Sunday, 18 March 2012

Review: John Carter

Directed by: Andrew Stanton
Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Dominic West

Written by: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, Michael Chabon, Edgar Rice Burroughs (story)

John Carter is really rather good at jumping. He enjoys it too. So much so, a huge proportion of this 132-minute action spectacular is devoted to John Carter jumping.

John Carter, you see, is an American civil war veteran miraculously transported to Mars which, for the purposes of this film, is inhabited by warring humanoid tribes and 12-foot tall aliens. Carter (Taylor Kitsch), thanks to the shift in gravity, is blessed with a powerful punch and a bounding leap which could be the key to ending war on the dying planet and restoring it to its once lush glory.

Mar is at threat from the maniacal Sab Than (West) who is bestowed with a powerful weapon by the mysterious Matai Shang (Mark Strong). He can destroy battleships in a single movement but is willing to spare the kingdom of Helium in exchange for princess Dejah Thoris' (Collins) hand in marriage. Thoris, naturally enough, isn't best pleased with this deal and turns to Carter for salvation.

On paper, this adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom series has potential. Fans have been waiting for many years to see the series adapted to the big screen, and with good reason. Carter made his first appearance 100 years ago and has appeared in novels and comics ever since. Technology has taken some time to catch up, but finally Burroughs' rich world can be recreated.

Disney put its considerable financial might behind establishing a new franchise based on some much-loved sci-fi material. It even recruited the technical wizardry of Pixar and Finding Nemo director Stanton to provide an incredible visual sheen.

John Carter is a gorgeous film, there's no denying it. The neutral thark aliens, who Carter first encounters, are impressively rendered using cutting-edge 3D effects and there are plenty of scenes which took great skill to produce.

For all their technical might however, very few set-pieces will leave you particularly thrilled. Many are overblown, confusing and repetitive while some are far too brief. Carter's new-found jumping ability makes for some amusing slapstick at first, but soon becomes a source of irritation.

As with so many other tentpole films, the plot, despite its wealth of source material, is an afterthought. Stilted dialogue and an unbelievable romantic motive ensures progress from action sequence to action sequence, but does little else. Things are not helped by some uncharismatic performances from lead Kitsch and love interest Lynn Collins.

It seems a shame for the dialogue in this film to be so poor, but it may have been inevitable considering the amount of time the film has to devote to establishing Burroughs' Mars and introducing a wealth of eclectic characters. Still, with Stanton's talent for empathy and a writing credit for critically acclaimed author Michael Chabon, much more could have been done.

Paradoxically, the tharks are the most human of the characters in this film. Voiced by talented individuals including Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church and Samantha Morton, their society is troubled by leadership issues, family conflicts and matters of honour. In fact, the thark community seems much more interesting than the war going on around them.

The story is probably the least of Disney's concerns, however. John Carter will make its money on the quality of the effects and the world it creates. There is certainly some silly fun to be had - the creatures are weird and wonderful and Dominic West's dastardly villain give this a pulpy Flash Gordon-esque feel.

It is possible to enjoy John Carter, even if you're not much of a fan of jumping. Just try not to think too hard about what is going on.


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Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Review: Project X

Directed by: Nima Nourizadeh
Written by: Matt Drake and Michael Bacall
Starring: Thomas Mann, Oliver Cooper, Jonathan Daniel Brown

Every cliché in the book is thrown at the screen in this wholly unnecessary marriage of the found footage and teen sex comedy genres. Project X has plenty of booze, drugs, gross-out scenes and exposed flesh to satisfy its target audience, but neglects to include much semblance of a plot.

The story, for what it’s worth, revolves around Thomas (Thomas Mann) and Costa (Oliver Cooper) and their attempts to throw a huge birthday party for Thomas at his parent's home while they are away for the weekend.

Costa enlists a cameraman to document the event, which swiftly gets out of hand. Thomas' house is huge, with a swimming pool round the back (which costa insists only naked girls are allowed in). It is the Hollywood ideal for a party and Costa helpfully broadcasts the event by text, internet, word-of-mouth and even radio to the point everyone in the area knows about it.

What follows will be familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the teen genre. The hottest girl at school has an inexplicable attraction to Thomas, all the cool kids show up and show a blatant disregard for other people's property, bodily functions are performed and awkward flirtation occurs. There's even an animal on hand to endure borderline abuse, but it's up to you to decide the comic value of a dog on drugs.

About half of the film’s mercifully short running time is taken up by shots of attractive people drinking, copulating and dancing - it would make a great hip-hop video but as a film it just makes you feel like you live a rather boring life.

Everything is far too splendiferous for us mere mortals to comprehend. Professional DJs are rolled out with an endless supply of alcoholic beverages and a bouncy castle to boot. With the exception of one crusading neighbour, everyone in the area is initially rather understanding of such a massive event. Even the police seem fairly lacklustre in their investigations.

The problem with Project X is a complete lack of merit outside its target demographic. Older viewers will be more concerned with the condition of the house and cost of insurance than the level of debauchery taking place before them. None of the characters seem particularly deserving of a good time and come across as a bunch of spoilt brats with no respect.

Costa, despite providing some of the film’s few good laughs, is loud and obnoxious and bears more than a passing resemblance to Jonah Hill’s Seth in Superbad. He is not the only overly familiar part of the film - despite Nourizadeh’s attempts to bring a fresh twist to this genre with the increasingly tired found footage format, this film riffs on everything from American Pie to Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

Any attempt to make us empathise with the characters or give an emotional impact are clearly an afterthought, with the romantic sub-plot given about as much screen time as the generic shots of naked flesh and drinking. All the female characters in this film are completely undeveloped and merely act as plot devices to drive Thomas' development forward. This is the second decade of the 21st century and this kind of misogyny should really be phased out of the teen movie genre.

Despite having little-to-no artistic merit, Project X still has its fair share of awkward laughs, with one scene in particular making you feel particularly guilty for chuckling. The problem is, with the exception of a certain type of young male, Project X will most likely make you feel angry and disgruntled.

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Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Directed by: Sean Durkin
Written by: Sean Durkin
Starring: Elizabeth Olsen, John Hawkes, Sarah Paulson

Look past the frankly awful title of this low-budget psychological drama and you’ll be rewarded with a deeply unsettling yet riveting study of vulnerability and emotional damage.

Elizabeth Olsen stars as Martha, a young woman with a difficult upbringing who becomes part of a mysterious and intimidating cult. After two years she flees and the film is told in flashbacks as she struggles to return to reality at the luxury home of her well-meaning but dismissive sister (Paulson) and polite, yet frustrated brother-in-law (Hugh Dancy).

The film’s strengths lie in its ambiguity. The details of the cult are deliberately left vague and we are left guessing how Martha becomes involved with it. It is led by Patrick (Hawkes in a creepy, unhinged performance), a man adored and revered by his followers. They live under one roof, attempt to be self-sufficient, and share jobs, clothes and beds. They are, in the most twisted sense of the word, a family.
There is no need to know the intricacies of Patrick’s cult - the film is a study of the emotional impact it has on Martha.

If there is any justice, this should be a star-making turn for Olsen (younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley), who fascinates in a distant and paranoid performance. Martha’s erratic behaviour and her struggle to reconcile with her sister often makes for uncomfortable viewing, but the convincing relationship between Olsen and Poulson will leave you captivated.

The film is not for the faint of heart, particularly as Martha’s flashbacks become increasingly sinister. It is rarely explicit, but the sparse but intelligent use of sound and imagery gives a sense of impending fear and danger.

Martha’s bleak situation makes it hard to call this enjoyable film, but this impressive psychological drama will leave you more unsettled than most horror films ever could.

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Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Artist: Review

Director: Michel Hazanavicius

Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman

This French/Belgian production has swiftly gone from a hyped indie darling to Oscar front-runner for good reason. The Weinstein Company took a gamble by giving their backing to a black-and-white, silent movie but the visual flair of Hazanavicius and the extraordinary chemistry of stars Bejo and Dujardin make this easily one of the most entertaining and charming films of recent years.

The Artist tells the tale of George Valentin (Dujardin), a much-loved 1920s silent movie star who is faced with becoming obsolete as Hollywood begins to embrace “talkie” films. He befriends a young starlet called Peppy Miller (Bejo) whose career begins its meteoric rise just as George’s begins to fade.

On the surface, a contemporary silent movie about a silent movie star could easily be accused of being gimmicky and pretentious but this is never the case. The viewer may need a few moments to adjust to a film devoid of dialogue and sound effects but the expressive, physical perfomances of the leads and the cute narrative will soon leave you utterly enthralled.

The romantic backbone to the story is classic and understated, taking inspiration from Hollywood’s golden age while feeling fresh and easily relatable for modern audience. Without dialogue, Dujardian and Bejo rely on stolen glances and brief moments of contact to convey their feelings. A scene involving multiple takes of a dance for one of Valentin’s silent films will leave you beaming.

The film works equally well as a comedy, taking a leaf out of the physical, gurning performances of the silent movie era. Most of the comedy comes from the undoubted star of the show: Valentin’s ever-faithful canine sidekick. Played by Uggie the dog, it is surely the best film performance by an animal in recent memory.

The Artist is a film of very few weaknesses. Boasting a superb score, star-making performances and accomplished and unique production, it is more than deserving of the attention it has received.

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Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Underrated: Kontroll

FilmFour often surprises me. Just when you think it has become an endless cycle of Mission: Impossible III and second rate Michael Douglas thrillers, it suddenly manages to recapture your attention and fly in the face of a ratings-driven industry. The recent Ingmar Bergman season was a particular example of this; Swedish meditations on death and morality will not exactly pull in audiences, but it was a complete treat for cinema fans. For those of us not blessed with satellite television or bottomless pockets, it was our reward for toiling through the meagre cinematic offerings of ITV2, BBC3 and FiveUSA.

Not long after the Bergman season ended, FilmFour proudly announced a M. Night Shyamalan double bill. I sighed in despair. However, in amongst its once again predictable listings stood Kontroll, a film that has intrigued me for a while now.

Though I was vaguely aware of the film and its setting and plot, I was far more familiar with its director, namely Nimród Antal. Antal strikes me as a man who has become a victim of the Hollywood machine; a talented and creative foreign director who becomes just another helmer-for-hire when they cross the Atlantic.

Kontroll was Antal's first feature film. It was well received and was in competition at Cannes 2003, the first Hungarian film to do so for twenty years. Much like Timur Bekmambetov and Oliver Hirschbiegel, he was identified as a cheap and crowd-pleasing option for helming mid-budget American productions. The three films he has directed since crossing the pond have ranged from the just-about watch-able (Vacancy) to the just-plain awful (Predators).

Most reviewers have expressed their disappointment with Antal's efforts, having seen undoubted talent and flair in his work on Kontroll. The questions that were being asked of Antal are ones that have always bugged me; how are talented international directors so easily sucked into Hollywood's talent vaccuum of mediocrity? Why do so many of them fail?

In Antal's case, you need only go back to his breakthrough film to get your answer.

Kontroll really is an excellent, unique film. Considering I went into it with high expectations, I was surprised not to suffer from any feelings of disappointment. It has so many features that would make an American producer sit up and take notice: a stylised look and feel, the dreaded 'quirky' cast of characters, a wicked sense of humour. However, it simply would not work as an American film; the tone is too cynical and the setting too drab (the film takes place entirely in a filthy underground rail network). The great strength of Kontroll is that, stylistically, the influence of American films is very evident, but the film is very much from a Hungarian, not American, perspective.

Kontroll centres on a team of ticket inspectors in a Hungarian metro station. We follow them, led by central character Bulcsú, on their daily duties and activities as they encounter a strange cast of characters, including threatening (and ticketless) passengers, a mischievous youth named Bootsie, and an eccentric woman dressed as a bear (Bulcsú's love interest). Meanwhile, a mystery figure is pushing passengers in front of trains and characters are engaging in a dangerous sport known as "rail running."

Like Bulcsú, we never see sunshine, but we become part of an underground world that does not seem entirely human. An unnatural, greenish glow lights filthy, graffiti-ridden seats and inspectors struggle with their sanity as they gain no respect or dignity from the vagrants and oddballs they meet. At the beginning off the film, the director of the Budapest Metro appears to assure us that the film is in no way representative of its workers or service, but any subway veteran will be able to recognise that the film is not entirely a work of fiction. There are certain people who you will only ever meet at night in a Tube train carriage.

Antal offsets the dreary setting with a cast of entirely likeable characters; ranging from a fatherly train driver with a drink problem, to an excitable, yet narcoleptic, member of Bulcsú's crew. Whilst we are presented with familiar movie personas such as the rookie, the wise, old head and snarky member of a rival crew, they never once feel like stereotypes. Each character has a freshness about them that belies the staleness of their surroundings.

So, what does all this mean for Antal in Hollywood? Simply put, to make a film like this on a decent budget would be impossible in America. Many of the themes are too dark and the characters too morally ambiguous to risk a considerable amount of money on and Antal is yet to prove himself worth the risk. Predators clearly demonstrated this. What should have been a hot European director breathing new life into a tired franchise became a series of clichés and predictable characters. Antal must take some of the blame for this, but it is clear, like many international directors, that he has had to curb the eccentricities and quirks that originally made Hollywood sit up and take notice, in order to make it in an already crowded scene.

At the moment, Antal is at a crossroads in his career. Predators was not the successful reboot that was expected and there are doubts whether he will be handed a budget like that again. This, in my mind, is a good thing. Antal needs to return to the talents that originally made him stand out; favouring strong characters and setting over driving the plot forward through exposition and set-pieces. Perhaps, even, a return to Hungary may be worth considering. For now, I urge you to hunt down Kontroll and give it a chance; the film that made (and possibly broke) Nimród Antal.

In the meantime, I would urge the powers-that-be to look again at Kontroll. This great film demonstrates strengths that, given the right amount of creative control and a producer willing to take a risk, could yet make Antal a star. After all, Kontroll will always be the film that made (and possibly broke) Nimród Antal.

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Wednesday, 6 July 2011

On Any Other Year: Gregory Peck vs. Peter O'Toole

Ah, Atticus Finch; devoted parent, defender of the oppressed and the American Film Institute's greatest hero in movie history. To Kill a Mockingbird was a peerless adaptation of one of the most ground-breaking books of the 20th century, and at the centre of it all was Gregory Peck as the saintly and crusading Finch. In an era when heroes were heroes, Atticus Finch was arguably the greatest of them all, and Peck had the role of a lifetime. He would never forget how lucky he was to be given the part.

At around about the same time of Mockingbird's release, a very different type of hero rode his camel into the limelight and attempted to steal Finch's thunder. That man was T.E. Lawrence or, rather, Peter O'Toole, a complete unknown who had just starred in the epic to end all epics - Lawrence of Arabia. 

O'Toole's performance is also on the American Film Institutes's list of heroes (number 10) but his actions are far more ambiguous in their virtue. Lawrence is portrayed as an egotist who, by the end of the film, actively engages in a massacre and is on the brink of losing all sense of perspective. However, O'Toole's endless charisma and gravitas leave the viewer remembering Lawrence for his bravery and bravado; the man who turned back to rescue Gasim in the desert, rather than the bloodthirsty avenger he becomes.

Charisma and gravitas are two great strengths that were also possessed by Gregory Peck, and he showed it in spades in his portrayal of Finch. Mockingbird's author, Harper Lee, once said of Peck that "Atticus Finch gave him an opportunity to play himself." Peck often compared his own childhood to that of Scout and Jem in the book and his love for the character and understanding of the film's themes and messages shine through in his performance. Firm and disciplined, yet tender and reassuring, Peck not only convinces as a caring father, but as a lawyer who does his utmost to defend an innocent black man from prejudice and injustice.

For Peck not to win the 1963 Oscar for Best Actor would have been a crime. In my view it is one of cinema's greatest ever performances and perhaps the most perfect piece of casting in a book-to-film adaptation. It is such a shame, then, that Peter O'Toole role as T.E. Lawrence happened to be in the same year.

Poor Peter O'Toole, a man with 8 Best Actor nominations to his name, but not a single win (honorary awards do not count). Lawrence of Arabia remains his best performance and the most deserving of those nominations. For an unknown actor to burst onto the scene in such an epic way is remarkable. The sheer amount of effort required for the role would make other actors balk at the task. The fatigue was genuine, the shoot was notoriously arduous and O'Toole was nearly killed when he fell of his camel. But what we got at the end of it was a film that will never be forgotten, despite its flaws, and a central performance that stands out among the miles of desert and thousands of extras on display. On any other year, O'Toole would have Oscar glory. Forty-Eight years later, he is still waiting.

On Any Other Year takes on the Best Actress category once more next time. Anne Bancroft, Katharine Hepburn (again!), and Faye Dunaway make a hell of a line-up, but how exactly did the Academy choose between them?

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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

On Any Other Year: Marlon Brando vs. Humphrey Bogart

Two very different actors. Two very different shows of masculinity.

As I have written about before, the 1952 Academy Awards saw The African Queen and A Streetcar Named Desire facing off against each other - great films with very different content and a great deal of parallels to be drawn, not least in the performances of the films' stars.

The Best Actress category had seen Vivien Leigh and Katharine Hepburn facing off for the top prize, but the remarkable thing about Streetcar and The African Queen is that their greatest strengths come from the interplay between leading lady and leading man. As strong as Leigh and Hepburn were in these films, their performances would have been diminished without a strong, male sparring partner to face off against, and vice versa. For both films to work, a very special chemistry was required between their stars. That is exactly what we got.

Just as Leigh had put in a landmark performance in Streetcar, Marlon Brando matched her as the repugnant yet compelling Stanley Kowalski. It is surprisingly rare to see a star born over the course of a single film, but for Brando, an unknown in one of his very first films, it was a performance that set him on the road to becoming one of the greatest actors ever to live. Brutal, manipulative and charismatic, Brando perfectly captured a deceptively complex character - a man that has an almost hypnotic hold over his mistreated wife Stella. His routine life is turned on its head by the arrival of the disapproving Blanche DuBois.

It is the chemistry between Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando that makes this film such a brilliant adaptation. The sexual charge behind their exchanges bubbles under the surface as they display their contempt towards each other - elegant femininity contrasted with raw animalism. In all their scenes, a sense of impending dread that something is going to go horribly wrong between the two of them builds. Those who know the play will, of course, know something will go wrong, but the tension developed by Brando and Leigh is a remarkable display of acting talent.

For Leigh, this meant Oscar glory, but Brando was to (unfairly, in my view) miss out. Standing in his way was the legendary Humphrey Bogart.

Bogart was a man in transition. He was, perhaps, two old to hold the role of traditional, dashing leading man. He always had a world weary air about him but, now in his 50's, Bogart was crying out for a role that took the idea of a mature, grizzled man who was been there and done that, and just roll with it. The African Queen  was just such a roll.

It is impossible for Bogart not to be charming, but the character of Charlie Allnut was a world away from Phillip Marlowe or Rick Blaine. The gin swilling and the cynicism are familiar character traits, but Allnut is Blaine without the hope or kindness; a slob who has all but given up on himself. Grumpy to the point of being cruel, Bogart pushes his traditional image to its limits in his early exchanges with Hepburn in the film. But, as with so many films from this era, it takes the love of a good woman to turn him around.

The chemistry between Hepburn and Bogart is perfect. Nowhere near as intense and combustible as Leigh and Brando, Charlie and Rose's chemistry is reluctant, moving slowly from intense dislike to mutual respect and, finally, to pure attraction. It could more or less write the rulebook for the love-hate relationship - something that Hepburn and Bogart were used to, but perfected alongside each other.

Brando should have won this particular showdown, but on any other year, Bogart would have walked this award without a problem.

On Any Other Year will return to examine the Best Actor category once again, and the 1963 competition between Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird and Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.

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