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.
Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)
by Steve Habrat
Did you ever think you would see a gritty interpretation of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Snow White? Well now you can in all its mediocre glory! Snow White and the Huntsman sheds any whimsicality that is associated this legendary tale and offers audiences a bone snapping, grime-under-the-fingernails medieval vision that hopes to lure a male crowd as well as the shrieking Twilight fans who will see anything that Kristen Stewart even thinks about starring in. Director Rupert Sanders has plenty of talent at his disposal but he is cursed with an uneven script and is forced to cover up the rougher moments with dazzling images to distract us from the dips in the story. If Snow White and the Huntsman were converted into a picture book meant for your coffee table, I guarantee it would be a huge hit when you have company over. While the film wins visually (it is stunning in digital projection), there are moments here when the film comes to a screeching halt, pondering what it will do with itself next. Good thing that Thor’s Chris Hemsworth and the seven dwarfs show up to aid you in your battle to keep your eyelids open because I’m sure Snow White and the Huntsman is the cure for insomnia.
Snow White and the Huntsmanbegins with a superbly filmed flashback that shows us Snow White’s royal upbringing. After her mother, Queen Eleanor (Played by Liberty Ross) passes away, her father, King Magnus (Played by Noah Huntley), finds himself in love with the mysterious Ravenna (Played by Charlize Theron), who is supposedly being held captive by the equally mysterious Dark Army. King Magnus marries Ravenna but on their wedding night, Ravenna brutally murders Magnus and then proceeds to overthrow his kingdom with her homely brother, Finn (Played by Sam Spruell) and the Dark Army, who is under her command. Snow White and her buddy William attempt to flee the castle but Snow White is captured by Finn and locked away in one of the castle towers. Fifteen years pass and Snow White (Played by Kristen Stewart) is still locked up in that tower, battling to stay warm from the frigid weather. Queen Ravenna still rules over the once lush but now barren land, giggling over the poverty and suffering that grips the local townspeople. Soon, Queen Ravenna, who has the power to remain young by draining the youth from young girls that are brought to her, is informed by Mirror that Snow White’s beauty is destined to surpass her own beauty. Enraged, she demands that Snow White be brought to her but Snow White escapes, forcing Queen Ravenna to hire the grieving Hunstman (Played by Chris Hemsworth) to track Snow White down in the Dark Forest and return her before she is consumed by old age. Also searching for Snow White is her old friend William (Played by Sam Claflin), who hasn’t forgiven himself for loosing Snow White to Ravenna.
Snow White and the Huntsman is eager to explain away some of the supernatural elements of its story. A scene in which Queen Ravenna speaks with her Mirror while Finn spies on her reveals that the talking Mirror may all just be in her head and not really there at all. Scenes in the Dark Forest, where Snow White begins seeing strange creatures darting around the twisted and charred trees is actually the result of her inhaling a defensive gas emitted from black pods that dot the ground. While it is obviously doing this to lure in a male audience, Snow White and the Huntsman does keep a few fantasy elements in place. We see trolls, fairies that look like rejects from Pan’s Labyrinth, animals that have become one with their settings, soldiers that shatter into black glass, and more. Yet all of these creatures are believable because they look like they have evolved from trees, grass, rocks, and everything else you can find in the woods. Seeing these wondrous critters was one of the most entertaining parts of Snow White and the Huntsman, giving the film a bit of personality, something it is in dire need of.
We should also be thankful for the presence of Chris Hemsworth, who does most of the heavy lifting in Snow White and the Huntsman, making the film bearable for its two-hour runtime. I truly think that Hemsworth is a talented guy and I give him credit for refusing to allow his baritone hero be a tough guy cliché with no depth. He gives this film a wounded soul and you will feel for his character when his eyes well up. The film really picks up when he makes his entrance and every time he steps away, things start to fall apart. Luckily, he has a bit of back up with a group of scene stealing dwarfs that are appropriately grotesque and a whole lot of awesome. Did you ever think you’d see the seven dwarfs kicking ass and killing people? I sure as hell didn’t and was pleasantly surprised when they did. The dwarfs, Beith (Played by Ian McShane), Muir (Played by Bob Hoskins), Gort (Played by Ray Winstone), Nion (Played by Nick Frost), Duir (Played by Eddie Marsan), Coll (Played by Toby Jones), Quert (Played by Johnny Harris), and Gus (Played by Brian Gleeson), could have been an excuse for a couple of laughs to keep the kids busy but miraculously, the film never has them parading around like pint size jesters. Along with Hemsworth’s Hunstman, they make up the emotional core that keeps things sizzling.
The biggest problem outside the stop-go plotline is Theron’s Queen Ravenna and Stewart’s Snow White. Stewart is a one-note actress who is incapable of holding the screen and injecting any presence into her scenes. Her character wanders around the entire time looking for purpose that she barely finds. She may have the looks but I truly think that they could have found someone who didn’t wander around with a dumbfounded look on her face. I was never rooting for her and wasn’t moved an inch when she gives her big rallying speech at the end. Hemsworth is the one who keeps her character from crashing and burning from lack of emotion. When Stewart isn’t busy ruining the movie, Theron is busy overacting her brains out. She is so evil, it becomes overkill and just downright ludicrous. I was pulling for her to be another bright spot in this mostly drab tale but she launches into her role at two hundred miles per hour, annoyingly ready to bear her fangs. The best villains are the ones who have some sort of complexity to their actions and an aura of unpredictability but Theron just makes Ravenna evil with a capital “E” for silly reasons. I hated that you could read every face twitch and every tap of her finger.
Snow White and the Huntsman does have a few action sequences that break up the monotony of the script, mostly the tar-caked final battle that features some nasty smack downs that will get the adrenaline pumping pretty good. Sadly, the finale does end up cramming a bunch of unnecessary CGI into it that really serves no point (We have a Dark Shadows problem on our hands!). It also feels like too much too late in the game. Every once and a while, we do catch a glimpse of what Snow White and the Huntsman could have been, but it just opts to be a predictably moody medieval road movie instead of setting itself apart from the pack. The overall slacking from Stewart, who should have won our hearts early on, and the irritatingly evil Theron end up being the poison apple that sends Snow White and the Huntsman into a comatose state it never wakes up from. It’s a shame because in a summer that has so far only seen one truly great blockbuster (The Avengers), this had potential to be one of the fairest blockbusters of the summer.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
by Steve Habrat
After the fatigued but fun Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989, Indy took a long, much needed break from saving the world. For years, audiences begged for another installment in the Indiana Jones franchise, loosing their minds over the smallest hints dropped about a possible new film. In 2008, fans finally got their wish with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a CGI heavy blockbuster that had an aged Indy battling Russians in the atomic age. Opting for science fiction shenanigans over biblical trinkets, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull brings back Harrison Ford as the fedora-wearing hero, has him joining forces with fan favorite Marion Ravenwood, and facing some of his most outlandish action scenes yet. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is littered with the fingerprints of George “Overkill” Lucas, who I’m fairly certain is responsible for some of the low points of this half-good installment. Returning director Steve Spielberg does his best to hold the project together and he does direct the film care, but it is so painfully obvious where Lucas took over as his input sends Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull into a violent nosedive that Spielberg has to quickly right.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull picks up in 1957, with a much older Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones (Played by Ford) and his partner George “Mac” McHale (Played by Ray Winstone) kidnapped by Soviet Colonel Dr. Irina Spalko (Played by Cate Blanchett). She brings Indy and Mac to Area 51, demanding Indy locates a mysterious box that contains the alien remains from Roswell. Reluctantly, Indy begins helping her and then makes a daring get away. Indy narrowly survives a nuclear bomb test and is picked up by the FBI, who accuses him of working with the Soviets. Indy is forced to take an indefinite leave of absence from the University he teaches at but soon finds himself approached by a greaser named Mutt Williams (Played by Shia LaBeouf) who tells Indy that his old colleague, Harold Oxley (Played by John Hurt), has mysteriously disappeared after he discovered a crystal skull in Peru. Mutt also reveals that his mother has been kidnapped and that he needs Indy’s help to find her. Indy agrees to help Mutt find his mother and Oxley but as their search continues, they discover that Colonel Dr. Spalko is also after the crystal skull, which if obtained could allow the Russians to wage psychic warfare on America.
The rumor behind The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is that there was another script that Spielberg wanted to make but Lucas insisted on this one. While there are some awesome moments in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the good is overshadowed by the extremely awful. In this film, we see Indy survive an nuclear bomb blast by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator, narrowly escape a sea of giant killer ants, Mutt swinging through the jungle with monkeys, and a climax featuring a huge UFO rising up out of the ground. It is these moments that make The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feel more like a Star Wars film rather than an installment of Indiana Jones. The film does marvelously weave perhaps one of the most interesting eras into the franchise, using the Cold War as the backdrop for all the action. Yet this all feels even more like child’s play, more than The Last Crusade did. The scene with Mutt swing through the jungle on vines with a slew of cute monkeys will make the kids giddy. There is also the weird prairie dogs that are constantly shown in the opening moments of the film, a touch that I still to this day do not quite understand other than to add a cutesy family touch.
The major positive here is the presence of the fervent Ford, who gladly dusts off the famous fedora and wears it proudly while searching for the crystal skull. Spielberg and Lucas enjoy playing up the joke that he has aged and not at his heroic best, having Indy make mistakes and urging Mutt to call him “Gramps” every chance he gets. Yet when Ford is asked to be tough and throw a couple of right hooks, he is more than willing to give it a try. Ford still has it as an action hero and he ultimately carries this overly polished moneymaker across the finish line. Giving him Karen Allen to work with also puts some spring in his step, reigniting the feisty flame the two had in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. They once again argue about Indy’s fear of commitment and by now, you know that Mutt turns out to be Indy’s son, which causes Indy to really erupt. This dysfunctional family ends up being a real winner even if it is an attempt to sell a family movie. I especially like watching Indy and Marion once again discover their feelings for each other, which allowed The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to win points for familiarity.
There has been quite a bit of controversy over the character of Mutt Williams, who at times seems to be there to allow for future installments. He’s likable enough but I hope that Spielberg and Lucas have the good sense to not pass the whip and fedora to him. They do a clever little fake out at the end but I still fear the worst with his character. He ends up being a character that the kiddies can root for while Mom and Dad are cheering for the winded Indy and Marion. John Hurt gets to have a little fun playing off-his-rocker with Harold Oxley. He is another character that is there just to provide a few little chuckles. Winstone as Mac is a pretty useless character, there to be the typical side nuisance Indy has to constantly deal with. The star next to Allen and Ford is without question Blanchett, who enjoys playing the vampy Spalko a little too much. She is slightly sexy and cartoonishly menacing when swinging around a sword. She truly is a character that looks like she was ripped out of a long, lost comic book that has been stashed away in your grandpa’s basement. Next to Raiders’ Arnold Thot and Temple of Doom’s Mola Ram, she is one of the best villains of the Indian Jones series.
If Spielberg and Lucas would have cut back on some of the excess and maybe removed the silly CGI alien at the end, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull would have been a much smoother roller coaster ride. Many have lambasted Spielberg for some of the mistakes here but I am firmly convinced that Lucas is the one to blame for the more asinine moments of the film. In a way, I sort of feel bad for giving this film an average grade because there is so much heart and dedication on display, especially from Ford and Spielberg, who seem to be right at home with this material. There were moments where I was totally engulfed by the rousing action, mostly the ones that weren’t cluttered with CGI trickery. If Indiana Jones does return for one more adventure, lets hope that Lucas steps away from the special effects and focuses more on giving fans a film that is worthy of their fedora-wearing hero rather than just being a greedy cash grab.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is available on Blu-ray and DVD.