Noah

Year of Release: 2014.  Directed by Darren Aronofsky.   Starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins, and Ray Winstone.

There is not much I can add to the excellent pieces that Steven D. Greydanus and Peter T. Chattaway have written about this film. But since there seems to be much misinformation circulating about Noah, I figured I would put my review out there.  You never know where a Google search might land someone.

As a warning: I tried my best to avoid spoilers, but I do vaguely hint at a couple important plot points.

Darren Aronofsky makes dark brooding films about morally compromised characters that are not everyone’s cup of tea. Noah is most emphatically a Darren Aronofsky movie, and I would not hold disliking it against anyone.

However, I thought it was grand and poetic, visually stunning, and it preserved the essence of the Bible story while introducing new twists, a couple which stretch its fidelity as a Biblical adaptation and a couple which strengthen that fidelity. Regardless of how one feels about the changes, it is clear that Aronofsky has a deep affinity for the story of Noah and wishes to tell it in a serious and thoughtful manner, and his film deserves an equally thoughtful response.

Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel have said that they wanted to portray Noah (Russell Crowe) as a character initially obsessed with detached, cold-hearted justice who gradually comes to understand the will of the Creator involves justice with mercy and love. While Noah’s transformation is believable, especially the plot elements that serve as catalysts for his transformation, Noah’s change of heart does occur a little too quickly.

What might concern more pious Christians is Noah’s severe misunderstanding of the Creator’s will, which preoccupies his notion of justice. That misunderstanding relates to another Bible story, albeit one that would not occur until hundreds of years later. That second Bible story also reveals more knowledge about God, knowledge that Noah in no way could have had privilege to. Along with his misunderstanding of his calling, Noah also omits a crucial detail of the creation narrative, which makes dramatic sense given his limited understanding of the Creator as well as his state of mind at the time; however, Noah’s transformation would have been even stronger had that omission been corrected. Noah’s dark preoccupation works for me, mostly because it plays very well into the film’s main theme of justice and mercy, epitomizing the dangers of cold-hearted, emotionless justice and showing why mercy must be mingled with justice for true righteousness.

To those saying the film defends Noah’s horrific idea: the end of the film clearly shows that God never desired such an act; He withholds His blessing until Noah understands the first mandate that God gave to Adam and Eve: be fruitful and multiply. That mandate is strongly affirmed by both the film’s ending and the miracle pregnancy of Shem’s (Douglas Booth) sterile wife Ila (Emma Watson).

Another change that could upset more pious viewers is an additional presence on board the ark, which is not outside the realm of possibilities given the little information that scripture provides, but it is a significant re-imagining of the traditional Noah story. Although the change should have made for good drama – the conflict between Noah and the additional character would have been cut short had that character died in the deluge – the film does not use the character other than to aggravate Ham’s (Logan Lerman) inner conflict, which is a good idea, but the execution could have been slightly less predictable. However, I don’t think the change is extra-Biblical enough to be of that much concern, and it provides a reasonable setup for an event often glossed over in other retellings of the Genesis narrative.

Much has been made of the angels who came to earth after the Fall to help mankind learn how to live. The Watchers (or Rock People, as some of the more disappointed critics have referred to them) are definitely reminiscent of the Ents from Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, and the scene of them defending the ark from the wicked descendents of Cain reminded me of the storming of Isengard. Aronofsky’s sweeping camera movements during that battle, notably the 360 degree pans, allow the stunning visual effects to be fully appreciated, and the action is thrillingly choreographed, especially the incorporation of the rain and geysers into the fight. To be honest, the last time I saw a fantasy action sequence that thrillingly staged was when I first saw Return of the King in theatres as a teenager, or possibly when I watched a CGI Andy Serkis battle three T-Rexes.

There are multiple interpretations of the Nephilim (Watchers) in Genesis 6; in Noah they fall from Heaven and become one with the earth, which the film very literally depicts. The story arc for the Watchers also concerns justice and mercy, and like Noah, the Watchers struggle to follow the Creator’s will. Unlike Noah, who is confused about what he is supposed to do, the Watchers disobeyed a clear command. However, through that disobedience the Creator brought good: the Watchers were able to help Noah build the ark and fulfill their initial purpose. And after their lengthy penance, the film reveals a merciful God who still offers them a chance for redemption, which also involves a display of colored lights.

I loved the quick cuts to the garden of Eden; they created a dreamlike recollection of a lost world that functions as it was intended. Traces of that world saturate the first half of the film before the flood.  Clint Mansell’s score is, although it is a bit heavy-handed in places, is appropriately solemn, and it has some very nice flourishes; I really liked the opening sections which had some similarities with The Rite of Spring.

Finally, I loved the chronological shifting of the rainbow. I don’t care that it changes the time of the rainbow’s appearance from the Biblical narrative. The new location that Aronofsky gave it perfectly underscores the themes the film explores, and it brilliantly reinforces the Creator’s love for mankind.

 

Content Advisory: Some mildly questionable theology which might offend some, intense disaster and battle violence, implied depiction of atrocities, fleeting suggestive content, and brief rear nudity.         MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A-

, , , ,

Leave a comment

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Les parapluies de Cherbourg)

Year of Release: 1964     Directed by Jacques Demy.  Starring Catharine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo, Anne Vernon, and Marc Michel.

At the 1964 Cannes film festival, a jury headed by the German master of noir, Fritz Lang, selected Jacques Demy’s colorful and sweetly romantic musical as the best film.  Not only do I agree with that decision, but I would easily rank this musical as one of the top five ever filmed.

Between the bright pastels that saturate nearly every scene, the accentuated camera angles, tracking shots, and occasional quick zooms, the film has distinct, yet warm and charming visuals, which possibly could have been an influence on Wes Anderson.  If he ever directed a musical, I am convinced it would be visually very similar to this.

The story is a basic musical romance: girl and guy meet and are hopelessly smitten with one another. Her mother disapproves and wants her to marry the considerate rich guy for security. The first guy is called away (drafted), and she is heartbroken and begins to consider the rich guy’s proposal despite a major caveat. However, there is a twist to the otherwise standard story in the end of the second act and the third act which causes the guy and girl to reflect on selfless love versus infatuation.

Michel Legrand’s score works perfectly with the visuals and the story. His main love theme “I Will Wait for You” occurs throughout the film. As the film opens with the ultimate bird’s eye view of French civilians hurrying through a rainstorm with their umbrellas, the love theme slowly emerges in counterpoint, and the orchestrations prominently feature a sustained vibraphone to capture the watery atmosphere. When Guy (the initial guy in the romance) returns from the army, it is again raining, and this time the love theme is played by the winds and marimba tremolos to suggest a deeper, darker rain washing over his past romance.

There are several other recurring motifs as well. Roland’s (the rich guy) desire to help Genevieve (the girl) and her mother is reflected by a simple four note phrase circling around the tonic, suggesting Roland (Marc Michel) is as sincere and considerate as he appears. There is a heavy jazz influence for the dance hall, the garage where Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) works, and the streets of Cherbourg.

The music captures the mood of nearly every scene. When Guy mentions going to see Carmen, castanets begin playing Bizet’s famous rhythm. Each phrase of an argument between Genevieve (Catharine Deneuve) and her mother (Anne Vernon) is sung at a successively higher pitch. Before a proposal, rapid string scales and harp glissandi portray the racing emotions of the characters.

And the synchronization of music and imagery is just about perfect. When a scene or discussion is interrupted, the cue abruptly stops and switches to another. During the love duet, every time the camera makes a temporal jump Guy and Genevieve maintain the same embrace in the first frame; naturally, one cue connects all of these cuts. Two important plot points occur directly after a scene in a church underscored by organ music. Both times the camera slowly pans to the character who is most excited about the development. Among other movie musicals, I think Singin’ in the Rain and Burton’s Sweeney Todd might have better synchronization of music and imagery, and that’s probably it.

 

Content Advisory: An out of wedlock pregnancy and a fleeting bedroom scene with a prostitute (nothing explicit).                          Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

Personal Recommendation: A+

, , ,

2 Comments

Eyes Wide Shut

Year of Release: 1999     Directed Stanley Kubrick.  Starring Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Madison Eginton, Sydney Pollack, Todd Field, Julienne Davis, Vinessa Shaw, Sky Dumont, Rade Sherbedgia, and Leelee Sobieski.

I realize Eyes Wide Shut is a controversial film among not only Christians but moviegoers of any belief.  Stanley Kubrick’s final film is known for its graphic sexual content, and it is understandable that many viewers, especially Christians, would wish to steer clear of it.  Kubrick’s final cut of the film even received an NC-17 rating, which the producers changed to an R after his death by digitally altering several sequences.  However, when released on DVD, Kubrick’s initial cut of the film was restored as he had intended.  Therefore, wouldn’t it have been safe to assume that this film, regardless of whatever artistic merits it had, crossed the line into pornography and off-limits to any discerning viewer?

I have admitted this before: I am a huge fan of Stanley Kubrick as a director, and I trust his artistic decisions.  In his twelve previous films, he never degenerated into gratuitous content, and even the most raw and explicit content in those films served a purpose to the story and challenged the viewer to consider his preconceptions and reactions to the material.

While Eyes Wide Shut certainly contains content that would make many viewers uncomfortable, and would earn it accusations of being pornography from casual viewers, the context in which the sexuality is portrayed causes it to serve the exact opposite purpose of pornography.  While it might be possible for a porn addict to use the sexual scenes for pornographic intent, by doing so he would be doing the very thing the film strongly condemns. Does it bother me that a porn addict could use the sex scenes in the opposite way of how they are intended?  No, a drug addict could find a scene criticizing drug abuse to be a source of temptation.  Everyone suffers from different temptations triggered in different ways.  What each viewer is capable of watching is up to that viewer to determine.  Eyes Wide Shut does not encourage any temptations, and it depicts unbridled lust as degrading and dehumanizing, which gives it a pass in my book.  Kubrick also films the scenes in a creepy, surreal style that makes them anything but alluring.

If one substituted sex for violence and nudity for gore, Eyes Wide Shut could easily be analyzed as a horror film.  And I think Kubrick’s final film is, in many ways, a horror film every bit as creepy and disturbing as his conventional horror film, The Shining, with the main difference being that instead of the protagonist becoming isolated and his family threatened due to a violent nightmare, the protagonist here becomes isolated and his family threatened due to a sexual nightmare.

The groundwork for Dr. Bill Harford’s (Tom Cruise) dangerous sexual odyssey is laid at the beginning of the movie when he and his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) attend the Christmas party of their friend Victor (Sydney Pollack).   While there, Bill is asked to give medical assistance to a naked prostitute who overdosed on cocaine.  While he is occupied, a sleazy Hungarian (Sky du Mont) heavily hits on Alice asking her, “Why a beautiful woman who could have any man in the world would want to be married.”  He expounds on his question, saying that marriage as an institution only exists because in former times women were afraid they would never have sex unless they tied the knot; now, such formalities are thankfully no longer required.

The Hungarian functions very similarly to the creepy old man who gives the unheeded warning and then disappears in a regular horror film.  He is knowledgeable about a world of which the protagonists are unaware, but there is a disconcerting atmosphere about him, which should give the protagonists enough warning not to explore that world of his, but of course they do.

When Alice questions Bill about where he disappeared to at the party (he had last been seen flirting with two young, attractive women), she gleefully mentions her flirting with the Hungarian.  Bill is not perturbed, because “women are faithful, but men are just like that (fantasizing about adultery, but never committing it), but he was not like that with those two girls.”  Alice finds this rationale less than comforting, and as revenge proceeds to tell Bill about an affair she wished she had had a year ago.  The news shocks him, and after completing a house call, Bill begins traveling down an increasingly twisted and sinister sexual nightmare of observation.  Neither one of them ever consummates their lust, but their observations and fantasies have consequences every bit as dangerous as if they had.  Standing in the midst of fire observing it is just as dangerous as playing with it.

Bill’s nighttime journey, which begins with solicitation from a prostitute, proceeds to underage prostitution, and it culminates with a bizarre, sinister orgy where all the participants are masked.  The orgy is a total expression of sex divorced from marriage or any relationship, about which the Hungarian rhapsodized at the film’s beginning.  Kubrick films the sequence with distant tracking shots, exaggerated angles, and interrupted zooms to highlight disturbing nature of the demonic ritual, which is every bit as unnerving as anything in Blue Velvet or The Silence of the Lambs.  (Additionally, the final line of Eyes Wide Shut contains the same type of horrific yet darkly comic undertones as Lecter’s final line in The Silence of the Lambs.)

The color red plays a prominent role in Eyes Wide Shut, underscoring the danger of unrestrained desire and fantasy allowed to run amok.  Bill’s first connection to the dangerous nighttime orgy is formed at the Christmas party when he helps the redheaded prostitute.  That same prostitute later warns Bill of the serious danger he is in when he observes the orgy, which begins in a room with a vibrant red carpet, organized by a man in a bright red cloak.  The marijuana induced argument about marital fidelity between Bill and Alice is framed against their mahogany bedpost.  Bill first hears of the nighttime ritual from his friend Nick (Todd Field) after walking through a red hallway with red lights to enter a bar.  When Bill is solicited by a prostitute, the red door to her apartment complex stands out against the drab building.  When he arrives home, deeply perturbed, Alice wakes up from a nightmare in which she participated in an orgy as Bill observed.  As she relates the dream, the camera focuses on the dark red bed sheets.  To emphasize that Bill’s sexual adventures leave no one in his family safe, his and Alice’s daughter Helena (Madison Eginton) has red hair.

The red is inescapable, and it bleeds over into both fantasy and reality in almost every shot.  The final explanation, which takes place next to a bright red pool table, only further mystifies the dark proceedings, causing the viewer to question what is real and what isn’t.  The blurring of nightmare and reality is introduced in the opening scene as  “Waltz 2″ from Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite underscores the opening titles and then segues into source music as Bill and Alice prepare to leave for the Christmas party.

The entire film is deliberately paced like a surreal nightmare.  When Bill and Alice realize that they need to wake up, they have recognized the horror, but the fantasy has saturated their lives, and consequently their proposed solution is a different facet of the same problem.  If that doesn’t make Eyes Wide Shut a horror film, I don’t know what does.

At the very beginning before her parents leave, Helena asks if she can stay up until they come home.  Alice tells her that would be too late.  Once they leave, perhaps it already is.

 

Content Advisory: Many explicit sexual scenes, full-frontal nudity, child prostitution, some drug use, occasional profanity and obscenity.  Unrated; was NC-17

Suggested Audience: Adults with extreme discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A+

, , , ,

Leave a comment

Arts and Faith Top 25 Divine Comedies

It’s the time of year when film awards are handed out by various organizations and critics publish their year-end favorites lists.  In keeping with a three year tradition, the Arts & Faith community has released a new top 25 films list right before the Academy Awards.  Last year, the theme of the list was films about marriage.  This year the theme is divine comedies.

In addition to being a wordplay on Dante’s Divine Comedy, the idea behind this list was that the members of Arts & Faith could craft a list of films which not only make us laugh, but also touch on themes of spiritual importance.

As Steven D. Greydanus’ writes in his terrific introduction to the list:

The internet abounds with best movies lists, including lists of comedies of all types: screwball and slapstick, comedies romantic and black; comedies of manners and of mannerlessness. There are even lists of religion-themed comedies, though of course a transcendently funny joke is not necessarily about religion, and jokes about religion are not necessarily transcendent or profound.
The Arts & Faith Top 25 Divine Comedies offers what may be, but should not be, an unusual angle on the comedy genre: It focuses on movies that explore the space between the ridiculous and the sublime. Explicit religious themes are not a notable feature in most of these films, yet all of them, in different ways, touch on questions of ultimate import.
This is in keeping with the tenor of conversation carried out for the past fifteen years among the online community at ArtsandFaith.com, a diverse group including critics and artists, pastors and seminarians, believers of various stripes and individuals of no particular faith.

I have only been a member of Arts & Faith for a little over a year, but in that time I have been privileged to participate in many fruitful and informative discussions.  I was one of the voters for this list, and I am thrilled that I had the opportunity to contribute short reviews for two of my favorite films: Moonrise Kingdom and Dr. Strangelove.

No list is ever complete or definitive.  I think the presence of every film on this list is justifiable, (there were a few I was questioning until I read the excellent reviews that other Arts & Faith members wrote for them); however, I would like to highlight a few nominated titles which I was sorry to see miss the cut.

Network – This barely missed making the list, which I think is a pity, because it is a brilliant, biting satire of corporation greed and the tragic absurdity of using people as commodities to make profit.

Frances Ha­ – Yes, I love everything about this film, but it is saturated with optimism and a sense of humor which enables the characters to realize their own imperfections and need for meaningful relationships.

The Hudsucker Proxy – Three Coen brothers films made the list, so this would have been automatically disqualified had it made the cut (there is a rule of no more than three films per director), but I would have loved if this screwball comedy about forgiveness, redemption, and second chances had been included.

The Ruling Class – Peter O’Toole’s performance as a British lord who believes he is Jesus is off-the-charts hysterical, but as he transitions from acting as a god of mercy and love to a god of unrelenting anger, the reactions of the other ruling class members reveal their grave misunderstandings of the Gospel.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – Two deserving Terry Gilliam films did make the list, but the spirit of joy and wonder in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, as well as the important role of fantasy in viewing the world, makes this epic, mythological fairytale positively Chestertonian and Tolkien-esque.

I highly recommend all of the above titles, in addition to the 25 that made the list.  Now check it out!

Leave a comment

Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno)

Year of Release: 2006     Directed by Guillermo del Toro.  Starring Ivana Baquero, Sergei Lopez, Maribel Verdu, Ariadna Gil, and Doug Jones.

“Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” – attributed to G. K. Chesterton, probably erroneously. I’ve also heard Neil Gaiman might have said something along those lines.

Regardless of who actually came up with that pithy saying on the importance of fairy tales, it is a very accurate summary of my favorite aspect of Pan’s Labyrinth, a beautifully shot fairy tale that alternates between the end of the Spanish Civil War and the labyrinth of the faun: a world of fairies, giant toads, mandrakes, and a magical underground kingdom. Young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) spends equal time in both worlds after a mysterious and not at all safe Faun (Doug Jones) gives her three tasks to complete in order to return to her underground kingdom as the princess she truly is.

As Ofelia says in the opening voice over, there is a legend that says many years ago the princess of the underground wandered away and left her kingdom.  She took on a mortal body and died, but her father knew that one day her spirit would enter the body of another girl and she would return.  When the Faun appears and tells Ofelia she is that girl, Ofelia is eager to believe him as a way of escaping the cruel dragons she must face day to day in the form of her stepfather (Sergei Lopez), the sadistic captain of the Spanish fascist army.  Ofelia has also read so many fairy tales, to the consternation of her mother (Ariadna Gil), that she naturally believes the stories are true.  After discovering a birthmark on her shoulder as proof of her royal lineage, Ofelia begins the three tasks.

Whether there really is a fantasy world, or whether the faun and the tasks are created by Ofelia’s vivid imagination as a way of coping with her sadistic step-father and very sick mother, is unclear and besides the point. The fairy tales cast the cold, brutal world that Ofelia inhabits in a new light where evil monsters are destroyed, the sick regain health, and the suffering innocent are rewarded.

Each tasks of Ofelia’s mirrors a challenge she or another protagonist is facing in the real world. Both of them must acquire an important key from a monster for their first challenge. The self-discipline that Ofelia learns from the second task is a skill which the rebel soldiers also need to learn for their second attack on the army base. Both Ofelia and the soldiers suffer similar consequences for failing to keep their desires in check.

Unfortunately, the one dimensional stock villains and heroes are not any less frustrating on repeat viewing. Admittedly fairy tales often have simple characters, and the real world humans are meant to parallel the characters and situations Ofelia encounters in the labyrinth. But compared to the detailed craftsmanship laboriously and lovingly poured into the fantasy world, its characters, and scenarios; the simplistic real world with its stereotypical good-guys and bad-guys is disappointing in comparison.

However, it is difficult to focus on that one weak aspect when the rest of the film is breathtaking, beautiful, and remarkably profound regarding the importance of fairy tales, as it tells one of the most impressive fairy tales of recent years. Del Toro also saves the most beautiful image for the end, suggesting that even in a world as dark as Ofelia’s there can still be a happily ever after of eternal bliss.

 

Content Advisory: Graphic and gory violence including torture, mutilation, and deadly gunplay; and some obscene language.                            MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A-

, , ,

Leave a comment

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.