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Season of the Witch (2011)

No actor has amassed a higher output of spotty choices than the reigning king of the paycheck film, Nicolas Cage. The man has a habit of appearing in mediocre trash, only notable because a star of Cage’s stature is participating. He’s in late Marlon Brando territory and Cage hasn’t even hit 50 (or blown up to 300 pounds). Every now and then he’ll make a movie that reaffirms how talented an actor he can be, like Adaptation. or Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. But mostly what we associate with Cage nowadays is tic-filled performances, exuberant weirdness, funny hair, and bad movies, two of which are so bad they’re skipping theatrical releases this year (Trespass and Seeking Justice). Season of the Witch will do nothing to change this association.

During the 14th century Crusades, warriors Behmen (Nicolas Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman) are the best killing machines the Church could hope for. They desert their positions after becoming disillusioned with the Crusades. The duo ventures into a city where a girl (Claire Foy) has been chained in a dungeon. In an airtight piece of impenetrable logic, she’s being blamed for bringing the plague. Behmen and Felson, along with a former knight, a priest, and a young upstart, are tasked with bringing the girl to a monastery where she can be properly dealt with. This secluded monastery is the only place left with a copy of a rare manuscript that contains a spell that will end the pestilence. They put the girl in a cage with wheels and get rolling to that monastery, though not everyone is convinced that the girl is a witch.

For the first ten minutes, you swear you’re watching a buddy comedy transported to the era of the Crusades. Cage and Perlman are in the front lines of “God’s army” but they’re trading competitive quips like, “You take the 300 on the right. I’ll take the 300 on the left,” and then they preposterously debate who is going to buy post-battle drinks while in the heat of battle. They’re literally slaying enemy soldiers and would rather be arguing over who buys. It’s like they have no attachment to anything happening. This opening Crusade sequence takes us through 12 freaking years of battle locations, but it’s only at the final battle that Cage and Perlman come to the realization that women and children might also be getting slaughtered as they siege city after city. It’s at this point that they get on their moral high horses and stick it to the Catholic leaders: “I serve God, not you. This is not God’s work.” Why did it take them 12 years of fighting to figure out that innocent people may die when you lay waste to cities? Naturally this epiphany only happens after they kill off a European looking innocent. The opening sequence is meant to introduce us to these characters, but it jars the viewer in mere minutes. These guys don’t feel a part of their place or time, and it only gets worse from there. Their nonchalant anachronistic behavior makes the movie seem like a Hope and Crosby vehicle.

This is one thunderously boring movie, putting me to sleep three separate times. I had to rewind what I had missed, and each time I came to the conclusion that I really had missed nothing at all. The problem with the plot is that it makes a mystery pretty obvious. The group is carting around a teen girl in a cage. You’d think this would be something of a conversation starter, perhaps even an opening for a critical analysis of the Inquisition and religious fanaticism at this perilous time. Nope. The whole of the Bubonic Plague is being blamed on a teen girl and nobody seems to bat an eye at this. Sure there’s a few passing references to how killing is wrong (again, remember this took at least 12 years of slaughter to sink in), but the movie’s central storyline seems to shift to a “Is she really a witch?” query. Judging from what kind of film this is, you’d probably be safe betting on “yes” and, well, you’d be partly right. The reason this is no spoiler is because it’s revealed at like halfway through the movie. The girl’s chief defenders suddenly jump on the “burn her” bandwagon. Strange things are following the troupe, so it’s pretty obvious who is at play. However, the girl is no witch but is inhabited by a demon, which seems like splitting hairs. When the super cheesy CGI demon/gargoyle shows its face, the creature actually speaks English but in a really speedy and comical voice that makes it hard to be taken seriously. An earlier cut of the movie did not involve this dumb CGI demon but the girl herself. At least that route would have saved the producers some money and unintentional laughter.

The movie should be far more entertaining, even in a dubious fashion, than it finally is. Season of the Witch flirts with some messages (religion can exploit, women were unfairly persecuted) and silly genre elements amidst a Medieval setting (witches, demons, plague). That sounds like the makings for a campy treat but that treat never materializes. The boring plot lumbers, with the company encountering some setback that picks off their numbers one by one. It’s hard not to feel the drowsy effects of the dull repetition. They encounter killer wolf creatures. Then they encounter a rickety rope bridge, and you better believe that there are rotting boards and fraying ropes. Who keeps building these rope bridges that appear in so many movies, and why do they keep getting hired after continually doing substandard work? Do the regulators get fat payoffs from the rope bridge lobby?

The road to the monastery is a long trek and the movie’s momentum seems to lag with every step. There should be more internal conflict rather than this superficial “killing is wrong” moral that every warrior seems tormented with. The premise should be a ripe opening for a discussion on the perversion of religion for political and personal gain, for the abuses of power, for the archaic view of women as subhuman beings who will seduce men to destruction. There’s even a priest along the way to provide a counterpoint. But alas, Season of the Witch goes hog wild for the cheesy supernatural spooks and even at that it fails miserably.

As of late, the saving grace in a Nicolas Cage paycheck movie is a gonzo performance and some wacky hairdo. We don’t even get that much with Season of the Witch. Cage is oddly subdued throughout the whole movie despite all the swords and witchery. Even his hair is subdued. Without Cage’s typical nutty antics, the movie loses any chance of entertainment it might have ever hoped to have. The shame is that Cage and Perlman both have an easygoing chemistry. You like the two of them together; you just wish they had a better reason to trade insults and one-liners.

Far from bewitching, this movie is ponderously dull. It misses camp by a mile and just lands on mediocrity. There’s nothing about this movie that will stand the test of time, good or bad. This is the definition of a paycheck movie. It flirts with going darker before it settles on a messy monster-heavy ending. The special effects are cheesy, the scares are cheap, the plot is repetitious, the characters feel wrongly transplanted from a modern movie, and Cage sleepwalks through his role. I can’t say I blame him. Season of the Witch put me to sleep and I only had to put up with it for 90 minutes.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

I disliked the first Hellboy, dubbing it the second worst film of 2004. The fact that I enjoyed the sequel is nothing short of shocking. Honestly, I think this mumbo jumbo is easier to swallow when it’s more fantasy based than science fiction based. I can accept an alternative magical world filled with elf princes, troll markets, and tiny “tooth fairy” creatures that act like piranhas with wings. Nazis and Zombie Rasputin trying to open a portal to giant squids?  Hellboy II is even more imaginative and far more enjoyable. Writer/director Guilermo del Toro has refined the world and makes sure his story follows the rules it sets, which means that while the plot gets crazy it doesn’t feel cheap. I actually had some fun with Hellboy II and del Toro knocks out some pretty crafty action sequences. As expected, the makeup and creature designs are impeccable, which may explain why I had more fun watching the various magical creatures than following Nazis and slime wolves in the first flick. The lithe Angel of Death is particularly startling, with a head like a fried calzone and eyeballs dotted along expansive bird wings. This is a film that feels much more confident about its identity, thanks in part to getting rid of the rookie main character from the first film and focusing on the big red guy. If del Toro ever makes a third Hellboy film, I can honestly say I’ll be highly intrigued to see what weird wonders he cooks up. This statement is astounding considering I felt that there was only one 2004 film worse than the original Hellboy.

Nate’s Grade: B

In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2008)

I have no idea how it happened but someone gave infamously reviled director Uwe Boll a bunch of money to adapt a fantasy video game called Dungeon Siege into a star-laden movie. In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale seemed to be Boll’s stab at achieving mainstream credibility. He assembled his best cast yet with plenty of recognizable stars. At one point, I remember reading that Boll wanted to divide this film into two, Kill Bill-style, or release a 180-minute version. Until this movie, no Boll film had ever gone over barely an hour and a half. After seeing a slimmed down version that runs a little over two hours, I honestly have no idea what more Boll could have. In the Name of the King struggles to fill two hours worth with crap.

In a far off land, there lives a farmer named, coincidentally enough, Farmer (Jason Statham). His world is turned upside down when his family is killed by a band of creatures known as the Krug. He and his friend (Ron Perlman) must track down Farmer’s captured wife (Claire Forlani) and inflict some peasant vengeance of their own.

Evil wizard Gallian (Ray Liotta) was the cause of the attack. He has built up a whole army of Krug to challenge the King (Burt Reynolds) for the throne. Gallian also has two unwitting allies. The King’s nephew, the Duke (Matthew Lilard), wants to rule and is willing to plot with the evil wizard to achieve this goal. Muriella (Leelee Sobieski) is secretly sleeping with Gallian; he says he is teaching her how to use her blooming magical powers (remove your mind from the gutter) but he is really stealing her powers.

Farmer reluctantly becomes a leader to protect the kingdom. Gallian is stupefied that this simple farmer is somehow beyond the control of his magic. That’s because Farmer should probably change his name to Prince because he is the long-lost son of the King and some stable girl. Merick (John Rhys-Davies) serves as the King’s most trusted advisor but he is also the father of Muriella. He scolds her for being so foolish and being used by Gallian. She suits up like Joan of Arc and wants to fight, but her father won’t allow it.

Eventually this all leads to a large-scale battle between the forces of good and evil where Gallian uses his magic powers to create a cyclone of books to stop Farmer. There you have it.

If I were Peter Jackson, I might consider a copyright infringement suit, because In the Name of the King is a sloppy Lord of the Rings rip-off through and through. The long-lost heir to the throne must accept his magisterial destiny … just like in Lord of the Rings. There is a 10-minute fight sequence that happens in a swath of woods … just like in Fellowship of the Ring. The villain relies on an army of stupid supernatural hordes … just like Lord of the Rings. There is a wizard on wizard duel … just like Lord of the Rings. A noble woman wishes to fight but he father does not approve, so she sneaks off in armor and does fight … just like in Return of the King. There is a shadowy “other” world that goes beyond our dimension … just like in Lord of the Rings. The eventual trek of our heroes leads to a volcano, but not just that, it’s also the villain’s lair … just like in Lord of the Rings. Bastian (William Sanderson, in his sixth Boll movie) serves no purpose other than to resemble Legolas. John Rhys-Davies you should know better; you freaking starred IN the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

So what does a $60 million budget get Boll? Lots and lots of crane shots. Boll relies on extended aerial photography and zooming, CGI landscapes that serve to remind you how much better Lord of the Rings was and that Vancouver is no New Zealand. There are some segments that lack a firm geographic bearing because Boll wants to jump from expansive crane shot to expansive crane shot. I get that he wants to showcase the depth of the battles, which do feature a fair amount of background action, but the repetition of any camera technique will always grow old if it doesn’t feel congruent to the onscreen drama. I’m happy that Boll wants to open up the scope, but when he relies on a multitude of high-angle crane shots in motion the effect becomes wearisome. The audience can never settle into the action because Boll is too forceful with wanting to demonstrate what he bought with his budget. The cinematography is a notable step up for Boll and longtime director of photography Mathias Neumann. Then again, if I had a $60 million budget I’m sure my movie would look good too, or at least better.

In the Name of the King
is the biggest budget Boll has ever had, but it seems like proper costumes must have still been out of his price range. The marauding horde of Orcs, oh I’m sorry, the Krug look like cheesy low-rent Power Rangers villains in goofy rubber outfits. The camera never lets you get a good glimpse of these creatures because even Boll knows how crummy they look. You get another idea of how bad the creatures look when Farmer utilizes the familiar dress-in-other-guy’s-uniform-to-pretend-to-blend-in ploy that was perfected by the aging action stars of the 1980s. So Farmer knocks out a Krug creature, throws on its spongy armor, and is able to walk around the Krug camp.

The special effects also seem to run the gamut. The green screen work is painfully ineffective and very transparent, like when Farmer is swinging down a rope across a gorge. When Boll tries to show large fields of soldiers it also exposes how fake the CGI work looks. The many battalions of soldiers look like a dated computer video game. The special effects for Alone in the Dark were better and that film had, reportedly, half the budget of this movie. Realizing all this, it’s no wonder that Boll tries to use as many real sets as he can.

The musical score by Jessica de Rooij (Bloodrayne II: Deliverance) and Henning Lohner (Bloodrayne) may well be the worst musical score to ever exist in the history of mankind. It feels like your ears are being raped. There’s a tonal quality akin to being submerged underwater, and this atrocious music keeps popping up all the time and swelling over the onscreen dialogue. It’s only going to get worse as de Rooij is slotted to score all of Boll’s upcoming films from here on out. She’s assimilated into the Boll fraternity.

And yet despite all of this, In the Name of the King is high-class camp. Boll achieves a workable level of derisive enjoyment that manages to keep the movie entertaining even while its spins into stupidity. The fight scenes are actually decent and Boll manages to compose a few shots here and there that look quite good, like when the camera scans over a field of dead bodies. During the action centerpiece, the 10-minute battle in the woods between man and Krug, Boll’s camera manages to frame some solid, if unspectacular, action with some good angles. It’s also cut to be mostly coherent. The fight choreography is credited to Siu-tung Ching who also did the choreography for Hero and House of the Flying Daggers. He must have procrastinated until the night before his choreography was due. It will pass but there’s little creativity there; however, Boll must have been flabbergasted. I think the true test for derisive viewer enjoyment will be when the ninjas come out of nowhere at the King’s disposal. All of a sudden in the middle of a medieval style fantasy fight there are flipping black-clad ninjas. I loved it for its sheer anachronistic absurdity. To me, it felt like Boll was trying to cram in everything that he thought was theoretically cool into one massive fight sequence. He just didn’t have the money to also include pirates and robots and hobos and vampires and bears and Batman.

Fantasy is just not Boll’s preferred territory and it mostly shows. He really wants to make his own entry in the style of Lord of the Rings, but you can tell his mind is elsewhere. The plot is a mess but that isn’t indicative of Boll’s lack of interest with the film, it’s just indicative of a typical Boll movie. In the Name of the King feels like Boll is following a checklist of what is expected in a modern fantasy epic, except that Boll cannot provide the epic part. Here’s my proof: the vine-swinging tree nymphs led by Elora (Kristanna Loken). If Boll was really invested in this movie he would have paid more attention to these alluring and cinematic vixens. These anti-war ladies have sworn off men (take that for what you will) and live their lives like Cirque du Soliel jungle performers. This stuff is right up Boll’s exploitation rich alley, and yet he and the film treat these women of the woods like afterthoughts. They show up and save the day when the film requires an inexplicable savior, but why doesn’t a movie about fantasies deal more extensively with figures that could very well work as male fantasy? These forest females claim to hate men and yet they still dress semi-provocatively in leather tunics that enhance their womanly assets. That seems odd. I don’t know how helpful tree-dwelling women would be in a fight either unless it was fought in a well-forested area. Boll not capitalizing on these women warriors proves to me that his heart isn’t in this movie.

Screenwriter Doug Taylor was clearly cobbling a story together by his fading memory of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and yet this being a Boll movie, there are still plenty of head-scratching decisions that defy logic even for a would-be fantasy film. For instance, why does Farmer fight with a boomerang? How effective can a weapon be when it gets thrown and then needs to be picked up? The boomerangs that I know can hit people, sure, but usually hitting someone stops its path of movement. Then again, these could be magic boomerangs. How did Gallian raise such a massive monster army to rival that of the King’s without anyone noticing? I’m sure the excuse for that is also magic-related. The Duke takes out two legions of soldiers for his own purposes, and when one man asks where the commanding officers are the Duke, in front of everyone, stabs him. It seems like a lousy way to lead but I’m sure Joseph Stalin would approve. A telekinetic sword fight sounds cool on paper until you realize it is just actors standing passively while CGI swords clang around them. During the climactic battle it’s dark and raining (hey, like in Lord of the Rings) for the King’s army vs. the Krug, but then as Farmer and Elora race to the Volcano Lair it is light out. How many time zones does this kingdom have? Also during this climactic battle, the King’s army has the high ground thanks to a hill and the Krug race up the raised land. The archers atop the hill fire their flaming arrows at an angle pointing up, which would sail over the heads of all their targets. I suppose the King’s archery education program has been suffering some severe budget cutbacks.

The dialogue is pretty corny amidst all the sword-and-sorcery antics and induces its fair share of giggles. When Muriella asks Gallian if he always appears out of nowhere he responds, “No. I appear suddenly. Out of somewhere.” Thanks for clearing that semantic argument up. He also has a very icky conversation with his bedfellow Muriella dripping with double entendres: “I knew you would come,” “I told you I would,” “I felt it before you came,” “You told me I could come and go as I please.” I think my favorite moment is when the King is on his deathbed and addressing Farmer. He advises the man of agricultural means to try using seaweed to enrich his soil. “How do you know this?” asks Farmer. “Because I am king,” he replies.

The actors all feel like they are in separate movies on a collision course with one another. Boll has never had a firm command with actors. The big name actors feel their way around a scene with little guidance from Boll, which means they routinely experiment and play their roles like they were an exercise instead of a final performance. A fine example is a single line spoken at a family table; it’s just perfectly off enough to prick your ears to Boll’s tone-deaf direction. I think Boll either doesn’t care that much about performances or is easily cowed into submission by actors. Staham is recycling his glaring machismo that he’s turned into an action movie franchise, but he seems to me like a modern-day Steven Segal who dispatches foes in a monotone whisper. Luckily for Boll, Statham is adept at picking up fight choreography and so the movie benefits by watching the actor clearly in the middle of the fracas performing his own sword fights.

Most of the actors also seem to be falling back on past performances as inspiration for what to do under Boll’s laissez faire direction. Perlman plays his standard gruff tough with a deadpan delivery. Sobieski hasn’t acted in a movie for some time. She comes across as her usual inexpressively empty self, which is her thing, along with being a physical clone of Helen Hunt. Loken shows she can swing from a vine but not master a vague British accent. Forlani gets to cower and weep, though in my estimation she is a much more attractive woman in her 30s than she was as a 20-something ingénue. Smile lines have really sexed her up. Burt Reynolds is playing Burt Reynolds, and Rhys-Davies falls back on his trademark gravitas. Only Lillard seems to find enjoyment out of Boll’s vacuum of direction. His accent mirrors his wildly over the top style of acting that sometimes feels like a fish flopping around for air. His physical mannerisms are uncontrolled and he sneers through much of his lines, but I’ll give it to Lilard, he is much more fun to watch than any of the other slumming stars.

Special attention must be made to Liotta, who is on a different plane of terrible. It’s bad enough that he’s chewing the scenery in his typical manic, bug-eyed crazy yell-speak he refers to as acting, but the movie has to open on the discomfiting image of Liotta trying to suck Leelee Sobieski’s face inside out via kissing. Liotta’s character Gallian feels and looks out of place; he resembles a skuzzy Las Vegas magician with a pompadour and a long leather jacket and a button-down shirt. Where did this man come from? His performance is astonishing in how deeply the awful goes, and when he tells Farmer’s wife, “I feel him inside you,” try your best not to shudder.

After seeing eight of his films and writing 17,000 words on the man (including 2,700 for this review), I feel like I have a special connection to Uwe Boll. I just don’t sense that Boll’s heart was truly in this venture. In the Name of the King seems to be the last time I think we’ll see Boll flirt with mainstream Hollywood genre filmmaking. I think his time luring known actors has come to a merciful end. His next slew of films seem destined to all direct-to-DVD and feature no name casts that are mostly the same actors he has worked with before. In the Name of the King will stand as a ridiculous Lord of the Rings rip-off that has some workable action alongside its many laughably awful moments. It’s a lousy fantasy movie with too many extraneous characters and too familiar a plot outline. Even for a $60 million film, Boll finds new ways to prove that no matter what sized budget the man has he will always try to grasp something beyond his reach.

Nate’s Grade: D+

Hellboy (2004)

Guillermo del Toro loves things that go bump in the night. The Mexican born writer/director has shown prowess at slimy, spooky creatures with Cronos and 1997’s Mimic. He helmed the 2002 sequel to Blade, which had super vampires whose mouths would open up into four sections with rows of chattering teeth. The man sure loves his movie monsters. del Toro also loved Mike Mignola’s cult comic book Hellboy enough to turn down directing Harry Potter 3 and Blade 3 to ensure he could bring Hellboy to the big screen. Was it worth the sacrifice?

Let me just explain to you the villains of this movie as an example of how ridiculously stupid Hellboy is. The villains are … Nazis. Yes, the tried and true villains everyone can hate – Nazis. But these ain’’t yo’ daddy’’s Nazis; they’’re immortal and led by zombie Rasputin (yes, the Rasputin). They all wish to puncture a hole into another dimension. What’’s in this alternate dimension? Why nothing except for a giant floating spaceship that houses, I kid you not, the Seven Gods of Chaos, which all happen to be gigantic space squids. Why would anyone create a universe that has nothing but the imprisoned gods of evil? That seems awfully precarious. How exactly are giant squids going to take over the industrialized, nuclear-age world? Shoot ink at everyone? Sorry, space ink?

Let me not forget a Nazi assassin and his handy dandy arm-length blades. This assassin is also 100 years old and his body is filled entirely with sand. He winds himself up like a big clock. But if his body is filled completely with sand how can the clock gears work inside? You see what the normal audience member has to deal with? Plus these are just the villains, there’s a whole plot left to toil over as well.

The story revolves around a hulking, red demon named Hellboy (veteran character actor Ron Perlman). Hellboy escaped the space squid dimension in the 1940s when the Nazis unsuccessfully tried to open a dimensional hole large enough for your everyday on-the-go space squid. Now, Hellboy is an elite soldier for the government’s Bureau of Paranormal Research. He fights the creepy crawlies. He has to deal with a wide-eyed rookie, the watch of his “father” (John Hurt) and an attempt to rekindle a romance with a mentally troubled fire starter (Selma Blair). Oh yeah, and all the Nazi/Rasputin/space squid stuff mentioned before.

Perlman is really the only redeeming thing about this movie. The makeup is impressive, and he gives an enjoyably droll performance as a man who fights monsters with the same ho-hum-ness as a plumber reacts to clogged sinks. The rest of the acting runs the gambit of either being too serious (I’m looking at you Blair) or just too over-the-top silly (I’m looking at you, league of villains).

Hellboy is strung together with bizarre inanities, flat one-liners, heavy Catholic imagery, conflicting logic and contradictions, ridiculous villains, painful comic relief, half-baked romance and frustratingly ever-changing plot devices.

Watching Hellboy is like playing tag with a kid that keeps making up new rules as he goes (“You can’t tag me; I have an invisibility shield!”), and after awhile you lose any interest. Late in the film, the Nazis will all of a sudden decide not to be immortal, and at a very inopportune time. Why? How? I don’’t know. Hellboy also gets sudden new powers for some reason. Like he can bring people back to life by whispering otherworldly threats in their ears. For some reason nobody’’s clothes burn when they’re set on fire.

Not only does Hellboy frustrate by changing the rules of its world arbitrarily, it will also frustrate out of sheer uninhibited stupidity. How come characters can’t hear or see a pendulum the size of the Chrysler building? How come during a vision of the apocalypse we see a newspaper that actually had the time and staff, during the Apocalypse, to print an issue that reads, “APPOCALYPSE”? Why doesn’’t Blair use her pyro superpowers immediately to vanquish all the H.P. Lovecraft creatures instead of letting Hellboy foolishly wrestle with them all? The gaping holes in Hellboy are large enough to squeeze a gigantic space squid through.

All this frustration and insanity might have been moot if the action sequences were somewhat thrilling. Sadly, they are not. Del Toro’s action sequences seldom matter. There’s such little consequence of what’s going on that the action becomes stiff and lifeless. The first time we see Hellboy chase a creature through city streets it’s a fun experience, but soon the novelty wears off. The overuse of CGI wears down the audience, and after the third or forth time we watch Hellboy battle the same monster, the audience is ready to go to sleep. There’s little entertainment in the film’s action sequences, but just as much frustration and stupidity.

I have never watched a film that induced more eye rolls, shoulder shrugs, raised eyebrows, pained and confused glances and mutters of, “What the hell (boy)?” By the time the resurrected torso of a Russian skeleton appears to make cheesy puns and wisecracks, you should have left the theater, demanded full compensation, and maybe, if you’re into it, destroyed whatever Hellboy display was within burning distance. Comic book aficionados may enjoy the fruits of Hellboy but general audiences will simply shrug. I’m amazed that the majority of film critics seem to think positively about this movie. Maybe I’m the last sane person in an insane world but Hellboy is one of the worst films of the year and one of the craziest films you could ever hope to see in a lifetime.

Nate’s Grade: D+

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