Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Noah: A Review, More or Less

I liked Noah. It is not accurate to Scripture, and anyone expecting it to be knows nothing about movies. Further, it makes character changes that have really annoyed some Christian reviewers, and make this film not just inaccurate in detail, but different in broad strokes; it's also a fantasy film, in case you couldn't tell from the trailers depicting a massive wave of flame erupting from Methuselah's glowing sword. Still, I liked it.
This will not be a conventional review (and it will have spoilers). What I want to focus on are Darren Aronofsky's major themes and how they work in the film, because that is the biggest reason I find the film interesting. (I also like the magical/miraculous/crazy fantasy elements that are included, because that's the sort of thing I like in movies anyway.) I will mention one detail up front: the visuals that accompany Noah's retelling of the creation story look suspiciously like a depiction of stellar, planetary, and biological evolution, which doesn't quite fit the narration; it's one of the few times where I feel like the film is trying to have it both ways, rather than just making a decision and going with it. I do like the fact that Adam and Eve glow, however--it's a great way to show them as different from the animals and made in God's image.
On to the main focus: Noah is concerned with human wickedness and misuse of the earth, God's justice, and mercy and love. The film depicts the conflict over the dividing lines between good and evil, use and abuse, and justice and mercy in a number of ways. It is less interested in accurate historical portrayals of its characters, and more interested in using the characters to show different perspectives on these themes. Therefore, Tubal-Cain changes from a minor character in a genealogy to a king who argues for man's right to survive by any means necessary, even if some call it evil and it demonstrably damages the earth. Noah becomes focused entirely on carrying out God's plan to destroy evil while preserving innocent animals, even if the evil seems to inhabit his own family. His wife Naameh counters his views with her plea for mercy. Ham resists his father's extremism, seeing a lack of love, and also wondering if Tubal-Cain has a point in his single-minded focus on survival. You get the idea.
The primary character arc is Noah's. God's instructions in this film come through dreams and visions, some of which Noah has a hard time understanding. Arguing over different interpretations of God's Word is a time-honored part of Judaism, and Aronofsky seems to use the ambiguous visions from God as a parallel to the disputed texts about which God has not spoken directly in several thousand years. Noah at first seeks guidance from Methuselah about the visions, and so learns how they fit with (and differ from) Enoch's visions. But he becomes certain of his interpretation with time, and becomes ever more extreme in carrying out what he believes to be God's instructions. Noah accurately sees the evil of the line of Cain. (Incidentally, the movie focuses on their mistreatment of the earth, but this should not be seen as an environmental screed. All that Noah says about proper use of the earth's resources is Biblical.) He understands that the earth must be cleansed, and what remains good of God's creation must be preserved. At first he believes his three sons must begin humanity again, but in time his knowledge of their flaws convinces him that humanity must end with his family. So onto the ark he takes only a barren wife for Shem, and no wives for Ham and Japheth. When Shem's wife turns out not so barren as supposed, he is horrified, and comes to believe he must kill her child should it be a girl. Some have argued that the film makes God a monster with this turn, but the film portrays only Noah's perception of God's will. The viewer is intended to understand that his perception is wrong, as is made clear at the end.
In contrast to Noah, Naameh, though willing to follow her husband and believing he is following God, recoils when he determines that humanity must end with his family. She sees the good in her sons, and wants to protect their lives and their potential descendants. She cannot believe God intends his greatest creation to be destroyed, even if there is evil within all their hearts. Noah does not listen to her, but in the end, he cannot go through with the killing.
Meanwhile, Tubal-Cain speaks the language of man made in the image of God, intended to have dominion and subdue the earth, but he has no care for the creation. He knows the earth was cursed, and believes this justifies anything he does to survive, for God does not relate to humanity anymore. When Noah becomes increasingly extreme, Tubal-Cain is able to appeal to Ham, for he encourages Ham's natural feelings, rather than the unnatural discipline of Noah--it seems better to save a woman Ham cares for than to leave her to die with the wicked as Noah did. In the end, though, both preach killing. Tubal-Cain wants revenge, and tries to carry through with it, but Noah fails to meet his own ideological standard and lets the children live.
Noah's family nearly falls apart, but after the flood Noah eventually reconciles and comes to terms with his failures. It was love that prevented him from killing, he acknowledges, and he comes to realize that the children of Shem's wife are part of God's plan. It is only after this that the rainbow appears--still a message from God, but thematically changed to be a sign that they have finally come to a better balance of justice and mercy.
Also connecting with the conflict of justice and mercy, good and evil, is the plight of the Watchers. I enjoyed these crazy rock creature fallen angels, and I see how they are being used, even though I have theological issues with their end. What happens is that they protect Noah and the ark from assault, and as each one dies, the Watcher's angelic form returns to heaven. The first problem with this is that it implies salvation by their own efforts, not by grace. The second problem with this is that there is no evidence that fallen angels can or will return to God.
Aronofsky is not concerned with orthodoxy, however. He is exploring another facet of justice and mercy, though I think a bit less successfully than in the main plot. The angels fall because they have mercy on fallen humanity and go to help them contrary to God's wishes. Their help only allows the line of Cain better technology with which to kill and destroy, however. The line of Seth is nearly wiped out by the unjust actions of the angels, however kindly they were meant. When the Watchers meet with Noah and help him carry out his preparations for God's judgement, then kill those assaulting the ark, they are finally doing justice; the time for mercy for the wicked is over.
As you may have noticed, my thoughts are still a little disorganized; this is a movie that demands debate. Anyone who thinks the movie is perfect probably hasn't thought about it enough. Anyone who hates it could probably benefit from thinking about it more, too--though many good people will hate this film for its extreme liberties taken with the story. I myself may have more clarity in the future, but those are my initial thoughts.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Desecration of Smaug

Just When Gravity Made Me Believe in Movies Again, Peter Jackson Made Me an Atheist

I will begin with an equation: (M. Night Shyamalan + Michael Bay)George Lucas = Peter Jackson, 2013.
My proof follows.
Shyamalan first burst onto the scene with The Sixth Sense, a brilliant movie; as he continued making movies, no one told him no, and he became an exemplar of solemnly ridiculous movie-making. It is increasingly apparent that Fellowship of the Ring is Jackson's best work. Everything since then has been downhill, though the next two parts of that trilogy weren't terribly far down. Michael Bay never found a nonsensical action sequence he didn't like, nor a way to add more CGI he wouldn't use; Peter Jackson now follows in his footsteps. All this is compounded by Jackson's screenplay, which might have better dialogue than George Lucas, but makes up for it by having stupider character motivations. The only thing that remains is to laugh so that we may not cry. What follows is my attempt.
Question: Which of the following events actually happens in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug?
A. Bilbo takes off his ring while staring directly into Smaug's face.
B. Smaug is unable to crawl fast enough to catch the dwarves he wishes he could kill, apparently forgetting he can breathe fire.
C. Beorn dislikes dwarves so much that when he finds out they have broken into his house while he was away, he gives them ponies.
D. Gandalf goes to Dol Goldur with Radagast. After determining their enemy is not yet ready to attack, but that entering would certainly put him in a trap, he tells Radagast to leave while he goes in alone.
E. All of the above.
The answer, of course, is E. I would say that having multiple idiot balls* for characters to pass around is the worst thing about this movie, except that there is so much else wrong with it. Let us start with the dragon. The animation is excellent, and he looks pretty real--a pity they never let him do anything interesting. Oh, you thought there was an awesome dragon fight in this film? No no no. That has to wait for the third film. In this film you get a lot of running around and the occasional nonsensical attempt to defeat him, all while the film broadly telegraphs There Is Only One Way To Defeat The Dragon,** then hides the magic black arrow of deadly power in some random boat, while the one true archer of destiny runs around elsewhere. Sure hope he finds it again by 2014.
Moving on, the dragon's voice actor is enCumbered with a batch of nonsense to say. He speaks well, as his name would suggest, but now, writing a few hours after seeing the movie, I can only remember one good line. He claims to be intelligent, but the ease with which the dwarves confuse him suggests that he is kind of stupid. That's a good thing, too, since otherwise he would be able to kill all the other stupid people in the movie. Maybe his intelligence takes the form of telepathy, since he soon seems to know everything there is to know about Bilbo and his companions. The movie fails to explain where he gets his information--maybe he read the book?
There are other villains, too. Azog (Kratos, in Elvish) is back, and now he has a son named Bulge, who appears to have been created in an accident involving steroids and industrial equipment. There is also of course, Sauron the Necromancer. None of them are very interesting, which makes them fit right in with most of the heroes. Thinking about the number of villains in this film reminds me of an even bigger problem than anything mentioned so far: there is practically no plot. Perhaps you are skeptical. Wouldn't a short book turned into three films have to contain not only the entire plot of the book, but also some extras? Not when Peter Jackson is in charge! Beorn barely bearly has any screen time, the dwarves are literally in Mirkwood for about five minutes--just enough time to get lost and find some spiders, and most of the other events from the book are replaced with similar-looking events invented for the movie. And those other events manage to accomplish approximately nothing. Consider the fights/confrontations in the film and their results in this convenient list.
1. Orcs/Beorn chase everyone. Nothing happens.
2. Bilbo, dwarves, and elves fight spiders. Spiders actually die.
3. Legolas and Tauriel kill anonymous orcs. The ones with names survive.
4. Orcs attack three kids and a poisoned dwarf. No one dies until Tauriel shows up. Even then, no one with a name dies.
5. Legolas fights Bulge. No one dies.
6. Gandalf fights Kratos. No one dies.
7. Gandalf fights Sauron (seriously). No one dies.
8. Smaug chases everyone. No one dies.
9. Somewhere in the midst of all this, Bard fights a bunch of city officials. I don't recall anyone dying, and if they did, they certainly didn't have names.
10. I have undoubtedly forgotten a bunch of other orc deaths. But they're demonstrably forgettable.
There are non-fight events in the "plot" as well, but none of them accomplish much either, except for the whole "opening the door to the Lonely Mountain" bit.
With all those problems, the only good things left in the movie are the lovely New Zealand scenery (except there isn't much left after all the CGI), the beautiful score (which is a retread of all the previous scores), the lived-in world Peter Jackson is so known for creating (come to think of it, only Laketown looked lived-in), and the special effects (which could be seen a lot better if the camera would focus on them). Er, I guess that's not much. Oh well. It's a good thing Peter Jackson didn't also repeat all the mistakes he ever made with his previous four movies, remove all evidence of Christian worldview from Tolkien's work, and add in the stupidest love triangle in the history of fantasy movies. Except he did.
Curse you, Peter Jackson, and may the sun take you, for now you are just trolling.

*With Jackson, one of something is never enough. Sometimes even two is not enough, which explains why there is another movie coming out next year.
**Spoiler: the same way as in the book, except presumably from the mounted bolt launcher that has been sitting in the town for the last several decades.

Monday, November 11, 2013

King Solomon's Mines (and a note on Thor and Legend of Korra)

Before I get to the main subject of this post, I have a question: How did it happen that Thor: The Dark World ended up with the exact same plot as the second season of Legend of Korra? Both have a (Harmonic) Convergence returning after thousands of years, a Dark Elf (Thor)/ Dark Spirit (Korra) that wants to bring the world into darkness, essentially destroying it, a mistake by a main character that makes this possible, etc., etc. I like both stories, but this is seriously weird.
So. On to King Solomon's Mines. This book is by H. Rider Haggard, was written in the Victorian Era, and was recommended by C. S. Lewis. It concerns an elephant hunter named Allan Quatermain who is hired to help a fellow Englishman find his brother, who has apparently gone in search of the legendary mines of King Solomon. I will not go through the plot in detail. Much of it is standard "adventure with primitive tribes" stuff, though I gather that this book is one of the reasons some of these things became standard. (The book's solar eclipse, for example, is clearly borrowed for the Tintin comic book Prisoners of the Sun, and Wikipedia informs me that this book was a major influence on 1930s Republic adventure serials--which of course inspired Indiana Jones.) There are also the sort of regrettable racial and colonial attitudes one might expect to find in much Victorian literature (though Haggard does have his main character explicitly reject the use of the term "nigger").
The book intrigued me early on with its description of the legend, and the ancient Portuguese manuscript--written, of course, in blood--in which a dying man tells of the riches and dangers to be found in a hidden African kingdom. Then for some time I wondered what Lewis had liked so much. The events that follow are enjoyable and exciting, but it is not till the book nears its climax that I understood what made the book so great. What had been hinted at earlier in the book comes to full flowering in the journey to the actual mines and to the Place of Death: a sense of ancient awe and mystery, a feeling that cannot be put into words, but only created by reading the words of Haggard. For that reason, this book is a great accomplishment.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The World's End: Finally, a Good Movie

This has been a disappointing year for movies, at least for the type of movies I'm interested in. The best thing I had seen was Joss Whedon's home-movie version of Much Ado About Nothing.* But now that one finally has competition: The World's End.
This is the third film in a sequence of movies variously called the Cornetto trilogy or the Blood and Ice Cream trilogy. I have seen neither Shaun of the Dead nor Hot Fuzz, but since this is a "trilogy" sharing actors, director, and sensibility, not plot, that doesn't really matter except for missing a few inside jokes that the Internet can explain for anyone interested. What matters is that this film is good. And The World's End is not merely good. It is a film that makes me interested in watching other films directed by Edgar Wright, whose work I had previously never seen.
Better reviewers than I can talk about the quality of the film's plot, shot construction, or whatever else. I will just mention a few things that stood out to me. First, the premise itself. I first learned about this film upon seeing the trailer. It started out looking like a more-clever than average comedy about drunks and man-children. Then evil robots showed up and attacked. When I realized the film was an apocalyptic British sci-fi man-child comedy, I got very interested. I am pretty sure no other film in the history of the world fits in that combination of genres.
Second, the dialogue in this film is great. I suspect a second viewing might be funnier than the first, just because the drunks in this film sound smarter than the geeks in most other films--and even when they're being dumb, they're dumb in a cleverly-written way. So some of the humor takes a moment to process, though there is also plenty of instantly understandable humor.
Third, the ending to this film is unexpected and wonderfully appropriate. I cannot say anything about it, because that would spoil it for everyone else.
Fourth, though the film is a comedy, it has quite a dark subtext--two of them, in fact. It critiques the sameness of mass culture, especially in relation to our technology, and it sticks a dagger in mindless nostalgia and displays the dangers of trying to relive the past. With this film, sometimes you can't laugh for cringing, and sometimes you only avoid cringing because you are laughing.
Why can't we have more films like this?
*If you're interested, the other movies I've seen have been the imperfect, but enjoyable, From Up On Poppy Hill; Shane Black's terrible mockery of an Iron Man movie; the self-contradicting Man of Steel; and the good but unfunny Billy Crystal-starring Monsters University.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

On Man of Steel

There are a number of things to like about Man of Steel, but it has its flaws. Interestingly, both its greatest virtues and its greatest flaws concern the nature of the title character. On the negative side, I could discuss the generic nature of Hans Zimmer's soundtrack, the annoying documentary-style camera zooms, or the occasionally-confusing action. On the positive side, I could mention excellent performances from Russell Crowe, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, and Amy Adams, or the film's intelligent use of flashbacks. But none of these thing are as interesting as working out what's right and what's wrong with Kal-El himself.
Henry Cavill does a good job playing his part. He is physically convincing as Superman, and emotionally convincing as Clark Kent/Kal-El. (It remains to be seen in the sequel whether he can match Christopher Reeve when playing the reporter disguise of "Clark Kent.") The script gives him some nice Christological parallels, as a Superman movie should--listen for the line from his adoptive father about how elsewhere Clark has another father who sent him to earth for a reason. It is also nice to see that the film is not embarrassed to present him as an American, so his can be seen as something of the ultimate immigrant story. There is also no attempt to muddy him up or make him morally questionable.
So what's the problem? Carelessness. Superman is said to care about helping others. He is once shown snatching a pilot out of midair to prevent him from falling to his death. But for all the rest of his fights, he seems to ignore the multiple skyscrapers falling down, the city-destroying explosions, etc., that his fights with General Zod occasion. Does he (or the screenwriter) not realize that thousands of people are undoubtedly dying from all this? On a similar note, when Superman shows his displeasure with drone surveillance, does he have to destroy the whole drone? Sure, it's funny, but there are less expensive ways to tell the army you would rather not be spied on.
I won't go point-by-point through the whole movie, but you see the central problem: Superman is described in all the right ways, and sometimes demonstrates his virtue through action, but too often there is a disconnect between what is said and what is actually done. I still rather enjoyed the film, but it certainly will not be knocking Captain America: The First Avenger off its pedestal as best moral paragon superhero movie.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

From Up on Poppy Hill + Blog Update

This blog is not entirely dead, despite appearances--even last year I was posting infrequently, and this is my first post of 2013. There are several reasons for this. First, I started this blog partly to keep in practice with my writing, and that is no longer necessary, since I'm writing stories for publication. Second, I have mainly been writing about movies I have seen, and I did not go to the theater for the past three months. Finally, I have simply gotten busy with other things.
So if you're one of the five or six people in the world that reads this, expect occasional posts over the next few months, since I'll be going to the movies more, but don't expect the posting to ever be frequent again. For now, I'll give a few words on From Up on Poppy Hill.
This film is from Studio Ghibli, but is directed by Hayao Miyazaki's son Goro, rather than his more famous father. Goro Miyazaki's first film, Tales from Earthsea, was not an excellent film, but this one is rather better. It is currently in limited release in the U.S.--I had to go to an art-house theater in Fairfax called the Angelika Film Center to find it.
The storyline of this film is reasonably good, though even one of the characters admits it's a little melodramatic. It takes place while Japan is preparing for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and is set in a high school not far from Tokyo. The film focuses on a high school girl who balances schoolwork with helping her grandmother with their boarding house on Poppy Hill, and a high school boy who is trying to preserve an old, decrepit clubhouse that various boys' clubs make use of.
Where the film shines is the animation and characterization. Studio Ghibli always has beautiful animation, especially with their attention to detail in their backgrounds. This film adds some deliberately over-the-top character animation for comic effect (rivers of tears, and that sort of thing), which works well. The dialogue of the film combines with the animation to do an excellent job of delineating the characters, whether a ridiculous would-be philosopher, a sleepy and zoned-out artist, or the heroine of the film, a responsible but lonely student who still mourns her dead father.
The film has many funny moments, including some that are easy to miss if you're not listening closely to the background dialogue. Overall, it is quite enjoyable, even if lacking the (both literal and metaphorical) magic of Hayao Miyazaki's best work.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

My Oscar Choices

Having now seen all the movies I am going to for 2012, I decided to have some fun and list my choices for some of the Oscar categories. This list is not complete, because it only includes categories I feel at least minimally qualified to judge, and that have at least one worthy candidate from the films I saw. It also, of course, ignores movies I did not see, like Zero Dark Thirty, Life of Pi, and various other frontrunners.
Best Picture: Lincoln 
This sort of film is usually not my favorite, but Lincoln is just that good.
Best Director: Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
He brought together the elements that made it work.
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Duh.
Best Supporting Actor: Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
I promise, it's not all Lincoln, but Jones is clearly the best in this category.
Best Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Good film, great performance--and she can sing really well, unlike a certain other actor. (Incidentally, according to whoever decides such things, none of the female acting performances I really liked this year are leads, so I have no choice for Best Actress.)
Best Original Screenplay: Looper
This had some genius writing and a fantastic ending.
Best Adapted Screenplay: Lincoln
Great dialogue, good history, general quality.
Best Animated Feature: Wreck-It Ralph
A weaker year for animation if you're not a vampire/zombie fan, but this one was quite fun.
Best Original Score: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
This one is close, as I nearly chose Brave, but the integration of the song of the Lonely Mountain into the main theme, the other beautiful themes, and the scope of the score give The Hobbit the edge.
Best Original Song: "Learn Me Right," Brave
Because Mumford and Sons.
Best Makeup: Lincoln
This should win just for Daniel Day-Lewis's face.
Best Costume: The Dark Knight Rises
This award usually goes to period dramas and that sort of thing, but Bane's costume is awesome, so The Dark Knight Rises should win (this is one of those "minimally qualified" categories I mentioned above).
Best Visual Effects: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey 
This one was also close, with The Avengers impressing as well, but the number of well-executed CGI creatures, the Goblin-town fight/chase, and the unnoticed effects that make all the dwarves and hobbits look short, even though the actors are not, tip the scales.
Best Production Design: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Middle-Earth looks great. What more is there to say? 
Best Cinematography: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey/The Dark Knight Rises
I probably have no business saying anything about cinematography, but I wanted to give The Dark Knight Rises another award, and also vote in favor of controversial new technology. On the basic standard of "did the film look good?" both these films get high marks, with The Dark Knight Rises being more consistent, and The Hobbit, despite some odd-looking movement from the high frame rate, having stunningly crisp camera shots that zoom and spiral through the hills and halls and caves of Middle-Earth, finding beauty everywhere without missing a detail.
Best Film Editing: The Avengers
I don't think anyone else is choosing this, but I loved the portrayal and pacing of the action in The Avengers, so something must have gone right with the editing.
Okay, I'm done.