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New films: The November Man and As Above, So Below

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Two of this week’s new releases seem to spend more time reminding audiences of other films rather than carving out niches of their own.
The November Man
Directed by Roger Donaldson

Much has changed since Pierce Brosnan played James Bond. For starters, the Bond character has been rebooted as something closer to an action hero (with weirdly introspective interludes) than the almost campy, suave character that Bond had become post Connery.

But we’ve also seen several frenetic Bourne movies and similar reboots of the Mission Impossible franchise. Along with Liam Neeson relaunching himself as an actor with a certain set of skills and others, such as Kevin Costner, trying to do the same.

“The November Man” has more I common with the “Taken” films than with the Bond series, with an ex agent drawn back into action to protect somebody close to him. The difference is that in this film the main character is caught up again in spy business, rather than being drawn into a relatively random international crime scenario. The similarity is that both films have that odd dynamic of non-American, American agents.

Sadly, one of the best characteristics of “Taken” was that “not in the spy business anymore” aspect, in which the special skillset gets applied elsewhere. Here, with Brosnan, we’re just given a fairly ordinary story of a retired agent who ends up facing a past trainee, as he tries to help extract a still active ex-colleague who has stumbled upon incriminating evidence against a Russian Presidential hopeful.

The other recent film that “The November Man” brings to mind is “A Most Wanted Man,” starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. It’s not a positive comparison as the latter film shows how much better (enormously better) a modern spy drama can be. But both do at least benefit from realistically current premises, with plots deriving from conflicts that are easily forgotten by Western audiences, such as that between Russia and The Chechen Republic.

“The November Man” is unlikely to stir too many passions or even form too many deep memories, but it’s pleasantly watchable while it lasts. Which is more than can be said for….

 

As Above, So Below
Directed by John Erick Dowdle

This is one of the most annoying cases of deliberately “shaky cam” for a long time, and it has stiff competition in that regard. It’s also the latest example of a film that attempts the “found footage” approach, with all the camera work supposedly generated by characters within the film, as though that content might have been found later.

The problem is that it doesn’t really make much sense here, nor is it internally logical. At one point, a documentary filmmaker within the film, who doesn’t know in advance that a whole team of people is going to go underground, suddenly and casually explains that he has fitted the headlight gear of somebody else’s spelunking equipment with mini-cams. Apparently he just carries them with him for just such an occasions – a caving trip into catacombs that will later be the basis for an awful movie.

There’s really very little going on here – it’s a film that relies on claustrophobic tension and ghostly figures that appear in and out of the frame without warning. I suppose the upside of extreme camera movement is that it can serve as a mechanism for such quick cuts.

The story itself is some appalling confluence of “The Descent” and “The Da Vinci Code,” remade below a “National Treasure” level of stupidity, and blended through some inappropriate nostalgia for “The Blair Witch Project.” And I realize that’s an overused reference, but this is a film that should come with a free extra large bucket of hot buttered Dramamine.

One gets the sense that the writers spent so much time coming up with ridiculous codes and rhymes that lead to tenuous but apparently almost always correct interpretations, that they simply forgot altogether to write an ending. Although, if you last that long, you’ll probably just be glad it’s over.

 

 

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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