Free State of Jones


Matthew McConaughey demonstrates his idea of gun safety.

Matthew McConaughey demonstrates his idea of gun safety.

(2016) Historical Drama (STX) Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers, Jacob Lofland, Thomas Francis Murphy, Bill Tangradi, Brian Lee Franklin, Kerry Cahill, Joe Chrest, Jessica Collins, Donald Watkins, Jill Jane Clements, Dane Rhodes, Lawrence Turner, Troy Hogan, Liza J. Bennett. Directed by Gary Ross

 

Most of us have some fairly general knowledge of the American Civil War, but most of us are probably completely unaware (at least until this movie came out) that there were parts of the Confederacy that didn’t necessarily agree with the aims of the rebels and actually seceded from it during the War. Most of us are completely unaware of the name of Newton Knight.

Knight (McConaughey) is serving in the Confederate Army as a nurse/orderly. While he isn’t actively shooting at anybody, he is picking up the pieces of wounded men and transporting them to the medical tents once the shooting has stopped. His cousin Davis (Franklin) is a frightened teen who is terrified of what could happen to him. Newton volunteers to help get him through the coming battle, but a Union sniper makes hash of that plan.

The Army wants to bury Davis where he fell, but Knight wants him buried with his kin in Jones County, Mississippi and so he goes AWOL although the term at the time is “deserter.” Deserters are being hanged, but Knight doesn’t care; he’s sick of fighting a war so that the plantation owners can get richer, especially since slave owners had enacted legislation that exempted the sons of slave owners from service (one son for every twenty slaves owned). This doesn’t sit well with the mostly small farmers that are actually doing the fighting, most of whom don’t own slaves a’tall.

Once back home, Knight sees that the Confederate Army in the person of Lt. Elias Hood (Murphy) who enforces the laws that farms must provide a percentage of their harvest and meat animals to the Army. Of course under Hood’s auspices, the Army take far more than they are entitled to, leaving the citizens of Jones County in near-starvation. When Hood discovers the presence of Knight, a sympathetic Madam (Clements) helps Knight escape into the swamp, leaving his wife Serena (Russell) and son behind.

There he finds a group of escaped slaves, relatively safe in a place where the army’s horses cannot follow them. They are led by Moses (Ali), a charismatic slave who wears a horrible spiked collar and pines for his wife and child, sent to Texas by an uncaring master. As their numbers begin to swell with more runaways and deserters from the Confederate Army, Knight sees that they have enough numbers to make a difference on the home front. He begins to arrange to arm the slaves and soldiers, and starts training them. In the meantime, he begins to fall in love with Rachel (Mbatha-Raw), a house slave for the despised James Eakins (Chrest) plantation, who has risked her life to learn how to read and also to bring in supplies for the swamp dwellers.

As their numbers grow, the new army under Knight’s canny leadership begins to intercept food shipments that were taken from locals for the Confederate army and finally beats the small contingent of the Confederates, declaring that part of Mississippi a free state. But there isn’t much war left and eventually the South surrenders and Jones County rejoins the union, but their troubles are far from over. Just because the South lost doesn’t mean that the freed slaves are Americans…yet.

This is a sprawling, two and a half hour epic that covers Knight’s story from the tail end of the War through reconstruction, incomprehensibly adding flash forwards to the 20th century and a legal issue being waged by one of Knight’s descendents regarding interracial marriage. It is a means of hitting us over the head with the racial issue that I think everyone except for the extreme right knows continues to plague this nation. It’s a little bit overbearing.

Ross does a great job of summoning up the era, from the unwashed look of the people in it to the rotting teeth and tattered clothes. It was a hard life in the rural South back then (and continues to be) and the look of the film illustrates that nicely. These are people who lived in poverty and the film reflects that to the credit of the filmmakers and the actors.

McConaughey does a fine job; this is the kind of role he’s shown he can excel at. Better still is his supporting cast, particularly Ali (who shows he has the ability to be a leading man in major films with his performance here) and Mbatha-Raw who is rapidly becoming one of the most accomplished actresses working today.

There has been some complaining that this is yet another “white hero saving the day for the oppressed blacks” type of thing, and I can understand the criticism, but it’s kind of hard to ignore that Knight DID lead the revolt. Now, from what I understand this film paints a far kinder, more saintly portrait of Knight than may have been the actual case. Maybe the film should have focused on Rachel, who also was a real person, or Moses, who was not.

I do admire the filmmakers for trying to educate their audience, even though the real Newton Knight was much less admirable than the one portrayed here. I think they could have lost the whole flash forward subtext which was unnecessary, doesn’t show up until well into the film causing further confusion and adds nothing to the overall message that they couldn’t have added with a title card. The movie is long as it is and the extra footage just tends to make people check their watches and wondering when the school bell is going to ring.

Otherwise, this is a very worthwhile venture that entertains rather well and educates not quite as well, but at least it’s an effort. I’m curious as to why the studio thought this would make a good summer movie; it would have fared better, I think, if it had been released in the fall, but that’s just Monday morning quarterbacking. If you can still find it in a theater near you, it’s certainly better than most of the stuff out there.

REASONS TO GO: Covers a part of history that is murky to most Americans.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: War violence and some graphic images that might be too disturbing for the sensitive.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: To this day, the Jones County Sheriff’s Department has “Free State of Jones” on the doors of all their vehicles.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cold Mountain
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Swiss Army Man

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Gods of Egypt


Choke like an Egyptian.

Choke like an Egyptian.

(2016) Swords and Sandals Fantasy (Summit) Gerard Butler, Nikolaj Koster-Waldau, Brenton Thwaites, Courtney Eaton, Elodie Yung, Bryan Brown, Rachel Blake, Emma Booth, Chadwick Boseman, Rufus Sewell, Alexander England, Goran D. Kleut, Yaya Deng, Geoffrey Rush, Abbey Lee, Kenneth Ransom, Bruce Spence, Robyn Nevin. Directed by Alex Proyas

Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. What power, dare I say, is more absolute than that of a god? And if that’s the case, does that not make gods the most corrupt of all creatures?

Ancient Egypt had it’s share of Gods and at one time, they not only walked among men but they ruled as well. Osiris (Brown) who rules the Valley of the Nile is getting ready to pass the crown on to his son, Horus (Koster-Waldau). Attending the festivities are Bek (Thwaites), a thief and a bit of a con artist and his girlfriend Zaya (Eaton), a beautiful young lady with an eye for beautiful things.

Also attending is Set (Butler), the brother of Osiris who rules the desert. Having a kingdom of scorpions and sand to rule hasn’t exactly put him in the best of moods and being a treacherous sort, he takes the opportunity to seize power from his brother, murdering him in the process. He also fights Horus and defeats him, plucking out his eyes in the process.

This sets up a despotic rule in which Set enslaves most of the population of Egypt to build obelisks, towers and temples – to Set including one tower that rises higher than any in tribute to Ra (Rush), the sun god more powerful than any other and the father to Set and the late Osiris. Oh, and did I mention that the gods bleed molten gold? Not so much an important plot point as an interesting factoid, that.

In any case, with the architect Urshu (Sewell) designing these monuments to human misery and enslaving Zaya as his personal assistant, Zaya convinces Bek that the only way to alleviate the suffering is to get Horus back in the game and she happens to know where his eyes – well, one of them anyway – is being kept. Bek being the master thief that he is retrieves it but at a terrible cost.

Now with an emotional stake in the game, Bek delivers the eye to Horus in a temple way out in the middle of the desert. At first Horus is none to keen on involving himself in the affairs of humans but he does have a strong streak of vengeance. With the aid of Hathor (Yung), the goddess of love who happens to be Horus’ lover and Thoth (Boseman), the arrogant god of intelligence, Horus and Bek must divine a way to defeat the evil Set and set things right in Egypt but Set has some allies and monsters to throw against the small band of rebels.

This CGI-laden effects fest is directed by Proyas, who has in the past done some memorable work (The Crow, Dark City). He has shown himself to have an imaginative visual sense and that comes out in spades here. What he didn’t have was an adequate budget or a satisfactory script.

The CGI here is for the most part lame and there is nothing that can kill a movie more easily than bad CGI. It mostly looks shoddy and unrealistic, from the elephants hauling stone to the building sites that look like they came from a videogame twenty years ago, to vistas of cities that look like they came from websites ten years ago. I don’t know if the sheer amount of computer images overwhelmed the effects houses that the filmmakers contracted, or if they gave them unrealistic deadlines – or if they simply contracted cheaper effects houses that didn’t have the capabilities to pull off the work (most likely explanation). Whatever the cause, I was constantly pulled out of the movie because the effects were noticeably bad.

The script also has a lot of lapses of logic and is riddled with cliches. If you’re going to do an epic like this, the least you can do is at least try not to cobble together a story that steals elements from other movies, including some that aren’t very good. At times, it seemed like the story existed to show off the visual effects – and we all know how those turned out. And what’s the deal with making the gods slightly taller than the humans (by two to three feet)? It’s distracting and unnecessary. Horus looks like Plastic Man upon occasion; all he needed was the goggles.

At least Butler and Koster-Waldau acquit themselves as well as can be expected; both are dynamic actors who can at least command the attention of the audience. Rush provides some needed gravitas, although quite frankly one gets the sense that he also found the script ridiculous and made an effort to get this over with as quickly as possible. I imagine he won’t be including his work here on any audition tapes.

I will give credit where credit is due; as much bashing of the visuals as I’ve done, some of the visuals have some imagination to them which I can only assume come from Proyas as he has a history of such things. Unfortunately, there’s not enough of that to overcome the fact that this movie looks bad and tells its story badly. Only the charisma of the antagonists really saves this movie from being completely unwatchable which hopefully will translate to better movies for the both of them.

REASONS TO GO: Butler and Koster-Waldau make fine antagonists. Some imaginative visuals.
REASONS TO STAY: El Crappo CGI. Incoherent script lacks imagination.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of sexuality and plenty of fantasy violence and action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Proyas himself is Egyptian, born of Greek parents in the city of Alexandria.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 23/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Immortals
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Boom Bust Boom

Pompeii


Emily Browning mournfully checks out Kiefer Sutherland's imperial ass.

Emily Browning mournfully checks out Kiefer Sutherland’s imperial ass.

(2014) Swords and Sandals (TriStar) Kit Harrington, Emily Browning, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kiefer Sutherland, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jared Harris, Jessica Lucas, Sasha Roiz, Joe Pingue, Currie Graham, Dylan Schombing, Rebecca Eady, Maxime Savana, Ron Kennell, Tom Bishop Sr., Jean-Francois Lachapelle, Jean Frenette, Dalmar Abuzeid, Melantha Blackthorne. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

There’s an old saying that “man proposes, God disposes” and if by God you mean a volcano then you have a point. The best-laid plans of mice and men do not stand well before an erupting Mt. Vesuvius.

Milo (Harrington) is a gladiator. He wasn’t always a gladiator – as a young boy (Schombing), he was the only survivor of a Celtic Horse Clan that was wiped out in rebellion against Rome by the Centurion Corvus (Sutherland) and his right hand swordsman Proculus (Roiz).  He only survived by playing dead but not before witnessing the butchering of his mother (Eady) and father (Lachapelle). He was discovered by slavers and trained as a gladiator.

As a gladiator in the British isles he soon became known for his speed and his skills and as a young man was virtually unbeatable. Recognizing that he was far too skilled for the hinterlands, it was decided that Milo be taken to Pompeii to see how he fares. Pompeii is just a hop, skip and a jump from the big time in Rome.

Pompeii, a seaside resort town, is having some issues of its own. Much of it is dilapidated and aging and leading citizen Severus (Harris) is eager to rebuild much of it, attracting more tourism. In particular the arena is obsolete and cannot accommodate the extremely popular chariot races, so his grand plan includes the construction of a new arena. He is hopeful that the new emperor will invest but instead he gets Corvus.

Corvus however has an agenda of his own and it involves Severus’ daughter Cassia (Browning). She had spent a year in Rome but sickened by the corruption she saw there, had returned home to her father and mother Aurelia (Moss). However, her principle reason for leaving had been the dogged and unwanted pursuit by Corvus who now means to use her as leverage against her father.

In the meantime however a chance roadside meeting had led Cassia and Milo to meet. Sparks flew immediately, an event not unnoticed by Ariadne (Lucas), Cassia’s servant. However, Milo has more to worry about – he is set to meet Atticus (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a champion gladiator who needs one more win to earn his freedom. The two end up respecting one another and becoming unlikely allies. However, Vesuvius is rumbling, the clock is ticking and all Hell is about to be unleashed on the city that sleeps at its base.

Anderson is no stranger to effects movies with budgets that are far from extravagant as a veteran of the Resident Evil series. Like several of those movies, the CGI run hot and cold with in the case of Pompeii some of the green screen effects of the city stretching off in the distance and the mountain rising ominously in the distance look exactly like green screen effects. Nonetheless during the sequences in which the mountain is erupting in full fury and visiting its wrath upon the city below, the effects can be breathtaking – at times it seems like the ash floating down from the sky are going to nestle into your lap. Although I saw the standard version, friends and colleagues who have seen the 3D version have asserted that it is one of the best in that department.

Harrington, best known as the Stark bastard Jon Snow in the Game of Thrones HBO series, bulked up considerably for the role and while not having a whole lot of dialogue (Milo is depicted as being a brooding, unfriendly sort), nonetheless shows great promise as at least an action film leading man and maybe for other types of roles in the future as well. However, the wispy facial hair has to go – it makes him look like a high school junior.

The doe-eyed Browning never really seems to grasp what her character is supposed to be; at times she is a strong, Roman-style feminist who has more cojones than her milksop father. At other times she is a helpless damsel in distress. I don’t think this is a particular problem with Browning so much as a problem with the writing. I suspect that the character would have been strong throughout but the powers that be might have taken a hand in it.

Sutherland chews the scenery as the corrupt and vicious Corvus but has a good time doing it (although I can’t help thinking what Jack Bauer would have done in a season of 24 set in Pompeii). Yeah, he’s over-the-top but why the hell not? The whole city is about to be buried under tons of lava and ash after all so why not make a mark while there’s still a mark to be made. His arrogant patrician muscle Proculus, portrayed by Roiz who some may know better as Grimm‘s Captain Renard makes an ideal foil. Finally Akinnuoye-Agbaje is fine in what is essentially the same role played by Djimon Hounsou in Gladiator which is a much superior film.

Much of the reason this doesn’t measure up is that the story is so ludicrous and takes liberties with simple common sense. Why would anyone want to piss off a trained killer as happens repeatedly throughout the film? Historical evidence shows us that ancient Romans tread carefully around gladiators simply because as slaves who had only death to look forward to they had nothing to lose if they killed a tormentor. Quite the opposite, gladiators were treated with respect and honor.

Still, if one forgives the movie its pedestrian and predictable plot, the effects and action are certainly worthwhile. It’s the portions in between these action and special effects sequences that are often excruciating and leave one longing for a pyroclastic cloud  to come your way.

REASONS TO GO: Harrington a promising leading man. Some nifty disaster effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Hokey story. Some of the green screen effects are pretty poor.

FAMILY VALUES:  Gladiator battle-type violence, some of it bloody as well as disaster-related action – people getting crushed by falling masonry and so on. There is also some implied sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harrington underwent a regimen to attain the absolutely ripped body of Milo by going on a 3000 calorie diet for five weeks in what he called his “bulking” regimen. He cut back on this and went on a four week “cutting” regimen with intense training. During this time he went to the gym three times a day six days a week, developing body dysmorphia – extreme anxiety about the appearance of one’s body – forcing his trainer to step in and reign in the regimen. However, Harrington was very pleased with the overall results and proclaimed himself in the best shape of his life.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Volcano

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Past

Conan the Barbarian (2011)


Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Film reviewers piss Conan off....

(2011) Fantasy (Lionsgate) Jason Momoa, Rachel Nichols, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan, Said Taghmaoui, Ron Perlman, Leo Howard, Steve O’Donnell, Raad Rawi, Nonso Anozie, Bob Sapp, Milton Welsh, Laila Rouass, Nathan Jones, Morgan Freeman (voice). Directed by Marcus Nispel

There’s something about a barbarian in a loincloth that fires up the imagination. It brings to mind swords dripping with blood and gore, scantily clad damsels in distress, terrifying monsters guarding hordes of fabulous treasure and ancient cities surrounding a wizard’s citadel. Ah, fantasy…

The swords and sorcery genre was more or less created (or at least popularized) by Robert E. Howard back in the 1920s and 1930s with his character Conan the Barbarian (in the same way J.R.R. Tolkein essentially created or at least popularized the high fantasy genre). In 1982, the John Milius movie based on the Howard character launched Arnold Schwarzenegger into stardom. Will this 2011 version do the same for Jason Momoa?

Conan is born on a battlefield, literally ripped from the womb of his dying mother by his father Corin (Perlman) who cuts open the belly of his wife, yanks out the squalling baby and holds it before the eyes of mommy, who hangs around long enough to name him before expiring. Corin raises his son to the heavens with a roar which might be the only time Conan is ever going to be associated with a Disney animated classic (see The Lion King for reference).

Years pass and Conan grows into a young boy (Howard) who is taught by his blacksmith father how to fight. When the youths of the village are able to run a course in the countryside with a birds egg in their mouth without breaking it, they are considered worthy of becoming warriors for the clan. On such a day, they are attacked by a group of other Barbarians (these who are apparently mute and make a hideous animal roar) but young Conan takes out four of them without scarcely breaking a sweat let alone an egg. For this his father forges him a magnificent sword.

Unfortunately, Conan never gets a chance to use it. The tribe is attacked again, this time by the army of King Khalar Zym (Lang) who is after the shard of a magical mask that gives the wearer unspecified but unlimited power. With the help of his sadistic sorceress daughter Marique (McGowan), the shard is found and Khalar decides that Corin needs a molten iron facial. His son tries to save him but winds up failing.

Flash forward a decade or so and Conan has grown up into a big strapping man (Momoa). He roams Hyboria thieving and wenching with Artus (Anozie), an irascible pirate who is something of a mentor to Conan. When the bar Conan and Artus are drinking in are raided by the local constabulary, Conan notices that the man leading it was one of the soldiers who destroyed his village and helped murder his father. After Conan gets the information he wants, he rescues a thief named Ela-Shan (Taghmaoui)  and heads out to a monastery where Khalar is apparently looking for a virgin of the True Blood (i.e. descended from ancient sorcerers) to sacrifice in order to activate the mask.

Said virgin is Tamara (Nichols) who the abbot Fassir (Rawi) sends away in a desperate attempt to save her, even though the monks and monk-ettes are massacred. Khalar’s baddies are about to capture Tamara but Conan saves the day. The two take an instant dislike to one another which in Hollywood-speak means that they’re going to be madly in love by the end of the picture.

Still, Khalar will stop at nothing to get his hands on the girl. Conan will have to battle through every manner of deadly creature, both man and beast, in order to save the girl and finally get his revenge.

Conan is one of the most enduring characters in pulp literature. Howard’s stories and novels have been in print nearly continuously for over 80 years, and his mythos has been added to and expanded upon by nearly every medium imaginable, from graphic novels to videogames to movies. He represents the primal male attributes, as he shrugs “I live. I love. I slay. I am content” at one point in the movie.

Momoa is going to inevitably be compared with Schwarzenegger and he acquits himself surprisingly well. Those who saw him as the brutal, brooding Khal Drogo in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” might be surprised at his range. His Conan here is a little bit more easygoing than Drogo; to be honest I’ve always pictured Conan as more like Drogo; dark, quiet, likely to let his actions speak louder than his words. This Conan is engaging and funny. Momoa doesn’t quite have Arnold’s natural charisma, but he certainly has potential to be a big star.

His supporting cast blows hot and cold.  Lang gives an over the top performance that borderlines on the ludicrous, while Perlman, who is forced to wear the most ludicrous beard in cinematic history, does a fine job as Corin. Young Leo Howard does a nice job as young Conan and is literally spectacular in his own fight scenes. In some ways he outdoes Momoa.

Nichols is uncommonly pretty, although she looks a little more modern in some ways. I think she was just a little bit miscast here, but she makes a good effort. McGowan is terrifying as the witch which is what she’s meant to be but sometimes she seems almost TOO crazy.

Most of the problems I have with the movie is that they don’t really capture the spirit of the Conan stories. Howard’s stories are generally dark and dank, with monsters that are beyond imagining. Here the monsters are rather pedestrian; there are sand warriors that reminded me of similar creatures in The Mummy Returns and an octopus like creature that is all tentacle and CGI mayhem. Nice enough but not particularly groundbreaking.

This is entertaining enough, but it isn’t the movie it could have been. I would love to see more direct translations of Howard’s work to the screen but it hasn’t happened yet. As to those critics who wonder if the world needs an another Conan movie, the answer is far more than we need another quirky indie romance. Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against indie films of any sort. It’s just we have had plenty of great indie films and no great Conan movies yet.

And there’s a need for them. Good entertainment is hard to find, for one thing. The swords and sorcery genre has yet to live up to its potential, but there is a lot to explore there. This movie tells me we’re not ready to yet, or at least Hollywood isn’t. I guess I’ll just have to wait awhile longer for my Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser movie.

REASONS TO GO: Momoa is actually awfully likable and charismatic. Early fight scenes are well-staged.

REASONS TO STAY: Movie loses momentum in last third. Doesn’t capture feel of Howard’s stories.

FAMILY VALUES: As you might expect there is a whole lot of violence, blood and gore; there is also a fair amount of nudity and sexuality as well, and some disturbing monsters.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ron Perlman, who plays Conan’s father, voiced Conan in a videogame and also the unreleased animated feature Conan: Red Nails.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the vistas should be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Fright Night (2011)

The Eagle


The Eagle

Tahar Rahim checks to make sure Channing Tatum isn't carved of wood as Jamie Bell looks on indistinctly.

(2011) Swords and Sandals (Focus) Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong, Denis O’Hare, Lukacs Bicskey, Dakin Matthews, Tahar Rahim, Pip Carter, Simon Paisley Day, Aladar Lakloth, Thomas Henry, Ned Dennehy. Directed by Kevin Macdonald

It is said that in 117 A.D., the Ninth Legion of Rome marched into the wilds of Caledonia on a mission to expand the Empire. They were never seen again, nor was their standard, a golden Eagle that represents Imperial Rome.

It is 20 years later and the son of the commander of that ill-fated expedition, Marcus Flavius Aquila (Tatum) has requesting a posting for his first command in Briton. His identity doesn’t sit well with the men but they follow him resolutely like good Romans, particularly his second-in-command Lutorius (O’Hare). When Marcus seemingly uses psychic powers to detect a raid on the outpost and saves the men from annihilation, he gets the admiration of his men. When he is severely injured in the melee, he is given a commendation. He is also discharged from the army.

He recovers at the villa of his Uncle Aquila (Sutherland), who regales him with stories of his father. While recuperating, he attends some gladiatorial games and witnesses the bravery of a slave sent out to fight a gladiator. When the slave Esca (Bell) refuses to fight, Marcus is impressed and urges the mob to spare him which they do. As a reward, Aquila buys the slave for Marcus. 

When word reaches them that the Eagle of the Ninth has been sighted in Caledonia (modern day Scotland), Marcus decides to go – not with an army behind him, but just him and the slave who has said that he hates all Romans, including Marcus. There they will go where no Roman dares go – master and slave, neither one trusting the other. Together they will find the truth of the fate of the Ninth – and restore the family name of Aquila, or die in the attempt. 

Kevin Macdonald has directed Oscar nominees (The Last King of Scotland) and Oscar winners (One Day in September). This will be neither. What it turns out to be is an old-fashioned action adventure film with a nice historical perspective – it is rumored that the Ninth Legion disappeared around that time, although there are some facts that dispute it.  There is a minimum of CGI and no cast of thousands here. Most of the battle scenes take place amidst a very few soldiers, and we get no sense of vast numbers here. All this makes for a fairly intimate setting as epics go.

Tatum is not known to be among Hollywood’s most revered actors, although he has shown some promise in films like Stop/Loss. Too often he gets cast as the hunky action hero and that appears to be more or less his speed, at least as far as Hollywood’s concerned; something tells me he has a lot more to offer, given the right role. Here he does the strong silent type, although he seems to be trying to affect an English accent which slips in and out somewhat unfortunately. It’s distracting and I would have preferred he retain his American accent had I been directing.  

The master-slave relationship is at the crux of the movie, and fortunately Bell and Tatum make a good team. Bell is another young British actor who I foresee good things happening from in the near future; while this movie isn’t likely to catapult his career forward, at least it isn’t setting it back either. His performance is strong and competent.

Also of note is Rahim as the leader of the Seal People, a tribe of Celts in northern Caledonia. Some might remember him from A Prophet as the young Franco-Arab sent to prison but here he is the nominal villain, and yet he engenders such sympathy that you almost wind up rooting for him in spite of yourself. That’s the definition of a great movie villain in my book. 

If you are looking for the fairer sex here, look elsewhere. There are few women seen in anything other than as extras, mostly looking at Tatum and Bell lustfully. This is most certainly a man’s world and we are just passing through. I’m not sure that it helped the movie any – I for one like having both sexes present in a movie – but I suppose it made a sort of sense that the women took a backseat in this film.

That’s kind of odd too, because the novel the movie was based on, “The Eagle of the Ninth,” was written by Rosemary Sutcliff back in 1954 and she by all accounts was all woman. While some more ignorant critics have labeled the source material a children’s book (and Sutcliff wrote a great many of those), it was in fact not specifically aimed at children and is a good read for young and old alike.

The movie differs from the book in a number of very basic and fundamental ways so purists beware. One of the more basic tangents is the relationship of Esca and Marcus which is less a factor in the book than it is in the movie. I like the movie’s interpretation of it, although the thought of a patrician Roman and a lowly British slave becoming friends…not likely.  

Still it’s that chemistry that drives the movie and while it reeks of old-fashioned Hollywood smarm, it’s still effective in an era that tends to choose flash and glitter over story. The Eagle doesn’t necessarily blow one away visually, but the story and the underlying adventure are a bit of a breath of fresh air. For those who are fond of saying they don’t make ‘em like that anymore, here’s living proof that they can and they do.

REASONS TO GO: Good buddy dynamic between Tatum and Bell. Some nice adventure action and an authentic looking Roman setting.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit on the pedestrian side and the lack of women in the film is a bit off-putting but not as much as Tatum’s attempt at an accent.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some battle violence and a few images that might be disturbing to the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The family name of the main character is Aquila, which is Latin for “eagle.”

HOME OR THEATER: There are some battle scenes and wilderness shots that certainly will look nifty on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Just Go With It

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