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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: New. The Eagle, The Concert

The Eagle (Three Stars)
U.S.-U.K.: Kevin Macdonald, 2011

The Eagle is one of the more enjoyable adventure movies I‘ve seen recently. Set in the wilds of Old Britain in the second century , it’s an old-fashioned, well-crafted, eiting movie, adapted by director Kevin Macdonald and writer Jeremy Brock from Rosemary Sutcliff‘s famous young adult novel “The Eagle of the Ninth.” It’s full of action, emotion, personality and eye-catching scenery — just the kind of things we want in an adventure movie, whether it’s a Western, a tall ship tale, a swashbuckler, or, like this one, a sword-and-sandals Roman empire epic, in the Spartacus-Gladiator tradition.

Macdonald‘s movie also boasts a couple of heroes that actually engage your attention and sympathy (or at least mine): tormented Roman ex-General Marcus Aquila (played by Channing Tatum), and his plucky British slave, Esca (played by Jamie Bell of Billy Elliot).

Tatum‘s Marcus is a noble warrior and a photogenic brooder, retired from command in his youth after a nasty battle with the Picts, and he ‘s obsessed with solving the mystery (a real historical one) of the Roman Ninth Legion, which was defeated by British tribes and vanished in Caledonia (now Scotland) in 140 a.d. Incidentally, he also wants to clear the name of his late father, the Ninth’s commander, as well as to recover the golden eagle that was the Ninth’s standard.

Aquila’s slave Esca, irreverent and indomitable despite his slight stature,  owes his life to his master, who saved him from thumbs-down death at the hands of a gladiator in the Games, and now wants Esca to accompany him on his journey into the dangerous northern land above Hadrian‘s Wall — then so forbidding that the wall was called the End of the World.

It’s a volatile situation. Esca is a native Briton, unafraid and defiant, who didn’t flinch or move when a gladiator laid his sword on his skin in the arena. And we keep wondering throughout much of the movie, which side he’ll ultimately choose: that of the man who was so impressed by his courage and who rescued him, or that of the people of his blood and birth, still fighting the Roman armies and leaders who want to enslave them all.

United uneasily, these two plunge into the wilderness above the wall, the habitat of fierce tribes, and deadly warriors, and perhaps of the descendants of the legion that disappeared — an uncharted realm of glowering skies, craggy mountains, rushing rivers, forests and caves that swallow you up (all shot with ravishing detail and bleak grandeur by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, of 127 Hours) , along with villages and camps seething with dangerous combatants — like the blue-pained Seal People, led by the ferocious Seal Prince (played by Tahar Rahim of the rough, bloody French prison movie A Prophet).

I don’t know about you, but that strikes me as a nearly irresistible premise for a movie. Just watching those two volatile searchers riding off together into the unknown  got the adventure-loving kid in me all revved up again. In some ways The Eagle is formula-bound and exaggerated and even, from some perspectives, a little silly. But it’s not the kind of formula that annoys me. I enjoyed the results much more than I did the recent Centurion, which was also inspired by the disappearance of the Ninth — but was played with surpassing grimness, grotesquerie and deadening brutality, like a period horror movie.

The Eagle is more reminiscent of the classic quest movies, like John Ford‘s The Searchers, of course, with John Wayne as Ethan (“That’ll be the day!”) and Jeffrey Hunter‘s Marty, pursuing the Comanche tribe that killed Ethan’s family, slaughtered his secret love and abducted her daughter. Or Anthony Mann’s Winchester 73, with Jimmy Stewart chasing his beloved rifle, or Howard Hawks’s Red River, with Wayne pursuing his cattle and Monty Clift. Or Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales. Or Henry Hathaway’s 1969 True Grit with Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn after a killer and bounty money (and the superb recent Coen Brothers/Jeff Bridges remake). Or Hathaway’s underrated Nevada Smith, with Steve McQueen relentlessly on the trail of the bandits who raped and murdered his mother.

Those are all classic, near-classic or “instant classic” Westerns, and The Eagle, superficially part of the genre that includes Spartacus and 300, is reminiscent of them all. With its gorgeous landscapes, bounteous dangers and its embittered, driven heroes or protagonists yoked together in wary admiration, The Eagle often looks and feels like a Western, albeit one of the revisionist oaters of the late ‘6os and ’70s, the Peckinpah-Leone-Eastwood-Penn-Altman period.

And it’s a male bonding movie as well (as are most of the movies above, especially Spartacus): one that mines occasional high drama out of the social differences, clashing temoperaments and ambiguous bonds between Tatum and Bell, both of whom contribute performances above the norm for this kind of movie. (So does Rahim, and so does Donald Sutherland, enjoying himself mightily as Marcus’ worldy-wise, libertine-looking Uncle Aquila (but surrounded by a much better movie than he was in The Mechanic.)

Tatum has been indicted in some quarters for excessive hunkishness, but he strikes me as a good actor for this kind of adventure movie, someone who blends the wayward charisma and short fuse of a younger Russell Crowe with the photogenic toughness of a young Mel Gibson. It’s Bell though, who really makes the movie work, largely because he’s playing so well against expectations, because he  doesn’t initially look as if he belonged in an adventure movie, and because he supplies the intelligence and sensibility and depth that makes the twosome and their interchanges  connect and crackle.

It’s not surprising that The Eagle was based on both fact (embellished by imagination) and on a novel for young adults. The movie has a foundation in actual history, but it also has the crowd-pleasing, wish-fulfillment elements that we maybe love best in youth — or in old age or temporarily recovered youth.

But neither is it a surprise that The Eagle plays so well on screen as a genuine adult genre movie (albeit one that brighter kids should like too). The picture is at least somewhat plausible historically, and it has strong characters caught in real dilemmas, with dramatic moral consequences.

Tellingly, and despite the fact that The Eagle comes from a novel written by a woman, it also lacks big female roles, or the usual trumped-up big-movie romance. There are no implausibly shampooed or mascaraed heroines popping up, indeed hardly any women at all. The movie  could have used a rough, rowdy, witchy Brit or even a few Roman concubines and an amoral queen or two, but that might have been inappropriate for a young adult novel. (One suspects Sutcliff felt no need to supply any eroticism for her younger audience, or to charge up or even acknowledge the sublimated romance between Marcus and Esca.)

And though the action scenes are mostly good rather than great, they’re not annoyingly artificial and over-scaled, or full of visual bombast, like the ones in 300. Real humans with real swords (or maybe real fake ones anyway), thrash and slash at each other on real landscapes, and it reminds us how jarring and alienating CGI, and its phony compuetrized landscapes crammed with phony computerized people, can often be.

The dramatic scenes are what make the movie special. They often bristle with tension and emotion, especially when Marcus and Esca have to switch roles to keep from being killed as invaders — Esca playing the British master, Marcus the captive Roman slave. At the end, when there’s a great chase on, and horses are dying under their riders, I defy any adventure-loving kid or kid-at-heart, not to get caught up in the excitement.

Kevin Macdonald may be exactly the right kind of director for this sort of intelligent adventure movie. His The Last King of Scotland was very strong in its portrayal of a real-life villain and a twisted warrior mentality (Forest Whitaker’s bloody, mad Idi Amin) and his observer (James McAvoy as Amin’s wary Scottish physician). And Macdonald’s mountain-climbing documentary/recreation  Touching the Void has more rousing, real adventure and breath-catching action than most fictional actional movies of the same period. In the truly thrilling “Void,” Macdonald and his fellow filmmakers (including Mantle) give us drama that’s moving and convincing, and adventure that’s mythic.

Macdonald is the grandson of Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell’s partner on the Archers films, including terrific war-adventure movies like The 49th Parallel, One of Our Aircraft is Missing and The Pursuit of the Graf Spee. Like his brilliant grandpa, he‘s a sophisticated yarn-spinner who still has a relish for the youthful, unspoiled  magic and grand thrills we tend to treasure in the first movies we love.

That’s what the best of The Eagle gives us. As a twelve year old, I know I would have liked it, maybe loved it. And that twelve-year-old is still somewhere inside me as I watch it now, applauding and yearning for a swift horse, the wild frontier and the beautiful, stormy territory ahead.


The Concert (Three Stars)
France; Radu Mihaileanu, 2010 (Arc Entertainment)


Classical symphonic music was made for the movies to celebrate. And I have to admit that Radu Milhaileanu’s The Concert may have earned poits from me simply because it climaxes with a fiery performance of Tchaikovsky’s great Violin Concerto, very plausibly mimed by stars Melanie Laurent and Aleksei Guskov, as the movie‘s world-famous French solo violinist Anne-Marie Jacquet and legendary Russian orchestral conductor Andrei Filipov, join together i the story with a supposed orchestra of outcasts masquerading as the Bolshoi Symphony, for  a melodramatic finale that brings down the house.


The acting throughout The Concert is pretty lusty too, a mix of comedy, drama and fervid sentimentality that tends to overwhelm you in the ways Tchaikovsky often does, but without Tchaikovsky‘s class or style. Or logic. Milhaileanu, who also made the well-regarded and moving heart-tugger Train of Life, here paints Filipov as a great conductor who was fired by Communist bureaucrats in the Brezhnev era for (it’s assumed) trying to protect his Jewish musicians. Now Filipov earns his meager living as a janitor at the concert hall, until one day he intercepts an emergency French invitation for a Bolshoi concert, and decides to recruit his old musician friends to form a fake Bolshoi, get his old Commie nemesis and manager Ivan Gavrilov (Valeriy Barinou) to handle management chores, travel to Paris, hoodwink French impresario Duplessis (Francois Berleand) and put on a concert with star soloist Anne-Marie — with whom Filipov has some mysterious past connection.


The Parisian trip is portrayed as a comedy of errors, and that both invigorates and somewhat over-lightens the film. How, after all, is this imitation Bolshoi going to put on such a great performance without any last rehearsals? I also wondered at the fact that Filipov, supposedly a once-great classic Russian conductor, was also a hater of Prokofiev — an inarguably  great (if sometimes dissonant) Russian composer who, after all, was a sometime target and victim of the Soviet bureaucracy himself.


But the actors all play with humor, warmth and power, especially Laurent, Guskov, Miou Miou as Anne-Marie’s helper, and Barinov as Gavrilov, the fallen Brezhnevian bureaucrat and con artist who joins forces with his old time victim to reawaken the glories of the past. The Concert, like that come-back orchestra, has its rough spots. But the movie, like the musicians,  hits its crescendos, pours out its heart in the melodies and delivers in the climax. (In Russian, French and English, with English subtitles.)

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon