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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Last Legion (review)

Out of the depths of the cheesy cinematic realms of the 1960s comes the, ahem, “real” backstory of King Arthur and his legendary sword, Excalibur. After the sack of the city by Goth barbarians in AD 460, the last emperor of Rome, the preadolescent Romulus Augustus (Thomas Sangster: Tristan & Isolde), flees for Britannia with the commander of his guard (Colin Firth: Nanny McPhee) and the requisite motley band of soldiers and hangers-on, like the she’s-not-a-man-baby warrior Mira (Aishwarya Rai: Provoked: A True Story) and Romulus’s philosopher/teacher (Ben Kingsley: You Kill Me). In their care: the mighty sword of the caesars around which a royal prophecy is woven. Mythmaking ensues. No one embarrasses himself — except for Kingsley, whose accent is as wildly all over the place as the movie’s tone: now it’s an historical epic! now it’s a medieval comedy! — and the Sangster kid really is quite appealing, actually. But the plot is beset by outrageous coincidence, simple idiocy, and a sense of drama that is ridiculous, and the whole endeavor is bereft of anything approaching the movie magic it is clearly desperate to evoke. (The echoes of The Lord of the Rings are particularly mysterious: cuz really, you don’t want viewers longing for the flair of Peter Jackson when they’re watching this.) The few noteworthy touches — like how Kingsley’s not-yet-Merlin inspires awe not with wizardly magic but the sleight-of-hand brand — are overwhelmed by the incoherently directed action sequences, which are made even more disjointed by the choppy editing obviously intended to reduce the film’s violence and, it seems likely, to bring the movie from an R rating. To be fair, though, the costumes are fantastic, and everyone looks FABulous.

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MPAA: rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action violence

viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb
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  • Erik Goodwyn

    Wow…for someone who clearly ‘got’ the 13th Warrior and Pathfinder, I’m surprised you’re so down on this movie. You’re not alone, it scored particularly poorly on the ‘tomatometer’. But I think everyone is really being unfair–does every movie have to be Gladiator or Lord of the Rings? I for one was engaged in this story. I loved the look of the film, and given that it deals with legendary material, I really didn’t care about the plot contrivances or corny dialogue: anyone familiar with mythic storytelling knows this is all part of the charm. Both Rings and Gladiator (and 13th Warrior) all had cornball dialogue too. Pathfinder didn’t, but that’s just because it didn’t have any dialogue :)The point of it is the feel of the movie, and this one felt right–not campy or hip or modern, I loved the sincerity behind the narrative, even if sincerity isn’t so cool in our ubercynical cyber-hip world of tomorrow. No, it isn’t a great movie, but it is pretty good…lighten up, people!

  • MaryAnn

    But there *is* campy stuff in this film… just not enough of it. That’s what I mean about the tone being all over the place. *13th Warrior* and *Pathfinder* are consistent in their tones.

  • Erik Goodwyn

    Ok, I’ll concede that point. I guess I just have a weakness for this kind of thing and I’m a lot more forgiving than many people are. The biggest complaint I had was the cheesy fashion-model warrior babe, who despite laying waste to the enemy never seems to muss up her perfect eye makeup. I’m sure there were lots of those in the Eastern Empire around the 5th century. Pure nonsense. But I guess if a movie were to portray things the way they really were for women in history (with a few exceptions like Eleanor of Aquitaine) the movie might be labeled as sexist–of course the history of most of civilization has been pretty sexist to modern eyes. But does pretending it wasn’t really help matters? Doubtful.

  • Erik Goodwyn

    As an additional aside, how is it that Tolkein got away with that kind of stuff (i.e. Eowyn fighting along side the men), but nobody else can seem to? Curiouser and curiouser.

  • amanohyo

    If by “it” you mean a woman fighting alongside men, Tolkien got away with it because Eowyn had to pretend to be a man in order to do macho manly stuff. But I’m afraid asian literature beat him to the punch, as it has been getting away with that type of thing for well over a thousand years (Hua Mulan springs to mind).

    They’re still often objectified, but there’s no denying that women in asian cinema (and manga/anime) kick way more ass than the girls in typical western fantasy war movies. We’re a little slow to catch up here, but we’ll get there (Joss Whedon and his ilk are paving the way). It just requires quite a bit more skill and sensitivity than the makers of The Last Legion currently possess.

  • MaryAnn

    I guess I just have a weakness for this kind of thing and I’m a lot more forgiving than many people are.

    I do too, and I am, too (as my review of *Pathfinder* may indicate). And still, I couldn’t get onboard with this one.

    The biggest complaint I had was the cheesy fashion-model warrior babe, who despite laying waste to the enemy never seems to muss up her perfect eye makeup.

    But you’re fine with magic swords?

  • Erik Goodwyn

    “But you’re fine with magic swords?”

    touche. But this touches on a critical issue with fantasy, which is that the fantastical elements are more symbolic and metaphorical in nature–archetypal you might say. Magic swords represent quite a bit, which I could write reams about. The warrior-female may be symbolic, too, and it’s funny how she pops up in fantasy quite a bit. The question is, what does it represent? On a superficial level I think it’s just crass commercialism–especially wrt the anime stuff, since despite the seemingly liberating warrior females of that genre, they always seem to be built like the proverbial you know what, very skimpily clad, etc–are we celebrating their aggressiveness and skill, or are we just ogling?

    So, yeah, I don’t have a problem with magic swords, wizards, or spells–as long as the tone behind it is ‘right’, which is hard to define. Magic swords are traditional fantasy elements, just like dragons and monsters, but perfect hairdo warrior babes just smacks of modern plastic model-worshipping in a phony feminist guise.

  • MaryAnn

    The female warrior in this flick is not scantily clad — not at all. I thought she worked fine, actually.

    I take your point about archetypes and such, but I’m getting really tired of pop culture indulging in all manner of fantasy EXCEPT the one that gives women agency and independence and something to do beyond having babies and being a good wife. As someone wrote about *Ratatouille* (I can’t find the link now), What, we can accept a RAT in a human kitchen, but we can’t accept a woman as the head chef?

  • Erik Goodwyn

    I think this is a matter of “fantasy” vs “wishful thinking”. There is always a bit of cynicism behind these kinds of statements. For me it wasn’t that a woman couldn’t be a good fighter, it was more like “I’m sure the incredibly one-sided patriarchal society of the Eastern Empire would have let a woman out of the house for five seconds let alone be a sword swinging swashbuckler.” Magic swords are just unbelievable enough to be out of the reach of this kind of commentary, which is more social than mythic.

    Your point is well taken, though, and I’d like to add that not only are female characters usually bland and serve only to be of interest or plot contrivance for the male characters, in the modern age, women are not only expected to be traditionally feminine but are also scorned for being such, and expected to be masculine as well. It’s like we never achieved true equality for women, but instead only allowed them to be men! In other words, it’s ok to be masculine for men and women, but being feminine is still ‘inferior’. Centuries ago women and men wore strictly different clothing, for example, but now it’s ambiguous–but is it? No, women are now just allowed to wear men’s clothes. Do men wear women’s clothes? Only if they want to invite ridicule. I’m not just talking about laws here, I’m talking about societal mores.

    But on the subject of female characters, here is a thought experiment I like to do: take the most hilarious, complex, deep, or otherwise memorable characters you can think of. Chances are they are male, more often than not, due to this bias we’re talking about. Now imagine them as female, but in no other way different. Hard to do, isn’t it? Why? If you get the essence of what I mean by this ‘thought exercise’, then you get what I’m trying to say about women in fiction. It needs work, and it’s not changing very much despite the worthy efforts of feminism, and in fact I wonder if things are actually getting worse in some ways.

  • MaryAnn

    Wait just a cotton-pickin’ second here. You’re saying that the MEN who still make the vast majority of movies and produce the vast majority of pop culture of all kinds are, for the most part, unable to create believable female characters… and that this is somehow the fault of FEMINISM?

    Also, “magic swords” are acceptable because they’re “fantasy,” but “strong aggressive women warriors” are risible because they’re nothing but “wishful thinking”? That’s part of the attitude that feminism is battling.

    The reason that men are derided for acting or dressing “feminine” while women are not for being “masculine” is because the male outlook is still overwhelmingly dominant in our culture, and the female’s is still relatively unimportant. Men are derided for being feminine because, clearly, only an idiot would actually WANT to be seen as a woman, and women do not necessarily suffer the same way when they act or dress as men because, clearly, everyone should WANT to be like a men. Because men are better than women…. or at least that’s the underlying attitude. People want to have more status than they do: for women, that means aping men. For men, aping women in a sure way to lose status. (Of course, a woman can’t get too mannish, or then she becomes that ultimate freak: a dyke.)

    I hope I don’t need to make it explicit that I do not believe that men are better than women or that lesbians are freaks. I’m explaining the zeitgeist.

    Your argument is merely evidence that feminism still has a tough job ahead of it.

    It’s like we never achieved true equality for women

    Here’s a newsflash: We haven’t.

  • Erik Goodwyn

    No, I’m not saying it’s the fault of feminism! It’s funny–we actually agree here. Maybe I’m just not being clear. *I know* we haven’t achieved equality for women–what I was saying was that the only progress we have made for women was to allow them to be more male, and that being feminine is still considered inferior. Yes, that is the zeitgeist indeed, and the result of 3000 years of patriarchal society. Before, say, the Romanization of the Celts, for example, women could be druids or (occasionally) fighters, and ranked much higher in the social order. I’m not enough of a cultural anthropologist to posit a theory on why that changed, but it did.

    My point is yours–the idea that being feminine is inferior is a big problem. One solution is to allow women to take masculine roles, since masculine is “better” (an attitude which is a result of the aforementioned 3 millennia), that way everyone is masculine! That’s what is happening now. The other one is to allow for equal value to be place on feminine roles (!). So far what we have achieved is a partial on the first one, and a big zilch on the second one. In fact, I think most people don’t even consider the second option, so far removed is it from our cultural zeitgeist.

    This is a very interesting discussion.

  • MaryAnn

    Okay then, we agree, to a point. But is being a warrior and fighting for something one believes in necessarily exclusively “masculine”? I’d argue that it is not. And I don’t think there’s any point in condemning this film for indulging in a bit of fantasy about a woman warrior — there are plenty of other things to complain about here anyway — because there is certainly nothing antifeminist about her portrayal here.

  • Erik Goodwyn

    No, it isn’t *exclusively* masculine, you’re right about that. And of course, everyone has elements of both in their personality (animus and anima, as Jung would say). And you’re right about the movie, from which we have strayed quite a bit. At first glance I thought it a bit silly, that’s all, but then I didn’t mind so much and felt it seemed to work within the context of the premise, especially when I realized they were going to explain how (spoiler warning!) King Arthur was descended from the Roman emperors. Not only that, but they did do a lot of things right with her, including not making her prance around half naked, and I liked how she showed up the male fighters a few times. The romance, however, showed zero chemistry between the leads. This, the uneven tone, abysmal promoting and fairly predictable plotting is probably what caused this movie to tank…but with all said and done, I still kind of liked it. Oh well

  • MBI

    Guh. See, this is why I’m not a feminist and don’t even use the word feminism — because “feminism,” “female,” “feminine,” so on, mean a billion different things to a billion different people and no conversation about it seems to go anywhere. When we come up with one, 1, definition for all of that stuff, I will wade into the conversation.

  • I think what most of your fans really want to know is whether this woman warrior you mentioned has a gal pal named Gabrielle? ;-)

  • MaryAnn

    MBI: How do you talk to anyone about anything? Lots of concepts come with lots of different definitions, depending on whom you’re talking to.

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