Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Noah (2014)

It's only fair that a critic of a movie acknowledge his biases if he is commenting on a film where those biases will color his perspective. In order to speak about Darren Aronofsky's Noah, I need to first assert that I am a Christian, I believe that the Bible is inerrant in its original form, and I hold the Bible to be sacred truth.  Generally, I find movies based on the Bible or those to designed for Christian audiences to be artistically inferior productions regardless of how good their intent might be.  There are exceptions. I am an ardent supporter of The Passion of the Christ.  I enjoy the grandeur of Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments. I appreciate the earnestness of The Greatest Story Ever Told, even if my eyes roll when John Wayne appears as the Roman centurion.  I find interest in some movies that are set with Biblical events in the background, such as The Robe, Ben-Hur, or Quo Vadis (these tales were apparently popular in the 1950s).  There is a lot of mediocrity in Bible adaptations like King David or King of Kings or Samson and Delilah.  John Huston's The Bible is excruciatingly dull, and Martin Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ is blasphemous.

Initially, I had no interest in seeing Noah. Upon its release, the slight preponderance of positive critical reviews swayed me and I then wanted to see it for myself. I'm not a big fan of director Aronofsky.  Requiem for a Dream is too abstract in a world that doesn't interest me. Black Swan had some great strengths but the fantasy elements were distracting to me.  I'm a big fan of The Wrestler, however. I knew that some things were in the movie that were not a part of the Genesis record of the event, and I attempted to keep an open mind about that.  Obviously, I know that any filmed Bible story is going to be interpretive on some level but I doubted that Aronofsky was the man to present the story of Noah.

The best thing I can say about the movie is that it never bored me -- and that's a major plus since this is a Biblical epic running over two hours. Russell Crowe was a fine choice to play Noah. Jennifer Connelly, playing Noah's wife, elevates most movies when she's in them and she doesn't disappoint here.  Aronofsky keeps the film moving, and I liked his view of the Ark itself. He also uses CGI to good advantage with the storm , the flood, and the arrival of the animals.

But I can't deny that the major deviations from the Biblical record troubled me greatly.

Much of the film was a lot more Lord of the Rings rather than Lord of All Creation.  I'm specifically referring to the angels that are consigned to Earth. They seemed to have a lot of inspiration from Middle-Earth with a touch of reference to Transformers.

I don't know what kind of a toll it would take on a man to be one of the last 8 survivors of humanity, and there may have well been emotional turmoil with the real Noah. But he is presented in the Bible as being resolute in his faith, and his depiction in the film Noah as an irrational, nearly crazed man after the Ark closes is disturbing and the most distasteful thing about the film.

I could accept the fiction involving Tubal-cain (well-played by Ray Winstone) as the power hungry leader of the community closest to the Ark until he stowed away on the Ark.  I wanted to laugh at the absurdity then.

The soap opera elements such as Ham's betrayal of his family to assist Tubal-cain and having Shem's wife (demurely played by Emma Watson) deliver twin daughters out-of-wedlock with Noah threatening to slay them were not only complete poppycock but they also diluted the powerful story of salvation and redemption which is what the actual life of the Biblical Noah illustrates.

If I could separate MovieRAM the moviegoer from MovieRAM the Christian, Noah as a work of fiction and as a cinematic experience is a better film than a lot of modern fantasy films (such as the bloated The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey). But the film Noah is too far outside my comfort level for of a telling of the sacred Biblical story of Noah, and I still fell dirty for not only seeing the film, but for enjoying it in the limited amounts that I did.  I wish I could shake the film, but it bothers me to my core.

It saddens me that this is the only exposure to the Bible that some people will see, or that some people will perceive this presentation as truth.

I remember several years ago when I refused out of principle to see Michael Moore's hit documentary
Fahrenheit 9/11. I knew that the views expressed in that film would offend my moral sensibilities and I wisely chose to ignore it for the drivel that it was. I wish that I had followed the same principles for Noah, but I can't unwatch the film. Watching it certainly wasn't worth troubling my soul this extensively though.  Grade: C-.

I watched Noah at the Pullman Square Marquee Cinemas on Friday evening April 25, 2014 with my friend Brian.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Carnal Knowledge (1971)

Admittedly, I knew very little about Carnal Knowledge before I saw it.  While I thought it had a good cast, it never seemed like a movie that held much interest for me.  Since I've made it a mission to see every movie that has been nominated for a major Oscar (Best Picture, Director, or an acting award), Carnal Knowledge fell on the list of films to see because Ann-Margret garnered one of her two nominations for Best Supporting Actress (her other nomination was for 1975's Tommy, the cinematic adaptation of The Who's rock opera!).

I should know by now to never discount movies from the incredibly fertile 1970s. Carnal Knowledge looks as if it could have been a period piece made in 2014 -- it hasn't aged a bit other than we know the primary actors are now senior  citizens. It looks terrific, and even though it is a talkie movie, the script is very well-written.

One of the big reasons why 1970s drama was so successful is that so many of the characters in those movies are textured and deeply flawed. I'm not even sure that I would call any of the characters in Carnal Knowledge likeable -- but they are constantly fascinating. Kudos for Jules Feiffer's incisive script.  The story goes that Pfeiffer brought the idea to director Mike Nichols with the hopes of mounting a play. Nichols said he saw the story as a movie. To be honest, it feels like a well-done adaptation of a play to me. There are three defined acts, each building on what has transpired before. Nichols has been such an uncommonly successful Broadway director that it is easy to forget about his strong cinematic successes that include Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Silkwood, and Working GirlCarnal Knowledge can comfortably sit amongst the best of Nichols's film accomplishments. It is an intelligent and daring film that is every bit as timely today as it was in 1971.

Carnal Knowledge tracks the changing sexual mores of mid-20th century America as it examines a pair of college roommates from the late 1940s through the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s.  The result isn't pretty and there are no happy endings here in this dark drama. While the film never judges the choices that the characters make, it certainly never endorses them either. If the viewer passes judgment on the film -- as any respectable viewer should -- it seems to me that the viewer would have to see traditional morality as a viable (and maybe preferable) option.

The story in a nutshell: College roommates Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel, here billed as Arthur Garfunkel) are virginal college roommates obsessed with getting laid. They both have ideals of the type of woman that interests them. At a mixer, Jonathan challenges Sandy to hit on attractive co-ed Susan (Candice Bergen). Susan is intelligent and possesses a detached demeanor. She and Sandy become friends, and she gives in to his feelings of love for her, though she isn't certain that she feels the same.  Jonathan, jealous that Sandy is making headway with Susan, begins to date her behind Sandy's back and eventually sleeps with her before she sleeps with Sandy.  Susan professes love for Jonathan but is unwilling to end things with her friend Sandy. Frustrated, Jonathan breaks things off with Susan.

The second act finds Jonathan meeting the sexy, voluptuous Bobbie (Ann-Margret), a woman who seems to epitomize Jonathan's fantasies.  Jonathan and Bobbie move in together, and Bobbie discovers that she wants marriage. Jonathan becomes impotent at the thought of that, and their relationship deteriorates as Bobbie succumbs to severe depression and Jonathan grows angry with his life.  The situation culminates badly when Sandy shows up with the lady he is having an affair with, and the envious Jonathan suggests that two men swap females for the evening.

Years pass. Middle-aged Sandy's latest conquest is a teenager (Carol Kane), and Jonathan can only get aroused by visiting the prostitute Louise (Rita Moreno) who must roleplay to a very specific script. It seems that Jonathan and Sandy may have won a few battles in the Sexual Revolution, but they certainly lost the war.

The four leads are remarkable.  Candice Bergen captures the angst of the brainy Susan as she is torn between the two men in her life who happen to be best friends.  It's the type of role in which she was practically typecast at the start of her career, but she handles the adult material beautifully. And Art Garfunkel -- well, who knew he could act? Why didn't he have a bigger screen career? He's perfect as the insecure Sandy and his performance never musters a false note. Nichols is a master of casting and his gutsy choice of Garfunkel pays off handsomely.  Ann-Margret is a revelation as Bobbie. Having spent the 1960s in mostly bad movies, she is given a chance to shine in this role of an aging sex kitten who wants a traditional marriage.  She succeeds admirably; her performance is complex and riveting.

The center of the film is Jack Nicholson's Jonathan. I could make an argument that Nicholson was the movies' greatest actor for 35 years. I've never seen Carnal Knowledge referred to as one of Nicholson's iconic roles, but it is. Jonathan is a beast of a man. and Nicholson doesn't shy from revealing the layers of ugliness within, all barely underneath the devilish grin and twinkling eyes. When I think of my very favorite Nicholson performances in films like Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Reds, Prizzi's Honor, Ironweed, and About Schmidt, I realize that his performance in Carnal Knowledge could easily stand up to his stellar work in these better-known films.  Nicholson truly is an actor of the highest order.

Intellectually, I know that great movies can be made about subjects in which I have little interest. (2001's The Piano Teacher springs to mind.) The more I think about Carnal Knowledge, with its cast of irritating characters making bad choice after bad choice -- well how can I recommend this film? Then my mind is drawn to the stylish filmmaking, the flawless dialogue, and the perfection of the performances, and I realize that Carnal Knowledge is a movie that will stay with me for a very long time.  Artistically, it flirts with greatness. Grade: A-.

I watched Carnal Knowledge on DVD on Saturday, April 26, 2014.