“Noah” doesn’t take the easy way out

"Noah" floods the screen with excitement

“Noah” floods the screen with excitement

I’ve had this long-standing debate within myself trying to determine if book (or any other medium) adaptations should at least follow and at least respect the source material. Because that’s all Hollywood can conjure up nowadays. It’s not we are in the 90’s where the next spec script could be the next big hit. No. We can’t really comprehend anything “new.” Heck, even “Pacific Rim” got flack for not being original enough.

But what about Bible adaptations?

There is a semi-rich history of Bible movies such as “The 10 Commandments,” which is heralded as a classic. And by the looks of it, we are about to have another Renaissance of Bible movies with “Son of God,” “Noah” and later this year’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” directed by Ridley Scott and starring Christian Bale.  So, how does “Noah” stack up with the rest?

As mentioned before, adaptations can be a tricky thing; especially with the source being the Bible. But we all know the story of Noah and the Ark, right? Well, in this telling the seed of Cain has built up cities of sin and inequity that spreads throughout all the connected continents. The only righteous ones are the ones of the seed of Seth, Noah (Russell Crowe) and his father, Lamech (Marton Csokas). After Lamech is viciously murdered, it is Noah’s responsibility to carry on the seed of righteousness. Time passes and Noah, now with a family of a wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and three sons, Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japeth (Leo McHugh Carroll). They live in a pre-historic-like post-apocalyptic wasteland what is barren to live. They are vagabonds who struggle with the bare necessities. They rescue a small girl, Ila (Emma Watson), when escaping danger. Noah gets his call from The Creator through dreams filled with death-filled imagery.

And the same beats of the Noah story are hit… and then some. King of the seed of Cain, Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), catches wind of Noah’s scheme of ark building and gathers an army to overtake it, just in case it actually happens. As you can tell, this is where the Hollywoodizing comes into play. I’m not a big Bible scholar, but this isn’t entirely canonical. Yeah, I’m sure there would be some pretty pissed off people who would attempt overwhelming a lifesaving vessel as the ark. And this kind of logic doesn’t bother me. It builds tension and adds drama. There is also a plot convenience of rock creature, reminding me too much of “The Lord of the Rings” ents, who help Noah build the ark then protect it. These mystical giants are added seemingly to answer “Noah didn’t really build the ark by himself, right?” and to give the evil armies something to fight against. Whatever. I can overlook that.

Don’t go into the theater thinking you are going to enjoy yourself. My experience was that I found it exciting but not enjoyable. It leans more toward an overly serious biopic than a comedy or a superhero flick. If you enjoy those kind of serious monotone movies, ones with action and drama, this would be for you. But if you want to have a “good time,” not so much.

Russel Crowe is back in the epic seat.

Russel Crowe is back in the epic seat.

Director, Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, The Wrestler) is, by my estimation, one of few directors who is pushing the boundaries of storytelling and film-making into new territories. None of his movies is without substance and “Noah” is no exception. There is one sequence, which seemed to be in the vein of “The Fountain,” where Noah retells the Creation story and the visuals matching up could have been taken straight from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos.” Suggesting that the two theories can coincide is a bold one. He knows how to pack his movies with meaning and philosophy.

The cast is intimate with everyone’s intentions being held in plain view. We understand their wants, needs and their needs to obtain them. Aronofsky does something amazing with them as well. In the second half the viewers’ allegiances change as the characters do. We are pulled in every which way as the characters clash right before our eyes.

I guess I should make a content advisory. Well, there really isn’t one, but just know that this isn’t a soft-telling of Noah, it’s rather hard and coarse. There are pretty horrifying images and ideas that come into play that you wouldn’t share in Sunday School. Just sayin’.

Noah-2022-HD-screencaps-full-hd-wallpaper-1920x1080There are some logical holes that leave me scratching my head concerning the central conflict in that second half. Nonetheless, that was my only huge gripe except the overly-serious tone.

I evaluate a movie mostly on the level of which it makes me think and feel. “Noah” got me thinking plenty about good versus evil and the nature of God and his intentions with us, and the cast made me invested in their characters. The film could have been a paint-by-numbers retelling with some easy plot filler. But it took serious chances, filled it with intention and meaning and held my interest throughout. So overall, I’d say Aronofsky is heightening his art with this Biblical tale.

Rating: Pretty Good!

What did you think? Did the deviations from the Bible bother you? Let me know.

Next up: Captain America: the Winter Soldier. 

“Non-Stop” or “Taken” on a Plane?

I was surprised to see this thriller of 30,000 feet get the amount of critical love that it has. Granted, it has only a 60% on RottenTomates, but hey!, that’s actually certified as “fresh!” I guess we aren’t tired of Liam Neeson action vehicles just yet.

Liam Neeson never stops.

Liam Neeson never stops.

Non-Stop opens up with Neeson staring contemplatively at an airport drinking from a whiskey bottle. Right away we get a glimpse of Neeson’s character Bill Marks: he’s a man with a heavy and hurt past and a dismal future. Marks is an air marshal charged with the task of escorting a flight from NYC to London. With only a few brief encounters, he’s on the plane sitting next to a nervous passenger, Jen Summers (Julianne Moore). Marks is a maverick in his own right, smoking and drinking in the lavatory after taping up the smoke detectors. He gets a text from an unknown number through the private plane network which says unless 150 million dollars isn’t deposited into a bank account, someone on the flight will die every 20 minutes.

What follows is a top of the line thriller. The danger is immediate and the time limit between deaths serves as dramatic tension. Yet with this 20 minute device, the story is episodic. It has stop and go tendencies which is ironic seeing that the title is Non-Stop. Despite that, every episode had me holding my breath.

I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t fooled. That’s part my fault (for actually trying to be smarter than the movie) but also the movie’s. If you’re going to give me a mystery give me the breadcrumbs to follow. This was a dire mistake in last year’s Now You See Me. Although, Non-Stop isn’t as egregious or offensive, I felt a little cheated. Oh well.

Neeson as Bill Marks, grizzled hero.

Neeson as Bill Marks, grizzled hero.

Neeson plays his same grizzled lawman with determination. Which is what we are now expecting every time we see him in a new release, right? I didn’t notice any other performance as being misplaced or confusing. Much of the cast were unknowns except for the newly Oscar award winning actress Lupita Nyong’0 who only plays the smallest of roles. This is a strength of the film, having so many unknowns doesn’t make draw any of our eyes any which way. Anyone could be the hijacker.

Jaume Collet-Serra take the director’s chair in this only having directed Leeson’s past feature Unknown and a couple little horror features like Orphan and House of Wax. I’m not going to say he did a “bad job.” But much of what he did didn’t let me focus on the action on the screen. In some sequences, he was movement-happy with the camera. Text messages in the form of super-imposed images floated across the screen. This wasn’t a bad thing to do; it helped heighten the tension, but I feel like it could have been used in a less jarring way.

All around, Non-Stop was a highly-effective thriller which kept me on the edge of my seat. Well-paced, the acting delivered and the script didn’t have much fat on it to be trimmed. But, it won’t change the way you see cinema or move you in a life-changing way. Which is okay.

Rating: Good.

Did you get to see it? Was it more than “Taken on a Plane?” Let me know!

Next up: Need for Speed or Veronica Mars or The Grand Budapest Hotel. 

“The Wind Rises,” Miyazaki’s Final Opus Soars

"The Wind Rises" your spirits.

“The Wind Rises” your spirits.

Hayao Miyazaki has made a name for himself with his masterful and imaginative animated movies beginning with 1986’s Castle in the Sky, even up to winning Best Animated Feature in 2002 with Spirited Away. Although I’ve only seen those mentioned (I plan to see most if not all) I know what makes a Miyazaki film: grace, gorgeous animation, remarkable storytelling and endearing characters.

Miyazaki’s possible final film is no exception.

The Wind Rises is about dreams. We are introduced to a “Japanese boy” named Jiro (Joseph Gord0n-Levitt) whose literal and figurative dream is to design the most gorgeous and best functional airplanes anyone has ever seen. He’s visited by an eccentric Italian mentor, Caproni (Stanley Tucci), periodically in his dreams to drive Jiro’s ambitions and give him inspiration to continue. While traveling back to school an earthquake hits which allows teenage Jiro and a small child, Nahoko (Emily Blunt), to connect through Jiro’s kindness for her guardian. That outgoing gesture paves the way for their relationship down the road.

The plot bounces back and forth with Jiro’s pursuits of inspiration, ingenuity and work with his boss Kurokawa (Martin Short) to his relationships with his friend and peer, Honjo (John Kraskinski). This formula works well with the movie as to not full mix up the focus of each scene, even though characters may become intertwined every once and awhile.

Not only is the story basic enough to follow, it’s also relate-able on all fronts. It speaks to a generation of dreamers with passions of changing the status-quo, raising the bar of excellence and to pursue the inner passion despite the failures that come before you. It also speaks of true love. Not the flittering feelings that comes from a puppy-dog. But a love of support. You’ll feel connected to these characters. Invested in them.

Jiro is a champion of passion.

Jiro is a champion of passion.

Yet it’s not just the incredible storytelling that The Wind Rises has going for it. Its beautiful animation draws you into the scene. Honestly, there was no bad shot in the entire movie. Each one is carefully framed and expertly colored.

To complement the scenery, the sound design was unorthodox as it was a character of its own. Some sounds felt like they were coming from a folly artist’s mouth, which I have no doubt they did. But the background noises and the subjective noises were perfect in that it envelops your senses.  Along with the sound, the score was magical in its own right. There were several styles which changed in different scenarios. When Jiro was in Tokyo, there was a relaxing blend of Japanese and Italian inspired background scores. And when an airplane lifted off, a classic symphony accompanied to help give flight that wonder back to us.

Thank you,Mr.  Miyazaki.

Thank you,Mr. Miyazaki.

Miyazaki has had an amazing career. One that is comparable to Walt Disney. He has created these livable worlds and populated them with kinetic energy and character who we can’t help but love. I plan on watching all of Studio Ghibli’s films with anticipation. Thank you Miyazaki and enjoy your much earned retirement.

Rating: Extraordinary! 

Seriously, if you have the chance, please experience this movie in theaters. If I had seen it before my Top 10 of 2013 List, it definitely would have made it. Life.

What are your favorite Miyazaki pictures? I’m planning on seeing My Neighbor Totoro and Howl’s Moving Castle next. What others should I see?

Thanks for reading.

Next up: (Possibly) The Grand Budapest Hotel. 

“Prisoners” is challenging but gripping

PrisonersA film that has gone mostly unnoticed from the public except for a few under-the-breath praises from the critical scene, Prisoners is high minded mystery-thriller that challenges our own sense of morality. Other lower films that aim to scare with the use of paranormal and possessions don’t do anything to the degree that Prisoners does. It really attacks the heart of our fear: having one of our loved and defenseless ones taken away. How would we react? And how far would we go to see them back?

The action begins on Thanksgiving Day as two families come together for dinner. Keller Dover’s (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin Birch’s (Terrance Howard) families mirror each other with similar aged children. When the two small girls leave the safety of the house, they disappear with only the clue of a stray RV spotted earlier. Rightfully so, Keller is dead determined to rescue his daughter at all costs and by all means. The RV and its owner, Alex Jones (Paul Dano) are found by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) leading into an extensive investigation that hits numerous roadblocks. Partly at fault is Alex’s lower IQ which makes him less capable of understanding questions.

This is where the two styles of the movies meet and intermingle effectively in the middle third. Keller keeps pursuing his instinct that Alex has the two girls in captive even if Alex isn’t giving any way to his supposed knowledge. His highly-questionable methods are coupled with Loki’s investigation which creates very thrilling dynamics. And for my money, this was  great.

But that’s as far as it goes. The last third-ish is straight up mystery and who-dun-it story that just gets lost in its own mess. It’s like it was trying to be too clever for its own good that the complexity at least lost me with its own smarts. From a good mystery, everything should culminate into one huge revelation. Although it was trying to do that, it still left many loose threads that just furthered my confusion.

The mark of  truly good movie is how it can make the viewer feel. Whether if it’s an over-load of laughter or gut-wrenching pain, what happens on the screen should effect you. And boy, does Prisoners do that. From the first few scenes I was genuinely frightened. And this is coming from someone who doesn’t have any children. You can feel Jackman’s agony as his pursuits hit walls at every path.

That being said, if it had been more focused on what it was trying to be, either a strong character study or a coherent mystery, it would have been outstanding. I just wish they focused on the former, as Jackman was mildly short changed  by not homing strictly on his struggle.

“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is a Political Forrest Gump

Forrest Whitaker in Lee Daniels' The Butler

Forrest Whitaker in Lee Daniels’ The Butler

To brush up on my history and acquire a viewing for my “Race, Class and Gender in American Cinema” class, I ventured to a late viewing of Lee Daniels’ The Butler expecting to be carried away by the Oscar-hype train. Sadly, I was rejected at the station.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler follows Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker), a black man from the south, who was adopted into a house servitude after his father was killed in cold blood. A few years pass until he find his way to Washington DC, gets a job at a luxurious hotel then hired onto the butler staff at the White House when President Eisenhower is in office. We follow him and his family through the Civil Rights movement happening throughout the country. Cecil’s wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), is a somewhat unstable drinker dealing with her two boys. The eldest, Louis (David Oyelowo), gets involved early in his adulthood in the Civil Rights sit-in protests headed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. while in college. Cecil struggles in maintaining his fly-on-the-wall approach of servitude while in the White House while being concerned for the well-being of Louis. Along with an all-star cast who plays the Presidents like Robin Williams, John Cusack, and Alan Rickman truly bring refreshing portrayals.

As you maybe can tell from my short summary, it’s a quick flight through a specific time period in American history. Can you think of another recent film that sounds like? Well, I though of Forrest Gump. It’s easy to see that Cecil played the part of Forrest, an innocent subjective viewpoint for the audience. While his son Louis plays the part of Jenny, someone who got caught up by the times and social movements. It’s similar in structure even if the relationship between the two aren’t identical. The Butler isn’t as funny, entertaining or as comedic black as Forrest Gump, it’s very comparable in structure and sometimes tone. Also, both paint this section of history in a rose-colored and cartoonish fashion.

Now, even though the premise and execution is passable, I’m not sure about a few things that the script and production delivered. I think Forrest Whitaker and Oprah did excellent in their respective roles. Even though Oprah’s character didn’t have much to do in the script as she was just played the woman behind the man, she at least played it believable. I enjoyed the aforementioned cameos of the Presidents by their actors but I never could get past the actors who were playing them. Not that I was looking for them to match Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln, but something close would have been nice.

Also, the first half really mad me hate white people. A lot. Rightfully they showed the awful atrocities that the major mindset that the country held at the time, but no one was there to speak up for the few white people that were in support of the Civil Rights. There might have been one or two and President Kennedy. Also, for the most part, it was a one-sided Democratic party commercial; at least what I found from the depictions of the Commander-In-Chief. Eisenhower, a Republican President, might have been the only Republican President given proper respect. Maybe the other Republican Presidents deserved the wrong side of their face pictured (like Nixon) but it showed a strong bias against other Conservatives.

I wouldn’t be surprised if The Butler were up for many awards during awards season. It hits that sweet spot that the Oscar voters love as the last few winners had. And the A-list cast doesn’t hurt its chances either. For me, it was too littered with political biases and a too fictional look at a turning point of our country that deserved more realism.