Conan the Barbarian – I live, I love, I slay

Title: Conan the Barbarian

Director/Stars: Jason Momoa (Actor), Ron Perlman (Actor), Marcus Nispel (Director)

Genre: Fantasy

Watched: August 24, 2011

Summary: Plot holes galore, but fun!

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The new Conan is surely a guilty pleasure for the fantasy hound like myself. Yeah, the plot and characterization is a little weak, but it is gorgeous, and the action is comprehensible. I have to admit, I enjoyed it. It’s certainly faster paced than the awesome although slightly dated and admittedly cheesy original — my recent review here.

The casting is decent enough. Jason Momoa lacks a bit of the gravitas he had as Drogo in Game of Thrones, perhaps because he speaks English here. He has charisma, and handles the action well, but the American accent really bugged me, and he plays it with a touch of the comedic. Ron Perlman is fun as dad, although he doesn’t mention Crom, but he does talk about the secret of steel — at least indirectly. Stephen Lang has already proven he makes a good one-dimensional bad guy (although he’s no James Earl Jones). There are a bevy of distinctively made up sub-bosses, although none of them are as cool as Rexor and the other headbanger. Rachel Nichols is a little dull as the screaming victim/love interest, although she’s cute enough. But call me twisted, I thought Rose McGowan was hot and funny as nasty sorcerer-girl daughter of big-bad. Yeah her fivehead is CG, but she’s looking great for 38.

And the world looks awesome! The cities and temples (as seen in overhead shots) look totally kick ass. Funny too that they’re all so close together, as it never seems to take anyone more than an hour to ride/walk between locations. I guess the lack of public transit notwithstanding, the Age of Hyboria predates traffic. This is a fairly authentic (to the 1930s source material) Conan world. It has slave girls. Even George R. R. Martin likes slave girls. Said women in bondage are properly absent their tops.

The action scenes are fun and surprisingly clear. They could have edited this to death like a lot of recent movies, but you can make sense of what’s going on in a physical way. I had the good fortune to see it in 2D, without sunglasses.

Someone also did their medieval torture research. The noseless sub-boss employs a genuine torture device in his nameless workcamp. It’s somewhere between The Head Crusher and the Thumbscrew, but it’s real. I went to a torture museum in Volterra Italy, home of Twilight’s most leather-conscious vampire clan, so I’m all up on this stuff. Later in the movie, Tamara spends some quality time bound to a wheel, which is most reminiscent of this, fortunately for her, she’s way too pretty to break and leave for dead. Big-bad even uses a clever homebrew version of the Lead Sprinkler to harass Conan and dad.

But there are a lot of lost opportunities here. The backstory intro is cheesy as hell and not really necessary. Conan has some friends, but we don’t get to see him meet them, nor do they play a really important role in the story. There’s basically no characterization of anyone, but there could have been. Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark manage to characterize and have plenty of action. We don’t really find out much about the world or any people in it, instead it merely serves as pretty backdrop.

 

But did I mention I really liked skanky sorcerer-girl Marique?

However, I do have a few questions:

Who cut infant Conan’s umbilical cord? Why did the big-bad bother with the whole “torture dad” bit when his little witch-daughter could just sniff out the mask piece anyway?  When Conan and friends role a bunch of boulders down at the slavers, how is it that they miss hitting all the slaves? Imagine the coincidence that after 20 years of searching for the “pure blood”, Conan arrives at the temple on the exact day in which the big-bad finds her. If sub-boss Remo is such a badass, why does he run from Conan the moment he sees him? Why does the big-bad travel with a ship carried on the back of twenty elephants? And given said elephants, why does he need a whipping crew of slaves to pull it too? And given all that, how do they get the ship on and off the elephants without a crane? Why after big-bad and daughter fall for the ancient trick of being taunted to kill their informant (the old priest) do they gloat? Why did not much come of sorcerer-girl’s poison? Why don’t we see sorcerer-girl at the hair salon, obviously this is where she spends most of her time? Why does Conan let the girl go wander in the woods after sex, knowing that the bad guy is looking for her? And where did those woods come from anyway, as they were on a rocky coastline? Oh, and when sorcerer-girl leaves a calling claw, how is it that she has all five a minute later? How does Conan manage to ride all the way to the city of thieves and back to big-bad’s hideout in about an hour? Why does the hideout have a little monster fun pool in the basement? How does Conan get out of said hideout? And how does his thieving friend? Why if sorcerer-girl is so badass, does she fall for a little cat-fight action and not pull out some new magic at the end? Why if this mask is so powerful does it not really help the big-bad any? Or even curse him as payback for his big-badness? After winning, why does Conan drop off the girl at home and ride off into the sunset with hardly a word of explanation? Surely he could have brought her home to his ruined hovel or had at least one more literal roll in the hay!

Overall, though, it’s about 1000 times better than the Clash of the Titans remake.

For my review of the original manly man Arnold version, click here.

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Fright Night (2011) – Not a waste of film

Title: Fright Night

Director/Stars: Colin Farrell (Actor), Anton Yelchin (Actor), Imogen Poots (Actor), Craig Gillespie (Director)

Genre: Horror

Watched: August 19, 2011 (and before)

Summary: Fun update!

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As a lifelong vampire fan — hell, my first novel is (somewhat) about vampires — I saw and loved the original Fright Night when it opened in 1985. Truth be told it was always one of my favorite vampire movies (up there with Coppola’s DraculaInterview with the Vampire, Let the Right One In, and The Lost Boys). The 1985 Fright Night offers up a clever blend of comedy and horror. Not only is the movie very funny (and it holds up well today), but it’s not a pure spoof. The plot’s moderately clever, and the vampire, played by Chris Sarandon (Susan’s first husband) has a sinister charm and a genuine sense of menace. In my opinion vampires need a sense of menace (even the goofy Master from Buffy Season 1 is menacing). No sparkles for me.

So it was with some trepidation that I checked out the remake. See the trailer below:

I was pleasantly surprised to find the new version pretty fricking good. The story is loosely faithful to the original film. Buffy writer Marti Noxon penned the screenplay. She’s a consistently excellent writer, with the exception of the incredibly sucky I Am Number Four (maybe someone butchered it after the fact?) with a knack for catchy dialog. Most of the original elements survived intact, but character and balance has been adjusted significantly. Most substantially, Roddy McDowall‘s campy older vampire-killer TV host has been replaced by David Tennant channeling a campy blend of Chris Angel and Russell Brand. But that works.

The casting is top notch. Anton Yelchin is fast talking, self deprecating, and likable as Charlie. Imogen Poots is smoking inferno hot — and 21st century feisty/competent — as Amy. Hers is a career to watch, I wouldn’t be surprised to see her carrying a movie in the next year or two. The rest of the cast is fun too. But it’s Colin Farrell that steals the show with his visceral new take on the ancient killer. Farrell’s Jerry isn’t so slick or romantic as the classical vampire, but he brings a feral intensity to the role which is extraordinarily predatory. Supremely confident, this Jerry starts off the movie as a mere “human” predator, clearly a man not to be trusted with the ladies. But when he senses the kids are on to him, he doesn’t just depend on the defense of disbelief that the original did (although he does have some good fun with this) but goes straight for the jugular — literarily and figuratively. Part white trash, part serial killer, part vampire, he’s all around delicious to watch.

Noxon’s script is full of dark humor and quippy (but not too campy) lines. The story has been rearranged to suit modern tastes. Essentially act 1 has been compressed to almost nothing. Gone is the first third of the movie where the characters (although not the audience) are trying to sort out exactly what they’re dealing with. Instead, we open with vampire, and by scene three (perhaps 4-5 minutes) Charlie’s friend Evil is desperately trying to convince him that the new neighbor Jerry is a vampire. The movie makes no bones about confirming this either. It leaps right into fang games and breaks into a very extended second act filled with big chase and action scenes. This could have ruined the film, but the scenes are slick and intense. The final showdown perhaps felt a little rushed, and there was at least one major story error (the vampires show up in Vegas at exactly the wrong time and place with no explanation of how they knew to be there), but none of this really detracts from the fun and mayhem.

The effects are top notch and don’t get in the way too much. Sure they’re gratuitous, but they’re supposed to be. The editing is more classic, not the frantic mess that’s popular these days. And the cinematography was often quite striking. Certain shots were highly memorable: particularly both fang outs (Jerry and another), the stripper’s final number, and many others.

So vampire fans, go see.

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Save the Cat – To Formula or Not To Formula

I’m always reading books on writing and storytelling. In fact, I read three this week. One of them was Save the Cat by the late Blake Snyder. This post isn’t a review per se of that book, but more some mental ramblings on issues it raised.

First an observation about the nature of “advice” books and the possible career of sceenwriter. Mr. Snyder was (he unfortunately died suddenly recently) a noted screenwriter, having sold over a dozen major spec scripts, at least two for over a million dollars each. He worked on roughly 100 screenplays in some capacity. Yet, only two of these have even been made into movies.

Eeek gads! If this is success as a screenwriter it has to be creatively bankrupt. Unlike novels, screenplays aren’t a medium themselves. In fact, I find them boring as shit. They’re just a weird but essential initial sketch of a film. Now don’t think I consider them unimportant. A production can easily ruin a great script, but it’s exceedingly rare to take a bad one and make a good movie out of it. They’re certainly the single most important element of any film. Great screenwriters add immeasurably to a film. Look at the different between Empire Strikes Back and Phantom Menace. Personally I think it was Lawrence Kasdan or some other writer who was NOT George Lucas.

In any case, having almost none of your creative work see the light of day has to be depressing. I’m also guessing that in recent years Mr. Snyder made more money selling his books/lectures/advice ABOUT writing screenplays than in actually writing the things. Hehe.

Cover of

Cover of Wedding Crashers

But that was what I intended to write about. Save the Cat is essentially a book about making your story (screenplay) correspond fairly rigidly to the classic Hollywood three act structure. It even goes so far as to break (every) film into roughly a dozen beats and assign exact page numbers in which they should occur. For example: “theme stated” (page 5) or “catalyst” (page 12). All of this can be found on his website.

Now there is some real merit to this structure and it’s certainly very useful and entertaining to be able to breakdown movies like this. In fact, if you want a giggle go to this page where you will find a breakdown of the guilty-pleasure comedy The Wedding Crashers. It’s highly amusing to see a film this silly (but admittedly funny) stripped down to include a Hegelian thesis/antithesis/synthesis dialectic. And I do admit if you are trying to write and sell high concept comedies in today’s marketing executive driven world, this whole formula has to be the way to go.

But I wonder how useful it is to try and fit EVERY story into this exact mould. You could say actually that Save the Cat represents a thesis: yes all movies should follow this fixed structure. The antithesis of course is that interesting ones, the example he uses is Memento, should not. Now Mr. Snyder’s conclusion is literally “Fuck Momento!” (actual quote from the book). But I think that Christopher Nolan is laughing to the bank — just not on that film! — he had to remake it using dreams inside of memory loss.

I myself am thinking that a synthesis is in order. A new universe blending both perspectives. The classic structure does encapsulate A LOT of solid lessons about audience expectations for story telling. Perhaps one should use it more as a toolbox or set of guidelines.

This is specifically relevant in my new novel, Untimed. It does to a large extent follow the classic structure (although certain not with such rigid page number demarkations). But there are questions. I have two ideas in the book that could be considered thesis and antithesis, but their advocates are far more muddled than formula would require. Do I restructure and state each in a more obvious way? Likewise, as is typical with me, my ending does not neatly wrap up all questions, villians, and the like. There is climax, but it’s messy. I like ambiguity, and I have gone to great length to construct a world order sufficiently complex that not all mystery is to be solved in one book. Doing so leads to the standard Hollywood sequel problem, where the followups are just more of the same but missing the best part: the discovery inherent in beginnings. If you haven’t answered all the questions, there is still more to learn.

But a squeaky voice in the back of my head wonders: do I need a more Hollywood ending?

Food for thought.

For other posts on writing, click here.

Or find out about my novels:

The Darkening Dream and Untimed.

Conan the Barbarian – Lamentation of their women

Title: Conan the Barbarian

Director/Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger (Actor), James Earl Jones (Actor)

Genre: Drama

Watched: August 3, 2011 (and before)

Summary: Still one of the great fantasy films

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In honor of the upcoming remake of this classic, the  release of the blu-ray, and the political demise of its star, I decided to rewatch this for like the 10th time — I think the last time was in 1997.

During the long long dark ages of fantasy filmmaking, before the wonder that is Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, or the epic new HBO Game of Thrones, we fantasy fans had to be content with a sorry set of films indeed. Above the pathetic likes of Willow and Krull, the 1982 Dino De Laurentiis epic starring the pre-Terminator Mr. Universe was high art indeed. In fact, it’s pretty much hands down the best High Fantasy film prior to LOTR.

It’s fascinating to see how it’s aged. Pretty well.

Technically, the blu-ray isn’t radically better than the DVD in the picture quality department, although it looks good. There is some film grain from the era, and the movie has a lot of contrast which strains my plasma (I need to get an LCD or good new projector). The sound needed a major new restoration it didn’t get, it was pretty terrible. Which is a shame given the spectacular score. Nevertheless, none of this takes much away from the film.

This movie has blood, guts, and tits, snakes, swords, cannibals, wizards and all that long before HBO. Gotta love it. The period head-banger stylings of everyone, particularly the bad guys are great fun.

I love this trio of baddies. Check out heavy metal guitarist Nigel Tufnel on the right. Love him. And James Earl Jones is fantastic as cruel neo-hippy-killer Thulsa Doom. “Steel is week, flesh is strong!”

This movie feels big. It uses wide open location shots in Andalusia Spain to good effect, big sets, and crazy costumes. It’s just plain unabashed. Sure the dialog is laughably cheesy and the script ham-handed. Transitions are abrupt and there is little to no character development. But there are great lines like “time enough for the earth in the grave” and Atilla the Hun’s stolen quote, “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.” All good stuff.

What’s also very interesting is the forgotten style of epic storytelling, which has more in common with Lawrence of Arabia than it does with modern action crap like Transformers. This film has long Easy Rider style travel scenes with just the thunderous score and more interestingly, several almost ballet like giant action numbers with an operatic orchestral quality. These scenes, notably the raid on the Conan’s village, the assault on Set’s tower (awesome!), and the war-painted invasion of the cannibal Mountain of Power (more awesome!), have virtually no dialog. They have muted sound effects, but predominantly the mood is set with the booming orchestra and the intricately choreographed action, swaying as it does to the hypnotic score.

Really good stuff.

Peter Jackson knows his fantasy films, because he borrowed heavily from this in his own epic. Think the Black Riders at the Bree ferry, or the long descent to the bridge of Khazad-dûm. All favorite scenes of mine.

Michael Bey, eat your heart out!

Click for a review of the new 2011 Conan.

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The Eagle

Title: The Eagle

Director/Stars: Channing Tatum (Actor), Jamie Bell (Actor)

Genre: Period Adventure

Year: 2011

Watched: July 7, 2011

Summary: Decent.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

It’s interesting that in the last year or so there have been two movies about the Roman legion “lost” in North Britain during the Hadrianic period. The other is Centurion which I review here. It just goes to prove that Hollywood loves to copy. Two volcano movies? Two Wyatt Earp films? Two Lambada films?

And, to boot, it’s unlikely the legion was actually “lost” (as in militarily). More likely it was just disbanded and the sketchy historical record makes it seem to have disappeared.

In any case, The Eagle is less stylized, and perhaps less anachronistic in terms of it’s action and look than Centurion. However, it doesn’t work as well. Centurion is a very fine chase movie, with almost no character development. The Eagle tries for the latter, with mixed success. The first half works best. Our hero, Centurion Marcus, is posted (on request) to a fort in Britain, proves himself and is injured, then gets shipped out to his uncle’s villa to recover. I liked this opening section, and the film is very well researched from a visual standpoint. The scenery and costumes are great. They didn’t, however, get as much right involving the way in which the Roman army is organized. They insisted on using modern terms like “duty roster” and “honorable discharge.” Roman soliders (of this period) weren’t enlisted out of civilian life. They were either senatorial/imperial appointees (mostly officers) or serving a fixed (20+ year) service.

But I did like this early section. The battle sequences were well done. I liked the crazy druid and his chariot (still in use then by tribal groups in Britain). I liked the legionaries fighting in formation (mostly).

But after recovering, Marcus makes the ridiculous decision to go north of Hadrian’s wall (into enemy Scotland) by himself, accompanied only by a celtic slave who owes him his life. His mission, taken upon himself, is to recover the Eagle (battle standard) lost by his father a decade or so before. He has no idea where it is. Scotland is a big place, full of celts and picts. They don’t like Romans.

But he blunders right into it after riding across some gorgeous wet looking scenery. Again, landscape and costumes look amazing. The movie also doesn’t have a lot of CG, which is good. The natives feel very… well native. I was reminded visually of The New World — a movie of stunning visual lushness about the Jamestown colony. After all that we have an encounter with this seal tribe, a fictionalized Northern British coastal tribe. Their look and ceremonies are wonderfully depicted. Marcus has a bit of slave/master reversal with his friend, but eventually the two grab the eagle and make a run for it, followed by a showdown.

The finale devolved into a kind of anachronistic “all cultures are equal” kind of thinking that just did not exist in the second century. Not only didn’t it exist then, it didn’t even exist during World War I, or any time in between. This modern, intensely modern, way of thinking was formulated during the 20th century. Sure a few people may have thought this way — slightly this way — in the 18th and 19th centuries. But precious few.

Romans. No.

The Roman’s were actually very accommodating and tolerant of foreign cultures and races, radically so compared to medieval Europe, incorporating them in great numbers into their polity. But this stemmed not from any sense of cultural relativism, but from an intense pragmatism, and a world-crushing confidence in the ability of Roman society to absorb and transform.

But back to the film. Overall, I enjoyed it, but mostly from a visual and historical standpoint. The costumes, locations, and sets really are fantastic. It has a pretty ancient feel — ignoring some of the dialog. It’s not nearly as satisfying an adventure movie as Centurion. But it tried to be more. I also appreciate the extremely well done more traditional style of filmmaking. This is no 300, full of garish comic book stylization and whacky CG.

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On Stranger Tides

Title: Pirates of the Caribbean IV: On Stranger Tides

Director/Stars: Johnny Depp (Actor), Ian McShane (Actor), Rob Marshall (Director)

Genre: Pirate Fantasy

Read: May 28, 2011

Summary: Better than 2 or 3.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

This post isn’t so much a review of the 4th Pirates installment, but an little digression on its amusing relationship to one of my favorite books. Still, I’ll mention a few things about the film:

On Stranger Tides is a major improvement over Pirates 2 and 3 (blech). It feels more like a prequel to the first film (although technically it’s a straight sequel). Gone are Orlando and Knightly, and the plot focuses mostly on Jack Sparrow and some of the other baddies like Barbarossa and the new Blackbeard (played by the always likable Ian McShane). The plot is a bit of a retrenchment, involving a hectic quest for the Fountain of Youth. It’s more contained, more classically swashbuckled, with a welcome elimination of giant krakens, the afterlife, pirate councils, and ludicrous giant whirlpool ship battles. As such, if you can ignore the gapping plot holes and the merely token setup, it’s much more satisfying and fun to watch. It rates fairly close to the original, which is actually a pretty damn good movie — albiet a guilty pleasure for sure. The CGI is also much reduced. Not that it isn’t in nearly every frame, but it’s more contained and less bombastic. Structurally the elimination of the Orlando/Knightly thing also simplifies the whole character focus.

Now, on to the reason I’m writing this post. When I first saw the preview a year or so ago I was struct by the subtitle (On Stranger Tides) and the fact that the plot involved Blackbeard and the Fountain of Youth. I was instantly reminded of one of my three favorite Tim Powers novels, On Stranger Tides, about the same. Now This is a 1987 novel, and I read it in the 90s. But Powers is one of my favorite authors, and probably one of the biggest influences on my own writing (at least my first novel, The Darkening Dream). He blends history, the occult, and fantasy in an artful and seamless way. Anyone who hasn’t read him must immediately buy and read The Anubis Gates, one of my all time favorite novels. The original novel (On Stranger Tides) is a creepy and heavily researched story about Blackbeard’s maniacal search for immortality. It’s pretty brilliant and quintessential Powers. Much darker and scarier than this film.

Pirates IV is well… a Pirates of the Caribbean movie that involves Blackbeard and the Fountain of Youth. That’s about as far as it goes. Unless I missed something, the only other elements borrowed from the novel are a vague mention of zombies and the fact that when we meet Blackbeard his beard has smoldering flames hidden inside. This is a well documented feature of the man, as he claimed to be a priest of the voodoo god Baron Samedi whose magical totem is smoldering flame. This famous engraving shows the details. In any case the book is really cool and much more interesting than the film.

What’s interesting here is that Disney put “suggested by the novel On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers” in the credits and felt it needed to option the novel just to include the two basic elements of Blackbeard and the Fountain. Nothing else.

Hollywood.

Although I’m glad that Mr. Powers got at least some kind of payday as a result — he deserves it.

Black Swan

Title: Black Swan

Director/Stars: Natalie Portman (Actor), Mila Kunis (Actor), Darren Aronofsky (Director)

Genre: Drama

Read: May 18, 2011

Summary: Psycho Thriller, Qu’est-ce que c’est

ANY CHARACTER HERE

Reviews for two Natalie Portman movies in a row! She was wasted in the previous Thor, but shows off some serious chops here. This is clearly in a different league altogether.

Directory Darren Aronofsky fuses stylistic traits from his ultra surreal films (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) with the more documentary style The Wrestler into this psychological thriller. While oblique in terms of what’s actually happening, it’s positively crystal clear in comparison to that earlier tro. Also, dark as it is, it’s by no means as unrelentingly depressing as Requiem. Can we say “ass to ass” anyone?

First the components. The music’s awesome. I love Swan Lake as a composition. The acting is even better. Natalie, Mila, Vincent Cassel, and Barbara Hershey all stand out. The film is deliberately underwritten, standing on the strength of its style, acting, and direction. For whatever reason, Darren Aronofsky loves walking shots where the camera is anchored low behind the shoulders of the protagonist, or right in front of their chest. Both The Wrestler and Requiem are filled with these. Black Swan has even more. Rest assured, it’s a stylish looking film.

Now as to the overall effect. I enjoyed it, but this certainly isn’t a fast film. It’s more pretty, with a kind of savage quality, much like the ballet itself. Thematically, I take the entire fantastic/horror element to be purely the reflection of ballerina Nina’s internal state of mind. Even her entire feud with Mila’s Lily is in her own head. There is perhaps a more literal fantastic interpretation, but I feel the case for the psychological is much stronger. This is the opposite of say, Pan’s Labyrinth where while again both psychological and mythological interpretations are possible, I prefer the fantastic.

In any case, it’s a unique film. Not at all the typical Hollywood fare — but then nothing Aronofsky has done is.