I think I’ve spent the entirety of this week either on the phone or having a meeting or curled up in bed with a migraine. Sigh. Some weeks are like that.
Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category
The Hobbit is not the Phantom Menace.
I feel like I have to say that leading in, even though I liked the Star Wars prequels. But since that is the gold standard of disappointing sequels, I’ll just use it as a marker. The Hobbit will not disappoint. Casual fans may find it a bit boring in parts. Tolkien enthusiasts, however, will probably love it despite the liberties it takes with the text. Jackson has fleshed out the book with so much detail and backstory, that you can’t help but get swept up in the labor of love this clearly is.
As I said on Twitter, the movie is good. Sometimes it is very good. But it if were a half an hour shorter, it would be awesome.
Let me unpack that a bit. The biggest problem the movie has — in fact, I would almost say its only problem — is that it’s too long. If you’ve got me checking my watch during a Middle Earth movie and continually wondering, “OK, is this where they’re going to end it?”, you’ve got a problem with running time.
It’s hard to pin down exactly where the movie bogs down because there is simply so much new material. New stuff has been larded in everywhere — the battle with the goblins, the chase to Rivendell, the “out of the frying pan” scene. This is not all bad: Jackson has put a much more tangible villain in the piece who works very well. And, as noted above, the backstory fleshes out the movie to be much more epic than the book.
No, I don’t think the new material is the problem. The problem is that some scenes just drag on. People are complaining about the party at Bilbo’s house, but I didn’t find that to be much of a problem. I kind of liked it actually as it did a good job of introducing and defining the characters (Balin, in particular, does well). But the part of the prologue with Frodo just drags on. Gandalf’s introduction is almost verbatim from the book. The consultation in Rivendell really drags with Blanchett and Weaving intoning each syllable verrryy slowly. And a number of the battle scenes just go on for far too long (a growing problem in modern action films). In the end, the movie doesn’t really feel like it has an arc; it feels like a series of incidents that just … at some point … kinda ends.
Personally, I would have ditched all the stuff with Radagast (although it does produce one extremely chilling scene). But I actually think that sharper editing could have kept everything in the movie that’s there and still cut half an hour off the running time. The result would be a great two hour movie that would leave the audience breathless.
And that’s the rub. The reason I’ve spent most of this review complaining about the running time is because Jackson does so much in the film that’s just so right. The prologue about Erebor is excellent. Thorin’s backstory is great. The new villain is excellent and deepens the significance of Thorin’s return to Erebor. The “riddles in the dark scene” is the highlight of the film. Bilbo’s journey from timid Hobbit to hero is done better than Tolkein did. Middle Earth itself is, once again, rendered with such beautiful, loving and fiddling detail. And there are images in the film — the appearance of the necromancer, the “into the fire” scene, the eagles — that just work really really well.
The actors are all well-chosen and do jobs ranging from good to excellent. And Jackson shows the talent he’s shown before for letting actors act.
So, yeah, I liked it, despite its running time. I will probably see it again because, as with the second two LOTR films, my anticipation and worry impinged my enjoyment. But it’s definitely worth $8. Especially on a big 2-D 24 fps screen.
I’ve rated it 8/10, which is provisional. The reason it’s provisional is that a) I’m a fan; b) I rarely rate films higher than 8 on initial viewing; and c) I have to see the other two films (and I really don’t want to wait two years for them). I initially rated the LOTR movies as 9’s but elevated all three to 10’s as they were one long epic rather than three films. So Hobbit I’s legacy will depend on how Hobbit II and Hobbit III go.
My thoughts on watching the movies of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are too long for a tweet, so I’ll spell them out in a few hundred words.
I read all three books of the Millenium Trilogy last year. They are quite good: Larsson was a talented writer. His characters are believable (up to a point) and he is a master at building suspense and mystery. The three books are compelling page turners and featuring a plethora of strong female characters. And Lisbeth Salander has to be one of the better literary characters to emerge in recent years.
However, there were a number of things that bothered me about them. There is the Gary Stuish protagonist who seems not far removed from Larsson himself and spends much of the books sleeping with a series of great women. There is the stark moral color-coding, where all the antagonists are sexually abusive misogynistic dinosaurs. But what bothered me most was the way the books almost seemed to revel in their sexual depravity and trafficking hysteria. There is a strong “rescuer fantasy” undercurrent to the books that is subverted in Dragon Tattoo but keeps poking its head out in the next two books.
The books were a giant hit and have since been turned into a Swedish television miniseries and a Big Hollywood Film. I have now watched the Hollywood version (albeit a bowdlerized version on a transatlantic fight) and the first two parts of the Swedish miniseries.
On balance, I like the Swedish version better. I do need to see the American version in full at home to be completely sure about that, but I think my judgement is unlikely to change. The American version has definite advantages — a more filmic look, sharper direction, an even darker atmosphere. But the Swedish version is a little more complete and a little less slick, which I think are advantages.
One striking thing about the two movies is that the American version features much more handsome actors. I think this is actually to the film’s disadvantage. The Swedish actors look more real, more worn down, more in keeping with how I envisioned them (and, uh, more Swedish). It made them easier to identify with and easier to believe. To put it bluntly, Daniel Craig is way to handsome and way too British for Mikael Bloomquist. He does a great job, no question. If I didn’t know the Swedish version existed, I’d think he was definitive. But Michael Nyqvist is just a bit more suited to the role. The same goes for the lead role: Rooney Mara is excellent; but Noomi Rapace is just a bit better.
However, you really can’t go wrong with either one. Both are good. Both are suspenseful. Both do the book justice. Both come with my recommendation. They are both somewhere between 7/10 and 8/10, with the Swedish version a little higher. Was the remake, strictly speaking, necessary? I think it was. Because there a lot of people who simply will not watch a Swedish miniseries, no matter how good it is. The Craig film, by being slicker, more filmic and in English is more approachable and therefore allows more people to enjoy the story. I really don’t have a problem with that. The American film is utterly worthy of its Swedish predecessor.
Important note: the Swedish movie versions are cut by about half an hour from the full television miniseries versions. Netflix now has both available for streaming and I strongly recommend the miniseries version, which fleshes out the story and includes a number of small details and subplots that, in my opinion, make for a fuller viewing experience. This review is based on the full version.
(Really Serious Spoiler Warning: I’m about to reveal the end of the story, so please don’t read if you have not seen/read the story and want to maintain suspense.
There is one thing that I hated about the book: that Lisbeth destroys the evidence of Martin’s crimes. The reason it bothers me is that the families of all the girls he murdered deserve closure — not to mention the cops who investigated those crimes. I realize that Lisbeth would not appreciate this, but Mikael would. This is one sense in which the Swedish TV series was better than the novel: Mikael agrees to keep the murders out of the press but he and the Vangers agree to notify the families. I found that much more satisfying than the books “we’ll destroy all the evidence if you donate money to women’s causes” social engineering resolution.)
This week will see the release of a remake of Red Dawn. The movie seems destined for the rubbish bin and several “worst of 2012” lists but I thought I’d spare a few thoughts on it, since the original Red Dawn was quite a moment in my early teen years. And not just because it was the first PG-13 movie.
Red Dawn is not a great movie, but it is an iconic one. Apart from the zeitgeist it tapped into, which I’ll discuss in more detail below, it was simply a good film. That characters were reasonably well-defined, their actions not outlandish and it delivered a tremendous amount of action professionally and effectively (today’s audiences are unlikely to understand just how violent this movie was for 1984). I’ll let on that it has a “boy’s fantasy” aspect to it: the idea of teenagers successfully resisting a evil and powerful foe. But it twisted that formula a bit as it became steadily grimmer and grimmer until its inevitable end. I have watched it a couple of times since the theaters and always found myself intrigued. I would probably rate it a 7/10, acknowledge I’ve added a point for personal reasons.
However, the remake, even it is well-made and well-directed, is unlikely to succeed the way the first film did for many reasons that have nothing to do with film-making. The most obvious and commented upon is that, to avoid tanking the Chinese market, the enemy is North Korea. It is unlikely that North Korea could successfully invade itself, least of all the United States. Maybe they’ll come up with some explanation for NK’s sudden military might. But the absurdity of this is sure to drive audiences away. Even if the enemy were China, the idea is still implausible. The United States has more military might than the next twenty nations combined. And that’s not even counting the millions of Americans who hunt and would, if we were ever invaded, comprise the largest standing army in the world. Hell, Pennsylvania could probably outgun most nations.
When you get down to it, the essential thing about Red Dawn is that it was a film whose making was only possible during the Cold War, when we had an enemy superpower of significant military might and the very real fear that entire regions of the world — central America in particular — would turn against us. It struck a chord with many people — especially my generation — because it played on the patriotism and paranoia that was so strong during the Andropov-Chernenko years. Unlike the new film, the basic premise of the older film was not completely ludicrous, even if it was far-fetched. Hell, my friend Adam and I used to constantly play at resisting the Russian occupation.
Red Dawn came with a ready-made audience: tens of millions of Americans who lived under the Soviet threat every day. Critics complained that it seemed like a commercial for the Reagan Administration. These critics apparently missed that Reagan was re-elected in a massive landslide at least in part because of his fierce opposition to Communism.
Today’s young people are simply unlikely to identify with that. They’ve grown up in a world where America’s military might is taken for granted; where wars are rare things fought in distant countries. They’ve grown up in a world where true totalitarianism — the gulags and secret police type — is in retreat. They’ve grown up in a world where our own country is the one becoming a police state. The zeitgeist that made Red Dawn a cult classic simply doesn’t exist anymore. And so it will just be another loud dumb action film.
So, I was busy yesterday when Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere lit up like a Christmas tree over the news that George Lucas had sold Lucasfilm to Disney. Reaction has been strong, if mixed. Someone on FB said the news was dominated by two events: a huge disaster and Hurricane Sandy.
I’m not seeing it that way.
Regardless of what one thinks about the Disney Empire, they provide great entertainment. Their Pixar division has produced some of the finest movies of the last decade (WALL-E, The Incredibles, etc.) Miramax has pumped out numerous Oscar nominees. Their main division has produced solid entertainment in Narnia (first film at least), Pirates of the Caribbean (first film at least) and Tangled. They’ve turned Marvel into a relentless film mill which has pumped out films that are decent (Thor), good (Iron Man) and great (The Avengers). And for all the criticism John Carter got, it was a not a bad film by any means.
Really, the whole anti-Disney thing kind of puzzles me. Yes, they are relentless in protecting their copyright and making a ton of money with endless merchandising. I have a daughter who is into princesses, so my wallet is very familiar with them. But … is that really such an evil thing? America isn’t a hippy commune.
Sleeping on it, I’m more convinced that this could be a good thing. “Could” being the operative word. And the reason I think this could be a good thing is that the franchise is now out of Lucas’ hands.
I don’t mean to slam Lucas. He’s a visual genius who revolutionized film-making. I have a higher opinion of the prequel trilogy than most. And the expanded universe of Star Wars has been excellent, especially from their video game division, which has produced engrossing, well-made, entertaining games that advance the story (and, notably, are not ridiculous resource hogs).
But I also think Lucas’ success produced some problems that manifested in the prequel trilogy. As I argued before, there were great movies buried within those pretty good movies. The thing that made them almost great movies was Lucas’ vision. But the thing that kept them from being great movies was Lucas himself. His flaws — a tin ear for dialogue, a tendency to overcomplicate plots, a push for the cute, an inability to direct actors — were on display and I think his success and his stature prevented anyone from gainsaying him, from saying, “George, come on … let’s cast Annakin as a teenager, not a kid.” And the expanded universe of video games and books actually hurt the films because much of plot — Annakin’s fall from grace, in particular — had taken place off screen.
Disney now has the ability to get anyone they want to work on Stars Wars VII. There are directors out there — great directors — who would pay them for the privilege. They can, if they want, get Peter Jackson to write and direct, Kevin Smith to script doctor and the entire cast of Harry Potter to act. And by keeping Lucas on as a “creative consultant”, they can be sure that he brings a bit of vision to the project. If Disney works this right — finds a great crew and gives them the freedom to create a great film — we could be dazzled.
Ah, but that’s the rub … if. I could just as easily see the studio thinking they have to get something out that’s generic and endlessly marketable to start paying off their $4 billion investment.
We’ll see. I am often too optimistic about these things. But the Star Wars universe is very rich and deep. It’s still possible for great film-makers to make great films in it. Hopefully they now have a chance. That chance did not exist 24 hours ago.
Warning: Movie Nerd Post Ahead
I, like most geeks, have an affection for finding goofs in movies: visible boom mics, plot holes, etc. I’ve made kind of a hobby of it, detailing almost all of the goofs that are currently in TV.com’s Doctor Who Classic section. Finding goofs is a bit of stupid nerdy fun, a bit of a wink that reminds us that this is just entertainment, not real life. It’s especially fun with Doctor Who because the wobbly sets and lousy special effects were part of the fun in the early series.
But you do run into annoyances when you play around in this particular geek pen.
First of all, you have those who try to explain a goof; who desperately scrounge around for some explanation — any explanation — for why an obvious goof is not really a goof at all; how the license plate on the car changed because it was a clever disguise.
The worst are Star Trek fans, who are constantly coming up with some quantum tunneling or space warp effect to explain ST’s wild inconsistencies. And sometimes they resort to being flat-out wrong. An example occurs in Star Trek: Generations. When Soren destroys a star, the gravitational field changes instantly. However, according to General Relatively, the change in gravitational field should propagate out at the speed of light: distant objects will still be responding to the initial gravitational field. Yet, ST fans will continue to insist that Trek is right and Einstein is wrong. Over at Movie Mistakes, which is one of the worst-run of the goof sites, you get this nonsense:
I agree that it should take time for the light from the destruction of the star to reach the planet but not the gravitational effects. Things like planets orbit stars not because there is some kind of particle or energy being exchanged between them but because the gravitational field has warped the space they are travelling through. As a result of this when the gravitational field was changed space would have snapped instantly to its new position producing instant gravitational effects. (see Stephen Hawkins:- A Brief History of Time if you don’t believe me).
This is … uh … not true.
But what’s far worse is people who site goofs that don’t exist. The submitters often rely on faulty memory or someone else’s faulty compilation (I’ve purged dozens of these from the Doctor Who pages). Or, frequently, they haven’t paid close attention to the movie and heard someone explain a plot hole they think exists. Gregg Easterbook, oddly, is one of the worst at this. But Cracked has had a series of articles in this vein that are often badly informed, incomplete and just wrong. Here is the most recent, where they list off eight movies made possible only by incompetent characters.
(I would note that characters acting stupidly, as Movie Mistakes notes, isn’t really a goof. A goof is something that reminds you you’re just watching a movie. Stupidity doesn’t meet that requirement. People sometimes act stupidly. That’s how history is made.)
Some of the mistakes in the Cracked article are valid: the idiocy of Die Hard 2 scarcely needs commenting on. But several are simply wrong. For example, they criticize Men in Black for not sending backup to deal with the stellar cockroach. But the conceit of that movie is that Earth is constantly under threat and the MiB’s are always busy dealing with it. Then they criticize Mission Impossible for network security, ignoring the elaborate plan the MI team use to get access to a secure computer. The most egregious is bashing Star Wars because the Empire doesn’t scan the Millenium Falcon after they capture it (they do, and it’s stated several times).
It’s unusual for Cracked to be so lazy.
Yeah, it’s mid-September. And I still haven’t watched all the 2011 movies that I want to. But do you know how many films I saw in a theater in 2011? Two? Maybe three? Almost everything I watch is on DVD and one of the more praised movie of 2011 just came out. And I’m glad I delayed this post until I could watch it. But I’ll stick a fork in 2011 for now.
According to Metacritic, the most well-reviewed films of 2011 were:
Tree of Life: You can read my long review for my detailed thoughts on what is, without question, the most controversial picture of the year. Many people whose opinions I respect hated it. On IMDB, it is rated at the 58th best movie of 2011, indicating that audiences didn’t like it that much (although the vote is very polarized). But having now seen it a second time, I still think it’s wonderful. I still think, in the fullness of time, it will be appreciated. And I would still rate it as the best film of the year. 9/10
The Artist: While I enjoyed this film, I did not love it the way many people did. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a fine film and well-qualified as Best Picture. But I wonder how much of its appeal is wrapped up in its gimmick. 8/10
Melancholia: As I said on Twitter, this is the reason we put with Lars von Trier’s bullshit. Melancholia is a little slow at the beginning, but builds toward a shattering finale. Kirsten Dunst is excellent and it a visually and aurally stunning film. 8/10
Drive: I have not seen this yet but expect to like it.
The Descendants: I found this to be a little over-rated. It wasn’t bad mind you. It’s well-written and well-acted. I cared about the people in it. But it didn’t grab me the way some of the other best pictures did. It’s my nominee for the “kafeeklatch” movie of the year: appealing mainly to Hollywood insiders. But it’s a step above, say, The Kids are All Right. 7/10
Hugo: As I said on Twitter, I’m so glad that Martin Scorsese finally won an Oscar. It has freed him up to make the pictures he wants to make, rather than aiming so hard for an Oscar (although this was stil nominated). Shutter Island was good; this was great, carried by its strong actors. I told you to keep an eye on Chloe Moretz. 8/10
A Separation: I just watched this a couple of nights ago and am still taking it in. As with several other of the top-rated films, it starts slow as it makes the characters compelling and then tightens down. I was, in an odd way, reminded of Winter’s Bone. It may seem odd to compare a picture set in American meth country to one set in Iran. But both pictures deal with good people trying to live in trying circumstances and both feature acting that is so low-key and so real, I didn’t even realize I was watching actors: I only saw the characters. A must see as it provides one of the first glimpses we’ve gotten of real Iranian society. On IMDB, it is the top-rated movie of 2011. It’s rare for a movie with so few explosions to be so well-liked on IMDB. 8/10 (provisional)
Certified Copy and Take Shelter: I have not seen these. Both are in my queue.
Moneyball: While I am a fan of baseball, a fan of the book and a fan of the new management in the game, I only liked this one, didn’t love it. 7/10
So that’s what the critics thought. We can feather that out with the Best Picture nominees, representing the thoughts of an entirely different group of old white men. The nominees this eyar were The Descendants, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, Tree of Life and War Horse. I have seen all of them. Several I mentioned above, but I’ll go through the other ones.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: I can see what they were trying to do. And there are moments when it is really good and uplifting. I love the optimistic take it has on New Yorkers, which I think is far closer to the truth than the more popular cynical view. But it had lots of credibility problems and the way the kids’ mind was portrayed – with loud noises and flash cuts – irritated me. 6/10
The Help: The acting in this is great and I enjoyed it a lot the first time I saw it. But as time has gone on, the appeal has waned. 7/10
Midnight in Paris: This movie is typical Woody Allen — charming, funny, endearing but not quite great. Marion Cotillard was great in this, as she is in everything. 7/10
War Horse: Like Extremely Loud, there are moments when this film is very good, particularly the touching ending. But the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The story is told from the point of view of the horse, but Spielberg tries very hard to tell it from the view of the people. It doesn’t really work that way. I kept feeling like I was watching a highlight reel of the year’s best films rather than one of the year’s best films. 7/10
So let’s go to the people: looking over the movies at IMDB and narrowing to those with 25,000 or more votes, we find the following list from the users: A Separation, The Intouchables, Warrior, The Artist, Deathly Hallows 2, The Help, The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, Drive, 50/50 and X-Men First Class. Girl with Dragon Tattoo was good. Not quite as good as the Swedish TV series, but very good. Mind you, I saw an edited version on an airplane, so my opinion might improve later from its current 7/10. Deathly Hallow 2 I rate as a 9, but that’s a fan rating, so a normal rating would be 8/10.
I do, however, want to comment on Warrior, which was simply excellent. Fantastic acting all the way down to the supporting actors, brilliant directing and a great story. I was surprised by this one. I did not expect a film about mixed martial arts fighting to be one of the best of the year. I love surprises and gave it an 8/10.
Looking further down the list, there are a few more I have seen or want to see. Sherlock Homes II was even better than the first and I fan-rated it at 8/10. Tin-tin was very enjoyable and I rated it 7/10. The Muppets was a fun tongue-in-check 7/10 that my daughter loved. Super 8 was Spielbergian treat that gives me hope that Adams is improving as a director (8/10). Rango was quite fun at 7/10. And Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was an exquisitely tense spy thriller with a fantastic performance from the great Gary Oldman that I gave 8/10. I would still like to see Mission Impossible IV, Drive, Take Shelter, Source Code and The Adjustment Bureau. And I have been talked into seeing Rise of the Planet of the Apes at some point.
Applying the DVD test, the only films I own are Harry Potter 8a and Sherlock Holmes II, both fan purchases, and Tree of Life. But if money were no object, I would probably buy A Separation, Warrior, Tintin, Tinker Tailor, Melancholia. There are a few more I might throw on the pile once I see them.
Not a bad year, after all is said and done.
Mild Spoiler Warnings:
An airplane is the wrong place to watch John Carter. Or … maybe it’s the right place. You can’t get overwhelmed by special effects watching a tiny screen twenty feet away from you. Story, acting and dialogue become more important; action less. And so while this review is necessarily of a flawed viewing experience, I think I will probably stand by it after I’ve seen Carter on my big TV.
I’m a big fan of Burroughs’ martian tales. Although certain aspects are outdated, they are imaginative, thrilling and captivating. Captain John Carter of Virginia and Princess Dejah Thoris of Helium are two of the great characters in science fiction and Barsoom is one of the most fully realized science fiction worlds ever devised. Barsoom doesn’t just have places, people and monsters. It has culture, history and religion; the things that make a world real. I read the books in college and loved them and I keep meaning to return to Barsoom again. For a long time, I wished John Carter’s cave were real and I could go there. So my expectations were high, if tempered by the cynicism of a 40-year-old.
I can report that while I was disappointed, I was not appalled. The movie is not bad; it is quite watchable. It has some good moments and retains a bit of a sense of wonder. However, I can’t really see myself recommending it to someone other than … me. I have an ability to watch some films and filter out the bad stuff and enjoy the good stuff. This is why I like the Star Wars prequels better than most people in my age group: I enjoy the good parts and ignore the bad ones. I can’t do that with every film, only with films that hit a particular flawed nexus.
But I can’t recommend to anyone else. I think that those unfamiliar with the Burroughs cannon will find themselves a bit lost and bored, not really caring too deeply about it. And I think most of those familiar with the Burroughs cannon will find themselves outraged. This is Borroughs filtered through the action film genre: over-expositioned, filled with too many action scenes, lacking the emotional thread of the books.
I don’t regret watching it. There was stuff that irritated me but enough to like that I’m not regretting the investment of two hours of my time . Granted … it was two hours on a plane; not exactly premium time. But I could find giving those two hours again at some point, maybe as background while I worked.
One big question is how Taylor Kitsch fares in the lead role. Kitsch is actually not bad. He’s not Hayden Christianson out there. But … he’s not that good either. Someone with less looks and more acting chops would have been better. Kitsch’s shortcomings stand out, however, because the rest of the cast is very good. Dominic West does some wonderful scenery chewing (and would have been a better choice in the lead); Willem Dafoe is excellent as Tars Tarkas; James Purefoy has a wonderful two lines as Kantos Kan. But the real gem is Lynn Collins, who simply shines as Dejah Thoris (surprise: I thought she must be English but looked her up and she’s American). She brings intelligence, conviction and beauty to the role, overcoming the writer’s “enhancements” of the character. I actually believed her as the Princess of Mars. Kitsch I could take or leave. But a sequel without Collins would not be worth it.
The biggest problem with the film is that it simply does too much. It’s like the makers decided that A Princess of Mars didn’t have enough material; they had to pull in entire Burroughs mythology and throw in some pointless action scenes. There are simply too many elements, too many working parts. We are not given time to marvel and awe at the beauty and grandeur of Barsoom. We simply stand there while more and more stuff is thrown at us: a stupid and unnecessary expansion of Carter’s adventures out West; an unnecessary addition to his backstory; the river Is; the Therns; some of the deeper politics — these are all things that were not really necessary and, frankly, smack of fanboyism. Lord of the Rings solved the problem of taking a sprawling story and trimming it down, even if it meant losing some of the good parts (Bombadil, the Barrow-Wights, the Scouring of the Shire). John Carter has the opposite problem — taking a lean story and going too deep. This makes for confusion. And the movie tries to cover up its sins with action sequences.
Example: introducing and ramping up the role of the Therns created a good enemy and a clever way to end the movie (and Mark Strong is solid in the role of the chief Thern). But it also was part of the general overwhelming confusion. Holding them back for a future movie; hinting at their existence; that might have worked better. Imagine John Carter returning to Earth, then realizing that someone was using that transportation mechanism and devising a method of smoking them out. That would have ended the movie on an intriguing note and set up the sequel. (That said, the entirely original ending of the movie is one of the best parts and left me smiling).
Really, and I hate to say this, almost all of the movie’s problems would go away if they had just followed the damned book. I don’t say this is a Burroughs purist or any other kind of purist. I haven’t objected to changes made to Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or anything else because I understand that film is a different medium and what works on the page does not necessarily work on the big screen. I get that.
But there’s something the movie makers forgot: Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the books the way he did for a reason. By sticking with Carter’s point of view, the elements of Martian society are introduced more gradually, with new layers of complexity coming with each subsequent book. We are along for the ride, sharing John’s sense of wonder and excitement as he discovers Barsoom. Sticking with that structure would have made for a much more even and far less confusing film.
It also would have taken away the movie’s most glaring problems: the over-reliance on action beats to keep the audience interested; the over-exposition; an arena sequence that is basically ripped straight out of Attack of the Clones. People have a tendency to dismiss Burroughs writing skill since he wrote pulpy stuff. That’s garbage. The man’s books are still read a century after they were written. That’s not because of the cover art. Burroughs could fucking write.
(Aside: I keep referring to action beats. This comes from a Kevin Smith monologue about trying to get a Superman movie made. He recounts a meeting with a Hollywood exec who claimed movies need an action beat every ten minutes to keep the audience interested. If you watch enough movies, you’ll see his philosophy is real. I hate the action beat philosophy and it’s the biggest problem with John Carter. Good films do not need action beats to keep us interested; they build toward action scenes. They don’t rely on them as periodic electroshocks to wake an audience put to sleep by ham-fisted writing.)
In the end, the ultimate test of any movie is “will I buy it on blu-ray?” “Will I spend my hard-earned money so that I can watch this over and over again?” And with John Carter, the answer is, despite my complaints, “probably”. The movie is far from perfect, not even that good. However, it’s not unwatchable and it has its moments. And, frankly, it is likely to be the only John Carter movie worth watching for the next couple of decades.
I will watch it again. I’ll watch it because I’ve been in love with Dejah Thoris for twenty years. I’ll watch it because I like seeing Tars Tarkas on the screen. I’ll watch it because I love Barsoom. And any chance to see it, even a flawed one, is a chance I have to take advantage of.
Your mileage may vary and almost certainly does.
One final note: it an absolute travesty that this film was a flop. It is not bad. It’s quite watchable. It does have a few really good moments. And most of the people I’ve spoken to found it passable. It’s certainly better and more imaginative that the Transformers, Spiderman or Pirates sequels that rake in billions. It flopped because it was badly marketed: the makers thought everyone knew who John Carter was; they didn’t hype it relentlessly — a stunning surprise for Disney; and they put a review embargo on it (always a bad sign). I read several people commenting that they wouldn’t see it because it looked like a cheap Star Wars knockoff.
Disney thought it was going to be a flop, treating it like one and then acted all stunned with their self-fulfilling prophecy fulfilled itself. And their lack of vision cost the film the success that could have set up a sequel: a sequel that could have fixed many of the errors, avoided the mis-steps and given us the John Carter movie we have been waiting a hundred years for.
Oh, well. I’ll just have to cling to my hope that someone will throw a hundred million dollars at Joe Stracyzynski so he can get cracking on the Lensman movies.
IMDB rating: 7/10. But that’s on a fanboy filtering curve. For most people, it would be 6/10. And for many Burroughs fans, it would be lower.
Update: One other note. John Carter’s Earth-evolved physique gives him superior abilities in Mars’ lower gravity, both in the books and the film. But this ability is exaggerated to a big and bothersome degree in the film. That’s another thing that could have been fixed in a sequel.
I should have a feature-length post on this, but for the moment, I’ll like to Agony Booth’s nice video review of Serenity. The thing is, I watched Serenity as someone who had not seen a single second of Firefly. I liked it a lot, enough to make me buy the series and watch it. But I do agree with him: you did have that feeling of being at a great party where you didn’t know anyone. Once I’d watched the series, the movie was even better.
This article, which talks about the way fantasy and sci-fi fans react to characters being killed off, reach a conclusion I find ridiculous:
I believe the discomfort comes down to the base fear of death and uncertainty that people face every day. Death is a subject that makes people uncomfortable. It doesn’t surprise me then that people would have such emotional reactions to fictional character death. They come to fiction to be taken away from the concerns of their everyday life. When confronted with the sudden death of a beloved character, viewers and readers are jarred into dealing with the uncertainty of life in their fiction and that can be unnerving. Look at reactions to the first murder in Psycho, or the death of Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter as examples outside of Martin and Whedon if you will, as they’re not the only writers who use the tactic to drive the emotional point home.
This is psychoanalytical bullshit. The reaction of fans is much more down to Earth. They realize that these characters are fictional. And so killing them off is the writer’s choice, not something that just happened. Even the phrase “killing them off” acknowledges this.
What fans object to is not a character dying, but a character being killed in what feels like an arbitrary and capricious way. No one — NO ONE — objected to Spock being killed in Star Trek II. It was a great way to go, it was an emotional wallop and it was utterly consistent with the theme of the movie and his character. It was one of the best moments in the movies. People did object to Data being killed in Star Trek: Nemesis because it felt arbitrary and stupid. There was no reason for it to happen other than to shock us and try, unsuccessfully, to recreate the punch from Star Trek II.
Numerous sci-fi/fantasy deaths are well-regarded: Theoden’s fall in Lord of the Rings, Vader in Star Wars, Roy in Blade Runner, Ries in The Terminator, Kong in King Kong, Theo in Children of Men, Kosh in Babylon 5, the Knight’s pending death in Seventh Seal and Dumbledore’s fall in Harry Potter. All of these were cases were the death was consistent, reasonable and even noble.
If you look at the deaths that are poorly regard, they tend to be of the arbitrary “eh, shit happens” type: Trinity and Neo in The Matrix Revolutions, Padme in Revenge of the Sith, Ripley in Alien 3 or almost all the death in The Dark Tower.
I have not seen Game of Thrones or Buffy, but I did see Serenity. I didn’t object to the characters being killed. What I most objected to was Wash being killed so arbitrarily (and even then, I didn’t object that much, even though I loved his character). Yes, life is like that, especially a dangerous life. But we want to see our characters go down fighting, to die for a reason.
I mean, seriously: you’re going to take us on a journey with magic and swords or laser guns and faster than light travel; and suddenly you want to be all realistic when it comes to the characters being killed?
That’s the problem. We realize that we are in a fantasy world. And if our characters are going to go down — by the choice of the writer — we want them to go down for a reason.
So this video is up:
I’ve blogged about the Bechdel test before. And I think she gets to the heart of why it’s useful — not as an evaluator of a single film but of Hollywood in general. However, there is one issue I had with this and, increasing, with the Bechdel test itself. And it is based on her comments on Midnight in Paris.
Midnight in Paris fails the Bechdel test and it really shouldn’t. There are numerous women in the story and all — the two French women Gil meets, Gertrude Stein, Inez, Adriana — are good roles with smart dialogue and an importance to the plot. That it technically fails the Bechdel test is just that — technical. That Gertrude Stein is not shown relating to her lover is not some slap in the face from Woody Allen. It’s because the movie is not about Gertrude Stein.
And that brings me to the bigger problem with the Bechdel test. It’s less a test of sexism in Hollywood than it is of story structure. The way most stories are written is that you have a single protagonist. Everyone else is defined by their relationship to the protagonist. This is especially true in movies. Films, by necessity, must economize on characters and time. So if your protagonist is male, you will almost certainly fail the Bechdel test. Because two women interacting about something other than the protagonist would be a plot loop that a conscientious editor would almost certainly excise.
It is notable that of the movies she cites that pass the test — The Help, Winter’s Bone and Black Swan — all three have female protagonists. If you applied an inverse Bechdel test to these films, they would fail (although almost other movies would pass easily).
What the Bechdel test tells us is that Hollywood movies tend to still be built around a single protagonist and that this protagonist is almost always a man. That’s a fair point. As I noted in my previous post on this subject, movies that pass the test tend to be much more complete and rounded. But you could get the result a lot faster if you just counted male protagonists instead of interactions.
So why do Hollywood movies tend to center around a single man? Several reasons. First, most writers and directors are male and so they write male protagonists. Second, many movies concern war, prison or sports — which tend to be male-dominated. Third, non-essential characters, interactions and plot elements tend to be excised for economy (which is why so many characters are childless single children). And finally, if you’re plundering the literature for plots, you’re going to encounter an ouvre dominated by lots of men and Jane Austen. Why the literature is dominated by men is a discussion for another day.
(As limited as the Bechdel test is, the imitations are even more so. One of her commenters proposed the “LGBT” test that a movie should have two or more gay characters that interact about something other than their sexuality. This is a little silly. The Bechdel Test is useful because over half the population is female. Less than 3% are gay, so the test simply doesn’t transpose. Most movies don’t have even ten significant characters, let alone the sixty you would need to statistically have two gay characters.)
I think I’ve made my feeling about the Star War prequels pretty clear. In short, I think they are very good, but flawed. And those flaws drive people in my age demographic bonkers. The hatred spewed at them is way out of proportion to their actual quality. And it is noteworthy that younger and older viewers see the prequels as about on par with the original trilogy. In the end, the original trilogy is elevated in the minds of Gen-Xers because we saw it as children. Nothing could live up to that.
One question I’ve wondered about is what order to show the films to my daughter in. This article as a great suggestion, advocating showing them in the sequence of IV-V-I-II-III-VI. That preserves the big shock of Vader’s identity while keeping things coherent. It’s a fantastic idea and I intend to follow it.
The alternative is hoving off Episode I entirely (“Machete Order”). And I agree with a lot of what he says. It does do away with a lot of the problems of the trilogy and gets back to what I said in my past post: the original trilogy would have worked better had it started Anakin as a troubled teenager rather than an innocent child.