In his dazzling new movie, “The Fountain,” director Darren Aronofsky reaches deep into the historical past and far out into the future to tell a story of endless love and its struggle against the constraints of human mortality. The picture is visually intoxicating — the images have a luminous psychedelic beauty — and the film’s themes emerge elegantly out of the story’s intricately-looped tri-level structure. (Aronofsky wrote the screenplay from a story he created with Ari Handel.) It’s a new kind of science-fiction movie, and, unusually for that boys’-club genre, probably a great date movie, too. Mainly, though, as they used to say back in the Roger Corman days, it’s a trip.
Unlike Stanley Kubrick, whose “2001: A Space Odyssey” this film might be said to resemble, if it resembled anything else at all, Aronofsky has cast his picture with compelling actors. (For his “2001″ leads, Kubrick settled for Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood — two icons of inexpressiveness.) Hugh Jackman plays three incarnations of a character called Tom Creo; he’s teamed at each stage of the story with Rachel Weisz, as Izzi, the woman he loves. We first see them in 16th-Century Spain, where Izzi is the (fictitious) Queen Isabel and Tom is Tomas, her loyal conquistador. Isabel, who has been seeking the secret of eternal life, the fabled “fountain of youth,” is menaced by the growing power of the Inquisition — the Grand Inquisitor has condemned her for heresy and vowed that she will die. But another loyal subject, a Franciscan monk named Father Avila (Mark Margolis), has just returned from the New World to report the existence of a Tree of Life, a Mayan axis mundi that unites Xibalba, the mythical Mayan underworld, with the earth and the heavens above. Isabel dispatches Tomas to return with Avila and a band of fellow conquistadors to find this tree, which, like the Tree of Life described in the biblical Book of Genesis, is thought to be a source of immortality. “When you return,” Isabel tells Tomas, “I shall be your Eve, and together we shall live forever.”
Five hundred years later — which is to say, now — research scientist Tommy Creo is desperately seeking a cure for the cancer that is killing his young wife, Izzi. He has learned of an old-growth tree in Central America whose bark has properties that could be useful in combating the disease. Experimenting with it, he discovers that it does, in fact, reverse the effects of cancer in monkeys. But Izzi has already come to accept her death as a part of life, and she wishes that instead of frantically seeking a cure to save her, Tom would spend more time with her while she lives. She herself has been passing her remaining time writing a book about the Maya, called “The Fountain.” One night, while they’re sitting on a rooftop with a telescope, she points out to Tom a faraway nebula, wrapped around a dying star. The Maya called it Xibalba, she says — the place where dead souls go to be reborn.
Shuttling ahead to the year 2600, we find Tom, a spiritual astronaut now, ascending through far galaxies in a globe-shaped spaceship that also contains a large tree — ascending toward Xibalba, and the answer to the mortal question that has haunted him throughout his previous incarnations.
“The Fountain” is a movie of stunningly gorgeous imagery that reverberates ingeniously across the picture’s millennial span: falling snow mirrors the stars falling away outside Tom’s spaceship; rings of betrothal echo the rings of the Tree of Life. There’s also a Mayan priest wielding a flaming sword (like the fiery sword the God of Genesis planted in the Garden of Eden after banishing Adam and Eve) that’s a powerful symbolization of stark, primitive mysticism. The outer-space effects are particularly inspired, creating a drifting, gelatinous aura through which Tom’s ship rises like an intergalactic elevator. (They’re the work of the Oscar-winning English micro-photographer and optical-systems developer Peter Parks, whose footage of petri-dish-size chemical reactions have been blown up to cosmic proportions — an eloquent effect.)
“The Fountain” isn’t the sort of movie one might have expected from the man who made the harrowing 2000 addiction elegy, “Requiem for a Dream.” But then “Requiem” wasn’t the sort of movie anyone would have expected from the maker of Aronofsky’s first feature, the sci-fi noir “Pi,” either. The director’s attempt to say something meaningful in such an emotionally and visually arresting way appears to have prompted some critical snickering already. Whatever. “The Fountain” will almost certainly endure. It’s a classic.
“Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny”: Them Again
Not as bad as the godawful trailer might lead you expect, but not the gut-buster that longtime fans of the D must have been hoping for, either. Jack Black, who can really sing, and Kyle Gass, who can really play guitar, are still funny together; but after 12 years, their act has lost some of its original unhinged impact, leaving them adrift on a sea of fart jokes, poop gags, ‘shroom interludes, and, for want of a more pungent term I wish I could use here, power-appendage skits.
The movie, directed by co-conspirator Liam Lynch, shovels in the duo’s backstory, starting with a family blowup between Lil’ JB (Troy Gentile, who played a similar Jack-junior role in “Nacho Libre”) and his rock-hating dad (Meat Loaf). Praying for guidance to a bedroom wall poster of Ronnie James Dio, young Jack is startled when the metal god springs to life and bursts into song. His advice: get thee to Hollywood. JB grows up, grabs his cheap acoustic guitar, and hops on a bus to L.A. There, he meets Gass busking on the beach in Venice. They hook up after Kyle sort-of saves Jack from a terminal whomping by a gang of street droogs (straight out of “A Clockwork Orange,” don’t ask why). Billing themselves as The Greatest Band in the World, they make their debut at a little downtown bar, where they play their one and only song, and bomb.
Back in Kyle’s lonely-guy apartment (which is equipped with a “gig simulator” mini-stage), they start poring over his collection of ancient “Rolling Stone” back issues, and discover that all of their favorite axe-masters, from Angus Young to Jimmy Page, appear to be using the same guitar pick. On a visit to the L.A. Guitar Center, a burnout clerk (Ben Stiller) fills them in. Yes, that’s the “Pick of Destiny,” fashioned from a chipped tooth of Satan himself, and now housed in the “Rock History Museum” in Sacramento. They make their way there, grab the pick, return to L.A., and are about to rock some butt back at the little bar when Satan (a pretty hilarious Dave Grohl) turns up in person to reclaim his property.
There are many comic adventures along the way, of course, but not all of them kill. There’s a house-party sequence that has no particular point, and a frantic car chase that goes on too long. Tenacious D may not have been The Greatest Band in the World, but they were certainly the greatest acoustic-metal group in the universe, and the funniest, too. The movie might have been more effective if it had been released a little earlier. (It was reportedly shot in the spring of 2005.) At this point, though, “rock on” is not something they’d necessarily be well-advised to do.
“For Your Consideration”: Mild Thing
Director Christopher Guest has rounded up his repertory gang again — Catherine O’Hara, Fred Willard, Parker Posey, co-writer Eugene Levy, and of course one-time “Spinal Tap” partners Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, among many, many others — to take a satirical shot at the movie business, and the witless TV infotainment industry that feeds off of it. The picture has some hysterical lines, as you’d expect, and some funny situations; what it doesn’t quite have is the bull’s-eye bite of such earlier Guest pseudo-documentaries as “Waiting for Guffman” and “Best in Show.” It also has way too many characters.
Guest himself plays first-time (and probably last-time) director Jay Berman, who’s making a doomed low-budget movie called “Home for Purim” — a Jewish family saga, complete with dying mother, set in Georgia, of all places, and in the 1940s, for some reason. (Unremarked, and thus all the wittier, is the fact that there’s not a single Jewish actor in the cast.) Guest hasn’t given himself a big part here, but he has a few good moments, as when he instructs O’Hara, prior to shooting a scene, “I want you to do something from the bottom of your womanhood.”
O’Hara plays the expiring matriarch, and one day, during a break, she gets word that an Internet movie site has reported that her performance in the film is rumored to be Oscar-worthy. Soon, a few other cast members are being similarly tipped for the big award, and very quickly, as this baseless buzz builds, they all find themselves being herded through the jungle of TV morning shows and talkfests (including a dead-on Charlie Rose-like “roundtable” in which the host’s questions ramble on for so long that there’s little time left for the interviewees to field an answer). With visions of revived careers floating through their dreams, the actors settle in nervously to await the announcement of the annual Academy Award nominations.
Fred Willard and Jane Lynch (from “The 40 Year-Old Virgin”) are hilarious as the smarmy hosts of an “E.T.”-esque show called “Hollywood Now.” (Willard has never been more blitheringly surreal, popping off such out-of-nowhere remarks as, “You know what they say about blind prostitutes — you really have to hand it to them.”) And Ricky Gervais, playing a studio suit, almost steals the show when he marches in to make some suggestions to improve the commercial prospects of “Home for Purim.” For one thing, he says, “Tone down the Jewishness.” (To which another exec responds, “Why don’t we do a different holiday? Easter — just focus on the rabbit.”)
Guest’s usual approach to the subjects of his films — a distinctive blend of fondness and mockery — tilts a little too far toward amiability here. And there are so many talented people taking part in the picture that their hit-and-run appearances become wearying. In a way, the director is a victim of his own past brilliance. “For Your Consideration” is a good little movie, but coming from Guest, you expect something great. There’s always next time.
“The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes”: Alien Seduction
This hyper-surreal art movie by Stephen and Timothy Quay draws you into a truly strange world. We see sky and land and sea, and people moving about, but nothing seems really to be of this Earth, least of all the story. The lighting has the blurry halation of old silent movies, and the colors are generally drained down to the most delicate tints. The picture is obscurely troubling, and beautiful to watch.
In an unspecified country that feels like Eastern Europe, a malevolent alienist named Dr. Droz (Gottfried John) has kidnapped a lovely young opera singer, Malvina (Amira Casar), and brought her to his remote villa to appear in a “diabolical opera” of his own composition. In preparation for this event, he imports a piano-tuner, Felisberto (Cesar Sarachu), to service his elaborate musical automata — mechanized objects installed in ever-repeating tableaux. (Droz points one out: “A little row of singing teeth that still retain their pitch.”) The doctor is attended by an odd corps of young male gardeners who also double as tailors, and by a mysterious woman named Assumpta (Assumpta Serna). (“Has she showed you her tongue yet?” Droz asks Felisberto.) Seeing a motionless Malvina gazing out to sea from a bench on a lonely beach one day, the piano-tuner resolves to rescue her. Droz, of course, has no intention of letting this happen.
The Quays — a pair of American identical twins who’ve lived mostly in London since the late 1960s — became well-known for their music videos in the 1980s. (They worked on Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” among other clips.) They’ve also found extensive employment in high-end television commercials, and have used the money they’ve made in that field to finance their primary interests in animation, puppetry, and now live-action films. They clearly have no interest in mainstream filmmaking, and so the audience for this movie will inevitably be, shall we say, “select.” To whom might it be recommended? Well, consider Assumpta’s line in proposing a piano duet: “You play the black keys and I’ll sing the white.” There. You know who you are.
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