Review – Noah

Bonkers, bizarre and brilliant in equal measure, it’s fair to say there won’t be another film quite like Darren Aronofsky’s Noah this – or perhaps any – year.

In an age of identikit blockbusters, Noah should be applauded for having the courage of its convictions to offer an experience you won't soon forget

In an age of identikit blockbusters, Noah should be applauded for having the courage of its convictions to offer an experience you won’t soon forget

The Bible’s many film adaptations have invariably been of the epic variety; overblown ‘event’ movies that are as extravagant as they are huge.

While Noah doesn’t skimp on the computer-generated bombast, it’s also the product of a singular vision – one that both captivates and infuriates.

Throughout his career, Aronofsky’s films have centred on obsessively driven characters; whether they be the cast of Requiem For A Dream (2000) seeking the next fix, Natalie’s Portman’s ballet dancer going to any lengths to reach the top of the pile in Black Swan (2010), or Hugh Jackman’s various incarnations of the same character searching for the tree of life in The Fountain (2006).

The 'Creator' gets angry in Noah

The ‘Creator’ gets angry in Noah

Noah represents his most fanatical character yet – a husband and father whose response to an apocalyptic vision received from ‘the Creator’ is to spend years building a giant ark to save the animal kingdom from the impending flood.

The world Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family inhabit has been ravaged by mankind’s greed and corruption. They eke out a nomadic life away from the rest of humanity in a shattered, lunar landscape (Iceland in reality) ruled by Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), descendant of Adam and Eve’s murderous son Cain.

Noah (Russell Crowe) finally feels the rain in Noah

Noah (Russell Crowe) finally feels the rain in Noah

A fearful Tubal-Cain is determined to seize the ark, but must first build an army to overcome the Watchers; crazy-looking fallen angels encrusted in rock who aid Noah in his mammoth task and come across as the craggy cousins of the talking trees from The Lord Of The Rings.

When it finally does come, the flood is impressively staged. The sense of chaotic desperation among Tubal-Cain and his followers to fight their way onto the ark as Noah and the Watchers try to keep them back is both unnerving and edge-of-the-seat stuff. However, the most chilling and indelible image comes later as the last vestiges of mankind cling hopelessly to a rapidly submerging rock, wailing in vain at the nearby ark as Noah blanks out their screams.

Noah's family, son Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), son Shem (Douglas Booth) and adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson) in Noah

Noah’s family, son Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), son Shem (Douglas Booth) and adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson) in Noah

It’s a truly nightmarish moment that sets up the film’s final act as an increasingly dogmatic Noah turns his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), sons Shem (Douglas Booth) and Ham (Logan Lerman) and adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson) against him when he declares his work won’t be finished until the ultimate sacrifice is made.

Just as with The Fountain, Noah is predominately a spiritualist film rather than an overtly religious one (reflective of Aronofsky’s personal beliefs). It also carries an urgent environmental message – as global warming brings with it rising sea levels, scorched earth and dwindling resources, may we too be forced to start again when the proverbial crap hits the fan?

"Take the ark!!" - Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) gets mad in Noah

“Take the ark!!” – Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) gets mad in Noah

The film has a curious mix of the fantastical (a strange, dog-like beast being hunted by Tubal-Cain’s men; the Watchers; huge stars shining brightly in the daytime) and the grittily authentic. In spite of the larger-than-life connotations of the source material, Aronofsky never lets us forget these are human beings making stomach-churning decisions.

The anger and bewilderment expressed by Shem and Ham towards their merciless father when the screams of those left outside the ark are heard is entirely believable. At one point, a sickened Shem pleads to Noah to let them in, pointing out that not everyone can be ‘guilty’. Noah’s response is to state that every human has a darkness inside of them, a point given form earlier in the film when Noah sneaks into Tubal-Cain’s sin-laden camp and sees a vision of himself giving into his base instincts in order to survive.

Have ark, will travel - Noah and co prepare for the storm in Noah

Have ark, will travel – Noah and co prepare for the storm in Noah

By staging the flood halfway through the movie, one imagines Aronofsky aimed for the real drama to take place within the confines of the ark. However, rather than being the dramatic cannonball he was hoping for, this final act curiously fails to engage and ends up going off the deep end. Perhaps it’s Noah’s incessant reiteration that everyone must accept their punishment that ultimately proves the biggest turn off.

Whatever misgivings one may have here are counterbalanced by the much talked about ‘creation sequence’, reinterpreted by Aronofsky’s time-lapsed visuals as the journey of evolution from the big bang (“Let there be light”) to man’s inhumanity to man. It’s a bravura scene that’s worth the price of admission alone.

Noah's son Ham (Logan Lerman) runs for his life in Noah

Noah’s son Ham (Logan Lerman) runs for his life in Noah

In his best performance for years, Crowe gives a truly affecting performance of a man being pushed beyond his limits while carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. While a very physical performer, Crowe does his best work with his eyes by showing the terrible emotional pain he endures in order to carry out the Creator’s work.

Connelly’s Naameh is the crux both we and her family lean on to navigate our way through these turbulent waters and her performance is excellent. Winstone does what he does best as the unhinged Tubal-Cain, who appears to be history’s first Cockney, while an ancient-looking Anthony Hopkins has a twinkle in his eye as Noah’s grandfather Methuselah.

In an age of identikit blockbusters, Noah should be applauded for having the courage of its convictions to offer an experience you won’t soon forget.

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Review – Man Of Steel

The superhero’s superhero is back, but not as we’ve seen him before, in Zack Snyder’s earnest origin story that strives to put the king-daddy of comic books back on his throne.

There's enough in Man Of Steel to promise much for future adventures, but let's hope there's more fun next time around

There’s enough in Man Of Steel to promise much for future adventures, but let’s hope there’s more fun next time around

While his ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound and run faster than a speeding locomotive naturally lend themselves to incredible set pieces, Superman as a character has always been tricky to build a movie around. His intrinsic capacity for good is far less dramatic than the dark, brooding of Batman, for instance, or the cocksure machismo of Iron Man.

Jor-El (Russell Crowe) prepares to sending his son away from a dying Krypton in Man Of Steel

Jor-El (Russell Crowe) prepares to send his son away from a dying Krypton in Man Of Steel

Uninspiring action sequences, a lacklustre plot and an over-extended running time sank Supes’ last cinematic outing, 2006’s Superman Returns, so the challenge was on to rediscover the magic of 1978’s Superman and make him relevant to a modern day audience.

The news that Man Of Steel would be ‘A Zack Snyder Film’ was hardly a great start. Since his highly watchable 2004 remake of Dawn Of The Dead, the quality of Snyder’s output has diminished further with each new release, to the extent that his most recent film, 2011’s Sucker Punch was virtually unwatchable.

Clark Kent flashbacks to his childhood in Man of Steel's best moments

Clark Kent flashbacks to his childhood in Man of Steel’s best moments

Although the presence of Batman alumnus Christopher Nolan and David S Goyer as, respectively, producer and screenwriter can be felt, there’s no mistaking this is a Snyder movie, which means stylised violence delivered at an ear-bleeding volume.

Taking the character back to his roots, Man Of Steel begins at the moment of his birth on a dying Krypton. His father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and mother Lara (Ayelet Zurer) manage to launch the spacecraft carrying Kal-El before maniacal rebel General Zod (Michael Shannan) is able to get his hands on the child. Crash-landing on Earth, he’s raised by honest-to-goodness farmers Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), who name him Clark. When Clark starts to develop super-human powers, his alien lineage is revealed to him by his father, who warns of the need to keep his abilities a secret for fear that a confused, frightened society would reject him. However, when Zod and his followers arrive years later demanding that Earth surrender Kal-El or suffer the consequences, Clark must finally embrace his Kryptonian ancestry and become the superman he was destined to be.

Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) consoles a confused Clark in Man Of Steel

Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) consoles a confused Clark in Man Of Steel

While the dark and serious approach taken by Nolan for his Dark Knight trilogy works for a superhero who lives in the shadows, the similar direction Man Of Steel takes doesn’t make much sense. Tossing words around like “edgy” and “realistic” is all well and good, but when you’re dealing with god-like alien beings beating the hell out of each other and laying waste to half of Metropolis (and killing thousands of faceless people in the process, although this doesn’t seem important) on a scale not seen since the The Matrix Revolutions, “realistic” is stretching it somewhat.

Taken on their own merits, the childhood flashbacks Clark has during his Christ-like wandering phase in the film’s first act are the film’s finest moments. Handsomely filmed, these scenes are richly evocative and beautifully played by Costner and Lane. Indeed, the brief, wordless moment when a young Clark plays with the family dog and wears a makeshift red cape is Man Of Steel‘s high watermark.

Intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) in Man Of Steel

Intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) in Man Of Steel

A typically restrained Michael Shannan as General Zod in Man Of Steel

A typically restrained Michael Shannon as General Zod in Man Of Steel

However, they look like they belong in another film when Snyder switches into default mode and lets the CGI do the talking. While there was a palpable sense of jeopardy for Iron Man and co during Avengers Assembled‘s extended final battle in New York, here the only thing you feel is a sore backside.

In his big break, Henry Cavill does everything that’s asked of him, from brooding lonerism to conflicted turmoil and finally self-assurance that falls on the right side of smug. He’s no Christopher Reeve, but then who is? Anyone aware of Shannon’s turns in the likes of Take Shelter and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire may wonder like me how much CGI was actually required to show Zod’s heat vision, so intense are Shannon’s eyes anyway. It’s hardly a stretch, but it’s fun nonetheless to watch him deliver Zod’s semi-regular meltdowns.

Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and his staff take shelter in Man Of Steel

Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and his staff take shelter in Man Of Steel

Although she starts out well as feisty reporter Lois Lane, Amy Adams struggles with a script that runs out of things for her to do. Laurence Fishburne, meanwhile, dons his Morpheus hat for a spot of sermonising as Daily Planet editor Perry White and Crowe at least gets to run around more than Marlon Brando.

Superman (Henry Cavill) at one with the suit in Man of Steel

Superman (Henry Cavill) at one with the suit in Man of Steel

Hans Zimmer’s score may indulge the Christ motif a little strongly at times (there’s only so many angels you need to hear), but is otherwise stirring and haunting in all the right places and doesn’t make you pine for Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic composition.

Snyder drops in a few nice touches to prepare the ground for the inevitable sequel (a Lexcorp lorry is overturned during the Superman vs Zod melee, suggesting Mr Luthor is being primed) and one can only hope it makes room for a bit more fun next time around.

It’s ironic that a film featuring a character gradually finding himself should lose its way as it goes on. There’s enough here to promise much for future adventures, but this man of steel still has a long way to fly if he hopes to reclaim his crown.

Review – Les Misérables

The most exhilarating rollercoasters are the ones that feel like they’re about to go off the rails at any second and come crashing to the ground.

Les Misérables movie poster

Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables – “an epic spectacle on such a grandiose scale as to leave you exhausted”

An experience not too dissimilar is had sitting through Tom Hooper’s unashamedly grandiose and wholly cinematic version of the enormously popular and reverred stage musical (itself based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel) that begins in 1815 and culminates in the 1832 June rebellion in Paris.

Hooper certainly had his work cut out for him, if for no other reason than to deal with the pressure of meeting the heady expectations of countless thousands of theatregoers who have adored the musical since its premiere in 1985.

Despite working with a far larger canvas than he’s previously been used after The Damned United and The King’s Speech, Hooper has taken the decision not to play safe with the material and to go for it instead. It’s a brave approach and one that is vindicated throughout the film’s 158 engrossing minutes.

From the first scene, the camera (with the assistance of CGI) emerges from the sea and glides over a storm-ravaged ship before coming to rest (momentarily) on the soon-to-be ex-convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), part of a chain gang being forced to pull the vessel into dry dock. The camera then propels away to prison guard-turned policeman Javert (Russell Crowe), who makes it his life’s mission to hunt down Valjean after the former prisoner breaks parole.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) searches for redemption in Les Misérables

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) searches for redemption in Les Misérables

These first moments set the tone for what is to follow. This is no staid or stagey adaptation; Hooper wants you to know you’re watching a movie.

Just as the director seems to love attaching his camera to a bungy cord, so too does he delight in using that other device not available to a theatre production – the close up. When a scene calls for a confrontation or a big display of emotion, Hooper gets in tight, refusing to let go until every last drop of despair, grief, elation or anger is wrung out.

The angelic Fantine (Anne Hathaway) in Les Misérables

The angelic Fantine (Anne Hathaway) in Les Misérables

This is most affectingly handled in the scenes with factory worker Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who’s thrown on the street after she’s discovered sending money to her illegitimate daughter Cosette and desperately turns to prostitution to support her child. As Hathaway sings I Dreamed A Dream, Hooper locks the camera in close on her anguished, emaciated face in one continuous, bravura take.

The centrepiece of the film, it’s Hathaway’s Oscar-bait moment and she nails it. She gives it absolutely everything and delivers a shattering, show-stopping performance that runs the gamut from quiet grief to dead-eyed resignation that breaks the heart. If her delivery of the line “Life has killed the dream I dreamed” doesn’t have you welling up, nothing will.

There’s often a dishonesty in musicals as the vocals we hear are actually recorded in post-production. This may result in a cleaner sound, but the performances can lose their authenticity. Another brave move Hooper made was to have his cast sing  live on set, a decision that pays off handsomely and helps to draw out raw and believable turns from his fantastic ensemble. When the cast perform Do You Hear The People Sing?, in this instance you really can.

Idealistic revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne) in Les Misérables

Idealistic revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne) in Les Misérables

Previously best known for looking angry and chewing on a cigar as Wolverine, Jackman gives the performance of a lifetime as Valjean, who takes Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) into his care away from the unscrupulous Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) and raises her as his own as a promise to Fantine – an act borne out of kindness and a quest for redemption.

Jackman’s experience in musical theatre is brought to bear, most prominently during his hugely impressive solo numbers Valjean’s Soliloquy, Bring Him Home and Suddenly. He’s matched by the brilliant Hathaway, whose selfless, tragic Fantine is so angelic as to give Mother Teresa a run for her money.

Obsessive lawman Javert (Russell Crowe) in Les Misérables

Obsessive lawman Javert (Russell Crowe) in Les Misérables

Equally impressive is Eddie Redmayne in what is sure to be a star-making turn as Marius, the idealistic student revolutionary who turns his back on his privileged upbringing to lead the rebellion, falling for Cosette in the process. Redmayne brings an intensity to the role that has you rooting for him and his rendition of the sorrowful Empty Chairs at Empty Tables is spine-tingling.

Crowe doesn’t have the singing chops of the others and it shows. There’s no question he gives it his all as the devoutly law-upholding Javert, but the role makes demands on him that he is unable to meet.

Hooper goes to town with the lighter moments involving the Thénardiers and Cohen’s and Carter’s outrageously colourful performances nicely counterpoint all that tragedy and suffering.

Special mention must go to Melanie Ann Oliver’s and Chris Dickens’ superb editing. Despite being over two-and-a-half hours, it moves along at a cracking pace, with the musical numbers bleeding into each other and cut in such a way as to leave you breathless.

Les Misérables at times almost overwhelms itself with its own bombasity, but Hooper somehow keeps the show on the road and delivers an epic spectacle on such a grandiose scale as to leave you exhausted. This is one rollercoaster ride you won’t want to get off.

Bravo!