Saturday, December 20, 2014

Movie Reviews: As Above, So Below, The November Man

As Above, So Below
directed by John Eric Dowdle
What is the basis of fear? It's the unknown isn't it? It's the dark. In the dark our primary sense of sight is useless. That in and of itself can cause disorientation. Another major fear that many people suffer from to a greater or lesser degree is claustrophobia. I might have a tinge of this myself. I don't like the feeling of being restrained, caged or closed in someplace. At all times I want to know that I'm in control, that I can get up and leave from wherever I might be, that I can move around and breathe freely. As Above, So Below is an interesting horror film that combines the hoary old tropes of found footage and handheld cameras with some cool historical and semi-mythological information. It gives a tip of the hat to films like National Treasure,  Angels and Demons or The DaVinci Code. Obviously it also makes very strong references to The DescentIt may raise the more thoughtful viewer's curiosity about lost cities, ancient science and the flotsam and jetsam of civilization. As mentioned, the film emphasizes the simple fears of being trapped and lost somewhere in the dark. The ending is not the best in my estimation but no film is perfect. I did like that not everything was explained. The movie allows you to make up your own mind about some things. This film uses some very simple and classic techniques to ratchet up dread and excitement. Generally speaking my interest was kept throughout the entire film with only one or two dead spots. The movie maintained viewer interest without too many magnificent massive mountains of mammary gland tissue displayed willy nilly or excessive grotesque gratuitous gut-wrenching ultra-violence. So I suppose that's a skill that must be recognized. It is possible to make an entertaining film and scare people with only modest amounts of violence or toplessness. There are plenty of shocks and frights that the viewer may know are coming. Until the very end these shocks still manage to impress. Sometimes very simple techniques can work the best. And believe it or not, the black guy didn't die first. He's not a primary character but not dying first is a step forward.

Scarlett Marlowe (Perdita Weeks) is a scientist/archaeologist with a krav maga black belt, multiple doctorates, multiple language proficiencies and a singular powerful albeit occasionally disturbing tendency to focus in on whatever her current goal is regardless of whatever the risks are to herself or to other people. This last characteristic is not presented as a stereotypically bad thing because she happens to be a woman. It has both good and bad applications. It's probably something she inherited from her father, who was in the same line of work. It's just who Scarlett is. She's a scientist who takes things seriously. She doesn't mean anything by it. Scarlett just has a obsessive dedication to science and knowledge. Scarlett has a special interest in the ancient science of alchemy. It's her family's quest to discover the Philosopher's Stone, a magical artifact believed to be able to heal, grant eternal life, and turn things into gold. After a harrowing escape from Iran where she was trying to cross reference some ancient data on alchemy, she believes that she's found where the Philosopher's Stone may be. She thinks the grave of the French medieval alchemist Nicholas Flamel, believed to have found the Philosopher's Stone, has clues to where the Stone might be. Half bullying, half flirting with her onetime lover George (Ben Feldman), a Renaissance Man who speaks the few dead languages that she doesn't, Scarlett convinces George to translate and help her to work through some clues on Flamel's headstone and elsewhere. This information leads her to believe that the fabled stone must be at a certain point in the Paris catacombs. So despite George's concerns and warnings, Scarlett thinks there's nothing to it but to put together a little mini-expedition to crawl through the dead, the caves, the old city, and find that stone.
Needless to say, things don't exactly work out as Scarlett had anticipated. Much of this film was actually shot on location in the catacombs. The film captured the generally creepy nature of the place. Just walking among the dead of centuries past, walking through rows and rows of skeletal remains in the dark, inhaling the dust of those long departed could be enough to give most people the creeps. This movie moves very slowly. It tries to wring out the maximum amount of fright from something as simple as getting lost underground or getting stuck in a tunnel. If you have ever been lost and discovered that your first plan to reorient yourself didn't work you can appreciate the increasing trepidation that may arise in this situation. Now imagine that same scenario but underground in a massive cemetery with concerns about air quality, water, food and cave-ins. Then imagine that you weren't even supposed to be on this trip but are there purely by accident. And just for fun start throwing in some para-normal activity. That's As Above, So Below. This was a worthwhile but not great film. If you can appreciate the feelings of claustrophobia and fear of darkness this is well worth watching. As I said I didn't really go for the ending because I thought it was a little out of left field. But there are some people who like those sorts of endings. Like some great horror or sci-fi novels this movie did manage to remind me that no matter how important any of us think we may be, in a hundred years or so, all of us will be just like those remains in the catacombs, moldering away and slowly turning to dust. For some people that is the true horror. For others it's just a fact of life. The film's title is taken from Hermetic texts. It is a saying which was quite popular with alchemists and occultists.

The November Man
directed by Roger Donaldson
This could and should have been a better movie. If there is a former Bond actor (Pierce Brosnan) paired with a former Bond girl (Olga Kurylenko) I expect a little more chemistry and sexual sparks between the two leads and more excitement throughout the movie. Instead, I found that this film was only intermittently interesting. It did not fully exploit the idea of government coverups and secret collusion with some very nasty people that it imagined. Also it would have been a nice little aside if the film had bothered to explain how Peter Devereaux (Brosnan) was an American CIA agent when he has such a strong Irish accent. I'm not saying the CIA doesn't use people from across the world. It does. But a little more backstory would have been useful as US viewers are reminded of Devereaux's foreign status every time he speaks. Anyway. At its worst this film was reminiscent of some of the similar Eastern European secret agent movies that Wesley Snipes made right before he had to report to prison for tax evasion. I mean that the story occasionally jumps around and some of the acting and effects weren't the best. Brosnan is showing his age though he (or perhaps his stunt man) gamely goes through the necessary fight or action sequences. At this point in my life or rather at this point in his life I am expecting to see Brosnan play the man behind the man, the financial mastermind or smooth talking political leader instead of an field agent who's still kicking behind and taking names. But what the heck, right? If actors of similar age like Denzel Washington and Liam Neeson can still play older warriors who are mad, bad and dangerous to know, why not Brosnan?

The results are mixed as far as I was concerned. At its best this film does make you question what's really behind some events that most of us only read about in the papers. It brings in some real life events and alleged reasons why those events took place. As the film points out repeatedly, governments are not moral actors. They can't afford to be. You might question that in the abstract but in the world in which Devereaux operates such luxuries are not available to operatives like him. Or that's what he's been led to believe.On the other hand each and every individual always has a choice about the actions that he or she takes in life. Those choices may be constrained or not very palatable but nonetheless, choices remain.
When the film opens we see that Devereaux has something approaching a conscience or at the very least he's not a fan of any sort of "collateral damage". Assigned to protect the US ambassador to Montenegro, Devereaux forbids his partner, protege and son in all but name, David Mason (Luke Bracey) from taking the killshot on the would be assassin. There are too many civilians around. Devereaux thinks he can stop the assassination another way. Mason has different ideas and takes the shot anyway, killing an innocent girl in the process. Disgusted, Devereaux goes into semi-retirement in Switzerland. But of course the agency is not done with him. He's called in to help shepherd a Russian deep-cover CIA operative Natalia Ulanov (Mediha Musliovic) out of Russia. This lady has some information about her boss, Russian general and political rising star Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski) that could be very useful to the right people. But she'll only trust Devereaux to bring her out safely. Unknown to Devereaux, another faction in the CIA has different plans for Ulanov. They send Devereaux's old buddy Mason to oversee them. Of course, everyone, not least of all Devereaux, has secrets and goals of their own. So it's every man or woman for him(her)self and God against them all. One person who may have the key to everything is a journalist named Alice Fournier (Olga Kurylenko in a mostly toned down role). So if this appeals to you then you know what to do. I didn't hate the movie but I wasn't blown away by it either. It had the normal level of cliches, desperate last stands and surprise reveals that weren't really surprises. OK as a lazy afternoon movie or if you happen to be a serious Brosnan fan but overall it was just middling to mediocre in quality.

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