Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Review: Centurion (2010)

This movie follows the misadventures of the Ninth Legion as they invade Scotland in 117AD. Although inspired by real events, it is a work of complete fiction. It is also a work of complete shit.

Olga Kurylenko is apparently playing Marie Curie in an upcoming movie produced by Luc Besson. I may be doing her an injustice in suggesting that she has no dialogue because she can't act.

I won't bother getting into historical inaccuracies or "Roman soldiers didn't fight like that" trainspotting nonsense. You don't care about that, and neither do I most of the time. Unless it's a particularly glaring mistake, that sort of thing does not spoil a movie for anyone who is not being a dick about terms.

Centurion could have been a good movie. The disappearance of the Ninth Legion could certainly be spun into a fascinating story, and writer/director Neil Marshall is definitely interested in making the story morally ambiguous. The protagonists are the Romans, who are out for dominion; the villains are the Picts, who are fighting off invaders who plunder their lands, enslave and kill them, and (in the course of the story) murder their children. Marshall himself is Scottish and there is a clear, intentional irony in his depiction of the Picts as savage and dehumanised proponents of guerilla warfare, and also in the way that the Romans speak Latin as English with pronounced English accent, while Pict is guttural and inhuman (and Picts speaking Latin do so in a Scottish brogue).

Unfortunately, Neil Marshall is the director of Dog Soldiers, The Descent and Doomsday, all pulp horror/action movies. If Dog Soldiers was "Aliens with werewolves" then Centurion is "Dog Soldiers with Scottish people" with all of the third-hand self-referential problems that suggests.

The movie is packed with good actors (Michael Fessbinder, Liam Cunningham, Davic Morrissey, Dominic West) but you wouldn't know that they were good just from watching this. It's filled with violent action scenes that are completely unexciting. It doesn't trust the audience to have a clue; every plot and thematic point is hammered home with expository dialogue and endless amounts of voice-over narration. Both the dialogue and narration are head-slappingly obvious, so predictable that I was able to mouth along with the actors at many points.

This movie casts a model as a cliché mute "woman warrior" - presumably to safeguard against non-acting. The only major female character to have any dialogue may as well have "love interest" carved into her forehead. (And if she's exiled to live alone, why does she wear so much modern-looking makeup?)

The battle scenes are filled with heads and limbs being lopped off and CGI blood spraying everywhere, in almost a textbook case of "more is less". Compare them with the battle scenes in Orson Welles's Chimes at Midnight for a lesson in the difference between mere excess and genuine impact. These battles are clearly influenced by those in Chimes, though I would wager that the influence is actually via intermediary movies such as Braveheart.

In summary, this is a terrible movie that isn't even a guilty pleasure. It's a shame, as The Descent seemed to mark Marshall as a filmmaker to watch.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Movies seen recently

I've seen a few, at the movies and on DVD. Here are some of them.

Enter the Dragon

Bruce Lee's American movie is great fun, although the fight scenes are not as well-staged or well-filmed as the ones in his best complete movie Fist of Fury or in the the footage released from the incomplete original version of Game of Death. Enter the Dragon functions better as an American exploitation movie (poor Jim Kelly doesn't fare as well as he would have in a real blaxploitation movie though). John Saxon is miscast as a kung-fu expert; I would much rather have seen Rod taylor in his role.

But Bruce Lee's charisma saves the day, and although the ending is a straight copy of the superior ending of Orson Welles's The Lady from Shanghai it still works here.

Why John Saxon? Why? I mean, I like him, but WHY?!?

There Will Be Blood

A bona-fide masterpiece. Daniel Day Lewis is superb, and the movie earns its two and a half hour length. Worthy of an entire post, so it'll get one.

Oh yes.

The Haunted Palace

Roger Corman directs Vincent Price from a Charles Beaumont script based on H. P. Lovecraft's longest story, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. It was shoehorned into the Corman/Price Edgar Allan Poe series with a retitling and some brief readings of Poe's titular poem. Great fun, and with the next one will be an entire future post.

The lovely Debra Paget's last movie

The Resurrected

Dan O'Bannon's early '90s adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft's longest story, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, was mangled by its producers in post-production, leading to some obviously-truncated scenes and unnecessary voice-over. What remains takes a while to warm up, but emerges as a superior Lovecraft adaptation in its final act. Chris Sarandon actually tops Price as Charles Ward and, er, another character, and the two movies contrast in a fascinating way. A whole post will soon compare both movies with the original story.

Chris Sarandon's character is not actually insane


An old favourite, this action-packed satire of the Reagan era is still hilarious. Superstar Dutch director Paul Verhoeven's best American movie; packed to the gills with great scenes.

Ronny Cox was brilliant in this


John Sayles's first script is far from his best, but director Joe Dante and a great cast (including Kevin McCarthy - who just died aged 96, '60s Italian horror queen Barbara Steele, Sterling Hayden, Paul Bartel, and of course Dick Miller) make it all fun.

Kevin McCarthy, R.I.P.

Piranha 3D

Hilarious intentional-comedy makes great use of 3D effects, and even of Jerry O'Connell! Big, dumb, silly fun with a great in-joke cameo in the opening scene. Recommended to people who loved Gremlins and Mars Attacks.

Don't save him - he's Jerry O'Connell!

I'm sure there were more. I'll remember later. It was a good weekend.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Darker Than Amber

It's a crime that Darker Than Amber is impossible to get hold of without resorting to bootlegs. It closes with one of the best fight scenes ever captured on film, in which Rod Taylor and William Smith go at it. The video quality is terrible, but just check this out.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Vincent Price

In my opinion, the most fun horror star of all time was Vincent Price. In real life he was a charming bon vivant with a deep knowledge of cuisine and fine art; in the movies he had the face of a villain, a great fruity voice and a flair for being both sinister and funny. Only one of his roles - the lead in Witchfinder General - is still genuinely frightening, but if you want a fun time you can do a lot worse than just picking a random Vincent Price vehicle from the 1960s. Especially if you happen across any of the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations he starred in for director Roger Corman.

In a comment attached to an earlier post, my friend Sonia (who I wish would update her blog a little more often) referred to Price as "man-candy". Here is the image that prompted this outburst.

I still didn't create this image, but I still approve it.

When Price guest-starred on The Muppet Show, he delivered a memorable performance of the song "You've Got A Friend". Unfortunately this was cut from the DVD release because Disney cheaped out on music rights.

Fortuately, we have YouTube.

Price's distinctive voice was a natural for radio, and he made many appearances on many different shows. Perhaps his most memorable was "Three Skeleton Key" on Suspense, which he starred in on several occasions. Here is an mp3 of what is supposed to be the best version of this, from March 17 1950, three years before Price's horror movie career took off with House of Wax.

A very cool late Vincent Price appearance was Tim Burton's wonderful stop-motion short film Vincent, which he narrated. This is available on the DVD of The Nightmare Before Christmas, but again it's on YouTube. Price went on to appear as the father/inventor of the title character of Burton's movie Edward Scissorhands, which proved to be a fitting end to his long career.

Many horror movies today seem to me to be too concerned with torture, gore and cruelty. I don't mind any of those things and have enjoyed some of these movies, but I think it's a shame that the naive and innocent fun of the old-style horror villains are all but forgotten. Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Peter Cushing were better actors, but for me there are very few movie stars of any kind who are as much fun to watch as Vincent Price.

Here is a sample of his distinctively spooky laugh, from the end of Michael Jackson's Thriller. Use it wisely.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Combust In Unity

My friend Billy made a documentary! It's about Kiwiburn, the NZ equivalent of Burning Man.

Here's the trailer: