Since Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel A Princess of Mars was published nearly 100 years ago his otherworldly tale story has been subsequently been reworked and riffed on by nearly every sci-fi book or movie to follow. Star Wars Dune Avatar—sift through filmmaker interviews and it's easy to find threads tying their inspiration back to Burroughs. Which makes John Carter the big screen adaptation of Princess of Mars particularly surprising. The film's epic presentation of Martian races colliding in battle could feel stale but instead blossoms with color imagination and fun. Director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo Wall-E) has a strong sense of what makes "adventure" adventurous helping John Carter encapsulate everything about a great time at the movies.
John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) a Civil War veteran with the entire Confederate army on his tail finds himself mysteriously transported via a magic cave (or alien technology? If you get caught up in these details John Carter may not be for you) to smack dab in the middle of a Martian desert. As Carter overcomes the planet's gravity a physical difference that allows him to leap tall structures in a single bound (sound familiar?) he runs into one of Mars' many races: the eight-foot tall four-armed green Tharks. As their prisoner/friend/specimen John Carter takes a back seat to the unique world of the Thark world full of clockwork architecture and airships archaic customs and political strife. The Tharks are in the midst of a 1 000 year battle with the humanoids of Zodanga led by the villainous Sab Than (Dominic West) who is in turn manipulated by the occasionally-invisible shapeshifter Matai Shang (Mark Strong). The Tharks have teamed up with the residents of Helium including the stunning scientist warrior Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) but doom is impending and quickly the Spartacus-esque Thark fighter Tars Tarkas turns to Carter for help.
Unlike Avatar which introduced its fantastical world using the safety net of a simple archetypical story John Carter has no reservations bombarding its audience with plot and intrigue. At times the specifics of the world's complex societies and strifes are complicated and confusing but similarly to info-heavy scripts—think the recent Michael Clayton or Margin Call or heck Shakespeare—Stanton Mark Andrew and Michael Chabon's screenplay feels assured of its own drama confident that no matter your understanding the theatrics will sway you. The human element of John Carter exists behind even the most CG-ified alien creature and that's what keeps us on board.
If there's any misstep it's in the casting of Kitsch a fully capable action hero unconvincing as survivor of the Civil War. Kitsch feels pulled from present day but John Carter needs to be a Confederate soldier in more than name. Kitsch is up to the task of ripping up white apes with giant steel blades or jumping over armies of raging Tharks but in scenes of introspection or humorous back-and-forths he loses footing. The real star is Collins as Dejah Thoris who nails the epic qualities of reciting enjoyably ridiculous Martian-speak. She stands out even in the blinding desert sun and even when decked out in over-the-top boobage costuming manages to deliver a compelling and rousing performance. Doesn't hurt that she knows her way around a swordfight or two.
With John Carter moving at lightning speed investing in the film's handful of characters becomes a difficult task but talented folk like Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton bring zest to characters on par with James Cameron's Avatar creations. And with such a strong background in animation it's no surprise that Woola John Carter's scrappy space dog sidekick is as realized and tangible as the rest of the gang. The scrappy six-legged critter adds humor to John Carter born completely out of the moment. Don't confuse this with the Star Wars prequels—nothing cutesy or ham-fisted here.
A streamlined John Carter would have really popped but as a first live-action effort for Stanton the fill is still something to behold. With breathtaking design sweeping action and a score by Lost Star Trek and Pixar vet Michael Giacchino that finds perfect balance between Lawrence of Arabia and Indiana Jones the film works as an immersive cinematic experience that will have you "ooo-ing" and "aaa-ing." If you step into John Carter you'll likely find yourself transported to another world—it beats trying to find a magic cave.
Real Steel – the new sci-fi sports flick from Night at the Museum director Shawn Levy – is set in the year 2020. Its vision of the future looks remarkably similar to the present save for the fact that the sport of boxing has been taken over by pugilistic robots. There are no robot butlers taxi drivers or senators – just boxers. Apparently technology in 2020 has advanced enough to allow for the creation of massive mechanized beings of astonishing dexterity but humanity has found no use for them beyond the boxing ring.
Hugh Jackman plays Charlie Kenton a has-been boxer turned small-time robot-fight promoter. A consummate hustler who’ll do anything for a buck Charlie’s fallen on hard times of late. Opportunity arrives in the diminutive guise of 11-year-old Max (Dakota Goyo) his estranged son who turns out to be something of an electronics wunderkind. Together they work to fashion Atom an obsolete ramshackle “sparring robot” left to rot in a junkyard into a contender.
Anyone who’s seen an underdog sports movie – or any movie for that matter – made in the last half-century can fairly easily ascertain how this one plays out. (The story borrows tropes from The Champ Rocky and Over the Top wholesale.) Atom proves surprisingly capable in the ring compensating for his inferior technology with grit perseverance and an ability to absorb massive amounts of punishment. Under the guidance of Charlie and Max he makes an improbable run through the ranks eventually earning a one-in-a-million shot at the World Robot Boxing championship.
Real Steel was executive-produced by Steven Spielberg; it bears his unmistakable imprint. Levy judiciously deploys Spielberg’s patented blockbuster mix of dazzling special effects and gooey sentiment wrapping it all in a highly polished if wholly synthetic package. Still Real Steel might have amounted to so much glossy hokum were it not for its champion Hugh Jackman. Other actors might eye such a project as an opportunity to coast for an easy paycheck but damned if Jackman isn’t completely invested. The film’s underdog storyline isn’t nearly as inspiring as watching its star so gamely devote himself to selling material that will strike anyone over the age of 12 as patently ludicrous. His efforts pay off handsomely: Real Steel is about as rousing and affecting as any film inspired by Rock’em Sock’em Robots can expect to be. (The filmmakers claim lineage to a short story-turned-Twilight Zone episode but who are they kidding?)
The best way to go into Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is to think of it as the first film in a brand new franchise; a franchise in which mermaids love men zombies won’t eat you and a Fountain of Youth exists but all laws of logic reasoning and competent storytelling don’t. Although screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio were smart enough to sever the narrative ties to the first two sequels in their franchise’s fourth outing the latest swashbuckling adventure in the series shares most of the same faults its predecessors faced.
Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) steps in for Gore Verbinski in On Stranger Tides but you’ll be hard-pressed to find his contributions to the already-flashy film that finds our hero Capt. Jack Sparrow (the inimitable Johnny Depp) on the hunt for the fore mentioned fountain. Of course he’s not the only one looking for eternal life: also in tow are nameless stereotypical Spaniards the English crown headed by a reformed Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and Blackbeard a ruthless pirate who looks and sounds a lot like Ian McShane. Their paths cross on numerous occasions as the story scrambles across the map culminating in a splashy battle in a magical meadow where Ponce de Leon’s greatest discovery lies.
Less a cohesive story and more a collection of individual set pieces linked together by nonsensical dialogue and supernatural occurrences the film isn’t all that hard to follow if you don’t strain yourself doing so. The sequence of events collide so conveniently for the characters you can’t help but call the screenplay anything but the result of complacency while the film itself sails so swiftly from point to point it’s actually a waste of time to dwell on plot holes and motives. Disrupting its momentum (which is one of the few things the film has going for it) is an unwatchable romance between Sam Claflin’s missionary Philip and Syrena (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) one of a handful of murderous mermaids who do battle with Blackbeard’s crew. Their bland courtship will have you begging for Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley to return to the high seas and that’s saying something.
The all-female fish people are one of a few additions to the Pirates world but their effect on the film is negligible outside of being the impetus for the coolest action sequence in the picture and perhaps the most unnerving of the series. The others include Penelope Cruz as Blackbeard’s busty daughter Angelica and Stephen Graham as shipmate Scrum. The former feels out of place among the cartoony happenings but provides much needed sass while the latter fills in for Kevin McNally’s Gibbs for much of the film and is a pleasure to watch for some hammy comedic moments.
As always however this is Depp’s show and he continues to put a smile on my face with his charisma and theatrical presence. Even though he’s operating on autopilot throughout you can’t help but marvel at his energy and enthusiastic output as he literally fuels the fun in the film. The same can be said of Rush who’s given a meatier and more significant arc this time around. He trades quips with Depp as if they were a golden-age comedy duo and they remain the most appealing attraction in the franchise. Though he brings an undeniable sense of danger to the picture I was sadly underwhelmed by McShane’s Blackbeard a character with such a domineering reputation and imposing look he should’ve been stealing scenes left and right. Instead I felt he phoned his performance in though that could’ve been the result of Marshall’s indirection.
No better than the genre-bending original but a slight improvement over Dead Man’s Chest and At Worlds End On Stranger Tides suffers centrally from lack of a commanding captain. Marshall’s role is relegated to merely on-set facilitator or perhaps liaison between legions of talented craftspeople that make the movie look so good. Whatever vision he had for this venture if he had a unique take at all is chewed up and spit out by the engines of the Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster factory rendering the film as mechanical as the ride from which it is based.
Spanning from WWI to the 21st century Eric Roth’s screenplay (based loosely on a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald) tells the unique story of a man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt). He is born in New Orleans as a very old baby the equivalent of a man in his 80s who then ages backward into youth over the better part of a century. The film is told in flashback by a very old dying woman Daisy (Cate Blanchett) who recounts her tale to her daughter (Julia Ormond) from a hospital bed during Hurricane Katrina. Left on the doorstep of a retirement home one night by his father (Jason Flemyng) Benjamin is brought up by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) who runs the place. While there he meets a young girl Daisy who will become a key figure -- romantically and otherwise -- in his life. Ben does have some grand adventures: He goes to work on a boat sees sea battles during WWII finds love with an older married woman (Tilda Swinton) -- and gets progressively younger as the decades fly by. It all manages to be alternately haunting romantic funny epic emotional and incredibly moving and will likely to stay with you a lifetime. Brad Pitt manages to deliver a thoughtful and subtle performance through all the special effects makeup and CGI. He does so much just by using his eyes. Cate Blanchett is equally fine as she plays Daisy from a teenager to an old woman and matches Pitt in bringing an entire lifetime skillfully to light. Her aging makeup is completely natural and she’s very moving in the hospital scenes opposite Ormond. Henson is just marvelous as Queenie a warm and understanding soul. Swinton is elegant and memorable in her few crucial encounters with Ben and plays beautifully off Pitt. Jared Harris (TV’s The Riches) as the colorful Captain Mike who hires Ben on his tug boat and Flemyng (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) as Ben’s father are also effective in their brief screen time. Interestingly Benjamin Button has been gestating for decades in the Hollywood firmament but needed time for the proper technology to catch up to it. Director David Fincher (Zodiac Fight Club) with his early background at George Lucas’ ILM proves to be the perfect choice to marry a compelling story with spectacular visual effects achievement. He did not want to do the film unless the technology allowed one actor to play the role throughout the course of the film. Remarkably they were able to achieve this superimposing Brad Pitt’s face and eyes into all the incarnations of Ben Button. In one sequence Pitt looks just like he did in Thelma and Louise. It’s an amazing feat. He has seamlessly created a unique universe without ever bringing attention to it advancing the art of screen storytelling leaps and bounds ahead of everything else that has come before. Benjamin Button is a plaintive and provocative meditation of life death and what we do while we are here. It’s the stuff of dreams.
Richard Riddick (Vin Diesel) has a really bad rep and with good reason: Five years ago convicted killer Riddick escaped the galaxy's law enforcement during a botched interplanetary prison transfer and has been on the lam ever since. As The Chronicles of Riddick picks up our antagonist finds his relative freedom has been compromised when mercenaries out for the $1 million bounty on his head discover his location and hunt him down. Riddick escapes their clutches steals their ship and sets off for Planet Helion to find Imam (Keith David) the Muslim cleric he rescued in Pitch Black and the only person who could have squealed his location to authorities. But while Riddick's hunch about Imam are correct the cleric has a reason for luring the mammoth murderer out of hiding: Helion is falling to unholy armies of Necromongers--warriors who conquer by force in the vein of Star Trek's Borg. Of course Riddick doesn't give a damn about the Helions or their plight--until he gets wind that the Necromogers want to kill him because of an old prophecy that foresees their end at Riddick's hands. Like it or not Riddick is left with no other choice but to battle the Necromongers.
The character of Riddick is unquestionably what made Pitch Black one of the most sequel-worthy sci-fi films in years. And Riddick would not have been one of sci-fi's most intoxicating characters if it weren't for Diesel. Like his Dominic Toretto in the 2001 actioner The Fast and the Furious Riddick is a villain of few words but when he speaks his carefully chosen words have impact--even if the dialogue is at times overly theatrical. Riddick is the perfect antihero; a cold-blooded and indifferent being who somehow evokes more compassion than the film's so-called good guys. Joining Riddick are some recurring characters including David as Imam but Riddick benefits the most from the addition of some new characters particularly Colm Feore as Lord Marshal the Necromonger leader whose goal is to rid the universe of all human life. Feore channeling nuggets of Julius Caesar into his role makes for one of Riddick's most thrilling foes. Another prominent addition to the cast is Judi Dench who has a surprisingly small role as Aereon an Elemental captured by the Necromongers and used for her special powers including ESP.
Writer/director David Twohy took his horror pic Pitch Black which gained a cult following since it was released four years ago and managed to successfully turn it into an sci-fi actioner of epic proportions. Everything is grander here which is almost a given considering Twohy shot Pitch Black on a dime in Australia using colored filters. In Riddick the director distinguishes the film's different environments--the Necros' mothership Crematoria's cavernous prison and Helion--using warm to cool tones that are dazzling yet more subtle than its predecessor. The CGI effects get a little gamey at times but production designer Holger Gross' gargantuan sets are impressive and help craft Twohy's otherworldly vision into a plausible one. And although Twohy jumps genres from Pitch Black to its sequel his storyline evolves logically from the original premise. But while moviegoers unfamiliar with Pitch Black will be able to follow the story easily enough they may have a difficult time grasping what makes Riddick such a big deal; the film explains the legend but never fully captures its quintessence. This could hurt Riddick's chances to broaden its Pitch Black fan base.