See It Instead: Noah
Sometimes a movie comes along and makes you aware of an itch you never knew you had. Perhaps a review piqued your interest, or you’d rather stay in and pay yourself $10 for a small popcorn and watch a movie on the cheap. Perhaps you’re valiantly struggling through your queue on Netflix or Amazon Prime, and need a wise, cultured voice to direct you to where the real movie viewing gold is hiding amidst the terrible Leprechaun movies . Well, look no further. See It Instead is here to take today’s new releases and guide you to what you should really be watching.
Noah (100000 BCE…just kidding. 2014.)
Oh, Aronofsky, why? Why? Director of numerous mind bending flicks including Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky takes a puzzling change of direction with Paramount Picture’s Noah, starring Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly. I truly cannot decide if this movie will be a perplexing treat, or a plague of a Hollywood action film. The trailers are schizophrenic, which could either mean a confused movie answering to too many masters, or a confused studio PR team, unable to understand Aronofsky’s vision and communicate anything other than “Russell Crowe am action hero! Jennifer am pretty! See movie!” So rather than destroy your mind on existential angst (not to mention waste 15 dollars on tickets…) why not see these movies instead?
The Serious Pick: The Ten Commandments (1956)
The epic of all epics, The Ten Commandments is pretty much the granddaddy of all Biblical films. It was directed by the P.T. Barnum of film, Cecil B. DeMille. It starred Charlton Heston as a fiery and indignant Moses, versus a cool and commanding Yul Brynner as Pharaoh, Anne Baxter (trust us, she was big back in the day) as Nefretiri, and even has a sweet cameo by Vincent Price. At the time, it was the most expensive film ever made, and adjusted for today’s dollar, it is still in the top ten grossing films of all time. 7 Oscar noms for this bad boy. Yeah. It’s kind of important. The movie is so chock full of swagger, I’m shocked that there wasn’t a mass conversion to Judaism, or at least a mass exodus (Zing! Bible humor!) to Egypt. This movie has some baddass Hebrews, and apparently Egypt is totally chock-a-block with pillars of fire and shit.
Even for those who would rather gargle glass than read the Bible, this story is pretty amazing. God intentionally leads the Hebrews to Egypt, so they won’t starve in their homeland…which you know, he kind of gave them (by way of straight up murdering the inhabitants.) They catch on like wildfire there, so a worried Pharaoh tries to cull the heard by killing the first born of all Hebrews. Moses slips through the net and is even taken in by Pharaoh’s daughter to raise. Eventually, due to God being really patient (and cruel, I guess) he makes Moses the instrument of escape for his people. Who he led there. Intentionally. Anyway: God fires plague after plague at the haughty Yul Brynner, who isn’t impressed, since he’s Yul Brynner. Oh, and God won’t let him be impressed. Seriously. Anyway 2: Eventually the Hebrews leave…but Yul has buyers remorse and sets out to kill them all. God again wrecks his plans. The Hebrews piss God off by not being sufficiently impressed, he messes with them for 40 years, and their hero, Moses, gets to see the promised land of his fathers’…and die before entering. Yay, God!
The action sequences are grand in scale, and stand up pretty well. The sets are amazing, an amalgam of on-location shoots and some of the biggest stages ever built. The casting is top notch, even if you don’t think Yul Brynner is the biggest, baddest thing to walk the Earth since the T-Rex (Hint: You’re wrong.) As the NRA can attest, Charlton Heston is GOOD at being indignant and sanctimonious. The supporting cast are all excellent as well. There’s no reason to skip this trip through the dessert, especially if you like your God with a healthy dose of smiting.
The Lighthearted Pick: Dogma (1999)
This Kevin Smith film is for a weird sub-section of film goers: Those who enjoy the irreverent, minutely constructed, and scatological humor of a Kevin Smith film, and those with obsessive knowledge of Catholic Church policy. So, pretty much everyone, right? Right?
The story is of the last living relative of Jesus, aided by supernatural characters in God’s mysterious absence (as well as by Jay and Silent Bob, because, hey, Kevin Smith ain’t no dummy) as she tries to prevent two rogue angels (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) from exploiting a loophole that an arrogant priest (George Carlin) has opened up in sacred law. This loophole will grant the pair of angels redemption, at the cost of imploding the whole of creation. Gotta read the fine print is the take-away here.
Fans of Smith know the score here about his style of humor: brash, earthy, and just lightly dusted with inside knowledge of 90’s culture, New Jersey shibboleths (Zing! Bible/Literature humor!), and arcane topics. The arcane topic here is Catholic Church law, which is Byzantine, despite having suffered a schism from the Byzantium church thousands of years ago (Zing! Oh, you get the point.) For those without much knowledge of the materials being lampooned and outright mocked, you get a rather weak Kevin Smith film, that manages to skate by on cool cameos and Jay and Silent Bob power. For those who do know what the hell is going on, it’s a rather intricately plotted satire aimed like a dagger at the Pontifex Maximus’ heart. So if you want to give the Pope a sad, see this movie.
Oh, and Kevin Smith is such a bastard, he snuck out and protested the movie with angry Catholics. Priceless.
The Unconventional Pick: The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Martin Scorsese directs an unvarnished triumph in The Last Temptation of Christ. Jesus, played by Willem Defoe, is the tormented son of Jewish peasants living in a Roman occupied land. He has flashes and visions, often painful and terrifying, that attest to his role in God’s plan. But he dreams of release, of escape, of a way to be a good man yet not THE Good Man. He chases after the religious cranks of his day, including the zealot Judas Iscariot (Harvey Keitel), and immerses himself in obscure sects of Messianic Judaism that promise him transcendence. Finally, after a life-time of suffering and turmoil, at the foot of the cross that will be his torture and death, he is given a final temptation: live. And in Scorsese’s masterful vision, he does.
The Last Temptation is a wonderful synthesis of psychology and theology. A shrewd script keeps all of the events of Jesus’ life in order, but gives subtle alternate histories or explanations for them. Willem Defoe is at the top of his game here, really investing his character with emotion, crafting a believable and relate-able Jesus (if you don’t mind that he’s white…which he wasn’t, but Hollywood could never break the ultimate taboo of a Jesus of color.) The surrounding cast is incredible, including Judas, and Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey). David Bowie even gets into the act, as Pontius Pilate. And David Bowie is the biggest, baddest thing to walk the Earth since Yul Brynner riding a T-Rex. The soundtrack is mesmerizing, put together by Peter Gabriel of Genesis fame (well, before they let the balding drummer start singing, anyway…)
If you think that Scorsese’s reputation is all sizzle and no steak, you owe it to yourself to see the most daring depiction of Jesus of Nazareth to be put on film.