Monday, March 19, 2012

John Carter

There's nothing better for me (in terms of cinema experiences) than being totally surprised by a film. And that feeling is just a bit more sweeter when the surprise comes from a film even in the light of heavy press criticism, worrying box office performance and mixed reviews from critics. The risky new Disney fantasy adventure film, John Carter however manages to overcome all these obstacles (in my mind at least) to deliver an epically creative adventure that I can't seem to stop raving about.

John Carter is based on the 1917 novel of Edgar Rice Burroughs, 'A princess of Mars', known as the first commercially successful entry in the then popular genre of interplanetary romance. The series went on to span 8 direct sequels and has also been confirmed to be a huge inspiration behind films like Star Wars and Star Trek. So in terms of originality,  Burroughs' far-out tale certainly has a lot of bragging rights.

The world of Barsoom, know to earthlings as Mars is inhabited by a wide range of strange creatures that will creep into your heart. 
But how well would this almost 100 year old tale translate onto screen, especially when compared to more modern and overhyped adversaries like James Cameron's thrill sell-out Avatar? To make things even more tricky, it's director Andrew Stanton's (the mastermind by Disney classics like Wall-E and Toy Story) live action directorial debut, which just adds to the long list of skepticism arousing factors around the project. Let me start off by stating that I wholeheartedly believe that John Carter is in all ways superior to most of the Hollywood blockbuster CGI cockfests it is doomed to be compared to.

I make a point of not regurgitating plot synopsis in my reviews, but let's just say that from the get go, you'll notice a few classic adventure film plot mechanic staples. But in the case of John Carter, this just doesn't matter at all, even more so if you take into consideration the true age of this tale. In terms of story, the film delivers to an epic degree,  with an enthralling screenplay that draws you into the political conflicts and cultural frictions present in the world of this fun fictional sci-fi/fantasy hybrid tale. Alien races seem foreign, but intriguingly familiar at the same time, making it very hard not to form an emotional connection.

Expert pacing means there's enough time to expose character's more sensitive motivations, whilst still keeping the plot moving along at an exciting tempo – something Peter Jackson could definitely take a few notes from. Some interesting plot twists to the end will result in a few unexpected 'aaah' moments as the story rounds off all major plot points to a satisfying degree.

"Expert pacing means there's enough time to expose character's more sensitive motivations, whilst still keeping the plot moving along at an exciting tempo."

Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights, Bang Bang Club) seems to be the perfect heroic protagonist, with a pleasing lack of cheesy dialogue and very straightforward, but honest motivations. It also helps that he looks less like a genetically mutated model and more like a merely well built bloke that doesn't only exist in the pages of magazines, making it easier to relate and connect to the strange predicaments he gets himself into. The rest of the cast supports the protagonist well, with Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton delivering the most noteworthy complementary performances, which all feel slightly unique and well imagined for a film genre overthrown with mediocre acting and stereotypical character archetypes.

The baddies are another highlight of the film, with evil puppetmasters that seem to have a very refreshing reasoning behind their diabolical deeds. Cover this in a thick sense of mystery and you've got the perfect recipe for a villain that intrigues as much as he disgusts. The fact that all these characters come to life so vividly is a great indication of the quality of the original source material.

The setting itself might not be a lot to look at, but that doesn't mean it isn't beautifully realised. The harsh and desolate terrain of Mars comes alive with small touches of natural detail as well as beautifully intimidating airships and mesmerizing technologically advanced metropolitan areas. And the fact that everything isn't filmed in front of a green screen just gives it all a bit more of believability. I have to make special mention of the costume design here too: Shady bureaucrats plot in classy robes, native races reflect the harshness of their circumstances with minimalistic coverings and heroes deserve attention with impressive battle garments. All of these are little details, but unmistakably help to add to the grandness of the overall film experience.

"The harsh and desolate terrain of Mars comes alive with small touches of natural detail as well as beautifully intimidating airships and mesmerizing technologically advanced metropolitan areas." 

It would be a sin to not also mention the fantastic action sequences in John Carter:  At first, Carter struggles to adapt to his new world, but with time he realizes that his human body is quite an advantage on Mars when it comes to physical prowess. Memorable scenes include the destruction of an enemy aerial armada, an emotionally charged group battle as well as a suspenseful hand-to-hand finale that are but some the treats action fans can look forward to.

Carter's female love interest is not your typical warrior princess and that's a good thing.

But all of this pales in comparison to John Carter's greatest accomplishment – Its ability to totally envelop your mind for 2 hours, transporting you to a world that feels nostalgically familiar, but at the same time, enthrallingly unique and new. The characters remind me of my favourite, unspoiled TV shows as a kid and the political backdrop brings up fond memories of my favourite Video games. In short, a wonderful mishmash of some of my most defining experiences as a child.

There's just something about the way all of the different elements come together that pleases me in a way I can't seem to put into words. In truth, a film in general hasn't struck me like this for quite a while, which is why I have no reluctance in adding it to my list of favourite movies of all time. Let the skeptics enjoy their Hollywood adventure clones – I can't wait for the Carter's next adventure.

Highlight: While intentional or not, I interpreted a particular fight scene that ends in Carter covered in blue blood as a very sneaky poke at a certain Cameron film. Much like Carter's defeat of the beast in this scene, so too does the film itself slaughter Avatar as a cinematic comparable.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Extremely loud and incredibly close

Everyone was quite surprised when the Academy decided to add Stephen Daldry’s (The Reader, The Hours, Billy Elliot) strangely hybrid ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ to the list of Best film nominations for 2011. It’s almost if the film came from nowhere, as there was no hype about the film before the mention, which obviously changed as soon as the nominees were announced. I have to admit that I was just as curious to see what all the fuss was about as the rest of the world, hence the existence of this review you are now reading.

You would think that Americans got over the whole 9/11 thing, but this film makes it clear that they really haven’t. But to the film’s defence, it does give an interesting twist to the whole aftermath of the events and how it affected those that were left to pick up the jagged pieces of their lives. Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock’s names are added to the poster for promotional purposes, but even though their presence in the film is felt (Bullock delivers a commendable performance), the true star here is definitely newcomer Thomas Horn, who plays the son of a 9/11 widow.

Horn plays a very complex role indeed, with his character suffering from an extreme disconnect from the world that isn’t made any more bearable by his outbursts of rage, his nonsensical monologues and distinctly disrespectful demeanour. He sees himself as a kid locked in the body of an adult and at times, he really does convince you that he might not be as delusional as he seems. Horn’s excellent portrayal of this intriguing boy alone is worth the price of admission as he keeps the quite flimsy screenplay moving along long after you’ve forgotten that the movie doesn’t really have much of a point.

".... he keeps the quite flimsy screenplay moving along long after you’ve forgotten that the movie doesn’t really have much of a point."

Yes, the film’s acting, which extends to a powerful ensemble cast of a-list actors is for the most part spot on, but the screenplay itself feels disjointed, unnecessarily stretched out and loses steam quite quickly, as director Daldry tries to focus on too many things that just don’t seem to matter in the long run. While the weird and jumbled-up pacing of the film might suit the mindset of the protagonist, it doesn’t translate as well to the normal audience members that have to experience it.

It’s an ambitious project, which scores more frequently than it misses, but these few flaws really do make it hard to understand why the film was nominated for Best film. It’s certainly an interesting film, but not best film material. Nonetheless, it’s a movie that I can recommend for its enthralling protagonist and interesting premise alone.

It's a highly emotional, strange adventure. 
Highlight: A moving confrontation between a young boy and a very old man reaches an intense climax that is sure to leave an impression on you.