Wednesday, March 14, 2012

John Carter

I don't know how they managed to do it, but somehow the marketing powerhouse that is Disney managed to drop the ball on promoting it's sci-fi epic, John Carter. It has all the elements of a winning movie. It's directed by Andrew Stanton, the man behind Wall-E, Finding Nemo and A Bug's Life. The script was co-written by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon. Most of all, it's based on Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs's classic sci-fi/pulp series, which laid the foundation for many modern sci-fi blockbusters such as Star Wars and Avatar.

However, it's far more violent than Stanton's Pixar movies, so Disney probably didn't want to associate the two, but in an attempt to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, Disney severely downplayed the pulp elements of John Carter. The ads seem to avoid any mention that the movie is largely set on Mars, and in fact they chose to abandon the film's original title, John Carter of Mars, or to use the source novel's puplier sounding title, A Princess of Mars. I can't imagine why they chose to do this. Audiences seemed to have no trouble accepting the absurd premise of a movie like The Day After Tomorrow, so it's not like they'd have any trouble accepting a movie about an Earth man on Mars. Alas, the marketing campaign only really shows John Carter bouncing around a desert, battling monsters and flying alien spacecraft, ultimately giving it the appearance of another generic sci-fi flick. It's not.

With John Carter, Disney has been maintaining its streak of mature, but family friendly action movies, such as Pirates of the Carribean and Tron Legacy. The titular John Carter is a veteran of the American Civil War who finds himself transported to Mars. He finds himself to be stronger than he was on Earth and able to leap impossible distances. He is taken in by a race of tall, six-armed, green beings known as Tharks. While in their custody, he discovers that Mars, known by the natives as Barsoom, is also home to a humanoid race that is engaged in its own civil war, one that is being manipulated by the same god-like beings that brought him to Mars in the first place.

There's plenty of great characters in John Carter, brought to life by a well chosen cast. Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton lend their voices for the Tharks. Mark Strong plays one of the god-beings. He may be typecast as a villain, but he does play the role well. Lynn Collins does a great job as the Martian princess, especially since she manages to portray her character as a warrior, without coming off as overtly butch, and as a damsel in distress without looking completely helpless. I'm on the fence about Taylor Kitsch as John Carter. For the most part, he does alright with the role, but there are moments where he comes off as a poor man's Timothy Olyphant, or seems to be trying channel Wolverine. Fortunately, his weaker moments are balanced out by a scene-stealing alien dog creature thing.

Even though John Carter is based on one of the oldest sci-fi tales out there, and bits and pieces of the original story have been plundered and used in other movies you've probably already seen, it still feels fresh and new in this movie. Part of of that may be because of the balance the filmakers managed to find between playing the story seriously while at the same time keeping in line with the tale's pulp fiction roots.   The filmmakers have crafted a reasonably complex mythology that's very character driven, but doesn't dwell on how complex its mythology is or let it all be an excuse for a series of big explosive action sequences. This is more than can be said of many other sci-fi epics of recent memory. (Ahem, Star Wars prequels. I'm looking in your direction).

Like I said, John Carter doesn't entirely shed its pulp origins. They kept the names from the original story, which was written in the 1900s, so it does take a bit of getting used to hearing characters use words like Thark and Barsoom, and having them not sound like joke names. Just remember, there was a point where a movie with names like Darth Vader, Chewbacca and Skywalker sounded ridiculous too. Then of course there are moments where we see John Carter pull off absurd feats, such as taking on an entire army by himself, but they're done with just the right amount of restraint. The Martian princess also finds herself forced to marry an evil warlord, but at least it's framed as a strategic move on her behalf to end the civil war, and not because she is in some way too weak to stand up for herself.

Overall, John Carter isn't anything terribly groundbreaking, but it's the sort of fun action epic that's the reason why you go see movies in theatres in the first place. It's got all the action and spectacle of a summer action movie with the romance and subtle storytelling of a Pixar movie. If anything else, just go see this movie so that we don't live in a country where a well crafted story like this keeps losing at the box office to a Dr. Seuss adaptation that completely misses the point of the work it was based on.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


Martin Scorcese certainly created an oddity with his film Hugo. It's based on a children's book, has a plot that centers around children, is one of his few PG rated movies, and at the end of the day it's a decent movie.

Except that I can't imagine it much any appeal for children.

The studio tried to market this as a magical adventure story, but it's really more of a story about lost souls. There's the titular character, Hugo, an orphan that lives in a Paris train station. He keeps all of the clocks in the station running, while at the same time works on repairing a mysterious automaton discovered by his deceased father. Hugo is constantly evading the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), a man with no other apparent purpose in life than to send loitering children off to the orphanage. Then there's Georges (Sir Ben Kingsley), a toy shop owner who comes off as uncommonly cruel after he catches Hugo trying to steal a wind-up mouse from his shop. However, when Georges's goddaughter, Isabelle, befriends Hugo, she and Hugo find that their quest to learn more about the automaton leads them to learn about Georges's past.

Now one would think that a story involving a mysterious mechanical man would be engaging from start to finish, but the parts of the film that focus on uncovering the mystery of the automaton are actually the weakest. It's as if Scorcese had an idea of what people expected in a film where children with British accents have a wild, fantastic adventure, and tried to dress up parts of Hugo to meet that expectation. Unfortunately the automaton plot just isn't as wild and fantastic as the story treats it as being, and so the characters seem to strain themselves to make the story more perilous and complicated than it needs to be.

Fortunately, the automaton isn't what the whole movie is about. Without revealing too much of the story, the mechanical man leads Hugo and Isabelle into a far more interesting story about the early days of filmmaking. It's here that I found the characters really began to develop, and where I finally found myself growing emotionally attached to them. You can just feel Scorcese's own love for filmmaking bursting through the characters as the relive the excitement of being the pioneers of the motion picture industry. It's also this part of the story that I imagine many younger viewers would lose interest, unless they happen to be aspiring entertainers themselves. It has a very mature feel to it. Not mature in the sex and violence sense, but in the sense that it deals with the very grown up aspects of success and loss.

It's not Scorcese's best work, but it's still a well crafted movie. It doesn't exactly feel like a Scorcese movie though. I've always found his movies to have a very raw, unpolished feel to them, almost as he didn't edit the footage as thoroughly as others wood, so as to capture the immediacy of the performances. Hugo, is mostly the opposite. It's slick and clean. In some instances, it's too over-processed actually. A few years back, a blogger pointed out how filmmakers have gone overboard with digital color correction, heavily playing up the colors orange and teal. Hugo may be one of the worst examples I've seen yet, with scenes where it looks like everybody is covered in spray tan and dressed in the same bright, brilliant shade of blue. Who new early 20th century Paris was the Jersey Shore of its day?

Overall, if you do end up checking Hugo out, go in knowing that it's not the magic-filled adventure story they've tried to market this movie as, but it's still a worthwhile movie.

Friday, March 2, 2012


Second only to 3D, the current trend of "found footage" movies is one of my biggest pet peeves in filmmaking today. When done well, it can immerse the viewer into the story, but it's used so often these days it feels like a gimmick to cover up an otherwise weak story. Thankfully, Chronicle is among those movies that uses the technique well, even though the found footage gimmick does prove to be distracting from time to time.

Lets get one thing out of the way. Despite what the ads suggest, Chronicle is not an action movie. It's actually a somewhat dark drama about a troubled teenager. At the start of the film, we see a kid named Andrew filming himself in the mirror. He's decided he's going to film everything as a way of dealing with his problems. His father is an alcoholic, his mother is terminally ill, and the only person even close to being his friend is his cousin Matt, and even he thinks Andrew is too weird to deal with. This all changes when Matt, Andrew and a third student named Steve come across a mysterious glowing rock that gives them all telekinetic abilities. 

Instead of following the cliche of deciding to become superheroes with their new powers, the three teenagers do what most of us would probably do with special abilities. They just use them to play around. While Matt and Steve are content to just leave it at that, Andrew finds himself struggling to keep himself in check as he deals with his rage from having an abusive father and from being bullied at school. 

This is where the found footage aspect of Chronicle really shines. The majority of the movie is shot from Andrew's camera, and you really do get a sense of what he is going through, as a result. We see him get bullied. We see him try to fit in. We see that he really wants to be a good kid, but at the same time we see him deal with the fact he has powers that he could use to hurt the people who hurt him. As he starts to lose his sense of self restraint, you still maintain a sense of empathy for him.

Unfortunately, at times the found footage gimmick strains itself as the story has to bend over backwards to  work in reasons why the characters are constantly filming themselves. For example, there's a female character who just happens to be an avid video blogger. This rather conveniently allows the director to cut back and forth between her filming Andrew, and vice versa, when they're having conversations. Worse yet, there's a huge fight scene near the end of the movie that takes place in Downtown Seattle, and one character uses his powers to surround himself with cameras stolen from visitors to the Space Needle. It serves no logical point to the story, other than to give the director more angles to shoot a dramatic dialogue exchange from, and still maintain the found footage plot device.

The found footage thing works best in films like The Blair Witch Project, where it's integral to the plot that the characters constantly film themselves, or like in Cloverfield, where an incredible event is happening in a short period of time, and it only makes sense that somebody would want to film everything. For Chronicle, the filmmakers may have been better off taking notes from District 9, a film where they used found footage as more of a framing device to set up the story, and shooting the film conventionally for scenes where it just didn't make sense for a camera to constantly be around.

Despite the occasional awkward instance of trying to force the camera into the scene as part of the story, Chronicle is overall a well shot, well acted movie about a teenager who just wants a chance a living a normal happy life in spite of his circumstances. I look forward to seeing more from the director, the writers and the actors of this movie.