Saturday, March 31, 2012

Why I Miss Childhood

When I was seven, we lived in Sulphur Springs, Texas, maybe half a mile or less from my grandparents' house. And because it was the early 1970s, it was okay for my parents to leave me and my nine-year-old brother alone by ourselves for hours at a time. We could be trusted alone by ourselves -- heck, when my dad was that age, he was out hunting in the woods with a .22 on his own, and he hardly ever shot and field-dressed any of the neighbors.

So one time while by ourselves, my brother and I decided to walk to our grandfolks' house. But we didn't want to walk along the road, we wanted to walk along the railroad tracks. We hopped the barbed-wire fence and hiked across whatever pasture or field lay between our yard and the tracks, and we spent what seemed like ages hiking the gravel embankment, jumping from one wood tie to the next, balancing on the iron rails -- having an awesome adventure in the hot Texas sun.

We found railroad spikes.

That's right, we each found some rusty-ass, dirt-encrusted iron railroad spikes lying in the gravel or the weeds by the tracks, and we picked them up and took them with us like they were solid gold.

Naturally, when our parents found out about this, there was hell to pay. We could have gotten hit by a train! (My parents apparently hadn't noticed how flat that part of Texas is and how dead quiet the day had been and how even a daydreaming seven-year-old would have spotted and heard a train from miles off.) We'd taken someone else's property! (Technically true, but it's not like we'd pulled the spikes loose from the joins of the tracks and set in motion a horrific disaster sure to kill everyone on board the next train except for Bruce Willis. They were just going to sit there and rust away to nothing, so who cares that someone else owned them?) We could have been killed and eaten by hobos! (This one we had no answer for. You couldn't grow up in the 1970s watching old black-and-white films on Saturday morning without understanding that hobos were everywhere, and while I'd never seen a movie about a cannibal hobo, I knew that some hobos were clowns or, worse, mimes, and therefore f---ing scary.)

But even though we got in trouble, we came out of it unscathed, and they let us keep the railroad spikes (the least filthy of them, anyway), and for a couple of hours (or maybe half an hour, since time is so much different for a kid), we'd been Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, on our own with only the wild life of the rails to tell us where to go or what to do.

That's the amazing thing about being a kid. Finding an oxidized chunk of metal that leaves horrible red crap all over your hands is almost as good as chasing along beside a speeding boxcar, grabbing desperately for the door handle so that you can swing yourself up and inside and escape the posse/indians/robber gang pursuing you on horseback. In fact, in your seven-year-old mind, it's exactly the same.

Kids are easily bored. But they are also convinced that there is an escape from boredom, and that it lies within or perhaps just beyond their grasp. As adults, we lose that conviction with frightening ease.

But maybe we ought to go walk the railroad tracks once in a while to find it again.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

What I Watched Today

A world-weary thumbs-down to the movie version of "The Lorax," and a generally pleased but non-effusive thumbs-up to "In Time."

Dr. Seuss's original story was a heart-wrenching tragedy whose single ray of hope depended on the reader's willingness to commit to the cause Seuss put forward. The only reason to change its apocalyptic ending would be a steely-eyed desire to rake in a bigger box-office take. Next up from the filmmakers: a version of "The Giving Tree" with an up-tempo song number for the ending.

On the other hand, "In Time" had moments of formulaic action-flick sloppiness, but created a solidly imagined future society and delivered compelling performances and a harder-hitting element of social commentary.

I'd recommend skipping "The Lorax" and giving "In Time" a shot.

Monday, March 12, 2012

John Carter: Two Reviews

John Carter: The What-If-I-Hadn’t-Read-The-Books Review

Despite being based on one of my most beloved childhood reading experiences, John Carter is a movie, not a book, and well deserves to be judged on its own merits rather than on its merits as an interpretation. With that in mind, I decided to write two reviews: one taking the movie for what it is, and another comparing it to what it isn’t. Here’s the first of those reviews.

(Minor spoilers ahead.)

When Hollywood makes science fiction and fantasy action-adventure films, it very often plays things safe. Science usually gets short shrift, and complex or unconventional concepts are usually avoided. Aliens may look very different from human beings, but they usually have cultures little different from our own, or else lack culture entirely and are simply malevolent invaders. Plots tend to be straightforward and spelled out in the clearest possible terms.

In one way or another, Disney’s adaptation of John Carter violates almost all of those expectations. It’s a science fiction film, set on an alien planet – yet it’s also a period piece that takes place in the 1800s. It makes liberal use of flashbacks – in fact, because the bulk of the story is a flashback in the form of a manuscript being read by young Edgar Rice Burroughs, it has flashbacks within a flashback. It introduces but does not clearly explain several weird pieces of Martian (Barsoomian) technology, expecting the audience to put two and two together.

This is not to suggest that it’s some kind of brainy, highly intellectualized film. But it is a film that differs markedly from typical Hollywood fare in a number of ways.

The film opens with narration explaining some of the political dynamics on Mars, and introduces the principal villain, Sab Than, as he’s granted a weapon of unusual power by several figures whose motives are ambiguous, but don’t seem good. We then cut to Earth in 1881, where John Carter sends Edgar Rice Burroughs a telegram and then appears to die under mysterious circumstances. Burroughs is given an odd manuscript as part of his inheritance, and when he opens it, the story proper begins.

Quickly and efficiently, the narrative establishes Carter as an intense, capable, and determined man, hinting that tragic experiences in the Civil War have hardened him into a cynic and even a bit of a hermit. When army officers in the Arizona territory try to impress him into service to fight Apaches, he escapes and ends up cornered in a cave, where he encounters a piece of Martian technology that transports him across space to a war-torn planet.

So far, the movie has given us Mars, then 19th Century New York, then the Wild West and now Mars again, all in the space of about 15 minutes. While some viewers may be disoriented, no one can accuse the film of being predictable or tame in its opening. And with the action moving to Mars, we almost immediately get a new set of surprises.

One of these is a bit silly: a prolonged sequence in which Carter has to figure out how to walk in the lower Martian gravity, which is played for humor and didn’t strike me as all that well visualized. But once he gets his outlandish leaps under control, he has his first alien encounter, stumbling across a hatchery of the green Martian Tharks, and then being surrounded by the Tharks themselves.

In the Tharks, this movie does what science fiction films almost never do. It presents aliens who have their own set of cultural values and mores. Viewers who don’t look closely may consider the Tharks just another savage warrior race along the lines of the Klingons, prizing combat and bravery and daring deeds. But the movie goes beyond those tropes, showing Thark customs of child-rearing and family, legal proceedings and punishments, and attitudes toward entertainment, animals, and religion. We see only bits and pieces of these subjects, as this is an action film, not a cultural documentary. But enough small details are there to make the Tharks feel real and distinct, and despite this being Disney, many of the details are brutal and stark.

Next into the mix comes Dejah Thoris, beautiful and brilliant princess of Helium, who arrives at the Thark encampment as she flees Sab Than. Dejah is the whole package, as proficient with a sword as with all the knowledge of Barsoomian science and as brave as she is gorgeous. The film does a fine job of showing us who Dejah is, and if there’s a complaint to be made about her it’s that the relationship that develops between her and John Carter is such a foregone conclusion. Carter is the greatest fighter on the planet, and Dejah is its most beautiful woman, so of course they’re going to end up together. It would have been nice to see the results build up in the form of personal chemistry between Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins, but the screenplay and the direction don’t really give them many opportunities to achieve a mutual smolder.

Together, John Carter and Dejah Thoris escape the Tharks and pursue the mysterious source of Sab Than’s power – Carter because he wants to return to Earth and Dejah because she wants to save her people. Naturally, they end up falling for one another, and eventually Carter must decide between returning to Earth to the hollow existence he was living before, or interceding in the age-old wars of Mars in order to save Dejah Thoris and her people. You can undoubtedly guess how that’s going to go, but there’s some great spectacle to be had in watching it unfold – including a truly magnificent scene that intercuts the best action sequence of the movie with the most emotional moment of the whole film, in which John Carter’s backstory is at last fully revealed.

The film is not perfect by any means – at least one of the plot twists is a baffling head-scratcher that really tested my suspension of disbelief. But for the most part, the fantastic nature of the visuals, the setting, and the story held together in a way that made all the preposterous elements enjoyable.

In the end, we return to Earth and Edgar Rice Burroughs, where there’s a very fun and satisfying twist to close out the framing narrative. The good guys triumph, the bad guys get their just desserts, and the nefarious manipulators who gave Sab Than his weapon escape with much of their mystery intact, presumably to make more trouble in the eventual sequels.

So: on its own, as a 21st century action adventure flick, John Carter gets three and a half or four stars from me. Not the very top of its genre, but interesting and unusual and well worth seeing.

John Carter: The No-Series-of-Books-Made-a-Bigger-Impression-on-My-Childhood-Than-This-One Review

I don’t know how many times I’ve read the John Carter books. I’m guessing I devoured the entire eleven-book series at least two or three times in my youth, and I got through the first five or six books a couple of years ago and then reread the first one just last week. So these books have been a vivid part of my mental landscape for my entire adult life, and almost any film adaptation was guaranteed to fall short for me.

Despite the fact that I knew that going into it, John Carter contained three major sources of disappointment to me and many minor ones.

(Major spoilers ahead.)

Let me be clear that I am not criticizing the film simply because it departs from the books. Everyone on Mars is telepathic in the novels, a fact that makes no sense and that Edgar Rice Burroughs conveniently forgets over and over again when it’s necessary for his good guys or bad guys to get away with lying. In a similar vein, on the literary Barsoom, no one is subject to the aging process. Dejah Thoris’ age is never mentioned, but for all we know, she’s 300 years old when John Carter meets her. Her father and grandfather are still around, and don’t look any older than she does. The movie ditches these elements entirely, and also adds a radically different backstory for John Carter that provides him with a personal growth story arc entirely lacking from the books – I thought those were all good moves.

But there are certain elements in the books that surely deserved to carry over into the movie – things which fundamentally alter the meaning of the story if omitted or altered. The three big ones are:

1) Extraordinary heroic honor. All of our heroes in the novels are cut from a striking cloth. In A Princess of Mars, Helium is indeed besieged by Zodanga. But it does not happen because Sab Than gains a super-weapon; it happens because Sab Than demands to marry Dejah Thoris, and the entire population of Helium would rather die than submit their princess to such a fate. Far from pushing his daughter toward a union she detests, the Tardos Mors of the novels is ready to sacrifice his whole people on principle, and they are willing to go along because that is the nature of their honor-bound culture. And Dejah Thoris, rather than fleeing the situation as she does in the film, agrees to marry Sab Than because she would rather give up her own happiness than allow her people’s honor to destroy them. Furthermore, while providing her with accomplishments as a scientist and prowess as a warrior, the film completely ignores Dejah Thoris’ leadership qualities from the books, where she is physically weak and unimposing, yet still possesses the bravery and diplomatic gifts to almost win over the entire Thark horde through the force of her personality. Even Tars Tarkas is greatly lessened in the movie. Instead of starting off as a lesser chief and eventually triumphing over the hideous Tal Hajus, he starts off in charge and is deposed by Tal, who ends up being defeated by John Carter in a rather anticlimactic fashion instead of the rich moment of justice that occurs in the book.

2) Bold statements against racism, superstition, and abuses of political power. In the books, the red men of Mars are explicitly a blended race, mixed long ago from pure-blooded white, black and yellow Martians. The principle villains of the first three books are either cynical opportunists like Sab Than or racial purists and religious fanatics who have worked for millennia in secret conspiracies to control and manipulate everyone else. Considering the time in which it was written, the series is astonishingly progressive, laying bare the absolute foolishness of racism and dogmatism, and showing clearly the price societies can pay for following malevolent leaders. But there’s very little sense of any socially conscious message in John Carter at all. Certainly, some of this follows naturally as a consequence of the great strides we’ve made since Burroughs’ day. Yet we have not defeated these evils even a hundred years after Burroughs took up his pen against them, and it’s sad to see the movie sidestep still-relevant issues. Burroughs managed to include these themes without the least bit of preachiness; I would have thought Andrew Stanton and John Lassetter capable of following his lead.

3) True Love. In A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs asks us to buy into what Disney has spent decades putting onto celluloid: love as an overwhelming, instantaneous, wondrous and electrifying phenomenon that, once it takes hold, becomes the entire focus of a person’s life, a miracle with the power to change the world. The romantic relationship that evolves onscreen in John Carter is a pale shadow of that, shying away from the na├»ve but heartfelt emotional idealism of the book and not really replacing it with anything more mature or believable. It works perfectly fine as formula romance, but left me wanting something so much greater.

Granted, the film does an excellent job translating many of the visuals from the books into motion. The Tharks and their animals are terrific (although Woola the calot was a bit too cutely designed for my tastes), the ruined cities are spot-on, the airships are cool looking, and the battles and arena scenes really capture Burroughs’ visceral savagery.

Ultimately, then, John Carter was to me a film that got the basic look and feel and tone of the books more or less right, but somehow missed the most profound substance of the series. I think I would still give it about three stars as a sincere effort. But when the source material hands you five stars worth of ideas, making a three-star picture isn’t exactly a triumph.

Still, I would encourage anyone interested in entertaining pulp adventure stories to go see this movie, and to take my grudging attitude toward it more as a recommendation for the books than a true chastisement of the film.