For weeks, perhaps even months now, Disney's John Carter has been preparing itself for the assumptions that it is a disaster in the making. This speculation is based solely on the lackluster trailers announcing its impending arrival with a reported $250 million dollar price tag. If it was James Cameron at the helm, we would be brushing it off as Jim being Jim and await for it to break box office records. It's a shame that Andrew Stanton, the two-time Oscar-winning director of modern animated classics Finding Nemo & WALL-E, cannot get the same benefit of the doubt. Though as it is his first foray into live-action filmmaking that might be inevitable. The bottom line is that those trailers got very few excited and it took some fan-made trailers on YouTube to clue someone in that they may want to make the fantasy connection to the John Carter roots. I have made several Prince of Persia references myself. Having seen the film now I can tell you for certain that it is no Prince of Persia. Decipher that all you want because, as I am restrained by the embargo put upon general press not invited to junkets or set visits, I am not allowed to say anymore about my experience until the film opens; hence why this column was held for a week. As written weeks ago in this very column though, the folks at Disney are likely extra-reserved about opening up the floodgates on reviews on this one in hopes of preserving enough positivity as long as possible to get them the $40 million 3-day they are likely going to need to hit $100 million domestic on this one before The Hunger Games and Wrath of the Titans put it permanently in the rearview. So, as expected, it was as early as Feb. 25 (almost two weeks before its release) that Disney unleashed the crackheads we know at Criticwatch as the quote whores.
See this? Play it above and you will see the parade of quotes being offered up by those allowed to speak on their thoughts of John Carter. What's that you say? You can't see who they are? Don't worry. We have the font size necessary to see who is responsible.
"Nothing like it" - Movies.com/Fandango "Amazing" - Greet Ramaekers, Belgium-PrimeTV "Bold" - Kevin Steincross "Massive in scope" - Neil Miller "Fantastic journey" - Steve Weintraub, Collider "Pure magic" - Harry Knowles "A hero is born" - Joel Amos "Sweeping epic" - Joel Amos "A visual marvel" - Joel Amos
Admittedly, we could not track down the "Drake" (first name) at Fandango responsible for the "nothing like it" quote. Obviously "Drake" is not aware of the history of the John Carter stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs and that they are often credited with being the grandparent of just about all modern science fiction/fantasy tales from Flash Gordon and Superman to Star Wars and Avatar. So Drake whoever you are, there is most definitely something like it. Perhaps Drake could have more appropriately described A Princess of Mars that way if they were a critic back when it was first published in 1912. (It has been suggested that the "Drake" in question may by Grae Drake from Movies.com/Fandango though there is no review as of yet.)
"Pure magic" was part of a series of tweets that Ain't It Cool News founder Harry Knowles was allowed to post as early as Valentine's Day (nearly a full month before release). Two days later, Deadline Hollywood posted a piece about the film's "shockingly soft" tracking numbers. Knowles, whose geek cred knows no boundaries (interpret that any way you want), seemed destined to be one of the first defenders of the film. Someone at Disney probably would have been fired if they didn't give him an early screening given the 95% certainty that Mikey would like it.
Neil Miller from Film School Rejects and I know each other pretty well. So his call out here is more to the tune of playful ribbing than lumping him in with some other unforgivable names on the list we will get to shortly. On this particular ad he is quoting as calling the film "massive in scope." Can't really argue with that. He jokingly even said to me this week that "Film School Rejects maintains its commitment to being the Captain Obvious of movie blogs." Earlier this year their Kate Erbland was quoted as saying that Steven Soderbergh's Haywire had an "all-star cast." Again, who's to argue? Not seen on this ad though is Mr. Miller's other quote describing John Carter as being "full of action." Now we have a disagreement.
In mapping out what is on display in John Carter, I believe it is safe to say that there are six sequences in the film that could amount to what you would call "action." Six sequences in a 130+ minute film. The Indiana Jones films averaged around seven for comparison and few would argue that those films are not, at least, "action-packed." One's mental clock might optimistically put the total running time of the action in John Carter to around 25 minutes. It seems at least that much is dedicated to Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins talking in a dark cave. But, maybe that is roughly the soup-to-nuts balance in most action films. The difference with at least the Indiana Jones or even the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise though is that most of the action is memorable and filtered through an interesting, charismatic hero who fills in the downtime. Comparisons notwithstanding, the humble opinion here is that John Carter is not a film that qualifies for the "full of action" label anymore than these films do:
"A powerful action-packed exciting family film." (The Last Airbender) - James Oster, JoBlo.com "Romantic, epic and action-packed." (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1) - Jennifer Fox, Yahoo! Movies "Full of action, comedy and...Heavy-duty monster fright!" (Dylan Dog: Dead of Night) - Staci Layne Wilson, Horror.com
And I am sure that the last thing Neil wants is to be lumped in any way with these usual suspects:
"A hilarious, action-packed comedy!" (Starsky & Hutch) - Peter Travers "Hilarious, action packed and outrageously entertaining." (The Green Hornet) - Jeff Craig "Funny, action-packed and cooler than the first!" (Ice Age: The Meltdown) - Mark S. Allen "...packed with action served up in sleek, ultra-cool style." (Miami Vice) - Pete Hammond "It packs enough red-hot fiery action for six movies." (The Condemned) - Pete Hammond "Action-packed." (The Mechanic) - Maria Salas "Action-packed." (The Losers) - Maria Salas "The most action packed fun you'll have at the movies all summer." (Green Lantern) - Maria Salas "An action-packed blood-and-metal thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat." (The Hitcher - remake) - Maria Salas "Thrilling and jam-packed with edge-of-your-seat action!" (National Treasure) - Mark S. Allen "A terror-drenched thrill-ride full of action and suspense." (Poseidon) - Shawn Edwards "A big adventure full of major league action and clever surprises." (Sahara) - Shawn Edwards "Action-packed fun! Itís the perfect James Bond experience for kids and teens." (Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker) - Shawn Edwards "ÖYearís most action-packed and high-flying flick." (Bad Boys II) - Shawn Edwards
Speaking of usual suspects though, there is one name that you cannot escape from the list above. No it is not Kevin "Bold" Steincross. Nor even Greet Ramaekers, whose beauty pageant backstory is more interesting than Disney feeling the need to now use someone like this to convince people that John Carter is "amazing."
No, the name you cannot escape from is that of Joel Amos who, like my theorized curse of Mark Strong immediately dooming any film he is in to mediocre territory (look beyond Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), is now an instant red stamp of shit on your film ad.
In the 29 times he has been quoted since 2010, 24 of them have been on films deemed "rotten" and 12 of those have received less than 30% approval from the calculated critics. That is a pretty damning number which states that studios are using this guy when they feel desperate and that the guy has no problem recommending mediocre to incredibly shitty film work. Which then means Joel Amos either has as little knowledge about filmmaking possible to still be considered a "critic" (to which he will be defended in some circles as just the guy with the wacky taste) or is a quote whore of the truest definition, closing his eyes and pointing at the best quotes he is offered. Why else would a studio give Three Finger Amos three separate quotes on the John Carter ad:
"A hero is born" - "Sweeping epic" - "A visual marvel"
Oh, but it gets much worse my friends. If you bothered to brave the TV spot for the film above you would have seen that the comin' at ya quotes were just the beginning of Disney's attempt to sell you on John Carter. For it continued with the drum-beaten singular adjective assaults that started with:
(BOOM) "Thrilling" - Andrew Freund, MySpace (BOOM) "Powerful" - Joel Amos (BOOM) "Awesome" - Steve Weintraub
And continued with:
(BOOM) "Stunning" - Steve Weintraub (BOOM) "Spectacular" - Harry Knowles (BOOM) "Epic" - Joel Amos
Three Finger Amos he's not. For how dare we compare him to the sweet looking elderly spy from Cloak and Dagger pretending to help poor Elliott the whole time, but was really in league to deliver the secret plans within a video game to the highest bidder. FIVE QUOTES for Joel Amos on a non-existent review. Did they trap him in a corner and said "QUICK, give us the first five things that pop into your head about the movie?"
"A hero is born" - "Sweeping epic" - "A visual marvel" - "Powerful." - "Epic."
How many guesses would it take the contestants of Super Password to name the title of the movie that Joel Amos wanted them to? You would probably get every film ever inspired by the Burroughs tale named before John Carter would come up. Christ, if Kristen Wiig's Mindy Grayson from Saturday Night Live's Secret Word sketches had blurted out "John Carter" even Bill Hader's host and those working the judge's buzzer wouldn't be so quick to believe she had blurted out the actual answer. Based on the flat turns the story takes in the second and third acts that make it seem more like The Adjustment Bureau meets Spaceballs, either of those would have made for a more acceptable answer. Seriously, go look at the reviews for John Carter and count how many times the word "dull," "flat," or similar adjectives are mentioned just in the quotes at Rotten Tomatoes.
Just remember Disney, on statistics alone Joel Amos has only been quoted on FIVE films to receive any decent critical response. That might just give you a 17% chance that John Carter is going to be received favorably once the embargo floodgates start to open. And you thought the Mark Strong curse was bad? You have just tried you luck with Joel Amos.
(In one week since the embargo was "lifted" in some parts, John Carter's score at Rotten Tomatoes had dropped from 78% with the early raves down to 58% and we expect it to dip a little further.)
While we are playing the numbers game though, Disney probably cares less about the aggregate scores of a hundred or so film critics and more about the bottom line of their investment. Which is probably why they chose to put the exclamation point on quote-laden television spot with Chicago's own Dean Richards calling it:
Dean and I have not seen eye-to-eye over the years on the depths of ineptitude and questionable ethics of the junket circuit which he has been a part of for years. That is actually putting it very lightly. Giving Dean the benefit of the doubt though one could imagine he could throw out the Bag O'Douche defense offered up by Jim Ferguson and say that his quote was taken out of context. Perhaps he suggested to Disney that he was of the belief that they had a genuine hit on their hand. None of this re-writing of what the term "blockbuster" means, of course. The antonym of which is "flop." Disney, can you do Mr. Richards the courtesy of putting up his full quote please?
Gotcha. Even if they chopped out "Likely to be..." it is safe to say that Dean's statement in any context is not going to look good if John Carter cannot even match the box office of The Vow. A certified hit if there ever was one made for less than an eighth of John Carter's reported price tag. Though the quote looks even sillier now that Dr. Seuss' The Lorax pulled in $70 million in its first three days. John Carter may be fortunate to pull in a total equal to The Lorax' first 10 days.
Still, you can't blame Disney for using the words of a junketeer to declare their venture a success weeks before a single dollar is reported. Just blame the junketeer for saying something so frivolous within that context in the first place. If that is not the Variety-based framework for reviewing films around their moneymaking potential, then a responsible journalist/critic would, dare I say, take a page from the Jim Ferguson playbook and clarify their remarks. Even if Ferguson's explanation was pure bullshit. How did that quote come to fruition? Was Dean misquoted? Was Disney hoping someone would associate this giant gamble with the terminology familiar to the Pirates of the Caribbean series? Dean has vehemently stated in the past that he has had no part in the "they write, you choose" quote game; a longstanding strategy that goes back decades, yet Dean claims to have no knowledge of whatsoever.
Now that I am entering my eighth month as part of the "Movies & Money" segment on WCIU-TV's First Business, it would not be out of the realm for a studio to take something I said box office-wise on the show and attached it to a future blockbuster like The Hunger Games for example. I would have said it and not necessarily have any complete control of how a studio might use it to their advantage, even as I would never encourage any abbreviated form of a review on radio or television to be used as a blurb for anyone. If taken out of context though I know I would be certain to take a few seconds out of the segment to explain as much. At least there would be a record of it though. A record like an actual review. Which we guarantee did not exist in the case of Joel Amos when he came up with or chose those five quotes for what some feel is "the first (big) blockbuster of the year" and Disney just prays it is. Hopefully for them they did not doom themselves by promoting it with an ad full of red flags.