Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter


Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Axe not what your country can do for you…

(2012) Horror Action (20th Century Fox) Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Jimmi Simpson, Robin McLeavy, Alan Tudyk, Marton Csokas, Joseph Mawle, Erin Wasson, John Rothman, Cameron M. Brown, Frank Brennan, Jaqueline Fleming. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

 

Our nation’s 16th president is widely beloved, considered our most courageous and visionary president and for good reason. He led our nation through its darkest hour, freed the slaves and in general kept the nation together even as it was coming apart. He also rid the country of vampires. Yeah, that was him.

Of course, you might not be familiar with that last part but don’t worry. This isn’t a history lesson. It’s rip-roaring bloodsucking entertainment from the man who directed Night Shift and the man who wrote the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Abraham Lincoln (Walker) watches as his mother (McLeavy) is murdered by Jack Barts (Csokas), whom Abe’s father (Mawle) crossed when he protected his impetuous son from stopping Barts from whipping an African-American boy. Young Abraham wants revenge but his more level-headed dad makes him swear not to do anything foolish which Honest Abe does…until his father passes away.

Going to a bar to gather some liquid courage, Abe runs into Henry Sturgess (Cooper). Eventually, Abe discovers that Barts is a vampire and his guns are ineffective against him. Lincoln is saved by the intervention of Henry, but not before permanently scarring Barts by leaving the ball of his pistol in his eye.

Sturgess heals Abe’s wounds and tells him that the vampires have mostly been hiding out in the South as plantation owners, using the slaves as a food supply. Abe, studying for the law, is also trained by Henry in the fine (or not-so-fine) art of vampire hunting – and not a Scooby in sight (obligatory Buffy reference considering the subject matter). Having had a bad experience with guns, Abe prefers the silver-coated axe as his weapon of choice.

Sturgess sends the newly martial arts-trained Abe to Springfield to practice law. There he meets shopkeeper Joshua Speed (Simpson), who hires the young man and allows him to stay in a room above the store. The two become fast friends but coming back into Abe’s life is Will Johnson (Mackie), the young boy Abe saved from whipping years ago. Also in his life; Mary Todd (Winstead), the fiancée of rising political star Stephen Douglas (Tudyk).

By night, Abe kills local vampires and chafes for the chance to get his hands on Barts. Finally, when Sturgess finds out that Abe has been making friends and fallen in love, he warns him that he’s making a horrible mistake – these people will be endangered by the things Abe does at night. And that’s just what happens. Once Abe finally gets his hands on Jack Barts, people – okay, vampires – take notice. In particular, Adam (Sewell) who is the leader of the vampires here in the States, a creature who has lived since the days of the pharaohs and who is eager to establish a nation of his own for his kind – the Confederate States of America, for one.

He and his sister/enforcer Vadoma (Wasson) hatch a plan to bring Lincoln to them, kidnapping Will and bringing him to their New Orleans plantation. Abe and Speed rescue him by the skin of their teeth, but Abe determines to fight Adam in a less direct way – through politics. Abe’s determination and vision leads him to the White House.

However, Adam has been busy as well, allying with Jefferson Davis (Rothman) to supply vampiric troops to overcome the numeric superiority of the North as well as their armament. With unkillable soldiers, Adam and the Southern generals decide to put an end to the war by invading, leading to a place called Gettysburg. Realizing that the only hope of defeating the army of the undead is to arm his own troops with silver ordinance, Abe, Will and Joshua set out on a desperate train ride from Washington to Pennsylvania. The entire nation’s future hangs in the balance but Adam knows he’s coming.

This is an idea that does tend to stretch one’s tolerance for fantasy. That it has been largely unsuccessful at the box office speaks more about the imagination of the moviegoing public than that of the specific filmmakers here. The movie is certainly filmed in dark tones with bright moonlight. There is certainly a gothic feel to the film but with more of an action sensibility than, say, Dark Shadows.

The special effects are okay, though not ground-breaking in most senses. However, there are a couple of scenes which are done rather badly – the scene where Lincoln chases Barts through stampeding horses – where the horses look like something out of a computer game, complete with a dun-colored sky. It looks fake and pulls the audience right out of the reality of the film.

I have no problems with fudging with history to suit the needs of the story, although here some of it was, I thought, unnecessary. Making Will Johnson a lifelong friend instead of someone he met in Springfield (which is, as I understand it, what actually happened) or having Joshua Speed as part of Lincoln’s inner circle in Washington (in reality he declined to leave Springfield and sent his brother James whom Lincoln liked less in his stead) doesn’t really make the story any easier – it’s just simpler to write it that way.

Mackie is a fine actor who brings some gravitas to the role of Johnson. Simpson as well, who is channeling Christian Slater to my mind, gives Joshua Speed a fairly ambiguous role which aids the story nicely in the last reel. Winstead is an underrated actress who has done admirably well in a bunch of movies that haven’t been as good as her performances. It’s no different here; hopefully she’ll be cast in a movie that’s worthy of her talents soon.

The main problem here is Walker. He might be a fine, capable actor but this is a part that is almost impossible to pull off to begin with – Abe Lincoln as an action hero? Doing Matrix-like moves while wielding an axe like something out of a Tsui Hark movie? Uhhhhh…it’s kind of entertaining, I have to admit, while you’re watching it. Thinking about it now, reading it on paper…sounds kind of dumb. The other issue is that Walker has moments where he really carries the essence of the Great Emancipator. At others though, he seems to be floundering, not quite sure how to capture Lincoln’s natural self-effacing demeanor and homespun humor.

This is entertainment, pure and simple. There is no moral message, and if you take this as a history lesson you’re clearly insane. This is meant to keep you on the edge of your seat for a couple of hours. Nothing more, nothing less. The movie isn’t always successful at it but it succeeds more than it fails. If you’re willing to give the concept a shot and throw logic and history out the door for two hours while you’re in the air-conditioned cinema, then you might actually be surprised at how good this is.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of action and some nifty effects. Mackie, Cooper and Winstead are all solid.
REASONS TO STAY: Walker’s performance is a bit inconsistent. Too many liberties with history and facts. Some of the CGI is surprisingly poor.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of violence as well as a hint of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The man in the film’s final scene who is approached in a similar manner as Abe was recruited was played by book and screenplay author Seth Grahame-Smith.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100. The reviews were mostly bad.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Near Dark
GETTYSBURG ADDRESS LOVERS: Walker recites the speech here in a re-creation of the address.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The American Experience series begins

White Material


White Material

Isabelle Huppert realizes she isn’t in Provence anymore.

(2009) Drama (IFC) Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Isaach de Bankole, William Nadylam, Adele Ado, Ali Barkai, Daniel Tchangang, Michel Subor, Jean-Marie Ahanda, Martin Poulibe, Patrice Eya, Serge Mong. Directed by Claire Denis

 

Have you ever been in love with someone that didn’t love you back nearly as much? Maybe even disliked you or hated you? I think we’ve all been in situations like that, but then again what happens when that love is for a place?

Maria Vial (Huppert) runs a coffee plantation in an unnamed African country (although it was filmed in Cameroon). She doesn’t actually own it – her ex-father-in-law Henri (Subor) actually does, but he is infirm and although she is divorced from his son Andre (Lambert), Maria actually runs the place with Henri’s blessing. Maria and Andre are on pretty good terms, although their teenage son Manuel (Duvauchelle) drives them both a little crazy as teenagers will. He seems content to do nothing but sit in his room; Maria wants him to participate more in the running of the plantation while Andre just hopes he find some sort of direction in life.

Their idyllic lifestyle however is coming to an end. The country is being torn apart by civil war and rebels roam the countryside, many of them children, wishing to wipe every vestige of colonialism from their land. Maria’s workers are getting out while the getting is good and they urge her to do the same. So does Andre. So do French soldiers who approach via helicopter to tell her that they can’t protect her if she stays.

Maria, however, isn’t about to leave. She feels the same love for the land as any African, she reasons, and that makes this just as much her land as theirs. Determined to bring in the harvest that will save her struggling plantation, she goes into town to hire new workers, which she is partially successful in doing. However, she can’t help but notice the suspicion with which she is regarded.

Her son, in the meantime, has an experience that changes him forever and not for the better. Maria also discovers the Boxer (de Bankole), the leader of the rebellion, seriously wounded and puts him up on her land in an outbuilding so he can recover. This might end up protecting her – or getting her caught in the crossfire.

Denis has a history living in French Colonial Africa and obviously her experiences have resonated with her. She has a real feeling for the country and its people, but she sees them without rose-colored glasses. Both the colonials and the Africans in most of her films (several of which have to do with colonialism and its effects) are flawed both philosophically and as people, but she clearly has affection for all of them.

I love San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Mick LaSalle’s assessment about Huppert – “anyone who has seen Huppert in other films may well expect her to be able to beat down the revolution by glaring at it.” Huppert is one of the most intense actresses living on the planet and manages to channel that intensity without being overt or over-the-top about it, a mistake young actresses often make. She is like a coiled spring who communicates her intensity with a glance, or a gesture.

Here she’s slightly more vulnerable than her screen personal usually is, although that fierceness is still there in her stubborn refusal to acknowledge the growing storm that approaches. However, there are several shots that Denis frames Ms. Huppert in that show her almost as schoolgirl-small, alone in a beautiful but hostile environment. In one scene, she needs to get on a bus but the bus is full. Undeterred, she hangs onto the ladder outside the bus; her muscles ripple with effort as she hangs on, much as she does with her plantation. It’s an extraordinary scene that will remain in your memory.

Lambert, best known for his appearances in the Highlander films (as well as occasional cameos in the TV series), displays some hitherto unsuspected tenderness as Andre. He’s not nearly the primal force that his wife is, but Andre is a good man nevertheless and at last when things hit the fan, he has to do the sensible thing. It’s not the wrenching moment it could have been but then, this isn’t Andre’s story either.

The cinematography here is brilliant. Yves Cape, the cinematographer, knows how to frame a shot properly but this isn’t just rote point the camera and take pretty pictures. Each shot is a story and embellishes the story, often giving hints as to what the story is about such as the shot of Maria hanging on the bus we discussed earlier. There are also a lot of interesting faces in the film. While Cape is good at what he does, one has to give at least partial credit to Denis, who has a very specific vision. The things I’ve just referred to are standard in her films.

The film bounces around in various time frames, from the denouement which is teased in the opening scene and to better times and to the beginning of the troubles and back again. This kind of storytelling requires a lot of discipline to keep from confusing the audience, but it didn’t quite work for me.

I’ll admit that I’m pretty impressed with the movie overall, although I downgraded it several points for the flashbacks/flash forwards. Huppert is one of the most brilliant actresses there is who hasn’t gotten sufficient due here in the States. I don’t think Americans are comfortable with a woman who displays this kind of intensity, if you ask me. White Material may not resonate with Americans quite so much as we don’t wrestle with the same colonial issues that Europeans do, at least not to the same extent (we have our own demons that are often on display in our movies). Still, this is one of those hidden gems that any serious film lover should go out of their way to seek out.

WHY RENT THIS: Huppert gives a riveting performance. Beautiful cinematography. Some very symbolic shots will have you working this one over in your head for weeks.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The flashback storytelling method left me cold.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes are pretty adult. There is also some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second movie that Denis filmed in Cameroon, the first being Chocolat.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Released on DVD as a Criterion Edition, there is an illustrated booklet, There is also a featurette on Denis’ return to Cameroon at the local film festival to screen the move for locals but also for those who worked on the film, many of whom who had never seen it which proved to be a daunting task as Cameroon has nary a single movie theater.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $304, 020 in the U.S. on an unreported production budget; the movie in all likelihood was profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nowhere in Africa

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Prometheus

John Carter


 

John Carter

Taylor Kitsch is stunned when Lynn Collins gives him the box office numbers.

(2012) Science Fiction (Disney) Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, Willem Dafoe, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Polly Walker, Bryan Cranston, Thomas Hayden Church, Rupert Frazer, Nicholas Woodeson, David Schwimmer, Jon Favreau. Directed by Andrew Stanton

 

As a young boy my father introduced me to Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Tarzan books. I read all of them eagerly, but it was the Barsoom series that intrigued me the most. I wasn’t alone in this – notable writers such as Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein were also heavily influenced by the books, as was scientist Carl Sagan. It has taken more than 79 years of development – from a proposed feature length animation – for the book to finally make the screen.

There is good reason for that. Burroughs had a terrific imagination but was not a gifted writer in many ways. His books were more like travelogues, particularly this series and the plot meandered quite a bit. I can imagine potential screenwriters being plenty frustrated by the lack of inertia as they tried to adapt A Princess of Mars, the first book in the series. At last however, they managed to and the result is one of the more anticipated movies of the Spring.

Ned Burroughs (Sabara) is summoned to the home of his Uncle only to find out that he had passed away shortly before Ned arrived. The instructions left for Ned were cryptic; his Uncle wished to be buried in a crypt that could only be opened from the inside, and a journal was entrusted to Ned which was not to be read for two years.

Ned being a compliant sort follows his Uncle’s wishes to the letter and then begins to read the journal. His uncle, John Carter (Kitsch) had been a cavalry officer in the American Civil War and a good one – but his side had lost. Carter had lost a lot more than that however; his wife and daughter perished in a fire while he was away from his Virginia farm and the grief-stricken Carter went West to find his fortune, a cave of gold that would set him up for life.

He finds that cave, but a lot more as well; a strange bald man with an amulet that transports Carter to Mars accidentally. Well, at first he doesn’t realize he’s on Mars; he just thinks he’s in the desert somewhere. Oddly, he is able to leap great distances (owing to the gravity). Carter is found and captured by green men with four arms and tusks who call themselves Tharks. This particular group is led by Tars Tarkas (Dafoe),who spares Carter because of his amazing leaping ability which Tarkas thinks might be useful. Carter, however, isn’t disposed towards fighting for anybody. He is given to Sola (Morton), a Thark who has a somewhat checkered past but like Tarkas, a good heart.

There is a civil war going on here as well, between two city-states – Helium, led by the noble Tardos Mors (Hinds) and Zodanga, led by the bloodthirsty Sab Than (West). The Zodangans have developed a high tech energy beam that is a devastating weapon wiping out most of the navy of Helium. In order to put the war to a halt, Mors offers Sab Than his own daughter in marriage – Dejah Thoris (Collins).

Despite being a princess, Dejah Thoris is also quite the scientist and warrior herself, not to mention having a will of her own. She has her own ideas of what she wants for her life and they don’t include being married to a bloodthirsty tyrant she has no feelings for. So she does the sensible thing – she runs away. Her intended also does the sensible thing – engages in a battle with her floating barge and shoots it down. She is saved by John Carter and his new friends the Tharks. Seeing how strong he is and how high he can jump gives her ideas – ideas that can lead to an end to war but on Helium’s terms.

However, unbeknownst to either of them there are factions within the Tharks who have a vested interest in Carter meeting an untimely end. Also the Zodangans are getting aid by a mysterious group of wizards who mean to maintain the balance on Mars the old-fashioned way – by installing a puppet dictator who will put an end to strife and rule over the dying planet with an iron fist. However, their plans won’t come to fruition if John Carter has anything to do with it.

Stanton is known for his work with animated features at Pixar – he has already directed Finding Nemo and Wall-E, the latter one of my favorite movies of the last few years. This is his first live feature (although given that a good chunk of his cast is CGI as is much of his environment, it isn’t far from an animated feature) and he acquits himself fairly well. He knows how to tell a good story.

The trouble is, A Princess of Mars isn’t a particularly good story. Once you get past the novelty of being transported to Mars, Carter doesn’t really do a whole lot other than fight and give stirring speeches and Thoris is little more than a damsel in distress. At least both characters are better written here, particularly Thoris.

The problem is that Taylor Kitsch, best-known for his work in “Friday Night Lights,” doesn’t carry the character well. Sure he looks good shirtless (which Carter is for most of the movie) but honestly the movie needs a lead who can do more than jump and posture. John Carter needs to inspire confidence and project heroism and Kitsch does neither. Bill Goodykoontz of the Arizona Republic characterized him as “generic” and that is a perfect description of his performance.

Collins fares better. She might be guilty of trying too hard sometimes but at least she doesn’t phone her performance in (as others do here). She at least makes her character memorable which is hard to do in a movie like this sort.

Too often these days adventure/action films of this sort place an overreliance on special effects and little or none on character. What point is there to all these pretty images if we don’t care about the characters who inhabit them? Sure, the cities and aircraft of Barsoom (Mars) are amazing to look at. The Tharks are impressively realistic. The interiors are sufficiently alien. The movie looks nice.

The action sequences are pretty fine as well, from an arena scene in which Tars Tarkas, Sola and Carter fight a Martian white ape (which is gigantic, furry and not at all ape-like) to a battle aboard a barge where Carter goes leaping about like the Incredible Hulk. That leaping, by the way, is a little bit distracting – it looks silly in places.

Still, while definitely flawed it’s kind of fun as well. If your expectations are too high you’re bound to be disappointed – and quite frankly being a fan of the original novel, I had hoped for better even though I shouldn’t have. After all, as I said earlier, this isn’t an easy story to film.

That doesn’t mean this isn’t worth seeing though, and it most certainly is. There is a lot to admire here, from the vistas and cityscapes to the old-fashioned swashbuckling. Yeah, there are ray guns and swords and sorcery and flying ships and bare-chested heroes – I just wish there might have been a bit more to the characters as well.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of swashbuckling action. Some pretty nifty CG effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Little to no substance. Battle sequences often confusing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence, not to mention a good deal of royal blue blood and ichors.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the movie was filmed in Utah because of its barren landscape with unusual rock formations giving it an otherworldly look. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote A Princess of Mars on which the movie is based while residing in Utah.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100. The reviews are about as mixed as you can get them.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

DOG LOVERS: You wouldn’t think there would be dogs on Mars but there is an adorable dog-like creature that runs unbelievably fast. Like, autobahn fast.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: A Thousand Words

Gangs of New York


Gangs of New York

A more dapper group of gents you will never meet.

(2002) Historical Drama (Miramax) Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Gary Lewis, Stephen Graham, Eddie Marsan, David Hemmings, Cara Seymour. Directed by Martin Scorsese

 

It’s a myth that immigrants have always been welcomed to America with open arms. Immigrants have all too often been sneered at, spat upon and been the victims of violence. Still, nobody can argue that immigrants were the bricks that built America. Every European-descended American citizen has an immigrant somewhere in their family tree. Gangs of New York is a story of some of those who built modern America, and it isn’t pretty.

In the mid-1800s, Priest Vallon (Neeson) wants his Irish comrades in the Five Points section of New York to be left alone. He wants freedom from the harassment of the Nativists, led by “Butcher” Bill Cutting (Day-Lewis). The two warring factions decide to settle their differences the old-fashioned way — on the field of battle.

Vallon is backed by his lieutenant, Happy Jack (Reilly) and the mercenary Monk McGinn (Gleeson) who fight passionately but to no avail – the Nativists carry the day after Cutting cuts down the Priest. Vallon’s son is taken away to Hellgate to be raised as an orphan.

Forward to 1862. The Civil War is in full fury, and the word of the day is conscription. Irish immigrants continue to pour into New York, at a rate of 15,000 a week; ongoing for the 15 years since the potato famine of Black ’47. The son of Vallon, Amsterdam (DiCaprio) has grown to manhood and intends to infiltrate Butcher Bill’s gang, and then strike at his father’s killer when the time is right. Amsterdam meets a thief and cutpurse, Jenny Everdeane (Diaz) from whom he initially recoils, but the two fall deeply in love true to Hollywood form.

Cutting has made an alliance with Boss Tweed (Broadbent) of Tammany Hall to deliver crucial votes in the upcoming election in exchange for political protection. However, the coming conscription is making everyone uneasy. Many don’t want to fight for the rights of blacks, who are despised nearly as much as the Irish.

Still, Amsterdam quickly becomes one of Butcher Bill’s best men, and the gang leader takes a liking to the young man, in almost a father-son relationship. Eventually, he discovers the true identity of Amsterdam and all hell breaks loose, leading to a confrontation. Unfortunately, the two leaders pick a bad day for a fight – a riot has broken over the conscription act, and federal troops move in. A fight for survival becomes even more harrowing.

Director Martin Scorsese does an incredible job of evoking 1862 New York City. He establishes a realistic depiction, down to the language and idioms of the dialogue. The costumes, the sets, all reek of authenticity. Of course, there is a great deal of violence, which is to be expected. There is also a surprising amount of nudity, particularly in the bordellos where some of the movie is takes place.

The cast is marvelous. Daniel Day-Lewis gives his most electrifying performance since The Last of the Mohicans and one of his finest ever, pointing out what a shame it is he doesn’t do more movies. DiCaprio doesn’t have to carry this movie due to Day-Lewis’ presence and as a result delivers a more relaxed performance, paving the way for a long association between him and Scorsese. Reilly, Broadbent, Gleeson and Henry Thomas (as a friend of Amsterdam’s) all do solid work.

The problem here is the love story. It’s extraneous, and detracts from the movie overall. The Jenny Everdeane character exists only to be DiCaprio’s love interest, and doesn’t contribute much to the story. It’s billed as a love triangle, but the movie would have worked just as well, if not better, without it. Some of the 2-hour, 46-minute run time could easily have been excised.

Martin Scorsese is considered by some to be the greatest American film director of all time, and Gangs of New York does nothing to diminish that claim; in fact, over the years it’s become a movie that many consider to be one of his finest – certainly it stands up well with some of his better-known movies like Taxi Driver and The Departed. It’s an amazing epic that never averts its eyes from the seamier sides of the story, but refuses to wallow in them either.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing performance by Day-Lewis. Perfect capture of an era long gone. One of Scorsese’s finest and that’s saying quite a lot.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A superfluous love triangle. Runs a little bit too long.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a whole lot of violence, some of it quite graphic. There’s also some sexuality and a surfeit of nudity, along with a few curse words.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The sets of old New York were actually built on the lot at Cinecitta studios in Rome. George Lucas visited the set during filming and reportedly said to Scorsese “You know, sets like that can be done with computers now.”

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s a 30-minute Discovery Channel documentary on the real gangs of New York, a U2 music video, a featurette on the Five Points area where the filmwas set, and a featurette on the immense sets at Cinecitta with Scorsese conducting a personal tour of the sets and relating stories from the production.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $193.8M on a $100M production budget; the film was just shy of breaking even during it’s theatrical run, although it almost certainly turned a profit on it’s home video release.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Arbitrage

Seraphim Falls


Seraphim Falls

Pierce Brosnan discovers you need a lake in order to go ice fishing.

(2006) Western (Goldwyn) Pierce Brosnan, Liam Neeson, Michael Wincott, Anjelica Huston, Xander Berkeley, Ed Lauter, Tom Noonan, Kevin J. O’Connor, John Robinson, Angie Harmon, Wes Studi. Directed by David von Ancken

There are things that can’t be left alone, cheeks that cannot be turned. There are crimes so heinous that they cannot stand and if we can’t get justice in the conventional way, we must find a way of seeking it ourselves.

Gideon (Brosnan) is a trapper in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada roasting his dinner over the fire when a shot rings out. Gideon is shot in the shoulder. Not knowing where his assailants are, he tumbles down the mountain, taking as many of his things as he can. He flees to a secluded spot and builds a fire, digging out the bullet from his shoulder with a hunting knife and then heating up the blade to cauterize the wound.

We find out that the pursuer is Carver (Neeson), who has with him a posse of four grim men. While some of his company thinks Gideon is dead, Carver knows he isn’t. They spread out to try and find him – which turns out to be a mistake as Gideon jumps one of the posse and kills him.

Gideon escapes from the mountains and attempts to steal a horse from a homesteader. He is discovered but his wound prompts the family to give him shelter. Realizing that the posse is on its way, Gideon steals a horse anyway. He makes it to a railroad camp where the foreman, recognizing the horse, detains him. He manages to get away and steal another horse and rides into the desert. There he will have his final reckoning with his pursuers. Who will emerge alive?

Westerns are not the most popular of genres these days and quite frankly, the problem with them has been that a lot of the stories are somewhat derivative. This one smells a lot like The Outlaw Josie Wales in construction, and that bothered me a bit. As the film progresses, we get to see why Carver is chasing Gideon (and to be fair, the reason is pretty compelling) and your sympathies begin to shift from Gideon to Carver – but this film is much less successful at making the vengeance seeker seem sympathetic as we were for Josie Wales.

But you can’t really complain all that much when you have an Oscar-winning cinematographer like John Toll at your disposal and he doesn’t disappoint, giving us vistas of snowy mountains, dusty railroad camps and dry, barren deserts. It is as beautiful-looking a film as you’re likely to see.

There are also some close-ups of hideous wounds that will turn the stomach of the squeamish, so be warned about that. However, even the squeamish will enjoy the acting performances here. Brosnan is guttural in his speech resembling Clint Eastwood crossed with Brando in a way, his face careworn and grizzled. The deeds of his past are apparent in his eyes. Brosnan has always had the reputation of being more of a pretty face than a good actor, but since leaving his former job as Bond he has become a pretty decent actor.

Neeson, on the other hand, has always had a good reputation since day one; only lately has he become an action hero. He broods with the best of them and as a wronged man there are few better at inspiring sympathy, although strangely enough he is so brutal early on it is hard to get behind him when the reason for his pursuit is revealed.

The two are supported by a surprisingly solid group of character actors, including Lauter and Wincott as members of Carver’s posse, Studi as a fast-talking Indian trader, Huston as a snake-oil saleswoman and Harmon in a brief appearance as a loyal wife. Von Ancken, who has extensive television experience in his background, does a decent job with the movie but at the end of the day, doesn’t really add anything to a story that’s already been done before.

Part of the problem with filming westerns is that there are fewer and fewer locations to shoot them in. That is sad in a big way – westerns have a lot to offer and it’s a pity that more of them aren’t made. While the movie is set shortly after the Civil War (which figures heavily into the plot), this is definitely a movie about the West and not the war, although the director has stated that this is an anti-war film with parallels in our current Iraqi conflict.

In all honesty, I couldn’t see those parallels except in a very broad, very general sense. I tended to prefer the first half of the movie which was action-packed and featured Gideon getting out of one situation after another, over the second part where there was more of a 70s acid western feel to the film. If either of those scenarios suit you, by all means rent away. If not, keep on riding cowboy.

WHY RENT THIS: Awesome cinematography and nice performances from Brosnan and Neeson, as well as the fine character actors in the supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Odd near-hallucinatory sequences near the end of the movie detract from it.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and some brief language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first Western for both Brosnan and Neeson who in separate interviews said they really loved shooting this film because of their mutual love for the genre as kids.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.2M on an unreported production budget; I’m betting this probably lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Bad Teacher

Incendies


Incendies

Lubna Azabal wants a bigger percentage of the gross - and she's not going to take no for an answer!

(2010) Drama (Sony Classics) Lubna Azabal, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulim, Maxim Gaudette, Remy Girard, Abdelghafour Elaaziz, Allan Altman, Mohamed Majd, Nabil Sawalha, Baya Belal, Yousef Shweihat. Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Our relationships with our parents can be complicated to say the least. Often we forget that they too are flesh and blood people who lived lives before we were even a gleam in their eyes – that they were once young and passionate, and lived through times both good and bad. Sometimes, we just don’t know our parents at all.

Twins Simon (Gaudette) and Jeanne (Desormeaux-Poulim) are summoned to the office of their late mother’s employer Jean Lebel (Girard), who happens to be a notary. He has, he informs them, been named executor of their mother’s will. She has asked to be buried naked and face down without a headstone or a name plate. Instead, the twins are given two envelopes – one addressed to the father they thought was dead, the other addressed to the brother they didn’t know they had. Once those envelopes are delivered, then she could be properly buried.

Simon, who obviously has some issues with his mommy, refuses to play her games but Jeanne, who is a graduate student in mathematics and deals with insolvable problems, has to fill in the blanks that have suddenly appeared in her life. She decides to retrace her mother’s steps, back to the unnamed and fictional Middle Eastern country (that is most likely based on Lebanon) where her mother was born.

There we find that her mother, Nawal Marwan (Azabal), was born a Christian in a country where Muslims and Christians don’t really play together well. She falls in love with a Muslim who gets her pregnant which is a no-no. After giving birth, she is forced to leave her village and stay with her uncle in the city of Daresh, where he is a newspaper editor and she attends university while her newborn is left in an orphanage. Years later when civil war breaks out between the Christians and the Muslims, she goes on a journey to find her son, one that will take her through as much suffering as it is possible for a human being to witness.

This may sound like a very dark tale and certainly it is grim in places, but it is also very uplifting. The movie is driven by the things that divide us, but the powerful element of forgiveness is also very much present.

Villeneuve proves himself to be not only an adept director, but potentially an elite one with his marvelous storycrafting here. The movie begins with a somewhat scattered feeling and as the movie continues, the threads begin to emerge into a pattern until at last the big picture comes into focus. The twist that brings it all together is a doozy; there were audible gasps at the screening I attended.

Azabal is a tremendous actress who starts out very emotional, wearing her feelings openly but becoming more guarded as the movie progresses (it’s a defense mechanism). That’s the opposite of how movie characters usually progress, and kudos to her and Villeneuve for pulling it off. Nawal is a complex women, one who has been through a great deal of trauma, who has seen men at their worst (Christian militiamen with pictures of the Virgin Mary on the butts of their guns massacring a busload of Muslim women) and yet manages to find a way through to grace, which she achieves near the end of her life and by sending her children on this journey, allows them to achieve it as well.

There are certainly socio-political elements to the movie as well, with a good hard look at the prejudices and hatreds of a region that seems doomed to wallow in it forever. Yet, there is great beauty there, and the warmth of family and hospitality that makes watching the country descend into the madness of religious civil war all the more heartbreaking.

This is one of the most provocative movies you’ll see this year. It was the favorite to win the Best Foreign Language Oscar this year, although it wound up losing to In a Better World – both movies are about equally as good, to my mind and both deserved it. This movie, however, gets a bit of an edge when it comes to the issues raised and the character of Nawal, who is as extraordinary a woman as you’re likely to meet in the theater this year.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances and terrific images.

REASONS TO STAY: It takes a bit of patience to get on board.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some pretty intense violence not to mention a good deal of foul language and a twist with an extremely adult theme.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The stage play that the movie is based on premiered in France on March 14, 2003 in France and the title translates to “Scorched.”

HOME OR THEATER: I’d see this on a big screen if you can find it.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: An Education

The Conspirator


The Conspirator

Robin Wright's bodyguards have had enough of her Civil War fetish.

(2010) Historical Drama (Roadside Attractions) James McAvoy, Robin Wright, Justin Long, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Colm Meaney, Evan Rachel Wood, Alexis Bledel, Toby Kebbell, Danny Huston, Stephen Root, James Badge Dale, Johnny Simmons, Norman Reedus, Jonathan Groff, Marcus Hester. Directed by Robert Redford

Sometimes in the course of a nation great events take place that change everything. Sometimes these events are terrible tragedies in which the nation’s safety is compromised. Is it during these times when the essence of that nation must be compromised in order to maintain the nation’s safety?

Such a time would be the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Simultaneous attempts on the lives of Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward were also made, unsuccessfully. It was immediately apparent that the heinous actions were the results of a conspiracy, at the head of which was actor John Wilkes Booth (Kebbell).

Booth had met at the boarding house of Mary Surratt (Wright) with her son John (Simmons) and fellow conspirators David Herold (Hester) and Lewis Payne (Reedus). When Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kline) essentially took over the government, he had the lot of them arrested including Mrs. Surratt. Only her daughter Anna (Wood) was spared.

The conspirators were brought before a military tribunal presided over by General David Hunter (Meaney) and prosecuted by Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt (Huston). The mood of the country was such that few lawyers wanted to risk their careers representing them. However Maryland Senator Reverdy Johnson (Wilkinson) agreed to represent Mrs. Surratt, assigning the case to his associate Frederick Aiken (McAvoy), a hero of the Union Army.

Aiken is loathe to represent Surratt, feeling her guilty – if she didn’t know what was going on under her own roof with her own son then by God she should have – and this feeling is echoed by his good friends Nicholas Baker (Long) and William Hamilton (Dale), as well as his sweetheart Sarah Weston (Bledel). Gradually, Aiken raises some doubts about Mrs. Surratt’s guilt and is certainly disturbed by the apparent railroading of the boarding house owner by Stanton for political purposes. He will give up friendships, his career and a potential marriage in order to save her.

Redford is a first-class director who doesn’t make a whole lot of movies but when he does they’re always interesting and this is no exception. Said to be historically accurate with the transcripts of the trial providing dialogue, he creates the atmosphere and look of post-Civil War Washington meticulously.

As you’d expect with a movie being directed by Redford, there’s a first-rate cast. McAvoy is the lead here and he does his usual strong job. It becomes necessary for him to change from stiff-necked and unyielding to having doubts about not only the guilt of his clients but also of the means by which they are being tried. Wilkinson plays a savvy politician who distances himself from the trial while keeping true to his convictions. Wilkinson is another terrific character actor who specializes in playing characters reacting to moral dilemmas. He may be soft-spoken but he projects a great deal of power.

Wright, who has dropped the Penn from her name since divorcing Sean, plays Surratt enigmatically which is as it should be because so little is known about the woman. She is a fiercely protective mother (repeatedly telling Aiken not to besmirch her son’s name in order to save her) and a proud Southern sympathizer. Whether or not she actually plotted Lincoln’s assassination is not known to history – although David Herold, who attacked Seward, reportedly insisted she was innocent – but one gets the feeling Redford and Solomon believed she was.

There are modern parallels for this story, particularly in our handling of the prisoners at Gitmo and Al-Gharib, as well as the freedoms we’ve given up in the name of security. As 9-11 has irrevocably changed us as a nation, so too did the Lincoln assassination. History tells us that the process of reconstruction was spearheaded by radical elements in the Republican Party which was far more interested in punishing the South and creating economic opportunities for Northern business interests than in re-integrating the Confederate states back into the Union. As a result, the Southern economy would be in shambles for decades, carpetbaggers would loot the former Confederate states, education would lag to the point where the cotton belt states continue to be among the worst in measurable education statistics even today and a rift between South and North would continue to divide the country in many ways throughout the years through now.

Lincoln certainly would have chosen a different path to reconstruction; one that would have been forgiving and welcoming. His assassination by Booth would have far-reaching consequences for this nation and for the South in particular. How our handling of Iraqi prisoners, how we react to the eroding of our freedoms are going to have far-reaching consequences for our future. This is not only a historic drama, it is also a cautionary tale.

REASONS TO GO: Even though I knew what Surratt’s fate was, I was still on the edge of my seat. Relevant not only in a historical sense but also for today’s events.

REASONS TO STAY: I get the sense that Redford and screenwriter James D. Solomon were making assumptions about Suratt’s guilt/innocence.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first production of the American Film Company, a production company dedicated to making movies about the United States that are historically accurate.  

HOME OR THEATER: While much of the movie takes place in enclosed spaces, it still has the grand epic sweep that requires a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Water for Elephants

The Painted Veil


The Painted Veil

An idyllic moment amidst disease, chaos, mistrust, infidelity and death - just another day at the office.

(2006) Period Drama Based on Literature (Warner Independent) Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Liev Schreiber, Diana Rigg, Toby Jones, Catherine An, Anthony Wong, Bin Li, Marie-Laure Descoureaux, Juliet Howland, Sally Hawkins, Maggie Steed. Directed by John Curran

Based on the Somerset Maugham novel, this is a story about betrayal and redemption set against the magnificent backdrop of a China in flux. It is also a pretty damn good movie.

Dr. Walter Fane (Norton) is a bacteriologist who finds working with microbes far easier than dealing with human beings. He is closed-off, a little bit cold and awkward. That doesn’t mean, however, that he isn’t passionate. The first time he sees Kitty (Watts), he falls head over heels.

Unfortunately, Kitty doesn’t feel the same way. Still, she’s feeling increasingly trapped in her jazz-age London home, with stifling parents, particularly an overbearing mother (Steed) who has absolutely no confidence in her. Once the impulsive Fane proposes, Kitty is inclined to say no but an overheard conversation prompts Kitty to change her mind, if no other reason than to escape her mother.

Fane can offer that to her. After all, he works for the British government at their laboratory in Shanghai. It is an exotic posting, one with a good deal to distinguish it. Kitty doesn’t see it that way, however. For her, it’s merely trading one hell for another. Walter tries to indulge her in her gossip and games, but he clearly isn’t interested. Kitty quickly becomes bored and lonely.

She meets vice-consul Charlie Townsend (Schreiber), a passionate man who is everything Walter is not – impulsive, sexy, outgoing and charming. The two quickly become involved in a torrid affair. However, Walter finds out about it. While he doesn’t go berserk, he is infuriated and humiliated. Determined to inflict his own pain on his wife, he gives her an ultimatum. She may either accept a divorce, or accompany her husband to a small village in China’s interior that has been stricken by a cholera epidemic, which Walter has volunteered to go in and assist. He does give her a way out – if Charlie agrees to divorce his wife and marry Kitty, Walter will accept a quiet divorce to allow the lovers to be together. However, Walter knows – and Kitty ultimately has her naiveté shattered – that Charlie will do no such thing.

It takes nearly two weeks for the Fanes to arrive in the village, and the situation there is grim. The populace is dropping like flies, the French Catholic orphanage is filled with orphaned children – as well as children dying from the same disease – and already distrustful of foreigners, the people of the village are a powderkeg ready to blow. They are met by a somewhat rumpled civil servant named Waddington (Jones) who proves to be a sympathetic ear for Kitty, while the orphanage’s Mother Superior (Rigg) is something of a mother figure for her. Soon, she begins to see her husband in a whole new light, provoking changes in herself. Will Walter be able to forgive her and see how she has changed, or will the disease or the angry Nationalists cut them down before there’s time?

This is a beautifully shot movie, utilizing gorgeous Chinese backdrops nicely. You really get a terrific sense of the British foreign service in the 1920s, with all the arrogance and tunnel-vision that was present in the day. Director Curran makes what is a fairly dry and dusty novel live and breathe on the screen – Ron Nyswaner’s screenplay also helps see to that.

Norton, who hasn’t had a sub-par performance in a very long time, delivers another noteworthy job as Walter. He is stiff and reserved, his body language reflecting it every step of the way. While his British accent is a little dicey, he nonetheless inhabits the role well, making Walter a bit more sympathetic than he was in the novel, where he came off much more viciously.

Watts was a little overwhelmed by the part, I think. She’s not a bad actress, but I was less entranced with her Kitty. Kitty needs to be a very spoiled, extremely immature young girl who behaves impulsively and rashly, the very antithesis of Walter. Norton and Watts also deliver very little chemistry, which is perhaps the most glaring negative in the movie. They are supposed to come together by the end of the movie, but I don’t get that sense. They seem to merely accept each other more than embrace each other. That makes the final scenes a bit less powerful than they might have been otherwise.

Still, there is a magnificent epic quality to the film that makes me wish I’d seen it on the big screen, but it frankly didn’t get a lot of buzz when it came out and it got lost amongst all the holiday movies and Oscar contenders that were released at around the same time. Still, this is definitely worth seeing. Norton is wonderful, the script and cinematography are breathtaking and the movie captures the period well. If you use movies to transport you to another place and time, one you could not ordinarily be able to get to on your own, then your magic carpet awaits you.

REASONS TO RENT: Another fine Edward Norton performance. Gorgeous cinematography. An intelligent script based on a classic Somerset Maugham novel.

REASONS TO RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Naomi Watts doesn’t quite nail her role. Chemistry between leads is lacking.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of a village ravaged by disease and civil war, as well as partial nudity and depictions of drug use. Parents might want to think twice about letting their younger children see this, although for older teens it might make a fine introduction to the works of Maugham as well as to colonial-era China.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: During filming, Norton injured his back when his horse threw him onto some rocks. He didn’t seek proper medical treatment until shooting concluded and he returned to Hong Kong. It turned out that he had fracutred three vertebrae in his back.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26.5M on an unreported production budget. Since the filmmakers received financial assistance from a Chinese production company, it is likely that the studio made money on this venture.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Love and Other Drugs

Jonah Hex


Jonah Hex

You have to wonder if Josh Brolin didn't just take a blowtorch to his career.

(Warner Brothers) Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, Megan Fox, Michael Fassbender, Will Arnett, Michael Shannon, Tom Wopat, Aidan Quinn, Wes Bentley, John Gallagher Jr., Julia Jones, Luke James Fleischmann, Rio Hackford, Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Directed by Jimmy Hayward

We all have a reason to get up out of bed every morning. Be it love, career or cause, there is something that motivates us to keep going even when the going gets rough. For some that cause is vengeance.

Jonah Hex (Brolin) was an officer in the Confederate Army under the command of General Quentin Turnbull (Malkovich) but when the General ordered the burning of a hospital with innocent women and children inside it. Jonah balks at this and betrays Turnbull to the Union Army. As a result of this, Hex is forced to kill Jeb Turnbull (Morgan), the son of the General.

As you might guess, the General doesn’t cotton to this very well. He finds Jonah and ties him to a cross, then makes him watch as he burns Jonah’s wife and son to death. That General Turnbull, he sure has a thing for burning women and children alive. Just in case Jonah forgets who is responsible for the death of his family, General puts a branding iron on the side of Jonah’s face while the General’s Irish right hand man Burke (Fassbender) holds him down.

Jonah is left on the cross to die, but was rescued by members of the Crow nation whose medicine men were able to bring back Jonah to this side. Jonah came back hideously scarred but with the ability to converse with the dead. That comes in handy since the dead can see where those they trafficked with in life are.

Jonah becomes a bounty hunter but after killing a corrupt mayor and his sheriff in the lovely mining town (if you can really call it that) of Stunk Crick, he finds himself with a bounty on his own head. Naturally, he does what any self-respecting bounty hunter would do in a situation like that – go visit a prostitute with a heart of gold, namely the fetching Lilah (Fox) who carries a torch for Jonah. She also carries a derringer and a knife. She may have a heart of gold but she’s also practical.

Their rendezvous is interrupted by about a dozen Union soldiers (Jonah’s withering bon mot – “How many men are you seein’ today?”) who get Jonah’s co-operation by telling him three words; Quentin Turnbull’s alive.

You see, everybody had assumed that Turnbull had perished in a hotel fire but it turns out that he had faked his death. You’d think someone able to communicate with the dead would have better intel about who had passed on and who hadn’t. In any case, the U.S. Army had determined that Turnbull was assembling a superweapon designed by Eli Whitney, inventor of the Cotton Gin and was planning to use it against the United States on the occasion of its Centennial celebration. President Ulysses Grant (Quinn) thinks that Jonah Hex is the best bet at stopping that wacky General, who not only likes to burn women and children but sure can’t let go of a grudge. Can someone who has cheated death so often do so once again?

I really wanted to love this movie, and I had high hopes that I would. After all, Josh Brolin has been hot as of late, with terrific performances in No Country for Old Men, W. And Milk all increasing his bankability as an actor. This looked to create his genre profile and maybe put a franchise character under his belt.

Alas, it is not to be. While the script writers Neveldine and Taylor are some of the most innovative action film writers in the business (they wrote and directed both Crank films), they missed the mark here. Early on there’s a nifty animated sequence, and the dead guy interrogation sequences are pretty cool, but this feels slopped together. The heavy metal score gives it a kind of steampunk feel but the doomsday weapon, which features a kind of rotating cannon firing device that shoots big iron balls that are detonated by an orange glowing bocce ball, is nonsensical and not really impressive.

As kind of an aside, I think there’s a trend here that any movie that depicts Ulysses Grant as president turns into a major bomb – first there was The Legend of the Lone Ranger, then the misfire that was the remake of Wild, Wild West and now the box office receipts for this one were anemic. Screenwriters, take note.

Brolin does a credible enough job as Hex, mainly having to squint, snarl and drawl his lines in a Clint Eastwood-esque rasp. You get a sense of his pain and his violent nature, and while Neveldine and Taylor do try to give Hex a bit of backstory, Brolin’s narration gives us more insight into the character than we might have had otherwise.

Malkovich is a capable villain, although this is probably not his best bad guy role (that would be In the Line of Fire) and Fox is easy enough on the eyes in her Victorian boudoir fashions that she wears throughout.

There are lots of explosions – most of the budget seems to have gone to pyro. It’s a shame we didn’t see more story here. The movie clocks in at a mere 81 minutes, so there was room for more exposition but I get the impression that story was sacrificed for pacing here.

Jonah Hex comes from the realm of DC Comics and I find it somewhat surprising that the powers-that-be at DC have elected to greenlight a film about what has to be characterized as one of their minor characters over better-known characters such as Wonder Woman, the Flash and the Teen Titans, none of which have had a chance to shine on the big screen as of yet. Given the talent both in front of and behind the camera, I would have expected a better movie than the one we got here, which does little to establish DC Comics as a player in Hollywood the way Marvel Comics is. It’s too bad; the story of Jonah Hex is a compelling one and with a little more focus, this could have been a really good movie instead of a mediocre one.

REASONS TO GO: The movie isn’t as bad as you heard it is.

REASONS TO STAY: It’s still a mess. Story seems to have been sacrificed at the altar of pacing.

FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of violence, a little bit of bad language and a little bit of sexual innuendo. Okay for teens but probably not for much younger than that.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Along with veteran film composer Marco Beltrami, heavy metal band Mastodon composed the film’s score.

HOME OR THEATER: Chances are this will be gone from theaters by next weekend but quite frankly it’ll look a lot better on the big screen than the small.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Burma VJ

The Warlords (Tau Ming Chong)


The Warlords

A blood oath is taken.

(Magnet) Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Jinglei Xu, Bao-ming Gu, Xiaodong Guo, Zhaoqi Shi, Dong Dong Wang, Kuirong Wang, Zongwang Wei, Bo Zhou. Directed by Peter Chan

Blood brotherhood is not a bond to be taken lightly. It is a vow that infers a relationship that is as close – if not closer – than blood. It is a bond that lasts until death.

In the 1860s China was in the throes of its own civil war. The Taipeng Rebellion had torn the country in two and the weak, ineffectual Ching Dynasty was hampered by political bickering and in-fighting from gathering a large, effective Imperial Army. When General Pang Quingyun (Li) leads his army into battle against the Rebels, the supporting army led by General Ho withdraws about 30 miles away and refuses to help. Pang’s army is slaughtered and he is the only survivor, escaping by playing dead which is a very shameful act in the culture of the Chinese military.

Dazed and self-described as dead inside, Pang wanders aimlessly with fellow refugees until he collapses to the ground from his injuries. He is taken pity upon by a beautiful woman named Lian (Xu), a young woman who had been sold into a brothel but had run away to avoid it. She nurses him back to health and a bond forms between them, leading to a sexual relationship. He wakes up one morning and she’s gone.

He waits for her for some time but when she doesn’t come back, he goes searching for her. He comes upon a village which, like most villages of the time is beset by extreme poverty and starvation. He sells his sword and most of his things and goes to find some sustenance. As he does, a group of bandits rides in led by the charismatic Wen-Xiang (Kaneshiro). The bandit announces that whoever should fight for them would be well-fed and proceeds to hand out food, most of which had been stolen. Wen-Xiang notices Pang’s fine boots and picks a fight. When Pang acquits himself well, Wen-Xiang invites him to join them.

Pang is taken to an even more poverty-stricken village where the bandits are holed up. They are greeted as conquering heroes by the villagers. Wen-Xiang’s brother Er-Hu (Lau) also returns at the same time. Er-Hu is the nominal leader of the bandit tribe. He takes a liking to Pang, but explains he really can’t have him stay in the village because of his military background. He agrees to let him stay the night but Pang must go in the morning.

During the evening, Pang discovers that not only is Lian in the village, she is also Er-Hu’s wife. Before he can even speak to her, the village is attacked by a group of the Ho army who steal back all of the village’s food. During the skirmish, an old woman is killed. Because the Ho army has guns (the bandits are armed only with swords, bows and arrows and farming implements), Er-Hu can do nothing.

Pang proposes that the bandits join the Ching army where at least they will be armed and fed. In this way, they can protect the village better. Er-Hu is reluctant but is at last persuaded by Wen-Xiang. The two of them, with Pang, take a blood oath to become blood brothers. Their lives will become entwined from then on, each vowing that none will harm the other on pain of death.

The three bandit warlords are taken before three lords of the Ching court, including the smooth but politically savvy Lord Jiang (Kuirong) who agrees to take the new army in, dubbing them the “Shan” brigade. Pang is made their general and they are ordered to take Chun City. A supporting army of 1,500 troops is sent to augment the 800 bandits. The general of the supporting army confides to Pang that his army is there for show only and that he won’t risk having his army annihilated by the Rebel Army and leading his Lord defenseless. Pang realizes his band of bandit brothers is on their own and through bravery and sheer guts, beats the vastly superior rebel army.

The Shan brigade is given more and more difficult tasks and as they prove successful, the scheming courtiers give it less and less support. A rift is also growing within the three Warlord brothers on how to fight, with Er-Hu wishing to fight more honorably, while Pang and Wen-Xiang leaning towards expedience and a big picture. Pang’s original goal of justice for the poor seems to be falling by the wayside, at great cost to his soul. How will these blood brothers triumph through overwhelming odds?

Very few can do big epic movies these days the way the Chinese can. It takes a great deal of organization and lots of money; less in China than is needed here (which is why these types of movies aren’t made here often). Director Chan, who is better known for romance movies, wanted to explore the love between brothers and the bond between men. It’s new territory for him and he for the most part is successful.

I also have to say a few words about Jet Li’s performance. He shows more emotional depth than he has ever shown in any movie previously and it’s a bravura, reputation-making role. He is called upon less to do the wonderful martial arts moves he is known for (although he does have a few left in him) and he is looking much older in this role than he ever has (although I think that’s intentional). Still, he shows the shame at some of the deeds he’s done, the anger and frustration at the political gamesmanship that is costing tens of millions of lives, and the love he feels for Lian. It’s definitely the kind of thing that can change people’s perception of him.

In fact, this is well-acted across the board. The relationships, particularly those among Pang, Er-Hu and Wen-Xiang, are totally believable and if that central relationship doesn’t work onscreen, the movie falls apart.

Needless to say the relationship works. While the pacing of the movie drags somewhat in the middle third, when the pacing picks up the movie is at its best. The grander, epic scenes work extremely well and the scenes of the degradation and poverty of the village are extremely effective, but it is the main relationship between the three men that you will leave this movie remembering.

REASONS TO GO: Li delivers his most powerful performance yet. There is an epic scope to this that has some resonance.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie drags a bit in the middle.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of bloody violence and one scene of sexuality. Those who are sensitive to battlefield bloodshed or advised to steer clear.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on an actual unsolved murder of a government official named Ma Xinyi, but his name was changed so as not to upset his descendents, who believe their ancestor was actually a good man.

HOME OR THEATER: This is most definitely an epic and some of the scenes need a big screen to convey their power.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Max Payne