Paramount Pictures via Everett Collection
Here's a feat: taking what is likely the oldest, most well-known story in the world, and making a retelling feel inventive. Over the course of its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, Darren Aronofsky's Noah takes many forms — Tolkien-esque fantasy, trippy psychological thriller, merciless dissection of the dark points of abject faith — never feeling too rigidly confined to the parameters of the familiar tale that we've all experienced in the form of bedtime stories, religious education lessons, and vegetable-laden cartoons. As many forms as the parable has taken over the past few thousand years, Aronofsky manages to find a few new takes.
The director's thumbprint is branded boldly on Russell Crowe's Noah, a man who begins his journey as a simple pawn of God and evolves into a dimensional human as tortured as Natalie Portman's ballerina or Jared Leto's smack head. Noah's obsession and crisis: his faith. The peak of the righteous descendant of Seth (that's Adam and Eve's third son — the one who didn't die or bash his brother's head in with a rock), Noah is determined to carry out the heavenly mission imparted upon him via ambiguous, psychedelic visions. God wants him to do something — spoilers: build an ark — and he will do it. No matter what.
No matter what it means to his family, to his lineage, to his fellow man, to the world. He's going to do it. No matter what. The depths to which Aronofsky explores this simple concept — the nature of unmitigated devotion — makes what we all knew as a simplistic A-to-B children's story so gripping. While the throughline is not a far cry from the themes explored in his previous works, the application of his Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, and Black Swan ideas in this movie does not feel like a rehashing. Experiencing such modern, humane ideas in biblical epic is, in fact, a thrill-ride.
Paramount Pictures via Everett Collection
Although Aronofsky accesses some highly guttural stuff inside of his title character, he lets whimsy and imagination take hold of the world outside of him. Jumping headfirst into the fantastical, the director lines his magical realm with rock monsters — "Watcher" angels encased in Earth-anchored prisons as punishment for their betrayal of God — and a variety of fauna that range in innovation from your traditional white dove to some kind of horned, scaled dog bastardization.
But the most winning elements of Noah, and easily the most surprising, come when Aronofsky goes cosmic. He jumps beyond the literal to send us coursing through eons to watch the creation of God's universe, matter exploding from oblivion, a line of creatures evolving (in earnest) into one another as the planet progresses to the point at which we meet our tortured seafarer. Aronofsky's imagination, his aptitude as a cinematic magician, peak (not just in terms of the film, but in terms of his career) in these scenes.
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With all this propped against the stark humanity of his story — not just in terms of Crowe's existential spiral, but in character beats like grandfather Methuselah's relationship with the youngsters, in little Ham's playful teasing of his new rock monster pet — Aronofsky manages something we never could have anticipated from Noah. It's scientific, cathartic, humane. Impressively, this age-old tale, here, is new. And beyond that feat, it's a pretty winning spin.
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Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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Star Wars was the game changer.
In 1977, a generation of children walked into the movie theater wanting to be firefighters or astronauts or racecar drivers. They walked out wanting to be filmmakers. The movie defined a generation, and defined the art that a generation produced. You can see the influence of Star Wars in the work of everyone from Peter Jackson to Kevin Smith, Stephen Colbert to Simon Pegg, Daft Punk to Jedi Mind Tricks, and countless more creators. Hundreds of amateur filmmakers have gotten their start in the Star Wars sandbox, creating parodies, sequels and songs about the series.
But while Star Wars was a box office juggernaut, it still managed to be a personal experience. For the the budding nerds, artists, writers and filmmakers who grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, Star Wars was the story that everyone loved, or hated, passionately enough that it shaped their lives personally and professionally.
For my generation, the yet-unnamed children of the turn of the millennia, that story was Harry Potter. This isn’t meant to diminish the impact of Star Wars, of course, I ran around playing with lightsabers and trying to talk like Darth Vader as much as any other kid. But it wasn’t really ours, there was nearly twenty years of expanded universe to work through by the time we got on board. Harry Potter was the series that my friends and I grew up with, that aged with us.
I was seven when I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. It was 1998- and a relatively inauspicious beginning to a love affair. My father bought me a copy, prefaced it with the assurance that “they were very popular in England,” and began reading. After he dozed off during chapter one, I liberated the book and read the next three chapters. By The Chamber of Secrets, I had given up on my slow-reading parents, and read the whole thing on my own. With the fourth book, The Goblet of Fire, the series was officially famous. Bookstores started holding release parties, and all of the internet (by which I mean the three sites my parents hadn’t blocked on AOL) was aflutter with speculation over who was going to die. I carried the massive doorstopper of a book around for the rest of the summer, weighed down even more by the beach sand that had accumulated in the margins, until the spine finally split and it fell into three pieces.
Shortly after my eleventh birthday (where I was disappointed to discover that I hadn't received an owl from Hogwarts), I saw my first Harry Potter film. I hated it. It wasn't my Harry Potter, it was stiff acting and boring "action" scenes and odd line readings. For years afterwards, my friends and I would do impressions of Daniel Radcliffe, and his habit of repeating other character's lines, only with more emphasis. ("You're a wizard, Harry" "I'm a wizard?", and so on.) It wasn't really fair, but kids rarely are. With all of my middle-school wisdom, I figured that the movies were a bust- but I was wrong. Over time, the films (and my prickly standards,) changed. The actors matured, the directors found their footing, and I warmed up to the strange, shadowy world of Hogwarts the film portrayed. The movie world of Harry Potter became as familiar and comforting as the book, despite their differences.
Soon, the films were as a vital part of the Harry Potter experience as the books. The series worked like a training exercise for budding young cinephiles, like myself, who would gather online to examine every production detail, discuss every casting choice, and decry every digression from the books, no matter how minor. The films introduced us to actors like Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, and Brendan Gleeson, directors like Mike Newell and Alfonso Cuarón. And, of course, the films were actually good- rather than sit back on the laurels of the book and let the money flow in, Warner Bros went out of their way to make the films something special in their own right. They showcased the talents of actors our own age along with venerated professionals, and captured the tone and life of the original books. Heck, sometimes they even improved on them (I’m looking at you, Order of the Phoenix. There’s only so much CAPSLOCK angst a girl can take.) Most importantly, the films were not afraid to change. They proved that the text was not some sacred canon to be replicated word-for-word, but rather, like Star Wars, an open world for filmmakers to experiment in and explore, a launching point for other adventures. That was a lesson that we fans took to heart.
When Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince came out, I was fourteen lost in Barcelona, and had to hunt for an English-language bookstore. Like most teens, I was desperate to distance myself from my childhood, but Harry Potter was different. It was a book series that had grown in complexity and maturity as we had aged, introducing characters with moral ambiguity and moments of shocking darkness. So when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was finally released, I was proud to wait in line at midnight with my friends, even poofing up my hair so that I could dress up as a convincing Hermione. While the last book marked the official end of the series, the promise of future films kept the franchise from feeling as though it was truly finished. Now that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is coming out Friday, we'll be able to see the series’ cinematic legacy. But I’m far more interested in seeing the personal legacy.
My story isn’t everyone’s story, of course. Some people learned to read with the Harry Potter books, or came in to the series late, or were introduced to the series by the films. Many people picked up their first Potter book when they saw how much their kids loved them. Others had to hide them from parents who disapproved. And a great deal of people read a couple of books, decided that they didn’t like them, and are still wondering what all the fuss is about. But it’s fair to say that most people in my generation have been influenced by Harry Potter, and many of the people who are going to become my generation’s artists, writers, musicians, and filmmakers will have the same connection to Potter that I do.
There are already some incredible, and Star Wars-esque, examples of people drawing from Potter for inspiration. Darren Criss, the latest Glee heartthrob, first achieved internet celebrity by writing and starring in university productions of A Very Potter Musical and A Very Potter Sequel, full length musicals that affectionately parody the series. Emerson Spartz created Mugglenet, one of the foremost Harry Potter news sites, at the age of twelve. Now, at 24, Spartz runs an additional six websites and reached #2 on the NYTimes children’s bestseller list with What Will Happen in Harry Potter 7 - Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Falls in Love, and How the Series Finally Ends, which he coauthored. Young fans have formed "Wizard Rock” bands, like Harry and the Potters (or their musical rivals, Draco and the Malfoys), and have continued to make music even after the end of the series. Authors like Sarah Rees Brennan (The Demon’s Lexicon trilogy), Cassandra Clare (the Mortal Instruments series) and Jaida Jones (Havemercy, Shadow Magic) all got their start, and built their fan bases, writing fan fiction for Harry Potter.
Harry Potter fans have also made their mark on the world of the internet. Neil and Emmy Cicierega have been creating the intensely popular "Potter Puppet Pals" videos since 2003- their most famous (and catchy) video, "The Mysterious Ticking Noise," has over 100,000,000 views on Youtube. Brad Neely, creator of The Professor Brothers and the memetic Washington song, admits to never have seen a Potter film or read a book, but still drew from Harry Potter for inspiration. He first achieved internet acclaim by creating the hilariously surreal alternate audio track for Sorcerer's Stone, "Wizard People, Dear Reader". It would be hard to find a webcomic artist, graphic designer, or starving artist today who doesn’t have some Harry Potter fan art buried in a DeviantArt somewhere- the most successful example would probably be Makani, who became popular enough to get her a job at video game company Valve.
This group of talented young people are just the tip of the iceberg. As the Potter generation ages, there will only be more artists, writers, and filmmakers who come forward to make their mark. Outside of the creative sphere, Potter fans are entering the world of academia, of fashion, and, occasionally, of internet entertainment journalism. Star Wars was able to captivate the imagination of a generation with just three films, in under six and a half hours. Harry Potter has had thousands of pages and eight films to do the same. The kids like me who grew up with Harry by our sides are about to step out into the real world- and bring Harry with us. While Harry’s saga might be drawing to an end on Friday (at least, until the inevitable remake in five years), we’re going to be feeling the effects of J.K. Rowling’s stories for years to come.
And I couldn’t be more excited to see what happens.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Although The Great Buck Howard is not the literal story of the once popular (in the '60s and '70s) entertainer known as the Amazing Kreskin the film makes it known this is a pretty thinly disguised tribute to the man who made 88 appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show before fading into obscurity on the dinner theater circuit. Writer/director Sean McGinly who worked briefly as Kreskin’s assistant has reinvented him essentially as Buck Howard a “mentalist extraordinaire ” who once strode in the limelight with numerous TV and Vegas appearances but now plays faded community centers and hasn’t filled a theater in decades. As his new assistant law-school dropout Troy Gable quickly learns it isn’t easy working for Buck who still sees himself as a big star but when a quirk of fate intervenes and he really does get a second chance at the national spotlight neither one is quite prepared for what comes next.
WHO’S IN IT?
John Malkovich is a fine actor but he isn’t exactly known for comedy. As Buck Howard however he has the role of a lifetime and he’s simply amazing wryly funny as the has-been mentalist who would never admit he isn’t still every bit the top celebrity he used to be. Although Malkovich plays him somewhat pompously he’s ultimately quite touching as a celeb who once commanded great attention and still craves it on his own terms. As his new unwitting assistant Colin Hanks drolly underplays most of his scenes with Buck and effortlessly shows the quiet desperation of a wannabe writer who’s not exactly sure what he should be doing with his life. Emily Blunt is lovely as a publicist who helps engineer Buck’s surprising comeback; and there are also small but fun bits with Steve Zahn Griffin Dunne and even Colin’s real-life dad Tom Hanks whose company bankrolled the movie.
In the same sweet but low-key vein of My Favorite Year McGinly paints a portrait of the less glamorous aspect of showbiz when an outsized personality starts traveling on the downside of the entertainment world. Clearly his days with Kreskin gave him an entree into this life and his film is nicely observant and respectful. But still very funny.
The film plays it all a little too safe. It doesn’t seem to want to be anything more than a snapshot of life after huge success has faded; adding a little more complexity might have offered an even richer role for Malkovich. It’s pleasant but there’s not a whole lot of depth.
Buck hypnotizes a large crowd of volunteers but gets sidetracked and neglects to snap them out of it. It’s pricelessly funny and captures the ego of the guy perfectly in the expert hands of Malkovich.