John Carter (2012)

2014 #131
Andrew Stanton | 132 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

John CarterA box office flop (it made a once-astonishing $284 million worldwide, but that was off a $250 million production budget and a ginormous bungled marketing campaign), John Carter has gained something of a following among those who did enjoy it or caught it later — see this post by ghostof82, for instance. I approached it hopefully, then, buoyed by such positive after-reaction — many a good film has been ignored by the general audience. Disappointingly, I didn’t find John Carter to be one of them.

Adapted from a classic, influential science-fantasy novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs (that being A Princess of Mars, deemed too girly a title for a PG-13 SF/F blockbuster nowadays), the story sees American Civil War veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) transported to Mars, which he finds populated by human-esque aliens, the two factions of which are at war, and giant four-armed green-skinned aliens, who are trying to stay out of it. Of particular interest is the half-dressed princess Dejah (Lynn Collins), promised in marriage to villain Sab Than (Dominic West) in order to end the conflict. Cue simplistic politicking and CGI-driven action sequences.

There have been many reasons cited why John Carter flopped, a good many of them centred around the marketing campaign (reportedly director Andrew Stanton, given power by his directorial success at Pixar (Finding Nemo, WALL-E), demanded a level of control Disney felt forced to give, and his belief that Carter was as renowned a character as (say) Sherlock Holmes or James Bond led to a misaligned campaign, one which the professional marketing people who knew what they were doing weren’t allowed to salvage). Also, the sheer importance of Burroughs’ novel was actually a hindrance — Never seen Star Wars?not because it’s so famous (among Normal People, I don’t think it is), but because its influence means its imagery and concepts have already been plundered (Star Wars and its sequels being the most notable example). A sense of “seen it all before” is not a good thing ever, but doubly so for a movie that is, at least in part, based on spectacle.

That’s why it failed to connect with the general public, at any rate, but none are particularly good reasons to criticise the film for the more discerning viewer. Sadly, I think there are a good few others. The storytelling, for one, a confusing mess of alien names and words that are thrown around with reckless abandon. This may again by the fault of Stanton’s familiarity with the material, a lack of awareness that newcomers (aka the vast majority of the audience) wouldn’t have the foggiest what was going on. Such things are not necessarily a problem — look at the success of Game of Thrones or Avatar, both of which introduce silly names and/or thoroughly alien worlds. The difference there is the new information is either doled out slowly or doesn’t sound too far beyond what we already know — monikers like Joffrey or Tyrion are pretty close to real-life names, for instance. Everything in John Carter has a high fantasy name, however, and dozens of them are hurled at you virtually non-stop for the first half hour or more, making it almost impossible to keep up.

Even with this telescope I can't make out what's going onIt doesn’t help that the film is structurally muddled at the offset. It begins on Mars, a voiceover detailing the conflict — an instant bombardment of names and concepts. I don’t mind things that challenge you to keep up, but it still feels a bit much. Then we jump to New York in the 1880s, where Carter is running away from someone in the streets. Then to his house, where his nephew has just turned up to be told he’s dead. You what? We just saw him in the telegraph office! And then we jump back to the 1860s, where he’s searching for gold and getting arrested (or something) by Bryan Cranston in a wig as some form of army officer. Then it gets a bit more straightforward. If being transported to Mars and meeting four-armed CG aliens who speak in subtitles is what you call “straightforward”, anyway.

This is mostly preamble, and it takes a long time to get through. I presume it’s faithful to the original story, because Cranston and co add virtually nothing to what goes on on Mars. That said, apparently Burroughs’ original book sticks to Carter exclusively, whereas the film keeps darting off to show us what’s going on elsewhere. I presume the idea was to give things a bit of momentum — while Carter’s being dragged around the Martian desert by his captors, we get to see the beginnings of the arranged marriage, etc. To me it just felt jumbled, and undermines Carter’s sense of confusion and discovery. We know far more of what’s going on than he does (if you can decipher it, anyway), leaving us waiting for our identification-figure to catch up.

Big eyesIt feels a bit facile to criticise the quality of CGI these days, but that doesn’t stop John Carter from being over-ambitious in this regard. In fact, it’s not really the sometimes-half-assed green screen or occasional plastic-ness that’s the problem, but the design: those four-armed aliens are just a little too cartoony. Perhaps it’s a hangover from Stanton’s Pixar days, perhaps something just went a little awry during the process, but their design doesn’t look quite ‘real’ enough; a little like someone’s taken a real-life creature and then lightly caricatured it. I think it’s the eyes, which are perhaps a little too big and round and ‘cute’, but there’s something else indefinable there, or not there. These aliens aren’t just set dressing but proper motion-captured characters, played by the likes of Samantha Morton, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church and Polly Walker, so the lack of connection is regrettable.

The live-action cast don’t fare much better. You may remember Kitsch and Collins as co-stars of the poorly-received first Wolverine movie, where quite frankly they were two of the worst things in it (Kitsch was woefully miscast, for one). Doesn’t bode well for them being the leads, does it? Neither are as bad here, but neither quite click either. They’re surrounded by a gaggle of British thesps (West, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy) who feel like they’re slumming it in roles that are beneath them.

Some of John Carter’s fans have accused audiences and critics of ‘bandwagonism’ — that is, hearing/assuming it’s bad and so treating it as such. I can assure you, that’s not the case here: A princess of MarsI was expecting, or perhaps hoping, to like it; to find a misunderstood old-style adventure full of entertainment value. It may be an old-style adventure, but that’s beside the point, because whatever it is, I just felt it wasn’t particularly well made: poorly constructed, weakly performed, lazily (and wrongly) assumptive of the audience’s familiarity with the material. Disappointing.

2 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of John Carter is on BBC Two tonight at 6pm.

Ironclad (2011)

2012 #8
Jonathan English | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | UK, USA & Germany / English | 15 / R

IroncladIn medieval times, a group of filmmakers set out to prove you can make a Hollywood-quality historical action epic with independent funding in Britain, while in the present day a ragtag group of seven samurai— sorry, gunslingers— sorry, warriors, defend a small town— sorry, castle, from evil bandits— sorry, an evil king.

I think I got some details confused there.

Set shortly after the signing of the Magna Carta, Ironclad tells the true story of King John not being very happy and, with the backing of the Pope, setting about reclaiming England. Violently. Naturally the men who forced him into scribbling on the famous document aren’t best pleased, so while some set off to persuade the French to invade, others hole up in Rochester castle, vital to John’s efforts as it controls trade routes to the rest of the country or something.

Firstly, I say “true story” — I have no idea how much fact has gone into this. Some, at least. Was John really supported by a Viking-ish army? Dunno. Were the Knights Templar really dead set against him? Dunno. Was Rochester really defended by a dozen men? Dunno. But this isn’t a history lecture, it’s a piece of entertainment — aiming for the same ballpark as Gladiator, Braveheart, Kingdom of Heaven, and so on, albeit less grand; and there’s a sort of connection to Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood too, which I seem to remember included the signing of the Magna Carta.

Say hello to my little friendAnyway, it seems to me its use of facts are probably strong enough to support it as an entertainment. So some of the story structure may be reminiscent of Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven, but it’s not the first to use that and it won’t be the last (and I’ve never seen either anyway. Bad me). And so the special effects-driven climax may occur on the wrong tower of the castle’s keep — I think we can live with that level of deception.

As to the point of “why not just go round the castle?”, I presume the answer is more or less, “well… he didn’t…” Somewhat thankfully, the commander of the Danish forces puts this very question to the King, whose answer is some muttered speech about how his family built it and… I dunno. I’m not clear why they can’t just use the massive camp next to the tiny castle as their appropriate base of operations, other than the film wouldn’t be half as exciting.

And exciting it of course is. There are stretches some may find dull — there’s little new to be done with the whole Recruiting The Team bit, and once John gets the castle under siege and everyone’s twiddling thumbs and eating horses some viewers will be doing one of the two as well — but there are regular bursts of sword-swinging violence that achieve the film’s primary aims. The fights are generally well staged, even if many resort to the modern vogue for close-up quick-cut handheld shakiness, and they’re certainly gory.

Violence!I’ve seen some complain about the level of graphic detail in this regard, but this is medieval times, they didn’t just bump each other about a bit; and you don’t think a giant axe swung down on someone’s shoulder with all a man’s weight is going to just leave a scratch, do you? Director Jonathan English doesn’t linger on detail as if this were a horror movie. There’s cleaved bodies, severed limbs, squirts of blood and more, and it all feels gruesomely realistic, but individually each moment passes quickly.

This is as appropriate a moment as any to mention that the film should be in the ratio 2.40:1, but the UK Blu-ray (and presumably DVD) was for some unknown reason mastered in a screen-filling 16:9 — I thought some of the shots looked tight! On the bright side it means English isn’t incompetent; on the dark side it means whoever mastered the UK Blu-ray is. (I’ve seen grabs from the US BD and that’s in the right ratio. Completely different special features too — a director’s commentary may well trump the half-hour of EPK interview snippets we get, for those that care.) I found this to be most blatant in dialogue scenes, where characters are barely squeezed into the extreme edges of the screen, with even the occasional moment of pan & scan required to get everyone who’s speaking on screen. I think it must also hamper the impact of the occasional epic shot — and there are a few — which is a shame because I think that feeling is really part of English’s aim here. PhwoarI imagine it also makes some of those fight scenes even more disorientating, which is a pity. Nothing will help the sometimes-too-obvious use of digital video though, which looks as nasty as ever.

The battling cast — led by James Purefoy and supported by the likes of Mackenzie Crook, Jason Flemyng and Jamie Foreman — all seem to have a whale of a time with their swords and axes and general fisticuffs. Their roles don’t offer too much depth, but only Flemyng (who I never rate) struggles. They’re supported by some talented thesps in the shape of Brian Cox, Derek Jacobi and Charles Dance, quality actors who maybe don’t always have the greatest taste for quality roles (Dance was recently in that direct-to-DVD Tesco-funded Jackie Collins adaptation, for instance) but always offer gravitas. There’s also Kate Mara, who does a fine British accent as an unnecessary love interest for Purefoy’s warrior monk type.

The real star, though, is Paul Giamatti as King John. Petulant, entitled and fundamentally weak, he rants and raves and chews any piece of scenery he can get his teeth into (not literally, but at times I swear he came close). It’s a well-pitched performance — he doesn’t go too far with it, making the King ridiculous and laughable without dragging the whole film down around him. That makes for a good villain.

Despite some occasional cheapness in the cinematography, Ironclad largely achieves its goal of creating a Hollywood-esque historical action movie on British soil (it was shot in Wales). Yes some of the CGI is obvious, and some stuff that looks like CGI was apparently model work, but these are all forgivable, especially when you remember this was made for just $25 million. Villainous villainThe unfamiliar true story also gives it the added edge of not knowing who lives or dies, or whether our heroes even succeed. If the ultimate end feels guessable, I think it’s only in retrospect. Of course, that doesn’t mean any of it’s historically accurate anyway.

And so what? It’s an action movie. And on all points that matter, it scores well.

4 out of 5

Ironclad began on Sky Movies Premiere last night and continues daily throughout the week. I have no idea which aspect ratio it’s in.

It placed 10th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2012, which can be read in full here.