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Posted on 2/01/13 07:23 PM
Mama is a sleek visual thrill ride, but occasionally falls victim to cheap scares
by Patrick Howard
Since Guillermo Del Toro (Pan?s Labyrinth) produces every film in sight, recent horror films like The Orphanage, Splice, and Don?t Be Afraid of the Dark had the chance to catch the Del Toro creative bug and have some original visual style. Del Toro gave the dreary cinema month of January a fighting spirit with the thrilling ghost picture Mama.
Mama, a full length feature film of the 2008 short film of the same name, is about sisters: Victoria and Lilly played by child actors Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse who are left in a cabin in the woods after the death of their parents. Five years later, a search team led by the girls? uncle played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones) finds the girls who have lived off of cherries and are completely feral beings. While Victoria and Lilly are being looked at by a psychiatrist played by Daniel Kash (On the Road), the good doctor tells their uncle, Lucas, and his punk rocker girlfriend Annabel played by Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) that the girls created an imaginary parent figure in order to survive. This entity is called Mama. Victoria and Lilly move in with Lucas and Annabel into a new rehabilitation house provided by the state. But it seems something else has moved in with the new family. Mama.
Well-crafted ghost movies like Poltergeist and ghost stories in general have to have dynamic and relatable characters to get the audience through the plethora of clichťs like cheap jump scares and the stupidity of characters. Chastain?s Annabel is the first horror character in a long time that actually grows as an individual as the thrills and shrills escalate. Annabel at the beginning of the film is a free spirit who has time for everything except kids. So when the girls come into her life she instantly gives the plan thumbs down, but after Lucas falls into a coma courtesy of Mama, Annabel reluctantly kicks in her motherly instincts. But as she bonds with the girls, Annabel grows a sense of protection for the two that continues throughout the rousing climax. As good character development plays out, Annabel?s feeling towards other characters changes for the better and so does our feelings for her, as well.
It is astonishing how great the child actors are. The scenes of the girls behaving like skittish rodents in the old shack and the psychiatrist?s office are ?jump out of your seat? creepy. Their movements are so unnatural that it comes to question: Were their movements enhanced digitally?
With Del Toro producing, it is near impossible for a film like this not to get infested with his fantastical Goth imagery. The design of Mama was genuinely more creepy than scary. Ironically her look is more effective when she is kept in the shadows as parts of her literal flowing hair and severe arthritis fingers creep into the light of day. The film?s director Andrťs Muschietti ( the director of the original short) and Del Toro are kind enough to even give the quick moments of exposition a sleek and dark visual flare.
The movie was doing such a masterful job using the Hitchcockian method: the less you see, the more terrifying it is, with Mama during the first and the beginning of the second act. But in certain parts of the second act, it seemed Muschietti didn?t think this technique was working and decided to throw in quick, cheap and bad effect scares of the ghost. The movie got so close to becoming one of the smarter haunted house movies in recent memory. It?s frustrating and insulting that Muschietti second guessed his initial plan of terror and forcibly inserted these hack jump scares just to be sure the audience would be scared of Mama.
Along with Gangster Squad, Mama is forming 2013?s January into quite a memorable month. The movie flawlessly showcases Guillermo Del Toro?s always impressive visuals, but when it comes close to perfectly using its horror, it suddenly throws a cheap ball at you with terrors that a lazy SyFy channel movie would unapologetically use. Mama gets three out of four popcorn bags.
Posted on 1/19/13 08:29 PM
Gangster Squad is a more stylized rehash of The Untouchables
By Patrick Howard
Ruben Fleischer, director of Zombieland, gave the month of January a chance for fun with his pulp gangster flick, Gangster Squad. Fleischer masterly uses the charm of A-list stars: Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling, and Josh Brolin and the entertaining style of violence and cinematography to get the audience through the tiresome clichťs.
Set in 1949 Los Angeles, Gangster Squad revolves around no nonsense L.A.P.D Sgt. John O'Mara played by Josh Brolin (Men in Black 3) who after making a brutal bust in the territory of mob boss Mickey Cohen played over the top by Sean Penn (Milk) is convinced by his superior, Chief Parker played by Nick Nolte (Warrior) to form a vigilante squad of Los Angeles' finest including Ryan Gosling, Robert Patrick, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, and Michael Pena to put a stop to Cohen's growing operations in L.A. These men ride in with no badges. No mercy.
The film is the unintentional remake of The Untouchables but doesn't unevenly bounce back from dull drama to pulp entertainment. The squad itself is an assemblage of super cops. Mackie is an ace with a knife; Patrick is an old west gunslinger that never misses; Ribisi is the brain of the group; Pena is Patrick's trust-worthy sidekick; and Gosling is, well, Ryan Gosling but with a nasally accent. Brolin and the squad have guilty fun with their stereotypes. This leads to very twisted humor during several violent montages of mobsters being blown away.
Sean Penn, with an even bigger nose this time around, is a perfect and sometimes hilarious eye bulging villain. Seriously, he can't get poked without flying off the deep end. Emma Stone does well with little what she's given based off her sexual and feisty appeal, but ends up being damsel-in-distress number 32. She has a romantic sub-plot with Gosling's Sgt. Jerry Wooters, but thanks for their passable chemistry the relationship isn't completely transparent.
Fleischer's flashy style never quits and transforms standard car chases and shoot-outs into exhilarating trips of cinema ecstasy. The cinematography gives each emotion the film carries its own distinct look. Scenes of passionate rage and anger move with blind and heated intensity. The constant violence is reminiscent of the creative violence of old grindhouse films like The Last House of the Left or Straw Dogs.
Gangster Squad may be a more appealing version of Brian De Palma's Untouchables, but it does fall victim for its source's dramatic plot points and other clichťs of its genre. If you've seen The Untouchables, than you know who's going to die and who the final showdown will be between.
Gangster Squad isn't one of the most compelling and well-structured crime films, but it is one of the most entertaining guilty pleasures in recent memory. Is it unapologetically silly? Yes. These is a scene where Mickey Cohen is confronting one of his cronies after a drug shipment got ambushed by the squad and does nothing, but as Cohen leaves he says to his men, "alright boys, you know the drill." Next shot later is of that poor chum getting killed courtesy of a power drill through the head. Gangster Squad gets two and a half out of four popcorn bags.
Posted on 1/08/13 04:25 PM
The Hobbit kicks off a grand journey for an unnecessary trilogy
By Patrick Howard
Peter Jackson's epic Lord of the Rings trilogy is a shining example of overflowing passion and dedication a filmmaker had for a mystical world. Jackson and his New Zealand film company, WETA's attention to detail with the sets, wardrobe, and character traits sucked audiences everywhere into J.R.R Tolkien's Middle Earth. Now after almost a decade since The Return of the King, Peter Jackson tackles Tolkien's children's Middle Earth book, The Hobbit. Despite Jackson not holding back his love for this world even after 10 years, he stretches this lean children's book into a cinematic trilogy meant for something bigger.
††††††††††† The Hobbit takes place 60 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, where young hobbit, Bilbo Baggins played by Martin Freeman (Sherlock) is approached by Gandalf the Grey played by Sir Ian McKellen (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) to be the burglar in dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield's company. Thorin played by Richard Armitage (Frozen) along with his other 13 dwarf companions plan to take back his only home and its ample treasure in The Lonely Mountain from the malevolent dragon, Smaug.
††††††††††† This growing trend of splitting book-to-film adaptations into two or three parts needs to be applied to films that have sources that have enough entertaining material to sustain part two and three. Films like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows turned out to be perfect because of the original book's extensive build up to its gargantuan climatic battle. Both the build up and the climax were satisfyingly developed within their two-hour and a half running time. Unfortunately, The Hobbit has the same greedy motives as the unwarranted two-parter Twilight: Breaking Dawn. Breaking Dawn painfully showed audiences boring filler of terrible dialogue and dragged out drama for about an hour and a half to then lead to the interesting drama during the remaining 15 minutes. The studios of both films saw the box-office success of Harry Potter's climatic conclusion and their avaricious hearts could not resist.
Despite the mediocre pacing, Jackson wonderfully reminds the audience his love for this world. He and his cohorts' dedication show through the breathtaking landscape of New Zealand and wonderful direction of the film's digital effects and memorable scenes including the confrontation of Bilbo and Gollum (who looks better than ever) as they play a game of riddles. Freeman, McKellen, and Armitage perfectly lose themselves in their roles. The dwarfs, despite have little character development other than Thorin, still have an irresistible charm about them. The whole controversy over the film being filmed in 48 frames per second- which reduces motion blur and flicker found in traditional 24 FPS films, but apparently makes sets and so forth look too obvious- is not that big of a problem as critics are making it out to be.
Jackson's film doesn't have scenes of needless filler, but if its editing was tighter in scenes of exposition, then it would be the perfect cinematic epic for 2012. But with this big flaw in check, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is one of the best films of 2012. It will be interesting to see how Jackson handles the pacing of part two: The Desolation of Smaug and part three: There and Back Again. Jackson's epic gets three and a half out of four popcorn bags.
Posted on 1/02/13 08:48 AM
Skyfall Delivers a Memorable 50th Anniversary for its Franchise
By Patrick Howard
American Beauty director, Sam Mendes approached Skyfall with the idea of making a slow burning thriller with less action scenes, but rather more in-depth character moments. Even though there are fewer scenes of James Bond beating bad guys into submission, the movie lays out Bond's undying swagger, sex appeal, and nostalgia so well that when the screen goes black, you are dying to be the legendary 007 operative. Skyfall harkens back to the classic Bond films like Dr. No and Goldfinger which makes it one of the best in the franchise to date and a great product of the spy's 50th Anniversary.
In the movie, James Bond's trust in his boss M played by Judi Dench (Casino Royale) and others is put into question when events like his near-death experience+- and the numerous attacks on MI6 and its agents which are connected to M and an rogue ex-MI6 agent named Silva played by Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men). Now the weary 007 agent must stop this equally impressive agent from destroying MI6 and his relationship with M.
Typically most James Bond films are solely action oriented; Skyfall will throw most movie-goers off with its action being in the backdrop and its characters, like Bond, in the foreground that were surprisingly dynamic and interesting. Something that seemed to be non-existent in past Bond pictures. Just as Bond's affiliation with M fades into oblivion as he learns of her bad judgment in the past, so does the audience's feelings for her, too.
No matter how suave Bond is, he only makes half of what makes his films memorable. The villains like Auric Goldfinger, Dr. No, and SPECTRE come into play and leave a lasting impression on us and the 007 agent. Javier Bardem as Silva walks in so effortlessly with a flamboyant charm and immediately makes Bond and us uncomfortable and nervous. The two's first scene kicks things off when Silva meets Bond and gets right in 007's face and starts caressing his thighs with his hands. Director Sam Mendes throws all caution to the wind and takes a very direct and disturbing approach with Silva. It may be weird, but it sticks.
Skyfall is a slow burner, but one that pays off at the end of its fuse. Sam Mendes, although with less action to direct, still creates a perfect balance with the action he does deliver and the right amount of character study, classic nostalgia, sexual intrigue, and the never tiring coolness that is Bond. James Bond. Skyfall gets a four out of four popcorn bags.
Posted on 12/05/12 05:18 PM
Life of Pi is a visual and spiritual feast for the holiday season
By Patrick Howard
One of the hardest things for a movie to capture perfectly is spirituality. Like balancing a fragile egg on your head, one misstep and a film's spiritual themes come crashing down and are viewed harshly. Critics will use words such as pretentious, forced, and conceited. Filmmakers often fall victim to taking a naÔve approach to spirituality, religion, and so on. The ideas that they try to convey are the ideas that an ignorant child would conclude. Director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) in his newest film Life of Pi doesn't try to forcibly convince to be spiritual with some pretty images; he convinces you how faith can help a person's will to live in times of survival with enchanting and mystical visuals that thankfully do not let up.
Life of Pi, based on the novel of the same name by Yann Martel, tells the story of young Pi Patel played by newcomer Suraj Sharma who lives in a beautiful zoo in Pondicherry, India. Everything turns upside down for Pi when he learns that his family is moving to Canada along with the entire zoo due to political concerns at home. Things become worse for him when his family perishes on the cargo ship they're on when it sinks in a horrific storm. Pi finds refuge on a lifeboat where he discovers another stowaway: a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Pi must battle to survive with Richard Parker breathing down his neck.
Like James Cameron, Lee takes the visual effects package that he is given and milks it for all its worth. This may seem like a bad thing at first, but Lee does what a wise director should do with visual effects: he uses them to enhance the story and add another layer of depth to it. The work that went into Richard Parker was mind-boggling. It is truly remarkable when a computer generated effect becomes more than that. It develops into a compelling character. This Bengal tiger joins the ranks with others like Gollum from The Lord of the Rings and King Kong from Peter Jackson's 2005 remake.
The strong faith of Pi is what makes him such a compelling character. It's awe-inspiring to see his persistence in believing in a higher power in scenes that would shake even the most spiritual person. Whether you have a spiritual life or not, the movie demonstrates the change spirituality can make in the choices a person makes when his or her life is at stake. It's always insulting when fluff films spew their superficial views of how great it is to accept God, but never go into detail about the impact of God in your life.
Pi's line "Above all... it is important not to lose hope" couldn't have captured the film's meaning more perfectly. Director Ang Lee pulls off a feel good film with a touchy subject matter through the eyes of the resourceful and curious Pi Patel. In addition to this delicious treat, jaw-dropping visuals and striking cinematography are packed into the cinematic gem. Life of Pi receives four out of four popcorn bags.
Posted on 10/15/12 08:38 PM
Ben Affleck knocks it out of the park with Argo
Many filmgoers can agree that Ben Affleck has had a struggling acting career over the past decade. With critical and box office bombs such as Gigli, Daredevil, and Jersey Girl, Affleck‚(TM)s respect and reputation as an actor had gone down the toilet. In 2007, Affleck took a daring leap and tried out his skills as a director with the thriller Gone Baby Gone. After proving to critics of his directing talent, the up and coming director tackled the heist thriller The Town in 2010. With The Town, the praise was more than Affleck could handle. Thankfully he didn‚(TM)t let it go to his head because his latest directed political thriller Argo flawlessly packs suspense, satire, and history into one little nice package that it is the promising director‚(TM)s finest work yet.
Argo is about the unbelievable true story of a CIA mission disguised as a cheap Star Wars rip-off flick under the same name. Its intent was to rescue six American hostages in Iran, who found refuge at the Canadian ambassador‚(TM)s house, during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. Ben Affleck plays real life CIA agent Tony Mendez who‚(TM)s crazy plan, with some help from Hollywood, had the six American diplomats play the fake movie‚(TM)s Canadian crew members in order to get out of Iran undetected.
Argo strikes brilliance immediately in the opening scene with the fusion of real footage of the Iranian protest outside of the American embassy and Affleck‚(TM)s well directed reenactments. Affleck refrains from doing too many thriller tropes such as close ups to create suspense; instead he manages to keep the tension down to Earth and honest. Scenes where characters aren‚(TM)t on the run, but arguing about the absurdity of the mission were extremely edgy. It was easy to fill in the shoes of any of the hostages. Anyone in his or her right mind would have a plethora of concerns.
It‚(TM)s been four years since Tropic Thunder that a movie had been able to successfully parody the industry of Hollywood. Screenwriter Chris Terrio‚(TM)s script for Argo along with the impeccable performances of John Goodman (The Big Lebowski) and Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) dish out consistently funny gags about the unfortunate truths of movie-making business. Goodman says, ‚So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything? Affleck responds, ‚Yeah‚?. Goodman replies, ‚You‚(TM)ll fit right in.‚? The humor smoothly transitions from Hollywood to the CIA as Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) takes the helm and leads the audience through the funny and frustrating protocols of the famous agency.
Most directors who star in their own movie often try to have every frame of every second focused on them. They each develop this mindset that their movie is only about them and not the story. Affleck gives a quiet, yet commanding performance so Argo‚(TM)s fascinating story can reach its full potential. It‚(TM)s safe to say that the supporting actors like Goodman and Arkin gave the most memorable performances.
Although Affleck‚(TM)s decision to be at a distance, acting wise, was beneficial for the film, it did, however, sever the connection between his character Tony Mendez and the audience. The film does set him up with the back-story of a strained and distant relationship between his ex-wife and 10-year-old son. But Mendez is given so little time to flesh out his inner-story that the emotional payoff for him fell flat and had no resonance of any kind.
Despite this political thriller‚(TM)s weak main character, Argo throws at its viewers entertaining thrills, laughs, history, and an important and outstanding example of international cooperation between countries. It is undoubtedly one of the best films of 2012 and Ben Affleck‚(TM)s best directorial picture to date. Argo gets an enthusiastic three and a half out of four popcorn bags.
Posted on 5/23/12 09:04 AM
Superhero team movie full fills its four-year hype
It's the movie that's been hyped for nearly four years and on Friday, May 4, 2012, Marvel's The Avengers exploded on to the silver screen at thousands of theaters across the nation. Rookie full-length director Joss Whedon (Firefly and Buffy The Vampire Slayer) masterfully balances comedy, action, suspense, and jaw-dropping visuals and wraps it into the perfect comic book film that is on such an epic scale of filmmaking that it is on par with Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight.
The story of this gargantuan film is when god of mischief Loki played by Tom Hiddleston (Thor) decides with the help of some evil, galactic aliens to take over Earth and enslave the human race because apparently freedom is pointless and bowing down to an overlord is where it is. In order to stop Loki, Nick Fury, the leader of S.H.I.E.L.D, assembles a team of Earth's mightiest heroes: Iron Man played by Robert Downey Jr. (Sherlock Holmes), Captain America played by Chris Evans (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), Thor played by Chris Hemsworth (The Cabin in the Woods), the Hulk played by Mark Ruffalo (Zodiac), Black Widow played by Scarlett Johansson (The Other Boleyn Girl), and Hawkeye played by Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker). But while Loki's power grows so does the tension and bickering between the superheroes. Can the team set aside their differences and come together and defeat Loki and possibly avenge the planet?
It's been a long time since an action movie was truly epic without being completely mindless and irrelevant. The strongest aspect of The Avengers, that Whedon nails, is the conflict between the superheroes who all get to show their views of one another and their morals of the rising situations. It's like watching an episode of Big Brother, but with the Avengers. Iron Man gets into a fight with Thor, the Hulk gets into a fight with Thor and Black Widow, and Captain America gets into a dispute with Tony Stark (a.k.a Iron Man). While this is going one, you, the audience member, is just sitting there wondering will these people ever find some kind of closure and focus on stopping Loki. This wonderful banter becomes the catalyst for the anticipated high adrenaline third act.
The key to a great action flick is great comedy. It doesn't matter how tense a director is able to make his or her film if the comedy doesn't work or there's no comedy at all, the audience feels absolutely exhausted with the suspense that everyone is trying to leave the theater to save themselves from the mind meld of action. The comedy is the breather for the viewers between action scenes. In writing and directing The Avengers, Joss Whedon followed this guideline and wrote some many funny one-liners and bits that it's not wise to tell your friends the jokes because they have to be experienced at the theater. What's also great is that the jokes don't always come from Tony Stark because he's the most sarcastic of all the characters (although he does have some great moments). Hulk has some funny bits with Thor even Hawkeye got a moment to shine.
The only real problem, which was so minor, is that at the beginning when Loki is discussing a proposition with the cruel alien race, there is hardly any time spent on the motives of the alien race that we the audience are to assume that they want to take over the world because that's what all aliens want to do with the exception of E.T. But when the fun kick-starts, it really kick-starts and you completely forgive and forget that problem that was bugging you.
Has Joss Whedon's The Avengers lived up to it expectations. Yes, absolutely! He masterfully balanced the amount of screen time that each character should have, so the fans feel a sense of satisfaction. The action is great, the comedy is pitch perfect, and each Avenger gets to shine and kick some major butt. This is undoubtedly one of the best action movies and movies period of 2012 so far. Earth's mightiest heroes get a four out of four popcorn bags.
Posted on 5/10/12 08:46 AM
Sci-fi flick shows an entertaining homage to Spielberg
With every movie buff, there is one movie director and his or her films that each movie geek grew up with over the decades. Whether it's Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Penny Marshall, George Lucas, Frank Capra, or Clint Eastwood. This year's nostalgic film is Super 8 directed by J.J. Abrams (Star Trek & Mission Impossible II) and produced by Steven Spielberg (Shindler's List & Jaws). Super 8's characters, story, and atmosphere give a justified and memorable two and a half hours of rekindling of the films by Steven Spielberg that made us go "ooh" and "aw" for four decades and decades to come.
The movie centers around 13 year old Joe Lamb played by newcomer Joel Courtney. The opening scene is of the funeral reception of the death of Joe's mother after a tragic accident at the machine factory where she worked. Six months later, Joe's relationship with father, Sherriff Lamb played by Kyle Chandler (The Kingdom) hasn't improved since his mom died. In order to get away from it all and mourn, he hangs out with his friends while they try to finish Charlie's, his best friend, amateur zombie flick with his Super 8 camera. During a night shoot at the town's local train station, the gang find themselves, while filming, right in the middle of a horrific train wreck caused by their school teacher who purposely derails it with his pick-up truck. During all of the on-going destruction, Joe and the Super 8 camera witness some mysterious unseen being or creature escape from one of the storage cars. After, all of the mayhem stops; military troops immediately arrive at the scene of the accident and begins to investigate. Joe and the others quickly flee and promise each other not to speak a word of this to anybody.
A few days later, more military forces begin to arrive at the town and starts to surround the entire crash site and sanction it off from the town citizens. To make things even creepier; dogs, appliances, car engines and eventually people begin disappearing and calls come in from people who say they saw something big that they can't fully explain. Joe dotes it upon himself and the crew that they should snoop around find out what really escaped from the train wreck. Of course with every group of kids who get too nosey, they reveal something that none of them are prepared for.
Director J.J. Abrams does a subtle, but recognizable job at blending in all of the memorable aspects of Spielberg films like the funny relationships between the kids, as they are this century's Goonies, even though there is only one Goonies. Increasing the curious tension of the appearance of the creature like the ingenious method in Jaws. The combination of visuals and musical score to create an E.T.-esque feel to the popcorn eating wonderment that is the film itself.
There is a lot of pressure on new coming actors especially child actors in impressing critics and audiences across the world because it's that first impression that decides whether or not that actor or actress is worth looking into. The newcomer up to bat is Joel Courtney who plays Joe, definitely brought the emotion, combined with Abrams' direction, of a small boy losing his mother and never being able to let go of her and move on. I'm sure Courtney was relaxed, while being surrounded by experienced child actors like Elle Fanning (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and Gabriel Basso (The Big C). Courtney and rest of the kids do a fine job in adding little traits here and there that make the gang and each of them even more entertaining.
The flaws are, first of all, forgivable. There are a few questionable historical references of products like The Walkman and The Rubik's Cube, which is debatable whether these two pop culture icons actually were released to America in 1979. The Rubik's Cube for sure wasn't released to the states until 1980. The Walkman's release, on the other hand, is questionable. Another quick complaint was the noticeable, blue camera glare that kept popping up very often from time to time. Now, Abrams did this in Star Trek and I believe that he does this to add some realism to the fact that there would be glares from the camera metallic objects or something. All in all, certain audience members and I found it very distracting and it acted like a tick that wouldn't go away.
Super 8 is a great film that contributes to the hopefully satisfying ending of June. If you're a huge Spielberg buff and you appreciate his work then this is a film that will have you remember all of the classic moments of his films that astounded viewers for decades and decades to come. Super 8 will receive three and a half out of four popcorn bags.
Posted on 5/10/12 08:45 AM
Plain in simple, this film is just perfect!
Posted on 3/25/12 02:59 PM
Disney film offers a lively Mars, but a throwaway story
100 years ago, author Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912 wrote a pulp science fiction series that involved the fantastic adventures of Confederate veteran John Carter who is transported to the red dusty planet Mars. While he's there he befriends the Martian locals called Tharks and with each book he saves the citizens of Helium like its princess Dejah Thoris from the evildoers of Zodanga. This book series inspired such great pieces of science fiction like Star Wars, Avatar, and Flash Gordon. 100 years later, Pixar director Andrew Stanton (WALL-E & Finding Nemo) gave audiences his interpretation of the book one A Princess of Mars and failed to give a unique story with stunning effects, but instead a movie with electric visuals, but a story that's been done to death by others like Star Wars. When it's all over, the story of John Carter means absolutely nothing.
In the beginning of the film, the setting is 1881 and Carter's nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs has just learned of his Uncle's death and is given the power of his estate and Carter's journal which chronicles the beaming of Carter from Earth to the breathable terrain of Mars or Barsoom. John Carter played by Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights) is just completely flabbergasted by his new Superman powers (due to Mars' difference in physics) and the green 12 foot tall, four armed Tharks led by Tars Tarkas performed wonderfully by Willem Dafoe (Spiderman). In midst of all of the confusion and unintentional buffoonery on Carter's part, the man of Earth finds himself wrapped in the tension between two warring cities: the peaceful and intelligent Helium and the evil, power hungry Zodanga. Now with the suspense rising Helium and the brave Tharks look to John Carter to save Helium's princess Dejah Thoris played by Lynn Collins (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) from marrying Zodanga's leader Sab than played by Dominic West (300). This marriage will spark the end of Barsoom, as we know it.
We've seen this story before. It's Star Wars' story of the hero's journey mixed with the visual appeal of Avatar. John Carter might as well be Luke Skywalker except less interesting. When the audience first meets Carter he's an ex-Confederate soldier who's all scraggly and doesn't have a clean spot on his body to be found. For the first 15 minutes of the movie, there's an intriguing glow about Carter he's a man who probably has a dark past and you wonder if he'll come to terms with his dark pains or find some other means of closure. But when we move to Mars, the story becomes silly and overly Shakespearian with the conflict of Helium and Zodanga and director Andrew Stanton does nothing with the useless flashbacks that are used to develop Carter's mysterious past. Structurally, the story is off-putting. There is an arena scene with Carter and Tarkas against these massive white alien apes which was great, but it comes later in the movie and it should have come in earlier probably when Carter was captured by the Tharks. There he has to prove is worth or he has to prove his new found super powers to the skeptical locals.
Even with all of the movie's big shortcomings including the stiff acting from Kitsch and Collins, there are a lot charming and visually stunning aspects of John Carter. All of the actors, mainly Willem Dafoe, who played the Tharks were great. The Thark designs alone are original and cool with their four appendages and tusks to display dominance over a tribe helped develop the ancient and vast culture of these mighty Martians. In the midst of the bad dialog, weak plot, and rigid acting, this movie needed some kind of comedy relief and lucky it came in the form of cute, but quick Martian dog named Woola. At first the worry was that this character's stick would get real old, but strangely it didn't. Every time he's on screen he is a ray of hope that the audience won't comment on the down sides of the movie. The film's budget was $250 million and effects wise it was money well spent because the Tharks, the cool spaceships, and the layout of Mars looked flawless with their detail and plausibility.
It's obvious that Disney tried to find its new Pirates of the Caribbean franchise for the next generation. If they found a director that was more experienced with live action story telling like James Cameron or Steven Spielberg, then this would have been a great and attentive epic, but sadly it's just an effects heavy after thought. With its disappointing opening weekend, Disney has been worried as hell, so a sequel might not happen. John Carter would be best watched as a rental, so you don't feel completely cheated. Carter gets two and a half out of four popcorn bags.