Monday, March 12, 2007

"I like to be the race car when I play thermopoly"--Crusader Dave

More manly men movies, as if the recent resurgance of Conan the Barbarian were merely a harbinger of things to come (see the review below), along comes 300, the best sword and sandles film in several years, and a film with more testosterone than an NFL lockerroom. I'm sure that when Duke Uther and the rest of the SCA fighters who portray spartans saw it, their dicks must have ripped right through their jeans.

Whether or not 300 has a political agenda (I think it does) it is a god-damn bang up film. I normally don't like CGI. It looks fake to me. But director Zack Snyder has solved that problem by making the whole film look fake, and therefore the CGI effects don't look out of place. This is kind of a fallback to the old rotoscope epics of animator Ralph Bakshi (Fire and Ice, Lord of the Rings, Wizards), who created some of the most amazing animated mvies by shooting a live action film in a studio and then hand painting each frame to creating an animation cell, creating the most lifelike movement ever seen in animated films up to that point (computers now do this at a touch of a button for insurnance commercials, and you put Andy Sirkis in a motion capture suit and you've got an almost realistic animated monkey or gollum).

As an action pic this film can't be beat. It is all action all the time, but action built around a famous story of heorism and sacrifice. Self Sacrifice--the tracig melodrama--always makes for great cinema. The king is noble, his queen regal, his spartans heroic, the Persians villainous. And the stalized batle scenes just keep coming and coming. I didn't mind at all that most of it was in clow motion, or even that the Spartans kept breaking ranks to make the battles look more dramatic (300 guys standing in a phalanx movint their spears backa nd forth two feet in each direction wouldn't look so cool after ten seconds, let alone two hours).

I don't know if there will be mor movies made like this. I hope not too many, as this is yet another example of how the computer can put a lot of people out of work. (scenic artists, properties people, carpenters, etc.). But this movie opened to $70M this weekend, the fourth surprise hit of the winter film season (along with Wild Hogs, Ghost Rider, and Norbit--though it comes as no surprise to my students, who are usually a better gauge than the critics on just about everything). It's bound to have some influence oh how films are made in the future.

My girlfriend wants me to add the following: it's the best beefcake movie she's seen in years--better than Troy even. It is full of cut men in speedoes (too bad: they should actually be naked, like ont he vases and the David painting). There is more eye-candy for girls and gays than there is for straight males (though what there is is very nice to look at). By Duchess Megan's Movie scale this is the perfect film: hot guys with tight butts kicking ass against the bad guys. A formula for success.

But should we go see such a mindless, manipulative tragic melodrama, which seems to be a propoganda film for George Bush's version of foreign policy (some people have seen George Bush in Xerxes, and he's there too if to you George is a villain, but Termopoly has been seen as a valliant last stand defending Western Europe from all the ordes of Asia--as it is put in the film--for the last 2,487 years, so the political position of this film may not even be intentional but it's there)? Of course we should go! It's a great movie!

Let me put it this way: this weekend I also saw The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo's unapologetically pro-terrorist film from 1966 about the Algierian revolution of the 1950s (it was based on a book by one of the leaders of the resistance, who for the most part plays himself in the movie--it's politics are pretty clear). That was a great movie. A classic. One of the most critically aclaimed films of all time, and (interestingly) used as a training film for both terrorists and at the Pentagon.

I had a lot more fun at 300, and you will too.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Manly Movies

Friday night I went to the midnight movies at the Sunshine to see that most manly of manly movies Conan the Barbarian! Yay! I *LOVE* Conan the Barbarian. After all, when it came out I was already a Conan fan *and* I was a senior in high school. I was the target demographic, and the movies we loved in high school are often the movies we keep going back to later in life. But it’s worth looking at why this movie is seeing something of a renaissance. It has something to do with it being Arnold but also, surprise, something to do with it being good.

The Arnold factor cannot be ignored. At a press conference during his first term Arnold was asked what he enjoyed about being governor and he quoted his famous first line from Conan: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women!” then he paused and said “Oh, sorry, I was having a flashback to Conan for a second.” I think part of the Conan the Barbarian, revival has a lot to do with a fascination with Arnold the Governor, but that is probably an issue for my Mediagrouch blog (link to the right).

But the good factor is different. Now, good is a relative term. The audience when I saw it was mostly into the campiness of the film (and they cheered when Arnold delivered that famous first line above, which is actually a quote from Genghis Kahn). Camp, as Susan Sontag pointed out, is the celebration of the bad, the cheesy, the simply awful as being fun and enjoyable. And there is a lot of bad in this movie. The acting, for instance, is just plain bad. The script is somewhat stilted, but then it had to be because the people delivering the lines were so terrible. It would be going too far to say the acting creates an alienating effect, but it does actually work. The three leads in this movie were not cast for their abilities as thespians. They were cast entirely for their physicality, and in that they were perfect: Arnold, a bodybuilder, as Conan, Shandel Bergman, a dancer as Valeria the thief, and Gerry Lopez, a surfer, as Subotai the archer. Because they aren’t really actors they aren’t given much to say, but that’s ok, because they mostly talk with their bodies, and all three of them are fantastic in this aspect—especially in the fight scenes, which are some of the best every shot in a non-Japanese movie (they had a Japanese sword-master, Kiyoshi Yamazaki, who has a cameo as, well, a Japanese sword-master). Supported by the three pillars of Max Von Sydow, James Earl Jones and Mako, these three non-actors are perfectly convincing in their roles.

But it’s more than just good typecasting. This movie is awesome. Like Stalone’s First Blood, Conan the Barbarian is an interesting, complex, and very good movie which is unfortunately weighed down by the baggage created by its two sequels, which were overproduced, formulaic, and completely different types of movies. Conan has some heavyweight firepower behind it—most notably Oliver Stone, who co-wrote the screenplay with John Milius, a very good adventure director. Conan the Barbarian is a gritty, dark, savage movie that accurately captures R.E. Howard’s brand of fantasy, so different from the more popular and more pastoral world created by his contemporary J.R.R. Tolkien. It has a lot of neat little indie-film style flourishes that would be hard to put in a mainstream movie, even today. It is worth noting the major difference between Tolkien and Howard, which I think is on display in this movie, that while Tolkien grieves for a lost world of magic and elves, Conan is always fearful of magic and distrustful of it. Conan is about man’s triumph over superstition, about strength and self-reliance. It may even be said that Conan is a very conservative film, with its wry depiction of flower-children seduced by a charismatic cult leader, which recalls Jim Jones and the People’s Temple. The Jonestown mass-suicide was only four years before the movie came out, and was still fresh in the public consciousness (even more so at the time the screenplay was being written). There is also a bit of Christian imagery in the movie, as Conan is literally crucified and resurrected in the third act of the film. The princess he is supposed to rescue, who has rejected her parents to follow a flower-child cult and in the end calls out for her father to rescue her, completes the conservative, anti-counterculture theme. Conan is indeed a bootstraps Republican (which, let’s face it, I am not, but this may also be part of its current appeal).

But the greatest thing about this film comes from Milius’ direction. Like his previous movie The Wind and the Lion (another of my favorite manly movies), this film combines Saturday Afternoon serial style adventure with David Lean influenced cinematography and a love of bleak, desert places. Add to that the fact that the art direction was lifted directly from Frank Frazetta’s famous Conan paintings, and you get an incredibly rich and beautiful tapestry for Arnold and company to move through and interact with. It is just so cool to look at. And it is exciting. It is manly. When Conan tips over the pot of boiling human soup at the orgy, when he re-trains himself on the wind-swept beach after his crucifixion (complete with wristbands, a-la One Eyed Jacks), when he falls face-first into a bowl of soup after a long night of debauchery, and, especially, when he fights, the boy in every man can look at it and say “That is cool!”

A classic. Who’d have thought it back in 1982?