Review: ‘Noah’ a Rare Bible Movie that Never Preaches, Never Browbeats

If you look closely at the image of God bringing life to Adam in the Sistine Chapel ceiling painting by Michelangelo, you’ll see the iconic work of art is not Biblically accurate.

Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. – Genesis 2:7

And yet, the image of God reaching down to touch Adam, rather than breathe into his nostrils, is beautiful and true and touches the soul.

Nor was Rembrandt there at the raising of Jesus’s cross, although he painted himself into the scene in Raising of the Cross, as Jonathan Merritt points out over at RNS. His painting is not merely a retelling of the factual story but a theological statement.

Which brings us to Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, a work of art in film and a theological exploration of the ways of God and man, the likes of which have not been seen on the big screen since No Country for Old Men or The Tree of Life.

Anyone hoping to see merely an accurate portrayal of the few verses in Genesis is thinking too small. The movie is much bigger, much richer, and much more exciting than that.

It’s the kind of movie that Christians, indeed everyone, should want Hollywood to make.

Darren Aronofsky has breathed fresh life into a treasured story and made it a story everyone can enjoy and everyone can ponder.

The action starts in a predeluvian world, somewhere between the Garden of Eden and present day. In style, it’s a little bit Braveheart and a little bit Lord of the Rings. Noah, his wife, and his sons live gentle lives, at peace with man and nature. They take what they need and do their best to avoid the rest of mankind, those who would take not only what they need, but take from others as well, by force.

There’s a mystical quality to this early earth: Anthony Hopkins plays Methuselah, Noah’s grandfather and the oldest recorded man in the Bible. He is wise, very wise, and a conduit for the Creator’s mystical power. Other beings also roam this early earth. They are the nephilim, heavenly creatures entrapped on the barren planet.

The family of Noah stand alone in a humanity that has horribly, terribly lost its way. They value life. Mankind considers it cheap. They value kindness and respect. Mankind honors only strength and power.

It’s not so different, at its core, than our world now.

Except that Noah has disturbing visions. He knows the Creator is speaking to him, and the message is anything but gentle: Mankind has contaminated creation. Mankind has violated everything: Earth, animals, spiritual beings, each other.

It’s time to put a stop to it. God is going to send a flood. And Noah had better get ready. He is to build a refuge for the innocents, the animals. How can he restore the earth when he can’t perfect his love of his own family, especially his son Ham (Logan Lerman)?

Russell Crowe does a wonderful job as Noah, a decent man tasked with a huge burden. He is tortured, yes, but resolute. Jennifer Connelly, equally resolute, becomes a lovely voice of mercy in an increasingly dark story. Emma Watson, as Noah’s adopted daughter, has a surprisingly large role. She is occasionally overwrought, but still a fine actor.

Darren Aronofsky has proven himself a lyrical director in the past and this movie is no different. The images are stunning at times: when the Creator provides a forest in a wasteland with which to build the ark it not only moves the plot along but conjures images of life versus desolation, renewal versus devastation, the water of life. When the rain pours and the deeps open and the waves crash, the film recalls great art such as the woodcarvings of Gustave Doré: dark, desperate bodies writing on rocks.

For all the grief that has preceded this movie, there is no softening of the central story as often happens in Christian depictions of it. The flood is not regional, not muted, not filled with smiling animals and sunny skies. It is a cataclysmic event. It is exciting and dreadful and total.

The biggest surprise of the movie, besides Noah’s dark inner conflict, comes in the person of Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), a tribal leader determined to survive the flood by force of will. “I am man made in Your image,” he cries to the Creator as he sharpens a sword for battle, “Why do you not converse with me?”

He goes on: “I give life. I take life away. I am like You, am I not?” This man, this personification of the wickedness of humanity, believes in the Creator but will have his own way. He will control his own destiny.

He is not unlike Satan in Paradise Lost. 

This is heady stuff for an action movie, and action movie it is, what with all the crashing waves and clanging swords.

I was never bored in this film. I was never embarrassed because it became too corny or trite or simplistic or unprofessional. Both those happen in Christian subculture movies. But this isn’t a Christian subculture movie. It’s a mainstream movie with deep theological themes.

It is just a good movie, a good movie made for everyone, that happens to be based on a Bible story.

Rated PG-13, the film has clean language and no overt sexuality, although one storyline does involve a pregnancy. The violence is not gory. The hardest thing about this film for kids is the dark thematic material: God destroying humanity. There are plenty of images of death, both in visions and in the action. This may be very disturbing for some youngsters and is a good reason to limit the viewing to teens.

The film differs from religious movies we all know in that the viewer doesn’t feel browbeaten at the end, forced to either accept or reject some theological point of contention. Rather, it opens questions and lets them linger. For all its talk of Creator, creation, and sin, it never preaches.

Ultimately, the movie explores hope versus despair, mercy in tension with justice, second beginnings. It is dark, but the darkness makes the clearing skies all the more lovely. It is a work of art and one that I recommend seeing, for believers and nonbelievers alike.

Review: ‘Divergent’ Offers an Antidote to ‘Twilight’

It seems everywhere we turn these days, there’s an angst-driven but pure-hearted teen forced to fight for humanity in a darkly dystopian universe.

It started with Harry Potter, I suppose, and his fantastical battle against the Hitleresque Voldemort. Along came Ender’s Game, in which a boy is tasked with saving the world. The current reigning dystopian queen is Katniss Everdeen who takes on the Hunger Games with her trusty bow and arrow.

Divergent, based on the first of a series of books by Veronica Roth, treads much the same ground but has a completely different tone. In a post-war future, the citizens of what used to be Chicago divide into five factions. These factions are like character-based tribes, or maybe really intense fraternities.

Each faction is centered on a human strength and virtue: Abnegation values selfishness, Candor honesty, Amity kindness, Erudite knowledge, and Dauntless bravery.

Based on their personality, carefully calibrated by a personality test at 16, most people tend to fit neatly into one faction. But when Beatrice, an Abnegation teen, takes her test the results show she fits in no faction, or perhaps all of them. She’s Divergent, not easily categorized, and that makes her dangerous to the order.

There is a dark side to this arrangement, for with each virtue comes a vice. One can be brutally honest, for example, or passively kind, or viciously brave. It turns out human nature cannot be shoehorned into factions any more than it can shine in chaos.

For Beatrice, choosing a faction means keeping her dangerous secret, coming into a sense of herself, and finding an attractive boy she just might want to know better.

The adaptation of the book will make fans of the series very happy. Rising star Shailene Woodley plays Beatrice and she brings a fine mix of grit and angst to the role. Theo James as Four (yes, his name is Four) is little more than dreamy, but as the market for this movie is primarily teen girls, dreamy is just fine. There are changes to the plot of the book and to some characters, but none that matter very much. The gist of the story is the same.

The source material is quite dark, but the film manages to keep it within a PG-13 rating. Many characters die, although fewer than in the book, but the violence is safely within PG-13 limits. They use a few words, rhyming with schmich and schmassole, but very rarely.

Sexuality is another matter. One of the distinguishing characteristics of this line of books is the relationship that develops between Beatrice and her love interest. As it goes on, it grows in maturity and mutual respect, surviving misunderstandings and breaches of trust to become something quite interesting. This all starts, as most romances do, with mutual attraction, something explored in both the book and the movie. However, both characters work to reign in their desire as a sign of respect for each other and themselves. In fact, Beatrice both demands and earns respect from her young man, as well as others.

You might call her the anti-Bella.

 

She’s nothing like that vampire-girlfriend and this romance is nothing like Twilight.

That’s a good thing. However, while the attraction and restraint come through in the movie, the deeper growth of the relationship is not as apparent as in the books. Here’s hoping that they explore it a little more in the sequels, if there are sequels.

This movie suffers by comparison to The Hunger Games. It is not quite the event that Hunger Games movies are. But that does not mean it has less value in its own right.

The focus on human nature, with its glories and frailties, as well as the novel approach to love mean it’s a movie you can be confident in showing to your tween, and even tweens who are able to handle the dark thematic material. At its core, it’s edifying.

 

Review: Spectacular ‘LEGO Movie’ Connects All the Right Pieces

Call it the February surprise.

No one predicted a movie based on little plastic blocks – known to parents as the most deadly middle of the night threat to bare feet in existence – would outshine not only its current competitors, but all the family films of the last few years.

You have to go back to Pixar in all its Toy Story glory to match the charm, wit, and subversive depth of the simply named LEGO Movie.

It works on many levels, indeed all levels: as a fun, funny movie to enjoy with family, as a commentary on the conformity of society and its lack of creativity, as an ode to human connections, and even, if you squint just right, an exploration of the nature of God.

But most of all, it’s a revelation that movies, including kids’ movies, can rise above tired jokes and overused tropes to something fresh and wonderful.

The story opens in a LEGO castle as the dastardly Lord Business (voice of Will Ferrell) confronts the wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) over a powerful device to rule the realm. But Vitruvius has a prophesy, something about a special piece that will stop Lord Business.

That piece is seemingly found in the person – LEGO personhood – of Emmet (Chris Pratt), a nondescript construction worker in an endless team of construction workers who continually tear down and rebuild the city.

He’s a happy LEGO. He loves his job. He loves his city. He loves the leader, President Business, loves paying $37 for coffee at the overpriced coffee store, loves eating those silly LEGO turkey legs or LEGO sausages for every meal. Most of all, he loves the song that is played on continual repeat each and every day: “Everything is Awesome.”

But then he meets Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks), whose purple-tinged LEGO helmet hair is formed in a most attractive way. She takes him for the prophesied special and off they go into the underbelly of the LEGO rebellion.

The plot goes much, much further than that, but I’ll let you discover it on your own.

The animation itself is pretty awesome. The world is rendered with painstaking – and often hilarious – attention to detail. Water in the shower and waves in the ocean are a flow of little blue LEGOs, with white ones thrown in for foam. Explosions are flying red LEGOs with those little plastic flames that pop up in LEGO sets. It packs a lot of wow factor.

But the real joy in this movie rests in the power of the script by writing team Phil Lord and Chris Miller. (Brothers Dan and Kevin Hageman also helped with the story.)

And the script is darn funny.

Adults, this is the kind of rare kids’ movie that you will enjoy, even if you don’t have kids.

Take my experience. Imagine the poor film critic, stuffed into a room with about ten thousand little children, about to endure yet another witless flick designed for parents to sate their children for 90 minutes. About thirty seconds into the first scene, I found myself chuckling begrudgingly at a sly gag. “Nice, stupid movie, you got me on that one,” was about the attitude. By two minutes in, Vitruvius ends his prophesy with “You know it’s true because it rhymes,” I laughed out loud. By the time the characters rocked out to “Everything is Awesome,” was completely won over. And that was probably five minutes in. By then, I didn’t care if anyone saw me laughing at a LEGO movie, of all things – I was having too much fun. So were the ten thousand children around me.

And the fun doesn’t stop. New characters keep showing up, brooding bro-LEGO Batman (Will Arnett), perky uni-kitty (Allison Brie), and lots of cameos from beloved LEGO sets: Star Wars Han Solo, 80′s Space Guy, Abraham Lincoln, the list keeps going. It’s a wide, wide LEGO world and you never know who might show up.

That’s just the brand name characters. The heart of this film is the creativity when you go off-brand. Maybe you start with instructions, but then you swap a wheel for a jet pack, a hand for a flame-thrower, a hat for a wheel, and build your own vision. These designs matter too.

They matter because this creation has a creator, a “man upstairs,” and his nature is expressed in his work. Is LEGO world meant to be perfect, conforming to specifications, square and rigid, or is it meant be a wild ride of pirate-headed-transformer-robots-with-shark-arms?

To its credit, the film holds this question in tension and then transcends it with relationship.

Which makes it a very interesting film indeed.

Watch it once to laugh. Watch it again to think and wonder. But, by all means, please watch it.

The LEGO Movie is rated PG for mild suspense and mild rude humor (although I can’t think what they mean). It’s appropriate for all ages, although the suspense might be too much for the most sensitive young viewers. 

Review: Oscar Nominee ‘Her’ and Its Sadly Small, Dehumanizing Version of Love

Her stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, the most evolved sort of man. He’s post-hipster, dresses in cardigans and old man pants, talks softly and emotes freely. It is unimaginable to think of him swilling beer while watching football or getting in a bar fight.

His job is equally feeling-centric. Set sometime in the very near future, he earns a living writing emotional letters on behalf of people who just can’t find the right words to say to their girlfriend, grandmother, or war buddy’s widow. He’s not exactly a ghostwriter, more like a valued third party in their relationships.

Smarting from the breakup of his marriage to his childhood sweetheart – the divorce is filed but not signed – along comes technology to meet his every need.

 

Rooney Mara as ex-wife Catherine and Joaquin Phonenix

His personal device – something between a phone and a human secretary – has an operating system upgrade. After a few questions, including hilariously, “How do you feel about your mother?” the software creates for him the ideal companion.

She’s Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, and she’s perfect. Curious, intelligent, funny, insightful, Samantha is a female version of Theodore, or maybe Theodore with a female voice.

She’s not the yin to his yang. She’s the yin to his yin.

It doesn’t take long for the two to fall madly in love. Part of the genius of this film is that the viewer believes in that love. Joaquin Phoenix convinces us he is head over heels, happy, and satisfied with his virtual girlfriend. Johansson is equally remarkable in her ability to create a full character using only her voice. They’re helped by a smart and engaging script by Spike Jonze, who also directs, that creates a movie that’s surprisingly entertaining for all its philosophical subject matter.

This modern love faces challenges, however, not the least of which is Samantha’s pesky lack of a body. Sexual desire isn’t a problem, but sexual fulfillment is.

The second problem is that an intelligent personality with the ability to process trillions of bytes of information in seconds has to slow down to accommodate her human lover.

It’s an interesting conundrum, one that reaches an interesting conclusion, as far as it goes.

But I’m more taken with what the movie leaves out.

It paints a picture of modern day love that is fascinating in its assumptions, whether it be with operating systems or common human partners.

Most people would, if forced to think of it, likely agree with the idea of a person being an intimate mix of three components: The intellect, the part that mulls over On Walden Pond, remembers, plans and strategizes, and makes choices, or at least rationalizes them. The body, the part that sweats and poops and has sex and gets fat, but also sings, cries, and quivers. And the soul, a more ineffable part, the part that endures, enjoys, loves, hates, the part that we can’t really explain but know matters and sense is eternal and is somehow the wellspring of what we are.

We can’t really explain how they interact either: Why a man sees a woman across a room and knows he wants to know her better, out of all the women in the room. Why we get physically ill when we see a person beaten or killed, why sadness makes our very bones ache. Why a smell can make us happy or laughter actually makes us healthy.

No one would doubt the intellect connects with the body when they see how an Olympic diver focuses as he studies his tape, that the body connects with the soul when they lose themselves dancing their sorrows out on the dancefloor, that the soul connects with the intellect when they hear a tale of a soldier weighing his options and choosing to put his life on the line for his brothers in arms.

The things that touch us most deeply touch all three aspects of us. And love is the deepest of all.

Her reduces love to a purely intellectual pursuit. The very idea of soul is absent, irrelevant, not addressed, abandoned. Does Samantha have a soul? The question is out of place in this movie.

But it’s equally shocking how out of place the body is, although the movie devotes much energy attempting to address Samantha’s lack of a physical body. She, and to a lesser extent, he is concerned about sex, even to the point of attempting various solutions to make sex more physical for them both.

As if that is all we do with our bodies.

Sex is important, don’t get me wrong, and the way the film deals with it is fascinating. But I found myself wondering about more.

What about the encouraging glance just before walking into a party? How do they replace the way the slump of your man’s shoulders can tell you everything, even things he can’t verbalize himself? What about those times a hug is the only gift you have to give a suffering loved one?

I thought about how when you have the flu, what you want more than anything is someone to bring you a bowl of soup and pass a tender hand over your hot forehead. I thought about elderly couples who hold each other’s aches and pains as precious burdens.

When our children are little and fall, we fix it with a kiss. When they cry, we comfort them with a cuddle. That doesn’t end in adulthood. To reduce physical interaction to merely sexual is to deny humanity. Indeed, sex is a culmination, a consummation of those glances and touches and soothing moments. It is a fabulous part of a grander whole.

The second thing that was utterly missing from the movie is equally fascinating. In his former marriage and in his relationship with Samantha, children are flagrantly irrelevant.

Theodore loved his wife, even still loves her in a way one loves exes. That he loves Samantha is clear. But out of the three of them, no one seems to have or have had the least desire to grow that love into a family.

It’s not that they actively don’t want to either. It’s just not a factor. It’s not a question. There’s not even the sense that he’s giving up something to be with Samantha, as many people freely choose to do out of love for partners who cannot somehow have children.

Both Theodore and Samantha create – he, his writing, she music. They find value in adding to the world, in leaving behind a legacy. But that legacy will not be passed on through a new generation. Their art is the closest thing they have to children and they are satisfied with that.

It strikes me that Theodore falling in love with Samantha is a very safe love, for both of them. Just a portion of himself is at risk, so much of his being is left behind. He is in control. Precisely because she doesn’t have a body, he does not risk losing her to life’s horrifying uncertainty.

People often describe having children as your heart walking around outside your body. For Theodore, his heart is safely in its metal case in his breast pocket.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

To its credit, the film doesn’t make it so easy for the lovers. Unforseen threats arise. But still, so much of Theodore is reserved from Samantha that he’s not deeply threatened. Not in any way that matters beyond a few tears.

Ultimately, the movie bothered me not for its commentary on technology or our dependence on it, much of which has been explored wonderfully by other writers.

It bothers me to see love reduced to merely a meeting of minds, sex to an intellectual exercise, creation to a few paltry letters and songs. It bothers me to see love reduced to something so small.

Review: Americans Can Take Pride in Tough, Gripping ‘Lone Survivor’

Nothing quite encapsulates America’s ambiguity, discomfort, and pride in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the true stories of soldiers home from the field.

Lone Survivor, a story of a factual anti-Taliban mission gone wrong in the hills of Afghanistan, is based on the memoir of the same name. It is gripping and powerful, although hard to watch, and can stand alongside powerful movies like Zero Dark Thirty, The Hurt Locker, and the Somali mission movie Blackhawk Down.

As the spearhead of a larger mission to take out a top Taliban commander, the military drops four Navy SEALs into a rugged, rural, mountainous part of Afghanistan: Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg, who also produced the film), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch), and Matt Axelson (Ben Foster).

They four warriors are hidden on a deserted mountainside waiting for the next step in their exquisitely planned mission when unpredictable Afghanistan strikes. A band of goat herders stumble on their hiding place.

The highly trained SEALs have no problem taking the three goat herders into custody, but the question of what to do with them is harder. The old man and young boy are clearly no immediate threat, but the teenage boy seethes with a rage that needs no translation. They know without speaking the language that his freedom would mean their exposure to the Taliban militia in the valley below.

With communication gear on the blink and no means to detain the herders, they must decide what to do.

What would you do?

As an American, as a soldier, as a man or woman who must answer to your own conscience?

Their decision, as Americans, as soldiers, and as men who must answer to their own consciences, to release the group unleashes a hornet-swarm of Taliban on them, leading to disastrous results.

The bulk of the film follows the brave, brutal, and relentless battle that ensues as the superiorly trained and outfitted SEALs fend off seemingly limitless mountain warriors and wait for rescue. The stakes are desperate, the acts of courage bold, the blood and gore difficult to watch. Director Peter Berg does not turn away from the minute-by-minute pain these characters experience, from the early loss of a finger to a bullet to the mental confusion of a wounded man who has taken blows to the head. The camera lingers, it wants us to see, to feel, to know what these men have sacrificed for us.

This strong, bloody violence and salty language of soldiers gives the film an R rating. There is no sexuality. It is intense. It is not appropriate for children younger than teens and you should think twice about whether your teen is ready to be exposed to this level of reality.

The resolution of the film is, in part, in the title. However, the power of the film is in that it makes you feel each American death keenly, as well as the pain, grit, and strength of perseverance that makes each man sell his life dearly for his brothers in arms, for his country, and for the unknown Afghan people the Taliban oppress.

The ending has a true-life twist which will surprise the audience as much as the soldier to whom it happens and will help us appreciate the murky and complicated war in which we still find ourselves.

If you ponder the events in this film, the war is not as clear cut as the anti-war, “anti-imperialist” leftists stateside would like it to be.

The film, like anyone with a basic understanding of that region, makes a clear distinction between the brutal Taliban and the Afghan citizenry. The extreme fringe of Islamicism is a scary thing, a force that threatens its own countrymen even more than it threatens the West.

With the latest news that Al-Queda has taken Falujah and controls more territory than ever, the film takes on a completely gut-wrenching tone.

What was it all for?

 

Some critics, those who have never seen a battlefield (nor has this critic) or known a veteran (this critic knows many), will criticize this movie for being too patriotic, too gung-ho. They are wrong. For one thing, the advertisements make it seem more military-recruitment video than it actually is.

But for another, it’s easy to be cynical when one stays in their urban, bluestate, left of center echo chamber repeating that the war is a mistake, pointless, a product of America’s greedy and arrogant bullying.

But the soldiers I know chose to go to this remote part of the world because they believed in the mission, because they believed in America as a force for good and because they believed holding back an evil like totalitarian Islamicism was a valuable goal.

Perhaps that belief has been challenged. Time will tell.

However, this movie reminds us that even self-doubting and self-critical as we are, there is still a difference between us and the extreme, totalitarian forces we fight.

We are Americans. We do not tolerate or condone killing of non-combatants. Yes, I am aware there are troubling instances where we have failed our own values. The prosecutions of and outrage about such events supports my point.

The Taliban doesn’t hesitate.

It is a good thing to see our soldiers, representing our country who, when the stakes could not be higher, chose to uphold the values America holds dear at devastating risk to themselves.

This is something of which we can be proud.

If you can stand the blood, go see this movie.

 

Review: ‘Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ Should Have a Different Name

To adequately discuss the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty starring Ben Stiller, one must thoroughly divorce it from the short story by James Thurber on which it is loosely based.

In fact, the movie turns the short story on its head and essentially negates it.

This negation doesn’t mean the movie is bad – in fact it’s quite charming – but it does mean that the depth, humor, and relatability of Thurber’s most famous work are absent in Stiller’s adaptation.

Stiller, who also directs, is the titular character – a quiet, mousey photo handler at Life Magazine. Prone to lapse into flights of fancy, Mitty creates imaginary worlds with himself as hero while in real life only barely managing to speak a few tentative words to his crush Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). He moons around, with nothing to put on his online dating profile. He has never actually done much. All the action is inside his head.

As the movie opens, the magazine is facing its last days. The last known photographer to still use film, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), has sent a final beautiful photograph on a negative that has gone missing.

And so Mitty does something very un-Mitty-like. He goes in search of the negative, a search that leads to remote and beautiful parts of the globe.

The original Walter Mitty, the one created by Thurber, is a put-upon husband who meekly caters to his wife’s demands while all the time living in a fantasy of Nazi-hunting or brilliant oratory before a hushed court.

He never – and this is key – gets past his wife’s line of sight, much less on an actual airplane.

The literary Mitty is a tale of modern manhood, of a would-be warrior-hunter condemned to a suburban life of waiting for his wife to get her hair done.

The Stiller version of Mitty is the familiar Hollywood tale of a timid zero who does something crazy and daring, thereby waking up and finding himself.

For this familiar Hollywood trope, it’s a pretty good version. The scenery, including Iceland and (supposedly) Afghanistan, is beautiful. Stiller and Wiig have both matured into passable actors, funny at times but more than merely funny. They’re relatable.

The setting is a little strange with Life Magazine as a backdrop, photos on film strip, even a telegram delivery. It feels like a fifty-year-old script tortured into modernity. Plus, the usually excellent Adam Scott as an insufferable corporate hit man misses the mark, neither a funny man nor a satisfying nemesis.

Rated PG, the movie has only a few crude moments and some light violence. It could be a movie family watches together, although it’s not quite slapstick enough to capture children’s attention.

Still, there are enough quirky, charming moments that do not feel route as Walter travels the odd corners of the world to elevate the film to something enjoyable. It has its own sense of delight.

The moral, beyond the obvious “stop dreaming and start living!” is whispered by our elusive photographer on a beautifully desolate mountainside: “Beautiful things don’t seek attention.” This is perfect for our times, just as Thurber’s Mitty was evocative of his. If that idea had been explored more, it would have been a far better film.

Still, it’s a decent choice for date night if you’re not into HobbitsDisney, or Leonardo DiCaprio’s semi-naked middle-aged body. 

Perhaps this proactive, effective Walter Mitty should have a different name than the daydreaming hero from Thurber’s work, but whoever he is, he’s a good man to meet.

Review: ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ a Long, Boring Mess

It may be sacrelige to say anything negative about legendary director Martin Scorsese and equally renowned actor Leonardo DiCaprio, but it’s time to speak out.

It’s not ok.

It’s not ok to make three hours of graphic sex, epic drug binges, and general debauchery as boring as it is in The Wolf of Wall Street.

Maybe because I have two X chromosomes it’s different for me, but somewhere around the twentieth naked breast, I started fidgeting. Watching Jonah Hill on his estimated seventeenth drug high, I started brewing over my to-do list. By the time the fourth orgy rolled around, I was actively checking my watch.

Imagine my dismay when I realized there was still an hour and a half left to this interminable movie.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Jordan Belfort and Jonah Hill as his right hand man Donnie. In real life, Belfort founded a firm that sold junk stocks to small-time investors and quickly moved into defrauding them as well.

The movie, based on Belfort’s autobiography of the same name, follows the story closely, including his relationships with his wives (spoiler: he doesn’t treat them well).

The story certainly has epic qualities that should easily translate to screen and ask some questions about greed, materialism, and even capitalism. I think the movie, its director, and its star have those aspirations.

But it falls short.

The most basic part of a good story is missing: Conflict.

When we meet Jordan Belfort, he is a jerk. Half way through the movie, he is still a jerk. And by the end (spoiler) he remains a jerk.

There is no inner arc, no inner turmoil that would reveal that he struggles with his choices or regrets anything or even gives his life a second thought. He merely goes from one extravagant act to the next like a whirlwind.

If you’re looking for external conflict, it’s AWOL as well. Sure, we have Kyle Chandler as a SEC agent investigating the company, but he’s almost a side character. There is no real rivalry between the two men, no great struggle between them.

Instead, we see again and again how completely debauched these characters are. They do drugs, they drink. They mock and abuse their clients. They lie to their clients. They do more drugs. They bring in strippers. They take mistresses and have gay sex and do S&M and talk about vaginas and show their penises.

And then they do it all again. For three hours.

There’s a word for this: self-indulgence. Not on the part of the characters, but the director.

It would have been a far better movie with a good 60-80 minutes cut from it. But, sadly, apparently nobody tells Scorsese no.

The problem isn’t so much the graphic content of the movie, although it should have received a NC-17 rating rather than a R.

The problem is there is no point to all those shenanigans.

Once it was established these characters were living for the drugs and orgies, that character development was done. There was no need to show Jonah Hill, apparently in real time for 20 minutes, attempt to operate a phone while banged out on prescription pills after a series of previous equally humiliating episodes. There was no need to show DiCaprio so high he can’t walk (a state Belfort refers to as a “cerebal palsy high”) and literally roll down stairs to his car after a series of previous equally bad decisions.

We get it. They’re drug users. Serious drug users. Enough.

If there was entertainment value to the hijinks beyond the first 20 minutes, that would be different and would make it a comedy. However, the movie does not want to be Pineapple Express or Harold and Kumar.

It wants to Be Serious and Mean Something and Comment on Society.

Beyond “Bitches be trippin’” it really doesn’t.

If Scorsese wanted to make a movie about graphic sex and drug use with no point, he should have skipped the middleman and gone right to porn.

I did not care about anyone in the movie, neither Jordan nor his wife, not Donnie or the motley crew of merry pranksters. I didn’t care about the SEC or the clients who lost their money to this guy. It was an time-consuming character study of a bad man, nothing more.

Skip it.

Please, don’t give anyone associated with this mess an Oscar.

Review: Mediocre ‘American Hustle’ Does Not Jive with Oscar Expectations

Create a movie with a fantastic cast, wonderful character development, and a wry take on past government scandals in a time of current frustration with government, and you’re sure to have a huge hit and Oscar contender, right?

Not necessarily.

On paper, American Hustle should be the movie of the year, but its supreme promise fades once the lights go down in the theater. The romp through the real-life 1980s political ABSCAM scandal, 70s and 80s disco fashion, and casino-mob scene is fun. It’s often funny. It’s a good movie. But it is not great and should not be an Oscar contender.

Overweight, bald, and bold Irving (Christian Bale) is a con man with a gold core. He finds his perfect match in Syndey (Amy Adams), a stripper who has found her power over men can lead to more than just singles in her g-string. Their union as man and mistress leads to great things, con-job wise.

Just as the future looks rosy and all is merriness and joy, two flies land with a thud in their ointment. The first is Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a necessary evil in order for Irving to keep his beloved son close at hand. Unpredictable, manipulative, and beautiful, she’s itching for some excitement even if means added risk of violence in Irving’s life. Especially if it means added risk of violence in his life.

The second burr under the lovers’ saddle is FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). His low level bust of the con couple has him dreaming big of fame, fortune and excitement of even bigger busts.

As Irving would say, someone has him by the cajones. More accurately, Rosalyn has one and DiMaso the other.

DiMaso’s ambition leads to Jersey politician Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) and even bigger politicians in his sights. Rosalyn’s own game means not only the Feds but also the Mob may come down on his head.

All this and Bradley Cooper in a tight perm and polyester too? What a movie!

The acting is stellar. Christian Bale particularly shines as a doofus who just oozes sincerity and trust-worthiness, all the while sneaking his hand into unsuspecting friends’ pockets. Amy Adams sizzles with a sexiness we have not yet seen from her. It’s easy to see why both Irving and DiMaso would risk all for her. Bradley Cooper completely convinces as an overly-eager, overly-self-assured good boy gone rogue. The real star, however, is Jennifer Lawrence, who takes silly, vapid, dangerous, and slightly vulnerable Rosalyn to a whole other level.

That said, the problem with the movie is three-fold.

First, if this awards season is teaching us anything, it’s that good characters do not a fantastic movie make. See Inside Llweyn Davis. See the upcoming Wolf of Wall Street. A story needs characters, but it needs more than just characters. It needs plot. The plot of American Hustle peters out. Too much stock is placed in the characters rather than in the story itself.

Secondly, Director David Russell loves his characters a little too much. They’re good and gripping characters, but they’re not allowed to be complicated. For all his con-artist ways, Irving has a pureness of heart that is a little too perfect for a movie with these ambitions. It doesn’t jive right. He should be darker, really darker in ways that matter.

The most stark example of this overindulgence to the characters is the sympathy in the film that is built up for the politicians caught in ABSCAM’s web. The movie is so totally on their side that it excuses the fact that these characters, each of them, walked out of a room with suitcases of cash. They accepted bribes and are hardly innocent. The film does not address this, either to excuse them somehow or allow them some darkness. They are victims. The actual scandalness of the scandal is almost a side note, hardly worth the movie’s attention. It could have been more deftly handled, more courageously handled, and been a better movie.

And that leads to the final, fatal flaw. The film sets up all sorts of heavy-duty Oscar-alert themes. What is reality, it asks. Aren’t we all really mini con artists, it asks. Do we really know the people we love? Now that we mention it, what is love, anyway? What is ambition? Can those things exist with open polyester shirts and lots of gold chains?

It suggests ideas about the role of government and whether it’s a beneficial or detrimental force in our lives.

And then, it just whiffs.

Those themes, those questions, once raised, fade away like the one-time popularity of macramé plant holders.

There’s no there there.

Go, enjoy the movie. Laugh and the fashion and marvel at the acting. Don’t expect any more than that.

Hustle, indeed.

American Hustle is rated R for pervasive language, sexuality (implied and not realized but pervasive) and some violence.

Review: Sweet ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ Will Please the Entire Family (Bring Kleenex)

Saving Mr. Banks, a film lauding Walt Disney about the creation of Disney’s classic movie Mary Poppins, created by Disney, has much the same effect as a trip to Disneyland: It’s a heartwarming, sweet, kind, and fantastical ride that works best if you never wonder what’s behind the curtain.

It is the tale of the chase courtship of author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) by Walt Disney himself, a courtship ending not in romantic love, but something better by Hollywood standards: collaborative creativity. In 1961, Travers travels from England to Los Angeles to meet Disney (Tom Hanks) and his team of wizards. She created and – more importantly – holds the screen rights to a beloved character: Mary Poppins. Mr. Disney, or Walt as he insists, is desperate to bring the famous nanny to screen because he promised his since-grown daughters he would do so and because he loves the umbrella-soaring woman himself.

Perhaps he might, merely as a side benefit, make money off the deal.

Much like her creation, Mrs. Travers is inscrutable, difficult to please, and highly opinionated.

Walt pulls out all the stops: a fancy hotel room, a guided tour of his amusement park, a driver (Paul Giamatti) at her beck and call. His team of composers (Bradley Whitford, P.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman) regale her with their peppy tunes. Illustrators show her their visions of costumes and sets.

None of it gains traction because there is a subtext none of them knows: Mary Poppins grew out of Travers’ childhood experience with her warm, loving, ne’er do well, tragic father (Colin Farrell) back in the old days in Australia. As the Disney team trills and swirls around her, Travers remembers a story of deep love and loss that colors all her life.

Farrell and child actor Annie Rose Buckley make the most of this love, of the adoration of a dear parent and the confusion of recognizing his deep flaws. Their story is the best part of the movie and the part that will have you reaching for tissue.

Contrasted against this is the sheer joy, in the present of 1961, of creation. Disneyphiles will thrill to see Richard Sherman (Swartzman) and his brother Robert (Novak) working to create the tune of “Spoonful of Sugar” or the epiphany that leads to “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” These moments send the spirit soaring and may also have you reaching for tissue. Be warned: The score of Mary Poppins will become stuck in your head.

There are worse things in life.

Emma Thompson, as usual, does a magnificent job of portraying a complex and cantankerous woman, someone for whom sympathy grows as the viewers learn more about what motivates her.

Tom Hanks, of course, is our current go-to for feel-good Americanism and his Walt Disney is all smiles, warmth and old fashioned Midwestern common sense.

Rated PG-13, the movie is as prim and proper as Poppins herself and has nary a swearword, sexual moment, or moment of violence. It does have the difficult theme of potential parental loss, and like Bambi, may be more disturbing to some children than obscenities or violence could be.

Director John Lee Hancock, who scored a family hit with The Blind Side, has created another beautiful, sweet, and warm movie that you can watch not only with your children (if they can handle the parental-loss theme), but also with your older parents. Families will love it. Just make sure you provide Kleenex for all.

That said, the relentless cheerfulness and good sense of the Disney crew bothered me a bit. (Small spoiler ahead) It bothered me that Walt Disney and Company get their way on everything, from the nonsense song “Supercalifrigilisiticexpialidocious” to animated penguins to casting of Dick Van Dyke. All the songs are presented nearly in their final versions. Nothing Disney proposes is, in a word, wrong.

Even in the narrative of the movie, you get the sense P.L. Travers was steamrolled. It’s ok, because by losing she wins and in letting go, she recovers her own past.

But still.

It will be interesting to see how this film does in the Oscar race. On one hand, it’s an excellently-made, excellently-acted movie about story-telling, something the Academy usually loves. See: The Artist, Argo, Shakespeare in Love. On the other hand, it’s a movie made by Disney about Disney. See: Jealously, infighting, old scores to settle.

In any case, you should see it. It’s one of the best, if slightly unsettling, movies of the year.

 

Review: Exciting ‘The Hobbit: Desolation’ of Smaug Loses Tone of Book

Memo to schoolchildren planning on watching Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy in lieu of reading the novel for your book report: Don’t.

First of all, you could read the entire adventure by J.R.R. Tolkien in less time than it would take you to watch The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (released last year) and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (in theaters today). A third and final movie is expected next year, which will put the total runtime for the adaptation of the three hundred page book somewhere around nine hours.

It’s just not good time management.

Secondly, your astute teacher would surely catch your perfidy because director Peter Jackson has inserted characters and story lines into his movie that do not exist between the covers of the book.

Teachers have a way of sniffing those things out.

Herein lies the internal and perhaps fatal flaw in Jackson’s Hobbit adaptations: They’re too long and involved for normal folk, too Hollywoodized for Tolkien fans.

Desolation of Smaug covers roughly the middle third of the book, as the hearty dwarf band and one hobbit continue their quest to recover the dwarves’ lost underground kingdom from the dragon that has conquered it. In this installment, they enter the dark forrest of Mirkwood, tarry with forest elves, escape to a lake town of men, and enter the dragon’s cave.

Turning a three hundred page book into nearly nine hours of movies would normally be a love song to the fans of that book: the elvish tattoos set, who can identify various species of orcs by sword shape, and who know exactly what hobbits eat for breakfast. It’s an immersive experience, built for those who wish they lived in Middle Earth and not Nebraska.

However, there is a significant difference between the Middle Earth of Tolkien’s dark, adult, brooding Lord of the Rings trilogy and the related Middle Earth of lighter, childlike, bouncier The Hobbit. Jackson perfectly captured the desperation, near hopelessness, and ultimate courage of the former, but now misses the playfulness of the latter.

In fact, Desolation of Smaug is such a weird mix of Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and new material, it’s difficult to see where one ends and the others begin. The main change is the insertion of an orc equivalent of a strike force which shrewdly tracks and attacks the adventurers at each stage of their journey. They’re countered by a sort of elven Navy SEAL duo: Our old-but-younger-because-this-is-a-prequel LOTR friend Leoglas (Orlando Bloom) and his she-warrior pal Tauriel (Evangeline Lily). There is, of course, no warrior princess elf in the notoriously female-shy Oxford don’s original book, but she is a significant part of the movie. It even involves her in a love story.

A love story? In Middle Earth? Tolkien would be shocked and horrified. Those stories are about trekking and fighting and trekking and briefly finding respite and fighting some more and then further trekking. Love is something for hobbits left at home to dabble in between breakfast and elevensies, not part of the adventure.

With all the winks to Lord of the Rings and the new story lines, Jackson loses the tone of his source material. It’s meant to be a tale of adventure, clever wit, and courage of an ordinary hobbit for English children to read by the fire. It comes out onscreen as something closer to a Transformers movie.

That’s not to say it’s a bad movie. It’s just not The Hobbit.

In fact it’s a fun, if forgettable, experience. The pace moves faster than the previous installment, trading interminally singing dwarves for fighting elves. The introduction of human Bard (Luke Evans) brings some nobility and pathos to the proceedings. A few dwarves begin to have character development that stands out from the rest, most notably brave but flawed leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) and young, handsome, brave, and tallish Kili (Aidan Turner). The dragon (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch) is beautiful and convincing in CGI, as are his acres of gold coin. Seen in 3D, it has occasional whiz-bang factor as arrows fly, swords swing, and orc heads fall.

Rated PG-13, the film contains no sexuality or inappropriate language, but plenty of PG-13 level violence. It is not particularly gory, but is persistent. In addition, younger children may be frightened by scenes containing skeletons, mummified dead bodies, and that pesky dragon.

Enjoy the film, by all means.

But, please, read the book. You won’t regret it.