Thursday, May 24, 2012

Some Film Reviews

One of the ‘perks’ (if you want to call it such) of the wife being out of town is the opportunity to watch trashy films that she would never want to see…well, after the baby’s asleep anyway.

Not that they’re ALL trashy, of course…sometimes you find a little gem in these straight-to-streaming Netflix videos. Had the chance to watch the film Ironclad that does kind of the Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven thing with 12th century England (using the context of the Magna Carta and the First Baronial Wars as the basis of conflict). It was pretty good, though I dozed through a couple parts (exhaustion, remember?) and had some great actors in unusual casting: Paul Giamatti as Prince John? That’s like casting Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the Sheriff of Nottingham…and yet Giamatti gave probably the most interesting (and fiery intense) portrayals of John I’ve ever seen in film.

Plus, I just love watching a chainmailed templar going to town with a war hammer (on foot, no less). I get sooo sick of sword swinging in period films; it’s nice to see a demonstration of a REAL armor-piercer. Plus, Swiss mercenaries! You can see where Ben Roethlisberger gets his genetic heritage (though the double-bitted axe is the kind of historical inaccuracy that’s REALLY irritating, even in a guilty pleasure like this).

And speaking of guilty pleasures, no trash-film fest would be complete without a recent entry into the “fantasy film” genre. And so I broke down and rented the latest Conan movie, despite the generally poor reviews from people who know and love Howard. I, too, am a Howard fan…and a big enough one to have curiosity win out over common sense.

I also nodded off watching this one, but unlike Ironclad, I didn’t bother waking myself up. I did re-watch it the next day just in case it was sheer exhaustion and not real boredom that had put me to sleep.


For those who haven’t seen it, please allow me to offer my opinion. The thing has great production values. It is well cast (the lead dude is soooo much closer to the look of the title character then Schwarzenegger) and the acting was much more consistent than the original Conan film. Even the story, on the face of it, seemed more interesting than the original film’s “revenge-origin” story…something about necromantic sorcery and a living “skeleton mask” with some warlord…blah, blah, blah…

Blah, blah, blah…just trying to describe it makes me suddenly bored.

Here’s the thing: if you hold up the new Conan the Barbarian film next to the old Schwarzenegger movie, Arnold’s film beats the “update,” hands down. Like the proverbial red-headed step-child. I mean, it’s not even close. Despite the new-style fight choreography and the additional blood-letting (which, I admit, is one of the reasons I watch these movies) and the special effects and the attention to Hyborian location and the Morgan Freeman (?) narration, and the smoky-eyed protagonist…despite ALL that, the original version sucker punches the new version like Arnold sucker punches that camel.

I’ll give some specifics on why and how the new film gets trumped:

[and just by the way, WHY you may ask would I even bring this up? Or why would I bother to discuss it or analyze it or pursue this even as a mental exercise? Because I see a parallel correlation with Old School versus New School D&D. It’s not just a matter of “I play old school games ‘cause if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That’s NOT what I’m saying…I’m not so naïve as to believe progress and change isn’t inevitable nor that it doesn’t happen for good reason. However, there are VIRTUES of Old School games…and Old School films…that sometimes get lost, forgotten, or shunted aside under the assumption that NEWER is ALWAYS BETTER because it builds on the old foundation with all the latest-greatest updated material. And sometimes that assumption is DEAD WRONG and actually the “progress added” goes a way towards destroying the thing itself: whether we’re talking about the Conan movie franchise or the RPG hobby being flagshipped by a putzy edition of the game]

*whew* Glad to get THAT off my chest!

SO…here’s why Arnie’s Conan the Barbarian kicks the ass of the new version:

- The classical music score contributes much more to the epic feel

- Performances by James Earl Jones and Max Von Sydow and even Sandahl Bergman in her heartfelt monologue (she won a Golden Globe for her role…did you know that?) are individually better and conveyed more range of emotional intensity than the collective acting found in the new film. Though that may have been writing. Hell, I even prefer William Smith to Ron Pearlman as the barbarian’s father, and I LIKE Pearlman.

- And for all his faults, Schwarzenegger’s ability to communicate/emote withOUT speaking leaves visual images that long out-linger the wolfish grin of Jason Momoa. Some of the best glaring you’ll find in cinema.

- The dark humor inherent throughout the first film is much more “Howard-ian” than the joy-less 2011 movie. Howard’s stories are filled with dark humor and this is evident both in the writing and direction of the original movie.

- I personally prefer the fight scenes of the original film. Though they aren’t flashy, acrobatic affairs found in modern action films, they have a short, punch-in-the-nose feel that (for me) emphasizes the grimness of slaying, rather than glamorizing it. When Arnold kills James Earl Jones (*spoiler altert!*) it’s with a single hack of a sword against an unarmed man, not a 15-minute melee-and-chase sequence through an ancient catacombs. The first image is powerful and satisfying (in context of the story)…the latter just feels drawn-out in an effort to make things “exciting.” Hell, for that matter, the denouement of the original film is so much more poignant/cathartic and cinematic.

- I appreciate the grimness of the original film. No, the girl/love interest does not survive. No, the peaceful commune is really a hotbed of evil (unlike the idealistic monastery of the 2011 movie). In the end of the original movie, the protagonist stands alone (as he often does in Howard’s stories)…he does not ride off into the sunset with a merry band of buddies.

- The locations shot feels like a more consistent WORLD. The new film shows a variety of environments (sea, desert, woods, etc.) which is consistent with Howard’s eclectic variety of settings…HOWEVER, within each of Howard's individual ‘yarns’ there is a single consistent setting; he doesn’t cram them ALL into one story.

I could go on I suppose, but I think I’ve already communicated my feeling: the newest film in the Conan saga is pedestrian at best, and pretty darn forgettable, often having the feel of an “original SciFy Channel movie.” People can beat up Schwarzenegger’s film and its flaws as much as they want (and it has plenty of flaws, by the way) but as far as I'm concerned, it’s still the reigning “gold standard” in Conan films.


  1. I have to agree. I've got no problems with the Schwarzenegger Conan -- the first one, anyway; the sequel is awful -- but then again I'm not a Howard enthusiast.

  2. Not wanting to muck up your comments and all, but my offer to work (for free) on a PDF version of your B/X Companion still stands. Email me if you'd like to work it out. Cheers, Jeff. u r i e a l AT g m a i l DOT c o m

  3. @ Jeff:

    No worries, man. I did receive your earlier emails, I just haven't had a chance to get back to you (it's been a busy month). You are high on my "priority list" however!
    ; )

  4. Conan is bloody ace! Schwarzenegger may be a bit goofy in places but that all adds to the charm for me. Loads of quotable bits ("Tell me Conan, what is good in life?...etc). One of my fave fantasy films ever, and the one I always return to after yet another cheesy cringe-fest. The standard bearer up until Tv's Game of Thrones (and that includes LoTR). But them again I really like Flash Gordon as well :D!

    1. Go to the gym. Put on the Basil Poledouris Conan soundtrack, then benchpress as much as you can. A week later, go back and do the same but listen to the new Conan soundtrack. See the difference? THAT is how much better Arnold & Milius' film is...

  5. The 2011 Conan had the lamest evil artifact of all time. The dude gets this mask that is supposed to grant him enough necromantic powers to rule the world and all it can do is kinda sorta possess some chick. I was so hoping that he'd bring Rose McGowan back from the dead for the sequel, but, nope. What kinda necromancer can't even make a zombie?

  6. I think the biggest problem is that they keep retooling a non-existent origin story to give him some background motivation for being what he is, to justify his psychology or whatever other horse-hockey they think needs to be done for the character.

    What they need to do is just start him off as Howard did in Tower of the Elephant, trying to accomplish some impersonal goal, like robbing a great sorcerer, then they can develop the story from that point, letting the audience discover him through his actions and reactions during the movie. Let them go on the ride, not knowing from one minute to the next what he might do, just like the stories.

    These origin stories that are made up to justify his actions so the audience can 'sympathize' with him and cheer his personal quest on throughout the story do not belong in any real sword & sorcery movie, much less a movie about a force of nature like Conan...

    1. @ Jabberwock:

      It's got to be tough to do what you propose for a couple of reasons: there's such a "mythology" about Conan already created (the individual stories don't exist in isolation) and such an expectation of what "hero movies" are supposed to look like. Conan is as much a "superhero" as Captain America or Spiderman (in that he's fighting bigger than life villains, saving the world, exhibiting prowess/ability beyond that of normal men, etc.) that people are expecting 1) and origin story and 2) a punchy villain/scenario that encapsulates the character.

      I'm not saying it's RIGHT that they do this, I'm just talking about the state of Hollywood cinema which is, often, a soul-less, gut-less machine attempting to pump out a stream of revenue-generating fodder for the lowest common denominator.

      In many ways, it makes me glad I never chose to pursue that L.A. acting career I once contemplated.
      ; )