Wrath of the Titans & Mirror Mirror: The Cinefantastique Spotlight Podcast – 3:13

FUUUUNNNNNGUUUUSSSS!!!: Sam Worthington's gonna need a vatful of Purell in WRATH OF THE TITANS.
FUUUUNNNNNGUUUUSSSS!!!: Sam Worthington's gonna need to bathe in a vatful of Purell after this moment from WRATH OF THE TITANS.

In the curious ecology that is Hollywood, a film that’s best known as a poster child for what not to do when converting 2D to 3D and for a declarative that become something of a pop-culture punchline has to, of course, have a sequel. In WRATH OF THE TITANS, there’s no Kraken-releasing, but that doesn’t mean demigod Perseus (Sam Worthington) doesn’t have his hands full, what with his brother Ares (Edgar Ramirez) teaming up with his uncle Hades (Ralph Fiennes) in order to sacrifice big daddy Zeus (Liam Neeson) in an attempt to resurrect Kronos, a big-ass lava guy who also happens to be father to Zeus and Hades. It’s a family thing, see?
Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski and Dan Persons get together to discuss how director Jonathan Liebesman (BATTLE LOS ANGELES) fares in tackling this new installment of the mythological franchise. Then Lawrence French joins them to give his reactions to two other releases: the fractured fairy tale, MIRROR MIRROR, and the ominous horror exercise INTRUDERS. Then Dan weighs in with his thoughts on the low-key cloning drama, WOMB. Plus: What’s coming in theaters.


Avatar: The Special Edition review

Avatar Special Edition banshees
A new hunting scene for the Special Edition

As you all know, AVATAR is back on the big screen, showing exclusively in Digital 3-D and IMAX 3-D engagements. As you also know, this release is billed as the “Special Edition,” because writer-director James Cameron has restored nearly nine minutes of footage, expanding the already lengthy film’s running time to nearly 170 minutes (the maximum capacity for analog IMAX 3D screenings). Is the new special edition truly all that special, or is this just a cynical money-grab?

The answer is: neither. Despite the new scenes, AVATAR remains much the film it was before: a blockbuster entertainment of magnificent proportions, lacking subtlety while proudly wearing its heart on its sleeve – when it’s not blasting away bad guys with all the over-heated enthusiasm of THE EXPENDABLES. Yes, 20th Century Fox’s decision to re-issue the film was based on bottom line considerations, but in this home video era, we should appreciate the opportunity to re-experience the film on the big screen: AVATAR had still been doing good business when it was pushed out of 3D venues by ALICE IN WONDERLAND last March, and since then, ticket buyers have been ripped off by a succession of 3-D post-production conversions (CLASH OF THE TITANS, THE LAST AIRBENDER, PIRANHA 3 D) that were almost enough to permanently sour discerning viewers on the process. A return trip to Pandora is enough to eclipse those bad faux-3D memories

The special edition offers another opportunity to savor the 3D beauties of Pandora.
The special edition offers another opportunity to savor the 3D beauties of Pandora.

The real reason to see AVATAR again is to remind yourself what 3D looks like when done right. Although Cameron avoids gimmicky images of objects projecting out of the screen, he uses the process to great effect in flying scenes: separate from the background, all those copters, banshees, and floating jellyfish truly seem to be suspended in mid-air. Also, the clear separation of objects in the foreground from objects in the background allows Cameron to load the frame with details that would seem cluttered in a 2D rendition (all those virtual monitors, view screens, and lab equipment start to look like a jumble if you close one eye and watch the film flat).
The additional footage, which represents just about 5% of the total running time, is not enough to make a substantial difference in the film overall. Some of the extra minutes fill in expository details that only sharp-eyed fans would notice:

  • A trip to a school house, riddle with bullets, gives a good clue why Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver)’s Na’Vi outreach program is not going so well.
  • Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) reveals her full name to Jake (Sam Worthington) in the scene wherein she introduces him to her tribe (so now we know how he knows her name).
  • Jake’s narration explains why the legendary floating mountains of Pandora stay airborn.
  • We see the aftermath of a Na’Vi attack on some bulldozers that were smashing down trees. It’s obvious that the Earth forces can use this “provocation” as an excuse to justify action they wanted to take anyway: namely, attacking the Na’Vi’s tree-home.

avatar_special_edition_movie_image_01Other footage adds more action or simply expands on scenes that already existed:

  • Early on we glimpse some dino-size creatures we had not seen in the previous cut. Later, Jake in his avatar-body joins the Na’Vi’ as they fly on their banshees, hunting down these large creatures.
  • The “mating” scene between Jake and Neytiri is a bit longer but not at all explicit – unless you count the shot of their braid tendrils intertwining which is a bit suggestive of…something or other.
  • In this version Tsu’tey (Laz Alonso) does not die from his fall during battle. He lives long enough to pass the leadership baton to Jake, who then, according to Na’Vi ritual, puts Tsu’tey out of his misery with a stroke of his blade.

This new footage does little to expand on the plot or themes, nor does it address any of the reservations I expressed about AVATAR during its initial release (such as the absurd use of the word “unobtanium,” which should have been explained away as a joke). It’s nice to have the little narrative gaps filled: I had always wondered why Dr. Augustine’s outreach program was faring so poorly; now we know it was sabotaged (whether intentionally or inadvertently) by gunfire from the company mercenaries. And the burning bulldozers (along with the dead human crew) make it more understandable why the company drones are convinced that military force – not peaceful negotiation – is the only option.

The Na'Vi ride their banshees in the restored hunting sequence
The Na'Vi ride their banshees in the restored hunting sequence

Mostly the new scenes give us more of Pandora, which is for usually worth seeing. Sometimes, however, the extra minutes make themselves felt. The hunting sequence, for example, offers some nice aerial thrills, but it also expands the weakest portion of AVATAR: Jake’s learning the ways of the Na’Vi is a necessary plot point, but it could have been conveyed in a brief montage; instead, it virtually becomes the second act – a lengthy series of scenes that does little to advance the story but does give Cameron more opportunities to show off the beauties of Pandora.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of the re-release is the opportunity to see AVATAR post-backlash. A second time around, the heavy-handed message and the one-dimensional villains seem simply like part of the film’s texture – not great virtues but hardly the fatal flaws that detractors would have us believe them to be. The movie’s strengths are more than enough to eclipse its weaknesses, which seem more and more like trivial nitpicking. Though far from perfect, AVATAR emerges victorious – a film with a Sense of Wonder as wide and beautiful as the skies of Pandora.

Clash of the Titans (2010) Blu-ray review

The transfer of the film onto Blu-ray is excellent, and the interactive exploration of the behind-the-scenes experience is more interesting than the film itself. 

I will likely be pilloried for stating that I consider Ray Harryhausen’s version of CLASH OF THE TITANS to be one of his lesser films (down there with THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER). I am not sure if his intention was to do a sequel to JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS or what, but at the beginning of a decade when effects went into hyperdrive, I found it a weak note on which to finish his career.
Needless to say I was less than enthusiastic when Warners announced they were doing a high-budget remake. I think my reaction at the time was “Why?” Fortunately, the new version has lots of redeeming qualities: a great cast, a thin but engaging story, state of the art special effects, and competent direction. Best of all is an economical running time during which the action just seems to rip along. I was also fortunate enough to see the new CLASH OF THE TITANS in 2D in the theater (not with the much-criticized post-production 3-D face-lift).
The transfer of the film onto Blu-ray is excellent as you would expect. The HD picture quality and surround sound are stunning, bringing the movie theater experience to the living room. Although the DVD version is a bare bones release with minimal extras (deleted scenes anyone?), the Blu-ray offers up a Maximum Movie Mode feature that allows us to explore the entire filmmaking process in one window while the film plays in an another. Instead of a simple narrated audio commentary, this format offers a truly interactive experience that I found more interesting than the film itself. We get to see CLASH OF THE TITANS as it evolves through the hands of the director Louis Leterrier (THE INCREDIBLE HULK), his art director and effects team, and finally the cast.

Director Louis Letterier did the motion-capture performance for the Kraken
Director Louis Leterrier did the motion-capture performance for the Kraken

Watching the MMM version is worth it just for the scenes of Leterrier directing while dressed in a hooded green screen costume and acting the part of the Kraken. I was also impressed with the design of the film; the epic scale of the story is captured using large sets and panoramic scenery instead of just green screen and CGI.
As impressive as the MMM feature is it still does not answer some of the fundamental questions that CLASH OF THE TITANS raises, specifically why the humans had declared war on the gods in the first place.
Apparently, CLASH OF THE TITANS did so well at the box office that Warners is developing a sequel, though I can’t imagine where they will take the characters next (I suggest Hawaii and a surfing motif). However, it is good news for Sam Worthington (AVATAR, TERMINATOR: SALVATION), who now has three major franchises to keep him busy for the foreseeable future.

Clash of the Titans sequel hires writers

Sam Worthington as Perseus
Sam Worthington is expected to return for the sequel.

The Hollywood Reporter reveals that Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures are hiring two new writers for a sequel to CLASH OF THE TITANS: Dan Mazeau and David Leslie Johnson. Greg Berlanti is already working on a treatment; Mazeau and Johnson will collaborate with him, then write the screenplay.
The hiring of multiple writers is not uncommon for blockbuster films. Studios like to avoid putting all their eggs in one basket, fearful of spending months developing a story only to end up with a script that has great action scenes but terrible dialogue or vice versa. Different writers are brought on to finesse certain elements; however, the typical procedure is to have them working separately or even serially, with the the final draft later cobbled together from the various efforts. In the case of CLASH OF THE TITANS 2, Warners is putting the writers together, with the hope that Mazeau (who penned the upcoming THE FLASH and JOHNNY QUEST) can supply the action with Johnson (THE ORPHAN) adding the drama and characterization.
The plan is for Sam Worthington and Gemma Arterton to return. CLASH OF THE TITANS 2 will be shot in 3D (rather than adding 3D in post-production). Expected release date is spring 2012.

Worthington will space out as Allan Quatermain

Sam Worthington in Avatar
Sam Worthington in Avatar

MTV.com reports that Sam Worthington – who hit big in two science fiction films last year, AVATAR and TERMINATOR SALVATION – will produce and star in QUATERMAIN, a sci-fi updating of H. Rider Haggard’s Victorian adventurer Allan Quatermain, who served as the inspiration for numerous cinematic action heroes (I’m looking at you, Indiana Jones!). According to Hollywood Reporter, the story has Quatermain returning to Earth from a mission in outer space, only to find that humanity is no more, leading to adventure on a “planetwide scale.”
The QUATERMAIN script is by Mark Verheiden (TIME COP). Worthington will produce, along with Miles Millar and Alfred Gough (SMALLVILLE) for DreamWorks.
click to purchase
click to purchase

Allan Quatermain was born in Haggard’s young-adult novel King Solomon’s Mines, helping an English lord search for his brother, who has disappeared in an uncharted section of Africa, searching for the titular treasure. The story was a hit that spawned sequels and influenced such films as 1933’s KING KONG (which also features an uncivilized modern tribe of dark-skinned savages living in the remnants of a lost civilization). Eventually, Quatermain met up with Haggard’s other famous literary creation, the immortal Ayesha, in She and Allan.
On screen, Quatermain has been played by actors as diverse as Stewart Granger, Richard Chamberlain, and Patrick Swayze. Even former James Bond Sean Connery had a go at the role, giving an impressive performance in the otherwise overblown THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN (2003).
If Worthington has anything going against him, it is his youth, as we first meet Quatermain as a somewhat world-weary man, who inevitably finds himself in life-or-death situations – not a gung-ho thrill-seeker looking for action. On the other hand, later Quatermain books were prequels, filling in the character’s early years, so perhaps Worthington is a good fit.

Clash of the Titans: Cinefantastique Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Pocast 1:8

We’re a day late but not a dollar short with this, the eighth episode of Cinefantastique’s weekly Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Podcast. Due to technical difficulties, podcast host Dan Persons sits out this episode, but he joins regular contributors Lawrence French and Steve Biodrowski in spirit as they analyze the new big-budget remake of CLASH OF THE TITANS. How does it stack up to the 1981 original, with stop-motion effects by Ray Harryhausen? Are the new computer-generated special effects an improvement? And what about the 3D? Also on the menu: news, home video release, and random recommendations. Enjoy!


Clash of the Box Office

Promotional image from Clash of the Titans
Promotional image from Clash of the Titans

CLASH OF THE TITANS, despite an overall mixed reception from critics, has managed to knock kids’ animated fantasy film HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON off of the top spot at the box office over the weekend. The new sword and sandal epic that we recently reviewed has grossed $61.4 million so far (slightly under analysis’ predictions) with Tyler Perry’s relationship drama sequel WHY DID I GET MARRIED TOO coming in at second place.
Both these new releases pushed HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON back down to third place, while tween drama THE LAST SONG and ALICE IN WONDERLAND took forth and fifth place respectably. A pretty strong opening for CLASH then, but we’ll have to see how it fairs by the end of the week with new releases such as Steve Carell and Tina Fey starring comedy, DATE NIGHT vying for the top spot.

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.


Clash of the Titans: Sam Worthington Video Interview

Actor Sam Worthington offers his thoughts on CLASH OF THE TITANS, the remake of the 1981 Ray Harryhausen production, which focuses on Perseus, son of Zeus, as he goes on a quest to claim Medusa’s head, in order to use it as a weapon against the Kraken, an enormous monster unleashed by the gods of Mount Olympus as punishment against humanity. Worthington talks about Perseus’s heroic nature, the fear-factor of Medusa, performing stunts, and what audiences can expect to get out of the film.