The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen


The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Sean Connery is the epitome of an extraordinary gentleman.

(2003) Action (20th Century Fox) Sean Connery, Richard Roxburgh, Peta Wilson, Stuart Townsend, Naseeruddin Shah, Tony Curran, Shane West, Jason Flemyng, Max Ryan, Tom Goodman-Hill, David Hemmings, Terry O’Neill, Rudolf Pellar, Robert Willox. Directed by Stephen Norrington

 

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, based on a wonderful graphic novel by Alan Moore, had such high expectations among its fans that almost no movie could meet them. Consequently it got terrible reviews and a great deal of Internet drubbing, which is too bad, since it’s quite a nice little movie.

The setting is just before the 20th century. The legendary African explorer and adventurer Allan Quatermain (Connery) lives a semi-retired life, having already found King Solomon’s Mines. He is recruited to save England from a madman, one who is using terrible technology to set world powers against one another in an effort to start a World War.

Queen Victoria is very much against the idea, so she has the mysterious M (Roxburgh) recruit the most extraordinary team of people she can find; Mina Harker (Wilson), who suffers from an unusual blood disease; the brilliant Captain Nemo (Shah), captain of the fabulous Nautilus; Rodney Skinner (Curran), a petty thief who happens to be invisible; and Henry Jekyll (Flemyng), who hides a hideous dark side. They also recruit the fey Dorian Grey (Townsend), a brilliant mind who has seen it all.

Attacked by the goons of their quarry, they escape with the aid of Tom Sawyer (West), a brash American Secret Service agent. Together, as a league, they journey to Venice to prevent the destruction of a peace conference. They are too late to entirely prevent the bombs from going off, but by teaming together they manage to save the city and most of its populace. They find that there is a traitor in their midst, and their adversary is not who they think he is at all.

This film has taken its share of critical abuse, and some of it is deserved. There are some definite leaps in logic; having a sub the size of the Nautilus floating in the canals of Venice is ludicrous at best. The computer-generated Mr. Hyde is dreadful. However, despite the reported problems on the set between Connery and director Stephen Norrington, Connery handles his role like a pro, making a believable Quatermain. He is gruff and irritable but absolutely money in the clutch. This is Connery’s film and he carries it well.

The atmosphere of a Victorian era slightly warped from the reality of history comes off nicely. There are plenty of terrific effects to make this big screen-friendly. The cast, once you get past Connery, is decent enough but nobody really stands out except for Townsend as Dorian Grey, channeling “Project Runway” a bit too much. Wilson, so good in the “La Femme Nikita” TV series, has plenty of screen presence but it’s not really channeled well, more the fault of the filmmakers than the actress.

Does it measure up to its source comic? Depends on what you mean. And it shouldn’t have to. Comparing a movie to a comic is like comparing a car to a plane. They are different media with different qualities. The comic book League is one of the best (IMHO) ever, and the film wisely departs from its storyline. Why compete with greatness when you can, perhaps, establish your own?  Of course, the movie doesn’t really establish greatness but it does try. Seeing all these beloved fictional characters together is a hoot, but ultimately is disappointing; you don’t get the sense of epic adventure their original tales gave us.

The movie actually did better in the global market than it did here in America. Although room is left at the end for a sequel, you will never see one. Moore has divorced himself completely from the movie, which in all fairness, he has pretty much done with every movie made on his source material. Still, it’s a wonderful concept, and the atmosphere combined with Connery as an adventure hero is enough to make this a movie worth seeing – especially inasmuch as this is, in all likelihood, Connery’s final film.

WHY RENT THIS: What is in all likelihood Connery’s final film performance is delivered with all the fire and charisma of all his previous ones. Fascinating concept. A kick to see all those beloved fictional heroes together.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks the epic spirit of adventure of the source. A bit silly in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s plenty of action violence, a few bad words scattered here and there and a bit of sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was one of the first five movies to be released on Blu-Ray by Fox.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $179.3M on a $78M production budget; despite the perception that this was a flop,it actually made a slight profit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Ice Age: Continental Drift

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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

Gladiator


Gladiator

Gladiators do battle...or is that the WWE?

(DreamWorks) Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Honsou, Tomas Arana, Ralf Moeller, David Schofield, John Shrapnel, David Hemmings. Directed by Ridley Scott

When everything that we love is taken from us we have two choices. We can wallow in our pain and let it overwhelm us, or we can do everything in our power to take what revenge we can. That revenge may take the form of retribution, or merely of survival – of learning how to rebuild your life.

Maximus (Crowe) is a general in the Roman army, much beloved by his men. He has just completed a successful campaign in Germania and has the eye of the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Harris). Aurelius is old and dying, and as happens with the old and the dying he is reflecting on the achievements of his life and has found them wanting. He wants to do the unthinkable – restore the Republic – and needs Maximus to maintain order and see to the transfer of power from the Caesar’s family to the senate, which Senator Gracchus (Jacobi) would like nothing more.

Maximus wants nothing more than to go home to Spain, to a farm with his wife and young son, and raise crops in peace. However, Aurelius’ plan doesn’t sit well with his son Commodus (Phoenix) who is heir apparent and would lose everything if Aurelius goes through with his scheme. Being “not a moral man” as his father describes him, Commodus kills his father and assumes the throne. He wants Maximus to support him but Maximus knows immediately what has happened when he sees Aurelius, whom he admired, dead in his bed and refuses. Commodus’ sister Lucilla (Nielsen) who has a thing for Maximus takes the better part of valor and supports her brother. So does Quintus (Arana), Maximus’ second-in-command who recognizes an opportunity when he sees it.

Commodus orders the execution of Maximus. Maximus begs Quintus to watch over his family, but Quintus tells him that his family will join him shortly in the afterlife. Maximus, knowing that time is of the essence, fights out of his execution and escapes but is badly wounded in the process. He races to get home but his wounds slow him down and he arrives to find his house burned and his family crucified. Maximus buries his family and collapses in despair.

He is collected by a passing slaver, and cared for by Juba (Honsou), an African slave. They’re all taken to an outlying province and sold to Proximo (Reed), a trainer of gladiators. Proximo was a former gladiator but he was given his freedom by Marcus Aurelius himself. Despite this, he resents the late Caesar because he did away with gladiator games in Rome, banishing them to the  provinces far away from the glittering center of the Empire.

Maximus at first wants no part of anything – no part of life, in fact. He just wants to hurry up and die so he can be with his family in the afterlife, but Commodus’ betrayal gnaws at him, worrying at him like a dog with a bone. Before he sees his family he must have his vengeance, and Proximo convinces him the best way to achieve that is to become Rome’s most famous gladiator, after which he will be freed and can then do what he must.

Since Maximus is fighting as “The Spaniard,” Commodus is unaware that Maximus is alive. By the time he finds out, Maximus is far too popular for him to kill – the mob that is Rome is not yet in love with Commodus, and he needs that love to maintain his hold on the Empire. The dream of Republic that Marcus Aurelius once had is still in the air, held by Lucilla and Gracchus. They hatch a plot to break Maximus out of the gladiator’s quarters and take him to his army, which he can then lead into Rome to enforce Marcus Aurelius’ dying wish. Can a slave, a gladiator, take on an entire empire and hope to win?

This was the best movie of 2000, in the eyes of the Academy (which gave it the Best Picture Oscar) and in the eyes of this critic. Director Ridley Scott resurrects the swords and sandals genre, giving it new life. CGI recreates the glory of Rome, creating magnificent vistas of Coliseum and Senate. This isn’t Rome as it was so much as we would like it to have been, but that suffices.

That said, the cinematography is curious for this movie. At times, it seems the entire movie has been filmed in overcast conditions with badly overexposed stock. I suppose that’s part of the film’s overall look in an attempt to create a period, but it just seems unnecessary to me. I guess I’m a simple kinda guy at heart.

Nothing wrong with the performances here though. Crowe and Phoenix are magnificent as antagonists; Crowe, on a roll to becoming one of the best actors in the world, is expected to do this kind of quality but what was surprising is that Phoenix held his own and at times, outdid Crowe. Still, Crowe won a Best Actor Oscar that year while Phoenix received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Oliver Reed and Richard Harris certainly could have been considered for the same nominations as well.

In many ways this was one of the first iconic movies of the 21st century. Given the note-perfect score co-composed by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard (she the voice of the magnificent but much-missed world music group Dead Can Dance) and the opening battle scene which is one of the most impressive ever filmed, it’s no wonder. While some critics thought this overblown and bloated, over-relying on CGI and brutal gladiatorial sequences, audiences adored this movie and so did I. It’s Entertainment with a capital “E” and deserves to be treated as such.

WHY RENT THIS: An essential movie from the past decade, with star-making performances by Crowe and Phoenix.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The cinematography is a bit mannered and some of the violence is a little too Peckinpah for my tastes.

FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of gore and violence, as well as some sexuality make this a bit brutal for the kiddies.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Oliver Reed had a massive heart attack with three weeks left to film and passed away. The remainder of his scenes was shot with a body double, with Reed’s head inserted digitally.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition has an extensive group of features on this two Blu-Ray disk version, including a documentary on the historical basis of various elements of the film, a History Channel special on Roman gladiators, and a feature on abandoned and deleted sequences and why they never made it to the screen.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh