MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: John Carter; Safe House; Act of Valor

JOHN CARTER (Also 4 Disc 3D/DVD/Blu-ray/Digital Combo) Two and a Half Stars
U. S.: Andrew Stanton, 2012 (Buena Vista)

What can you say about a movie that cost upwards of $250 million to make and still bores you a little? That maybe it’s not quite enough?

Well… John Carter, the new live action Disney epic — based on the popular early 20th century pulp series of science fiction novels (“A Princess of Mars,“ etc.) by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs — reportedly cost all of that and more, and it still looks like as if it’s missing something. But maybe it’s missing something money can’t buy. Set mostly in a Martian desert landscape that looks like Monument Valley, with an adventure script that suggests Star Wars crossed with Avatar, The Searchers and Flash Gordon, it’s not a bad movie. In fact — with its robust action, its classy cast and a gallery of Martian creatures that look like escapees from George Lucas’ cantina — it’s sometimes quite entertaining.

Star Wars was the cinematic descendant of the original “John Carter” and. thanks to its gifted troupe of technicians, to cinematographer Dan Mindel, production designer Nathan Crowley, all the visual effects people, and, most notably, co-writer-director Andrew Stanton (the Pixar-bred director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E) the actual Carter show often looks great. But that certain vital human or emotional link that often can turn a simple spectacle into a rousing entertainment, is a no-show here. It’s an epic in search of a pulse.

John Carter was adapted by a trio of writers, Stanton, Mark Andrews and novelist Michael Chambon (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay“), from the Burroughs novel cycle that became a pop classic and inspired the whole genre of Flash Gordon-Buck Rogers “space operas.” The book is one of Burroughs’s high-machismo fairytales: a male fantasy perfect for guys who get pushed around, and want to push back. In the movie, Captain John Carter (played by Taylor Kitsch of Wolverine), is an explorer and ex-Confederate Army Captain who dies and leaves his fortune, and a journal, to his relative, the young Edgar Rice Burroughs (played by Daryl Sabara).

The journal describes Carter’s hitherto unknown and undreamed-of Martian odyssey: It tells us how Carter mysteriously travels to Mars (not by space ship, like Flash, but by something like teleportation) and has a series of Avatarian adventures while being bounced around between three warring Martian factions — two of which (the residents of the flying City of Helium and their nemeses, the Zadonga Warriors) look human, and talk English, and one of which (The Tharks) are six-limbed galloping creatures who also talk English. (As well as Tharkian, with subtitles.) The Tharks are the most interesting, and often the best acted, by Willem Dafoe as wise leader Tars Tarkas and Samantha Morton as rebellious Sola.

The other factions have star power too. Smart, raven-haired, Newman-eyed love interest Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) and her stolid pop Tardos (Ciaran Hinds) are among the Heliumites. The Zadonga heavies include Dominic West as Sab Than, the creep who aspires to Dejah’s hand (and has conned her dad into a “political marriage“), and the ubiquitous Mark Strong as evil advisor Matai Shang, who can change shapes (which makes him an ideal politician).

The fact that all of these Martian groups, even the ones from different species and planets, can talk English is the clearest sign that the whole Carter Chronicle is here what it was regarded as when I was a science fiction-reading 12-year-old: juvenile sci-fi, or “space opera.” I probably would have adored this movie at oh say, nine. It’s faithful to Burroughs, looks fine and the cast is a good one, my main movie-judging  criteria at nine. But that cast is weak at the top — with Kitsch’s Carter. (Sorry, but he’s not kitschy enough. He’s neither amusingly campy nor honestly emotional.) Kitsch’s face has a bit of Kurt Russell‘s surly charm, but, for most of this movie, he lacks the conquering presence of someone who reacts so well to getting whisked off to Mars from the Old West, and who then becomes a local hero of the Tharks due to his ability to leap around in huge bounds in the altered gravity — and who could woo and win a Martian Princess. As to whether it’s a good movie, well yeah, it is, I guess. if you’re, oh say, nine to twelve.

Extras: Commentary with Stanton and other filmmakers; Deleted Scene; Featurettes; Disney Second Screen.


SAFE HOUSE (Two and a Half Stars)

U. S.: Daniel Espinosa, 2012 (Universal)

Safe House. Too much, too fast. The action is too unrelenting, the script is too derivative, the cast is too good (for the material), and Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds — playing a legendary C. I. A. genius operative/turncoat (Washington), and the inexperienced Cape Town, South Africa safe house keeper guarding him (Reynolds) — aren’t that chemical a combination. (Washington overpowers his partner easily, too easily.) Still, in some ways, Safe House isn’t a disappointment. It’s simply the action movie business-as-usual.

The movie — which suggests what might happen if Training Day were filtered through Three Days of the Condor and all three Bourne films — has been done with a lot of physical expertise, on gorgeous or exciting locations in Cape Town, South Africa and environs — and with very good actors. In addition to Washington and Reynolds, the  lineup boasts Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Ruben Blades and others — most playing CIA agents or employees , rogue or otherwise, thugs, hit men and Reynolds’ Parisian love interest (Nora Arnezeder), most of them involved in almost nonstop treachery and violence — a barrage of firepower and bloodshed that barely pauses for a breather, or a good line.
I didn’t dislike it. But I didn’t like it much (except for Washington), and I kept feeling that I should like it — that there was so much fuss being taken over Safe House, and so much  talent involved, that I was being somehow ungrateful in remaining unmoved — or in wishing that two or three of the action or chase set-pieces (say, the soccer stadium scene) had been replaced with a few more scenes devoted to character and dialogue and human interaction. A few more scenes, say, like the Langa Township interlude with Blades as an amiable counterfeiter, or like Washington‘s last moments in the second safe house.
Instead, the movie just piles on the action, shovels on the mayhem — chases, gunfights, one blam-blam after another — relying on the fact that the characters and plotlines are mostly clichés to keep us well-situated in the story. Admittedly, the clichés are aimed at a slightly more adult audience. Washington, for example, with his usual panache, plays a seeming bad guy Tobin Frost, a rogue CIA agent who was once one of the Company’s ace operatives and deadliest assassins, but who turned traitor and has been out in the cold for ten years or so.
Now, suddenly (the whole movie is sudden), the stoic-faced Frost gets pulled back. Some valuable secrets, and the determined squads of hit men on his tail, drive him back into the arms of the American Embassy — and into a Cape Town safe house, where he’s bullied and waterboarded (by Robert Patrick as a brutal intelligence officer), and then left in the care of Reynolds as seemingly green Matt Weston, the relatively new safe house keeper. All this is only minutes it seems, before the gang after Frost breaks into the house and wipes out everybody but Frost and Matt — triggering a chase that lasts for the rest of the show.
It all ends in another safe house, in the midst of a vast dusty plain, a locale that made me think of Don Siegel and Sam Peckinpah, and of better movies, including the Bournes. Sucked into the whirlwind of the chase, along with Washington and Reynolds, are a fairly interesting, or at least well-cast, gallery of spies, spooks, crooks and killers. Back in the U. S., and the CIA’s home base in Langley, there’s Vera Farmiga as dead-serious CIA branch chief Catherine Linklater, Brendan Gleeson as the affable case officer (and Matt’s kind of padrone), David Barlow, and playwright-star Sam Shepard as the cynical and self-confident deputy director of operations Harlan Whitfield. They all give pungent performances in fairly obvious parts, and so does the Cape Town crew the guys run from or into, especially Blades as the counterfeiter and Lebanese actor Fares Fares as Vargas, the implacable and murderous head of the gang.
But, when you’re working with material this familiar, you should have more psychology, more ingenious plot riffs, and maybe even more humor, than Safe House has to offer. Denzel Washington is such a camera-friendly actor — he has one of the screen’s great playful smiles — that it’s hard not to root for him, no matter what kind of character he’s playing, which is probably why he won his Oscars for impersonating a rebellious gadfly soldier (in Glory) and a bad, crooked cop (in Training Day) . It’s also probably why he spends so much time in Safe House scowling. Frost is an ultimate rebel, a man without any of the usual ties or allegiances who faces the world, his world, with a shrivelling contempt– but Safe House is so busy all the time crashing and banging that we never get to know him enough. The best match in the show, acting-wise, is probably the hookup between old friends Frost and Ruben Blades’ Carlos, and that scene descends into yet another bloody melee.

Safe House was written by first-timer David Guggenheim. And it’s a little disillusioning, that this screenplay — which could have used a few more rewrites — once won a Harris poll (before it was sold) as one of Hollywood’s best unsold scripts. The direction, by Swedish émigré Daniel Espinosa (Easy Money), is gritty, highly professional looking and fast, maybe too fast. Like the current Franco-American French directors from the Luc Besson stable (Pierre Morel, Olivier Megaton), Espinosa seems to have learned his lessons in big-time American action movie making well, maybe too well. They’ve forgotten the first rule of the great action movies, the ones by Ford, Hawks, Kurosawa, Leone, Peckinpah: You’ve got to give a damn about the characters.The new action movies tend to ignore that first rule of movie drama and instead try to copy a few big box-office hits, throw around a lot of money, and keep hopping along at full throttle from one massacre to another. What do they think about audiences: that we were Bourne Yesterday?

ACT OF VALOR (Two Stars)
U. S.: Mike McCoy & Scott Waugh, 2012

With its cast of real-life Navy Seals playing characters based on themselves, in a script partly drawn from real life, in scenes that the Seals actors helped design and choreograph, Act of Valor should have been the last word in SEALS combat realism. And that’s something that you’d think American audiences would be ready for — especially in the aftermath of the inspiring real-life SEALS trackdown and termination of  Osama Bin Laden.

Instead, it feels like just another war picture — with more authentic-looking action than usual maybe, but with the same old clichés, the same old villains, the same old camaraderie, the same old conventional dramatic shtick and stuff and the same old flag-draped sentimentality and recruiting-poster themes. There are exotic villains named Christo (Alex Veadov) and Abu Shabal (Jason Coffee) and shoot-‘em-ups in Costa Rica and terrorist battles in Mexico. There’s a would-be heart-tearing Pacific Ocean beach goodbye. (John Milius would have done it better.) And though it probably works for much of its intended audience, it’s a movie that doesn’t inhabit the same universe as Platoon or The Hurt Locker or Apocalypse Now, not to mention the honestly and affectingly gung ho war movie classics of John Ford, Howard Hawks or William Wellman back in WW2 (and I)..

Nor does the movie seem to be making good use of its unusual cast: a group of  actual Navy Seals still on active duty, most of whom mostly use their own first names (though not usually their last), presumably to preserve their safety and security. Except for the already justly praised (by other critics) Van O, who does a great interrogation, they don’t act at the same levels at which they wage war — though maybe that’s a script problem.

The movie was written by Kurt Johnstad (300) and directed by Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh (who sign themselves The Bandido Brothers  and who appear at the beginning of the movie). All three have backgrounds in stuntwork, and maybe that’s why the stunts here seem so much more authentic than the emotions. In any case , the movie reportedly started as a documentary (with McCoy and Waugh embedded with the Seals) and later became a recruiting film, and finally emerged as what it is now: a major release feature, packed with major stereotypes and all-pro action.I think McCoy and Waugh would have been wiser to keep it a documentary, or even a recruiting movie.

Too bad. But I would like to pay tribute to some of the Act of Valor Seals and castmates that I was able to find combing through the various cast lists, mainly Variety‘s: Dave, Lt. Rorke, Ray, Ajay, Mikey, Sonny and Weimy.  Keep it up, guys.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon