Saturday, May 10, 2014

Noah (12A)

A bold and unconventional take on the Biblical story, and a welcome alternative to most Hollywood drivel or Christian mediocrity.

Noah (12A)

This review was first published in The Methodist Recorder (

Art-house filmmaker Darren Aronofsky’s Noah arrived in cinemas amidst a perfect storm of controversy and sensation. Critics praised, Christians cried sacrilege - but is this really a case of Hollywood defacing Scripture, or a worthy attempt by a secular artist to grapple with some very difficult subject matter?

At the very least, Noah is evidence that Aronofsky is a man of immense God-given talent, and those who panned it not only for straying from Scripture, but for being ‘boring’ or ‘badly made’, overstep their jurisdiction. But one thing is for certain, a Hollywood interpretation should never be used in place of the real thing.

The story is isolated from its position in the Biblical narrative, cloaking it's true meaning from those who aren’t already versed in Scripture. The most obvious embellishment is the inclusion of giant rock creatures - fallen angels inspired by mention of the mysterious ‘Nephilim’ in Genesis 6:4, and described in greater detail in The Book of Enoch, which though not canon with Scripture, as a secular writer Aronofsky considered equally valid source material.

An eco-centric agenda is clearly pushed, with the violent antagonist Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) characterised by his industrial and carnivorous lifestyle, which is equated negatively with the Biblical mandate to have dominion over creation. Environmentalists have often vilified Christianity as posing an unsustainable plan of plundering the Earth without replenishing, which is a biased misunderstanding of God’s command to subdue and multiply in it.

The temporary warping of Noah’s character from righteous man to disturbed murderer, is explained if we notice that the purposes of God (referred to in the film as ‘The Creator’) are portrayed as beyond the understanding of any one character alone, be that Noah’s Grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), his doting wife (Jennifer Connelly) or even Noah himself (Russell Crowe). All are used to do God’s will, and in the end a divine being of mercy and love is revealed.

One gets the sense that though misguided, Aronofsky is on a desperate search for truth, even daring to take seriously the concept of sin - something tragically rare and unpopular these days, and amazing to see tackled in a mainstream film. Christians are the privileged few who can separate the fact from the fiction, and despite numerous times the film gets things wrong, it’s still moving to see familiar concepts explored in such a giddy mix of confused flaws and exhilarating artistry.

Friday, February 07, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street (18)

Master director Martin Scorsese's best film in almost a decade is still in cinemas; the magnificent, sickening and beautiful, The Wolf of Wall Street.

The Wolf of Wall Street (18)
(This review was first published on

You’d never picture Leonardo DiCaprio playing an ugly character, but The Wolf of Wall Street defies nature casting him as one of the filthiest, most repugnant characters ever seen on screen. Not on the outside of course, but on the inside.

The real life ‘wolf’ of the title is Jordan Belfort, who upon first hearing this broadsheet bestowed nickname was un-flattered and furious. All his life his sole ambition was to make a fortune, and in the late eighties he began a career as a stockbroker. He learnt an aggressive and unforgiving style of offloading worthless shares to gullible investors, and by the early nineties had set up his own firm and was literally rolling in cash.  Meanwhile the FBI had their eye on him from the start, and quietly stalked him in the years that followed.

DiCaprio, keen to play Belfort and push the boundaries of his acting range, persuaded his mentor Martin Scorsese to tackle the project. Scorsese’s stroke of genius was to shoot the film in the only way that could make three hours of unapologetic wickedness watchable - by twisting it into a black comedy so audaciously hilarious it’s impossible to look away from.

The film is a delicious whirlwind of excess and energy, a trait Scorsese maintains despite limited use of his trademark ever moving camera. Another Scorsese staple that makes a welcome return is the non-stop jukebox soundtrack; his most contemporary compilation yet and a treat for the ears. The film’s frenzied drug-fueled sequences are among the most intoxicating pieces of pure entertainment Scorsese has ever made.

Thelma Schoonmaker, his longtime editing partner, had the unenviable task of piecing together what must have been a (digital) mountain of footage, and the result is a sprawling, indulgent runtime that the director apparently struggled to reach after his preferred edit ran closer to four hours! This traces the source of one of the film’s only weaknesses, a few slightly disjointed scenes with glaring continuity errors, likely not helped by the amount of improvisation the director encouraged his actors to experiment with. These flaws are a small price to pay, however, for the mad, inspired pieces of acting they afforded.

Much can and must be said about DiCaprio’s performance. There’s never been a more apt time to laud his abilities - he’s never been better, and probably never will be again.  It’s a no holds barred, guns blazing, thunderous turn that blows away his past performances in terms of dynamite charisma. He’s likely second only to Daniel Day-Lewis as the greatest actor working today. He loses himself in Belfort’s despicable character with such glee, that it must have been intimidating just to be near him on set. If he doesn’t win the Oscar this year he might as well retire in protest!

Screenwriter Terence Winter, as a former regular writer for The Sopranos and having collaborated previously with Scorsese on Boardwalk Empire, has impeccable pedigree. His sly and hard hitting script doesn’t disappoint, sporting boldness and subtlety to spare.

Some have criticised the film for glamorising the lifestyle of these money-grubbing conmen, but such critics are completely missing the point. The lifestyle is glamorous, it is attractive. It absolutely does make civilised, modest ‘good citizens’ look like boring nobodies, or ‘schmucks’, as a character in another Scorsese film might say. The Wolf of Wall Street does nothing more, and nothing less than portray the tempting sights, sounds and pleasures of total immersion in sin, in all their technicolour wonder.

But while Belfort was living it up, the law was watching, waiting to strike. The real crime is what became of him after that day had come and gone - an infuriating injustice that he may well get away with, until the day he dies.

The real Jordan Belfort

Scorsese’s scorching picture is a terrifying defrocking of the outrageous immorality and lack of consequence that goes unchallenged around the globe (not just in the world of high finance), and a spine-chilling finger pointed at the audience, saying, “Deep down you really wish you could be like this guy, don’t you?” The scary thing is that if we’re honest, most of us would have to answer ‘yes’.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (15)

The Coen's latest unmissable gift to the world is in cinemas tomorrow (Friday 24th Jan).

Inside Llewyn Davis (15) (This review on

Riding high on the success of their biggest commercial hit to date (True Grit), Inside Llewyn Davis is a change of tack for the Coen brothers and one of their most curious, slight and inaccessible films to date.  Following a struggling folk musician as he misses golden opportunities, chases wild geese (metaphorically) and a cat (literally), this is the story of a diamond in the rough who just can’t catch a break.  It’s very Coen-esque that this should be their next project, especially as Ethan Coen has said, “Maybe Llewyn Davis doesn’t compromise because nobody’s offering him enough money.  It’s similar to our situation.”  It’s as though they’ve shied away from success to avoid the temptation to commercialise.

The year is 1961, and Davis’ character is largely modelled on the man who Bob Dylan called his ‘first New York muse’, Dave Van Ronk.  Ronk never made it big and remained largely obscure.  For Davis, his stagnant career is largely down to his own jaded attitude towards failure.  He assumes things won’t work out, doesn’t recognise potential leads and cares more about his friend’s escaped feline than the people in his life.  After friend and fellow singer Jean (an hilariously sweary Carey Mulligan) rants at him for getting her pregnant, all he can say is he’s worried about the cat!  If he put as much effort into relationships, professional and personal, as he does into chasing the cat, then maybe he’d get somewhere.  Instead he’s dismissive and preoccupied, tortured by an inner turmoil which the Coen’s choose not to explain until half way through.

Oscar Isaac is the title character.  It’s impossible to picture anyone else filling Llewyn’s shoes; he’s the perfect blend of grizzled po-faced confusion, not to mention musical, and makes it possible to sympathise with a character who could have been very unlikable.  Any fears that pop star Justin Timberlake would mar the quality of the ensemble cast are unfounded; he plays his part as nice guy musician Jim to a tee.  He cleverly portrays how his character doesn’t realise the extent to which Llewyn feels threatened by him, and also performs one of the film’s best songs in a sequence that lets the Coens soar in their love of music and quirky madness.  It’s a non-introspective and infectiously upbeat number, which Davis makes no bones about scorning.

Regular Coen collaborator John Goodman makes a brief appearance as an insensitive handicapped codger, who manages to get under Llewyn’s skin and look deeper inside him during an extended sequence where they share a car to Chicago.  Indeed the performances are uniformly impressive, and often underplayed, giving much of the Coen’s zany, bitter dialogue a melancholy feel unprecedented in their famously offbeat filmography.  Even the cat is brilliant; apparently the Coen’s directing talents aren’t limited to working with humans!

Bruno Delbonnel more than deserves his Oscar nomination for the cinematography, with the distinct colour palette and nostalgic glow striking an alluringly atmospheric chord.  The recreation of the period is vivid yet distant, making a bygone time seem lost to history but still strangely palpable.

The soundtrack, produced by T-Bone Burnett in his third time working with the brothers, is another gem from left field that will leave you with catchy melodies, from the lively to the wistful, echoing in your mind for weeks to come.  Van Ronk’s underground classics are blended with some terrific original songs, giving the soundscape special character.

The story is structured episodically, and each scene is filled with such resonance and poignancy that you almost expect it to be over with a cut to black at any second.  Instead, the Coen’s tie things up with a thematic tidiness and mysterious elegance, bookending Llewyn’s adventures in a way that will haunt audiences and linger long after the lights come up.

Inside Llewyn Davis is both an ode to and warning for starving artists addicted to the pseudo-romance of their loser lifestyles.  Sweet and stinging, the Coens are the kings of success without compromise, and have the authority to dare and make such complex and sweeping observations on the creative types they simultaneously identify with and rise above.

Bob Dylan with Dave Van Ronk (right).