Los Angeles Times

'Muhammad: The Last Prophet,' 'Noel' and 'Moog'

Times Staff Writers

Told as a children's fable, "Muhammad: The Last Prophet" is the story of Islam's divinely inspired teacher and serves as a primer, presenting the religion's basic principles in a straightforward manner.

Director Richard Rich, whose numerous mainstream animation credits include "The Fox and the Hound" and "The Trumpet of the Swan," faces the daunting task of not being able to actually show Muhammad in accordance with Islamic law. He and screenwriter Brian Nissen are for the most part successful, focusing on the struggles of Muhammad's followers in 7th century Arabia. The reliance on point-of-view shots, however, is at times disorienting and creates the unintentionally comedic effect of a prophet-cam panning back and forth or up and down as Muhammad moves his head.

"Muhammad: The Last Prophet," unrated. Some war action. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. Opens Sunday in selected theaters.

'Noel' Palminteri's directing debut "Noel" is such a thick and gooey slice of holiday hokum it's hard to see why that estimable actor Chazz Palminteri chose David Hubbard's script for his directing debut. It's equally hard to understand what attracted an actress of the caliber of Susan Sarandon and other notables to the project.

Palminteri draws some very good performances from his cast — only to pile on a lot of shameless heart-tugging on top of a contrived script about five New Yorkers facing Christmas Eve alone.

Sarandon is a workaholic book editor, a man-shy divorcée who desperately tries to communicate with a mother in the final stages of Alzheimer's. Office worker Nina (Penélope Cruz) and her taxi driver fiancé, Mike (Paul Walker), are madly in love, but Mike's jealousy threatens to destroy their relationship. Alan Arkin is a diner employee who in turn is convinced that his late wife's spirit has entered Mike's body. In the most thankless role, Marcus Thomas is a young man whose childhood was so brutal that the only happy Christmas he ever had was when family violence sent him to a hospital. The film represents some of Cruz's and Walker's very best acting, and Walker's encounter with Arkin takes a surprisingly poignant turn. But Sarandon is hard put to play a woman deluding herself about the possibilities of getting through to her mother. The belief that Christmas is a time for miracles is put to a pretty severe test in "Noel."

"Noel," Rated PG for sensuality, thematic material and some language. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. At selected theaters.

Behind the synthesized music A PhD in engineering physics who began building theremins with his father as a teenager, Bob Moog is a mostly unsung figure in recent music history.

Director Hans Fjellestad's documentary "Moog" aims to change that and will undoubtedly strike a chord with fans as they recognize the omnipresence of the Moog electronic synthesizer over 40 years of music. The film features interviews with colleagues and musicians, covering the wide variety of genres, including rock, jazz, funk and classical, the phenomenon has influenced.

A boon to some, a scourge to others, the synthesizer — which can now emulate any noise imaginable in addition to emitting its own spacey sounds — is controversial for allowing musicians to vastly expand their sonic reach while arguably putting others out of work. Moog himself questions the decision to attach a keyboard to the instrument, which encouraged musicians to use it for melodic purposes rather than the experimental sounds that avant-garde and academic composers made when it first appeared in 1964.

A big thinker in every sense, Moog expounds on a wide variety of subjects related to music, creativity and an almost spiritual interaction with his innovation, making him a complex and amiable subject. Fjellestad exhibits a playful adoration for the man and the otherworldly sounds of his machine in an intriguing rendering of one of music technology's seminal figures.

"Moog," unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Fairfax Cinemas, 7907 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 655-4010.

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