JOHN CARTER. With John Carter, writer-director Andrew Stanton (Wall E, Finding Nemo) hitches his wagon to Disney's star, following Pixar counterpart Brad Bird into huge-budget live action. Bird stepped into the fourth installment of a well-established franchise, complete with mega-star (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol). Stanton adapted an early 20th century sci-fi adventure by Edgar Rice Burroughs, then cast a breakout TV star with relatively few film credits. Add a rumored $250 million in production costs and more than two hours of Martian fisticuffs and this is the result: a would-be blockbuster that never capitalizes on its substantial promise.
In the early going I was fully on-board with John Carter. We're introduced to the eponymous protagonist in the American Northeast, circa 1881. The production design is sumptuously detailed, and the air of adventure is infectious. After a plot turn or two, the story jumps back a dozen years to the wilds of the Arizona territory. Carter, a cavalryman still raw from the war, seeks a storied cave of gold in the foothills. For my money, this section is the movie's highpoint. The stunts are quick and exciting and Stanton tips his cap to John Ford with some breathtaking tracking shots of Monument Valley.
Then the plot turns again and Carter finds himself on Mars, where the accumulated tension and fun of the first act dissipate. Carter lands in the middle of an intense global conflict. Two warring humanoid factions are trying to wipe each other out, and the nomadic, six-limbed, green-skinned Tharks are caught in the middle. Weird mystics are calling the shots from behind the scenes. Carter falls for an embattled princess. The middle part of movie is weirdly talky and stilted, and punctuated with huge action sequences that aren't compelling enough to save it.
Star Taylor Kitsch had his work cut out for him with this one, and on the whole he acquits himself admirably. But some of the qualities that made him so compelling on the TV show Friday Night Lights (humor, wounded pride, sublimated sensitivity) are conspicuously absent from his John Carter. I think he tries a little too hard to make the transition to action stardom, but he isn't entirely to blame for the movie's limited artistic success. That can be attributed to its sagging middle, long-winded dialog and impotent action. PG13. 132m
SILENT HOUSE. From a technical standpoint, Silent House is pretty ambitious. Taking a page from the Hitchcock playbook (see Rope), the filmmakers made the movie look like a single, unbroken shot. They pull off the trick, but one has to wonder why they bothered. It's just a trick, a logistical stunt that doesn't contribute the atmosphere or story. In fact, it's often distracting enough to take you out of the story completely.
Despite that, the first two thirds of the picture are airlessly tense and scary. This is thanks mostly to a nervy performance by Elizabeth Olsen. As a young woman trapped inside her family's neglected vacation house, she's called upon to play sheer panic for the entire running time. I can't imagine it's an easy task for an actor, and Olsen succeeds. The problem is that her performance is in service of a script that stretches the anxiety so far it can't help but snap back, unsatisfyingly.
The premise is effective and viscerally frightening: being trapped in confined space with an unknown assailant. Co-directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau tap into that fear early on. They use a lot of well-worn horror tropes (the electricity's off, the windows are boarded up, the doors are all locked, etc.), but they work them in effectively. Thankfully, they also avoid unnecessary exposition. We walk right into the thick of things without much context, which adds a disorienting dimension to the creepiness.
That's all well and good, but the movie falls apart when it gets to the conclusion, which is implausible and unsatisfying. I don't want to give it away, so I'll just say the plot turns on an overused device and rushes through the resolution without taking the time necessary to make it work. A strong lead performance, effective atmosphere and clever camera trickery can't save this thing from itself. R. 85m.
A THOUSAND WORDS is 990-some too many for this dull, lifeless, brazenly obvious excuse for a comedy. When Eddie Murphy showed up in Tower Heist last year, I was among many who thought we might be getting back some of the old Eddie, the foul-mouthed, quick witted, street-wise character he created to define much of the comedy of the 1980s. But I was wrong, Heist was a huge disappointment, and now he's obviously back to his newer old tricks, that is, churning out the kind of uninspired, insipid "family" fare that's unfit for human consumption.
A magic tree grows in Murphy's back yard. With every word he speaks, a leaf falls from the tree. He decides that the last leaf will signal his death. Only processing his daddy issues can save him from this dark fate.
To end on a positive note I can say that Clark Duke's performance as Murphy's assistant almost makes the movie worth watching. His affect and timing are near-perfect, but even they can't fill the humor vacuum that is this movie. PG13. 91m.
21 JUMP STREET. The Fox TV show that launched Johnny Depp in 1987 gets remade as an action-comedy some 25 years later, starring Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum and Ice Cube. R. 109m.
RAMPART. The trailer lays it down in all caps: "WOODY HARRELSON IS THE MOST CORRUPT COP YOU'VE EVER SEEN ON SCREEN." With a script co-written by crime novelist James Ellroy, this dark drama features an impressive supporting cast including Ned Beatty, Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi. R. 108m.
Friday, the Arcata Theatre Lounge presents the 1999 beauty pageant mockumentary Drop Dead Gorgeous, starring Kirsten Dunst and Denise Richards. PG13. 97m. 8 p.m. The following night is St. Patty's Day, and the ATL is celebrating with corned beef, Irish car bombs and director Guy Ritchie's hyperkinetic crime saga Snatch (2000), starring Jason Statham, Dennis Farina and Brad Pitt in a tasty supporting role. R. 104m. 8 p.m. Little Monsters, the oddball 1989 family comedy starring little Fred Savage and comedian Howie Mandel (in lizard makeup), comes creeping in Sunday. PG. 100m. 6 p.m. And on Wednesday, Sci-Fi Pint and Pizza Night rolls around again with a Herculean double-feature: Hercules Unchained (1959) and plain-old Hercules (1958), both starring bodybuilding beefcake Steve Reeves. 6-10 p.m.
Are you an opera lover bemoaning our cultural isolation? Good news! Fortuna (yes, Fortuna) to the rescue! With the Fortuna Theatre's Symphony in Cinema Series, you can watch a Berlin production of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutti on the big screen! Sunday at 4 p.m. and Wednesday, March 21, at 7 p.m.
ACT OF VALOR. Active-duty Navy SEALs star as active-duty Navy SEALs in this fictionalized account of Navy SEALs on active duty. Shameless Pentagon propaganda. R. 101m.
THE ARTIST. Mostly silent, black-and-white homage to cinema's mostly silent, black-and-white early years. Winner of five Academy Awards including Best Picture. PG13. 103m.
THE DESCENDANTS. George Clooney plays a Hawaiian parent and land baron thrust into real life after his wife's jet-boating accident. Academy Award winner for Best Adapted Screenplay. R. 115m.
GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE. Nicolas Cage stars in this moronic, action-packed sequel centered on Johnny Blaze, a motorcycle-driving stuntman who sold his soul to the devil. PG13. 95m.
JOURNEY 2: THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND 3D. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson leads a family-friendly adventure to the isle of 3D effects. Jules Verne barfs in his grave. PG. 94m.
THE LORAX. The tree-hugging Dr. Seuss character now shills for SUVs and flapjacks. What a sellout! Also, this movie is not good. PG. 86m.
PROJECT X. You know the party is off the hook when the angry dwarf gets stuffed in the oven and the drug dealer grabs a flamethrower. Sigh. R. 88m.
SAFE HOUSE. An otherwise generic CIA thriller gets a lift from Denzel Washington's charisma. R. 115m.
THE VOW. After a car accident, a woman loses all memory of her husband, so he has to woo her anew. PG13. 104m.
WANDERLUST. Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston play a Manhattan couple who join a free-love commune in this comedy from director David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer). R. 98m.