John Carter


 

John Carter

Taylor Kitsch is stunned when Lynn Collins gives him the box office numbers.

(2012) Science Fiction (Disney) Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, Willem Dafoe, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Polly Walker, Bryan Cranston, Thomas Hayden Church, Rupert Frazer, Nicholas Woodeson, David Schwimmer, Jon Favreau. Directed by Andrew Stanton

 

As a young boy my father introduced me to Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Tarzan books. I read all of them eagerly, but it was the Barsoom series that intrigued me the most. I wasn’t alone in this – notable writers such as Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein were also heavily influenced by the books, as was scientist Carl Sagan. It has taken more than 79 years of development – from a proposed feature length animation – for the book to finally make the screen.

There is good reason for that. Burroughs had a terrific imagination but was not a gifted writer in many ways. His books were more like travelogues, particularly this series and the plot meandered quite a bit. I can imagine potential screenwriters being plenty frustrated by the lack of inertia as they tried to adapt A Princess of Mars, the first book in the series. At last however, they managed to and the result is one of the more anticipated movies of the Spring.

Ned Burroughs (Sabara) is summoned to the home of his Uncle only to find out that he had passed away shortly before Ned arrived. The instructions left for Ned were cryptic; his Uncle wished to be buried in a crypt that could only be opened from the inside, and a journal was entrusted to Ned which was not to be read for two years.

Ned being a compliant sort follows his Uncle’s wishes to the letter and then begins to read the journal. His uncle, John Carter (Kitsch) had been a cavalry officer in the American Civil War and a good one – but his side had lost. Carter had lost a lot more than that however; his wife and daughter perished in a fire while he was away from his Virginia farm and the grief-stricken Carter went West to find his fortune, a cave of gold that would set him up for life.

He finds that cave, but a lot more as well; a strange bald man with an amulet that transports Carter to Mars accidentally. Well, at first he doesn’t realize he’s on Mars; he just thinks he’s in the desert somewhere. Oddly, he is able to leap great distances (owing to the gravity). Carter is found and captured by green men with four arms and tusks who call themselves Tharks. This particular group is led by Tars Tarkas (Dafoe),who spares Carter because of his amazing leaping ability which Tarkas thinks might be useful. Carter, however, isn’t disposed towards fighting for anybody. He is given to Sola (Morton), a Thark who has a somewhat checkered past but like Tarkas, a good heart.

There is a civil war going on here as well, between two city-states – Helium, led by the noble Tardos Mors (Hinds) and Zodanga, led by the bloodthirsty Sab Than (West). The Zodangans have developed a high tech energy beam that is a devastating weapon wiping out most of the navy of Helium. In order to put the war to a halt, Mors offers Sab Than his own daughter in marriage – Dejah Thoris (Collins).

Despite being a princess, Dejah Thoris is also quite the scientist and warrior herself, not to mention having a will of her own. She has her own ideas of what she wants for her life and they don’t include being married to a bloodthirsty tyrant she has no feelings for. So she does the sensible thing – she runs away. Her intended also does the sensible thing – engages in a battle with her floating barge and shoots it down. She is saved by John Carter and his new friends the Tharks. Seeing how strong he is and how high he can jump gives her ideas – ideas that can lead to an end to war but on Helium’s terms.

However, unbeknownst to either of them there are factions within the Tharks who have a vested interest in Carter meeting an untimely end. Also the Zodangans are getting aid by a mysterious group of wizards who mean to maintain the balance on Mars the old-fashioned way – by installing a puppet dictator who will put an end to strife and rule over the dying planet with an iron fist. However, their plans won’t come to fruition if John Carter has anything to do with it.

Stanton is known for his work with animated features at Pixar – he has already directed Finding Nemo and Wall-E, the latter one of my favorite movies of the last few years. This is his first live feature (although given that a good chunk of his cast is CGI as is much of his environment, it isn’t far from an animated feature) and he acquits himself fairly well. He knows how to tell a good story.

The trouble is, A Princess of Mars isn’t a particularly good story. Once you get past the novelty of being transported to Mars, Carter doesn’t really do a whole lot other than fight and give stirring speeches and Thoris is little more than a damsel in distress. At least both characters are better written here, particularly Thoris.

The problem is that Taylor Kitsch, best-known for his work in “Friday Night Lights,” doesn’t carry the character well. Sure he looks good shirtless (which Carter is for most of the movie) but honestly the movie needs a lead who can do more than jump and posture. John Carter needs to inspire confidence and project heroism and Kitsch does neither. Bill Goodykoontz of the Arizona Republic characterized him as “generic” and that is a perfect description of his performance.

Collins fares better. She might be guilty of trying too hard sometimes but at least she doesn’t phone her performance in (as others do here). She at least makes her character memorable which is hard to do in a movie like this sort.

Too often these days adventure/action films of this sort place an overreliance on special effects and little or none on character. What point is there to all these pretty images if we don’t care about the characters who inhabit them? Sure, the cities and aircraft of Barsoom (Mars) are amazing to look at. The Tharks are impressively realistic. The interiors are sufficiently alien. The movie looks nice.

The action sequences are pretty fine as well, from an arena scene in which Tars Tarkas, Sola and Carter fight a Martian white ape (which is gigantic, furry and not at all ape-like) to a battle aboard a barge where Carter goes leaping about like the Incredible Hulk. That leaping, by the way, is a little bit distracting – it looks silly in places.

Still, while definitely flawed it’s kind of fun as well. If your expectations are too high you’re bound to be disappointed – and quite frankly being a fan of the original novel, I had hoped for better even though I shouldn’t have. After all, as I said earlier, this isn’t an easy story to film.

That doesn’t mean this isn’t worth seeing though, and it most certainly is. There is a lot to admire here, from the vistas and cityscapes to the old-fashioned swashbuckling. Yeah, there are ray guns and swords and sorcery and flying ships and bare-chested heroes – I just wish there might have been a bit more to the characters as well.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of swashbuckling action. Some pretty nifty CG effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Little to no substance. Battle sequences often confusing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence, not to mention a good deal of royal blue blood and ichors.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the movie was filmed in Utah because of its barren landscape with unusual rock formations giving it an otherworldly look. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote A Princess of Mars on which the movie is based while residing in Utah.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100. The reviews are about as mixed as you can get them.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

DOG LOVERS: You wouldn’t think there would be dogs on Mars but there is an adorable dog-like creature that runs unbelievably fast. Like, autobahn fast.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: A Thousand Words

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The Tourist


The Tourist

Johnny Depp can't get over Angelina Jolie; Angelina Jolie can't get over venice; the bellman can't get over that he's actually in this scene.

(2010) Thriller (Columbia) Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Paul Bettany, Steven Berkoff, Timothy Dalton, Rufus Sewell, Christian De Sica, Alessio Boni, Daniele Pecci, Giovanni Guidelli, Raoul Bova, Bruno Wolkovich, Ralf Moeller. Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

A beautiful mysterious woman on a train. A math teacher from a Podunk junior college in Wisconsin. All the ingredients for a wonderfully crafted thriller in the vein of Charade or any one of a number of Hitchcock movies, and in the hands of an Oscar-winning director could be the makings of a marvelous two hours at the movies. 

A beautiful, sophisticated Parisian woman named Elise Clifton-Ward (Jolie) is being watched by the police, in particular a Scotland Yard police inspector by the name of John Acheson (Bettany) who seriously needs to consider a decaffeinated brand. She receives a note from Alexander Pearce, a brilliant larcenist on the run from not only Interpol and Scotland Yard but also from Reginald Shaw (Berkoff), a notorious British gangster who has a predilection of surrounding himself with Russian muscle. You see, Pearce stole more than two billion dollars from Shaw and that kind of thing tends not to sit well with gangsters. Elise is apparently the connection to Pearce that everyone is looking for.

The note tells her to get on the train to Venice and pick out someone with a similar height and build as Pearce and make the police believe that the man she is with is actually Pearce. It appears that the thief has used some of his ill-gotten loot to change his face and even his voice. Nobody knows what he looks like now, not even Elise.

She chooses a very unlikely sort; Frank Tupelo (Depp), the aforementioned Math teacher from the junior college in Wisconsin (making Jolie the mystery woman on the train). The two of them wind up flirting. He is surprised; things like this never happen to him. Still, they share a fine meal and then as the train pulls into the station, they go their separate ways. Frank is certain he’s seen the last of her.

But he hasn’t. As he fumbles with a map in St. Mark’s Square, she pulls up in a boat and offers him a lift. She takes him to a five star hotel, and checks him in as her husband. It is clear they are mutually attracted, but she loves someone else – and his heart has recently been broken. He sleeps on the couch, she sleeps in the bed.

In the meantime, both Interpol and the gangster are closing in on them. Frank has no idea what he’s in for but as thugs with guns come after him and the police sell him to the mobster, he only knows that the deadly game he’s playing he must win because the consequences of losing are fatal.

There are definitely elements to a variety of old-fashioned thrillers, not the least of which are Charade, The Man Who Knew Too Much and North by Northwest. Director von Donnersmarck previously directed the Best Foreign Film Oscar winner The Lives of Others knows his way around a thriller, and while this isn’t the most energetic ones in terms of suspense, it nonetheless keeps the audience on their toes.

Jolie is channeling Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly here simultaneously – not an easy feat I can tell you. Her Elise is cool, sophisticated and elegant – she even wears long formal gloves, not something most people wear these days. This is Jolie at her most attractive, and she uses her beauty as a deadly trap. She is the very embodiment of the femme fatale.

Depp can act the stammering, stumbling nincompoop when he chooses to; in fact, it’s part of his charm. I think the part might have been better served with a suave Cary Grant type – not that there are any around like that (maybe George Clooney comes close). Depp fulfills his role competently but there isn’t much chemistry between him and Jolie; a little more passion might have made the movie work better.

The supporting cast is solid, with Bettany as the obsessive cop, Dalton as his angry boss (what is it about superior police officers that they always have to have a bug up their asses?) and Berkoff as the baddie, a role he has more or less perfected.

This is a competent thriller that takes full advantage of its Venetian location, and the charm of Venice is where the charm of this movie lies. Von Donnersmarck has the makings of a great director, although The Tourist won’t go down as one of his signature films. It is, however, at least entertaining and if you’re into watching Angelina Jolie, she is at her best here. Actually, between her work in Changeling and this film, I might have to revise her position on my list of favorite actresses in a more upwards direction.

REASONS TO GO: You can’t get much better in the star power department than this. Magnificent Venetian vistas and the kind of upper crust lifestyles of the rich and shameless we all adore.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot twist at the end isn’t nearly as jaw-dropping as it should have been.

FAMILY VALUES: There is violence a’plenty and a good bit of strong language as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jolie stated in an interview that the only reason she agreed to do the movie was because it would be a “quick shoot” in Venice.

HOME OR THEATER: The movie is on a grand scale that demands a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: How Do You Know