Friday, March 30, 2012
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
The following is an open letter to Rich Ross, Chairman of Walt Disney Studios, regarding John Carter. It is a sincere request for Disney senior management to address in a public and meaningful way the many questions that remain unanswered concerning Disney’s handling of the the marketing and release of John Carter. Readers are invited to use the comment function to ask their own questions and leave comments....
The excerpt above is the beginning of the linked article, and is well worth a read for any among us who are flabbergasted at the apparent abject failure of John Carter in the theater, given just how well-done the film was. There's no reason nor excuse for this to have not been one of the biggest film events of the year (Hunger Games and Avengers notwithstanding), and it's pretty much a foregone conclusion (all but universally accepted) at this point that Disney's piss-poor marketing of the film is at fault for the box office flop.
Sunday, March 25, 2012
One of the bigger flops early on in this season has been Walt Disney's John Carter. In many ways, this is a shame because it seems that the film simply didn't get a fair shake--there were reviews (from professional critics, who should be ashamed of themselves) lambasting the film before it had ever been screened for critics, simply based on set photos, leaked footage, and leaked information.
Some of the biggest complaints about the film are that somehow the story is incomprehensible, convoluted, or complex. I take such strong issue with these statements as to openly calling any critic who claims this pretty much an idiot. I realize that to make such a statement is inflammatory, but nobody can ever accuse me of holding back my feelings or opinions.
This is also one of those movies that engenders specifically what I discussed in my inaugural blog: film critics at Rotten Tomatoes are at 51%, while audiences are sitting pretty at 70%. Just another instance that proves most film critics have absolutely no idea what audiences want, which in the end completely defeats their purpose as film critics.
The SF/F geek community, on the other hand, is split down the middle between people who loved it for what it was, and for catching the spirit of Burroughs' original, and those "purists" who are lambasting it for departing from the source material and claim that "catching the spirit" is a stupid, generic defense for anyone to like a film.
Yes, it absolutely deviates from the source material, and it deviates in ways that are beloved from the original book. For example, in the original book, John Carter is inexplicably immortal--he has been the age he is for as long as he can remember, and has fought in dozens of wars across centuries of time. He is a consummate Southern gentleman who has stumbled upon a gold mine with a friend, and plans to mine it and live in comfort for awhile.
In the film, he is an all-too-human man who is broken by the horrors of the Civil War and wants nothing more than to get his gold mine up and running and retire a wealthy man. Why would they make such a severe change to the character? Well, put simply, how do you communicate the fact that a man is inexplicably immortal on screen, and have it not come off as stupid, trite, and just lazy and banal? In a pulp novel written in 1912, it seems mysterious and fits with the tropes. Unfortunately, a film audience in 2012 isn't educated on the tropes of the early 1900's pulps, and nor should they be required to become so, to enjoy a big-budget film. In today's society and economy, a man broken by war who has lost his family and just wants to retire in wealth and peace is something with which people can identify. And unlike many of the SF/F fandom community, I absolutely don't feel that it changed his character in many important ways from the moment he got to Mars. He does fight against his destiny a bit more in the film, I suppose, and we'll get to that in The Bad.
Another change from the book--in the book, there's no real explanation for how Carter gets to Mars. There is a mysterious gas, he has an out-of-body experience, stretches his arms to the sky, and is just...on Mars, a fact that he readily accepts and moves on. Again, this wouldn't play well to a modern movie-going audience, so the writers introduced a MacGuffin to get him there. I had no real issues with this.
I'll put it simply: I loved John Carter. I loved it from start to finish. I don't understand the criticisms of incomprehensible storytelling from what is essentially a pulp fantasy "us vs. them" story with a romance plot tied in--nothing remotely complicated about it at all.
So, let's get on with it. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of John Carter.
There's a lot that's great about this flick. As I mentioned above, there are many and sundry variations from the plot of the book in the movie, but overall the base, core story is the same (and I say this having just finished re-reading the original book): Carter goes to Mars, falls in with the Tharks (twelve-foot-tall green Martians with four arms), falls in love with a Princess of Mars (one of the human-looking red Martians) named Dejah Thoris, sets off on a quest to stop her from a force marriage to the Jeddak (chief) of her city's most hated enemy Zodanga, fights a great battle with the forces of Zodanga, marries the princess, and becomes a powerful and legendary figure on Mars.
While the above constitutes a minor spoiler or two, it shouldn't be anything that's utterly shocking to anyone who's ever seen a movie...ever.
Overall, this story is action-packed, the characters fairly well developed, and the portrayals top-notch. I disagree with critics who have claimed that Kitsch's portrayal of Carter was flat or poor: I think he did a great job, and I think the casting of Dejah Thoris was brilliant and dead-on perfect. Sure, we would've enjoyed seeing her more, well, naked like she is in the book, but let's face it: this was a Disney movie rated PG-13. It's a wild ride from start to finish, and has more than enough violence and action to satisfy male moviegoers, while the love story should suffice to make it a pretty fine date movie. It is perhaps unfortunate that the marketing didn't portray any elements of the love story; this may have made a difference in the box office numbers.
Narratively, there's little to gripe about. Are there plot holes? Sure, but there are no plot holes that aren't forgivable for an epic planetary romance film that is at its heart a grand pulp adventure. Can anyone tell me there weren't plot holes in the original Star Wars trilogy? Sometimes you have to judge these things not unto themselves, but through the lens of what you're watching, and in John Carter I didn't see anything egregious.
The presentation of the Martian mythology and setting is pretty well spot-on, with a single major exception which I'll get to below. This is my own defense for the film capturing the spirit of Burroughs' work. The changes in story were all made to make the narrative more coherent for a modern audience--the book is an incredible story of exploration and adventure, but it (quite literally) meanders all over Mars, as it's really a story about Carter wandering all over the planet while nursing a love for Dejah Thoris that is unrequited until about 2/3 of the way through the book. The film removes a lot of the elements of wandering and gives us a more straightforward plot. But they got the cultures pretty well right on, and I would've been looking forward to seeing the sequel, which alas probably won't happen now.
There's not a great deal of bad to list in this film, but the biggest ones are exceptions to the "mythology" aspect I mentioned in "the Good." The first bad thing is the use of the Therns, who are minor villains in the second book of the series; essentially priests of a goddess cult, who believe they are far more influential than they are. This film gives them shapeshifting powers and sets them up as some sort of galaxy-traveling secret society that manipulates, then lives off the destruction and misfortune of other worlds. The Therns in the film are the source of the MacGuffin that gets Carter to Mars, and I suppose if anything about the plot was in any way convoluted, it's the Therns; they seem to be preparing to take down Earth after they finish with Mars, though this is a throw-away bit that's really not much of a plot point, but only serves to explain why they were on Earth for Carter to get their MacGuffin to begin with. Still, it would've been interesting to see them get their comeuppance in The Gods of Mars, had it been made. I have to say, I really wasn't a fan of the presentation or use of the Therns in the movie at all. No movie is perfect, and John Carter's flaw lies largely with these guys.
The second "bad" is the secondary MacGuffin (yes, there are two). This one is some sort of super-weapon that the Therns give to the Zodangan prince...but he rarely uses to any great effect, even shouting at one point, "What's the use of having this thing if I can't actually use it??" One has to wonder if this inclusion was a wink and a nod to the audience, with someone realizing that the weapon was an error to include only after it was too late.
Finally, and this is something of a minor nitpick (but I am conducting a film review, so as long as I recognize nitpicks for what they are, I think it's okay to include them): they missed a grand opportunity to show one or two other monster races of Mars, while in the arena. Specifically, they mention wild Banths several times, and yet during the arena combat sequence, the monsters unleashed are two white apes. Why not a white ape and a wild Banth? If you're not going to include a Banth, then why even mention them?
This movie, start to finish, is absolutely, undeniably gorgeous. The visualization of the Martian Landscape, the presentation of the various races of Mars, the special effects used in the transportation sequences, the flyers, the energy weapons...all of it is just phenomenal. The movie reportedly cost $250 million to make, and the effects look it. Unfortunately, there was probably no real reason for them to have spent $250 million on a movie that was somewhat untested as a property. One can accomplish incredible special effects on a much smaller budget than that (The Hunger Games did it on less than half of John Carter's budget).
The CGI was really well done, and this was key to the film, since so many of the things you encounter rely on that type of effect. The flying machines looked great; the cultures of Helium and Zodanga looked excellent, and the Tharks--my God, the Tharks. they looked fantastic, even if they weren't quite what I pictured from Burroughs' description. I believed that Tars Tarkas was real, right there in front of John Carter. That probably owes more than a bit to Willem Dafoe's portrayal of Tars, as much as it does to the CGI wizardry, but let's give credit where credit is due. Of course, this is Disney we're talking about, so if there's anyone besides Lucasfilm and WETA Workshop that should be good at CGI, it's Disney.
I expect that more than a little of that massive budget was spent on 3D, and here's where the Ugly gets a bit, well, ugly. The 3D in John Carter was unimpressive at best. This is the problem with 3D: if you're going to do it, you need to go whole hog with it, don't just film a movie in 3D because it's the fad. It increases your budget exponentially (especially if you do it in iMAX 3D), and if you don't pull it off like Tron: Legacy or Underworld: Awakening did, you're wasting your money. John Carter's use of 3D was unequivocally a waste of money. There were so many scenes in that film that could've been made breathtaking by the use of 3D, and given that it's Disney, and they did what in my opinion is the most gorgeous use of 3D ever in a film (the aforementioned Tron: Legacy), there's really no excuse for the 3D to have been as lackluster as it is.
One of the reasons you have so many people turning their noses up at 3D these days is that so many films do it just as a matter of course, and don't make it "pop." I'm not talking about the tired, stupid gimmick of throwing stuff at the camera, either; I'm talking about making the vistas breathtaking. Making explosions explode. Making flying machines really give you a bit of vertigo. 3D done well puts you in the middle of an entirely different world and blows your suspension of disbelief up to fantastic levels. 3D done poorly is "ho hum" at best. John Carter's 3D was "ho hum," and it probably served only to inflate the budget.
Summary and Conclusion
John Carter is an absolutely rousing and fun rollercoaster ride of a film that looks beautiful and has enough action for the men, while including a strong enough love story to appeal to the "date movie" crowd as well. It is only severely marred by its lackluster use of 3D technology and its poor use and presentation of the Tharn race. All-in-all, the film is a must-see and it's a shame that it has done so poorly at the box office.
Score: 4 out of 5 Popcorns.
Friday, March 23, 2012
Thursday, March 22, 2012
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Here we go, the inaugural blog posting. Starting a new project is always a bit daunting, and I hope people find some enjoyment in this one. You'll be wondering what the tagline "Film reviews for the rest of us" is all about, and that's what I mean to address in this first post, before I dive in with the reviews.
It's not even a little bit of a stretch to say that most people hate film critics. Perhaps the most commonly uttered phrase about movie reviewers is, "if they say a movie sucks, by all means run out and see it because it's probably great fun." How often have you wished that someone out there would step up to the plate and review movies the way YOU want them? How often have you wished that a reviewer would come along whose word you can take at face value? I know I have--I've even made posts about it on message boards and social networking sites, wherein I've been publicly called a snob for that opinion by people I considered real life friends.
This is a project I've bandied around for a long time, and it was the aforementioned friend calling me a snob and saying my opinions are invalid that finally spurred me into action. I kind of hope it pisses him off--because his comments will never see the light of day here.
I'm not going to claim that I am unequivocally the guy whose reviews are going to solve all of your "should I see it or not?" problems--to do so would be pretentious and arrogant at best. But I'm going to try to post an "everyman's" view of the films I see, removed from the already arrogant and pretentious "experts" out there.
You're wondering what my qualifications are, I suppose. Truthfully, I've got qualifications equal to just about any movie reviewer out there. I have been a movie buff since I first saw Star Wars at the age of three in 1977. I own nearly 1,000 films on blu-ray, DVD, and other media, spanning every genre from cult to western to sci-fi/fantasy to drama to horror to comedy to adventure to documentary to musical...you get the idea. I went to film school where I completed credits for a certificate in film studies and took such classes as American Film History and World Film Traditions, as well as Westerns and the Samurai Film and several semesters of filmmaking courses.
By way of full disclosure, I was not AWARDED the certificate, because though I had satisfactorily (indeed, with a 3.9 GPA) completed all courses necessary, I did not take at least half of them through the University of Pittsburgh, but transferred them from Point Park College. Even though the courses were offered at the SAME school--Pittsburgh Filmmakers--because I didn't give Pitt the money, they denied the cert. Typical college politics. But the credits are all there on my transcript to show that I did indeed complete the requirements; a loophole about which I was not informed till it was too late left me in the dirt, there.
Suffice it to say, I've got the educational background as well as over 35 years of avid movie watching to guide me.
Why I'm Doing This
Now, why take this on? There are two classes of people among film fans that are, in general, the absolute WORST: those are sci-fi/fantasy geeks, and film critics. Sci-fi/fantasy geeks are rough because they tend to view everything through one lens only: does it hew identically to the source material? Since no adaptation film does, they tend to denounce just about every adaptation film. That the recent spate of Marvel superhero movies have gotten such good press from the sf/f geek community is nothing short of a miracle. Geeks, you see, will say that John Carter was a mixed success at best because they changed it so much from the book; often times, capturing the spirit of the work without the literal hewing to the description and dialogue in the book is lost on the sf/f geek community. I'm not saying that's a universal, but it's a rule of thumb. Geeks feel betrayed when a film attempts to appeal to a general public outside of their community. They feel like they had hope that at last their beloved properties would be given respect, and they view any changes to those properties as a slap in the face and as a distinct lack of respect. They wonder, "Who cares about the general public, anyway? If they didn't see the genius of the X-Men back in the 80's during Fall of the Mutants, they're not going to see it now anyway."
As a geek, I am not immune to this--the recent Conan film, though I enjoyed it on its own merits, had me seething with geek rage over the fact that the filmmakers claimed to be Conan fans, claimed to be giving us the Conan that Robert E. Howard wrote at long last...and then did nothing of the sort. While I felt Jason Momoa was quite impressive as the eponymous Cimmerian...the story was trite, the MacGuffin beyond stupid and impotent, and the presentation of the world absolutely hideous--nothing at all like Howard's presentation of the Hyborian Age. Still, unlike many in the sf/f fandom community, I felt the film had a lot of merits and would have been more than willing to go watch a sequel in hopes that they'd get a bit more right the second time around.
Film critics, on the other hand, are too jaded and, in some cases, too educated to be in tune with the pulse of the general public. They want every film, regardless of what it is, to be the Citizen Kane of its genre, and when it doesn't live up, they dismiss it out of hand. Unfortunately, they're too often wrong, and they can destroy a film before it even gets a chance to find its audience. The recent John Carter film is a prime example of this--there's a crop of "elite" movie critics out there who have lambasted it...some before it was even pre-screened for critics, before they could possibly have seen it, based apparently on leaked information, trailers, and photographs. And here's the rub, and here's what I hate about most well-known critics today: have you noticed how many of their reviews read like there was one original source and they took a thesaurus to it? Movies aren't that objective that you need to have the exact same complaints as the other ten people.
They also say inane things like, "Green Lantern was a poor film because the story was simple, there was little character development, and it's been done before."
Really? It was a superhero origin movie. What the Hell did you expect?
Here's a glowing example, using Green Lantern, of how movie critics are utterly disconnected from their audience. That film was pretty well lambasted by critics--Rotten Tomatoes has it at 27%. I took my 62-year-old father to see it. As we were in the car, he turned to me and said, "You know, I'm a little nervous about this. You know how much you love Star Wars? Well, when I was a boy, Green Lantern was my favorite superhero. I can't tell you how much I loved Green Lantern. I just hope they get this right."
From the moment the movie began, I sat in the theater and I watched my 62-year-old father turn into a 12-year-old boy right before my eyes, and stay that way for two hours. It really moved me to see it. As we were leaving, he was beaming (and if you know my dad, he doesn't beam). All he said was, "that was my Green Lantern."
In my book, the producers, writers, and directors of that film did something absolutely right, if they could have that effect on a man my dad's age, who has seen a lot in his life and rarely shows excitement about anything.
Yet, film critics said things like, "Thinks it is more impressive than it actually is. Faced with over-blown effects, characters look flat and disappear into the background without a whimper, thanks to an insipid script and the film-makers' unwillingness to flesh out anyone but Hal Jordan."
If you want further proof of how off the pulse the fingers of movie reviewers are, look at just about any movie on Rotten Tomatoes, and compare the film critics' ratings to the users' ratings. There's generally at minimum a 20-40% difference, with actual filmgoers finding the movie more enjoyable than critics.
Here's my theory, backed up by nothing more than my own, personal experience.
These people are far too jaded, and they've trained themselves to look for the bad instead of being balanced.
What's my experience on this? It happened to me. When I was first in film school I became the worst kind of movie critic, finding something wrong in every movie out there. And it was really stupid, insipid stuff, like I'd dismiss a movie out of hand because there was a minor visual continuity error in one shot of one scene. I also would rant about how Hollywood always thinks it can do it better than the original, and you can't do it better than the original (which really, begs the question, "why make a movie out of a book or comic at all?")
The truth is, I later came to realize, sometimes things don't work on screen that work in a book...and Hell, sometimes, things don't work in books. Take Watchmen, for example. This is one of the most controversial films around, in terms of "did they get it right or wrong?"
I'll tell you one thing: for a movie, the ending of the film was way better. Hell, the ending of that film would've been way better had Alan Moore had the sense to do it that way himself. Seriously, a rubber tentacle monster in New York cooked up by scientists and special effects teams forced to work in slave labor? This is what's supposed to scare people into submission? The ending of the film, on the other hand, worked in spades--it played to the fear of nuclear holocaust that the comic mentioned over and over, then just turned into a forgotten red herring. It made sense in the context of the story, and it didn't kill my suspension of disbelief with its over-the-top ludicrous nature.
Some things just don't work well on screen, and have to be altered. And yes, sometimes they take the altering a bit too far--what they did to the Venom storyline in Spider-Man 3 was something of a travesty. Having Eddie Brock ask God to kill Peter Parker? Seriously?
Let's not even get started on what they did to Phoenix in X3. Turning one of the greatest villains (arguably, the greatest) in the history of the book into glorified set dressing was a pure mishandling of the character and did not do credit to the themes that the franchise had established up till that point.
And yet, call me crazy, I found X3 a lot of goddamn fun to watch.
So, where does that leave us? The aforementioned friend called me a "literary snob" for sticking up for John Carter and suggesting that any critics who felt the story was overcomplicated or "incomprehensible" were in fact too dumb to be allowed to see movies, let alone review them. He also said that I represented a minority of a minority and implied that my opinions were worthless as such.
I counter that he has no idea what "snob" means, because I was, in fact, countering the elitism and snobbishness of the general mainstream movie critic media. Snobs look down on properties, they don't defend them. And a literary snob would hate that film with every fiber of his or her being because it is utterly changed from the source material in almost every way save the overall mythology at its core. That is to say, they got the Martian cultures mostly right, but the story was "inspired by," at best, rather than "based on." And yet, being a fan of the original books, I'll still defend that movie till my dying breath and I think these elitist, snobbish critics have caused its early demise--it will, however, gain a massive cult following on home video. This is a shame because it means we likely won't get the sequel and I'd love to see The Gods of Mars on screen.
This brings me to an important Disclaimer: I don't consider my opinions on these subjects any more or less valid than anyone else's. I do, however, think that they represent the side of the fence where those people who actually pay to see movies sit.
So, that's why I'm here. I'm here to counter the elitism of your general mainstream movie critics by giving a review that one could argue comes from the "audience" side of Rotten Tomatoes. As at heart I am a member of the sf/f geek community I'm not going to lambast them, but I am here to tell them to take a step back on occasion, breathe, and look at a film for what it is, rather than what they'd hoped it would be, before passing judgment.
And maybe, just maybe, with a little luck, you'll find my reviews are the ones you come to when you're trying to decide if you should see a movie.
That being said, if you've slogged through this blog, I'm sure you'll have figured out what I mean by "the rest of us." If you think that generally movie critics do their job well and your tastes align with theirs? This isn't the place for you. If you think that any film adaptation will automatically suck if it doesn't hew 100% to the source material, this isn't the review site for you. If you can't handle the fact that occasionally I'll be lambasting the film critic community at large...you should probably go somewhere else.
However, if you're like me, and you want to see reviews from the standpoint of that 20-40% higher agreement rate than that with the critics? This will hopefully be a site you'll enjoy. Stick around, I've got some things planned--I'll be tweaking the site layout over the next few weeks until I get it just so, and I'll have at least two reviews to kick things off this weekend: John Carter, and The Hunger Games.
Also, please note that since I'm not one of the "elite," I don't get to do advance screenings of these things, so my reviews will come a bit later, and may be a bit reactionary to the existing reviews as a result.
How It Works
I have been reviewing books and films on various sites around the net (small time) for awhile, and have developed a kind of "trademark" style that will translate naturally to film. I will be reviewing every film in three categories: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
The Good and The Bad are pretty self-explanatory. These are the things I liked about a film, and the things I did not like about it, from the standpoint of writing, acting, directing, how closely it hews to source material (if applicable) and if that's important to this film, and why. I'll be as detailed as possible, and if I venture into spoiler territory, I will note that in the title of the film review, so those looking to avoid spoilers can do so. The Ugly takes a bit of explaining, because it doesn't mean only that which is distasteful. It's the section wherein I review the aesthetics of the film--how it looks, the cinematography, the makeup and FX, all of that good stuff. This section will discuss both the well-done and the crap in the aesthetic presentation of the film. Expect most commentaries on 3D to be in this section, for example.
At the end of the review, to keep in line with movie review standards, I'll summarize my points and give the film a rating of one to five buckets of popcorn.
The Rules of Engagement
So before we get started, one last thing: the rules of engagement. I'm going to keep moderation of posts and comments at a minimum here, as I believe in the free exchange of ideas. That being said, understand something: you're in my house and I expect decorum and respect. I can't ban you from looking at this site (blogger hasn't given us that power yet) but I can make sure that your comments are never seen here again, if you choose to flame, start fights, or make personal attacks. Disagreement is fine--it's your right to disagree with someone. But understand the limits and lines: making a generalized statement about the film critic community is FAR different than making a direct attack against Roger Ebert. The former is permitted here; the latter is absolutely NOT. Likewise, we do not make attacks or flame me or other posters. Them's the rules. If you don't like it, kindly piss off. I'm sorry if that seems harsh, but it's something I feel strongly about. I don't have time in my life for Internet flame wars these days; I'd prefer just to delete the offending comment and move on. So, with all of that on the table, I do sincerely hope you enjoy what I've got to say!