Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Reverend’s Reviews: Of Muppets and Myths

Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, now playing worldwide, received quite the pre-release beating by Bible thumpers (most of whom hadn’t actually seen the movie, of course) concerned that it took liberties with the source material. Little do they know, I suspect, that the classic account of a noble man and his family saving the birds and beasts from a cataclysmic flood designed to wipe out the dregs of humanity actually predates the Bible. Other, non-Judeo-Christian traditions record the story, notably the Mesopotamians and even the Mayans of Central America. It ultimately, therefore, must be considered a myth even in light of some historical evidence indicating a massive flood did occur between 7,000-10,000 years ago in what is today the area between eastern Europe and the Middle East.

The talented Aronofsky clearly understands the power of myth and its relation to religious belief systems. All myths contain or reflect truthful elements on which many scriptural, cultural and political stories rely; George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, anyone? This brings me to the needlessly controversial but happily successful Noah, which has earned nearly $150 million at the global box office in little over a week. While incorporating all that is contained in a relatively brief chapter of the Old Testament’s book of Genesis, the screenplay by Aronofsky and Ari Handel, necessarily draws from non-biblical sources and even hypothesizes a thing or two.

An impressive, Oscar-winning trio heads the film’s cast. Russell Crowe portrays the title prophet as faithful to a fault in his adherence to what he understands to be God’s will. Charged with building a massive ark in which to shelter “the innocents” of creation, i.e. anything not human, Noah also believes he and his family are destined to die out once their mission is complete. This seems assured by the fact that the sole female on the ark apart from Noah’s wife (Jennifer Connelly, reunited with her co-star from A Beautiful Mind) is barren. Noah is understandably baffled at first but becomes disturbingly righteous once he learns his adopted daughter (Harry Potter’s Emma Watson, very good) has conceived a child with Noah’s oldest son thanks to a pre-flood intervention by his blessed grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins, completing the Academy Award-pedigreed triumvirate).

Noah’s first half is visionary and highly entertaining, enhanced by impressive CGI effects of rising floodwaters, stone-encrusted fallen angels turned ship-building allies, and all manner of critters (although the rendering of a famous dove who ultimately discovers dry land reminded me of the Aflac duck). I was also struck by Michael Wilkinson’s “Old Testament chic” costumes. The plot becomes pure soap opera once the ark is underway, thanks especially to the inclusion of a fabricated stowaway: Tubal-cain (effectively played by Ray Winstone), no-good son of the brother-slaying Cain. His conniving presence and efforts to turn Noah’s disgruntled middle son against his father smack of nothing so much as Dr. Smith from Lost in Space and carry about as much weight. Fortunately, the script rebounds once the flood has ended and everyone is on dry land again.

In addition to recognition of his latest film’s technical achievements, Aronofsky deserves more credit than he has received from believers thus far for making a serious, unabashedly religious epic. He has dealt with spiritual-religious themes before in Pi and his underrated The Fountain, so Aronofsky’s interest in the Noah story seems refreshingly consistent and organic rather than some self-indulgent fluke. Naysayers should take heed, lest an angry deity dump a bucket of water on your head.

Curiously, Noah and another, decidedly less reverent current movie share an actor. Frank Langella voices the lead fallen-angel Watcher in the former while also appearing as the Archbishop of Canterbury in Muppets Most Wanted. Langella is one of a slew of big-name cameos in this enjoyable sequel, following in the tradition of 1979’s original The Muppet Movie and immediate predecessor The Muppets.

Muppets Most Wanted picks up right where the last film ended, finding Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear & Co. already in production on their follow up. Following a terrific opening song/production number — appropriately titled “We’re Doing a Sequel” — the gang runs afoul of Constantine, a criminal mastermind recently escaped from a Siberian gulag who bears an uncanny resemblance to Kermit. Constantine’s Number 2 (a genuinely amusing Ricky Gervais) conspires to become manager of the Muppets’ world tour while Kermit is replaced by Constantine and shipped off to the gulag. The world tour serves as a front for the villains to collect hidden artifacts they need from various museums in order to steal London’s fabled Crown Jewels.

Like many critics and Muppets fans of a certain age, I appreciated 2011’s The Muppets as both a nostalgic throwback and a hopeful reboot for a new generation. However, it struck me at times as heavy-handed in its treatment of the felt-covered protagonists’ past as well as its focus on excessive human characters played by Jason Segel and Amy Adams. Muppets Most Wanted takes a welcome, lighter approach and wisely puts the Muppets front and center again. Kermit still seems more morose than he has been historically but it is fun to see him with Tina Fey, as the gulag’s warden, and a chorus of hardened criminals that includes Ray Liotta, Danny Trejo, Stanley Tucci and… Josh Groban?!?

Bret McKenzie, who deservedly won a Best Song Oscar for the last film’s “Man or Muppet,” returns with more and frequently better compositions. Highlights in addition to the opening number are Miss Piggy’s “Something So Right,” which ends up being a hilarious duet with Celine Dion; Constantine’s “I’m Number One” (performed with Mr. Gervais) and disco-flavored “I’ll Get You What You Want”; “Interrogation Song,” performed by Ty Burrell in a very funny turn as a French Interpol agent; and the “Together Again” finale, which includes every Muppet and human star featured in the film. Yes, even Frank Langella. Muppets Most Wanted is a superior sequel.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Noah: B
Muppets Most Wanted: B+

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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