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.
In the ever-changing west of 1882 city marshal Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his deputy Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) are two tough dudes out to clean up lawless towns a mission that takes them to Appaloosa. This small mining town has been taken over by a ruthless power-hungry land baron Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) who along with his band of thugs has run the place into the ground. Although their initial efforts are met with some success Cole and Hitch run into personal and professional conflict when a pretty mystery lady Allison French (Renee Zellweger) blows into town. She complicates the picture walking on the gray line between good and evil and generally making the Marshal and his No. 2 overcome unwelcome obstacles in their fight to bring Bragg and his boys to justice. The film based on the novel by Robert B. Parker smartly details the unique problems inherent in bringing law and order to an unruly West. Guiding his co-star Marcia Gay Harden in 2000’s Pollock to an Oscar Harris the director once again shows he has a natural affinity for steering his fellow actors at least most of them into superlative performances which includes himself. In fact the actor doesn’t seem to be the least intimidated in playing the leading role in a movie he also co-wrote directed and produced. Harris comes off as the embodiment of a dedicated lawman who quietly goes about his business determined to clean up the wild wild West his way with the help of a loyal deputy. Mortensen is wonderfully authentic as Harris’ partner in stopping sagebrush crime looking like he’s lived in those boots his entire life. Mortensen’s demeanor and style in the role of Everett Hitch evokes a true feel for a place and time long gone. Together these two do not seem fake or awkwardly contemporary but instead come off as the real deal. Irons is slippery and fun to watch as the devious outlaw Bragg proving as he did in his Oscar-winning Reversal of Fortune there’s nobody as good at playing subtle shades of bad. Zellweger on the other hand lets her acting show at every turn. To be fair her character rarely adds up but she does nothing to give any dimension beyond the obvious to a woman courting both sides of the law. In only his second outing behind the camera in a decade Harris shows Pollock was no fluke. Clearly enamored with the era he nobly honors the great American western tradition crafting a film that fits in with some of the best examples Hollywood has turned out. Some may complain that Appaloosa is long on talk and short on action but the time director Harris devotes to letting his characters develop is far more satisfying than a lot of pointless violence that many Westerns wallow in. Like Howard Hawks’ 1959 classic Rio Bravo this is an honest tale of the camaraderie between a pair of lawmen simply trying to do a job. This is a director whose emphasis is focused on his cast and he’s picked them very carefully right down to the smallest roles surrounding himself with a lot of terrific character actors. Just as impressive are the top notch production values including cinematographer Dean Semler’s stunning New Mexico landscapes.
Dogtown centers on three teenagers in the 1970s--Jay Adams (Emile Hirsch) Stacy Peralta (John Robinson) and Tony Alva (Victor Rasuk)--who just want to ride. At first it's waves. Living in "Dogtown " a tough and gritty area in Venice Calif. these guys do everything they can to get in with the Zephyr surfers lead by the charismatic owner of the Zephyr surf shop Skip Engblom (Heath Ledger). But the boys are soon transferring their aggressive wave-riding moves to the concrete turning empty pools into arenas of wild beautiful athleticism and revolutionizing a new style of skateboarding. Skip recognizes great money-making potential when he sees it and takes these freestyle wizards on urethane wheels out on the road to show off their skills dubbing them the Z-Boys. The skating world goes nuts. Conventional competitors don't know what to make of their "extreme" ways. Girls are wild for them. And promoters see dollar signs wanting to grab a piece of the action. But what started out as fun way to blow off steam soon turns into big business. Can the friendship between this tightly knit trio survive inflating out of control egos and fast-paced famous lifestyles? Dude that's a tough one to call.
What better way to make a movie about three hot California skateboarders then by casting three hot young male leads to play them. As Tony Alva and Stacy Peralta--the two talented skateboarders on the opposite ends of the spectrum--newcomers Rasuk (Raising Victor Vargas) and Robinson (Elephant) aptly bring sincerity to their portrayals. As the fiery Alva the wild-haired Rasuk is full of bravado taking to the jet-setting life with ease and ultimately becoming the more well-known name. The soft-spoken Robinson plays the easy-going Peralta with quiet determination proving he doesn't have to showboat in order to show how good he is. But it's the more seasoned Hirsch (The Girl Next Door) playing the gifted but ultimately screwed-up Jay Adams who has the harder acting job. As the Z-Boy with probably the rawest talent but nevertheless gives up his chance for fame Hirsch handles Adams' conflicted emotions well. Ledger too does a nice job as Skip Engblom the boys' "mentor" who introduces them to a whole new world rides a great meal ticket for awhile--and then loses it all when the boys move on to bigger and better things. Sorry Skip.
Coming off the heels of his award-winning 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys writer Stacy Peralta decided he wasn't quite done telling his Z-Boy story trying his hand at dramatizing the whole experience. This time around he elicits the help of director Catherine Hardwicke whose disturbing indie Thirteen proved she can get underneath a teenager's skin. Smart move. Her documentary style of filmmaking with that grainy handheld feel fits the Lords of Dogtown milieu perfectly. The camera chases after the boys as they skate sneak onto private property to surf empty pools and rock like rock stars. Peralta also calls upon his old buddies to help out including the now world-renowned skating champion Tony Alva who choreographs many of the stunts and apparently teaches the actors not only to skate but skate in true Z-Boy fashion. Maybe hardcore skateboarders will notice the errors but for a novice like me it is a fun ride. The only real problem with Dogtown is Peralta's greenhorn attempts at fleshing out a drama. As a documentary the Z-Boys experience is exhilarating as it follows these real-life mavericks' efforts to take skateboarding to a whole new extreme. But as a full-blown feature film it's a little harder to perpetuate the momentum.