Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Review: Centurion

Genre maestro Neil Marshall's new film, Centurion, is all killer no filler, an economic narrative about a band of Roman soldiers trapped behind enemy lines in Northern Britain. The mis en scene is lean, agile, and tough, like its characters, and similarly smeared in dirt and drenched in neon-red blood. Story and execution work brilliantly and symbiotically together. 
Rising star Michael Fassbender (pictured) fronts a solid ensemble, which includes fellow Brit Dominic West, Irish veteran Liam Cunningham, and strong female characters brought to life by lethal Ukrainian beauty Olga Kurylenko (also pictured) and mousy yet quietly confident englishgirl Imogen Poots. There is no ego in this cast; everyone works towards the quality of the whole, while still managing to shine in there own rights. This unity perfectly reflects the ideal dynamic among Roman soldiers, which is tested as Quintus Dias (Fassbender) leads his fellow warriors through the treacherous proto-Scottish wilderness.
One surprising element of Centurion is its contemporary sensibilities; it will resonate with modern Americans for its themes of soldierly brotherhood, the physical and emotional scars of war, the difficulties confronting a foreign army against insurgency. Above all, and indeed through the prism of these ideas, the film asks the timely question of what a conflict is worth. These ideas are thankfully subtle, never coming close to insulting, Avatar-esque levels of obviousness.
As with many films in the historical action genre, Centurion is fueled by healthy doses of testosterone, but is not without a woman's touch. Though it does not pass the Bechdel Test (there are only two major female characters, and one remains mute), it still provides realistic examples of women in a genre usually dominated by men. In film's of this ilk, on the rare occasions that women do show up, they are usually nothing more than eye candy or helpless damsels in need of rescuing by a strong alpha male. Not so in Centurion; Kurylenko's Pict warrior Etain is a brooding, intelligent, and deadly force of nature, who can hold her own against any man in the picture without coming off as overly butch or blandly evil. On the other end is Poots as Pict outcast Arianne, who has convinced the leaders of her native, patriarchal society that she is a witch so that she may live a peaceful, independent existence on her own. Quintus and his brothers-in-arms come upon her at their most desperate hour, and it is she who does the rescuing. She treats their wounds, feeds them, and gives them refuge for the night, but she is not simply here to serve the men. Arianne has a rare agency; a wholeness that we don't often see. She and Quintus are drawn to each other, but not to fulfill some lame, trite requirement that our hero have a love interest; they are equal entities, and the attraction that forms between them is very real and perfectly natural. Credit is due to Fassbender and Poots, who convey this budding relationship with admirable subtlety, and create a bond that lingers even as Quintus and his troops move on down the road.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Review: Robin Hood

Russell Crowe pondering what retirement home would be good for Old Man Scott.
Ridley Scott is getting senile. Case in point: his latest directorial gig, Robin Hood, starring frequent muse Russell Crowe as the eponymous English folk hero. The film might be Scott's worst to date; it is laden with tired action adventure cliches, populated by one-dimensional characters, and meanders directionless for most of its running time. The story is so confusing and muddled that just 24 hours after seeing it, I cannot for the life of me relate what it is; the goals and motivations of each character change so frequently that, not only are we unreasonably challenged to figure out what they are doing and where they're going, but the actors themselves seem to have little if any idea.
In addition to the director's apparent senility, another factor that likely contributes to the film's jumbled story is the fact that the script went through a number of labored iterations in Development Hell, and was even being severely rewritten during filming. This explains a great many things, from lazy character development to jarringly uneven narrative momentum to a number of painful violations of story logic and continuity. Perhaps the constant script modifications are also to blame for numerous, inexplicable moments of extremely ill-advised attempts at sit-com level comic relief, shoe-horned in with no regard for tonal appropriateness. 
As far as I can decipher, the original intent of this film was to give Robin Hood a believable and gritty origin story, Batman Begins style. I can appreciate this, and there are brief glimmers of this premise shinning through at certain moments, but when the rest of the ordeal is such an embarrassing mess, it only makes the film an even greater tragedy. 
Considering the people involved, this realist interpretation of the Robin Hood myth could have been really great. With previous historical epics like Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven (the director's cut), Ridley Scott has shown the capacity to be the David Lean of his day; it is all the more painful when a giant of cinema trips and falls so far. It might seem low to blame Robin Hood's terribleness on Scott's advanced age, but the audience gets the distinct feeling that the director's failing mind, coupled with the ever-changing and confused script, created a perfect storm of screen hackery.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Review: The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle

Writer/director David Russo's The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle continues the rapid expansion of Seattle's cinematic language we've been witnessing recently.
If the film has a traditional story, it is as follows: a young computer programmer suddenly comes down with an existential crisis, compelling him to bombastically quit his cubicle and get a job a with a corporate custodial service. One of the companies in the office building he cleans tests experimental cookies, to which he becomes addicted. Then things get weird.
The film has just enough brilliant sequences to keep us interested, including a clever riff on the "Flight of the Bumble Bee" scene from A Clockwork Orange, and yet another instance where the mere repetition of the the word fuck equals hilarity (although slicker than the opening of Four Weddings and a Funeral, it is still not as genius as this scene from an early episode of The Wire). But perhaps the most original scene is the first one: a rapid-fire journey following a message in a bottle through the waters of Puget Sound to a pebble beach in Seattle, set to the music of "Awesome", a local band that provides the entire score.
Owing equal debts to both Fight Club and Eraserhead, Russo's film already feels like it has settled comfortably into the cult cannon. The film bastes in macabre corporate satire and nightmarish, Cronenbergian body horror. Additionally, there are enough Snatch-esque quick cuts and spastic splashes of traditional animation and dancing text to satisfy a wide range of arty tastes.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Review: The Girl Who Played With Fire

Noomi Rapace, who reprises her role as Lisbeth Salander in this sequel to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is far and away the strongest element of The Girl Who Played With Fire. While the first film in the so called Millennium Trilogy was a solid and gripping mystery, its successor is merely a pale reflection, resting entirely on the understated greatness of Rapace’s excellent performance.
There are some things here for fans of the first film or of the books each is based upon. The intrigue this time has more to do with Lisbeth’s past; those reoccurring flashbacks from the first film of a 12-year-old Salander lighting a man on fire are finally put into context and explained. Also, Lisbeth’s sadistic case worker, Bjurman, factors into the mysterious plot. This kind of continuity is comforting, and helps us to ignore the film's weaker direction and lazily uncreative photography. By picking up these threads from the previous film, the trilogy takes on the same familiar feeling of a serialized tv drama.
More on the lazy cinematography. Film blogger Todd Miro wrote an article at Into The Abyss about “one of the most insidious and heinous practices that has ever overwhelmed the industry.” - The orange and teal color palette. He explains how it came about:
You see, flesh tones exist mostly in the orange range and when you look to the opposite end of the color wheel from that, where does one land?  Why looky here, we have our old friend Mr. Teal.  And anyone who has ever taken color theory 101 knows that if you take two complementary colors and put them next to each other, they will "pop", and sometimes even vibrate.  So, since people (flesh-tones) exist in almost every frame of every movie ever made, what could be better than applying complementary color theory to make people seem to "pop" from the background.  I mean, people are really important, aren't they?
Now it seems this color theory has been exported to other countries, namely Sweden; The Girl Who Played With Fire suffers from this grading worse than any film I’ve seen, and makes the examples Miro highlights on his blog look subtle in comparison. In nearly every shot, the only two colors are orange and teal, regardless of location, mood, or what have you. Here are just a few examples from the film: