Clash of the Titans (2010)

Stars:  *** out of 4

Summary:  Adrenaline soaked, fist-pumping action, and a decent moral argument, as well.

Frustratingly, there's still no Titans.

Frustratingly, there's still no Titans.

Review:  Ray Harryhausen, stop-motion maestro, provided the effects for the original 1981 ‘Clash of the Titans’, and behold, it was very good, in an ’80s cheese kinda way.  It really wasn’t that great, though, and so it was one of those properties that more or less deserved a remake.  The opportunity was there to take the mythology-blending concept of the original and infuse it with a stronger story and better characters.  To my surprise, the new movie does just that — if not totally to the extent it could have.

It’s a tighter, leaner affair.  Instead of humanity simply bowing to the whims of the famously capricious and arbitrary Greek deities, as in the ’81 film, here they reflect the real world 21st century resurgence of humanism and rebellion against the religious norms of the past.  The citizens of the city of Argos are waging an all-out war on the gods, mirroring the overthrow of the Titans by the gods themselves in the distant history, as told in the stars.  The Olympians control the good and bad fortunes of humanity, and to the people of Argos, it has become apparent that they have become a liability to the socially evolving race.  As people get more powerful and intelligent on a personal and societal scale, what need have they of the mercy and favor of the dangerously fickle gods?  Boiling down this cosmic struggle into one man, of course, is the protagonist, Perseus (Sam Worthington), who discovers he is the half-human son of Zeus (Liam Neeson), and watched over by the ageless, knowledgeable and sexy-cute Io (Gemma Arterton).  There’s nothing particularly Oscar-winning about these performances, or by the rest of the large and very fun supporting cast (including Ralph Fiennes as the villainous Hades), but they fit perfectly with tongue-in-cheek and grandiose nature of the material.  The action is all fantastic, of course, but what makes it awesome is how enthusiastically played everybody is.  No one seems the least bit bored, here.

The great moral statement made by the new ‘Clash’ is the conclusion of Perseus’ story arc, and what separates him from his morally schizophrenic father: Simple humility is the correct response to power.  The gods failed to be better than the dangerous Titans because they saw power as entitlement and superiority rather than a burden or call to serve.  Perseus, the movie seems to say, is what we ought to expect from both the divine and mankind.  “We fight and we die for each other, not for you,” Perseus tells Zeus.  Which, of course, encapsulates the good of humanism, which when properly understood, is in no way antithetical to Christian theology.  “God became man,” says Christian St. Athanasius, “So that man may become god.”  Christ, like Perseus in ‘Clash’, chose to live and die as a man rather than as God, and in doing so elevated mankind beyond our comprehension.  The Christian God is nothing like the domineering Zeus.  Jesus has nothing to prove, except His love, and humbles Himself to achieve that end.

‘Clash’ is a rip-roaring yarn, and great entertainment.  Go see it.

Classic Review: Forbidden Planet

Stars: **** out of Four

Summary:  A masterpiece of tension and atmosphere!  With slick special effects, too!  You won’t believe your eyes and ears as MGM transports you to another world, 1950s style!

That says it all. Even if that scene doesn't happen in the movie.

That says it all. Even if that scene doesn't happen in the movie.

Review:  The 1956 science fiction classic, ‘Forbidden Planet’, is a good movie.  I’m not sure I should say anymore, except that’s it’s really, really awesome.  No, I think what I should say is, it succeeds in being better than it has any rights to be.

Okay, seriously, I’m going to review this movie.  Here’s what makes it great.

This film is the perfect midnight fare.  I highly suggest a viewing experience with a large television, surround sound, and absolutely no lights, in the dead of night.  Try not to talk during the film, either.  ‘Forbidden Planet’ is so atmospheric that it’d be a shame to not dive in.  It’s like MGM Studios was kind enough to fill a hot tub with fresh, hot water and some sort of weird but healthful Italian herbs, spices, and soaps.  Sure, you’ll have to adjust to the weirdness, but that’s what makes it a singular and unforgettable experience.  Just soak it in.  One of the coolest features of this particular experience is the music, which is credited as ‘electronic tonalities’, because apparently the musician’s union at the time didn’t think it qualified as music (or so I heard) — I mean, this was the first film ever to have a completely electronic score.  In any case, these strange, otherworldly sounds definitely fulfill the old maxim that “sound is half the picture”.  Without this score, the film wouldn’t have near the sense of mystery that it needs to succeed.

The technology, though stylized and sometimes already a bit run over by the actual science of our day, looks beautiful and functional.  The set-design is superb, with gorgeous matte paintings substituting for an alien sky.  All in all, the special effects are ahead of their time, surpassing similar concept films of the same era with ease.  Particularly impressive is the landing sequence of a flying saucer and the combat scene between the ship’s crew and a giant, invisible monster, which stops in a force field and is unveiled in its grotesque glory.  I would be amiss to not mention the incredible artwork put into rendering the ancient Krell city, however, which gives us a fantastic sense of scale and complexity.

The story, well, I’m sure you’ve heard.  An earth ship lands on an alien world, to investigate the status of a science vessel that arrived there 20 years ago.  Only one survivor and his young daughter remain, however, and things get sinister quickly as it is revealed that the stranded scientist is not telling everything he knows about the horrible disaster which overcame his colleagues.  It is slow in pace, which is great for creating real tension and fleshing out the characters.

Philosophically, the issue is the inherent badness of human beings.  Buried deep in our “id”, our subconscious self, is what the film calls “the mindless primitive”, and what St. Paul calls “the flesh”.  Whatever you call it, the message of the movie is that humanity can never afford to be without caution in however much power it attains.  Without something keeping the dangerous, bestial side in check, humanity’s advances in technology will only lead to the most destructive outlet for the “monsters from the id”.  We may well destroy ourselves, as the ancient Krell did in ‘Forbidden Planet’.  The way I look at it, with this in mind, the classic warning that “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” is something of a misnomer.  It is not absolute power which corrupts; it only amplifies that which already exists within a person, for good or ill, and universally, humanity has a lot of ill will.  As the film concluded, “We are, after all, not God.”  And even then, orthodox Christianity teaches that God willingly humbles Himself and refuses to abuse His power, and sometimes even to use it without being asked directly.

Well, anyway, the film is great.  Don’t rent it.  Buy it.  Or better yet, find a way to see it on the silver screen.  I’m sure somebody out there has a print of it.  It’d be worth the sacrifice just to go for a walk on the ‘Forbidden Planet’.

Not-So-Classic Review: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Stars:  ** out of Four

Summary:  A stunted, mediocre debacle, with entertaining moments, but without an overall sense of catharsis.

To keep people from leaving?

To keep people from leaving?

Review:  So this is going to be a short review.  It’s not a remarkable movie in either direction, good or bad.  It’s just stunningly mediocre.  It has its fun moments, and its bad moments, and its moments where you just can’t wait for the movie to end.   Despite my terrible comment on the original poster’s tagline — which was created early on in production, when the studio still had high hopes for the movie — it isn’t unwatchable. Unfortunately, it has earned such a bad rap all around that I feel like I have to keep it in the ‘Not-So-Classic’ category.   It’s not a classic.   It’s not an utter failure either.

This was original ‘Trek’ star William Shatner’s only directed entry of the series.  He had a huge scope for the original story, and obviously inspired great confidence in the studio, as is evident by the early marketing campaign.  Judging from some of his novels, including some he had also intended to become ‘Trek’ films, the action-idea was probably too ambitious.  I’m trying to be fair, here, to counterbalance some of the anti-Shatner backlash that the film generated.  I think he, and the rest of the production team, really thought they were going to make a winner.  Unfortunately for Shatner and company, the scope proved to be too much.  The studio couldn’t afford to pay for the special effects needed.  So instead of inspiring ‘Star Wars’-like thrills, it inspired confusion and disappointment in Trekkies everywhere.

The story, though odd, does have a vein of potential.  The idea was to put the Enterprise crew on a spiritual quest, an encounter with God.  In the end, they only found a counterfeit, but I believe the intention — though vaguely captured, at best, in the final film — was to show that the true God was way beyond anything the Enterprise crew could fathom.  This strikes again at the philosophical richness of ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’, which ironically also failed to communicate its original story in a fulfilling way.

The characters and the execution leave a lot to be desired.  The film is far too comedic, going into the realm of slapstick and not showing the restraint of the previous installment.  Things feel disrespected, dishonest, and pretentious.  Some of the moments — such as Uhura stripping naked and dancing to distract a couple bad guys — are completely out of place.  The “villain”, Sybock, is overwrought and unconvincing.  We never get the needed sense of pathos to sell his character right.

A disappointment, really, after an impressive trilogy preceding it.  Shatner feared he had killed the franchise.  In fact, he may have, had it not been for the studio supporting a sixth picture due to the then-upcoming 25th anniversary of ‘Star Trek’.  And that film fixed everything.

Classic Review: The Truman Show

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  A true modern classic, delving deep into philosophy while not compromising its broad appeal.

Did you ever get the feeling you were being watched?

Did you ever get the feeling you were being watched?

Review:  Wait.  ‘The Truman Show’.  Classic?  It’s only 11 years old!  It’s not as famous as films from the same decade, like ‘Jurrasic Park’ and ‘The Matrix’!

Yeah, that’s right.  I just read your mind.

Well, not really.  ‘The Truman Show’, directed by Peter Weir and starring Jim Carrey in a role that took him from strictly comedy to dynamic drama, came out in 1998 and was the 11th highest grossing film of the year.  I remember going to see the film in theaters, while my brother went to go see Roland Emmerich’s ‘Godzilla’ (which I still hold to be a fun B-movie).  I didn’t get the philosophical backbone of the story at the time, but looking back on it, I realize it is very rich.  It’s a dystopian sci-fi drama about a man, Truman Burbank, whose entire life is faked.  He lives inside the world’s largest structure, a dome containing an island and a faux ocean.  The first child legally adopted by a corporation, he is being viewed, unawares, by an audience of millions on television.  Christof, the creator of the show, fancies himself Truman’s caretaker and a true artist, but some disagree.  Conscientious people are constantly trying to break in and warn Truman that his life isn’t what it seems.

The story is very close to the philosopher Plato’s allegory of ‘The Cave’, which I’ll let you look up on your own.  The idea being that Truman, once he discovers that his world is a fake, cannot go back.  He has to get free.  Since everybody around him in the dome is an actor, he starts breaking his daily routine to throw them off.  He erratic behavior is especially affecting to his “wife”, who ends up breaking character in front of him in a moment of desperation.  Carrey’s performance, as he goes from happy, to discontented, to dangerous and rebellious, is utterly convincing.  Equally convincing is Christof, played by Ed Harris, who shows us a man so obsessed with his work that he fancies himself a god.

So far I haven’t mentioned why this is a classic.  Obviously, it just hasn’t been long enough- and isn’t popular enough -to be considered universally a classic film.  Some do, however, citing it as “prophetic” of the coming of reality television in the 2000s.  I would agree.  It is an excellent, excellent movie, both funny and heartwrenching, with an excellent score to boot.  The visual effects seem a little subpar, especially in contrast to the following year’s hit ‘The Matrix’, but they are adequate.

‘The Truman Show’ is dystopian, in that it shows us just how far we can take our entertainment.  When we treat people as objects, who knows what lengths we will take to ensure perfect entertainment.  The motivation for trapping a human being in the dome is a desire for genuineness.  Truman, Christof explains, lives in a fake world, but his every feeling is real.  Christof seems convinced that he has the right to give Truman life or take it away, for  the sake of the show.  Truman is an object to him.  From Truman’s point of view, freedom is the ability to take control of his own life and to live from his heart.  The film illustrates why the doctrine of free will is so instinctual; we have to be in control of our own lives, whether in the end we are good or evil.  Determinism threatens this, and makes human desire seem irrelevant.  If desire is irrelevant, then so is creativity, exploration, love.  All that makes us human is stripped away.  Truman made the decision to be free from the shadow world (look at ‘The Cave’, please), and in doing so preserved his freedom.  He had only an illusion of freedom previously, but since he was enlightened, he couldn’t turn back.  It is established that he has a crippling fear of water early on in the film, and as he approaches the film’s climax, he overcomes it and takes a boat out on the faux sea.  His humanity gave him the strength to overcome his fear.

Most definitely a 4 star film.  I heartily suggest you rent it, or buy it.  Take a good, long look at ‘The Truman Show’.

Elements of the Screen: The Art of the Antagonist

Hey dear readers, a new entry in ‘Elements’ is here, where I do my darnedest to make the archetype of the Villain crystal clear.  You can find it here:  https://thesilvermirror.wordpress.com/the-art-of-the-antagonist

Please do remember to comment.  We appreciate your feedback.

Now if I can only get Patrick to post an article for ‘Elements’…

Classic Review: Superman

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  A combination of heavy-hitters, unknowns, and very wise producers brought us the first truly excellent comic book movie.

Thats right.  You have no choice.  You WILL believe a man can fly.

That's right. You have no choice. You WILL believe a man can fly.

Review:  In 1938, creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster introduced the very first superhero in DC’s Action Comics #1.  With a wide range of powers and a flashy costume, Superman was a hit with kids everywhere, forever changing the face of comic books.  Countless imitators would follow Superman, though few would equal him.

It took a long time to bring a definitive film to the screen.  Sure, there were the Max and Dave Fleischer cartoons in the 40s (which were excellent), and there were the live-action serials and the George Reeves TV show (which were somewhat less up to par), but a live-action film that was convincingly serious didn’t come until 1978.  ‘Superman’, after going through a shaky development that was dramatic enough, was a box office smash and, like the comics that inspired it, changed the face of the genre.  Along with ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, it breathed new life into science fiction and transformed it into a cinematic juggernaut.

There are some of the production problems that deserve mentioning in relevance to the film’s design.  Such as the fact that the effects of Superman’s flight had never been done before in a truly live-action sense, usually relying on animation or models instead of a stunt man.  Eventually, they turned to the technology of chroma-key, which uses a blue screen or green screen as a background, then removes it in post-production.  The result was realistic enough that they made the claim in the film’s tagline, “You’ll believe a man can fly.”  Whether this was claimed before the effect was achieved or not, I don’t know, but it is a bold claim regardless.  So critical was this sense of wonder to the film’s success that the tagline was necessitated.  You won’t see anything said in quite that way on a modern movie poster.  We think we’ve seen everything possible with special effects.

The composer John Williams continued to rise to glory with his third iconic score in five years, going from ‘Jaws’ to ‘Star Wars’ to ‘Superman’.  Using the same orchestra he worked with on ‘Star Wars’, he delivered.  Period.  The music perfectly compliments the picture, indeed working with it to ingrain the images in the viewer’s mind.  This, to me, is the mark of a good composer: the ability to marry picture and music so perfectly that they become synonymous.

A big struggle of early development was avoiding the campy tone that pervaded earlier comic book adaptations.  Director Richard Donner ordered a rewrite before filming began, for which I am sure audiences are thankful.  The narrative covers a wide range of human emotions and manages to find a convincing balance.   Conceptually, it is an epic fantasy.  I describe it as an epic due to the multiple storylines and digressions.  It is much slower burning than recent superhero films, for which I am thankful.

I chose to review this film due to the recent release of the ‘Watchmen’ adaption.  ‘Superman’ is, essentially, the tonal and philosophical antithesis of ‘Watchmen’. ‘Watchmen’ is primarily concerned with the question, “Who watches the watchmen?”  The superheroes of the story, analogous to “watchmen” or guards, are shown to be morally incapable of handling the problem of power.  What makes their vigilante authority necessary, or legitimate?  ‘Watchmen’ suggests nothing directly in answer.  It is far too complex a work to pin down a conclusion.  ‘Superman’, on the flipside, is quite clear.  The hero is justified in his quest to help the people of Earth due to his nobility and integrity.  Superman is the good guy, the Big Blue Boy Scout, always trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, etc. etc.  Going back to ‘Watchmen’, it is suggested that no vigilante, regardless of his intentions, is ultimately trustworthy.  Humans are simply not good enough as a whole, it is suggested.  Again, this is never put forth as a clear conclusion, but the implications are there.  Returning again to ‘Superman’, we see this is never a concern with this ideal individual.  But, since we don’t live in this world, and there is no (as far as we know) alien human from Krypton fighting crime with completely noble intentions, is it wrong to indulge in such fantasies?  I personally think that the pessimistic view of ‘Watchmen’- while arguably more realistic –is not any more correct than the view ‘Superman’ takes.  Humans tend towards corruption, yes, but I would argue that paradoxically they also tend towards integrity.  As a flipside to ‘Watchmen’, ‘Superman’ shows us what could be, not just in an ideal but also in a grounded world.  There is wisdom in the view of ‘Watchmen’ and there is equal wisdom in ‘Superman’.  So how do we solve the problem of this paradox?  One of the ways is not to entrust too much power to one person.  There should be, in a sense, watchmen watching the watchmen.  Hence the separation of powers in modern democracies, which themselves are watched by the people, who in turn are watched and judged by God.

Well, now that my necessary digression is over, I’d like to say something in conclusion.  I don’t think this is the best superhero film of all time.  Considering just how varied the genre has become, even the granddaddy of all superheroes doesn’t by proxy take the cake.  It is definitely one of the best ever made.

Watching the Watchmen?: Analyzing Alan Moore’s Dystopia

This is a special feature.  I don’t intend to do this often, but I have an abundance of thoughts, and they are very relevant to cinema.

So what is ‘Watchmen’?

It’s primarily a graphic novel, by British author Alan Moore.  He is considered a legend in the comic book world.  ‘Watchmen’, winner of the prestigious Hugo Award, is considered his best work.  It was released in 1986, and along with Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, dramatically changed the face of comics forever.  In the truest sense a superhero epic, it chronicles the lives of truly dysfunctional costumed vigilantes in a dystopian, alternate 1985.  A complex and innovative narrative bobs and weaves through eras and viewpoints, as the world approaches nuclear war.  The basic action-idea (central driving plot) is that someone is killing off these vigilantes, possibly to prevent them from interfering in… something.  By the time it is all over, everyone is morally challenged and forced to embrace a horrific reality, as the whole world changes.  But is it for the better?

If you happen to care, there are many plot spoilers throughout this review.

I read ‘Watchmen’, you see, out of curiosity that was piqued by the coming of Zack Snyder’s adaption to the screen.  I heard many say it was visionary, challenging, and the best graphic novel ever made.  I figured I should read it before I saw the film.

After reading it, I can guarantee that I have no desire to see the film.  Not because the film will not be enough.  It will be too much.  ‘Watchmen’ is not just a challenge of comic book clichés, but also of classic morals.  Brutality, murder, misogyny and explicit sexuality are laced throughout the work.  This only serves to undermine the wealth of philosophical and psychological depth in the story.  It comes off as cheap, gratuitous, and unnecessary.  As I stated in my review of the film ‘Jaws’, an implication is enough.  The audience does not need to experience everything the characters experience in order to sympathize with them.

‘Watchmen’ is a structural masterpiece.  If you haven’t read it, I don’t know how to describe it to you.  It’s like nothing I’ve seen before.  An excellent sense of art, symbolism, pacing, dialog… nearly everything.  It is the story, not the structure, that makes ‘Watchmen’ a failure.

Alan Moore is something of an extreme left-winger.  As such, he tends to engineer his stories (most notably “V for Vendetta”, another graphic novel-turned-film) as, well, thinly veiled propaganda.  I don’t wish to be unreasonable in suggesting this is the case.  After all, C.S. Lewis once said (I’m paraphrasing, of course) that his own views “bubbled up” into his stories.  It’s natural.  You wouldn’t be human if that didn’t happen.  Regardless of this, there is a point that you cross that makes a work more about your specific messages than the strength of the narrative.  It is a hard line to walk.  ‘Watchmen’ is strange (for Moore), in that it contains, not so much propaganda, as much as a clear agenda.  Moore’s agenda, reasonably, is to make us question the superhero genre, through an intricate set of moral dilemmas.  The problem with Moore is that he’s great at asking questions but terrible about answering them.  One could argue that this is point:  asking questions, for the sake of asking them.  In a strictly dramatic presentation, though, I find this deeply unsatisfying.  The reason we ask questions is for answers.  As it is absolutely vital that a dramatic work bring its audience to catharsis (emotional satisfaction and release), unanswered questions seem to fly directly in the face of classical dramatic structure.  I’m sure that some absolutely love ‘Watchmen’, and honestly, I can understand why.  It is very well made.

The reason I hate ‘Watchmen’ is that, well, I’m an idealist.  Essentially.  I believe that people are created in the image of a noble, wise God, with a great capacity for good.  I don’t think we are the results of a dramatic cosmic accident.  We are icons of God on Earth.  Yes, we’ve fallen far, but there is redemption through Christ.  I don’t say this to preach.  I say this to illustrate how different my philosophy is from that of Alan Moore.  I get the impression Moore doesn’t know what he believes, hence the unanswered questions.  ‘Watchmen’ reflects a distinctly fatalistic worldview.  In ‘Watchmen’, the universe is a clock without a clockmaker.  There is no greater meaning.  Morality is relative to the end that is achieved… sometimes.  Or maybe, all the time.  We are never presented with a character that grasps the end of humanity, who understands a grander meaning.  Nobody is at peace with himself.  The ending is very open to multiple possibilities, to a fault.  We’re left unsure.  Certainly, this is by design.  Depending on the story that precedes such an ending, I may not mind.  In this case I do.

The off-kilter philosophy, the brutalizing of the audience through gratuitous content, the failure of the ending to tie up loose ends, make this graphic novel, supposedly the greatest of all time, a work I regret reading.  Needless to say, I won’t be watching the ‘Watchmen’ film.  I don’t need more of Moore.