The Review: There’s something odd about people in general – we like to be surprised. We like that twist at the end, we like the intricacy of the puzzle and trying to work it out. But, by and large, we don’t like magic any more. The theatrical men with their grand illusions seem to have had their bubble burst in recent years, partly because society got bored and allowed itself to give away all the endings and secrets on TV specials. So if you’re going to pull the wool over someone’s eyes these days, you need to do a few things right.
Firstly, you need to draw in your mark, and get their attention. Writer / director Rian Johnson sets up the story with a childhood prologue which sets out the principles and the character traits in a very efficient seven minutes, which almost works as the first act of the movie; everything you need as set-up for the rest of the movie’s been tightly but expertly packed in here, capturing both Bloom’s reasons for participating and his disappointment that not everyone leaves happy at the end. This then allows the body of the movie to head off in random directions, but always leave you feeling engaged and connected.
Secondly, you need to make sure your act has polish and professionalism. Two things work in the movie’s favour here – the travelogue locations would make a James Bond film feel proud, landing in one location for just long enough to edge the plot along before rattling on to the next. It takes with it a strong cast who are all having fun with their roles, except maybe Adrien Brody who only gets to drop the melancholy occasionally as the titular Bloom. But Mark Ruffalo, Robbie Coltrane and Maximilian Schell all tuck into theirs with appropriate gusto, Rinko Kikuchi (you might remember her from movies such as Babel) gets to have enormous fun as the mute explosive expert, almost a live action Gromit to the Brothers’ Wallace, and especially Rachel Weisz, the collector of hobbies who gets to show most of them off in a fantastic montage early on.
But thirdly, and most importantly, you need to have your ending ready – the crowd won’t come back if the trick doesn’t reveal itself well. Johnson, both through script and direction, keeps things moving along at pace right to the end, but the travelogue feel and the nature of the layers of the con give a fun, frothy feel, then at the last he attempts to reach for gravitas and danger, and we don’t want it to end that way. It’s as if you’ve watched Matt Damon in Ocean’s Eleven, only to discover the end of a Bourne movie at the climax. Sadly, the ending doesn’t feel as if it’s been earned – there feels one con too few or too many, but either way the Brothers come up just short of a successful show. Better luck with your next mark, fellas.
Why see it at the cinema: The huge amounts of background detail and action in the distance, almost like a Zucker comedy, are best captured where you have the chance to see it all. There’s also enough good laughs to keep the communal spirits up.
The Score: 7/10
The Pitch: Particle Man: The Movie.
The Review: The battle between science and religion has occupied and fascinated man for centuries. Similarly, the battles between religions have defined our culture and our environment on almost more occasions that you can count. But there’s still something to be said about a film which is willing to look at such clashes through modern eyes. Not only Spain’s highest grossing movie of 2009, but a source of controversy with the Catholic church in Spain (maybe not unsurprisingly), this takes historical events and uses them to highlight the divides between people and their often dramatic effects. Any film willing to tackle this part of history is almost inflammatory by default, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an era worth exploring.
Agora feels in some respects like an old-fashioned swords and sandals epic, and indeed was filmed in some of the same locations as Gladiator and Troy. But there are only occasional flourishes of violence, although it must be said that when they come, director Alejandro Amenábar doesn’t skimp on the details. This is a sumptuous film visually, the camera regularly panning and swooping over the streets to capture the action when it comes, and the CGI-augmented zoom-ins from space to Alexandria are especially impressive, giving a true sense of the scale of events.
But any film must stand or fall on its script and its performances, and thankfully Agora delivers on both counts. The script is divided into tracking two historical periods, and the gap between the two allows us to see the effect of changing attitudes on the characters and their world, while examining different aspects of the conflicts in both. Rachel Weisz is completely believable as Hypatia, the scientist who favours philosophy over religion and Michael Lonsdale as her father brings instant gravitas to proceedings. The rest of the cast are less prominent, but there is solid support across the board and the tone never wavers.
People are inspired, sometimes to great rights or wrongs, by their passions or beliefs, and sometimes their judgement can be clouded. As such, I think it’s only fair to point out when writing this review that I am both a mathematician (my subject of study at university) and a Christian (other religions are available). So this film will maybe have appealed to me more on both those counts. But there is still plenty to enjoy here, even if you’re an agnostic biologist. The messages from the film, about the importance of morality regardless of belief and the willingness to question yourself are still relevant to all of us. Not only are movies with this kind of scale done well uncommon, but also movies prepared to engage the mind as well as the heart aren’t as common as they maybe should be. So for efforts like this, we should be truly thankful.
Why see it at the cinema: To be able to absorb in full every last detail of the perfectly realised world of 4th century Egypt, and to take in the stunning sights and sounds at their best.
The Score: 9/10