Hercules (2014)


All these guys can smell what the Rock is cooking.

All these guys can smell what the Rock is cooking.

(2014) Swords and Sandals (Paramount/MGM) Dwayne Johnson, Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, John Hurt, Aksel Hennie, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Reece Ritchie, Joseph Fiennes, Tobias Santelmann, Peter Mullan, Rebecca Ferguson, Isaac Andrews, Joe Anderson, Stephen Peacocke, Nicholas Moss, Robert Whitelock, Christopher Fairbank, Irina Shayk, Barbara Palvin. Directed by Brett Ratner

Being a legend isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. You have this high bar to live up to and the tales of your accomplishments can take on a mythic quality. When you’re Hercules, the son of Zeus, that can be doubly aggravating. It can also send you on a retreat from life.

Hercules (Johnson) has been living with his reputation most of his life. Freakishly strong, he wears a lion skin supposedly from the Lion of Nemea whom he slew as one of his twelve labors performed to get Hera off his back (Hera, the wife of Zeus, was none too pleased with the nascent godling from her husband’s loins). However, he employs his nephew Iolaus (Ritchie) to spread the tales of his legend – which makes his enemies fearful of what he can do. That can come in useful when you’re a mercenary.

Which is what Hercules has become. He was once under the employ of Athenian King Eurystheus (Fiennes) with a wife (Shayk) and children but after they were slaughtered and Hercules himself blamed for the heinous crime – which he can’t remember whether or not he had done – he was banished and wanders Greece accompanied by Iolaus, his right hand man Autolycus (Sewell), the prophet Amphiaraus (McShane) who is also a skilled fighter in his own right, the Amazon warrior Atalanta (Berdal) and the mute berserker Tydeus (Hennie). They make a formidable bunch.

They are given a job by Lord Cotys (Hurt) of Thrace whose land is in the midst of a bloody civil war. The dark, nefarious sorcerer Rhesus (Santelmann) has raised an army of demons and centaurs, burning down villages and massacring the inhabitants and bewitching the survivors to fight for him. Cotys’ daughter Ergenia (Ferguson) and her son Arius (Andrews) beseech the warrior for his help and he, taken by Ergenia’s giving nature, agrees to train the Thracian army to stand up to the rebel, with Cotys’ bemused General Sitacles (Mullan) somewhat skeptical about his success.

However, nothing is ever as it seems in Hercules’ world. He will have to become the hero of legend to save his crew and Thrace, and not just the legend invented by his nephew. In short, he must become Hercules, son of Zeus.

I have to admit that I wasn’t sure about the casting of Johnson as Hercules. He always seems to have a twinkle in his eye and a fairly laid back attitude as an action hero and I have always thought of Hercules as much more serious. No need to worry – Johnson makes an excellent Hercules. While I question the decision to have him wear a wig and fake beard, he certainly has the physique and he is a much better actor than most of the ones that have played Hercules in the past (although Kevin Sorbo was and is a terrific actor). I’d say that Johnson really carries the movie.

While the trailers show giant boars and lions and hydras and such, there is surprisingly little in the way of those sorts of special effects. That’s mainly because the graphic novel that the film is based on eschewed much of the mythological elements of Hercules’ story in favor of a more down to earth telling of his tale which is an original one.

I have to say that the movie is much more entertaining than I expected. Johnson’s natural charisma helps on that score, but Ratner, a director not known for subtlety, has a sure hand here and allows the characters to develop and make some headway. McShane, always dependable, is something of a mentor to Hercules and seems to be alone in knowing the truth of his tale. Sewell who often gets cast in villain roles gets a rare opportunity in a heroic cast and makes the most of it.

The fight scenes are well done and Hercules’ feats of strength are mostly believable here. It’s all mostly brute strength rather than agility and grace, but we get those from Bolso and Sewell in their sequences so it isn’t all skull crushing and horse throwing.

While the plot here is predictable (the plot twist that drives the last half of the movie is one you’ll see coming a mile away and the second half of the movie suffers as a result) and the dialogue tends towards the bombastic, this isn’t the kind of movie you go to see for the story. You go for the spectacle. You go for the action. And you go for the Rock. Finally, the Rock has come back to Thrace…

REASONS TO GO: The Rock is more cut than ever! Some nifty battlefield sequences. McShane and Sewell are entertaining.

REASONS TO STAY: Predictable. Some of the dialogue is a bit creaky.

FAMILY VALUES:  Battle violence, occasional expletives, some disturbing images and brief sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to Johnson, his fake beard in the film is made of yak testicle hair.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Clash of the Titans

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Films for Foodies begins!

Tales From Earthsea (Gedo senki)


 

Tales From Earthsea

Have fun storming the castle!

(2006) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Timothy Dalton, Mariska Hargitay, Willem Dafoe, Cheech Marin, Matt Levin, Blaire Restaneo, Kat Cressida, Suzanne Blakeslee, Pat Fraley, Jessica Gee-George, Tara Platt, Liam O’Brien, Terrence Stone, Karen Strassman. Directed by Goro Miyazaki

 

We are often driven by forces within us that we ourselves don’t understand. When asked why we do the things we do, sometimes all we can shrug and say “I dunno.” Usually, that’s not a sufficient answer.

Arren (Levin) is a prince of the realm in the world known as Earthsea. His father is a well-beloved king who is preparing Arren for a reign of his own but one dark night in the castle, Arren cold-bloodedly murders his father and steals his enchanted sword, fleeing into the night and away into the most distant lands of the realm.

Arren himself doesn’t understand why he killed his own father – he loved him. He is being pursued by a strange shadowy figure who frightens Arren although the prince should be paying more attention to the wolves who gather around him. It looks like Arren will receive karmic justice but he is rescued at the last moment by a sorcerer named Sparrowhawk (Dalton).

It turns out that Sparrowhawk is one of the greatest mages in the land. He seeks to return balance to his world, which of late has been beset by dragons. Not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly unexpected since dragons were thought to have left the world. At one time dragons and humans lived in harmony together but those days are long gone.

Into this mix comes Cob (Dafoe), another sorcerer albeit one whose intentions are far less benign than Sparrowhawk’s. Cob means to find immortality and doesn’t care if he has to blast Earthsea into nothingness in order to do it. The key to his immortality rests with Arren. Sparrowhawk knows that he must protect Arren from Cob at all costs and is joined by ex-priestess Tenar (Hargitay) and her disfigured teenage ward Therru (Restaneo) to help defeat Cob and restore Earthsea into harmony.

Although released in Japan in 2006, the movie didn’t make it to American shores until 2010. Much of that had to do with rights issues – the movie is based on the work of American author Ursula K. LeGuin (and mostly on the third book of her Earthsea saga, The Farthest Shore). Much has been made about the movie’s PG-13 rating, which is the second film from Studio Ghibli to receive such a rating (The Princess Mononoke was the first) and the first animated feature from Disney to get that particular rating. It certainly isn’t for small children.

The animation is gorgeous for the most part, not unlike a watercolor come to life. The dragons are nicely realized and there are some very nice bits of business here. However, this isn’t Hayao Miyazaki in the director’s chair, it’s his son Goro and the younger Miyazaki’s inexperience shows in places. The pacing can be downright slow (a crucial mistake in an animated feature) and the characterization is pretty shallow. For some reason, the decision was made to make Cob look a bit like David Bowie in his more androgynous phase and give him Willem Dafoe’s raspy voice. The combination is jarring to say the least.

LeGuin’s source material is rich in background and while she has disassociated herself from the movie, at least the palate that the filmmakers and writers drew from is vibrant. This feels like a lived-in world, for better or for ill.

This isn’t an easy property to bring to the screen, considering the hero commits patricide in the first few minutes of the film. You are left wondering if he is the villain from that point (if you’re not familiar with LeGuin’s work) and it takes a good long time to get behind Arren as the hero. Dalton, as Sparrowhawk, gives great depth and color to his character, projecting the gentle nature of the archmage as well as his infinite patience (Arren isn’t always the easiest companion to hang around with). Of all the characters in the movie, it is Sparrowhawk who remained with me the longest.

Even LeGuin admitted this isn’t a bad movie – in fact it’s a pretty damn good one, despite the fan base that decries it (both that of LeGuin and Studio Ghibli). It isn’t an easy movie to get behind in all instances but if you don’t give up on it, you might find yourself warming up to it as I did. This is far from the best film to come from the studio but it isn’t the worst either. Faint praise, I know – but believe me, this is a very good movie, worth looking up however you get your home video.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous animation. Dalton does a fine job vocally. LeGuin’s world is very much worth exploring, even if it isn’t exactly the way she wrote it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The film lacks spark and passion. It also drags in places.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the images are fairly graphic and violent.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki originally petitioned author Ursula K. LeGuin to direct the movie but she was unfamiliar with his work and turned down his request. After she saw My Neighbor Tortoro she was sufficiently impressed and changed her mind; however by that time he was too deep into making Howl’s Moving Castle to direct himself and as a result his son Goro made this his feature film debut. LeGuin was seriously disappointed with the final results and said so on her website.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interactive map and trivia game for previous Studio Ghibli features.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $68.7M on a $22M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: A Separation

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)