We rented these movies this week, and they have a lot in common. Both are based on old stories (one somewhat older than the other) that didn’t particularly need to be made into movies. And while neither film is very good, at least one is interesting.

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Noah, from Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan), is wild, feverish mess. It imagines the story of the flood not as a gauzy allegory, but as a vivid, painful ordeal. Noah is the descendent of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, just 10 generations removed from Eden, and the world as filmed by Aronofsky looks about 300 years old: raw and strange. Angels still walk the earth, but they are encased in rock, a punishment from the vengeful Creator (You Know Who). The Creator also visits the dreams of Noah (Russell Crowe), who foresees the drowning of humanity, most of whom are the wicked descendents of the original Bad Man, Cain. Noah and his sons get to building the ark, and on the eve of the deluge, animals start showing up. Aronofsky skips the two-by-two procession of beasts that is the staple of children’s books, and in a few arresting sequences, shows thousands of critters slithering and shoving their way aboard. It’s when the men – led by their very evil king, Tubal Cain (Ray Winstone) – try to get on the boat does the action movie break out, and lots of smashing and explosions ensue. Crowe doesn’t exactly look like a semitic hero, but he broods furiously, particularly when he’s torn between his understanding of the Creator’s intent – that all men must die, his family included – and an unwillingness to sacrifice what he loves. Unfortunately, Aronofsky, or the studio heads, doesn’t think theological questioning is dramatic enough, so we get a distracting subplot about Tubal Cain tempting Noah’s son, and a predictable fight in the bowels of the ark. Along the way there’s lots of stilted dialogue, some impassioned urging from Noah’s wife (the strangely cast Jennifer Connelly)  and a bland, passive performance from Emma Watson, the wife of Noah’s son upon whose pregnancy the fate of humanity rests. Hermione Granger never had days like these.

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Noah is inconsistent and often clumsy, but at least Aronofsky has a vision. It’s hard to tell what Peter Jackson’s vision was for The Hobbit, aside from the most cynical. The movie picks up where the last one left off, with Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf aiding a troop of dwarves in their quest to reclaim their lost kingdom (and not coincidentally, the mountain of treasure left behind). While the second installment is somewhat brisker than the sluggish first, it suffers the same fatal flaws of bloat and lack of character development. We simply don’t have a reason to care about these people (if hobbit and dwarves are people) or their mission. Few of the dwarves ever develop a personality beyond caricature, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) has no discernible motivation and as other characters – elves, humans, orcs, were-bears – parachute in, the plot is stretched thinner and thinner. J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 book is a slight, diverting adventure, with none of the weight of his later Lord of the Rings. Jackson’s attempts to invest this story with significance fall flat and worse, undermine the power of his magnificent Rings trilogy. Anyone who watches all the movies in chronological order would be baffled by Gandalf’s slow realization that Sauron had returned in The Fellowship of the Ring, since he’d already confronted him two movies earlier in The Desolation of Smaug. The movie also suffers from the same action-movie affliction as Noah, with an extended sequence of dwarves in barrels rushing down a river seemingly designed with a theme-park ride in mind. It’s not all tedious – there are some well crafted sequences in the lair of Smaug the dragon – and Jackson again uses the New Zealand scenery to maximum effect. But when your mountains are more captivating than your characters, you have a problem.

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