Sunday, March 30, 2014

Noah (USA, 2014)

Nine Things about the Movie Noah

1. This movie is loosely structured around the Old Testament story of Noah's Ark. But you should be warned, this is NOT the Bible story you grew up with. It was directed by Darren Aronofksy, who directed "Pi", "Requiem for a Dream", and "Black Swan." And he's an atheist. So if you were expecting a normal, safe Christian story, you need to learn your directors before you go see movies.

2. Aronofsky takes the classic, flawed Bible story and turns it into a majestic, visionary work of art that transcends religion. It's a layered and sophisticated examination of human nature, ethics, religious mania, self-doubt, and sacrifice. It's allegory and philosophy, wrapped in a myth.

3. In this movie, Noah is basically the world's first hippie. He and his family live in a wasteland straight out of the "Mad Max" movies. Noah's family takes care of all life, even flowers, while a distant relative - a descendant of the infamous Cain - is industrializing and destroying the earth. Oh, and there are some giant angry rock monsters living nearby, too.

4. Noah gets bizarre visions about the destruction of all life on Earth. He goes to visit his grandfather, the mystic Methuselah, for help. Methuselah gives Noah a drug that came from the Garden of Eden. After tripping hard for awhile, Noah knows what he must do... or so he thinks.

5. A barely-mentioned Bible character, Tubal-Cain, is the main bad guy - a warrior king who thinks that Noah might be crazy, but decides he wants Noah's stupid boat, just in case. So he prepares war on the family while raping and pillaging everything in his way.

6. By treating the story of Noah as an archetypal myth, Aronofsky frees himself to use it to explore the human condition in a way the Bible never could. It also means he's able to ignore problems with reality - like how all the animals find the ark, or how they all fit in it, etc.

7. Not only is the movie different than the Bible version, it openly contradicts it sometimes. To say too much more about the movie would be to give away spoilers that are best left discovered on your own.

8. Not surprisingly, many "traditional" Christians are upset about the movie (in a delightfully subversive twist, parts of the Bible are quoted - by the bad guys). The Hollywood studio that financed the film was afraid of this and wanted to change the movie to make it more acceptable to Christian audiences. But Aronofsky fought them, and won. He was allowed to make it how he wanted.

9. If you want a reverent, traditional Bible story that shows the courage and faith of a simple man who trusts in God during a time of darkness, then you need to find something else to see. Aronofsky gives us a daring and epic reinvention of the story that, while set 4000 years ago, is actually relevant today.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Divergent (USA, 2014)

Nine Things about the Movie Divergent

1. This film is based on the first book of the popular young adult trilogy of novels.

2. If you haven’t noticed, contemporary young adult stories typically follow a set formula - an innocent kid joins a larger society and must be categorized. But then the kid discovers they are “special”, which causes problems for the society, and the kid must lose their innocence to survive in a dangerous world . Some recent examples are “The Hunger Games”, “Ender’s Game”, and the Harry Potter series. “Divergent” sticks to that exact same formula.

3. Just because you have seen this basic story multiple times does not mean the movie is bad. These kinds of stories are popular because it is the archetypal “hero’s journey” myth, and, if they are well-made, hit a nerve with us. Such movies can sometimes become classics - “The Wizard of Oz”, “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” are other, older examples of pretty much the exact same story.

4. Thankfully, “Divergent” is well done, and holds its own among its cinematic peers. It’s about a girl named Tris who takes a test (kind of like Harry Potter’s “sorting hat” or Ender’s training monitor) to discover which of five distinct factions she will become a member of (like Hogwart’s Houses or the Zones in “The Hunger Games”). But she is so special that the test breaks, and nobody knows what to do with her (like all the stories I just mentioned). So she must trust her gut and decide in secret.

4. Tris chooses her faction and begins her training, but she’s so gifted that she draws attention to herself, not only from her fellow classmates, but from her hunky instructor, too. And the leaders of another faction, who have controversial political aspirations.

5. The movie handles the usual themes well - conformity vs. independence, fear vs. bravery, and the trauma of growing up. But it also subtly asks a couple of bigger questions that are unfortunately not explored here; questions like “What is human nature, anyway?” and “While conformity may seem bad, what would happen if we were all independent?”.

6. The acting is decent, and the main characters have good chemistry. Thankfully, the movie delays the inevitable romance as long as it can, and tries not to let it get in the way of the bigger story.

7. Being aimed at young adults, there is not much blood or death, but some people may be surprised that there is a relatively high amount of violence, both explicit and implied.

8. The other two books, “Insurgent” and “Allegiant”, are expected to be made into movies and released in theaters in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

9. So yes, the story is old and predictable. No, “Divergent” won’t become a timeless classic. But if you aren’t just totally over this type of movie, it’s worth seeing. And it makes you realize why this same story keeps getting turned into movies over and over again: The issues that teenagers struggle with never go away. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters are all dealing with the same existential problems. Only our perspective changes. And sometimes our choices.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Need for Speed (USA, 2014)

Nine Things About the Movie Need For Speed

1. This movie is based on a car racing video game. So you know it’s not going to be deep.

2. It’s also basically a 2-hour long Ford commercial.

3. But the movie is actually fairly interesting. It’s more entertaining, slightly more realistic, and not as stupid as what the “Fast & Furious” movies have turned into.

4. It’s about a former race car driver named Tobey and his friends. There is an ex-girlfriend and an old rival. There’s a plot. Stuff happens. People talk. They race cars. About twenty minutes into the movie you know the rest of the story. I figured out who was going to die, which would inspire Tobey to race for justice and revenge.

5. The story is ridiculous, but the acting is decent. The main female lead was not nearly as annoying as I expected her to be. And Michael Keaton almost steals the movie as a rich weirdo that sponsors a top-secret elite car race.

6. The movie was directed by Scott Waugh, who is an actual stuntman. He hated the fact that the “Fast & Furious” movies used computer-generated cars and races. He wanted to do all the car racing for real. Computer effects were only used to erase crew members and wires.

7. Waugh used up to 40 cameras at once to capture some of the scenes. A climactic crash scene lasted 12 seconds on screen, but took six hours to prepare.

8. The movie is worth seeing for its cinematography and driving scenes.

9. We certainly don’t need two car-racing movie franchises in the world. But if we have to have one, put “Fast & Furious” in the garage and give people the “Need for Speed”.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Robocop (USA, 2014)

Nine Things about the Movie Robocop (2014)

1. This is a "remake" of the classic 1987 film. But while the name and basic plot is the same, this is a very different movie.

2. It's set in the year 2028 where the Omnicorp company sells robot police to the U.S. military for use in countries overseas. But they are not allowed in the U.S. because Americans are paranoid about robots running law enforcement.

3. When police officer Alex Murphy gets blown up in front of his house, Omnicorp gets the idea to take what's left of him and make him a robot. This is done in the hopes that by retaining a basic human identity, Americans will accept robotic police. But Murphy's human ethics conflict with his robotic programming, and it causes problems.

4. Both versions of the movie are making social commentaries on their times. The 1987 version was a satire on 80's American consumer culture and excess. The 2014 version is more of a commentary on national security, and the boundaries of technology and humanity.

5. The 1987 version was rated R and was very violent and bloody for its time. This version does have a lot of shootouts and killing, but there is almost no blood. It is rated PG-13.

6. In the 1987 version Murphy is actually killed and resurrected, but his human memories are all wiped. In this version, Murphy isn't actually killed; leaving his humanity intact is a key plot element.

7. This version is much more philosophical than the original. It's partly an existential meditation on identity, free will, and what makes us human.

8. One of the more interesting changes is the character of Murphy's partner, Lewis. In the 1987 original, Lewis was a white woman. In this version, Lewis is a black man.

9. If you are expecting a direct remake of the 1987 cult classic, you will be disappointed. But the director wisely left the original alone and basically made a new movie. If you like movies that mix action with intellect, this is worth seeing.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Pompeii [Germany, Canada, 2014]

Nine Things About the Movie Pompeii

1. The only thing that most people know about Pompeii is that it was an Italian city destroyed by a volcano and buried in ash a long time ago. So this movie makes up the rest of the story.

2. The plot of the movie is as generic as you can get. You can almost hear the filmmakers say, “Well, the event happened in gladiator times. And it’s about a bunch of people who can’t escape where they are and they all get killed. So let’s make ‘Gladiator’ meets ‘Titanic’. And even though it’s in Italy, let’s make everybody talk with a vague sort-of-British accent.”

3. And that’s exactly what they did. It’s your basic poor-boy/rich girl story. It’s about a boy named Milo that is captured in war, becomes a slave, and then is sent to Pompeii to fight as a gladiator. While there, he meets Cassia, the daughter of the city ruler. They fall in love. Her dad is upset. The usual.

4. Meanwhile, the volcano starts acting up. For some reason, it only happens at night, like the volcano was some serial killer, and people start disappearing.

5. Besides the love story, there is a half-baked political subplot. Since we all know how the movie ends, the story is not only silly, it’s pointless. There’s no reason to care much about the characters.

6. The last half-hour of the film is all about the destruction of the city. It’s pretty cool to watch, and the 3D effects are well done.

7. The director did take a lot of time to make the city itself historically accurate, basing it on studies of the actual ruins. Historians give the movie points for this.

8. Scientists who study volcanoes say that the depiction of the volcano is also historically accurate, except for when it rains fireballs.

9. This is a simple, old-fashioned disaster movie that offers nothing special in terms of story, but is fun to watch.

Last Year at Marienbad (France, 1961)

Nine Things about the Movie Last Year at Marienbad

1. Released over 50 years ago, this movie is still considered highly controversial. Not because of any violence or sex, but because it is so odd and surreal.

2. Some critics consider this a masterpiece of cinema, both defining and defying the French New Wave movement. Other critics have put it on their list of the worst films of all time, because it’s almost impossible to understand in a logical way.

3. I’m definitely in the first group. This is one of the most gorgeously strange movies I’ve ever seen. Visually and stylistically it’s one of my favorite movies. Being deliberately shot in black & white makes it paradoxically sumptuous. The whole thing is mesmerising and dream-like.

4. The basic plot is about a man and a woman in a hotel. The man is trying to convince the woman that they met a year ago and she is supposed to leave with him now.

5. The movie jumps back and forth in time without warning - there are some scenes in the present, some scenes in the previous year, and some scenes that seem to float unanchored in any specific time.

6. None of the characters have names. Scenes are repeated in different ways with different costumes. Dialogue is repeated in different scenes. It is bizarrely self-referential.

7. There are multiple interpretations of what is going on. Maybe it’s really happening. Maybe it’s just in the man’s imagination. Maybe it’s just in the woman’s imagination. The movie demands repeated viewings to keep discovering new details.

8. Each viewer may have their own idea of what’s going on, depending on their own life experiences. It might be a romance. It might be about rape. It might be about obsession and ghosts.

9. This movie clearly was an influence on Stanley Kubrik’s movie “The Shining”, as well as the work of David Lynch.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

300: Rise of an Empire (USA, 2014)

Nine Things about the Movie  300: Rise of an Empire (USA, 1014)

1. This violent action flick isn’t really a sequel or a prequel to the movie “300”. It sort of wraps around it. It starts out by documenting events before “300”. Then it tells a parallel story of different battles in a different part of Greece while “300” is happening. Then it wraps things up by showing what happens after Sparta’s 300 are all killed at the end of the first movie.

2. The main villain of the first film, Xerxes, has a minor role in this one. King Leonidas is not in this movie, except for flashbacks of the first film. This time it’s the Athenian hero Themistokles against the female Persian naval commander Artemisia. She’s bringing goth back.

3. The movie makes a point to say that the Athenians were mostly farmers, poets, and craftsmen. They were not warriors. But somehow they look and fight just like the Spartans.

4. While the first movie focused on land battles, this one is mostly about ship warfare.

5. It is not directed by the guy that directed the first movie. So while it has a similar feel, it’s not quite the same..

6. This movie is an example of what is becoming called “war porn” - an athletic ballet of violence and sex appeal. It’s absolutely beautiful to watch - even the huge orgasms of blood.

7. I didn’t know women used to fight battles in flowy dresses.

8. The sex scene between Themistokles and Artemisia is supposed to be a metaphorical bargaining session about freedom, slavery, and loyalty, but it ends up just being funny.

9. If you want historic accuracy, or metaphors for current world events, or even intelligent discourse about different ways to rule a country, then you need to stay away from this movie. But if you want an absurd piece of kick-ass style and violence, then this might be the best you get all year.