RIORI Redux: Martin Campbell’s “Green Lantern” Revisited


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The Players…

Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong and Tim Robbins.


The Story…

Hal Jordan, an ace test pilot, is chosen by galactic peace-keeping force the Green Lantern Corps to become their representative on Earth. Now wielding a mighty power ring, Jordan soon learns that with great power—

Wait a minute. That’s some other guy. What Jordan needs to figure out now is how to get the damned ring to work, not piss off his employer/occasional girlfriend any more than he already does (and excels at) and keep a malevolent space entity at bay from devouring Earth’s populace.

To this, flying untested fighter jets seems preferable, and a lot safer.


The Rant (2013)

I’m a comic book head. I adore comics. I collect them and read them on my days off. Every Wednesday is comic book day, and that’s when I head off to my local comic shop, where Jeff, the curmudgeonly proprietor, waits with my haul. I go pick up the weekly adventures of costumed heroes the likes of Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Avengers, Daredevil. All Marvel characters. In case you haven’t heard, Marvel’s had quite a bit of success in translating their books to cinema. I’ve seen a few of them myself. It’s no real matter, though. I prefer my superheroes on paper than film anyway. Call me a hipster (I dare you).

That’s not to say that Marvel’s cinematic endeavors haven’t been entertaining. The first two Spider-Man movies were awesome (I’ve heard the third was eh. It might be a RIORI candidate down the line). Iron Man was thrilling. Hell, the second X-Men film brought tears to my eyes (really, and shut up). I guess it really comes as no surprise than in Marvel’s 70-plus years of publishing, somebody with cash to blow in Hollywierd would get the smarts to do big screen versions of these guys in tights. It’s paid off well, too. Almost to a fault. In any event, Marvel’s been cleaning up at the box office, and good for them.

DC—Marvel’s “distinguished competition”—has had a harder time at it, so I’ve heard. In case you didn’t know, DC’s been the publisher with the longest teeth. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman. Those lady and gentlemen.

Not to mention Green Lantern. My favorite DC character. The only DC character I followed regularly. Sure I loves me some Spider-Man and X-Men, but if you were into epic sci-fi action and intrigue, GL was the best place to go for many years. The pages were like Star Trek met Star Wars met Law & Order met Fringe met—right. That and a metric sh*t-ton of insane art. Green Lantern’s world—universe—was big with a capital big, and the writers and artists were very aware of the job they had to do. And did quite admirably for many, many years.

So when I caught wind that (finally) GL was going to make it to the big screen, I was both happy and hesitant. Simply put, most DC characters that make it to Hollywood get treated scattershot. Don’t get me wrong. There were the delightful first two Superman movies with the late, great Christopher Reeve. There were also the two Batman films with the brooding and surprisingly convincing Michael Keaton. Later on came the fantastic reboot starring Christian Bale. The successes with the few others? Not so much. For instance, I’ve already covered the up and down adaptation of Alan Moore’s (though he’d been wished to remain anonymous) Watchmen, which my wife, oddly enough, enjoyed by the way. To this day I don’t know how she managed to both A) stay up that late and, B) respect the character that was Rorschach) which…

Where was I? Oh yeah, Green Lantern…

DC hasn’t been as a hot a commodity for the silver screen as Marvel characters have been. But Hollywood must have been champing as the bit to get the glorious sci-fi universe that was Green Lantern to the box office. I hoped so. It had the pedigree for a fantastic sci-fi adventure, replete with alien worlds and creatures, engaging stores to unfold and, yes, a great deal of opportunities for CGI scramblings. Yet despite my enthusiasm for the prospect of GL being rendered on the silver screen, in the end-run I couldn’t bring myself to go the multiplex. Why? I mean, why man, why?

Cuz I figured they’d screw it up. The GL universe is so vast and varied that there would be no room, even in a comic book head’s imagination, to do it justice. That and Green Lantern ain’t exactly a household name like Supes and Bats. I don’t know many kids with bedsheets sporting images of Kilowog pounding Manhunters into rusty slag. That is, it’s not like I snoop around in kids’ bedrooms. Not since “the incident.”

Well, whatever. Shut up, kids. Like I said: GL’s a second tier character, despite being a key member of the JLA. That don’t mean much to Hollywood execs who—probably hailing from Warner Brothers, DC’s parent company—wanted to jump onto the Marvel money-making movie machine. I can almost imagine the discussion in that Warner Bros. boardroom:

“Marvel’s making a killing with all their movies!”

“Well, we’ve had some luck with Superman and Batman…”

“Yes, but they’re icons. People know all about them. What we need is a superhero that most folks’ve never heard of.”

“Like who?”

“Someone who’s flexible. Someone that we can warp.”

“Um, Star Trek‘s a Paramount property—”

“Quiet! What I’m saying is we need some cape that is unknown. Untested. Green.”

“Uh, sir? I think I have an idea…”

So then came the film. And our (ring) fingers were crossed.

I will warn and re-warn you that I have a soft spot for Green Lantern. No one was more enthusiastic than I to see the GL universe translated to the screen. In the final analysis, was I pleased? Despite all the bad press the film earned, I can only respond this way:

Sorta. Here we go.

The movie’s opening says it all, and is overall accurate by comic book history. Keep in mind this is coming from a comic book head to boot. The images are boldly ripped from the comics from the past decade. Shamelessly, I might add. That’s a good thing. Fan service. That’s a bad thing. Fan service. Never in my time that a comic book superhero movie needed so much dialogue and visual cues to explain what needed to be explained. Well, that with the assist of a lot of red wine.

Of course, I got it all within the first 12 minutes. I timed it (I am that lonely). And throughout the film they kept keeping on hammering the same note. Yes, Hal Jordan in a fearless pilot. Yes, he has an attitude. Yes, he has a smart-ass mouth with a demeanor to match. And yes, he has the critical ability to overcome fear (that key component to grant entry into the GL Corps). And that third thing is the film’s greatest flaw. Stilted dialogue. Ryan Reynolds should act with as little dialogue as possible. Fortunately, he does. But he does have to talk once in  while. Therein lies the tragedy.

Once and again Reynolds seems awkward here, unsure if he’s a pilot or a ladies’ man or a superhero. He’s only good as a physical presence, which oddly enough Campbell may have recognized since that most of the best scenes are when Reynolds is robbed of dialogue. Even the post superhero act of saving the day at Carol Ferris’, Jordan’s former flame and current employer, is delightfully cheesy and self-aware, so much so that Reynolds’ character is cut short. It’s pretty funny.

The film’s kinda predictable as far as superhero tales go. Reynolds indeed seems awkward at times, like his lines were written for someone else. On the flipside, as far as dialogue goes, Blake Lively is very smart, whereas the polar opposite, Tim Robbins as the Senator, as always plays sleazy very well. The best dialogue seems to be spoken by the supporting cast in Hal Jordan’s new sci-fi family (e.g.: Kilowog is mighty cool).

As if you haven’t figured it out, Lantern gets heavy on the exposition. How the lines are delivered is key in keeping this film aloft. Despite it being a sci-fi adventure, there sure is a hell of a lot of chit-chat going on here. I suspect it might have something to do with introducing an unwitting American studio audience to a semi-obscure superhero, and water wings are needed. Still, the chatter is at least lively, funny and relatively unobtrusive. It’s a tempered version of “show, don’t tell.” Yeah, there’s a lot of telling, but it’s in an interesting, bouncy, almost comic-booky way. Hey! Who’d’ve thunk it?

On technical side Lantern was directed (handily, I might add) by Martin Campbell, the man that brought us the very cool James Bond reboot Casino Royale and Pierce Brosnan’s first outing as 007, GoldenEye. That alone lends the film some props. Martin’s a guy who understands how a franchise works outside the proverbial box. Lord knows how much coin was laid out for him to direct this film. In the final analysis it was worth every penny. A smartly spent budget and solid directing goes a long way in a would-be summer blockbuster like Lantern, even if the revenue was less than stellar. In these days of big budget movies run amok with GCI and crazy locations scouted, every farthing matters. Considering Campbell’s steady hand, Warner Bros. was able to sleep easy, at least with that factor.

The greatest accomplishment this film can claim is being able to coax Ryan Reynolds to quit acting like Ryan Reynolds. Lo and behold, he isn’t acting like a smartass (prime example: Waiting) 24/7! He plays the innocent for once, and it’s a really welcome thing. I mean, considering the circumstances his character was plunked into, would you humble yourself? He actually holds back on the smarm and freaking acts a little! Y’know, with emotions other than smug. Right! Just don’t talk so damned much! Listen to your supporting cast! There you go! Ah, it’s like Sprite enema. Now granted, no awards will come of this, but then again, it was squeezed out from a guy who directed James Bond for f*ck’s sake. It’s such a nice change of pace you forget it’s Ryan f*cking Reynolds up on screen, slingin’ the ring, if only for a little while. In simpler terms, Reynolds made a decent Hal Jordan. Not good, but decent.

My carps with Lantern are mostly minor. Questionable acting, a few plot holes, the need to immerse yourself in back issues, stuff like that. Despite me picking on Reynolds (who does ask for it), there’s really nothing to get in a twist over. If you’re a comic book head however, the screen would’ve been pelted to death by errant popcorn kernels after the aforementioned 12 minutes. If you’re not, as most of you who get sex on a regular basis are, you can lean back and let yourself go along with the ride. Lantern is harmless, and feels like one of those movies that pop on F/X from time to time to fill space and/or kill time.

In fact, that’s just what Lantern does. It sure beats watching Batman & Robin again. Wait. Again? Don’t you people own a streaming Netflix account?


Rant Redux (2019)…

Okay, I’m bearing my balls here. My old review—despite being somewhat accurate, albeit in the wrong way—was written clouded by fanboy fervor. GL is still my fave (and only) DC hero I get behind. Back when the flick slouched into the multiplex I was so glad. Cool! The Green Lantern universe has a sh*tload of s/f gold to mine! And there was Kilowog in CGI splendor, voiced by that guy from the Allstate ads! What could go wrong?

Plenty. Duh.

He was another early comic book movie produced by non-geeks who did not understand how to handle their precious property. Sure, the movie got a few things right (eg: the origin story, the ways of Oa, the aforementioned KIlowog and a nice nod to Abin Sur, Tomar Re and of course Sinestro), the majority of the movie was composed of wasted opportunity. Campbell has a hot potato, and dropped it. Several times.

At this point in movie history it’s safe to say the DC Cinematic Universe is lame. That and it doesn’t exist despite Zack Snyder et al doing their best to catch up with Marvel. Then again, the FOOM has Disney money on its side, and for launching a franchise it’s all about the funding. F*ck, Warner Brothers released the film and it already owned the damned property. Why did the flick become such a straw man? Because of the nascent super hero phenomenon? Um, didn’t Warner Bros fund the original Superman movies, which started back in the 70s? The lesson of history was lost in 2011, and instead panic of being left behind in Marvel’s wake. Throw money at it, hire big stars, write a plot with everything that may stick. F*cking impending Avengers movie.

You can smell the panic nipping at GL‘s heels. On the whole the movie was entertaining. In the details (like cohesive plot, capable actors ill-fit and CGI trying to compensate for proper staging. That and ADD pacing) Warners read the writing on the wall as rushed headlong to spar with the Bullpen. In sum, GL was impatient and also had the audacity to anticipate a sequel (which might’ve been okay provided the box office takeaway said go ahead. It didn’t). Which is why we’re back here.

Now truth be told, and along the curves of the original rant, I did find GL entertaining, however through a set jaw. My fanboy drool palsied my objectivity. It was akin to how pro wrestling fans stand by their heroes histrionics rather than their show. Do you smell what the Rock is cooking? Sure you do. How was he in the ring?

Ummm.

Right. Splash and dash over action. That’s how GL played out: just enough fan service to make you watch, then nothing but a grinding jaw for the film’s duration. Upon review I scanned the crap I forgave against what I should’ve paid attention to.

First of all the casting. I gave Reynolds a pass, and he wasn’t as smarmy as he usually was especially since his dialogue was economic. I still found the supporting cast appealing. But the majors seemed awkward. This was Reynolds second stab in the comic film universe (after Marvel’s Blade: Trinity but before Wolverine: Origins) before striking gold in Deadpool. Call it a dry run for a snarky hero who did not choose his fate. Reynolds awkwardness here was supposed to come across as endearing. Instead his performance was failing upwards. He was fun, but also really wobbly; isn’t a reluctant hero supposed to rise to the occasion? Reynolds does, in fits and starts, and it starts when he introduces himself as GL to Lively’s Carol Farris. How odd she sees through his visage? Reflects the hot potato.

Now. I still say I have I have no real issue with Reynolds. He did his best with what he was dealt. But the supporting cast offered precious little support. Look what we had here: the reliable Tim Robbins, the authoritative Mark Strong, the unpredictable Peter Sarsgaard, Pedro Cerrano and the willowy Blake Lively (four out of five ain’t bad). All the others were grand; Lively was the weak link, and a vital one at that. C’mon, in a superhero flick it’s almost de rigueur for the protagonists to have his gun moll. It’s a stereotype, true, and although Steinman followers may cringe, the sassy, no bullsh*t love interest is a gadget us comic book heads fall for every time (this honor or blame may fall at the pumps of the late Margot Kidder, with her sassy, no bullsh*t take on Lois Lane). Such a device this is in virtually all modern comic book films is that when the heroine may show signs of (shudder) feelings towards our stalwart man-on-the-white-horse the audience writhes in contempt.

Now I know what I’m about to write may come across as either cinematic mysogyny of self-appointed, overweight, comic book authority. Maybe both, but I’d rather put myself on the spot as a movie fan. I’ll explain: there are precious few tropes in telling stories, in print or in film, that are tried and true. Not necessarily essential in spinning out a tale, but when they do show up there always has to be an interior logic that works—and works well—within the story. We’ve all seen ’em: from the wizened private eye who’s seen too much to care, to the reluctant hero on a quest to do what’s right but riddled with inner doubt. The tale of revenge, the quest for enlightenment, the need to escape and everything that Tarantino and/or DeMille made bigger and bolder. When it works, the cliches are elevated into avatars of grand story. When done poorly, they remains as…well, just gimmicks, misguided visions and tropes. And in a film populated by an ensemble cast (such as GL had), if one of those avatars falls off the wagon, well the whole story can go ker-thud.

At heart, all super hero movies are the same. A character is gifted with incredible powers and does their best to make ’em work, for good or for ill. Said heroes are defined by their nemesis. Superman and Lex Luthor. Batman and the Joker. Spider-Man and his myriad of rogues reflecting the self-doubt he always carries around, web-slinging or no. They are also defined by their friends and family. Jor-El was rather cagey firing off baby Kal-El to simple, backwater planet like Earth, but that more or less worked out okay. It’s tragic young Bruce Wayne witnessed his parents getting gunned down, but fast-forward later and Gotham is now relatively safer in their memory. Guess that’s all a macho, guy thing. But the comforting, grounding trope that makes these immortals human are a savvy, pragmatic girlfriend or Girl Friday to offer romance, guidance or a combo thereof.

Examples? First Gwynyth Paltrow as Virginia “Pepper” Potts in the Iron Man movies. Sure, we knew from the books that Tony Stark was a lushy womanizer; Pepper was the one woman who saw through Tony’s act, and was never ever gonna tear his armor off to get at Little Tony. In the first movie, that resolve melted away and the crowd cried foul (at least I did, right before the ushers temporarily blinded me with their vicious Mag-Lites). Similar reaction might’ve be roused by the stupid “playground fight/flirtation” scene in Daredevil. Party foul!  Either that or DD was a craptastic movie. Just sayin.’

I’m belaboring this point after seeing many, many, many more superhero flicks because I believe this key dynamic between alpha male superpowers do-gooder needs to kept in touch with reality via the love interest/their Girl Friday. Keep the heroes eyes on the prize but “hey, this ain’t just for you, hon. We got people down here with real jobs.” A good example of this comes not only how Lois teaches Supes how to be human but in the Iron Man comics, his AI is named Friday. Get it? Right. Lively’s Carol Farris had none of that guile. At least not convincingly. She managed to out-Mary Sue Reynolds, and he did a damned fine job of that. Except his was played for laughs. Lively was the wrong pick for two reasons: her character feigned confidence poorly and she ended up marrying Reynolds after shooting was done. You think goo-goo eyes has something to do with the awkward chemistry?

Nah.

Yeah, so Lively was the one real weak link in the chain. I learned that Warners intended GL to be a trilogy; there was a teaser post-credits of Sinestro happening on a yellow ring. Like Lady Macbeth, Carol Farris tried to wash her hands of blood on the screen. And yeah, I know I’m beating up on her right good, but when she can score a role like Glenda in Hick three months after GL dropped, I am flummoxed. Lively is a versatile, charming, funny and smart actress; not only with Hick I found her great in The Town and even that silly lark Accepted. Such a simple, reliable and often effecting plot device misspent from a reliable actress. I’m probably totally off the mark with this theory, but weren’t we glad when Katie Holmes dropped out of the Rachel Dawes role in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy in favor of Maggie Gyllenhaal? Me too.

At the end of the day, I guess we can agree that most modern comic book movies are of an ensemble cast; there are no real bit players after the hero and villain. Once that ensemble get fractured everything goes to hell in a bucket. Go on, name an ensemble film that was overall good save whomever (EG: WTF was Jeff Bridges doing in The Men Who Stare At Goats?).

Yeah, yeah. After 100-plus doofy movies fractured under my belt, I let the scales from my fanboy eyes fall away. But do dig this: I still like GL. It’s kinda like how I enjoy broccoli and when I discovered the value of coffee at age 15: first time it’s so weird it’s great! By the time the years roll by and you’ve had enough Birdseye and Starbucks’ triple-whatever…you get it. GL was a reliable modern super hero flick, but it wasn’t as great as the Farmer’s Market or indie cafe’s best.


The Revision…

Rent It or relent it? Overruled: a mild relent it. Green Lantern isn’t amongst the hallmarks of, say Superman II or The Dark Knight. But it doesn’t try to be, so what the hell.


Next Installment…

We put our oars in the water and paddle back towards Shutter Island, Scorsese’s attempt at Hitchcock with Leo attempting Jimmy Stewart circa Vertigo.


 

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*).


RIORI Volume 3, Installment 9: Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass” (2008-2010)


Kick-Ass


This installment—despite the venom—is dedicated to the memory of Jeff, who kept me in comics for over a decade and gave me a job when no one else would. He rivaled me in opinions, but was far more polite. He will be missed.


The Players:

Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Mark Strong and Nicolas Cage, with Clark Duke, Evan Peters and Lyndsy Fonseca.


The Story:

One day comic book geek Dave Lizewski gets an idea. How come no one in the real world ever tried to be a real-life superhero? If you think about it, Batman was just a normal guy with a lot of tech. Anyone could be Batman. But what about your average Joe who had no bankroll and was simply inspired by a sense of justice and impatience for what legit law enforcers do? That and just wanting to make a difference; to do the right thing. Or maybe just want to crack a bunch of assh*les into submission for being bully assh*les. At any rate, Dave wonders. So then he gets a costume, an alias and a shadow MySpace account.


The Rant (Oh, yeah. Yes, indeed)

Be warned. Beyond here there be dragons.

Wait. We’re gonna talk about movies, right?

Shut up. Sit down. Eat your gruel and pray I don’t release the rape-monkeys while you slumber. Now, hard to port. And steady on.

Truth be told, and this may come as a surprise, I’m not an easy person to get along with. My sunny disposition has proven to be rather off-putting with the general public. I’ve always adopted a rather shambolic attitude regarding social mores. Not antisocial, per se, just confused. I’m sure a great deal of y’all feels that way sometimes, too. Me? That’s pretty much SOP for me. No malice present, mind you, but I’m often quite confused as how to play well with others. Big shocker there. Suppose I’m better off left to my own devices. You should see my music collection.

Simply put: leave me be. Not “Go Away!” or “F*ck off!” Though admittedly I feel that way often, but I’m usually more polite than that. To paraphrase Garbo: let me enjoy my aloneness. With all this Wi-Fi, smartphone, Xbox, Kindle, World Wide Web doggerel—where I couldn’t be alone if I tried, even without a link, and there’s always sat tech lurking above—privacy has become more precious than currency. Don’t believe me? Two questions then: 1) How much to you pay for your mobile service?

Sh*t. That much? Ever hear of TracFone?

2) When was the last time you struck up idle chit-chat on a public mass-transit service to while away the time instead of nose deep in your iPhone, scouring Twitter feeds?

Can’t, can you? Well neither can I. Me? I usually try to pleasure myself on the E, but there apparently are laws in effect about that. Here? In America? Well, at least I still have my iPhone…until we go into a tunnel. Then, since the lights are off…Hello, teacup poodle.

WHAT! WHAT? Oh c’mon. We’ve all been there. Right? Anyway…

To put it quaintly—and as if to forgive my bile—I’m your typical Gen X survivor (you’re welcome for the Internet, by the way). We were the test group for online video games, rudimentary smartphones, iBooks and midwife for not only the 21st Century but also reintroducing the term “friend” a verb. Our gen perfected cynicism, misunderstood irony, and always had the last word on everything, especially when it wasn’t permitted. We’re also the final generation to give two sh*ts what our parents accomplished for American culture. In the final analysis, Boomers got everything handed to them on a silver platter, resulting in Fox News, willful ignorance of the AIDS crisis, using racism as good business ensuring that both Alex Jones and Lady GaGa alike have an enduring entertainment career and environmental degradation. I’m a dad now. Explaining conservation of resources to an 8-year old is tough when all her peers’ mommies drive Sherman tanks to school, replete with enough ribbon decals to cure the worlds’ physical maladies via psychic conflagration. “Why is your car so small, Dad?” “So you can drive your own small car in a decade. One that hopefully runs on dreams, starlight and whatever makes Rockefeller’s progeny bleed from the eyes and sh*t solar power. How was school?”

Such a worldview invited, then polluted the pop culture landscape for about a quarter century. That was that until the Millenials became the desired demographic. Then their zeitgeist swept our once landmark, hardnosed worldview to the next ironical graphic tee at Hot Topic. Or derelict at your local Salvo’s.

Not that I’m bitter.

I’m not, really. It’s just the natural, social progression of American society as we know it. The passing of the torch. It’s how it all works. What’s curious about it this time is that Gen X seems more actively reluctant to carry on said torch than the Boomers were post-WW2. After all, the Boomers were handed that silver tray, one that always seemed a tad too empty, despite the fact the tray was f*cking silver. That flame burned us to the core, which resulted in a lot of deviant pop culture touchstones of our own gratefully in turn pissing off our parents as they had infuriated theirs. The wheel goes ‘round and ‘round.

(“Um, is this moron going to talk about a movie soon or what? I mean, my iPhone is at 21%, and there are, like, a jillion cute cats on YouTube to scan.”)

SMACK!

Shut up. Pull up your pants. Those ain’t cats you be watching on your Galaxy’s feed, despite what mental_floss told you. But never fear, I like boobies too. You’re secret’s safe until my wife gets home (she doesn’t read this blog anyway, so tee-hee! Now about those “cats”)…

I’m awake! Damned Lego Jurassic World!

Ahem (*adjusts toupee*)…

The pop culture cachet Gen X consisted of bragging about how The Others were there to wake up to Hendrix at Woodstock. How The Graduate spoke—however incorrectly—to them. When weed was free, the Pill was at its apex and both the war in Vietnam and King’s marches sowed the seeds of white, liberal, bleeding heart guilt.

The legacy resulted in QVC, miles of cable TV broadcasting AU’s of sh*t deep (“The Real Housewives of Augusta, Maine!” How chowda really feels…er…tastes!) and letting AIDS become pandemic, but we cured boners. Oh, that and Kevin Costner’s career. And the Boomers’ never apologized for any of it. They were too busy setting up teleplays for thirtysomething, and if that last reference is lost on you, good. Trust me. I mean it).

*calming down, deep breaths, ease down, Ripley*

So where is all this vitriol coming from, and what does it have to do with another comic book adaptation to movie? In two words: cynicism and capitalism. But not mine and not really the bottom dollar. More like heartbreak on both levels, and how becoming disillusioned can happen so very fast.

No surprise here at RIORI that I’ve tackled and inordinate amount of movies based on comic books. Now I’m not sure that all the comic movies that have gone under the lens here are based on the surfeit of comic movies since 2000, or the fact that with this glut, a lot of them tend to suck based on hurried production, lousy scripts, or actors and directors unsure how to handle the source material. Not sure on any of these fronts.

The pertinent movies I’ve scanned here kinda fell 50/50 along the rent it/relent it scale. Then again, I’m just one guy, and an amateur to boot, so my opinions tend to be raw, angry, a bit uniformed, sometimes half-baked and generally abrasive like a Soft Scrub colonic. I make no apologies, and yet still here you are again.

I think why so many comic movies visited here is due to the overabundance. It’s akin to the TV-to-movie adaptations of the 90s I spoke of in the Green Hornet installment. Too many, too much. Hollywood’s been dipping into an endless well of pre-storyboarded scripts from the houses of Marvel, DC and sometimes the second tier publishers a bit of more than could ever be chewed by a plesiosaur with bulimia. This saturation of the market is nothing new. Beyond the “beat it into the ground” mentality of capitalism, there comes this sort of panic when driving, leaping on and eventually falling off some pop cultural bandwagon. The bigwigs in Hollywood know on some level that this comic movie cash cow will dry up someday, and now are urgently milking it for all its worth as we speak. A tipping point will be reached, the bubble will burst, audience’s tastes will change (most likely due to boredom created by overexposure and increasingly lame scripts), but never fear: Hollywood already has the Next Big Thing already ready already. Right now it’s just a matter of finding new and creative ways to empty our wallets. That’s how it’s always been anyway.

That being said, here we reach the inevitable.

Although I’ve never been a fan of the trickery advertising and marketing use to sell us sh*t we don’t need and manipulate our perceptions of reality—c’mon, do all those ladies on the beach really enjoy Coors Light that much?—I do understand how it works. Mostly. The general gist I get from the execution of commercials and the like is to inform, entertain, entice and hit you over the head many, many, many times to hypnotize you and get you hooked on whatever product and blah blah blah. Ads are designed to keep the cash flowing. Duh. I may not like marketing, but I’m not so far up my ass to deny that it works.

What really chafes me about advertising, marketing and the unavoidable selling of a given product isn’t the actual use of subterfuge to make money. It’s the scheming itself I hate. Very talented and intelligent people concocting very creative ways to get unwitting audiences to buy sh*t, effectively spitting on their (increasingly waning) intelligence. And it’s all a terrific waste of said talent and intelligence. F*ck, we could’ve gotten to Mars by now if the maintenance of this whole energy drink craze didn’t take precedence. Sure, folks in marketing may explain all the science and sociology into selling a Big Mac is fascinating, complex and echoing decades of psychological research in action. But it’s still just a Big Mac. Looks like the lunatics have taken over the asylum in this sense; the sellers are selling themselves on the idea that selling is vital to humanity. It’s delusional. It’s willfully ignorant. It’s a waste.

This scheming behind pushing comic movies reached a head for me several years ago. It probably reached a head with a lot of comic fans with different occasions over the past decade, not to mention anyone entrenched in a niche market that all too quickly went mainstream and got watered down for it (e.g.: body modification, “alt”-rock, Anthony Bourdain’s travelogues, cupcakes, etc). It was a moment, a revelation about how deeply the Hollywood machine operated regarding its comic movie goldmine, and about how incredibly cynical marketing people could execute their…well, their schemes. I’m not being paranoid; I just call it like I see it.

Yet another time at my comic shop, Jeff and I were chewing the fat about the then recent mini-series Kick-Ass. Not surprisingly, we found it quite enjoyable (unlike its follow-up series, which came across as both derivative and overly violent for violence’s sake, but that’s another thing entirely). We were respectful fans of the writer, Scottish scribe Mark Millar, and the artist, Marvel legacy John Romita, Jr. Millar’s claim to fame was penning Marvel’s epic Civil War mini-series, and Romita followed in his dad’s footsteps illustrating The Amazing Spider-Man. Needless to say, both guys are very talented, and natural fan favorites.

So Kick-Ass wrapped up its six-ish run, and we were weighing its merits and drawbacks. The book’s print run started in February 2008 and concluded exactly two years later in February 2010. Apparently Millar and Romita were in no hurry to rush their project, which mind you was only six issues long. After waxing philosophical about this trifle, Jeff dropped some science on me. It turned out that Kick-Ass was to be adapted into a movie. Big shocker, that. It was going to hit theaters in May, right when the summer blockbuster season got going.

Wait a minute.

Kick-Ass took its grand old time dripping onto the shelves over the course of two years. That’s including inking, editing, distribution, coffee breaks, etc. It was going to be committed to cinema in three months after its conclusion? You know the average schedule for filming a movie? About three to five months, not including post-production. So either the film version of Kick-Ass was already in the works before the book was officially completed, or a movie was being made in conjunction with the book all along. Or can we say “rush job?” Like on with mainlined crystal meth paired with a butt-chugged Red Bull chaser rush job? There are always budgetary matters to consider, after all. And don’t ask me how meth could be mainlined. Some things are best left to Walter White’s grandkids.

Well, it turned out that the second part was the case. The Millar/Romita book was created independently of the movie script, which in turn was written by director Vaughn and Jane Goldman. Simultaneously, by the way. The film version of Kick-Ass went into production in 2008, the debut year of the comic. Recalling what I said earlier about marketing schemes, and this might be a myopic view—and mine mostly are—but doesn’t it seem a tad suspect to make a comic movie and its printed counterpart across a two year run at the same time? Was Hollywood hedging its bets, capitalizing the comic movie phenom with this plan? In sum, were they planning this all along, a set up to make uber-bucks by following a successful mini by an award-winning team only to stoke the fires for fast business at the multiplex three months after the series concluded? Was Hollywood just striking while the iron was hot?

If that was the case, then where was the f*cking iron?

How terribly cynical is that? And trust me, I know cynicism. Hollywood being so assured to rake in comic movie bucks optioned off the film rights to a book that wasn’t even finished. This is either an exercise in gall, greed, both or awaiting the day to day f*ck you to the audience and extrude their collective wallets via their collective rectums.

Well, to be fair, there was a precedent set back in the day, so it’s not a recent ploy to excite an audience. On the other hand, for the following example, “excite” might be the wrong word. Let’s try “coax.”

In 1968, director Stanley Kubrick and sci-fi scribe Arthur C Clarke teamed up to direct and write 2001: A Space Odyssey, respectively. The book and the film were released to public at the same time. Although the film/book project took the same time to produce as Kick-Ass (about two years, from 1965 to ’67, with necessary editing for its ’68 springtime release date), it wasn’t done out of a dire need to rake in cash. Back then, a movie made a jillion bucks because it was a good movie. 2001 was a great movie, despite its production nightmares, and was visionary, intriguing, weird, satirical and the first sci-fi movie to be both practical in handling possible future tech and the human condition within, as well as respecting the science part of science fiction.

But it wasn’t made to make money first and art second in any overt fashion. And actually, 2001 was no blockbuster. It only got its steam up a year later in 1969 with a lot of thanks to hippies toking up in the theatre. Hey, whatever works. Now where’s my Nutella? And that flexible poodle?

Again: SMACK!

Sorry. Back to being crass and hard. Just please, lay off the jellyfish. And your stomped f*cking beer cans. This time I mean it.

I’ll get to my point. There’s really nothing wrong with Hollywood multi-multi-tasking. Books into movies as par for the course business—comic or otherwise—has been a Hollywood staple since at least Burnett and Alison’s big screen adaptation of their play Everybody Comes To Rick’s (you probably know it better as Casablanca. You don’t? Now you are first in line for castration via broken Snapple bottle. You’ll thank me later). Need I remind you: the movie biz is all about biz, making a buck. Said bucks result in more movies, hopefully good ones. What’s wrong is applying the 21st Century version of 1970s remote environmental bracelets that give emotional feedback from test audiences who’re selected to hear the latest Alice Cooper single first, therefore dictating cleaner production for a cleaner, better selling album. Or just whether to keep beating the fad cash cow into hamburger dollars.

BTW: The whole bracelet thing? True. In the 70s. What, you thought that pedometer in your Apple Watch didn’t have a beta test? Or in that case, a f*cking gamma test?

Christ, I’m tired. This InfoWars fusillade has left me drained. Probably you too. We better curl up with this week’s movie. After all my frightening gloom and doom, here’s hoping this time out—regardless of my whining for the past eleven years—this adaptation thumbed its nose against the almighty cash moo and delivered a consistent, fun story. And since it’s a comic movie, let’s steer clear of the often usual clumsy execution too many of these films get smeared.

It’s actually surprising that Kick-Ass as a movie was ever made, regardless of the production time/dollars spent/dollars recouped/scheming…


Geeky fanboyism can go too far.

High schooler Dave Lizewski (Taylor-Johnson) is your painfully average teenaged guy. He trudges through his classes with all the enthusiasm of a slug. His goofball buddies Marty (Duke), Todd (Peters) and him futz around on social media and hang out after school at the local comic/coffee shop, sipping lattes and wondering who’d win in a fight, Superman or Thor. He’s got a crush on a typically unattainable girl. He’s got an unfeasible comic book collection. And he pounds his penis into pudding to Internet porn like it’s a crime nightly. Completely average sh*t. Y’know. You get it.

Maybe it was too many lattes, but more likely was where those drinks were quaffed. Dave asks his cronies one day, “How come no one’s ever tried being a superhero?” To wit, his worthy constituents rebut: they’d their asses kicked or killed, let alone have to deal with the real law enforcement showing up and dragging their sorry butt to jail. Or worse.

A valid argument. But Dave still asks himself, “What if?” The idea of fighting crime by wit and by grit with a kick-ass costume—

That’s it! Batman was a regular guy, with just a cool outfit and cool weapons to make his mark on Gotham. If only on lark—but probably more so to combat the crushing average-ness of his teenaged so-called life—Dave dons a cool costume and a pair of makeshift truncheons and goes on nightly patrols. You know, searching for lost pets, picking up others’ litter and intervening in gang fights. Which is how Kick-Ass was born. Well, that and Dave’s escapades get caught on people’s smartphones, get uploaded to YouTube, go viral and so on and so forth.

However, not everyone is impressed my Kick-Ass’ vigilantism. Underworld boss Frank D’Amico (Strong) has had his cocaine trafficking interrupted indirectly by Dave. That gangland crap? Looks like Kick-Ass smacked the wrong guys with his clubs that time. Frank’s miffed by this, so to exact some off-the-books justice himself, he sends out his thugs in search of Kick-Ass to put a stop to his putting a stop to things. Send a message; the guy’s been f*cking with the wrong assh*le.

What Frank doesn’t know that another would-be costumed hero—make that two—are secretly gunning for him for much bigger crimes than paltry drug trafficking. Inspired in part by Kick-Ass’ adventures, disgraced cop Damon Macready (Cage) and his daughter-cum-sidekick Mindy (Moretz) don costumes and secret identities of their own to take out D’Amico, by any means possible and screw the law. Beware the might of Big Daddy and Hit Girl!

Little doubt all four of these personalities will clash on the streets sometime and it’s anyone’s guess who’s going to triumph and who’s going to get their ass—

Well, you know…


I gotta tell you after watching Kick-Ass I can say this without pause: this was the funniest comic movie I ever saw. Funnier that the original book.

I know. You probably wouldn’t expect a movie/comic titled Kick-Ass to be a laugh riot (okay, maybe a little), but that’s what it was. Now Millar and Romita’s book had its chuckles, but something about having those panels made flesh—and occasionally padded, I’ll admit it—and dialogue spoken aloud (also with some enhancements) made the whole tangled mess hilarious. There’s something about pairing witty/cheesy dialogue with gutbucket violence that makes me laugh. And you’d be a hypocrite and liar to deny this yourself.

Most comic movies toe the line between following the original script and the cinematic adaptation approaching a modicum of sincerity. This movie came across as sincere without being neither pandering nor unfaithful with concessions to sweetening the plot. To be fair there are a few too many Hollywood touches (recall what I said about scheming?). There’s quite a bit of extraneous dialogue used to verbally express what could’ve done simply with action, like the audience needs to be spoon fed (that little speech Kick-Ass gives after the first gang fight? I don’t recall it that way from the book, but I guess I’m splitting hairs). But I guess that’s a minor carp in the end-run. There’s nothing really wrong with using systematic corniness to enhance a comedy, which beneath the superheroic/violent action surface, Kick-Ass is at heart.

And goofiness abounds amidst all the busted bones, spit teeth and microwave hijinks. For instance, Nic Cage’s post-Oscar downward spiral into a mire of schlock finally comes to good use here. His stuttered, clipped speech might be considered an homage to Adam West (vis-à-vis Big Daddy’s costume). Talk about systematic corn (and speaking of costumes, you gotta admit it, Kick-Ass’ duds are ridiculous). Moretz’ kewpie doll demeanor would normally be grating as an eternally, one-note little girl assassin. Then again that whole assassin thing does help make the medicine go down easier, and she gets some killer (ha!) one-liners. I couldn’t help but giggle for the duration of the movie with clowns like these in action.

For all the pounding and bloody noses, Kick-Ass­ can credit it a lot of its action and pacing to technical flourishes that don’t come with a shattered clavicle. Some of the more compelling things in the film are subtle. They’re kinda like a variation on a Hitchcock-esque “icebox moment.”

(Oh sh*t. Here comes the cinema geek trivia. It’ll only sting for a moment. Now shut up and put down that damned iPhone already.)

Alfred Hitchcock was notorious in sticking throwaway scenes in his movies more or less as a joke for himself. Something off in the film stuck in an audience’s mind—almost subliminally—well after the movie was over and they were back home. It was only until after the person was home and metaphorically reaching into the fridge for a snack—the proverbial icebox—when they went, “Wait, what?” I had a similar experience after seeing The Blair Witch Project; the final scene when Mike was standing in the corner (no, that’s not a spoiler. You have to see the movie to get it. Just drink your beer) was my icebox moment.

That being said, Kick-Ass employs a few pseudo-icebox tricks for its duration. For all the sloppy, frenetic action, most of the acting is keenly conveyed via facial expressions. It’s kinda curious in a so-called action movie that most of the action scenes are stock while the characters’ mugs do most of the twisting and turning. Taylor-Johnson, Moretz, Strong (who’s a lot of fun to hate, BTW; that plastic jaw) and Cage’s there-and-gone mugging tell worlds beyond the story proper, as if to passively remind you you’re supposed to be on the joke. Any movie with such tasteful violence and colorful language hopes you catch up.

Another icebox trick, sort of: the framing of the scenes. They’re laid out like comic book panels, all square and mostly center-forward, with the characters faces and bodies directly front and center. Yeah, yeah; sure, sure. One could argue this thing’s done in almost all movies (and you’d be right), but most other films could employ asides and overheards. Kick-Ass doesn’t. Go on, watch it again. The action’s always overtly front and center. Hell, by contrast John McClane snuck around corners.

For all of Kick-Ass’ ass-kicking, there are a few weak moments, which indeed f*ck with my pacing muse. The second act is kinda slow, as if director Vaughn and Co. felt it necessary to slow the barrage down and let the audience breathe. I dig that Shakespearean tactic, but it plays too long. I mean, do we really need Dave’s monologue to explain everything that’s running through his ass-kicking mind? We should be already well acquainted with his motives. C’mon. Show, don’t tell.

I already delineated in the High Fidelity installment that the director must be careful to apply their own spin on the source material (book, play, comic, etc) without spinning too far off course and alienate a good chunk of the audience already familiar with the original material. When the third act hit, it really began to deviate from the book. This made me cranky. Without even knowing the comic, one can feel the switch in tension; the deviation. It almost proved my whole aforementioned scheming ploy. If it wasn’t for the overall smart, crisp editing of the thing, I might’ve threw my arms up in revolt, if only to honor my comic geek credentials. Almost.

However, Kick-Ass overall appeased my inner (not to mention outer) comic book geek. Call me biased, but this film properly sandwiched scenes from the book against Vaughn’s concepts. It was almost seamless for both the comic book fan and quite seamless for mainstream audiences. Simply put, Kick-Ass was satisfying. It wasn’t arresting, profound or possessing any redeemably qualities. But that was the point. It was about spectacle. Clever spectacle, mind you. Kick-Ass both appeases and insults the comic audience. Is it all one big joke? I’d like to think so. Now ride with it.


Afterwords…

If you saw the header for this week’s installment, you understand my go-to guy for comics passed away suddenly. It seemed oddly fitting—not to mention coincidental—that I took apart a comic movie based on a mini-series we had quite a good time dissecting, seeing how long it took for the print run to finish. I really don’t have any emotional attachment to Jeff paired with this movie—I received the bad news the day after I viewed it—so my judgment of Kick-Ass wasn’t really all that skewed.

However actually seeing it and tearing it to shreds, I can say that as far as comic movies go, yeah, Kick-Ass was pretty good. I don’t think Jeff ever got around to seeing it, which is unfortunate. Not that he missed a stellar movie, but with my hopes that if he did he might remember the debates we got into about the fool thing.

I’d like to hope for that.

Jeffery D Rabkin (1957-2015). He kicked ass.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. I’d call Kick-Ass a solid “Saturday afternoon movie.” Tired of Internet porn and keying cars? Put your lazy Saturday afternoon to good use and plunk this in the player. Or stream it. Or whatever. Christ all these tech shifts can drive a man to throw beer cans at strangers.

Haven’t you gotten tired of that yet? Damn.


Stray Observations…

  • MySpace? Yep, definitely 2008.
  • “…And a pack of Twizzlers.”
  • Moretz gots sum knife skillz. That ain’t no CGI.
  • “That is one gay looking taser.” Is there any other kind?
  • After Catherine Zeta-Jones in High Fidelity, Fonseca lays the best f-bomb ever. She also shouts “f*ck” real well, too.
  • “What a doosh.” Always funnier with a kid.
  • Most blue language I’ve ever heard in a f*ckin’ comic movie.
  • “F*ck you, Mr. Bitey!”
  • And to think a year later we’d have Strong as an honorable member of the Green Lantern Corps. Wait a minute…
  • “Kinda feeling the cape.”
  • More comic movies need hand bra scenes.
  • “A bazooka…Okay?” Strong seemed to get the best lines, as all villains often do.
  • Um, did anyone else catch the thing where an 11-year old drove a custom Mustang? I’ll wager you paid attention to her flipping a billasong, right? Yep, me too.
  • “I think I’m in love with her, dude.”
  • When did Moretz first get pretty? Hick. When did she first get awesome? Here. Weigh those claims, but she still won’t respond to your voicemail.
  • “It sucks that you’re gay.” Aaaand smirk.
  • Gnarls Barkeley? Yep, definitely 2009.
  • “Show’s over, motherf*ckers.”

Next Installment…

Somewhere between Michael Douglas’ elephantine, infeasible novel and Tobey Maguire’s deft storytelling the truth lies for these Wonder Boys.