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Conan the Barbarian

As the summer winds to a close, it’s time to reflect back on what we’ve seen over the past three and a half months. We’ve seen many big budget action films released, including no less than four superhero movies. There have been some disappointments (Cowboys & Aliens), but there have also been those that have exceeded expectations (Captain America: The First Avenger). Now, with the most exciting time of the cinematic year ending, we have one last high profile film to see, Conan the Barbarian, and it’s a turd, easily one of the worst of the bunch, rising only above Green Lantern. It’s been many years since I’ve seen the original film and its sequel, so it’s difficult to make a direct comparison, but even with only a vague recollection of those two movies, I think it’s safe to say this reimagining makes those look like Shakespearean classics.

The film begins with some gobbledygook about sacrifices and ancient masks that can make a mortal a god. And that’s where it lost me. Conan the Barbarian is such an incomprehensible mess, it manages to confuse before anything actually happens. Before you know it, you’re watching Conan being born in the midst of battle before it flashes forward to the future not once, but twice, and takes our hero on a journey to at least half a dozen different locales in a quest for revenge.

That’s about as specific as I can get when it comes to the story. After watching, I challenge anyone to do better. An inability to follow what’s going on doesn’t stop at the story, however. It translates to the action scenes. The shaky camera, combined with the frenzied editing and darkened screen, compliments of a worthless 3D effect, keep the visuals murky and at a far too accelerated pace. Most of these action scenes are arbitrary in nature and mean very little to the story, though they’re all very violent and one in particular ends with about a dozen topless women standing around, so there’s that.

Conan the Barbarian is a rare anomaly, in that I honestly couldn’t tell whether or not I was supposed to be taking it seriously because there are plenty of laughs to be had, like one hilarious scene where Conan sticks his finger inside the wound of a man’s chopped off nose, which causes a good amount of snot to drip out. Whether that was supposed to be funny or not is debatable. What isn’t, however, are the hearty laughs provided by the narration from Morgan Freeman (which has become a joke unto itself in recent years) and the amusingly sexist dialogue, where Conan bosses his female companion around (“Woman! Come here!”) and accuses her of looking like a harlot, which would be offensive if the movie weren’t so ridiculous.

When you aren’t laughing at it, though, the dialogue (or more generally, the movie itself) is unbearable. It’s shoddily made, with one of the more obvious inconsistencies in recent memory (night turns to day in a matter of seconds), and the acting is uniformly bland. Jason Momoa, who plays the titular character, gives one of the most wooden performances of the year. Bearing a grimace and speaking in a deep voice does not a performance make. I would say his acting coach forgot to tell him that, but I find it unlikely he has ever had one.

Conan the Barbarian thinks it’s way more epic than it really is, but it’s nothing more than a hack and slash video game that you can’t play, and just as shallow as one too. It’s bloody and gruesome and its level of violence is matched only by its stupidity. And it is pretty violent.

Conan the Barbarian receives 1.5/5


Attack the Block

It’s that time again: time to go against the grain. Resting at a comfortable 89% on Rotten Tomatoes as of the time of this writing, Attack the Block seems to be a critical darling, praised for its irreverence, wit and constant sci-fi thrills. To call those critics wrong is not something I’m willing to do (after all, movies can be interpreted and experienced in many different ways); perhaps I simply saw a different movie. As a couple colleagues of mine joked, there must be a non-suck version and that version must have eluded me.

Attack the Block comes from Britain and takes place in a small area of South London. An unruly gang of hoodlums are marching the streets and robbing those who venture into their neighborhood. After terrorizing one innocent pedestrian, an alien crash lands on their block. The boys kill it and think it’s over, but more are on their way. Considering the block their territory, they decide to defend it and take to the streets to exterminate as many creatures as they can.

A lot goes wrong in a lot of movies, but most problems can be overcome with strong characters. Unfortunately, Attack the Block hasn’t one, human or otherwise. The members of the gang, who I’ve neglected to name because, frankly, it doesn’t matter, are carbon copies of each other, lacking in distinct personalities. If not for their differing clothes, you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart. They all act the same, as members of gangs often do, and until the very end, none have real motivations for doing what they do; they just do because, well, the movie wouldn’t have been much of a movie if they hadn’t.

The script overlooks (or simply neglects) giving them separate personalities, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise because these characters don’t even act like real people. They’re missing the most basic of human behaviors, never properly or realistically reacting to the fact that they just found and killed an alien. As far as the audience can tell, this is a natural occurrence for them. Amazement and curiosity are nowhere to be found.

Even if they had been fleshed out, however, the simple fact remains that the characters are delinquents, a bane on society and the epitome of what’s wrong with much of the world. They’re so unlikable and devoid of most redeeming qualities, you quickly begin rooting for the aliens to take them out. But then you realize the aliens are just as uninteresting. Sporting one of the most bland and unimaginative creature designs in recent memory, the aliens in Attack the Block are essentially shadows with blue teeth. It’s one thing to keep your monsters deliberately hidden, but these are in plain sight, yet you can't really see them. It’s a lazy effort, a design that required little to no creativity.

Of course, this is a low budget film, which I’m sure explains why they look the way they do, but that’s hardly an excuse these days. Look at last year’s Monsters, for instance, which was made on a shoestring budget of, according to Box Office Mojo, only $500,000. The aliens in that film had a unique look (though they were, admittedly, shown much less), but what really stands the two films apart is that Monsters had real characters and emotional depth. Attack the Block is shallow and stupid. Its jump scares are cliché and predictable (if a character is looking through a peephole, crack, window, etc., you can be sure something’s going to pop up) and the direction, while not terrible, is noticeably amateurish; first time film director Joe Cornish leaves little or no headroom for his actors, a distracting oversight. Attack the Block is no doubt reveling in the praise its getting, but that praise is beyond me.

Attack the Block receives 1.5/5


Rise of the Planet of the Apes

The original Planet of the Apes is one of the best science fiction movies ever made because it took a B-movie idea and turned it into something more. It battled themes of science vs. religion and took a bold stance, that intellectual progression was being impeded by archaic religious thought. It’s a controversial idea, but it’s nevertheless an interesting one and it can be argued that such a thing is still happening even today. The movies that followed dealt with intolerance, slavery, and the perpetuation of war, criticizing those who worship the bomb (a theme made perhaps a bit too literal in the second film), among others. All of this derived from a single creative concept: what if apes were the dominant species? The newest film in the series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, tries to tackle heavy issues, but lacks the profundity of its predecessors. What it amounts to is simply another summer movie spectacle, but at least it’s a good one.

The film begins prior to the events of the first film (and disregards the rest). Will (James Franco) is a scientist working on an experiment drug known as ALZ-112. It’s a rebuilding drug that he hopes will be able to cure certain mental ailments, such as Alzheimer’s, which his father, Charles (John Lithgow), is suffering from. To test the drug, he and his co-workers experiment on apes, which ends up yielding positive results. With only one small dose, the apes are able to intelligently reason. It appears they are getting smarter. One day, however, something goes wrong and Chimp #9 goes berserk in front of the company’s board of directors, effectively shutting down the experiments. What they don’t realize is that the ape was only protecting her newborn son, afraid he would receive the same painful treatment. She dies, but her son, eventually named Caesar (Andy Serkis in a motion capture performance), is taken home by Will, who realizes that the drug was passed down hereditarily. As the years go by, Caesar becomes smarter and smarter, eventually leading to a revelation and beginning the rise of the apes.

Though sometimes billed as a prequel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is more a reboot of the series, or even a reimagining of the fourth film in the series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which tackled similar territory, but it’s different enough that it can skillfully stand alone. It could almost entirely exist outside of the rest of the series had it not been for a couple of nods to the original film, one humorous and welcome and one so blatantly out of place it pulls you out of the movie (though it really shouldn’t come as a surprise). It takes a couple of things from Conquest, namely the ape being walked around on a leash and treated like a pet, but otherwise, it’s totally different, and that’s a good thing because Conquest is one of the worst in the series.

What the movie does so beautifully is make us understand why Caesar comes to act the way he does. He isn’t treated well and, though it suffers from exaggerated cruelty from a few human characters, the film does a good job of making us sympathize with the apes and root against our own species. Some of Caesar’s action, which become more and more humanlike as the movie goes on, will come off as cheesy to some, if the constant snickering in my screening is any indication, but I found his decisions to be hard hitting and narratively necessary. Rise does a great job of establishing the effects of the drug that has been coursing through his body since birth, so of course he’s going to learn human behavior. It takes the phrase “monkey see, monkey do” to a whole new level.

The few times it gets a bit too silly for its own good are in its use of subtitles when the apes sign to each other, which are dumbed down to sound prehistoric (“Human no like smart ape”), and when Caesar essentially becomes a rebellious teenager, like in one scene where he defiantly pushes his plate of food away after being told to eat it. But on the whole, Rise of the Planet of the Apes should be taken as a serious, dramatic movie that can be interpreted in one of two ways: as a message about playing God or as one against animal testing. The problem is it thinks it’s profound, when it really isn’t. The former message is cliché and overheard while the latter is preachy and laughable. I wouldn’t say this is a particularly deep movie; it’s just well made and interesting. It’s a disappointment to be sure, but it had lofty expectations to live up to. The fact that it’s still pretty good is something for which to be grateful.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes receives 3.5/5


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

After ten years and eight movies, it’s all finally coming to an end. Harry Potter is going to be put to rest. Truly one of the most popular franchises in film history, the Harry Potter movies have shown how a franchise should be handled. Not all of the films have been amazing, but all (with the exception of The Order of the Phoenix) have been good. If nothing else, it’s a consistent franchise with more heart, whimsy and fantastic fantasy action than many movies even attempt, much less achieve. And it’s going out with a bang. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 is hands down the best in the acclaimed series. It will blow the minds of, and bring tears to, even the most casual fans who have little invested in the story and characters. I joked with friends and colleagues before the screening that if the film was anything less than the best of the year, I would be disappointed. And disappointed I am not.

The film begins precisely where the last one left off. Dobby has just died and Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has just found the Elder Wand, the most powerful wand in existence. Meanwhile, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), along with best friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), are out to find and destroy the remaining Horcruxes, each of which carries a piece of Voldemort’s soul. Voldemort will stop at nothing to keep that from happening, which means killing Harry Potter.

As with most of the other Potter films, you will need to be well-versed in Potter lore to fully keep up with what’s going on in The Deathly Hallows Part 2. It’s a movie that would have greatly benefited from a “Previously on Harry Potter” type of opening, especially since this is the second half of one story, not simply a standalone sequel like the others. From the get go, it’s unclear exactly what is happening, but it never suffers under the weight of its own vagueness. All it requires is a little patience while it settles into its own. Confusion is cleared and the story at hand grips you like none other.

It’s a story that has been building for seven films, all of which left open doors and questions lingering to set up the next movie, but for the first time ever, there’s closure. One of my chief complaints of The Deathly Hallows Part 1 was its abrupt ending. It was a story that was intentionally left unfinished and its lack of any type of payoff was to its detriment, but Part 2 rectifies that with a send-off for the ages. The showdown between Potter and Voldemort is an epic, breathtaking, immensely satisfying finale that leaves no stone unturned. What follows is an endearing and emotional farewell to one of the most charismatic characters to ever grace the screen.

The big climax is not the only reason to watch Part 2 of this story, however. The entire film is brimming with action, contrary to the more talkative Part 1, but it’s not there just to be there like in, say, the latest Transformers film. Unlike that mind numbing movie, the action compliments the story, flowing naturally based on what has occurred up to that point. And in the midst of all the chaos and destruction is a brilliant plot twist that forces Potter to face his destiny, which may mean sacrificing himself to save others.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 is dark, scary and more violent than many will expect, but it’s also emotionally resonant and beautifully made. Long time fan or Harry Potter cynic, you owe it to yourself to see this movie. It will stick with you long after the credits have rolled and the lights come up.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 receives 5/5


Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Aside from the horribly inept, yet inexplicably popular, 1999 action movie, The Boondock Saints, Michael Bay’s first Transformers film is hands down the most overrated “guy” picture out there. If my experiences are any indication, men from all corners of the country hold that film up as an example of how action films should be, and for the life of me I cannot figure out why. It’s loud, overblown, overlong and convoluted, among other things. It may not match the abomination that is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (which made my worst of the year list back in 2009), but it’s still a decidedly bad movie. It appears the third time’s the charm, however, for director Michael Bay. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is easily the best film yet in the series and although it’s far from amazing, it rectifies many of the previous films’ shortcomings, making it one of the most pleasant, if ultimately unfulfilling, surprises of the year.

The film begins with a history lesson, but it’s a little different than what you learned in school. After being informed by American scientists that something of mysterious origins has crash landed on the moon, President Kennedy gives his famous 1961 speech promising to take a man to the moon and back safely. The catch is that the mission is to investigate the crash site, where Buzz Aldrin and company find an alien spacecraft from the planet Cybertron, the home planet of the Transformers, carrying cargo of unknown capabilities. Meanwhile, in present time, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is living in Washington, DC with his new girlfriend, Carly (Victoria’s Secret supermodel, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), and can’t find a job, despite saving the world twice and receiving a medal from President Obama. He soon finds out that his unemployment is the least of his problems, though, when the Decepticons find the cargo on the moon and threaten to use it to destroy Earth.

Based on that plot synopsis, it would be easy to conclude that the story here is just as inconsequential as they were in the previous two films, but that’s not necessarily the case. It’s still rather ridiculous (as is the whole concept of alien robots from outer space, in fact), but it works here for one reason: Bay takes the time to develop it. For about an hour and a half, Dark of the Moon does a decent job of building its characters and allowing the story to flow naturally through dialogue. The romance between Sam and Carly, mercifully replacing the Megan Fox character from the first two films, is delicately handled and genuine. Huntington-Whiteley is a beautiful young woman with a surprising amount charm and comes off like a natural acting opposite the always amusing LaBeouf. Thanks to this, their chemistry rings true, which makes the later scenes of peril that much more tense because you’ll have invested so much in their relationship together.

There is some good humor too, much of which stems from their relationship and Sam’s jealousy towards Carly’s flirtatious boss, Dylan (Patrick Dempsey), but Transformers: Dark of the Moon is nevertheless a darker film than its predecessors. I hesitate to call it a more mature film, however, because cinematic maturity comes with favoring story over explosions, but after that initial hour and a half, it devolves into another mind-numbing action picture. Like most Michael Bay movies, it begins to resemble something similar to what a 13 year old boy would do if given a camera and $200 million to play with. The story hits a standstill, the characters stop developing and the promising set-up is undermined by flavorless stupidity. It’s like Bay shot the movie in order, eventually got bored with all the talking and decided it was about time to blow stuff up. One of my chief criticisms of the original film was that the final action scene, as impressive as it was, went on for far too long, an exhausting 45 minutes. Well, in Dark of the Moon, the final action scene hits closer to the hour mark. Bay is a master at staging these types of scenes, there’s little doubt about that, but he needs someone to tell him when enough is enough. His refusal to edit them down to a manageable length does nothing but weaken an otherwise impressive finale.

What makes Transformers: Dark of the Moon still work in spite of those stumbles is that the events leading up to the mindless action are better handled. Although it still suffers from some of the same problems that plagued the previous films, many of them are fixed. There are no more offensive, stereotypical Transformers, no wrecking ball testicles, no small robots humping anyone’s legs and the acting is all around better thanks to a terrific supporting cast that includes veteran Frances McDormand, the personable Alan Tudyk and John Malkovich in a delightfully off-kilter role.

Of course, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is just as shallow and empty-headed as its older brothers, but it’s competently handled and more coherent. And given the track record of this franchise, that’s about as good as it’s going to get.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon receives 3/5