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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