At The Movies

Sacramento International Film and Music Festival Summerfest runs Aug. 17-21 at the Crest Theatre (1013 K St.)
By Tony Sheppard

Face to Face

Directed by Michael Rymer
One of the many noteworthy films at this year’s Sacramento Film & Music Festival is “Face to Face,” a film that might perhaps be best described, briefly, as the mediation or conflict resolution version of “12 Angry Men.” Set primarily in a single room, like the earlier film, “Face to Face” explores the dynamics within a mediation session that appears, at first, to be centered around a relatively simple employment-related dispute. But, as in many such mediation hearings, there’s considerably more at stake than one young man’s job.
At a time when mediation and arbitration solutions are widely established, it’s fascinating to watch the process from the inside. “Face to Face” is based on a stage play which was, in turn, based on actual transcripts of mediation sessions and the outcome is as genuine as it is charged and potentially volatile.  This Australian drama is being exclusively screened one-time only at the Crest on Friday, August 19th at 7 p.m. and is scheduled to be released to theaters next month in Australia.

Conan the Barbarian

Directed by Marcus Nispel
Review by Michael Panush and Malcolm Maclachlan

Michael says:In Great Depression-Era Texas, pulp writer Robert E. Howard created Conan the Barbarian, a lusty, sword-swinging anti-hero who has gone on to become a mainstay of popular culture. The new movie of Conan’s barbaric exploits tried to capture the magic of Howard’s creation, but also seems intent on copying recent manly fantasy action flicks like the Lord of the Rings series and 300. The real source material seems to be every fantasy and action movie convention, from the slow run away from a growing explosion to the villain having a hideout shaped like a giant skull. The result is a movie that is bombastic and violent – but unfortunately not very good.

Director Marcus Nispel moves the film at a galloping pace. The film rushes from fight to fight and hardly ten minutes pass without someone getting hacked apart by a sword. The constant fights feature appealingly brutal levels of violence, with a knack for severed heads, but they suffer from rapid editing and confusing choreography. The endless battles quickly become wearisome, especially since there’s not much substance in between them.

The rapid pace doesn’t do the plot any favors. The simplistic story features barbarian adventurer Conan (Jason Momoa) seeking bloody revenge on the ruthless warlord (Stephen Lang) who massacred his tribe and his father (Ron Perlman). The warlord’s now looking for a maiden with an ancient bloodline (Rachel Nichols) so he can power-up a magical mask and become a god – as well as resurrect his sorceress wife.

The constant focus on fights creates some lapses in continuity, leading to more than a few plot holes and a lack of meaningful exposition. More importantly, the rapid pace never gets across the sweeping, weighty feel of Howard’s epic setting. The movie races from exotic port to monster-infested dungeon, without ever pausing to allow the audience to be wowed. For all its faults, this was a problem that the 1982 John Milius and Arnold Schwarzenegger version did not have.   

Jason Momoa is decent when he’s growling out death threats or hacking apart foes, but his Conan doesn’t have the swaggering charisma that a barbarian hero needs. He even delivers Howard’s famous lines of “I love, I slay and I am content,” in a subdued monotone. Every actor in the movie seems to have this problem, speaking only in ominous whispers, rapid mutters or frenzied battle cries. Stephen Lang is a fairly generic villain, with only a moderately more complex motivation than to simply conquer everything. Rose McGowan plays his creepy sorceress daughter, though she never gets to cast many spells. Even a shaggy Ron Perlman lacks intensity in his role as Conan’s father and mentor.

The endless sword-swinging action and brutality may be a good drug for action junkies, but there isn’t really much else to the movie. Like its Schwarzenegger-starring predecessor, the silly, over-the-top masculinity of Conan provides entertainment, but not quality. Conan fans will still have the wait for the movie that can deliver both. 

Malcolm says: Is the “Conan the Borebarian” line taken yet? I hate to say it, but this isn’t even as good as the Schwarzenegger original, which had the advantage of more weirdness and James Freakin’ Earl Jones as the bad guy.

While I like that they cast a guy who looked more like the original conception of the Conan character – i.e., darker skinned and more “ethnic” than the Nordic Schwarzenegger – overall he wasn’t as good. Mamoa isn’t grotesquely muscular enough – in the books, which I loved as a kid, Conan is about the biggest, toughest human thing out there. Mamoa looks more like the guy from down the block who beats you up, instead of the guy you fantasize about being to beat up the mean kid from down the block. I’ve heard Mamoa was quite good in “Game of Thrones,” so I’ll put this on a director who didn’t seem to even try to make him play the same character from scene to scene.

The movie itself was sort of a mish-mash of random sword and sorcery. Basically, it was about on the level of “The Scorpion King,” which is to say, bad. Heck, The Rock would have been a better Conan. The fight scenes relied almost entirely on quick cuts and lack any kind of narrative flow. They just get boring. Hong Kong cinema has been around for years – teach your actors to fight. As action movies go, this is Bud Light in an era of microbrews.

There are moments here – I liked Ron Perlman as the barbarian father, even though he looks nothing like Mamoa. The young Conan origin story was better than what follows – in fact, the best fight scene happens when he’s maybe 12.

But the whole idea of making him as the classic movie hero on a revenge quest is wrong, wrong, wrong. In the original stories, Conan is just a lone thief out to survive. He has no greater purpose. This is what made him great. He was an existential everyman – well, a 6’6,” 300 lb. muscle-bound everyman – motivated by a lust for life. At the end of any episode, he could be penniless or he could be a king, and it didn’t matter that much to him which it was. He’s uneducated but very smart and cunning, brutish and sexist but quite willing to give respect to those weaker than himself (i.e. everyone) if they show heart, a good friend and a terrible enemy. He’s not evil, but he’s self-interested – he’ll do good, sometimes at risk to himself, but he hardly sees himself as a hero. For a big guy with a sword, he was kind of deep and a little bit zen. It’s a more honest version of the classic lone warrior, which is why the character spoke to so many people, and not just 12-year-old boys.

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