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Column Fri Mar 28 2014

Noah, Sabotage, Cesar Chavez & Jodorowsky's Dune

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Noah

There's a sequence in director and co-writer (with Ari Handel) Darren Aronofsky's Noah in which the title character (Russell Crowe) is relaying to one of his children the story of creation, pretty much word for word right as we know it from the Bible — six days, ending in the creation of man and woman. But the visuals that accompany this telling are what makes the sequence so magnificent, and in many ways, best explain Aronofsky's take of his version of Noah, his ark, the great flood, and the restart that humanity and civilization got as a result of said event.

What we see when being told the creationism version of life on Earth is actually the scientific version, including evolution — a creature crawls up out of the water, stands upright and takes on human qualities. It's all shown in an accelerated manner, but there's no doubt that Aronofsky isn't so much placating both sides of the discussion; he's attempting to find a way to see if both versions would exist in the same universe. It's as if he's saying, "Let's assume all of these events happened as written in the Bible. How would that be possible?" In some cases, the answer is simply, "It isn't." But in other cases, he attempts to find ways in which religious mysticism and hard fact work together to create circumstances and beings that might be easier to accept.

Aronofsky (Black Swan, The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream) isn't dismissing the possibility that a divine hand (known as "the creator"; the word God is never spoken in the film) was at work in Noah's time, but he also wonders if hearing voices and receiving visions might have been a little less of a direct line from the creator and a little more wishful thinking on Noah's part. It's a fascinating and ambitious approach in this biblical work from one of modern cinema's true visionaries.

A few early reviews have poked fun at the rock giants known as Watchers that assist Noah in building his ark and protect him from King Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone); they seem to be right out of The Lord of the Rings, but in fact Watchers (said to be fallen angels who merged with the earth as a punishment from God for wanting to live among humans) were featured in the Dead Sea Scrolls (minus the stony skin), and having them as part of this story make a degree of sense since there's no way Noah and his family could have carried the massive logs to build the ark on their own. Sometimes being practical also amounts to good storytelling. I'm not saying it's believable; I just like the thinking behind it.

Crowe is especially good playing a man who is psychologically tormented on many levels. He believes he possesses knowledge about the world's end, and that weighs heavy on him. But he also thinks that he and his family will die when all is said and done (the creator wasn't real clear on that point), which seems to make sense since his oldest son Shem (Douglas Booth) is in love with Noah's adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson), who is barren; and his other two sons are either too young or simply don't have women in their lives to make procreation possible. Logan Lerman plays the middle son, Ham, and he's just beginning to have slightly uncontrollable feelings about many things, including women, so much so that he openly defies his father more than once.

Attempting to hold the family together is Noah's wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), who must balance her husband's plan with her belief that the creator wants them to live and perhaps even multiply. As we already know from A Beautiful Mind, Crowe and Connelly form an interesting dynamic on screen. Noah is a strange combination of stoic and full-bore passion, while she is the grounding force in his life that allows him not to be consumed by this all-consuming task. Pitting Noah against Tubal-cain's army seems a bit too on the nose (apparently the king killed Noah's father before his eyes when Noah was a young boy), and a final battle between the two men borders on silly. But too much about Noah's conflicted nature works to quibble over an unnecessary fight.

I've somehow made it this far in the review without mentioning animals. What's perhaps most remarkable about Noah are the subtle ways special effects are used in ways I've never seen. The waves of paired animals that come to the ark makes for astonishing visuals, especially when the snakes, lizards and amphibians make their way through the woods surrounding it. That scene actually made me want to lift my feet off the ground for fear of feeling those creatures slide by them, and this isn't even in 3-D.

Tossed in almost more for humor and a touch of winking magic is Anthony Hopkins as Noah's grandfather Methuselah (that casting is almost too easy), but I won't lie, I loved seeing his interplay with his great grandchildren and how he turns a simple desire to taste berries again into some of the more important miracles on display in the film. And speaking of creaky older men, if you listen carefully, you'll hear the voice of Nick Nolte as the lead Watcher, Samyaza; I'm guessing no audio tricks were needed to make his voice sound extra gravelly.

I was told recently by the producer of another Bible-based film that when you stray from the gospel's dialogue, people get angry. And that may be true of the most devout believers. But it's difficult to imagine anyone taking issue with this version of Noah's story. It's faithful in spirit and often text to the source material, and the alterations and additional material are all in spiritual alignment with the Bible. Noah certainly isn't trying to strip away at a believer's faith — far from it. This is the story of a man of faith who was willing to sacrifice everything to adhere to what he believed were his creator's wishes.

The film works as both a sweeping testament to spiritual belief and a strong fantasy adventure story with religious undertones. The emphasis will depend on what an audience member brings into the theater with them, but it's all there, in all its power and glory. It saddens me to think that some believers and non-believers will dismiss the film for their respective reason, because this is truly a film that bows to neither side but should still satisfy all. See it because Aronofsky rarely disappoints, and this film is damn near a masterpiece.

Sabotage

It's big, it's dumb, it's beyond brutal, and it's way more complicated than it needs to be, but I'll be damned if I didn't sit and white-knuckle watch Sabotage as often as I was laughing in spots I'm pretty sure weren't meant to be funny. Believe me when I say I would never give this film a pass just because Arnold Schwarzenegger is the lead, as Breacher, the head of a tactical DEA team who essentially answers to no one. If anything, I'd be more likely to be an apologist for director and co-writer (with Skip Woods) David Ayer, whose commitment to keeping things authentic and bloody in such films as Training Day and End of Watch make his works exercises in peaking into some dark corners of law enforcement.

Breacher and his team open the film raiding a cartel mansion containing millions of dollars in drug money. Before they blow the place to hell, they hide about $10 million down a sewer pipe for pick up later, but when they go to pick it up, the money has vanished. The missing money doesn't go unnoticed by either the cartel or other law enforcement agencies, who disband the team for six months, interrogating them relentlessly before allowing them to reconvene and start kicking ass again. But the old team is rusty, suspicious and paranoid, all for very good reasons. And before long, team members start getting knocked off in very nasty ways that make it appear that the cartel isn't happy about having its money swiped.

A pair of FBI agents (Olivia Williams and Harold Perrineau) are trying to solve the murders while the team is looking to do the same but enact some revenge on whoever is killing them off. And there's a lot of shooting and blowing things up and stabbing and general nastiness. It's pretty great.

What I enjoyed most was watching the task force as a group. Familiar faces like Sam Worthington, Joe Manganiello, Josh Holloway, Terrence Howard, Max Martini and, most surprising, a drug-fueled Mirelle Enos as Lizzy, the team's only woman and possibly its most ferocious member. I'm still trying to figure out if she's one of the most kickass female characters ever in an action film or if she's setting back feminism 50 years with her portrayal of an oversexed redhead who would get just as much pleasure out of gutting you as she would fucking you. The time we get to spend just watching the team members hang out and tear each other to pieces with dark truths and gallows humor is fascinating and funny stuff. And watching them maneuver around a location, clearing room after room, mowing down bad guys reminded me of a sloppier, but equally precise version of what we saw in Zero Dark Thirty.

I like the way Schwarzenegger handles this role, as well, infusing his inherent toughness with charm and wit, with a touch of the vulgarian. He even uses his likability to manipulate the investigators into giving up information. But the same cannot be said of most of the team members, and as a result I found myself not really giving a shit who was going to die next or which one, if any, stole the money out from under them. While I certainly enjoyed watching the camaraderie on display, Sabotage doesn't give us enough of these soldiers to really care about their fates, and that's detrimental to the film as a whole.

Sabotage is far from a great film, but it's a highly watchable one that combines a high degree of entertainment value with just enough gore and tasteless behavior to keep those of us without twisted minds at bay for fear of contamination. It's a nasty piece of work, and I say that will all due affection. There's a sense that Ayer may have dumbed down some of the procedural and forensic details for mass consumption, and would have actually enjoyed watching these tough guys (and lady) actually show an interest in the investigative part of their job. But one cannot wish for everything. There's a level of shock value that the filmmakers clearly love delivering, and while I'm not necessarily a fan of shock for shock's sake, it fits in with the material that surrounds it. Sabotage is a smart film going deep undercover as a dumb movie, so much so that sometimes it forgets it's smart. Got it?

Cesar Chavez

The one thing that the biopic on the influential activist Cesar Chavez is not lacking is heart. The film Cesar Chavez is overflowing with passion and good intentions, as well as a handful of exceedingly strong performances. What it doesn't feature is balance. This is a film that spends its entire running time preaching to the choir. Not that there's a downside to treating farm workers fairly and allowing them to bring some degree of dignity to their backbreaking work, but the lines here are so distinctly drawn and the "villains" in the film are so cut-and-dry evil (thank you John Malkovich, playing the greedy industrial farmer Bogdanovich) that you don't feel like you're even being given a choice but to hate them all with all your might.

It may sound like too much of a good thing to some, but I guess I'm one of those people who likes to make up my own mind about a situation and not be told what to think about a person or a company. Cesar Chavez's saving grace is a spell-binding performance by Michael Peña (End of Watch, Crash) as the titular character, who walks into every situation and conflict with such a clear eye and serene disposition that people can't help but listen and agree with him and his idea about organizing. Chavez rarely raises his voice, except when speaking to large groups and never in anger. He was a fierce proponent of non-violence, and had a clear and simple idea about justice and equality. He also knew the power of the people he spoke on behalf of.

Cesar Chavez was directed by the great actor Diego Luna (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Elysium, Milk) and he clearly has a way of inspiring impassioned performances from the likes of America Ferrera as Chavez's wife, Rosario Dawson as Dolores Huerta, and Gabriel Mann as Malkovich's son, who is clearly moved by Chavez's pleas on behalf of the farm workers and asks his father to consider listening as well. The closest Luna comes to showing the downside to Chavez's life is making it clear that his wife and children often were forced to the back of his life so that he could lead and inspire tens of thousand of workers. But even that realization is glossed over a little too easily.

Sadly, Cesar Chavez is a classic example of placing a cultural hero on a pedestal and never letting him down. It's blanket hero worship without showing us the human behind the praise. Better films have been made about both human rights activists and tough times in the labor movement. What Chavez did for vineyard workers in the 1960s is undeniable. Unfortunately, this film is mostly empty words without substance or soul on the screen. Certainly, those who made the film had their hearts in the right place, but it's a missed opportunity not to place those hearts in the characters.

Jodorowsky's Dune

Perhaps the great unmade film of all time, certainly one of the best known, the version of Frank Herbert's Dune that director Alejandro Jodorowsky would have made in the mid-1970s would have rivaled the greatest science fiction films of all time, with its inspired take on the material and even more mind-blowing casting (Mick Jagger, David Carradine, Orson Welles, Salvador Dali) and music (one planet's soundtrack was to be composed by Pink Floyd) choices. Alas, accountants and less visionary studio heads shut the project down after so much of the pre-production had already been put in place, including storyboards by Jean "Moebius" Giraud and technology designs by an unknown (to Hollywood) artist named H.R. Giger, who went on to revolutionize science-fiction vehicles and creatures in Alien.

With all of this raw talent on display, you'd figure someone would green-light this sucker, and eventually someone did, only they gave the film to David Lynch, and it isn't especially well regarded my most. Director Frank Pavich has done something remarkable: he's gotten Jodorowsky to open up his Dune production notebook (apparently, only two exist and Jodo has one of them) and tells all the stories about the work done to bring Dune to the big screen. What we soon discover is that elements of these designs have never stopped appearing in science fiction films since the 1970s.

But barring the tributes and blatant rip-offs of Jodorowsky's team over the years, Jodorowsky's Dune is worth watching just for the stories, the mad vision on display, to listen to the passionate director talk about his thought process and ideas, and let your mind run free without thoughts of a world in which this film actually got made. (Jodorwosky did release a version of his Dune in comic book form years later.) There isn't a second of this film that won't captivate true cinephiles, including Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn, who was one of the lucky few to have been invited by Jodorowsky to page through the book of Dune in Jodo's house after dinner one night. His account of that event opens the film and will fry your brain; if it doesn't, you don't love movies enough. There are more reasons to see this movie than whatever you were planning on seeing this weekend. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

 

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Theater Wed Aug 13 2014

An Epic, Tragic Win: All Our Tragic

By Benjamin Cannon & Mike Ewing

What then is to be made of the Hypocrites' new stage production, All Our Tragic? This massive opus, comprising all 32 surviving Greek tragedy plays re-written and directed by Sean Graney, lasts a staggering 12 hours, including intermissions and meal breaks. Ben and Mike go the distance.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Aug 15 2014

The Expendables 3, Let's Be Cops, The Giver, Venus in Fur, Dinosaur 13 & The German Doctor

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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