Monday, 25 February 2013

Darren Aronofsky - 6 films for your consideration

Six films spanning 1998-2014 all of whom share common overriding themes of obsession, passion and perfection. Six intriguing films that paradoxically I don't personally love as all time favourite films of mine, but the key to every film is Aronofsky's quirks and touches as he brings to life some extraordinary stories within a surreal and bizarre framework.

Every film has also produced career defining performances from as yet unheralded acting talent or cemented their standing in the history of cinema. Aronofsky's black and white debut feature "Pi" displays an incredible performance of quirky obsession from Sean Gullette and a final 35 minutes which is draining, exhausting and absolutely stunning. Similarly, "Requiem for a Dream" has a final Act which encapsulates all of that and more, with performances to match from young actors Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans and a career defining portrayal of obsession from Ellen Burstyn. "The Fountain" is Aronofsky's quietest and most reflective film, but one which continues an obsessive dream across many hundreds of years in Hugh Jackman's best film role to date. Two of Aronofsky's most recent and critically acclaimed films are almost companion pieces as they both encompass an obsessive desire to feel alive and achieve the ultimate perfection. Both "The Wrestler" and "Black Swan" depict an obsessive desire to be the best, to achieve perfection yet are set against a backdrop of frail human conditions and the obsessive lengths people are prepared to go to to achieve their passion. Both Mickey Rourke and Natalie Portman have huge acting credits in their careers but are arguably never better than here in an Aronofsky film. Then in 2014 he produced "Noah", a biblical epic in every sense of the word and which arguably saw Russell Crowe's most accomplished performance since The Insider in 1999.

Each film is reviewed in a slightly different format but always with minimal spoilers in mind. Pi is perhaps the biggest spoiler provided review I've done across all of my Director inspired Film Blogs but done so without malice and purely to provide context to an intriguing film. I've concentrated on character reviews for Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, there's an opening fifteen minute dissection of The Fountain in between and more traditional reviews for Black Swan and Noah to finish. All were completed whilst trying to adhere to my own credo of only providing 5-10% of the total film as a taster.

It is not my intention to provide huge spoilers for the coming six films. Rather, my purpose is to give an overall flavour as I do not want to spoil these great films for you in any way. Moreover, all of my film blogs are an appreciation of the film's crafted by a wonderful Director and a thorough recommendation to suspend your disbelief and enjoy his creations. I sincerely write all of my blogs from a fan's perspective. I hope you enjoy.

Pi (1998)

"When I was a little kid, my Mother told me not to stare into the Sun"

This highly disturbing debut feature from Aronofsky was also written by the Director with lead actor Sean Gullette and Eric Watson, is entirely in black and white and reputedly made on a budget of just $60,000. Hand held and steadicam shots dominate a seemingly two toned film, one of clarity and pristine shots and one of murkier, dirtier and darker obscured shots which is both intentional and a motif for the film of duality, paranoia and suspicion. The obvious theme and motif for the film is as suggested by the film's title Pi and the mathematical equation of 3.14159, a constantly recurring number and the ratio of a circle's circumference to it's diameter. "Max Cohen" (Sean Gullette) is an obsessive and compulsive number theorist who constantly sees recurring patterns in numbers, ratios and, as the film progresses, life as a whole. The film opens with Max immediately confronted by a young girl called "Jenna" (Kristyn Mae-Anne Lao), calculator in hand asking for his answer to a complex mathematical equation to which he answers almost immediately. As he walks away she asks another and again Max, without the aid of a calculator, answers immediately however this first meeting is the first in a series of meetings and events that shape Max's life and becomes both a theme for the film (of life and history repeating itself in a constant loop) and the introduction to a sparse set of main characters. The film as a whole has just 29 credited character roles of which only six are main characters and a constant throughout this short 84 minute film.

Max's life continues to loop through a repeating pattern of looking through a spyhole on his front door, locking and unlocking this front door, encountering Jenna and sitting in his local park ruminating on the constant geometric and mathematical patterns in life. There is a constant accompanying narration from Max throughout the film, diary notes almost, spoken aloud as "Personal Note" or almost Eureka moments noted as "New Evidence". He also time checks these new pieces of evidence or notes which, with the film as a whole, become more and more surreal. His life continues on a loop as more and more evidence becomes evident in every single interaction, as everywhere he looks, everyone he meets is connected in a spiral of continuing patterns. From his obsessive, compulsive behaviours of spyhole/unlocking his door to sitting in the local park, train journeys, telephone calls, searching his cupboard for reference books, sat at his computer entering mathematic code searching for a 216 digit number that will unlock the universe, his fractured and bizarre meetings with his neighbour and blindingly horrific and graphically portrayed headaches. The film envelops you from the very beginning so the nature of Max's deterioration and the graphic breakdowns he frequently has is tortuous and shocking. Framed up close and frantically cut amidst a pulsing, throbbing soundtrack they jolt you from an already surreal narrative and are never built up to. They are instant, graphic and shocking.

Every repeating action and interaction quickly becomes more odd and surreal and certainly more jolting yet gripping as the audience. Max's frequent games of "Go" with "Sol Robeson" (a magnificent Mark Margolis) is the film's heart and soul amidst the mental carnage. Sol is Max's Mathematics Mentor and Father figure but both men hold each other in great esteem. Their simple games of Go (black and white checker board with a grid matrix for placing white and black stones) is both brilliantly framed by Aronofsky and another piece of Max's "evidence". Here Aronofsky excels by himself repeating similar themes throughout, of continual zoom close ups on every picking of a stone to placing it on the board, to collecting another stone, repeat, repeat, repeat! Framed from above and close ups on both Max and Sol as their games progress, it's Tarantinoesque in it's continued simplicity of close up shots on inanimate objects to tell the story. Sol himself is as obsessive as his young protege' with mathematical equations and how the very nature of the Pi formula envelops every part of life, but for the good of his health and well being has retired. He too was seeking a unique 216 digit number that Max is now obsessing over but finds peace and tranquillity within his small apartment, his family and his constantly referenced new pet fishes as he presciently warns Max "Have you met my new fish my niece bought me? I named her Icarus after you, my renegade pupil. You fly too high, you'll get burnt too".

The ultra bizarre meetings continue on a loop as Max, as The Narrator, proclaims early on "Mathematics is the language of nature". Avoiding telephone calls from "Marcy Dawson" (Pamela Hart) a Wall Street insider seeking Max's mathematical genius, he also begins to evade Jenna's repeated requests and most importantly of all he spurns his one true innocent helper, his next door neighbour "Devi" (Samia Shoaib). Continuing his loop of bizarre train journeys and manic walks these are juxtaposed with calming times sitting in his local park but equally these are juxtaposed with his stress induced and excruciating headaches and collapses. Ruminating on how his mathematical patterns constantly reoccur in the stock market is a key throughout but more important are the links to respected science and philosophical arguments. From the recurring circular patterns in sea shells, leaves and sunflowers to their link to the "Golden Spiral", "Golden Ratio" and "Golden Rectangle" as, has been agreed upon for hundreds of years by eminent scientists, of Pythagoras' theory, through to the inclusion of these mathematical theories within the paintings of Leonardo De Vinci and others. There are many more referenced but one in particular shapes the film and is fascinating in it's simplicity yet is commonly overlooked. The Fibonacci Sequence (starting with 0 and 1) is a simple equation whereby you add the previous two numbers to gain your next number, so from 0 and 1 you get 1, 1 and 1 you get 2, 1 and 2 you get 3 etc. These sequences of numbers and geometrical/mathematical patterns are found throughout life and through the film lead us to our last main character.

"Ben Shenkman" (Lenny Meyer) continues to loop into Max's life until finally they acknowledge a common shared fascination with numbers and number patterns. Ben grabs Max's attention with the repeated, looping patterns found within the Torah, the Hebrew language and specifically Kaballah. As their friendship grows so does Ben's motives until culminating in two bizarre and surreal rituals where Max and his theories are key and their significance to Kaballah fully explored. These two meetings bookend a final 35 minutes of the film that is some of the most visceral, gripping and tortuously surreal minutes spent watching a film. Max's physical and mental decline is graphically portrayed against a background of ever more surreal encounters, of excruciating breakdowns and torment but in the midst of a compelling story so very well told by first time Director Aronofsky. The camera work in his debut film has been oft repeated in his future films, a hand held camera following his main character everywhere up close and very personal, overhead shots encapsulating every nuance of the scene and especially here, a circular camera that spins around Max on a number of occasions to encapsulate the circular, looping nature of his life, our lives, and his spiralling decline. Supporting the Director is Oren Sarch's intricate, often oblique and frenetic editing and Matthew Libatique's amazing cinematography, the first of four collaborations between Director and Cinematographer. Completing an all encompassing feeling of isolation, compulsion, desolation and a life literally spiralling out of control while on a hopeless search for discovery is Clint Mansell's original music score. Again the first of many collaborations with Director Aronofsky, the music used is a mix of quiet, melancholic tracks such as "I Only Have Eyes for You" through to high tempo techno/trance tracks such as "Drippy" by Banco De Gaia and "P.E.T.R.O.L." by Orbital, through to "Angel" by Massive Attack. There are also incredible arrangements from Autechre and Aphex Twin with their eponymous track "Bucephalus Bouncing Ball".

A very good debut film is encapsulated within it's last act with touches of real greatness, a soundtrack that never lets up and accompanies the film brilliantly with engrossing editing and camera work that astounds on repeated viewings and which culminates in the film's iconic shot of Max and his shocking final twist into madness before looping again to Max and Jenna, calculator in hand, enjoying the the circular nature of life in the local park. Nature itself is constantly referenced throughout and for good reasons, some oblique, some less so. A truly horrific film at times but a brilliant debut feature from Aronofsky which it can be argued has shaped many films that have followed in it's wake. The Matrix is an obvious easy comparison with it's computer code and nature of reality references, as is a lesser known Jim Carrey film "The Number 23". But this is a raw debut feature from Aronofsky that deserves the utmost praise and recognition for an intensity filled and draining film that never relents and always challenges even on repeated viewings.

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

"Harold, I'm gonna be on Television!"

13 years since initial release has not dimmed the power of this incredible second film from Darren Aronofsky. This ground breaking film remains remarkably pin sharp and vibrant 13 years on and a firm favourite of mine. Based on the original book of the same name by Hubert Selby Jr, both Selby and Aronofsky are credited with writing the screenplay to a film that constantly shocks, pulls at the heart strings, is often incredibly difficult to watch but is an absolute triumph. The two main narratives of the film are split between the three dominant Acts of "Summer", "Fall" and "Winter" and between the lives of four main characters all of whom share highly addictive personalities intertwined within a surreal and heartbreaking film. Although loosely a three act structure, Summer is by far the longest of the seasons, with Fall and Winter almost one act in itself. As with Pi, the final 35 minutes of this film is a roller-coaster of emotion, heart break and an extremely difficult watch at times which is signified by the commencement of "Fall". At first glance the film appears to be nothing more than a drama surrounding drugs and the addictive lives these substances control, of scoring your next hit and a halcyon vision of life where the drugs are in constant supply. There is constant and graphic portrayals of drug taking, of every and any drug available and of their surrealistic highs and lows, the epic "score" and the soul destroying emptiness of being without. As with Trainspotting and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, this film was criticised early in it's release for glorifying drug taking but that is both wildly inaccurate and to miss the point completely. Both sides of the coin are graphically depicted and though drugs and drug taking is a clear central key, the overall theme is of obsession and compulsion and of trying to obtain that dream, that halcyon picture of heaven in your life. Be it drugs, television, game shows, dieting and so much more as our characters follow what Hubert Selby Jr describes himself as the "Great American Dream". In his book and the adapted screenplay that is so vividly displayed in Aronofsky's film, every character has a dream to follow and an obsessive desire to achieve this. Sometimes these dreams are purely for selfish attainment, to secure another batch of drugs and enjoy a hedonistic time or simply a reason to continue living, to get up the morning and to face the day ahead. Despite the film's downbeat themes and dare I say it depressive tones, it is a real triumph with four main character portrayals that each, in their own way, break your heart.

Sara Goldfarb 
(Ellen Burstyn) Rightfully awarded an Oscar nomination for Best Leading Actress in 2000, Ellen would also star in Aronofsky's 2006 film "The Fountain" (see below) and Oliver Stone's flawed "W" in 2008. However her portrayal of fragile and obsessed Sara Goldfarb was arguably a career defining performance, and what a performance it is. Cajoled by Aronofsky to accept the part, Burstyn's transformation as the film progresses is at first subtle but again, signified by the film's last Act of "Fall" her transformation is quickly and graphically complete. Obsessed by daytime television game show come motivational show "Month of Fury" her obsessive desire and compulsion reach new heights and grave lows after she's selected to appear on her favourite show. Sara replaces her staple of chocolates and game show with fad diets, dramatic weight loss and diet pills just to wear her favourite red dress. Every obsession is replaced with another as the walls of her tiny apartment creep ever inward on her. Living alone and lonely, Sara also lives in the past and obsessively so. This gives her a reason to get up in the morning and face the day and her portrayal is truly heartbreaking as it reaches its denouement. Surrounded by a ticking clock, constantly ringing telephone and a "buzz" enveloping her, Sara's only escape is to her bizarre set of neighbourhood friends who equally become another of her compulsions and obsessions. "Soon, millions of people will see me and they'll all like me" encapsulates Sara's fragility, loneliness and obsession and is brilliantly portrayed by Ellen Burstyn's magnificent career defining performance.

Harry Goldfarb 
(Jared Leto) More familiar as the lead singer of rock band 30 Seconds to Mars, Leto had cameo appearances in The Thin Red Line and Fight Club before his career defining performance as Harry Goldfarb. Being hyper critical, Leto's performance is the weakest of the four marquee stars but that's not to say his performance isn't magnificent as it clearly is. Harry's role is the central hub around his Mother's life, his passionate love affair with Marion and his deep friendship with Tyrone. But his obsessions paradoxically hinder his life's passions as is aptly depicted by his fractious relationship with his Mother and to an extent with Tyrone. His love affair with Marion is the film's central narrative strand and again paradoxically is both tender, beautiful and at times truly horrific. Their tender "coming down" scenes are the film's heart and beautifully arranged and shot by Director Aronofsky, encapsulated brilliantly within the joint screenplay "I always thought you were the most beautiful girl I've ever seen".

Marion Silver 
(Jennifer Connelly) A stand out role in the underrated "A Beautiful Mind" soon followed Connelly's performance, but even that superlative portrayal couldn't eclipse this one. Deeply in love with Harry but deeply out of love with everything else in life except for her drug obsession. Her physical fragility is established very early on in the film but Marion is always looking to "waste some time" have fun and "push off" as a means of obsessive escape from a loveless, distant relationship with her parents and her "croaker shrink". Talented, ambitious and beautiful, yet fragile and desperate, her spiralling out of control life is the most graphically portrayed.

Tyrone C Love 
(Marlon Wayans) Writer, Producer and Actor, this is yet another career defining acting performance from Wayans. The least developed of the four star roles and with minimal dialogue, Wayans depicts an obvious obsession with drugs and a near constant Joint in hand as he smokes, but his other obsessions are more subtle and only more strikingly evident as the film progresses. He too has a halcyon vision for life away from the streets and the daily grind. Of scoring that one consignment of "Pure" that will set him and Harry up for the foreseeable future but yet not forever. As the film progresses we see a more obsessive side to Tyrone, his dreams and aspirations of childhood that has far more in common with Harry than on first glance. Why he constantly calls Harry "Jim" continues to perplex me!

In support of these stellar headline roles are wonderful performances from Christopher McDonald as "Tappy Tibbons" the star of Sara's daytime TV obsession and Keith David as "Big Tim". Cameos abound for returning stars from Aronofsky's first film, with Mark Margolis as "Mr Rabinowitz", Samia Shoaib as "Nurse Mall", Ben Shenkman as "Dr Spencer" and Sean Gullette as the slightly sinister and bizarre eating therapist "Arnold The Shrink". Both of Darren Aronofsky's parents play minor cameo roles too. The film as a whole is much larger than Pi with a suitably larger cast list, however the film simply revolves around our four marquee stars and these much smaller but crucially important supporting roles surround them. The film also revolves around a truly wonderful musical score from Clint Mansell and a soundtrack that is highly recommended as a stand alone purchase away from the film itself. It is a gem of real haunting beauty from start to finish, all supplied by the Kronos Quartet of string players with "Dream" often intercut throughout the film. The Dream theme track will be familiar to many as this has been sampled and mixed by Paul Oakenfold and many other DJ's in the intervening years since the film was released. The soundtrack is often simple and subtle, bubbling away in the background, through to majestic and meteoric and becomes a character all of it's own throughout the film.

The film's opening scene truly sets the tone and stamps the Director's mark all over the coming 102 minutes. A fractious and difficult Mother and Son relationship is played out against the backdrop of selling the television to pay for the son's and Tyrone's drug habit. The television is the Mother's gateway into the world and her daily obsession. Chained to the wall to prevent burglary it is now stolen by her own desperate son as his Mother locks herself away in an adjoining room unable to watch and, in an attempt to sooth herself, talks to her dead husband and reassures him that everything will be ok and "in the end, it's all nice". With the Mother locked in one room and her son desperately trying to move the television, this is all played out in split screen and is the first of many such split screen segments throughout the film. Harry and Tyrone now begin wheeling the television along the street, passed a bemused set of Sara's neighbours and against a backdrop of our setting for the film, Coney Island, New York and it's iconic funfair, before selling to a local Jewish market stall holder. The motif of split screen segments are complimented throughout by numerous montage sequences through time lapse photography, the "pushing off" or getting high from heavy drug use to it's eventual come down, to Sara's fractious mind being played out amidst extreme close ups and jagged cuts. The drug use sequences are all framed and shot in this way, with extreme close ups of a rolled bank note, a pile of cocaine or a bag of heroin quickly intercut with blood pumping through a vein and always, always, an eyeball. As the film enters "The Fall" these jolting time lapse segments are vitally followed by a coming down and more melancholic sequence as the four lives are gradually spinning out of obsessive control.

Similar to Pi, there is also a cacophony of jagged and edited sound effects to accompany the scenes, a constantly ringing or off the hook telephone, a buzzing television or importantly, the refrigerator. All of these and more combine to infuse the film with a constant "buzz" to immerse the audience in the character's lives and their fractious minds and decisions. The steadicam and moving camera shots of Pi also return here, as do numerous spinning and circular camera shots to again reinforce a feeling of being surrounded by everything and everyone and an inability to escape from your obsessions wherever you turn. Similar again to Pi there are numerous zoom close ups inside a small contained area, whereas in Pi it was mainly inside a cupboard, here the shots also include a mailbox as Sara constantly and obsessively checks her mail and another cupboard where Harry and Tyrone hide their wares. The picture I've painted so far is of a claustrophobic spiralling set of lives that break the heart and is at times particularly difficult to watch. A film constantly on edge, jagged and jolting with time lapsed segments spliced together against heavy drug use. A film so utterly surreal and bizarre at times that also crunches to real time, real life realisations in an instant. This much is true and so much more besides! But that brief resume' doesn't do this film justice at all as the central heart of the film despite their character failings is of all encompassing love for another. Although Sara's Mother character and Harry's Son character clash and their relationship uneasy, each loves the other with a burning passion and the juxtaposition between their lives bare this out. Where Requiem for a Dream excels over it's stable mate and first Aronofsky film Pi are the delicate and beautiful scenes mixed in with the madness. Tyrone's love affair is beautifully shot, Harry and Marion's all consuming love is often surrounded by flying paper aeroplanes or sitting alone on the beach at Coney Island and their numerous montage sequences of pure bliss in each others arms. All beautifully shot scenes, all with a hint (or a large dose!) of surreality surrounding them, but all wrapped up in a triumph of a film that may break your heart. It does mine. Every time.

A film deserving of more Oscar recognition than purely Ellen Burstyn's sole nomination. Watching this film again in retrospect I'm staggered the film wasn't recognised for either it's direction from Aronofsky or the cinematography from long time collaborator Matthew Libatique and perhaps more startling is the lack of recognition for the superb editing from Jay Rabinowitz. Add in a beautiful musical score and character portrayals that always drag you back into an engaging narrative and you have a quite wonderful if disturbing film. As with Pi, these films don't have mainstream appeal and perhaps unfairly this was borne out by the lack of recognition but it remains a vibrant take on a very dark human condition 13 years since release.

The Fountain (2006)

"Therefore, the Lord God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and placed a flaming sword to protect the Tree of Life" Genesis 3:24

From this handwritten overt clue and opening segment we dissolve into a Crucifix insignia surrounded on either side by a burning candle and slowly to a medieval soldier kneeling in prayer. The soldier or Spanish Conquistador is a long haired and bearded Hugh Jackman who after taking a small leather wallet from his possession and smelling it soon dissolves into an ethereal, glowing woman, his Spanish Queen, who with a smile places a ring into her Conquistador's hand. Cutting from here we loop back (for the first of many times) to the Crucifix Insignia and burning candles with the Conquistador now constantly looking up at the insignia in silent prayer before looking down to unwrap the leather wallet which now contains the ring passed to him by his Queen. Crossing himself he states "Let's Finish it" and with a black cut the scene ends and briefly the above signature title slide is shown before we return to The Conquistador and two members of his army trapped in a dark and dense forest. The Conquistador is determined to continue and leads his men from the front  until with barriers and shields forming all around them his fellow soldiers scream "retreat" and duly try to scamper away from the danger surrounding them. Still leading from the front, The Conquistador sees his soldiers quickly die at the hands of a huge Mayan army that block their only possible escape and vowing not to die here and not now he continues to approach the overwhelming odds before quickly becoming engulfed. The Mayans raise the Conquistador high above their heads in a sign of triumph and an homage to a burial passage for the dead before throwing him to the foot of a high stone walkway leading seemingly to the stars and the tip of a high pyramid. Aronofsky's camera is never far away from the action as both the burial homage (shot from above) and The Conquistador (from below) looking up at the huge stone staircase, is brilliantly shot and brought to life, as is his climb to the summit of the Pyramid and the beautiful, picturesque starry night sky and sunset that greets The Conquistador.

The first strains of music for the film accompany The Conquistador as he enters the Mayan Pyramid. Clint Mansell again provides the original music score along with the Kronos Quartet who produced a stunning soundtrack to Requiem for a Dream. Clint Mansell also used Scottish rock band Mogwai for many elements of the original music. Regular Cinematographer Matthew Libatique also returns and it's to his immediate credit we turn only a few minutes into the film as with the numerous set production and dressers the opening minutes are stunning on screen, from a dense and dark forest we are transported to a pyramid in the sky, aptly portrayed in the above picture. Seemingly unarmed, The Conquistador apprehensively approaches a Mayan Leader who slowly proclaims "First Father sacrificed himself for the Tree of Life. Enter, and join his fate". The Conquistador discovers a small dagger and continues to approach the Mayan but he is again overwhelmed by a far larger man with a flaming sword who stabs The Conquistador before proclaiming "Death is the road to awe" and with a final swish of the flaming sword goes in for the final kill. We cut immediately to a now bald Hugh Jackman screaming in pain at this recollection but completely at odds to his silent surroundings and his demeanour, floating yet sitting cross legged in the lotus position, meditating. Against a beautifully backlit night sky teeming with stars he calmly states "We're almost there" as he again looks upward toward the heavens before flying backwards inside a see through glass ball which also contains the Tree of Life. Gentle, mournful music now accompanies him to the tree itself and he whispers a gentle "I won't let you die" as he again looks up, now to a star constellation brightly illuminating the night sky and the tree. He ekes away a small piece of the tree's bark before eating it and washing his hands. We cut to a wider shot of the same scene but with a figure on the periphery watching him as he washes his hands. He recognises the figure as his wife who asks him to go for a walk with her but before he can answer we cut to Hugh Jackman, now present day and sitting in his office, answering the same question. He's irritated by "Izzi" (Rachel Weisz) and her constant requests of him to take a walk and enjoy himself as his pressing need is to be at work, here at his desk amongst his compulsions and obsessions. At the height of his anger he is no longer sitting at his office desk but back at the Tree of Life but whereas Izzi was watching him before, now she is gone and he's enveloped in remorse and regret. Fade to black.

From the fade to black (there are numerous more to follow) we see a silhouette of a figure practising T'ai Chi against a sky again teeming with stars before returning to a bald headed Hugh Jackman slowly and methodically making an ink substance from the bark of the tree and other ingredients. Using this ink, he begins to tattoo his forearm before he is distracted by the returning figure of Izzi, smiling and happy and wanting him to take a walk with her. He looks down at his ring less wedding finger but where a ring should be he has tattooed the black outline of a ring. We cut to a dream sequence of Izzi, full of vim and life dancing around their home before we loop again back to the bald headed Jackman "what are you doing here?". Izzi responds that she simply wants to go for a walk in the snow but before he can respond the film loops again back to the exact scene of earlier, of a now fully haired Jackman sitting at his office desk, fielding the question in an intemperate way. Full of remorse again for thinking of work ahead of his wife he now rises from his chair and attempts to follow her but is cut short by a fellow worker needing his assistance and he watches Izzi depart through an Exit Door into an ethereal white light.

The opening fifteen minutes sets the scene for a three stranded narrative covering many hundreds of years, from the Spanish Conquistador army to present day through to a pursuit of the future. The central strand that ties each of the story lines is again one of obsession and dedication, of an all consuming passion that envelops our protagonist. Focussing only on present day events, Hugh Jackman plays "Dr Tom Creo", dedicated to finding a miracle cancer cure and striving, obsessing to find this cure against perceived wisdom and to the detriment of all those who surround him, including his wife "Izzi Creo" (Rachel Weisz). As has already been highlighted above, both characters also feature within the other two vastly different time lines which are quite literally world's apart, but spoilers apart, I'll focus on present day as their tender relationship drives this narrative strand. Izzi has her own obsessions, both writing a book entitled "The Fountain" and stoically coming to terms with her own mortality and her impending death and both of these intertwine as through the book Izzi both lives on through her exploration and accepts her declining physical condition. The book itself is also used as a concept to loop between the three narratives.

Ellen Burstyn returns after her Oscar nominated performance in Requiem for a Dream with a much smaller supporting role as Tom's immediate Boss "Dr Lillian Guzetti". She shares Tom's passions and dreams but with a far more detached and technical stance and of clinical trials, experiments and hard work, whereas Tom is seeking that halcyon immediacy of an overnight cure. Present day revolves around a busy scientific laboratory and operating theatre together with Tom and Izzi's albeit brief time together at home and this is dramatically reinforced by a pragmatic and angry Tom responding to Lillian's accusation that he spends too much time at work when he should be with Izzi, "I'm here for her". A small supporting cast also sees a third consecutive collaboration with Mark Margolis as "Father Avila", Stephen McHattie as "Grand Inquisitor Siliceo", Ethan Suplee as "Manny", Donna Murphy as "Betty" and Sean Patrick Thomas as "Antonio". The Director's Father Abraham also returns in his son's film as a Lab Technician!

As with all Aronofsky films, obsession and all consuming passions are an obvious theme, and this is reinforced throughout by another of the Director's own themes, that of looping the narrative back on itself repeatedly. The circle of life and of life/history repeating itself in a constant loop is often reinforced. Sometimes overtly with an exact use or indeed copy of a previous scene inserted into a following scene as aptly demonstrated in the opening fifteen minutes and Tom's continual looping between past and future scenarios, to him sitting at his office desk. Often this is more subtly achieved through the narrative itself, the spoken word, and of words or phrases of words often repeated across the three time lines. Each is independent of the other but inexplicably linked by common characters repeating or looping familiar phrases or actions. Many scenes fade to black in a traditional sense as well as reinforcing a sense of accepting death with one scene in particular fading to an ethereal white ending which also reinforces this. Scenes also loop over and between each other and each narrative and are often via the medium of the writing and reading of the book. Aronofsky, in collaboration with his Editor Jay Rabinowitz also cleverly melt scenes and narratives from one to another, from Tom running his hand over the Tree of Life to running his hand over Izzi's body in the bath is a particular stand out and affecting use, but there are numerous more examples of this throughout. There are also numerous clever uses of upside down shots to open a scene which quickly revert to a standard shot as the scene continues and brilliant uses of overhead shots throughout which follow on from similar scenes in his first two films.

A striking and moving film that requires a repeat viewing to fully appreciate the constantly twisting narrative and story being portrayed. Obsessions and compulsions are all on display again but far deeper here is a continuing religious subtext to life itself and of spending eternity with a life partner and the continuing journey of the human spirit across the ages.  The fades to black (and white) encompass a fear of death and dying and the film throughout deals with this very black and white issue, of dying and of mortality and especially a spiritual message of the human soul's journey throughout many lifetimes. It is the age old unanswerable question, what does happen when we die? Or perhaps the answer lies within all of us and our own obsessions with life or our spirituality or religious leanings? It's a triumphant film written by the Director and Ari Handel and one that continues to engage viewing after viewing.

The Wrestler (2008)

"Still jumping off the top rope"

Aronofsky's fourth film, written by Robert D Siegel was his most critically acclaimed before Black Swan, with two rightly acclaimed and Oscar nominated performances from his leads. However, and going against perceived wisdom, this is for me the weakest of his six films to date and the least stylised with his own directorial imprint. That's not to say it's a bad film just the least Aronofsky styled film to date. The film follows a standard linear timeline following glossy opening credits recounting the glory days of wrestling in the 1980's, of headlining Madison Square Garden to huge adoring crowds and a sport reaching it's zenith in popularity. "20 Years Later" we find "Randy 'The Ram' Robinson" (Mickey Rourke) for the first time. Hunched over in pain in a small dressing room we never see "The Ram"s face, just his broken or at near breaking point body. We still don't see his face or a clear view of The Ram (he insists upon being called Ram or Randy and always a nod toward his professional persona) as he signs autographs for ardent fans awaiting his departure. But the scene around him encapsulates his professional life, a small municipal gymnasium doubling for a wrestling arena, a few sparse chairs being tidied away diligently by effusive organisers and fans, and an old wrestling superstar walking gingerly away, wheeling his small luggage behind him.

The opening Act in this standard three Act piece of 109 minutes layers Randy's current life together in small, discreet segments and it's here where Mickey Rourke triumphs. Despite all of life's downturns he retains the spirit of a professional wrestler and against continuing odds continues to perform for his people and for his hardy fans. His life and of course his obsessions centre on wrestling despite both his life and the sport he so loves being in decline. The 1980's height of selling out Madison Square Garden and his continual wrestling battles that have gone down in wrestling folklore are now well behind him but Act One depicts a professional still training, still retaining the buzz and excitement of performing and a genuine camaraderie with his fellow wrestlers. What's immediately evident is a virtuoso performance from Mickey Rourke brilliantly bringing to life a jaded professional sportsman obsessing to the very end in a sport that envelops him. The training, the illegal use of steroids to "juice" himself and enable him to bulk up and retain a body that despite the sport's "entertainment" factor is still a gruelling slog, night after night. His preparation is meticulous and obsessive in every regard, from the training to the body preparation pre fight, the taping of hands, legs and arms to the agreeing of "spots" or agreed moves with his fellow wrestlers to ensure the entertainment of the fight is the greatest possible for both themselves and their legion of devoted fans. Randy is clearly only really alive when actually living in the past, a bygone era of popularity and adulation that he conversely no longer seeks. Now it's his obsession with continuing with his life's passion and the thrill of performing for his fans. Still within Act One but away from wrestling, Randy's life is depicted constantly through Rourke's eyes and mannerisms and a steadicam from the Director that follows his every move and nuance. Living on a trailer park and a virtual down and out with no money and little life outside of wrestling he is surrounded by posters and memories of the past whilst living a present that is far removed from these halcyon days. Lonely and very much a loner, he comes alive around the sport he loves but away from wrestling he is a 40 something aged human being, frail even, as is depicted through his wearing of a hearing aid and glasses but more so in a body that he struggles to maintain. The highlight of Rourke's performance is the stoicism he enthuses into the character, that despite the highs and lows of his career he is still a determined, yet obsessive, sportsman, proud of his achievements and the enduring love he creates around him when he wrestles.

The common theme of obsession in Aronofsky's films is heightened further here with obsessions being replaced with further obsessions and motivational factors. A regular at a strip club, Randy is infatuated with "Cassidy" (Marisa Tomei) and refuses to see the blurred lines between friend, client and stripper. His love and infatuation border on obsession but he refuses to accept their dalliance must remain a purely professional one. Similarly, an estranged relationship with his daughter "Stephanie" (Evan Rachel Wood) overtakes his other obsessions, a pressing need to recapture time spent apart and perhaps a metaphor to his career inside and outside of the wrestling ring too. Both marquee roles for Evan Rachel Wood and Marisa Tomei are brilliantly realised in support of Rourke's virtuoso performance, with Tomei rightly acclaimed and nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2009. In supporting and cameo roles there are a huge cast of professional wrestling stars but away from the wrestling "Adam" is brilliantly and subtly portrayed by John D'Leo, "Lenny" is Mark Margolis fourth of five collaborations with the Director and both of Aronofsky's parents cameo again!

With two deserved Oscar nominations for Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei and a highly engaging film, this still remains the least of my favoured Aronofsky films. To criticise a film for being too linear would be absurd, however my personal preference is for more of the jolting, awkward and obscure camera angles and shots from his previous films. That said, the constantly moving camera that follows Randy away from the ring through to the excellently captured wrestling scenes are a joy. New collaborations on Cinematography (Maryse Alberti) and Editing (Andrew Weisblum) are evident but it's the continuing collaboration with Clint Mansell on Musical Score that triumphs again, often with only a simple solo guitar in the background the film is also brilliantly sound tracked by Guns'n'Roses, Slaughter, Cinderella and Rat Attack amongst many, many others. The film also closes with Bruce Springsteen's eponymous and haunting "The Wrestler" which fits the film perfectly.

Black Swan (2010)

"I just want to be perfect"

The metamorphosis of the pure, virginal white swan into her evil black swan twin is the insignia for Aronofsky's fifth film set against a continuing visual motif of white on black throughout and a day in, day out striving for perfection in this brilliant psychological thriller. From the simple premise of casting for Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake we follow a similar theme of obsession and perfection which is brilliantly juxtaposed in a horror/psychological drama that never relents and although following a linear narrative always reinforces a darker, obsessive side to many characters. Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin however it was Aronofsky's original idea of a relationship between a Wrestler and a Ballerina that spawned both The Wrestler and Black Swan and is why they both share the obvious theme of dedication and obsession to their art but more importantly is perhaps the physical toll exacted on these perfectionists. Both films showcase this but importantly they both portray the psychological and physiological breakdowns brought on by their obsession. Whereas in The Wrestler we see an aged Wrestler trying to recapture his glory days in a failing body, here the close ups are of a frail, tender and young "Nina Sayers" (Natalie Portman) rigorously training at every available opportunity, foregoing the delights of a normal diet and indeed a normal, regular life to achieve her dream. The close ups are of the excruciating pain ballerinas go through to achieve a nubile and flexible body, the constant pressure on their legs and feet (forever shot in close up) and whereas The Wrestler depicts camaraderie between the professionals, here there is intense competition to be the best, to stand out amongst a high calibre field of your contemporaries and never settling for being a member of the cast. The film quickly and expertly shines a light onto an art form that requires intense dedication and preparation with nothing left to chance. New ballet shoes are worn in, scored and taped together, routines are meticulously repeated over and over again pushing Nina and her contemporaries immediately to the boundaries of physical exhaustion, yet each spare minute is framed with Nina posing, posturing and dreaming of being chosen as the White Swan, or Swan Queen. The white on black motif is never more starkly portrayed than in "Lily" (Mila Kunis) a contemporary of Nina's who despite being the newest member of the cast quickly becomes the most popular and eventual double for her. The doppelganger motif is immediately evident but it's Lily's free spirited verve and ever smiling persona that juxtaposes against Nina's more rigid determination to succeed and achieve perfection. Lily is simply everything that Nina should be but isn't. Nina is technically brilliant but as punishing Teacher "Thomas Leroy" (Vincent Cassel) is often shown in the background, she needs to "let go" and be herself. Technically adept at being the White Swan, he doubts her ability to encompass the raw passion and intensity of the Black Swan, the merging of the majesty of the virginal white swan with the dark intensity and free spirit of her twin.

Aronofsky's camera work is immediately to the fore from the opening scene onward and as with The Wrestler he again frames the majority of his star(s) performances close up with a steadicam that immerses you in the dance and the exacting routines. His constantly moving camera brilliantly brings to life a highly technical and choreographed art with a signature circular camera move often employed. Black Swan saw Aronofsky finally acclaimed with an Oscar nomination for Best Director and rightfully so alongside a well deserved nomination for regular Cinematographer Matthew Libatique and Editor Andrew Weisblum. The film itself was also nominated at the 2011 Oscars for Best Film, however only Natalie Portman won for her incredible portrayal as Nina Sayers for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role. Both Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassel were cruelly overlooked for their accomplished portrayals, as was Barbara Hershey for her performance as Nina's exacting and tireless Mother "Erica Sayers". Costume Designer Amy Westcott also deserved higher recognition for her sterling work. Amongst many stand out supporting roles across a large cast of ballerinas is a crucial cameo role from Winona Ryder as "Beth Macintyre". In support of these fantastic roles is another musical score from regular collaborator Clint Mansell but here unsurprisingly the weight is left with the superb original pieces of music from the ballet itself and a thumping Chemical Brothers interlude in a nightclub that brilliantly surrounds a hedonistic, drug fuelled night of passion and of letting go and the beginnings of Nina's final transformation to the Black Swan.

Coming full circle from "Pi", this film owes a tremendous debt to Aronofsky's black and white debut film and whilst more stylish and accomplished than it's earlier predecessor, this takes the psychological horror to a new, oblique level. Here the film excels, away from the obsessive desire for perfection and away from characters that are so enveloped in achieving this halcyon position of nirvana they reject anything and everything else to achieve it. The film is wrapped in a metamorphosis from virginal white to dark and sinister black. Nina is dedicated to the extreme but always overlooked by an overbearing Mother always dressed in black. Their apartment is white on black throughout and seemingly everywhere Nina turns she sees this reflection on her, black against white, white on black. Nina is forever in white or light pastel coloured clothing juxtaposed against Lily, her Ballet Mistress, Thomas and even Beth all dressed in dark, mainly black clothing. The film also excels as Nina's transformation becomes complete as both her body and her mind transform to encompass both the white and black swan. Early on she passes herself in a railway station (the film's signature first overt clue) and the railway station is continually used (as with Pi) as a narration point for her physical decline. Reflections in windows immediately provide more black/white motifs, as does awkward encounters on the train or a brief early glimpse of Lily in another train carriage, white on black, black on white constantly recurring. There are subtle psychological touches as the film progresses through to overt and outlandish touches of greatness in a pulsating last Act that spoilers will not allow me to divulge!

Brilliant performances from Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel and Barbara Hershey in particular propel this 108 minute gem of a film that although not a personal favourite of mine relies heavily on the Director's first, best and most challenging film. From Pi to Black Swan in five brilliant films. Full circle? That'll be 3.14 recurring, round and round, black on white, white on black.

Noah (2014)

"They forget, strength comes from the creator"

The hardy souls who have ventured this far may have noticed that I revere the films of Darren Aronofsky to almost obsessive levels and hold them very close to my heart. Pi resonates with me on almost unexplainable levels and remains a complex dissection of the human spirit, what drives many of us to retain compulsive and indeed obsessive desires and it also challenges the perceived norm of the world we see around us. Requiem for a Dream is a masterpiece in the same vein albeit on a more personal gratification level and will forever move me to tears. The Fountain continues the themes of all consuming passion, desire and obsession, Mickey Rourke's portrayal of The Wrestler does likewise before Black Swan ups the ante in the driven pursuit for absolute and total perfection. The depiction of the human spirit and striving for one's obsessions is in capable hands with Aronofsky but prior to release, I was highly sceptical this would continue here. Russell Crowe? A full scale biblical epic? Walking, talking rock monsters?! However, my scepticism was misplaced and all of the continued themes are here, Russell Crowe produces a performance that I haven't seen from him since Michael Mann's "The Insider" in 1999, the sheer scale of the film is breathtaking at times and importantly, Director Aronofsky cajoled performances from some of the supporting cast, and one actor in particular, that genuinely surprised and pleased me in equal measure.

Being as I am an Atheist/Agnostic or simply a God less heathen(!) I can't begin to fully understand this biblical masterpiece but I can appreciate the love and attention Aronofsky has infused in every glorious frame. It is without a doubt a painstakingly created work of art and a particular triumph for returning Director of Photography Matthew Libatique whose constant tracking shots of the wide expanses of arid and desolate lands (pre flood) and the lands as the waters recede are a joy, as are the overhead tracking shots of Noah and his family traversing the wilderness and particularly, the sweeping tracking shot as we see a fully realised Ark for the first time. The soundtrack from regular collaborators The Kronos Quartet matches anything they've previously achieved with the Director as it accompanies every beat of the film majestically with a soaring orchestral beauty and their joint collaboration with Patti Smith on "Mercy Is" closes the film impressively. There truly is much to admire in Noah and special praise is reserved for Ben Snow and his vast Visual Effects team who alongside the Director of Photography bring to life the pre and post flood earth spectacularly well, in league with Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). Production Designer Mark Friedberg and Costume Designer Michael Wilkinson are equally deserving of praise and possible Oscar nominations in 2015. This is the Director's first foray into the large scale use of vast visual effects and as with other CGI heavy films it triumphs and amazes for the most part but some scenes, most notably the rock monsters or "Watchers" don't particularly convince and appear disjointed and pasted on. A small walking scene with the family and the large scale battle sequence are testament to the poor merger between live action and CGI. However, the numerous time lapse montages are excellently realised and endemic of the love and devotion the Director has lavished on this biblical epic. For it is epic in every conceivable way, yet paradoxically it is very much a character piece film and Russell Crowe is mightily impressive as the title character "Noah".

From the film's opening narrative of the Garden of Eden, of Adam and Eve and of his family's calling to start again after the "Death by Water" Crowe is magnificent. Driven by Aronofsky's consistent themes of obsession, devotion and here, faith to his duty, Noah is torn apart by these obsessions and ravaged by guilt as his obsession with his Godly duty is counter-intuitive to the devotion for his family. It's a towering central performance from Crowe who's very rarely away from the centre of the screen but ably supported by his wife "Naameh" (Jennifer Connelly), reunited as Husband and Wife again after both starring in 2001's A Beautiful Mind. As Noah's mind begins to falter in the middle act, so Connelly comes to the fore. Smaller supporting roles fall to Logan Lerman as "Ham", Douglas Booth as "Shem" and Leo McHugh Carroll as "Japheth" and thus complete Noah's family but larger roles are filled by more established and familiar actors with Anthony Hopkins as Noah's Grandfather "Methuselah" and Ray Winstone as "Tubal-Cain". However, the more note worthy and surprisingly pleasing performance comes from Emma Watson as "Ila". Rescued by Noah and his family as a young child, her scenes with Noah in particular remind the audience that this isn't simply an epic tale but a familial one too, and never more fitting than the joint scenes with Noah inside the Ark. Fearful she may never bear his son's any children, Noah lavishes love on his adopted daughter, for once he feared she may only be a burden she is now a true "gift" to his family but remaining fearful for their future Ila believes they are approaching "the end of everything" but Noah responds that it is in fact "the beginning of everything" and their warm embrace, albeit tearful, is a fantastic encapsulation of the film at the mid point.

With it's enormous scale, momentous performances and biblical narrative it may sway Oscar voters in 2015. But more importantly, it's yet another master class and masterpiece of a film from Darren Aronofsky and becomes the sixth of the very best films you are likely to see.

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