FRESH POUR: Noah (2014) / Sabotage (2014)

Clint takes a look at one or two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal.

Dir. Darren Aronofsky
Paramount Pictures

Biblical epics are often a mixed bag; for every Last Temptation of Christ, there’s a Greatest Story Ever Told. Even spottier are the track records of non-Jesus Biblical epics, particularly those of Old Testament stories; we’re usually a little more receptive to the nicer, forgiving God of the NT rather than his fire-and-brimstone OG OT version. To that end, Darren Aronofsky is taking quite a few chances with Noah; it’s a big-budget epic of the Old Testament story of Noah and the Great Flood, and the film gives it a uniquely fantastical approach more in tune with Lord of the Rings and Waterworld than The Bible…In the Beginning (the last time Noah was really featured prominently on screen). In fact, this film in particular has had quite a sordid history, with test screenings after test screenings, Christian/Jewish outrage at the changes Aronofsky made to the story of Noah and more. Now that all the controversy has passed and the film has opened, I can safely say that one should have faith in Darren Aronofsky (see what I did there?), since this is a phenomenal film.

The story of Noah is told as almost an apocalyptic sci-fi tale, including a world full of fallen angels (called Watchers) who linger on Earth in the form of rock monsters, magic minerals that glow and provide magical energy to create fire and explosives, and so on. Noah (Russell Crowe, playing the role not unlike his Kal-El) and his family (including wife Jennifer Connolly and children Logan Lerman, Emily Watson and others) lives on the outskirts of society, as civilization has basically become a combination of Mad Max and Waterworld – influences which are clear in the film’s costuming, especially. However, with the help of prophetic dreams and advice from his grandfather Methuselah (a charmingly dark cameo by Anthony Hopkins), Noah learns that “the Creator” has called upon him to build an Ark, in order to save the “innocent” animals from the Great Flood so they may start again. Plot-wise, the film moves straightforwardly from there, as the Watchers help him build the Ark and fend off the hordes of Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), a descendant of Cain who wants on the Ark for himself so he may survive.

In addition to the spectacle scenes of godly battle, horrifying massacres and Biblical miracles, the film revels in throwing in uncomfortable questions of the nature of martyrhood and prophecy. Noah’s chief conflict throughout the film is what to do about humanity – he is reasonably sure that, since God is starting over because of Man’s horrors, mankind itself is meant to go extinct, including he and his family. This creates a number of moral quandaries among his children, notably Ham (Lerman), who wants a wife but is forbidden by Noah, and the sudden pregnancy of the heretofore barren Ila (Watson), which promises a future for mankind. Over the course of the film, Noah must decide how far his martyrdom must go, and if it includes his family as well, which provides some meaty material to fill out the otherwise-boilerplate section of the film after the Ark has launched.

Perhaps the film’s biggest asset is its cinematography – the film is absolutely gorgeous, with tremendous nature photography capturing the beauty of mountains, rocks, trees, rivers and more. Biblical events like the story of creation and the growing of Noah’s forest with which to build the Ark are told through a combination of time-lapse photography and shadow puppetry that is completely breathtaking to behold. Even if the other elements of the film were to fail, this would still stand as an early contender for one of the prettiest films of the year. Clint Mansell’s score is also wonderfully stark and epic, as it tends to be when he scores Aronofsky’s works.

This is definitely Darren Aronofsky’s biggest film to date, and it seems as though he wanted to use this sense of scale to tell what is, at its heart, a tale of family. Noah is the main character, but his family also gets their own unique conflicts (especially Lerman’s torn loyalty between his strict father Noah and the gratification of Winstone’s Tubal-Cain), turning the story of the Flood into a trial by fire for a family’s sense of loyalty. Add to that some not-so-subtle subtexts about global warming, the oil industry, etc., and you have a highly thematic film with a lot to say. If you can get over the fact that it takes liberties with the story of the Bible and makes its messages much more universal and fantastic, you will not regret seeing Noah.

Clint’s Verdict: Loved It!

Noah Drinking Game:
1) Drink whenever someone refers to “The Creator”
2) Drink anytime characters are shown in silhouette
3) Drink every time you see glowy yellow light (whether from the Watchers or the zohar or elsewhere)
Finish Your Drink When:
Noah (Russell Crowe) starts getting wine-wasted on a beach.

Dir. David Ayer
Open Road Films

2012’s End of Watch was one of my favorite films of that year – Training Day screenwriter David Ayer turned his eye to directing, using a combination of found footage and electrifying performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena to create a gritty and affecting tale of brotherhood. The fact that that movie is so good makes me so much more disappointed in Ayers’ followup, Sabotage. Ayer doing another cop movie, but this time with Arnold, Sawyer from LOST, and the teacher from Rushmore? It should have been great; instead, it’s a big, ugly mess.

Playing every macho meathead stereotype to the max, Sabotage tells the tale of a gung-ho DEA undercover squad led by Arnold’s “Breacher” (everyone gets cute nicknames that aren’t fully explained but are supposed to be totally rad, like “Tripod” and “Neck”), who unsuccessfully tries to smuggle $10 million from a huge cartel bust. After six months of DEA internal investigation, they get off the hook – only to find out that someone is killing them one by one. With the help of DEA investigator Caroline Brentwood (Williams), Arnold and crew have to find out who is taking them out and why (Spoiler alert: it’s about the money).

The premise alone makes it sound like COPS meets Watchmen, and that’s certainly fair; however, there are so many pacing and characterization issues that the whole film just feels regressive and conservative. First off, everyone in the film (including the non-meatheads) talks like a meathead. When you have noted British actress Olivia Williams putting on a muddled American accent and spouting off raunchy locker-room banter, it’s jarring to say the least. I will give Williams credit for committing, but she’s definitely miscast (or just plain miswritten); she doesn’t feel like enough of a contrast to Arnold’s team to sell the ‘outsider’ role she’s meant to be.

The rest of the cast is just as poorly drawn; at least ¾ of Arnold’s squad is the exact same character – a loudmouthed redneck with tattoos and odd facial hair and/or dreadlocks, who likes talking about pussy and playing Call of Duty. They’re also completely unsympathetic, spending their entire runtime acting like obnoxious, annoying barflies who are just ready to beat everyone up. They all feel like personifications of that “Marine punches out a pansy college professor for trashing the military” meme; just grunting, posturing animals. I know this is intentional, and Ayer is never shy to paint cops or the world they live in with a dark brush, but it really does not work in these instances. (What’s more, the late-act reveal of “maybe it’s one of us” falls apart because it turns out to be the characters that have basically received the least development out of anyone, leaving me wondering why I should care.)

Sabotage is entirely tone-deaf, and tries unsuccessfully to mix the gritty cop drama with a post-millenial Arnold action movie, leading to a world in which cartoon characters in TapOut shirts get in each others’ faces and yell. Arnold, bless his heart, does his best to elevate the material as best he can by playing the world-weary cop like in last year’s The Last Stand, but the end of the film does him a disservice by slapping on a lazy coda that feels twenty years behind its time.

There are a few minor pluses to the film’s favor; for one, the action is reasonably well-directed and exciting, if a little too dependent on TWIST! It’s a flashback reveals and that weird gun-cam effect where we look straight down the barrel. Unfortunately, the film puts its stock in a completely juvenile idea of what cool is, leading to a cast of characters who are ripped straight out of an “occupational redneck” TLC reality show pretending they’re in a cop drama. Whatever pathos we’re meant to wring out of Arnie’s dead family or the dissolution of Worthington and Mereille Enos’ marriage just dissipates, leaving a limp cop thriller that tries too many things at one time. I hope for better from Ayer, since he’s capable of it, but maybe he needs to step out of his cop-movie comfort zone and try something new.

Clint’s Verdict: Skip It

Sabotage Drinking Game: 
1) Drink for headshots
2) Drink anytime you see flashforwards or flashbacks
3) Drink whenever a character drinks
Finish Your Drink When:
“Breacher” (Arnold Schwarzenegger) says his first line in Spanish.

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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