From the Archive – Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Barbarian

Directed by John Milius
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sandahl Bergman, Mako and James Earl Jones

Young Conan of Cimmeria is orphaned when a warband slaughters his parents’ village, steal his blacksmith father’s finest sword and sell him into slavery. He goes from manual labour to gladiatorial combat (in preparation for which he is – for no readily apparent reason – taught to read), as he grows up into Arnold Schwarzenegger, then wins his freedom by escaping from a pack of dogs, finding at the same time a Sword of Obvious Significance in an ancient tomb.

Conan sets out to avenge his parents, and takes up with a wandering Mongol archer named Subotai (Gerry Lopez). Discovering that Thulsa Doom (Jones), the leader of the warband, has become a snake-cult leader, Conan and Subotai break into his temple for a spot of thievery, and run into Valeria (Bergman), the Queen of Thieves. They make the big score, kill a big snake, and make out like bandits. Conan and Valeria get it on in a fashion which can only bode ill for later developments. Shortly after, they are arrested by the Exorcist (Max von Sydow as an elderly king) who mumbles something about his daughter joining Thulsa Doom’s cult. Subotai and Valeria feel that their best bet is to run away, but Conan goes for the revenge shtick and sets out to bring back the king’s daughter, and to cause some egregious property damage and personal injury en route.

Conan fails miserably at his attempt to go undercover, and is strapped, Christlike, to the Tree of Woe. Here Subotai finds him, and Conan is resurrected by a wizard (Mako), who warns of terrible costs. Conan, Valeria and Subotai then paint themselves black and white, break into Thulsa Doom’s temple, wreck the joint and steal the princess. Understandably miffed, Doom shoots an arrow made from a snake after the heroes, killing Valeria, who – it turns out – made a pact with the spirits of death to take her in place of Conan (told you it boded ill). Doom’s troops come after the heroes, who defeat them in a bloody combat, Valeria’s ghost saving Conan at a critical moment, and his Sword of Obvious Significance shearing through his father’s stolen sword.

Finally, Conan goes back to Doom’s compound, and hacks him to death, ignoring Doom’s claim that he is as much his father as the man who was killed, because he made him what he is. Seriously folks, James Earl Jones does the ‘I am your father’ bit again.

What’s wrong with it?

Well, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s latest movies are hampered by his poor acting, but he’s only gone up from his early days. There’s also a lot of fairly random plot jumps, as the filmmakers try to wedge a lot of material into the film. Oh, and being an eighties film, there’s the hair. Oh god, the hair.

What’s right with it?

Well, aside from the storming Basil Poledouris score, the film is a pretty functional Sword and Sorcery offering. It has some good fight scenes, and two pretty atmospheric sneak-raids.

How bad is it really?

Not that bad at all. It’s mostly in the blog at all for the sake of completeness, and to demonstrate that S&S doesn’t have to blow completely.

Best bit (if such there is)?

Our heroes get smashed and Conan gets into a fist-fight with a camel.

What’s up with…?

  • The random plot witch? It’s like this chick turns up, hits on Conan, does the gratuitous sex scene, feeds him a plot hook, tries to eat him (in the not-sexy way), then turns into a fireball and flies off, without ever bothering to try and explain herself. She’s just the plot witch: “Here’s a hook and a murder attempt; on your way now”. Whatever.
  • Mumbling Max von Sydow? I maintain he was drunk or stoned and didn’t really know he was doing the movie.

Ratings:

Production values – Solid, if unexceptional. Good – and consistent – costumes, sets and SFX, decent direction and camerawork. 6

Dialogue and performances  Hem. Well, dialogue is probably Conan’s weak point. It’s mostly either trite or mumbled or both. Mako’s narration is particularly bizarre. 16

Plot and Execution – Standard revenge-quest fare, with bonus props for having the guts to off the love interest, and not replace her, as is common, with some random woman he just met. Nothing new, but decently executed. 12

Randomness – All pretty clear, except for the random plot witch. 8

Waste of potential – Not really at all. As Sword & Sorcery goes, this is the cat’s pyjamas. 0

Overall: 42%

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Dungeons & Dragons: The Book of Vile Darkness (2012)

Vile Darkness Poster

Directed by Gerry Lively
Starring Jack Derges and Eleanor Gecks

We open with the last of the Knights of the New Sun, an ironically old and defunct holy order who once threw down an evil sorcerer (the opening narration tells us so; with animation) and were the guardians of peace for centuries, but are now an irrelevance in an age when every small town has a curtain wall and a magically-shielded trove of enchanted treasures. Newly anointed knight Grayson takes his vows of duty and chastity, like his father and grandfather before him, but the mystical light show fails to happen, as it has failed to happen for decades, and he is feeling a little blue when the order are attacked by barbarians and wiped out, save for Grayson – who is left for dead – and his father, who is captured.

In pursuit of the barbarians, Grayson gets help from a friendly prostitute, as you do when you’re a paladin. She hooks him up with a magic item seller – a contact that is no doubt of immense use to a small-town whore – who sells him some black armour and a jaggedy sword so that he can disguise himself as a badass. The prostitute – judging by the credits she might be called Carlotta, but names are elusive things in this film, and none of the actors are recognisable enough to narrow it down – then points him towards Akordia, a ruthless witch who is recruiting sell-swords in the service of the barbarians’ master, Shathrax the Mind Flayer.

Vile Darkness Glow
“I’m totally evil and committed to power, and we will in no way end up having sex.”

He does not make the best showing at first, given that the posse of evil bastards are unconvinced by Grayson’s manly swagger. However, by killing one of her existing goons, Grayson wins a place on team evil, alongside Seith the Libertarian Assassin, Bezz the Vermin Lord, and Vimak the enormous black guy with the immense sexual appetite (I think someone slipped and fell on a stereotype). In the hopes of being led to his father he goes with them on their mission for Shathrax, despite knowing that he may have to betray his vows to maintain his cover.

This Fearsome Five head out, slay a dragon, massacre a small town and generally behave badly. Sure, they occasionally stop to discuss philosophy (Seith believes that poor people just exist as somewhere to keep his knives), ambition (Vimak was exiled for being weak and wants to go back and kill everyone who knows about it, although apparently he mostly wants to sleep with a huge number of women simultaneously), to kill each other (even Grayson murders Vimak and lets Seith die), or just to afflict people with bug plagues for the sheer, unadulterated hell of it (Bezz the Vermin Lord digs insects; go figure), but mostly it’s just one bad deed after another. Finally, with most of them dead of friendly fire, they retrieve the cover of the long-lost Book of Vile Darkness from its keeper.

dungeons_and_dragons_the-book_of_vile-darkness
“I’m totally as evil as the guy behind me! Look at my broody face!” “We’re still totally never having sex.”

Said keeper, by the way, is a ‘slaymate’; an undead child betrayed and abandoned by her guardians and now subsisting on cruelty and hate. It is very, very creepy. Being allergic to all touchy-feely feels, the Slaymate reveals that Akordia is in love with Grayson after (spoilers) he betrays one of his vows when they have creepy, Red Sonya-ish ‘you saved my life so I must do you’ suddenly-submissive-Amazon, post-dragon slaying sex, which is a phrase almost as uncomfortable to say as the scene of Akordia being all ‘the witchy law says you may ravish me as you desire’ is to watch.

Vile Darkness Creepy
Seriously, this is high octane nightmare fuel right here.

Finally, we reach the castle of Shathrax, who turns out to be a guy with his mouth sewn shut who speaks through two women he keeps on chains, which is creepy, but so not a Mind Flayer. Grayson rescues his father, and when they are cornered his defiant hope kindles his paladin amulet into life (bizarrely in response to his declaring himself a blackguard, which in D&D is an anti-paladin rather than a bounder and a cad). Shock, horror! This turns out to be a trap, as the villains need ‘liquid pain’ extracted from a true knight using a machine clearly knocked off from Count Rugen’s design in The Princess Bride to ink the new Book of Vile Darkness, but Akordia betrays the dark lord for love and light returns.

The end.

What’s wrong with it?

So, another Dungeons & Dragons movie; more mock heroics and dodgy dragons, and perhaps another chance to see Bruce Payne in purple lipstick chewing on the scenery.

Right?

Well… not exactly.

The third D&D movie takes its title and setting from the game line’s controversial Evil Bastard’s Manual, released amid much sound and fury as a ‘mature readers only’ product from the pen of Monte ‘Monte Cook’s World of Darkness’ Cook, introducing rules for sex, drugs and rock and roll (well, drugs and bad magic rituals at least) and making Tracy ‘All thieves must be evil unless they are racially inclined to kleptomania’ Hickman cry.

Vile Darkness WTF
Also, this happens, because all small towns also have lavish bordellos apparently.

What’s right with it?

It has a few decent moments, and some effort clearly went into it, and the evil adventuring party are not only properly evil, there is also a clear division between the Chaotic, Neutral and Lawful Evil members which shows proper commitment to the material.

How bad is it really?

Vile Darkness
“Hand over all the black leather in the town and nobody gets hurt.”

The Book of Vile Darkness is… bad, but not as bad as the first D&D movie and for different reasons. The attempt at grimdark is partially successful, but Grayson is painfully bland and Akordia not much better and the less said about the awkward stab at sexing up the franchise the better. Seith, Bezz and Vimak are the stars here, since they are clearly having fun, especially Bezz, whose presence seems to be as a reminder that not all evil is Lawful Evil. There are also some nice moments, and even some half-decent dialogue.

All in all, however, if you’re not siting up into the wee small hours waiting for your laundry to finish, there are probably better choices available.

Best bit?

Having murdered the giant Vimak, and needing to make it look as if he ran off with the treasure, Grayson stuffs the corpse into a bag of holding.

What’s up with…?

  • The Paladin in disguise? Honestly, it’s amazing that this works at all, given how incredibly bland and wet our hero is. If you picture a cross between Johnny Depp and Karl Urban, with all the manly passion and charisma of Justin Beiber, you’re about there.
  • The Knights’ vow of chastity. Grayson is at least a third generation knight, but they forswear the pleasures of the flesh. I pity their wives; I really do.
  • The Witch law that you have to get nekkid for a guy who saves your life? Oh, yes; they were trying to sex things up some.

Ratings

Production values – Mediocre, at best. The dragon is pretty clearly CGI and nothing is better than you would see on a TV series; and not a good TV series either. I’m talking the level of Lexx or Cleopatra 2525. Buffy the Vampire Slayer looked this good in the 90s, and today even nuWho would be embarrassed. 15

Dialogue and performances – Mostly pretty lame, although some of the support is good. Bezz the Vermin Lord is an enthusiastic treat, and clearly would have been Bruce Payne if they could have afforded him. The dialogue has a few corkers, but is mostly nothing to write home about, either for good or for ill. 13

Plot and execution – The plot is coherent, at least, and the direction and fight choreography passes the first test of being better than I could have managed. 12

Randomness –  – Pretty well in hand, for the most part, although the fact that a small mountain town has a towering wall, a magical vault and a massive, exotic brothel seemed a little out of left-field. 8

Waste of potential  – Pretty much all it could have been, with what it had to work with. 5

Overall 53%

From the Archive – Krull (1983)

Krull

 

“A world light years beyond your imagination.”

Directed by Peter Yates
Starring Ken Marshall, Lysette Anthony, Freddie Jones and Francesca Annis, plus just about every British character actor who went on to make the Hollywood second-string or higher in the next twenty years.

Historical note: This was the first film to be titled (or rather, subtitled) Dungeons & Dragons, despite a complete absence of dragons and precious few dungeons.

The terrible Beast arrives on the world of Krull in his big, flying rock, and unleashes his army of inhuman Slayers upon the population. To unite two kingdoms against the Beast, Prince Colwyn (Marshall, sporting a dodgy beard), and Princess Lyssa (Anthony) are to be married. Luckily, they fall in love, but unluckily the Slayers crash the wedding, abducting the princess and slaughtering all and sundry. Saved by the wise man, Ymyr (Jones), Colwyn climbs a mountain to find the Glaive, and ancient symbol and a powerful weapon, then sets out in pursuit of the Beast.

Trust me. It makes no more sense than this in the film.

Gathering a ragtag band of British character actors (including Liam Neeson, Alun Armstrong, Robbie Coltrane and Bernard Bresslaw as a cyclops), Colwyn tries to find out where the Beast’s teleporting fortress will be at the next sunrise. A seer is killed before he can help them, and so Ymyr must sacrifice himself to learn the secret from old flame, the Widow of the Web (Annis). Dodging Slayers and Changelings (shapeshifting assassins), Colwyn’s band travel by fire (or should it be shire) horse to the fortress, where Colwyn and Lyssa destroy the Beast with the power of their love; the Glaive proving rather less butch than advertised.

What’s wrong with it?

Well, it was made in the 80s, so for starters, there’s the hair. Also however, Marshall is a turgid hero, the whole premise is immensely silly, and the dialogue is rather trite. It also has too much material, such that it all seems rushed. The fact that the Cyclops race was tricked by the Beast and given the curse of knowing the time of their death is introduced in one sentence, crops up in a second, and is defied in a final, brief scene.

What’s right with it?

Some of those ideas are quite good, and – hairstyling aside – the production values are fairly high. The Slayers are also genuinely creepy, or at least were when I was twelve. It’s also fun seeing all those British character actors as an outlaw band.

How bad is it really?

Not as bad as all that, but really rather dated.

Best Bit

The opening credits; they really are rather flash.

What’s up with…?

  • The little bug-things that skitter out of the dead Slayers and bury themselves?
  • The ancient and powerful glaive actually sucking somewhat?

Ratings

Production Values – Pretty good for the time, although terribly, terribly dated now. 6

Dialogue and Performances – This film is a major offender in the field of ‘this is fantasy, so everything must be stilted and pretentious’. The dialogue is self-important drivel, even the conversation. The support playing, by the gang of outlaw character actors, is pretty solid, but the leads are fairly bloodless. 14

Plot and Execution – The majority of the plot involves the hero trying to find his way to the magically teleporting Fortress of the Beast, itself basically an excuse for the film to be more than just a hike across hostile country. The film is sometimes jumpy and confusing, and there is a feeling that there is more going on than you see in the film; and not in a good way. In addition, Krull is never entirely sure whether it’s a fantasy or a sci-fi movie. 15

Randomness – Within a fantasy context, there isn’t too much randomness, but by any other lights it’s all over the place. The flying horses just happening to be in the right place; allies and enemies popping up out of nowhere; the Beast shmoozing with the Princess for no readily apparent reason. 10

Waste of Potential – With a better lead and a little more work, Krull could have been a pretty decent film. as it is, it’s just a bit of a mess. Also, in retrospect, I think it was better than Dungeons & Dragons8

Overall 53%

From the Archive – Dungeons and Dragons (2001)

D&D

“This is no game”

Running against standard practice, this film was reviewed twice, first by Simon Drake, then by myself, in a review largely rebutting both the harsher and the more generous points involved.

Directed by Courtney Solomon
Starring Jeremy Irons, Justin Whalin, Zoe McLellan and Bruce Payne

Review by Simon Drake

Evil mage Profion (Irons, notching up an almost unchecked level of ham) plots to overthrow the Empire of Izmar run by Savina (Thora Birch) by stealing a magical sceptre that can control Gold Dragons

Knowing the Profion will bring death and destruction to Izmar, Savina sets out to find the legendary Rod of Savrille – which controls Red Dragons – before Profion.

Enter two thieves, buffed Hero Ridley (Whalin) and wisecracking sidekick Snails (Marlon Wayans) to find the rod, with help from Savina’s expert tracker Elf, Norda (Kristen Wilson) and Ginger Dwarf Elwood (Lee Arenberg). With Profion’s men lead by mincing baddie Damodar (Payne) at every turn, Ridley’s band battle their way through mazes, deserted castles and (yup!) dungeons to get to the rod before Profion.

What’s wrong with it?

Man alive, it is poor. The opening scene involving a Dragon in a dungeon had promise and some decent effects. Then the Dragon budget was obviously used up, as they then don’t appear for over an hour.

The Plot makes no sense, leaping from one subplot to another with reckless abandon. The acting is appalling. The Izmar counsel scenes ripped of Phantom Menace. And an ending that, despite outstaying it’s welcome by about 90 minutes leaves you thinking “huh” and “Is that it?”

Even cameos by stalwart Tom Baker in a pair of Dr Spock ears and Richard O’Brien does little to haul this soggy mess out of the swamp of crapness.

Thora Birch, clearly a wise head on her young shoulders, disappears for half of the movie. Then shows up riding a Dragon for the finale (and wearing what looks like a fire-guard on her head)

What’s right with it?

To be fair the Dragons are pretty cool, when they eventually show up. And the Finale has a sky full kicking crap out of each other. There are some nice cityscapes of Izmar. But that’s about it really.

How bad is it really?

Terrible…It doesn’t even have the clunky endearing quality of say ‘Krull’ or ‘Labyrinth’. It’s just shite.

Best Bit

The fairly surprising death of the quipping black sidekick (normally immortal in Hollywood films) Snails. Although I assume this is because Marlon Wayans wanted to appear in the superb Requiem for a Dream instead.

Or the uber camp henchman Damodar (Pantomimed by a bald Bruce Payne) sashaying around in Black Leather S&M gear. There’s a wonderful scene where he has his brains sucked out (or in, I forget which) by Jeremy Irons for some reason. His grimacing at the camera whilst fighting with an obviously CGI Brain eating snake is hysterical.

Plus when he and equally camp Richard O’Brien have a staredown…I was half expecting handbags and slapping. It was like a Right Said Fred music video…With Monsters.

What’s up with…?

  • Damodar’s Aqua Blue lipstick…No one mentions it. It serves no purpose other than to make him look like some gay icon (He’s no Kylie Minogue…But he gets close)
  • Jeremy Irons. First he starts out with evil looking red leather armour. Then within half an hour, spends the rest of the film wearing a Noel Coward esque smoking jacket and screaming about “My Destiny!” while his head bulges with some alarming looking veins. Causing obvious amusement to Bruce Payne. Couldn’t the Director see he was grinning from ear to ear during Profion’s final shouty speech? Although watching the film, I’d be surprised if the Director could see at all!
  • Richard O’Brien as ‘the Leader of the Thief guild of Antius’ who challenges Ridley to “Finish the maze…Win the prize”. Ridley, who goes against type of every Crystal Maze contestant by not only succeeding, but doing it without standing for a full minute with his mouth open saying “I can’t see the crystal.” Bearing in mind this is a maze that “No one has ever survived” it looked remarkably easy.
  • The Purple three eyed monster who speaks in a cod Cockney accent walking amongst the peasant villagers, trying to blend in – he’s supposed to be a spy!

Ratings

Production values: Vary dramatically. Some great looking cityscapes, decent dragons, and magic spell ‘zappy’ effects. But mostly lame “Filmed in Romania” castles and muddy peasant villages (full of tanned surfer looking dudes and rubbery looking Orks). 10

Dialogue and performances: Weak at best. I don’t think a single person acquits themselves well (apart from Bruce Payne, but that’s for all the wrong reasons) and that includes the script writers (Topper Lilian and Carroll Cartwright…Who apparently have moved to Mexico) 17

Plot and Execution: God-awful. Limp direction. Lumpy script (presumably written in Crayon). Incomprehensible. 19

Randomness: All over the show. Characters show up and disappear without explanation (Tom Baker, Purple Cockney Monster, and Thora Birch). The film doesn’t even show the heroes – or villains for the matter – travelling anywhere, defeating the point of a so-called epic quest. Suddenly someone is doing something for some reason. Then it cuts to somewhere else and the same person is doing something completely different. Plot exposition is usually mumbled by some old mystic…Or shouted by Jeremy Irons. 15

Waste of Potential: Huge. This could have been great fun, and had a spattering of moments of promise. But sadly the fish were biting, but no one could be bothered to reel them in. 15

Overall – 76%

Review by The Prophet

Evil and overacting mage Profion (Jeremy ‘Jezzer’ Irons, hamming for the home team) plans nefariously to seize control of the Empire of Izmer when the young, idealistic Empress Sahrmmrfuhrmm (Thora Birch, apparently attempting to balance things out by not acting at all) decides to enfranchise the commoners and abandon the ages-old magical autocracy.

Dashing, mage-hating thief Ridley (Whalin), and his sidekick Snails (Marlon Wayans, as the worst thief in history) tumble on the plot when an attempt to rob the magic school lands them in cahoots with apprentice mage Marina (McLellan), and it’s off into the wilds to rescue the Rod of Savrille.

Add in a dwarf, for no good reason (then edit out the scene where he tells us his name), and an elven tracker sent first to capture, then to aid our heroes. Spice with some rescues, and Dr Who turning up as the elven clergy, then serve with a dollop of climactic dragon battle and a big side order of ham.

What’s wrong with it?

Well, it’s a Dungeons & Dragons movie made by a director who a) loves the game, and b) doesn’t quite realise what changes need to be made to make a good game into a good film. It also bears several hallmarks of first-time directing (and, frankly, first time GMing) including low levels of coherence padded with moments of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it exposition. It doesn’t help that – as the DVD version shows – two key scenes were cut or never completed, and the bollocks final scene was apparently thrown in because the original was too downbeat. As a result, many parts of the film make no sense.

We also run the gamut of bad acting in this film: There’s ham (Jez), there’s camp (Richard O’Brien) and there’s wood (Thora ‘So Aptly-named’ Birch).

And Marlon Wayans’s whining quickly gets tedious.

What’s right with it?

If you don’t set out to hate it, and watch it with a song in your heart, D&D is an hour and a quarter of solid, cheesy entertainment; like a big piece of mild cheddar. Much of the ham and camp is pretty amusing, some of the acting is even fairly serviceable, a lot of the effects are fairly sweet, and the characters – if not exactly well-rounded and profound – are at least fairly likeable (well, the ones who have a character).

How bad is it really?

Not that bad. It’s never going to be a classic, and for my money is a better bet than Krull (although note that I give Krull a better rating). I used to say I prefered it to Labyrinth, but I think I may be mellowing on Labyrinth, but never on D&D.

Best Bit

Profion: I must have that Rod of Savrille. With its power, I shall be invincible.
Damodar (standing a foot behind him the whole time): What is your will?

What’s up with…?

  • Ah yes; the lipstick. Shehaaaah!
  • The Jez and Thora show? Come on guys; we know you can act. We’ve seen it!
  • Tom Baker showing up as the elven clergy to basically give Obi-Wan’s force speech? Weird.
  • The editing? The final version omits not only Ridley’s dream about the dragon hatching, but also the scene in the scroll, aka “the scene that explains everything”. It turns out Ridley hates mages as much as he does because they wiped his father’s mind when he designed a flying carriage without being of proper mage blood, and that he gets to pass through the force field because he was the first to decipher the scroll. It might have helped to know this. We also get the original ending as a deleted scene on the DVD, where Ridley just puts the ruby on Snails’s cairn and walks away. Makes much more sense.

Ratings

Production Values – Fairly swish, especially from a first time director. Some very nice dragons. Less sure about some of the costumes though, in particular all of the costumes the elves wear. 6

Dialogue and Performances – All over the shop. The script runs from the perfectly decent to the utterly ludicrous, while the acting plumbs the depths of planksville and hamborough alike, and spends a fair amount of time camping. Thora! We’ve seen you act! Jeremy! We’ve seen you not overact! Bruce…Oh, well, we don’t expect anything from you. 12

Plot and Execution – Amateurish, but less dynamically bollocks than the likes of Sanctuary and Highlander…well, any of them really. 15

Randomness – Due to crazed editing, there is rather a lot of this. For starters, the Empress (and as one 11th Hour reviewer pointed out, not calling her The Childlike Empress is purely a formality) is an essentially passive character, who should have the decency to wait around and get rescued. Having her do a bunch of stuff at the end just makes things complicated. And the end is weird as all get out. 12

Waste of Potential – One can not help but wonder what might have been with a better director to handle the ideas, budget and rampant actors. 15

Overall – 60%

From the Archive – Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)

Buffy

“Sometimes it takes more than just good looks to kill.”

Directed by Fran Rubel Kuzai
Starring Kristy Swason, Luke Perry and Rutger Hauer

High school cheerleader Buffy Summers (Swanson) discovers that she is The Slayer, the one girl in her generation gifted with the superhuman strength and agility to battle against the vampires. She is trained by Merrick (Donald Sutherland), the Watcher. Unfortunately, the Slayer has been pursued through the centuries by Lothos (Hauer), the most powerful vampire of all, and he has brought his vampire minions to her sleepy LA suburb in search of her.

As if that were not obstacle enough, Buffy herself would rather be getting ready to go to the prom than fighting the undead.

Merrick is killed trying to protect his charge from Lothos, leaving Buffy to face up to her responsibilities, with only the hapless biker-trash Pike (Perry) to help her. In a climactic showdown, Buffy is almost overcome by Lothos’s hypnotic powers, but finds her strength again because he can only do the mind-whammy when there’s music playing (huh?), and defeats him.

Five years later, writer Joss Whedon creates a TV series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that is superior in almost every respect.

What’s wrong with it?

Basically, it’s a travesty before its model. The TV series of Buffy has managed to maintain its momentum over 100 episodes, while the movie struggles to make 100 minutes. Joss Whedon’s witty, affectionately satirical script has somehow been reduced to a single joke (she’s a vampire Slayer, called Buffy), and populated with bizarrely ineffectual and deeply unintimidating villains. Oscar-nominee and Golden Globe-winner Rutger Hauer chews on the scenery, and Paul Reubens as his senior hench-vamp is a weasely clown, although they are both at least along for the ride. Actually, they’d both be great, if only the whole film was outrageously camp, but it isn’t.

And then there’s the great Donald Sutherland. According to an interview with Whedon, Donald Sutherland insisted on rewriting his lines to the point that the meaning was almost entirely lost. You barely notice, because he is a great actor, but as he is the source of all exposition, it leaves the rest of the plot hanging lost. It does leave one wondering if this, one of Whedon’s early efforts as a solo writer, was lacking something, but I suspect that we will never know. The comic book adaptation sparkled more, but who can say how much of that was down to post-series revision by the more mature Whedon?

What’s right with it?

Well, much of the film is pretty funny, and while much of it has just the one joke, it does do it rather well. It’s decently made, and – aside from a few rampant hams – decently acted, but it could have been so much more.

How bad is it really?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is really quite watchable, and in places promises to become something very sweet indeed. Of course, eventually it does: Five years later when the central concept got turned into a TV show. In fact, if not for the TV show, I might give the film a better write-up, but as it is, I can only look, and mourn for what might have been.

Best Bit

Tapping, a la Salem’s Lot, on Pike’s window, a newly turned vamp (David Arquette) tries to secure the all important invitation to enter. “I’m hungry,” he pleads. “You’re floating!” Pike points out, alarmed.

Or Paul Reubens’ line: “You ruined my jacket. Kill him a lot.”

What’s up with…?

  • The whole musical hypnosis thing? What would have happened if Lothos’s band had let him down one evening? Or if he’d brought a ghetto blaster to the showdown with Buffy, just in case?

Ratings

Production Values – Dated outfits notwithstanding, the production values aren’t too bad, although ‘flying Lothos’ is fairly visibly on strings. 8

Dialogue and Performances – The script veers between sharp one-liners, slick exchanges, and monumentally garbled exposition. No-one in the film actually acts badly, but the performances are all over the place. It is almost as if everyone is in a different movie, and were all cut together digitally. 5

Plot and Execution – Fairly solid, but it suffers from a mangled finale. In addition, it is neither as funny, nor as scary as it could be. However, the greatest failing in the direction is that the various actors are able to be at such dramatic odds in their performances without being reigned in. Luke Perry and Kristy Swanson are in a teen movie and playing it straight down the line, while Donald Sutherland is in something terribly portentous, and Rutger Hauer and Paul Ruebens are in the Rocky Horror Show. the film would have been so much better for just a little more directorial control. 12

Randomness – Aside from that music thing, pretty good, but as that’s the climax of the film, it’s a pretty big random spot, especially as Buffy only works it out when the music stops and Lothos loses control. She doesn’t puzzle out his weakness and use it to defeat him; she just gets lucky, and that’s a big let down in a final showdown of this sort. 10

Waste of Potential – We can but be glad that we have had a second chance to see the potential that this film squandered. 15

Overall – 50%

From the Archive – Gone in 60 Seconds (2000)

60

“Ice Cold, Hot Wired.”

Reviewed by Simon Drake

Directed by Dominic Sena.
Starring Nicolas Cage, Angelina Jolie, Robert Duvall.

Memphis Raines (Nicholas Cage) has to steal 50 – count ’em – high-class cars in one night to save his brother’s life from Token Brit Villain Christopher “I’ll never move to Hollywood film” Eccelston.

What’s wrong with it?

Basically the film (actually a remake of a 60’s film) is terribly dated and frankly a little dull. Bruckheimer was evidently trying to capture the 80 cheese of Top Gun and Days of Thunder…But in the year 2000. Adding insult to injury, the film, pitched as a car chase movie, only contains one car chase…and that is ten minutes before the end. The rest of the film is spent with long, lingering shots of the cars (admittedly nice) and Angelina Joile (also admittedly nice), who plays the most unlikely mechanic in cinema history, with the implausible moniker of ‘Sway’.

Director Dominic Sena (responsible for other dire offerings such as the David Duchovny ass-fest Kalifornia, and the Halle Berry breast-fest Swordfish) obviously thought it was a great idea to punctuate the film with interminable pounding techno and epileptic edits…And Vinnie Jones.

Ahhhh Vinnie. 15 Minutes almost up!!! ‘Our’ Vinnie plays (wait for it) a violent thug (showing the full extent of his range) called ‘The Sphinx’ (where do they come up with these names!!!). Writer Scott Rosenberg has clearly never seen Mystery Men, or maybe he has as the previously mute Sphinx spouts some cod philosophy at the end of the film (in a very He-Man ‘all laugh together’ ending). Either way he probably misses the irony.

Finally, the whole questionable moral message of the movie (stealing cars is okay if they are expensive as the owners can afford it). Even the Maverick cop lets Nicolas Cage go despite the fact he’s just dropped a business man (admittedly British, therefore Evil!) into a vat of boiling molten metal.

What’s Good about it?

To be fair, the film has Nicolas Cage in, who always falls into the watchable category (despite Starring in Snake Eyes, 8MM, Bringing Out the Dead, Family Man…I could go on). It also features a cool car chase at the end (although followed by some sickening ‘all for a brother’s love’ moralising). Angelina Jolie disappears for half of the movie, so whether you think that’s a good or a bad point is your own lookout.

How bad is it really?

It’s just badly written by someone who on occasions has proved himself to be an able hack. It stars 3 Oscar winners, acting badly (I believe the term is ‘phoning it in’), in a film with high production values pitched to 16-year-old boys who read ‘maxpower’ magazine.

Must try harder!

Best Bit

Either the line ‘You promised your Mother you’d never steal another car again’, or Christopher Eccelston falling backwards into a pit of Molten Metal (with the obligatory terrible back projection effects).

The Cars are cool as well.

What’s up with…?

  • The Finale set in the leftover set of the steel Mill in Terminator 2?
  • Vinnie Jones philosophical psycho analysing all the main characters?
  • Nicolas Cage’s ginger toupee?

Ratings:

Production Values – High. Lots of expensive cars (some shots if them driving would have been nice though) and stars. 3

Dialogue and Performance – Pretty lame. A few decent one-liners creep into the mix, but not many. “I’m not messing with anyone who plays with dog shit” ‘quips’ a street punk. 16

Plot and Execution – The plot is more of an excuse really. The title was fairly apt. 20

Randomness – High. Subplots involving Parents splitting up, getting Cancer, Diaritic dogs and Geordie thugs are all thrown into the mix. But most bizarrely is the crapness of the car thefts, just shots of various fast cars being loaded into huge crates, then as the film goes on just shots of the crates…Obviously Jeremy Clarkson only allowed half his collection to be filmed. Also lots of techno crap about Carburettors and Tungsten fuel injection ports. 18

Waste of Potential – Unrated.

Overall: 72.5%*

* Overall rating calculated based on the percentage from the four rated categories.

From the Archive – Godzilla (1998)

Godzilla98

 

Directed by Roland Emmerich
Starring Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno, Maria Pitillo, Hank Azaria

French nuclear testing – that’s right; not righteous American nuclear bombs deployed against civilian targets in Japan, but Godless French nuclear trials – creates a monster. Pursued by the US military, a team of loveably flawed scientists (including Broderick as a Greek-American expert on the mutant earthworms of Chernobyl) and a dogged French ‘insurance investigator’ (Reno, briefly breathing life into the scenes he passes through), this giant, mutant iguana wrecks a few trawlers as it makes its way to New York, where it treads on cars, breaks buildings and generally makes a nuisance of itself.

A rookie journalist (Pitillo) and her veteran cameraman (Azaria, again, a passing ray of sunshine in the bleak midwinter night of this movie) pick up the pursuit of the beast, dubbed ‘Godzilla’.

Far from the rubber-suited guy of Toho’s creature features, this Godzilla is a fast moving, slickly sophisticated piece of CGI. It crouches like an iguana, and burrows like a mad thing; floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee, and generally escapes all traps set for it by fox-like cunning as much as brute strength. Eventually the scientists discover that the big lizard is pregnant, and Broderick and Reno – really a French secret service agent – team up to track and destroy the eggs, and incidentally a baseball stadium; because its more fun that way. The four principals then lead Godzilla him(her?)self onto the Brooklyn Bridge, where (s)he gets tangled in the wires and rocketed to death.

In the closing scene, a last, ignored egg hatches, and a baby ‘zilla leaps out, with a roar which loosely translates as: “I’ll be back”.

While the threat of a sequel was terrifying, in the end this led to the all-too short-lived Godzilla cartoon series, which was… actually pretty awesome.

What’s wrong with it?

Godzilla is a giant, mutated blob of a movie. Bereft of any significant plot or interesting characters, even its flashy SFX fails to please, and the viewer is left longing for the damn thing to end, especially on video. With the exceptions of Reno, Azaria, and a few supporting turns, the acting is weak at best – with the drippy excuse for a ‘tough’ journalist a particular low – and while the huge lizard is as advertised, he’s so much less so than the original Big G.

He doesn’t even breathe fire for crying out loud!

What’s right with it?

Well, there’s Jean Reno and Hank Azaria, plus that huge lizard. Moreover, Godzilla certainly sounds like Godzilla, having a screaming roar close enough to the real thing for government work. There’s also a nice moment where the lizard gets called Godzilla because the slimy newsman can’t pronounce the Japanese ‘Gojira’; an allusion to the fact that the original film was called Godzilla in the States, because it was felt that the American public couldn’t cope with Gojira.

How bad is it, really?

Giant. Mutated. Blob.

To be fair, if you went to the cinema for Jean Reno and a huge lizard, you did get what you paid for, but the experience falls rather flat on the small screen, and even the huge lizard and the cool Frenchman can’t disguise the fact that the film is overlong and incredibly tedious.

Best bit?

Jean Reno’s French secret service surveillance team bitching about the quality of American coffee, and the dearth of croissants in New York city.

What’s up with…?

  • Godzilla being pregnant? And even if he is, then how can Matthew Broderick tell from a saliva scraping off the streets of New York? I mean, seriously; with all the crap that must be on those streets…
  • Godzilla being a mutated marine iguana? I mean, is this supposed to be more credible than a mutated dinosaur wakened from frozen stasis by a nuclear blast? Heh; and neatly I see it’s now the fault of the French rather than the Americans.
  • Matthew Broderick’s career? Seriously, the guy seesaws from excellence to the ludicrous without pause. Just look at Godzilla and Election; it’s hard to believe it’s the same guy.
  • Blowing up a stadium with air-to-air missiles? OK; I pretty much accept this as a movie fudge, but the criticism has been levelled, and I thought I’d better mention it. Military types are apparently very bothered by it.

Ratings:

Production Values – To be fair, pretty good. Some people claim that you can see the buildings through the big lizard, but I didn’t get that. My problem with the big lizard is that it’s just plain not Godzilla, but for what it is, it looks pretty spiffy. Just wish they’d spent some of the budget on flaming breath though. 6

Dialogue and performances – Ugh. Matthew Broderick in one of his career lows, and could the reporter chick be any more irritating if she tried? Generally solid support playing, especially from Reno and Hank Azaria, can’t hide the fact that the central performances blow. The script is also on the naff side, but not so much as to be cringe worthy. The performances however elevate the material to a new height of tedium. 16

Plot and Execution – What plot? Big lizard. Smash Manhattan. Killee monster. Pretty basic fare, with some added cool Frenchmen. The delivery is workmanlike and the payoff lacks any of the emotional impact of the original; or even of Destroy all Monsters12

Randomness – The giant lizard pregnancy test. The absence of flaming breath (what? was it felt that would damage the suspension of disbelief?) The iguana business. Mostly, however, it is internally consistent. 10

Waste of Potential – It’s a big budget Godzilla flick, and they screwed it up! How could they manage that? It must have taken real planning and effort. 17

Overall: 61%

Highlander: The Source (2007)

Source

“The Quest for Mortality Begins”

Directed by Brett Leonard
Starring Adrian Paul, Peter Wingfield, Jim Byrnes and Thekla Reuten

In a post-Apocalyptic future, a group of Immortals are searching for The Source; the thing that makes them Immortal. Reluctantly dragged into the quest by his mortal ex and his old friend Watcher Joe is Duncan MacLeod, now a surly man with stubble and anger.

One by one, the Immortals are picked of by the Guardian, a super-Immortal with impossible speed and strength, and they learn that as they approach the Source they are becoming mortal. Despite being basically told that if they fight over the Source they will, best case scenario, be reduced to some immobile, corpulent mockery of life, one of the remaining questers betrays the others, but Methos buys Duncan a chance for the prize, and by defeating but not killing the Guardian he proves worthy of the ultimate prize: Mortality.

That’s not a spoiler, it’s in the tagline, and also what the Prize was in the first film.

What’s wrong with it?

Once again, the principle of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ is gleefully discarded. The Guardian’s superspeed replaces flashy swordfights with blurred composite shots, and the plot is almost as much of a mess. The film also uses a cover version of Queen’s Princes of the Universe for the big hero walk moment, which is pretty much unforgivable by any standard. Nothing in this film is explained, from the sudden appearance of the Source to the bizarre tactics of the questers or the treacherous priest’s extraordinary hair.

Also, the film spits on its heritage, as dubious as it is, not only by reinterpreting ‘there can be only one’, but by shattering Duncan’s trademark katana and replacing it with a pair of butterfly swords. It’s like this film is embarrassed to be a Highlander movie, which is pretty rich.

What’s right with it?

Not a goddamned thing.

How bad is it really?

In absolute terms, it’s probably not as bad as The Quickening, but it’s a meaningless  distinction.

Best bit (if such there is)?

There really isn’t anything much.

What’s up with…?

  • The Guardian taunting MacLeod by singing ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’?
  • The Source making them mortal even as it sends the Guardian after them?
  • Why doesn’t the Guardian just kill them all at once? Is the one-on-one rule in effect again? Why does the goon in the iron neck-brace care?
  • Why are they bringing the mortal along? I mean, she turns out to be the key to the whole thing, but they don’t know that.

Ratings

Production values – Shooting Eastern Europe-for-post-Apocalypse really doesn’t cut it anymore. The speed fights are poorly done, and much of the film is in this bizarre ‘trashcan fire’ lighting effect that doesn’t do anyone any favours. 14

Dialogue and performances – No-one seems to have any real enthusiasm for the proceedings, and even the old hands are phoning it in now, as you might expect when asked to speak lines suggesting that a massive shift in the orbits of the planets, substantial enough that Saturn is visible in the sky could be due to ‘orbital wobble’. Bring back Roger Daltrey; all is forgiven! 17

Plot – Thin, with far too much padding of far too little quality or consequence. The original’s succession of sword fights with a more or less foregone conclusion constitutes a better story than this. 19

Randomness – The Guardian’s weird attacks on the fourth wall and bizarre Kurgan impressions. Duncan MacLeod’s ninth one true love. Nurgle-immortal. 12

Waste of potential – By this point, we weren’t expecting much. We still get less. 14

Overall: 76%

From the Archive – Highlander: Endgame (2000)

“It will take two immortals to defeat the ultimate evil. But in the end, there can be only one.”

Directed by Douglas Aarniokoski.
Starring Christopher Lambert, Adrian Paul and Bruce Payne (again, readers may come to think of as all you need to know).

Brief Synopsis

Connor’s adopted daughter gets blown up, so he goes into seclusion and is kept sedated on holy ground, only the whole place gets shot up and the attacker – an immortal – kills a bunch of other immortals on said holy ground, because that doesn’t matter any more.

Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul) gets threatened by some guys, then Connor shows up. Flashbacks show us that Connor is being stalked by a now-immortal ex-priest named Jacob Kell (Bruce Payne, the man who understudied for the absent Julian Sands in Warlock III for crying out loud), whom he killed when they burned his mother as a witch, and that the guy’s hench-chick – one of several immortal minions who can’t do the basic maths of ‘there can be only one’ – is Duncan’s ex-wife, whom he stabbed to make her immortal without asking her first.

Connor forces Duncan to kill him so that he can gain the strength to fight Kell, who has killed 666 immortals once he offs his henchlings.

Numerous alternate versions exist, but there is little to suggest that any of them make much more sense than that.

What’s wrong with it?

It sucks. Seriously. It’s incoherent, the baddies wear these ridiculous outfits, yet have no sense of theme to tie them together and justify such an outre fashion statement; it’s just as if they all still think it’s the 80s. Nor is there any explanation as to why they a) work for another immortal in the first place, and b) just sit there and let him kill them. It feels half-formed, and none of the violations of the immortal traditions and rules are addressed in any way.

What’s right with it?

There are a couple of decent swordfights. Oh, and it completely disowns II by stating outright that none of the immortals have ever known where they come from or why they’re immortal.

How bad is it really?

Terrible, although not quite so bad as the Quickening.

Best bit (if such there is)?

The fight between MacLeod and a Chinese hench immortal is nicely choreographed, but alas cut short.

What’s up with…?

  • Even more hench immortals? And these ones seem so enamoured of their boss that they just stand there and let him kill them.
  • The incredible reviving love interest? The hench-chick is plainly decapitated by Kell, but in some versions appears alive at the end.
  • Killing on holy ground? Not fighting one-on-one? Even the bloody Kurgan followed the rules, and he was just so much more evil than Bruce Payne. Surely if the rules could be circumvented, he’d have done it? As an observation, Kell wears crosses on the soles of his shoes. Is this some insulation against holy ground? Who knows? Who cares?
  • The hench-chick working with Kell in the first place. She even seems largely immune to Kell’s allegedly overwhelming charisma. The idea seems to be that they work together through mutual hate, but they don’t really say or show it.

Ratings:

Production values – As with The Sorcerer, Endgame picks up a few undeserved points for its general production values. It’s slickly made and competently directed, with some nicely shot and choreographed action. However, it loses serious points on the editing, whatever cut you watch. 12

Dialogue and performances – Workmanlike. Lambert plods rather morosely through the picture, but Paul is a watchable lead, and shite though he is, Bruce Payne chewing scenery is always reasonable value for your bargain buck. Highlander the Series stalwarts Jim Byrnes and Peter Wingard make a good showing in rather limited cameos, but the love interest is lacklustre. The dialogue is likewise unexceptional, but falls short of risible. 11

Plot – The plot is all over the place, and suffers greatly from its attempt to combine nemeses from the two MacLeods’ histories without sufficient rationale or chemistry. 14

Randomness – Oy! Randomness we got! The film feels overfull in places, with the upshot that many, many elements are simply not explained. Ever. 17

Waste of Potential – Unlike the follow-up films, the TV series actually got to be worth watching. That just makes this abomination even worse by comparison. A chance to save the franchise, pissed down the toilet. 20

Overall: 74%

From the Archive – Highlander III: The Sorcerer (1994)

“This time it’s for eternity.”

Directed by Andrew Morahan.
Starring Christopher Lambert and Mario van Peebles

Brief Synopsis

After four centuries trapped in a cave, the evil immortal Kane (‘Super’ Mario van Peebles) – who apparently makes the Kurgan look like a pussycat – is freed by development construction. Will they never learn?

This awakening reactivates Connor’s full powers, although we learn that he survived a fatal car wreck in the highlands which dispatched the love interest of the original film, and he and Kane kill one of the latter’s hapless hench-immortals apiece, before convening for the ultimate showdown, in which Connor wins the prize again. The twist is that, in addition to his mastery of the sword, Kane also possesses the power of illusion, stolen from Connor’s second mentor, the sorcerer Nakano, along with his head and his Quickening.

Along the way, there’s also a romantic plotline with an archaeologist who uncannily resembles Connor’s French Revolution love, and Kane kidnaps Connor’s adopted son to use as live bait. At one point they fight on holy ground, and Connor’s sword explodes.

What’s wrong with it?

The Sorcerer is essentially a rehash of the original with some extra special effects, only this time it isn’t novel and different. It’s woefully short on swordfights, and ‘Super’ Mario just lacks the camp malevolence of Clancy ‘Kurgan’ Brown. Its attempts to rationalise its own existence in the wake of the events of the original are – if less crazed than II’s – still fairly stretched. Far more of the film is set in daylight, and the colouration is better than in the original, which actually ends up detracting from the overall atmosphere.

What’s right with it?

There’s some nifty SFX, and the love interest is of a slightly higher calibre than in the original (largely because there’s a small child to do the screaming incompetence).

How bad is it really?

Unlike II, this film is at least watchable. That said, it’s still pretty abominable.

Best bit (if such there is)?

Even the swordfights are pretty dull in this one. It says a lot about the overall quality of the film that the best moment is probably ‘Super’ Mario proving that Kane is out of touch by trying to eat a condom. And no, it’s not one of those things you had to be there for; that’s really all there is to it.

What’s up with…?

  • This whole power of illusion thing in the first place? Fair’s fair though; at least this time there actually is a new kind of magic.
  • Hench immortals? Why would anyone do it? You know that you’re going to end up dead.
  • The exploding sword? OK, I buy that it’s supposed to be some sort of resistance to immortals duelling on holy ground, but since Kane attacked, why does his katana remain intact? Moreover, why doesn’t he even try to finish MacLeod off while he’s unarmed?

Ratings:

Production values – Pretty good; in fact, almost too good. The whole thing is so well-shot it actually loses the gritty atmosphere of the original because of it. 6

Dialogue and performances – So-so. The dialogue is fairly uninspired, the acting is vaguely competent. Nothing outstandingly bad, but nothing more than workmanlike really. 10

Plot – At best, the plot is patchy. In places, the film feels more like a series of vignettes than a coherent narrative, and the flashbacks to the French Revolution – indeed the entire romantic subplot – feels tacked on, and rather pointless. 14

Randomness – While it has nothing on II, much in The Sorcerer goes unexplained. The exploding sword, Kane’s hibernation, the henchlings, the reincarnated lover. 10

Waste of Potential – Less shameless than the second film, as this does not abuse the mighty Sean, but even for a Super Mario van Peebles/Christopher Lambert film, this is pretty slack. 12

Overall: 52%

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