Friday, December 26, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings Review

In 2014 we had not one, but two Bible epics hit theaters. I never did get around to seeing Noah. I was interested in seen an updated version of the Moses story in Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) because the movie technology is such that elaborate, complex depictions of the ancient world can be shown to audiences in a way that couldn't have been done years ago. In the hands of director Ridley Scott, it has great potential. This movie does have the epic quality of old Bible epics back in the day, but it seemed to be lacking something to make a lasting effect on you.
Raised as brothers by Pharaoh Seti (John Tutrurro), Moses (Christian Bale) and Ramesses (Joel Edgerton) have a mutual respect and love for one another and have fought side by side defending their home country of Egypt. After Ramesses succeeds his father as Pharaoh, rumor of Moses being of Hebrew parents comes to Ramesses. Rather than give into the demands of Queen Tuya (Sigourney Weaver) to kill Moses, Ramesses exiles Moses from Egypt. Moses creates a new life in Midian where he meets Zipporah and eventually marries Zipporah (María Valverde). Years later Moses comes face to face with a burning bush and a boy called Malak (Issac Andrews), who tells Moses that he must free the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. Reluctantly, Moses returns to Egypt and uses his military skills to try to free his people. But when Ramesses refuses to comply, God sends deadly plagues to the people of Egypt. Moses tries to keep the Hebrews out of the crossfire, but the conflict escalates pitting the two brothers against each other.
Now, the story of Moses has been around since roughly 1300 BCE. Even if you aren't affiliated with a Muslim or Judeo-Christian religion, you've had plenty of time to have heard this story before and I'm not going to avoid spoilers in a story that is well over three thousand years old.
It truly should go without saying that when a movie based on religious texts is made, creative liberties are taken. Were creative liberties not taken, there would be nearly no character development, no meaningful dialogue other than the most basic and direct communications, and likely no defining theme drawing the story together coherently. In Exodus: Gods and Kings some characters aren't what I have been told they are. Ramesses not so much a stubborn and prideful ruler who thought himself superior to God, he was more of a spoiled privileged brat who lacked the competence and foresight to lead a country. Moses wasn't a mighty man of faith but a military general who may be somewhat off his rocker, we see him grow in faith but it's not really there when he starts out. I was disappointed that we didn't see the two characters butting heads more often. Moses didn't go talk to Ramesses between each plague saying, "Let my people go!" They were at odds with one another, but we didn't see enough of them opposing each other specifically to get a feel for what becomes their broken relationship as brothers.
The way that God was depicted was particularly interesting. It was a small kid whom only Moses could see after sustaining a head injury. I don't think this was supposed to literally be God, but rather a abstract messenger through which God communicated to Moses. The kid's name is "Malak" which is the Semitic word for "angel." God in the Old Testament is often depicted as a god of vengeance and punishment; taking that into consideration, I could see why this messenger speaking for God would be depicted as a willful, angry, and petulant child. This may be a deal breaker for some viewers of faith; Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike see this story as foundational and might find this portrayal of God to be incompatible with scripture and deeply held beliefs. I didn't find it offensive. I thought it was an odd way to depict deity, but it was unique and creative and still kind of fits with this interpretation of the story. Yet there is a scene when Malak and Moses are talking and the things the boy says, though powerful and exquisitely delivered by the child actor, made me think, "Yeah, that's not the same God from The Bible. We went overboard here, Ridley."
While I often hear the way some of the plagues were depicted was inaccurate, I thought it was fascinating. The first plague was water turning to blood. This was illustrated not by Moses striking the river with his staff causing the water to turn into blood, but rather having crocodiles in the Nile go on a killing spree, killing nearly anything that moved in the water, causing the water to turn red from all the blood. This caused the plague of frogs which were escaping from the bloody water, which in turn let the insects multiply unhindered by their natural predators. It goes on like this, and I thought it was neat. It removes the divine intervention which is what was supposed to have caused the plagues. Even the parting of the Red Sea seemed to be caused by some kind of tsunami sea withdrawal that coincided with the escaping Hebrews with impeccable timing. It's another discrepancy that I appreciated the creativity of, but didn't see as something that would challenge someone's faith outright.
This was visually an incredible movie to watch. Egypt was as elaborate and detailed as I had hoped; it was shown to be a vast country with many inhabitants of all walks of life. The costumes of the Egyptians as well as the Hebrew slaves looked fantastic. The plagues were really interesting to see and the meticulous details that went into them made me grateful I wasn't watching the swarming locusts in 3-D. The free-flowing visual splendor is so gorgeous to behold that you feel transported into these ancient days watching this movie.
Exodus: Gods and Kings isn't one of Ridley Scott's greatest movies. It has its ups and downs, but lacks something to give it enough oomph to make it a truly memorable movie. It will likely fade from our collective consciousness before too long, much like Ridley Scott's Robin Hood did. The visuals were simply incredible and really sold the historical setting. The plagues and such were also amazing. Given how many faith-based movies are content to tell their audiences what to think or feel, it's satisfying to see one whose images alone are enough to compel an awestruck belief. The story is spiritually watered down. It doesn't preach to the audience, it doesn't tell us how to interpret things, and it even removes some of the divine influence these events are said to have. However, all the characters and symbols are present; we are left to interpret the story as a faith building story about God's influence, or simply as a tale that we have passed down for thousands of years. Overall I liked Exodus: Gods and Kings. It may not settle so well with some viewers, but it didn't go as far out in left field as I understand Noah did. I say this is worth watching even if you are not religiously inclined. Even if you are religiously inclined, I still say watch it but take it with a grain of salt. Understand that this is not scripture, but a film director's take on a very old story.

Are there other Bible stories or ancient texts you think would make a good movie? Comment below and let me know!

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay part I Review

The first movie series to be based on books that had the final book split into two movies was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. This made a lot of sense because there was a lot of story to cover in that last book. Then the Twilight saga split their last book into two movies. This made no sense at all because nothing had happened in any of the previous movies; it was clearly a marketing ploy to milk the Twilight brand for all the money the studios could. We could also accuse The Hobbit movies of doing this, but that's a discussion for another time. The Hunger Games have been very successful as future dystopian survival stories which a lot of other books and movies have failed to imitate. But did The Hunger Games: Mockingjay part I (2014) really need to be divided into two parts?
Following the destruction of the last Hunger Games event, a few of the tributes managed to escape as the oppressive Capitol tried to intervene. Among the escapees were Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), and Beetee (Jeffery Wright). They are joined by Katniss's friend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and other refugees from their home in District 12 and end up in the believe-to-be-destroyed District 13. Under the leadership of President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and the advice of her friends, Katniss agrees to become the "Mockingjay," the symbol of the rebellion for the districts of Panem to overthrow The Capitol. Katniss is prepped and made over to inspire others for the rebellion, but her thoughts are with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and his safety while being trapped by The Capitol.
So, The Hunger Games was a pretty good solid movie with lots of action, some good characters, and an interesting story about a televised death match. Catching Fire did a similar thing and took everything to the next level; bigger action, higher stakes, and more complexity. Mockingjay part I went in a totally different direction; there's no Hunger Games whatsoever. The Hunger Games event is over, but the fight rages on in a different arena. Mockingjay is more about the political battle going on between The Capitol and the rebels. The Capitol is producing televised propaganda ads to belittle and dismiss the rebels as nothing but troublemakers. District 13 has been waiting for an opportunity like this for decades; now they have a symbol of hope in Katniss to bring the Districts together and fight against their oppressors. So they make their own propaganda ads featuring Katniss showing how evil and corrupt The Capitol is. It's like a political chess match played out through the media. We get to see how difficult it is to run a rebellion and the impact that media can have on a nation, for good or bad.
At the same time, it's mostly a movie about shooting television ads. While that is interesting, it gets dull. There is a lot of down time, which slows the pacing of the movie. The action scenes are fantastic! I loved seeing Katniss and Gale fighting Capitol airships, but much of the movie is rather slow paced. On top of that we get a whole bunch of new characters thrown at us, but apart from Katniss few of them are developed enough. There's a great action sequence featuring Gale. It was an exciting and tense scene, but this being the third movie Gale has appeared in and I still don't have much of a feel for who this character is. If I had, it would have made the scene all the more tense and would have made me want Gale to survive even more. As it is, Katniss gets most of the development and depth of character at the expense of the significantly expanded cast.
The Hunger Games books are told from Katniss's perspective, and something the movies have done is show us events that Katniss did not witness and thus was unable to narrate. In Mockingjay, we get to see acts of rebellion among the Districts as a result of the rebels' propaganda. Each District specializes in a particular industry, and we see them use the skills associated with that industry to fight against The Capitol's presence in a given District. We see guerilla war acts in District 7 who specialize in lumber and District 5 whose industry is electrical power. When these scenes start you know the District is about to fight back, but how they actually do it totally blew away my wildest expectations. These extra scenes were outside the canon of the books, but were creative and pertinent to the story.
Since Mockingjay is divided into two parts it doesn't have a satisfactory ending. What we get here is good, but not great, and once things really start getting interesting, the closing credits start rolling. It's like standing in line and anticipating an awesome rollercoaster ride, getting buckled in and ready to go, only to have to be taken out and told to wait for the next train. It's kind of a disappointment and almost feels like a bait-and-switch. Having read the books, I am of the opinion that of all the books the third one had the least amount of storyline, so dividing it up into  two-parts seems silly. But there's not much we can do except wait for Mockingjay part II.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay part I was good. It wasn't as good or exciting as the previous two movies, but it was satisfying enough, given the frustrating fact that we don't have a conclusion at the end. Mockingjay revs up our anticipation for the series' grand finale. It's loaded with outstanding, solid performances from the cast, even those who don't get much screen time; it's packed with intriguing, smart political subtext; but the movie comes up short on the action front, though what action scenes we are privileged to see are excellent. I don't think the story justifies a two-part set of movies, but I'm still psyched to see Mockingjay part II. If you're a fan of The Hunger Games this is worth seeing in theaters. But since this movie revs you up and leaves you hanging, you might want to just wait for this on home video and watch it once part II is in theaters so you aren't waiting around for the rest of the movie.

What are some of your expectations for Mockingjay part II? Comment below and tell me about it (no spoilers, though)!

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Theory of Everything Review

As I said in my review of Creation, it seems that Hollywood is capable of giving any event a romantic spin. The relationship between Charles Darwin and his wife in Creation took center stage and was less about the development of the theory of evolution. The Theory of Everything (2014) is similar; we see the relationship between Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane and the life they had together. I thought it was odd to have a biographical romantic drama about a person who is still alive, but The Theory of Everything proved to be a darn good movie.
As a healthy, active young man, Cambridge astrophysicist student Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) was a brilliant student. While at a school dance he meets Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) and the two form a deep love for one another. Stephen begins having some difficulty with fine motor movements, and after a terrible fall received an earth-shattering diagnosis at the age of twenty one. He has Lou Gehrig's Disease, a degenerative motor neuron disease that is incurable, he is expected to live for only more two years. Stephen embarks on his most ambition scientific work, studying the very thing he now has precious little of - time. Together, Stephen and Jane defy impossible odds, breaking new grounds in medicine and science, and achieve more than they could ever have dreamed.
The Theory of Everything is part biopic and part love story. There are some cute moments between the two main characters, but few that truly tugged at my heartstrings. I liked the relationship between Stephen and Jane. Stephen flirts like a stereotyped scientist; awkwardly. His flirtatious lines usually involve explaining in scientific terms why some things in the world look beautiful. Jane is a pretty church mouse who is studying arts at Cambridge. It's very much the same character set up as it was in Creation. Two very different people get married and have struggles and are occasionally conflicted about theology, yet they both love one another. Most of the conflict is in the mounting stress and Jane feeling overwhelmed  as Stephen's body slowly deteriorates. It's encouraging to see a relationship like theirs last over the decades.
Jane and Stephen Hawkings' wedding
photo recreated for the movie
The actors were outstanding, Redmayne in particular. He's played handsome young men in other movies such as My Week with Marilyn and Les Misérables. Playing the renowned physicist was very different. Here he played a an awkward young man losing his ability to control his muscles. His portrayal of the disease was depicted with uncanny accuracy. To be frank, it is uncomfortable seeing someone with a noticeable physical handicap struggling with something. Redmayne played his character's handicap so well it was often uncomfortable to watch him on screen. And yet his depiction of Stephen Hawking was so compelling and interesting that I cared about him and wanted to help out the character on the screen. He's simply incredible.
The sets were also very impressive. The story spans a number of decades. While we see the characters age with the magic of makeup, the passing of the years is most prominently depicted in the sets and costumes. The story starts out in the early 1960's and ends roughly in the late-1990's. The hair styles and clothing fashions change and evolve over the years. The buildings and interior decoration slowly takes on a more contemporary look as time in the movie passes. The changes are so gradual and subtle you hardly notice them, yet the sets are so detailed they are hard to ignore. The camera captures the actors and the background in such beautiful detail that every shot looks gorgeous, and every scene like a perfectly captivated moment from the past.
The Theory of Everything is a good movie. While science plays a role in the movie, you won't leave knowing any more about general relativity or quantum gravity than you did going in. What Hawking developed was less important in this story than how it was developed. The story remains just interesting and inspiring enough to hold my attention to the end, but it still feels a lavishly produced period drama that was probably produced for the sole purpose of earning nominations for Academy Awards. Basically, it's Oscar bait. The story is not bad, though does little outside Jane and Stephen's relationship. The acting is phenomenal, especially Redmayne. Even if romantic biopics aren't the kind of movie you enjoy, seeing The Theory of Everything is worth it just to see Redmayne's acting. There is very little that can be said negatively about this movie, the only reason not to see it is if this particular genre doesn't appeal to you. I think it's worth seeing, but you're probably safe waiting for it on DVD.

The real Stephen Hawking is still around and was able to see this movie. He said the following about it:

"Watching the The Theory of Everything Movie at the London premiere last night was an intense emotional experience for me. It is perhaps the closest I will come to time travel. Based on Jane's book, it follows our life together exploring the mysteries of the universe. I enjoyed watching it with my family and friends, and I hope audiences around the world enjoy it as well."
--Stephen Hawking

Friday, December 5, 2014

High Anxiety Review

I'm a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock's movies. Psycho might be one of my all time favorite movies. I recently discovered that one of my favorite comedy film makers, Mel Brooks, made a hilarious "tribute" to some of Hitchcock's films called High Anxiety (1977). I can thank The Q Filmcast for introducing me to this hilarious bit of cinema. As a comedy film, it's pretty good. As a spoof of more than ten Hitchcock films, it's something along the lines of amazing.
Renowned Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke (Mel Brooks) conceals a fear of heights, or High Anxiety. Thorndyke takes over as the new director of the PsychoNeurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous after the last director dies under suspicious circumstances. He soon finds himself to be in the company of some very strange colleagues including Nurse Diesel (Cloris Leachman), a charge nurse with a dark sneer and a tendency toward domination; Dr. Montague (Harvey Korman), a psychiatrist with a closeted habit of his own; and Victoria Brisbane (Madeline Kahn), the eccentric daughter of a patient at the institute. Thorndyke heads to a psychiatry conference where he is framed for murder. Thorndyke must confront his own psychiatric condition in order to clear his name, save the Institute, his reputation, and his own sanity.
I've been telling friends and colleagues that I saw High Anxiety and have tried to introduce them to the movie's premise. Most of them have already heard about it and seen it. While I'm a fan of both Hitchcock and Brooks, I haven't seen the entirety of their filmographies, but you'd think I'd have heard about this movie related to the two directors. High Anxiety spoofs The Birds, Psycho, North by Northwest, and Vertigo and makes references to many others. Hitchcock wasn't involved in the making of the movie, but Brooks held a private preview of the movie for Hitchcock to see his reaction. When Hitchcock walked out at the movie's end without saying a word, Brooks feared that Hitchcock hated the movie. But days later Hitchcock sent a congratulatory case of wine to Brooks, knowing that Brooks was a wine connoisseur. Evidently Hitchcock himself got a kick out of High Anxiety on some level.
The Hitchcock references are many and cleverly woven into the story and dialogue. The location of the phone booth scene beneath the Golden Gate Bridge is Fort Point, the same location a critical scene in Vertigo was filmed. Brooks hired the actual bird handler from The Birds to work on the bird scene in this movie. As a tribute to the Roger O. Thornhill character in North by Northwest who never reveals his middle name, Richard H. Thorndyke in High Anxiety is hesitant to reveal his middle name. In another tribute to Hitchcock, Dr. Thorndyke is told that a "Mr. MacGuffin" changed his hotel room reservation. Hitchcock's MacGuffins were objects or devices which drove the plot but which were otherwise inconsequential and could be forgotten once they had served their purpose. There are a couple of nods to Psycho as well; Psycho has one of the most famous murder scenes which has already been spoofed many times over in other media, so you just know there's going to be some kind of a "shower scene" in this one, and it doesn't disappoint.
The humor is mostly good, as is Brooks' usual fare. There are some witty set ups to ridiculously silly punch lines. There's also some highly juvenile gags that you simply can't help but chuckle at. The movie also includes some crude humor here and there, which usually garners an eye roll from me. The movie is rated PG and while some of the crude humor suggests something dirtier, at face value it's pretty clean for a Brooks movie. For example, at the psychiatry conference Thorndyke is asked some questions about psychosexual development according to Freud. Right after he begins to answer, a conference attendee enters with his two children apologizing for their presence because he couldn't find a babysitter. Thorndyke continues to awkwardly lecture on the topic of sexual development while using kid-friendly vocabulary for the human anatomy which makes him sound like a buffoon. You're probably okay watching this with small children present since you'll get the underlying joke that will completely go over kids' heads. This was released before the PG-13 rating was created.
Comedy movies usually don't lend themselves to deep or interesting stories. High Anxiety isn't any different. The story is used mostly as a means of delivering a bunch of silly jokes, which it does exceedingly well. But as a story, there is a lot that is left unresolved and seems non-sequitur. It's a fun movie, but it isn't Mel Brooks' best. That's probably why I hear about Young Frankenstien, Spaceballs, and The Producers a lot more than High Anxiety. But you can't deny that High Anxiety is a good movie. Brooks put a whole lot of work into it; he was the lead role, director, producer, co-writer, and for the title song he was both composer and lyricist. You can't tell me that's not impressive.
High Anxiety is a good, funny Mel Brooks movie. Brooks has such a unique style that his movies are almost a genre unto themselves; this movie is no different. All the Hitchcock references are fun to watch for. You don't need to be an avid Hitchcock fan to appreciate High Anxiety, but many of the gags will be even funnier if you have seen a number of Hitchcock films. It's not Brooks' best movie, but I think it's worth seeing for a good laugh. As of writing this, High Anxiety is on NetFlix Instant Play; it's worth catching there. It's only worth purchasing if you're already a Mel Brooks fan.

What is your favorite Mel Brooks movie? Comment below and tell me why!