Saturday, August 28, 2010

One Titan Wore Green, Another Wore Orange

Abby and I watched Clash of the Titans the other night, and it was a lot less awful that I'd anticipated.

No doubt because we watched it in 2D.  It's a shame, really.  It's a competently-if-not-expertly directed action film, but it's legacy will be that it was the film where people realized 3D can suck.

Oh, there are still things to complain about.  The dialog was clunky.  Some of the CG effects needed more polish--Medusa, in particular, had a distracting, cartoony aura. Then there's the post-climax coda in which the movie reneges on its one moment of real drama--I won't spoil it for you, but it was a tad cheesy.

Also, a few of the action sequences felt clumsy.  Take, for example, the fight against the giant scorpions--the sense of scale was constantly shifting, and the ending was sudden and anti-climactic.  Oh, look, the scorpion's dead.  Oh, hi there Perseus, you did that, eh?  And I could have done without the Zack-Snyder-esque film-speed ramping.  Can we call that a cliche and move on already?

All that said, the Pegasus sequences looked pretty good, and the kraken battle worked for me.  The acting wasn't stellar, but it's wan't bad.  The production designer clearly got off on Lord of the Rings; I particularly enjoyed the film's imagining of Mount Olympus, and while the movie was not without anachronism, it managed to maintain its own internal logic.  Furthermore, Perseus' quest had sense of purpose and urgency to it--all these adventures ultimately serving a single goal.  I've always felt that Greek myths ramble too much, so that was a welcome change.

I will say one thing: I don't care for the way ancient mythologies are co-opted by Judeo-Christian sensibilities.  Hades, in particular, becomes a proxy for the devil because he is the Lord of the Underworld.  So you see elements of that in his character and design, and while the movie gave him at least some semi-plausible motives for feuding with Zeus, it's still in the vein of "I feed on human suffering".  Well, in the ancient Greek mythos, the Underworld was a place of darkness, not fire, and Hades more or less kept to himself.  The villain in the original film was Poseidon, who was a jealous and powerful and quick to anger, but not evil, per se.  In fact, one of the nice things about polytheism is that you can have conflict without making any one god or goddess a "bad guy", so it's a shame to see that thrown out.

I should give a quick hat tip to Abby here, because my casual knowledge of Greek mythology is drastically augmented by her academic knowledge of Greek archeology (and the fact that she knows the original film pretty well).  She also noted a number of visual inconsistencies in everything from costume design to Zeus' eagle (bald eagles, apparently, aren't indigenous to the Mediterranean).  If you ever want a discussion on problems with movies that take place in the ancient world (see also: 300, see also: Troy), hit her up.

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Harry Potter 3, Book and Movie

So I've been re-reading the Harry Potter series and finished my favorite from that franchise: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.  Unlike its predecessors it doesn't try to be a fairy tale; unlike its successors, it doesn't try to be a sprawling epic.  It's the only book whose villain isn't some incarnation of Voldemort, and it sports a unique dual-climax: first we get the reveal of who Sirius Black really is, then we get the time-traveling adventure that results in Wormtail's escape and Black's freedom.

The book introduces the dementors, who will remain the most fearsome creatures in the series.  We also get to meet Remus Lupin who, along with Black, give us a window into Harry's past while being amongst the most complex and well-rounded characters in the series.  Both Black and Lupin are tired, tormented crusaders, trapped by their idealism, misunderstood by their society, and hostage to their need to defend their loved ones.  Additionally, Lupin's relationship with Snape hints at a conflict that won't be fully understood until the final few chapters of Book 7.  We also get a prophecy from Professor Trelawny, which Dumbledore says is the second real one she's ever made.  We learn about the first in Book 5.

The film version of Azkaban also stands out for me, although in re-watching it I'm less enamored with it than before.  It's substantially better than the first two, but I think I may like Half-Blood Prince better.  Director Alfonso Cuarón focused on making the main characters real and placing them in a fantastical world, although the fantasy of that world registers as severe strangeness in some peripheral characters, like the driver of the Knight Bus (or his talking shrunken head).

There are some significant breaks from the novel: Cuarón stripped away absolutely everything that wasn't necessary to the plot, truncated quite a few scenes and filled the rest with character moments.  The Quidditch subplot is done away with almost entirely.  In the book, it's a major affair, taking up several chapters and ultimately resulting in a win for Potter.  This was important in the scope of the series: Harry was supposed to this great Quidditch player, but his team always ended up losing the House Cup.  They had pretty much gone as far as they could without a major victory to justify Harry's greatness.  In the movie, it's reduced to two brief scenes that are plot-essential: the dementors torment Harry, and the whomping willow destroys his broom.

The way dementors and petronus' are dealt with differs greatly from the book.  The dementors in the movie fly, and the emotional "coldness" Harry feels when they are near is translated into literal coldness on screen.  Things freeze when they're around.  This was, of course, a cinematic necessity (I don't know about the "flying" bit, but whatever).  But the most significant and impressive changes deal with the way Cuarón wrangled the double-climax ending.

Notably, he gave Harry more to do: in the book it's Lupin who discovers that Peter Pettigrew still lives, but in the movie Harry makes that discovery and then tells Lupin.  During the confrontation with Black, the movie leaves the audience guessing for a while about who's good and who's bad.  That scene in the book is much more straight-forward, with Lupin constantly asking Harry to let him explain.  During the time-travel sequence, Harry and Hermione interact more with themselves--saving their own lives, as it were.  This allows the first climax to pass less dramatically, setting up mysteries to be revealed once Harry and Hermione go back into the past.  It gives them more to do when they're replaying the evening (in the book, they basically hide in the woods and watch the action happen--it works, but it would be dreadfully boring to watch in a film).  This keeps the tension high and the pace brusk, preventing what could have become a very dull, protracted ending while not sacrificing major plot elements.

My only real complaint about the movie is that a few scenes aren't terribly well acted.  The leads were still too young to pull of some of the more complex scenes believably.

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