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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
When Carey Mulligan getting naked isn't the highpoint of your motion
picture, you've really accomplished something. When your movie includes
multiple full-frontal shots of Michael Fassbender's Magneto-dong and
that isn't the lasting image left in your mind, you've made something
pretty remarkable. And when you can fill up your film with long,
single-camera shots of actors neither saying nor doing a whole lot and
I'm not left squirming in my seat, you are an adept storyteller. The
subject matter and style of Shame isn't for just anyone but anything
this good will be enjoyed by a lot of people who wouldn't expect to.
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a good looking guy in the big city working an undefined job at and undefined company. What is starkly defined is Brandon's sex addiction. From porn to masturbation to prostitutes to banging complete strangers and a whole lot more, Brandon's entire existence seems to revolve around doing things to, for and with his penis. That includes his relationship with his estranged sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) who forces her way into his life despite Brandon's every effort to ignore her. When he catches her naked in his shower and neither Brandon averts his eyes nor Sissy tries to cover herself, you know there's a damaged history with these two.
That's not what Shame is about, though. It's not about a lot in most conventional senses. In lieu of a plot, director/co-writer Steve McQueen slowly peels the apple of Brandon's sexual compulsions until he's revealed to be an addict no different than most. Whatever pleasure sex used to give Brandon, he now needs greater and greater sexual extremes simply not to feel bad. His addiction consumes more and more of his life while losing any power to distract Brandon from his crushing misery.
McQueen's filmmaking here is quite noteworthy. He doesn't tell us anything about Brandon. McQueen lets the audience discover it all for ourselves by showing us Brandon's actions, his inactions and the environment he's created for himself. Let me give you an example. After finding his sister nude in the shower, Sissy enters the kitchen the next morning to find Brandon making breakfast and her wearing nothing but a virtually see-thru t-shirt. When you watch them have "normal" brother-sister interactions with Sissy's nipple clearly visible, you realize the shower thing wasn't some bizarre event. A lack of sexual boundaries is fundamental to them and their relationship. Shame isn't shot like a stage play but with a largely static camera and very few, if any, cuts during its scenes, Shame is closer to a book than a movie in certain ways. It doesn't feel like McQueen is telling you a story. It's more like you're observing and deciphering things happening in front of you. His technique here is a reminder that fast edits and visual tricks can distance you from the emotional and intellectual heart of a film.
Fassbender and Mulligan are great, with Mulligan perhaps shining a bit brighter because Sissy is able to express her needs more openly. James Badge Dale does a fine job as well as Brandon's boss, someone who's ineptness as a pickup artist and capacity to live a fully functional life is a wonderful contrast to Brandon's stunted manhood.
Shame is very good. You might start watching it for the sex. You'll keep watching for the humanity.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I would guess there are a lot of people out there who don't appreciate
what a big deal Oliver Stone used to be in cinema. And no, Stone fans,
the guy hasn't been a big deal in any respect for a while now. Well, if
people could watch the last half of Savages, they might gain some
understanding of why Stone's work was once so highly anticipated and
much discussed. Unfortunately, that kind of requires you to watch the
first half of Savages, which is the sort of overwrought and uninspired
filmmaking which is simultaneously so boring and exhausting that
sitting through it is more like an endurance test than entertainment.
There is not one single moment, performance, passage of dialog, plot
twist or visual trick in the first half of Savages that has
originality, surprise, uniqueness, insight or any emotional appeal.
To start with, this film may have the laziest narration I've ever heard in any motion picture I've ever seen. And I don't mean lazy like the half assed job Harrison Ford did with Blade Runner. I mean lazy in that Stone uses it to repeatedly inform the audience about the story they're watching instead of showing it. Not to mention that it includes plenty of eye-rolling phrases like a woman describing a troubled Afghanistan War vet with the line "I have orgasms. He has wargasms". Yeesh.
This tale is about a couple of California pot growers named Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch). Yes. His name is Chon, something I'd bet 98% of viewers don't realize unless they sit through the end credits. I don't mind unusual or distinctive character names but Chon? Was the hospital out of J's the day he was born?
Anyway, Ben and Chon have become quite successful selling their own brand of highly potent marijuana. It's given them a big house and a polyamorous relationship with O (Blake Lively), a poor little girl neglected by her rich mother and multitude of stepfathers. Then a Mexican drug cartel insists or forging a partnership with Ben and Chon and kidnaps O when the boys are reluctant to agree. Our dynamic and quite chronic duo then kidnap the somewhat estranged daughter of the cartel's distaff leader (Salma Hayek) and demand the return of O and the end of the cartel's harassment. There's also a stretch where Ben and Chon attack a cartel drug shipment to get money to pay for O's return and then frame a cartel lawyer as a spy, but none of it matters or makes much sense as anything but an excuse for Stone to try and recapture the visceral and visual thrills that once distinguished his movies. He fails.
None of the preceding stuff in Savages has a whit of heart, charm, style or brains. A bit more than halfway through the flick, though, Stone largely abandons Ben and John to focus on Lado (Benicio Del Toro), a cartel enforcer who's playing every angle on both sides of the law and the border; Dennis (John Travolta), a DEA agent who is delightfully straightforward in his corruption; and Elana's turn toward O as a substitute for her own daughter. Scenes where Lado confronts Dennis about his treachery and where Elana's motherly instinct toward O exists in perfect harmony with her criminal ruthlessness are just marvelous in their style, substance and timing. In a few moments, Travolta will remind you of how truly gifted he is and how he's squandered almost as much of his acting life as Nicholas Cage. Travolta is even able to overcome a scene where Dennis laments to his dying wife about how the world is full of crap and everyone is on the take, the sort of speechifying Stone no longer has the deft touch to pull off as a filmmaker.
Too much of this sounds and feels like Oliver Stone's version of Miami Vice, the TV show and not the Michael Mann film. And not the good episodes of the early years but the stuff from late in its run when some blend of inertia and instant nostalgia was the only thing keeping it on the air. Stone has nothing to say here about drugs, addiction, legalization, relationships, violence, assimilation or any of the other themes the screenplay touches on and then forgets. This is a movie about nothing more than the fact that Oliver Stone still has enough juice to get a movie made in Hollywood. I suppose that's more than most folks can claim at any age or stage of their career. It's a lot less than we used to be able to expect from Stone.
If Savages encourages anyone to check out Stone's earlier and much more ambitious work, I'm happy for that. I don't think that's enough to justify this film's existence.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Sometimes the movie business makes you shake your head and sigh.
Sometimes it just really pisses you off. Watching Solomon Kane was the
latter experience. As a fan of Robert E. Howard's dour, puritan
adventurer, I was quite excited when I heard he was finally making it
to the big screen. I mean
at least it had to be better than Kevin Sorbo
as King Kull, right?
If this had been a good film but an unfaithful adaptation of Howard's work, I could've accept that. If it had hewed closely to the pistol- blasting, sword-wielding, explicitly Christian fanatic that REH created but sucked as a motion picture, I could have lived with that. Writer/director Michael J. Bassett, however, managed to screw this pooch coming and going. Whatever affection for or commitment to the source material he may have had, he let his ego run wild and decided to substitute his vision for REH's. Which would have been bad enough but then that vision turned out to be as hazy as Mr. Magoo's and as shopworn as a 53 year old crack whore.
Let me start by addressing my fellow REH fans. You may be tempted to view this thing in the future. Don't. There is little to nothing of REH to be found here. This is a freakin' prequel, for pete's sake. It is set BEFORE any of the Kane stories or poems and purports to explain how Kane became the icy crusader against evil that you and I enjoyed reading about. Now, you may be thinking that means Solomon Kane is like a feature- length version of the origin story from the Schwarzenegger Conan flick. It isn't. This thing gives us a Solomon Kane who is a greedy, self- centered and somewhat cowardly bastard and is transformed by experiences into a steely, unflinching slayer of villains and monsters of all sorts. Imagine if Conan had started out as some effete, Hyborean Age accountant and turned into a barbarian thief and warrior. Who wants to see that? Bassett then compounds his arrogant error of thinking anyone would be interested in him de-and then reconstructing the creation of a writer a thousand times better than he with filmmaking skill on the level of a basset hound. Let's start with the most elementary of his mistakes. He introduces Kane as a murderer obsessed with treasurer who is told by a demon that his actions have damned him to Hell, causing Kane to flee to a monastery and be even more obsessed with saving his own soul, to the point that he begs like a little bitch when the head of the order throws him out. I don't recall Kane doing anything all that heroic for almost the first half of the film, and even then he only kills a bunch of bad guys AFTER they've slaughtered most of the Puritan family who took him in and kidnapped the family's daughter. Kane then gallops around killing possessed raiders, with no apparent plan of how this would lead him to the missing girl, and falls into alcoholic despair when told the girl has been killed. It's only when he learns she's alive that Kane rouses himself and confronts those responsible. That turns out to be Leatherface, who has somehow traveled back in time like Army of Darkness to the early 1600's in England, and this other dude who looks like he's been lifted entirely out of a REH Conan story because pre-history Cimmeria and Jolly Old England are interchangeable to a "writer" like Bassett. After defeating them and a CGI fire-demon that appears to have a slow wifi connection, Kane sets out as a redeemed soul ready for the stories REH came up with.
Oh, and there's also this bit about an old friend of Kane who helps rally the people against Leatherface and the Conan sorcerer. Except he's introduced with about a half-hour to go in the movie, despite the movie starting out in Kane's past during roughly the same time this doofus was supposed to know him. Why not have the guy appear in those scenes and then return later in the story? Because if this guy hung out with Kane when he was a greedy, murdering bastard, that would make him a greedy, murdering bastard too, wouldn't it? Bassett somehow realized that would be problematic for a minor supporting character, but not that it was an even bigger problem for his main character. Forest. Trees. You know the rest.
And this thing also has several flashbacks to Kane's childhood and we find out that the evildoers he's facing now are connected to what happened in those flashbacks. I guess because being horrible and vicious killers who pillage the countryside and massacre scores of innocents isn't bad enough. They have to have a backstory with the hero, as though that's going to be what finally gets the audience's attention.
This is a prequel for a character that, sadly, few people have ever heard of. It takes nearly half its runtime to get that character into his classic outfit. Then by its end, he's abandoned that look and is garbed like some generic D'Artagnan-wannabe.
On the plus side, the sword fights are okay.
If you see this on a nearby screen, look away and go find the original stories by REH. You'll be glad you did.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
For a legendary comedy, MASH isn't that funny. It's mostly mean, petty,
arrogant and self-righteous.
As anyone familiar with the TV show spawned by this film knows, MASH is the story of 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War. It primarily follows the exploits of surgeons Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Trapper John (Elliot Gould) as they joke their way through bloody surgery and dealing with Army bureaucracy. There's really not much of a plot to the film. It's just the characters moving from one situation to the next, mostly becoming more absurd as they go along.
There aren't that much more than a handful of real jokes in the movie and most of them are the simplest sort of slapstick. Almost all of the alleged humor of MASH comes out of the characters' irreverent attitude toward each and every thing around them. But being irreverent isn't always the same as being funny. Sometimes being irreverent is just being a jackass and in the case of MASH, sometimes it's just being a cruel child lashing out at anyone different than you.
My problem with this movie started with the scene where Hawkeye and his fellow newly arrived doctor, Duke (Tom Skerrit), encounter Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall). As they enter their tent, they find Frank trying to teach a young Korean boy how to read, and he's using the Bible to do it. Hawkeye and Duke find this to be odd and somewhat offensive behavior and give the boy a girlie magazine to look at instead. Later on, Frank prays for the safety of U.S. soldiers in the field, their commanders on the ground and their Commander-In-Chief and again, Hawkeye and Duke find this behavior objectionable and openly mock and deride Frank for praying. And it's very clear that the movie wants us to agree that Frank's actions are strange, bad and laughable. But the movie never bothers to explain why.
Trying to teach a Korean kid to read English is a noble thing, especially because the movie never implies that the kid has any real education to speak of and in contrast to the way the movie's "heroes" treat him as nothing more than a servant. Praying for the well being of others should be about the most unobjectionable thing anyone can do, yet MASH implies it shouldn't be tolerated in polite company. Frank Burns is constantly treated like a terrible person, but Duvall's Frank isn't the complete weasel that Larry Linvile portrayed on TV. The only sin Duvall's Frank ever commits is being a little uptight. He never does anything any normal person would consider that bad, yet because he doesn't think and act the way Hawkeye and Trapper John do he's subjected to cruel torments and physical violence.
It's even worse for Major Margaret O'Houlihan (Sally Kellerman). Again, her only real offense is being a little uptight. But she's repeatedly subjected to the most vicious sorts of humiliations and unlike Frank, who at least gets to strike back at his tormentors, "Hot Lips" laps up the abuse like a whipped dog and later in the film grinningly pals around with the very people who treated her like the lowest form of garbage.
I can only imagine that MASH was supposed to reflect the cultural attitudes of the day. Audiences were supposed to identify with Hawkeye and the gang as "us" and laugh uproariously as they heaped abuse on "them". But if the narcissistic, crude, intolerant, vindictive, sadistic and awful thinking and attitudes embodied by this film really did represent the true face of the late1960s/early 1970s no one should be surprised that there are so many people who deeply despise that era and everything it stood for.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The Wolverine is one of the better made super-hero flicks of its era.
Screenwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank have come up with a story
that's better than Spider-Man 1 or 3, Iron Man 2 or 3, either Hulk
movie and both Captain America and Thor combined. Director James
Mangold also does fine work, though many of the action scenes suffer
from the modern blight of camera movement that's so frenetic you can
barely tell who is hitting whom. The special effects are solid and even
the soundtrack is well done. And the cast, highlighted by the
tremendous Hugh Jackman, is as appealing as you'll find. There's almost
every ingredient here you need to make a great motion picture. The one
thing missing, however, is so important that it negates almost
Wolverine is not a great character. Yes, I know. He's the most popular comic book creation of the last 40 years and has joined, if not surpassed, Batman, Superman and Spider-Man in the hearts of super-hero fans. That's still doesn't change the fact that he's not a great character. Or to be more accurate, that's he's only a great character in the limited role for which he was originally conceived. Wolverine was created to be a one-off opponent for the Hulk and then was hauled out of mothballs to join a revamped X-Men roster and as a rebel anti-hero in opposition to or operating alongside more traditional heroic types, Logan is a whole lot of fun. On his own as the emotional and narrative heart of a story, he's a whole lot of one-note nothing.
Wolverine is nothing more than adolescent badassery given form. He has none of the natural depth of Peter Parker or Bruce Wayne. Those characters are enmeshed with bigger concepts like responsibility, guilt, compulsion and myriad other things. Wolverine is about nothing more than looking, talking and acting "cool" and every attempt to graft more onto him ultimately fails. This film ambitiously tries to build off both Logan's sense of loss from killing Jean Grey in X-Men: The Last Stand and his weariness over decades of battle-torn existence to give him some pathos, then strips him of his healing factor to try and make him slightly vulnerable. But adolescent badassery and vulnerability never mix and by the end of the movie, Logan is back to getting skewered through the chest by a katana and shrugging it off like it was a splinter. The super power that originally meant he could recover from a non-fatal gunshot in a day has metastasized into every boy's fantasy of never being hurt by anything.
And if you think I'm wrong, ask yourself this. What are the best Wolverine moments on the big screen. They're all from the first two X-flicks, aren't they? Moments when he may have been the star but shared the screen and story with others. Or why did they need to go back to a 4 issue limited series from 30 years ago for the guts of this motion picture? No one wrote a Wolvie story-arc in the last 20 years that was good enough for the job?
In many respects, this movie helps to solidify the standard of quality by which the whole genre should be judged. It really is that good in so many ways. But just because a comic book character is popular, that doesn't mean he or she can carry an entire film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The greatness of Guillermo del Toro as a filmmaker is his ability to
tap into the pure imagination of childhood. The failing of del Toro as
a storyteller is that he's not grown up enough to discipline that
imagination. He embraces fantastic ideas and marvelous imagery but,
left to his own devices, his films falter on simplistic and
underdeveloped characters, boring and meandering plots, clichés piled
on top of clichés and an unwillingness to get everything to make sense.
Like a child, del Toro doesn't notice if he's being repetitive or
nonsensical or erratic or if his story isn't going anywhere.
Pacific Rim is probably the best looking giant robot vs. giant monster movie ever made. The special effects and fight scenes are remarkable to watch. Outside of those scenes, this film isn't any better and might be a bit worse than the average man-in-suit Godzilla flick from Toho. Frankly, the prologue where del Toro world-builds the setting of this motion picture is more interesting and more dramatically compelling than everything that follows.
After years of Mankind using giant robots to kill giant monsters coming out of a dimensional rift on the ocean floor, a fallen hero is resurrected to help in a final attempt to end the war. A bunch of stockier-than-stock characters are introduced. There's a tired subplot with one of the guys from It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Big battles ensue. The good guys win. Granted, most folks are looking for stuff like Pacific Rim to be a combination of Mamet, Shakespeare and Steinbeck, but there's not a moment of alleged drama or comedy here you haven't seen many, many, many times before.
But del Toro can't even manage his clichés right. He spectacularly introduces his main hero, played by Charlie Hunnam, and sets up the character's personal challenge. Then del Toro relegates his hero to bystander while he elevates a series of secondary characters to the fore. That might have been bold if their stories were at all entertaining or original. Those secondary character arcs, however, are arbitrarily manufactured, introduced and mostly left unresolved. This could have been Hunnam's big shot at movie stardom. Instead, you'll barely remember he was in the movie.
By the standards of summer blockbusters, Pacific Rim is unexceptional but okay. Maybe if it bombs, folks will stop letting del Toro run wild and force him to marry his amazing vision to some cold, hard, practical thought.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Writer/director Sarah Polley makes things perfectly clear from the very
beginning of Take This Waltz. As Michelle Williams and her feet shift
in and out of focus while making blueberry muffins during the opening
credits, I felt like Polley was speaking directly to me. She was saying
"I have no interest in entertaining you. I made a film that satisfies
my creative vision and if you enjoy it, great. If not, suck it".
I liked Polley's take on how the desire of the moment transforms into the reality of the rest of your life. Williams and Sarah Silverman get gratuitously naked, which is always welcome. Seth Rogan also demonstrates that he could be a pretty good dramatic actor if he worked at it. Everything else about this movie left me sucking it.
Margot (Williams) and Lou (Rogan) are a young married couple who are very much in love, but Lou no longer fulfills Margot's yearnings for passion and won't give her a child as compensation. Enter Daniel (Luke Kirby), a young artist/rickshaw driver who Margot meets and flirts with on a plane and then turns out to live right across the street. As Margot and Daniel slowly dance the dance of seduction around each other, the seams of Margot and Lou's marriage even more slowly split apart. Margot eventually leaves her husband and, in what is absolutely the best part of the story, we see that her "happily ever after" winds her up in exactly the same place she was before.
The montage where Polley shows us how the burning lust of soulmates turns inevitably into tedious domesticity is some great filmmaking. That sequence alone justifies her as an artist. Another montage where Rogan goes through 6 months of post-breakup emotions in one morning, however, shows that Polley has a long way to go as a craftsman. Take This Waltz is too long, too scattered and contains too much stuff that doesn't connect.
Take the Rogan montage, which could double as his screen test for any dramatic role for which he might ever audition. Rogan does a nice job handling the acting up to that scene, but the limits of his skill show through in the montage. What is obviously supposed to be a defining moment in the film falls flat and what makes it worse is that the montage is superfluous. There's no need to feature the character of Lou so prominently. This is overwhelmingly Margot's story. No other character really gets that kind of showcase moment against Lou and he already has a smaller bit that does everything necessary to tug on the audience's heart strings. The montage doesn't pay off anything we've seen of Lou leading up to it. It doesn't lead to any plot or character moments after it. It's isolated and arbitrary and may very well have been inserted into the script for the sole purpose of enticing a star like Rogan to take an otherwise meager part.
Another isolated and arbitrary scene is where Williams, Silverman and other women of various ages and shapes are showering together in a locker room. They're completely naked and there's nothing comedic or titillating about any of it. Polley is clearly trying to make some kind of statement about women's body types and the exploitation of female nudity in cinema. That statement has nothing whatsoever to do with anything else in Take This Waltz. The dialog from the scene could have been spoken in any other setting and neither female body issues nor meta-textual commentary of film are even vaguely alluded to in the rest of the motion picture.
And while Polley does a good job at making Margot and Lou into reasonably believable human beings, Daniel is a construct. He has no thoughts, emotions or existence beyond serving the plot. Additionally, there's a subplot about Silverman's character being an alcoholic where Polley doesn't appear to understand the difference between being a drunk and having a mental illness, like bipolar disorder. Either that or alcoholism is simply illegal in Canada.
Take This Waltz isn't a disaster. It did need someone to step in and persuade Polley to make it as a 40 minute long film festival entry. That didn't happen so I'd advise all but the most devoted lover of art house flicks to wait for the next dance.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I can't characterize Rec 3: Genesis any better than by quoting The Dark
Knight. "In this world, you either die a hero or live long enough to
see yourself become the villain". The original Rec was an outstanding
piece of filmmaking and downright scary. The sequel, while not as
striking, was an exciting and entertaining expansion on its
predecessor. Rec 3 is not only garden variety crap, there's nothing in
this movie to make you think the folks behind it had any intent of
churning out anything more than that. Rec 1 and 2 were the sort of
thing to which all cinema should aspire. They were smart, skillful and
engaging. Rec 3 is far too much of what passes for cinema today. It's
dumb, hackneyed and soulless.
Supposedly set in the same time frame as the first two films, though it could have been long before or long after for all the difference it would have made, this one sees an outbreak of Satanic Rabies during a wedding. The infection spreads, people get chomped and the always intrepid bride and groom (Leticia Dolera and Diego Martin) struggle to make it out alive. That's basically it for plot, which only illustrates how bad this thing is compared to 1 and 2. Those films took place in a well-defined environment which presented clear and believable challenges to their characters, facilitating logical and compelling stories. In this one, there's a bunch of drones in an amorphous setting and some bad stuff happens. The end.
The only halfway decent things about this flick are Leticia Dolera as the bride and Ismael Martinez as the groom's best friend. Dolera is quite attractive and conveys a real likability, even when the movie descends into virtual self-parody and turns the bride into a knockoff of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Martinez play a guy who appears to have been imported into this motion picture from the Spanish version of Swingers and gives and enjoyably different reaction to his horrific circumstances. I wouldn't say the rest of the cast do poor jobs but they're playing roles we've all seen time and time again.
There's one part that best encapsulates the quality and quantity of suckage in Rec 3: Genesis. This thing begins with the "found footage" approach with hand-held camera shots, then introduces a wedding videographer with a stedicam. When that happened, I anticipated something interesting that mixed the hand-held and stedicam shots. There's a bunch of contrasts and comparisons and other dramatic effects to be mined from such a combination. Instead, they ditch the "found footage" approach as soon as the Satantic Rabies shows up and switch to just being a normal movie.
That splendidly represents what's wrong with Rec 3 because it's obvious these filmmakers didn't give a single thought to what they were doing or why. They just began with "found footage" because that's was they thought Rec films should look like, didn't give a crap about what the style means or how to make use of it, then abandoned it to make something that looks and sounds just like another horror flick. Something that tried to take "found footage" in a new direction would have been admirable, even if it utterly failed. Rec 3 is just more of the same old schlock.
Oh, and instead of the rabid and rapid beasts of Rec 1 and 2, the infected here behave like Romero zombies most of the time. Why? Because that's how they need to behave so these filmmakers can tell their stupid story in the stupid way they want. It's almost like this thing was made by someone who never even saw the first two, just read the reviews and thought they were normal zombie pictures.
Rec 3: Genesis isn't merely bad. It's the kind of insultingly awful that taints the great stuff that came before it. Rec fans should definitely give this a pass.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
One of the worst things about modern, or postmodern, culture is the
division between art and entertainment. Put simply, art is not expected
to be entertaining and entertainment is not expected to be artistic.
That's how we wind up with so many carefully crafted art house flicks
that bore the pants off the general public and big budget blockbusters
whose storytelling ranges from sub-mediocre to downright atrocious.
There may be no better illustration of that than to compare this Conan
movie to its Schwarzengger-starring predecessor. That film aspired to
genuine artistic merit, which led it to become perhaps the greatest
sword-n-sorcery epic of all time. This one aims no higher than basic
competence and though it meets that mark, such a lack of ambition
ultimately leaves the viewer unsatisfied.
A cinematic reboot of Robert E. Howard's greatest creation, this motion picture echoes the first in that it's all about Conan's quest to slay those who massacred his village when he was a child. In this one, Khalar Zyn (Stephen Lange) kills everyone in order to claim the final piece of a magical mask that he needs to revive his slain wife and, somehow, resurrect an ancient empire of evil. Conan survives the attack and grows up to be Jason Momoa, who crosses paths with Zym again 20 years later and must prevent him from ritually sacrificing a woman (Rachel Nichols) and completing the final part of his obviously long-delayed plan.
There are only a few things wrong with this movie. Both the beginning and end are way, way, waaaaaay too long. I mean, you're a half hour in before grown up Conan appears and the final battle against Zym is a meandering mess that goes at least 10 minutes longer than it should. There's also far too much time spent on Zym. He's essentially an equal to Conan as a main character on screen. It's one thing to do that when you're dealing with the Joker as played by Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger. Generic bad guy portrayed by veteran character actors should not be elevated to that status.
The rest is no worse and maybe a bit better than most sword-n-sorcery flicks, though Rose McGowan's hammy performance is a bit of an acquired taste. The problem is that these filmmakers had not intention or desire to try and make a great movie. They just wanted to come up with something good enough to score at the box office. The plot is okay. The music is okay. The cinematography is okay. The costumes are okay. The set design is okay. The action scenes are okay. There are no chances taken. There's no striving for the exceptional. It's nothing more than yet another genre film.
Such thinking didn't exist with the original. Though the subject matter may have been adolescent or melodramatic, the filmmaking and storytelling was still expected to try and be as good as anything else on screen. The writing needed to be sharp, subtle and memorable. The visuals had to stand up, in technique and style, to what the audience might see in more high class fair. And the music...goodness! The soundtrack of the original Conan the Barbarian is one of the greatest in Hollywood history.
I can give this film a bit of a break because it's traversing well-worn ground that was still somewhat fresh and new when Schwarzenegger donned loin cloth and blade. That doesn't obscure the truth that the best thing about it is how well the comparison of the two serves as a primer on the superiority of the filmmaking of previous generations.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I thought JJ Abrams' initial reboot of the franchise was fresh,
exciting and not really much of a Star Trek movie. Into Darkness is
still moderately exciting and slightly more Trekish, though more of the
DS9 and Voyager variety than either Classic or Next Gen, but the
freshness of Abrams' take expires long before this film is over. The
story swaps out stunning scientific illiteracy for a senselessly
elaborate plot that feels more like an overstuffed episode of Alias.
The interior of the new Enterprise continues to make less sense than
the TARDIS. And while the rest of the cast comes a bit closer to
matching Karl Urban's great imitation of DeForest Kelley, the fact
remains that the only reason any cares about Kirk is William Shatner,
the only reason anyone cares about Spock is Leonard Nimoy and the only
reason anyone cares about this motion picture is Gene Roddenberry.
Into Darkness stays true to the fanfic alt-history approach of Abrams and mashes up the first re-appearances of both Khan and the Klingons with a "lessons of 9/11" message that would have been bold 10 years ago but is now positively moldy, especially given that it follows the similarly "lessons of 9/11" themed Iron Man 3. There's a whole lot of running around, some decent action and comedy bits and Alice Eve joins the cast, which is good enough to raise anything at least one star on the ratings scale.
Remember when fans of the John Carter movie got all defensive over how badly it bombed at the box office? I remember because I was one of those fans and Star Trek: Into Darkness is a great example of why we tried to make so many excuses. This film isn't substantially better than John Carter. It inarguably isn't so much better that is deserves to make a couple hundred million dollars more in ticket sales. The power of the Trek brand, however, will get people into the theater and Abrams provides an adequate diversion for a couple of hours. If Disney hadn't almost entirely abandoned John Carter to the whims of fate, a sequel to that might have been just as unavoidable as this one.
There are a host of "Wait...what?" moments in this movie. Let me focus on just two of them. Wrath of Khan brilliantly handled the problem of how to credibly defeat an enemy who is smarter than you through the insight that intelligence is not the same as knowledge or wisdom. Classic Kirk and Spock whupped Khan's butt by taking advantage of his inexperience and emotional immaturity. Muppet Babies Spock is victorious because Muppet Babies Khan is an idiot who falls for a pretty obvious trick. And during Into Darkness' most notorious echoing of Star Trek II, can anyone explain what lesson is being learned and who is learning it? I don't think we need to get into the films' respective "KHAAAAAAN" screams and how Wrath's made perfect dramatic sense while Abrams' version is melodramatic tripe.
I am surely being too critical of this thing. Judged on the awesomely low standards of summer blockbusters, it's definitely above average. I'd just like to know when this rebooted franchise is going to offer something more than Roddenberry's reheated leftovers.
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