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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There's an allure to imperfection. With his latest drama Lawless director John Hillcoat taps directly into the side of human nature that draws us to it. Hillcoat finds it in Prohibition history a time when the regulations of alcohol consumption were subverted by most of the population; He finds it in the rural landscapes of Virginia: dingy raw and mesmerizing. And most importantly he finds it in his main character Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) the scrappy third brother of a moonshining family who is desperate to prove his worth. Jack forcefully injects himself into the family business only to discover there's an underbelly to the underbelly. Lawless is a beautiful film that's violent as hell striking in a way only unfiltered Americana could be.
Acting as the driver for his two outlaw brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) isn't enough for Jack. He's enticed by the power of the gangster figure and entranced by what moonshine money can buy. So like any fledgling entrepreneur Jack takes matters into his own hands. Recruiting crippled family friend/distillery mastermind Cricket (Dane DeHaan) the young whippersnapper sets out to brew his own batch sell it to top dog Floyd Banner and make the family rich. The plan works — but it puts the Bondurant boys in over their heads with a new threat: the corrupt law enforcers of Chicago.
Unlike many stories of crime life Lawless isn't about escalation. The movie drifts back and forth leisurely popping in moments like the beats of a great TV episode. One second the Bondurants could be talking shop with their female shopkeep Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain). The next Forrest is beating the bloody pulp out of a cop blackmailing their operation. The plot isn't thick; Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave preferring to bask in the landscapes the quiet moments the haunting terror that comes with a life on the other side of the tracks. A feature film doesn't offer enough time for Lawless to build — it recalls cinema-level TV currently playing on outlets like HBO and AMC that have truly spoiled us — but what the duo accomplish is engrossing.
Accompanying the glowing visuals and Cave's knockout workout on the music side (a toe-tapping mix of spirituals bluegrass and the writer/musician's spine-tingling violin) are muted performances from some of Hollywood's rising stars. Despite LaBeouf's off-screen antics he lights up Lawless and nails the in-deep whippersnapper. His playful relationship with a local religious girl (Mia Wasikowska) solidifies him as a leading man but like everything in the movie you want more. Tom Hardy is one of the few performers who can "uurrr" and "mmmnerm" his way through a scene and come out on top. His greatest sparring partner isn't a hulking thug but Chastain who brings out the heart of the impenetrable beast. The real gem of Lawless is Guy Pearce as the Bondurant trio's biggest threat. Shaved eyebrows pristine city clothes and a temper like a rabid wolverine Pearce's Charlie Rakes is the most frightening villain of 2012. He viciously chews up every moment he's on screen. That's even before he starts drawing blood.
Lawless is the perfect movie for the late August haze — not quite the Oscary prestige picture or the summertime shoot-'em-up. It's drama that has its moonshine and swigs it too. Just don't drink too much.
The Sundance Film Festival, which is backed by actor Robert Redford and his Sundance Institute for movies, comes to an end today in Park City, Utah. Saturday night's awards ceremony saw the sci-fi drama Primer, win the top grand jury prize, while the jurors awarded DIG! the top prize in the documentary category. Debra Granik took the dramatic directing award for Down to the Bone, about a lower-middle-class wife and mother's struggles with cocaine addiction.
Many celebs have attended the festival since it kicked off 11 days ago, including Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore, David Arquette, Courteney Cox, Kevin Bacon and Jane Fonda. And while the stars littered the streets of the snowy mountain town, studios were busy making acquisitions.
Among the purchases this week were the The Woodsman, starring Kevin Bacon, for Newmarket Films; Garden State for Miramax Films and Fox Searchlight; and CSA: Confederate Sates of America for IFC Films.
Warner Independent Pictures, the new indie arm of Warner Bros., acquired We Don't Live Here Anymore, a drama about two couples whose marriages are on the rocks. The film stars Naomi Watts, Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern and Peter Krause.
But despite their success at Sundance, films that win the festival's top awards have a difficult time finding broad audiences and, more often than not, become the year's most talked-about art-house titles rather than box office hits.
Of course, the ultimate Sundance success story to date has to be that of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's The Blair Witch Project. The film cost about $25,000 to make, was acquired by Artisan Entertainment for a cool $1 million and raked in $140 million at the box office. But when it debuted at Sundance in 1999, Blair Witch never won a single prize. In fact, it wasn't even in competition.
That said, it is nearly impossible to predict a film's success, or failure, outside the festival grounds. But films such as November, starring the well-known Courteney Cox, are sure to garner buzz.
First-timer Jason Wishnow, whose pic Oedipus stars vegetables instead of actors, told Reuters Sunday that more than anything, the festival is about exposure.
"The goal is getting [the work] out to find agents, producers or someone who will take you to the next level," he said.
The top winners in the independent film festival screen for one last time today.
Here is a complete list of winners:
Dramatic Grand Jury Prize: Primer, directed, written, and produced by Shane Carruth
Documentary Grand Jury Prize: DIG!, directed and produced by Ondi Timoner
Documentary Audience Award: Born Into Brothels, directed by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski
Dramatic Audience Award: Maria Full of Grace, directed by Joshua Marston
Documentary Directing Award: Morgan Spurlock , Super Size Me
Dramatic Directing Award: Debra Granik, Down To the Bone
World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award: Seducing Doctor Lewis, directed by Jean-François Pouliot
Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: Larry Gross, We Don't Live Here Anymore
Documentary Special Jury Prize: Farmingville, directed by Catherine Tambini and Carlos Sandoval
Dramatic Special Jury Prizes: Brother to Brother, directed by Rodney Evans; and Vera Farmiga for her performance in Down To the Bone
World Cinema Documentary Audience Award: The Corporation, directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott
Excellence in Cinematography Award: Ferne Pearlstein, Imelda from the documentary competition; Nancy Schreiber, November from the dramatic competition
Freedom of Expression Award: Repatriation, directed by Dong-won Kim
Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking: When the Storm Came, directed by Shilpi Gupta; and Gowanus, Brooklyn, directed by Ryan Fleck
Jury Prize in International Short Filmmaking: Tomo, directed by Paul Catling
Honorable Mentions in Short Filmmaking: Curtis, directed by Jacob Akira Okada; Harvie Krumpet, directed by Adam Elliot; Krumoed, directed by David LaChapelle; Papillion d'Amour, directed by Nicholas Provost; and Spokane, directed by Larry Kennar
2004 Sundance Online Film Festival Viewers Awards: Bathtime in Clerkenwell, directed by Alex Budovsky (Animation); Wet Dreams False Images, directed by Jesse Epstein (Short Subject); and The Dawn at my Back: Memoir of a Texas Upbringing, directed by Carroll Parrott Blue and Kristy H.A. Kang (New Forms Gallery)
Sundance/NHK International Filmmakers Award: Gyorgy Palfi, Taxidermia from Europe; Andrucha Waddington, House of Sand from Latin America; Miranda July, Me You and Everyone We Know from the United States. Kosuke Hosokaim, director of Tepid Love from Japan received an honorable mention