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Top 10 Films of 2013

Here are my ten favorite films from last year.  To the best of my knowledge, all of these are now available on DVD, so you don’t have to try and remember and/or hunt them down in obscure theaters with sticky floors and smelly seats.

I haven’t reviewed hardly any of these yet, so stay tuned… I’ll get to them soon.

10. Frances Ha

A difficult, funny, frustrating movie about growing up, and letting your dreams and ambitions grow up, too.  ”Frances Ha” and “Inside Llewyn Davis” are very similar movies, but Noah Baumbach wins out over the Coen Brothers because he seems to genuinely like his title character.

 

 

9. Blancanieves

I wish all the people who went ape over “The Artist” a few years ago would take the time to watch and seriously consider this overlooked silent film. Charming, strange, and wonderfully engaging, it’s a retelling of “Snow White” (as a bullfighter) that makes all the Hollywood remakes seem tepid and tame.

 

8. 12 Years A Slave

A powerfully moving film that reminds us, just how brutal and unjust the practice of slavery in America really was.  How can it be that on one side of an imaginary line in the sand, you are a person with rights and dignity, and on the other, you are nothing more than property? The whole cast is great, but powerful performances for Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o set the pace.

 

7. Mud

Everyone’s talking about Matthew McConaughey’s performance in “Dallas Buyers Club,” but I don’t think drastic weight loss equals great acting (and found the plot of that film overly conventional and thin in places.) He does solid, less glamorous work here, as a fugitive hiding in the woods who must rely on two young boys to bring him food and help him reunite with his girl. But the film really belongs to Tye Sheridan, a kid trying to understand his own parents’ divorce (and the mystery of adult love and relationships) through his friendship with this stranger in the woods.

6. The Spectacular Now

I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for a great coming-of-age story, and this is one is even better than “Mud.” Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley have great chemistry together, and Woodley might be the next Jennifer Lawrence.  But more important than that, the characters here feel real, and deep — you can see them acting out of deep issues that don’t all get neatly resolved by the end of the film. This is one you’ll watch, and keep thinking about for days, and then watch again, and see things you missed the first time.

5. Frozen

I have two kids under the age of six, so we’ve watched Disney’s latest about a million times in the last two months. I should be thoroughly sick of it. But the more I watch it, the more I appreciate it. This is Disney Animation’s best film in twenty years, a film that not only defies convention in satisfying ways (the handsome prince is a jerk! true love’s kiss comes from a sibling!) but is also loaded with legitimately great songs, and a surprisingly complex (but never overloaded) plot.

 

4. Short Term 12

This is nothing more or less than a fantastic indie flick about two semi-adults running a group home and trying to figure out their own lives, and the love between them. Every moment rings true, every character feels like a real person. In a movie season where everyone seems obsessed with their own problems, it’s so refreshing to watch two people so devoted to helping others that they may not have the time and/or energy to invest in their own relationship. Then again, maybe they do.

 

3. Her

Speaking of people who are self-obsessed… the miracle of “Her” is that it manages to take a story about a loner falling in love with his computer and make it feel like something other than a farce.  Watching this, I engaged in a serious debate with myself about whether this relationship was “real” or not. This is the most profound, thoughtful movie of the year, as well as one of the most engaging and entertaining.

 

2. Gravity

Wow… just wow. Nobody has come close to accomplishing as much with CGI (and 3D) as Alfonso Cuaron does in “Gravity.”  This is a knuckle biter from the first moment to the last, as well as a startlingly beautiful (and surprisingly deep) film.  Hey Hollywood hitmakers: more like this, please.

 

 

1. American Hustle

I seriously don’t know how David O. Russell does it.  Nobody else is making movies like this. How in the world does he create movies so fun, so full of manic energy and pure insanity, without losing the thread altogether and descending into outright craziness?  That’s the genius of “American Hustle;” it walks the razor edge of chaos in such an invigorating way, watching it is almost like watching a tightrope walker teeter but never fall. Fantastic filmmaking. Easily the best film of the year.

 

 

Others that almost made the list (definitely worth watching:) 

  • Inside Llewyn Davis
  • The Past
  • August: Osage County
  • Philomena
  • The Place Beyond the Pines
  • The Bling Ring
  • Saving Mr. Banks
  • All Is Lost
  • The Kings of Summer

 

Top 10 Films of 2012

Top 10 Films of 2011

Top 10 Films of 2010

Top 10 Films of 2009

Top 10 Films of 2008

Top 10 Films of 2007

Top 100 Films 2000-2009

 

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Maleficent

OK, I know what you’re thinking. Do we really need another prequel? Another origin story? Is it that important to know what all our heroes looked like when they were still in diapers, and to witness the tragic events that turned good guys into bad guys? Wolverine, Magneto, Darth Vader, the Wicked Witch… who’s next? Donald Rumsfield?

But just because a tune is familiar doesn’t mean the right artist can’t totally kill it. (In a good way.) And that’s what happens with “Maleficent.” The general outline of the story is overly familiar, but Angelina Jolie puts so much soul into her performance as the wicked fairy, she saves this one from the junkpile.

Jolie plays the title character, a powerful fairy who rules over a kingdom of magical creatures. On the other side of the river are the humans, who are greedy and mean and don’t like magic.  A boy crosses the river and wins the trust of the fairy queen, but, back on his side of the river, he is overwhelmed by ambition. When the king declares that whoever can kill the fairy queen will marry his daughter and become the next king, he betrays the trust of his friend (and love?) in a shocking manner, stealing her magnificent wings and presenting them as evidence of her death.

Pause there. The scene when Jolie discovers that she has been betrayed and violated is easily the most intense and disturbing in the movie. You may have heard that Maleficent has a “rape scene;” this is it. Thankfully there is no scene of violent sexual assault in this kids’ movie, but the way Angelina Jolie plays Maleficent’s sense of loss, of violation, of anger and hurt and disbelief is heart wrenching and unforgettable. It’s a powerful moment in the film, but also the main reason why I would not take my daughter to see this movie. This is not kids’ stuff.

In line with the old adage that “hurting people hurt people,” Jolie transfers her kingdom into a dark place, builds a wall of thorns between herself and the humans, and then puts a curse on the king’s daughter — this part you’ll remember from “Sleeping Beauty,” and it plays verbatim here. But when the cursed infant is placed in the care of three (very irritating) fairies who might as well be the Three Stooges, the job of keeping Aurora alive until the curse can kick in sort of inadvertently falls to Maleficent herself. If left up to the stupid fairies, she’ll be dead before she turns three.

And I guess that’s the problem with putting a sixteen year delay on your revenge; it gives you a ton of time to sit and think about it.  Maleficent calls Aurora “Beastie,” first out of hatred and disgust, but eventually, with affection.  Again, this should be really cheesy and predictable, and ok, it kind of is, but Jolie really sells it. It works, and it’s because she doesn’t over-act, doesn’t chew the scenery, doesn’t camp it up. It’s really a pretty quiet performance from Jolie, and because of that, the big, loud, frightening moments really work. In the craft of acting, less is almost always more, but movies like this (and actresses like Jolie) very rarely grasp that. I was pleasantly surprised.

But of course, the curse has to happen anyway, because, well, there is that 1959 Disney film, after all, and you can’t just ignore it and hope it’ll go away. But at a key moment, “Maleficent” takes a page straight from “Frozen,” and while it’s kind of refreshing (and undoes the worst of the sexism from the ’59 film,) it’s enough to make a guy wonder if there’s anything left for the non-fairer sex in the wonderful world of Disney. Will handsome young princes be relegated to sidekick roles (at best) for the next 50 years? Well, I guess that would be fair and just.

As I watched it, I wondered who “Maleficent” was for – I certainly would not take my five year old daughter to see it, and I’m not sure I’d take a twelve year old to see it, either. It’s dark, and intense, and really never lets up. Elle Fanning is given the task of bringing some sunshine to the picture as Aurora, but she doesn’t have anywhere near the screen presence to compete with Jolie’s darkness. I hesitate to blame the young actress, though; she really doesn’t isn’t given all that much to work with. Probably the physical comedy of the three fairies was supposed to lighten things up, but they are, without a doubt, the worst part of the movie, and just make a black mood blacker. Maleficent isn’t just hurt and angry, she’s surrounded by brightly colored idiots.

It is interesting, and satisfying, to watch Maleficent journey from hurt and hatred towards love and redemption. It’s made doubly so to watch the king on the other side of the river (played by Sharlto Copley) journey deeper and deeper into fear and madness. He has the power he wants, but it can’t protect him from his own conscience– or Maleficent’s curse.

Aside from Jolie’s makeup (which is pretty great – prosthetic cheekbones!) the visuals here aren’t particularly interesting.  Everything looks borrowed from an earlier movie. The fairy creatures look like overweight house elves and smallish Ents.  The battle scenes could’ve been pulled straight out of “Prince Caspian.” There’s a dragon in the climactic scene that pales in comparison with the one we saw not too long ago in “The Hobbit.”

Frankly, I’ve never thought much of Angelina Jolie as an actress. Her film history suggests that she mostly relies on what her mama gave her instead of investing much into the study of her craft; her attempts at “serious” movies have been pretty bad. But there’s no doubt in my mind that without Jolie in the title role, “Maleficent” would have been a forgettable bit of summer nonsense. Instead, it’s worth watching.

Posted in The Movie Blog.

A Million Ways to Die in the West

Pretty often someone asks me what I think about a movie like Seth McFarlane’s “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” My answer: I don’t think about movies like this.

I’ve said all this before.  But just to reiterate: that doesn’t mean I don’t watch movies like “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” or that I don’t enjoy watching them. I do. It’s just that thinking about this kind of movie doesn’t make much sense. A lot of movies are enhanced by reflection and critical analysis; dumb comedies decidedly are not. You just spoil the fun; it’s like critically analyzing a birthday party clown’s routine. I’d venture a guess that McFarlane doesn’t want you to think about his movies.  He wants you to watch them, and laugh, and forget about them, at least until the next time you need to watch something and laugh.  And that’s okay with me.

Continued…

Posted in The Movie Blog.

All Is Lost

“All is Lost” opens with the only speaking sequence in the entire film: the narration of a goodbye letter from a man to his family, apologizing for his shortcoming and letting them know that he was thinking of them when he died in a lifeboat on the open ocean.

It serves as an introduction to the only character in the film, played by Robert Redford, but not really. When you think about it, what he writes is pretty general.  He wishes he had been kinder, more patient, easier to get along with. But he doesn’t say anything unique or specific; a million and a half men in America could recite his apology. (And recited better. Redford’s acting in this film is quite good most of the time, but this reading is terribly, terribly stagey.)

And so we know basically nothing about him. He is Everyman, or, as the credits list him, Our Man, devoid of details, more a symbol than a character. He represents something.

After that little speech, we cut backwards in time a ways, to the beginning of the problem. Somewhere in the Indian Ocean, Our Man has run his little sailboat into a stray shipping container full of kids’ shoes.  It puts a sizeable hole in his boat, but not one beyond repair, and does his best to fix it up and sail on.  But things go from bad to worse, until… well, until the final message in a bottle.

Continued…

Posted in The Movie Blog.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

There’s always an ongoing moral struggle at the center of the X-Men. When I wrote about the first film 14 years ago, I wrote that the point of the whole thing was that, in the face of oppression and suffering, you can choose to respond with forgiveness and hope for reconciliation, which is frustrating and leaves you vulnerable to even more suffering.  Or you can choose to respond with anger, violence and hatred, which is simpler and safer, but ultimately leads to a cold, dark hole.

It took seven movies to finally expand on that bit of moral philosophizing, but “Days of Future Past” adds a nice wrinkle: in the pursuit of your goals, no matter how noble they might be, you absolutely must resist the urge to manipulate people along the way. Whether you are equipped with psychic powers or are just a master of oratory skills, if people are not allowed to make up their own minds about joining you or opposing you, you’re asking for trouble.

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Neighbors

Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne play new parents in a new neighborhood.  They both seem unsure about this stage of life they’ve entered, enough to make you wonder if maybe it happened to them by accident, and they’re struggling to make the best of it. They don’t seem to have (or want) any friends who are also parents, and the friends they do have don’t see any problem with taking a baby to a rave.

So when a fraternity, led by Zac Efron and James Franco’s little brother moves in next door, their first concern isn’t for their child’s welfare, but whether or not their new neighbors will think they’re cool.  They head next door during the housewarming party with a peace offering of pot in hand, and end up staying until sun up, doing mushrooms, and generally out partying the college kids.

This scene, like a lot of “Neighbors,” doesn’t ring true, and might be funnier if it had more to do with reality.  I am a parent, and when my kids were as small as the one in the movie, staying out all night wasn’t an option, not because I was trying to be a responsible parent, but because sleep was as hard to come by as a sober person at a frat party.  Rogen and Byrne know that they ought to tell their neighbors to keep the noise down, but they don’t seem very invested in the idea. Clearly, they are getting too much sleep.  When our downstairs neighbors threw a loud party while the baby was sleeping, my wife did not practice hip ways to ask them to “keep it down.”  She stormed downstairs, wild hair flying, murder in her eyes, and DEMANDED that they shut the hell up.  She didn’t even knock.  I think she scared the party out of them forever.

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Why I Regret Watching “Blue is the Warmest Color”

I watched this “Blue is the Warmest Color” because it showed up on so many “Best of 2013″ lists, and intended to review it. But then, while reading articles and other critics’ reviews about it, I changed my mind.  I’m not going to review it. I wish I hadn’t watched it. I recommend that you avoid it.

There has been a lot written about the sex scenes. Are they pornographic, or artistic?  Are they too perfect, in a movie that, in all its other scenes, values the real and the raw over the perfectly composed? If people are sexually aroused while watching them, does that make them porn?  What if people watch them for the sole purpose of being aroused? Are they necessary to convey the director’s artistic vision? What about “the male gaze”?  Does it matter that neither of the actresses, or the director, or anybody else significantly involved, are gay?

 

In my mind, all of this misses the point. It’s a debate that can rage on and on, and one I don’t enjoy. Here is what matters to me: the actresses, Adele Exarchopolous and Lea Seydoux, have said in various interviews that filming the sex scenes was a humiliating, degrading experience. They have vowed never to work with director Abdellatif Kechiche again. That when they signed the contract to make the film, they knew there would be sex scenes, but they had no idea they would spend ten grueling days filming the sex scenes over and over again. That Kechiche asked them to do things no other director had ever asked them to do.

In response to these allegations, Kechiche has accused them, Seydoux especially, of being disingenuous and careerist, of conspiring with his enemies to destroy him.  In my mind, this is perhaps the worst possible thing he could have said.  It sounds almost exactly like a man accused of rape turning the accusation back on the victim, questioning her character and credibility. It’s one of the oldest, dirtiest tricks in the book, and it’s time that it stopped working.

In response to all of this, the same critics that praised this film have basically shrugged, saying that often directors have to do unsavory things to their actors in order to get the performances necessary for their art. They point to the way Hitchcock treated his actresses, especially Tipi Hedrin in “The Birds,” or the way Kubrick bullied Shelley Duvall while making “The Shining.” They mention how Maria Schneider felt she’d been raped by Brando and Bertolucci during “Last Tango in Paris.”  And because these are all considered great films, that makes it okay.

I disagree. I absolutely, emphatically disagree. Degrading women, or anyone else, for the sake of great art is a heinous practice. It should be considered a contradiction in terms – if someone has to feel degraded, humiliated, or for heaven’s sake raped in order for your artistic vision to be realized, then I am not interested in your artistic vision, or in you as an artist. This kind of thing should not be tolerated, and I won’t tolerate it. I will never again watch a film by Abdellatif Kechiche, not unless he apologizes to these actresses and changes the way he makes films.

Critics and writers can debate all they want about the definition of pornography.  If you ask me, if a woman is humiliated and degraded while making a film, if she regrets ever signing that contract because of the sexual things the director demands that she do, that film is a piece of garbage not worth my time or attention.  I wish I had known better.  I would never have watched “Blue is the Warmest Color” in the first place.

Some of the articles I mentioned:

Manohla Dargis – The Trouble With ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’

Owen Gleiberman – Are the sex scenes in ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’ artful? Or are they ‘male gaze’ porn?

Lea Seydoux says she felt like a prostitute during Blue is the Warmest Color’ sex scene

Actresses say they’ll never work with the director again

Kechiche fires back

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Thor: The Dark World

The following review, which is really more a rant, contains spoilers. You’ve been warned. 

OK, let’s talk about everything that is wrong with “Thor: The Dark World,” one of the most headachingly bad movies I’ve seen in a long time.

—The movie centers around a MacGuffin – an object that the bad guys really want and the good guys really want to keep the bad guys from getting.  It doesn’t really matter what the MacGuffin is, which is good, because we know next to nothing about it in TDW – it’s called Aether, it’s black and liquid-y and apparently really, really powerful. There have been some good movies that feature MacGuffins (the Maltese Falcon is a MacGuffin) but it’s almost always a lazy screenwriting device.

—The MacGuffin is supposed to hidden so well that no one will ever find it.  But Natalie Portman just stumbles upon it.  Seriously, she’s not even looking for it.  It’s like discovering the Hope diamond in your sock drawer. She just gets really, really, lucky— or unlucky, I guess.  And you know what luck in the movies is?  A lazy screenwriting device.

—The bad guys look cool, but who are these guys? They have as much personality and motivation as the blow-up clown punching bag in my son’s room.

—The secondary characters are really annoying.  Kat Denning’s wisecracks in the first Thor were charming.  This time around, she’s just that friend at the party that you wish would just SHUT UP.  And Stellan Skarsgard is reduced to running around without his pants on.  For no reason.

—Also, they do exactly zero to advance the plot.  There is no reason for them to be in this movie at all.

—Thor breaks Loki out of prison to help him defeat the bad guys.  And then when the bad guys show up, Loki appears to betray Thor and hand him over to the bad guys.  Except it’s just a ruse, in order to… actually, I don’t know what it’s supposed to do, except trick the audience. The bad guys didn’t see “The Avengers.” They don’t know Loki from a Lexus.  At one point, one of them turns to the other and says something like, “um… I think I saw this guy in prison.  He must be a bad guy.”

—And then Loki dies, honorably, and this was my favorite moment in the movie.  But.. we’ll get to that later.

—Thor and Natalie Portman get ready to fight the bad guys.  Thor will use his Mighty Hammer, and Portman will use… science?  Seriously, what the heck is happening in the climactic action scene?  What is that gadget in her hand, and what is she doing with it?  Why do people keep disappearing and reappearing in Iowa?  The movie has no interest in making any of it makes sense; it just waves its hands and yells, “SCIENCE!”  and we’re supposed to go along with it.

 

—Then, when it’s all over, Thor has a heartfelt moment with Odin, his father, explaining that he’d rather be a good man than a great king.  And Odin lets him know that while he can’t give him his blessing, he is proud of the man his son has become.  Except it’s not Odin.  It’s Loki, pretending to be Odin.  So the whole scene, which was one of the best written ones in the film, turns out to be all bullshit.

 

—…and Loki’s noble death, my other favorite moment in the movie?  Yeah, that was fake, too.

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Frances Ha & Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen Brothers’ latest film is about an unsuccessful folk singer in New York in the ’60s.  He drifts from one friend’s couch to the next, offends just about everyone around him, with his gruff demeanor and condescension, and seems stuck in an endless cycle of self-sabotage and thwarted ambition.

Noah Baumbach’s latest film is about an unsuccessful dancer in present-day New York. She drifts from one friend’s apartment the next, offends just about everyone around her with her awkward vulnerability and over-sharing, and seems stuck in an endless cycle of loneliness and thwarted ambition.

The two movies have a ton in common, obviously, beginning with the notion that both are strong rebukes to this kind of thing:

The Coens and Baumbach both seem to be making the point that at some point, you’ve got to let the dream go — or at the very least, let it be modified by reality and the people who know how to make an artistic lifestyle commercially viable. Both Frances and Llewyn have overdosed on believing in themselves.

Llewyn, in particular, is fixated on a particular artistic vision. He has several friends around him who are more successful than he is, but he views them with contempt. “What do you think of this guy?” he asks his friend Jim, played by Justin Timberlake, while at the gaslight, listening to another folk singer.  ”Fantastic performer.  Fantastic.” Jim answers.  ”Yeah, but does he have a… higher purpose?”  Llewyn asks.  Jim, and his wife (played by Carey Mulligan) are also folk singers without a higher purpose – they make music people like, and it pays the bills.  Llewyn considers them careerist and kind of sad.  He’s the one sleeping on their couch.  ”Hang me, oh hang me… I’ve been all around this world,” he sings in the opening sequence.  Llewyn Davis has been all around the world of ’60s folk music, and finds nothing there worth living for.  Wouldn’t mind the hanging much, but you’re in the grave so long.

But while Llewyn’s artistic vision cuts him off from his friends, Frances’ vision, which is no more compromising, is about her friends. She is attached at the hip to her best friend Sophie — “we’re the same person, basically,” she tells acquaintances, who look at her quizzically.  Early in the film, she ends up breaking up with her boyfriend, because he wants her to move in with him, and she won’t break her lease with Sophie. But then Sophie moves in with (and gets engaged to) her boyfriend, leaving Frances adrift. She bounces around, trying to find someone else to bond with.  She moves in with a pair of boys whose company she enjoys, only to find that their starving artist lifestyle doesn’t involve any starving and is heavily subsidized by their parents. (“I caved and finally accepted that loan from my stepfather, the bastard,” one of them laments.) She’s a dancer, but getting old and not making much progress — the people around her know her options are getting increasingly limited, but she clings to what she loves to do quite stubbornly.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is the funnier movie, but “Frances Ha” is the warmer one. As with a lot of the Coens’ films, you get the feeling that they don’t really like their own creation, and most of the funniest jokes are mean-spirited. Perhaps the meanest bit at all comes at the end, which is just like the beginning, implying that Llewyn is stuck in some kind of eternal cycle of misery and futility.  Frances, in contrast, is allowed to grow.  Her film ends, not exactly in a happy place, but in a hopeful one.  There may be life (and joy) after the dream dies, after all.  Actually, maybe the dream wasn’t all it was cracked up to be in the first place.  That kind of realization can be depressing, or freeing.  Or a bit of both.

Another thing these two films have in common: a lot of people aren’t going to like them.  Both are character studies, mostly content to just follow a character around for a while and see if what they do is all that interesting.  Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. They are both well-made movies, but a little too artsy for me.  They’re both collections of scenes, some of them very good scenes, but I’m not sure that adds up to a movie. I am a fan of traditional storytelling; I like movies that involve challenge, tension, resolution, character growth, hard decisions, big questions, things at stake. There’s not much of that here (as I said, there is a bit of character growth in “Frances Ha,” but it’s precious little for the running time.) Not much happens in either “Inside Llewyn Davis” or “Frances Ha.” That’s clearly on purpose, but it moves both of these movies from “great” to “pretty good” in my mind. 

Random Notes (mostly about “Inside Llewyn Davis”): 

 –Carey Mulligan’s performance is one-dimensional.  She hates him, and isn’t shy about it.  It’s funny at first but gets old fast.

–I didn’t think John Goodman was funny, or at all pleasant, either.

 –“Inside Llewyn Davis” has a fantastic soundtrack, highlighted by Isaac actually singing and playing the songs.  It could be that listening to “Inside Llewyn Davis” is more fun than watching it.

–The stranger in the cowboy hat reminds me of a similar sequence from “Mullholland Drive.”  Having said that, it take a special kind of guy to insult somebody who just kicked you in the gut, and is about to do it again.

–Maybe the funniest line in a Coen brothers’ movie since the Big Lebowski: “where’s its scrotum, Llewyn?  WHERE’S ITS SCROTUM?”

–Garrett Hedlund played Dean Moriarty last year, and basically reprises that role – with a lot less energy – briefly in “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

 – In Llewyn’s defense, he really is surrounded by jerks, from the guy who won’t let him bum a cigarette to the girl who acts like he slept with her while she wasn’t looking somehow. There’s nobody he respects, andtruthfully, there’s nobody deserving of his respect.  This is what makes it a Coen brothers movie, I guess.

–Diehard folk music enthusiasts will have a good time figuring out which real person each character represents, but for the rest of us, they’re just a bunch of people making pretty music.

– It’s being said that Llewyn Davis is based on Dave Van Ronk, and here’s the clincher: there’s actually an album called “Inside Dave Van Ronk” – no lie.  What’s more, it has the song “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” on it.

–The Coen brothers create settings that are beautifully, meticulously realized, but it’d be wrong to call them authentic.  This isn’t really Greenwich Village in the ‘60s; it’s a sort of mythical, hyper-real version of that time and place, just as “O Brother Where Art Thou” doesn’t really take place in the American South.  (Almost all the Coen movies take place in a jumped up, mythical version of their supposed setting.)

Random Notes

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Noah

We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.  –John 1:14

The last part of that verse both inspires and haunts me: full of grace and truth.  So often, I err on one side or the other, either extending grace but ignoring the truth, which makes me an enabler, both of my own sin and that of my friends. Or I am full of truth but lacking in grace, coming down hard like a hammer, squashing those I am trying to challenge and exhort.

But John tells us that the glory of Jesus was that he was full of both grace and truth. I love that it is a both/and, not an either/or statement: Jesus did not perfectly balance grace and truth, he was full of both of them at the same time.  That’s amazing, and beautiful, and glorious. It’s also something we humans (well, this human, anyway) struggle to understand.

Darren Aronofsky’s film, “Noah,” is about that struggle. Now, I imagine you have heard a ton of things about this film already, some of it profound and some of it ludicrous.  And yes, it takes a number of liberties with the story – though very rarely actually contradicting what the Bible says happened.  Mostly, it fills in the gaps in the story in imaginative ways. Aronofsky is Jewish, and the Jewish have a name for this kind of storytelling: “Midrash.”  It’s an ancient and honored tradition. Some people have found the Aronofsky’s imaginings to be upsetting and even offensive, but I didn’t. I took them for what they were: one man’s telling of a story that, if given the chance, each of us would probably tell a little differently. I like Midrash.

The way Aronofsky chooses to tell it puts emphasis on the seeming dichotomy between grace and truth. Noah sees the truth of the situation all too clearly. Mankind is wicked, full of sin, and that sin is destroying everything – himself, other people, and Creation itself. Creator has decided to send a flood to cleanse the Earth, and has chosen Noah and his family to build an ark to house the survivors – every kind of animal, as well as Noah and his family.

But this is where Noah fails to understand God’s plan, and chooses truth over grace. He is both wise and humble enough to recognize that the sin disease that has wrecked everything exists in him and his family as well. This, to me, is a marvelous revelation: Noah does not divide the world into “us” and “them,” or, more precisely, “us that God loves” and “them that God hates.” If Noah’s children bear children, then the flood will fail to solve the problem of sin. And so he comes to believe that he and his family are supposed to be the final family, and that when they die, the Earth will be completely cleansed of humans and their sin.

Let’s pause there for a moment. Perhaps one of the most important ways that Aronofsky diverges from the Biblical record is that he removes God as a character from the story. Note that I did NOT say he removes God from the story. God is very present in the story, but not as a character. God does not talk to Noah the way he does in Genesis. Instead, he speaks through visions and dreams, and perhaps through an inner voice that interprets those visions and dreams. In interviews, Aronofsky has defended that decision by saying that he feels like every time you cast an actor to play God, you demean the infinite, omnipresent Creator of the universe. I agree with and respect that. But it also has another effect, perhaps unintended, that I appreciate: it gives the Noah story a more modern feel, and makes its main character more relatable.

Because haven’t you ever said, to yourself if not out loud, “well, if God would just show up in person and talk to me in an audible voice, like he did to Noah, or Abraham, or Moses, then I would know exactly what to do!” But He doesn’t. For His own reasons, God speaks to us differently these days than He did in the days of Genesis. But for most of us, most of the time, God speaks to us in the same ways he speaks to Aronofsky’s Noah: through dreams and visions, and through an inner voice we can recognize as not our own.

And, like Noah, when we hear God speak, we think we know what we’re supposed to do, and we proceed in faith, with trembling. When Noah first receives the dreams and visions, he does the right thing: he shares them with people he trusts (his wife and grandfather) and they help him to understand what the visions mean, and he listens. But when he starts to go off the deep end, he has stopped listening. He has gone beyond what God has given him to do; he is trying to get ahead of God, to anticipate the Grand plan, though God has only shown him a small piece of it. He becomes so rigidly certain that he know what God is trying to do that, even when he is presented with a miraculous act of God’s provision (a miracle he prayed for, earlier in the film,) he sees it as nothing but a threat that must be eliminated.

Aronofsky’s Noah is a man who creates God in his own image. He has seen the wickedness of mankind, and cannot fathom that God would have any grace for his or his kind. But perhaps because Noah is made in the image of God, he cannot carry out these imagined orders. He believes he has failed God, but what has really happened is that the false image of God he has created comes crashing down. And once again, it’s the people around him — his community — who are able to show him a truer, clearer picture of God – a God full of grace and truth.  Thank God for community.

“Noah” is a movie about a man struggling to understand how God can be full of both grace and truth. It’s a struggle I can relate to, but one I’d certainly never seen before in the Noah story.  Aronofsky may or not be a believer in God, but I’m glad I watched his film, because through it I caught a glimpse of God’s glory, the glory of the one and only Son, full of grace and truth.

Posted in The Movie Blog.