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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Though ostensibly successful 2009’s The Final Destination represented to many a horror franchise on its last hackneyed legs. Rote uninspired and humorless it scored a (modest) hit only by virtue of the novelty -- and added ticket price -- of its 3D transfer. Two years later Final Destination 5 arrives with a slightly tweaked formula a beefed-up storyline actors you might actually recognize and genuine honest-to-goodness 3D. It’s still schlock mind you -- but artful schlock and a marked improvement over the preceding entry.
The story begins in familiar fashion with a cursory introduction to the characters followed by a grisly premonition that sees them perish wholesale. An assortment of cubicle-dwellers at a paper factory are being bused to a corporate retreat when one of them Sam (Nicholas D’Agosto perpetually bug-eyed) dreams of a massive bridge collapse in which he and his co-workers are impaled beheaded bisected crushed by cars singed by tar -- however many ways a suspension bridge can kill a person the film’s opening set-piece explores it gruesome detail. Sam awakens duly horrified and demands the bus be evacuated. Seconds later the employees watch in horror from the sidelines as Sam’s vision comes to fruition.
You know what happens next. One-by-one death stalks the survivors who meet their fate in a series of elaborately-staged incidents. Some are relatively straightforward; others involve fiendish head-fakes and red herrings. The range of victims is older and more colorful than in previous Final Destination films in which death preyed exclusively on attractive nubile teenagers but the end result is invariably the same. (Not to give anything away but those considering acupuncture or laser eye surgery would be wise to avoid the film entirely.) As death’s scheme becomes achingly evident Sam his lachrymose girlfriend Molly (Emma Bell) and his increasingly unhinged buddy Peter (Miles Fisher) become increasingly desperate. Enter the ever-ominous Tony Todd returning to the franchise after (wisely) taking the previous film off offering a potential way out. But is it genuine or just another of death’s cruel tricks?
Director Steven Quale a James Cameron protege hired principally for his 3D expertise takes full advantage of the added dimension delivering some of the most vivid and immersive 3D sequences in recent memory. Unlike The Final Destination which seemed little more than a amalgam of crude one-liners Final Destination 5 feels like a real movie one with a discernible plot an element of suspense and a handful characters who are more than just punchlines. Most of the actors are surprisingly competent save for Fisher a credible doppelganger for Tom Cruise (he parodied him 2008’s Superhero Movie) who imbues every line with couch-jumping intensity.
Final Destination 5 ends with a twist that while genuinely unexpected feels like a Hail Mary for a franchise that can’t forestall its inexorable descent into stale irrelevance despite the best of efforts from Quale. Its trademark formula has simply lost its potency -- a problem no amount of cosmetic upgrades however welcome can fix. That the film is bracketed by two pointless and time-consuming montages -- the first an animated sequence that hurtles various hazardous objects at the audience the second a greatest hits compilation of memorable kills from previous Final Destination films -- is a telltale sign that the saga’s creativity is on life support. Perhaps it’s time to pull the plug.
Having only recently revived its cartoon fairytale division Disney abruptly announced earlier this week that it’s leaving the business for good. Which is a shame because few cinematic staples have proved more consistently entertaining -- or more effective as a babysitting tool. With its final fairytale adaptation Tangled a lively comic take of the classic Rapunzel fable the venerable studio can at least say that it’s exiting the genre on a high note.
Tweaks have been made to the original Brothers Grimm story most notable of which is that Rapunzel’s (Mandy Moore) trademark golden locks are now imbued with magical powers -- specifically the ability to halt or reverse the aging process -- that are activated conveniently enough whenever she serenades them with her dulcet voice. Born a princess she was plucked from the cradle by a capricious crone Mother Gothel (Broadway star Donna Murphy) who locked the child in a tower and raised her as her own daughter. Obsessed with preserving her youthful looks she employs Rapunzel as her own private botox clinic while taking steps to ensure that her little Patty Hearst never learns of her true royal heritage.
As befitting current social mores this Rapunzel is not the proverbial damsel in distress waiting patiently for a prince to come rescue her. Modern-day fairytale heroines simply must be more proactive. Though preternaturally naïve she's impressively well-read for a child abductee and she brims with curiosity about the outside world. On the eve of her 18th birthday she desperately longs to experience it first-hand despite the many dire (and entirely fabricated) warnings from "mother" about its inherent dangers.
Rapunzel's opportunity to escape comes when a wily bandit named Flynn Ryder (Zachary Levi) attempts to hide out in her tower only to be knocked out and taken captive by its plucky resident who coerces him into acting as her bodyguard during an impromptu tour of society at large. This flip of the traditional script sets the stage for the kind of climactic clash of opposites that can only ever result in eternal love.
Lyricist Glenn Slater and Oscar-winning composer Alan Mencken both Mouse House veterans collaborated on the Tangled soundtrack and while the film’s musical numbers aren’t likely to inspire a blockbuster Broadway musical (though I’d love to see how all that hair would fare on-stage) they partner nicely with the script’s buoyant comic tone moving the narrative forward instead of distracting us from it as musical numbers so often do. The story falters a bit in the third act -- especially during its disappointing climax during which Rapunzel suddenly discovers that her hair possesses Lazarus-like abilities -- but not enough to bring down the film as a whole.
What impressed me most about Tangled was its visual aesthetic which effectively marries the charm of the old-school hand-drawn style with CGI's unsurpassed ability to awe. (All sorts of innovations were required to properly render Rapunzel’s 70-foot mane which shimmers and glows with a life of its own.) Wrapped together in a wondrous 3D package it serves as a fitting farewell to a fine filmmaking tradition.