John Carter (2012) a (mildly) belated review/autopsy

Has there been a movie that received as much bad press as 2012’s John Carter?

Based on the 1912 novel A Princess of Mars by author Edgar Rice Burroughs (his most famous creation, of course, is Tarzan), the movie was released earlier this year and proved a massive flop.  It cost in the neighborhood of $250 million to make (not including marketing, which I’ll return to in a moment) and its worldwide take was a decent, but far from good considering the costs, $179 million.  The losses from this Disney production’s release resulted in the resignation of a chairman within the company.

The fact is that the film appeared doomed almost from the beginning.  Word leaked early on in the production that there were problems.  There was whispers of dissatisfaction from the studio regarding the work in progress.  There was also word of reshoots and rumors that Andrew Stanton, the director of the film who was best known for his computer animated Pixar work, was in over his head with actual human actors.

When the film neared actual release, I had the feeling potential audiences already were poisoned against the movie.  These opinions certainly weren’t helped by the film’s very bland title (the studios appeared worried mentioning “Mars” in the title would turn off the already turned off audiences) and a truly inept advertising campaign.  In fact, the later may well have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

Yet as the film was released and proved a financial calamity for Disney, I couldn’t help but notice that despite the massive disinterest shown by audiences, the reviews of the film weren’t all that…awful.  True, the film polled at a mediocre 52% among critics at Rottentomatoes.com, but it held a higher 64% among the audiences that bothered to see the film.

So I wondered:  Was the film unfairly condemned?  Did it deserve a better fate?  Were potential audiences wrong in turning their backs?

I was curious to find out.  I missed the film in theaters but when it arrived on home video, I gave it a look.  So, what did I see?  In brief, a good, though not great adventure film.

To begin, John Carter is gorgeous to look at.  The visuals are quite impressive and I felt the filmmakers most certainly captured the “look” of the Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels. The computer generated effects are, for the most part, seamless. The alien creatures look quite real, and Taylor Kitsch looks good as John Carter and Lynn Collins looks equally good as Dejah Thoris, the Princess of Mars.

Unfortunately, that the best thing I can say about them.  As handsome as the two actors are in the title roles, they really lack chemistry.  I always felt that one of the things that made the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs so successful, apart from the obvious pulp adventures presented, was the sexuality.  Both Tarzan and the Mars series featured brawny, swashbucking men’s men and incredibly beautiful women in peril.  As readers we longed for Tarzan to get Jane.  In the Mars series, we longed for John Carter to marry Dejah Thoris.

But in this film, the sexuality is toned waaaay down.  As I said before, part of the problem is that the actors lack chemistry.  The other part, I suspect, is that the producers/director really clamped down on the sexuality.  For most of the movie John Carter and Dejah Thoris show little interest in each other, it seemed, and certainly nowhere near the sexual tension present between Tarzan and Jane in films from the 1930’s.

There is also so much going on that I couldn’t help but wonder just how much was cut.  The character of Sola, for example, accompanies Carter and Thoris for the middle section of the film on but is relegated to being such a minor character with so few lines of worth that one wonders why they even bothered having her in the film at all.  The movie features three main “villains”, but once again very little is shown of them and when two meet their fate, one feels little satisfaction that the villain(s) got what was coming to them.

I suspect that John Carter was a victim of a combination of factors, from studio interference to director inexperience to an underdeveloped script.  The actors, I felt, did what they could and weren’t bad in their roles, though I suppose an argument could be made that the two leads failed to register enough chemistry between them.

And yet, having said all that, the film is not the disaster audiences suspected it would be.  It is a pleasant enough time killer with some good humor and some impressive set pieces but, and its a very BIG “but”, given the film’s costs, it could and should have been so much more.  On a four star scale, I’d give John Carter 2 1/2 stars.

First Spacecraft to Reach Interstellar Space…?

Fascinating article from Time Magazine concerning Voyager 1, a spacecraft sent from Earth way back in 1977 which may now be reaching the edge of the Solar System…and entering into Interstellar space, making it the first such craft to do so:

http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/06/15/voyager-i-may-soon-become-the-first-spacecraft-to-reach-interstellar-space/

What is depressing to consider is the fact that this spacecraft was launched some 35 years ago and is only now reaching the edge of the Solar System, having traveled an incredible 11 BILLION miles.

Prometheus Redux…Redux

This should be my last post regarding the movie Prometheus.  Yesterday, I posted a video that presented a pretty crushing take down of all the things that didn’t make sense/weren’t clearly explained/plot holes in the movie Prometheus.

Today, a link to a very well thought out examination by Cavalorn of much of the mythological (and other) symbolism found in the movie:

http://cavalorn.livejournal.com/584135.html#cutid1

Curiously, while the author points out the many mythological elements, he misses what I thought was one of the more obvious ones, that of the myriad ways a parent/child interacts, whether good (trying to follow in their steps, make them proud) to bad (wanting them “out of the way/dead” so they can take over).

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  Prometheus is a tough film to discard off-hand.  It fails on many levels, perhaps the greatest of which is that there are so many plot holes/unanswered questions and idiotic characterizations (and idiotic character actions) that it is not possible for me to recommend the movie to anyone.

But having said that, clearly there was considerable thought put into the film and, while it may fail overall as entertainment, Prometheus does present the viewer with many interesting symbols/mythological elements that provide plenty of food for thought…for those interested.

Prometheus Redux…

Red Letter Media, perhaps best known for their epic evisceration of the Star Wars prequels, here offers a nice, tight, compendium of almost all the very frustratingly unanswered questions present in the movie Prometheus:

I have to give the folks above credit, they pretty much hit every question left unanswered in the movie in these four minutes, including a few things I certainly didn’t even think about but, in retrospect, probably should have.

As I said before, it is difficult to completely discard Prometheus (at least for me…many others have!).  I think the film does make a genuine attempt to do something “different” and I admire the whole “parent/child” dynamic they were exploring in all its myriad ways.  Having said that, all these silly unresolved issues really take away from the overall enjoyment one might have of the film.  Will there be a sequel that addresses some of this stuff?  Director Ridley Scott is now 74 years old.  Realistically, he’s only got a few more films in him and I wonder if he’ll ever get to do a sequel to this film…or leave it in other, perhaps less capable hands.

Prometheus (2012) a (right on time!) review

Of the films scheduled for release this summer, there were only a couple I really, really wanted to see in theaters.  Of those, there was one I absolutely would not miss:  Director Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien universe, Prometheus.

In spite of my excitement to see the film, I tried to keep my expectations low, for I knew that sometimes those things lead to a huge let down.  In the end, I chose to see the film in as “good” a format as possible:  In IMAX and 3D.  I sat in the theater and, for the very last time, kept my hopes in check.  The film played out…

…and I found myself incredibly disappointed.

A few days have passed since then, and I’ve taken some time to process my thoughts.  I still feel this film is a major disappointment, and presents the viewer with too many inept moments and silly character actions, yet I nonetheless can’t help but admire what Mr. Scott and company tried to do, rather than succeeded in actually doing.

Prometheus, as the name should imply to anyone with even a casual knowledge of mythology, relates to the Titan Prometheus, who in the fables created man from clay and stole fire from the Gods.  The main theme of the film relates to this as well as the parent/child relationship.  On the surface and just below, this film is filled with references to how children and their parents interact…or don’t.

The protagonist of the movie, Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw, is presented as a person that is, ironically, both outside and tied in deep with parent/child concerns.  On the one hand, she’s an “orphan”, who as a young girl lost her father…yet has strong memories of him and hopes to emulate him.  On the other hand, it is revealed that she is incapable of having children of her own, thus of becoming a parent herself.

The two other main characters to follow, Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers and Michael Fassbender’s David, have their own parent/child issues, but to go into details about that would involve considerable spoilers.

The symbolism present in the film, I have to admit, has kept me from writing Prometheus off completely, this despite the fact that the film is remarkably -surprisingly- sloppily made, with way too many story holes, paper thin characters, and general stupidity.  Further, the film doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, trying for a “Chariot of the Gods” type story for much of its run time before lurching into horror only in its final act.

I could spend way too much time going over things that didn’t make sense or were muddled in their presentation, but I’ll focus on one specific thing that bothered me more than anything else in the film…and I’ll try to be as spoiler free as possible:

Why exactly did David spike the drink?

There is never a clear explanation of this, though there are hints, particularly David’s talk with Vickers just before.  But why was it done?  What was the purpose?

Despite some intriguing symbolism, in the end I remain roughly where I was upon walking out of the film.  I admire the attempt to create a “deep,” mythical story, but I simply cannot recommend Prometheus.  I’ve heard there is a longer “cut” of the film that features at least 20 additional minutes of material not seen in the theatrical release.  Perhaps when that version is released, those twenty minutes might explain the whole spiking the drink thing…though I doubt they’ll help make some of the movie’s other problems, including the cardboard side-characters and their fate, any more interesting.

A real shame.

Civil War Photo Mystery…

Absolutely fascinating article I found on The Huffington Post regarding Civil War era photographs found on the corpses of soldiers and the belated attempt to identify the people who were on the photographs.  This would obviously help identify both the victim and the family around them.  It is an admitted long shot given the length of time that has passed since the Civil War, yet one hopes that perhaps some name can be placed with some of the photographs:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/11/civil-war-photos-solve-mystery_n_1585750.html

Can Cops use Google to prevent murder?

Fascinating article by Will Oremus and posted on Slate Magazine regarding the possibility of the police using “real time” Google searches to possibly prevent crimes:

http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2012/06_could_cops_use_google_to_prevent_murder_.single.html

The first thing I thought about when I started reading this article was the Steven Spielberg directed movie Minority Report.  While not a big fan of the film (I thought the movie’s entire second act was really silly), the concept of crime prevention before the fact was fascinating and quite thought provoking.  The author of this article does mention that film, as well, but notes that while the movie’s science fictional psychics do not exist, it is possible to look in on suspicious Google searches while they occur to then get some idea of the possibility of a future crime.

People may Google all kinds of things, including how to commit various crimes, and it is that which the police, legally, could search for.

The big problem, however, is the same one that Minority Report alludes to: How do you know the person Googling suspicious/criminal things isn’t just curious and would never actually pursue anything illegal?  Further, if searching through real time Google queries becomes common place among law enforcement, there will inevitably be “jokers” out there who make criminal-sounding Google searches just to provoke a reaction.  Of that I have little doubt.

Still, fascinating article and food for thought.

Predators and Machete (2010) a (mildly belated) Robert Rodriguez double feature review!

A few days back, when reviewing Haywire, I noted the director of that film, Steven Soderbergh, was some kind of speed demon in the movie industry, releasing a tremendous amount of material since his first movie credits.

There is another movie director/producer speed demon out there, and this one’s output, at least given his fewer years in the industry, is nonetheless running neck and neck with Mr. Soderbergh’s: Robert Rodriguez.  While Mr. Soderbergh’s films tend to be more “artistic”, there is little doubt Mr. Rodriguez’s focus is on more crowd pleasing action/adventure films.

In 2010, Mr. Rodriguez’s Toublemaker Studios released two films.  In the past couple of days I finally got a chance to see both of them.

First up is Predators, a sequel to the popular alien hunter/killer films.  The original 1987 Predator is considered among actor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best films.  The subsequent sequel and “Aliens vs.” versions were considered quite a come down.  I read that when Mr. Rodriguez was first becoming a hot commodity in Hollywood, he was tasked with writing a sequel to the original Predator.  He did, but the film was never made.

Until now.

Predators, like Haywire, winds up being a pretty terrific film…until you get to the end.  Director Nimrod Antal keeps the level of tension going quite well, beginning the movie with a white knuckle sky dive sequence that immediately brought me into the film.  As we quickly find, several unsavory people were kidnapped from whatever it was they were doing.  When they awoke, the were in freefall and landed in a strange jungle.  As they would soon find, they are no longer on Earth.  They have been brought here by the Predator creatures as prey.

The movie stars Adrien Brody, on paper a seemingly unlikely choice for action star, as a silent but deadly mercenary who becomes the leader of this group of fellow kidnapped killers.  He is intent on survival but is reluctant to care for anyone in this motley group.

As I mentioned before, this film is quite terrific in the early going.  The action sequences are damn good and the interactions among the characters are reasonably strong.  Unfortunately, by the time we reach a certain “scavenger” character (I’m trying not to be too spoilery here), the movie starts to lose its steam.  Worse, the three Predator creatures our protagonists fight are gone for very long stretches of cinematic time.  Two of them wind up being dispatched waaaaaay too easily, especially considering what it took to get rid of only ONE of them in the original film.

In the end, I would cautiously recommend the film to those interested in the whole Predator genre.  This is a decent enough film that would have benefited from a stronger conclusion.

The trailer for the film, presented below, was the source of some controversy among movie goers.  At the 2:03 second mark, note how Adrien Brody’s character is “targeted” by several Predator lasers, implying that an army of those deadly beings have targeted him.  In the movie itself, there wound up being one laser targeting him.  While I don’t subscribe to the notion that theatrical trailers should give away movie plots, this particular change in what was presented in the film is quite a cheat.  Watching this trailer, you get a sense of a far bigger threat to our hero than was actually presented, and it does diminish that scene in the film.

Also released in 2010 was Robert Rodriguez’s “grindhouse” tribute Machete.  Appropriately enough, this movie began life as one of the faux movie trailers presented during the intermission of the Grindhouse double feature. A cynical person might say those trailers, and particularly the Machete trailer, were better than either Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror or Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, the actual films presented in Grindhouse.

I suppose I’m just that cynic, for while both actual films had their moments, to me the most memorable material was indeed in the faux trailers, and the one I found the most humorous of them all was Machete. When the actual film version was announced, I was therefore quite curious to see it.  Thanks to home video, I finally did have the chance to do just that.

So, did Machete the movie live up to Machete the faux trailer?

Yes. And no.

The Machete trailer was filled with grindhouse-styled mayhem. There was a great mix of way-over-the-top violence, gratuitous nudity, and a tongue firmly stuck in cheek. The movie tries to stick with this formula while adhering -perhaps a little too closely- with all the scenes present in the original trailer (everything in that trailer winds up appearing in the movie, for better or worse).

What the movie adds are several famous actors, including the likes of Robert DeNiro (!), Michelle Rodriguez, Lindsay Lohan, Steven Segal, and Jessica Alba.  There is a definite “wow” factor to seeing so many familiar faces in a movie that gleefully revels in this grindhouse atmosphere…

But what is lacking, in my opinion, is more overt humor.

Let’s face it:  Machete borders (no pun intended) on the ridiculous.  While we have plenty of bloody action and gratuitous nudity, we have a lot of tongue in cheek stuff but not nearly enough actual gags.  In fact, the movie presented only two really, really funny jokes:  The “Introducing Don Johnson” movie credit and the line delivered by Machete himself, stony faced Danny Trejo: “Machete don’t text.”

How I wish there were more examples to give!

Further, and most astonishingly, Robert DeNiro hardly registers as corrupt Senator McLaughlin.  He is given too little to do and winds up reading his lines and hitting his marks without ever rising above the material.  Steven Segal, as the movie’s big bad, is also curiously flat.  His big confrontation with Machete at the end of the film is quite ludicrous, but not for the right reasons:  We are told Mr. Segal is some expert swordsman, but during that last confrontation his level of swordplay is that of a kid playing ninja in a playground.

Having said all this, Machete is not without it’s bloody charms. To those who enjoy raunchy R-rated blood and guts, you will enjoy Machete for what it is. Others beware.

Before Watchmen controversy…

Noah Berlatsky offers this essay, published on Slate magazine, regarding the upcoming release of Before Watchmen, a prequel to perhaps one of the most famous comic book series ever created and how author/creator of Watchmen Alan Moore is right to detest the whole concept:

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2012/05/before_watchmen_controversy_alan_moore_is_right_.single.html

Mr. Berlatsky offers a pretty good run-down of how Watchmen, the original series, came to be such a sore spot for Alan Moore.  The fact is that the contract Mr. Moore signed for the book made certain assumptions on his part, specifically the idea that the property of the book, once out of print, would revert to Mr. Moore.  But because the book was so popular, DC Comics used that to keep the book printed in (so far) perpetuity and the characters in their clutches (so to speak).  Now, some twenty five years later, going ahead with “new” material based on the original story, much to Mr. Moore’s chagrin.

Let me say this:  I was a BIG fan of Mr. Moore’s writing almost from the very, very beginning.  Indeed, I was one of the very few people actually buying the original Saga of the Swamp Thing issues as they arrived on newstands that first introduced America to the talents of Alan Moore.  This was, by the way, pure luck as a friend of mine at the time suggested I give the book another try when issue #16 came out.  I was a fan of the original Len Wein/Berni Wrightson incarnation of the character but gave up this new series after a handful of the original issues.  When Mr. Moore took over with issue #20, things got real interesting real fast.

Mr. Moore did a fantastic job.  His writing blew me away, and I sought out whatever old material of his there was to be had.  I purchased every copy of the old Warrior Magazine I could find and found, to my delight, the first appearances of Alan Moore’s Marvel Man (later retitled Miracle Man) and the equally incredible V for Vendetta.  Anything by Alan Moore was worth buying, in my opinion, and I was rarely disappointed.

Mr. Moore, an unknown when his first couple of issues of Swamp Thing hit newstands, became a well known and much admired writer.  By the time Watchmen was released, I most certainly wasn’t one of the lone fans of his work.  Not anymore.  Everyone was eager to see what he was up to and the series was a big success.

Soon after, however, Alan Moore soured on his relationship with DC Comics and left them, vowing never to return.  As a fan of Mr. Moore, it was a really tough thing to take.  I was eager to see Mr. Moore take on other characters in the DC stable, from Superman to Batman to whomever he fancied.  I most certainly would have been there to read the works, but it was not to be.

From that point on, Mr. Moore started working for Image comics and wrote issues of Supreme, a thinly veiled “homage” to Superman (that’s what they said, but I would say the character was an out and out rip off of the character).  I found it curious that Mr. Moore, who at the time was complaining in interviews about the fact that he didn’t “own” his DC creations would have no difficulties working on rip-off versions of other well established characters.

This made me realize that Mr. Moore, as great a writer as he was, was not one to create original characters/stories, but was at his very best when putting his own unique spin on other established characters.  The fact was that Marvel Man was not his creation, but a thinly veiled rip off of the Shazam! version of Captain Marvel that was originally published in England.  Swamp Thing, as mentioned before, had already gained quite a bit of success in its original incarnation by Len Wein and Berni Wrightson.  V For Vendetta, while certainly not based on any established comic books, was a comic book version of 1984 and other anti-totalitarian works.  And Watchmen, as great of a series as it was, was originally intended to feature the then acquired by DC characters of Charlton Comics.  Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan, for example, was Charlton Comic’s Captain Atom.  Rorschach was The Question.  The Comedian was a thinly veiled version of The Peacemaker.  And so on.

Even to my younger fanboy self, there was more than a little wiff of hypocrisy in the protestations coming from Mr. Moore.  This was further exacerbated when he would go on to write his “America’s Best Comics” series which featured such characters as Promethea (his version of a Wonder Woman-like character) and Tom Strong (his version of a Doc Savage/Tarzan-like character).  This use of other author’s ideas drifted from homage to outright use with the release of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  The characters within this series included, among others, The Invisible Man, Captain Nemo, Dr. Jekyl, etc.  Mr. Moore could use them without worry because the characters, by that time, had lost their copyright status and were available.

And that’s not all!  Mr. Moore would go on to create Lost Girls, a graphic novel featuring the following trio of characters:  Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Wendy from Peter Pan, and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.  You get all those characters together in…a pornographic story?!  One wonders what the original authors of those particular works, which have also lapsed out of copyright, would think about the use of their characters by Mr. Moore in a pornographic story.

Let me emphasize this once again:  We’re talking about a man who bemoans the fact that others have control over characters and concepts he created…yet has no apparent problem appropriating and doing what he wants with characters others have created, whether in thinly veiled “homages” or in the outright use of copyright expired characters.

As a fan of much of Mr. Moore’s works, it pains me to say this, but I just don’t get him.  I can certainly sympathize with someone whose prized works are not under his control and being used in ways he’s not happy with.  But on the other hand, how is it different for DC Comics to use his creations for the Before Watchmen series versus Mr. Moore using others’ creations for his own League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Lost Girls?

How is this not hypocrisy on his part?

The Blog of E. R. Torre

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