Monthly Archives: April 2014

Noah

While not a literal translation of the Old Testament story, “Noah” serves as a unique and decent-enough adaptation with some beautiful visuals and engrossing action sequences. Crowe brings solidity and weight to the role of this apocalyptic prophet, and even his occasional bit of singing (to address another amusing and tangential question) is commensurate with the movie’s needs.

Unfortunately, while Aronofsky offers some intriguing exploration of Noah’s prophetic visions and psychological headspace, on the large scale “Noah” is not one of his most resonant works. Aside from any fantastic quirks, the movie seems a bit more straightforward than Aranofsky’s other efforts (especially Black Swan and The Fountain); the director’s touch is most obvious during Noah’s prophetic dream sequences and the way he doesn’t flinch when showing the horrific outcomes of individual choices. Violence and emotions in this movie at times can be raw and explicit.

While Aronofsky has not literally recreated the story as Western Christians learned it as children on Sunday morning, it’s clear that he did his homework since even the stuff that left Baptists squirming in their seats has basis in Christian lore. For example, according to Genesis, there were angels that fell to earth to bed human women, and the offspring of that damned union were referred to as the Nephilim or (as often translated, correctly or not) “giants.” The Book of Enoch delineates further, listing the names of these fallen angels (called Watchers) as well as the specialized information that each imparted to humanity much as the Greek Hephaestus and Athena shared knowledge of the arts with men.

Aronofsky adapts this source to support the themes and plot  of his narrative. Here, the Watchers were angels who came to earth against the Creator’s will out of compassion for humanity, so He punished them by stripping off their wings and smothering their holy brilliance within grotesque shells of twisted stone. Now shambling rock giants, the Watchers bequeathed their knowledge to humanity, but men were unworthy and used that knowledge to not just destroy each other but lay waste to the planet. By the time Noah comes around, the world more resembled “Mad Max” than any proverbial paradise. Seeing the extent of their mistake, the Watchers finally threw in their lot with Noah, the Creator’s foreordained; and the Creator’s response to that choice can now provide a moral map to Noah as he struggles to reconcile the Creator’s judgment with His mercy. (The Watchers not only offer insight into the divine heart but also patch up weak spots in the narrative’s hull, justifying how Noah could feasibly construct such a huge boat so quickly, as well as defend it against the desperate human hordes that would steal it to survive.)

Aronofsky liberally adds other details to the mix. The character of Methuselah helps explain everything from where all the wood came from to how barren women might eventually become pregnant. He also establishes the character of Tubal-Cain not just as a physical foil but a moral contrast to Noah: The men offer competing visions for humanity between which Noah’s children must eventually choose, and Aronofsky avoids the temptation to stack the deck. Tubal-Cain raises some good points.

While none of those particular details occur within the Genesis account, they all help set up Aronofsky’s point of interest in Noah: How does a prophet of doom perceive and process the notion of mercy… if such a thing is even possible? Prophets are naturally severe in personality and perception, they foretell judgment on the community for good or ill; and for a man to persevere in such a large undertaking in the face of permanent human extermination would suggest that Noah by nature was an unyielding man, full of conviction that humanity deserved death for its crimes against innocent creation.

Aranofsky not only explores how that perspective might have developed in Noah as a boy, but he accentuates that bent to its logical conclusion and thus sets up the largest moral crux in the movie. Noah’s family is not exempt from corruption, they are all as human as those whom the Creator has destroyed; they are all descended from the first two people who ruined Paradise. So he must consider, what if his family was not chosen to be saved and restart the race of men, but chosen simply to bring the innocent animals to safety and then to complete the destruction that the Creator began, to prevent the world from being ruined yet again? Because of the severity of his loyalty, Noah must contemplate terrible actions in order to remain faithful to what he perceives to be the Creator’s intent, regardless of the cost to his family and whether anyone agrees with him. That final struggle, the battle within Noah’s heart, is one reflective of human beings in general: Is there a way to reconcile judgment with mercy… and how?

Even after Noah makes his decision, there are still ramifications to his past choices that the family must deal with. Perhaps the earth has been wiped clean of its current corruption, but only the future will tell whether that choice was effective.

 

Advertisements
Tagged , , ,

August: Osage County

“August: Osage Country” sometimes feels like sticking your arm into an exquisitely designed, finely-sharpened meat grinder; yes, the machine might do its job well, but why would you want it to? In this earthquake of a story, you are looking at the remains of an expensive china shop with few items surviving intact… and then the movie proceeds to smash those as well.

AOC covers the period directly following a family cataclysm that brings all the crows home to roost, so we can see how things shake out. There are three generations represented in the movie (and a fourth, by proxy), although the main story revolves around the caustic reigning matriarch (Violet) addicted to prescription meds and her three grown daughters who’ve never really escaped from under her damaging shadow even if two left town long ago. One suspects early that the queen tyrant is beyond redemption and the only reason to deal with her is simply so that the grown daughters might have a fighting chance.

These three sisters, now in their 40’s, could be viewed as classic birth-order personalities: Barbara the oldest is the battler and will inherit her mother’s mantle if the kingdom survives Violet’s decline; Ivy is the caretaker, the quiet “girl next door” who has developed a successful strategy of invisibility and acquiescence; and Karen spins her legitimate desire for love and light into a hood to pull over her eyes, too fragile to face the dark. You could also view them via psychologist Karen Horney’s classic “positioning” theories. Barbara “moves against” Violet, as the best defense is a good offense; Ivy “moves towards” Violet by caring for and accommodating her; Karen “moves away” by leaving the house and surrounding herself with everything her mother is not.

But in the end, what you get is one daughter who is becoming her mother in the process of fighting her; another whose life is slowly being leeched dry; and a third who is too weak to properly care for herself. In the Weston family, you’re either a victim or a victimizer… or you cash yourself out while you still can.

While it’s difficult to feel sympathy for Violet, later in the movie she relays a story to her daughters involving her OWN mother that provides a necessary insight as to how she might have become the woman she is. It’s a simple story, offered without analysis; but I was immediately struck by the thought that, however bad Violet appears, she might actually be progressive. The sins of the mothers are visited upon their daughters, and crazy begets crazy begets more crazy, but maybe (just maybe!) if the sisters develop enough perspective, they might lift the Weston name another footstep out of the muck and one day win the family free.

As I noted earlier, the movie is well-acted, yet not necessarily enjoyable due to the constant barrage of emotional violence. I grew up in a dysfunctional house with its own share of sick behaviors and interfamily conflict, but even that was nothing as terrible as what I saw in AOC. It’s difficult to watch people hate each other this openly and this much, with the camera able to capture every sordid snarl, eye twitch, and half-muttered (let alone bellowed) invective. I suspect the grand physical gestures (there’s even a full-out fleshpile at one point) and wild emoting are necessary in a stage setting so that a distant audience can recognize what is happening; but due to the camera zoom such intensity here is jarring at best. Collesium spectactors who cheered over tiny lions devouring tiny prisoners in the arena center would have freaked had the entire massacre happened in their laps. 

Streep (the queen bee), who is almost always interesting, can switch from bat-shit crazy to mesmerizing contemplativeness during her quieter monologues, then back again. Roberts (the heir apparent) also is at her best; the disappointment and underlying anger she holds towards Mommie Monster is physically etched on the lines of her face and stark downward slashes of her mouth; when Barbara finally decides enough is enough, we know that Violet’s reign is hastening towards an end.

But at times both of these actors shine too brightly for the camera, and it is the more subtle performances of the ensemble that linger.

Julianne Nicholson (who deserves far more attention) plays the middle daughter as an apropos blend of smothered frustration and uncertain bravado in search of a voice, and Lewis — although it’s much like other roles she is known for — provides desperately positive chatter that suggests she knows deep-down she’s running but just doesn’t have the strength to face reality head-on.

Margo Martindale as Aunt Mattie shows a penchant for destruction as strong as her sister Violet but releases it more as a slow poison that nags and nibbles, eroding will and strength until nothing is left. Cooper plays the simple but kind-hearted uncle who finally gets in a good speech when his patience runs out. Cumberbatch, playing against many of his recent roles, is the gentle cousin emasculated by his mother’s incessant criticisms who badly wants to be worthy of (and strong for) the one woman who values him.

And then of course there is Sam Sheperd as Beverly Weston, around whom the plot centers despite his absence, and whose short scene is laced with sad knowing sweetness and more perspective than all the other characters combined.

The play’s original ending cuts off a few minutes before the movie ending, with Violet reaping the inevitable consequences of her tyrant’s reign. The movie tries to be more upbeat by overtly suggesting all three daughters might salvage something out of this mess, and that perhaps — just perhaps — upbringing is not destiny after all. That maybe even those badly damaged by the sins of their families can still find their day in their sun. Is it enough? I don’t know. I hope it is.

3.5/5

 

Tagged

Believe (NBC)

If belief were enough, “Believe” would make the cut. But execution matters, and “Believe” has been struggling since the pilot. Its saving grace at the moment (versus “The River,” a darker but decent idea sunk mid-season a few years ago by flawed execution) is that its wider demographic might provide additional stability until everything settles.

“Believe” tracks the weekly adventures of a little fugitive named Bo with as-yet-unspecified mental powers (although so far we’ve seen telekinesis, telempathy, animal summoning, and even some precog) and her protector Tate (an escaped convict), running from the research thinktank that bred and trained her for its own purposes.

Sounds like an idea with potential bite? Well, not as currently implemented. The mix between Alfonso Cuarón and JJ Abrams is an odd one, resulting in  a hybrid that seems part “Firestarter Lite” and part “Highway to Heaven.” The simplistic but heartfelt resolutions seem aimed in flavor of ABC’s “Once Upon a Time” crowd (oddly, the latter seems darker), rather than kind of edgier work you’d expect from Cuarón’s involvement. Instead of some dark topics and incredible action sequences, we just get a little girl who intrudes into a different person’s life every week and helps resolve some painful issue in their lives — something Tate once refers to appropriately as her “door-to-door Chicken Soup for the Soul bit.”

With that kind of angle, “Believe” so far isn’t working well as a serious drama, but I suppose if NBC wanted to add a “feel good” show to its lineup, it could have done far worse. Bo’s relationship with Winter (the head researcher who trained and eventually took her from the facility to protect her) is endearing, and the fledgling connection between strong-willed Nate and Bo (where neither knows how they’re related… or at least Bo pretends not to) seems natural and real enough.

In fact, casting is one of the show’s strengths. Jake McLaughlin’s Tate is less articulate and more prickly than Sawyer from “Lost,” yet remains likeable because you know he’s not quite the jerk he aspires to be. And Johnny Sequoya in her first front-and-center role as Bo is intriguing — she’s cute, smart, sassy without being repulsive, the kind of self-assured and empathetic little girl who inspires you to believe even if you think she has no clue about how life really works. Delroy Lindo as Winter, protecting Bo against exploitation by his former partner Skouras (Kyle MacLachlan), projects a love for the little girl that remains palpable and untarnished; and MacLachlan’s ruthless pragmatism is balanced by an idealism for how Bo could help humanity to improve. One of the best scenes so far, in fact, has been the brief meetup between Winter and Skouras in a local delicatessen (a riff on the “coffee shop bit” in Michael Mann’s “Heat”) where they unexpectedly sit down to discuss their differences of opinion.

However, as mentioned before, the show kind of “plays” at suspense without being suspenseful. Every episode, there’s a lot of running, a lot of hiding, a lot of Bo disobeying Tate’s incessant nagging and doing things that almost (or actually) get them caught, then Bo doing something that helps them escape without hurting anyone, and… cycle, rinse, repeat. The old “Incredible Hulk” TV series could make this format work, but… in today’s TV world? The times, they been a-changin’.

And the action sequences are unbelievable: When people normally would get shot, the perpetrator doesn’t fire; when Bo could use her powers, she does so in the slowest and least effective way possible; escape routes conveniently occur in places where they normally wouldn’t (like the storm tunnel trapdoor in the hallway of a death-row maximum security ward, way back in the pilot). And so far, while Tate was chosen to protect Bo so that Winter wouldn’t lead anyone to her, literally every episode so far involves Winter personally stepping in like a deus ex machina to save them. Why not just keep Bo with Winter, at this rate?

“Believe” also utilizes repeated story flashbacks without seeming to be quite comfortable with the story device. “Lost” and some other series have been able to show flashbacks, flashforwards, flash sideways, flashing in every which way but loose, without ever needing to tell us “when” they happened by using setting, character appearance, timely pop culture elements, and other clues organic to the scene to signify time and setting… but “Believe” consistently stamps ugly subtitles on the screen to spell it out for everyone (and at least in one episode, multiple times for the SAME time period). A little more visual distinction in the scenes or a little more trust for the viewers would go a long way.

Finally, I was hoping for more honesty in a show where both Abrams and Cuarón were involved, but the story keeps selling out for the “happy ending.” [Note: HIMYM viewers disgruntled by their series finale might be more satisfied here.] For example, a soldier breaks off an engagement to his fiance without explaining why [although the reason is legitimate], and when Bo reintroduces the couple years later, the ex-fiance tells him (truthfully) that she still does love him, but she’s engaged to someone else, so they can’t be together now. Bo seems confused and a bit distraught by this turn of events, Tate feels bad but makes it a “teachable moment” about how sometimes things just don’t work out even when your intentions are good; and then “Believe” backpedals with a rather absurd “Snidely Whiplash” moment that suggests it doesn’t have the courage to enter ambiguous places.

Enjoyment of the show will depend on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a light, happy fix of goodwill, with a dash of the fantastic, then you might enjoy “Believe.” If you don’t like shows where people carry guns and girls throw cars but no one gets hurt and characters are more a plot contrivance of the plot than exploring the grit accmulated by living in a fallible and uncertain world, then it’s becoming more and more difficult to believe that “Believe” will go somewhere meaningful.

Tagged , ,