Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Hungry for More of The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games...but not as you know it.

Okay, so The Hunger Games was very, very good indeed.

For those who don’t know, The Hunger Games is based on the first of a trilogy of highly successful young adult novels by Suzanne Collins and is set in a distant future where after a terrible war in North America a new nation called Panem now exists. Panem’s rich and decadent Capitol rules over 12 impoverished districts who every year are made to send one male and one female child to compete in an epic televised fight to the death: the titular Hunger Games. In the grim and grey District 12 sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take the place of her terrified little sister, joining Baker’s son Peeta as the District’s two contestants in the year's upcoming games. We then follow gifted hunter Katniss as she negotiates the bewildering (to her) decadence of the Capitol while also training for the games, appearing on live TV chat shows, trying to entice sponsors, before finally getting dropped in to the midst of the brutal and barbaric games themselves.

The Hunger Games has been talked about as the next Twilight/Harry Potter - the next huge YA book-to-movie series. But to my mind this is as far removed from Harry Potter and what little I've seen of the shallow and shoddy Twilight as you can get. For a start, it is sci fi and not magical/fantasy/supernatural shenanigans. Plus it's unashamedly old fashioned in the way it has been made, being non flashy, steadily paced and made with an indie/1970's feel that emphasis strong storytelling, strong relatable characters, inventive editing and plenty of smarts and depth. It has ideas, themes, questions to ask, points to make. It wants its audience to think. In short, The Hunger Games is actually about something.

But The Hunger Games’ greatest weapon is its star.

As Katniss, the movie and book’s young heroine, Jennifer Lawrence is fantastic. Jennifer was fab in X-Men: First Class as young Raven and was stunning in Winter's Bone (for which she was deservedly Oscar nominated). In fact, a lot of her work in THG is very similar to that of Winter's Bone. The entire first act of THG could almost be Winter's Bone 2 – a rural, poverty stricken and grim setting; a tough but sensitive teenage girl saddled with a useless parent and who has to effectively bring up her younger sibling and provide for her family under miserably harsh conditions. Even the score is similar being all low key and folksy. But when Katniss and her co-competitor, Peeta, get to the Capitol, this all changes. Things become rather flashy, gaudy and overblown in order to contrast the under-the-heel poverty of the outlying Districts with the decadence and shallowness of the Capitol, a place so ghastly that for entertainment it makes twenty four kids fight to the death each and every year.

At 2hrs 20mins The Hunger Games is a lengthy film. The pacing is slow and steady. But what it is showing us, what it is doing is always utterly engrossing, taking its time to build the world, the characters and the relationships. It never drags. Plus Woody Harrelson is in it and is pretty darn great, as is Elisabeth Banks as the wonderfully shallow Effie Trinket. But this movie belongs wholly to Jennifer Lawrence. As Katniss she manages to be caring, brave and cleverly resourceful while always staying angry, vulnerable and just plain terrified by the situation she finds herself in. I wouldn't be surprised if she gets a second Oscar nod for her work here. In my humble opinion Lawrence is possibly the finest talent of her generation currently working in movies. She’s an actor where you can see so much going on behind her eyes, on her face, in her body language. She sells the character and the situation utterly. This makes her a compelling presence to watch. She has grit and a palpable inner strength, which was so very obvious in Winter’s Bone. I predict a long and illustrious career for this young lady. I just hope she keeps picking varied and interesting projects.

And now to the actual games themselves.

Set in a huge forest arena with cameras hidden in trees, genetically modified wasps and killer dogs, the games are about as shocking and brutal as you can get in a 12A film. I have to say I winced a few times. I mean, they have little kids - not just teens - who kill and get killed! The initial melee when all of the kids are first released in to the game area is stunning. Shot with virtually no sound it’s lots and lots of panicky shaky camera work and quick edits of kids killing other kids with rocks, knives, swords, bare hands. There was one brief shot of what is a little blond girl - maybe 10/11 – lying on her back on the ground with a bigger teen boy standing over her about to start bludgeoning her to death. Luckily the camera cuts away before the first blow hits, but it still made me cringe. It’s shocking, affecting but thankfully not gratuitous. And it carries on like that for the rest of the film with the kids slowly being whittled down until the last two remain.

There’s lots going on here, lots of comment about reality television, about how the media glamorises violence, about how we send teenagers to war to get maimed and killed often for no good reason. And about how kids regularly killing other kids – be it in gangs or in school massacres - has become a horribly regular real life phenomena. Of course there’s nothing original in any of this. Battle Royale did the adults making kids kill each other thing ten years ago (though in BR it is all older teens and is so bloody and over the top to be kinda silly). And Robocop and The Running Man amongst others have done reality TV going too far. But the concept and its related themes and the questions raised are always worth repeating if done well. And they are done very well here. As I’ve said before, to my mind the very best genre books/films/TV are really all about people, about who we are and how we relate to each other. And about the world we are currently living in as well as the future world we are busy making for ourselves. The Hunger Games fits squarely in to that camp.

Major kudos then to director Gary (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) Ross and to screenwriters Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray for making a grown up, intelligent, provocative movie.

Go see it.

And may the odds be ever in your favour.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

John Carter (Or How I Got My Ass to Mars and Didn't Want to Come Back!)

dejah thoris Pictures, Images and Photos
Dejah Thoris - my favourite Martian.

I bloody loved Disney’s John Carter.

See, I was already a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original Barsoom books, starting with the classic A Princess of Mars on which Disney’s movie is based, albeit also drawing heavily from various other story elements from later in the series. So I've been excited for this movie for a while now. But also pretty wary too. I mean, the casting didn't click for me. The decision to be more 'realistic' in look and feel didn't either. And the trailers when they appeared weren't exactly great. In fact, the whole marketing effort by Disney has been atrocious. And that's being kind. But I was still excited, but also worried.

A bit of my history with JC.

I'm a late comer to the whole Barsoom series as I first picked up these books just a few years ago after reading an article about how Harry Knowles of Ain’t it Cool fame was involved in trying to get a JC movie made. At that point I was only vaguely aware of the character and his story, being far more familiar with Burroughs’ much more famous creation Tarzan. But finding out that John Carter and his adventures formed the inspiration and basis for much of the pulp sci fi/fantasy adventure I love (Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Star Wars, modern superhero stories amongst many others) I felt compelled to get the books and to give them a go.

And I was immediately hooked.

I mean, what red blooded ‘young’ man wouldn’t want to go to Barsoom and befriend the awesome Tars Tarkas and fight hordes of white apes and evil doers while also rescuing, romancing and then marrying the most beautiful woman in the universe?

Wow! Count me in.

For those who don’t know, the basic story of John Carter over the course of his book series goes something like this:

It’s the late 1880’s and Captain John Carter is an ex-confederate civil war hero who’s busy prospecting for gold, just wanting to be left alone to get rich or die trying. However events lead him to an isolated cave where somehow he gets transported to Mars (or Barsoom as the natives call it) from Earth (Jarsoom to the Martians) where he finds he now has super strength due to changes in gravity etc. and soon gets himself reluctantly involved with Martian tribal wars while also meeting, saving and falling in love with the most beautiful princess in the universe,. Eventually, through the course of his adventures and many battles, Carter works his way up the Martian hierarchy to become a great planetary leader.

The books are quick and exciting reads. They are swiftly paced swashbuckling romantic pulp sci-fi fantasies filled with epic fights, daring do, hissable villains and nasty monsters. The conceit of the stories is that they were actually written by Edgar Rice Burroughs after he listened to the wild tales told to him as a lad by his beloved uncle Jack – the heroic John Carter himself. So the tales are told as if being true with Burroughs having created his own personal mythology in to which he inserted himself. One can imagine ERB telling his little children and grandchildren spellbinding bedtime stories about his amazing Uncle Jack and his epic adventures on Barsoom, swearing to the goggle eyed kiddies that it was all absolutely true.

Now, a century after Burroughs first gave the world his epic tales of Barsoom comes Disney’s mega budget adaptation of the first novel A Princess of Mars, titled simply (and awfully) John Carter.

Disney’s John Carter, under the assured, stylish, wonderfully old fashioned direction of Andrew (Wall-e) Stanton, does an almost perfect job of adapting the source material while also changing it enough to make it work on screen. Stanton has also wisely toned down/removed certain elements that either wouldn’t have worked on film or would come across as anachronistic hangovers from a different time, likely making modern audiences a tad uncomfortable (there is a certain degree of old fashioned attitudes towards race and behaviour in the books. It isn’t especially bad or unpleasant, just kind of odd, though perfectly acceptable for its time period.) But for all the changes made, the core of the novel’s story, of the characters, of the feel for gloriously old fashioned epic widescreen daring do and swashbuckling romantic adventure remains intact. This movie feels like Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood crossed with the look and grandeur of Lawrence of Arabia played out on a beautifully designed and realised alien world.

And what a world it is.

Barsoom aka Mars looks incredible! The city of Helium is lavish and exotic; the Tharks' city is rough and rugged just as I imagined it. The air ships are elegantly beautiful. The costumes (though in the books most people are naked save for light armour and decoration) detailed and highly designed. Indeed, like the best sci-fi or fantasy, the filmmakers had to build everything for the film hence the huge budget. Everything from tables, chairs, cutlery to costumes, armour, weapons, vehicles had to be designed and built from scratch. That’s your $250m budget right there; that and all the gorgeous FX. It's all up on the screen.

But what about the characters and the actors playing them?

Taylor Kitsch plays John Carter. I’d only ever seen Kitsch before in the woeful X-Men: Origins: Wolverine as Gambit. And he was pretty poor. His casting as JC I just didn’t get. Likewise I’d only seen Lynn Collins in the very same terrible film. She was ok. Pretty, yes, but just ok. Again, when she was cast as Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium, the most beautiful, desirable woman in creation, I didn’t get it.

But having now seen them both in action, together, I get it.

Kitsch is very good. He’s still not out and out great in the classic Harrison Ford sense (few are), but he cuts an impressive dash as Carter, balancing the heaviness on the characters soul and his reluctance to involve himself in others affairs with his ingrained heroic nobility. You can see the battle going on inside of him. Of course, in the end you know that John will do the right thing. He’ll be the hero. But it is fun watching him fight the inevitable.

And what of Collins?

Flat out awesome is what!

With her long raven black hair, skin made a copper shade and her piercing blue eyes, big screen Dejah Thoris is drop dead stunning to look at. But Collins is also a damn fine actress who brings tough intense intelligence and nobility as well as a fearful fragility to Dejah. She’s smart beyond words. She can kick ass with the best of them. She can make you fall in love with a wounded look. Perfect.

And the supporting cast are pretty much all round great too.

Willem Dafoe is Tars Tarkas, the heroic tough-but-fair Thark leader who befriends Carter early on, seeing in him potential to be a great force upon Barsoom. Tars is a nine foot tall four armed green dude with tusks created via motion capture. Dafoe and all the mocap actors were actually on set, on stilts, giving the performance using tiny cameras on their faces ala Avatar. And it shows. The performances come through the pixels. And the pixels look realistic too, not the cartoony look given to so many cgi creations nowadays (ILM I’m looking at you). Other great actors in the movie are Samantha Morton as Tars’ daughter Sola, Dominic West, Thomas Hayden Church, Ciaran Hinds, Mark Strong and the always fun James Purefoy. And a special mention goes to the animators who created Woolla, Carter’s super fast, super loyal Martian ‘dog’. It’s a character that shouldn’t work being far too silly, far too cute. But work it does. Woolla is fab. He steals almost every scene he’s in.

The film is a testament to the skill of its director and the care taken in crafting the fun and intricately plotted script. There is always something important going on be it plot machinations or epic battles or internal/external character work. And most of it is told visually. No walking/talking down endless corridors or sat around tables discussing things here (take note George Lucas.) No sir. Stanton makes his live action directing debut with John Carter after making Wall-E and Finding Nemo for Pixar. Coming from Pixar he knows that story, character and tone are king. You need to make the story interesting, compelling. You need to make rounded characters with arcs that people can invest in and care about. You need to strike an appropriate tone for your tale. Here he manages all three with almost complete success. Most successfully I’d say is the striking of tone. John Carter has its dark edges - especially John dealing with the death of his wife and child and his initial apathy in helping others. But the dark edges never eclipse the overriding sense of fun and high adventure that carries the movie to its thrilling and emotionally satisfying climax. By the time the film’s full title comes on screen at the end to Michael Giacchino’s soaring score (wonderfully ‘John Carter of Mars’ and not just ‘John Carter’) if you have the tiniest escapist/romantic /adventure loving bone in your body, then, like Arnie, you’re gonna want to get your ass back to Mars double quick.

So as a fan count me happy.

John Carter is a wonderful piece of escapist adventure and probably the best film adaptation of the source material I could have hoped for. It is also the first movie in a long while that I can’t wait to go back to the cinema and see again sharpish.

Yes, I liked it that much. I was swept away.

Plus, y’know, Dejah Thoris! Mmmmm.....

Reported faithfully by the Stoopid Monkey of Jarsoom

Sunday, 11 March 2012

R.I.P. Ralph and Jean

Ralph McQuarrie ART Pictures, Images and Photos
An early McQuarrie design for the Millenium Falcon

How come all the great conceptual artists are passing on this year?

First, the great Ralph McQuarrie last week, who literally drew my childhood imagination by pretty much designing and visualising George Lucas's Star Wars universe as well as the universe of the original Battlestar Galactica. I mean, that artwork had a massive influence on me and thrilled me no end. Still does. I have portfolios of it, posters etc. McQuarrie's work is deeply embedded in my psyche. But he also did lots of other work outside Star Wars and Galactica. Check out his website. His art is his legacy.

Ralph McQuarrie Pictures, Images and Photos
McQuarrie's early Luke vs Vader

Galactica by Ralph McQuarrie Pictures, Images and Photos
McQuarrie's design for the original Battlestar Galactica - one of my personal fave pieces of his.

And now I hear that Moebius aka legendary French artist Jean Giraud has passed away too.


Moebius Pictures, Images and Photos

Jean Giraud had a long and illustrious career in his native France but was also (rightly) lauded the world over by the likes of Marvel's Stan Lee who had him draw for him a special and award winning Silver Surfer miniseries in the late 80's.

Amongst the designs Giraud did as Moebius for films was his work on Ridley Scott's Alien, Disney's Tron, George Lucas's Willow and Luc Besson's The Fifth Element. Again, his art will be his legacy. Check out his website.

It's always depressing when the world loses great artists. Indivduals who only ever added joy and wonder to the lives of people like me.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that HR Giger is currently in good health.

R.I.P. Ralph and Jean :(