movie

'Noah' Spurs Debate Pitting Art vs. Bible

Noah Movie. Photo: © 2014 Paramount Pictures Corporation

With the release of the movie Noah a couple of weeks away, the waters of controversy are already rising fast. I’ve seen the movie’s final cut, and director Darren Aronofsky’s re-envisioning of the biblical hero Noah will not disappoint — inciting some and enthralling others. Some will undoubtedly chastise him for the ways in which the movie riffs on the biblical account of Noah. Others will praise Aronofsky for his creative vision.

But the big question generated by a film like Noah is: When the Bible is the source of inspiration for art, how close does the artist have to stay to the original narrative? The Bible has been the inspiration for profound works of art for centuries. It isn’t surprising. The Bible is full of passion, romance, intrigue, struggle, and the triumph of good over evil.

Even so, it is hard to ignore the reality that not all art inspired by the Bible is respectful of its subject matter. Where, then, should the line be drawn between artistic interpretation and blatant disrespect?

'Son of God' Falls into Trap of Most Jesus Depictions

Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox
Diogo Morgado plays Jesus in 'Son of God.' Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Son of God is Hollywood’s take on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. While the producers clearly tried hard to use modern filmmaking techniques to bring scripture to the big screen, the attempt fell flat somewhere between the use of action-sequences, swelling music reminiscent of old Westerns, and unconvincing acting — Jesus is played by Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado, who managed to look irritatingly self-satisfied for most of the movie.

Since faith is such a personal, spiritual experience, it begs the question: Is it possible to make the life and ministry of Jesus into a film that accurately reflects Christianity, or does such an effort cheapen beliefs?

The Lego Movie's Got Religion

“The Lego Movie” poster courtesy of © 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Via RNS

Legos got religion? Who knew?

The Lego Movie, well-reviewed and making money by the brickyard, builds its story upon religious and moral themes. They don’t all snap together securely, but that’s in keeping with the rest of the film.

Spoiler alert: I’ll give away nothing that you wouldn’t get from the reviews. There’s a late plot twist, however, that affects everything we thought we understood about the story. Anybody who reveals that twist, at least in the first few weeks, deserves to be extruded in molten plastic. I’ll tip as little as possible.

Right off the bat: It’s as good as the reviews say. The story takes elements from The MatrixHarry PotterKung Fu PandaLord of the Rings, the good Star Wars movies, Toy Story 2 and other recent cultural touchstones and blends them into plot slurry. Which is not all that surprising for a modern kids’ movie.

Hollywood: Whitewashing the Bible

Russell Crowe as Noah. Courtesy © 2012 Paramount Pictures

Following the success of the History Channel's mini-series, The Bible, which appeared weekly last March, Hollywood seems to have renewed an avenue in which Biblical adaptations are allowed to enjoy a significant amount of limelight.

Two blockbuster titles are to set to be released in 2014: Paramount Picture's Noah and 21st Century Fox's Exodus. These two films both boast a star-studded cast as directors Darren Aronofsky and Ridley Scott hope to astonish audiences by combining stunning visualizations with two of the most popular accounts from the Old Testament, the Great Flood and the Exodus out of Egypt.

As a Christian and an avid movie-goer, I was thrilled to read that these two films were in production. However, once I saw the actors cast to play the leading roles in these two films, my excitement quickly turned to disdain. Not a single one of the leading roles in either movie was given to a person of Middle Eastern descent.

New Comedic Documentary Explores Muslims in the U.S.

“The Muslims are Coming” tells the story of a group of comedians who take their
“The Muslims are Coming” tells the story of a group of comedians who take their show to the Bible Belt. Photo via show website.

Muslim stand-up comedy is nothing new. But what makes “The Muslims Are Coming” different is that it portrays what happens when a troupe of comedians performs before red state Americans in such places as Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Arizona, Utah and Idaho.

The documentary by Negin Farsad, an Iranian-American, and Dean Obeidallah, of Palestinian-Italian roots, opened in Chicago yesterday.

A Great Story Changes Everyone: 'Fruitvale Station'

Production still via fruitvalefilm.com
Production still via fruitvalefilm.com

I tend to keep my heart under lock and key. I am not prone to Merton-esque revelations. My conscious mind is a far safer vantage point from which to view life’s experiences, so when a friend invited me to go see the newly released Fruitvale Station last night, I thought that was the perspective from which I would see it: my logical mind, my heart under wraps. It was about a subject with which I have no experience and only vaguely remembered from the papers a few years back. I thought it would be a perfect film for my head to be educated while my heart remained safe. I was wrong.

Fruitvale Station broke my heart open.

Transcending a Genocidal God

From the History Channel's "The Bible"

HOW IS IT that a miniseries based on the Good Book could evoke sectarian and violent notions of the Divine that would have seemed backward to some even back in the era of melodramatic biblical epic cinema? The History channel’s The Bible, like so much of so-called “religious pop culture,” seemed to be the product of good people trying to do a good thing, but at best putting the desire to convey a particular message ahead of making the best artwork for the medium.

The politics of The Bible seemed to perpetuate an “us vs. them” lens. It left me wishing for a treatment of scripture presented from the perspective of the marginalized, instead of a portrayal of “victory” as being the deaths of people considered different. Couldn’t someone make an Exodus movie about Moses’ neighbors—you know, the ones who saw God’s favor rest on the boy next door, while their son was killed by a psychopathic king? Or one focused on the myriad people groups considered “unclean” and worthy of genocide at the hands of those who claim to speak for God? Or a rendering of John’s Revelation that understands it as a poem about remarkable beginnings, the battles of the human heart, and a love willing to remake the world to set us free from the traps we’ve laid for ourselves? You don’t even have to be that controversial—can’t someone just make a decent movie about Ruth or any of the many cool women in the gospels?

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To the Wonder: A Rumination on Love

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams in 'To the Wonder,' a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The last Terrence Malick film I went to see was Tree of Life, in which the critically acclaimed director — and devout Christian — advised audiences to “experience [the film] like a walk in the countryside. You’ll probably be bored or have other things in mind, but perhaps you will be struck, suddenly, by a feeling, by an act, by a unique portrait of nature.” Needless to say, the film was long — extremely beautiful, but a wee bit slow.

So you can imagine the shock I felt when Malick’s latest film, To the Wonder, abruptly ended after almost two hours and I thought to myself, “Wait, it’s already over?”

To the Wonder is certainly different from its immediate predecessor in Malick’s catalogue — there aren’t any dinosaurs in his latest effort. But it does still manage to have both the look and feel of a Malick film (i.e., it intersperses a linear story with lots of fluid, beautiful cinematography shot during “magic hour” with voice overs asking deep questions), albeit one that doesn’t drift off into long montages of the creation of the universe with voiceovers almost lifted from the book of Job.

A True Contender

Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront"

PAYING ATTENTION isn't easy in a world of infinite content, but there's a reason artists and prophets from Jeremiah to Arthur Miller have called upon us to sit up and listen: A drop of water or a focused breath may be as inexhaustible as a symphony or a thousand-mile trek. And one film? It could contain the world. On the Waterfront is not that film (for me it's Andrei Tarkovsky's transcendent portrait of a 15th century icon painter, Andrei Rublev), but it belongs in the canon all right. The new Criterion BluRay edition not only offers the crispest representation of the 1954 New Jersey dockyard visuals any of us have ever seen, it also illustrates the sociopolitical and creative context in a manner richer than any previously released.

So the story of a former prize fighter torn between his brother's mob ties, a blossoming love affair, his broken ambition, and desire to do the right thing emerges once again, six decades after first exploding onto the national consciousness, winning eight Oscars along the way. It's six decades and a bit more since its director, Elia Kazan, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, another man making a tough decision amid nearly impossible pressure: name names and survive or take the Fifth and receive exile. It's one decade after a perhaps more self-conscious Academy gave Kazan a lifetime achievement Oscar, though half of the audience chose to sit on their hands. We may ask whether or not the grace of God would have enabled any of us to do differently than Kazan, or if he perhaps had good reason to challenge the worst Soviet practices in the 1940s, or if the value of an artwork depends on the integrity of the artist. More questions besides are explored in the array of features on this On the Waterfront disc—interviews with Kazan, a documentary about the film's making, and a transcript of Kazan's defense of his testimony.

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Top 10 of 2012

THE BEST experiences I had at the cinema last year were nostalgic—re-releases of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Lawrence of Arabia were uncanny reflections on the cost of war to soldiers and some roots of contemporary Middle East strife. Here's my list of the best films released in 2012:

10. A tie:The Pirates! Band of Misfits, a gloriously rich, smart comedy for all ages, full of life and self-deprecating humor, and Life of Pi, which envelopes its audience with visual wonders and spiritual questions.

9. Wes Anderson's delightful treatment of childhood first love amid dysfunctional adults, and a film not afraid of the shadow side of growing up, Moonrise Kingdom.

8. The Cabin in the Woods, a gruesome horror comedy that not only enacts and portrays, but understands the lie of redemptive violence.

7. The sprawling, operatic imagining of love-transcending-all that is Cloud Atlas, which made me feel the way Star Wars might—if it were written for adults.

6. The Dark Knight Rises, the conclusion to a truly epic film series that imagined heroism as self-giving rather than merely slaughtering every bad guy in sight.

5. A disturbing, unpleasant, and utterly compelling vision of religious searching and abuse, relational longing and exploitation, holistic change and psychic torture, The Master.

4. Looper, the most fully realized and coherent future sci-fi world since Blade Runner, and over-the-top entertainment invoking both The Wizard of Oz and just war theory.

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