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IMMORTALS

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C

A wanton melange of skewed Greek history and fractured mythology, “Immortals” plays like a cross between “Clash of the Titans” and “Gotterdammerung,” with nods to “300” along the way. As in his previous pictures, “The Cell” and “The Fall,” Tarsem Singh takes enormous pains to fashion images that blend richness and strangeness. Unfortunately, he gives much less attention to narrative coherence, and lacks the wit that can make such utter hokum exuberant fun. You might wind up being impressed by all the visual opulence on display, but the absence of humor gives the picture a grim, fatalistic tone that’s ultimately depressing. It’s the action movie equivalent of one of those spectacular Broadway musicals where you come out humming the sets because the music is so banal.

The script mixes together the stories of Olympian gods and warring men. In the thirteenth century BC, brutal conqueror King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke, delivering every hackneyed line with a quiet snarl) is leading a huge army of ruthless Heracleans against the so-called ‘Hellenics.’ He also bears a grudge against the deities headed by Zeus (Luke Evans), who loll about in the clouds looking down on terrestrial events. His plan is to destroy them by unleashing the titans, a race of glowering CGI warriors the gods had earlier defeated and imprisoned in Mount Tartarus. But to do so he must get his hands on the magical bow of Epirus, a sort of mystical ancient bazooka that shoots ethereal arrows that can not only take out men at long distances but explode through walls of rock, too.

The Hellenics evacuate their mountainside villages to take a stand behind a massive wall, fortuitously located for climactic reasons beside that very Tartarus, and the man who becomes their hero is Theseus (handsome, muscled Henry Cavill)—here not the Athenian prince of legend but a simple peasant whose sainted mother is killed by Hyperion himself. The fatherless Theseus has been instructed in combat and idealism by none other than Zeus, who in the guise of an old man (John Hurt) has brought him up to become mankind’s potential savior. But Theseus will need the help of loyal supporters to aid him along the way to his final face-off with the king: Stavros (Stephen Dorff), a cocky thief who breaks the ‘ancient’ mood with his modern cheekiness, and especially Phaedra (Freida Pinto), a luscious-looking prophetess whom Hyperion believes is the key to finding the bow but who throws in her lot (and in one sequence with some carefully-choreographed nudity, everything else she possesses) with Theseus, rescuing him after he’s been captured and staying with him through thick and skin.

You’d imagine that Zeus and his glamorous young children would intervene at once on Theseus’ side, but for some reason it would be against his ‘law’ for them to do so (though that seems a law conveniently broken every time it’s necessary for the youth’s survival, as when Poseidon, played by Kellan Lutz, acts to save him at one point). That leaves our hero to deal one-on-one, for example, with a sort-of minotaur he encounters and beheads after a ferocious battle. But it all winds up at Tartarus, where the Olympians show up to deal with the titans Hyperion has released while Theseus finally confronts his mother’s killer mano-a-mano.

This macho malarkey is the sort of stuff that would have made Charles Schneer salivate back in the day, but he and his cohorts—like Ray Harryhausen—would have added a sense of humor to the mix, which isn’t Singh’s forte. True, Dorff gets to toss off a few laugh lines, but they’re of the adolescent type aimed at the target teen-boy audience. Of the rest only Hurt seems to be in on the joke, occasionally flashing a sardonic smile to indicate he knows what kind of movie this is. Rourke plies his customary brand of world-weary gruffness , though his grizzled appearance is more suggestive of a hobo man in armor than an ancient warrior. As for Cavill and Pinto, they provide what’s demanded of them—a bronzed torso and jutting jaw in the one case and a sweet smile and graceful form in the other—and that seems all the director wanted, or we’re supposed to need. The gods all exhibit similarly well-toned physiques, though except for Isabel Lucas as Athena they’re pretty hard to tell apart.

“Immortals” isn’t about acting or history or even mythology anyway. It’s about Singh’s fascination with crafting amazing images, and he certainly does that here, using his physically awesome cast, ridiculous but eye-catching costumes, CGI-generated creatures and settings and towering landscapes to fashion compositions that have the appearance of ersatz art. The carefully-calibrated combination of skin and violence, with beautiful bodies gleaming alongside spurts of blood and gore splashing into our faces via the 3D format (much better used here than in the muddily retrofitted “Clash of the Titans”), admittedly takes on an almost fetishistic feel. But it’s impossible not to be impressed by some of the more outlandishly stylized compositions, which with their rich golds and reds take on the look of baroque frescoes. Whether the visual extravagance is enough to make up for the dramatic deficiencies and narrative messiness is another matter.

Speaking of incoherence, since even the gods and titans are subject to slaughter in the final battle, it really seems that the movie’s title needs to be put in “air quotes.” It makes you wonder whether Theseus’ transformation into a god means all that much—especially since a postscript indicates that another war brewing in the heavens will lead to still more mayhem. Who’s going to fight in it is beyond me—we’re shown swarms of combatants, among whom only Theseus is recognizable—but the only reason for the melee is one last canvas on which Singh can paint another of his eye-popping freeze-frames, a riot of color and artifice. All very impressive, if also very silly.

AGORA

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C

Alejandro Amenabar’s “Agora” is in some ways a throwback to the Greco-Roman epics of the fifties and sixties. But there’s a major difference. In the old Hollywood films, the Christians were the persecuted victims. In this picture they’re the intolerant persecutors. Of course, Amenabar isn’t presenting a simple anti-Christian polemic (though the extent of anger with the Catholic Church in Spain in the post-Franco era would make that understandable as well as possible). Rather he’s using the blind dogmatism of the early Christians to attack modern religious intolerance, which usually comes nowadays from a different quarter. And the point is made even clearer by the addition of an affiliated message about the oppression of women, particularly in terms of the intellectual life. Of course, this being a movie, the script adds romantic subplots and plenty of violence, though overall the piece remains oddly stolid and talky throughout.

The story is set in early fifth-century Alexandria, about a hundred years after Constantine had converted and ended the persecutions. Over the intervening century Christians had become an important, even dominant group. (By the close of the fourth century, the emperors had made Christianity the state religion of Rome and outlawed official support of the old cult.) The bishop of the Alexandrian community was Cyril, an active and energetic proselytizer and writer—portrayed here by Sami Samir as a virtual cult leader with clear political motives, a characterization that’s not all that wide of the mark. His followers, according to the screenplay, were constantly doing battle with the city’s remaining pagans (and its Jewish contingent) in the forum that gives the film its title, with the bishop’s final goal being the forced baptism of them all. To that end he and street rabble-rouser Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom) employ a bunch of fanatics, the parabolani, as hard-fisted enforcers.

Cyril’s political target is the Roman prefect Orestes (Oscar Isaac), a prudential sort of fellow who pays lip service to Christianity while actually maintaining the rationalistic attitudes he learned as a student of Theon (Michael Lonsdale) at the Great Library, where he studied alongside Theon’s brilliant daughter Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), in whom he also took a personal interest, and whom he now continues to protect in her efforts to understand scientifically the workings of the solar system. Hypatia will become the focus of Cyril’s drive for dogmatic uniformity in the city, and Orestes will find himself pressured to choose his faith over her. A counterpoint of sorts to this thread is provided by another involving Davus (Max Minghella), Hypatia’s erstwhile slave, whose advances she rejects, pushing him into the ranks of the Christian fanatics himself.

There’s a certain intrinsic interest in such an unusual tale, and it does have a historical foundation. (Hypatia was a noted Neoplatonic philosopher at Alexandria who was in fact killed by a Christian mob in 415, very likely with Cyril’s connivance.) But because of Amenabar’s pedantic, over-serious approach and his heavy-handed point-making, it’s a chore to sit through. And while Weisz shows some vitality as Hypatia, Isaac is stiffly uninteresting and Minghella, in a poorly-written part, even worse. Barhom and Samir make a stronger impression as the dictatorial true believers, and Rupert Evans is an intriguing, if opaque, presence as Synesius, the bishop of Cyrene who acts as go-between for Orestes with Cyril.

The physical production of “Agora” is impressive, with antique Alexandria recreated through a mixture of location shooting and CGI, and Xavi Gimenez’s wide-screen cinematography uses it well. But the style gets awfully arty at points—as in the sequence recounting the Christian vandalism of the Library, which ends in swirl of papyrus rolls tossed into the air—and the periodic employment of aerial shots, sometimes satellite-like views and sometimes closer-in images of the urban area, increases the detached feeling of the whole, taking as it were a God’s-eye perspective of the entire business.

Despite the open-air connotation of the title, there’s a curiously constructed, even suffocating quality to “Agora” that leaves it an interesting failure.