Review: ‘Noah’ (and the Planeteers!)

How do you sell the same ol’ Bible story of Noah to modern audiences? Change it… a lot.

In the Old World before the Great Flood, Adam and Eve sinned and Cain killed Abel. Cain went into the world and started the first industrial age – who knew, right? – with the help (get this) angels who chose to fall because they felt sorry for humanity being thrown out of the Garden of Eden. While the world is full of sinners AND destroyers of the environment, “bad people” also eat meat because “they think it makes them stronger” (pre-flood Godly men were apparently all vegans). When the Creator decides to wipe the slate clean, Noah gets the call to save the animals, but will he make the conscious decision to save all humanity as well?

Welcome to the all-new, all-improved Noah – now fortified with fallen angels and extra preachiness. If you think about this as the non-Biblical, alternative history version of the Great Flood, there’s some interesting stuff going on here. Forgetting that this is a Bible story, the post garden-paradise world seemed to start with the Dark Ages and rolled right over into the Industrial Age – either that or the production designers were really big fans of the computer game “Myst.” While there IS a bad guy (Ray Winstone), it all comes down to choice; while that may not sound like the command of an all-powerful Creator, it is quite the self-fulfilling prophecy.

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Review: ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ (insightful inside and out)

Sure there’s a lot of Cap, but Black Widow is the scene stealer this time out.

Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) is still catching up to modern-day. Working for SHIELD, he and Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are sent on a covert mission to free hostages, but the target turns out to be a SHIELD vessel. Worse yet, Natasha has a different mission – that Cap wasn’t told about. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) admits to keeping Steve in the dark, but with good reason: a secret threat assessment platform called “Insight” that predicts dangers to national security and eliminates it. Steve shares his concerns, prompting Fury to postpone implementing the new system – and that’s when the assassination attempts begin.

Whew! Marvel Studios certainly knows how to build a complex story on top of an existing film franchise. In probably the best film thus far behind The Avengers film and maybe the original Iron Man, The winter Soldier is a post-modern cold war spy thriller – with superheroes, of course. While Cap gets plenty of screentime, this is the first time Scarlet’s Johanssen’s Black Widow really gets to shine, proving why she can hold her own both as an Avenger and as a solo operative. In fact, the character story is both about Steve Rogers trying to figure out his place in the modern world and Natasha just trying to figure out who she really is – pretty deep stuff for a “mere superhero flick,” right? This is the Marvel difference, folks.

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Review: ‘Knights of Badassdom’ (needn’t IS a word here)

Fans of tabletop gaming, live-action roleplay, and Tucker & Dale fans will find much to love herein.

Deep in the woods after midnight, chanting figures in cloaks surround a man about to be impaled with a gleaming dagger… just before a group of trigger-happy jocks with paintball guns start shooting up the place. Is this some kind of time travel epic? A cult being thwarted by local weekend warriors? Nope – it’s just the Knights of Badassdom, a story about LARPers: live-action roleplayers. After being dumped by his girlfriend, rockstar-wannabe Joe (Ryan Kwanten) gets drunk out of his mind – a trick to drag him out to a state park dressed up (poorly) in a magical kingdom of warriors, wizards, and other fantasy types. With his friends Eric the Wizard (Steve Zahn) and Sir Hung (Peter Dinklage), their weekend of pretend swordplay and hard-won experience points is about to be hijacked by an actual succubus from Hell who has taken the form of Joe’s ex, Beth (Margarita Levieva). Maybe we shouldn’t read actual spells from a book of demon summoning, huh, Eric?

Warning: this film is NOT for everyone. It’s for people with imagination, the kind of folks who enjoy spending their weekends outside adventuring with fellow enthusiasts and dressing up to embody something they can’t be in real life. Sure, there are plenty of personality types in these organizations who conflict with one another, but it’s all in the name of fun, a Renaissance festival with regulated live combat. Indoctrinated viewers will recognize the Medievalish-sounding dialog, the struggle to keep real-life issues out of in-game play, and the occasional lack of integrity when your character might have been killed. Put all that into a ridiculous but deadly situation and it becomes clear who the real heroes are when the mortality rate and weapons are real.

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Review: ‘Vampire Academy’ (School Isn’t All That Sucks Here)

When the dream sequence killing off the cast is better than everything afterward, you MIGHT have a script problem.

Exposition: Moroi are peaceful mortal vampires – never mind that they drink the blood of the living – who are protected by half-vampire guardians called Dhampirs from the red-eyed bad vampires called Strigoi. Got all that? Rose Hathaway (Zoey Deutch) is the assumed Dhampir protector of Lissa Dragomir (Lucy Fry), the last of her Moroi bloodline and heir to the so-called vampire throne – we’ll get to “the queen” later. Anyway, Rose and Lissa have been living on the lam in Portland, Oregon until they get dragged back to Montana’s own St. Vladimir’s Academy – which looks a lot like left over sets from Hogwarts – where Moroi learn to use magic and Dhampirs learn to protect Moroi with their lives. Ninety minutes of mostly blood-red herrings culminates in exactly who you think stepping forward as the big bad before the movie mercifully ends.

This is why we can’t have good vampire movies.

Assuming that the Vampire Academy books must be better than what crawled up and died on the screen, imagine the kids from Clueless updating their pop culture references to play vampires in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. There is simply too much going on here for a ninety-minute movie, and that’s before The Queen of All Vampires (Joely Richardson) inexplicably shows up to diss the Princess Lissa – in what world would a bunch of high school socialites NOT want to be besties with the future Queen? Vampire Academy, that’s where. Being a film for teens also means that every adult teacher is vain, clueless and/or evil; there’s nary a Headmaster Dumbledore or even a worthy Professor Snape in sight, so our heroes have no one to turn to – but the WORST problem is really just trying to be popular in school before the big dance! Shouldn’t – I don’t know – your LIVES be a little more important? Isn’t this why you ran away to begin with? If this is really the story in the first book, my sympathies.

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Review: ‘Haunter’ (Even Ghosts Can be Haunted)

A tightly wound slow-burn ghost story that blends the best elements of the genre.

Typical teenager Lisa (Abigail Breslin) has begun to realize that today was yesterday, not to mention she’s also hearing voices. After failing to convince her parents that their lives are on a twenty-four hour infinite loop, a pale man (Stephen McHattie) arrives in the guise of a repairman, but death is his eyes. He tells Lisa that she should ignore the voices, threatening her family if she continues trying to convince them of the truth or should she attempt to contact the living. Reeling from confirmation that she and her family are indeed dead, Lisa begins to uncover the clues not only to her own death but a history of violence going back decades – and the Pale Man isn’t done yet.

There is a degree of merit comparing Haunter to a paranormal Groundhog’s Day mixed in with a healthy dose of A Nightmare on Elm Street, but Haunter sets itself apart with a meticulous script that redefines Purgatory and one-ups the protagonists of The Others. A variety of practical effects keeps the story grounded, serving the plot while creating a rich mythology within a short time, small location and on an economic film budget. The creepy atmosphere oozes from the screen, rewarding faithful watchers with a satisfying conclusion and very few missteps to speak of.

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Review: ‘Enders Game’ (do you want to know more?)

Are you doing your part? You know, by breeding bullying jerks to save the human race?

The near future: a spacefaring alien race called the Formics attack the Earth in a bid for colonization, but the brave sacrifice of Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley) halts the invasion and saves the planet. Fifty years later, cries of “never forget” still echo through the futuristic culture; gifted children have been tasked with a brutal competition in both body and brains to become the next Battle Commander capable of defeating the alien scourge and prevent what happened to Earth from ever happening again. In a race against the clock, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) thinks he’s found the savior of mankind in a boy name Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), but the boy keeps displaying pesky hints of bothersome morals that may prevent the child from being as ruthless as the vengeful adults in charge all hope he can be.

With regard to author Orson Scott Card’s views regarding tolerance, Ender’s Game is interestingly hinged on the idea that a little tolerance goes a long way, that “how we win matters.” In a fictional but not-unthinkable culture where pre-tweens are pressured into war school with hopes of becoming the next savior of the human race, this is the opposite of the modern American education mentality that “competition is wrong” and there should be no winners or losers lest a single human psyche be damaged. What holds back the one-two punch of incredible visuals and intense acting is a muddled ending that feels too underwhelming to have the impact intended, a Kill Bill lesson that “some things, once you do, they can never be undone.”

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