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Proof there is no life on Mars

JOHN CARTER Sci-fi/fantasy. Starring Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Mark Strong, Dominic West, Ciaran Hinds, Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton. Directed by Andrew Stanton. Cert 12A

Having proved themselves masters in their own field for the best part of two decades it was inevitable that the leading lights at Pixar would switch from animation into live action movies. Brad Bird fared reasonably well with Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol over the Christmas period but then he was picking up the baton on an established franchise. Andrew (Finding Nemo/ Wall-E) Stanton has taken on a massive task with John Carter.

Based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs' sci-fi potboiler Princess of Mars, and with an Avatar-sized budget of $250m, this is a huge gamble by Disney and Stanton and, alas, it fails on every level. The book was never much to begin with and Stanton's old-fashioned approach to sketchy material may not sway audiences reared on Star Wars and duped by the technological trickery of Avatar.

The story sees former Confederate officer John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, a man who may well come to regret not adopting a stage-name) transported to the planet of Barsoom, aka Mars, where he becomes embroiled in another civil war.

A race of shape-shifting super-beings, led by Mark Strong, have gifted the bad lads with Dominic West as their leader, a super weapon with which they'll dominate the planet. Carter, whose ability to effectively fly given the gravitational difference between Earth and Barsoom, finds himself allied with their opponents, falls in love with a feisty princess (Lynn Collins) and that's pretty much your lot.

For long periods of this strangely structured film, given the flimsiness of the plot, very little happens while there are several occasions when it's actually next to impossible to figure out exactly what's going on.

During these passages, you may find your mind drifting and asking: 'Just how did they spend so much money on this fiasco?' The acting is uniformly terrible, the dialogue worse, the 3D utterly pointless and the effects no more than you'd expect from an aspiring franchise-starter.

John Carter is also pretty po-faced, lacking the sense of self-mocking humour which made the 1980 Mike Hodges' effort Flash Gordon, which mined a similar seam of material, such a camp classic.

Nope, very little life on Mars here.

THE RAVEN Thriller. Starring John Cusack, Luke Evans, Alice Eve, Brendan Gleeson, Kevin McNally. Directed by James McTeigue. Cert 15A

And from po-faced to Poe-based, as the life and work of Edgar Allan Poe form the basis for this daft and dark thriller. Set in Baltimore, the story sees a serial killer carrying out a string of murders 'inspired' by Poe's stories which results in the author himself (John Cusack, channelling his inner Nicolas Cage) helping a detective (Luke Evans) to solve the crimes.

Although a tad murky visually and at times totally ridiculous, there's something rather likeable about The Raven, even if it's nowhere near as scary as the 1935 Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi movie with which it shares its name. HHIII

BEL AMI Drama. Starring Robert Pattinson, Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Christina Ricci, Colm Meaney, Philip Glenister. Directed by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod. Cert 15A

Robert Pattinson's exit strategy from the Twilight franchise won't be harmed at all with a decent performance as the lecherous rake Georges Duroy, nicknamed Bel Ami, in this adaptation of the Guy de Maupassant novel.

The setting is Paris in the 1890s as the recently discharged cavalry officer uses his charm and wiles to get ahead in society -- initially as a journalist, ah those were the days -- by seducing women of influence. Uma Thurman, Christina Ricci and Kristen Scott Thomas are three who fall under his spell with varying levels of emotional fallout, the latter pair delivering fine performances, while Pattinson has the required cold-eyed cockiness to carry off a believable portrayal of an amoral opportunist. Nice frocks too.

STELLA DAYS Drama. Starring Martin Sheen, Stephen Rea, Trystan Cravelle, Marcella Plunkett, Tom Hickey, Amy Huberman. Directed by Thaddeus O'Sullivan. Cert 15A

The Ireland of the 1950s gets another run out in this slight, well-made but all-too-familiar drama. Martin Sheen stars as an intellectually superior, almost snobbish priest, exiled from Rome to Borrisokane and having to deal with a sleeveen local politician (Stephen Rea) and a bishop (Tom Hickey) obsessed with building new churches.

There are times when the story threatens to slip into Paddywhackery cliche but director Thaddeus O'Sullivan is experienced enough to pull back from the brink when required. Decent performances from the entire cast adds to a solid, if unremarkable, film.

CLEANSKIN Thriller. Starring Sean Bean, Abhin Galeya, Peter Polycarpou, Tuppence Middleton, Charlotte Rampling. Directed by Hadi Hajaig. Cert 16

The reasons why young British muslims join radical terrorist cells is an interesting and unusual subtext to this debut thriller from Hadi Hajaig in which former SAS soldier Sean Bean, now working for an MI5 black ops unit, uses ruthless methods to track down a group of suspected suicide bombers.

It's all pretty believable until we see a news flash which informs the audience that 'Spurs win Champions League final' which is where the film enters the realm of pure fantasy.