The Eagle (2011)

According to the prologue to The Eagle, a second century Roman legion thousands strong was lost in battle somewhere in the wilds of north Britain. Lost with the Ninth Legion was a golden eagle, a symbol of Rome's might. The emperor Hadrian thereafter built his famous wall to mark off the border between the Roman Empire and no man's land. So begins The Eagle, a sword and sandals/western/buddy movie, about young Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum), whose father led the Ninth Legion and lost the eagle. Marcus becomes a centurion, leads his men on a daring rescue mission, and is severely wounded, thus ending his military career. 

While recuperating at his Uncle Aquila's villa, Marcus is impressed by the bravery of a slave named Esca (Jamie Bell), and saves his life. Uncle Aquila (Donald Sutherland) promptly buys the slave for Marcus. Esca is indebted to Marcus, and swears his loyalty (despite, presumably, the whole awkward slave/master thing). Then Marcus decides to take Esca to the north, to search for the lost eagle, and learn the fate of his father. Esca is a Briton, and speaks the language of the northern savages. Patrician Uncle Aquila cautions against the plan, warning Marcus that Esca will turn on him because "he is a slave." Uncle Aquila is kind of old school in his reasoning.

What follows, in this movie based on Rosemary Sutcliff's novel The Eagle of the Ninth, is a humorless adventure in which Marcus and Esca slog through the mud, eat rats, and get captured by the Seal people, a tribe of fur-wearing, mohawk-sporting warriors who cover themselves with grey mud and live in muddy huts. Scotland was apparently quite muddy back then, and the natives worked with what they had. I don't know how they kept the mud on with all the rain. The Eagle is basically a muddy cowboys and indians picture, with the Seal people playing the part of the fearsome Apaches. They dance, they hallucinate, they wear animal hides, they're excellent trackers, they're ruthless, and they can run like the wind. Horses are no match for the fleet-footed Seals. They don't much care for Romans.

What's interesting about The Eagle is the master-slave relationship between Marcus and Esca, and how that relationship subtly changes once the pair leave the confines of the Roman Empire. There's probably a fascinating story to be told about how relationships are altered by geography -- cross an arbitrary boundary like Hadrian's Wall, and the slave becomes free, and the master becomes a dependent. It could have been an interesting avenue for The Eagle to explore (particularly in light of current geopolitical complexities), but the movie doesn't make much of it, beyond supplying a few situations that test the loyalties of Marcus and Esca. The focus of the story is Marcus's fixation on restoring his family's honor by retrieving the golden eagle. Tatum gives a serious performance that had me convinced Marcus really cared about getting that eagle back, without convincing me that I should care actually about it myself.

And there's the catch with The Eagle. The movie hints at Roman atrocities, but it is ultimately sympathetic to the Romans, going so far as to refer to a massacre site as a "killing field" where Roman officers were sacrificed by bloodthirsty savages. It would have you side with Marcus, the slaveholder, but also with his noble slave Esca, who has every reason to hate Romans. The various anti-Roman tribes of the movie seem to have a genuine beef with the empire, but they are depicted as brutal primitives with wild, unruly hair and a single personality trait: they kill Romans. 

Eventually, as such stories must, this one ends in a battle -- an epic battle, of course -- with lots of slashing, clinking swords and spears, and a great deal of splashing, since this battle takes place in a river. In many ways, The Eagle is a very retro movie, one in which actual actors rather than digital avatars slog through actual scenery -- dark, damp, cold, muddy scenery by the looks of it -- and fight without the assistance of special effects (other than a lot of fast editing and a little slow motion). They perform human-sized feats in what is a human-sized story. The Eagle aspires to be an old fashioned kind of adventure story of manly heroism (there's hardly a woman in the movie) and military glory. It might have been better, and more captivating, were it not so old fashioned in its simplistic, chauvinist depiction of the northern natives. The Eagle is retro and not revisionist in its history, but a little hindsight and cultural insight would have been enlightening.


Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (2011)

If you're a young girl, or the parent of a young girl, chances are you  have to see Justin Bieber: Never Say Never in the near future. Fear not. This documentary about the You Tube phenom who became, almost overnight, an international superstar, follows the teen dream singer as he prepares for a sold out show at Madison Square Garden. The film includes lots of home movie clips that recount Bieber's precocious musical youth, and his meteoric rise to stardom. Bieber is cute in exactly the right way to make the little girls love him, and he's genuinely talented, which makes him not bad company for 105 minutes.

There are a few too many interviews, not all of them interesting, with various people in Bieber's retinue of handlers, managers, coaches, and family, but Bieberphiles will eat up every bit of information they can get on the boy wonder. The concert footage is the usual stuff -- swooping cameras, razzle dazzle, fireworks, singing and dancing, with assorted musical guests (Usher, Miley Cyrus, Sean Kingston, Ludacris). The best part of the film is the fans -- all those screaming, crying, excited girls having the best time ever, being crazy and obsessed in the wholesome way only adolescent girls can manage. There's even a bit of humor thrown in there for the 'rents: a weird slow motion scene of Bieber flipping his famously swooshy hair while Etta James sings "At Last." It makes about as much sense as Snoop Dogg giving Bieber hairstyling tips -- that happens in the movie too.


Blue Valentine (2010)

Blue Valentine is a love story, but it's a strange kind of love story. It starts at the end -- at the end of love, that is. It moves back and forth between the beginning of love, and the end of it, leaving the middle something of a mystery. 

The movie begins in the morning, as Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling), puffy-eyed and tired, wake up with their young daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka) and start a working day. Their dog is missing, which is just the first thing that goes terribly wrong over the next 48 hours. 

Cindy is a nurse in a medical clinic; Dean is a house painter. They've been together about six years, but when the film toggles back to their first meeting, it's clear the years between have been hard on them. Cindy was in college then, and determined to become a doctor. Dean worked for a moving company. He was a nice guy, a loyal, sweet guy, which at that moment, was what Cindy most needed and wanted in her life. So what happened?

That is a question that writer-director Derek Cianfrance (who co-wrote the movie with Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne) is fundamentally not interested in answering. Blue Valentine is about the troubled beginning of the story of Dean and Cindy, and the troubled end, but it skips the middle. What happened in the middle? (Trouble would be the obvious guess.) In some sense, nothing happened, and that, the movie hints, is precisely the problem. For Cindy, something was supposed to happen. Things were supposed to change. Dean liked everything just as it was. Somewhere along the way, they pulled apart, got out of synch. 

The movie creates a sense of distress and discomfort by getting too physically close to the characters. The cinematography by Andrij Parekh is invasively intimate, going for closeups that cut Cindy and Dean into pieces -- part of a face, a torso, a thigh. It's a visual technique that heightens emotion and ups the anxiety level in a film already loaded with both. The backgrounds are only vaguely there -- they're cut into little bits too, into glimpses of a shabby home, a minivan, and the cheesy motel room where Dean tries in vain to rekindle their romance. This visual dismemberment and dissection doesn't especially reveal what's going on inside the characters, but it emphasizes that Blue Valentine isn't a portrait of a romance or a marriage so much as it is a post-mortem.  

The difficulty with the cut-out-the-middle approach to the narrative is that, while Dean and Cindy are well-defined in the scenes from their youthful romance, the people they become only a few years later -- he with his receding hairline, she with her weariness and frustration -- seem a little disconnected from their former selves. That may be partly a function, too, of how little time -- a couple of days in the now, a few months in the past -- the movie spends with them. A lot happens in that little time -- not all of it is revelatory, and some of it is not very surprising. Williams and Gosling, both very good actors, bring a lot of emotional intensity and nuance to their roles, which fills in some of the blanks, but also has the effect of leaving you wanting to know more.

But there is no more. Blue Valentine is less about how they got to their unhappy place, and more about that they got to be disconnected, disappointed, and discontent. 


Sanctum (2011)

The 3-D in Sanctum is so aggressive and in-your-face it's more like 3 1/2-D. Hallucinatory, annoying, demanding, it all but yells "Look at this!" even when the thing it demands you look at is nothing particularly special. The story of Sanctum could have been told just as well without the 3-D effects. The real problem with Sanctum isn't the 3-D, however, but the one-dimensional characters. For most of the characters, that dimension is insufferable.

The plot is, according to the opening titles, "inspired by a true story." I'm going to guess that the screenwriters, John Garvin and Andrew Wight, embellished the truth a bit, because nobody ever has or ever could talk the way the characters in Sanctum talk. They don't converse so much as spout cliches and bromides, and offer such pearls of wisdom as "Panic's the vulture sits on your shoulder." Weird grammar aside, if a vulture were sitting on your shoulder, it would probably be appropriate to panic, but since Sanctum takes place almost entirely in a subterranean cave, there aren't any vultures about. Lucky for the vultures.

The story takes place in Papua, New Guinea, in a deep, heretofore unexplored cave system called Esa Ala. A team of Australian cave divers is exploring the caves. According to Carl (Ioan Gruffudd), the millionaire who is financing the expedition, "There's no other place on the planet left to explore." I highly doubt that, and I reckon there are lots of places left to explore, but this is the sort of hyperbole the people of Sanctum are given to. Carl is a jerk, in any case, and he brings his mountain-climbing girlfriend Victoria (Alice Parkinson) along on the expedition even though she has no diving experience. She has even less cave diving experience. On the other hand, expedition leader Frank (Richard Roxburgh) has loads of cave diving experience, which has made him an unforgiving S.O.B., a heartless fatalist, a lousy father, and quite unpleasant to be around. "We're bits of dust passing through," he tells the gang, by way of a pep talk. Frank's son Josh (Rhys Wakefield) hates his dad, and for good reason. The only guy who kind of likes Frank is Crazy George (Dan Wylie), who operates a remote-controlled submarine camera called Virgil. (Virgil was probably named after Virgil Brigman, a character in The Abyss, James Cameron's vastly superior underwater adventure movie. Cameron is an executive producer of Sanctum, which makes sense, given the combination of three things he loves: water, diving, and 3-D.) 

While Frank and his team are down there exploring, a cyclone floods the caves, trapping them inside, and forcing a grueling, miserable, claustrophobic, and deadly trek through terra incognito. Also aqua incognito. Lots and lots of aqua. (It would be a good idea to not order the large drink if you're going to see this movie.) They climb, crawl, swim, dive, rappel, grunt, yell, complain, cough, argue, and one by one, one way or another, die. 

Director Alister Grierson and cinematographer Jules O'Loughlin do an effective job of creating a sense of confinement and doom, and there's some lovely underwater camera work. I appreciate, as well, the effort to explore the mindset of the danger-seeking adventurer, and the different moral landscape encountered in the bowels of the earth, where a mercifully quick death may be the only help available. I could appreciate it much, much more if it had been executed with some insight, subtlety and sensitivity, rather than with bombast and banal platitudes. If only it could have been done without all the cliches, the stereotypes, and the laughably bad dialogue, I might have actually cared whether any of the characters lived or died. A silent, non 3-D version of this movie would be better, so it'll be passable entertainment on DVD, with the sound turned off, particularly for anyone interested in knowing how many different ways there are to die in a big, watery cave. Falling and drowning are the major ones, but you'd be surprised how many lethal hazards there actually are down there.