Saturday, March 29, 2014

Movies Monthly - March - Part 2: Darren Aronofsky's Noah: Cubits Redefined

Whenever I think of the Biblical story of Noah and the Ark, I think of the old Bill Cosby comedy routine.

“No – ah!”
“Yes, Lord?”
“Build me an ark.”
“Yeah, right . . . what’s an ark?”
(And after the Lord describes the dimensions of the ark . . .)
"Yeah, right . . . what's a cubit?"

Fortunately, Darren Aronofsky's epic Noah is not as funny as Bill Cosby's comic piece, though the trailer seemed to promise an unintended comedy of ludicrous proportions. Nevertheless, it certainly redefines the length of a cubit. The set for Noah's ark is gargantuan! (Where the hell did they find all that pitch?) But this gargantuan wooden rectangle, that bears no resemblance to the classic image of the floating barn with a pair of giraffe heads sticking out of a window, is in keeping with Aronofsky’s unique, mind-boggling vision.

Here, in the look of the film and the elements of the story, Aronofsky is going for an entire re-imagining that transforms the classic Bible story into a whimsical science-fiction adventure echoing 2012 and The Lord of the Rings. At the beginning it even evokes the post-apocalyptic genre as Noah and his family wander across a wasted land. In this sequence, Aronofsky throws in a whimsical animal that’s a cross between a coyote and an armadillo. In Aronofsky's Bible world, an evil army is accompanied by robotic walkers; a single seed sprouts a lush forest from the desert; Tolkienesque, Transformer-like creatures of rock step in as Noah’s workers and soldiers; and the famous animals-two-by-two spend the tempestuous voyage in a homeopathic cryogenic sleep. In a whimsical Zen moment that I enjoyed, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) relishes the taste of a single berry as he embraces the great inundation.

Besides affording a number of eye-opening visual twists, Aronofsky’s re-imagining generates gripping drama with Noah’s inner conflicts. Apparently God has called upon Noah to preserve the nature of Eden, but he intends that Noah’s family will die out without progeny, and “man” will disappear from the world. When the adopted Ila (Emma Watson) becomes fruitful, Noah fully intends to slay her newborn if it is a girl. Throughout the film, Russell Crowe does an excellent job of showing Noah's transformation from an aggressively protective family man to an Ahab-like character obsessed with God's grim command. During his transformation, Noah descends into hell. In the film's grimmest moment, Noah infiltrates the vast barbarian refugee camp where he witnesses a ghastly cannibalistic frenzy.

Playing freely with the Bible to an outrageous extent, Aronofsky throws in a monstrous villain, Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), who seems to be the embodiment of all human evil. Then he throws in a battle that’s straight out of The Lord of the Rings, but the film as a whole works quite well.

It works because of its visual dazzle: expansive vistas of rugged landscape filmed in Iceland along with an animated sequence in which the silhouette of an ancient soldier changes into countless soldiers from time periods throughout two millennia of history. My favorite sequence is a spectacular rendition of the creation story that resembles the creation sequence in The Tree of Life played in fast forward. Another standout image shows the last desperate survivors of the Flood clinging to a mountaintop, an image that echoes classic paintings of this iconic Bible moment, a vision set in grim contrast to the film's dazzling final image of hope and salvation.

Most crucially, Noah works because of Russell Crowe’s invested performance as the conflicted Noah, supported by Jennifer Connelly’s earnest performance. (Connelly redeems herself for a dreadful performance in the recent Winter's Tale.) Meanwhile, Emma Watson, allowed to play comfortably with her English accent (her American accent seems to hobble her in recent performances such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower), is excellent as Ila, the young woman who becomes pregnant through a miracle only to face the possible extermination of her twin baby girls at the hands by the God-driven Noah.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Movies Monthly - March - Part 1

Non-Stop plays on our nervousness about flying in the post–9/11 world, along with normal trepidations about sitting helplessly in the confines of an airliner from New York to London, and delivers pretty much non-stop suspense laden with plot twists and turns, with rugged Liam Neeson in the center of the action as an aging, worn-out air marshal, who drinks and harbors an ironic fear of flying. The motivations of the bitter soldiers staging a threat that involves killing someone on the plane every twenty minutes are shaky to ridiculous – but these are not revealed until close to the end, and by that time the suspense has been built up and we are along for the ride with this doomed flight until the very end. I am impressed by Neeson’s staying power as a graying but very believable old tough guy. He keeps delivering the goods as the rugged protagonist in action/ survival vehicles.

After those tenacious Spartans bite the dust of Thermopylae, the massive Persian fleet is out to destroy the Athenians. In 300: The Rise of an Empire get depictions of the Battle of Marathon, in flashback, and the culminating sea battle near Salamis that are sheer historical fantasy, but the visuals are dazzling, albeit clearly right out of a computer. You might almost feel like you are playing a video game with your face pressed against the computer, and the countless splatters of blood from stabbings, dismemberments, and decapitations become monotonous, but there’s nothing CGI about the appearance and the performance of Eva Green as the evil Persian naval commander Artemisia. She mesmerizes simply by walking or sitting, and she exudes menacing sexuality when she and Themistocles give up trying to bargain with each other and take out their aggressions toward each other in a bout of rough sex. Green's performance is a definite highlight of the year so far.

I guess the fascination for fast cars is a guy thing – though I don’t share the fascination. Need for Speed aims to appeal to the guy thing by packing itself with a heavy dose of guy-stuff and fast cars beginning with a race through an upstate New York town; followed by a grudge match race that ends in a death; followed by a transcontinental chase from New York to San Francisco; culminating in an illegal race from Napa to Mendicino. Wow! Lots of fast cars! But there are tremendous shots of grand American landscape, and there’s the beautiful face of British actress Imogen Poots as the sidekick of our hero, Tobey Marshall, played by Aaron Paul, a very unlikely macho racecar ace. As Marshall, Paul is a very poor actor who does not stand out. He has zero presence, a weak voice, and a globular forehead under a receding hairline – a distraction throughout the entire movie.

("This is boring! Why can't we get selected for the Hunger Games?")

At times interesting, at times very silly, Divergent is moderately entertaining, though sometimes it gets weighed down by its fizzbins, which are typical of YA literature from The Giver through the Harry Potter saga all the way into the rash of post-apocalyptic and/or dystopian literature and movies out there today.

What’s a fizzbin? Fizzbin, n. A contrivance; a gimmick, as in the Royal Fizzbin made up by Captain James T. Kirk in the Star Trek episode “A Piece of the Action.”

My, oh, my, Divergent includes quite a number of fizzbins, and the subsequent episodes in the trilogy are so full of fizzbins I had trouble comprehending the synopses for the later installments, Insurgent and Allegiant. Indeed, in comparison, Divergent goes light on the fizzbins. It starts out with the Five Color-Coded Factions of Society: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite. (Guess there's no faction called Artistic.) Are you selfless, kind, honest, brave, or smart? Somehow, being one is supposed to avoid conflict and create a utopian society. Go figure! Yet, being in factions already seems to cause prejudice and ostracism. Members of each faction make jokes about the others, and everybody’s afraid of the Dauntless who wear tight black clothing, sport cool hairdos, and run around like hooligans. Dauntless never walk, and they jump off moving trains instead of waiting for them to stop.

Another fizzbin: Choosing Day. Yeah, just like choosing Slitherin or one of those other houses in the Harry Potter books and movies. This ceremony involves five bowls symbolic of each faction, and each chooser selects a faction by placing a drop of blood in the bowl of choice. This doesn’t happen, however, until after the Aptitude Test – a mind surveillance procedure that delves into a person’s mind to see which faction you are best suited for. Needless to say, Tris's test is inconclusive. "Inconclusive!" Ooh, ah, that means she's Divergent, which means she is dominated by more than one characteristic. Apparently, this is rare. You'd think this wouldn't be so rare, but I guess the residents of this futuristic Chicago are kind of boring. Indeed, they are very boring. Dauntless are rowdy. Erudite are snobby. Abnegation are SO Amish!

Then comes the Training Program – most teen films-from-novels of this ilk include the militaristic training program so that Tris can learn to kick butt and throw knives and shoot a gun. The fizzbin of this is the rating system. If you are listed low in the rankings, you get kicked out of Dauntless and you live the rest of your life with the Factionless outcasts. The training session fizzbin is de rigueur – because all teens understand earning low grades, failing classes, getting kicked out of school. The training program for Dauntless ends with a final test involving a serum that sends the trainee into his or her “fear landscapes” (think, computer game) which he or she must navigate as a true, brave Dauntless should.

The final, very wieldy fizzbin that turns the film’s climactic action into a very sluggish finale is the Mind-Control Serum. Each graduating member of Dauntless is injected with what they are told is a tracking device, which it ain’t. It’s a serum that allows Kate Winslet (the Erudite boss) to control the Dauntless gunmen from her computer so she can use them to wipe out Abnegation, the ruling faction. Shades of the Holocaust! Hitler would have loved that mind-control serum. Wait a sec, he had one! Anyway, don’t worry, Kate is thwarted by Tris, aided by Four (think Edward Cullen and Jacob Black in one). With disaster averted, Tris and Four and other Divergent outcasts jump a train to ride it beyond the wall to whatever lies out there beyond the horizon. I’ve only read the first book, but I’ve read the synopses for the other books, so I already know what they’ll find out there. Yep, you guessed it - a whole head-spinning entanglement of very contrived fizzbins. I kind of get it, but what I don’t get is who the hell is driving the trains and why don’t they stop if hooligans are jumping on them to escape the five boring factions?