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Posts Tagged ‘Kevin Reynolds’

Still hanging around in cinemas is the Coens’ Hail, Caesar!, a movie which gets most of its fun from affectionately spoofing types of movie they just don’t make any more: musicals, westerns, terribly mannered dramas, and Biblical epics, such as the film-within-the-film that supplies its title. The thing is, though, that they do still in fact make films of some of these types, although they frequently struggle to get attention in a crowded marketplace. As a case in point, there’s Kevin Reynolds’ Risen, which came out in the States a few weeks ago and is theoretically out in the UK too, though really struggling to get decent distribution.

risen

The film’s modest budget and creative team of people you’ve either never heard of or whose careers seem to have gone off the boil might lead you to expect something pretty grisly, but as it turns out the charnel stink is mostly limited to events on screen. Joseph Fiennes plays Clavius, a Roman tribune enduring a far-from-plum posting to Palestine in 33AD – the only place in the Empire where the inhabitants rise up in violent rebellion against the occupying Romans and then sue them for brutality after they get put down. Clavius is jaded but retains his ambitiousness even so, and has managed to make himself pretty much indispensible to local top man Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth).

Pilate orders Clavius to oversee the execution of local mystic who offended the Jewish religious authorities, which he does, without much enthusiasm. He is further tasked with keeping the corpse of said Nazarene spiritual leader under guard, to head off rumours that the man has come back from the dead, as he apparently prophesied would happen.

Well, something goes wrong with the guard detail and the body of the Nazarene mysteriously vanishes, which means that Clavius has a new mission: find whoever is responsible, recover the body, and prevent the dead man’s acolytes from causing any trouble to the Jewish leaders or to Rome…

There’s no sense in beating about the bush here: Risen is another of those new-wave Biblical epics, albeit rather more modest in scope than Noah or Exodus, and its New Testament focus means it’s very hard to shake the suspicion it is gunning for the same keen audience that made The Passion of the Christ such a massive hit in 2004 – indeed, some reports suggest this started off as a semi-sequel to that film.

A lot of people, I suspect, will run a mile rather than watch a film about the Easter story, and it’s true to say that Risen has nothing like the spectacle or scale that made old-style films in this vein like The Robe or Ben-Hur so watchable. Nevertheless, I found this film to have many points of distinct interest, even though I would struggle to call it anything close to essential viewing.

I suppose it says something about the secularisation of western civilisation that a genre which was absolutely mainstream fifty years ago is now perceived is being rather niche: there isn’t anything like the same assumption that everyone is pious and Christian any more. I suspect the shadow of Life of Brian may also have had an effect in terms of making this kind of film a difficult proposition for film-makers and audiences. To its credit, Risen plays the whole story very straight – and to begin with at least – doesn’t go overboard with regard to any message it may be trying to pass along. Indeed, it almost seems to shy away from being too on-the-nose about this – the main man is referred to as ‘Yeshua’ in an attempt to steer clear of the usual associations. Hmmm.

The first half or two thirds of the film are actually a rather engaging political thriller, told from the point of view of someone largely disinterested in Jewish mysticism and (obviously) unaware of the significance of the case he’s working. I think it says something about the post-Roman nature of our own society that we find it so easy to identify with Roman characters in this kind of setting – we instinctively assume we have so much in common with them. I think this fundamentally misunderstands the different ethical system of the Roman Empire, but it’s a very helpful storytelling conceit if nothing else, and Fiennes gives a very good performance as the world-weary tribune. The film’s historical accuracy is a little variable but mostly rather impressive, albeit with one fairly important exception which we’ll come to soon.

However, once Clavius gets done with scene-of-crime work at empty tombs (in the film’s cheesiest moment, what-will-be the Shroud of Turin turns up), interrogating reformed prostitutes and running down disciples, there’s a fairly severe wobble as the film undergoes a profound change of gear. Though Clavius is still on the screen most of the time, he’s pushed into a very secondary role as a witness to the doings of the disciples. His main contribution is to help them evade Roman forces as they travel from Jerusalem to Galilee for another meeting with Yeshua (played, in case you’re wondering, by Cliff Curtis, who is thus probably the first Maori Christ in the movies – Curtis also appears in the Walking Dead spin-off, which is either very appropriate or utterly not, depending on your religious persuasion).

This works very well at injecting a bit of tension and action into the third act – Clavius has to contend with his ruthless aide, Lucius (Tom Felton) – but it does put one of the film’s issues centre stage, namely that it presents early Christianity as being a matter of great significance to the Romans, when it really wasn’t. To be fair, the film suggests there has been a bit of political maneuvering on the part of the Jewish authorities to secure Roman involvement, and – as mentioned – the presence of a Roman character as a point of identification for a general audience is essential.

Even so, it doesn’t help a final act which is primarily just a retelling of part of the book of Acts, with Clavius just hanging around in the background. One wonders why he didn’t get into the Bible himself, given the significance of his role here – he’s virtually the last person Yeshua has a conversation with before his ascension. (I couldn’t help being reminded of the Pythons’ original idea for their own movie on this topic, which dealt with St Brian, an apostle who was always in just the wrong place at the wrong time and thus got left out of all the Gospels.)

To be honest, I felt just a little bit cheated: I’d started watching a film with a bit of grit and thoughtfulness about it, concerned with some fairly novel new angles on this story, and for it to suddenly just turn into a very safe, by-the-numbers piece of Biblical reconstruction was rather a let-down.

Still, the whole thing is well-mounted and well-played, although I wonder just who the ideal audience for it is – if retellings of the Gospels are your thing, you may not like the start, but if you’re not into a sort of cinematic tract, you’ll most likely hate the ending. In the end, this is basically just a conversion narrative – and if conversion narratives are not your thing, none of the other good things about Risen are likely to make it appeal to you much. I thought it was an interesting curiosity which unfortunately didn’t live up to the promise of its opening section.

 

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 4th May 2006: 

Hello again everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that’s looking to new horizons. As you may have noticed, as far as mainstream cinema goes we are currently becalmed in the post-Oscar, pre-Memorial Day boonies. This is the time of year when the studios traditionally wheel out the fare which they can’t see having much success while there’s anything more substantial or heavily promoted about: mid-budget thrillers and action movies, horror, offbeat drama and comedies. (There’s another patch like this in the autumn when we here in the UK tend to receive any blockbusters that seriously tanked across the Atlantic.) Quite which of these categories Kevin Reynolds’ Tristan + Isolde falls I’m not entirely certain, but I’m positive it does trip up somewhere along the line.

Culture vultures will of course recognise this as the title of one of Richard Wagner’s grand Teutonic operas, but then again culture vultures almost certainly have better things to do than read 24 Lies A Second. Bearing this in mind, I shall refrain from showing off my in-depth knowledge of the Bayreuth maestro — suffice to say I do a mean summarisation of the plot of the Ring cycle. In any case this is, sadly, not a musical, just a fairly earnest adaptation of the original legend — greenlit, I would suspect, in the wake of the mega-success of Lord of the Rings, the Wagnerian connections of which are fairly well-known.

We find ourselves in the Dark Ages, with a divided Britain cruelly oppressed by the powerful Irish. (Any historical irony present in this scenario is steadfastly ignored by the movie which has its mind on nobler things.) The barons of Albion gather to forge an alliance and free themselves, but – as is traditional – a traitor amongst them has sold them out and the Irish crash the party looking for a fight. (You will, I hope, note that I too am steadfastly ignoring the opportunity to make cheap jokes based on dodgy ethnic stereotypes.) Orphaned in the scrap is Tristan, son of the leader of the Jutes, but he is adopted by the Cornish baron Marke (Rufus Sewell). Ten years later Tristan has grown up into James Franco, who you may recall from the Spider-Man franchise, and very strapping he is too. Equally strapping is Isolde, the lovely daughter of the Irish king – played by Sophia Myles, whom you may recall from the first Underworld, the big-screen Thunderbirds, and, retroactively speaking, this Saturday’s episode of Doctor Who.

Well, what follows is extremely convoluted and rather implausible, and heavily reliant on coincidence and people casually popping back and forth across the Irish Sea apparently by rowing boat. But here goes anyway: the King of Ireland promises Isolde’s hand in marriage to his chief legbreaker. She is not pleased. But before nuptials can take place said legbreaker pops over to Cornwall to terrorise the natives a bit. But the Cornish have had enough and fight back. Legbreaker dies but not before stabbing Tristan with poisoned blade. Cornish people think Tristan is dead and push him out to sea in burning rowing boat. Boat does not sink but washes up on coast of Ireland where – what are the chances! – Tristan is discovered and secretly nursed back to health by Isolde. Rumpy pumpy ensues. She does not tell him her name in case he gets caught and rats her out. King of Ireland discovers killer of chief legbreaker is somewhere on the loose in Ireland. Isolde warns Tristan to push off still thinking she is trapped in arranged marriage. He goes back to Cornwall in different rowing boat. Separated young lovers brood for a bit. King of Ireland decides to stir British up a bit by making them compete for Isolde’s hand and big wad of cash, thinking this will destroy their unity. Tristan comes up with plan to derail this scheme by winning contest on Marke’s behalf then splitting the prize between all the British leaders (Marke still gets princess). Despite attempts to fix contest by Irish this plan succeeds but – alas! – too late Tristan realises who Isolde really is. Isolde marries Marke as planned, thus ensuring peace between Britain and Ireland (sh’yeah right!). More rumpy pumpy, between Marke and Isolde this time. Tristan looks tortured and noble (or possibly suffers from wind a lot – Franco’s performance makes it difficult to tell)…

…and all this in just the first half! No wonder they had to cut all the songs out. Anyway things progress along fairly predictable lines – conflict of duty and true love, guilty passion, treachery, machiavellian machinations, tragedy, big siege, you know the sort of thing. There is, so far as I can tell, only one proper joke in the whole thing, and not an especially funny one. It does take itself rather seriously, but it at least is rather less cheesetastic than Reynold’s previous swashbuckling opus Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves. Historical anachronisms are kept down to an acceptable minimum for the most part, as are silly costumes (that said Rufus Sewell does turn up to his wedding wearing what appears to be a chain-mail beanie). That ‘+’ in the title might suggest this is a radical and bold reimagining for a modern audience, but it’s all a bit dour and naturalistic for a movie pitching for the Rings crowd. At least it’s better filmed and performed than the terribly similar Sword of Xanten which you may have caught knocking around not long ago.

To be honest, even at two hours this film feels rather rushed and busy, and, crucially, the central romance never really ignites – this despite the fact that virtually the first thing Isolde does on meeting Tristan is to take all her clothes off and start rubbing herself up against him, Dark Age folk presumably being less inclined to beat about the bush (so to speak). What little sympathy the couple generate is solely down to Myles’ performance, who is a radiant screen presence with definite star quality. Franco’s a bit of a charisma black hole, though – he broods well but that’s about it. Noteworthy also is Myles’ Irish accent, which for once does not suggest an upbringing in County Leprechaun. Sadly all the British characters stick with velly proper RSC English – clearly America is not yet ready for the wonders of the Cornish accent, and come to think of it, given his origins on the map Reynolds thoughtfully provides, Franco should be Scouse!

This is a film without any really big names, but there are lots of faces you may recognise in it. Rufus Sewell does an extremely decent job as Marke, and there’s a solid turn from a wigged-up Mark Strong as a treacherous Glastafarian (possibly not precisely the correct name for his tribe, but you get the gist). It doesn’t completely fall down in any department, and in some – art direction, cinematography, fight choreography – it’s quietly rather impressive. But it never really hooks the audience or involves them in the story. It’s watchable enough, but I doubt it will linger long in the memory. A few enormous women in horned helmets belting out tunes might have made all the difference.

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