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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: John Carter

JOHN CARTER (Two and a Half Stars)
U. S.: Andrew Stanton, 2012

What can you say about a movie that cost upwards of 250 million dollars to make, and maybe it’s not quite enough?

Well… John Carter, the new live action Disney epic — based on the popular early 20th century pulp series of science fiction novels (“A Princess of Mars,“ etc.) by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs — reportedly cost all of that and more, and it still looks like as if it’s missing something. But maybe it’s missing something money can’t buy. Set mostly in a Martian desert landscape that looks like Monument Valley, with an adventure script that suggests Star Wars crossed with Avatar, The Searchers and Flash Gordon, it’s not a bad movie. In fact — with its robust action, its classy cast and a gallery of Martian creatures that look like escapees from George Lucas’ cantina — it’s often quite entertaining.

Star Wars was the cinematic descendant of the original “John Carter” and I don’t see any reason why fans of the first movie shouldn’t also enjoy the second,. Thanks to its gifted troupe of technicians, to cinematographer Dan Mindel, production designer Nathan Crowley, all the visual effects people, and, most notably, co-writer-director Andrew Stanton (the Pixar-bred director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E) it often looks great. But that certain vital human or emotional link that often can turn a simple spectacle into a rousing entertainment, is often missing here. It’s an epic in search of a pulse.

John Carter was adapted by a trio of writers, Stanton, Mark Andrews and novelist Michael Chambon (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay“), from the Burroughs novel cycle that became a pop classic and inspired the whole genre of Flash Gordon-Buck Rogers “space operas.” And the result is a massively well-produced Martian show. You can see the $250 million, if not necessarily appreciate where it‘s going.

The book is one of Burroughs’s high-machismo fairytales: a male fantasy perfect for guys who get pushed around, and want to push back. In Burroughs’s yarn, Captain John Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch of Wolverine), is an explorer and ex-Confederate Army Captain who dies and leaves his fortune, and a journal, to his relative, the young Edgar Rice Burroughs (played by Daryl Sabara).

The journal describes Carter’s hitherto unknown and undreamed-of Martian odyssey: It tells us how Carter mysteriously travels to Mars (not by space ship, like Flash, but by something like teleportation) and has a series of Avatarian adventures while bounced around between three warring Martian factions — two of which (the residents of the flying City of Helium and their nemeses, the Zadonga Warriors) look human, and talk English, and one of which (The Tharks) are six-limbed galloping creatures who also talk English. (As well as Tharkian, with subtitles.) The Tharks are the most interesting, and often the best acted, interpreted by a crack ensemble that includes Willem Dafoe as wise leader Tars Tarkas and Samantha Morton as rebellious Sola.

The other factions have star power too. Smart, raven-haired, Newman-eyed love interest Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and her stolid pop Tardos (Ciaran Hinds) are among the Heliumites. The Zadonga heavies include Dominic West as Sab Than, the creep who aspires to Dejah’s hand (and has conned her dad into a “political marriage“), and the ubiquitous Mark Strong as evil advisor Matai Shang, who can change shapes into the images of others (which makes him an ideal politician). The fact that all of these Martian groups, even the ones from different species and planets, can talk English is the clearest sign that the whole Carter Chronicle is here what it was regarded as when I was a science fiction-reding 12-year-old: juvenile sci-fi, or “space opera” (which is why I passed them up for Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Heinlein, Alfred Bester, Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick. This 12-year-old’s snobbery was despite the fact that I’d been a big Burroughs-Tarzan fan at 9 — and had even written, back then, a 60-page Tarzan novel of my own, called, very Burroughs-ishly, “Tarzan and the Caves of Gaspaar.”)

I probably would have adored this movie at nine. It’s faithful to Burroughs, and the cast is a good one — and those were my main movie-judging criteria at that time. But the cast is weak at the top — with Kitsch’s Carter. (Paradoxically maybe, he’s not kitschy enough. Or the alternative: He’s neither amusingly campy nor honestly emotional.) Kitsch’s face has a bit of Kurt Russell‘s surly charm, but, for most of this movie, he lacks the strong conquering presence of someone who reacts so well to getting whisked off to Mars from the Old West, and who then becomes a local hero of the Tharks due to his ability to leap around in huge bounds in the altered gravity — and to top it off, of someone who could woo and win a Martian Princess. Something has to explain Carter’s unusual heroism — besides that habitual movie star short cut: to heroism: extreme good looks.

The irony of John Carter, is that, with its space battles, interplanetary love affair and weird creatures (the best good beast is the huge puppyish “calot” Woola and the best bad ones are the huge arena monsters )it looks overfamiliar, and it’s been carped at by some as simply a Star Wars wannabe or Avatar retread. Actually, the John Carter stories, which began in All-Story in 1912, were the great grand-daddies of all space operas. However much they may have been influenced by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, they were among the first stories to blend the landscapes, action, heroes and ethos of the pulp Western — the “horse opera” — with an exotic, otherworldly, other-planetary backdrop.

So, 100 years later, it isn’t quite fair to criticize this John Carter (which becomes John Carter of Mars in the end-titles) as being a knockoff itself. People have been taslking about adapting Carter to the movies, ever since Loony Tuner Bob Clampett proposed a feature cartoon version back in 1931. “Flash Gordon” was a knock-off of the Carter stories — and James Cameron hasn’t been shy about claiming for Avatar the previous influence and example of Carter‘s Mars.

As to whether it’s a good movie, well yeah, it is, though it may have bitten off too big a chew. But it has everything you need in a movie like this, if you’re, oh say, nine to twelve. And I often wish I were a nine-year-old again, sitting beneath a tree at the Yerkes Observatory, Williams Bay, Wisconsin, waiting for my mother to finish work, bending over a brown spiral notebook with a ball point pen, and writing “Tarzan and the Caves of Gaspaar.”

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Wilmington

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin