Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Movie Review: "Conan the Barbarian" (1982) by David Pretty

As a Dungeons & Dragons-obsessed kid, the only movies I ever needed for instant DM-inspiration were Clash of the Titans, Excalibur and Conan the Barbarian.  Listen to me now and believe me later: if you watch the John Milius / Arnold Schwarzenegger film right after viewing the 2011 "re-imagining", then you will know the difference a script makes.

In fact, there's more effective film-making in the opening credit sequence here then there is in the entire run time of the recent Marcus Nispel version.  Mako's brief but flavorful narration provides plenty of set-up for Conan's world of Hyboria and the story we're about to see.  Set to the pounding strains of Basil Poledouris's "Anvil of Crom", the primal clips of sword-forgery that follow are quick to inspire chills.  Were off to a great start, folks.

John Milius continues to establish his milieux with several evocative shots of snow-covered, wind-swept mountain peaks.  Although the accompanying matte composition is hideous, William Smith's lecture about the nature of steel to young Conan in sincerely delivered and oddly heartfelt.  Again, screenwriters Milius and Oliver Stone manage to cram more character development into this one five-minute dialogue sequence then the newer version could conjure up in fifteen.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the musical accompaniment provided by Basil Poledouris turns the assault on Conan's village into a tragically Wagnerian scene of slaughter and loss.  The fact that the film's producers built a real working village populated by impeccably-costumed extras shows an unparalleled dedication to detail.  Also notable is the level of craftsmanship displayed in the helmets, costumes, shields, armor and weapons.  Hell, even the war horses and mastiffs are appropriately barded.  Although there's a certain consistency in the appearance of Thulsa Doom's flunkies, his lieutenants have been granted the privilege of customizing their own weapons and armor.  It's a nice touch.      

James Earl Jones is completely hypnotic here as Thulsa Doom.  I can't think of very many actors who posses the same in-born screen presence.  With his dark skin, straight hair and piercing blue eyes, the character of Doom seems wildly exotic and his warped Nietzschean philosophies make him one of the most interesting and multi-dimensional villains in cinema history.  I love antagonists who are clearly oblivious to the fact that everyone else in the film considers them to be a monster.

After everyone in his village is callously slaughtered, L'il Conan (played to mute perfection by young Spanish actor Jorge Sanz) is spirited away to do some hard time on the Wheel of Pain.  I suspect that production designer Ron Cobb's name will also pop up in this review quite a bit.  The Wheel is a genuine construct with a practical function, even though this isn't expressly communicated to the audience.  It's most astute purpose, of course, is to provide Milius with the opportunity to deliver one of the most memorable "Coming of Age" montages ever filmed.  The reveal of Arnold Schwarzenegger as everyone's favorite barbarian must have caused hoots of approval in theaters back in 1982.

Milius best described his hulking star on set back in 1982 when he said "if we didn't have a Schwarzenegger, we would have to have built him!"  People who want to take the piss out of Arnold for his performance would do well to watch him carefully here and with an open mind.  Physically he's perfect for the role and his thick Austrian accent actually gives the character a logically exotic quality.  Although he does spend a considerable amount of screen time either mute or shouting incomprehensibly, he does provide a lot of great moments which I'll try to point out as they occur.      

The first of which comes during the notorious Pit Fight sequence.  Years before Andy Whitfield ventured into the "Pits of the Underworld" in Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Schwarzenegger fought for his life with brutal instinct in this vicious set-piece.  There's no highly-choreographed and fraudulent-looking swordplay at work here, just two dudes trying to murderfy one another in the most vicious manner possible.  It's very brutal, very real and the persistent sound of bones breaking and sharp things being jabbed into flesh is borderline stomach-turning.  As Conan continues to rack up one victory after another, Schwarzenegger's natural confidence and charisma begins to shine through.  This foreshadows his stellar confrontation with Rexor  (Ben Davidson) and Thorgrim (Sven Ole Thorsen) later on in the film.  

Despite its surfeit of mock-classical dialogue, the script for Conan the Barbarian actually acquits itself quite well.  Instead of doing this half-assed, Milius and Stone give us lines that sounds as if they were culled directly from an R.H. Howard story.  Mercifully, the actors deliver this antiquated speech with equal parts conviction and aplomb.  Witness the classic "What is best in life?" exchange between Conan and the Mongol General.  Scenes like this make me feel as if I'm watching Schwarzenegger's authority blossom along with the character.  

After Conan narrowly avoids a pack of wolves and then plummets into the Atlantean cave, Milius and Stone really betray their love for the character's pulp roots.  This entire sequence is pretty much a direct adaptation of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter's early Conan tale "The Thing In The Crypt".  Once again, Ron Cobb's convincing set design is just as good as anything I've seen on film before or after.  If I didn't know any better I'd say that Milius pulled a fast one, broke into some ancient tomb somewhere, dropped Arnold down into it and then started shooting guerilla-style.

Lensing the film in Spain also afforded the production some amazing exteriors.  Witness the visually interesting environs traversed by Conan en route to his encounter at the hut.  Above and beyond the film's varied locales, Milius and his casting director Rosa Garcia also managed to assemble some of the  most exotic-looking women imaginable.  From Conan's mom played by German-born soft-core porn actress Nadiuska to the late Valérie Quennessen as the Princess to Filipino-American model/actress Cassandra Gava as the Witch, every women in the movie looks like she emerged from a Frank Frazetta painting or wandered out of a John Buscema comic book panel.

The encounter with the witch also serves to illustrate the film's analog approach to special effects.  Shot w-a-a-a-a-a-y before the advent of CGI, the witch's mid-coital transformation was easily achieved with some dramatic lighting, a basic make-up application, some horrific sound effects, a few explosive squibs and a brief optical effect.  The end result is a sequence that's weirder, grittier and somehow more authentic then anything computer animation could have conjured up.

Now I'm not sure how Subotai (Gary Lopez) suddenly came to be chained up behind the witch's cabin but I'm certainly glad that it happened.  Although it's kinda odd that Milius didn't cast an Asian actor for the part (the voice of the Hawaiian-born Lopez was even overdubbed by Japanese-American stage actor Sab Shimono) everything worked out for the best.  As Subotai, Lopez turns in a performance that's wily, nuanced and highly acute.  Sadly there's no equivalent for the "My God can beat up your God" fireside chat with Schwarzenegger in the 2011 film, and that explains a lot.  Critics of Arnold would also do well to watch this scene carefully, since he also displays considerable nuance.

As the duo attempt to track down Thulsa Doom, the plot meanders around like a classic D&D hex-crawl.  By the time Conan and Subotai arrive at the city of Shadizar (a full-scale set, not a crappy model or a matte painting) we're completely sold on the reality established by Milius and his production team.  The sights, sounds and (EEP!) smells of these locations seem almost palpable.  In fact, there aren't very many movies that succeed in immersing their characters in a real environment quite like Conan the Barbarian does.      

After Arnold plows an offending camel while whacked out on Black Lotus you begin to suspect this was prior to the whole "no animals were harmed during the making of this movie" blurb which is now de rigueur in the credits of every film.  Now, don't get me wrong, I think animal abuse is unforgivable, but the olde skool sensibilities that brought Conan the Barbarian to the screen makes the movie feel edgy, dangerous and kinda grind-housey.  It like the movie was produced by a drugged-out cabal of carnival folk and WWF wrestlers.    

Next up we have the good fortune of meeting Sandahl Bergman as Valaria.  Unfortunately, because some key dialogue with Schwarzenegger and Lopez was excised, you can only learn her character's name by sticking around to the final credits, researching it on the interwebs or if you were lucky enough to be reading Starlog magazine back in 1982.  Not only is she possessed of that elusive "Frazettan" quality and clearly knows he way around a scimitar, she also has the acting chops to navigate her way through the film's more florid dialogue.  It's interesting to compare Valaria to Rachel Nichols's unconvincing and forgettable turn as Tamara in the woefully underwritten 2011 film.

I love that Milius requisitioned an actual tower and forced his actors to climb up it.  Indeed, both the interior and the exterior of the Serpent Tower is another tremendous Ron Cobb creation.  By populating the bowels of the Tower with a gloriously authentic-looking giant snake (designed by Nick Allder) it all adds up to an wonderfully iconic sequence.  When Schwarzenegger crams his dagger into the lower jaw of the giant reptile and releases that torrent of stage blood, you know that he's really attacking something.  When he gets snared in the serpent's coils, you can see that he's really being thrown around by a powerful foe.  When Subotai buries a couple of arrows into the snake's cranium, it looks totally nasty.  And finally, when Conan delivers that deathblow which cleaves the thing right in two, the effect is gleefully nauseating. 

Clearly my boy rolled a "20" to hit.

After this we get an amusing scene in which our besotted heroes enjoy the spoils of thievery.  Again,  Schwarzenegger exhibits a modicum of range via some astute comedic timing and convincing, if not genuine, levels of intoxication.  This scene segues nicely into a Shakespearean tongue-lashing courtesy of King Osric (Max Von Sydow).  It's regrettable that Von Sydow never gets a chance to play hot-blooded characters, since he really seems to relish the opportunity provided by Osric.  After beginning the scene with a posture of hostility and ridicule, Von Sydow effortlessly conjures up heartbreak and disbelief over thoughts of his estranged daughter.  His reaction to Subotai's sudden appearance alone is fantastic.  "Lions ate him" he parrots, sounding genuinely bemused.  

As Conan begins his solo quest to find Thulsa Doom's Mountain of Power, Milius takes the opportunity to expand on Hyboria's geography and environments.  Along the way, he meets the Wizard of the Mounds, played by Academy Award nominee Mako.  After one of the best entrances in cinema history, Mako's Wizard is called upon to exhibit a genuine range of emotions from child-like glee, sarcastic bitchery, craven babbling, and rank intimidation.  In fact, Mako comes perilously close to stealing every scene that he's in.

Although most critics are quick to write off a film like Conan the Barbarian as a cheesy early-80's sword and sorcery flick, there are many moments that rival the grandeur of classic Hollywood epics such as Ben Hur and Cleopatra.  If you want spectacle, look no further then Doom's Mountain of Power: a spectacular set built right onto the face of a breathtaking hill in Spain and populated by fifteen hundred fully-costumed extras.  Even though most contemporary directors would justify shooting all of this with CGI because it's "easier to do that way", I fear that inflation now makes incredible practical sets like this cost prohibitive nowadays.

During this sequence, Schwarzenegger betrays some of his shortcomings as a neophyte actor.  His awkward (and marginally homophobic) run-in with a male priest is downright wince-inducing.  This is followed by a inadvertently funny scene in which he merrily struts around Doom's camp in "disguise", looking about as inconspicuous as Sheldon Cooper at a Nas concert.  At the very least his discovery and capture certainly doesn't strain believability.

True to the film's "that which does not kill you makes you stronger" ethos, the torture scene and Tree of Woe sequence that follow are both pretty harrowing.  I love the Cult of Personality thing that Doom is constantly rocking.  When one of his drones blissfully jumps to her death with the slightest coaxing, he's certainly within his right to proclaim: "That is strength, boy!  That is power!"  Before ordering his crucifixion, Doom take a moment out his busy schedule to answer the Riddle of Steel.  In doing so, not only does he destroy Conan physically, he also calls into question his very existence.  "Look at the strength in your body, the desire in your heart...I gave you this!  Such a waste," he laments.

Conan is pulled back from the brink of death via a bizarre ritual with all the trappings of a real pagan ceremony.  Once again, Milius applies the same basic techniques that made the witch cabin sequence so effective.  Next up, the film-makers deliver a good, old-fashioned dungeon bash.  I love that Milius puts his triumvirate of heroes in camouflaged body paint.  We see it work right up there on the screen, clearly improving our heroes "Hide in Shadow" chances as they attempt to infiltrate Doom's underground fortress.

As Conan, Valeria and Subotai delve deeper into the maze, the lighting team, prop department and set decorators all help to evoke a genuine mood of perverse secrecy and degenerate evil.  And let me tell ya, folks, nothing sets the mood for a good orgy quicker then a little spot o' cannibalism.  Beyond all the stripped human carcasses and the extremity consommé, the sight of Doom resplendent on his ornate throne with a beautiful princess splayed out at his feet is ten times more metal then anything staged for the more recent Conan film.      

Their rampage through the Orgy Chamber is gleefully Chaotic Neutral.  Once again, the Basil Poledouris score takes the skirmish between Conan, Thorgrim and Rexor from thrilling to spine-tingling.  I love how everything in the fight occurs for a reason: the tumbling soup cauldron weakens the central pillar, a hammer blow causes it to crack, and a second strike brings it tumbling down on top of Rexor and effectively ending the battle.  This is also where Schwarzenegger is at his best: single-minded, larger-then-life and more then a little scary.

When James Earl Jones delivers the line "Infidel Defilers. They shall all drown in lakes of blood" you just know that shit's about to get real.  Like his slithery transmutation moments ago, the snake arrow effect really embodies the script's take on sorcery.  Magic isn't showy or pyrotechnic here, it's just a matter of fact.  Peter Jackson would take a similar approach in Fellowship of the Ring years later when Gandalf uses his powers to scare a paranoid Bilbo straight.    

Not long after we get a fantastic restored sequence in which Conan ponders, Ahab-style, a lifetime driven by hate and revenge.  Again, Schwarzenegger's critics really need to study this soliloquy as well as his "Hail Mary" prayer to Crom.  I'm convinced that, with the right director, Arnold is capable of a surprising amount of depth.  Or, at the very least, enough depth to successfully portray a rampaging barbarian.    

We then see another fantastic montage in which Conan, Subotai and the Wizard prepare for the final confrontation.  It doesn't disappoint.  Clearly, Milius and his stunt coordinator Terry Leonard mapped out this fracas in military-level detail.  How can you not love a sequence in which someone is horribly impaled by the equivalent of a Rube Goldberg machine?  In direct opposition to the gimmicky denouement of the 2011 film, the narrative told during this action sequence is just as compelling as anything scripted.

After the dust settles, we get another logically-restored scene which finally explains how Conan managed to waltz right back into Doom's Mountain of Power.  Even at the very end, Doom almost charms Conan with the power of ACTING but then he goes and drops that same old tired "I AM YOUR FATHER" crap that he was peddling two short years earlier.  As a result, Conan snaps out of it  and treats Doom to a complementary single-blade Gillette close shave demo.  With the head of the serpent crushed and the body dead, Doom's children cast their candles into the reflecting pool and drift away under a cloud of forlorn resignation.  Kinda makes you wish that someone had perforated Jim Jones in similar fashion before he had a chance to buy that skid of Kool-Aid.

Notwithstanding Conan's Groo-like ability to burn down a stone temple with a single well-placed fire pot, the final reel of the film is very bittersweet to me.  Although Oliver Stone wanted Arnold to come back and play Conan in a new movie once every few years like James Bond (and John Milius certainly had a trilogy in mind at the very least), the last few shots of King Conan wearing the jeweled crown Aquilonia upon a troubled brow makes me alternately sad and angry.  Without the winning combination of Stone, Milius, Cobb, Poledouris and Schwarzenegger everything that followed ended up defiling the spirit of this original classic.

But, alas, that is a tale for another time...          

    Tilt: up.  

Monday, January 21, 2013

Movie Review: "Argo" by David Pretty

Just when I'm on the verge of becoming completely and totally jaded, a movie like Argo comes along and knees me right in the cubes.  It's not often that a film manages to accelerate my heart rate, but with its tense establishment, impeccable plotting and taut direction, Argo had me on pins and needles for its entire run time.

Based on real-life events surrounding the Iran Hostage Crisis, the film begins with a valuable preamble about America's record of interference in that country's turbulent history.  Angered by American foreign policy and  its protectionist stance over the deposed Shah, Islamic militants stormed the U.S. embassy and held fifty-two people hostage from November 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981.  During the siege, six staffers managed to steal away and seek refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador.

Fearful of being captured and executed as spies, the six refugees were forced to hide there for nearly eighty days.  Their only hope of rescue was via a covert extraction, but given the socio-political climate in Iran at the time, most of the traditional cover stories were impractical.  When CIA technical operations officer Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) finds himself watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes on T.V. with his estranged son he hits upon an idea that's so crazy it just might work.  His plan: to pose as a movie producer scouting locations for a sci-fi flick, rendezvous with the six expatriates, disguise them as members of a Canadian film crew and then smuggle them out of the country.

Nominally encouraged by his superior Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston), Mendez travels to Hollywood where special effects wizard John Chambers (John Goodman) and veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) help him complete the illusion.  After they purchase the script for a cheesy Star Wars rip-off named Argo, the trio begin an earnest promotional blitz and set up a fraudulent movie studio as a front.  The minute details of this elaborate fiction are all well in place long before Mendez wings into Tehran.   

Despite their best efforts, this "best worst idea" begins to unravel as the Iranians piece together shredded personnel files proving that six embassy employees have gone AWOL.  The tension continues to ratchet up after the fugitives are surreptitiously photographed while keeping up appearances during an obligatory "location scout" at a crowded bazaar.  As the six captives struggle to absorb their cover identities and the Iranians inexorably piece together the evidence against them, the entire operation is suddenly jeopardized when it comes under scrutiny at the highest levels of government.

Argo proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that truth is consistently stranger then fiction.  If the producers hadn't flashed the "based on true events" blurb at the start of the film I probably would have called bullshit on the entire story.  Now granted, you'd be a fool to swallow all the events as depicted here wholesale (for example, Canada's role in the event is severely diminished) but as a tension-fueled construct, Argo has few rivals.  I'm pretty sure that the mission cancellation, the last-minute film pitch, the unanswered call to the fake production office, and the tarmac chase never happened, but it certainly makes for an effective and riveting experience.

Pretty much everyone can relate to heightened feelings of anxiety and paranoia when they go through airport security, even at the best of times.  But can you imagine trying to do this under completely false pretenses? Would you be able to recall the encyclopedic details of your fake identity for people who would merrily string you up like a piñata if you or any of your five companions fuck up?  If nothing else, Argo manages to parlay these universal fears into a climax of nigh-unbearable proportions.

Major props go out to triple threat Ben Affleck for producing, directing and starring in this taut little thriller.  I can't help but wonder if Affleck just got sick and tired of getting offered crap roles and decided to make his own.  This initiative has translated into a win for movie-goers as well since he's already given us Gone, Baby, Gone and The Town thus far.  Making the best of self-employment, his performance in Argo is understated and actually quite good.  Arguably its bit too hang-dog and one-note, but all that really matters is that it serves the tone of the film perfectly.

It's Affleck's directorial chops that really impress.  Assisted by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, the assault on the US Embassy is chaotic and harrowing, the scenes inside the safe house are discordant and claustrophobic and the final reel of the film is a pitch-perfect engine of apprehension and terror.  I really can't remember a recent political thriller that was such a visceral experience.  In fact, I think Affleck should probably call da po-po since my boy was robbed of a Best Director Oscar nod. 

The film's physical reality also deserves plaudits.  Costume designer Jacqueline West manages to evoke the "style" of the time without lapsing into distracting parody.  Production designer Sharon Seymour, art directors Peter Borck and Deniz Göktürk and set decorator Jan Pascale have faithfully recreated a late Seventies / early Eighties version of American and Iran.  Their take on CIA headquarters, downtown Tehran, Ken Taylor's residence and Mehrabad International Airport are all flawless to this unknowing eye.

The production team also got a lot of mileage out of the "movie-within-a-movie" concept, creating convincing posters, storyboards, Variety ads and even a live reading of the fake "Argo" script with actors in over-the- top costumes.  Although the Hollywood sign had long since been refurbished before the events depicted in the film, the sun-bleached sequences in California still feel authentic.  Finally Star Wars nerd Affleck earns extra brownie points for dressing his fictional son's bedroom up with vintage toys from "a galaxy far, far away."           

In addition to Affleck's measured performance, the movie is rife with great actors doing what they do best.  Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston is stellar as Tony's tightly-wound supervisor Jack O'Donnell.  John Goodman lends a jovial and comedic air to the film as real-life makeup maestro John Chambers.  And although the role itself is a fictional construct, Alan Arkin shines as a prickly, no-nonsense film producer named Lester Siegel.

I should also mention the collective efforts of the "hideaways".  Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishé and Rory Cochrane all do a great job standing in for the viewer and engendering a tremendous amount of emotional involvement.  Kyle Chandler, in a thankless role as Tony's main foil Hamilton Jordan, also deserves a nod for being particularly odious.  Finally, the always-great Victor Garber acquits himself quite nicely with his cool and dignified turn as Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor.        

I highly recommend that you check out Argo during this Oscar season.  If anything, the act of watching the film is as far from a passive experience as you can imagine.

           Tilt: up.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Movie Review: "Conan the Barbarian" (2011) by David Pretty

It's inevitable that 2011's Conan the Barbarian will be compared to the John Milius / Arnold Schwarzenegger film from 1982.  In that comparison it will pale, but the film isn't quite the complete and total disaster that it's often made out to be.

This update, directed by Marcus "Allergic to Original Thought" Nispel and starring Jason "Sun and Stars" Momoa starts off with with Conan's in medias res battlefield birth via a particularly nasty impromptu c-section and an animatronic baby.  Even though it often feels as if we're watching a script-by-committee unspool, screenwriting cabal Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood dedicate a surprising amount of time to the relationship between young Conan (Leo Howard) and his transient-looking father Corin, played by utilitarian medieval movie guy Ron Perlman.

L'il Conan is depicted as particularly savage, even for a barbarian.  After single-handedly dispatching a band of Picts and going berserk against his dad during a sparring match, Corin is forced to declare that his son is too wild and undisciplined to wield a sword.  As Conan seethes in anger, his village is suddenly set upon by the army of Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang), a fanatical warlord who is looking to recover a vital artifact.  After callously slaughtering everyone in the village, including Conan's pop, Zym makes off with the final fragment of the all-powerful Mask of Archeron.

As the only survivor of the massacre, Conan swears obligatory revenge.  All of a sudden, the story jumps ten years or so into the future and we see that the adult barbarian has fallen in with a socially-conscious band of brigands led by the Kushite Ukafa (Bob Sapp).  During a spot of victorious carousing, Conan spies one of Zym's goons and permits himself be captured in a bid to get within striking distance of his hated rival.

Meanwhile, Zym seeks to complete a ritual which will galvanize the power of the Mask.  Thanks to an unconventional method of testing devised by his creepy, magic-wielding daughter Marique (Rose McGowan), our antagonist discovers an answer in the blood of a warrior-priestess named Tamara (Rachel Nichols).  After Conan crosses paths with the wayward monk, he refashions himself as her guardian, guaranteeing a confrontation with his father's killer.

By far the film's biggest failing is its overly-simplistic script.  Conan really doesn't experience any growth or evolution to speak of.  Promising early references between Conan and his dad to discipline and focus are summarily dispensed with.  In fact, Conan continues to charge headlong into battle like a sword-wielding bull moose with a perm.  It's a shame since it might have given the character an iota of depth.

Whereas the original 1982 Conan the Barbarian brazenly dared to feature a story composed of actual interconnected events, this one is a helluva lot more choppy.  Most of the film's plot beats feel completely arbitrary and exist only to justify what's to follow.  Conan needs to be an adult now, so here his is, all growed up.  Okay, now he needs to celebrate a victory, so here's an unconnected battle sequence.  Dude's also got to have mobility, so let's make him a pirate and put him on a ship.  The script lacks so much connective tissue that it makes the average anime feel like The Usual Suspects.

The film's visual style is also a mixed bag.  It's best when the characters are immersed in a fully-dressed tavern set or outdoors in some exotic-looking wilderness environment.  Unfortunately there are way too many scenes of the actors Photoshopped in front of clearly-fraudulent digital backdrops.  Sometimes it felt as if I was watching Kull the Conqueror meets The Phantom Menace.

Although the over-zealous application of color timing is likely the main culprit, cinematographer Thomas Kloss has delivered a film that's either weirdly overexposed or blandly monochromatic.  Man, I'm getting really sick of movies that look like the cinematic equivalent of a KFC meal.  Just compare the weird lighting effects in the scene where Conan interrogates Remo (Milton Welsh) to the "what the fuck is going on?" levels of murk that plague the infiltration of Zym's keep.

The assembled performers also yield mixed results.  After watching Jason Momoa in Game of Thrones, I was totally convinced that he had the presence, authority and bombast to play Conan.  Unfortunately, many of his line deliveries sound way too contemporary.  Now, I'm not saying that he needed to ape a certain incomprehensible Austrian but something had to happen vocally in order to prevent the whole thing from sounding like an episode of Young Hercules.  Even a variation on Drogo's accent would have been preferable.

Rachel Nichols is plucky, appealing and perfectly capable as Tamara but I think she's a bit too girl-next-door for a Hyborian lass.  I really wish that they'd gone with someone more exotic and "Frazettan" like a Mila Kunis or an Olivia Wilde.  Don't get me wrong, Rachel's performance isn't bad, I just think that she's miscast.  Even though Tamara is supposed to be a cloistered monk-type, a more sultry and smoldering actress could have brought an interesting hint of sexual repression to the part and a possible  character arc.  But, of course, this presumes that the producers and writers even know what a "character arc" is.

A movie like this gets a lot of milage out of its villain and Stephen Lang is actually well-cast as Khalar Zym.  I have to credit the writers for giving him a motivation that's actually more noble then the hero's.  In fact, Zym's main goal is to resurrect his wife who was immolated by a bunch of religious yahoos for practicing magic.  As a nuts-and-bolts actor, Lang is actually quite good, spitting out every line as if it's been marinated in venom.

Clad in a bizarre costume and buried under a pound of pancake makeup, Rose McGowan is almost criminally unrecognizable as Marique.  Now, I'm not gonna sit here and claim that Rose is the same caliber of actress as say, Anne Hathaway, but I still love watching her nonetheless.  Actually, she does manage to give Marique a few interesting quirks, even going so far as to gamely pursue an icky implied Electra complex with her father.

There are a few more baffling choices that make this version vastly inferior to the original.  First off, the moron who decided to have Morgan Freeman do the narration should be dressed up in a loincloth made of bacon and then thrown into a pit of rabid wolves.  This is Conan,  not March of the Penguins, for fuck's sake!  As soon as I heard his incongruously warm intonations I just sat there for a bit, amazed that no-one on the production pointed out how dumb this move was.

Also, if I were Tyler Bates and tasked to follow-up Basil Poledouris's iconic score from the 1982 film I'd probably spend a few hours every morning playing with a loaded revolver.  Indeed, the soundtrack proffered up here is imminently forgettable.  I don't recall one instance in which the music was rousing, evocative or contributed significantly to the film's dramatic impact.

The movie also stumbles a bit in terms of what you might expect from a Conan film.  Despite endless fountains of cartoonishly-exaggerated and fake-looking CGI blood, the film is surprisingly un-gory.  And although director Marcus Nispel provides some bountiful boobage (if you're *ahem* into that sort of thing), the Cimmerian is actually rather chaste, only indulging in one carnal encounter.  Honestly, for a thief, reaver and slayer, Conan's kind of a Republican.

But for all the pointed criticism, you certainly can't accuse the film of being boring.  In fact, the movie zips along at an almost breakneck pace.  A carriage pursuit sequence, a below-deck brawl and a chaotic battle with an unseen tentacled horror are all fairly well-mounted.  Unfortunately, an ill-conceived desire to give popcorn-munchers something "original" also results in a gimmicky, video-game-like clash between Zym and Conan while hanging from a sacrificial pinwheel.  Their earlier encounter, featuring a platoon of Flint Marko's conjured up by Marique, is considerably better.                        

Honestly, the film isn't as terrible as its detractors have made it out to be.  Having said that, I'm really glad that I didn't lay down full admission price to see it.  It's worth catching on Netflix if you've got a few hours to kill.

Some sage advice: if you strike all thoughts of the superior original from your troubled brow then you should find this version amusing at least.

  Tilt: down.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Movie Review: "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" by David Pretty

Peter Jackson saves his "A" game for this, the epic conclusion to his Lord of the Rings saga.  Although I still prefer the small-scale adventure of the first film, Return of the King boasts a more stalwart plot than The Two Towers and Jackson's confidence at the helm is at its zenith.

In this final installment, Sauron releases the full wrath of his orc army against the kingdom of men.  A major roadblock to his domination of Middle Earth is the multi-walled city Minas Tirith, which is presided over by its increasingly-nutbar steward Denethor.  Anticipating the Dark Lord's strategy, the recently revived Gandalf the White and King Théoden of Rohan muster their combined forces to help defend Gondor's capital from the overwhelming tide of evil.

Meanwhile Aragorn finally accepts his destiny and the line of Kings is reborn.  Along with stalwart companions Legolas and Gimli, he seeks out some unconventional allies to oppose the coming darkness.  Despite this resolute allegiance of men, it soon becomes apparent that Sauron's army is limitless forces and ultimately the fate of Middle Earth is in the hands of our two hobbit heroes Frodo and Sam.  The saga comes to a powerful climax as the two attempt to smuggle the One Ring into the heart of darkness and attempt to destroy it in the hellish furnace of Mount Doom.

This is truly a bravura finish to the series.  One of the most stirring plot threads is explored in the  relationship between Faramir and Denethor.  In the original novel Denethor is a much more sympathetic figure but here he's positively mad with grief over the death of his beloved son Boromir and filled with contempt over Faramir's continued existence.  John Noble really manages to wring the "ripe bastard" elements out of the script and pretty soon you're counting the minutes to see Denethor end up as kindling.

After Saruman's Uruk-Hai had their collective asses handed to them in previous film, you might be tempted to discount the threat level.  But in Return of the King, Jackson and company do a great job conveying the extent of Sauron's power.  During the film we're privy to hordes of orcs, head-flinging catapults, siege engines, evil corsairs, airborne Nazgul, a host of Southrons on giant war elephants, a battering ram so scary they gave it a name, armored trolls, the invincible Witch King and a giant spider that could eat John Goodman as an appetizer.  Zionks!

Opposing all of this are our dauntless heroes.  Ian McKellen's Gandalf becomes increasingly otherworldly, not unlike King Arthur's Merlin.  Every once and awhile, you get the sense that he's catching glimpses of alternate realities and time lines not obvious on the material plane.  His implied omniscience becomes a subtle reason for audience concern.  After all, if even the mighty Gandalf is uncertain about the final outcome, things must really be dire!

Viggo Mortensen also completes an impressive character arc as he abandons his shadowy guise as a northern ranger and becomes Heir to the throne of Gondor.  It's fun to watch his authority grow with each modest victory.  By the time the grossly outnumbered army of men stage an Occupy Mordor rally, Mortensen effortlessly joins fellow nominees Kenneth Branagh and Mel Gibson in the "Best Movie Speech Given to Motivate Troops Who Are About to Die Horribly" category.

Peter Jackson and his omnipresent screenwriting partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens use the minor characters to great effect, emphasizing the indomitable spirit of individuals that Sauron underestimates the most.  Eowyn's unexpected stand against the Witch King in one of the best scenes of the entire trilogy.  Although Miranda Otto's Eowyn is nearly apoplectic with terror she's still willing to risk everything to protect her people and her allies.  And despite his diminutive stature, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) isn't willing to sit idly by and watch his friends sacrifice themselves.  Ultimately, these modest decisions add up to an incremental ray of hope.

Of course, this is no more evident then in the quest of Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin).  After their schizophrenic guide Gollum (Andy Serkis) manages to plant a seed of discord between the two, Frodo abandons Sam and sets off by himself.  Rather than acting spurned, Sam catches up to Frodo and prevents his master from becoming a Hobbit McNugget for one of Sauron's nastier housepets.  Indeed, if there's such a thing as Time Magazine's "Hobbit of the Year" Mr. Gamgee is a shoo-in. 

The final confrontation that occurs when Frodo and Sam are standing in the heart of Mount Doom is also brilliantly staged.  Even though I'd read the books and knew what was going to happen, I still felt a genuine sense of tension as the One Ring made a final stab at self-preservation and Gollum re-surfaced as a wild card.  Although Tolkien purists may balk, Jackson's cinematic interpretations do a fine job in wringing tension and drama out of the original texts.     

My complains about the film are limited to a few minor quibbles.  The green day-glo undead army that Aragorn conjures up looks like B-roll leftovers from The Frighteners.  In fact, a lot of the CGI is pretty cartoonish, especially the notorious "Legolas Skywalker" sequence in which the elf archer takes down an oliphaunt single-handedly.  But given the massive scale of the battles required for Return of the King, a surfeit of CGI was a necessary evil.

Now a lot of people also like to bitch about the "multiple endings" but really don't think a story this epic can just drop curtains like a traditional film.  In fact, the extended conclusion really drives home the assertion that emotional wounds can take a lot longer to heal then physical ones.  For a film that some may erroneously dismiss as pure escapist fantasy, I think Peter Jackson really succeeded at presenting the story as a metaphor for Tolkien's experiences in the first World War.  Indeed, Return of the King has a lot to say about surviving war, even long after the swords have become ploughshares. 

Taken together, The Lord of the Rings is still the high water mark of film fantasy.  If you haven't seen these movies yet, then get on it!  My advice: watch the Extended Editions if you can.  Despite the intimidating run time, they story is more fleshed out, the pacing flows better than the "theatrical cuts" and all three movies are broken up over two discs, making for the perfect intermission.

Truly a staggering achievement in imaginative film, the Rings trilogy ranks right up there with the first two Star Wars films for me.

      Tilt: up.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Movie Review: "Willow" by David Pretty

There are so many parallels between Willow and Star Wars that I'm really surprised that George Lucas didn't sue himself.  After all, if you take away all of the lasers and spaceships, Star Wars is pretty much straight-up fantasy.  It's got magic swords, duels, guys in armor, farmboys, wizards, impish sages, princesses and pirates.

Which is why Willow suffers in comparison.  Lucas employs the exact same character archetypes and even some of the same story beats.  But whereas Star Wars was a sincere and unpretentious creation, Willow often feels like a cynical, contrived and deliberately manufactured construct.

Keep your cliche checklist handy as you watch the following trailer...

Warwick Davis plays Willow Ufgood, a Nelwyn, which is essentially a Hobbit with the serial numbers filed off.  He lives in an idyllic village with his wife Kaiya (Julie Peters) and their two "bobbins" (read: ludicrously cute snots) Ranon (Mark Vande Brake) and Mims (Dawn Downing).  Although Willow tries his best to keep his family afloat as a farmer, his one true wish is for The High Aldwin (Billy Barty) to pick him as an apprentice and thus become a great and powerful sorcerer.      

Fate, as you might imagine, is want to intervene.  Willow's kids pluck a Daikini (I.E. human) baby out of the nearby river, Moses-style.  As it turns out, the child has been prophesied to bring about an end to the reign of the evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh).  Before little Elora Danon (Kate and Ruth Greenfield) can be executed, a rogue handmaiden carries her off through one credit sequence and three distinct seasons.  Just as Bavmorda's Death Hounds catch up to her, the handmaiden manages to send the kid downriver in a convenient naturally-occurring floating manger.

With blowhard rival Burglekutt (Mark Northover), pal Meegosh (David J. Steinberg) and stout warrior Vohnkar (Phil Fondacaro) in tow, Willow is tasked to bring the now-orphaned child to the Daikini crossroads and give it to the first human they see.  Unfortunately this turns out to be prisoner, rogue, and Han solo wannabe Madmartigan (Val Kilmer).

Even after the scoundrel is released, the duo run afoul of Bavmorda's gofer / daughter Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) and her attack dog General Kael (Pat Roach).  Throw in a few Random Encounters with  Cherlindrea the Fairy Queen (Maria Holvöe), a couple of annoying Brownies (Kevin Pollak and Rick Overton) and a possum-cloaked sorceress named Fin Raziel (Patricia Hayes) and Willow is soon swept up in the battle against Bavmorda.

Let's inventory the good stuff first, shall we?  Willow represents one of the last CGI-lite, big-budgeted fantasy films.  Except for Fin Raziel's still-impressive-looking talking animal/transmogrification shtick, most of the special effects here are gloriously practical.  A lot of the sets are also fantastic.  I'm still impressed by Bavmorda's inner sanctum, the cursed castle of Tir Asleen and the Nelwyn village, which resembles a height-deprived Men Without Hats video.

With glorious exteriors shot in New Zealand and Wales there's also a host of incredible scenery on display.  The stark ruin of the abandoned lakeside village and the gibbet-adorned crossroads are nicely contrasted with some spectacular waterfalls, a mountaintop encampment and the Nelwyn valley.  I wonder how cold and antiseptic-looking the movie would have been if Lucas had waited to make the film at the same comfort level as the Star Wars prequels: sitting on a chair behind a wall of monitors with a Starbuck's coffee cup in his hand?

Mercifully, Willow was lensed w-a-a-a-a-a-a-y back in 1987, when film-makers were still forced to make movies outdoors in the real world.  Assigned the unpleasant task of shooting on location and dealing with flesh and blood actors was l'il Opie Cunningham, I.E. Ron Howard.  Even though the wrong-headed influence of THE FLANNELED ONE still hovers over Willow like a saccharine cloud, Howard manages to wring a fair amount of good stuff out of the hackneyed script.

First off, he gets an excellent performance out of Warwick Davis as Willow, who is, for all intents and purposes, the movie's Luke Skywalker.  Davis is earnest, passionate and incredibly resolute and his chemistry with on-screen wife Julie Peters is clearly evident.  Whenever Willow separates and re-unites with his family I threaten to degenerate into a weepy little bitch.  James Horner's incredibly evocative score certainly doesn't help stave off the encroaching waterworks.

In one particularly heart-rending scene, a host of Nockmaar soldiers twice Willow's size try to take Elora away from him.  Even though our diminutive hero fights bravely, he's eventually overwhelmed and the child is captured.  When he stumbles out of the tower with an angry-looking head wound and mutters "there were too many of them" before collapsing in a heap, it gets me every time.

Anther amazing performance comes from Jean Marsh as Bavmorda.  Even though the evil queen is clearly a Palpatine understudy, Marsh manages to invest this one-dimensionally villainous role with a tremendous sense of degenerate menace.  Props to the costume department for dressing her up in mummy-like bandages since it really helps to convey a sense of decrepit evil.  I just wish that Lucas's script gave Bavmorda a more interesting reason to be evil other then boring ol' self-preservation.

Howard's reasonably tight direction extends to many of the action sequences.  The chaotic humor apparent in the Tir Asleen battle serves to warm the audience up for a much darker final confrontation at Castle Nockmaar.  I'm also pretty impressed that the fight coordinators gave enough of a shit to come up with a unique "bait n' switch" two-weapon fighting style for Madmartigan.

The cart chase scene reminds me of a medieval Indiana Jones set-piece.  Man, I really wish that more of these lo-fi techniques and real-world peril had been injected into Crystal Skull.  Once again, James Horner's rousing score is there to heighten the effect.  I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the final wizards duel between Fin Raziel and Bavmorda.  It's a consistently fun, surprising and gloriously surreal sequence.

There are also some very noteworthy designs to point out.  Although General Kael is nothing but a thinly-veiled Vader clone, his armor and "Death's Head" mask are incredibly bad-ass.  I'm also a big fan of the pulpy and Lovecraftian dragon that Madmartigan is forced to tangle with.  Both creations are so fantastic that I'm willing to overlook the fact that Lucas petulantly named Kael after film critic Pauline Kael and the two-headed wyrm (the "Eborsisk") after Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.  Only hack Godzilla scribes Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich have since stooped to such puerility.

These design innovations certainly don't extend to the Trolls who look like hobos dressed up in cheap monkey suits.  Also there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the armor worn by the Nockmaar troops.  A lot of what they're outfitted with looks like loose props cobbled together from other movies.  The Galladoorn soldiers fare even worse, often resembling rejects from a LARP convention.  I guess before Lord of the Rings came along, production designers really didn't give a shit about what the extras were wearing.      

The same haphazard attention to detail is brought to the film's schizophrenic mood, presaging the awful Star Wars prequels.  Burglekutt gets baby vomit and bird's shit in his eye while Madmartigan steps in troll poop, revealing Lucas's growing obsession with low-brow bodily humor.  All of this is juxtaposed with scenes of rotting corpses, guards being used as chew-toys, women getting mauled by wild dogs, slit throats, platoons of men being fricasseed by boiling oil and rampant impalings.  Seriously, is this movie supposed to be for kids or adults?  Oh, right, the marketing gods dictate that it's supposed to be  everything to everyone.  

Want more examples of how tonally fucked up this movie is?  The persistently annoying Brownies crack infantile one-liners and engage in constant pratfalls like a pair of Francophone Ewoks.  Ron Howard also gives Elora more coverage then the fucking star of the movie.  I can only assume that all of these close-ups and reactions shots of the baby are designed to get the audience to coo and giggle like trained monkeys.  But as I watched the finale, I couldn't help but wonder if anyone's had the decency to follow up with the babies that played Elora to find out if they're plagued with constant nightmares involving cold rain, daggers, hair-cutting, hooded weirdos and bizarre Black Magic incantations.

And I know that Lucas is probably tickled pink for inventing "peck", a dismissive and insulting term that the humans in the movie use to describe the Nelwyns.  Essentially, it's similar to Tolkien using the term "halflings" as a derisive reference to Hobbits.  That's all well and good, but in Willow the use of "peck" is incessant, gratuitous and strangely cruel.  It's darkly funny the first few (hundred) times we hear it but eventually it becomes kinda squirm-inducing.       

Some of the performances are equally scatterbrained.  Although Warwick Davis plays it straight, some of his fellow cast members take a really broad and hammy approach.  The main offender is Val Kilmer who mugs his way shamelessly throughout the film.  Just witness his clownish reaction to the dragon's first appearance, which would be more at home in a Three Stooges routine.  Granted, he doesn't get a lot of help from the film's utilitarian dialogue.  When he's forced to utter: "I hate that woman" in reference to Sorsha (Joanne Whalley), he might as well be holding up a flash card with the word "FORESHADOWING" written on it.

But it's the film's copious cannibalism of Star Wars that really pisses me off.  Sorcha is clearly a repeat of Hoth-era Princess Leia.  Apparently in Lucas's world, women are either benign, old and matronly or cold, emasculating bitches.  I'm willing to wager dollars to donuts that George's messy divorce at the time colored the character of Sorcha in much the same way that his bad karma bled into Temple of Doom.  Even though Joanne Whalley does a decent job playing cranky, she's barely convincing as an ass-kicker.

Evidence of Grand Theft Star Wars abounds.  Wipes are chronically employed as transitions.  Castle Nockmaar is inexplicably autonomous and self-contained like the Death Star.   Luke...er...Willow...meets Yoda...ah...Fin Raziel on Dago...er...her swampy, fog-shrouded island.  In an almost refreshing switcheroo, Kael gets dumped like the Emperor and Bavmorda get sparked up like Vader.  And when Lucas isn't thieving from himself he's stealing from other sources.  How can you not think of Glinda the Good Witch while Cherlindrea is giving her speech?

The movie also suffers from some horrendous lapses in logic and believability.  Even though Willow deserves some reprieve because it's a fantasy, the arbitrary things that happen in the script are symptomatic of pure laziness.  For example, after Bavmorda turns all of the Galladoorn soldiers into (P)Orcs, Fin Raziel manages to transform all of them back again, apparently one-by-one.  The re-constituted army then has enough time to dig a bunch of massive underground pits big enough to conceal an entire army and their mounts in without being detected and before Bavmorda's extended dance mix ritual ends.

Honestly, even after all of my bitching and complaining, I still have a soft spot for Willow.  I have a really hard time reconciling my emotional predisposition to certain scenes with how monumentally stupid the film is overall.  I guess it goes to show that I'm just as prone to cheap emotional manipulation as anyone else.  'Cuz, let me tell ya, when Willow returns to his village as a triumphant hero at the end of the film and re-unites with Kaiya and the "bobbins" it all somehow works for me.

Now, excuse me, I seem to have something in both of my eyes...

    Tilt: up.