erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2014 posts

Wednesday April 09, 2014

Movie Review: God's Not Dead (2014)


I don’t know about God but godawful is very much alive.

Haven’t heard of this movie? It’s already grossed $33 million against a budget of $2 million. Conservative Christians are out in force. Too bad. There are better movies for them to see. Pretty much anything, to be honest, but if they’re looking for something Christian-y, then “Noah” isn’t bad. If they want to be stunned by spirituality and artistry and beauty, then, you know, the usual recent suspects: “The Tree of Life,” “Rust and Bone,” “L’heure d’été.” But these are movies that raise questions rather than give self-satisfied answers. They embrace the mystery rather than have a college freshman solve the origins of the universe.

Philosophy 101
God's Not DeadOn the first day of college, freshman Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), a tall, bland, nothing of a kid, greets his hot blonde Christian girlfriend as asexually as possible, then heads to Philosophy 101, where Prof. Radisson (conservative Christian, and former Hercules, Kevin Sorbo), he of the Mephistophelean goatee, shows the kids a list of famous philosophers, including Bertrand Russell and John Stuart Mill, and asks what they all have in common. Answer? They’re all atheists! So is Radisson! He’s such an atheist he demands that each student write on a piece of paper “God is dead,” and sign it, or they’ll get a failing grade. After some vague screwing up of his face, Josh politely refuses. He feels like it’s wrong. So he strikes a bargain with Mephistopheles. If he can convince a majority of the class, in three presentations over the next three weeks, that God is not dead, he’ll be allowed to continue the class. If he doesn’t, he’ll fail, and his dream of law school will go up in fire and brimstone.

This is the main, awful plot of “God’s Not Dead.” But don’t worry: there are other, awful subplots, too.

For example: A conservative Muslim father makes his super-pretty daughter, Ayisha (Hadeel Sittu), wear a hijab to school, which, when he’s out of view, she takes off and exhales like she’s just been given a new life. Which she has. A year ago, she accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. She lays in bed and listens to Corinthians on her smartphone. How to tell this to Dad? She doesn’t. Kid brother blabs. At which point, amid great histrionics and crying jags, Dad physically beats his daughter and throws her out of the house. Because you know Arabs. I mean the Muslim ones. Not the super-pretty ones who have already accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savoir.

There’s also a nerdy Chinese guy named Martin (Paul Kwo). He’s in the same class as Josh, or “Mr. Josh,” as he charmingly calls him in the manner of the backward Oriental. He, too, likes Jesus, despite, you know, growing up in communist China—represented here by his businessman father riding in the back of a limo. But eventually Martin tells his father about Jesus. He does so in Cantonese even though his father speaks Mandarin. I guess the Lord speaks in many tongues.

Let’s get the rest of this out of the way quickly, shall we? So Prof. Radisson’s put-upon girlfriend, Mina (Cory Oliver), his former student no less, is Christian, too, but her Mom’s in a home with dementia and her older brother, Mark (Christian conservative, and former Superman, Dean Cain), is too busy being an asshole of a lawyer to care. Plus he’s dating this ... entertainment blogger? I was never sure. Her name is Amy Ryan (Trisha LaFache), and she’s, you know, rude and late in the manner of non-believers, and has bumper stickers on her car reading things like “Meat is Murder” and “American Humanist.” (Right? Because I see that “American Humanist” bumpersticker everywhere.) Plus she engages in ambush journalism like Bill O’Reilly but from the left. She tries it, for example, on Willie Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame, who is just trying to worship at the local mall Worship Center. But Willie’s cool with her rudeness. He can take it. He’s also cool with Jesus Christ, the Lord, which she totally doesn’t get. Until, that is, she’s diagnosed with inoperable cancer. At which point her asshole boyfriend dumps her, she can’t write for crying, and, when she tries ambush journalism on the Christian rock group Newsboys, they pray for her and convert her backstage. Then they put on a show before Mina, Ayisha, Josh and Martin, and dedicate their song, “God’s Not Dead,” to Josh, “the defender of God,” while they encourage everyone to text “God’s not dead” to all of their friends, even as, across town, Prof. Radisson lays dying in the street after being hit by a car.


Josh vs. Aristotle, Darwin, Hawking
So ... a philosophy professor who makes his students write and sign “God is dead” pledges? Is this based on anything anywhere? Wikipedia calls it a popular urban legend, but I might dispute both “popular” and “urban.” To me, it feels like projection. Philosophy is generally about the search for truth, not shutting down that search. The shutdown comes from absolutists.

The final credits suggest the movie is based upon many legal cases supported by Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly: Alliance Defense Fund), most of which, apparently, it lost.

Josh, of course, doesn’t lose. He defeats his Mephistophelean professor. How? By taking on Aristotle, Darwin and Stephen Hawking single-handedly—like Daniel in the lion’s den. By offering the students, as God offered humanity, free will.

He also uses science to his advantage. Josh says the Big Bang is like “Let there be light” more than scientists will admit, while the creation of life on Earth is more like Genesis 1:21 than Darwin’s evolutionary theories. After that, it’s mostly gotcha moments. Sure, Hawking said what he said about religion, but he also said, “Philosophy is dead,” which totally burns the philosophy professor. The biggest gotcha, though, is personal. Why does Prof. Radisson feel how he feels about God? Because when he was 12, his mom, a believer, died of cancer, so he cursed God, and has kept on cursing God, and wants the world to curse God. Josh, in fact, gets his professor to admit, in front of everyone, that he hates God. Which leads to Josh’s final trump card:

How can you hate someone ... if they don’t exist?

That’s the final straw for the straw man. He folds. And that’s when the class, in a “Spartacus” moment, all stand and say the film’s triumphant title: “God’s not dead.” Then they all go to the Newsboys’ concert and party while, nearby, Prof. Radisson dies after being hit by a car. No, it’s not vindictive. At the last moment, Radisson is converted by Rev. Dave (Christian movie staple, and bad hair-dye model, David A.R. White). Radisson accepts Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. Because there may be atheists in college classrooms, but there are none on deathbeds.

Nice and comfy
What a sad thing this is. I’m agnostic but this will convert no one. It’s a tepid bath for true believers.

I did like one scene. Near the end, the asshole lawyer, Mark, finally visits his addled mother in the old folk’s home, and wonders aloud why he, who is the worst person he knows, has a great life, while she, the most devout, has been turned into a living vegetable. At which point she suddenly starts talking:

Sometimes the devil allows people to live a life free of trouble because he doesn't want them turning to God. Their sin is like a jail cell, except it is all nice and comfy and there doesn't seem to be any reason to leave. The door’s wide open. Till one day, time runs out, and the cell door slams shut, and suddenly it’s too late.

She says all of this staring straight ahead. When she’s done, she blinks a few times, then her dementia returns. “Who are you?” she asks her son.

But think about how her words relate to “God’s Not Dead." The movie is popular with Christian conservatives because it’s their wish-fulfillment fantasy. Within it, secularists are awful and tyrannical but are punished, while believers are victimized and humble but prosper. No wonder they're going in droves. It’s a nice, comfy vision from which there doesn’t seem to be any reason to leave.

Posted at 06:40 AM on Apr 09, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Saturday April 05, 2014

Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)


The directors of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” Joe and Anthony Russo, heretofore best known for directing failed comedies (“You, Me and Dupree”) and a critically acclaimed sitcom (“Community”), have a new line of work. Because they’ve just created one helluva superhero movie.

Last July, I ranked 65 of the 100 or so superhero movies that have been made, and I’d put this one in the top 10. It’s better than “The Dark Knight,” but I’m not much of a fan of “The Dark Knight.” It’s not as fun as “Iron Man” (not many movies are), but it does have its light comedic touches. (See: “Shall we play a game?” and “The path of the righteous man...”) More, it’s got gravitas. It tackles the issue of the 21st century, freedom vs. security, and all but uses Ben Franklin’s famous line as its epigraph:

Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

S.H.I.E.L.D., by the way, is the entity interested in safety; Captain America is the man interested in liberty.

Of course, the decks are stacked. The bad guys are double agents for a fascistic organization, Hydra, which is creating the circumstances that will allow it to take over. Too bad. Captain America: The Winter SoldierImagine if those circumstances, terrorism and the chaos of the world, were outside their control. Imagine if Hydra’s mouthpiece, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), was not a double agent but simply someone with a different worldview. Redford, thankfully, plays him that way. He plays him as someone so strong on defense that he goes on offense. He’s Dick Cheney. Ten years ago, in the debate between Pierce and Captain America, many Americans, maybe most Americans, would’ve agreed with Pierce.

Many still do.

This isn’t freedom
Captain America was born in 1941 as a superpatriot, but he was reborn in the 1960s to the left of the superpatriots. When he woke up, he woke up and questioned America. For a time, around the Watergate period, he was so disappointed in the U.S. he gave up being Captain America and became Nomad, Man Without a Country.

This Captain America is similar. Shown S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new high-tech helicarriers, which will be used to spy on the world and neutralize threats before they happen, he says, “I thought the punishment usually came after the crime.” He says, “This isn’t freedom; this is fear.” This is Steve Engelhart’s Captain America. It’s my Captain America.

“Winter Soldier,” written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, from a story by Ed Brubaker, begins quietly and smartly.

Two guys are jogging around the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., and the second is running so fast he’s lapping the first. “On your left,” he says. “On your left,” he says again. The first is Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), recently returned from Iraq. The second is Captain America, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), recently returned from saving the world from Loki, et al., in “The Avengers.” They’re strangers, these two, but bond over their shared experience of being soldiers: how, after the hardness of life abroad, the beds at home are too soft to sleep in. Then Sam recommends music for the man who was famously on ice for 70 years. Typically, it’s someone well-known: Marvin Gaye. Atypically, it’s not “What’s Going On,” or “Let’s Get It On,” but the jazz-influenced album in between these two: “Trouble Man.” Dutifully, Steve writes down the title in his notepad next to other historical/cultural artifacts he needs to catch up on, including “Star Wars” and “spicy Thai food.” At which point, the Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson) vrooms up in her sport car, mentions going to the Smithsonian to “pick up a fossil,” and she and Cap, and the movie, are off.

A ship has been hijacked in the Indian Ocean by Algerian pirates and 25 people are being held hostage, including S.H.I.E.L.D. strategist Jasper Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernandez, late of “The Americans”). So Cap, after some banter with Natasha about girls he might date (a recurring bit), jumps out of the plane and into the ocean, climbs aboard the ship, and, in one of the better action sequences in superhero movies, or any movies really, takes out half the terrorists. Remember those complaints about the fights in “Batman Begins”? How you could never tell what was going on? No longer. You get a real sense of Cap’s speed, stealth and strength here. In the big fight scene on the ship with the superpowered terrorist leader, Cap performs an over-the-top leg kick that got half the audience at the Cinerama in downtown Seattle Friday night to sound like Keanu Reeves: Whooaaaaaaaa!

But there’s a wrinkle. The ship was S.H.I.E.L.D.’s, it was trespassing, and the purpose of the mission seemed less to save hostages than gather intel. Cap confronts Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) about all of this and receives this bit of advice: trust no one. Then he’s introduced to Project Insight: three helicarriers that need never come down; they can hover forever in the skies above us, watching us. That’s when we get the freedom vs. security discussion above. Cap says Project Insight is like “holding a gun to everyone in the world and calling it protection.” Later, he visits Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) in a hospital, now aged and suffering Alzheimer’s, and tells her he just wants to do right but doesn’t know what that is anymore. Interestingly, this echoes Robert Redford’s 1975 thriller, “Three Days of the Condor”: “You miss that kind of action, sir?” “No, I miss that kind of clarity.” 

I liked all this early stuff. I liked Steve visiting the Smithsonian and the Captain America exhibit, and going “Sssshhh” to the kid who recognizes him. I liked seeing where he lives. The thing with the neighbor, Kate (Emily VanCamp), doing her laundry, was a bit odd. Shouldn’t she be starstruck? But overall I liked the troubled calm before the storm.

I was just a bit disappointed when the storm actually hit.

Don’t trust anyone
Nick Fury gets it first, attacked in broad daylight in his souped-up van. Oddly, the attack takes place on an apparently deserted D.C. street but as soon as the car chase occurs they encounter tons of traffic. But we’ll let that go. The faceless minions attack first, since that’s the way, saving the ultimate assassin, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), for when Fury makes a wrong turn. We’ll let that go, too. Ultimately Fury is killed, or we see him die on an operating table, but he offers Cap these parting words: “Don’t trust anyone.”

But you gotta trust somebody, particularly when S.H.I.E.L.D., with all its high-tech weaponry, is trying to kill you, so Natasha is the one he goes to. Then they go on the run, to Wheaton, N.J., where Steve, the 4F, first trained, and where they discover in its dusty databanks the disembodied intelligence of Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones). Of course, like all movie villains, Zola takes this moment to reveal his great scheme.

According to Zola, Hydra realized long ago that “Humanity could not be trusted with its own freedom.” Unfortunately, when they tried to take it away during World War II, humanity fought back. So Hydra further realized you couldn’t take the freedom by force; you had to get humanity to surrender it willingly. How? By creating a world “so chaotic people are willing to sacrifice freedom for security.” And that’s what Hydra has done.

It’s also infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. and the U.S. government in the form of Sen. Stern (Gary Shandling, bloated beyond belief now). Project Insight? That’s Hydra, baby. Those helicarriers get in the air and Zola’s algorithms will take out 20 million of Hydra’s enemies in an instant. So it’s up to Cap, and Natasha, and Sam, who is, of course, the Falcon (and a cool-looking Falcon), to prevent the launch, save the 20 million, and keep Hydra from taking over the world.

They do this with the usual tri-part whiz-bang ending that I first saw with “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi” and that has infected all of these big-budget extravaganzas. You know how it goes. Cap battles the Winter Soldier, who is really his childhood friend Bucky Barnes, atop a helicarrier. Cut to: Sam battling agents of S.H.I.E.L.D./Hydra on the ground. Cut to: Natasha infiltrating the office of, and trading barbs with, Alexander Pierce. Then keep cutting between each.

Cap’s strategy is three-fold: 1) convince enough S.H.I.E.L.D. agents to battle the Hydra agents, which will allow him to, 2) upload an algorithm (created by whom?) to counteract Zola’s algorithm: instead of the helicarriers killing 20 million, they’ll train their guns on each other. Meanwhile, Natasha will 3) disseminate all S.H.I.E.L.D. intel to the world. Meaning S.H.I.E.L.D., which Cap destroys, is basically the NSA, and he and Natasha are basically Edward Snowden.

We live in interesting times.

Fifth columnists everywhere
I owe Chris Evans an apology, by the way. His Johnny Storm was the best thing in “The Fantastic Four”—which isn’t saying much—but I initially objected to his casting as Captain America. Wasn’t he too thin? Too brash? And shouldn’t actors just play one superhero at a time? But he’s been perfect. He’s the boy scout with gravitas, the perfect-bodied virgin, the confused soldier after the war. I like this early exchange with Peggy Carter (probably because it reminds me of me):

Peggy: What makes you happy?
Steve (long pause): I don’t know.

Some of the best parts of the movie, in fact, are not just him moving (as on the hijacked ship), but him thinking (as in the glass elevator, when he realizes he’s about to be attacked by S.H.I.E.L.D. agents). And he has good chemistry with both Johansson, who’s friendly/flirtatious with him (no woman tries to set you up unless she sees something in you in the first place), and Mackie, who’s steadfast but with a twinkle.

Evans’ greatest chemistry, though, may not be with a person but an object: his shield. Captain America fans have waited a long time for this. In the 1944 serial, Cap didn’t even have a shield; he carried a gun instead. In 1979, the shield was clear plastic, and doubled as his motorcycle windshield. It came into play more in the awful 1990 Cannon Films version, but with the usual low-budget quick cuts and over-the-top sound effects. But here? It’s like an appendage. It’s like his companion, his dog, his horse. I felt outrage whenever the Winter Soldier used the shield against him. It was like someone turning Silver against The Lone Ranger.

Sure, some of the chases go on a bit much, the big emotional battle with the Winter Soldier isn’t that emotional, and Natasha’s appearance before Congress is lame and unnecessary. I’m also a bit tired of the internal enemies trope. I think it fuels paranoia and Americans are paranoid enough. The greater enemy is almost always external but Hollywood almost always makes it internal. They should know better. (See: Red-baiters accusing Hollywood of being that internal enemy during the McCarthy era.)

Even so, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a smart, fun, thoughtful movie. I also appreciated its more nuanced approach to another Hollywood action-movie trope: the idea of never compromising. The people who compromise or negotiate in movies tend to be politicians, who are either quislings, spies, or just generally weak-willed, and whose negotiations (fools!) play right into the hands of the enemy. Then the uncompromising hero has to step in and save the day. Here, we begin with something similar. When the hostages are rescued, Stinson says, “Told you: S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t negotiate.” We get a story about an early Nick Fury saving lives in Bogota because he didn’t negotiate. But not negotiating turns out to be the strategy of Hydra. Not negotiating actually plays right into the hands of the enemy. So if not negotiating is the strategy of the enemy, should negotiation be our strategy?

Nuance in a superhero movie? Somewhere, surely, Steve Engelhart is smiling.


Posted at 12:02 PM on Apr 05, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Sunday March 30, 2014

Movie Review: Noah (2014)


When I went to see “Noah” it was raining. When I came out the sun was shining. On my way to dinner, there was a rainbow in the sky. Was God giving me the rainbow sign? No more “Noah” ... just relax and get some bún chả.

Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” is an odd little movie. Or an odd big movie. It’s based upon three short chapters, 68 verses total, in the Book of Genesis, but it lasts two and a half hours. Expect extrapolation.

Is the Christian community embracing “Noah”? I think they suspect it. It comes from Hollywood, after all, and you know what those people are like. Hollywood needs to find a way to promote religious movies as if they’re the religious movies Hollywood doesn’t want you to see. There’s a trick in that. Mel Gibson figured it out.

It helps that Gibson made his “Passion” culturally conservative. His Jesus was an action-hero Jesus. After being whipped, he rose again (only to be whipped again). After crucifixion, he rolled back the rock to a martial drumbeat. “Passion of the Christ” is basically the first third of a revenge movie where the final two-thirds plays out in the minds of religious conservatives everywhere. People like me and Bill Maher suffer for all of eternity in their imaginations.

Why Christians should embrace this movie
Darren Aronofsky's NOAH“Noah” fails in its cultural conservatism. Sure, the Watchers, angels who help Cain in the land east of Eden, and who are thus punished by the Creator by being turned into giant rock creatures, experience, just before the Flood, a kind of rapture, where they shed their earthly form and ascend into the skies. And, sure, the sons and daughters of Cain live in a figurative hell and are punished in the Flood. They cling to mountaintops and cry for help. And help comes not. And the world is cleansed of them.

But the ultimate message is environmental and vegetarian (read: soft and leftist). The sons of Cain slaughter the animals and leave clear-cut devastation in their wake. The sons of Seth are more benevolent. They are caretakers of the world. Unfortunately, the sons of Cain have taken over the world, while the sons of Seth have been reduced to one: Noah.

Even so, Christians should embrace this movie, if only because it makes religious doofuses like myself get our Bible again.

Adam and Eve bore three sons? Cain, Abel ... and Seth? Yes. Genesis 4:25: “And Adam knew his wife again; and she bare a son, and called his name Seth.”

And Noah, and thus all of us, are descendants of Seth and not Cain? Yes. Genesis 5:1-32. Basically it goes like this:

  1. Adam, who lived to be 930 years old, begat Seth, who lived to be 912.
  2. Seth begat Enos, who lived to be 905.
  3. Enos begat Cainan (910)
  4. Cainan began Mahalaleel (895)
  5. Mahalaleel begat Jared (962)
  6. Jared begat Enoch (365)
  7. Enoch begat Methuselah (969)
  8. Methuselah begat Lamech (777)
  9. And Lamech begat Noah

So it took nine generations for God to get sick of us.

But the Watchers stuff is bullshit, right? I mean, giant rock creatures?

Well, yes and no. Genesis 6:4 does say “There were giants in the earth in those days.” No mention of rock, but there were giants. That’s Biblical, baby.

Dramatic tension, pre-Flood
You know the story: wickedness, ark, animals, flood, 40 days and 40 nights, dove, olive leaf, new beginning.

Here’s how the story is presented by writer-director Darren Aronofsky (“Requiem for a Dream,” “The Wrestler,” “Black Swan”) and writer Ari Handel.

The children of Cain have taken over the world while the children of Seth have almost died off. It’s just father and son, Lamech and young Noah (Marton Csokas and Dakota Goyo). Then it’s just young Noah when Lamech is slain by a young Tubal-cain (Finn Wittrock), who will grow up to be bad news: Ray Winstone. Thankfully Noah grows up to be badder news: Russell Crowe. He will marry Naameh (Crowe’s “A Beautiful Mind” costar Jennifer Connelly), and begat three sons: Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll). They also pick up a stray girl nearly killed by marauders, Ila, who will thankfully grow up to be Emma Watson, the mother of us all. (Which begs the question: If Emma Watson is the mother of us all, shouldn’t we be better looking?)

Then: dreams and visions of apocalypse by water. Noah travels to the green mountain where his grandfather, Methuselah, lives (Anthony Hopkins, of course), and realizes what he’s supposed to do. Methuselah gives him a seed of Eden, which he plants, and which grows, in the arid desert around them, a vast forest with which to make an ark with the help of the Watchers. And that’s what he does. For several years.

The movie handles the animal thing well. Everyone always wondered about that. How does Noah gather all the animals? How do they live on the ark? Why don’t they eat each other? What about all the piss and shit? That’s gotta be a stinky place after 40 days and 40 nights.

Here, the animals come to him unbidden (Genesis 6: 20), go into the ark, which is a massive, rectangular creation, and immediately fall to sleep. They hibernate. So no food, no fights, no defecation. Easy peasy.

The bigger question is this: What’s the dramatic tension in the movie? Pre-flood, it’s threefold:

  • Will Ham, a moody little shit, find a wife to take on the ark?
  • Will Ila, who is barren, frigid or both, open up to Shem?
  • Will Noah finish the ark before Tubal-cain, self-proclaimed king of this region, takes it over with his army of men?

In recent years, Russell Crowe has become a kind of punching bag for some critics, but I always enjoy seeing him on the screen, and “Noah” would be a much lesser movie without him: without the force of his face and the quiet in his voice. I’ve written about this before. Not many actors can convey strength with a whisper. He does. “Why don't you dance with a man for a change?” he whispers in “L.A. Confidential.” “Doctor Wigand,” he whispers in “The Insider.” In “Noah” it’s: “I’m not alone.” At 1:10 in the trailer:

Tubal-cain: I have men at my back. And you stand alone and defy me?
Noah: I’m not alone.

I always assumed he meant God but he’s actually talking about the giant rock creatures, who reveal themselves at this strategic point and allow the work on the ark to continue. When the rains come, the descendants of Cain rush the ark, which is again defended by the rock creatures, who are then raptured. But one descendant of Cain (besides Ila) gets on board. Guess who? Right. Tubal-cain is injured, but he makes a friend in Ham, who is bitter that his father didn’t save, against impossible odds, a pretty girl he’d just found. So he wants his revenge.

And that’s part of the dramatic tension in the second half of the movie: Will the mark of Cain revisit us even as the earth is being cleansed of the sons of Cain?

Dramatic tension, post-Flood
The fundamental question on the ark is an interesting one: Is man worth saving? Or is the world better without us?

Noah, on the ark, seeks an answer from God and either doesn’t get it or it comes back in the negative. We are a plague. Better we should die off.

Ah, but a wrinkle. Thanks to Methuselah back at the foot of the mountain, Ila was cured of both barrenness and frigidity, and is now pregnant. What to do? Noah declares his answer: a boy can live, a girl will be killed. So like China in the 1980s.

It turns out to be twins. Girls.

So at this point:

  • Noah wants to kill the babies.
  • Tubal-cain, a stowaway, wants to kill Noah.
  • Ham, still pissed off, wants Tubal-cain to kill Noah. Maybe. He’s a bit wishy-washy on the subject.
  • Shem wants to kill Noah before Noah kills the babies.

It’s a bit much. Did we really need Tubal-cain here? Couldn’t it have simply been a conflict within the one family who had found grace in the eyes of the Lord?

Obviously Tubal-cain is killed by Noah and/or Ham. (I’ve already forgotten.) And Ila runs with her babies to the top of the ark, where she is followed by Noah, who has the knife in his hands. But it’s not his knife that is lowered, it’s his head; to kiss and bless the babies, even as he thinks he does ill in the eyes of the Lord.

That’s the final dramatic tension in the denouement. When the waters recede, Noah drinks homemade wine, and hides himself from his family in a cave, and is naked (Genesis 9:20-21, more or less). He has defied God’s will. He must punish himself. But lo, Ila spaketh unto him, saying God hath given him a choice, and within he found goodness and love and mercy. And so it shall be for the children of Shem, and Japheth, and even Ham, the wanderer. Unto them the choice shall be given. And unto them the choice shall be made.

Nature, grace, et al.
Let’s face it: It’s a tough gig doing the Bible, let alone Noah’s ark. In the long history of film, Crowe is only the 33rd actor to play Noah, and most of the others were supporting parts (John Huston in “The Bible: In the Beginning...” in 1966) or in animated shorts (Disney’s 19-minute-long “Noah’s Ark” from 1959). Even 1928’s “Noah’s Ark” is really about World War I.

Obviously CGI animals are easier to deal with than the real kind, so it should be easier now, but the story of Noah is more problematic than that. Aronofsky’s version, for example, ends with Noah blessing his family as God blessed them in Genesis 9:1: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.” But the second verse of God’s covenant with man is, in the movie, the philosophy of its villain, Tubal-cain: “Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you.”

Both Noah and Tubal-cain see man in opposition to nature: either below it (as a plague) or above it (with dominion), but neither point of view is particularly interesting to me. Or correct. Dominion gives a license for greed, which man hardly needs. And Nature itself is hardly benevolent. It’s cruel. It’s X eats Y eats Z—like a giant restaurant, as Woody Allen once said.

During all this, I kept flashing to a more profound movie, Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” where the mother, in voiceover, presents a greater dichotomy than “Noah” does:

The nuns taught us there were two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.

Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.

Nature only wants to please itself. Gets others to please it, too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.

In the end, “Noah,” a big, grand film with a nice lead performance by Crowe, is just too busy with subplots. It doesn’t quite resonate.

But it did force me to get out my Bible again.

Posted at 08:40 AM on Mar 30, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Wednesday March 19, 2014

Movie Review: 300: Rise of an Empire (2014)


“300: Rise of an Empire” is a modern retelling of the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C., when the Persian Empire, led by Xerxes I and his naval commander Artemisia (Rodrigo Santoro and Eva Green), took on the united Greek city-states under its commander Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton). Though vastly outnumbered, the Greeks ultimately prevailed. Some scholars have suggested that without this victory, western civilization, and thus our modern world, wouldn’t have existed.

So how did Themistocles and Greece do it? Here’s our history lesson from “300” director Noam Murro and screenwriters Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad, who based the movie on an unpublished graphic novel by Frank Miller.

Themistocles was totally winning an earlier battle against the Persian fleet, right? 300: Rise of an EmpireLike on the first day his ships form a circle so the Persians don’t know where to attack, and on the second day it’s foggy so he draws the Persian ships near Greece and dashes them on the rocks. This sexy chick, Artemisia, watching from her ship, totally digs this. She knows her dudes are nothing in comparison, so she invites Themistocles aboard where they have rough sex on tables and countertops and she asks him to join the Persian side, but he turns her down even as he’s got like a handful of tittie. Which totally pisses her off, right? Getting turned down like that? Chicks, right? So on the third day she dumps tar into the sea and lights it on fire, leaving Themistocles with just a couple of dudes. Plus his friend dies. The one with the son.

Now it looks really hopeless because Persia totally ruled then. Xerxes, the 10-foot-tall God-king of Persia, has already burned Athens; and King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans, the kick-ass dudes from the first movie, have bit it, too. Because this movie takes place like before, during and after that other one.

So now Themistocles tries to get Leonidas’ old lady, Queen Gorgo (the mean chick from “Game of Thrones”), to join their cause, and you think she would, for revenge and all, but no. She’s grieving, bro. Plus he’s Athens and she’s Sparta. But then Themistocles, he gives this kick-ass speech to his men about how it’s better to die on their feet than live on their knees, and they go, “Raaahhhhh!” And they’re like kicking ass against the Persians. But then sexy chick, Artemisia, she’s shouting, like, I’m not sticking on the sidelines, bro-men, and starts messing up dudes. And everything reverses. Ah, but our man Themistocles, he’s got a secret. It’s a horse. On his ship. And he rides his horse from his ship to the Persian ships, killing guys left and right. And this horse is like superhorse, man, cause he’s riding it not only on top of ships but like through burning ships and into the water and then up and out of the water and back onto a ship, until it’s just him and sexy chick left. And they go at it hot and heavy until they have swords at each other’s throats and no one makes a move. They just stand there staring at each other. Then “Game of Thrones” chick starts yakking out of nowhere about how sexy chick feels this breeze. And that’s the breeze of freedom, yo. Because here she comes, “Game of Thrones” chick, she and the Spartan Navy, like Han Solo at the end of the first “Star Wars.” And that’s when sexy chick dies and our dudes light up the Persians and go charging, rahrrrr, right at the screen, and boom!, credits, with Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” blasting, bro.

Don’t you just love history?

Boy loving philosophers
The best thing you can say about “300: Rise of an Empire” is that it’s less Fascistic than the first. We even get some revisionist history. In “300,” the war between Xerxes and Leonidas started because rather than pay tribute to Xerxes, Leonidas kicked his Persian messenger into a bottomless pit. Apparently it was more complicated.

The war actually began 10 years earlier when, near the end of another battle, Themistocles picked up a spear on the shore and pierced the chest of King Darius of Persia (Igal Naor) standing on his ship, right in front of his son, Xerxes, who vowed revenge. But Darius, on his deathbed, tells him not to attack the Greeks because the gods favor them. Except Artemisia whispers in his ear that Darius wasn’t forbidding his son but challenging him. That’s when Xerxes wanders in the desert (why exactly?) and finds a mystical cave and bathes in the waters there. When he emerges, he’s bald, gold and 10-feet tall. As often happens.

Leonidas, in other words, wasn’t being unreasonable at the beginning of “300.” He was being provoked.

If the first movie is all about Sparta, this one is all about Athens, whom Leonidas had dismissed as “those philosophers, and, uh, boy lovers.” Sadly, we don’t hear much philosophy or see much boy loving, and while the Athenians are less martial than the Spartans, with fewer professional soldiers, it’s still the same drill: six-pack abs, slow-mo battles, slicing and dicing. It’s martial arts madness mixed with sandals and swords mixed with “Saw.” It’s yet another movie in which compromise is for mealy-mouthed politicians who are determined to weaken the country. They don’t know the enemy. They don’t know the meaning of ... freedom.

I’m curious how director Noam Murro got this gig. One credit, “Smart People,” a small indie film, and he’s handed this? Is it indicative of how little Warner Bros. thought of its franchise? Let’s hope so.

The new hero, Sullivan Stapleton, an Aussie, isn’t much, either. His right-hand men are less. Most everyone acts against a green screen while Eva Green simply overacts. What happened to her? She went from Bertolucci in 2003 to Bond in 2006 to “Dark Shadows” in 2012 and a Frank Miller doubleheader this year: sequels to “300” and “Sin City.” Blech. Talk about a downward trajectory.

War Pigs
Anyway, as you already knew, “300: Rise of an Empire” is a waste of time. I can’t imagine the mind of anyone who actually enjoys it. But I felt the same about “300.”

Final thought: Why “War Pigs” as a closing-credits song? Isn’t it an anti-war song?

Generals gathered in their masses
Just like witches at black masses
Evil minds that plot destruction
Sorcerers of death’s construction

It’s about the wealthy sending the poor to fight their battles. So what’s it doing at the end of this pro-war movie?

That’s what I was thinking at the end of the movie. And then it hit me anew. How awful is that? How awful to make a pro-war movie? How awful to create a story on film about righteous bloodlust and righteous cruelty and stopping an absolute evil in the name of western civilization? Movies like this, which make hundreds of millions of dollars, actually encourage people to like war. That’s where western civilization is right now. It’s almost enough to make you wish the Persians had won.

Posted at 05:55 AM on Mar 19, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Tuesday March 18, 2014

Movie Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)


There is, at the end of “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Wes Anderson’s latest bit of cinematic whimsy and charm, a description of its main character, Gustave F. (Ralph Fiennes), a fastidious, tragicomic, but ultimately dignified concierge at the title hotel in an imaginary Eastern European country, the Republic of Zubrowka, during the years before World War II, that is one of the better descriptions of Wes Anderson and his films I’ve encountered.

Our narrator, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), has been asked, years after the main events in the movie, if he traded a fortune for the now-faded Grand Budapest in order to keep alive the world of M. Gustave, his mentor. He smiles sadly and says:

To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it. But I will say he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.

That’s lovely. And isn’t it Wes Anderson? So much about him feels like it belongs to a vanished, bygone era. Increasingly, Anderson’s bygone era isn’t even vanished (1960s British music, 1950s board games), but imaginary, and as exquisitely detailed as the contents of the Glass family medicine chest in J.D. Salinger’s “Zooey.” The Grand Budapest HotelFrom this film alone, see: L’Air Panache, Mendl’s Courtesan au Chocolat, and the masterpiece “Boy with Apple” by Johannes van Hoytl. See also: the names of several characters (Gustave F., Serge X. and Madame D.), who, in the tradition of 19th century literature, have their family names redacted, as if revealing them is something that’s just not done in polite society.

That society, sadly, is about to go away. It’s 1930s Europe. The country of Zubrowka may not exist but Fascism does. And it’s about to collide with the better manners of M. Gustave.

A world of manners
We enter in stages.

The movie begins in the present day. A girl with a dog-eared book genuflects beneath the statue of a bespectacled man, “OUR NATIONAL TREASURE,” where myriad keys are hung from hooks around its base. One wonders: Who is the man? And what’s the deal with the keys?

Then we cut to 1985, where the national treasure, an unnamed author (Tom Wilkinson), is talking to the camera and answering the question people always ask of writers: Where do you get your ideas? His answer is unique. He says after a modicum of fame, you don’t have to think things up anymore. People offer you stories unbidden.

Then we cut to 1968 and the faded, Communist-infused glory of the Grand Budapest Hotel, where the youthful national treasure, now Jude Law, is recuperating after a mild case of “Scribe’s Fever.” The nearly-empty hotel is full of characters, including Mr. Zero Moustafa, the owner, and the richest man in Zubrowka, who, after introductions in the underground mineral baths, tells the author, over a grand dinner, the story of M. Gustave and the Grand Budapest Hotel.

At which point we’re back to 1932.

In my fiction-writing days I always wanted to do this: have a story lead to a story lead to a story. It’s a Russian nesting doll of stories. It’s as precariously balanced as a Mendl’s Courtesan au Chocolat.

M. Gustave, though modeled on a mutual friend of Anderson and artist/screenwriter Hugo Guinness, will be familiar to anyone who knows Anderson’s work. As Royal Tenenbaum had Pagoda, Gustave has Zero (Tony Revolori), the loyal understudy. As Max Fischer had a coterie of men to whom he dictates precise orders, so does Gustave at the Grand Budapest. One of my favorite moments in “Rushmore” is when Max gets kicked out of his beloved prep school, winds up in public school, and on the first day gives a speech before his newer, tougher, slacker classmates. “Now he’s in for it,” you think. Except he isn’t. He remains himself, geekily himself, and gets along. Similarly, here, Gustave is taken from his beloved Grand Budapest to prison, where, despite his newer, tougher cellmates, he remains himself and gets along. He pushes a metal cart past prison cells offering up plates of mush. He struggles to keep up appearances:

No? Anyone? You—with the very large scar on your face? Come now, try it. It’s actually quite warm and nourishing this morning. It needs a dash of salt.

I like this idea—treat the world with respect and it will return the favor—even if I don’t quite believe it. Some aspect of it may be true, but it’s only true until it isn’t.

The plot. At the Grand Budapest, Gustave beds the various rich old ladies who show up there, including Madame D., 84 (Tilda Swinton). “I’ve had older,” he tells Zero with pride on the way to Madame D.’s funeral, where he sweet-talks the corpse, greets the staff, and is then bequeathed, in Madame D.’s will, not the bulk of the estate—that goes to her awful son Dmitri (Adrien Brody)—but a priceless painting, “Boy with Apple.” It leads to a nice sight-gag. Gustave is punched in the face by Dmitri, who is punched in the face by Zero, who is punched in the face by Dmitri’s right-hand man, the sinister Jopling (Willem Dafoe), who will do much of the punching and killing for the next hour.

At one point, we get this exchange:

Dmitri: You’re not getting “Boy with Apple,” you goddamned little fruit!
Gustave (legitimately hurt): How’s that supposed to make me feel?

Fiennes’ line readings are wonderful. He’s wonderful. Do we suggest Oscar nomination? It’s a bit early in the season. Plus “Budapest” is a comedy, and comedies are overlooked by the Academy. Plus no actor Anderson has directed has received an Oscar nomination. These are all the Oscar nominations from all of his movies:

Is the Academy right to short-change him? There’s certainly a two- dimensionality to his style. He’s a master of the straight-on shot and the profile shot and not much in-between. It’s as if everything’s been flattened. It’s as if we’re seeing it all in the pages of some exquisite book.

His characters have a similar two-dimensionality. They represent a thing and don’t deviate much from that thing. Question: Are they becoming more two-dimensional? In the early Anderson films, his protagonists, in order to grow, in order to become the very thing they were pretending to be, needed to forgive and embrace their enemies: Herman Blume for Max Fischer; Henry Sherman for Royal Tenenbaum; Alistair Hennessey for Steve Zissou. Is this still true? Redford, the antagonist in “Moonrise,” remains outside the circle, unforgiven and unforgiveable. Same here with Jopling and Dmitri. Is this a wiser lesson? An admission that you can’t embrace everyone? That there are bastards in the world?

That said, even in Anderson’s flattened world, there is a three-dimensionality to Fiennes’ performance. You sense, particularly in prison, a melancholy beneath his tidiness. He keeps up appearances even though he knows he’s in a losing battle.

A world of yesterdays
Anderson still has his toys. Along with the Russian nesting dolls referenced earlier, we see a dollhouse (our first shot of the Grand Budapest), and a Rube Goldberg contraption: the prison breakout of Gustave and his cellmates, which is the most needlessly complicated enterprise ever. After digging out of their cell, going through a crawl space, knocking out some prison bars, taking a rope ladder down the tower, they still have to swing over a roomful of sleeping guards. And even then it’s not over. I think Anderson gets a child’s joy out of seeing how long he can keep that marble rolling.

But he’s growing a bit. He’s dealing with the darkness of history and the human condition. We see murders, a beheading, a blow job, and a stand-in for the S.S., the Z.Z., that takes over the country as well as the Grand Budapest Hotel. We sense melancholy.

Anderson says “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was inspired by the works of Viennese writer/poet/biographer Stefan Zweig, particularly his memoir “The World of Yesterday,” and that title is certainly reflected in the movie. We go through a world of  yesterdays (1985, 1968, 1932) to get to a protagonist who lives in a world of yesterday: a world in which 19th-century manners matter. As for Wes Anderson’s world of yesterday? I would argue it’s a world where art and literature matter; where they’re of such primary importance that a country actually builds a statue to a contemporary writer. You don’t have to look around much in our world to see what an illusion that is. But in “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Wes Anderson sustains that illusion with a marvelous grace.

Posted at 07:22 AM on Mar 18, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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