Top of the heap this week, The Tillman Story rehashes the shameful facts of how Pat Tillman, Jr., the Arizona Cardinal who set aside a professional football career to enlist in the Army post-9/11, had his head shot off by friendly fire in Afghanistan, how the circumstances of his death were initially covered up behind a whole-cloth scenario of heroism under enemy attack, how this version of events was played up in the news media exactly as it was handed to them, how Tillman’s death altogether got co-opted by special interests (his Cardinal jersey number 40 marketed with the name “TILLMAN” supplanted by “HERO”), not the least of which interests were to turn him into a propaganda tool for the military, and how bit by bit, under the unrelenting, the authentically heroic, efforts of his mother and father, the truth came out. These facts were of course already well known as far as we will ever know and understand them (how did the Army or the higher-ups ever think they could get away with the initial fabrication?), but the account of filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev is exceptionally well organized and detailed, even down to some official investigative footage of the actual scene of the crime, or, strictly speaking, the accident; and the talking-heads testimony, no matter how otherwise uncinematic, puts human faces on Tillman’s family and his comrades-in-arms. The formulaic documentary technique, workmanlike at best, doesn’t prevent the infuriating story from coming through, taking shape in the end as an impassioned argument for complexity and ambiguity, against simplification and, if you will, patness.
Deeper down in the heap, Going the Distance, directed by erstwhile documentarian Nanette Burstein and written by Geoff LaTulippe, is a moderately filthy romantic comedy, moderately amusing in compensation, about a young man with commitment issues until he meets a loosey-goosey gal who holds the high score on the Centipede machine at the neighborhood watering hole and whose favorite movie is, hold your breath, The Shawshank Redemption. (Takes all kinds.) Only problem, she’s but a summer intern at the New York Sentinel and returns to grad school at Stanford in a matter of weeks. Half an hour into it, the movie arrives at its launching pad: how to maintain a relationship from opposite coasts. The cast of characters is filled out from stock: a couple of slacker male friends and a reptilian boss for the hero, a controlling older sister, a henpecked brother-in-law, and a curmudgeonly editor for the heroine. Pretty well all of them speak as if they were reared on nothing but television sitcoms (cable ones included, for freedom of expression), and their dialogue in consequence sounds not so much like conversation as like recruitment of eavesdroppers, a concerted effort to be overheard, admired, envied. Millions — well, hundreds for sure — will doubtless want to identify, in particular with the well-chilled Drew Barrymore and Justin Long, whose passion for one another, undetectable at close range, can scarcely be diminished at long. Maybe it would help to know (what I didn’t know when I was watching it) that they are also, or were also, a couple offscreen.
Centurion, set in the early 2nd Century A.D., is a Wall-of-the-Roman-Empire epic, the wall being the figurative one the Romans ran into among the Picts in Northern Britain and the literal one Hadrian built further to the south, the outer boundary. In essence Cavalry-and-Indians in skirts and breastplates, the narrative centers on seven survivors of a Pict massacre and their attempt to wend their way homeward through hostile territory, a sort of nonsurvival adventure. The opening credits, the letters sailing through the air over snowy mountains, have an old-fashioned, movie-movie feel to them, but the name of the writer and director, Neil Marshall of The Descent and Doomsday, should be sufficient to tip you off that this will be a new-fashioned movie. First thing, a Roman soldier is taking a piss over the parapet when he gets skewered vertically from below: ah, so it’s going to be that kind of movie. Spectatorial bloodlust ought to be well satisfied, even (if possible) satiated, in fast-shuffle action scenes that waste not a second in getting to the splashy jabbing, hacking, chopping. Few other tastes, surely, could be satisfied. Development is minimal, strategy is rudimentary, and the acting — Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, David Morrissey, Liam Cunningham, Ulrich Thomsen, and two ancient-world hotties, Olga Kurylenko and Imogen Poots — is over the top across the board.
Machete makes a feature-length reality of a hypothetical little teaser trailer tucked into the overstuffed package of Grindhouse, a bad dream come true, thanks to co-writer and co-director Robert Rodriguez (writing with Álvaro Rodriguez, directing with Ethan Maniquis). If nothing else, it gives a nice big fat leading role to Danny Trejo, a clock-stopping face condemned to the humble caste of perennial henchman, as a vengeful former Federale, allowed to canoodle with Jessica Alba and Michelle Rodriguez into the bargain. In spite of the deep-seated piety on immigration issues, its highest aspiration is simply to be a hoot. Its highest actual achievement is perhaps a cheep. (If only for the Dracula hairdo on Steven Seagal as a Mexican drug lord.) Formulated on the so-bad-it’s-good theorem, from which follows the corollary of the worse the better, it tends to wear out its welcome in a hurry. A lot like Grindhouse. In-jokes abound: Seagal’s samurai swords and geisha gun molls, Lindsay Lohan as a coke fiend, the slumming of Robert De Niro, the “introducing” of Don Johnson. Buckets of blood outnumber those in Centurion. A cloud of jadedness pollutes the atmosphere. Coprophilia calls the shots. Test case to help you decide whether this is the movie for you: the hero, having just heard that the human intestine stretches sixty feet, effectuates his escape from a hospital by slicing open the torso of a bad guy, diving out a window clutching the intestine like Tarzan a jungle vine, and swinging down to the window of the floor below. Yuk-yuk or just yuck?
Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 finishes out, in a shade under two and a quarter hours, Jean-François Richet’s rubbishy mythologizing of the French gangster Jacques Mesrine, with plenty of frenetic and messy and mostly incredible action, and with Vincent Cassel, going through a Mr. Potato Head assortment of disguises, flirting constantly with caricature. The total effect, not even taking into account the previous two hours of Mesrine: Killer Instinct, is sooner or later tiresome, probably sooner.
The American, squeezed in just ahead of deadline, enrolls George Clooney to glamorize further the most glamorous profession, to go by Hollywood, in the world today: the high-end assassin. (Vampire is not a profession.) Director Anton Corbijn, a former music-video guy, places him in existential exile amid the Medieval townscapes and mountain landscapes of Abruzzo, fashion-magazine lighting and composition, and a minimalist, inchworm plotline. Clooney, for his part, rumpled brow, weary eye, flatline delivery, and all, serves up a creditable rendition of Melancholy Bogie. ■