Noah

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Release: Friday, March 28, 2014

[Theater]

The hysteria surrounding this particular release begs the ultimate question: should some stories be exempt from the full-length feature film format? Are some stories movie-proof?

Like how Moses parted the Red Sea, Noah is doing something similar to global audiences, dividing them down the middle over whether this movie is representative of the story they have known as part of the Bible. There’s no denying that some of the directorial choices made in the film are repelling more than they are attracting potential viewers, and the finished product likely will remain as not the one many were envisioning.

Admitting in an interview that the Biblical subject matter was an unusual choice for him, director Darren Aronofsky (whose Requiem for a Dream safely remains as his most identifiable project) has clearly tried to find a way to fashion one extremely popular story into his own brand of entertainment; the sui generis hasn’t taken with everyone, a fact that is also clear. He is a director known for leaving disturbing and long-lasting imprints upon the viewer’s mind; a man who won’t be comfortable until he has made everyone else uncomfortable.

It seems in 2014 he has accomplished this with ease, perhaps for reasons he wasn’t intending or couldn’t foresee. Much has been made of the film’s bizarre and head-trippy content and the characterization of its mysterious, enigmatic lead. One hesitates to call the titular role a protagonist given how Aronofsky has chosen to depict him, and this may well be the biggest challenge his film poses to viewers around the globe. It’s either that, or convincing everyone that his film is not based upon the Biblical story, but rather on a graphic novel he wrote himself, titled the same. With the written account assuming a very loose interpretation of the original story found in The Book of Genesis, the filmed version seemed doomed to do battle with an onslaught of naysayers.

Aronofosky’s Noah is less a story millions have grown up reading as it is a fantasy epic that happens to feature the popular character. We are introduced to him as a young boy, being sheltered by a protector who is later revealed to be his father, Lamech. He passes down to him a special snakeskin, the shell of the serpent that slithered through the green grasses of Eden, as part of a tradition upheld across generations. Noah grows to become a strong, brave father and husband, who is constantly plagued with disturbing dreams and visions of an impending global catastrophe. While leading his family across barren wastelands to find a suitable place to escape the human populations — people at this point are depicted as bloodthirsty, evil creatures with no redeemable qualities whatsoever — Noah witnesses a string of miracles that convince him he’s been chosen by God (referred to here as ‘The Creator’) to help carry out his plan for the fate of the planet.

Every so often we are startled by a vivid flashback — or what appear to be flashbacks; they’re actually snippets that progress the dreams Noah keeps having — that rips our attention away from the current situation and places and seems to disorient us temporarily. Aronofsky understands that for his version of this story to work, he needs to get the audience in the same kind of disturbed mental state as the titular character eventually shall experience. The task at hand is going to be physically and psychologically exhausting, this we realize quickly. What kinds of tolls are Noah’s actions going to have on him, his loved ones? Aronofsky’s second and third acts explain thoroughly, even if this is not what most people expect. . .maybe even want. Relative to the world that he has created, Aronofsky’s story makes perfect sense. Even though Noah’s safety has apparently been ensured as well as that of his family, including that of the young girl, Ila (Emma Watson) whom they adopted many years ago, scores and scores of other people are left to waste. This is a reality Noah can barely stand to acknowledge, and the burden only increases.

Despite the clutter and chaos surrounding it’s release, the storyline presented isn’t overly complex or pretentious in nature. The epic can easily be divvied up into its three distinct movements: the first forty minutes or so are devoted to tracking Noah’s nomadic existence before coming into an understanding of what he’s meant to do (become the world’s greatest carpenter, apparently). Act two beckons a strong wind of change once Noah realizes he’s going to be running the world’s first and possibly only floating zoo and has gigantic rock creatures (fallen angels who were denied the gates of Heaven by The Creator earlier for their disobedience) to help construct it. Then, the third and final part devolves into an episode of The Real World: Noah’s Ark — what happens when Biblical characters stop being nice and start being real? What happens when a movie filled with unusual events and deviations from the perceived truth hits a brick wall in terms of ideas? Turn melodramatic, of course. This is precisely what the final twenty or thirty minutes of this film unfortunately resort to.

Aronofsky, it seems, pulls the rug out from underneath me as well.

While there are quite a few aspects about the film that come across as bizarre, even out of place and to a degree, unnecessary, nothing about the proceedings is going to compel people to want to burn Aronofsky at the stake more than the twists and turns of this protracted third act. It’s here where liberties are perceived to be taken the most: the characterization of Noah seems to take a 180-degree turn (and if you ask any random attendee, they’ll probably say for the worse). Again, that’s based on the presumption that they have always pictured this man as kind and gentle, and when he farts it smells of bakery-fresh cinnamon rolls. Indeed, this is not how Crowe portrays him, nor is this the way the character is written. If it helps, picture this 21st Century Noah as the equivalent of Daniel Craig’s version of James Bond — grittier, tougher, more human than we have ever been led to believe before.

In fact, that’s the fist-sized pill everyone has to swallow watching what was once nothing more than a simulacrum of man’s savior actually living, breathing, struggling. Noah humanizes the man’s battle to understand what is being asked of him and what is occurring around him. Abundant are the arguments calling out the film’s environmental message, but this really is less of an aberration as it is being made out to be. Is it delivered heavy-handedly? Perhaps. The Book of Genesis wasn’t exactly willing to get to the specifics over what these days were like. Desperate would be a fitting description, I suppose. Epic, another.

And that’s just what Aronofsky’s film is. It’s also far from perfect, possessing more than its fair share of editing and pacing issues that give the first act more than an opportunity to stall once and again (and ditto that to the last thirty minutes or so). Thematically, it juggles cautionary tales on how people epically fail at taking care of their environment (we do, there’s no denying it); the importance of family and how it may be defined; the virtue of love versus the temptation to hate. There are many layers to deconstruct and pick apart, with no real definitive core to be found anywhere. Controversial directors often find themselves at the very center of the controversy itself.

Here is an entirely new piece of literature, a story all it’s own. With any luck, the man won’t be receiving death threats like he did after creating Requiem.

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3-5Recommendation: Given that the events that take place in the film are many and extremely varied, the story provided isn’t going to be the one most expect. That’s not to say there is no place for a modern-day adaptation. Visionary, significant, and strangely mainstream, Noah can hardly be described as the most accessible film ever made, but perhaps its this director’s most accessible. By the seem of things, it could shape up to be his most talked-about effort yet. Beautifully open to interpretation, the abstract and fantasy elements will inevitably offend many, but for those who it does not, they will find greatness in this epic tale of survival.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 138 mins.

Quoted: “Please keep it inside, please!”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The 86th Academy Awards Afterparty: Will there be pizza?

Despite my fascination with film, I consistently have never really cared for the awards ceremonies as I’ve always seen them as rather trifling procedures. The night of Sunday, March 2 barely amounts to more than a shallow beauty pageant. The proceedings inside L.A.’s famed Dolby Theater are in effect an incredibly expensive circus in which wealthy people converge on a single venue to watch their extremely well-off colleagues accepting gold statues as a way of validating that their work was actually experienced by more than just the people in that stuffy little room.

And don’t even get me started on the actual reporting on the event beforehand. Christ, the quality of the news on the Red Carpet makes a mockery of journalism to the highest degree. There isn’t an apology to be found or heard. Ever. Cameras (and conversations) prefer to be aimed towards fashion trends, intentionally converting performers into walking billboards for the young and impressionable. People aren’t really people in these moments. But that’s okay. . . .I guess. After all, these centers of attention are the same folks who gave us those great moments in the films we liked over the past year. Now it’s fun seeing Jennifer Lawrence stumble all over her real-life awkwardness. Or how about seeing sworn on-screen enemies pal-ing around together over a drink? That’s the stuff that causes the warm, fuzzy feeling in your tummy to grow intensely, apparently.

In spite of my ranting, the end-of-the-film-year presentation is actually greatly entertaining to watch. Why is that, you ask, understandably now confused.

Perhaps its partly because of the phenomenon of the fourth wall still protecting these successful and talented individuals from the claws of the public. We have a right to see our favorite action hero star stripped of his/her dramatic veil so we can get a better look into that person’s mind and see how they do what they do so well. Harrison Ford struggling to look sober during this year’s Oscars is one such insight that might well cause an obsession-fueled Twitter thread. Then there was Ellen Degeneres doing something as mundane as delivering pizza to certain members in the first few rows of the audience while Brad Pitt humbled himself by serving plates and napkins that caused us to nearly soil our pants from laughter.

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They aren’t on the silver screen at the moment, yet the likes of Amy Adams, Chris Hemsworth, the aforementioned Lawrence who can’t seem to catch a break from intentional or unintentional public embarrassment as Degeneres appeared to roast her before kicking off the ceremony this year, or a legend like Robert DeNiro — they all still possess a mystique we can never hope to chip away completely because they are in some way, shape or form still performing for us, the humble viewers. They give possibly the most honest performances of their lives before these particular cameras, but we will never get to be at the Oscar afterparty with them when they all shed the burden of the pretense and of the pomp and circumstance. And, possibly their clothes, too.

As a person who loves film I have been notorious for either accidentally or purposefully avoiding these sorts of events because a great majority of the time I either vehemently disagree with the ultimate selections or I just have no comment on what is going on at the time. There’s also that little issue I have with the false emotion surrounding it all. But nevermind that for a bit. This year I watched the Oscars from start to finish, even tapping into the Red Carpet action (which I will probably never do again, based on the intro paragraphs above). But with a few staggeringly honest acceptance speeches delivered by gold statue recipients, my faith in what these people are doing with their lives has been reinvigorated.

There were obviously the requisite number of speeches that dragged on for far too long, some that became dangerously close to sounding arrogant, and some that were borderline unintelligible. But thanks to highlights in Jared Leto (who took the stage for his snagging of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar), Lupita Nyong’o (with her remarkable work in 12 Years a Slave garnering her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar) and the potentially crowd favorite Matthew McConaughey (the McConaissance can now be officially acknowledged following his Best Actor prize) this year’s Oscars offered up strong doses of humanity and humility, a display of appreciation that extends to those who have spent any amount of time paying attention to them — that includes us bloggers! There comes that warm, fuzzy feeling again. . .

Dedicating three hours to watching the awards ceremony proves that this movie-watching business is indeed an addiction. It is equal parts exciting and frustrating knowing that famous names are to receive even greater plaudits than they have already earned in being cast into money-making machines. Such is the nature of their jobs. Everyone should save themselves a pat on the back for me. Especially Mr. McConaughey. I say good for him.


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Photo credits: google images 

About Time

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Release: Friday, November 1, 2013

[Theater]

For the price of admission to this one they ought to give you an entire box of tissues — they can come in handy here. Richard Curtis delivers the world the feel-good/tear-jerking film of the year, bar none few.

About Time is, well. . .if you want to see a tired genre getting a facelift — a good one, not one of those sloppy jobs that make you wonder what that person just had and now no longer does — go see this one. Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams light up the screen like few cinematic couples have since Ryan Gosling and she did way back when. Before we go name-calling and accusing Allie of two-timing her beloved Noah, I need to gush even more and say Gleeson and McAdams are perhaps the more believable, romantic pairing. This film benefits tremendously from an all-around lovable cast including Bill Nighy (Hot Fuzz; Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows) and Lindsay Duncan (Under the Tuscan Sun) as Tim’s parents, and Lydia Wilson as Tim’s oddball sister, Kit-Kat.

This film may be getting bashed for its sentimentality, and there’s probably some level of validity to the criticism, but honestly these folks are grossly overlooking the overall experience of this film. The logic to its central plot and even perhaps the way it’s carried out is questionable, sure, but hey, at least it’s inventive. Infectiously so.

After turning 21 and having failed miserably in his most recent attempts to pick up a girlfriend over a New Year’s party, Tim’s father sits him down for a chat. But instead of the birds-and-the-bees he gets a little inside scoop on a curious family secret. Since the beginning of. . .whenever. . .the men in the family have been able to travel back in time. Tim simply dismisses this as a strange joke at first (of course), but his dad urges him to try it out for himself. All he has to do is go to a small, dark room and close his eyes and clench his fists, thinking about a moment in time he’d like to go back to. Wham. He’s there.

As one might imagine, with a “gift” of being able to go back into the past, the possibilities are limitless as to what any of us would do with it. Tim uses his abilities to find the perfect girl to make his life complete. Admittedly, the film’s objective is pretty one-dimensional, but the value of family-building and finding love in the most unexpected ways is a hard concept to rail against, so it’s necessary to suppress the urge to call this movie too-pat.

I should back up a little bit actually. About Time isn’t necessarily exclusively about lovemaking and forming families; it also reminds one of the impossibility of living inside the perfect moment all the time. As Tim comes to find, even with the ability to go back to these moments, it can’t be done. Life forces us to move forward, day-by-day, taking whatever comes at us. Curtis’ inventive narrative here is extremely intriguing in this regard. How would you manage your life with this kind of insight? What would you take and what would you leave? As Nighy’s perpetually-charming father warns, “You have to use it to make your life the way you want it to be.”

This film’s charm is responsible for it rising to near the top of my list of favorite romantic-comedies of all-time (now, granted that’s not a huge list, but this is still a huge surprise given the material and my film preferences). The scene in which the emotions and dialogue feel forced or tailored to Hollywood’s liking is impossible to find here. This is the trump card, above Mary and Tim’s relationship; this above the father-son relationship; this above the love a brother has for another sibling.

It’s a film not without its flaws and cliches, but it’s about time a film of this kind of discerning quality is made. The contemporary landscape of romantic-comedies/fantasies is a barren wasteland of instantly forgettable stories that typically go in one direction — straight to the happy ending. That’s all well and good, and that’s not to say Curtis’ film doesn’t trend similarly, but in the process of this story being told, we actually feel like we learn a thing or two about a complicated family dynamic. Or more importantly, about the complexities of families in general.

At the very least, Tim’s father admits that he’s used his ability to time travel to go back and catch up on reading all the novels and books he could ever imagine being able to read. Between this idea and the interactions between the main characters, this film feels lightyears more mature than others of its kind.

I absolutely lost myself in this special little film. What a lovely surprise.

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4-0

Recommendation: A film for those who don’t mind tearing up quite a bit throughout, and for those who appreciate a well-acted and thoughtful meditation on what family means, why they matter and how they come to be.  See also: a healthy alternative to any romantic comedy made within the last ten or fifteen years. This is very much a film to determine whether or not you should see it based on its audience reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (85%); rather than the critical consensus (68%). Seems a little ironic to write that on a blog that critically analyzes films, but hey. . .I’d rather speak the truth than get all up on my high horse like I usually do.

Rated: R

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “You can’t kill Hitler or shag Helen of Troy. . .”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Rush

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Release: Thursday, September 26, 2013

[Theater]

2013 finds Ron Howard operating well within his comfort zone again, returning to construct the definitive racing film.

A gripping, polished and thoughtfully-crafted drama piece, Rush delves into one remarkable season of racing which would ultimately define the careers of two top performers in Formula 1.

Howard and comedy, it would seem, mix about as well as bald race tires on wet pavement (in case that’s not clear, not well). The unnecessary detour we took in 2011 with The Dilemma serves as a painful reminder that sometimes straying from the course carries more risk than reward. But perhaps it’s the fact that the man is coming out of the shadows of that terribly confusing, un-funny film that makes this particular movie such a euphoric experience.

Rush compares the passions of two fierce competitors in 1970s Formula 1 racing. The film is equally an action/drama as much as it is a cleverly constructed biopic;  red-headed Richie Cunningham devotes as much time and material to the British playboy James Hunt (here portrayed by a thoroughly entertaining Chris Hemsworth) and the starkly more disciplined and straight-edged Austrian, Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), as he does to the critical developments on the racetracks.

I suppose seeing the film on an RPX screen helped bring the story to larger-than-life proportions. But that’s more of the icing on the cake, really. Peter Morgan, who also wrote Frost/Nixon and The Queen, is responsible for us feeling as though we have injected ourselves with extra adrenaline; that we’re trapped inside the claustrophobic cockpits of these exquisite automobiles. The only thing missing is the smell of burning motor oil, the cigars and the expensive perfumes and colognes. Morgan’s brilliant writing provides the sexy cast fully-realized characters that Hemsworth and Brühl simply run away with. (Or drive away with, if that metaphor suits you better.)

In the 70s, perhaps no rivalry was as bitter and as intense as the one dividing Hunt and Lauda, and Howard was keen to prioritize this aspect over the many other intricate details that comprise this project. One of the more compelling reasons to see this film is the simple fact that Howard does his damn research. Time and again he’s proven himself a director who pays attention to the details, no matter how technical the subject matter. In this case anyway, the material is as complicated as anything he’s ever dealt with (the adventures of Jim Lovell and company being a close second), yet you feel completely immersed in a world that is a near perfect-reflection of reality. Those who have come to love Howard’s style also trust in his earnestness.

Arguably the most rewarding aspect of Rush is the replication of the drivers’ less-than-pleasant relationship. Howard realizes its critical we know the personalities before we know their abilities; that we know what motivates each for taking the actions that they take. Consequently, when such decisions are made and certain events transpire, we care that much more for the people involved.

James Hunt bumps into the dark-haired, brusque Austrian racer one afternoon during a Formula 3 event — a lower-level form of the top-end race car circuit — and immediately there is tension between them. From the beginning its clear that Lauda is a technical perfectionist while Hunt enjoys bearing the fruits of his labor. . . and his good looks, of course. He’s the party animal; the one to be spraying a huge bottle of champagne after one race and puking minutes before the next. He’s the one to be bedding women like Olivia Wilde’s Suzy Miller. However, it is Lauda who is consistently described as “a genius in the car,” and given that Lauda’s generally unlikable persona made it more difficult (more like next to impossible) for him to get picked up by a team on his own merits, he has to struggle much harder to get in. Fortunately his efforts eventually pay off and in fact Ferrari signs him to their team.

Hunt’s lack of focus on (read: important) matters off the track results in his lack of sponsorship for the upcoming 1976 season, and though he jokes that all he needs on his car is something about cigarettes and condoms, its clear Hunt knows he’s in trouble.

Howard’s films typically are imbued with historically accuracy, and this one’s certainly no different. He accounts for every last detail surrounding racing as not only a sport, but a culture. A way of survival, even. From Lauda’s mechanical crew looking more than irritated having spent an entire night completely rebuilding his car to his exact specifications, to Hunt failing to attract new sponsors; from the quick, tight shots of the driver inside the car pushing down the pedals and switching gears, to slow-motion shots of the tires spinning in heavy downpours, Rush is almost poetic in its visual beauty and technical prowess. It could be Howard’s most immaculate project yet.

No moment in the film might exemplify the reality of driving for a living better than what happens to Niki Lauda one fateful day in Germany. Infamously referred to as ‘The Graveyard,’  the incredibly harrowing Nürburgring track is responsible for many, many serious accidents, a good number of which have been fatal. On the day of the race, the weather was anything but ideal. Heavy rains and low visibility prompted the incredibly intelligent Lauda to call a meeting in an attempt to boycott the race. Citing unreasonably high danger levels, Lauda was virtually alone in his position, as Hunt (at least in the film) points out that this would likely guarantee his (Lauda’s) win for the season, since cutting out the German Grand Prix would provide everyone else one less racing opportunity to catch up to him in the total points standings.

Later that day, Lauda’s car would be converted into a raging fireball after he overcorrects through a turn which inadvertently pierces the car’s fuel cell. The driver sat in a blistering inferno of over 800 degrees for about sixty seconds, causing irreparable damage to his face and lungs. He would spend roughly a month in the hospital recovering from horrific burns. Howard handles this pivotal moment with all the grace one could ever expect from him, and its really quite the gut-check time for both the other racers and us, the audience. It’s not an easy scene to witness.

This is a pivotal moment not only for the real-life champion, but relative to the film as well. Even if it’s a two-hour affair, this film simply flies by in no time at all. The film following the accident becomes twice as compelling, given the turn-around time for Lauda returning to the sport. Within four weeks, he’s back in the car, much to everyone’s amazement — particularly James Hunt’s. The film begs the question, what exactly separates the will to win versus the will to survive? In sports/careers in which the danger levels are directly proportional to the risks those individuals take, often the two overlap. Winning often means outlasting death. Losing means you played it too safe, or simply weren’t good/fast enough. And with Howard’s visionary style of directing, this is only part of the picture.

More than anything, Rush honors the legends that are Niki Lauda and James Hunt by shedding light on both their personal and professional lives (it doesn’t hurt either that the actors portraying them are strikingly similar in appearance) while never forcing the drama that came with the territory. Indeed, this develops as naturally as Howard’s confidence behind the camera has over a protracted career.

Formula 1 racing certainly approaches the top of the ladder in terms of the danger and the intrigue. Having experienced the United States Grand Prix in 2003 in Indianapolis, I can vouch for both, though fortunately me and my friends did not bear witness to anything near as dramatic as what happened to the formidable Austrian. It’s an interesting thought to entertain to consider what this film might have been like in the hands of anyone else other than those of Hollywood’s favorite ginger-haired director.

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4-0Recommendation: Race fans and Ron Howard devotees unite! Rush delivers upon almost everything promised by its enticing trailers, though it lacks a bit in some areas regarding the women who were behind the great drivers. Neither Wilde nor Alexandra Maria Lara (who plays Lauda’s wife, Marlene) are given much time to develop as characters at all. All the same, this is a wholly engaging experience that will have you whiteknuckled for most of its duration, and if you enjoy learning about the subject matter as much as you do witnessing it, this might just be the perfect movie for you. On that note, I fully expect this film to do far better in Europe than in America since the market for Formula 1 is nowhere near as demanding in the States unfortunately.

Rated: R

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “Don’t go to men who are willing to kill themselves driving in circles looking for normality.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com