At the Movies: John Carter; We Need To Talk About Kevin

Sorry for punting last week. Who knew “The Lorax” would be so popular? I always found it the least of the Dr. Seuss canon. Too preachy and depressing. I shall make up for my slackage by delivering two reviews this week.

John Carter

As movie titles go, “John Carter” is as nondescript as, say, “Michael Clayton.” In fact, if you Wikipedia the words “John Carter” you will get 37 references before you come to the one this movie is about. Sorry, all you fans of former English cricketer John Carter, his movie will have to come another day.

The John Carter in question was the star of a series of pulp fiction short stories and novels, first published in 1912. They were written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, but Johnny never achieved the name recognition of Burroughs’ other creation — Tarzan.

JC is better known among the sci-fi/fantasy bookstore crowd as “John Carter of Mars” — a title that probably would have made life much easier for Disney’s marketing department were it not for the fact that recent films referencing the fourth rock from the sun (“Mars Needs Moms,” “Mission to Mars” and “Red Planet”) all performed less than spectacularly. Movie studios are a cowardly and superstitious lot, hence the decision to lop off the “of Mars.”

Boy, that’s a lot of talk about a movie title. Let’s get on with it.

“John Carter” is a decent but not spectacular sci-fi/fantasy epic. Unfortunately, if you’re going the sci-fi/fantasy epic route, you probably want the response to be more big and bombastic than “meh, it was OK.”

Taylor Kitsch stars as the title character, a Civil War veteran who, disillusioned with life, has gone off to prospect for gold. Thanks to the machinations of a race of shape-changing, immortal aliens, Carter is transported to the planet Mars, or Barsoom as the natives call it.

Carter discovers that due to differences in gravity, he can leap tall Martian buildings in a single bound — if there were any tall Martian buildings (The landscape is mainly hills and deserts). Despite his superhuman abilities, Carter is quickly taken captive by four-armed, tusk-faced creatures led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe).

Elsewhere on Mars, two human-looking factions of Martians are battling for supremacy of the red planet. The winning side — who are naturally the bad guys — are being aided by those pesky meddlesome aliens I mentioned earlier. The leader of the losing side — Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds) — has agreed to marry off his daughter, the princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), to achieve peace.

Dejah isn’t pleased with this arrangement and runs off, where she eventually ends up in the arms of John Carter. Dejah wants Carter’s help with the war but he just wants to go home.

“John Carter” isn’t a terribly original tale but it’s told with some style and the special effects are first-rate. It looks nifty and the monsters and aliens are suitably strange. The alien landscapes and airships and whatnot are nice to look at.

The story’s not much to speak of and it’s hampered mainly by its reliance on these aliens who are messing around with Earth and Mars for no discernible reason other than to move the story along.

Disney was wise to release this film in March. It would have easily gotten swallowed up among real summer blockbusters but this time of year it might stand a chance. If you’re in need of a sci-fi/fantasy fix, it’s the only game in town right now. It’s not great, but it could curb that craving.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Here’s a film that came out months ago for awards season, didn’t get a lot of love, and has now made its way to St. Louis for what will probably be a short run.

“Kevin” is a plodding yet intriguing psychological drama/horror story about the love — or lack of — between a mother and her psycho-killer son.

Tilda Swinton gives a powerful performance as Eva, who has a difficult time bonding with her first-born. The trouble starts immediately — she can’t hold him close and comfort him when he’s crying. At one point she even stops his baby carriage next to a construction site so the sound of the jackhammers can drown out her child’s cries.

Things don’t get any better as Kevin (Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell, Rock Duer) grows up. He does everything he can to torment his mother, while his father (John C. Reilly) remains clueless. It all boils over in one terrible act of violence, leaving Eva — and the audience — to wonder to what degree she played a part in Kevin’s actions.

Based on the novel by Lionel Shriver, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is thought-provoking and features several good performances but it has its flaws. It’s slow and ponderous and would benefit from some sharper editing. Lynne Ramsay’s direction is about as subtle as a brick. Enough with the color red already.

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One response to “At the Movies: John Carter; We Need To Talk About Kevin

  1. Ironically, Ronnie, I read recently that “The Lorax” was Dr. Seuss’ favorite among his books. It happens to be mind, too. I think it’s a profound and sensitive story about the dangers of greed and runaway exploitation of natural resources, but it also makes the point that the people at the heads of these endeavors are human beings, too. The movie does a pretty good job of interpreting the book for the screen. About half of it is made up entirely (the back story about the kid, back story about the Onceler, and the ending, which is added onto where the book ends). A lot of comedy is also added in, which is fine. The Onceler himself is softened through the back story (his relatives are the real villains). My personal feeling is that the ending of the book is more powerful, but I doubt modern audiences would tolerate it. We must know how it all works out.

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