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Entries in Mark Strong (4)

Friday
Mar092012

John Carter

Money doesn’t make a movie. A big budget film can still be hackneyed and derivative (see Avatar for that) and a movie with a low budget can be wonderfully imaginative with richly drawn characters and thought provoking subject matter (like Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, which was made on a budget of well under one million dollars). This week’s John Carter, with its purported budget of around $250 million, is a clear example of the former. No amount of money could save its abysmal script, uninteresting and hopelessly convoluted story, bad acting and generic action. If early predictions are correct, John Carter could end up being one of the biggest flops of the year, perhaps of all time. Based on what I’ve seen, such failure wouldn’t only be justified. It would be worth cheering over.

The story revolves around the titular John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) a Civil War veteran who one day stumbles upon a fabled cave. There he finds a medallion which transports him to Mars. Upon arriving, he is greeted by a species of tall green creatures led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), who is initially interested in John’s ability to jump vast distances (due to the different gravitational pull of the planet), but soon finds his rebellion untrustworthy. John becomes their prisoner, but soon a war breaks out between the planet’s different factions and he is called upon by Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) to help stop Matai Shang (Mark Strong), the leader of a race called the Therns, who, I don’t know, control the planet’s destiny or something.

As with most movies that are too complicated for their own good, it’s not difficult to get the gist of what is happening in John Carter—an ordinary man is placed in an extraordinary situation and must help defend Mars’ inhabitants from an approaching evil—but specifics are difficult to decipher. Much of this is due to the fact that it’s far too hard to even distinguish between characters, much less figure out their motivations. The aforementioned tall green species, for example, all have four arms, tusks growing out of their heads and nearly identical skin tones. I’m sure you could spot tiny differences from alien to alien, but the baffling story will most likely keep you from caring enough to do so.

Such a lack of imagination permeates not just in those creatures’ design, but through the entire film. Although Mars is indeed nothing more than surface rocks in the real world, such bleak, dreary visuals are unbecoming for a science fiction film. When Carter first arrives, his surrounding environment looks more like a Western than anything else, only without trees and with a redder hue. There are aliens other than those generic green people on the planet too, but they’re nothing more than humans with tattoos on their faces and silly costumes that look like they were made out of plastic. In a sci-fi world set on Mars, there needs to be more. It’s too simple to make half of the creatures human and the other half humanlike, only with two more arms and green skin.

Such blandness begs the question: where did that $250 million go? The effects are good, though not always effective, and most of the actors aren’t recognized enough to demand too high of paychecks. It shows too. Taylor Kitsch doesn’t have the chops to carry a big action film such as this and he annoyingly speaks in a whispered monotone, similar to Jack Bauer in TV’s 24, which South Park so brilliantly lampooned in Season 11’s “The Snuke.” His love interest, played by Collins, is similarly poor. If you look through her filmography, you’ll see that she’s been in well known films like Bug, The Number 23 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but chances are you won’t remember her in any of them. Something tells me there’s a reason for that.

Twenty minutes into John Carter, I was ready for it to end, but then it went on for another two hours. That’s a long time to sit through a movie with almost nothing going for it, including its shoddily up-converted 3D effects that remind us, even after Scorsese utilized the format so beautifully in Hugo, that it’s little more than a cash grabbing gimmick and rarely useful in the telling of a story. Simply put, John Carter lacks the vitality of the science fiction genres most beloved films. It’s a waste of time of money.

John Carter receives 1/5

Friday
Dec162011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

One of the things we critics like to do—nay, must do—is watch movies from a different perspective. Sure, in the end, it really boils down to whether or not we were entertained by a movie, but it’s not as simple as saying one is good or bad. We have to explain why it’s good or bad. We have to look at things a normal moviegoer wouldn’t, like shot composition, art direction and cinematography. When we watch a performance, we have to explain what makes it so great or why that actor should be in some other line of work. We have to give points to a movie that is well made, even if it bores us to tears. That’s why, in the end, I’ll be recommending Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but I never, until the day I die, want to see it again.

When the film begins, British Intelligence agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) is on his way to Hungary to gather vital information from a Hungarian general, but things go wrong and he is shot and captured by the Soviets. Back home, after the attention from the incident escalates, George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is forced into retirement. However, there is suspicion of a mole in British Intelligence who is leaking secret documents to the reds, so the head of intelligence, Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney), decides to pull Smiley out of retirement and tasks him with finding the traitor.

Credit much (no, all) of that plot synopsis to Wikipedia because Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is one confusing movie. Little is outright explained in it and unless you’re familiar with certain British secret service terminology (it took me close to an hour to realize that when they talked about “The Circus” they were referring to themselves), you’re likely to get lost. From its opening frame to its closing moments, the film boggles the mind, which is both good and bad. In a way, it’s great to see a movie that refuses to dumb down its material, but at the same time, it’s far too convoluted for its own good. It’s one of those movies that probably makes perfect sense if you’re paying close attention, but it’s so slow and drags for so many long stretches that such attentiveness is impossible. Those who have never had a problem focusing on something may begin to come down with a temporary ailment of ADD.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a tale of espionage and government control that is inherently interesting, but it’s handled in a slow, uninteresting manner, similar to something like The Lives of Others, another movie that was artistically well made, but needed to pick up the pace a bit (but at least it wasn’t confusing). Still, one can’t deny the skill that went into this film’s production. It’s shot and directed extremely well and the acting is affecting, though I’m not quite sure it’s awards worthy as many are suggesting. If walking around silently and never smiling makes an Oscar worthy performance (which is precisely what Gary Oldman does for two hours straight), then grumpy uncles and grandparents the world over should take up acting.

The best performance in the film comes from Tom Hardy, who dazzled in last year’s Inception and one of this year’s best, Warrior. Once again, he is proving himself to be more than worthy of attention. With that said, despite a plethora of performances that range from good to great, there’s a disconnect between the characters and audience. No reason to care about what is happening is ever given. The connate mystery of such a story is certainly intriguing, but it’s not enough to make the audience feel anything. I may not have always understood what the characters were saying, but more importantly, I didn’t care. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy just isn’t appealing in any way other than the appreciation it will surely garner from film buffs. I’m one of those film buffs so I recognize its strengths, but even the thought of watching it again makes my eyelids heavy.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy receives 2.5/5

Friday
May142010

Robin Hood

Robin Hood is a noble character. With his motto of “steal from the rich and give to the poor,” it’s hard not to like the old chap. Or so I’m told. I wouldn’t know personally because, well, I don't really like the old chap. Despite literally dozens (perhaps hundreds) of Robin Hood adaptations in film, television and literature, I’ve never become accustomed with the green-tighted fellow because his antics always bored me. Not much has changed with the 2010 Robin Hood.

Like how last year’s Sherlock Holmes brought the titular character to modern times, Robin Hood modernizes our hero and introduces him to a new generation. Gone are the green tights and feathered caps. Gone is the neatly groomed facial hair. This Robin Hood is rugged, always sporting a rough beard, and wouldn’t be caught dead in sissy green tights. However, also gone is the traditional story of the character. Following suit with most Hollywood films these days, Robin Hood is an origin story of sorts, so he hasn’t quite begun to help the poor through thievery.

This time he is played by Russell Crowe and is in the midst of the Crusades in England in the late 12th century. On his way back from battle, he finds a dying man clutching a precious sword who was on trek to Nottingham to inform the people that their king had died in battle. Robin, being the righteous man he is, takes over the duties and after delivering the information, the new king John (Oscar Issac) is crowned. Power changes, but unrest continues under John. In light of this, France, led by a treasonous Brit named Godfrey (Mark Strong), sees an opportunity to invade and as they plan their descent on the English, Robin Hood and his Merry Men begin to unify the people and plan a defense.

Boring and cliché are two adjectives one would hope not to use when describing a film as promising as Robin Hood, but no other words will do. We’ve seen this basic story arc before—a man fights for his wavering country—right down to the freedom speech with swelling music in the background and it's told in a manner that makes the eyelids heavy, full of dense exposition and forced romances that weigh the entire thing down.

But more goes into movies than the story and it, as important as it may be, does not reflect the rest of the film. Sure, the story may be hogwash, but the presentation is terrific. Russell Crowe gives another great performance as per usual and watching Ridley Scott, a highly esteemed director, tackle such a formidable tale is interesting. Though he stumbles here and there, his direction is quite dashing overall.

Perhaps most remarkable are the extravagant costumes and sets. If ever I found myself drifting away from the lackluster narrative, I could always find eye candy in what was presented before me. Like many period pieces, Robin Hood nails its time period dead on and it is a sight to behold.

However, the saving grace of the film is the action. These battles are epic and watching thousands of men bum-rush each other is fun to watch, even if it does feel a little too familiar. The aforementioned boredom that besets the film comes not from these moments, but rather from the downtime in between.

Robin Hood is not a film that I feel I can firmly define. I’ve struggled as I’ve typed away here because it is neither terrible, nor great. It rests somewhere in the middle and as I watched it, I never truly found myself leaning one way or the other. I was merely in a state of neutrality. Upon reflection, however, I feel the good outweighs the bad and it’s worth a look, as faint a praise as that may be.

Robin Hood receives 3/5

Friday
Apr162010

Kick Ass

Here we are. The movie that will have comic book lovers the world over joining in a collective nerdgasm. Kick Ass, the popular novel from the mind behind Wanted, is hitting the big screen and the geeks of the world are more eager to see it than a sex tape between Jessica Biel and Jessica Alba. I'm one of those geeks. After reading the comics it is based on (which a friend so graciously lent to me), I was hyped for the movie. The comic was amazing; well written, well drawn, violent, hilarious and fun. It was everything I wanted a comic book called Kick Ass to be. The movie, while still a rollicking good time, lacks the wit and style of its source material.

The movie follows Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), a mild mannered high school outcast. He and his friends, played by Clark Duke and Evan Peters, are comic book nerds. Like many similar to them, they dream of fighting crime in extravagant outfits, leaping from rooftop to rooftop in pursuit of an evildoer, standing up for justice and integrity in a world spiraling to hell. The difference is that Dave takes that to heart. He's sick of being a nobody. He's an outcast, a guy who can't get a girlfriend to save his life, much less his crush Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca), so he decides to strap on a scuba suit he buys online and attempt to make his city a better place through his new persona, Kick Ass. But this is the real world, not a comic book, and he soon finds himself lying in the middle of the road beaten, bloody and bruised with a knife wound to the stomach. After his recovery, and despite his better judgment, he returns to the streets where he meets Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), a father/daughter superhero team who have been working their ranks through the local mafia, eliminating them all in the hopes of eventually getting to the head honcho, Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong). In fear of these superheroes, Frank enlists the help of his son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a fellow comic book nerd, to disguise himself as a new hero, Red Mist, and lure the trio into a trap where he can finish them off once and for all.

I'm no comic book connoisseur, I admit. I couldn't tell you why one works and another one doesn't. I'm not aware of the inner workings that go into the construction of one of these tales. All I can tell you is how I perceive it and I loved the Kick Ass comic book. I couldn't put it down. I loved the gruesome violence, the spot on humor and the interesting narrative. I hoped for the movie to excite me in the same ways and it did, but not as consistently.

For what I assume are practical purposes, the violence isn't nearly as abundant, the humor is hit and miss and the interesting narrative from the comic is changed enough that it didn't hold the same appeal. I found more emotional connection between drawings on a page than I did the live action film.

Although some of the humor is forced, it can be funny, but that's why I didn't care. It doesn't do a good job of balancing its comedy with its more dramatic moments and when a major character bit the dust, I could only stare blankly at the screen wondering if I was supposed feel something. Consider the fact that jokes aren't only thrown in before and after this scene, but during it and you start to wonder why the filmmakers tried to create any drama at all.

Besides, it's called Kick Ass. Just as nobody watched Zombie Strippers for the choreography, nobody will watch Kick Ass for the drama. Luckily, the action scenes are top notch. They're wild, crazy, over the top and damn fun. Though toned down from the comic, this things gets bloody and watching an 11 year old girl do most of the killing makes things even crazier.

At times, the film gives off a Scream type of vibe by parodying the genre it is portraying. But whereas Scream was steady in its self-spoof, Kick Ass fluctuates. It's amusingly self-deprecating at first, but then drops that angle only to pick it up again later, and so on. It's smart at times, but it's not consistent and you'll quickly see how jumbled it can be.

But you know what? This is still a great time at the movies. Nicolas Cage gives his best performance in years and had me laughing all the way down to my toes, Chloe Moretz is brilliant as the adorable little girl that can put a bullet through your head before you even realize she's packing and its excessive nature is a welcome treat in a cinema world that is getting increasingly picked on by past generation curmudgeons who are intent on finding something they can complain about. Kick Ass looks at those people and flips them the bird, welcoming their hatred.

I like that.

Kick Ass receives 3.5/5