Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Ambitious NOAH Proves The Bible Shouldn't Be Treated As Gospel

NOAH (directed by Darren Aronofsky, 2014)

Before anything, let us pause and be grateful a movie like "Noah" exists.

Equal parts sermon and spectacle, intimate drama and epic, Darren Aronofsky's latest (and what a treat to say those words at all) throws down the gauntlet as a movie that wants to be everything and partially fails if only because it winds up being a lot of things. 

Perhaps Aronofsky's perusal of The Bible would have served him better by skimming the parable of the man who spread his seed too wildly. And yet despite its shortcomings, this is such a deliriously singular movie. Capable of individual moments of inspiration, passion, and spine-crushing beauty, this is not a movie to be written off. Its greatest sin may be its ambition. But is that such a sin?

This is a standard issue disaster movie, complete with dark images of rain, brawny men, and CGI landscapes crumbling, yes, but it's a disaster movie run on nightmare fuel, told from the inside out, through one man's crazed desires to carry out what he feels he was put on this planet to do. In short, this might be the story of Genesis you dutifully studied in Sunday school and maybe enjoyed because it's a nice way to explain rainbows before you learn how reflection and refraction work. But rest assured, this is still Aronofsky's interpretation of Genesis. And he's made a few...changes. OK. A lot of changes. 

This is like a rewrite of Genesis after it gets thrown out of every publishing house in town because it won't sell.

Lets start with Noah himself, played by Russell Crowe in some of his most interesting work in years. He's still the centerpiece of our story. He still believes the world to end through a flood, as punishment from God for our wickedness. He still builds an ark to stow his family and two of every animal. This is the basic spine of "Noah." It also represents all the overlap between the movie and the source material. Aronofsky's biggest and perhaps most radical departure is to treat Noah as the world's first antihero, like the twisted lead of a cable drama who does what no one else has the balls to do. If Noah of Genesis openly welcomed anyone who wanted to join, Aronofsky's Noah firmly believes his mission from God is to bring mankind to an end, surrendering Earth to the innocent animals, with he and his family surviving on the ark only to bring this mission to a close. 

As a major alteration to the supposed word of God, this is bold. As the dramatic structure to a movie, it's at least fascinating, if only because "Noah" remains rather coy about what it truly thinks of its main character. Where does its, and by extent our, allegiance lie? Key to the movie's ultimate antihero casting of Noah is its initial build up. We meet Noah as we've always known him - the last decent man left on this planet. He loves and protects his family. He helps those less fortunate. And yet when he receives warning of Earth's impending doom - from a being pointedly referred to as "the Creator," never God - it's treated not as a booming voice from on high, but a surreal fever dream. 

We know the flood ultimately ain't no bluff and that Noah will ultimately be responsible for the continuation of our species. But here's the thing - as viewers of "Noah" the movie, we don't. Roger Ebert taught us to never bring to a movie any more than it offers, and Aronofsky enjoys toying with our expectations of who we think Noah is. By the time the flood waters inevitably strike and Noah transforms into action hero mode, we stand with him insomuch as we stand with one of The Bible's more noble characters. But that doesn't negate the nagging tidbit we already know: Noah's success in boarding and sealing the ark also means the end of mankind, as he intends for he and his family to die as the last humans ever to walk this land. It's a jarring transition in both character and tone to the final act of the movie and one I don't feel it completely earns, as Noah's wife and family learn of his ulterior motives and he transitions again from action hero to a figure not unlike Jack Torrance patrolling the Overlook Hotel with an ax, with Crowe tapping into some genuine menace. 

Still, in the pantheon of Aronofsky leads, Noah acquits himself rather comfortably. From Sara Goldfarb, struggling to fit into her red dress, to Nina Sayers, starring as the Swan Queen at all costs, we meet Aronofsky's heroes at the point in their lives when their desperation outpaces their ability and their dreams are something to be met come hell or high water.

Noah by way of Fitzcarraldo.

That's actually a rather apt way to describe this movie, which tells an epic story through a personal filter. No doubt this is an epic. It has the battle scenes to prove it. But Arronofky isn't playing in the world of Peter Jackson's vast helicopter swoops. When he busts out a wide shot, it isn't one of sweeping beauty, but one of empty, desolate hell. Conversely, he films the major action sequences in the middle of the movie largely in medium and tight shots, rarely allowing us the luxury of cinematic fun, until the movie finally disappears entirely in the ark and it feels like the world tightening in on itself. 

All appropriate to the end of "Noah," where our characters have won their victory, but it's of the hard-earned type, where they're left to wonder if it was even all worth it. If there's one undisputed positive I can say about "Noah," it's that it truly makes you experience the abject horror of this biblical story, what it's like to see firsthand the near extermination of our entire planet and be left with the worst case ever of survivor's guilt, wondering how this could indeed be an act of mercy. 

So where does that leave Aronofsky's intimate epic, his tale of two tones (and then a few tones more)? Difficult to say, and a nagging suspicion lingers that perhaps this still isn't the man's final cut, that one day we'll see a two or three disc DVD definitive edition that whittles his outpouring of imagination down to a finely toned stream. And there really are staggering moments of imagination in this movie, including a magnificent standalone sequence on the ark that could fit smoothly in an episode of "Cosmos," where Noah tells the story of Creation to his children, clearly marking each of the six days not as a 24 hour period, but as an indefinable era. And if the power of movies are their journey to places we've never been, we've truly never experienced anything like the surrealist horror that is Aronofsky's Bible.

In the end, imagination wins. Ambition wins. In fusing a parable of mercy being something you choose to grant (as opposed to simply received) with a Mad Max-style epic with a dark, stark drama of a father possibly going mad, Aronofsky doesn't quite succeed. But the mere fact he even attempted is something remarkable.

Friday, April 4, 2014

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER Offers A Little Brooding, A Lot Of Pizzazz

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, 2014)

Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is I need not follow up, "It's pretty good..." with, "...if you're into that sort of thing."

With rare exceptions ("The Avengers," "The Dark Knight") comic book movies face the same basic problem: If the audience can't sing along to the hymns, they just better hope the music's good. Now "The Winter Soldier" joins that flock as a movie made for both super and casual fan, devotee and novice. Those (unlike me) who know these stories will likely eat up this movie's expansion of the Marvel universe, as forthcoming characters, plots, and general sequel hopes are laid with aplomb. And the rest of us plebeians? We're still greeted with a relentlessly entertaining flick, one that largely eschews the Jason Bourne quick-cutting trough in favor of clean action sequences, deftly blending the preordained Marvel mayhem with a parable of political paranoia not far removed from 1970s thrillers built around the public's inherent distrust in the government because C'MON.

Look, no one's gonna mistake it for a lost work of John le Carre - "Tinker Tailor Soldier S.H.I.E.L.D." The subtext ain't exactly subtle. Simply having subtext in a movie such as this, though, is a cause for mild rejoicing. We're talking about a comic book movie; as with online dating, expectations are meant to be adjusted. "Not exactly smart" doesn't automatically rule out "not exactly dumb."

Two years removed from the events of "The Avengers," this sequel finds Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, nailing the Captain's square charm) living in Washington, D.C. and still working for S.H.I.E.L.D. After a successful mission rescuing hostages on board one of their vessels, Rogers nonetheless feels troubled about a mysterious side mission conducted by fellow agent Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). His digging into the matter leads him down a rabbit hole of enormous helicarriers designed to preemptively eliminate threats, the shady intrigue of senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford, providing a direct link between this movie and "Three Days Of The Condor"), and HYDRA, a secret organization playing to the classic theme of creating chaos to maintain peace.

If there's one strength and weakness to be said of "The Winter Soldier," it's that screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, with directors Joe and Anthony Russo (helmers of some classic episodes of "Community" and "Arrested Development") almost forget they're making a Marvel movie...until they don't. If you believe in auteur theory, Marvel sides more with "auteur for hire" theory. Got your own vision? Want to bring your unique touch? Marvel welcomes you with open arms! Just don't forget, buddy - it's their world. You're just laying a few of the bricks.

Now firmly in Phase 2 of their cinematic plan, Marvel clearly doesn't intend to regress in this universe created by their hand, and you can sometimes feel the gears creaking around "The Winter Soldier" as the Russos, for all the creative freedom granted by a mega non-sitcom budget, must adhere to the Master Plan.

Still, as textbook film-as-product goes, you can't get much more textbook awesome. Not outside "The Avengers" has a Marvel movie popped with as much joy to be on over 3000 multiplex screens. You know the drill by now. Opening action scene to set the mood. Witty banter. Friends or foes who might not be who they seem. Seemingly insurmountable setbacks. Massive "chaos supreme" closing action sequence where you picture the city's poor maintenance crew tomorrow, gazing upon the carnage as their lip quivers. 

It's a chain restaurant concoction. But who among us doesn't sometimes crave Chili's? Their shrimp tacos are underrated. 

The greatest trick pulled by "The Winter Soldier" and the Russos is making it all feel seamless. If "The Dark Knight" was commonly known as a Michael Mann crime story about men in capes and make-up, "The Winter Soldier" does the same with 70s spy thrillers, and yet it plays admirably coy about it. Stephen King wrote that if your subtext is any good, you shouldn't try to make it happen; it should just be there. "The Winter Soldier" tries exactly as hard as it should. 

As directors creating two competing tones - political paranoia and ass kickery - the Russos expertly weave them through each other. You never catch the movie saying, "There's our lesson for the day, now how 'bout these pyrotechnics?" The story emerges convincingly from the action and, even more impressive, the action emerges convincingly from the story.

How ultimately fitting that Marvel saved this story of distrust in government for Captain America. Despite this movie's obvious tonal parallels to "The Dark Knight," Christopher Nolan operated in full "This is our world as it is" mode. No games, no gloss. "The Winter Soldier" skates close to that territory before returning to "This is our world as we'd like it to be" - Captain America might brood, but not for long. He begins as a hero who operates with complete boyish trust in the powers that be because they're the powers that be, and when he learns his initial mission on the freighter might have secret motives, his main shock is he wasn't told. 

That's what makes him and "The Winter Soldier" so oddly compelling. Batman can't be surprised and he can't be corrupted. When Captain America becomes disillusioned with the modern state of his country, though, we believe it. And through his eyes, the movie sells the theme of paranoia that might otherwise come off as trite.

When I sat through the closing credits, it wasn't merely to pretend like I understand whatever inexplicable teaser they attach. It was out of respect.