Admiral (Michiel de Ruyter)


Frank Lammers smells something rotten.

Frank Lammers smells something rotten.

(2015) Historical Epic (XLRator Media) Frank Lammers, Charles Dance, Barry Atsma, Sanne Langelaar, Rutger Hauer, Derek de Lint, Roeland Fernhout, Hajo Bruins, Egbert Jan Weeber, Nils Verkooijen, Daniel Brocklebank, Colin Mace, Filip Peeters, Tygo Gernhardt, Victor Löw, Pip Pellens, Aurélie Meriel, Will Bowden, Ella-June Henrard, Lieke van Lexmond. Directed by Roel Reiné

You’ve probably not heard of Michiel de Ruyter unless you were schooled in the Netherlands or are a European history buff, but you likely should have. One of the most revered figures in Dutch history, he was a naval genius who kept his country from being invaded on several occasions by the English and the French, and at a time when his country was in political turmoil he was a stabilizing figure whom many credit for keeping his nation from plunging into civil war during a turbulent era.

As the movie opens, the 20,000 ship Dutch navy is under the command of Maarten Tromp (Hauer) but during the Battle of Scheveningen he is mortally wounded, although he does succeed in repelling the English. While King Charles (Dance) schemes in England, new prime minister Johan de Witt (Atsma) knows that the Dutch Republic, already a government teetering on the edge of a possible civil war with the Orangists, a monarchist group that wants William of Orange (Weeber) to rule, needs an admiral to defend the Netherlands from the rapacious British and their allies of convenience the French.

He recruits de Ruyter (Lammers), a stocky and unlovely man who is more interested in retiring to the country with his wife Anna (Langelaar) and two daughters. However, he is also a deeply patriotic man and is convinced by de Witt and his brilliant brother Cornelis (Fernhout) that the sailor is desperately needed.

Time and time again de Ruyter uses brilliant naval tactics to stave off the Brits while court intrigue between the de Witt brothers and the Machiavellian Kievit (de Lint) keep the Netherlands in chaos. As the years pass, the monarchist party slowly begins to take the upper hand – but will that advantage come at the expense of the entire nation?

Los Angeles Times reviewer Robert Abele characterized the movie as a Michael Bay treatment of Dutch naval history and a more succinct summation of this film couldn’t be asked for. There is a good deal of large scale mayhem, with ships being hit by cannon fire, bodies flying in the air in all sorts of directions, splinters and wood dust coating everything. Some of the warfare sequences are pretty grisly, although not as much as the depiction of a historic lynching which ends up with various body parts being pulled out of the bodies of those possibly still conscious.

For most Americans, the history is going to be a bit vague. I doubt that the average American knows anything about the Anglo-Dutch War, let alone that there was more than one. Some of the stuff I learned here about the politics of Europe in the 17th century was fascinating; certainly, I never knew any of it which goes to show you how ignorant of history we Americans really are. Of course, I love this stuff and eat it up like candy but I’m sure those moviegoers who find history to be a bore will not have the same appreciation for it that I do.

War buffs will appreciate the naval strategy that is shown here, much of it innovative for its time. The rest of us may not be quite as appreciative of the overhead shots of the deployment of ships. However, film buffs will definitely be a little hosed that the CGI of the various fleets and the damage done to them is not very impressive; there are some very fine effects houses in Europe and certainly there could have been a better job done with the special effects.

The acting is very solid. Some of the finest actors in Europe appear here. While most in America are familiar with Hauer, de Lint and Lammers are two of Holland’s most respected actors. Lammers in particular does a good job with the stocky, somewhat awkward de Ruyter who was nonetheless beloved by those who sailed under him – his men nicknamed him ‘Grandfather,” a sign of affection and respect. Lammers physically captures the look of the man but also the indomitable spirit of one of the Netherlands’ greatest heroes.

The big problem here is that the movie is way too long. It is just over two hours long and captures 24 years in the life of de Ruyter but it feels like a good half hour could have been trimmed. There are only so many naval battle scenes you can take before they start to run together. Even with that there is some solid entertainment here that with a judicious pair of scissors and a little extra dough in the effects budget might have been a lot more.

REASONS TO GO: Pretty decent production values. Lammers and cast do fine work. Insights into Dutch history most of us are unaware of here in the States.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too freaking long. The score is annoying. Underwhelming CGI
FAMILY VALUES: War violence, a graphic and gruesome lynching scene, some foul language and some sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A special version of the film was created that was less gruesome in depicting several historical deaths so that schoolchildren in the Netherlands could view the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/22/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 300: Rise of an Empire
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Agora


Agora

Rachel Weisz is looking forward to her first toga party.

(2009) Historical Drama (Newmarket) Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac, Ashraf Barhom, Michael Lonsdale, Rupert Evans, Homayoun Ershadi, Sammy Samir, Richard Durden, Omar Mostafa, Manuel Cauchi, Oshri Cohen. Directed by Alejandro Amenabar

 

As the saying goes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It is particularly dangerous when knowledge is at odds with religious fundamentalism. When a society becomes dominated by religion, knowledge becomes heresy and those who seek knowledge become heretics. That’s a perilous place to be.

Hypatia (Weisz) is a noblewoman of Alexandria in the 4th century. The daughter of Theon (Lonsdale), curator of the great library of Alexandria, she teaches at the Platonist school at the Library; while she also teaches philosophy and mathematics, it is astronomy and physics that are her passions. Her pupils Orestes (Isaac) and Synesius (Evans) would dearly like to become her passion, as would her slave Davus (Minghella). Hypatia rejects them all, preferring to channel her energies into discovery rather than into pleasing a man.

While Hypatia is a pagan (as the leaders of Alexandria were at the time), the growing cult of Christianity is becoming more and more aggressive. When pagan statues are vandalized, a group of pagans (including Theon and Orestes) go to teach the Christians a lesson in savagery. Unfortunately for them, they discover that there are far more Christians than they at first thought and whipped up into a frenzy by the street preacher Ammonius (Barhom), the Christian thugs (known as the parabolani) lay siege to the library itself. Saving the precious scrolls from destruction is just the beginning of the ordeal for Hypatia as the balance of power shifts and the search for enlightenment comes into direct conflict with dogmatic faith.

The sweep and scope of Agora matches any historical epic, from Quo Vadis to Ben-Hur and even up to the CGI-infused epics of today like Troy. Agora benefits from marvelous set design, mostly done in Malta where Gladiator was filmed and utilizing many of those who built the sets for that movie. However, this isn’t just war and blood, guts and glory – there are ideas here, a debate of faith vs. knowledge (and Amenabar sides firmly with the latter).

There are those who criticized the movie as being anti-Christian but I didn’t see it. I think Amenabar’s stance is, if anything, anti-intolerance. He also has history on his side – the library was destroyed by a Christian mob, and Christians did murder certain historical figures in the story as depicted. That’s not being anti-Christian, it’s being pro-fact.

Weisz brings dignity and elegance to the part of Hypatia. The historical Hypatia we know mostly through the descriptions of historians, most of which are admiring of her intellect. For the purposes of the movie, a lot of blanks had to be filled in and Weisz does so in a way that makes sense with what we know of the historical Hypatia, making her human and charming, but also devoted to the search for knowledge which would inevitably bring her into conflict with those who felt that knowledge should be best left alone.

The movie wound up not doing well here in the States, struggling to get distribution and then not getting a very wide release. While it was the highest-grossing movie in Spain when it was released there (and won several Spanish Oscar-equivalents), the high production costs made it very difficult for this movie to become popular and subsequently made it disregarded in some quarters. That’s a shame too – this is a movie with something to say and a passion for its subject. Besides, a historical epic done this well is exceedingly rare and as such should be treasured when one comes out. It might be too cerebral for some but personally I think a little knowledge is a good thing. Does that make me dangerous?

WHY RENT THIS: A sword and sandals film that puts ideas at the forefront. Weisz plays Hypatia with dignity and restraint..   

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Religious sorts may find the movie’s condemnation of fanaticism and fundamentalism disturbing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and implied nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Amenabar wrote the movie with Weisz in mind to play the lead.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: As part of the “making of” featurette there is a segment on the historical background of the movie which is fascinating.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $39.0M on a $70M production budget; sadly, the movie was a box office failure.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Another Year

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

Red Cliff


Red Cliff

A scene of majesty and dignity from Red Cliff as Lin Chiling approaches Zhang Fengyi's headquarters.

(Magnet) Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Chang Chen, Zhao Wei, Hu Jun, Zhang Fenyi, Lin Chiling, Shido Nakamura, You Yong, Ba Sen Zha Bu, Hou Yong, Philip Hersh (voice), Jiang Tong, Song Jia, Tong Dawei. Directed by John Woo

Chinese history is a rich and varied one, which sadly remains largely unknown in the West. One of the great events in the history of China is the Battle of Red Cliff, which took place in 209 AD during the Han Dynasty.

Cao Cao (Fenyi) is the ruthless and ambitious Prime Minister of the Han Dynasty. He has quelled rebel warlords in Northern China, successfully reuniting territory that had been fractured under years of ineffectual rule. He is the de facto ruler of China; even the Emperor quails before him. He has turned his sights to the South and two warlords who he feels are a threat to his agenda – the usurpation of the thrown for himself.

Liu Bei (Yu Yong) has been spectacularly unsuccessful as a warlord, losing battle after battle. Sun Quan is an ambitious but inexperienced ruler whose advisors have constantly counseled against battle, leading to a wide perception that Sun Quan is a coward. Cao Cao is unimpressed with either; he snorts derisively “When a loser joins forces with a coward, what can be accomplished?” at the thought of the alliance between the two squabbling Southerners.

In truth, the alliance between the two falls into his plans perfectly, giving him the excuse to invade the South. In a skirmish against Liu Bei, Liu Bei’s army is decimated, although in fairness he leaves them on the battlefield long enough to protect the civilian population of the area to flee, at the cost of his wife who dies during the conflict. Bei, knowing he cannot stand against the vast army of Cao Cao (which is said to number over 800,000) alone, sends his military strategist Zhuge Liang (Kaneshiro) to entreat Sun Quan to join forces. As expected, Sun Quan’s ministers are advising him to surrender. Liang however decides on a different route of persuasion; he wins the heart and mind of Zhou Yu (Leung), the mightiest warrior in the South and something of a mentor to Sun Quan. Zhou Yu is also married to Xiao Qiao (Chiling), a renowned beauty whom Cao Cao has had a crush on for many years.

Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu bond over a mutual love of music and the alliance is joined. The two armies encamp at a place called Red Cliff near the Yangtze River. In the meantime, Cao Cao’s flotilla approaches. Destiny awaits the victor and China one way or another will never be the same.

Director John Woo made his reputation directing action films in Hong Kong back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s before departing for a celebrated career in Hollywood, which includes such titles as Mission: Impossible II, Face Off and Broken Arrow. He has rarely attempted period dramas before and certainly none on this scale, but he pulls it off like he’s channeling Cecil B. deMille. The most expensive movie produced in Asia to date, it has been a monster hit in China, released a la Kill Bill in two parts.

The battle sequences are absolutely amazing. Soldiers march in formations with shields interlocked to protect from arrows which rain down from the sky in a downpour of death. Fire is used in spectacular fashion, rolling across ships and men in waves. Visually, this is eye candy of the highest order.

The friendship of Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang are at the center of the story and Kaneshiro and Leung have chemistry that works – call it “bromistry” if you like. They seem to genuinely like each other and that shows onscreen. Chiling makes a marvelous Helen of Troy sort, beautiful, alluring and graceful – I can see where Cao Cao might invade for her sake (as is implied).

Western audiences may have difficulty keeping all the characters straight – there are a whole lot of them and their names can be similar. Woo says he based the movie on the more historically accurate “Records of Three Kingdoms” (a document written in the 3rd century chronicling events beginning with the battle) rather than the popular 14th century Chinese novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” which is more familiar to the Chinese people and helped make the battle a major part of Chinese folklore, not unlike how Homer’s “Odyssey” did the same for the siege of Troy in the West.

The Western release was culled down from nearly four and a half hours of the two Chinese volumes into a two and a half hour epic. I started to get restless with about 20 minutes to go in the movie; it is a little long trying to set the stage for the events but quite frankly once it gets into the battle scenes (which are wall to wall starting with the second act), the movie hums along at a blistering pace.

Those who miss movies like Ben-Hur and Lawrence of Arabia will be sated with this. Beautifully shot with the Chinese eye for gracefulness and color, the movie appeals on a great many levels. There are some very humorous sequences (such as Zhuge Liang’s ingenious method of acquiring arrows) and some romantic ones between Zhou Yu and Xiao Qiao. Still, this is the kind of movie that will thrill you even if you have a distaste for subtitles.

REASONS TO GO: This is the kind of epic that is rarely made these days. The battle sequences are nothing short of astonishing and reason enough to see the movie by themselves. Leung and Kaneshiro make appealing leads.

REASONS TO STAY: It can be difficult to tell one character apart from another given Western unfamiliarity with Chinese names and the fairly large set of major characters. The movie is about 20 minutes too long.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of battlefield bloodiness.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Chinese Army lent over 100,000 soldiers to work as extras in the battle scenes.

HOME OR THEATER: While this might be hard to find in theaters, do seek it out – given the epic scale it deserves the presentation that a big screen affords.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Invictus