REVIEW: “Noah”

noah POSTER

Darren Aronofsky wasn’t the first person I would expect to make a serious Bible-based epic, but that’s exactly the task he has chosen. In fact he has been wanting to bring the story of Noah to the big screen for years. Now armed with a $150 million budget and a stellar cast Aronofsky has co-written and directed a large-scaled picture that has already been met with its share of controversy.

As a Christian myself there are certain things in the Bible where creative liberties have no place. That may not allow me to be the most objective critic of some Bible-based movies but it is a belief that is inseparable from who I am. On the other hand some stories from Scripture leave themselves open to interpretation while others may stir our imaginations by omitting many of the details. Such is the case with the story of Noah. The story of Noah and his ark takes up only a small portion of Scripture so there are definitely areas where our creative imaginations (in this case Aronofsky’s) may kick in. Yet you always look for respect of the spirit of the story and at least some type of adherence to the material.

NOAH2

Fans of popular novels or those passionate about a historical figure or account have always expected some degree of adherence to the source material from movie adaptations. That’s perfectly reasonable and why would the approach to this be any different? Instead Aronofsky has taken a well known Bible story and laced it with Tolkien-styled fantasy, weird mysticism, and one of the most heavy-handed environmental and animal rights messages you’ll ever see on screen. In essence he has chosen to tell a story about a man named Noah and definitely not THE story of Noah that many people may be expecting.

The main aim of Aronofsky’s version is recognized early in the film. Noah (Russell Crowe) shares with his three sons that the environment is the true apple of the Creator’s eye. He uses his son’s criminal offense of plucking a flower from the ground to show how callous men can disrupt the Creator’s beautiful and harmonious world. A situation then arises which allows Noah to tell of how animals are the Creator’s crowning achievement and how men endanger them, some going as far as actually eating them (which shocks his sons). All of this happens in one of the film’s opening sequences but it isn’t contained to it.

The main conflict throughout the movie is between the evils of mankind and the innocence of animals along with Noah and his family. In fact, Noah states that the entire purpose for building the ark is to save the animals and kill wicked mankind. Now the movie does throw a couple of bones to those who were hoping for a slightly accurate telling of the Bible story but the similarities between the movie and the Biblical account are strictly cosmetic. This is much more like a poor man’s Lord of the Rings installment filled with giant talking rock creatures, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) who is a strange hermit/wizard, and an huge CGI-heavy battle sequence. Spellcasting, odd relics, and bloody blades take center stage.

Noah1

The Creator is also in sharp contrast to what some people may expect. At no point in the film does Aronofsky use the name God. Clearly this was intentional. Was it an act of respect in order to not offend especially considering the massive liberties he takes? I don’t know but the God of the Bible and the movie’s “Creator” couldn’t be more different. In the film the Creator is a cold and distant deity who speaks with veiled visions and sometimes not at all. Aronofsky shows him as an iron-fisted tyrant at times who watches mankind wallow in uncertainty and turns deaf ears on their pleas for clarity. And sometimes it’s the Creator who is portrayed as the villain. While Aronofsky never calls him God, it wouldn’t be a stretch to consider this his view of him.

I could go on about strange and perplexing diversions from the original text, but how does “Noah” stand up as a movie? Is it good cinema and is it good storytelling? The film does have some strengths. Whether you like him or not, Aronofsky has a great visual style that separates his movies from others. There are some stunning shots that were really effective especially when the rain starts to come. There are also several phenomenal performances. Crowe is in top form and he is perfectly cast. We also get great performances from Emma Watson, Jennifer Connelly, and Logan Lerman. And I have to mention Ray Winestone. He’s fabulous as Tubal-cain, the king of the evil meat-eating men.

Noah3

But the film has several glaring flaws (aside from my concerns mentioned above). First off, while some of the visuals may be amazing much of the CGI isn’t. The rock creatures look like something out of an early 1990s film and the big climactic battle looked as clunky visually as it felt narratively. Then there were a number of unintentionally goofy moments which were often direct results of Aronofsky’s diversions. The film also grinds to a halt in the third act as a trumped up family drama plays out among those confined to the floating ark. The family conflict angle had a lot of promise, but here it drags the movie down and I began to check my watch.

I’ll be honest, Aronofsky’s decision to divert so wildly from the source material is an issue for me mainly because there is plenty of good story to tell aside from what we are given. But even aside from that, “Noah” is a film plagued with its share of problems. It’s a movie that teases us with what it could have been but ultimately stumbles because of what it actually is. This isn’t the biblical story of God’s righteous judgement of evil and His mercy towards humanity through Noah. But that doesn’t mean this movie isn’t preachy. Its sermon is on the evils of mankind and how the earth has been in a state of physical decay and animals have been robbed of their innocence since we came onto the scene. Who knows, whichever story you care about the most may also determine how much you care about this film as a whole.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

5 Phenomenal Movie Phone Calls

I originally did this particular Phenomenal 5 over a year ago. Honestly, it was one of the most fun lists to put together, but hardly anyone saw it. Thankfully to you all, my blog has grown some since then and I’ve been waiting to share it again for those who have missed it. So why wait any longer? There have been so many great movie moments involving phone calls and almost every single genre has their share. Putting this list together was a lot tougher that I expected and there are some great scenes I had to leave off. But such is the nature with the Phenomenal 5, right? So as always, I wouldn’t call this the definitive list, but there’s no denying that these movie phone calls are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “TAKEN” – “a very particular set of skills”

I liked “Taken” even though it kind of flew off the rails closer to the end. But it also provided one of the most memorable movie phone conversations you’ll find. Liam Neeson’s daughter and her friend are abducted while on a trip to Paris. Neeson’s character is a CIA field agent who we quickly find out has “a particular set of skills”. In a brief but incredibly intense phone chat with the abductors, Neeson presents them an offer (if they let his daughter go free) and then a stern warning (if they don’t). It’s a scene that became the signature moment in the film and one that I can’t help but love.

#4 – “DIAL M FOR MURDER” – “Hello?…Hello?…Hello?”

I still struggle with why ANYONE with an ounce of sanity would want to kill the beautiful Grace Kelly, yet that was Ray Milland’s plan in this Hitchcock classic. As his accomplice hides behind the drapes, Milland lures Kelly out of bed with a phone call from the party he’s attending. He then listens on the phone as his hired hand strangles his wife. Foolproof plan right? Of course not, this is Hitchcock, remember? This key scene turns Milland’s devious plans upside down and launches one of cinema’s best thrillers.

#3 – “NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN” – “You know how this is going to turn out, don’t you?”

One of the very best scenes in the Coen brothers’ brilliant “No Country for Old Men” is the phone conversation between Anton Chigurh and Llewelyn Moss. It marks the first time the two have had any communication and the intensity is simmering. The scene’s slick dialogue and clever tone is vintage Coen brothers but it also works thanks to great deliveries from Bardem and Brolin. From the startling first ring of the phone to the slamming down of the receiver at the conversation’s end, this movie phone call nails it.

#2 – “DR. STRANGELOVE” – “I agree with you, it’s great to be fine”

How can you have a list of top movie phone calls without including the hilarious conversation between United States President Merkin Muffley and Soviet Premier Dimitri Kisov from “Dr. Strangelove”. In this classic Cold War spoof, a base commander goes “a little silly in head” and orders his planes to attack the U.S.S.R. President Muffley, wonderfully played by Peter Sellers, makes a courtesy call to Premier Kisov to let him know the base commander “went and did a silly thing”. The entire scene is just Sellers and he not only plays his character but also brilliantly sells us Dimitri, who we never hear. It’s a laugh out loud funny sequence and one of several great moments from the movie.

#1 – “SILENCE OF THE LAMBS” – “I’m having an old friend for dinner.”

Who can forget the phone call at the end of this Oscar-winning crime thriller? After finishing a gruesome and intense serial killer case, the film ends with Clarice enjoying herself at her FBI graduation party. While receiving several commendations and pats on the back, she’s told she has a phone call. At the other end of the line is Hannibal Lecter. He congratulates Clarice on her success then drops the classic yet still disturbing line “I’m having an old friend for dinner”. Anthony Hopkins, decked in a blonde wig and tilted hat, then walks off after Chilton. The film ends with Clarice simply repeating “Dr. Lecter….Dr. Lecter….Dr. Lecter…”. It’s one of those endings that leaves you uncomfortable but it’s also an ending you won’t forget.

What are your thoughts of my 5 Phenomenal Movie Phone Calls? See something I overlooked? Disagree with my choices. Please take time to share you picks or opinions.

“Hitchcock” – 4 STARS

HITCHCOCK POSTER

You know, I just love movies about making movies. That’s one reason I thought the movie “Hitchcock” would be right up my alley. Another reason is that it’s about one of cinema’s greatest directors – Alfred Hitchcock. Yet another reason I was interested was because of the fantastic cast specifically Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock and Helen Mirren as his wife Alma Reville. These and several other yummy ingredients had me really hungry for this film and after seeing it I can say that it’s quite satisfying.

But enough with the gastronomical analogies. “Hitchcock” takes place during the filming of arguably the director’s most popular and groundbreaking film “Psycho”. The movie begins just after the release of Hitchcock’s wildly successful “North By Northwest”. He still owes Paramount Pictures another film but he’s struggling to find the right one. He also feels that the studios and press believe he is past his prime and he wants to pick a bold project that will prove otherwise. He finds himself attracted to a Robert Bloch novel titled “Psycho”. He convinces Alma and his agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) that it’s the right choice but he has a harder time with Paramount president Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow). They finally reach an agreement where Hitchcock agrees to fund the picture for 40% of the profits and a Paramount distribution.

HITCHCOCK1

It’s really fascinating to watch the behind-the-scenes process and how Hitchcock labored to make “Psycho”. But a bigger and even more enjoyable part of the movie focuses on Hitchcock’s relationship with his wife. Hopkins and Mirren are a joy to watch. The two veteran performers dissect this marriage with surgical precision, bringing out so many interesting aspects of it. There’s a clear love that they both share for one another, but there’s an equally clear strain on their marriage brought on by the financial stress of funding the movie and by Hitchcock’s own negligence, pride, and fear of failure.

Hitch is betrayed as a self-assured man on the outside but he clearly has uncertainties on the inside. He has a wandering eye for his leading ladies and has a tendency to overindulge in food and drink – something Alma stays on him about. Alma is a talented writer herself and her uncredited contributions to Hitchcock’s creative process prove vital. Her growing frustrations lead her to begin her own collaboration with fellow writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), something Hitchcock disapproves of. All of these pressures begin to wear on Hitch and ends up threatening the completion of “Psycho”.

As I alluded to, one of the real strengths of this picture are the performances. Mirren rightfully earns her award nominations that she has received. Hopkins does a fine job fleshing out this complex director under a coat of heavy prosthetics. He nails all the mannerisms and postures and his speech is almost perfect. But there’s one thing I struggled with. I never could quite get past that I was watching him do Alfred Hitchcock. Take Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in “Lincoln”. I was so drawn in by his work that I forgot I was watching an actor play Abraham Lincoln. I never quite got to that point here. Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not a bad performance by any means. But I never completely bought into the idea that I was watching Hitchcock on screen.

????????????

I also have to mention the other supporting performances that I really enjoyed. I’ve liked Michael Stuhlbarg since seeing him in the Coen brothers film “A Serious Man”. He’s good here too. I was also impressed with Jessica Biel as Vera Miles. She’s an actress I normally don’t care for but she gives a nice subtle performance that works really well. But an even bigger surprise for me was Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh. I’ve never been completely sold on Johansson as an actress but I love the Janet Leigh she portrays. She’s beautiful and sexy but she’s almost a stabilizing influence on Hitch. She’s a lot of fun to watch in the role.

“Hitchcock” has a hard time escaping that biopic feel but it’s still a really good film. I think my love for the director’s movies and my particular affection for “Psycho” added a sense of nostalgia to my viewing, but there’s a lot more to this picture than just that. There are many clever little inclusions that go hand-in-hand with Hitchcock. For instance look closely and you’ll find his shadowy silhouette that fans of his will instantly recognize. Then there’s the cool opening and closing of the film that hearkens back the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” days. These nifty treats fit in well with the solid script and wonderful performances and anyone with the slightest interest should come away well pleased.

THE THROWDOWN : John Doe vs. Hannibal Lecter

Wednesday is throwdown day at Keith & the Movies. It’s when we take two movie subjects and pit them against each other and see who’s left standing. Each Wednesday we’ll look at actors, actresses, movies, genres. scenes, and so much more and see how they stand up one-on-one. And it’s not just my opinion that counts. I’ll share my take and then open up the polls to you. Visit each week for a new throwdown. Vote each week to decide the true winner!

Many movies are made by their villains. Some are loud, in-your-face, and charismatic. Others slither under the surface and their presence is felt even as they are rarely seen. In other words, there are a wide variety of movie villains. In today’s Throwdown we are looking at two of the sickest and creepiest villains to ever hit the big screen – John Doe from “Se7en” and Hannibal Lecter from “The Silence of the Lambs”. The question is which one of these truly messed up killers is the sickest and creepiest. Your votes will decide.

David Fincher’s grisly but calculated thriller “Se7en” features detectives Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman trying to find a serial killer who is patterning his murders off of the Seven Deadly Sins. The two discover each disturbing crime scene but we never completely see the killer, John Doe, until the last few scenes of the film. Kevin Spacey plays this truly twisted murderer who shows up at the police station soaked in the blood of two different people. I won’t give away the end but let’s just say the pure evil John Doe provides one of the most shocking and gruesome endings to a thriller you’ll find. Spacey’s John Doe doesn’t appear in every scene but he permeates every scene and he is chilling, even in his absence.

Everyone knows Hannibal Lecter mainly due to Anthony Hopkins Oscar-winning performance in “The Silence of the Lambs”. Forget about the Hannibal spin-off films, “The Silence of the Lambs” is where Lecter staked his claim as a sick and twisted character. Hopkins is perfect for the role and he manages to mix Lecter’s immense intelligence with his sheer gruesome and murderous side. His manipulative and cryptic conversations with Jodie Foster are mesmerizing and even before he makes his big escape later in the film he’s extremely unnerving. Hannibal Lecter has several memorable lines and memorable scenes and it’s impossible to watch him and not remember him.

So which of these two intelligent yet twisted psychos is the creepiest. You get to decide. Leave your comments below but don’t forget to click below to cast your vote.

“THOR” – 4 1/2 STARS

The summer of 2011 was all about superheroes. The summer movie season started with “Thor”, the first of four superhero film’s that were released between May and July of 2011. The idea of a Thor movie changed hands multiple times but Marvel Studios would finally green-light the project after the strong success of the Iron Man film. “Thor” was another movie that led to this week’s much-anticipated Avengers movie.

Of the four big superhero releases that year, I always felt “Thor” had the biggest chance fir failure. While I understood how a great picture could be made considering the wealth of quality source material available, I couldn’t help but question how it would look on-screen. I was thrilled to see that it’s a cleverly crafted film and Marvel Studios did a nice job placing it in the hands of director Kenneth Branagh. Now Branagh wasn’t the first name that I thought of when it comes to directing superhero movies. He’s better known for his Shakespeare movie adaptations but don’t let that scare you away. He does a great job here with some tricky material.

Australian actor Chris Hemsworth plays Thor, the tough but brash god of thunder and heir to the throne of Asgard who is banished to earth after bringing war to his home and losing favor with his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Thor’s banishment opens the door for his brother Loki (wonderfully played by Tom Hiddleston), also known as the god of mischief, to rise to power. Upon crashing down to earth, Thor is found by a group of scientists led by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) who can’t determine whether Thor is from another “realm” or truly insane. To make things worse, Thor finds himself to be without  Mjolnir, his mystical hammer and ultimate power source, making his ability to return to Asgard virtually impossible.

Perhaps the greatest thing about Thor is that it’s just so much fun. For me personally, it was a fantastic movie theater experience. The cast is having fun and easily passes it on to us. Of course it’s filled with spectacular action sequences and special effects but also the perfect amount of humor that never goes too far. The movie never takes itself too seriously and that’s a key to it’s success. “Thor” sticks close enough to the comic book source material to satisfy any fanboy like me but also has a strong mass appeal that anyone could easily appreciate. I also loved the portrayals of Thor’s great assortment of side characters such as Heimdall, Volstagg, and Sif. Almost everything works well. There are moments that had me wanting to clap and others that had me laughing out loud. It’s that well done.

Hemsworth really brings it with his performance. He proves to be a great casting choice and his bulked up, Norse warrior look combined with a genuinely funny, self-deprecating humor does Thor justice. Portman, fresh off of her Academy Award win, is also very good as Jane Foster. She has a nice, believable chemistry with Hemsworth that’s pretty easy to buy into. Hiddleston’s Loki was one of the trickiest roles (no pun intended) but he pulls it off masterfully and Hopkins is as strong as always. I also enjoyed Jaimie Alexander’s Sif. Unfortunately she isn’t given much to do and I would have loved to have seen more of her in the picture.

There isn’t a lot to say negatively about the film but I do have to mention the 3-D. There are very few scenes that really stand out and at the end of the day the 3-D seems tacked on and pointless. As is the case with many conversions, it adds a darker look to the screen and I could have done without it completely. I also wasn’t really taken Kat Dennings’ Darcy Lewis character. She’s mainly in there for comic relief and honestly some of her lines are pretty funny. But I could think of a few better ways to use that screen time. But these things do nothing to ruin what’s a really good film.

“Thor” was a great start to the summer season and a true accomplishment for fans of the comic book movie genre. It’s strong cast is complimented by a well written story and sharp direction. As I mentioned, it never takes itself too seriously but does have enough drama to draw you in. It trips up in a few small places but as a whole “Thor” was a joy. As a comic book fan it met nearly every expectation I had. It’s an obvious attempt to start yet another Marvel movie franchise and ties in nicely to the upcoming Avengers film. It moves at a perfect pace and maintains a great balance between it’s parallel stories. It a fun, exciting, and often hilarious popcorn picture that I’m ready to see again.