are slow parts in the beginning.

Essentially, as promised at the end of the first movie, Schmidt and Jenko have to go undercover at a college to find yet another new synthetic drug. They find it a little more challenging to accomplish than last time, but ultimately they both connect with students who are connected to their only lead: Schmidt falls for an art major (Amber Stevens) while Jenko meets his twin (personality-wise) in Wyatt Russell's character, a quarterback and frat boy.

Of course with any comedy sequel, doing "the exact same thing" puts the movie at risk for getting stale. "The Hangover: Part 2" is a prime example of trotting out the same exact formula and failing miserably. "22 Jump Street" counters this problem by laughing at itself a lot and going over the top with the repetitive, familiar scenes, such as whenever Schmidt and Jenko fight with each other and go off on their own. It also stays fresh just by the extent to which it copies stuff from the first movie and does so while winking at the camera.

In order for this to really work, however, the foundation still has to be solid and Hill and Tatum provide that effortlessly. Their chemistry maintains interest in the story even though the story has no interest in taking itself seriously. Tatum was a secret weapon the first time around, as no one had seen him do comedy like this, but he still pulls off the meat-headed pretty boy man- child while Hill does his improvisation thing and proves why he's the class of the Judd Apatow prodigies.

The supporting cast doesn't add much (Ice Cube is what you'd expect) though Jillian Bell's dry deadpan evokes some Kristen Wiig before she became a star.

So why can't this type of comedy sequel be replicated ever again? Not every would-be comedy franchise can just make fun of itself in this meta way and poke fun at sequels in general. And the truth is that doing so was the difference-maker. Without an action scene, for example, in which the main characters are trying to outrun drug dealers in a football helmet golf cart and avoiding hitting stuff because too much wreckage will "cost the department too much money," it's just a dumb chase scene. "22 Jump Street" would've surprised and impressed very few people without these twists. And now that the meta card has been played, it's hard to envision a third "Jump Street" as good as the first two. You can't just play another and surprise anyone. Perhaps that's why we get a highly amusing credits sequence at the end.

How nice, however, to tell that a sequel really tried to be better and conveyed that to the audience. Rather than just throw something together to take advantage of the comedy sequel cash cow, Bacall, Hill, Lord, Miller and the other screenwriters really put some intelligence into making "22 Jump Street" and the genre is better for it.

~Steven C

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