The Eagle (2011)

February 17, 2011

I remember when King Arthur (2004), the Clive Owen movie about how legendary English heroes were really Roman legionnaires, first came out. It was the first time I was introduced to the Hadrian wall-type period flick. It was an interesting concept at the time, but I have to admit, as open minded as I was to it…It was rather cheesy. Man was that dialogue melodramatic, even for a major Hollywood flick.

Since that senario didn’t seem to go anywhere for a long time after King Arthur, I had long assumed the Romans in Britain schtick wasn’t meant to be. And then this new film comes out, starring a cast of relatively young and mostly unknown actors, about a bunch of legionnaires “north of the wall”. I started having deja vu big time. The ads looked like typical Clash of the Titans material. My expectations were rather low.

Fortunately, The Eagle surpasses King Arthur in every way. In fact, I dare say the Eagle is a thinking man’s King Arthur, if for no other reason that it makes the Roman frontier movie a surprisingly cool concept. Of course, this might be because the story doesn’t portray mythical characters in a peculiar new way while taking itself too seriously, but I digress.

The story of the Eagle is that a young centurion commander named Marcus Aquila (played by Channing Tatum) has taken command of a neglected fort near the edge of the Roman Empire. There’s always a Marcus in movies about ancient Rome, isn’t there? He specifically wants to serve in this part of the world, because his father commanded a legion that mysteriously disappeared without a trace. Naturally, not knowing what happened to his old man drives our young hero crazy, but the Roman elites also regard the father as a failure or even a coward, because he failed to bring back the golden eagle his legion carried as their standard. Such symbols are especially sacred, at least in this movie. I kind of think it as being like the flags soldiers would bear during battles in the 1700s and 1800s.

Marcus, enraged by a rude aristocrat who insults his family name, takes his British slave, Esca, (Jamie Bell) and ventures beyond the Hadrian wall in search of the lost eagle on a quest to restore honor to his family, and prove his father and he are good Roman soldiers. Of course, this isn’t a simple and easy task. the idol could be anywhere in the northern hills, and the various tribes and cultures are all venomously intolerant of unwelcome Roman invaders. If he is discovered, he would be immediately killed, and thus he must rely on his native slave, whose trustworthiness is questionable. After all, one slit of Marcus’ throat, and little Esca isn’t a slave any more.

I didn’t expect this movie to have as good as a plot as it did, and it was written pretty well. There were a number of twists and turns, and some of them were surprises. There are some issues with it, particularly some plot holes near the final climax, but even then the ending is still kind of neat. I’m not sure I believe that the Romans were quite as obsessed with the golden eagle symbol as the film makes them out to be, but it works for the purposes of this movie. It does seem though that there would be more motivation for actually finding out what happened to the people in the lost legion, but I guess the logic is that they are probably long dead since those soldiers had been missing for decades. If you see this film, you will see why the situation with the missing legionnaires becomes problematic. However, the convenient plot devices honestly didn’t bother me too much that I didn’t enjoy what was going on.

Whereas King Arthur had some strange ideas of what constitutes a proper weapon of warfare (Bors and his silly little knives come to mind) and had Clive Owen and company don some baudy suits of armor, the Eagle actually looks really good. The armor looks great, the locals look grim and exotic. A lot of the locals have that Boba Fett appeal. Boba Fett never really had a big part in the Star Wars films, but he looked freaking awesome. His mystique gave him so much character that in spite of only having one or two lines in the whole movie, he actually developed his own niche in the geek world. Well, there are quite a few characters that kind of have that mysterious cool look about them that spice up the dull, muddy northern countryside. Guys in big cloaks and manly beards. The blue seal people are kind of new and strange to me, and kind of look like the Na’vi from Avatar, but they fit the bill as far as being scary bad guys and all.

The biggest complaint I have was Donald Sutherland. He was the biggest name in the picture, but he was very out of place. Its odd enough that for whatever reason Romans are always played with a British accent when it makes more sense for them to be played by Italians (I must admit, that’s one thing King Arthur did do right), but it really messes things up when you suddenly get a Roman noble with a thick North American cowboy accent. That’s random.

This movie isn’t perfect by any means, but I think that for what it is, and for the post-King Arthur Romans-in-Britain theme it has bravely adopted, this is actually well worth a watching. If you don’t want to pay for movie ticket now, at least get it on Netflix, but a film this pretty deserves to be seen on the big screen.

7.9 out of 10.

“Quantum Solace” (2008)

November 24, 2008

Something was certainly shaken, but I'm not talking about the martinis.

 

I remember the time when I, like many others, eagerly awaited the opening of Casino Royale. Not only was there a new Bond to carry on the 007 legacy, but the entire franchise was moving in a new, more realistic direction. It was very successful, too. It may have been a change of pace, but it brought a great deal of seriousness to the James Bond characters while retaining the intense action sequences. While the new Bond was alien to us, it was clear that in time he would grow into the smirking British spy we have all come to know and love.

Quantum of Solace (2008) was supposed to be the bridge between Bond the heart broken and Bond the badass.  I excitedly awaited this movie just as I did when Casino Royale came out, even though I saw it a week after its initial release. Unfortunately, the twenty-second entry in the 007 franchise was not what I thought it would be.

The plot is pretty similar to the classic Bond movies. MI-6 finds out that the villians are part of a huge global secret organization, and they don’t know much about them other than the organization is evil. Bond is constantly chastized for being too reckless (and rightly so), but nonetheless goes in to check things out.  If anything, he is still eager to get revenge for the murder of Vespa, his lover from Casino Royale. Of course, he picks up one or two other chicks along the way, one of them being another spy. Throughout the movie M is constantly panicing from her little safe haven, falling easily for the villians’ misinformation. After confronting a series of loathsome baddies, Bond is able to find out more about the organization and comes closer to finding Vespa’s killer. The extra element of revenge gives the plot a little more dimension, especially since Bond is still a bit young and inexperienced.

While the storyline might be normal for a Bond flick, the cinematography and editing are very different from the traditional 007 movies. This is particularly true for the action sequences. Director Marc Forster and his production team went with the dirty, intense cinetographic style as the Bourne franchise. Although this look might be getting popular with action films, it usually doesn’t work, and Quantum of Solace features several chase scenes that can be more disorienting than entertaining. Many shots throughout the film are so quick and sloppy that it hurts the film more than helps, which is sad because some of the visuals are truly creative and interesting. Most people would rather see a Bond film for the action and excitement, and unfortunately they are going to be disappointed. The action itself is often lame and nonsensical, even for a Bond movie. We’ve seen far better boat chases in many other Bond flicks, all of them with proper composition. Sure, these movies often are cheesy and over the top, but why is a villian taking refuge in a hotel with exploding walls, and why the Hell is it in the middle of a desert?

Once again, Daniel Craig pulls off the intense and convincing performance we saw in Casino Royale. Pyshically, he is also the most impressive actor to ever play Bond. Craig performs many of his own stunts. Towards the end, he injured his hand during a fight scene. You don’t get many actors that are that hardcore.

However, the things the spy does in this film are very erratic, even for a reckless 007. He acts more like a murderous thug than a spy. Everytime he encounters a suspicious character he instinctively kills them, without bothering to investigate. he a special agent, or an assasin? He was never this inept at spywork, even when he started out in Casino Royale. I’m guessing that these rampages are the result of Bond’s thirst for revenge, but he seems awfully cool and detacted for that to be the case. The concept might be there, but the execution is off. Meanwhile, M is on the other end of the spectrum, and never seems to calm down. Bond’s CIA friend, felix, simply drinks himself silly. My, what a cheery little group of people! For once I’m starting to miss the charming campiness of Thunderball (1965).

Yet, this flick isn’t all doom and gloom. While Bond might be a little crazy, he still manages to seduce beautiful women and pull off an amusing pun every once in a while. Everyone’s favorite swanky Brit undergoes a great deal of character growth, and eventually evovles into the womanizing do-gooder we recognize, but up until then he is an entirely different creature. The film was always supposed to be dark, but there is so much anxiety built up in this film that it becomes too dark and nihilistic. The negativity is obvious, but the character development is not.

5.0 out of 10

“Appaloosa”

October 20, 2008

I took a bit of a long break, didn’t I? I’ll be sure to make up for it…a lot has happened these past few weeks, and there is a great deal to talk about. First, though, let’s have a movie review…

Appaloosa (2008) is obviously a new film, but it is interesting to see a western on the big screen these days. Westerns are no longer as popular as they might once have been, but the few westerns that  have come out recently seem to have a fair amount of success. A few people seem to be passionately driven to keep the genre alive, such as Kevin Costner. Many new actors often star in westerns too, including actors from foreign countries such as Russell Crow and Christain Bale.

And now, we have Ed Harris’s Appaloosa. Forgive me if I refer to Open Range (2003). There are a few similarities that I recognized between the two films. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Appaloosa is the thinking man’s Open Range. The characters are somewhat more mature and three-dimensional. Even better, they have some of the rough attitude Clint Eastwood had as the nameless gunslinger.

Appaloosa is the story of a pair of gunmen who arrive in Appaloosa to enforce the law after the original town sheriff and his men were shot by a nearby rancher, played by Jeremy Irons. MUch to the town officials’ chagrin, the more experienced of the two lawmen, Virgil Cole, insists that he will dictate the law as well as enforce it. Again, this is similar theme to one of Clint Eastwood’s cowboy flicks, Hang ‘Em High. Later, the attractive Allison French (played by Renee Zellweger) comes to town and develops a relationship with Virgil.  All the while, the omnious rancher Randall Bragg and his gang threaten the town, and Virgil and his partner Everett Hitch (Vigo Mortensen) confront him.

Obviously the two main characters are somewhat similar to the two main characters from Open Range. Ed Harris is the mentor and alpha male, and Vigo Mortensen is the veteran gunman. There was also a romantic interest in Open Range. How Appaloosa differs from Open Range is the maturity and moral ambiguity it gives its characters. Sure, Costner’s character had his share of guilt, but whereas he merely disabled captured henchmen, Virgil and Everett shoot them. They sometimes even intimidate their own employers, whether they intend to or not.

The plot is pretty conventional, but it does have its moments. In most westerns, its pretty obvious who is going to win. After all, how could John Wayne or Clint Eastwood ever lose against a snide bandit? However, that is what makes Appaloosa so interesting. We see the foreshadowing signs of a plot twist, but it is difficult to predict how some characters will react to things.  The heroes are clearly experts of their craft, but they are by no means perfect. They get overconfident, jealous, nervous, all the things we all feel in the real world. They are not weak, but they are not infallible either. That obviously doesn’t mean that everything the characters do and say will be new or different from every other western, but in general this genre is firmly rooted to its traditions. Think of it this way; what kind of western doesn’t invovle a saloon fight or a high tension standoff?

However, whereas the screenwriting is pretty decent, the acting tends to be hit and miss. There are a few British actors that seem awkward when they speak. One British actor seems to be playing a Southerner, but can’t pull off the accent. Some of the silent exchanges between Virgil and Everett are a tad exaggerated and goofy. With that being said, Ed Harris plays a tough cowboy effortlessly. Why he doesn’t play cowboys more often is a mystery. He has the face like a bronze statue; as long as I could remember he always had the lines of old age, but he doesn’t appear to be any older in Appaloosa than he did in Enemy at the Gates (2001). Its the same kind of seasoned tough guy look Eastwood had. Vigo Mortensen performs quite well too, possibly even better than Harris does. Unfortunately, even the good acting is sometimes hampered with weird technical issues with the camera. Sometimes things are not in focus when they should be.

Appaloosa is a very interesting movie, and it is a great modern western. With proper advertising, this could have been a big hit, and any hardcore fan of westerns will likely enjoy this film.

 

7.7 out of 10