Movie Review

What Can Reactionary-Religious Films Learn from “Noah”?

Russell Crowe as NoahAs consumers of film culture and product, we’re used to the many facets of faith.

It’s exponentially important to the continuation of the industry at large. We form allegiances with filmmakers, genres, actors, actresses, producers, screenwriters, franchises and series; we put our faith in these artists and their labors, hoping that they’ll satiate our selfish desires of fulfillment.

There it is: hope, the integral apple to faith’s orange—similar, yet still entirely different fruit. Faith requires pre-established trust, while hope is idealized fantasy that needs no foundation. We can hope out of pure curiosity, but faith requires establishment. Both go hand-in-hand, speaking to our collective desire to indulge in fantasy as we make our way to the theater weekend after weekend.

There are films and audiences that hope for far too much. Religious cinema is often cast aside as its own marginalized (sometimes rightly so) subsect of the film world. The stigma of “Christian” as a descriptor will automatically turn off a majority of the potential audience. It will appeal to the demographic of worshippers; the God-fearing will seek out films like The Passion of the Christ and the upcoming Exodus, and expect them to reaffirm their faith. Christian films rarely deviate from this give-them-what-they-want routine.

Christian films are anomalies of subcultural film in that they seem to cater only to other Christians. The New Black Wave that’s sweeping the country has universal appeal, as does the Queer cinema movement; Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay, and Gregg Araki make films with subcultural and minority subjects, yet have the ability—and a desire—to speak to everyone.

Noah is a byproduct of the melding of contemporary Hollywood ambition with Christian lore. It’s different in that it offers an alternative approach to a historically-coded text, the biblical story of Noah, his ark, and the raging waters which cleansed the earth in the Old Testament.

It’s a film that can’t escape religious association and—in the hands of a visionary director—has the ability to reach beyond the divided camps of the Christian audience and those who are not Christian.

It’s a film that endured the brunt of built-in criticism; criticism that has taken its toll on the film’s long-term success and standing (Noah took in $4 million on Friday, which will likely result in a drop of over 50% for its second weekend).

The controversy surrounding the artistic liberties director Darren Aronofsky takes with the source material when transitioning from page to screen is to be expected, though it’s never wise to judge an adaptation on the degree to which it adheres to its source. Each text is its own entity, though the Christian audience has made it clear that Noah doesn’t have that luxury, especially when its source material is one of the most well-known symbnols of their religion, known around the world and by other religions for its appeal as a spectacle outside of being a biblical text.

It seems as if pro-religionism has become a trend of obligation. Over the course of the last seven months, ten Christian films have been released to theaters, five of which played on over 400 screens. Christian filmmakers feel the need to release dreck like God’s Not Dead and Son of God in reactionary fashion.

Films like Noah certainly aren’t helping the case for a Hollywood that’s more accepting of Christian subject matter, and it’s clear how Noah might rub the religious sect the wrong way. Aronofsky’s vision of the biblical tale incorporates elements of the whimsical; giant stone-like creatures with glowing eyes and CGI bodies appear only a few minutes into the film, making the bible seem more like another installment of the Lord of the Rings franchise.

Aronofsky treats the Old Testament exactly for what it is; a fantasy, and Christian audiences might respond to the film if they accepted that such biblical tales are as literary and constructed as Harry Potter or The Hunger Games.

Noah centers on the title character as he receives visions from “The Creator” warning of an impending flood that will wipe out life on earth. Noah takes it upon himself to build an ark that will house one pair each of The Creator’s creatures until the flood is over, an the world will start anew.

Aronofsky’s script, co-written with Ari Handel, consciously deviates from any mention of the word “God,” instead lending itself more to the idea of The Creator as an amalgam of all life. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography speaks to this notion, sopping up vast earthly landscapes from high above, framing silhouetted characters against the night sky and cosmos, visually blending life on earth with its surroundings, globbing it all together for the sake of universality united under the connecting thread of life itself.

The Creator is perhaps one of the least-important pieces of Noah’s puzzle. Character struggle is often internal—sparked by Noah’s adherence to what he believes is The Creator’s plan—and speaks to the film’s relegation of The Creator’s will to second-fiddle in the shadow of Noah’s arc as a character. Noah begins the film as a man of faith, who sacrifices earthly desires for the sake of the will of a higher power, and ends as a man of his own volition.

video-undefined-196A7F3B00000578-247_636x358Faith is a capital principal of filmmaking in general. Studios trust that an audience will respond to their work. Characters generally find their faith in something–spiritually or other–is challenged, altered, or lost. Bob Harris loses faith in himself, his career, and the institution of marriage in Lost in Translation. Dr. Ryan Stone’s spiritual outlook is challenged after the loss of her daughter in Gravity. For many successful plots, something is lost only to be regained through unwavering faith and hope.

Many of these characters become agents of change after internal struggle, or simply succumb to the higher power of narrative necessity or a screenwriter’s desire to see them through to the end of their own story.

Noah is no different. What the Christian audience wanted so badly to be a by-the-numbers retelling of a story they’re already familiar with ended up as a film that values the development of its human characters versus throwing its weight behind the grand scheme of religion. It is a Hollywood production through and through, one that just so happens to strip itself of the chains of religious association and create something new out of dated, fantastical source material.

There’s so much to take away from Noah if expectations aren’t placed upon its “duty” as a story rooted in religion. While faith is a necessary component of satisfactory consumption, it’s simply unwise to treat any Hollywood product as a legitimate reflection of any community, religion, or subculture. What Noah does well, however, is continue the small sliver of artistic favor that’s left in studio filmmaking. This is a film with more than one central female character. This is a film that re-envisions a familiar text for a modern audience. It defies the normative culture in so many ways.

The Old Testament is filled with stories, and accusations of misrepresentation are unfounded when half of what happens within the pages of the bible defies so much of the reality we live each day.

Can you make a greater statement by denying the fantasy or indulging in what meaning arises from the power of fictional construct?

Noah is another one of these stories that lends itself to the cinematic medium moreso than any other. It’s a grand-scale epic of spectacle and action. What we should be celebrating with Noah is what its existence says about the state of the contemporary auteur. The power of a director’s vision and conviction in his craft to take something so familiar and resurrect it as something fresh, something beautiful, and something that can speak to a universal audience instead of jerking off a compartmentalized one.

That should give us hope.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Oscar Diary #6: “American Hustle” Premieres: The Game Begins for David O. Russell

Jennifer Lawrence slinks into the Oscar race in “American Hustle”

American Hustle endured its first preview screening in L.A. this past Sunday. Oprah is busy extending every root of her titanic media tree into the depths of the industry for The Butler‘s campaign. Jennifer Lawrence fidgets in her seat, adorably (ok, “accidentally”) spilling mints all over herself at a panel for Catching Fire.

The minute–albeit entirely calculated–nuances of awards season power plays are sprouting here and there, and it’s time to start paying close attention.

Initial reaction to David O. Russell’s third installment in a reinvention series of sorts (the first two films being The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook) seems to be tipping slightly north of average. Although a reviews embargo is in effect until December 4th, Oscar bloggers and film critics alike have taken to Twitter to post first-round comments, and it seems that American Hustle is poised to shake up the pre-Oscars race in at least two major categories.

The film is likely to receive a nomination for Best Original Screenplay by default (O. Russell finished the film in a crazy-fast amount of time. Writers love to reward quick work, as I assume it motivates them), though most who’ve seen the film praised Jennifer Lawrence’s performance, indicating that she’s a true show-stealer in an otherwise simple picture.

With SAG ballots in the mail last week, Jennifer Lawrence seems poised for another headline year. Recognition for American Hustle in the supporting categories at a few major awards shows seems likely for her. Though American Hustle lacks backing from the Weinsteins (they’ve got a fantastic track record for actors, given that they were able to get Silver Linings Playbook nominated in each acting category last year), Lawrence is riding high on the trails of her colossal star ascending at breakneck speed. She’s someone who appeals to the broad membership of the SAG voting base (about 100,000 strong) and the narrower nominating sect (around 2,200 members), and an ace interviewee. Her likeability is universal, and she connects with all demographics thanks to a relatable personality and legitimate acting prowess, who knows when to be funny, but doesn’t let her red-carpet persona precede her talent (think of her as a much more respectable Robert Benigni).

Hustle represents an interesting spice thrown into the pre-Oscar sauce. While, of the past four Oscar years, it marks the third within which David O. Russell has released a legitimate contender, it’s no secret that the tone of Russell’s work has shifted. That’s not to say it has gotten worse. Silver Linings Playbook is an enjoyable (if unchallenging) film entirely worthy of the praise it received last year. I’ve yet to see The Fighter, so I can’t speak on it, but I do know that even on the basis of subject matter it represents a vast departure from Russell’s early work. I’m not alone fearing the loss of the days of the intrepid, ruthless spirit who brought us the oddity of a vision that was I Heart Huckabees in favor of Oscar-friendly fare.

Jeremy Smith of Aint It Cool News tweeted an interesting thought yesterday:

It’s an interesting point in a time where so many forget what Oscar season truly is. It’s all just a game–no different than football, hockey, or the Miss America pageant–and Russell is a star player on the road to securing a legacy, one which can be as fruitful as he wants it to be (without limits) if his name is cemented with Oscar gold.

If he is playing the game, Russell never seems to have the upper hand. His films have managed a minor dent in the Best Picture race  at best (Silver Linings Playbook had the best shot at the title, thanks to its all-encompassing gravitational pull of actor appeal and love from the general audience audience), though his contemporary regard within the industry only approaches that of an auteur without fully realizing it. Silver Linings Playbook and I Heart Huckabees are entirely different films within which I can find almost no semblance of a directorial hand’s similar strokes. Huckabees is cold, philosophical, and existentially perplexing, whereas Silver Linings Playbook forces us into the minds of its characters, exploring their pathos, and functioning to make their feelings ours. One is a philosophical monologue, and the other is a town hall of emotions.

It’ll be interesting to see how American Hustle fits into Russell’s legacy. His reputation was tainted after a few on-set outbursts during the filming of I Heart Huckabees, and his style underwent a drastic change over the course of the 6 years between that film and The Fighter. 14 Oscar nominations after I Heart Huckabees, though, his recent work shows that he’s willing to play the game we all know so well. Does this make him an inferior artist? Absolutely not. The game is tense and the game calls for strategic plays.

An artist who knows how to conform his art while still pouring himself into his work (he writes his screenplays, directs with passion, and produces a quality product) deserves respectable praise, but what exactly is it that Russell isn’t doing to push himself over the edge? He aligns himself with master marketers and campaign veterans (the Weinsteins) and buzzy stars with real talent (Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams) to create a spectacle of near-genius instead of a weight display of heavy greatness.

His films are consumable without entirely sacrificing complexity. They’re provocative enough for his built-in audience to enjoy, but accessible enough to be sold to the masses. He’s helming masterworks of perfectly-blended commercial cinema, but that’s also his problem. His films don’t push hard enough in either direction, and it may be a while before he gets the recognition he deserves.

At this point, it seems entirely unlikely that American Hustle can steal the thunder away from 1Years a Slave or even Gravity, for that matter. Both have hyper-strong, agenda-pushing awards narratives pushing them to the forefront of the discussion (black filmmakers and diversifying the Oscars, women once again become a box-office force), and Russell’s work again seems destined to only reap the benefits of what love is leftover from the headliners.

His art isn’t compromised if he stands behind it, and as long as people love it, he has found a way to cement a firm grasp on the ever-elusive Oscar machine. He’ll have to learn to prove himself to the DGA if he wants to go all the way to Oscar (though the new voting dates don’t allow Oscar voters to use the DGA nominations as a basis for their own voting). His time might not be with American Hustle or Silver Linings Playbook, but somewhere down the line his credibility-building run as an Oscar darling will pay off with a legacy win bound to make I Heart Huckabees and Three Kings shine a hell of a lot brighter in retrospect than they would have if their creator had remained a creative alien to the mainstream.

The All-Encompassing, Glorious Force of “Gravity” in Commercial Hollywood

, above all else, is a marvel as a rarity.

A film like this has immense pull as a pre-destined hit; In an age of the dying concept of a “movie star,” it plucks its cast from the handful of box-office draws that remain; it’s complex, yet effects-driven in an era of juvenile cinema which sees mature audiences flocking to cable television for adult-oriented entertainment instead of their local theater. But, most of all, it’s a film that really knows how to be a movie without sacrificing its challenging soul—and that’s often more difficult to find for yourself than a casual trip to the moon.

Gravity unfolds with a small cast and a large scope, pitting astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) against a barrage of misfortunes. Their space shuttle is struck by rogue debris from a nearby satellite (we hear, only briefly, about the Russians shooting down their own satellite for reasons unknown), forcing them to trek the reaches of space for survival. The film could have divulged into gimmicky, spectacular formula and still managed to solidify itself as a hit. With two powerhouse actors in key roles, a glossy high-concept, and an established director of titillating cinema (Alfonso Cuaron, directing his first film since 2006’s similarly-brilliant Children of Men), Gravity could have easily devolved into a quick cash-cow driven by its 3D bells and whistles. Cuaron, however, dares to take a step beyond and challenge his audience, crafting a much more complex tale of human introspection showcasing pensive, powerful moments of a woman reclaiming a sense of self and balancing them with a dazzlingly-effective narrative metaphor.

The beauty of the film lies largely within its coherence; I don’t mean to praise a show-dog merely for making it to the show, but rather to stress the importance of studio productions that maintain basic structure, yet remain challenging enough that they can still be justified as stimulating staples of film culture in a complete, harmonious package with each part having a hand in the last. We get from A to B fairly simply, and Stone’s journey towards survival is, without giving anything away, a reaffirmation and appropriation of the false realities of a society conditioned to accept comfortable closure versus grim reflection. Does Gravity hold a mirror to society, make us uncomfortable in our chairs, and force us to think about the world around us? Absolutely not. Does it envelop us, expose itself, and force its audience to consider the character as complex beyond the binary of her survival or death? Absolutely. It’s a film rooted in style, form, content, and narrative all working meticulously and harmoniously off one another, with effect reverberating throughout the film.

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (long overdue for an Academy Award, which he’ll surely earn for this) crafts a visual space that encompasses the wide scope of an endless galaxy, yet manages minute details and camerawork that mimics Stone’s physical or emotional state at any given point. The camera is alive, the camera is complimentary, and the camera insists on doing more than merely showing us what’s happening. Lubezki ushers us inside, versus making the spectacle an intangible production of impossible fantasy.

Alas, what we have with Gravity in the character of Ryan Stone is a woman whose presence the script doesn’t seek to justify, though her contemporaries are often victims of just the opposite. She’s flawed, imperfect, and allowed to exist in a world women rarely are afforded in American films; one that isn’t revolved around her gender. It’s one of the film’s crowning achievements within an industry with a serious lack of substantial roles for women; there are little to no strings holding her into position. She isn’t interchangeable, and once we learn the story that built her, the film becomes more than a survival thriller—which Gravity can also work just fine as—and shifts into a collective visual metaphor for her spiritual and emotional rebirth. It’s rare for a commercial film to transcend one of its gimmicks; superhero films rarely shake their adapted identity, horror films swallow themselves whole, and the pretense of 3D or overt special effects often distracts from what ties everything together in the first place; story, character, and narrative, but Gravity exceeds those expectations (do we even have these as expectations for films anymore?) by astronomical bounds.

The "fetus" scene

The “fetus” scene

Gravity is a film that dramatically takes us along for a character’s transformation, never letting us up for air the entire time. It retains its roots as a fairly standard survival procedural, but effortlessly blankets us with the kind of storytelling that, since the 1970s, is simply hard to find in commercial movies.

Ultimately, Gravity is a feat of filmmaking about human feats of the spirit and physicality, at once a reminder of the pure escapist power of cinema, yet not relying on its fantastical construction to do the bulk of its heavy-hitting. It’s a mesmerizing journey into the magic of movies and the pure, unfiltered power of emotion we so often forget in the trainwreck that is the state of a misguided contemporary mainstream Hollywood that still panders to an audience of teenage boys. In its sweeping, momentous urgency of emotion, I recall films like Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey  when I think of Gravity, not simply because they’re all space-centric masterpieces, but because each shares an inclination for change amidst a sea of indifference. It’s interesting to see a film so similar yet so different take the reins of awards season by storm, and it’ll be even more interesting to see just how large the impact of Gravity will be when we’re still talking about it in 20 years.

Argo: A Mixed Bag of Conflicted Ideals and Smooth Action

Americans love watching other Americans win; whether it be at the Olympics, cheering on a pissed off housewife as she berates a retail worker for an extra 20% off, or in a power struggle of Western values against Middle Eastern opposition. Countless international conflicts, thirty-three years, a fake film, and six would-be-hostage escapees later we have Argo, an ambitious (if problematic) two hour wank to a “winning” America from director-star Ben Affleck. If you find yourself complaining about the “spoiler” just revealed, chances are you grew up with a “Jem” lunchbox and/or didn’t pay attention in history class; you’re not Argo’s target age demographic, and shame on you for being a waste of space (and tax dollars) in mid-80s elementary school.

Turmoil amidst foreign affairs in the Middle East lingered as the Vietnam War ended, the purple haze of the hippie generation wafting away, the legacy of the 1970s lingering as the dust settled; The stage for Argo is set amidst an era which ushered in a uniquely aggressive American perspective on foreign affairs and the United States’ role in international crises, one that’s hardly containable within a white picket fence crafted with optimism and a neighborly “hello.”

This post-“American Dream” America serves as only a pseudo centerpiece for the glorious buffet of cultural critique Affleck initially serves up. The bulk of the film is a systematic retelling of the “Canadian Caper” rescue mission of 1979, the remaining course a condemnation of America’s world presence as a vigilant virus of socio-cultural-politcal domination. Burka-clad women snacking on KFC, inept Government employees, and a nation easily distracted by the celluloid escape/fandom fantasy of Hollywood come to mind as pieces of the diverse American identity Argo seems to hate.

Affleck spends plenty of time attempting to convince us that America—Hollywood in particular—is filled with capitalistic, power-tripping pigs, but by the same token the artifice of the film industry is credited as the saving grace of the six American lives stranded in Tehran after a Revolutionary mob storms the U.S. Embassy, the Canadian Ambassador agreeing to shelter them in secrecy. C.I.A. specialist Tony Mendez (Affleck) enlists the help of movie industry power players John Chambers (John Goodman) and Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to craft an elaborate plot to “fake” the production of a film (press kits, magazine articles, table reading and all) which will scout locations in Tehran, allowing the six potential rescuees to pose as members of the crew for their secret extraction. Still, capitalist Hollywood/blood suckling America rears its ugly head; “If I’m going to make a fake film, I’m going to make a fake hit,” Chambers asserts.

Much of the action revolving around the rescue itself is exciting, if rather formulaic. There’s no doubt Affleck is a skilled filmmaker. His ability to harvest thick wads of newfound suspense from historical molds with well-known, pre-established outcomes is a testament to his precision and tact as a director. But, after the smoke clears, I’m left clawing for traction, searching for an auteuristic mark amidst the sheen of suspense for suspense’s sake. It makes for a fun ride but a muddled message—especially when the outcome is already rooted in the history of reality.

Affleck breaks the “Tell me something I can’t look up on Google” rule with Argo, but ultimately the biggest problems I have with the film are its wishy-washy, conflicted values. On one hand scenes of increasingly hostile, violent tension between the United States and Iran pepper the film with a sense of impending doom. On the other, it’s a film hell-bent on assuring us that as long as you live in America, everything is going to be OK. The sentiment is inspiring, but simply doesn’t bode well–especially with the climate of contemporary foreign affairs. Scenes of Iranian officials declaring revenge upon all parties (including Canada) for their involvement in the rescue are sprinkled throughout the closing moments of Argo, bringing the reality of worldwide conflict crashing through the dream veneer the celebratory comfort the success of the mission provides. For a moment you find yourself thinking that this is a film that finally gets it; a film which touts happiness as the fleeting, momentary emotion that it is. The world is not perfect, and Hollywood processes real-world conflict into spectacular fodder for a willing audience. In the ideal world of Argo Mendez returns to his home, embraces his wife, reunites with his son, and all is right after a wave of Uncle Sam’s magic wand. The biting reality Affleck dangles over our heads for the majority of the film, however, proves problematic as it begs to reroute that sappy conclusion at all costs.

Argo is a ultimately a prelude to contemporary American sentiment, to the War on Terror, and to every ignorant New Yorker who smashed the windows of Persian-owned restaurants after 9/11. It’s a film that fully acknowledges that the world isn’t full of rainbows and sunshine—never has been, never will be. It’s a stark reality mainstream film tends to generalize far beyond the scope of any real-world implications. Glimpses of such critique are present in Argo, but the overarching, influential hand of Hollywood control destroys any effects it might have had thanks to a hokey ending and melodramatic tricks. Argo ultimately falls victim to too many fantastical “fixes” that force the film out of touch with the reality it so desperately seeks to correct. Argo might end with a macho movie icon embracing a hot blonde while the American flag flies conspicuously in the front yard of their suburban home, but reinforcing the traditional pageantry of idealized American values means nothing in the face of those pissed off Iranians whom actually informed the world that “Canada will pay.”

Just the opposite; ‘Joyful’ Title for Disastrous Parton, Latifah Comedy

Dolly Parton attempts soul side-steps next to Queen Latifah in "Joyful Noise"

 Movie Review: “Joyful Noise”

Opens: January 13th, Nationwide

Her stub clearly read “The Devil Inside” in large, bolded print. A horrifyingly contorted mug–inverted cross etched into its bottom lip by its own finger–glared up from the ticket as she sat next to me at today’s screening of “Joyful Noise,” a film most certailny not about demons, anti-biblical (red-faced, prong-holding) beings, or self-mutilation. The poor woman was clearly in the wrong theater (after seeing the film, arguably so was I), but you can certainly make a case for Dolly Parton’s voluntary subjection of herself to post-procedure ridicule on a fifty foot screen as self mutilatory (a more appropriate title would have been “Watch Dolly Attempt Facial Movement” in a Kuleshov-esque splicing together of assorted happenings, each met with the same country-fried reaction). Who knows? Perhaps by film’s end, my poor neighbor couldn’t differentiate the face on her stub from Parton’s. And if two hours of that kind of confusion (coupled with just staring at Partonstein for that long) isn’t hell, ladies and gentleman, I’m not sure what is. 

“Joyful Noise” is a film with a misleading title, a painful two-hour ‘comedy’ of cacophonus proportions, desperately wringing the last living daylights out of its stars’ infectious personas to screeching results. It’s not a film that’s got little to draw from; its two female powerhouse singers (Queen Latifah and Parton, who can act, to boot) hold together a cast of immensely talented crooners (not so so much with the “acting” parts, though. I guess one out of two ain’t bad in this neck of ‘meh, we’ve got our stars and now we’re on a budget’ casting session woods). But they’re all fumbling around in a script which, when all melodramatic tropes misfire, frantically throws its characters a musical number as if to dazzle our minds away from the fact that what we’re watching is mere plebian dribble, an overtly religious agenda slapped on for good measure.

Good musicals are tactful. The music becomes the story. Not here; in the world of “Joyful Noise,” it’s enough to break form with a musical aside that merely complements any given characters’ emotional state of being at any given time as the only source of sonic interlude. That happens here a lot.

Our characters are at least given diegetic motivation/justification to actually sing, seeing as a majority of them are members of a small town gospel choir newly headed by Vi Rose Hill (Latifah) after the death of its former director (Kris Kristofferson) and late husband of member G.G. Sparrow (Parton). G.G. thinks she should be choir director. Vi Rose thinks she was rightfully appointed. And thus the film sets forth its racial divide; an opposition characterized more by the fact that the women pitted against each other are of different races than by giving us any sort of legitimate validation for either of their feelings of entitlement (I’ll give the film this; at least the word “cracker” wasn’t uttered once throughout. Can’t say the same on the audience’s end, however).

The film fleshes out its focus with various subplots, ranging everywhere from the budding (but *gasp* forbidden) relationship between Vi Rose’s daugther Olivia (Keke Palmer) and G.G.’s grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan) to the couplings of various other choir members. But it’s a production which treats such subplots as just that; subplots. Add-ons. Hamburger helper splotched together where Angus beef should have been served.

“Joyful Noise” is a film clearly banking on the star power of its leading ladies as the driving force for an audience that isn’t expecting much at all. But after the first comically contrived scene of playful banter between the two, “Joyful Noise” quickly runs out of tricks. The rest of the film plays like a Frankenstein’s monster of screenplays, stitching together run-of-the-mill tropes (religious mother shelters daughter, daughter falls for the bad boy, underdog competitors rise to the occasion, etc.) under the guise of “really” being about racial unity.

The problem with the film’s most superficially satisfying moments of Parton-on-Latifah banter is the moral placement of their characters. Vi Rose is vicious without reason, spewing shallow insults on some sort of unjustified offensive warpath, G.G. defending herself (at her snarkiest, that is) against a woman who certainly doesn’t practice what she preaches. It’s a one-sided argument before the argument’s even begun; Vi Rose is a nasty, cloying bitch in a screenplay which celebrates her as a tool to get to an ending the audience knows is coming not ten minutes into the whole thing, dragging Parton’s persona along for a few chuckles (which is all it’s worth here).

The film doesn’t go without its campy quirks; there’s a hilarious (whether intentional or not) scene towards the climax which sees contemporary urban hits from the likes of Usher and Chris Brown re-lyricized by what I could only imagine as a Harlem convent (note: if Parton squealing “You, me, and the Good Lord” in place of similar lyrics from Brown’s “Forever” doesn’t have you slapping your knee…). And there’s no denying the likability of its stars. Both women command the screen (as they have for years) with the infectious auras that made them industry elite. But what it all boils down to is there’s ultimately far better ways to indulge in the personalities of those we adore. There’s a reason Dolly Parton was cast in this film; she’s a superstar country artist, and listening to the albums which afforded her an assumed no-audition-needed part in “Joyful Noise” is a much better way to shower yourself with all that the icon has to offer. There’s no need to immerse yourself in a film that can’t decide whether it wants to tell a racially-charged love story with her persona as a frame or simply go for an all-out exploitation of the star power at its disposal. “Joyful Noise” settles for a ho-hum hodgepodge of the two, laced with a “God is Good” overarching message in hopes of freeing itself from any wrongdoing. I believe Joan of Arc tried that, too. Perhaps “Joyful Noise” should meet the same fate.

“If God really wanted to shoot you, I’m sure he wouldn’t miss,” Vi Rose tells a choir member as he contemplates his life’s fateful misfortunes God befalls him. I couldn’t help but think of the poor woman next to me who chose to endure the wrong film for two hours until this point. Was she thinking the same thing? Was it by some means of divine happening that she’d ended up in the wrong theater with me?  Because that line is certainly a total meta lock and stock, “Joyful Noise” the Lord’s smoking barrell attempt at mass murder.

“Life, Above All”; A Truffaut-esque Portrait of a Modernizing Africa

Originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
by Joey Nolfi (Me)

A tiny South African town is the backdrop for “Life, Above All,” a vibrant film about grim subjects.

Its opening chronicles the selection of a tiny casket for a tiny body, by a tiny body; its focal character is a child, 12-year-old Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka), enduring the struggles a small African community faces in the midst of modernization. Commercial prosperity, new hospitals and even time to have backyard block parties are all indicative of a society on the rise. But the threat of death and disease is still very real, and Chanda must deal with them largely on her own terms. She is wise and persevering far beyond her years, choosing a small coffin to house her baby sister’s body, returning home to dirty dishes and unfinished homework.

Although HIV and death are still ever-present concerns for the citizens of Chanda’s small community, “Life, Above All” does not paint them as a downtrodden Third World embodiment of destitution; this is a South Africa on the mend. Their homes are well-kept and their social lives active. It’s paranoia, however, that holds these people back.

Chanda’s mother, Lillian (Lerato Mvelase), comes down with “the bug,” as the townspeople call HIV. Not even behind closed doors is it acceptable for Chanda to speculate about her sickness, let alone suggest the appropriate treatment. Mrs. Tafa (Harriet Lenabe) is a neighbor with ulterior motives. She feigns concern for Lillian and offers to help the family in small ways here and there, but she’s an active member of many gossip circles. Mrs. Tafa is testy, quick-tempered and acid-tongued, as are many of the adult characters in “Life, Above All.” Paranoia spreads faster than any disease can throughout the tiny community, and Chanda’s family becomes the easiest target.

It’s the strength of the town’s children in spite of their superiors’ pettiness that makes “Life, Above All” an engrossing picture of oppositions. Children act with enough emotional depth as an “adult” should; they are earnest, wise, self-sacrificing individuals in the face of the real adults, who are self-serving and stubborn.

Director Oliver Schmitz handles his juvenile characters much like a modern-day Truffaut, keeping his audience in close enough proximity to understand his subjects yet pulling back far enough to render them as an entirely alien force that we, as adults, can hardly empathize with.

The children in “Life, Above All” are independent and good-natured yet harbor complexity that extends far beyond the reaches of their elders. Children like Chanda are byproducts of a progressive modernizing society, but it is not until their forefathers eventually give up their retrogressive ways that even the tiniest glimpse of a better society can endure.

“Submarine” Plunges into Depths of Teenage Spirit

Movie Review by Joey Nolfi (Originally Published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

“I often imagine how people would react to my death,” says 15-year-old Oliver Tate.

Momentary glimpses into the mind-set of a teenage boy engulfed by adolescent angst take shape in such asides throughout the glorious coming-of-age masterpiece that is “Submarine.”

Oliver (Craig Roberts) relishes the thought of candlelight vigils held in his honor amidst press conferences where family and friends can barely speak through their tears. He feels comfort in expecting to be missed, and even more so in smugly sharing that sentiment with a willing audience.

As gloomy as his outlook tends to be, Oliver paints his externalized fantasies in a highly engrossing fashion. He creates a compartmentalized bubble within which we see the world as he does. The resulting atmosphere is as stagnant as the dreary clouds that seem to consistently linger just above his tiny Welsh home, but the realities of suburban mundanity are refreshingly punctuated by the imaginative spirit only a child can muster.

While the part of Oliver that ponders his funeral procession is endearing, he becomes too engrossed in his fantasies to notice the death of his parents’ marriage. He knows they aren’t having sex (“the bedroom dimmer is never left halfway down anymore,” he observes), which makes it all the more comical when Mr. Tate (Noah Taylor) awkwardly tries giving his son advice on how to seduce girls. (“You know I once ripped my vest off for a woman,” he boasts.)

The dissolution between Mr. and Mrs. Tate comes as no surprise to us, seeing as our experience as spectators is not entirely isolated to Oliver’s perspective. He lets us in when he wants to, an art every teenager perfects at his age.

We’re ultimately invited to feel superior to the mundanity we see before us. Mrs. Tate (marvelously played by Sally Hawkins) leads a life in which the only perks are in simply getting by. “You look good for your age, for a mum,” says her son. And so we realize happiness comes in small doses disguised as feelings of simple adequacy, seeing as in her world “on your birthday, you’re responsible for bringing your own cake to work,” Oliver informs us.

The barrier between Oliver and reality eventually shatters, thanks to his blossoming affections for classmate Jordana (Yasmin Paige), which allow him to funnel his naive feelings toward (not “of,” mind you) love into a plot to reignite his parents’ passion.

Oliver’s plan isn’t elaborate or inventive, but it does force him to ponder the complexity of menial details in his everyday life that often go without notice. It’s through his eyes that we grow with him, seeing as the film plays like a lyrical expression of teenage angst teetering between innocent fantasy and sophisticated adulthood.

“Submarine” is undeniably a coming-of-age tale, albeit in beautifully alternative fashion that values the retention of the teenage experience as one ages. While Oliver may not have completely come of age, he’s certainly a bit older by the film’s end.

Viva “Riva” ‘s Refreshing Tread on Familiar Territory

(Note: Originally Published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Money. Sex. Violence. Three of the most common exploits any filmmaker has at their disposal.

To say writer-director Djo Munga paints the Congolese metropolis of Kinshasa red with those elements in “Viva Riva!” opening Friday at the Harris Theater, Downtown, is an understatement. With each stroke of his lyrical craftsmanship, a candy-colored, blood-soaked neo-noir tale comes alive within the darkest corners of an urban Congo. Money, sex, and violence are a way of life for these people.

“Money always kills you in the end,” one character says. And on the brutally violent streets of Kinshasa, so can a night of steamy sex.

Riva (Patsha Bay) learns these truths the hard way. He’s a smuggler, but not in the typical sense. There’s a gasoline shortage, and he’s stolen a large amount from a gaggle of Angolan gangsters. They’re none too pleased, and use the money-hungry Congolese citizens to retrieve it.

There is no moral high ground hovering over any part of “Viva Riva!” Every character is deeply flawed, a criminal or demonized in one way or another. This makes for some interesting reversals on traditional values. But it also makes everything devilishly fun.

“Viva Riva!” ultimately covers familiar ground popularized by the films of Michael Mann or Ben Affleck (as director, that is).

It does, however, offer something new in its fantastical, mystical representation of familiar gangster narratives with an exotic twist.

But, like the click of a safety, “Viva Riva!” is over before you know it, thick gunsmoke lingering in its absence.

Sure, you’ll witness a fair share of dollars raining, steamy encounters and buckets of the bright red stuff along the way. But like a young Tarantino, Mr. Munga’s fresh perspective reminds us that distinctive stylistic cinema is all about how the dirty work is crafted, not simply hawking gruesome subjects and praying for a reaction.

“Friends” Benefits From Its Stars Charisma

There’s usually a simple “something” about a good sex comedy.

Neither particularly sexy nor comical enough to inspire a knee-slap , “Friends with Benefits” plays up the personas of its charismatic stars instead of an all-out exploitation of their tanned and toned flesh.

I imagine if 1959’s “Pillow Talk” were made today, a film similar to “Friends with Benefits” might be the result, which certainly has “something”. But whether it possesses the same sort of playful mirth that made its sex comedy forefathers genre mainstays remains in question.

It’s now acceptable for a film to be as brash as its creators so choose. Maybe that’s why watching Doris Day and Rock Hudson dance around the realistic circus that is sexual courtship is so magical; a cinematic fantasy created behind a veil of censorship, if you will. “Friends with Benefits”, on the other hand, suffers for its overtness.

The premise is simple; Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jamie (Mila Kunis), two young professionals brought together through intersecting career paths, make an unusual agreement. The pair agrees to use each other for sex; they can still be friends during the day, however, as long as neither becomes emotionally invested after getting down and dirty at night.  

The resolution of the film is crystal clear. Partly because Ms. Kunis’ “Black Swan” costar Natalie Portman starred in practically the same film earlier this year (“No Strings Attached”, which initially shared this film’s title during pre-production), but also for the simple fact that “Friends with Benefits” is a romantic comedy. I mean, you have seen one of those before, right?

Writer-director Will Gluck certainly hopes so. “Friends with Benefits” is peppered with references to all sorts of popular rom-coms from the past, some that will come as immediately obvious while others will take a moment to register. Regardless, the intertextual knowledge and mockery of genre cliches on display functions as comically smug sarcasm at best. But therein also lies the problem; for every trope which is ridiculed by the protagonists another is endorsed along their journey to coupled bliss. You’d think Dylan and Jamie would be able to see what’s in store for them and bypass all the hoopla in their lives that’s so reminiscent of the romantic comedies they despise. We’ll settle for pot meeting kettle in this case, I guess.

Perhaps the satirical material would have functioned better in a more sophisticated film (think Woody Allen), then again perhaps it wouldn’t have worked as well if the films two leads didn’t have the best onscreen chemistry this side of “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”.  Regardless, you came to see its two stars romping around under the sheets, not a Romantic Comedy 101 lesson. There is surprisingly much left to the imagination in that department, however, although the funniest sequence in the entire film does involve a certain oral activity but takes place entirely underneath a blanket. It’s cute, but lacks the delicate balance between comical raunch and satirical punch that “Friends with Benefits” desperately fancies but never quite attains.

That’s not to say the film isn’t enjoyable. It’s a film whose appeal depends largely on the charisma of its stars, not entirely unlike a Doris Day/Rock Hudson venture of years past. If for that reason alone it shows that as a whole, this genre hasn’t evolved much, if at all, since it’s humble beginnings.

Ms. Kunis has been compared to everyone from Lucille Ball to Meg Ryan. She certainly carries the better portion of the film’s comedic weight, possessing a smoky sophistication that sets her more in line with the likes of Marilyn Monroe. Mr. Timberlake is equally enjoyable in his first comedic lead, and the audience coasts through the film thanks to their dazzling chemistry, not caring if we know exactly what’s going to happen. 

“They just play a cheesy pop song over the credits to trick you into thinking you had fun watching a terrible movie” Dylan says as Train’s “Hey Soul Sister” plays over the credits of a romantic comedy he’s watching. As that very same song plays over the credits of “Friends with Benefits”, you’ll realize this is a film that truly almost gets it. Simply referencing a problem isn’t enough to free yourself from becoming a victim of the same thing. But for now I’ll take the cheesy pop song and its persuasive effects, but only because “Friends with Benefits” isn’t exactly terrible.

Keep This One for the Kiddies; “Zookeeper” is For the Birds

Movie Review by Joey Nolfi originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 7/8/2011

The American film industry basically can be reduced to three or four primary categories. Franchise sequels, films that favor explosions instead of plot (I’m looking at you, Michael Bay), and family films with talking animals seem to dominate the local megaplex and national box office alike.

The latest effort from Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison production company, “Zookeeper,” unsurprisingly contains enough furry, phonetically inclined little buggers to simultaneously place children into fits of comedic bliss while putting literary and cinematic adaptations of “Dr. Dolittle” to deep shame.

Populating the Franklin Park Zoo within “Zookeeper” is a host of critters with a long-standing code that prohibits them from talking to humans, who simply “wouldn’t understand” them. At this point it remains unclear whether this is meant literally or on a much more philosophical level of Avril Lavigne-esque teen rebellion.

Anyway, the animals (voiced by Sylvester Stallone, Cher and Mr. Sandler) observe their affectionate but romantically challenged caretaker Griffin Keyes (Kevin James) during the day and break out of their cages at night to meet, exchange witty one-liners for the camera and discuss how to help their beloved human companion woo a potential mate.

Apparently Keyes is unaware that copies of “Relationships for Dummies” exist, while the Franklin Park Zoo seemingly is the only such establishment in the world that doesn’t operate a night crew. Or install paddock alarms.

But such questioning of realistic ideals is hardly necessary for a film like this, seeing as a 3-year-old is fully willing to suspend disbelief for 104 minutes without a single gripe. “Zookeeper” is a lighthearted, harmless afternoon at the movies for the hordes of families that will be drawn to it like lions to a straggling zebra.

As a casual filmgoer, however, the film’s shortcomings will disappoint.

The film is not so much a “film” but rather a series of forced comedic vignettes. Compartmentalized sequences designed to make you laugh, loosely tied together by that bitch of a device called “editing”, which gives narratives a certain, you know, flow.  Let’s just say that flow is not a strength in “Zookeeper”.

Mr. James, who’s clearly being groomed as the next poster child for Happy Madison as Mr. Sandler finally outgrows these types of roles, lacks a proper balance between effective comedic punch and in-your-face ham. He’s annoying at times, as is watching Rosario Dawson bring spark to a wafer-thin role you’d think she would’ve laughed out of her script pile five years ago. My, how industry dynamics have changed.

The mix of slapstick high jinks and lowbrow potty humor, key ingredients in any family comedy, hits home in a few spots and saves the overall package — which also suffers odd pacing issues and all-too-familiar plot elements — from being completely for the birds.

“Zookeeper” won’t be fulfilling anyone’s expectations as critics’ indie darling. It is, however, a film that succeeds in doing what it aims to: keeping the kids entertained (and in one place) for the better part of an hour and a half.

And I guess sometimes (and only sometimes) is seeing a gorilla in a T-shirt still be funny.