Graham Young reviews the latest cinema releases, including John Carter 3D, Bel Ami and Project X.
John Carter 3D * *
Cert 12A, 132 minutes
Oscar-winning Pixar director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) recently made a good fist out of the stunt sequences in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, in which Tom Cruise was every inch an A-lister at the heart of a blockbuster live-action movie.
Animation stablemate Andrew Staunton (A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo and WALL-E) fares less well with this bloated and sometimes tiresome adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel, The Princess of Mars.
In 1914, readers doubtless enjoyed imagining the fictional world in which it was set.
And they probably believed that a Civil War veteran like John Carter really could have been enjoying a bit of cowboy action in Monument Valley (so nice to see hooves racing over that kind of scenery again) only to suddenly end up on Mars. As you do.
We now know that, back in 1868, when much of this film is set, it was almost 100 years before man would land on the moon.
And nobody had heard of Jar Jar Binks, that infuriating character from Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999).
Judging by Staunton’s vision, he believes that Mars really could have been full of Binks’ clones when, from our current post-Lucas perspective, these creatures simply cast a large shadow over the proceedings.
When John Carter – played by Snakes on a Plane star Taylor Kitsch – escapes their jerky clutches, he finds Princess Dejah Thoris (an anonymous Lynn Collins) in distress.
Can he rescue her?
Will anyone really care? Especially since the film is at least half-an-hour too long and is often as dull as Will Smith’s repulsively silly Wild Wild West (1999).
Not forgetting how Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars (2000), Val Kilmer’s Red Planet (2000) and John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars (2001) all came a cropper on the fourth rock from the sun.
John Carter’s strengths are the landscapes.
And, for young viewers, the various shades of Superman-style heroics and never-say-die bravery of a leading man who is part soldier, cowboy and gladiator.
Here’s a central character who has a bit of everything in him then, including, unfortunately, the veneered woodenness of Jason Momoa in last August’s insufferable reboot of Conan the Barbarian.
Even a strong cast comprising Samantha Morton (Sola), Willem Dafoe (Tars Tarkas), Thomas Haden Church (Tal Hajus), Mark Strong (Matai Shang), Ciarán Hinds (Tardos Mors), Dominic West (Sab Than) and James Purefoy (Kantos Kan) can’t help Kitsch to breathe some earthy life into this movie.
Not after Kenneth Branagh’s Thor was such a fun ride last year.
The John Carter script is just as jumbled up and messy as Mark Strong’s release of just two weeks ago, Black Gold (which disappeared after a mere seven days on release to head towards future DVD bargain bin salvation).
Also showing at the Giant Screen Cinema at Millennium Point, John Carter is just another Prince of Persia. Which means it’s about on a par with the Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig misfire of Cowboys vs Aliens from last August and never as much fun as the DreamWorks’ animation, Monsters vs Aliens (2009).
Children aged about ten will doubtless enjoy what might well have been called John Carter vs Aliens.
Even if their immature brains can’t see that the 3D here is of such poor quality that most sensible adults will feel like making a walk into another screen just to watch the 2D version in more visual comfort.
Bel Ami * * *
Cert 15, 103 minutes
Like Dame Judi Dench in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the casting of The English Patient star Kristin Scott Thomas in this movie should have been perfect for mature viewers.
Especially those with fond memories of the French intrigue of Dangerous Liaisons (1988), the story of passion and betrayal between bored aristocrats.
Bel Ami, adapted from the (second) 1885 novel of the same name by French author Guy de Maupassant, is a good-looking alternative that is simply not in the same class.
Here, Georges Duroy (Robert Pattinson) is an ill-educated social climber from a poor background, but newly aware and ambitious enough to appreciate how Paris is ‘filthy with money, rotten with it’ and where ‘even the whores are getting rich’.
Potential bed-mates Clotilde de Marelle (Christini Ricci), Virginie Walters (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Madeleine Forestier (Uma Thurman) all look lovely. But having Robert Pattinson as the leader of spark creation is a bit like watching a ‘failed soldier, barely literate’ man trying to make potions when he didn’t have chemistry and physics in his options.
The London-born 25-year-old was well cast in the Twilight series because his teeth are fangy and he’s like the colour black – skilled at soaking things up without giving much back in return.
Alas! Although Pattinson is a good-looking lad and the perfect choice for a bit of revolving-door trouser dropping, there’s still no sign of any Oscar-worthy genes maturing between his ears.
And, when he bares his shoulders, he is less a honey-glazed beefcake, but more a beef tomato salad – only without any of the authentic French dressing this film so badly needs.
Miss Scott Thomas, Cornish born but with French-British nationality, is rather wasted on Mr Pattinson.
In real life she’s more than twice his age and should have devoured him for breakfast.
Having starred in Dangerous Liaisons all those years ago, Uma Thurman must just have fancied returning to the same territory against all the best advice not to.
Miss Ricci is a real kitten, but she looks so like Sarah Brightman that she invoked unwelcome thoughts of Andrew Lloyd Webber swooping down to audition his next Phantom.
Still, the sets and costumes in Bel Ami look the part and, in Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, the film even has two debut directors for the price of one. But Bel Ami’s lack of pace highlights their inexperience, which an almost non-stop violin score seems to be trying too hard to compensate for.
Although the dialogue is structured so that the actors can breathe and we can listen (save for Pattinson’s unintelligible first line), Bel Ami feels rather flat-footed as a drama, when it should really be nimble.
And it is too often rather dour when it should be full of exquisite mischief as per Dangerous Liaisons.
Or even last year’s little seen hoot of a Richard E Grant movie, First Night.
Project X * *
Cert 18, 87 minutes
The late Hawaii-Five-O star Jack Lord was once in a film about Communist infiltration called Project X back in 1949.
Horror director William Castle also used the title in 1968. And Matthew Broderick and Helen Hunt starred in an equally unconnected PG-rated comedy drama in 1987 with the same name, too.
Fully deserving of its 18 certificate, this latest Project X is now a classic example of how Hollywood cannot even think of original titles any more.
But be warned. This movie also puts the X firmly into ‘excess’.
The story of a party which goes horribly wrong after more than 1,500 guests turn up, it manages to cram more hedonism, more crass behaviour and more sheer lunacy into its 87 minutes than the whole of Tinseltown’s output achieved in 2011.
So do stay away if easily offended.
But Project X could yet have its uses – should it be viewed by anyone in danger of going off-radar, but is capable of learning from other people’s mistakes.
The potential side-effects of alcohol, wild sex and drug abuse have rarely been magnified to this degree, so hopefully it will put the lid on a ‘gross-out’ genre that is threatening to get out of hand.
Despite the hand-held nature of the camerawork, and the extraordinarily chaotic elements of the story, director Nima Nourizadeh somehow manages to not make this film completely unwatchable.
In fact, watching the plainly stupid letting off steam to this extent makes it rather compelling.
The action begins with Thomas (Thomas Mann) who decides to host a 17th birthday party while his parents are away.
As if they are in a Yellow Pages ad, friends Costa (Oliver Cooper) and JB (Jonathan Daniel Brown) assure him that everything can be cleaned up before they return.
But after the party is advertised online and half of north Pasadena turns up, life for Thomas will never be the same again.
Especially as fourth member Dax (Dax Flame) films everything.
And the film’s posters tell you that Project X has been ‘produced by the director of The Hangover’.
Soon the party is turning into a full-blown riot.
So Project X ends up as a high octane mixture of Trainspotting, Acid House, It’s All Gone Pete Tong and Jackass, four dangerous ingredients blended in a liquidiser and then heated on full power in a metallic dish until the microwave door blows off.
It’s sick. It’s vile. It’s deeply unpleasant.
But the ending has a useful warning lesson for anyone who thinks that treading the same path for one night would be worth a lifetime of hassle.
And, as the once-rebellious Steve Jobs’ Apple story illustrates, there is probably more than a grain of truth in the thought that the newly-wise Thomas could actually do well for himself in the long run.