Saturday, March 29, 2014

Some thoughts on Time magazine's "God at the Movies"

     I saw a headline on the March 31, 2014, edition of Time magazine. Ordinarily, I'm not a big reader of Time, but I saw a headline on the cover that made me stop and do a double-take: "God at the Movies." You don't exactly see those two together, and me being a Christian and an amateur movie reviewer, I decided to pick up a copy and read through the article, titled "Films Are His Flock: Jonathan Bock explains Christians to Hollywood."
March 31, 2014 issue of Time
     The article is mostly an interview with, well, Jonathan Bock, president and founder of a marketing firm called Grace Hill Media. He's basically the liaison between movie studios and the American Christian communities; producers decide they want make movies based on Biblical stories,
they go to this guy to make sure they're not stepping on any toes and alienating key audiences.  The article also talks a little bit about the marketing process and the history of Biblical films. It's a short article, but a timely one, since the latest movie based on Scripture is Noah-based on the titular character and his classic Ark-and came out on the 28th.
     To be honest, I was somewhat surprised to see that studios actually showed some concern over the stories they wanted to tell. One example the article gave was how Bock worked with the producers of The Bible TV miniseries. He actually had a meeting with over 40 theologians and scholars in order to go over the script and work on any errors. Another example, pertaining to Noah, is how the film was made in 6 different versions that were shown to Christian audiences. The movie has had a pretty troubled production, as the studio, Paramount, and the director, Darren Aronofsky (a professed atheist), argued greatly over the direction of the film.
     On the other hand, I guess it should make some sense if studios are taking care of the material. Christians are still the majority religious group in America, and The Passion of The Christ raked in over $370 million domestically, according to the article. Add those factors together, and it makes sense: Studios simply see another financial opportunity--a pretty big one. And they can't afford to lose it.
     I was a little disappointed to see that the writer did not include other Bible-themed movies like the films of Sherwood Pictures (Fireproof, Courageous), To Save a Life, and the latest release from the churches, God's Not Dead, which released the same time as Noah. But then again, the writer probably wasn't familiar with these films, and even if he was, the movies don't really have any relevance to the writer's focus on Hollywood-made Bible movies. I guess I was expecting a broader look at these types of films as a cultural trend, and, to my frustration, I didn't get it. Oh well. The article was still worth the read.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky, starring Russell Crowe.
     As for how I feel about this whole trend...I don't really know what to think. The film critic in me says that directors and studios have the right to make whatever films they want and that films aren't necessarily bad or good based solely on their story. Noah might be a good film, but it might not. And I don't think Hollywood is completely Satanic. But the Christian in me balks somewhat at this trend. The Christian feels...possessive of these stories, I guess; I grew up in a Christian environment and heard these stories for years. Seeing non-Christians take them and use them for profit...well, it grates on my nerves just a tad. Another concern of mine is that some Christians will just flock to these movies like they're the Gospel and not think critically about them and realize them for what they are: money-making machines. These films don't represent some change in Hollywood's morality or anything like that, although they may stir up conversation about God, faith, and the reality of our world.
     But who knows (besides God)? Maybe this is a good thing. Maybe, as the article says with Bock's words, this is "a return of the Christian community's role as a patron of the arts." Will Christians have greater opportunities to work in film because of Noah and the Son of God miniseries? I'd like to see that happen. In the meantime, I guess I'll have to settle for Ridley Scott's 2014 release, Exodus. Maybe I'll get to see the fall of Jericho...

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Movie review: "Muppets Most Wanted" fails to live up to expectations

             Let me first get out of the way the fact that I haven’t watched much of the Muppets (the last movie I saw was Muppets From Space; make of that what you will). Maybe that makes me somewhat unqualified to review the latest effort from Disney and Jim Henson’s crew, but this latest effort, Muppets Most Wanted, doesn’t quite live up to expectations set by previous efforts, though it does try its hardest and comes close.
            Muppets Most Wanted takes place immediately after its prequel, 2011’s The Muppets. After getting back together after disbanding years ago and bringing a new guy, Walter, in the fold, the Muppets can’t decide what their next show should be. After some failed ideas (two of which reference classic movies like Gone With the Wind and The Seventh Seal, by the way), their tour manager, Dominic Badguy (no, really), suggest a world tour, to which Kermit the Frog agrees. Little do the Muppets that Badguy is actually an accomplice to Constantine, the world’s number one criminal, jewel thief, and an (almost) exact look-alike of Kermit! Their plan is to kidnap Kermit, replace him with Constantine, and use the tour as a cover to steal England’s Crown Jewels! Horrors!!!
            Yep. That’s the story, ladies and gentlemen. A half-baked, emotionally-detached story that doesn’t allow us to connect to these beloved characters or any of the human performers. Fortunately, the plot gleefully pokes fun at itself and parodies generic films so much, you’ll forget about the utterly daffy storyline for just a moment. The movie gets its strongest humor from these bits, such as Badguy kidnapping Kermit…by suggesting Kermit takes a walk down an abandoned alleyway in an industrial setting full of smoke so Constantine can replace him and get him arrested (Badguy even gives Kermit a map!).
The Muppets with Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais).
            Speaking of the human performers, we have three of them: Ricky Gervais as Badguy, Ty Burrell as Jean Pierre Napoleon, a French Interpol detective investigating the thefts with Sam Eagle, and Tina Fey as Nadya, guard of the Siberian Gulag Kermit is sent to. The performers do what they can with the simplistic characters they’re given. Gervais is an unctuously charming jerk as Badguy, while Burrell is pretty silly within his Inspector Clouseau caricature. Tina Fey is certainly funny as Nadya (who has a shrine to Kermit in her office…), though her faux-Russian accent grated on my nerves one too many times. 
            The Muppets have traditionally been known for great musical number, and this movie is no exception. The songs are hilariously written, delightful to listen to, and as silly as befits the Muppets’ nature. Many of them are also just flat-out funny, like Sam Eagle and Inspector Napoleon’s “Interrogation Song” and the opening song, “We’re Doing a Sequel.” The only one that didn’t really work was “The Big House,” sung when Kermit gets to the Gulag. It wasn’t as funny as some of the others, and…well, let’s just say Tina Fey is no Josh Groban.
            Funny enough, it’s the sequel song that kind of catches the heart of the matter. Muppets Most Wanted has humor and fun songs that the only the most curmudgeonly would have a hard time enjoying. It’s just a shame that the whole thing hampered by a notoriously weak script. As the song put it, “everybody knows that the sequel’s never as good.”

Final score: 7 bags of popcorn out of 10. Director: James Bobin. Writers: James Bobin & Nicholas Stoller. Starring: Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey...and the Muppets, of course.