Film

Gods of Egypt, Eddie the Eagle, Triple 9, A War, The Last Man on the Moon

GODS OF EGYPT

TCR-Steve-at-the-Movies-v3I’ll admit, Gods of Egypt surprised the hell out of me…maybe “stunned” is the better word. Considering that the filmmaker Alex Proyas has made some solid works in the past, including The Crow and Dark City, I can’t believe how much of a steamy, free-floating piece of garbage his latest is, and not even in a fun way. No, this is two hours-plus of a fantasy world version of Egypt, which I’m fine with (that’s the only thing that explains the proliferation of white faces playing Egyptians) that looks like crap, is front loaded with some of the worst writing and acting I’ve seen in my life in a big-budget film (or any film, honestly).

I was prepared to ignore the white-washing of this story if it was in any way a quality film, but the sea of mostly white faces is only about the third or fourth worst thing about this movie. The story is set in a version of Egypt where the local gods interact regularly with humans. You can spot the gods because they’re twice as tall and can change into any number of mythical creatures from Egyptian folklore. Again, I like the idea of pretending that the gods of Egyptian art were actually real creatures at one time. As a fantasy idea, at least it’s not a concept that has been used to death on the big screen. We join the story during a transition—the king of Egypt is handing over power to his son Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of “Game of Thrones”). At that moment, his uncle Set (Gerard Butler) decides he wants the throne to impose his crushing will on the people. They battle and Set ends up plucking out Horus’s eyes, the source of his power, and casting him out.

At the same time, a young thief named Bek (Brenton Thwaites, an all-around terrible actor, previously seen in The Giver, Maleficent, Oculus) is madly in love with his lady friend Zaya (Courtney Eaton, one of the pretty ladies from Mad Max: Fury Road), when all hell breaks loose among the gods, and the two end up getting separated. She ends up becoming a slave to a master architect named Urshu (Rufus Sewell, because any casting agent knows when you need a shortcut to identifying a character as a weasel, you hire Rufus Sewell). When he attempts to rescue her from Urshu, Zaya is killed, which isn’t actually a spoiler, since the entire film is actually about Bek attempting to retrieve her from the land of the dead with the help of the fallen Horus.

You can almost see the actors all choking on the ridiculous dialogue (courtesy of writers Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless). No one can quite deliver their lines without a smirk on their face, except Butler, who instead decides to scream every line, as he did in 300. I could almost see Gods of Egypt becoming a cult hit many years down the road, based solely on how stilted the writing is and how brain-dead the acting feels. The film is such a complete failure, it’s almost admirable. And I haven’t even mentioned how god-awful the special effects look, and I’m not usually a stickler for such things.

I don’t know how Proyas went so wrong, but somehow he’s taken a fairly unconventional idea for a fantasy story and turned it into the work type of standard-issue drivel. I think one of the worst moments is when Chadwick Boseman shows up as the scholarly god Thoth. If you’ve ever wanted to see an actor look simultaneously humiliated and angry at their agent, look no further. Oh, and then there’s that time when Geoffrey Rush shows up as the leader of the gods, Ra, who swears off interfering in these affairs and then goes ahead and does so anyway.

There are unnecessary love story subplots that will make you cringe. Elodie Yung shows up as Hathor, the goddess of love, who is having a fling with Horus before his downfall, and attempts to help him and Bek with their quest to bring Zaya back from the dead and set Horus on his rightful path to the throne. Yeah, it’s all smelly, sticky garbage, and I’m done talking about it. I know people tend to shit-talk bloated Hollywood productions and being vacuous and pandering, but I’m still capable of finding quality in some of them. But Gods of Egypt is the worst of a bad bunch. The fact that this movie is even seeing the light of day seems like a minor miracle. Every one in this thing has a great deal to answer for.

EDDIE THE EAGLE

I’m not sure what was in the water in Calgary during the winter of 1988 during the Olympic games, but somehow the same event that brought us the Jamaican bobsled team also brought us the lovable loser Eddie Edwards, the British ski jumper who came in last place but still managed to capture the hearts of viewers around the world for his pure competitive spirit and love of the sport. Edwards wasn’t necessarily trying to win; he was just trying not to lose (or die). Rather than get lost in what about the new film Eddie the Eagle really happened and what didn’t, let’s judge the film as a purely cinematic endeavor and not as a faithful document of the those Olympics or Eddie’s journey to them.

I actually had somebody tell me they weren’t interested in seeing Eddie the Eagle because they remember seeing Edwards on TV at the time, and figured that was all they needed to see. But the Olympics is only a small portion of the total movie, which begins with a look at young Eddie attempting to be good at any sport and usually failing. He did manage to make the preliminary British downhill skiing team, but the Olympic selection committee make it plain that there’s no way someone with the look and what they deemed unprofessional manner that he possessed would ever make the team. Supported by his loving mother (Jo Hartley) and tolerated by his father (Tim McInnerny), Eddie (played almost unrecognizably as an adult by Kingsman: The Secret Service star Taron Egerton) realized that there was no British ski jumping team (since there was no place to train) and decided to resurrect the sport and become its sole participant.

With a severe underbite (which game him a bit of a speech impediment), thick glasses and a clumsy demeanor, Eddie heads off to Europe to train with the best in the sport watching him and nearly laughing him off the slopes. While self-training, Eddie meets former American ski jumping champion Bronson Peary (a completely fictional character, played quite drunkenly by Hugh Jackman), who left the sport in disgrace years earlier and has been considered one of the sport’s great disappointments by his former coach Warren Sharp (Christopher Walken, in a brief appearance). Peary has no interest in training this novice, well into his 20s, but in order not to watch Eddie die, he agrees initially to teach him to land properly, which sets up one of the great sports-training montages ever.

Produced by Matthew Vaughn and directed by actor Dexter Fletcher (who also directed Sunshine on Leith and Wild Bill), Eddie the Eagle is fueled by Eddie’s tenacity and determination, and it helps that Egerton has essentially foregone his good looks to focus on playing Eddie with such unbridled passion and lovability. It’s a challenge not to feel for the guy and want him to succeed at his modest goals of jumping just enough to qualify to make the Olympics and then actually compete. This is the living, breathing definition of a feel-good movie, minus the sticky sentimentality. The film is aware of what it is and finds small ways to filter out cynicism while still having a healthy disbelief that Eddie will succeed.

As lo-fi as the film feels, there are a few key jumping sequences that are downright terrifying, and Fletcher makes ample use of some great ski-jump crash footage to make his point that this sport can maim a participant or worse. And let’s face it, having the guy who plays Wolverine trudging around in the snow in tight jeans, half in the bag, with the perfect “I don’t give a fuck what you think of me or my man Eddie” attitude for much of the film only makes the film that much more watchable.

Eddie the Eagle reminds me of these David-vs.-Goliath British films I used to watch in the 1980s-’90s, and usually the villain was some level of British government or oversight group telling people in a small village they couldn’t do something. Overcoming red tape (in this case the snooty Olympic committee) seems to be a key component of the working-class British makeup, and it has resulted in some fine, inspiring, often rousing films over the years. It’s difficult not to love this energetic, overwhelmingly positive work that will pry through your cold, hard heart and make you want to like to root for the little guy one more time. You might actually hurt yourself if you attempt to resist.

To read my exclusive interview with Eddie the Eagle stars Taron Egerton and Hugh Jackman, and director Dexter Fletcher, go to Ain’t It Cool News.

TRIPLE 9 

There will likely come a point during the new crime drama Triple 9 where you’ll lose track of the overly complicated plot and just watch one great actor after another do their thing, often in badass ways we haven’t seen them in previously. Seriously, there came a point about three-quarters of the way through this movie when I essentially lost interest; I could still follow along, but the story ceased being as dynamic as the great performances going through the motions of this story of corrupt police, Russian-Israeli mobsters, and former military men turned into highly trained criminals.

But nothing about those plot points is as interesting or exciting as the cast of director John (The Proposition, Lawless, The Road) Hillcoat’s latest. At the top of the heap of actors are folks like Casey Affleck, who is on a run right now, doing some of the best work of his career; Chiwetel Ejiofor, in a rare action role, looking leaner and meaner than ever before; Anthony Mackie, rough and swearing a lot; Kate Winslet, perhaps the greatest surprise here, with a glorious accent to boot; Aaron Paul and Norman Reedus as brothers; Gail Gadot (upcoming as Wonder Woman) as a sort of femme fatale; and list goes on and on with Woody Harrelson, Clifton Collins Jr., Teresa Palmer and Michael Kenneth Williams in great supporting parts.

There really are a small number of films that are released every year where you just take in the experience, even if you can barely remember the film the next day. Is that a recommendation? Yes and no. I not only see as many films as I can in a given year; I collect performances and place them in the context of each actor’s career. When I saw Triple 9, it had been the third Casey Affleck performance I saw in as many weeks (including the Sundance magnificence Manchester by the Sea and the sea-rescue period thriller, The Finest Hours), and among them are the extremes of his vast and still-expanding range as an actor. He’s a simmering, brooding force in his films, and his understatement illustrates his power and depth.

As for the film itself, Hillcoat does a fairly solid job keeping things moving, but the interactions among 10 to 12 main characters are far more interesting and informative than the actual series of heists and schemes at the center of this movie. Other than some truly brutal violence (a welcome staple of any Hillcoat film), Triple 9 doesn’t have much to offer in terms of an original story (the screenplay comes courtesy of Matt Cook, who has a slew of screenplays in various states of pre-production), but there’s enough there to keep things volatile and moving at a nice clip.

One of the standout performances belongs to Ejiofor as a Special Forces soldier who has used his expertise at carrying out missions to make him an excellent thief. He’s being forced to commit these crimes via blackmail, but one senses he might have chosen this route anyway. The one blackmailing him (by keeping his son from him) is Winslet’s Russian mobster Irina Vlaslov, who has one of the biggest hairstyles in history and a great accent to keep it company. Ejiofor is in a complicated relationship with Irina’s sister (Gadot), which resulted in said child, and the mob wants him to carry out one more major job that might involve shooting a police officer (999 is the police code for “officer down”). Considering that many of the men in his crew are police, this is not as simple or easy as it could be. In a testosterone-driven story, it’s great to see a woman pulling all the strings.

Triple 9 is technically a fine film, but the screenplay is lacking. That said, there are some nice visual touches by Hillcoat and his d.p. Nicolas Karakatsanis.(Bullhead). If you are more forgiving when an average film allows some of your favorite actors to play and stretch their abilities, you might enjoy this one. If you need all of the pieces of a movie to work at elevated levels, you might be disappointed. That’s the best I’ve got for you on this one.

You can read my exclusive interview with Triple 9 star Chiwetel Ejiofor, here on Ain’t It Cool News.

A WAR

With just days away from this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, if you’re in certain markets, you have a chance to catch one more of the nominated films before the statues are given out, and it’s a quite powerful nominee at that. From Denmark and nominated for Best Foreign Language Film comes the latest from writer-director Tobias Lindholm (A Hijacking; R). A War is a tense and contemplative look at the Afghan war from the perspective of Danish troops stationed in a particularly hostile region. The film tells the tumultuous story of Claus (Lindholm favorite Pilou Asbæk (Lucy, A Hijacking), a company commander who is trying desperately to balance his work and stay alive while doing it, with his life back home with a wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) and three children, all of whom want him home desperately.

A War allows its true story to surface quietly, almost accidentally. What we believe is going to be a drama about the war at home or perhaps some hidden, psychological reasons that Claus is hesitant to return home—both storylines we’ve seen done in films before—turns into something entirely unexpected that is touched off by a chaotic and brutal firefight that ends when Claus calls in an airstrike on a position from which he may or may not have seen Taliban fire coming. The strike results in the death of 11 innocent civilians, including children, and before long Claus is sent home to face a military trial for his actions.

One of the more interesting aspects of A War is that the audience knows the truth the whole time. We see what inspired Claus’s call for the strike, so his guilt or innocence is never in question for us. But that doesn’t stop what happens when he comes home from being any less riveting. He’s so convinced that he made the correct call (the firefight stopped as soon as those bombs fell) that we actually find it likely he believes the version of events to be the absolute truth. As much as we abhor the results of his actions, we’re also slowly coming over to his side, or at the very least, we don’t want to see his life and family’s life ruined by this, although it would be completely justified. It’s a type of conflict that likely crops up every day during a long-term war such as the one in Afghanistan. People do what they have to to protect their troops, and sometimes that means innocents get killed. It’s not right, but you also don’t always have control over your emotions or alliances.

Director Lindholm once again shows us what a confident, bold filmmaker he’s become after only three features. (He’s also a prolific writer, having penned the 2012 Oscar-nominated drama The Hunt as well.) The answers here are never made easy, and at various points during the trial, we’re not sure what outcome would serve the greater good. As the opposing attorneys in the trial, Charlotte Munck and Soren Malling make arguments and provide evidence that are both gripping and compelling. In the end, we assume the decision will come down to whether Claus made a mistake or was flagrantly in the wrong, but even that doesn’t factor in as much as we think it will.

Asbæk’s Claus is a mostly pulled-in person, who reminded me a great deal of a younger Michael Shannon at times, especially when he flips the switch from reserved to explosive. But it’s his steely, almost cold demeanor that makes his well-earned outbursts seem especially jarring and emotionally stirring. In reality, A War is about everyone and everything that gets caught in the crossfire—soldiers on both sides, those labeled collateral damage, families and innocence. It’s a superbly directed and played production that should resonate just as loudly in America as it likely does in Denmark or any other nation embroiled in war. Make this part of your last-minute rush to catch the best of the nominees and of 2015/16. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON

A film that manages to stir up feelings of American pride surrounding the U.S. space program while also revealing the darker corners of an astronaut’s life, The Last Man on the Moon centers on 81-year-old Eugene “Gene” Cernan, who was—as the title implies—the last of 12 men to set foot on the surface of the moon. The movie is a detailed recounting of the early days of a space program that was kicked into overdrive as a direct response to the Soviets putting a man into orbit first. President Kennedy made the bold declaration that the United States would be the first country to put a man on the moon, and NASA had no choice but to make that happen.

Telling his own story like a man who has done it many times before, Cernan recounts how he was selected as a member of the Apollo team, going into remarkable and revealing detail about the education, the dangers, the endurance tests, and the impact being away from his family had on his relationship with this wife and daughter, both of whom are also interviewed. On more than one occasion, Cernan admits that the life of an astronaut is a selfish one, almost by necessity, even years after the moon landings were ended.

Cernan’s first-hand accounts of his three missions—one was a space walk, the second was the dry run for the actual moon landing, and the third was the final moon landing—are well-polished stories that include breathtaking descriptions of seeing the earth from space, seeing his footprints on the moon’s surface, and his harrowing accounts of minor mishaps that occurred on two of his journeys.

Wisely, director Mark Craig (Jackie Stewart: The Flying Scot) always comes back to the more human world that Cernan inhabited, outside of being an American hero. He was a loving, if absentee, father and husband, as well as a would-be rancher (which he still is in Texas). He gives an honest account of the hard partying that often is a part of the lifestyle of those with death-defying jobs. We hear from long-time friends and fellow Apollo teammates, whose candor at the thrill and outright fear and doubt (especially after the Apollo 1 crew burned up on the launch pad) makes this a cut above the usual documentary on the space program.

What’s even more interesting is hearing the original communications between Houston Ground Control and the various astronauts, accompanied by a combination of stunning archival footage and computer-animated re-creations of certain unfilmed events. I was especially moved at certain moments captured by the filmmakers that involved Cernan visiting his mission capsules in various museums around the world, as well as slowly making his way through what is left of the Space Center in Houston, now essentially a series of empty rooms and a skeleton of a launch tower. Seeing it like this is the only time Cernan voices any apprehension, at revisiting his past for this film.

We get a brief look at the life Cernan leads today. He’s still an ambassador for space travel, and seems genuinely excited about the likely prospects of putting a human on Mars. Other things in his life have changed dramatically since his days as an astronaut, but his schedule remains packed, and his family still wants him to slow down. That seems to be the running theme of The Last Man on the Moon, and it begs the question, “How likely would it be that you could ever stop talking about it if you were one of the only people on the face of the earth to have walked on the moon?” Exactly. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Categories: Film, Screens

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