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

Hercules (2014)


All these guys can smell what the Rock is cooking.

All these guys can smell what the Rock is cooking.

(2014) Swords and Sandals (Paramount/MGM) Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, John Hurt, Aksel Hennie, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Reece Ritchie, Joseph Fiennes, Tobias Santelmann, Peter Mullan, Rebecca Ferguson, Isaac Andrews, Joe Anderson, Stephen Peacocke, Nicholas Moss, Robert Whitelock, Christopher Fairbank, Irina Shayk, Barbara Palvin. Directed by Brett Ratner

Being a legend isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. You have this high bar to live up to and the tales of your accomplishments can take on a mythic quality. When you’re Hercules, the son of Zeus, that can be doubly aggravating. It can also send you on a retreat from life.

Hercules (Johnson) has been living with his reputation most of his life. Freakishly strong, he wears a lion skin supposedly from the Lion of Nemea whom he slew as one of his twelve labors performed to get Hera off his back (Hera, the wife of Zeus, was none too pleased with the nascent godling from her husband’s loins). However, he employs his nephew Iolaus (Ritchie) to spread the tales of his legend – which makes his enemies fearful of what he can do. That can come in useful when you’re a mercenary.

Which is what Hercules has become. He was once under the employ of Athenian King Eurystheus (Fiennes) with a wife (Shayk) and children but after they were slaughtered and Hercules himself blamed for the heinous crime – which he can’t remember whether or not he had done – he was banished and wanders Greece accompanied by Iolaus, his right hand man Autolycus (Sewell), the prophet Amphiaraus (McShane) who is also a skilled fighter in his own right, the Amazon warrior Atalanta (Berdal) and the mute berserker Tydeus (Hennie). They make a formidable bunch.

They are given a job by Lord Cotys (Hurt) of Thrace whose land is in the midst of a bloody civil war. The dark, nefarious sorcerer Rhesus (Santelmann) has raised an army of demons and centaurs, burning down villages and massacring the inhabitants and bewitching the survivors to fight for him. Cotys’ daughter Ergenia (Ferguson) and her son Arius (Andrews) beseech the warrior for his help and he, taken by Ergenia’s giving nature, agrees to train the Thracian army to stand up to the rebel, with Cotys’ bemused General Sitacles (Mullan) somewhat skeptical about his success.

However, nothing is ever as it seems in Hercules’ world. He will have to become the hero of legend to save his crew and Thrace, and not just the legend invented by his nephew. In short, he must become Hercules, son of Zeus.

I have to admit that I wasn’t sure about the casting of Johnson as Hercules. He always seems to have a twinkle in his eye and a fairly laid back attitude as an action hero and I have always thought of Hercules as much more serious. No need to worry – Johnson makes an excellent Hercules. While I question the decision to have him wear a wig and fake beard, he certainly has the physique and he is a much better actor than most of the ones that have played Hercules in the past (although Kevin Sorbo was and is a terrific actor). I’d say that Johnson really carries the movie.

While the trailers show giant boars and lions and hydras and such, there is surprisingly little in the way of those sorts of special effects. That’s mainly because the graphic novel that the film is based on eschewed much of the mythological elements of Hercules’ story in favor of a more down to earth telling of his tale which is an original one.

I have to say that the movie is much more entertaining than I expected. Johnson’s natural charisma helps on that score, but Ratner, a director not known for subtlety, has a sure hand here and allows the characters to develop and make some headway. McShane, always dependable, is something of a mentor to Hercules and seems to be alone in knowing the truth of his tale. Sewell who often gets cast in villain roles gets a rare opportunity in a heroic cast and makes the most of it.

The fight scenes are well done and Hercules’ feats of strength are mostly believable here. It’s all mostly brute strength rather than agility and grace, but we get those from Bolso and Sewell in their sequences so it isn’t all skull crushing and horse throwing.

While the plot here is predictable (the plot twist that drives the last half of the movie is one you’ll see coming a mile away and the second half of the movie suffers as a result) and the dialogue tends towards the bombastic, this isn’t the kind of movie you go to see for the story. You go for the spectacle. You go for the action. And you go for the Rock. Finally, the Rock has come back to Thrace…

REASONS TO GO: The Rock is more cut than ever! Some nifty battlefield sequences. McShane and Sewell are entertaining.

REASONS TO STAY: Predictable. Some of the dialogue is a bit creaky.

FAMILY VALUES:  Battle violence, occasional expletives, some disturbing images and brief sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to Johnson, his fake beard in the film is made of yak testicle hair.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Clash of the Titans

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Films for Foodies begins!

300: Rise of an Empire


Eva Green sends a message to those critics who didn't like her latest movie.

Eva Green sends a message to those critics who didn’t like her latest movie.

(2014) Swords and Sandals (Warner Brothers) Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey, David Wenham, Rodrigo Santoro, Jack O’Connell, Andrew Tiernan, Igal Naor, Andrew Pleavin, Ben Turner, Ashraf Barhom, Christopher Sciueref, Steven Cree, Caitlin Carmichael, Jade Cynoweth, Kevin Fry, Nancy McCrumb. Directed by Noam Munro

The original 300 depicted the historic Battle of Thermopylae (albeit taking some fairly liberal factual liberties) and in doing so, made a huge star out of Gerard Butler and director Zack Snyder, helped resurrect the Swords and Sandals genre (along with the Oscar-winning Gladiator) and showed how a movie made nearly entirely of CGI could be not only technologically possible but economically viable as well.

While Snyder is around for this sequel as a producer and writer only, this tells more or less a parallel story of the Athenian general Themistocles who was victorious at the Battle of Marathon at which the Persian emperor Darius (Naor) was killed by an arrow fired by Themistocles himself. His son and heir, Xerxes (Santoro) was manipulated by his most talented and vicious general Artemesia (Green) – who is of herself Greek descent – into ascending into a role as God-Emperor, which apparently makes you ten feet tall in the process.

While Xerxes is attacking King Leonidas (Butler, in flashback) at Thermopylae, Artemesia has engaged a small and ragtag Greek fleet made up mainly of fast, maneuverable Athenian ships along with a few motley vessels supplied by the other city-states of Greece who despite the peril represented by the vast army of the Persian empire are suspicious and quarrelsome among themselves. While Themistocles has some success at sea, the wily Artemesia lures his fleet into a trap and decimates it, leaving it with a handful of ships. As Xerxes gloats over his defeat of Leonidas and his burning of Athens, Artemesia brings her fleet in to finish off the Greeks once and for all – and after failing to move the grieving Queen Gorgo (Headey) of Sparta to help her fellow Greeks, Themistocles knows that Artemesia might well do just that.

This is made in the same style as the original 300 with lots of green screen, lots of digital effects, plenty of CGI blood splatters, bare-chested Spartans with six-pack abs and enough testosterone flowing to drown Australia. It’s the kind of movie that is meant to make it’s young male gamer/fanboy target audience beat their chests and grunt, a knuckle-dragging epic in which the only major female character has a bare-breasted wild sex scene with her supposed enemy that was more violent than sexy but less violent than it was improbable (yes Lena Headey is also in the movie but only for a few scenes).

What differentiates this from 300 is that for all its macho posturing, the original film had at least some semblance of humanity, actual characters who the audience could latch onto and even care about. Here, mostly the players are cannon fodder, hurled into a meat grinder of sharp blades, battle axes, spears, flaming arrows and sinking ships, gobbets of flesh dripping gore arcing in a graceful parabola through the air after being carved from shrieking soldiers. I can’t deny that there is a certain gratification in it, a primitive caveman reaction that is both visceral and appalling, but it must be dutifully cataloged if one is to be honest.

While the dialogue tends more towards jingoism, I also will be the first to admit that the visuals are impressive. You’d swear that you were watching titanic battles being fought in rolling storm-driven seas but the reality was that the actors had not a drop of real water on them – the ocean and the ships are all CGI. About the only thing that wasn’t CGI in the movie was Eva Green’s breasts and I have my doubts about those too.

Green does acquit herself the best and that is the only kindness I can spare the acting which is for the most part over-the-top and melodramatic. Green seems to be having a good time as a badass and it shows. She utters the most cringe-worthy dialogue with a straight face and her smiles drip venom as you would expect from an excellent villain. Stapleton doesn’t have the charisma that Butler has, at least not yet. His Themistocles did a lot of shouting but didn’t really inspire me to want to follow him into battle so his abilities as a leader of men were sharply called into question at least from my vantage point.

I have to mark this down as one of the year’s first disappointments – every year provides several such in the movie calendar. Unfortunately, Snyder was a bit too busy resurrecting the Superman franchise to put in the time and effort to direct this and while his hand is evident in the production end, certainly this didn’t have the wow factor that would make me want to see the third movie in the franchise (one is reportedly in the pipeline should the box office warrant it). In the end, this is a feast for the eyes but does little for the soul beyond providing some instantly forgettable entertainment.

REASONS TO GO: Impressive CGI.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks a Gerard Butler to keep the audience’s attention. A little too mannered and over-the-top. Hardly any human element to the story.

FAMILY VALUES:  If the fake blood hadn’t been CGI there would have been enough to fill one of the Great Lakes with it. There’s also a ton of hack/slash violence, a good bit of nudity and sexuality, and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the titles say that the film is based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel series Xerxes, the screenplay was written concurrently with the graphic novel which has yet to be published and has said to have changed massively since the film was made.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pompeii

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Bridge to Terabithia

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

The Legend of Hercules


If only Kellan Lutz was this electric onscreen...

If only Kellan Lutz was this electric onscreen…

(2014) Swords and Sandals (Summit) Kellan Lutz, Gaia Weiss, Scott Adkins, Roxanne McKee, Liam Garrigan, Liam McIntyre, Rade Serbedzija, Jonathan Schaech, Luke Newberry, Kenneth Cranham, Mariah Gale, Sarai Givaty, Dimiter Dochinov, Nikolai Sotirov, Radoslav Parvanov, Spencer Wilding, Bashar Rahal, Vladimir Mihailov. Directed by Renny Harlin

I don’t know what it is about movies about the Greek demigod Hercules that they are almost uniformly awful, going back to the Steve Reeves epics of the 60s (which were actually the best of them and could only be classified as mediocre) to the godawful Schwarzenegger version Hercules in New York to even the Disney animated feature which remains one of their weakest ever. However, just when you thought they couldn’t get any lower…

When Queen Alcimene (McKee) of Greece realizes her tyrant of a husband, King Amphitryon (Adkins) wages war not for gain but out of sheer bloodlust, she knows he must be stopped. She prays to the goddess Hera for deliverance and the goddess appears, promising a son who would be the downfall of the father. She allows her husband, the God Zeus to lie with her and father her bouncing new baby boy whom will be named Heracles…er, Hercules which translates to Gift of Hera although the boy will be called Alcides as her hubby ain’t too keen on being reminded of the boy’s divine parentage. Instead, he showers favors on his mean-spirited elder son Iphicles (Garrigan).

Hercules (Lutz) grows to manhood and falls for the Cretan princess Hebe (Weiss) whose last name I’m certain is Jebe. She’s a comely girl but she is promised to Iphicles who is heir to the throne. She of course would rather have the buff Hercules and conspires to run off with him. Unfortunately they are caught and Hercules is banished to Egypt to take on a rebellious city-state on an expedition led by Sotiris (McIntyre) who knows they are in for a rough ride when the number of soldiers assigned to him is cut in half. The whole thing is a set-up of course and Sotiris and Hercules are the sole survivors and are sold into slavery to be gladiators in a mud pit – think of it as a combination of MMA and female mud wrestling. Can Hercules win his freedom and get back home in time to prevent his true love’s marriage to his brother?

There are just so many problems with this movie I don’t know where to begin. The script might be a good spot – the dialogue is so cringeworthy that you spend the entire 99 minutes (which seemed like 199) in a permanent twitch rendering the audience in a kind of perpetual seizure throughout the film.

I haven’t seen so many slo-mo action shots in which regular speed stunt sequences are slowed down and then returned to normal speed. It happens so often that it becomes tedious and actually caused me to twitch further. In fact something tells me that it may well have been more entertaining to watch surveillance camera footage of the audience than to watch the actual film. Where is Mystery Science Theater 3000 when you need them?

Kellan Lutz. Ah, Kellan Lutz. He is a good looking lad with an easy-going demeanor and an engaging grin but at least at this point he doesn’t have the charisma needed to carry a movie like this. In fact, the best performances here were Adkins as the frothing-at-the-mouth King and distinguished character actor Serbedzija as Herc’s tutor. The rest of the cast…aieee!

Even the CGI isn’t up-to-snuff – an early sequence in which Hercules battles the Nemean Lion is so bad that the audience is yanked right out of the movie, which might not be a bad thing. This isn’t a movie you should get lost in.

It gives me no joy to write a review like this. Director Renny Harlin has some pretty good flicks to his credit although admittedly it’s been awhile since I can remember one of his movies fondly. Lutz seems to be a nice enough guy but this is a really, really bad film and I’d be doing my readers a disservice by sugarcoating it. There are really very few redeeming factors other than the very buff Lutz is shirtless for virtually the entire movie which may be appealing to those who find that sort of thing appealing. Otherwise, just keep in mind that this may well be the leading contender for worst movie of the year.

REASONS TO GO: Bored out of your skull.

REASONS TO STAY: Self-respect.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a great deal of combat action and violence and a couple of scenes of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: To maintain his physique, Lutz did more than a thousand push-ups and abdominal crunches every day on set.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 3% positive reviews. Metacritic: 22/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters

FINAL RATING: 2/10

NEXT: August: Osage County

Centurion


 

Centurion

Michael Fassbender runs for the nearest X-Men movie.

(2010) Swords and Sandals (Magnet) Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko, David Morrissey, Noel Clarke, Riz Ahmed, JJ Field, Liam Cunningham, Imogen Poots, Andreas Wisniewski, Paul Freeman, Ulrich Thomsen, Rachael Stirling, Eoin Macken. Directed by Neil Marshall

War can be boiled down to a basic truth – one group, who want the other to leave, against the second group, who only want to go home. I suppose a lot of wars would end with much less bloodshed if the second group just did what the first wanted – and what they wanted to do anyway.

Quintus Dias (Fassbender) is a centurion of the Roman army (which means he commands 100 men) who survives a massacre in Caledonia (ancient Scotland) where the Picts hold sway. He joins up with the Ninth Legion, commanded by General Titus Virilus (West). Virilus is the commanding officer that Quintus always wanted to have. Brave, bold and every inch a Roman.

But as things will sometimes do even in the best-led of armies, things go wrong. The Ninth is ambushed by the clever Picts who kill the bulk of the army and capture Virilus. Quintus knows his duty is to rescue his commanding officer and his friend but with only a handful of soldiers whose devotion to duty varies wildly from man to man to battle an entire army of vicious Picts, the prospects are grim.

Still, Quintus has to try but in the end the existence of their merry little band is discovered and the Picts send out Etain (Kurylenko), a beautiful, mute and remorseless hunter who hates everything Roman and for good reason. When the remaining Romans take refuge in the home of Arianne (Poots), a healer, things fall in place for a showdown. Will the Romans make it back to Roman lines, or will they fall alone and forgotten in a cold, harsh place far from home?

This could well be seen as an allegory for all war. Put U.S. Soldiers in Iraq, or Russian soldiers in Afghanistan, or French soldiers in Russia and it’s all interchangeable. Neil Marshall, who was responsible for one of the better horror movies of recent years with The Descent has a penchant for realistic looking gore, and his fight scenes show people getting hacked to death and it’s not pretty.

Although there are way too many shots of CGI blood jetting into the snow like a gruesome fountain – the practical blood seems far more realistic – there is a beauty to the bright red of the blood on the white and grey dismal landscape of the Inverness Mountains. There is a stark beauty to the movie that captures how those Romans must have felt – they may as well have been on the moon, so alien was the landscape to them.

Fassbender made this just as he was starting to get some key roles (to this point he was best known for Hunger and for his brief but memorable turn in Inglourious Basterds) and this was certainly a warning shot across the bow that here was a talent to be reckoned with. This is his movie to carry (although initially it doesn’t seem to be) and he does so quite nicely. He shows some charisma and acting skills; you can see why men would follow Quintus into battle.

Kurylenko was best known for her stint as a Bond girl in Quantum of Solace but she’s totally badass here. She kicks a lot of ass and because her character is mute, her ferocity is mainly in her body language and her eyes. Another reviewer compared her character with Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor as far as ass-kicking women go and he was right on the money. Etain is nobody to be trifled with.

I like that Marshall tried to make this as historically accurate as possible. What I don’t like is that the CGI was disappointing, and that there were scenes that simply didn’t work very well. The thing I liked the least was that after Quintus and Virilus the Romans were really indistinguishable from one another and all kind of blended together, making them all spear fodder and really giving the viewer no reason to identify with them or feel any connection with. That hurts the film overall in my opinion.

I’m a sucker for a good swords and sandals movie and this one is pretty solid, even if it isn’t as spectacular as something like, say, 300. Fassbender gives a good performance and even if it is essentially one gigantic chase sequence, it still gives you a little insight into the soldiers and what they’re fighting for. That’s an insight that serves military sorts from any era.

WHY RENT THIS: Fairly realistic from a historical point of view. One of the first instances where Fassbender shows his leading man potential. Kurylenko makes a formidable opponent.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Is uneven in quality. CGI battle sequences are unconvincing. Most of the rest of the cast are made up of characters we’re unable to even tell apart.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly gruesome violence and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although it is thought that the Picts wore no clothing, the harsh condition on the location shoot made the filmmakers give in to necessity and design warm clothing for the actors to wear on the shoot.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.8M on a $12M production budget; unfortunately this was a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Eagle

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Life

Wrath of the Titans


Wrath of the Titans

Sam Worthington likes to use the big forks.

(2012) Swords and Sandals Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Sam Worthington, Rosamund Pike, Bill Nighy, Edgar Ramirez, Toby Kebbell, Danny Huston, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, John Bell, Lily James, Sinead Cusack, Alejandro Naranjo, Freddy Drabble, Kathryn Carpenter. Directed by Jonathan Liebesman

 

Most remember Clash of the Titans from 2010 and maybe the original back in 1981. The first film was a Ray Harryhausen camp classic while the newer one was a massive hit, although it took a lot of critical hits. Much of the criticism was aimed at the 3D process which was tacked on at the end of post-production and quite frankly was one of the worst 3D conversions ever.

The new film picks up 10 years after the last one left off, with Perseus (Worthington) burying his wife and trying to raise his son Helius (Bell) simply as the son of a fisherman. That proves difficult when your father is Zeus (Neeson), the king of the gods. Zeus shows up unannounced to Perseus’ new home to tell him that a storm is brewing. The people of Greece have lost faith in the gods and no longer pray to them. Without the prayers to bolster them, the powers of the gods are waning which is not necessarily a good thing. Perseus, however, refuses to leave his son’s side.

Many years earlier the gods had imprisoned the Titans after Kronos, the father of Zeus, Hades (Fiennes) and Poseidon (Huston) tried to kill his kids. There’s tough love, but that’s going a little bit too far don’t you think? Anyway the three men defeat their dad by combining their three weapons – Hades’ pitchfork, Poseidon’s trident and Zeus’ thunderbolt – all forged by Hephaestus (Nighy). The trio banish Kronos and his Titans to a special prison designed by Hephaestus beneath Mt. Tartarus. Now, with the power of the gods ebbing away, the walls are beginning to crumble. Once those walls fall, Kronos will be released from his prison and the universe will be remade in the wrathful titan’s image – and it ain’t a pretty picture.

When Hades and Ares (Ramirez) turn on Zeus and deliver him to Kronos, draining Zeus’ power to hasten the release of Kronos. In return, Hades and Ares will retain their immortality. It becomes obvious that Perseus will have to get involved despite his misgivings. He seeks out Queen Andromeda (Pike) for help, mainly with releasing the son of Poseidon, Agenor the Navigator (Kebbell). Agenor in return will help find Hephaestus who will in turn show them the back way into Tartarus. Time, however, is of the essence.

Like its predecessor, the movie is effects-laden and cursed with a back-end 3D conversion process. Much of the movie takes place underground so the lighting is dim to begin with; the 3D makes it even dimmer, so much so that some of the action is difficult to make up. Because of Kronos’ volcanic nature, there is much smoke and ash everywhere which also makes viewing difficult. Those who have a choice should really consider seeing the movie in standard form.

That said, the movie isn’t as bad as some critics are letting on. I’ll grant you that Worthington is a little flat in places but Fiennes and Neeson are delightful in their godly roles and Pike is a marvelous warrior Queen. The movie is entertaining to the max and delivers on the thrills and while some of the monsters are a little bit out of left field (like the enormous Cyclops and the snottastic Minotaur), they are at least fun to watch.

There’s plenty of swordplay and Agenor supplies some comic relief. All in all, this is mindless fun that doesn’t demand much of the viewer and returns plenty in terms of your entertainment dollar. It’s the kind of movie you can go to and shove your problems away for a couple of hours with a bag of popcorn and an ice cold soda in the darkness. Movies like this are the reason going to the movies is so fun.

REASONS TO GO: Mindless, fun entertainment. Fiennes and Neeson are wonderful.

REASONS TO STAY: Too dark for 3D. Worthington is a little bit bland in the lead.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fantasy violence not to mention a few disturbing monster images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gemma Arterton was supposed to return to the series as Io but was unable due to scheduling conflicts, so her character was killed off-screen. Alexa Davalos was also supposed to return as Andromeda but was “unavailable” so Rosamund Pike was re-cast in the role.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100. The reviews are mainly negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Immortals

M.C. ESCHER LOVERS: The sets in Tartarus have an Escher-esque quality to them.  

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: We Need to Talk About Kevin

Immortals


Immortals

Proof positive that Henry Cavill made this movie with a wink and tongue firmly in cheek.

(2011) Swords and Sandals Fantasy (Relativity) Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke, Freida Pinto, Stephen Dorff, John Hurt, Isabel Lucas, Luke Evans, Kellan Lutz, Joseph Morgan, Anne Day-Jones, Greg Bryk, Stephen McHattie, Alan Van Sprang, Peter Stebbings. Directed by Tarsem Singh

 

Our Western civilization is extremely indebted to the Greeks. They gave us democracy, theater and philosophy among other things. We owe them so much. We could think of better ways to repay them than this though.

Director Tarsem Singh (The Fall, The Cell) has crafted a visually impressive but ultimately empty take on the myth of Theseus. Theseus was an Athenian hero best known for slaying the minotaur of Crete (which he does here, kinda sorta). The average Athenian probably wouldn’t recognize him here; he is the bastard son of Aethra (Day-Jones) as the result of rape. He is a peasant and looked down upon by the soldiers, particularly Lysander (Morgan) who was from those parts.

King Hyperion (Rourke) has a bone to pick with the Gods. His wife and daughter died of plague while despite his prayers the Gods did nothing. Therefore, he is going to destroy the Gods by fetching the Epirus Bow, using this weapon to free the Titans – mortal enemies of the Gods – from their prison beneath Mount Tartarus.

This would be disastrous for both mankind and God alike. The only one who can save the whole lot apparently is Theseus – this has been foretold by the Virgin Oracle Phaedra (Pinto) who, true to form for most movies of this sort is dressed up in the skimpiest costume and won’t be a virgin for long. While Zeus (Evans) forbids the Gods from intervening, they kinda do and soon Theseus is locked into a headlong collision with the mad King Hyperion.

Like 300, most of this is shot on green screen and nearly all of it is computer generated. While the former was groundbreaking and entertaining, there isn’t any of that “brave new world” quality that was so fresh and invigorating in 300. Rather, it’s dark and murky and looks computer generated. There’s no warmth or humanity in it.

Cavill has a lot of potential as a lead. He’s the new Superman and judging on what I saw here he should be more than adequate to handle the part. Here he’s charismatic (even though he is given some pretty ludicrous dialogue)  and handles his action scenes pretty well. However, there was a wooden quality in some of his romance scenes; we’ll see how he does with Amy Adams as Lois Lane but Freida Pinto didn’t spark a whole lot of fire with Cavill.

Singh’s artistic sense is well-documented but at times there is a feeling that he’s being overly cute, showing off his skills rather than serving his story. That’s all well and good, but sometimes a little skill goes a lot farther than a lot. The script simply doesn’t support the kind of grandiose imagery and camera trickery we see here.

Also a word to the wise – the gore here can be overwhelming. Da Queen is far from squeamish but she found herself turning away during the last battle scene due to the mayhem being witnessed. If I’d wanted to see that much blood and gore, I’d have rented the Saw DVDs and had myself a marathon.

I liked some of what the movie did and there were some images that were just this side of amazing. However, there was too much dazzle for dazzle’s sake, something Singh seems to be caught up in as a director. People don’t go to the movies to see a sequence of eye candy – they go to be told a story, and if you can tell it well, they’ll forgive just about anything. Tell it badly and all the eye candy in the world won’t save you, any more than Theseus will.

REASONS TO GO: Some impressive images. Cavill proves himself to be a fine lead which gives me some hope for his upcoming Superman role.

REASONS TO STAY: The violence and gore is unnecessarily over-the-top. A few too many “Look, Ma, I’m directing” moments. Some of the CGI isn’t up to snuff. Overacted throughout.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of violence and gore. There is also one scene of sexuality, but mostly this is swords, spears and daggers slicing through stuff.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally named both Dawn of War and War of the Gods before settling on the release name.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely a cast of thousands big screen sort, even if the thousands are all computer generated.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Dinosaur

300


300

Gerard Butler wonders why with the budget the film had they couldn't afford more than underwear and capes.

(2006) Swords and Sandals (Warner Brothers) Gerard Butler, David Wenham, Lena Headey, Dominic West, Vincent Regan, Rodrigo Santoro, Michael Fassbender, Stephen McHattie, Tom Wisdom, Andrew Pleavin, Andrew Tiernan, Giovani Antonio Cimmino, Kelly Craig.  Directed by Zack Snyder

This is not like anything you’ve ever seen or are likely to see ever again. Based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley that is a fanciful, highly stylized account of the legendary stand of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, the movie starts with a narrator (whose identity isn’t revealed until the very end of the movie) who explains the rigors of life in Sparta. Starting from birth, where babies that are considered weak, inferior or deformed are killed, the children are born to a life of cruel discipline, constant fighting, strength, honor and respect.

Leonidas (Butler) is born to this world and he takes to it like a politician to a photo-op. Now the King of Sparta, he is visited by an emissary from Persia demanding Sparta’s submission to their rule. Persia, a vast sprawling empire that encompasses hundreds of nations and a slave-driven army of more than a million, is ruled by Xerxes (Santoro from TV’s “Lost”), a decadent, corrupt ruler who believes himself to be a God. Leonidas, enraged by the implied threats, executes the Persian contingent.

Knowing that this will provoke Persia into attacking Greece, he seeks the blessing of the Ephors, grotesque inbred priests who select the most beautiful young women in Sparta to act as Oracles (Craig), which involves a lot of writhing around while semi-nude and speaking in tongues. Leonidas is aware that the Persians will arrive during one of the most sacred religious festivals on the Spartan calendar, and he wants to be able to make an exception to the law and march his army to a narrow chasm called the Hot Portals, or Thermopylae. There, the overwhelming numeric advantage of the Persians will be rendered useless. The word from On High is that the Gods will protect the Spartans as long as they honor their religious commitments. That’s not the answer that Leonidas wanted to hear.

Powerless to bring the entire Spartan army to defend his people, he must settle for his own personal guard, which includes his Captain (Regan), the Captain’s son Astinos (Wisdom), the affable Stelios (Fassbender) and the taciturn Dilios (Wenham). They march off to battle, while members of the council, led by the politically savvy Theron (West) debate whether to send aid at all which boils the blood of their fierce Queen (Headey).

The Spartans are met by a vast host of the multi-cultural Persian Army and the over-the-top King Xerxes himself. No matter what the Persians throw at them, the hard-edged Spartans repel every attempt to defeat them. They are doing the impossible – holding the pass against an overwhelming force. However, those who know the story of the 300 know that the status quo will change and the stuff of legends will be born.

This is a gritty, ultraviolent movie that director Snyder (the Dawn of the Dead remake) keeps remarkably faithful to Miller’s graphic novel vision. The movie is largely filmed with green screen, rendering epic vistas and impossible sights, while allowing them to mute the lighting so that the movie seems to be filmed entirely at dusk in a kind of sepia-toned veneer. He brings the grotesque creatures of the graphic novel to life in a way that makes them seem realistic while keeping with Miller’s vision, a very difficult line to walk (if you’ve seen any of Lynn Varley’s artwork, you’ll know what I mean). The visuals are spectacular throughout.

Butler, who had theretofore hinted at stardom with impressive turns in Phantom of the Opera and Lara Croft: The Cradle of Life here does a star turn. His dialogue is delivered at full volume, and his face much of the time is contorted into a primal snarl (and for the ladies, he spends most of the movie wearing a black leather speedo), but he carries himself with a presence that commands your attention every moment he’s onscreen. Leonidas is king, yes, but he is also a man and his interactions with his wife and son give the movie it’s very few quiet moments. This is a starmaking turn and propelled Butler into the upper echelon of the Hollywood star hierarchy.

Headey makes a great foil for Butler, as strong and charismatic as he himself is. Her Queen Gorgo takes on Dominic West’s Theron without blinking an eyelash and shows herself to be as admirable a Spartan as any man. Santoro’s Xerxes is decadent, corrupt and a little bit fey. Regan, Wisdom, Fassbinder and Wenham do fine jobs as Leonidas’ inner circle – they’re Spartans all through and through. They go full bore and hold nothing back. In fact there are very few things that are anything less than the very highest volume. There are a few moments that are about the three quarter mark, particularly early on.

Otherwise this is a movie that was filmed at 11, and is meant to be played back at 11 (to use a Spinal Tap analogy). It is an overwhelming sensory experience that will release a surge of testosterone in all but the most non-masculine sorts and give women their opportunity to access their inner man. This isn’t the most historically accurate epic you’ll ever see, but think of it as a surreal dream version of history and that might salve the conscience of sticklers a little bit. So go, see the movie, and then go out and beat somebody up, preferably with a sword. If you’re wearing a leather speedo, so much the better. 

WHY RENT THIS: Stunning, innovative visuals and a star-making performance by Butler. Takes a graphic novel and cranks it up to “11.”

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The amount of testosterone flowing through this movie might be off-putting to someone who doesn’t like their movies quite so over-bearing.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some really graphic battleground violence, a bit of nudity and a little sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The quote attributed to Stelios here “Then we shall fight in the shade” when warned that the rain of Persian arrows will blot out the sun was actually spoken historically by a Spartan soldier named Dionekes.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a feature examining the historical license taken by Miller and by the filmmakers, comparing the events of the movie to what actually happened at Thermopylae. There is also a featurette on Miller, his early years and the writing of the original graphic novel. On the Blu-Ray edition is the original test footage Snyder used to sell the Warners executives on the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $456M on a $65M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Bridesmaids

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