3100: Run and Become


One of the beautiful images from the film.

(2018) Documentary (Illumine) Ashprihanal Aalto, Shamita Achenbach-König, Yuri Trostenyuk, Shaun Martin, Gaolo, Rupantar LaRusso, Dohai König, Nirbhasa Magee, Ray “The K” Krolevicz, Jumanda Gakelbone, Sahishnu Szczesiul, Supan Tsekob, Ilgyasu Tervo, Ajari Misunaga, Isomura-san, Tess Thakara, Petra Aalto.  Directed by Sanjay Rawal

 

It is well known that physical exertion can lead to a feeling of well-being. It’s not just the feeling of accomplishment that comes from completing a particularly difficult goal, but also the physical rush of endorphins one gets from such exercises as yoga, weight lifting and running.

Some even say that running can be used as a means of spiritual enlightenment. A particular proponent of that line of thought was Sri Chinmoy, an Indian sprinter, philosopher and running guru. He helped spread the philosophy throughout the world. One of those who picked up on it and ran with it (literally) is Finnish newspaper delivery man Ashprihanal Aalto. Aalto is what is known as an ultra long distance runner – someone who runs races of extraordinary lengths. He has been a dominant force in Chinmoy’s 3100 Mile Self-Transcendence race, running it 13 times and winning it five times, setting the course record in his most recent attempt.

He is 45 now and really has no mountains left to climb when it comes to the race. However his spiritual adviser Ilgyasu Tervo counsels him to give it one last shot – soon he will not have the physical stamina to run the race in the style he is used to. He elects to go to New York for one last run around the block.

That’s literally what the race is; it’s a grueling run taking over the course of 51 days. Runners go as fast and as far as they can each day, finishing only when they reach the magic 3100 mile mark. The course is one city block in the Bronx, one half mile in length. Runners circle the block over and over again, trying to make 120 laps each day. It’s not a particularly photogenic block but the repetition supposedly helps runners reach a trance-like state where they can focus in on their spiritual side.

Many of the runners are middle-aged; most are men and all are white – at least in the 2016 race. While they come from around the world and many have converted to the faith Chinmoy espoused, there is a homogeneity about the runners in the race that doesn’t particularly make for compelling filmmaking. It’s no surprise therefore that Rawal elects to add other stories that make the connection between running and spiritualism.

For example, Native American Shaun Martin of the Navajo tribe re-creates his father’s escape from a government-mandated boarding school back to his home (both buildings no longer exist) in order to plug in to his cultural and personal heritage. Buddhist monk Ajari Misunaga mentors Isomura-san on the rite of kaihgyo which involves running around Mount Hiei in Japan for one thousand consecutive days – just under three years. The distance is just over 60 miles and is done in robes with stops to pay devotion at various places. Misunaga also casually mentions that those that fail are required to commit suicide. Self-flagellation suddenly seems a whole lot less barbaric.

We also see the plight of a tribe in the Kalahari desert who for thousands of years have fed themselves by running down their prey during the hunt. When the government of Malawi (where the tribe is located) enacts a law forbidding the process, the tribe begins to fail, unable to subsist on the meager rations they are provided but also losing tribal identity. Tribesman Gaolo elects to defy the ban with serious consequences to him if he is caught.

The three additional stories are actually in many ways more compelling than the story of the Race which is grueling as New York City suffers through a murderous heat wave and triple digit temperatures, but seems to be more of an “inner self” kind of thing that doesn’t have much connection to a larger culture, at least not the way it is presented here.

The cinematography, particularly outside of New York – i.e. the Arizona and Kalahari deserts, the cold winter landscapes of Finland and the beautiful mountain landscapes of Japan – are often breathtaking. However, there feels like there is more than a little proselytizing here which made me feel uncomfortable. And after seeing some recent NYC DOC films that are about making the world a better place, watching white people try to find spiritual harmony doesn’t feel quite like it has the same urgency or importance.

Running is inherently a selfish sport. It is done solo and even if you are on a running team at the end of the day it is always the individual versus the course. The race finale, although extraordinarily close is ultimately anti-climactic – winning is almost beside the point when the reason the race exists is right there in the title of it: self-transcendence. Improving oneself is not a bad thing by any means but this feels like it falls in line with a self-absorbed generation that is making the world an increasingly harsh place to live in.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the cinematography is beautiful.
REASONS TO STAY: The stories of the two ultra-marathoners, the tribesman and the Native American don’t really mesh well together.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a brief picture of blisters that may be a bit disturbing for the squeamish.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The race was founded in 1997 by Sri Chinmoy and is currently the longest certified road race in the world..
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/14/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hare Krishna!
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Up and Away

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Dracula Untold


Enter the dragon.

Enter the dragon.

(2014) Horror (Universal/Legendary) Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Dominic Cooper, Art Parkinson, Charles Dance, Diarmaid Murtagh, Paul Kaye, William Houston, Noah Huntley, Ronan Vibert, Zach McGowan, Ferdinand Kingsley, Joseph Long, Thor Kristjansson, Jakub Gierszal, Joe Benjamin, Paul Bullion, Mish Boyko, Dilan Gwyn, Louise Parker. Directed by Gary Shore

You may think you know the story of Dracula but most of us only know his Victorian-age story as told by Bram Stoker. However, even by that point the infamous vampire was centuries old, the undead creature once known as Vlad the Impaler, a 15th century Transylvanian prince who was already a bit of a monster while he was still alive. Of course, history is often a different tale than what those who were there might have narrated.

Vlad who as a boy was sent to live with the Turks as a sort of tribute (and also to keep the numerically superior Turkish army from annihilating the Transylvanians) wants nothing more than to live in peace with his people and his family – his wife Mirena (Gadon) and son Ingeras (Parkinson).

But that is not to be. A Turkish delegation arrives, demanding that the Transylvanians supply them with a thousand boys to serve in the Sultan’s army – including Vlad’s own son. Vlad tries to reason with them, but the envoy won’t hear of it. When a small party of Turks comes to take Ingeras, Vlad kills all of them.

Knowing they can never defeat the massive Turkish army who are well-armed and well-trained, Vlad turns desperate to protect his family at all costs. He ascends a forbidding mountain and there meets the Master Vampire (Dance), a creature half of myth and legend but certainly real enough. He cautions Vlad that the price for power is staggeringly high. If Vlad drinks of the vampire’s blood, he will have most of the vampire’s powers for three days. If he can keep from drinking human blood in that three day period, he will return to his human form. Should Vlad drink any human blood during those three days, a vampire he’ll remain for eternity and the Master Vampire will be freed from his prison and be allowed to walk the world again after centuries of imprisonment.

At first it seems like Vlad made a great bargain; he defeats a Turkish battalion by himself, able to change into bats, control the creatures of the night and possessed of the strength of a hundred men. However, the thirst is proving to be more difficult to resist than he might have thought possible. He also discovers that this was just a diversionary tactic by the Turks and they are coming with an army of hundreds of thousands to wipe out the Transylvanians, led by the Sultan (Cooper) himself, once a boyhood friend of Vlad’s. Can he find a way to defeat the Turks and keep his humanity at the same time?

This is one of those movies that mixes in fact and fiction together to create a different kind of brew, although the “facts” are somewhat fast and loose. In fact, just about the only thing the writers got right was that Dracula which translates depending on who you ask as the Son of the Dragon, or the Son of the Devil, was a prince of Transylvania who would impale his enemies as a means of intimidation. There the distinctions stop. There were no Turks in the 15th century; back then it was known as the Ottoman Empire and the Turks were but one ethnic group in the Empire. Also, his wife’s name was Ilona, not Mirena. He had a daughter named Mircea and a son named Mihnea but no child named Ingeras. Nor was Vlad all that popular among his nobles who were angered by his usurping of what they thought were their rights. Vlad wanted autocratic authority.

All that could have been forgiven if we’d been given a dynamic Vlad but Evans doesn’t deliver one. We get a fairly bland portrayal of the legendary nobleman, one that lacks force or charisma. We never get much of a sense as to what Vlad is like other than that he’s a devoted family man. That’s all well and good but we get a sense of his cruelty only by reputation; Vlad the Impaler might as well have been nicknamed Vlad the Doting Dad. There are a couple of scenes of stakes with Vlad watching them in anguish but that seems pretty at odds with the kind of guy who had no problems letting his enemies die horribly painful deaths. Evans seems distracted, like his mind is on a different movie than the one he’s shooting.

Mirena’s role isn’t well-defined. One gets a sense she’s supposed to be fiercely devoted to her son and husband and that she was strong enough to stand up to her sometimes hot-tempered husband but then at other times she seems uncharacteristically meek and submissive. Thus we are unable to get a real handle on who the true Mirena is.

The special effects are nifty, particularly Dracula transforming into a flock of bats, or controlling the storm near the end of the film. By and large though this isn’t as effects-driven as you might think; mostly this is a costumed action-adventure film in horror sheep’s clothing. The sets are extravagant looking and the cinematography of Ireland (subbing for the Carpathian Mountains) is lovely.

It can be said that this is lovely packaging for essentially an empty box. The suspense element is by the boards because we all know that Vlad is destined to be an immortal vampire so we know that he is going to consume the blood within those three days; it’s just a matter of how and when. So we’re left with mindlessly entertaining,,merely a trifle that will be forgotten the moment you leave the theater.

REASONS TO GO: Some nifty effects sequences. Lush cinematography and nice sets and costumes.
REASONS TO STAY: Evans is a bit wooden. Bloated and stodgy in places. Some historical inaccuracies.
FAMILY VALUES: There is war violence, scenes of bloody vampire attacks, some disturbing images and a little sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sam Worthington was originally set to star until he had to drop out and was replaced by Evans.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 24% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Van Helsing
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness begins!

The Grand Budapest Hotel


Caught in the act!

Caught in the act!

(2014) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Matthieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson, Lea Seydoux, Bob Balaban, Fisher Stevens, Florian Lukas, Giselda Volodi. Directed by Wes Anderson

There was a time when elegance was in fashion, when gentility was all the rage and a gentleman was a gentleman and a lady was a lady. Those days are gone.

A student sits down by a shrine to read a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel. In 1985, a famous Author (Wilkinson) reads the book aloud and tells us about the time back in 1969 when he was young (Law) and visited the namesake hotel of the book in the beautiful Republic of Zubrowka and spoke with the owner of the hotel (Abraham). He, in turn, tells a tale of when he was but a young ambitious lobby boy named Zero Moustafa (Revolori) who came to be taken under the wing of the greatest concierge that ever lived – the legendary Monsieur Gustave (Fiennes).

Gustave has made his reputation by knowing what his clientele needs before they themselves know. He specializes in elderly dowagers, flirting and bestowing on them the sheerest form of flattery, leading them into bed. One of his more devoted clients is Madame D (Swinton), but there are many and nearly all of them blonde.

When one of his clients passes away, Gustave takes Zero to pay his final respects but it turns out that Dmitri (Brody), the manipulative greedy son, is absolutely scandalized that his mother had carnal relations with someone like Gustave whom he considers to be a perverted little bisexual. Dmitri has in his employ Jopling (Dafoe), a psychopathic assassin.

As it turns out Gustave is accused of the murder of his client and jailed. Zero, his devoted protégé and friend and Zero’s fiancée Agatha (Ronan), a comely assistant pastry chef with a distinctive wine-colored birthmark shaped like Mexico on her cheek, will have to overcome the canny Inspector Henckels (Norton) and the ruthless Jopling to help Gustave clear his name.

Anderson has always had a quirky comedic sense that crosses Ernst Lubitsch with the Coen Brothers. This is in my opinion his best film to date, taking all of the promise he has shown in films like Rushmore and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and delivering on it. The timing is impressive and the film is funny throughout.

In talking about this film one has to talk about the production design. Each time period has a certain color palate which grows more dingy and dreary in 1969 and 1985 1932 however is awash in color, the pink jewelbox of the hotel dominant. Often the movie looks like it was printed on paper, with animated cutouts doing some of the action. The stylized movements of the actors and the oddball facial hair of the men complete the overall air of gentility and hilarity.

Fiennes is perfect as Gustave. Genteel, manipulative, a bit of a cad but with a heart of gold, Fiennes carries the movie in his coat pocket. It is a magnificent performance that unleashes hidden depths from Fiennes who often plays roles that are emotionally closed off. This is right in his wheelhouse and he steps into it and knocks it out of the part with enthusiastic gusto. While I find it unlikely he’ll be nominated for any awards later on for the role, this is definitely one of the best performances you’ll see this year that won’t get awards consideration.

The only reason this doesn’t have a perfect score is the unnecessarily convoluted structure of having a student sitting by the grave of an older author who talks about his younger self hearing a story from an old man who tells about what happened to him and his mentor as a young man. The problem with peeling back the layers from an onion is that someone inevitably ends up in tears. Nonetheless this is a terrific movie, quirky but funny and satisfying and thoroughly enjoyable.

REASONS TO GO: Imaginative and funny. Fiennes is transcendent. Clever for all the right reasons.

REASONS TO STAY: The beginning is unnecessarily complicated.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of ungentlemanly language, some unseemly violence and some naughty bits.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The name of the fictional Republic of Zubrowka where the film is set actually comes from a Polish brand of vodka.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/31/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hudsucker Proxy

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Fireflies in the Garden

Jack the Giant Slayer


Think of it as "rural renewal".

Think of it as “rural renewal”.

(2013) Fantasy (New Line) Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Ian McShane, Stanley Tucci, Bill Nighy, Eddie Marsan, Ewen Bremner, Christopher Fairbank, Simon Lowe, Mingus Johnston, Ralph Brown, Warwick Davis, Joy McBrinn, Lee Boardman, Tandi Wright. Directed by Bryan Singer

Fee, Fai, Fo, Fum…I smell the blood of a Hollywoodman. A beloved fairy tale is given the reel CGI treatment and turns out a cut above other recent celluloid fairy tales.

Jack (Hoult) is the son of a farmer recently passed of the plague. He lives with his uncle (Fairbank) who is stressed out – money makes the world go round even in the world of Grimm. As a boy, Jack’s father read him the bedtime story of the mighty King Erik the Great, who fought the evil giants who lived in a land between Heaven and Earth and has used magic seeds to grow enormous beanstalks that rose to the land of th Giants. It was only through the use of a magic crown forged from the heart of a giant that allowed Erik to vanquish his much larger and stronger foes.

Isabelle (Tomlinson) has heard the same tale only from her other the Queen (who, like Jack’s father passes away before the opening credits) and yearns for adventures of her own. Her good but misguided father, King Brahmwell (McShane) has betrothed his headstrong daughter to his advisor Roderick (Tucci), a man she thoroughly loathes. She is constantly slipping out of the castle to mingle among the common folk much to the consternation of Sir Elmont (McGregor), the brave and noble knight charged with the protection of the Princess. Not an easy task to say the least.

Roderick has in fact discovered the magic crown and remaining beans and means to use them to get to the Land of the Giants and lead them in conquest of the entire Earth (why have one kingdom when you can have it all?) or at least the parts they can reach. A monk (Lowe) has stolen the beans and manages to pass them on to Jack while he is at market trying to sell his horse. Jack takes the beans home, not knowing what they are.

In the middle of a rainstorm, the Princess (who is out on one of her adventures) seeks shelter from a storm in the farmhouse Jack lives in. The two hit it off but accidentally activate the beans which of course grow a beanstalk, sending the farmhouse up into the clouds. Jack is knocked senseless in a fall, discovered by the King and Elmont who are out searching for the wayward Princess.

They quickly discover the story of the giants was no myth and the giants, led by the fearsome two-headed General Fallon (Nighy) have quite the mad on about humans and also the treachery of Roderick is revealed. Jack will have to rescue the princess and warn the King before it’s too late – but who will believe him?

If you gathered 100 people together, I doubt you’d find even one who would name “Jack and the Beanstalk” their favorite fairy tale and therein lies the main obstacle for the filmmakers. They need to take a story that is well-known but not necessarily beloved and make it appealing for modern day moviegoers. That’s no easy feat – ask the makers of recent fairy tale adaptations like Mirror, Mirror. There needs to be a balance between light and dark to appeal to children who prefer the light but at the same time dark enough because as Christopher Nolan will tell you dark sells.

Nicholas Hoult, who has shown promise in recent roles like Warm Bodies is an engaging hero, likable and charismatic. He is still a bit raw but he shows every sign of graduating up the ranks into the pantheon of A-list stars. He’s not quite there yet but his work here illustrates that he has the tools to get there. He’s come a long way since About a Boy.

Tomlinson I’m less sure about. Her performance isn’t particularly memorable but to be fair she’s given kind of a lousy hand to play with. Sure, Isabelle has spunk but then she spends most of the film being rescued. Note to filmmakers: the reason little girls are so obsessed with Disney princesses is that they are given girls who are not only glamorous and beautiful but also self-reliant and heroic. Most Disney princesses will like as not be the ones doing the rescuing; they don’t need a prince to do the job for them.

The giants are kind of fun, although there’s not a single giantess – apparently these humanoids reproduce asexually. They have a variety of looks which is to the good, from the two-headed Fallon to the squat-headed Fum. They are kind of goofy-looking and not particularly scary, but they unleash a good deal of mayhem and find human flesh to be a delicacy. It’s not so much the look of the giants but their actions that might induce nightmares in the very young.

The CGI is fairly impressive in most places, with the beanstalks themselves some of the best of the computer generated filmmaking here. They are labyrinthine, semi-realistic (real world physics would collapse the structure of the beanstalks if ever a magic bean makes its way to our dimension) and impressive. The castle of Cloister and the Giant’s Castle are both impressively rendered, a tribute to the set designer as well (Gavin Bocquet, take a bow).

Sadly the story doesn’t pass muster. It’s fairly predictable and despite McGregor’s and Tucci’s best efforts and bringing comic relief, it lacks a lighter side that will make this more palatable for parents. However, thanks to Hoult and director Singer’s acumen with action scenes and CGI, the movie actually is much better than I expected it to be. In a year which has been off to a rocky start in terms of quality movies, that’s as good as a goose that lays golden eggs.

REASONS TO GO: Hoult has A list potential. McGregor and Tucci are fun. Some fairly decent eye candy.

REASONS TO STAY: Some fairly significant plot holes.

FAMILY VALUES:  While most of the giants aren’t terribly frightening in looks, the damage they do (and is done to them) is and there are a few foul words thrown in for good measure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: D.J. Caruso was initially set to direct but was replaced in 2010 with Singer.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100; the reviews were fair to middlin’.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Love Crime

The Sorcerer and the White Snake (Bai she chuan shuo)


Not all the great visuals are CGI.

Not all the great visuals are CGI.

(2011) Martial Arts Fantasy (Magnet) Jet Li, Raymond Lam, Eva Huang, Charlene Choi, Zhang Wen, Vivian Hsu, Miriam Yeung Chin Wah (voice) Kar-Ying Law, Suet Lam (voice), Chapman To, Wu Jiang (voice), Gao Hai Bo, Yin You Can, Li Dan, Han Dong. Directed by Siu-Tung Ching

China has a rich and varied history of lore and legend from which they periodically draw inspiration for their films. Fantasy is huge in China, and with a whole pantheon of demons, monsters and God-like creatures to choose from, it’s no wonder that some of the best fantasy films in recent years have come from there. So where does this one stand.

A young herb-gatherer with ambitions of one day becoming a doctor named Xu Xian (R. Lam) is observed picking herbs in the bucolic mountains by White Snake (Huang), a thousand-year-old snake demon who is curious about humans. Her mischievous sister Green Snake (Choi) decides to play a trick on poor old Xu, appearing to him as he climbs up a particularly treacherous section of the mountain which startles the would-be physician so badly that he falls off the mountain and into the lake below. White, realizing that the herb gatherer will drown because of her sister’s prank, goes down into the lake in human form and kisses Xu, not only imparting oxygen to the young man but also part of her vital essence.

Xu can’t stop thinking about his savior nor can White stop thinking about Xu much to Green’s amused disgust. With the dragon boat festival in full swing, White decides she needs to see Xu and Green somewhat bemusedly agrees to help.

Fahai (Li), abbot of the Lei Feng Pagoda, has spent his life tracking down and capturing demons. His apprentice Neng Ren (Wen) is a little bit impetuous and not nearly as strong as his master. While chasing a group of bat demons, Neng meets up with Green without realizing she’s  a demon. White at last with Green’s help finds Xu and decides to reveal to him that she is the one that saved him that day. The two wind up getting married.

This is something Fahai cannot allow as it violates every principle of human-demon relations. Only ill can come of this and he does everything in his power to prevent the union from continuing. White’s love for Xu will have devastating consequences both for him, the Pagoda and possibly for all of China unless Fahai can make things right.

Ching is best known for directing Chinese Ghost Story along with being an action choreographer on several well-known Chinese films. Here he pulls out all the stops in a movie that is drenched with CGI as animated demons, sometimes in the form of their animal totems and sometimes in human shape (the Asian cut of the film features much more of the latter; the American cut has more of the former which is a bit jarring as they come off as kind of Disneyesque creatures with juvenile voices).

Li has progressed into more gruff old man kinds of roles – a decade ago he would have been the herbalist. Although he is no longer as youthful as he once was, he is still as graceful a martial artist as has ever been on the screen and his moves are still just as fluid and economical as they ever were. Plus he has the experience of decades of screen time not to mention his own natural charisma that you just can’t teach.

Lam is a big star in the East but little known here, but he makes for an engaging Xu. His character is a bit naive, a bit unobservant and a bit of a bumbler but fiercely loyal and remarkably brave and selfless. Lam conveys all of that with an easygoing charm. He doesn’t have quite the martial arts proficiency of Li (but in all fairness very few people on the planet do – including those who are martial arts masters) but he pulls off his fight scenes pretty well.

Like most Chinese heroines Huang has an ethereal beauty that is breathtaking. Her sensuality is more coy than overt, a bit schoolgirl-ish at times but there’s no denying her emotional intensity, particularly in her last scenes of the film. I’ve always been partial to Michelle Yeoh among Asian actresses but Huang certainly is one to watch.

Nearly every scene is laden with special effects of the CGI variety. They are less concerned with the realistic nature of CGI in the east than they are here so in some ways the effects look less practiced than they do on major Hollywood films but they get the job done. The fight scenes, surprisingly, are less compelling; the choreography is almost an afterthought and there isn’t a lot of care given to those scenes seemingly, which is extremely disappointing.

Still, this is a movie worth seeing. It’s available on VOD right now and in theaters in selected cities. Martial arts fans will no doubt be making a beeline to see anything with Li in it to begin with but to see a major production such as this with such a venerated director. This isn’t the best work by either of them, but it’s good enough to take the time to find it.

REASONS TO GO: Somewhat sweet-natured and inventive. Always good to see Li.

REASONS TO STAY: Fight scenes are disappointingly banal. Special effects not up to Western standards.

FAMILY VALUES:  Action of a fantasy variety, a few images that might be too disturbing for the very young and a bit of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Li complained later that this was one of his most tiring roles because most of his fighting opponents were women for whom he’d have to hold back some but who would go all out on him.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/10/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100; the reviews are pretty dismal.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hero

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Cinema of the Heart 2013 Day One

Conan the Barbarian (2011)


Conan the Barbarian (2011)

Film reviewers piss Conan off....

(2011) Fantasy (Lionsgate) Jason Momoa, Rachel Nichols, Stephen Lang, Rose McGowan, Said Taghmaoui, Ron Perlman, Leo Howard, Steve O’Donnell, Raad Rawi, Nonso Anozie, Bob Sapp, Milton Welsh, Laila Rouass, Nathan Jones, Morgan Freeman (voice). Directed by Marcus Nispel

There’s something about a barbarian in a loincloth that fires up the imagination. It brings to mind swords dripping with blood and gore, scantily clad damsels in distress, terrifying monsters guarding hordes of fabulous treasure and ancient cities surrounding a wizard’s citadel. Ah, fantasy…

The swords and sorcery genre was more or less created (or at least popularized) by Robert E. Howard back in the 1920s and 1930s with his character Conan the Barbarian (in the same way J.R.R. Tolkein essentially created or at least popularized the high fantasy genre). In 1982, the John Milius movie based on the Howard character launched Arnold Schwarzenegger into stardom. Will this 2011 version do the same for Jason Momoa?

Conan is born on a battlefield, literally ripped from the womb of his dying mother by his father Corin (Perlman) who cuts open the belly of his wife, yanks out the squalling baby and holds it before the eyes of mommy, who hangs around long enough to name him before expiring. Corin raises his son to the heavens with a roar which might be the only time Conan is ever going to be associated with a Disney animated classic (see The Lion King for reference).

Years pass and Conan grows into a young boy (Howard) who is taught by his blacksmith father how to fight. When the youths of the village are able to run a course in the countryside with a birds egg in their mouth without breaking it, they are considered worthy of becoming warriors for the clan. On such a day, they are attacked by a group of other Barbarians (these who are apparently mute and make a hideous animal roar) but young Conan takes out four of them without scarcely breaking a sweat let alone an egg. For this his father forges him a magnificent sword.

Unfortunately, Conan never gets a chance to use it. The tribe is attacked again, this time by the army of King Khalar Zym (Lang) who is after the shard of a magical mask that gives the wearer unspecified but unlimited power. With the help of his sadistic sorceress daughter Marique (McGowan), the shard is found and Khalar decides that Corin needs a molten iron facial. His son tries to save him but winds up failing.

Flash forward a decade or so and Conan has grown up into a big strapping man (Momoa). He roams Hyboria thieving and wenching with Artus (Anozie), an irascible pirate who is something of a mentor to Conan. When the bar Conan and Artus are drinking in are raided by the local constabulary, Conan notices that the man leading it was one of the soldiers who destroyed his village and helped murder his father. After Conan gets the information he wants, he rescues a thief named Ela-Shan (Taghmaoui)  and heads out to a monastery where Khalar is apparently looking for a virgin of the True Blood (i.e. descended from ancient sorcerers) to sacrifice in order to activate the mask.

Said virgin is Tamara (Nichols) who the abbot Fassir (Rawi) sends away in a desperate attempt to save her, even though the monks and monk-ettes are massacred. Khalar’s baddies are about to capture Tamara but Conan saves the day. The two take an instant dislike to one another which in Hollywood-speak means that they’re going to be madly in love by the end of the picture.

Still, Khalar will stop at nothing to get his hands on the girl. Conan will have to battle through every manner of deadly creature, both man and beast, in order to save the girl and finally get his revenge.

Conan is one of the most enduring characters in pulp literature. Howard’s stories and novels have been in print nearly continuously for over 80 years, and his mythos has been added to and expanded upon by nearly every medium imaginable, from graphic novels to videogames to movies. He represents the primal male attributes, as he shrugs “I live. I love. I slay. I am content” at one point in the movie.

Momoa is going to inevitably be compared with Schwarzenegger and he acquits himself surprisingly well. Those who saw him as the brutal, brooding Khal Drogo in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” might be surprised at his range. His Conan here is a little bit more easygoing than Drogo; to be honest I’ve always pictured Conan as more like Drogo; dark, quiet, likely to let his actions speak louder than his words. This Conan is engaging and funny. Momoa doesn’t quite have Arnold’s natural charisma, but he certainly has potential to be a big star.

His supporting cast blows hot and cold.  Lang gives an over the top performance that borderlines on the ludicrous, while Perlman, who is forced to wear the most ludicrous beard in cinematic history, does a fine job as Corin. Young Leo Howard does a nice job as young Conan and is literally spectacular in his own fight scenes. In some ways he outdoes Momoa.

Nichols is uncommonly pretty, although she looks a little more modern in some ways. I think she was just a little bit miscast here, but she makes a good effort. McGowan is terrifying as the witch which is what she’s meant to be but sometimes she seems almost TOO crazy.

Most of the problems I have with the movie is that they don’t really capture the spirit of the Conan stories. Howard’s stories are generally dark and dank, with monsters that are beyond imagining. Here the monsters are rather pedestrian; there are sand warriors that reminded me of similar creatures in The Mummy Returns and an octopus like creature that is all tentacle and CGI mayhem. Nice enough but not particularly groundbreaking.

This is entertaining enough, but it isn’t the movie it could have been. I would love to see more direct translations of Howard’s work to the screen but it hasn’t happened yet. As to those critics who wonder if the world needs an another Conan movie, the answer is far more than we need another quirky indie romance. Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against indie films of any sort. It’s just we have had plenty of great indie films and no great Conan movies yet.

And there’s a need for them. Good entertainment is hard to find, for one thing. The swords and sorcery genre has yet to live up to its potential, but there is a lot to explore there. This movie tells me we’re not ready to yet, or at least Hollywood isn’t. I guess I’ll just have to wait awhile longer for my Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser movie.

REASONS TO GO: Momoa is actually awfully likable and charismatic. Early fight scenes are well-staged.

REASONS TO STAY: Movie loses momentum in last third. Doesn’t capture feel of Howard’s stories.

FAMILY VALUES: As you might expect there is a whole lot of violence, blood and gore; there is also a fair amount of nudity and sexuality as well, and some disturbing monsters.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ron Perlman, who plays Conan’s father, voiced Conan in a videogame and also the unreleased animated feature Conan: Red Nails.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the vistas should be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Fright Night (2011)

The Secret of Kells


The Secret of Kells

When you look into the woods, you never know what might be looking back at you.

(Gkids.com) Starring the voices of Brendan Gleeson, Evan Maguire, Chisten Mooney, Paul Young, Liam Hourican, Mick Lally, Michael McGrath, Paul Tyack. Directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey

Sometimes we get wrapped up in the mundane so much so that we lose track of things that are less tangible but more important. That can happen more easily in times of stress.

At the Abbey of Kells in Ireland, times are certainly troubled. The Emerald Isle is under frequent attack from the vicious and cruel Vikings of the North, who come seeking gold and leave destruction and misery in their wake. The Abbott (Gleeson), a stern man, is constructing titanic walls around the Abbey to protect it and the village surrounding it. At the center is a tall tower, the top of which is the residence of the Abbott. From his window he can see anything – and anyone – coming to attack.

His nephew Brendan (Maguire) is a bit of a dreamer, longing to be one of the illuminators who draw the beautiful manuscripts the order is known for. However, the Abbott is more concerned with getting the wall built and often uses the illuminators – particularly Brendan, who has a tendency towards daydreaming – to help with the heavy labor.

That all changes when Brother Aidan (Lally) arrives, his cat in tow. Aidan is the greatest illuminator of the age and he brings with him the legendary Book of Iona, a tome that he has been illuminating most of his life, one which was started by a Saint no less. Brendan is struck by hero-worship, particularly when he sees the first few pages of the Book.

Aidan sends him into the woods surrounding the fortress for a particular berry that makes a delightfully green ink (and tends to explode in a noxious cloud of smoke for some reason) and meets Aisling (Mooney), a wild girl of the forest with flowing white hair who may not be exactly what she appears to be. Although at first suspicious of one another, she agrees to help Brendan on the condition that he never return to “her” forest. Brendan agrees and they strike up a fast friendship.

The rest of the plot is concerned about the conflict between Brendan’s idealism and the Abbot’s pragmatism, between Brendan’s independence and the Abbot’s authority. Yes, the inevitable invasion of the Vikings occurs and there are ramifications of it. There is also a heaping dosage of Irish mysticism. And then there is the Book, which will eventually become better known as the Book of Kells.

One of the things that disturb me about animated features is the need to talk down to juvenile audiences. If there’s something that Up teaches us is that you can respect the intelligence and wisdom of kids when it comes to an animated movies just as much as you can the adults. There’s simply no need to dumb it down, and yet this feature, made by some of the animators who worked on The Triplets of Belleville (a very adult animated feature) utilizes a gaggle of international monks (one Italian, one Caribbean, one Russian I think and so on) who serve no other purpose than for kids to laugh at ‘em.

Personally I could have done without the comic relief. What works here is the beautiful hand-drawn animation. The filmmakers wisely decided to create the look of an illuminated manuscript, so the scenes are awash in intricate detail. This is certainly two dimensional and a bit of a throwback, but it’s obvious a great deal of love and care went into the animation. It makes for a very stylized look, but it is so detailed that it bears multiple viewings nicely. You will be transported, as I was, by the intricately drawn geometric shapes with the delicate scrollwork and bright colors.

The Secret of Kells received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature this past February, which was a bit of a surprise to many moviegoers who hadn’t heard of this movie. It beat out better-known releases such as Monsters vs. Aliens for the nomination. Those who are fortunate enough to find this playing in their town and give it a shot will see precisely why it was so honored; this is one of the most unique and beautiful-looking animated features I’ve ever seen.

REASONS TO GO: The beautifully drawn backgrounds resemble an illuminated manuscript come to life. The animation is inventive.

REASONS TO STAY: Like too many animated features, it dumbs itself down for younger audiences needlessly. Voice actors for Brendan and Aisling fall in and out of Irish accent.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A co-production of Belgium, France and Ireland.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely, this deserves to be seen in a theater.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW:  Mid August Lunch