Tag Archives: 24

Rome: Blood and Sand – The DVD Detective strikes again!

ONE MAN'S FIGHT TO SELL YOU A TV SERIES YOU HAVE NEVER HEARD OF

ONE MAN’S FIGHT TO SELL YOU A TV SERIES THAT YOU HAVE NEVER HEARD OF WITH GOOD REASON

Ever on the look-out for films that don’t actually exist, today I stumbled upon this improbable gem at my local Tesco – Rome: Blood and Sand.

Previously on the DVD Detective, we saw how easy it is to re-release an unknown film by combining the title of two successful TV shows, so this time around I wasn’t so much smelling rats as instantly identifying their sub-species of rodentia.

Fusing the titles of the underappreciated HBO series Rome and the over-appreciated nipples-and-gore delivery system Spartacus: Blood and Sand, some cynical distributor was trying to catch me off-guard again, and it wasn’t going to work. Not even the presence of Emily Blunt in the cast list could convince me that this wasn’t some C-list spectacle masquerading amongst the shelves of Smurfs and Twilight movies.

How right I was. Wading through the wiki, I at first assumed the renamed film in question might be Boudica, aka Warrior Queen (my how this was beginning to look like an identical tale to the Thrones & Empires debacle), one of Blunt’s earliest roles, but the casts didn’t align. Soon enough I found that my target was not a film at all but a TV mini-series, something the badly Photoshopped case had neglected to mention. Pity the fool who blind buys from Tesco.

Empire, a much-derided ABC television series that was drowned in the brief praise that accompanied HBO’s less forgotten venture, similarly tells the story of the early Caesars. To spice things up, the show injects the character “Tyrannus”, a former gladiator, into proceedings. It’s like they were baiting Ridley Scott into a lawsuit.

Look at Colm Feore there, so imperial and in no way made for televisiony

Look at Colm Feore there, so imperial and in no way made for televisiony

According to the back of the box Empire was praised by The Wall Street Journal for its “powerful acting”, a pull quote so suspicious I was shocked to google and discover it was both accurate and faithful to the intention of the reviewer. The cast of 24 veterans (James Frain, Colm Feore, Dennis Haysbert) and pre-Prada Blunt almost make this a show I’d be curious to check out. Although the best discovery of this adventure is learning that the show’s Marc Antony, Welsh actor Vincent Regan, is so much the swords and sandals whore that his filmography includes Troy, 300 AND Clash of the Titans (2010). Now if you ask me, that’s just a bit excessive.

If anything should really warn you off here, though, it’s that tagline. “One man’s fight to destroy an entire empire!” is completely off-rhythm. That “entire” is superfluous, and only draws attention to the fact that this DVD case is disguising its origins as “Empire”. If any empire has been destroyed here, it’s the show itself.

You can view the hilariously rushed and melodramatic opening to the series below. You know, if you’re into that sort of thing.

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The Gatekeepers – An eye for an eye…

Masters of life and death: The six gatekeepers, former heads of the Shin Bet

Masters of life and death: The six gatekeepers, former heads of the Shin Bet

A nominee for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Academy Awards, which along with its unofficial companion piece 5 Broken Cameras lost out to crowd-pleaser Searching for Sugar Man, The Gatekeepers is a mesmerising work that probes one of the most powerful counter-terrorism outfits in the world, Israel’s Shin Bet.

With unprecedented, eye-raisingly open interviews with not one, not two, but six of the agency’s former heads, The Gatekeepers looks at the “unnatural” power wielded by these men, who have control of the fates of both the enemies of Israel and the innocents who might get caught in the crossfire.

Told mostly through use of the six extremely personal talking heads interviews, director Dror Moreh supplements these confessional narrations with expertly sourced news footage, photographs, military archive material and choice computerised graphics. As former Shin Bet head Avraham Shalom discusses the bus hijacking that ended his career when he covered up the fates of the terrorists involved, Moreh presents us with an animation assembled with remarkable skill from the photographs taken by a journalist who had snuck onto the site. It creates the illusion of experiencing the intrigue of the period without embellishing or inventing for the sake of entertainment or keeping the audience’s attention.

As the story progresses in a relatively linear manner from the Six-Day War, we can see how both the Shin Bet develop their tactics as the terrorists they combat become more sophisticated, especially as the threat of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation waned and was followed by the rise of Hamas and radical Islam. Moreh keeps his focus on the Shin Bet perpetually, studying their questionable successes and their very blatant failures, most notably the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, by a radical Israeli, in 1995. Bombs are dropped with deadly accuracy, but sometimes the terrorist target is on the wrong floor, and sometimes they hit the wrong building.

Like Errol Morris’s The Fog of War, The Gatekeepers presses its subjects hard, and Moreh is able to find more regret and doubt in the six gatekeepers than Morris ever could in Robert McNamara. Late in the film, as Shalom is asked about the morality of the choices he made during his stewardship of the Shin Bet, he begins his sigh-laced defence while awkwardly picking at his fingernails. Were he on trial no jury could ever acquit him.

“In the war on terror, forget about morality” we are told, and it is plain to see here. The six men we meet are haunted, but less by what they’ve done than by what they can never be sure of. Across their wearied faces we can read this doubt, as it becomes clearer that the attempts to quash terror only breed more of it. The cyclical nature of terror is seen as strikes against masterminds in Gaza level whole apartment blocks, radicalising civilians. An eye for an eye, for an eye, for an eye, for an eye…

Propelled forward by a murmuring score that sounds suitably out of an episode of counter-terrorism TV series 24, The Gatekeepers never stops asking the hard questions right to the very end. Former Shin Bet bosses attempt to defend violently shaking the heads of prisoners, even when it results in accidental death. A sequence showing real footage of Israeli soldiers raiding households of suspected terrorists – using head-mounted night-vision cameras with elliptical lenses that distort the image – has all the frantic ferocity lacking from the closing scenes of Zero Dark Thirty. This is the real deal; a study into the nature of terror and the demons it creates on both sides. The questions can never be answered, but they could not be better addressed.

5/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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Zero Dark Thirty – To see the terror of your ways

A one-woman Team America: Jessica Chastain

As the lights go down for Zero Dark Thirty, nothing comes up on the big screen. Over a blacked-out image, we hear police calls and radio chatter from 9/11. It’s an effective, if not exactly original tactic for bringing us back into that world of terror and vengeance for the innocents killed on that day.

At the first of several classified locations over the years that follow, we are introduced to Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA operative assisting in the torture of Al-Qaeda associates in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Her goal is solely to track down Osama Bin Laden, primarily targeting the paper trail from 9/11 which leads back to Abu Ahmed, Bin Laden’s personal courier.

Playing out over nearly a decade, Zero Dark Thirty charts Maya’s investigation, its successes, pitfalls and red herrings – as well as Al-Qaeda’s subsequent attacks – right up to the discovery of Bin Laden’s hideout, and the SEAL Team Six assault on it in May 2011.

Paced like a police procedural drama, but with the soul and redemption of the United States on the line, Zero Dark Thirty maintains attention and interest throughout. It is, however, due to the mass media reporting of the events within it, utterly predictable from start to finish. Because of this, director Kathryn Bigelow, whose previous film The Hurt Locker was one of the most nail-bitingly tense cinematic experiences of the past 50 years, is never able to raise that kind tension from her latest project. Even one scene not widely reported in media, where an Al-Qaeda defector is brought to a CIA stronghold, fails to up the tension due to dialogue cues telegraphing the trajectory of the scene.

But while these elements work against Zero Dark Thirty, it is undeniably a finely crafted film. Tightly shot and edited, with a great score by Alexandre Desplat that always suits the locations and atmosphere, Bigelow’s film rolls steadily along thanks to Mark Boal’s deeply technical and well-researched script that balances tradecraft talk with flippant everyday language. “This is what defeat looks like, bro,” torture expert Dan (Jason Clarke) tells his victim to break him down. “Your jihad is over.”

The film never shies away from the dark realities of the manhunt, including some deeply unpleasant waterboarding sequences. But the realities of this torture seem hard to dispute and while the techniques are effective, Boal’s script never seems in favour of what is happening. Horror is met with further horror, and everyone suffers, even the surprisingly fragile torturers.

Chastain reveals herself once more to be one of the finest performers in American cinema today, capturing a character full of determination and loneliness. Her face displays her distaste for torture when she first witnesses it, but her voice is insistent when she says she won’t wait outside. Maya’s descent into hell for the love of her job is the cornerstone of the film, and Chastain carries this flawlessly as her obsession with her work drives her closer to both despair and her goal.

The supporting players are mostly strong, with Clarke, Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Ehle all carrying their scenes appropriately. Only a brief cameo by James Gandolfini seems out of place, and somewhat unsuitable to the seriousness of the material. A temporary lull in the film’s midsection is interrupted gloriously by Mark Strong’s sudden bursting into the movie with a scenery-inhaling performance as a top-tier CIA honcho with a zero tolerance for bullshit.

Zero Dark Thirty never releases you from its grip, but the hold certainly loosens in the final act as the Navy SEALs make their play on the Bin Laden compound. An early set-back that seems overtly fictional is followed by the infiltration of the main building by a team of soldiers vastly outmanning and outgunning the terrorists within. It’s a superb reconstruction, but it is hardly a thrilling action sequence – more high-class documentary than Die Hard. Afterwards, the film’s final shot, a suitable catharsis, is one that has become a cliché of the modern spy movie genre, used repeatedly before in TV series such as 24 and Homeland. It’s hard not to feel that the reality was simply never as exciting as the fiction.

Still, Zero Dark Thirty is an excellent record of the secret takedown of a real-life supervillain, and the pacing and direction are overshadowed only by the film’s central performance. It is a worthy and timely piece of historical re-enactment, with plenty to say about the post-9/11 world and America’s role in it.

3/5

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Taken 2 much time and energy

“You will look for me, you will find me, and you will kill me… no, wait, scratch that last one!”

The only thing that hits harder than Bryan Mills, Liam Neeson’s ex-CIA operative turned bodyguard and over-protective father, is the sheer disappointment that a film so similar to Taken could be its antithesis in terms of fun.

The 2008 film became a roaring success as Neeson tore through Paris desperately seeking his daughter, kidnapped by sex slave traders. Once it got going, Taken was a to-the-point slice of gritty action fun that kept the excitement going to its rather abrupt conclusion. It’s amazing to think that that film could be succeeded by such a humourless, dragging ordeal.

Taken 2 is, for the most part, a miserable experience – retracing the events of the first film (this time in Istanbul) with a plodding pace and incoherent action. The less-than-casual racism that fuelled the first film, but suited its topic and its time, is here flamboyant, reeking of Islamophobia. As Mills takes out every male with darker skin than him in sight, his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) jumps in fright at veiled women, and every time the camera sails over one of Istanbul’s magnificent mosques a threatening “BOOMPH” sound echoes on the soundtrack. It’s worse than any of the excesses of Bush-era anti-terrorism romp 24.

Of course, 24’s influence is all over this film. The relationship between Mills and Kim is borrowed almost word-for-word from Jack Bauer’s relationship with his daughter, also Kim. The fact that the main events of Taken 2 take place over the course of one afternoon owes hugely to that TV show’s real-time structure. But even 24 never let its basic character drama slow down the growing threat. Taken 2, by comparison, drags for a considerable fraction of the length of a whole episode of 24 before the “taking” of the title occurs. That first 30 minutes or so is spent redefining the bond between father and daughter and between Mills and ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) with dialogue that would make a Michael Bay movie blush. Mills teaches Kim to drive (just in time, she’ll need to be able to later). He flirts with his ex. He growls at Kim’s new boyfriend. For such basic soap opera drama, it’s simply horrifying that it drags on so long.

“Oh FFS, dad, not again!”

This time its Mills himself, with his ex-wife, who are taken, but not for very long. Using a phone that looks like it came in a Christmas cracker, he guides his terrified daughter to his rescue, before charging off to save her mother. There’s a bit of hand-to-hand combat, some gunplay and an almost thrilling car chase along the way, but it’s all for very little. Most hysterical is Mills ordering his daughter to detonate grenades so he can hear how far away from him she is. She throws one under a parked car in a secluded area, but camera angles don’t reveal how much medicine for sick people, or actual babies, are on the back seat. It’s preposterous, stupefying and very much the wrong kind of funny.

Neeson, who as a human being has proved himself over the years to be one of the most likeable of people, pleasantly surprised when he first took the role of Bryan Mills; as a middle-aged avenger he wielded handguns, blocked punches and wore a sweeping leather coat like a pro. Here, only four years later, it’s all gone terribly wrong. Perhaps due to age, or due to the manic film style of Luc Besson protégé Olivier Megaton (he of last year’s even ore stupid Colombiana), Mills’s heroics utterly fail to convince here. The action sequences are shot so shakily that it is often difficult to see where anyone is located within the scene, or make out what moves are being performed. The frantic cutting makes The Bourne Ultimatum look like Rope. In one of his final confrontations, Mills is nearly finished off by a sweaty, overweight Albanian in tracksuit pants. It’s hard to cheer for a hero who can take such a beating from a P.E. teacher.

“Stop editing so fast, I can’t see where I’m running!”

The film’s climax almost feels like something new, but by then it’s hard to care, and you’re more likely to be wondering what the next tune from the Drive soundtrack the film is going to lazily sample.

Taken 2 will of course make oceans of cash, if only off the energy of its forebear. But there’s nowhere more for this series to go, and one only hopes it will, like Bryan Mills, retire, to protect any remaining integrity of those involved in making it. In the long run, Taken 2 may even damage the brand so much that Taken itself will be forgotten – it’s not like Bryan Mills is a very memorable character, and he has perhaps the least iconic action hero name of any film to ever gross more than $100,000,000 at the box office.

Censored infuriatingly to garner a PG-13 rating, there’s no way to even contemplate recommending this film before a DVD/Blu-ray release reveals an uncut version. At the very least the action might appear believable in an extended cut, and, let’s be honest, what else are you watching Taken 2 for?

1/5

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Going Home: Back to the Furor

It’s good to be back.

I would simply love to tell you that my absence can be explained away by vacations, lottery wins and exotic hours spent with countless beautiful women, but it would be far more honest to say that I’ve done next to nothing but watch The West Wing for the entirety of the last month. That said, I am getting through it at a rather impressive speed that should allow me to reach my previously announced (and might I add ambitious) declaration.

It is odd firing through a show this fast, seeing as I really should have been watching it when it initially aired (I haven’t watched this much TV since I sat through the entirety of Day 1 of 24 in one day). Television has very much held a distant second place in my life over the last several years due to my excessive (slash obsessive) film watching, and other shows (most obviously The Sopranos and The Wire, amongst others) have taken back seats with the boot wide open and no seatbelts.

It is no doubt ironic then that my West Wing bingeing has consequently resulted in my film watching batting average plummeting. I have managed to squeeze in maybe a dozen films in the past month, an undoubted, though explainable, embarrassment for me.

Here are some interesting things I have learned in the last month:

  • Das Boot is too long, but the ending is just about worth it
  • Three viewings is enough for Capturing the Friedmans
  • Roland Emmerich’s 10,000 BC is literally a paint by numbers how-to-make-a-basic-Hollywood-blockbuster, but there is almost fun to be found in its utter continent-shifting nonsense
  • On a fourth (fifth?) viewing, Potemkin is still as brilliant as it always was, even the fifth part didn’t cause the usual fit of yawning
  • Superbad hit a little too close to home a little too often
  • Ten deserved a second shot
  • Administering heroin to policemen will improve their crime-fighting capabilities – it’s easy to see now why Chaplin got blacklisted
  • Watching Local Hero and the Season 2 finale of The West WingTwo Cathedrals’ in close proximity will cause a Mark Knopfler overload that will make it literally impossible to get his music out of your head and remind you why teenaged you used to freaking love Dire Straits

More thoughts on The West Wing will follow. For the record I should be finishing Season 4 tomorrow night, and am currently averaging four episodes a night.

When this is all over, I may need some help moving on.

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