New stuff at the Star:
I got to review Blended, Chef, Godzilla, The Hornet’s Nest, & X-Men: Days of Future Past.
…..and I’m still not sure what I saw, exactly. A deeply weird attempt to turn a Bible story into a fantasy/action epic? A brilliant director’s fascinating struggle with issues of faith and justice? A psychodrama about a family under unthinkable duress?
Yes. Probably. Sort of.
It’s just too interesting not to write about. Lots of spoilers ahead.
Darren Aronofsky is one of my favorite directors, and his filmography has a constant theme of obsessive characters who destroy themselves. Russell Crowe’s Noah is part of the same lineage as the mad math genius in Pi, the drug addicts in Requiem for a Dream and the doomed ballerina in Black Swan. They’re all reaching for something greater than themselves, only to discover that their goals are elusive, if they exist at all.
In Noah, the Creator does seem to exist, and is determined to destroy most of humanity. Noah strives for righteousness, and he becomes as hard and unforgiving as the God who would wipe out His own creation. This character study, humanizing a figure who gets very little airtime in the Bible, is easily the best thing about Aronofsky’s approach. Crowe nails the portrayal of a man tortured by what he has been tasked with – or thinks he has.
The rest of the film is not as successful. The visuals are great, and the depraved world of villain Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) is impressively rendered, as is his attempt to overtake the ark when the deluge begins. It’s so cool-looking, you could almost forget about all the crazy.
I’m not just talking about the
Ents rock monsters Watchers, either. Their story is pulled from that short passage in Genesis about the Nephilim, along with extra-biblical writings like The Book of Enoch, which talks about fallen angels being covered with “rough and jagged rocks” and bound in “the valleys of the earth.” Aronofsky and his co-writer, Ari Handel, get very creative with this concept, even having the Watchers help build the ark. It’s not quite as silly as it sounds, but it’s close.
We also get to meet Methuselah, Noah’s extremely aged grandfather, played by Anthony Hopkins. He lives in a cave, craves berries for some reason, and has magic powers (or hallucinogenics,or both). It’s a bizarre cameo which adds little to the film, except another Oscar winner (Jennifer Connelly’s in it, too).
The real fun(?) comes when Noah determines that all of humanity is supposed to die – including him and his family. They’re just around to keep the animals alive. Noah’s daughter-in-law is pregnant, and God isn’t sending him useful visions of what to do, so he is on the verge of committing infanticide. Only an innate feeling of love for his offspring keeps him from going through with it.
Mind you, he makes this decision without any help from the deity whose (albeit vague) directives led to all this in the first place. Does Noah’s act of mercy fulfill God’s will, or go against it? There were plenty of children killed in the flood. What makes these kids so special?
That is, of course, one of the big questions raised by both the movie and the Bible story. Is it really possible that every single person on Earth is evil, except this one guy and his family? We don’t see much of Noah’s world in either case, and what Aronofsky shows is a sparsely inhabited wasteland that couldn’t begin to sustain even its tiny population.
If the flood only ravages one area, then that explains the absurd notion that the entire planet could be repopulated by 8 people, most of whom are genetically related. Either there were others spared from the flood somewhere, or there’s going to be some serious inbreeding. That can’t be what the Creator (or the director) had in mind.
In virtually every way, Noah is an interesting failure, an attempt to make narrative and moral sense out of a story that doesn’t lend itself to the task. If he had made a straight-up fantasy or sci-fi version, Aronofsky might have pulled this off. By tying the film to a religious text whose tales are ostensibly set in the real world, he backs himself into a corner only divine intervention could get him out of.
Originally published in The Kansas City Star
April 11th, 2014
- 2 1/2 out of 4 stars
Oculus won’t haunt anyone’s nightmares, unless they haven’t seen a horror movie in a very long time. Glowy eyed ghouls and self-mutilation lost their shock value at least a decade ago.
What it has going for it is a slow, steady build-up of tension, leading to a final act that makes up in pure intensity what it lacks in originality. In a genre that so often relies on gore and lazy jump scares, that goes a long way.
Oculus is based on director Mike Flanagan’s 2006 short “Oculus: Chapter 3 — The Man With the Plan,” and it cleverly extends the premise. The plot centers on an antique mirror whose owners have a habit of dying mysteriously (and gruesomely). Siblings Kaylie and Tim (Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites) know this all too well, as they witnessed their
parents (Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff) succumb to the thing’s murderous power 11
years ago. Tim spent his adolescence in a mental institution, while Kaylie was in foster care, increasingly obsessed with proving that her family’s tragic dissolution was supernatural.
Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard never fully explain what’s going on with the mirror, or what Kaylie ultimately hopes to accomplish when she purchases it and installs it in her childhood home. Convincing a reluctant, skeptical Tim to join her, Kaylie has an elaborate plan to monitor the mirror and its effects, and Gillan has some amusing early moments as she shows off her high-tech Ghost Hunters setup. Gillan and Thwaites make completely convincing siblings, as do Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan, who play their younger selves in flashbacks.
Actually, they’re not so much flashbacks as visions, and this is another way in which Oculus stands out. The mirror controls its victims’ perception of reality, and Flanagan deftly does the same to viewers. It’s almost impossible to tell what’s really happening, which contributes greatly to the nerve-wracking nature of the last half-hour. With an assist
from the Newton brothers’ ominous musical score, Oculus gradually, inexorably tightens its grip.
While you’re trying to catch your breath, you may not notice how many horror clichés are being paraded across the screen. Flanagan borrows liberally from family- horror movies like The Shining and any number of stories about possessed objects. Thanks to its lack of backstory, the mirror is pretty innocuous, and the undead intruders it produces could have wandered out of any modern ghost or zombie flick. Even the “twist” ending isn’t as bold as it’s apparently supposed to be.
Flanagan does show promise as a director, and his skill makes Oculus effective enough to be worthwhile. If he keeps this up, he might make something really scary someday. Rated R – Loey Lockerby.
Our original plan was to trek south to Naples so we could see Pompeii, but time and money did not allow for such a journey. One of my co-workers, Helen Park, suggested that if we couldn’t make that trip, we should visit Ostia Antica instead. It’s only about 30 miles from central Rome and easily accessible via the suburban rail lines. So, we took her advice.
Smart move. The place is actually hard to describe – you’re walking on streets that don’t seem to have changed much in 2000 years. I won’t bore you with a long history (you can find that here), but the gist is this: Ostia was the main harbor city for Rome during the late Republic and Imperial eras. The fall of the Empire, coupled with environmental issues, led the city to be abandoned gradually and covered with layers of silt. Looting and invasions occurred, but they were minimal compared to what went on elsewhere, especially in Rome itself.
Now, it’s a massive archeological site, where you can climb on most of the structures, unassailed by a crush of tourists. Ostia should be much better known than it is, but it’s also nice to wander around without being rendered immobile by the crowds (hello, Vatican Museum!).
You enter through the necropolis, which is where Romans wisely buried their dead (or stored the ashes), outside the city proper. As you pass through the gates, you see remnants of a busy, working-class community’s daily life.
There are insulae, the apartment buildings average people lived in, stacked up along the stone streets. Shops, warehouses, and taverns are everywhere, including one where you can still sit at the bar.
Since public baths were popular places for business transactions, there are dozens of them, complete with elaborate mosaics. The amphitheater is still in good shape. Even the temples can be made out pretty well, although they’re generally less intact than other structures.
We spent four hours there, and I was ready to move in. We ate lunch at the visitors’ center and checked out the gift shop, then ventured to another beautiful spot, looking down over what we thought might be the western boundary of the city.
We were quite mistaken.
By this time, it was nearing sunset, and we were both tired. I could have gone on until we got kicked out, but Mom’s feet were not responding well to the pavements (or lack thereof). Plus, she wanted to go to the beach, which we had assumed we’d be doing by this time.
So, the other half of Ostia is on the bucket list for my next trip to Rome, and we will be spending more time at the beach. It was a little chilly for a full day there, but after Mom kindly indulged my historic (heh) nerdiness, the least I could do was make sure we walked along the shore for a while.
Exhausted as we were, we hopped on the train and went to Castel Fusano, the next-to-last stop on the rail line. The station was three blocks from the water, and since it was off-season, we had free run of the place. We admired the dark sands and tiny, shiny black seashells that cover the beach there. We wrinkled our noses at the jellyfish carcasses that had washed ashore.
And we saw the sunset. It may not have been the seaside excursion Mom was hoping for, but it was a lovely, peaceful way to end our last full day in this extraordinary place.
That night, we finally ate at the little restaurant a block away from our apartment, where the staff had invited us in every day since we arrived. We turned in early, and headed to the airport at waytoodamnearly o’clock. on Wednesday. We changed planes in Munich, which meant getting German stamps on our passports (although l don’t think it really counts if you never leave the airport). We arrived back in D.C. that night, physically destroyed, but absolutely thrilled.
The next day was a cold, rainy Halloween, so we stayed in our hotel room, watching horror movies on cable and ordering in our meals. Mom was still in pain from all the walking, and I had inexplicably gotten sick on the flight from Munich, so it took a full day to recover. We flew home Friday, ready to share our experience – and plan our next trip. Because we are definitely not done.
Final round of pictures below….
Monday was the day we finally stopped walking past the Colosseum and walked into it. We had reservations for a tour, one of the few times we didn’t just go the self-guided route, mostly because we were hoping to visit the underground areas (the hypogeum). Alas, they had suffered some recent water damage and weren’t safe, so we had to admire them from above.
Our guide, Patricia, was very nice and informative (and kind of short – we lost her for a bit as we moved from the Colosseum to the Forum). We climbed up to the top accessible level, which had incredible views, and marveled at what utter geniuses the ancient Romans were. Ever been to a sports stadium with numbered entrances, sections, and rows? Thank the guys who designed places like this. The tiered seating, the breezy walkways, the fancy sections for rich people – you can see the genesis of that right there at Il Colosseo.
They’ve built a half-floor out over the hypogeum, so you can get a sense of what it looked like before gladiators, animals, etc. popped up through trapdoors for their dramatic entrances. The hypogeum itself is quite elaborate, especially when you discover that it contained at least one tunnel that emerged at a nearby gladiator training facility. We passed the ruins of this place daily, so there must be some significant artifacts buried under the neighborhood’s busy streets and buildings.
The Colosseum is in remarkably good shape when you consider how many times it was attacked, looted, and hit by earthquakes over the years. The Forum Romanum, which is right next to it, is mostly rubble, although you can still see traces of its former grandeur.
My favorite structure in the Forum is probably the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, dedicated to a deified emperor and his wife, which was later turned into a Christian church. The columns and some other decorative elements are still there, which makes it look like the church has been pushed up into the middle of the temple. Ironically, this appropriation of pagan sites is the only way many of them survived – being turned into a church meant not being obliterated when Christianity came to dominate the region (see Pantheon, The). The Christians were determined to either wipe out or overwhelm every pagan site they could find, which meant not only turning temples into churches, but making sure the new churches were bigger and more elaborate than their competition. Then they started building other churches that were bigger than the previous ones.
The same phenomenon is at work in the triumphal arches, built by various emperors to commemorate their military victories. The Arch of Titus, from the 1st century, is 50 feet tall. Septimius Severus built one in the 3rd century that was 68 feet tall. When Constantine built his in the 4th century, guess how tall it was?
Basically, the architectural history of Rome is one epic dick-measuring contest. This continued into the modern era, with the Victor Emmanuel monument (1925) and Mussolini’s Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana (1943) both towering over the city. The locals criticize their gaudiness, but they’re just continuing the time-honored tradition of “my giant structure is bigger than your giant structure”.
Anyway, the Forum is catnip for history aficionados. You’re walking the same streets as Julius Caesar, looking at statues of actual Vestal Virgins, sitting on the steps of the Temple of Saturn. Even in ruins, it’s thrilling.
We did all this before lunch. Click to read about the Pantheon and why I want to be reincarnated as a stray Roman cat. Also, more pictures!
Yeah, this happened:
Originally published in The Kansas City Star
February 28th, 2014
- 2 1/2 out of 4 stars
In nearly every way, The Wind Rises is a typical biopic. It traces the life of a significant person (in this case, aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi), checking off his accomplishments and placing them in historical context. It even has a love story.
What sets it apart is the peculiar style of Hayao Miyazaki, the legendary Japanese animator who wrote and directed (and who claims it will be his final film). With his vivid, gorgeous visuals — the film was nominated for an animation Oscar — and his penchant for dark fantasy, Miyazaki takes a straightforward tale and gives it an unexpected sideways kick.
That’s true for the first hour, anyway. Jiro is an imaginative child, fascinated by the possibilities of flight, and his dreams are rendered by Miyazaki as visions that morph into unsettling prophecies. Jiro (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the English dubbed version) is growing up in the shadow of Japan’s militarization efforts, and he will go on to create planes used to drop bombs in World War II.
Even so, he’s just a young man with great talent and passion. He doesn’t like what his country is doing with his work, but he never seems too upset about it — he’s just a cog in the machine, doing what he loves the only way he can.
This moral quandary is addressed periodically, both in dialogue and in the overall tone. An early scene depicts Jiro’s survival of the Great Kanto Earthquake and its fiery aftermath, which devastated Japan in 1923. Miyazaki uses human voices to create the film’s sound effects, and the earthquake is like a monster coming to life, devouring everything it doesn’t set ablaze in its roaring fury.
That odd, doom-laden atmosphere permeates the sequences dealing with Jiro’s early life and career and offers the hope that Miyazaki will tackle the issues that simmer beneath the story’s surface. No such luck. About halfway through the movie, Jiro is reacquainted with Nahoko Satomi (Emily Blunt), whom he helped rescue during the earthquake. They
get married in fairly quick order, partly because she suffers from tuberculosis and doesn’t know how much time she has. While Jiro is still shown at work, Miyazaki’s focus drifts away from the details of fighter plane wing design and toward a completely different kind of
It’s no surprise to learn that the love story is fabricated, loosely adapted from the work of author Tatsuo Hori. Miyazaki is a romantic at heart, so the relationship between Jiro and Nahoko is sweet, but it also seems like an intentional distraction.
As Jiro’s planes become more beautiful and efficient, he helps his country overcome its
technological inferiority in the worst possible way. Miyazaki glosses over this — even when he acknowledges the coming destruction, he shows Jiro mourning the loss of all that fabulous aircraft more than any loss of life.
What starts as a complicated depiction of a genius in a harsh world becomes weighted down by contrivance and “just doing my job” denial. The Wind rises, but it never has the courage to soar. – Loey Lockerby
Sunday was probably the least active day of our trip – we needed time to rest before climbing on ruins for the next 48 hours. The first stop was just around the corner at the Basilica di San Clemente, one of the most fascinating examples of Rome’s “layer cake” architecture. It was another place where we couldn’t take pictures, but the link above has some good ones, and so do Wikipedia and Sacred Destinations.
The top level is a beautiful church, still in use, that dates to around 1100. It’s been touched up and added to over the years, and there is some truly gorgeous artwork – including (naturally) on the ceiling. Below that is a late-4th century church, which would have been established not long after Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. You can still see some altars and traces of paintings, including this remarkable piece, which suggests that Christian and pagan worship co-existed peacefully at some point here. There’s a lesson for us all.
Go down another level, and there are two buildings dating from around the second and third centuries. One may have been the Roman mint. The other was a private building, owned by a (likely wealthy) member of the Mithras cult. Mithras was a Persian deity, adopted and syncretized by the Romans, whose worship centered around underground temples called Mithraea. There is one in this building, complete with carved altar. It’s dramatic and mysterious, which was the point – it was a “mystery” cult, after all, with initiation rites and lots of secret practices.
Although you can’t touch the frescoes or go inside the Mithraeum, there is very little off-limits in San Clemente’s lower levels. We wandered around, sat on the stone benches, flipped over the Christian/pagan altar, touched a second Mithraic altar in one of the long hallways. You just feel enveloped by history in a place like this.
After venturing back into the sunlight, we had lunch at an outdoor cafe, enjoying yet another beautiful day. We saw a chunk of an old aqueduct, just standing next a modern building, a common experience in Rome (we also saw columns sticking up in random places). We also had that “turn the corner and….WOW!” moment again, thanks to San Giovanni in Laterano. We only saw the facade, but that was awe-inspiring enough.
On the other side of the piazza was this lovely thing.
We walked through the gates of the ancient city wall and took the Metro to the suburbs, emerging – literally – at the entrance to Cinecittá.
This was our one concession to modernity, as I could not be this close to Europe’s greatest movie studio without making a pilgrimage. Unfortunately, Italy’s “fall back” clock re-setting was the night before, which screwed up our plans to take the full studio tour (it was getting too late). We did, however, walk around the entrance grounds, which contain statues from movies like Gladiator and The Fall of the Roman Empire, plus the giant head from Casanova.
There was an exhibit on the studio’s history, so we got to see (and in some cases, touch) props and costumes from various Cinecittá productions. We also walked around the exterior sets for some Italian sitcom whose name I can’t remember. So, the trip out there was still completely worth it, even if we only saw the studio itself from a distance. After that, we tried to visit the old Appian Way, but it was almost dark, so we headed home instead.
I got to see where Fellini and Leone made their magic, and it was only the 5th or 6th coolest thing we did on this vacation. That says a lot.
More pics if you click
Director: George Clooney
Writers: George Clooney & Grant Heslov; based on the non-fiction book by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter
Cast: George Clooney as Frank Stokes, Matt Damon as James Granger, Bill Murray as Richard Campbell, Cate Blanchett as Claire Simone, John Goodman as Walter Garfield, Jean Dujardin as Jean-Claude Clermont, Hugh Bonneville as Donald Jeffries, Bob Balaban as Preston Savitz, Dimitri Leonidas as Sam Epstein
Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes
IMDB page: www.imdb.com/title/tt2177771/
Plot: In the final months of World War II, a group of art experts attempt to retrieve and protect priceless works stolen by the Nazis.
The Monuments Men occupies an odd space in the continuum of World War II movies. With its old-fashioned style and combination of humor and drama, it’s exactly halfway between Saving Private Ryan and Hogan’s Heroes.
We talk cult movies (and what that term even means), and I offer reviews of Her, August: Osage County, That Awkward Moment, & Lone Survivor.