Wednesday, January 23, 2008

In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale

Uwe Boll makes movies. This is beyond dispute as ample evidence for it has been offered up on several occasions. What is lacking is a sufficient explanation as to why he makes movies, or rather, why other men not involuntarily committed to an asylum read his scripts, put the necessary capital at his disposal to film them, distribute the results and then, contrary to all sense and decency, repeat all three steps of the process when experience should have made them wiser. I suppose that Uwe can no more be blamed for seizing the opportunity to make movies than Lyle Lovett can be blamed for seizing Julia Roberts in a lustful embrace of connubial bliss. But what does the other party get out of the arrangement?

I have heard that loopholes in German tax laws make it easy for someone so inclined to raise money for a movie. This may be true, but it still does not elucidate the conundrum. There are eighty million German citizens, give or take, the loopholes in the laws presumably apply equally to them all and yet the money finds its way specifically to Uwe’s projects and does so with regularity. A brief touch of the hand to a hot stove will so impress the careless cook that such an event becomes unlikely to repeat itself. Why, then, does viewing an Uwe Boll movie not provide the same sort of corrective to producers?

Dr. Boll, for so he demands to be addressed, has recently labored to produce In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale. It does not differ from his other movies by so much that my critique of it, if we expunge the specific details, could not serve as a perfectly accurate appraisal of everything he has ever done. Every film from him is the same bewildering waste of time, as entertaining as a hippopotamus trying to dance ballet and for the same reasons. It is true that he does have some sense of story structure, but this is no more significant than remarking that the burger-flipper at the local fast food restaurant has some sense of the structure of the human body. Ask him to draw it and you will probably get a good representation of Uwe’s storytelling skills translated to visual art. He also manages to take some shots that one might see in a greater work, just as a foreign student, after his first English class, might grab a dictionary and scribble onto paper the words that he sees there. Missing is any indication that the soul and significance of the words are felt and understood, as well as any coherence between them. It is not that Uwe Boll is a bad director; the plain fact is that Uwe Boll is not a director at all. Yes, he directs movies, but this no more makes him a director than chewing on grass and wearing a bell would make me a cow.

Shall I summarize the plot? As best as I care to remember it was this: Evil orcs (called Krugs in the movie), attack a town, led by a traitor from within the walls of the king’s castle. Farmer, played by Jason Statham, loses his family either to death or enslavement and vows revenge while the king searches for warriors to swell the ranks of his army so that he may fight the Krugs. Hilarity ensues.

I found it amusing to reflect on some of the potentially controversial revisionist history implied by the movie. Of course it was an accident of incompetence much like the likeness of Abraham Lincoln is an accident of the wind pushing at the cumulus clouds, but for the imaginative mind it is there all the same. For instance, medieval farmers’ parents had homes in the suburbs on real estate overlooking the sea. Their wives properly moisturized their skin and conditioned their hair. Africans served as soldiers in medieval, European style armies – officers so as not to offend modern politically correct sensibilities but nothing too central to the story so as not to be intrusive. And of course, a theme whose like is repeated in most bad action movies: medieval farmers, with no other training than that they get from the time they spend with hoes and ploughs, are warriors of the most fearsome sort.

Apart from a good belly laugh, there is but one modestly valuable result of watching such a flick: filled as it is with actors of some name, the movie gives us a good chance to gauge the real ability of these actors based on how much of their dignity they lose by participating in this project. In other words, how many of them are simply extroverts with a little screen presence who have been getting by through the simple artifice of portraying themselves on screen, and how many are truly actors and to what degree? By this metric, we can say that John Rhys-Davies is an actor of no small ability. Burt Reynolds gets his hair mussed a touch but otherwise comes out alright. Jason Statham makes out OK, but his character is lifted from all the other movies he has done, the laconic and surly warrior which makes only small demands on the thespian. Kristanna Loken has a similarly undemanding role, escapes similarly unscathed but for the same reasons fails to impress. Ron Perlman could have done much worse; Matthew Lillard does. One feels a sympathetic embarrassment for Leelee Sobieskie and Claire Forlani.

But the most outstanding actor of them all, outstanding in the sense that he stands out, like a gigantic white-headed zit on the tip of a nose, is Ray Liotta. Ray Liotta is a great buffoon on stilts on roller blades. The effect of his acting is much the same as that of a bullfrog singing first tenor. I’m rather inclined to recommend it, actually, but only on those nights when the humdrum day has left one with an appetite for the other extreme, for something so absurd that the sheer weight of its ridiculousness balances the scales. In this respect, Ray Liotta is a tiny representation of the entire movie; the Boll actor par excellence.

However, it must be mentioned that In the Name of the King has perhaps the best closing credits in cinema history. This is not attributable to the relief that the end of the movie brings, nor to any inherent cleverness in the credits themselves, but rather to the three songs played during it. As a fan of European Heavy Metal, I was rather pleased to hear Blind Guardian and Hammerfall playing as the names of those who forgot to tell the editor they did not want credit for the movie passed by. Uwe Boll, in a feat as improbable as his fundraising, managed to keep me in the seat to the very end of the credits, much as if I had just finished my first viewing of Schindler’s List but, again like the fundraising, for entirely different reasons than one would normally expect.

Final Grade: D-


Cloverfield has many times been described as Godzilla meets The Blair Witch. Having seen the movie, I can attest that the description is spot on and, with few words, does a great job of conveying what it is like to watch it. Indeed, I have the feeling that a hundred independent viewers with no foreknowledge of the project would have each come up with the same phrase to describe it. The question remains, however, whether Cloverfield is a cheesy flop of a monster picture or if, more like The Blair Witch, it is a somewhat shallow but intense and thrilling ride for that demographic which appreciates this sort of thing.

The plot is simple and the story is short. A party is thrown for a young professional, Rob Hawkins played by Michael Stahl-David, about to move to Japan. He is falling in love with a girl, Beth McIntyre played by Odette Yustman, but has withdrawn of late because of the anticipated move. When she comes to the party with another man they have an argument and she leaves. Then the behemoth creature arrives and Rob, getting a voice mail from Beth in great distress, decides to cross town on foot, with the monster rampaging around, to try and save her. The entire story is told from the point of view of the same in situ camera.

I thought the movie a definite success, an intense roller coaster that leaves one exhilarated, dizzy and a touch nauseous. Like The Blair Witch, the camera is jumpy and, on the big screen, merciless. As much as the intent is to overwhelm the viewer, I think it might actually be more enjoyable on DVD, where the family room TV is less apt to provoke such queasiness. But when one can summon the will to look at the screen, the movie captivates.

The nighttime shots and the city sets make for a great atmosphere. There are no memorable characters, but the director and writer take enough time and care in introducing them, and evoke a pleasant mood with the party, so that we are well disposed towards them when they find themselves in peril. The situation becomes more engrossing in proportion as the bits of news filter down to the stunned people of Manhattan. Half the attraction of the film is the contrast of the mammoth proportions of the crisis and all its attendant effects recklessly spinning and interweaving about the island, most of them only implied, imagined or at most briefly glimpsed, with the smaller but omnipresent perspective of the main characters.

The movie is too short for a great number of adventures, but the few they experience along the way are gripping and increasingly extraordinary. Despite how fantastic the adventures become, they are at all times well founded in realism. The behavior of the characters is generally believable – no one, for instance, suddenly reveals unlikely prowess in battle – and the laws of physics are either obeyed or at least not broken to the extent that a moderately skeptical layman must become incredulous. This authenticity, in my opinion, gives the movie a certain integrity that many lack, and makes the adventures more compelling.

The movie does have its little faults, to be sure. Given the situation, Hud, the doofus who spends most of the time holding the camera, makes too many humorous remarks, remarks whose humor escapes his character but not the audience. There are times, after all, when even a doofus must sober up. The other actors, capable enough of portraying young urban professionals at a party, are at times taxed beyond their abilities by the more emotional sequences, but they miss convincing us by only a small amount. The decision of one of the military men ,in light of what occurred in New Orleans, is not authentic. But my complaints are small in number and light in impact.

One scene taken with another, it is a very good way to start 2008. I hope it’s not the best that cinema will offer us this year, but if once per month something of equal value comes to the silver screen I shall consider it a good year.

Final Grade: B+

Monday, January 14, 2008

El Orfanato (The Orphanage)

The Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, in keeping with his penchant for Spanish stories with Spanish actors, has assumed the role of producer for The Orphanage (El Orfanato). A horrific tale of ghosts in a spooky house, it is just the sort of movie you would expect to interest Sr. del Toro. Though lacking the touches of color and imagination that are characteristic of his own works, the movie’s direction feels less awkward and the resulting average makes for a similar grade.

Set in Spain, the movie is about a couple and their adopted son who move back to the orphanage where the heroine spent much of her youth. Laura (Belén Rueda) and her spouse Carlos (Fernando Cayo) have plans to take in a few orphans at some point in the future, but a horror movie’s plot will not permit such idyllic dreams without protest. First, Laura’s son begins talking to invisible friends and insists they are real. Next, like clockwork, strange occurrences beset the family, occurrences which become increasingly harder to explain through rational means. The heroine eventually, of course, becomes convinced that there is a supernatural explanation and her spouse, of course, stubbornly refuses to countenance such nonsense. She throws herself into an investigation and he begins to withdraw from the affair.

There is never any question in the moviegoer’s mind that supernatural events are indeed transpiring. This does not give anything away that is not felt almost immediately and confirmed soon thereafter. Rare is the ghost story which wraps up with a perfectly natural explanation, or at least leaves us with an ambiguous ending, but it seems to me that The Orphanage could have left us with a bit of doubt through Act I at least. Instead, there are obvious clues which leave no room for a natural cause. Perhaps I have simply seen too many of this sort of movie, but the moments that are supposed to give us goose bumps feel expected and habitual. Naturally she will see footprints where none should be found; of course objects will be moved when none but one of the invisible friends could have done it. I haven’t read the manual of horror writing, but I have seen enough of its products to be able to turn out a close approximation.

Though The Orphanage does not revolutionize the genre, it does manage to achieve some authentic thrills. There is a séance – there must be a séance! – but at least the ceremony is reasonably unique and the filmmakers are judicious in what they show us and what they leave to our imagination. And the moment when the heroine makes contact with some of the spirits through a children’s game is effective enough to chill even when we know exactly what is going to happen.

The actors perform well as forgettable characters in undistinguished roles. But for a bit of back story, the heroine is interchangeable with characters from the majority of other horror movies (truly exceptional roles have always been less abundant than actors capable of filling them). The other characters are flat and cliché: for instance the man who introduces the heroine to the medium Balaban (Edgar Vivar) and the medium herself speak with foreign accents. Apparently, in Spain, like America, arcane knowledge of another world must come from another country. With what accent do vampires speak in Romania?

The movie is too formulaic to be truly great, but it is competently filmed and well acted. Even some of the scares you see coming from a mile off manage to have an effect. It doesn’t make you love the characters or grab you and hold you in its world, but it is modestly entertaining. If you like the genre I would recommend it as worth seeing.

Final Grade: B-