John Carter of Mars Bar (and Cafe Venus)

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The Dinner: Moonscape bruschetta and meat loaf with mashed potatoes from The Mars Bar and Cafe Venus, 609 Eastlake Ave E, EASTLAKE.

The Movie: John Carter at Cinerama, 2100 4th Ave, DOWNTOWN.

The Screenplate: Disney's latest hi-octane 3D adaptation/cashgrab comes in the form of the wildly influential Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp novel, John Carter. Carter is a brooding ex-Confederate army captain who is magically transported to Mars to rescue whatever alien race looked the most like him from evil space wizards, after Mars' weaker gravitational forces effectively endow his Built Earth Tough body with super strength, super agility, and super power to instantly adapt to whatever weapons or technology that script calls for with minimal explanation or unifying logic.

Unfortunately, for all the ado about the intellectual property while it languished in development hell for over eighty years, John Carter just isn't a very good movie: however, it does do viewers a solid in presenting exactly why it's not a very good movie within the first few minutes. It is at least efficiently contemptible, which at least lets you know to turn your brain off early to make more room for all of the delightful eye candy.

For those of you uninitiated or just apathetic to the endless buzz words and hot air of storytelling, a "framing narrative" is a story, usually set in contemporary times or in some other situation relatable to its intended audience, that's generally used either to ground more fantastical narratives or to connect multiple narratives to each other. These framing narratives usually... well, frame the meat of the stories they really want to tell, but just as the titular John Carter says to hell with Earth and all of its stupid wars, so too does his film throw out any sense of order or convention, introducing a young Edgar Rice Burroughs as the person whose perspective we're supposed to see the movie from... about two or three scenes into the actual movie.

It's one of those unfortunate moments where you can see the frustrated discussion amongst the filmmakers more clearly than the plot itself. Certainly they had to start the movie with a big CGI action sequence on Mars, because that's the bread and butter of the entire film. But we also have to be introduced to John Carter on Earth immediately, because he's the titular character who needs to be established as an Earthling, and you don't want kids getting confused. So the framing narrative is forced deep enough into the actual progression of events that you have to wonder why it's even there at all -- until you realize that it was really only necessary to retain the original "true story" gimmick of the original books and/or set-up the sequel (which, judging from the film's epic budget and subsequent domestic box office disappointment, probably isn't in the cards).

So in the true spirit of a sci-fi blockbuster made post-Phantom Menace, what you're ultimately left with is a frail, lifeless plot that seems constructed solely to appeal to as many demographics as they can in the most shallow means possible, rather than building an organic audience through the exciting experiences of relatable characters. You are given hints at deep, tragic histories of some of the more colorful figures of John Carter's Mars, but the film is so intent on showing you all of its new toys that it's near impossible to take any of them too seriously.

One particular cringeworthy moment involved Carter coming face to face with an angry legion of four-armed, green-skinned martians that the film had just painstakingly detailed as completely sentient and possessing of their own unique culture. Naturally, John Carter starts carving up these green bastards like he was about to open Mars' first Arby's, an action which (obviously) brings on painful memories of burying his dead family. As if there isn't enough going on already, his adorable dog-like sidekick zooms onto the scene to help out with the slow motion slaughter.

It's moments like these where I'm forced to ask that dreaded question which should normally never leave a Film Studies 101 classroom: what is it exactly that the filmmakers wanted us to feel? Was it sadness for John Carter while he seems to constantly surround himself with death? Righteousness over slaughtering a group of misguided schlubs? Laughs at the expense of small scale genocide helped along by something your kid is going to want to buy a plush toy of as soon as you leave the theater?

It's a shame, because at the helm of John Carter is director Andrew Stanton, the Pixar visionary behind the visually engrossing Finding Nemo and what is arguably one of the most emotionally accessible science fiction films of the past two decades, Wall-E. John Carter isn't even the worst time you can have at a theater right now by a mile, and the CGI effects really are something to behold. One scene in particular where Mark Strong's bald, minimally explained archvillain "muzzles" John Carter with some sort of magic tattoo is done so seamlessly and impressively, that it can really only highlight the lifeless and secondary nature of the dialogue going on around it. Really, it's just a shame they didn't figure out how to pull that trick on the screenwriters.

While I realize it would've been a golden opportunity to pair this movie with Mars Bar's signature Mars Mac and Cheese, the Eastlake venue's devotion to the space adventure genre isn't nearly as over the top as Carter's. Besides an Attack from Mars pinball table, a restroom for "space gals" and some nebulously (sorry) themed menu items, Mars Bar doesn't look all that different from your average Seattle dive.

Therefore, I went with good, old-fashioned, unaffiliated with the Confederate States of America meat loaf. The loaf was sturdy and packed dense and mostly a dry affair, which suited the bar while its stage was clear. It came with chunky mashed red potatoes that were sprinkled with cheddar cheese for some reason. Bonus, I guess.

You can also currently get Space Saucers (yeah, it's pizza), chicken parmesan and a wide variety of hot and cold sandwiches. However, if this mix of disparate, extravagant tastes starts to remind you of John Carter's messy blunder, where none of the parts really get a fair chance to impress, just know that at least Mars' Moonscape Bruschetta also provided a great blast of flavor. Goat cheese and savory caramelized onions on top of robust bread make for a delicious, yet humble bar snack that provides a more graceful, if inebriated, rest of the night than the thick block of protein.

Mars Bar may lack the vivid space age flair permitted by an insultingly large budget, but it certainly provides more substance than what John Carter managed to come up with. What could've been a fun, super-powered romp through our favorite desert planet ended up needing a lot more meat and potatoes.

 
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