updated 03/28/2014 AT 1:00 PM ET
•originally published 03/28/2014 AT 3:10 PM ET
Russell Crowe is back in force as he puts himself up for Biblical scrutiny this weekend, helming an epic if not cruel film depiction of the Old Testament hero Noah, who packs up his Ark to save not only the critters, but humanity.
Does this latest big-screen version hold water? Or will it pack plenty of controversy? Plus another hero takes on human rights and labor’s inhumanity in the new biopic Cesar Chavez.
Here’s what to see and what to skip in theaters this weekend.
Comprising a mere handful of chapters, the story of Noah may be one of the most recognizable from the Bible, but it’s also one of the sparest, with scant details about cubits, beasts and an incomprehensible tempest. That leaves a mind as fertile as director Darren Aronofsky’s plenty of room to roam, filling in details about God’s chosen survivor in a mightily ambitious, often gripping film adaptation that may not always work onscreen, but one that stays technically faithful to biblical text. That said, if you’re spoiling for a theological fight, Noah will give it to you.
This Noah isn’t the easy hero of Sunday school lessons. He’s obsessive bordering on psychotic with a willingness to inflict cruelty that will stun most viewers. And this is the guy God – or The Creator, as the film calls him – chooses to save. That should give you some idea of how miserably far the rest of mankind has fallen in the few generations between Adam and Noah. Noah (Crowe), his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and their three boys live apart from men, who’ve grown wicked, destroying the cities and befouling the land. While men hunt for meat, Noah and his kin are practically vegan, seeing themselves as caretakers of the animals. It is for their sake that he is to build the Ark, revealed to him by The Creator in a dream. Man is to be but a memory, Earth is to be left to the flora and fauna.
It’s the way Aronofsky tackles these questions that may anger some who hold dear certain Judeo-Christian beliefs. Noah has a decidedly pro-environmental bent, one that firmly rejects the argument (espoused by Tubal-cain) that having “dominion” over the Earth means being able to do with it what one wants. There’s also the tricky notion of what it means to be called by The Creator. Is Noah really supposed to be so cruel in seeing through His vision? When push comes to shove, Noah will do both – and far worse – to carry out the mission, but is that right? His family certainly doesn’t think so. Speaking of whom, I don’t even want to get into how the film solves the problem of having two sons with no wives. That little situation won’t sit comfortably with anybody.
But if you’re seeing the film because you’re an Aronofsky fan, or frankly, just want to get a load of the spectacle, you’re unlikely to be disappointed. This Earth is a visual patchwork of barren Icelandic landscape, medieval-style villages and creatures that look borrowed from a Lord of the Rings set. The Watchers, fallen angels mentioned in the Bible, are giants made of light and rock, who look silly for a moment before becoming an accepted part of this world. And then there’s the Ark, which Aronofsky actually built, a massive wooden structure that becomes a stronghold when Tubal-cain and his followers lay siege in a mighty battle. This is the stuff of a big-budget epic, and for the most part, it’s impressive. Still, I’m willing to bet it’s not what you’ll take home with you, as the film leaves viewers to wrestle, like Noah, with difficult concepts. While that may discomfit some of the faithful, it’s not an inherently bad thing.
Lord knows there are plenty of ways to tackle the older man/younger woman plot, but Breathe In does it with refreshing honesty and subtlety. Musician Keith (Guy Pearce) and his wife, Megan (Amy Ryan) seem like a happy enough couple. They have a quiet life in New York and dote on their teen daughter, Lauren (Mackenzie Davis). But under the surface tension roils. They make little digs at each other, swipes at the life they lead. That all comes to a head when exchange student Sophie (Felicity Jones) arrives.
And you should probably catch this, too
The civil rights crusader and champion of migrant workers finally gets his own biopic, courtesy of actor/director Diego Luna. Michael Peña stars as Cesar, just as he arrives in California’s Central Valley region to find an entire class of workers living in abject poverty. With the help of his wife, Helen (America Ferrera) and fellow activist Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson), Cesar battles wealthy farm owners (including John Malkovich as the Machiavellian grape grower Bogdanovich) for better treatment for the workers.