Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Review: Conan the Barbarian
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Whether or not you can abide “Conan the Barbarian” will likely depend on how you react to its opening scene. Following a stock preamble of expository gobbledygook recited by Morgan Freeman (no gig too small!), a nameless woman is seen moaning in agony on a hellish battlefield, gripping her pregnant belly and begging to see her baby before she succumbs to war wounds. Enter Ron Perlman as the woman's brute husband, who proceeds to give a mid-skirmish C-section with a flick of his wrist, plucking out a son the wife names “Conan” in her dying breath. Perlman thrusts the bloody infant skyward, which leads to the fiery opening titles – a familiar logo run through with a broadsword. If the impromptu delivery lands its half-intended, holy-crap chuckle, you've come to the right place. If your first response is to throw up your hands (or your Junior Mints), best to head for the exit pronto.

Directed by Marcus Nispel, a go-to guy for needless remakes (see “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Friday the 13th,” or don't), this update of the 1982 Ahnuld favorite is gratuitous, shameless, preposterous trash, sure to offend cinephiles and squeamish types alike. The lead performance (from former Hawaiian model and current “Game of Thrones” star Jason Momoa) is the baffling sort that suggests the director sat on set with no instruction except to say, “Do it worse.” The violence is such that attempts at justification would be senseless wastes of breath, and one scene is so cower-in-your-seat repulsive that it's branded in my memory (let's just say it's nothing to sneeze at). As a taloned, nutjob witch with a receding hairline and incestuous tendencies, Rose McGowan is fearlessly embellished, serving SyFy-miniseries realness in a show-stealing car wreck of a performance. And all of this, dear reader, I say out of quite a bit of love.

As shallow as your basic superhero flick, but graciously freed of crippling self-seriousness, “Conan” isn't just the year's best worst movie, it's one of the better mainstream offerings of the summer, ardently and adamantly devoted to all its B-fantasy schlock. As my gore-averse adult recoiled, my sorcery-loving 11-year-old lunged for more, and in that sick synergy I found a kind of delirious satisfaction. What's the film about? Oh, what does it matter? Conan kills some men when he's young, kills a whole hell of a lot more when he's older, learns a thing or two about the “mystery of steel,” tosses a few topless slave girls over his shoulder (they're only too happy to be tossed), and squares off with Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang, prostheticized), the resident world-dominator and daddy to McGowan's witch, who offed Conan's father way back when. That's a full plate for Conan, and it's quite enough. As he tells Tamara (Rachel Nichols), a hunted, “pure-blooded” damsel who's laughably schooled in the ways of brutal dispatchment, “I live, I love, I slay, and I am content.”

Amen, beefcake.

I could labor on how the battle scenes are so poorly filmed that they create a clanging claustrophobia, or how the movie joins a new club of 1980s updates that seem to cater to a nonexistent under-25 fanbase (Coco is surely the Conan of that demographic). But to hell with all that. I'd rather sing the praises of uninhibited stunts, like the catapulting of a mutant henchman, with whom the camera soars along a la “Dr. Strangelove” as he plunges toward a caravan with a message tied to his chest. Or how about the dust demons McGowan summons with a whoosh of her Wolverine fingers? Or the super-sized hydra who's “a feast for [Conan's] sword?” Or the duel between Conan and Khalar that's set atop a sacrificial apparatus, itself wedged between two cavern walls while Tamara's strapped inside of it? That's what I'm taking about. In “Conan the Barbarian,” reason and taste are jettisoned for balls-out, ultraviolent, Saturday-matinee adventure, which is somehow quite refreshing. This year, there is no better summer camp.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Review: Fright Night
3 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Can I send the latter half of “Fright Night” back? It's nagging at me like a nibble to the jugular. This who-really-needs-it remake of the 1985 horror favorite is drastically split in two, to the extent that I can tell you precisely which cut marks the divide. The first half is an initially commonplace, yet growingly tack-sharp, piece of badass minimalism, its intermittent, well-conceived and very well-staged thrills peekaboo-ing amidst an unembellished backdrop of old-fashioned suburb dread. The second half is same old, same awful: a contemporary barrage of pandering crudeness, birdbrained comic relief, obvious twists and tacky excess. One need only look to the movie's setting for indication of its blight. “Fright Night” takes place in a spotless, boxy neighborhood just outside Las Vegas, then moves within the City of Sin, and it's as if all that electricity and greed infects the clean and clever narrative the film starts out with. A warning against the ills of urban society? Perhaps. But, more likely, it illustrates a response to studio complaints that this deft little resurrection wasn't daft enough for the rude-boy bracket.

Since I really can't recall the last time I saw a film so bisected, it's best I slice the review in half, too – good things first, bad and ugly second. Featuring the same characters from the Tom-Holland directed original, “Fright Night” kicks off as a ladder-climbing high school flick, with Anton Yelchin as Charley Brewster, a geek getting his first taste of popularity thanks to a new coupling with Amy (Imogen Poots), a randy, sought-after blonde. Sadly, this means no more time for fanboy fun with ex-bestie Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a classic bully target who, by the way, knows via extensive research that Charley's new neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), is a plasma-crazy vampire. “Jerry is a terrible vampire name,” Charley retorts when given this info. So it is. All the more reason why Charley's mom (Toni Collette) doesn't suspect a shred of crookedness, despite Jerry's strangely pasty complexion and animalistic sniffing at the air. For his own nosiness, Ed is swiftly turned into one of Jerry's ilk, in a backyard pool scene that, despite some goofy symbolism of a dropped cross falling toward the camera (loss of innocence – in 3D!), ably previews the sinking unrest to come.

Like a downgraded “Night of the Hunter” flecked with the nervy jolts of “Let the Right One In,” “Fright Night” starts to shape itself into a small gem of domestic terror in its earlier portions. Farrell is terrific as the neighborhood bloodsucker, his hunger-induced distraction and demonic facial tics offering glints of Heath Ledger's Joker. Serving blunt, comic conviction with lines like, “you're girlfriend's RIPE,” the underrated actor puts those dark eyes and eyebrows to work, and his bulked-up physique suits the character's hulking sexuality. There's really no question as to whether or not Jerry hails from Hell, so there's next to no time wasted on stalling skepticism. Once Charley sneaks inside Jerry's house, an unfinished mini-McMansion with blacked-out windows and freaky wall art, he gets all the proof he needs: the local stripper is locked up within a hidden hall of rooms, her neck still tender from Jerry's kiss of un-death. Tiptoeing around sheet-covered furniture while Jerry watches “The Real Housewives of New Jersey,” Charley labors to smuggle the victim out of the house, and in the film's very best scene (spoiler alert!), we follow the pair outside only to realize it's daytime. Already one of the damned, the stripper violently and shockingly incinerates in the sunlight, while Charley processes his futile efforts and Jerry knowingly laughs indoors. It's a totally arresting moment, great for its isolated impact and representative of the first half's towering superiority.

From there, we get a gaseous invasion of the Brewer home that's nearly as gripping and abrupt, and a desert highway chase-and-scuffle that's at once fierce and offbeat and deliberately nostalgic (Jerry hitches a ride on the bottom of the Brewers' fleeing SUV, and the camera zooms in on his clawed hand as it punches up through the floor). I wish I could tell you that the film maintains this surprising quasi-sophistication, that it doesn't fail to truly explore its sex-as-sin implications and the death of youth religion (Charley's faith is questioned once as a script requirement, but nothing more), and that it doesn't alarmingly devolve after a fine, post-battle horizon shot of Jerry's injured arm healing up in the foreground (hence that pivotal, aforementioned cut). No such luck. “Fright Night” shifts its attention to grating elements like Peter Vincent, a Vegas headliner and supposed vampire expert played by “Doctor Who” star David Tennant in an appalling bit of Russell Brand mimicry. Piloting a Chris Angel-style sham of a magic show, Peter is a vapid Brit-rock stereotype whose leather, liquor and “f—k you, guvnah” one-liners mask deep-seated Nosferatu trauma. Let it be known that Farrell's devilish contribution brings ample levity and amusement to “Fright Night,” and that Tennant would be crowding things even if he weren't so excruciating to watch. Let it also be known that Mintz-Plasse's McLovin-ized return as the undead “Evil Ed” negates the good work the typecast player brings to the first act.

What in the hell is all this stock diversion doing in a seemingly simple after-dark thriller? I dare say “Twilight,” everyone's favorite new punchline (you can bet it's employed here), ultimately boasts more restraint than “Fright Night.” Director Craig Gillespie, who's presumably rehearsing for his forthcoming screen rendering of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” seems to go from maverick to marionette, succumbing to the same fireball producing forces who brilliantly hired “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” scribe Marti Noxon to pen the screenplay. By the time the film is in the throes of a third bloody showdown, complete with a whole new batch of vampires and phoned-in cracks about eBay-purchased weapons, even Jerry's position as top antagonist is stripped of power and clarity. We're left with just another noisy mainstream mess, and if there's any audacity to the later segments, it's in the closing song, a twangy cover of Jay-Z's “99 Problems.”

Thursday, August 11, 2011


Review: 30 Minutes or Less
2 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund

Watching 30 Minutes or Less, a proudly stupid action comedy that's awfully lethargic for all its slam-bang propulsion, it's tough to pinpoint who exactly Ruben Fleischer thinks he is...