Friday, April 11, 2014

Calling an audible: Reviews of Noah and The Lego Movie

I hadn't been to the theater in almost a month, and had worked out with the wife (thank you my darling) to take in a double feature on Tuesday night.

Except, I would have doomed myself to failure if I hadn't noticed a handy-dandy feature at the Hoyts cinemas at Melbourne Central.

As you queue for tickets, you see a display of the movies showing at this theater, their start times, and one very helpful piece of information: the number of seats remaining. That gives you an immediate real-time perspective on how likely you are to make it to the front of the line before tickets sell out; whether you might want to jump off line to use one of the kiosks; or whether you want to chance it, but have a backup plan in mind in case you strike out.

I had to use my backup plan, but not because the movie I was about to buy tickets for was about to sell out. Rather, because I gleaned that there was a high likelihood that the movie I wanted to sneak in to later on would sell out.

The plan was to pay for a 6:30 showing of The Lego Movie and sneak in to an 8:30 showing of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Except that I happened to notice as I was idly scanning the available information -- my own showing being in no danger of selling out -- that the 8:15 3D showing of Captain America had only 65 seats remaining, more than an hour-and-a-half before it was set to start. This being cheap Tuesdays at Hoyts -- where tickets are "only" $12.50 -- I knew that both that 3D showing, and the regular D showing 15 minutes later, would be long gone before I went to sneak in. Sneaking in to a second movie only works, after all, if the second movie has available seats. Yeah, you could displace a legitimate ticket holder from his/her seat, but not without guilt -- and not with assigned seats, which I would soon discover these were.

So less than four people from the front of the line, I called an audible and threw together a new plan.

Noah was also starting at 6:30, and some quick math told me that its 138 minutes would be letting out just in time to get me to an 8:50 showing of The Lego Movie. Given the extensive availability of tickets for the impending showing of The Lego Movie, I surmised that the 8:50 show would have free seats as well. Captain America would have to wait for another day.

The new plan did work, which is why I can bring you both of the following reviews.


When assessing the success or failure of a Biblical epic like Noah, released by a director with a respected track record, one pressing question comes to mind -- especially if you didn't like the movie. That question is: Was this Darren Aronofsky's vision for how he wanted to make the film, and I just didn't connect with it, or did Hollywood come in and muck it all up?

The answer to that question is especially hard to figure out with Noah, because it seems to perfectly embody some of the screwier aspects of Aronofsky's diverse filmography, which may not be for everyone in the first place, while also feeling plenty emblematic of concessions to Hollywood thinking. There's a very strong sense of intention in this movie, and to contradict that, there are also some passages that feel bland and passive. Wrapped up in all this confusing swirl of critical analysis is the fact that I'm not even sure that I don't like the movie -- and in fact, thought I might like it quite a bit for its first 90 minutes.

Noah is of course the story of God's destruction of the human race by flood, and in case you really don't know anything, here's a quick synopsis of it. God makes man and woman. Man and woman eat apple and fall from grace. Man and woman have a son who kills his brother. Killer brother creates cities of equally awful human beings who treat each other and the planet terribly. God decides to kill all human beings except for one man -- the descendant of the innocent younger brother of the killer brother, who survived and created his own lineage. Man must build a giant wooden ship and put all the animals on board to ride out the storm to end all storms, and start over again from scratch. He gets to bring his family with him.

So it would be no stretch to say that this is one of the darker chapters of the Bible, if not the darkest. One of the definite strengths of Aronofsky's movie is that he does not shy away from this darkness. It's clear in every frame of Noah that everyone understands the terrible price humanity must pay for God's wrath. The extermination of 99.9% of the earth's human beings is no small detail to be glossed over, though one could argue whether this movie properly dramatizes this scourge. The weight of the decision is certainly a heavy burden for the title character, who is twisted by his responsibility into someone cruel and bestial. But what does the movie think of the actual drowning of hundreds of thousands of human beings, or however many were supposed to have populated the earth ten generations after Adam and Eve?

One brief scene both showcases the awful cost, and makes a person wonder if it shouldn't have been showcased more. As (spoiler alert) Noah and his family are finally afloat in their wooden craft, they pass by the tippy top of what must have been one of the world's tallest mountains. Maybe 20 feet of it are still above the surface of the waves, and the last couple dozen human beings, other than those in the ark, are screaming and scrambling and grappling, knowing they are in the last minutes of their lives. It's both a bracing piece of physical evidence of the realities of the situation, and a teasingly distant one, as the camera never gets closer than about 100 feet from them. This is, as it were, the only on-screen consideration of the fate facing all the human beings that lived at that time, and as a result, it can't help but feel cursory, almost perfunctory.

To spend so much time discussing this one curious decision, which is simultaneously profound and dismissive, is to inevitably ignore the many other decisions Aronofsky makes that are some percentage effective and some percentage ineffective. Nearly every choice he makes can be both criticized and praised, though there are certainly some that lean one direction more than the other. What's most interesting is how this exemplifies the duality of his film. On the one hand, it is bursting with creativity, as several scenes showcase the head-trippy visual tricks that Aronofsky has made his trademark. As just one example, a recurring three-shot montage of a slithering serpent, a plucked apple and the raised rock Cain used to kill Abel is a potent echo of Aronofsky's recurring "get high" montage from Requiem for a Dream. On the other hand, though, long stretches of this film are drab and colorless, as whole minutes of the film will pass where every single thing on screen is either brown or gray. This drabness is, unfortunately, reflected in the lead performance of Russell Crowe, who delivers most of his lines with a dispassionate stoicism that would seem lazy, if it didn't seem more likely that it was a wrong-headed intentional choice by Crowe and his director.

All this said, the film does have a lot going for it prior to the flood, and some of the sheer spectacle of it gave me chills. But you shouldn't be surprised to learn that Noah also has a second head that will rear, and this is its interminable running time after what appears to be its climax. The concessions to Hollywood in this portion of the film might make a person howl.

There's a lot more I might like to say as I'm still piecing together my feelings about Noah, but in the interest of making space in this post for a second review, I need to cut it short. I will leave on the note of one definitive failing, however, which is that the movie entirely squanders one of the most interesting aspects of the Noah story: the logistical headache of housing all the world's animals together in the same vessel, no matter how vast its construction may be. In fact, the movie acts as though it might prefer not even to have animals in the story at all. They appear in the story as three big CG shots: first birds, then snakes, then every animal that travels on all fours. Once they have made their grand, albeit robotic, entrance onto the scene, they are put to sleep by magic smoke and then forgotten entirely. Unfortunately, many viewers will likely think that same magic smoke is working on them as they sit through this unwieldy, and only fitfully rewarding, epic.

The Lego Movie

After a dour 140 minutes of Noah, The Lego Movie was sure to raise my spirits, right?

Well, not at first.

In fact, the first 20 or 30 minutes of The Lego Movie struck me as a frenetic mess. I fell in stride with the movie big time as it went along, but the occasional bursts of freneticism (is that a word?) never ceased to be a problem. There's an explanation of sorts that eventually emerges to account for some of that, but at the times it was happening, my only thoughts were "Wait, what was that, and why are we where?" I suppose that's not a particularly strange way to feel if you're in a place called Cloud Cuckooland.

With all that has been written about The Lego Movie, especially since it's been out for two months in the United States, you need a plot synopsis for this movie about as much as you need a refresher on Noah and his ark. But because you could be living under a rock, I'll offer about an equal length description of the basics of The Lego Movie.

Emmett (voice of Chris Pratt) is your average construction worker living in a Lego universe -- in fact, he's defined by his very averageness. He literally follows instructions on how to live a happy life -- liking the right songs, buying the right coffee, what have you -- and they do bring him a certain comfort in a world of conformity. Only, it turns out, Emmett is so successful at being average that the people he considers his friends don't even have much of an impression of him. This changes when he stumbles into some kind of shadowy conspiracy by "master builders" to find the "piece of resistance" and prevent the evil Lord Business (a.k.a. President Business) (voice of Will Ferrell) from using this tool to destroy the world. Throw in a pretty girl (voice of Elizabeth Banks), a mystical man (voice of Morgan Freeman) and a hybrid unicorn-cat called the Unikitty (Alison Brie) and you've got the makings for quite an adventure.

It does become quite an adventure -- eventually. One of the reasons The Lego Movie is slow out of the gate is because it's so fast out of the gate. A translation of that paradox: It didn't grab me at the start because it was moving so quickly. The movie does not pause to develop its protagonist even in the slightest, and as I have come to hate the way they're writing Chris Pratt's character on Parks and Recreation, Pratt's voice wasn't winning me over to Emmett's cause either. It's hard to get into a hero's journey when you have such a fuzzy impression of that hero, and in truth, Emmett never becomes one of the movie's great strengths, even as other great strengths do start to emerge.

One such strength is the always-reliable Morgan Freeman, submitting perhaps the closest thing to a straight comedy performance he has ever given us. Playing, essentially, a Gandalf-like wizard -- which is a bit strange, since an actual Lego Gandalf and an actual Lego Dumbledore both appear later on -- Freeman displays a sublime knack for comic timing. Sure, his lines are the funniest in the film, but we can't just credit the quartet of writers for why Freeman's Vitruvius provides so many laughs. Freeman's delivery of those lines is what really kills it. In similarly spry comic form -- and also playing against type -- Liam Neeson turns in a wicked dual performance as Good Cop/Bad Cop. Both cop archetypes are present in the same Lego figurine, with his rotating yellow head literally alternating between the two faces, and Neeson leans on his native Irish accent like he is almost never asked to do. It's downright brilliant.

The difficulty of discussing The Lego Movie in as much detail as you want has to do with a "surprise reveal" with about 20 minutes left, which played a big role in how much I eventually came around on the movie. Even though Americans have now had more than two months to see it, I won't reveal that reveal here. I will say, however, that my feelings about the movie were picking up long before then, and the decision in the third act really brought it altogether.

I'll spare you extended ruminations on what this film has to say about conformity vs. individuality, and I'll also dispense with the standard amazement that a movie was able to accomplish this much when it was clearly envisioned as a way to make bank on a known commodity. Enough has been written elsewhere about this, and I don't have anything new to contribute to that dialogue. I'm also conscious of the fact that this will leave this short of feeling like a definitive review of The Lego Movie, just as my Noah review was inevitably abbreviated.

However, that also has something to do with the fact that I don't consider this the masterpiece that some people find it, so I don't need to find that new perfect way of expressing the exactness of what The Lego Movie does right. I'm just content with the fact that it ended up doing a lot more right than I originally thought it was going to do ... and that it ended a long night at the movies on a good note.

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