Saturday, August 13, 2011

Movie Reviews-Ironclad, The Lincoln Lawyer, The Warrior's Way and more

written and directed by Jonathan English. 

Ironclad depicts the 1215 siege of Rochester Castle. King John was extremely angry at being forced to sign the Magna Carta. If a King's authority could be limited by men but the King received his authority from the Church and God, then the Magna Carta was not only treasonous but blasphemous. That was King John's (Paul Giamatti) opinion anyway, and he was sticking to it. Giamatti really chews up the scenery here and spits it out but the viewer will buy into his anguished and murderous outrage.

King John hires numerous Danish mercenaries. With his new best friends King John travels across Britain for friendly chats with the various barons or priests who forced him to sign the Magna Carta. When he meets them he just completely ruins their day. When the King inquires if that's your signature on the document, the correct answer to give is no. DO NOT respond with the 13th century equivalent of  "Yeah I signed it so whatchu gonna do about it, son?"  Not wise.

Rochester is the final castle that King John must subdue. The King is opposed by Baron Albany (Brian Cox) and a small group of big bad mofos (sort of a Magnificent Seven) that Albany recruits around England in a Blues Brothers "We're putting the band back together" montage. These roles aren't well fleshed out but they don't need to be. The group includes a young naive unblooded squire, a rambunctious brawler, a vicious fellow who claims to only be in it for the money, a ladies man, an older family man ready for One Last Assignment, a skilled archer, etc.

The deadliest warrior and pack Alpha Male is a Knight Templar named Marshall (James Purefoy). Marshall doesn't say much (at film's beginning he is under a vow of silence) and is haunted by atrocities he saw or committed on crusade. The film does not explicitly mention it but King Richard the Lionheart (King John's older brother) massacred over 3,000 Muslim prisoners at Acre. Marshall is undergoing a crisis of conscience because of his unparalleled skill at violence which violates both Christian scripture and perhaps his own nature.

The heroes reach Castle Rochester. They organize the castle to resist until the French cavalry arrives, over the pragmatic Castellan Cornhill's (Derek Jacobi) objections. Cornhill has a loveless marriage with his shapely young wife Isabel (Kate Mara) who immediately shows carnal interest in the celibacy sworn Marshall. Megan Fox was originally supposed to play this role. I enjoyed Mara in it more than I would have Fox. Fox is a caricature of desire while Mara is attractive but not cartoonish. She doesn't have a lot to do but she does it well.

King John's forces arrive. The REAL bloodletting begins. We've seen hints of Marshall's abilities but he takes it to that other level. This is an extremely brutally violent movie. I have new respect for the destructive capacity of a five and half-foot Templar sword. This film utilizes a hand-held "Saving Private Ryan" jittery shooting style for many battle scenes. These heroes aren't supermen. They get tired, hungry, irritable and make mistakes. Chances are excellent they won't all survive the siege. Ironclad employs tension effectively from beginning to end. Purefoy addressed the violence: 

"The first time I saw this film, I was really shocked by the violence in it, but I didn’t find it sexy or cool or glorified, in any way. I just found it real. It is sickeningly real, in many ways, and that’s the way violence really should be. Violence is a very ugly thing. Violence is often so casual on film, and made to look so cool and so sexy, but violence is a repulsive, repugnant act that human beings inflict on each other. It shouldn’t seem to be cool and sexy, ever really. That’s one of the reasons I liked it."
Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister for Game of Thrones fans) has a small role as Archbishop Langton, who supports the Magna Carta despite threat of excommunication. The film's dialogue is not great. There are a few acerbic one liners. The best lines belong to the choleric King John, who in a magnificent monologue of spittle specked spite explains exactly what divine right is and why it is so important that he keep it. Ironclad is lower budget but well crafted. With heavyweight actors like Cox, Giamatti, Jacobi, Purefoy and Dance involved we see that good actors and good directing win out every time. Despite some glaring historical inaccuracies I liked this movie. However I'm a genre fan. YMMV. If you like "last stand" or "siege" type movies this is worthwhile. If violence sickens you, stay away from this film. Now where did I leave my two-handed sword...

The Lincoln Lawyer
This was a so-so drama starring Matthew McConaughey as the titular Mick Haller. Mick's a defense lawyer who doesn't mind stretching the rules to defend his client. He often does business from his Town Car backseat. Mick demands cash upfront. He has an on-again off again relationship with his ex-wife (Marisa Tomei) and spreads around cash and favors to court workers to recruit clients, get info or move his cases ahead of schedule.
Mick is hired to defend a wealthy young man (Ryan Phillipe) accused of attempted rape. The case is complex. Mick finds himself simultaneously trying to solve old crimes, defend his client, uphold justice system ethics, protect his family, stay alive and stay out of jail. Interesting but most story twists were telegraphed in advance. No real surprises. The movie ran a little long but it wasn't the worst way to spend 2 hrs. One thing which I didn't care for was that the film's only black character was Mick's driver who evidently has criminal contacts (as does Mick) and calls Mick "boss" all the time. Not "Mick"-not "Mr. Haller"-just "boss". Ok Rochester. This film also featured Michael Pena, William Macy, John Leguizamo, and Trace Adkins.

The Warrior's Way
This tells an old story which has been told millions of times before and will likely be told just as many times again, long after everyone reading this is dust. There are some basic themes which just work. Or they would work if people executed them properly. In this case, sad to say, the director and writer(s) didn't. So what should have been a solid revenge or moral rebirth movie, complete with some really astonishing visuals and vivid colors, just fell flat. This could have been a zany hit or underground cult flick. The direction and cinematography is as if Fellini, Woo, Coppola and Sergio Leone all got drunk and made a film together. But this movie just doesn't work.

There are a few reasons for this. In most stories, the hero gets the girl. That is often the primary motivation and definition for being the hero. Men and women suffer for each other (the vicious beatings of Clarence and Alabama inTrue Romance) and/or protect each other (Trinity arguably resurrects Neo in The Matrix). Of course there are stories where the man and woman pass in the night (much of film noir) but you need a good reason for deviating from this trope. This film doesn't give such a reason leaving me with a suspicion that the color difference between the lead actor and lead actress might have been a consideration. Dunno. Regardless, this was a disjointed film. It needed a better villain. The protagonist did not impress.

Yang (Jang Dong-Gun), a swordsman/assassin of unearthly skill and indeterminate nationality has successfully killed his clan's last rival. However the enemy had a small baby. Yang's orders are to kill all of that clan. He balks at killing a child. He takes the infant and flees to America. Yang arrives in a western town populated solely by a circus troupe populated by lovable losers. This troupe is watched over by a black dwarf named 8-ball (Tony Cox) (so funny I forgot to laugh) and an attractive tomboyish young woman named Lynne (Kate Bosworth).

A outlaw gang led by The Colonel (Danny Huston) routinely shows up to kill people and rape women. Via flashback we see that years before The Colonel attempted to rape the then underage Lynne. When her family tried to protect her The Colonel murdered her family and left Lynne for dead. Lynne wants revenge. When Lynne discovers that Yang is a sword expert she pesters him to teach her. Karate Kid scenes (mixed with tentative romance) ensue. Yang seeks to overcome his violent past. However Yang's former friends are tracking him. And The Colonel is due to show up soon. I liked the film's visual style. Bosworth is easy on the eyes. But the film could not effectively either use or transcend the Western and Martial Arts cliches.

Big Night
directed by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott

This is a quiet film about the love of family and good food. In fifties era New Jersey two Italian-American brothers and restaurant owners have reached a personal and business crossroads. The older brother Primo (Tony Shalhoub) is the very incarnation of Old School. Primo is the chef. He doesn't serve food until HE knows it's right. And he insists on making real Italian food, not Americanized versions with more cheese and fat. And if the customers don't like it well then they should go elsewhere. Primo will happily show them the door. 

The younger brother Secondo (Stanley Tucci) is the maitre'd and manager for the restaurant. He has to soothe customers outraged when the prideful Primo insults their understanding of Italian cuisine or takes too long to deliver an order. As manager, Secondo knows that the restaurant can't last much longer. He's already ducking creditors.

The brothers' situation is made worse because their rival, the jovial Pascal (Ian Holm) owns a nearby restaurant. Pascal doesn't mind catering to more pedestrian tastes. He's doing well financially and looking to expand. Pascal has offered to hire the brothers, something that both Primo and Secondo decline. Undeterred, he tells them that they need a "big night" to bring in more customers. Pascal offers to have Louis Prima show up at their restaurant. Excited, the brothers mortgage everything that isn't already mortgaged in order to raise funds for one last shot at the big time. Secondo is aided by his girlfriend Phyllis (Minnie Driver) who wants him to commit. Secondo doesn't want to do that until he's successful.

This movie mixes drama and comedy which is not the easiest thing to do. It has some appealing things to say about the conflict between art and commerce as shown by the differences between the two brothers. And anyone who really likes food and enjoys preparing it will probably enjoy this movie. Tucci and Shalhoub are quite demonstrative and expressive performers. Marc Anthony, Liev Schreiber and Isabella Rossellini also star.

This film departed from the sadistic hyperviolent torture flicks that dominate the modern horror/sci-fi genre. Splice is not as action packed or as violent as the trailer indicates. With a few notable exceptions, Splice doesn't depict much violence or use jumpy camera shots until the movie's final 20 minutes.
Two young genius scientists (and lovers) who are searching for a protein to heal animal (and human) diseases decide for reasons both scientific and personal to splice human DNA into their latest batch.

The Frankenstein theme is obvious (the two taboo breaking scientists ,Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley, are named Clive and Elsa while their creation, Dren is a dead ringer for Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein) but MUCH more than Frankenstein it's Freud that provides the film's true horror. (Of course one could argue that Frankenstein itself is Freudian but that's a different post)
It's the implications of parenting and familial separation that create the scares, not the special effects. The ultimate horror can be betrayal by or becoming like one's parent. Splice explores the corporate driven amorality of patenting life. I'd be surprised if the film's director and/or writers were not at least sympathetic to animal rights arguments. This film echoes those debates. Pets or children didn't ask to exist and deserve protection, not exploitation.

Splice's true fright isn't the "monster" created but in the motives and moral blind spots of her "parents". Clive and Elsa are the bent ones here. Their uneven and dishonest relationship with each other colors everything that happens.  Freudian horrors abound.

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