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

Advertisements

Goya’s Ghost


Goya's Ghosts

Francisco Goya stands before one of his completed works.

(Goldwyn) Javier Bardem, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgaard, Randy Quaid, Michael Lonsdale, Jose Luis Gomez, Blanca Portillo, Mabel Rivera. Directed by Milos Forman

These days the Spanish Inquisition is a punch line, but back in the day the name would induce fear for the suffering it caused. Being summoned by the Inquisition was in no way a joke, and those who received such a summons usually had reason to regret it later.

Francisco Goya (Skarsgaard) is perhaps the most renowned painter in all of Spain. He has the eye of the royal court, including King Carlos (Quaid) and the clergy, including the Inquisitor General (Lonsdale) and more to the point, an ambitious clergyman named Lorenzo (Bardem) who is having his own portrait painted by Goya. Lorenzo has recently lobbied the Inquisitor General to be given charge of the Inquisition so that he might return it to stricter standards.

Noticing a painting of a young girl in Goya’s studio, Lorenzo finds out that her name is Ines (Portman) and she is the daughter of a prosperous merchant (Gomez). When Ines is picked up by Inquisition spies for refusing to eat pork in a tavern (since those of the Jewish faith didn’t eat pork, this is construed as a sign of Judaism and not of someone just not liking the taste of pork; this particular policy was bad news for those who didn’t like pork and worse news for pigs), her parents beg Goya to intercede with the Inquisition. He goes to Lorenzo, who visits the torture-ravaged girl who has already confessed for her crime of not eating pork and therefore being a Jew (horrors!) and rather than helping her, he rapes her instead. Nice guy, that Lorenzo.

As the days and weeks begin to pile up, the merchant decides to take matters into his own hands. He invites Lorenzo and Goya for dinner and pleads directly to Lorenzo. When Lorenzo placidly says that the whole concept of the Inquisition is that those who speak the truth will receive strength from God to weather the torture, the merchant goes ballistic. He feels, quite rightly, that people will admit to anything under torture and to prove it, he strings up Lorenzo (over Goya’s strenuous objections) and gets him to sign an affidavit that Lorenzo is, in fact, a monkey who consorts with other monkeys. Such a document would be blasphemy and Lorenzo would be disgraced and defrocked and quite probably feel the ministrations of the Inquisition himself. The merchant threatens Lorenzo with the document if he doesn’t release Ines; Lorenzo being a stubborn sort rapes her again.

Thus the merchant makes the document public and Lorenzo is predictably defrocked, fleeing Spain in disgrace. 15 years later, King Carlos is dead and Napoleon has conquered Spain, abolishing the Inquisition and installing a new prosecutor – that’s right, Lorenzo. He has wholeheartedly embraced the doctrine of the French revolution and enthusiastically applies it to Spain with mixed results.

Goya in the meantime has gone deaf and is embittered, although he is still a great painter (and would be for several decades). Ines has lost most of her mind during her long incarceration; when the French empty the jails, she wanders to her family home only to find all of her family dead, killed by rampaging soldiers during the invasion. With nowhere left to go, she seeks out Goya, begging him to help her find the baby she’d had in prison who Lorenzo had fathered but had been taken away from Ines shortly after birth.

Forman, best known for Amadeus has again presented a place and time in all its glory and sordidness, warts and halos combined. This is a place of disease and putrefaction, but one where great works of art were created.

Forman took many of his visual cues from Goya himself, and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe does a magnificent job of making the movie look not unlike a Goya painting; often dark and mysterious but always full of life.

Skarsgaard makes a formidable Goya, charming and driven at once, his talent protecting him from the worst offenses of the time. The surprising thing is that he is not the central character of the movie that bears his name.

In fact, nobody has that distinction. Ostensibly, it’s Lorenzo’s story but it really isn’t about him, not altogether anyway. Nor is it about Ines, who spends much of the film rotting away in prison offscreen.  It’s not because of the performances of Bardem and Portman who do solid work here – no, it really is because there is no focus on any one specific character, leaving us to focus on the environment, which might be a good thing because Foreman does such a great job at creating it.

This isn’t a trip to the Prado by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s the next best thing. Admirers of Goya may cringe at the liberties taken with the painter’s life and the history of Spain but even the most stringent of those will surely be pleased by the overall look of the film, which captures the spirit and intensity of the great artist’s work.

WHY RENT THIS: Skarsgaard, Bardem and Portman deliver solid performances. The film depicts a time in history rarely seen in films.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script is a little confusing and the plot a bit brutal from time to time.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s rape, violence, murder, nudity, torture, sexuality, foul language and all manner of mayhem. Just another day at the office for me, but you might want to consider hard before letting your kids see it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Natalie Portman was cast as Ines after Forman noticed her resemblance to the Goya painting “Milkmaid of Bordeaux.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Escapist