“Noah” is not your father’s biblical movie. It’s an art house epic that filters the story through director Darren “Black Swan” Aronofsky’s impressionistic style.
The best way I can describe “Noah” is emotionally ambitious. It takes a familiar tale and shines a new light on it by highlighting Noah’s spiritual quandary. In the film—which takes liberties with the biblical story—he’s a vegan prophet who grapples with doing God’s will while balancing the needs of all of humanity, particularly his family. The meaning of faith and the consequences of adhering to that faith are the film’s main thrust, but as interesting as that is, the movie feels like one thing when it is addressing the spiritual and quite another—possibly a “Lord of the Rings” flick—when it is in action movie mode.
The movie starts at the beginning. Literally.
After a quick recap of Old Testament highlights—the Creation, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and Cain vs Abel—we meet Noah, the last descendent of Adam and Eve’s good hearted son Seth. The world he lives in is a dangerous place, ruled by Cain’s bloodthirsty bloodline but Noah (Russell Crowe) and family (Jennifer Connelly, Douglas Booth, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman and Leo McHugh Carroll) live peacefully as nature loving, proto hippies. That is, until Noah has a disturbing apocalyptic dream. Consulting with his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) he determines The Creator wants him to build an ark and laden it with two of every creature on earth in advance of a great flood that will destroy mankind and the violence they perpetrate. It’s ultimate Mulligan—a do over for the planet—but Noah will have to make some troubling decisions to fulfill God’s will.
Some may criticize the movie for not being reverent enough, but Aronofsky treats the story as a living breathing thing and not an artifact from another time. The addition of a spectacular creation of the world sequence, as narrated by Noah, may annoy Creationists, but is a moving and beautiful retelling of the biblical story.
Aronofsky may play fast and loose with Noah’s story, but underlines the spirituality that is at the very heart of the tale as evidenced by the Seven Days of Creation scene.
He’s also aided by a terrific performance from Crowe.
Crowe’s been in a bit of a slump in recent years. The dangerous, complex actor of movies like “Gladiator” and “A Beautiful Mind” seemed to have taken a backseat to the performer who thought making “The Man with the Iron Fists” was a good idea. “Noah” is a nice reminder of Crowe’s delicate mix of fearsome masculinity and subtle sensitivity and his tortured performance hits Noah’s zealotry square on the head.
But having said that, Aronofsky moves in mysterious ways. He shot the epic almost entirely in close up and the flood scene could have used a bit more Cecil B. DeMille. Aronofsky means this to be a personal story of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, but it is still an end of the world movie. Despite the occasional Peter Jackson flourish—like the stone giants The Watchers and sweeping crane shots—“Noah” doesn’t feel as big as it should. It has big ideas, but the expected sweeping visuals aren’t there.
“Noah” is a thought-provoking take on a familiar story that will keep you guessing until the end credits roll.
Everyone loves new and original characters in movies. One of the great pleasures of last year was watching Natalie Portman transform a stock ballerina character into something we’ve never seen before. Beautiful.
But where would the movies be without straight-ahead stock characters like the arrogant pilot or the rebellious teen? This week, The Factory, starring John Cusack, revisits one of the most frequently exploited big screen stereotypes, the obsessed cop.
The cop-on-a-mission character is nothing new. Film Noir is jam packed with police with something prove. Check out The Big Combo, a little-seen but worthwhile movie from 1955, which sees Cornel Wilde as a cop so fanatical about arresting a crime boss he funds the investigation out of his own pocket. Good gritty stuff.
More recently, Matt Dillon was the best thing in Takers as a detective who relentlessly tracked an elite band of bank robbers. He’s played cops before—a racist one in Crash for instance—and been in trouble with real policemen—he was busted doing almost twice the speed limit in 2008—but this is the first time he’s played one straight out of Central Casting.
Russell Crowe, however, has taken on the stock character more than once. Most famously he played Richie Roberts based on the real life detective who doggedly tracked one of the biggest heroin kingpins of the 1970s, Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington. In a strange twist to the story, the real Richie Roberts later became a lawyer and served as Frank Lucas’s defense attorney and, to add an even more bizarre twist, became godfather to Lucas’s son.
In Tenderness, Russell plays Lt. Cristofuoro a Buffalo detective who takes a “special interest”—read: “becomes obsessed”—with Eric Komenko, a teen who murdered his parents. Cristofuoro was the cop who originally arrested Eric and is convinced he’ll kill again. Crowe was originally meant to be a supporting player but was convinced to sign on when his part was expanded and he was given the voice-over narration.
Perhaps the greatest obsessed cop in the movies is Gene Hackman as ‘Popeye’ Doyle in The French Connection. Not only does this movie have one of the all time great chase scenes, but Hackman, who won a Best Actor Oscar for the part, has great hardboiled lines like, “What is this, a [blankety-blank] hospital here?” when he confiscating drugs from a guy in a bar.
Ballet is inherently dramatic, so it is no wonder the movies have frequently looked to pointed shoes and bun heads for inspiration. The first ballet moves captured on film were likely in the turn-of-the-last-century animated films of Alexander Shiryaev, whose crude but beautiful films used drawings and puppets as an early form of dance notation.
Since then, the movies have been dancing with the stars. Everyone from legendary performers like Mikhail Baryshnikov to gifted amateurs like Natalie Portman, who plays a beautiful but troubled ballerina in this weekend’s dark drama Black Swan, have done a cinematic grand jeté or two.
The most classic ballet movie has to be The Red Shoes, the 1948 classic which interweaves on and off stage action to tell the story of a ballerina pulled between two men—a composer who loves her and an impresario who wants to make her a star. The British Film Institute labeled it one of “the best British films ever” and the movie inspired Kate Bush’s song and album of the same name.
The Red Shoes was nominated for four Oscars and took home a pair, which is two more than our next ballet film, even though it was nominated for eleven. The Turning Point (which ties The Color Purple for most nominations with no wins) starred Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft as lifelong rivals; one who left the ballet to become a wife and mother, the other who stayed and became a star. Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day and Grace Kelly were all offered the lead roles, but turned them down. After seeing the movie, Hepburn regretted her decision. “That was the one film,” she said, “that got away from me.”
There are dozens of Hollywood ballet movies. It’s almost tutu much (you had to know that pun was coming); White Nights, Center Stage (with Avatar’s Zoe Saldana), Billy Elliot, The Company (made with the cooperation of the Joffrey Ballet) and even the South Korean horror film, Wishing Stairs, feature stories about fictional ballet dancers, but there are many interesting ballet documentaries as well.
The history of the Ballet Russe of Monte Carlo is touchingly and lovingly told in Ballets Russes, an intimate documentary focused on the founders of modern ballet and also fascinating is La Danse – Le ballet de l’Opéra de Paris, director Frederick Wiseman’s fly-on-the-wall look at the production of seven ballets by the Paris Opera Ballet.
“Black Swan” is the sort of psychological thriller that doesn’t get made anymore. In a time when most filmmakers are playing it safe, pumping out movies that try to appeal to every single member of the ticket buying audience, Darren Aronofsky has followed up the Oscar nominated success of “The Wrestler” with the kind of emotional noir film that Brian DePalma and Roman Polanski excelled in 30 years ago.
Natalie Portman plays Nina, a “beautiful, fearful and fragile” ballerina who dreams of dancing the lead in “Swan Lake.” When she gets the chance the duality of that role — she’ll play both the pure Swan Queen and the sensual Black Swan — begins to bleed into her real life. Consequently it pushes her already brittle psyche to the limit.
As the pressure on Nina builds, so does the paranoia and Aronofsky subtly (and not-so-subtly) drops clues that Nina’s world is two parts perception and only one part reality. Slowly the psychological and body horror builds toward an operatic climax that redefines over-the-top.
I’ve kept the synopsis purposely thin. This is a thriller and as such much of the pleasure of the film will come from learning the details of the story when Aronofsky wants you to. I can tell you Nina is pushed and pulled by an overprotective stage mother (Barbara Hershey), a faded prima donna (Wynona Ryder), a demanding director (Vincent Cassel) and a neophyte dancer named Lily (Mila Kunis). Beyond that, you’ll get no spoilers here.
“Black Swan” benefits greatly from frenetic but beautiful camerawork that is as wonderfully choreographed as any of the dance sequences and the performance of Natalie Portman.
Aronofsky has pulled good performances from everyone — Kunis’s earthiness is a nice counterbalance to Portman’s otherworldliness — but he has pushed Portman to places we’ve never seen her in before. She’s in virtually every scene of the film, and even during the dance scenes, just when you think she isn’t doing her own pirouettes — when the camera cuts from her face to her feet, or when we see her dancing out-of-focus in a mirror — Aronofsky then pans up, or snaps into focus, showing us the dancing is not a cheat.
Neither is the performance. She has physically transformed herself into a twirling 95-pound bun head. But beyond the waifish appearance she throws herself into the emotionally complex role. Echoing Catherine Deneuve in “Repulsion” her grip on reality slowly disintegrates until there is nothing left to hold on to. It is riveting and brave work that sets a new benchmark in her career.
It’s easier to end by summing up what “Black Swan” isn’t. It isn’t understated, it isn’t strictly a horror film, nor is it just a ballet film. It is a wild, primal melodrama that resonates because of the fearless and unapologetically strange work of its star and director.