Sunday, March 30, 2014

"Noah" - a movie review

(Spoilers - most of the cast dies.)

The release of Darren Aronofsky's CGI pre-apocalyptic juggernaut raises all manner of interesting questions, not least of all being this: where does this film squeeze into the whole religion/atheism debate? Come to that, does it even need to? Is it so far removed from Biblical accounts of a Great Flood that it is rendered utterly irrelevant in that context?

It seems likely that the answers to these questions – and how any one individual feels about the movie – will depend in large part on where that individual is positioned on the religion/atheism spectrum. But an even more nuanced question is the effect your personal level of ambivalence will have on your opinion. In other words, do you even care whether this retelling of the Noah’s Ark myth accurately follows the Biblical record (it really doesn’t) or whether it takes such liberties with the implausible story of an old man building a floating zoo in order to preserve the entire animal kingdom that it becomes its own rather silly piece of escapist nonsense (it does). And in the case of the latter, is it made well enough to even fill that brief?

In a word, no. But more on that in a moment.

I suspect that one can’t help but bring one’s own understanding of the Noah story to any showing of this movie. If your exposure to this story is predominantly from colouring-in books, birthday cards and Fisher-Price toys, then you’ll possibly see this as the forgettable piece of noisy fluff that it is. But like many raised as devout Christians, I can’t do that. I grew up believing that the creation story, the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, the talking serpent, and the Great Flood were all literally true and accurately recorded in the Book of Genesis, and as such literally took place within the last six thousand years. I no longer believe those stories, preferring to see them as what they undoubtedly are – one of our earliest attempts to explain the natural world in much the same way that Native Americans and Indigenous Australians constructed their own creation myths. And yet I found myself sitting in a dark cinema becoming increasingly agitated by the ‘inaccuracies’ in the movie. Noah couldn’t have known how to forge steel! His wife wouldn’t have had a home herbal pregnancy test! Methuselah wasn’t a magical hermit! And I’m damn sure that if Noah and his family really built the ark, they’d did it without the assistance of granite-encrusted fallen angels, stomping around the place and reducing the heathens to dust like villains from a Jerry Bruckheimer bad acid nightmare. And corrugated iron? Really? (Yes, I’m completely serious about the corrugated iron.) And steel bear traps. And gunpowder. Besides, the Old Testament clearly states that there were two of each of the ‘unclean’ creatures, but seven of the ‘clean ones’, rather than the traditionally held ‘two-by-two’ scenario. What right do the makers have to take such a liberty? Yes, I did find myself scoffing at these – and many other – gross ‘inaccuracies’. But then I’d pause to remind myself that not only was this version fictitious, but so too was the original.

"You're gonna need a bigger boat."
All that said, the holes in this movie and the lazy, stupidly convenient explanations to many of the glaring narrative questions raised by the original tale are, in my view, ridiculous beyond measure. How did Noah get all those animals to behave themselves on a big shared boat for a year? How did he feed them? Well, it turns out he didn’t have to, since he had knowledge of a special soporific incense to which he and his family were immune, but which could knock out a sizeable cross-section of Africa’s fauna in mere seconds. How did he make fire? Well, he had these little glowing nuggets which, when hit with the handle of a Bowie knife, flared into very useful barbecue heat beads which somehow made damp wood burn instantly. Perhaps most impressive of all was the giant gimbal on which the interior of the ark was presumably fixed. This can be the only possible explanation for external shots showing the vessel being tossed like a cork on tempestuous waters while within the ark we see Noah and his family sitting around the fire, calmly drinking soup from a cup. 

And on it goes, with a kind of bizarro-Ockham’s razor taken to most of the social and anthropological questions raised by the original story. Who did the kids mate with once the waters had receded? Each other? Mum? Some of the surplus livestock? Noah’s son Ham, in a poignant confirmation that the middle child syndrome isn’t a new thing, wanders petulantly into the wild yonder, either to die alone or, if the early Mormons are to be believed, to somehow spawn dark-skinned children. Alone.

I readily confess that my issues with this retelling are almost certainly due, at least in part, to my deeply ingrained ‘knowledge’ based on a literal reading of Genesis – that God wiped out all of humanity save for the one righteous man. Perversely, after seeing Noah I now have a certain sympathy for the uniformly batty Ray Comfort, who is protesting because of how ‘inaccurate’ this movie is, and how, when the account given in Genesis is read as a literal historical record, the story is rendered almost unrecognisable from the original.

Trying to approach it with the eyes of a a non-believer isn’t much more helpful. Can this movie be viewed as a stand-alone work of apocalyptic fantasy, perhaps a story staged in a parallel universe? If we agree to approach it as a good yarn, a tense drama of one man’s struggle against the forces of evil, of an honourable man torn between love for his family and duty to his God, does Noah stand up? Can we forgive its shortcomings?

"Hold the boat! Hold! The! Boat!"
In my view we cannot, since most of these shortcomings are anathema to good film-making of any stripe. The pacing and the attention to the chronology of the story is desperately uneven. Characters drift in and out of the narrative with seemingly little connection to one another, and certainly scant underpinning in back-story. The acting is, in some cases, solid enough. Russell Crowe reprises his role from Gladiator, all steely glares, curt responses and makeshift javelins. The kids aren’t bad, and Ray Winstone is, as ever, arresting. But Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah is completely wasted (sometimes literally, it would seem), reduced as he is to a doddery grandfather who spends his twilight years in a kind of DIY bronze-age opium den, able to pull himself together only long enough to hypnotise his great-grandkids to facilitate a private conversation with their father, or to perform healing miracles in the style of Uri Geller. 

Sadly the women miss out on most of what few good lines there are, despite having fairly pivotal roles in the story. Emma Watson, playing Noah’s adopted daughter, seems to have lost all the acting ground she made in the transition from Harry Potter to The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and is back to doing Hermione Granger, but without the range. And Jennifer Connelly as Noah’s wife is given very little to work with, and as such delivers very little. Very little indeed. Repeatedly.

Make no mistake, as pure spectacle this movie has its moments. Watching the entire world engulfed by ‘the waters below’ made the ocean scenes in A Perfect Storm look like ripples in a bath. But that simply highlights one of its greatest flaws; at no point does this feel like a depiction of a global flood. As a hundred or so of the doomed victims cling to the last remaining peak like extras in a medieval chapel fresco, it’s hard not to be underwhelmed. In fact, the flood depicted feels much more like whatever actual event spawned the original myth, probably a prehistoric flash flood that wiped out a village, ultimately leaving nothing but a sad, bedraggled goat stranded on a hillock.

More than once I wondered if that mightn’t have been the more interesting story.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

12 Years a Slave - film review

(This review contains numerous significant spoilers. You have been warned.)

Some years ago a friend who is a very fine amateur photographer showed me one of his favourite images, of a woodpecker clinging to the trunk of a tree as it pecked away at the bark. He showed me two versions of the same photo. The first - the original - had the tree positioned on the left of the frame, with the bird on the right. The second version was simply reversed, so that the woodpecker was now facing right, hammering away at the dark shape that ran down the right side of the picture. 'The second one is better,' Mark said, quite correctly. By why? Other than being mirrored, the images were identical. 'The tree trunk on the right stops the eye,' he explained. ‘Since we read from left to right, our eye approaches images the same way. The first version allowed the viewer to linger briefly on the bird before "escaping" out the right-hand side of the frame. Reversed, the eye comes into the picture, and is then blocked from leaving by the tree.' Such is the psychology of the visual.

Consider now the poster for 12 Years a Slave. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the New York free man kidnapped and thrown into slavery in the deep South, is running. Escaping, presumably, at full sprint. To the left. Back into the arms of the slavers rather than the arms of his family. To present him running to the right would be to offer him freedom, liberation. Hope. To the left lies utter hopelessness and despair.

This is a review of a film, not a poster. After all, we don't pay our hard-earned to stand in the foyer and admire the artwork. So why the focus on the poster?

To me, this is simply one sign of the attention to detail the director and producers of this film have shown. Miss-steps? There are few, if any. The sudden jump to Mistress Shaw, a black lady of means we had hitherto not met had me briefly wondering if the projectionist had spooled the wrong reel. (But since 'projectionist' isn't a job any more, that couldn't have been it.) Of course, it wasn't a miss-step at all. On reflection it is jarring in precisely the way it was intended to be. (Read about the screenwriter's take on this here.)

Jarring moments are many in this film. Each is good for the way the story is told, most not so good for the characters. The extended scenes of violence, sparing nothing, do not feel like torture porn. Mel Gibson could learn a thing or two from director Steve McQueen about using cruelty and violence in a deeply troubling, 'please make it stop' kind of way, rather than rejoicing in the gore and splitting flesh. In the way it should be used. At no time does the violence in this film feel gratuitous. Excessive, yes, but then, slavery was nothing if not an excessive use of violence.

In one scene that had me practically hiding behind my hands, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), the beautiful, delicate young slave girl and reluctant lover to the slaver owner Epps is being lashed for possessing soap. Egged on by his stony, jealous wife, Epps is determined to lash her to death, to strip the flesh from her back. Except he hasn't the guts to do it himself, so he hands the task to Northup. What follows is one of the hardest things I've ever watched. In the end, as her cries turned to whimpers, I actually found myself hoping that she had died, in much the same way that we hope a badly injured animal will soon breathe its last and feel no more pain. 

'A badly injured animal.' There it is - in one scene McQueen had managed to make me deeply sympathetic to a character, whilst forcing me to adopt some of the distorted psychology that allows the powerful to dehumanise the weak. It's powerful film-making, powerful storytelling, utterly immersing and involving and implicating the viewer.

Equally impressive were the moments of silence, and the moments of confusion. To deal with the first: in one of the brief flashbacks, Northup is in a store in New York, about to spend a far too much on a travel bag for his wife. Another black man, also well dressed, comes into the store, only to be followed in by his master, who apologises to the storekeeper for the 'intrusion'. Off camera, someone says, 'It's no intrusion'. It sounds like Northup, or perhaps it's the storekeeper. The white master's expression suggests it is Northup, but before you've a chance to be certain, the black man has been bustled out and normality returned. And you get on with the story, the 'intrusion' forgotten. And again, we become faintly complicit in the world we are watching.

One viewer review I read complained about some of the 'long, boring, pointless scenes where nothing much happens.' Perhaps they were referring to the scene where Northup is being hanged, but is then lowered barely enough for his toes to reach the muddy ground below, just to make sure he learns his lesson. Ankles and wrists bound, we watch his toes scrabble for purchase as he dances a silent, desperate dance. Meanwhile his fellow slaves go about their work around him, too terrified of reprisal to cut him down. He hangs like that well into the evening, and we watch for a full five minutes, maybe more, an eternity in cinema-time. Like the lashing of Patsey, it is long, and excruciating to watch, even from a comfortable cinema seat.

But perhaps the greatest achievement of this film is the way it forces us to re-examine that old question, 'What would I do?' Would I stand up to the SS guard, would I offer sanctuary to the Tutsi refugee being hunted by men with machetes, would I climb into the carriage and ride away to freedom, leaving other black men and women behind to continue to be slaves?

Of course, that is precisely what Northup does when his chance at liberation comes knocking, and it hits the viewer like a sledgehammer, especially as the last thing we see, just as a blur in the corner of the frame, is Patsey fainting and falling to the ground in front of the plantation house. As we wonder how he can possibly go back to his old life with a clear conscience knowing what he is leaving behind, we remember a scene much earlier in the film, where a friend is liberated at the dock and hurries away without so much as a glance back at a shocked and incredulous Northup.

The performances in 12 Years a Slave are flawless. Both Ejiofor and Nyong’o were rightly nominated for Academy Awards (Nyong’o won) but equally impressive are Michael Fassbender as Epps, Sarah Paulson as his cold, heartless wife, and Benedict Cumberbatch as the relatively kind slave-owner Ford. But the performance amongst the secondary characters which really stands out is Paul Dano, the vindictive, petty overseer Tibeats. When we first meet him, he sings a chirpy Southern ditty titled 'Run Nigger Run' which, in a sublime piece of editing, goes on to overlay a montage of hard manual labour, gleefully cruel overseers, and a pressed and ironed Cumberbatch presenting a Sunday sermon to his assembled 'property’. The topic of the sermon? The biblical extolment of owning other humans. With the sinister soundtrack of Tibeats’ song, this scene is properly chilling.

As with so much good cinema, it’s hard to say that this is a movie to enjoy, so much as one to appreciate. If there is a weakness in 12 Years a Slave, it is its slightly hamstrung narrative arc, entirely by virtue of being a true story. But if the final scene ends with what feels like something of a cliche, it is rightly followed by an awkward moment as the viewer, along with Solomon Northup, is forced to wonder, ‘What happens now? Does life just go on? Do things go back to normal? And how can they, knowing what we now know?’