My invaluable but doomed-to-be-forgotten thoughts about the Oscars must wait until the Reader before the big night on February 27. The news of this year’s San Diego Jewish Film Festival can wait until later in this column. First, we march on imperial business:
Part of every man — at least every man who ever wanted to wear a metal breastplate into battle — thrills to any film about Roman legionnaires. After all, didn’t John Wayne play one in The Greatest Story Ever Told? We needed Centurion, and The Last Legion (starring a stutter-free Colin Firth), and now we need The Eagle. Strap on your sandals, lash on your armor, and grab your gladius (short sword)!
Currently seen in The Dilemma, Channing Tatum is a new Ashton Kutcher (not a compliment). But he satisfies the narrow, robust demands of The Eagle. He stars as Marcus Flavius Aquila (“aquila” is Latin for eagle). Maybe his name should be Buffus Brawnicus Macho. His physique bulks up a story that — with dialogue such as “Damn the dark” and “We fought back to back, pissing where we stood” — will not eclipse Caesar’s memoirs of the Gallic wars.
Sent to command a frontier garrison in Britannia, Marcus seeks to avenge his dead father who led a legion butchered there 20 years earlier. Its golden-eagle standard was taken by the rude, hairy, sometimes blue-painted Brits now foraging and fuming north of Hadrian’s Wall. Director Kevin Macdonald certainly knows barbarians, having made films about Idi Amin Dada (The Last King of Scotland) and Mick Jagger (Being Mick). But these are patriotic brutes, from whom the equally proud Marcus is keen to retrieve the eagle. His uncle (Donald Sutherland) sags into his toga at the thought, but young Marcus is good to go. Tatum has the firm-jawed look of meat with a mission.
Northward he goes with Esca, a bright, bilingual, and British slave (Jamie Bell, almost as gutsy as when ballet dancing in Billy Elliot).This totally masculine story was adapted by Jeremy Brock from novels by (surprise) a woman, Rosemary Sutcliff, first filmed for British TV in the ’70s. Finely photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle, the movie makes good use of raw, chilly landscapes, never strays into tangents, doesn’t sermonize about Christianity, and lets us hear early-Scottish gibberish. The fearful, sword-based combat seems real enough, though I wish that less of the close action was rushed by rapid, hurly-burly editing.
The Eagle is more primordial than classical, and its gritty grip never becomes a history lecture like Anthony Mann’s Fall of the Roman Empire, a stately but depressing epic in which many famous actors emulate marble columns. The relevant history is less Roman than cinematic. Those alert to it will hear the bugle call of John Ford’s Fort Apache saluting his Drums Along the Mohawk, echoes of Northwest Passage, A Man Called Horse, Black Robe, and The Last of the Mohicans, even some bagpipe music wafting in from the Scottish military drama Tunes of Glory. On February 27, The Eagle will close the Glasgow Film Festival, perhaps stirring the natives to thoughts of revolt.
Winston Churchill, who during World War II became Britain’s greatest prime minister, had hundreds of toy soldiers as a boy. Mark Hogancamp survived his own war — a vicious beating by bar thugs — and after surgery and rehab found therapy by dressing Ken and Barbie dolls in WWII outfits. In Kingston, New York, they inhabit his toy-scaled, wartime village of Marwencol, Belgium. There, little German and Allied soldiers frequent a tavern and watch female “catfights.” We come to see that the Nazi troops are voodoo dolls for the fury beneath Mark’s mild-mannered surface, and his hero, himself, is like a plastic Lee Marvin from The Dirty Dozen.
The respectfully voyeuristic documentary Marwencol probes this domain where Barbies kick Nazi butt. The beating ravaged Hogancamp’s memory, ended his marriage, his job, his drinking, and the sometimes-morbid drawings that fill much of his old diary. Mark has transformed the trauma by photographing the miniature dramas that he stages, channeling his life and friends (most of them feel flattered). Director Jeff Malmberg endorses the vision by filming Mark’s dolls and his photos so that they often fill the frame.
The thin line between real and fantastic blurs, even when Mark simply walks down a road pulling a small wagon of dolls. His most sensitive side is vented not by the warriors, but by the women (“My girls know me better than I know me”). You may groan a bit when the Manhattan art world discovers Mark, and he gets a gallery show. But Malmberg is not ironic, patronizing, or belittling. The costumed kitsch resonates, and Marwencol is a rather heroic, if not exactly Churchillian, homage to creative survival.
The Jewish Film Festival
At age 21, the San Diego Jewish Film Festival can claim maturity. Largely led by women, it has long been among the most adult, diverse, and smartly cosmopolitan of local film events.
Spawned by the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center and the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture, this year’s event occurs February 10 to 20. The festival has left its familiar home, the AMC La Jolla 12, for a new hub: the Reading Cinemas Town Square 14 in Clairemont, 4665 Clairemont Drive. Other new sites are the Carlsbad Village Theatre and the Edwards San Marcos Stadium 18. A few events will occur at the Garfield Theater at the JCC and UltraStar’s Mission Valley 7 (Hazard Center).
Festival producer Sandra Kraus promises “More West Coast and California premieres than ever before” and adds, with a realistic nod to commercial booking practices, “You may never have the opportunity to see these films again!” Over 40 works are scheduled, the opener being this Thursday’s German film Berlin 36, Kaspar Heidelbach’s story of Gretel Bergmann (Karoline Herfurth), a Jewish athlete who challenged the Nazi co-option of the Olympic Games. That’s at 4 p.m. at the Hazard; 7 p.m. at the Clairemont.