Release date: 4 April 2014
Even prior to release, Darren Aronofsky’s latest film was courting controversy. It’s been banned in several countries, including Bahrain and the UAE, for contradicting the teachings of Islam, and the writer-director has received little support from the Christians, who have also criticised it for its reinterpretation of the Biblical texts. It’s true that Noah is hardly a literal adaptation: it introduces new characters (notably Emma Watson’s Ila and Ray Winstone’s Tubalcain) and expands the role of others (Methuselah, played by Anthony Hopkins); makes the fallen angels (CGI rock-golem creations) instrumental in the Ark’s construction; and draws upon family conflict as motivational factors. Yet for all these alterations and amalgamations, the story feels truly rooted in the Old Testament. Noah (Russell Crowe) is dogmatic and ruthless, yet simultaneously tormented by the difficult choices he is forced to make as a result of following The Creator’s wishes. Throughout the film, issues of faith, salvation, doubt, family, honour and sin are prevalent – all issues dealt with at length in the Old Testament, with some particularly problematic conclusions. It is worth remembering that the morality of the Old Testament is difficult to reconcile with today’s liberal world – this was a time when God was vengeful and bloodshed was common, when devout men were tested and sacrifice was demanded (and given). In this setting, Noah may not be narratively accurate, but is most definitely thematically relevant.
Aronofsky does, of course, invite criticism through the subject matter and obvious influences – and any film about religion (particularly Christianity), be it serious (The Passion of the Christ), anti-institutional (Stigmata) or downright silly (Dogma), is going to be divisive. There are also moments that will undoubtedly infuriate the more traditional viewers – Noah telling his family the story of creation, for example, is overlaid with images explicitly showing evolution. Yet even here, in one of the more subtly contentious sequences, the montage stops at the apes, with Adam and Eve remaining divine. In this way, while Noah remains uncompromising in its narrative and unapologetic for its characters’ decisions, it is neither overtly judgemental nor explicitly argumentative.
What is so frequently missing from critiques is whether the film itself is actually any good. Crowe is excellent, bringing a solemnity and pathos to Noah, even in his darkest moments. Jennifer Connolly, reunited with Crowe as Noah’s wife, brings a strength to Naameh, and her involvement is crucial (for both good and bad). Visually, the CGI isn’t always convincing and those expecting a disaster movie will be disappointed – the flood is a relatively minor part of the film. In terms of spectacle, the moments one would expect to be the money shots are frequently downplayed – the flood, the animals (all CGI creations that are “slightly tweaked” versions of real creatures). Yet it is a stunning film – rivers race across the globe in montage sequences, conversations are silhouetted against sunset skies, the Creator’s message told through symbolic nightmare sequences. As contentious and controversial as it may be, Noah at least offers some room for debate and discussion, while being a sharp and accomplished piece of filmmaking, a film that, at the very least, stands apart from the inoffensive, crowd-pleasing, unoriginal Hollywood output so prevalent today.
Release date: 4 April 2014
Talking of unoriginal movies, Divergent may be narratively new(ish) but is thematically almost identical to the far superior Hunger Games (itself frequently criticised for being a 12A Battle Royale) – it is adapted from young-adult fiction, it’s set in a dystopian future America (specifically Chicago, here now sitting on the banks of the long-dried Lake Michigan), it features a teenage girl who unwittingly rebels against a society that has taken drastic measures to avoid another war, there’s some political uprising and some bloodless violence, a love interest, etc. The title refers to those few members of society who do not fit into one of the categories by which society is structured – apparently it’s very rare, though whether this would actually be the case remains highly debatable. Tris (Shailene Woodley) is part of the nice, kind, boring category, but discovers she is divergent when she takes her aptitude test. Having always admired the only faction that looks even remotely interesting (Dauntless, the security/rebel/cool kids), she joins up and begins the struggle from bottom to top of the class. If she had picked any other faction, it would have been an altogether different movie, filled with scenes of her sitting in a library or farming, or something. Naturally her new faction is crucial for the Evil Leader’s Evil Plans for Global Domination (Kate Winslet, icy, calculating, and disappointingly unintimidating); naturally her secret divergency (?!) is the key to stopping said plans.
Divergent‘s biggest problem is that it is so obviously riding on the coattails of Hunger Games. It also feels like it’s lacking any clear sense of direction or purpose. The characters are all fairly bland – Theo James does what he can as pretty-boy Four, but the more interesting people are all sidelined. Tris, who introduces the story through typical voice-over, is the weakest link – Woodley’s acting is satisfactory though unmemorable but the problem appears to stem from the writing. It’s really difficult to care about a lead character who, when sent into a dreamscape as part of the Dauntless initiation (it’s all about conquering fear, of course) turns out to be more afraid of a flock of birds than, say, harm coming to her family. It all feels very surface-level and even downright selfish on her part, and the little character development that happens does little to make Tris any more relatable or engaging – there’s so little genuine emotion on show that, by the time the epic showdown occurs (after a really long time), it’s hard to care.
Release date: 4 April 2014
Loosely based on a novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, directed by Richard Ayoade (Submarine, The IT Crowd) and boasting a producing credit for Harmony Korine (Springbreakers), The Double is a strange, muted film about a loser and the sudden appearance of a double who threatens to take over his life. While I’m reluctant to designate films as “future cult classics,” there is undoubtedly a niche audience that will appreciate The Double, and it invites repeat viewings – although whether there is any kind of adequate solution remains up for debate.
Jesse Eisenberg brings his characteristic awkwardness to Simon, a young man in an ill-fitting suit who appears to be virtually invisible to all those around him – his boss, the pretty copy-girl (Mia Wasikowska) who he admires from afar but cannot work up the courage to ask out on a date, even his mother. Working in a Gilliam-esque, windowless office, the arrival of James (also Eisenberg) throws his world into turmoil; James may be physically identical to Simon, but personality-wise he is all the things Simon is not – successful, charismatic, confident. Having gotten over the initial confusion of no one else acknowledging the startling similarities, Simon is resigned to accepting both James’ intrusion on his life, and the fact that he seems to be living it so much better than him.
Visually, The Double is a dark, foreboding film, filled with shadows and dank spaces that create a quirky, timeless world. It’s well paced and shot with a confidence and flair that signals Ayoade is going from strength to strength. Admittedly it’s fairly slow – the awkwardness of Eisenberg and the director himself is prevalent throughout, but it remains intriguing and engaging. The payoff – the eventual explanation that justifies all the weirdness that has preceded it – arguably offers more questions than answers yet also feels slightly underwhelming, and, personally, is less satisfying than, say Fight Club‘s revelation or Donnie Darko‘s mind-bending outcome. Whether it is actually very clever, or completely nonsensical, would require another viewing – anyone who thinks they’ve got it figured out, please let me know!
Release date: 4 April 2014
Another Jesse Eisenberg vehicle, in this generic kid-friendly animation sequel he plays Blu, a rare, domesticated macaw now living in Rio with his family (Jewel, voiced by Anne Hathaway, and three kids representing various stages of adolescence). Their humans are trekking around in the Amazon, where a huge flock of macaws are secretly living, though their habitat is threatened by some evil loggers. Seeing footage of this flock on the news, Blu, his family and friends head off to the jungle, where hijinks and tomfoolery ensue.
Whereas the first film saw Blu learning to fly, here he is tasked with discovering his inner birdness. Once in the jungle, Jewel is instantly reunited with her father, who thoroughly denounces humans and any bird-human interaction. Yet this being a kids movie with talking animals, all the non-human characters display distinctly human traits – the jungle flock competing in a game of aerial football with the rival flock of parrots, for example. This kind of unintentional irony will most likely not factor in children’s enjoyment, but there is little here to distract the adult viewer from it. Similarly, a tacked on environmental message (loggers=bad) is undermined by the decision to release the film in 3D, thus requiring the costly environmental nightmare that is disposable plastic glasses. The 3D is, by the way, entirely unnecessary – even in the sweeping flight sequences it’s barely noticeable.
Visually, Rio 2 is adequate, but in terms of both narrative and cinematic achievement it is weaker than even Pixar’s more disappointing recent movies. The jungles are pretty and Gabi the poisonous, lovestruck frog is entertaining, but there is nothing particularly impressive, unexpected, or memorable about it, while the screenplay attempts to include an array of plots, none of which offer any depth or development – there’s a rival macaw vying for Jewel’s affections, but it goes nowhere; there’s the loggers and the return of Rio‘s bad-bird Nigel; a number of family conflicts are introduced (Jewel and her father, her father and Blu, Blu and his children) but they’re all quickly resolved in child-friendly outcomes. Although there are some musical numbers, there’s no consistency, and the songs are instantly forgettable. Bland and generic, it’s definitely one for the kids.