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)