Saturday, July 9, 2011

Movie Reviews-The Eagle, Battle:Los Angeles, Elizabeth and more

The Eagle
The Eagle gives a different take on the Roman Ninth Legion's disappearance, which was source material for the film Centurion which I watched earlier. The Eagle starts the story about two decades past the events shown in Centurion. Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) is a Roman centurion who is the son of the Ninth's commander. He comes to Britain to wash away his family's shame by recapturing the Legion's standard, the eagle. 
Everyone thinks this is ridiculous but after Aquila proves his mettle as garrison commander he wins his soldiers' respect. However they still have no wish to follow him north of the wall, the massive fortification which separate the wild lands of Caledonia (Scotland) from Roman conquered Britain. And once the injured Aquila is forcibly retired from the Army, his men are under no obligation to help him regain the standard. And they don't. 

Ironically the only person that Aquila can even remotely count on in his quest for his father's standard is a Pictish slave, Esca (Jamie Bell) who he capriciously saved from the gladiator's pit and on whom he will rely for translation and to lead him through the North. Despite his rescue from death Esca is not fond of Romans in general or Aquila in particular. Seeing your female relatives raped and your male relatives killed tends to have that effect on you.

This should have been a better movie but really it seems like the director and Tatum were both channeling too much Huckleberry Finn. The  Northern Celtic tribes look like American Indians and the Aquila/Esca relationship doesn't work. The battle scenes stand up to those in Centurion but there is no real antagonist for Aquila to test himself against or for the audience to get invested in seeing Aquila defeat. So-so.   The Eagle Trailer

Battle:Los Angeles
This is the movie that Skyline should have been. Much like Skyline there is an alien attack on Los Angeles that everyone initially mistakes for a meteor shower. So a group of Marines, including a veteran Staff Sergeant (Aaron Eckheart) who had just put in his discharge paperwork are ordered to help with civilian evacuation.  What is a movie without some form of "One Last Job". 
His new platoon includes several types-the naive rural guy, the virgin, the just-engaged guy,  the heavily accented African, the street smart east coast Italian wiseass, the green leader (a lieutenant who is on his first assignment and wants to do everything by the book) and so on but none of this is portrayed offensively. The platoon is indeed a diverse group of men.

The main issue between the Staff Sergeant and his new platoon is that in Iraq, during an ambush the Staff Sergeant allegedly made some mistakes that got several Marines killed, including the brother of one of the platoon Corporals. So between the green nervous Lieutanant and Eckheart the men don't exactly feel like they have the best leadership. 
Once the battle between humans and aliens REALLY kicks off though Eckheart shows that his leadership skills and ass-kicking qualities are second to none. This is an enjoyable action movie. It doesn't require a lot of deep thought but I liked it because no character does anything mind numbingly stupid and some black people actually survive. Go figure.

Not Prince's backup band circa 1984
Elizabeth has a very deliberate visual and thematic similarity to The Godfather. The director, Shekhar Kapur, purposely did this, was not shy about pointing it out and shamelessly lifted the entire infamous "Communion" scene from The Godfather, right down to the ominous baroque music and church motifs. But the film is more than The Godfather meets Hamlet and may be enjoyed completely on its own merits, by people who have never seen, do not wish to see, or did not enjoy The Godfather.
I can not say this enough-Elizabeth is a masterfully shot and choreographed film. The scenery, settings, lighting and clothing are incredible. The film does play fast and loose with many many facts surrounding this period but that's why it's a movie, not a history book.
Elizabeth starts with an ugly scene of heretics being burnt alive. They are Protestants but for the determinedly Catholic Queen Mary I of England, known as "Bloody Mary" for just these sorts of actions, Protestantism IS heresy.  As Queen, Mary embarked on a crusade to purge England of Protestants as well as eliminate actual or possible challengers to her throne-primarily her own relatives.
A person who was both Protestant and a possible threat to Mary's rule was Mary's younger half-sister Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett). Mary keeps her under arrest and monitors her communications but for whatever reason decides not to kill her. Mary is old and sick with uterine cancer. She dies, leaving the religiously divided kingdom in the hands of a young unsure girl.  
The Pope (Gielgud) doesn't intend to tolerate a Protestant ruler. The Royal Treasury is running low. The Anglican Church and Parliament are each convinced they have a puppet to use. Elizabeth's lover, Dudley (Joseph Fiennes) may have a wandering eye and ulterior motives. Mary of Guise (regent of Scotland) and the Spanish are in open opposition to her. Some English nobles think accepting a woman ruler is preposterous and are certain they could do a better job as ruler. Elizabeth's primary counselor, the avuncular but totally ineffective Cecil (Richard Attenborough) won't stop bugging her about getting married, as since she is "just a woman" , she can't possibly hope to rule on her own. 
The film portrays a hero's journey for Elizabeth. She must change and grow from a young naive girl who is manipulated by others to a strong Queen who states "I will have one mistress and no master! " Power is who Elizabeth marries and the film grimly shows exactly what that entails. Again, the use of light and scenery is superb. Some of the film's scenes were shot in Durham Cathedral and the viewer gets to enjoy the late Romanesque/Early Gothic feel of that place. 
Look for Geoffrey Rush as Walsingham, a sort of combination Luca Brasi and Tom Hagen for Elizabeth. He is very dangerous, very intelligent and extremely loyal. He handles her intelligence services. Other names of note include Mr. Monica Bellucci (Vincent Cassel), Christopher Eccleston, Daniel Craig, Emily Mortimer and Fanny Ardant. This was a fun film. It is literally impossible to picture anyone other than Blanchett in this role. She was that good. Don't bother seeing the sequel. Elizabeth Trailer

Malena starred Monica Bellucci in the title role. At the time of the film's release Bellucci was (still is??) one of the planet's most beautiful women. Bellucci also spent much of the film in flattering attire that emphasized her feminine traits. 
The initial story concerns a Sicilian young boy on the verge of "adulthood" who has a desperately strong and totally unrequited and unnoticed crush on Bellucci's character during the waning days of WWII. So yes indeed, some parts of this film will primarily appeal to those people who used to be 12 year old boys and still remember the anticipation and angst of that condition. But this film is much more than the memories of a raunchy kid. It actually has some important things (beyond the carnal) to say to everyone about how human beings react and respond to each other. 
Malena (Bellucci) arrives in a small town accompanied by her father, a sickly schoolteacher. Malena's husband is at war. Malena soon becomes the object of bitter jealousy by the townswomen and the object of open and honest lechery by the remaining men. There are a lot of African-American blues songs about trains and cabooses and evidently there are a few Sicilian jokes about such things as well. 
Malena's young admirer Renato attempts to defend her against her detractors but as is repeatedly pointed out by all and sundry in the film, he's just a punk kid who doesn't even wear long pants yet so what could he know? Renato spends a lot of time daydreaming of winning Malena's favor. That is what he intends to do just as soon as he is allowed to wear long pants. This is played for very broad earthy comedy at first-almost like a more modest Italian American Pie or Porky's.

The film takes a darker turn however when Malena receives bad news about her husband and her father suffers a tragedy. As the war comes closer to home Malena faces some difficult choices about survival. Her neighbors' attitude towards her, which was previously depicted as something akin to slapstick, morphs into something uglier and much more dangerous. Renato is even less able to "protect" her from what is coming.
I like how the director, Giuseppe Tornatore (best known for Cinema Paradiso)  balances the comedic, dramatic and horrific arcs of this film. This movie combines sadness, nostalgia, humor, lust, maturity, honor and conflict all in equal measure. Bellucci carries the film even though she doesn't have a lot of lines. She shows that she's much more than a pretty face. It's a shame she did not have a more serious career in American films.

The Man Who Wasn't There
I really enjoy the Coen Brothers' work and for my money this film was their best. It has a superb cast that includes Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Tony Shalhoub, Jon Polito, Michael Badalucco, and Scarlett Johansson. This movie was shot in color and transferred to black and white. It has a very heavy noir influence-specifically that of the crime writer James Cain, whose novels were the source material for the films Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. So if you like noir you will enjoy this film.

The story is that in a post WW2 California town Ed Crane (Thornton) works as a strangely dissatisfied barber. He can't quite put his finger on it but he knows that something is wrong with his life. He's not sure that he enjoys or dislikes working in his talkative's brother-in-law's (Badalucco) barbershop but something isn't right. Ed discovers that his alcoholic and unpleasant wife Doris (McDormand) is having an affair with her boss Dave Brewster (Gandolfini). Ed isn't even sure how to proceed with this knowledge until he is approached by one of his customers Tolliver (Polito) who is looking for suckers investors to give him money for his new dry cleaning business. Then Ed decides to blackmail Dave (secretly of course) to get money to invest with Tolliver.  

Of course things don't go as Ed would like. And that is probably the understatement of the post.
The direction, acting, writing and production of this film are top-notch, top-notch!! And the soundtrack wasn't bad either. It is always fascinating to enjoy artists at the top of their game-whether that be film, artwork, music, literature, whatever. And the Coens and their actors bring it.  I really enjoyed the uses of light and shadow in this movie. Philosophically this film has a heavy heaping of existentialism.

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