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Friday Film Review

Friday Film Review: John Carter

Friday Film Review: John Carter

John Carter (2012)

Genre: SF Action/Adventure

Grade: C-

I’m coming at this movie from the standpoint of someone who’s never read any of the books on which it’s based nor even read much about the books on which it’s based. I was a John Carter/Barsoom virgin and I don’t think that was a good thing. This is a review that’s going to be a lot of me asking you for advice and clarity on it.

The story opens in 1881 with John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) ducking and dodging someone through the rainy streets of NYC. Reaching a telegram office, Carter sends an urgent request to his nephew to come to his estate. When Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) arrives a few days later, he’s met with the news that his uncle died suddenly the night after sending the telegram. In his will, Carter has left care of the estate to his nephew for a period of years after which it will fully transfer to Edgar – or Ned as Carter always called him. The lawyer (Nicholas Woodeson – if he looks familiar, he was in “Rome”) instructs Edgar on one final request of his uncle’s – that Ned read the journal his uncle kept for years.

Ned begins to read and is taken back to the Civil War – or is it just after? I can’t recall – anyway, Carter is out west searching for gold and thinks he’s almost tracked down some mysterious cave which a Yavapai Indian told him about. When he arrives at a trader’s store, US Army cavalry men kidnap him and take him to their Colonel (Bryan Cranston) who attempts to persuade Carter to sign up. Carter responds by almost escaping twice before finally doing so – by stealing the Colonel’s horse. Hot on his trail, they track Carter down right before being confronted by a band of Apaches. Carter and the Colonel head for some caves and it’s then that Carter realizes 1) this is the cave of gold and 2) there’s a strange man in it who attacks him. Carter shoots the man and picks up a fantastic medallion the man was holding just as the man utters a foreign phrase. The next thing Carter knows, he’s somewhere else and suddenly can leap high in the air as if he has little gravitational pull.

Meanwhile, a 1000 year old battle is raging between two different groups of people and we learn that Zodanga is attempting to subdue the other, taking over their city of Helium. (Someone tell me I’m not the only one who was waiting for these people to speak like chipmunks) When the Zodangan leader (Dominic West) is given a kickass weapon by some bald guy named Shang (Mark Strong), the Zodangans gain the upper hand. The Helium leader (Ciaran Hinds) tells his beautiful, intelligent daughter Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) that in order to save her people, she marry the leader of the rampaging bastards. Dejah is understandably pissed off but with no other choice, she – supposedly – gives in.

Meanwhile, Carter is still bounding all over the place until he discovers some kind of hatchery and sees eggs busting open to reveal multi-armed little blue/green offspring. He pulls back in astonishment and says something like, “Where the hell am I?!” He’s not the only one wondering.

Shortly afterwards, a group of cavalry ride up and Carter is shocked (again) to realize that these are beings he’s never seen before – each with four arms, side face tusks and colored a lima bean green. They’re amazed at his jumping ability but manage to take him prisoner and head back to the home place. Chained up there, he’s fed something by Sola, a young female Thark, that acts as a language converter allowing them all to understand each other. Good thing as the English translation of their language was so small on screen that I was getting a headache reading it. Carter escapes – it’s his specialty – but picks up a devoted dog like creature called Woola. I adored Woola. Woola can zip around faster than greased lightning and busts into a gathering of Tharks who start to beat him off – which seriously pissed me off! – causing Carter to rush to his rescue.

Shortly after that, two amazing flying machines engaged in battle zoom over Thark City – as I called it. Carter notices someone hanging below one of them and jumps up to catch him/her before he/she falls. When they reach the ground, he discovers she’s a beautiful young woman (one guess as to who she is). Her arrival signals a Thark political/religious power play – or something – and Carter, Dejah and Sola all flee into the wilderness searching for a sacred river in the hope of learning how Carter can return to Earth. They find it – but only after Carter and Sola learn just who Dejah truly is. Carter and Dejah (I kept wanting to call her Deja vue) venture somewhere and kinda discover something of a religious nature that also confirms Dejah’s discovery of some powerful ray thingie. Then they leave because of some disturbance and all of them get attacked by some other group of not-quite-Tharks called Wharhoons (I think).

Carter does the hero thing and sends Sola and Dejah to safety before channelling his inner rage at the death of his wife during the Civil War. The inner rage lets him open a can of whoopass on the Wharhoons. Carter gets captured – again (but only so he an escape – again) and learns that Dejah has agreed to marry the Zodangan dude. Shang monologues to Carter about who and what he is, oh and Dejah must die, before Carter escapes and heads back to the Tharks for help. He reaches the Tharks only to find the leader has been overthrown and both of them plus Sola must fight in the arena against some huge, ugly creatures. Of course Carter wins and the whole group then heads off to save Dejah.

Major fight, Dejah’s saved and the evil Zodangans get theirs, then it’s wedding time for Carter and Dejah before – oopsie – he does something stupid and gets sent back to Earth by Shang – why? dunno. Anywho, now Carter has to try and find a way back to Barsoom (Mars). But he’s smart and eventually manages. Happy days are here again and The End.

As I said, I knew next to nothing about these books or what to expect from the movie. Several times within the first 30 minutes of movie after Carter got to Mars I (literally) said out loud, “What the hell is going on here??” Also “Who are these people??” As well as “Wait a minute! Now who are those people?” Followed by “How does this all tie in together??” I was one confused camper and none too happy about it. Not dragging a film to a halt with back story and monologuing is one thing but feeling totally “arse over teakettle” trying to play plot catch up is not a good thing for me. From what I read in reviews afterwards, I wasn’t alone and even those in-the-know about the plots of the books were grumpy because the film makers had smushed parts of several of the books into one screenplay.

Taylor Kitsch cleans up nicely and is pretty to look at but he just never got Carter off the ground for me – sorry, pun intended. Lynn Collins is also pretty to look at and thankfully gets to kick a little ass as the Princess rather than always being saved. A lot of rest of the cast is almost like a “Rome” reunion with a little “Centurion” thrown in. I kept expecting Hinds and James Purefoy (he’s some Helium dude) to refer to each other as Caesar and Mark Antony. Poor Dominic West doesn’t get to do much except pout that he can’t unleash his kickass weapon more. Mark Strong plays his usual villain self while I had no idea who were the actors behind the Tharks until checking IMDB.

I have to confess to hitting the FF button a lot during the first pass. Then I discovered that there’s a fairly decent commentary track to go along with the film and I started it over with that playing to see if it would help me make sense of everything. The commentary is a lot more fun to listen to than the movie is to watch. It’s obvious that the director – “I want chickens!” – and his minions were devoted to capturing their joy from the books on screen. I just wish the whole thing had seemed less like a mess and a head scratcher. A $250 mill budget is a fun thing to play around with and the film is spectacular to look at but that still doesn’t make it something understandable or that I’d watch it again.

So, please tell me what your thoughts are on the film. Did you see it like I did – with no background to help you make sense of it? Or were you panting at the door of the movie theater on opening night because you’d waited all your life for this series to be made into a movie? Were the CGI effects enough or too much? And did you wonder how these classically trained British actors managed to keep straight faces while saying “Zodanga?” C- and that’s mainly for Woola.


Friday Film Review: Genevieve

Friday Film Review: Genevieve

Genevieve (1953)

Genre: Comedy

Grade: B

Originally I had another film lined up for today but yesterday I was reading that this coming weekend is the annual London to Brighton Rally. “That’s it,” I said. “Genevieve is on.” From a little film that the studio heads didn’t think much of and didn’t want to release, it’s become a classic. After a quick look around the web, I couldn’t find where anyone has loaded it to watch but there are DVDs from several regions available and it shouldn’t be hard to track one down should you care to check it out.

It’s 1953 and the annual veteran car run from London to Brighton, organized by the Royal Automobile Club, is under way. Two old chums, Alan McKim (John Gregson) and Ambrose Claverhouse (Kenneth More), aren’t letting their friendship stand in the way of trying to outdo and one up each other all the way there and back. Their long suffering WAGs Wendy (Dinah Sheridan) and Rosalind Peters (Kay Kendall) – plus Rosalind’s dog Susie – are along for the ride and often wondering just what’s gotten into the mens’ heads over these silly cars. Will the relationships survive the challenges and male nonsense? More importantly, will the cars make it there? And then back?

On the surface it’s a car rally – though not actually a race, at least not until the run back – with lovely veteran automobiles to look at. Though I agree with the women in that it’s probably more fun to watch than to actually take part as – at least in the film – a tremendous amount of time seems to be spent on the side of the road while repairs are undertaken. The actual start of the race near Hyde Park was filmed for the movie and it’s obviously great fun for the participants and rally watchers alike. I might could manage wearing vintage, Edwardian clothes and cheering the start with a chilled glass of bubbly.

Scratch a bit deeper – well, alright not that much deeper – and the film is all about gender relations and the obsession of boys for their toys and of making bets regarding them. Several times while I was taking notes about “Genevieve” I’ve written things to the effect of “those poor women!” Wendy’s done the run with her husband a number of years after traveling down once with Ambrose -which serves to fuel the bet between the two men – and she’s had it. This news comes as a complete shock – a shock I say! – to Alan who obtusely imagines Wendy is delighted at the thought of spending another two cold days motoring down to Brighton and back. Meanwhile chic model Rosalind has no idea what she’s gotten herself into when she agrees to accompany new beau Ambrose. The women do come around and actually get into the spirit of the final push back to Westminster Bridge that will mark the finish line of the bet but their initial attitudes are just so typical of the women of the world who endure their menfolks’ foibles for love of them. All I can say is that Wendy must really love Alan to put up with what she does year after year and it’s obvious by film end why Ambrose – the arse – still hasn’t found a woman to marry him. Yet there’s a scene near the end of the movie where an elderly gentleman stops them to admire Genevieve and reminisce about how he proposed to his wife in a Darracq, that brings tears not only to my eyes but to Wendy’s as well. Alan’s reaction, all while falling farther behind in the race, finally shows us the real man and why Wendy loves him.

The four stars are wonderful in their roles. Gregarious Moore plays the “bit of an oaf” Ambrose – who has no compunctions about yelling to women who are pushing his car into starting to “put your shoulder into it! – so well I want to smack him a few times. His laugh alone is enough to set off his friend’s competitive spirit. He makes Ambrose the vivid, cheeky charmer who’s always got a stunning new girl on his arm. Gregson plays the quieter, brooding Alan who hopefully will have a better appreciation for Wendy after this run. He makes his character come alive with joy at the prospect of first the run and then the race home. According to Dinah Sheridan, getting the shot of him looking sexily at her character near the beginning of the film was almost hopeless since he was such a reserved man.

But it’s the two actresses who shine here. Sheridan is just a darling and actually looks smashing in her plaid trousers. Gorgeous Kay Kendall lights up the screen and has fun hamming up a scene where her – at that point slightly inebriated – character displays her talent in “traying the plumpet.” Throughout the movie, I find my attention centers mainly on the women and their exasperation, humor, acceptance and, finally, enthusiasm. I enjoy the fact that – in 1953 – their characters were allowed to be less than happy little women who are 100% in support of whatever their men want.

“Genevieve” along with another Kay Kendall piece called “Fast and Loose” (can be watched at Neflix) are great period films that show 1950s post war England. For its time, I’m not sure if the quirky, little flat the McKims live in is a bit of post-war “make do” or rather delightful. And that encounters with sheep who crowd the road in the country are probably few and far between today. The perfectly dreadful hotel room that the McKims are forced to take for the night in Brighton is awful – hot water only for 2 hours a day, peeling paint and a great, clanging tower clock just outside their window – and it reminds me a bit of the description given by Bill Bryson of a place he stayed at in 1970s (I think) Dover. I was also amused that the dig against Americans included in a script written by an American. Be sure to look for Joyce Grenfell in the bit part of the hotel proprietress. She’s hilariously funny.

The movie is also slightly risque for the age with its hints of Ambrose’s hanky panky weekends and the possibility that Wendy had a bit of sexual experience before her wedding. One exchange between Wendy and Rosalind says a lot. Rosalind says to Wendy, “Ambrose only seems to think about two things. That silly old car – and the other thing.” Wendy replies to Rosalind, “What other thing? Oh. My husband only thinks about the car.”

The cars are fabulous and, should you wish to, you can see them on display at the Louwman Museum in The Hague. I think both still actually take part in the Rally. Genevieve is a Darracq while Ambrose’s car is a Spyker. Check out the horn on the Spyker. Isn’t it grand? For that alone I’d come close to riding in her. All the cars that take part in the rally must have been made no later than the year 1904 so these are some stylish, wonderful automobiles.

The film is more a gentle, whimsical, character comedy rather than a film with roll-on-the-floor moments. It’s sweet with nary a swear word in it but it’s also got some pointed things to say about women vs men and their cars. The women are no-nonsense while the men lose their common sense a little but all in all, it’s all in fun. It’s also got a webpage that I’m going to have fun poking around in. B