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.

Or for more Film reviews, click here.

Back to the Future Part III

Title: Back to the Future Part III

Director/Stars: Michael J. Fox (Actor), Christopher Lloyd (Actor), Robert Zemeckis(Director)

Genre: Time Travel Comedy

Year: 1990

Watched: March 31, 2011

Summary: Ug. What happened?

 

The end of part II leaves us with this sweet little setup. And then Back to the Future Part III just craps all over it.

Really this is barely a time travel movie. Basically Marty just pops back to 1885 to save Doc from being shot by Biff’s great-grandfather (again played by the same actor). The DeLorean has run out of gas… in 1885, so they have to figure out how to get it up to 88 miles an hour. Answer locomotive. This is a reverse of, but nearly the same, as the gimmick from the first movie with having to generate the 1.21 gigawatts of power via lightning bolt. Oh, and Doc falls in love.

What follows is a pretty silly, downright camp, little western pastiche. And that’s about it.

As I said, there isn’t much of the time travel and paradox fun we had in the first two films. But there is more rehash of the same jokes. Michael J Fox plays another McFly family member. Although one has to wonder why his great-grandmother still looks like Lea Thompson when she married into the family in the 50s! And the Fox genes must be dominant over the Glover ones. Oh we also get the “Biff eats manure” joke again. There’s also Doc’s little romance. I know it’s supposed to be sweet, but it really wasn’t doing it for me. Nothing really did, sorry.

This is only the second time I’ve seen the film (compared to like 15 times for part I and 5+ for part II). I remember being massively disappointed in the theater in 1990 (maybe even on opening night). I don’t feel any differently 21 years later.

I hope they don’t do some awful part IV that’s on par with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Check out the Back to the Future review Part I here.

Or my review of part II here.

Better Off Dead

Title: Better Off Dead

Director/Stars: John Cusack (Actor), Demian Slade (Actor), Savage Steve Holland (Director)

Genre: Teen Comedy

Year: 1985

Watched: March 28, 2011

Summary: Absurdist, but classic.

 

For some strange reason I’ve been on an 80s kick lately. High School nostalgia or something. Not only did I make a playlist of synthoid classics, but I started combing Amazon marketplace for cheap (like $2) used DVDs. Somehow I missed seeing all of Better Off Dead in the 26 years since release (only bits and pieces on cable), surprising given my nearly comprehensive knowledge of 80s films, and that I’m a fan of John Cusack — excepting the execrable 2012.

This is one whacky film. While it must have seemed absurdist even in 1985, now, with the added retro touch and hammy 80s overacting it’s really out there, bordering on Salvador Dali level surreal. But it is enjoyable. In a way it’s a parody of the then contemporary genre of 80s teen comedy, but it’s also a brother in arms. Nothing is taken too seriously and there are a many priceless moments. Like one of my college buddies favorite lines, “NT, big difference” (referring to the textual delta between “testicles” and “tentacles”), Lane’s mom’s cooking crawling across the table, or the goofy skiing-pole lightsaber duel near the end. But with a modern perspective, there’s the added benefit of the nostalgic and silly 80s hair, clothing, music, and even half forgotten facts like: Skiing was once cool! I remember it all too well, my first published video game was Ski Crazed!

When I saw Hot Tub Time Machine last year (another guilty pleasure) I was well aware of all the 80s movie spoof moments, but I hadn’t realized how much John Cusack was referencing Better Off Dead specifically. The plot is fairly meaningless, but basically as silly as the film is, at the core of most of the jokes are real embarrassing situations that plagued many teens — certainly in the 80s, and probably now.

I was also not aware until I looked it up that Curtis Armstrong, better known as Booger, was already in his 30s when playing these silly teen characters. Or that he has played 122 roles! The guy’s been busy for decades.

If you want to see more 80s movie reviews, I also blogged yesterday on About Last Night.

Movie Review: Adventureland

Title: Adventureland

Director/Stars: Jesse Eisenberg (Actor), Kristen Stewart (Actor), Greg Mottola (Director)

Genre: Period (80s) Comedy Romance

Watched: Sept, 2010

Summary: Touching, funny. Great film.

 

I didn’t really have a lot of expectations going into this film. I knew it was by the same director as Superbad (great film) and starred Eisenberg and Stewart, and that’s about it. It’s a great film. The kind they rarely make anymore where it’s essentially a character movie woven around a romance. The script is great, the acting’s great, and the direction is great. It’s a funny movie, but not in the laugh a minute kind of way, but in a wry more or less real way.

Comedy varies across the spectrum of dark to realistic to slapstick to abstract. This is realistic. The humor is partially in the fact that these situations are real situations that we did or could have found ourselves in — and hence, it’s a kind of bittersweet humor. The tone is not so different than the excellent Freaks and Geeks TV show, and in fact there’s at least one actor in common (the excellent Martin Starr). They don’t make a lot of comedy romances like this anymore, the kind where there’s no gimmick, just real people, and hence real romance.

The plot is fairly incidental. We have the likable Eisenberg (playing on type, but great as a Geek who isn’t really shy) who has money troubles and needs to take a lousy summer job at a crappy Pittsburg theme park. Having grown up in the 80s this is exactly my generation (I’m perhaps 4 years younger than the characters) and the music and outfits are nostalgic and amusing. None of the people he meets are exactly stereotypes, and they have a delicate underwritten quality. The core that holds the film together is Eisenberg and Stewart (who proves she can do better with a script that isn’t terrible… I mean Twilight — CLICK FOR MY REVIEW). Not just the acting but the writing. He’s the kind of guy I could imagine being friends with, and she’s the kind of girl I could imagine having fallen for in college. There relationship feels real. This makes it sexy even though there isn’t much sex. And isn’t that one of the main things that fiction is about? Depicting real people. It seems all too often forgotten.

Movie Review: Centurion

Title: Centurion

Director/Stars: Michael Fassbender (Actor), Dominic West (Actor), Neil Marshall (Director)

Genre: Period Action

Read: Nov 3, 2010

Summary: Surprisingly kick-ass.

I’d completely missed this movie in the theaters, but that’s no wonder because it only played on 19 screens across the country. I hadn’t even heard of it, but I noticed a review while browsing my favorite movie reviewer’s site. Reviews were mixed, but it’s set in 117AD, and as a Roman History buff I had no choice but to order.

Wow. It kinda kicked ass.

This isn’t a film for everyone, certainly not for most women. Like the original Predator, it’s a guy’s film. Set in Northern Britain, this is the story of a bunch of Roman soliders on the run from a group of Pictish warriors (old old school Scotts) who want nothing better than to hack off their heads and carry them back to their village. Now, you actually can’t totally blame the picts, they have their reasons. For the most part, this movie is actually fairly authentic. I mean this in a loose sort of way. It’s not based on any real historical events. The action is pretty crazy, but still, compared to some (cough cough, King Arthur), it makes perfect sense.

The movie is basically one long chase scene, and it just works. The landscapes are gorgeous, and the fight scenes have an intensity that’s often missing in today’s over edited films. Things are a bit grisly, but the camera cuts away quickly. You could freeze frame to see some nice brain splatters and battlefield amputations if you were so inclined. There’s a bit of a problem with the fact that many of the actors look very similar in their military uniforms with helmets or short cropped hair — but that’s why the army has uniforms etc. The actors do a good job given the largely physical demands of the roles. The dialog didn’t make me cringe except for a couple lines right in the intro. The whole thing has a nicely stylized feel without being all 300/Spartacus (the second of these, however, is a serious guilty pleasure). It’s much more realistic than either.

So if you like mano-a-mano sword and survival fighting, give it a watch.

If you don’t care about historic nitpicks, you can stop reading, but because I’m a huge Roman buff I’ll mention the anachronisms that bugged me, although none of them really detracted from the film. There are two female Pictish warriors. They kick ass, and I didn’t mind, but I’d wager my life on the fact that 1900 years ago Scottish society — like Roman — was, shall we say, a tad too sexist to allow women to formally fight. I’m all for the recent trend of sexy girl action stars, my own novel has a slightly anachronistic tough female protagonist, but we should realize it just wasn’t the case historically. The Picts also ambush and slaughter  a roman legion using the old “rolling balls of fire” trick, slaughtering all but about 10 men. I’m not sure that balls of fire had been invented, or that they ever were terribly effective in the field. In this period, leadership, numbers, discipline, armament, and positioning usually determined the outcome (almost always in the Roman favor). There are only a few cases of bald-faced defeats of the Imperial army, and none that bad in Britain, but I guess it isn’t that different than their defeat at Teutoberg Forest about a 100 years before the date of this film. Certain bits about the costumes were a little dubious, particularly the boots. What we think of as modern boots really weren’t in service in the Roman army at this period, even in cold areas. The armor looked accurate though, they were lucky because movies always love to use the segmented look of the second Century, even if depicting a Republican army. The Pictish outfits looked a bit medieval to me, rather than Iron Age, and the women had shoes (sorry girls, such luxuries were mostly for soldiers and hunters in that kind of borderline neolithic society). Oh, and a few too many Picts seemed to speak Latin — I have to wonder how common that was. But all and all it felt fairly second century.