Pride (2014)

2016 #131
Matthew Marchus | 115 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & France / English | 15 / R

PrideI don’t know if the true story behind Pride was big news back when it all actually happened in 1984, but I hadn’t heard of it until the film came along. For those who’ve still missed it, it’s about a group of gay activists deciding to form a group, LGSM, to support the striking Welsh miners — two groups who were poorly treated in one way or another by ’80s Britain.

That sets up the obvious potential for culture-clash comedy — “what will those parochial little Welsh villagers make of The Gays? Hilarity ensues!” Fortunately Pride doesn’t indulge in these easy targets for too long, preferring instead to show how the two groups embraced each other’s support. There is amusement value in the meeting of such different social groups, but it’s handled in a relatively realistic way. The film also doesn’t ignore the prejudice that obviously arose in some quarters, and on both sides (there were some in the gay community who thought there were more important fights to fight), but the overall theme is of acceptance and cooperation.

The whole thing is eased along considerably by a top-drawer cast of mostly-British thesps. That “mostly” is essential thanks to American Ben Schnetzer as LGSM founder Mark Ashton, who sports a flawless (to my ear) Irish accent as he confidently swaggers through life, which masks inner uncertainty that comes to the fore in later developments. Joe Gilgun is his bespectacled and practically-minded ‘sidekick’, a complete 180 from his recent kerazy turn in Preacher. Perhaps most remarkable is Dominic West as a veteran homosexual, Welsh girls just wanna have funwhose dancing display has to be seen to be believed. Bill Nighy and Paddy Considine are understated as quiet, hesitant characters who have inner steel, and Jessica Gunning makes a similar impact as a housewife who is completely emboldened by the activism.

I don’t like just listing actors, but it would be a disservice not to mention Faye Marsay, Andrew Scott, Imelda Staunton… I could go on. Screenwriter Stephen Beresford finds meaningful stories and character arcs for each of these, while director Matthew Warchus controls the story so that it never devolves into a collection of subplots. I haven’t even mentioned the ostensible main character: George MacKay as a young man taking his first tentative steps into the gay world, an audience cipher character who still gets quality moments sometimes denied to a character fulfilling that plot function.

For what could have been a superficial Brit-com, Pride instead delivers a more truthful and thought-provoking movie, but one that isn’t heavy-handed or worthy, instead remaining amusing, emotionally affecting, and enjoyable. It takes a true story that I guess has become something of a footnote and suggests why it’s the ‘little’ stories that are sometimes the most important.

4 out of 5

Punisher: War Zone (2008)

2014 #40
Lexi Alexander | 93 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA, Canada & Germany / English | 18 / R

Punisher: War ZoneThe 2004 film of Marvel’s foremost vigilante killer was the Punisher as mainstream Hollywood PG-13 blockbuster*, but this follow-up takes a different route. It’s more the grimy, low-budget, direct-to-DVD, B-movie version of the character; all action, gore, and a conscious lack of class. For some that will make the entire endeavour distasteful, but I can’t help but feel it’s a more faithful depiction of the character.

This is a reboot and sequel in one, Incredible Hulk style: Frank Castle’s backstory has been tweaked, and we learn that in montages and the like, while our re-cast hero gets on with the plot of the film — namely, taking down some drugs importers before they can bring something far worse into the country.

As the hero, Brit-playing-American Ray Stevenson is a suitably straight-faced action hero. His secret-underground-lair-style base of operations has a more classic feel than the block-of-flats origin-story place of the last movie, the kind of simple-but-effective decision that defines the movie’s entire approach. As the villain, Brit-playing-American Dominic West is suitably unhinged. He’s a top-quality actor when he wants to be, making this seem an unusual choice; but he chews the scenery with pleasant abandon. Both Brits fare better than their genuinely-American counterparts from the 2003 version. The quality of the rest of the ensemble varies, but all within the confines of the aforementioned B-movie style. There’s a consistency there that works.

PunishingYour enjoyment of the film will hinge on your tolerance for this level of filmmaking. War Zone isn’t a Marvel-derived adaptation to sit alongside their big-budget in-house productions, but one to rival other hard-R violence-focused flicks. It may be kind of nasty in places, but no more so than other movies of its ilk; and really, if you look at it from outside the confines of sometimes-simplistic comic book morality, the Punisher is quite a nasty character.

As with the sequel to that other semi-successful Marvel movie of a dark-character-turned-blockbuster, Ghost Rider, this sequel takes a grungier tack. For Spirit of Vengeance it didn’t quite come off; for War Zone, while it won’t sit at the forefront of the comic book movie pack, it is something of a guilty pleasure.

3 out of 5

* Technically it was an R. Didn’t feel like it. ^

John Carter (2012)

2014 #131
Andrew Stanton | 132 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

John CarterA box office flop (it made a once-astonishing $284 million worldwide, but that was off a $250 million production budget and a ginormous bungled marketing campaign), John Carter has gained something of a following among those who did enjoy it or caught it later — see this post by ghostof82, for instance. I approached it hopefully, then, buoyed by such positive after-reaction — many a good film has been ignored by the general audience. Disappointingly, I didn’t find John Carter to be one of them.

Adapted from a classic, influential science-fantasy novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs (that being A Princess of Mars, deemed too girly a title for a PG-13 SF/F blockbuster nowadays), the story sees American Civil War veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) transported to Mars, which he finds populated by human-esque aliens, the two factions of which are at war, and giant four-armed green-skinned aliens, who are trying to stay out of it. Of particular interest is the half-dressed princess Dejah (Lynn Collins), promised in marriage to villain Sab Than (Dominic West) in order to end the conflict. Cue simplistic politicking and CGI-driven action sequences.

There have been many reasons cited why John Carter flopped, a good many of them centred around the marketing campaign (reportedly director Andrew Stanton, given power by his directorial success at Pixar (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), demanded a level of control Disney felt forced to give, and his belief that Carter was as renowned a character as (say) Sherlock Holmes or James Bond led to a misaligned campaign, one which the professional marketing people who knew what they were doing weren’t allowed to salvage). Also, the sheer importance of Burroughs’ novel was actually a hindrance — Never seen Star Wars?not because it’s so famous (among Normal People, I don’t think it is), but because its influence means its imagery and concepts have already been plundered (Star Wars and its sequels being the most notable example). A sense of “seen it all before” is not a good thing ever, but doubly so for a movie that is, at least in part, based on spectacle.

That’s why it failed to connect with the general public, at any rate, but none are particularly good reasons to criticise the film for the more discerning viewer. Sadly, I think there are a good few others. The storytelling, for one, a confusing mess of alien names and words that are thrown around with reckless abandon. This may again by the fault of Stanton’s familiarity with the material, a lack of awareness that newcomers (aka the vast majority of the audience) wouldn’t have the foggiest what was going on. Such things are not necessarily a problem — look at the success of Game of Thrones or Avatar, both of which introduce silly names and/or thoroughly alien worlds. The difference there is the new information is either doled out slowly or doesn’t sound too far beyond what we already know — monikers like Joffrey or Tyrion are pretty close to real-life names, for instance. Everything in John Carter has a high fantasy name, however, and dozens of them are hurled at you virtually non-stop for the first half hour or more, making it almost impossible to keep up.

Even with this telescope I can't make out what's going onIt doesn’t help that the film is structurally muddled at the offset. It begins on Mars, a voiceover detailing the conflict — an instant bombardment of names and concepts. I don’t mind things that challenge you to keep up, but it still feels a bit much. Then we jump to New York in the 1880s, where Carter is running away from someone in the streets. Then to his house, where his nephew has just turned up to be told he’s dead. You what? We just saw him in the telegraph office! And then we jump back to the 1860s, where he’s searching for gold and getting arrested (or something) by Bryan Cranston in a wig as some form of army officer. Then it gets a bit more straightforward. If being transported to Mars and meeting four-armed CG aliens who speak in subtitles is what you call “straightforward”, anyway.

This is mostly preamble, and it takes a long time to get through. I presume it’s faithful to the original story, because Cranston and co add virtually nothing to what goes on on Mars. That said, apparently Burroughs’ original book sticks to Carter exclusively, whereas the film keeps darting off to show us what’s going on elsewhere. I presume the idea was to give things a bit of momentum — while Carter’s being dragged around the Martian desert by his captors, we get to see the beginnings of the arranged marriage, etc. To me it just felt jumbled, and undermines Carter’s sense of confusion and discovery. We know far more of what’s going on than he does (if you can decipher it, anyway), leaving us waiting for our identification-figure to catch up.

Big eyesIt feels a bit facile to criticise the quality of CGI these days, but that doesn’t stop John Carter from being over-ambitious in this regard. In fact, it’s not really the sometimes-half-assed green screen or occasional plastic-ness that’s the problem, but the design: those four-armed aliens are just a little too cartoony. Perhaps it’s a hangover from Stanton’s Pixar days, perhaps something just went a little awry during the process, but their design doesn’t look quite ‘real’ enough; a little like someone’s taken a real-life creature and then lightly caricatured it. I think it’s the eyes, which are perhaps a little too big and round and ‘cute’, but there’s something else indefinable there, or not there. These aliens aren’t just set dressing but proper motion-captured characters, played by the likes of Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church and Polly Walker, so the lack of connection is regrettable.

The live-action cast don’t fare much better. You may remember Kitsch and Collins as co-stars of the poorly-received first Wolverine movie, where quite frankly they were two of the worst things in it (Kitsch was woefully miscast, for one). Doesn’t bode well for them being the leads, does it? Neither are as bad here, but neither quite click either. They’re surrounded by a gaggle of British thesps (West, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy) who feel like they’re slumming it in roles that are beneath them.

Some of John Carter’s fans have accused audiences and critics of ‘bandwagonism’ — that is, hearing/assuming it’s bad and so treating it as such. I can assure you, that’s not the case here: A princess of MarsI was expecting, or perhaps hoping, to like it; to find a misunderstood old-style adventure full of entertainment value. It may be an old-style adventure, but that’s beside the point, because whatever it is, I just felt it wasn’t particularly well made: poorly constructed, weakly performed, lazily (and wrongly) assumptive of the audience’s familiarity with the material. Disappointing.

2 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of John Carter is on BBC Two tonight at 6pm.

Centurion (2010)

2011 #82
Neil Marshall | 97 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

Last week, as I’m sure you’re aware, I posted the top ten films I’d watched in 2011. Among them were three I’ve yet to post a review for… so what better way to begin finishing off my 2011 reviews than with those. So here’s the lowest, #9…

CenturionThe fourth feature from writer/director Neil Marshall (despite owning his first three on DVD, this BD rental is the first I’ve actually watched — story of my life) is a bit of a departure: where the first three were horror (or at least horror-leaning) flicks, Centurion is an action-adventure crossed with something a little more artsy. Only a little, mind. Think Seraphim Falls.

The story involves a Roman legion (a real one, in fact — the story is based in historical fact) venturing into Scotland to take on the natives. They get massacred, the survivors try to get home alive. The story moves quickly, keeping the momentum up. Indeed, at times it moves so fast that some characters seem to be given short shrift. There’s a “who will survive?” element to the plot — Marshall’s horror roots showing through, perhaps — but you can largely guess which order they’ll be shuffled off in based on, a) how much screen time the character has, and b) the good old deciding factor of “which actors are most recognisable”. Predictability doesn’t really matter though, because there are (perhaps) a couple of surprises in store, and it’s only one element of the story.

Run, Fassbender, runRegular readers may know that I have an ever-growing dislike for films that begin at or near the end for no good reason (and most of those that do have no good reason to do so). Centurion’s opening line notes that “this is neither the beginning nor the end” of the lead character’s story. Oh dear, thought I; though perhaps “nor the end” signifies we might reach this point suitably distant from the credits, maybe. Not meaning to spoil it, but we’re there just 10 minutes later. Nice work Mr Marshall.

And with the mention of credits, allow me to note that both the opening and closing credits are wonderful, reminiscent of Panic Room’s much-exalted titles without being a clone.

The characters who do get screen time are well built. Most of them conform to regular men-on-a-mission types, but in the hands of actors like Michael Fassbender and David Morrissey that doesn’t matter. This seems like an appropriate enough point to note that Fassbender is fast becoming, if he isn’t already, an actor where it’s worth watching something with him in even if it doesn’t otherwise appeal. His mixed choices of blockbusters/mainstream-skewing movies and acclaimed artier fare suggest pretty impeccable taste. (Or, at least, tastes that match my own.) Olga the ScotThe cast is packed with people who, even if you don’t know their names, there’s a fair chance you’ll know the faces (assuming you watch your share of British drama): in addition to Fassbender and Morrissey there’s Dominic West, JJ Field, Lee Ross, Paul Freeman, Liam Cunningham, Noel Clarke, Riz Ahmed, Imogen Poots, Rachael Stirling, Peter Guinness… not to mention Film Star Olga Kurylenko. Recognisability doesn’t guarantee quality, of course, but that’s a pretty good list.

On the action side, there’s a selection of excellently choreographed fights. Lots of blood and gore, but surprisingly not gratuitous considering we have all manner of limbs being lopped off, decapitations, heads being shorn in two, and so on. It’s unquestionably graphic, but it doesn’t linger — the battles are hectic, fast, a blur… but in a good way: you can see what’s going on, but it feels appropriately chaotic.

On the artsy side, the Scottish scenery is extraordinarily stunning. Helicopter shots are put to marvellous use. Think Lord of the Rings, only this was shot on our own fair island. The filmmakers went to extremes to achieve this — it’s entirely real location work, beyond the back of beyond in the depths of a snow-covered Scottish winter; no green screen, no CG enhancement — and their effort has paid off. It looks thoroughly gorgeous. I fear I’m overemphasising the point, but… nah.

Stunning sceneryI really enjoyed Centurion, appreciating its mix between brutally real action and stunning scenery, with a slightly more thoughtful side emerging in the final act. It’s also always pleasant to see a film that runs the length it wants to at a reasonable speed, rather than padding itself to reach two or even two-and-a-half hours. Splendid.

4 out of 5

Centurion placed 9th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.