Thursday, March 29, 2012

Review: "Dr. Suess' The Lorax"

I think it’s fair to say that we have yet to see a full length film based upon the work of Dr. Suess that measured up to the value of the written versions. Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas came the closest to hitting the mark but I think most Suess fans would agree that they’d just as soon watch the old cartoon classic Grinch over the Jim Carrey interpretation. The Lorax falls closely in line with its Suessian brothers, providing a decent piece of family fare that doesn’t live up to the charisma of the book.

Like many young teenagers, Ted (Zac Efron) has a crush on a slightly older girl, a neighbor named Audrey (Taylor Swift). When Audrey reveals that the one thing she wants the most is to see a real life tree, Ted sets out on a quest to find the Once-ler (Ed Helms), a hermit who has some knowledge of trees. Ted gets more than he bargains for, though, as the Once-ler draws him into the vivid tale of how he met the fabled Lorax (Danny Devito) and ultimately became responsible for the extinction the trees. And when all is said and done, Ted is tasked with reviving the growth of trees in the town of Thneedville.

The hatred being spewed by (overly angry) viewers in the direction of The Lorax is more than a little shocking. If you were to browse through the user reviews on IMDB, you’d think you’d stumbled upon a right-wing message board, not a collection of thoughts on a kid’s movie. The reason for all the venom is the environmental message at the core of The Lorax which apparently angers, like, a LOT of people. Here’s where I stand on the whole thing and then we’ll move on to the actual film. I’m far from a classic environmentalist. I enjoy hunting and fishing, support the expansion of oil drilling operations, and think Styrofoam cups are just the best. But is it really all that bad to maybe suggest that we give a passing thought to not chopping down every tree on the planet? I really don’t think that’s asking too much of anyone. At times the message of The Lorax becomes heavy handed and overwhelms the, “I’m just here to watch a cartoon” vibes but personally I didn’t find it to be inappropriately preachy. Then again, this was always one of my favorite Suess books and I was fully aware of the deeper message going in.

Now that I’ve set myself up for sniper fire from the people who hate trees (I kid, I kid), let’s move on to the non-controversial portions of The Lorax which is a fairly mixed bag. There are moments and scenes within this film that elicited genuine laughter from me but these bright spots are swallowed up by a fairly ho-hum narrative that never aspires to be much more than adequate. The lively, beautifully colored animation is contrasted, and ultimately equaled, by the boringness of the main characters and the uninspired script. The musical numbers come about far too infrequently, leaving me to wonder why they had any musical scenes in the first place. In addition, while the cast is strong, only DeVito shines consistently, though Helms does a quality job when he is actually called upon to do something. It’s not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with the path taken by The Lorax but I would have liked to see it turn a corner in the early going and strive for excellence rather than settle for alright-ness.

All of this makes The Lorax just another in a long string of Suess adaptations that fail to live up to the source material. It is cute and not entirely worthless but it lacks the charm that it needs to truly excel. If nothing else, a larger portion of Suessian verse within the dialogue would have made it more memorable and reduced the blandness. As is, The Lorax is an acceptable children’s movie that shouldn’t be too difficult for most non-tree hating adults to sit through.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Review: "The Hunger Games"

As a bit of a book nerd, I’ve had a fair amount of experience when it comes to watching film adaptations of books I’ve read previously. These experiences have led me to the following conclusions about the best big screen adaptations of beloved books:
1.) The best adaptations work in conjunction with the book, serving as a companion piece to the written word;
2.) In keeping with that companion-like relationship, the best adaptations create a film that can be enjoyed by those who did not read the book but which is deepened by the knowledge brought to the table by those who love the source material;
3.) Maybe most importantly, the best adaptations ask the viewers who have read the book to respect the companionship of print and film.
The Hunger Games hits the mark on all three of these points and as a result, what you have is an excellent film that lives up to (and sometimes betters) the book it based upon.

The Hunger Games takes place within a futuristic America that has been divided into twelve districts and a massive capitol. Each district has its own specialized industry and the further you are from the Capitol, the poorer your district is. As penance for an uprising which took place 74 years ago, once a year a ceremony called “The Reaping” is held in which each district gives up one girl and one boy ("tributes") between the ages of 12 and 18 to compete in a fight to the death known as The Hunger Games. During this particular Reaping in District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) sees her younger sister, Prim (Willow Shields), selected and volunteers to take her place, a feat that has never before happened in District 12. Katniss is paired with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker’s boy whom she has a history with, and the two are whisked away to the Capitol. After training with their mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and competing for the attention of wealthy sponsors, Katniss and Peeta are sent into a diabolical arena along with 22 other tributes from which only one person can come out alive. But as if their very lives weren’t enough, we soon find there’s more at stake than meets the eye.

From the outset, it is clear that director Gary Ross wants to make sure that no one confuses his film with a certain teen-oriented series of books and movies which may or may not involve shiny vampires. There’s very little prettiness to The Hunger Games and I mean that in the best possible way. It is without question a stylized, purposefully shot film that employs a variety of camera techniques and post-production effects that go beyond what you might expect from a blockbuster film of this type but none of it is done with an eye on just making the film look “cool” or “glamorous.” Instead, these elements are used in order to deepen the experience, to enhance the tone, and to lend significance to the content. In the early going, Ross uses a handheld camera approach which results in the often maligned shaky, first person look. This is something I’m sure he’ll be skewered for in other reviews but I personally loved it. This technique brings you firmly into the lives of Katniss and her fellow District 12ers while also further differentiating The Hunger Games from the Twilight saga. It might be a little too much when it’s all said and done but I give Ross a ton of credit for doing too much and trying too hard rather than just allowing the film to rest on its laurels, as it were. What I mean is this: this is a movie that was going to make $200 million no matter what and it would have been easy to just take the money and run. Instead, Ross shows early on that he’s intent on crafting a good film, not just riding a cash cow. It’s a bold move that works well in my book.

On top of the camera work, Ross brilliantly uses a color wash to illustrate the stark contrast between the Capitol and the outlying districts. District 12 looks like rural Kentucky, complete with dilapidated buildings and bland colors. It’s a sad, depressing place that fits the descriptions within the book to a tee. On the other hand, the Capitol is a world of luxury, debauchery, and bastardized beauty. The people of the Capitol have lost all connection with the realities of the outside world and that shows in the print. When Katniss and Peeta step off of the train in the Capitol, it’s almost like when Dorothy takes her first steps into the colorful world of Oz. This vast difference between the two areas is not only a big part of the book but also a key to the tone of the film. It’s a nice touch that I don’t think every director would have gone with.

Perhaps my biggest fear with regard to the screen adaptation of the book was that the gravity of the situation and the violence within the arena would be lost when translating a book to a PG-13 movie. We’re talking about kids being called upon to kill other kids while the wealthy look on and cheer. It would have been very easy for Ross and his team of writers to dumb down the impact of these scenes to make it more family friendly. On the contrary, he quickly shows that he understands the seriousness of what is transpiring on screen and manages to show a healthy respect for the weight of his subject without allowing his film to become a true, R-rated blood bath. I cannot commend Ross and his team enough for finding ways to illustrate the awfulness that is the Hunger Games while simultaneously keeping the violence from becoming too graphic. In doing this, not only does he make the film acceptable for teens and tweens (the core audience), he also allows The Hunger Games to become more about the characters than about the action and gives his actors some room to shine.

I think of Jennifer Lawrence as one of the very best young actresses in Hollywood and I was stoked about her casting in the role of Katniss. There’s an edge to Katniss that Lawrence exhibits beautifully and maybe more importantly, Katniss has to give off an air of reluctant charisma; she’s not so much charming as she is appealing because she’s NOT genuinely charming. Lawrence nails this quality as well. I expect more will be asked of the star in future films in this series but this is still an excellent start for her. Hutcherson struggles to find his role early in the film but I think his character comes together well as the action unfolds and the awkward chemistry he and Lawrence share is perfect for the scenario in which these two characters have been thrust. But as good as the two young stars are and as much as this franchise will become all about them as it progresses, the surrounding cast is the stabilizing force behind The Hunger Games. Ross surrounded his leads with some of the best supporting actors money can buy. Donald Sutherland, Wes Bentley, Toby Jones, and even Lenny Kravitz all have their moments. More often than not, though, the film is stolen by Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, or American Treasure Woody Harrelson. Harrelson in particular is tremendous in his somewhat limited screen time and for me, his character is vital to the success of the film. Haymitch provides both comedic relief and rock-solid-if-slightly-inebriated support for Katniss and Peeta and it’s a much deeper role than one might expect going in.

The Hunger Games isn’t perfect and there were a few marks missed along the way. I wasn’t as emotionally invested in the relationships (particularly the one between Katniss and fellow tribute Rue) as I thought I would be and many of the action sequences are somewhat lackluster. But on the whole, this is an exceptional example of how to adapt a film from a book and displays much more significance than we are used to seeing from a blockbuster of this nature. It is quite faithful to the source material and personally I think most of the changes (especially the way in which Ross uses the game commentators in place of Katniss’ introspective thoughts) were not only necessary but actual beneficial to the narrative. This is a wonderfully made film that grows on you after leaving the theater and sets the table beautifully for the sequels which are to come.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Week That Was and the Week That Will Be - 3/26

Weekend Box Office Results
About a month ago, Hollywood prognosticators had The Hunger Games projected to pull in around $75 million on opening weekend. I thought that was low and that Hollywood had seriously underestimated how big of an audience this movie would bring in. I know literally dozens of people who have read the books over the last month in preparation for the film adaptation. That said, even I wouldn’t have guessed at the haul this movie brought in over the weekend. $155 million gives The Hunger Games the third highest opening weekend gross in history (behind only the final Harry Potter film and The Dark Knight) and the highest ever for a non-sequel, shattering the $116 million mark set by Alice in Wonderland (yes, Alice in Wonderland). This is the signature film that Lionsgate studios had previously lacked and in hindsight, it would have been smart to take what little money I have and invest in the company’s stock. Regardless, it was a banner day for Lionsgate and Hunger Games fans worldwide and given the overwhelmingly positive reviews it has received, it will be very interesting to follow its path over the next few weeks.

1. The Hunger Games - $155M
2. 21 Jump Street - $21.3M ($71.05)
3. Dr. Suess’ The Lorax - $13.1M ($177.3M)
4. John Carter - $5.01M ($62.34M)
5. Act of Valor - $2.06M ($65.94M)
6. Project X - $1.95M ($51.75M)
7. A Thousand Words - $1.92M ($14.92M)
8. October Baby - $1.71M
9. Safe House - $1.4M ($122.6M)
10. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island - $1.37M ($97.15M)

New to DVD
What I’ve Seen So You Don’t Have To
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Max von Sydow
When I wrote my review for EL&IC I called it the most frustrating film I’d ever seen and I expect it will hold onto that record for quite some time. There are parts of this movie that illustrate why it was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar but they are almost always swallowed up by the asinine decisions of director Stephen Daltry and the obnoxiousness of the lead character. I wanted so badly to love this movie and instead it resides on a list of films I will never, ever watch again.

Also New
Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked – Jason Lee, Justin Long, David Cross
A Dangerous Method – Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley
In the Land of Blood and Honey – Zana Marjanovic, Goran Kostic
Corman’s World – Roger Corman
The Broken Tower – James Franco, Michael Shannon, Dave Franco

New to Blu
The Quest (1996) – Jean-Claude Van Damme, Roger Moore
DragonHeart (1996) – Dennis Quaid, Sean Connery
Bodyguard (1992) – Whitney Houston, Kevin Costner
Casablanca 70th Anniversary Edition (1942) – Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman

Coming to a Theater Near You
I did well with my one prediction last week when I guessed The Hunger Games would find favor with 81% of Rotten Tomatoes critics as it actually came in at 85%. This week brings us a few more titles but I think it’s safe to say that all of them should finish beneath last week’s winner at the box office.

Wrath of the Titans – Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes
Perseus (Worthington) is called upon to save Zeus (Neeson) from the clutches of Hades (Fiennes). 2010’s Clash of the Titans was a pretty lackluster affair that didn’t find a great deal of favor with critics. It made some money, both domestically and worldwide, but most viewers had the same mindset I did: I saw it because it was an action movie and I like action movies but I didn’t give it a second thought after I stepped out of the theater. I have a similar stance on this sequel. I’ll probably see it at some point because, let’s face it, I watch a lot of action movies but I’m not necessarily excited about it. I doubt the average critic is excited about it, either. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Rotten, 25%

Mirror Mirror – Lily Collins, Julia Roberts, Armie Hammer
The first of two retellings of the Snow White fable that this year will bring, this one is more family friendly and focuses as much on the queen (Roberts) as on the title character (Collins) herself. Personally I think this movie looks absolutely atrocious. The trailer slaps you in the face with campiness and that’s a trait I simply cannot abide by. I will say, however, the latter stages of the marketing campaign have pegged it more as a family film than a date movie (something that wasn’t clear in the early stages) and that has somewhat lessened the prospective awfulness in my mind. I DO NOT want to see this at all but I’m not as convinced that it will be the abhorrent train wreck I thought it would be a few months ago. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Rotten, 41%

Goon – Seann William Scott, Jay Baruchel, Eugene Levy
A jock (SWS) from a long line of scholars becomes a minor league hockey superstar while leading his team to victory. There is a chance that Goon turns out to be a solid buddy comedy. If nothing else, it certainly has the pedigree to come out on top. But it’s probably more likely that it will drop into the pratfalls of the typical R-rated comedy. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Rotten, 49%

Intruders – Clive Owen, Carice van Houten, Izan Corchero
Two children in different countries have their lives turned upside down by similarly haunting nightmares and visions. As per usual with thrillers/horror movies, the premise behind Intruders sounds interesting but I imagine that’s where the appeal ends. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: 30%

Also look for the critically acclaimed Bully, a documentary about bullying and peer pressure in today’s schools.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Trailer Spotlight: Prometheus, Abraham Lincoln, Snow White

In this week's Trailer Spotlight, we take a look at three summer blockbuster-types that have to this point only received teaser trailers. These films range from the intriguing to the best the summer has to offer. Let's have a look at...

The more Ridley Scott puts out concerning his "It's Not an Alien prequel but yeah, maybe it is an Alien prequel" the more interested I become. Prometheus has the potential to be not just a quality summer blockbuster but also a top level piece of sci-fi. Have a look at the newest trailer and tell me I shouldn't be getting my expectations up.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
I'm still not convinced that ALVH is going to be good and I'm not sure how interested I am in seeing it during a crowded summer. But I will say that this is a strong trailer that provides a little more background information than we'd seen previously. If nothing else, I'm slightly more intrigued about this movie than I was before.

Snow White and the Huntsman
Based upon the previous teaser trailer(s), I was cautiously optimistic about Snow White and the Huntsman. This trailer has pushed me all the way into all-out excitement. I'd prefer a more accomplished/talented actress in the lead than Kristen Stewart, of course, but overall I think this has the makings of a huge hit. At the very least it should make us all forget Mirror Mirror which looks just atrocious.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

In Home Viewings: "A Better Life"

Carlos Galindo (Demian Bichir) wants nothing more than to provide his son, Luis (Jose Julian), with the life he himself never had. An illegal alien who has lived in the US for many years, Carlos works as a gardener and keeps his head down, always mindful of what deportation would mean for his son. Luis, meanwhile, is a typically rebellious teenager who doesn’t understand or appreciate his father’s sacrifices and who is on the brink of joining the local gang. When Carlos’ boss planning to leave the gardening business and head home, he offers to sell his truck and equipment to his loyal employee. Desperate to make something happen for himself, Carlos accepts the offer and goes into business for himself, a risk he normally would not take. But when the truck is stolen by a day laborer, Carlos and Luis go on a journey to recover their property and in the process, rebuild the relationship that they’ve both sorely missed.

I think it was a surprise to many to find Demian Bichir’s name among those nominated for Best Actor at this year’s Academy Awards. On a list that includes Gary Oldman, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and eventual winner Jean Dujardin, Bichir seemed a bit out of place, especially considering some of the great work done by accomplished actors who were not recognized by the academy (Ryan Gosling, Michael Shannon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, etc.). This is one of those situations, however, that demands a viewing before judgment because, having now seen A Better Life, I can certainly understand the Academy’s decision. Simply put, this is a heartfelt, power house performance by an actor that perfectly embodies his role. Carlos encapsulates elements of heartbreak and hope, misfortune and motivation and in doing so creates a deeply layered and personal portrayal. Bichir plays Carlos with subtlety, acting as much with his eyes as with his words, giving notice of the internal conflict waging within the man throughout his various struggles. It is truly an outstanding performance and one that carries significant weight.

The rest of A Better Life, though, doesn’t quite measure up to the brilliance of the lead performer. Many of the early scenes come off as manufactured rather than organic, a polar opposite to the path that Bichir takes with his character. It is too earnest at times and that could cause cynical jerks like me to bail on the film before it ever really gets going. To be fair, A Better Life gets better as it goes and eventually leaves the safety of borderline-manipulative Oscar bait behind in favor of a more genuine tone but in some ways that makes the first act even more frustrating. There are also a handful of scenes that could have been edited out or restructured more purposefully and many of Bichir’s colleagues fail to deliver at a compatible level with the film’s star. Julian shows flashes of excellence but overall I found his performance to be spotty and less-than believable. I can’t say whether the blame for this rests on Julian or the film’s director, Chris Weitz, but the dynamic between father and son didn’t always deliver. It would have been interesting to see Bichir go toe-to-toe with a more challenging co-star, similar to the interactions between George Clooney and Shailene Woodley in The Descendants.

What saves A Better Life from becoming yet another independent film that doesn’t live up to the strength of its leading performer is the conclusion. Weitz saves his best work for last, creating a stirring, emotional scene in the very end in which Bichir delivers beautifully and which exhibits the very best of the relationship between Carlos and Luis. It is a hopeful, impactful finale that covers over the film’s previous missteps and allowed me to leave with a higher opinion of the film than I might have had otherwise. The result is a good movie highlighted my one fantastic performance and brought home by one stirring scene.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Review: "21 Jump Street"

To say that I am surprised, dear readers, by my full-on, unabashed enthusiasm for 21 Jump Street would be the understatement of the year. When the project was announced, I thought it sounded terrible and the first time I saw the trailer, I thought the same thing. That trailer, though, grew on me with each and every viewing and by the time I got to the theater this weekend, I was primed for a darn good time, and that’s exactly what the movie delivers.

Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) are unlikely pals. In high school, Schmidt was a loser whom Jenko routinely humiliated. But when they both join the police force, they develop a mutually beneficial friendship and eventually become partners on the beat. After a poorly executed drug bust, they are transferred under the command of Captain Dickson (Ice Cube), who runs an undercover unit out of a church on 21 Jump Street. The pair is sent in to a local high school and tasked with infiltrating and bringing down a drug ring that threatens to spread its new product to the surrounding city. But with their roles reversed and the abilities put to the test, can these two misfits get the job done before the entire operation is shut down?

One of the things that gave me pause concerning 21 Jump Street is the headliners. I appreciate Hill’s talent both as a comedian and an actual actor (as displayed in Moneyball) but his isn’t a name that gets me excited. For every Get Him to the Greek (which I love), there’s a film like The Sitter (which appeared to be horrendous). I have no such conflict over Tatum’s involvement with this project. Aside from his acceptable work in She’s the Man (a film I have an odd affection for), I’ve never seen a movie involving Tatum that I did not leave with a little vomit in my mouth and a little hate in my heart. I’ve long thought that he might be the worst actor in Hollywood. Surprisingly, not only do Hill and Tatum turn out to be a perfect match for this sort of raucous action-comedy, Tatum is actually the best part. He plays the dumb jock well, a role he is well suited for, but he also displays an excellent comedic timing I wouldn’t have thought he had. I’m not saying this will completely change my opinion of the man but it certainly won’t hurt. Hill, meanwhile, brings an element of authenticity to his role; he’s a nerd at heart who jumps on the chance to finally become cool. It’s an antiquated trick that Jump Street pulls but Hill makes it work. Together these two show great chemistry and they work off of each other quite well, giving the feeling of a natural partnership that doesn’t always come off with this sort of mismatched pairing.  

The first act of 21 Jump Street is one of the funniest openers in recent memory. It is an absolute laugh riot, jam-packed with the juvenile-but-well-thought-out humor that is expected from an R-rated comedy in a post-Hangover world. No time is wasted on the set-up as the set of circumstances Schmidt and Jenko find themselves in are established within the first ten minutes and the film’s plot is set into motion. I felt the second act, which brings into play the inevitable conflicts between the two buddies, wanes a bit and becomes slightly bogged down, though the fun never stops entirely. Perhaps the worst I could say about this middle portion is that it stretches on a few minutes too long. But before long, the pace again quickens and Schmidt and Jenko get back to the shenanigans that make the first act such a blast.

What directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) have crafted with Jump Street is an homage to the buddy cop movie with a hint of delicious self-awareness that seems appropriate given its ‘80s roots. They also surround their leads with an outstanding surrounding cast, including the aforementioned Ice Cube (perfect casting), a slightly underused Dave Franco, and the always funny Rob Riggle. Most importantly, the actors are provided with a hilarious script filled with a non-stop stream of jokes that never allows the audience to catch on to the abject stupidity of the characters’ actions.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Week That Was and the Week That Will Be - 3/19

The Hollywood Reporter takes an in-depth look at John Carter, a topic I should be bored with by now but which I am thoroughly intrigued by.

The new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle film will be released at Christmas of 2013 while World War Z has been pushed from this coming to Christmas to next summer.

Universal is apparently considering a Jaws remake, which is probably the worst idea in the history of ever.

On the other hand, Universal will bring Jurassic Park back to theaters (though in 3D) next summer. I hate 3D but I do enjoy great movies getting a re-release.

Lots of new trailers recently but I'll save them for a trailer spotlight later this week.

Weekend Box Office Results
At this point it’s far too early to know what 2012’s enduring legacy will be. Odds are it will be remembered as the year a hundred million nerds world-wide died due to complications of awesomeness overload after seeing The Hobbit finally come to the screen. But for now, the early returns for 2012 indicate that Hollywood may have just figured out how to make quality films for less than $100 quadjillion dollars. I know that seems weird given the stupid amount of money spent on John Carter but aside from that underachiever and A Thousand Words which was actually produced four years ago, what you see below are a number of film that have turned profitable domestically (and in some cases extremely profitable) in a short period of time while operating under reasonable budgets. 21 Jump Street follows the path of Chronicle, Safe House, and The Lorax, securing a healthy opening weekend that will insure it reaches the black by the end of the week. It also got my money and with my review to come tomorrow, let me just say, this movie is ridiculously fun.

1. 21 Jump Street - $35M
2. The Lorax - $22.8M ($158.4M)
3. John Carter - $13.51M ($53.17M)
4. Project X - $4M ($48.13M)
5. A Thousand Words - $3.75M ($12.1M)
6. Act of Valor - $3.67M ($62.39M)
7. Safe House - $2.8M ($120.2M)
8. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island - $2.46M ($95.06M)
9. Case de mi Padre - $2.2M
10. This Means War - $2.12M ($50.52M)

New to DVD
What I’ve Seen and You Should, Too
The Muppets - Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper
Many of you may know that in my real life I work with kids. I took a couple of my kids to see this movie when it made its theatrical run. Ever since that, every single time that one of them sees me he tells me how many days it will be until The Muppets comes out on DVD. What he didn’t know is that I’ve had this day noted in my iPhone calendar for months. I often say I loved a given movie but to properly express how much I love this movie I would have to create a new word. Since this movie came out, I’ve found two friends who don’t like the Muppets and I mean this seriously when I say that it’s taken everything in me to remain friends with them. I cannot wait to pick up my copy this week and if you haven’t seen it yet and don’t rectify that this week, you’re doing life wrong.

What I’ve Seen and You Should Maybe Think About Seeing, Too
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth
Unlike The Muppets, I will not say that TTSS is a movie that every human should see. It is a remarkably complex, heavy, slowburn of a movie that will not appeal to everyone. I would go so far as to call it the antithesis of the type of blockbuster action film I generally love. That said, if you have an inkling of interest and you know what you’re getting into going in, I highly encourage a viewing if for no other reason than to see the world’s greatest actor (Oldman, duh) at his best.

What I’ve Seen and I Wasn’t Totally Sold On
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer
I feel like Dragon Tattoo benefited from a somewhat undeserved flip-flop affect. What I mean is this: I think everyone (including myself) expected it to be great…and then it kind of wasn’t great. So the reviews mostly ranged from “decent” to “good” but rarely “excellent.” I would agree with that feeling; I found Dragon Tattoo to be a bit choppy and underwhelming but solid enough, all things considered. A classic “B+” movie, if you will. But somewhere along the way, everyone started getting all up-in-arms over Dragon Tattoo not getting its due respect from the various award committees and acted like this was an all-time classic. It’s like everyone simultaneously started thinking of Dragon Tattoo in terms of what they expected it to be and what it actually was and that bothers me. I just wasn’t that impressed and I’m sticking to that. Oh, and by the way, if you don’t know anything about this movie or the books it is based upon, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND a little research before renting it for a fun family outing. “Rough” is not a strong enough word.

Also New
Hop - James Marsden, Russell Brand, Kaley Cuoco
The Sitter - Jonah Hill, Ari Graynor, Sam Rockwell
Carnage - Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly
Roadie - Ron Eldard, Bobby Cannavale, Jill Hennessey

Coming to a Theater Near You
Weeks like this last one make me look pretty smart to the two of you who actually read this column. 21 Jump Street came in a little better than expected, pulling in a stellar 86% Rotten Tomatoes score (versus my 82% prediction); Casa de Mi Padre effectively underwhelmed to the tune of 44% (45% predicted); and Jeff Who Lives at Home was the sweet and funny indie film we’ve come to expect from the Duplass Brothers, pulling in a 73% fresh rating (75% predicted).

This week brings us one (mainstream) film and one (mainstream) film only:

The Hunger Games - Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson
In the not-so-distant future, a pair of children, known as “tributes”, from each of the country’s twelve districts is chosen to compete in a fight to the death known as the Hunger Games until one girl (Lawrence) begrudgingly becomes the symbol for revolution. The other studios were right to allow The Hunger Games to run virtually unopposed this week. Based on a widely-read series of books that has only become more wildly popular over the last few months, this is going to be the film that sets the tone for the rest of the year. And considering the unexpectedly huge box office number The Lorax has brought in, it’s fair to expect $100 million or more this weekend. I’m very excited for this one though I’m still not entirely sure the tone of the book will translate well to a PG-13 movie. But if nothing else, it’s nice to see America get obsessed with something that is significantly and overwhelmingly better than Twilight. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Fresh, 81%

Also opening in limited release: The Raid: Redemption (Iko Uwais, Ananda George) is getting GREAT reviews and being billed as this year's Attack the Block...The Deep Blue Sea (Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston) concerns an affair involving the wife of a British judge...and October Baby (Rachel Hendrix, Jason Burkey) centers on a college student who discovers she was adopted.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Review: "John Carter"

It isn’t often these days that a film comes around that can truly be called an epic flop. With home viewing options becoming more and more affordable, higher ticket prices inflating the true box office value of most movies, and the ever-expanding overseas markets, it’s become quite difficult for a film to lose a ridiculous sum of money. Even recent domestic flops like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (which grabbed only $90 million on these shores versus a $200 million budget) scored big overseas, allowing Disney to save face. Mars Needs Moms comes to mind as a tremendous failure but that status is at least somewhat cushioned by the fact that no one expected much from it and it essentially sat on a shelf in the Disney vault prior to its release. Epic flops like Waterworld, Cleopatra, and Cutthroat Island just don’t happen anymore…until now.

After discovering a mythical cave of gold, surly Civil War vet John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) suddenly awakens to find himself on an unknown plain on what he soon discovers is Mars (or Barsoom, as the natives call it). The thinner atmosphere imbues his earth-body with near super powers as he can run faster, jump higher, and punch harder than he ever could back home. John is taken captive by the Tharks, a tall alien race with four arms, and their leader Tars Tarkas (voiced by Willem Dafoe), and remains a prized pet until he saves Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), a princess of a humanoid race, from the clutches of the feared warlord Sab Than (Dominic West). Before long, John is embroiled in a Martian war that threatens to spread to earth if a group of powerful beings, known as the Therns, are not stopped.

In a piece I wrote before John Carter debuted, I detailed the numerous missteps Disney made during the production of this film that led to its inevitable flopitude (a word I just made up but which fits perfectly in my mind). As a true fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books, I was already disappointed going in over the poor handling and I’m even more disappointed now. At its heart, John Carter is a darn good, enjoyable, popcorn flick. It was blessed with an entertaining, simple source material that seems ripe for adaptation if done correctly and a strong cast of characters, both on screen and off, were brought together to put this film together. The execution, however, is deeply flawed.

Beyond the issues detailed in my preview piece (obscene and unnecessary budget, limited familiarity with the subject, and an egregious marketing campaign), the on-screen product suffers more than anything else from a weak script. The dialogue isn’t bad (somewhat surprising) but many of the plot points are convoluted and poorly developed. If I didn’t have previous knowledge of this series, I’m not sure I could have accurately followed along with the course of the action. This is a puzzling issues for me because, as much as this sci-fi nerd loves Edgar Rice Burroughs, his work isn’t especially complex. This should have been an easy story to tell and instead it seems that writer/director Andrew Stanton couldn’t figure out how to translate the book to film. Too much attention is paid to plot points that aren’t especially important but not enough time is given to the significant portions of the narrative. Not only does that cause confusion, it also leads to boredom as I had to fight the urge to zone out more than once and my viewing partner (read: “gracious wife”) became borderline disinterested at times. John Carter is also overly long and never finds much of a rhythm, leading to the dreaded roller coaster effect which hampers so many blockbusters.

It’s a real shame, too, because what John Carter does well, it does REALLY well. The vast majority of the $250 million spent on this movie was used in the visual departments and that definitely shows. Stanton and his team bring a fresh look to Mars and its inhabitants and give real life to Burroughs’ visions. It is a beautiful print with lavish colors and the blending of live action with computer generated images is seamless. Most of the actors are given little to work with but Dafoe, Mark Strong, and Ciaran Hinds all give the workmanlike performances that you might expect. Collins does an admirable if not entirely believable job of combining elements of both the damsel and distress and the strong, confident warrior woman. Some of her moments are better than others but on the whole, she comes through. Kitsch is really the only member of the cast who is asked to do much of the heavy lifting and for my money he gets the job done quite well. Kitsch exudes rugged charm in every role, a necessary part of the John Carter persona, and here he displays a comedic timing that I wasn’t sure he had. There are shades of Harrison Ford and Timothy Olyphant (I wish I could take credit for this comparison but that honor belongs to Christopher Orr of The Atlantic) within this performance, a characteristic that gives me great hope for Kitsch’s career moving forward.

At the end of the day, John Carter is an acceptable way to pass the time; no more and no less. At times it is quite fun though I think some more action sequences would have helped to lessen the strain of the narrative-related doldrums. It’s just too bad that Disney didn’t impose more checks and balances, both on set and on the studio end, to keep John Carter from becoming an epic financial blunder.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

In Home Viewings: "Puss in Boots"

As a prequel to the Shrek series, Puss in Boots serves to tell the origin story of the titular character’s (Antonio Banderas) rise to prominence. A slick thief with a haunted past, Puss takes on a dangerous job in which he attempts to steal the fabled magic beans from a pair of hardened criminals known as Jack and Jill (fortunately not Adam Sandler in drag). His plan goes awry, however, when he comes into contact with another thief, Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek). Softpaws engages Puss in a (dance) battle and eventually brings him to meet Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), an old friend-turned-enemy. But Humpty has a plan to right an old wrong and convinces Puss to join him in the undertaking of a dangerous but lucrative adventure.

I have to hand it Dreamworks animation, they know how to make a solid children’s movie that adults can sit through comfortably. They’ve developed a formula that goes something like this: Likeable Characters + Outstanding Visuals + Recognizable Voice Talent + Borderline-Illicit Jokes That Kids Won’t Get - Any Semblance of Heart and Emotion = A 3-Star Film That Kids Will Flock To. Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar and the rest all work within this equation and Puss in Boots is no exception.

Let’s work our way through that formula as it applies to this film. The characters at play within Puss in Boots are good-enough, though none of them quite measure up to the best of the Dreamworks universe. Puss is probably better served as an ancillary role but he is not overmatched with carrying his own film and his surrounding characters are all enjoyable if underwhelming. Puss looks predictably beautiful with rich scene structure and exquisite character details. The soul of Dreamworks animation is in their visuals and this film is nothing if not gorgeously animated. Another staple of the Dreamworks feature is the use of big name actors to voice the characters as opposed to the Pixar method which often employs lesser-known performers. The risk of using well-known voices is that it can cause the audience to see the characters not as themselves but as the actor providing the voice. Here, though, I think Banderas and especially Galifianakis do a good job of putting their respective characters above themselves, not always an easy task. The jokes, meanwhile, come early and often and fall right in line with the line of humor we were treated to in the Shrek films. Dreamworks has mastered the art of cramming adult-oriented jokes into their films without ever allowing young minds to become the wiser and that is, of course, a large part of their success. Puss manages to push the envelope in sly ways and that provides a handful of big laughs.

The major issue with Puss is the same one I have with just about every Dreamworks feature: there’s almost nothing in the way of emotional connection. Whereas Pixar always strives to create organic connection between the characters and the audience, Dreamworks doesn’t always seem interested in taking their films beyond above-average children’s fare. I feel like steps have been taken to correct this problem in recent years. Kung Fu Panda comes closer to striking an emotional note from time to time and How to Train Your Dragon is absolutely up to the Pixar standard in every way. But Puss in Boots is decisively shallow, never bothering to even scratch the surface in terms of resonating beyond a mildly entertaining level. There’s simply no depth whatsoever and while that does indeed fit into the Dreamworks formula, at some point you have to ask yourself if the studio is progressing or simply painting by numbers.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

In Home Viewings: "Take Shelter"

Curtis (Michael Shannon) is the prototypical working-class American male. He is a good husband to his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), a caring father to his deaf daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), and a dependable employee. Curtis’ life starts to unravel, however, when he begins to have disturbing dreams. Nightmares which always revolve around a storm and always involve someone close to him trying to kill him plague his every sleep and soon Curtis becomes a paranoid, distracted man. As the dreams increase in frequency and intensity, Curtis becomes convinced that he is being given visions of the future. He puts aside all other responsibilities to build a shelter that will protect his family from their impending doom. But as he slips further and further from reality, it becomes more and more unclear as to whether these dreams are actually visions or the first signs of the mental illness that runs in his family.

Take Shelter is a prime example of independent filmmaking at its finest. Writer/director Jeff Nichols has crafted a brilliant, completely organic thriller that creates more heart-pounding drama than I would have ever imagined. Nothing about Take Shelter is overstated or flashy; rather, it is a workmanlike film that starts with one dramatic crossbeam and builds upon itself in deliberate, well-paced fashion. No time is wasted, no side-plot is elaborated upon unnecessarily, and no scene fails to deliver. Nichols drops us into Curtis’ life, quickly gives us a glimpse into his situation, and then begins the process of creating a tense, riveting environment that continues to grow until the final credits roll.

But with all due respect to Nichols (whom I suspect we’ll hear a great deal more from in the future), the immense value of Take Shelter comes as a result of the work of Michael Shannon. Though he is an outstanding actor, my complaint about Shannon has always been that he generally chooses difficult, inaccessible roles that are difficult to relate with. As a result, he often gives performances that are excellent but which fail to strike much of an emotional chord with me. Not so with Take Shelter. Beyond the sheer quality of his acting ability which is most certainly on full display here, Shannon empowers Curtis with an incredible believability. You’re never sure if Curtis is going crazy or not, just as Curtis himself isn’t sure, and that, for me at least, is what truly makes Take Shelter work. Above all else, Curtis wants to protect his family but at times, you’re not sure whether he means to protect them from the horrible future he sees in his visions or from himself. Shannon exemplifies this conundrum with as few words as possible, lending serious weight to an already dense role. This is unmistakably Shannon’s finest moment to date. It’s just a shame that his film happened to drop during a year that was dominated by outstanding male performances. His portrayal deserved FAR more attention than it received and it is this powerful work that makes Take Shelter a true achievement in filmmaking.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Week That Was and the Week That Will Be - 3/12

Joss Whedon has asked viewers of his newest production, Cabin in the Woods, not to spoil the ending. I confess, this strategy has worked on me: I now want to see this movie. Curse you, Whedon! has some gorgeous posters from the Star Wars: Identities exhibit coming soon to Canada, making this the first time I've ever wanted to be in Canada. (I'm kidding, Canada; I really enjoy your 5 pin bowling.)

John Carter director Andrew Stanton sat down with /Film to discuss his epically overpriced film. 

Weekend Box Office Results
At this point I think we can officially call The Lorax a full blown, massive hit. Last week’s shocking take of over $70 million was a tremendous starting point but to have it come back and grab about huge chunk of change is in some ways even more impressive. We still love you, Dr. Suess. John Carter, on the other hand, is not a hit. $250 million just doesn’t get you what it used to anymore. I can’t really explain this but I’m sort of rooting for this film to find a monstrous audience overseas. Usually when a studio spends as foolishly as Disney did in this situation, I hope for utter failure because that’s what the company deserves. But having seen John Carter, I have developed a semi-soft spot for it and I can’t help but hope it doesn’t become the epic flop it looks to be. Silent House also opened to a less-than thrilling box office total and A Thousand Words has assured its place among Eddie Murphy’s very worst movies. And that, my friends, is quite an impressively awful list.

1. Dr. Suess’ The Lorax - $39.1M ($121.95M)
2. John Carter - $30.6M
3. Project X - $11.55M ($40.12M)
4. Silent House - $7M
5. Act of Valor - $7M ($56.1M)
6. A Thousand Words - $6.35M
7. Safe House - $5M ($115.8M)
8. The Vow - $4M ($117.61M)
9. This Means War - $3.75M ($46.88M)
10. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island - $3.68M ($90.76M)

New to DVD
What I’ve Seen and You Should, Too
The Descendants - George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller
The Adventures of Tintin - Jamie Bell, Daniel Craig, Andy Serkis
When I walked out of my advance screening of The Descendants, I thought I had seen the eventual Best Picture winner. Little did I know that a silent, black and white, French film would take the world by storm, brainwashing every film critic in its path. Still, this is an outstanding film that is powered by two outstanding performances. It is at times rough around the edges and difficult to fully embrace but it is a wholly worthwhile experience.
Tintin is essentially the exact opposite of The Descendants. It is extra light on story but heavy on fun and plays out like a far truer heir to the Indiana Jones series than anything George Lucas is likely to create. It’ll be interesting to see how well it transitions from the big screen to a home TV because the visual splendor was definitely a part of the charm for me. Regardless, I found Tintin to be an absolute blast and I look forward to seeing it again.

What I’ll Be Renting This Week
My Week with Marilyn - Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Redmayne
Melancholia - Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbrough, Kiefer Sutherland
Young Adult - Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson
We’ll call this a, “Movies Featuring a Female Performance That Was Probably Better than Meryl Streep’s” three pack. Every human who has ever seen My Week with Marilyn raved about Williams’ pitch-perfect portrayal of Marilyn Monroe. Dunst would have likely been in line for an Oscar nod if Melancholia wasn’t so darn confusing. And Theron’s portrait of a truly horrible human in Young Adult is said to have been spot-on to the point of making one want to punch the theater screen. I’m excited, to varying degrees, to see them all.

Also New
The Three Musketeers - Logan Lerman, Luke Evans, Ray Stevenson
Happy Feet 2 - Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, Brad Pitt
Loosies - Peter Facinelli, Jaimie Alexander, Michael Madsen
The Killing: Season 1 - Mireille Enos, Joel Kinnaman
Neverland - Rhys Ifans, Anna Friel
Bag of Bones - Pierce Brosnan, Melissa George
Bobby’s World: Season 1-7 (1990) - Howie Mandel, JE Rose

New to Blu
American Pie (1999) - Jason Biggs, Chris Klein, Seann William Scott
American Pie 2 (2001) - Jason Biggs, Chris Klein, Seann William Scott
America Wedding (2003) - Jason Biggs, Alyson Hannigan, Seann William Scott
Arthur and the Invisibles (2006) - Freddie Highmore, Mia Farrow, Madonna

Coming to a Theater Near You
You know when a terrible movie comes out and the studio backing said terrible movie finds (read: “pays”) an unscrupulous film critic to give out a mildly positive review that can be cut up into quotes for a commercial? Well, A Thousand Words couldn’t even get that. My 30% prediction from last week was WAYYYYYY off as this piece of junk, which sat on a shelf for four years, received the fabled 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. 39 reviews and not a single one had any kind words. I feel kind of dumb for my guess. My other predictions were alright. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen came out better than expected (64% actual versus 48% predicted) though I can’t imagine many average moviegoers ever caring to see it. Friends with Kids underperformed (60% vs. 83%) but could become a cult hit on DVD. And both John Carter (49% vs. 54%) and Silent House (47% vs. 50%) came in as expected.

21 Jump Street - Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Dave Franco
A mismatched pair of new cops (Hill, Tatum) are assigned to an undercover unit at a local high school and tasked with bringing down a drug ring. Very few movies have grown on me leading up my actual viewing the way 21 Jump Street has. The first time I saw the trailer I called it garbage and didn’t give it a second thought. A few viewings later, though, and I’d started to snicker a little. Now I’m in full-on anticipation mode and I’ve heard legitimately GREAT things from critics and bloggers who were able to catch a glimpse in advance. I don’t know what sort of global ramifications my desire to see a Channing Tatum movie on opening day will have but I suspect we should all be stocking up on bottled water and canned foods. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Fresh, 82%

Casa de mi Padre - Will Ferrell, Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna
Armando Alvarez (Ferrell) gets himself mixed up with an infamous drug dealer while trying to save the family farm. I never watch subtitled films, mostly because I don’t have the attention span to read my way through a movie. But I’m pretty excited about this, Will Ferrell’s foray into independent, “foreign” cinema. Those two sentences make me sound like the most uncultured swine in America but I can’t help it. Where Ferrell goes, I go. Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Rotten, 44%

Jeff, Who Lives at Home - Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Susan Sarandon (Limited)
A do-nothing man-child (Segel) and his somewhat estranged brother (Helms) rediscover themselves in the most unlikely of scenarios. I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while now and I am, predictably, frustrated by its limited release. The writing-directing team the Duplass brothers (Cyrus) have shown great potential in their previous films and I’m interested to see Segel in this sort of role. I guess I’ll probably have to wait until it comes out on DVD. *Sigh* Rotten Tomatoes prediction: Fresh, 75%

Also opening in limited release: Detachment (Adrien Brody, Christina Hendricks) chronicles the life of an apathetic substitute teacher…Natural Selection (Rachael Harris, Jon Gries) finds a woman attempting to reunite her wayward husband with his illegitimate son…and Seeking Justice (Nicolas Cage, January Jones) stars Nic Cage and that’s all I really need to say, right?

Friday, March 9, 2012

The John Carter Fiasco or How NOT to Make a Film

Since the first John Carter work was published in 1912, there have been countless attempts at a film adaptation (chronicled so well in David Hughes’ book The Greatest Sci-fi Movies Never Made) that never quite fit the bill. The reasons for this void in the cinematic landscape always came down to two things: technology and money. Other than the very beginning of the first book, the John Carter universe operates entirely on the Red Planet and often involves lavish landscapes and extreme battles between two Martian races. Translating those scenes to the screen has long been deemed impractical and if it could be done, it would cost a ridiculous amount of money. This is why, in an industry that aims to suck the life essence out of every book ever written, the John Carter has gone unfilmed for 100 years. Enter Disney and its massive, overly expensive adaptation which opens in theaters today.

For the record, I don’t expect John Carter to be a bad movie. I’ve seen enough reviews that fall into the range of positive to mildly positive to expect that, as a fan of popcorn movies, I’ll enjoy this one to at least some degree. In addition, the novels upon which this movie is based are favorites of mine and their author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, is sci-fi royalty. It disappoints me greatly, therefore, to know that this movie is going to wind up as one of the biggest failures in the history of the cinema. What could be the cause of such an historic flop? Let’s break it down into three briefly detailed categories of screwiness.

Source Material
As noted above, I love Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of books. They represent perhaps the first real examples of mainstream science fiction and while they’re far from complex, they are exceedingly fun to read. But how many average moviegoers have heard of Edgar Rice Burroughs or, more importantly, John Carter? I would guess (without any research to back me up beyond informal polling among my friends) that the percentage of casual moviegoers who’ve heard of Burroughs, let alone read his work, is quite low. Again, we’re talking about a series that was first published 100 years ago and which hasn’t gone through a rediscovery renaissance in quite some time. It’s not that it’s hard to get your hands on one of the books if you want; in fact, Barnes and Noble printed a nice, inexpensive collection of three John Carter stories a few years back. But you do have to know what you’re looking for and seek it out. Unlike some more fortunate sci-fi and fantasy pieces from past decades, these aren’t books that get introduced in school (The Hobbit, Ender’s Game) or go through constant reprinting (Dracula, the Sherlock Holmes collection).

Moreover, if you have heard of Burroughs, it’s likely that you know him because of his other famous series, Tarzan. The similarities between the John Carter series and the Tarzan series are extensive but it is Tarzan who has enjoyed a century of notoriety. Everyone knows the basic gist of the Tarzan story; you can’t say the same for John Carter. That lack of familiarity with Burroughs, Carter, and the source material that brings the two together can be a tough hurdle to overcome. Keep in mind that we just came off of a year in which the top nine films at the box office were sequels. What that means is that now, possibly more than ever, familiarity with a film’s source material is crucial to box office success. Building a tent-pole movie around an unknown commodity is risky at best, especially when you consider our second category.

Remember that the issues which have kept John Carter off the big screen have always been technology and money. If you go see John Carter this weekend, you will see things that wouldn’t have been possible even five years ago. So the technology has come around. Unfortunately for Disney, the technology is absurdly expensive. How expensive, you ask? The estimated budget for John Carter is somewhere in the range of $250 million and I’ve seen articles that would suggest that’s a conservative estimate. To put that into perspective, Avatar, for which much of the technology used to make John Carter had to be created, cost “only” $235 million to make. To take that a step further, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which featured some of the most amazing extended special effects shots I’ve ever seen, came in at a cool $93 million.

Spending $250 million on any movie that doesn’t involve Harry Potter, Batman, or Bilbo Baggins is essentially cinematic suicide. To make matters worse, while the source material is largely unknown to the general public, the cast of John Carter doesn’t exactly set the world on fire. I love Taylor Kitsch to the point that I may name my hypothetical, future son after his character on Friday Night Lights. But Kitsch is not a movie star (at least not yet). There are some known names within Kitsch’s supporting cast (Willem Dafoe, Bryan Cranston, Mark Strong) but none that are going to bring in the average moviegoer. To put that kind of money into a film without a well-known name is ludicrous.

Apparently, however, Disney has never heard the phrase, “throwing good money after bad.” I’d love to know what this project’s original budget was but regardless, this type of spending can only be classified as “stupid.” Movies go over budget all the time but at some point, someone has to say enough is enough and cap the sucker before it gets out of control. In this case, “enough is enough” should have come about $100 million ago.

Considering the unknown source material and the “could fund several small countries for a year” budget, you would think the marketing campaign behind John Carter would be dynamite. And you would be wrong. The missteps involved with this aspect of the filmmaking process of have been remarkable and could be considered a master’s class in what not to do.

For me, it starts with the lack of attention paid to Pixar’s involvement with this project. For a while I think John Carter was labeled in news blurbs and articles as, “The first live-action Pixar movie.” But when the first trailer and poster debuted, Pixar’s involvement was ignored. Sure, this is not technically a Pixar film. But director Andrew Stanton comes from the Pixar stable and is responsible for two of that company’s biggest successes, WALL*E and Finding Nemo. Did you know that the director of John Carter directed those movies as well? Many of my friends did not, which begs the question: why wasn’t Andrew Stanton’s previous film history trumpeted throughout the marketing for this movie? Why doesn’t everyone know that John Carter is brought to you by the guy who gave us WALL*E?

Worse, though, is the way in which Disney has ignored the fanboy. Instead of embracing the key demographic for John Carter, Disney has gone out of its way to stay away from what should be the target market. There was no promotion at Comic Con, a grievous and confusing mistake that goes against the methods Disney has used in the past. Then there’s the title change that took the film away from its roots. The difference between John Carter and John Carter of Mars may seem insignificant but to me and many other would-be fanboys, it signified a shift in what Disney was going for. It’s a blander, all-encompassing title that I suspect exemplifies what we can expect from the film. This is what happens when you spend foolishly on a film: instead of focusing on the market that is most likely to embrace your film, you end up having to aim for every moviegoer and in most cases, the result is overwhelmingly disappointing.

By bringing all of these factors together, Disney has set 2012’s first blockbuster hopeful up against a tremendous mountain that it has no chance of scaling. And for me, that makes John Carter one of the most fascinating films of the year for me. I am both stoked to see Burroughs’ work brought to life on the screen and thoroughly intrigued by the (great) possibility of a trainwreck. Regardless of how it turns out, I’ll be in a theater on opening day, eagerly awaiting the unknown which is to come. Unfortunately for Disney, I expect I will be somewhat lonesome in that theater.  

EDITOR'S NOTE: I got about halfway through this piece before stumbling across a similar column written by Anne Thompson over at Indiewire. Thompson has already seen John Carter and provides a much more in-depth look at the curious choices I touched on here. I highly encourage reading her article if you have an interest in this subject. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Trailer Spotlight: Ice Age 4, Frankenweenie, Bernie

Ice Age: Continental Drift
Out of all of the non-Pixar/Disney animated franchises, this is probably the one I care about the least. The first one is alright, I guess, but not a movie I want to watch repeatedly. The second one was somewhat less alright I think but honestly I remember nothing about it. And I never saw the third. There's just nothing about it that appeals to me but more importantly, I am thoroughly unimpressed by the names attached to this series. Ray Ramano is great but Denis Leary, John Leguizamo, Queen Latifah, Wanda Sykes, etc. all belong on the list of actors who drive me crazy. All that to say, I'm not running out to catch Continental Drift on opening weekend. I will say, though, that it looks more entertaining than either of the previous two sequels, giving it a chance to wind up in my Blu-Ray player at some point. Check it our for yourself and by all means, tell me what I'm missing with this franchise.

If there's one thing I've learned over the years of movie watching, it's that you can never judge a Tim Burton film by its trailer. I have been completely surprised in both good (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory which I quite like) and bad (Planet of the Apes) ways based on my reading of the trailer. So I just don't know about Frankenweenie. It does appear to be another film that could have trouble finding an audience beyond the Burton followers. So essentially the question is, will Frankenweenie be the next Nightmare Before Christmas or the next Corpse Bride?

I must admit: a cast list highlighted by Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey doesn't exactly send me into a frenzy. But I will say two things in defense of Bernie. 1.) This trailer has grown on me. I watched it once and walked away unimpressed. I watched it again for this writing and I'm much more intrigued because... 2.) If director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused) can pull the mockumentary portion of the film together tightly, this film could really work. Plus, while I'm not a McConaughey fan, he does his best work in supporting roles when he seems to be having fun (see: Dazed and Confused, Tropic Thunder) and that appears to be the case here. Could be worthwhile.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

In Home Viewings: "Martha Marcy May Marlene"

After a tumultuous stint with a cult, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) finally decides she’s had enough and makes her escape in the wee hours of the morning. She is taken in by Lucy (Sarah Paulson), her overbearing sister who can’t understand the choices Martha has made. At first, Martha feels safe with Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). Soon, however, she begins to have serious issues with reintegrating herself into society and the strain of what she’s been through becomes readily apparent to all parties, resulting in Martha’s unstable, fragile mental state and a break from reality that may or may not be happening throughout the film’s runtime.

When I see a movie, I usually try my best to avoid any in-depth reviews before writing my own entry. I’ll look at grades, maybe catch a quote or two from some valued critics but I don’t want my review to be subconsciously influenced by the writing of a colleague. Occasionally, however, I find myself needing to browse through the work of others in order to reaffirm my take on the film (not my opinion, mind you, but rather the facts of the film) or even to help me understand what the heck just happened. Such is the case with MMMM.

This is a dense, multi-layered film that should probably be seen more than once before forming a complete opinion. Told in a non-linear fashion, it’s never clear when events are happening or even if they’re happening at all. Martha is a deeply disturbed and borderline dysfunctional human being. Her mental state is often the underlying subject of the film and director Sean Durkin does a masterful job of bringing the audience into her mind. MMMM is an all-together uncomfortable experience and one that raises far more questions than it answers. You are left to wonder if Martha is just being paranoid or whether she has good reason to be fearful as the film builds layer upon layer of tension and Durkin does nothing to help you connect the dots. This would be very frustrating if MMMM wasn’t so exquisitely well-made. There are more genuine heart-pounding moments within this movie than just about any horror film and each scene is purposeful and carefully measured.

Much is asked of this film’s cast and without some stunning performances, it is likely that MMMM becomes a convoluted mess. Paulson and Dancy each play their roles well though neither is asked to do much comparatively. As the cult leader, John Hawkes is hauntingly spectacular. Embodied with equal parts charm and menace, Hawkes shows exactly why damaged and weak-minded individuals would buy into what he’s selling yet he always allows a terrifying sliminess to ooze through his every word and action. He literally made me shiver. Above all, however, MMMM hinges on the work of Olsen. This is a truly difficult and complex role that many quality, well-known actresses might have mishandled. Martha has to be a sympathetic figure and believably troubled but she also has to be mystery with regard to her true mental capacity. For me to say that this character is sane or insane, fully there or mentally retarded would be a guess on my part and that’s a large part of what makes MMMM work. You don’t so much root for Martha but rather you struggle to understand her which makes her circumstances all the more terse and complex. Simply put, this is a star-making performance that should have earned Olsen far more attention than she received and one that makes Martha Marcy May Marlene a significant cinematic entry.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Review: "This Means War"

If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if you took two charismatic young stars in the prime of their careers and threw them into a movie that made absolutely no attempt to provide them with something to work with, then this is the film for you. A decent-enough concept that never gets off the ground, This Means War stands as an exercise in lazy futility with no hint of ambition.

FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy) are lifelong friends who work together as CIA agents. While on desk assignment after an operation goes wrong, Tuck, a hopeless romantic, enrolls in an online dating site and gets setup with Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), a market researcher with a painful relationship history. Shortly after their successful first date, Lauren runs into FDR (no explanation is ever given for his ridiculous name) and strikes up a playful conversation with the consummate lady’s man, eventually settling on a date. When FDR and Tuck discover that they’re dating the same woman, their friendship is put to the test as they engage in an all-out war to win Lauren over. But while the two friends put everything on the line for one woman, an old nemesis arrives in town looking for revenge.

Whatever there is to like about This Means War hinges entirely upon the inherent appeal of Pine and Hardy. In their brief careers, Hardy has probably shown more diversity but both have proven themselves to be impressive on-screen talents (if not bankable stars). Here their combined likability and stellar chemistry are all that stands between This Means War turning into an abject disaster instead of the slightly above average action comedy that it is. Indeed, these two do their parts and then some…and then some more. They had me laughing during scenes that shouldn’t have been funny and paying much closer attention than This Means War really deserved. I’m actually somewhat angry that their interactions were wasted on this film instead of occupying space in a more worthwhile endeavor.

 Virtually every aspect of This Means War outside of the male leads falls somewhere between barely-passable and downright embarrassing. Witherspoon falls into the former category; there’s nothing diametrically wrong with her performance, it’s just very one-dimensional and unimportant. Lauren is less a character and more a vessel for the furthering of the meager plot. Chelsea Handler, meanwhile, goes far beyond “one-dimensional and unimportant”; her involvement with This Means War could be described as nothing less than soul-crushingly painful. If she’d received five more minutes of screen time, I’m not sure I would have made it through the movie.

More importantly, though, the plot, action, and dialogue contained within This Means War are laughably ineffective and amateurish. Director McG made a name for himself with TV shows like The OC and more recently Chuck and This Means War proves that old habits die hard. I like Chuck and I’ve always found it to be a fun show but what works on TV doesn’t always (or usually) work in a movie. Unfortunately, this movie plays out like a giant, excessively long episode of Chuck that never aspires to do anything new, fresh, or even overly entertaining. At times it can be fun but only when Pine and Hardy are both on screen and even then, only in short doses. So much more could have been done with what McG had to work with but in many ways it never seems like he had any desire to create a film that had any semblance of cinematic value.