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Saturday, February 09, 2013


3D and John Carter Enter Greenbriar's Cave

Remember talk of the 1963 Cleopatra nearly breaking Fox, and Heaven's Gate a near-scuttler for United Artists? Nowaday it seems Disney can lose a staggering $200 million on a single feature and easily keep lights on, as was case last year with John Carter, an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough's other-worldly adventure. My untypical dip into contempo waters was fruit of drunkenness over 3D at home, viewing appetite not sated by mere pair of oldies so far available (Dial M For Murder and Creature From The Black Lagoon). I come post-screening to find, however, that John Carter was not shot in 3D, being instead "converted" to the depth process in post-production. Rather than holler fake or foul, I'll admit to it looking pretty good to these untrained eyes, mindful withal of experts who online-declare it "inept" and a cheat. Maybe getting older makes me easier to please.

Castle Of Frankenstein #5's Striking Glimpse of John Carter and Martian Foes

Now to the movie: JC is sci-fi, and naysayers claim it rustles off previous sci-fi pix more than from content of Burrough's novel, A Princess Of Mars, credited basis for most of John Carter. Seems I once had a book of that with cover art by Frank Frazetta --- anyway there was awareness of the character dating even further to Castle Of Frankenstein #5, wherein Burroughs was cover-celebrated by immortal publisher-editor Calvin T. Beck, John Carter fighting monsters on interior pages. Way-back effort to put JC on film was spearheaded by legend animator Robert Clampett, who tried but couldn't interest MGM in a 30's cartoon treatment. I read how Disney came to 2012 impasse over their title --- who today has heard of Edgar Rice Burroughs, let alone John Carter?


I realize present pics traffic in mythology, but having missed all the Rings saga, plus Hobbits and Harry Potter, this viewer sits ill-equipped to grasp alternate reality lingo. Understanding modern fantasy is for me like strain toward mastery of a really complicated remote or cell phone. It can't be done, amigo. I thus suspend judgment of a John Carter and concede that maybe it's me and not the narrative that's confused. JC creators of a thirty-frame-per-second generation may rightfully consign Greenbriar to closet space with Mole People and Queens Of Outer Space better understood by decaying intellects. By way of further intimidation by modern sci-fi, there is Prometheus, which I'm forty minutes into and utterly undone by (it's got great 3D, though). A friend said I should watch 1979's Alien again in order to get it, but no can do, or better put, no will do. The march to Prometheus finish will eventually be made, with maybe further report from that field.


I read that John Carter was shot twice. Really? Has that been done since The Big Trail and Cinemascope 55? There was a young director whose first live action feature this was, by name of Andrew Stanton, who was born in 1965, approximate time I got through and comprehended Robinson Crusoe On Mars. There are flashbacks to John Carter, layers of them, Passage To Marseille a game of checkers by comparison. They don't call this red planet "Mars," but instead "Barsoom," which I thought was just another device to belittle me, if not a musical instrument, but then I found out it originated with Burroughs, so am willing to stand down. There are animated aliens by thousands sharing frame space; action highlights taken in a right spirit can astound. Warring tribes are "Therns" as opposed by "Helium"-folk, with trouble-makers out of "Zodanga," such names neither tripping off the tongue (spell check going nuts here) or readily retrievable by the memory (pause for phone or toilet saw me lost again).


There are neat effects where John Carter, his gravity halved for being on Mars, leaps across landscape after super-hero fashion. He has a Martian (or Basoomian) doggish creature for comic relief that's not so oppressive as robot appendages to Star Wars and like imitators. John Carter was chided for borrow of devices from the latter group of SW's, none of which I saw, thus my coming to this unsullied. A princess is here to be rescued with varied villains to rout. You could argue that John Carter is for kids and dumbbells, but so was plenty I grew up with and still enjoy watching. Thirty years from now, there will be those who will call JC classic, and maybe lead man Taylor Kitsch will buy groceries with cash got from autograph shows. Paul Mantee from Robinson Crusoe On Mars has done as much for decades now, and plenty of my generation consider him an ongoing cat's meow.

13 Comments:

Blogger iarla said...

gosh john, i havent even heard of this, and those stills and production images look so flat and soulless, like modern TV publicity shots. i guess the child in me just didnt respond. i'm cautious to go to the cinema these days because i'm terrifed of expensive boredom and lifes too short. watched "hitchcock" (the inaccuracies!) and "silver linings ..." online this week and so UNMOVED. watching "sign of the ram" right now after reading your writeup, and, mild as it is, i'm feeling a twinge.....

8:11 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Yeah, I'd say you pretty well summed up "John Carter" --- soulless.

8:22 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

They can perfect CGI 'til they're blue in the face, and I'll still be more impressed by the original "King Kong."

11:59 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Can't wait to read your take on this year's upcoming WB conversion of THE WIZARD OF OZ to 3D.

12:02 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer has some pointed observations on "John Carter" and the young actor that plays him:


Taylor Kitsch, the actor portraying John Carter, whose look of intense self-absorption suggests his background as a model, has been quoted as saying, "I'm very proud of 'John Carter.' Box offce doesn't validate me as a person, or as an actor."

As indeed he can only hope.

Mr. Kitsch also appeared in Universal's "Battleship," released the same year, which lost $150 million, thus giving him the unique status of being the lead actor in the two biggest bombs ever to be detonated in Hollywood history.

It is reported that when Mr. Kitsch came to New York to begin his career as a model, he was homeless for a time and slept on subway cars at night. No doubt he has carefully invested his film salaries, as obtaining further income through the avenue of acting seems unlikely, somehow.

Daniel

P.S. I understand that Disney backed "John Carter" with a $100 million marketing campaign, a lesson to showmen everywhere. I'm sure Dwain Esper or Dan Sonney would have been a little more realistic.

8:10 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I'm sure the Disney folk envisioned a huge JOHN CARTER franchise just as Warners did way back with DOC SAVAGE.

11:39 AM  
Blogger Poptique said...

Hi John - I recommend Scorsese's Hugo the best moden film to get for home 3D.

It's the only 3D film in recent years that actually does any genuinely creative things with the format - like that great scene near the end of the House of Wax.

12:34 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Poptique, I actually watched "Hugo" in HD, but flat, and wrote a post on it, which has not yet been published, being one of many in storage for future use. Your note makes me curious to see the 3-D version, however, which might make interesting comparison with the standard one I've seen. Thanks for the steer.

12:46 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

John Carter was basically everything that's wrong with today's genre offerings in one big, expensive, soulless package. For starters, it had that dull washed-out colorless look that apparently all big movies have to sport nowadays, even though the material was an idea opportunity to go nuts with the colors. Instead we got red Martians who aren't all that red and lots and lots of beige everywhere you look. No real attempt seems to have been made to make landscapes look alien, which surely must be a lot easier these days with CGI than it was in the days of, say, Angry Red Planet. And to top it all off a pretty boy leading man with a deadly lack of charisma in the sort of role that needs a Buster Crabbe or Harrison Ford to really pull it off. Do we just not have guys like that, in these days of brooding, excessively earnest heroes?

1:51 PM  
Blogger Erik Weems said...

Seems to me the Carter film would have been exponentially better by chopping out 45 minutes to 90 minutes and trimming it up as a fast action film. Fast and short might overcome the repetitious (though impressive) effects. But, who dares to make a fast, short film when $200 million is on the line?

1:09 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon speaks to latter-day sci-fi's and FX that drive them:


John,


I thought your piece on "John Carter" was a masterpiece of tactful writing. I don't think you evaded any of its 'sensitive' (artistic vs. say political) issues, as I imagine them---for I too gave it a big pass at the movies---but when you admit your biases, you're being more honest as well as helpful than most critics ever are. I laughed at your reference to being relegated to a closet with Mole People and Queens of Outer Space! That was pretty terrific. At least those are endearing. Not only do these latter-day CGI-fests lack soul, they're just no goddamn fun---and, they're smug. They seem to have a see-through declaration printed on every frame: "Cannot be better." But, oh, do I disagree. BTW, a friend of mine recently sent me a copy of a picture that had been posted to Facebook by one of the Skotak brothers (I think this was Bob, and I think his brother's name is Dennis.) They both had a studio right down the street from mine in North Hollywood in the '80s. I'd been forced to leave my own beloved backyard / garage-based studio when I stupidly set FIRE to it one night by leaving some heat lamps going in a makeshift oven. Mea culpa, my grievous fault! The Skotaks appeared on my one visit to have taken over what was once some large business of I-don't-know what nature, which had had offices up front and a lot of open space in back---no doubt some sort of small manufacturing concern. I can't speak for them, but I always got the sense that they were trying to carry on, into the dawning era of CGI, with well-made conventional special effects using miniatures, slow-motion photography, conventional film techniques, etc. I worked on a terrible, terrible film (in the makeup effort---working for the Stan Winston 'circus') called "Tank Girl" which had what I thought were excellent special effects provided by the Skotaks. I think early James Cameron movies might have utilized them, too---before he too capitulated, nay embraced CGI. ("Avatar" is CGI all the way and then some.) I think in posting this particular old view of the Universal-International 'makeup attic', Bob Skotak was once again tipping his cap to an era, as well as a place he holds dear. He and perhaps also his brother did a lot of documentation regarding the making of "This Island Earth", which in its own day and its own way was quite a deal. It tied up more money, by a considerable amount, than such films normally did in those days, since they were automatically (and I think also accurately) assumed to appeal to teenagers on down, rather than 'on up'. No audiences younger than 40 today could possibly realize how declassé science-fiction and fantasy films were when I was growing up! You, who are younger than I, also understand this. They were almost lucky to get made! And of course we loved them all the more for their moxie and their rarity. The good ones were also quite good.

8:53 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Love all the rantings of my fellow fogies on this subject! Many of the slams here on JON CARTER are pretty spot on, although I actually ranked it a couple of notches higher than average for today's wannabe franchises. Would have paid to see it in a theater but it whizzed in and out of town pretty fast. When my wife and I finally caught up with it on DVD (spread over a couple of nights) we sort of enjoyed it although I couldn't help commenting, rather sadly, that if there had been a major studio JON CARTER movie when I was 14, it would have been the center of my universe for months, fore and aft. Part of that is about how movies have changed, part of it is how I have changed (young me loved Edgar Rice Burroughs and his imagination - old me still does too, but only when I can forget what a godawful writer the guy was.)

Sizing up today's zillion dollar comic book and fantasy extravaganzas with the catch penny sci-fi stuff of our youth is not really fair. A better comparison would be with the flood of big budget historical/biblical blockbusters that filled every widescreen inch available back in the 50's and early sixties. Like the CGI fests we have today, those over stuffed epics were all about productions values over content. The same studio talent that created the beautiful shadow world of 1940's Noir were 'promoted' to Cinemascope snoozers where every shot was lit like a department store, every set was over-dressed, and close-ups and tight editing were thrown out the window to make room for lots of really bad 'period' dialogue. Those were the over-hyped prestige pictures of their era, and just like the computer generated spectacles we get today, aside from kitch value, many DO look pretty soulless.

Conversely, grade Z monster pics of yore had, in many cases, little going for them but imagination. Hell, a lot them expected the audience to bring the imagination. And you needed lots to see past the process screens and rubber suits! Still, here I am remembering them fifty years later (while I stumble on the name of the movie I saw in the theater last month!)

4:13 PM  
Blogger Steve Haynes said...

First, let me second Poptique's recomendation of HUGO as 3D (very) well done. A love letter to early cinema, with a soul - even when viewed flat!

While I'm no inclined to be a big fan of more recent movies, I will put my vote for the three LORD OF THE RINGS films by Peter Jackson. I had read the Tolkien trilogy 5 times between starting college and seeing FELLOWSHIP when it was released, and my expectations were not high. To my surprise, I thought they got most of it right - and I thought the following two films were each better than the one before.

I can't promise you'll like them, but I think they are worth a try.

10:13 PM  

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