Sunday, March 25, 2012

John Carter (2012)

(Image from Imp Awards)

John Carter (2012)

Critics have been unkind to this one and audiences have been indifferent. Their loss, as this adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' seminal pulp book directed by Pixar alumnus Andrew Stanton is an above average adventure film.

Taking place in the American Civil War era, the film follows vet John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) as he goes in search of a fortune in gold. An encounter with the military leads to him going on the run and finding a mystical cave where he encounters an alien being. A brief tussle leads to Carter being 'transported' across space to the planet Mars; here he encounters a veritable menagerie of strange creatures and people, from the war like giant four armed green Tharks to giant white apes to the red skinned tribal humanoids of Mars.

The plot involves a war between two 'human' tribes, progressive Helium and barbaric Zodanga. The Zodangan leader, Sab Than (Dominic 'Jimmy McNulty' West), is being steered by powerful manipulators known as Therns (let by Mark Strong's Matai Shang) - empowered by Thern technology, he brings Helium to its knees and then offers them peace in the form of a marriage between himself and the feisty Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). John Carter's presence on the planet introduces a new unexpected element into the equation as his earth gravity bred body is super strong on Mars, making him a fearsome warrior and thus a potential weapon/threat for the various factions, including the Tharks (led by Tars Tarkas, played by Willem Dafoe via motion capture).

Phew, and that's just the first 30 minutes or so of a two hour plus film which features copious amounts of adventuring and combat and various twists and turns!

Which is part of the problem with the film - it has an overly convoluted (though not overly confusing) plot, and it drags in places. Also a weakness are the sketchily drawn characters. Both of these flaws are true of the source material as well, so in that sense it is a faithful adaptation! The biggest weakness however is Taylor Kitsch who makes a disappointingly bland John Carter; this coupled with his two-dimensional characterisation in the script makes the eponymous hero something of a disappointment.

You'd think the collection of criticisms I've listed would derail the film, but fortunately its strengths manage to compensate.

First, the visuals and designs. It's about to become one of the biggest flops of all time, but the money is definitely there on the screen in the grand realisation of an alien world and creatures that may not take CGI to a new level but certainly represent it at the top of its game. Second, the tone - this isn't a serious movie and it knows it, and it tells its story with a level of campy seriousness (except for Kitsch, admittedly) coupled with silly goofiness. There are some genuinely funny and even endearing moments, Third, the action and adventure have a sense of fun and energy that matches the tone; this perhaps derives from Stanton's animation background as it wouldn't seem out of place in a Pixar film (not a bad thing). And finally, there's the rest of the cast, most of whom are in tune with the material. Lynn Collins in particular is terrific as the Princess, the one fleshed out character in the story (ironic since she was among the more superficial ones in the book) who drives proceedings while Kitsch falters. And yes, she is very easy on the eyes to boot!

The folks I watched this with were lukewarm towards it, so perhaps I'm in the minority on this one, but I dug it and would definitely watch it again. It's a fun adventure film that does what it says on the tin and to my mind is far superior to many of the other sci-fi/adventure films that have come out in recent times. One last thing, John Carter's weird alien dog companion Woola is an absolute hoot!

Movie Roundup Part Deux

(Image from Imp Awards)

Survival of the Dead (2009)

George A Romero, the grandaddy of the zombie movie, directed his sixth film in the venerable 'Dead' franchise with 'Survival'; this one's as different from the others as they all are from each other. Taking place shortly after the world goes to hell, the film revolves around the conflict between two patriarchs and their clans on a relatively safe island where the dead haven't taken over yet. The two men have a philosophical difference - one believes the zombies are dead and need to be disposed of, the other believes the zombies must be kept alive till a cure is found. Into the mix enter a young civilian and a group of ex-soldiers looking for sanctuary, led by a cynical but cool leader. The film plays much like a zombie western complete with cowboys and horses and gunfights and western archetypes. It doesn't try too hard to be subtle with its themes, and goes for humour way more than it does horror - the zombies are almost an annoyance instead of a threat, though there are plenty of gory human deaths and LOADS of inventive zombie kills. Everything looks pretty slick compared to the last two films, and it lays on its themes without going for subtlety. Negatives include a tone that is too mercurial and too many idiotic moments involving character behaviour that induce eye rolling. Overall, very enjoyable, plenty of great kills, funny, engaging and buoyed by some cool characters, but not quite achieving the heights of greatness of its predecessors.

(Image from Imp Awards)

State of Play (2009)

This is one of those films that for some reason or the other managed to come and go fairly quietly despite boasting a stellar cast. Based on a BBC mini series that I now have to see, it tells the story of an intrepid reporter (Russel Crowe) and an up and coming reporter/blogger (Rachel McAdams) stumbling upon a story that involves a hotshot young congressman (Ben Affleck), a high profile death, and a private security company that subcontracts for the US military. It's slick and glossy in the fashion of mainstream Hollywood thrillers, and some of the writing is cringe inducing in it's cliche-ness, but the strength of the ensemble performances, the pretty good if occasionally OTT plotting, and the relatively intelligent examination of the way print media functions make this a very compelling film. Not quite deep enough to be called deep, but definitely not shallow.

(Image from Imp Awards)
Highlander (1986)

Let's get the one most basic fact about Highlander out of the way right up front - it's a bad film. Low budget or not, it is simply bad. Despite featuring what must surely be one of the all time worst lead performances in history, hammy performances all round, dire action sequences, clunky writing, scattershot editing and an overall bad 80s vibe, I still really enjoy it! The concept - about a select group of 'immortal' humans, some of whom have been around for millennia, who will fight and kill each other (only decapitation can kill them) till only one remains to claim the mystical 'prize' - is actually fairly interesting, and the idea of gaining perspective by virtue of living through history while sacrificing hope of an ordinary life is a tragic one. The film does toy with these ideas, but it never really takes them anywhere. It's fun though, and funny (often unintentionally), and features two delightfully campy supporting performances from Sean Connery and Clancy Brown as the mentor and villain respectively, who compensate more than adequately for Christopher Lambert's performance (and horrible dress sense).

(Image from IMP Awards)

The Losers (2010)

Zoe Saldana is hot. And that's pretty much the only positive for 'The Losers', a comic book adaptation about a band of betrayed military men who go gunning for revenge, aided by Saldana's shady lady character who has reasons of her own for wanting the baddie dead. The cast is a strong one - Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Idris Elba, and Chris Evans are good despite the mediocre material that drags on from one locale to the next with irritating dialogue and humour and fairly unengaging action set pieces. There are a few fun moments but there's nothing new on offer, and nothing done all that well. Jason Patric's villain is forgettable and not nearly as cool as he's apparently meant to be. Not recommended.

(Image from IMP Awards)

Kung Fu Panda (2008)

Colour me surprised. I dug the hell out of this. Yes it's obvious and ticks all the boxes you'd imagine it does from the posters, trailer, and cast, but that doesn't prevent it from being thoroughly entertaining, funny, and fun. Jack Black voices Po, a panda who inadvertently becomes the 'chosen one', much to the chagrin of the five greatest kung fu fighting animals in the world and their teacher. Po must train to become the 'Dragon Warrior' and defeat the evil Tai Lung, who is prophesied to enter their valley and lay waste to their village. It's the fish out of water unlikely hero story writ large and with wildlife. There are no surprises, it's all obvious and you'll see it coming a mile away but the animation is glorious, the A list voice actors are on top form, the writing is zippy, the character designs are memorable and well done, and there's a distinct lack of overly modern 'Shrek-isms', all of which make this a winner. Jack Black is often an acquired taste, but by the end of the film I was invested enough in the story that I'd forgotten who was doing the voice... I'm now looking forward to the sequel.

(Image from IMP Awards)

The Faculty (1998)

A tremendously fun sci-fi comedy horror from Robert Rodriguez starring a few familiar faces - some in early roles - including Elijah Wood, Josh Hartnett, and Robert Patrick A bunch of archetypal high school students band together when they discover that their teachers are slowly being mind controlled by invading parasites and are starting to assimilate the entire school population. It's funny and very meta with direct references to 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers', and the performances are loose and fun across the board. Much of the plot is ludicrous but that's besides the point; as a thrill ride it's highfly effecctive and entertaining. And, oh, John Stewart is in this as the science teacher, and there's a cameo by Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News fame! Hilarious!