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The Star eCentral: Movie Reviews

'Noah' puts Darren Aronofsky's box office appeal to the test

Posted: 27 Mar 2014 01:15 AM PDT

Costing RM412mil, the Biblical epic Noah is director Aronofsky's most expensive movie so far – but can he convince audiences the money was well spent?

Rain lashes down from the heavens while hungry followers of Cain trample over each other for a spot on Noah's massive wooden ark. The end is inevitable and, of course, not pretty.

Director Darren Aronofsky, best known for dark and unrelenting dramas such as the Oscar-nominated Black Swan, would have it no other way in the biblical epic Noah, which stars Russell Crowe and is set to be released in US and Canadian theatres, as well as several other countries, on Friday.

Can this man turn Noah into a blockbuster? Film director Darren Aronofsky poses during a photocall at the 12th Marrakesh International Film Festival in 2012. Reuters/Stringer.

"There's something elemental about the water," Aronofsky said. "Water has an incredible power to destroy and it also gives rebirth. It's an amazing force. So, I've just always wondered why no one ever brought it to the big screen."

The film distributed by Viacom Inc's Paramount Pictures is the auteur director's first big test of whether he can guide a big-budget spectacle to box office success.

And the risk-taking Aronofsky, 45, is sure to unsettle some along the way as the film blends one of the best-known Old Testament tales with the trademark psychological torment to which he routinely submits protagonists.

"We all have the Noah story inside of us since we were very young," the director said, making the case for why his challenging film can have wide appeal. "It's so deep, a part of not just Western culture, but everyone on the planet has heard of the Noah story. Even if it's not part of your belief system, you have a flood story."

The film also stars Jennifer Connelly as Noah's wife, Naameh, Anthony Hopkins as Noah's grandfather, Methuselah, and Emma Watson as Ila, the wife of Noah's eldest son, Shem, who is portrayed by Douglas Booth.

While faithful to the slim four chapters in the Bible, Noah also takes a detour into fantasy with the biblical Nephilim. Aronofsky explains the giant fallen angels made of rocks as a representation of a pre-flood Earth that was home to alternate possibilities of life.

Wrestling with darkness

The decision to include the fallen angels, called the 'Watchers' in the film, is one of the reasons why Noah will be challenging, even for religious audiences, said Rebecca Cusey, an editor of the religious website and film critic.

"This movie takes it more seriously than a lot of people who teach it in Sunday school. We have to admit that this story is really dark, and (it is) wrestling with the darkness and having different strains of theology."

Paramount said Noah had a US$125mil (RM412mil) budget. The film is tracking to gross a respectable US$41mil in its opening weekend domestically, according to

The film also represents a string of bets Hollywood has made on Bible stories.

Studio 20th Century Fox is set to release director Ridley Scott's epic Exodus in time for Christmas, with Christian Bale as Moses. The studio also released Son Of God last month, an adaptation of 2013's successful The Bible TV miniseries.

For Anthony Hopkins, the revival of Biblical epics on the big screen speaks to the global economic and political upheaval since 2008 financial crisis.

"Maybe it's a resurgence of a desire for certainty in an uncertain world," the Oscar-winning actor wondered, adding that biblical epics tend to give audiences hope in chaotic times.

But Bible stories also dovetail with the action films that make significant money for Hollywood studios, said Craig Detweiler, a professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.

After all, Noah serves up plenty of action, special effects, blood and violence.

"Perhaps Hollywood is reaching back to Old Testament stories because of the brawny nature of the conflicts," said Detweiler, who has worked for studios as a consultant on religious topics.

"It is the ultimate way to get teenage boys who otherwise would have no interest in this subject into one of our culture's largest shaping stories," he added. "It's like a graphic novelisation of one of the most seminal texts in civilisation." – Reuters

'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' reveals human vulnerabilities of a superhero

Posted: 26 Mar 2014 09:00 AM PDT

Bringing down the shield: Chris Evens is back in uniform to defend his country in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

In a world where superheroes and supervillains live among regular folks, things can get a little messy sometimes. Power struggles, displaced loyalties and dark secrets uncovered are just some of the problems that turn up in Marvel's latest offering, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is the ninth instalment in the superhero film franchise.

In the movie, the seemingly impenetrable world of SHIELD – or Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division – is turned inside out, and all its major players are under threat of public scrutiny... and worse. The new villain is someone whom people claim "does not exist", yet somehow always manages to leave a trail of dead bodies in his invincible wake.

The biggest worry, though, comes in the form of a doubtful Steve Rogers aka Captain America, who begins to question his existence, the work that he does and the people around him. He also still seems a little lost in the modern world, hanging on to memories of his very distant past in any way he could.

You feel a little sorry for the guy.

"Nobody he knows from his previous life is around anymore, so he's in a very isolated place. The first half of the movie deals with the fact that he feels a sense of isolation and disconnect from everyone else," said director Anthony Russo, who worked on The Winter Soldier with his brother, Joe. The duo was in Beijing this week to promote the film with its stars, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L Jackson.

The Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff played by Scarlett Johansson.

Natasha Romanoff aka The Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson.

The Russos insist that the movie isn't your typical superhero action flick. It's a character-driven action-packed spy thriller with a bit of drama thrown in for good measure.

"That's what we like to make. A thriller needs to have stakes and you can't have stakes if you don't have a character for the audience to care about. We wanted to make (Captain America) empathetic and relatable, and one way to do it was to show that he's lost and isolated. People can identify with that," Joe explained.

"It's great that you get to see this side of Cap, and for me, it's easy to do because once you've played the character, you sort of know what's going on with him and how he's going to react to certain things," said Evans.

Fortunately, the directors managed to achieve all that they need to with Captain America without making him seem weak, or turning him into a completely different character from the original. The Russos also did a credible job of creating a Marvel movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout the film.

"Marvel's done so many good movies now that in order for the franchise to move forward, we really needed to work hard to find ways to push things into new territory. Cap doesn't fly across the world like Iron Man, he doesn't turn green like The Hulk, and he doesn't come from another universe like Thor. He's human, only slightly more so.

Sebastian Stan is the deadly Winter Soldier.

Sebastian Stan is the deadly Winter Soldier.

"We wanted to come up with a tonal and visual style that played to the fact that Cap is just a guy. This is why we shot some scenes with handheld cameras, to give it that cinema verite feel. We wanted to get into the character intimately not just via his fighting styles but emotionally too," Joe described.

He also revealed that The Winter Soldier is just "part one" of this particular story, and that Captain America 3, which the brothers will also be directing, shall bind several puzzle pieces together as well as tie some loose ends. For now, however, nothing else can be said, which is pretty typical of a Marvel project.

Speaking of fight scenes, the film boasts numerous hand-to-hand combat sequences between Captain America and the villains, most notably with the Winter Soldier (played by Sebastian Stan) and Batroc the Leaper (Georges St Pierre).

Anthony shared that the actors, including Johansson (Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow), did a lot of the hand-to-hand combat sequences themselves.

Johansson, 30, said: "I don't think it's anymore of a challenge for me than any of the other guys just because I'm a girl. Making an action movie is hard, I think for all of us, but I like the physical challenge of it. It helps me extend myself in ways I didn't know I could."

"As far as being the only female superhero in the franchise so far, I just don't think of it much. I surround myself with powerful women in my life, Chris Evans being one of them," she added half-jokingly as Evans, 31, took a bow.

Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.

Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury.

The actors were in very good spirits during the interviews and press conference, teasing one another, finishing off each other's sentences and making jokes.

"Are you calling me fat?" said Evans, feigning a hurt and offended look when we asked him whether or not he ever had body image issues, having to star alongside so many other buff actors – Chris Hemsworth, who plays Thor, being one of them. "We all get body image issues when Chris Hemsworth is around," said Johansson.

The actors' camaraderie that day proved Jackson's description of what the Marvel Avengers universe is like: one big Halloween party.

"It's like the biggest Halloween party ever. We're like these kids in a neighbourhood and we all have our costumes and powers. Then we go on a vacation, or do other movies or something, and we come back to our neighbourhood when it's time.

"Then someone comes around with a new game plan and says, 'Hi kids! Here's the new game, so now go play, OK?' and we go 'Yay!'," said Jackson who, despite playing the ever-so-serious and commanding Nick Fury in the Avengers world, was very easy-going and approachable during our interview.

Jackson, 66, and Johansson have been part of the franchise for quite some time now, appearing in the same films together, while Evans joined the Marvel Avengers universe in 2011 as the "Golden Age" Captain America in the first film. New to the Avengers is Anthony Mackie, 35, who plays Sam Wilson aka The Falcon.

"Anthony's the new kid on the block, and because of that he's got a lot of enthusiasm in him which was really quite infectious. Scarlett, Chris and I have been part of so many of these movies that we're starting to get a bit complacent. Anthony's so enthusiastic that he kind of reminded us what was exciting about being in the Avengers world. We love him!" said Jackson of his co-star.

The other "newbie" in the film is Robert Redford, 78, who plays Fury's boss in SHIELD. The directors claimed that when Redford's name was first mentioned at early casting meetings, they immediately knew that he would be perfect for the role. Anthony shared: "When we went to his place to pitch this movie role to him, he said, 'You know what, this looks great, but I honestly have no idea what these movies are about... But my grandson does'."

In two weeks, Jackson, Johansson and Evans will join the rest of the Avengers gang – namely Robert Downey Jr, Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo and Jeremy Renner – and director Joss Whedon for Avengers: Age of Ultron, set to be released next year. Guess it's back to the ol' neighbourhood, then.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier opens in cinemas nationwide today.

Related story: 

Samuel L. Jackson takes things in his stride

Ty Burrell: From 'Modern Family' man to busy movie guy

Posted: 24 Mar 2014 09:00 AM PDT

The actor is in Mr Peabody & Sherman and Muppets Most Wanted.

From the balcony of his room at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, Ty Burrell can see two young girls darting across the traffic-filled Wilshire Boulevard. His attention is drawn away from talking about his work in Muppets Most Wanted until it's clear they've safely crossed the street.

It's that paternal instinct that drives Burrell's life these days. Not only is he the father to two girls, but he stars in the top network TV comedy Modern Family. And his latest work includes the family friendly Muppets movie and the voice of the talking dog inventor in the animated Mr. Peabody & Sherman.

In Muppets Most Wanted, Burrell plays a French detective who tries to unravel the mystery behind a series of break-ins at museums that happen to be at the same location where the Muppets are performing.

Even Burrell's connection to the Muppets is a family matter.

"The first time I can remember seeing the Muppets was watching the TV series. My first memory of the show is my dad laughing at Statler and Waldorf. I remember my ears perking up at my dad laughing and thinking I have to really pay attention to this because he thinks this is funny," Burrell says.

The first time Burrell tried to make people laugh was when he and his younger brother would do comedy bits for the family. Generally, it was the same two characters – his much smaller brother as a domineering boss to a very naive and innocent character played by Burrell. He smiles and says that character eventually grew up to be his Modern Family character of Phil Dunphy.

For Muppets Most Wanted, Burrell called on the Pink Panther films he watched growing up to find the right level of silliness to play the French detective.

"There is a very conscious nod to Clouseau in this," Burrell says. "James Bobin, our director, was very clear from the beginning that this is meant to be a sort of collection of French characters and other French inspector. But, there was no way to play a French detective with a pencil-thin mustache and not be ripping of Clouseau to a degree.

"I was lucky because Jim told me that this is the Muppets so anything goes. Just have as much fun with the character as I want."

Family duties don't let up just because Burrell's in the middle of promoting the movie. He receives a text from his former Out Of Practice co-star, Christopher Gorham, to arrange a playdate for their kids.

The way both Out Of Practice and Back To You were cancelled so quickly almost turned Burrell off to television. He couldn't understand how he could be part of two shows with such strong casts and support from the critics that didn't survive.

It was Modern Family that restored his faith. Not only did the series show him a good show could last, the award-winning ABC series also opened up a lot of opportunities for Burrell.

He had always wanted to do voice work, but he couldn't break into that world. He admits that it isn't a coincidence that as soon as Modern Family became a hit, he started getting calls to do voice work for TV shows like Doc McStuffins and the upcoming feature film Finding Dory.

Between family, a successful TV show and two movies in theaters at the same time, Burrell feels like he's having one of those great moments he doesn't want to forget.

"Not that you aren't always feeling grateful, but in times like this you have to take a beat to be consciously grateful and be really mindful of how lucky this is," Burrell says. – The Fresno Bee/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

> Mr Peabody & Sherman is playing in cinemas nationwide. Muppets Most Wanted is scheduled to open on April 24.


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