The Eagle

The collapse of Western Civilization is pretty in these days. To varying degrees, it colored some of the most important American films of 2007 and 2008: WALL-E, No Country for Old Men, and There Will Be Blood all flirted with Revelations. And if terrorism isn’t the tipping point, or Sept. 11, the Internet, or Iraq, it’s universal healthcare or the climate-change crisis, political upheaval or the snail’s-pace economic recovery, or certainly the rise of Eastern Civilization: namely China. So the story of the Legio Nona Hispana—or the Roman Empire’s Ninth Spanish Legion—has a prescient tingle. Although nobody knows for sure, it was long suspected by historians that the formidable legionnaires had ventured too deeply into the heart of darkness—present-day Scotland—and met their match in the native “barbarian” tribes. Maybe the tale captivated me so much because of the telling; my history professor dressed like the ghost of Hamlet’s father and treated us students like frosty cupcakes that he could devour whole. But, given that the Legion disappeared in the second century, A.D., during the Pax Romana—three-and-a-half solid centuries before the Empire’s eventual decline and fall—their tale has the effect of that little breeze one gets from the swing of a scythe before it hits its target. It’s a whiff of imperial hubris.

The fate of the Ninth is the subject of the movie Centurion, which came out last year and which I have to mark as a subject for further study—okay, whatever, I missed it. But The Eagle, which is based on The Eagle of the Ninth, a children’s novel by Rosemary Sutcliff written in 1954 (another subject marked for research), hurtles us to the next generation; it also makes the historical parallels perpendicular—impacted. (I don’t mean this obstreperously, mind you; the legion’s legend has been disputed in recent years.) Cohort Centurion Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) has volunteered to take a command in that backwater the Romans call Britannia. His ulterior motive is to reclaim the honor that his father lost with the Ninth; his dad was the dude in charge. Much of this is ceremonial: Marcus Aquila wants to return the Legion’s eagle emblem, sculpted in gold, to Rome. It symbolizes the honor and glory of the Empire; and, more importantly, it helps to shape the story into a handy quest narrative.

Now, if you razzed at the mention of Channing Tatum, I’ll have you know that he looks like a brooding bust of Caesar (or Daniel Craig) and has the physique that the legionnaires’ armor was molded for; moreover, he gives the part nothing less than an honorable good try. However, when he kisses his Roman-era rosary, his halo is too dim to pass for devout, and his high-pitched voice betrays him in one key scene. The screenplay (by Jeremy Brock) betrays him and nearly everyone else in others. But Brock, and the director, Kevin Macdonald, have themselves been let down by movie conventions that have been elusive for nearly 50 years. Old-school historical epics look stodgy, square, and fake, and new-style camera free-for-alls come off like a bone-headed Hollywood arrogation. (That said, some anachronisms are infinitely less tolerable than others: say, the soldiers’ “hup 2-3-4!” marching orders, or Marcus Aquila rolling over in his sleep to reveal a freshly laundered pair of tighty-whities.)

The Eagle does not capitulate too much to “modernity,” as Ridley Scott’s action-heavy Robin Hood did; and it’s devotedly sword-and-sandal, rather than lightsaber-and-Crocs. Although at times I wished that maybe Terrence Malick or Francis Ford Coppola or Kathryn Bigelow were behind the camera instead, Macdonald and Anthony Dod Mantle, the cinematographer, sustain the illusion of a magically barbaric Great Britain with mauve sunsets unblemished by smog, lochs swaddled in the mist, russet branches that seem to be tortured into spindly shapes, and mosses that grow green like emeralds. When Marcus Aquila, fervid, weak and wounded, trudges through these exotic brooks and streams, you feel the pull of the tides, the chill of the rains soaking into him. This isn’t Apocalypse Now, or even apocalypse way-back-when—it’s The New World. And yet, during this Roman’s holiday, he only comes to trust one Briton—his loyal slave, Esca (Jamie Bell); and the filmmakers’ overview of the tribe possessing the eagle (the “seal people”—not to be confused with fans of the musician Seal) is wide rather than deep. These warriors sport mohawks and wear an algae-colored paint on their faces even during downtime. (And you thought kilts were a faux pas!) But their only real individual is a freckle-faced child. Tahar Rahim, who plays their prince, has a tragic look that is never allowed to live up to its potential. When the centurion lifts his paw from the limp throat of the royal he’s drowned, the war paint washes off, and there’s something deeply upsetting about seeing this boyish mien laid bare: something that Macdonald seems to sense but fails to articulate.

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Blue Valentine

In Blue Valentine, Michelle Williams’s heart-shaped face is the white-chocolate coating over a shrivelled raisin beneath. “Shrivelled” is a keyword; her Cindy was a plump, hearty grape before the cruelly specular light of life braised her. “Cruel” is key, too; the film can be reduced to its quicksilver alternations between courtship and cruel realities, with short-lived glints of happiness that stick out like jigsaw pieces jammed into the wrong puzzle. Dean (Ryan Gosling), the childlike father of her daughter (Faith Wladyka), and quite obviously from the onset, soon to be her ex-husband, would have never made proper marriage material for Cindy—or, probably, for anyone else. Not that he’s a bad guy. Quite the opposite. But he’s a literary trope—the penniless drifter—and he seems like a holdover from an earlier era; living in Brooklyn, he’s what well-heeled hipsters want to be but aren’t.

Cindy is not a hipster. She has the incontrovertible beauty of a cheerleader, and the brains of someone working to make the grade for med school; but she has a special susceptibility to dingalings like Dean who have neither the aptitude nor the desire to conform. This susceptibility, which is like a little trap door inside of her from which the ultimate bleakness of the universe seeps in, crystallizes exquisitely when she denudes Dean’s preconceptions with a black joke that I’d fain call my own. It doesn’t take a long leap of the imagination to guess why their banns were so hastily posted; but their being mismatched isn’t their whole tragedy. The movie’s deep, sublime, and dreary pain spouts from the couple’s reluctant sense of their own impermanence from the get-go—that, no matter what they do, no matter how hard they try, they can’t will the strings between their hearts to tie into a permanent knot.

What makes this truth tragic here—rather than comedic, as it was in Annie Hall—is the way that the director, Derek Cianfrance (who wrote the script with Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis) ingeniously juxtaposes the couple’s hopeful first steps with its stumbles into dissolution. It’s a confusing device at first, but, for anyone who has ever been part of a failed relationship—there must be a few of you out there—it’s a very satisfying one; it provides an answer to the oft-asked “Where did we go wrong?” (The answer is simple, logistically; emotionally, it’s infinitely fraught with complications.) At times, the cramped style is like mumblecore with the volume cranked up, and there’s a climactic scene that may not have been scripted, per se, but comes off as too intrusive and dramatically convenient. Although Williams, on the receiving end, remains in character (she’s pitch-perfect—translucent), Gosling loses too much of his cool, boiling over like the undirected actors in A Woman Under the Influence.

Mostly, though, the back-and-forth between the leads feels spot-on, even if their joyless world seems marred by falsities. Maybe it’s Dean’s inexplicable adoption of white-trash attire; and that his hair recedes more quickly than the peroxide in his wife’s. (Are we to, in Jamie Foxx’s words, “blame it on the alcohol”?) Or maybe it’s Cindy’s family, which seems as indefinably linked to some industrial-age past as her husband does. Or maybe—and I say this without remorse for the dozens of times I’ve listened to Veckatimest while my windows were down and the speed limit was too slow to forbear—it’s the Grizzly Bear music, which imparts a burning spirituality that’s too hot for the ashes of a whimsical courtship and kicked romance. But this all seems like quibbling; Cianfrance winds up his actors but doesn’t get in their way. Blue Valentine is for one to sit back, admire, and commiserate with.

The Mechanic

There’s a certain class of moviegoer—particularly those who don’t self-identify as action-film aficionados—that a certain breed of action-movie star, like The Rock or Jason Statham, nonetheless has the ability to schooool. (I’d throw Denzel Washington into the mix, but he also has the bona fides of a gen-u-wine actor.) Part of the equation is physical, I’m sure. The Rock, so gentle in interviews, is bluff and brawny, but dignified in motion. Statham is smaller and ratty, incapable of being too natty; but something’s always going on in that bulbous, balding head of his—something wicked, in each sense of the word. Both men confer conviction, even integrity, on works that are frivolous to their bloody cores. If I were to define their on-screen personas in a convenient, conventional way, I’d call them “ironic”—but that’s not quite the word for it. They’ve found a middle path between self-awareness and irony, one that doesn’t condescend to the task at hand. I may need a neologism to describe it: They’re Stathamian.

The mere act of Stathamian intervention isn’t quite enough to make The Mechanic as fun as, say, Crank, but he’s got a good deputy in Ben Foster who, even blondied, looks more like Ryan Gosling than Kiefer Sutherland, but is nonetheless playing the bad-boy son of a paraplegic Donald. Sutherland, Sr., plays Statham’s mentor, who’s also an embezzler. And so Statham, playing an ace hitman, has to ply his trade on his father figure, and then, omitting that fact, take on Foster as his apprentice. (Perhaps out of fealty, perhaps out of shame.) Foster, who gave a great performance as a soldier who took things so seriously in The Messenger, still delivers his lines like Jack Nicholson during his dervish-hipster days, circa Five Easy Pieces. The actor gives the crackerbarrel-badass role better than it deserves: He’s like super-soigné moonshine. If Statham’s schwanky mansion in Louisiana backcountry and collection of Schubert records seem familiar, it’s because they’re Charles Bronson hand-me-downs: Richard Wenk and Lewis John Carlino’s script derives from a ’72 Bronson vehicle, also written by Carlino. (Not to mention a long tradition of action-flick noble savagery.) The director, Simon West, gives us a nice shot of a guy getting it through a two-way mirror and a bad guy’s black Beamer gets eviscerated by a garbage truck—though I wish they’d gone further, and put him into a trash compactor. (In that case, of course, he’d have to be a better baddie—he’s just a smug suit.) West also has a boom mic crashing into what seems like half his shots. Come on! And yet he has strength in Statham, who actually saves black-leather dusters from the spoofing they get on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. What other white guy, except maybe Sean Connery, can make balding seem so cool? Baad. Assss.