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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Film Review - CLASH OF THE TITANS

Is it too much to ask that a gaudy blockbuster boasting the earth-rumbling title Clash of the Titans be, you know, fun?! The original film, released unto the masses in 1981, is best remembered - justifiably so – for its goofy-cool stop-motion animation, courtesy of renowned effects master Ray Harryhausen, which provided welcome lightning bolts of gee-whiz spark to the frequently logy and ponderous proceedings. In its best bits, that extremely flawed endeavour managed to stir up a genuine feeling of giant-sized other-worldliness, equal parts vivid Marvel comic-book adventure and brilliantly cheesy Manowar power ballad, which captured the gloriously colourful excess of its iconic source material. Hypothetically, it’s the ideal cinematic property to remake, as it was never really successfully realized in the first place. Too bad, then, that this new 21st Century Clash is even more of a lumbering snore than its ancestor; a slap-dash slice of hack ‘n slash idiocy delivered with the dour dryness of an early morning Aristotelian theory lecture.

 This retrofitted Clash of the Titans again chronicles the trials and tribulations of Perseus (The inexplicably ubiquitous Sam Worthington), mortal half-human son of Zeus (Liam Neeson), and mankind’s only hope when the Gods declare war on their ungrateful disciples. Recognized as being the only soul capable of withstanding the malevolent powers of Hades (Ralph Fiennes), the reluctant demigod embarks on a quest to discover a weapon capable of stopping the fearsome Kraken, a tentacle-waving, Godzilla-sized water-dweller proficient in unmitigated destruction, from laying waste to the city of Argos. Of course, no journey is without its minor inconveniences, and Perseus’ must endure deadly encounters with monstrous fiends such as the snake-haired Medusa, a trio of blind, man-eating witches and the villainous Calibos (Jason Flemyng), a deformed opponent with a shadowy past.

However, like every archetypal hero, Perseus’ greatest conflict ultimately lies within himself, as he struggles to make peace with his divine lineage. As anyone with even a passing familiarity with Greek mythology knows, the entire literary canon hinges on sharply defined individuals bearing larger-than-life personalities and emotions – two characteristics almost entirely absent from the various human characters populating the film. Worthington may be a step up from Harry Hamlin, but he’s still far too stolid and composed to properly portray Perseus’ inner-turmoil and incorruptible spirit. With his oddly contemporary haircut (Which badly stands out amidst the sea of shaggy-headed supporting players), bemused expression and baby-faced features, he looks about as dynamic as a trainee bank teller.

Of course, the filmmakers, perhaps to counter their star’s limitations, have surrounded Worthington with a crew of banal walking clich├ęs to help distract from his flavourless performance. There’s Draco, the “Initially Hostile Ally Who Becomes a Trusted Friend” (imposing Danish actor Mads Mikkelson, valiantly grappling with his turgid dialogue), the “Beautiful, Compassionate Princess” Andromeda (Alexa Davalos, barely registering) and the “Wacky Comic Duo” (Ashraf Barhom and Mouloud Achour), who aren’t particular wacky, nor comedic. And what to make of Io (Gemma Arterton), the impassive immortal beauty who has made it her business to watch over Perseus from birth and explain everything he needs to know? To call her a good sport would be an understatement. It is curious, though, that, besides Perseus, no one seems to even notice her. There must be a deleted scene somewhere explaining this distracting phenomenon, because you certainly won’t find it on-screen.

One of the appeals of the first Clash was how the Gods behaved like a squabbling pack of bitchy high-schoolers. Here, they’ve all been relegated to extra status, minus Neeson’s Zeus and Fiennes’ Hades, who execute their roles exactly as you’d expect them to; the former playing his usual slightly-pompous, stately leader-type and the latter doing a variation on his Voldemort from the Harry Potter pictures. It might’ve been more enjoyable if someone in casting been a little more daring and swapped their parts.

 I was a big fan of director Louis Leterrier’s work on The Incredible Hulk, in which he made the dust-ups between his warring computer-rendered behemoths feel visceraland electrifying without overwhelming the viewer. Thus, it’s somewhat surprising that all the major set-pieces in Clash look so cluttered and blurry. The Medusa sequence – the suspenseful highlight of the 1981 version – is a chaotic mess of embarrassing CG and agitated editing, while the climactic Kraken battle is frankly too bewildering to be interesting. Only a desert scuffle against a squad of colossal scorpions manages to budge the Wow-meter above zero.

Even though it has become common-place to see major studios burn up untold fortunes in the service of unimaginative, middle-of-the-road spectacle,it’s tremendously disheartening to see a project so bursting with obvious potential blundered to the point of complete ruin. This is a premise rife with potential for audience-pleasing displays of unrestrained movie magic, timeless storytelling and unforgettably vibrant champions and hiss-worthy evil-doers. Instead, despite infinite artistic resources and talent, this Clash is trash.  

1.5 out of 5 

 *Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: April 12th, 2010.

Film Review - HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON

Back in the lazy, balmy summer days of 1999, Warner Bros. unceremoniously dumped an unassuming little Cold War-era animated tale into theatres to glowing notices and zero audience interest. The picture, called Iron Giant, was a heartstring-tugging take on the “Friendly Visitor from Another World” genre, which beautifully depicted the touching friendship between a colossal, scrap-metal-munching robot and a lonely young schoolboy. The film ultimately found its legs on video, where it has since transformed many-a-viewer - including my unabashedly sentimental self - into a pathetic blubbering mess of tears and stifled sobs. A decade later, it’s gifted director, Brad Bird, has seen his career sky-rocket into the stratosphere on the strength of his classic Pixar efforts Ratatouille and The Incredibles, while Giant itself has become regarded as one of the more important family entertainments of its time.

The reason I bring up Iron Giant is because it’s honest, magical spirit can be strongly felt throughout Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon, an enchanting, and very welcome, departure from the studio’s usual brand of disposable pop-culture-riddled cartoon star-vehicles (Shark Tale, Anyone? How about Over the Hedge? Wait, come back!). Weaving a timeless yarn, not light-years removed from the enduring Warner Bros. favourite, the charming Dragon hangs itself squarely on the scrawny shoulders of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), a nerdy teenage Viking living on the winged-reptile-plagued island of Berk, who dreams of one day becoming a courageous dragon-slayer in line with his proud father Stoick (Gerard Butler, more charismatic here than in his recent live-action ventures).

One disorderly starlit evening, during a chaotic dragon attack, Hiccup, using one of his unwieldy hunting contraptions, clumsily shoots an elusive Night Fury (A powerful breed famed for having never been gazed upon by a mere mortal) out of the sky. Eager to score his first kill, the wannabe warrior takes to the forest in search of his fallen quarry, anticipating a confrontation with a ferocious, spiteful foe. Instead, he finds a trapped and crippled animal, barely conscious, staring out at him through wide, wounded feline-like orbs. Unable to finish off the frightened creature – whom he dubs Toothless – Hiccup instead releases it from bondage, thus beginning a rousing bond built upon mutual trust, affection and the odd shared bite of slimy raw fish. However, the strain of carrying on this secret rapport begins to wear on the awkward hero when he is enrolled in dragon-fighting school and his father sets out to locate, and destroy, the beasts’ undiscovered subterranean nest. Torn between his allegiance to upholding the ancient traditions of his people, and ending their violent prejudice against Toothless’ species, Hiccup embarks on an epic adventure that could change Viking – and dragon - life forever.

As overseen by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, who previously helmed Disney’s energetic Lilo & Stitch, How to Train Your Dragon is a frequently breathtaking feast for the eyeballs. There are a number of sweeping, gorgeous flight sequences (which occasionally recall Aladdin’s iconic magic-carpet ride), wherein Toothless and Hiccup glide above his tiny rocky homeland and sail out over the expansive surrounding seas, sometimes ascending above the soft overhanging clouds, which will send waves of incredulous chills up your spine and leave you grinning ear-to-ear. Using 3D to its fullest capabilities, the filmmakers have created a wholly immersive movie-going experience that, for my money, is more moving, grand and awe-inspiring than anything in Avatar.

The picture’s smashing success in that particular arena can largely be attributed to its directors’ refusal to allow their character to be swallowed by the behemoth spectacle around them. Great attention has been paid towards ensuring that the relationship beats are as potent as the dramatic action set-pieces. We genuinely care about Hiccup and Stoick’s discouraging inability to connect with one-another just as much as we’re enraptured by the sweetly playful dynamic between our protagonist and Toothless. The sincere warmth of their camaraderie – which will enthral devoted pet owners everywhere – never crosses into cloying or manipulative terrain, and culminates in a pair of crucial closing moments that pack some serious emotional firepower. Even the side players, like one-armed, one-legged weapons master Gobber (Craig Ferguson – a canny casting choice) and plucky love-interest Astrid (America Ferrera), register as appealing, fully-developed individuals whose critical decisions feel guided by their own nature, not the demands of the screenplay.

When it comes right down to it, How to Train Your Dragon is the epitome of what a winning family film should be; it’s a simple, endearing story, told well and with gusto, populated by compelling characters and exhilarating sights, capable of stirring a sense of pure delight and wonder in movie-goers of all ages. It’s becoming increasingly all-too-rare nowadays to be transported and uplifted by the joy of viewing the unhindered human imagination painted across a cinematic canvas. This film accomplishes that feat, for this Dragon appreciates what it really means to soar.

4 out of 5

*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: April 5th, 2010.