Popped Culture #1: Clash of the Movies, or How Not to Train your Screenwriter

As a writer, one’s work is never done.  I feel like I should be writing pretty much all the time.  Nevertheless, I do occasionally stop working long enough to watch a movie or read a book.  What better way to celebrate these fleeting moments of decadence than to blog about them?  For my first entry in this new blog—“Popped Culture”—I’m tackling the movies of 2010, or at least the ones that I’ve seen so far.

I’ll start with a movie that I saw just tonight, an historical epic set in circa 800 BC, which tells the story of mankind’s attempted rebellion against the Gods of Olympus.  When the King of Argos…  And by the way, what do you call someone from Argos?  An Argosian?  Argosite?  Argolino?  I’m going with Argon…  Where was I?  Oh, yes: when the King of the Argons grows tired of the fickle behavior of the Olympians, he foolishly decides to start desecrating temples and toppling statues of Zeus.  If you know your history, then you already know it will only be a matter of time before Zeus bellows: “Release the Kraken!”

OK, so Clash of the Titans isn’t exactly history.  It’s not even good mythology.  Of the myriad possible sources—Pindar, Hesiod, Homer, Ovid, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides—the filmmakers seem to have seized upon one in particular: the original Clash of the Titans movie.  The result is a watered down version of already watered down mythology.  So, basically… water.  Which is too bad because after watching Clash, you’ll definitely want a stiff drink.

Sam Worthington tries his best to salvage this mess.  Fresh off his role in Terminator as a half-man, half-machine who fights to prove his humanity, he plays a half-man, half-god who fights to prove his humanity.  He’s one role away from being typecast… or maybe he already is, if you count his half-man, half-Navi role in Avatar.  But you know what?  I don’t care.  I think Sam Worthington is the preeminent half one thing, half another thing actor of his generation, maybe of all time.  I like him, even if he did spend most of Clash looking confused.  But who can blame him?  His character’s one defining feature is that he hates the gods for killing his family.  He’s angry, very angry.  He’ll never be like the gods.  He’ll never accept their help… except for when he does.  But even then he still hates them… except that he kind of likes Zeus.  Still, he’ll never join the gods on Olympus.  He’d rather spend time on earth with his perfectly normal girlfriend… who never ages and has been brought back from the dead.  Huh?  I think confusion was the appropriate expression.

Worthington is surrounded by actors who do their careers no favors.  The merry warriors who accompany him on his quest are distinguishable from one another only by the varying amount of eye-shadow they are wearing.  Only Mads Mikkelsen stands out, but not in a good way: his fake tan and pony-tail make him look like a skinny version of Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, only with bad teeth.  Liam Neeson glows in his role as Zeus.  Literally.  He glows.  Maybe he knocked the role out of the park.  I wouldn’t know.  It’s hard to concentrate on someone’s acting when they are glowing.  As for Ralph Fiennes, who I usually love, he plays Hades as if he’s channeling Voldemort playing a drunken Nic Cage.

In the end, Clash is epic only in the extent of its utter crapitude.  Not even popcorn could save it, although God knows I tried my best to improve the on-screen offering by eating an heroic amount.  I ate so much popcorn that an hour after the movie, I almost fainted while walking my dog.  Alas, all that popcorn was in vain.

The clear winner in the 2010 Battle of the Greek Mythology Movies is Percy Jackson and the Olympians.  Percy isn’t exactly rigorous in regards to mythology either, but in this case, that’s exactly the point.  The movie plays with mythology in a way that’s fun and refreshing, especially when compared with the mindless Hollywood garbage dished up in Clash.  It’s not a great film, but with a little bit of popcorn to help it along, it is definitely worth seeing.

But the fantasy film of 2010 (so far) is definitely How to Train Your Dragon.  It is the best dragon movie I have ever seen.  (Unless you count Avatar as a dragon movie.)  More than that, it’s one of the better animated films I’ve ever seen.  Unlike Clash and Percy, How to Train Your Dragon seems to have actually gone through more than one draft before filming started.  It has well-developed characters with clear story arcs and motivations.  In fact, the characters—for all that they are animated—come across as infinitely more real than anyone in Clash.  And the story works.  It’s actually rather moving.  I had to fight back tears more than once, and the group of six year old kids sitting in the row in front of me were all balling.  You’ll thrill, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry… ladies and gentlemen: How to Train Your Dragon!

On the other end of the fantasy spectrum is another book adaptation: the new Alice in Wonderland.  I left the theater shaking my head and wondering what in the hell had happened to Tim Burton.  Granted, this is the man who thought strapping missiles to penguins (Batman II) was a good idea, but still, he’s never produced anything so insipid and frankly incompetent as Alice.  The setup is actually quite good, but once Alice arrives in Underland—and by the way, changing Wonderland to Underland was a) never explained and b) stupid—the film becomes a succession of truly awful action scenes.  I could live with turning Alice and Wonderland into an action movie, but the action in Alice is not just mindless and repetitive (three separate characters get stabbed in the eye), it is shockingly incompetent.  In particular, the anti-climactic final battle scene looks as if it was directed by someone who had never stood behind a camera.  Did Burton suffer some sort of debilitating personal crisis in the midst of filming?  Did he let his assistant take over while he was out getting coffee?  I don’t know, but I do know that these are the sorts of questions that were running through my mind during the last thirty minutes of Alice. That is not a good sign.

For a more enjoyable trip down the rabbit hole—or hot tub, in this case—check out Hot Tub Time Machine.  Now, you may think that this move looks juvenile, ridiculous, and incoherent.  And it is!  But gloriously so.  The plot makes no sense—nor does it try to—but it wrings plenty of humor out of its sheer nonsensicalness.  It also gets the most out of its ‘80s setting, playing not only with the fashion, music, and general goofiness of the decade, but also with ‘80s film conventions.  And who better to do so than ‘80s teen star John Cusack?  All in all, I was shocked by how much I enjoyed Hot Tub.  But I don’t expect everybody to like it.  If you hear the premise—four men get in a hot tub, travel back in time to the ‘80s, and relive a wild weekend at a ski resort—and think it sounds terrible… then Hot Tub is probably not for you.  If you hear it and think hell yeah… well then, you’ll walk out of the theater shouting hellz yeah!

To sum up, I’ll leave you with my up-to-the-minute movie rankings for 2010:

1)  How to Train Your Dragon
2)  Hot Tub Time Machine
3)  Percy Jackson and the Olympians
4)  Clash of the Titans

Alice in Wonderland doesn’t get to be on the list.  It’s just too awful.

Now, back to writing.  I’ll be back soon to pop more culture.




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