Friday, September 30, 2011

Stolen Time

Is it wrong that I actually wanted to see Abduction?

Don't get me wrong; I could care less that this film is the first project to be headlined by Twilight star Taylor Lautner as a leading man, as the pug-faced bodybuilder has done nothing to convince me that he's earned the shot. Being in a successful series of films based on an even more successful series of teen supernatural novels is NOT a recipe for standalone success; Kristen Stewart has had no tangible success outside of the Twilight movies and Robert Pattinson had to adapt another popular novel (in the great Water for Elephants) to star in another hit. No, Lautner was nowhere near the top of the list of reasons I had for wanting to see this film; it was instead his director and co-stars who baited me into the theater like a mouse to cheese. I've never seen a John Singleton film, but even a middle-class white boy can understand the impact he has had with the urban titles Poetic Justice and the Oscar-nominated Boyz n tha Hood. And the talent piled around Lautner? Sigourney Weaver, Alfred Molina, Jason Isaacs, Maria Bello and Michael Nyqvist are all top-notch performers whose presence spoke to me and guaranteed that I would be seeing this film as soon as I could fit it into my schedule.

Movie appealing to teens? Guaranteed liberal cell phone usage
Nathan Harper (Lautner) is a normal suburban teenager. He's on the wrestling team in high school, crushes on his classmate/neighbor Karen (Lily Collins) and lives with his parents Kevin (Isaacs) and Mara (Bello). His is a fairly normal life, but he is also troubled in that he suffers from insomnia and rage issues brought on by dreams he has of witnessing a woman he vaguely recognizes being murdered. As a result Nathan doesn't always feel like he belongs in the life he leads, all more complicated by the discovery of his childhood photo on a missing person's website. Soon after learning that the people in his house are not his parents, Nathan and Karen find themselves on the run from a CIA group led by Frank Burton (Molina) and a Russian terrorist group under the leadership of Viktor Koslow (Nyqvist). If they are to have any chance, Nathan must learn about his real father and the reasons his life up to this point has been a lie.

Because every teenager need a motorcycle for... stuff
Unfortunately, there's very little good to say about Abduction. While the premise has some potential, it is utterly wasted thanks to a terrible screenplay by Stellastarr frontman Shawn Christensen. This man needs to stick to his musical career, as the film's horrid dialogue and pacing fail on every level. Almost is bad is Singleton's work as director. As far from the subjects of his earlier work as humanly possible, Abduction simply didn't have the right man in charge, as Singleton can't do for upper-class white kids what he did for lower-class urban black youths in the nineties. The whole teen angst movement that has become so popular in recent years seems over his head and one can't help but wonder what would happen if someone more in tune like Catherine Hardwicke had been in charge (of course she made the atrocious Red Riding Hood so she might not be the best example). Maybe it's time Singleton go back to writing his own screenplays, as he really doesn't seem to do well when it comes to other people's stories.

Sweaty Taylor Lautner is not a pretty thing
And yet this might have been slightly redeemable if Lautner had been a more polished lead actor; sadly, this was a bad first pick for a shot at a post-Twilight career. It's not the Lautner is a BAD actor, it's just that he can't overcome the trite material he's given to work with at this stage. Looking like a poor-man's Tom Cruise is not a good thing if you can't capture that early Tom Cruise charm, something he will desperately need if he wants success in the future. Lily Collins is no better, having not lived up to her billing as an actress to watch out for. As she was in this year's other snore-fest action film Priest, Collins is a goal and something to protect, but never breaks out of that shell and becomes her own character. She does get one moment to shine, but the scene is so overlooked by the filmmakers that it barely warrants a mention. Together, the pair make for an uninteresting set of leads, complete with an entirely implausible romance.

Trying to be slick. Failing.
And so it falls to the support cast to keep this film completely out of the gutter. However, despite the amazing amount of talent present even this group can't save this mess. Sigourney Weaver, Alfred Molina and Jason Isaacs are all high-impact talents who usually raise the quality of a film just by their mere presence. Look at Weaver in Paul; the perfect example of a perfectly-cast small role. And Molina was easily the best part of Prince of Persia, one of 2010's worst titles. Both are completely wasted here, with Molina not quite ringing true as a CIA operative who may or may not be trustworthy, and Weaver shockingly bland as one of Nathan's true allies. Isaacs has been good in just about every genre of film you can imagine, from the women's drama Nine Lives to the action thriller Green Zone to the sci-fi horror Event Horizon. He's always been amongst the best performers that nobody in the community recognizes, and part of the reason for that is his inability to pick the great, popular movies. In that way, he's kind of a male, English Robin Wright. Here, he's the best part of the film, only to be killed off early, along with the equally-talented Maria Bello. The biggest hope I had for this film was for Michael Nyqvist to make an impact on Hollywood. Nyqvist, best known for his leading role of Mikael Blomkvist in the Swedish adaptation of Stieg Larssen's Millennium trilogy, had an opportunity to become a known quantity to an American audience. Unfortunately, he suffers the same fate as Weaver, as what talent he brings to the table is countered by cliche characterization and the lousy script. He'll have another chance with the latest Mission Impossible film when it releases later this year, but it's still a major disappointment to see him wasted in this film.

Sadly, Excitement missed the last train to the filming of Abduction
Let's get this straight: Abduction is not a good film. It's not even a mediocre film. A cheap knockoff of the Jason Bourne series, this is a bad film that takes the talents present and cuts it all out until you cannot tell that it was ever there. One of the year's worst, it has the wrong director, a misused cast, and lead actor who can't yet cut it as a lead actor. Unlike the much more polished Pattinson, Lautner hasn't proven that he can yet carry a film with any degree of authority. Until he can, and until he starts to pick better material, I think I can safely avoid his theatrical releases for now and the immediate future.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Home Run

I don't know how long my father has been a fan of the great sport of baseball, but I do know that it has been a long, LONG time. Particularly interested in the numbers game baseball has become in recent years, he early on bought the annually-released books by statistical pioneer Bill James, the Baseball Abstract. James would tackle the subject of baseball in a way unlike any who had come before or who have since, but fans like my father would snatch up all this unconventional wisdom that would allow them to look at something they loved in a brand new light. James' invention, a statistical analysis of baseball that he called sabermetrics, could analyze a player's skill and could even help plot trends in their baseball careers. Today he is considered one of the most influential people in the world, but only a decade ago he was all but ignored by those who ran the sport, because he often went against their more traditional (and ancient) ways of thinking. Eventually his ideas reached the ears of a man with an open mind, Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane. In the 2003 book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, author Michael Lewis talked about how Beane used sabermetrics to turn his underfunded baseball team into a juggernaut by focusing attention on players that were dismissed by advocates of traditional scouting due to intangibles or downright incorrect preconceptions. The excellence of the book, not to mention the legacy that James and Beane have introduced to the sport, is the main reason I had been looking forward to the film adaptation of Moneyball. While I may be on the fence at times with Brad Pitt, I can't deny how far he has come in recent years after being little more than a pretty face during much of his early Hollywood career.

Two of the more unexpected faces to see in a Baseball movie
After his 2001 Oakland Athletics suffer heartbreaking loss against the New York Yankees during the first round of the playoffs (winning the first two games before falling in three straight), Billy Beane (Pitt) has an uphill struggle in front of him. Due to the financial constraints of being a small-market baseball team, Oakland is losing its three best players, and a low budget means there is no way they can afford appropriate replacements. Despite this imbalanced system which rewards rich teams while treating poor ones like minor league affiliates, Beane is frustrated that his scouting department refuses to look at the situation differently from their more affluent competition. This is especially personal for him because it was sweet-talking scouts that had convinced Beane that he was a top-notch talent when he chose his own baseball career over going to college twenty years prior. Still not fully trusting scouts, Beane turns to student of sabermetrics Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), to help build a team from players that most won't touch for various reasons. Though the team has some early struggles, Beane and Brand slowly see this team defy the odds and become a championship-caliber ball club, culminating in the longest winning streak in the history of professional baseball.

Rating his performance in The Tree of Life
The superb casting is what gives Moneyball so much of its flavor. While Pitt and Hill are not stretched very far in what they are given to do on screen, it is their character's friendship and professionalism together that really elevate this film over the bargain basement buddy formula it could have become. Of the two, Hill is somewhat more outside his comfort zone as a young comedy actor; however there are plenty of quips, jibes and smirks delivered deftly, and in that regard Hill might appear to most as performing far superior in comparing this to his earlier efforts. He IS better, no doubt, but don't get your hopes thinking this is going to turn Hill into a perennial awards contender. He and the understated Pitt work well together, and for now that's all we need. The two do have some strong support, most notably Philip Seymour Hoffman as Athletics Manager Art Howe, perpetually grumpy at managing under a one-year contract (which as he points out means that the people in charge have no confidence in him). It's not a big part but Hoffman is perfectly cast and of course does a great job when put on the spot. Several of the baseball players also stand out, especially Stephen Bishop as declining veteran outfielder David Justice and Parks and Recreations star Chris Pratt as converted first baseman (he was originally a catcher before a career-derailing injury) Scott Hatteberg, both of whom proved important to Oakland's playoff run. Less impressive are the actors playing parts in Beane's home life, especially the perennially-underutilized Robin Wright as his unremarkable ex-wife and Kerris Dorsey as his supportive but "why is she there?" daughter. Because the film focuses more on the balance between Beane's baseball and home lives, it doesn't move far to either extreme, meaning any lasting impression those characters might have added were reduced to minimal at best.

Now, don't all stand up at once
Aaron Sorkin was brought in to write Moneyball's script, and while his tendency to ramble on for minutes at a time explaining specifics might have gotten a little old in last year's The Social Network (best screenplay my ASS), here it actually works in the film's favor. After all, what baseball junkie have you met who DOESN'T ramble for seemingly ever about minor details? As my father and I and countless others would agree, endless minutiae is what makes baseball such a fascinating topic in the first place. Sorkin and director Bennett Miller capture this by default in tackling the story introduced by Lewis, but focus on the major league club exclusively, where the book also dedicated part of the tale to the A's minor league efforts. Bennett, whose last directorial effort was the overrated but still classic Capote, injects much needed humor into the tale, which helps expand Moneyball's interest to a wider audience than it would normally appeal.

A baseball movie that focuses on the old guys
Of course, this popularization of the film doesn't let a little thing like factual information get in the way. While the basic idea behind sabermetrics and how it helped the 2002 Oakland A's is fairly intact, some nagging inconsistencies do pop up. While Scott Hatteberg did indeed struggle defensively upon moving to first base, his main competition for the role, Carlos Pena, was not the "All-Star" the film would have you believe. Pena spent more of the season at Triple A Sacramento than he did in Oakland and didn't hit particularly well in the majors before being traded to the Detroit Tigers. And while I won't go into a complete rant about it, it was odd for the filmmakers to create a composite of Beane's aides (most notably Assistant GM Paul DePodesta) in the fictional Peter Brand. Also Beane's daughter sings and plays a song about midway through the film that wasn't even in existence until six years after the film takes place (Lenka's 2008 single The Show). These wouldn't be major issues if Moneyball didn't excel in the research aspects of the film, as in the few actual baseball scenes you can see that they have accurate rosters in place for the times of the games, with the correct names stenciled on the back of jerseys. That the film takes pains in some places to appear authentic while simultaneously taking liberties with historical fact is not a bit distressing, as choosing pure entertainment every time is one of Sorkin's bad habits as a screenwriter. As a final note, the film points out that Beane still hasn't won a World Series using his system, but mentions that the Boston Red Sox won just two years later after adopting Beane's philosophies. This is what makes the story behind Moneyball so tragic; Beane changed the game with his methods, but once the big market clubs started looking at baseball stats in the same way he was, his small budget once again had him at a disadvantage. The film naturally glosses this over, failing to mention that Beane's club has not had a winning record since 2006.

Oakland sees a record crowd
These demerits are the only things that prevent me from genuinely placing Moneyball #1 on my Top 10 list for the year. While the narration does get slightly jumbled about the midway point (normal for a sports film compacting dozens of games into five minutes of time), Moneyball excels in telling a story that is smart enough for Bill James enthusiasts while appealing to a wide audience that doesn't need all that mystical mumbo-jumbo to get by. One of 2011's best, Moneyball is worth the price of a ticket as the #2 movie of the year. My father and any other baseball fan would approve.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Driving Force

What a mess last weekend was, huh? With three brand new cinema releases vying to make a big payday, none of the big three managed to take the crown. In fact, the film that ended up at number one in the country wasn't even a film initially released THIS YEAR. With the 3D release of popular Disney film The Lion King cleaning house and flexing it's still-potent drawing power, it cut a swath through the latest pretenders, including a remake of an obscure Dustin Hoffman film and a stunted attempt to reignite Sarah Jessica Parker's acting career. But the biggest tragedy of that September weekend is that Drive, a special highlight of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, suffered somewhat at the hands of an elderly animated carnivore. Granted, Drive and Lion King have different audiences. But for a movie that has so far garnered much praise from critics and screening audiences to finish second at the box office to a title that was first released in June of 1994 is never a good thing, and already interest in this Internet-hyped title has begun to dwindle. This is yet another speed bump in the recent push of actor Ryan Gosling's career, following an Academy Award snub for his lower-class romantic in Blue Valentine (granted, it was a packed field, but I would have at least nominated him). Put together by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive only recently appeared on my radar, but quickly became one of my more anticipated September releases thanks to its amazing visuals, unique and talented cast, and its not-so-subtle portrayal of Gosling as the nouveau Steve McQueen.

At least he's not driving angry...
Based on the 2005 James Sallis novel, Drive centers around an unnamed protagonist (Gosling) who works as a mechanic and Hollywood stunt driver by day and moonlights as a freelance getaway driver after the sun goes down. His boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston) wants to expand into stock car racing, and approaches underworld Don Bernie Ross (Albert Brooks) for an investment, convincing him that he has the best driver available. Meanwhile, the driver's potential romance with neighbor and single mother Irene (Carey Mulligan) is cut short when Standard (Oscar Isaac), her husband and the father of her child, returns home from prison. Agreeing to help Standard settle prison debts, our hero is the victim of a deal gone bad, and a life of relative anonymity collapses as he finds himself with many enemies and precious few friends while he tries to right the wrongs that have been committed.

Let's see: guy with the shotgun vs. the big name actor? As if there's any doubt
While the story itself isn't much to speak of, the way it is told is almost masterful. You likely haven't heard of Refn, whose films haven't made much of a name for themselves on this side of the Atlantic. Arguably his biggest film, Bronson, isn't much known outside of breaking in future Hollywood "It" performer Tom Hardy, and that made more impact on DVD than it had in the theater. It must have caught the eye of Gosling however, who was given the chance to name Drive's director when he joined the film. Even early on, you can tell that Refn is a visually-talented director, with many of his camera shots eloquent and beautiful in their execution. He makes every shot perfect, whether framing wide to see an entire scene play out, or closing in on someone's face at the PERFECT angle, not unlike the 2010 Anton Corbijn film The American. While he does some very close shots during car chase scenes, it never serves to confuse the audience as to what is happening on screen, and that is important because I've never seen a director who take that level of responsibility and handle it so smoothly.

Okay, she even LOOKS a little like Michelle Williams...
Refn's talent is such that when he suddenly turns into something of a European Robert Rodriguez, it is so surprising. With a first half of a film that is almost violence free, you don't expect it when the whole thing turns unabashedly bloody. All of the sudden we're subjected to shotgun blasts, exploding heads, stabbings, drownings, crushed skulls, sliced wrists, and just about anything remotely uncomfortable to watch in one setting. I mean, I knew there had to be a reason for the film's R rating, but for the film to take such a turn was so completely unpredictable and speaks to the director's tact and balance. That Refn even makes the violence watchable (albeit through the gaps in your fingers) is stellar, as it is not detracting at all from his amazing camerawork.

Despite his preparation, he never saw Simba coming.
Once again we have another stellar lead role for Gosling, who is destined to become the next big thing in Hollywood, even if audiences aren't completely behind him. Definitely composing an old-school vibe that's  reminiscent of McQueen while still very much being his own artist, Gosling is a force from beginning to end, as he threads those narrow routes from icy emotionless driver to reluctantly warm human being and back again. He is the best part of Drive by a good margin, and continues to be a joy to watch in any medium. It can't be long before he becomes the favorite in a Best Actor race, and who knows, he might just win. Sadly, Carey Mulligan is a mere victim/love interest, although she is at least believable as such. While it may not be as dull as he role in the Wall Street sequel, she's still a far way away from showing the initiative that made her breakout role in 2009's An Education such a novelty. There are some brave casting choices here, but picking Albert Brooks as the film's heavy was one of pure genius. More known for his comedies, Brooks manages to actually steal some of Gosling's limelight (not too much, mind you) with his smarmy crime lord. Bryan Cranston continues to do great work in small roles, a nice side gig to his successful television career. There are some very good smaller parts on the menu, with talented actors taking their share. Between Ron Perlman's menacing gangster and Christina Hendricks as an icy stick-up artist Refn seems to choose the perfect embodiment of his characters. And that doesn't even account for Oscar Isaac, who we should hate because he was in prison and rivals the Driver for Irene's affections but is really a pretty good guy. Most of the film roles aren't cliches, and even those that are get some extra credit from the viability of those playing them, a rare sight indeed.

He's just about ready for his Oscar, America
In this age of 3D shark-jumping, plot-less scripts, and billion dollar motion pictures, a beautifully-shot and remarkably intelligent film is difficult enough to immediately find, let alone one that is successful. While the film sometimes slows down to a point where you could call it more patient than its audience, Drive overcomes this by making even these slow moments worth watching with enough eye-candy to make it one of the most visually appealing movies of the year. Opulence alone would be enough to place it among the year's best, but the excellent direction and amazing acting propel it to the top of my Top 10 list, square at #1. When you put this much talent together, good things can happen. And when that talent successfully puts something together with out-of-the-box thinking, it can only get better.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Fighting Chance

There are some things that no matter how you suggest, advertise or promote, many people simply won't or can't change their mindset about. Professional wrestling will always be called a "fake" sport with soap opera dramatics. NASCAR will always be seen as entertainment for rednecks and a tactic to keep the South from rising again. Video games rot your brains. Baseball is slow and boring. The Twilight series is poorly written (or poorly put on the screen, take your pick). It doesn't matter how you argue against these statements, there are some people who simply will not be swayed no matter no intelligent or passionate your stance. Mixed Martial Arts is another in that long line, a sport that can trace its roots back to the ancient Olympic sport of pankration, in which men would fight one another using several methods to strike down their opponent or grapple him into submission. Criticized for being brutal and ultra-violent, MMA has gained a bad rap with many people, despite being much more civilized than Professional Boxing was in its heyday. As a relatively new sport, it's still fighting for recognition and respect from potential audiences. That's part of the reason Warrior, the MMA-inspired drama by Miracle director Gavin O'Connor, faltered severely when it went head to head with Contagion last weekend. The film seemed to have a strong stance going into the weekend, with many trailers and previews making it look like a blend of Rocky, The Fighter, and Miracle. It also headlined up-and-coming performers Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, not to mention the the comeback of former Academy Award nominee Nick Nolte. In the end however, it was the MMA tag that likely drove most of the prospective audience members away, as too many people who would have enjoyed this title were apathetic about giving this young sport any more attention than they thought it deserved.

Stop calling him Rocky!
When war hero Tommy Riordan (Tom Hardy) returns to his hometown of Pittsburgh, it is surprising that his first stop is the home of his father Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), who was a drunk and abusive husband and father when Tommy was young. Despite Paddy having been sober for almost a thousand days, Tommy isn't home to build bridges and catch up. Paddy was a skilled fight coach, and Tommy wants his father to help him train for an upcoming MMA tournament featuring the top sixteen middleweights in the world, with a five million dollar prize the largest purse the sport has ever seen. Meanwhile, Tommy's estranged brother Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) is trying to raise a family on a meager teacher's salary that he has had to supplement by fighting competitively at bars, much to the chagrin of his wife Tess (Jennifer Morrison). Having been a former MMA fighter, Brendan has little problem handling small-timers with no experience, but he needs a ton of money to keep his house from being foreclosed, and therefore needs to improve his skills in the cage. With a lot of hard work (and a little luck) he manages to find himself in the same exclusive tournament. Eventually it comes down to brother vs. brother, and Tommy and Brendan must solve their differences both physically and emotionally before they can accept one another again.

"Warrior is a knockout!" Anybody use that tag line yet?
Ignore for a second the fact that this film is entirely predictable and smarmy to almost a fault. The story of a fractured family and a sport of violence somehow bringing it back together is so expertly told that  even though you know what is coming, the tale is rarely boring and never frustrates you with its overly convenient plot turns. With the exception of a brief midway collage of imagery of the two brothers training, the precision of the narrative is razor sharp, and the focus on each character is starkly different so as to make each feel remarkably unique. You want to root for Brendan because he's a dedicated family man and you think hard work should pay off in the end, but Emo Tommy is so full of ANGER that you just want to give him a hug and make his pain go away, before he puts the pain on someone else. That both heroes are likable for completely different reasons is a genuine feat, one that makes the finale that much more difficult to anticipate. That's right, you don't know who will come out on top in the end, but you DO know that you don't want either of them to lose.

The obligatory late night scene

This is in large thanks to the superlative cast that was put on full display. Hardy and Edgerton are two future superstars, and both are at the beginning of major career pushes that should see them become household names not too far in the future. Hardy is especially effective here as the soft-spoken but clearly enraged Tommy, looking for any outlet for his aggression and a cause to call his own. He steadily controls almost every scene, and one look at his body speaks epics about his commitment to the project. It's almost unfair to compare Edgerton to his cinematic brother, but the Australian actor does prove himself a top tier talent, successfully balancing between determined combatant and loving family man with ease. He also works well with Morrison, who gets a few chances to make herself known in the obligatory "suffering wife" role. It's Nolte though who will be absorbing the affection of voters come this award season. Playing a recovering alcoholic, Nolte is strong in his nuanced performance, which features him barely raising his voice but still being able to wring just about every emotion out of his wheezes. Even though he is rudely ousted by the film's end, if there's anybody here courting awards, it's Nolte; only the film's poor box office performance could deter that.

"Just don't maim too many people today, honey"
If there's one thing truly wrong with Warrior, it's the film packing so much into one standalone story. There is a TON of setup throughout the film in preparation for the finale, and even with the truncated training compendium I mentioned earlier this title still comes in at 140 minutes, almost a quarter of which is the climactic tournament. Fortunately much of the time goes smoothly and this extended playtime passes without any real issues. The narrative paces itself nicely, and the story is like a well-cultivated meal for the senses in the way it is told. It helps that there are the strong characters on which the tale can fall back, and that helps the time pass without any dull stretches. There are also a few cliches that could have been bypassed, such as a pointless secondary feud between Tommy and another fighter (Strikeforce star Erik Apple), or the unbeatable Russian (a call back to Miracle) fighter Koba, played by American former gold medalist Kurt Angle. These minor problems are made up for by the footage of the tournament, which plays out like a Greek tragedy on steroids. Even non-fans should be able to get into the struggle of each fight leading to the brothers' final encounter.

It's Cain and Abel with brass knuckles
For a moment I want you to put your MMA biases aside. Can you do that? Thank you. Warrior is so far the most ignored great movie of 2011. If you look at it objectively, you can see why I have it set at #6 for 2011. Excellent direction? Check. Great characters that draw you into the story? Check. Emotional baggage that ties it all together in a convincing manner? SUPER check. Even if the film's irregular vehicle of Mixed Martial Arts isn't your cup of tea, that shouldn't deter you from catching this film in theaters, where it is struggling without your help. Just because you're like me and not a fan of the sport doesn't mean you should allow yourself to miss out. Do yourself a favor and see it while it's still there.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sick Day

Trusty film sidekick Anne and I have had a running joke in recent weeks. On the days or nights when we would go to the theater, we would inevitably see a trailer for the new Steven Soderbergh thriller Contagion. No matter how many times we came across it, our thoughts were the same: "It's the film that stars EVERYONE!" This isn't a generalization on our parts, either; besides the big-name stars like Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard and Laurence Fishburne, the trailer alone was full of recognizable actors from Just Shoot Me's Enrico Colantoni to Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston to Winter's Bone's Acadamy Award nominee John Hawkes. Despite the topical deadly virus story being sold, it was obvious in just under three minutes what the problem with Contagion would be, as the only reason so many big names actors would be rolled out was to camouflage a story that itself was not worth the paper on which it was written. Still, it had an enormously successful opening weekend, and you just can't ignore a film with such a huge pedigree behind it. While Anne hung back in the Reel Cave with a plate of fruit and a looping BSG marathon running, I braved the crowds and elements to find out whether Contagion was SARS come to invade our cinema or a mere throat bug.

Rule #1 of surviving a virus outbreak: avoid hospitals
While returning home from a business trip to China, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) comes down with what she and everyone else assumes is jet lag. The next day, when she collapses at home, a visit to the hospital eventually confirms that it is not jet lag, but an advanced variation on bird flu that has contaminated her body. Highly infectious, this soon becomes a global epidemic, with cities all over the world suffering the deadly effects of this new disease. The Center for Disease Control, led by Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne), attempt to isolate, contain and cure the outbreak, and the Department of Homeland Security is worried that the virus is the product of a terrorist attack. The race is on to save humanity as a whole, but the question is not whether the mysteries of the virus will be solved, but how much politics and red tape will prevent that from happening.

The least-sexy plastic suit of all time
This is definitely as talented a group of actors as you can expect to find attached to any movie title. With legitimate stars like Damon, Kate Winslet et al, you expect that they'll be at the top of their game. This is true in almost every instance, but the problem with Contagion is that the characters these big stars are hired to play are barely people at all, only suits and skirts designed to fulfill narrative obligations. Each person barely display more than one motivation, and often if they change their minds it is in the most inane way possible. For all the hard work Damon and Fishburne pour into their performances, their characters are remarkably one-noted and interesting only in their intensity. Jude Law taps into his asshole quotient nicely, though his independent reporter making a name (and more than a few bucks) on the back of this epidemic is not a stretch from his usual boring roles. I've only ever liked Law in Sherlock Holmes, and I think he needs to work across from superior actors to force him to raise his game to their level. That isn't present here, and he never really shares the screen with the more talented members of the cast. Paltrow and Winslet are completely wasted in bit parts with no lasting impact on the main story, and I was speaking of Cotillard's character when I was complaining of inane character choices. Some of the smaller roles actually work out well, as Colantoni, Cranston, Hawkes and Elliott Gould do some good in a small amount of time. While there are several talented actors in this film, the best character belonged to somebody you may not recognize, as Jennifer Ehle runs away from the pack as a risk-taking lab doctor who kicks ass in just about every imaginable way.

As if things weren't bad enough, Winslet just learned about the Netflix price restructuring
Of course, Soderbergh only intended one character to be multifaceted, and that was the virus itself. Learning, mutating, growing; this virus did more than any single character in the entire film could claim to have accomplished. In reality, Soderbergh's story can be simply described as dropping the virus in amongst a group and studying what happened. In this you can see the best of his work, as its obvious he left no stone unturned in determining what would happen if person A became sick but did this, this and this before meeting person B. It's almost like looking back at Soderbergh's earlier career when similar films Traffic and Erin Brockovich were mega-hits following other topical situations, garnering critical acclaim and box office records in the process. Since that time Soderbergh hasn't exactly had a lot of success getting either of those, with only the Oceans 11 remake and its subsequent sequels being the obvious exceptions. If Contagion is successful, that might be more remembered than any actual detail of the story herein.

At the Apocalypse, don't worry! Cell reception will be as strong as ever
That's because unfortunately the story tends to get as flat as its characters. For the entirety of the film we're being told that this is a bad thing, and to make sure you are careful with what you interact, otherwise there could be deadly consequences. Reasonable enough, but that this message goes on uninterrupted for just under two hours gets quite a bit boring, and since the film portrays an extreme case situation this message probably won't be heeded by most viewers anyway. Sure there's a little bit in there about the evils and flaws of man in a time of crisis, but that is almost glossed over under the seemingly mistaken impression that these are not problems we can fix. On top of that, after going the entire film without having it revealed what caused the virus in the first place, the finale features Soderbergh going right back to day one to spell out exactly how it happened, making borderline racist commentary in the process. It was a completely unnecessary gesture, one which was probably suggested by brain dead test audiences or confused studio executives rather than anything resembling a logical process.

Well, what can I say? Jude Law isn't a great actor
In the end, I managed to make it through almost the entire screening without being too bothered by the flaws, which was far better than I had expected. Only the ending and the poor character design were serious bummers, though the story as a whole wasn't helped much otherwise. A merely okay film, this is hardly the stellar Soderbergh many people seem to think it is. Instead of a riveting biological drama, it's a political and societal statement, one barely interesting or even intellectually argued. I'm not sure I can recommend Contagion to anyone to see in the theater, though it certainly deserves more attention than the latest entries in the Scream, Pirates of the Caribbean or Transformers franchises, all of which I enjoyed to some degree. Contagion carries itself firmly to the middle of the pack as far as 2011 goes, another forgettable film in a year of epically forgettable films.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Space, the Final Frontier

I'm not afraid to admit that there was a time at which I was excited to see Apollo 18. Back in February, when the film was scheduled to be released only a month later, I remember seeing a poster for it hanging in my local multiplex and wondering what the heck this movie studio wanted to tell us was the reason we never went back to the Moon. I didn't see any trailers for a while afterward, as the film's release date was constantly pushed back from March 4'th to July 8'th to to next January 13'th and BACK again to September 2'nd. In the meantime my friend Brian posted the official trailer online, followed by actual cinemas following suit. This is how I discovered that Apollo 18 was a "found footage" horror film, the space variant of a genre that has seen regular admittance to movie theaters since 1999's The Blair Witch Project. After some initial excitement, I began to get worried. Constant delays in the release aside, it has long been a horror film staple that a franchise only goes to outer space when it's on its last legs. Critters 4. Jason X. Hellraiser: Bloodline. Leprechaun 4. Outer space is where horror series go to die, and while Apollo 18 is not part of a dedicated franchise, its voyage outside the limits of our gravity well indicates some thought on the whole found footage genre, that it's only one poorly-attended Paranormal Activity sequel away from oblivion or worse, direct-to-DVD relegation.

The film quality is only underdone by the story quality
Anyone with access to Wikipedia knows that Apollo 17 was the last official manned mission to the Moon, launched and successfully completed back in 1972. Due to budgetary issues, there would be no more Apollo missions, a constant struggle that this year ended NASA's shuttle program. But back in the 70's, Apollo 18 would have you believe that there was a top-secret reactivation and launch of one last Moon mission. Funded by the Department of Defense, the crew was to not only follow the normal Moon landing requirements (picking up rocks, driving the Lunar Lander, etc) but also to set up motion trackers as a warning to the US of possible Communist attack. Despite these wonderfully eyebrow-raising mission parameters, the three crew members are happy just with the prospect of going to the Moon, a place they thought they'd never get to see in person. Unfortunately things go wrong, as they do in films like this, and the footage we see has been somehow recently discovered and edited into a 90-minute motion picture.

You should see the other guy
Of course, if you're Bob Weinstein claiming that this is footage is completely found and not shot in Vancouver with real actors, you should actually get people who aren't immediately recognizable to dedicated film and TV audiences. British actor Lloyd Owen at least has been obscured by a largely theatrical background, but even he might be remembered as Indy's father in the TV show The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. Warren Christie however is already becoming a household name thanks to the Syfy original show Alphas and fans of Battlestar Galactica will recognize both him and final star Ryan Robbins from their expansive cast of performers. At least these are quality actors, especially Owen, who is utterly convincing (SPOILER) as both a committed mission commander and an alien-infected madman. (END SPOILER) Christie holds the position of the film's lead and is fairly strong in the right places. He's the one through whose eyes we're seeing the events unfold, and as the film trudges along its nonsensical plot, we can at least appreciate the trials of the men before us. Tacked on, scenes following Robbins as the pilot of the Command Module orbiting the Moon are little more than cuts between short distances of time on the Moon itself.

He's made a SPECIAL friend... inside his helmet...
Another good idea is to remember that you're supposedly dealing with 1970's film footage and to remember the limitations of that. At times the film quality feels too current, spoiling the experience with film that looks too smooth and detailed to be anything resembling old-school technology. While the few special effects do a good job of incorporating themselves into the live action, there are more than a few scenes where director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego tries to express that things are going wrong by subtly shifting debris in the background of shots. He then realizes this is TOO subtle for most audiences an intentionally brightens small areas to draw our eyes so that we can be surprised by this small movement. It would be clever if it weren't so damned ineffective; the result is neither chilling nor even remotely suspenseful as the smarter people in the audience (what audience there is) quickly grow bored of being told where to look.

Dude, maybe you should get that looked at...
Still, the story behind Apollo 18 isn't horrible, only terribly mediocre. Very slow pacing means that a film that clocks in at only an hour and a half feels twice as long, and most of that time spent (especially the first hour) is aimless and wandering to the point of boring. It's the film's last act that does eventually redeem the film, but by then too much time has passed to really care about it. Despite a solid acting core, there's simply no good reason to pay money and see Apollo 18 in theater, especially since even a mediocre box office has already turned it into a financial success. The worst thing I can say about this title is that Apollo 18 didn't need to be a found footage film. While several titles get good mileage from the medium (including 2010's The Last Exorcism), this is a film that does not gain any benefits and even suffers a few setbacks because of how it is shot. The story only superficially uses the material involved, and there's no reason the filmmakers could not have made a straight sci-fi horror film on a small budget and been as successful. Destined to be forgotten, Apollo 18 might be worth stopping to watch it on television or renting on DVD, but only because you won't have recalled how poor it actually is.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Debt Replayed

For so many people who claim that remakes are inherently a bad idea, many have no idea what they are talking about. Forget about all the films that are obviously remakes, films sharing their origins' titles of The Fly, Ocean's 11, True Grit or The Thing. Not only are the remakes of these classics all quality films, but some would argue better than the originals. However, remakes aren't always named after their inspirations. Arnold Schwarzeneggar and Jaime Lee Curtis lit up the screen in 1994's spy film True Lies, based on the French comedy La Totale! Classic westerns A Fistful of Dollars and The Magnificent Seven were originally acclaimed filmmaker Akira Kurosawa samurai dramas. And the Martin Scorsese Irish gangster movie The Departed, which won the director his coveted Academy Award, was a remake of the 2002 Hong Kong film Internal Affairs. My point is that people put this catch-all negative statement on remakes when more than half the time they don't know one when it's staring at them from the big screen. For instance, you probably didn't realize that the recent film by John Madden, The Debt, was originally an Israeli film of the same name released in 2007. That film was never released in the United States, making it ripe for Hollywood to pounce on and make into their own. The only question was upon which side of the quality line it would eventually fall: on the side of obvious charlatanism and inferiority, or into the realm of quality film-making no matter the source.

Helen Mirren makes scars sexy
In the 1960's, the Isreaeli intelligence agency Mossad sent a cell of young operatives into Nazi-occupied West Berlin on a secret mission. Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain), David Peretz (Sam Worthington) and Stefan Gold (Marton Csokas) are on the search for Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen), the legendary "Surgeon of Birkenau", who performed experiments on Jewish prisoners during the Second World War. The mission ended in success, and though Vogel was never properly extracted from the city, Mossad was happy with the man meeting his end in the streets of West Berlin. Thirty years later, the exploits of the cell has been popularized in a book written by Rachel Singer's (Helen Mirren) daughter, and the three live apart from one another as national heroes, never talking about their mission. At least that is until Stefan (Tom Wilkinson) presents Rachel with some disturbing information. A secret they have kept hidden for thirty years has against all odds reared its head, forcing her to confront a truth the three had kept hidden from everyone, even those they loved.

The Debt takes a hard line against its critical dissenters
As you can gather, the cat-and-mouse spy story is the meat and potatoes of the film's level of quality. It is a well-paced, character-driven tale that takes you from beginning to end and beyond, with clues left in plain sight to allow anyone to follow along with ease. Unfortunately, this also cuts both ways, as there are no "OMG" twists to make the relatively slow pace more rewarding to the audience. You can pretty much guess what the big secret is before it hits, making sitting through waiting a bit like waiting for Gallagher to bust out with his watermelon; you know it's coming and making you wait for it is just pissing you off. Still, this is only a minor criticism, as the basics of the story are flawless and well built, creating a largely enjoyable atmosphere for the viewer.

Young Sam Worthington... handsome... pretty, almost
That atmosphere is helped by an acting core that really reach for higher levels with this film, especially the cast of the 1960's. Jessica Chastain has really taken off in her career, appearing in six films released or scheduled for release in 2011. I've seen three now, and between this, The Help and The Tree of Life, I've really become entranced by her talent and awestruck as to how she's come out of seemingly nowhere to become one of Hollywood's most sought-after stars. She's proving herself to be a serious artist, and more roles like this will get her some true recognition in the future, if not sooner. Sam Worthington is a surprise, an acclaimed Australian actor who wowed some with his role in Terminator: Salvation but otherwise hasn't been a major force since breaking through, especially with his somewhat bland performance in Avatar. The Debt allows him to show off in a legitimate acting role and show what his doubters have decried as not being there. And Marton Csokas ties the trio together, his arrogant and serious cell leader playing beautifully off of Worthington's humble and driven operative and Chastain's brilliant but emotionally-starved intelligence officer. And Jesper Christensen is also brilliant with the material he's given, playing smart doctor and smarmy villain with equal precision. He's the unspoken hero of The Debt, at least on the performance side of the equation.

...and Sam Worthington in 30 years? Scary
Unfortunately, I was somewhat underwhelmed with the way the story worked in the current day, and the quality of the story given the actors. Most of the film takes place in the sixties, and that's where the best moments and story sequences take place. In the present day there are some good moments, but in comparison it pales noticeably. Helen Mirren is of course amazing, but that comes as no surprise to anyone who has EVER seen her perform. As someone with a wide range of talents ranging from drama to comedy, Mirren can do just about anything, and look good doing it. Less impressive are Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds as the current day Stefan and David. It's not that they're BAD, only that they don't distinguish themselves from what we usually expect of them. In the current-day storyline, only Mirren stands out, and despite her best efforts, it's not enough that even she can make up.

Future Academy Award winner?
As a modern spy drama, however, The Debt is a great performer that could have been an excellent one but stutters a bit too much at the end. It does work as a character driven thriller, especially with the acting talents of Mirren, Chastain et al. While the theaters are packed with big name films flexing box office muscle, explosions and laughs, The Debt is a world away as a subtle, clever remake that introduces a unique story to an American audience that didn't get the chance to see in the original. As remakes go, it's one of the good ones, coming in at #10 for 2011. Maybe not a must-see for the genre, it's still a "should-see" as it's difficult find a title so well story-driven in this age of CGI, 3D, and action sequences that exist in a realm completely outside the real world.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Twilight, Meet Fright Night

Wow, I can't believe how much is out that I need to catch up on. Okay, NEED is a strong word. This past weekend marked the release of two titles that may play major roles in setting up the 2011 award season, the old-school biological scare film Contagion and the Fighter-meets-Rocky-meets-Mixed Martial Arts slow burn Warrior. Two other titles, Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star and Creature, were also released, but will only be seen by me ironically if at all. That being said I've yet to watch any of them. These last few weeks have had me see fewer movies than usual, and as such I'm still catching up on films released in the past few weeks. It's getting to the point where Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, Apollo 18 and Shark Night might end up as eventual DVD releases after I'd expected to see them in theaters. But while newer titles beckon, I've still got time for a little catching up, and Fright Night was the best (or at least best timed) option on the table. A remake of the 1985 vampire film starring William Ragsdale and Roddy McDowall, Fright Night looked to perhaps be the weakest of 2011's wide-release horror titles. Looking too campy, too silly, and too repetitive to live (not to mention pointlessly made in 3D), I didn't expect much from this title except for perhaps strong acting performances from the renowned Colin Farrell, David "Dr. Who" Tenant and Toni Collette.

Hey, look! Mr. Anderson is paying attention to us!
When people start disappearing from the insular neighborhoods outside Las Vegas, most people don't pay any attention. After all, nobody stays in Vegas, with the exception of Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin) and his mother, real estate agent Jane (Collette). Charley's life is going pretty well these days. A former geek, Charley has grown into one of the :"cool kids", having abandoned his old life and entered into a new one, including a relationship with formerly untouchable hottie Amy (Imogen Poots). Soon, Charley is approached by his old friend "Evil" Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and told to his disbelief that his new neighbor Jerry (Farrell) is in fact a vampire, feeding on the people coming and going from the neighborhood. While Charley doesn't at first believe this (and seriously, would you?), events occur which shake his resolve and force him to believe the unbelievable. And when Jerry's reign of terror hits home, Charley finds himself battling a creature with centuries of experience in survival on his side.

Jerry? What an AWFUL name for a vampire!
Let's get this out of the way right now: 3D is the most overrated technology introduced to film in the past decade. I know I must sound like a broken record by this point, but seriously? Every film seems to want to be in 3D, thinking that it's what people want. It's not. It never was. People wanted more films like Avatar to be in 3D, sure. With the outstanding visuals presented in that 2009 Oscar contender, that makes sense. There have even been a few films that have successfully used 3D as a vehicle for improving the overall quality of their product. Those films have been very few, however, as most titles simply do not need 3D to be "better". Horror is possibly the last genre that can use the technology, and for Fright Night, that is no exception. While some horror films can use 3D to at least some effect (Final Destination 5, for example), in Fright Night it is completely without use, as even the film's few action scenes don't make great use of the imagery. Only the occasional rays of sunlight are remotely impressive, and while that is likely intentional, it's not worth the added cost of admission.

Awkward moment will end with much blood
But once you get past the silliness of parading this title in 3D, Fright Night actually surprises with a clever story, interesting characters, and dark humor that raises the occasional smile. The biggest reasons are among those that brought me to the theater in the first place, Colin Farrell and David Tenant. Farrell's suburban vampire is effectively both scary and amusing. It's as if Farrell took inspiration from Ghostbusters's demon-infested Louis Tully and made him the straight man, as Jerry appears at times torn between his human-like and animalistic sides. Tenant, meanwhile, is at first unrecognizable as a Chris Angel-like "vampire expert", who is really a television performer who specializes in the undead. Tenant is at times hilarious and never worse than plain funny, stealing each and every scene. I know a young couple for whom Tenant is the only reason to see this title, and I can safely say that they will not be disappointed. Unfortunately, the final piece of my talent trifecta, Collette, is underused and unappreciated. I know that as Charley's mom she's just a secondary character, but since I know she has the talent to be better than that I still feel she was not given enough to work with.

The best part of Fright Night, hands down
As for the younger actors, they have their moments, but pale in comparison to the adults, which is a shame since they turn out to have more to do with the story. Imogen Poots is the best of the bunch, hands down. I loved her small role in last year's Centurion, and while the girlfriend/victim role she plays isn't quite as satisfying here, she is good enough to overcome the character's limited range. The same cannot be said for Yelchin, who seems to prove himself more a poor man's Shia LaBeouf with each successive films appearance. And since LaBeouf is already a poor man's Charlie Sheen, that's not much credit given. I'm still hopeful for his upcoming Like Crazy, but only because it's supposed to be amazing and not because he's in it. Christopher Mintz-Plasse has only a minor part, but he like Tenant has the ability to steal multiple scenes, not bad for a young man nobody heard of five years ago.

...Aaaand the cross is on fire. Good going there, Van Helsing
The film covers more than a few vampire retreads, but for a completely unoriginal film Fright Night is a lot better than it has any right being. Sure, the ending is a bit sudden, but between the good acting and decent pacing, there's an enjoyable film in there. I might not recommend it for the theater, but it'll be a must-see on DVD, which thankfully will have the option to turn off the groan-inducing 3D for your home viewing pleasure. Certainly not a bad film from director Craig Gillespie, whose previous effort Lars and the Real Girl probably stands much higher (I never saw it), but it's obvious he's still in his formative years creatively, as the future shows us the film adaptation of teen horror parody Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but no potential Oscar favorites. Still, we can still be entertained by Fright Night, and put it on our sleeper lists for a fun night out this month.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Battle Tested, NOT Mom Approved

What was the last sword and sorcery film you saw in the theaters? Think about that for a minute. When was the last time you even knew of a sword and sorcery film to be IN a theater? We all may be familiar with the genre, as over the years we've come across various VHS tapes of random cult classics over the years, but most of these are small budget foreign films that we laugh at rather than actually cherish as strong moviemaking. Dragonslayer, Krull, and the Beastmaster series all appeal to some people, but it has been a difficult venture to push this type of violent, action-driven movie among the masses. Despite that, some classic films have been major box office winners, perhaps most notably the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian. After this "Golden Age", however the genre has grown somewhat ignored, as while 2010's Clash of the Titans was an undeniable success, others have not been so lucky. Kull the Conqueror was a massive failure that almost ended the acting career of Kevin Sorbo, and Pathfinder was a bust, this one starring the talented Karl Urban. Strangely, both these titles have a connection to the recently-released Conan the Barbarian reboot: Kull was originally intended to be a new Conan film, but franchise star Arnold Schwarzeneggar did not want to reprise his classic role and Sorbo did not want to retread another actor's star. And Pathfinder was directed by Marcus Nispel, who also helmed this latest Conan title, which raises as many eyebrows as it furrows. For one thing, there is the complete lack of star power pushing this title. While we'll get to that later, there's also the risk in restarting a famous franchise after so long a time, egregious use of 3D (which by now can be safely called a "fad"), and last but not least, entering into a genre that really hasn't received as much love as in its heyday. The trailers made it look bad, but at my good friend Steve's insistence, I put my fears aside to attempt enjoying a title of which I had no impression that I was to be entertained.

Early casting for Baywatch: Hyborea
As origin stories go, this one isn't too bad; born by blood in a great battle, young Conan grows destined to become on of his villages better warriors, attempting to prove himself to his father (Ron Perlman) the tribe's elder, and the rest of his village as well. This ends when warlord Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) invades to find a piece to a mystical relic that will allow him to conquer the world of Hyborea. After murdering or enslaving everyone but Conan, the boy is left to bury his father and make his own way. As an adult, Conan (Jason Momoa) is an aimless free rider, leading a pack of do-gooders who battle those who would inflict harm on others. Doing this is all a plot for Conan to find the man who destroyed his life, and he finally relocates Zym as the despot searches for the final piece to the same puzzle he was attempting to solve so long ago. Zym has hunted down the last of the "pure bloods", descended from a race of ancient necromancers. Now to prevent Zym from realizing his goals and obtain his revenge, Conan must keep unassuming maiden Tamara (Rachel Nichols) out of the clutches of Zym and his lieutenants.

Hmmm, for some reason I'm putting my money on the Kid
That it's a classic "damsel in distress" story is probably the most disappointing thing about Conan the Barbarian, as an interesting origin story is ultimately wasted on what passes as the rest of the film. All the elements are in place. Tamara as unassuming and unprepared for her destiny, Khalar Zym's warlock daughter Marique (Rose McGowan), an ancient prophecy (expressly spelled out in the film's opening), an endless supply of underlings before we get to the hero/villain battle, etc, etc. Do I have to really spell it out for you? If it wasn't for the fact that we see this theme far too often in MODERN movies this would probably not be the worst concept for a franchise reboot. However, expectations are supposed to be raised in these situations, and this story just doesn't cut it. Nispel also shares some of the blame, as while he pieces together some genuinely fun battle sequences, I can't help but feel he's another Zack Snyder in the making. The better scenes are devoid of dialogue and play out like some medieval music video set to heavy metal, not too unlike the best parts of this year's awful Sucker Punch. That Nispel is no more than a poor man's Snyder is at this stage in his career is fairly damning, as his earlier works were far more heralded and successful.

Not the best place to meet a half-naked barbarian, no
However, if Nispel did have one point of success, it was casting Jason Momoa as the titular hero. Slimmer and more athletic than the burly Schwarzenegger ever was, Momoa at first seems like an odd choice, as most people remember his early role of Jason Ioane on Baywatch Hawaii. However, many people don't realize that he's actually built a nice little career for himself, following a gap of productivity post-Baywatch with a significant role on the cult series Stargate Atlantis and a star-making turn on HBO's latest hit series Game of Thrones, based on the novels by George R R Martin. I have to believe that it was his work on Thrones that ultimately landed him the role of Conan, and he's easily the best part of the film as a whole. Physical presence aside, Momoa is convincing emotionally and actually gets a chance to show more than just the guttural growls that the preview trailers have allowed us to see. A shame that the rest of the cast is uninspired by comparison. Or maybe they just seem so compared to Momoa. Ron Perlman and Stephen Lang don't tread far from their usual ground, but they excel in those narrow ranges so that works out fine. The worst is probably Rachel Nichols, not surprising considering what seemed to be a lack of commitment to her work in GI Joe a couple of years ago. With a little hard work, she could have done more than be a pretty face, but perhaps that's too much to ask of her. Rose McGowan is actually okay, her slightly incestuous witch character made complete with a total makeup transformation. Still, she's not given enough moments to shine, often overshadowed by Lang in most scenes.

At least the horse isn't 3D rendered
One thing I would have loved could have been more character development of Zym's lieutenants and mercenaries. There were some, such as former NFL player and mediocre MMA fighter Bob Sapp as a churlish giant or Diana Lubenova as the leader of a team of blind archers, that feel underused as little more than cannon fodder (so you can imagine how the REAL cannon fodder was treated). I would have appreciated if we had seen less of the exploits of Conan and Tamara and turned the camera their way once in a while. But even the leads have little in the way of character development, as tracks are predictable and dialogue is silly to the point of excruciating. And the special effects? Servicable but nothing special, once again this is a title that is hampered by 3D expectations. I know I keep harping on about how bad 3D gets, but if they'd stop dropping unlit fuses in front of me I wouldn't be tempted to fetch my lighter so often. Here it isn't even bad so much as useless, as there isn't anything that makes effective use of the technology. Even Final Destination 5 had better 3D applications, and that's far from the vanguard of master filmmaking. There isn't a single movie in my Top 10 that was ever released in 3D (to my knowledge) and I've seen no reason to add any. Far from the "future" of filmmaking, I'm sure 3D will run its course with all but the most worthy titles before too long as the misses continue to outpace the hits.

Don't make him angry, you wouldn't like him when he's angry
Jason Momoa has earned a hit. As the best part of Conan the Barbarian, he DESERVES one. However, this film isn't it. Perhaps people just don't care about Conan as much as Hollywood thought. Perhaps they DID know, but decided to experiment anyway. Either way, hopefully this doesn't hurt Momoa's standing as a star in the making. Undeniably charismatic and utterly devoted to his roles, Momoa is the ONLY genuine reason to pay for a ticket to see this film in the theaters. The rest isn't BAD, but the film doesn't outstrip its limited origins enough to make a good first impression, nor harbor any hopes of a series continuation. You can safely skip it, but part of me does grieve that this might be the last Conan film we see for quite a while (Hollywood never gives up on anything). If it had gotten a better director, better script and more support (and maybe a Red Sonja). this had a chance to be a good summer release. Bad management put an end to that, and it will instead end up among the forgotten of 2011.