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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After casting the main players of the new Fantastic Four movie, director Josh Trank is now eyeing his lead villain. The field of potential actors for the film's central nogoodnik Doctor Doom has been narrowed down to four: Domhnall Gleeson, Toby Kebbell, Eddie Redmayne, and Sam Riley.
Victor Von Doom, who has the second most absurdly evil name in the marvel universe (the top honor goes to Baron Wolfgang von Strucker), is the leader of Latveria, a fictional nation nestled in the edge of the former Soviet bloc. Doom is a gifted sorcerer and scientist who uses his knowledge and power to overthrow the monarchy of Latveria. Doctor Doom has always been an imposing force in the Marvel Universe, so it's important that the right actor is chosen for the part. So which one of these actors would make the best Doctor Doom?
Notable Films: Harry Potter, About Time, Anna Karenina Genre Experience: Gleeson is well acquainted with genre films, playing Bill Weasley in the later chapters of the Harry Potter series and a role in the film Dredd. Potential for Villainy: We're not sure. Gleeson is a bit of a peculiar choice since he plays some pretty diminutive characters, and Doctor Doom is one of the most fearsome villains in the Marvel Universe. The actor does have an aura of mystery about him, but he certainly doesn't scream Victor Von Doom. Though Bill Weasley was a bit moody after getting slashed by a werewolf, so there's that.
Notable Films: Control, Alexander Genre Experience: Kebbell has the most genre experience under his belt of the four candidates, with roles in Prince of Persia, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Wrath of the Titans, and Alexander. Potential for Villainy: Kebbell is an interesting case. The actor played a violently unhinged and unstable character in RocknRolla, though he came off as more strung out and unpredictable than calculating and evil. He does have a ton of intensity in his roles, however, which is something that Doctor Doom needs.
Notable Films: Les Miserables, My Week with MarilynGenre Experience: Redmayne's genre experience is pretty scant up until now, but he does have a big sci-fi adventure on the horizon with The Wachowskis' upcoming Jupiter Ascending. Potential for Villainy: Not terribly high, as Redmayne just doesn't look especially imposing. The Fantastic Four reboot is clearly casting younger than most people expected, but casting Redmayne as Doctor Doom might be a leap too far. He does play a pretty despicable character in Hitch, but most probably wouldn't buy him as the fascist leader of an entire country.
Notable Films: Control, On the RoadGenre Experience: Riley has been a part of several genre films, including Byzantium, Franklyn, and 13. He will also play a major role in the upcoming Disney fantasy Maleficent.Potential for Villainy: Pretty high. Riley gave a dark performance in the film Brighton Rock, and was recently cast as Diaval, Angelina Jolie's right hand man and raven in Maleficent, so it's clear that studios are getting some pretty nefarious vibes from Riley. He does give a good icy glare, a necessary staple of any world conquering super villain.
The genesis of Universal's 47 Ronin is almost as tragic as the actual history that the movie is culling from. As the story goes, Universal saw the sprigs of talent sprouting from fresh faced director Carl Rinsch, whose previous experience was limited to just a couple of commercials and a nifty short film. The studio decided to ease the new director into feature filmmaking by cutting him what amounts to virtually a blank check, and giving him charge over a multi-national samurai fantasy epic. Almost impossibly, the film isn't a complete disaster. It's just a minor one.
47 Ronin follows the classic story of the titular team of warriors, a group of disgraced samurai who band together to seek revenge against a merciless warlord that betrayed and killed their master. But this isn't your grandfather's version of the story. 47 Ronin is an international affair, and it's covered with a veneer of Japanese mysticism and a thick coating of Hollywood lacquer, but east meets west rather uncomfortably, and it's mostly due to Keanu Reeves. Reeves' character is clearly crowbarred into the story that has no room for him, and it's plainly obvious where the seams of the story were stretched in order to patch him into the narrative. Reeves plays Kai, a half Japanese, half English orphan who is adopted by the samurai clan. His character serves no real purpose beyond being white, slicing things until they die, and playing the male lead of the most superfluous love story of the year. Rinsch simply can't make the inclusion of the character feel organic in any way, and "Kai" ends up feeling like a calculated studio move. It's a shame that the film spends so much time on Reeves when the real star is clearly Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays off the stoic samurai most believably among the rest of the cast.
It's also shame that with all the mysticism pumped into the story, there's no magic in the actual center of the film, the ronin themselves. The only personality trait a samurai is allowed to possess seems to be unerring stoicism, and between all 47 ronin, there are probably only three distinct samurai with any discernible character traits beyond an intense need to brood, and you'll probably only remember those three by the time the credits roll, only to promptly forget about them only a few hours later. Thankfully, Rinko Kikuchi's slinky and treacherous witch adds some much needed camp and personality to the mostly forgettable human characters.
And that's the issue with 47 Ronin. It's largely forgettable. When your film takes on a historical legend like the tale of the 47 ronin, a story that has been told and told again ad nauseum over the years, you really need to justify your own version. There are reels and reels of film dedicated to this story, and 47 Ronin doesn't manage to add anything significant to the canon. It promises to weld myth and history together, but does so clumsily, and while some of the action scenes are exciting, especially a particularly inspired set piece that involves the ronin noiselessly breaking into a heavily guarded fortress, the film is a bore when it's not clanking swords together.
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47 Ronin is a film with many stories. As much as it is a tale about the revenge of four dozen masterless samurai, it's also the tale of an inexperienced filmmaker swallowed up by the enormity of blockbuster filmmaking. Most of all though, It's proof that you shouldn't cram Keanu Reeves into a movie that doesn't really need Keanu Reeves. What you're left with is a dull and bloated samurai epic that has its moments, but feels largely unnecessary.
Take This Waltz is beautiful maddening and sexy just like its protagonist Margot (Michelle Williams). Margot speaks like a toddler to her husband Lou (Seth Rogen). She's moody but playful and she has cutesy and symbolic neuroses like insisting on taking a wheelchair at the airport because trying to make her flight is the sort of limbo that makes her anxious. As she explains to a handsome stranger named Daniel (Luke Kirby) she's afraid of connections she's afraid she'll get lost and no one will ever find her. Almost everything about her is childish from her bright yellow raincoat to her junior high insults ("retard " "gaylord") to her shrieking embarrassment when she pees in the pool during a water exercise class.
"What's the matter with you " asks Daniel "generally?" That's the crux of the movie. What is the matter with Margot? Even Margot doesn't know the root of her restlessness. It seems the only person willing to call her on it is her sister-in-law Geraldine an alcoholic in recovery who is already anticipating her own failure.
Take This Waltz relies heavily on chance and metaphor but the emotional intensity can make you willing to take that leap. Williams carries the film as Margot while Rogen gets an excellent chance to show his emotional side as Lou a lovable bear of a man. Kirby plays Daniel with an easy heady sexuality that makes Margot's decision understandably difficult. Sarah Silverman drops her bad girl comedian persona and really shines as acerbic but insightful Geraldine.
After Daniel and Margot meet at a historic village (she's rewriting the tour book for the tourist destination and he's who knows a fan of colonial history) Daniel is seated next to her on the plane. He also happens to live down the street from her and Lou. By the time he's began to wonder what Margot's deal really is they're knee deep in a heated emotional affair. Their attraction is immediate and palpable an irresistible force felt off screen. Daniel verbally consummates their affair with an unforgettably hot monologue.
Lou on the other hand isn't quite on the same page as Margot when it comes to their sex life or future children. He's knee-deep in a chicken cookbook so the couple and their family and friends eat almost nothing but different chicken dishes at every mean. You can only eat so much chicken right? Daniel on the other hand is new. "New things are shiny " Geraldine tells her in the communal gym shower as the women are soaping up after that pool incident. "New things get old " comments a woman nearby. This is one of the strongest scenes in the movie where women of all ages shapes and colors scrub down unapologetically and talk amongst themselves in a private/public space.
Take This Waltz is a more realistic portrayal of an erratic young woman who in a different writer's hands would be one of those Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Even though Margot wears adorable onesies and has the playfulness of a child she also hurts a lot of people and is screwed up for no apparent reason. It's not always clear why these men are attracted to her and you can tell they aren't sure themselves but it's interesting and painful to watch it all unfold. Take This Waltz is beautifully shot full of buttery sunlight and lush parks and sweetly decorated abodes. Polley rolled the dice on a difficult protagonist and comes up a winner.
Dennis Quaid plays Professor Lawrence Wetherhold a brilliant bored and completely self-absorbed widower who may be super-intelligent but still can’t figure out how to deal with a family that includes an independent-minded son (Ashton Holmes) and his eager over-achieving daughter (Ellen Page). As he meanders thru his seemingly miserable life his freeloading adopted brother (Thomas Haden Church) shows up for an unwanted visit making matters even worse. Despite these obstacles in his personal life his only goal seems to be getting his pretentious un-publishable book published and becoming head of the University’s English department. When his own stubborn stupidity brings on a sudden seizure that lands him in the hospital he encounters a pretty doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker) who just happened to be one of his former students. Despite a couple of awkward dinners he suddenly finds himself in love and moving into a new unexpected phase of his life--one with lots of unforeseen complications. It’s nice to see Quaid attempt more character-driven roles as he gets older and for a while his take on this dour professor is quite amusing. But the hopeless arrogance of the guy makes it hard for the audience to have any empathy despite the fact that he obviously loved his wife and still has the capacity to give it another whirl with former student Parker. Perhaps that’s the problem. It’s hard to buy these two as a couple in any way shape or form. Their mutual attraction seems unfathomable and Parker’s underwritten moody doctor is just as difficult to snuggle up to as Quaid’s weary professor. She’s one of those “movie characters” whose motivations constantly change only to keep the plot moving. The best acting belongs to supporting players Church and Page who have some choice scenes together. Church proved in Sideways he is a natural comic talent and his goofy take on the n’er-do-well brother plus pitch-perfect line readings make him the best reason to plunk down 10 bucks for this thing. Page actually shot this picture pre-Juno and there are similarities to her character in both--but as the daughter much older than her years she again proves she’s a prodigious talent the ‘it’ girl of the moment. Christine Lahti a fine actress is completely underused here as a colleague of Quaid’s. Most of her part probably lays somewhere on a cutting room floor. She deserves better. Perhaps in more experienced hands--say Sideways’ Alexander Payne--this material could have worked but under the guidance of first-time feature director Noam Murro it does not snap crackle OR pop. The successful commercials director looks like he hasn’t mastered the language of the big screen shooting his actors particularly Parker in unattractively lit close-ups. Although early scenes setting up Quaid’s character have some life the overall film is uneven in tone and dreary to watch. Setting the film in a drab environment like Pittsburgh doesn’t help but the murky cinematography is unimaginative. It’s easy to see the potential a savvy Oscar-nominated producer like Michael London (Sideways House of Sand and Fog The Visitor) may have seen in acclaimed novelist Mark Poirier’s screenplay about a bunch of smart people making dumb choices. But he’s been let down by a debuting director who just doesn’t have a handle on the situation.