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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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.
Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.
It’s been a decade since Bryan Singer helped revitalize Superhero Cinema with his beloved mutant masterpiece, X-Men, but with the birth of each successive comic book film franchise, I often get the feeling that I’ve seen it all before. That sentiment changed when Warner Bros. Pictures whisked me away to New Orleans in early August for the coolest set visit I’ve ever been a part of: Green Lantern.
As a former comic book store employee and all-around spandex enthusiast, I’ve long considered Green Lantern one of my favorite fictional characters because of his unique backstory. It’s what makes his first feature film, which is directed by legendary action impresario Martin Campbell (Casino Royale), the movie I’m most anticipating next year. Unlike many of the costumed crime-fighters we’re accustomed to, cocksure test pilot Hal Jordan didn’t really choose to become the defender of Sector 2814; the power ring of a fallen champion set him on that heroic path. And he is not the only one of his kind. Over the course of the film, we will meet many members of the Green Lantern Corps, an intergalactic police force that maintains order throughout the universe, including fan favorites like Kilowag, Tomar Re and others that I’m not at liberty to talk about – yet. Their unique kinship is just one aspect of the massive self-contained mythology that defines the world in which Green Lantern lives, a world which sets him apart from the other heroes of the DC Universe.
Of course, an eclectic cache of supporting characters isn’t the only thing that makes Green Lantern unlike any superhero movie you’ve ever seen. The look of the film is both contemporary and otherworldly, and as we follow our hero from the suburbs of Coast City to the towers of Oa (the home planet of the Corps. and the source of their green energy), you’ll see why the talent and vision of Grant Major, the Academy Award-winning production designer of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was required to make the film a reality. His experience in creating new worlds from the ground up lends itself to the extraordinary task of realizing the Oa that we’ve seen in the comics for decades.
As I toured a large sound stage on the set, I got to see some models of a few of the structures that we’ll see on the alien planet and could feel the influence of Middle Earth, and specifically the rocky towers of Mordor, in the designs of the Citadel, where the Guardians of the Universe (who founded the Corps. and serve as its advisors/leaders) reside, as well the Great Hall at the center of the planet, where a particularly exciting scene takes place. It should be noted that the scale of these environments is colossal: tiny paper cut-outs of characters were placed within the models to bring into focus the sheer size of these sets and it’s some of the most ambitious stuff that I’ve ever seen. Despite the technological and scientific advancements of its civilization, Oa will look very natural and organic, much like Hal Jordan’s home Coast City, but don’t think that creating an American metropolis for the big screen is any easier for the art department.
“The character of Coast City is very West Coast, California, as it’s described in the comics, but Coast City from our point of view is a hybrid of a few different things,” says Major. “Obviously we’re here in New Orleans making the film and so there are some key locations that we’ve incorporated into Coast City.” One such location is the Lakefront Airport, which will depict the main building and hangars of Ferris Industries, the aircraft company that links the three major characters in the film. “Although this part is New Orleans, this part [he gestures over to a series of concept paintings that combine to show us a full view of the Ferris compound] is going to be digital, this part will partially be on the West Coast,” he continues. “We’re also using Long Beach as a location in this jigsaw, so we sort of gather all of these elements together and make them into a faux Coast City.” As you can tell, crafting a city from scratch using little more than your imagination to guide your work is a trying task, but if you think that Major’s job is hard, try walking in Ryan Reynolds’ shoes.
“It’s just tough,” the 33-year-old actor says in response to questions about his work involving blue-screen battles and “construct creation,” a term that describes the fantastic abilities of the power ring. “A lot of times we build stuff and I can really just build muscle memory of everything I’m doing. [Sometimes] we’re going to create a construct and it’s going to be modified in post from what we thought it was on the day we shot it. It’s about trying to find different options.” Luckily for Reynolds, his performance isn’t totally governed by impractical effects.
Hal Jordan is a three dimensional character who Reynolds believes conforms more to the archetype of a “Han Solo or Chuck Yeager” than a Tony Stark or Clark Kent (yet another element that makes the film fresh and original) and comes complete with a “real family story” that is “steeped in tragedy,” as he puts it. “Hal loses his father and that is pretty difficult for any kid to overcome,” he says of Jordan, who uses wit and charm as an emotional defense mechanism. It’s a trait that differentiates him from the usual wisecracking funny man we’re used to seeing Reynolds play. “He’s at odds with his entire family and is a bit of a pariah, but he himself doesn’t see that. It’s the same reason people who play villains in a great way defend their characters. They believe they are not the villains, they just have different convictions than everyone else.”
Speaking of villains, current go-to antagonist Mark Strong is playing Sinestro, one of the greatest Green Lanterns of all time and a mentor of sorts to Hal as he develops his abilities. Anyone who has seen Strong’s work in films like Kick-Ass and Sherlock Holmes knows that he’s really good at being bad. Reynolds had nothing but esteem for his colleague, who’ll be prominently featured in our full set visit report in the coming months. “He’s going to be something to contend with,” says the star. “He really brings this weight and dignity to his character. He’s so elegant in the way he moves and the way he behaves and speaks; it’s minimal effort for maximum gain with him.” Having seen full character renderings of Sinestro, I can tell you that Mark looks incredible in character, as if he walked right out of the comic books themselves. His performance is inspiring, and will likely go down in history as one of the great comic book villains of all time, right up there with Jack Nicholson’s Joker and Terrence Stamp’s General Zod.
However, in no way am I comparing Green Lantern to Batman or Superman: The Movie, because you just can’t. As I said before, this film is unlike any superhero movie that you’ve ever seen in terms of story, special effects and scope. Even Campbell, who’s no stranger to big-budget productions of this size, marvels at what he and his team have accomplished. “Clearly Green Lantern is huge, simply by virtue of the stories and the concept of the character being a part of an intergalactic police force. With this character, you have the whole of space and the universe. That gives you tremendous scope. How much bigger can you go?”
And that’s the great thing about this film: it’s BIG in every sense of the word. You’ll see every type of battle imaginable, from fistfights and aerial dogfights to swordplay and space battles, in addition to some of the most breathtaking and immersive imagery ever created for a film. Warner Bros., Campbell and co. have something very special on their hands and I can’t wait to share more with you about their spectacular film, but you’ll have to wait for our full set visit report, which should be coming in a few months. It will include FULL interviews with Reynolds, Campbell, Strong, costume designer Ngila Dickson, co-producer and DC Entertainment CCO Geoff Johns and more! Check back with us for more on Green Lantern and be sure to keep June 17, 2011, marked on your calendars in green!