There’s been a low-level hum of satisfaction around the critical community when it comes to Shane Black’s latest directorial effort, perhaps a reaction to his return to a recognisable world after the superhero excesses of Iron Man Three, or perhaps because, well, his two lead characters played by Ryan Gosling (as squeamish PI Holland March) and Russell Crowe (as enforcer Jackson Healy) are kinda nice guys. Deep down, that is, because of course both have jobs that involve them in some sordid work, not least Crowe’s character Jackson, who is the tough guy sent round to break noses when payments aren’t made or respect isn’t given. That said, I’m not always convinced the film is itself particularly nice, though it’s at least a mark of upfront candour about your sexual politics to start with the image of a murdered and bloody, naked p0rn star splayed out centerfold-style as a teenage boy’s (literal) fantasy image. The film is set in 1977 so of course there’s a lot of that’s-how-things-were-back-then type set-ups, and for me a lot of them leave a bad taste in the mouth, as if the filmmakers are aware of the gross misogyny but just sort of think it’s fine if one of the lead characters is a woman — well, a 13-year-old girl (Holland’s daughter Holly, played by wide-eyed Anna Chlumsky-alike Angourie Rice), who has to witness some pretty nasty stuff, but also gets to boss around the men. It’s got some good writing and definitely a likeable swagger to its leads — and in the case of Russell Crowe, that’s a rare enough thing these days — but Black, like his film, came of age writing in the 1980s and a lot of that retrogressive spirit shines through pretty clearly.
CREDITS Director Shane Black; Writers Black and Anthony Bagarozzi; Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot; Starring Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, Angourie Rice; Length 116 minutes. Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Thursday 9 May 2016.
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.
CREDITS 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.
Zack Snyder is not a name to inspire great confidence in filmgoers (at least not those I’ve talked to). I’ve only actually seen one of his directorial efforts, and I may be in a minority in quite liking Sucker Punch (2011). That was a film which seemed to depict its abused characters coping with and overcoming their traumas by reconfiguring them as video game challenges; it may not have been entirely successful, but it was a very interesting concept. There’s plenty of trauma in Man of Steel, too, but mostly on the audience’s part. The film itself seems curiously shorn of any human emotion, at least by the time it reaches its absurdly overextended denouement.
A key moment for me in this respect is a kiss shared amongst the crumbling detritus of a ravaged Metropolis, a falling skyscraper barely enough it seems to get the two to break off their kiss to take a look. It would be a moment of bathos if I could rouse enough emotion to care about anyone by this point, but after half an hour of mechanised (and curiously bloodless) destruction, there’s little empathy left in me. If this and Marvel’s The Avengers last year are anything to go by, American blockbuster movies seem to revel in destroying their cities, which is a curious place to be all things considered.
However, I’m getting ahead of myself. The first half of the film concerns itself with the origin story and is (relatively-speaking) fairly low-key and interesting. Most filmgoers are probably aware of the basics: how Kal-El is sent to Earth from the dying planet Krypton by his father Jor-El, pursued by General Zod and his gang of usurpers; how he grows up in rural Kansas as Clark Kent, only slowly growing to understand and control his special powers; how he meets and falls in love with intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane. If there’s a sense that some of this is superfluous for most viewers, it’s nevertheless welcome if only for its calmer tone and pacing.
It’s never far from the surface that the Superman mythology is a thinly-coded Second Coming allegory, with Kal-El/Clark as a specifically American Messiah; he even has a scene of questioning doubt in a church at one point. As his father, then, Russell Crowe does a good job as a calm centre of Krypton’s benevolent patriarchal power, matched by Kevin Costner as Clark’s human father, even if a lot of his role involves staring off into the middle-distance and mouthing moral platitudes. Nevertheless, Costner’s a master at this kind of thing, and does it well.
These snippets of his rural upbringing are interwoven as flashbacks in what has largely become a peripatetic existence for Clark, as he shows up in enough different places to pique the interest of reporter Lois Lane. The way this unfolds all feels rather perfunctory, and Amy Adams, although likeable as an actor, has little to work with here. It’s not, in truth, a great film for actors of subtlety and imagination. Michael Shannon, for example, plays General Zod, and though he may have had some great roles in his time, Zod seems to require little more than shouting and glowering, a waste of Shannon’s more acute talents. Luckily, this helps the blandly attractive Henry Cavill to impress more as the titular hero. In a film where actorly insight has been pushed into the background, looking the part becomes more of an asset, and Cavill with his chiselled jaw and impressive physique certainly does do that.
I’ve already mentioned the way that by the end, the film seems to lack a sense of humanity: it’s a dour and serious film, dark and brooding without much in the way of levity or humour. This certainly sets it apart from the earlier film series with Christopher Reeve, and may point to the involvement of Christopher Nolan, whose Dark Knight franchise similarly ‘rebooted’ the Batman story, kitting out its world in cold, hard metallic surfaces and glowering darkness. But Batman is an anti-hero at best, where Superman is supposed to embody all the best of humanity. By the end, I feel as a viewer like Laurence Fishburne’s newspaper editor, watching impassively at the filmic destruction all around. Perhaps he feels unable to move from his window (though he does, at length) because he too is wondering where it all went wrong.
This is undeniably a visually impressive film, but at some basic level it has gone awry. I am left cold by its cold surface textures, and there’s little to convince me that any of the characters have any heart. And for a film about a character embodying the best of human nature, that’s a real failing.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Zack Snyder | Writers David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan (based on the comic book Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) | Cinematographer Amir Mokri | Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe | Length 143 minutes || Seen at Cineworld West India Quay [2D], London, Wednesday 19 June 2013