Thursday, 12 July 2012

John Carter

John Carter (2012)
Directed by Andrew Stanton
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Dominic West and others

Jon's Review

Okay, shall we dare say it, whisper it maybe? If we use hushed tones maybe it will be okay... Let's try. John Carter of Mars. Dammit! Or, failing that, Princess of Mars. Maybe you've heard the various stories about why the studios decided not to use Mars, or indeed Princess, in title. Some said it was because they'd lose a big section of the audience if they used the latter. Boys don't go to see films about Princesses, they said. Some said it was the curse of Mars. Films with the red planet in their title tend to under-perform. Mars Needs Moms? Big flop. Mission to Mars? Huge disaster. (Though that has more to do with the fact that it's a steaming pile of poo than the fact that it has Mars in the title). Whatever the case, keeping Mars away from the posters didn't work and John Carter lost a lot of money. Critics were pretty rude about the movie and it looks like a sequel is unlikely.

However, I'm going to go on record and say, you know what, John Cater is pretty good. Our hero, the guy on the poster (Taylor Kitsch), is a Civil War veteran who, in the course of pursuing the promise of gold in them thar hills, comes across a strange device. He's then set about by strange alien types who trigger the device sending Mr Carter hurtling across the solar system to Mars. On Mars, Carter finds that he has developed extraordinary powers. He can leaps in great bounds; he can punch out aliens with one blow. Soon Mr Carter has his shirt off and is befriended by a bunch of alien warriors. Elsewhere on Mars the baddies (clearly defined because they wear red), lead by Dominic West are trying to take over the goodies' (they're the ones in blue) city. The leader of the goodies relents and promises his daughter (Lynn Collins) to the leader of baddies in order that his city not get blasted to dust. John Carter must rescue the princess and stop the war. Please note, however, that the princess gives as good as Carter in kicking ass and taking names.
For all the 'fantasy speak' and silly names, the plot is pretty much straight-forward. In fact, if you've seen Flash Gordon you may well be familiar with it. And like Flash Gordon, John Carter is fun. It's a perfect encapsulation of the pulp joy to be found in the tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his ilk. It's also rather lovely to look at. The designs of the costumes and buildings recall Frazetta's work and the aliens are well realised and backed-up by a great voice cast. Okay, it's silly. But it's silly in a fun family film way, and Disney are very good at silly fun family films. There may not be a sequel, but John Carter succeeds in capturing the excitement and sense-of-wonder of the source material. What Disney have produced here is far from an artistic failure, even if it's not a commercial one.

(7 out of 10)

Ali's Review

I only first heard about this film on the BBC News when it was announced that it had been an enormous flop for Disney but now they can relax as their latest two have been successes. The film was not as poor as I was expecting but the plot is incomprehensible, the opening reminiscent of Dune when we get a nice unclear explanation, and the film could easily have been edited down a good 45 minutes.

Taylor Kitsch plays John Carter with your typical gutso and heart, but unlike most actors cast in such a role, he does not give a wooden performance and portrays Carter as wounded man, haunted by a terrible loss. He is ably supported by the Ornella Muti lookalike Lynn Collins, who ladies will be pleased to see, is a better fighter than Carter. Willem Dafoe gives excellent support as the leader of the Tharks but aside from these three leads, the cast is dominated by Brits - Sammantha Morton, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Ciaran Hinds to name but a few.

The special effects are spectacular but what surprised me most is that Disney surprisingly do not flinch from showing the flashback scenes of the Civil War, particularly when we learn of the trauma that haunts Carter or when one of the Tharks, the goodies that Carter befriends, is branded with a hot iron.The ending comes across as a pure tribute to Flash Gordon as Carter is seen 'flying, flying on a rocket cycle' and crashes into the building where the wedding is taking place. It just missed Brian May ramming up the Wedding March.

The film loses it here and there and is not sure of where it's going, but the ending is succinct and moving, but you do wonder why it took Carter 10 years to come up with the solution. I have to say it's a shame there probably won't be a sequel, but apparently, it broke box office records in Russia, so you never know.

6 and a half out of 10 (are we allowed halves?)

True Grit

True Grit (2010)
Directed by the Coen Brothers
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Jeff and other

Jon's Review:

The appeal of the Western shares much in common with the appeal of Fantasy. Both often have a simplistic morality: the bad guys are bad, the good guys are good and there is a specific thing that needs to be done to punish the bad. Both utilise landscape as part of their vast visual pallet, whether that be the forbidding peaks of Mordor or the startling natural stone sculptures of the Utah desert. And both genres often featured violent action as their central device for moving the plot along. There's something childishly simplistic in these genres at times, and the simplistic world-view of a child is what drives the plot of the Coen brother's remake of True Grit.

Mattie Ross's (Hailee Steinfeld) father has been killed by a common hoodlum called Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Tom has fled town and Mattie is determined that he does not escape unpunished. She therefore employs Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down her father's killer and bring him to justice. Along the way Rooster teams up with LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), though the two bounty hunters have something of a love/hate relationship. Rooster is clearly a man used to the harsh realities of life, though Mattie's determination eventually wins him over and he agreed to dish out whatever justice he can.

Bridges is terrific as Cogburn, a grizzled veteran of the West, his accent so thick it's near incomprehensible at times, and indeed is incomprehensible whenever he has a cigarette in his mouth. Matt Damon (and yes, like you, every time I see that name come up I get that voice in my head from Team America "Maaaat Daaaamon") in contrast is much more the ideal of the cowboy. Dressed in a tasseled doe-skin jacket and and wide-brimmed hat, he does look like a refugee from a Bon Jovi gig. His simplistic world-view reflects Mattie's but, importantly, he stands by her when things get unpleasant. Hailee Steinfield gives an astonishingly assured debut performance, delivering sharp dialogue with confidence and showing a child both hardened by her environment and broken by events.

There are some terrific pure Western moments here too. The image of Mattie struggling across a river in full spate on her horse is very powerful; this child battling against the elements on her borrowed steed. Likewise, there are some thrilling gun fights. And also one of the best lines in a Western as Cogburn charges towards the bad guys: "Fill your hands you son of a bitch!"

When Mattie finally catches up with Chaney, she finds him to be just as much a child, if not more, than herself. Brolin plays Chaney as a petulant child; a wounded beast who doesn't quite understand why he must be punished. It's only a brief cameo but Brolin pitches it brilliantly.

While True Grit deals with the simplistic theme of good versus bad, it's clear that this sort of morality is a difficult one to live by. It's clear that the lessons Mattie has learned on her quest will damage her, make her into an adult who perhaps will struggle with what life throws at her. The end of the movie is poignant and moving: a portrayal of a dying Western ideal and a harsh future that is just around the corner for this New World. True Grit is a superb Western and a demonstration of why a remake is not always a bad thing.

(9 out of 10)

Ali's Review

Neither Jon or I have seen the original film with John Wayne. In fact, it was on TV two days after we rented True Grit and we forgot to tape it, so we cannot comment on how the two compare. I put this on my Lovefilm list as I am a big fan of Jeff Bridges (yes, I've been lovestruck since Starman) and the Coen Brothers, as is Jon. In fact, I remember before we started dating, I leant him my Big Lebowski soundtrack which provided an afternoon's email conversation at work before the big date.

Hollywood does tend to suffer from remakeitis but True Grit is one of those rare exceptions when it works. I felt that Jeff Bridges probably deserved the Best Actor Oscar more for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in this than in Crazy Heart. Indeed, I could hardly understand him at times, especially in the opening scenes in a courtroom. Cogburn is a grizzled bear of a man, tough with a heart of gold and throughout the film, he gradually becomes a father figure to Mattie.

I never could stand Damon before the Bourne films. I love the first shot we see of him, his face lit up by his pipe, reminiscent of the first time we see Aragorn in The Fellowship of the Ring. His character comes across as a vain idiot and we are not meant to sympathise with him through Rooster and Mattie's distrust of him but he develops a loyalty to Mattie, and like Rooster, it's through this loyalty that his character improves and we trust him to be a reliable 'sidekick' to Rooster.

Hailee Steinfeld is a revelation as Mattie. She is one to watch for the future. She beat 15,000 hopefuls to the role and is utterly mesmerising and brilliant. Brolin judges his performance well as a portrayal of a whining child-man who is unpredictable and terrifyingly dangerous in his bouts of temper. I have to give a special mention to Barry Pepper (we thought it was Emilio Estevez to start with!), gaunt and haggard as Ned, the man whom Cogburn is really after.

I couldn't recommend this film more highly, it keeps you gripped right through to the startling and then immediately poignant ending, and another gem in the Coen Brothers catalogue.

10 out of 10

Monday, 2 July 2012

Young Adult

Young Adult (2011)
Directed by Jason Reitman
Starring: Charlize Theron, Patrick Wilson, Patton Oswalt and others

Jon's Review:

Young Adult is the third feature written by Diablo Cody whose work I've admired since seeing Juno (also directed by Jason Reitman). Initially I was wary of Juno as the trailer made it look like a sacharine team comedy, but I was glad I decided to watch it as Cody's dialogue coupled with Ellen Page's punchy performance really won me over. I also really rate Cody's horror movie, Jennifer's Body. It was terrific fun, again there was the brilliant dialogue and it showed an awareness of the horror genre that imbued it with a sharp intellegence. Cody is the main reason I'm looking forward to the Evil Dead remake.

In many ways, Young Adult is a more restrained, darker film that Cody's previous two pictures. Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, a writer of Young Adult high-school romances who, in the midst of struggling to start her latest novel, finds out that her old high-school flame is has become a father. Clearly on the verge of a fairly severe mental crisis, Mavis decides to return to her home town and win back the heart of her ex. Once back home she meets a fellow class-mate, Matt Freehauf (Patrick Oswalt) who received a near fatal beating in his high-school years for being an alleged homosexual. To some degree Matt tries to steer Mavis back onto the right path, but Mavis lives in a pure fantasy world and she is her own worst enemy.

Everything about this film works. The cast is terrific, the direction is well-handled and the soundtrack is pitch perfect. Charlize Theron handles the dark comedy with a smoky, acerbic wit that - despite her actions - never has you thinking of her as a psychotic prom queen bitch, as one character calls her. Patton Oswalt is also brilliant as Matt. A geek who has never been allowed to grow up and who shows something like real compassion to Mavis, a character so much more broken than he. There are plenty of laughs here, but, as I said, this is a dark movie, indeed, a black comedy. There are moments you're going to watch through your fingers as Mavis goes off the rails. As an aside, there are also terrific small comic touches in the movie. The fact that the rock band fronted by first time mothers is called Nipple Confusion is priceless (Diablo Cody can be seen wearing a Nipple Confusion sweater in the making-of documentary on the DVD).

Cody is coming on leaps and bounds as a screen-writer, scripting some of the funniest and darkest movies of recent years. I'd go so far as to say she is a great comedy writer and Young Adult shows that her star is very much still on the rise.

(8 out of 10)

Ali's Review:

Like Jon, I loved Juno. I was nervous about putting it on our lovefilm list as it was then we were going through IVF. When we visited my uni best mate in Lancaster, she had a copy so we watched it there. I loved it and I can't tell you how many times towards the end of being pregnant with Maia, I watched the ending.

Theron relishes her role in Young Adult, a woman who writes young adult fiction but really hasn't grown up, still a young adult herself - she can be very selfish, very naive, used to getting her own way, wearing Hello Kitty tshirts, carrying her dog in her handbag, and sleeping in til noon. She dosen't take very good care of herself and her flat resembles a teenager's bedroom. There is a twist I was not expecting as to why she never really grew up and her friendship with Matt strikes you as natural from the start as they both went through trauma at high school that turned their worlds upside down.

Patrick Wilson seems to be making a living out of playing the handsome, understanding husband and there is more to him, having seen Hard Candy but he probably got recommended by his co-star, Ellen Page, star of Juno. The film encyclpedia in me took a while to recognise Jill Eikenberry, who plays Mavis's mum. She got ditched at the altar by Dudley Moore in Arthur.

Hugely enjoyable, a fine cast and very well written. I hope the director/writer collaboraiton of Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody continues. I can't think of any famous ones; I can think of actor/director (Tim Burton/Johnny Depp) and actor/composer ones (Steven Spielberg/John Williams). Correct me if I'm wrong! Reitman grew up watching his dad make Ghostbusters and Dave and he directs with an assured hand. Cody is enormously talented and inspires me to get my own pen out and the Evil Dead remake will need to be a date night for us.

(7 out of 10)

Monday, 25 June 2012

Despicable Me

Despicable Me (2010)
Directors: Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud
Starring: Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Will Arnett and others

Jon's Review:

There have been several animated movies about villains and superheroes of late - The Incredibles (2004) and Megamind (2010) being notable examples - so Despicable Me uses an already well-covered trope as its plot handle. Here Steve Carell plays arch-villain down on his luck, Gru. Gru needs to pull off a big theft to stay in the game. He has already been out-played by new kid on the block, Vector (Jason Segel) who has recently stolen one of Egypt's great pyramids. Gru therefore must aim high, and he goes about as high as it's possible to get with his plan to shrink and steal the moon. As part of his diabolical plan, Gru adopts three young girls, using them as a front to deliver cookie-bots into Vector's lair, in order to help him steal the Shrink Ray. Of course, this being a family film, the sweet nature of the three wee girls in Gru's charge soon begin to change his villanous heart.

So, nothing particularly new and fresh there, you'd think. And, sadly, you'd be right. The idea of competing super-villains is quite fun, but then there aren't enough of them here. It would have been nice for Gru to have more villains to play off than Vector. Given that this could be seen as 'high-concept' stuff, the film really doesn't do a huge amount with its central premise. The story is played out to expectation and the end is pretty run-of-the -mill. However, that's not to say that the film is dull or hasn't got great moments of comedy. (By the way, as an aside, interesting to note that Gru's car looks almost exactly like a Cybermat from Troughton-era Doctor Who). Gru's minions provide much of the comedy; these wee genetically-engineered critics happily fight, mock, blow each other up and generally run around in a mischevous manner all through the movie. Also, they look strangely like the 80s Weetabix characters that I remember from my childhood. The voice talent on display is also terrific. Steve Carell is a great comic performer and Will Arnett can do no wrong in my opinion. (I urge you to watch Arrested Development in which Arnett plays a failed stage magician.) Russell Brand is also suprisingly good as elderly super-villain Dr. Nefario. And yes, the wee girl characters are cute and charming,

While it's fun, beautifully animated and entertainingly performed, however, there's nothing about Despicable Me that makes it truly stand out from the crowd. Easy on the eye, but not massively memorable.

(6 out of 10)

Ali's Review:

Jon and I have been watching a LOT of the American series of The Office lately since Jon's cousin got seasons 1-3 on DVD. Fans of the BBC series, we were sceptical but have been hugely enjoying, not least perhaps because our relationship started out as an office romance. Hence, I have gradually been putting Steve Carell's work on my lovefilm list. Recently it was The 40 Year Old Virgin - just don't go there and avoid watching with your parents. Mine took it surprisingly well.

So along came Depicable Me but I have to stick up for the film here after some of my hubby's comments as unlike recent superhero animations, this gives you the tale from the villain's point-of-view and I can't remember a recent animation doing this, other than where a villain's assistant tries to do good. Jon's already given you the premise so I won't bore you and repeat it here. I found the film very enjoyable but I was expecting it to be hugely enjoyable, but it never quite got there and the jokes weren't as laugh-out-loud as I expected them to be, as they have been in The Incredibles like "No capes!" The closest was Gru's first experience of a roller-coaster. The role of the villain wasn't very well drawn out and was quite stereotyical as the geeky son.

The voice talents are undeniable and Steve Carell's take on a Polish or Russian accent implied a homage to Bond villains and his appearance made me recall Blofeld. He is a revelation as Gru and his reading of a bedtime story is an absolute treat. I completely did not recognise Julie Andrews as Gru's mum whom Gru has been trying to impress all his life without success. Her sharp accent was brilliant and it was great to hear her to play a cruel, unsupportive mother after growing up watching her in so many wholesome roles. Russell Brand was indeed a great surprise as well, 30 Rock's Jack McBrayer makes a cameo and there's also Kristin Wiig as the head of the orphanage whom we saw recently in Paul. I had difficulty recognising Eastbound and Down's Danny McBride or Flight of the Conchord's Jermaine Clement. I just like recognising voices.

Anyway, getting sidetracked, back onto the film. I know that in years to come, Maia will be insisting we go and see Tinkerbell 3: The Adventure of the Secret Unicorn or whatever, and if she would have insisted on Despicable Me, it would have been a cinema fare I would have been far happier to part with. This is a film about how we try to impress our parents all our lives and the joy and inspiration we get from them to tackle all manner of situations . This was especially poignant to watch after Jon and I spent a long weekend in Kent, celebrating his folks' ruby wedding anniversary, and my folks were there too.

Maia will love this film one day and I hope I can get her a cuddly minion. No, she wants one really. I don't want to add one to my vast collection. Really, honest.

(7 out of 10)

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Cool Hand Luke

Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Directed by Stuart Rosenberg
Starring Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Strother Martin, Luke Askew and others

Jon's Review:

Guns n' Roses first made me aware of Cool Hand Luke. In fact, I wasn't aware, for a long time, that the "What we've got here is failure to communicate speech", as featured at the beginning of their song Civil War, was from a movie at all. Fortunately, I am now wiser and more cultured, and after horror author Gary McMahon extolled the virtues of this movie to me, I knew that I had to see it.

Newman's portrayal of Luke is enigmatic and compelling. Luke initially takes things very much in his stride, smiling through his first few weeks of imprisonment. None of his comrades on the chain gang quite know what to make of him. When Dragline (George Kennedy) perceives he has been slighted by Luke, he challenges him to a fight; a very one sided fight as it turns out. Initially the convicts cheer on the boxing match, but when it becomes obvious that Luke is going to get punched in the face repeatedly with little chance of getting his jabs in, the cheers soon fall silent. And still Luke takes his punches. The phrase 'turn the other cheek' comes to mind, and, indeed, there are certain religious undertones in the film. Much of the movie seems to be concerned with what men who have no hope find to keep themselves going. The famous egg eating scene is a good example of this.

Trying to eat fifty hard boiled eggs is an entirely pointless and pretty stupid act. However, this challenge brings the whole gang together as they cheer on Luke as he stuffs his face. This is about more than a ridiculous challenge; the convicts have begun to instill their hopes in the figure of Luke - he offers them the possibility that a man can endure in impossible circumstances. The scene is both gruelling and horrifying (as Luke painfully gorges himself) but it is also uplifting and poignant.

The other scene in the film that I found very powerful was the aftermath of Luke's mother dying. Luke takes his banjo, sits on his bunk and starts to sing Plastic Jesus:

Well I don't care if it rains or freezes/ Long as I have my plastic Jesus

While Luke is our figure of hope, our martyr to the ideal that a man can endure anything with a great inner strength, he also talks to us about the fragility of faith in trying circumstances.

We're rooting for Luke all through the movie, regardless of his past. When he escapes we're there urging him on and when he's given the task of repeatedly digging a pointless trench until he is so exhausted he seems to be on the verge of death, we feel his pain.

Cool Hand Luke works because it has a remarkable cast and a remarkable script. But beneath the story of a man down on his luck, there is a big story about big themes that concern us all. It is a deeply brilliant, deeply powerful movie, and I can't recommend it enough.

(10 out of 10)

Ali's Review:

Can I just add that Jon has a more cultured taste in films now because of myself? I introduced him to Ealing comedies, Powell & Pressberger...OK, you get the picture.

Cool Hand Luke has been on my lovefilm list for a long time, not least because of being a fan of Paul Newman but also because the film was produced by Jack Lemmon's company, and Jack is the greatest actor ever, FACTOMUNDO in my book. And I knew about the famous egg-eating contest.

The film opens with Newman as Luke knocking parking meters off their poles (Newman knocked actual ones in a local town off their poles and they weren't replaced in a year). You get the impression that Luke has been doing this kind of thing for years since being a young boy, and he may not have got the best start in life, but that doesn't prevent him beaming at the cops as they arrest him and we next see a chain gang working in the intense heat of the US roadsides, countryside as flat as a pancake, and men working at the field with scythes. I love the shot where we first see Luke arriving through the mirrored glasses of the Captain.

It is back-breaking work and we begin to see familiar faces in their youth - Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton and Anthony Zerbe all in early roles in their career. Can I just say that Stanton sings well? Luke quietly immerses himself in the life of the gang, befriending  Dragline (George Kennedy) after a fight and it is their friendship which is the most poignant part of the whole film.

You are rooting for Luke the whole way through, as Jon says, and each time the system appears to be about to break him, he rallies back and fights his way through and earns the respect of the gang. Newman portrays Luke as a man down on his luck with quiet intelligence and thoughtfulness. Kennedy lends strong support and I found Moorgan Woodward's portrayal of Boss Godfrey absolutely chilling and apparently he acted like his character in between takes and spoke to no one, never taking his glasses off. He and his leaders relentlessly torment Luke and the scene where Luke repeatedly has to dig the trench and refill it again is one of the most painful scenes I've ever watched.

Certainly aimed at the guys though this film is, particularly with one scene where a young woman torments the guys as they work at the roadside by washing her car in a very tight dress and not exactly being subtle about it, lots of heaving bosoms and close-ups of upper thighs. Very funny, don't get me wrong and endlessly repeated in films that followed, whereas us ladies, yes, we get to see sweaty men as they work but we only get to see a guy's startlingly white bum before he goes into the shed as punishment but when it comes to Paul's turn, do we get to see Paul's bum? No. Obviously not in his contract. Just an aside there.

This is an uplifting and brilliant film about a man who will not be beaten and his buoyancy of and resilience of the human spirit. Enjoy. And full credit to Mr Lemmon for financing it.

(10 out of 10)