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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For the bulk of every Rocky and Bullwinkle episode, moose and squirrel would engage in high concept escapades that satirized geopolitics, contemporary cinema, and the very fabrics of the human condition. With all of that to work with, there's no excuse for why the pair and their Soviet nemeses haven't gotten a decent movie adaptation. But the ingenious Mr. Peabody and his faithful boy Sherman are another story, intercut between Rocky and Bullwinkle segments to teach kids brief history lessons and toss in a nearly lethal dose of puns. Their stories and relationship were much simpler, which means that bringing their shtick to the big screen would entail a lot more invention — always risky when you're dealing with precious material.
For the most part, Mr. Peabody & Sherman handles the regeneration of its heroes aptly, allowing for emotionally substance in their unique father-son relationship and all the difficulties inherent therein. The story is no subtle metaphor for the difficulties surrounding gay adoption, with society decreeing that a dog, no matter how hyper-intelligent, cannot be a suitable father. The central plot has Peabody hosting a party for a disapproving child services agent and the parents of a young girl with whom 7-year-old Sherman had a schoolyard spat, all in order to prove himself a suitable dad. Of course, the WABAC comes into play when the tots take it for a spin, forcing Peabody to rush to their rescue.
Getting down to personals, we also see the left brain-heavy Peabody struggle with being father Sherman deserves. The bulk of the emotional marks are hit as we learn just how much Peabody cares for Sherman, and just how hard it has been to accept that his only family is growing up and changing.
But more successful than the new is the film's handling of the old — the material that Peabody and Sherman purists will adore. They travel back in time via the WABAC Machine to Ancient Egypt, the Renaissance, and the Trojan War, and 18th Century France, explaining the cultural backdrop and historical significance of the settings and characters they happen upon, all with that irreverent (but no longer racist) flare that the old cartoons enjoyed. And oh... the puns.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman is a f**king treasure trove of some of the most amazingly bad puns in recent cinema. This effort alone will leave you in awe.
The film does unravel in its final act, bringing the science-fiction of time travel a little too close to the forefront and dropping the ball on a good deal of its emotional groundwork. What seemed to be substantial building blocks do not pay off in the way we might, as scholars of animated family cinema, have anticipated, leaving the movie with an unfinished feeling.
But all in all, it's a bright, compassionate, reasonably educational, and occasionally funny if not altogether worthy tribute to an old favorite. And since we don't have our own WABAC machine to return to a time of regularly scheduled Peabody and Sherman cartoons, this will do okay for now.
If nothing else, it's worth your time for the puns.
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For Steven Soderbergh, Behind the Candelabra, his new HBO movie about flamboyant pop star Liberace (Michael Douglas) and live-in lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), was years in the making.
"For years I was thinking about it but couldn’t figure out a way in. I didn't want a traditional biopic and I couldn’t figure out what the angle was," Soderbergh tells TV reporters at the Television Critics Association winter press tour. But the project came together once a friend told him to read Thorson's tell-all book about the relationship, Behind the Candelabra.
Portraying the couple in a realistic manner was very important to Soderbergh and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese. "We take the relationship seriously," Soderbergh says. "My feeling based on some of the research we did indicated that it was a real relationship and it was, at that point, the longest relationship Liberace had had. I was very anxious that we not make a caricature of either of the characters or the relationship. There’s no question that it’s unfortunate to see the movie through a contemporary lens and know that they weren’t able to be as open back then as people are today."
Damon, who plays Thorson, says that sensitivity came across in the script. "When you’ve made a lot of movies it's really rare to even see a script this good," he says. "It was so complex, their relationship. Richard so got this dynamic. Whether this was the actual dynamic or not, I completely believed what he had written. ... So it was fun, but we weren’t giggling about it. We took it very seriously."
That said, there were some outrageous elements Damon and Douglas encountered in portraying both men. "I’ve always been somebody who goes into the wardrobe fitting and I try to get out as fast as I can," Damon says. "I probably spent more time in the wardrobe fittings on this thing than I had in the previous 15 projects — literally days and days and days. And I really enjoyed it."
Douglas had met Liberace a few times as a child thanks to his father, but studied footage of the musician to really portray him well. "There’s a tremendous amount of clips and films that certainly give you a sense and idea [of what he was like]," Douglas explains.
Although Liberace's larger-than-life personality is often poked fun at now, executive producer Jerry Weintraub notes that Liberace's musicianship is often overlooked.
"I think that it's well known within the industry and among musicians that he’s among the best pianists of all time, but he became a great showman," Weintraub says. "I think his piano playing became secondary to [pleasing] his audience. ... He presented a spectacle every night."
Ultimately, Behind the Candelabra is very respectful, Weintraub says. "Everybody appreciated [Liberace] and appreciated his career, and I think Stephen captured that on film."
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[PHOTO CREDIT: Miguel Aguilar/Pacific Coast News]
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Best Wigs Ever: Michael Douglas and Matt Damon Take Liberace
When you think Liberace, you think Michael Douglas. Or at least you will, soon. You might have heard about the HBO movie endeavor to pay tribute to the deceased singer/pianist with a developing biopic by Steven Soderbergh. In the fall of 2011, Douglas was cast to play the lead, while Matt Damon was brought on to portray Liberace's much younger lover, chauffeur Scott Thorson.
Douglas and Damon are featured below in the first picture from the HBO film, which is titled Behind the Candelabra. They might not be spitting images of their famed characters, but you cannot deny that the spirit of Liberace lives on in those shades. And that wig. And the collar. Douglas has this down.
Thorson is obviously a less iconic figure, meaning that Damon will have more leeway in his portrayal of the young man with whom Liberace was romantically involved. The hair might cut it for the visual embodiment of Thorson; whatever Damon brings to the table in his performance is bound to be a winner.
Check out the pic, and get ready for Behind the Candelabra, set to air on HBO sometime in 2013.
[Photo Credit: Miguel Aguilar/PacificCoastNews.com]
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