30 March 2012

Because it was on TV: An Examination of Anglo-American Cultural Relations via Michael Bay's The Rock

I was fortunate enough to catch The Rock (1996) playing on Spike TV a few nights ago. As I watched The Cage, Sean Connery, Ed Harris, and that dude was a cop in every 90s movie ever finely chew scenery around a constant barrage of explosions and shots that look like this, an intriguing idea dawned on me. I feel like I had always known this but for whatever reason it was so clear this time around. The Rock tells the final fate of Sean Connery's 007.

The core story within Michael Bay's magnum opus, is the terrorist takeover of Alcatraz Prison, now a tourist attraction. Because Bay works in worlds of high concept premises, like teams of oil drillers becoming astronauts, the elite FBI operatives decide to take a chance on the one dude who ever escaped from Alcatraz - Sean Connery's character, Captain John Patrick Mason, who I suspect to largely be a culmination of Connery's James Bond.

Mason was a British spy who was captured by the Americans in the late 1960s, although at some point he managed to escape, bang some broad immediately (even picturing Connery as late as Never Say Never Again [1983] this is possible), only to be locked up again. Mason is a notorious escape artist and spy, whose existence has been disavowed by both the British and American governments. Within his head are decades of secrets and adventures both nations would rather forget. He's capable of kicking tremendous ass, even though he's in his mid-60s, and handles any kind of firearm or close combat weapon with ease. The choice of Connery to play the character after he was Bond in the 60s is not a coincidence. He is meant to inspire that recollection as a nod to his past role.

There are more interesting ideas at work here though. Michael Bay, jingoist American as he is, decided that Bond's final fate would be American captivity. It is as if Bond could escape anyone but the American government, which imprisoned him for half his life despite repeated break-outs. In this way the Americans have captured a rival cultural icon. Bond encapsulated so much style, wit, and class of a British action hero, along with a longevity that is unparalleled throughout any other film series, that it's natural we should have a cultural jealousy. Perhaps out of this jealousy Bay had the icon under American custody and partnered with Nic Cage, who would continue in his own right to be an awful American action film star.

It's also a look at what would happen to Bond in a true 90s action film. It's almost prophetic of Casino Royale (2005). Gone are martinis or gadgets, the only thing left is Bond at his core. He's an old man largely full of regret but unable to change what he knows or what he does - getting out of hairy situations with timing and wit while killing enemies in cold blood. It's a thorough Americanization - no more of the dignified pontifications of From Russia with Love (1963) or the cunning game of cat and mouse of Goldfinger (1964). Instead they shoot stuff. A lot.

Furthermore, it's a keen twist that our "Bond" here is using the escape tricks and deadly force he honed against the Soviets against Americans instead. This includes the complicated relationship he has with Cage and the rest of the FBI guys as well as the main antagonists. Bay actually layers and contrasts his own jingoism with these, a group of terrorists comprised of former Marines disillusioned with the abandonment of their government. This is exactly the fate of Mason, who was disavowed after he was captured. Mason, however, responds in a very English way (I'm sure I'll hear cries that Connery is Scottish here, he's still acting English), by suffering but holding true to queen and country. It's a much more American reaction to take charge for perceived slights against a loss of individual freedom or recognition.

The Rock's greatest achievement is Ed Harris' character, Francis X. Hummel, the General who leads the Marines into treason but never quite buys it himself. His late reformation dooms his own men but the reveal that the entire escapade was a big bluff is the film's most satisfying moment. That said, Hummel lost control of his men a long time before this, a demonstration that what patriotism these men really had was lost when they decided to turn. Mason doesn't have this, and as such he identifies with Hummel, even though there is nothing really analogous in any Bond film. Indeed, films like Die Another Day (2002) take as dim a view of American shoot-first policy as The Rock does implicitly.

Like I said, I think this is something we've always known. Connery's character and casting is fairly obvious. What isn't obvious though, are the cultural implications of stealing an immortal British icon and re-purposing him in one of the more obliquely jingoistic American movies ever made. It's also re-purposing him in a hard R-Rated adventure, which is cool to hear "Bond" swear.

26 March 2012

First Impressions: 21 Jump Street

I'm not sure anyone could have predicted that one of the funniest movies of the past few years, possibly all-time, would come in the form of 21 Jump Street (2012). How did this happen? 21 Jump Street is a show known mainly as the launching pad for Johnny Depp, not a particularly interesting, engaging, or dearly loved property. This movie was not heavily hyped or anticipated. Its buddy-cop comedy plot is fairly worn and uncomplicated. Still, has been one of the best movies of the year. HOW?!

The above-clip highlights some of the film's better jokes but it doesn't do it true justice. The film is excessively goofy, primarily caused by Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, who both prove themselves actors of adept comic timing. They also served as executive producers, with Jonah Hill also contributing significantly to story elements. This allowed them to really let loose a full level of wackiness.

Like I said, 21 Jump Street is a fairly unknown property these days. It has name recognition, sure, but there's no real sense of treasured longing. The film essentially stands on its own as its own comedy, not unlike the Starsky & Hutch (2004) of yesteryear. The film addresses this a few times, pointing out how dumb retreading an old idea is. There are several moments that seek to upset tropes of its genre, including unexpected car chase explosions, the acknowledgement of stereotypes, and the critique of a changed High School life in the past decade.

The movie is really all about the insecurities invoked by High School. Almost like Billy Madison (1995), Channing Tatum finds out that being a huge asshole in school does not make him as cool as it once did. There is a clever switch between him and Jonah Hill, and each use their own natural personae to their fullest comedic extent. Each character learns to respect how the other clique lives and come to peace with both of their failed High School dreams.

Along the way they are accompanied by a great cast of Rob Riggle, Ice Cube, Ron Swanson, James Franco's brother (who was also in Superbad (2007), briefly), a chick from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010), and that other kid from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. There's also a horny Ellie Kemper, Chris Parnell, and the clueless guy from New Girl. The best turn, though is from (mild spoiler), Johnny Depp who makes a surprise appearance that immediately captures everyone's attention. There are some other people from the original 21 Jump Street cast here, which is cute, but c'mon, landing Johnny for a ridiculous couple of minutes was huge. They also manage a nice transitions between iterations by simply killing off all the original characters. If only The A-Team (2010) could be so bold. Maybe that was for the best.

As for the two leads, Jonah Hill is running right along these lines. It's almost like his character from Superbad has grown up a bit, although he displays a far greater insecurity that he manages to get over by connecting with his confident, cooler, better-looking friend, but not at the expense (nearly) of his own integrity. Channing Tatum on the other hand, hasn't had the best opportunity to cultivate his comedic talents, but he's getting there. His ability to laugh at his own dumbness really helps the film get along. We can easily picture Jonah and Channing becoming these characters based on the genres they've settled into. Comedy and Action collide with some incredible results.

This movie is consistently funny. The jokes in any trailers don't really do the film justice, the scenes go on tremendously long, squeezing every big of possible laughs out of every situation; on and on to the point of ridiculum. The movie also has a continuous swagger, the main characters have little regard for the consequences of any of their actions or language, and when they inevitably screw things up they aren't filled with awkward uncomfortable moments, which a movie like this could very easily slip into. Instead it chugs forward with an unrelenting pace of absurdity, foul language, and an absolute commitment to awesome.

This is captured particularly in some scenes of the stages of H.F.S. drug use and the end credits, which demonstrate a continuous stream of every awesome image possible. This is perhaps best expressed, though, in the climactic post-prom limo chase through downtown that features gunfire, tuxedos, doves, makeshift bombs, and very nearly a pleasant dose of oral sex. It's also worth mentioning that they worked in a fairly organic mention that Jonah Hill's High School crush is of course, 18 years of age.

This was one of the funnest, hilarious films I've seen in movie theater in years, if not all-time. Yes, possibly even managing to beat this one. There's not a whole lot of depth here beyond tipping over a few tropes, displaying a dose of drugs, sex, swears, and Channing Tatum kicking High School ass, it just works.

21 March 2012

Trends: March is the New Summer

The sun is shining bright in the sky, the radios are pumping out the hottest jams of the year, and the box office is pushing every weekend with high-profile franchise blockbuster releases. And it's...March? How did this happen? It seems that in 2012 we've pressed fast forward on the calendar. This is normally the kind of feeling we're supposed to have on Independence Day, not St. Patty's.

Hot Hot Heat:

First of all, the literal temperature for most of the Northeast has been particularly unseasonably warm. The Snowfall Derby has been a meager trot this Winter, and we've seen more green around than the Chicago River this past Saturday. This week especially is projected to have a constant wave of sunshine and blazing heat. People are jogging half-naked, wearing shorts, shades, and rollerblading around. It's a perfect way to beat the summertime springtime heat. This is supposed to be the official start of Spring, but instead it looks like a nice day for a swim at Amity Island. It's bonkers.

Hot Hot Beats:

There were a flurry of tracks that dropped this week that seem well-suited for a Summer Jam. We've got B.o.B. on "So Good" and Flo Rida ft. Sia on "Wild Ones," both of which are no strangers to landing choice Summer Beats. We've also got all this low-level crap from random bands that have had trendy appearances on SNL like Karmin and Sleigh Bells with their singles "Brokenhearted" and "Comeback Kid" respectively. All of these tracks are perfect Summer Jam Candidates - fast, danceable, and catchy as hell. They all pale in comparison to Nicki's "Starships," which is one of the more perfect Summer-y songs I've heard in a long time. Since last Summer, really. Take a listen:

It's this sick combination of hip-hop, techno, and pop that is absolutely tailor-made for the zeitgeist. It's fierce, pounding, and displays the full extent of Nicki's talents, including the slight amount of AutoTune that makes her voice stuck in your head for days. It's a party song, it's a background song, you can focus in and out and dance your ass off to it at the end of the day. It's brilliant from a Summer Jam Standpoint. But it's March, honey. How did this happen?

Hot Hot Flicks:

March started with The Lorax (2012), which would seem like a more honourific re-telling of a beloved Ted Geisel tale if not for the shameless selling of the property for Mazdas. Anyway, the astounding success of this fuzzball surely represents one aspect of the typical Summer Box Office that has effortlessly been boiled into March, 2012 - the family-friendly CGI Animated film.

Looking at March's other weekends we see plenty more. We have untapped adaptations of works new and ancient, with plenty of box office potential in John Carter (2012) and The Hunger Games (2012). Okay, so one of those may be known one day as one of the bigger flops of all time, but it really shouldn't be ignored. The other one is landing this weekend, and by all rights it should blow the Teen Market out of the water. Apparently it's like a much less crappy and sexually confusing version of Twilight, which is always welcome. It's interesting that almost since we could see the light at the end of the Twilight / Harry P Cash Tunnel we've been looking for its successor. Why is The Hunger Games that successor? Who knows, but it was appointed that a long time ago. Maybe they can squeeze nine films out of the three books. That ought to last a while.

The Hunger Games is a perfect Halfbuster - the kind of unproven franchise that will likely land its subsequent adaptations some juicy Summer or Winter releases. There is an obvious fallacy here, though - if The Hunger Games does well enough in March, why shouldn't it stay there? Why not just start the Summer Box Office Season in the Month of Caesar?

In recent years April and March have proven themselves to be substantial release months for big movies, usually ones with potential the studios are wary about. As March takes off, April is getting compacted and it's really a matter of time until it's just one big block of continuous blockbusters. It's a crazy thought, especially in an age that increasingly cites the Blockbuster as dead. The numbers and trends (ignoring Summer 2010...) refuse to point in that direction.

March continues its assault with 21 Jump Street (2012), an upsurging R-Rated Comedy that really butt-fucked the Box Office last summer (see Bad Teacher [2011], Horrible Bosses [2011]). Two weekends from now we've also got Mirror, Mirror (2012), which I know nothing about really, but seems like a bingo chick flick that should tap an under-served market this month, and Wrath of the Titans (2012), a sequel to the surprisingly huge 2010 film. Without blinking it's an easy-to-read Summer Month in any other year. This is 2012, though, baby! We're all going down anyway! We got to get all our shit out there while we can. I'm pumped for Wrath, that big dog thing and then that giant lava thing should get their days fucked up, bro. Tight shit.

15 March 2012

The Long Halloween Vol. III: March Madness

Welcome again folks to Third Rendition of The Long Halloween, Norwegian Morning Wood's yearlong examination of Holiday viewing for each month of the year. After the first two years of doing this we did to death the common holidays of Christmas, Valentine's Day, St. Patty's and so on, so this year we are really striking out on a limb. The results have been terrible, but today we celebrate the only real reason to get out bed throughout the month of March - NCAA Division I Basketball.

Today is the start of the 64-team portion of the tournament, although in actuality the 8-team play-in round started this past Tuesday. It is in fact, a ridiculous expansion and dilution of Athletic Success. Nevertheless, March Madness is surely an unofficial Holiday couple of weeks, and to be honest, cities and employers should be put on hold for a few weekends. It's cruel and unjust that we shouldn't be able to cheer on teams as great as the Long Beach State 49ers and the Long Island University Brooklyn Blackbirds.

So, on this great weekend of revelry, which coincides with St. Patty's this year, what should you watch to put yourself in the mood? Well, I think there's not going to be a ton of time to watch anything besides basketball, but you will have some mornings free. The obvious answer would be to latch on to classic, emotional coach-oriented basketball movies like Hoosiers (1986), Coach Carter (2005), or Space Jam (1996). But no, we want to get into the tournament itself and all the glory and fame that comes with it. Therefore we're striking out on a limb, you may have to do some digging but you need to go out and watch The Fab Five (2011).

The Fab Five is an ESPN documentary that focuses on the Michigan Basketball Class of '95 (admittedly many left way before then), which featured one of the greatest recruitment classes in the history of College Basketball. Although it took some time, eventually all Five Freshman started games together and brought a whole new level of swagger to the NCAA. From their baggy shorts, rowdy backgrounds, and unrelenting winning attitudes they captured the attention of a nation.

The documentary, directed by Jason Hehir, does a fantastic job of giving background to each of the players, the coaching staff, and both their external and internal situations. It also features extremely candid interviews with every player, with the exception of Chris Webber, who after declining in scandal and painful memories both on and off the court, declined. The documentary is worth watching alone to hear Jalen Rose talk about Duke and Grant Hill, effectively summarizing his frustration with the roles and judgment of society along with admitting his very personal flaws and bitterness. They also come together nicely to sum up why I've always hated Christian Laettner. It's frank, rich, and honest moments like these, highlighting both the good and the bad that these players faced, along with a keen insight into their minds twenty years earlier that make this a great documentary.

Hehir gets close with the players but also remains unbiased. The documentary ultimately doesn't take a stand on the scandal that followed - the pay for play by booster Ed Martin, Chris Webber's perjury on said subject, as well as his accidental time-out calling in the 1993 National Championship Game (they were out). The documentary doesn't sugarcoat these moments but ultimately finds redemption in the fact that the Fab Five were still able to leave a legacy beyond that of many of the other teams that did win championships that year or the years after.

The documentary leaves you with a tremendous amount of insight and information about everything college basketball. The 1991 Michigan Class of Recruits changed the game, not from how much talent they exhibited, but the way they treated themselves and the media. The way they displayed themselves and played the game serves as a template for the way it is played today. ESPN has developed a knack for finding the story in a sports world that may otherwise not have a lot of merit. Of course, the narrativization and sensationalization is how they manage to keep SportsCenter up and running 18 hours a day. They find a story in the chaos of "things happening," and there isn't one to get a fan more pumped up for some March Madness than The Fab Five.

And I'm an OSU fan.

13 March 2012

Because it was on TV: Diminishing Reasons for Watching the Walking Dead

If you're fan of AMC's The Walking Dead, you're one of many fans who waver every week between extreme thrill, frustration, and like heroin, an addiction that is proving more hazardous to your health than the payoff high. In the past two weeks the show, which has pushed effects, gore, and liberal character shields since its start, has deleted two if the best reasons for watching. Needless to say, many SPOILERS for both the Walking Dead comics and Season Two follow.

While it had some initial success, The Walking Dead in its most recent half-season of Season 2 has become one of the most watched shows ever on Cable Television. This is after years of an intricate, successful, and on-going comic run. There have been deviations certainly between the show and comic, one notably was the character of Shane, partner and rival of main dude Rick. In the comics Shane was offed pretty early on, by Rick's son, Carl protecting his pappy. In the comic world of Walking Dead, though, people tend to die all the time and through its run the only real mainstays have turned out to be Rick and Carl. The Show has had less of a turnover, at least until the last couple weeks of this season.

Shane lasted much longer on the television show, and has proven to be one of the most reliable characters. That is, not reliable in the story (of course), but his character, as acted by Joe Bernthal, is one of the more consistent and less stupid of anyone on screen. After the torrid first half that was spent whining and weeping over this lost girl, who was probably dead, Shane was the only one to think "Well, this little cunt is probably dead." That little cunt as it would turn out, was actually dead. Shane is the only character with any backbone.

The main opposition to Shane had always been the old man Dale, who among all the chaos had always held a consistent positive belief in Humanity. Through the bulk of "Judge, Jury, Executioner" (S2,E11), he serves as literally the only moral compass left in the group, the only one clinging to a faith in the good of people. This episode seems to counter this belief. The innocence and naïveté of Carl, who toys with and then refuses to shoot a Zombie trapped in some mud, as well as Dale's own curiosity and lack of a guard directly leads to his death. In light of this it seems as though Shane's philosophy should win.

Shane believes that the world has become cruel and humanity must in turn become cruel to deal with it. He's a Darwinist, capitalist, and an all-around badass. He is no longer trying to save humanity but rather to save a very select few, for personal and selfish reasons. He also tends to walk around looking like he's about to rape somebody. As amoral as he is, he has a consistent and well-articulated belief system and should have served as opposition to Dale in more of a Jack / Locke sense from LOST than they really found room to in this show.

Looking around at other character philosophies is difficult. Carol is effectively completely useless and should be a corpse in the making. Ditto with T-Dog. Who yes, is still apparently the only Black Man in Georgia, and the only one to have a racial nickname that everyone else uses all the time. This is despite the comics' rich collection of fleshed out and important Black Characters. Carl is from what I can tell, basically autistic, although that may just be the acting. Glenn, always a backer of Dale and someone who believed in the good in people suddenly seems to only care about getting his dick wet, which somehow makes him less focused on protecting his girl, Maggie, who wavers between protecting her family and helping strangers constantly. Andrea is suicidal, but clearly inconsistent with that belief as well. I have no idea why Daryl is still around, he's clearly the only one who would be fine on his own and has no strong attachment to anyone in the group any longer. Even visions of his brother, who Rick left to die, suggest the same. While this is going on, his philosophy is largely unsaid, he's more of a weapon or tool that the others use to hunt Zombies, and not much else goes on in his head it would seem.

Hershel is interesting because he was clearly of the "Good in Humanity" side, even after that Humanity turned into Walkers. Shane effectively broke his once-firm resolve, though, destroying the patriarch of the land they are squatting on and making a clear path for Rick to become the unquestioned leader. Well, unquestioned outside of Shane. Rick is the worst offender out of anyone here. Ditto with Lori. What do they really want? It's almost impossible to tell. There isn't anything compelling about his character. It's a more believable character that he doesn't know what to do in some circumstances, but staggering to believe that he doesn't know what to do in ANY circumstance, or why anyone should follow his leadership. He rarely at any given point during A ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE even has any idea where his only son is. Lori also seems to waver on the idea of either saving herself and immediate family or looking out for the good of the group. They can't seem to understand, like Shane does, the possibility that these concepts are mutually exclusive or conversely like Dale does that they are not. There is no strong conviction between any of these characters.

So Dale is killed and that should have set up this great moral choice for Rick to perhaps, fill his shoes, despite the strong evidence that Shane's way of life is the new way of the world. If Rick were a strong character he could defend this proposition, build a side around himself and work to honour Dale's memory. Instead he's classically wishy-washy. When faced with Execution at Shane's hands, he convinces Shane to drop his guard, to have faith in him, as he has tried to do ever since he came back. In this moment, he's actually convinced Shane to have a little more faith in the Good of Humanity int he face of Armageddon. At this Rick reveals that he's really on Shane's side of the Morality Argument - that protecting an individual is more important than the survival of the group (losing Shane is losing someone who was actually training Carl, Andrea, a solid workhorse, and an ultimate defender of the homestead), as well as confidence in a higher morality or humanity. Shane's face as he dies is one of utter disbelief because of the viewpoint bait-and-switch Rick has just pulled. It's astounding. As Shane dies he must think, "So does the only integrity in this new world..."

It's a bold move. Shane and Dale were some of the only characters worth watching. No one else is really that captivating. At this point there isn't a tremendous amount of reasons to turn in again. It seems that the producers had planned for Shane's exit since Season 2 began, but they still offed him too early. He's far too much of an interesting character to die at all, really, as one of the few who knew Rick before the Apocalypse, and the focal point for not only so many storylines, but for so much of the philosophy, authenticity, and compelling moments of the show. His ghost will live on whenever Rick looks at Laurie's Baby, wondering if it is his or Shane's (of course, in the comics, those two didn't last much longer either, so who knows).

Despite its continuously clunky dialogue, incessantly stupid characters, and plodding, dopey plot that never seems to find any footing, The Walking Dead has managed a Golden Globe nomination, a third season, and a loyal fanbase, mostly filled up with people like me who just waited for Shane to scowl and off someone in any given episode. Now that that aspect is missing how will they recover? Rumours abound of The Governor being the Big Bad for Season 3. Will Rick be any more compelling without a hand? I hope so.

11 March 2012

First Impressions: John Carter

It is looking like we'll look back on this weekend as a rather infamous one in box office history. Maybe. After months of Disney giving the world a clinic in terrible advertising, John Carter (2012) landed, stumbled, and fell to a fiery, crocodile-filled death. Coming in around $30 million right now on a reported $250 million budget, it seems fairly painful. This is a shame because John Carter is a great piece of sci-fi that deserves more than that.

The issue comes right down to the last minute title change. What was once John Carter of Mars (2012) became John Carter, because recent pics with "Mars" in the title like the atrocious Mars Needs Moms (2011) did poorly. Mars Needs Moms did not do poorly because of the "Mars," folks, there are hundreds of reasons for that one. It's unfortunate because it's based on a lesser known, century-old literary property that has inspired many science fiction works since and its massive bombing surely leads to the specious reasoning that more movies "from the Hasbro company that brought you Transformers" need to happen. Atrocious.

So let's get to it. First of all, for some reason we have a little mini-reunion from the cast of X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) with Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) and Silverfox (Lynn Collins) taking the leads here. Kitsch seems to very much still be in Gambit mode, from the scowl to the rebel independence and even the hair. He's almost a spin on a classic heroic archetype, though. He's ultimately an anti-hero with suppressed altruistic qualities that take their sweet time in bubbling to the surface. He's grim but with a natural playful quality that prevents him from entering Worthington or Bale territory. He's a fine hero, unsure of himself, makes some big mistakes (occasionally comical and trope-shifting), but ultimately saves the day.

Lynn Collins was pretty hot in Wolverine, but she really flexes her Babe Potential here. I can't go on enough about how hot this chick is, with a few down-shirt shots, one pretty good spinning butt shot, and some pokey nipples in one scene. Beyond the perversion though, she's also a great strong female character. The movie is interesting actually, in that since Carter is from the mid-19th Century South, he naturally begins to treat her as a defenseless maiden and is willing to step in and defend her. Mars seems to be progressive, though, with huge Babe Armies and Lynn as Dejah Thoris is more than capable of defending herself. She also regrets her own revealing wardrobe, which is notably something that Leia never did. She's a babe, but more importantly she does stuff - her character is actually important independent of the male protagonist (and antagonist) and has her own fleshed out needs, desires, abilities, and capabilities. Where's the last Sci-Fi Flick to really have that?

I was also impressed that the movie had a huge race full of alien, reptile things who had females and those females didn't have titties. Yes, I'm glad they didn't - so often there's some kind of Bird People or Lizard People who have these big fat titties for no reason at all. It doesn't make any sense. Of course, if John Carter didn't fulfill the need to see great titties all the time through Lynn Collins' presence, this would have been much more infuriating. It's just another thing that this film does very well. And I don't mean to be sexist but as a dude titties ARE great and it influences what movies I see constantly. Never bet against the pervert dollar.

So anyway, beyond those two the rest of the cast is solid. There is the requisite amount of motion capture performances, but they all feel pretty authentic, and the visual effects and scope are top-notch. It's got a lot of people who have shown up before, like that Asshole Captain from The Matrix Reloaded (2003), that douchebag from Resident Evil (2001), and the Spy Kid who I think of more now from World's Greatest Dad (2009), which is weird to picture now. Bryan Cranston shows up as a Badass Union Colonel and Mark Strong plays a bad guy! Unbelievable, folks!

There's a lot to this that just feels like a classic sci-fi experience. It's all New Sincerity. There isn't a lot of pain or grit here. It would seem an ample opportunity to introduce waves upon waves of eager, spendthrift youth. It's a space adventure without the spaceships, and an easy-to-swallow premise with archetypal but fresh characters. There's just enough of everything here - big battles, fine pacing, mysteries that actually get solved neatly, and even some penance for the lead character, as Mark Strong says, he's really not that bright.

It's been far too long since a nice Sci-Fi ended on a feel-good wedding, which this almost does, which (SPOILER) doesn't end the film and instead naturally and logically dooms Carter into relaxing his guard and delaying his banging of Lynn Collins another thirteen years. The film strikes a fair tone through plenty of humour, badass big fights, and a good dose of drama. It takes its characters and premise seriously, even if it doesn't always take the same care with its narrative, providing for a more flexible, easy-going flow throughout its running time.

Now, having said all that, there are some issues here. For one, there is a ton of new shit to remember and they hit you with it about right of the bat. After years of Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings, and Chronicles of Riddick, and Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica, it's tough to be assaulted suddenly with a swarm of new terms, languages, races, and civilisations. Still, you can get by with the just of it and once the movie starts jogging smoothly it flows naturally. It helps that the only planet is Mars, and the people really boil down to Red, Blue, Green. Fair 'nuff.

This brings us to what may be the most significant problem with adapting a 100-year old story, though. When A Princess of Mars was written in 1917 by Eddie Burrows, Mars was this far-off, mysterious planet that we knew a bit about but our imaginations were still able to run wild and picture this landscape. Star Wars and other stuff can work because it's happening in this firmly fictional, far off place. Even stuff like Minority Report (2002) that is set in the future has that going for it. Some of the wonder of Mars is gone now that we've actually, you know, been there. We know that none of that stuff up there is possible, so it takes quite a suspension of disbelief to achieve.

This is arguable. The fact that Muppets aren't real on Planet Earth didn't ruin The Muppets (2011). Still, there is something about presenting such a fantastic location that in in the past century has become much less fantastic that is lost in the set-up to this flick. We need to believe that this could be the Mars of Burrows or C.S. Lewis and in that regard the film doesn't quite match the imagination of a pre-Space Era.

Still, with an open mind and a willingness to get some spectacle and adventure, John Carter is an immensely satisfying film. It's a positive experience, with hot chicks, big monsters, big battles, and a fairly likeable Gambit-like Hero. With that on a movie poster it may have actually sold a ticket.

02 March 2012

Profiles: Jonah Hill - Getting Skinner & Getting Better

Jonah Hill has become a big actor suddenly. He's actually due for an impressive first half of the year coming off an Academy Award nomination for Moneyball (2011), actually looking entertaining in the upcoming 21 Jump Street (2012), and looking part of an ensemble A-list comedian class for this summer's Neighborhood Watch (2012), the trailer for which just came out.

So how did this little chunky virgin turn into the hot Hollywood property? Half a decade ago he was a staple of terrible but cult-ish slapstick comedies and now he's the talk of the town. There is an obvious correlation here that as he has gotten skinnier he has also become less stupid. We'll have to get into what that means for comedians as well, as often, as Jonah put it himself in Funny People (2009), no one wants to laugh at a physically fit man.

Jonah The Fat Virgin: 2006 - 2007

Jonah has had plenty of smaller roles, mostly in big comedies. For the purposes of this profile though, we'll stick to his culturally significant roles. And yes, for us that starts with Grandma's Boy (2006), one of his first larger speaking roles. For a while it seemed as though Jonah as the equivalent to this guy, just a fat nerdy kid who would awkwardly pop in places. I don't understand why Grandma's Boy is so great while all the other Happy Madison productions have been so terrible. In both this and Accepted (2006) he plays the same kind of weird, awkward kid but definitively the straight man to some of the crazier characters. Although he did get his first 13-hour boobie suck. Still he exhibits this kind of dry snide humour throughout that he would overplay in later roles.

As this time period progresses we have Knocked Up (2007), where he was really just part of Seth Rogen's buddy group, and probably the least developed out of any of them. After that though we have what will likely be forever be the definitive Jonah Hill role, Superbad (2007). He plays perfectly between that Fat Virgin and the Beta Male trying desperately to be an Alpha. To Michael Cera's extremely straight character, Jonah was also finally able to express his wilder range outside of just the sarcastic but otherwise quiet and sheltered fat kid. Both of these films introduced the potential of Jonah appearing in...well, everything.

Jonah The Bit-Player turned Leading Man: 2007 - 2010

For the next few years Jonah had some bit parts in plenty of Apatovian Comedies, and some are kind of memorable. He had had this kind of distinction with appearances in "blink or you'll miss them" kind of roles in flicks like The 40-Year Old Virgin (2005) and Click (2006), but as an important yet small part of the ensemble Walk-Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007), he really showed that he has the confidence to become more than he was. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) was the same kind of story, although that film is fantastically better. He's a solid contributor here and moving away from both either the confident nerd or the Fat Virgin into more of a well-rounded actor. In Funny People he continued this development in playing some kind of hipster comedian, although his purpose serves more as an alternative to Seth Rogen's storyline that defines that character more than his own.

I should mention Strange Wildnerness (2008), which is underrated as one of the worst movies of all time. It's this weird amalgamation of Happy Madison, Broken Lizard, and Apatovian Comedians that isn't pulled off at all. Jonah plays an off-the-wall hillbilly character who has no purpose at all. It's really something we should all forget. Immediately.

Towards the middle of 2010 Jonah started finding his career taking off, or at least being considered for some big parts. Get Him to the Greek (2010), the Forgetting Sarah Marshall spinoff, features a role arguably bigger than Superbad, although thankfully not with his original character. He moved on from playing naïve young high schooler to naïve young professional. The same year he starred in a slight departure from his typical films with Cyrus (2010), which was like transpotting the signature weird Jonah character into a more dramatic scenario. Cyrus above everything else probably proved his resume good enough for Moneyball.

Jonah The Trim Jim: 2011 - Present

Although Jonah slimed down in 2011, the movies he made when he was fat were still coming out, but they got better and better for him. That said, his animated television project, Allen Gregory absolutely fell on its face. That show was awful and lasted half a season on FOX before it got the axe.

So we come to Moneyball. Actually Jonah in Moneyball is like a more sober version of the character he played in Get Him to the Greek. He's a young professional learning the ropes and trying hard to prove himself and impress his much-more famous boss (P. Diddy / Brad Pitt). Again, he's having success by taking his downtrodden, sarcastic and witty character into different film territory.

A few months later he had his first solo vehicle, The Sitter (2011). I didn't see The Sitter. It looked pretty funny, where Jonah played an extremely selfish and sex-obsessed babysitter. It was a nice little comedy, although possibly more into Fat Virgin territory than anything that moved Jonah forward. Still, the fact that he can now carry a movie in production is something. Superbad was fueled by literally everyone else involved, from Apatow to Cera, and Get Him to the Greek was more a chance for Russell Brand to document his life than anything else.

Jonah was first able to show off his new tight bod in the above Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (2011) commercial. I'm wondering how what kind of persona Jonah has settled on. He's not really the helpless nerd, nor the aggressive Beta anymore. He seems to be filling a gap for some kind of fully capable yet endearingly sarcastic eternal rookie who gets himself in all kinds of zany hijinks. 21 Jump Street (2011) opens up in a few weeks as another installment in the Jonah wrinkle. It seems like he's basically turning into a respectable actor, but using his youth to his best ability. As the pounds keep dropping it seems like he's no where to go but up.
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