Thursday, March 15, 2012

Out of This World!

Earth man John Carter liberates Barsoom and shows Disney has the right stuff.


Arth Vader (AV): As you may or may not be aware, I have been a fan of vintage science fiction for some time, Pontificator. It has been a secret passion of mine to see early sci-fi content brought to the big screen with a modern flare. Enter: John Carter. Disney's huge Sci-Fi gamble, pitting ex-confederate officer abdicated and forced to survive on a cruel, unforgiving Martian landscape. Reprising a remarkably well re-imagined rendition of Edgar Rice Burrough's A Princess of Mars. Though I would have much preferred the title stay true to it's original inception, Princess of Mars, this movie was a delight and I must say, being a skeptic that watches Hollywood butcher good original content, it was a delight to see something like this handled so well.
THE PONTIFICATOR (TP): Looks like I’m still learning new things about you Vader. The movie does a good job of sticking to the original story, as best as we can expect from Hollywood these days. Comparing the original work of “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the most deviation comes at the end where the movie improves from the original and steps a bit into “The Gods of Mars.” There are other details the movie changes such as the social positions of certain characters and certain events, but not to the detriment of the film.


AV: Exceptional cast here, Ponty!  A swell of veteran acting talent made this movie a joy to watch. Lynn Collins made my heart skip as Dejah Thoris and seasoned performances form the likes of Willem Dafoe, Thomas Hayden Church and Bryan Cranston lent great screen creds to an already impressive Disney release. Even the villainous Sab Than portrayed by Dominic West (300, The Wire) had a solid showing. The direction of Oscar-winner Andrew Stanton, a fellow Massachusetts native, brought Burrough's vision of a gravity-replete Mars to life.
TP: Go Mass! The direction of this movie was very focused and very well implemented. The casting was interestingly chosen, I thought, which led to great character acting. Mark Strong and Dominic West are very much at home with playing the shady villain type and bring all of that experience to their respective roles. It’s unusual to have two leading villains, but it works with these two. Taylor Kitsch brings John Carter to life as a tortured soul that has been thrust into an impossible situation that offers him another chance at happiness. Great performances by everyone involved, which is no surprise with actors like Willem Dafoe, Lynn Collins, and James Purefoy.


AV: Well handled here, Pontificator! While it takes a moment or two to figure out why Johnny can fly (light gravity, dense muscle and bone matter for earthlings, etc.), the light ships, the alien armies, the fantastic creatures, the dramatic fight scenes, the climatic end battles all were handled expertly as veteran ex-Pixar stand-out Stanton brought his A-game. That said, there is a particular moment I am compelled to call out.
TP: Awesome. John Carter makes more and better use of 3D than any other movie to hit theaters after Avatar. The CGI animation was excellent and seamlessly integrated itself with the awesome scenery and fantastic imagery. There wasn’t anything new here for special was just that all the stuff we’re used to seeing was simply done with a supreme level of technical skill. The adjustment scene of John’s introduction to Mars was funny and believably done...provided you suspend your higher intellect and accept Mars as it’s portrayed. You mentioned a particular moment Vader?
AV: Oh, yes. The masterfully handled morph sequence between John Carter and Matai Shang (played by John Strong) is one of the best in the history of such sequences. The deceptive nature of Shang's character is handled with such precision, using a mix of scene cutting techniques and moving camera actions, the scene is eerie in it's fluidity. Bravo. Well done, Disney.


AV: Be afraid, Pontificator. Be very afraid. This movie is sure to fly under the radar for most people. The name change (from John Carter of Mars to John Carter) was a bad call. John Carter of Mars would have given people a more exacting idea of the movie's meaning. This is a major misfire because when people want to plunk down their hard-earned cash for a movie they need to understand what they are paying for. Especially when the original title gave the audience exactly the info they needed. When audiences don't know what you're talking about, they tend not to respond. In today's competitive marketplace, a movie needs all the help it can get.
TP: Agreed on the title change, Vader. I look to see if a movie “has it all” in this section... and this one certainly did. I laughed out loud at times, specifically every time the Martian dog did his thing. I felt bad for John when it was evident that he suffered a great personal tragedy and he was in pain. I marveled at the action as it took me away in a flash of awe. The questions isn’t what’s right with this movie... but what’s wrong with it. As near as I can tell, the only problem I had with it was the inconsistent way his superior abilities were portrayed. I figure if you have enhanced strength and physical ability from the environment... then you have it all the time, with every movement and feat... but that’s just me.


AV: The John Carter intellectual property is a series of imaginative adventures on Barsoom. Like Flash Gordon (Alex Raymond) or Tarzan (also from Edgar Rice Burroughs), or even the Shadow (Walter B. Gibson), their is a lot of potential here. As ever, the prospect of new additions or installments lies squarely in the realm of box-office performance which won't be helped by disastrously poor marketing decisions like calling the movie John Carter. This  is a powerfully imaginative franchise in waiting. I hope we get more than the one film…
TP: There are three books in the original Barsoom series as well as countless comic spin-offs and other there is plenty of material to draw from to continue further adventures on Mars. Even if Hollywood decided to abandon all previous material (which isn’t unheard of), there is still a rich a diverse world that has been created with colorful and dynamic characters with which to craft anything a creative mind can imagine. That...and the fact that there hasn’t been any resolution to one of the antagonist in this film (uh-oh).

Arth Vader Rates John Carter: An excellent re-adaptation from superb source material and an A+ to Andrew Stanton and Disney for mounting serious courage (and financial clout) to bring a lesser known (but well-established) Sci-fi property to the modern big screen. Fun, mesmerizing and failing only in the branding, John Carter is great and with 8.5 busted blocks, I'm slipping on my 3D specs and heading for Barsoom. Pontificator, how say you?
THE PONTIFICATOR Rates John Carter: A great film, certainly worthy of the title “blockbuster” and a lot of fun to watch. The fact that it isn’t just a jumble of action sequences, but has comedy, drama... and even a Sherlock Holmesque feeling when the movie comes full circle makes it easy for this movie to bust eight and a half Martian blocks.

John Carter: 8.5/10 Busted Blocks

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Spirit of Disappointment

Nicholas Cage fizzles as Marvel's original hothead in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance


ARTH VADER (AV): Well I must say, I might have been more excited for this film than I should have been. After the painfully poor performance of the first Ghost Rider film, I thought that perhaps things had changed since, you know, they went through the trouble of making a second movie. The first film made the viewer feel as though they were one of the condemned souls that the Ghost Rider banishes– doomed to a life of eternal suffering in the underworld. They certainly have done a good job of recreating that experience for us again. How say you, Pontificator? 

THE PONTIFICATOR (TP): Well Vader, the movie doesn’t follow any set continuity although I do see elements of many different story lines that have appeared in the books. Most notably is Danny Way’s run on the book wherein Johnny Blaze learns that the spirit within is really an angel that has been driven insane. With so much material available from the books, it just baffles me why they simply don’t pick one of the better story arcs...and ride with it.


AV: I feel as though Nicholas Cage is simply NOT Johnny Blaze. For the first movie, I thought he was…uh, believable. Johnny is the tortured, reluctant human vessel for the Ghost Rider. To me, Cage feels pre-occupied, smug and indifferent, like the stuff the Rider does is okay with him. The bad-girl-gone-good love interest–played by the stunning Italian singer/actress Violante Placido–is interesting, if not easy on the eyes. But she is vapid and vacant as a butt-kicking damsel-in-distress. Talent was NOT this movie's flaw–even the addition of one of favorite actors, Idris Alba as Moreau, couldn't save this movie from itself. 

TP: I’m not sure this movie had a direction... if it did, it wasn’t anywhere I wanted to go. I found the movie to be very segmented instead of a steady flow and the constant posturing and drawn out pseudo awe the Ghost Rider was trying to command was unnecessary and annoying. Speaking of annoying, Nicholas Cage reached a new record for that in this one. The only redeeming aspect of the film for me was Idris Elba and he didn’t have a large enough role to save this movie from itself. What are your thoughts about the acting Arth?
AV: The acting...? Well, what there was of it...was ok. The weird facial expressions of Cage were laughably forced and off-putting especially since it did NOT happen in the first film. I have a suspicion that the 2013 Oscars will be passing this one over. 


AV: Ah, finally, a ray of hope in this dismal foray into the heart of mediocrity! I thought this movie was visually stunning.*SPOILER ALERT!* The scene where three dozens bad guys square of against Ghost Rider in what appears to be an Eastern European mining camp complete with giant Earth Movers and mining machine the size of a small town. The cool flames and burning special effects, truly made me feel as though the Ghost Rider was a preferable character to Johnny. Also, though I didn't see this movie in 3D, I could tell it was created to be a 3D experience. The final Mad-Max-like chase scene puts me in the thick of the action; fast-paced and ferocious. A great eye-candy experience, Ponty!

TP: Hmmm... it’s hard to go wrong with the effects for a film like this... especially since it was already done well in the first film, but somehow, they found a way. Don’t get me wrong, the flaming bike, flaming crane, flaming truck... all good. The 3D was severely underused, which seems to be a staple of the current films touting it. The real loss here was in the transformation from Blaze to the Rider. It was just ridiculous looking, reminiscent of the anamorphic effects used in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” The cartoonish look didn’t work for this film, especially with the subject being a spirit of vengeance.


AV: While my first instinct would be 'what's the point?' this flick does offer us a flaming glimmer of hope for future installments. It's true, Ponty! Here's what I mean; as the special effects in the movie industry get better and better, we are treated to ever-more dazzling effects shots every year. Perfect for the super-hero/anti-hero genres! To me, it's as if the studio and the director completely wrote off the Johnny Blaze portion and made the story about the Ghost Rider. Can't say I loved it–or even liked it– but it was nowhere near the epic failure the first movie. At least the poster was cool. Pontificator?

TP: The deeper I look, the more I want to turn away. I don’t think I laughed once... so it failed in the comedy department. I didn’t feel a single tug of any emotion besides annoyance... so a failure in the drama department. The action made me groan, so although there was action... it too, failed. They took away almost all dialogue for the Ghost Rider reducing him to a flaming skull that just stares at you for what seems like an eternity before stealing your soul (I’m assuming). What happened to the Penance Stare? Where was his hollow and eerie voice as he metes out justice? What happened to the cool bike? It seems as though they took away all the good elements from the first film, left the bad ones in... and added worse ones for a complete mess that will only appeal to one percent of everybody that sees it.


AV: If nothing else, we are treated to the twist that Zarathos (the Ghost Rider's true name) is not a demon but a fallen angel. This was amplified by the effects of turning his flame from Red to Blue at the film's end. An interesting twist that could be a great story-telling vehicle in the future. For me this screams "trilogy" and could in fact be a better-than-ever third installment that could possibly even matter. A long-shot to be sure, but hey, who even knew this movie would have ever happened given the train wreck the first one was (check out our review of the dismal first Ghost Rider flick here).

TP: A trilogy...? Please, don’t. At this point, another sequel would make little sense, especially since I can see them signing Nicholas Cage on again...simply because they seem to have a knack for making bad decisions. Any future ideas flirting with the thought of another Ghost Rider film should be thinking serious reboot...with the emphasis on “serious.” The goofy, quirky, offbeat, silly feel applied to this character just doesn’t work.

ARTH VADER rates Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance: Alright, so this one's a rather forgettable jaunt through mediocrity, but still quite an improvement over the first. The much-improved effects didn't make this movie much better but, after all, it's a Marvel movie–not a thespian indulgence. While I can't say I'll be busting at the seams for a third installment that I am sure is coming, I can say it busted four solid blocks–with a vengeance.
THE PONTIFICATOR Rates Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance: A very painful movie to sit through with the high points being my large popcorn and fruit punch Icee. I’m just flabbergasted at the inability to simply improve upon a product that just needed some tweaking to be a contender... and turn it, instead, into something to be reviled... with the ability to ignite only two blocks, out of ten.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance: 3/10 Busted Blocks