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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According to Daniel Lugo, Mark Wahlberg's beefcake ringleader in Pain & Gain, ignoring fitness and letting your body turn to mush is "unpatriotic." Sitting on a pile of cash while twiddling your thumbs and watching hard-working people serve you is a crime against humanity. Having the will to take action, even if that action is kidnapping, torturing, mutilating, and obliterating a fellow man, is what America is all about. Being a "do-er" gives you the right to do anything.
Lugo's delusional mantras are the adrenaline that forcefully pumps blood through the veins of Michael Bay's latest, a vicious condemnation of the "American Dream" overflowing with dimwitted behavior and gruesome acts of violence. Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely adeptly spin an all-too-true story into a Burn After Reading-esque exercise in nihilism. Nearly everyone in Pain & Gain is an aggressive personality, warped by greed and self-righteousness: Lugo becomes empowered by a plan to kidnap millionaire Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub) after a motivating speech from get-rich-quick speaker Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong); his accomplice Adrian (Anthony Mackie) follows him blindly, fed up with his day job and suffering from erectile dysfunction; the third piece to the puzzle, ex-con Paul (Dwayne Johnson), starts the movie saved by religion. By the end, he's overcome by a world of strippers, cocaine, and getting away with murder. The trio are a nightmarish Three Stooges act with a thirst for riches. As harebrained schemes always do, Lugo's bagging of Kershaw and extortion-by-torture blows up in his face.
Bay's style from the retina-annihilating Transformers series carries over to Pain & Gain, where it seeps into the storytelling perfectly. His usual low-angle hero shots now echo the characters' crass egotism, while a palette of blinding colors match the plastic beauty of Miami. A smaller scale forces Bay to push himself further, which leads to exhilarating success — similar to last year's End of Watch, the director injects kineticism through putting us in the seat of the gang's car, on the nose of a pistol, or right up in Wahlberg's faces as he performs sit ups in the hot sun. Seizing the rated-R opportunity, Bay also depicts the details of the real 1995 kidnapping case in all their grizzly glory. Shalhoub is tased, beaten, burned, and mashed up to a bloody pulp in Pain & Gain — and that's just the first 40 minutes. By the time The Rock is grilling human hands and Wahlberg is returning a chainsaw to a local hardware store after cutting up bodies just an hour earlier, the movie wisely reminds us, "Still Based on a True Story."
There are moments where Bay actively works against Markus and McFeely's script. Like Transformers' most groan-worthy moments, Pain & Gain manages to squeeze a great deal of crass humor tangential to the story. Some of it is in character — Paul is a staunch homophobe while Lugo can't help but look down at the obese. But Bay wavers in his ability to present this as an icky way of life. Sometimes, the ignorant commentary and bathroom jokes feel intentionally played for laughs.
Making up for any misgivings is a cast maneuvering at peak performance. Wahlberg strikes that unnerving balance of naivete and confidence, the type of pompous nature that would lead an average joe to commit a crime that could put him on death row. The actor is downright hyperactive, and the script gives him the chance to flex his comedic and action muscles, two sides to a Hollywood leading man persona he's been toning up for nearly a decade. He even gets a "walk away from an explosion moment" — but here, it's judgmental to his inability to separate fact from fiction. Johnson is out of his element as the Jesus-loving Paul; the actor goes from gentle giant to a coke fiend version of Godzilla over the course of the movie, and it's daring work. Mackie, mostly known for his dramatic work, riffs on both of them and costar Rebel Wilson with whirlwind speed. Adrian's explanation for why he drinks breast milk is the reason they invented the acronym "WTF."
Keeping Pain & Gain from greatness is a bloated runtime. At over two hours, the action stumbles along, mismatched with the pace Bay sets behind the camera. Ed Harris' detective character arrives late to the game, lighting a fire under the trio, but only after a lengthy stretch of antics that begin to grate. Melding the individual beats — however faithful the final product is — could have condensed the fever dream into a more palatable (and thrilling) story. Still, Bay gets it mostly right. Pain & Gain is a twisted byproduct of American fantasy. Bay's previous work may be a reason he had to make this movie in the first place, but regardless, it stands as a sharp bit of satire that provokes on every level.
What do you think? Tell Matt Patches directly on Twitter @misterpatches and read more of his reviews on Rotten Tomatoes!
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For years on end, The Today Show has quenched mankind's thirst for the mundane. The placid, not at all challenging white noise to run in the background of one's brainless daytime routine. The NBC institution never egged us on, never stirred any bad mojo, never made us think or feel whatsoever... until they gave Ann Curry the axe back in '12, and viewers grew up in arms (at least relatively) over what was considered an unfair dismissal of the co-anchor. One of the targets of fans' animosity was Matt Lauer, who was criticized for his decorum during the ordeal. But Lauer himself, talking to The Daily Beast, agrees that the network was not exactly operating at peak efficiency in its decision.
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"I don’t think the show and the network handled the transition well," Lauer says. "You don’t have to be Einstein to know that." According to the standing anchor, the whole transition "was a hard time for everybody ... We were getting kicked around a lot. Some of it was self-inflicted and perhaps deserved."
Lauer recounts what Curry's absence did to the Today team's reputation: "It clearly did not help us. We were seen as a family, and we didn't handle a family matter well."
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Steve Capus, former president of NBC News, speaks on behalf of Lauer, whose behind-the-scenes behavior might have been a lot different from the accusations surrounding him: "When Matt was informed that we had made this decision, his good counsel was to go slow, to take care of Ann, and to do the right things ... He was quietly and publicly a supporter of Ann’s throughout the entire process. It is unfair that Matt has shouldered an undue amount of blame for a decision he disagreed with."
While we may give way to new ideas about Lauer's involvement in the Curry ordeal, many will only be satisfied when the former correspondent takes her next regular spot on daytime TV. Soon, fellow Curryists. Soon.
Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter
[Photo Credit: Peter Kramer/NBC]
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Top Story: "EW" Names Chris Rock Funniest Man in America
Comedian, actor and writer Chris Rock has been named the funniest man in America by Entertainment Weekly in the magazine's March 19 issue. Rock began performing in Manhattan comedy clubs as a teenager and by 1987 had made an early TV appearance on the HBO special Uptown Comedy Express--the same year the comedian made his feature film debut as a parking valet in Beverly Hills Cop II. But it was during his three-year stint on NBC's Saturday Night Live that people really took note. Rock, 39, is now on his Black Ambition Tour, which will culminate in his fourth HBO special set to air April 17. "Watching Rock in 2004--21 years into his comedy career--is like watching a great prize-fighter in peak condition," the magazine said. Also gracing the list of the 25 funniest Americans are Jon Stewart, Will Ferrell, Larry David, Dave Chappelle, Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Murray, Jim Carrey and Jack Black.
"Wardrobe Malfunction" Invades English Language
The Global Language Monitor, a group that analyzes and catalogues the latest trends in word usage and word choices, and their impact on culture, declared "wardrobe malfunction" as Hollywood's Top Word or Phrase for Impact on the English language. The phrase became famous after Justin Timberlake ripped off part of Janet Jackson's bustier during the Feb. 1 Super Bowl halftime show, revealing her right breast, later calling it a "wardrobe malfunction." Other words or phrases on the group's "HollyWord LingoList" include "Bootylicious," "extreme makeover," "Gigli" (as in "gigli bad"), "Give it up!" (replaces "please applaud for"), "Governator" (as in CAH-lee-FOR-nee-ah Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger), "snap" (from Freaky Friday, meaning very cool), and "Smiths" (to lack individuality, like the multi-duplicated agent Smith in The Matrix Reloaded).
Russell Crowe's Cinderella Man Gets Pushed Back
Universal Pictures has delayed the release of Russell Crowe's boxing drama Cinderella Man until Mar. 18, 2005, claiming it needs more time to mount a marketing campaign. The film was originally set for release on Dec. 17 of this year. Cinderella Man, which reunites Crowe with A Beautiful Mind director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer, had been considered a potential Oscar contender in the 2004 race, but now it will have to take aim at the 2005 contest instead. "Certainly, the May release of Gladiator and our experiences with Erin Brockovich and last year with Seabiscuit prove that there is no dedicated season for high-caliber films," a studio representative told The Hollywood Reporter of the fact that the project will be released in March rather than the fourth quarter preferred by Oscar fodder.
Sex Outfits Sell Like Hot Pants
Hundreds of size "2" women lined up outside the New York consignment shop Ina on Thursday to fight for castoff clothes from the trend-setting HBO series Sex and the City, which ended last month after a six-season run. Most of the items available were purchased by the show's costumers but never used. The priciest item was a black sequined Chanel minidress priced at $5,000, while a pair of red silk hot pants went for a mere $70, Reuters reports. But Carrie's beloved Manolo Blahnik stilettos were nowhere to be seen: Many of the show's signature outfits have already been claimed by cast members, while other pieces were auctioned by the cable network for the actresses' favorite charities.
Judge in Jackson Case Keeps Audiotapes Secret
On Thursday, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Rodney S. Melville kept sealed an audiotape that apparently contains defense interviews with Michael Jackson's accuser and his family, but allowed prosecutors to see videotapes he called "innocuous," The Associated Press reports. The judge said the audiotape, which is of an interview conducted early last year by an investigator for defense attorney Mark Geragos, could identify areas of defense strategy and should remain secret. Melville added, "the persons interviewed are equally available to the prosecution. Jackson pleaded innocent on Jan. 16 to seven counts of performing lewd or lascivious acts on a child under 14 and two counts of administering an intoxicating agent. He's free on $3 million bail.
R. Kelly's Sex Photos Inadmissible in Court
A Florida judge ruled yesterday that sex photos were illegally seized from the Florida home of R. Kelly and cannot be used as evidence in his child pornography trial, Reuters reports. Prosecutors in central Florida charged the R&B singer with 12 counts of possessing child pornography in January 2003, based on digital photos that Polk County deputies said showed him engaged in sex acts with a girl under the age of 18. Kelly, whose first name is Robert, has pleaded not guilty to the charges, which stem from a 26-minute videotape that allegedly depicted the singer in sex acts with a girl who police say was 14 at the time. Kelly has denied the charges and is out on bail awaiting trial.
Rodney Dangerfield Finally Gets Respect
Fox Television has secured rights to Rodney Dangerfield's upcoming HarperCollins autobiography, It's Not Easy Bein' Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs, the AP reports. "I'm excited that Fox is making a movie on my life story, but I hope they do it soon! I'm 82 years old," the "No Respect" comic said in a statement Wednesday. "At my age, I'm looking for a one-night sit! I'm thrilled about finishing my first book. Now I'm going to read another one."
David Crosby Denounced Drug Use Prior to Arrest
Singer David Crosby, who was arrested March 7 in New York on marijuana and gun possession charges, told The Frederick News-Post February in an interview published yesterday that he was through with drugs. "I haven't been tempted by that stuff for 15 years. You get past it," said Crosby, who was to perform in Frederick, Md. today. "When I really got toasted towar