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Column Fri Mar 09 2012

John Carter, Silent House, Friends with Kids, Being Flynn & Salmon Fishing in the Yemen


John Carter

I'm not here to evaluate the place of Edgar Rice Burroughs' "John Carter of Mars" series in the history of science fiction or tell you about all of the other science fiction books and movies that "borrowed" from its storylines and characters. Nor am I here to speculate how much money it will make or talk about how poorly the marketing for the film may have been early on. I'm going to assume you all know that how much money a film makes is no measure of its quality. Because honestly, none of those things have anything to do with whether John Carter, the film, is any damn good. And all of those people who have written articles about how the film is going to bomb, or worse, people who actively wish John Carter (or any film for that matter) fails financially, those folks are the scum of the the universe I write about.

John Carter is the kind of story we rarely see told in film, despite its plot getting ripped off for a century. Writer-director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo; Wall-E) has chosen to remain largely faithful to his source material, therefore, we get a piece of historical science fiction told from the point of view of citizens living 100 years ago. The science is beyond flawed (and if you judge John Carter on its science, you truly are missing the point), it features green martians with four arms shooting fancy versions of muskets, breathable air, and evidence of a crumbling city and dying planet that may yet be saved with the correct intervention.

But this film also features sweeping, magnificent adventure and action, Martian landscapes that are a beautiful as they are barren, and a race of handsome human-like Martians with red tattoos on their faces and very little clothing. In particular, John Carter features the Princess of Mars, Dejah Thoris, played forcefully and with much regality by Lynn Collins, who steals this movie outright from all of the men and aliens surrounding her. She easily outperforms the too-stoic Taylor Kitsch as Carter, a Civil War cavalry man who fought for the south and, in the process, made the ultimate sacrifice. Kitsch isn't terrible, but there are some real missed opportunities with his performance, especially surrounding his ability to almost defy gravity and leap hundreds of yards in one bound. Why isn't he more excited about the fact that he can do this?

Fortunately for us, Kitsch is surrounded by more expressive (and mostly British) actors like Dominic West (as the puppet dictator Sab Than), Mark Strong as the all-knowing controller Matai Shang, James Purefoy, and CiarĂ¡n Hinds as Dejah's father, Tardos Mors. Most impressively, Cater also keeps company with a whole lot of green Martians, including those played (via motion-capture) by Polly Walker, Thomas Hayden Church, Samantha Morton, and Willem Dafoe as the benevolent leader Tars Tarkas, who friendship with Carter was, for me, more of the emotional core of this film than the fledgling love affair between Carter and Dejah Thoris.

To dive into the politics and relationships between the different warring parties of Mars (known as Barsoom by the locals) is unnecessary, but what's great about the complexities of that portion of the story is that Stanton and fellow screenwriters Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon are fairly faithful to the way those details are plotted out in the books. They haven't exactly "filmed the book," but they have come extremely close to nailing the tone of the action, the antiquated science, and the political density of the text, and it all blends together nicely.

But let's face it, what people care about is the action, special effects, and more action--all of which are plentiful in John Carter. Giant ships that use solar power to soar on sunlight are seen throughout this film, and they are glorious constructions that I want to freeze frame when the DVD comes out just to examine the detail of their design. They are massive battle sequences, fascinating creatures (especially the blind four-armed White Apes that Carter fights in an arena contest), and ancient structures that shift as Carter and his outlaws move through them.

I was especially delighted that Stanton left in the story's bookends, with Carter's nephew, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara), reading his uncle's journal accounts of his time on Mars and how he got there in the first place. There's an actual passion that runs through this film and takes many forms, whether it's the heat between Carter and Dejah, or the emotion that Tars feels for his new friend as well as his people, or the deep guilt and sadness that Carter feels about the terrible thing that happened while he was off fighting in the war. And the emotions that run through John Carter are strong and give the film a much-needed boost of energy to offset the more talkie parts. And yes, I readily admit, there is a considerable amount of talking in this movie, but I can't remember a time when it truly bothered me or risked putting me to sleep.

Another criticism I have of the film is that it relies a little too much on its jargon. Everything on Mars has a name that is unfamiliar to us, and it takes a long while (assuming you get there at all) to decipher and remember all of the names of people, cultures, creatures, etc. It hurt my brain a little keeping it straight. In the end, John Carter is about introducing humanity and compassion into a civilization that has reduced itself to constant war. In the process, Carter realizes something about his place in the world and the universe, and I'll admit, I was slightly envious of his realizations...and the fact that he gets to spend all that time next to Dejah Thoris. Oh, mama. You know what? John Carter is a whole lot of fun at the movies, and an experience that floods the screen with beautiful images and interesting characters. That's why I go to the movies people; the movie doesn't haven't to be perfect, but at the very least, it has to strive for greatness. This one doesn't always hit the mark, but it does a lot of the time. I've called for open-mindedness before, and maybe no more so than saying I think most of you will really like and admire John Carter.

To read my exclusive interview with John Carter writer-director Andrew Stanton, and stars Willem Dafoe, Dominic West and Lynn Collins, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Silent House

The second film featuring newcomer Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) was actually made at about the same time as her much heralded big-screen debut, but it has much less ambitious goals. All Silent House wants to do is scare the crap out of you, while keeping you guessing exactly what's going on. On that front, the movie succeeds, due in large part to Olsen's completely believable take on Sarah, a 20-something who has accompanied her father (Adam Trese) to her family's isolated lake house to clean it out, fix it up, and put it on the market. But as they're cleaning up, something gets in the house and terrorizes Sarah. Is it a home invasion? Is there a supernatural element to this tale? Or is this some kind of psychotic break in Sarah's head? These are all good questions to which I'm not sure I have the answers, and I've seen the film.

Silent House is also noteworthy because the entire film appears to have been shot in one continuous, exceedingly well-choreographed take by directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, who based their movie on La Casa Muda from Uruguay.

Silent House is a uniquely unsettling horror thriller starring Elizabeth Olsen as Sarah, a young woman who finds herself sealed inside her family's secluded lake house. With no contact to the outside world, and no way out, panic turns to terror as events become increasingly ominous in and around the house. Directed by filmmaking duo Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, Silent House uses meticulous camera choreography to take the audience on a tension-filled, real time journey, experienced in a single uninterrupted shot. In the end, despite all of the scares, the story is really a mystery about the identity of the person terrorizing Sarah, the identity of a little girl who seems to be running around the house, and the role Sarah's uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) plays in everything. The film uses very few effects, instead relying on Olsen's perfectly expressive face to convey as much anxiety, fear and confusion about some of the situations in which she finds herself.

Silent House is a slight but surprisingly effective film, relying on its one-take gimmick to make it seem more interesting than it is. But thanks to Olsen, it actually does succeed to jolt and sometimes terrify the audience. And not put too fine a point on it, but the filmmakers have dressed Olsen in a tight top with a plunging neckline, making sure we get a little show every time she bends forward, which she does often when she hides from her pursuer under beds and table. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay this movie is thanking it for not being yet another found-footage exercise.

I tend to judge scary movies on how much they actually scare me. Silent House did an above-average job giving me the creeps, even if its finale is a confusing bust. Not to sound like a broken record, but Olsen delivers the goods here and essentially saves the movie from being a complete bust. Consider this about as borderline a recommendation as I can give without going negative. And I can't wait to see what Elizabeth Olsen has in store for us next.

Friends with Kids

For reasons I'm not even sure of, I have a very strong memory of seeing writer and actor Jennifer Westfeldt's film Kissing Jessica Stein. And I remember being particularly impressed with it because of the matter-of-fact way it dealt with its story of a straight woman who becomes romantically involved with a woman. The film is a romantic comedy of sorts, but examines with a great deal of thought the life-changing. In a way, Westfeldt's latest work (which she also directed), Friends with Kids does the same thing with the idea of a pair of best friends deciding to have a child together without all of the romance-killing pressures of a relationship. This may sound like a light-hearted subject, but since their decision threatens the very fabric of modern marriages and parenting, they are met with borderline resentment from many of their married friends.

Westfeldt is Julie to Adam Scott's Jason. The two live in the same building, discuss each other's sexual exploits, and often accompany each other to group dinners with their other friends played by Maya Rudolph, Chris O'Dowd, Kristin Wiig, and Jon Hamm. Hmm, it sure does appear that Westfeldt cherry-picked from the cast of Bridesmaids, and so what if she did (she didn't, but that's not the point). These actors work great together as they document the rocky and stressful road to parenthood. And while Julie and Jason don't exactly enter into their arrangement lightly, they do forget to address some fairly fundamental questions that will come up down the road as they co-raise their child. For example, how will their child react when he finds out that his parents never loved each other (which isn't entirely true, but on the surface appears to be)?

Once the baby is born and time passes, both Julie and Jason enter into new relationships, while their married friends go through struggles that shakes their marriages to the core. Megan Fox is actually quite good as Jason's dancer girlfriend who never wants kids, and seems unlikely to ever grow close to Jason's son, while Edward Burns plays Julie's perfect new boyfriend with a son of his own from his previous marriage and a very clear idea of how to raise him. Things come to a boil during a ski vacation in a cabin during dinner when a drunk Hamm comes down on Julie and Jason for their rash decision. The near 10-minute scene is intense, dark, and full of true bitterness, and it happens to be the highlight of the film.

Without ruining anything concerning the final act of Friends with Kids, Jason and Julie have something of a falling out, and the film's conclusion is a bit predictable but not entirely unearned. I love the idea that this troupe of actors are able to get together twice in one year to make two very different films that deal with various aspects of relationships. Westfeldt's writing continues to balance nicely the silly and conversational with the hyper-dramatic and occasionally cruel, and the result is a story that doesn't necessarily feel authentic as much as it comes across as appropriately cinematic. I like the way she looks at the world and at people and their sometimes-reckless decisions. This is one of those laughing-crying deals that I think most people, especially couples, will enjoy and possibly even learn something from. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Friends with Kids writer-director-producer-star Jennifer Westfeldt, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Being Flynn

My feelings on the new film from writer-director Paul Weitz (About a Boy) run hot and cold, but for me the bottom line is simple. Any movie that gets this kind of performance out of Robert De Niro is worth checking out. Being Flynn is an adaptation of the Nick Flynn memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, in which Flynn (played by Paul Dano) details a section of his life during which his long-absent father Jonathan (De Niro) returns into his life after nearly 20 years gone.

The elder Flynn left his now-late wife (Julianne Moore) and son to devote his life to writing the great American novel, but he returns unceremoniously when he loses his job as a cab driver and is evicted from his home. Just before his arrival, Nick decides to work at a homeless shelter and not long after he begins, Jonathan walks in looking for a bed, giving the two a rocky start to possibly finding some common ground on which to build a relationship. But Nick is also trying to build a relationship with a co-worker, played by Olivia Thirlby, so sometimes life with dad takes a back seat with Nick feeling no guilt.

As much as Nick has grown to live (even thrive) without dad, he misses his mother with so much force that it makes him angry, usually in the direction of his father. At other times, the film enters into amusing, bleak humor as these two men navigate each other's space. There's no doubt that Jonathan is delusional about his talent and work (he's convinced that a Nobel Prize for Literature is his for the taking), and as much as Nick would like to laugh off his dad's ego, it was the thing that drove him away from the family when he was a child, and that is not easy to forgive.

De Niro's performance here is magnificent, and watching him tear into the character of Jonathan is such a treat, one that I haven't had the pleasure of in far too long. It's hard to believe that just a couple of years ago Weitz directed De Niro in Little Fockers. Let's just say both men redeem themselves quite nicely with Being Flynn, a movie that shatters as many concepts about the bond between parent and child as it reinforces. Dano does a solid job grounding the energy that De Niro brings to every scene, and that's exactly what he needs to do. Weitz doesn't create situations that are too over the top or extraneous, and the result is a rock steady story that is surprisingly effective. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Being Flynn writer-director Paul Weitz, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Sometimes even a film that is "based on a true story" can feel completely artificial, and there are certainly times during this weird little movie when feeling false is an issue. The biggest problem seems to be that the writer (Simon Beaufoy, who wrote Slumdog Millionaire) would rather tell a love story than the actual story, which is just odd enough to be compelling if they would just leave well enough alone. But Salmon Fishing in the Yemen benefits from something that even better written works don't have: undeniable chemistry between lead actors Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt.

For starters, these two actors are undeniably likable. McGregor plays Dr. Alfred Jones, a scientist (perhaps with mild Aspergers) working in the fisheries department of the British government who is charged by the Prime Minister's press secretary (Kristin Scott Thomas, in a rare miss as she overplays the heartless bureaucrat part) to look into the possibility of bringing fly fishing to the bone-dry Yemen in an effort to bring some good press to British-Middle East relations. The driving force behind the idea is a rich sheik (Amr Waked), a very zen man with a passion for sport fishing. Blunt plays Harriet Chetwode-Talbot, who has been retained by the sheik to look into the dynamics of creating a viable river and way to stock the fish needed. In addition, her boyfriend has been sent to the Middle East to fight and he goes MIA, leaving her terrified and vulnerable.

This wouldn't be much of a movie, if the salmon fishing didn't turn out to be a possibility, and suddenly a ridiculous amount of money gets spent on setting up the experiment. Jones and the sheik form a close friendship built around their mutual love of fishing, but the sheik also attempts to inject some amount of faith and spirituality into Jones's life with regards to their endeavor. And then there's the draw between Jones and Ms. Chetwode-Talbot, complicated by the fact that he is married (unhappily, so it's alright).

Some things (let's be real: most things) play out exactly as you think they will from about the 20-minute mark. Predictability is this film's biggest drawback, but as I mentioned, McGregor and Blunt have a great rapport that reminds me of the great rapid back-and-forth styles of many 1940s comedies, and that carried a lot of pull in getting me through this movie. Somewhere in here is a really fascinating true story, but this version from director Lasse Hallstrom (The Cider House Rules; Chocolat) is so buried in cute that it's tough to find. If you're a devoted fan of either actor, it's probably worth all of the drivel just to get to see them work so well together; otherwise, I'm not sure I can recommend Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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Thomas B. / March 9, 2012 4:12 PM

I just saw John Carter and you are 100% on target. It is a fantastic piece of entertainment. I saw it with my youngest son and I saw an exitement and level of immersion in his eyes that is very rare.

David Scholes / March 9, 2012 6:53 PM

I saw the movie John Carter just yesterday and enjoyed it immensely.

Incredible to think that ERB wrote the novel back in 1912 and just hoe much his works have been "borrowed from"

I've been reading sci-fi for well over 50 years and much more recently have tried to give something back to the genre:

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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