Iconic characters: John Carter, Sherlock Holmes

By Tom Von Malder | Jul 01, 2012
Photo by: Walt Disney Home Entertainment Taylor Kitsch is the title character in “John Carter,” the very entertaining film version of the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs tale. Behind him are some of the Tharks, six-limbed inhabitants of Mars.

Owls Head — John Carter (Disney, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13132 min.). One hundred years ago, author Edgar Rice Burroughs, who also gave us Tarzan, first presented us with a story about John Carter, a Civil War veteran who is transported to the planet Mars and has high adventures and an epic love. The film’s main problem is that so many of its ideas, ground-breaking 100 years ago, have been borrowed by dozens of filmmakers since, making it seem, if you did not know the source material, that this film was copying from those others.

No. It is the other way around, this is the original; and I was so pleased to see the world of Barsoom (Mars) come to life on the big screen (the Blu-ray edition is wonderful as well). The film has a dual bookend. The beginning, with Carter (a muscled and usually shirtless Taylor Kitsch move on Mars) prospecting for gold and getting in trouble with the military out West, had me just a tad restless and wanting to get onto the Barsoomian action. However, the openings pay off nicely with the bookend conclusion. Part of the bookends is introducing Burroughs himself as a character, one who is left the journal of his uncle, John Carter. However, the film really comes to life when Carter arrives on Barsoom and encounters its warring life forms. The first race he meets is the Tharks, who are thin, green and six-limbed. They have been in a 1,000-year struggle with the human-like Zodangans, who are led by arrogant prince Zab Than (Dominic West). Zab Than has been given a new, lethal amulet by one of three holy men who accompanies him on his gigantic flying ship. One of the three holy men is the shape-shifting Matai Shang (this ability leads to a very neat sequence late in the film). The Zodangans also have forged an uneasy alliance with another human-like race, led by the Jeddak (hmm, so that’s where the Jedi of “Star Wars” came from). The Jeddak, played by Ciaran Hinds, is sort of an emperor and leader of the aristocratic city of Helium. His daughter is Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), who becomes Carter’s love interest. While, Dejah can handle herself very well in a battle, there does not seem to be enough chemistry with Carter.

There’s plenty of battles and even a Carter versus two huge creatures in a stadium scene that George Lukas also borrowed for one of the “Star Wars” prequels. The film is the first live-action movie for director and co-screenwriter Andrew Stanton, who helmed the animated films “Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E.” He does a capable job and the Barsoom settings are wonderful. The film reportedly cost $250 million, but it was never destined to fare that well here in the United States (although a strong international showing has boosted its revenues considerably). The reliance of a more generic name may have hurt the film as well. I feel that the film, because of its budget, was overly, and unfairly, criticized in the press prior to its opening. Sadly, we probably will never see the two sequels Stanton had planned. DVD extras include audio commentary with the filmmakers; the Disney Second Screen capacity with abundant background material; the documentary “100 Years in the Making” (10:43), which open with a recording of Burroughs’ voice and has a brief history of Burroughs and his character, including book covers and comic book adaptations that are presented in a 3D-like look (the film itself was shown in 3D in some theaters); 19:02 worth of deleted scenes, including an alternate Hall of Science opening that leads into a Barsoomian action sequence and a scene of Ned at college; 1:56 of bloopers’ and a 34:32 look into one day’s filming, including an interview with Willem Dafoe (he plays a Thark) but nearly nothing of Kitsch. The latter three bonus features are exclusive to the Blu-ray version. Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 3 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Warner, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 129 min.). For their second go-round, director Guy Ritchie and stars Robert Downey Jr. (Sherlock Holmes) and Jude Law (Dr. John Watson) can go directly to character by-play, as all the introductory work was done in the first film. The year is 1891 and there just has been a bombing in Strasbourg. Closer to home, Watson is getting married on the morrow, but Holmes first trails Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) as she delivers a parcel at an auction. The hand-to-hand combat starts early and often and Ritchie brings back an enhanced of Holmes Vision, that by which we see Holmes’ thoughts brought to slow-motion life as he anticipates the combat to come.

Overall, there problem is too much action in the film. On occasion, the fight scenes drag on, such as the encounter with the Cossack. What the film gets right is Jared Harris as the equally cerebral Professor James Moriarty, Holmes’ greatest foe. And once they cross paths, the game is afoot. The suddenly everywhere Noomi Rapace (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “Prometheus”) plays a gypsy fortune teller, Madam Simza Heron, whose brother is involved in revolutionary activities and possibly being used by Moriarty to start a war between France and Germany. Holmes’ older brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry, who actually has a nude scene!), is attempting to keep the peace, working on behalf of the British government. Along the way, there is fighting on a train and encounters with large-caliber weapons. As the extras point out, the ending is true to the books up to a point.

Extras include a Maximum Movie Mode, hosted by Downey that includes picture-in-picture, storyboards, focus points and stills galleries. Those focus points (34:59) can also be viewed separately, and they look at Holmes Vision, Moriarty, the relationship between Holmes and Watson, Mycroft Holmes, the gypsies, director Ritchie and the locations and digital work that made Paris in England. Grade: film 3 stars; extras 3.25 stars

Wrath of the Titans (Warner, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG-13, 100 min.)
. This is a sequel to the remake of “Clash of the Titans,” with many of the same cast returning. Perseus (Sam Worthington in mirthless mode) is a demigod, the son of Zeus and a human woman (who was killed in the first film). He is trying to raise his son  Helius (John Bell) and live the simple life of a fisherman. However, a severely injured Poseidon (Danny Huston) shows up in the temple to tell him that Zeus (Liam Neeson) has been betrayed by his brother Hades (Ralph Fiennes) and Ares (Edgar Ramirez), another of Zeus’ sons. They have captured Zeus in the Underworld, where long-imprisoned Kronos -- the father of Zeus, Hades and Poseidon, he looks like a gigantic creature of fire -- is siphoning off Zeus’ God power so he can escape and lay waste to mankind.

The plot is very basic. What comes fast and furious -- sometimes too furious, as in the opening battle with the Chimera -- is action sequence after action sequence, but often the sense of scale seems askew. That said, the Chimera is a worthy foe with its two heads --one like a lion, the other like a goat, but both breathe fire -- and serpent like tail. The highlight of the film is the labyrinth out heroes have to go through to rescue Zeus. At times, its walls and floors shift, resetting its layout. Perseus is joined on his quest by Greek Queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike), whom he rescued in the first film; her prisoner Agenor (Toby Kebbell), who is the son of Poseidon; and Hephaestus (Bill Nighy), the God of Fire who fashioned the gods’ weapons, such as Poseidon’s trident. Along the way, they encounter Cyclops and, seemingly out of nowhere, the Minotaur, which is the only practical monster in the film, the others having been created digitally. Oh, and the film is very noisy, what with volcanic eruptions, showers of flames and general mayhem. It gives your sub-woofer a good workout (it knocked some DVDs off of mine).

This time the Blu-ray Maximum Movie Mode offers two separate viewing experiences: The Path of Men or The Path of Gods. Each have picture-in-picture, storyboard comparisons and focus points. The focus points for The Path of Gods cover the Titans, Hephaestus, the labyrinth and the film’s creatures. The focus points for The Path of Man cover the Chimera. Ageron, the Cyclops, the Underworld of Tartarus, the Minotaur and the final battle. There also are three deleted scenes (10:48), the best of which expands on the visit of Perseus and son Helius to the temple, with a nice bit of Helius’ reaction to the fact the his grandfather is Zeus. There also is a boring pre-war speech to the men and a brief bit that shows the fate of some of the other gods. Grade: film 2.25 stars; extras 3 stars

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (New Line, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 94 min.).
This mash-up of Jules Verne stories is much better than I expected. It makes a nearly perfect family film. Gone is explorer dad played by Brendan Fraser from the first “Journey to the Center of the Earth” remake, but John Hutcherson (“The Hunger Games”) returns as Sean Anderson, now 17. He is living with his mother (Kristin Davis) and stepfather Hank (Dwayne Johnson, turning in another nice performance). Sean does not get along with Hank, until, after he gets a message from his grandfather Alexander (Michael Caine), he starts to bond with Hank as they decode the message. The message gives the coordinates for Verne’s Mysterious Island. It turns out to be in the South Pacific, constantly surrounded by an intense storm.

Once in the South Pacific, they meet up with tour helicopter pilot Gabato (Luis Guzman), who is pretty much the comic relief, and his comely daughter, Kalian (Vanessa Hudgens), who provokes first romantic yearnings in Sean. When they first arrive at the island, it looks a little too fake, but the surroundings get better as the action picks up. One facet of the island is normally large animals are small and normally small animals and insects are large, a fact that leads to some exciting flying while riding bees. (I imagine this was particularly effective in the 3D version.) The island also contains the lost city of Atlantis -- the island periodically rises and falls beneath sea level due to seismic action; and it is due to submerge again in only a few hours -- and their only hope of escape is finding Captain Nemo’s Nautilus. Overall, the film is good family fun.

Extras include five deleted scenes (5:53) that are not even presented in order and some contain cardboard animals; a too-brief gag reel (1:16); and Hutcherson hosting an interactive map. Items covered in the latter extra include real-life facts about lizard eggs, some behind-the-scenes footage and a tour of Grandfather’s amazing, practical tree house.  Grade: film 3.25 stars; extras 2 stars

Henning Mankell’s Wallender (Sweden, Music Box, 7 DVDs, NR, 1170 min.).
This box set collects 13 90-minute episodes based on original stories from popular Swedish crime writer Mankell that follow Chief Inspector Kurt Wallander (Krister Henriksson) as he investigates crimes and solves mysteries in the dark underbelly of modern Sweden. We first meet Wallander, 62, when he is having a birthday celebration with friends at his new, seaside residence. Then the lights go out because there has been a bombing at an electrical substation. During the blackout, the man responsible for brining a controversial Arabic art exhibition to town of Ystad is murdered -- two killing shots to the head, then another 15 pumped into the corpse, making it seem more like revenge than assassination. The next day, five car bombs go off, which brings back the military to town (there used to be a military garrison, but it was closed due to economics). Meanwhile, at work, Wallander gets two new trainees. One is a woman and feels she is being discriminated due to her sex.

Other cases involve the disappearance of a 6-year-old boy from his day care; a motorcyclist is killed and turns out to have been a drug-smuggling courier; a series of burglaries leads to the formation of a neighborhood watch, while a man is reported missing; a Russian cellist falls victim to a bomb attack; a priest is shot outside a hostel; during a rash of armored car robberies, one of the trainees is captured; a sniper kills three people, including a small-time jewel thief; an 18-year-old member of a young women’s choir takes off; a gas explosion claims a beach house, but two bodies are discovered; the owner of a cider business is murdered; a colleague of Wallander’s has a secret connected to the death of a woman; and a little girl witness to something terrible has to hide for her life. Henriksson is excellent in the title role and the stories are intriguing, all making for a masterful collection. The only bonus is a 16-page collector’s booklet. Grade: series 3.5 stars

The Bling Ring (Lifetime DVD, TV PG, 87 min.).
Soon to be a major motion picture, directed by Sofie Coppola and starring Emma Watson, this is the Lifetime made-for-TV version. It’s not bad either, anchored by the central performance of Austin Butler (TV’s “Ruby & the Rockits”) as Zack Garvey. Zack is the new kid at his Beverly Hills high school, but he is sent to the special program for misfits (“students with no more options”)-- it seems he has attendance issues due to being prone to anxiety attacks while in crowds. His father has an ancillary job in the entertainment business and when fellow student Natalie Kim (Yin Chang) learns that, she befriends him. In order to impress, he says he can find out the location of stars’ homes. One thing leads to another, and soon the pair and a couple other of Natalie’s friends are sneaking into the homes and stealing items as souvenirs. They don’t take the really expensive stuff, only clothing that they have seen the stars wear on TV and similar items.

The telefilm is based on a true story. Jennifer Grey plays Zack’s mother, while Tom Irwin is Detective Archie Fishman, who is able to catch on because the students boast of their exploits on their Facebook pages. Michael Lembeck directed. Grade: film 3 stars

True Blood: The Complete Fourth Season (HBO, 5 Blu-ray or standard DVDs, NR, 720 min.).
This season of the goings on in Bon Temps and around mind-reading waitress Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) did not thrill as much as the first three. It opens with a resolution of the cliffhanger in which we saw Sookie transported to faerie land, but that whole scenario is disposed of in less than 10 minutes. However, Sookie does get to meet her Granddaddy Earl (Gary Cole). Meanwhile, back in Bon Temps, a whole 12 and a half months have passed, and most people have figured Sookie is dead. Not vampire Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgard), however, who has purchased her house so he would have the right to enter. Maybe due to Sookie’s faerie blood, Eric is attracted to her.

In addition to flinging away the faerie visit too quickly, the season also spends a lot of time on a coven of witches, which is a bit boring when there are vampires, werewolves and other shape shifters about.  The coven does manage to put a spell on Eric that wipes out most of his memories and Sookie finds him wandering, bewildered at the side of the road. As readers of the book know, this leads to their developing real feelings for each other. Meanwhile, Sookie’s ex, Bill (Stephen Moyer) has become the Vampire King of Louisiana. Included is a nice flashback to 1982 England, when Bill was a punk follower. Elsewhere, Sookie’s brother Jason (Ryan Kwanten) has been captured so he can be turned into a were panther; Arlene and Terry fear their baby may have a bit of the literal devil in him; Jessica, the newly-turned vampire tries to adjust to domestic life with human Hoyt; and werewolf Alcide (Joe Manganiello) is caught in the clutches on an old flame.

Blu-ray extras include 14 character perspectives on the missing year in Sookie’s life; character bios and vampire histories; an interactive guide and guide; backstories on each episode that include interviews with the writers; a look at the post-production process with creator Alan Ball; and six episode audio commentaries with cast and crew. Grade: season and extras 3.5 stars

Teen Wolf: The Complete Season One (MGM, 3 DVDs, NR, 521 min.).
Rivaling “True Blood” for the sexiest cast on TV -- certainly in the younger category -- is this engaging, more serious take of the teenager as werewolf story. Tyler Posey stars as Scott McCall, the rather ordinary teenager who is infected by a werewolf as he and his buddy Stiles (Dylan O’Brien) sneak out into the woods after a call comes through that a dead body has been found. Stiles’ father is a county cop. One amusing aspect is that, as Scott comes into his new powers, he suddenly is an all-star on the lacrosse team, much to Stiles’ delight and the chagrin of team captain Jackson Whittemore (Colton Haynes), who, by the end of the season, has figured out what is going on and wants to be turned himself. Crystal Reed plays new student Allison Argent, with whom Scott quickly falls in love. However, it turns out her father is a werewolf hunter. Meanwhile, Scott also is mentored by another sexy cast member, Tyler Hoechlin as the frequently shirtless Derek Hale (he even is tortured in one episode while hanging shirtless).

Beyond its high sexiness quotient, the show is well written. It was nominated for six 2011 Teen Choice Awards. Extras include an extended version of the season finale; deleted, alternate and extended scenes; a shirtless montage that blatantly acknowledges the amount of bare skin that is being presented (although it leaves out the shower scene); cast commentary on the pilot; behind-the-scenes commentary on three episodes; a gag reel (3:43); and meet the cast (5:25) and two other featurettes. Grade: season 3.5 stars

Suits: Season One (Universal, 3 DVDs, NR, 11 hours 42 min.).
This is another of my favorite series from last summer. It is set in the fast-paced, high-stakes world of a Manhattan law firm. Hotshot attorney Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht) is told to find a new intern. Into his room stumbles young Mike Ross (a winning Patrick J. Adams, who brings a touch of glee, along with insecurity, to his character), who actually has been suckered into making a drug run. Mike is brilliant, but undisciplined. He helps others pass the bar exam by taking the tests for them, but the central lie is that he attended Harvard Law School. Harvey knows Mike has not, buy hires him anyway. Gina Torres plays Jessica Pearson, the main managing partner of the firm, while Rick Hoffman is often hilarious as Louis Litt, the disciplinarian who runs the “bullpen” of interns. Meghan Markle plays Rachel Zane, the para-legal who catches Mike’s heart, even though he is involved with his best friend’s girlfriend. The cases are always interesting and I really like how the characters interact. Bonus features is an alternate version of the first episode, deleted scenes, a gag reel and audio commentaries. Grade: 3.5 stars

Falling Skies: The Complete First Season (TNT/Warner, 2 Blu-ray or 3 standard DVDs, NR, 440 min.).
Executive produced by Steven Spielberg, this series has some interesting ideas and some cool special effects, but it is evident there were budgetary constraints, so the big alien reveal is not until the final minutes. Still, the story is absorbing enough. The setting is six months after an alien invasion that has decimated the Earth. Outside of Boston, history professor Tom Mason (Noah Wiley) assists Capt. Weaver (Will Patton) to lead a small group of rebels known as the 2nd Massachusetts against the aliens. The human core of the story is Mason and his three sons. The middle son, Ben (Connor Jessup), has been captured by the aliens and turned into one of their slaves by an artifact that attaches itself to the spinal column. The oldest son (Drew Roy as Hal) is very much a leader among the fighters, while the youngest (Maxim Knight as Max) simply needs to be protected, although he would like to fight as well. Moon Bloodgood plays Dr. Anne Glass, a pediatrician who becomes the group’s primary physician. Exclusive to Blu-ray is a look at the original Dark Horse comic book. Other features detail animating a Skitter, the show’s panel at San Diego Comic Con 2011, behind-the-scenes featurettes, audio commentaries and a sneak peak at season two, which is already airing on Sunday nights. The Blu-ray also has a collectible trading card. Grade: season 3.25 stars

Maverick: The Complete First Season (1957, Warner, 7 DVDs, NR, 1333 min.).
Back when I was a pre-teen, this Western was must TV. It stars James Garner and Jack Kelly as brothers Bret and Bart Maverick. Bret is a con and a card-shark, with plenty of charm to boot. Bart, who first appears in episode eight, is the more serious brother, but he also finds trouble when it comes to looking for love. Among the guest stars are Michael Connors, Edd Byrnes and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. There are 27 one-hour episodes in all, with the emphasis on fun as much as action. The show lasted five seasons and later introduced Roger Moore as their English cousin Beau. It was nominated for four Emmy and won one. Grade: season 3.5 stars

Route 66: The Complete Series (1960-1964, Shout! Factory, 24 DVDs, NR, 100 hours).
This is another classic TV series from my youth, and you can finally get all your kicks, all 116 episodes from all four seasons in one place. The show starred Martin Milner and George Maharis (and later Glenn Corbett as Lincoln Case, replacing Buz in season three) as two good-natured friends, Tod Stiles, an Ivy Leaguer who attended Yale but left in his third year, and Buz Murdock, an orphan from Hell’s Kitchen, who are driving their Corvette convertible across the country, along the often dangerous Route 66. They seek to find a place to settle down for themselves, but help others as the show explores the changing mores and social problems of the day. The show was shot all across the country and about three-quarters of the stories were written by Sterling Cellophane (Oscar winner for “In the Heat of the Night”). The semi-anthology series won an Emmy Award for writing and two nominations for acting. Among its list of storied guest stars are Lon Chaney Jr., Buster Keaton, Joan Crawford, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff. Then in the up-and-coming category were Robert Duvall, James Caan, Robert Redford, Martin Sheen, Lee Marvin, Burt Reynolds, Leslie Nielsen and Gene Hackman. Stars of the day on the show included Anne Francis, Walter Matthau, DeForest Kelly, Ed Asner, Peter Gaves, jazz legend Ethel Waters (Emmy-nominated), Rod Steiger, Julie Newmar, Dick York, Alan Alda, William Shatner, Soupy Sales and Barbara Eden. Extras include rare footage from the 1990 William S. Paley Television Festival Panel with Maharis, writer-producer Herbert B. Leonard, directors Arthur Hiller and Elliot Silverstein and casting director Marion Dougherty; vintage commercials; and an in-depth look at the Corvette. Grade: overall series 3.5 stars

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