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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In just about every one of Kevin Hart's scenes in Ride Along, there's a joke that is just aching to find its way out of the diminutive, rascally comic actor. Hart is a small-scale physical comedian — of the same ilk as Jack Black — who puts nuclear-degree energy into his facial contortions, anatomical outbursts, and the delivery of every gag in general. If only he had material that was crafted with the same energy.
Unfortunately, nothing else about Ride Along seems at all "hard at work." Not the script, which pads a lifeless story with lazy comedy, and certainly not his screen partner Ice Cube, whose only stage direction seems to be "frown, and be taller than Kevin Hart." So lifeless is Ice Cube that even his machismo-obsessed straight man bit doesn't really work. Instead of the virile and intimidating "bad cop," he comes off as a disapproving middle aged dad without much to show for his own life.
But the script pairs the wily, overzealous high school security guard and video game junkie Ben (Hart) with no-nonsense lawman James (Ice Cube) on the titular ride along, with the scrappy cop-wannabe hoping to prove to the force veteran that he's good enough to marry the latter's younger sister. In earnest, he's not. Ben never puts any respectable effort into learning the tools of the trade, insisting on employing his amateur style and controlling the radio despite his proclamations that he wants, and deserves, James' trust. And James is no saint either — he's irresponsible on crime scenes, violent with perps, and disgruntled to the point of being unable to work with anybody else on the force. These are not good police officers... of course, you'll say, this is a comedy. But where are the laughs, then?
They're not absent entirely, you just have to look for them. In a movie so focused with big, broad humor, it's the smaller comedy that actually lands best. Hart's background mutterings and fumblings, his emoticon-laden texts to girlfriend Angela (Tika Sumpter, whose only stage direction seems to be "smile, and never wear a full outfit of clothing"), and a bizarre repetition of the word "weird" from supporting player John Leguizamo. All good for unexpected chuckles, while jokes like Hart facing off with a pre-teen or being blown backwards into a brick wall after firing a large gun are all lazy, familiar, and flat.
Structurally, the script is a mess. Ride Along spends far too much time on set up — we get it, Hart and his soon-to-be-brother-in-law Ice Cube don't get along — and far too much time on wrap-up — there's a gigantic, dramatic warehouse shootout that, in any other movie, would be the climax, but there's plenty more to go after that — without any cohesive middle to make the movie feel like... a movie.
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Hart, who leaps at every comic opportunity like a kangaroo (wallaby would be more appropriate), is suited just right for a buddy cop comedy, but he needs something fresh with which to work — a real character, an interesting story, actually funny jokes. Even just one of these would be fine!
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“Inception” from Warner Bros. proves that smart and summer can actually go together as it tops the chart for the second straight weekend.
With another $42.7 million this weekend, Christopher Nolan can be called “Mr. July” since he pretty much owns the month of July every two years. In 2008, “The Dark Knight” was the July box-office champ and it can be expected that in 2012 when the next “Batman” installment hits theatres, that it will be the film to beat as well. Unquestionably challenging, visually stunning and just plain old brainy fun, “Inception” performed well all week long and crossed the $100 million mark last Wednesday in just seven days of release (the fastest for any non-sequel 2-D movie this year). The film is now up to $142.9 million in domestic box office. A minimal 32% drop based on great word-of-mouth was responsible for this strong second weekend showing and the film should continue to do well in the coming weeks. IMAX again is an integral part of the film’s success with $4.9 million plus or an impressive 12% of the second weekend gross and down just 31% vs. opening weekend.
Coming in second in a very tight race was Sony’s Angelina Jolie action vehicle “Salt” which pulled in a solid $36.0 million and proved that a woman can be as much of a box office draw as a man as the lead in an action movie. As she proved with 2008’s “Wanted,” “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and the “Tomb Raider” series, Jolie certainly has the “street cred” with audiences to pull this off and make it look good at the same time. “Salt’s” relatively short running time (99 mins), fast-pace and summer-style action combined with a terrific marketing campaign made this one a late-July winner.
At number three is Universal’s family animated favorite “Despicable Me” which has now crossed the $160 million mark in just 17 days of release. With $23.7 million for the weekend, a 28% drop and another strong set of mid-week grosses, the film is being embraced by the family crowd and the date crowd alike and the results have been spectacular. Look for this one to remain a staple of the top five and the top ten for many weeks to come.
In the fourth spot is Disney’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” with $9.7 million in its second weekend of release and a domestic total of $42.6 million. The film has benefitted from its PG-rating since it is the newest of a string of such rated live action adventures following as it has in the wake of Sony’s “The Karate Kid” and Paramount’s “The Last Airbender.”
Residing in the top five for the sixth straight week with another $8.9 million is the incredible Disney/Pixar 2010 box office favorite "Toy Story 3.” Adding to a really bad week for Mel Gibson, “Toy Story 3” on Friday passed “The Passion of the Christ” to now become the 14th highest grossing film of all-time and by the end of the weekend leap-frogged over both “Spider-Man 2” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” to become now the 12th highest grossing film of all-time with $379.4 million! Notable as well that it is the highest grossing film of the year and the summer thus far. Congratulations to both Disney and Pixar on this amazing and well-deserved achievement.
Debuting just outside of the top five is Fox’s G-rated family film “Ramona and Beezus,” based on the best-selling books by Beverly Cleary. Delivering $7.8 million, the film should eventually wind up profitable with its modest budget and strong eventual home video potential. As one of only two wide release G-rated films in the marketplace (along with “Toy Story 3”), the film will hopefully continue to find favor with audiences looking for a true family experience at the movie theatre.
A month of “up” weekends vs. last year has improved the summer box office outlook considerably and takes the YTD revenue advantage up to 4.5% over last year and the Summer-to-date advantage on revenue up to 3%. Attendance, while still lagging behind last summer has had a boost over the past few weeks and as a result is only at a 3.4% deficit vs. a 4.3% downturn through last weekend. This weekend look for “Cats and Dogs: Revenge of Kitty Galore” in 3D (PG) from Warner Bros., “Charlie St. Cloud” starring Zac Efron from Universal and from Paramount, “Dinner For Schmucks” starring Steve Carell and Paul Rudd.
"The Long Kiss Goodnight." Four words that conjure images of ass-kicking action centered around a female protagonist that took the elements of the typical testosterone driven, male-dominated action movies and turned them on their feminine ear. The year was 1996 and perhaps the world was not yet ready to see a buffed out, wild-eyed and cold-blooded killer embodied in the female form of Geena Davis (though a number 3 debut with $9.1 million and a total domestic gross of $33.5 million was not bad in 1996). Renny Harlin was seemingly ahead of his time, though clearly he had seen director Luc Besson's 1991 "La Femme Nikita" and thought he could re-imagine his own action sensibilities as developed on 1990's "Die Hard 2: Die Harder" and apply them to his then-spouse Davis. Fun fact: Besson was married to "Nikita" star Anne Parillaud when he directed her in that film. Evidently, Harlin and Besson liked to watch their wives beat the crap out of people on screen.
That brings us to Sony's espionage action thriller "Salt." Director Phillip Noyce is a veteran of the action genre having helmed 1992's "Patriot Games," and 1994's "Clear and Present Danger" among others. A taught and effective summer ride, Angelina Jolie proves once again that a woman can bring as much to the action table as any man and look really fine doing it. As Lara Croft, Mrs. Smith and the beautiful assassin Fox in 2008's "Wanted," Jolie has made a career out of portraying super hot, ultra-dangerous women on screen and the audience seems to totally buy into the idea ("Mr. and Mrs. Smith" and "Wanted" both debuted with over $50 million). "Salt" may be the perfect manifestation of all the disparate parts that make this joyride of a film so enjoyable. With women driving such a huge part of the box office revenue in recent years, "Salt" may prove quite effective in getting both women and their male-counterparts into the theatre. It seems like not much arm-twisting will be required to get guys excited to see the film; in fact it may be the guys dragging their girlfriends to see "Salt."
On the flip side of the PG-13 action represented by "Salt," is Fox's G-rated "Ramona and Beezus" which is based on the book "Ramona Forever" and featuring characters from the Ramona series of children's novels by Beverly Cleary. With a terrific trailer and marketing campaign plus a super-appealing ensemble cast including John Corbett, Josh Duhamel, Ginnifer Goodwin, Sandra Oh and Bridget Moynahan the film is the perfect family summer film. Of course Joey King as Ramona and singer-songwriter and Disney channel mainstay Selena Gomez as her big sister Beezus, have great sisterly chemistry and are truly the heart of the film. Even with lots of competition for the family film audience with "Despicable Me," "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," "Toy Story 3," "The Last Airbender" and "The Karate Kid," all in the marketplace, "Ramona and Beezus" should still have a solid shot at making its mark at the box-office this weekend.
A very competitive box office environment has certainly developed over the past few weeks and Warner Bros. "Inception" is clearly the film to beat this weekend. With a Monday gross of $10.2 million it is evident that word-of-mouth is strongly favoring the film and that it will present a formidable competitive challenge to the newcomers in the weekend derby; even if the film dropped 50% we are still looking at a $31 million plus weekend for the mind-bending, visual tour-de-force. One thing is certain, with the combination of "Inception," "Salt," "Despicable Me," "Toy Story 3," "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and "Ramona and Beezus," this should be another strong weekend at the nation's theatres.