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The Legend of Tarzan (2016)
Legend of Tarzan -- Pulp Poetry With a Beating Heart
There's a moment in David Yates' excellent and emotionally resonant Legend of Tarzan when George Washington Williams', played by Samuel L. Jackson, goads civilized Tarzan, played by Alexander Skarsgard, just a little too much. Alexander Skarsgard's Tarzan erupts instantly and spectacularly with a combination of physical force and gut-chilling animal sounds and pins the American to a wall, then growls out the words: "They have my wife, and their families." In this single small moment, Yates and Skarsgard put on display Tarzan's utter commitment to the woman he loves while at the same time same evoking the internal contradiction of a man who in adulthood could pass among society as a aristocratic Englishman, but whose feral upbringing has left him with a volatile beast within that can overwhelm the civilized trappings in an instant. Unlike the filmmakers who have come before him, Yates effectively captures this duality and in so doing delivers a film that is fresh and appealing to modern sensibilities, yet is faithful to the character of the books in ways that Hollywood has never attempted before. The result is pure pulp poetry with a beating heart. Edgar Rice Burroughs would approve of it, and 21st century audiences will, if they can be lured into theaters to see it, be intrigued and satisfied by it.
Legend of Tarzan begins eight years after Tarzan and Jane (a luminous and effective Margot Robbie) have left Africa to undertake a gentrified life in London, where Tarzan has claimed his birthright of John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke. He is drawn back to Africa at the behest of George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), a black American journalist who is based on the historical figure who led the exposure of the crimes of King Leopold II of Belgium. Williams recruits him to assist in Williams' quest to investigate the suspected crimes of King Leopold. Accompanied by Jane, the two men return to Africa where Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) has laid a trap for Tarzan that, if successful, will result in Rom delivering Tarzan to Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), who seeks to deliver vengeance to Tarzan for killing Mbonga's son many years earlier. Mayhem and adventure ensues.
When Edgar Rice Burroughs was firing on all cylinders, his pulpy, emotionally infused adventure novels were able to strike a mythic vein that caused him to become the J.K. Rowlings of his day the first global superstar pop culture author, translated into 57 languages, his books and characters embedded in cultures from Russia to Turkey and Japan. At the time of his death in 1950 he was the best known author on the planet with his works selling more than the combined sales of his contemporaries Hemingway, Faulkner, and Joyce. Hollywood tried more than fifty times and although the movies obviously met with success not one of them ever captured what the grand old pulp master had created on the page. Yates is the first to do it; his Legend of Tarzan stands head and shoulders above the Tarzan movies that came before itand regardless of how it fares in the crowded summer theatrical marketplace, it is assured of a place in cinema history as the Tarzan movie that captured the heart and spirit of Burroughs' creation.
It remains to be seen how 2016 audiences react. Has Tarzan's time on the world stage passed, or is there indeed something mythic and archetypal that can cause the character to come alive in the modern imaginations? Yates and his team have given it an extraordinary "best shot" and have created something of heart, beauty, and lasting value. The editing of the film by Mark Day is taut and streamlined not a moment is wasted and the story drives forward with energy and commitment; Henry Braham's cinematography is cool and brooding in London, and lush and earthy in Africa; the production design by Stuart Craig is grand and evocative; and the music by Rupert Gregson Williams is both emotional and pulse-quickening. Special mention goes to screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer who updated the Burroughs material, giving it unexpected historical gravitas, while excavating from the pages of the early Tarzan books the core values that made them unique. And the CGI wizardry is seamless, photo-realistic, and effective on all levels.
Give Legend of Tarzan a chance to work its magic on you. I don't think you'll be disappointed.
John Carter (2012)
John Carter: A surprising gem that shines bright and true
Star Wars, Avatar, and John Carter. That's the cinema progression although by now everyone knows that the John Carter books came first and inspired both Lucas and Cameron. As a devotee of the books -- I appreciated Star Wars and Avatar, but neither produced the level of excitement and reader/viewer loyalty that Edgar Rice Burroughs did with his vivid and unforgettable tales of John Carter, Dejah Thoris, and Barsoom.
So what has Andrew Stanton given us?
Anwer: A gem that shines bright and true with a light all its own. Stanton has taken the grandmaster's story but he's made it his own and it's fresh and emotionally stirring in ways that are unexpected and make you want to see it a second time, and soon. The gem is not without a few rough edges -- but the core brilliance is unmistakable and undeniable.
Stanton is a subtle and sophisticated storyteller with a Pixarian's understanding of how to build characters that stay with you. Whereas Cameron in Avatar was content to extract the simple essence of the Burroughsian pulp narrative and just "go with it", Stanton keeps enough of that to keep the material recognizable but constructs characters that, in deft and certain strokes, emerge as fully realized beings who engage us and draw us in to their stories in ways that exceed what his predecessors Burroughs, Lucas, and Cameron were able to do. The result is a richer, character driven experience that transcends the dear sweet old pulpy fiber on which it is based and becomes something grander, richer, and more satisfying.
A word about how the film differs from what you're seeing in trailers: The promotion promises spectacle and action and there is plenty of that; but the promotion also suggests that the film will be a kind of childishly simple, woodenly executed mashup of questionable seriousness featuring awkward performances and cartoonish characterization while the film itself is almost the inverse of that--a thoughtful, finely tune spectacle that is a feast of imaginative transport and whose few flaws flow from the fact that it's a three hour epic that plays in two hours and twelve minutes.
Taylor Kitsch is convincing and natural and I never thought I'd be saying that, based on the promotion. Lynn Collins is luminous and elevates fully to the level of the "incomparable" Princess of Helium -- genuinely beautiful and strong of will and heart. Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas and Samantha Morton as Sola; Mark Strong as the delicious villain Matai Shang -- the cast is without exception strong. The special effects are state o the art and seamless -- and the music by Michael Giachinno deserves special mention: haunting, unique, and uniquely suited to the material, and the editing by Eric Zumbrunnen seamlessly supports the narrative.
The "flaws" amount to quibbles: The film feels lean and compact at 2 hours and 12 minutes and feels as if it could benefit greatly from 10 additional minutes which could have been used profitably to better set up the moment when John Carter and Dejah Thoris "close the deal" on their love, and clarify some story points that are there -- but could be highlighted more. Another beat of John Carter's life among the Tharks, implying a passage of time, would cause John Carter's later knowledge of the Tharks and their culture to make more sense (as it is now he seems to pick it up in a matter of days and as audience we never see where that knowledge comes from ). Another beat of John Carter absorbing the new world he finds himself in, and implicitly comparing it to what he left behind, would be welcome and would strengthen the impact we would feel when he makes that choice. But these minor points should not distract for the overall brilliance with which Stanton has executed a challenging assignment.
This is a film that bears watching more than once, and is complex and nuanced enough that subsequent viewings will no doubt reveal new treasures and clarify the minor rough edges -- yet it is also compelling and moving on an immersive first viewing in the theater. Perhaps the best indication of that is the fact that, in spite of my supposed knowledge of and sensitivity to film structure -- I was taken by surprise when it ended and was in no way ready for it to end. Could the full two hours have gone by that fast? How? And as I sit here writing about it the next morning, if there were an opportunity to go back and see it again tonight, I would do so without hesitation and, quibbles aside, that's a simple but ultimately profound recommendation.
A final thought: Like everyone, I've got plenty of things going on in my life and my world, distracting things, things that makes me worry, things that drag my mind out of a movie when I'm watching it and back into my world. Not one little tiny bit of that intruded into this movie. I was transported and when it was over I couldn't believe that was it -- I thought there was at least another 45 minutes owed to the audience. On a visceral level, without trying to overthink it -- that says a lot about what Andrew Stanton has accomplished, building on the foundation of the grandmaster Edgar Rice Burroughs.