Based on Ian McEwan’s equally stirring novel we begin the story in 1935 on the cusp of WWII. Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) a 13-year-old fledgling writer lives with her wealthy family in their enormous English country mansion and on one hot summer day she irrevocably changes the course of three lives including her own. It seems the housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) carries a torch for Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). And on this warm day it becomes clear she feels the same way; their love ignites. Little Briony who harbors her own secret crush on Robbie witnesses the beginnings of this love affair and not understanding its meaning feels compelled to interfere going so far as accusing Robbie of a crime he did not commit. He is arrested and whisked away eventually forced into the British army but thankfully the two lovers have a moment before he goes to war to reconnect. Cecilia promises to wait for him urging him to “come back” to her once the madness he is about to become immersed in is over. Meanwhile Briony (played in adult years by Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave) has grown up regretting every single moment of that fateful day and in desperately trying to seek forgiveness finally finds a path to understanding the power of enduring love. The performances in Atonement are nothing less than captivating beginning with the young Irish rose Saoirse Ronan (who is also set to play the lead in Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones). Since it is primarily Briony’s story Ronan must make the first most indelible impression and set the tone for the rest of the movie--and she succeeds on every level. From the moment you see Ronan’s pale face clear-blue eyes and steadfast gait you immediately recognize Briony’s need and determination to make everything in her life just so. Indeed Briony is a strongly focused child and Ronan so embodies the character an Oscar nomination is almost a certainty. As the 18-year-old Briony Garai (Dirty Dancing 2) does the best she can following such a tough act as Ronan but can never quite match the same intensity. On the other hand Redgrave who comes in at the very end as the much older Briony nails it right away adding her own nuances to a character who has lived a full life. Of course Knightley and McAvoy are no slouches either vividly capturing the passion bubbling up between Cecilia and Robbie then turning around and showing the heartache as their love is ripped apart. McAvoy is particularly effecting as his Robbie must also witness some truly horrific wartime scenes. Actually Oscar nods should come fast and furious for everyone in Atonement. With Pride & Prejudice and now Atonement director Joe Wright may have just established himself as the new James Ivory (of Merchant/Ivory fame). Wright is a real visionary for the romantic period piece expertly delivering truly spectacular vistas. From set design to costumes to cinematography the look of Atonement is at once verdant welcoming and then startlingly grim. The first half of Atonement at the Tallis’ country home is certainly the film’s most defining peppered by an effective musical score which uses the sound of a typewriter like a metronome. Through a soft lens Wright displays the general idleness of summer day at a country home like a sunny floral motif that belies an undercurrent of sweating bodies wilting flowers stagnant pools--and an imminent tragic event. Then once Wright moves with Robbie into WWII he actually paints an even more grim view of war then maybe seen before. The one continuous shot of the historical Dunkirk--a French beach on which thousands of British soldiers were forced by the Germans and then waited to be evacuated--is absolutely stunning and surreal. Atonement does drag ever-so-slightly in the middle especially as Briony trains to be a nurse in London but overall this is a film Academy voters eat up with a silver spoon. Expect to be hearing about it in the months to come.
Set in 5th century A.D. The Last Legion follows the destiny of the young emperor Romulus Augustus Caesar (Thomas Sangster) the last of the Caesars. A palace coup sees his parents murdered and Odoacer (Peter Mullan) seated on the throne of Rome. With the protection and help of Aurelius (Colin Firth) and his ethnically-diverse band of warriors and with the spiritual guidance of Ambrosinus (Ben Kingsley) Romulus gains possession of Julius Caesar’s sword--that’s “Excalibur” to you and me--and seeks to re-establish his kingdom far away in Britannia. But trouble is never far behind represented by Odoacer’s snarling henchman Wulfila (Kevin McKidd) and Ambrosinus’ old nemesis Vortgyn (Harry Van Gorkum) who are closing in--leading to a climactic battle in which good battles evil. Care to wager who wins? It’s hardly a surprise. What is a surprise however is that it took five credited screenwriters to cook up this medieval mélange. That Kingsley and Firth are better than the material isn’t surprising either; both are good actors and the material here simply isn’t. Firth is stalwart handsome and heroic--and that’s all that’s required of him. Kingsley has a few lively moments and the actual identity of his character is yet another non-surprise. Sangster gives a sheepish performance as the displaced boy king. Indian star Aishwarya Rai is alluring as the fearless warrior Mira another of Romulus’ allies who appears to emerge from each battle not only unscathed but with her makeup and hair completely intact. Her chaste romance with Firth isn’t so much predictable as an afterthought. McKidd and Van Gorkum chew the scenery in an effort to enliven the proceedings and Van Gorkum’s metal mask brings to mind the late-‘60s rock ‘n’ roll novelty The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. As Odoacer Mullan has only a few scenes before disappearing from the narrative entirely. John Hannah and Iain Glen drop in briefly to no discernible effect either to the film or to their careers. Doug Lefler a veteran of such small-screen swashbucklers as Hercules and Xena finds himself in familiar territory here. Unfortunately so does the audience. There’s almost nothing to distinguish The Last Legion from any number of medieval melodramas. The good guys are true blue the bad guys are truly vile--and all of it has a weary air. A few nudges of humor seem misplaced amid the clanking swords and flying arrows. In what may well be an effort to broaden the film’s box-office hopes--which won’t spring eternal for very long--some of the grislier scenes appear to have been trimmed. Those expecting a more vicious and visceral adventure may be disappointed by the PG-13 bloodshed on display here.
Based on British mystery writer P.D. James’ rather downbeat novel Men takes place in the not-too-distant future where the world is definitely not right. In fact society is facing extinction since the human race has lost the ability to reproduce; there hasn’t been a new child born in 18 years. But as the tagline reads “…all that can change in a heartbeat.” While the rest of England is unraveling as civil unrest runs rampant a young woman named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) is found miraculously pregnant and Theo (Clive Owen) a disillusioned government agent agrees to help secretly transport her to a sanctuary at sea where her child's birth may help scientists save the future of mankind. So sets in motion a race against time fraught with many horrific obstacles. Children of Men collects a first-rate cast. Leading the pack is Owen as yet another reluctant antihero. It’s a good part for the somewhat depressive actor who seems at ease when everything is going to hell around him (see Inside Man Closer etc.). Theo is initially drawn into the Kee conflict because his ex-wife a terrorist/activist--played with brief but quiet determination by Julianne Moore—asks him to. See they share their own personal tragedy so saving Kee and the baby becomes even more important to them. Newcomer Ashitey shines as Kee who really doesn’t understand at all what is happening to her but has a fair amount of spunk anyway. Other standouts include Chiwetel Ejiofor (Kinky Boots) as one of Moore’s compadres with his own nefarious agenda and Michael Caine as an old friend of Theo--a throwback to a more peaceful time. Representing both old and new school Ejiofor and Caine are actors you can simply put in any film and somehow they will make them that much better. But Children of Men’s true brilliance comes from its creator. Co-writer/director Alfonso Cuaron is simply one of the most exciting cinematic storytellers working today. No genre is out of his reach. He has done kiddie flicks (A Little Princess) sexy coming-of-age dramas (Y Tu Mama Tambien)—and even a splashy Harry Potter installment (Prisoner of Azkaban probably the best one so far). And now Men a futuristic thriller that he crafts with absolute bone-chilling effect. Cuaron’s world is not a very happy place with the skies consistently gray with pollution and violence injustice and human cruelty around every corner. When Theo and Kee are on the run you’re expecting the worst at any moment but that’s not really where Cuaron’s head is at. He wants us to have hope. As the director puts it in the film’s production notes “Humanity has an amazing talent for destruction. But also we can show solidarity and an ability to come through problems together. In the end Children of Men isn’t so much about humanity being destructive—its more about ideologies coming between people’s judgment and their actions that is at work in this story.” I couldn’t have said it any better.
If you thought a San Francisco police detective (Michael Douglas) was hard to break imagine how tough it is to sway a London shrink (David Morrissey). Leave it to Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) to try. The sinful author has resurfaced and--in the nearly decade and a half since the first Basic Instinct--moved to London. Old habits die hard however and she’s again being investigated for a sex-gone-awry homicide. This time it’s renowned shrink Michael Glass who’s charged with keeping a watchful eye on the elusive seductress--and does he ever! He tries to maintain his professional ethos but what’s a platonic doctor-patient non-relationship to him is the ultimate aphrodisiac to Tramell whom Dr. Glass diagnoses with “risk addiction” and delusions of omnipotence. And so begins the Freudian chess match: How long can he resist the femme fatale and how long can she resist him resisting her? In Basic Instinct 2 Stone makes us feel naughty--and not a “good” naughty. She looks great and there aren't any uh extra close-ups but subtly put almost 15 years have past since the first installment and Stone is no spring chick--er rabbit as it were. For her to still be oozing sex as if it’s only been a sequel-standard couple of years is creepy even though she looks nowhere near her age. The accompanying smolder and breathy voice make it hard not to laugh; she’s actually too regal an actress for this stuff. Morrissey--who strangely resembles the Smiths singer of the same name--does fine work with an unenviable role of a steely bloke intrigued by the seedy London underworld his patient enjoys. But it’ll take repeated broodings for him to be the next Clive Owen. The biggest waste of talent comes from Charlotte Rampling (Swimming Pool) as Glass’s mentor. She has no place here and that’s meant solely as a compliment. In some ways Basic Instinct 2 is such a shame: When the film operates purely as a murder mystery--at least for its first half--it’s somewhat engaging. Sadly the only reason there’s any interest in this long-delayed sequel at all is the prospects of sex to outlast its original. Thus it is clear to see how cantankerous a film this must’ve been for director Michael Caton-Jones but he does the best he can with all the sexual innuendo that leads up to all the sexual (anti-)climaxes. The completely absurd opening sequence gives it all up without even playing hard to get. It immediately feels like a traditionally slick dull and revelatory film whereas the first one offered us foreplay first before moving on to no-holds-barred sex; there’s neither that brand of foreplay nor sex here. More ridiculous still is the second half as the film eventually feebly attempts to hide improbable twists behind the sordid mind of a writer.
The Crusades were a series of religious wars in which the Christians tried to reclaim Jerusalem from the Muslims who had conquered the Middle East in the 7th century. With the battle cry of "God wills it! " thousands of Europeans answered the call and were able to retake the fabled Holy City in the 11th century. Kingdom of Heaven begins in 1186 between the Second and Third Crusades. A fragile peace prevails mostly through the efforts of Jerusalem's enlightened Christian king Baldwin IV (Edward Norton) and the military restraint of the legendary Muslim leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). But it's difficult to maintain the peace. There are extremists within the Christian brigades--known as the Knights Templar--who want to wipe every Muslim off the face of the Earth. On top of that King Baldwin's health is failing. Once he's gone war is sure to follow. If ever there was a need for a hero this is the time. Enter the young French blacksmith Balian (Orlando Bloom) who is in deep despair over the loss of his family. He joins the Crusades after the father he never knew Godfrey (Liam Neeson) comes back from Jerusalem and convinces him it's a quest worth fighting for. As Godfrey passes his sword to his son he also passes on that sacred knightly oath: to protect the helpless safeguard the peace and work toward harmony between religions and cultures so that a kingdom of heaven can flourish on earth. No pressure or anything though.
Orlando Bloom carries his first major motion picture very well easily handling the chores of being such a gallant conscientious and morally upstanding knight. As Balian the Troy costar plays the gamut. He broods over his lost wife and child has father-son epiphanies upholds his knightly duties on a regular basis falls in love with a beautiful but troubled princess and finally bravely defends the Holy City from the encroaching Muslim army thus becoming a legend. Not bad for a day's work eh? There are even times especially toward the end when Balian is standing before the denizens of Jerusalem urging them to fight when you swear you can see a little of Bloom's The Lord of the Rings alter-elf Legolas creep in. The supporting cast also does an adequate job painting a picture of some trying times. Chief among them: Jeremy Irons as King Baldwin's right-hand man Tiberias; Marton Csokas (The Bourne Supremacy) as the evil leader of the Knights Templar; Massoud as the great warrior Saladin; and lovely Eva Green (The Dreamers) as Princess Sibylla King Baldwin's sister who captures our hero's heart but makes some bad choices with dire consequences.
Even if these sword-and-armor epics are all blending together you've got to give props to the directors who make them. These films are massive undertakings and Kingdom of
Heaven with the expert Ridley Scott at the helm is no exception. The Oscar-winning director of course has had his fair share of recreating history first with the classic Gladiator and then with the contemporary Black Hawk Down. But in recreating the Crusades Scott faces his toughest challenge to date and takes on the responsibility very seriously. He is painstakingly meticulous with details even as he is building a 12th-century Jerusalem or corralling 2 000 heavily costumed extras for the colossal climactic battle sequences. And it is always a good thing when a historical film can teach you something you may not have known like what the heck the Crusades were really all about. No Kingdom's biggest obstacle is timing. While it certainly has more substance than Alexander it is not nearly as intense and stirring as The Lord of the Rings trilogy or the granddaddy of them all Braveheart. Too many of its ilk has come before and the concept has unfortunately worn thin.