Marcus Nispel’s silly violent fantasy epic Conan the Barbarian is Hollywood’s second attempt at building a franchise based on pulp author Robert E. Howard’s signature character. The first yielded two films of diminishing quality – 1982’s Conan the Barbarian and 1984’s Conan the Destroyer – and is best remembered for launching the career of future governor Arnold Schwarzenegger whose Austrian accent in the films is so thick as to render the bulk of his dialogue unintelligible.
Playing the title role in the update is Jason Momoa whose muscles aren’t quite as gargantuan as his predecessor’s but whose line-readings are at the very least comprehensible. (His own accent betrays hints of Hawaiian surfer-dude.) Momoa is most famous for his recent turn as a Khal Drogo on the hit HBO series Game of Thrones a far superior work of hard-R sword-and-sorcery fantasy. Thrones like Conan the Barbarian boasts bare breasts and beheadings galore but beneath the sex and savagery lies real intelligence. All the titillating elements are icing on the cake for a series founded on compelling characters and ingenious storytelling
Not so much with Conan the Barbarian. The film begins with a lengthy prologue inexplicably narrated by Morgan Freeman that briefs us on the essential details of the film’s mythology – and you’d best be paying attention because the ensuing film treats story and character as so many enemies to be vanquished. The opening scene announces the movie’s savage B-movie ethos thusly: When Conan’s very pregnant mother is injured in battle (barbarians don’t get maternity leave) his father (Ron Perlman) delivers his son via an impromptu battlefield Cesarean photographed in graphic detail. A warrior is born.
The plot involves a grown-up Conan gunning for revenge against Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) the sorcerer-chieftan who killed his father and obliterated his tribe the Cimmerians when he was just a boy. Conan is something of a rock star in the marauding world his bloodlust not so all-consuming that he can’t stop to enjoy a flagon of mead with the odd topless slave babe. His credo is cogently expressed as “I live I love I slay I am content” – words to live by if there ever were.
On the path to vengeance Conan links up with a runaway nun Tamara (Rachel Nichols) whose special blood is required by Khalar to resurrect his dead wife. Or maybe it’s needed to conquer the Kingdom of Hyboria. Whatever. The attraction between Conan and Tamara is instantaneous and powerful – what girl can resist such charming lines as “Woman come here ” and “You look like a harlot”? Films like this can usually get by with one female speaking role but Conan the Barbarian offers a second: Marique (Rose McGowan) a scheming goth-witch whose affection for her father Khalar is clearly beyond familial. The role was originally written for a man.
Nispel’s previous films include two horror remakes (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th) and the barely releasable Pathfinder. He directs with casual disregard for context rushing hurriedly from one bloody set-piece to the next coherence be damned. Action is paramount in Conan the Barbarian; the film is positively bursting with it leaving little room for anything that might engage us on any level beyond “guilty pleasure.” Some of the action is memorable some of it tedious but the violence is inspired. In one scene while questioning a man whose nose he’d hacked off just a few frames earlier Conan jams his finger into the man’s exposed nose-hole causing it to spew icky clear fluid. Now that is some enhanced interrogation.
Drive Angry directed by Patrick Lussier (My Bloody Valentine 3D) is an action thriller with a resolutely trashy grindhouse ethos. This weekend should you require an antidote to the Academy Awards’ hauteur pretentiousness and altogether unreasonable commitment to quality this lowbrow orgy of carnage nudity and roaring muscle cars will surely do the trick. Then again so will a few episodes of Jersey Shore. But that show unlike Drive Angry isn’t available in eye-bludgeoning 3D. Yet.
The film stars Nicolas Cage as John Milton a cigar-chomping Jack Daniels-swilling ex-con who has escaped from hell (literally) to save his granddaughter from being sacrificed by an apocalyptic cult. Fear not B-movie aficionados: The character’s name a winking nod to the author of Paradise Lost is about the only discernibly literary or philosophical element to be found in Drive Angry which otherwise keeps its aim squarely below the waist. Knowledge of Milton’s 17th-century epic poem or of literature in general is not required for the enjoyment of this film. In fact it might hinder it.
Some films inadvertently earn the “so-bad-it’s-good” label; Drive Angry aspires to it. The plot is spotty and nonsensical crafted mainly to connect the dots between bloody spurts of stylized mayhem. Milton drifts through various small southern towns populated entirely with louts and sluts leaving behind a trail of bodyparts as he rushes to confront the cult leader (Billy Burke) who abducted his granddaughter and who intends to offer her up to the Dark Lord at the next full moon.
Along the way he picks up a sidekick Piper (Amber Heard) a pugilistic potty-mouth in daisy dukes included in the film for the very express purpose of giving us something pretty to look at betwixt the gory shootouts and car chases – a considerate gesture on the part of the filmmakers truth be told. She is however only tangentially related to the plot. Which would be a problem if plot were a priority.
Drive Angry’s holy triumvirate of sex violence and muscle cars merges into one unified splatter-drenched whole during the film’s climax in which Milton launches his ’69 Dodge Charger into the center of an orgiastic cult gathering picking off with a shotgun the few revelers he can’t run over before finally following through on his pledge to drink a bottle of beer from the skull of his dead nemesis. This is actually one of the film's more endearing moments.
Cage for his part has a few moments of inspired batshitry my favorite being a scene in which he enjoys a bizarre sexually charged exchange with a randy waitress before pulling her in for a sloppy French kiss but for the most part his eccentricity is disappointingly muted. He’s more of a grim gunslinger out of the Sergio Leone mold in Drive Angry shooting much and saying little which doesn’t leave much room for those manic outbursts I’ve come to regard with such genuine affection.
Slyly stealing the show from Cage in Drive Angry is the man who pursues him The Accountant played by esteemed character actor William Fichtner. A sort of bounty hunter sent by the devil to bring Milton back to hell The Accountant moves with a kind of creepy grace his utter disregard for conventions of personal space throwing every character he encounters off-balance. Fichtner’s wry observations are the comedic highlight of a movie that tries hard to ape the dark offbeat humor of Tarantino's Death Proof but falls woefully short in the end.
Within the whole sports genre we really haven’t seen a Ping-Pong movie before—especially one portayed in such a spectacularly goofy way. Former child Ping-Pong prodigy Randy Daytona (Dan Fogler) who was unceremoniously defeated decades ago is now reduced to performing ball tricks on stage at a local bar. But Randy’s luck changes when FBI Agent Rodriguez (George Lopez) recruits him for a secret mission: to ferret out FBI’s Most Wanted arch-villain and Ping-Pong connoisseur Feng (Christopher Walken) the man who killed Randy’s father. But times have changed since Randy choked and Ping-Pong is now played in an unsanctioned underground and extreme kind of way. Randy has to get into shape with the spiritual guidance of a blind Ping-Pong master named Wong (James Hong) and his kickass niece Maggie (Maggie Q) in order to make it to Feng’s mysterious jungle compound to play in the most unique Ping-Pong tournaments ever staged. Randy has his work cut out for him though if he’s going to wield his paddle and triumph over rampant wickedness. Who is this Dan Fogler guy and why haven’t we seen him before? Apparently he’s been on stage winning a Tony Award for his work in the Broadway play The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee among other things. Now Hollywood is beckoning—and it looks like Fogler has the chops to stick it out. Sort of a cross between Jack Black and Meatloaf the actor totally makes Balls of Fury’s campiness work. He also has lots of help from his fellow players: Lopez is hilarious as the FBI agent who has been working a desk job but fancies himself a James Bond; veteran Asian actor Hong gets to use chopsticks in some interesting ways as the sage but cantankerous Wong; the hard-bodied Maggie Q (wonder what the "Q" stands for) who up to this point has only kicked butt in action movies like Live Free or Die Hard and Mission: Impossible III plays it light in Balls; and of course Mr. Walken as the evil Feng doing his own impression of any Bond villian you can think of while still being Christopher Walken. That man has WAY too much fun in this film. Also look for loads of cameos by recognizable folks. Director/co-writer Robert Ben Garant and his screenwriting partner actor Thomas Lennon (who plays Randy’s hysterical uber-Nazi Ping-Pong rival Karl Wolfschtagg) certainly have a peculiar sense of humor something they created while working on MTV’s The State’s sketch comedy back in the ‘90s and then cultivated on their Comedy Central show Reno: 911!. They’ve gone PG with writing credits such as Night at the Museum and The Pacifier but have gotten R-rated especially with the Reno 911: Miami big-screen effort. Balls of Fury falls somewhere in between (that would be PG-13)--a mixture of James Bond bad martial-arts films Matrix-like slow-mo effects and just about any sports movie starring Will Ferrell. In other words for as many tiny balls that get batted around in any number of silly ways if you buy into their particular brand of comedy (like me) Balls of Fury will keep you in stitches. Oh and if you're a Def Lepperd fan you'll also be pleased with the soundtrack.
Sometimes you make a certain connection with someone. You aren't sure how it happens or whether that person will stay in your life or not but you know once you meet them that you'll never forget them. For the aging movie star Bob Harris (Bill Murray) the moment comes when he crosses paths with the twentysomething Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) one night in a luxury hotel bar in Tokyo. Lost In Translation succinctly captures this life moment and eloquently paints an exquisite portrait of these two people. Bob neck-deep in a midlife crisis is in the Asian capital for a week because as he explains "[he is] getting paid $2 million to shoot a commercial when [he] could be doing a play somewhere." Charlotte on the other hand is also having a what-do-I-do-with-my-life? dilemma and is in Tokyo with her workaholic photographer husband John (Giovanni Ribisi). Bob and Charlotte's meeting is fortuitous and soon turns into a surprising relationship albeit a fairly chaste one. The two simply enjoy each other's company and begin to have one hilarious misadventure after another on the streets of Tokyo. Unfortunately though their time together is short-lived as each must go back to the realities on their own lives. Yet through the strong bond between them they each develop a new belief in life's possibilities.
It's about time someone gave Bill Murray a leading juicy role the talented actor could sink his teeth into. Throughout his career he has made moviegoers laugh themselves silly in broad comedies such as Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day but only small parts in independent films have allowed him to show his more sensitive side. Many said Murray should have been nominated for an Oscar for his performance in the underrated Rushmore but maybe that just paved the way for his Oscar-worthy turn as Bob. The actor has moments in Translation where he is the Saturday Night Live alum we all know and love; he is excruciatingly funny especially as the over-six-foot comedian improvises with the smaller Japanese people in his usual deadpan style. But when Bob connects with Charlotte the funny guy is put on the back burner while the more complex lonely Bob emerges searching for clues to make his life right again. Charlotte is looking for her own signs and Johansson (Ghost World) is nothing short of amazing in the role. The young actress is achingly honest either sitting around her hotel room in her underwear or observing the odd Japanese culture and she let us know that Charlotte has a whole life waiting for her to take hold of. And when the two actors finally come together the combination is electric. In one particular moment in what will most likely be the film's signature scene Bob and Charlotte sweetly sing karoke songs to one another--his Roxy Music's "More Than This " hers the Pretenders' "Brass in Pocket"--both knowing the physical attraction could never happen but knowing they are sharing a romance nonetheless. In the supporting roles Ribisi does a nice job as the ambitious husband while Anna Faris (Scary Movie) makes a hilarious appearance as an actress hawking her latest B-movie in Japan.
With Lost In Translation writer/director Sofia Coppola who made her directorial debut with the critically acclaimed understatedly poignant The Virgin Suicides has proven her talent behind the camera wasn't a fluke. While Translation is a brilliantly written character study of two lost souls finding redemption in one another it is also clearly a love letter to Tokyo where Coppola spent some time when she was younger. As the atypical Americans Bob and Charlotte can at times stick out like sore thumbs. It's not hard to miss that the Japanese view things a little bit differently than the rest of the world--and the film revels in this from the technologically advanced arcades that populate the city to the whacked-out over-the-top television programs. Yet Translation never becomes an "us against them." On the contrary Coppola wants the audience to love the city and culture as much as she does and affectionately paints Tokyo in its various incarnations with series of long shots and panoramic views. The young director also lets us see a bit of the Japanese countryside as well when Charlotte visits a Kyoto garden and Buddhist temple. Although beautiful some of these indulgent moments drag on a bit too long but soon you realize their significance within the theme of the movie.