Dippy ‘John Carter’; Sour ‘Friends’; Movies

Taylor Kitsch in ``John Carter.'' The film is playing in theaters across the U.S. Photographer: Frank Connor/Disney via Bloomberg

The arid, canyon-slashed Mars (sorry, Barsoom) looks awfully familiar in “John Carter,” Disney’s $250 million sci-fi extravaganza with the imprimatur of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the everything else of “Star Wars.”

Burroughs began writing his influential, planet-hopping John Carter stories in 1912, so props for literary innovation. But a century of copy-catting results in a been-there, seen-that feeling during much of the non-stop galactic derring-do of “John Carter.”

Directed by Andrew Stanton, whose animated “Wall-E” had a heart mostly absent from his live-action debut, “John Carter” stars a buff Taylor Kitsch (from TV’s “Friday Night Lights”) as the title character, a Confederate Civil War vet who discovers a mysterious cave of gold and finds himself transported to Earth’s planetary neighbor.

Landing smack in the middle of yet another war, Carter susses out the situation -- and Barsoom’s demographics -- more quickly than the audience might. Among the denizens are the Tharks, tall, skinny green reptilian creatures with four arms, two tusks and, one might assume, a standing reservation at the Star Wars canteen.

Laser Fight

More advanced, technologically if not ethically, are the crimson-skinned, humanoid residents of warring cities Zodanga and Helium, who dress like old Hollywood’s idea of ancient Rome while battling with lasers and flying in airships resembling mechanized hornets.

Manipulating all the factions -- on Barzoom and, apparently, Earth -- are the Thern, shape-shifting intergalactic bald guys who infiltrate local populations to stir up strife and war.

Stanton, using a script he co-wrote with Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, races past the details as if they don’t matter (they don’t). “John Carter” (reviewed in its 3-D version) aims for the Saturday morning serial panache of the early “Star Wars” movies, and sometimes lands close.

With the loincloth and flat affectation of Charlton Heston in “Planet of the Apes,” Kitsch offers little appeal beyond the physical, and sounds awfully dude-ish for a 19th-century Virginian. Lynn Collins, no more or less charismatic than Kitsch, plays the blue-eyed, raven-haired Helium princess in distress.

Burroughs’s readers will be pleased with the fidelity that keeps snicker-prompting elements like the name Helium intact, but retrograde touches like the royal damsel in need should have been left to yellowing storybooks.

“John Carter,” from Walt Disney, is playing across the U.S. Rating: **1/2 (Evans)

‘Friends With Kids’

Early in Jennifer Westfeldt’s romantic comedy “Friends With Kids,” two platonic Harry and Sally types decide to have a child together and panic over how to explain the decision to friends.

Handing out old tapes of “thirtysomething” or “Cheers” doesn’t occur to them. The scenario isn’t nearly as fresh as Westfeldt seems to think.

The actress/screenwriter, making her directing debut 10 years after writing and starring in the middling “Kissing Jessica Stein,” tells the story with feeling and some wit, and has recruited a fine bunch of her own actor buddies to give “Friends With Kids” a comfortable, intimate tone.

Grumpy Partners

Jon Hamm (Westfeldts’ real-life partner, playing against type as a tired-looking grouch), Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig, and Chris O’Dowd -- all reunited after last year’s hugely successful “Bridesmaids” -- are among the FWKs who are either excited or wary about welcoming Julie (Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott, from “Parks and Recreation”) into their stroller-pushing ranks.

Best buds since college, Julie and Jason are appalled at how their once free-spirited, fun-loving Manhattan-centric gang has become a bickering, stressed-out and (horror of horrors) Brooklyn-based gaggle of mommies, daddies and screaming brats. They decide to sidestep the obnoxious-parent trap by having and raising a baby as the hip, platonic friends they are, in the borough of their choice.

As she did with “Kissing Jessica Stein,” in which her character had a lesbian fling before settling down with Mr. Right, Westfeldt flirts with convention-flaunting before bedding down with romantic cliche.

“Friends With Kids,” from Roadside Attractions, is playing across the U.S. Rating: **1/2 (Evans)

‘Salmon Fishing’

In “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” a super-rich sheikh (Amr Waked) decides to bring salmon -- a cold-water fish -- to his desert land.

So a representative of the British company that works for him, the beautiful Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), contacts a leading ichthyologist, the fussy (but handsome) Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor).

Dr. Jones finds the idea, as he snaps in an e-mail, “unfeasible.” When his boss forces him to meet with her anyway, he stalks over to her sleek skyscraper office and gives her a piece of his mind. Guess what happens.

Blunt and McGregor are both very charming, but neither the director, Lasse Hallstrom, nor the writer, Simon Beaufoy, seems to have put any effort into the movie. (Hallstrom made “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and Beaufoy wrote “Slumdog Millionaire,” so once they were both capable of something better than hackwork.)

The one bright spot, or rather dark spot, is Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays a high-level, hardheaded government press officer as equal parts Tina Brown and Lady Macbeth.

Except for the polished and pious Sheikh Muhammad, the picture’s Arabs are religious louts who shout a lot and don’t appreciate the nice things rich people are trying to do for their country.

And when the plot really runs out of steam, terrorists are hauled in. By the end, the combination of stupidity and racism does at least manage to lift this mild little movie into genuine offensiveness.

“Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” a CBS Films release, is playing in selected theaters across the U.S. Rating: * (Seligman)

What the Stars Mean:

**** Excellent
*** Good
** Average
* Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)

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