Movies I watched: Snowpiercer, by Bong Joon-Ho

SnowpiercerStill-thumb-630xauto-36253Due to the failed environmental policies of this guy, and this guy, and this guy, the nations of earth decide to inject a chemical into the atmosphere in a desperate gamble to counter the effects of global warming. This fails, and most life on earth is wiped out.

The only people left alive, are the rich folks that managed to buy a ticket on the Snowpiercer, an awesome train that is planning on circling the globe for the rest of eternity, as well as the poor people who manage to sneak on at the last minute.

17 years later, the poor people aren’t happy, and they turn to Chris Evans to save them.

imagesThat’s the premise of Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer, an(mostly) English language film that has been a massive hit in Korea and other asian countries. It’s a premise full of promise & potential, and has been a bit of a cause celebre among film fans this year, as evil Harvey Weinstein had previously refused to release Joon-Ho’s cut of the film in North America. He has since acquiesced, but only in limited release.

I can see why.

Joon-Ho is so enthralled with his concept here, that he can’t seem to figure out what kind of movie to make around it. Should he make a balls-to-the-wall thriller? The bones for that are here, and one could see how Harvey Weinstein would have thought that’s what he was getting when he picked up the rights.

Or should he make a cerebral Brazil/12 Monkeys homage? Joon-Ho goes as far as to name one of his lead characters Gilliam, so his preference is fairly clear. But Snowpiercer is far too actiony, and it’s characters too one-dimensional, to fully take its place among such other dystopian classics like Blade Runner or Children of Men.

And it’s too preachy, and too sentimental, to be compared to other excellent modern thrillers like Looper & Source Code.

So what does Snowpiercer get right?

snowpiercer_tilda-swintonFirstly, it’s exciting. We know what the stakes are, and the desperation of Chris Evans’ crew is palpable. They are literally fighting for the future of the planet here. They’d rather die, than accept another day under the status quo.

Secondly, Tilda Swinton. Her role as the public face of the evil villain who is actually running the train, is absolutely inspired. Her character’s over-the-top fascism is probably the film’s strongest link to movies like A Clockwork Orange or 1984. The movie suffers every time she’s not on screen.

Thirdly, the concept of the piece. I’ve mentioned it before, but the concept is so strong, and so timely, that it really does make up for any other perceived shortfalls.

Quite frankly, this film is screaming for Showtime or AMC to turn it into a TV series. There is so much backstory left on the table here, and so many unanswered questions, that I found myself making up scenarios in my head to answer them.

There is plenty about this film that is entertaining and worth discussing, mostly having to do with the fact that we may only be decades away from a similar fate. However, all I could think about was how much the film left unsaid.

Rating: B-

 

 

Movies I’ve Watched: Captain America – The Winter Soldier by Joe Russo & Anthony Russo

Captain America: the Winter Soldier, is like the Raid: Berendal, in that it’s that rare sequel that overshadows the original, if not out right decimates it. This isn’t just the best Captain America movie ever made…it’s arguably best movie Marvel has produced thus far.

Chris Evans plays Steve Rogers, a WW2 super soldier who spent 70 years in a coma, and is now doing captain-america-chris-evans-avengers-600special ops for SHIELD, a super spy organization run by Nick Fury (played by Samuel Jackson, in easily his best work as the character to date). Evans thinks Jackson is a fascist thug, and Jackson thinks Evans is a naive dilettante. They’re friends, but they’re the kind of friends that send pretty women to move in across the hall from the other person just to spy on each other.
They’re joined by the Black Widow, a Russian superspy played by Scarlett Johansson, and the Falcon, a former U.S. paratrooper played by Anthony Mackie. They, and SHIELD, are fighting against Hydra, a WW2 era deep science Nazi organization, that seems to want to free the world, by killing a lot of people. They never really explain their plan very well.

black-widow-posterThis is being compared to 70’s thrillers like Day of the Jackal and the Parallax View, though I think this movie is far too action-oriented to really compare it apples-to-apples to those classics. But there’s a conspiracy, and race against the clock to uncover it, so now it’s a John Le Carre movie, apparently.

Although not technically a “thriller”, Winter Solider is absolutely thrilling. It puts its boots to your neck the minute you walk into the theatre, and it doesn’t let up. The action and fight choreography is several steps up from the already considerable standards set by the first film, and it appears that a real effort was made into adapting the acrobatics seen in the late 80’s Mark Gruenwald run on the Cap comic book. The fight scenes between Captain America and the Winter Solider, who DEFINITELY ISN”T SOMEONE FROM THE FIRST MOVIE THAT WE THOUGHT WAS DEAD are really exceptional, and are easily the equal (and probably the better), of any similar fight scenes scene in the superhero comic movie genre we’ve seen to date.

55a6e3f3_4a4wxtwEven more so than usual, Marvel spends as much time on character development as it does on action scenes here, and at least 4 of the main characters end up significantly different people at the end of this film, than they are at the beginning. This isn’t an inconsiderable achievement in this genre, and you really get the sense that in terms of the continuity that Marvel is creating in their cinematic universe, that this one is a game changer. They will be building on the character and plot development from this one for a long time.
For the comic lovers among us, we get Batroc the Leaper (BTW, 12 year old me would like to sincerely thank Kevin Feige for making it possible for 40 year old me to see BATROC KICKING IN A MOVIE!), Arnim Zola going full Zola, Crossbones, a Doctor Strange reference, and some after the credits geekiness that I won’t spoil for you, but we finally see someone who comics fans know as the true leader of Hydra, as well as a sneak peak at some future possible Avengers that DEFINITELY AREN”T THE MUTANT CHILDREN OF MAGNETO.

On a related note, apparently I’ve been waiting my whole life for Robert Redford to play a Marvel villain, and I didn’t even know it. In this film, he sets the bar so high in the “Former critically acclaimed leading man who now plays the villain in action movies so as to lend credibility to said movies” category, that I’m not sure that even Michael Douglas will be able to catch up.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable action movie, and Marvel needs to be signing up the Russos to a long term deal, right quick.
Rating: A

 

Movies I’ve watched: Noah by Darren Aronofsky

Noah is the story of a prehistoric hippie (played by Russell Crowe, in a role that he is perfectly suited for, as he gets to scowl and yell a lot), who is told by his Kreator that the world is about to be destroyed. Everyone’s got to go, except for Noah’s family, and every animal on earth. And so the Kreator sends a supernatural monster with a face made of stone to help him.

But enough about Jennifer Connolly.

kaxtqrh-get-a-better-look-at-aronofsky-s-bizarre-noah-creatures-the-watchers

Jennifer Connelly, in Noah

I’ll never understand how any studio thought handing over the reins to one of the Bible’s (now available at that creepy Christian book store down the street that somehow stays open even though you never see anyone inside) most beloved stories, to one of modern cinema’s most sacrilegious directors (you can google Jennifer Connelly Dildo, for just a taste of the Aronofsky oeuvre), was a good idea.

But they did. And so we have Noah, a Clash Of The Titans for the bible set. But instead of a gorgon we get a rock monster, and instead of Liam Neeson we get Anthony Hopkins, who has played the “wise old man on the mountain” cliché so many times that Aaronofsky finally just decided to have him literally play a wise old man on a mountain. And instead of a great biblical epic, we get Noah.

It’s not that there isn’t some entertainment to be gleaned here. In fact, the second act of the film is fairly strong, as it’s essentially an hour-long tribute to the Rocky training montage, but instead of Talia Shire we get a million snakes, and instead of Burgess Meredith we get the Kreator. Aaronofsky means this to be a cautionary tale, using the mythology of our past to teach us lessons about our future. But everyone in the film is so utterly unlikable (with the exception of the deliciously campy Ray Winstone, which is unfortunate as he’s actually supposed to be the villain of the piece), that it’s hard to not to agree with the Kreator and root for him to wipe everyone out and to just leave the whole planet to the birds & bees.

article-2576912-1C18F1E500000578-346_634x449Noah in particular is to be despised, as he’s initially played as a prehistoric Jerry Garcia, but morphs quickly into a loathsome ideological martyr, so convinced in his species’ shortcomings that he’s not only willing, but eager, to sacrifice his entire family to his Kreator’s whims.

Oh, and can anyone remind me of the bible verse where everyone gets shotguns? That would be great. I’ll wait.

This is an easy film to mock, but it’s not terrible by any stretch. But if you want to learn about how to protect the environment, watch The Inconvenient Truth. And if you want to learn about the bible, read the bible. And if you want a somewhat entertaining, overblown special effects epic masquerading as a environmental puff piece, you can watch Noah.

Rating: C+

Best Movies Of 2013

You may have noticed that I haven’t blogged at all this year. There’s a few reasons for that, most of which aren’t really reasons so much as they’re different ways to spell lazy. But I wanted to at least get a movie list out this year, as in my mind this is one of the strongest years in mainstream film that I can remember. Keep in mind that I haven’t seen everything this year, and this is just based on movies I’ve seen.

Here you be.

30. No directed by Pablo Larrain

29. The World’s End directed by Edgar Wright

28. A Field In England directed by Ben Wheately

27. Room 237 directed by Rodney Ascher

26. This Is The End directed by Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg

25. Big Bad Wolves directed by Aharon Keshales

24. The Battery directed by Jeremy Gardner

23. The Place Beyond The Pines directed by Derek Cianfrance

22. Blue Jasmine directed by Woody Allen

21. The Pervert’s Guide To Idealogy directed by Sophie Fiennes

20. Borgman directed by Alex Van Warmerdam

19. Mud directed by Jeff Nichols

18. Side Effects directed by Steven Soderbergh

17. New World directed by Park Hoon-jung

16. Dallas Buyer’s Club directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

15. A Band Called Death directed by Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett

14. Stoker directed by Park Chan-wook

13. Inside Llewyn Davis directed by Ethan & Joel Cohen

12. Prisoners directed by Denis Villeneuve

11. The Gatekeepers directed by Dror Moreh

10. Before Midnight directed by Richard Linklater

9. Upstream Color directed by Shane Carruth

8. Gravity directed by Alfonso Cuaron

7. Frances Ha directed by Noah Baumbach

6. Short Term 12 directed by Destin Cretton

5. American Hustle directed by David O. Russell

4. The Lunch Box directed by Ritesh Batra

3. The Act Of Killing directed by Joshua Oppenheimer & Christine Cynn

2. 12 Years A Slave directed by Steve McQueen

1. All Is Lost directed by J.C. Chandor

Worst Movie of 2013: Man Of Steel directed by Zack Snyder, though Elysium & 42 sure came close.

Movie Review: Looper by Rian Johnson

Looper directed by Rian Johnson

This century is only 12 years old, but we already have several additions to the pantheon of capital G great science fiction films: Children Of Men. District 9. Moon. Eternal Sunshine. And now, we can add Looper.

First of all, this movie is set in the future. Actually, it’s set in two futures: 30 years from now future, and 60 years from now future. 60 years from now future has developed time travel, and criminals there send the guys they don’t like back to 30 years from now future to be killed. The people who do the killing are called Loopers. Joseph Gordon-Leavitt is one of them. Jeff Daniels is his boss. Daniels was a criminal in 60 years from now future, but now runs the show in 30 years from now future.

All is well, until Gordon-Leavitt discovers that he grew up to be Bruce Willis. That isn’t quite as awesome as it sounds, as Gordon-Leavitt is expected to kill his older self. This proves to be pretty difficult, because Bruce Willis.

This all sounds quite convoluted, but actually it’s pretty simple; At it’s heart, this is a movie about family. What makes up a family? Is it blood? Luck? Good intentions?

A little bit of all three, it turns out. Though it doesn’t seem to be on pace to doing even a fraction of the box office of something like Inception, the heart & soul that beats at the centre of this film is going to guarantee that this movie keeps going as a cult classic for years to come. There is plenty of time travel trickery, guns, and bang for those of us who like that sort of thing. But for those of us who need a rock solid emotional core in our science fiction, Looper is a revelation. Rarely does an action movie convince us care so much about it’s characters. Bruce Willis in particular rolls out his best work in a decade, with a visceral desperation so tangible that we can almost smell the despair coming off of him.

This is a man who has lost everything: His life, his love, and possibly even his past. And he will do absolutely anything to get them back. Gordon-Leavitt puts in a fine performance

Bruce Willis is holding himself hostage. Not a euphemism for masturbation.

as well, showing a range that proves that his recent foray into leading man roles is justified.  But it might be Emily Blunt who steals the show, continuing her quiet, steady quest to being recognized as one of the most talented actresses of her generation.

Looper a bold film, and Johnson isn’t afraid to try to use bombastic sci-fi trappings to tell a smaller, more personal story. It’s a fantastically well-written script, with as much attention paid to personal resonance as there is to resolving plot holes (though there are a few). Johnson really has crafted a bit of a populist masterpiece here. Arthouse snobs will find enough existential hand wringing to delight even the most douchey of Commercial Drive baristas, and for Ed Hardy models from Surrey, there are boobies and guns.

Rating: A+

Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

The Amazing Spider-Man directed by Mark Webb

At this point, we needed another film adaptation of the Spider-Man story about as much as we needed a movie that showed the secret stripper origin of Channing Tatum. Alas, this summer we somehow ended up with both.

The story is this: Peter Parker (played by Andrew Garfield, whose seems to think that he was actually rebooting Sleeper, since his entire performance here is a tribute to early 70′s Woody Allen)  is a really good-looking white kid from a middle class family who happens to be the second best science student at a high school that actually has science in its name. And so he gets crowned president of the school, and spends the rest of the film being carryed around on the backs of his fellow pupils. Oh wait, no. He actually gets picked on by the other kids, which is a little like Noam Chomsky being teased at an Occupy Wall Street Rally for being a little too far to the left .

That joke was originally a sports metaphor, but then I realized that no one would believe that I knew anything about LeBron James. Which is true.

But I digress. Parker lives with Martin Sheen and Sally Field, who have been taking care of him ever since his family abandoned him for a plot device to be named later. He happens to find some formulas (forumulae? Forumulets?) left by his dad, which leads him to look up his famous scientist father on Google for the first time ever. Or was it Bing? Or Yelp. Maybe ChristianMingle. One of those. So he tracks down his father’s science buddy, gets bitten by a irradiated spider, and then proceeds to gain spider powers. There’s also a talking lizard, and a love interest that’s actually somewhat believable, and Uncle Ben dies. Or was it Uncle Ben dies ? Damn spoiler buttons.

Anyways, here’s what I liked:

The relationship between Peter Parker & Gwen Stacey.  I put this first, as it’s the best part of the movie, and the strongest case Sony (and Webb) have for convincing me that this project needed to exist. Emma Stone & Andrew Garfield have a sexual charisma that is not only rare for this type of film, but is actually so palpable that one finds himself hoping that Sony realizes these two should have been remaking 9 1/2 Weeks instead. In every scene they’re in, they look like they can’t wait for the camera to turn off so that they can screw like bunnies.

Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, 5 minutes before making Peter Parker a man in the Midtown High bathrooms.

Secondly…Umm…I just realized that was the only thing I really liked about the movie.

It’s not that there is anything “wrong” about this piece. It’s fine, really. But if you are going to “reboot” a franchise in which the last film only hit theatres 5 years ago, you better have a pretty great reason for doing so. Sony has about 750,000,000 great reasons for doing so, but none of them matter very much to me. And it’s not as if I have fond memories of Sam Raimi’s bombastic trilogy either. There was plenty of fromage in all 3 instalments (though slightly less in the second, to be sure), with the last one being one of the worst superhero films ever made. There’s less that’s “wrong” here, and I think a strong case could be argued that the tighter dialogue, and stronger cast, definitely made this a slightly more accessible offering than Raimi’s films.

But there’s nothing here that screams out “I NEEDED TO BE MADE” here, and nothing that wouldn’t have fit in (with some tweaking, to be sure) as the fourth film in an existing franchise. It’s a slightly fresher take on the origin, but not so fresh as to convince me that Webb’s vision is so different from Raimi’s (As Nolan’s on Batman was from Burton’s, for example) that this film needed to be made.

That really doesn’t matter though. What matters is this: Does this movie stand on its own two legs as a credible adventure movie? The answer is sure. Barely, but sure. As stated, the characters have a depth to them that allows me to forgive the inexcusably bad CG (Seriously. How Sony can justify CG this terrible in 2012 is beyond me. I know Webb is a character guy first, but there’s really no excuse for the poor rendering, and choppy action sequences).

And the nice tweaks to the Uncle Ben sub-plot (The only absolutely indispensable part of any Spider-Man origin), as well as the very strong motivations for Peter post spider-bite, make up for the hackneyed “LET”S DESTROY EVERYONE JUST CAUSE ARGH!!” motivations of the villain. Rhys Ifans, Emma Stone, and Martin Sheen are the bedrock of a solid cast, and a decent script and some nice direction from Webb made this a fairly well-rounded summer action movie. It’s just not one you need to see. The action scenes don’t have much action in them, and there’s never any real sense of danger to any of the cast, even for the ones that actually die. In fact, it’s only when this action movie stops pretending to be an action movie, that it works on any level at all.

P.S. Peter Parker should not be cool. Ever.

Rating: B-

Movie Reviews: My entirely spoiler-free review of Cabin In The Woods

Cabin In The Woods directed by Drew Goddard

It’s not really fair to be mad at filmmakers for making a movie, but it’s the position I find myself in here. Not because Cabin in The Woods is a bad film, but because it’s a movie that’s almost impossible to review without spoiling pretty much every reason why you should go see it.

I’ll give it a shot. 5 generic college students go visit a cabin in the woods, and then…Nope…I can’t do it. Although it’s fairly obvious from the trailers that this isn’t the generic teen horror movie it appears to be at first glance, it’s also a film that deserves to have its secrets experienced, not spoiled.

Things I can tell you:

This is a good script. This is a very good script. In fact, this is a script that anyone who loves American horror movies needs to study. Because like all of the best tributes, this is a script truly in love with its source material. This film isn’t mocking the mindless tropes of horror films, it’s honouring them. Not only that, but Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s strip does such a nice job of slowly dolling out tiny pieces of information through the entire film, that when it comes time for the lengthy “Here’s what in the Harper is actually going on” scene, it’s almost needless. We’ve figured it out, but just need a little bit of clarifying, which is then done quickly, with little wasted time.

These are good characters. They verge on stereotype, with good reason. Horror is a genre that lends itself to stereotype incredibly well. We know that we need a goofball to keep the tone light. We know that we need a brainiac to help us figure out what’s going on. And we know that we need an innocent to rail against the forces of darkness. Not only does Cabin give us those clichés, it gives us a great reason as to WHY we need them….and it turns out we need them pretty badly.

This is a fantastic premise. Unfortunately it’s a premise that I can’t tell you anything about. But it’s really good. It’s so good that you’ll kick yourself for not thinking of it first. It’s so strong, and so well-thought out, that’s it’s going to be hard to enjoy another film in the “cabin-in-the-woods” genre ever again.

Anything I didn’t like? Sure. This was a genre juggle, and while I normally like that in my storytelling, I found the lack of pure horror to be somewhat anti-climactic. It’s a horror movie, but it’s rarely truly scary. And it’s also a comedy, though it’s rarely truly funny. It still combines both genres better than most films do, and as such is eminently watchable, despite the lack of real chills. Still, I found that I appreciated it more from a technical perspective than I did as a film that’s truly emotionally engaging. A quibble, but a quibble worth discussing.

Cabin In the Wood is that rare scary movie that is smart, but also extremely accessible. It’s a fun horror film on its surface, with a terrifying secret at its centre that only enhances your enjoyment of the whole thing.

Rating: A-

Movie Reviews: Raid – Redemption, and The Hunger Games

The Raid: Redemption directed by Gareth Evans

“It’s pretty good, for an action movie.”

That’s a common description, but one that’s filled with as much derision as it is praise. Certain movie genres are considered so detestable that no manner of skill or talent could possibly transcend them. You’re praising, but apologizing at the same time…and movies you have to apologize for probably weren’t worth watching in the first place.

The Raid: Redemption is worth watching, I’m happy to report. And by “worth watching” I mean “Get your lazy ass down to the theatre right now and watch one of the very best pure action movies of the  last decade.” Please.

Our hero here is Rama (played ably by Iwo Uwais, a martial artist and actor so monstrously talented that my wife took as many opportunities as she could during the movie to inform me that he is now her secret boyfriend), a member of an  Indonesian SWAT team sent to arrest a crime lord  holed up in a tenement infested with criminals, drug addicts, and other tawdry assundries.

The team finds out almost immediately that things are NOT the way they seem on the surface, and Rama spends the rest of the movie kicking, punching, stabbing, and shooting dozens upon dozens of criminals just to keep his team alive.

The plot is so utterly straight-forward that it makes “See Spot Run” look like Inception: Guy with pregnant wife fights bad guys to get back to pregnant wife. That level of simplicity would usually deter me from fully enjoying something like this. But in the case of The Raid the efficiency of the story, as well as the earnestness and baldly straight-forward nature of the character motivations, served only to accentuate the brutal nature of the violence that we’re watching.

And violent it is. This my friends, is a big, overflowing bucket of ass-kickery. Since Rama is a cop, the movie starts out as a traditional shoot-em up, with Rama attempting to use weapons as well as his surroundings to get out. And then he runs out of bullets. And so the punching commences. Good lord, the punching.

Gareth Evans seems to know what his audiences have come for, and so has artfully put together a series of wildly disparate action scenes, each taking full advantage of that fight’s surroundings. Not only that, but Evans also takes the time to build JUST enough depth into his characters to make us truly care about what’s happening to them.

Don’t get me wrong. This is “just” a simple action movie, with nothing much more than “punch the bad guys till they stop” going for it. But it’s one the best simple action movies you’ll ever see, and I would go as far as to say that it’s one of the very best martial arts films of this new millennium.

Rating: A-

The Hunger Games directed by Gary Ross

Odds are that by now you are familiar with the media-gasm known as The Hunger Games. It’s a movie based on the first book in a trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins, and while a month ago you had never heard of it, by now you either have seen it, or have been properly castigated by the media for not having seen it, or your name is Rick Santorum.

But is it actually any good?

Sure. It’s a solid adventure movie. But it’s hardly perfect, and while it’s nice to see the movie industry do well, this should be a wake up call to studios. Hunger Games didn’t do $155 million in three days because it’s a great movie, though it’s watchable of course. It did $155 million in three days because every single media outlet in the world told every single person in the world that if they didn’t see it, then they were about one rung lower than George Zimmerman in the pecking order of society.

Our story revolves around Katniss, a young girl just struggling to provide for her family in a dystopian future where 12 colonies struggle to pay tribute to the Capital that conquered them decades before. Her young sister has just been randomly chosen to be her village’s annual cannon fodder in the gladiator-style games that this society takes part of, and Katniss volunteers to go in her place.

One of the best compliments I could give to Hunger Games is to compare it to 1984, saying that like Orwell’s seminal masterpiece it plays across all ideological spectrums, letting the reader take from it what they will. And it’s kind of true. Conservatives will say that this is the society you get when a central authority overreaches over the satellite states it’s supposed to manage, and will use it as an example as to why “provincial autonomy” (or “states rights”, if you’re one of my friends to the south) should be considered sacrosanct. Liberals will say that it’s a cautionary tale about the rich taking advantage of the poor, and will use it to rail against the financial tyranny of the “1 %”.

And most will just enjoy it as a moderately entertaining adventure story. Because that’s what it really is. It lacks the visceral danger that seeps out of every poor from books like The Long Walk or Battle Royale (just 2 of the many novels that come to mind when watching this), and there isn’t a single minute where you truly worry about whether or not Katniss will survive this “epic” battle to the death.

Gary Ross does a fairly nice job of world building here, but as a warning against possible futures to come The Hunger Games is relatively toothless. Which is probably why it’s so popular. It’s so far removed from our own reality that it’s easy to project your own politics or worldview onto the characters, and it’s so tame and watered down as to really remove any actual “hunger” that one should find in such a dire scenario. As a moderately entertaining adventure movie this works, but when compared to other works in the “dystopian” genre like Brazil, or Clockwork Orange, or V For Vendetta, or 12 Monkeys, or even Sleeper, it fails miserably.

Rating: B

Movie Reviews: John Carter, and Pina

John Carter directed by Andrew Stanton

When discussing the most anticipated geek-friendly films of 2012, there’s some pretty obvious talking points: Dark Knight Rises, Avengers, Spidey, Prometheus, etc. And while I’m definitely excited about all of those, there’s one more on the list that I’ve been looking forward to as much, if not more, than the rest: John Carter.

Why? Because in a lot of ways, a strong case could be argued that without Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom books, those other films might not even exist. While H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley preceded Burrough’s novels by decades,  the influence of A Princess Of Mars is still keenly obvious in modern works like works like Avatar, or Star Wars. In a lot of ways, Princess (written in 1912) was the first science fiction epic.

And now, a century later, its a gazillion dollar movie made by the guy that directed Finding Nemo and Wall-E. Anticipation high, yes?

John Carter (played by B.C. actor Taylor Kitsch, who I had never heard of before but have been informed by my wife that he starred in Friday Night Lights, which apparently is a TV show about football that isn’t as horrible as it sounds like it would be) is a retired Civil War infantryman, just trying to make his fortune. The guy from Breaking Bad tries to get him back into the Confederate army, but Carter isn’t having any of it. He escapes, ends up in the desert, finds a magic amulet, gets transported to Mars, and discovers that while he’s there that he has gained the super power of being able to magically repel clothing from his body, since he spends the rest of the movie half-naked. He also has super strength and can jump pretty high.

He then gets kidnapped by Ewoks (in this movie Ewoks are green, 9 feet tall, and have 4 arms. But they’re Ewoks nonetheless), and then stumbles into the middle of a huge Martian civil war;  and by stumbles I mean he lets his dick lead him around for the rest of the film in as he chases after a Martian princess who seems to be as clothing-averse as he is, and who gets kidnapped a lot.

There’s a lot to recommend about this movie, but I can’t say that it’s the fantasy masterpiece that Stanton was obviously going for. It’s fun, with a solid script, and a decent cast. It’s got some great special effects, and the CGI is relatively clean. It’s also quite clunky, and tries to cram about 4 hours of plot into half that time. As a result, the film feels extremely rushed, and we never really get to learn much about any of the characters other than: Bad Guy or Good Guy. Now, that’s in keeping with the tone of the original novel. Not a lot of character subtlety going on there. But because we’re not given a lot of background on these Martians, it’s hard for us to figure out why John Carter ends up caring so much about them (other than the obvious answer that he really wants to plow the Martian crap out of one of them.)

But it’s entertaining as hell, with some amazing action scenes, and an easily accessible story. It’s a fun space fantasy a la Avatar, but it a) doesn’t take itself as nearly as that film did, and as a result, b) ends up being twice as fun.

Rating: B+

Pina directed by Wim Wenders

I know as much about modern dance as Republican women seem to know about trans-vaginal ultrasounds. But just like their ignorance about the basics of the human body doesn’t get in the way of their trying to regulate what medical procedures be done in the name of religion, my lack of knowledge about the intricacies of the world of modern dance didn’t get in the way of me enjoying this captivating tribute to the works of the famed choreographer and dancer, Pina Bausch.

Usually one’s interest in a documentary rests and falls on one’s passion for the thing that movie is about. It’s a rare documentary that transcends its subject matter, and that makes you care deeply about something you barely knew existed 5 minutes before the movie began. Pina is one such documentary. And that’s probably because it’s not really a documentary at all.

It’s a collection of dance pieces, planned well ahead of Bauch’s untimely death in 2009. The film cuts between said pieces, and the recollections of her dancers, reminiscing about their years with her troupe. These interviews aren’t so much about imparting information as they are about imparting emotional response, and those that are looking for a Behind The Music-style dish session should look elsewhere. This isn’t gossip, it’s creators missing a collaborator.

But it’s the dance pieces themselves that are the real story here, and Wenders manages to one-up Werner Hertzog’s beautiful Cave Of Forgotten Dreams with how effortlessly he uses 3D to capture the dancers performance. He’s not filming a dance performance here; this is a fully realized film, and his camera use and judicious editing manage to create something new out of already beautiful pieces of work.

If it sounds like I’m gushing a bit, it’s because I am. Pina is a truly beautiful movie, and one that must be watched by anyone interested in where 3D technology is taking film. But it’s also a loving tribute to a true artist, one that left her medium a better place than than when she found it.

Rating: A

Movie Reviews: Chronicle & The Grey

The Grey directed by Joe Carnahan

Liam Neeson fighting wolves? You had me at hello.

The nature thriller is a bit of a lost movie genre these days, and it’s a throwback to an era where we didn’t actually have the technology to depict what it would be like for giant robots to fight giant lizards in accurate manner. Since we do, a simple concept like “Plane crashes in Alaska, survivors struggle to remain as such”, can seem a little pedestrian.

Thankfully, The Grey is anything but. It’s an extremely effective drama first, action thriller second, but there’s enough suspense and tension to placate even the most jaded of modern audiences. Neeson plays John Ottway, a man who’s hit a bit of a rough patch in his personal life. He’s working as a sniper keeping wolves away from an oil rig team, which is a job I had never heard of before now, but now want desperately. When the plane they’re all on crashes in Alaska (in reality Smithers B.C., doing a nice job of  pretending to be somewhere you’d actually like to visit) , it’s up to him to try to keep them safe from themselves, from the elements, and of course, a large pack of gigantic, ravenously hungry timber wolves. Of course.

Liam Neeson: Wolf Puncher

This film exceeded pretty much all of my expectations, as the last thing I was anticipating was for The Grey to essentially be a 2 hour lesson in secular humanism. Neeson’s character knows that the only thing that really matters in life is the relationships we forge in it, and so he fights, and he fights, and he fights, with very little thought to the sheer hopelessness of his situation. Doing the right thing by his team isn’t even a choice for him, it’s the only option; this, despite the fact that he really doesn’t have much to live for, makes Ottway a humanist hero the likes of which we rarely see in films today.

I’m pleased to see Joe Carnahan has finally made a movie worthy of the potential he showed a decade ago when he made Narc. It’s not just that The Grey is entertaining…it is, tremendously so. But it also channels pure emotion the way that only film can. You care about these characters so much, that every injury and accident almost seems like a personal slight against the viewer. The script is so meticulously crafted that although slight, it conveys such a large amount of information about each character that we’re all old friends by the time the first wolf shows up.

Neeson is a gifted actor, but one whose gifts are often overshadowed by the schlock he peddles. Though the genre tropes of The Grey will probably preclude him from any type of notice come award season, it’s quite easily one of the best performances of his career.

Rating: A-

Chronicle directed by Josh Trank

The “comic book movie” is a genre that’s been given a lot of attention over the past decade, although what people really mean by the reference is “super-hero” movie. We tend to forget that there have been quite a few great films based on comic books that have nothing to do with superheroes (History Of Violence, Road To Perdition, American Splendour, Persepolis, Scott Pilgrim, Ghost World) to name just a couple). What’s truly rare though, is a super-hero movie NOT based on a comic book. And what’s even rarer, is when one of these is actually good. To my mind, there have been exactly two: The Incredibles, and Unbreakable. Funnily enough, they’re also the two best superhero movies ever made.

And now we can add Chronicle to the list.

It’s the story of Andrew, Matt, and Steve: Three high school seniors who discover a secret cave that gives each of them telekinetic abilities. There’s some archetypes here, but the character never veer into cliché: Matt’s the cool high school guy that thinks he’s actually too cool to go there. Steve’s the popular jock (played by Michael B. Jordan, who has the strange distinction of being in both the worst movie of the year so far, as well as one of the best), who makes friends effortlessly. And Andrew (the real star of our story) is the misanthropic loner who is one hoodie away from signing up at Columbine. And so we have our characters.

It’s Andrew who sees the most potential in his abilities, probably because he’s the one with the most to gain. His father is a drunk, and his mother is dying. He has no friends, and very little future to speak of. And so he uses his camera (yes, this is a found footage movie) to not only document the banality of his life, but to also use it as a barrier that shields him from it.

It’s the camera that provides much of the character development in the film, but it’s also the film’s one glaring problem. For a found footage film to work, you have to a) have a really good reason why they don’t put down the camera, and b) have to have someone who compiles all the footage at the end., so that someone else can “find” it. In the case of a), the reason given is a good one, though perhaps not quite as strong as in other similar films. In the case of b), the film makers don’t even try to explain this one, as the “footage” we see is actually compiled from dozens of different cameras, with no explanation as to who the phantom film editor was. Not to mention that the constant intrusion of the camera adds a clunkiness to the dialogue in a few rare scenes, most notably when documenting Andrew’s home and school lives.

As Andrew explores his abilities, his situation at home gets worse. And so he is provided with the motivation he needs (though he didn’t need much) to use his abilities in a way that would make Dr. Doom twirl his mustache in glee. (yes, I know that Dr. Doom doesn’t have a moustache. But the only super villain I could think of that actually has a moustache is the Mandarin, and you have no idea who that is, so I changed it. Sue me.)

This is a superhero origin story that Stan Lee would be proud of. Well-rounded teenage characters? Check. Mundane everyday problems that conflict with the otherworldly nature of their abilities? Check. A truly epic superhero battle that changes both participants for ever? Check. In short, it’s the best X-Men movie never made, and one that easily overshadows most of the crap in that overrated franchise.

If it sounds like I’m raving, it’s because I am, and because this movie deserves it. Like last year’s Attack The Block, Chronicle’s visual premise is based on financial considerations, but also allows Josh Trank to come up with many unique angles and shots never really seen in a movie like this. If Marvel Studios was smart, they would sign this guy up to a lifetime contract tomorrow. And if Trank was smart, he wouldn’t sign it. I can’t wait to see what this guy does next.

Chronicle is not only one of the best superhero movies ever made, it’s a better story than 98% of the superhero comics on the stands right now. It understands that superhero stories work best when emphasizing the humanity of the superhumans they’re telling us about. It’s also that very rare film that makes me clamour for a sequel.

Rating: A