Sense of Wonder: Iron Man 2 – Hollywood loves a Lone Gunslinger

IRON MAN 2 lionizes its rich billionaire’s lone gunslinger attitude. Is national security and/or world peace really better off in the hands of a private businessman?

Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is unable to prevent Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) from making a drunken fool of himself at a party
Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is unable to prevent Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) from making a drunken fool of himself at a party

Watching IRON MAN 2, I began to suspect that one reason for the recent success of Marvel Comic book adaptations is that their menagerie of superhero characters is less iconic than their DC counterparts, such as Superman and Batman, and this lesser status allows more play room for the filmmakers. As a special effects-filled action flick, IRON MAN 2 is passably good; what really makes it entertaining is the depiction of Tony Stark as a spoiled billionaire fathead who drinks too much and suffers from”textbook narcissism.” In spite of his failings, we like Stark because he’s a fun guy, he means well, and after all he is portrayed (brilliantly) by Robert Downey, Jr. The thing of it is, we can accept the hedonistic jerk we see up on the big screen because the depiction is not triggering any cognitive dissonance. Not to belittle the popularity of Iron Man and other Marvel characters among the comic fan base, but you can do this because the public at large does not holding dearly on to some sacred childhood memories of the character. If you tried something similar with Bruce Wayne, you could bet there would be an outcry.
Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury
Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury

I mention Batman’s alter ego because it helps me segue into another thought about IRON MAN 2: although it is fun to watch, it suffers in comparison to THE DARK KNIGHT, which deals with a similar theme, that of the lone gunslinger who must clean up a corrupt town (or in this case world). The idea is threaded throughout the IRON MAN 2, but it goes underdeveloped as other ideas elbow their way in. In fact, the script features several interesting plot threads, but it lacks a strong central plot that ties them altogether: Stark is drunk (literally and figuratively) on the fame of being Iron Man, but his health suffering from his use of the mechanical suit; he struggles with his feelings for Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Samuel L. Jackson shows up again as Nick Fury. Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) blames Stark’s father for his father death in poverty and wants revenge. Stark’s rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) wants to take Stark down.
What gets lost in all this is what should have been the core idea: Stark has supposedly single-handedly brought about world peace, but the U.S. government doesn’t trust him to continue doing so and wants to get its collective hands on the Iron Man technology. As embodied by Gary Shandling’s Senator Stern, the government is portrayed as a sorry bunch of grasping morons who will probably screw everything up, and we are invited to cheer as Stark makes fools of them at a Senate hearing.
It’s all very funny, but it plays into the fascist undertones often apparent in superhero stories, which suggest that certain people are just…well – better than everyone else, and if the weak majority of fools would just get out of the way and let the few wise ones work unfettered, then the world would be a better place.
For all Hollywood’s allegedly liberal bias, this is hardly a liberal sentiment; in the era of Blackwater, you would expect a little more skepticism about the wisdom of turning military matters over to private enterprise. But then Hollywood isn’t really liberal. It’s a company town run by rich people who want the government to stay out of their business. This may seem liberal to social conservatives, but it’s really more libertarian.
IRON MAN 2 doesn’t quite endorse this viewpoint. The plot, such as it develops, leads Stark to finally accept a sidekick (in the form of Don Cheadle’s Colonel Rhodes) and, by implication, assistance from the government, but the film cannot resist a parting (and admittedly funny) shot at Senator Stern. Maybe the Iron Man technology is too big for one person to be its sole proprietor, but the implication is that lesser men are riding on the coattails of their betters.
Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer
Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer

I wouldn’t object to IRON MAN 2’s dubious political stance except that it muddles what could have made a good sequel even better. Justin Theroux’s script offers some funny dialogue, and director Jon Favreau has the cast deliver it in overlapping bursts that sound like real people trying to get in on a conversation, as opposed to actors waiting for their cue lines. All the actors are good, and Sam Rockwell deserves a special nod: he may seem a little over-the-top as Hammer, but this is not a flaw in the performance; it’s part of his character, a (figuratively) small man trying too hard to be bigger than Tony Stark.
IRON MAN 2 also deserves credit for having the nerve to avoid beginning with Iron Man finishing up a previous mission – which is pretty much the easiest way to launch a sequel like this. It’s also nice that the Iron Man sequences are kept to a minimum while the script tries to service its various characters and plot threads. The use of action seems strategically calculated to offer big payoffs at specific intervals, instead of wearing the audience down through overuse (a la Michael Bay). I particularly liked that Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has only one scene in which she shows off her martial arts skills – it added a different kind of action in the third act, and you were allowed to anticipate and enjoy the action without its unbalancing the rest of the film. And, frankly, it’s much more fun to watch her character kick ass than it was watching Chloe Moretz as Hit-Girl.
All of this combines to recreate the fun of the first film, but there’s something missing. What fueled IRON MAN was Stark’s transition from shallow playboy to unexpected hero (unexpected by himself as much as by anyone else). There is nothing as strong going on here, perhaps because of some reluctance on the part of the filmmakers. As I said above, we like Tony Stark; I get the feeling that the filmmakers like him even more – too much to take him down a peg or present him with any conflicts that would cause him to seriously reconsider his eco-centric attitude.

Stark is not suffering any blow-back from his actions in the previous film or atoning for any past mistakes. Yes, Vanko accuses Stark’s father of being a thief, but the accusation turns out to be a false charge. (One of the more cloying elements of IRON MAN 2 is that Tony reconciles himself to his dead father, who turns out to be a nice visionary guy, with more than a touch of Walt Disney about him, rather than the mercenary arms dealer one would have suspected.) The only real personal crisis impinging on Stark (outside of his failing health) is the government attempt to coerce him into surrendering his Iron Man technology.
This is where IRON MAN 2 and THE DARK KNIGHT intersect. As I pointed out in “Dark Knight’s Politics of Noir,” the Batman sequel presents a modern variation on an old Western theme: that of the lone gunslinger who is rendered obsolete when justice becomes institutionalized, administered by courts and duly appointed officers of the law. In THE DARK KNIGHT, Bruce Wayne knew there was only so much he could achieve as Batman: Gotham needed more than a lone vigilante; it needed someone with a public face who could administer justice in the daylight, in the courts, not only in a dark alley at night.
IRON MAN 2 seems to admit of no such limitations. We are told – and expected to believe – that Stark has successfully “privatized world peace.” His impact on the world is literally more profound than the H-bomb. But peace isn’t just a matter of military strength (as Bush’s Iraq adventure should have taught us). Sure, Iron Man may be effective at putting down an uprising or battling off an enemy, but what happens after he leaves? Are we supposed to assume everyone joins hands and sings a round of Kumbaya? Isn’t there any collateral damage or lingering resentment among the defeated (or their heirs)? This may sound a little heavy-duty for what is clearly meant to be an entertainment film, but IRON MAN managed to invest its superhero story with some solid drama, so why not the sequel?

Stark (Robert Downey Jr) realizes he needs assistance from Rhodes (Don Cheadle)
Stark (Robert Downey Jr) realizes he needs assistance from Rhodes (Don Cheadle)

In its effort to squeeze in Whiplash and Black Widow, while simultaneously setting up the in-production THOR and the expected AVENGERS movie, IRON MAN 2 loses sight of the prize. It should have been about Tony Stark’s realization that there are some things he cannot achieve alone – and this realization should have involved more than being able to put down Vanko or outshine Hammer. It should have been the same sort of sobering realization that affected him so deeply in the first film, when he experienced the metaphoric fruits of his labors first-hand vis-a-vis being on the receiving end of the kind of weapons technology on which he had so thoughtlessly had made his fortune. That kind of character development would have tied IRON MAN 2’s plot threads together into something more than just an entertaining sequel; it could have elevated the film to the level of its predecessor.

Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)Freddy’s back, in all his gory glory, but revisiting him in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is less likely to inspire an attack of night terrors than to elicit a bored yawn, followed by a restful sleep, wherein one’s pleasant dreams are disturbed only by the eternally unanswered question: When will all these pointless remakes end?
The 2010 NIGHTMARE ON ELMSTREET is not a bad film in the usual sense – it is technically competent and reasonably well acted – but it lacks the kind of inspiration that would justify dusting off the burned-up old bogeyman and turning him loose on another generation of terrified teens. Although the credits list Wes Craven only for “characters created by,” the new film is simply a slicker, glossier remake of Craven’s 1984 original: the narrative follows the same overall progression, with most of the key scenes and settings intact (the boiler room, the victim levitating to the ceiling, the gloved hand rising out of the bath water);* some of the character names and relationships have been juggled around, but the “updating” consists mostly of adding cell phones, laptops, and Internet search engines (here represented by Gigablast in some of the most prominent product placement in recent memory). The grim and gritty feel of the original has been lost, drowned in a sea of CGI and modern makeup effects that duplicate but seldom if ever surpass the source material.
What this NIGHTMARE has going for it is the same great premise that fueled the old ELM STREET movies, an idea  so profound and so simple that it’s like a great song, whose melody can survive even a mediocre rendition. The concept of a demon who stalks your nightmares, blurring the line between dream and reality, opens up vast vistas of cinematic potential – which, sadly, go mostly untapped here. Fortunately, there’s more to the franchise than that.
Unlike their slasher brethren of the ’80s, the ELM STREET films depicted a reasonably believable high school milieu peopled with students punished not for sexual promiscuity but for the sins of their fathers. This gulf – between the teens who need to know the truth and their parents who want to bury the past – effectively isolated Freddy’s young victims from the assistance of the adult world. Perhaps all teens feel isolated; here, the isolation was not a sullen pose, but a plot point. It is here that the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET remake fares best. The sad-eyed cast look not merely sleepless but often hopeless, and the dialogue does a nice job of etching their concern and despair without descending into bathos.

One of many scenes not so much "re-imagined" as "recreated"
One of many scenes not so much "re-imagined" as "recreated"

The script Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer (for which Strick inexplicably receives a “story” credit, even though it’s the same old story) manages a few interesting changes. The back story of Freddy’s immolation is revealed through a dream-flashback instead of dialogue. Somebody obviously thought through the big question: If Freddy lives in the dreams of his victims, what happens when all his victims are dead? Also, his victims are no longer merely the children of the vigilante gang that burned Krueger to death; they were, years ago in preschool, his intended victims – an ugly past that all of them have forgotten, which makes Krueger’s eruption into their dreamworld an almost literal example of Freud’s “Return of the Repressed.”
This last is a very nice touch, but it is not properly explored, simply offered as a plot device, in case anyone asks, “Why did it take this long for Krueger to manifest?” (Answer: because it took this long for the repressed memories to return.) The uncomfortable suggestion is that we’re better off with memories suppressed rather than bringing them to the surface (which is in fact the exact opposite of what psychology teaches us). This bungles the movie’s theme, which is that the parents, in trying to protect their children, actually made things worse; the way the script presents it, if the parents had achieved their goal, and everyone had forgotten about Krueger, then everything would have been okay.
Also, this plot device raises questions that the film doesn’t bother to answer, at least not in the theatrical cut. Are we really to believe that each and every child has absolutely no recollection of what Krueger did to them? The film is vague on this point: one could argue that only Nancy was actually molested, and the other kids were merely telling frightened parents what they expected to hear; but even so, someone should remember Krueger’s existence. One wonders whether the original idea was that the memories had been deliberately suppressed, through drugs or hypnosis – supposedly to protect the children’s fragile minds but really to hide the guilt of their parents.
And speaking of the parents, unlike those in the original, this seems to be a group of rather dim bulbs. Yes, the original parents were understandably reluctant to believe that their children were being murdered in their dreams by someone they had torched years ago, but these new parents seem completely oblivious to the fact that their children are systematically dying in inexplicable ways. Yes, the first seems to be suicide, and the second is passed off as murder, but the third takes place in a jail cell with a surveillance camera – but no one ever looks at the tape to see what happened; apparently, the police simply assume he was killed by his cell mate. Case closed.
Director Samuel Bayer manages some competent but unexceptional professionalism. He occasionally puts you on edge with the “is it real or dream” question, but for all the slick production values at his disposal, he seldom generates any other suspense, and even the shock-scares seem tame. As for the moral horror associated with vigilante justice, and the despair of seeing your friends die helplessly – forget it. Those are just arbitrary plot points linking the effects scenes together.
The effects themselves are occasionally impressive, but they lack real punch; their CGI origins lend a fanciful fantasy feel to what should be grim, stark terror (the image of Freddy’s shape pressing from behind a suddenly rubbery wall was much better two decades ago, when it was a physical effect).
Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy
Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy

Likewise, Krueger’s makeup has been updated, supposedly to render a more realistic depiction of a burn victim, but the results are negligible and misguided. What makes Freddy frightening is not the fact that he’s a burn victim; it’s that he resides in the rubber-reality of a dreamscape wherein he is virtually invulnerable.
If we had any reason to raise our hopes for A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, it was the casting of Jackie Earle Haley, who was so memorable in WATCHMAN, and turned in a great bit in SHUTTER ISLAND as well. He comes up short here; he is sinister, but his version of Krueger never as deeply disturbing as Robert Englund in the best of the previous films. The occasional one-liner – a sop to those who prefer the wise-cracking Krueger of the lesser sequels – hardly helps, but at least Haley delivers the dialogue in a voice intended to chill the audience rather than spoof the character. No one is likely to mistake this Freddy for a stand-up comedian, at least not yet.
The attempt to magnify the character’s evil, by having him gloat over how much longer he can toy with his victims, comes across as fading echo of the torture porn genre. They diminish Krueger, making him seem more like a human monster than a dream-demon; long before the surviving teens get the idea of dragging him back into reality, where he will be vulnerable, you wonder why someone doesn’t just punch him out and kick his ass.
Remakes and sequels based around characters (rather than situations) have a better chance of succeeding, but there is little that is done here with Krueger, even though Haley gets top billing. Dracula, Frankenstein, and other classic characters can benefit from a do-over as times change (making them more misunderstood than monstrous), but it’s not as if the cultural context of 2010 has measurably changed our attitude toward child-molesters. There is not much to do with the character or the concept to bring it up to date for 2010, and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET barely even tries. We seem to be living in an era when, according to Hollywood box office theory, ticket-buying viewers are bored with old movies and want to see something new, but the “newness” consists of slapping a fresh coat of paint upon the same old structure.
Familiar imagery in the new NIGHTMARE
Familiar imagery in the new NIGHTMARE

Although labeled “re-imagining” of the Freddy Krueger franchise, this “New Nightmare” (per the poster tagline) is in fact much less original than WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE, the 1996 sequel that actually did re-envision the Krueger character as a more profound, archetypal incarnation of evil. If there are going to be any future NIGHTMARE’s, it would be well if producer Michael Bay (also responsible for the recent FRIDAY THE 13TH, THE HITCHER, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE) would hire some writers and/or a director who truly could dream up something new for Freddy.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET(April 30, 2010). Directed by Samuel Bayer. Screenplay by Wesley Strick and Eric Heisserer, from a story by Strick, based on characters created by Wes Craven. Cast: Jackie Earle Haley, Kyle Gallner, Rooney Mara, Katie Casidy, Thomas Dekker, Kellan Lutz, Clancy Brown.

  • But not the phone tongue or Johnny Depp’s death in the bed that erupts with a geyser of blood.


Bangkok Haunted (2001) DVD review

click to purchase
click to purchase

This 2001 trio of tales from Thailand is one of the lesser ghostly emanations to materialize in the funeral wake of RING, the film that launched a decade’s worth of Asian horror films, not to mention numerous Americanized remakes. Directed by Pisut Praesangeam and Oxide Pang (one half of the Pang Brothers, who made 2002’s THE EYE), BANGKOK HAUNTED features plenty of flashy technique but little real style; the usual spooky notes are played with reasonable competence, but they never tie together into a coherent or memorable composition.
There is a slightly slap-dash feel to the production, as if it were thrown together without being fully thought through. Narrative clarity is not always a priority: Praesangeam’s screenplay, abetted by confusing cross-cutting, often leaves the viewer wondering exactly what is happening. The confusion begins immediately: the film begins its first episode without preamble or wrap-around device; only after “Legend of the Drum” has concluded do we see that we are listening to three Thai women trading ghost stories in a coffee shop.
Why wait till now to reveal the framing device? Don’t bother asking because you won’t get an explanation. In fact, the dialogue among the three female friends serves less to unite the three stories than to offer apologies for their weaknesses, as the women criticize each other for not knowing how to tell a good story. Sadly, the criticism is all too justified.
“Legend of the Drum” involves a young woman investigating an artifact with a haunted history, involving the disappearance of a beautiful woman and the disfigured man who adored her – until she spurned him for a more handsome rival. Although interesting, the story intercuts past and present to occasionally confusing effect, as the drum’s current owner feels the spiritual fall-out of the tragic tale associated with the object. The ending suggests reincarnation as the explanation linking past and present, with a surprise finish that is only slightly scary and not particularly satisfying (as the teller’s two friends will complain, in the wrap-around segment).
Part Two is “Corpse Oil,” about a woman whose neighbor offers her a potion guaranteed to stir the passion of any man she sets her eyes on. The first problem with the story is that the woman in question is a smokin’ hot babe who obviously doesn’t need any potions to work magic on men (early on, she is seen rubbing her body against a stranger on a crowded boat ride, which should have been more than enough to get his attention). The second problem is, as you can probably guess, that potions of this kind come with a dark secret and/or a terrible price. And if you can’t figure out the secret, then you’ve simply haven’t read the title of the episode. Basically, this story is less about horror than about club-hopping and one-night stands, with the occasional pale-faced mystery girl showing up to creepy if confusing effect (presumably the ghost of the corpse who provided the titular “oil”).
“Revenge,” the final tale – and the only one directed by Pang – breaks with its predecessors by telling a story fousing on a cop rather than one of the three women. A young policeman investigates a mysterious death that his superior has deemed a suicide. The investigation is not particularly scintillating, and the pace is lethargic (fast-forwarding at double speed improves things considerably). There is a decent LEAVE HER TO HEAVE-type twist ending, which involves a reasonably clever method for confusing the homicide-suicide issue, but the supposedly wrenching impact of the final revelations packs no emotional punch; it’s just an arbitrary twist designed to offer a surprise to an otherwise flat story. The supernatural elements are almost nil, just the occasional hint of a ghostly presence following the detective; the ghost seems shoe-horned into the script in order to justify including this story in an anthology containing the word “haunted” in the title.
The final segment offers yet another spooky twist, but rather than “Oh my god!” you’re reaction is likely to be “What’s the point?” The film ends on a nice, creepy image, but it comes so far out of left field that the impact is minimal, and you wish the filmmakers had saved it for another film, where it might actually fit. 
Bangkok Haunted (2001)At least on DVD, BANGKOK HAUNTED tends to look dark and murky throughout. The modern setting is sheathed in noir stylings that make the intrusion of supernatural elements more credible, but there is a certain monotony to the approach, which even the presence of two different directors cannot overcome. The ghostly manifestations are reasonably well realized, and the film does offer its share of shuddery moments. The problem is that, spread over a two-hour-plus running time, these are not nearly enough to compensate for the slack pacing and uninvolving narratives.
The Region 1 DVD from Unit World Movie Inc offers the original Thai audio, with options for English or Chinese subtitles. The Chapter Stops sub-menu offers only three chapters, one for each episode, even though the the film is actually divided into 12 chapters (you can advance to the others manually by using your remote).
There is also a “Special Feature,” a short promotional film that begins like an extended trailer before shifting into pseudo-documentary mode,  claiming that BANGKOK HAUNTED intends to offer an answer to the mystery of whether life-after-death exists. (At least, I think that’s what it’s saying – the subtitles are embarrassingly non-grammatical.) Finally, the featurette shifts toward traditional EPK mode, with the filmmakers discussing the the film and describing their attempt to forge a new approach to depicting the supernatural on screen.
Ultimately, BANGKOK HAUNTED is for hardcore fans who have seen all the great examples of the last decade’s worth of great Asian horror films and are still yearning for more. Undemanding fans of the form may be mildly entertained; everyone else will wish they had watched RINGU or THE EYE again.
BANGKOK HAUNTED (2001). Directed by Pisut Praesangeam and Oxide Pang. Written by Pisut Praesangeam. Cast: Pimsiree Pimsee, Pramote Seangsorn, Dawan Singha-Wee, Kalyanut Sirboonreung, Pete Thong-Jeur.

This article has been expanded and clarified since initial publication.

Zombies of Mass Destruction – DVD Review

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click to purchase

One of the “8 Films to Die For” in the 2010 After Dark Horrorfest, ZOMBIES OF MASS DESTRUCTION attempts to use its familiar genre elements in the service of a post-9/11 political satire, depicting how people succumb to panic and prejudice in the aftermath of a massive attack. It’s a good idea, if a little bit on-the-nose in its presentation; unfortunately, instead of scathing satire, we get broad farce interspersed with the usual flesh-eating zombie cliches. The jokes fall flat, and the horror never hits a nerve; consequently, the film is never really frightening and seldom more than mildly amusing.
The best thing about ZOMBIES OF MASS DESTRUCTION is its title, which promises mayhem on a global scale – leading to the first of many disappointments when you realize that the entire story is going to be set in an isolated community. The set-up has the outbreak of the living dead blamed on a plague unleashed by terrorists, prompting local would-be patriots to cast their suspicion on a local girl of Iranian origin (who everyone keeps forgetting is not from Iraq).
It’s a nice inversion of the usual scenario, in which catastrophe justifies a lock-and-load, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later approach, but it doesn’t come off. The film’s antagonists are a shooting gallery of straw-men (corrupt politicians, paranoid conservatives, a preacher who thinks he can convert gays to hetero-sexuality) who are obviously being set up just to be knocked down. Meanwhile, our heroes (the Iranian girl and a gay couple who have come home to out themselves to the conservative community) barely register. We know we’re supposed to root them because of the situation that has befallen them, but they don’t do much to earn our empathy.
Occasionally a joke hits the target, reminding us of what ZOMBIES OF MASS DESTRUCTION could have been, had it achieved its aspirations, but there are not even enough to fill up a good trailer: our Iranian heroine rescues a girl and tells her everything will be all right – just before a car careens down the street and flattens the tot; the shy gay man who could not out himself to his mother, finally finds his voice when staring down the barrel of a rifle, blurting out, “Don’t shoot – I’m gay!”
Zombie hordes descend upon a small, conservative community.
Zombie hordes descend upon a small, conservative community.

The l0w-budget production values are decent, including the photography, and ZOMBIES OF MASS DESTRUCTION does deliver several gory set-pieces, with splattery makeup effects that are wet and red, though not particularly memorable. The intention was apparently to create something hysterically over-the-top, in the style of Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD II or Peter Jackson’s BRAINDEAD (a.k.a. DEAD/ALVIE), but despite considerable effort, the film seldom reaches a critical mass that explodes into screams of fear and laughter.
The DVD, released through Lionsgate, features good picture and sound with a couple of bonus features: a promo for After Dark’s 2010 Horrorfest, a trailer for ZMD, and a making-of featurette. The later incorporates sound bites from cast and crew, including director Kevin Hamedani, who explains the  political agenda underlying the film.
ZOMBIES OF MASS DESTRUCTION (2009). Directed by Kevin Hamedani. Written by Kevin Hamedani an dRamon Isao. Cast: Janette Armand, Doug Fahl, Cooper Hopkins, Bill Johns, Russell Hodgkinson, Ali Hamedani, Cornelia Moore, James Mesher.

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)
This is one trip down memory lane that few viewers wanted to take, and it is easy to see why: HOT TUB TIME MACHINE is an unwieldy welding-together of sentimental soul-searching and gross out humor. The audience interested in the pathos will be repulsed by the crude comedy, and the audience waiting to laugh at the crude comedy will be bored by the pathos.
The story plays as if someone pitched the film as an “R-rated spin on BACK TO THE FUTURE.” Two middle-aged men take a suicidal friend to a ski resort to cheer him up; along with a younger nephew, the end up transported back to the 1980s by the titular “Hot Tub Time Machine” (which is an actual line in the film, and actually gets a chuckle, thanks to the deliberately hokey delivery by Craig Robinson). Their disruptive presence in the past threatens the future existence of the nephew, who was apparently conceived on this eventful weekend. The question becomes how to get back to the future before some inadvertent action unleashes the “butterfly effect” with catastrophic consequences (like “Hitler becoming president,” as one characters suggests, ignoring the fact that, even twenty-five years in the past, Hitler is already dead).
Unfortunately, the script is marred by inconsistencies that render the storyline pointless. A mysterious repairman (Chevy Chase) shows up to fix the broken hot tub time machine and informs the the three middle-aged men that, in order to keep the timeline unruptured, they must relive the exact events of the long-ago weekend they spent at the resort, then return to the future within twenty-four hours. This leads to one of the script’s amusing touches: many of the events that need to be relived are extremely painful, and the characters are understandably reluctant to experience them a second time.
Around the time you are starting to wonder why anyone would wax nostalgic for a place filled with such miserable memories, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE makes a big mistake: having milked the concept for a few gags, the script allows everyone drifts off and do whatever they want, future consequences be damned. In effect, the story’s  “time lock” is unlocked, but the script blunders on regardless. With the central plot device essentially ignored, there is no longer any engine driving the narrative, and the story disintegrates into a muddled mess of uninvolving episodes. When the film itself cannot even decide on its own rules, we have little reason to care about whether the characters stay in the past or return to the future.
This is not quite enough to ruin the film’s best running joke, but it does hurt: Giving HOT TUB TIME MACHINE’s best performance, Crispin Glover (the father from BACK TO THE FUTURE) plays a bellhop with an understandable chip on his shoulder: the poor fellow has only one arm – at least in present day; in the past, he is perfectly normal (well, as normal as Crispin Glover can be). Knowing that the bellhop is bound to lose the arm, the audience squirms at each potential catastrophe (among other things, the character creates ice sculptures with a chainsaw that he hurls up into the air). Even better, the script forces viewers into the uncomfortable position of not only anticipating – but welcoming – the eventual dismemberment, because we don’t want some change in the past to result in something like “Hitler becoming president” (as one character suggests, overlooking the fact that Hitler is already dead, even in the past). The problem is, once the four leads have abandoned trying to recreate their own miserable past lives, it makes no sense that the bellhop should be forced to suffer his misfortune – and yet the film keeps urging us to anticipate the gorey event (which, when it comes, is done in a MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL style that doesn’t jibe with the film’s overall tone).*

Craig Robinson, Clark Duke, Rob Corddry, and John Cusack contemplate the Hot Tub Time Machine.

There are a handful good laughs in between the blow-job jokes, as when one character, angry and drunk and eager to use his knowledge of the future to lash out at the characters in the past, warns that John Lennon will be shot – then realizes that this has already happened. John Cusack has a few nice moments that make you almost understand why he would be in such a stinker. Chevy Chase is at least tolerably amusing (which is saying something, these days).  And as big a mess as the film is, its strange combination of elements is just weird enough to be interesting – not good, but interesting.
In the end, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE tries to preach a message about friendship and the value of sticking together throughout the years. It may even have been intended with heart-felt sincerity, but you can’t help noticing that, the real reason the story turn out well, is that one character cheats, using his future knowledge to make a fortune. Friendship may be esteemed, but money makes the world go ’round.
HOT TUB TIME MACHINE (2010). Directed by Steve Pink. Written by Josh Heald and Sean Anders & John Morris. Cast: John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, Clark Duke, Crispin Glover, Lyndsy Fonseca, Chevy Chase, Lizzy Caplan.

  • And if you stop and think about it, there is no reason the fateful accident had to happen on this particular weekend. The bellhop could have lost his arm anytime during the ensuing decades, but the writers seem to have never considered this.


Black Waters of Echo's Pond (2010)

Black Waters of Echo's Pond (2009)A Warning to the Curious: Don’t let the would-be evocative title fool you into thinking that THE BLACK WATERS OF ECHO’S POND is anything other than a routine (nay, outdated) splatter film. Should you venture into the theatre expecting mythical mysticism, you will have only yourself to blame as you savor the crushing disappointment that will inevitably descend upon your soul, shattering your naive optimism like the fragile skull of a victim battered by jagged rock. There is violence, gore, and exploitation sleaze aplenty, but precious little in the way of suspense or actual fear. Truly the most horrifying thing about the film is that, according to its poster, it won two festival awards (Best Horror Feature at the Orlando Freak Show Horror Film Festival and Best Feature Audience Award at the 2009 HorrorHound Weekend Film Festival) – which leads one to contemplate the truly astounding implication: You mean there were even worse film playing at those festivals?
Anyway, before the crushing disappointment comes the crushing boredom, as BLACK WATERS OF ECHO’S POND features one of the more lengthy and pointless set-ups in recent memory. It’s very much THE EVIL DEAD by way of THE EXORCIST: An archeological expedition in Turkey digs up an ancient Greek artifact. (What is a Greek artifact doing in Turkey, you may well ask, but don’t expect an answer.) The archeological team takes the artifact to an isolated cabin, where decades later a group of friends out for a weekend in the woods find it, unleashing an evil supernatural forces that takes possession, turning them into demonic killers.

Truth or Dare: Kill all your friends or go back two spaces.
Kill all your friends or go back two spaces.

The twist, if you can call it that, is that the artifact – related to the Roman god Pan, as in “pandemonium” – is a set of instructions, which the expedition used to recreate a “ritual” device that suspiciously resembles a contemporary board game. (It is one of BLACK WATERS OF ECHO POND’s more droll absurdities that a 1920s archaeological team, working from an ancient Greek text, craft what is essentially a Dungeons-&-Dragons version of Truth-or-Dare.) With nothing better to do, the characters play, turning over cards that prompt them to reveal dark and dangerous secrets that bring simmering hostilities to the surface, turning the friends against each other.
This may sound like fertile ground for a demented psychological horror film, but the so-called submerged secrets are not so submerged after all; pretty much everything is so close to the surface that you wonder why the game was need as a catalyst at all. It hardly helps that the inner secrets all play like a 14-year-old boy’s masturbation fantasy, recycled from the letter’s page of Penthouse magazine. The result feels like like watching each character’s inner demon emerge than like watching a contest to prove who is the biggest asshole – which turns out to be such a close race that you lose track of whom you would like to see die first.
Scary eyes!
Scary eyes!

When the bloodshed finally erupts, the effects are handled with professional competency but little inspiration. Rather than the hard-edge, grueling approach of many contemporary horror films, BLACK WATERS OF ECHO’S POND opts for the old-fashioned, sudden sting – which is over almost as soon as it begins. It’s almost quaint in its utter effectiveness. Easily the most impressive effect is the computer-generated blackened eyes of the possessed, which clear up with eerie efficiency as they expire.
Unlike the splatter films of the ’70s and ’80s (clearly a major inspiration), BLACK WATERS OF ECHO’S POND benefits from contemporary advances in cinema technology, which enable even low-budget filmmakers to craft something that looks halfway decent in terms of cinematography. Particularly impressive is the early, fog-bound sequence of a boat approaching the isolated island, the de-saturated color deliberately evoking the atmosphere of old-fashioned black-and-white horror movies. Too bad the film did not stick to this approach throughout.

The Great God Pan
This is a better glimpse of Pan than you will see in the movie.

The only other interesting feature is that the multi-ethnic cast is so rich in diversity that the two white chicks come across like the token minority representatives. Danielle Harris retains a certain appeal, but her presence here only reminds us that appearing as a childhood actress in a HALLOWEEN sequel or two is no springboard to a respctable adult career. Robert Patrick wanders on screen long enough to grab a bottle of booze (presumably to drown the career disappointment one must feel after descending from TERMINATOR 2 to this). He also tells one of those scary backwoods stories that is supposed to set up the horror that follows, yet curiously it bears little or no relation to the prologue depicting the Turkey archeological dig. Oh, and the Great God Pan himself walks on screen once or twice, just to let you know that his evil supernatural influence is causing the violence, not conventional psychosis.
One other note: the closing credits include thank-yous to several high-profile horror magainzes and websites. You have to wonder why they would be encouraging this sort of thing, when they could be doing something respectable like – oh, I don’t know – reviewing gay porn.
THE BLACK WATERS OF ECHO’S POND (2009; release date: April 9, 2010). Directed by Gabriel Bologna. Written by Gabriel Bologna, Michael Berenson and Sean Clarke. Cast: Robert Patrick, Danielle Harris, Sean Lawlor, James Duval, Nick Mennell.

After.Life (2009)

After.Life (2009)Built around an intriguing premise, this ambitious little horror movie deserves credit for its art house aspirations, focusing on characterization, ideas, and intrigue instead of violence and shock; unfortunately, this is a case when “vaulting ambition” o’erleaps itself and falls victim to its own seriousitude, the heavy-handed approach collapsing under its own weight and generating laughter instead of pathos. A generous viewer could cut the film some slack in this regard, had the film stayed true to its intentions; unfortunately, AFTER.LIFE eventually wimps out on its own premise, shifting from a thoughtful meditation on themes of life and death into a manipulative thriller, with some extremely unlikely (well, frankly impossible) twists and turns. Curious fans of Christina Ricci, Liam Neeson, and/or Justin Long may want to risk a viewing, even if the film ultimately fails to live up to their best efforts.

Anna Tayler (Ricci) is a school teacher whose relationship with Paul (Long) is deteriorating for unclear reasons, apparently some vague angst on her part. After an argument at a restaurant, Anna gets in a car accident and wakes up to find herself being prepped for burial by funeral director Eliot Deacon (Liam Neeson), whose reaction is curiously calm as he insists that Anna is dead despite being conscious. Reluctant to take Deacon at his word, Anna tries to escape and contact Paul, who mistakes her telephone call for a sick prank but grows suspicious when one of Anna student’s claims to have seen her standing in a window of the mortuary.
The storyline of AFTER.LIFE follows two tracks. The first presents a vision of how the dead might look back upon their life and loved ones after being unshackled from the earthly cares that weighed them down while alive. Essentially, this is a horror-movie spin on the final act of Thorton Wilder’s play Our Town. Not a bad idea at all, it offers the film a chance to ruminate on themes of life and death with a morbid fascination that at first seems poised on the brink of achieving its higher ambitions.

In one of the dream sequences, Anna (Ricci) leaves another walking corpse behind to explore the darkness beyond death.
In one of the dream sequences, Anna (Ricci) leaves another walking corpse behind to explore the darkness beyond death.

Unfortunately, these ambitions are undermined by the story’s second track, which is more conventional – although, at least initially, handled with some intriguing flair. The question fueling this aspect of the plot is whether Anna is really in limbo, with Deacon acting as a sort of Angel of Death easing her to the other side, or is she really still alive – merely the victim of some bizarre mind game played by Deacon for mysterious reasons of his own? Director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo offers a series of clues that tease the audience with their implications (for example, several hallucinatory scenes offer visual echoes of each other, suggesting that the film may be a post-mortem dream in Anna’s head), but eventually it becomes obvious that she and her co-writers Paul Vosloo and Jakub Korolczuk have not thought their story through.
After three days on the slab, having finally been convinced by Deacon that she is dead, Anna realizes that she is actually still alive when she sees her warm breath fog a mirror. The fact that she hasn’t eaten a meal during this time – and should be ravenously hungry – does not seem to have occurred to the writers, nor are they concerned with the unpleasant aspect of bodily functions (e.g, relieving bladder and bowels), which should have clued Anna in to the fact that her life process were still fully functional.
By abandoning its core conceit, AFTER.LIFE abandons its its hold on our attention, along with the art house ambitions that would have justified its serous tone and relatively restrained approach to the horror genre. What remains is too mild to work as a gripping thriller and too contrived to evoke audience empathy. Instead of an ambiguous, almost abstract psycho-drama (a la the wonderful 1989 film CLOSET LAND, with Alan Rickman and Madeline Stowe), we get sub-prime Lucio Fulci, without the gore or the suspense; and even AFTER.LIFE’s absurdity lacks the charm of Fulci’s (supposedly) intentional disregard for narrative logic.
On the plus side, there are some clever touches. Just before her car accidental, Anna dyed her hair red (red being the color of blood, which can symbolize passion and life). In the mortuary, Anna’s grieving mother instructs Deacon to restore Anna’s original hair color. When the red dye rinses down the drain, it resembles lifeblood washing away, Anna’s attempt to embue herself with artificial, symbolic life stripped away as she is infantalized, her appearance no longer dicatated by herself but now by her mother.
Neeson and Long deliver good performances, even if the script prevents them from crafting fully realized characters. In the case of Neeson’s mortician, the problem is that the mystery surrounding the character prevents any depth from developing, and as good as he is, Neeson is not the sort who can fill in the blanks with his mere presence. Long’s problem is simply that his character is ineffectual and at times bathetic (at one point, the film indicates his grief-stricken mental state by having him strike a child – a scene that generates derisive guffaws).
Miss Taylor (Christina Ricci) prepares to defend herself against the mortician (Liam Neeson), who insists that she is dead.
Anna (Christina Ricci) prepares to defend herself against Deacon (Liam Neeson), as the film morphs into a conventional thriller.

Even more on the plus side (at least for the male audience), Ricci looks great in the red satin slip she wears throughout most of the film (again, the red suggesting the fire buried deep within her soul, which is otherwise not apparent in her physical appearance, which is dark and subdued). She has the perfect Goth look to convey a character poised somewhere between life and death, which only makes AFTER.LIFE’s brief flirtation with presenting her as “La Morte Amoureuse” all the more frustrating when it is simply abandoned. Even when the script forces Ricci to completely undress for the final act, the visual approach remains impressively non-exploitative (perhaps because the director is a woman), with cool-blue lighting giving the impression that we are viewing something akin to living sculpture, whose form is truly breath-taking.
This may be one of the AFTER.LIFE’s more successful stabs at subtlety: making us view the character as a beautiful object, a soul-less body, just as Deacon is finally convincing Anna that she is truly lifeless, a walking, talking non-entity who merely imitates life out of robotic habit. Had the film fully explored this idea, it might actually have achieved its ambitions.
AFTER.LIFE (Copyright 2009; theatrical release: April 9, 2010). Directed by Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo. Written by Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo & Paul Vosloo & Jakub Korolczuk. Cast: Christina Ricci, Liam Neeson, Justin Long.

Repo Men (2010)

Repo Men (2010)

EDITOR’S NOTE: I should have completed this review week’s ago, but the film simply made my brain hurt too much; I had to take a long break before returning to finish this write-up.

It’s sometime in the future, and guess what? The future sucks. Surprise, surprise: a heartless, profit-driven corporation sells artificial organs to people who cannot afford them and, when clients fall behind on their payments, sends licensed hit men to reclaim the property (called “artiforgs”) . But that’s not the part that sucks. No, the part that really sucks is that everybody in this future is so freakin’ stupid that they don’t deserve to live – let alone occupy two hours of our time in the theatre – and yet there they are, up on the screen, big as life, acting as though what they do makes sense.
Where to start? Well, let’s start with the evil corporation, led by Frank (Liev Schreiber), who in an intriguing throw-away line says he doesn’t want his top repo man Remy (Jude Law) scaring the customers, because then they will pay in full immediately instead of in installments with interest, the latter of which is more profitable. At first the idea seems to make sense, in a devious kind of way: jack up the selling price so that the long-term plan is the only viable alternative, forcing customers to pay exorbitant interest rates for years if not decades. However, this profit-optimization scheme works only if the customers continue making payments. The mathematical calculus breaks down if customers are continuously defaulting – which certainly seems to be the case here. I’m willing to grant that the the plot, by its very nature, will not introduce us to many paying customers, but we never see any, leaving us to wonder whether Frank’s scheme is deliberately designed to make everyone default. Does Frank’s balance sheet really show more black ink if the company routinely retrieves used organs after a few payments, instead of receiving a one-time check for $650,000?
And how about those customers? The sign up; they don’t pay, and yet each and every one of them seems surprised when Remy shows up. Either they go about their lives like normal, doing nothing to avoid the inevitable, or they conveniently gather together in groups so that the repo men can easily score lots of repossessed organs with relatively little footwork.
And how about those repo men? Remy’s partner Jake (Forest Whitaker) opts to score a victim outside Remy’s house – during an afternoon barbecue, no less – with Remy’s approval if not active participation. And both of them seem surprised when this brilliant plan leaves Remy’s wife understandably furious that her husband’s job has come both figuratively and literally to her doorstep – leaving a trail of blood, no less.
And how about that wife? Carol (Carice Van Houten) wants Remy to phase out of the repo end of the business and move into the company’s sales division, as if the ethics of the job are of less concern than the messy mechanics. When Remy gives up repossession after a job goes wrong, putting him in the hospital and leaving him with a company-owned artiforg heart, Carol throws him out of the house anyway, claiming he made his decision when he went out on that last job. The operative word here is “last,” as in: he was about to transition to sales, just the way she wanted.
And all of this happens in a world that barely seems to notice. I’d be further willing to allow that, as long as the repo men were low key and their activities were relatively infrequent, this kind of thing could go on relatively below the radar. However, we’re seeing an absolute epidemic of defaults. And even if the activities were legal in regards to customers, that still leaves the question of collateral damage (Remy tases one customer’s girlfriend, who is never seen again, leaving us to wonder why she doesn’t file charges, or at least a lawsuit).
Incredibly, all of this is only the tip of the idiocy iceberg, which only full emerges in the last reel, when the full-on silliness erupts across the screen with enough force to make what preceded seem almost logical by comparison. Things get so ridiculous that the filmmakers themselves seem embarrassed, resorting to a lame surprise ending (lifted from BRAZIL) that is intended to wipe away the nonsense but only manages to be even more ridiculous than what it replaces. (Sorry if this sounds like a spoiler, but truth be told, there is no way to spoil something so rotten in the first place.)
I could go on and on, outlining each and every intelligenc-insulting moment, but I intend to be kinder to you, dear reader, than the film was to me…
If there is a redeeming element to REPO MEN, it is the performances of Law, Whitaker, and Schreiber. Although the story is too ridiculous for them to perform up to their best levels, they all manage to infuse a sense of credibility to their characters, even when the screenplay is forcing them to do incredible things. For example, Remy’s reclamation of an organ from a musician whose work he respects actually evokes a twinge of emotion, even though you wonder whether his boss’s ever worry about conflict of interest. But then you realize they don’t: when Remy goes rogue, Schreiber’s character sends Remy’s best friend after him, and as unlikely as this is, Whitaker almost sells it.
The essential idea of a tough man in an immoral job, forced by circumstances to re-evaluate his life’s work, is a strong one, and presumably a good movie could have been made from it. Unfortunately, REPO MEN shirks the dramatic change-of-heart, taking it for granted instead of exploring it dramatically, emphasizing mindless action at the expense of story-telling. Too bad we can’t repossess this idea and install it into a good movie.

Remy (Jude Law) gets blasted by a faulty defribrilator.
Remy (Jude Law) gets blasted by a faulty defribrilator.

REPO MEN(March 19, 2010). Directed by Miguel Sapochnik. Screenplay by Eric Garcia & Garret Lernier, based on Garcia’s novel The Repossession Mambo. Cast: Jude Law, Forest Whitaker, Lieve Schreiber, Alice Braga, Carice van Houten, Chanlder Canterbury, Joe Pingue, Tiffany Espensen, Yvette Nicole Brown, RZA.

Clash of the Titans (2010)

Clash of the Titans (2010)Coming across like a mythological hybrid of its official source material and GLADIATOR, the remake extracts the essence of the 1981 CLASH OF THE TITANS and updates it for the new millennium, enhancing not only the special effects but also the story. Some of the simple, innocent charm of the original is lost in translation, but the benefits are more than ample compensation. The new CLASH strives for greater depth and complexity, and even though it does not fully succeed, the serious approach enhances the entertainment, which is wrapped up in an action-packed scenario that seldom succumbs to the pitfalls of its own higher ambitions. The result is a satisfying adventure movie that manages to strum a few emotional and thematic chords as well.
Almost all the familiar characters are here:* Zeus (Liam Neeson), Perseus (Sam Worthington), Andromeda ( Alexa Davalos), Calibos (Jason Flemyng), the Stygian Witches, the giant scorpions, Medusa, Pegasus, the Kraken, along with new ones such as Hades (Ralph Fiennes) and Io (Gemma Atherton). However,the elements have been reconfigured in an effort to maintain a more mature and sophisticated tone.
This CLASH OF THE TITANS announces its intentions most clearly in a brief throw-away moment when Perseus (Sam Worthington) finds a mechanical owl while prepping for his epic journey. We in the audience recognize it as a replica of the comic relief sidekick that marred the second half of the original CLASH. Its significance eludes the new Perseus, who asks innocently, “What’s this?” A comrade replies disdainfully, “Just leave it.” Thankfully, that is the last time we see the metalic fowl, freeing this CLASH from the antics that morphing the 1981 film from Greek mythology into a kiddie fairy tale. Instead, we get an action-opus aimed at slightly older boys – teens and young adults, who prefer their heros tough, strong, and slightly cynical.
If there is a weakness to this boy’s adventure approach, it is that the female roles are slightly down-graded, with Andromeda pushed mostly off-screen. The script attempts to compensate by inserting Io, a woman cursed with immortality after offending the gods (apparently a variation on the legend of the Immortal Roman or the Wandering Jew). Unfortunately, Io is less of a character than a plot-device, her ageless status qualifying her as an expert on just about everything, allowing her to act as a mouth-piece for exposition. Strangely, Io is ignorant of the one essential piece of information that Perseus needs (how to kill the monstrous Kraken). Presumably, this is just a weak writer’s device, in order to retain Perseus’s quest to find the Stygian Witches, three cannibalistic old crones who will reveal the necessary tactic.
The script occasionally succumbs to its episodic nature, which is reminiscent of a videogame (strange since the original CLASH was made before videogames had quite such a big influence on films). Perseus must go to the witches to get a piece of information, which leads him to Medusa, whom he must defeat in order to use her head against the Kraken, but only after overcoming Calibos. After a strong opening that involves the viewer in Perseus’s plight, the linear narrative eventually bogs down in the middle.
Fortunately, the story revives for a rousing ending, and many of the screenplay’s innovations represent improvements upon the old CLASH OF THE TITANS. For example, the scorpion battle now takes place before – rather than after – the confrontation with Medusa; the scene always felt like an anti-climax in the original.
There is also a worthwhile attempt to inject small touches of characterization into the supporting cast, most notably the soldiers who accompany Perseus on his quest; unlike the mostly faceless extras who die in the Ray Harryhausen production (with little or no emotional impact), each of these characters gets at least a moment to make a small impression. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to make their deaths register.

Ralph Fiennes as Hades
Ralph Fiennes as Hades

The script is aided by some strong casting. Postlethwaite especially shines in a brief role; as Perseu’s adoptive father, he makes you understand Perseus’s defiance of the gods even better than Worthington does. Worthington himself is solid as an action hero, but he doesn’t quite have the charisma to portray a demi-god: when he insists on acting as a human, you don’t feel he is denying another part of himself; he is simply stating what is visible to us. Mads Mikkelson (CASINO ROYALE) makes a memorable impression as Draco, initially skeptical of Perseus, and Liam Neeson cuts a fine figure as Zeus, by turns angry and forgiving (as Freud said, God is the ultimate father figure). But the stand-out performance comes from Fiennes as Hades: in the grand tradition of movie villainy, he is not only threatening but insinuating; resentful of his devious treatment by Zeus, he even engenders a small amount of empathy.
The character relationships have been reconfigured in an effort to tighten up the plot threads and to develop the thematic undertones. For example, the mis-shapen Calibos is no longer a suiter of Andromeda but the former King Acrisius, struck down by the gods for casting his wife and her child, Perseus, son of Zeus, into the ocean, from which the boy is rescued by fishermen Spyros (Peter Postlethwait).
In effect, Perseus is given three father figures: a god (Zeus), a mortal (Spyros), and a mortal who has been touched by gods (Calibos). The only fully sympathetic one is Spyros, and his death at the hands of Hades (collateral damage when Zeus decides to humble arrogant humanity) fuels Perseus’ desire to challenge the dictates of the gods. The irony, of course, is that Perseus’s only chance of succeeding is that he is himself a demi-god, who receives an occasional bit of divine intervention on his behalf; although allegedly acting of his own free will, he becomes a weapon in the fued between Zeus and Hades, and eventually has to reconcile himself to his own personal God, the Father.
If this sounds a bit theological for an action pic, we should remember that the ghost of the idea exists in the 1981 CLASH OF THE TITANS, in which mortal heroes were able to triumph as much in spite of as because of the gods, human courage serving as a marked contrast to the petty infighting of the inhabitants atop Mount Olympus. This echo of a theme underlying Wagner’s Ring operas even led to the film’s own suggestion of a “Twilight of the Gods,” with a closing narration suggesting that the legend of Perseus’s deeds would outlast the gods themselves, turning the hero into the true immortal.
The new CLASH OF THE TITANS infuses this idea throughout the narrative, beginning with Spyros’s refusal to thank the gods (whose whims have led to nothing but hardship for him and his family), leading eventually to Perseus’s full-scale defiance. The anti-religious tone is at once engaging and amusing – it’s obviously safe to spit in the eyes of the Greek pantheon without risking too much back-lash from conservative Christians, even though the screenplay is obviously the one as a stand-in for the other. (Perseus, son of a god, is at one point referred to as “our savior,” and his life as a fisherman reminds us of the occupation of the New Testament apostles, who Jesus made “fishers of men”).
Ultimately, the film backs off from its apparent intentions, settling for a more moderate, less radical thematic statement. Zeus, who is initially angered by Perseus’s defiance, has an off-screen change of heart (presumably motivated by the need by a combination of paternal love and a need to defeat Hades) and lends a helping hand to his would-be mortal son, appearing to him initially as a cloaked figure, rather as Wotan appears to Siegfried in Wagner’s Gotterdammerung. The scene in the opera represented the end of the authority of the gods, as Seigfried shatters Wotan’s staff; in CLASH, on the other hand, Perseus learns to accept the help of his heavenly father, even as that father admits his own mistakes and encourages his son to be “better” than the gods have been.
The message may ultimately be a bit muddled (one wonders if this is the result of rewrites to tone down possibly controversial elements), but it’s strong enough to give a sense that CLASH OF THE TITANS is about something more than a monster battle every ten minutes – even while the film serves up all the special effects action that any monster-loving kid could ever want.
The computer-generated effects display a dynamism missing from Harryhausen’s old stop-motion work – which, fine as it was, tended to be staged in proscenium arch style, with the camera at a safe distance. Here, the viewer is right up in the action, nose to nose with mythological beasts that may lack some of the personality of Harryhausen’s unique creations but offer instead greater speed and agility.
The action and special effects are “enhanced” by 3D this time around, but at least in the Real 3D process, the enhancement is minimal. There is some small sense of depth to the image, but the effect is hardly immersive. For example, the flying scenes with Perseus riding the winged horse Pegasus are nicely handled but lack the visceral thrill of similar 3D scenes in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, and little would be lost by watching the film in 2D.
For the most part, even hard-core Harryhausen fans should be pleased by the new approach. Pegasus, seen less often, displays more power, the stead canter of the original replaced with speed and agility. The Kraken, especially, is a big improvement, conveying immense size and raw power of an apocalyptic nature that far exceeds the original beastie (who never quite lived up to his build-up in the ’81 flick). It’s also amusing to see the harpies from Harryhausen’s JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS show up here and there – a nice nod from the filmmakers, indicating that they are knowledgeable fans of the retired special effects artist, not just paid hacks cashing in on a pre-existing property.
The new Medusa is a super-charged version of the gorgon
The new Medusa is a super-charged version of the gorgon

The one exception, perhaps, is Medusa. The gorgon’s scene is now augmented with sinister, mocking laughter that adds an extra shivery layer of fear, and her snake-like appearance is obviously inspired by Harryhausen’s design. The problem is that the filmmakers lack the wisdom to know that just because you can do something different with computer-generated imagery, doesn’t mean you shoulddo it. The 1981 Medusa is a perfect example when the limitations of stop-motion were actually perfectly appropriate for achieving the desired effect; her  scene is a model of slowly building suspense. The new Medusa is a super-charged serpent that moves with the speed of a champion thoroughbred hopped-up on amphetimines, hurling her body over chasms in a gravity-defying manner that simply screems “CGI!” She is not quite as bad as the snake in ANACONDA, but the problem is similar, the lack of inertia reminding us that we are not watching something real, not even watching something stylized; we are simply watching something digital.
The original CLASH OF THE TITANS was a bit of an auteur piece – uniquely, not from a director but from a special effects supervisor. The film as a whole is imbued with Harryhausen’s personality, for better or worse, making it an artistic statement that should be read as the culmination of a long and fruitful career (it was Harryhausen’s swan song in cinema). The remake is more of a studio effort, with various craftsmen brought onto to exploit a pre-existing property. Fortunately, love of the original shines through powerfully enough to render this new CLASH as something more than a soulless exercise in mass-market filmmaking.
If the original was somewhat schizophrenic (suspended somewhere between spectacular epic and kiddie fantasy), so is the remake (talking out of both sides of the mouth regarding whether we are better off with or without the gods). Neither is perfect, but both have their own kind of integrity, pitching themselves toward their intended audience with satisfyingly entertaining results. The new CLASH OF THE TITANS aims higher than the original, and even if it does not fully ascend to the intended Olympian heights, it does manage to reach the clouds.
The Kraken rears its ugly head
The Kraken rears its ugly head

CLASH OF THE TITANS(April 2, 2010). Directed by Louis Leterrier. Screenplay by Travis Beacham and Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi, based on the 1981 film written by Beverly Cross. Cast: Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Jason FLemyng, Gemma Arterton, Alexa Davalos, Mads Mikkelsen, Liam Cunningham, Vincent Regan, Polly Walker, Pete Postlethwaite, Elizabeth McGovern.

  • Dioskilos, the two-headed dog, and a giant vulture are nowhere to be scene in this CLASH OF THE TITANS.


How to Train Your Dragon – Review

How To Train Your Dragon (2010)

“Thank you for nothing, you useless reptile.” 

That’s a quote by Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) from DreamWorks’ new CGI animated film HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON.  And I, uh, have to fess up and admit that those words were similar to my sentiments when I first saw the trailer for this one.  I didn’t care for the look of the animation and  the story seemed pretty run-of-the-mill if one swaps out the dragon for a dog or some other kind of pet.  In fact, the main reason I went to see it was because my wife wanted to go.
Okay, that there’s the full admission of my…well, judgmental attitude toward HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON.  But hey, I’m big enough to admit it publicly.  You see, if I’d been right I’d probably be boasting about the strength of my senses.  But instead, I’m having to pull my foot out of my mouth.  HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, as it turns out, is a thoroughly enjoyable movie.  It’s also got a nice, thoughtful message for young and old alike (even though it’s far from new, it plays out well).  So there it is: John 0, DreamWorks team 1.  And I’m happy to say so.
It’s a funny thing, but while watching DRAGON it felt as if it’s central message of “Hey, these beasties aren’t at all what we thought they were.” was poking me in the chest and saying, “Get it?  This pre-judging thing ain’t so hot.”  Okay, okay, I got it.  Still, in my defense I’d just like to say that I was softening up and coming around during the first two minutes.  I found myself having fun with Hiccup’s style of narration, and the animation style was already beginning to work for me.  In the context of the production design and story, it was coming together nicely.
The story itself, which is based on the 2004 book of the same name by Cressida Cowell, is all about our young Viking friend Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, who’s not so Vikingy as he and dear old dad (Gerard Butler) wish he was.  You see, dad is the ueber-brave sort and a famed dragon slayer (the winged creatures are thought to be evil and nasty wretches), not to mention the leader of the Viking clan; while junior falls into the woebegone category.  He desperately wishes to become a respected dragon slayer in his own right.  His dream is to become the first Viking to bring down a member of the oh-so elusive and dangerous Night Fury breed.  Surely this would cement his desired stature within the clan.  To that end he develops a weapon to help him do just that.  And he does!  Trouble is, no one sees the dragon go down, and certainly no one is willing to listen to him about his accomplishment.
He knows he saw it go down, however, and sets out to find the evidence of his triumph.  Eventually he does come across the beast – which crashed thunderously in the woods – and finds it still ensnared in the rope webbing from his weapon.  He summons up the nerve to examine it and “take its heart back to dad,” but he just can’t bring himself to kill it.  Instead he helps it out, Androcles-and-the-Lion-style and cuts it loose from its trappings.  The dragon quickly pins him down, but does not kill him either.  It merely snarls and darts off, smashing into things as it tries to make its getaway.
Eventually, Hiccup realizes that its tail was damaged and that it cannot fly properly any longer.  Feeling pity and guilt – and a certain sense of curiosity – he tries to befriend and help creature.  The two wind up bonding, and Hiccup discovers that dragons are not at all what everyone has thought them to be.
If you’ve seen the trailer, yes, Hiccup has a crush on a young lass (voiced by America Ferrera) and there’s a subplot involving their relationship.  Needless to say, she’s supposed to be cute in her own way – hip, tough and all the rest of it – but this is one of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON’s more conventional aspects, so I won’t belabor it here, except to say that even it was likeable enough to be rather merry.
There are also some fun dragon facts that Hiccup learns and uses to non-violently subdue his winged attackers during some dragon slaying classes that he finds himself in.  But I’ve given you enough spoilers so we’ll end the synopsis right here.
All you really need to know is that if your attitude toward HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON was similar to mine, then drop it and go see this entertaining, smart, and even quaintly wise little movie.  Oh, and don’t skimp out on the 3-D because you think the film’s not worth it.  It is.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (DreamWorks/Paramount Pictures 2010; 98 min.) Directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders.  Screenplay by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders.  Additional writing by Adam F. Goldberg and Peter Tolan.  Based on the book by Cressida Cowell.  Produced by Bonnie Arnold.  Co-Produced by Michael A. Connolly.  Executive produced by Kristine Belson and Tim Johnson.  Production Design by Kathy Altieri.  Art Direction by Piere-Olivier Vincent.  Visual Effects Supervision by Craig Ring.  Music Composed by John Powell.  Edited By Maryann Brandon.  Cast of Voices: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig, Robin Atkin Downes, Philip McGrade, Kieron Elliott, and Ashley Jensen.  MPAA Rating: PG for sequences of intense action and some scary images, and brief mild language.