Monday, April 30, 2012

Unlike a Writing Desk

When box office historians look back on this past weekend, it will likely be referred to as "the weekend before The Avengers." Four major motion pictures were released in a last-second grab for cash before Marvel's superhero movie could end all hopes for their final grosses. It's a shame, because all four films had been ones in which I'd held at least some interest, some for months to this point; Aardman's animated Pirates: Band of Misfits, Jason Statham kicking ass in Safe, and the reunion of Jason Segel, Nicholas Stoller and Judd Apatow (with a little Emily Blunt for good measure) in The Five-Year Engagement were all atop my must-watch list. But as a few people might know, I've always been fond of the renowned poet and author (and Boston-born) Edgar Allen Poe. From The Tell-Tale Heart to Annabel Lee, I've never lacked for interest in Poe's tales of the macabre. I even used the final line from his lesser-known Imp of the Perverse as my yearbook quote. And so with Todd sharing my love of the bard, we made The Raven our destination film Saturday evening. Directed by James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) and starring everybody's favorite Cusack (hint: it's not Joan), The Raven already had a few things going in its favor. Now it had to show that it deserved being seen over the three other potentially entertaining titles from this week.

Cusack manages to fit in a little light reading.
These are the final days in the life of the renowned and beggarly author Edgar Allen Poe (John Cusack). Poe works as a reviewer for a Baltimore newspaper, having been unable to overcome the mental block that has all but ended his fiction-writing career. Despite being drunk most of the time, he still finds the time and charm to woo the lovely Emily Hamilton (Alice Eve), whose father thinks Poe as less than nothing. Poe's life becomes more interesting when he is approached by Police Inspector Fields (Luke Evans), who informs him that murders resembling those in Poe's short stories have begun popping up in Baltimore, and the police need him to shine a light on why. Poe agrees to lend his unique perspective to solving the mystery, but ends up at the center of the investigation when the killer kidnaps his beloved Emily. Challenging the author to a game of wits, the murderer sets events in motion that can only end in misery and death.

Someone's feeling a little Dark Knight-esque.
No question, the main reason to see this film on the big screen is if you're a fan of Poe's work. That being said, you might not be enamored with Cusack's take on the legendary author. It's obvious that this a lot of inspiration was taken from another literary figure turned film hero (cough... Sherlock Holmes) in building a story for Poe, but what results is a mixed bag of insane ideas and unfinished thoughts. The actor delivers his lines well enough; it's everything else that's the problem. First, he's got a lousy screenplay giving him out-of-place, gotta-be-unintentional humorous dialogue that feels utterly wrong amid the stark, bleak environment. It's extremely sad to see Cusack emulating Nic Cage, and one wonders how the National Treasure failed to secure a bid as the star in The Raven. On top of Cusack's bad lines, there's also a distinct disconnect between the drunk, depressed Poe that history remembers and this film's take on the character, especially once he's needed for the investigation. Poe does not appear to get drunk; indeed, Cusack looks like he's acting drunk while sipping colored water, a showing of his There is no "emotional journey" with this film's Poe; one moment he's feeling this, the next he's not, and there is no gradual change in behavior that should be natural for this type of story. This is not Poe as history remembers him, and this is not Poe as we would want to remember him, either.

Poe begins to wonder where it all went so wrong...
Well, at least there's a strong, thought-provoking story for us to latch onto... wait, what? No? In the words of Jay Sherman, "It stinks"? Huh. In discussing with Todd after the show, we delved into what made this murder mystery wrong on so many levels. First of all, the police work in the film was shoddy at best. Luke Evans' character was obviously the smartest of the bunch (outside of Poe, of course), but even he shies away from the most obvious queries, from how the killer knew of Poe's secret love for Emily Hamilton to his obvious infatuation with Poe's writings. Fields obviously knows about Poe's work (otherwise why would he contact Poe to help?) but needs to constantly ask Poe about things he should have already researched himself? The film's characters follow along with the plot set for them, never questioning why they cannot go in another direction. Why? Is this ineptitude on the part of Inspector Fields or screenwriters Ben Livingston (a nobody actor with no writing experience) and Hannah Shakespeare (who doesn't live up to her namesake)? I think we know the answer. Sure, the film does a good job making sure you never guess the killer (mostly because he barely appears until the end), but this was no Sherlock Holmes mystery, and the fact that the murders were based on Poe's works is really the only reason this movie is called The Raven and not Generic Early American Murder Mystery Movie. McTeigue manages to fit in some nice visual elements, but not nearly enough to make this a good cinematic experience.

Emily Hamilton is so beautiful, it's almost as if she never existed...
Other major issues abound, for instance how potential clues are introduced only to be cast aside, and the characters having to verbalize every single thought because otherwise we probably wouldn't be able to tell what was going on. While I don't even care that the film is completely historically inaccurate, even I have to laugh when one of the characters killed in the film is Rufus Wilmot Griswold, who in real life wrote Poe's scathing obituary. In a film where only Griswold and Poe actually existed in real life, I suppose I wouldn't care so much about the lax historical objectivity had the film not stayed completely within social conventions. In the 1978 novel Poe Must Die by Marc Olden, the bad guys employed magic and pagan gods in their deliberations, and the result was a science fiction  story that WORKED because it was so out there. There were several opportunities for The Raven to really knock this concept out of the park. Unfortunately, McTeigue and team were unwilling to stretch away from the classic murder mystery pastiche, and their film suffers for it.

Mmmm, tastes like chicken!
This was definitely NOT how I wanted to cap off the Spring movie season. The Raven tries in earnest to become a new Sherlock Holmes, but both the character and the film itself fail to live up to modest hopes, and that's a shame for the legacy of one of my all-time favorite authors. Destined to dwell among the lower ranks of mediocre 2012 titles, this film had tons of potential but not one bit of the will to realize it. Poe is still a viable historical and literary figure, and chances are somewhere down the line someone will attempt to do him justice in yet another feature film, likely surrounding the mystery of his death. But will any filmmaker treat one of America's master storytellers with the degree of respect he deserves? Or at least hold his work in high enough regard to create an excellent story?

Quoth The Raven, "Nevermore."

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Attention, Class of 1999

If anything, American Pie was everyone's coming of age story, no pun intended. Released back in 1999, the grandaddy of today's R-rated comedies took an honest, if perhaps exaggerated, look at what it meant to be an American teenager in an epic quest to lose his virginity. A modern-day Porky's, American Pie succeeded in recapturing that ideal, and while it spawned two sequels in short order, there was really nothing that could be done in American Pie 2 or American Wedding that could reenact the sense of perfection of the first. Still, not knowing how to leave well enough alone, Hollywood has turned out yet another sequel to the franchise. At least this time they managed to make it a natural progression of the story we have so far; American Reunion takes brings us an update twelve years after those teenagers graduated high school, and like our own high school reunions we get to see what these characters have done with their lives, for good or ill. Despite the film series having not been seen heard of since 2003 (I'm not counting the straight-to-video spin-offs), this film looked to hopefully be something special, as it would feature every major character from the franchise, from Jim's Dad to Stifler's Mom and back again.

A decade later, and they're all grown up!
It's been nine years since the wedding of Jim (Jason Biggs) and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), and the perpetual man-child now has a two year-old son of his own. However, Jim and Michelle are in a sexual rut, and they hope the upcoming reunion will allow them some alone time to rekindle their relationship. Everyone looks to be returning home for the reunion, and everyone has gained in years and responsibility. Oz (Chris Klein) is a sportscaster and former celebrity dance competitor living with supermodel girlfriend Mia (Katrina Bowden). Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is married and works as an architect out of his home. Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) has apparently disappeared off the face of the Earth. And foul-mouthed Stifler (Sean William Scott) is working as a temp at an investment agency. As the five men reunite, they embark on an adventure that involves a high school beach party, alcohol, threats of infidelity, the police, and of course, sex.

Jim's Dad gives this film one thumb up.
They really did pull everyone in to make this film. Returning are many people you haven't seen on a big screen for years, and a few that are known to most people for their television exploits. That the only primary members of the extra large-sized cast who get regular work nowadays are Hannigan and Scott is telling, as most of these actors either lack the talent or looks (or in some cases, self control) to make it as serious performers. Of course, those two are also the film's biggest talents, besides perhaps the affably reliable Eugene Levy as Jim's wise-yet-goofy father. Biggs himself hasn't been in anything you've seen since American Wedding, and looks exactly the same as he did when he was playing an eighteen-year-old. His talent hasn't grown either, and it definitely appears that he plateaued with American Pie. Chris Klein retains that "Oh Gawrsh" appeal that made his early roles like that in Election so appealing. It's too bad most of the rest of his work makes him look like a cross between David Caruso and Nicolas Cage. This movie puts him comfortably back in the spot of "genuine nice guy" which, considering that's probably what he's like in real life, isn't much of a stretch. Thomas and Nicholas are fine, but just that: fine. Nothing more to go on, there. The ladies aren't much better (again, with the exception of Hannigan), and it's the newcomers who manage to outshine the returning Mena Suvari and Tara Reid (who keeps her clothes on more effectively in the movies than she does on the red carpet). Katrina Bowden goes a good job in her appearance as Oz's promiscuous model girlfriend, while Dania Ramirez wows as a formerly ugly duckling who certainly has gotten better with age. Ali Cobrin might not be the best of the bunch but puts it all out there in what amounts to this film's interpretation of Shannon Elizabeth (who proves she's still desirable in a small cameo). Still, the extensive cast, complete with your favorite bit players, are all back, and as that's probably your main reason for seeing this movie, it just might be enough.

Over a decade later... still a dork...
Unfortunately, there's not much that's sexy when it comes to yet another American Pie sequel. Maybe I'm just getting old, but seeing these supposedly matured characters acting pretty much exactly as they did a dozen years ago feels more than a little unrealistic. Jim gets overly nervous in just about every situation, resulting in insanely awkward situations. Stifler's still an asshole whose only redeeming value is that he has no redeeming value. Finch is still an elitist snob. There's barely any sense that ANYTHING of monumental importance has happened to these people in the past twelve years, despite external evidence to the contrary. That's what makes the whole thing less-than-fulfilling, that it teases you with change while leaving everything exactly as you last left it.

Guess which one's married? Go on, guess!
Another thing lacking in this comedy is the... comedy! Rarely did the film do anything in nearly two hours that was remotely funny, and while the movie's antics did occasionally make you cringe, there is hardly any payoff in serious laughs. While most of American Reunion tries to limit its humor to relatively believable situations, it's only when the film veers into insane territory that I found myself laughing at the jokes. Whatever connection the franchise had to me in its earlier iterations was gone; instead or revisiting a shade of my own life, I was treated to the newest Bad Teacher, and you know how highly I thought of THAT particular title. American Reunion tries make it up by actually (GASP!) developing its characters, but this is far too little, and doesn't make up for the fact that there's never a moment where you find yourself laughing without the ability to stop, a la Cabin in the Woods. Considering that this film is from Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, the guys who brought us the rip-roaring Harold & Kumar flicks, it is a big and disappointing surprise indeed (again, pun not intended).

They're not QUITE creepy old men yet, but getting there.
But in the end, the real crime of American Reunion is its inability to accept change while attempting to force it upon the characters we loved twelve years ago. Note the past tense. The truth is that most people were quite happy to see the franchise end with American Wedding in 2003, and thankfully Reunion carries a real feeling of final closure, rather than the beginning of a new trilogy, which is what Scream 4 was going for at this same time last year. It's a good thing American Reunion looks to be The End, because I'm quite certain I've had my fill of goofy Jim, honest Oz and asshole Stifler to last a lifetime. Some things deserve to be left in the past, and the American Pie franchise, despite its heart and honest attempt at telling our tale, is one of those.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

You Sunk My Passenger Liner!

I generally like to think that I have a decent knowledge of films in general. I've seen many titles that are considered must-sees or classics by prestigious organizations like the American Film Institute. Typically I'll give anything a shot if it comes recommended by someone I trust. And of course, in recent years I've seen most of the major wide releases that were available, as well as a small number of lesser-known indies. However, I'm still a little behind on major films released in the past couple of decades. Here is a sample of some relatively recent films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture that I have YET to see: Toy Story 3, An EducationMilk, Frost/Nixon, Michael Clayton, Atonement, Babel, Munich, Brokeback Mountain, The Pianist, The Hours, Gangs of New York, Erin Brockovich, American Beauty, The Cider House Rules, Life is Beautiful, Good Will Hunting, the list goes on. There's barely a year you could find in which I actually saw all the nominees, and even a few in which I've never seen the Best Picture winner. One of those I've missed (or at ;east not seen all the way through) is James Cameron's Titanic. Released in 1997, Titanic was odd for Cameron in that the film was a serious drama, in stark contrast to his earlier excellent genre works Terminator, Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Tackling one of the world's most famous tragedies, Cameron's efforts were rewarded with not just a Best Picture win, but also a Best Director statuette for Cameron himself. And I never saw it.

Until now.

"I'm the king of the... no, you know what? It's been done."
Just about everybody by now knows the story of the RMS Titanic, the "unsinkable" passenger liner which struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage and disappeared beneath the waters of the Atlantic within two and a half hours, taking all but 710 of its passengers with her. Cameron's story focuses on two young people; Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young, poor artist who won his ticket in a card game; and Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), a young woman from a rich family engaged to the stuffy Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). Against all odds and social standings the two meet and fall in love, and begin a relationship that would probably go on forever were it not for the events of that fateful day, 100 years ago...

Yeah, water perhaps adds a bit too MUCH atmosphere to the place...
I was excited to finally see this film for a few reasons. First, while I had certainly heard some grumblings about how Titanic did not perhaps deserve to win the Best Picture award, the fact is that it did; SOMEBODY not only liked this title but loved it. Secondly, watching the Titanic sink on the big screen has been described as one of the most amazing things recaptured in cinema. I've seen parts of the sinking on TV, but I'm sure we can all agree that the small scale likely wouldn't have done the sequence justice; I NEEDED to see this on the big screen. Finally, the 100'th anniversary of the ship's demise was the perfect opportunity for Cameron to re-release his Oscar winner; on top of that, Cameron's film was the perfect opportunity for those who wanted to honor the ship on the centennial of its death to do so in a fitting manner. Never mind that the film has been reformatted into 3D, even though Cameron was the man who made the technology so fashionable; post-production 3D has finally gotten to the point where it doesn't automatically suck, and I had been told by friends that Titanic's fate is all the more exciting when it's popping out of the screen. With these reasons in mind, I simply HAD to see for myself whether it would be worth the time..

Naked women... in 3D!
And in fact, it is that slow, deliberate sequence of the ship sinking that really makes Titanic worth watching. The exterior shots of the ship itself are striking enough; watching the whole thing sink into the inky darkness of the ocean on the big screen is a treat for the senses. Adding to the talents of the film's SFX crew, the 3D is also well done, though perhaps not to the degree it would have had 3D cameras been around at the time of filming. Still, even in post-production the 3D improves the visual feel of the movie to a high degree, and the sinking especially feels more immersive, drawing you into what was already your favorite part of the film.

"Listen to your friend Billy Zane. He's a cool dude." Name that movie!
The acting however, yikes. In all fairness, we have proven since this film's release that Leonardo DiCaprio can indeed act, as can many of the people who don't look like talented performers when up on this particular screen. You wouldn't know any of this from Cameron's screenplay however, and while Titanic set Cameron's places as a true mainstream director, it also seems to be the beginning of Cameron's ham-fisted screenwriting techniques, which we all saw later with Avatar. It's shocking when you consider how well-written Aliens and Terminator 2 were, but in Titanic the actors had to use every ounce of talent they have to overcome poorly-written and overly-hyperbolic dialogue and foreshadowing. DiCaprio, who was only 22 at the time, still hadn't developed as an performer, and it shows in his complete lack of commitment to the words he's given to speak. Winslet isn't much better but she at least throws herself fully into her role, and while her lines aren't any better written than anybody else's, she at least avoids becoming the train wreck in a shipwreck. Other failures are the overly smarmy Billy Zane, whose character is so obviously evil that one wonders why he wasn't given an eye patch or an ugly scar to complete the point, and Gloria Stuart as Winslet's modern-day counterpart, who painfully narrates the whole thing as if she's reading it off a teleprompter in front of her. How she was nominated for an Academy Award for this work confounds me.

May I have this last dance? You know, before we all die...
My father once described the movie Titanic in this way: the boat has so many unique and fascinating characters aboard, but the film itself focuses on the TWO LEAST INTERESTING. That this happens is obviously a mistake, as Titanic from the start carries the feel of an ensemble film, but relegates all the secondary characters to the side once the star-crossed lovers meet. What about historical character "The Unsinkable Molly Brown", played wonderfully by Kathy Bates, but a role that is so swiftly neutered that it's scary? Another good but little-visited role is Victor Garber as the ship's builder, Thomas Andrews. And Frances Fisher, who has one great line about what it means to be a woman in 1912, before being thrown out? Those are just the parts among the nobles though. How about Danny Nucci, Jason Barry and Jenette Goldstein as immigrants who are seen in the beginning but do next to nothing until the ship starts sinking? While Cameron does do a good job of examining the British class system, it matters little on the whole, and he leaves a lot of potentially interesting characters on the cutting room floor while he focuses so obscenely on his gag-inducing love story.

Seriously, I couldn't find any good images not featuring one of these two? Fail.
Still, in what was a major leap forward for his career, Cameron manages to do a great job of drawing you into the tale of this doomed voyage, despite his missteps. While some moments were far more awe-worthy than others, I couldn't help but be swept up in the story of one of history's greatest tragedies, even if this wasn't the way I would have made it. More than just a ship sinking (though not by much), Cameron's Titanic stands out in today's crowded market, even after fifteen years past. Maybe it's not the best film about the RMS Titanic, maybe it could have done more to illustrate all that went wrong on that bleak night in 1912. Still, you could do a lot worse to honor the memories of those who lived through that wretched night, and those who did not. If you were a fan of this film when it first came out, do yourselves a favor and check it out again. There are just some movies whose best attributes can only be appreciated on the big screen.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Three Amigos

If the trailer for The Three Stooges caught your attention in the past few months, you were probably in one of two groups. In one, you lambasted the very idea of bringing the antics of Moe, Larry and Curly to the big screen and a modern-day audience. The people on this side are generally those who never liked or in some cases have even seen any of the 220 short films the comedy troupe made between 1922 and 1975. Those on the other side of the line might not have been very excited about the new movie, but at least thought that some of the humor in the trailer was funny, and marveled at the apparent melding of the main actors into seamless copies of the three iconic characters. My parents (most notably my father) is of the former camp. Never a fan of the Stooges, dear old dad raised me on a steady diet of Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, comedians who succeeded not due to abrasive physical shenanigans, but clever dialogue and rapier wit. They were definitely the epitome of brilliant comedy. And yet I can't help but feel some admiration for the Three Stooges, whose shorts I sometimes caught on afternoon television when I was a kid. Their physical comedy was unlike anything I had ever seen, save perhaps for Wile E Coyote's numerous failed attempts to catch that pesky Road Runner, or Miss Piggy's backhand. In the end, that's why I decided to see the Farrelly Brothers' take on The Three Stooges; not because it would necessarily be good, but because it would be interesting to see how you would take an old-school property like the Stooges and turn them into something fans of modern comedy can appreciate.

No, they're not quite the same, but they ARE close...
After being raised in an orphanage for the entirety of their lives, Moe (Chris Diamantopolous) Larry (Sean Hayes) and Curly (Will Sasso) live their lives with the nuns of the Sisters of Mercy, helping keep things maintained on the property. When a lack of funds means that the orphanage will be closed down, the trio strike out on their own, determined to make the $830,000 they need to save their home before the bank can foreclose on the land. But these three know nothing of the outside world, and their interaction with modern-day Los Angeles and each other make the already-arduous task far more difficult than it was to start.

Some of the many familiar faces of our youth...
After a painful (but necessary, thanks to the script) origin story that shows Moe, Larry and Curly as young boys, the film finally gets underway when it graduates to actually using the adult actors in the lead roles. The tale itself is reminiscent of many of the troupe's old sketches, in which the trio have a clear goal in mind and they are hampered in reaching that end by both normal obstacles and one another. Of course, this also illustrates the fact that those stories worked so well in short films because they were, well, short. Stretched out over the course of an hour and a half, the flaws with this storytelling method become more readily visible, with long stretches occurring in which nothing at all good or bad happens, and the film simply waits for the next plot point to rear its head. By the finale, it's obvious there was little for the Farrellys to work with, and it was up to the actors to make it all work.

"And THAT was for Shemp!"
As for those men who portray the historic comedy players... wow. Going in, I wasn't convinced that Diamantopolous, Hayes and Sasso would be able to emulate their characters in the same fashion as their mid-twentieth century counterparts, but before too long I was more than happy with what they were contributing to the tale. In preparing for these roles, the three mastered their predecessors' every vocalization, gesture and nuance in creating perfect copies of the Stooges. With their perfectly precise actions, their interactions (both physical and verbal) become flawless, a thing of beauty, and its obvious they had as much love if not more for the Stooges than their supervising directors. Sure the supporting cast might be clogged with mid-card mismatched talents as Sofia Vergara as the film's main antagonist, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Hudson and Larry David as nuns, and Old Spice pitchman Isaiah Mustafa as a Hollywood agent, but it is those three who are the heart and soul of the film. Sure, this could be argued as mere imitation and not acting per se, but it's a good thing these three were up to the task, as anybody else would likely have gotten it wrong.

And THAT'S why we don't eat scorpions.
Anyone will tell you that the Three Stooges were an inspiration for whole generations of comedic actors, and it's easy to see why. Still, when compared to many today, the Stooges will still come out on top when it comes to physical humor. Remember, they never hit one another in the balls, like so many comedies these days do for cheap laughs (granted, There's Something About Mary's "We've got a bleeder" bit was classic). Nor did they use flatulence as a continual prop for lowbrow humor. Still, it's a shame that outside the physical department, The Three Stooges doesn't inspire a whole lot of laughs, especially when other characters in the film get in on the act. This shouldn't be all that surprising; the Farrelly Brothers haven't actually made a funny movie since 1998 (I only have fond memories of Fever Pitch because it centered on my beloved Red Sox), and there was no reason to think this would be any different. Still, the film has its moments, and the funniest moments have an unlikely source, as Moe takes his abuse out on the cast members of Jersey Shore. I admit, I am conflicted: do I love that the Jersey Shore brats get what's coming to them, or do I actually congratulate them on playing along? Regardless, the film relies far too much on its physical jokes to get by, and the entire thing feels more stupid than it should. It's only the obvious reverence the Farrellys carry for the Stooges that allows the film to rise above its limits and actually keep the audience engaged throughout.

Most... awkward hug... ever.
The Three Stooges is about what you might have expected were you fan of the original short films: a mediocre effort helmed by poor comedic directors that is surprisingly raised by the sheer personality and talent of its lead performers. It won't crack my Top 10, but neither will it suffer embarrassment in among the year's worst which, with Nicolas Cage and Julia Roberts, looks to already sport some poor company. If you aren't already a fan of the Stooges, you can be assured that this film won't change your mind as to your discontent. However, if you genuinely loved the works of Moe, Larry, Curly and the other assorted comedians who filled in during their extensive run, you'll definitely have reason to visit the movie theater and see this on the big screen. It might not be the best Stooges film, but Diamantopolous, Hayes and Sasso do their best to remind you exactly why you loved the misbegotten adventures of yesteryear. And you'll love them for it.

Friday, April 20, 2012

An Original American Horror Story

At the beginning pf the film I saw with Todd and my father this past weekend, we meet two industrial office drones (played by Academy Award nominee Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford) going on about seemingly everyday things, from cabinets at home to the importance of their company's secret project. Seems like they're competing with others around the globe, though the goal itself is not mentioned in this opening scene. This would be glaringly normal for a modern-day drama, and it certainly feels out of place at the opening of The Cabin in the Woods, the horror comedy that serves as the directorial debut of Drew Goddard, who also co-wrote the script with every fanboy's hero, Joss Whedon. It's been an interesting career for Whedon; he started out modestly, writing for Roseanne and Parenthood before we witnessed his career go through highs and lows leading up to 2012 and his upcoming blockbuster The Avengers. The Cabin in the Woods was actually filmed way back in 2009 and probably would be remembered as one of the low points of Whedon's career when the studio distributing it, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy, preventing the film from being immediately released. Following were a number of delays, including the purchase of the property by Lionsgate Films and a stated intent to convert the film to 3D. Eventually 3D talk was tabled, and to the joy of Whedon fans everywhere, The Cabin in the Woods finally made its release last weekend.

Hey, hey, the gang's all here!
On vacation from college, five students make the long trek to a cabin recently purchased by the cousin of school football star Curt (Thor's Chris Hemsworth). He, his girlfriend Jules (Anna Hutchison), and their friends Dana (Kristen Connolly), Marty (Fran Kranz) and Holden (Jesse Williams) are preparing for a good time, away from the rigors and demands of the modern world. But in this cabin lie secrets, and the five unwittingly unleash a horror that threatens not only their lives, but the lives of everyone on the planet were it ever to get loose.

"Man, I am looking GOOD."
On the surface, one would be forgiven to thinking that this is a standard horror flick with nowhere to go but down. To those I have the following to say: Goddard and Whedon. It's strange to see Whedon NOT in charge of the film, as Goddard worked for Whedon as a writer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel. Yet when the script is as good as the one that these two have produced, it's easy to see that Goddard wouldn't necessarily have the most difficult time handling his debut film, thanks to excellent pacing, hilarious dialogue and twists that you won't (or gleefully do) see coming. Those office workers played by Jenkins and Whitford that I mentioned in the beginning? They ARE important, but you won't know how until just the right time. I had been worried that too much of those characters would spoil the narrative of the story, but Goddard and Whedon did an excellent job of not giving anything away until you absolutely needed to know what was happening.

The Jehovahs Witnesses have gotten a little more aggressive lately...
And the dialogue... if you've EVER watched an episode of Buffy, Angel or Firefly, you probably know what to expect from a Joss Whedon production. Goddard and Whedon obviously put a lot of themselves into writing the script, and that means there's always some choice quotes designed to illicit the absolute most laughter it can from the audience, even while gruesomely violent actions are occurring. And it's not just the script, but the perfect execution by the collection of actors that bring it to life. I'm not just talking Jenkins and Whitford, whose individual accomplishments by 2009 would have eclipsed even the combined might of their younger co-stars, but those young unknown actors themselves, who diverge themselves from typical horror movie tropes by playing fully-realized characters instead of caricatures. They're not all great; Connolly and Hutchison make good scream queens and Williams seems to only have one facial expression, though all three do more than is required in fulfilling their roles. Cabin was filmed Hemsworth was even cast as Marvel's thunder god, but even this early in his career he was more than a good actor. But the standout of the cast is Krantz, who was probably the best-known of the five principle actors when filming began. Krantz's pot-smoking jokester serves as the voice of the audience, and delights in every moment he is on the screen.

We know blondes have more fun... now it's time to see if they live longer.
The spoof nature is what makes The Cabin in the Woods both a throwback to the old-school horror films like Friday the 13'th and simultaneously a whole new experience in itself. Both Todd and I loved how the end result was a unique look not only at the horror genre but the horror movie industry in general. I won't give away any major plot points, but this is one of those films I would LOVE to see a second time around, knowing that Whedon and Goddard likely planted dozens of Easter eggs that we missed the first time around. It was a close finish between this film and 21 Jump Street for the best I've seen in 2012. In the end, it's Cabin as the year's #1 film by the slimmest of margins. Funnier than The Three Stooges, more honest than The Lucky One and less predictable than Titanic 3D, this is a film you shouldn't miss even if you aren't a fan of horror. Whedon and Goddard have produced a smart, funny and clever film, one that should reign at #1 for a good, long time.

Yup. You're gonna die.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Bad Sci-Fi Movie

Sometimes, when it comes to what I want to see in the theater (and when it is an option), the Bad Sci-Fi Movie will win out.

It happens more often than you'd think. You haven't been to the theater in a while, and you're conflicted about what you want to see. There's also no shortage of new material to take in. The slapstick comedy? The 3D re-release of an Oscar-winning film? The sequel from a trilogy from so long ago you've forgotten many of the franchise's details? The horror spoof? Well, okay, that might have won out, were I not to see it with Todd the next day. When you go to the movies as often as I do, you get used to seeing most of what is on the big screen by yourself. And the benefit of the Bad Sci-Fi Movie is... nobody you know wanted to see it with you anyway. That was certainly the case with Lockout, the latest action film produced by French filmmaker Luc Besson. Everything about this film, from the cheesy special effects to the snarky dialogue, screamed of cheap science fiction schlock. While that would (and did) turn off most moviegoers, it didn't stop me from purchasing a ticket to this show last week. After all, sometimes a silly, laughably bad sci-fi film is exactly what one needs to get back into the swing of things.

Guy Pearce: you're new action hero?
Guy Pearce stars as a former CIA agent named Snow, wrongfully convicted of murdering another agent and sentenced to imprisonment in MS One, a prison in Earth's orbit that is relegated for the world's worst and most dangerous criminals. However, before he can be transferred, a massive breakout occurs on the station, trapping a number of hostages with an army of murderers, rapists and psychopaths. Among the hostages is Emilie Warnock (Lost and Taken's Maggie Grace), social worker and daughter of the US President. Sending the marines in to save all the hostages is deemed impossible, but the Secret Service argues that sending one man in to rescue Emilie is possible, and tap Snow for the mission. Hours later, he finds himself attempting to break into the world's most impenetrable prison. With no support, few weapons and little chance of success, Snow attempts to complete his mission while searching for a way to clear his name at the same time.

"Now, am I going to have to shoot you or will you eat your snack like a big girl?"
Let's face it, the only reason I really wanted to see this film was Guy Pearce. Pearce is one of those actors where you look at his career and wonder where it all went wrong. Not that he hasn't enjoyed a decent run, starring in The Adventures of Priscilla; Queen of the Desert, L.A. Confidential, and Momento, and carrying supporting roles in The Hurt Locker, The Road, Animal Kingdom, and The King's Speech. He even has a role in what is likely my most anticipated film this year, Ridley Scott's Prometheus. Yet I witness his monumental talent and have to wonder: why isn't this guy a big Hollywood star? He's certainly got the chops to make it as a leading actor, certainly more than many of Hollywood's imports over the years. Yet every time it seems he's about to break out, he vanishes into indie and Australian cinema, where the films barely contain his seemingly limitless potential. Here he does a nearly perfect job playing with anti-hero Hollywood persona, made popular over the years in the characters of Snake Plissken, Max Rockatansky, Tyler Durden and Dominic Toretto. Snow would be in some fine company would the script have been better; written by Besson and directors Stephen St. Leger and James Mather, the screenplay gives Snow plenty of funny one-liners and clever dialogue, but rarely does it  actually let him engage in anything resembling normal conversation.

Milk: it does a paranoid schizophrenic's body good!
The rest of the actors are a mixed bag, bringing in some talent but ultimately failing to capitalize on it. Maggie Grace is NOT a great actress. She's not even a particularly good one. Here she shows no difference in her delivery, tone or facial expressions since her time on Lost, and she left that show way back in 2005. As the daughter of the President, Emilie undergoes a journey on the station that would physically and psychologically change the character for most actresses, but not Maggie, who remains defiantly the same throughout. It's not that she's a BAD actress, just an incredibly vanilla one, unable to play more than bit, samey roles. Better are the main bad guys, especially Joseph Gilgun as a psychotic murderer who stalks Emilie throughout the station. Gilgun has not had much exposure in the world of cinema, but the depth of his performance knows no limits, even if you can't always understand what he's actually saying. Also good are Vincent Regan as the leader of the prison revolt and Peter Stormare as the head of the US Secret Service. Lennie James is one of my favorite discoveries of the past few years; the British actor has appeared in a number of film and TV shows as a strong supporting actor and filler, but has never broken out as a star himself. The same holds true here, and you can't help but wish there was more for this talented performer to do.

Smoking: still not as fatal as gunshot trauma.
If you were in theaters some months ago, you might have seen a "making of" preview for Lockout, discussing how the film came to be. One of the filmmakers - Besson perhaps - comments that the company designing the special effects was built specifically for the film. I remember turning to my family (we were seeing The Descendants at the time) and commenting that the reason for that was that they couldn't afford any of the big boys to do it for them. Four months have passed and I certainly don't feel that I've been proven wrong. While, like Grace's performance, the special effects were not too bad, the limitations are immediately visible to anybody with moderately healthy vision. The scenes in space look especially fake, and it's terribly obvious when wire work and CGI are in use. Lockout does make a lot work through sheer workmanship, but never does it feel like anything more than a cheap B-movie posing as though it were a blockbuster.

Pip pip! Tea time!
Even if Lockout is not a great film, I would love to see an expansion on the character of Snow, as a series starring the foul-mouthed, snarky anti-hero would make for a great series of moderately-budgeted action flicks in the vein of Richard B. Riddick or Mad Max. This film however was a wash, with too much in the poor script, mediocre effects and amateurish directing (the only other film directed by Mather and Leger is the short film Prey Alone, which looks to have the same overall budget as Lockout) dragging down what could have been at the least an interesting effort. There's a reason we call it the Bad Sci-Fi Movie, and Lockout lives up to a low threshold by at least being marginally entertaining while at the same time shallow as a mud puddle. The best part? You can safely watch this on DVD in a few months and lose none of the effect of seeing it on the big screen. In fact, skip the theatrical run entirely; there will be better Bad Sci-Fi Movies to waste your money on later.

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Reflective Review

Right now it's difficult to guess how 2012 will be remembered in terms of its contribution to the world of film. Especially this early in the year, there just hasn't been one movie that stood out so greatly as to make someone stand up and say that THIS is the year to be a film buff. Much as I loved 21 Jump Street, when the best film so far this year was a parody sequel to a 80's-90's cop drama you have to admit that there are serious problems in Hollywood so far this year. Despite the industry's inability to consistently put out a quality product, there have been some newsworthy events this year, the most noticeable so far being that two adaptations of the classic Grimm fairy tale 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarves' are getting released to the big screen. Universal Pictures' Snow White and the Huntsman, starring Young Adult's Charlize Theron, Twilight's Kristen Stewart and Thor's Chris Hemsworth, is a very adult take on the story, and is due to be released on June 1'st. Well before that however, is the more family-friendly Mirror Mirror, starring American sweetheart Julia Roberts and up-and-coming actress Lily Collins, released on March 30'th. While I hope 2012 isn't ultimately remembered for simply releasing two 'Snow White' films (as well as for a prophetic end of the world vis a vis the Mayan calendar; that's just obvious), I do admit a passing interest in seeing how Relativity Media handled their effort, and what the filmmakers would do to make this particular adaptation different from all the rest.

Your parents always warned you not to take candy from strangers... they never covered apples.
In a magical, far away land, vain Queen Clementianna (Roberts) rules her kingdom with an iron fist, spending the contents of treasury to the point of destitution on researching methods to keep her young-looking and beautiful. She has nothing but contempt for her step-daughter Snow White (Collins), who she keeps confined to the castle in order to control her and the kingdom. When handsome and rich Prince Alcott (Hammer) visits from a neighboring prosperous land, Clementianna hatches a plan to marry the young prince so that she and her rule can be kept afloat by his inherited wealth. This idea goes awry when Alcott meets and becomes smitten with Snow White, for which the Queen has her banished to the woods, left to die. Fortunately, she comes upon seven dwarfs, whom the queen cast out and who live as bandits preying on the nobles passing through their territory. They take in the wayward princess, and after a time they train her to become a bandit like them. With her new found allies, Snow White strikes back at the evil Queen, desperate to return the land to one of peace, prosperity and celebration, as it was when she was a child.

"I like Julia Roberts' films THIS much!"
Let's get this out of the way quickly and loudly: Mirror Mirror is the WORST movie I've seen in 2012. At first I wasn't quite sure of this prognosis; up to this point Ghost Rider had earned most of my enmity, and for good reason. As far as most superhero films go, a low threshold of quality is often necessary for enjoyment. But Nicolas Cage's film was a special brand of bad, where many of its worst scenes were unintentionally funny, and where the lack of believable plot, dialogue and acting were just on the cusp of becoming charming. Ghost Rider failed in that the main character had no good bad guys, no good allies, and no good representation in the starring role. That Mirror Mirror makes all of that look like genius really says how I feel about this fairy tale massacre.

"I win the prize for being tallest AGAIN? Oh, how wonderful!"
So what is so bad about this film? Well, let's go down the list. There's no reason Tarsem Singh should have been tapped to make this movie. Singh's career is one built on psychological thrillers like The Cell and little-known The Fall. His last entry, 2011's Immortals, was a fun if VERY adult sword and sorcery epic. So how does this guy go from mature fare to a PG-rated fairy tale adaptation? The answer in an honest world is that he doesn't; you keep directors like this as far as you can from family fare. Look at what happened when M. Night Shyamalan adapted the popular childrens' show Avatar: The Last Airbender to the big screen: even his most loyal fans abandoned him in droves, perhaps realizing just how much of a hack he had become. Singh is similarly ill-suited to making a film for the youth of the world, his eye for the story so poor that you have to wonder just where any studio executive thought he was doing a good job. From the poorly-conceived animated opener to a lamely-executed Bollywood-inspired finale, Singh proves that he should stick to the thrillers and action movies, leaving childrens' movies to those that know what they're doing.

"He turned it sideways! Kill shot! That's a kill shot!" (name that movie!)
The people around whom this film revolves are also nothing special. As this was something of a unique take on a classic tale, it would have been nice to see some genuine variation when it came to the makeup of the main characters. Instead we have Julia Roberts as a largely brainless tyrant whose grip on power seems completely illogical. She's bankrupted her kingdom solely through beauty treatments to keep her looking young, and the joke is that it hasn't. Of course it's not enough to make her vain; that would just make her like 90% in Hollywood. That's why she's also foolish, spiteful and her actions make her undeniably evil. If only a real actress had been put in the role; while Charlize Theron looks to be completely made of malice for the upcoming Snow White film, Roberts seems incapable of turning off her charm while playing the supposedly wicked stepmother here. The portrayal of the Dwarfs are not much better, as not one of the seven can stretch out of the narrow confines of their characters. The film at least wisely hired from the comedic side of the pool of small actors, and many will recognize faces such as Seinfeld's Danny Woodburn, Pirates of the Caribbean's Martin Klebba and Are You There, Chelsea's Mark Povinelli with ease. Still, despite hiring talented performers, the story does little to expand upon their roles and instead forces them down linear paths with no hope of deviation. But that's not the worst thing the film offers. The absolute lowest contribution Mirror Mirror can offer is to inflict upon us the overly-thick eyebrows of Lily Collins as the literally-named Snow White. The daughter of musician Phil Collins, Lily has gotten a reputation as an actress to look out for. I find myself agreeing, but for wholly different reasons; two of the worst releases of 2011 were the graphic novel-based Priest and Taylor Lautner vehicle Abduction, films that also featured Collins in significant roles. Sure, you could argue that Collins had supporting parts in both of those films and cannot be held responsible for their failures, but when you combine those with her emotionless, dreadfully dull take on this film's main protagonist, she starts to look less like the second coming of Amanda Seyfried and perhaps instead the next Paris Hilton. She should stick to smaller roles in the future before attempting another shot at leading a major motion picture.

Whichever one wins, we lose.
It's not ALL bad, however, just mostly. A strong showing by comedian Nathan Lane helps liven things a bit when he is actually allowed to contribute, and while Roberts' charm is miscast it also does help make up for that fact by lightening the atmosphere of the film to a reasonable degree. But the best thing about Mirror Mirror is without a doubt Armie Hammer, playing the charming Prince Alcott. In yet another case of poor film choices, Hammer is once again the best thing to happen to a bad movie. Two years ago it was the good-but-overrated The Social Network. In 2011 it was the forgettable J Edgar. Next year promises his pairing with Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger. Once Hammer gets that great movie, he will be unstoppable. Until then, he's undervalued for the talent and class he brings to the big screen.

Dear lord, those eyebrows are just KILLING me!
Finally, Mirror Mirror portrays itself as a comical take on the classic story, but fails at being remotely funny. While some of Singh's changes were at least inspired (the trailers allude to Snow White rescuing the Prince instead of vice versa), the effort feels unrealized when all is said and done. Maybe it would have been better if the filmmakers had at least TRIED to expand upon those ideas instead of settling things as they did. Poor special effects seal the deal, and Mirror Mirror makes a name for itself as just the second film this year I would actually call "bad" in polite conversation (I have plenty of choice epithets for when I don't need to be so kind). Definitely not worth the effort it took to make and certainly not worth your hard-earned time and money, you'd be better off taking your family to the animated The Lorax or even Journey 2, which is still playing in some locations. See these twice if it means you don't have to watch Mirror Mirror. Trust me on this; you'll thank me later.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Martial Arts Madness

Don't you miss good old fashioned martial arts films? Okay, many of you have no idea what a good old fashioned martial arts film really is. Don't worry, it's not something for which you should be ashamed. Most of us were weaned on the modern adventures of Jackie Chan, Jet Li and other Asian stars who broke records overseas before becoming fully Americanized on our west coast. Quickly, martial arts films changed from difficult-to-find niche titles that only appealed to a small portion of the populace to popular entertainment, often safe for family consumption. Sure, there are still plenty of these films that appeal to adult audiences, but many of those pander to American audiences and often focus more on sidekick humor than real action. There are still viable martial arts films, of course; you just rarely find them produced by Hollywood. Many foreign films have defied the ignorance of the general public to become modest successes; the best known of these is probably the Thai Ong-Bak trilogy, which introduced modern Muay Thai to many Americans. Now Indonesia wants to get in on the act, The Raid: Redemption being the first film released in the US to feature the little known martial art of Pencak Silat. I have absolutely no idea what that particular form of combat entails, but it's been quite a while since I've seen a decent-looking martial arts film, so I was more than a little excited once this title finally hit theaters in my area.

Young, fresh-faces... "Hero" all the way.
In the slums of Jakarta, an elite SWAT team of twenty Indonesian police officers prepare to raid the dilapidated apartment complex owned by ruthless crime lord Tama Riyadi (Ray Sahetapi). The complex is full of criminal scum who rent from Tama when they want to lay low, and the team has been sent to apprehend the drug king and disrupt his operation. The team has it easy for the first half-dozen floors before they run into a spotter, who manages to warn Tama of their presence. In response, he orders the building secured and pits the building's residents against the now-helpless police. Without any hope of backup and a hundred ways to die between the men and the exit, it's up to rookie cop Rama (Iko Uwais) to lead the survivors out. But Rama has accepted the mission for another reason as well, unknown to either his fellow officers or the people trying to kill him.

There will be a lot more bodies by the time this is done.
From beginning to end, The Raid: Redemption is an expertly told story that just happens to contain some of the best martial arts fights I've seen in recent years. I couldn't tell you the difference between Pencak Silat and plain old Kung Fu, but each fight it a marvel to witness, full of energy and vigor that demands your attention. Anyone can build an action sequence, but only masters can successfully tell a story through the fights, and the choreography here is simply amazing, not to mention believable. It's heartening to see that when our hero is outnumbered four to one, he doesn't grit his teeth and charge in; he runs away. Never do the people on the screen feel anything other than human, even when they're performing acts that you and I could never hope to mimic. The only character who feels almost superhuman is a madman, so even that fits perfectly within the context of this film. As for the fights themselves, they are full of quick, nasty violence that will catch you off with its brutality. This was definitely a film designed for an adult audience, and any mature enough to accept the content can appreciate every blow struck and bullet fired.

Frankly, I wouldn't trust anyone walking around with a machete anyway.
The film is also filled with interesting characters, though sadly that is not so true for the good guys. Frankly, we learn little of the policemen trapped in this slum before they are all but wiped out, and the few that the film actually focuses on are not gone into with any real depth, from bland team leader Sergeant Jaka (Joe Taslim) to temperamental veteran Bowo (Tegar Setrya) to cowardly Lieutenant Wahyu (Pierre Gruno). Even lead Rama is sometimes a bit boring when not actively beating the crap out of people. Fortunately, The Raid covers this by providing no shortage of compelling villains, from a machete-wielding psychotic to a murdering contortionist, as well as one character known as "Mad Dog" (Yayan Ruhian), a brutal man who prefers hand-to-hand combat over firearms. Finally, Andi (Donny Alamsyah) is violent and unpredictable as Tama's intelligent right-hand man. Each of these get their moment in the spotlight to face off against the police, and while the outcomes might be predictable, what is not so easily called is just how they will get to that moment.

Believe it or not, the little dude has the advantage
Whether or not you appreciate the fact that this film's music is scored by Linkin Park member Mike Shinoda, this shouldn't sway you from enjoying the fun theatrical ride that is The Raid: Redemption. Even if that is the silliest name for this movie (is there some redemption that I missed?) this should be considered a success for Welsh director Gareth Evans, who conceived and built the whole project. Sure, it's not a perfect film, as the film uses a minimum of dialogue and special effects en route to a film that is almost nonstop violence and death. If The Raid had not lived up to a very high standard for its production, it could have easily been the next (and similarly titled) The Matrix Reloaded. But thanks to the amazing action more than anything, the film works as planned, and it's the #6 Film of 2012. I know those of you thinking The Hunger Games is this year's best film will have no interest in seeing The Raid. That's too bad, but then again, good old fashioned martial arts films that are done right may never appeal to everyone. Perhaps that's for the best.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

It's a Monster Mash

Two years ago, Clash of the Titans was remade for the big screen, directed by Transporter helmsman Louis Leterrier and starring the action genre's newest hero Sam Worthington. Buoyed by those names, the film was a huge success by any standards, grossing almost $500 million worldwide. Looking back on it today, it's difficult to consolidate that success with what we see now as one of the worst excesses of Hollywood moviemaking in the modern era. Clash was one of the first films to embrace 3D conversion following James Cameron's Avatar; but unlike the Oscar-nominated epic, criticism for it generally revolved around the effects, which were nowhere near the same standard as Cameron's piece. Worse, the film never felt like anything more than an endless hall of action sequences, character development apparently crushed beneath the technical designs of a released Kraken. I saw the film on DVD and so never had to witness its 3D conversion, but for the most part I enjoyed Clash as a mindless diversion, if not necessarily a good focus for my free time. Now Clash of the Titans has succeeded in one way in which the 1981 Harryhausen classic never did: it spawned a sequel. With the bland name Wrath of the Titans, the trailers made the film look little more than same as what I'd already seen on DVD. Still, a chance to witness a monster mash of classic mythological creatures was too much to ignore, and became the primary target of my weekend film trip.

Ray Feinnes, adding to his bank account
A decade after defeating the Kraken and saving the world in Clash, demigod Perseus (Worthington) lives the life of a simple fisherman and family man. Despite losing his wife Io some time back, Perseus is dedicated to the raising of his son Helios. While he has not accepted his role as half-immortal, he cannot avoid the problems coming to his world; people no longer pray to the Gods, whose powers wane without support from mortals. This has the unfortunate side effect of weakening the walls of Mount Tartarus, prison of the ancient Titans. Now monsters are breaking free and being loosed upon the world, but even that is not the worst. Kronos, King of the Titans, will soon be able to escape his confinement and wreak havoc on the world. It is up to Perseus and a small force to stop it, but it will not be easy. God of the Underworld Hades (Ralph Fiennes) and God of War Ares (Edgar Ramirez) are desperate to retain their godly powers, and in doing so they have made a deal with Kronos: limitless power by sacrificing Perseus' father Zeus (Liam Neeson) to the power-hungry Titan.

Apparently in this film Perseus prefers blondes.
As in Clash, the plot in Wrath of the Titans is very simple: Perseus leads a small party consisting of a few important characters and a bunch of cannon fodder against supernatural beasts, and by the end all the cannon fodder has died in horrific and violent ways, while the heroes stand triumphant. Thankfully the characters here are more varied and entertaining than the dry, humorless personalities of the first film. The best example might be Agenor, played by War Horse's Toby Kebbell. Described as a "disappointing" demigod, Agenor has comedic timing, adequate character development and a solid foundation, and Kebbell manages to master both Poseidon's Trident and the audience's attentions with his wit and charm. Another stroke of casting genius is elder funnyman Bill Nighy as Hephaestus, a god who assists the party with their quest. Nighy's is a small role, but since it's fricking Bill Nighy, he does better with it than anybody else could. Rosamund Pike takes over the role of Andromeda from Clash's Alexa Davalos, and the transformation in Andromeda from helpless princess to warrior queen is probably the biggest change (besides the apparent invention of hair dye, anyway) in the sequel. Pike does a good job overall, even if Andromeda's change doesn't do much when she tries to take on Gods like Ares in a stand-up fight. Still, it's nice to see the film's lone female not stuck in the "damsel in distress" role, and I've generally liked Pike's performances in general. Worthington himself seems almost like dead weight. The man doesn't even bother to hide his Australian accent, as if challenging director Jonathan Liebesman to make him change his tune. He also doesn't seem on board with the film's almost humorous direction, and his performance is even more charmless and dry than it was the original Clash. If it wasn't for last year's under-appreciated The Debt, I doubt I would have any faith in Worthington to carry on with a successful Hollywood career, so lackluster is his effort. I know he can act; I just wish he'd stop turning it on and off at whim and get to work.

Zeus forgot to bring the beer again. D'oh!
At least one of my main criticisms of the original film has been addressed: the Gods are AWESOME now! The characters of Zeus and Hades have been legitimately beefed up, as befitting the talents that are Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes. While I won't go into details for spoiler reasons, it's nice to see these characters become a little more relevant even as they have little overall importance to the people of their own universe. It was also nice to see other gods get in on the act, from Nighy's Hephaestus to Edgar Ramirez as Ares, the God of War. Ramirez in particular gets afforded some well-deserved attention, his biggest role to this point being in the miniseries Carlos in 2010. Here, his performance is not necessarily varied but powerful, and he arguably out-grimaces Worthington in their shared scenes. I'd definitely be interested in seeing more of him, whether it be in Kathryn Bigelow's new bin Laden film or simply going back to finally watch Carlos.

Somehow I don't think he wants to play "patty cake."
The film's special effects are a decent improvement over the original (I didn't see the sequel in 3D either, due to timing), but I had a serious issue with the way Liebesman, who made last year's Battle: Los Angeles, handled things on the action front. Taking over for Leterrier, Liebesman tries to do the same thing the Frenchman did in going from action sequence to action sequence, with barely a character moment in between. The real problem with that is that Liebesman is a major proponent of the "shaky cam" effect in trying to make events more exciting. When are directors going to learn that shaky cam doesn't engage the audience, but confuses them? There are almost a dozen major battles throughout the film, featuring such massive creatures as the Chimera, Cyclops, Minotaur and Kronos, but Liebesman manages to make every single fight feel small and unworthy of our attention. What I had hoped would be the film's greatest strength ends up being its biggest flaw, as nothing is ever clear, and like a drunken excursion we're not really ever sure what's happening until it's over.

Not quite as endearing as the Kraken, no...
After seeing the trailers for Wrath of the Titans, I would have been more than happy if the film had just been a collection of Perseus taking on mythological creatures from beginning to the end. With amazing special effects, it was all for which I could have hoped. But with the narrow view of Liebesman, that unambitious idea was more than the film actually attain. While it tries its hardest to charm itself into your hearts, lousy action in an action film is inexcusable, and really sinks Wrath down near the bottom of 2012's rankings. Another potential blockbuster that missed wide, seeing a film like this makes me long for the days of summer, when dreck like this will be replaced by far more tantalizing fare such as Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man.

I really can't wait.