Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Eagle

An enjoyable but ultimately frustrating tale which falls short of the high standards it sets itself. The plot is a classic adventure yarn, and the setting, in the Scottish Highlands is spectacular. Director Kevid McDonald, whose credits include "Touching the Void" knows how to use a landscape to dramatic effect. But somewhere along the way the screen play fails to join up the dots, so although there are a number of very good set pieces the whole fails to satisfy. The American speaking actors are the invaders, the British the locals, whether this is supposed to have any wider geo-political significance, I don't know.

Fundamentally an adventure story the plot unfolds in highly episodic form. The opening is outstanding. A remote Roman outpost receives a rookie new commanding officer, Marcus Aquila, played by Channing Tatum, haunted by his father's disappearance as commander of the 9th Legion and determined to learn of his fate. The garrison initially regard him with suspicion , distrust and as a bad omen. Yet he wins them over in leading the defence of the fort against a local uprising in by far the best scene of the movie. It is the classic "cowboys and Indians defence of the fort" scene. But from this promising start, the energy levels drop.

A gladiatorial combat scene then follows with the purpose of introducing a native slave, Esca, played by Jamie Bell, whose life he saves from death, and who is thus indebted to him. Oddly, so concerned is McDonald with using this as a plot device that the considerable dramatic potential of the amphitheatre is largely wasted.

Esca then becomes Aquila's scout, as well as guide, as he resolves to venture past Hadrian's Wall to find out what fate befell his father and Legion and recover their standard the eponymous "Eagle". This quest seeking 20 year old news is the least satisfactory section. They survive an ambush and wander around a lot, and that is about it. The intrigue as to whether Esca is being true in his interpreting with the locals is all that keeps things going. The dynamic of the relationship between Esca and Aquila beyond the debt of honour lies unexplained. McDonald with "State of Play" and "last King of Scotland" has shown himself to be very adept at displaying relationships on screen, but the unevenness in the characterisation of Aquila and Esca prevent that success here.

After stumbling on a naturalised Legionaire survivor, the two of them are taken to the tribal Seal camp for the second high spot of the film. Esca's loyalty is brought further into doubt, the Eagle is revealed and Esc and Aquila escape with it. The camp, a coming of age warrior ceremony, the theft and escape, are brilliantly realised. But for the final act it all becomes a bit of a mish-mash.

Two men in the wilderness escaping from an entire village is only likely to have one outcome, and although wonderfully photographed it lacks dramatic tension. To compensate for this we have a truly preposterous climax. Esca miraculously rounds up a dozen or so hitherto unknown 9th legion survivors, all anxious to put right the dishonour of their original defeat, all of whom look 40 plus, who then proceed to wipe out the entire warrior population of the chasing village. Although several of the themes echo Michael Mann's classic version of "Last of the Mohicans" it fails to scale those heights.

Aquila returns triumphant, his father's honour is restored and he slave Esca is set free. If that all sounds a bit twee it is because it is. The authentic Gaelic style music, becomes a bit grating after a while with lots of "Clannad" style female warbling and wailing. Furthermore the dynamic of the story is lopsided as Jamie Bell in a supporting role has a far more nuanced character to play than Channing who has to look pretty, tough and worry about his father's reputation. The British/ Seal natives also speak in a subtitled dialect resulting in the characterisation of the "enemy" being limited, so the good versus evil dynamic is given little space to breathe. This is compounded by the problem that the natural sympathy of a neutral observer to a tale of invader seeking to subjugate a local populace is with the native population, not the invader. Yet Aquila is the hero. The scenes with indeterminate Roman officials ( amongst them Donald Sutherland) are uniformly embarrassing and superfluous.

In conclusion, worth seeing, but it fails to meet the standards it aspires to, and should have achieved

Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Lovely Bones

An Unlovely Mess, 19 March 2011

Author: gary-444 from United Kingdom

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

There are occasions when you watch a film, understand its merit, but simply reflect that it doesn't work for you. This is one such film. The book by Alice Sebold is much acclaimed, Director Peter Jackson is hugely experienced and vastly accomplished, as is executive producer Steven Spielberg, so what is it that doesn't work?

The premise, of a murdered girl, Susie Salmon, played by Saorise Ronan, leading her parents, Jack and Abigail, to her killer from a spiritual nether world is an intriguing one. The cgi and staging of the girls scenes in spiritual limbo are fine, it's the ones on terra firma that disappoint.

The planning and execution of the murder are understated which weaken the drama, there is no sense of horror about what has happened. Parents Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz convincingly portray grief stricken parents, but this in turn is undermined by an almost comic turn by Susan Sarandon as a grandmother Lyn.

Attention soon focuses on the real killer as Susie Salmon leads her family towards the clues, but for little obvious terrestrial reason. This is no Revenger's Tragedy ,and by the end, I found myself simply willing the end, which when it did come, was pretty unsatisfactory. Prior to this, Susie's father is beaten up by a teenage lad who has his romantic assignation with his girlfriend disturbed as Jack charges through the high crops in a field in a grief stricken frenzy reprising the actual voyeurism of the real killer. But so annoying has his role become that instead of sympathising with him for his injuries , the viewer is tempted to think he deserved it for being so irritating.

There is a gripping opening to the final act when Susie's sister breaks into the killers house and steals a notebook containing vital evidence causing the perpetrator to flee. But the climax wholly ignores the police, and presumable family ,chase to catch up with him, to cut to a very strange, anti-climactic final scene.

Shorn of visceral action, and with much of the film set in Susies' dream world, the reality sequences are simply not enough to carry the story over the line of credibility. Brian Eno's score is excellent, but its surreal ambiance only further distances the viewer from emotionally connecting with the story. Ronan's performance of Susie is anaemic, and bad guy George Harvey, played by Stanley Tucci, simply isn't sinister enough to really generate much viewer ill will. Investigating officer Fenerman played by Michael Imperioli has a cruelly underwritten scene and the end result is a film that goes nowhere in particular. Massively over-hyped watch on no-pay TV or borrow someone's DVD only.

Battle: Los Angeles

Mindless but Satisfactory Popcorn Fun, 13 March 2011

Author: gary-444 from United Kingdom

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This is the first time that Director Jonathan Leibesman has been given a big budget – and it shows. A deeply conservative movie, "Battle" is overflowing with CGI special effects, and bankrupt of original story. Hero Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz, played by Aaron Eckhart, is the personification of the John Wayne archetype, chiselled, patriotic, questioned, but made of the right stuff. He leads a small band of brothers against an alien enemy, and naturally triumphs.

An enormous amount of US military hardware is on show here. The co-operation of the Pentagon depends upon a suitably patriotic script, and they will have had no complaints on that score. Frequently you could be forgiven for thinking that you were watching a Marine Corps training film. The stars and stripes flutter, sacrifice in Iraq is quoted, blacks, Hispanics and women fight heroically side by side, and phalanxes of helicopters swoop and soar whilst jets zoom overhead. Retreat? Hell no!

You want cliché? You get it. Nantz is a twenty year old veteran who has just handed in his resignation papers when the call to rescue his country comes. The brother of a man who has died under his command in a failed previous mission now comes under his command. The woman may not be able to kick ass as well as the boys – bur she is clever. A civilian who is being rescued rallies to fight the invaders- and sacrifices his life. His young son is comforted by a female vet who is on hand to be both motherly, and identify a wounded alien's vital weak spot. And the dog survives! The running time of almost two hours is a little long, and the noise relentless. If there are lulls in battles, Leibesman forgets this. Which is not to say that the film is not without any merit. The cravenly contrived script works because the devices are so well worn, and the script is barely noticeable as most of it is shouted. If in doubt, they are saying "cover me", "watch my back" or "hostiles 6 0'clock". Visually, it is hugely impressive and plays like a gigantic computer game, and with no bad language kids will love it.

But despite heroism and spectacle the story fails because of a fundamental flaw. The classic conflict stories are about good versus evil, and the aliens have no voice. It is speculated that they have come to colonise and take earth's natural resources, but this is presented as an aside. So there is no personal struggle. The destruction of the alien command and control module is the symbolic victory, but a disintegrating hovering heap of junk is no substitute for a fallen defeated figure.

The overwhelming sense is of similarities with British WW2 propaganda films to rally morale at home . Afghanistan, Iraq, Al Qaeda, Bin Laden and Libya might be tricky, but our Marines can still whip alien ass!

Fair Game

A Fair Film, 17 March 2011

Author: gary-444 from United Kingdom

It is impossible to separate the artistic merits of this film from the politics. The core story is of a CIA agent whose husband exposes flaws in the Bush policy on Iraq but who suffers the consequences herself. It is anti – Bush, but tries a little too hard not to appear anti-patriotic by presenting itself as being pro core American values. Naomi Watts plays the CIA Agent Valerie Plame, Sean Penn her husband, ex diplomat and US Ambassador Joe Wilson. Plame is a field agent for whom duplicity comes with the job, ex- Ambassador Wilson's job would have entailed him being a realpolitik expert. But what prompts Wilson to turn whistle-blower, with the inevitable disastrous consequences for his family, and why Plame acquiesces, is never adequately explained, despite this being based upon a true story.

The screenplay itself works well. Watts must have been delighted to win a lead ,serious role, and she excels with Sean Penn playing in secondary support. She convinces in her part , and the fieldwork scenes abroad are pacey and well staged. The dialogue is wry, sharp and authentic too. Ironically, the problem for the film comes when Wilson exposes the Governments misrepresentation of Iraq's WMD programme. From that point on the drama doesn't really work, when things should be speeding up. I found myself checking my watch on a film I was enjoying with 20 minutes to go.

The inevitability that the Presidential machine will win takes the sting out of this tale. We know that "the good guys" don't win, and the consequences for Plame are hardly unexpected, so there is very little space for the story to move in. Wilson's figure earnestly tries to compensate by making worthy declarations of truth, honour and justice and even summons the spirit of Franklin Roosevelt but the scenes look increasingly desperate. Director Doug Liman with credits in two of the "Bourne Trilogy" films is at home in Iraq, Cairo and Kuala Lumpur but simply does not have enough to work with in the final act.

That Saddam was a bad man and a destabilising influence in the Middle East is beyond reasonable doubt. That the French were right that the UN sanctions had worked and were working is an uncomfortable truth which the neo-con element of American politics has never faced up to. It is here that again the film falls short. There was a heavier blow to land – but it stops short of doing so. At some point popular US opinion will ask whether the sacrifice of so many young American servicemen and women were worth it – and a film will answer that question, but this is not that film.

Nonetheless, Watts will look back on this film as her best performance to date, and Penn will savour another finely nuanced role which questions the establishment. Although those with well tuned political antenna will be frustrated by some elements of the historical context of the story, those just seeking a straight forwards political thriller should be satisfied.

I Love You Phillip Morris

Bold Comedy Drama, 12 March 2011

Author: gary-444 from United Kingdom

A brave, non-mainstream, story which comes off against the odds. Jim Carrey plays a regular married policeman, Steven Russell, struggling with his sexuality, who has a near fatal car crash, reappraises his life, and survives to embrace an outrageous, excessive, unsustainable gay lifestyle. Fraud leads to prison, where he meets Phillip Morris, played by Ewan McGregor, whom he falls in love with.

The strength of this film is that a gay love story is told in a conventional way. Carrey gives his finest acting performance since The Truman Show, Ewan McGreggor is superb as his fey, effeminate lover. When Russell is released, he then turns his slick talking con-man skills to secure Morris's freedom in an amusing, clever and fast paced plot.

The central gay theme and scenes may alienate a sector of the ordinary film going public, which is a shame. Co –Directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra have written a sharp, enjoyable screenplay which twists and turns, but is essentially about a con man who finds truth in a love affair. Highly recommended.

One Hour Photo

A Neat Compact Thriller, 13 February 2011

Author: gary-444 from United Kingdom

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A well crafted, low budget, psychological thriller that succeeds because of its' restraint. Robin Williams stars as a middle aged single loner, Si Parrish, who works in the photo development lab at a supermarket. He lives his life dealing with memento's of events which others wish to remember, their photographs. But is it to replace that which he wishes to forget? Williams is terrific. Quiet, creepy, with just a hint of menace and violence he insidiously works his way into the lives of a perfect couple, possibly replacing his own less than perfect past life, past and present, with theirs.

Connie Neilsen and Michael Vartan play as husband and wife , Nina and Will Yorkin whose superficially attractive life collapses as Parrish finds the cracks. The sets are limited, mainly a shopping mall, the Yorkin's home, and a Hotel giving the feel of a stage play, and it is the script, the words, the dialogue which dominate.

The final act is strong, yet still Director and writer Mark Romanek pulls his punches. The sexual dimension which could easily have been gratuitously exploited, isn't. The violence which simmers under the surface is not fully realised. The only truly unexplored element is why he surrenders everything in a Pyhrric victory. Photographic, framing and picture allusions abound both obvious, and subtle, and the one and a half hour running time is perfect for the story. Romaneks previous work has been mainly with Music Video which will have helped with the stylised presentation and limited sets, but to his credit he also shows an ability to tell an extended narrative outside of his milieu.

Although this falls short on the sex and violence and edge of your seat tension stakes, it is nonetheless satisfying in its own right and can be looked back on with pride by all involved.


Enjoyable Nonsense, 22 January 2011

Author: gary-444 from United Kingdom

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A far- fetched, but action packed, knockabout spy yarn that defies rational analysis but is entertaining enough. Angelina Jolie stars as Salt, the CIA operative who is ostensibly outed by a Russian defector. What follows is an increasingly preposterous series of stunts and plot developments saved by some very good action scenes.

Director Phillip Noyce knows his way around the spy/action genre through the Tom Clancy conceived Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, and also The Saint. The opening scene has a suitably lascivious shot of Salt being tortured in her underwear. Thereafter she dispatches America's and Russia's finest with ease.

The Russian stereotypes are lazy, and the sacrifice of realism for action ludicrous. Yet it is all well done, the story zips along going from one set-piece action sequence to the next. Jolie struggles with the script, a small part of it is trying to be a bona fide spy yarn, but for the rest she is Lara Croft, a fantasy indestructible Amazon.

Not to be taken too seriously.