'Dragonheart 3' Revives Franchise With Fine VFX, Clunky Story

Directed by: Colin Teague; Runtime: 97 minutes
Grade: C-

There's a certain charismatic charm to Rob Cohen's original Dragonheart that continues to help the dated fantasy film weather the tests of time. Sean Connery's magnetic, witty tempo as the dragon merges well with the story's family-friendly morality tale and the fiery gravitas of battles (and some comedic deception), overpowering the aging visual effects and mustache-twirling evilness. The cash-in straightforwardness and unconvincing ... well, pretty much everything about its DTV follow-up, Dragonheart: A New Beginning, rightly deserves to be ignored in preserving the brand's legacy. That's precisely what Dragonheart 3: The Sorcerer's Curse aims to do, cranking out a prequel of dragons sharing hearts with humans, tyrannical rulers, and a grand adventure amid the flying beasts' rebound from extinction that acknowledges little from the previous films. Alas, this direct-to-video installment in the franchise from British TV director Colin Teague suffers its own issues: despite reputable production design and tolerable performances, its leaden tone and patchy, strained plotting keep it from ever really getting off the ground.

Distanced from the other films as a loosely-connected "prequel", set roughly a century before the events of the original at a time when dragons had vanished, The Sorcerer's Curse begins in the muddy, bleak atmosphere of a stronghold where knights -- using the terms loosely for the abusive, tax-collecting brutes -- are trained to defend the realm from barbarian "clans of the North" on the other side of a massive wall. Unable to pay an incurred fee to get into the knight's service, a talented swordsman, Gareth (Julian Morris), sets out one night beyond the wall to the impact point of a comet, fabled to carry riches that will cover the coin he owes. When he reaches the comet, he discovers something far more valuable and problematic: a dragon and the eggs it's protecting, forcing Gareth to rethink his plans. Adventure ensues once the two develop a rapport after Drago (Ben Kingsley) saves his life, forcing them to band together with other unlikely allies against a coven of magic-wielding druids with nefarious plans for the dragon.

Dragonheart 3 looks fairly impressive, and not just for a direct-to-video release. The environments and designs aren't anything fantasy aficionados haven't seen before, from the land's verdant forests to the muddy, weather-beaten keep where "knights" maintain a tight grip over commoners, but the production values give the setting gritty texture and admirable scope. Reputable costume designs add touches of distinctiveness to the characters, especially the hybridization of Scottish and Elvish tribal garb present in Gareth's resilient love-interest, Rhonu (Tamzin Merchant). Sober cinematography from The White Queen's David Luthor keeps the frequent hustle-'n-bustle grounded in some semblance of reality, despite his reflexive small-screen perspective on conversations. By and large, the computer-generated effects are splendid, too, especially when it comes to animating Drago's movements in both reptilian form or as a ghostly, translucent apparition. Everything here has the makings of a better-than-expected, albeit smaller in scale, extension of the franchise.

Regrettably, the script from first-time writer Matthew Feitshans never quite figures out how to fuse together the old and the new, uncertain about whether it should be capricious high fantasy or gritty low fantasy amid dull exposition that masquerades as lore-building. While tossing borrowed elements from other popular franchises into this setting -- a massive wall that keeps out feral tribes, freshly-hatched dragon babies that'll aid in conquering lands, etc. -- the film awkwardly stumbles upon a situation where a dragon and a human once again share a heart, where unstable dragon eggs surviving the impact of a fallen comet clash with a outcast wannabe-knight hoping to find riches spilled out of it like a pinata. Heavy-handed themes involving corrupt knighthood and oppressed tribes commingle with a lunar curse, shadows used as teleportation doors, dragon eggs and other magical devices that do whatever the story needs at a given time. It's a combo that might've been tolerable had the film not taken itself quite so seriously, excluding a few stale attempts at slapstick humor, overcompensating through its emulation of Game of Thrones and avoidance of the mistakes made in the inane A New Beginning.

Those frustrations continue into the dragon himself, Drago with a G instead of a C, and it has nothing to do with the digital presentation or Ben Kingsley's dedicated, electronically-distorted vocal performance. Instead, issues arises in an early contrivance that promptly limits the dragon's abilities to unleash its magnificent capabilities, thus taking Drago away from the potential for much hands-on interaction -- in other words, the action -- with Sir Gareth's journey and the battles waged with a group of magic-wielding druids. That might have been fine had Gareth and Drago compensated for that limitation with a bond similar in strength to Bowen and Draco, but the days-old kinship between the comet-riding dragon and Julian Morris's flip-flopping rogue never gets convincing enough to reach that point, despite the story moving forward as if they already have with the franchise's ultra-evocative theme song playing in the background. Even with the dragon unleashing those anticipated powers in a brassy finale, opportunely restrained as they are, it's too little too late after such a tedious buildup continues to assume that it's made the audience believe in the film's inconsistent whimsy and rushed personal bonds.

Americana Mystery 'Barber' Misses Spots in Thrills, Rationality

Directed by: Basel Owies; Runtime: 95 minutes
Grade: C

Seem as if the world of cinema really, really wants audiences to fear thy neighbor right now, more than normal, but that's to be expected following the pop-culture success of the likes of Gone Girl and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, where seemingly normal citizens conceal warped, lethal tendencies. The Barber, the feature-length debut of director Basel Owies, emerges as yet another example among a rash of films exploring the mentality of a serial killer hiding in plain sight, aiming for something bleak and disturbing by emphasizing the fallibility of detective work and the prospect of a protege to a murderer. Beyond the creepy evolution of Scott Glenn's performance and a succession of plot twists that are momentarily intriguing until they're elaborated upon, little distinguishes this grim mystery as it slogs through doubtful, lumbering suspense against the setting of suburban America, missing its opportunity to really dig into the eeriness of this profession as his cover-up.

Think about this for a second: how much does one really know about the person snipping away at their hair and running a razorblade along their skin? In the case of Eugene Van Wingerdt (Glenn), people have had quite a while to get to know the local barber -- at least, what he wants them to know -- given his longstanding, uneventful existence in a nondescript town, despite the past he's hidden from the community involving his suspicion with a series of murders. Some fifteen-odd years after the killings, the traumatized son of one of the unsuccessful detectives on the case, John McCormack, has been tracking him down ... but with obscure motives behind doing so, at first. After hounding Van Wingerdt, also known as Francis Visser, John persuades him to teach the ways of hunting and killing as he supposedly did nearly two decades prior; to what end, however, remains one of the film's mysteries as the old barber maintains appearances and begrudgingly begins his instruction of his protege.

Promo materials for The Barber heavily emphasize Visser's profession, which might lead one to believe that it'll be a distinguishing trait within Basel Owies's thriller, like a grim real-world twist on Sweeney Todd or something. That's really only true on a superficial level, in that this suspected serial killer could've had any number of jobs -- grocery bagger, car salesman, casket maker -- and it wouldn't have really made a dent in screenwriter Max Enscoe's setting, aside from a reference here and there to good razors, paying attention to details, and a single shave and a haircut. Instead, Van Wingerdt's job simply puts him in a high-exposure area where he rubs elbows with all sorts of people, including police chief Hardaway (Stephen Toblowsky), bypassing an opportunity for more intriguing, morbid suspense. Bear in mind, that's partly in-line with the film's goal in making the audience wonder whether he's really the killer or not, but something more could've been done with it to accentuate the mood.

Creepy horror isn't really the tone that Basel Owies aims for with The Barber, though, sharing faint similarities to some of David Fincher's macabre mysteries -- the impetus of Se7en and Zodiac, in particular -- with its streak of suspense. Despite early, foreshadowed suspicions about what the characters are up to, the script telegraphs a handful of surprises in how it shuffles around those truths, navigating through John's ruthless motivations and the barber's haunting past in ways that are moderately intriguing ... for a few brief moments. Regrettably, those slivers of shock are about all the twists have going for 'em, undermined by irrational decision-making and fickle trust placed in strangers so the story can progress, rationality be damned. The personal angle of John McCormick's renegade fanaticism and his romance with undercover cop, Audrey, aren't substantial enough to offset that feeble grasp on common sense, even with Chris Coy's reputable fusion of anxiety and fury around the suspected killer.

The Barber works vigorously to make the audience uncertain of what to make of Francis Visser's feeble frame and cryptic, conservative language, and while that may keep some guessing, it also subtracts from a more menacing villainous presence. Scott Glenn's stern, quietly ominous performance takes a stab at reaching enigmatic depth and misanthropy, yet there's very little that's tangible about the barber's personality beyond his past and enduring deception, mostly out of obligation to the film's secrecy. Unlike the Zodiac Killer's cryptograms or the cultured psychological warfare of Hannibal Lecter, Van Wingerdt only has a line of everyday serial-killer traits -- cleanliness, perception of public awareness, finding girls "yummy" -- to fill out his persona while Basel Owies uses sleight of hand to conceal the facts. When The Barber arrives at its moral dilemma in the end, involving a different sort of box than Se7en's Detective Mills dealt with, the nonplussed and roundabout atmosphere hanging in the air shows they might've cut too much off Visser's character in pursuit of thinly-veiled ambiguity.

Fatal Family Values Too Sober, Irksome in 'Home Sweet Hell'

Directed by: Anthony Burns; Runtime: 98 minutes
Grade: D

Hollywood has been using the facade of suburbia for dark drama and even darker comedy for quite a while now. In the era of social-media where people tend to divulge only the positives of their lives, carefully selecting glimpses into their everyday activities to create an idealistic picture, that misleading artifice continues to be a relevant target for satire alongside the "traditional" views of what a nuclear family unit should be. Home Sweet Hell? Well, it's about what you'd expect after hearing the title and seeing Katherine Heigl on the promotional artwork with a kitchen knife and a piercing gaze, playing to expectations about a twisted housewife maintaining the appearance of a spotless family. Alas, this stab at an unnerving spoof of the suburbs only has its overbearing discomfort and exaggerated one-note spouses going for it, devoid of either laughs or surprises while stumbling between the deadpan thrills of being married to the ultimate control freak.

Really, it's hard to believe that furniture salesman Don Champagne (Patrick Wilson) could cope with a fraction of the severity imposed on him by Mona (Katherine Heigl), his wife, whose dependence of goals, schedules, and general flawlessness result in an unrewarding and hostile atmosphere around their house. That goes double for the couple's sex life, falling into the "schedule" portion of Mona's grasp on their day-to-day with arbitrary dates set for them to get it on ... typically amounting to six times a year, despite Don's unscheduled advanced. So, when an incredibly attractive and flirtatious new applicant, Dusty (Jordana Brewster), pops up at the furniture store for a sales job, a severely repressed Don -- encouraged by his boozy co-worker, Les (Jim Belushi) -- almost immediately takes her on, in more than a few ways. Naturally, Mona isn't really the type who'd respond to infidelity very well, yet her husband isn't prepared for the lengths she's willing to go to preserve their picturesque marriage and further their goals.

Even without seeing the trailer -- which basically gives away the entire plot, so view with caution if you're still interested -- everything about Home Sweet Hell plays out in stale and predictable dark-comedy fashion, from the reason behind Dusty's overly-flirtatious attitude to Mona's misanthropic reaction to Don's screw-ups. Granted, that familiarity is a symptom of having seen more intriguing versions of suburban dysfunction and closeted psychosis, from The Stepford Wives and Serial Mom to, more relevantly, David Fincher's recent adaptation of Gone Girl, many of which have embedded themselves into popular culture for taking on "the American dream". But director Anthony Burns offers little in the film's elevated-reality, broad-stroked blend of domestic talking points to make one forget about its predecessors, especially since there's no mystery in where this trainwreck's headed, only the expectation of when and how the wife's going to fly off the rails.

It doesn't help that Mona acts as if she's the physical embodiment of passive-aggressiveness, nothing but wall-to-wall spite and snark while staying the course towards her oft harped-upon "goals". That relentlessness may be part of Katherine Heigl's character and a deliberate spoof of the public perception of the actress herself, but it makes for an incredibly rigid character experience. Typically, Heigl only shines when gradually allowed to break from the stiffness of whatever role she's playing, but she's never given those windows here, only fluctuating in self-composed fury when something deviates from her expectations ... or when she's holding a buzzsaw or a katana. Similarly, Patrick Wilson's typically solid charisma gets wrung out into a flimsy sycophant pushed beyond his breaking point, forming a trapped and apologetic spaz caught in a dubious affair for unsurprising reasons. Intentional or not, both are made up of little more than inflated one-dimensional traits that ring false as authentic people; the only one with any genuine depth is Jordana Brewster's feisty, ambitious homewrecker, Dusty.

For all its situational antics and satirical tendencies, it takes a dose of straight-up, somewhat morbid slapstick comedy to elicit a response worth taking away from Home Sweet Hell. There's a scene where Mona slips on a pool of blood after taking her murderous endeavors to the next level, and it's surprising that such a simple thing ended up being the only time the film's aloof blend of black humor and noir-esque tension got a chuckle out of me. In the bizarre space between strong female characterization and burgeoning misogyny, director Burns sends Don weaseling through a maze of manipulation and pressure with countless opportunities for smarter absurdity than what transpires here, even when the full potential of Mona's sadistic tendencies comes to the surface. After splashes of gleeful gore and increasingly unlikely happenings that barrel towards an odious ending, it becomes abundantly clear that there's nothing amazing enough about this haughty soccer-mom psycho to have ever been worth the charade.