Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’ is His Biggest and Most Flawed Film So Far

Noah movie poster

Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” is a movie I have conflicted feelings about. On one hand it is a deeply flawed effort with moments which belong in another movie, but on the other hand it brings up questions inspired by the actions of the characters which I found endlessly fascinating, and those same questions stayed with me long after the movie ended. With “Noah,” Aronofsky has been handed the biggest budget he has ever had to make a movie with, but what amazes me is how much of his vision ended up on the silver screen. You’d think Paramount Pictures would have the last say on final cut, but Aronofsky has managed to graduate to the big leagues without losing his unique voice as a filmmaker.

The movie gets off to a shaky start as we watch a young Noah being initiated into manhood by his father with what looks like a magical snakeskin, but then his father is brutally murdered in front of him by Tubal-Cain and Noah runs like hell to get away from him and his followers. For a moment, I thought this would turn into a revenge movie with Noah going after Tubal-Cain to where the ark becomes a secondary story. Fortunately, this was not the case.

The story then leaps forward many years later when Noah (now played by Russell Crowe) is a husband to Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and a father of three boys: Shem, Ham and Japheth. However, it’s not long until Noah begins having frightening dreams about a great flood swallowing up every living and breathing thing on earth. Eventually, he comes to discover he has been giving a mission: to build an enormous ark and fill it up with animals so that when the great flood comes to wipe out the evilness of humanity, the animals will survive to restart civilization anew.

One of the big stumbling blocks of “Noah” comes when we are introduced to fallen angels known as the “Watchers.” They are these enormous stone creatures who tower over all humans, and they kept reminding me of those tree creatures from “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” Furthermore, the “Watchers” almost took me out of the movie completely and had me thinking about those stone creatures William Shatner wanted to put in “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.” While watching “Noah,” I kept thinking about what Shatner must have been thinking when he Aronofsky’s film. Shatner was probably thinking, “Damn you Aronofsky! My film had biblical themes in it too! Why didn’t I get to put any stone creatures in my movie?”

When all those animals start making their way to the almost completed ark, you can tell they were all created using CGI effects. Then again, I can’t blame Aronofsky for going this route as directing real life animals must feel next to impossible especially in a movie like this. Plus, if he did get access to real animals, how would he have dealt with all those animal droppings the crew would have spent hours trying to clean up? Imagine the smell that would have created. Yuck!

As “Noah” continued on, the things which bothered me began to make sense, and the film really hit its stride just before the ark sets sail in the flood. I figured the movie would end there, but it goes on to look at how Noah and his family deal with issues like survivor’s guilt and questioning the motivations of “the creator” (the word God is never mentioned). Aronofsky does terrific work in giving all these characters complexities which render them far more fascinating, and the challenges they face come to define who they are. This is not a good guy vs. bad guy story as all the characters inhabit a morally grey area, and it gets to where we’re not sure who to root for.

Since his Oscar winning turn in “Gladiator,” Russell Crowe’s career has been all over the place as he has given terrific performances in “Cinderella Man” and “American Gangster” and suffered through cinematic misfires like “A Good Year” and “The Man with the Iron Fists.” As Noah, Crowe does some of the best work he’s done in a while as he humanizes a character made famous through biblical tales. When Noah threatens a course of action which may very well to his family apart, Crowe still makes us feel for him as he struggles to remain true to what is asked of him.

Jennifer Connelly also gives one of her best performances as Noah’s wife, Naameh, and no, she does not play Joan of Arc (Keanu Reeves got that wrong in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”). As Naameh, she plays a character similar to the one she played in “A Beautiful Mind;” a woman very much in love with her husband and yet deeply afraid of what he is capable of doing. Connelly is no stranger to the Aronofsky universe, having given such an earth shattering performance in “Requiem for a Dream,” and she is not afraid to go to emotional extremes. Watching her trying to reach her husband, Connelly sucks you vividly into the fearful state she has been thrust into, and she makes us share in her desperation to protect what is left of humanity.

“Noah” is also well served by a strong supporting cast which includes Ray Winstone, Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman and Emma Watson who shows there is more to her than playing Hermione in the “Harry Potter” movies. In addition, Aronofsky brings along his dedicated team of collaborators such as editor Andrew Weisblum, cinematographer Matthew Libatique and composer Clint Mansell. Speaking of Mansell, he gives us yet another great film score with “Noah.” While it might not be on a par with his work on “Requiem for a Dream,” he gives the movie a great emotional power, and he continues to be one of the more unique film composers working i today.

So again, “Noah” has some glaring flaws I could have done without, but its strengths eventually outweigh its weaknesses to where the movie had a strong impact on me. I’m not sure I will ever forget hearing all those screams from people begging to be rescued while Noah and his family sail away in the ark, and Aronofsky is fearless in questioning the audience as to what they would have done were they in his position. This movie also shows how even biblical characters have dysfunctional families to deal with, so we have no business being surprised when we have to deal with the same thing in life.

When all is said and done, I’m glad that Aronofsky managed to get his vision of “Noah” to the big screen without too much studio interference. All the same, I hope he thinks twice about putting giant stone creatures in his next film.

* * * out of * * * *

 

Fury

Fury movie poster

When it comes to David Ayer, you know he’s not going to slack off when it comes to researching his movie’s subject matter. His movies like the brilliant “End of Watch” and the underappreciated “Sabotage” had characters dealing with a vicious reality which they are forced to contend with on a regular basis, and Ayer makes us feel how frightening this reality is whether we want to be a part of it or not. That remains the case with “Fury,” a war film which takes us all the way back to the final days of World War II. It features all the usual characters we expect to see in a war film from the hardened Army sergeant to the innocent rookie, but you come out of it knowing what it feels like to be in a tank.

Brad Pitt stars as Don “Wardaddy” Collier, the commander of a five-man tank crew which is ordered to make a final push into Nazi Germany during World War II. Don is saddled with a battle ready crew which includes Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Cpl. Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena) and Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal). After losing one of their members, they are suddenly saddled with the most baby-faced rookie imaginable in Army Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman). Don doesn’t like Norman’s presence one little bit as he feels it threatens everyone’s safety, but his superiors force him to take him on regardless of his objections. As a result, Don is forced to make Norman grow up a lot sooner than he wants, and it’s all in the name of survival.

For a time, I thought that Norman was going to be like Jeremy Davies’ character from “Saving Private Ryan” in that he would be the wimp who wouldn’t have the nerve to kill the enemy until the very end. Don, however, doesn’t have the patience to wait for Norman to grow a pair and forces him to kill a Nazi prisoner early on. Lerman gives a tremendous performance as Norman, and it’s fascinating to watch him go from being an anxiety ridden soldier to a hardened war veteran who doesn’t hesitate to take out as many Nazis as humanly possible.

There haven’t been many tank movies in the history of cinema. The only ones I can think of are Kevin Reynolds’ “The Beast” which came out in 1988 and the Israeli war film “Lebanon” which depicted warfare as witnessed from inside a tank. It’ll be interesting to see how they compare to Fury which puts you right into these characters’ mindsets as they lay waste to their target without the benefit of ear protection. You come to feel as battered and hardened as the crew does during their patrol through enemy territory where they find themselves outnumbered and outgunned.

It’s hard to watch “Fury” without thinking of Pitt’s performance as Aldo Raine in “Inglorious Basterds,” but he does succeed in making “Wardaddy” distinct from that character whether he is sporting facial hair or not. I always enjoy Pitt’s performances when he’s all dirtied up and free of his movie star looks, and this is one of them. You believe Pitt as a war veteran who has seen countless battles and has long since been worn down by them. But for Don, his main concern is keeping his crew alive, and Pitt is great at making you feel his character’s barely hidden vulnerability which is always on the verge of being exposed for all to see

Pena is an Ayer regular, having worked with him previously on “End of Watch,” and he has yet to disappoint in any role he takes on. As Trini, he gives us a character who was one of the many Latino military officers who fought for America back in the 1940’s. From start to finish, Pena makes Trini a war weary character who is not far from falling apart, and it makes for an intense performance.

I also give applause to Bernthal whose performance as Grady may not get all the recognition it deserves. On one hand Grady is a loathsome character we cannot stand to be around, but on the other he’s just a soldier trying to survive this war anyway he can. It’s rare to see an actor who makes you despise and sympathize with a character simultaneously, and Bernthal succeeds in pulling it off.

Another impressive performance in “Fury” comes from Shia LaBeouf as Boyd. Like Private Daniel Jackson in “Saving Private Ryan,” this guy is a trained killer but also quick to spout off passages from the Bible. Even after taking out a Nazi tank, he will still quote passages from that book with a great passion. LaBeouf got a lot of press for the method work he did on “Fury” which included pulling out a tooth, but seeing this movie is to be assured that all the work paid off for him.

Whether or not you consider “Fury” to be one of the best World War II movies ever made, it is one of the strongest to come out in the past few years. Ayer makes you feel the anxiety and exhaustion these soldiers go through while in battle, and you come out of this movie feeling as battered as they do. I very much liked what it had to offer, and I liked how Ayer didn’t try to sugarcoat reality for anyone in the slightest. That’s what makes his movies so unique and visceral.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2014.

David Ayer Discusses an Unforgettable Scene in ‘Fury’

Fury movie poster

Fury” was written and directed by David Ayer, the man who gave us “Harsh Times,” “End of Watch” and “Sabotage.” This movie takes us back to World War II and stars Brad Pitt as Don “Wardaddy” Collier, the commander of a Sherman tank and its five-man crew. We follow them as they go on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines in Nazi Germany. They soon find themselves outnumbered, outgunned and saddled with a rookie soldier barely qualified to serve with them. But even as the odds continue to stack up against them, they stay with their tank which they have named Fury as they consider it the only home they have left.

I attended the “Fury” press conference held at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, California, and among those there were Ayer and actors Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal and Michael Pena. For me, one of the most memorable scenes comes when Pitt and Lerman enter an apartment belonging to a pair of German women and proceed to make themselves at home by cooking breakfast. Then they are joined by the rest of their crew who treat the women and the gathering with a lot of hostility. But as the scene goes on, we see them slowly regain a part of their humanity as they share stories which reduce them to tears.

This scene reminded me of a similar one in Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” where a bunch of soldiers jeer a captive German girl when she appears onstage, but they begin to cry when she starts singing a sentimental folk song. I asked Ayer how the scene came about.

“That’s a really good question,” Ayer said. “I did a lot of primary source research, and you realize it’s a workaday world for these guys. It’s sort of a blue-collar existence for these tank crews at this point in the war. It’s go capture the town. Go get this town. Take this hill. Take this ridge. Capture that road junction. You’re given a laundry list of tasks and we think about all these famous battles and all these war-winning battles, but I liken these guys to coal miners. They put on their safety gear and go in and do their work and they come out at the end of the day. And a common pattern was they would capture a town and by early afternoon they’d be in control of it, and then they’d start kicking in cellar doors and looking for wine and looking for food, and they’d make… they locals would cook for them, and they’d do what guys do and pass out and get up the next day at 4 a.m. and take the next town.”

“Something is interesting about that, the idea that you’re in this war zone and there’s humanity and there’s people in there,” Ayer said. “In these movies there’s always a one-sided depiction of either side and of what happens when these people are together in this living room. I imagine this scene as the ultimate Thanksgiving dinner. I think we’ve all had those bad family dinners ourselves. The idea is this crew’s a family, and family can be love-hate. No one can wound you like a family member. No one can hurt you like your brother or sister who just says that one thing that spins you. That was what all the training and the boot camp and the rehearsal and the familiarity was all leading up to, for me, was really that scene. To get these guys as close as brothers so that they can go at each other like older brothers can.”

The other actors echoed Ayer’s sentiments about the dinner scene, and Pena, who plays Captain Trini “Gordo” Garcia, described it as the most intense scene he had to deliver in “Fury.”

“I remember we started shooting and I was an emotional mess,” Pena said. “David said, ‘Let me shoot the other guys first so you can get warmed up,’ and I was like, ‘Dude, I’ve been doing this for five months, buddy. Let’s just go right now.’ Everyone had big scenes and we’d know when the next scene was coming up or when somebody’s big scene was coming up, and we’d try to be as supportive as possible. These guys Bernthal and Shia—we shot it in a day and a half or something like that. I don’t remember. But they were always there tearing up at every take, really supporting me, because it was almost like us against them. It’s like our big brother is playing favorites to this guy (Lerman) and we all took it very seriously. So when I tell the story about the horses, which he never wants repeated, these guys gave me the green light, so to speak, and they were emotionally there for me as well. So that was the toughest.”

Bernthal, who plays Grady Travis, also talked about that scene and how the countdown to it and others that were equally intense loomed over the actors during production.

“We all had those scenes that we sort of circled on the calendar,” Bernthal said. “We could pretty much count down to the hour of when we were going to get to those scenes. It’s sort of like what we were talking about before like family and going for the jugular. For me it felt like, looking back on it, it wasn’t about those scenes, but it was that at any moment everyone here and Shia and Brad and the boss were armed with this information that could cut you down and break you. And because we were familiar and so close with each other, David and the way he kind of orchestrates the thing, he’ll set people loose on people. He’ll set the camera on somebody’s face, and then rip them apart. Sometimes it’s something that another actor says, and sometimes it’s something he comes up with and whispers in your ear.”

“I’ll be honest with you, after just a month of shooting when he would walk towards me, I’d start to shake and sweat, because I know what was coming in my ear was going to break me,” Bernthal continued. “And even though you know what he’s trying to do and it’s for a result, it scares me now honestly just thinking about it. Also, to do that to one of these guys that you love so much, to see them and to get the word to go after that dude, go get him, and like David said, it’s family, so I know what to say to you to press your button. And it becomes this kind of perverse, beautiful game. We’re trying to cut each other down and break each other. That’s what family does. It was uniform among every tank veteran we talked to. You don’t pick your family. You don’t pick your tank crew. These guys are as close as units can possibly get. That’s what we were going for, that familiarity and that bond. It’s just as dangerous as it is lovely.”

Copyright Ben Kenber 2014.