Tuesday, August 31, 2010

With a Lance and a Musket and a Roman Spear

Neil Marshall is a director who seems desperate to hold on to his cult. In his quest to become…I don’t know…the next John Carpenter(?) he has a tendency to slide back two steps for every three he’s gained, and as an intermittent fan of Marshall’s (at this point, I don’t think anyone is more than an intermittent fan, but then again we’re only four films in – the day is young) I’m becoming a bit frustrated. Marshall refuses to take off -- in that he's not using them as a springboard -- completely from his past successes, but, still, at least he is taking off -- in the sense that he's leaving them in his rearview -- from his past failures.
It all began with 2002’s Dog Soldiers, Marshall’s on-the-cheap werewolves vs. the Army film, which was considered good enough by some to get this whole cult business going. I wasn’t on board, myself, though at this point I don’t remember the movie well enough to offer up any kind of strong objections (the fact that Dog Soldiers has almost completely fled my memory might be considered damning enough, if I wasn’t the one saying it, because my memory’s shot). But next up, Marshall offered the world The Descent, a highly effective, at times even torturous, in the good sense, horror film about caves, female spelunkers, and blind, shrieking, underground monsters. It’s an excellent film, about which I won’t say too much at this time – for now it’s enough to note that the Marshall cult was ready to get this show on the road, and that Marshall seemed perfectly willing to lay his cinematic influences bare, in The Descent quoting liberally from, for instance, Kubrick’s The Shining, among others. This was all fine by us, until Doomsday, Marshall’s next film, came along, and struck the world as basically Escape from New York and The Road Warrior, but bad. Not terrible, and in fact, for my money, sort of fun, but about as empty as such fun can be. Doomsday’s debt to The Road Warrior is especially immense, to the point where you can’t say, as you could with The Descent, that Marshall was quoting his influences – this was plagiarism.
Needless to say, the Marshall cult began to lose a lot of its verve and enthusiasm at around this point. When the object of a cult begins, with only his third film, to flaunt his lack of creativity and show signs that he is not, in fact, in the filmmaking business, but rather the recycling business, the acolytes tend to start standing around, scratching their necks and kicking the dirt, filled with a dread that this may not have been such a hot idea after all. Such doubts tend to be fleeting, however, and why shouldn’t they be? At worst, Doomsday and The Descent cancel each other out (Dog Soldiers counting as sort of an introduction, an announcement of potential, more than anything else), and there’s no reason to not hold out hope for Marshall’s next film. Maybe if he could come up with a movie title that began with a letter other than D, he’d really be on to something.
Which brings us to Centurion (that’s a C! Which is only one letter back from D, but that’s okay, you don’t have to be a world-beater every time). And we’re left with what? Well, I’ll tell you: it’s better than Doomsday, not least because, as far as I can tell, it’s a whole hell of a lot less derivative. The story, briefly, is about Quintos Dias (an excellent Michael Fassbender), a former gladiator and now Roman soldier, who is stationed in Britain, which he and all the other Romans are trying to conquer. (Let's get this out of the way: if you go to Centurion expecting or hoping to see parallels with current events, you will find them. However, you might have a more difficult time trying to make the film conform to whatever your own politics might happen to be. And I'm cool with that.) Dias's initial platoon, or whatever, gets massacred by the dreaded Picts, and Dias, because he can speak their language, is taken captive. He escapes, however, and is taken in by the Roman ninth infantry, led by General Virilus (Dominic West). Except they're also massacred, due to the double-dealings of a Pict tracker and double agent named Etain (Olga Kurylenko, whose make-up and costume as Etain causes her to bear more than a passing resemblence to Lee-Anne Liebenberg as Viper in Marshall's Doomsday; it's probably worth mentioning that Liebenberg was the most striking feature of that entire film), a now-tongueless victim of past Roman misdeeds whose head is filled with thoughts of vengeance. So Virilus is taken prisoner, and it turns out seven of his infantry survived the massacre, including Dias, and soon a rescue mission is under way, which goes badly, and soon we're in escape mode. It's all very effective and thrilling.
It’s also very lean. One thing about all of Marshall’s non-Doomsday films is that they tell very simple stories, with Marshall focusing his energy on craft, mood, tension, and all that other stuff. Doomsday was too busy by half, and to give you an idea of how far on the other end of the scale Centurion can be located, consider that it’s a story about ancient Rome, honor, combat, betrayal (and I guess also identity, if you want to be one of those people), yet it clocks in at 97 minutes, with credits. When was the last time that happened? Such films tend to have a minimum run-time of two and half hours (incidentally, if lately I seem to be making a lot of the run-times of various films, that’s only because I believe that efficiency is an underrated quality). But Marshall gets all the same stuff in there as his swollen brethren do, and he doesn’t really short-change anything. What isn’t needed is gone. If, in short fiction, it’s vital that you don’t waste words, in filmmaking it’s often equally vital that you don’t waste seconds, and Marshall doesn’t.
What Marshall also doesn't do, however, is good blood. And let's be honest: this is a blood movie. Like Braveheart and 300 before it, Centurion is a grand, blood-and-thunder, skull-crushing decapitation festival. It tells an interesting story, has swell acting, and all that, but its primary reason for being is to drench everyone in viscera. I don't know about you, but that's plenty okay with me -- the problem is that practical gore effects, of the kind used in Braveheart, seem to be going to the way of stop-motion animation, at least for now, and in Centurion what you see a lot of are swords and such arcing down into the unfortunate torso or head of a doomed Roman or Pict, and then a smear of what appeared to me to be MS Paint, red, on the spray-paint option. This is fairly distracting, and unnecessary, and all around a bad choice.
But it's not ruinous. It's just a very strange blunder, one that, to me, kept 300 from ever achieving a level beyond "curiosity" (although that movie has a number of other issues) but here just keeps Centurion from being a slam-dunk, albeit one of modest ambitions. The film still represents Marshall back on solid ground, though; closer to the heights he reached with The Descent (pun!), still scrambling a bit to fully get back there, but comfortable at least with the fact that Doomsday is, for now, behind him.
UPDATE: I just changed my first paragraph, as the early version made it sound as if I was getting ready to slam Centurion, which I don't do. It was a bad paragraph.


Greg said...

He should have named it "Denturion" since it doesn't sound good enough to warrant starting with a letter other than "D".

I still think Descent is one of the best horror movies of the last 10 years but haven't seen anything else of his yet. Having read this, I can't say I'm going to either.

But to address the blood issue: I find that quite disheartening. I hate that CGI has even taken over make-up at this point. Really, I hate it. Actual red liquid of some kind should be applied to the actor, not computer processed on. Last week I watched All Quiet on the Western Front again and during one of the scenes near the front, as Lew Ayres is speaking, his breath is clearly visible. Milestone actually had them filming in a cold, wet, miserable environment. While I watched the scene I thought about Jack and Rose in the water in Titanic and how their "breath" never - EVER - looked real or natural to me. I even watched the J & R scene again online (I guess to make sure I wasn't remembering wrong) and sure enough, it looked like shit.

I imagine it's the same with blood. How much harder can it be to use real liquid and create a much greater effect? I don't know.

bill r. said...

It's not exclusively CGI - there's still a fair amount of straight-up liquid blood in the film. But there's still a LOT of CGI blood, especially when the action is at a distance, and in those cases it's particularly bad, because we probably shouldn't, and certainly don't need to, see any blood at all. But he still throws in this bright red computery splash.

But I still think it's a good movie anyway! I thought I made that clear!

THE DESCENT is looking to be his best, though. I'll admit that.

bill r. said...

I just changed my first paragraph, as the early version made it sound as if I was getting ready to slam CENTURION, which I don't do. It was a bad paragraph.

OlmanFeelyus said...

I pretty much agree with you on all this. The MS Paint comment cracked me up. Sadly, Marshall is not alone in this. I guess it's just cheaper to go with CGI. Though I have seen films (Revenant is a good example) that had extensive CGI but it looked much richer and thicker and thus realistic than the stuff in 300 or Centurion. So there is a good and a bad way to do it.

bill r. said...

I pretty much agree with you on all this. The MS Paint comment cracked me up. Sadly, Marshall is not alone in this.

No, it's everywhere now. The cost must be the main factor, but I also think there's a certain kind of spray, a certain kind of arc, that certain filmmakers want but can't get from practical effects. I think the problem here is that they're wrong to want it. Maybe if you're going for full-on cartoon, like 300, then okay, I guess, but CENTURION is supposed to be more grounded than that.

John said...

The sequel to The Descent (cleverly titled The Descent 2) struck me as something of an improvement over the original movie, which I wasn't all that crazy about. Marshall, like too many directors of his generation, it seems to me, just doesn't film action all that well. Too often the camera's too close, the camerawork gets in the way, the editing is too choppy, and the end result is something that looks and feels more like a clumsy trailer than a gripping action sequence.

The sequel, though, directed by some guy I'd never heard of, basically rehashes the first movie, but as if helmed by more competent craftsmen. The action is solid, suspenseful, and clearly shot, the editing a little tight but unintrusively so, and the gore is plentiful, gruesome and vividly rendered, and not a drop of CGI flummery that I could spot. It takes the original movie's much-decried "happy" ending as a starting point, but I actually found its own denouement more clever and punchier by half than the original's cliched "It was all just a dream!" downer.

Anyway, comparisons between Marshall and Carpenter (particularly his work with Dean Cundey), strike me as so far off the mark they may actually be aimed at the wrong mark. Dog Soldiers was basically The Descent with Brit soldiers and a rural cottage, Doomsday was so bad I actually came up with an alibi for the time I spent watching it.

I will be looking out for more work by the guy who did Descent 2, though, if I remember his name at some point.

Tony Dayoub said...

I'm mostly with you on CENTURION, Bill. I didn't really get too distracted by the MS Paint use because I just wrote it off as a budget limitation, though I, too, prefer the practical effects. What I most liked about the film is its efficiency, as you called it. Like you, I feel like I get a complete story with some interesting things to say using the bare minimum to get the point across. To me, that is skill, not the bloated, oversized, "epicness" you get with a (late period) Ridley Scott film where you still feel it missed the mark somehow. Yes, CENTURION's politics are a bit muddled, but no one is going to see this movie to get a civics lesson.

bill r. said...

John - The "happy ending" you saw in THE DESCENT wasn't Marshall's ending. That was the ending tacked on for the US release. You can see Marshall's original ending on the DVD (but either way, the studio version was not, I don't think, meant to be "it was all a dream").

I also had no problem with the action in THE DESCENT. I didn't find it hard to follow at all, and thought Marshall's style of shooting it not only got across what was happening, but the chaos. I think that's what all directors who employ the shaky-cam style of action filmmaking are going for, whether they succeed or not -- Marshall succeeded.

Still, I plan on checking out THE DESCENT 2 anyway.

Tony - I didn't think the politics were muddled, exactly. I don't think making it hard to decide which "side" the movie's on necessarily means it's confused. I'm maybe being generous, but I'd call it "complicated" myself.

John said...

Bill--yeah, I realize that's the effect some of these filmmakers are aiming for, but for me, at least, not only does that kind of frenetic overkill not work (especially when it's more less constant), but it tends to be counterproductive. It's not really a lot different for me to, say, BLASTING the soundtrack constantly, supposedly in order to heighten the tension or the dramatic impact. I guess the text equivalent would be something like printing certain parts of a book in REALLY BIG MULTICOLORED LETTERS supposedly to heighten the reader's experience of the words.

Don't get me wrong--some of these techniques, used with restraint and a bit of finesse, can add to the effect. But when they get in the way of things, and leave you wishing the whole thing had just been staged and shot in a more comprehensive, coherent manner, they become a huge negative for me.

Dog Soldiers, for instance, was pretty much like that for the whole second half, as far as I can recall. Way too busy for its own good, with action that was almost impossible to follow, and pretty much zero suspense because the whole thing was paced so badly, with events just haphazardly piled on top of each other.

bill r. said...

John -- Well, don't YOU get ME wrong, because I've complained about the same stuff before, right here on this blog. I just don't see it in Marshall, and especially not in THE DESCENT. The style of the action scenes, for one thing, does not continue throughout the film, and, either way, the scenes of chaos didn't have the obnoxious quality you describe. I just thought Marshall got that style right, and his use of it was appropriate.

I don't remember enough about DOG SOLDIERS to comment either way.