Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Personal Reflections on John Carter

Let me go on record to say I did not hate John Carter. I didn't think it was a great film, but it was slightly entertaining.  That is why I gave it a C+, something that you could rent without feeling bad. 

I certainly didn't hate it the way so many of my fellow critics do.  I hear the words "flop", "fiasco", "disaster" being bandied about.  It's almost as if other reviewers are revelling that John Carter has done so poorly.   I have a terrible habit of rallying to those I think are being beaten up unfairly, a weakness for the underdog.  I know John Carter cost $250 million, so the concept of "underdog" may be a stretch, but there is to my mind some almost pathological and irrational hatred aimed at what is at heart suppose to be a space romp. 

I take it as an article of faith to review a film based on what it is trying to accomplish, and I trust others will do the same.  The standard for something like The King's Speech is different than something like The Hangover, but I thought both film did what they did brilliantly.  When it tries for something and fails, such as The Hangover Part II or Green Lantern or I Melt With You, then and only then do I take it to task for botching the job.

It may sound strange that I find myself coming to John Carter's defense (up to a point, in many ways it failed, but more on that later), but for what it tried to do (entertain me with a story about a man on Mars), it was not all bad.

HOWEVER, I think there are many good reasons why John Carter failed, both financially and critically.    

The first big fiasco when it comes to John Carter is in the marketing of the film.  I kept seeing the ads and trailers and while I got some jist of the story, I never understood why Disney opted to make so much of the story so opaque.  We start with the title.


What is that, a documentary about Jimmy's smarter brother? Granted, I think the only brains in that family is Rosalynn (and that's because she is a Carter only by marriage, but I digress). 

The title won't attract people because no one knows who John Carter is.  If they had used a readily-available optional title, such as John Carter of Mars or my personal choice, A Princess of Mars, we would have had a slightly clearer idea of what John Carter was suppose to be...a science-fiction adventure. 

I understand the good folks at Disney dropped any reference to Mars after the disaster/fiasco/flop of Mars Needs Moms.  Apples and oranges, Mickey.  Mars Needs Moms was targeted at children, John Carter of Mars wasn't.  If they can't tell the difference then one wonders how they got to positions of power. 

I wrote that we would have had a slightly clearer idea of what John Carter was because another big problem with the advertising is that it was so idiotically mysterious with the plot.  Did they not have confidence in the public that it would not understand it is science-fiction?  The trailers appeared to almost be hiding the fact that he is suppose to be leading a revolution on the Red Planet (a Martian Spring, so to speak), or even what kind of fantastical creatures reside on the planet.   I don't think a film has gone through greater efforts to build interest without actually giving people something on which to build interest on.

Hence Section Three on Problem One: the big build-up.  In what can be contradictory thinking, the publicity for John Carter was big, attempting to promote the film as the "next big thing", something we were all clamoring for without giving us great detail about what the film was about.  To my mind, that made no sense.  As much as a company may push for me to get excited about something, I can't if I don't know anything about it.  This is why, for the moment, I have been resistant to the push for The Hunger Games, since I have never read any of the books.  Truth be told, it's rare when I get excited about any upcoming film, and the last time I remember doing that, I ended up with Sherlock Holmes

The difference at least between The Hunger Games and John Carter is that the former is still in the minds of the teens who worship Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mallark, while the latter is from a book around one hundred years old that, shall we say, isn't on the Bestseller List. 

The second reason John Carter failed is because of the man holding that Oscar.   That's right, the director of John Carter is a two-time Oscar-winner: one Andrew Stanton.   Mr. Stanton won Oscars for Finding Nemo and Wall-E (legitimate in first, haven't seen the second).  HOWEVER, I should point out that John Carter is the first film Stanton has directed that is live-action. 

One wonders what possessed the Disney Corporation to turn over what was clearly going to be a big-budgeted spectacle to someone who had never directed outside a computer.  Stanton didn't have a large wealth of experience on which to draw on: no small art house fare, no independent film.  Think on it: Marc Webb, the director of the upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man, at least has the brilliant (500) Days of Summer on his belt.  While it remains to be seen if Mr. Webb can translate the quirky tone of (500) Days to a tentpole film like Amazing, Webb has experience directing people on camera.  Stanton did not.

BIG movies, lavish spectacles, can sink even the greatest directors.  Few directors can make large, epic films (Cecil B. DeMille is perhaps the best example because he was so used to making things bigger, from Cleopatra through The Greatest Show on Earth and BOTH versions of The Ten Commandments).  Joseph L. Mankiewicz won back-to-back Oscars for both writing and directing A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve (one of the greatest films ever made).  However, even with his vast experience and technical ability, even Mankiewicz could not control the spectacle that was 1963's Cleopatra (no relation to the DeMille version). 

By the time Cleopatra premiered, even he knew the film would be a critical disaster (if one is able to watch The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson's live broadcast of the premiere, one can see Mankiewicz refer to the event as 'waiting for the guillotine to drop', even joking that everything involved with Cleopatra was out of his control).  Here you had a great director who was overwhelmed by a movie that today would cost far more than John Carter (adjusted for inflation, Cleopatra would be $325 million to Carter's $250 million).  If someone like a Mankiewicz was overtaken by a big-budget spectacle, what made anyone think a first-time director would do better?

The hiring of Stanton, a first-time director of a live-action film, was a disaster (far more than the movie itself).  With the exception of DeMille or someone like Ben-Hur's William Wyler (who said he took the job because he wanted to see if he could make a "DeMille picture"), the overwhelming nature of John Carter would have been too much for an experienced director, let alone someone who had never directed anything outside a recording studio before.  You don't try to hit your first-ever home run at Yankee Stadium or try to throw your first football at Lambeau Field.  Likewise, you don't try to make your first live-action film to be a massive production like John Carter

Remember, strictly speaking Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz had multiple directors (although Victor Fleming gets credit for both).  It was sheer madness to hand over something this massive, on which so much was riding on, to someone with no live-action experience.

Finally, Reason Three: the screenplay.  What is extraordinary to me is that the screenplay is the work of Stanton, Mark Andrews, and most shocking of all, Michael Chabon, as in Pulitzer Prize-winning, Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay Michael Chabon.  I'm not the greatest writer in the world (my parent's protestations notwithstanding), but even I could see that a line like, "If Helium falls so does Barsoom" was just laughable.  In fact, I did laugh. 

The dialogue was already a bit peculiar, but given that there are as I understand it ELEVEN stories on which to draw on, did this trio really try to put in so much into just one film?  At over two hours long, John Carter feels like it was two or even three movies colliding.  Curiously, Joseph Mankiewicz wanted Cleopatra to be two parts: Caesar & Cleopatra and Antony & Cleopatra.  His great wish until his dying day was to restore the project as he would have liked it to have been seen (two parts), and I get the sense that John Carter could have benefited from trimming the story (say by cutting out the hints of John Carter's Confederate past) and set up the conflict on Barsoom faster.  It was entertaining (at least to me), but it felt like it was all too much to take at once.

Now, I tire about repeating myself when it comes to setting up movies for sequels (a bane of my cinematic experience), but given that I know John Carter has other stories, I didn't mind that idea all that much.  Curiously, when I ended the movie, I didn't think it set up a sequel (even if Stanton, in his hubris or sheer madness) envisioned an epic trilogy.  How I saw the ending was thus:

John Carter has defeated the alien priest that took him from his Princess, his nephew helped, and now he went back to Mars...and they lived happily ever after. 

I didn't see a cliffhanger ending.  Therefore, when I learned Stanton thought there would be more, I was genuinely shocked.  Again and again, NEVER END YOUR MOVIE BY SUGGESTING THERE WILL BE A SEQUEL.

Finally, while I won't ever say John Carter is a hallmark of great filmmaking, I think the almost malevolent glee others are taking that the film has taken a bath is highly exaggerated.  This gentleman has been following the fall and further fall of John Carter, and he makes very solid points.  The difference is he didn't like John Carter, and...well, I didn't hate it.  I thought it was passable but with problems. 

As it stands, I would recommend John Carter for a Netflix or RedBox (formerly known as Blockbuster) Night.   It could have been better, but it was not as worse as people are being led to believe. 

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