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 Christopher Nolan making the decision to bring his Batman trilogy to an apocalyptic close and 2011s The Green Lantern bombing horribly at the box office, DC Comics has been forced to turn to their last A-list hero in a final attempt to hang with comic book juggernaut Marvel Studios. Now we have Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, a gritty and epic reboot that is the Superman film we deserved way back in 2006. DC Comics made a grave mistake when they allowed Bryan Singer to craft another sequel to Christopher Reeve’s Superman films of the late 70s and 80s, a flub that has actually ended up hurting Snyder’s breathtaking reboot of the big blue boy scout. Man of Steel has taken quite a bit of negative criticism for its decent into massive action set pieces in the final stretch of its runtime, something that Singer wasn’t as eager to do in his wandering effort. The fact is that Man of Steel is seven years too late and it is entering a market that has been saturated by Marvel Studios. If this film would have been released in 2006, I guarantee it would have been met with as much praise as 2005s Batman Begins. That being said, Man of Steel is still a powerful entry into the superhero genre, a film that is perfectly grand for a true-blue do-gooder. It completely rejects the sunny optimism of the previous Superman entries and embraces a heavy heart of darkness that many fans may not be quick to warm to. In my opinion, it is just what the legendary superhero needed.
Man of Steel begins on the planet Krypton, with the wise scientist Jor-El (played by Russell Crowe) and his wife, Lara (played by Ayelet Zurer), giving birth to a baby boy they name Kal-El. With the planet of Krypton doomed to destruction, Jor-El and Lara send their son off to Earth, where he will have a chance for a survival. Meanwhile, General Zod (played by Michael Shannon), the military leader of Krypton, attempts to take over the planet with a handful of loyal followers including the vicious Faora (played by Antje Traue). Zod’s attempt to overthrow Krypton’s counsel is prevented and as punishment, he and his followers are banished to the Phantom Zone. Thirty-three years later, Clark Kent (played by Henry Cavill) is a mysterious drifter with superhuman abilities. He largely remains in the shadows, working odd jobs and occasionally saving people from horrific accidents. Word gets out about a mysterious object found in the ice in the Artic, which catches the attention of Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Lois Lane (played by Amy Adams). Lois sets out to do a piece on the mysterious object, but as she snoops around the dig, she comes face to face with Clark, who has also taken an interest in the object. After Lois is injured, Clark narrowly saves her life and then disappears. Shaken by what she has seen, she begins digging into rumors about a drifter who always seems to be in the right place at the right time. Clark, meanwhile, uncovers secrets about where he came from and learns about his superhuman abilities.
Almost instantly, Snyder, screenwriter David S. Goyer, and producer Christopher Nolan set their vision of Superman apart from the previous attempts through a gritty and emotionally riveting stage setter on the crumbling planet of Krypton. Gone is Donner’s neon crystal environment and in its place is a gunmetal gray landscape full of zippy spaceships and roaring and soaring alien beasts. There is plenty of exposition about Krypton and it is spiced up through bone-snapping fistfights and blaring explosions that dwarf anything we saw in Superman Returns. While this sequence ends in tragedy, there is still plenty of optimism from Crowe’s Jor-El, who is convinced that Kal-El will be a god to the people of Earth. When Snyder shifts clumsily to Earth, Nolan’s gloomy cinematic fingerprints begin to emerge. The filmmakers take their time working up to Superman’s big reveal, spinning a soulful tale of a man who is completely at odds with his abilities. To make things worse on the guy, he is entering a post-9/11 world that trembles in fear over the very idea of a man that can glide over the clouds. Despite numerous attempts to convince us that he means no harm, he is still met with suspicious eyes from the jumpy U.S. government.
The most pivotal part of Man of Steel is Henry Cavill’s performance as Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman. Cavill is absolutely excellent as an outcast who has been warned not to reveal his superhuman abilities to the world. He wants to help any way he can but the fear of rejection hangs heavy over his head. Cavill uses his eyes to convey this constant vulnerability and confusion, looking to the stars and his earthly father, Jonathan Kent (played by Kevin Costner), for guidance. While the new vulnerability is great, wait until you get a load of him in a fight. There is a surging intensity and almost a pulsing anger buried deep within his character that was completely unexpected. When Cavill is finally allowed to stop brooding, it is easy to see why he was chosen for the role. He is just bursting with all-American charm and he certainly is a warm figure of hope, even if he isn’t relegated to saving a kitten from a tree or helping an old lady across a busy Metropolis street. No, this Superman has bigger fish to fry when Shannon’s General Zod comes calling. We all know that Shannon can go fully crazy when he wants, and he certainly does get a little nuts with General Zod, but there is a measured insanity to his performance. He is a man driven by the love of his planet and he will stop at nothing to carry out his mission.
Then we have Amy Adams as the no-nonsense Lois Lane, who early on proves that she can hang tough in a room full of guys. Her strength and determination is certainly well played, but near the end of the film, her character is slowly shifted to damsel in distress, which was a bit disappointing. There was also a lack of build up in her romance with Supes, which sort of felt stuffed in there because it had to be. They share plenty of scenes but that spark just didn’t seem to be there. As far as Kevin Costner goes, he shines as Jonathan Kent, Clark’s adoptive father who constantly warns Clark against revealing his powers to the world. He shares a scene with the teen that is guaranteed to send chills down your spine. Russell Crowe is strong and sturdy as Jor-El, Clark’s biological father who believes that his son will be the Christ-like savior that Earth needs. Laurence Fishburne shows promise as the stern Daily Planet editor Perry White, a small role but one that I feel will be elaborated on in future installments. Diane Lane is affectionate and understanding as Martha Kent, who has to walk and talk a terrified Clark through his emerging abilities. Antje Traue is wickedly evil as Zod’s right hand woman Faora, who snarls threats like, “for every one you save, we’ll kill a million more.” Now THAT is a threat if I’ve ever heard one.
When Man of Steel finally ditches all the character building, the film dives into a climatic battle that is fittingly colossal for Superman. There is an adrenaline pumping battle in the streets of Smallville and the end man-a-mano between General Zod and Superman in the streets of Metropolis laughs at every superhero finale that has come before it. As far as criticisms go, there are a few plot holes that are difficult to ignore and Clark’s education about his home planet and abilities from a holographic Jor-El seems a bit brushed over. There are also a few lines of dialogue that will make you giggle and not in a good way. I should also mention that Snyder bashes us over the head with the Christ references, something that Singer was also guilty of. In case you don’t see the similarities between Jesus Christ and Superman, wait for the scene that finds Clark Kent wandering into a church and confiding in a nervous priest. Overall, while it isn’t perfect, Man of Steel certainly sets the stage for a refreshed Superman franchise for our dark times. It has a unique hand-held visual style and features a pounding score that only Hans Zimmer could provide. Snyder, Goyer, and Nolan successfully manage to wash away the sour taste that Singer left in our mouths and leave us wanting more from the hero that stands for truth, justice, and the American way.
by Steve Habrat
Two years after Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech took the world by storm and made off with the Best Picture Oscar, the British director returns with a film so immense and extravagant, you won’t be able to believe your eyes. Hooper’s Les Misérables is certainly a worthy follow up to The King’s Speech, but in size and scope, Les Misérables blows it right out of the water. As epic as they come, Les Misérables is a big Hollywood blockbuster (and a shameless one at that), one sure to run away with awards like Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Best Production Design at the Academy Awards, but just like its predecessor, the film bowls over the viewer with one gigantic tidal wave of emotion after another. Just when you thought you’ve recovered from one heart wrenching moment, Hooper unleashes another one almost instantly. The film, and the stars who inhabit it, belt their hearts out as tears stream down their muddy faces, singing live over having the lyrics dubbed in post production. Each and every one of them will give you chills, especially Anne Hathaway’s teary-eyed “I Dreamed a Dream.” For as high as this film flies, it could still have stood to have at least forty minutes cut from it, mostly because by the final act, we do begin to feel it’s epic runtime of two hours and forty minutes. It appears that Hooper was wildly faithful to the musical and the novel by Victor Hugo, which is both a blessing and a curse.
Beginning in 1815, prisoner Jean Valjean (Played by Hugh Jackman) is released on parole by chilly prison guard Javert (Played by Russell Crowe) after serving a brutal seventeen-year sentence. Valjean is cast out into the world without any food or a home but is soon taken in by the kindly Bishop of Digne (Played by Colm Wilkinson), who offers him a hot meal and a bed. In the night, Valjean steals some of the Bishop’s silver and then flees, only to be quickly caught by local authorities. The Bishop insists that he gave Valjean the silver as a gift and demands that they let him go free. Moved by the Bishop’s kindness, Valjean breaks his parole and sets out to make a better life for himself. Eight years pass and Valjean, who goes by a new name, is now the mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer and a factory owner. Employed at his factory is Fantine (Played by Anne Hathaway), who is discovered by her co-workers to be an illegitimate mother sending money to her sick daughter, Cosette (Played by Isabelle Allen), and is fired by the foreman. Desperate, Fantine turns to prostitution to make money but one evening, Javert confronts her after she attacks a belligerent customer. Javert tries to haul her off to jail but Valjean quickly stops him after he recognizes her from the factory. Near death, Fantine begs Valjean to find her daughter and to take care of her. Valjean agrees and sets out to find Cosette, but Javert begins to suspect that Valjean is the prisoner who broke parole eight years earlier and he begins hunting him down.
Each and every frame of Les Misérables looks like it cost almost $100 million dollars to project onto the screen. The makeup effects are absolutely astounding, especially the aging of Jackman’s Valjean as the story progresses. Every smudge of dirt and speck of filth so perfectly splattered across each actor’s face. Another standout moment is when Valjean trudges through the sewer with rebellious student Marius (Played by Eddie Redmayne) and human waste covers them from head to toe. It is appropriately nasty to the point where you can practically smell the stench. The costumes are all wildly detailed and eye catching, especially a jacket worn by Valjean with a massive collar. Then there are the special effects, especially the overhead shots of small villages and growing cities that are so fussy, they make you want to tear your hair out. Hooper hurls his camera directly at them to focus in on one specific character standing on the edge of a cliff or riding a horse through the streets. Later in the movie, there are one or two scenes that feel more like indoor sets rather than outdoor locations, which sort of take us out of the moment. I couldn’t help but wish that Hooper would have at least attempted to shoot them outside but I can’t imagine that he would have been able to pull off some of the environment detail that he was going for if he chose to shoot outside.
The other big draw to the big screen adaptation of Les Misérables is the live singing done in front of the camera rather than the music studio. While many critics and audience members have complained that it was a failed experiment (I don’t really understand why they think it was a failed experiment), I personally liked it and found that it adds a layer of realism to the bombastic gloss of this expensive epic. It allowed Hooper to apply long takes of his actors doing the thing that pays them millions of dollars— act. Sure there are a few brief cuts here and there, but Hooper lets the camera sit (and sometimes pace) with all the actors. We get up close and personal views of brokenhearted emotion heating up and then boiling over as the viewer hangs on the frame in a state of awe. While some of the voices are certainly not going to nab a record deal (looking at you, Mr. Crowe), you still have to admire their confidence to let their voices soar. The lack of a true professional makes things all the more realistic and down-to-earth. Some musicals (not all) loose me when the actors sing like trained professionals.
While Les Misérables is beautiful to look at, the film wouldn’t be what it is if it wasn’t for the downright incredible performances at the heart. While I’ve never downright hated Jackman as an actor, I could never really see the big deal about him but with Les Misérables, I am a true believer now. This guy is fantastic as Valjean, the tortured ex-prisoner who had his life turned upside down over stealing a mouthful of bread. While it is Jackman’s show, the one who makes off with the movie is Hathaway as Fantine, a woman forced into a life of hell. I promise that you will practically fall out of your seat when she performs “I Dreamed a Dream” as she battles back tears of embarrassment and defeat. It is a rare scene where the audience member actually wants to leap to their feet and break into applause. Crowe is great as the relentless Javert, who is always hot on Valjean’s heels. I can’t say too much for his vocal performance but the fact that he is really trying is good enough for me. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter drop by to add a bit of (grotesque) comedy to the mix as Thénardier and Madame Thénardier, a couple of pick pockets who are taking care of darling little Cosette. Amanda Seyfried is a bit stiff as the adult Cosette, as is Redmayne as her suitor Marius. They get a last act love story and while it is effective, neither of them make us root for them like we should. Samantha Barks is also present as the Thénardier’s daughter Éponine, who secretly loves Marius. Barks wins our empathy with a lovely but painful solo performance in the rain.
While Les Misérables won’t win over every single viewer over, if you’re a fan of the book or the musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, you are going to gush over Hooper’s achievement. I’d also say that if you enjoy musicals like I do, you are probably going to be hooked for a good majority of the movie. If you’re a casual moviegoer, be prepared for the longest two hours and forty minutes of your life. I still felt that the film ran a bit too long and some of the musical numbers could have been trimmed for a tighter and more inviting runtime, but there really isn’t one weak number of the bunch. Another minor complaint I had with the film was the fate of one of the characters, which just seemed downright bizarre and random. Overall, Les Misérables is overblown, funny, thrilling, mildly romantic, raw, repulsive, and most importantly, moving. It may have its flaws but is has everything a film fan could want in a movie and it really is a beautiful work of art to lay your eyes on. A phenomenal achievement for the very talented Mr. Hooper and the musical genre.