Aronofsky's Ambitious, Abstract Take on 'Noah' Captivates

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky; Runtime: 138 minutes
Grade: B+

Going into Noah with the expectation that Darren Aronofsky's going to color within the lines of gospel would be a mistake, though it's understandable why some might expect him to do so. The name Noah in itself and the premise lying underneath his narrative are, after all, modeled from a brief, fantastical story told in the book of Genesis (and also appears in other religion's texts), which Aronofsky became interested in at a very young age. What he sees in the parable will differ from the way others view the saga of the great flood, though, and the man tasked by a higher power to build an animal-preserving vessel worth weathering it: Aronofsky embraces the line between devotion and madness, the harshness behind purging all life from the planet, and the haunting moral conflict in standing by and observing the benevolent creator's judgment. There's a lot of room for interpretation around "Noah's Ark", and Aronofsky uses that freedom to craft a mesmerizing vision with a flexible grasp on spirituality and the integrity of mankind, though it's also an unsubtle tonal departure that won't be for everyone.

Noah begins with antiquated title cards and brisk stylistic flashes into the origin of humanity, introducing us to the three children born of the Garden of Eden -- Cain, Abel, and Seth -- and how the desirous and destructive side of humans led to Earth's corruption, like a more malignant and unsustainable form of urban sprawl. The descendants of Seth, however, safeguard and nourish the world outside the corruption's reach to the best of their ability, a task passed down through generations as they survive on only what's absolutely necessary from the earth. Noah (Russell Crowe) marks the last of the lineage (along with his children), living off the land with his family as wanderers in the sparse landscape, revering the Creator's design through a pure life. One day, Noah receives a mystical sign from above in the form of a raindrop which immediately manifests into a flower upon hitting the ground, followed later by haunting visions of a great flood, the purging of mankind, and the preservation of the Creator's other creatures to begin again. The message becomes clear: Noah must build a vessel to house the beasts, else they'll meet the same fate as the lost humans.

The uniquely hued and unsullied expansiveness of Iceland provides an ideal setting for Noah, which is very much the work of the filmmakers behind The Fountain's philosophical whimsy and sensory splendor. Aronofsky approaches the concept like a pseudo-apocalyptic fantasy allegory instead of strict adherence to religious intentions, without any real way of distinguishing chronology without the viewer's meta-contextual input. Lyrical cinematography guided by Black Swan's Matthew Libatique, coupled with Clint Mansell's expressive score and precise visual effects that bolster its dreaminess, enriches that otherworldly essence of the setting through stark silhouettes against ethereal skylines (reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg's work), hikes through the disintegrated ruins of unsuccessful civilization, and sharply-edited time progressions of an evolving stream within the landscape. The organic, desolate atmosphere convincingly sets the stage for a clash between preservers and consumers of the gifts bestowed to them, along with the presence of the Watchers, gnarly rock monsters punished for their prior intervention in the affairs of man.

Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel have shaped the central conceit behind Noah into a versatile, somewhat cryptic composite of the customary versions of the story and fanciful divergences, an attempt to make it accessible for both the devout and the skeptical as a piece of dramatic entertainment. Opportune magical touches elevate the fantasy milieu, from the inclusion of mystical rocks used for igniting fire and shamanic medicine to sedative smoke for the animals aboard the ark, which uniquely work around situational problems. They've done the same thing with their vision of the "Creator", too: a benign yet restrained omniscience whose participation in the events leading up to the flood have been carefully kept at bay to elevate the human aspects of the story, without diminishing his importance or the reverence displayed by Noah's family. A fusion of theology and pragmatism underneath the Creator's touch takes shape as a result, while forging a film that's spiritual without being specific.

An austere balance between faith and personal perception arises in Noah, allowing Aronofsky to comment on the nature of belief as the descendant of Seth constructs a vessel specifically made for not saving human lives. Russell Crowe admirably sculpts his transition from a self-possessed druidic protector to a burdened man whose faith isn't allowed to falter, crafting a solemn persona that gradually simmers as his resolve gets pushed almost to a point of zealousness. The characters' reactions to his descent are potent and nuanced, if a bit one-note. Jennifer Connelly provides an ample and sympathetic offset to Noah's steadfastness as his wife Naameh, while Logan Lerman gives his middle son, Ham, a certain hangdog self-interest that works well with their clash over his livelihood following the flood. The conflict created over their adopted daughter, Ila, and her place on the ark is emphatically embraced by Emma Watson, too, while his father Methuselah's sagely interjections and light comic relief are properly aged by Anthony Hopkins.

Perhaps the most challenging element of Noah comes in its depiction of the wickedness and entitlement of humanity -- the purpose behind the Creator's purge in the first place -- which often goes blissfully overlooked in other harmlessly jubilant representations of the material. Helmed by Tabul-cain, with Ray Winstone uncannily channeling Mickey Rourke, the abandoned souls of mankind are painted in broad, discomforting strokes through the temptation of violence and the degradation of their moral compass, lending fuel to the film's blockbuster scale once the time of the flood arrives. Granted, its obligation towards the epic scope of a battle reminiscent of LOTR's Helm's Deep feels somewhat cumbersome; yet, there's weight in its thematic purpose, supporting the Creator's judgment and offering a gradient of virtue based on the innocents caught in this melancholic grand design. Giving the deviants a face and a voice becomes the ugly side to the great flood that, despite the film's tone rushing in a severe direction, feels vital to appreciating the importance of the story itself.

It took bravado for Darren Aronofsky to get his hands dirty with an above-$100m project focused on the hazards of higher-being belief and the ugliness of human fallibility and egotism, yet he makes every penny and moment count in the moral spectacle of it all, cresting higher once the flood arrives. There's no denying the uptick in bleakness once the magnificently-constructed ark has shuttered its doors, where the liberties taken by the writers manifest into harrowing conflicts built around interpreting and undermining the Creator's goals. However, there are also rays of hard-earned faith in human nature and perspective once Noah rides out the storm and reaches its destination, rewarding the rollercoaster ride with bittersweet, intimate moments of catharsis and resolved turmoil that I'd like to think will resonate with both believers and cynics. There's a lot of breathtaking ambition crammed into this liberal reimaginging of a short segment from scripture, and while it's not watertight in its emotional integrity or indulgent blockbuster inclinations, there's a lot of distinct, fearless beauty to behold.

'Transcendence": Insufficient, Vexing Take on A.I.'s Danger

Directed by: Wally Pfister; Runtime: 119 minutes
Grade: C-

The cast brought together for Transcendence plays like reunion of sorts for the supporting players in Christopher Nolan's oeuvre -- Rebecca Hall! Morgan Freeman! Cilian Murphy! -- gathering together with cinematographer from Memento and Inception, Wally Pfister, for his grand directorial debut. To say that he's picked a subject for his unveiling that's both ambitious and overdone would be an understatement: the translation of an organic mind into a digital format, and how the replication could prove problematic when the data starts to think, evolve, and take initiative. Enormous promise lies within the notion explored by this Johnny Depp vehicle, from the ethical boundaries crossed by creating a proxy for a person's consciousness to the practical possibilities unlocked by an artificial intelligence working to break mankind's limitations. The problem? Pfister's pedestrian direction, coupled with a rote and stiffly-conceptual script, reduces the material into a drab cautionary mindboggler without the proper substance to lend weight to its timely ideas.

Depp stars as Will Castor, a proponent and researcher in the field of artificial intelligence who's absorbed by the concept of a technological singularity -- or, what he calls "transcendence" -- the (dangerous) point when a self-aware computer exceeds the capable processing power of the human brain. While his agenda naturally garners the positive attention of forward-thinkers, including his loving wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and best friend Max (Paul Bettany), he has also expectedly earned the scorn from those against the creation of hyper-advanced digital life, including the extremist anti-tech group R.I.F.T., or Revolutionary Independence From Technology. The group's resistance to his school of thought erupts in a series of terrorist attacks that level research branches across the globe, as well as an assassination attempt against Will that, through radiation poisoning, leaves him with a little over a month to live. Desperate to preserve him and his knowledge, Evelyn and Max reluctantly decide to take the research to the next level ... by uploading Will's consciousness.

Will Castor, as presented by the ever-subdued Depp, comes across as a dry, nondescript genius and quasi-celebrity, which both plays into the intentions driving Transcendence and frustrates in the process. There's little separating the actor's typical mannerisms -- low-key and aloof -- and the character he's portraying, rendering static sequences where he chats with his devoted wife and gives a talk at an independent TED-like financier event. It doesn't help that Castor gets swept up in screenwriter Jack Paglen's hamstrung plotting towards his digital transition, swapping out some of the nuance in the topic's ethics and feasibility with the time-sensitive desperation in getting the forward-thinker's mind in the digital sphere before he expires. His meek behavior becomes an ambiguous element of the story once his consciousness goes online, yet it leaves one wondering whether the film might actually be more intriguing and pertinent had Castor been a more discernible and engaged personality.

What's frustrating about Transcendence is that the theories underneath Castor's transition are incredibly interesting on-paper, seen in motion once his presence crosses the digital threshold. Ideas are introduced about what'd happen if the upload of one's consciousness was in any way incomplete, whether their personality remains as a "ghost in the machine" after the transition, and how an unleashed, Internet-connected AI with specific personality and morality objectives would hand self-preservation ... and self-improvement. These aren't new concepts, of course, but they're becoming increasingly relevant with technology's advancement in the field, and they provide compelling science-fiction contemplations once the story gets beyond the tech used to make it possible. The combination of the script's cursory touches on that material and Pfister's protracted direction, however, delivers them in a dull and reflexive fashion, forcing the underlying gray-area themes -- both about the development of the Castor intelligence and the terrorist resistance to it -- to lose their assurance.

Transcendence's big disconnect lies in a void of emotional resonance from the perfunctory characters, where director Pfister relies too much on the concept to drive itself, closely mirroring -- and more accurately representing -- some of the criticisms lobbed at Christopher Nolan's films. With time, this electronic copy of Castor takes on a life of its own, exacting its own agenda that can be interpreted in a number of ways, both benevolent and malignant. A neutral adversary that's so clinical needs some kind of personal perspective interacting with it to bolster the film's philosophical intentions, yet the bond between the intelligence and Evelyn hardly goes beyond her grim compliance and quietly emerging fear. Rebecca Hall musters an enigmatic and slightly empathetic presence as Castor's wife, whose despair over her husband's state understandably justifies her loyalty at the surface; however, the machinations of the eerily monotone proxy of Castor overbear the glimmers of intimacy between them, forcing the angle to be superficial storytelling instead of expressively dynamic. Everything else built around the situation is just as flaccidly one-note, from R.I.F.T.'s luddite agenda to the FBI investigation into their operations.

Under better circumstances, perhaps the shallowness could be excused in support of Transcendence's focus on the complexity and threat of Castor's escalating abilities itself, as the script takes some fantastical licenses with leaps in science -- across a healthy jump in time -- that shape him into an almost God-like entity. What occurs in the second half while exploring this possibility, however, borders on abuse of Arthur C. Clarke's laws of science-fiction, where the application of things such as nanotechnology, organic tissue repair, even artificial weather modification become unjustly interchangeable with magic or with the miraculous touch of a deity, only in the not-distant-at-all future. The situation's common sense slips from Wally Pfister's grasp into a messy mixture of Orwellian dystopia and consequentialism, with only far-fetched contrivances befitting a mindless blockbuster as a means of overwrought escape. It's a shame to see the potential within Transcendence fizzle into the digital ether in such a haphazard fashion, losing track of its deeper ruminations along with its prudence.

'Blue Ruin' a Fantastic, Grounded Slice of Indie Revenge

Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier; Runtime: 90 minutes
Grade: B+

Vigilante films have flourished in American cinema for quite a while now, from the saga of Paul Kersey in the Death Wish series to more contemporary entries like Man on Fire and Taken, all with their own specific brands of volatility. One thing that most entries in the genre share in common is that they typically revolve around the protagonist either being or transforming into a capable, shrewd revenge-seeker, charging through his targets in a form of retribution fantasy. Such isn't the case for Blue Ruin, the tale of a willful vagabond who's drawn out of isolation when a murderer to whom he's connected gets released from jail. Director Jeremy Saulnier's fusion of arthouse and grindhouse sensibilities funnels into a unexpectedly poignant yarn about the crippling nature of fear and almost-obligatory wrath, seen through the eyes of the very definition of an improbable hero. With measured doses of violence and a vein of suspense built around the main character's unexaggerated ineptitude, it's an absorbing divergence from what's expected of the genre.

Blue Ruin begins with a homeless, heavily-bearded man, Dwight (Macon Blair), shacking up in a vacant seaside house, where his respite from a life of scavenging and sleeping in his rusted car gets halted by a vacationing family, presumably the owners. He's thrust back onto the beaches and under the boardwalks of his everyday life for us to witness, until a police officer with knowledge of his identity notifies him that somebody has been released from jail, somebody responsible for a double murder. Who this is, precisely, and what they've done becomes part of the film's gradual unraveling mystery, a secret which Jeremy Saulnier cleverly guards until the time's right. The information about the convict's release is enough to send Dwight, a seemingly modest and docile person, into a panic of internal turmoil, destination preparation, and the search for some kind of weaponry. Once he gets his revenge for these personal wrongs, what's Dwight going to do about his well-being, and will his act of vengeance be met with repercussions?

Director Saulnier places a lot of faith in his audience to observe underlying details in Blue Ruin without them being explicitly tied together, relishing the nearly-wordlessly abstract ways he connects the dots of Dwight's mystery and detached life. The film etches out an inspired underlying backstory for the main character through the ways he sustains himself -- recycling, freeganism, thievery -- as he's forced out of his life of seclusion, where his minuscule talents are tested in his voyage towards the convict's area of release. Saulnier's script cleverly subverts the audience's expectations of how Dwight might resolve or escape situations, replacing the rousing gravitas of a determined man on a mission with doses of realism that obstruct his drive towards revenge. Getting injured or cornered in a situation doesn't simply lead to obligatory scenes of this hero gracefully conquering the odds, and that's part of the intelligence navigating the story.

That's because Dwight is the epitome of an unlikely hero and ill-equipped vigilante: he's an everyman who disappeared when times grew tough, developing elementary skills of street survival that the necessity of his self-imposed seclusion forced upon him. One look upon his scraggly beard and tattered clothes suggests a different turn of events in his life, no luck and hard knocks, but that slowly gets replaced as the details of his previous life come into focus, about the deeds of the convict he fears and the family whom he abandoned. Macon Blair's performance cannot receive enough acknowledgment for credibly presenting a likably inept, anxious individual who feels obligated -- both to his history and to his own crippling anger -- to claim vengeance, whose inner conflict over what's coming next can be seen in the way he struggles to procure a gun, handle a blade, and clumsily hide in the shadows. Our experiences with him are smartly voyeuristic at first, a hands-off and neutral approach that lets the audience's perceptions of his moral compass go where they will.

As Saulnier's strikingly natural photography depicts the flight of this distraught and vengeful man through American's landscape, embellished with looming fog and wheat fields passing alongside his symbolically neglected excuse for a car, Blue Ruin accelerates to Dwight's destination in Delaware ... and then promptly flips its intentions in the aftermath. Instead of drawing out the process of getting payback, the film focuses on the cascade of incidents following Dwight's irrational actions, building a steady and disquieting simmer of responsive tension while he contacts those who were once close to him -- including his best friend (Devin Ratray), an out-of-practice ex-Marine -- and prepares for backlash from those aligned with the convict. His lack of competence in high-tension situations creates an absorbing ricochet of developments that have been expertly composed and edited to embrace the mood, given force by curt, hardnosed bouts of violence way outside of Dwight's comfort zone. It creates the kind of electric atmosphere where roughly twenty words from the right person can both cement and upend everything known about Dwight's story, meshing routine Hollywood-caliber exposition and livewire tension with startling, yet credible, twists.

Through the course of its restrained intensity, Blue Ruin undercuts the potential for exploitation in its thrills with eloquent personal storytelling, taking its tone closer to a fusion of Jeff Nichols' depiction of rural conflicts and the Coen Brothers' raucous drama. Dwight's inability to cope with grief and his decision to live off the grid enrich the bumps along his morally-questionable journey, where he struggles with the credibility of others and some somewhat philosophical musings about the changeableness of spoken truth, the decision to abandon memories and identity for safety, and the boundary separating justifiable and vain redemption. His story becomes more interested in emotional catharsis built around those ideas than satisfying bloodlust and the fantasy of retaliation, which guides the film down a path that emphasizes Dwight's fallibility and limits. The fact that this homeless man with wide, weatherworn eyes isn't a composed ex-military renegade or trained assassin becomes director Saulnier's strongest asset as Blue Ruin approaches its methodically tense exhale of a conclusion, leaving its mark as a fine piece of versatile indie filmmaking.