Friday, 11 April 2014

Filmdog Weekly #11 (Noah, Muppets Most Wanted)

This week The Filmdog urges you to bring an umbrella as we get all biblical on your ass with Noah. Then it's another not-quite-as-great Muppet caper in Muppets Most Wanted...

Noah (Greenwich Picturehouse)
'You won't Adam and Eve it'

What is immediately evident on sitting down to watch Noah, Darren Aronofsky's take on the biblical story of God's genocide against humanity, is that the director is not particularly bothered about sticking rigidly to the source material. 

Unlike, say, The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's telling of Jesus' torture, crucifixion and (SPOILER) eventual resurrection, which was as far as I could tell a fairly straight-up and accurate version of the events detailed in the Bible, Noah plays fast and loose with it's details in order to best serve the director's vision for his story.

I personally have no issues with that. A director should be able to deviate from the source material in order to tell a more entertaining story and in the case of the story of Noah and the ark, it's only a little over 2000 words long and so logic tells us that it needed to be fleshed out to fill 138 minutes of screen time, creating some fanciful characters and inventing some family drama to go along with all the rain and woodwork. 

Similarly to The Passion, this film received waves of criticism from various religious groups across the world prior to release, forcing the director and his leading man Russell Crowe to strongly defend the film throughout the promotional tour, suggesting people shouldn't criticise the movie before seeing it for themselves. He even gained a meeting with Pope Francis who gave the film his blessing.

The bad news for Aronofsky and Crowe, the latter of whom is one of my favourite actors (and a fellow Bristol City supporter), is that I have seen it, and dear God it is pretty awful.

My heart sank 2 minutes into the film after watching a terribly hashed montage sequence covering the genesis of the world involving a fluorescent stop-motion snake, a fairly unappealing apple and then the aftermath of Adam and Eve's ejection from paradise, leading to armies of bearded men wandering the world and being all kinds of evil. You'll know the evil ones. They are dressed in black.

However, that wasn't the worst of it. This came with the introduction of 'The Watchers', a race of fallen angels cast out of heaven due to their desire to help mankind, and now living on earth in the shape of huge rock-giants. It is from this that the film never recovers and became more of a fantasy-film than a biblical epic. These 'Watchers' would not look out of place in Tolkein's world, indeed they bare an alarming similarity in look and voice to Treebeard and the Ents from the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. If you want to fuck up a film, put some rock-giants in it.

With all hope gone for mankind in the film and all hope gone for me as a viewer, the next 2 hours dragged by as we watch Noah go from child to man, speaking with God (never name-checked, always referred to as 'the Creator') through visions while asleep and proceeding to build an ark in order to carry out his master's grand plan to wipe evil of the face of the earth. This evil is personified by a poorly cast Ray Winstone as Tubal-cain, leader of the baddies, akin to those same clad-in-black beard-faced fellows that we saw at the start of the film. We know they're still bad because they still wear black and eat animal flesh without using a knife or fork. They're none too happy when Noah tells them of their watery fate and so they plot to take the ark for themselves.

Some sub-plots involving Noah's children fill up the rest of the running-time. There's Shem (the handsome one), Ham (the horny one) and Japheth (the one who doesn't get a line in the film). There's also Emma Watson as Ila, a girl Noah saved and took in as his own daughter and Sir Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah, their hermit of a grandfather who possess magical powers that nobody cares to explain. 

Russell Crowe is generally good in these kind of films but the dialogue lets the whole cast down, making them only slightly less wooden than the ark they've built. Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson are wasted in secondary roles and ironically the only person who isn't guilty of ham-acting is Logan Lerman who gives a human performance as Noah's troubled middle-son. Everyone else is reduced to long stares, dramatic turning and earnest statements. It's very theatrical and doesn't quite convince on the big screen of being anything other than actors pretending to be characters.

Noah is grand in scale but I'm not sure it's really a film that needed to be made. Much like the Hobbit trilogy extending itself thinly across 3 films, this suffers from a lack of substance in terms of its source and so is forced to invent a new mythology, one which ultimately won't appeal to those who believe in the bible and which will also fail to excite the imagination of those who enjoy a good fantasy film. 

I've tried to stick clear of puns and cliche but I'm afraid Noah almost made some members of this audience walk out two by two. 

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Muppets Most Wanted
'Muppets least needed?'

Following a successful return for The Muppets in 2011, combining the much-loved characters with the Flight of the Conchords team of director James Bobin and songwriter Brett McKenzie, who together injected some much needed life into the ailing franchise, Muppets Most Wanted returns to cash in on their current popularity, and they're not the only ones.

The amount of cameos in this film is quite astounding with familiar faces popping up at every turn. Cynics will claim that the majority of them are simply trying to give their careers a little boost but it doesn't really matter. The Muppets has never worked without having a host of celebrities to make fun of and this film is no exception. Even when there are some odd cameo choices, it's all the better because the joke is really at their expense. Ray Liotta returns for another stint (he appears in Muppets in Space) but looks quite bewildered as a singing, dancing inmate of a Siberian prison.

The plot follows the similar shenanigans of all Muppet films as the gang naively sign up with nefarious music agent Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) who takes them on a tour of Europe. Can he be trusted? Meanwhile, criminal mastermind Constantine the frog has escaped from prison and plots to steal the Crown Jewels of England by switching places with his doppelganger Kermit and performing a number of raids in Berlin, Madrid and Dublin before the climax at the Tower of London. Hot on their heels are Interpol agents Sam Eagle and Jean Pierre Napoleon (Modern Family's Ty Burrell) who get the movie's best song while conducting an interrogation, whilst in Siberia, Kermit tries to persuade prison warden Nadya (Tina Fey) that they've got the wrong frog.

While it's not as good as The Muppets it's still a lot of fun. The decision to sign up with Bobin and McKenzie for these last 2 films was the best thing the studio could have done as the humour and songs that made Flight of the Conchords so successful translates perfectly to the surreal, madcap stylings of the Muppet world. Ty Burrell is the real star for me as the Clouseau-like detective, directing some well-placed gags at the expense of us Europeans. Tina Fey is also very good (as usual) and Ricky Gervais once again plays himself under a different name. 

Picking 3 of the best comedy actors on television was a clever piece of casting and it's these periphery characters, human and Muppet alike, that provides us with the most fun. Sadly the real weakness of Muppets Most Wanted lay at the door of it's leading stars. Kermit and Piggy, while likeable enough, have little to do here except go through the usual romantic dilemma that occurs in every muppet outing. Frankly I'm just a bit bored of them. Give me more Pepe the King Prawn. Give me more Sam Eagle. Give me more of everyone else. It might not please traditionalists but give me a Muppet film where Kermit and Piggy take a nice long honeymoon for the duration and let everyone else have a bit more screen time.

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