Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Eagle

Alternate Title:  Fuck Scotland

One sentence synopsis:  A Roman Officer and his Briton slave try to recover the lost Eagle of a legion that vanished north of Hadrian's Wall.

Things Havoc liked:  I'm a classicist at heart really, and so any movie with Romans in it has already done one thing right by me. Moreover, it's clear that they did actually try with this one, which is more than I can say for a lot of Roman movies I could speak of. There are subtle details that they did manage get right, such as the tendency of roman helmet straps to cut the necks of their wearers (they actually make a plot point out of this one), the purpose and utility of a testudo (one of the better versions of that I've seen), and the fact that Roman decorations took the form of armbands, not medals. It's something at least. Moreover, this is perhaps the only film I've seen wherein the Romans use American accents, for the simple reason that the Britons are already using the British ones. It sounded strangely jarring.

On other fronts, it's always good to see Donald Sutherland and Mark Strong, even if Sutherland's character is more or less pointless, and the two lead actors at least made a credible job of it. If the Scottish parts of the film wasn't on location, then it certainly fooled me. It certainly looked bleak enough to pass for it.

Things Havoc disliked:   *Sigh*

Okay, let's get this out of the way:

A Cohort and a Legion are not the same thing. The terms cannot be used interchangeably. Neither one was commanded by a Centurion. The Brigantes lived in the north Midlands, not Scotland. Hadrian's wall wasn't built until 122 AD, two years after this film supposedly took place. Any Roman unit that ran away from scythe chariots deserved to get massacred. It is not physically possible to outrun a horse on foot, not even if you are a barbarian warrior. The Emperor Hadrian was ruling the Empire in 120 AD, not the Senate. Individual Romans ventured north of Hadrian's wall constantly, for trade and exploration purposes, as did northerners crossing south of the wall. The Ninth Legion's disappearance from the records occurred in 117 AD, not 100, and it was never reconstituted, not by the Senate or anyone else. Thumbs down in an arena meant spare the prisoner, not kill him. Painting oneself blue with woad was done only on special occasions (such as a battle), and neither Picts nor Celts nor anybody else in Scotland went about so-painted all the time.

If your claim to fame for your movie is historical accuracy, you might want to look into some of these things. That being said, even if we ignore all of the historical anachronisms and mistakes made in this film, we have some serious problems here.

To begin with, while the two main leads (Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell) do a reasonable job with the material they're given, the fact is that the material they're given is pretty lackluster. We establish that the Briton slave (Bell) hates Romans in general and Tatum in specific because the Romans slaughtered his tribe in some revolt. Fair enough, but then why does he suddenly turn around and decide to be the Roman's loyal friend midway through the film? Did I miss some scene of them bonding that got cut for time? When the hell did these two become buddy buddies? At no point should this slave have done anything but slice the Roman's throat open the instant his back was turned.

Moreover, I hate to bring this back to historical anachronisms, but Romans did not fight like fucking ninja assassins, and neither did their enemies, for the most part. Yes, there's handwaves towards actual roman fighting techniques, the testudo and javalin and so on, but for the most part, whenever a fight breaks out, the Romans (at least our heroes), break formation immediately so as to go off and do crazy jiu-jitsu shit with their gladii and tower shields. News Flash guys, there's a goddamn reason why nobody broke formation in actual Roman battles. Formations were what permitted the Romans to take down armies of screaming barbarians five times their size. It wasn't the secret Roman praying mantis kung fu styles.

Plus, in an action movie that is supposed to be about guys killing one another in awesome and cinematic ways, shakycam bullshit is not to be tolerated. Braveheart was sixteen years ago, guys, why the hell can we not make a fight scene that looks anything close to the quality of the ones in that movie? I cannot admire a fight scene if I have no fucking clue what the hell is going on in it.

Finally, while I'm not one to shy away from gritty realism in films, and while I accept that Scotland was not the most civilized place in the second century, there's an awful lot of child murder in this film for a story that's supposed to be a historical adventure with pretensions of realism. One episode in particular is nothing but a transparent kick-the-dog moment for our main villain, just in case we missed the fact that he was a bad guy. It would come across as mustache-twirling stupidity if it weren't so gratuitous.

Oh, and where the fuck did the Briton slave manage to find all those fucking ex-Roman soldiers in about twenty goddamn minutes? And how exactly did he convince them to come and fight?

Final thoughts:  Look, I'm a sucker for movies set in Roman times. Spartacus, Gladiator, Ben Hur, even legitimate pieces of crap like "The Last Legion" will get a good word from me. And I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel just the slightest thrill at hearing the words "Prepare to defend the Eagle". But this thing plays like a Buddy Comedy Action Flick where they forgot the buddies, the comedy, and the watchable action. The movie consists of a whiny prat of a Roman "officer" doing stupid shit and somehow not getting killed for it while his Briton slave decides for wholly opaque reasons not to gut him and use his skull as a drinking cup. There's nice touches here and there: The Celtic and Pictish tribes all speak in Gaelic, Mark Strong (whom I didn't even recognize) is fun to watch, and some of the earlier battle scenes are at least halfway decent, albeit nothing close to what you'd find in Gladiator. But nobody does anything in this movie for any logical reason other than the fact that the scriptwriter needs them to. And I've seen more historical accuracy in a Mel Brooks film.

Final Score:  3/10

Saturday, February 19, 2011


Alternate Title:  No Movie for Old Men

One sentence synopsis:  A cancer-stricken Spanish hustler tries to put his life in order for his business partners, ex-wife, and young children before he dies.

Things Havoc liked:  This one came very highly recommended from critics and foreign film aficionados I know, and while it turned out to be completely different from what I expected, it was still a really good film. I loved Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, and expected to see something of a similar note here. I did not. Bardem plays this character as an essentially good man with an insanely deep sense of responsibility who is desperately trying to stay unbent under the pressure of illness and business/family crises. It's a quiet, understated, almost desperate performance, one that I was not at all expecting, and which impressed me even more than his turn in No Country. The character isn't perfect, but he's incredibly human in his flaws and mistakes. Only once or twice do we catch even a glimpse of the viciousness that Bardem displayed last time, and as a result, even with barely any actual violence (This is not an action movie, and I don't think Bardem ever so much as hits anyone), when he gets angry even for a split second, we sit up and notice.

The rest of the cast is just as good, though I've never seen a single one of them in my life. Bardem's bipolar ex-wife makes you want to cringe every time she's onscreen. His playboy brother is a patently sleazy bastard, yet you like the guy anyway. His relationships with his business partners, the Senegalese street hustlers, the Chinese illegal immigrant workers, everything is done in such a real fashion. No scenery chewing, no bravado threats, not even any violence really. These are characters who know and work with one another, and even trust one another to a point, such that when something goes wrong, they all immediately come together to try and find the right way out, rather than pulling out guns or screaming at each other. And through it all, Bardem moves in something approximating a daze, trying to hold himself together long enough to do right by his kids, his wife, the criminals he works with, and even their families. The movie takes its time, with a muted score, flashes of magical realism that could perhaps be supernatural or just hallucinations or imaginings, and an almost lugubrious pace that lingers over moments of deep introspection or weariness.

Things Havoc disliked:  Jesus Fucking Christ, this movie is depressing. It's a cliche of European cinema that every movie they make is a black and white film wherein everyone dies while crazy or cursing God for inflicting terrible misfortunes on them. Well this one's in color.

I hardly require that all my films be uplifting. Some of my favorite movies of all time end badly. But the glacial pace of this movie turns it practically into an exercise in self-torture. I went to see this one with a couple other people, one of whose comment after leaving the theater was "I'm going to go home and shoot myself." It's that depressing. Every single scene, practically, could be subtitled "and then it got worse". There's no real villain in this film except the filmmaker, who seems to hate all of the characters and wishes to dwell on the misery of their lives for inscrutable purposes. It simply gets draining after a while.

Moreover, while I get that they were intentionally making a slow film, it is certainly possible to speed it up a little bit. The Magical Realism sequences, as well as all the stuff about communing with the dead, really didn't seem to go anywhere. Again, I don't need movies to give me all the answers, but I couldn't ever figure out what the point of any of that was. It didn't seem to have anything to do with the story itself, nor the setting. Perhaps it's just a Spanish thing.

Final thoughts:  I've seen Javier Bardem in precisely two movies to date, and the distance between them is like night and day. I was very much impressed by this movie, almost enough to forget the torture that it was sitting through it. If only for him, I have to report that I am glad that I went to see this film. I also have to report that I never want to see a single frame of it ever again.

If there's altogether too much happiness and cheer in your life, you'll love this movie.

Final Score:  7/10

Saturday, February 12, 2011

True Grit

Alternate Title:  The Dude, the Bad, and the Ugly

One sentence synopsis:  A teenage girl hires a US marshal and a Texas Ranger to track down her father's murderer.

Things Havoc liked:  There's a reason I started with this one.  I've never yet seen a Coen Brothers' movie I didn't like, nor for that matter a Jeff Bridges movie I didn't like.  Neither one of them did me wrong here.  The movie is brilliantly shot, gorgeous (a requirement with westerns), and extremely well written, with that crazy semi-high-register dialogue that I loved from Deadwood and other modern westerns.  The acting is uniformly excellent.  I was afraid Jeff Bridges might try to play John Wayne playing Rooster Cogburn, but instead he plays the character as a slurring, ornery, dangerous bastard who is nevertheless a hell of a lot of fun to watch.  People seemed to give Matt Damon shit in the reviews I saw for not being the equal of the rest of the cast, but honestly, this is the best thing I've ever seen him do.  It was certainly the only time I can remember where I didn't think I was watching Matt Damon, rather than his character.  His ranger is witty, put upon, and hilariously incompetent at times.  The villains are also well done.  Josh Brolin has very little time on screen, frankly, but Barry Piper, surprisingly, turns in a great performance as a gang leader and stage robber who does what he has to, but without seeming either evil or stupid.  One really gets the sense that not only do all the participants in these events know one another well, but that the question of who is the good and bad guy is somewhat circumstantial.

But the key performance is Halee Steinfield, who simply blows everyone else off the screen in almost every scene.  What she's doing in the Best Supporting Actress category for the Oscars is entirely beyond me, as she's in every single scene of the movie, and clearly the main character of it.  Not enough star power I guess.  Seriously though, the scene of her haggling with the horse trader left me laughing out loud, as did the brief reprise.

Things Havoc disliked:  When one goes to see a Coen brothers' movie, one expects a certain right angle style.  Fargo, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, The Hudsucker Proxy, and No Country for Old Men all had a sort of strange style to them which felt like reality had been tilted slightly.  Odd characters with strange agendas did weird things because their world was just slightly out of alignment enough to permit those things to pass as normal.  In this movie, the Coens seem to rely on the oddness of the story (a 14-year old girl hiring bounty hunters to track a killer) to provide that tilt.  It doesn't.  The movie certainly isn't bad, but it does seem a bit pedestrian, given everything.  It's a bunch of excellent actors and great directors effortlessly nailing material that is frankly a bit beneath them.  It almost feels like the Coens are selling themselves short on this relatively formulaic and lightweight western.

The pacing of the movie was a bit slow as well at times.  Some sequences (like the one with the hanging body) really never go anywhere, and seem to have been included for no reason.  The denouement is satisfying to a point but somewhat contrived (I understand it's the same as the book's, but that's really no excuse).  Overall though, while there are no major flaws, nothing really elevates the movie into greatness, nor do the events that take place seem to have much in the way of major meaning, even to the characters themselves.  As such, it doesn't reach the heights of excellence that I've seen these directors and actors reach.

Final thoughts:  By no means is this a bad movie.  The acting is superb, the writing sharp as nails, the directing sure and confident, and the cinematography sweeping and epic, as any western should be.  Given those things, what more can one really ask for?  Well, one can ask for a film of greater weight and high concept, as this movie just isn't about anything important enough to merit all of these wonderful assets it has.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed the hell out of it, and would see it again.

Final Score:  7.5/10

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