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Willem Dafoe still perplexed by “John Carter” reception

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Andrew Stanton’s swashbuckling science-fiction blockbuster “John Carter” could very well go down as one of the most polarizing films in recent history, with audiences split over whether to love or hate the live-action film based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ popular hero. In fact, it appears that there’s very little middle ground when it comes to “John Carter” — a situation that frustrates and confuses its fans and critics alike.

For veteran actor Willem Dafoe, who played green-skinned alien Tars Tarkas in the film, the reception to “John Carter” is yet another mystery of the Hollywood machine, as he counts himself among the film’s true fans.

“You don’t like to publicly lament disappointments too much, but I’m still kind of scratching my head over it,” Dafoe told IFC during a recent interview. “For me, I thought ‘John Carter’ really captured something. It was very pure in its approach. It was classical. It wasn’t hip and cool. It was really from the source, and I appreciate that.”

“In my experience, sometimes a movie just hits at the wrong time, gets the wrong press, or gets the wrong representation, and it gets misunderstood,” he continued. “Sometimes it’s hard for people to really decide, too. There’s so much reporting about the business and that other stuff, that they really get distracted by some of those things, and then it influences some of the weaker-willed people to not have their own opinion.”

For Dafoe, the poor performance of “John Carter” is particularly disappointing given his character’s evolving role in Burroughs’ stories — a role that would see Tars Tarkas becoming almost as important as John Carter himself in the series’ over-arching narrative. With the film only recently making back its whopping $250 million production budget in worldwide ticket sales, the likelihood of a sequel has become unlikely, to put it mildly.

“It sure doesn’t seem like [there will be a sequel], which is a shame,” said Dafoe. “This was the set-up for what could be a great series of movies. . . I was looking forward to doing a sequel, though, because I know something of where the story goes and the character of Tars Tarkas. He’s big, and the relationship with John gets more intense.”

“So, yeah — that’s a shame,” he sighed.

Why do YOU think “John Carter” performed poorly at the box office? Chime in below or on Facebook or Twitter.

Carol Cate Blanchett

Spirit Guide

Check Out the Spirit Awards Nominees for Best Male and Female Leads

Catch the 2016 Spirit Awards live Feb. 27th at 5P ET/2P PT on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Wilson Webb/©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

From Jason Segel’s somber character study of author David Foster Wallace, to Brie Larson’s devastating portrayal of a mother in captivity, the 2016 Spirit Awards nominees for Best Male and Female Leads represent the finest in the year of film acting. Take a look at the Best Male and Female Leads in action, presented by Jaguar.

Best Male Lead 

Christopher Abbott, James White
Abraham Attah, Beasts of No Nation
Ben Mendelsohn, Mississippi Grind
Jason Segel, The End of the Tour
Koudous Seihon, Mediterranea

Watch more Male Lead nominee videos here.

Best Female Lead 

Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Rooney Mara, Carol
Bel Powley, The Diary of A Teenage Girl
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Tangerine

Watch more Female Lead nominee videos here.

Go on-location with “John Carter” in this exclusive DVD/Blu-ray featurette

Taylor Kitsch in John Carter

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“John Carter” may not have had quite the box office response its filmmakers were hoping for, but that isn’t to say it’s not a bombastic sci-fi flick with some downright memorizing scenes. One of those key sequences involved John Carter going toe-to-toe with a Martian monster, gladiator-style in an arena.

With the film coming out on DVD and Blu-ray on June 5, now we get to peek inside the making of that particular scene. In the video below, take a gander at how the second unit director set up the shots as the weather decided to take a turn for the worst.

Do you plan on picking up “John Carter” on DVD or Blu-ray? Let us know in the comments below.

Shelf Life: “The Last Temptation of Christ”

Willem Dafoe in "The Last Temptation of Christ"

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Religion is something I no longer give much consideration to, but the idea of faith, and spirituality, is something still find to be profound, important, and for those who possess either (or both), valuable. That may seem contradictory, but the point is that devotion to some greater force or power, assuming that commitment is in the service of positivity, empowerment and hope, is something to be supported and celebrated, whether or not it’s something you believe in. And it’s precisely because of this odd juxtaposition of faith, hope and responsibility that I’m able to find films like Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle” so profound and moving.

Within the last few weeks, the wonderful people at Criterion released a Blu-ray for Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” not only one of the most unique religious films ever made, but certainly one of the most controversial. There are still countries in which it is banned, and there are still people who consider it to be nothing less than absolute blasphemy. But how do people consider it as a work of art? Moreover, is it possible to do so? Concurrent with Criterion’s stellar new release, this week’s “Shelf Life” looks at the film to see what resonance it has today – as an entry in Scorsese’s filmography, an examination of faith, and just as a piece of cinema.


The Facts

Released on August 12, 1988, “The Last Temptation of Christ” only came to the screen after some major shake-ups in its casting, and significant problems during its production. Scorsese first decided to undertake the project in 1983, but protests from religious groups led its then-distributor, Paramount Pictures, to bail out. In 1986, Universal Pictures picked it up, and after several roles were recast (Willem Dafoe took the place of Aidan Quinn, David Bowie replaced Sting, etc.) Scorsese was finally able to make the film, albeit with a budget of $7 million, which was literally half of what Paramount originally offered.

The film went on to earn $8.4 million during its theatrical run, and Scorsese netted a Best Director nomination for his work behind the camera. As Mary Magdalene, Barbara Hershey received a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Golden Globes, and Peter Gabriel earned a Best Original Score nomination for his work on the soundtrack. The film also maintains an 83-percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.


What Still Works

What works about “Last Temptation” is what was meant to – an in-depth, humanistic portrait of what religious devotion means, as filtered through a fictionalized version of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The film very specifically announces that its story does not come from the gospels, which should have alleviated critics’ concerns that it portrayed Jesus in a way that was unflattering or contrary to the way he was depicted (or I suppose his behavior was documented) in the Bible. All this really means is that the film gets underneath Jesus as a legendary religious figure who sacrificed himself for humankind’s sins, and show that he had the same hopes, desires and vulnerabilities that the rest of humankind does. (Although more importantly, who cares? If you know who the person is that you worship, who he or she is and what he or she stands for, then it’s irrelevant what a film or any other art form says about them.)

Narratively speaking, what the film does so wonderfully is it shows the mortal side of a man who recognizes – even if he resists – the calling of a higher power. He wants to toil in obscurity and live a normal life without incident, but the calling he receives – which admittedly could be perceived as mental illness – is something he cannot deny, and which is only exorcised when he speaks on behalf of God. The way the film portrays his sermons is utterly believable: although he speaks in recognizable parables, they don’t come out as pure, effortless poetry, but endure a birthing process that arrives at a greater truth rather than simply starting out there. And even when he speaks, he’s not entirely sure what he’s saying is right, and changes directions in his crusade several times until he realizes exactly what he has to do. There’s a remarkable humanity to his doubts and insecurities, his rage and self-acknowledgement of his other shortcomings, and it actually gives his transformation that much more power.

Cinematically, Scorsese had to make the film on a tight budget, but one never feels it. Although there are no traditional “ancient locations” as a backdrop for Jesus’ story, no colonnades or Roman ruins for him and his disciples to walk through, he creates a palpable sense of time and place, even if specific locations are treated more impressionistically than geographically. Dafoe’s performance as Jesus is revelatory: he seems so possessed of the character’s dimensions – his strengths and weaknesses – that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. And Peter Gabriel’s score rightfully introduced the entire world to the “world music” genre; his score is so captivating and evocative that it’s inextricably linked to the imagery on screen as both a seemingly accurate musical backdrop for the time and place, but also an undercurrent of almost primal feeling that embodies and articulates the feelings that are welling up in the characters.


What Doesn’t Work

It’s really subjective whether or not this works for you, but it’s completely understandable if Scorsese’s decision to allow his actors to use contemporary regional accents turns some viewers off. Keitel’s Brooklyn swagger is absolutely un-ignorable, but the other actors retain their very recognizable accents and Dafoe’s uninflected, contemporary delivery seems conspicuously at odds with what one expects from a period film, much less one that purports to be reverential about the life of Jesus Christ. Mind you, I don’t think it doesn’t work, but I understand how some might not like that choice.

Otherwise Jesus’ seeming direction changes through the film seem to make his journey slightly scattershot and unpredictable, but that also feeds directly into the idea that Jesus was allowing himself to be open and susceptible to the word of God, and therefore following whatever instruction or inspiration he received.


The Verdict

“The Last Temptation of Christ” is a beautiful film – a really powerful depiction of one man’s struggle with his faith in God. Even if you’re not a Christian or religious at all, there’s much to appreciate in its portrayal of a character who desperately wants to believe in something greater than himself, but finds himself challenged by what that faith requires him to do. Not only does it hold up, but it’s a film that everyone should see, not to refute the decades of controversy or simply celebrate its artistic merits, but because it both challenges and reassures notions of faith and devotion that, if one looks at it with the right eyes, apply to everyone, regardless of their religious disposition.

Leave your own impressions of “The Last Temptation of Christ” in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.

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