Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Greatest Stories Ever Told

When I was a kid in the 60s, holiday weekends would mean special movies. Not just Christmas movies, but Wizard of Oz or Sound of Music on Thanksgiving and the Greatest Story Ever Told on Easter. Or was it the other way around? Anyway, for Thanksgiving weekend, I was in the mood for a Theme, and the theme I chose was Biblical/Egyptian.

We started with a silly action picture: Gods of Egypt (2016). This retelling of the Contendings of Horus and Set is most famous for having zero persons of Egyptian descent, and for completely changing the myth. It is set in a fabulous CGI world where the Egyptian pantheon walk among humans as 9-foot tall men and women who bleed liquid gold and can turn into giant metal creatures. As Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is about to be crowned king, evil Set (Gerard Butler) show up to kill old king Osiris and rip Horus' eyes out.

Meanwhile, human thief Brandon Thwaites lets his girl Courtney Eaton convince him to steal Horus' eyes back from Set. This sets up a god/mortal buddy movie, with the two trying to take down Set. There's an interesting theology theme: Thwaites' thief is kind of an atheist (he knows gods exist, he just doesn't think they are useful), while his girl worships Horus devoutly.

But there isn't much deep about this. Just lots of action, with beautiful art direction and CGI. The movie is full of gold and sunlight, which is a nice change from all the dark, desaturated movies we see these days.

Speaking of desaturated, Aronofsky's Noah (2014) has that look. It's all about Noah (Russell Crowe, looking weirdly like Tom Hanks), last descendant of Seth in a world full of the sons of Caine. After a very few minor dreams and a visit to his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), he figures it's time to build an ark. His sons are concerned about the lack of women - Only Shem has a girl (Emma Watson) and she's sterile. They look to the neighboring tribe, but they are seething dens of iniquity, ruled by Tubal Caine (Ray Winstone), first smith and weapon maker. Shem finds a girl but Noah lets the mob trample her. Which leads to friction in the family.

Fortunately, the rain starts and everyone in the world except Noah and family dies.

This is a visually interesting movie, set in a timeless ancient time, with minimal technology. The Ark is a clunky, boxy thing, made of rough logs and smeared with pitch. Sure, everyone's homespun looks a little tailored, but creative license and all. Also, the masses of birds and animals look great, although no real animals were used. So this is just as much of a CGI fest as Gods of Egypt. But much, much grayer.

Crowe's Noah is a pretty dour man, which is fair enough since he was involved in a genocide. At least we get to see his drunken nakedness, although they kind of hurry through it. All in all, I think I most enjoyed Hopkins as Methuselah. He seemed to be having fun at least.

Speaking of dour, Christian Bale as Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) isn't all that perky. He starts out doing fine, adopted son of Pharoah, step-brother to Prince Ramses (Joel Edgerton), but when he finds out that he's a Jew, he is exiled. That works out all right for him too, since he meets a cute Midianite girl, Mariah Valverde, and marries her. Note that, like in Gods of Egypt and Noah, there are no particularly Hebraic or otherwise Middle Eastern actors in this movie. Moses' wife was famously supposed to be dark-skinned, but just like in the other movies, we don't care. Valverde is cute. I was a little concerned that on their wedding night, we were going to get a semi-explicit sex scene - watching Mr. and Ms. Moses doing it is too much like watching your great-grandparents.

Then Moses goes up the mountain and meets G-d by a burning bush. This personage, the great I AM, turns out to be a little boy with a bad temper. He sends Moses back to Egypt to free the Jews. When various forms of, let's face it, terrorism don't work, the little boy takes matters into his own hands with some curses.

And then we get the crossing of the Red Sea. I was afraid it was going to be some lame, "realistic", super-low tide cop-out, but no, we get the full CGI treatment, including a shot of drowning bodies that I'm pretty sure we saw in Noah.

Exodus, directed by Ridley Scott, is the closest to a traditional, Charlton Heston, Ten Commandments type spectacle. Like Noah, it spends a lot of time of the sorrows of a prophet who knows the Lord is planning to kill a lot of people. But Moses has some ups and downs, not the consistent downer of Noah.

So that was our Thanksgiving Gods of Ancient Middle East film festival. It's strange that two classy directors, Aronofsky and  Scott both decided to do Old Testament stories in 2014. It's funny that someone did Gods of Egypt, too, because it's such a goof. We watched a lot of other movies - Keanu Reeves marathon (John Wick, Constantine)! Addams Family and the Thanksgiving fave Addams Family Values! But we enjoyed the pageantry and righteousness of our little theme party.

It strikes me that it was Wizard of Oz that was always on TV on Thanksgiving. Maybe we should have watched The Wiz, Oz the Great and Powerful and Malificent. Maybe I'll save that for Easter.

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