Friday, August 8, 2014


(UK/Serbia - 2014)

2011's IRONCLAD was a $25 million medieval epic set during the 13th century First Barons' War that had a SEVEN SAMURAI-type band of Knights Templar fighting to defend Rochester Castle from the forces of England's tyrannical King John, exacting revenge on the noblemen who forced him to sign the Magna Carta. It had a cast of solid pros--James Purefoy, Brian Cox, Kate Mara, Derek Jacobi, Charles Dance, and a scenery-chewing Paul Giamatti as the despicable King John--but nevertheless went straight to DVD in the US, where it developed a small cult following once it started streaming on Netflix. It's a nicely-done, blood-splattered adventure saga that suffers from too many scenes of Purefoy and Mara gazing longingly at one another, but as far as battle sequences and sword-induced carnage were concerned, IRONCLAD delivered. Proving that no film is too unknown to warrant a sequel, director/co-writer Jonathan English returns with IRONCLAD: BATTLE FOR BLOOD, which, unlike its predecessor, actually made it into a few US theaters. That seems odd, since it has almost no recognizable faces except for Michelle Fairley--best known as GAME OF THRONES' Catelyn Stark--and a few of her third-and-fourth-string THRONES co-stars looking for work since they've been killed off of the HBO series. More of a spinoff than a direct sequel, IRONCLAD: BATTLE FOR BLOOD takes place five years after the events of the first film and only has one minor character reappearing--Guy the Squire--and he's not even played by the same actor (Tom Austen replaces Aneurin Barnard). Guy the Squire is paid a visit by his cousin Hubert De Vesci (Tom Rhys Harries) when the De Vesci castle is attacked by a rogue band of Scottish rebels led by the ferocious Maddog (Predrag Bjelac). Maddog's son (Ljubomir Bulajic) is killed in the initial battle and Hubert's father, Lord Gilbert De Vesci (David Rintoul) loses an arm. Knowing Maddog's revenge attack is a matter of When and not If, Gilbert sends Hubert to secure the services of mercenary Guy who, as expected, is able to assemble the requisite ragtag group of mismatched warriors who band together before the climactic battle at an abandoned warehouse.  Wait. Hold on. No. No, there's no abandoned warehouse. My apologies. I was confusing my cliches. Please excuse me.

English seems to have regressed since the first IRONCLAD.  This new film looks cheap and clumsy, and it might not had English elected to shoot it in a competent or even remotely watchable fashion. Every scene is a dizzying, headache-inducing blur of the worst kind of shaky-cam. He goes so overboard with it--even in scenes where people are just talking or standing around--that you could be forgiven for assuming the DVD or Blu-ray was defective. There are very few moments in the film where the camera is held steady, and after a while, it starts to resemble medieval found footage. It's a stunningly numb-skulled decision by a director to fix what wasn't broken. Sure, IRONCLAD had some shaky-cam but it wasn't so much that it was a deal-breaker. Here, it's just overwhelming and does nothing to justify a project that already doesn't have much reason to exist. IRONCLAD has found a small cult following and while it's not an unsung classic or anything, it's certainly worth seeing once, if only for Cox's spirited performance and Giamatti's vein-popping histrionics. All you'll get from IRONCLAD: BATTLE FOR BLOOD is a migraine. (Unrated, 108 mins)

(Spain/US - 2014)

Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra (ORPHAN, UNKNOWN, NON-STOP) produced this lackluster mystery that melds psychic phenomena with the usual--and completely predictable--twists and turns. The premise sounds like the set-up for a high-concept CBS procedural: "memory detective" John Washington (Mark Strong) works for an organization called Mindscape (the film's original title), whose investigators are able to infiltrate the memories of their subjects and witness the things they've seen.  Of course, Washington, like most rumpled cops with bleary eyes, perpetual three-day stubble, and a utility bill with a huge "Past Due" stamp visible on his cluttered coffee table in front of the couch where he passes out every night, has some baggage that's placed him on an extended leave of absence--in this case, a dead child and a wife who committed suicide--but he needs the money and tells his boss Sebastian (Brian Cox) that he wants back in the game. Sebastian gives him the easy gig of investigating Anna (AMERICAN HORROR STORY's Taissa Farmiga), a rich teenager with psychological issues and vague psychic abilities, who's gone on a hunger strike and is kept locked in a room under surveillance by her boozing mom (Saskia Reeves) and her sneering stepfather (Richard Dillane), who has a habit of sleeping with the help. Arriving at Anna's family home, the kind of sprawling, gothic, spiral-staircased mansion specifically designed to contain generations of secrets and lies, Washington's job is simply too find Anna's reasons for her self-harm and get her to eat. But as he spends more time with her and they get to know each other, he starts finding bits and pieces of a complex puzzle that he becomes obsessed with putting together.  And someone should, because director Jorge Dorado and screenwriter Guy Holmes sure don't seem up to the task.

ANNA gets off to an intriguing start as a sort of supernatural MANHUNTER, and it's nice to see veteran character actor Strong, whose one-season-and-done AMC series LOW WINTER SUN failed to become the network's next BREAKING BAD, in a leading role, but this film is a disjointed, incoherent, badly-paced mess. It feels like vital scenes are missing, especially near the end, which is completely rushed and makes little sense.  Further evidence to suggest haphazard editing: prominently-billed Noah Taylor doesn't appear until the very end, seated at a table talking with Strong, but is listed quite high in the "Cast in order of appearance" roll at the end.  There's also a guy credited as "Mr. Taylor's body double," but there's nothing about their scene that would require a body double, indicating that an entire plot thread involving his character was left on the cutting room floor. It's hard to believe someone with the sharp skills of Washington, regardless of how burned-out he is, would be gullible enough to get tripped up in the situation that develops, and never seeing how he's been duped until it's too late. There's signs of a decent thriller lurking somewhere in here, but that's not what got dumped on just ten screens in the US. (R, 99 mins)

(Italy/Poland - 2012; US release 2014)

This chronicle of the Battle of Vienna is so concerned with scoring cheap political points that even its title is flagrantly misleading:  the final battle took place on September 12, 1683, but why let well-documented historical facts get in the way of being able to crassly draw false parallels to a world-changing tragedy?  Italian director Renzo Martinelli has been making films for several years now with the backing of the Northern League, the far-right political party that in many--but not all--ways is Italy's version of the Tea Party. THE DAY OF THE SIEGE: SEPTEMBER ELEVEN 1683 was co-produced by the Polish Film Institute and was originally conceived as a tribute to King Jan III Sobieski, whose army was largely credited with defeating the Ottoman Empire forces in their quest to establish Islam in the west. That premise was enough get famous but not-exactly-A-list Hollywood actors like F. Murray Abraham, Harvey Keitel, and Jim Caviezel onboard. Abraham and Keitel both starred in Martinelli's fervently anti-Islam (and completely terrible) THE STONE MERCHANT (2007) and Abraham starred with Rutger Hauer in the director's SWORD OF WAR (2009), which co-star Cecile Cassel publicly denounced once she realized that Martinelli was making a Northern League propaganda film disguised as a historical epic (the fact that then-Northern League leader Umberto Bossi was hanging around the set and had a cameo might've been the first tip-off). Apparently, the involvement of the Northern League and the politics inherent in the SIEGE script were enough to prompt Keitel to bail, and you know your agitprop might be skewing a little too far to the right when even outspoken Hollywood conservative Caviezel feels the need to distance himself and drops out of the project. Abraham stuck around, either out of a sense of professional obligation or, considering this is his third appearance in a Martinelli project, he either likes the guy, agrees with his views, both, or neither. Maybe a job's a job for Abraham, who seems to be working now more than ever on TV and in supporting roles in Hollywood movies, but he's had a rather lucrative and busy side career in Italy for nearly 30 years. Many of Abraham's Italian TV and film projects have never received US distribution, but his Italian credits very likely outnumber his Hollywood ones at this point. For years, prior to the post-JERRY MAGUIRE career self-immolation of Cuba Gooding, Jr., Abraham was the poster boy for the so-called "Oscar jinx" after his Best Actor win for 1984's AMADEUS failed to make him a movie star and instead made him a punchline, and that's not fair. Abraham is a great character actor, but he was never going to be a Hollywood A-lister. AMADEUS was that once-in-a-career, lightning-in-a-bottle gift that very few jobbing actors like Abraham get. Balancing Hollywood gigs with a secret Italian career was more common for aging actors of the 1960s and 1970s than it is today. Still, for a guy like Abraham (and Keitel, and the late Tony Musante and Ben Gazzara--both of whom made their final appearances in a 2013 miniseries for Italian TV--character actors who also have extensive European careers that American audiences know nothing about), the idea of a lead role in an Italian epic, even if it's mostly bankrolled by a party of the country's most vehement xenophobes, was probably hard to turn down.

In Turkey, Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa (Enrico Lo Verso, in what I assume was supposed to be Caviezel's role) is entrusted with expanding the Ottoman Empire and its practice of Islam into Europe. Revered monk Marco D'Aviano (Abraham) can't convince his flock that he's just a man, even though he's seen performing miracles on more than one occasion. D'Aviano tries to spread the word of God and Christianity as armies assemble to thwart Kara Mustafa after the monk sees a comet and insists it's a threat from Islam (a good second guess would be a shitty special effect worthy of an Al Bradley joint).  D'Aviano barely secures the reluctant commitment of fey, cowardly King Leopold of Austria (Piotr Adamczyk), and even get a feisty duchess (Alicja Bachleda-Curus of ONDINE) to join the battle. They're eventually joined by the mighty forces of Jan III Sobieski (renowned filmmaker and occasional actor Jerzy Skolimowski, in what was likely Keitel's part), for the completely incoherent and ineptly-assembled final battle, filled with amateur-night CGI and greenscreen and cannonballs causing more explosions than all of Antonio Margheriti's films combined. It's all rather numbing and dull by the end, and quite distasteful not just in its dishonest invocation of 9/11 but also in the way that all of the Turkish characters are portrayed as swarthy and untrustworthy, especially the opportunistic Abu'l (Yorgo Voyagis), who allows his Christian girlfriend to be violated by animalistic "Allahu Akbar!"-chanting troops in order to appease his Islamic cohorts. And for a film that's ostensibly about Jan III Sobieski and his army's triumph, the Polish end of the story gets completely relegated to the sideline, with Skolimowski not even appearing until 80 minutes in to give the script enough space for Martinelli's Christian proselytizing and Islam-bashing. Abraham gets to sink his teeth into a few spiritual monologues (make a drinking game out of how many times he cries "I am but a simple monk!") and Bachleda-Curus gives her scenes enough of a spark that you wish she was in it more, but most of the actors are badly dubbed with inappropriate voices, especially Skolimowski, whose dubber's final declaration of "Damn you, Kara Mustafa!" doesn't even match his lip movements and is obviously not what he said on-set.  Most disheartening of all is seeing the ageless Claire Bloom (Chaplin's LIMELIGHT, THE HAUNTING--yes, that Claire Bloom) squandered in a one-scene cameo as D'Aviano's mother. That's right:  Claire Bloom as F. Murray Abraham's mom.  Martinelli may fancy himself the Northern League's Ridley Scott, but with that kind of ridiculous casting, slipshod filmmaking, and bush-league visual effects, he's really just Italy's Uwe Boll. (R, 120 mins, also available on Netflix Instant)

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, terrible. I didn't think you could even buy special effects this bad anymore. I assumed it had some kind of political point of view pre-baked in. Tea party wouldn't have funded anything like this.