30 March 2012

Review: The Hunger Games

(Dir: Gary Ross, 2012)

The Hunger Games is one of those films that has been hyped like crazy, but having been unaware of the books until only a few months ago it was something of a surprise to see it getting so much attention. And then it goes and blows the US box office away on its opening weekend, showing there were plenty of fans out there bubbling over with enough fervent excitement to justify the hype, and that I clearly have no idea what’s going on in popular literature.

I guess most people will therefore know the plot, but for those who don't... it’s the future, there is a strong class divide between rich and poor, and as a result of an attempted rebellion many years earlier, the twelve districts of the land must each offer up one boy and one girl who will all fight to the death in a televised survival tournament known as 'the Hunger Games', where there can be only one winner. We follow Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) on her journey from the forests of District 12 to the big city, where she must train, perform and then eventually compete in and try to survive the tournament, alongside Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her male ally from her district. 

You would be right in thinking that the plot isn’t entirely original, with similar ideas covered by Battle Royale, Series 7: The Contenders and The Running Man, which itself was based on a novel. However the lack of originality is not detrimental to the film because it’s not an idea that’s been done to death yet, and as we move ever forward in time these ideas have started to seem gradually more prescient. The other element in The Hunger Games’  favour is the rich world and environment that’s been created, which gives it enough personality to stand on its own. Its future date is unspecified, but as standard in sci-fi there are cultural changes in style and fashion, politics and of course an advancement in technology.

This is very much a film of two halves. The first half establishes the selection of Katniss for the games and her familial roots struggling in an outlying district, which leads into the wonder of the big city and the requisite training and survival preparation, alongside participating in the popularity contest that is the show. Which is followed by the main event itself, where the teens are let loose with weapons in what is essentially a controlled environment. It’s difficult to say which is the better half. I enjoyed the establishment of the world and gradual revealing of the politics at play and the overall rules, but on the flip side there’s the excitement of watching the game itself and figuring out how it’s all going to go down, as well as the development of relationships, tactical and genuine, between some of the different participants.

Yet this amplifies one of the issues with The Hunger Games - there is too much exposition and information crammed in, meaning certain parts start to feel superfluous. Yes, that's the common problem with adaptations of books. The first half is probably unnecessarily long, but likewise the actual games start to drag and could’ve done with being more concise too. Also, the games don’t really have much of an impact as they feel pretty toothless. Understandably, as the film is targeting the same teen audience as the novel, most of the death and violence happens off screen and you only see snippets - there were a lot of blades in use for example but I saw virtually no blood. Conceptually this is all very adult, but I question whether this idea can be effectively explored when aimed at a younger audience, as its power comes from seeing the carnage rather than shying away from it. Comparatively, Battle Royale is an incredibly brutal and ruthless film which is compellingly believable, and so does a better job of showing the futility and pointlessness of the young fighting each other and dying.

My only other real complaint is that some of the visual effects are pretty ropey at times, but they’re not a deal breaker. Conversely it’s a well cast film with a decent line up of actors. Lawrence is good as Katniss, she's both likeable and easy to root for, and since Winter’s Bone she’s definitely become an actress to look out for. Hutcherson plays Peeta cleverly as you’re never totally sure where he stands, which adds extra intrigue. Stanley Tucci clearly had great fun playing a talk show host and Woody Harrelson plays the mentor well, whilst the rest of the cast are fine.

The Hunger Games isn’t a groundbreaking film but I liked and enjoyed it. Yes I was ultimately disappointed that it had such a teen friendly rating as I continuously wanted to see it go further than it did, but it still has a lot to offer and does have some ideas of its own. Interestingly the film I kept being reminded of was The Truman Show, primarily because of the hyper-real environment of the games with a lot of control coming down from above, but also the social comment about the reality tv show that everyone seems to need to watch. There was even one moment where I fully expected to hear Christof say, “That’s our hero shot”. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay The Hunger Games is to say that when it finished I was left wanting to know where the story will go in the next film, and I'm looking forward to finding out.

22 March 2012

Review: The Devil Inside

(Dir: William Brent Bell, 2012)

Why is it that recent films about exorcism have been so rubbish? Over the last two years there's been The Rite, which was terminally slow and uneventful, and before that the execrable The Last Exorcism which completely failed with a vaguely interesting concept. Even worse, both of these films lacked much in the way of horror, something pretty crucial to a film wanting to play with the devil. I recently wrote an admittedly lengthy blog post on what I think of current horror, in which I complained that I can’t go into a horror film these days without worrying that it will be awful. In the same post I also admitted to my fascination with Satanic based horror movies. Thus I went into The Devil Inside with very conflicting expectations.

The reality is I shouldn’t have bothered watching The Devil Inside. It's not a film worthy of my time and it's not worthy of your time either, and it just served to reinforce my thoughts that modern horror seems to be becoming more and more irrelevant. I want to try and approach this fairly. The Devil Inside follows Isabella (Fernanda Andrade), who travels from the US to Rome to discover if her estranged mother (Suzan Crowley) really is possessed. The Catholic church locked her in a mental institution in Rome twenty years earlier after she killed three people during an exorcism being performed on her. Isabella also wants to learn more about this elusive topic and befriends two young priests in the city (Simon Quarterman and Evan Helmuth), both of whom are trained exorcists but have issues with the church’s blind and dismissive attitude on the subject.

Let’s talk some mild positives as there are a couple. Andrade was likeable in the lead role – there was nothing noteworthy about her performance but she made her character sympathetic. I appreciated that the film attempted to cover exorcism from a theological perspective and analyse it, even if it didn’t come across convincingly. The first exorcism has maybe one or two interesting elements to it, localised bleeding for example, amidst the hackneyed way it approaches things. Fortunately it’s a short film at only 83 minutes including credits, but despite that I was still getting bored. That’s all I can offer on the positive front, so where to start on the negatives...?

The story. The initial premise is solid but the route the story ends up going down is not. It’s all obvious and done in a manner that feels frustratingly dumb, leading to an ending which seems as if someone chose a completely random point in the film at which to place the end credits. The film literally just ends with no explanation and no conclusion, which makes you wonder if they run out of funding three quarters of the way through production, or they just gave up because they knew they were making a really bad film? Someone in the audience loudly exclaimed “what, is that it!? That’s how it ends!?” when the credits came up. There were only ten of us watching; if there’d been a bigger audience I would not have been surprised to hear mass booing. It’s a film desperately crying out for some creativity.

The horror. Or rather the lack of horror. The film wasn’t remotely scary or shocking even – it still amazes me that a film with this subject can achieve that. There's no real pay-off, which horror films need, and the filmmakers just threw in every exorcism cliché they could think of; yes there's a demonic voice and lots of swearing, yes there's ridiculous body contortions that just look stupid and yes of course things move and shake without anyone touching them. It just feels oh so tired and makes you beg for a new interesting way to show this. And no the mother isn't scary because she says nonsensical crap like "connect the cuts" and has an inverted crucifix on her bottom lip. 

The shooting style. The whole film is shot as a documentary by a character called Michael (Ionut Grama). He is the only "crew" but he has a couple of miniature cameras that can be mounted places to give us multiple camera angles, and both he and the cameras are frequently seen. Scenes frequently jump a few days at a time making you wonder what you've missed in between. "Experts" are interviewed, people talk to the camera. It’s supposed to make it all feel real. It doesn’t work. No atmosphere or feelings of dread are allowed to build and rather than being more involving, this style just distances the viewer from what's on screen. Add to this stupid inconsistencies, such as showing a wide shot of a room and the cameraman Michael is missing, when the previous shot was from his camera where he would've had to be right in the middle of the room to be filming. Such illogical things just frustrate.

The elephant in the room - The Exorcist. I don’t need to explain here why The Exorcist is one of the greatest films ever made, but its legacy has left a lot to answer for as many inferior films try to copy its ideas and fail miserably. None of these can match its atmosphere, its intelligence, its control, its ability to shock and the power it holds. And it is some power. In comparison The Devil Inside just seems pathetic and totally anaemic. I hate to have to use The Exorcist comparison, but I wouldn’t have to do so if I was talking about a much better film. 

To summarise... The Devil Inside is a completely unsatisfying film due to a frustrating plot that doesn't really make sense, leading to one of the worst endings I’ve ever seen. The shooting style and structure is completely wrong for this story and the biggest sin of all, it’s a horror film that’s not even remotely scary or shocking. Avoid this film as it's not worth your time in any measure, no matter how curious you may be that it can’t be as bad as described.

19 March 2012

Review: Contraband

(Dir: Baltasar Kormákur, 2012)

I find it difficult to write reviews about films like Contraband. It falls into a certain template of slick thriller, very much like the recent Safe House (which I didn't review), that is oh so generic and yet still manages to be highly entertaining. It's hard to find much of worth to say about some of these films, aside from the pretty basic stuff, which makes me wonder whether or not I should spend my time writing something. But what the hell, let's try anyway...

The plot of Contraband is predictably high concept. A smuggling legend must come out of retirement for one more run after his brother-in-law has screwed up, meaning there is a debt to pay otherwise the lives of his whole family are in danger. The smuggling legend, Chris Farraday, is played by Mark Whalberg, who I honestly quite like as an actor. He seems to excel in roles that require him to have a blue collar background, such as The Fighter, in which he was greatly overlooked and was in some respects better than Christian Bale who received all the plaudits. In Contraband Whalberg gets to play the family man now living a blue collar life, but also gets a bit of action to mix things up, as well as being the mastermind of some exciting smuggling subterfuge. He definitely helps make the film enjoyable to watch.

The casting of Contraband is actually extremely good. Kate Beckinsale plays Chris’ wife, Kate, and she’s almost unrecognisable with blonde hair, but her character isn’t weak, despite being fearful of certain threats coming as a result of her brother's mistake. Beckinsale’s stint in the Underworld series of films has certainly helped make her ideal for playing strong characters. Ben Foster plays a close family friend Sebastian and he’s an interesting character, loyal to his friends but clearly with other suspect things going on. Too often Foster seems to end up in small supporting roles or playing a psycho of some type (he does that well), so it’s nice to see him given something more to do here that doesn’t typecast him. The role of resident crazy bad guy, Tim Briggs, falls to Giovanni Ribisi, with his slicked back hair, prison tattoos and weird accent. He looks very menacing, constantly on the verge of going over the edge, but also seems to be having fun playing this character. Every time Foster and Ribisi weren’t on screen I wanted to see more of them. The rest of the supporting cast is fine and all do their bit convincingly.

The story is pretty generic and we’ve seen this sort of thing how many times before? But that doesn’t matter and I don’t go watch these sort of films for originality or something creative. Entertainment is high on the agenda and if it can offer anything extra then that’s a real bonus. Although it is generic there is one twist late on in the film which I felt was quite brave and I liked, but then we’re also given an extremely clichéd conclusion to one plot line, more so than the rest, which really felt too forced. I imagine this typically Hollywood addition doesn’t appear in Reykjavik-Rotterdam, the Icelandic film that Contraband is based upon. The smuggling scenes where Chris and his crew are trying to get away with hiding their goods are all exciting and interesting, as is the part of the film played out in Panama City where they have to collect the goods they're smuggling into the US. Events here become a mess and complicated very quickly and this involves lots of gunfire and a pretty decent action sequence. Fortunately the film doesn’t get too bogged down by being too action focused.

The direction of Baltasar Kormákur is decent. There is enough focus on the different players, the shifting locations are managed well and it offers up the requisite amount of twists and thrills. Interestingly Kormákur, who is better known as a director, played the lead in the original film. As already mentioned Contraband doesn't offer anything new, but it’s a slickly shot and edited film that provides enough solid entertainment to make it worth your time, especially if you want something that fits into this mould without any pretence to be anything more. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

16 March 2012

Review: The Raven

(Dir: James McTeigue, 2012)

It’s disappointing when a film with an interesting concept doesn’t live up to the potential this offers. Such is the case with The Raven. Set in 1840’s Baltimore, The Raven follows legendary American writer Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack), most well known for his macabre gothic horror stories, through his final days. He is frequently drunk, has dried up his well of story ideas and is desperate for the local newspaper to publish more of his writing as he needs the money. Then in the midst of this the police come to Poe for his assistance - a killer is out there recreating scenes from his stories, putting him in a unique position to help.

The central conceit about an author being brought in to help track a killer who is replicating his work is an interesting one, especially when it concerns a notable real life literary figure. Curiously this is something they’re able to get away with as Poe’s death was a mystery and no-one knows what happened to him in the last few days of his life, meaning this fictional extrapolation doesn’t really distort history as it's known, even though it rings as implausible. Nonetheless it makes for a good story set up.

It’s a shame then that there’s not much else positive to say about The Raven as it doesn’t feel very convincing. First and foremost for this is the casting. John Cusack is a very reliable actor, good in everything he's in and usually very likeable too, but he feels miscast as Poe. He does add personality to the role but there was something gnawing at me saying that he shouldn’t be playing this character, especially as he didn’t really fit right in this time period, almost like he was bringing something too modern with him. I think an element of this might’ve been dialogue coming across a little too stilted. It’s a shame because it’s always good to see Cusack on screen.

Although I said above that I thought the concept was good, the story itself is pretty generic which is another issue. In reality The Raven is a pretty bland murder mystery that plods along from one clue to the next, with just the odd fairly exciting scene in between to enliven things. This stems from the direction which is average and perfunctory, with little attempt made to take it beyond this. I’m not really convinced by James McTeigue as a director – V For Vendetta is a really good film although I think the original story forced the direction to be interesting to ensure it translated properly, however Ninja Assassin was completely bland and with The Raven falling along these same lines, it seems McTeigue needs very strong source material to get close to producing something above average.

I wasn’t totally convinced by the setting either, something about the set design and locations didn’t ring totally true. Maybe the set design just wasn’t up to scratch, but perhaps this is where a bigger production budget can make a difference? It’s these little details that can influence how much you buy into a story. I have mixed thoughts on the supporting cast too. Luke Evans does a decent enough job as Detective Fields, the chief investigator of the murders, but Alice Eve as Poe’s love interest Emily, who has a bigger role to play in the story, seems a little too modern for the time, whilst Brendan Gleeson, playing Emily's father Colonel Hamilton, veers too regularly into overacting territory.

I went into The Raven wanting to like it but came out feeling it was lacking something important. Evidently there are a number of issues across the entire film, but I was most disappointed Cusack wasn’t the right person to play Poe as he’s usually a pleasure to watch. Tonally it would’ve been more interesting if they’d gone down a darker route, skating closer to horror territory, because as it stands the generic murder mystery style is pretty ungratifying, especially when you see that there is much more potential in the concept. So overall, a lacklustre stab at an interesting concept.

15 March 2012

The House Of the Devil - Restoring my faith in horror

Modern horror regularly leaves me feeling disappointed. There, I said it! It’s out in public now. Ten years ago I never thought I would have to admit that fact, but alas it's now so and it really does sadden me. I used to regularly proclaim that horror was my favourite genre of film, and I used to get excited at the prospect of watching whatever new horror film was out – no matter what it was, I was there. I went through every horror fans rite of passage by trying to watch as many of the video nasties as possible, as well as ensuring I was properly acquainted with the classics. But now that excitement has dissipated, and the prospect of watching any new horror film mostly brings on a feeling of dread – not out of concern over what my eyes might see on screen, but that I might be stuck watching another rubbish film that doesn’t even remotely understand the concept of terror… or horror for that matter.

The big allure of horror was the challenge of trying to get a reaction out of myself. If a film could raise a chill or actively disgust me then it was effective and I was happy that I’d watched it, regardless of its quality. But by watching many of these films a heightened state of desensitisation develops, so you can be left sitting there impassive whilst all around you are jumping out of their skins or desperately shielding their eyes from the repugnance on screen. After all these years I’m still uncertain whether or not that’s a good state to be in, but it certainly makes you a more demanding viewer. One culmination of all this is that the desire to ‘challenge myself’ is gone, which is perhaps a result of age, and I find myself choosing more carefully what from the genre I do actually want to watch, caring more about quality.  

Except I rarely seem to find that quality anymore. Too many recent films seem to stick to basic genre tropes without doing anything creative or interesting, or they’re just remakes of classics. So what’s the point? Then there’s the recent influx of ‘torture porn’ films, or those that revel in acute prolonged violence against others without reason, which I can't watch without feeling like my soul is being sucked into a blackened void of nihilism. That’s no fun. I blame Hostel for this trend, which was one half shoddy soft Euro porn, and the other half sheer pointless bleakness. The Saw movies, which also seem to get a lot of blame for this, at least had an interesting albeit twisted logic as to why people were put into such horrific situations, and were even encouraged to make it out alive. I’ve never wanted to watch the Hostel sequels, but I at least stuck with the Saw series until the extremely disappointing end. There’s also been a pervasiveness of CGI across all films in recent years, but in horror films, and particularly monster movies, there’s something about it which can end up not looking quite right. You become more acutely aware that what you’re watching is fake, which can really deaden the impact. For example, I’d defy anyone who thinks the digital effects work in the 2011 The Thing prequel is more creepily effective than the practical effects employed in the 1982 The Thing

Fortunately the thrill isn’t totally gone. There are two recent horror films that have impressed me enough that I would consider them not only the two best horror films of the last decade, but also classics of the genre. They avoid the pitfalls mentioned above and show either a total understanding of the genre or the ingenuity to try and succeed at something new and fresh. The first is [rec], the Spanish zombie-esque movie from 2007 directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, which took the found footage concept to new levels of effectiveness. A TV reporter and her cameraman are locked in a quarantined apartment block with the residents, who are slowly becoming infected with a virus that is turning them into deranged zombie like killers. The whole film is seen from the perspective of what they’re shooting – it’s visceral, it’s raw, it’s so goddamn intense. This style makes you feel like you are actually there in a way that shooting on traditional cameras could not replicate, and being set in an unnamed Spanish city strangely gives it even more authenticity. The final 10 minutes of the film are jaw dropping and completely terrifying. [rec] is the epitome of how creative and ingenious horror can be, but it’s not the story that’s driving this, it’s the style, the technical skill and a genuine understanding of how this can enhance the story. I left the cinema in awe.

It was some time before I saw another horror film that got close to matching my thoughts on [rec], and that was The House Of the Devil. This fantastic 2009 film from writer, director, editor Ti West uses another classic genre staple as its story – the babysitter in peril. Sam (Jocelin Donahue) is a college student who desperately needs money so takes on a babysitting job where inevitably things are not as they seem. 

Let’s start at the beginning here. If you want the audience to actually root for the lead whilst they are in a pretty crazy situation then character motivation is key. Too often in horror the lead ends up making stupid or questionable decisions and there is no real character motivation established, they are just being hunted and happen to be fighting for survival, so you end up struggling to care about them. So what is the motivation here? Sam hates living in her college dorm, has just agreed to rent a nice house she can't afford and has only a few days to come up with the first month’s rent. She spots an advert for a babysitter and calls up to find out more - it pays well but in the process of ensuring she is the right babysitter is messed around a bit. Through this her character doesn’t come across like a fool so we’re on her side and totally sympathise with the money woes. This is backed up by Sam’s friend Megan (Greta Gerwig), who is a voice of reason as well as her ride to the house which is on the remote fringes of town. Megan suspects something suspicious due to the messing around and wants to make sure everything is fine. She’s kind of right. The Ulman’s (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov), who placed the ad, don’t have a kid that needs looking after, rather an elderly mother who is ensconced in the top room of the house and they want Sam there just in case. The rationale for this lie makes sense, Sam manages to negotiate considerably more money and Megan leaves angry with her friend for agreeing to stay. Thus the scene is set.

Patience is the key to the effectiveness of The House Of the Devil. That and a brilliant understanding of how to build tension. It’s at least half an hour before Sam is left ‘alone’ in the house and in this time nothing happens other than a slow deliberate development of the story. These days it seems uncommon for a horror film to start without a prologue featuring some violent shocking event to immediately satiate the audience, yet that’s completely eschewed here in favour of starting things gradually, leaving you wondering what it’s going to build too. Think how well that approach works in a film like The Exorcist, very slowly establishing themes and characters firstly in Iraq, and then in Washington DC. Once we meet The Ulman’s it brings out even greater levels of uncertainty. They look faintly sinister yet are genial, even slightly bumbling in the case of Mr Ulman. They retain an air of mystery about them, but there’s not enough for us to really be sure that we should be worried about them, so it seems to make sense that Sam isn’t too overly concerned about being in this house alone. Yet we the audience still think something is not quite right, and as Sam explores the house we’re on edge about what the hell could be lying behind every door or in every darkened corner.  

Cleverly the first shock happens away from the house. This gives the audience its first taste of what’s really going on, helps increase the tension of the scenes in the house, but crucially allows us to remain on Sam’s side and not question her unperturbed attitude as she can’t have known what’s just happened. With this event in the back of our minds the tension is just layered and layered on over the next thirty minutes. In this time Sam’s suspicions start to develop in a logical manner, but more importantly there is absolute restraint with regard to providing scares or even release for the audience.

So much horror relies on cheap scares these days. You know the type that’s signposted a mile off because nothing’s happened for a few minutes, and the way the shot is framed means you can almost predict exactly what’s going to happen, whilst there's a reliance on using a very loud blast of music to make you jump. I find that so uncreative, especially when used repetitiously throughout. In over an hour of film The House Of the Devil makes very minimal use of jumps and those that do occur are not obviously signposted, don’t cheat by using loud crashing music and are implemented in such a way that appreciates that a little bit of tension needs to be relieved, but not at the expense of ruining the overall mood. Controlling events like this just keeps everything slightly uncertain, avoiding the predictability trap. 

On the point of music, I love how it has been implemented in The House Of the Devil. There is a quiet, brooding motif that plays throughout most of the film, which is faintly unnerving and certainly contributes to the mounting tension. But this builds into something more darkly dramatic once it’s revealed what is actually going on. In addition there are a couple of good uses of 80s style pop music that provide a little bit of balance. That’s the other point I haven’t mentioned – the film is set in the early 1980s and this aesthetic is carried through completely, from the graining of the picture to the styling of the credits and the title card, so that you’d believe you’re watching a lost relic from that era. I think this gives the film an interesting hue, hearkening back to an empowered time in the genre, but it also serves the story well, giving it a certain isolation that this space and time can offer. 

Thus far I’ve intentionally kept things quite spoiler free, but if you’ve not seen the film I’d recommend not reading this next paragraph to avoid spoilers (everything is best watched without spoilers!). 

The danger for a film that has been so consistent in building up to something dreadful is that it might end up in a limp anticlimax. Fortunately that’s not the case with The House Of the Devil. The big reveal is that the Ulman’s are Satanists and they want Sam to be a surrogate for the dark lord or his maleficient offspring, which has to happen that night due to the eclipse at midnight that's been alluded too throughout the film. This might seem to be a fairly rote denouement for a horror story, but it holds power and is creepily done. We finally meet the elderly mother who has been in the house all along and she looks horrific in a deformed, demonic way. We keep seeing very short rapid cuts of her evil face interspersed as Sam is suffering, and it’s chilling. The rest of what happens plays out with a lot of blood, ritual and violence. My only two complaints with the film come in this section – firstly that it feels too short after the long build up, and secondly that Sam escapes far too easily and with very little resistance from the Ulman’s, making them appear to be the worst kidnappers in the world. However, perhaps they just believed that they would be successful due to the power that compels them? And perhaps this section works better shorter so it doesn’t feel drawn out and leaves an impact? 

I will be up front here and say that I have a thing for Satanic themed horror movies. Although there are no religious reasons for this, I think there’s an elemental terror that comes from what is signified and implied by the power of the devil, all entwined with the disturbing and macabre iconography that usually accompanies it. There’s just something about this that reaches deeper into humanity’s core, reflective of our ruinous and self destructive nature, and how we can all be easily led down this path. It's a root terror buried in our psychology that is very difficult to escape from, and it’s this psychological aspect that means it holds power when transposed onto film. Slasher or monster movies may be scary in their own right, but really just offer a visceral thrill. Zombie films may be adept at providing a social comment and imagining mankind’s dystopia through a gore ravaged miasma, but this just leads to a bleak despair. None of these chill quite as deeply as a film about Satanic compulsions controlling people.

The House Of the Devil is a fantastic film because it completely understands what’s required of it to make it work. The ability to build tension and control it is second to none; where this leads and how the film ends is chilling; the lead is likeable, sympathetic and not a stupid character like so many in the genre; any violence is wince inducing but over quickly making it incredibly impactful; music is used to enhance what’s on screen, not overpower it; fitting into a specific time and place gives the film character, personality and thus more power; the viewer is treated with respect and intelligence and the film doesn’t slavishly bow to modern conventions by doing something shocking every few minutes to satiate an audience lacking an attention span. As such I can’t recommend The House Of the Devil enough to anyone who has even a passing interest in horror. It restores faith in the genre and makes us horror fans feel like we’re loved, rather than being prepared to lap up any old generic shit. The same applies to [rec] of course.

It’ll be interesting to see where the genre goes over the next few years. Will I still be feeling the same way in five years time, or will I be even more disenfranchised as studios threaten to re-reboot Halloween and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and The Human Millipede cynically stitches all of humanity together? Who’s to say. As long as there are filmmakers out there prepared to respect the audience, understand what horror is and who remember that we’re not all idiots, then it should be ok. And if all else fails, we have a wealth of classics to fall back on! 

12 March 2012

Review: John Carter

(Dir: Andrew Stanton, 2012)

John Carter, of Mars, offers us the second example in recent months of directors who are renowned for their work in animation successfully making the transition into live action directing. Although it seems to help greatly if Pixar was the animation house that was your proving ground. Firstly there was Brad Bird, the visionary genius behind the stunning The Iron Giant as well as The Incredibles and Ratatouille, who marked his live action debut with Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, which although not as good as the aforementioned films, was a thoroughly entertaining and well put together action thriller. And now Andrew Stanton enters the fray with John Carter, his live action debut following on from his work on the excellent Wall·E and Monsters, Inc.. For both directors the films chosen for their live action debuts appear to be logical extensions of what they have done previously.

Based on a character created a hundred years ago by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who himself is neatly written into the story, John Carter the film is about John Carter the man (Taylor Kitsch), a confederate soldier in the American Civil War who is inadvertently transported to Mars, which happens to not be the desolate empty planet that we think of today. There are different tribes living on Mars, some resembling humans and others not, but as ever with these types of stories there is the threat of war between the tribes which Carter quickly finds himself in the middle of, echoing his current time and place on Earth. But his involvement and inadvertent assistance of princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) adds an extra dimension to his story.

One of the key elements to making this story work is the rich mythology that’s established and built up. This is an alien landscape but with shades of humanity and it feels like there is a detailed history here. It's never fully explained but little snippets of customs and other interesting bits of background about the planet add to the authenticity, like knowing that the indigenous name for Mars is Barsoom. It’s this kind of thing that can make a difference in believing in the world that's being presented to us. One of the tribes, the Tharks, are tall green characters with four arms, who are completely digitally created. These work as they're interesting and fit well into this world, unlike many other films that strongly feature purely digital characters. Perhaps this is Stanton's background in animation successfully coming into play?

Kitsch is good and very likeable as Carter. He is suitably physical and driven, whilst offering enough to keep us interested in the character. The early scenes set on Earth in the 1800's offer a nice contrast and serve to anchor Carter, giving us context about who he is, whilst on Barsoom he plays the fish-out-of-water character well, taking everything in his stride but sticking to his ideals whilst figuring out where he is and how to get home again. The relationship between Carter and princess Dejah is pitched just right and develops well, chiefly because her character is so strong and well matched to Carter. When they're on screen together it's interesting.

The film doesn’t go too overboard on the action front, but these scenes do offer enough of a thrill. Yes it’s a cgi heavy film but fortunately this almost entirely works, with only a handful of scenes (mostly in one sequence) that look obviously fake. The focus is primarily on the characters so it's easy to stay involved in what's happening on screen, and the impressive supporting cast helps too, with Mark Strong, Dominic West, Ciarán Hinds, Willem Defoe and Bryan Cranston all cropping up.

John Carter is not a revelatory film by any means, but it is a solid sci-fi action adventure with its own unique charms, mostly due to its pulpy history and the interesting mythology it establishes for itself. On top of that it’s well cast and is very well put together. Yes the story is pretty average and it looks like it's had a lot of money thrown at it, which is probably why everything feels so grand, but fortunately it avoids coming across too brash in the way many other big budget blockbusters have a tendency too (the Transformers films for example). Stanton has made the transition to live action well and I look forward to seeing what he does next. It's fair to say I liked John Carter.

(Note: In the advertising for John Carter, Disney is strongly pushing that it's a 3D film. I chose to see the film in 2D, primarily because the early word was that the 3D ruins the film and should be avoided at all cost. Watching the film in 2D I couldn’t see how 3D would benefit the story or film in any way.)