QUICKIE: Død Snø (Tommy Wirkola, 2009)

Director Tommy Wirkola and his cohorts clearly share a love for several of the seminal slash n' splatter series referenced through Død Snø's expendable film buff character. Inspirations drawn from Friday the 13th and The Evil Dead feature strongly in this thrilling exploitation escapade to the point where the iconic "groovy" scene from the latter is given a brief recreation. Even Kill Bill shows up, which will come as little surprise to those familiar (unlike myself as of yet) with Wirkola's 2007 spoof, Kill Buljo.

Forgiving two overly black-and-blue scenes in the opening third, the Norwegian mountains are taken full advantage of and provide an appealing and unique atmosphere for a zombie throw-down. The blood - even the computer-drawn kind, surprising enough - looks great against peaks and valleys of glistening, white snow.

So is Død Snø the perfect culmination of its aforementioned predecessors' achievements? Nah. Far from it, actually. For every tablespoon of dynamic, exaggerated awesome is a teaspoon of lazy short-cuts and unfortunate cliches. At times I'll pull less for the characters' safety from their pursuers and more for the filmmakers to get a commanding grip on their vision. This isn't to mention the exposition-heavy front end that misses cues from more successful and concise establishing scenes in Jason Voorhees' and Ashley Williams' respective films. Largely, however, Død Snø does manage to rise above these shortcomings with bloody ardor and deliver big on its promise of undead Nazis ascending from their frozen chambers to march on youthful vacationers.


QUICKIE: The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland (Gary Halvorson, 1999)

My daughter, only four months old, may be far too young to fully partake in something like the 77-minute long and somewhat interactive Elmo in Grouchland but one thing is certain, she is predisposed to loving Elmo. This I began to determine when imitating the popular, red monster calmed an unusually fussy changing session. The notion was confirmed when a boredom-induced bout of channel surfing brought me to an Elmo segment of Sesame Street to which the little one perked up and chirped with excitement. So, in an effort to entertain after most alternative avenues had been ventured, I popped on this colorful adventure.

Elmo's 1999 outing opens merrily with fun and familiar characters and settings (and an inexplicable Tiger Woods poster in the background). Whimsical songs and "Sesame Street" in-jokes are everywhere. It isn't long, however, before the fuzzy hero shows a flaw in character and needs to venture through the Oz-like Grouchland to redeem himself. Okay, kids might not pick up on this relative subtlety of the story's meaning. Elmo's tale of redemption as interpreted by the target audience is more a spritely journey to rescue a prized possession. It is important for them to realize - and hopefully they will, perhaps with some parental coaching - the message is one of charity. Not only does Elmo learn not to give in to greed, he realizes that outward appearance is far from the whole picture. To keep little viewers going between the carefully woven lessons are innocent pratfalls and plenty more musical numbers, including a stand-out from Vanessa Williams as the Queen of Trash, an unintentionally sexual character (she demands the blowing of 'raspberries' to, uh... please her... after which bright lights explode behind her throne).

My own youngster was captivated by the colors and sounds for approximately half an hour before casually demanding extra attention, and even then she remained intrigued. The film may play at an extreme pace, helping mold a lack of patience from an early age, but overall it is an easily recommendable - if not quite memorable - way for a child to spend an hour and fifteen minutes. If anything, the ever-impressive Mandy Patinkin's turn as the selfish villain Huxley is a delight.


QUICKIE: Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009)

Duncan Jones' debut makes a point of shrouding its premise in mystery, which would be fine if the solution to the mystery wasn't so straight-forward. With each occasionally clunky revelation comes a not-so-subtle suggestion of the next, rendering overly drawn-out build-ups entirely fruitless. By the time the obvious has been confirmed, about ten minutes remain for something to actually be done with what we figured out over an hour prior. That stated, even if the focus shifted to the events of these final ten minutes, the film would still have a long way to go before touching on truly compelling ground.

As might surprise some, Moon moves along rather speedily. One might imagine this story of a man working more or less by himself on a space station taking an introspectively understated approach. Instead, the camera is almost always on the move, the cuts are frequent and the score implies Clint Mansell would rather be working on Armageddon 2: Revenge of the Asteroids. The pace attains near-thriller levels at times and while theoretically this is acceptable, it doesn't seem to mesh. Jones might have done better to go for broke with his blatant rip-off of 2001: A Space Odyssey's aesthetics, thereby creating a more methodical examination of solitude... with less robotic versions of As-Seen-On-TV products from the mid-90's.


REVIEW: Clash of the Titans (Louis Letterier, 2010)

As published on the BEHOLD NAPLES website May 2010.

When mankind defies Zeus (Liam Neeson), its blasphemy fuels the ruler of the underworld, Hades (Ralph Fiennes), thus spurring a three-sided conflict threatening the destruction of Argos. The vengeful Perseus (Sam Worthington), a demigod freshly rescued from a skirmish that killed his foster parents, is sent with a band of ornery soldiers on a quest for Argos' salvation. Wait, this doesn't sound like a remake of Ray Harryhausen's 1981 classic... but it is.

As much as I enjoy it, I'll be the first to admit the original "Clash of the Titans" doesn't have much titan clashing per se, so the addition of Hades as a wronged deity out to conquer Mount Olympus sounded promising. Aspects of the source material scrapped in Hades' favor aren't likely to translate well to modern audiences anyhow. For example, I'm not sure how today's moviegoers would react to Sam Worthington turning himself invisible, sneaking into the princess' chambers and watching her sleep. It makes sense to switch the focus from these events to more potentially clash-worthy ones. The problem is that Hades' mutinous story - plot points of which are prone to come out of thin air - overpowers the new film, rendering the shards of what was into utterly useless footnotes.

The central characters as many know them are the noble Perseus on a journey of self-discovery, the innocent Andromeda on a quest for love and the compellingly tragic yet terrifying Calibos. In this retelling, the invasive alterations render the latter two mere shadows of their former selves - obligatory references to the "Titans" legacy. Andromeda's story fails to so much as obey logic while Calibos, looking more like John Hurt's Elephant Man than a cursed swamp horror, gets an origin makeover then proceeds to take up precious space. Even our key protagonist, Perseus, would be frivolous were it not for his conveniently divine heritage. This may be the greatest example yet of the remake trend's maddening incumbency in that enough originality is present to warrant an entirely new film, but the marketing tool of name recognition demands it be called "Clash of the Titans."

So the main characters are given the footnote treatment, but at least this restructuring is trimming some fat, right? Early on there's even an admittedly humorous cast-off for Bubo, the original's much-maligned mechanical owl, leading one to believe that is indeed the case. As quickly as Bubo's proverbial fat gets the trim, however, we are bombarded by an overpopulation of side characters to take his place. Most of these blatantly unoriginal and occasionally annoying characters provide nothing more than something new to look at and there are so very many that each gets but a scant few moments of screentime. In fact, the only new character with a finite purpose seems to be there solely so she can provide exposition to the already exposition-heavy proceedings. Too bad that for all her talking she barely manages to skim the surface of actually important backstory before falling victim to one of the more contrived romance subplots in recent memory.

In the questionable character barrage's midst are, of course, plenty of battle scenes to satisfy our appetite for destruction. It is within these scenes the film's lesser qualities are most evidenced. All-too-familiar quick and close shots dominate our heroes' physical trials, making it near impossible to discern the goings-on until each encounter concludes. As if claustrophobic combat wasn't enough, we're also subjected to an abuse of unnecessary "bullet time." This is not to say the battles are without beastly merit. After all, what would a remake of a Ray Harryhausen film be without some great creatures to drool over? Thankfully, the fearsome recreations of "Uncle Ray's" giant scorpion horde and the gargantuan Kraken himself stand to recapture testosterone-charged imaginations. Even so, the scope of impressive effects seems limited to these examples. The remainder is embarrassingly second-rate. Furthermore, the monsters' digital trappings inevitably fail to accomplish an endearing nature and they are soon forgotten. It's just not the same when you know it was all created on a computer screen.

As for our fleshy participants, the only notable performance comes from ever-reliable Liam Neeson, updating Laurence Olivier's Zeus. When it comes to the question of "who did it best," I'll still lean toward Niall MacGinnis from perhaps Harryhausen's finest film, "Jason and the Argonauts," but, to be fair, Neeson's acting was not allowed breathing room by the haphazard pacing of this new "Clash." Embodying a raspy Hades with a receding hairline is an uncharacteristically neutered Ralph Fiennes. When not zooming about in the form of a harpy mob (a possible homage to the aforementioned "Argonauts"), he's busy squandering opportunities to become a memorable villain. Finally, vying for the "least dimensional turn of the early decade" trophy is Sam Worthington. His inexplicably buzz-cut Perseus draws strength from brutish stubbornness portrayed through a series of scowls and little more. Worthington has submitted solid supporting performances in films like "Rogue," but is he really the blockbuster-carrying star James Cameron wants him to be?

Though director Louis Letterier claims adoration of the source material, his limp "Clash of the Titans" disrespects that source, posing no threat to its legacy. The painfully conventional update plays as a desperate made-for-television movie with misplaced actors of repute and slightly better effects. Drastic amendments to the story may be well-intentioned but ultimately cause the greatest detriment. Even the few positive changes drown in mired surroundings. This "Clash" shares more in common with Disney's "Hercules" than Harryhausen's classic. Children may enjoy it, thinking they're experiencing a big, grown-up movie while their parents yearn for Bubo.


QUICKIE: Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009)

I can't say I've fallen absolutely head-over-heels for Wes Anderson's latest. I also can't say I've found anything to dissuade me from giving it top marks. With all things considered the pieces do fall quite nicely into place. What keeps me from showering the film with most extreme adulation is the breakneck speed in which it all soars by. Around the third act, when business starts to pick up in every way anyhow, the never-waste-a-second pacing makes more sense, though I'm sure I would be that much more invested had the preliminaries allowed me to digest the characters.

Mr. Fox does manage to maintain whimsy and style without losing steam at any moment as Anderson takes hold of a more vintage style of stop-motion and lets 'er rip. The animation is truly a sight to behold, containing moments that, through shear aesthetic value, threaten to choke up anyone weary from computer animation's current deathgrip on the family market. These astounding visuals are accompanied by a very fitting mesh of original score composed by Alexandre Desplat (who has been the victim of previous criticism on this blog but redeems himself entirely here) and soundtrack selections (including a high point featuring - yep - a Rolling Stones song),  and a stellar voice cast of which Jason Schwartzman is an uproarious stand-out.

This is a film I'm almost positive will grow on me as time pushes forth and I enjoy it again and again. It presents itself for all audiences with ease while ensuring no one's intelligence will be insulted. If my daughter loves it, I will be proud.