Monday, March 31, 2014

Noah Review: A Sweeping Biblical Epic (Minus Most of the Pesky Christian Stuff)

By Andrew Braid

Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Ray Winstone, Logan Lerman, Anthony Hopkins
Release Date: March 28, 2014
Presented in 2D and IMAX

I'm not really a fan of Bible stories.
To clarify, I wouldn't consider myself religious at all for that matter, though the reasons for that are a completely different (and ultimately not very necessary) discussion. But I think I can speak for many where the idea of a "Christian" film or a Bible movie sets off alarms to abandon ship right then and there. Whether it's bland, sanitized and cheaply-made drivel like Son of God (or The Bible miniseries from which it's repurposed from) or insulting, propaganda-littered and cheaply-made drivel like the recently-released God's Not Dead (I could write a whole article about how inane and full of s*** that movie is- but I won't, because it really doesn't deserve to have its existence acknowledged any more than I already have), the wastes of cinematic space that get called "Christian" films these days are a far cry from the Biblical films of yore like The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur or The Last Temptation of Christ. Hell, even in the 90s we could still get movies like DreamWorks Animation's The Prince of Egypt, an animated film (and a musical, no less!) that even in a more truncated 90 minutes or so still tells an epic, powerful story about two brothers ultimately driven apart by their diverging paths in life. This gets to the real problem with such films as they tend to be made today: they get so swept up in "inspiring people's faith" (ie. encouraging their sense of "moral righteousness" and reinforcing what they already believe) that they don't bother to put real creative or thoughtful effort into telling good, compelling stories with any real depth or dimension. Filmmakers have a sea of possibilities to work with when it comes to Biblical films (or hell, films involving faith in general), but instead they act like easily-frightened children, either too scared or too unwilling to swim out of even the most shallow end of the pool.
By contrast, Noah, the latest film from acclaimed Oscar-nominated director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Black Swan), does far more than just swim out of the shallow end of the pool. Noah is a film that dives headlong into the deepest waters it can find and never looks back, never letting anything stop it from trying to reach the ambitious heights it sets for itself. His only prior big-budget experience being with the divisive philosophical fantasy The Fountain (which was still made for only a quarter the budget of Noah), Aronofsky brings his distinct visual eye and a big-star cast to the table as he sets out on bringing the story of Noah's ark to life like you've never seen it before. Normally that would sound like a pull quote from the Netflix synopsis, but that's where Aronofsky really pulls you through the ringer, destroying any preconceptions one might have: you've definitely never seen the story done like this before.

To say that describing Noah's story is an exercise in redundancy is simultaneously an understatement and a premature judgement: of course you'd know the basic story that everyone knows, but even then you likely won't be prepared for just how Aronofsky tells it. Noah is a film of a rare breed, a Bible story stripped of many of its Christian religious elements. Instead the film treats its story as if it was a mythic fantasy film, albeit one certainly not devoid of spiritual elements. The Watchers, angels encased in giant stone bodies as punishment for defying the Creator to help the humans, walk the land like stop motion figures, as if they were pulled from the works of Ray Harryhausen. "God" is never mentioned, instead referred throughout the film as "the Creator". Noah's visions are depicted as hallucinogenic dream sequences with repeating symbolism (the snake, the apple, the stone used to kill Abel), ultimately left up to Noah own interpretation. But how can Noah truly know what the Creator wants? How can he accurately derive meaning from these visions, glimpses from a being whose very existence and creed is beyond any mortal comprehension? And how could Noah ever maintain a sense of rational, clear-headed sanity after, you know, having a god in his brain?
Because, you know, that worked out so well for this guy.

Moreover the film has a bent much further towards evolution and environmentalism: a standout sequence from the film shows Noah's old family story about the origins of life on Earth, going from the Big Bang all the way to the evolution of the tiniest microbes, to fish, to reptiles, to apes and eventually man. This leads into the story of Adam and Eve, creating a world where the Creator and science work in tandem rather than being forced into war with one another. It's all brought to screen through the mind of Aronofsky and the film's superb visual effects, resulting in a movie that rarely spends even a moment looking anything short of astonishing. First brought to life by Aronofsky as a badass graphic novel before bringing it to screen (he took the same approach when making The Fountain), the film's barren, dying world ravaged by the descendants of Cain feels fully realized, imbued with a rich sense of mythology like the best kinds of fantasy works.
Pictured: Badass graphic novel

The cast too is excellent, ranging from Jennifer Connelly as Noah's wife Naameh to Emma Watson in an emotional turn as Ila, a woman taken in by Noah's family as a girl after being abandoned and scarred, incapable of bearing children. Russell Crowe gives his best performance in what feels like ages (likely his best work since Gladiator), bringing a subtle sense of nuance to what could have easily become a role consisting of little more than bland stoicism. His Noah is a man put upon to do the will of a force he cannot ever hope to truly understand, driven to go to whatever lengths he feels necessary to make a future for the world, even if he must combat the destruction of his own soul in the process. Even Logan Lerman, whom I've never really cared for before (he's usually... okay, I guess?), gives strong work as Noah's second son Ham, who more than anyone else in the family grows to doubt his father's heavy decisions. In a small yet crucial supporting role, Anthony Hopkins brings wisdom, simple wit and gravitas to the role of Noah's grandfather Methuselah. His scenes best showcase the strengths of the film's writing, at times being almost lyrical and poetic in its deep, emotional prose. Meanwhile Ray Winstone brings commanding presence as Tubal-Cain, leader of what remains of human survivors, giving the film an antagonist with equal parts savagery and cunning, who despite his immoral actions is still fighting for survival rather than mere greed or power. He is the face who represents everything Noah grows to despise about humanity, a face that will likely haunt Noah until the end of his days.

Perhaps the most crucial way Noah stands apart from other versions of the well-worn ark story is how it doesn't shy away from the inherently dark nature of the source. While the film still earns a PG-13 rating, it's a fairly violent, wrenching tale about a man who decides to leave the rest of humanity to die, a fact that Aronofsky forces both the characters and the audience to acknowledge at every turn. We as viewers are asked to truly consider the morality of a character traditionally portrayed as a "good guy", to wonder how far is too far for Noah to go in his efforts for the greater good of the Earth (one choice made by Noah in the middle of the film is downright shocking). We are made to understand and even sympathize with his plight, even as opposing sides raise entirely valid counterpoints.
The film's final act proves a fascinating subversion of the film's previous epic scope, conflicting emotions among Noah and his family morphing the story into a cabin fever psychological thriller. Naameh and the rest of the family (particularly Ham) begin to seriously doubt Noah's sanity and sense of morality, a plot that could very easily have fallen flat on its face under any other circumstances. But here they have every right to be afraid of Noah: his visions have given him (not entirely unjustified) pessimism and contempt for humanity, convincing him that if this second chance for the world is to have any hope of survival, humans should not exist in it. In this sense Noah does become a story that inspires faith, putting the audience in Noah's perspective as he grapples with his own human nature, having the deaths of many on his shoulders, ultimately learning to feel love again and give humanity a second chance (regardless of whether or not they deserve it).
He also learned to stop taking ethics and philosophy lessons from Pamela Isley.

Noah is a spectacular film, the kind of unique big-budget epic that one would feel lucky to see on the big screen at all, especially as we're still pretty early into the year. Some may find its ambition and particular methods of interpretation perhaps too bizarre or unwieldy (I wouldn't be surprised if the walking stone Watchers turn some people off), but even so it nevertheless makes for a cinematic experience that demands to be seen, and most certainly one that deserves a chance from those who may have already written it off. It is a film that truly incites discussion and debate amongst its audience, as great art is wont to do. Noah is Aronofsky's vision through and through, taking a story that has been told and remade to death for centuries and making it feel fresh and exciting again. In the process it sets a whole new bar for movies of its ilk, which I can only hope inspires other filmmakers to reach for such heights the next time someone gets an idea to bring a story from the old book to the screen.

Final Review Score: 9.5 / 10

+ A visually astonishing fantasy epic from a true visionary filmmaker
+ Ambitious, bold and daring in its twists on a well-worn tale
+ Excellent performances across the board, with Russell Crowe doing his best work in years
+ Thematically rich, raising fascinating questions of morality by not shying away from the darker elements of the story most versions try to sanitize

- Divisive, not for everyone (though frankly it's a better film for that)

Wow, two genuine contenders for my Top 10 list this year (the first, of course, being The Lego Movie), and we're only just starting April! Who'd have thunk it? 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

TV Top 10s: The Top 11 Best Episodes- Buffy the Vampire Slayer

By Andrew Braid

Into every generation a Slayer is born: 
one girl in all the world, a chosen one.
She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness;
to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their number.
She is the Slayer.

A long time ago, a youthful writer named Joss Whedon came up with a clever, subversive little idea. He was a man very familiar with conventions and horror movie tropes. One particular trope caught his attention: in so many movies, the "dumb blonde girl" character usually dies first, helpless and screaming, all because she walked into some dark alley. This is when a fateful lightbulb from the pop culture heavens entered his brain. He asked himself: what if that "dumb blonde girl" character were the hero? What if she not only fought back against the monsters and bad guys, but kicked major ass doing it? What if this seemingly ordinary girl turned out to be extraordinary?
In 1992 Whedon's script was brought to the screen in the film Buffy the Vampire Slayer, starring Kristy Swanson, Luke Perry, Rutger Hauer, Paul Reubens, and Donald Sutherland.
It sucked.

Flash-forward to 1996, and Joss' idea was resurrected as a television series for the still-fresh upstart WB Network, eager to look out for hip original programming to help make a name for itself. The film, while not very well received, was still a modest box office success, but even so none of the major networks showed interest in Joss' pitch. Then the WB Network came along, ordering a pilot and later a 12-episode order for midseason. This time Joss had true creative control, ensuring his vision was brought to life the way he intended. Expectations weren't exactly high for the show, either for ratings or critical success.
On March 10, 1997, Buffy the Vampire Slayer first premiered on television screens. Seven seasons and 144 episodes later, it ended its run celebrated as one of the greatest television series of all time, backed by a hardcore devoted fanbase whose demand for more is strong enough that the series still continues in comic book form (the first issue of Season 10 is released this month). It even spawned a concurrent, much-loved spinoff series that was successful in its own right. It may have been overlooked by the more elite awards shows, but viewers knew better- Buffy the Vampire Slayer wasn't just any other show. It was something bound to endure for years to come.
To say nothing of how long people will debate between these two.*1

What can I say about Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Or, perhaps more pertinent to ask, what have I not said already about Buffy the Vampire Slayer? At this point the show's legacy more or less speaks for itself- it proved that working in fantasy, horror and other kinds of "genre" television wasn't some sentence to schlock but a potential gateway for whole other kinds of writing. You could mix horror, humor, action, fantasy, romance, drama, suspense, mystery, hell even musical numbers: Buffy did it all, and had it all, leaving viewers in rapt anticipation for what the next episode would have up its sleeves. In the end it wasn't just one show- it was all the shows.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer ranks among my all-time favorite television series (big surprise there), and to celebrate it (and the aforementioned debut of Season 10, I guess- hey, if a tie-in presents itself, take it) I'm here to count down my picks for the Top 11 best episodes the series ever gave us. With a show as generally consistent in its quality as Buffy, narrowing this down to a list of even 11 episodes is a struggle for anyone, especially as each fan's favorites are bound to vary wildly (with few exceptions). There are many great episodes of the series I don't get to mention here, so I will reassure you all that if your favorites don't pop up then it by no means translates to me thinking it's a bad or weak episode. Because really, there are no outright bad episodes of Buffy (not even "Beer Bad"- though not for a lack of trying). I love the show through and through, and this is my own little tribute to celebrate the great moments that stood out to me.
Oh, and it should go without saying BEWARE OF SPOILERS. If you haven't seen the show yet (or still need to finish it), then you probably want to go do that ASAP and come back later.

Honorable Mentions: Passion (S2, E17), Becoming- Parts 1 and 2 (S2, E21/22), Band Candy (S3, E6), The Wish (S3, E9), Amends (S3, E10), Superstar (S4, E17), Fool for Love (S5, E7), Tabula Rasa (S6, E8), Selfless (S7, E5)

And now, the Top 11 Best Episodes of Buffy, starting with...

#11: The Gift (Season 5, Episode 22)

Written and Directed by Joss Whedon
"I know that I'm a monster, but... you treat me like a man..."

Yeah, I had to cheat a bit and make it a Top 11, because while not quite the best season finale Buffy ever did, boy does "The Gift" get close. Everything from Season 5 (the second-best overall season of the show) comes together here in beautiful fashion- Xander and Anya get hitched! Buffy lets Spike back into her house! Willow restores Tara's mind! Giles crosses the line that Buffy never would! Dawn needs to be rescued, but we actually care this time! It all ends with a spectacular action climax climbing up a construction tower, as Buffy prepares to make the ultimate sacrifice for her sister. The beautiful, emotional conclusion alone puts "The Gift" among the show's best. It's...
*sniff* I'm not c-crying, why are you?

#10: Pangs (Season 4, Episode 8)

Written by Jane Espenson

Directed by Michael Lange
"Soon he'll be sweating... I'm imagining having sex with him again..."

If there were a competition for most quotable episode of Buffy, "Pangs" would undoubtedly make it to the championship title bout. There's a goldmine of great lines here, be they relating to Anya's lusts for Xander, Xander's unfortunate new curse (putting to rest the old hat idea that syphillis is ever not funny), Spike's utter desperation, and Buffy's wishy-washy uncomfortable dilemma in having to fight the spirits of a Native American tribe intent on wreaking havoc on Sunnydale in time for Thanksgiving. Sure, Willow's sudden disapproval of the holiday mostly pops up just for the sake of having that point-of-view presented, but are you really going to complain about such things when you're left laughing so hard? Maybe it is a sham... but it's a sham with yams!

#9: Family (Season 5, Episode 6)

Written and Directed by Joss Whedon
"Every time I- even when I'm at my worst, you make me feel special. How do you do that?" "Magic."

The first and only episode to center around Willow's girlfriend Tara as the story's main focus, it honestly makes me wish the character (and her actress Amber Benson) had gotten more time to potentially shine. This episode marks the point where she becomes a full-blown member of the Scoobies, confronting the father and siblings who tried to manipulate and control her all this time (including bitchy sister Amy Adams!). These final scenes, where the gang stands up for Tara and call themselves her family, make the episode for me, culminating in a slightly cheesy, but by no means any less heartwarming, magical embrace.
It still gets me every time...

#8: Doppelgangland (Season 3, Episode 16)

Written and Directed by Joss Whedon

I will make it no secret that the shy yet smart and highly capable Willow Rosenberg is my favorite Buffy character (with Anya ranking a close second, followed by Spike), and "Doppelgangland" is perhaps a better argument than any as for why. Alyson Hannigan plays four, count 'em, four different takes on Willow here, ranging from the sadistic, darkly kinky Vampire Willow (accidentally pulled from the alternate universe created by Anya in "The Wish") to Willow having to impersonate Vampire Willow in order to save her friends. It's a killer showcase episode built around a deviously fun (although admittedly fanservice-y) premise, yet another big hit from the show at its peak. The reintroduction of Anya certainly helps, showing the early signs of how this character would eventually make herself a staple of the series ("I'm a mortal, a child... and I'm flunking math!"). It's an episode that reminds us why we love the character so much, but also shows us how much she's grown (and hints at how she'll continue to do so).

#7: Chosen (Season 7, Episode 22)

Written and Directed by Joss Whedon
"I just realized something, something that never really occurred to me before. We're going to win."

Season 7, while damn good overall, had a handful of bumps in the road, but no one will argue that the big season (and series!) finale didn't deliver in a very big way. It starts with a relaxing buildup: Angel pops in one last time, hookups are had, D&D games are played. It's all a quiet calm before the mother of all s***storms- a final fight with the forces of The First Evil, threatening to tear apart the world as we know it. The scale has never been higher, nor have the stakes and most definitely not the casualties (Anya NOOOOOOOO!). It all culminates in a huge gamechanger for the Buffy-verse, sharing the Slayer power with ALL of the Potentials out there across the world (talk about literal female empowerment!). The story continues on in the comics (which rock, BTW), but for now the Scoobies can't go home again.
Seriously, they can't. It's a f***ing crater now.
Sunnydale: still in better shape than Detroit.

#6: Something Blue (Season 4, Episode 9)

Written by Tracey Forbes

Directed by Nick Marck
"Honey, we need to talk about the invitations. Now do you wanna be William the Bloody or just Spike? Cuz either way it's gonna be majorly weird."

Here' the weird thing about Season 4: when it comes to the actual "Big Bad" season arc, it's pretty weak overall. But whenever the season got to sideline (or outright forget about) most of its Initiative and Adam-related content, it put out some of the best and most memorable hours of the entire series. "Something Blue" is a prime example of this: the Initiative merely gets mentioned and Riley does pop up, but only for the sake of mining more comedy from Buffy and Spike's magic-induced wedding proposal. Instead, the episode is devoted to firing laughs throughout, as Willow's depression following her breakup with Oz leads to a spell gone very (hilariously) wrong. The show takes a concept with amazing potential ("What if everything Willow says comes true?") and actually manages to live up to it in its own Buffy-style fashion, with everyone stumbling around trying to figure out how the hell this is all happening.
And no, Buffy and Spike as a lovesick couple planning invitations will never stop being funny.

#5: Graduation Day- Parts 1 and 2 (Season 3, Episodes 21 and 22)

Written and Directed by Joss Whedon
"We survived." "It was a hell of a battle." "Not the battle. High school."

Buffy season finales have been somewhat hit (Seasons 2, 5 and 7) and miss (Seasons 4*2 and 6), but with Season 3's big finish the show capped off its best season with a truly killer 2-part high note. This one has it all- a big showdown between Buffy and Faith, the final ultimate plan of Mayor Wilkins (still the best Big Bad the show ever had, though not for lack of trying), the final nail in the coffin of Buffy and Angel's relationship, the final nail in the coffin of Cordelia and Wesley's wannabe relationship, hummus, and a climactic battle that pays off not just this season but all 3 seasons to this point in a massively satisfying manner. It's a textbook definition of how to do a season finale right, and it easily stands as one of the show's biggest highlights.

#4: Once More With Feeling (Season 6, Episode 7)

Written and Directed by Joss Whedon
I'll just leave this here.

Do I really have to explain this one? It's the freakin' musical episode, EVERYONE knows why this one rules. Many fans rank it as the absolute best of the entire series, and believe me they sure as hell ain't far off. The songs are all a delight, peppered with infectiously clever lyrics and all performed by the show's incredibly game cast. Gellar and Marsters give the episode its center, though it's Emma Caulfield as Anya and Amber Benson's Tara who truly stand out with their amazing vocal chops. And do I honestly have to keep going? Just listen to "I'll Never Tell" again and pretend I'm delivering some kind of fascinating academic dissertation.

#3: The Zeppo (Season 3, Episode 13)

Written by Dan Vebber

Directed by James Whitmore, Jr.
"What is it? How do you get it? Who doesn't have it, and who decides who doesn't have it? What is the essence of 'cool'?"

"The Zeppo" is a brilliant parody of the show's formula, sidelining the usual end-of-the-world Buffy plotline into the background, instead focusing on the everyman "Zeppo" (look it up!) of the group, one Xander Harris. No episode has better answered the question "Why IS Xander here on this show?", proving why he is so essential in his role as the seemingly useless everyman, the Jimmy Olsen to Buffy's Superman. Nicholas Brendon truly shines here, stepping up to the plate to give us a Xander who is both tragically unlucky in his pursuit of cool and yet very lucky to have a strength, resourcefulness and capability within him that he more than anyone underestimates. In the end it's incredibly affirming that Xander realizes that he doesn't need recognition for being a hero, so long as he knows he was one. And none of this even mentions how breathlessly funny "The Zeppo" is, wildly escalating in both Xander's A-plot and everyone else's absurdly devoid of context B plot (the funniest part for me being when Xander awkwardly interrupts yet another tearful Buffy/Angel moment). This episode's profile has risen among fans over time, and for good reason: it's clever approach of cheeky deconstruction makes it easily stands among Buffy's best.

#2: The Body (Season 5, Episode 16)

Written and Directed by Joss Whedon
"But I don't understand. I don't understand how this all happens."

I'll admit, number one for this list is contentious. In all regards "The Body" is a masterpiece- not just objectively the best episode of Buffy, but one of the single best pieces of television ever made. Indeed, no hour of television has shocked, horrified, and all around left me a quivering emotional wreck as much as this one. Sarah Michelle Gellar does undoubtedly her finest acting of the entire series right here, doing an early first act sequence all in one long take as she struggles to come to terms with what she has just come home to. The direction by Whedon is top-notch, immediate and unflinching. Emma Caulfield once again becomes a standout through a scene so honest and heart-wrenching that it is literally impossible not to break into a pile of tears right along with her.
At the same time though, it's a particularly distinct episode of Buffy, with almost no jokes whatsoever and only one small action beat at the end, harshly driving home that no matter how hard this experience is, life must still go on. It succeeds so beautifully in part because it is an episode very unlike Buffy, starkly presenting one of the most realistic portrayals of dealing with death and grief ever committed to television. It's also an episode that has been admitted time and again as the hardest one to watch, not exactly lending itself well to repeat viewings like so many other installments of the series. As undeniably phenomenal as "The Body" is, I felt that I should give the #1 spot to the episode that best exemplifies Buffy as a whole (at least for me), even though it's debatable whether or not it's truly the best episode of the entire series. In other words, I guess you could say the top 2 are more or less interchangeable, depending on what you prefer as the best representation of the show as a whole.
But even so, #2 isn't exactly low praise, and I believe "The Body" should be seen (at least once) by anyone who truly loves television as an artistic medium.

So then, what does take the top spot? What episode really and truly embodies Buffy at its best?

#1: Hush (Season 4, Episode 10)

Written and Directed by Joss Whedon

Even with the aforementioned contention, I doubt anyone can argue against this choice. In fact, it's arguably the easiest choice one could go with for the top spot in a Best of Buffy list. Even if it doesn't always end up at the top of everyone's personal lists, it's the one episode that is absolutely guaranteed to make it on there, no matter what kind of Buffy fan you are. Of all the show's "gimmick" episodes, "Hush" presents the most clever conceit- nearly an entire episode devoid of spoken dialogue, brought about when the fairy tale menaces known as The Gentlemen (still the most genuinely frightening monster-of-the-week to ever grace the series) steal the voices of everyone in Sunnydale. As The Gentlemen stalk the streets at night the Scoobies must come up with a plan, all while working out their various communication issues (because Joss Whedon is clever like that)."Hush" represents the show at the peak of its creativity, delivering in full concentrated force everything that makes Buffy great: exciting action, hysterical comedy (seriously, just try to watch the classroom projector scene and not break into laughter. I dare you.), surprisingly creepy horror, sweet and charming romance, and the dramas of being an everyday young adult in a town beset with all manner of goings-on that are anything but everyday.
And for that, "Hush" is my pick for the best episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Thanks for reading, everyone! (And before you ask, yes I do have a Top 10 for Angel raring to go for the near-future).

*1: Since you must know, I'm Team Spike. It's hardly even a question for me.
*2: I'm referring to the actual season-arc resolution itself with Adam and The Initiative, not the actual last episode of Season 4 ("Restless"), which is a crazy cool, lovably bizarre and surreal cap to an appropriately experimental season.