What Fills the Role of "B Movie" Today?
The middle part of the last century was the heyday for a steady stream of "B movies" that were churned out by smaller studios. These films had low budgets and were knocked out in quick shoots on the cheap for fast theater runs, often playing at the drive-in theaters. The audience's expectations were far lower than for the major studio releases. A major part of the fun was enjoying just how cheesy they were. A "B movie" itself revels in how bad it is.
Now I realize that today "B movies" are still being lovingly made, but they have a small niche audience who appreciate this very special type of film. From a mass consumption standpoint the average consumer won't touch a film with low production quality with a ten foot pole.
I would propose that an analog to the "B movie" today for a wider general audience is a film with a respectable (or even big) budget, that uses today's far superior film technology and filmmaking techniques and was aiming to be a success--yet the films flops spectacularly with critics and viewers alike. These are branded as "bad" films--usually fairly enough, although not always. But whether or not one individually agrees that they deserve their "rotten" Tomato-meter score, they definitely got a low score and most viewers unequivocally feel that the film sucks.
That said, some of these critically savaged films we may nevertheless become fond of anyway for various personal reasons of our own. I have written in other articles about how films can be enjoyed for idiosyncratic subjective reasons even if it is acknowledged that they can be fairly criticized objectively (see here and here).
For this category of film, unlike tongue-in-cheek, self-parodying "B movies" these are films that ostensibly set out to be good--they just failed miserably, at least with the critics and the masses. I suppose the best term for these pictures might be "guilty pleasure" films? Most of us have a list of films in this vein that we enjoy a lot even if they are deeply flawed, are judged basically as pieces of crap by the critics and most fans. For example, for various reasons I really like I, Frankenstein (I plan to write an article about why one day) which has a Tomato-meter score of 3%! I have also found many strong reasons to like Daredevil (2003) Director's Cut and Fantastic Four (2015) despite the latter's atrociously edited ending. One of my friends enjoys Howard the Duck and Elektra. And so on.
In any events, even though I am aware of the technical distinction between "B movie" and what I am dubbing a "guilty pleasure" film, I will go ahead and refer to the latter as "B movies" as well, since both are a very similar experience. Hope that makes sense.
My "B Movie" Marathon Experiment
The other day as I was casually digging through the Walmart $3.74 DVD bin, I had an inspiration. I would try an experiment in viewing some of the critical flops that studios have pumped out in the last decade or so. Acknowledging going in that my expectation of these films is they they are going to be "bad," I decided nevertheless that I would:
- Choose a selection of films that cost no more $5 that I have not seen before, that broadly fall into what I term the "fantastic adventure" category (e.g., sci-fi, fantasy, superhero, sword-and-sandal, etc.), and that received a low Rotten Tomatoes score.
- Watch them purposely with an eye toward whether there are enough things that I appreciate about the films that in that balance I can say I "like" the movie overall. In other words, the things I like tip the scale against the things I don't like. (Even if just barely.)
The chief criteria for rating my liking of the film are:
1) Do I like the characters and care what happens to them?
2) Am I drawn in and engaged by the unfolding story?
3) Are there some things to appreciate about the craftsmanship of the filmmaking itself?
Again, it is a given that there are going to be things about the films that are "bad." So the question is: are the things I can like strong enough to outweigh the things that I don't?
Be advised that there are spoilers ahead.
So without further ado, these are the films that I picked (all are DVDs from Walmart):
The Man With the Iron Fists
Tomato-meter: critics 49%, audience 40%
Budget - $20 million; box office - $20.25 million
Rotten Tomatoes description:
"Making his debut as a big-screen director and leading man, RZA--alongside a stellar international cast led by Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu--tells the epic story of warriors, assassins and a lone outsider hero in nineteenth-century China who must unite to destroy the clan traitor who would destroy them all. Since his arrival in China's Jungle Village, the town's blacksmith (RZA) has been forced by radical tribal factions to create elaborate tools of destruction. When the clans' brewing war boils over, the stranger channels an ancient energy to transform himself into a human weapon. As he fights alongside iconic heroes and against soulless villains, one man must harness this power to become savior of his adopted people. -- (C) Universal"
This is the sort of film that you pretty much must accept on its own terms in order to enjoy it. The Man With the Iron Fists is definitely made in the B Movie tradition. It is a meld of Chopsocky, Spaghetti Western, and Quentin Tarantino-style B movie ultra-violent exploitation film. Tarantino is apparently a producer of sorts for the film, at least to the extent that he lends his name in the form of "Quentin Tarantino presents." (How much Tarantino consulted I'm not sure; but RZA worked on the soundtrack for Django Unchained and it appears Tarantino is very supportive of RZA.)
The story takes place in China some time before the American civil war during the 1800s, and in that sense with an African American star bears some similarity to Tarantino's Django Unchained. The film is basically about a kind Old West style showdown in a village between a motley collection of good guys forming an unlikely alliance versus a focused and organized clan of bad guys. You can read a detailed plot synopsis here.
For what this film is attempting, I liked the characters. The film has a good cast. RZA is the film's weakest link in terms of acting but his character, known simply as "the blacksmith," is at least likable enough. His voiced-over narration is actually very well done. Russell Crowe plays "Jack Knife," a composite of western gunslinger and steampunk-ish special agent. It is to me a role vaguely reminiscent of Christoph Waltz's Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained. (Crowe says he drew his inspiration from Clint Eastwood's Josey Wales and Dirty Harry characters.) The portrayal is a strange mixture of sadly grotesque and charismatically charming. But whatever one may say about whether Crowe should have taken the role, he commands the screen with it whenever he is on; and I certainly cared what happens to him. Lucy Liu busts some very strong fighting moves, and her Madam Blossom character plays what turns out to be a surprisingly vital role. Rick Yune is likable as X-Blade. On the evil side, Dave Bautista gives his by now standard solid performance as Brass Body--a bad guy who can morph his flesh into brass. The other two main villains are well realized as well, namely Byron Mann as Silver Lion and Daniel Wu as Poison Dagger.
Did the story engage me? I wouldn't say that I was riveted, but for a B movie it actually surpassed my expectations. The plot is fairly complicated and yet it still managed to maintain my interest throughout. The film could be a bit better paced, but overall it is a sound effort at delivering a coherent narrative.
In regard to the film's stylistic and technical aspects, I am not particularly a fan of ultra-violent or otherwise gory films, even the most artful ones (e.g., Peckinpah, Tarantino, et al.). But to me this film actually seemed a bit clumsy (i.e., lacking in artistry) with its bloodletting. That is a relatively minor complaint, though. The chopsocky fight choreography was pretty impressive (to me anyway--not that I've watched a lot of it). There were some clear homages to Tarantino's style, e.g., paneling the screen, overhead shots, contemporary music for the soundtrack, etc. Those humble nods to the master were subtle and well executed. The soundtrack, which was mostly hip-hop and some R&B, was fun. As mentioned the film could have been paced a little better for a bit more punch here and there. But for a directorial debut, this was actually pretty strong work for this type of material.
Honestly, if RZA was a better actor it would have elevated the film considerably. He may grow as an actor in time, but in this film his range is very limited. Also, the blacksmith's fight scene finale with Brass Body was just not very convincing, unfortunately.
The Verdict: I found more things to like about this film than I disliked. I'd put the ratio at about 65% things liked to 35% disliked. That is, taken on it's own terms, with low expectations going in, etc., as I said.
Tomato-meter: critics 35%, audience 48%
Director: Tarsem Singh
Budget - $75 million; box office - $226.9 million
Rotten Tomatoes description:
"The brutal and bloodthirsty King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) and his murderous Heraklion army are rampaging across Greece in search of the long lost Bow of Epirus. With the invincible Bow, the king will be able to overthrow the Gods of Olympus and become the undisputed master of his world. With ruthless efficiency, Hyperion and his legions destroy everything in their wake, and it seems nothing will stop the evil king's mission. As village after village is obliterated, a stonemason named Theseus (Henry Cavill) vows to avenge the death of his mother in one of Hyperion's raids. When Theseus meets the Sybelline Oracle, Phaedra (Freida Pinto), her disturbing visions of the young man's future convince her that he is the key to stopping the destruction. With her help, Theseus assembles a small band of followers and embraces his destiny in a final desperate battle for the future of humanity. -- (C) Relativity Media"
This is a film that clearly attempted to be a mainstream success with a budget of 75 million. The film has two of the same producers as Zack Snyder's 300, and its visual style is very similar to 300. Immortals has an A-list cast of stars (see below).
The story is "loosely" inspired (at best) by the Greek myth of Athens' founder, Theseus. It seems to have little to do with the actual Greek tale, actually, although most viewers will neither know or care. In the Greek myth Theseus defeats the dreaded Minotaur of Crete and becomes the first king of Athens (history's first attempt at a democracy and the birthplace of Hellenism). In the film Theseus does fight a mysterious enormous, hulking henchman of Hyperion's who wears a bull mask (we never see his face). However in this film the "Minotaur" also becomes a kind of metaphor for Hyperion, king of Heraklion, and that city-state of Crete. In Greek mythology Hyperion is a titan, but in Immortals he is instead portrayed as a king that seeks to conquer all of Greece. The evil king also has a mission to end the reign of the Greek gods by releasing titans that have been held captive within Mount Tartarus, to vanquish the pantheon. In order to accomplish this Hyperion seeks a divinely enchanted super-weapon, the Epirus Bow, which fires an endless supply of magical arrows that never miss and destroy any obstacle. Theseus is a lowly peasant stone mason that Zeus admires for his noble and heroic qualities. And Theseus aided by Sybeline oracle, a thief, and the Olympian gods, is able to thwart Hyperion's plan.
I'm not sure yet how I feel about what this film does with the translation of the ancient Greek myth. The treatment is rather like Darren Aronofsky's very strange 2014 film Noah, in which the biblical story of Noah is used as inspiration to tell its own original fantastic tale. On the one hand, it feels like Immortals uses the Greek myth of Theseus defeat of the Minotaur as a metaphor for a Cretan king's attempted conquest of Greece, since in the film Hyperion is obviously a bull worshiper (and in real world history Crete was home to the Minotaur cult). It is not stated as such: but it is possible Hyperion could be an immortal cloaked in human form, a member of the faction of divine beings who battled the Olympian gods that somehow avoided the fate of the titans who were bound within Tartarus. Zeus, for example, continually meddles with the affairs of mankind by assuming human form (although Zeus strictly forbids all the other gods from doing so, or intervening directly in their affairs in divine form on earth). Perhaps Hyperion is secretly a titan who is doing the same.
The film doesn't really know what to do with the themes of class prejudice and egalitarianism. The ancient Greeks were bigoted, rigid, and mean-spirited about class divisions. Athenian "democracy" was available only to male citizens of the city-state. Women, the working classes, and slaves enjoyed no such benefits. The film places some importance upon Theseus rising from peasant origins to become the heroic savior of his people, and indeed the world. As a legend who lives on as an inspiration to future generations he even ends up placed among the stars, as they say. But none of that jibes well with ancient Greek culture as it actually was, or even as depicted in the film.
In general, the film's stylization of the Olympian gods felt rather odd. The gods didn't feel very ethereal or majestic. They seemed more like a more advanced race of human beings possessing superhuman abilities and 'magic' technology. It was interesting, in a way, that they could easily be imagined as an extraterrestrial humanoid race as the Marvel Cinematic Universe depicts Asgardians in the Thor and Avengers films. But if this is so, it is left to us to surmise.
Not that it affects the film, but Hera is absent.
Henry Cavill's performance of Theseus is similar to the one he gives in Man of Steel, in which he is stalwart and earnest but seems vaguely troubled inwardly, perhaps doubting his ability to prevail. Cavill alternately uses both his British and American accents, although the drift back and forth is subtle and to me did not pose a significant distraction. Mickey Rourke comes very close to taking his performance of Hyperion over-the-top, but he manages to keep it reigned in just enough overall. It is a villainous persona similar to the type that he began developing as early as Get Carter (Cyrus Paice) and found its current 'look' in Iron Man 2 (Ivan Vanko). Rourke is one of those larger-than-life actors who owns the screen whenever he's on it. Overall I liked this performance. Freida Pinto does a nice job as Phaedra the Oracle. John Hurt as the human 'old man' form of Zeus does his usual fine work. I was a bit disappointed by Luke Evans as Zeus. To me he did not come across as patriarchal enough. But this is a matter of character concept and casting--I don't hold Evans himself responsible. Otherwise I did not find any of the other performances particularly noteworthy, although they were all decent.
The director Tarsem Singh said that in terms of visual style he was attempting to capture the look of a Caravaggio painting, i.e., to use the "Mannerist" style of exaggerated and elongated forms, with a dark, smoky "chiaroscuro" effect. Honestly, I can't say that I see the Mannerism influence showing up all that strongly. But like 300, Immortals uses the same golden and sepia color palette and chiaroscuro effects. In terms of visual style it is actually a fairly enthralling film to look at, even if hugely derivative of 300.
The narrative structure of the film is not very smoothly constructed. Story development is at times halting and awkward. And some story elements aren't set up well. For example, Theseus discovers the Epirus Bow by chance, accidentally discovering and tugging on what is apparently a hidden lever handle of some sort that reveals the location. Reading such a plot device on paper sounds like it might suffice. But in the film it feels a bit weak and contrived, to me at least. The audience knows the bow exists already because Hyperion is actively searching for it. But there is no quest for Theseus to find or obtain the bow. He simply stumbles upon it--presumably led to it through divine intervention, though, I suppose.
I would say the action, special effects, and fight choreography is all in the B- range. (Maybe a bit of the fight choreography rises to B+ or A-.)
The Verdict: Given the good sized budget and A-list cast, Immortals calls for rather high expectations among the seven films I chose to watch. On that basis I rate it at 55% things liked to 45% disliked. I will give the film credit for (indirectly) 1) making me think about comparing it to Noah and speculating about its concept that way, and 2) inspiring me to learn more about the actual Greek myth it uses for inspiration. And Cavill and Rourke do manage to keep the ship afloat whereas it otherwise might have totally floundered.
Dragon Wars: D-War
Tomato-meter: critics 29%, audience 19%
Director: Shim Hyung-rae
Budget - $32 million; box office - $75.1 million
Rotten Tomatoes description:
"Korean director Shim Hyung-Rae's monster movie D-War begins with a lengthy prologue, in which an antique dealer named Jack (Robert Forster) watches a young patron, Ethan Kendrick (Cody Erens) get zapped with a force emanating from a chest in his shop. Realizing the significance of this event, Jack bequeaths a medal to the boy, and speaks candidly to him of mystical events that transpired a half-millennium earlier. In a bygone era, it seems, giant creatures called Buraki roamed the land, morphing from serpents into dragons and back again, and equipped with a massive army of formidable creatures. An ancient warrior-apprentice saved the life of his beloved from these monstrosities; the warrior's spirit was eventually contained in the aforementioned chest, and it has now filled Ethan. Jack gives Ethan an enchanted red pendant and advises him to see out the contemporary incarnation of the ancient warrior's intended, who can be recognized via a red dragon tattoo on her shoulder. When the woman reaches her 20th birthday, it seems, she and Ethan - joining forces - will be able to reincarnate Imoogi as dragons. That woman is in fact Sarah (Amanda Brooks); she and Ethan do encounter one another, but it isn't long before the Buraki serpent and all of his enormous minions resurface and decide to lay waste to the City of Angels, worming their way through the town as they look for the chosen pair. ~ Nathan Southern, Rovi"
You can view the official trailer in HD at the film's Rotten Tomatoes page here.
This one is easy to review. The star of this movie is its special effects, which are great--and at times hilarious in a satisfying B movie way. The script, characters, actors, dialogue... all that is simply slapped together in a flimsy way to provide a foundation with which to showcase the real stars: the imoogi (enormous dragon-like serpents), huge lumbering dinosaur-like reptiles equipped with devastating canons on their backs, a cavalry of warriors riding what appear to be velociraptors, and for the finale a very impressive celestial dragon. I laughed out-loud in delight at the first sight of the canon bearing tank-like infantry.
This is treated as fundamentally no different than an old Godzilla movie, in which there's no need to really care about the human characters and actors (they're little better than props). The CGI is topflight. Although this film is already 8 years old, its special effects are on par with more recent high budget fantasy/adventure films.
You can read a synopsis here if you like. The story framework is actually pretty good material to work with. Every 500 years an evil imoogi seeks to obtain a magical symbol that is embedded as a birthmark upon a human female, which will allow the creature to transform into a full-fledged celestial dragon. The force of Heaven assigns two souls to protect this maiden in each earthly incarnation--one a young warrior, and the other a wizard mentor. In the last incarnation in China 500 years ago the young man and young woman fell in love. So as such the heroes of the film are a pair of 'star-crossed lovers' who are reincarnated into modern day Los Angeles, and the warrior's older mentor.
Today it is certainly reasonable for audiences to expect more than they did in the 1950's and 1960's with respect to the human story, even for an Asian B movie monster film (this film was made by a South Korean studio). And here the human tale is weakly told. The best performance is given by old pro Robert Forster as the hero's mentor, in which he does his usual solid work. No other performance is so bad that it's hard to watch. But by the same token, I just didn't find myself caring about any of them much either. That is a shame for the two main heroes of the film, Ethan (Jason Behr) and Sarah (Amanda Brooks). Craig Robinson does his best to bring some comic relief as Ethan's friend and colleague, but there isn't much he can do with the dialogue he's given.
Again, there's also no real excuse for not telling a good human story. But also to reiterate: perhaps in a film such as this it actually isn't necessary to care all that much about the human protagonists to begin with.
The Verdict: This is a B movie to begin with. And in the tradition of this sort of film there typically isn't any sort of expectation of great acting or a mesmerizing human story. The creatures in this film are so much fun that I rate it at 58% things liked to 42% disliked. The main question for a film like this is: does it deliver great monsters and action? I think it does that well enough.
Tomato-meter: critics 6%, audience 26%
Director: Mathieu Kassovitz
Budget - $70 million; box office - $72.1 million
Rotten Tomatoes description:
"It is the not-too-distant future. Thousands of satellites scan, observe and monitor our every move. Much of the planet is a war zone; the rest, a collection of wretched way stations, teeming megalopolises, and vast wastelands punctuated by areas left radioactive from nuclear meltdowns. It is a world made for hardened warriors, one of whom, a mercenary known only as Toorop, lives by a simple survivor's code: kill or be killed. His latest assignment has him smuggling a young woman named Aurora from a convent in Kazakhstan to New York City. Toorop, his new young charge Aurora and Aurora's guardian Sister Rebeka embark on a 6,000-mile journey that takes them from Eastern Europe, through a refugee camp in "New Russia," across the Bering Straight in a pilfered submarine, then through the frozen tundra of Alaska and Canada, and finally to New York. Facing obstacles at every turn, Toorop, the killer for hire, is tested like never before, in ways he could never have imagined--as he comes to understand that he is the custodian of the only hope for the future of mankind. For the first time in his life, Toorop has to make a choice: to make a difference or walk away and save himself. Too bad it came on the day he died."
You can view the official trailer in HD at the film's Rotten Tomatoes page here.
With a 6% tomato-meter score at Rotten Tomatoes this film actually turned out to be quite a bit better than that I expected. The performances are actually pretty good by Vin Diesel, Mélanie Thierry, and Michelle Yeoh. It is a terribly flawed film, but it is actually not entirely godawful. The setting is 2058 in a dystopian world in which our existing governmental and social order has broken down and the suggestion is that corporate oligarchs rule. Needless to say, the world lacks basic humanity and life is for everyone a barbaric struggle. It is a high-tech version of the Dark Ages, which is actually a very compelling premise. In any event, it is a lawless, chaotic, depraved, and very dangerous world where human life is cheap. Vin Diesel plays Toorop, a mercenary who specializes in smuggling. He has also gotten himself placed on the U.S. terrorist watch-list, although this is presumably due to his mercenary smuggling exploits versus any ideology. Toorop is contracted to smuggle a young woman from Mongolia to New York. He is to be paid a king's ransom for this; and upon completion of the assignment will receive chance to assume a new identity in the U.S.
Toorop's "package" for delivery is a Aurora (Mélanie Thierry), a young woman who has been cloistered away for her entire life in a new world religious order monastery. Aurora is accompanied by Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh). Of course this band of three main characters repeatedly faces tremendous dangers and many harrowing moments in their journey to New York.
There is a mystery about the importance of Aurora that I hopefully won't spoil too much by simply saying that she is a valuable and unique specimen for the human species. Mélanie Thierry plays her as at once ethereal and down-to-earth. She impressed me as an actress. I loved her performance.
These characters, their chemistry and interactions, and the core framework of the story was surprisingly entertaining to me. Diesel uses his by now very familiar action hero persona: the cynical, cocky, deadly effective badass. Toorop reminds me a bit of Riddick (a character that I love) sans Riddick's powers. Anyway, similar to Riddick, here too Diesel plays a loner character whose existential stance could be summarized as: "I can't afford to care about anyone... but okay, dammit, I do care about you after all." Otherwise, as mentioned Mélanie Thierry gives a very compelling performance as Aurora. Michelle Yeoh is very likable as Aurora's monastery-appointed guardian. A scene of the three of them bonding at one point was something I genuinely felt. I liked the trio, cared about them, and remained interested to see how the adventure ended.
Unfortunately, for me, this film includes a number of scenes that just strain credulity to the point of being ridiculous--and as such they break immersion. There are just too many of these immersion-breakers for them cumulatively not to result in breaking the deal when it comes to just going with the flow of the film.
One is the scene during which Toorop has a standoff, all by himself, against a group of around eight goons that have superior fire power (i.e., many more guns)--and they even have possession of Aurora. Toorop is armed with just an assault rifle. The enemies simply stand down and surrender Aurora to him. It makes no sense, at all. The enemy clearly has the advantage.
Another scene that just becomes downright silly is a scene during which Toorop, Aurora, Sister Rebeka, and a fellow smuggler 'ally' of Toorop's are chased across the snowy Canadian tundra on snowmobiles by armed drones. It seems just too far-fetched that they could avoid these impressive drones. The drones are basically AI controlled mini-fighter jets. We can only assume that their GPS and targeting mechanisms went on the blink!
The last act of the film feels tagged on, as the built-up tension has already been released in a grand final battle showdown in New York. Nope (fake-out!) there's more! The ending of the film is a fail in terms of the pacing of tension-and-resolution.
Very late in the film Toorop loses a leg and receives a prosthetic replacement that looks relatively contemporary by today's standards. Then he undertakes the second mission in the final act in which his legs look perfectly normal! Maybe they fitted him with a more advanced artificial cyborg leg? Or perhaps they even used genetic engineering technology to have his body grow a new one? But there is no explanation at all for Toorop's normal appearance and movement following that injury.
Aurora's father and mother (as each identifies themselves in the film) receive paper thin development. They feel slapped into the film at the end in order to propel the story to the finish line. It's a shame, though. The film is only 90 minutes long! So those two characters could easily have been developed a bit more. Done effectively, I think it might have helped the film quite a bit. Through that we could gain a more detailed explanation of what makes Aurora so special, for example.
The Verdict: Babylon A.D. was better than I expected. What I enjoyed from it, (surprisingly) I did enjoy quite a bit. A number of scenes that I could not buy-in to with 'willing suspension of disbelief' placed a lot of weight on the 'dislike' side of the scale. I could only by the tiniest sliver consider this to be a "good" film overall. (Mind you, I'm defining "good" in terms of my own personal enjoyment.) But because of a surprisingly successful realization of a futuristic 'Dark Ages', Mélanie Thierry's strong performance, and the way that the trio of main characters ended up mattering to me, I rate it at 53% things like to 47% disliked.
Titans Double Feature: Clash of the Titans (2010) and Wrath of the Titans (2012)
$9.96 (so $5 per flick)
Tomato-meter: critics 28%, audience 39%
Director: Louis Leterrier
Budget - $75 million; box office - $226.9 million
Rotten Tomatoes description:
Clash of the Titans: "The 1981 mythological fantasy adventure Clash of the Titans is resurrected in this remake from Incredible Hulk director Louis Leterrier. Discovered at sea as an infant by a weary fisherman, demigod Perseus (Sam Worthington) grows up with no real knowledge of his celestial origins until his watchful guardian, Io (Gemma Arterton), informs him that he is the offspring of Zeus (Liam Neeson). When Zeus' brother Hades (Ralph Fiennes) casually wipes out Perseus' family, the grieving son vows to show the gods just what kind of damage humankind can inflict on its creators. Before long, Perseus and a small group of soldiers are venturing out into the desert in order to find a way to stop the Kraken, a terrifying force of nature that an indignant Hades has vowed to unleash upon man should they fail to offer up beloved princess Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) as a sacrifice. Along the way, the soldiers encounter a trio of frightening witches with second sight, contend with Hades' devoted servant Calibos (Jason Flemyng), battle giant scorpions, and come face to face with Medusa (Natalia Vodianova), the dreaded gorgon whose gaze has the power to turn men into stone. ~ Jason Buchanan, Rovi"
This is a film with a good budget that was quite successful at the box office despite its low Rotten Tomatoes scores from both critics and audience. It spawned a sequel (see the next film below) with twice the budget that also turned a good profit, although not quite as much.
Clash of the Titans is the story of the ancient Greek demigod hero Perseus. You can read a full synopsis of the movie's story here. It is a straightforward tale. Perseus was fathered by Zeus, who took the form of the King of Argos and made love to the queen. Thus Perseus' birth mother was therefore a queen of Argos. However the King of Argos at the time resents the fact that Zeus assumed his form to impregnate his wife. So immediately following the baby's birth the king decrees that both his queen and the infant be put to death. The slain mother and living baby are placed in a locked chest that is tossed into the sea. The chest is however found by a humble fisherman and Perseus is rescued. The fisherman and his wife raise Perseus and instill in him simple but solid virtues, with understanding that their adoptive son enjoys some sort of divine favor, given how they found him.
By the time Persus becomes a young man the city-state of Argos launches a rebellion against the tyranny of the gods by toppling a giant statue of Zeus along a sea cliff. This deed angers Hades who arises from the beneath the ocean floor and kills the offenders. But in so doing Hades also purposefully swamps the innocent fishing boat that Perseus entire family is aboard, killing all but Perseus. This event fixes in Perseus' heart a seething hatred of the gods. Perseus identifies with Argos' yearning to throw off the yoke of domination by the Olympians, and sever their ties with the gods once and for all.
Predictably, the gods are pissed at mankind for rejecting them. Zeus decides to teach Argos a lesson by having his brother Hades unleash his monstrous sea creature, the Kraken, on the city. In order to avoid annihilation Argos must sacrifice its beautiful princess, Andromeda, to the Kraken. That is, unless a band of intrepid heroes can figure out a way to defeat the Kraken before the appointed time. Perseus is a member of this elite team.
Just in case the reader has not seen the film, I don't see any need to spoil about what follows.
The CGI for this film is pretty good. We're treated to such creatures as Olympian deities, harpies, giant scorpions, djinn, Stygian witches, the Medusa, Pegasuses; and of course the big bad at the end, the awe-inspiring Kraken. The mighty Kraken is awe-inspiring.
The dialogue is fine. All the actors' performances are fine. Sam Worthington gives a solid performance as Perseus. Liam Nissan and Ralph Fiennes as Zeus and Hades, respectively, both do a good job. Gemma Arterton as Io is particularly likable, I thought. In this tale Io is a human 'cursed' by the gods with immortality (i.e., doomed to see all of her loved ones die) and appointed by Zeus as a kind of guardian spirit for Perseus. Io is semi-divine and has powers. Mads Mikkelsen gives a good performance as Perseus' combat mentor Draco. The performances for the rest of Perseus comrades are okay.
The only real problem I had with this film is that Perseus goes from being a simple fisherman to epic hero in nothing flat. There is barely a transition. He is a demigod, after all, that is true. But dramatically speaking the transformation is too abrupt. Perseus does get some brief training at sword play, and ostensibly due to his divine origins he is of course a natural. But we really don't see any character development from fisherman to epic hero, and in my opinion that hurts the film.
Otherwise there's really not much to complain loudly about. Nor however is there much to get excited by either. It's a popcorn flick.
The Verdict: I love Greek mythology. So overall, I did have fun watching Clash of the Titans. There was more for me to enjoy about it than dislike. I rate it at 63% things liked to 37% disliked.
Tomato-meter: critics 25%, audience 49%
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Budget - $150 million; box office - $305.2 million
Rotten Tomatoes description:
Wrath of the Titans: "A decade after his heroic defeat of the monstrous Kraken, Perseus-the demigod son of Zeus-is attempting to live a quieter life as a village fisherman and the sole parent to his 10-year old son, Helius. Meanwhile, a struggle for supremacy rages between the gods and the Titans. Dangerously weakened by humanity's lack of devotion, the gods are losing control of the imprisoned Titans and their ferocious leader, Kronos, father of the long-ruling brothers Zeus, Hades and Poseidon. Perseus cannot ignore his true calling when Hades, along with Zeus' godly son, Ares (Edgar Ramírez), switch loyalty and make a deal with Kronos to capture Zeus. The Titans' strength grows stronger as Zeus' remaining godly powers are siphoned... -- (C) Warner Bros."
This was for me a bit more captivating film than Clash of the Titans, although it is still basically a popcorn flick also.
A complete synopsis can be read here.
Ten years have passed since the events of the first film, and Perseus is now a father. Io was evidently granted mortality. She married Perseus and together they had a son Heleus. Io has died for reasons unexplained. Perseus has turned his back to adventuring and war, wishing instead to live a peaceful, humble life as a fisherman. He is however brought out of retirement as a hero at Zeus' request due to an impending cataclysm. Hades and Ares have colluded with the father of all the divinities, the titan Kronos, to release him from his bondage in Tartarus in order to destroy the Olympian gods. For their treachery Hades and Ares will be rewarded with continued immortality and positions within the new Titan dominated world order to follow.
Hades unleashes his hellish servants upon the gods. All of the "good" gods are killed except Zeus and Hephaestus. Zeus is imprisoned in Hades with his energy gradually being drained to power up Kronos, who when fully empowered will explode Mount Tatarus and finally become free to walk the earth again. Hephaestus has long since walked away from all the divine melodrama to live as a hermit and is (foolishly) ignored by Hades and Ares.
Perseus therefore teams up with Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) who is now Queen of Argos, and the demigod Agenor, a son of Poseiden, played by Toby Kebbell. They seek out Hephaestus, the Greek pantheon's blacksmith and inventor, who aids the trio by providing them information and a map, and even joins the fight at the end. Their mission is to enter Tartarus through a secret labyrinth and obtain the Thunderbolt of Zeus that Ares has stolen from his imprisoned father, as well as Hades' pitchfork. These items they will combine with Poseidon's trident (which is already in our heroic team's possession) to create the Spear of Triam, a divine weapon mighty enough to vanquish Kronos.
The trio of adventurers is likable enough. Worthington's Perseus has a more developed identity this time around. He is more centered around being a good father to his son. So he has that motivation in addition. And here he is more open to helping his father Zeus than he did as a younger man. I very much enjoyed Kebbell as Agenor, who in this tale who depicted as a charismatic and rakish thief. I'm not familiar with Agenor in actual Greek mythology. But if Agenor has inherited any Poseidon's powers I suppose that his identity as a thief might reflect the inherent fickleness of the sea even if it is a reliable source of sustenance overall? Similarly, in the final battle Perseus' use of the winged steed, the Pegasus, hurling a lightning imbued spear is reminiscent of Zeus (god of the heavens). Anyway, Kebbell brings charm and humor to the role, which provides a counterbalance to Perseus' more stoic and workman-like personality. Pike's Andromeda is a formidable fighter in her own right and more than holds her own. Wisely, the film treats her as an equal rather than merely as a love interest for Perseus.
The story becomes as much about the relationship between Zeus and Hades as it is a tale of three heroes descending into Tartarus to save the world. Liam Neeson (Zeus) and Ralph Fiennes (Hades) deliver Shakespearean-like performances even if the dialogue written for them isn't exactly Shakespeare. I will avoid spoiling except to say that the two of them had a lot to work out going into this film, and that does get played out in a way that at least held my interest. The drama of their relationship felt a bit like the actors were simply going through the motions, however. It didn't feel as compelling as it ideally might have. Edgar Ramirez as Ares is adequate, I saw nothing noteworthy about the performance.
The special effects are again impressive, particularly Kronos. The CGI is a bit less the star in this film than in Clash of the Titans. But that is because there is more of human story being told. But in addition to Kronos we are treated as well to a Chimera, a Minotaur, and and army of Makhai. I would have preferred to see a few more fantastic monsters for our heroes to battle, and to have showcased Agenor's skills in particular.
The Verdict: I'm a sucker for Greek mythology. No surprise then that I found more to like than dislike about the film. The picture has more of a story than its predecessor, which is good in principle. I particularly enjoyed Kebbell's performance of Agenor. The drama between Zeus and Hades is a bit lackluster. There could have been more monsters. I rate this film with 67% things liked to 33% disliked.
Battle: Los Angeles
Tomato-meter: critics 35%, audience 48%
Rotten Tomatoes description:
"For years, there have been documented cases of UFO sightings around the world - Buenos Aires, Seoul, France, Germany, China. But in 2011, what were once just sightings will become a terrifying reality when Earth is attacked by unknown forces. As people everywhere watch the world's great cities fall, Los Angeles becomes the last stand for mankind in a battle no one expected. It's up to a Marine staff sergeant (Aaron Eckhart) and his new platoon to draw a line in the sand as they take on an enemy unlike any they've ever encountered before. -- (C) Sony"
Battle: Los Angeles is actually fairly effective in creating a somewhat realistic sense of how it might feel for our planet to endure an alien invasion by creatures that are more advanced than we are, but not quite so much so that that they deny a chance to martial a defense. The premise is that humankind does have a slim fighting chance, even if just barely. The aliens land just off the coastlines of the world's major port cities and immediately proceed to decimate the human populations and infrastructures. The speculation is that they are after the earth's liquid water, and they have come to wipe out humans in order to get it. The invading ETs use 'blaster' type guns and other explosive ordinances. They also have aerial drones and infantry robots assisting them. As we would expect from a space traveling species they also have advanced AI and sophisticated electronic communications systems.
You can read a full story synopsis here. Aaron Eckhart plays Nantz, a career staff sergeant who is about to retire from the military after his last campaign in Afghanistan with Audi Murphy-like heroics that also resulted in the loss of some of his troops. The buzz among his fellow soldiers it that Nantz was to blame for getting them killed, although the specifics are never provided. The suggestion is that he was too gung-ho? Maybe he planned the entire mission poorly? Did he make some bad leadership calls at critical moments? All of the above?
These questions become the subtext for the mission that Nantz finds himself on after the invasion is underway, and the fight is going very badly for humanity (not just in L.A. but around the world as well). The platoon's mission is to rescue civilians stranded in a police headquarters deep within the enemy's zone before a scheduled air strike takes out the entire area. To get there and out with the civilians they face brutal opposition. Here Nantz is under the command of a young Lieutenant Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) with no prior combat experience. Nearly all of the things that are rumored as failures of leadership by Nantz are played out by the young Lieutenant. That plot device works.
On the negative side, there is a bit of melodrama that feels contrived and even awkward in which Corporal Lockett (Cory Hardict) hates on Nantz because his brother was one of the soldiers who died under Nantz's command in Afghanistan. Another thing that (for me) doesn't work particularly well is a civilian man and his son, played by Michael Pena and Bryce Cass, respectively, in which the father becomes a casualty and Nantz must help the son deal with the loss. These things serve as vehicles to express core principles about what it means to heroically deal with seemingly insurmountable challenges (which is fine). But dramatically they just didn't work very well.
Eckhart is good as the gritty, hardboiled, salty dog staff sergeant. Michelle Rodriguez gives a winning performance as Tech Sergeant Elena Santos. Gino Anthony Pesi stands out as very likable as New Jersey native Corporal Nick Stavrou. Otherwise the performances are all fine, but none of them really made a particularly strong impression on me.
The suspense, tension, pacing of the action, and ferocity of the firefights is all pretty well executed. At least for me, the film created a vaguely uncomfortable feeling in the gut that one might get if such a thing were to happen in real life (again, including the larger sense of such an invasion on the whole, and the struggle against despair in trying to battle a superior forces). The film's special effects are also pretty good, i.e., the aliens and their technology. Interestingly, we are never truly given a good look at the aliens, even when they are encountered up close. And that is effective psychologically since so much of the action includes being pinned down by the enemy as they fire from rooftops, and around corners, and so forth.
The Verdict: I found more to like about this movie than dislike. The sense of an alien invasion is vividly evoked. I did like the special effects, action, and a number of the performances. I didn't care for some of the dramatic elements that to me felt contrived and melodramatic. There were no bad performances, really--just dramatic elements that failed. I rate it at 58% things liked to 42% disliked.
Now, interestingly, in terms of which films I actually liked best from top to bottom, that actually does not match up with the scores I gave each film. Not sure what to make of that... Here's my ranked order of most enjoyed to least:
2) Babylon A.D.
3) Wrath of the Titans
4) Man with the Iron Fists
5) Clash of the Titans
6) Dragon Wars (D-war)
7) Battle: Los Angeles
I was going to go through and change the scores accordingly, but I decided I'd leave the contradiction there to ponder some more.
Two of my friends who also love film and I regularly get together and we share various lists of films, or actors, that we agree upon in advance according to a particular challenge. For example, a recent one was to list at least 10 films that the critics disliked, and/or that tanked at the box office, that we happened to like anyway, regardless. One of these friends struggled a bit because he reads reviews beforehand and rules out going to see films that are either panned or are financial flops. That is in part what inspired me to try this project. It connected with a notion that recently dawned upon me that films are a bit like people in that we all have flaws, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't enjoy spending time with others for that reason. Typically we shrug off the things that bug us and focus on the things we enjoy. Why not try that with films?
As you can see, I'm pretty forgiving as a film viewer to begin with. I want to enjoy the film! So I tend to pay attention more to what I find to like and probably tend to minimize what isn't so great.
Anyway, this was a fun project, and I had a good time watching some films that I would otherwise have never given a chance.
I enjoyed this enough that I'm getting Round Two lined up. The next series will be films that I will still strive to keep under $5 but it will include streaming in order to widen the selection. So far the next list includes: Jupiter Ascending, John Carter, Hercules (2014), Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, 9, and Beowulf (2007). In order to include Hercules and Beowulf I have widened the parameters to include films that may be "fresh" on critics Tomato-meter but that the audience rated at no higher than 50% (i.e., audience disliked at Rotten Tomatoes).