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This is terribly embarrassing, but the bulk of my knowledge pertaining to the Spanish Civil War has been acquired through Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. I learned a bit in researching the history of horror film censorship under the rule of General Franco and in art school when we learned all about Salvador Dali, but generally speaking the larger battle know as World War II (which ran in tandem in Europe) has overshadowed the conflict in my memory banks (it still kind of blows my mind that Spain was a dictatorship until the 1970s). There Be Dragons is the account of a man named Manolo (Wes Bentley), who describes his part in the war to his son Robert (Dougray Scott). Manolo grew up as a childhood friend of Josemaría Escrivá (Charlie Cox). As the war started dividing the country along fascist and communist lines, the boys grow apart. Josemaría would become a priest and be driven underground by anti-Catholic revolutionaries. His steadfast devotion to his faith in God and humanity eventual leads him to found Opus Dei, an institution of the Catholic Church, which teaches that ordinary human life is a path to sanctity (he was eventually canonized in 2002). While Josemaría finds his calling, Manolo is recruited by the German influenced fascists as a mole in the communist ranks, where he falls in love with a beautiful Hungarian revolutionary named Ildiko (Olga Kurylenko).

There Be Dragons
Writer/director Roland Joffé is largely known for one of the most spectacular swan dives in Hollywood director history. His first two feature films, The Killing Fields and The Mission, each garnered multiple Academy Award nominations, including two for best director. That’s a hell of a high bar to set, one only matched, as far as I know, by William Friedkin, who had actually made a handful of features before he hit the ground running with The French Connection and The Exorcist. Following The Mission, Joffé made the Paul Newman flop Fat Man and Little Boy, the hyper-saccharine City of Joy, and ghost directed/produced Super Mario Bros.. From Super Mario Bros[I] things took a rather steep turn to the unfortunate, including an extremely poorly received adaptation of [I]The Scarlet Letter, the rarely seen Goodbye Lover, Captivity (the death throe of the ‘torture porn’ subgenre), and You and I (a biography of Russian lipstick lesbian pop duo t.A.T.u.). Even Michael Cimino and Peter Bogdanovich didn’t nosedive this thoroughly. There Be Dragons was meant to be a return to form for the once celebrated director. Frankly I’d rather watch the t.A.T.u. movie.

As a historical primer, Joffé does a decent job laying out the facts for those of us outside the know (aside from some lumpy era political infusion), but as a storyteller he sets out too many framing devices early in the film. The story isn’t so much hard to follow as it is over-told. The flow from scene to scene is deceptively smooth, which acts to disguise how unnecessary a lot of the plotting is. Editor Richard Nord’s and cinematographer Gabriel Beristain’s best efforts at gracefully unraveling the film visually cannot overcome dopey narration and a gratuitous flashback structure. This is already a film about two characters, two characters with only the thinnest connection between them (possibly entirely unrelated to the historical record), nobody needs a third subplot, especially not one snagged from Tim Burton’s Big Fish (or whatever storybook Burton snagged it from). Romantic subplots also suffer from random aside syndrome and by about the one hour mark the film has devolved into nearly unbearable boredom.

There Be Dragons
The dialogue is a mesh of clichés and awkward prose (‘You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs!’/‘Right is not an omelet, and people are not eggs.’). Worse yet it’s repetitive, especially when characters break into monologues about religious and political philosophy. Heavy-handedness has never been outside of Joffé’s wheelhouse and even worked in the case of The Mission, but here it just seems like he just doesn’t have a working dramatic barometer. The actors don’t ham it up too regularly (to the contrary, they underplay almost everything), but the off-balance theatricality of their dialogue and actions make it incredibly difficult to really care about anything that happens to them. Wes Bentley, who is first seen wearing some surprisingly shoddy old age make-up, is pretty good while onscreen (at times he disappears into the character entirely), but his narration is almost obnoxiously stale. Charlie Cox is a nice and warm presence, but also a pretty bland one, evoking little of his usual charm. Dougray Scott’s acting is oddly detached throughout the film, as if he’s extending the bulk of his energy on portraying an accurate accent. Olga Kurylenko suffers the worst thanks to thin characterization and never rises beyond the status of Bentley’s love object.

There Be Dragons

Video


There Be Dragons is a handsome looking film at the very least, and this 1080p, 2.35:1 image is swimming with detail. Joffé and cinematographer Gabriel Beristain utilize a muted, natural palette, and fill every frame with almost excessive baroque elements. Detail levels are sharp from front-facing, close-up textures to rich backgrounds brimming with set pieces and natural backdrops. The moss encrusted stonework and heavily decorative wallpapers are the most brilliant bits in terms of detail. Sequences featuring frosted edges or smoky elements fair quite well too, and feature solid, warm blends. The colour follows the longstanding tradition of ‘browning-out’ the bulk of the palette to signify times past. The war era footage features sickly blue-green tints on interiors, and strong red and purple highlights. The ‘80s footage is a bit cooler, with more consistent yellow highlights. Black levels are deep and consistent, like ink, and contrast is sharp, but the stylistic choices lead to a lack of true whites during the flashback footage (likely intentional). The coolest sequences feature the most grain and even a touch of low-level noise, and there are inconsistent edge haloes throughout the film (a few shots feature white lines on every black edge), but there’s very little in the way of major digital or film-based artefacts.

There Be Dragons

Audio


This Blu-ray comes fitted with the usual DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. There isn’t too much here to celebrate, but there aren’t any standout shortcomings either. Dialogue and silence both take precedence for much of the film, and entire sequences roll by without any stereo or surround noise. When we’re meant to find ourselves place in the thick of a busy street or other outside area the general ambience is soft, but effective, and directional elements move with accuracy. Some of the battle sequences are presented as somewhat muted, at least in comparison to something like Saving Private Ryan (to create a feel of flashback?), but even these muffled bangs and pops feature heavy directional influence, and decent LFE presence (many of the military sound effects sound surprisingly canned). Any scene featuring airplanes is particularly outstanding. Stephen Warbeck’s score is mostly featured in the stereo channels alone, and is often mixed pretty low on the track overall with only a handful of exceptional bursts of energy or warmth.

Extras


Extras include an interview with Wes Bentley entitled Facing Your Dragons (4:00, HD), which mostly acts as a super cheap EPK (Bentley clearly didn’t prepare himself), and a series of 16 deleted/extended scenes (31:00, SD), most of which act to fill in Scott’s character, along with a lot of the childhoods of the two leads.

There Be Dragons

Overall


There Be Dragons is an incredibly handsome waste of time. It’s not a return to form for long floundering writer/director Roland Joffé, it’s not emotionally or dramatically satisfying, and I learned more about the Spanish Civil War and Josemaría Escrivá researching wikipedia for this review than I did watching the film itself. I’m sure someone will find satisfaction in its awkward prose and longwinded tone, but most folks will probably want to skip it in favour of revisiting The Mission, The Killing Fields or Super Mario Bros. again. This Blu-ray disc looks great, sounds pretty good, and features 30-plus minutes of deleted/extended footage.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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