John Carter (2012, Andrew Stanton) – Mostly unjustly dismissed upon its theatrical outing as being too square for its own good, former Pixar director Andrew Stanton’s big screen outing featuring Edgar Rice Burroughs’ most famous character next to Tarzan is an unabashed love letter to science fiction despite its clunkier bits. Featuring some great performances and stunning visuals, the film could find the audience it rightfully deserved on DVD and Blu-ray.
Based mostly on Burroughs’ Princess of Mars, former Civil War veteran and mourning widower John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) finds himself transplanted to the famed red planet after a run in with an alien in a cave made entirely of gold. Upon his arrival, he’s uneasily welcomed by the leader of a race of aliens known as the Tharks, who find themselves in a state of societal disrepair. Their leader, Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) finds his ruling power challenged thanks to his allegiance to his heretical daughter (Samantha Morton), while their world is under attack from “red men” (a.k.a. other humans) and an evil former human soldier (Dominic West) and an emissary of the world’s goddess (Mark Strong) who are bent on global domination through the use of a powerful super weapon. It’s up to Carter and a human princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) to unite the humans and the Tharks to destroy a common enemy and save the world they all know as Barsoom.
Three separate and clunky openings are needed to flesh out the backstory (on top of two endings, one of which reverts back to one of the three beginnings), and the film has such rich detail and faithfulness to the spirit of it’s source material that it’s top heavy at times. The relationships between characters are explained only once, and very briefly to get on with the story. On top of that, the Tharks speak their own language, and even once it’s translated into English for Carter and the audience, they still use slang, colloquialisms, and scientific terms unique to their planet. If you aren’t paying attention, you probably won’t know if they are referring to a planet, a person, or just speaking off the cuff to each other. Let your attention span waver for a second, and you might be left behind.
Having said all that, every penny of the film’s budget is up there on screen with dazzling action sequences that blow away anything in the Star Wars prequels. There’s more than enough spectacle to break up the wealth of exposition, but to Stanton’s credit he makes the audience work to get to it. He shows just as strong of a visual eye here as he did in his animation work, even if the film still feels like it’s being edited as if it were an animated film. The film’s cast – and Kitsch in particular – also work hard to sell the material.
The Blu-ray boasts stunning image and sound quality and some great special features including an insightful commentary track from Stanton and the producers about the film’s long and somewhat tortured journey to the big screen, some half finished deleted scenes that really do add some much needed gaps in the story, a pretty bland blooper reel, and a really neat “day in the life of” documentary that follows Stanton around the set. (Andrew Parker)
Interview: John Carter star Taylor Kitsch.
Safe House (2012, Daniel Espinosa) – If you really, really want to see a new Bourne Identity movie and can’t wait until August for The Bourne Legacy to come out, then I’ve got good news. Safe House rips off the Bourne style and tone so much that it may as well be a spin-off. Denzel Washington stars as a spurned former CIA super agent who was so disgusted by the corruption in the system that he went rogue. These days, he sells sensitive information to the highest bidder, or at least he did until he got caught in Cape Town and was sent to a secret US safe house. Once there, he’s about to be tortured for everything he knows before a team of possible terrorists show up with machine guns to bust him out. A rookie CIA safe house watcher (Ryan Reynolds) ends up the only guy alive and takes off with Denzel as his prisoner. He’s soon frantically calling superior officers at the Pentagon for advice, but the responses are all mysteriously vague. It seems that Denzel is holding sensitive information about corrupt US and British secret agents and suddenly the international criminal seems more trustworthy and morally conscientious than the government Reynolds works for (particularly that Brandon Gleeson guy who is just too good and recognizable of an actor to be playing a nice government stooge, right?)
This is a Bourne-lite action spectacular with an endless series of shaky-cam set pieces peppering a tale of political corruption that seems intelligent on the surface but actually just uses evocative images and themes as minor plot devices (waterboarding makes an appearance early on, but its really just a post-9/11 spin on a Bond supervillain torture trap). The performances are strong across the board (particularly from Washington who seems incapable of doing bad work), the story zips along at a crisp pace, and the action is well-staged, yet the whole thing feels somewhat underwhelming. We’ve seen all these gags before and they gets less interesting every time. Sure, if you’re looking for a goofball action-packed night with your blu-ray player you could do worse. You could just also do a hell of a lot better. In the end, it’s just repetitive blockbuster fluff with delusions of socially conscious grandeur. Safe House is not particularly good and it’s not particularly bad. It just is and already seems to have vanished into obscurity $150 million at the box office later.
Given the blown-out bright sunlight and endless dirty ghettos of the Cape Town, Safe House does in fact kick ass in HD. The constant shakey cam may impede the visuals at times, but when you can actually tell what you’re looking at, the results are fantastic. The special features are pretty slim, focused primarily on the big action set pieces which for the most part were actually done with real live people (they still do that in movies?) so it’s not just a series of talking heads sitting by computer screens. Other than the top tier technical presentation, it’s a thoroughly average release for a thoroughly average movie. Ah well, at least that’s consistent. (Phil Brown)
Act of Valor (2012, Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh) – With its use of active duty U.S. Navy Seals instead of actors and its allegedly true to life trappings, it would be far too easy to call Act of Valor out on the carpet for wearing its political leanings on its sleeve. It’s pretty bad, but it never fully becomes a self-serious version of Team America and it just barely eschews becoming Call of Duty: The Movie. It’s earnest, poorly staged jingoism would be more easily overlooked had the film been made by people who actually have a clue how to direct a movie.
The film tells the story of Seal Team 7, an elite U.S. fighting squad designed to take on the military assignments that require complete stealth and carry an intensely high degree of difficult. Instead of telling the story of all 8 members of the team, directors Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh (also known as the Bandito Brothers) focus mostly on an expectant father and his best friend. (Being as all main cast members are still active duty soldiers, none are given screen credit.) The team first gets brought in to rescue a CIA informant that has been kidnapped in Costa Rica by Chechen Muslim extremists, but they soon learn that once the informant is safe, their globe trotting mission is just beginning as they uncover a plot to bring Muslim Filipino suicide bombers to several major American cities.
The soldiers chosen for roles in the film are almost uniformly terrible in sequences where they have to emote and pretend that they are playing fictional characters. 1950s filmstrips have more eloquently spoken messages than the hamfisted and botched narration that mars the beginning and end of the film. The best performance is given by the leader of the squad, a master interrogator who honestly seems like the military version of Parks and Recreation‘s Ron Swanson. However, once the “actors” are in their natural habitat and performing missions, the film finally settles into a groove where it at least sounds like a story about men on a mission.
It’s just a shame that McCoy and Waugh aren’t very good directors. There are some battle sequences where I was glad there was some small amount of dialog because I had absolutely no idea what was going on. The pace of the action sequences for the first hour or so of the film isn’t so much frantic as it is nonsensical. Furthermore, stabs at equating war to video gaming with some egregious “first person shooter” sequences look almost as bad as the climactic sequence in Doom. Furthermore, using this unnecessary technique in a film that prides itself on realism feels like a genuine slap in the face to soldiers who do this kind of thing on a daily basis. The film rights the ship slightly during the exciting and energetic climactic siege on a Mexican drug compound, but by then it’s too little, too late. (Andrew Parker)
Man on a Ledge (2012, Asger Leth) – One has to be extremely careful in not overselling Man on a Ledge. While it isn’t exactly a “great” or a “good” movie, it’s the kind of film that harkens back to the grindhouse potboilers of the mid to late 70s; movies like Search and Destroy and The Glove, only this time with a modern sheen and a better cast of actors who are up for pretty much anything. Ostensibly a cross between Inside Man and The Negotiator with a healthy dose of Michael Bay style ridiculousness, Man on a Ledge might be the most fun to be had in cinemas this January. It’s an unabashed crowd pleaser that really doesn’t care that it doesn’t make an iota of logical sense.
Following a brazen escape from police custody at his father’s funeral, former New York City police officer Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington) holes himself up in a room at the famed Roosevelt Hotel, climbs out on a ledge and threatens to jump. He asks specifically for a disgraced, often hungover rookie negotiator (Elizabeth Banks) to talk him down, but the threat of his suicide is all a ruse designed to distract authorities from a heist going on across the street designed to help clear his name and prove him innocent of the diamond theft that landed him in Sing Sing in the first place.
While Cassidy plays to the crowd below and annoys the police (including site leader Ed Burns), across the street at the offices of ruthless real estate tycoon David Englander (Ed Harris), Nick’s brother (Jamie Bell) and his future sister-in-law (Genesis Rodriguez) are attempting to steal the $20 million dollar diamond that will prove Englander framed Nick. Oh, and while all THIS is happening there’s a reporter (Kyra Sedgwick) turning the scene into a media circus AND Nick’s former partner (Anthony Mackie) is trying to get to the bottom of things away from the site.
While it sounds like there’s an overabundance of plot going on in director Asger Leth’s first fictional feature, the film itself would beg to differ otherwise. It’s all a springboard for launching some incredibly implausible, but wholly elaborate set pieces that feel like nostalgic homages to action films of the past rather than wholesale replications of them. There’s the scene where a car has to outrun a train, a scene where someone has to cut the red wire, the scene where security cameras need to be taken out. These are all standard genre conventions, but Leth and writer Pablo F. Fenjves actually come up with some inventive twists that make the ridiculous subject matter all the more fun to watch.
The cast seems in on the fun for the most part, especially Harris who gets to devour anything and everything in his path and has one of the best character introductions and sendoffs in recent memory. Banks and Burns make for great foils to each other and they almost deserve a movie of their own. Everyone else seems to be having a blast, except for Worthington, who takes this material a bit more seriously than it needs to be. When everything around the main character is more fun to watch than the guy on the ledge is, that’s a bit of a problem. Still, the film gives the audience exactly what they want from a movie of this calibre, with the most gleefully ludicrous closing fifteen minutes of a movie all year. (Andrew Parker)
Gone (2012, Heitor Dhalia) – Equally ridiculous and almost as much cheesy fun as Man on a Ledge was this deeply flawed but strangely entertaining Amanda Seyfried starring suspense thriller that benefits greatly from not taking itself too seriously and from a great cast who seem to understand the tone wonderfully. The script has some clever touches, but the plot is as dumb as a box of hammers, which makes it great for passable viewing at home.
Following an abduction and subsequent escape one year earlier, Jill (Seyfried) still suffers from post traumatic stress. She’s become a pill popping, compulsively lying, hyper-sensitive mess living in the care of her sister (Emily Wickersham). When her sibling mysteriously disappears the morning of an important economics exam, Jill automatically begins to suspect the worst and sets out to get help. Her biggest obstacle, however, is that the police don’t believe her story and they never believed her own abduction was real since there was never any evidence or any suspects found. Jill knows the abductor still lurks out there and she begins to take the law into her own hands.
Seyfried has one of her finest performances to date here, as some who has learned to adapt to any given situation through a heightened fight or flight response. If Liam Neeson in Taken was heavily medicated and his skill set was being able to talk his way out of any situation, you would get the tone that the filmmakers and the actress are going for.
The supporting cast is mostly made up of familiar faces playing eccentric weirdos (Joel David Moore as a locksmith, Nick Searcy as a cantankerous neighbour) idiotic cops (a winning trio of Daniel Sunjata as the angry doubter, Wes Bentley as the creepy idealist rookie, Katherine Moennig as the one who has great hair and always looks pissed, and Michael Pare as their boss), and Jennifer Carpenter as a co-worker who cautiously believes Jill’s story, but still wants no real part in helping her.
Gone boasts some extremely well staged set pieces and gorgeous cinematography that manages to make Portland, Oregon look somewhat menacing. Dhalia isn’t reinventing any genres here, but his technical proficiency means the movie moves at a decent enough pace that the script’s glaring plot holes and lapses in logic are almost charming. The film certainly never gets boring for a second, but since the film is so good at building tension and having fun with the audience (including the most blatant “cat jumping out of a door” scare that it’s obviously played for laughs) that it makes the film’s eventual collapse (which stinks somewhat of potential test audience tinkering) all the more frustrating. (Andrew Parker)
Also out this week: Journey 2. Also, The Collapsed, and Machine Gun Preacher, both of which arrived after deadline and will be included in next week’s column.