Thursday, June 28, 2012

Culture Shock 06.28.12: Time to give 'John Carter' a second chance

The intrigue and incompetence that led to Disney's "John Carter" becoming one of the biggest flops in movie history would probably make for an interesting movie. Perhaps a screwball comedy.

Even the poster used to promote the movie is dull.
It really takes a concerted effort to so mishandle a film that it joins the ranks of "Heaven's Gate," "Ishtar" and "Howard the Duck."

Especially when, unlike those films, "John Carter" is actually pretty good, and definitely worth reappraisal now that it's available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Everything from the title — not "John Carter of Mars" or, better still, "John Carter and a Princess of Mars," but just plain "John Carter" — to the lackluster, inept marketing campaign made "John Carter" out to be a dreary bore.

But "John Carter" isn't boring. It's just "old school." It's an old-fashioned, swashbuckling adventure yarn of the sort Disney used to know how to sell very well — 40 years ago. True, there's nothing here we haven't seen before. But the source material, Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel "A Princess of Mars," has been strip-mined by other storytellers for nearly 100 years. You can see its influence in everything from Superman and Flash Gordon to "Star Wars" and "Avatar."

Those imitators, however, can't rob Burroughs' tale of its intrinsic appeal.

It begins in the American Southwest, in the years following the Civil War, when disillusioned Confederate solder John Carter (Taylor Kitsch of "Friday Night Lights"), who has lost both his home and his family, accidentally activates a portal that transports him to Mars — or, as the locals call it, Barsoom. In the lower Martian gravity, this strange visitor from other planet is a virtual superman, able to leap modest-sized buildings in a single bound.

It's an ability that soon comes in handy, first when he's captured by the Tharks, a race of 15-foot-tall, four-armed warriors who live in the Martian wastes, and later when he finds himself a pawn in the never-ending war between two rival city-states: the enlightened city of Helium, ruled by Tardos Mors (CiarĂ¡n Hinds of "The Woman in Black"), and the despotic Zodanga, led by Sab Than (Dominic West).

All Carter wants is to return home, and the last thing on his agenda is getting caught up in another planet's civil war. But he runs into a complication when he rescues Tardos Mors' daughter Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), who may know how to return him to Earth but would much rather him stay to fight for Helium.

And they may all be pawns in the game being played behind the scenes by the mysterious figure portrayed by Mark Strong ("Sherlock Holmes").

Kitsch proves to be a real surprise. He's not the first actor who comes to mind when I think of John Carter, but he brings more charisma to the role than I'd expected. It helps, too, that he has a solid supporting cast, especially Willem Dafoe, via motion capture and CGI, as the Thark leader Tars Tarkas.

Director Andrew Stanton ("Toy Story") keeps things straightforward, and the screenplay by Stanton, Mark Andrews and novelist Michael Chabon retains the spirit of Burroughs while making some necessary updates, such as casting Dejah Thoris as less of a damsel in distress. (This Dejah can hold her own with a sword and a slide rule.) With the exception of an unavoidable infodump in the second act to bring our heroes up to speed, things move at a lively pace.

But the real stars here are Nathan Crowley ("The Dark Knight") and Michael Giacchino ("The Incredibles").

Crowley's gorgeous production design brings the bustling city of Helium to life, while Giacchino's lush, romantic score, sweeps us away to the adventure.

Forget that "John Carter" is officially a flop. It's time to get your mass to Mars.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Culture Shock 06.21.12: Bring me the head of George W. Bush; feigned outrage strikes again

When historians look back on the first two decades of the 21st century, they may well conclude that the defining characteristic of our age is feigned outrage.

This is not how you get ahead in politics.
It began in 2004, when TV viewers were terrorized by 0.5 seconds of Janet Jackson's exposed nipple during the last Super Bowl halftime show anyone remembers. But it came to a head last week with George W. Bush's head, or, rather, a facsimile of it, covered in a shaggy wig and stuck to a pike in the final episodes of season 1 of HBO's "Game of Thrones."

These are the things we're supposed to get upset about.

We're told — by people who know nothing of American history — that Americans are polarized as never before. Actually, quite the opposite.

We agree as never before. The consensus is shifting on some issues, from marijuana legalization to gay marriage — both of which slim majorities of Americans now favor — but most people don't really disagree about a lot.

Unfortunately, this makes life hard for politicians, pundits, professional activists and others whose livelihoods depend on people being at each other's throats. So, partisans of Team Red and Team Blue go around looking for things they can pretend to be angry about, and then try to make you and me angry about them, too.

These are, usually, not serious issues. How can they be? Team Red and Team Blue agree on so much. A president of one party gets a national mandatory health insurance plan enacted, and the other party, which says it is against mandatory health insurance, nominates a challenger who enacted the same insurance plan in his own state. From the size and scope of government to issues of war and peace, there are no serious disagreements among our leaders or the opinion makers who orbit them.

So, bring me the head of George W. Bush.

The head, not meant to be President Bush's head but just the head of some unlucky bloke who got his noggin lopped off, as happens to so many "Game of Thrones" characters, appears in an episode that first aired more than a year ago. No one noticed. The producers commented about the head when season 1 was released on DVD, saying they needed a head to put on a spike and the head of the former president happened to be what they had lying around. No political message was intended, they said. Again, no one noticed.

Until last week, when, suddenly, feigned outrage struck again, with Team Red scribblers like the New York Post's Andrea Peyser saying this was yet another example of the liberal Hollywood elite slamming wholesome American values. Never mind that getting beheaded by the repugnant, inbred King Joffrey is, if anything, an honor that puts you in pretty good moral standing.

Did William Shatner get upset when the makers of the "Halloween" movies put a bleached-out Shatner mask on their lumbering serial killer Michael Myers? I think not.

But HBO folded. It pulled the offending episode from iTunes and its HBO Go service, and it stopped shipping new DVDs.

All this because of trumped-up outrage over an "offense" it took the offended a year to notice. Don't think I'm picking on Team Red. Team Blue over to our left is no better.

Remember when getting really upset about something Rush Limbaugh said was a thing? Yet most of the people claiming to be upset were probably delighted, because it turned Limbaugh's otherwise unremarkable target, Sandra Fluke, into a martyr and gave Team Blue an excuse to engage in one of its favorite sports — beating up Limbaugh for saying something stupid.

Maybe someday we'll go back to being outraged about things that matter. But not today.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Culture Shock 06.14.12: Not much spark from this 'Prometheus'

Thirty-three years after he showed us that in space no one can hear you scream, director Ridley Scott returns to the movie franchise he unsuspectingly launched with 1979's horror/sci-fi masterpiece "Alien."

But with this very loose prequel, you'll scream more out of frustration than fright.

"Prometheus" is exasperatingly thick-headed sci-fi masquerading as smart science fiction.

As with a 1980s slasher movie, it's the kind of film where the plot moves forward only because the characters are idiots. While that's excusable when you're dealing with frisky teenagers and camp counselors, it's unforgivable when you're dealing with the hand-picked crew of a scientific research ship bound for a distant moon, light years away from Earth and any hope of rescue.

These people are presumably professionals and actually follow safety protocols.

Well, if you really think that, you're wrong.

"Prometheus" opens with an alien seemingly sacrificing himself in order to seed a planet — maybe Earth — with his DNA. It's the first of many symbolic moments involving life, death, sacrifice and life from death.

These are eternal themes, but they deserve more coherent treatment than what they get from "Prometheus" screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, the man who executive produced "Lost" to a unsatisfying end.

Flash forward to an archaeological expedition on Earth, decades in our future. Two scientists, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace, of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) uncover a 30,000-year-old cave drawing of a giant alien seemingly giving us directions to a point in the heavens.

Flash forward a few more years, and the ship Prometheus has arrived in orbit around the alien moon.

Awakened from two years in suspended animation, Elizabeth informs the crew of biologists and geologists and other experts they're there to find the aliens she believes created life on Earth. And when one crew member expresses some skepticism about this wild claim, Elizabeth admits she has no evidence, but "it's what I choose to believe."

Shaw is a religious zealot, and so is Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce in the least-convincing old-man makeup ever), the dying gazillionaire whose corporation bankrolled the expedition. And so, too, are the aliens. At least that's one interpretation.

Unfortunately, it isn't just that "Prometheus" is ambiguous, which can be a virtue, but that it doesn't seem to know where it's going with any of its ideas. And when it comes down to the basic stuff, it fails miserably.

It isn't just a matter of characters doing stupid things. As boneheaded as the characters are, the science of "Prometheus" is worse. We're told the aliens and humans have identical DNA. Not similar, but identical, and this is a major plot point. But if true, this would mean the aliens are just ordinary humans, and clearly they are not.

The treatment of genetics and evolutionary biology in "Prometheus" contradicts all known science. It's creationism with extraterrestrials.

Yet the biggest problem with "Prometheus" is the way it wastes everything good about it. A scene involving an emergency surgery is as harrowing as anything in "Alien," the production design is gorgeous and Michael Fassbender delivers a brilliant, eerie performance as the android David, who emerges as the only likable character even when he's up to something suspicious.

The good points, including Scott's direction, are overwhelmed by the flawed screenplay.

Yes, "Prometheus" makes you think. But the more you think about it, the less sense it makes.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Culture Shock 06.07.12: Movies more scared of sex than you think

Movies and television take a lot of heat for promoting supposedly immoral, promiscuous and irresponsible sexual behavior.

But when it comes to movies that actually make sex their main focus, you may be left wondering why anyone has sex in the first place. Sex in these movies is awful, joyless and nothing good ever comes of it.

On second thought, that does sound like a pretty irresponsible depiction of sex, just not the one we've been led to expect.

Two recent films are Exhibits A and B. The first is "Shame," newly released on Blu-ray and DVD.

Directed by Steve McQueen and starring Michael Fassbender, "Shame" follows Brandon, a 30-something business executive in New York, as he goes blankly from one sexual encounter to the next, until the arrival of his emotionally unstable sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) upsets his routine.

We're never clued in to what it is, but the two clearly are carrying around a lot of old family baggage. Sissy is needy, and Brandon resents her for it. Meanwhile, he's trying and failing to meet his own needs through meaningless sex — a strategy designed to fail because meaningless sex is, by definition, meaningless.

Brandon is the poster boy for sex addiction. He has lots of sex but never enjoys it, and he keeps right on going.

Yet, despite depressing movies like "Shame" and a few high-profile celebrity cases of suspect credibility, one fact remains: There is no such thing as sex addiction.

I know. This is not what the doctors on TV tell you, but stay with me.

Sex addiction is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, and there is no scientific evidence that it exists. So says David J. Ley, clinical psychologist and author of a book pointedly titled "The Myth of Sex Addiction."

Most people have sex because they like it. But while that might make for good late-night viewing on Cinemax, it doesn't carry the day with art-house filmgoers.

That brings me to Exhibit B, Steven Soderbergh's 2009 film "The Girlfriend Experience" (Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix instant) starring former adult-film actress Sasha Grey.

Grey plays a high-class call girl whose clients are mostly Wall Street 1-percenters during the darkest days of the Great Recession. A woman who sells sex and men who sell mortgage-backed securities — it's a juxtaposition perfect for Soderbergh's ideological ax-grinding.

She makes decisions based on astrology-like personality guidebooks, and they make trades based on voodoo economics. Or something like that.

Grey's character, Chelsea, is destined for disappointment because she is commodifying sex, but that's not the worst of it. What she offers her clients isn't just sex, but companionship — a "girlfriend experience."

It's that she does this for money that makes it doomed in Soderbergh's eye. It makes her like the buyers and sellers who ruined the economy then took off on a trip to Las Vegas to gamble literally, not just metaphorically.

Yes, when a well-heeled Hollywood director wants to criticize sex, of course he compares it to the business world.

Here even Cinemax shlock is judgmental. When the lonely housewife played by Shannon Tweed decides to become a call girl, you just know someone is going to get murdered.

If you pay for sex, you'll have to pay.