Last Friday I spent the hours from 4:00 PM to 11:30 PM watching three movies at Seattle's Neptune Theatre as part of the Seattle International Film Festival. The films included Spain's 2009 Foreign Language Oscar submission The Dancer and the Thief, Alejandro Amenabar's recently released Agora and Neil Marshall's forthcoming 2nd century actioner Centurion.
Following the long day of movies I posted on my Twitter account the following, "Today's Seattle Film Festival triple-feature: The Dancer and the Thief (C+), Agora (C) and Centurion (B+)." However, my opinion on the first two mentioned has since changed a bit.
First off, The Dancer and the Thief...
Anyone that saw last year's Oscar-winning The Secret in the Thier Eyes will recognize Ricardo Darín here as Nicolas Vergara Grey, a thief whose face is as recognizable as any celebrity in Chile and he has just been pardoned by Chile's president along with all other prisoners not charged with violent crimes. Angel Santiago (Abel Ayala) has also gone free and while Vergara Grey hopes to reconcile with his family, Angel hopes to gain Vergara Grey's trust with a heist they can both retire on and escape over the Andes into Argentina.
Vergara Grey soon learns everything he looked forward to upon his release is not as he expected it to be. Money he'd expected to be waiting for him is gone and his family has moved on in ways he'd never anticipated. Angel, without any expectation, stumbles upon an immediate attraction to Victoria (Miranda Bodenhofer), a mute dancer he meets outside a XXX movie theater. While the proposed heist looms over the feature, it is in fact Victoria that guides the story.
For the most part this is a solid, soft spoken feature, but it has some glaring issues, most notably a second act that tends to drag and the introduction of a revenge tangent Angel has for the prison warden is wholly unnecessary. This one plot thread is only vaguely introduced very early in the film and then periodically resumed throughout. It plays a heavy role in the film's finale and is the one aspect that could have been eliminated entirely seeing how it added nothing to the story other than approximately 20 additional minutes and only proved to hurt it in the end. I have a feeling I could have edited this thing down with only the scenes given and delivered a better feature. Additionally, the score didn't do the film any favors either.
Otherwise, the acting is solid. Ricardo Darin, who strikes me as an Argentinian Joe Mantegna, is just as great here as he was in The Secret in their Eyes and Ayala and Bodenhofer both give strong performances. (Click here for pictures and trailers)
I like Alejandro Amenabar's work quite a bit. The Others is an excellent ghost story and his 2005 Foreign Film Oscar-winner, The Sea Inside, while depressing is another great feature. As for Agora, this is a film that debuted at the Cannes Film Festival one year ago and was recently released in a grand total of four theaters. Truth be told, it's not a great film as Amenabar gets too conscious of making a film that feels epic, frequently giving us sweeping wide shots of 4th century Alexandria while beating down organized religion every step of the way. I can certainly appreciate the film's message, but considering the subject matter and the prolonged story it just doesn't quite work.
Rachel Weisz plays the astronomer Hypatia, and her story as a woman of science guides this otherwise male-dominated film as Christians are allowed to overtake the Library of Alexandria, destroying much of the research that has been done there as what is assumed to be an offense to God. Hypatia's relationship with Orestes (Oscar Isaac), the Prefect of Alexandria, becomes reason enough to look at her as more than just a woman of science that refuses to join the Christian ranks and more as an enemy of God.
For as epic as Amenabar wanted this to be, there just isn't enough story here to satisfy that desire. Along with the grand score supplied by Dario Marinelli and the sweeping vistas and satellite shots, the audience is shuttled from scene to scene as if we are part of some massive story the movie screen can hardly contain, but just as you move from one columned corner of Alexandria to the next you realize no one is saying anything different than they were before.
Characters begin blending together and about midway through you really start to lose interest in the story, and it's only once it's all over that you begin to find any interest in what took place, and that's more of an interest in the ideas at the core of the film rather than the story being told. Personally I would love to see die-hard churchgoers take a look at this film and get their impressions. I don't say this because I think it is offensive, but because I think it points out some particularly interesting roots of organized religion and the way the word of God can be twisted for all the wrong reasons. This is in fact the film's one true virtue.
The acting is fine and Weisz is just as good as you would expect her to be, but occasionally the acting can be so bad it takes you right out of the film.
Overall I got the impression Amenabar has the chops to handle an epic film, but he needs an epic story. It felt as if he came to the production of Agora with a giant hole to fill and this story just wasn't big enough to fill it and just kept falling through. It's an interesting watch, but not particularly a great movie. (Click here for pictures and trailers)
The third and final film of the night proved to be the best as Neil Marshall delivers a stand-out 2nd century actioner filled with his trademark blood and violence, great performances and much needed moments of levity. At 97 minutes it doesn't strive to be much more than a small story even though this is territory most filmmakers feel they need to accompany with lengthy speeches and massive set pieces. Instead, we're talking about a film with about a $15 million budget where most of the action is set in the grassy and muddy outskirts of the Scottish highlands as the attempted Roman conquest of Britain is underway.
Starring Michael Fassbender as Quintus Dias, the Roman centurion the title is referring to, we follow his path after being captured by Pict tribesmen, his reunion with Roman troops, the capture of their general (Dominic West), a failed rescue attempt and ultimately the hunting of Quintus and his group of fellow Romans by the Picts after their rescue attempt goes bad. It's pretty standard stuff, but it's pulled off in a way that makes it vastly entertaining for those in need of an adrenaline boost with enough beheadings, stabbings and blood-letting to satisfy your thirst.
The mere presence of Fassbender (Hunger) brings weight to the feature and the performance of Liam Cunningham as the Roman soldier named Brick is the source of most of the film's more light-hearted moments. On the other side of the fight, the most notable performance comes from Olga Kurylenko playing Etain, a tracker for the Picts whose lust for Roman blood can never be sated.
Aside from the pure action elements, I also enjoyed the ambiguity of good vs. evil. The film follows Quintus and the Romans as if they are the heroes of the story, but the story unfolds to reveal there really aren't any good guys as much as we are watching a story of revenge and survival. I didn't necessarily find myself cheering for one side or the other as much as I was just basking in the carnage. (Click here for pictures and trailers)