Saturday, 23 July 2016

Conan

“How many names do I need?” CONAN THE BARBARIAN (2011) is director Marcus Nispel’s remake of John Milius’ 30-year-old classic vehicle for Schwarznegger. German–born Nispel has carved out his Hollywood career on post-millennial updates of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday The 13th, Frankenstein (TV from a Koontz ‘concept’), and peculiar lost–Viking adventure Pathfinder (based upon a Norwegian original).

Born via battlefield C-section, the hero of this movie version of Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian champion is played by Jason Momoa (from Stargate Atlantis). His unfortunately–doomed father is portrayed by Ron Perlman (making Conan the ‘son’ of Hellboy!, Eh?). It starts in a Cimmerian village where, after his day of chores, boy Conan takes a shortcut during local warrior wannabes’ egg-in-mouth race home. He survives an ambush, and collects four heads, but he’s not ready for a sword until the village is attacked in a storm of blood and fire and that familiar rain-of-arrows cliché.

Bad guy Zym (Stephen Lang, ex-killer of Smurfs-on-acid in Avatar), re–assembles the bone shards of a powerful face–hugger mask to make himself a god, and resurrect his beloved. Having lost the invasion battle, there is further horror when Conan’s dad is doused in molten steel. Once grown up, Conan and his chums free a bunch of slaves, and then our muscular champ saves elusive pureblood ‘monk’, Tamara (Rachel Nichols; P2, G.I. Joe, Continuum), in the slick yet rather characterless mayhem of numerous action set–pieces happening amidst fairytale picture–book scenery. Whether he is killing or carousing (“I live, I love, I slay”), Momoa wins this month’s award for best ‘sneer with eyebrows’ performance. Rose McGowan (from Planet Terror) is venomously witchy as the top villain’s daughter Marique, who conjures up a sand wraiths’ kung fu melee, while shirtless Conan strikes his comicbook poses in strap–on rags.

Nispel is so fanatically intent on presenting stunts and special effects that lucid storytelling is neglected, and it falls to stilted unwashed dialogue and blunt flashbacks to carry the mediocre plot. Sadly, the filmmakers ‘forgot’ there needs to be an intriguing mythical dimension (which the original Arnie flick had plenty of!) to swordplay adventures like this. Empty spectacle is never appealing enough to fully entertain and this Conan fails the same way that Mike Newell’s clunky Prince Of Persia failed. It rattles hollowly and thoughtlessly along with nothing much to say about barbaric heroism or vengeance, and clearly no idea how to make up for its shortcomings with only the studio toolkit and high grade production values as commendable assets. “Behold, and despair!”

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Caped crusader

“One man can still make a difference.” Somewhere in the vast comicbook continuum, between Unbreakable and Batman, Tom Wheeler’s THE CAPE (2011) cleverly distils generations of superhero lore, while adding some postmodern influences as its secret ingredient.

Vince Faraday (David Lyons, Ozploitation flick Storm Warning) is the proverbial good cop framed for murder. With fanfare cued appearances in Palm City, Faraday turns crusader as the Cape - opposing corporate psycho Fleming, the super-villain alias, Chess (James Frain, Tron: Legacy), who intends privatisation/ takeover of every authority. He’s sick and twisted but not even a genius. 

Keith David heads the local carnival underworld of bank robbers and he becomes our outlaw hero’s mentor. Summer Glau brings genre-favourite appeal to her sidekick role as techie/ spy Orwell (who drives a flashy gull-wing Mercedes). Vinnie Jones is a repeat offender as campy snake–faced (“Wot choo lookin’ at?”) mobster ‘Scales’. My sandwich broker says that hammy acting and cheesy plots should not be mixed on a morally wholesome bread ‘n’ butter adventure like this, but it does make a tasty TV snack.


Significant borrowings from the futuristic satire of RoboCop (especially its spin-off TV show) are noticeable. Throughout its meagre ten–episode season, The Cape’s Palm City contrasts the gleaming spires of Metropolis with gritty Gotham alleyways as varied backdrops for a low–budget, yet briskly paced, telefantasy action series. There’s a tarot pack of villainy in the secret society of killers. The cape’s original owner (Thomas Kretschmann, later seen in Argento’s Dracula 3D) returns to provide back-story to the mystery but he’s a bit too chatty and unmotivated for his plans to succeed. Apart from obvious parallels of jokey circus stereotypes with costumed superheroes, the basic season–arc theme is typical friction between white-collar crooks and blue-collar thugs.

The main point of soapy irritation is a flashback surplus with parental bonding of Faraday and his young son. The hero and villains socialise through their inner–child parade for the masquerade party aboard a runaway train. Mena Suvari guests as vengeful savant Dice. Elliott Gould plays Chess’ doctor/ shrink. Fake deaths paralyse Palm City folk: “Terrorist zombies? Now that’s a bad combination.”


A drug-trip nightmare wedding ceremony in an asylum for captive Orwell distinguishes two-parter The Lich, while Razer sees Faraday going undercover to impersonate a bomb-maker. Genre interest wanes whenever producers try making straightforward drama of eccentrics, weirdoes and madmen, and their storylines start slipping into clichéd soap opera, as Heroes so often did. Inevitably, there’s a big showdown and yet, also predictably, the chief baddie Fleming wriggles away to escape justice. This is no copycat of Kick-Ass or Super, because The Cape isn’t cheaply jaded, or bitterly ironic, and presents a trad comicbook style with a retro feel that’s modestly entertaining.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Ltd.

Everyone’s dream is to reach the next level; to be far more than ordinary. LIMITLESS (2011) sees author Eddie struggling through writer’s block, until acquiring a stash of designer drugs which increase his potential, radically. The enhanced-Eddie’s brain upgrade runs intelligence at peak efficiency; focused learning and problem-solving-energy that’s on with a capital O, capital N. Total recall, clarity of thought, spiky reasoning, fresh perspectives, and vaulting imagination but human nature’s sys op is hampered by greed. On NZT pills, Eddie becomes New York City’s wonder boy. A high flyer, go–getter, and jet–setter, he’s making headlines until - suddenly, his life moves so swiftly he can’t keep up and a burn-out seems inevitable, more so when he’s facing a final test (working De Niro) of outsmarting the crooked capitalist Van Loon.  

Despite its blatant symbolism – an inverted camera shows Eddie’s world turned upside down, Neil Burger’s SF thriller boasts a likeable star (Bradley Cooper, A-Team remake, Midnight Meat Train, Alias TV series) ably portraying the mental crashes of an addict off his smart meds, even though he’s less convincing as a born-again genius. The narrative climax is a bloodily violent interrogation and subsequent getaway, that follows genre references to Flowers For Algernon (see also Charly, Lawnmower Man), and The Man Who Fell To Earth, while toying with allegories of Lazarus and Icarus, and yet it is really nothing more than Wall Street rebooted as sci-fi suspenser.

Eddie fails to go further than corporate–merger broker, overlooking the fact that no matter how quick a student he is, there’s just no substitute for the kind of hard-won experience that produces genuine wisdom. The DVD has two versions of a happy ending, the better/ preferred choice of which also manages a neat and uncanny trick of quietly dramatising a face-to-face handover of power between Van Loon - representing the corrupt old guard of 20th century saps, and fast Eddie who is aiming much higher as possibly the next stage in human evolution.

Since I wrote this movie review five years ago, there’s been a spin-off TV series but it was cancelled after one season (to be released on DVD, 22nd August).

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Sunday horror!

“I can’t believe in a god who’s less merciful than I am.” A Swedish horror, PSALM 21 (2009) begins rather cackhandedly, as priest Henrik learns that his father – who was also in the clergy – has just died. While he is driving out of town to visit the coroner, his car breaks down, and so the stranded Henrik stays overnight with a local family who seem more than a bit weird. He is haunted by spectres of his dead relatives and Henrik sees others (a ghost boy and a spooky girl) become ghoulish creatures with a similarly demonic aspect.  

Is poor Henrik now tragically cursed by his own willingness to accept knowing his father’s murderer? This is an especially troubling act of forgiveness when his ‘priestly’ father was also a paedophile. A first movie for actor turned writer and director Fredrik Hiller, this hell–bound shock fest has ostensibly awkward, seemingly amateurish, performances that are actually good and entertaining attempts to ground the movie’s theatrics in a kind of sober improv reality. Henrik is on a journey into a ‘twilight zone’, that becomes increasingly surreal with revelations and rememberings (including oedipal incest?) of his own dark past.

Deliciously creepy, and sometimes close to genre parody – while skilfully avoiding too many humorous pitfalls, Psalm 21 does not always, or even often, make perfect sense, but its moody intensity is a welcome diversion from slick Hollywood standards of over-produced flashiness that conceals a thematic emptiness. Delusional rantings by one religious nutter here are more frightening than close attention by most evil serial killers. This is a quite well polished flick for a low-budget foreign production boasting many effective spectral montages.

The grand finale starts with a burning bible, and ends with an heretical yet heartfelt sermon, by Henrik to a baffled congregation, which results in him being dragged from the pulpit and unceremoniously expelled from his own church (simply for daring to speak the truth, of course). Oh, Jesus wept... 

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Demon Empire


Made in 2006, DEMON EMPIRE is a superb Korean movie that fans of Tsui Hark’s Zu Warriors (either version) should enjoy. After he saves a village from demons, local folks and ungrateful wretches, betray their vagabond saviour, Yi Gwak (Jung Woo-sung, from Musa: The Warrior and The Good, The Bad, The Weird) to his enemies in a wicked dynasty. The superhero takes a fall, but wakes amidst the towering pagodas of ‘Midheaven’ for his purgatory walkabout, supposedly awaiting reincarnation, although he’s not actually dead. Yi Gwak is reunited with lost love Yon–hwa, but she’s now a higher spiritual being without memories of her previous mortal existence…  

It’s a romantically tragic fairytale about transcendent love, misplaced guilt and the importance of forgiveness, but Demon Empire never stoops to be simply preachy. This is also an enjoyably spectacular fantasy actioner with flying daggers, boomerang swords, chain-whips like living tentacles, much CGI, and wire fu galore. Yi Gwak follows a philosophical path, intent upon protecting the human world, not changing it, so chief villain Ban–chu, who sits on a hot–tub throne, becomes so angered by our hero’s morality that his hair turns white as he calls forward an apocalyptic blood Moon.

There’s a requisite mcguffin - the ‘holy stone’ of ultimate power, as symbolised by sacrificial angelic heroine Yon-hwa, whose tortured body radiates glorious light. For the grand finale, there’s a citadel–wide mêlée as Yi Gwak single-handedly takes on an entire army. Demon Empire is not a masterpiece, or a breathtaking epic, but it’s at least on a par with the likes of Goemon.