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John Carter (2012)

Note: This review is a short version of a more detailed look conducted in a post on my companion site, ChadTalksMovies, titled “My Adventures on Barsoom.” Check it out!
John Carter

Directed by Andrew Stanton (of Pixar fame) and released by Disney, I became quite excited to see this film upon seeing the trailers, but I faltered when it was received poorly by critics and didn’t do well at the box office. Recently, however, I read Michael D. Sellers’ book John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood (my review), which talks about why the film failed the way it did, getting me re-interested in John Carter and leading me to read author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original book, A Princess of Mars (my review). All the while, I became more and more excited to see the film despite its negative reception – I wanted to see this world come to life! –  and, now that I’ve seen it…what’s wrong with everyone? What is there to dislike about this film?

Here is Disney’s official plot synopsis:

The film tells the story of war-weary, former military captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who is inexplicably transported to Mars where he becomes reluctantly embroiled in a conflict of epic proportions amongst the inhabitants of the planet, including Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and the captivating Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).

In a world on the brink of collapse, Carter rediscovers his humanity when he realizes that the survival of Barsoom and its people rests in his hands.

For the first half hour or so of the film, I was pretty skeptical. A confusing, not-from-the-book opening scene raises many questions right off the bat, and the first few minutes of the actual film are not much better. I began writing out a mental list of complaints, but I shoved that aside the farther I got into the film. Does it have its problems? Well, yeah, but every movie does. Does it deserve all of the negativity that it has received? Not by any stretch of the imagination.

Stanton takes plenty of liberties with Burroughs’ world and characters, but, looking back, I understand the reasoning behind every single one of them. While the John Carter of A Princess of Mars is a good guy just because he is a good guy and there’s no questioning it (it works great in the book), the John Carter of the film has issues; he’s stubborn, he’s selfish, and even disrespectful at times. However, all of this builds and builds to give Carter the opportunity to be the good guy, bringing a character arc that is needed for film. It is a pleasure to watch Taylor Kitsch as John Carter of Earth discover the part of him that is actually John Carter of Mars, willing to fight and die for the good beings of Barsoom. The Dejah Thoris of the book is not a warrior, nor is she a scientist, but she is both in the film, giving her a more active role in the story and letting her be more than just the romantic damsel in distress (which, again, worked really well in the book). Lynn Collins plays the character with an appropriate amount of spirit and energy, capturing both the romantic side of the character that would be required of a Princess of Mars, but she also brings the new feisty side of the character necessitated by the script. The addition of the mysterious Therns to the film is a bit confusing at first, and certain story elements and characters are removed, but all of it comes out okay, working for the film’s good.

The scope of the film is just as large as that of the book, with the choice of filming in real locations rather than using a green screen being something that I think humanizes it a bit, making it more accessible to the viewers. Sure, the original story is meant to be “out there,” but it’s more the characters who inhabit the world and how they interact with each other that create the scope of the story, not the world itself. That being said, the visuals in the film are fantastic, from the look of the Tharks to the design of the airships to the wide expanses of desert mountains. Composer Michael Giacchino’s score to the film is appropriately reminiscent of John Williams’ original score to Star Wars without being a copy, and you can even hear a bit of his score to Star Trek (my review) every now and again, though I’m not holding that against him by any means. Giacchino keeps a perfect balance between bringing out the largeness and epicness of the adventure and capturing the intimate moments between characters, and his main theme is one of my favorites by him.

There are certainly aspects from the book that I think would have worked well for the film, namely the story being told from Carter’s perspective or the more episodic style of storytelling, but the absence of these elements didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the film. In fact, the absence of these and other characters or story elements seen in the book helped to set the film apart as its own entity to be enjoyed. The important thing about this film is that it captures the heart of the source material without photocopying it from page to screen, and it does it in a way that is incredibly fun; the last half of the film, especially the few minutes just before the credits roll, are definitely my favorites. I should also mention that I liked Kitsch and Collins in the lead roles, but I also really liked Tars Tarkas as played by Willem Dafoe; he plays the character with a resolve that fits a character of his authority, but the compassionate side of the character also rings through, making him one of the best characters of the film. John Carter is not a perfect piece of cinema, but it’s good, old-fashioned storytelling at its best, with plenty of good humor, great action scenes, incredible special effects, and likable characters…and it’s certainly not deserving of all the negative criticism heaped upon it. If you haven’t seen it, give it a chance! I beg you!

-Chad

Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for intense sequences of violence and action

P.S. – Read my review of this film’s score, composed by Michael Giacchino, here!


John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood (2012) – Michael D. Sellers

Note: This review is a short version of a more detailed look conducted in a post on my companion site, ChadTalksMovies, titled “My Adventures on Barsoom.” Check it out!

John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood

This book was offered as a free Kindle download several months ago on Amazon.com. When a friend of mine shared the link with me, I thought it sounded interesting, so I downloaded it and let it sit on my Kindle for quite a while before I finally picked it up a couple of weeks ago…and found it incredibly interesting.

John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood goes into the details of the history and struggle of Disney’s John Carter film (my review), based on the 1912 Edgar Rice Burroughs classic, A Princess of Mars (my review), and why it failed the way it did at the box office. We learn about how the author initially came to create John Carter and how the first story became an 11-book series that inspired the likes of Ray Bradbury, Joe Shuster/Jerry Siegel, George Lucas, and James Cameron, among others. The author also tells us of Burroughs’ early efforts to get the books adapted for film which all failed.

I wasn’t terribly interested until Sellers got to the main topic, the Disney film, where he reveals all of the issues faced by the film in terms of creative control, marketing, and company interests, and other problems that all came together in a perfect storm, resulting in the bomb it ended up being for Disney. I wasn’t able to put the book down, reading several chapters every time I sat down with it. The amount of research done by Sellers, his obvious passion for the original Edgar Rice Burroughs stories, and his involvement with the film’s marketing and desire for it to do well is obvious, drawing me into the book even more.

I had just a couple of issues with Sellers’ writing, the first being the number of mistakes present in the Kindle edition of the book. These mistakes range from extra commas to improper formatting to word omissions to spelling errors and are actually quite numerous, but I am not sure if they are present in the paperback edition of the book as well. The other issue is with the overuse of rhetorical questions and leading questions. Oftentimes, these questions were questions that I was already thinking or otherwise did not need to be asked, so they were occasionally pretty obnoxious.

However, these problems were quickly forgotten the deeper I got into the book and the world of John Carter. Before I was even halfway through this book, I was looking forward to reading Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars and subsequently watching the film. Sellers’ research is thorough, and, in addition to telling the story of the film, he provides an interesting behind-the-scenes look into the world of film-making that is also fascinating. If you are at all interested in John Carter or even just in filmmaking, this book should interest you.

Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)

-Chad


Oblivion (2013)

Joseph Kosinski’s first directorial effort was 2010’s TRON: Legacy, a film that, despite how much I enjoyed it, was only decent. His second directorial effort, as well as his first to write and produce, is Oblivion, which, due to my enjoyment of TRON: Legacy, I was actually looking forward to quite a bit, especially since I have been enlightened to the acting talent of Tom Cruise in the last year. I listened to the soundtrack for the film by M83 and Joseph Trapanese for a full week and a half in anticipation. I must admit that I still only expected this to be a decent film, but, thankfully, this was a rare instance in which my expectations were exceeded.

Oblivion tells the story of Jack Harper (Cruise) and his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) as they live on a post-apocalyptic Earth. We are told that aliens invaded sixty years prior to the events of the film, but the humans won in nuclear war, leaving the Earth ravaged and forcing the humans to evacuate to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. Jack is a repair technician who repairs drones that protect hydrorigs, which are sucking up Earth’s water to transport to Saturn, acting on orders rather than memory; he was forced to have his mind wiped fifteen years previously, though he still has vague recollections of a past that he doesn’t remember. He collects books that he finds and imagines what the world was like before all of this, but his partner is content to follow orders – two more weeks until the two of them get to join the rest of the human population on Titan. But when a space module crash lands and Jack pulls a survivor (Olga Kurylenko) from the wreckage before the “scavs” (remaining aliens from the war who sabotage the drones and hydrorigs) can get to her, he asks more questions than ever, throwing his and Victoria’s world into even further disarray.

Sound complicated? It is, a bit, but I never found the film’s complexities to be a burden. In fact, I sat on the edge of my seat the whole time, eagerly asking myself, “What’s going to happen next? How are they going to resolve this? Why did that just happen? What does this mean?” Cruise is the obvious highlight of this film, bringing his usual talent for action along with appropriate drama and a refreshing humanity that we don’t always see from him. Andrea Riseborough as Victoria, Harper’s partner and lover, gives a powerfully emotional performance as the sort of voice of reason, the one who is only interested in doing what she’s told rather than asking questions. Morgan Freeman’s brief but incredibly important role as Malcolm Beech, leader of an underground resistance, plays into Freeman’s typical “father figure” sort of role, but it doesn’t feel canned, and Olga Kurylenko as Julia, the survivor from the space module, gives a decent performance as well.

The story is somewhat reminiscent of Pixar’s Wall•E, though I won’t explain all the similarities here lest I spoil the film for you. The themes of asking questions/searching for answers and thirsting for knowledge vs. the fear of knowledge are powerful and well-represented here, with symbolism running rampant. For example, Jack Harper has a secret cabin on a plot of green earth near a pond that he found; this is where he stores the books that he finds, from medical dictionaries to Horatius to A Tale of Two Cities. This area is the obvious representation of the previously mentioned thirst for knowledge. There is also one moment where Harper presents Victoria with a can containing a flower that he has cared for, but she promptly tosses it out the window, citing regulation and contamination (there’s an obvious Wall•E parallel), which is representative of her fear of knowledge.

Ever since I walked out of the theater, I’ve been debating what rating to give this film. I knew it was at least a 4/5, though I thought it could easily be a 4.5 as well. I wanted to give it 5/5, though I know it’s certainly not a perfect movie. However, given my enjoyment of it, I think that a 5 is a perfectly reasonable rating; it’s got a smart script, a capable and talented cast, an appropriate score by M83 (assisted by Joseph Trapanese), and it asks questions that we can all learn from. Despite its flaws, Oblivion is a fantastic film, proving that 1) Cruise is not only a wonderful action star but also a capable dramatic actor and that 2) Kosinksi has a lot of future potential as a great film director.

-Chad

Rating: 5 (out of 5)

MPAA: PG-13 – for sci-fi action violence, brief strong language, and some sensuality/nudity

P.S. – Read my review of this film’s score, composed by M83, here!


Skyfall (2012) – Thomas Newman

Thomas Newman is a composer who I’m fairly familiar with; I own his soundtracks for Finding NemoWall-ELemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, and The Help, all of which are pretty good. BUT they are all quite outside the action genre, so you can imagine my surprise when I learned that Newman was composing the score to the newest James Bond film. I must admit, I was a bit unimpressed during my first listen, but over time, especially after seeing the film, I’ve grown to really enjoy it and was happy to see it nominated for Best Original Score at the 85th Academy Awards.

The very first track, “Grand Bazaar, Istanbul,” opens with the familiar trumpet notes heard in David Arnold’s arrangement of Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme” from Casino Royale (2007), called “The Name’s Bond…James Bond.” This transitions into a sort of groove that takes us completely through the opening chase sequence through the bazaar and on top of the train. It perfectly captures the excitement and anxiety of the moment, pushing forward with brass and an energetic percussion beat. There are a lot of these action-packed tracks that match the action-packed film, including tracks such as “Granborough Road,” which uses mainly strings to drive the music forward and closes with a soft rendition of the “James Bond Theme” on guitar, and “Welcome to Scotland,” which relies again on brass and percussion. A wonderful moment in the soundtrack is heard in “Breadcrumbs” when we’re treated to a more complete rendition of the main theme, typical of the James Bond films of old.

The score is not without its light moments though, which is appropriate since this is one of the more thoughtful and contemplative of the film series. “Day Wasted” features a shimmery sort of electric background before the strings come in with gentle interruptions that hint at the main theme. A later track, “Mother,” which almost sounds like it has a couple of featured voices, though it may just be an instrument that emulates the voice. Halfway through the track, warm brass sounds join the mix, helping to emphasize that Bond is home again and is being faced with his past. Other more gentle tracks include “Enjoying Death” and “Close Shave.”

Newman has done a fine job with the music to Skyfall after taking over from David Arnold, who had composed the scores to five previous Bond films. My one disappointment is that, aside from the main theme, the bits of Adele’s “Skyfall,” and a couple of instances of repeated musical ideas, there isn’t another unifying theme heard throughout the soundtrack. I had the same complaint in my review of James Newton Howard’s score for The Bourne Legacy, which lacked the unifying theme heard in John Powell’s scores to the original Bourne trilogy. Despite that disappointment, the score to Skyfall is an excellent action film score, which you don’t often get.

I would be remiss to not say a couple of things about Adele’s “Skyfall,” the title song for the film, though it was not composed by Newman (bits of it can be heard in the soundtrack tracks “Skyfall” and “Komodo Dragon”). It’s probably my favorite Bond title song (that I’ve heard), and I’m certain that it will win Best Original Song at the 85th Academy Awards.

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

1. “Grand Bazaar, Istanbul” 5:14
2. “Voluntary Retirement” 2:22
3. “New Digs” 2:32
4. “Sévérine” 1:20
5. “Brave New World” 1:50
6. “Shanghai Drive” 1:26
7. “Jellyfish” 3:22
8. “Silhouette” 0:56
9. “Modigliani” 1:04
10. “Day Wasted” 1:31
11. “Quartermaster” 4:48
12. “Someone Usually Dies” 2:29
13. “Komodo Dragon” 3:20
14. “The Bloody Shot” 4:46
15. “Enjoying Death” 1:13
16. “The Chimera” 1:58
17. “Close Shave” 1:32
18. “Health & Safety” 1:29
19. “Granborough Road” 2:32
20. “Tennyson” 2:14
21. “Enquiry” 2:49
22. “Breadcrumbs” 2:02
23. “Skyfall” 2:32
24. “Kill Them First” 2:22
25. “Welcome to Scotland” 3:21
26. “She’s Mine” 3:53
27. “The Moors” 2:39
28. “Deep Water” 5:11
29. “Mother” 1:48
30. “Adrenaline” 2:18
31. “Old Dog, New Tricks” 1:48

Total Length: app. 80 min.

iTunes Album Link

-Chad

P.S. – Read my review of this film here!


Finding Nemo (2003)

As a child, Finding Nemo wasn’t a film that I caught in theaters. In fact, I didn’t see it at all until a few years after it had been released. Though not my favorite Pixar film, it’s certainly an enjoyable one, enough to convince me to go catch it in theaters when it was re-released in 3D back in September of 2012. I’m a firm believer in the idea that films were made to be seen on the big screen, so I always try to go to theater re-releases of films I enjoy, even though 3D is sometimes less than okay. However, Finding Nemo 3D was a great theater experience that also translated well to the recent 3D Blu-Ray release.

In case you’ve been living in a hole in the ground for the past ten years, Finding Nemo is about a single father, Marlin (Albert Brooks), whose son is kidnapped by a diver and taken to Sydney, Australia. In order to find his son, Nemo, he traverses the entire ocean, meeting along the way a forgetful fish named Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a friendly shark named Bruce (Barry Humphries), a gnarly sea turtle named Crush (Andrew Stanton), and a pelican named Nigel (Geoffrey Rush). All the while, Nemo (Alexander Gould) and his new tank friends, lead by Gill (Willem Dafoe), must devise a plan to help them escape from the dentist office where they are being kept before the dentist’s careless niece can get her hands on the young clownfish.

The people at Pixar have always astounded me with their ability to pack so much humanity into their often inhuman characters, i.e. the toys of Toy Story, the bugs of A Bug’s Life, and, later, the robots of Wall-E. In Finding Nemo, we have FISH…just about as inhuman as you can get, as far as living organisms go. But that doesn’t stop us from sympathizing with Marlin as he struggles to find his lost son or rooting for Nemo as he succeeds in overcoming his fears faced in the fish tank at the dentist office or shedding a tear when Marlin has given up hope and says goodbye to Dory. These characters are just as endearing as any human character out there, if not more. They teach us to trust each other, especially those we love, that it’s okay to let go sometimes, and that we can and should learn from our mistakes.

In addition to the fantastic characters, this film is also visually stunning. The physics of the ocean and its inhabitants feel very authentic – even the physical movement of the fish – despite the fact that everything is animated. The 3D is also well-done (one of the best films I’ve ever seen in 3D), with it fully absorbing you into the atmosphere of the film. The 3D home release is even better than it was in the theater; on a high-definition 3D TV, everything is crystal clear and fully immersive.

Pixar has a track record unmatched by any other film company. Though perfection is impossible, I would say that Pixar has several “perfect” films, and Finding Nemo is one of them. The characters are three-dimensional (in a character growth sort of way, I mean), the story is touching, and the score by Thomas Newman is one of the best of all of the Pixar films. With humor appropriate for both children and adults and several important life lessons to be learned, there is much to be missed if you’ve managed to never see this film – and I’d even recommend the 3D version, if you don’t mind the glasses.

-Chad

Rating: 5 (out of 5)

MPAA: G