Aronofsky’s Noah Hits Stormy Waters: Are Good Bible Movies Impossible to Make?

aronofsky v paramount

I am intrigued by Paramount’s big budget Noah film.  It’s been a long time since Hollywood has tapped that overflowing stream of Biblical narratives that entire careers could be devoted to producing.  I’m pleased that it’s not a low budget independent movie, because it would invariably suck, but I’m also curious what a true artist such as Darren Aronofsky will do at the helm.  Apparently, pre-screened versions are not pleasing the audience and Paramount is not getting much cooperation from the Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream director who has final cut. Full story here .  Is this just the beginning of inevitable controversy due to the subject matter, can we blame the good ol’ media, or is it something more?  I have some thoughts.  Come rant with me:

Why is it that the Christian community at large loves to rail against Hollywood’s interpretation of Bible stories yet they can’t ever seem to make a decent one of their own?  As a cinephile and a Christian with very strong beliefs about both I find it absolutely maddening how starkly and unnecessarily disparate the two things are.  The Bible doesn’t even need to enter into it for a bad Christian movie to be made.  Try to adapt a story from scripture and it is almost guaranteed to fail.  This happens in spite of the wealth of great characters and tales of heroism that the Bible is brimming with like an eternal spring.  The stories are free and tap into the most significant truths about the nature of man and the meaning of life.  The Bible for all of its offerings has barely been touched and the stories that are told are simply retold without expanding to new possibilities.  Hollywood doesn’t know any better.  It’s bound to rehash what it has already done and most people only know a few of the big popular stories such as Moses and the Exodus, the Gospel of Christ, Noah and the flood, and David and Goliath.  You would think the Bible is only about 80 pages long.

Christian independent filmmakers try occasionally to fix this, but the films turn out really bad.  Even if they are able to get good sets and costumes, the acting is dreadful, mostly because the scripts are so terribly written.  Hollywood  can blame it’s irreverence on ignorance and utter disregard for the value of the source material, but Christian filmmakers should know better.  To adapt a Bible story for a movie audience, you have to be a prophet.  You have to risk being unpopular and you better be offensive.  Christians are too afraid to really say something and so they make bad movies because a good movie should challenge you, especially when dealing with such weighty subjects.

The Bible is a collection of what I like to refer to as the best stories badly told.  If you read it, you know what I’m talking about.  There is a lot of great stuff in there, obviously, but to really get a solid picture in your mind of what’s going on, lot’s of supplemental reading is required.  Even with historically contextual information at your disposal, the narrative jumps and changes focus a number of ways that are difficult to keep up with.  That combined with the fact that the text is so rich with profundity and symbolism, you can read and read and read and still miss everything.  All of these great amazing ideas just sitting there for the taking are booby trapped.  You cannot take the approach of being faithful to the text and make a good movie.  The structure of the stories prohibits it.  If you do, you will make something very superficial that will not stand the test of time and only make a few camps happy in some morbid way.

By seeking not to offend, you offend regardless and alienate yourself and your work, most importantly, you render yourself completely and utterly useless.  If Jesus tried to please the Pharisees we would have no Christianity.  I am not saying your aim should be to offend.  Your aim should be truth.  Truth will stir something in people.  Naturally some of them will be offended, but in the end, something of substance has been created.

There are so many versions of the Bible.  Translation upon translation.  Never mind that most people haven’t even read the thing, there are debates over which translations are closer to the intended meaning.  Some popular preachers, like to mix and match verses from different translations to suit their own thesis.  These ministry mash-ups are but one way the scriptures get tweaked on a weekly basis in mega churches like Saddleback in southern California.  Non Christians like to think of Christians in one light probably based vastly on media coverage and partially on regional influence, but their is a whole spectrum within Christendom that is not unlike the volatile political spectrum in the United States.  A typical Christian is just as fictional and misleading as a typical American and the average American probably knows about as much about the content of the Constitution as a Christian knows about the Bible.

With all the potential controversy it’s no wonder the Bible is shunned when it comes to making a movie adaptation.  The few who attempt it are admirable, but the demands for constant compromise doom these projects from the beginning.  Yet, film has seen remarkable evolutionary changes as an industry.  No longer are we tied down to only one version of a story.  just look what a comic book franchise can mean cinematically.  visionary directors are able to explore new interpretations of movies only a few years old.  Like Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, separate accounts of the same story is not only happening with more frequency the potential value is only beginning to be recognized.  I think the world of cinema is ready for the Bible even if the audience is squeamish.  with the right shepherds, these stories can be meaningful new translations for a world increasingly populated by books as movies.  In order for that to happen though, the switch in the heads of the makers needs to flip from “what will people think?”, to “what is this story trying to say?”

You can’t tell a good Bible story on screen if you stick only to the source material.  You have to develop the story according to the true spirit of the scripture.  That is much of what the Gospel is about.  Jesus insisted on what was right when what was written had been corrupted.  When you chose to be blind to portions of the Bible to preserve your beliefs about other portions, you are allowing the same corruption.  The healthiest thing for everybody is to stop saying “this is true because…” and instead take the time honored “What if…” approach.  in order to spark conversation rather than just debate.

I don’t know what Darren Aronofsky will contribute to the conversation, but I admire him as an artist– and a provocative one at that.  I am very interested in seeing what he does with the story.  If I dislike it, it wont be the end of the world, but it has the potential to be really great.

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Review: Much Ado About Nothing

bluray much adoMy impressions after watching Joss Whedon’s micro production Much Ado About Nothing are pretty simple, but my feelings about it’s creation are much more complicated.  If I separate everything going into it from the finished project in an effort to be fair to the production’s value, I may unjustly discredit the film just as I would taking all things into account.  All in all however, I found it to be pretty enjoyable.

I have not been so enamored with Whedon since he scripted and helmed the pivotal Marvel production The Avengers. Having seen how mediocre his direction can be and seeing a clip out of Much Ado itself, I was prepared for a terrible cheap look for the no budget movie.  I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of photography and the direction which showed more forethought and creativity than I expected.  The house was smartly used for the most part and created a very unique and special feel for the movie.  Alexis Denisof, whom fans will recognize as Wesley from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel is superb as Benedick.  Though American, Alexis is known for his british accent and lived in London for some time.  It adds a small dose of irony to hear him speak shakespeare with an American tongue.  Aside from that, his whole performance as the character is admirable and he almost bore the entire movie on his back with the support of Fran Kranz as Claudio, and Reed Diamond and Don Pedro (Both actors from the Whedon series The Dollhouse). Not to discredit the rest of the cast, but I thought this unit was particularly enjoyable and really seemed to grasp the material.

The whole cast was assembled from friends of Joss who had worked with him at one time or another, the side effect of which is that they all have a special place in the hearts of the fans who fell in love with them in their previous settings.  It adds a sense of familiarity in the spirit the impromptu production conveys.  Some of the dialogue comes off a little rocky. I noticed the lighter moments were harder for some of the actors to pull off than the scenes that took a more serious tone.  One of the things that unfortunately did not work for me was the casting of Amy Acker as Beatice.  As much as I love Acker, I just could not be persuaded to accept her in the role.  I would think a more obvious choice was Marena Baccarin, Or even Alyson Hannigan, Alexis’ wife.

I realize of course that the nature of the production was somewhat prohibitive in terms of assembling the cast (Joss made it during a vacation from post production on The Avengers) and it’s wonderful how many great talents got together for this, including Acker, but that’s part of what I mean when I talk about the strength of the movie, as it is, without the distractions of how it came to be.  As a no budget movie put on by a big family of friends in the director’s house, It came out pretty damn good.  But– and this is a big but, like something Sir Mix-a-lot would only dream of– would you pay the premium ticket price or purchase the $20-$25 Blu-ray if it didn’t have Joss Whedon’s name attached to it?  There is even a $15 paperback written by Joss Whedon and William Shakespeare!  Come on.  Are you kidding me?

If a student film maker with limited resources and a passion for film pulls something like this together, then it ought to be supported financially by those who would encourage independent filmmakers.  But should a successful writer/director with a dedicated fan base who has landed (and is yet to finish post production on) the monumental Avengers gig not be held to a higher standard?  I’m not saying it should not have been made, but maybe he should have waited.  It seems to me like the fans are being exploited and taken for granted.  In time– perhaps sooner than later considering what a let down Agents of Shield has turned out to be– they will resent him.

One such lapse in the quality that might have been forgivable in the hands of an amateur is the locations used for the scenes with Dogberry and the watchmen.  It was an unfitting mess compared to the rest of the production.  But it was shoehorned in in order to shoot the whole thing on Joss’ property, with a minimum of preparation.

As a whole– though it is enjoyable and has a terrific cast and is shot beautifully in black and white– the settings and performances are inconsistent with the entire production and the momentum slows from time to time when it ought to be less indulgent and just keep moving.  It’s pretty good for what it is, but what it is is not what it should be.

Movie Review: Iron Man 3

gi poster iron man 3May third is finally here and that means Iron Man 3 is finally out.  The timely third installment about a terrorist regime bombing various locations across America and waging war against Tony Stark does not feel like an Iron Man movie.  It’s dramatic and dark with a surprising amount of death and violence that clearly eschews a pre-teen demographic, while on the other hand incorporating light comedic moments often with a young boy who helps Tony out of a few scrapes.  The film overall is fairly balanced though it loses me a bit at the climax and while it differs substantially from Jon Favreau’s hits, Shane Black has clearly taken ownership of the franchise and made it his own in an admirable way.

This is a straight action flick with Tony doing a lot of the heavy lifting after his suit breaks down leaving him stranded in Tennessee.  There is plenty of comic book material to drool over, but it only serves as a framework to support this gritty action drama that Tony surprisingly finds himself involved in, rather than a more likely Wolverine.  In fact, many moments on-screen, particularly between him and the kid, reminded me of Hugh Jackman and made me wonder if the makers of Iron Man 3 unwittingly made a better Wolverine movie than the soon to be released sequel to the X Men spin-off.

There are many things to love about Iron Man 3.  For starters, every one of the actors takes it so seriously.  It’s not pandering, and they have worked hard to get to the emotional core of everything, so that when the play it it’s wholly believable.  It goes a long way toward suspending disbelief when fantastic elements, such as remote controlled automated Iron Man suits, or unstable,  combustible, bioengineered A.I.M. operatives would otherwise threaten to undermine the credibility of the film.

Another thing I love is the individuality of it.  I like how it doesn’t try to fit the mold of the other two and instead, puts Tony way out-of-place, just to see what he does there.  It’s really cool to see how he responds to the need for Iron Man, without being able to get into the suit.  I think that was the most intriguing Idea at the beginning stages of planning the film, and it holds really strong and makes it a really unique story for the genre.

There’s plenty of danger, plenty of humor and plenty of opportunities for Tony to rely on ordinary people to help him through his Search for the infamous Mandarin.  From set up almost all the way through the film it is riveting, flawless, exciting, and fun.  For as much thought that I know went into the staging of the film however.  I do wish a couple of scenes had been cut from the final piece.  I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who’s not yet seen it.  But there is one moment near the end that I know everybody thought would be really cool and reinforce Tony’s anxiety and doubt beneath his cocksure approach to being a hero.  They probably played this moment in their minds and considered it one of the more definitive scenes in the film and cutting it out would be unthinkable.  While it is a surprising turn of events, I found it to weigh down the rest of the climax and it sort of pulled me out of the fantasy when no one on-screen, Tony in particular, seemed to really react.  From there, the resolution didn’t really work for me and it somewhat deflated my elation from seeing such a uniquely daring interpretation of Iron Man on-screen.  Luckily, the scene at the end of the credits put a big smile back on my face, and I there is much more of the film that I admired than otherwise.

I do have some burning questions, ranging from why the President doesn’t even look like Obama, to how the Iron Man suit runs without the arc reactor in Tony’s chest.  There is very little by way of explanation for any of the technology, which I like.  On the other hand It felt this time around the suspension of disbelief was taken for granted and stretched a bit beyond its limits without any proper support.  The pains originally taken to reinforce the character’s believability are gone, which is slightly alienating when that credibility that inspires belief is one of the things that made the franchise so appealing and such a tremendous success.

The innovative approach to making the film more of a pure action genre and somewhat skirting the science fiction/fantasy elements of the comics resulted in a breathtaking adventure that puts Tony Stark in the type of position more fitting for Ethan Hunt or James Bond.  It’s fun to see the result and it’s even greater to realize that there is room in the films of the Marvel universe for great stories to be told through different lenses.  I appreciated the tonality of Iron Man 3 over that of The Avengers.  Once again the envelope has been pushed and even though Iron Man 2 remains my favorite I happily accept this new installment as a win for team Marvel.

Movie Review: Frankenweenie 3D

Frankenweenie, the Tim Burton short film in which a young imaginative boy raises his dog from the dead, is enjoying a gorgeous reincarnation as a feature-length stop motion film that showcases Tim’s signature art design and stark, stunning black and white photography.  It’s his greatest treat for the eyes since his splendid take on Sweeney Todd.

If you are familiar with the original Frankenstein inspired short, this is not simply a stretched out version of the original.  It may feel at times as though it is thinning out story wise, but there are plenty of great characters and extra movie monster chaos to aid the narrative, plus it’s just so nice to look at.

I’m happy that they made a conscious choice to move away from the original while maintaining the key, most memorable factors.  I like that I feel as though I can still watch the original and get something else out of it.  At the same time the trade-off gives an alternate, more fleshed out and fantastic tale using the art form Tim has become so associated with since Nightmare Before Christmas.

Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, and Winona Ryder are a few of the voice talents that empowered this much more populated spin which  includes my favorite new character, Mr. Rzykruski (voiced by Martin Landau).  Also part of the cast are a host of movie monsters a la Burton and quite an assembly of classmates in an Edward Scissorhands type suburban town called New Holland.  The adaptation was written by one of my favorites, John August, who also wrote Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

This is a fun seasonal family film with some freshness tossed in with the well rehearsed bits and 3D to compliment the staging and photography while entertaining the old and new fans alike.  I’d definitely get the coffee table book on it too.

New in Blu Disney Savings Edition

Disney Nature’s Chimpanzee is among the many new Disney bluRay releases.  You can save $10 on two Disney titles HERE!  Other bluRay arrivals are Bernie, starring Jack Black, Mattherw McConaughy, and Shirley MacLaine, The Dictator – BANNED & UNRATED Version, and WarGames.