Monday, March 26, 2012

Movie Review: John Carter of Mars

I recently saw John Carter of Mars and I'm glad I didn't listen to the critical reviews.  It's much better than I would have thought if I only based on those write-ups.  Here's my rundown including the pros and cons for the movie: 
The Good and a Little Bad:
At 132 minutes, the movie is a little long and compared to most action/adventure & SciFi, the pacing is slow.  I'm OK with that though, given the source material.  They did a very good job of setting the story up for anyone who hasn't read the first book ("A Princess of Mars"), or the entire John Carter series.  (Interestingly, it's the final book in the 11 volume set that's titled "John Carter of Mars".)  I asked my wife when we were on our way home what she would have cut out of the movie if she had to make it a 90-110 minutes.  She said she really couldn't think of what to cut out.  I can't either.
We saw it in glorious 2D (yep, skipped out on the extra cost for 3D) and the effects were fantastic.  The viewer definitely gets what the studio paid for in terms of quality CGI.  I can only assume the 3D version of the film is equally good for those who are 3D fans. 
Taylor Kitsch did fine as John Carter.  Seems most of the negative reviews about him are unwarranted.  I'm not familiar with all the baggage that many reviewers seem to attribute to him and suspect it clouded their view.  I don't really know who the guy is and thought he was believable (and for me, unknown) enough not to distract from the story.  I went in cautiously about whether or not Lynn Collins could be Dejah Thoris.  She did great.  Again, completely believable.  (Honestly, based on her description as written by ERB, there isn't an actress alive who could probably play her based on the required beauty.  Lynn rocked the part.)

The movie had the Disney touch in that there were little glimpses of humor sprinkled throughout and violence was very rarely graphic.  The battle scenes were a blast and not over the top.  Most violent scenes happened off camera but in a manner that you knew exactly what was happening.  The most graphic scene was when John Carter defeats a second Great White Ape in an arena.  I won't spoil the scene though by saying what happens.
The ships were cool and made me want to see more and know more about how they work.
We rolled the dice since the babysitter fell through and took our son.  Normally we don't let him see things that are PG or PG-13 unless we've seen them first.  No surprise: he was bored with parts of the movie, loved the battle scenes and the scenes when John Carter jumps around.  On the way out he told me there were a few scary parts, but he was never scared, and he was bouncing around like a boy who just saw a man who could leap like a superhero.  He loved the calot (the "dog") in the movie.  My dog is now paying the price as my son won't stop trying to get her to follow him around, lick him, etc.  And best of all, driving home he told my wife and I, "I want to live on Mars so I can marry Dejah Thoris."  (That's my boy!)
The Ugly:
So what went wrong?  Several things that contributed to the John Carter the box office flop.  First, Disney completely messed this up and is now paying the price (literally).  All the advertisements, with the exception of a few that came late in the game, make this movie look more like a science fiction victorian drama rather than an action/adventure.  From what I saw, it seemed once they began highlighting the movie as an action/adventure story, chatter seemed to move a bit toward the positive, but it seemed to be too late.  Oddly, very late in the game, Disney decided to release the first 10 minutes of the movie in an apparent attempt to generate interest.  Regardless of why they actually did it, it looked desperate, and it made things worse.  The first 10 minutes of the movie reinforce the perception that the movie was a victorian drama first, and only had elements of action or adventure woven into the story.  I think Disney corporately didn’t appreciate the story, and their marketing department had no idea how to present it to the paying public.
For all the reasons many of us like Disney, they were the wrong studio to make this movie.  The original story is violent, depicting a world at war.  Probably because of the time is was written, I think fits in the young adult bucket by today’s standards.  That said, Burroughs left the most graphic violence to the reader’s imagination, as well as the most passionate of love scenes.  But the story is very violent, and it’s fairly dark, making the heroic and passionate scenes seem so much brighter and hopeful.
My last thought about what went wrong has to do with social commentary.  One thing that always seems to be present in great science fiction stories is commentary about things in society that aren’t being openly discussed.  Within the space opera slice of the genre, just consider the amazingly strong statements made through the original Star Trek series and the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica.  The collective John Carter story captured in the Martian Tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs is replete with commentary about lots tough issues: honor, where to place loyalty, patriotism and identity, and perhaps most significantly: race and racial relations.  For the most part, all this was absent or only hinted at.  Not to be overly critical though, there’s only so much depth a studio can establish in a single film, but this element was key to what Burroughs did as he told John Carter’s story.
RECOMMENDATION:  I definitely recommend this movie to SciFi fans.  If you have the spare cash, it's a great flick to see on a theater-sized screen, but not a movie I'd put in the "must see in a theater" category.  Do the 2D or 3D thing based on personal preference.  Just keep in mind, if you're not an Edgar Rice Burroughs fan, you probably won't like the movie.  If you're not familiar with the original story but are intrigued by what you’ve seen and heard, understand that you're walking into a reasonably well done 2012 movie version of a story written in 1917.  Still gun-shy about seeing it in a theater?   Don’t worry about it and wait to rent it when it comes to DVD and BlueRay.
As for the original series of books, they’re collectively in my top five and helped establish and shape my love for the science fiction genre.  I have the whole set, published by Del Rey and each is somewhere between 150-250 pages.  They're quick and entertaining reads.  Even if the movie isn't for you, the paperbacks are inexpensive.  Grab 'em and  enjoy an amazing story and a piece of classic SciFi! 
It’s great to be a dad!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Movie Review: Act of Valor

A week ago my wife and I went to see the movie Act of Valor.

“An unprecedented blend of real-life heroism and original filmmaking, Act of Valor stars a group of active-duty U.S. Navy SEALs in a film like no other in Hollywood’s history.  A fictionalized account of real life Navy SEAL operations, Act of Valor features a gripping story that takes audiences on an adrenaline-fueled, edge-of-their-seat journey.” (From the official website.)

Enthusiasts outside the military hoping to see secret tactics revealed by the film will be disappointed.  The film reinforces professional and competent tactics many have already seen, or imagined, only this time with the support of real SEALs themselves rather than actors.  Refreshingly, in Act of Valor we get to see real warriors doing their jobs in a realistic way, without falling victim to an overblown, uninformed and overactive Hollywood imagination.  Even so, it’s still an action story that’s well put together.  Plot holes?  Sure.  Accelerated timelines?  Yes.  But what you end up seeing is a story rooted in the real-world, accelerated to allow us to experience it in a short 110 minutes.
So it’s clear up front: I liked the movie.  While not a documentary, the movie unfolds without a political bias or agenda.  It’s about SEALs doing the work they do, regardless of who sits in the Commander in Chief’s seat.  This is refreshing.  As a military officer I serve at the pleasure of the President and am bound by my oath to follow his lawful orders, regardless of political party.  Interestingly, the oath our U.S. military professionals take is an oath swearing to support and defend the Constitution, not any specific personality or political party.  This is quietly communicated well.
Act of Valor is rated R for strong language and violence.  While not excessively graphic, the rating is definitely warranted.  If my son was older, I would have taken him back to see it.  It’s definitely a movie I’ll add to my library at home due to the positive messages of honor, sacrifice and manhood it communicates.  We’ll watch it together when the day comes.  Here are the themes that resonated with me and I intend to reinforce with my son:
  • Service before self and serving something bigger than yourself
  • Sacrifice
  • Strength and humility vs. arrogance
  • Family: actual (e.g. husbands, wives, kids) and extended (in this case, military)
  • Living bravely and dealing with fear
The movie uses a story to honor our troops.  Will it serve as a recruiting device?  Sure, but it’s clear this isn’t the primary reason the movie was made.  What the film does well is cause the audience to identify with real warriors, individuals who we get to know and get to watch do things that are difficult and demanding.  These aren’t just a few military men and their families we read or hear about in the news.  The impact is visceral.
Finally, before I saw the film several friends told me when they went to see it, the audience applauded at the end.  I know why.  Interestingly, when my wife and I saw it, the response was dramatically different: absolute silence.  It verged on reverence and was almost overwhelming.  The movie ended and people quietly and respectfully stood and left the theater.  I was stunned in the best of ways.
Visit the official site for more info ( or better yet, go see the film.  I think you’ll enjoy it, and if you have older kids, take them too.
It’s great to be a dad!