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Knight at the Movies: John Carter; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2012-03-07

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In John Carter—Disney's latest big-budget attempt at creating an action franchise—former Friday Night Lights television heartthrob Taylor Kitsch makes the first of two high-profile tries for movie hunkdom as we inch our way into blockbuster season. (Batttleship, based on the decades-old board game, follows this summer.) Based on Kitsch's physical attributes, which are noticeably on display throughout the movie's two-hour-plus running time as he skitters about shirtless in a man skirt and engraved breastplate, John Carter is sure to help build the actor's gay fan base tenfold. The movie itself? Not "meh" but not exactly "yeah," either.

The fault is not with Kitsch's acting—which falls under the standard-issue "brooding leading man with smoldering good looks" category—nor is it with Andrew Stanton's direction, making his live-action debut after having spectacular results in the animated realm with Finding Nemo and Wall-E. Stanton's script, co-written with Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, is a nicely paced adventure story that hits all the marks while honoring its source material. And the fault certainly isn't with Kitsch's co-starring cast, which includes Lynn Collins as a fetching, fiery princess, Dominic West, Willem Dafoe, Thomas Haden Church, Mark Strong, etc., etc.—all speaking in precisely clipped British accents (natch). Lastly, Disney has laid out a sumptuous budget, more than sufficient for Stanton's assembled creative team to construct various fiefdoms on the desert planet of Mars (where most of the action takes place) as well as on Earth.

The problem is one of familiarity or, more to the point, creative cannibalism. A generation of filmmakers—consciously or not—have helped themselves, piecemeal, to sections of Edgar Rice Burroughs' series of adventure novels (dating all the way back to 1912). John Carter is the story of a former Civil War captain mysteriously transported to exotic Mars (called Barsoom in the film) who lands in the middle of a war and finds himself the unwitting secret weapon that every side of the conflict wants to put to use.

It's easy to pick out elements of other movies residing in that basic plot outline—with the entire Star Wars saga to Stargate, Cowboys & Aliens and Avatar being the most prominent—and the actual movie offers dozens more, to an almost embarrassing degree. It's not Stanton's fault that his source material has been picked over so thoroughly and for so long. (Film versions have been attempted going back to the 1930s but this is the first one to make it into theaters.) And this movie déjà vu, as I've noted in reviews of other film blockbusters which have suffered from varying degrees of this creative dilemma, is often a source of comfort for a filmgoer—and to marketers—who bank on familiarity when buying tickets (and to sell their expensive products to their fidgety, easily distracted customers).

But it's not the kind of thing that sets a film critic's heart afire and, though the picture is certainly entertaining enough in the moment (there's more than enough sweeping adventure to satisfy action junkies) and will surely be adored by 13 year-old boys (and I would assume, plenty of action-minded 13-year-old girls), John Carter is—for good or bad—one of those big-screen enterprises that doesn't leave much residue (not to mention pleasure) once its moved on to conquer its next audience. Being in 3-D adds nothing to the picture's plus column.

Of related interest: Both Immortals and The Three Musketeers, two other big-budget action movies with franchise hopes are arriving this week on DVD/Blu-ray. The former, a mythical action fantasy with tenuous links to Greek mythology, relies heavily on CGI effects (almost entirely) while the latter, perhaps the tenth filming of the classic Alexander Dumas novel, leans on expensive sets, costumes and a flashier cast. As a duo, these expensive films each have their merits (and their respective releases are packed with special features) and are worth taking in for action enthusiasts. For gay fans, the former might have an edge—it shows a lot more male flesh, thanks to its skimpy costumes. Both movies include out handsome British actor Luke Evans in their casts.

Film notes:

—Cinema Q II—the free, LGBT-themed, weekly mini film series—returns for the second year on Wednesdays in March at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., with screenings at 6:30 p.m. in the Claudia Cassidy Theater.

This year's series, focusing on queer youth, kicks off March 7 with a screening of lesbian director Jamie Babbit's hilarious 1999 black comedy But I'm a Cheerleader, about a notorious "ex-gay" camp for teenagers. It stars Natasha Lyonne, Clea DuVall, Cathy Moriarty, RuPaul, Melanie Lynskey and Michelle Williams. The March 14 installment is 2003's Blue Citrus Hearts, a gritty, coming-of-age/coming-out tale. Windy City Times is one of the series' media sponsors. www.queerfilmsociety.org

—Chicago Filmmakers' popular Dyke Delicious film series, curated by Sharon Zurek and co-sponsored by the Reeling Film Festival and Black Cat Productions, returns Saturday, March 10, with Ferron: Girl on a Road. This 2009 documentary from filmmaker Gerry Rogers (My Left Breast) focuses on the groundbreaking lesbian singer/songwriter and her long-awaited return to music, along with an emotional reunion with her band. As always with this series, a social hour (beginning at 7 p.m.) precedes the 8 p.m. screening at Chicago Filmmakers, 5243 N. Clark, second floor. www.chicagofilmmakers.org

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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