Review- Wrath of the Titans

Sam Worthington in Wrath of the Titans (Warner Bros.)

The first film in this newly reborn series was passable, but barely. There was a rote nature to it that held it back from being all it could have been. While this film doesn’t maximize the full potential of Greek mythology, it does implement its gods and demigods in a much more enjoyable fashion than the prior installment did. What minor stumbles occurred in this installment were more just missteps than an over-aching approach that was slightly off, so the end result is very enjoyable.

To start with the elements that are slightly off: one of my pet peeves that makes suspension of disbelief rather difficult in many films, (and it is truly a question of accents more so than performance) is the unwritten cinematic tradition in the US has stated that British accents substitute for foreign tongue when the film is shot entirely in English. The first installment adhered to said rule, so it was fine. Here it is sketchy. Sam Worthington is speaking with a full-on Australian accent. While I applauded the decision in the Narnia series that took Caspian from sounding Castilian to using his natural voice, it’s more forgivable in a fantasy, and at least in the Narnia series there was a conscious attempt to make the Telmarines sound like they were from another country in a fantastical realm, hence the affectation. Here there’s no basis in logic for the switched accent.

Yet, despite that distraction, the performances are good. Worthington is slightly more engaging than before; Fiennes and Neeson are allowed to strut their stuff more than they were. Meanwhile, Rosamund Pike adds a much needed tough-girl factor and John Bell, as Helius Perseus’ son, gives an effective performance which acts as Perseus’ catalyst in part.

The beginning of this film means well by establishing that Perseus has had it with the gods and their games and he should be reticent, however, the stakes introduced are far too high for him to ignore. We end up knowing he’ll resist but concede to the quest so the first act is rather bereft of tension. To the film’s credit, tension does come eventually but this beginning holds it back, and despite all the past experiences he has seems uncharacteristic.

Once the obligatory resistance is overcome the story really kicks into high gear and becomes very entertaining indeed. There is an ease with which the story flows in this installment that was not quite as present previously.

Similarly, and this is crucial, several different mythical elements are introduced in this film, and barring the occasional bit of expositional dialogue, they are folded into the mix much better. This more seamless blending of mythological tropes makes the story far more engaging and enjoyable than the predecessor.

I can’t speak for the 3D as I did not see it as such, however, the effects work is definitely an upgrade and when you consider the fact that much bigger creatures, both in stature and importance, are tackled than this is also a very welcome change.

The score of the film also does its part to churn the film along while adding the necessary tension to the mix.

The new incarnation of Greek Myth films has not yet been perfected but this most certainly is a step in the right direction and very much worth checking out.

8/10

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10 Keys to a Better Life as a Fanboy: 7. Suspend Disbelief (aka Get Into It)

This series of articles is designed to help you, the fan, try and divorce yourself from your attachment to source material and judge a film on its own merits and not in comparison to another work. These tips come from my own experience. I hope they are helpful.

Many of these topics do overlap one another but attack problems from different angles. This tip really comes into play if you’ve already managed to ignore number four. So here’s how:
You’re sitting in the dark of the matinee and you’ve got your 80 oz. soda and obese-family-size Twizzlers and you’re watching the same lame slides come across the screen repeatedly. The trailers for blockbusters-yet-to-be keep you only mildly amused. All this idle time has got you anticipating the film more than you had been before and you start thinking about how this director will handle the material? Or how such-and-such will do in this part and how the casting of character X will pan out. Boom. All the things you were supposed to ignore are back and suddenly the film starts and it’s distracting you.

This is where you have to grab the bull by the horns and just lose yourself in the story. Remember what it is that drew you to this material in the first place and look for it. If you find great, if not the film failed to an extent. Again this is not an attempt to excuse the film but just setting yourself up to try and judge the film before you and not measuring against another kind of work entirely.

Thankful for World Cinema- Le Petit Nicolas

When looking for a theme in which to select films from the start of November until Thanksgiving being literal is not the best option. Films centered around Thanksgiving tend to be overly obsessed with dysfunctional families. So in thinking about the nature of the day which was initially a celebration of survival in the New World, I thought why not focus on foreign films.

Le Petit Nicolas

Maxime Godart, Vincent Claude, Victor Carles, Germain Petit Damico, Charles Vaillant and Benjamin Averty in Le Petit Nicolas (Wild Bunch)

Firstly, I must say that the availability of this film in the US is virtually non-existant. I managed to acquire a Canadian DVD (Also a Region 1) on Amazon. The film didn’t really see distribution here because it is based on a book series by René Goscinny that doesn’t have tremendous cultural impact in the US.

His other major contribution is as one of the architects of the Asterix series of books, which some here do know so the terrible first cinematic adaptation did come here. All this is brought to the fore because its non-distribution in the US really is confounding. The adaptation angle needn’t be used to sell the film. The humor and themes of the film really are universal.

While being familiar with the book, I’m sure, helped some appreciate it. It is a delightfully simple and accessible story that can be enjoyed by audiences of all ages. There are little treats for those in the know like, for example, the boys get inspiration for a scheme from an Asterix strip but it isn’t necessary to enjoy it.

This film is also very funny and while it does test your suspension of disbelief it should pass. Much of the film hinges on misconceptions that Nicolas has about his home life, which could be clarified if he talks to his parents but a child’s fears aren’t always relayed to his parents especially these.

This was a wonderful discovery and hopefully there are others in the offing as the series of books is quite lengthy.

10/10

61 Days of Halloween: Children of the Corn II- The Final Sacrifice

Ryan Bollman in Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice (Dimension Films)

When dealing with a series, like I am currently or have in the past, I will tend to lean towards something akin to Franchise Criticism. I will focus on the continuous narrative thread and other things pertaining to the franchise. My opinion of each individual film I will try and compartmentalize but there will be commentary along the lines mentioned above because it is necessary to gauge the franchise as a whole which I will do later on.

One thing to note with the Children of the Corn films is that there is a very distinct aspect about them which acts as a double-edged sword; it is that many times in the sequels you will see a new wrinkle, fact or other bit of information added to the mythos and you’ll think to yourself “God, I hope they don’t continue this strain.” The double-edged sword part is that they usually don’t. The good of that is that stupid subplot never rears their head anew, however, that does hurt the continuity of the series. With each installment you need really only know the basics and can walk in cold, which by my definition makes it a bad series. While there are a few occasional highlights be it a moment, performance or a whole film I cannot contradict myself there. Most of these films will receive failing grades yet it was oddly enjoyable to watch them all for two reasons: one, the basic premise is one I love and I am addicted to series. I can’t help it.

As for Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice not only does it hold the distinction of being the most premature false ending to a horror franchise but it’s also pretty darn lousy. It’s not the worse but but perhaps runner-up in the franchise pecking order.

Firstly, the film lets the cat out of the bag so to speak; the massacre in Gatlin has been discovered and it’s now on the news. This in and of itself isn’t an issue, however, the way it’s handled is. The focus of the narrative is bifurcated between reporter John Garrett (Terence Knox) and his annoyingly dysfunctional relationship with his equally annoying and whiny son Danny (Paul Scherrer) and his relationship with Lacey (Christie Clark).

Oh yeah, there’s also Micah (Ryan Bollman). He’s the new preacher and how Danny nearly gets lured into the cult is one of the few things that comes close to working in this film. The acting is terrible all around in this film it is without doubt the worst in the series. Micah is good for some random evil glares and when he gets a chance to finally be mean it’s fine but many sequels in the series put the antagonist (read the Preacher Boy) too far away from the center of it all.

The film plays at love story for quite a while and despite the fact that Lacey is in with the cult the tension surrounding their relationship is never really elevated. Michah’s involvement only increases when he’s actively trying to get Danny involved. It’s also one of the sequels that seemed to feel uncomfortable in its own skin meaning that instead of trying to lay a good foundation of drama there were times it tries too hard to be something it’s not, in this case, a star-crossed romance.

This also marks the beginning of the shifting of location of this series. The horrors in Gatlin were discovered. Many children, presumed innocent, are now orphaned and in need of foster care. Many people in Hemingford, the closest town up the road, offer to take them in. Here’s where bad writing and acting combine to really take the film down another notch: several times they refer to the orphans as a whole as “the sweet, innocent children of Gatlin, (or some such rot) there is not a time this line is uttered where it doesn’t sound insincere. I’m not speaking about audience omniscience, meaning we know they’re really evil so we chuckle, I mean the line reading itself sounds like the actor is being sarcastic or comedic so suspension of disbelief is most difficult.

One thread that does develop hear that dies hard is the notion of disease, mental or physical, is brought into the equation as a possibility, which is unforgivable because it changes the nature of the films. Essentially the film is in not so many words is trying to play the psychotic, cultist, religious zealot children off as victims. However, one thing I do appreciate later on is that it is treated as a white elephant, meaning it’s a concept so big it can’t just be dropped from the series but needs to be gradually written out. Franchises would benefit from story editors because not many changes were handled that smoothly.

Then you have the characters, yeah, those guys. Despite the efforts to develop them I don’t like them. If the audience is going to identify with anyone it’s the kids trying to run away not the father, not the way he’s written. So here you have it again the most annoying permutation of horror film you don’t really like anyone and you know that in all likelihood they’re gonna walk away at the end and you’d rather they be dead.

Few horror films, as a franchise, really survive in their most earnest form: if the villain wasn’t the protagonist to start eventually they become them because they’re who the movie is named after and the characters seem to get dumber, more disposable less identifiable, therefore what do you want to happen to them in a horror film, a piece of entertainment designed to feed on your baser instincts? Kill them. All I’m saying is few far between are the effective, affable protagonists later on in horror series. The constant gives you comfort and a twisted ending gives you pleasure from time to time.

There’s none of that here. After I saw this film I lamented on Twitter about deciding to place the original film last in my viewing order thinking it’d be all downhill until got there. This series like so many has its peaks and valleys. This is a chasm, not quite an abyss, we will get their but its rather painful to endure.

2/10

Review- The Adjustment Bureau

Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in The Adjustment Bureau (Universal)

Frequently, it is mentioned that one should disregard the marketing of a film when analyzing it. I agree with that principle, however, when there is a germane marketing point to be made I feel it is worth mentioning as an aside I will include it. The fact of the matter is all film’s have a pre-life. You hear about the concept, see the trailer or what have you. You know of a film before you see that and you decide “Oh, I want to see that” or “I might see that” and so on. When the projector starts up that’s when your preconceived notions must go away but everyone forms some opinions and at times, to our delight or chagrin, we are wrong.

The ads for The Adjustment Bureau don’t misrepresent the film at all. Why it bears mentioning is that in seeing the trailer, in conjunction with that for the forthcoming Limitless, they both seem like the kinds of concepts that are interesting but may eventually spin out of control.

The Adjustment Bureau never does that. It does deal with the concept of fate and who is the puppetmaster of our destiny and what if anything we can do about it but what it never does is get too absurd or grandiose. It manages to do this by focusing solely on our protagonist and his very simple goal: to be with the woman he loves.

Even though those pulling the strings are abstractions of higher entities and there is a bright and lofty future intended for both our protagonists we never have flash-forwards that open up a Pandora’s Box or make these characters less identifiable to the common man.

In the single-minded obsession of our protagonist a film with some heady notions stays somewhat grounded. Slowly but surely the hierarchy and what these figures do and do not understand about the plan is revealed. There are some awkward moments along the way but ultimately you find that you are allowed to “beat the system” it’s just very difficult.

Of course, the grounding of this tale would be impossible without affable and talented leads and this film has that indeed. The first mention goes to Emily Blunt. Who is one of the more electric, charismatic, talented and under-hyped young stars of the cinema today. She plays perfectly in to the refreshing no B.S. love story that is crafted for her. Adding humor, warmth and personality to it in spades.

Then there’s Matt Damon whom cuts through a lot of the red tape set up by the character and script. There is a long sequence at the beginning of the film which gives us his characters’ political past replete with many cameos by figures of the political world. We meet the image before the man and we come to know the man as the film moves along. He faces hard choices as he has stumbled upon a secret that most will not and debates how he should respond and how much he is willing to risk to get what he wants.

This is also the kind of film with effects work that is likely to get overlooked because it’s not the “Look At Me” variety but rather the functional variety wherein they only come into play to display locations that cannot possibly exist behind the doors that are opened. They are, however, very well done.

By keeping the story close to the vest suspension of disbelief becomes very easy even with some rather unbelievable things happening throughout. What is also helpful is that there is a humorous element to the story that is acknowledged and embraced by the film which raises its level somewhat from where it otherwise would’ve been.

The end of the film while not breathtaking after a rather action-filled film is proper and puts the last few questions to bed. It fits and is earned and that’s all that can be asked for in truth. The Adjustment Bureau is a fun and intelligent film of the kind there are far too few of these days.

9/10

Review- Unknown

Liam Neeson in Unknown (Warner Bros.)

OK, so here comes another one. Unknown is a film that to review properly, in my estimation, requires a few disclaimers:

1) SPOILER ALERT. I feel it’s important to get this one out of the way as soon as possible. I try to avoid it as much as I can but on occasion there will be a film that will leave you with little to no choice in the matter. I haven’t compelled to spill as much of the beans to make my point since I saw Orphan.

2) This is a hazardous film for me to review as a filmmaker. We are all guilty of armchair direction. Meaning we sit there and debate how we might’ve handled shots or the story. Part of my delay in writing this was to get past all the “I would’ve changed that” moments. I think it’s true in any form of criticism. Most notably food, I hate when a critic on a food shows alters the dish so greatly as to change it. Then it’s totally different and you’re not judging what’s on the plate. There are plenty of issues with “what is on the plate” in this story so I’ll leave it at that.

Without much further ado, Unknown.

This is another in a long line of films to have a pretty big twist due to either the fallibility of its protagonists memory or perception of reality. Unlike, say Shutter Island, the film doesn’t hinge entirely on the twist but the twist illuminates other issues.

The twist that Liam Neeson’s character is an assassin who after an accident has started to believe his cover story is his reality. In and of itself that’s a pretty darn good premise, however, in bringing that to fore there are many issues. Now one case of I wish that I will employ in this review is that while the coil is wound tightly you’re not necessarily expecting the criminal underworld to play into it and it’s a more effective story there.

The problem with the execution of the concept is that once the cat is out of the bag there is ample time for you to think back and realize how inconceivably unbelievable some of this film is.

Example: Neeson’s would-be wife, and actual assassin, is dumb enough to let his bag get lost which sets up the inciting incident. If there are crucial documents and information in their luggage why not handle it whenever possible? Secondly, the doctor immediately assumes that he is confused and misremembering things rather than coming to that conclusion in a reasonable amount of time. Memory and the functions of the brain are still so mysterious such that it’s difficult to believe that someone’s adverse reaction to trauma can be that easily guessed.

Then there’s this lovely little cliché: everyone Neeson runs into, practically, is in some way involved in this plot and trying to stifle his paranoid rantings. He happens across more people by chance who are involved than those who are not and it’s annoying and hard to swallow.

As a viewer I am one who tends to suspend disbelief rather easily so bear this in mind before I describe the next “I just didn’t buy it” moment. When Neeson is knocked out of the equation he is quickly replaced by his back-up. The problem here is that he is supposedly a noted scientist and no one notices his photo changing on a website, no one has ever seen this man just talked to him and over the course of a single year he’s developed a big reputation as a botanist.

It’s all a bit much. Neeson for the most part does a fine job in this film. He does manage to stick with his American persona without too many chinks in the armor but he’s also not given a great deal to work with. He said “I am Doctor Martin Harris” so many times it was a punchline amongst viewers both during and after the screening.

The bottom line is this: too many films are overly concerned with “fooling the audience” because they fear being too predictable, however, more often than not this has lead to films which are so ridiculously far-fetched they border on being laughable. For an example see the film Shutter. Yes, it’s horror and it’s difficult to be “believable” and original there but there’s a motif revealed at the end which fooled me, yes but also made me laugh when I saw it.

People have no problem with predictability believe it or not. We just want good. If you find me a person who walked in to The King’s Speech who having read the synopsis didn’t know what to expect I have a bridge I need to sell. It’s somewhat predictable nature doesn’t stop it from being a damn fine film. It’s just good we want, not tricks, which are after all for kids.

4/10