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Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - John Carter

Directed by: Andrew Stanton

Produced by: Jim Morris
Colin Wilson
Lindsey Collins

Screenplay by: Andrew Stanton
Mark Andrews
Michael Chabon

Based on: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Starring: Taylor Kitsch
Lynn Collins
Samantha Morton
Mark Strong
Ciaran Hinds
Dominic West
James Purefoy
Willem Dafoe

Music by: Michael Giacchino

Cinematography by: Daniel Mindel

Editing by: Eric Zumbrunnen

Studio: Walt Disney Pictures

Distributed by: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Release date(s): March 7, 2012 (France)
March 9, 2012 (United States/United Kingdom)

Running time: 132 minutes

Country: United States

Language: English

Production budget: $250 million

Box office revenue: $282, 778, 100

Alright there, folks, it's the resident white dude here, casting down the respective index fingers of my left and right hands on the good, the bad, and the incredibly ugly of cinema. In that regard, I have reviews coming up for Life Of Pi, That's My Boy, A Dangerous Method, Argo, Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai and Amour coming up, with maybe a couple more thrown in there, after which I will come up with my ludicrously overloaded review of the month of December. As for January, I will have to eschew the usual essay-type format for reviewing movies, and have to keep them down to all bone and no meat one-hundred to two-hundred-and-fifty words capsule reviews. This is because I want to keep to schedule, what with the awards season (for which I will be writing an article), my own upcoming year-end awards, so, with regards to yours truly, busy little bee that I am, keep your eyes posted!

Right, so today's movie up for review is John Carter, the movie which has been adapted and is based upon Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom series, featuring the titular John Carter Of Mars, as he is known in the books. Ever since Bob Clampett approached Burroughs in 1931 about doing a feature-length animated film on the series, various people from Ray Harryhausen to John McTiernan to Robert Rodriguez to John Favreau have been involved in attempted to bring the Barsoom series to the big screen. This particular film is adapted from the first book in that series, A Princess Of Mars, and was going to go under the title of John Carter Of Mars until it was decided in the process of marketing (devil's work!) that the 'Of Mars' was to be removed, purportedly because it was an origin story, but in all reality down to the recent financial implications of the word Mars in film titles (looking at you, Mars Needs Moms!). However, equally, a title like John Carter, with a full name, is a kiss of death for a film, and indeed, John Carter has become a contemporary box-office bomb, barely recouping production costs with a $282 million return off of a $250 million budget (and $100 million marketing campaign). As such, it has been subject to much speculation by box-office analysts as to why it flopped; was it the marketing, was it the critical reception, which could be described as mixed at best, the troubled production, or just an anomaly which audiences just did not care to see. In short, a lot has been said about John Carter (my colleagues, if I may be so bold, Mark Kermode and Peter Bradshaw both absolutely hated this film), but being the egotistical narcissist that I am, the argument isn't finished until I get my five dimes! Directed by Andrew Stanton, Taylor Kitsch stars as John Carter, who after his death, leaves his nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) his personal journal, which Burroughs' scourges through to find clues as to his uncle's death. This journal leads us through the story of Carter, who, in the process of dodging compulsory service for the Union in the American Civil War, ends up in a cave with a Thern, which he kills and after taking it's medallion, accidentally transports himself to a planet called Barsoom. That's all I'm doing, not necessarily for spoilers sake but if I was to explain the opening movement of this film, I'd be here 'til 3 a.m. in the morning (put my key in the door, body's laying all over the floor, I don't remember how they got there, I guess I must have killed 'um!), so let's get crackin'.

To start with the good about John Carter (and I must say, there is good about it), with that big a budget, you'd like to think that you'd get something out of it, and what we get out of it is a well-established mise-en-scene. The production design and costumes in the film are suitably lavish, and hope ingratiate the audience into the world of Barsoom. Granted this isn't The Hobbit or The Lord Of The Rings in terms of overall design value, but it looks very good. Also, these details are captured by cinematographer Daniel Mindel, who does his best to display the craft and artistry that the filmmakers have put towards the film. It's crisp, clear and precise, also lacking some of the pitfalls that blockbuster cinematography can fall into. Furthermore, the cinematography and mise-en-scene is complimented by some excellent special/visual effects. They are done to the quality that you don't just see these creatures and action sequences as blobs on the screen, and given that most of the film was probably shot on a variety of sound-stages, you do get a sense of both believability and legitimacy to the proceedings. Finally on the good, it was directed by Andrew Stanton, whose films for Pixar (including a co-director credit on A Bug's Life, and solo credits for Finding Nemo and Wall-E) are among the best in that studio's oeuvre. So, you know that Andrew Stanton hasn't just gone into this half-assed and that he has made an effort to make the best movie possible. He's a filmmaker who genuinely cares about storytelling, art and the craft that goes in making a motion-picture, and I think it is that passion that gives John Carter a semblance of consistency and control through the proverbial grime and the glow (hello, Chelsea Wolfe!).

Alright, so I'm not afraid, despite much critical derision, that John Carter was not as bad as many reviewers are holding it up to task for. However, it is still a mediocre film with a lot wrong with it. The main problem at the centre of all this is a shoddy script. Granted, it gets better in a uniform kind of way once the movie gets started, so at least by that stage it's consistent, but boy does it take a long time to get there. There's just an over-abundance and excessiveness to just how much backstory we are given here. Batman Begins (the template for the 'origin story' upsurge of the past ten years) went from Bruce Wayne's childhood, Melmothian wanderings, training under Ra's al Ghul and emergence as Batman in a little under an hour. John Carter takes about thirty or forty minutes to get from point A to point B. I thought the first part of The Hobbit was unnecessarily long, believe me, this is the real deal: three writers and not a semblance of fine tuning between them. Also, it's a shame given that I've enjoyed his work since he scored the video game adaptation to 1997's The Lost World: Jurassic Park (a real cult classic which has been the subject of many a late night playing by me and my friends!), but Michael Giacchino's score is awful. It's one of those cases in which it seems as though he is following the textbook of film scoring conventions. Everything is that overt, Emotional Heartstrings Orchestra, rather unsubtly telling you want to think and what to feel (I feel like the barber in The Great Dictator!), and it made me rather cross to listen to. Furthermore, given his genuine creativity, Giacchino seems at odds with his own work, and the aural histrionics come across as a grotesque parody of John Williams. Finally, regular Spike Jonze editor Eric Zumbrennen does not do a good job here and it is a mostly poorly acted film (what the hell is Ciaran Hinds doing here?). I'd like to lay the blame on these three aspects, but I think that there is obviously a bigger behind the scenes story here, and that the producers and studio heads (one of whom, namely Rich Ross, has been fired for his poor decision making) are at fault here for letting the production get out of hand.

John Carter has become in the relatively short time since it's release a monumental cenotaph to non-existent box-office and critical success. However, I personally don't think it's the absolute stinker many others think it is. It's well-shot, it's got a solidly established mise-en-scene, the special/visual effects are excellent and it is made by a filmmaker who has passion for the material. And I liked the dog creature thing! Nonetheless, Stanton's passion is misguided. The producers should have beat this project over the head with a stick when it got out of hand, because John Carter is an overlong, shoddily scripted, awfully scored film with weak editing and poor acting. There are plenty of worse films out there, and it might not even make my Top Ten Worst of 2012, but John Carter is still on the wrong side of good.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 4.2/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Tired (still gonna walk the dog and sit up to watch a movie mind!)

P.S. That certain movie is my brand new and spangled copy of Dredd, which I quite gladly paid a tenner for earlier. In a world (to quote Don LaFontaine) where so many blockbuster-type movies are overlong, it's the epitome of cinematic efficiency!

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