Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Reader Review: Joanna Loesch Eyes WRATH OF THE TITANS

Special treat today guys! Long time reader and commenter Joanna Loesch has written her own review of WRATH OF THE TITANS and wants to share with us. So without further ado, check out her opinion on the (awesome) movie that is still in theaters!

Joanna Loesch is a lecturer at the Institute of Foreign Languages, PWSZ, Nowy Sącz, Poland. Some of the courses she teaches include creative writing, translation and introduction to screenwriting.

This review is relatively spoiler-free. If I mention particular scenes they appeared in one of the trailers, TV spots, or promo clips.

Stereoscopic 3D – 10/10 (for a conversion)

I’ve seen the film twice now. First time in a digital IMAX, the second in my hastily upgraded local cinema which notoriously has issues with its Dolby 3D systems. Two ends of the scale, so to speak – I like to be thorough ;)

Let’s start with the latter.
Dolby 3D: I saw John Carter in the same screening room earlier and the film’s darker scenes were unwatchable. No such problems with Wrath, though. The picture was crisp throughout, with vibrant colours even though the projector’s brightness level was set criminally low. No ghosting, no strobing. Interestingly the film is presented in 1.85 aspect ratio rather than widescreen, so the picture was nicely filling the extra space on top and bottom of screen – always much better for 3D. Even on the relatively small screen 3D always “felt there” and expanded the world beautifully. For most parts it’s immersive rather than “in your face”, but of course there are some shots like that thrown in for the fans of “old school” 3D, and here and there I was ducking to avoid flying debris and various body parts ;) Also great use of flying embers, smoke and air distorted by heat. The only two scenes which looked “flattish” were in foggy locations, but then fog is not the best medium for 3D in the first place.

But seen in IMAX, Wrath is elevated to yet another - ridiculously awesome - level! In an interview Liebesman revealed that they had James Cameron on the phone consulting what would or wouldn’t look good in 3D and, boy, does it show indeed! The world opens up and is VAST! The Tartarus and Labyrinth scenes are particularly impressive, with the camera diving into the bowels of the Underworld and encapsulating the claustrophobic confinement of the moving walls. And then comes lava Kronos and insanity begins :) Seriously, the scene where Pegasus navigates through a shower of molten rocks that solidify in the air is worth the admission price alone, and makes me die to see the SW asteroid chase in 3D ;)

What I was impressed the most, though, is 3D on faces! Avatar and Hugo aside, in all films I’d seen previously - native and converted alike - faces looked flat. Had such impression watching TRON, same with Sanctum. Not here though. The 3D on faces looks perfect. There is one really impressive scene right at the beginning. A classic two-shot: Zeus in the foreground is talking to Perseus in the further background. The scene starts with very tight depth of field on Zeus’s face (rest is blurred) and you can virtually count individual hairs in his beard and see in 3 dimensions how they are intertwined, and then the focus smoothly switches to Perseus who, in turn, is shown in perfect stereospace within the tight field. I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like that done in 3D before, and it works here perfectly. I really appreciate that Liebesman was willing to be so adventurous with his filming.

Bottom line – even in my least favourite format, Wrath is the best conversion I’ve personally seen to date (from someone who’s not Mr. Cameron of course ;) )!

Story (5.5/10) + Character Development (7/10)

Clash had an incoherent plot and idiotic character motivations. Wrath has a simple, clear plot and the stakes and driving forces for each character are well defined and make sense. It also has a set of characters who are likeable and entertaining. Does it all add up to a good story? Not quite.

The very problem with Wrath is that it’s a film designed around the traditional idea of “reels”. Basically at the end of each 20 minutes there has to be some sort of a climax, which in a modern film like this translates into a set piece. Don’t get me wrong, you probably won’t notice that seeing the film for the first time, but with the second viewing, the “scaffolding” begins to show. I caught myself thinking “ah, that’s the >epic travel< shot but with Cyclops instead of scorpiochs” or “aha, so the Minotaur is the >fight in dark and gloomy environment< equivalent to Medusa”. I know that they tried to design each fight to have its own individual dynamics and feel - and good on them for trying! - but because their frequency is so predictable, the fights don’t come as real surprise to the viewer, and eventually add to the feeling of “been there, seen such films”.

Also, because the fights have to fall on certain beats, the film is not allowed the breathing space that could be used to delve into the story and characters. I like the way 80s films did it. Old Bond movies. Or something like Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom. They would open with this 20 minute overblown action sequence, and end with the beyond-crazy finale, but the middle was utilized to push the story, develop characters, let them have fun with one-liners, and generally make the viewers love them. The “reel” structure doesn’t seem to allow for that. IF another installment in the Titans series gets made, I hope they start with an impressive set piece to hook the audience, but then present some intellectual problem to solve, allow enough time to fall in love with the world and characters, and only then bring the skies down on the characters’ heads in the final battle.

Also changing the genre could help. Both Clash and Wrath belong to “CGI mayhem” category (basically Transformers in ancient Greece). They also share some DNA with Emmerich’s disaster movies and “monster flicks”. Story and characters are somewhat secondary to the spectacle. I REALLY enjoy such films for what they are, but nowadays the audience is asking if the spectacle alone warrants the 150 mil budget they get; and I think there is this feeling that with that kind of price tag they should offer more.

Clash as a remake was criticized for failing to awake that kind of wonderment that incited kids to take up astronomy and study Greek myths back in 80s. Wrath never has such ambitions – it is a honest, straight-up war movie. If another installment gets made, maybe it should venture into this avenue.

***SPOILERS***

I can’t believe I’m saying that, but YES, I want another sequel. Frankly, Wrath ends in a pretty exciting place. Most important Olympians are dead, and humans for the first time in history will have to take responsibility for the world. There are some interesting directions it can go:
1) Direct continuation:
- Creatures, now freed from gods’ control, are on the loose and may migrate into human settlements
- Remaining Olympians, especially goddesses, may want to fight with each other for the little power and control they still have over humans and the universe
2) Returning to the starting point:
- “Alternative universe” has been created by Perseus’ refusal to follow his fate and marry Andromeda, now all the myths are mixed up and gods are gone long before Heracles is due to be born and interact with them
- Maybe there is a way to set things right (and go on another quest on the way) e.g. gods may somehow be reborn as their Roman counterparts (thanks for the idea Siphun!)
3) The era of gods has definitely ended but there are things that have to be looked to before humans can have the world for themselves:
- Gods ruled seasons of the year, fertility of the land, held the celestial sphere, drove the chariot of the sun etc.
- If the world is to continue without them, humans have to make things work different way, and remaining gods and demigods may need to sacrifice themselves creating new reality for humans as their final gift (after all Perseus and Andromeda end up as a constellation and a galaxy in the sky – I’m curious to see how that happened)
- This “creation” theme could be a nice alternative to “fighting creatures” and would have more of the “wonderment” people seem to want

***SPOILERS END***

Anyway, I knew what I was in for going into the film, and unlike Clash, this time I got the film I wanted. Wrath is the film Clash should have been.

Acting (8/10)

I won’t have anything said against performances here! Wrath has a much stronger cast that such films usually get, and it is finally utilized - all actors go at it and have fun as they do. They are allowed to run with their native accents and this variety adds nice layering to who the gods are and how they are locked in mutual dependencies and hierarchy.

Perseus is finally a person, and much more likable this time. His relationship with his son Helius is really endearing. Hades and Zeus have the best character arcs and dig into them, Ares is a nice addiction as is Agenor. It's much less of ARRRGGGGHHHRRR than you may expect. Even if the story is simple, it's engaging with great emotional acting (mostly from Fiennes and Neeson).

I don’t really want to go into Sam Worthington’t performance here, because I AM going to be biased. Let me just put it this way: out of all characters Sam’s ever played, Perseus was the last one I wanted him to revisit. Now, after Wrath, I’m really ready for more adventures of Perseus and his son :)

The only character I initially had some reservations about is Hephaestus (Bill Nighy) – mostly because I’ve always imagined the character differently but also because he’s the closest we get in Wrath to the way gods were portrayed in Clash. But this performance did get a great reaction from the public I was watching the film with, so I guess it’s for the good of the film.

Suspension of Disbelief (9/10)

Thanks to the highest quality of CGI it is very easy to believe in this universe. The creatures are pretty close to being completely photorealistic (Kronos and Chimera are the best, Cyclops a tiny fraction off in some scenes) and the mechanics of their movement are spot on. The world is governed by a set of consistent rules concerning its geography, how characters travel, how much that takes and why etc. (SPOILERS: Yes, including the Labyrinth – think Cube; and the ship moving with floppy sails – Agenor is powering it).

I also love the thinking behind “hero out of his depth” against creatures and gods, but personally I would add more variety to it. Good that they show that it hurts to hit and get hit, but if it’s overdone it may desensitize the viewer after a while. Besides if Perseus gets beaten to an inch of his life, and some 15 minutes later has to take on another creature, the viewer remembers that he’s a demigod and the fear for his life is taken out of the equation. If you show that it hurts, now the next logical step is to show that it takes time to heal. The spirit wants to continue fighting, but the body can’t take any more. Maybe he can’t win all battles, and sometimes himself needs to be saved. Of course then we could be running into the risk of deus ex machina resolution, but I still believe it’s worth the try to play against expectations. Also a sequence when Perseus is somehow immobilized and helplessly watches a creature approaching him would lend itself naturally to teasingly showing it in slow motion (see: “Cinematography” below).

Directing (8.5/10)

Credits where due: Jonathan Liebesman definitely can handle a big spectacle film! He took me on an exhilarating ride for the 99 minutes of the film’s runtime, and it never felt too short or rushed in any way. Except for slight issues with the opening, the pacing is great, and the first time I watched the film it completely tricked me into forgetting about the imposed “reel” structure. While in Clash the last act felt very anti-climactic, here each third of the movie is more exciting that the previous one, and the finale is simply jaw-dropping. Let me put it this way – Hobbit is lucky they have the dragon in store ;) But quite objectively – even if someone is not a fan of this franchise, they should admit (at least to themselves) that Wrath is going to give other “spectacle” films a good run for their money in terms of the “thrill” factor in the last 20 minutes.

Between Battle: LA and this, I don’t think Jonathan Liebesman has a distinct style as a director just yet, but within certain constraints of that type of production, he has created a very consistent world, with a distinguishable look and feel, and a set of logical rules. Clash was a little messy with the “80s disco” gods, “flashy” human rulers and “humble” humans. Wrath – as my friend has wonderfully put it – brings the gods to the mud, but the resulting grittiness is justified and backed by the story. The world feels more grounded, real and, frankly, interesting. Liebesman managed to craft a well-balanced film around some very basic components the studio threw at him, and within the very limited production time. I can’t wait what to see what he can do with an original, unsolicited story, someone actually had time and heart to hone.

Sound / Score (8/10)

The score is a considerable improvement over Clash. It helps to flesh the world and isn’t distracting. Nice touch with the choral parts in the more “epic” scenes.

Sound editing is the kind I like – when Perseus gets mauled in the chimera fight, for a moment the sound is distorted to reflect his dizziness. Again, this helps to involve the viewer in the proceedings. I guess such tricks are very individual taste, but as a fan, I really appreciated that.

Sound design – maybe a little too “safe” for my liking. The creatures sounded like standard sci-fi/fantasy monsters. Nothing I haven’t seen already.

Cinematography (9/10)

I was skeptical when in early interviews Jonathan Liebesman was saying that he was going for a conversion because he wanted to shoot on film, but that he intended to shoot the movie “with 3D in mind”. I thought he was basically blackmailed into that decision by the studio which was still locked in a contract with the conversion house. However to my surprise that approach worked, and 1) film looks great, 2) Liebesman indeed “conceived it in 3D”, and it does show! There are a lot of crane shots which establish the geography of a given action sequence beautifully, and in many scenes the camera moves with this fluid, smooth grace we know from Avatar that enhances 3D so much.
On top of that we get a surprising amount of close-ups. The DOP on Wrath is Ben Davis, the guy who worked on such films as Kick Ass and the underrated gem of 2011 – John Madden’s The Debt. His photography gives the film a really “classy” look, and plays to the strengths of the actors. In these quieter moments the film is elevated to so much more than just the “seek and destroy” movie it’s taken for.

Another thing I was worried about was the apparent love for shaky cam Jonathan Liebesman is known for. I’m happy to report that he is much more restrained here than in Battle: LA; but having said that, there is still too much shaky cam for my liking. In the chimera scene at the beginning, until the second viewing I didn’t really know how exactly Perseus dealt with the creature. I know that shaky cam helps to immerse the viewer in action, adds immediacy to the scene and makes us feel as if we were there, but I think it has to be balanced with providing the viewer some basic information about what the creature is capable of in terms of speed and power. In a movie like this, the audience 1) wants to see and appreciate the creature design, and 2) enjoys the thrill of taking in the full danger a given creature poses. By taking time to detail it for the audience (clear shots, so-mo) I think we can actually design a more engaging action/fight sequence, when the viewers have enough information to try to figure out how THEY would try to defeat the creature, and see if the protagonist can outwit them and the monster. Making the viewer a bit more intellectually active never hurts ;)

Special Effects / Stunts (10/10)

This bit is easy ;) 10/10
In any other year Wrath would be sure of Academy nomination at this point, but there are so many special effects heavy films to hit the screens in 2012 that at the end of the day, it may just not make the cut. Which is sad, because the FX/CGI team deserves all recognition there is for their fantastic work.


END COMMENTS:

I’m one of these people who were vehemently against the sequel. I did want to love Clash back in 2010 but ended up hating it for what it did to the credibility of some actors I love, and for how it affected mainstream audience’s perception of 3D. So naturally I didn’t want people I care about to embarrass themselves AGAIN going into the sequel.

As you can imagine I was really apprehensive sitting down to watch Wrath. But 99 minutes later I left the theatre relieved and smiling, thinking: “Boys, all is forgiven and forgotten!” :)

Wrath is a much more honest film that the initial studio pitch must have required.

I think everyone involved knew going in that the only reason it's happening was that the studio earned $$ and wanted more - heck, they even got a release date before the treatment was written. So they all had every reason to be cynical about it and just do it for the pay check. Instead the film wears its heart on the sleeve in how earnest it is in an attempt to do things right this time. That’s something worth appreciating in my books, especially since it DOES achieve it in most areas.

Yes, I am aware of the reception the film is getting, and while I think it’s OK to criticize studios for the modern policy of churning films within 2 year production slots and “manufacturing” tentpoles instead of backing original ideas, it saddens me that the contempt against such policy is projected onto the film, which is anything but that.

But maybe this particular franchise has to be the “whipping boy” for the greater good. If the studio learned the first lesson hard way and as a result did manage to get the 3D right the second time, maybe – if given the chance – they will allow for proper story development in the pre-production stage of next installment.

So in conclusion: In the category of "spectacle films" I'm giving Wrath 8/10, and I think it deserves it. OVERALL SCORE (against all films) would be around 6.5-7/10, and I believe it's fair.

Third time’s the charm? I’m willing to check :)

Editor's note: I agree 100% with this review! THANK YOU JOANNA. If you haven't seen WRATH OF THE TITANS - there is still more time. It won't be nearly as impressive on your home screen - this is a big screen event movie!

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