The Face on the Barsoom Floor

I was trying to recall what the poster reminded me of…

JOHN CARTER in 3D and Imax — I never actually saw an Imax feature before. When our local hydraplex first got an Imax screen, all they had to show was a couple documentaries. I saw the one about Everest. When the snowslide hit the camera lens, as rendered on a screen the size of Burt Lancaster’s grin, I jumped — something 3D pretty much never makes me do (except in Joe Dante’s THE HOLE)… I didn’t experience such an extreme reaction this time, maybe because we sat further back, in deference to Fiona’s nerves. Excessive scale can be alarming to her — for instance, she has a morbid fear of the Eiffel Tower.

…and then I remembered this Tim White paperback cover, BUT…

So, JOHN CARTER, a movie which is underperforming ENTIRELY, I submit, because some halfwit at Disney decided to omit the words “OF MARS” from their $250 million epic, thereby making it sound like MICHAEL CLAYTON or JACKIE BROWN. Low-key, in other words. The decision reeks of stupidity not just because it miss-sells the product (I guess the ads made most of us aware what kind of film this really was) but because it gave off a whiff of panic, and the press bloodhounds were all over that. So the movie emerged sheened in flop sweat, before a skeptical rather than an enthused populace.

But I think they should have thrown subtlety to the winds, like Frazetta.

What’s the movie like? Imperfect, but fun. It had me almost convinced that the improbably-named Taylor Kitsch is a leading man, and slightly more convinced by Lynn Collins. Then, a long way in, James Purefoy comes in with a better-drawn character and breathes so much life into his moments of screen time that you realize what’s been missing. There are some very good actors in this — Mark Strong seizes his moments too, and Ciaran Hinds does his angst-ridden gravitas thing that earns him the big bucks. Dominic West is almost positioned as the main bad guy, but his character is so outclassed by Strong’s that he can’t register. Also, he doesn’t get to do anything really nasty. I mean, he kills lots of people, but so does everybody in this film. You can’t judge the characters by the same standards you’d apply to the people at your local Tesco. I mean, that’d be ridiculous. What West, a thoughtful actor, does, is play his character for all he’s worth as a man promoted hopelessly beyond his range of competence. That’s all the script has given him, so he just goes for it. I think it’s the only choice of any integrity available to him, but it doesn’t help the film the way some good bad-guy business would.

“My name isn’t a problem as I shall appear only in the most classy. high-toned works.”

I’ve read a lot of reviews saying the movie is badly designed, which I don’t wholly agree with. The earthly stuff looks great. Everything involving the four-armed tharks looks beautiful: the tharks, the thark city (Tharksville?), the thark animals like the bullfrogdog, Woola, even the thark bunting in the thark arena is quite lovely.

Meanwhile, in Zodanga and Helium (I know! But still better than Taylor Kitsch, right?) people wear ridiculous tufts of fake fur on their shoulders, elaborate fretwork lattices, and the kind of fantasy fiction garb that tends to look better in a Frank Frazetta painting than on a moving human being with the ability to convey embarrassment. Busy, busy, busy, as Bette Davis says in WHALES OF AUGUST. *I* say, if you’re going the Frazetta route, you probably want to show more skin just to distract from what they’re actually almost wearing. But it’s a Disney film. Is that why it doesn’t have a Traci Lords cameo, which it so clearly REQUIRES? Is there some crazy Disney ruling against employing former porn stars? But Traci is a born-again B-movie queen, and this movie could use her services.

The impractically  incomplete, but fetishistically pleasing suits of armour reminded me of Just Jaeckin’s GWENDOLINE, but they just needed to go that extra mile, or few inches.

Action: mostly clear and impressive, sometimes too frenetic and ugly.

Dialogue: some funny lines, some “How does a pharaoh talk?” awkwardness.

Emotion: Andrew Stanton’s films thrive on sentiment, and here the main source is Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton’s relationship, which is a distant second in importance and screen time to the leads’. I still enjoyed it though — just wanted more.

Structure: the framing device REALLY pays off — a clever bit of writing, and I don’t automatically expect smarts in films of this kind. Some damage has been done, however, by an inane decision to open on Mars, rather than forcing the audience to wait and be rewarded. In early interviews Stanton seems to hint that he’s going to unfold his plot in a patient and carefully planned manner. Some Disney exec has forced him to splurge. The good news is, if it’s the same guy who changed the title, they only need to fire one person. It’s not Stanton.

Originality: is this movie massively preempted by all the films and shows influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books over the years? Well, I never felt I was watching something rendered redundant by STAR WARS. I *did* feel that the spirit of FLASH GORDON was very much in the air, and the race to interrupt a wedding at the end, while familiar from many shows from THE PRINCESS BRIDE to THE GRADUATE, seemed particularly reminiscent of Mike Hodges’ camp FXtravaganza. That comparison shows two things — that JOHN CARTER could and should have pushed things further, made itself more outrageous and distinctive — and that Taylor Kitsch, even if he doesn’t quite dominate the film as he should, still has the edge on poor old Sam J. Jones.

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25 Responses to “The Face on the Barsoom Floor”

  1. admiralneck Says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed it, and it’s such a relief to see someone else engaged with it instead of forcing a bunch of jokes about squeaky voices in Helium (not naming any film critic names). I agree with pretty much everything you said, though I liked it more, I suspect. I think it was the joyous memories of Larry “Buster” Crabbe bouncing around the screen with so much energy that came flooding back while watching it.

    As for Kitsch, it’s hard, as a Friday Night Lights fan, to give fair assessment of his performance. It’s just great to see him getting work after that fine show finished. I assume your comments about Tracy Lords were prompted by this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nsawq3PBMms If not, avoid; typical cynical Asylum junk.

  2. In fairness to the press, Helium jokes do seem fair game. Along with “Barsoom brawl” and the ancient philosophical question, “A thoat is an imaginary animal. Is the thought of a thoat a real thought?”

    But I agree, the movie is huge fun, and anyone missing out due to snootiness is probably cheating themselves.

  3. david wingrove Says:

    Totally longing to see this…it looks like the best ‘bad movie’ in years!!

  4. You nailed it with the “of Mars” removal. But over and above that the forerunners of this extravaganza — Flash Gordon and Buck Rodgers — cost a buck and a half an chicklets to make.
    The price tag on this piece of Kitsch is $250 MILLION!!!!!!

    And it still looks cheap.

  5. I’ll say it again: it’s the Red Martian costumes. Those stray tufts of fur!

    I’d certainly love to have seen a Mario Bava version with big extras painted green wearing Carlo Rambladi fake arms, lots of glass shots, and John Savage or Cameron Mitchell.

    No reshoots for Mario: “The Americans do everything twenty times. In Italy, if it doesn’t work the first time, you’re an asshole. That’s how it is in this business: you’re either God the Father or you’re an asshole.”

  6. Better costumes in both of those.

    I looked up the guy who dressed John Carter. He actually started out on John Sayles movies, where he wouldn’t have had enough budget to embarrass anybody. Good movies.

    Having done Men with Guns is maybe what got him the job on Apocalypto, and it’s easy to see why that got him Avatar. And Avatar got him this one, following a fairly unimaginative line of thought. At what point should somebody have said, “Hang on, Warlords of Atlantis looked better than this?”

  7. Cameron Mitchell? How about JOHN Cameron Mitchell?

  8. F Watson Says:

    And yet, I was completely unaffected by New York skyscrapers…(It’s true folks, the first time I saw the Eiffel Tower, it freaked me out. I might not have such an extreme reaction now) Liked Lynn Collins, a nice, spirited performance with a plummy accent to allow her to merge with the British thesps surrounding her. *On the wedding dress she’s been forced to wear* – “It’s a little vulgar for my taste.” (Which is hilarious when you take into account what she’s been nearly wearing for the rest of the film) STAY WOOLA!

  9. We both enjoyed the long shots of the Martian desert with Woola visible as a long streamer of dust, like the Road Runner. Or like Michael Bentine’s Potty Time, if anyone remembers that.

  10. Well, to be absolutely fair, the wedding dress is her first outfit in the film to display cleavage. I checked. Assiduously. Perhaps that’s the one part of the body considered impolite to bare at strangers.

    On a more serious level, I think that Samantha Morton was critically underused in the film. Almost all of her lines involve the phrase ‘We’re not allowed to.’ Willem Defoe at least had a couple hefty speeches and a sprinkling of one liners. Morton’s character could, possibly should, have been excised from the script without any major changes. Not that I begrudge the woman the paycheck, it was just sad to see her without any major contribution.

  11. I prefer Dafoe HERE

  12. After JOHN CARTER OF MARS went into production, Disney released MARS NEEDS MOMS to a resounding lack of business, and began to fear that Mars had no commercial potential. They did some marketing research and discovered that women will not see movies set on Mars (I don’t know how the fair sex feels about Venus, or Uranus), so JOHN CARTER OF MARS is a title to alienate half of your potential audience right off the bat. Hence, the name change to JOHN CARTER, or, SOME GUY OF SOMEWHERE: THE MOVIE. Couldn’t they have kept the original title A PRINCESS OF MARS and hoped that the girliness of “Princess” would cancel out the previously unrecognized by astronomy gynorepellant properties of the red planet?

    JOHN CARTER had a buzz of doom, but I figured I’d be happy enough if the Woola was cute, the apes were fierce, and the princess didn’t have too many clothes on. It exceeded my lowered expectations.

    It doesn’t always have the narrative clarity and light touch one might expect from Pixar people. Still, a solid pulp adventure. I don’t understand the gleefully vituperative reception. I feel sorry for the poor shaggy thing.

  13. There’s a Hollywood law that says if you throw out a good title, you end up with a bad one. Did they bother market testing their new choice?

    The title Princess of Mars might have alienated both macho-men and girly-women, I guess, unless maybe they had a sexy poster to make it OK.

    Face it, the title change was panic, and dogs can smell fear.

    My objection to Shadow of the Vampire is, they didn’t have the guts to make Murnau gay, so they made him a junkie, against all historical knowledge. That’s SO offensive! But Dafoe is extraordinary in it. He’s always good.

  14. They didn’t make him explicitly gay, but they cast Udo Kier as his assistant so iconographically that makes him Super Gay.

  15. Yeah, it just struck me as pathetic that a so-called indie film didn’t feel able to be totally overt. It was following classical Hollywood coding in an era when mainstream Hollywood is, upon occasion (if it’s “essential to the plot”), willing to be blunt.

    BTW, saw Udo in Paris, filming with Guy Maddin. “It’s Udo fucking Kier!” said my colleague. And it was.

  16. Yes that’s all part of a huge expo that my dear friend Dennis Cooper is putting on. The mad Mr. Maddin is “remaking” lost silent films. He was doing one with Charlotte Rampling just the other day.

  17. It was Stroheim’s unfilmed Pota-Pota the night we dropped by. Geraldine Chaplin, Udo, and Kim Morgan were glimpsed among the busy cast.

  18. Cult filmmaker Mike McCarthy weighs in via email:

    “My fellow Burroughphile Charles Berlin says touches of the first three books were combined to make JOHN CARTER. I claim this movie to be the first good Burroughs adaptation EVER, therefore it has to turn off most of the non-fan audience. I wager that the THERNS were Burroughs appropriation of “Southern” and “Northern”, the two ‘tribes’ engaged in the American Civil War. CARTER is an allegory toward the stupidity of Man in general, but he hit a home run with the same message one year later in TARZAN (another JC). I prefer the short cropped Murphy Anderson rendition of JC in the back of DC Comics 1971 John Carter adaptation who seemed to have fallen under the influence of Edgar Cayce physics. John Carter Mars / Jesus Christ Messiah.”

  19. […] The Face on the Barsoom Floor « shadowplay from shadowplay on March 16, 2012 at 02:46AM […]

  20. david wingrove Says:

    Guy Maddin directing Charlotte Rampling and Udo Kier in a ‘lost’ silent film?!

    That sounds like some sort of high camp fantasy come to life.

    How much glamorous eccentricity can the screen possibly hold at one time?

  21. We saw lots of Sternbergian lighting effects (although, oddly, I can’t recall any of the several lost Sternbergs being on the list of films being channelled).

  22. I can barely work up any enthusiasm to see the trailer of this. At some point all these space societies blur into one incoherent blur! I suppose that it doesn’t look terrible, just uninspiring and rather ordinary (plucky adventurer saves a distant society) for a sci-fi spectacular. And as we all know the worst thing that a film can be is not hideously bad but anonymously average!

    Oh well, it may not be Mars but Venus will have to do for now (Does this film provide enough cleavage for you Harry K?):

  23. Those Forbidden Planet costumes sure got a lot of use. The electronic score, too.

    I’d say John Carter’s worth seeing — I think it’s better than, say, Iron Man, and people seemed to like that one. You can always play “spot the location” from Planet of the Apes or The Martian Chronicles… The trailer’s genuinely not very good though — a fan-made trailer got some press for doing the job better.

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