Episode 3: Conan the Barbarian

In this episode of the Lord of the Films Podcast, I review the original Conan the Barbarian, talk about what I thought about the Breaking Bad renewal (and its implications on its quest for Emmys), and predict how Crazy, Stupid, Love will fare during the awards season.

Crazy, Stupid, Love Review

Steve Carell has created one of television's all-time great characters in Michael Scott on The Office.  Now that he is done with television, attention is now driven to whether he is a movie star or not.  Sure he had 40 Year Old Virgin, but maybe that was a fluke.  Well, after seeing Crazy, Stupid, Love, I can confirm to you that, that was no fluke.  Steve Carell is the real deal as he is the true star of the film despite it being an ensemble film that tackles three different storylines.  The film, itself, is also pretty good and a great addition to this summer's great group of comedies.

Crazy, Stupid, Love follows family-man Carl Weaver (Steve Carell) as he tries to put his life back together after his wife (Julianne Moore) tells him that she wants a divorce.  There to pick up the pieces is lothario Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling) as he teaches Carl how to seduce women and get his wife's attention.  Also caught in this mess is Hannah (Emma Stone), a girl that Carl may have actually feelings for, Carl's son (Jonah Bobo), who is smart beyond his years and has a crush on his babysitter, and the babysitter (Analeigh Tipton), who has a crush on Carl.

This may sound a bit confusing but screenwriter Dan Fogelman does a great job of making all of these messy relationships clear.  More amazing, though, is that Fogelman makes, for the most part, all of the relationships feel connected to the story and never makes it seem absurd.  The one place where it almost crosses the line is with a twist in a backyard scene.  They only give small bits of foreshadowing to the twist (to the point that it would be pretty much impossible to predict the twist).  Luckily, the twist happens in the best scene in the film and makes it seem a lot better.  This scene in a backyard contains so much chaos and "WTF-ness" that you can't help but laugh hysterically.  The scene also reveals another one of the film's strengths: it's direction.  Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa do a great job of staging all of the important scenes.  They also do a great job of including motifs and continuing them in meaningful ways throughout the film (such as the sight of shoes).

The creative team did quite a few things right, but they did not create a perfect film (or even a great one).  The major problem with this film is it seems that Ficarra, Fogelman and Requa came up with a bunch of great scenes instead of an entire film.  What occurs because of this is that the film seems like it is made up of a bunch of great ideas bunched together with lousy connective tissues.  Some scenes seem contrived or cheesy and it all leads to a cliche and overly sentimental ending.

The highlight of the film, however, is the acting.  Steve Carell is phenomenal in the role and continues to take his lovable dofus character-type to greater heights.  Ryan Gosling is perfectly cast as the suave Jacob and has amazing chemistry with everyone he interacts with through the course of the film.  Julianne Moore and Emma Stone may not have the best written characters but they do the most that they can with their roles (especially Moore who plays the villain of the film but makes her character sympathetic).  The real surprise of the film, though, is Analeigh Tiption as she makes it look easy playing what may be the toughest role in the film (she has to play a teenager in love with a man in his 40s and you never want her to hook up with the 40-year-old).  The only low point of the cast is Marisa Tomei who should definitely stick to drama.  The less said about her performance, the better.

Crazy, Stupid, Love is an adeqaute romantic-comedy that has some great moments but never fully knows what it is doing.  Luckily, the highs are much higher than the lows are low in this film.


Unknown Review

As soon as I heard about Unknown, the latest action thriller starring Liam Neeson, I quickly brushed it off as just an attempt to capture the box office magic Taken was able to capture.  I found Taken to be so ridiculous that I lost all interest in the film by the final act.  It wasn't until I heard that there was a twist ending in Unknown, that I regained interest in it.  Unknown turned out to be a tense Hitchcock-like thriller that greatly exceeded my expectations.

Unknown follows Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) on his business trip to Berlin.  He eventually is involved in a car accident where he gets amnesia.  When he returns to his wife and work associates, they have no recollection of Harris.  In fact, another person has taken his place as Dr. Martin Harris.  Now he has to find a way to prove that he really is Dr. Martin Harris and get his life back.

This is now two unexpectedly good films in a row from Juame Collet-Serra (who also directed the horror film Orphan).  While he did benefit from great scripts with interesting premises both times (Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwell wrote the script based off a novel by Didier Van Cauwelaert), there has to be something that he is doing that are making his films work.  He does a great job of capturing a very claustrophobic and Hitchcockian atmosphere.  He also films some of the best action sequences of the year.  He definitely has a good eye for action.  Most importantly, however, Collet-Serra is able to perfectly handle the twist.  The twist comes a bit earlier than you would expect and in a lesser hand, the film would have climaxed too early.  Collet-Serra doesn't let this happen and is able to create an engaging ending.

This is definitely Collet-Serra's film so the ensemble is only a mixed bag.  Liam Neeson is very good here and finally (at least in my eyes) proves he can handle an action film.  It's a very athletic role and forces Neeson to bring multiple sides of himself to the role.  He does it all exceptionally.  Diane Kruger is always a great addition to any cast and this film is no exception.  She is the best actress in the film by far.  Which brings me to the worst of the cast, January Jones.  Jones has a very spotty acting record.  She is great in Mad Men (at least in the early seasons) and was good in X-Men: First Class, but she might have been the worst host I have ever seen on SNL.  Here she is much closer to her SNL hosting duty.  She completely kills any scene she is in and makes any of Liam Nesson's interactions with her look silly.   The supporting cast includes two stellar performances from veteran actors in Frank Langella (who plays a mentor to Liam Neeson's character) and a creepy Bruno Ganz (as a man who helps Liam Neeson's character.

For an action film, Unknown includes some great behind the camera elements.  The sound mix is pretty interesting and allows the twists and turns to be even creepier and weirder than they should be with a chilling turn from loud to silence.  The cinematography is good and allows the viewer to see all of the action and keep the quiet scenes interesting.  The best of the below the line elements, though, is the editing which keeps the film at a fast pace and never confuses the audience with its flashes to the past and back.

Unknown is a pretty good action film with an atmosphere that does a great homage to a Hitchcock film.  If Liam Neeson decides to do action films for the rest of the career, I won't be happy, but I'm not as worried as I once was after this film.


No Strings Attached Review

The stars of Black Swan (Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis) decided to follow up their success with that film with two separate films with similar plots.  Portman starred in No Strings Attached, a film about a friends-with-benefits relationship, while Kunis starred in Friends With Benefits, which you could guess the plot from the title.  If the later is as good as the former then we luckily won't be in for a bad experience.  Despite being filled with numerous cliches, No Strings Attached is a solid film with another great performance from Natalie Portman.

Once upon a time, No Strings Attached was on Hollywood's Black List (a list of the best unproduced screenplays).  There are remnants of what could have been a brilliant film (instead of the mediocre story about two childhood friends agreeing to have a friends-with-benefits relationship before falling for each other) but there must have been some major tweaks (especially in the second half of the film) from Elizabeth Meriwether's original screenplay.  Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) directed the film and it is obvious that he has lost some of his directing luster.  Fortunately, he has enough left to get the film across the finish line.

My major worry before watching this film was having Ashton Kutcher as the leading man.  I have never seen Kutcher give an even decent performance in a film.  Luckily, Kutcher somehow finds away to get rid of his personality in the film.  Originally, I was taken out of the film when ever he was on screen, but something happened about a third of the way through where I completely forgot Kutcher was in the film.  This doesn't mean Kutcher didn't have screentime, or gave a good performance, it's just that his obnoxious personality never got in the way of the film.

The thing that really saved this film from of all of its shortcomings, though, were the actresses.  Despite some early thoughts that this would be the "Norbit" to Natalie Portman's Oscar chances, this film only further proved why she is one of the great actresses of our generation.  The material she is given is weak, no doubt, but she gave this film a lot of credibility when it probably didn't deserve it.  She actually saves the film with some pretty fantastic dramatic work in the final act (at the same exact time the film is almost falling apart with the cliches pounding away).  The supporting cast is mostly female and it is a pretty solid supporting cast (despite no one getting much screen time).  Greta Gerwig continues to prove she is a revelation of acting.  In her big breakthrough, Greenberg, she proved to us all that she could be one of the best dramatic actresses in the business.  Here she proves she has some major comedic chops to boot.  Mindy Kaling and Lake Bell also make the most of their very limited screentime as a friend of Natalie Portman's character and as a secretary at the tv show Ashton Kutcher's character works for respectively.

While it won't be one of the best comedies of the years (let alone films), No Strings Attached is a surprisingly capable film.


Cowboys & Aliens Review

It is said that "too much of a good thing is a bad thing" and that is never more true than with Cowboys & Aliens.  Some of the best creative forces combined to create an instantly forgettable genre mash-up.

Cowboys & Aliens follows Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig doing a pretty good Man With No Name impression), a man who can't remember where he came from or why he has a weird, otherworldly device attached to his wrist.  He soon begins to remember when alien ships attack a local town and takes captive some of its citizens.  A rescue crew goes out to get their people back.

Cowboys & Aliens is at its best when it's trying to be The Man With No Name Trilogy or Aliens.  Too bad that only happens 10% of the time and never together (which is how this film should have worked).  Yes, Daniel Craig does a great Clint Eastwood and the aliens in this film might be the scariest on screen since the one from Alien but it seemed director Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and the screenwriters never knew what they had.

Too show how much potential this film had let's look at the film's cast and crew.  The film is directed by Jon Favreau who made some good-to-great films with Elf and Iron Man.  The film is written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (of J.J. Abram's Star Trek fame), Damon Lindelof (the co-creator of one of this past decade's most important tv series, Lost) and Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (co-writers of the Oscar-nominated for screenwriting Children of Men).  The film is produced by legendary producers and filmmakers Brian Grazar and Ron Howard and by the bearded one himself, Steven Spielberg.  The film stars two actors who have portrayed three of the most famous film characters ever Daniel Craig (James Bond) and Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones and Han Solo).  The film has one of the biggest breakout actresses of the last few years in Olivia Wilde.  Most importantly, the film has two of the best character actors ever in Sam Rockwell and Walton Goggins.  What could go wrong?  Well almost everything.

The script is a huge problem and it is quite obvious that the amount of writers on it (only 5 were credited but it is said that around 10 people actually worked on the script) ruined it.  Many of the events don't make sense.  Some things that are important to the plot are never explained.  Characters randomly vanish into thin air with people looking directly at them (and yet this vanishing skill is never explained).  Worst of all the script thinks its sense of redemption in its characters is greater than it actually is.

This, however, does not mean Jon Favreau can walk away from this one clean as well.  Many of the scenes in this film are extremely confusing.  A lot of that can be attributed to the script, but in some of the more visual scenes (especially one involving Olivia Wilde's character and a fire) can only be faulted to Favreau who clearly could not handle this film at all.

The acting is, however, fine.  Craig is a great lead and I hope he signs onto a good western film because he is perfect for the genre.  Harrison Ford plays a grumpier version of himself which is great when he has a good script (like in Morning Glory) but he can only just squeak by with this one.  Olivia Wilde is only okay as well as the creative forces betray her character most of all.  All in all the leads of the film are just okay, but it is the character actors that rule this film.  Sam Rockwell is always a highlight of any film he is in.  This one is no different as he plays a skittish saloon owner.  Clancy Brown brings enough heft to the role of the guide-like figure to Craig's character that it never falls into cliche.  Walton Goggins steals his two scenes, but unfortunately he is in only two scenes.  Keith Carradine and Adam Beach are typecast (as a sheriff and an indian) but they are so good at what they do that you can't complain.  My only complain with these performances is that they don't get much screen time.

Cowboys & Aliens had so much potential but it is all washed away by a mass of a script, some poor direction, and the failure to actually use some great actors.


Captain America: The First Avenger Review

Let's face it.  The Avengers series has been in a downward spiral since Iron Man was released.  The Incredible Hulk was good but nothing special.  Iron Man 2 was a massive disappointment.  Thor was a film that everyone thought was cool because Kenneth Branagh directed but had a paper thin story when it turned its attention to Earth.  That left Captain America: The First Avenger to not only right the ship before The Avengers, but connect hundreds of loose ends between these films and next year's film version of the All-Star Game.  I am finally happy to report (at least when it comes to recent Marvel films) that Captain America: The First Avenger is a success.

Captain America: The First Avenger follows the puny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as he tries to find a way to enlist with the U.S. Army (which is busy fighting the Axis powers in World War II).  Unfortunately, for Rogers his health problems prevent him from joining the cause.  That is until a scientist (Stanley Tucci) tests a super serum on him that changes him into Captain America.  Captain America quickly discovers that there may be a force more powerful than the Nazi party in Hydra (an organization similar to the Nazis in the Indiana Jones series).

The thing that Captain America: The First Avenger does best is that it completely embraces the 1940's style.  From the very patriotic (and original) songs to the soldier lingo to the cartoonish villains this film captures not only the 1940's atmosphere but homages the films of that era.  Joe Johnston (a normally very safe director) has to be given a lot of credit for going out of his comfort zone and creating something that could have easily been perceived as ridiculous.

The second most important thing to this film's success is that most of the cast gets what type of film they are in.  This is no going-for-the-Oscar Holocaust film, it's just a fun, adventure romp set in that time period and Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci and Hugo Weaving get that.  Chris Evans actually does for this film what Chris Hemsworth did for Thor.  They both embrace the stupidity of their roles but they both perfectly mix that with a sense of hubris (in the case of Hemsworth) or nobility (in the case of Evans).  Evans seems to be a great pick for what is to be the leader of the Avengers, but that will really come to the test when he is put in the same frame as Robert Downey Jr.  Tommy Lee Jones was only in the film to shout out one liners but he nailed every single one of them.  He was actually the best part of the film as he embraced the lunacy of what he was doing.  Tucci was also great in his limited time as the father like figure to Captain America.  Hugo Weaving got the same idea as everyone else.  He embraced the cheesiness of the film but he tried to hard in doing so.  Weaving tries to portray Red Skull with a Wener Herzog-like accent, but he unfortunately couldn't hold it thought the length of the film.  Instead of coming across as goofy (and kind of cool) the accent came off as irritating.

The final thing I have to give credit to in this film is its script.  The film is written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (with some uncredited help from The Avenger's director Joss Whedon) and they pull of this major challenge of a script.  Unlike many of its predecessors, this script is able to integrate the Avengers storyline into the film's regular film without it making it seem like a jarring attempt to set up the sequel.  How Rogers goes from World War II hero to present day leader of The Avengers feels completely organic.  The screenwriters also create what might be the first romance in a superhero film that feels organic.  Some of these films just write in a romance to have a woman on the screen (I am looking at you Thor).  Captain America: The First Avenger, on the other hand, creates an independent woman in Peggy Carter (played well by the reliable Hayley Atwell) and never at any point rushed the romance between her and Rogers.

Captain America: The First Avenger is a return to form for the Marvel franchise and is the best superhero film in the Summer of the Superhero.


Rise of the Planet of the Apes Review

Since Planet of the Apes was first released in 1968 it has been known for two things:  it's twist ending as Taylor discovers he has been Earth all along and for the classic line "Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape".  Of course when it was announced that a reboot-prequel (or whatever you want to call it) was to be made of the film, we had to assume that, that famous line would find it's way into it.  That line of course finds its way into Rise of the Planet of the Apes but what follows it is one of the most surprising (and best) moments in recent film history.  That moment pretty much sums up the rest of the film too.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the surprise of the summer as it provides a well told story with some fun nods to the original and some genuinely shocking turns.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes follows the life of Caesar (played through motion capture by the method's king, Andy Serkis) from an innocent baby chimp to the primates' version of Moses.  Caesar is no ordinary chimp form the beginning.  His mother was a test subject for a new virus that is supposed to attack Alzheimer's disease.  The virus works in chimps as it gives them increased intelligence and Caesar's mother passes this intelligence onto Caesar.  However, this is not the only reason Caesar is not your average chimp.  Caesar, like all of the primates in this film, are performed by actors through the process of motion capture (CGI that is guided by the actors instead of created artificially).  Andy Serkis (famous for playing for Gollum/Smeagol and Kong) makes Caesar the star of this film.  Serkis does the seemingly impossible task of getting all of the subtitles of how a chimp would move and makes it look easy.  Serkis takes a non-human character and goes through a stark character arc while making every moment of the performance believable.  This is truly a tour-de-force performance.  Much credit has to also go to the visual effects people at Weta who have now gotten one step closer to 100% photorealism (Yes, the CGI apes in this film are more realistic than the Navi in Avatar).

A lot of credit also has to go to director Rupert Wyatt who combines so many elements that are difficult to pull off into a cohesive film.  For instance, parts of this film play like a silent film, others play like a morality play and others play like a full-on action film.  Wyatt (as well as screenwriters Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa) have to also be given a lot of praise for creating a film that is well aware of its history (nods to Taylor's spaceship Icarus and Cornelia, the main female ape in the original series, are present) but is completely standalone.  New viewers would enjoy this film as much as people well-rounded in Planet of the Apes lore.  This is never more apparent than in the "damned dirty ape" scene which is masterfully directed by Wyatt.

The rest of the cast is nothing special.  I wish Franco was more well written or played with more pathos as his character could have easily been turned into a Frankenstein-like character (He actually is but you couldn't tell by the performance).  John Lithgow is good as an ailing father.  I just wish a little more time was spent with him.  Freida Pinto is just there to spout warnings at Franco's character.  Brian Cox, Tom Felton and David Oyelowo play good villains, but you won't remember them for long.  You could definitely say that the live-action cast is not good but this is definitely an ape's film.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is surprisingly a great film.  Even more surprising is that this is a great prequel in that it totally throws your expectations out the door.


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