John Carter and Silent House

John Carter
 
Confederate army veteran John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) has searched the world looking for…something.  His travels and the items he’s found have made him very rich.  When he dies suddenly, his will puts his entire estate in a trust with the interest to go to his young nephew Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara).  The will also orders 25 years after Carter’s death, all of his estate goes to Burroughs, whom Carter always called Ned.  Included in the effects is a journal.  Inside is a fantastic tale of an alien world, a beautiful princess, four-armed natives and the mighty struggle to save a planet its inhabitants call Barsoom, but we call it Mars.  The strangest thing about the story:  The author swears it’s all true.
 
The first thing one will notice about “John Carter” is how good it looks.  Unlike many films that go for certain mood by shooting scenes so dark it’s impossible to make out the actors and what they’re doing, this movie goes above and beyond in making sure every frame is filled with light.  One of the complaints about 3D is the image is darker due to the special lens and the glasses.  Not so with “John Carter.”  Seeing what the actors are up to is no problem.  The visual effects are also quite spectacular.  The four-armed Martians called Tharks, are tall and with greenish skin and tusks jutting from the sides of their mouths.  The human-looking Martians have vivid red tattoos all over their bodies and only wear enough clothing to make sure the film’s rating wouldn’t prevent throngs of kids from getting in.  There’s a vivid blue energy weapon and airships that look like dragonflies with iridescent wings and cute dog-like creatures with six legs that can run really fast and cities that walk across the ground.  While the 3D conversion is unnecessary it also doesn’t get in the way.  It’s all a feast for the eyes.   Unfortunately, the good qualities pretty much end there.
 
“John Carter” is a movie that’s about 70 years out of its time.  The story would have been original in 1942; but in 2012 it has all the uniqueness of a convenience store.  The foreigner who rescues the native people by just being better than they are has been done to death.  The most glaring instances of this are “Dances with Wolves” and “Avatar,” but “The Help” is also in this category.  This type of story feels so old and dated, yet is done so frequently, it makes me wonder if someone owns the rights to it and gets a fee every time it’s used in a movie or TV show.  That dated feel also extends to the relationship between the hero, the villains Sab Than (Dominic West) and Matai Shang (Mark Strong) and Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins).  While Than and Shang lack a mustache, the pair is virtually twirling one as they plot and scheme to take over Mars.  Thoris is a tough and intelligent woman who is comfortable in the laboratory or on the battlefield; however, she requires the assistance of John Carter to save her world and to soothe her heart.  It all feels like the 1950’s Superman TV show with Carter and Thoris in the Clark and Lois roles.  
 
The story also feels disjointed, padded and bloated.  There are many scenes of travel across Mars (the landscapes are played beautifully by the rugged backcountry of Utah) leading to the next action set piece.  Travel scenes are necessary but don’t need to be so detailed and lovingly shot from 50 angles by crane- and helicopter-mounted cameras.  The action jumps around so frequently, audience members may complain by the film’s end of whiplash-like symptoms.  It all makes for a frustrating film experience that leaves the audience unmoved to care very deeply about much of anything on screen.
 
“John Carter” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action.  Dozens of four-armed aliens are killed in battle with John Carter, their blue blood spewing.  One is decapitated.  Carter has to cut himself out from inside a massive beast and emerges covered in blue blood.  There are numerous battles between various groups of Martians.  There are a couple of instances of foul language.
 
Based on the 11 volume series of books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, “John Carter” has taken a long and troubled path from the page to the screen dating back to an attempt to produce an animated version of the story in 1931.  That trouble has apparently followed this film.  While it is visually striking, it is thematically dull, bloated and dated.  It lacks any real excitement and, if Disney intends on making more installments of the book series into films to create the next money-making franchise, the stories will need to be radically changed to make them modern and relatable.
 
“John Carter” gets an unenthusiastic three guitars out of five.
 
Silent House
 
Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen), her father John (Adam Trese) and her uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) are working on the family’s lake house in a secluded area near a lake to get it ready to be sold.  There’s no cell service, no homes nearby and the nearest town is miles away.  Peter leaves to get more supplies and to escape the nagging perfectionism of his brother.  While Sarah is upstairs sorting various items, she hears a loud thump.  She looks around for her father but he’s nowhere to be found.  There are more strange sounds coming from downstairs.  Sarah is not alone.  Could it be her childhood friend Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross) who stopped by earlier?  The front door is locked and the key is missing.  The windows are boarded up and Sarah has no tools to remove the boards.  Someone is stalking her, there’s no way to call anyone and she can’t escape.
 
The last few years have been pretty good for truly frightening movies and all but the last five minutes of “Silent House” rank it right up with the best of the best.  Unfortunately, that last five minutes turns a twisty and tense film into a huge waste of time.
 
Elizabeth Olsen is a very, very good actress.  She can be the sexy ingénue one minute then turn on a dime into a terrified child.  She squeezes every ounce of fear out of her body in “Silent House.”  As she hides from whatever is stalking her, the camera lingers on her face, tense with worry, forcing her breathing to calm down as to not give away her hiding place, her panic growing as the footsteps nearby get louder and her mouth agape in a pantomimed scream.  Watching her deal with the bizarre circumstances she’s faced with left me nearly exhausted as my stomach was constantly tight, prepared to jump as whatever was hunting her was revealed.  
 
The movie does a great job of keeping the audience in the dark about what’s happening and why.  I had two or three theories rummaging around in my head based on what I saw.  The real reason made sense when it became clear.
 
Up to that point, “Silent House” had me thinking it would get at least four guitars.  The film then managed to take all that terror-based good will and flush it down the toilet and it didn’t take long.  While the whole movie looks like it was filmed in one continuous take, the last few seconds was enough to completely ruin everything that came before.  The film is filled with haunted house/horror movie clichés that are merely crutches to put our heroine in danger; but I was willing to forgive all that because the movie was so effective at ratcheting up the tension and promised to have a blockbuster conclusion.  It was at that point that “Silent House” clammed up and shut down.  The film ends with only a partial resolution and with a shot of the exterior of the house.  It promises something spectacular and then doesn’t deliver.  In other words, the film is a flick tease.
 
“Silent House” is rated R for disturbing violent content and terror.  There are a couple of bloody victims shown with one body surrounded by an ever-growing pool of blood.  There are some other scenes that might be disturbing to those with serious emotional traumas in their lives.  I don’t want to say what that is because it will give away the surprise.
 
This is the second Elizabeth Olsen movie I’ve seen where she is very good but the movie as a whole wasn’t.  The first film, “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” was also was good at building tension but in an uncomfortable and domestic way.  That film never came close to providing a payoff of any kind.  This film brings you right to the edge of a satisfying conclusion then leaves you hanging.
 
“Silent House” gets a very frustrated two guitars out of five.
 
A 1980’s TV cop show gets the big screen treatment plus a couple of art house flicks are new at the movies this week.  Vote for the next film I see and review.
 
21 Jump Street—When cops Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) join the secret Jump Street unit, they use their youthful appearances to go under cover as high-school students to break up a drug ring.
 
Friends with Kids—In the wake of their friends' marriages and eventual offspring, longtime pals Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott) decide to have a child together without becoming a couple.
 
Rampart—Los Angeles, 1999. Officer Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is a Vietnam vet and a Rampart Precinct cop, dedicated to doing "the people's dirty work" and asserting his own code of justice.
 
Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any film of his choice currently playing.
 
Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.
 
Questions or comments can be sent to stanthemovieman@att.net.  Follow Stan on Twitter @moviemanstan.