by Steve Habrat
In 2010, director Darren Aronofsky became a household name with the success of his sexually charged thriller Black Swan. After years of enjoying a devoted cult following with films like Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain, the filmmaker finally broke through into the mainstream with his steamy tale of a delicate ballerina slowly slipping into pitch-black insanity. Earning universal critical acclaim and snagging several Academy Award nominations, audiences were curious to see what all the fuss was about—and eager to catch a glimpse of Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis swapping some spit. After almost four years of waiting, Aronofsky returns to the local Regal Cinemas with Noah, an epic and controversial reimagining of the Old Testament’s beloved tale, Noah’s Ark. Obliging the overwhelming demand for darker and grittier blockbusters, Aronofsky proves that he can indeed hold his own in the popcorn arena without totally turning his back on his art-house past. Truth be told, Noah has a colossal visual scope that is never short of spectacular. It’s immensely stylish, with a number of talented thespians nailing their respective roles. With Noah, Aronofsky cooks up a unique blockbuster formula that borrows a bit from his trippy mindbender The Fountain, but a bloated runtime and an uneven second half finds this beaut taking on some water.
Noah begins by explaining that the once beautiful Earth has slowly been polluted by cities built by the ruthless king Tubal-Cain (played by Ray Winstone). One day, a young Noah is about to receive the precious snakeskin shed by the serpent in the Garden of Eden from his father, Lamech, when Tubal-Cain and his forces interrupt them. Determined to take the hill for himself, Tubal-Cain kills Lamech, steals the snakeskin, and takes the new slice of land. Noah narrowly escapes the encounter, feeling into the rocky wasteland before him. Many years later, Noah (played by Russell Crowe) and his sons, Shem (played by Douglas Booth), Ham (played by Logan Lerman), and Japheth (played by Leo McHugh Carroll), are scavenging the wasteland for anything they may be able to use when they witness a drop of water hit the ground and a small flower instantly sprout from the scorched soil. Later that night, Noah has a vision of humanity being wiped out by a massive flood sent by the Creator. Confiding in his wife, Naameh (played by Jennifer Connelly), the family sets out on a journey to speak with Methuselah (played by Anthony Hopkins) about the bizarre vision. Along their journey, the family rescues a severely wounded young girl named Ila (played by Emma Watson), who was left to die in the wasteland. Relentlessly hunted by Tubal-Cain’s forces, the family receives help from a group of rock-like monsters called The Watchers, which are actually fallen angles who took the rock form after landing on the polluted soils of Earth. After experiencing another vision and receiving a seed from the Garden of Eden, Noah realizes that he has been chosen by the Creator to build an ark and save the animals of Earth from the great flood.
In this new era of the dark and gritty blockbuster, Aronofsky’s Noah isn’t handled any differently. It’s got its fair share of shaky camera work, gritty violence, and smudged grime smeared all over the faces of each and every character. This approach gives the story of Noah’s Ark a realistic feel, even when the fantasy action spirals its way out of the gunky layers of mud and blood. We’re treated to cosmic visions of the Garden of Eden, a twinkling universe made from infinite darkness, a starry heaven peeking through the heavy clouds that blanket the cancerous Earth, and The Watchers, the rock-monsters that look like they lumbered forth from the imagination of the late monster-kingpin Ray Harryhausen. There is clear inspiration drawn from The Fountain, especially the futuristic space travel and the Spanish conquistador storylines that bookended the modern day content. And in typical Aronofsky tradition, each and every moment is made gloriously dramatic with the aid of Clint Mansell’s typically grand strings. Mansell frequently collaborates with Aronofsky, providing raw violins and slamming orchestral cues to give even the smallest scenes a towering and emotionally charged power. If I were to guess, their past collaborations on Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and Black Swan were just warm-ups for this epic.
From its opening frames until the battle between The Watchers and Tubal-Cain’s forces for the ark, Noah is a singular and sweeping achievement—a blockbuster from a man who has never really dabbled in filmmaking on a scale such as this. While he borrows a bit from The Fountain and finds fantasy inspiration in other period epics such as Lord of the Rings, Noah is still alive with Aronofsky’s art-house spirit. It’s refined, even when stampedes of CGI critters fly, stomp, slither, and gallop into the bowels of Noah’s ark. Most eye-popping is the massive battle set in the blinding rainstorm pouring down from the heavens. The action is crystal clear and tremendously meticulous as The Watchers clash with the darker forces that hunger for shelter inside the mud-and-stick fortress. It truly makes you wonder what Aronofsky could do with other blockbusters, specifically those in the sci-fi or comic book realm. (It was rumored that he wanted to direct a Batman film, and for a while he was attached to the RoboCop reboot that was released earlier this year.) However, it’s the second act of Noah that really starts to show signs of fatigue, as the action retreats to the inside of the ark. From here, Noah evolves into a bit of a bore as CGI waves crash and Noah’s sanity starts to slip. There’s an unexpected pregnancy that Noah believes is a curse, the presence of an evil character that should have probably perished in the battle for the ark, and a tug of war for the soul of one of Noah’s sons. It’s intermittently interesting and tense, but it’s way too choppy and ends up bringing the brisk pacing to a screeching halt.
On another positive note, Noah is teeming with gripping performances, specifically from Mr. Russell Crowe. As always, Crowe brings an intensity that is unmatched, playing Noah as a conflicted soul who believes that nothing should stand in the way of the Creator’s plan. Even if it is a bit silly when Noah is sulking around the ark and threatening to kill a child, Crowe manages to inject a bit of sympathetic menace into the role. Connelly, meanwhile, is elegantly poised in the role of Noah’s fiercely loyal wife, but her love is tested when the family bobs along in the flood. There are echoes of an Oscar in one emotional standoff, as she sobs at Noah’s horrifying and heartless decision to strike down a miracle. Winstone is lip-smacking evil as Tubal-Cain, the mangy king that growls through blood bits of reptile about man taking control of the world around him. Harry Potter’s Emma Watson continues to prove herself as a young talent to watch as Ila, the adopted daughter of Noah who has caught the attention of Shem. Anthony Hopkins turns up in the small role of Methuselah, Noah’s senile grandfather who craves a handful of sweet berries and is able to work incredible miracles. Rounding out the main cast is Logan Lerman as Ham, Noah’s impossibly difficult son who demands a wife and walks a tightrope between good and evil.
Considering that Noah is drawn from the Old Testament, you’re probably wondering if the film becomes overbearingly religious or preachy. Aronofsky chooses to focus on the barbaric nature of man, sometimes graphically so. He warns us that we should be respectful of our fellow man, and that we should treat the world around us with affectionate respect—a fiercely relevant and somewhat simple message in a time when climate change is a hot topic of debate and mankind grows increasingly savage, self-centered, and cruel. Overall, as a daring slice of biblical escapism, Noah packs plenty of awe-inspiring moments that are sure to pack a movie house. Its deafening action practically shakes the seats from the screws holding them to the floor, and it’s emotional surges crash down upon the heads of the audience like tidal waves. It can be disturbing, eerie, intimate, delicate, and dreamy, all wrapped up with Aronofsky’s unmistakable cosmic visions. However dazzling Noah may be, a slimmed down runtime and a reworked second half would have kept this mighty vessel afloat.
by Steve Habrat
With interest rapidly fading in the abysmal The Hangover Part III, the film that almost everyone assumed would be the must-see comedy of 2013, the slot for “best summer comedy” has been left up for grabs. I have a feeling that over the next few weeks, that slot may end up being filled by This Is the End, an apocalyptic horror-comedy from the stoned minds of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Lovingly paying tribute to a whole string of horror films (look for nods to Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Evil Dead, and Zombie) and firing off laughs faster than a machine gun spits out bullets, This Is the End is a gross-out laugh riot that leaps from one frenzied shock after another. Nothing is off limits here and every single actor or actress in front of the camera (just know that each and every one of them is playing an exaggerated version of themselves) throws themselves into the project with plenty of maniacal gusto. To make it even better, the film boasts such a fresh and unique concept, making you wonder why no one has ever tried something like this before. Did I also mention that the film gets incredibly freaky when the demons come out to play?
This Is the End begins with Jay Baruchel arriving in Los Angeles to hang out with his old buddy Seth Rogen. The two arrive at Seth’s new home where they instantly smoke a ton of weed, watch Seth’s 3D television, and play video games. When their interest fades in doing that, the two decided to go to a housewarming party that is being thrown by James Franco. While at the party, Jay and Seth mingle with countless other celebrities including Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, Emma Watson, Michael Cera, Rihanna, Danny McBride, Jason Segel, Mindy Kaling, and Aziz Ansari, to name a few (trust me, there is a slew of others that turn up). After Jay grows uncomfortable at the party, he asks Seth to accompany him to the nearest convenience store so that he can pick up a pack of cigarettes. Suddenly, beams of blue light shoot through the ceiling of the convenience store and suck up several customers. Terrified, Jay and Seth flee into the street where chaos has erupted. The two manage to make it back to James Franco’s home in time to warn everyone. Most of the partygoers refuse to believe their story but after a giant sinkhole appears outside and the Hollywood hills erupt with fire, the guests scatter and most of them die horribly. The only survivors of the incident are Jay, Seth, James, Craig, Jonah, and Danny, who proceed to barricade themselves into the lavish mansion they were all just partying in. Terrified and confused, the group begins trying to make sense of their situation and figure out if the destruction outside will pass or if it really is the end of days.
This Is the End marks the directing debut from Rogen and Goldberg, which would automatically make you assume that the finished product would be a somewhat wobbly experience. While there are a few pacing issues, Rogen and Goldberg show that they are extremely competent and confident blockbuster directors who also know their way around a good horror film. Even if they are borrowing most of their wink scares, there are more than a few moments that will have your arms breaking out in goosebumps. The amount of horror in the film is surprising, but it never once gets in the way of the infinite amount belly laughs strung throughout. You’d assume that the film would exhaust itself early on, especially when you get a load of the numerous cameos crammed into the first fifteen minutes. It’s a giddy delight that just keeps getting more outrageous, especially when Michael Cera turns up as an obnoxious cokehead slapping Rihanna’s ass and blowing a handful of cocaine into Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s face. Honestly, even if you have no interest in the film whatsoever, just go see it for his performance. He pretty much steals the movie. Yet when 98% of the partygoers get sucked down to Hell, the film never even misses a beat. The guys instantly start bickering over food, water, beer, drugs, a Milky Way, masturbating, sleeping arrangements, scavenging, and, yes, there is even a conversation about raping Emma Watson. As if it couldn’t get any better, the guys decided to make a homemade sequel to Pineapple Express.
Perhaps the most inspired part of This Is the End is that Rogen and Goldberg, who also wrote the movie, decided that everyone should just play a cartoon version of themselves. Using the image that most of the public has of them; the guys and gals instantly crank it up to eleven. Rogen goes fully stoner with a sellout edge while Hill goes full nice guy as America’s sweetheart. Robinson brings his teddybear charm while sweating profusely in his “Take off your panties!” t-shirt and McBride unleashes an even darker version of Kenny Powers, if that was even possible. Franco plays with the idea that everyone thinks that he is a bisexual art snob obsessed with Seth Rogen and Baruchel nabs laughs through the idea that everyone is sort of familiar with him but not entirely. Together, they erupt in a flurry of adlib conversations that are just downright hysterical. What is even more shocking is the fact that these guys really go for the throat, burning Rogen for his gravel laugh and Green Hornet and poking Franco for Spider-Man and Your Highness. It certainly is a set that demanded thick skin and deep-rooted relationships. Just when you think you’ve seen everything that This Is the End has to offer, wait until you lay eyes on the axe-wielding Emma Watson, who completely skewers her innocent public image. You will never be able to look at her or Michael Cera the same way ever again.
While This Is the End certainly benefits from its fast and furious humor, there are still a few guffaws that fall painfully flat. This doesn’t happen often but be prepared for one or two lines to be met with the sound of crickets. Despite these fizzlers, This Is the End never looses its momentum and it arrives at a towering inferno climax with a few more cameos and sight gags that are guaranteed to have you doubled over in laughter. The film also dares to get a little preachy in a few places and its interest in the biblical apocalypse was certainly unforeseen, but This Is the End delivers a message that this viewer could stand behind. This message is simple—don’t be a jerk and you’ll be just fine when you meet your maker. Fair enough. Overall, with an inspired idea and a cast that is game to poke fun at themselves and each other’s public persona, This Is the End is ablaze with uncapped creativity, pop culture references, and stoner charm. It may not be for everyone and it is sure to offend your mother, but this is one comedy that begs to be seen with a huge audience ready to have a raucous and raunchy good time.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollow Ending: A Reflection of the Biggest and Most Disappointing Film of the Summer (2011)
by Charles Beall
I did not like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.
There, I said it. Phew, I needed to get that off my chest! I have seen the movie twice now, because after the first viewing, when everyone started applauding and taking off their 3D glasses to reveal their tear-stained cheeks, I felt something was wrong with me. Listening to the murmurs of praise among departing theatergoers, I found myself disagreeing with them. I was quiet the rest of the night; I went to grab a beer with my friends and they kept asking me what was wrong.
“I didn’t like it,” I confessed, my head hanging in shame. They looked at me like I was a freak, like I had said something along the lines of supporting Michele Bachmann for president. What was wrong with me?!
I went back a second time…again, disappointment. I am a horrible person, I thought to myself.
It seemed as if rain clouds followed me and I had a big scarlet “A” on my chest (for “asshole” for not liking the last-ever Harry Potter movie). But then, I began to think that I wasn’t a horrible person- maybe the final Harry Potter chapter really did suck.
That is not to say that Hallows: Part 2 is a poorly made film; quite the contrary, which is why I was so disappointed in it. First off, the craftsmanship on this film is amazing. Not only is the cinematography gorgeous (Oscar-worthy, in my opinion), the eerie set pieces, costumes, visual effects, and even the performances are pitch-perfect. Which leaves two key ingredients that are lacking that could’ve made this the best Potter film: the screenplay and direction.
Now I have had a love/hate relationship with David Yates as the director of the last four Potter films. I wasn’t crazy about The Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince (they were good, not great) but I was floored with Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (which I consider the best-and my most favorite-film in the series). I loved the pacing of it and, by the end of that film, I conceded that it was a good idea to split the final book into two movies. As the release date of Part 2 approached, I was eager to see it.
The gorgeous, foreboding pacing of Part 1 was replaced by a frantic, amateurish, and uneven film in Part 2. I know this was an “action movie,” but the filmmakers (or Warner Bros. corporate heads?) abandoned what worked so well in Part 1 and just shat out the final chapter so it could get converted to 3D in time for its release date (my theory- not a fact). Call me a pessimist, but there were dollar signs hanging over Hogwarts, not dementors; it felt that there wasn’t a screenplay, but rather a checklist of the last half of the book that Yates was going by.
The whole world has seen this film by now, so I will not go into an all-out review of it. In the case of this article, I will touch upon some key scenes that I believe were butchered for this movie.
The first is the Battle of Hogwarts, which in the book was both heart-felt and action packed, but in the film was just action-packed. Yes, all of Harry’s friends show up to help save the day, but that is it. Indeed, it was like the film was a supplement to the book- you needed to have read it to know who people were and what their relationships to Harry were. That emotional connection that was so well-written by Rowling and decently portrayed in previous films was thrown out for the last film. I know their allegiance to Harry…I read about it. I want to see it.
Another complaint of mine (in regards to the Battle of Hogwarts) is the death scenes of certain characters. I will not name names in case the reader is one of the 19 people who haven’t seen the movie, but in the book, their deaths were dramatic and heroic. They died for Harry, for the greater good. In the movie, their deaths just served as a transition to the next scene, losing all of the emotional weight that it carried in the books. Another death scene (SPOILER) is that of Bellatrix. Now, that was my favorite part in the last book, mainly because I couldn’t wait to see Julie Walters deliver “the line” in the movie. I knew going in that “the line” would be in there, and I barely missed it. Again, it seemed that “the line” was just on the checklist that Yates had as his screenplay. There was no emotion, no drama, no suspense to the delivery of “the line.” It just happened…and it sucked.
Finally, the epilogue to the film, while nearly verbatim from the book, was just…what were we talking about? To be fair, I felt the epilogue to the book, while bittersweet, was a bit too uneventful. Yes we know everyone is okay and happily ever after, but this was a real chance for Yates to do something epic. Do a montage of Ron proposing to Hermione, Harry proposing to Ginny, Hogwarts rebuilding itself, Ron and Hermione getting married, Harry and Ginny getting married, Neville and Luna hooking up, Draco becoming head of the Republican Party, the lives of Ron and Hermione and Harry and Ginny with their children, Hagrid marrying that giant chick from The Goblet of Fire, Harry killing Jacob and Edward from Twilight, etc. How come after eight films of “tweaking” things from the books, the filmmakers actually take the weakest part of them and adapt it verbatim?! You can end with the train station; just show what happened in those 19 years. I wonder if Yates was working under the assumption that we had read the book and were waiting for, indeed expecting and demanding, the epilogue. My hypothesis was validated with the hisses of “yes!” that escaped in the packed theater when the “19 years later” title card came up.
Now there are parts I enjoyed. The fight between Harry and Voldemort is pretty badass; I even liked the lack of a film score in some scenes, just the cracking of spells from wands. The best part of the film was Snape’s memories, which were really the only emotional part in the film. This was a rare case where Rowling’s words were beautifully transformed to images on the screen. I just wish the rest of the film was like that.
In conclusion, I didn’t hate Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2– I was just disappointed in it. There was so much building up to this final chapter that I just felt underwhelmed, unmoved, and let down. Maybe my expectations were too high? I will have to see it again, but at $13 a pop to see it, those pesky dollar signs play too much a roll. Maybe when it is out on Blu-ray, I’ll revisit it.
Grade: C+ (but I really do love Harry Potter…don’t hate me!)