Friday, August 19, 2011

Invariably Laughable: Conan the Barbarian

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

As someone who seems to be missing the part of the brain that gets any kind of entertainment out of movies featuring sorcerers, ancient lands, and men fighting with swords, I probably shouldn't be reviewing a movie like "Conan the Barbarian." Especially because I really couldn't tell a "good" fantasy epic from a "bad" one, since ultimately they all come off as profoundly stupid to me. (Except for the "Lord of the Rings" movies. That's the kind of mystical movie magic that was able to work its charms on me.)

I know I've seen parts of the 1982 Schwarzenegger version of "Conan," as it always seemed to be on cable television when I was growing up, but even then I knew that particular brand of movie wasn't for me, so I can't really compare the two films. But I can compare the naked chests of the actors playing the titular role, and have to say, Arnold's is far more impressive than Jason Momoa's. I bring this up because about half-way through the movie, as I was growing increasingly bored, I figured I could just concentrate on those pecs to keep myself entertained. Didn't work.

The movie opens with Morgan Freeman, AKA the go-to-voice-of-God, explaining that what we are about to witness is set in a time that never happened, in lands that never existed. Conan is born on the battlefield, and by "born," I mean his mother is stabbed in the gut with a sword during a fight, (an act we get to witness in vitro, perhaps the movie's best moment), and is subsequently ripped from her stomach by his father, (Ron Perlman), who then raises him to the heavens with a mighty roar, natch.

A young and barbaric Conan later witnesses the death of his father, and grows up pec-ish, and full of rage, on a quest to kill Khalar (Stephen Lang), the warlord responsible for his father's death. Khalar, meanwhile, is on a quest of his own, to find a woman of "pure blood," to help unleash the power of a magic mask made of bones. At Khalar's side is his gothy daughter, Marique (Rose McGowan), a witch with a receding hairline, finger blades, and wedge boots.

Once Tamara, (Rachel Nichols), the woman of "pure blood" is found (and pure blood just means something about lineage, not virginity, as I was convinced for half the movie), it is up to Conan to protect her, boss her around, and eventually bed her. After all, his self-professed mantra is, "I live; I love; I slay. I am content."

There is little dialogue in the movie--perhaps the better to sell the film overseas with--but what is there is invariably laughable, although not really funny enough to sustain the movie on a camp level. But if it's bloody sword fights you're after, then "Conan" gets the job done there; I never knew blood could spurt in such a variety of ways!

Of course, those blood spurts are presented in 3D, as everything seems to be these days, but the effect isn't utilized much, and instead it's one of those movies where the 3D effects are about depth, and not things flying at your face. Which is to say: A waste.

I came away from the movie thinking it was terrible, and not worth seeing by anyone, but again, I am not entirely sure what fans of this genre would be satisfied with! I DO know that the life of the books' author Robert E. Howard is a fascinating one--he was a weird dude!--and a movie about him, called "The Whole Wide World," which came out in 1996, and stars Vincent D'Onofrio, is definitely worth seeing. Go rent that, and leave "Conan" to the barbarians.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Putting The Fun Back Into Senseless Violence: Final Destination 5

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Director Fritz Lang once famously said of Cinemascope, "Oh, it wasn't meant for human beings. Just for snakes, and funerals." I have a similar contempt for 3D, and find it an annoying intrusion that is only good for movies about racket-based sports and jugglers. But now I'll have to add one more genre to that list: Movies in which people are killed in a ridiculously baroque fashion.

Given the choice between seeing a movie in a standard screening, or one in which I am forced to wear sunglasses for the duration of an experience that doesn't offer any more depth than your standard lenticular postcard, I'll choose the former. I say, if you're going to go the 3D route, GO THE DISTANCE. Throw shit at my face. Make me duck. Be goofy! In good movies, 3D is merely a distraction, and in bad movies, it is too often just wasted. "Final Destination 5" gets it right: It is a stupid movie that uses 3D to make the experience better.

In fact, the opening credits of "Final Destination 5" are more fun than every single 3D movie I've seen in the past two years combined, (and that includes "Piranha 3D"). Now, if you're not someone who likes horror movies in general, and insanely gory ones in particular, this is not going to change your mind about the genre. But if you, like me, have grown a little tired of recent horror offerings, especially torture porn, then this is the movie for you, because it puts the fun back into senseless violence.

As with all "Final Destination" movies, the plot is the same. A group of good-looking people narrowly avoid death in some kind of catastrophe, are visited by the Candyman a coroner, (Tony Todd), and learn that death doesn't like to be cheated, and will soon be back to get them all.

In this version, the group of people work for a paper company, and are embarking on a work retreat. Sam, (Nicholas D'Agosto), (who, for some inexplicable reason, is also a chef at a French restaurant), has the premonition that saves his life, and the lives of his coworkers. And what a premonition it is. There are more ways to die on a collapsing bridge than merely falling to your death. Many, many more ways. And when those deaths happen, you can be sure guts, blood, and bones will be flying right at your head.

Thus the movie progresses, with grisly and elaborate Rube Goldberg demises galore, and plenty of twists along the way. (If you think that air conditioner dripping water onto that frayed wire is going to end in disaster, you had better think again, my friend.)

I'd say most people have a fear of impalements, and beheadings, or if not a fear, a general notion that these things would be unpleasant experiences. But I think where these films probably succeed best is when dealing with those phobias that not everyone shares, but will hit certain people right where those fears lie, such as in the eye (LASIK surgery!); or with needles (acupuncture!); or, as always, flying (that one's for me!).

I was fully prepared to have a horrible time at "FD 5." The screening was kind of late at night, I was surrounded by a family who were passing popcorn back and forth, with plenty landing on my head, and someone had the brilliant idea to bring a baby to the movie.

But once the deaths started flying, (and the baby and father left the theater), I was laughing, squirming, screaming "OHMYGOD," and trying to cover my eyes, (those 3D glasses sure get in the way of that), with the rest of the howling audience.

"Final Destination 5" offers about as much edification as your standard roller coaster ride, which is to say, none. And that's just the way it should be.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Chimps Don't Use Muni: Rise Of the Planet Of the Apes

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is a prequel and a remake. Kind of. I'm not entirely sure if it's supposed to be a prequel to the original 1968 Charlton Heston version of "Planet of the Apes," or the 2001 Tim Burton remake, mainly because I'm still confused about what the hell happened at the end of that Burton remake. Was it another planet? Did Marky Mark go forward in time? Or was it both?

I suppose it ultimately doesn't matter, as this movie is, above all else, a reboot attempt, so all previous movies should just fade into the mist, like so many gorillas.

In what appears to be, more or less, present-day San Francisco, scientist Will Rodman, (James Franco), is working on a virus that can act as a cure for Alzheimer's. After successful tests on chimps, Rodman and Steven Jacobs, (David Oyelowo), the mogul funding his project, present their findings, only to have the whole thing come crashing down around them when their star chimp, Bright Eyes (heh), goes on a rampage in the lab, ultimately getting shot right in front of all those potential investors. Needless to say, wallets slam shut.

Of course, things are not as it seems with that chimp. Not only was she gaining intelligence, she was also pregnant, had given birth, and hid her baby from everyone in that lab. (Obviously, the lab techs weren't taking any of that smart serum themselves, if they were dumb enough to miss all that.)

Rodman takes home the baby, and raises it like a son, naming him Caesar (heh heh). Caesar is no ordinary chimp, and over the years that pass, demonstrates increased intelligence, learns sign language, and develops a fondness for sweatsuits. Rodman continues to work on the serum on his own, since he has a personal stake in its success: His father, (John Lithgow), has Alzheimer's. And with no lab animals to test on, he uses his father as a guinea pig, with successful results.

Of course, keeping a super chimp in a San Francisco house is a recipe for disaster, and after a run in with the world's most unlucky neighbor, Caesar is sent to a primate sanctuary in San Bruno (LOL).

At this point, the movie becomes a chimps-in-prison story, as that sanctuary is nothing more than San Quentin, if San Quentin were run by the original Hannibal Lecter and Draco Malfoy. And aside from the absolutely atrocious performance by the aforementioned Tom Felton, (apparently he's making a career out of poorly-played villains), this is the funnest part of the film, with primates speaking in sign language to each other--complete with subtitles!--and a requisite prison yard brawl in which a new king of the cell block is crowned.

As with any good prison picture, a prison break is inevitable, and it's here that movie gets utterly ridiculous, (as if a movie about super-intelligent chimps and a scientist played by James Franco wasn't already). You can either go with it, and accept that about 50 primates in the sanctuary can turn into an army of hundreds once they free their zoo-captive kin, and can somehow make it from San Bruno to the Golden Gate Bridge, via downtown San Francisco, in a short amount of time--or not. (Although, since they didn't take Muni, I suppose that's plausible.)

I had a harder time just going with it, mainly because by this point the bad acting and dialogue had just worn me down. I can imagine James Franco being in on the joke, knowing that the movie he was in was totally ludicrous, but I don't think anyone told poor Frieda Pinto, (who plays his love interest, and zoo vet), as she says such lines as "I love chimps...but I fear them too," with utterly no sense of irony.

Caesar the chimp is played by Andy Serkis, who brought Gollum and King Kong to life using the same motion-capture set-up. He's good, (especially when compared to James Franco), but he's not nearly as good as he was as Gollum or King Kong. When I watched the end of "King Kong," I was such an emotional wreck, I had to look away from the movie screen and stare at a wall in an attempt to stop my crying.

In a movie heavily reliant of computer effects, you had better hope you have a director who really knows how to bring out the humanity that is the heart of a motion-captured performance. Peter Jackson is a director who can. But Rupert Wyatt, the director of "Rise," can't, and as a result, I never felt empathy for Caesar, or for any of the other primates in the film, and it's for that reason that the movie ultimately failed for me.

There's fun to be had in it, for sure, but I can only hope that if it spawns a sequel, they don't resort to CG again, and instead return to those original monkey masks and bad hair, because if there's anything that can make us sympathize with an intelligent super-chimp, it's the sight of one with a bad haircut.