Saturday, July 16, 2011

Clash of the Titans (2010)

Year 3, Day 197 - 7/16/11 - Movie #923

BEFORE: Yes, the Greek Gods carry over in another film made in 2010 (that's 4 in a row!). I remember going to see the original "Clash of the Titans" on the big-screen in 1981 - my Mom was looking forward to seeing a film about Greek myths, and was shocked when the apparently kid-friendly movie featured bare-breasted women (TWICE!) - I, on the other hand, was 12 years old (going on 30) so I was enjoying that. I can't help but compare this film to the 1981 (non-)original, in all its cheese-tastic Harry Hamlin vs. stop-motion animated creatures glory. Linking from last night's film, Uma Thurman (who had a brief cameo as Medusa) was also in "The Avengers" with Ralph Fiennes (last seen in "The Hurt Locker"), who plays Hades tonight.

THE PLOT: The mortal son of the god Zeus embarks on a perilous journey to stop the underworld and its minions from spreading their evil to Earth as well as the heavens.

AFTER: Well, after my diatribe last night about all hero-quest films being the same, I think we can see now that my analysis was spot on. Tonight's film features a young man (Perseus) who discovers that he has powers (son of Zeus), who trains (for about 30 seconds), chooses some companions (including a weird-looking Djinn) and goes on a journey through the dark place (Underworld) to get the magical object (head of Medusa) and save the life of someone he cares about (Andromeda, the hot babe).

The bad news is, the result here is something of a jumbled mess - they managed to carry over all of the mythological mistakes from the 1981 film, and then make it even more confusing to boot. Bad Hollywood! When you remake a film, you're supposed to try to make it better, not worse! Plus they added a thumping soundtrack that closely resembles the song "Powerhouse", which is played in the old Warner Brothers cartoons every time they show a factory or a bunch of machines operating in a sinister manner.

Jeez, where do I start?

NITPICK POINT #1: A mistake also made in the 1981 film - Perseus did NOT ride Pegasus (or even A pegasus). Pegasus sprang from the severed head of Medusa - so it shouldn't even be in the first part of the film. Anyway, Bellerophon is the Greek hero most closely associated with Pegasus, which he rode to defeat the Chimera. Pegasus had the flying shoes of Hermes, which admittedly are a lot less cinematic than a flying horse.

NITPICK POINT #2: They also changed how Zeus sired Perseus - he supposedly came to Danae in a shower of gold, thus impregnating her. In this film, he took the form of her husband, king something-something who then killed her - but in the original myth it was Danae's father, King Acrisius, who had been told by an oraclet that Danae's son would kill him - so he threw them both into the ocean in a wooden chest.

NITPICK POINT #3: Zeus gives Perseus a magical sword - and in the original myth, he gives him a number of magical gifts to aid his quest. But here, Perseus is trying to take the gods down - so why would Zeus aid him in this? Is Zeus omnicient enough to see the double-cross down the road, and the time when he'll need Perseus' help?

NITPICK POINT #4: If Medusa lives in the Underworld, doesn't that mean she's already dead? How can Perseus kill her if she's dead?

NITPICK POINT #5: Hades lets evil into the world in the form of the Kraken - which is a giant sea monster (looking here like a cross between Gamera and that squid-thing from the "Watchmen" comic). But isn't that Poseidon's territory? Hades would release something from the Underworld, not the ocean. Anyway, the Kraken isn't even from Greek myth, it's a Scandinavian monster, so it's out of place in BOTH films.

NITPICK POINT #6: There is a germ of an idea here that suggests that the Gods need men as much as the other way around - Gods need to be worshipped, or they'll cease to exist. But if the Gods created men, that's an awful big flaw to allow into their workmanship. Why would Zeus create something that has the power to un-create him? Is he that short-sighted, or is he not as omnipotent as he claims?

There is some saving grace here, in terms of the effects. The 1981 version had stop-motion animation from the great Ray Harryhausen, but even at its finest, stop-motion can be a bit herky-jerky. The giant scorpions here are slick as can be, and so is the Kraken (what we see of it, anyway). The battle against Medusa is probably the best action sequence in the film - I just wish there was a better story to go along with it.

Also starring Sam Worthington (last seen in "Avatar"), Liam Neeson (last seen in "Rob Roy"), Gemma Arterton (last seen in "Pirate Radio"), Jason Flemyng (also last seen in "Rob Roy"), Liam Cunningham, Pete Postlethwaithe (last seen in "The Last of the Mohicans"), with cameos from Polly Walker (last seen in "Patriot Games", Alexander Siddig (last seen in "Reign of Fire"), Danny Huston (last seen in "The Aviator") and Jane March.

RATING: 5 out of 10 Furies

Friday, July 15, 2011

Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Year 3, Day 196 - 7/15/11 - Movie #922

BEFORE: Another film from 2010 - have you spotted the theme yet? It's another coming-of-age film in which a boy learns he has magical powers, this time coming from the Greek gods. Sort of weird that the last three films all came out in 2010, with a similar plot. Or maybe not, that's what sells these days. Linking from "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is easy, since Nicolas Cage was in "National Treasure" with Sean Bean (last seen in "Patriot Games") - playing Zeus in tonight's film.

THE PLOT: A teenager discovers he's the descendant of a Greek god and sets out on an adventure to settle an on-going battle between the gods.

AFTER: OK, for this one you've got to believe that the Greek gods often come to Earth and father half-human children, who find each other and form a loose society of demi-gods. If you can swallow that, you're halfway home.

But once you've seen enough of these quest-oriented films, you start to realize that they all come from the same place - a hero's journey, which of course is easy to recognize as coming from the Greek myths, and even the stories before that. There are references here to the tales of Perseus, Hercules and Orpheus - if you paid attention in mythology class, that is.

Maybe I've seen too many movies in a row, but they're starting to feel a little interchangeable - I'm not watching different stories every night, in a way I'm watching the SAME story every night, with slightly different elements. Of course, part of this is because the hero's journey, since the days of myth, has to hit some key story points. The young hero discovers that he has a power, whether it's innate or acquired, and after some training, chooses some companions and goes on a quest, through the dark places, to defeat the evil being and gain the magical object.

Once you realize this, it's like playing screenwriting Mad Libs. It's the framework of Star Wars: A New Hope AND Harry Potter, AND The Wizard of Oz AND The Lord of the Rings. Essentially, they're all the same story - and I say that as a fan of at least three of those franchises. But even as a kid, when I realized that Luke and Han wearing stormtrooper outfits on the Death Star was the SAME plot-point as the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion dressing up like guards to get into the Wicked Witch's castle, I started to see that the fix was in.

So, our young hero (Luke Skywalker/Dorothy/Frodo/Percy Jackson) discovers that he has a power (the Force/ruby slippers/the One Ring/Poseidon-like command of water), and after some training, chooses some companions (Han + Chewie/Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion/hobbits, elves and a dwarf/a demi-goddess and satyr), and goes on a quest through the dark place (Death Star/Wicked Witch's castle/Mordor/the Underworld) to defeat the evil being (Darth Vader/Wicked Witch/Sauron/Hades) and gain the magical object (Death Star Plans/the Witch's broom/peace in Middle-Earth/the lightning bolt).

You see? It's every story wrapped up in one. That isn't to say it's a bad story, quite the contrary, it's a classic. There are probably dozens of films that fit the bill, and they're probably some of my favorites. Perhaps it's cynical of me to lift the veil and see through each film's individual trappings, but I can't help it. That said, this film did a pretty decent job of mixing up the pieces, and updating the classic Greek myths for today's tweeny-boppers.

This is apparently the first film in a planned franchise, and if they can maintain this quality, I say bring 'em on. This was better than any of the "Narnia" films, and I loved those C.S. Lewis books when I was a kid...

And IF you've been paying attention to how my mind works, then predicting tomorrow's film should be a snap.

Also starring Logan Lerman (last seen in "The Number 23"), Brandon T. Jackson (last seen in "The Day the Earth Stood Still"), Alexandra Daddario, Catherine Keener (last seen in "Switch"), Pierce Brosnan (last seen in "Mrs. Doubtfire"), with cameos from Steve Coogan (last seen in "The Other Guys"), Rosario Dawson (last seen"Clerks 2"?), Melina Kanakaredes, Joe Pantoliano (Joey Pants! Last seen in...I don't know, was it "La Bamba"?), Uma Thurman (last seen in "Be Cool").

RATING: 6 out of 10 lotus flowers

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Year 3, Day 195 - 7/14/11 - Movie #921

BEFORE: Forgot to mention we had another plumbing leak last night - as I came upstairs out of the man cave, I noticed water on the kitchen floor. Usually this means that a stray ice cube fell out of the refrigerator's dispenser, but this seemed like a lot of water. A hose under the sink (I think the one leading to the dishwasher) was spraying water and I started turning the shut-off valves, only to find out that they didn't work. I couldn't remember where the main shut-off was, so I had to wake up my wife and we had to find a 24 hour plumber. But, if not for the movie project, we might not have noticed the leak until the morning, and then things could have been a lot worse. Why do these things always happen at 3 am, and not on a Saturday afternoon? This is our third late-night pipe problem!

This time Jay Baruchel carries over from "How to Train Your Dragon", in a nice bit of scheduling serendipity. And in both films, he plays someone who's in training, so that's cool. And I'm catching up on films released in 2010 this week!

THE PLOT: Master sorcerer Balthazar Blake recruits a seemingly everyday guy in his mission to defend New York City from his arch-nemesis.

AFTER: Another early movie memory of mine is seeing the first "Fantasia" film with my mother when it was re-released in the 1970's. You may remember the sequence where Mickey Mouse magically commands a broom to sweep the floor for him, but accidentally unleashes a swarm of magical brooms, mops and buckets. This film spins off of that concept, and even contains a similar scene with out-of-control mops as a sort of homage.

Like last night's film, this is a magical thrill-ride, with dazzling effects that don't seem to let up. They're impressive to watch, but they also seem to cater to today's kids, who need a visual pop or the sound of an explosion every 30 seconds to keep them from checking their text messages. I wish that the filmmakers would put as much work into developing the story as they do into creating the visual effects.

Disney's programming seems to cater to the average teen/tween audience by showing regular people who discover they're really a sorcerer, or a princess, or a rock star (because that stuff happens all the time) - it's pure escapism, but it can also lead to regular kids being dis-satisfied with their average middle-class lifestyles. Watch the Disney Channel for a few hours (if you can stand it) and you'll see what I mean. (Wizards of Waverly Place, Hannah Montana, Pair of Kings). Are we sending the right messages to our kids?

So again tonight I tried to look at the movie with the eyes of a child, I really did. But I was only moderately successful, because I've passed the point of believing that a wizard's going to come into my life and give me the power to shoot plasma bolts and bring statues to life. My fantasies are more about wishing I could live in a house where the plumbing all works properly, and make sense out of my 401K plan. Oh, and I wish I could get people everywhere to stop saying "basically" and "literally" so much - they're mostly using the words incorrectly anyway.

Also starring Nicolas Cage (last heard in "G-Force"), Alfred Molina (last seen in "Before and After"), Teresa Palmer, Omar Benson Miller (seen on "CSI: Miami"), with cameos from Monica Bellucci (last seen in "The Brothers Grimm") and Alice Krige (last seen in "Reign of Fire")

RATING 7 out of 10 tesla coils

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

How to Train Your Dragon

Year 3, Day 194 - 7/13/11 - Movie #920

BEFORE: The dragons carry over from last night, as does Gerard Butler, who voices a main role in this film. I'm at the end of my heat and fire-related films (just as well, since it's sweltering in here - aren't there more movies set in the Arctic?) but now I'm firmly entrenched into a fantasy-film chain, with just one week to go before Comic-Con. I shipped out 2 boxes of merchandise to San Diego today, with another 3 boxes of DVDs and 10 boxes of books shipping from other locations. If we sell everything, it could be our biggest Comic-Con yet.

THE PLOT: A hapless young Viking who aspires to hunt dragons becomes the unlikely friend of a young dragon himself, and learns there may be more to the creatures.

AFTER: I've been informed by my co-workers that this is based on a book, and the book features the seven types of dragon seen in the film. I was prepared to say that was a narrative choice designed to sell more Happy Meal toys - but that's me, I've become pretty cynical about these things. Still, Dreamworks CHOSE the book to develop into a movie, and I'm sure the number of marketable dragons played a part in that decision.

It's hard for me to judge this film since it's so squarely aimed at kids - the main character is a kid, has problems relating to his father, is awkward around girls, etc. And what kid wouldn't want to train a dragon of his own and ride him across the sky? My days of such fantasies are long over - in fact as a 6 year old I demanded to know if fairy tales were real, I needed to sort out in my brain what constituted fiction and what stories took place in our world. And now I'm older, a curmudgeon in training, and find there's no way to watch a kid's film with the eyes of a child.

Still, there are parts of this film that are wildly entertaining (and entertainingly wild), but also parts I found frenetic - the kids today, with their short attention spans! If you don't have an explosion or a whip-pan every 30 seconds, they start to lose interest - Hollywood shouldn't pander to them, it just feeds their A.D.D.

As an adult looking at this story, it's a little TOO coincidental that our child hero happens to learn EXACTLY the lesson each day that will help him succeed the following day in dragon-fighting school. Is that too cynical of me to point out?

NITPICK POINT: Why do the Vikings have Scottish accents? Shouldn't they sound Nordic, with Scandinavian accents?

Also starring (voices of) Jay Baruchel (last seen in "Fanboys"), Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill (last seen in "Knocked Up"), America Ferrara, Christopher Mintz-Plasse (last seen in "Role Models"), Kristen Wiig (last seen in "Macgruber").

RATING: 7 out of 10 baskets of fish

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Reign of Fire

Year 3, Day 193 - 7/12/11 - Movie #919

BEFORE: From a sea monster (?) to dragons - keeping the movie monster FX theme rolling. Linking from last night, Hector Elizondo was in "Valentine's Day" with Jennifer Garner, who was in "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" (I didn't say they had to be movies I've seen...) with Matthew McConaughey (last seen in "A Time to Kill"). Hey, there's another positive to the project, I've learned how to spell "McConaughey"!

Played team trivia last night, the venue's been moving around lately, and happened to land in my favorite NYC barbecue restaurant, Hill Country, so that was an added plus. Best time to eat fire-grilled meat, in the hottest days of the summer.

THE PLOT: A brood of fire-breathing dragons emerges from the earth and begins setting fire to everything, establishing dominance over the planet.

AFTER: Well, that's not exactly the plot summary, because the movie skips over the part where the dragons take over, going from the first dragon emerging from beneath London, to a time where the human population is decimated, and they live in small groups in fortified castles. That would have looked really cool, seeing the dragons destroy London - was it too expensive to depict on film? Or was this a conscious story-telling decision?

McConaughey arrives on the scene with a dwindling band of soldiers, Texas regulars, or perhaps "irregulars" is more appropriate, and they've developed techniques to battle and kill the dragons. Some of them seem to work, others, not so much. Also, he's got a plan to take the dragons out for good, and give Ireland back to the Irish (or something).

Of course, you have to take a lot on faith to enjoy the film - namely 1) dragons exist. And then 2) they (or at least one) was asleep beneath London for hundreds of years. And that 3) one dragon can repopulate the species in a very quick period of time. Was it pregnant? Must have been...

BUT was the dragon in hibernation? Or just living in isolation in the sewers? If so, what did it eat - mice? Lost children? And are dragons magical, or descendents of dinosaurs, or what? The movie doesn't even think to ask these questions, let alone provide the answers. So that was a little disappointing, in addition to leaving the best FX scenes to the viewers' imaginations. I liked what I did see in terms of effects, but compared to something like "King Kong", there could have been a lot more.

Also starring Christian Bale (last seen in "Rescue Dawn"), Gerard Butler (last seen in "300"), Izabella Scorupco, with cameos from Alexander Siddig and Alice Krige (two "Star Trek" veterans, nice!).

RATING: 5 out of 10 crossbow bolts

Monday, July 11, 2011


Year 3, Day 192 - 7/11/11 - Movie #918

BEFORE: Let's keep the movie-monster theme alive. I can get some sci-fi/fantasy films in before leaving for Comic-Con. Linking from "King Kong", Jack Black was in "The Jackal" with Richard Gere, who was in "Pretty Woman" with Hector Elizondo (last seen in "Valentine's Day"), who appears in tonight's film.

THE PLOT: Underwater deep-sea miners encounter a Soviet wreck and bring back a dangerous cargo to their base on the ocean floor with horrifying results.

AFTER: OK, my bad - I thought this was more of a giant sea-monster type film. I try to know something about the films I schedule, but not too much. I got this one off of cable just to fill up the DVD containing "The Abyss".

It is a monster film, but more of the zombie-virus mutating sea-creature type. Because that's a thing, apparently. But the word "leviathan" is usually used to describe an ocean giant, like a whale or a giant squid, so you can see how I was misled.

This film cloned most of its DNA from "Alien" - though the fact it was released the same year as "The Abyss" is sort of telling too. Most of the tension results from people in tight quarters (underwater, not outer space, but the result is the same) not knowing what's around the corner or in the ducts, as a lifeform mutates into different nasty shapes.

And the effects budget seems really small - we never really get a good look at the monster, probably because if we did, we'd see how little work was done on it, or that it's just somebody working a rubber suit.

There's another connection to "Alien" as we're never sure if the encounter with the lifeform is random, or if the mining company meant for this to happen, if this was some conspiracy to bring back this strange new and durable creature for corporate profit. But mostly I didn't care - I kept nodding off because it didn't matter to me which crewmen lived or died.

Let's just forget all this happened and move on, OK?

Also starring Peter Weller (last seen in "Butch and Sundance: The Early Days"), Richard Crenna (last seen in "Hot Shots! Part Deux"), Ernie Hudson (last seen in "The Dirty Dozen: The Fatal Mission"), Daniel Stern (last seen in "Rookie of the Year") and Amanda Pays.

RATING: 2 out of 10 flamethrowers

Sunday, July 10, 2011

King Kong (2005)

Year 3, Day 191 - 7/10/11 - Movie #917

BEFORE: My last two films were about a skyscraper, and a tropical island. Put those two things together, stir in a giant monkey, and you've got "King Kong". Makes sense, right? Especially since Tom Hanks from "Joe Versus the Volcano" links so easily to his son, Colin Hanks, who's got a role in tonight's film - they appeared together in "The Great Buck Howard".

THE PLOT: In 1933, an ambitious movie producer coerces his cast and crew to travel to mysterious Skull Island, where they encounter Kong, a giant ape who is immediately smitten with his leading lady.

AFTER: I've got something of a personal connection to "King Kong", at least to the 1976 remake with Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange and Charles Grodin. That was the first film I remember seeing in a theater that wasn't a Disney film. I was 7 or 8 years old, and my grandfather took me to the movies - later on my mother was furious that I'd seen a film that wasn't rated "G". That may have sparked my interest in movies, and then the next few years brought "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters", and the damage was done.

The 1976 version isn't too bad, if you can get past the anti-oil Greenpeace-y stuff, and ignore the fact that Kong was portrayed by a guy in a monkey suit, when he wasn't a large set of low-rent animatronics (I think they just built a hand and a face, and left the rest up to the viewer's imagination).

Special effects have come a long way since then, which is both good and bad. Good because what we see here is absolutely dazzling - as in "300" and "Watchmen", directors can now control every pixel on the screen, so if they can dream it, it can appear on the screen. Bad because there are no limits, so each blockbuster these days has to outdo the last one, and we get served marathon movies and series like "Harry Potter" and "The Lord of the Rings". They may be spectacular, but they're also somehow less organic and more processed than films used to be.

So we end up with a new version of "Kong" that strains the viewers' attention spans (and their bladders) by being over three hours long. Half of that time is spent on Skull Island, battling one set of CGI creatures after another. By contrast, the classic 1933 film told the same story in just 100 minutes. Sure, it didn't look as great and featured some jerky stop-motion animation, but it wowed audiences AND got them home in time for dinner.

Peter Jackson made the decision to set the film back in the 1930's, rather than make another modernized version. Which is another trade-off - the costuming and references to vaudeville and old-time moviemaking equipment seem kind of hokey, but on the upside, it's nice to see NYC with classic cars and retro marquees, back before every inch of Times Square was covered with hi-def video screens.

It's a stunning visual achievement, no doubt - I'm just not sure they broke any new ground in a narrative sense, despite the added length. They got the scale right, though, as well as the look of NYC as seen from up above - I know I'm going to have that recurring dream tonight where I'm falling off of a tall building.

NITPICK POINT: Kong is the main attraction taken from Skull Island - but what about those dinosaurs? Dinosaurs alive after millions of years thought extinct - isn't that more significant than a giant ape? Talk about burying the lead story... Most people don't remember the dinosaur fight from the original film, so that was a nice touch.

NITPICK POINT #2: Those dinosaurs seem incredibly interested in eating Ms. Darrow - but scale-wise, she couldn't be much more than a tiny morsel. Compared to a T.Rex, she'd be about the size of a chicken wing to a person, and it takes more than a chicken wing to fill me up. And if I dropped a chicken wing, I wouldn't go so far out of my way to get it back, I'd go find a whole chicken.

NITPICK POINT #3: The frenetic action during the fight sequences was a little hard to watch. Plus Kong tossed around Ms. Darrow from hand to hand so many times - any one of those exchanges could have easily snapped her neck.

NITPICK POINT #4: Did we need to see the cast attacked by giant insects 18 times? 2 or 3 times would have sufficed, especially since they get rescued each time the exact same way.

NITPICK POINT #5: Every time someone on Skull Island turned around, there seemed to be a 50-story drop next to them. I understand there needs to be a mountain there, which ties into Kong seeking higher ground on a skyscraper later, but how does a tiny, uncharted island get to be so darn big?

NITPICK POINT #6: In the 1976 version, Kong is conveniently transported back to New York inside a giant empty oil tanker - this made a lot of sense. This remake never really tells us how they got Kong back to New York. I think he was bigger than their entire boat, so how did that happen?

Starring Jack Black (last seen in "Shallow Hal"), Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody (last heard in "Fantastic Mr. Fox"), Jamie Bell (last seen in "Flags of Our Fathers"), Kyle Chandler (last seen in "The Day the Earth Stood Still"), Andy Serkis (in a dual role as a ship crewman AND as the motion-capture model for Kong), with cameos from director Peter Jackson, Frank Darabont, make-up legend Rick Baker, and composer Howard Shore.

RATING: 6 out of 10 biplanes