Noah (2014)

I must confess I’ve never been much of a fan of Darren Aronofsky, though as it happens I’ve seen a good number of his feature films starting with his debut Pi (1998). If I think, then, that this latest — a biblical epic about the eponymous ark-building character — is his best work, then that probably shouldn’t be taken as a rave review, but still it has enough going for it that it might just scrape through to being a film that I can genuinely recommend at some level, rather than being a masochistic exercise in cinematic punishment (hi, Requiem for a Dream).

Of course, punishment is still a key theme at some level, since the film deals with the Biblical story of Noah, who builds an ark to protect a few deserving creatures from God’s wrath. God, incidentally, is never named in the film, but as “the Creator”, he (still a man apparently) remains present in the narrative, and wisely Aronofsky refrains from having any of those high camp ‘voice from the clouds’ type moments. Instead we get a number of stop-motion animated interludes retelling the Creation myth and setting up these characters, which reappear later on in the film and manage to somehow interweave it with evolutionary theory. Stop-motion animation also gets used for the Nephilim, who here are fallen angels trapped on Earth in solidly rock form as “the Watchers”, and again it shows some nous from Aronofsky that he’s not tried to make them ‘realistic’, for what exactly would be the point of that? They’re giant rock creatures after all, and ones which are not even too abstracted from the original tale.

I think the key here is that this isn’t an attempt to resolve the story of Noah into something akin to realism by shearing it of its supernatural elements; not much would be left of it, after all. Instead, it sensibly focuses on the moral issues, as Noah grapples not just with the Creator’s intended punishment but with his own role in that punishment. He is pushed to the edges of sanity but what he perceives are the Creator’s demands, as he interprets the flood as a way of ridding the Earth of all the errors of humanity, including him. Of course, the world’s repopulation presumably leans rather heavily on incest, but that’s a consideration that is beyond the scope of the film.

So it’s a Biblical epic and also at some level an ecological horror story, as the forces of evil, incarnated by Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone, doing his best Cockney hard man once again) wreak havoc on the world with their vicious tribal society, which we briefly glimpse as, I suppose, a pre- rather than post-apocalyptic dystopia. But however dark and barbaric Tubal-cain’s settlement may be when Noah infiltrates it, it’s his people’s insistence on hunting and eating meat that is presented most insistently as their greatest failing, making Noah something of a visionary evangelistic vegetarian epic.

Few of the actors really make much of a mark in the film next to Russell Crowe’s charismatic central performance. It feels only right that he should embody Noah in all his contradictions and vainglory, as the quest he embarks upon is the kind of single-minded folly that only the most confident of epics could countenance, and Crowe has already proved he can hold this kind of film together. Anthony Hopkins gets a few scenes as the decrepit old Methuselah, living atop a mountain and largely absent for most of the film, while the lovely Emma Watson gets written in as a love interest for Noah’s eldest son Shem (Douglas Booth, largely forgettable). Instead his middle son Ham (Logan Lerman) gets a more prominent role, but then his conflicted character, who forges an uneasy alliance with Tubal-cain, is rather more interesting.

As is no doubt clear, I can’t really comment on the religious accuracy of this retelling, but then I shouldn’t really have to. As an epic story about humanity grappling with its own fate, it more than succeeds on its own terms. Maybe the Bible is finally the kind of excessive setting that suits Darren Aronofsky’s talents.

Noah film posterCREDITS
Director Darren Aronofsky; Writers Aronofsky and Ari Handel; Cinematographer Matthew Libatique; Starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 13 April 2014.

Week End (1967)

If Bande à part seemed to herald the end of the nouvelle vague, then this film of Godard’s, three years later, has a far more self-consciously terminal message, expressed as the final words on screen: “FIN DE CINEMA” (end of cinema). It’s an apocalyptic-themed sign-off to the pop art 60s, a grand gesture of defiance to those who would try to integrate his cinema into the mainstream, and — as ever — a heady fvck you to the United States and the forces of capitalism. It’s far from easy to stomach, but it certainly deserves a prominent place in his filmography, if only for the multiplicity of brightly-coloured messages it puts across in its relatively short running time.

As has become evident over the course of watching Godard’s 60s films, the way that the film opens is often a key to the message the film is pursuing (whether Karina’s face from various angles in Vivre sa vie or the self-reflexive tracking shot that opens Le Mépris). In this case, the title card itself holds that hint — the word “WEEK END” is broken up, repeated and reconfigured across several lines in red, white and blue colours, suggesting the fractured, disintegrated world the film is aiming to depict. At points, the film itself fragments, with repeated shots separated by black leader, and during one automotive conflagration, the film’s framing is even shifted so that the edges of the film show up (such that the tops of characters’ bodies poke from the bottom of the screen, while their legs are at the top). Returning to the film’s opening, although we begin in middle-class comfort among some executives in a meeting high up in a building, they soon spot a fight down at street level below. There’s an Olympian detachment to this scene that doesn’t last long, as the film quickly throws the middle-class couple at the centre of the film, Corinne and Roland (played by Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne), right into the heart of that conflict.

The couple’s story itself is fairly dispensible — in fact, when I watched the film most recently I didn’t even pick up on the plot point that they are travelling across country to kill her parents and then themselves. The key, really, is the journey, a twisted version of the classic American road movie presented as a series of largely self-contained blackly comic setpieces that cycle through murder, rape, arson, political theory and the wholesale dismantling of bourgeois Western civilisation. The fact that it doesn’t really hang together as a coherent plot may account for some of my difficulties in wholeheartedly liking it (and hence my rating), but then again that’s part of the film’s point. According to an early intertitle, it is a “film found on the junk-heap”, and it feels like that’s where Godard has returned the film by the end. During a lengthy scene of two revolutionaries reciting texts of radical liberationist theory, our protagonists can be found sitting on a literal junk-heap on the back of a truck.

Along the way there are many scenes pointedly skewering the hegemonic pervasiveness of consumerism and pop culture, as imported from the United States. “A scene of Parisian life” has our protagonists trying to back out of their driveway while being accosted by a child dressed in a native American costume, leading to them bumping into their neighbour’s car. The ensuing fight quickly escalates to gunplay and bloodshed — an absurdist overreaction to a minor automotive incident, but such is the way of the film, where affronts to one’s possessions frequently lead to bloody violence. In another scene, a horrific pile-up of cars and dead bodies, the only voice heard is Corinne screaming over the loss of her Hermès handbag. It’s the road movie trope that the movie keeps returning to, with its pervasive focus on car culture — generally in the form of twisted, burning wrecks. The film’s most famous scene is probably the long tracking shot along a traffic jam in the French countryside, the gridlock created by a fatal accident.

Those familiar with Godard’s cinematic development know that after this film he started concentrating on explicitly political films, with a Marxist-Leninist undertow, though this political consciousness was developing in his films throughout the 1960s. Therefore it’s no surprise to find a strong engagement with the class struggle (“lutte de classe” as per intertitles frequently flashing up on screen), sometimes framed by history, sometimes by literature or art. The poster-boy of the nouvelle vague, Jean-Pierre Léaud, wanders across the screen in Napoleonic costume declaiming a revolutionary text, while the character of Alice is set fire accompanied the words “this isn’t a novel, it’s a film!” (The reference here may be to Lewis Carroll’s children’s book character, though it might as well be to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”, a psychedelic anthem for American youth released earlier in 1967.) Elsewhere we see a woman arguing with a farmer in front of her car propped against his tractor, the dead body of a man adorning it (she is of course arguing about the cost of her totalled car). Working-class bystanders look on implacably, framed by hypersaturated posters for various entertainments. At the end of the scene, all these characters pose together as if in a photo accompanied by the intertitle “FAUXTOGRAPHIE” — implying perhaps that photography (or filming for that matter) can create a false bond between the classes, who are ineluctably in war with one another. The disjunction is only enhanced by a later scene depicting an earnest grand piano recital at a farm, watchfully observed by the farm labourers.

The epithet most frequently applied to the film that I’ve seen is “carnivalesque” and it does indeed have that feeling of the ritualistic inversion of societal norms. At every level, bourgeois society and its underpinnings are satirised by Godard, abetted by the steady gaze and stately tracking shots of his cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Characters are all decked out in primary coloured costumes (not least the band of revolutionaries into whose orbit Corinne falls at the end of the film), and though the human blood effects have the same cartoonish quality, the film progresses to some rather disturbing live animal slaughter by its denouement. For this reason — as well as for its extended longueurs (scenes frequently unfold at a very measured pace) — it can be a difficult film to watch. Nevertheless, it’s self-consciously crafted as a grand statement on cinema and civil society in 1967, presaging the kind of upheavals that would happen in May 1968 (and to which French films even now still occasionally refer). As such, it’s possibly Godard’s most potent synthesis of his aesthetic and political concerns, and a fascinating document.

Next Up: An odd interlude in Godard’s career, and also his largest budget to date, was the collaboration with the Rolling Stones in London, One Plus One (also released as Sympathy for the Devil), but it furthers his political themes of the late-60s and looks towards a new collective cinematic creation.

Week End film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Mireille Darc, Jean Yanne; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, February 1999 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Wednesday 18 September 2013).

The World’s End (2013)

It seems like the 1990s was a fertile time for the emergence of a new generation of British comedy, when there were a number of new star writers and performers coming through on television who in the following decade would go on to make their first films. Among these, comedian Simon Pegg and director Edgar Wright made a strong impression with their Spaced TV series and then the film Shaun of the Dead (2004), a witty parody of the zombie genre transposed to leafy middle-class North London. Like many I’ve been a big fan of their work, particularly the second film Hot Fuzz (2007), which takes a quite different genre (the cop film) and imbues it with a great deal of generosity towards its small town setting and well-meaning central characters.

So there has been a great deal of anticipation, not least by myself, for the third in this self-proclaimed ‘Cornetto’ trilogy of small town films (and yes I know the first is set in London, but it’s a peculiarly leafy suburban vision, focused on one of the many villages that make up the capital). And like the recent This Is the End it comedically references the apocalypse — which should be no surprise to those who’ve seen the poster or the trailer. The tone here is more wistful, though both films deal with characters who are cut off from reality — the one narcissistic actors, the other a man overly attached to a nostalgic vision of his past.

In truth, there’s a great deal of pathos in Simon Pegg’s Gary King. He’s a middle-aged man who’s never really grown out of his late-teenage years, still clinging to the same counter-cultural fashion statements and love of early-90s pop culture: his clichés are as likely to be quotes from Primal Scream’s “Loaded” (a totemic song which appears in both the trailer and the film) as anything else. In fact, the first act of the film does a really nice job of sketching out this character, as he tries to get his old clique of friends back together for a return to their home town. He wants them to complete the ‘Golden Mile’, a pub crawl taking in the 12 village pubs, which they tried once when they were 18 but never completed, and his insistence on this peculiarly teenage veneration of the power of alcoholic excess as a means of social bonding seems by this point strangely misplaced. All his friends are, after all, now well-adjusted and successful members of society (a banker, an estate agent, an architect, and a car salesman).

The film also does a great job at linking this to observations about the homogenisation of the English high street, particularly in the identikit chain pubs that inhabit such towns: the first two that the gang return to look exactly the same in every detail. It’s not just the pubs either that are the same, but many of those drinking in them and serving behind the bars have not changed; it’s the kind of stasis that infected the town of Hot Fuzz, and in both cases (though in different ways) the inhabitants seem to have succumbed to a very literal possession. This, after all, is the grand allegory that the ‘body snatchers’ theme is tied into.

However, it’s that very overdetermination in the last third of the film that ends up making me feel a little cold towards it. It’s not that I don’t like or appreciate the genre trappings, it’s just that they’re too obvious, and (for me, at least) somewhat undercut the foregoing scenes that have gently built up the characters through acutely-detailed observational humour. Moreover, the focus on Pegg’s Gary and Nick Frost’s Andrew, a banker who has unresolved issues with Gary stemming from a mysterious incident earlier in their lives, means that the other three fine actors who are part of the ensemble (Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan and Martin Freeman) seem rather underutilised.

Anyway, I feel like I’m being too harsh on what is, still, after all, one of the better British comedies of recent memory. It definitely hits the laugh quotient, and makes lots of salient points. Maybe I just find the overweening nostalgia the film shows for a time which was also during my own teenage years a little bit too close to the bone, or maybe I still retain an optimism that there’s a way out that needn’t involve the end of the world.

The World's End film posterCREDITS
Director Edgar Wright; Writers Wright and Simon Pegg; Cinematographer Bill Pope; Starring Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Wednesday 24 July 2013.

Last Night (1998)

When I first started going to the cinema seriously in the 1990s, Canadian films had a particular arthouse cachet, most likely due to Atom Egoyan, whose elegantly interwoven narratives had become quite the hit on the festival circuit. As a result, a number of Canadian films reached cinemas that decade, even ones as far afield as New Zealand, where I was living. I remember trying to pin down then what was distinctively ‘Canadian’ about them — there was something to the wry, dark humour that might be related to being an ex-colonial nation dwarfed by a larger neighbour (or at least, so it seemed to me in New Zealand). Certainly, though, a lot of those 90s films (like earlier films by the veteran director David Cronenberg) shared a dark subject matter — whether, for example, the necrophilia in Kissed (1996), or the deaths of miners in Margaret’s Museum (1995). So, Last Night, with its frank acceptance of the end of the world, seems a natural fit with this morbidity.

Is the way the characters deal with the inevitable end of days ‘Canadian’, for example? There’s anger around the edges, sure, but this is bourgeois, metropolitan Toronto, so there’s also a sort of decency still — Sandra Oh’s character Sandra scours what’s left on the shelves of a supermarket, but assiduously puts back what she doesn’t want. She’s on her way to her husband, but her car is destroyed by the rowdy youths on the streets. This leads her to the apartment of a local resident, Peter (Don McKellar), where she finds herself making (unanswered) phone calls to her husband, increasingly anxious as the end of world is counted down, by now mere hours away. Her husband meanwhile is working late at a gas company, likewise making unanswered calls to his customers (including Peter) to advise them that the gas service will be maintained until the very end.

As befits a script by an actor originally hailing from the theatre, Last Night has a staginess to it; I can easily imagine its small number of interior locations being recreated in that setting. But in some ways, the larger cinematic canvas seems to suit such an insular story: it makes the characters appear that much more alone together. There are several intertwined stories of couples: Peter’s parents who want to stage one last family Christmas (it’s not winter), his sister Jenny (Sarah Polley) and her boyfriend, David Cronenberg’s aforementioned gas company executive and his dedicated female employee Donna, and Peter’s friend Craig (Callum Keith Rennie), more interested in fulfilling his sexual fantasies via a series of transitory hook-ups.

Perhaps it’s this last reaction that’s the most explicable given the apocalyptic framing story — it’s not getting darker, implying some kind of fiery comet strike — but what the stories all share in common is a need for human connection. McKellar uses the end of the world to focus on what’s most important for these people. Maybe this then is what’s most Canadian: an unflinching look at what is most primal in humanity, presented in a largely unadorned manner. Not a great deal happens in the film — it’s made up of a small number of little stories — but cumulatively they are about the connection of each of us to our fellow humans. Even the end of the world cannot sever that, McKellar ultimately suggests.

Last Night film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Don McKellar; Cinematographer Douglas Koch; Starring Don McKellar, Sandra Oh, Callum Keith Rennie, Sarah Polley; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, August 2000 (and more recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 6 July 2013).

World War Z (2013)

It’s fair to say I went into this without high hopes. I was aware of some of the fraught production history, though primarily from having read a few reviews beforehand. Yet I like Brad Pitt as an actor, and in the end really enjoyed this tense and gripping thriller about a zombie apocalypse.

It has limitations obviously. For a start, it’s probably best to think of it as a film about a catastrophic viral outbreak, with the zombies being a sort of convenient writers’ short-hand for something Very Bad that is nevertheless Obviously Fictional. I don’t think these zombies share much in common with other cinematic and fictional zombies: they’re in essence just monsters (quick, lethal, dangerous). As an outbreak that needs to be contained, the hopes of (yes) all humanity are basically on the shoulders of Brad Pitt’s former UN investigator Gerry, whose singular ability to spot the zombies’ weaknesses is surely only explicable because the numbers of intelligent people have been so depleted — mostly it’s just military types remaining, with the odd civilian like Gerry who’s been whisked to the safety of a convoy of ships in the Atlantic.

What the film is good at — what I enjoyed about it — is that it manages to sustain for most of its running time a claustrophobic tension, from the initial scenes set in Philadelphia as Gerry and his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) take their kids to school, to Gerry’s attempts to track down the cause of the virus first in South Korea, then in Israel and finally at a WHO laboratory in Wales. The film has a very sure control over the mood it creates, and there’s a feeling of constant peril around all the (human) characters.

That said, it does indulge in some rather reductive and spurious analogies, foremost amongst them the claim that North Korea and Israel have resisted the zombie invasion thus far thanks to their paranoid border security. David Morse is even wheeled on as a toothless defector to the North Koreans, his scenes set in the barely-filtered half light of a dingy cell, a Cassandra figure by way of Hannibal Lecter. The Israeli scenes are no more subtle — and when that country’s borders do succumb it’s ironically due to the amplified singing of peace song “Od yavo shalom aleinu” — though Gerry does at least pick up a companion in his fight against the zombies in the form of a laconic soldier played by Daniella Kertesz, which somewhat balances Enos’s rather thankless ‘worried wife back home’ role (though she does that very well).

Of course, the focus of the film is at all times on Pitt’s investigator, and he does well in this thinly-veiled saviour role. At the very least, the film doesn’t greatly outstay its welcome, restrainedly clocking in at under two hours. If the ending is a bit vague — suggesting the (surely remote) possibility of a sequel — it is at least suitably bittersweet, given the ravages of the previous two hours. World War Z doesn’t deserve all of the ire it’s received, and winds up as a more than competent thriller.

CREDITS
Director Marc Forster; Writers Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof and J. Michael Straczynski (based on the novel by Max Brooks); Cinematographer Ben Seresin; Starring Brad Pitt, Daniella Kertesz, Mireille Enos; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue [3D], London, Wednesday 3 July 2013.

This Is the End (2013)

No matter where this directorial debut from Canadian actor Seth Rogen may go — and it goes to some pretty ridiculous places — it always seems to retain the goofy charm of a low-key stoner movie, something like Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004) but far more self-referential. After all, everyone in the film is playing a (clearly fictionalised) version of themselves, partying and hanging out in Los Angeles. It’s a brittle conceit, and it works better than by all rights it should, but you can at least imagine all the guys in this film — and it is very much a guys’ film — being friends in real life.

The set-up sees Jay Baruchel arriving at LAX to stay with his old friend Seth Rogen while he’s in town. Both grew up in Canada, and while Jay is concerned Seth is being swallowed up by Los Angeles, Seth’s LA friends see Jay as a last link to the Canadian past he needs to slough off, leading to tension between Jay and the rest of the cast. After a bit of bonding over video games and weed, Seth drags Jay along to James Franco’s housewarming, at a deranged brutalist bunker decorated with kitschy art and populated by a large number of familiar faces. It’s here that the core cast is introduced. If Franco is a preening whiner, then Jonah Hill is chanelling a more right-on holistic West Coast vibe as the ‘sensitive’ emotional actor, while Craig Robinson is a no-nonsense party guy who spends the whole movie wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Take Yo Panties Off”. There’s little point mentioning any of the celebrity cameos here, as part of the fun is in spotting the faces, but it’s fair to say that (as many critics have already pointed out) Michael Cera gets the standout role.

These are enjoyable scenes, certainly, but this is a film about the Apocalypse, and it doesn’t take too long before things get biblical. Part of the joke is that when it comes — and it starts with the Rapture, when the souls of the worthy ascend to Heaven — only actors are left behind, such that Franco’s party becomes something like a gathering of the living damned. Eventually only a handful are left holed up in Franco’s home; they must try to survive and find a way out of the apocalyptic hellscape that Los Angeles has become.

For a film that trades so heavily on Christan iconography, it’s interesting that almost all of the film’s creators are of Jewish upbringing, but perhaps that’s a key to the film’s success. They get plenty of anarchic fun out of their premise, one which trades on the more skewed aspects of theistic belief that are part of the American cultural upbringing, and which have naturally been inculcated through generations of Hollywood fantasies. For the most part Rogen and Goldberg tap into that (there are all kinds of movie-literate quotes, not least from The Exorcist), abetted by their ensemble cast.

It does at times feel strained by its limitations. One such is the fact that this is a very male-dominated film. These kinds of apocalyptic fantasies do, after all, tend to be the preserve of a certain kind of nerdy fanboy and indeed, the opening scenes position Rogen and Baruchel rather neatly as such. To be fair, the film tries to critique its own limitations, such as when Emma Watson shows up briefly, but the guys’ subsequent conversation — with its self-consciously parodic ease at outing one another as potential rapists — still feels in rather poor taste, even if Watson’s response is just right.

However, it always manages to pull itself back on track, with goofy and well-meaning charm. Some of that may be dependent on how much you like the core cast members — they are playing versions of themselves, after all — but for me, the insouciance at the heart of the enterprise was sufficient to carry me through even the most adolescent of dick jokes. There are quite a few adolescent dick jokes. But I laughed even so.


© Columbia Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Directors/Writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg | Cinematographer Brandon Trost | Starring Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson | Length 106 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Saturday 29 June 2013

My Rating 3 stars good