It has been a while since my last post on account of finishing up the course I was teaching, marking the final exam, making a significant amount of progress on my thesis research, and having the girlfriend visit for ten days that overlapped with a five-day visit from my brother’s family. So I’ve been, you know, busy.
But fear not! I did manage to see a number of movies in that time, about which I am about to expound. (I also read a number of books, which is delightfully unusual, and about which I will elaborate at a future date.)
I will first discuss two less-fantastical films, then move into the science fiction and fantasy backbone of my usual movie-going. Note that there will be a few minor spoilers in my discussion of Conan.
Crazy, Stupid, Love
Crazy, Stupid, Love is a bit outside my normal fare, I’ll admit, but I do enjoy some mainstream comedies/dramas, and Steve Carrell has a good track record of doing stuff I enjoy. Plus, it had Emma Stone (though not nearly enough of her) who totally won me over with Zombieland and Easy A. And Julianne Moore, who won me over with Evolution of all films. Basically, it has a great cast in a well-written ensemble comedy.
I really enjoyed Crazy, Stupid, Love. It balanced itself nicely between over-the-top comedy and genuine emotional moments, and while there were a few things I wish it had done a bit differently, it did manage to surprise me with some of the plot twists throughout. Admittedly, it had its moments of predictability, too, but overall it was a really well-done movie—one that I would easily recommend, if you’re in to that sort of thing.
I cannot be quite so effusive about The Change-Up, which the girlfriend and I saw because we decided to see a movie late Saturday night and it was the only one playing quite so late that hadn’t already started. Despite having two strong comic actors as leads, the premise of them switching bodies is an old one that has been done many, many, many times before.
(Aside: I actually find the body-swap comedy most interesting when done in a TV series rather than a movie, since in a movie you typically don’t see much character establishment before the switch so you don’t get a strong sense of the different characters in each others bodies. In a TV series, however, where you have had many episodes—or even seasons—to get to know the characters, seeing the actors pull off each others mannerisms and delivery is really enjoyable. Stargate SG-1 did this well, for example.)
Thankfully, The Change-Up at least executes the concept fairly well by loading it up with raunchy, low-brow humour right from the start. It eventually becomes fairly predictable, and while at times it strives toward trying to incorporate genuine emotional moments, it never really gets there. It does remain funny throughout—assuming you’re okay with toilet humour—so it is watchable and enjoyable, but it didn’t really offer anything beyond laughs. So, not a bad movie to watch for a few laughs or to pass the time, but not really something you need to go out of your way to see.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Marvel has been doing a good job with the movies it has released under its own auspices, the latest of which is Captain America: The First Avenger. This was a well-done WWII-era superhero action movie that established Steve Rogers—Captain America, as he is better known—as something of a tragic figure in his modern reincarnation. While it does not match the original Iron Man in terms of depth of characterization, it does a better job than Marvel’s subsequent movies (The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Thor), which—while enjoyable and generally well-done—failed to deliver quite the same mix of character development and exciting action achieved by Iron Man. I feel Captain America: The First Avenger comes close to meeting that lofty goal.
That said, I know a lot of people have complained about this movie. I do wonder if they knew anything at all about it going in, however, since it stayed quite close to the traditional Captain America origin. The Super Soldier Serum, the Red Skull, Hydra… they are all part of Marvel lore, and rewriting Cap’s origin completely would be gauche, to say the least. The special effects were good, and while one man’s action choreography trash is another’s treasure, I enjoyed the action sequences.
So, if you don’t mind a bit of inherent cheesiness in the plot, the Americana and patriotism, and the character development, I think you’ll find Captain America: The First Avenger an enjoyable movie and a great lead-in to next year’s The Avengers, which the whole world is hoping will be awesome.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
I rather suspect I don’t need to say much about this one, so I’ll keep it brief. I liked Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 much better than the first part, though it still struck me as a bit too loose and jumbled to overtake Azkaban, Order of the Phoenix, or Half-Blood Prince as one of the best films of the series. I do think it provided a suitably epic climax to the series overall, with most of the characters—especially side characters—getting their chance to shine, even if that shining moment wasn’t staged particularly well for everyone.
The girlfriend says she actually prefers the Deathly Hallows movies to the book, since the movies give a wider picture of what is going on for everyone whereas the books are a little too concentrated on Harry, Hermione, and Ron. I’ll be curious to see if I agree with her once I get around to finishing off the book series.
So, pretty good, overall. But I imagine if you’ve watched the previous 7 movies, you’ll watch this one no matter what, and if you haven’t seen the previous movie, why would you ever watch just this one? I don’t even know what the purpose of a proper review would even be.
Cowboys and Aliens
I’ve noticed a bit of a trend while reading online movie reviews over the last few years, in which there seem to be only two kinds of movies: great and bad. If a movie is not great, then it is bad, terrible, awful, a crime against humanity. To me, this is obviously stupid. Greatness, by its very nature, must be rare and hard to achieve. To cast down anything that fails to achieve greatness as awful means there’s going to be an awful lot of misery and disappointment in the world.
This opinion of mine is why I perhaps come across as a bit more favourable that most online critics in that I rather like quite a few movies that have been righteously panned. There are lots of movies out there that are flawed in some way, but still pretty good, and I like to recognize that. There are also some movies that are in fact perfect but misunderstood, like Speed Racer, about which I can feel smug that I see their true awesomeness. Similarly, there are movies that are successful but truly awful, like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, about which I can despair for the future of humanity.
This is all a roundabout way of me justifying the fact that I quite liked Cowboys & Aliens when it has gotten generally poor reviews and even worse box office success. It delivers exactly what the title promises: cowboys and aliens. The visual effects are good. The action is good. The cast is good. (Come on! Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, and Sam Rockwell in the Old West! It’s a match made in heaven!) The plot is a little straightforward and trite, and there’s no hugely deep character development or anything, but at least there is some.
Thus, as a movie, Cowboys & Aliens is, at the very least, okay. But since I found it more enjoyable than just okay, I’d nudge it up to good, but not great. I think it lacked enough depth to aspire to greatness; it was just too predictable and too reliant on stock characters. But it was absolutely enjoyable and fun. And if you are expecting more than that from a movie titled Cowboys & Aliens, then perhaps the problem is with you and not the movie.
Conan the Barbarian (2011)
The new Conan the Barbarian movie is one I am more conflicted about. I saw it (thankfully) in 2D, fully expecting it to be awful—and IT WAS NOT. It was okay. There were lots of things that could have been better, but for fans of sword and sorcery… well, pickings are slim, and this stands above the last Conan movie.
What could have been better? Well, the fight choreography, for one. Jason Momoa, who played Conan, spent 4 years on Stargate: Atlantis in the role of Ronon Dex where he had plenty of hand-to-hand action sequences that were pretty good. We don’t really see any of that on screen in this movie, however, since apparently they hired some dude with a camcorder to film the fight sequences and had them choreographed by a toddler on a sugar-high. So while there was plenty of bloody action, not a lot of it jumped out as particularly memorable.
Also: final battle in collapsing lair? Seriously? That ancient temple wasn’t even collapsing for a reason! And, for that matter, how did Conan win in the end, exactly? When he fought the big bad before, he had his ass handed to him, and yet in the final battle he won the day without even a training montage in between!
Ahem! So yes, the movie is rather heavily steeped in tropes of the genre, which are a bit tedious though tolerable. My biggest complaint is actually that the movie didn’t feel enough like CONAN.
Allow me to elaborate.
In recent years I have been reading the original Robert E. Howard Conan stories (and the Dark Horse comic series relaunch that heavily drew on them). In them, Conan is strong, to be sure, but also smart, clever, and almost entirely self-interested. He steals, then spends his take on food, wine, and women, and when he runs out of money, he goes stealing again. He is honourable in his own way, but not particularly heroic.
This movie, on the other hand, struck me as a generic fantasy movie simply reskinned with the Conan license. The plot was of the epic save-the-world variety, and Conan was freeing slaves just because he didn’t believe people should be slaves. That, well, it didn’t feel like Conan. (I could see Conan free slaves while robbing the slavers, say, but not as the main point of his attack.)
Complaints aside, I was sufficiently entertained by this movie to not regret seeing it. It also had one of the most intense action sequences I’ve seen in any movie, in a bit from Conan’s childhood, that was just awesome. But then it got my hopes up that the whole movie would be that good, and sadly, it wasn’t.
So, while I liked the movie well enough overall, it didn’t deliver to my satisfaction the same way that Cowboys & Aliens did. With that movie, you got exactly what the title promised; with Conan the Barbarian, you got a reasonably well-done generic fantasy with hints of and the trappings of Conan. So while it wasn’t as terrible as I had feared it might be, neither did it satisfy my craving for a Conan movie.