Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Passion of Noah

     Adapting Biblical stories is a slippery slope. The director or screenwriter is bound to piss somebody off: either the story stays too close to the source material (annoying non-believers) or strays too far away from it (drawing the ire of believers). The story of Noah and his Ark was bound to take certain liberties with the original story, since there isn't nearly enough material to keep viewers gripped for two hours and twenty minutes (the run time of this film). There is one reason that I was intrigued with this adaptation of the story: director Darren Aronofsky. And like all of his previous films, Noah has moments of tension, of fascination, of awe-inspiring visuals. And if you take it as a fantasy epic--part disaster film, part family saga, part cautionary tale (of climate change, of religious fundamentalism)--rather than a "true" story, you're bound to leave the theater completely satisfied. It's the best adult film so far of 2014 (though that's not saying much).
       Noah is quite a jump for Darren Aronofsky, but he makes the leap to big-budget spectacle successfully, maintaining plenty of the indie quirks and excitement that he has showcased throughout his career, namely in the haunting Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, and Black Swan. Aronofsky is a self-described Atheist, and ultimately that helps Noah become more than just a straight adaptation of a Biblical passage. An expensive movie about Noah's Ark starring big-name actors is going to have plenty of Wow! moments with computer generated animals and rushing/roaring water that blasts out of the theater speakers better than a Roland Emmerich film. He even inserts battles that fit more into Crowe's Gladiator than a story about a man possessed with an idea. But it's the smaller moments that truly give you goosebumps: Aronofsky's quick-cut directing (reminiscent of the drug use scenes in Requiem), the scenes with Noah, his family, and his descent into madness, like an ancient Glenn Beck who thinks he's acting out the word of God.
     Russell Crowe portrays Noah, and it's his best role in years, a return to form after films like Broken City, State of Play, and Body of Lies (let's be honest--he wasn't a stellar singer in 2012's Les Miserables). From the first moment we see him, when he's teaching his sons about not soiling God's creation (a thinly-veiled metaphor about environmental preservation that pops up now and then like flowers from the soil), it's easy to see that he's a good man. He loves his family: his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly, arresting as always), his sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman, and Leo McHugh Carroll), and Ila (Emma Watson), an injured girl they take in.
     What really sets Noah in motion is a vision that the titular character gets in the throes of a dream (showcased with typical Aronofsky flourish): a violent flood, corpses of people and animals in the water, a great wooden structure above that's bathed in light, a signal of safety. This prophecy begins the change in Noah's arc (his character, not the boat): he becomes obsessed with this vision, traveling towards a mountain where his grandfather, Methuselah (a charming Anthony Hopkins), resides. It's here that Noah meets the Watchers, massive CGI stone creatures (who are also fallen angels) that decide to help him with the mission at hand. Some might find these rocky beings corny or far too fantastical--but I thought they added to the spectacle.
     Though Noah has incredible willpower and the brute strength of the enormous living rocks, building the Ark isn't an easy task. Planting a seed from the original Garden of Eden (given to him by his grandfather), a massive forest intersected with streams is created, providing the supplies needed to build a damn big boat. Animals begin flocking to the area, a horde of many species walking (or slithering) in line to enter the Ark. But this draws the attention of other people too: namely Tubal-Cain (an entertaining-as-always Ray Winstone), who believes that the will of Man is bigger than an empty vision by a creator. And Tubal has a nothing-to-lose army--when the rain starts falling, thousands swarm (outfitted with jagged weapons) to jump aboard, battling with Noah, his family, and the powerful boulder-creatures in an action set-piece that's slathered in blood-and-rain-soaked excitement.
      And yet again, we go back to the smaller moments, the ideas that make Noah a really solid film. Crowe's growing tyranny grows to epic proportions, and it's haunting to watch a man (willing to go way too far) come unglued due to a vision that he's not positive he even interpreted correctly. Just like when reading a religious text, thoughts, visions, dreams, and ideas can turn into fundamentalist views that put mankind (and even more shocking, Noah's own family) at great risk. The climate change metaphor is there too: you can choose to bury your head in the sand (like a Fox News anchor) if you want to ignore it. But the true parable of Aronofsky's Noah, an adaptation of a Biblical story, is just how violently far people can go in the name of their unproven God.     (B+)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

300: Rise of the 6-Pack Abs

     I never got on the 300 train the first time around when the original blasted its way into theaters almost eight years ago in all of its brawny, bloody glory. Sure, it was a spectacle: but one can only put up with so much stylistic slo-mo before they get burnt out like a spent light bulb, sizzling away with a lack of substance. So I was a skeptic when the news of a parallel sorta-sequel was coming out. The trailers didn't do much for me (they looked like much more of the same). But--surprisingly--300: Rise of an Empire left me feeling (basically) entertained. Focusing more on naval battles between a new hero and a sexy and treacherous villain (portrayed with fervor by former Bond Girl Eva Green), the new 300 is a serviceable entry of super violence, sex and style that barely lets up steam during its short 100 minute run time.
     That's not to say that 300: Rise of an Empire is a great film or anything (not even close)--but in the doldrums of winter, you could do far worse than watching attractive and fit people creatively slaughter each other on various epic 3-D battlegrounds. And the 3-D is actually good too, worth the price of admission even, the blades and blood slicing across the screen seemingly right in front of your very eyes. It has its typical problems during the darker battle scenes, muddying the image and making it harder to decipher what exactly is going on. But the pros of its 3-D presentation outweigh the cons.
     Gerard Butler made his name with the original 300, and ever since his career trajectory has basically been on a downward spiral (except for maybe last year's fun Die Hard-in-the-White-House film Olympus Has Fallen). He's not in Rise of an Empire; we get a new hero, Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), and though he doesn't share quite the same alpha-male machismo as Butler, he does a serviceable job as a man who needs to inspire confidence in his troops when they are severely outnumbered at sea. Themistokles (told through a flashback scene), killed the father of God King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), who was in the first film, and now Xerxes needs to avenge the death of his dear old dad. He's got a secret weapon: the cunning and deadly Artemisia (Eva Green), who leads the Persian forces in the high-stakes sea battles against the Themistokles-led Greeks.
     She's the best part of this new incarnation in the 300 universe (I'm sure with their success that we'll see more in the future), eating every scene she's in with a fiery fierceness. In one scene, she decapitates an enemy and proceeds to tenderly kiss the bleeding head. In another, she is the focus of a violent sex scene that gives new meaning to the term "lover's quarrel". Sorry for the spoilers, but you're either going to see this movie or not--it probably won't take my convincing. Without her, the film would lack a necessary womanly touch that balances the brawn of the men. She's the funniest and most entertaining aspect. All of her antics lead up to a large-scale finale that is okay but doesn't leave you breathless. But really, who cares about any of the story here--no professor will show this in any History 101 classes.
      We're here to escape the real world for an hour and a half. Maybe it's because nothing of note has gotten a wide release so far this year, but while watching 300: Rise of an Empire, time flew by, blood squirted like it came out of a Super-Soaker's barrel, and limbs were hacked off to fly in every direction. I realize that may not be your cup of tea. But my cup was filled just enough to be considered worthwhile.     (B-)