Conan_the_Destroyer_PosterConan the Barbarian was a decent size hit, so a sequel was put into motion. Conan and his narrator Akiro the wizard.  They are joined by comic relief and thief Malak.  The Queen Taramis calls upon the trio to join her guard Bombaata in escorting the virginal Princess Jehnna to retrieve a mystical gem.  Her goal is to harness the power of Dagoth, god of dreams.

Along their journey they add the fierce warrior Zula.  Grace Jones is a striking figure in this role.

The story is slightly more detailed than the previous film, with Conan being a bit more talkative, though still mostly relying his physically imposing presence.  Wilt Chamberlain’s Bombaata is effective as a counter to Conan.

There are some moments that become almost comical that I suspect were not meant to be.  One example is a sequence where a monster swings Conan by his ankles…and it looks hilariously goofy.

That said, I kind of enjoy this film a bit more than the first film.  I think it is a bit more fun and the plot device is more interesting. The first film is another revenge plot, here, Conan is more of a Mad Max type of lead.

As an aside, I love that instead of calling the film Conan 2 or Conan the Barbarian II, they went with Conan the Destroyer.  I wish more films would do that with pulp and comic book origins.  Marvel has kind of started doing this (after missing opportunities like Invincible Iron Man).  But I think it helps give this film it’s own identity.

There has been talk about a third Schwarzeneggar film, called King Conan, paying off on the final images of the first film.  But I am not to hopeful after the recent attempt at reviving the franchise in film was not so successful.

Conan_the_Barbarian_1982_PosterConan the Barbarian has conquered a lot of mediums.  Books, comic books, television…but I think it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the Arnold Schwarzeneggar films heavily defined the public’s perception of the character.

As a young boy, Conan’s family is slaughtered by a snake cult led by Darth Vader’s voice. Thulsa Doom lets his men sell young Conan into slavery.  Conan grows up to be super strong, going from slave to popular pit fighter.  This affords him rewards.  Eventually, he is free and goes to find Doom.  He makes friends with the mystic Wizard and the beautiful warrior Valeria.

Conan’s world is full of magicians and demons.  Thulsa can transform himself into a snake and commands his people to perform human sacrifices.  There is not a lot of depth to this character, and really, the story does not call for it.

Robert E. Howard’s Conan was on the high end of the “noble savage” trope.  This film aims more for the brute force savage.  Granted, they try and make sure he has a sense of goodness.  In one early scene, he is offered a  nearly slave girl. His first action is to give her a blanket to cover herself.

This Conan is a man of few words.  Even in the opening scenes with his parents, there is no real dialog. This may have been a bit of necessity, as Schwarzeneggar was very fresh to acting.

Conan the Barbarian is one of the better barbarian films of the early eighties and remains pretty entertaining.

Warcraft_PosterSo…apparently, a horde of angry and evil Orcs travel through a portal to take over the world of Azeroth.  Some of the Orcs side with the humans, because “Not All Orcs” or some such.

To be honest? I watched this movie based on the popular Blizzard Entertainment open world game twice.  I know people got super immersed in the game.  I have never played it and do not know much beyond it is kind of like D&D…? And after two viewings, I remember very little about it.  My last viewing was actually less than 24 hours from when I am typing this.  And I absolutely have no strong memory about the film.  Which is disappointing.

I remember it had Jesse Custer and Tulip from Preacher in it.  And Ben Foster. And a sexy orc woman. Kind of a taller, more muscular Orion Slave Girl from Star Trek. Some magic powered guy talked about how he renounced his vows and wants to still help the kingdom fight the evil orcs. Lots of fights that did not make a whole lot of overall sense.  Or rather the plot seemed remarkably inconsequential.

I kind of hate writing these types of reviews.  I actually don’t like spending a tremendous amount of time tearing movies down.  Certainly, so movies are so ridiculous that they inspire hilarity.  And that can be a bit fun to write.

But Warcraft?  It is a competently made film.  It has a perfectly good cast.  And this is from Duncan Jones, a director who I think is quite talented. And yet, it just was…painfully forgettable. Not a good sign since, according to IMDB, the title is actually Warcraft: The Beginning.

Sinbad_Eye_PosterPrince Kassim has been transformed by his stepmother into a Baboon.  She wants her own son, Rafi, to inherit the throne. For help, his sister, the Princess Farah calls on her beloved Sinbad for help.  They go on a quest to save Kassim from his cruel fate.

After finding out that the only cure can be found in a magical region of the Arctic, Sinbad races against the evil Zenobia and Rafi, who use magic to try and sabotage Sinbad’s chances.

Harryhausen, as usual, delivers amazing and whimsical monsters, ranging from a giant walrus to a giant Troglydite. Margaret Whiting makes a deliciously over the top villain and Patrick Wayne is pretty good as the swashbuckling Sinbad.

This film, of course, suffers the same cultural problem of casting white people in non-white roles.  This was certainly treated as less of an issue as recently as the 70’s, but that simply does not make it less problematic.

In spite of this, I have always had fond memories of this film.  It is both exciting and whimsical.  It is worth noting that this film is written by Beverly Cross, who wrote Jason and the Argonauts and would go on to write the original Clash of the Titans.  Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger is an enjoyable adventure in that same vein.

Sinbad_Golden_PosterWhile at sea, Sinbad happens upon a golden tablet that he decides to wear as an amulet. During the night, his ship is hit with a storm and Sinbad has a dream of a man dressed in black and a beautiful woman.  He and his crew find themselves near Marabia.  There he is met by a man who wants the amulet.  After a chase, Sinbad meets the Grand Vizier who wears a Golden Mask to conceal his deformed face. He tells Sinbad about the tablet, that it is only part of a larger puzzle that will reveal a map to the Foutain of Destiny.

The mysterious cloaked man, Prince Koura also seeks the fountain, for nefarious purposes. Sinbad agrees to help the Visier.  Before they leave, he meets Margiana-the beautiful woman from his dream. Her master wants him to hire his son, and Sinbad agrees on the condition that Margiana goes with them.

As they try and reach the Fountain, Koura uses dark magic to try and interfere with Sinbad’s journey.  However, this has a side effect of draining his lifeforce.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad is, on the one hand, great fantasy fun.   It features the art of Harryhausen, with fantastical monsters and magical adventure.

On the other hand, it falls into the grand Hollywood tradition of brownface.  Featuring John Phillip Law as Sinbad, facing off against Doctor Who’s Tom Baker, the cast is largely white actors playing characters of middle eastern heritage.  While it is hard to complain about the casting of the beautiful Caroline Munro as Margiana, the character is rather thin in development.

It is mainly the visual elements of the Golden Voyage that make it enjoyable, as the story is a rather standard quest.

Rise of a Zero (Hercules, 1997)

Hercules_Disney_PosterThe gods of Olympus are celebrating the birth of the son of Zeus and Hera (um…slight change from myth, Disney cannot be seen as endorsing extramarital god flings) Hercules.  Everybody seems happy except brother Hades. Hades attempts to turn Hercules mortal…but is only half successful, forcing Zeus to allow his son to be raised on earth by a poor couple of peasants. Hades is unaware that his plan was unsuccessful, mislead by his minions Pain and Panic, and believes Hercules is dead.

But years later, Hercules is a clumsy young man, who seems to cause trouble anywhere he goes, due to not being able to properly judge his own strength. He seeks the help of satyr Phil to train to become a true hero. Along the way he falls for “bad girl” Meg, who turns out to be a pawn of Hades. He is shocked to discover that Hercules is alive and sets out to get rid of Hercules and Zeus at the same time.

Frankly, James Woods is the best thing here. His Hades is a darkly comic jerk who is quite  bit of fun. The films tone and honor are kind of all over the place, and not particular effective (especially the whole mocking of “branding”, which rings kind of hollow as critical humor goes).

I really like the character design of the film.  The art style is unique from previous Disney animated features. Ultimately, we are left with a light film that is kind of a mess in it’s execution.

It is not something I plan to do often, but this essay from Lindsey Ellis on the film hits pretty much everything I like and dislike about the film.  And is more entertaining than my ramblings.

Hercules_2014_PosterThe film begins by detailing the great legends of Hercules.  As a child he defeats snakes sent by a jealous Hera. He fought the Hydra.  He defeated the Erymanthian Boar.  The Nemean Lion.  We discover this is a tale being told to some pirates about to kill a young man. Hercules walks into the camp, and before the lead pirate’s eyes, dispatches his crew.  We the audience realize he is not doing it alone. Hiding among the camp are a skilled team. It turns out that Hercules has a bunch of super friends that help feed the legend of an unbeatable warrior. And they are really just mercenaries.

While celebrating their latest victory, they are approached by Ergenia, daughter of Lord Cotys. She is asking for help to protect their home from a local warlord and promises the team their weight in gold. After agreeing, Hercules and his Amazing Friends help Cotys defeat the Warlord.  But they soon find they may have aligned themselves with the wrong people.

Hard to believe there were two Hercules films in 2014, but here we are.  This film is all about playing with the myth.  The film never confirms whether Hercules is truly a demigod or if the gods are even real.  At the same time, it never truly denies it either.  In fact, the film pretty much ends on a “Who knows???” kind of note.

There is also a mystery, as rumors of Hercules having killed his own wife and children dog him.  He was cast out of the kingdom of King Eurystheus for this and it is what led to his life as a mercenary. All of this plays around with the idea of myths and legends versus “the Truth”. This is another “all new tale”, though it tries to supplant those old tales of Hercules as the true story we never new.

Based on a graphic novel, I am somewhat relieved it did not go the route of 300 or Sin City. Or even it’s competition, the Legend of Hercules.  The action scenes are not heavily stylized.

The film seems to be relying entirely on Johnson’s charisma to sell the film.  The actions sequences are competent, but not especially memorable.  The element of the fantastic is blunted by the attempt to be coy about it’s place in reality versus fantasy. Even the best characters rely on great actors giving stock performances.  This is especially true of Ian McShane’s Amphiaraus, the wise drunk.

This is certainly one of Ratner’s better films…but frankly, that is not saying much.  Nothing really saves this from being disappointing at best.

Hercules_Legend_PosterYears ago Queen Alcmene for her husband’s lust for power terrifying and pledged to Zeus to bear his son, with the purposes of ending the King’s reign.  Their first born, Iphicles, grows up to be a selfish brat, jealous of his more loved younger brother.  Hercules seems oblivious to his brother’s petty nature, even allowing him to publicly take credit for Hercules deeds. Hercules is happy as long as he has the love of the beautiful Princess Hebe.  But one night, the King announces that she is to be married to Iphicles.  Hercules and Hebe run away together, but are caught.

As punishment, Hercules is sent to Egypt with a regiment of the army.  There, they are ambushed and only Hercules and General Sotiris survive.  They are sold into slavery and end up fighting in gladiator combat.  They use this to get back to Greece so he might save his beloved.  But once they return, it becomes clear that he has a larger destiny.

Part of this is learning to accept his status as a demi-god and embracing Zeus as his father, which he rejects earlier in the film. Oddly, while the film presents the gods as very much real, we never meet a human visage for any of them.  They move through the elements and speak through flesh and blood humans.

To be honest, this film represents a problem I see in attempts to bring myths to film in modern films.  These films seem more influenced by movies than their original stories. The Legend of Hercules feels like a direct to video sequel, and it’s inspirations are all based in films.  This is more of a Gladiator meets 300 (with a scene borrowed from the story of Sampson).

It is incredibly dependent on every action scene doing that “picture pauses mid action, but camera is still moving” effect.  It happens repeatedly during pretty much every action scene.  The end result is a loss of any real identity for the film, rather looking like a knockoff of better works.

Lutz’s Hercules is not a particularly exciting take on the character.  Sure, he is impressively muscular, but that is about it.  The story the filmmakers tell hardly echoes the rich history of the character.  Sure, there is a bit where he fights a lion…

And mind you, it is not wrong to decide to tell an all new story…but then the new story will have to rise to meet the expectations set by the legend.  And this film does not manage such a feat.

Immortals_PosterImmortals begins with an ominous dream in which a man uses a mythic bow to free the Titans who were locked away by the gods.  We are told how the gods defeated the titans, and in the midst of their battle the powerful Epirus Bow was lost.  Now, eons later, the vicious King Hyperion seeks to find the bow and set free the Titans, allowing him to reign destruction across the earth.

A seaside village is under threat from Hyperion’s armies, hastened when a soldier betrays them.  This results in Hyperion killing the mother of peasant Theseus. Unknown to anyone, including Theseus himself, he was trained as a warrior by Zeus himself (in the guise of an elderly man).  Theseus is hopeless and enslaved, until Phaedra, the virgin oracle, seeks his help in escaping the grasp of Hyperion.  Their mission becomes that of stopping Hyperion from freeing the Titans.

The gods of Olympus are not playing games here, and in a way the film kind of inverts the Clash of the Titans remake.  Instead of the gods demanding the faith of men, here, Zeus implores the other gods to follow his lead and have faith in mankind.  They have a rule against direct interference (Zeus’ loophole for helping Theseus was that he did not use his god state, but rather did his work in the form of a human). The other gods are more impatient, wanting to intervene directly.

The film does not hold very tightly to the myths of Theseus (the mythical founder of Athens). This is not to say those stories go unacknowledged.  But they occur more as brief incidentals, or serve other purposes than the original tales.

Immortals is quite a visually stunning film. This is no surprise, coming from director Tarsem Singh, known for films like the Fall and the Cell. An aesthetic of beauty stands above practicality with wild armor and flowing robes filling the screen.

And while it uses a similar style to films like Zak Snyder’s 300, it feels very much like it is truly the vision of it’s director, rather than following in a popular style.  The gods move in a unique way, with their golden armor creating motion trails, and while they are moving through fights quickly, their blows strike the targets in slow motion (simultaneously).  And yet, the film ends up feeling more like eye-candy than a real story.  Everything is so pretty to look at and yet, feels incredibly empty.

 

jason_and_the_argonaughts_poster.jpgKing Aristo has been killed and his throne taken by Pelias.  But it is revealed that there is a prophecy that one of Aristo’s sons (wearing one sandal) would bring the downfall of Pelias.  But before Pelias strikes the child down, he is told that killing the infant will mean his own death.

Years later, a young man wearing a single sandal saves Pelias from drowning.  The young man, named Jason explains (not realizing who he has saved) that he is undertaking a journey to find the legendary Golden Fleece to rally the citizens against Pelias.  Seeing an opportunity, Pelias suggests this is a wise plan and encourages Jason, even offering him resources and a crew.  Men come and compete to join Jason on his ship the Argos.  Among the crew are Hercules and Acastus (son of Pelias and there to help hasten Jason’s death if necessary).

The film is full of trials and dangers.  When the crew is dangerously low on any rations and  out in the middle of the sea, Hera leads them to the Isle of Bronze. There, when Hercules disobeys a rule about only taking provisions, they face a giant murderous bronze warrior.  In another sequence they seek the wisdom of a blind man who is cursed to be beset by Harpies who eat his food and leave him only scraps for every meal.

Jason has assistance from Hera, but Zeus has made a provision that she has only five opportunities to intervene for Jason when he asks it.  Like the myths of old, Jason and other mortals are mere pieces of a game.  The gods here are a bit more jovial than in the old stories, where their jealousies and lusts were powerful driving factors within their relationships to each other and man.

This film is full of grand visuals, from a giant Poseidon parting cliffs to allow the Argos to pass and a multitude of amazing monsters, such as the Hydra and the famous skeleton fight scene.  Of course, the special effects are the work of the legendary wizard Ray Harryhausen.

My one criticism here is (and it is admittedly a big one) how the movie just kind of “ends”.  The actual story is not resolved.  Pelias is still king.  I don’t know if there was an expectation that there was be a second film…but it makes it feel like an incomplete epic.