Saturday, January 15, 2011

Movie Review: In the Name of the King – a Dungeon Siege Tale

It has been a good long time since I saw a movie as massively, unintentionally cheesy as In the Name of the King. Lured into purchasing it on Blu-Ray as part of a batch offer, I already had my doubts about a film being marketed just on the basis of the lead having been in The Expendables. But seeing Jason Statham’s hunky face on the cover made me walk into the trap regardless: I’m just superficial that way. After the purchase, I took better look at the director and saw the name Uwe Boll, in very tiny print. It was then that I knew for sure I’d been had.

Uwe Boll is known for his ability to make bad movie adaptations of game franchises, such as Bloodrayne, Alone in the Dark and Far Cry. They are said to be generic and uninteresting at best, hilariously bad at worst. He once famously challenged his unflagging critics to take him on in the ring and settle their score man-to-man, apparently believing he could prove the quality of his work by punching a critic in the face. To be fair, based on his reputation I had always avoided his movies like the plague and had never given him a fair shake. But going by this movie, I should just have taken other people’s word for it and spared myself two hours of low-budget mediocrity. The whole project is po-faced, misjudged and wobbly in all aspects from acting and script to special effects. Even the passionless soundtrack conspires to makes things drag.

In the Name of the King – a Dungeon Siege Tale is based on a Role-Playing game I know nothing about and stars Jason Statham as Farmer, whose day-job is evident from his name. He has a son and a wife, but not for long, as soon they are both taken from him by the ‘Krug’, who look suspiciously like Trolls and were probably renamed to sound less generic. The Krug have a silly semi-gorilla walk with corresponding sounds, unconvincing bodysuits and never let you forget that there must be an actor inside, feeling very bad for himself. There is a magical mastermind pulling the Krug’s strings (the ever-evil Ray Liotta) and his plan is to take over the land by getting rid of the king (a strangely tightfaced and overly made up Burt Reynolds), with help from the king’s weakling nephew (Matthew Lillard, better known as Shaggy from the Scooby Doo movies). Not to spoil anything, but Farmer stops him. The end.

I have left out some other characters like a magus/magician (the elsewhere admirable John Rhys-Davies) and Farmer’s daddy substitute (the elsewhere fantastic Ron Perlman), but then none of them is especially memorable and they remain firmly 2D, if not 1D. One or two of the minor characters even risk travelling into negative space. It is the script’s fault that people don’t really say the things that would make the most sense in any given circumstance and that what does come out of their mouth sounds stilted, but since Boll is the producer and director, blame still lands on his plate. Watching the movie, I kept being tempted to reach into my television, yank out the script and do a quick rewrite. I also wanted to rewrite the beginning and get rid of a ‘twist’ that was probably intended as gritty and shocking, but really is just severely emotionally misjudged. It sets the wrong tone and shows that the makers are in denial about making a goofy fantasy action movie.

Even though In the Name of the King is very long and feels like it, somehow it doesn’t get around to putting in all the information you need to comprehend what is going on. For instance: there is a baffling group of semi-ninja warriors that just appear in the middle of a battle – on two occasions – without set-up or explanation afterwards. If only Boll had tightened up the story, got rid of some unnecessary characters and scenes, cut out about 30-45 minutes and used the extra budget to invest in a dialogue polish and better special effects… This might have enabled them to make the fight scenes look like more than just a live roleplaying session in the woods. On the other hand, this would probably have meant we would have had to do without the awesomely silly tree-people who swing around on vines and are able to use them to attack people by way of unconvincing computer graphics.

It’s a mystery how Uwe Boll keeps getting the chance to make more movies. There always seem to be people willing to invest some money in his projects – as a tax write-off, perhaps - and some actors willing to spend time hamming it up and chewing the low-budget scenery. I don’t understand why all of the at least somewhat known actors I mentioned didn’t take one look at the script and at Boll’s reputation and ran in the opposite direction. The sounds of agents getting fired must have been everywhere during and after the filming. Beefcake Statham fulfills the stoic hero part as best as he can, given the circumstances, but is a lot more fun in movies where he has a sense of humor than in flicks like this and The Transporter, where he is typecast as a frowning, one-note action man.

To end on a positive note… uhmm… well, I guess some of the computer-generated vistas are actually quite nice and the Blu-Ray picture quality is crisp and clean. That’s pretty much all I can come up with.

Despite this movie being a massive commercial flop, a sequel starring Dolph Lundgren is in the works, once again directed by Uwe Boll. God(s) help us all.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Television Review: Castle (Seasons 1 & 2)

Castle is like a box of chocolates. Not one of those where you don’t know what you’re going to get – far from it - but rather one filled with that one special kind of bon-bon you can’t stop eating ‘just one more’ of, even though it’s empty calories and it will make you feel bloated afterwards. (Yes, I’m gay.) It’s a very entertaining but very formulaic quirky crime-solving series, closely related to Bones and Psych.

In a rather precarious and unbelievable set-up for a continuing series, famous pulp-thriller writer Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion) starts shadowing NYPD detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic). He has recently killed off his cash cow of a main character and is basing his new one (‘Nicki Heat’) on her. He is connected to people in politically high places and to keep them happy, the NYPD is allowing him to follow her around apparently indefinitely. It’s stated that he wants to make all the details in his book ‘authentic’ and this would explain why he needs to be around 24-7 for months on end. As time management goes, this is not the most efficient way of going about things, but since Castle helps Beckett unravel the tangled narrative behind each crime – there are no straightforward murders in this precinct - he proves useful and they grow ever closer.

Their cheery witticisms while hovering over a dead body can come across as somewhat insensitive, but playfulness is what this series is about. I doubt the NYPD deals with things like ‘death by gargoyle’, frozen corpses left lying around and naked, handcuffed, dead ladies covered in caramel sauce on a regular basis. If you are expecting hard-boiled and realistic, you will be disappointed. Though during the first couple of episodes Beckett states a few times that most crime shows are removed from reality and that Rick Castle will now experience how an investigation ‘really’ works, the series is soon employing shortcuts for the convenience of the plot and making your eyes roll. Investigations that would take a huge amount of time get magically condensed and after a complicated intrigue has been brought to light, there is always some evidence to support it – as luck would have it - even though it is often circumstantial and a prosecutor would have a tough time getting a conviction. This doesn’t matter much, as generally the killers are all too easily pushed into a confession. These groan-inducing moments that not only stretch believability but sometimes even fold it into an entertaining balloon animal, don’t spoil the fun, but you start to wonder about some convenient narrative crutches: when will murderers learn not to use their perfectly traceable credit-card to buy stuff they will use for their kill or in the vicinity of their prospective victim around the time of the murder?

The average episode follows this predictable structure: body gets found in odd circumstances - cute scene with Castle in his very expensive loft with sweet daughter and/or cohabitating eccentric mother – he gets called to the murder scene - he and Beckett interview a succession of suspects, buoyed by revelations, imagination and ever-present snippets of evidence – until a slightly more well-known tv-actor than the other interviewees/suspects from the first part of the episode turns out to be the killer. Engaging characters and dialogue keep the recipe from growing stale. Castle’s family set-up is on the verge of being too cute, but generally manages to charm you into submission. The ‘will they or won’t they’ romantic vibe between the two leads also keeps things interesting, though the series doesn’t seem to be in a rush to move this plot-point forward. Sensibly, perhaps, as series from the past have proven that there is really nowhere interesting to go once you couple up your leads (*cough* Moonlighting *cough*). Sure, you can have them get together and break them up maybe once and then still keep them circling each other, but the audience will lose patience. Did anyone really still want Ross and Rachel to even be on the same screen towards the end of Friends?

Nathan Fillion steals the show as a charming wise-ass, the kind of role he seems born to play, whether he turns out to be a space cowboy, a supervillain or a pulp fiction writer. However, the rest of the cast is equally game and a pleasure to watch. If you don’t mind the occasional ‘yeah, right’ moment and can appreciate fun shows that aren’t all that intellectually nourishing, the Castle crowd is a good one to hang out with. A warning about the whistled tune at the beginning of each episode: after watching a couple of episodes in quick succession, it might get stuck in your head. Forever.