Newbie Wednesday – Clash of the Titans (2010)



Clash of the Titans (2010, dir. Louis Leterrier)
Starring Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Artherton, Jason Flemyng

When I was 8 years old I went through the entire Webster’s Dictionary so I could catalog the Greek gods and monsters listed therein. Afterwards, I got the idea the library might have books on these things, and from there I devoured the stories of Greek mythology. Once, while visiting Nashville’s local to scale replica of the Parthenon around the age of 10, I began telling my mom and visiting aunt whom all the figures in the statues and carvings were. An man touring the structure began following and listening and remarked to my mom “Your son knows a lot!” I tell you these things to show that I am onboard when I hear about films based around Greek myths. How does director Louis Leterrier’s (The Transporter, The Incredible Hulk) remake of the 1981 fantasy film stack up?

Perseus, son of Zeus and a mortal woman has his adoptive family taken from him when they are bystanders to an vengeful act of the gods. The hero ends up in Argos, where its citizens are rebelling against the Olympian Pantheon and Zeus has decided either they all die or they sacrifice the princess to his beast, the Kraken. Perseus and a rag tag group of Argosian soldiers head out into the wilderness to figure out if there is a way to defeat the unstoppable beast. Along the way they battle giant scorpions, blind witches, a beast who bleeds acid, and finally the classic Medusa. Oh yes, there’s flying horses, too.

Why does Hollywood insist on continuing to cast Sam Worthington (Terminator: Salvation, Avatar) in films? The man is an uncharismatic bore. He has two acting settings: “grunt” and “brooding”. It can be said that the action films of the 1980s and 1990s were inane, but at least the leads were charismatic. Think about Schwarzenegger, Willis, Stallone, etc. They all had charming personalities that made us root for them. With Worthington you root for him out of default, he’s the protagonist on the screen so you hope he wins because that’s what mainstream cinema has taught you. I also was flabbergasted at the actors cast as gods. Why cast Danny Huston as Poseidon if you give him one line? Just cast an generic actor for the role! And Nicholas Hoult (About a Boy, Skins) as Eusebios, what a waste of great talent. And he’s a million times more charismatic than Worthington!

The plot is a mix of the original film, mixed with attempts to “bad ass” it up. It became apparent to me that the screenwriters and art directors seemed to want to make a God of War film rather than a remake of the 1981 Clash of the Titans. Every encounter feels like a stage in a video game, complete with boss battles. I can forgive discrepancies between the original myths and the film (Example: Pegasus is the name of one specific winged horse, in pop culture we refers to the species as Pegasi now), I’m not one of those fanboys who harumphs when they change a detail. I understand the need to create a fluid, organic script. However, there are some pretty glaringly dumb subplots in the film that were attempts to blend elements of the original picture. I also rolled my eyes at their attempt to be clever by giving Bubo the Mechanical Owl from the original film a cameo. Bubo has more charisma than Worthington, people!

At the end of the day, this is yet another dull CG-dependent action flick. Leterrier’s previous films have left me bored and with this one I was literally falling asleep halfway through. His upcoming Captain America movie has my expectations about as low as they could get. But, if you are hoping to cleanse your palette for Greek myth based flicks, Tarsem Singh (The Cell, The Fall) has one coming out November 11th, 2011 titled Immortals. Hoping he shows Leterrier how it is done.

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Newbie Wednesday – How To Train Your Dragon



How To Train Your Dragon (2010, dir. Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders)
Starring Jay Baruchel, America Ferrara, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig

In 1981 we got Dragonslayer, which was a step up in the medieval film genre in terms of effects. In 1996 Dragonheart was released, and while its hard to dislike a film with both David Thewlis and Sean Connery, the picture never stuck with me as a re-watchable one. In 2002, the movie was Reign of Fire…and well, lets try to forget that one. The latest dragon-centric film is Pixar Animation’s How To Train Your Dragon, from the writer/director team behind Lilo and Stitch and Mulan. And how does this flick stack up against its fire-breathing brethren?

Hiccup (Baruchel) is the son of a gruff Viking king (Butler) whose village is regularly attacked by a variety of diverse dragons. During one of these attacks, Hiccup witnesses an elusive go down in the forest outside of his village and ventures into the wilderness to find it. The two are confrontational at first, but grow on each other. Simultaneously, Hiccup is being pressured by his father into being a dragonslayer. What is he to do as he begins to understand this creatures better than anyone in his village?

What this movie does best is put you on the back of a dragon. The flying scenes are far and away the best aspect of the picture, many times done from the POV of Hiccup. There’s also an interesting variety of dragons presented in the film, each with quirk that makes them unique and different. The look of the flick is thanks to cinematographer Roger Deakins (“No Country for Old Men”, and pretty much every other Cohen Brothers film ever). I also liked that the film focused on thinking your way through a problem over just rushing into battle. Hiccup’s tendencies to go to books and conduct scientific study pay off and save his father and the entire village.

I liked that the film shied away from previous Dreamworks ventures, which seem to rely so heavily on modern pop culture references. It felt more like a Pixar film in establishing its own universe. However, every character except for Hiccup feels underdeveloped. It would have been nice to get some backstory on the village and how their conflict with the dragons developed. Despite these hiccups (pun intended) in the story, its still one of the better and more intelligent films marketed towards kids.

Director in Focus: Brian DePalma – Carrie

Some pre-conceived notions about Brian DePalma: Before I get into the review of this first picture in the DePalma series, I will address some ideas I have about this director. Of Mr. DePalma’s films I have seen are Phantom of the Paradise, Raising Cain, Mission: Impossible, and Mission to Mars. I wouldn’t say DePalma is a director I actively dislike, I just have never been overly impressed with him. Without further ado, my first review:



Carrie (1976)
Starring Sissy Spacek, Amy Irving, Piper Laurie, Betty Buckley, Nancy Allen, John Travolta, William Katt, Edie McClure, PJ Soles

I was homeschooled through my entire elementary, middle, and high school grades. So, I was never subject to the sort of direct bullying I’ve seen in countless films and television shows. I definitely was raised in a sporadically religious home and was a quiet kid, so I felt some connections to the character of Carrie White. My ideas about this film from its osmosis into popular culture was that Carrie is a “weirdo” character. I found myself pleasantly surprised by the depth actually brought to her in the film.

In the town of Bates (named after Hitchcock’s nefarious Norman), is the home to quiet and shy Carrie White (Spacek). In the opening of the picture, Carrie experiences her first period while in the girls’ showers at school. Her mother (Laurie), has kept Carrie completely ignorant of her own sexuality and Carrie immediately thinks she is dying. The other girls mock her, tossing tampons at the poor girl as she cowers. Miss Collins (Buckley), the PE teacher chastises the girl and comforts Carrie. As punishment, the girls are forced into an afterschool PE detention, which causes popular girl Chris (Allen) to harbor resentment towards Carrie. Conversely, Sue (Irving) feels bad about the incident and convinces her boyfriend to ask Carrie to the prom. If you are aware of the way this film has been parodied since, then you know how things turn out.

The picture has not aged too well. The majority of the music, particularly a lot of light-hearted montage scenes feel incredibly cringe-inducing. Piper Laurie, who plays Carrie’s mother, is an actress who hasn’t met a piece of scenery she hasn’t enjoyed chewing and that’s fun for the most part. I was reminded of author Stephen King’s cliched zealous fanatic archetype that seems to crop its head in almost all his work. However, I can definitely see how a lot of the high school movie tropes were borne out of this film. Nancy Allen as the uber-bitch Chris does an excellent job and Amy Irving as Sue comes across very genuine.

Where the film won me over was the famous prom scene. Wow! The tension that DePalma is able to create in the moments before poor Carrie is pushed over the edge are breathtaking. He is most definitely a skilled editor, knowing how long to stay on a shot before cutting to a reaction or image related to the previous shot. It’s like a cinematic Rube Goldberg device where every little piece click and leads to the next perfectly. The music here is an homage to the work of Hitchcock’s composer, Bernard Hermann. Hermann died before he could compose the score for Carrie so it was brilliant to make it a reference to his previous works, especially Psycho; four notes of that film’s score are heard repeatedly through the film.

I was most impressed with the portrayal of Carrie White. She was not the “weirdo” or “freak” you might see portrayed in derivative films made since. Carrie shows resentment and anger towards her mother about not being told about her sexuality. She isn’t completely naive and shows reasoned skepticism when invited to the prom. And Spacek’s choices in acting, particularly in her scenes with actor William Katt at the prom are exceptional. I found this to be a great start to my exploration of this director’s films. It wasn’t perfect, but it showed a wonderful sense of pace and restraint that a lot of contemporary horror films could learn from.

Seventies Saturdays – Little Big Man



Little Big Man (1970, dir. Arthur Penn)
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Chief Dan George, Martin Balsam, Richard Mulligan

At the height of the conflict in Vietnam, American filmmakers were ensconced in counter-cultural material. The 1970s were also a renaissance period in American cinema as well, influenced particularly by the French New Wave of the 1960s. Both social and aesthetic revisionism is at the heart of Arthur Penn’s adaptation of this novel, which results in a film that is both clever and funny, and at other times muddy and unsure of itself.

As a young boy, Jack Crabb’s family are massacred by Indians, however he and his sister are rescued by the friendly Cheyenne. Jack grows up amongst the Indians and eventually is pulled into the white man’s world, where is to be properly educated in good Christian morals. For the rest of Crabb’s life he goes back and forth, between being a “civilized white man’ and a “savage Cheynne”. A sort of Western Expansionism Forrest Gump, Crabb runs across historical figures like Wild Bill Hickok and General Custer, the latter of whom he serves under three separate times.

Penn allows the Cheyenne to speak in plain English, but within the rules of the film, its their native tongue translated so that we may hear. This was a big change in film at the time, as Indians had been portrayed as speaking in broken English and using tired, clich├ęd phrases. However, the film does fall into some common cliches of another kind when dealing with the tribe’s single homosexual member, who’s portrayed as a limp-wristed effeminate dandy. It would have been more interesting to have a common brave amongst the tribe end up being attracted to his fellow warriors.

The film is infused with a biting sense of humor, and definitely plays up the common myths of the frontier for laughs. General Custer, historically known for being pompous and grandiose, is played wonderfully by Richard Mulligan. Dustin Hoffman does a very convincing job as Jack Crabb, and shines particularly in the physical comedy gags. At one point he operates as a gunslinger (The Soda Pop Kid), and has a nervous encounter with Wild Bill, which highlights the small stature of Crabb. It’s a very fun film, that rushes over so much, and that it keeps it from becoming a true classic.

Wild Card Tuesday – Mean Girls



Mean Girls (2004, dir. Mark Waters)
Starring Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert, Amanda Seyfried, Lizzie Caplan, Daniel Franseze, Tina Fey, Tim Meadows, Ana Gastneyer, Neil Flynn

I know what you are thinking, “Why? Why would you watch this?” My excuse is that the screenplay was worked on by Tina Fey, who also plays the main character’s Math teacher, and I gave it a chance based on her pedigree. Well Tina, you didn’t completely disappoint me.

Cady Heron (Lohan) was raised by her parents in Africa, and subsequently homeschooled because of the experience. Now back in the States, Cady is going to a public school for the first time and completely unaware of the highly structured clique system in place. She befriends two of the art kids, Janis and Damian, who encourage her to infiltrate the Plastics (read: popular girls) and ruin the status of queen bee Regina (McAdams). The rest of the film plays out as a mix of typical high school comedy with moments that rise slightly above that.

The female cast was definitely a strong one. Every single one of the key actresses has done a lot of notable work before and since this film. I don’t think I had actually ever seen a Lindsay Lohan film (save A Prairie Home Companion where she played a very small role), but she is (was?) a very good actress. Her performance as Cady feels very genuine and I never saw the acting going on, which happens a lot with younger actors and actresses. For example, Lacy Chabert was very transparently acting and it showed. Rachel McAdams was also very good, especially knowing her from other such different roles. But the stand out, and you had to be watching closely to catch it, was Amanda Seyfried. Her role appears simple: the ditz, but the girl has some great comic timing. Pair that with her recent role in Jennifer’s Body, and I am excited about seeing her in upcoming films (particularly the soon to be released Atom Egoyan picture Chloe).

As good as these actresses were, it didn’t save the film. The parts I laughed the hardest at were the moments centered around the teachers. Tina Fey, Tim Meadows, and the rest of the cast in those teacher roles were awesome, and I found myself wishing the movie was about the faculty. We have so many teen comedies on the market, but a clever flick, scripted by Fey, about high school teachers would be a treat. The film will definitely make you laugh, but its nothing worth more than a single view. And I couldn’t help but wonder that instead of using director Mark Waters (Freaky Friday, Just Like Heaven) they had hired JOHN Waters to helm the picture. Now that would have been a skewering of high school hierarchies.

Newbie Wednesday – The Men Who Stare At Goats


The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009, dir. Grant Heslov)

Starring Ewan McGregor, George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Lang
If you remember the jokingly done reports in the media about prisoners of war in Iraq being exposed to Barney the Dinosaur’s “I Love You” song on a loop, then you have already heard of the writing of reporter Bob Wilton. In a mix of fantasy and reality we get this very suspect account of a secret unit of the U.S. Army, in operation since the Vietnam War. Director Heslov doesn’t deliver a film of any great magnitude, it has its moments, and we end up with a very quirky, very uneven comedy.
Bob Wilton is an Ann Arbor, MI reporter who ends up just outside of Iraq as the war is breaking out. Months earlier he interviewed an odd man who claimed to have been a psychic in the employ of the Army. By chance, Wilton runs in Lyn Cassady (Clooney), the man the interviewee claimed had been the best in their unit. Wilton and Lyn begin a strange journey across Iraq that ends with figures from Lyn’s past reappearing and culminating in an LSD fueled finale.
Jeff Bridges plays a ultra hippie, Bill Django, the founder of the New Earth Army, the unit devoted to using peace and love to combat enemy troops. A lot of these ideas won’t seem far fetched if you know anything about the experimentation the military has done on the paranormal for combat purposes. The film even brings up the infamous MKULTRA experiments done by the CIA on soldiers and civilians alike, where psychotropic drugs were added to water without the subjects’ knowledge and their reactions were recorded.
I never found myself laughing during this film, a few grins here and there, but was never really impressed with anything I saw. The film seems to not know what it wants to be: a satire of the army, a satire of the new age movement, a commentary on the absurdity of this current and all war. Because of this lack of a “thesis statement” the film seems to wander aimlessly with no point at the end. Coupled with very amateurish voice over (a big no-no unless you know how to do it right) and an original score that felt cheap, its a film that could easily be missed without regret.

Maybe Sundays – Alice in Wonderland (2010)


Alice in Wonderland (2010, dir. Tim Burton)

Starrin Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Matt Lucas, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Alan Rickman
So visionary director Tim Burton takes on the classic surreal children’s tale of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with Johnny Depp at his side as The Mad Hatter. Sounds like a formula for success, right. Well, if this had been 10 years ago, maybe. However, with Burton’s work output in the 21st Century being less than stellar and lot of the visual tricks used here being old hat from previous films, the picture comes off an a utter bore. And I really didn’t want it to be.
Alice Kingsley is a teenaged girl being married off to a disgusting noble. During the engagement party she runs off and comes across a White Rabbit, whom she follows down a mysterious hole. Alice finds herself in Wonderland and the creatures there recognizing her as a prophesied savior. The two monarchs, Red Queen and White Queen and Alice is needed to defeat the evil Jabberwocky and save the day. The film is a mishmash of elements from Lewis Carroll’s two Alice tales and the 1951 Disney animated feature. And it all adds up to an uninteresting mess.
None of the Wonderland characters feel interesting in the least. Yes, they are strange and meticulously designed, but beyond their quirks they lack anything remotely resembling personality. This shouldn’t be a problem in a film based on a novel that really has no character development in the first place, and is merely a series of absurdity philosophical encounters. But, Burton has chosen to make the film a semi-sequel…or is it a reimagining? I couldn’t figure that out how they fit in with the original story. There are hints that this Alice could be the little girl from the story, but then there is a mention of Alice merely being some sort of title.
This is such a huge disappointment, especially with the exceptional cast gathered by Burton. Instead of giving us some new and interesting look at Wonderland, we get it blandly Burton-ized, with the typical spiral patterns and zany color schemes. Its nice decoration, but a great film it does not make. What the film misses are the more interesting goings on of the real world. I found myself paying more attention during the moments where Alice navigates her engagement party and, when she returns from Wonderland, and sets things straight with the people around her. I want to see a movie about THAT Alice!