Noah


Russell Crowe is about to get Biblical on yo ass.

Russell Crowe is about to get Biblical on yo ass.

(2014) Biblical Epic (Paramount) Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth, Nick Nolte, Mark Margolis, Kevin Durand, Leo McHugh Carroll, Marton Csokas, Finn Wittrock, Madison Davenport, Gavin Casalegno, Nolan Gross, Skylar Burke, Dakota Goyo, Ariane Reinhart, Adam Marshall Griffith, Don Harvey, Sami Gayle. Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Most everyone in the Western world – and a good part of the Eastern – are familiar with the story of Noah and the Great Flood. How God, in his wrath, wiped out all life on Earth – except for Noah, his family and all the innocent creatures of the Earth…well, two of each species of them, anyway.

The story of Noah actually takes up only four chapters in Genesis however and is lacking in any sort of detail except for those important to the writers of the Bible and/or those they were writing it for. You have to wonder what the real story was.

Darren Aronofsky did. Intrigued by the tale of Noah since the age of 14, he set out to film his own interpretation of the events that led up to the flood and what happened during and after it. He and co-screenwriter Ari Handel did extensive Biblical research and while they did interpret some of it fairly loosely, this is what they came up with.

Noah (Crowe), a descendant of Adam’s son Seth and grandson of Methuselah (Hopkins) lives with his wife Naameh (Connelly) and his sons from oldest to youngest Shem (Booth), Ham (Lerman) and Japheth (Carroll) in the wastelands. They take from the Earth only that which they can use, eat the flesh of no animals and stay away from the civilizations of the time which are the works of the descendants of Cain. Noah had watched his own father (Csokas) slain for no real reason by some of those descendants.

Noah receives visions from the Creator – never referred to at any time as God in the film – that He is displeased with the wickedness of the world and intends to wipe everything out and start over. He will use a great flood to accomplish this. Troubled by his vision, Noah decides to visit his grandfather to see what this all means which makes sense since as part of the vision he saw the mountain his grandfather lives a hermit-like existence on. Along the way they pick up Ila (Watson) whose family was butchered by Cain’s descendants and whose own horrible injuries have left her unable to bear children.

Methuselah gives Noah a tea to drink which brings on another vision – this time of a great ark that must be built to survive the storm. Methuselah gives Noah a seed – the last seed from the Garden of Eden. This creates a forest and convinces the stone Guardians – fallen angels whose light has been sheathed in mud – to help Noah and his family to build the massive structure.

Years pass and word passes to Tubal-cain (Winstone) the King of the local city who recognizes that Noah is serious. He means to possess the Ark for his own and start a new world in his own image while Noah is just as sure that men are a plague upon the Earth that need to be eradicated. Neither outcome sounds particularly palatable to Naameh and her children.

There has been plenty of controversy surrounding the film even before it came out. Evangelical Christians were damning the film based on remarks made by Aronofsky who is an atheist and said in an interview that it is the least Biblical epic made about a Bible story and characterized Noah as the first environmentalist. Of course, that’s the kind of thing that is sure to make an extreme right-wing Christian get their panties in a bunch.

However, in many ways I can’t blame them. They take a good deal of liberty with the story – six-armed fallen angels made of rock, Tubal-cain who barely appears in the Bible and then as essentially a blacksmith being elevated to King and nemesis. The core elements are all there though and the scenes of the flood are spectacular.

Sadly, not all the CGI lives up to that. There isn’t a single animal in this film that is alive – every animal is CGI and many of them are beasts that are no longer around or never were around. They don’t walk like animals do and there are so many that they all kind of run together. I know the story inherently calls for spectacle but the grand scale is too much; we need something as an audience to latch onto.

Fortunately there is Crowe who makes a mighty badass Noah. Noah is a bit pigheaded during a certain stretch of the movie and you can see in him the tenacity that would make a project like the Ark even possible. There is also a tender side to Noah that allows him to sing a gentle lullaby to an injured and frightened little girl. Noah is portrayed in the Bible as someone who follows God’s directives unquestioningly and we get the sense of that here.

Unfortunately, there is also Connelly who is a terrific actress but has one of the least satisfying performances of her career. She has one scene where she has a confrontation with her husband over his increasingly vile point of view, particularly when they receive some startling news involving Shem and Ila. The normally reliable Connelly is shrill and overacts within an inch of her life. I was kind of saddened by it. Watson, likewise, is misused and her character – who is apparently made up for the purpose of testing Noah since she doesn’t appear in the Bible – never really syncs up.

There is a message for our modern day squandering of our resources and our inhumanity to one another. Once again there has been some grousing from the right over these leftist messages, but I have to say that the Biblical parables were meant to be timeless and relatable to all people no matter the era. If Aronofsky is attempting that here, I would think that he’s in line with the intention of these stories if not their execution.

At the end of the day the clumsy CGI and occasional bouts of overacting make this two and a half hour film squirm-inducing particularly near the end. There are some beautiful moments – a dove appearing with an olive branch in its beak signifying that land exists and their ordeal is nearly over, or the rainbow at the film’s conclusion that signifies God’s covenant to never use the waters to destroy all life ever again. I wish I could recommend this more because of them, but the flaws overwhelm the strengths of the film too much that even a miracle couldn’t save it.

REASONS TO GO: Crowe is strong. Draws modern parallels on the story.

REASONS TO STAY: Overreliance on spectacle. Some of the CGI is woeful. Misuse of Connelly and Watson.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence and some scenes may be too intense for the sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was banned in Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE prior to release because it would contradict the teachings of Islam, which forbids the depiction of prophets cinematically. Islam considers Noah to be one of the prophets.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fountain

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Florida Film Festival Begins!

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The Fountain


The Fountain

Just another 26th Century Icarus.

(2006) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn, Marc Margolis, Stephen McHattie, Sean Patrick Thomas, Donna Murphy, Ethan Suplee, Richard McMillan, Lorne Brass, Fernando Hernandez, Cliff Curtis, Janique Kerns.  Directed by Darren Aronofsky

There are some mysteries that fire the imagination and others that are so immense that they’re terrifying. Eternal life is like that. We as a species fear the unknown, and there is nothing quite so unknown as death. We try to avoid it, we shrink from it, we fight to stave it off and yet inevitably, it claims us all. Some come to embrace it, others in time learn to accept it. Others, however, never quite come to terms with it.

The Fountain is an attempt to breach the mystery and it is done in a way that reading a plot won’t really shed a lot of light as to what the movie is about. The storyline is this; in the 16th century, a conquistador named Tomas Creo (Jackman) has been given a mission by Isabel (Weisz), the Queen of Spain who has been beset by the Grand Inquisitor (McHattie) for her heretical thoughts which are a tad more liberal than his liking. A priest, Father Avila (Margolis) under her control has discovered the location of the Biblical Tree of Life which grants eternal life to all those who drink of its sap. Returning to Spain with such a treasure would shift power from the Inquisitor to the Queen, who has pledged that should Creo return successful he would have her hand in marriage. However, to get to the Tree he must fight his way through a bunch of annoyed Mayans in a heretofore lost pyramid.

In modern times, Dr. Tommy Creo (Jackman again), a brilliant medical researcher, is racing against the clock to find a cure for the extremely aggressive brain tumor that is slowly killing his wife Izzi (Weisz again), an author who is writing a book about a conquistador’s quest for the Tree of Life. She has left the final chapter unfinished, wanting her husband to complete the book for her when she is gone. Tommy, for his part, is driving his team relentlessly, causing his boss Dr. Guzetti (Burstyn) to remonstrate with him. She wonders if he shouldn’t be spending more time with Izzi in her last days rather than on this fool’s errand to find a cure. His teammates Antonio (Thomas), Betty (Murphy) and Manny (Suplee) are concerned that he’s lost his perspective. Tommy, however, is working on a plant from South America that may yield the cure he desperately needs for his starry-eyed wife, who is trying to make her peace with her eventual fate.

Five hundred years from now, a hairless astronaut named Tom (Jackman a third time) hurtles through the void in a transparent bubble-like spaceship with a dying tree with the intention of flying it into the center of a dying star. His motives are unclear; whether he intends to restore life to the star, or life to the souls of those the ancient Mayans believe went to this place to rest or perhaps some other theory altogether. He hallucinates the presence of his lost love who looks suspiciously like Izzi, practices yoga and meditates as the sphere speeds towards the nebula.

Director Aronofsky has made not so much a movie you watch passively but an event to be experienced. Critics and audiences alike have lined up on either side of the coin; the movie was roundly booed at its Venice Film Festival premiere and has received a critical pasting. However, those who get this movie absolutely love it. Aronofsky really doesn’t give you much room for anything else but absolutes here, which is ironic since the movie has a tendency to be vague with its message.

That message is left open to interpretation, with Aronofsky asking the viewer to reach their own conclusions about the movie. There is a certain 2001: A Space Odyssey feel, particularly to the 26th century sequence and there has been some grousing that this is a movie best encountered while stoned out of your mind. Not being a stoner, I can only imagine what this movie would be like whilst altered.

Jackman does his best work to date as the three Creos (which is Spanish for “I believe,” by the way). All three characters are alike in that they are extremely driven, but different in that they are driven in different ways. Jackman is at once a brutal conquistador, a brilliant but bereaved researcher and a serene Zen monk-like astronaut. Weisz, who at one time was not one of my favorite actresses but has been on a roll lately, makes the best she can out of a role which really doesn’t require much from her other than to smile beatifically most of the time and give soulful looks from a warm bath.

The effects are not CGI on purpose, as Aronofsky felt that would date the movie (not mentioned is that his budget was cut in half by the studio; undoubtedly he had to get a little bit more imaginative with the effects in order to pull it off, and cutting expensive CGI shots would seem to be the right way to go here). Still, there are some spectacular sequences, particularly on the Pyramid and then again as the spacecraft reaches the dying nebula. The whole she-bang is framed by one of the most beautiful scores you will ever hear, penned by Craig Mansell and performed by the classical group the Kronos Quartet and the rock band Mogwai.

This is not a movie for everybody. Several audience members walked out after about 20 minutes and the teenagers expecting some sort of space opera were completely baffled by what they saw. This is the kind of movie that requires an intellectual commitment, and a lot of people who go to the movies are out to turn their brain off, which is fine – I do it all the time. However, if you’re in the right frame of mind, exploring the mystery of eternal life and our attitudes towards it can make for a fine evening’s mental exercise. I realize I’m something of a voice crying in the wilderness, but The Fountain is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, but not many will share that opinion, and that’s fine by me.

WHY RENT THIS: Great performance by Jackman and thought-provoking script. Despite the lack of CGI, still beautiful to look at. Outstanding score by Mansell and performance by the Kronos Quartet and Mogwai.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The triple timeline story is often confusing and frustrating to follow.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some surprisingly violent action sequences as well as some sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Xibalba Nebula refered to by Mayan astronomers as the place where departed souls enter the afterlife, is located in the constellation Orion.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The movie’s torturous journey to the screen included an aborted first film that starred Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett that was halted not very far into production after creative differences between Pitt and Aronofsky and budgetary concerns from the studio led to the cessation. The feature “Australia” discusses this, although not in as much detail as we’d like.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $16.0M on a $35M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Happy Feet

Black Swan


Black Swan

The stuff that nightmares are made of.

(2010) Psychological Horror (Fox Searchlight) Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied, Ksenia Solo, Kristina Anapau, Janet Montgomery, Sebastian Stan, Toby Hemingway, Sergio Torrado, Mark Margolis, Tina Sloan. Directed by Darren Aronofsky

The pursuit of perfection in art is a long-standing tradition. It is a noble ambition but it is not without its pitfalls. Perfection is a very lofty goal and the closer one gets, the sharper the knives that guard the way there.

Nina (Portman) is a ballerina who has spent her entire life dancing, looking for that elusive opportunity – to dance the White Swan in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, perhaps the most famous ballet of them all. She has been relegated to the company, much to the display of her mother Erica (Hershey), who is an ex-dancer herself and with whom Nina lives in a small, dingy apartment.

When prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Ryder) is abruptly dismissed from the troupe by artistic director Thomas Leroy (Cassel), suddenly Nina’s goal is very much in reach. However, Leroy wants to “re-imagine” the classic ballet, so he wants the same dancer to dance both the White Swan (symbolizing the pure and virginal) as well as the Black Swan (symbolizing the evil and sexual). It is normally performed with two different dancers for good reason; the two roles require completely different psychologies from those who dance them.

Nina believes she can dance both roles, but Leroy is reluctant; she’s fine as the White Swan, but lacks the sensuality and aggressiveness that the Black Swan demands. Newcomer Lily (Kunis) seems to have the Black Swan down but lacks the precision and discipline required to do the White Swan. After Leroy, who has a long-standing reputation as a manipulator who takes sexual advantage of his dancers (he was also Beth’s lover) attempts to kiss Nina and gets a bitten lip for his trouble, he changes his mind and believes she has some of the Black Swan within her.

At first Nina and Erica are overjoyed, but the walls begin to crumble. The stress of dancing both parts begins to eat away at Nina’s already-fragile psyche (she is into self-mutilation in a big way) and she begins to see some scary visions of black swans and imagines that Lily is out to get her. Nina’s own burgeoning sexuality begins to waken and with it awakens the Black Swan, Nina’s own dark side come to life.

Aronofsky who last directed The Wrestler (which is his most straightforward film to date) is well-known for being unafraid to explore the psyche, and for facing the darkness as well as the light. This may be his best film to date in many ways; certainly I felt that it is one of the most artistically gifted movies of the year.

Part of that belongs to Natalie Portman. She has received an Oscar nomination for her role as Nina, and quite frankly, if it were up to me I’d give it to her now. This is not only the best performance of the year it is one of the best ever. Portman has to go to some raw and sexual places in this movie, exploring places that most people never share with others. She masturbates, has sex with a woman and slowly loses her mind until she finally embraces her dark side. It’s a brilliant and brave performance and is the main reason you should go and see this movie.

However, you should be warned – Aronofsky relies very much on shaky, hand-held camera work in the film. I understand that he was trying to capture the kineticism of dance. However, I personally am prone to vertigo and so I have a particular sensitivity to these kinds of things. I got physically ill during the course of this movie and I would think most people with balance issues are going to do the same. I think the technique was used far too much during the movie and I downgraded it several pegs because of it. Even those not afflicted with my issues reported some queasiness watching the movie.

The supporting cast is very good, particularly Cassel as the arrogant director who is nothing short of a sexual predator. He is arrogant and self-centered, not a villain precisely but certainly someone who mercilessly pushes Nina down the road to madness. Kunis does some career enhancement work as the sexually aggressive dancer who may or may not be manipulating Nina. This is a side of her we’ve never seen and Kunis shows off not only her sexuality but a dark side that is at odds with her image. This should certainly erase all thoughts of “That 70s Show” from your head.  Best of all is Hershey as the high-strung mom. Hershey has aged nicely but you’d never know it here; she is lined and careworn, a shade too skinny and probably in need of a long vacation. She makes you nervous every time she’s onscreen which is exactly right for the character. Her overprotectiveness has warped Nina and you wonder if mommy dearest might not be the sickest one in the movie.

I admire the ambitions of Darren Aronofsky and I especially admire Portman’s brave performance. This is a movie that will be starting some conversations for quite awhile if I don’t miss my guess. It’s a shame that the movie had the physical effect on me that it did; this could easily have gotten a much higher rating than it did.

REASONS TO GO: Natalie Portman gives one of the best performances you’ll ever see. A very realistic backstage look at an art form where discipline is brutal and absolute.

REASONS TO STAY: Handheld cam excess makes it dizziness inducing. Some of the psychological aspects are confusing and disjointed.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some intense scenes of sexuality including some same-sex and masturbation scenes, as well as some disturbing images.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the course of the film, Natalie Portman sustained twisted and dislocated ribs as well as a concussion.

HOME OR THEATER: Given the penchant for shaky-cam, I’d say home is better.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Motherhood

The Wrestler


Marisa Tomei and Mickey Rourke share a tender moment.

Marisa Tomei and Mickey Rourke share a tender moment.

(Fox Searchlight) Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Mark Margolis, Todd Barry, Wass Stevens, Judah Friedlander, Ernest Miller. Directed by Darren Aronofsky

The world of professional wrestling is deceptive. While there are “superstars” who command huge salaries and fan adulation, there are hundreds of others toiling in smaller promotions trying to get their big break. Those superstars, however, don’t always stay at the top and once you fall, there’s only one direction to go.

Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Rourke) has gone there. One of wrestling’s top draws in the ‘80s, he is struggling to make ends meet – and not always succeeding – twenty years after the fact. He still wrestles, but out of the limelight for smaller promotions. After a grueling match with an eager young up-and-comer, he comes home to find he’s been locked out of his trailer, so he’s forced to sleep in his van.

During the week he stocks groceries at a local grocery store for a boss who is less than sympathetic (Barry) which pays for most of his bills. At night, he patronizes a strip club where he has taken a shine to a particular girl, Cassidy (Tomei). She is older than most of the girls and takes a fair amount of grief for it from young punks who come to the club, which may be why the Ram likes her so much – in many ways, they’re in the same situation.

She has a young son as the Ram has a daughter (Wood), although he is estranged from his; the constant traveling of his profession kept him away from most of her important moments and all of her birthdays. She wants nothing more to do with the broken down piece of meat that her father has become.

However, the invincibility of the Ram has come into question. After a particularly brutal match in which a staple gun is used on the Ram’s leathery skin (hey, these kinds of matches actually happen) and having the staples painfully removed, he collapses in the locker room. He wakes up in the hospital, where the doctor explains that he’s had a cardiac bypass operation and his wrestling career is over.

Alone, without even the solace of the ring, Randy begins to reach out – to his daughter, to Cassidy, to anyone. He is making some small progress, but his own failings get in the way. His world crumbling around him, Randy agrees to a match – a 20th anniversary match against his greatest opponent, the Ayatollah (Miller) – that could lead to a big payday. It could also lead to the Ram’s demise.

Much has been made of Rourke’s performance, and I absolutely agree – this will be the performance he will be remembered for. While Sean Penn would win the Oscar for his role in Milk (and to be honest, Penn nailed the part), it should have gone to Rourke. Rourke’s Randy “the Ram” is much like a bull in a bullring; magnificent, strong and fierce, roaring at those who seek to skewer him, bellowing to let the world know he is there and should not be taken lightly. His performance is central to the movie’s appeal and shouldn’t be missed.

Kudos should go to Aronofsky for capturing the backstage world of professional wrestling. Accurate by all accounts (pro wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper purportedly was moved to tears by the movie), one gets a sense of the camaraderie of the boys in the back, of the quiet dignity and the unspoken desperation.

Tomei’s contribution shouldn’t be overlooked either. The stripper with a heart of gold is a bit of a cliché in the movies, but Cassidy’s heart is tarnished. A good person, she looks at her chosen line of work as a means to an end. Interacting with customers should be limited to her stage show and the occasional lap dance. She is friendly, but keeps people at arms length. She likes the Ram, but can’t allow herself to become involved with him. Therein lies the road to heartbreak and trouble, and she wants neither. Like the Ram, she wears her loneliness as a protective shield.

This is one of those movies that gets under your skin and stays there. You don’t have to be a wrestling fan to love Randy “the Ram” Robinson or root for him. This is a human story at its very core, more about a man who has made mistakes and has been wounded by them than about leg drops and arm bars. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should. When the credits roll, I guarantee that you won’t forget Randy Robinson for a long, long time.

WHY RENT THIS: Mickey Rourke gives the performance of a lifetime in what is sure to be his career-defining role. Even if you’re not a wrestling fan, you’ll be drawn into the world of Randy “The Ram” Robinson. This is one of the best movies of 2008.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The wrestling violence is pretty graphic, and the depiction of Randy’s heart attack may be a bit much for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Graphic wrestling violence (there is a great deal of blood) as well as a high dose of sexuality and nudity make this more of a film for mature sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The final match of the movie was filmed during an actual Ring of Honor card. Several Ring of Honor wrestlers make cameos in the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray version of the release includes a round-table discussion of real wrestling legends Diamond Dallas Page, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Lex Luger (who was used as a body double for Rourke in the opening montage of Randy “The Ram” Robinson at his height), Greg “The Hammer” Valentine and Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake about the accuracy and merit of the movie.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: This Is England