John Carter of Mars

John Carter is almost a new addition into the pantheon of great Sci-fi movies, but ultimately it is too flawed to be considered with the absolute greats, like Empire Strikes Back and Blade Runner. John Carter is still very good and highly entertaining. Based loosely on the first two books of a series by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan), the tales of John Carter’s adventures on Mars have been delighting people for more than a century. The film version is not without its compromises, including the very title of the film, but it does a great job of conveying the look and feel of Barsoom on the big screen.

To start with, John Carter is definitely a flawed film. The plot often feels rushed, a result of not just fleshing out the events of the somewhat sparse first novel but also weaving in some elements from the second one. This movie is packed with things happening, leaving it little time to breathe or to linger on any of them. The changes to the plot are largely good ones, reading the books I never got the feeling that Burroughs put much thought into what came next so there are places in the books and especially places between books that don’t quite gel. John Carter is in some ways a better telling than the original, but it is certainly not a concise telling. The jumpiness of the plot undercuts any tension or weight much of the narrative could have had, leaving John Carter feeling slightly empty.

However, the character do a lot to make up for the plot’s shortcomings. John Carter is a world weary, sarcastic hero in the vein of Indiana Jones, though nowhere near that entertaining. His eventual love interest Deja Thoris is one of the most legitimately interesting female leads in an action movie. She manages to avoid “strong female character territory,” instead coming off as a true person, albeit one of the strange world that is this films Mars. She is a scientist warrior princess but not out of some contrivance to make her seem as awesome as John Carter, but because as a Princess she was trained to fight and choose to learn. She doesn’t just fall for John Carter, using her expertise to help him, she deceives him and tricks him, trying to convince or force him to help her. John Carter may be the main character, but Deja has goals as well, and is largely smart about pursuing them. The villains are not so fleshed out, Sab Than is just a thug and the other is his manipulator.

The green skinned, four armed Tharks are some of the best uses of CGI characters I’ve ever seen. Possibly it is director Andrew Stanton’s background in animation showing through, but even though they could not pass as real, they do seem alive. The way they move, their facial expressions, the Tharks almost steal the whole movie. Woola, Carter’s alien dog thing, does steal large parts of it. He runs around like a playful cartoon character, zipping along at his master’s heels. Though the CGI in this movie is not the best I have seen, it is probably the most believable. Because it doesn’t ask the viewer to believe these things are actually real, just that they are alive.

That goal is helped by the healthy dose of humor running through the film. John Carter is an outlandish adventure, playing it absolutely straight would be unbearable. So Carter treats his adventure’s with more than a touch of be comical disbelief. The movie is not a comedy, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It is very similar in tone to the Star Wars movies. It can be and is serious during the important scenes, but the heaviness of the later scenes is contrasted with the lightness of his early adventures.

In all, John Carter is a good movie. Its not mind blowing, in the 100 years it took John Carter to get to movie screens, much of it was stolen by other films. There is nothing here we have never seen before, but for the most part John Carter is a very well but together collection of now familiar elements. If you like sci-fi, and maybe felt disappointed in the Star Wars prequels, I can’t recommend this enough.

What I Read in February

February was a short month, but I still managed to read five books, though two of them were part of my Wheel of Time Reread, so I’ve only got three books to discuss today. Still, that puts me at 9 new books for the year so far, slightly ahead of the pace I need to set to reach 50 for the year. On with reviews.

Swords of Mars
Edgar Rice Burroughs

I’ve nearly finished making my way through Burrough’s Barsoom books. Here he returns to his original hero, though he again shakes up the plot a little from the usual formula. The first half of Swords of Mars tries to be a spy thriller, with some success. It works at first, with John Carter rather easily infiltrating into criminal society in Zodanga, the city he helped destroy in A Princess of Mars. There he tries to investigate a group of assassins that are troubling Helium. But before he has to actually make any tough choices to keep he his cover, at all times he manages to hold to his morals despite the situation, Carter hears of a plot to kidnap Deja Thoris and rushes to save her. To do so he steals the mind controlled space ship of mad scientist Fal Silvas and even though he is too late to keep them from stealing Deja, he chases them to the moon called Thuria. Where he meets a few moon races and saves the day.

The two halves of this book do not fit together particularly well, but neither is bad per se. I think the imaginative sci-fi at the end is more fitting that the toothless spy at the start, but in all it is another solid entry in the Barsoom series.

The Great Hunt
Robert Jordan

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Stieg Larsson

I’m not really sure I get the phenomenon this book is causing. I guess its not the first time the public has went nuts over a mediocre or bad book, I remember the love for The Da Vinci Code, let alone pure garbage like Twilight. Not that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is on that level, it is better than those books. However, it sits more in the good line rather than the great.

I see no reason to go over the plot, I’m sure everyone who cares knows it. The only thing I took away from this, other than a decent mystery thriller, is that the most everyone who populates this novel is almost completely emotionally dead. They do things not because they enjoy them, but because they half always done them. Blomkvist and his partner have sex no because they have any passion, but relationship or not, they have been having sex since college. I am always conscious of the fact that this is a translated work, and some of the specific word choices are subject to the whims of someone other than the writer, but a lot of the characterization falls flat for me. Luckily the pace is snappy enough that it doesn’t really linger on any of the misses or too easy moments. This is a good read, but it is far from mind blowing.

The Dragon Reborn
Robert Jordan

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking
Susan Cain

Quiet is an exploration of the perceptions of introversion and extroversion in our society, as well as how that compares to other cultures in other parts of the world. The main thrust of the book is that in America we tend to favor the loud over the smart, often to our detriment. Not that being loud is necessarily bad, but that it isn’t actually indicative of being right. Also, that such an emphasis on talking often makes quieter people feel like they are somehow broken and that really shouldn’t be the case.

While some of the research, or lack thereof since there are a few spots were the author admits that no one has studied the basis for a point she is making, makes some of Cain’s points seem a little dubious, as someone who is pretty solidly in the introvert camp this is a very freeing book. If anything just knowing that preferring to be alone isn’t indicative of some sort disorder is a relief. The most important thing to take away from this book is that introvert/extrovert is not a good/bad dichotomy. Being an introvert should not make one feel inferior to their louder, more gregarious compatriots. What is important is knowing who you are and making that work for you. Quiet is an interesting, thought provoking read that I would recommend to anyone.

That is all for this month, I should have more than this next month, since as of right now I’ve already read five books in March, though another one or two will probably be Wheel of Time books.

What I Read in July 2011

Another month, another comfortable four books read. This month there is an unintentional theme, though. Superheroes. I like superheroes, but I had no intention of reading three, four if you squint, prose books about them in one month. But it worked out that way, giving my thoughts a convenient thread to tie them together.

 

Gods of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs.
This is the 2nd of the John Carter books and it manages to top the first one. Gods of Mars is pure pulp action. Each chapter has John Carter and friends facing a new threat and greater odds than the one before it, with no time for reflection or thought or meaningful character development. John Carter is the manliest of men, his prowess being almost ridiculous. Not one but three beautiful women are in love with him; not just 3 women but the three most beautiful women on Mars. He can outfight any 10 men, 20 if he is angry. He is as much of a superhero as any in the books I read this month. In fact, with his otherworldly origin and leaping prowess he bears no little resemblance to certain alien rocketed from a dying planet to Earth, where the yellow sun gave him extraordinary powers.

The expanded societies of Mars are nuts. The white Martians exploit the red Martians, but are in turn exploited by the black Martians. And everybody is exploited by the mad false Goddess Issus. It is a terrible, labyrinthine system that only a man as great as John Carter could free them from.

Gods of Mars is a blistering, exciting read, but the prose and plot can be quite simple. It does offer a somewhat pointed critique of blind faith, but there is little her to stimulate intellectually. Still, it is loads of fun.

Masked, ed. Lou Anders.

Masked is an anthology of short stories about superheroes, written mostly by comic book writers. Like any anthology, the stories vary in quality. I picked this up because I like many of the contributors, such as Gail Simone, Bill Willingham and Matt Sturges. On the whole the collection is satisfying, even if there are some stinkers.

Among the stories I liked were Matt Sturges’ somewhat gruesome “Cleansed and Set in Gold” about a hero who gets his powers through terrible means and Paul Cornell’s campy “Secret Identity.” The capper is Willingham’s A to Z in the Ultimate Big Company Superhero Universe (Villains Too)” the last and longest of the stories that compress an event comic into 40 or so pages. There were also many other really good stories.

But there were definitely some disappointing ones. Simone’s “Thug” has her trademark deranged yet heartfelt tone, but the stylistic choice of having it seem to be written by the mentally challenged protagonist made it painful to read. Also, too many of the stories focus too much on the gruesome side of superheroics, reveling in the blood and destruction and death. It is tiring and occasionally disgusting.

Still this is a really nice collection. I recommend a checking it out from a library. It is a decent enough way to pass a weekend.

Supergods, Grant Morrison

Supergods is acclaimed comic book scribe Grant Morrison’s part biography, part history of superheroes jumble. Both parts are worthwhile, but not necessarily aimed at the same audience. I am not sure who exactly this book was intended for, other than Grant Morrison fans (of which I am one). Supergods is quite properly aimless.

The first half, though both parts blend together, is a brief, idiosyncratic history of superheroes. Morrison shows just how well he gets the characters, but most of the information is rather basic. The second half is mostly biographical, with some in-depth dissection of the important superhero works of the last quarter century, both Morrison’s own and others. The problem is that anyone who has read enough to understand Morrison’s critiques probably already knows the information in the first half. Meaning the either one half of the book is needless or one half is incomprehensible. Still, taken individually both are good. It is worth to me to hear Morrison go on at length about this topic. He is the undisputed master of superhero storytelling.

There are, however, some downright bad chapters. Such as any time he writes about movies. Morrison wants to note who thoroughly superheroes have taken over summer movies, but he doesn’t seem to have much to say about any of the films.

I still recommend people read this book. People I know can borrow my copy if they wish. Morrison gets superheroes like no one else, and writes with a manic joy that is hard to match. Though this is non-fiction, it is never even close to dry. This is a unmissable opportunity to learn at the feet of a master.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is an astounding, wonderful, unforgettable novel. It did not quite know me off my feet like Yiddish Policeman’s Union did, but that is solely because I had already experienced Chabon. I was ready this time. Amazingly, Kavalier and Clay was even better than Yiddish Policeman’s Union.

The novel follows the exploits of Sammy Clay and Joe Kavalier, two cartoonist cousins in the early days of comic book superheroes. The two create their own popular superheroes, Sammy providing the stories and Joe the art. Their story closely parallels the experiences of some real comic book creators, but is definitely their own. Their experiences in life grow to mirror their comics, with Joe and Sammy becoming something like comic book characters themselves. Their friends and enemies are like the supporting characters of a superhero. There is the beautiful love interest, the dastardly villain, the nutty side characters. Life reflects art reflects life.

The novel is an effective history of the Golden Age of comics that never gets in the way of the characters personal stories. Chabon’s prose is lush and extravagant, displaying a love of words and of the subject matter. Though the tome is nearly 700 pages long, it moves with astounding celerity. It is never slow, never plodding, but it is a detailed account of the lives of a group of people over more than a decade. There are many events to cover and while Chabon rarely lingers too long, he also doesn’t rush. The novel breathes, it lives. And it is terrific.

I can’t heap enough praise on what I’ve read from Chabon. Though somewhat longer, Kavalier and Clay is slightly more engaging than Yiddish Policeman’s Union. Both novels are wonderful works of fiction. If you read at all, read Chabon. I am definitely going to track down the rest of his books. Do yourself a favor and do the same.