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“Clash of the Titans”

Had my college geology professor, Ron Tank, chosen to teach Greek mythology and employ lots of visual aids, the result might well have been “Clash of the Titans.” The hero Perseus and his band of lesser studs move across vast landscapes of rock and sand. Huge statues fall, buildings are mostly stone ruins, immense scorpions appear more granite-clad than Bel Air kitchens, and snake-haired Medusa turns men who look at her into stone. Much of the acting, not merely wooden, is petrified.

Sam Worthington plays Perseus, whom no one dares call Percy. No longer is Steven Seagal the dullest hunk star. Worthington blended into good effects in “Avatar,” but here he is not just a hero, he is leading the human revolt against the haughty gods, including his dad, Zeus (Liam Neeson). Down in hell, waiting desperately for better dialog pages from Dante or Milton, is Hades (Ralph Fiennes).

Perseus may be the most atheistic film hero since Gary Cooper trumpeted Ayn Rand lines in “The Fountainhead.” Cooper’s big speech, not easy for him, would have destroyed Worthington. Under a jarhead haircut he grunts words in a flat Aussie accent, as if chosen by a committee of Outback bartenders. For him, nasty Medusa is another shrimp on the barbie (he even calls her a bitch).

“Clash of the Titans” has its wow-zy, not just lousy, moments, including the insanely violent battle with Medusa in a craggy suburb of hell (this is not for kids under about age 10). Louis Leterrier’s film updates the 1981 “Clash of…,” which had effects creatures by Ray Harryhausen, and Laurence Olivier as Zeus (or was he playing Orson Welles?). Harryhausen’s last vision may have been a little clunky then, more so now, but he didn’t rely on storm fronts of digital doodads, and his movie wasn’t slathered in 3-D.

So how is that coming? Most of the remake pops out with little added excitement. When the action fires up to ramming speed, there is a sense of being whipped around by electric fans, with lots of blur. I took off the 3-D glasses for a while and savored a softer, gentler blur. If only Fred Rogers could have shown up in a toga and fuzzy sweater. (Opens Friday; rated PG-13) ★★


Yorkshire reporter Eddie (Andrew Garfield) briefly leaves town in "Red Riding 1974." (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)
Before becoming Il Duce, Mussolini (Filippo Timi) finds love with Ida (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) in "Vincere." (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

Mussolini has become like a joke Hitler, never more so than when Jack Oakie played him as sidekick to Chaplin’s joke Hitler in “The Great Dictator” (1940). The Italian tyrant actually inspired Hitler, caused thousands of deaths and is, in “Vincere,” a frightening man. Filippo Timi portrays him as an ardent socialist who discovers (virtually invents) fascism during and after World War I. Hot-eyed and narcissistic, he is a born predator, even though most of the chest-bulging and bald-domed preening is left to the actual Il Duce, in superbly used news shots.

Imagine a Hitler movie in which Eva Braun actually matches him for charisma, even steals scenes. The essence of Marco Bellocchio’s film is a twisted love story, based on facts (and rumors) that are so Italian they are almost opera. The stunning Giovanna Mezzogiorno plays Ida Dalser, who claimed to be (and probably was) Mussolini’s first wife. They meet before WWI, and political turmoil helps whip up their fierce, grasping love affair. One of the most erotic sex scenes in recent film history shoots heat forward through the story, long after the union ends, after Benito becomes Il Duce, posing with his good Catholic wife (marginal here) and hiding the paper trail of his relation with Dalser.

Ida got packed into a mental asylum and later, so was her son. Both suffered “untimely” ends (in a great touch, Benito Jr. is played when grown by Timi, who clownishly imitates the father who has rejected him). Timi and Mezzogiorno make the film a combustible cocktail (a Mussolini, not a Molotov). Bellocchio, decades after making his name with such provocations as “Fist in His Pocket” and “In the Name of the Father,” remains a bravura director. While not rivaling the beauty of Bertolucci’s anti-fascist “The Conformist,” this is a tremendously vital piece of work that folds images like Origami patterns: newsreels, headlines, dream sequences (such as Dalser’s vision of her wedding) and old films (Chaplin’s “The Kid” unleashes all of Ida’s yearning for her son).

Both stagey and very cinematic, “Vincere” is almost cartoonishly Catholic. In a hospital, the wounded Mussolini confuses himself with Christ projected on a ceiling screen (as dictator, he crucified himself on Hitler’s swastika). Dalser, played with compulsive but never just nagging force by Mezzogiorno, becomes a sexualized Virgin with a streak of Mary Magdalene, and her son comes to replace Mussolini as her god. Call it too much, but that is the fascination of a creatively drunken film. The final, pietá poses of the rejected, scorned, incarcerated but never repentant lover will stick in the memory. (Opens Friday at a Landmark Theater; unrated) ★★★1/2

“The Secret of Kells”

Are books dying? Certainly bookstores, not just indies but the chains, are glum. Many vanguard smarties prepare to go for digital devices like the Kindle, which may have all the charm of cuddling up to a highly retentive slab of plastic. Anyone worried about what current changes mean for a literate society, should cozy up to “The Secret of Kells.”

The Irish cartoon beauty was made by Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey and ace animators, and depicts the myth-haunted but also historical Dark Ages when illiterate Norsemen roamed, killed and plundered. Catholic, barely literate Europe had a vital outpost on the green island, with its monks and their beloved, illuminated books. Long before there was a Kindle there was the Book of Kells, a gospel tome made in 8th century Iona (a wee isle). Its jewel-crusted cover is lost, but 680 gorgeously hand-painted pages still ravish us in a way the Vikings never could (the book is at Trinity College, Dublin).

This ‘toon is an exciting and cherishable romance of the book’s birth and near-death. The boy monk Brendan, entranced by the scriptural art he has barely seen, works on the castle wall being obsessively built by his uncle, an abbot. An old monk comes from Iona, bearing pages and secrets. Brendan (along with a cat and a forest sprite) spearheads the tiny, crucial crusade to save the art of illuminated books as a fortress of the faith (the talk about books “for the people” is very vanguard, pre-Luther).

“Kells” is pro-Church but also entranced by forest Ireland, its pagan roots, even its long nightmare of Norse raiders (even scarier than the Teutonic Knights in Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky”). The episode in a serpent’s cave is a masterpiece of dynamic artistry, for the movie’s glory is its drawings, laid on flat like book illustration, with only modest computer hyping for action sequences. Gorgeously rhythmic, this is a visual high mass not only for Celtic art but the old global faith in dense, organic design found in Tibetan Buddhist art, Egyptian tomb murals, Mayan carvings, and encrusted cathedrals.

The clear irony is that this book lover’s dream relies far less on words than on a vision of the past as visual splendor. “Kells” recently lost the top animation Oscar to “Up,” which leaves me a little down. (Opens Friday at Landmark Ken Cinema; unrated) ★★★★

STARS: FOUR (ace), THREE (worthy), TWO (involving), ONE (dud), ZERO (nil)

RECOMMENDED (and current): “Art of the Steal,” “Crazy Heart,” “An Education,” “The Ghost Writer,” “Greenberg,” “Mother,” “The Secret of Kells,” “Vincere”


Rock on, T.A.M.I. baby: A time capsule worth opening, “The T.A.M.I. Show” is out from Shout! Features on DVD, after long, legendary obscurity. This is the T.A.M.I. (Teenage Awards Music International) event, the first and last, filmed on Oct. 29, 1964, at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. The concert pantheon ranges from Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys to the Rolling Stones, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, the Barbarians, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Jan and Dean and, dominant with his 18-minute explosion of “Night Train,” James Brown (whom the stunned Stones had to follow). Shot in Electrovision, a fairly high-def process otherwise remembered for capturing Richard Burton’s “Hamlet” on Broadway, the 112-minute film had a brief run in theaters, then went into hibernation to gather mythic sparkle dust. It’s one of the hippest inter-racial happenings of those famously changing times, and the price is now $20 or less.

Stars rise, again: Soon returning for what would be its 20th season had there not be a few misses along the way, Doug Yeagley’s Tops Presents Cinema Under the Stars will again open its intimate patio venue at 4040 Goldfinch in Mission Hills. Open-air showings of cherished movies happen on the 20-foot screen, and there’s a snack bar, coffee and tea, intros by cinephile Ralph De Lauro and a diverse choice of seats. Shows start at 8:30 p.m., the door opens at 6, and Thursday to (often) Sunday screenings cost $13.50. A $75 season membership brings advantages. Call (619) 295-4221 for info and reservations. Website: http://www.topspresents.com

The May and June films (later months will be listed here next week), with their directors/stars: Casablanca (Curtiz/Bogart, Bergman), May 6-8; Bringing Up Baby (Hawks/Grant, K. Hepburn), May 13-15; Rear Window (Hitchcock/Stewart, Kelly), May 20-22; Sabrina (Wilder/A. Hepburn, Bogart), May 27-30; The Thomas Crown Affair (Jewison/McQueen, Dunaway), June 3-4; From Here to Eternity (Zinnemann/Clift, Lancaster), June 5-6; Double Indemnity (Wilder/Stanwyck, MacMurray), June 10-11; An American in Paris (Donen/Kelly, Caron), June 12-13; Suspicion (Hitchcock/Grant, Fontaine), June 17-18; Thunderball (Young/Connery, Celi); Rebel Without a Cause (Ray/Dean, Wood), June 24-25; The Third Man (Reed/Cotten,Welles), June 26-27.

A QUOTE (not a blurb!): “Dignity? I’m talking about women, man — women! I like ‘em fat and vicious and not too smart.”– Paul Gauguin (Anthony Quinn) venting his kind of manly feminism to Vincent Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas) in “Lust For Life” (1956).

David Elliott is the SDNN movie critic