February 2003

Conan the Barbarian

Conan the Barbarian is the film that launched both Arnold Swarzenegger’s career and a whole slew of sword and sorcery films in the 80s.

The question is, of course, “is it any good?” Surprisingly, if you are familiar with this much-maligned genre, the answer is yes.

On the other hand, given the way that one successful film can spawn endless incompetent imitations, maybe it isn’t so surprising.

While later films were made with tongues panted firmly in cheeks and the violence toned down to levels acceptable to the Disney crowd, Conan is not only gloriously violent but is also played absolutely straight, giving it a dark and intense feel. Not really surprising given that it was co-written by notorious humorist Oliver Stone.

As plots go, Conan the Barbarian is guilty of both amazing linearity and shameless contrivances.

The young Conan’s village is raided and razed by an army of raiders, led by James Earl Jones, proudly displaying the two-headed snake symbol that they have adopted as a badge.

The children are enslaved and strapped to a large wheel. The purpose of this wheel is never explained and is one of the several blatant plot devices required to keep the film moving. In this case, being strapped to the wheel gives Conan something to do while he grows up. It also allows us to admire his sheer bullheadedness as he single-handedly keeps the wheel turning one all his peers have dropped dead.

Of course, having spent “many years” strapped to this wheel also provides a convenient justification for how the enslaved boy managed to grow up into Arnold Swarzenegger.

Eventually Conan is sold as a pit fighter and the wheel, having served its usefulness to the plot, is decommissioned.

Not surprisingly, Conan quickly excels in the pits and starts to develop a sense of self-worth based on his new found popularity. As his success and consequent popularity grows, he is taken east in order to receive martial arts training and to be bred from. He is also taught to read and write for some reason best known to the scriptwriters.

Once his training is completed, Conan is released.

Well that made a lot of sense – his owner buys Conan as a slave, invests (presumably) a large amount of money on said slave, and then releases him.

At least this means we can get into the meat of the film at last.

Once freed, it doesn’t take long for Conan to get himself armed and dressed and to fall in with Subotai (Gerry Lopez) – an archer and a thief. The pair of them embark on a life of running from town to town, making a living through robbing from those who deserve it (we have to assume – it isn’t explicitly stated but is generally the stereotype of heroic thieves) and seeking the raiders who destroyed Conan’s village.

They eventually decide to rob a snake cult (for the Eye of the Serpent, a jewel) where they bump into Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), another thief who also fills in for the film’s love interest. The three of them manage to steal the jewel but awaken the mother of all serpents in the process. Conan kills the serpent and conveniently discovers that the cult they are robbing is the same one that raided his village.

Conan and his cohorts are then hired by King Osric (Max von Sydow) to rescue his daughter from the fiendish clutches of Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) – the leader of the very same snake cult, thus setting up the rest of the film as a revenge-driven heroic fantasy with a typically inevitable conclusion.

Reading back over my notes I was struck, not just by the number and size of the holes in the plot, but also by how much of it is dependent entirely on scripting convenience. Had it not been for the consistency of tone and physical charisma of Swarzenegger this film could easily have been the sort of career limiting disaster that only gets shown on a bad movie night.

Conan the Barbarian, like The Terminator, is a film very well suited to Swarzenegger. It takes full advantage of the screen presence he exudes through his sheer physical size while not requiring him to actually act.

Conan’s attitude to religion is also worth mentioning.

The world of Conan is one in which gods and magic exist and are accepted as a part of reality. This, of course, is a given for this genre of film.

What is interesting is the attitude of the characters to the supernatural. The heroes, Conan, Subotai and Valeria treat it as something to be distrusted and confronted where it becomes unavoidable – no amount of subtle spellcasting (not that anything in Conan can really be described as subtle) or divine intervention is ever credited with being more useful than a heavy sword with a properly sharpened blade.

Even when Conan does ask his god for a favour, it’s expressed as a challenge rather than a supplication.

Those that do adhere to a religious philosophy are presented as either corrupt, decadent borderline lunatics as in the case of Thulsa Doom and his henchmen, or as mindless followers of whatever happens to be the latest fad.

This subtext – that gods might exist, but when it comes down to it, you’re on your own – may or may not be deliberate. It is certainly fitting with the rest of the film.

In spite of its many flaws – or perhaps because of them – Conan The Barbarian remains a wonderfully dark and gloriously violent example of the Sword and Sorcery genre and one of the few films of this genre that is actually worth watching.

Mars Attacks

Based on a series of Trading Cards, Mars Attacks! is a deliriously anarchic tribute to the B-Movies of the 1950s. Befitting its trading card origins, its a chaotic movie in which style (the bright primary colours, the superbly tacky Danny Elfman score, the bug-eyed monsters themselves) take precedence over substance (actually having a plot) in no uncertain terms.

Apart from the opening scene, it is surprisingly slow to get started. Although, given the large number and diversity of the characters, taking a bit of time to set-up the jokes is well worth it for the huge number of pay-offs throughout.

Wisely, the acting is rather broad throughout and the film is populated by caricatures rather than characters. This makes it a lot easier to sit back and enjoy the cartoon-like violence that ensues once the film gets going.

Jack Nicholson puts in a great performance as the US president who allows himself to be led by his rather sleazy press secretary, Jerry Ross (Martin Short). Pierce Bronson also turns in the wonderfully stereotyped English Scientist, Professor Donald Kessler, who convinces the president of the Martians peaceful intentions.

Boy was he in for a shock.

Even after the first landing, and the first mini-rampage, Kessler clings to his belief in the Martians essentially peaceful intentions. His argument that a clearly advanced alien race would also be civilised, enlightened and benevolent is an appealing one and intelligently sends up the assumption prevalent in so many science fiction films, including Independence Day which was released in the same year, of the inherently aggressive nature of aliens. For once, the war-mongering general is proven to be right.

The attack on Congress - although inevitable had me laughing out loud, as did the invasion of Las Vegas with its flipping between the self and money obsessed residents and visitors and the rampaging Martians.

There are a couple of highlights in Las Vegas; Art Land (Jack Nicholson again) trying to pitch his hotel/casino to investors (If the Martians land, theyre gonna need a place to stay! Just like everybody else!) as the rampaging aliens destroy it, literally around him.

The other wonderfully memorable gag involves the Martian with the translator (Dont run, we are your friends) keeping pace with his trigger happy comrades.

Mt Rushmore, The Taj Mahal and Easter Island are all subjected to the Martians hysterically cruel sense of humour.

Danny DeVitos appearance in the film is quite late, but typically hyperactive and he delivers yet another of the films memorable lines (You want to conquer the world? Youre going to need lawyers).

As for the weapon that finally wipes out the invaders… funny fails to begin to describe it.

Before embarking on the final paragraph of this review, I took a quick scoot around Rotten Tomatoes to remind myself of the reactions to Mars Attacks! when it first came out. It got quite a savaging, on the basis of plot, characterisation, pace and any other stick that various reviewers could find to beat it with.

But none of these things really matter in this case. It reminded me a lot of the old Road-Runner cartoons; the gags are both cheap and obvious, but consistently laugh-out-loud funny. So forget about seeing a great film, just sit back and enjoy the mayhem.

Gangs of New York

Martin Scorsese�s latest film is certainly epic in scope, but also very uninvolving.

Its a shame because a film that challenges the melting pot myth of American history, that travels through the American social fabric to the slums of 19th century New York with its huddled masses trying to survive against a background of intimidation, racism, violence and corruption should be gripping from beginning to end.

It is certainly a spectacular film. The cinematography and acting are uniformly faultless, effectively bringing to the screen a sense of the mindless and casual brutality of the period.

Unfortunately, there also seems to be an inability to decide what the film is actually about.

Much of the film is taken up with the revenge story of Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) seeking to avenge his father�s death at the hand of Bill The Butcher Cutter (Daniel Day Lewis). Vallon insinuates his way into Cutter�s trust in order to betray him and, in the process learns the nature of honour and respect�. Blah, blah, blah. It�s a pity that so much of the film focuses on this plot thread � the sheer averageness of it weakens the whole film.

Then there is the part of the film Id have liked to have seen more of - the story of the warring gangs in which the Irish immigrants try to carve out a space for themselves in the face of racist hostility from the American natives. Id have liked to have seen more about the original clashes, the formation of the gangs and the history between Cutter and Priest Vallon. We are given tantalising glimpses of this story, most memorably in the scene in which a flag draped Cutter explains to the younger Vallon how he lost his eye.

And, for some reason, there is also a stab at a romance between Vallon and pickpocket Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz). Much as I like Cameron Diaz, this plot threat is wholly unnecessary and a distraction to the larger picture.

The draft riots are telegraphed by one of the more memorable scenes of the film, in which starving immigrants are offloaded from one ship, sworn in as citizens, signed up for the army and marched back onto anther ship from which coffins are being unloaded - the only question being do we get fed now�. But there is no real development of this theme, so that when the riots happen, they feel like little more than a conveniently anarchic backdrop for the film�s climax.

Its still a memorable film and well worth watching, but it could have been so much better.

Divine Intervention

How does a filmmaker deal with an issue as politically loaded as the Israeli occupation of the West Bank?

Palestinian born writer-director, Elia Suleimans answer is to make a black comedy dealing with the absurdities of the daily existence of a small Arab neighbourhood in Nazareth.

This largely silent film provides a series of surreal vignettes portraying the petty and hilariously repetitive feuds amongst the neighbours - the elderly man who lives to defend his roof and the hole in the road, the man who uses his neighbours garden as a rubbish tip and then complains when she throws his rubbish back, the man who waits for a bus that isnt going to come.

Eventually, something like a plot drifts along, focussing on E.S. (Elia Suleiman), who divides his time between visiting his hospitalised and cantankerous welder of a father, selecting and arranging the copious post-it notes - each containing a scene for a screenplay hed like to write - and meeting his unnamed girlfriend with whom he never actually speaks.

E.S. and The Woman live on opposite sides of the restricted border between Jerusalem and Ramallah and, as such, their relationship is conducted in the car park behind the Al-Ram checkpoint - silently holding hands as they watch the paranoid and often bizarre antics of the Israeli checkpoint guards.

Always the observer, E.S. acts as a witness for the events for the events that unfold around him - interspersing the brutal reality with episodes of comic fantasy. When he does take action, his short-term gain is countered by permanent loss and a further withdrawal into liberationist fantasy and passive aggression, climaxing with a superbly Palestinian take on the chop-socky genre of Chinese ghost stories.

Divine Intervention describes a community whose numbness to the petty cruelties inflicted on them has blinded them to the abnormality of their situation and left them dealing with each other with the same lack of basic humanity. Petty feuds are rehearsed repeatedly, without even an attempt at resolution, as their society slides further and further into chaos.

Whatever your politics, Divine Intervention is a film that is both thoughtful and funny and one that recognises not only the anger and frustrations of the Israeli Arabs, but also their impotence.