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This week, I’d like to discuss a film that’s particularly close to me as it sort of represents the beginning of my critical career: Submarine. I remember watching Submarine a number of years ago and thinking for the first time that film is an astounding medium. In short, Submarine was the movie that made me realize that movies are cool.

Submarine is the directorial debut for British comedic talent Richard Ayoade, also responsible for The Watch, as well as this year’s highly anticipated film, The Double. Ayoade’s strength lies in his ability to be funny and insightful without feeling to the need to drench his work in cynicism- a lesson which many coming-of-age dramas baldy need to learn. Though Submarine doesn’t reinvent the genre by any means, it delivers an honest and profoundly believable story revolving around a sympathetic, incorrigible protagonist.

Ayoade’s directorial style is a little reminiscent of a more sober sort of Wes Anderson production, complete with bright colors and childlike set pieces and situations. The key, however, is that the style never eclipses the substance and Ayoade pulls it off remarkably well. The story follows black sheep Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) as he navigates the treacherous waters of love and familial relationships. Though seemingly distant, Oliver has a big heart and puts it upon himself to hold his precious little world together in any way he can. Though Oliver’s exploits sometimes seem fantastical, the action and plot are eminently relatable thanks to Ayoade’s expertly crafted dialogue. It’s likely that many members of the audience might see glimpses of themselves in Oliver’s angst and gradual maturation, facilitating a moving yet witty and energetic story.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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If there’s one thing I love, it’s a good bit of controversy. I don’t necessarily to get involved personally, but watching the vitriol spew forth from both sides is about as sporting as I tend to get these days. And, if there’s a sure fire way to get Bible thumpers up in arms, it’s to make an adaptation of a Bible story. A lot of the controversy stems from the fact that Noah isn’t a beat-for-beat adaptation of the Genesis story. Contrary to popular belief, Noah is not based in biblical canon but is rooted much more firmly in apocryphal texts like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Book of Enoch. So, if anyone tells you that Noah is inherently a bad film because it isn’t right-wing retread of a watered-down Sunday school story, I want you do me a favor and smack them so hard that the front of their head becomes the back of their head.

I admit that I had been looking forward to seeing Noah for a long time, and the fact that Darren Aronofsky declined to direct both The Wolverine and Robocop in favor of focusing on Noah at the very least reassured me that he was passionate about what can only be described as his pet project. Aronofsky’s signature bleakness of tone is here in abundance and the omnipresent sense of tension and dread works exceedingly well within the context of the story. The film is expertly paced as the overarching plot is smartly broken into more manageable and intimate pieces, allowing the audience to become attached to the characters- an absolute necessity for the sublimely engaging third act.

Noah stars Russell Crowe as the titular protagonist along with Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, and also features a cameo by Sir Anthony Hopkins as wise man Methuselah and Ray Winstone as the evil Tubal-cain. Crowe and Winstone in particular work beautifully against one another as the hero/nemesis dichotomy is explored to its potential, culminating in a hand to hand showdown between the two. The thing I love about the characters is that they’re both relatively reasonable (in the beginning, anyway) and Tubal-cain actually has a coherent motive rather than being cartoonishly evil for no other reason than the story necessitating the presence of a villain. Crowe’s Noah, likewise, is a complex and tragic character burdened with the survival of humanity. Noah might be Crowe’s best performance to date, in fact, and his portrayal of a man crushed by the burden and guilt and responsibility is incredibly moving, to say the least.

Noah is an action movie, but it’s the good kind of action movie where the action exists to serve the plot as opposed to the other way around. Too often we have big budget productions that are essentially fireworks displays threaded through a vaguely coherent narrative, but in Noah, there always a clear sense of purpose for the fight scenes and the audience knows exactly what the charters are trying to accomplish in each of the battle sequences. Not a single shot is wasted either. Aronofsky knows exactly when to show off his expensive set-pieces and when to show restraint, culminating in a tight and wonderfully focused story.

The plot is fairly straight forward but cleverly waits until the third act to show it’s trump card, so to speak. Once Noah’s family is on the ark and out at sea, things begin to spiral out of control quickly. We begin to wonder who the real antagonist actually is, and that feeling of powerlessness and being trapped with something that passively, malevolently hates you is a major factor in creating the dramatic atmosphere. Indeed, Aronofsky somehow manages to stretch out the tension to the breaking point during the final act, but in a way that keeps you on the edge of your seat as opposed to inducing frustration. Even during the denouement, Aronofsky still portrays Noah as a deeply troubled, tortured character, making him easily one of the most interesting and memorable protagonists this year.

I urge audiences not to dismiss Noah as some toothless Bible move like the recent Son of God, and instead take it for the intriguing sci-fi reimagining that it is. Aronofsky has proven himself, one again, to be one of Hollywood’s most visionary directors, which certainly gives me hope for the future, if nothing else. Speaking of the future, Noah has likewise given cause to look forward to other out-of-the-box Bible films, namely Exodus: Gods and Kings, directed by none other than the legendary Ridley Scott. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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It looks like we’re in for a good amount of supernatural horror movies this year if Wikipedia is to be believed. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones led the pack, followed closely by Devil’s Due, and now Oculus has just bolted out of the gate as well. As so many films compete for a slice of the niche-audience pie, originality will surely be a make-or-break factor in the commercial success or failure of each title. Interestingly, Oculus is kind of an amalgamation of odds and ends from other movies, but proves to be a unique and engaging experience nonetheless.

Written and directed by Mike Flanagan, Oculus is based on a 2006 short film of the same name. Refreshingly, the film places an emphasis on a compelling narrative as opposed to jump scares, which is certainly more than I can say for most horror films these days. More impressive is Flanagan’s expert sense of pacing, as the tension and omnipresent sense of dread is nicely spaced out, leaving room for some welcome character development, adding emotional weight to the story. That being said, Oculus has pretensions towards being a true-blue horror flick, but its oppressive atmosphere and lack of gore seem to put it squarely in the territory of psychological thriller.

Karen Gillan, also slated to appear in the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy, stars opposite Australian actor Brenton Thwaites as brother/sister duo Kaylie and Tim Russell, respectively. Oculus is nothing if not well cast, and Gillan’s Kaylie portrays the perfect, no-nonsense survivalist, reminiscent of Sharni Vinson’s Erin in last year’s slasher flick You’re Next. Gillian gives a powerhouse performance and the film seems to revolve around her obsessive psychosis as she tries desperately to take revenge on the demonic spirits that tormented her and her brother as children.

The film is cleverly split into two distinct yet inherently intertwined stories; that of Kaylie and Tim as children when they first encountered the supernatural entity living inside their parents’ recently acquired mirror, and the events of the present day, as the adult siblings try to expose the truth about the mirror and salvage the family name. The story slips subtly between the two timelines which adds a nice basting of tension to an otherwise exceedingly simple plot. This narrative technique, however, necessitates the viewer to pay close attention, especially towards the end of the film, as the timelines begin to shift back and forth at an alarming pace and occasionally the protagonists and their younger doppelgängers appear onscreen at the same time.

After an extremely strong first half, Oculus seems to peter out a bit by the third act. In fact, it almost seems as though the film can’t really think of anything else for the characters to do once they’ve (specifically Tim) accepted that the mirror in question is actually haunted. Case in point: one of the film’s most emotionally intense scenes eschews the supernatural completely and instead consists of Tim trying to convince Kaylie that she’s gone mad as a result of her desperate and unhealthy obsession with the mirror, and after they’ve both come to terms with it, things get really bland really fast. The fact that the film is so overwhelmingly proud of its signature ghostly apparitions certainly doesn’t help matters either. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a mystery is always more frightening the less you see of it, and by the end of Oculus, those tantalizing ghosts and ghouls have taken center stage and lost all of their intrigue as they compete with the protagonists themselves for screen time.

My advice is to adjust your expectations before seeing Oculus. Admittedly, the trailer is a little misleading, but rest assured, the film stands up reasonably well as a thriller in it’s own right. While by no means a classic, Oculus remains a very solid film, and I can practically guarantee that it’s a more worthwhile experience that The Purge: Anarchy will turn out to be.

Rating: 3 out of 5

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Apparently enough time has passed since 9/11 so that people feel comfortable making movies about terrorists hijacking airplanes again, meaning that said subject matter has moved back down the insensitivity scale and now sits comfortably at ‘mostly tasteless’ as opposed to ‘completely tasteless.’ Unsurprisingly, the film shies away from anything as controversial as a morally ambiguous, complex antagonist, and instead opts to keep things nice and accessible to the slack-jawed masses with the simple, wholesome message “TERRORISTS ARE BAD!”

Spanish filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra directs the production in his first film since his 2011 action-thriller, also starring Liam Neeson, Unknown. Well paced but ultimately unremarkable, Non-Stop is a thriller/mystery sort of affair which ultimately lives and dies by its writing. According to Wikipedia, the story is credited to John W. Richardson and Chris Roach, but the screenplay itself seems to be credited to three other, completely different individuals. So, that’s basically a basketball team’s worth of writers all collaborating on the same project, all no doubt fighting tooth and nail to have their creative vision realized, culminating in a plot with more holes than Willem Dafoe at the end of Platoon. 

Liam Neeson, I’m convinced, has joined Jeff Bridges and Harrison Ford on the list of idiot savants that populate Hollywood, in the sense that they’re all really talented actors, but for some reason keep ending up in mediocre or just downright bad films. But, then again, when you’ve portrayed Oskar Schindler in the best picture of 1993 you can do whatever you like, I suppose. Nevertheless, Neeson’s smooth, paternal presence is kind of the ideal choice for his role as a put-upon sky marshal at the end of his rope. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o also makes an appearance as flight attendant Gwen Lloyd, though she has precious little screen time and her talents could have been put to much better use.

Whether or not you enjoy Non-Stop will depend largely on your ability to suspend all disbelief. The Transporter series came to mind first as I tried to think of a suitable comparison to this journey into ludicrousness, and indeed, ‘ludicrous’ is quite an appropriate word to describe the film. Up until about the first half or so, the story consists of a competent but generic mystery setup involving an apparent terrorist anonymously threatening Neeson’s Bill Marks via cellphone. And then— red herrings are thrown into the mix with reckless abandon, gaping plot holes and hugely glaring coincidences start manifesting themselves, and such a massive portion of the story relies on pure chance – that the antagonist claims he was able to calculate beforehand, with the aid of clairvoyance, apparently- that I can’t help but be taken out of the story.

If you can somehow move past those aspects and accept the film for the pulpy, nonsensical experience that it isn’t trying to be, but is nonetheless, Non-Stop isn’t completely without it’s charms. The climax is appropriately tense given the preceding events, and the absolute absurdity of the big reveal might make you laugh out loud and mirthfully roll your eyes at the silliness of it all. Likewise, Neeson remains a strong force throughout, aided by a generally engaging supporting cast.

I suppose my main piece of advice if you choose to see Non-Stop is to lower your expectations and take the trailer with mountainous piles of salt. The film certainly has pretensions towards being a hard-nosed, tense action-thriller, but in reality it’s really only to be enjoyed for it’s solid cast and outlandish spectacle. Depending on your tolerance for such things, that might be enough, but at the same time, I don’t suppose there will be a mad dash to buy the DVD when it comes out in a couple of months.

Rating: 3 out of 5

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What’s the deal with taking old intellectual properties from the 1960’s and turing them into modern adaptations? First there was Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger last year and now we’ve got this new, modernized Mr. Peabody thing. It seems weird that DreamWorks was willing to invest upwards of $145 million into the project when its target audience has probably never even heard of Peabody’s Improbable History before. Whatever. I’m pretty sure that studio executives are contractually obligated to undergo mandatory lobotomies anyway, so here we are.

Rob Minkoff, the man behind the 1994 Disney classic, The Lion King, helms the project after about a decade in production. Executive producer Tiffany Ward was reportedly charged with ensuring that the characters maintained the integrity of their cartoon roots, and by God does it show. The character archetypes for cartoon shorts do not lend themselves to feature length films, and contribute to bland and uninteresting protagonists. Minkoff and Ward are certainly fans of the original property, and I can naturally respect that, but this was their chance to get a new generation interested in their beloved Mr. Peabody by changing up the old formula and giving us some dynamic characters with whom we can engage. It’s almost as if they we’re so enamored with the memory of their favorite childhood franchise and took for granted that everyone else wasn’t necessarily wearing the same massive nostalgia goggles, and ultimately suffered for it.

Ty Burrell of Modern Family fame and Max Charles lend their vocal talents to the characters of Mr. Peabody and Sherman, respectively. Steven Colbert also makes a cameo appearance as the blatantly antagonistic suburban husband, Paul Peterson. The vocal performances are mostly well done and add a great deal of charm to an otherwise pretty lifeless production. As I scramble to find a silver lining in this weird, miasmic, mess of a film, I can at least say that it was well cast and that the actors at least sounded into it, specifically Colbert and Burrell.

In a way, Mr. Peabody & Sherman is almost admirable in that it somehow finds a way to make mastery of one of the fundamental forces of the universe, time travel, profoundly boring. The plot, such as it is, amounts to little more than a sightseeing tour through various arbitrary periods in history, all of which, naturally involve Mr. Peabody saving Sherman from some kind of mischief. The narrative is so episodic and formulaic the film might as well have been a highlight reel from the cartoon showing a number of Mr. Peabody’s exploits in no particular order, making the film feel unfocused and bland. The film seems content to railroad the audience from one uninteresting set piece to another and without much regard for connectivity. The third act finally starts to pick up, but then it, too, seems unabashedly token and uninspired. It’s almost as though Mr. Peabody & Sherman shrugs it’s shoulders and says “Well, I certainly can’t think of any other interesting things to do. Let’s just get all the historical figures together in one place and wrap it all up with a ham-fisted, saccharine ending.”

Ultimately, a comedy must be judged on whether or not it made me laugh, and unfortunately, the film falls short in that respect as well. And it’s not just because I’m some jaded hack either. There are kid’s movies I like- that I love, even- and I admit without shame that The LEGO Movie was hysterical in parts, but Mr. Peabody & Sherman’s shallow humor and groan-worthy historical references amounting to little more than “Hey, kids! Look at the famous person!” just didn’t do it for me.

Unless you actually grew up in the 1960’s watching The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show and the Peabody’s Improbable History segment’s found within, I wouldn’t recommend Mr. Peabody & Sherman. Come to think of it, you’d probably be better off looking up old episodes on the internet than waste your time and money on this nostalgic cash-in that no one save Minkoff himself thought ought to exist.

Rating: 2 out of 5

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I should have learned long ago that no intellectual property is safe from the scourge of unnecessary remakes; not even seemingly safe 1980’s cult sci-fi classics. Alas, the day has arrived for Robocop to be tied down to the sacrificial alter so that another generation of twitchy, attention deficit kids can be exposed to a cherished franchise in precisely the wrong way.

Robocop comes to us from Brazilian director José Padilha, chosen for the commercial success of his previous foreign language films Elite Squad and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within. Apparently, Darren Aronofsky was, at one time, slated to direct, though he ultimately declined so that he could direct his upcoming film, Noah. Now, since Aronofsky opted out of Robocop, The Wolverine, and a plethora of other recent films that otherwise would have doubtless been outstanding under his direction, I fully anticipate that Noah will be the single greatest cinematic endeavor in the history of the medium or I will personally set Darren Aronofsky’s house on fire. It’s difficult to say whether or not Padilha is fully responsible for the mediocrity of the final product, as, according to Wikipedia, he was quoted as sharing with City of God director Fernando Meirelles that the filming of Robocop was “the worst experience of his life” and “for every ten ideas he has, nine are cut” He further expressed that “It is hell here. The film will be good, but I have never suffered so much and I do not want to do it again”.

Joel Kinnaman stars as the titular Robocop, turning, as if by magic, one of the most cherished sci-fi heroes into one of the 21st century’s most generic action protagonists- which is saying quite a lot. In a departure from the 1987 original, Kinnaman’s entire face is actually visible for most of the film, now that he has the ability to retract his iconic visor at will- which, suffice it to say, does nothing to change that fact that he looks remarkably bored throughout the entire film in what is perhaps an impressive attempt to mimic my own expression during the two hour runtime. The thing about Kinnaman is that he’s not an offensively bad though still generic-looking actor like Jai Courtney, nor is he as surprisingly talented though just as generic-looking as Ethan Hawke. No, Kinnaman is a mediocre actor in a generic, white bread male’s body, which might prove to be the perfect visual representation of the film as a whole; a boilerplate, run-of-the-mill little experience that pales in comparison to the original but isn’t even offensive enough to provoke discussion.

Many critics have suggested that José Padilha and writer Joshua Zetumer didn’t have a clear conception of what made the original Robocop so successful in the first place, but I don’t think that’s entirely the case. Director Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 Robocop isn’t, after all, that difficult to deconstruct, but the beauty of it lies in the implementation. Rather, I think that Padilha and Zetemer didn’t trust those ideas enough to allow them to carry the film; a grave mistake, to be sure. In place of the original’s classic wit and charisma, we have a multitude of generic, bloodless gunfights, which seem to be par for the course as we progress further into a century marked by this increasingly vapid and psychopathically commercial film industry. Ironically, that visceral and cathartic gunplay that the 1987 Robocop was universally famous for has been completely removed in favor of a myriad of slick-looking but ultimately meaningless and frenetic shootouts that can be found in *insert one of about a million different tittles here* in an effort to keep the film at a safe (read: despicable) PG-13 rating. “Why would they want to do this terrible thing?” you might ask. I would reply, my voice thick with disdain “It’s so that they can sell a new line of action figures to the hateful, mewling kiddies, you idiot.”

After much deliberation, I think I’ve come up with the perfect analogy to sum up my opinion of the film while still staying within the established context; Robocop’s motorcycle. Let me explain. In this new adaptation, Joel Kinnamann’s Robocop drives around a sleek, high tech, futuristic-looking motorcycle that admittedly looks pretty badass. It’s one of those ultramodern bikes that probably goes about 300 miles per hour and can stop on a dime and Robocop looks really cool while he’s riding it. Now, let’s assume that he takes down a bad guy. It doesn’t really matter who, but the important thing to remember is that he’s programed to follow the letter of the law as part of his directives; a plot point, which, in this instance, would require Robocop to take the suspect back to the police station to be booked and jailed. Do you see the problem here? How is he supposed to take the bad guy to jail if he’s riding a motorcycle? It’s that kind of sloppiness that’s really indicative of the quality of the film as a whole. There are so many ideas added in simply because they look cool and flashy, and it’s clear that no one stopped during production to consider if it was the smart thing to do.

Subsequently, what we’re left with are the bones of a half-baked action flick which deserves nothing more than a noncommittal “meh.” I believe that if both Padilha and Zetumer sat down with Verhoeven’s Robocop and thought- really thought- about what they wanted the film to be and how they wanted to bring the deep and complex world of that film into the 21st century, that they might have come up with something really special. As seems to be so often the case, any heart and sparkle that we might have otherwise enjoyed has been stripped out and replaced with sleek but utterly hollow visuals in a crass, exploitative effort to appeal to the common denominator.

Rating: 2 out of 5

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It’s been a good, long while since we’ve done a Netflix movie of the week here at Simply Film- and since there’s certainly no time like the present, let’s get back into the swing of things with this week’s selection, The American. Unbeknownst to many, The American is actually an adaptation of a novel entitled A Very Private Gentleman, written in 1990 by Martin Booth. The film comes to us from Dutch director Anton Corbijn, who is also slated to direct the upcoming thriller A Most Wanted Man, which, coincidentally, featured Philip Seymour Hoffman in a lead role- though, in light of recent and extremely regrettable events, the future of that particular production remains uncertain.

Starring George Clooney, Violante Placido, and Thekla Reuten, the film tells the story of a gruff, professional assassin, Jack (Clooney), as he leads an exceedingly dangerous double life while laying low in Italy. The ensuing drama is an consummate example of atmospheric storytelling and a narrative that’s just dripping with tension and innuendo. The beauty of The American really lies in its subtlety and restraint, and you’d be amazing how much Corbijn is able to communicate to the audience through implication alone.

While George Clooney perhaps stoops a little to play the role of the stoic protagonist, he does it so well that I don’t really mind it. Likewise, if you can get past a bit of cliché towards the first half of the film, including the stereotypical, obnoxiously philosophical priest, there’s certainly a lot to love here. Featuring some absolutely jaw-dropping cinematography from Martin Ruhe, The American balances beautiful emotional intensity with austere, almost minimalist dialogue to produce a hugely engaging film that keeps you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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