More and more, films which don't necessarily get a fair shake at the box office are being released through the On Demand platform. Movies with well known names attached both in front and behind the camera can now be watched comfortably from home. Last year's Two Lovers, directed by James Gray and starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joaquin Phoenix, even made it onto my top ten list. The two films reviewed in this post don't come anywhere near being top ten material. However, each is of varying levels of interest and, though it doesn't exactly sound like a ringing endorsement, both are at least as good as most of this year's theatrical offerings.
Marina de Van's Ne te retourne pas (Don't Look Back) is an overly literal riff on Bergman's Persona (1967). In that film, two women's personalities merge until they are each indistinguishable from the other. De Van's film takes the opposite tack. Writer Sophie Marceau (Braveheart) starts to actually physically transform into the equally lovely Monica Belluci (Malena). The premise, as it plays out in the first half of the film, is genuinely disturbing. The transformation first manifests itself in subtle changes in the appearance of her home, then her husband, children, until the most unnerving change occurs when her reflection reveals half of Marceau's features have morphed into Belluci's. By this point, Marceau's life has entirely changed into a different one belonging to Belluci. De Van's film starts falling apart when she insists on providing explanations, defining what the cause is for her heroine's shape-changing in disappointing metaphysical terms which Bergman avoided in his cryptic film.
Neil Marshall (The Descent) uses the mysterious fate of the Romans' Ninth Legion as the launching point for Centurion. Marshall casts the magnetic Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds) as a cunning foot soldier tasked with safely shepherding the remnants of the legion back home by its captured general (Dominic West) after their ignominious defeat at the hands of Pict savages.
Early in the film, a half-hearted attempt at political relevance with the Picts standing in for modern day Middle Eastern radicals falls with a resounding thud after prisoner Fassbender is subjected to waterboarding and makes silly pronouncements like:
I know this enemy well. They play only to their strengths and will not be drawn into open combat. Instead they pick at the scab until we bleed, hiding in the shadows like animals, striking hard and fast and falling back into the night. Come the dawn, we count our losses and sow the earth with our dead. This is a new kind of war, a war without honor, without end.So does the Scottish Marshall side with the Picts, his geographical forebears, for fending off Roman invasion? Does this mean he wants us to view Islamic fundamentalism from a different perspective? Why does he place his cinematic chips firmly behind the Romans, then? Politically, the movie is a muddled mess.
Fortunately, Centurion's action setpieces and expansive vistas take precedence over its sloppy polemic. The movie is at its best when it wallows in the grime and blood of its extremely graphic battle scenes, adolescent spasms of violence which are imaginatively staged and sometimes even recall other films. The Pict attack on the Ninth is a grisly restaging of the Huron attack on the British in Mann's The Last of the Mohicans (1992), led by a traitorous native guide (Olga Kurylenko) just as that one was. The gritty, gory, and ultimately goofy Centurion ends up succeeding because of sequences like this where it rarely takes itself too seriously.
Don't Look Back is available now from IFC Films On Demand through 9/23.
Centurion is available now from Magnolia Pictures On Demand and arrives in theatres 8/27.