Monday, April 30, 2012

The Boy And The Tigers

When I was a kid my all time favorite book was Little Black Sambo. I know, I know, I hear you gasping in shock and outrage. You no doubt think I'm a narrow-minded and prejudiced blackguard who thinks that slavery wasn't all that bad and are demanding my resignation from the internet.

Back then I had no idea that I was reading an abhorrent racist tract. I just thought it was a cool story about a kid who outsmarted some tigers and defeated them. It never once occurred to me that I was reading something hateful and vile and that I should be dragged from my home in the middle of the night and beaten with tube socks full of Hot Wheels cars just for the crime of owning it.

But wiser minds than mine decided the book was without merit and banned it from our politically correct society sometime in the 1980s.

I've missed the story over the years and tried many times to find a copy of it, but to no avail.

This past weekend I finally found one! It's not called Little Black Sambo anymore though. It's been renamed The Boy And The Tigers, and you'd be hard pressed to come up with a more bland and anemic title. It was revised and released in 2004.

The hero's name is no longer Sambo, of course. Why, that would be the worst kind of ThoughtCrime! He's now called Little Rajani, which is apparently somehow better.

Despite these superficial changes, it's the same story I remember from my childhood. Little Bla, er, I mean Little Rajani goes for a walk in the woods and encounters four different tigers. Each tiger threatens to eat him until he gives them an article of his clothing. Eventually he's left with nothing on but his turban and his drawers. Meanwhile the tigers, each wearing a piece of his clothing, get into a fight as to who has the best fashion sense. They get pissed off and throw the clothes on the ground (just like battling hockey players) and all four start chasing each other around a tree. Little Rajani, who apparently has some rudimentary knowledge of particle physics, eggs them on. They go faster and faster around the tree until their molecular bonds break down and their bodies merge and turn into butter. Because that's what happens when you run too fast, dontcha know. It only makes sense. Little Rajani retrieves his clothes, scoops up the tiger butter and takes it to his mom, who makes him pancakes for dinner. He then proceeds to pour the tiger butter onto the pancakes and consumes the transmuted flesh of his enemies. The End.

Pretty much the only thing they changed in the updated version is the name of the hero. I guess that must have been the thing that stuck in everyone's craw and caused it to be banned. I firmly believe that our country's hypersensitivity and political correctness are a bunch of bullsh*t and is destroying our society, but that's a topic for another day. I guess I can live with the small changes they made to the book, since it left the story basically intact. Especially if it gets the book back on the shelves and allows a new generation of kids to discover it.

Oh Geez, Now He's Ranting About Crackers...

It is my considered opinion that there are few things in life better than Triscuit Roasted Garlic Crackers. They are especially good with cheese, but they're good enough to eat plain out of the box as well. In fact I sometimes find myself waking up from a stupor on the floor, surrounded by empty Triscuit boxes, my mouth coated with garlic salt. I could eat them by the carload. They're not cheap though, so budget-conscious shopper that I am, when they're on sale I usually stock up.

Last week I was eating some Roasted Garlic Crackers and I noticed that after just a few handfuls I was nearly down to the bottom of the box. Even I can't eat them that fast, so I knew something was up. I closely examined the front of the box and saw that the cowardly, unscrupulous weasels at Nabisco have aimed their despicable Shrink-A-Tron at my beloved Triscuits. As you can see above, the box has gone from 9.5 ounces down to a mere 9. Now I realize that half an ounce doesn't sound like all that much, but it makes a considerable difference in the volume of the box, and a definite difference when you're spreading cheese on your crackers.

Naturally the Shrink-A-Tron did not strike the price while it was at it. The cost remains firmly the same. So we're paying the same price for less product.

Damn you, Nabisco. Damn you and the money grubbing, profit demanding shareholders you rode in on.

This is nothing new. Companies have been pulling this crap for quite some time now. As costs go up, there comes a point where a business has no choice but to raise their prices. Fair enough. They're loathe to do this though, as they know that most consumers buy based on cost. They know that if the price of Triscuits suddenly goes from $3.95 to $4.50 that I'm just going to go without (and they'd be right). So they get sneaky and give me less Triscuits for the same price and hope I'm too preoccupied with who the Kardashians are sleeping with this week to notice. Didn't work though, Nabisco. I noticed. And I don't appreciate it. Not one bit. If you have to raise costs, then do so. I'll understand. But don't screw me over by charging me the same price for a smaller box, like the sneaking little worms you are.

You've been warned, Nabisco. Don't mess with my Triscuits. I love your product, but you can easily be replaced by generic soda crackers from the dollar aisle.


Then there's the Triscuit Rosemary and Olive Oil Crackers. They're OK, but they're nowhere near as delicious as the Roasted Garlic variety. But that's not my point here.

Take a closer look at the front of the box. It says "Natural Flavor With Other Natural Flavor." Is there any possible way they could have worded that blurb more awkwardly? As a graphic designer I'm often called upon to write copy for advertisements and products, and I'd be back in the unemployment line in a second if I turned a tortured sentence like that. How did this ever get past the art director and copy editor? Why not just say, "Contains natural flavors" and be done with it?

It makes me a bit suspicious as to the contents of the box. Why wouldn't they say "Contains Rosemary And Olive Oil?" Pointing out that it contains "Natural Flavors and Other Natural Flavors" could mean anything. Raccoon anus and Brylcreem, who knows? The side of the box claims there really is rosemary and olive oil in it, but I don't know... I'm still giving them the stink eye.

While I'm at it, here's another one of my product pet peeves. These Keebler Town House Flatbread Crisps (Yeah, I eat a lot of crackers. Is that a crime now too?) were on sale last week, so I thought I'd give them a try. They were just OK, but take a look at the box. Notice the carefully photographed images of the large wallet-sized crackers. I bought them specifically because of their large size. I thought they'd be able to hold a lot of cheese and other toppings for when I'm peckish.

Now glance down at the bottom of the photo and notice the actual size of the crackers. They're about the size of two postage stamps placed end to end, if that. Bastards!

If you get out a magnifying glass and look very closely, you can just make out the words "Enlarged To Show Texture" there in the corner. Companies have been getting away with that crap for decades. They show their ridiculously enlarged product in order to fool the consumer into thinking they're getting something they're not, but they get away with it as long as they faintly print that little disclaimer on the box in 2 point text.

They do this a lot with breakfast cereal too. Cereal boxes will proudly display chunks of cereal as large as drink coasters, while the actual nugget is the size of a quarter or less.

I should be used to it by now; after all I'm in advertising. I ought to know better. I'm less mad at the company for trying to deceive me than I am at myself for falling for it.

I hate this particular ploy with a white hot passion, not just because it's misleading, but because it's so damned stupid. "Photo enlarged to show texture." What texture? It's a damn cracker. It's smooth. It's not like it's covered in spines or made out of suede or something else we've never encountered. It's a cracker, just like the other billion and one that were manufactured last year. But thank god they enlarged the photo though, or I might have thought it had a texture like a damp sponge or a pile of broken glass.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Flea Market Finds

I went to a flea market this past weekend and scored a couple of new (to me!) items. First up is this attractive print from the "Sad-Eyed Kid" style so popular in the 1960s and 1970s. It's about three feet tall and it'll look great on the Wall Of Tackiness. Best of all, it was only $15. It was originally $20, which I was more than willing to pay, but the lady selling it talked herself down to $15 for some reason, with nary a word from me. Someone needs to tell her that's not how you negotiate....

This was most likely part of a matched set of paintings. These things tended to come in pairs, so at one time there was probably a painting of a Harlequin boy in a matching outfit.

The only bad part: now I'm gonna have to rearrange the entire ferkakte wall to make room for it.

Then I found this little guy. It's apparently a hip flask with a rubbery drunk guy's head as a cap. I think the head looks a lot like something I would draw; it's definitely similar to my style. Maybe that's why I couldn't resist it. I like the drawing of the body as well; it's got a definite 1960s look about it.

The only thing I don't like? The flask is made from plastic, much like a bottle of Bactine. Every hip flask I've ever seen (which admittedly is not a large number) has been made of metal. You carry it in your back pocket, right? A metal flask is more likely to hold its shape when you sit on it, unlike a plastic one which will explode in your pants the minute you take your seat. A plastic hip flask is about as useful as a cardboard step ladder. Oh well. I still like his head.

Maybe one of these days I can find a nice metal hip flask and paint a body on it and then transfer his head to it. For purely decorative purposes only, of course. I don't normally carry around a hip flask full of booze.

Now that I think of it, where do you even buy a hip flask? At a liquor store, maybe? I don't drink booze, so I honestly have no idea where you'd find one.

Oy, These Kids Today...

My 19 year old nephew visited me this past weekend. During his stay he excitedly told me about pretty much every single TV show he'd watched since the last time I saw him. I'd never seen or even heard of most of the shows he was going on about.

For the past couple of months I've been watching the first five seasons of the classic sitcom All In The Family on DVD. When I mentioned the show to my nephew, naturally he said he'd never seen even a single episode. He had at least heard of it though, which surprised me. Since he's such an avid TV aficionado, I told him he needed to rectify this appalling gap in his viewing and learn about his TV heritage.

So I fired up the DVD player and showed him what is probably the most famous AITF episode of all: Sammy's Visit, in which entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. visits the Bunker household.

You know the one; Archie's driving a cab part time to make some extra money and picks up Sammy Davis Jr. as a passenger. Later he gets a call from Sammy, saying he left his briefcase in Archie's cab. Archie invites Sammy to his house to pick up the briefcase. When he arrives, Archie falls all over himself to make a good impression on "one of the good coloreds," to the chagrin of his family and Mr. Davis. The episode culminates in Sammy giving the bigoted Archie a big kiss on the cheek, and reportedly generated the biggest and longest laugh of the series, forcing the director to turn off the cameras until the studio audience could compose themselves.

So we watched the episode and my nephew seemed to enjoy it a lot. He laughed in all the right places and marveled that back in the 1970s there was a show that dealt so openly with race and prejudice. He said there's no way such a show could be made today, which is no doubt true.

I was pleased that I'd introduced him to a forgotten branch of pop culture that he had no idea existed.

Then right before the big kiss scene, my nephew turned to me and said, "Was Sammy Davis Jr. a real person, or was he just a character they made up for this show?"
Excuse me while I go take my rheumatiz medicine. I need to go lie down before I fall and break a hip.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Professor Birdbrain

New character based on a sketchbook doodle.

Try as I might, I just couldn't quit fiddling with this illustration. I kept adding details and making little adjustments, picking at it like a scab. I finally had to force myself to leave it alone and post it already. Hopefully I stopped at the right place.

Drawn in Photoshop on the graphic tablet. The text was hand lettered and not a font.

Here's the original doodle of the Professor.

Not So Lone Ranger

My 12 year old  nephew Aaron posted this on Facebook:
Why does The Lone Ranger have a sidekick? Shouldn't the fact that his name has "lone" in it imply that he should be by himself?
I don't know if he thought of that himself or saw it somewhere and reposted it. Either way, I couldn't be more proud. He's a skeptical little nerd in the making. I've taught him well.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Things You Should Know About Me: My Name

My last name, as you've probably surmised from the title of my blog, is Canada. It's a pretty simple name, consisting of three easily pronounced syllables. It's not like I took a handful of Boggle cubes, tossed them on the table and adopted the resulting gibberish as my moniker.

It's not even a particularly rare or exotic name. According to the howmanyofme website, there are 10,352 other people named Canada in the U.S., and 163 Robert Canadas. Heck, there's even another Robert Canada here in Evansville who's no kin to me.

Despite its simplicity, the public seems to have a hard time comprehending my surname. When I tell someone my last name, a puzzled look will usually cloud their face as they struggle to understand what they've heard. Many times they will simply assume they couldn't have possibly heard me correctly and will substitute another name they think I most likely said.

For example, when I was a kid my dad and I went to a barber who labored under the delusion that our last name was Kennedy. He would even write Kennedy in his appointment book. No amount of persuasion or documented proof on our part could dissuade him of this notion.

Kennedy is the most common mangling my name, although at various times I've been called Canaday, Cannon, Campbell and many more.

Many, many people are at a loss as to how to spell my name. Most of them try spelling it with a "K." I'll try and help them out by saying, "Canada, like the country." Believe it not that doesn't always work. A surprising number of workers in the service industry have never even heard of the sovereign nation of Canada, much less know how to spell it. Even when they've heard of it, they still don't get it right, as they'll say, "Oh, is that spelled like the state?" Sometimes I weep for the future of our Republic.

Growing up was fun with a name like this. If I had a nickel for every time a schoolmate called me "Bob Mexico" I could pay off my mortgage. Sometimes the geography enthusiasts would be a little more creative and call me "Bob Quebec." You expect that kind of humor from ten year olds; however it still happens to this day. Grown-ass adults still make those same jokes, as if they're the first to ever think of them.

Dining out is always a treat with a name like this. A few years ago I went out to eat with a group of friends at a busy restaurant and had to wait for a table. When the hostess asked my name, I told her "Canada" of course. Half an hour later we heard her loudly announce: "Cannibal, party of three! Cannibal? Cannibal!" Everyone in the lobby, including me, was wildly looking around, hoping to catch a glimpse of the group of freaks with such a cockamamie last name. As the hostess continued to shout "Cannibal," it slowly dawned on me that she meant me. She honest to God thought my last name was Cannibal. Oy gevalt! I wearily rose to my feet and said, "Here," and we took the long walk of shame through the lobby, all eyes fixed on the party of cannibals.

At one point I actually considered changing my name to something simpler, but decided against it. Why should I have to change my name like a common criminal trying to avoid the law? The Smiths and Joneses of the world don't have to put up with this sort of thing, so why should I? I will say my name proudly, and the hostesses and service workers throughout the land will just have to deal with my name and learn to pronounce it properly. Even if it kills them. Or I do. This. Ends. Now!"

Close Call

This week an Air Canada pilot mistook the planet Venus for another aircraft and plunged his plane towards the Atlantic Ocean to avoid a collision.

A report released Monday by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada stated that the Boeing 767 dropped 400 feet to avoid a crash with what the pilot believed was an oncoming US C-17 military cargo plane, but turned out to be Earth's closest neighbor.

The pilot's quick actions narrowly avoided a collision with the second planet from the sun, missing it by a scant 24 million miles.

Shortly after the Venus near miss, the pilot then swerved wildly to avoid another collision with what he described as a large, white, spherical UFO covered in crater-like pockmarks.

A few minutes later, the pilot reportedly executed several barrel rolls and a 180 degree turn in order to avoid yet another mid-air impact, this time with what he reported as a large, burning yellow face hurtling toward the beleaguered plane. After several tense hours the pilot was finally able to shake the relentlessly pursuing apparition when it apparently gave up the chase and disappeared below the horizon. 

The shaken pilot then ignored instructions from the tower and landed the besieged plane on a busy freeway. He then leaped from the cockpit and hid from the terrifying sky specters in a nearby barn.

The pilot was not available for comment.

Monday, April 16, 2012

It's DownTON, Not Downtown

Now that The Walking Dead and Doctor Who are over until October and November, I've been trying to find a new favorite show to watch. I think I finally found one. On the recommendation of a friend I recently started watching Downton Abbey on DVD.

I was more than a little hesitant to get into it as I'm a big sci-fi and fantasy nerd. A period drama about 1912 English nobility and their servants didn't sound like something that would interest me much .

I'm happy to report I was wrong.

I was hooked from the very first episode. Yeah, it's a soap opera, but it's a damn good one. I highly recommend it.

The series is set in the fictional English mansion known as Downton Abbey (as you probably guessed) and follows the lives of the Crawley family who live in the upper floors, and their servants who spend most of their time downstairs.

It features a top-notch cast, as you'd expect in a British drama. The majority of the actors are probably unknown to American audiences, with the exception of Maggie Smith, who's a real hoot as the Dowager Countess.

The real life location shooting (it's filmed at Highclere Castle, an actual massive British mansion) lends an air of authenticity and grandeur that could never be achieved on a film set.

I particularly like the way the show weaves actual historical events into the storyline. It gives the series a sense of realism as the character's lives are affected and disrupted by world events.

There are at least twenty main characters in Downton Abbey and it'll probably take you an episode or two to sort everyone out and learn who's who, but it's worth the effort. The characters are all easily recognizable and you'll learn their names in no time. I think the secret to this is that the characters are constantly calling one another by name. It's a simple idea, but one that doesn't happen a lot anymore. I'm amazed at how many recent movies never state the main character's name until the end credits.

I don't know how the hell they did it, but every single one of the twenty or so characters gets their own little story arc, from Lady Mary's indiscretion with the Turkish ambassador all the way down to the cook Mrs. Patmore's impending blindness. It's an impressive feat.

My only complaint: like most British TV shows (and a lot of recent American ones, for that matter) the "seasons" consist of only seven episodes and there's an interminable year-long wait until the next one. It drives me crazy, but it seems to be par for the course these days.

I just finished Seasons 1 and 2. Bring on Season 3!!!

And by the way, it's not Downtown Abbey. It's DownTON. Stop saying Downtown!


This week a man in Utica, New York attempted to rob a bank armed only with a toilet plunger.

Police describe the suspect as gun metal gray in color, approximately 5 feet tall, cylindrical, one eye, with lower body covered in large nodules. Prone to shrieking "EX-TER-MIN-ATE" in a loud, grating voice. Suspect is armed with a disintegration gun and what appears to be a standard toilet plunger, and is considered extremely dangerous. Citizens are warned not to approach suspect, and if confronted, to run up the nearest staircase.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Alien Porn

I recently started re-watching Babylon 5 on DVD. I saw most of the series back in the 1990s, but I missed a few episodes due my local TV station's frustratingly inconsistent air times. This is the first time I've seen the whole series in its entirely.

Babylon 5 broke a lot of new ground in TV science fiction. It was the first series to ever have a planned five season-long story arc with a beginning, middle and end, it was the first series to use all CGI for its special effects sequences, and it was probably the first sci-fi series to have main characters who were often morally ambiguous.

It was also the first sci-fi series to openly show an alien's penis.

In the first season episode "The Quality of Mercy," Centauri Ambassador Londo Molari decides to take his acquaintance Lennier, a Minbari ambassadorial assistant, out for a night on the town. Lennier's the shell-headed gentlemen there on the left. Londo is the one with the peacock hairdo.

As part of their boy's night out, Londo and Lennier play poker with a group of space card sharps. Apparently poker is still around in the year 2258.

And yes, the phrase is card sharp, not card shark.

At one point Londo shifts uncomfortably in his chair, as if he's suffering from gas pains.

Something squirms beneath his waistcoat.

We then see a prehensile tentacle surreptitiously slither up from beneath the table, grab a card from the top of  the deck, and whisk it back underneath the table into Londo's card cheating hands.

A few minutes later he uses the tentacle to cheat again, as it wriggles up onto the table toward the waiting deck of cards.

Suddenly one of the players unknowingly sets a pitcher of water on top of the tentacle, trapping it. Com-O-Dee! The other players see it, they realize Londo's been cheating, and a fight breaks out.

There's just one thing: that is not just a run of the mill tentacle. It's Londo's penis.

Mark your calendars, folks. 1994 was the year we first saw an alien shvantz on network television.

Later we find out that the wiener we saw was just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. Centauri males have six incredibly long prehensile penises, three on each side of their torso. As you might guess, Centauri women have six corresponding vaginas. The males can use any number of penises during sex; one means you're just messing around, while using all six means things are really serious. Not sure we really needed to know that much about the sex lives of the Centauri, but there you go.

In the photo above, Londo is illustrating the point by holding a statue of Li, the Centauri Goddess of Passion, who is a synthesis of male and female Centauri. Note the six tentacles protruding from the statue.

I wasn't offended by this display, but I'm wondering how the hell they managed to slip this one past the censors. It was pretty graphic when you think about it. Sure, it didn't look like our idea of a penis, but it's pretty obvious that that's what it was. Do the rules about showing genitalia only apply to human penises? Could they have shown Londo standing there stark naked with all six penises waving around, as long as he didn't have anything recognizable between his legs? 

I'm guessing that the censor just didn't understand what he or she was seeing.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

It Came From The Cineplex: The Woman In Black, Chronicle, John Carter, Safe House, Gone, Wrath Of The Titans, Jeff Who Lives At Home

As far as movies are concerned, 2012 is turning out to be one big yawn-fest. There's been very little worth watching, and apart from the juggernaut that is The Hunger Games, few if any box office winners. I'm hopeful that things will perk up significantly during the summer movie season.

The Woman In Black
It's the welcome return of Hammer Films! Hammer churned out dozens of horror films between the 1950s and 1970s and their movies were always stylish and well-made and featured top notch talent like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. It's good to see the studio making a comeback.

The Woman in Black marks star Daniel Radcliffe's first post Harry Potter role. Based on the 1983 novel by Susan Hill, it tells the story of a young solicitor (that's a lawyer to us Yanks) who's sent to handle the estate of Alice Drablow, owner of Eel Marsh House in an isolate rural English village. As you might expect from the name "Eel Marsh House," it's not a nice place to visit. The house turns out to be haunted by a mysterious woman in black (Houston, we have a title!) whose hobby is killing the children of the village.

It's got all the usual Hammer trappings: spooky decaying house on the moors full of creaking and moaning, mysterious deaths and suspicious villagers who warn the newcomer to go back from whence he came.

Missed opportunity: Christopher Lee was for many years a staple of Hammer Films and by rights should have been in this one. He's currently filming The Hobbit, so despite his age he's obviously still working. There was even a perfect role for him in the film-- he could have played Radcliffe's boss, the one who sends him to investigate the haunted house. It was a small five minute part and he wouldn't have even had to get out of his chair. Maybe they wanted him and he was busy, who knows? Pity he couldn't have been in it though.

It's creepy, atmospheric, and beautifully filmed. It's got a nice retro feel that evokes the classic Hammer Films of the past. Although I enjoyed it for the most part, ultimately it's just not very scary. Unless creaking floorboards and doors that close by themselves terrify you; if so you'll likely be wetting yourself.

I feel kind of sorry for horror movie directors these days. People just don't scare like they used to. If you go the eerie and moody route, modern audiences are bored stiff. If you go the opposite direction and fill your movie with gore, then your movie becomes torture porn. It's tough to make a truly frightening movie anymore.

• The return of Hammer Films!

• Beautifully filmed.

• Daniel Radcliffe does a decent job in a largely silent role.

• Spooky, but ultimately not very scary.

A stylish throwback to old school Hammer Films, I give it a solid B.

My favorite movie of the year so far (although considering the competition, that's damning with faint praise).

The plot concerns three high school friends: sullen loner Andrew (played by Dane DeHaan, who looks amazingly like a young Leonardo DiCaprio), his outgoing cousin Matt, and class president Steve. After a party, the three friends find a mysterious alien object in an underground cavern. Of course they have to touch it, which is what one naturally does when one finds and alien artifact. It zaps them with some unknown energy and they're knocked unconscious. A few days later the trio discover that as a result of their exposure to the object, they now have telekinetic abilities.

They begin experimenting with their newfound powers, at first using them for fun and to pull harmless pranks. Andrew starts becoming much stronger than his friends as his powers begin to corrupt him, causing him to believe he's now an "apex predator." He ends up turning into a full-fledged super villain, culminating in a catastrophic showdown between him and his cousin Matt.

The film is well-written and engaging and is a fairly fresh take on the superhero genre. It features a relatively unknown but excellent cast, and the super power effects are realistic and very well done.

It was also quite a profitable film for 20th Century Fox; it was made for a reported $15 million and grossed an amazing $120 million. Expect to see Chronicle 2: Even Chronicler coming to a theater near you very soon.

One reason this movie was made so cheaply is because it was filmed in South Africa, no doubt in order to save money. I'm beginning to notice more and more movies made outside of Hollywood. If they're not careful their expensive studios and unions are going to price them right out of business.

My only gripe: it's yet another found footage film, ala The Blair Witch Project and Apollo 18. Haven't we had enough of these to last us a decade or three? I'm growing very weary of this filming style. The technique does lend Chronicle's effects sequences a much needed air of reality, but it hampers the quieter expository scenes as the filmmakers have to come up with increasingly implausible reasons for a video camera to constantly be filming the characters. I would have liked the movie just as much or more if it had been shot as a simple straightforward narrative.

• Realistic effects, that for the most part looked like they were really happening, rather than a bunch of epic set pieces.

• Excellent cast of unknowns, especially Dane DeHaan, who plays Andrew.

• Similar to the TV series Heroes, except that it's good.

• Found footage shooting style

• Found footage shooting style

• Found footage shooting style

A satisfying and deceptively simple story that starts out small but ends with a very large bang. I give it a B+. I would have given it an A if not for the found footage aspect.

John Carter
Based on the series of novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Carter unfortunately may well go down as one of the biggest bombs in film history. Some reports estimate it'll end up losing somewhere in the neighborhood of a whopping $200 million. That's a pretty bad neighborhood to be in. That's 200 million DOLLARS too, not rupees or shekels.

I firmly believe the main reason for the film's failure is the dull as dishwater title. I said way back in December that removing the "Of Mars" from the title was a boneheaded move and I was proven right. In the past few weeks I've mentioned the film to several people and in every single case they all said, "What's that about?" Hardly a scientific poll, I know, but the fact remains that the general public has never heard of John Carter. I'm a big sci-fi and fantasy nerd and I've barely heard of him. The filmmakers shot themselves squarely in the foot by saddling the movie with such a bland title.

Even more frustrating:  they FINALLY deign to call it John Carter of Mars in the last ten seconds of the film. Oy gevalt!

I wonder if the fact that it was prominently labeled as a Disney movie hurt it as well? Some still dismiss Disney films as kiddie fare and avoid them like the plague. Maybe it would have been better if they'd distributed it under their Touchstone Pictures brand (if they're even still around), to disguise the fact that it came from the House of Mouse?

The plot of the film revolves around John Carter (natch), a former Confederate soldier who in 1868 is somehow transported to the planet Barsoom, better known to us as Mars. There he becomes embroiled in several conflicts between the various Martian races. If you've seen even one sci-fi movie in your life, you will not be surprised to find out that Mr. Carter unites the warring parties and becomes the champion of Barsoom.

I very much wanted to like the film, as it had a nice Flash Gordon-y retro feel to it. Sadly, for whatever reason it just didn't connect with me. There's way too much story to cram into the running time, and even though there are reams of exposition, somehow very little gets explained, resulting in an overcomplicated and muddled mess.

For example, I have no idea what the bald aliens were trying to accomplish. They gave the space pirate guy a super powerful weapon with which he could gain control of all the Martian (sorry, Barsoomian) cities. And they did this why…? Were they using him as their puppet, while they pulled the strings behind the scenes? Were they trying to influence the balance of power for their benefit? Or were they just a race of space assholes? Your guess is as good as mine.

Another poorly explained concept: At the beginning of the film John Carter is seemingly teleported to Mars. Later on we learn that the version of him on the Red Planet is some sort of astral projection, while his real body is still safe and sound (and unconscious) back on Earth. How this works is never adequately explained. Does his Earth body need to eat and drink? Is is in some sort of suspended animation? Will it age or is it frozen in time? Does it need to go to the bathroom? These are all legitimate questions that are glossed over and never addressed.

I was happy when I first read that the film was being directed by Andrew Stanton, as he'd previously directed Finding Nemo and Wall-E for Pixar. I was expecting a lot more from Mr. Stanton. Maybe he should stick to digital characters. His fish and robot actors at Pixar displayed far more emotion and humanity than anyone present here.

The movie was co-written by Michael Chabon, which may help explain my less than enthusiastic reaction. Unlike the rest of the world at large I don't worship at the altar of Chabon and I hated his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavilier and Clay with a white hot passion. This screenplay didn't alter my feelings toward his work.

These stories are now close to one hundred years old. In that time, numerous and sundry filmmakers have plundered bits and pieces from the books (the arena scene in Attack of the Clones, for example). In some cases they've lifted the plot wholesale (Avatar bears a very uncomfortable similarity to this story). As a result the movie feels a bit stale. Even though John Carter did it first, we've seen it all before. Pity they couldn't have brought some sort of fresh perspective to the proceedings.

• Excellent visual effects (for the most part), especially the four-armed Tharks.

• Since it's a Disney movie, by law there has to be a funny animal sidekick, hence the inclusion of Woola. Surprisingly he wasn't as annoying as I thought he'd be.

• Familiar plot brings nothing new to the table.

• Overcomplicated and bloated.

• Poorly explained character motivation makes it difficult to understand why everyone's doing what they're doing.

• Some of John Carter's "super strength" effects (particularly when he was running and jumping) were less than convincing.

• The framing device of the nephew reading John Carter's account of his Martian adventure in his journal was totally unnecessary. It added an unwelcome layer to an already overcrowded movie.

Bone headed title. Bone headed marketing. Boneheaded storytelling. Unfortunately I have to give it a C.

Safe House and Gone
I'm pretty sure I saw both of these movies because I have the ticket stubs to prove it. Neither made much of an impression on me though; in fact I barely remember seeing them at all.

Safe House is something about a junior CIA agent (Ryan Reynolds) having to watch over an ex-CIA agent turned rogue (Denzel Washingotn) who escapes on his watch. He then has to recapture him at any cost.

Gone is about a young woman (Amanda Seyfried) who was the only victim to ever escape a local serial killer. A year later, her sister is abducted and she fears the killer is back. She vows to rescue her sister at any cost.

I was bored to death by Safe House, as I've just never been a big fan of spy and espionage thrillers. It was an endless series of escapes and captures as the two leads played cat and mouse with one another. I can't even summon the energy to write a proper review.

If nothing else, Safe House did give us a good look at actor Joel Kinnaman, who had a small role. Believe it or not, Kinnaman is starring in an upcoming remake of Robocop (!). Yeah, you heard me. Looks a little on the scrawny side to me, but what do I know? I guess Peter Weller wasn't exactly a bodybuilder when he played the role, and once he gets in the robo-suit it won't matter. Still and all, I don't think he would have been my first choice.

I liked the horribly-titled Gone a little more, although there wasn't a lot to recommend about it either. Take one part police procedural, three parts fugitive movie, add a dash of slasher film, bake for 90 minutes and you get a whole lot of nothing.

One thing both movies have in common: in each the hero must commit numerous felonies in order to advance the plot, but there never seem to be any consequences from their actions. This happens a lot in action movies, but seems rampant here. Car theft, reckless driving, resisting arrest and even premeditated murder all are excused by the end of the pictures. I have serious doubts that the characters' punishment would be as nonexistent in real life.

I give Safe House a resounding C- and Gone a C+. I think. I'm still not sure I saw either one.

Wrath of the Titans
Even though I remember next to nothing about the first film, I get the general impression that this one was better. I enjoyed it somewhat, which I can't remember saying after seeing the first one. Not a very good endorsement of either film, is it?

The plot: ten years after defeating the Kraken, Perseus the demigod (our hero, lacklusterly played by Sam Worthington) is visited by his pappy Zeus (Liam Neeson). Zeus tells him that the power of the gods is fading. This is a bad thing, as when their power is gone the walls of Tartarus will fall, releasing Kronos (Zeus' father). This also would be bad, as Kronos will be a bit peeved after his long imprisonment and will scour the Earth. For some reason Zeus believes his normal sized half-god son can defeat the thousand foot tall humanoid volcano Kronos.

It's pretty standard sword-and-sandal fare. The storyline, such as it is, plays out very much like a video game, as the characters (quite literally) have to make it through various levels and defeat the end bosses to get to their objective.

One major complaint: in the original 1980s Clash of the Titans, the creatures were animated by stop-motion genius Ray Harryhausen. He always made sure you got a good long look at all of his monsters, even when they were engaged in battle. After all, the whole reason for watching a movie like this is to see the monsters, amirite? In Wrath, you can barely catch a glimpse at the constantly whirling CGI creatures. The monster designs looked cool, as near as I can tell from the brief glances I got. They just wouldn't stand still long enough to get a good look at them. Helpful hint for the animators: just because your CGI monsters have unlimited mobility doesn't mean you should make them spin like tornadoes all the time. Have your monsters stop and roar once in a while.

This is the second modern appearance of Bubo the mechanical owl, who was the comedy relief in the original 1981 version of Clash of the Titans. Throwing a bone to the old school fans? I'm curious as to what the presence of this owl means. I doubt it signifies that the events of the original Clash took place in the remake's universe, as that would cause too many continuity problems. So why is it here? What's the significance? Audiences who've never seen the original will likely be left wondering what the hell this robot owl has to do with anything.

OK, we've had Clash of the Titans and now Wrath of the Titans. I predict the next installment will be Vexation of the Titans.

• Liam Neeson is excellent as always. Too bad his role wasn't bigger.

• Cool monster designs (I think).

• Apparently some ancient Greeks had Australian accents.

• In a related note, some Greek Gods had Irish accents.

• The old "reluctant hero" trope is trotted out yet again. Just once I'd like to see a modern movie where the hero immediately takes up the cause, instead of wallowing in self doubt or indifference to eat up screen time until the third act.

• Sam Worthington sleepwalks through yet another role, looking like he desperately needs a nap.

It's an unnecessary sequel to an unnecessary remake. I give it a C.

Jeff Who Lives At Home
Hey, it's another one of those quirky indie comedies that the Sundance crowd loves so much.

The plot, such as it is, follows the titular Jeff (Jason Segal, playing pretty much the same role he always plays), a 30 year old man-child slacker who, not surprisingly, lives in his mother's basement. It's his mother's birthday, and her only wish is for Jeff to rise from the couch, buy some wood glue and fix the broken slat on the kitchen cabinet. The film then follows Jeff's quest for glue as he's easily sidetracked into a series of interconnected adventures.

Along the way Jeff has a chance encounter with his estranged brother Pat (played by Ed Helms, who also is pretty much playing the same role he always plays, that of his Andy Bernard character from The Office), whose marriage is falling apart. Susan Sarandon stars as Jeff's mother, who is having a mid-life crisis as she attempts to discover the identity of a secret admirer in her office. Eventually the paths of Jeff, Pat and their mother intersect in the climactic setpiece at the end of the film, which isn't nearly as clever or interesting as the filmmakers believe it is.

The film tries to make some point about synchronicity and how life, the universe and everything are all interconnected. I think. I'm not really sure. 

It's an OK movie and a reasonably entertaining way to while away 83 minutes. It's being labeled as a "dramedy," which I suppose is an apt label. Unlike what the trailer would like you to believe, there's very little comedy on display here. If you're looking for belly-laughs, look elsewhere.

Credit where credit's due: I will give the film props for being an original story, rather than yet another remake or sequel.

By the way, take a close look at the poster above. Notice the row of laurel leaves surrounding the awards the movie has supposedly won. For some reason, indie films always plaster those on their posters, in an attempt to convince you it's good. The more laurel leaves you see, the more desperate they are.  

• A good cast, although most of them are playing the same characters they always do.

• Not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.

It's a quirky independent dramedy. You know the drill by now. I give it a B-.
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