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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Clash of the Titans, The Last Song and Mid-August Lunch

Clash of the Titans (Three Stars)
U.S.; Louis Leterrier, 2010

The Kraken, the Medusa, the Pegasus and the lobster monsters are smashing successes in director Louis Leterrier’s lavish remake of Clash of the Titans — the 1981 Ray Harryhausen mythological epic. But the people and the Gods could use a little more work. That’s a typical story for a big-studio fantasy blockbuster. Great CGI, obvious characters spouting, in this case, predictable mytho-gibberish.

But this genuinely spectacular movie, which plunges us into the adventures of the demigod wanderer Perseus, impersonated by Avatar’s Sam Worthington (with a Russell Crowe glower and some Don Johnson stubble), does have something to knock your eyes out in almost every scene. We follow Perseus‘s incredibly action-packed agenda, from the moment he’s plucked out of a coffin floating in the ocean, and from his mother‘s arms, by good fisherman Spyros (Pete Postlethwaite), to his Spartacus-like capture at Argos, to his recruitment into the war of the humans against the Gods (and Devils), to his last bloody battle with the rampaging Kraken and the madly pretentious Hades. And, as we do, the movie visualizes, stunningly, one mythological adventure and Greek-god coup de theatre after another (often reprised from the 1981 Clash).

Leterrier (who also directed The Incredible Hulk), keeps hurling all this spectacle and mythomania into our faces, cutting as frenetically as if he wanted a Michael Bay award — from bloody warfare and tumbling statues on the ocean-whipped crags and cliffs of Argos, to writhing snake-women slithering up from the lava pits of the fiery underworld ruled by whispery Hades (Ralph Fiennes), to the soaring flight of the black-winged fling-horse Pegasus swooping over Ancient Greece like Marcello Mastroianni‘s helicopter in La Dolce Vita, to the Lawrence of Arabia like desert trek of Perseus, Draco (Mads Mikkelsen) and some monstrous-looking pseudo-Arab sheiks mounted on the suddenly tamed scorpions, to the climactic furious moment when the Kraken explodes up from the ocean like the Alien ripping loose form John Hurt’s chest, and makes all hell break loose for the last act.

There, embattled Argos tries to save its ass by sacrificing the beauteous Andromeda (Alexa Davalos), dangling her gorgeous bod over the boiling chaos of the Kraken-infested ocean, while a surge of screaming, doomed humanity pours down the Grecian steps as if it were the Last Days of Pompeii, restaged by Roland Emmerich and Perseus, like Superman, swoops to the rescue.

Wow! I defy anyone not to be entertained by scenes like that, especially when they’re done as well as they are here.

On the other hand, I defy anyone not to wish, just a little, that this movie had a little less pomp, and a bit more circumstance: that Hermes the barber would show up to give Perseus a shave or two, that Liam Neeson’s Zeus didn’t look so much like the Olympian member of ZZ Top, that Hades got some immediate treatment for what seems a stubborn case of spastic dysphonia, that Medusa got a curtain call, and that somebody would hand the whole cast a revamped script with more wit and grandeur. Writers Travis Beacham, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi don‘t do a bad job, but they don’t do a particularly good one either. And this new Clash would be better, and more coherent, if it were narrated all the way though, instead of just at the beginning.

The original Clash, with its last hurrah for Harryhausen’s creature mastery, was, like this one, a little skimpy on true drama — despite the presence of a late-career but still godlike Laurence Olivier as Zeus, Limelight’s Claire Bloom as Hera and the magnificent Maggie Smith as Thetis. (Hunky Harry Hamlin was Perseus and Judi Bowker was Andromeda).

Here, in the 2010 version, actors like Neeson, Fiennes, Danny Huston (as Poseidon) and the other Gods carry a similar dramatic heft. But Mount Olympus, unfortunately is the one set where production designer Martin Laing and supervising art director Troy Sizemore and company were a bit asleep at the myth-switch. Up on that showy mountain resort of the gods, is a skimpy-looking heaven, or God hangout, where the deities stand around uncomfortably on little circles, amid a puffy-white cloudscape that reminded me of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, in scenes that had all the ambiance and power of an Allstate commercial. (“If you‘re not immortal yourself, take a tip from the Gods. Put yourself in good hands.“)

Maybe I’m unfair. Maybe I was just waiting for another trip to Hades, which here looks a lot hotter but infinitely more exciting. And it is. The Medusa scene is the piece de resistance of the entire movie. And it’s a movie that, Olympus aside, is basically composed of one spectacular set-piece after another.

There are enough good actors to carry the film, though I got tired of Worthington this time out. He seemed inclined to self-mockery, which wouldn’t have been bad in this case, except for the script‘s absence of wit. Fiennes seemed to be recovering from a cold, odd considering the probable temperature of Hades, and Neeson acted as if he‘s rather be in Taken. On the other hand, Gemma Atherton as the Goddess Io, is a moving heroine, and Postlethwaite a fine Greek plebe.

Leterrier, a French director (Transporters) born in Paris, and son of another cineaste, Francois Leterrier, seems to be having fun with the material — and there’s even a nice little joke about Bubo, the robot owl, from the 1981 Clash. Leterrier is another of the current crop of French action and horror movie slam-bangers like Pierre Morel (Taken), Gerard Krawczyk and Alexandre Aja (High Tension). He and they try to beat movie Yanks at our own violent games, and some of the time, they succeed.

No Francois Truffauts or Eric Rohmers they.

On the other hand, is it really preferable to be a French Michael Bay or Stephen Sommers? Leterrier’s old boss Luc Besson — that incredibly productive French director, writer, producer and yankophile — sometimes seems to be a Vesuvius of movies, spewing them out in all directions. And his directors, like Leterrier, sometimes act as if they’d just escaped from Vesuvius and were still ducking the spew. I thought Clash of the Titans was cut (and slashed) way too fast within scenes, that Leterrier should have let us linger and relax in the film‘s pieces or moments of romance, humor and scenic or fantastic beauty. Thanks to the editing, these bits of lyricism really were only moments. Titans would have been better if Leterrier, like Truffaut and the others, slowed it down (at times) and let it breathe.

Still, how many times do you get to ride on a Pegasus? I first was handed a copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, by my mother, on the El in Chicago, when I was seven. As I remember, it had a picture of Perseus and Medusa, the shield mirror, and the snaky hair. They were entrancing, transfixing, transporting. So they are again, even cut like a French whirlwind, in Clash of the Titans.

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The Last Song (Two Stars)
U.S.; Julie Anne Robinson, 2010 –

The latest movie from a Nicholas Sparks novel (after Dear John, Message in a Bottle, and The Notebook), which ahs been co-scripted by Sparks himself, offers another weepy, lush mix of romance, beaches, horrible misunderstandings, passion, true love

SPOILER ALERT

and death.

END OF SPOILER

This time, it’s Miley Cyrus and Greg Kinnear who do the suffering under the sun. She‘s a petulant, rebellious daughter, Ronnie Miller, sent by her separated mom Kim (Kelly Preston), to spend the summer with Kinnear as her fragile-looking composer dad Steve Miller. (Fly like an eagle!) Also around for the summer: Bobby Coleman as precocious little brother Jonah.

What a drag! Ronnie, scowling as if she wanted us all to forget Hannah Montana forever, is fed up with life, her family and music. (Though a piano prodigy herself, she‘s refusing to go to Juilliard.) And soon, she’s prowling around the local beach like an angry, scornful she-wolf looking for someone to bite. Amazingly, the hunkiest guy on the sand, blonde volleyball champ and nice-guy/rich-boy Will Blakelee (Liam Hemsworth) bumps into Ronnie, pursues her, and just won’t take no for an answer, a conversation-closer, or even a cue.

Soon we learn of a mysterious church-burning which implicated poor Steve, wounded by the charred episode and now tinkling away on his piano trying to write his last song. (Shall we lay bets on who eventually comes to his musical rescue?) Along with her persistent Will, Ronnie is dogged by psychopath Marcus (Nick Lashaway), runaway Blaze (Carly Chaikin) and Will’s volleyball buddy Scott (Hallock Beals), who’s hiding something. Then there’s the problem of Will’s snobbish parents, Susan and Tom, violently offended when the happy couple show up at the mansion covered with mud after a playful dirt-romp. A wedding approaches. A confession. A hospital. Can the piano stay in tune until the last scene?

I’m sure you’re all completely befuddled about what could possibly happen next in this perplexing love affair, so I won’t add to your confusion with any more synopsis. No-siree, figure it all out for yourselves. (I’m not being a snob here; I actually liked the movie of Sparks‘ The Notebook, if not any of the others.)

What of the cast? Miley Cyrus, going for a real change of pace, is not too happy a choice for a sorrow-plagued heroine, I’m afraid — though she does sing the hell out of the credits song. But Miley has some problems here with looking romantic and vulnerable, rather than just sexy, mad or smiley — and that prevents her and Hemsworth from winning the Amanda Seyfried-Channing Tatum Dear John beautiful-star-crossed-couple sweepstakes.

SPOILER ALERT

Everyone else seems to waiting for the casting call to an updated remake of The Summer Place — except for Kinnear, who, amazingly, manages to really look as if he actually were dying.

END OF SPOILER

But maybe he just figured that was the easiest way out.

The Last Song deserves some praise. After complaining last week because the filmmakers on Diary of a Wimpy Kid designed the writer-wimpy-kid‘s room with almost no books visible, at least till near the end, I’ve got to applaud Last Song‘s company for filling Steve’s shelves with books, as well as having a heroine and hero, Ronnie and Will, who have not only both read, or are reading, Leo Tolstoy‘s great romantic novel Anna Karenina, but can actually quote that novel’s first line about happy and unhappy families.

Hurrah! In appreciation, I offer this plot-sample for the next Nicholas Sparks, or Sparks-style, novel.

A beautiful young couple, who’ve just met that day, are walking along the beach at nightfall. They have fallen madly in love. Idly, the boy picks up a conch shell, and they begin having a foolish argument about whether people should keep the shells they find along life‘s pathway, or leave them on the beach, where they truly belong. Still arguing, they fall in the water and drown.

Another couple, sitting nearby, see the whole thing, but are too late to rescue the lovers. So they decide to write a book about the incident, inspired by Tolstoy, and called Night of the Conch. It becomes a huge best-seller. The second couple are sent a big royalty check, but they argue about who should cash it. They end up stuffing it in a bottle and throwing it out to sea. On the way back, the boy trips on another conch shell, which he throws angrily into the ocean. The couple split up. The next day, the stock market crashes.

I don’t know. It makes me cry.

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Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di Ferragosto) (Three and a Half Stars)
Italy; Gianni Di Gregorio, 2008

Gianni Di Gregorio, co-writer of the great Italian crime film, Gomorra, here executes a bewitching lovely, warm and funny change of pace.

With Gomorra’s and The Embalmer’s” director Matteo Garrone as his producer, Di Gregorio has written, directed and stars in Mid-August Lunch, the delicate, wry, brilliantly observed comic tale of a ’50s unemployed bachelor in Rome named Gianni (played by Di Gregorio). Gianni has just one friend, drinking buddy Viking (Luigi Marchetti) and he spends most of his day caring for his 93-year-old mother Valeria (played by Gianni’s mother, Valeria De Fransiscis) — cooking for her, helping her daily doings, reading Dumas‘ The Three Musketeers to her at night.

Behind in his rent, sweltering in the dog days of summer, Gianni is solicited by another condominium-owner and manager, Alfonso (Alfonso Santagata), asked to wipe out part of his condo debt by temporarily caring for Alfonso‘s mother Marina (Marina Cacciotto) and aunt Maria (Maria Calli).

Improbably enough, Gianni’s doctor (Marcello Ottolenghi) also drops by that same day, examines him, and then requests that the now crowded caretaker, for that night, also take in the doctor‘s mother Grazia (Grazia Cesarini Sforza). This leaves the gentle, considerate Gianni without a bed, but with plenty of opportunity, aided by Viking, for his culinary talents to flourish, as long as he doesn’t violate Grazia‘s stringent dietary restrictions. (The lure of a macaroni casserole demolishes those anyway.) The four women are at first a little contentious, especially about the custody of the TV. But finally family, friendship and pasta conquer all.

I’ve seen several films recently about older people, and this is by far the best: wittily and wisely written, subtly and beautifully made. By showing us what happens when these ladies are treated well, and lovingly, it emphasizes how badly old people are often treated elsewhere. But this is not a sad movie. It’s joyous. The acting, some by non-professionals, is superb. It made me laugh, very fondly.

(In Italian, with English subtitles.)

– Michael Wilmington
April 1, 2010

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