Movies

John Carter and Silent House

Strange surroundings

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John Carter

The most awesome of the many special effects on view in the new John Carter is pyrotechnic in nature: How often do you get to watch $250-million (the movie's reported budget) go straight up in flames? Making his first live-action feature, director Andrew Stanton—the Pixar eminence who directed WALL*E and Finding Nemo—seems to have been swamped by the picture's sprawling source material. Watching the film is like sinking into a 3D bog of unending—and surprisingly dull—confusion.  

The movie began shooting more than two years ago, and has had, as they say, a "troubled" production history. It's largely based on the 1917 sci-fi novel A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Since Burroughs went on to extend this tale about a 19th century earthling transported to the Red Planet through 10 more books, it seems likely that John Carter—originally titled John Carter of Mars before some genius decided that was a little too interesting—was envisioned as the first installment of a large and profitable franchise. I'd say we'll be seeing a series of Cowboys & Aliens sequels before that happens.

The Burroughs books were eagerly absorbed by any number of famous fantasy writers and filmmakers, from Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke to James Cameron and George Lucas. By now, after much cannibalization, the author's original narrative elements, wheeled out here as though they were fresh, seem musty and drained. As do the effects: even though they're executed at a very high level of digital craft, there's little that we haven't seen, in some form, before. In addition, the story, stretched well past the two-hour mark, is complicated to the point of incoherence, and clotted with mind-fogging Mars-speak. There are Therns and Tharks and wily Zodangans, Jeddaks and Odwars and eight-legged Thoats. The characters have names like Tars Tarkas, Sab Than, and Matai Shang. Toss in a few baskets of squalling green creature-babies and a mysterious item called the Ninth Ray and you have what might be called, in Earth-speak, a mess.

The movie partakes of several familiar genres: old-school space operas, Lord of the Rings-style fantasy films, vintage cowboys-and-Indians B features, and the Italian sword-and-sandal beefcake epics of the early 1960s. We meet wealthy New Yorker John Carter (Taylor Kitsch, of the Friday Night Lights TV series) in 1884. He has just summoned his nephew (Daryl Sabara) for an urgent meeting, but by the time the nephew arrives Carter has died, leaving the young man all of his money and a private journal. This diary yanks us back to 1868, to the sunbaked flats and canyons of the Arizona Territory. There Carter strikes it rich gold-mining, has a problematic encounter with some Apaches, and gets flung up to Mars by one of the aforementioned Therns, a heavily robed interloper who might have wandered in out of a David Lynch movie.

The Mars on which Carter arrives is a place of sunbaked flats and canyons not unlike the Arizona Territory (or Utah, where both of these sections of the film were shot). Here, under weaker gravity, Carter discovers that he can leap great distances at a single bound—a silly thing to see, actually, especially when we see too much of it. Soon he's taken prisoner by the green-skinned Tharks, who are nine feet tall and have four arms, two tusks, and a generally contentious disposition. Eventually we learn that Mars is a dying planet; that its humanoid inhabitants, the Red Men, divided into the rival cities of Zodanga and Helium, are at war over dwindling natural resources; and that the godlike Therns (led by Mark Strong) preside over this chaos with an obscure agenda of their own. Carter makes his way to Helium, where he meets the king's daughter, Dejah (Lynn Collins), who with her skin-centric battle-babe outfits suggests a previously unsuspected intergalactic obsession with Xena: Warrior Princess.

There follows much fighting, many airships, and a number of humongous CGI beasties. There's also a river voyage to the "Gates of Iss" that really is gorgeous. But the story is so maddeningly convoluted that a progression of talky interludes is required for the characters to attempt, unsuccessfully, to clue us in to what's going on. There are a number of famous actors in the cast, among them Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, and Thomas Haden Church; but they're unrecognizable under layers of Mars-folk CGI. This leaves the little-known leads, Kitsch and Collins, unflatteringly exposed. Kitsch lacks heroic flamboyance, and the pretty Collins exudes none of the standard-issue sexiness that might rev up the movie's targeted youth demographic. Both actors are fine, as these things go, but they're unable to surmount the picture's enervating longueurs. It's hard to imagine anyone wanting to see this film a second time. Or, after its hype-swollen opening weekend, maybe even a first.           

Silent House

Movies shot—or said to be shot—in one long continuous take are rare, and no wonder. The technique is a stunt: Film students may be captivated, but since it closes off the editing strategies by which movies engage us, general audiences are unlikely to care. Why not just tell the story? 

In any case, some films thought to be single-shot achievements—like Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 Rope—actually contain artfully concealed cuts. And so does the new Silent House, despite its being promoted as a one-shot wonder. At a Q&A following a recent New York screening of the film, co-director Laura Lau acknowledged that, since the camera with which the movie was shot—an inexpensive Canon EOS 5D Mark II—can only produce 13 minutes of uninterrupted HD video, Silent House is in fact a stitching-together of nine separate shots. The cuts are well-covered, but the movie still feels like a stunt.

It's a remake of a 2010 Uruguayan film called La Casa Muda, a haunted-house flick also said to have been shot in one take (although it, too, employed a Canon 5D, so maybe not). Elizabeth Olson stars as Sarah, a young woman helping her father (Adam Trese) fix up the family's lakeside summer home so it can be sold. They're joined in this endeavor by her father's brother, Sarah's Uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens), who has a vaguely creepy fixation on his shy niece.

The house is big and creaky and of course remotely located, and the requisite startlements begin early on: strange shuffling sounds ("Probably rats," says dad), sudden mirror reflections, doors mysteriously slamming at the end of long gloomy hallways, a strange figure distantly glimpsed. There's also a dark basement, a spooky little girl, and a weird young woman named Sophia (Julia Taylor Ross), who turns up claiming to be one of Sarah's childhood friends (Sarah doesn't remember her). There's also one memorable image—a toilet mounted high up on a wall, pouring out blood. Excellent.

The Canon's extraordinary ability to operate with minimal lighting enables Lau and her directing partner, Chris Kentis (their last film was the 2004 shark thriller Open Water), to shoot many scenes illuminated only by candles, lamps, and flashlights. And the need to create an illusion of continuous filming, which requires a focus on Olson in every scene, creates an atmosphere of claustrophobic dread that's unsettling in its own right.

Silent House is only the third movie in which Olson has appeared. (The first hasn't been released.) Her second picture, Martha Marcy May Marlene, which came out last year, was a memorable breakthrough, and it's too bad this film had to be the followup. She's still adept at conveying muffled inner turmoil, but she also spends a lot of time reduced to terrified whimpering, which grows monotonous. The movie has an icky twist at the end, and it could have been a snappy little horror film. But it's constricted by its gimmicky concept. When you have a story of any interest at all, why not just tell it?

Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, is now available. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.


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  1. The Canon’s extraordinary ability to operate with minimal lighting enables Lau and her directing partner, Chris Kentis (their last film was the 2004 shark thriller Open Water), to shoot many scenes illuminated only by candles, lamps, and flashlights.

    I’m sure the 5D is a high-ISO wonder, but low-light capture is also largely a function of the lens used. That said, I’m not sure if this is as true for video capture, since I’ve resisted the urge to get an SLR with video capability. I’m just a purist that way, I guess.

  2. It’s a shame Peter Jackson isn’t a John Carter fan.

    1. It’s a shame Peter Jackson isn’t a John Carter fan.

      No, but I thank God every day that he likes zombies.

      1. You SugarFreed the link to what I assume is Braindead.

        1. You assumed correctly. I ordered the Blu-ray off Amazon recently, having never seen it. I’ve probably watched it ten times since then.

          1. It’s an amazing piece of work, and the zombie baby in the park makes me fall out of my seat laughing every time.

            1. the zombie baby in the park makes me fall out of my seat laughing every time.

              Paquita: “Your mother ate my dog!”

              Lionel (surveying the viscera-strewn bedroom): “Not all of it . . .”

              That was my pee-my-pants moment.

              1. I’M NOT A BLOODY DOCTOR, I DON’T HAVE ANY TRANQUILIZERS!

                . . . sedatives I DO haff.

  3. Should Gingrich drop out?

    1. I’m rooting for “drop dead”

  4. Kitsch lacks heroic flamboyance, and the pretty Collins exudes none of the standard-issue sexiness that might rev up the movie’s targeted youth demographic.

    Based purely on that short trailer, “lacks heroic flamboyance” is an understatement. His rally cry was pretty damn uninspiring. Compare that to the very similar speeches in Braveheart, Gladiator or Troy and it really shows; there is no BOOM in his voice, no threatening GROWL, no passion at all. Troy wasn’t even good but Brad Pitt and Eric Bana can deliver a rally cry, and frankly Mel Gibson is a master of the rally cry.

    1. I’m one of those people who noticed Brendan Gleeson’s axe shake and bend at the end of the movie (when they’re charging with Robert the Bruce), revealing that it’s a prop and breaking immersion, so I kind of stormed out of the theater thinking FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU, so as good as Gibson’s battle revving is, retarded errors like that piss me off.

      1. I’m just amazed that Gibson depicted the Scots fighting full scale battles wearing kilts. Yeah, because you definitey want to ride a horse wearing nothing but a kilt, not to mention the issue of exposure to the elements. Kilts weren’t invented until centuries after Wallace’s time, and even then they weren’t worn in the bizzare way seen in the film.

        1. WAIT
          the movie wasn’t real?

          1. FFFFFRRRREEEEEEEDDDDOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMM

      2. There are pills for that.

      3. My favorite “continuity error” continues to be “Robocop”, when the rearview mirror falls off as “Clarence Boddicker” slams the door to the “6000 SUX” car.

        We noticed it right away when it was in the theaters, and I childishly wait for it every time it’s on the TEEVEE.

        I have not noticed the bending axe before – I’ll need to watch the historically-inaccurate “FREEDOM Heart” again to look for it.

        1. Robocop has so many scenes burned into my memory – ED209 malfunction, Murphy getting blown to bits, blood shooting out of Boddicker’s neck, “I’d buy that for a dollar!”

          But I never noticed the rearview mirror thing. Enter Youtube…

          There it is at 2:11, but I only noticed it because I was told to look for it.

          Like how I watched Star Wars a million times but never noticed the Stormtrooper hitting his head.

        2. If you’d ever owned an American car in the 80’s, you would know that’s just realism.

        3. I’d say that it was deliberate – the in-movie commercials make it clear that the SUX is a crappy car.

  5. I’m beginning to loathe the obvious CGI they put into everything. I don’t think they realize how fake it looks, preferring to believe the technology is farther along than they think it is.

    1. It’s getting to the point where 2001: A Space Odyssey looks more visually impressive than most sci-fi/fantasy action flicks.

      1. CGI can be used well, but yes, the overuse can really detract from the feel of a movie. Go back and watch the special effects in The Thing and realize that this was done without a shred of computer assistance, unless you count the chess computer MacReady pours his drink into.

        1. Yes, CGI can be used well. I’m very impressed with the way they digitially remastered Star Trek: The Original Series. They didn’t George Lucas it by actually replacing key elements of the story, but instead polished up the outdated 60s special effects. The result is that the series is more watchable and you can better appreciate the stories.

        2. The THANG continues to be a fave – we loved the shit out of that movie in college. STILL a great one. You’re right about the FX – nothing very tricky, but it’s effective.

          1. Uh, some of those effects are very tricky. You think the dog transformation wasn’t tricky? Or the head spider thing?

            That’s what is so impressive about it.

            1. Just THINKING of the head spider was worthy of a lifetime achievement award Oscar.

              1. I’m not taking anything away from the spider, the spider was amazing… but the chest collapsing into a set of teeth that bites off the guys hands was one of the best jump scares ever.

        3. “unless you count the chess computer MacReady pours his drink into.”

          ” . . . bitch.”

  6. Single-shot gimmicks are, well, gimmicks. Kurt rightly points out how much editing has to do with the construction of a film, and to not have any is taking a huge part of your moviemaking toolset off the table. It’s stupid, and anything you gain for having a gimmick movie is completely lost by having a shitty movie.

    1. Just roll tape for eleven years and complain about editing. Works critically?

    2. Pretty much every “gimmick” movie is a POS – Avatar is a tech demo (best watched with the sound turned off), early 3d movies and most of the current ones, Blair Witch Project is a movie you can only watch once, I can’t imagine that Act of Valor is going to be very good the way they hype the SEAL’s involvement and won’t say anything about the story.

      1. How about “Sky Captain”? I haven’t seen it yet, but have wanted to partly for its gimmick.

        1. As I recall, it was pretty fun. Of course, I wasn’t to critical when I saw it. I think it was kind of a dieselpunk fantasy, meant to showcase the effects and have some harmless fun, rather than a real “artistic” work.

    3. If it’s going to be done without editing, why not do it on stage? When I watch movies, one of the things I appreciate about most of them is, “You couldn’t do that on stage.” If you can do it on stage, doing it there would be more gripping.

  7. One big problem with JOHN CARTER is that Princess of Mars is kind of, well, bad.

    It’s famous because it had no competition when it was written. It definitely broke new ground in its time. But it’s just not that good.

    It’s truly “pulpy” in the sense that nothing progresses logically from anything that came before it, everything just kind of “happens” as the author thinks of something new. It’s almost like the “imaginary movie” at the beginning of Toy Story 3 that turns out to be all Andy playing with his toys.

    1. All true, but it’s still a fun read.

      1. I really enjoyed the whole series when I read them as a kid.

    2. It’s truly “pulpy” in the sense that nothing progresses logically from anything that came before it, everything just kind of “happens” as the author thinks of something new.

      Oh… so maybe “Lost” was a tribute show? I never knew so many people were turn of the century pulp fiction buffs…

  8. I’ll probably drag myself to see John Carter, and then hate myself for doing so. The Burroughs Mars books were favorites of mine when I was a kid; I probably read Princess of Mars two dozen times. I don’t want to be disappointed, but I know I will be.

    Harumph.

    1. Well, at least it’s been made. Now someone can do it right.

      1. I doubt it. Fluffy is right. The book is disjointed, lurching from scene to scene. Most of it is Carter’s interior dialogue with a running commentary revolving around race relations and ethnography that is Lovecraft-grade at best. The later books are much better written, but end up spinning a complicated mythology that would be very difficult to bring to the screen.

        It’s probably for the best is was made into a Disney action film, which means the horrific SyFy movie isn’t its only cinematic legacy.

        1. How about an extended mini-series? I thought Atlas Shrugged deserved a movie for each chapter, too.

        2. The book is disjointed, lurching from scene to scene.

          That can be fixed with the right screenplay. The purists would complain about the lack of fidelity to the book, but the film could be made much better.

        3. Wait, what? The Traci Lords version was, well, not as underwhelming as it should have been given the budget. Or is that a different version?

      2. Well, at least it’s been made. Now someone can do it right.

        Look how many tries it took before Peter Jackson made the definitive LOTR.

        Wonder why no one made a run at John Carter before. It has all the potential for a big time blockbuster.

        Still waiting for someone in Hollywood to see the potential in The Faded Sun trilogy.

        Still waiting for the definitive treatment of Dune.

    2. Don’t do it, man. I’m still smarting from what Disney did to The Black Cauldron, and that was 27 years ago.

  9. It’s getting to the point where 2001: A Space Odyssey looks more visually impressive than most sci-fi/fantasy action flicks.

    The only effect in 2001 that looks more like an effect than an event is the “filtered helicopter nature shots = alien worlds” mistake (I mean aesthetic mistake) near the end of the stargate sequence.

    And there’s no CGI that looks as real as that crap-ass photographic effect does. Computers can’t generate smooth gradients, or even a fucking curved line, and it shows.

    Always.

    (Yes it does, you blind fucks.)

  10. Dejah (Lynn Collins), who with her skin-centric battle-babe outfits suggests a previously unsuspected intergalactic obsession with Xena: Warrior Princess.

    She’s supposed to be nekkid and super hot. This should give you the basic idea. At 34 Lynn Collins is a bit old for the role.

    1. She’s sure as hell not a warrior.

  11. Makes me think I need to see if the novels are free on the kindle. Been enjoying crap space operas a bit lately.

    1. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books should be public domain in other countries (Australia) if not yet here.

    2. yessir, I have the first two of them on my Kindle. It’s not great lit, but fun.

  12. I wonder if they airbrushed (the novel character) John Carter’s service as a CSA officer.

  13. This diary yanks us back to 1868, to the sunbaked flats and canyons of the Arizona Territory.

    The Mars on which Carter arrives is a place of sunbaked flats and canyons not unlike the Arizona Territory …

    Well, yes, I was yanked back.

    -yfEditor

    P.S. Keep ’em coming, Loder.

  14. Seems like a solid movie to me.

  15. Good work. I like this blog very much. It’s too good to be here…

  16. Yeah OK man that makes a lot of sense dude, I like that.

    http://www.Done-Anon.tk

  17. Guardian.co.uk review:

    John Carter is one of those films that is so stultifying, so oppressive and so mysteriously and interminably long that I felt as if someone had dragged me into the kitchen of my local Greggs, and was baking my head into the centre of a colossal cube of white bread. As the film went on, the loaf around my skull grew to the size of a basketball, and then a coffee table, and then an Audi. The boring and badly acted sci-fi mashup continued inexorably, and the bready blandness pressed into my nostrils, eardrums, eye sockets and mouth. I wanted to cry for help, but in bread no one can hear you scream. Finally, I clawed the doughy, gooey, tasteless mass desperately away from my mouth and screeched: [COMMENT CHARACTER LIMIT]

  18. If only Roland Arrabal had been able to make his movie of John Carter of Mars, back in 1973.

    http://ficklepants.com/john-carter-of-mars/

  19. If only French poet and playwright Roland Arrabal had been able to make his version of John Carter of Mars, back in 1973.

  20. “It’s largely based on the 1917 sci-fi novel A Princess of Mars”

    Wrong Kurt, 1912, which goes to show you are getting your facts from Wiki again.

    It pains me to see that you are jumping on the hate wagon along with all the other JC doomsayers that trahed the movie months before it came out. While not perfect it is a fun movie and EVERYONE who were in both packed screenings that I went to Friday liked the movie emmensely.

  21. Yeah, a lot of JC hate out there on the interwebs. The movie has some lumpy spots but overall I thoroughly enjoyed it. Truth be told, I would’ve gladly watched again if there’d been another 2D screening at the theater I saw it in. Lynn Collins is NOT too old to play Dejah Thoris since she’s several hundreds of years old in the Princess of Mars – Collins is the highlight of the movie. Not a great movie but a very good one – hope the world-wide box office is good enough for the next two movies to happen.

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