John Carter: Of Leapers and Lizard Folk

If you ever wondered how British actors pay their mortgages, they do it by playing mostly bad guys in what used to be called “sword-and-sandal” movies, stories vaguely set in the ancient world with a mish-mash of cultural references. Truck everyone out into the desert, dress your actors in bed sheets and throw rugs, and you’ve got  Hercules, Hercules Unchained, War of the Trojans, etc. But that was so long ago, right? In the 50’s? Nothing like that around anymore. Now we are too sophisticated for that nonsense. Right? Actually, this kind of nonsense is all over the place, except we might want to call the new versions “sword-sandal-and-cgi” movies. Hence John Carter and a cartload of others lookalikes that blend sci-fi, fantasy, and desert epic.

Taylor Kitsch plays Carter, a Confederate soldier who finds himself on Barsoom (Mars, to you and me) after fondling a medallion. (A word of advice to movie heroes: you’d have fewer problems if you’d just avoid all medallions. Just say no to shiny things!) Kitsch, a graduate of the James Franco school of acting, plays Carter as a mumbling introvert. But what made Kitsch a standout on TV’s Friday Night Lights doesn’t work so well in a sci-fi desert epic. Of course, I guess any one of us would be a brooder if we found ourselves suddenly transported to another planet in the middle of a civil war.

Carter first discovers that Martian gravity makes him able to leap tall buildings at a single bound. There’s a funny scene where he gets used to his new-found power. But I have to say that even in the battle scenes, the sight of the character catapulting through the sky is a wee bit comic—a wildly exaggerated version of the leaping attack of Brad Pitt’s Achilles in Troy.

Carter is caught by the Tharks, a barbarian race of warriors who don’t seem to care that the Zodangans, led by evil Sab Thança scenery-chewing Dominic West, are intent on wiping out the city of Helium. But Sab is no more than a puppet for the Therns, who, like all good bullies, perpetuate evil just because they can.

There are two standout actors in the movie. The first is Lynn Collins, who plays the princess-in-jeopardy as a battle-hardened warrior who makes John Carter look like a cappuccino-swilling emo-boy. The second is James Purefoy, who has a small part but who plays it with such wicked glee amidst all the solemn bombast that you wish there were more of him.

Many other fine actors fill out the cast, notably Willem Dafoe, Bryan Cranston, Ciaran Hinds, Mark Strong, Thomas Haden Church, and Samantha Morton. But they’re wasted on this movie, which is derivative right down to the last 1’s and 0’s of its CGI coding.

It may be true that there is no new thing under the sun, but this movie robs too freely from Star Wars, Star Trek, and Avatar, with a dash of Stargate and a soupçon of The Iliad tossed in for good measure.

In other words, it’s now official: Hollywood no longer makes movies; it makes mash-ups.

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Drive: The Mystery of Ryan Gosling

Drive opens with a getaway driver waiting for a couple of thieves to complete their heist according to his strict standards—in an out in five minutes or he’s gone. This leads to a high-speed chase that shows why he was hired: he drives very fast, very accurately, and he doesn’t rattle. Drive reminds you of movies like Steve McQueen’s Bullitt and James Caan’s Thief, movies about edgy loners who are more comfortable in their cars than they are anywhere else.

The movie also related to Ryan O’Neal’s Drive, which is also about a getaway driver. Remember that great scene in the parking garage? The gangster who wants to hire him says, “How do we know you’re that good?” O’Neal replies, “Get in” and gives them a high-speed turn around the crowded parking garage, including creasing the sides of the Mercedes just enough to prevent the doors from opening and the gangsters from getting out easily. That isn’t a scene from this movie, but the same loner-with-a-code is at its heart.

Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan play their characters like the lovers in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal–yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair! (lines 17–20)

The resulting tension is, as they say, palpable. (Is that a first–a movie review that quotes Keats?) If Blue Valentine was about the decay of love, Drive is about love derailed, about everything leading up to, but not quite including, love. Where Blue Valentine had steamy sex scenes, Drive has no more than one passionate but ambiguous kiss. One of the interesting features of this movie is the way it plays with this serious and little-addressed theme in the context of a genre movie.

Despite his preppy good looks, Gosling, a world-class brooder, is a young Robert Mitchum. And Mulligan, despite her conventional prettiness, has an absorbing intensity that’s hard to turn away from. They’re well-matched in intensity and in the style of their acting. With acting this restrained, the smallest gestures take on great significance. Gosling’s character, who is nameless, always keeps a toothpick in the corner of his mouth. When he meets a young boy, the son of Mulligan’s character, he offers him a toothpick of his own. It’s a small thing, a passing gesture, but it shows the character opening up to another, maybe to a younger version of himself, which might explain why a bond forms between him and the woman and her child. Later, another character will give the child something that conveys a much different message, an ending rather than a beginning. Drive has the requisite number of fights, gunplay, and explosions for edgy film noir, but it’s in the small details that the movie shines.

When Mulligan’s husband comes home from prison, we’re expecting a strutting thug, the wrong man for this quiet, sensitive woman. And when he shows up, at first he seems to fit the stereotype. Oscar Isaac plays him as tough and swaggering, but with a surprising edge of vulnerability. When he raises his glass to toast his wife and his friends on his return from prison, he admits, “It was a shameful thing that I did.” And though jealousy plays a role in how he deals with Gosling’s character, more than that binds them together and drives them part.

I’m a big fan of Albert Brooks, as a comic actor and as a writer (see and re-see Lost in America), and I was surprised to find him playing one of the heavies in this movie. But with the first words out of his mouth, I was completely won over by the character. “Won over” may be the wrong phrase. I believed in the reality of this genial and dangerous man.

In fact, all the actors do well. Ron Pearlman is excellent as Albert Brooks’s partner in crime. And Bryan Cranston does a great job as Gosling’s amped-up, jittery, but mostly well-meaning employer. Gosling’s character is a man of mystery who seems to have formed few attachments in his lifetime. So when he makes one, it has to count. A man of principle, when things go bad, he has to try to set things right. But the forces of darkness are powerful. It reminds you of the T-shirt that reads, “Where am I going? And what am I doing in this hand-basket?”

Someone once said that the best male actors convey an element of danger in the characters they play. To that I’d add an element of mystery. You don’t know what they might do next, and therefore you can’t stop watching them. Actors like Mitchum, DeNiro, and Malkovich look like they’re in the mood for mayhem, no matter what they’re in. Like James Dean, Gosling’s good looks are disarming. He might cut you or cure you: it could go either way. The dangerous element in his characters is deep inside, and he seems to nurture it like an eternal flame. When it leaps out, stand back.

We haven’t seen a movie this gritty-good since the late great Sidney Lumet’s last movie, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

More, please.