RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 13: Andrew Stanton’s “John Carter (Of Mars)” (2012)


John_carter_poster


The Players…

Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Willem Defoe, Mark Strong, Domenic West and Thomas Haden Church.


The Story…

While prospecting for gold out West, disgraced and world-weary Civil War vet John Carter encounters some mysterious alien tech that inexplicably launches him into space and landing him on Mars. Great. As if fighting the Yanks hadn’t been bad enough, Carter now finds himself stuck amongst three warring, alien factions hell-bent on controlling the planet. Trapped in a world he never asked for and so on. Now John has to get some bearings amidst being exiled, injured, thoroughly disoriented and cut off from humanity. For all this insanity, Carter is left with only one question:

“How the hell am I going to get back home?”


The Rant…

Alright, already. Quit your groaning.

Yes, I know that John Carter was a high profile flop. Craptastic reviews, indifferent audience turnout and horrible box office returns that barely made a dent in covering the out of control budget. I know all this. There was nothing “middling” about Carter by The Standard’s…well, standard. Down the toilet with this one, folks. Flush.

Wait a minute. There is a madness to this method. Hear me out.

For every experiment to attempt to yield positive results, we need to have a control. For sixty-plus installments here at RIORI I’ve tried to systematically dissect dozens of so-so films for your possible viewing enjoyment…or warning you to run far, far away as if all the demons of hell were chasing you with dismemberment and rape in mind. In that order. I’m doing a public service here, remember?

So far RIORI‘s lab work has been a crapshoot (with an emphasis on “crap”) regarding the labwork movies. It’s been and will continue to be an experiment of sorts. Some middling movies have proven to be pretty good if not delightful, while others have been at least disappointing and at worst horrific time-wasters where you felt after seeing it you should have been doing something better with those lost hours (like playing Xbox or finding a cure for rectal cancer).

I think, however, that you really can’t separate the wheat from the chaff without visiting some fallow fields firsthand. Or in some cases, the swamp that reeks like Grandma’s feet (you know, the one who has bunions the size of rice cakes?).

What I’m getting at here is that we can’t really gauge how good or bad a so-so movie—or any movie, for that matter—is without comparing it between a truly great movie (say, GoodFellas or Casablanca) or a truly awful one. A flop. A big ol’ turd afloat in the Hollywood punchbowl. Good movies are what directors aspire to create; to generate that feeling of story and emotion that would raise audiences’ spirits. But that’s a trap, a truism as it were. Great films like The Godfather, pt. 2 or Seven Samurai are very bright candles that are difficult to blow out, as well as lighting the proverbial path for other filmmakers to follow, showing them the way to, “See? This is how it’s done. Now you try.”

A lot of directors do try. Quite a few do well. Some simply execute an inoffensive, meh film. Most just crash and burn. But in the endgame it all boils down to that old saw, “We learn more from our failures than our successes.” That way of thinking might explain away why when a film critic extols the virtue of a great movie, it’s often balanced against a similar film that either backfired or outright sh*t the bed. Imagine Roger Ebert or Leonard Maltin saying something like, “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan is a really fun film, especially considering the first movie was so boring.”

Here’s another possible scenario: “Scorsese really scored big with his biopic Raging Bull. This reaffirms the director’s creative worth, particularly after his recent disappointments with New York, New York and American Boy.”

Then there’s always the old standby: comparing a good film with a similar plot to a sh*tty analog. The contrasting between Brand X film against Gigli, Batman And Robin, anything Adam Sandler’s done in the past five years, etc.

So you get it. Bitter with the sweet. Great films are unimpeachable in their creative merit. Bad films just suck, disappoint and—at worst and way too often—insult. So you really can’t elevate a certain film to godhood within the pantheon of Tinsel Town without also crawling on the backs of dozens of cinematic fallen angels. I know I’m painting with a wide brush. I always do. C’mon, this is nothing new. It’s virtually SOP here at RIORI. You should know this by now.

Still here? Excellent.

That being said, it’s kinda how I stumbled upon John Carter. Well, “stumble” isn’t really accurate. When I sift through the Web to track down potential victims for RIORI‘s dry well in its basement I refer to a number of movie review/business sites. Familiar places like Rotten Tomatoes, AllMovie and of course the IMDB. Also lesser known/more obscure pages like Box Office Mojo, Flickchart and The Numbers. In addition to suggestions via FaceBook, Twitter or actual flesh-and-blood people calling out the next film to tackle at RIORI, I usually bumble through the above sites to choose my next victim. Such sniffings resulted in how John Carter hovered into my airspace.

I learned that John Carter was so reviled it had to be the ideal specimen as my experiment’s control. It was the biggest fiasco in recent years that throttled the movie industry. It had a big budget, name stars, a revered director, ideal source material and a high profile thanks to the Disney tag (more on the House of Mouse later). Then Murphy’s Law intervened.

*twirls moustache*

I had found my bitch. John Carter fit the bill in every way. All that bad press? How could I not scratch my head and wonder WTF? So I proceeded to plunk the disc into the machine and got to watching. I entered the labyrinth with a neutral attitude of, “Oh, how bad could it possibly be?”

Famous last words? Let’s see…


You can’t escape your past, no matter where you go. Or run.

Former Confederate cavalryman Captain John Carter (Kitsch) has been trying to escape his past ever since he lost his family. He left his beloved Virginia to points afar, trying to both break away from his wounded history and forge a new life for himself. Defeated. Without a family. Alone. Based on sordid circumstances, that’s how he wants it.

His wish isn’t granted. Carter’s rep as a once fearless soldier dogs him, enough for him to be uprooted from his chosen vagabond existence by a troop of frontier soldiers. Carter’s got himself a rep for battle, all right. So much so that he’s going to be forcibly enlisted in dreadful “Indian affairs” or get strung up by his thumbs.

Carter’s having none of this; he’s already fought enough. All he wanted to do was start a new life out West, pull a Horace Mann. He’s heard about this mysterious mine called the “Spider Cave of Gold” and aims to begin his fortune there, reap its possible benefits. Nuh-uh. Dem dirty red Injuns got to be shown what for. F*ck that, and Carter promptly escapes, the militia in hot pursuit. Escape is all Carter seems to do these days.

Carter’s retreat finds himself taking haven in a strange cave. Weird inscriptions cover the walls and there’s a prominent petroglyph depicting what looks like the Solar System. Could this be the elusive “Spider Cave?” Jackpot! While Carter continues to investigate, a strange person dressed in odd clothes materializes and attacks him, whom quickly Carter dispatches with his pistol.

The man drops something. A medallion, the likes of which Carter has never seen before on Earth. How right his is. Carter picks it up and…

…he takes a face plant in the desert. Where the hell is he? Where’d the cave go? Carter sets out to investigate and finds himself bouncing and stumbling along like a yo-yo. He notices the air tastes different, too. It dawns on him that he’s ain’t out west anymore.

But where is where? And what’s that noise?

A horde of angry, four-armed green aliens appear on the horizon, chasing John down. Then the airships attack. There’s a princess in danger. One of the strange men that attacked him in the cave has given a crazed warlord a magical weapon of mass destruction to conquer the planet of Barsoom.

Er, Mars. He aims to conquer Mars.

Mars?!?

Well, Carter wanted to escape his old life. Too bad it takes another war, another loss and another planet to do that…


The only issue I take up with John Carter is a simple one. Mind you the matter is indeed also a simple one. It’s akin to a scene in a Hitchcock film were the MacGuffin quickly becomes the lead role. But it soon becomes terribly evident as John Carter progresses. The answer in the form of a question, Alex. It goes something like this:

“Why was director Stanton not permitted to do his job?”

Well, actually, I have a few issues with Carter, small but many. However, that question is the sliver of bamboo under the fingernail. It starts our skewering John Carter by both probing into the disconnect between top-notch movie cred and the poorly executed throughput. Ah, ‘tis the bare nubbin of truth, as it’s been said (what’s a nubbin?) is what we’re aiming for here, people. So follow me and dig my mood. We’ll get to scour Carter later on. Promise.

Remember earlier when I mentioned I was going to examine Disney Studios? Well, gently poke a stick at the mega-movie making machine is more apt. Seriously, tear into the esteemed family-friendly moviemakers with anything but reverence and awe and you’re likely to be disemboweled by Pluto’s gnashing fangs. If any of you heard about the time former Disney CEO Michael Eisner demanded a mural of Mickey painted over at a local daycare for matters of copyright infringement, you might get where I’m coming from. Nice doggie.

Okay, so I’m not going to paint Disney as some malevolent, many-headed hydra of media dominance and an unscrupulous icon of unbridled capitalism (which is, well…). That’s too easy. Instead—to keep Pluto at bay, at least—I’m going to analyze two overt facets of the 21st Century Disney output when it comes to their making and marketing of their films. I say overt because, hey, it’s what I’ve seen in recent years. Literally. On the screen. That and maybe apply one of my trademark webs of conspiracy to claim that Hollywood’s out to drain your wallet with sh*tty product because they think you’re stupid.

Hold on. Come back. I still like kitties!

Thank you. Okay, here’s what I’ve seen coming from the House of Mouse for the past decade or so: their stock has been waning. Not on Wall Street, but as filmmakers. Regarding that notion, riddle me this: name a single hit animated Disney film in past decade—barring Frozen and anything to do with Marvel characters and/or Pixar Studios.

*cups hand to ear*

I came up trumps too. Wanna know what I think? This anomaly might have something to do with Disney more or less “outsourcing” their talents from satellite operations, probably because they saw dollar signs, potential threats or a decline in quality from their bullpen and needed to circle the wagons. Maybe all three. I mean Disney’s first fully CGI-rendered movie Meet The Robinsons tanked while being pitted against Pixar’s Up. What happened not soon after? Right. Disney/Pixar was born. Coincidence? I dunno.

At the end of the day, Disney, Pixar and eventually Marvel all made good business. Thanks to Disney’s backing, we now get things like Inside/Out with killer CGI animation and a fresh Marvel superhero movie every lunchtime. And yet, stand-alone Disney features are still coming up short. I know that my fact-checking department is currently on strike (they’d rather have a Coke machine than the Fresca one in the breakroom, then I have to remind the voices in my head that they don’t need to drink), so I only have to go on what I’ve seen. Again, literally.

My daughter is eight, and has veto power over Mom and Dad when it comes to seeing any movie at the multiplex. That being said I’ve seen waaaaay too many Disney films over the past few years. Their last “hit” was 2014’s Maleficent, featuring Angelina Jolie in a comeback role taking her away from rescuing refugee kids from Vancouver or something. I saw the movie (twice, against my will both times of course), and wasn’t really bowled over. My stepdaughter thought it was okay. The eight-year-old did not. She said she was bored. What was the beef?

It felt like something more than just being let down by a much-hyped movie that promised—nay, screamed drama, action and adventure fantasy feature. Maleficent’s sets and CGI were beautiful and fluid. An Oscar-winning actress played our titular character charmingly with a keen touch of malevolence. The story was interesting and…um…conflicted with very large plot holes, as well as characters acting out of character. Well, there was a newbie director at the helm, so maybe his hand wasn’t as steady as it could’ve been. But the film felt solid overall. Solid, but also derivative. I couldn’t put my finger on why. Nor could the kids shake their feelings of being let down. Something was amiss. It was there, some something hindering Maleficent’s potential to thrill, and none of anything listed above felt responsible for the movie’s stale taste in all our mouths.

It took me some time to figure it out. Now granted, I wasn’t the target audience for Maleficent. In fact, I fell into the camp that asked why did Disney retrofit one of its classic villains, and thereby undoing her mystique? Sure, the movie looked cool, and giving Mal a little backstory was nice (albeit not needed nor asked for) but there was something—not sure how to put it—hanging over the movie. An impediment, like someone on the production crew had his or her hands tied. Well, “tied” might be the wrong word.

Monitored is a better term. And I don’t mean by watching from the wings.

Wait. Before we go there, let me go you one further here: not long after Disney got its mitts on Pixar, that studio’s reliable streak of quality movies began to falter. It started with the limp Cars movies—a naked as any attempt at franchising if there ever was one—later continued with the derivative princess tale Brave, and eventually led to the superfluous prequel (a term I’ve always hated) Monsters University. Don’t even get me started on the sequel binge. Okay, to be fair, Toy Story 3 was great. Even a blind squirrel finds a chestnut now and again. The offbeat nature of Pixar’s movies began falling into line. Sure, there were still the usual touching moments, quirky humor, unique characters and the voice casting agent should have his/her visage hanging from the Hollywood sign like an oracle. But there began a formula all but the most vigilant would miss.

Everything Disney has released on screen for years has been very tightly controlled. It’s all been very linear; plot twists are few, stories are safe and imitative, sh*t’s gotten very rigid in execution. It’s like either Disney doesn’t want to play too rough with its newly-acquired toys for fear of breaking them. How so? Perhaps giving over too much creative control to Marvel and/or Pixar—as had being the original owners, know how get the things to work at optimum speed, as well as refresh the batteries with regularity—that they tremble apart under their own weight. Such outsourcing would need Disney’s funding to get back on track for the next Avengers picture and that Pixar dinosaur movie that’s been languishing for years.

Order must be maintained. At all costs.

I’m not talking about Disney movie production creating this Orwellian notion of scrutinizing every camera angle and footlight and slate going clack! I think there’s something more insidious afoot there at Disney Studios when they roll film. And when whatever it is gets put into effect, their current stand-alone crop of movies just can’t hit the target nowadays. Stuff like Maleficent, The Lone Ranger, The Pacifier, The Haunted Mansion, Old Dogs, Tron: Legacy and any of the Pirates Of The Caribbean sequels haven’t exactly set audiences on fire. And those are a sample of  just the live-action movies. Patterns follow for the animated ones, save Pixar up until the merger. Ditto with superheroics.

Disney’s movies from the past decade have been holding back. Everything feels safe instead of inviting. Direct instead of honest. Practiced instead of organic. By-the-numbers instead of from-the-hip. You hear what I’m screaming. Disney’s being careful rather than carefree, and I think it’s Walt’s ghost hovering over the sets.

I’ve heard about the rigorous standards for which Disney Land/World demands of their employees. Some are simple things, like no criminal records, illegal drug use or body art. Some rules are more curious things about hairstyles (not about what’s inappropriate, but how hair should be styled). Some rules are downright bizarre, like having employee height requirements, a moratorium on eyeglasses and only being able to point at something with two fingers. I’m sure Walt and Roy had good reasons for these standards, but they’re dead. Maybe some of the more superfluous rules should’ve died with them. But even if that did happen, you could be damned sure their spirits would haunt the Happiest Place on Earth, and all the hosts would wear contacts.

They still rattle some chains, at least as far when the sound stage is concerned.

A (possibly) unwritten code of conduct, standards and practices appears to be injected in all Disney productions. There’s a philosophy—or seemingly as of late, habit—at work dictating how a Disney film gets produced. They manifest all the cautions I listed above. There is an image to protect; a whimsy and childlike naïveté to uphold. To be inoffensive. To make sure the hero will always win out, ensured by keeping the conflict quick and low, and this being able to see before the second act. To have good always will out with minimal sacrifices. That and the de rigueur “happy ending.” Oh, and animals! Can’t cut a picture without a few anthropomorphic critters (singing experience necessary) at the ready!

I think this is the pattern—or rut—that Diz has fallen into since the turn of the century. Following this outline, which may or may not be an actual bible when executing Disney films, has bound the hands of many directors and actors to “play it safe.” That and maybe allow a few plot twists to set the audience off guard and simultaneously pique their curiosity, not confuse them. But instead, how about mixing in a few honest tragedies to maximize the emotional feedback as well as set the conflict in motion? How about backing off on exposition a hair and let the audience fill in the blanks? How about fewer unessential threads of romantic interest?

Less singing squirrels?

Veteran Pixar director Andrew Stanton understands this. I just highlighted various effective narrative devices employed for his delightful Finding Nemo and his opus WALL-E. Of course, he cut these classics as a veteran Pixar director first. His hands weren’t tied creating those gems.

Well, perhaps I shouldn’t say tied. No doubt that Pixar also has standards and practicing their craft. They like Disney hit upon a formula that works when it comes to making great movies. The significant difference between these two studios is that—regarding making films in the 21st Century—Pixar tends to take more risks, experiment more with plotting and characterization. Sure, there’s always going to be archetypes in stories, but considering Pixar’s output, it’s akin to playing the blues: it’s not the notes, it’s how they’re played. Lately Disney has just be using a click-track paired with Auto-tune in churning out their work, and the end results have been less than melodic.

So now we return to the inevitable: “Why was director Stanton not allowed to do his job?”

I blame the image/ghost of Disney tied one of Stanton’s arms behind his back. We have a way of doing things here at the House of Mouse, Andy. This ain’t Pixar right yonder. You play by our rules. Millions of dollars/families depend on it. Now make us a sci-fi action flick how it should be done, bless Walt, and don’t f*ck up. Don’t forget to have fun!

Disney’s fortunes only begun to change with acquiring Marvel, Pixar and hiring on the team who created Frozen—that once worked for Pixar. Stanton once worked for Pixar also, and I suppose for Carter he didn’t want to let his new benefactors down. Instead he forsook his muse and needed a coyote to chew off his arm.

John Carter could’ve been so much more than the final cut. Pre-production, the project had everything going for it. We had gifted Stanton behind the camera. Pulitzer-award winning writer Michael Chabon had a hand in creating the script. Up-and-coming young stars Kitsch and Collins were poised to really breakthrough. Veteran character actors Defoe, Church and Strong were at the ready to lend some weight. Even the source material! Sci-fi action written by Tarzan’s Dad, Edgar Rice Burroughs! F*ckin’ rock on!

What the hell happened? A lot. And nothing.

Before I commenced this part of the installment—the sober, meticulous, slathering dismantling of this week’s quarry with much spittle and profanity—I passed words with a buddy of mine who follows my blog and was curious about the next entry. What was on the block? I told him John Carter and he perked up. He said (and this should be the epitaph on RIORI’s home page when the One Great Maker strikes it down into cyberhell), “It wasn’t as bad as I’d thought.” His was hardly a ringing endorsement, I know. But the guy was right: John Carter wasn’t as bad as its press would lead you to believe.

Movie still screwed the Thark, though.

But my friend was right. Carter wasn’t all bad. In fact, big chunks of it were hella cool, and I found myself popping out of my chair in excitement more than once. Then again, it could’ve just been me getting up to freshen my drink. Things get muddled after midnight. However that happened kinda few and far between—the excitement, not the drinks; the drinks happened more often, which would explain my sloppy notes—and the rest of my viewing experience was best described as, “All right. Get on with it,” paired with, “Hey, cool!” and a healthy dose of “What the f*ck’s going on?” for good measure.

What I’m getting at is while watching Carter, I had few moments of the second kind. But they were great moments. The air chase scenes. The Thark Arena. The intrigue surrounding the mysterious Thurns machinations while manipulating politics between Helium and Zodanga. The massive pigpile battle flashbacking against Carter’s dismal backstory was a minor triumph in editing. All were awesome and all were fleeting.

However it can’t be denied that the visuals are indeed cool, and not just in pixels or application. Carter is supposed to be a sumptuous sci-fi treat for the eyes after all, but how they were shot it what’s key. They’re cool in the sense that they’ve been carefully considered. A lot of fantasy/sci-fi movies these days simply try to dazzle with the newest tech, and that’s it. Not Carter. All the visuals are used as wallpaper to surround the story—bookend scenes, if you will—and not distract you from it. Not to fear, there is a lot to look at here (save the monochrome deserts of Barsoom. So much that when we get to a scene where our heroes have to navigate a river, the sight of blue is almost jarring, if not a bit of a relief). The walking city, the insect-like airships, the Thark encampment and all the wild costumes and alien bodies are pleasures for the eyes. Distinctive, state-of-the-art and arresting. You really get the impression that Stanton and company were attempting to build something epic with Carter and its high production values. Thanks to the visuals, everything here seems big, but not so bombastic as to be distracting. They really don’t make larger-than-life fantasy/sci-fi movies like this much anymore. It’s kind of a shame really.

But after the first hour, you start to understand why that is.

The flipside—and there is always that factor when a movie lands here at RIORI—is what soon becomes distracting as how our tale plays out. The whole first and third bits. I’m talking about the script here as the major culprit. You see, Carter was adapted from Burrough’s A Princess Of Mars, the first in a series of novels of his eventual Barsoom chronicles. Novels. One gets the feeling after several scenes, both Earthside and on Mars, that there was a lot of info to download into a scant two hours. Naturally for all the details essential to the plot, Carter is exposition heavy. Top-heavy would be a more apt term. It kills the pacing, and you know how that makes me feel. Nary a scene of action passes without a following scene twice as long explaining what happened, what’s presently happening, and what will happen later. Carter breaks the first rule of storytelling in every way. It’s more like gives it a compound fracture. You always gotta “show, not tell.” Yeah, yeah. Carter shows a lot of cool sh*t, but we shouldn’t have to have a dissertation on Thark culture or Helium politics after every battle. It takes the air out of the balloon (get it? Helium? Balloon? Beer cans?). It makes everything feel flat in the long run, and it’s a very long run.

It’s not just the heavy verbiage that closes the damper on Carter’s muted verve. There’s a sensation of the ghost haunting the whole film’s execution, but ramped up to 11. One can’t ignore the feeling that director Stanton, darling vet from Pixar “on loan” to Disney, is being constrained by his benefactor studio’s reputation/guidelines and therefore handling Carter with kid gloves rather than hands taped for the prize fight. The result tastes of pure frustration. You feel that Carter is trying to aim high, but you must be at least this tall to ride this ride. And you can’t wear those glasses, either (and Stanton does indeed sport eyewear. I’m serious. Check Wikipedia). Disney films have a particular standard/straight line to follow for the company’s benefit. Read: reliable, predictable return on investment. Do not deviate too far from the employee manual or we’ll cut you off at the knees (right John Lasseter? Oops!).

So we’ve established there’s an edge missing here. Based on this disconnect, Carter teeters between family film—a la Disney’s bread and butter formula—and a big budget summer blockbuster adventure film. And it can’t seem to make up its mind as to which. Again, I blame Disney, but in this case not in a finger-wagging way. After so many live-action busts, and with such a mammoth budget in place, Carter had to be surgically executed to optimize both blockbuster returns while sating the masses as well as core Disney audiences. They hedged their bets, gave Stanton a little wiggle room (the cool sh*t that grabbed me) and enforced the formula. The final product was more or less a schizo film. In general, the average movie audience come summertime does not want, let alone need some big deal epic with a byzantine plot packed to the gunwales with the minutiae of the political climate of an alien culture residing on a planet that cannot support life.

Huh?

Right. We want boom and Lynn Collins dressed in next to nothing.

Okay. I want Lynn Collins dressed in next to nothing. Scratch that: simply nothing will do just fine, thank you very much.

*smack!*

What was I saying? Oh, yeah. Keep a summer movie simple and exciting. Doing this is like gambling, and Hollywood does it all the time. The tentpole movies that cost trillions of dollars to produce? Roll of the dice. Here’s hoping enough fish bite. Disney, on the other hand, has been so calculating for so long in its movie output that upsetting the apple cart has taken precedence over the possibility of a mega hit by taking a little risk. I mean, need I remind you that the only real hit film Disney’s had in recent years was Frozen, and that might be because they hired former Pixar animators to execute the movie, those edgy rapscallions. I guess that’s kinda being risky.

Back to Carter: the other big part that makes or breaks a blockbuster movie (or any movie, for that matter) is the acting. Carter has solid acting in spades. Watch it: solid. Despite my misgivings about Disney casting Kitsch as our interplanetary adventurer (admittedly my reservations are based on rooting for an actor named “Kitsch.” So sue me), what with his pretty boy looks and CV of playing guys with pretty boy looks, I was pleasantly surprised. Not convinced, mind you, but you’ll take what you can get.

Kitsch made a pretty decent action hero, especially one in the vein of reluctant and everyman. What I found notable is how grizzled his John Carter was. The guy’s, what, 32? He looks well through his forties here, and that’s not just his makeup either. Kitsch’s Carter comes across as world-weary, a man who’s seen too much, and just wants some peace. Even his adventures on Mars have this motivation of either avoiding conflict or escaping it. Carter doesn’t want to do what’s been foisted upon him (war, intrigue, a stupid alien-dog thing), but rises to the occasion as needed. He musters up strength and courage from somewhere below as any determined person would in the face of conflict. Kitsch conveys this quite well. He’s no John Wayne, but he tries hard. In fits and starts, Kitsch actually succeeds. Our hero is gruff, but everyman in an earnest sense, and for such a long movie beyond the running time, we better have something sincere to moor our boat onto.

Now I like Mark Strong. He’s fast becoming a fave character actor of mine. I first became aware of him by way of RIORI actually. It was installment 7 in Volume 1, the Green Lantern lashing. He portrayed Hal Jordan’s imperious mentor, Sinestro (Strong was barely recognizable under all the makeup and with the CGI enhancements). Being haughty is something Strong delivers well, and tastefully, too. Not many actors can scam the snooty attitude without being off-putting, even if they’re supposed to be the bad guy. What’s nifty about Carter’s Rogue’s Gallery (and the list is long, believe you me) is that it’s not until the third act that you figure out whose the real upsetter on Barsoom is (SPOILER: it’s Shang the Thurn). Strong is very good at insinuating his characters into the story without a lot of hoot and holler. The best way to describe Strong’s overall acting style is that it grows on you. Granted, Sinestro was a dick, but he made his reasons clear. In Kick-Ass, it came as no surprise that mobster D’Amico was a scheming low-life, but was also noteworthy as being a doting family man and a rather protective (albeit skewed) father. In Carter, his Shang is a very cool customer, seemingly all-knowing about how the fractured politics on Barsoom will fall apart with just the right prodding. And guess who’s holding the stick? Strong was far and away the most interesting role in all of Carter’s world.

It’s unfortunate that Kitsch and Strong’s are the only roles worth mentioning here. Despite the sparks these two possess, the rest of the cast is nothing but two-dimensional stereotypes. The willful princess. The power-mad general. The organic chieftain bound to the land. The feisty “Amazon” warrior. Even the anthropomorphic, loyal sidekick, before god. Line up against the wall. It’s as if there was so much exposition in Carter it left no room for character development; everyone was too busy f*cking babbling about Barsoom that they forgot to say, “Hi!” to one another. In fact, a great deal of the dialogue in Carter is mutually delivered at the players rather than between the players. It’s the curse of exposition paired with too much stuff happening on screen. There’s so much to explain very little gets said. Again, a shame. I still blame the Disney rep straitjacket, also (no shocker).

When it all goes down, Carter is not an “acting” movie. It’s an action movie, and it’s got that in spades, albeit in fits and starts due to the clunky pace bogged down by all that exposition. Apart from Stanton’s hands bound, the only other problem is that damned eternal elucidation. This might sound ludicrous, but Carter may have benefitted from a longer running time. Or even be a series—like the books—so to give all that detail room to breathe rather than choke it into a single film. Carter wanted to be big; it should’ve gotten its big boy pants.

So. What have we learned?

It’s more like claimed. I admit it. My disdain for Disney’s antics in the 21st Century is so thick you could drizzle it on pancakes. It’s also not so myopic to deny that Diz has made and is still capable of making awesome films. I mean, c’mon: The Lion King? Tron? Sleeping Beauty? Mary f*cking Poppins? Even in this cynical age, to claim that “only Disney” could cut those tracks would be greeted with a wink and a smile.

So what happened? That specter looms, in spite of forever changes in audiences’ tastes and newer modes of making movies. Both of those factors pay great deal into being risky, trying new things, rock the boat, get people’s attention. Disney’s gotta bust that ghost in order to remain relevant on its own two feet, rather than riding piggyback on its acquisitions. A great deal of what made the above Disney films great was that a bit of risk was taken in getting them onto the screen. A good example (kinda)? The original Tron. It was bleeding edge for its time, and also tanked at the box office. It also never got nominated for a best visual effects Oscar. Not won. Never got a nod. Imagine that. Disney was prescient in modern movie animation over 30 years ago. Took a lot of cajones in invest in very expensive and untried CGI from three disparate programming firms to launch that rocket. And the Academy snubbed the film because they cheated by using CGI. In 1982. Cheated. This was seven years before James Cameron’s The Abyss got its shout-out. I guess they didn’t call it cheating by that point. But seven years prior Disney tossed the dice. They took a risk, and thereby set a precedent.

But 30 years later, they won. Hey, a belated sequel to a cult film is better than none at all, I guess, even if the result was kinda meh (do I smell my next victim here, hmm?). We can only hope that the House of Mouse optioned all of Burrough’s Barsoom novels and Stanton would be willing to try again. Maybe he could get Lasseter to come along for the ride?

Uh, I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghost?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Really. Yeah, it’s got a lot of flaws, but it still has the Disney spark, however muted. Folks don’t make movies like this much anymore (at least without the name Tolkien attached). Give Carter an ‘A’ for effort. Give an A+ to Stanton by playing the hand he was dealt. And give a bone to Pluto so he’ll stop gnawing on my ankle.


 Stray Observations…

  • “The first item…is beans.” And so our adventure begins.
  • It’s a battle of the voices. Who’s better? The scruffy and throaty Kitsch or Defoe who fluctuates between nasal and stentorian? I’m leaning towards Willem.
  • “Nice monster dog.”
  • Speaking of voices, Morton’s has the same cadence for every single one of her damned roles. Even as an alien on Mars, for f*ck’s sake! Get a vocal coach already.
  • “Let Redmen kill Redmen until only their thoughts remain!” Don’t get it, but thanks to Defoe’s delivery it sure sounds hella cool.
  • For me, the jumping stunts never got old. Kitsch had to wear a harness and bounced around at up to 80 MPH. Really. According to the IMDB, he found the experience “unpleasant.”
  • “You are ugly, but you are beautiful.” Aww, thanks, Coach.
  • What’s with all the hitting? I mean, not punching nor kicking. Hitting. Everyone on Barsoom when under duress f*cking slaps at each other like a lame Three Stooges Nyuk nyuk nyuk.
  • “…Maybe I oughta get behind…you.” Smoooooth.
  • The reason for the parenthetical reference in this week’s installment’s heading is for John Carter was originally intended to have the full tag. It was Stanton’s idea to drop the Of Mars part so to make the film more accessible in downplaying the sci-fi angle. He also hoped that Carter would indeed be the first chapter in a series, which is why at the end credits the Of Mars tag is restored. Still, and hindsight being 20/20, the full title would’ve been much cooler and more eye-grabbing if you’d ask me.
  • I liked the twin moon visual. Not sure why. Guess I’m due back on Barsoom.

Next Installment…

Adam Sandler used to be one of the Funny People (in more ways than one). He needs a few reminders from Seth Rogen so maybe he can get his act together again. Before it’s curtains (*rimshot*).


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