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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Much like the somber melodies that float throughout its 105-minute runtime, Inside Llewyn Davis will remain lodged in your head weeks after you and the film first meet. With Oscar Isaac's "Fare thee we-e-ell..." ringing daintily in your ears, you'll shuffle out from the grasp of the Coen Brothers' wonderland of gray, but you won't soon be able to relieve yourself of what is arguable the pair's best film yet. Llewyn's is a story so outstandingly simple — he's a man who's s**t out of luck, and not especially deserving of any. He wakes up, loses his friend's cat, plays some music, and wishes things were better. And yet his is the Coens' most invigorating and deftly human tale yet.
Llewyn Davis makes the bold, but practical, choice of never insisting that we love its hero. He's effectively a jackass, justifying all the waste he has incurred with the rudeness he showers on the majority of those in his acquaintance. But Llewyn Davis isn't the villain here, either. The villain is the industry, and all the uphill battles inherent to its machinations. The villain isn't Llewyn's substantially more successful contacts — an old pal Jim (Justin Timberlake) and new fellow couch-surfer Troy (Stark Sands), but the listening public that prefers their saccharine pop to his dreary drips of misery. The villain isn't Llewyn's resentful old flame Jean (Carey Mulligan), no matter how many volatile admonitions she might shoot his way, but the act of God surrounding their unwitting adherence to one another. And it's not even the cantankerous and foul Roland Turner (a delightfully hammy John Goodman), but the endless, frigid open road of which each man is a prisoner (if the film has one flaw, it's that this segment carries on just a bit too long, but that might very well be the point). The villain is the cold.
Call it all a raw deal. But the real dynamism isn't in the challenges that happen outside Llewyn Davis, but in the determined toxicity brewing inside as he meets each and every one.
But this isn't the Coen Brothers' Murphy's Law comedy A Serious Man — we don't watch a chaotic pileup of every imaginable trick that the devil can manage to pull. Llewyn is steady throughout, not burying Llewyn deeper but keeping him on the ground, with the fruit-bearing branches forever out of his reach. In its narrative, Llewyn Davis is as close to natural life as any of the filmmakers' works to date. Perfectly exhibited in a late scene involving a trip to Akron, Llewyn isn't a cinematic construct, but the sort of person we know, so painfully, that we are very likely to be... on our bad days.
Still, working in such a terrific harmony with the grounded feel of Llewyn himself, we have that Coen whimsy in their delivery of 1960s New York City — rather, a magic kingdom painted in the stellar form of a 1960s New York City. And not the New York City we're given by the likes of Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen. Closer, maybe, to Spike Lee or Sydney Lumet, but still a terrain unique to moviegoers. A New York that's always recovering from a hostile rain, and always promising another 'round the bend. One that flickers like a dying bulb, with its million odd beleaguered moths buzzing around it against the pull of logic. There is something so incredibly alive about the Coens' crying city; this hazy dream world's partnership with half-dead, anchored-to-earth portrait like Llewyn is the product of such sophisticated imagination at play.
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And to cap this review of one of the best features 2013 has given us, it's only appropriate to return to the element in which its identity is really cemented: the music. Without the tunes bobbing through the story, we'd still likely find something terrific in Llewyn Davis. But the music, as beautiful as it is, is the reason for the story. As we watch Isaac's hopeless sad sack drag himself through Manhattan's winter, past the helping hands of friends and into the grimaces of strangers, as we struggle with our own handfuls of nihilistic skepticism that any of this yarn is worth the agony (or that our attention to its meandering nature is worth the price of a ticket), we are given the rare treat of an answer. Of course it's all for something. Of course it's all about something. It's about that beautiful, beautiful music.
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Jackson family arrives in court Jackson 5 style
In a bizarre show of solidarity, Michael Jackson's family, including his parents, Katherine and Joseph Jackson, and siblings Janet, LaToya, Jermaine, Randy and Jackie, attended a hearing Monday in Santa Maria, Calif., to watch the singer's lawyers question the prosecutor in his child molestation case. The self-proclaimed "King of Pop" and his family arrived at the courthouse in a chauffeured double-decker bus, all of them dressed head-to-toe in white. According to The Associated Press, Jackson sat for hours staring intensely at prosecutor Thomas Sneddon, who was grilled for more than three hours by the 45-year-old singer's defense attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr. Mesereau attempted to show that Sneddon violated Jackson's attorney-client privilege by searching the office of a private investigator who worked for the singer's previous lawyer, Mark Geragos. If Mesereau is successful, the evidence taken from the private eye's office, including videotapes, computer hard discs and other items, could be thrown out of court because it is protected by attorney-client privilege. After Sneddon finished his testimony, the Jacksons retired to the modified gold and black tour bus to the screams of about 100 fans chanting, "Innocent, innocent." Jackson had not been required to attend the five-day pre-trial hearing and is not expected to return. He has pleaded innocent to charges of child molestation, kidnapping and false imprisonment and is free on $3 million bail.
Oprah selected to serve on jury
Talk show guru Oprah Winfrey, who was picked to serve on a jury at Cook County Criminal Court in Chicago, told reporters she didn't think she'd be selected because she's too opinionated. But Winfrey added that if she was picked, she hopes it wouldn't take longer than a week "because I've got shows to do." Although Winfrey entered the courthouse Monday through an alternate entrance to avoid crowds, officials said she wouldn't receive any special treatment once inside the courtroom. When Judge James B. Linn was asked how Winfrey was selected for a murder trial, he responded, "This was a straight-up jury selection." A Cook County sheriff's office spokeswoman said last week Winfrey was among some 300 prospective jurors scheduled to appear at court Monday.
Lane and Brolin marry in secrecy
Diane Lane and her beau of two years, Josh Brolin--the son of actor James Brolin and stepson of Barbra Streisand--were married in a hush-hush ceremony, the couple's publicist told the AP Tuesday. Spokeswoman Kelly Bush confirmed the wedding but said her clients banned her from saying anything else except, "they're hitched." The 39-year-old star of Unfaithful and Under the Tuscan Sun told AP Radio in August 2002 that Brolin, 36, got down on one knee and proposed on the Fourth of July. "It was early, early, early, early in the morning. Like dawn," Lane said at the time. "I had no idea what was coming."
Zeta-Jones stalker mentally fit to stand trial
A court-appointed psychiatrist said Monday the woman accused of stalking and threatening actress Catherine Zeta-Jones is mentally fit to stand trial. The AP reports Dr. Kal Sharma examined Dawnette Knight in jail, where she is currently being held on $1 million bail. Superior Court Judge John Riley Jr. halted criminal proceedings last month and ordered a mental evaluation of Knight after she overdosed on barbiturates while in county jail. A preliminary hearing is scheduled to resume Sept. 9. Knight, 33, who was arrested June 3 at her Beverly Hills, Calif., apartment, is charged with one felony count of stalking and 24 felony counts of making criminal threats. If convicted, she could face up to 19 years in state prison.
Blair Witch crewman killed in plane crash
Cinematographer Neal L. Fredericks, best known for his work on The Blair Witch Project, was killed Saturday while shooting the independent film Cross Bones, when the single-engine plane he was in crashed into the water off the Florida Keys coast. He was 35. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Fredericks was filming aerial shots for the movie from a single-engine Cessna 206 when the plane's engine sputtered twice at about 500 feet before going down in 50 feet of water, according to Cross Bones writer-director Daniel Zirilli. Zirilli, the pilot, a co-producer and a first camera assistant escaped the wreckage through an open door, but Fredericks, who was strapped into a safety harness beneath camera equipment, was unable to free himself from his seat before the plane was submerged. "It was sunny, no wind; the hurricane had passed 36 hours before," Zirilli said. "It was a glorious day. The pilot called us to go out. As far as we know, it was engine failure."
AFI honors Penn clan
The Penn family, including brothers Sean, Chris, and composer Michael; Michael's wife, singer Aimee Mann; Sean's wife, actress Robin Wright-Penn; along with matriarch Eileen Ryan Penn, will receive the American Film Institute's Platinum Circle Award Oct. 1 in Los Angeles, Variety reports. The luncheon event will also include a tribute to the late patriarch of the family, producer, writer, director and actor Leo Penn. The Platinum Circle Award is presented to a family the AFI considers to have had a significant creative influence on the entertainment industry. Previous winners include the families of Debbie Reynolds, Walter Matthau and Henry Fonda.
Fahrenheit DVD to hit stores soon
Michael Moore's searing and controversial anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 is set to release on home video Oct. 5 through Sony's Columbia TriStar home entertainment unit, AP reports. The announcement Monday confirmed Moore's initial intention to have the film out shortly before Election Day, a time frame the director has favored since winning the top honor at the Cannes Film Festival in May. The film has grossed $115 million domestically, the first documentary ever to top the $100 million mark.
Rapper Shyne loses phone privileges
Jailed rapper Shyne, a former protégé of Sean "P. Diddy" Combs who has been in jail since 2001 for the 1999 nightclub shooting that involved Combs' then-girlfriend Jennifer Lopez, had his phone privileges revoked Monday and was barred from conducting in-person interviews as authorities investigate whether the rapper violated prison rules in making about 100 phone calls, AP reports. Shyne, whose real name is Jamal Barrow, signed a $3 million record deal and recorded part of his new album, Godfather Buried Alive, while in prison. He has been in great demand with the media since the album was released last week. Already, MTV has aired a special about him, The New York Times conducted a phone interview, and he's on the cover of the September issue of Vibe wearing his dark-green prison uniform.
Kit Bowen contributed to this report.