Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collings, Mark Strong
Directed by: Andrew Stanton (“WALL-E,” “Finding Nemo”)
Written by: Andrew Stanton (“WALL-E”) and Mark Andrews (debut) and Michael Chabon (“Spider-Man 2”)
Science fiction seems like such a modern art form, perhaps because it routinely deals with concepts we see as being on the horizon; things we see as staples of the future. It’s all about robots and spaceships and aliens, all things we hope to one day perfect or discover. Maybe that’s why it seems odd that Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan, was writing science fiction novels 100 years ago. He started with “A Princess of Mars,” featuring interplanetary hero John Carter.
Directed by Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton (“WALL-E”), “John Carter” adapts several of Burroughs’ novels to tell the tale of Captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a Confederate Civil War veteran on the hunt for gold in Arizona. After dodging both a conscription effort at the hands of Colonel Powell (Bryan Cranston) and an Apache attack, Carter finds himself transported to the planet Mars after clutching a strange amulet and uttering an even stranger word: Barsoom. Carter’s other-worldliness grants him fantastic abilities on the Red Planet, making him a sought-after warrior in the clashes between Mars’ warring races. After rescuing a princess (Lynn Collins), Carter chooses his allegiance, taking on villains Sab Than (Dominic West) and Matai Shang (Mark Strong), in a battle for the ultimate fate of Mars.
“John Carter” has several significant hurdles on its path toward blockbuster status, not the least of which is the century of blockbusters that have been influenced by its source material, causing “Carter” to come across as a faded copy of countless other science fiction stories. Outsider who acquires amazing powers after venturing to another planet? Sounds like “Superman.” Or how about the outsider who becomes part of a native tribe of really tall aliens? Looks and sounds an awful lot like “Avatar” to me. And that coliseum in the middle of a desert full of screaming aliens watching a human fight giant creatures to the death? It looks like a deleted scene from “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.” Add that to the dense mythology the film doles out, featuring goofy sci-fi names like Zodanga, Jasoom, and, uh, Helium, and casual audiences might think they’ve stumbled into a cheapo SyFy Channel knock-off that somehow made its way into a theater.
Thankfully, though, the spectacle ends up muscling away the pulpier elements of the story. Gorgeous steampunk airships glide through the air like gear-driven dragonflies en route to massive walking cities. Giant, green-skined Tharks seem as real as the human actors they stand next to. And Kitsch, best known for his role on NBC’s “Friday Night Lights,” doesn’t bother with nuance and instead just plays the tough guy when it comes to his portrayal of John Carter. Its probably no coincidence that Carter’s costuming and skill with a sword evoke images He-Man. He’s a sci fi/fantasy action figure punching and slicing his way through hordes or marauding Martians. It’s an epic nearly a century in the making, and Stanton has set the table for more grand adventures to come.
Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy
Directed by: Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”)
Written by: Bridget O’Connor (“Sixty Six”) and Peter Straughan (“The Men Who Stare at Goats”)
Say the words “British spy” and most moviegoers would probably picture any one of the James Bond incarnations over the last 50 years performing death-defying stunts far above the ground. Whether it’s Pierce Brosnan bungee jumping from a dam in “GoldenEye,” Roger Moore skiing off the side of the Alps in “The Spy Who Loved Me,” or Daniel Craig leaping from construction cranes in “Casino Royale,” Brit and secret agents usually go hand in hand with exaggerated entertainment.
As much as an author like Ian Fleming has engrossed fans of the spy genre with feats of flight in his Bond series, author John le Carré has captured the same interest in a more atmospheric approach with his novels centered on British intelligence officer George Smiley. Think of Smiley as the anti-Bond. In fact, the only real similarity between the two is that Smiley is about as dry as the martinis 007 frequently orders. His subtleness is evident in the most recent of le Carré’s adaptations, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” a complex and sometimes confusing Cold War thriller that might actually require a few viewings to puzzle together all of the narrative’s intricacies.
Still, if you’re familiar with any of le Carré’s work or their cinematic counterparts (search out “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” now), his slow-boiling and meticulous storytelling is what makes his voice in the genre so distinct. Considered by many as one of the greatest British writers of espionage fiction in the 20th century, le Carré’s novels demand attention and refuse to provide easy avenues to maneuver between aggravating plot points. The sentiment couldn’t be truer than with “Tinker Tailor.” Adapting le Carre’s 1974 book (the first of what is considered “The Karla Trilogy” and one of seven works featuring the character Smiley), screenwriters Bridget O’Connor (“Sixty Six”) and Peter Straughan (“The Men Who Stare at Goats”) attempt to simplify the story without sacrificing the elaborate details that make the mystery so intriguing to solve in the first place. To some extent they’re able to play their version of the spy game (noted here as a kind of metaphorical chess board) without knocking over too many pieces.
The featured rook of this game of high-stakes chess is actor Gary Oldman (“The Dark Knight”) who plays Smiley, a retired agent of the Secret Intelligence Service (also known as “The Circus”) who is asked to covertly return to duty to expose one of his former colleagues as a Russian-planted mole rooting around at the highest levels of the SIS. Possible double agents include Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), and Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds). Also in the already-crowded mix is Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong), another SIS agent sent to retrieve the identity of the mole by the head of British intelligence (John Hurt), rogue agent and whistleblower Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), and Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley’s inside man delegated to sift through file cabinets when no one’s watching.
Directed by Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”), “Tinker Tailor” is far from the sprawling BBC miniseries released back in 1979 starring Oscar winner Alec Guinness (“The Bridge on the River Kwai”). Clocked at a very reasonable 127 minutes, Alfredson’s version (his first English-language film) is most satisfying when we witness – through flashbacks – the evolution of a once powerful foreign intelligence agency into the equivalent of a whispery sewing circle. The contrast between old guard and new guard principles is a frightening look at how corruption is able to snake its way into even the most secured venues. The emotional aspects of these events do tend to have an impersonal bitterness to them, but it’s a fine complement to the bleak Cold War-inspired world Alfredson has set his players in. The emphasis on the grim atmosphere is made even more significant through the technical aspects of the film. Credit production designer Maria Djurkovic (“The Hours”) and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (“The Fighter”) for turning 1970s London into a place even the sleaziest spies wouldn’t want to wander.
Starring: Channing Tatum, Jaime Bell, Mark Strong
Directed by: Kevin Macdonald (“State of Play”)
Written by: Jeremy Brock (“The Last King of Scotland”)
If it was possible ignore the inconsistent accents, the hammy dialogue, or the cast full of men playing dress up in 2nd century Roman costumes instead of fleshing out authentic characters, then maybe “The Eagle” would feel more like a fictional epic and less like a second-rate miniseries found on Starz after midnight. Without the sex and the campiness, what’s the point?
Instead, “The Eagle,” directed by Kevin Macdonald (“State of Play”) based on a script adapted from Rosemary’ Sutcliff’s 1950s novel “The Eagle of the Ninth,” takes itself entirely too serious. With a lifeless Channing Tatum (“The Dilemma”) taking the lead, the whole production feels like a charade in Roman warfare.
In “The Eagle,” Tatum plays Marcus Aquila, a young Roman centurion who sets out with his British slave Esca (Jamie Bell) to learn the truth behind his father’s disappearance and tarnished legacy. To bring honor back to his family’s name, he plans to go out and find a symbolic golden eagle, an emblem once carried by his father when leading a 5,000-man legion known as the Ninth.
The plot never expands from there making Marcus’ search for the statue feel more like a high school scavenger hunt. While the numerous battle sequences do their best to keep the action high, Macdonald’s decision to shoot the sword-weilding scenes so chaotically is a misstep. By the third bloodless combat scene, they all start meshing together and lose interest.
Without any depth to the screenplay and some unintentionally humorous homoerotic character interaction, “The Eagle” is all brawn and no bite. Tatum may have that leading man screen presence, but with a script this weak, his frat boy looks can only get him so far. In “The Eagle,” body armor, a wool tunic, and sandals are about all that define him.
Starring: Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Max Von Sydow
Directed by: Ridley Scott (“Gladiator”)
Written by: Brian Helgeland (“Green Zone”)
While the comparisons are obvious, director Ridley Scott’s version of “Robin Hood” is nothing like his first collaboration with actor Russell Crowe in the good but slightly overrated 2000 film “Gladiator.” Amazing production value aside, “Robin Hood” is a high-end production with lofty ideas and a convoluted screenplay begging for some major editing.
In his fifth film with Scott, Crowe isn’t the same Robin Hood most would expect from the dozens of versions that have come before (the best is still Errol Flynn’s 1938 classic “The Adventures of Robin Hood”). Instead, Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland have jerry-built a chaotic prequel based on the legendary tale of an English outlaw from Sherwood Forest who robs from the rich to give to the poor.
To begin, Crowe is not actually Robin Hood, but Robin Longstride, an archer in King Richard the Lionheart’s (Danny Huston) army, who sets off with his own band of followers (Kevin Durand, Scott Grimes, Alan Doyle) after the king is killed by French forces. When Robin and his men get their hands on King Richard’s crown, they return it to London where John (Oscar Isaac) is ready to take over the throne from his slain brother and impose heavy taxes on his people. He appoints Godfrey (Mark Strong), who is secretly working for the French, as his tax collector, but is unaware of his ulterior motives.
Godfrey wants to help France invade England. Robin, who acquires a new identity from a dying knight with a last request, connects with the knight’s father (Max Von Sydow) and his widow Lady Marion of Loxley (Cate Blanchett) and helps them save their land by posing as the deceased son and husband. If that’s not complicated enough, 13th century politics play a major role in the ill-conceived script as Scott takes all the adventure out of the myth through longwinded speeches and conventional storytelling.
Sure, it might feel like we’re somewhere in Nottingham simply for the terrific art direction and costume design, but the technical aspects are skin deep. This “Robin Hood” is void of any real emotion or awe-inspiring heroics that the iconic literary character has built his name on for the past few centuries.
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong
Directed by: Ridley Scott (“Gladiator”)
Written by: William Monahan (“The Departed”)
The pieces seem to all be in the right place. Russell Crowe and director Ridley Scott, a duo who win Oscars together, are set in motion while box office draw and talented actor Leonardo DiCaprio is sharpening his claws for his first film since garnering his own Oscar nod for “Blood Diamond.”
But not everything on paper works well as a final product as we see in “Body of Lies.” It’s a decent espionage thriller that should probably throw all the chips in on its leading men and not necessarily on the volatile and familiar story.
Based on the novel by David Ignatius, “Body of Lies” follows CIA operative Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he keeps tabs on terrorists in the Middle East. Roger is in constant contact by phone with his boss Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) who sends him on missions while living the easy life back in Washington D.C. out of harm’s way. (Think of Ed as the tubby man-boy living in his mother’s basement playing MMORPGs all day, covered in junk food and not having any sense of the real world outside his cocoon).
When Roger goes on another mission to hunt down a terrorist leader named Al-Saleem (Along Abutbul) in Jordan, he recruits the help of a local intelligence chief named Hani (Mark Strong, who reminds me too much of Andy Garcia) to infiltrate the hard-to-reach locales he must venture. To mislead the terrorists (and to prove he is always one step ahead of everyone) Roger forms his own faux terrorist cell so Al-Saleem, known as “the white whale,” can come out of the woodwork to find out who is trying to undercut his regime.
While this is the central idea of “Lies,” Oscar-winning screenwriter Monahan manages to scramble second-rate political jargon into the talky action film, which is not as intelligent as it leads us to believe.
With DiCaprio as his puppet, Monahan is also able to string us along through the deceptive war with some obscure plot twists and cliché storytelling. Recent films like “The Kingdom” and “Traitor” treaded on the same international concepts, and even with above-average performances by DiCaprio and Crowe, they all feel like they’ve spawned from the same societal need to cover global terrorism cinematically. While “Lies” is a worthy attempt, it is overwritten and very shifty.
Thirteen years after “The Quick and the Dead,” the reunion between DiCaprio and Crowe was actually more intriguing to me that the “Righteous Kill” one with Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro. It might not be nearly as silly as “Kill,” but one thing the two have in common is heavy-hitting headliners that can only do as much as the script allows.