POSTED ON MARCH 14, 2012:
Out of the World
Vivid, amazing perceptions on Mars and Earth
The reason the new $250 million sci-fi epic, John Carter, the long in the making adaptation of the classic Edgar Rice Burrows-penned, A Princess of Mars is going to fail financially because of its marketing. For one thing, it's called John Carter. How goddamn exciting is that title? Then the trailers rendered the film in such a generic way that no real sense of the story was apparent. It's just Taylor Swift in the arena sequence from Attack of the Clones.
Granted, what John Carter is -- a fairly sprawling, pulpy space-western loaded with tropes that have already been co-opted by a legion of filmmakers over the last century, George Lucas being one -- is a hard sale. It's an anachronistic, Campbellian adventure that, if you tried to explain it in a trailer, would seem far too goofy for the post-ironic 21st Century. Or at least a lot like Star Wars.
Instead, the spoon fed, boring pabulum that is The Lorax was at the top of the Box (again) this week. A strange irony, considering John Carter is the live-action directorial debut of Pixar alum Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E). You'd think that Disney's marketing would have, I don't know, amplified that.
But that's the reason for this lament -- because John Carter is so much better than its sales team.
John Carter (Swift) is a Civil War vet, grown weary of the cause and desolate after the death of his wife, is out to find riches in the post-war aftermath, seeking a near mythical, lost cave reputed to be chock full of gold. His resume as a valorous and brave solider attracts the interest of a Union colonel named Powell (Bryan Cranston) who imprisons Carter in order to conscript him to the cause of civil reunification.
After many attempts at escape, Carter breaks out and serendipitously finds himself in the very cave he had sought, though instead of gold he finds a robed Thern, a member of an intergalactic priesthood ordained to do the will of The Goddess -- they basically meddle in interplanetary politics for fun, like Greek deities. Carter inadvertently kills the Earth-bound Thern and finds himself transported, via "magical" amulet, to Mars.
There Carter finds that his human physiology grants him superhuman powers (the gravity of Mars is lesser than that of Earth), catching the attention of Tars Tarkas (Willem Defoe), a 9-foot tall, green, multi-limbed Martian, of a race called Tharks; basically Native American's who are at war with the white, amusingly British men who dominate the Kingdom's of Mars.
Sab Than (The Wire's Dominic West), Prince of Zodanga, is quickly taking over the planet with the help of the Thern's leader, Matai Shang (the reliably flawless Mark Strong), and the plasma, death-ray Power Glove that Shang bestows to Sab, that can pretty much annihilate the shit out of everything.
The center of scientific thought and non-feudal barbarism, the city of Helium, is threatened from attack by Sab, who has been decimating cities at will and wants to marry the King of Helium's (Ciarán Hinds) daughter, Dejah (Lynn Collins) in order to unify Mars under his iron-fisted dictatorship.
Meanwhile, John Carter pulls a Dances with Wolves and becomes one of the Tharks which, naturally, puts him in the position to woo Dejah and fuck with Sab's plans for total domination. WWJCD?
Despite all of the missteps with the marketing, the finished product that is John Carter has its heart firmly planted in the foundations of its pulpy source material. It's kind of amazing that a film soaked in the modernity of digital perfection captures any sense of classic wonder, at all.
Director Andrew Stanton, sharing writing credits with Mark Andrews (Star Wars: Clone Wars) and uber-novelist Michael Chabon (Wonder Boys) craft a cinematic world of old-style, pulpy B-movie thrills grafted onto the slick modernity of a contemporary, big-budget adventure. All the archetypes are here from Kitch's Carter, on the heroes journey to Dominic West's voracious villain, Sab who will stop at nothing to conquer Mars including marrying a princess he cares nothing for. Writ large by Stanton, Andrews and Chabon and rendered even larger by the graphical prowess of a thousand computer processors, White Apes, glassy light ships and armies of pissed off Tharks are a part of a world seen before and forged again for a new audience in a new century.
John Carter looks great, even for all its CG, and Stanton directs the proceedings with a knowing hand, one steeped in cinematic epics from Gunga Din to Star Wars. While the script and plotting are sometimes muddled and uneven, the film is never without a sense of fun. Stanton's direction goes a long way to smoothing over the rough edges of the script while the unwinking performances lend the film its classic sense of rollicking adventure.
Way more fun than it has a right to be, though not without the flaws, John Carter deserves to be the movie that blows some kids mind not unlike a first dip into a galaxy far, far away. Instead, it'll wind up as a negative on some Mouse House balance sheet. Pity.
Writer/director Oren Moverman's debut, 2009's The Messenger, heralded a talent to look out for. The tale of two State-side soldiers (Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster) who bond as they do the job of informing the next of kin of the deaths of their loved ones, The Messenger was a flat out revelatory character study fueled by the stand-out performances of its leads.
Now Moverman is back with Harrelson (and Foster in a grin-inducing cameo) in Rampart and the director's growth has made the wait all the more worth it. Rampart is a great movie.
Back to Reality.
Harrelson (in what may be the performance of his career) plays David Brown, a morally ambiguous (okay, corrupt as hell) cop stationed in L.A.'s Rampart precinct. The misogynist, racist, alcoholic, drug addicted Brown pretty much acts with impunity, a relic of the not-so-bygone era when the LAPD was reputed to be more systemically corrupt than their New York counterparts. "We used to be soldiers," Brown ruefully says of the old days as he trains a female rookie, "Now we're you." But like most old-schoolers who talk a good game, Brown's personal life hasn't really been enriched by the hard facts he's so willing to preach. With two daughters by two exes, both sisters, Brown's life is a quilt of self-centered disappointments.
When Brown is caught on tape beating the living shit out of a Latino driver who T-boned his patrol car the machinery of departmental politics (in the form of Sigorney Weaver and Steve Buscemi) demands he be crushed, no easy feat considering most of the department believe Brown to be a hero, having earned the nickname "Daterape" for the extra-judicial murder of a rapist.
But Brown's corrupt web of self-centered depravity and opportunistic criminality becomes too laden with human debris, its structural integrity collapsing with the queasy certainty of a ship headed towards a roaring waterfall.
Written and directed by Moverman (with the great James Ellroy co-scripting) Rampart manages to take every single great thing about The Messenger and improve on it. The story itself has been done before, Abel Ferrea's Bad Lieutenant (and Herzog's way more fun re-make) come immediately to mind, but Moverman's predilection for great characters and gritty reality steep Rampart in an atmosphere so genuine that it barely seems like archetypical fiction.
Visually, Moverman excels crafting a warmly American New Wave aesthetic (narratively, as well) that occasionally dips into arty flourishes with the confidence of a master. The draws of Rampart are the performance from Harrelson, orbited by deeply satisfying work from the supporting cast including Weaver, Buscemi and Ned Beatty as Hartshorn, Brown's retired guardian angel and influence in treating the law so very flexibly. Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon as Brown's barely tolerant exes inject some much needed estrogen into the mix, and deliver fine performances that add layers of depth to the already satisfying and carefully drawn narrative.
But Rampart is really all about Harrelson (there's barely a scene in the film without him) and does he ever knock it out of the park. David Brown may be a member of a big cinematic club of corrupt, multi-faceted anti-heroes, but he's instantly become one of its most memorable.
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