RIORI Vol. 3, Installment 13: Andrew Stanton’s “John Carter (Of Mars)” (2012)


The Players…

Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Willem Defoe, Mark Strong, Domenic West and Thomas Haden Church.

The Story…

While prospecting for gold out West, disgraced and world-weary Civil War vet John Carter encounters some mysterious alien tech that inexplicably launches him into space and landing him on Mars. Great. As if fighting the Yanks hadn’t been bad enough, Carter now finds himself stuck amongst three warring, alien factions hell-bent on controlling the planet. Trapped in a world he never asked for and so on. Now John has to get some bearings amidst being exiled, injured, thoroughly disoriented and cut off from humanity. For all this insanity, Carter is left with only one question:

“How the hell am I going to get back home?”

The Rant…

Alright, already. Quit your groaning.

Yes, I know that John Carter was a high profile flop. Craptastic reviews, indifferent audience turnout and horrible box office returns that barely made a dent in covering the out of control budget. I know all this. There was nothing “middling” about Carter by The Standard’s…well, standard. Down the toilet with this one, folks. Flush.

Wait a minute. There is a madness to this method. Hear me out.

For every experiment to attempt to yield positive results, we need to have a control. For sixty-plus installments here at RIORI I’ve tried to systematically dissect dozens of so-so films for your possible viewing enjoyment…or warning you to run far, far away as if all the demons of hell were chasing you with dismemberment and rape in mind. In that order. I’m doing a public service here, remember?

So far RIORI‘s lab work has been a crapshoot (with an emphasis on “crap”) regarding the labwork movies. It’s been and will continue to be an experiment of sorts. Some middling movies have proven to be pretty good if not delightful, while others have been at least disappointing and at worst horrific time-wasters where you felt after seeing it you should have been doing something better with those lost hours (like playing Xbox or finding a cure for rectal cancer).

I think, however, that you really can’t separate the wheat from the chaff without visiting some fallow fields firsthand. Or in some cases, the swamp that reeks like Grandma’s feet (you know, the one who has bunions the size of rice cakes?).

What I’m getting at here is that we can’t really gauge how good or bad a so-so movie—or any movie, for that matter—is without comparing it between a truly great movie (say, GoodFellas or Casablanca) or a truly awful one. A flop. A big ol’ turd afloat in the Hollywood punchbowl. Good movies are what directors aspire to create; to generate that feeling of story and emotion that would raise audiences’ spirits. But that’s a trap, a truism as it were. Great films like The Godfather, pt. 2 or Seven Samurai are very bright candles that are difficult to blow out, as well as lighting the proverbial path for other filmmakers to follow, showing them the way to, “See? This is how it’s done. Now you try.”

A lot of directors do try. Quite a few do well. Some simply execute an inoffensive, meh film. Most just crash and burn. But in the endgame it all boils down to that old saw, “We learn more from our failures than our successes.” That way of thinking might explain away why when a film critic extols the virtue of a great movie, it’s often balanced against a similar film that either backfired or outright sh*t the bed. Imagine Roger Ebert or Leonard Maltin saying something like, “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan is a really fun film, especially considering the first movie was so boring.”

Here’s another possible scenario: “Scorsese really scored big with his biopic Raging Bull. This reaffirms the director’s creative worth, particularly after his recent disappointments with New York, New York and American Boy.”

Then there’s always the old standby: comparing a good film with a similar plot to a sh*tty analog. The contrasting between Brand X film against Gigli, Batman And Robin, anything Adam Sandler’s done in the past five years, etc.

So you get it. Bitter with the sweet. Great films are unimpeachable in their creative merit. Bad films just suck, disappoint and—at worst and way too often—insult. So you really can’t elevate a certain film to godhood within the pantheon of Tinsel Town without also crawling on the backs of dozens of cinematic fallen angels. I know I’m painting with a wide brush. I always do. C’mon, this is nothing new. It’s virtually SOP here at RIORI. You should know this by now.

Still here? Excellent.

That being said, it’s kinda how I stumbled upon John Carter. Well, “stumble” isn’t really accurate. When I sift through the Web to track down potential victims for RIORI‘s dry well in its basement I refer to a number of movie review/business sites. Familiar places like Rotten Tomatoes, AllMovie and of course the IMDB. Also lesser known/more obscure pages like Box Office Mojo, Flickchart and The Numbers. In addition to suggestions via FaceBook, Twitter or actual flesh-and-blood people calling out the next film to tackle at RIORI, I usually bumble through the above sites to choose my next victim. Such sniffings resulted in how John Carter hovered into my airspace.

I learned that John Carter was so reviled it had to be the ideal specimen as my experiment’s control. It was the biggest fiasco in recent years that throttled the movie industry. It had a big budget, name stars, a revered director, ideal source material and a high profile thanks to the Disney tag (more on the House of Mouse later). Then Murphy’s Law intervened.

*twirls moustache*

I had found my bitch. John Carter fit the bill in every way. All that bad press? How could I not scratch my head and wonder WTF? So I proceeded to plunk the disc into the machine and got to watching. I entered the labyrinth with a neutral attitude of, “Oh, how bad could it possibly be?”

Famous last words? Let’s see…

You can’t escape your past, no matter where you go. Or run.

Former Confederate cavalryman Captain John Carter (Kitsch) has been trying to escape his past ever since he lost his family. He left his beloved Virginia to points afar, trying to both break away from his wounded history and forge a new life for himself. Defeated. Without a family. Alone. Based on sordid circumstances, that’s how he wants it.

His wish isn’t granted. Carter’s rep as a once fearless soldier dogs him, enough for him to be uprooted from his chosen vagabond existence by a troop of frontier soldiers. Carter’s got himself a rep for battle, all right. So much so that he’s going to be forcibly enlisted in dreadful “Indian affairs” or get strung up by his thumbs.

Carter’s having none of this; he’s already fought enough. All he wanted to do was start a new life out West, pull a Horace Mann. He’s heard about this mysterious mine called the “Spider Cave of Gold” and aims to begin his fortune there, reap its possible benefits. Nuh-uh. Dem dirty red Injuns got to be shown what for. F*ck that, and Carter promptly escapes, the militia in hot pursuit. Escape is all Carter seems to do these days.

Carter’s retreat finds himself taking haven in a strange cave. Weird inscriptions cover the walls and there’s a prominent petroglyph depicting what looks like the Solar System. Could this be the elusive “Spider Cave?” Jackpot! While Carter continues to investigate, a strange person dressed in odd clothes materializes and attacks him, whom quickly Carter dispatches with his pistol.

The man drops something. A medallion, the likes of which Carter has never seen before on Earth. How right his is. Carter picks it up and…

…he takes a face plant in the desert. Where the hell is he? Where’d the cave go? Carter sets out to investigate and finds himself bouncing and stumbling along like a yo-yo. He notices the air tastes different, too. It dawns on him that he’s ain’t out west anymore.

But where is where? And what’s that noise?

A horde of angry, four-armed green aliens appear on the horizon, chasing John down. Then the airships attack. There’s a princess in danger. One of the strange men that attacked him in the cave has given a crazed warlord a magical weapon of mass destruction to conquer the planet of Barsoom.

Er, Mars. He aims to conquer Mars.


Well, Carter wanted to escape his old life. Too bad it takes another war, another loss and another planet to do that…

The only issue I take up with John Carter is a simple one. Mind you the matter is indeed also a simple one. It’s akin to a scene in a Hitchcock film were the MacGuffin quickly becomes the lead role. But it soon becomes terribly evident as John Carter progresses. The answer in the form of a question, Alex. It goes something like this:

“Why was director Stanton not permitted to do his job?”

Well, actually, I have a few issues with Carter, small but many. However, that question is the sliver of bamboo under the fingernail. It starts our skewering John Carter by both probing into the disconnect between top-notch movie cred and the poorly executed throughput. Ah, ‘tis the bare nubbin of truth, as it’s been said (what’s a nubbin?) is what we’re aiming for here, people. So follow me and dig my mood. We’ll get to scour Carter later on. Promise.

Remember earlier when I mentioned I was going to examine Disney Studios? Well, gently poke a stick at the mega-movie making machine is more apt. Seriously, tear into the esteemed family-friendly moviemakers with anything but reverence and awe and you’re likely to be disemboweled by Pluto’s gnashing fangs. If any of you heard about the time former Disney CEO Michael Eisner demanded a mural of Mickey painted over at a local daycare for matters of copyright infringement, you might get where I’m coming from. Nice doggie.

Okay, so I’m not going to paint Disney as some malevolent, many-headed hydra of media dominance and an unscrupulous icon of unbridled capitalism (which is, well…). That’s too easy. Instead—to keep Pluto at bay, at least—I’m going to analyze two overt facets of the 21st Century Disney output when it comes to their making and marketing of their films. I say overt because, hey, it’s what I’ve seen in recent years. Literally. On the screen. That and maybe apply one of my trademark webs of conspiracy to claim that Hollywood’s out to drain your wallet with sh*tty product because they think you’re stupid.

Hold on. Come back. I still like kitties!

Thank you. Okay, here’s what I’ve seen coming from the House of Mouse for the past decade or so: their stock has been waning. Not on Wall Street, but as filmmakers. Regarding that notion, riddle me this: name a single hit animated Disney film in past decade—barring Frozen and anything to do with Marvel characters and/or Pixar Studios.

*cups hand to ear*

I came up trumps too. Wanna know what I think? This anomaly might have something to do with Disney more or less “outsourcing” their talents from satellite operations, probably because they saw dollar signs, potential threats or a decline in quality from their bullpen and needed to circle the wagons. Maybe all three. I mean Disney’s first fully CGI-rendered movie Meet The Robinsons tanked while being pitted against Pixar’s Up. What happened not soon after? Right. Disney/Pixar was born. Coincidence? I dunno.

At the end of the day, Disney, Pixar and eventually Marvel all made good business. Thanks to Disney’s backing, we now get things like Inside/Out with killer CGI animation and a fresh Marvel superhero movie every lunchtime. And yet, stand-alone Disney features are still coming up short. I know that my fact-checking department is currently on strike (they’d rather have a Coke machine than the Fresca one in the breakroom, then I have to remind the voices in my head that they don’t need to drink), so I only have to go on what I’ve seen. Again, literally.

My daughter is eight, and has veto power over Mom and Dad when it comes to seeing any movie at the multiplex. That being said I’ve seen waaaaay too many Disney films over the past few years. Their last “hit” was 2014’s Maleficent, featuring Angelina Jolie in a comeback role taking her away from rescuing refugee kids from Vancouver or something. I saw the movie (twice, against my will both times of course), and wasn’t really bowled over. My stepdaughter thought it was okay. The eight-year-old did not. She said she was bored. What was the beef?

It felt like something more than just being let down by a much-hyped movie that promised—nay, screamed drama, action and adventure fantasy feature. Maleficent’s sets and CGI were beautiful and fluid. An Oscar-winning actress played our titular character charmingly with a keen touch of malevolence. The story was interesting and…um…conflicted with very large plot holes, as well as characters acting out of character. Well, there was a newbie director at the helm, so maybe his hand wasn’t as steady as it could’ve been. But the film felt solid overall. Solid, but also derivative. I couldn’t put my finger on why. Nor could the kids shake their feelings of being let down. Something was amiss. It was there, some something hindering Maleficent’s potential to thrill, and none of anything listed above felt responsible for the movie’s stale taste in all our mouths.

It took me some time to figure it out. Now granted, I wasn’t the target audience for Maleficent. In fact, I fell into the camp that asked why did Disney retrofit one of its classic villains, and thereby undoing her mystique? Sure, the movie looked cool, and giving Mal a little backstory was nice (albeit not needed nor asked for) but there was something—not sure how to put it—hanging over the movie. An impediment, like someone on the production crew had his or her hands tied. Well, “tied” might be the wrong word.

Monitored is a better term. And I don’t mean by watching from the wings.

Wait. Before we go there, let me go you one further here: not long after Disney got its mitts on Pixar, that studio’s reliable streak of quality movies began to falter. It started with the limp Cars movies—a naked as any attempt at franchising if there ever was one—later continued with the derivative princess tale Brave, and eventually led to the superfluous prequel (a term I’ve always hated) Monsters University. Don’t even get me started on the sequel binge. Okay, to be fair, Toy Story 3 was great. Even a blind squirrel finds a chestnut now and again. The offbeat nature of Pixar’s movies began falling into line. Sure, there were still the usual touching moments, quirky humor, unique characters and the voice casting agent should have his/her visage hanging from the Hollywood sign like an oracle. But there began a formula all but the most vigilant would miss.

Everything Disney has released on screen for years has been very tightly controlled. It’s all been very linear; plot twists are few, stories are safe and imitative, sh*t’s gotten very rigid in execution. It’s like either Disney doesn’t want to play too rough with its newly-acquired toys for fear of breaking them. How so? Perhaps giving over too much creative control to Marvel and/or Pixar—as had being the original owners, know how get the things to work at optimum speed, as well as refresh the batteries with regularity—that they tremble apart under their own weight. Such outsourcing would need Disney’s funding to get back on track for the next Avengers picture and that Pixar dinosaur movie that’s been languishing for years.

Order must be maintained. At all costs.

I’m not talking about Disney movie production creating this Orwellian notion of scrutinizing every camera angle and footlight and slate going clack! I think there’s something more insidious afoot there at Disney Studios when they roll film. And when whatever it is gets put into effect, their current stand-alone crop of movies just can’t hit the target nowadays. Stuff like Maleficent, The Lone Ranger, The Pacifier, The Haunted Mansion, Old Dogs, Tron: Legacy and any of the Pirates Of The Caribbean sequels haven’t exactly set audiences on fire. And those are a sample of  just the live-action movies. Patterns follow for the animated ones, save Pixar up until the merger. Ditto with superheroics.

Disney’s movies from the past decade have been holding back. Everything feels safe instead of inviting. Direct instead of honest. Practiced instead of organic. By-the-numbers instead of from-the-hip. You hear what I’m screaming. Disney’s being careful rather than carefree, and I think it’s Walt’s ghost hovering over the sets.

I’ve heard about the rigorous standards for which Disney Land/World demands of their employees. Some are simple things, like no criminal records, illegal drug use or body art. Some rules are more curious things about hairstyles (not about what’s inappropriate, but how hair should be styled). Some rules are downright bizarre, like having employee height requirements, a moratorium on eyeglasses and only being able to point at something with two fingers. I’m sure Walt and Roy had good reasons for these standards, but they’re dead. Maybe some of the more superfluous rules should’ve died with them. But even if that did happen, you could be damned sure their spirits would haunt the Happiest Place on Earth, and all the hosts would wear contacts.

They still rattle some chains, at least as far when the sound stage is concerned.

A (possibly) unwritten code of conduct, standards and practices appears to be injected in all Disney productions. There’s a philosophy—or seemingly as of late, habit—at work dictating how a Disney film gets produced. They manifest all the cautions I listed above. There is an image to protect; a whimsy and childlike naïveté to uphold. To be inoffensive. To make sure the hero will always win out, ensured by keeping the conflict quick and low, and this being able to see before the second act. To have good always will out with minimal sacrifices. That and the de rigueur “happy ending.” Oh, and animals! Can’t cut a picture without a few anthropomorphic critters (singing experience necessary) at the ready!

I think this is the pattern—or rut—that Diz has fallen into since the turn of the century. Following this outline, which may or may not be an actual bible when executing Disney films, has bound the hands of many directors and actors to “play it safe.” That and maybe allow a few plot twists to set the audience off guard and simultaneously pique their curiosity, not confuse them. But instead, how about mixing in a few honest tragedies to maximize the emotional feedback as well as set the conflict in motion? How about backing off on exposition a hair and let the audience fill in the blanks? How about fewer unessential threads of romantic interest?

Less singing squirrels?

Veteran Pixar director Andrew Stanton understands this. I just highlighted various effective narrative devices employed for his delightful Finding Nemo and his opus WALL-E. Of course, he cut these classics as a veteran Pixar director first. His hands weren’t tied creating those gems.

Well, perhaps I shouldn’t say tied. No doubt that Pixar also has standards and practicing their craft. They like Disney hit upon a formula that works when it comes to making great movies. The significant difference between these two studios is that—regarding making films in the 21st Century—Pixar tends to take more risks, experiment more with plotting and characterization. Sure, there’s always going to be archetypes in stories, but considering Pixar’s output, it’s akin to playing the blues: it’s not the notes, it’s how they’re played. Lately Disney has just be using a click-track paired with Auto-tune in churning out their work, and the end results have been less than melodic.

So now we return to the inevitable: “Why was director Stanton not allowed to do his job?”

I blame the image/ghost of Disney tied one of Stanton’s arms behind his back. We have a way of doing things here at the House of Mouse, Andy. This ain’t Pixar right yonder. You play by our rules. Millions of dollars/families depend on it. Now make us a sci-fi action flick how it should be done, bless Walt, and don’t f*ck up. Don’t forget to have fun!

Disney’s fortunes only begun to change with acquiring Marvel, Pixar and hiring on the team who created Frozen—that once worked for Pixar. Stanton once worked for Pixar also, and I suppose for Carter he didn’t want to let his new benefactors down. Instead he forsook his muse and needed a coyote to chew off his arm.

John Carter could’ve been so much more than the final cut. Pre-production, the project had everything going for it. We had gifted Stanton behind the camera. Pulitzer-award winning writer Michael Chabon had a hand in creating the script. Up-and-coming young stars Kitsch and Collins were poised to really breakthrough. Veteran character actors Defoe, Church and Strong were at the ready to lend some weight. Even the source material! Sci-fi action written by Tarzan’s Dad, Edgar Rice Burroughs! F*ckin’ rock on!

What the hell happened? A lot. And nothing.

Before I commenced this part of the installment—the sober, meticulous, slathering dismantling of this week’s quarry with much spittle and profanity—I passed words with a buddy of mine who follows my blog and was curious about the next entry. What was on the block? I told him John Carter and he perked up. He said (and this should be the epitaph on RIORI’s home page when the One Great Maker strikes it down into cyberhell), “It wasn’t as bad as I’d thought.” His was hardly a ringing endorsement, I know. But the guy was right: John Carter wasn’t as bad as its press would lead you to believe.

Movie still screwed the Thark, though.

But my friend was right. Carter wasn’t all bad. In fact, big chunks of it were hella cool, and I found myself popping out of my chair in excitement more than once. Then again, it could’ve just been me getting up to freshen my drink. Things get muddled after midnight. However that happened kinda few and far between—the excitement, not the drinks; the drinks happened more often, which would explain my sloppy notes—and the rest of my viewing experience was best described as, “All right. Get on with it,” paired with, “Hey, cool!” and a healthy dose of “What the f*ck’s going on?” for good measure.

What I’m getting at is while watching Carter, I had few moments of the second kind. But they were great moments. The air chase scenes. The Thark Arena. The intrigue surrounding the mysterious Thurns machinations while manipulating politics between Helium and Zodanga. The massive pigpile battle flashbacking against Carter’s dismal backstory was a minor triumph in editing. All were awesome and all were fleeting.

However it can’t be denied that the visuals are indeed cool, and not just in pixels or application. Carter is supposed to be a sumptuous sci-fi treat for the eyes after all, but how they were shot it what’s key. They’re cool in the sense that they’ve been carefully considered. A lot of fantasy/sci-fi movies these days simply try to dazzle with the newest tech, and that’s it. Not Carter. All the visuals are used as wallpaper to surround the story—bookend scenes, if you will—and not distract you from it. Not to fear, there is a lot to look at here (save the monochrome deserts of Barsoom. So much that when we get to a scene where our heroes have to navigate a river, the sight of blue is almost jarring, if not a bit of a relief). The walking city, the insect-like airships, the Thark encampment and all the wild costumes and alien bodies are pleasures for the eyes. Distinctive, state-of-the-art and arresting. You really get the impression that Stanton and company were attempting to build something epic with Carter and its high production values. Thanks to the visuals, everything here seems big, but not so bombastic as to be distracting. They really don’t make larger-than-life fantasy/sci-fi movies like this much anymore. It’s kind of a shame really.

But after the first hour, you start to understand why that is.

The flipside—and there is always that factor when a movie lands here at RIORI—is what soon becomes distracting as how our tale plays out. The whole first and third bits. I’m talking about the script here as the major culprit. You see, Carter was adapted from Burrough’s A Princess Of Mars, the first in a series of novels of his eventual Barsoom chronicles. Novels. One gets the feeling after several scenes, both Earthside and on Mars, that there was a lot of info to download into a scant two hours. Naturally for all the details essential to the plot, Carter is exposition heavy. Top-heavy would be a more apt term. It kills the pacing, and you know how that makes me feel. Nary a scene of action passes without a following scene twice as long explaining what happened, what’s presently happening, and what will happen later. Carter breaks the first rule of storytelling in every way. It’s more like gives it a compound fracture. You always gotta “show, not tell.” Yeah, yeah. Carter shows a lot of cool sh*t, but we shouldn’t have to have a dissertation on Thark culture or Helium politics after every battle. It takes the air out of the balloon (get it? Helium? Balloon? Beer cans?). It makes everything feel flat in the long run, and it’s a very long run.

It’s not just the heavy verbiage that closes the damper on Carter’s muted verve. There’s a sensation of the ghost haunting the whole film’s execution, but ramped up to 11. One can’t ignore the feeling that director Stanton, darling vet from Pixar “on loan” to Disney, is being constrained by his benefactor studio’s reputation/guidelines and therefore handling Carter with kid gloves rather than hands taped for the prize fight. The result tastes of pure frustration. You feel that Carter is trying to aim high, but you must be at least this tall to ride this ride. And you can’t wear those glasses, either (and Stanton does indeed sport eyewear. I’m serious. Check Wikipedia). Disney films have a particular standard/straight line to follow for the company’s benefit. Read: reliable, predictable return on investment. Do not deviate too far from the employee manual or we’ll cut you off at the knees (right John Lasseter? Oops!).

So we’ve established there’s an edge missing here. Based on this disconnect, Carter teeters between family film—a la Disney’s bread and butter formula—and a big budget summer blockbuster adventure film. And it can’t seem to make up its mind as to which. Again, I blame Disney, but in this case not in a finger-wagging way. After so many live-action busts, and with such a mammoth budget in place, Carter had to be surgically executed to optimize both blockbuster returns while sating the masses as well as core Disney audiences. They hedged their bets, gave Stanton a little wiggle room (the cool sh*t that grabbed me) and enforced the formula. The final product was more or less a schizo film. In general, the average movie audience come summertime does not want, let alone need some big deal epic with a byzantine plot packed to the gunwales with the minutiae of the political climate of an alien culture residing on a planet that cannot support life.


Right. We want boom and Lynn Collins dressed in next to nothing.

Okay. I want Lynn Collins dressed in next to nothing. Scratch that: simply nothing will do just fine, thank you very much.


What was I saying? Oh, yeah. Keep a summer movie simple and exciting. Doing this is like gambling, and Hollywood does it all the time. The tentpole movies that cost trillions of dollars to produce? Roll of the dice. Here’s hoping enough fish bite. Disney, on the other hand, has been so calculating for so long in its movie output that upsetting the apple cart has taken precedence over the possibility of a mega hit by taking a little risk. I mean, need I remind you that the only real hit film Disney’s had in recent years was Frozen, and that might be because they hired former Pixar animators to execute the movie, those edgy rapscallions. I guess that’s kinda being risky.

Back to Carter: the other big part that makes or breaks a blockbuster movie (or any movie, for that matter) is the acting. Carter has solid acting in spades. Watch it: solid. Despite my misgivings about Disney casting Kitsch as our interplanetary adventurer (admittedly my reservations are based on rooting for an actor named “Kitsch.” So sue me), what with his pretty boy looks and CV of playing guys with pretty boy looks, I was pleasantly surprised. Not convinced, mind you, but you’ll take what you can get.

Kitsch made a pretty decent action hero, especially one in the vein of reluctant and everyman. What I found notable is how grizzled his John Carter was. The guy’s, what, 32? He looks well through his forties here, and that’s not just his makeup either. Kitsch’s Carter comes across as world-weary, a man who’s seen too much, and just wants some peace. Even his adventures on Mars have this motivation of either avoiding conflict or escaping it. Carter doesn’t want to do what’s been foisted upon him (war, intrigue, a stupid alien-dog thing), but rises to the occasion as needed. He musters up strength and courage from somewhere below as any determined person would in the face of conflict. Kitsch conveys this quite well. He’s no John Wayne, but he tries hard. In fits and starts, Kitsch actually succeeds. Our hero is gruff, but everyman in an earnest sense, and for such a long movie beyond the running time, we better have something sincere to moor our boat onto.

Now I like Mark Strong. He’s fast becoming a fave character actor of mine. I first became aware of him by way of RIORI actually. It was installment 7 in Volume 1, the Green Lantern lashing. He portrayed Hal Jordan’s imperious mentor, Sinestro (Strong was barely recognizable under all the makeup and with the CGI enhancements). Being haughty is something Strong delivers well, and tastefully, too. Not many actors can scam the snooty attitude without being off-putting, even if they’re supposed to be the bad guy. What’s nifty about Carter’s Rogue’s Gallery (and the list is long, believe you me) is that it’s not until the third act that you figure out whose the real upsetter on Barsoom is (SPOILER: it’s Shang the Thurn). Strong is very good at insinuating his characters into the story without a lot of hoot and holler. The best way to describe Strong’s overall acting style is that it grows on you. Granted, Sinestro was a dick, but he made his reasons clear. In Kick-Ass, it came as no surprise that mobster D’Amico was a scheming low-life, but was also noteworthy as being a doting family man and a rather protective (albeit skewed) father. In Carter, his Shang is a very cool customer, seemingly all-knowing about how the fractured politics on Barsoom will fall apart with just the right prodding. And guess who’s holding the stick? Strong was far and away the most interesting role in all of Carter’s world.

It’s unfortunate that Kitsch and Strong’s are the only roles worth mentioning here. Despite the sparks these two possess, the rest of the cast is nothing but two-dimensional stereotypes. The willful princess. The power-mad general. The organic chieftain bound to the land. The feisty “Amazon” warrior. Even the anthropomorphic, loyal sidekick, before god. Line up against the wall. It’s as if there was so much exposition in Carter it left no room for character development; everyone was too busy f*cking babbling about Barsoom that they forgot to say, “Hi!” to one another. In fact, a great deal of the dialogue in Carter is mutually delivered at the players rather than between the players. It’s the curse of exposition paired with too much stuff happening on screen. There’s so much to explain very little gets said. Again, a shame. I still blame the Disney rep straitjacket, also (no shocker).

When it all goes down, Carter is not an “acting” movie. It’s an action movie, and it’s got that in spades, albeit in fits and starts due to the clunky pace bogged down by all that exposition. Apart from Stanton’s hands bound, the only other problem is that damned eternal elucidation. This might sound ludicrous, but Carter may have benefitted from a longer running time. Or even be a series—like the books—so to give all that detail room to breathe rather than choke it into a single film. Carter wanted to be big; it should’ve gotten its big boy pants.

So. What have we learned?

It’s more like claimed. I admit it. My disdain for Disney’s antics in the 21st Century is so thick you could drizzle it on pancakes. It’s also not so myopic to deny that Diz has made and is still capable of making awesome films. I mean, c’mon: The Lion King? Tron? Sleeping Beauty? Mary f*cking Poppins? Even in this cynical age, to claim that “only Disney” could cut those tracks would be greeted with a wink and a smile.

So what happened? That specter looms, in spite of forever changes in audiences’ tastes and newer modes of making movies. Both of those factors pay great deal into being risky, trying new things, rock the boat, get people’s attention. Disney’s gotta bust that ghost in order to remain relevant on its own two feet, rather than riding piggyback on its acquisitions. A great deal of what made the above Disney films great was that a bit of risk was taken in getting them onto the screen. A good example (kinda)? The original Tron. It was bleeding edge for its time, and also tanked at the box office. It also never got nominated for a best visual effects Oscar. Not won. Never got a nod. Imagine that. Disney was prescient in modern movie animation over 30 years ago. Took a lot of cajones in invest in very expensive and untried CGI from three disparate programming firms to launch that rocket. And the Academy snubbed the film because they cheated by using CGI. In 1982. Cheated. This was seven years before James Cameron’s The Abyss got its shout-out. I guess they didn’t call it cheating by that point. But seven years prior Disney tossed the dice. They took a risk, and thereby set a precedent.

But 30 years later, they won. Hey, a belated sequel to a cult film is better than none at all, I guess, even if the result was kinda meh (do I smell my next victim here, hmm?). We can only hope that the House of Mouse optioned all of Burrough’s Barsoom novels and Stanton would be willing to try again. Maybe he could get Lasseter to come along for the ride?

Uh, I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghost?

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Really. Yeah, it’s got a lot of flaws, but it still has the Disney spark, however muted. Folks don’t make movies like this much anymore (at least without the name Tolkien attached). Give Carter an ‘A’ for effort. Give an A+ to Stanton by playing the hand he was dealt. And give a bone to Pluto so he’ll stop gnawing on my ankle.

 Stray Observations…

  • “The first item…is beans.” And so our adventure begins.
  • It’s a battle of the voices. Who’s better? The scruffy and throaty Kitsch or Defoe who fluctuates between nasal and stentorian? I’m leaning towards Willem.
  • “Nice monster dog.”
  • Speaking of voices, Morton’s has the same cadence for every single one of her damned roles. Even as an alien on Mars, for f*ck’s sake! Get a vocal coach already.
  • “Let Redmen kill Redmen until only their thoughts remain!” Don’t get it, but thanks to Defoe’s delivery it sure sounds hella cool.
  • For me, the jumping stunts never got old. Kitsch had to wear a harness and bounced around at up to 80 MPH. Really. According to the IMDB, he found the experience “unpleasant.”
  • “You are ugly, but you are beautiful.” Aww, thanks, Coach.
  • What’s with all the hitting? I mean, not punching nor kicking. Hitting. Everyone on Barsoom when under duress f*cking slaps at each other like a lame Three Stooges Nyuk nyuk nyuk.
  • “…Maybe I oughta get behind…you.” Smoooooth.
  • The reason for the parenthetical reference in this week’s installment’s heading is for John Carter was originally intended to have the full tag. It was Stanton’s idea to drop the Of Mars part so to make the film more accessible in downplaying the sci-fi angle. He also hoped that Carter would indeed be the first chapter in a series, which is why at the end credits the Of Mars tag is restored. Still, and hindsight being 20/20, the full title would’ve been much cooler and more eye-grabbing if you’d ask me.
  • I liked the twin moon visual. Not sure why. Guess I’m due back on Barsoom.

Next Installment…

Adam Sandler used to be one of the Funny People (in more ways than one). He needs a few reminders from Seth Rogen so maybe he can get his act together again. Before it’s curtains (*rimshot*).

RIORI Volume 3, Installment 12: Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult” (2011)

Young Adult

The Players…

Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson and Elizabeth Reaser, with Colette Wolfe, Jill Eikenberry and Mary Beth Hurt.

The Story…

Popular teen novelist Mavis Gary has hit both career and life arrest. She’s going nowhere fast, and despite her (very) modest success she feels like she’s lost something along the way. A happenstance invite back to her hometown from Buddy—her one time high school sweetheart—for his newborn’s christening gets Mavis to thinking. Maybe this is a sign, a way out of her rut. She could connect with old ties, flaunt her (admittedly dimming) star power, visit mom and dad. Maybe even try to ruin Buddy’s happy marriage with a juvenile sense of righteousness to rekindle old flames.

Hey, who says you can’t go home again?

The Rant…

I had two intros in mind before I began this week’s salvo. One personal and one practical. Sentimental against professional. For reasons that later may or may not seem appropriate for this installment, I’m including both. I’ll let you out there smack Howie upside his chrome dome as to picking which suitcase seems the best bet.

First Intro…

“The only thing that truly ages well with time is nostalgia.”

You can use that. It’s one of my favorite chestnuts. Also, as far as I know, it’s mine. It might’ve been F Scott Fitzgerald’s, but since I was as much of a lush as his legend decrees, we’re probably on even footing.

I’ve learned about—and have fallen victim to—the narcissistic trappings of blogging. It’s understood such websites are given over to jillions of people to get all flowery about their pet project and/or get all foamy and pissed about…well, others’ pet project.

Me? My rambling meditations on meh movies have become perilously close to being a soapbox thinly masked as the other side of the curtain. I am not immune to the Internet-blessed deceit of anonymity. Neither are you. Remember that you with 6000 FaceBook “friends” and your Twitter feed in the millions aren’t exempt. We’re all victim to too much exposure paired with precious little self-examination.

Which is why I quoted myself above all meta-like. Let’s face facts. Nostalgia is narcissistic. I mean, for real, isn’t any and all recollections about, say, your formative years in high school both self-centered and probably a lot more golden than you remembered it? Sure it is, but don’t let a little thing like self-delusion get in the way of how things—and you—were much cooler back in the day.

Oh, quit blowing smoke up my ass—by extension, yours also—and try to change the subject. I can smell hipster faux-irony like a fart in a car. Of course things more likely sucked than shined back in your high school days. Thanks to a little Vaseline on the rosy glasses of memory, blurring the truth ever so slightly, we were all hip in high school. Even if you didn’t run in circles with the cool cliques, there were probably enough mutants in your class to hang with—the typical gangs of misfits, nerds and band geeks—to satisfy one’s desperate social needs. It didn’t matter what you were into (sports, cheerleading, music, video games, abusing yourself in the bathroom ‘round about midnight, etc), you had to find some sort of something to identify with, probably gelling your own identity in the process. You’d end up defining yourself by what you liked, what you were a self-proclaimed expert on, what you hated, what you hated in others and what you hated about your meager high school social scene. The last bit usually accompanied with a quite a few peers in tow who were into ripped jeans, David Lynch movies and an unhealthy fixation with albums by the Cure. Hey, like attracts like.

Naturally being a geek, the cooler kids had it in for you and others of your ilk. I know nowadays with the advent of “geek chic” that being quirky does not automatically guarantee finding one’s head pointed in the wrong direction on the toilet. Millennials might either cringe or outright laugh in disbelief at the notion that the kid with the impeccable GPA who sports an Arcade Fire tee from Hot Topic and has a customized Google Glass with hacked holographic tech would be a target for social lynching. When I was in high school back in the Stone Age 90s, I caught hell merely for my extensive, eclectic music collection, and a good portion of it in classic vinyl dinosaurs. That and being both a Rush and Depeche Mode fan. Black celebration indeed.

Those popular jocks and cheerleaders ruled the school while you and your low-life buddies toiled away in steerage. It’s kind of an open secret nowadays that the kids who were slighted or simply “outsiders” grew up to become generally well-rounded adults. The queen bees and lettermen, anchored to the hierarchy of status and popularity high school provided didn’t fare as well later on. I think this happens due to the nature of cliques; one tends to define oneself within a pecking order. That and mirroring your peers or relying on adoration to prop up self-esteem. Take that away upon graduation, tether cut and you have to “find yourself” in the cold, hard world where you’re just a cog in a grinding machine. It can be jarring, if not crushing to a former “cool kid” to lose that support system. A system that rejected all the loner nerds who fended for themselves, fled home to their basement and their eventual bestselling novel that paid off the student loans for Yale in a mere two years. One could only dream, but look at Bill Gates.

Let me tell you a brief story; an example of stuff like that happening (and it happens all the time). Now the next thing I ramble on about might be looking too deeply into the insidious nature of high school social structure. But since this is my blog and I can play god, I’ll warp the following observations just enough to validate my little sociological analysis here. So as they say, the following story is true, except for the crap I made up.

During my freshman year at Syracuse University, the first semester was more or less and even balance between “finding myself” and just doing my usual thing. Being a nerdy guy in high school—possessing all the benefits that entails—I got on fine at college. I think I actually did better there socially since I was accustomed to hanging with a small group of friends as odd as I. Not to mention my bando buddies, who were like family since we shared a common interest in music. I didn’t have much understanding of a herd mentality, not like I had much say in it. Whatever it was, I fared okay within the social circles at college. It probably helped that I was also a bando again at ol’ SU, which became my new surrogate family.

Fall break came, and my then girlfriend and me went back to my hometown for a little R&R and a chance to do laundry for free. As a lark we went to a football game at my old alma mater that Friday. We sat near the band (naturally) and sure enough, a few of my bando buddies who graduated with me showed up and there were handshakes all around. I introduced my girl and got the kind of silent approval that only guys can detect. From the guys who always knew I wasn’t gay, despite the sh*t I was force-fed by the joker types, they were friendly with her. We naturally asked each other how we were doing. Some of us told how college was treating us. Others who didn’t seek higher education told us about their jobs. One guy was in the Air Force, a mechanic who worked on fighter jets—very cool. It was kinda like a night out drinking, but since we were all too young, Jolt Cola had to do (remember that sh*t? The proto Red Bull. We drank it like blood back in high school. Blech).

It was no big thing. Just “Hey, how’s it goin’?” Not to sound snide (for once), but in only mere months, we had given up on high school; forgotten most of the bullsh*t we endured because now we were too preoccupied with our collegiate/workforce lifestyles. My girlfriend pointed out how much smaller high school football games were compared to the ones at SU. She was in the marching band, too, and us musicians were privileged to end zone seats every game to toot and scream at the players almost every Saturday. My companions agreed—those attending college and also got to see such games on the gridiron—and we laughed like this was years ago, not months. Us, we seasoned weirdoes.

Did I mention this was the first game of the season? High school football’s kind of a big deal in my little burg. It was virtually compulsory for the whole damned town to turn out for the Friday night lights. They rolled up the sidewalks and off to the stadium, lemming-like, the good citizens went. I guess I can’t be too snarky, since I made a bee line also that night. But it was to meet old friends! And share college stories! And show off my new girlfriend with the perky boobs and titian hair thereby proving I could nab a babe despite my Depeche Mode collection (Songs Of Faith And Devotion is a terribly underrated album, BTW)!

So anyway, first game of the season. It wasn’t just me, my well-endowed girlfriend (she had a nice personality, too. I think) and my loner bando buddies who turned out that night. Quite a few former members of the William Allen Senior High marching band showed up too, and not all of them were social outcasts. In fact, most weren’t; band was just another extracurricular feather in their hat of a CV. A clutch of them was “popular kids,” and they made their presence known as free as we pleased.

Let’s not go there. Despite the fact that college was treating me well, and the mid-90s was the dawn of when being awkward was approaching a cachet of hipness, I bore no animosity to these people who alienated and ostracized me so. I had a modicum of self-esteem now, and high school was light-years behind me ever since August. In fact, what nabbed my attention about these folks wasn’t even nabbed by me.

There came a squealing, not unlike the mewling one would hear on the killing floor at the Hatfield factory. My girlfriend elbowed me and pointed. I craned my head around and followed her finger. A trio of girls was screeching and practically collided with one another on the gravel track that circled the perimeter of the football field. I recognized them immediately. You know the kind I’m about to describe—as if I haven’t already—perfect hair, latest fashions, all zero pores and high cheekbones. These were the type of females that tickled my fancy for four years while down in the trenches. What I saw then was less of a get-together like me and my old pals were having and more like the reception the troops received coming home after their second tour in The ‘Nam. There was shrill screaming; crashing embraces and all three linking up to go take a walk down the track. Together. They didn’t even say hi to their fellow, former bandos. But they did speak in large, heady tones usually reserved for the rallies at Nuremburg to one another, as if hoping the others would notice. My girl and I did, but not for my assumed reasons.

My girlfriend asked me, “You know them?”

I shook my head. “…Not really.”

She said, “Y’know, I saw some girls like that when I went back home that weekend for a game. It was like they couldn’t wait to get back to see high school again, right? Some people never grow up.”

True. It wasn’t a disparaging comment, not really. But in my late adolescent mind it got me to thinking, maybe a bit too much (surprise!). Maybe all those “cool” kids were only cool in our geeky minds because how the rest of the rabble viewed them. Such adoration might have fed into a fragile ego/hive-mind that only existed based on others’ perceptions, and therefore appearances must be maintained. Maybe, or just some of those cool kids had really great character and magnetism and confidence we all admired, and didn’t have to resort to some pecking order to reaffirm who the real cock of the walk was. Admit it: a good portion of those popular kids were popular for a reason; they had winning personalities and probably were quite friendly to you in the hall. Truth be told, I knew a few darlings like that. You might have, too.

However, for the sake of my argument, there were a handful of those who were once at the top of the food chain that just didn’t cope well outside the security provided by the high school social circle, and they were likely suspects in the whole high school shunning game. I comment on this because I heard it through the ever-reliable high school bando grapevine—we have a communications system rivaling that of the CIA—that one of those above girls wasn’t doing too well in her school, cut off from her hometown and more or less being on her own for the first time. Another was failing out—not even halfway through the first semester. The third…well, rumor had it that she may or may not have found herself in “the family way,” a term so trite it fits. That’s what I heard. If any or all of those stories were true, little wonder why they fell on each other, reuniting at the classic high school weekend social event: the glorious football game to recapture former glories, strut and preen maybe one last time and be reassured that they were the envy of all the underclassmen. Maybe. Then again, I did say I was probably looking too deeply.

Okay. So now let’s readjust our seat belts and allow RIORI to shuffle its way back from the black corridor of alienation and denial that was high school. Shall we? Also, if you were one o’ dem popular jock/cheerleader types back in the day? I don’t care. We all got the same issues now, regardless of perceived status. And those issues only vary in the context of how it all gets paid in the end.

Second Intro…

There’s this phenomenon I’ve noticed in the past few years—okay, over the past quarter-f*cking-century—that when an esteemed, deserving actor finally wins an Oscar, the quality of their ensuing acting roles precipitously plummets. Here’s an example: Al Pacino. For years he languished in Oscar limbo, never getting the Academy’s credit for a job well done. Not that that really matters. But when Pacino eventually won his apology Oscar for his performance in Scent Of A Woman his following projects followed the laws of diminishing returns. I mean, the last truly decent role Al had was in Donnie Brasco and that was back in 1996. ’96. Almost 20 years ago. With his CV? WTF?

By the way, the whole “apology Oscar” thing? You might be hip to what I’m talking about. It’s the deal when a praiseworthy Hollywood type (an actor, director, best boy, etc) after years of being snubbed by the Academy finally gets their due, even though the recognition should’ve came years earlier, most often for far superior projects. Pacino’s win was an apology; he should’ve gotten his statue back for The Godfather, pt. 2. Or for Dog Day Afternoon. Or for Serpico. Or even for …And Justice For All, for f*ck’s sake.

Nope. Back in 1992? Hoo-ha! Jeez.

Other good examples of apology Oscars are for Denzel Washington, Training Day instead of Malcolm X. Paul Newman; The Color Of Money rather than, say, The Verdict. Even director Martin Scorsese for The Departed (a goddam remake, by the way) instead of GoodFellas or Taxi Driver or Raging Bull or—

You get it.

I’d like to think that when an actor gets their pat on the head, one of two things happen with their career (perhaps both things). First, now that they have some laurels to sit on, they can ford their own path. Pick roles for the fun of it, now having critical legitimacy on their résumé, and not give a sh*t what the Academy may think. I’d also like to believe that’s the route Robert DeNiro took. For decades, he made a name for himself being a heavy, dynamic actor, more so than not for playing characters that oozed cinematic gravitas being hard, tough, world weary (think Travis Bickle or Jake LaMotta). He paid his dues. He earned respect and critical acclaim. He got his statues and as he got older, he decided to f*ck around with Ben Stiller and Bradley Cooper. Nothing wrong with that (I only give Bob a pass because, for all his lame comedic roles, he’s still entertaining). I mean, c’mon, after playing young Vito Corleone and Al Capone, you need a few fart jokes. Don’t we all?

The second route is more insidious. It involves complacency. There are few things sadder than a talented person squandering their talents. It’s like when a drunken, desperate F Scott Fitzgerald resorted to writing screenplays on spec, or what happened to a young Edward Furlong and his promising acting career. By either self-destruction or just failing to give a sh*t anymore (e.g.: chasing the paycheck), some really good actors fail to keep replacing their spent filters and start taking roles that won’t necessarily hurt their career, but definitely will make folks question their reputation and might get themselves booted from the artistic role call.

I think Pacino is in that camp, and I don’t care how old he’s gotten. Yeah, yeah. There was an undeniable fire in his roles back in the 70s, but it didn’t really burn out as he got older. Like with Donnie Brasco, the heat was there, but couched in a wiser, older guy who was well acquainted with the persona of, well, an older wiseguy. He played that role on its ear in Brasco, and his signature tension was intact.

Then, The Devil’s Advocate, where he was just spewing fire (almost literally) and it just went downhill from there. Precipitously.

When you’re an actor playing a parody of yourself, vamping on your signature whatever—shove—off that artistic role call. There’s a fine line between giving the audience what they want and giving the audience what they expect. Pacino’s career in the past twenty years has not been about him portraying fiery characters. It’s been about Al playing Al.

I’m of the concern that Charlize Theron might be headed down that path. I’ve been following her career for years, not just because she’s hot. Well, she was a model, after all. I’m not made of stone (beer and sandwiches maybe, but not stone). She got my attention—as well as the Academy’s—for her performance as convicted serial killer Aileen Wournos in Monster, which she got an Oscar for in 2003.

(An aside: for the past decade, if you’re an actor and want to get an Oscar nod—maybe even a win—do a biopic. It worked for Adrien Brody in The Pianist, Jaime Foxx for Ray, Philip S Hoffman for Capote, Forest Whitaker for The Last King Of Scotland, Sean Penn for Milk, Colin Firth for The King’s Speech, Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln and Eddie Redmayne for The Theory Of Everything. And those are just the guys that won, not including nominees, nor the best supporting roles.

(Let’s beat this to death; now the ladies: Hilary Swank for Boys Don’t Cry, Julia Roberts for Erin Brockovich, Nicole Kidman for The Hours, Reese Witherspoon for Walk The Line, Helen Mirren for The Queen, Marion Cottiliard for La Vie En Rose, Sandra Bullock for The Blind Side, Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady…and Charlize Theron for Monster. Again, ignoring the supporting actresses and nominees.

(Hm. It could be the rampant trend of biopics overall, but still. You want a statue? Take this career advice from yours truly. Now start returning my calls. Especially you Charlize.)

Where was I? Oh yeah, Theron’s movies.

Right, so Theron commanded my attention with Monster, and not just for her hideous make-up job. Her portrayal of Wuornos was downright scary. Maybe horrifying is a better word. If an actress’, or any thespian’s performance can generate an emotional response strong enough to warrant “horrifying” as the best possible way to describe an audience’s reaction, then said actress did their job. Well. Damn well in Theron’s case. So she got the critical acclaim, the trophy and all that it entails. Like a starring role in Aeon Flux later on. A film based on the video game adaptation of a cartoon adaptation of a comic book.

I’m hoping her choice was done for fun. I’m hoping.

I’m not saying at all that Theron’s acting career since Monster has resembled all-you-can-eat night at the local Sizzler. But it has shown signs fraying at the edges. Hancock, Snow White And The Huntsman, Prometheus—still not sure as to the point of her even being in that movie, except maybe to f*ck Idris Elba—and especially A Million Ways To Die In The Old West send up red flares. Again, I’m hoping all that was in fun. But it gets a fanboy like me to wondering.

So now we have Young Adult. It’s a small film. We’re not exactly in indie territory here—which I have learned to avoid, since it automatically invites the usual Standard chokehold—but smaller films often permit big deal, Academy-accolades-be-damned kind of stars to stretch out a bit. Loosen up. Play “out of character” and have some fun without being overtly fun-seeking. Let’s face it, as an actor it’s a lot easier to “be yourself” without having Big Cinema looking down your gullet for growths when being involved in a “small” picture as opposed to those bug budget travesties listed above (f*ckin’ Prometheus. Gah).

A good example of a “little film”—not necessarily indie—that let a big name actor shine without their usual bombast, let alone have popular opinion further sully their questionable career route—is Al Pacino’s own directorial effort, Chinese Coffee (which I may lacerate in the future) starring Col Frank Slade and the late Jerry “Det Lenny Briscoe” Orbach. It was based on a stage play, very simple, and the film version let Pacino shine as an actor, with all his cinematic gravitas intact if not reaffirmed. It was pretty well directed too, for a neophyte.

His small film—which amazingly slipped under the radar in regards to an actor of his (once unflappable) caliber—was…well, since I implied I might tear it to shreds later on, I’ll let any criticism hang in the air. But Chinese Coffee serves as an example of how a little film can keep the consumerist specter of Hollywood off one’s acting career back. Even if you’re Al Pacino.

Although small, it’s kinda hard to dub such a movie “indie” in the honest sense when the director is a big deal in a film world of big deals. When I dub a film indie, it’s not necessary for it to be obscure to earn that label. When you think about it, Birdman was an indie film and it walked away with the Best Picture Oscar, so let me split hairs, all right? My blog, my rules.

So here comes the inevitable question: which Charlize would surface with Young Adult? Would it be the driven and affecting actress a la Monster or North Country? Or would some hot chick out of Aeon Flux or, well, Prometheus, infect us?

Let’s find out. My scalpel’s quite sharp, I assure you…

The life of a novelist can be considered very glamorous. Making a living being creative, pursuing your muse. Hobnobbing with the intellectual elite. Critical praise. Sometimes your work can earn you a beautiful home, a nice ride and never having to want for anything except the idea for the next big book.

Or it can be a work-a-day slog like it is for young adult hack Mavis Gary (Theron).

She lives in a serviceable, dark and cramped apartment. She drives a road-worn, dinky Mini Cooper. Her desk is a mish-mash of not the Great American Novel in progress, but operator’s manuals dictating how Mavis should churn out the next Waverly Prep teen reader installment—a series coming to an end, no less. The only socializing she has is either with her yappy, little dog or whomever she happens upon on her becoming all too frequent nights out at the bar. To top all of this glamour off, Mavis is a ghostwriter and is never openly given credit for her labors. Mavis tells herself real life isn’t like this.

So when a random e-mail shows up in her inbox inviting her back to her old hometown, she leaps at the chance to get out of her rut. Well, not exactly leaps. “Crawl” is a more apt term. Mavis is initially confused by the invitation. It’s from her old high school sweetheart Buddy (Wilson), wanting Mavis to come back to Mercury, MN for his newborn’s christening. To say this came out of the blue is an understatement, but once it all sinks in, Mavis wastes no time to get the hell out of Dodge. At least back in Mercury her life was uncluttered. She was the queen bee, had lots of friends. Of course this was back in high school, like 20 years ago. No matter. Mavis’ll give the local yokels the what-for about being a big deal author from the big town is all about.

Flaunting her cosmopolitan fame doesn’t quite pan out as well as she thought back in old backwater Mercury. Nothing really changed, and the townsfolk like it that way. So when the prodigal daughter who “made good” comes back home, there’s really not much of a reception waiting. So much for that line of attack.

Mavis does find one soul who remembers her from back in the days of the high school hallways. On one of her bar crawls, she stumbles into Matt (Oswalt), a geeky guy from Mercury High who, although wasn’t exactly friends with Mavis, kept abreast of her career. Y’know, local celebrity and all that. Well, it’s amazing what a few dozen shots can do for one’s self-esteem and confidence level. Approaching last call, a drunken Mavis drags Matt outside to drop some science on him. Sure there’s this party at Buddy’s, but secretly she’s back in town to seduce her old beau away from his tranquil life of domestic bliss. Back in the day, they were the it-couple, and since Mavis’ current life is falling into pieces, a fling with the past might just be the tonic she needs.

Of course, Matt finds this scheme f*cking stupid. Sure, life back in Mercury High might’ve been good to Mavis, but Matt was a victim of bullies and abuse, and knows all too well of its cold, hard life lessons. But his words of caution go unheeded by Mavis, hell bent on recapturing old glories. Mavis bounds ahead, rewriting the Waverly Prep bible. After all, the life of a hack ex-prom queen isn’t very glamorous, but maybe drawing from past, shiny experiences, Mavis can do an about-face with the present.

Maybe not…

I liked this one.

I know I’m blowing my cover by saying this outright. I mean, why bother taking apart Young Adult any further? Because it demands it. There is too much going on in this movie despite the simple plot to just lump it into the camp of, “Uh. It wuz good. Charlize purty. Patton made much giggles. Booze.” It also tickled me for being not only a stinging character study, but also a nostalgia film. Remember what I said in the intro? No, the other one.

Yeah, yeah. Gen X. Blah, blah. I love the NES and John Hughes movies. Shut up. Remember back in The To-Do List installment—the other 90s nostalgia-fest tackled here—where Maggie Carey’s semi-autobiographical movie was awash in the day-glo colors of 1993? That pastiche was a sunny, kinda innocent take on that zeitgeist which was both a parody and love letter to those carefree days pre-World Wide Web. Sure it was fun, but I said that List, with all its ’93 fashions and music and slang had pigeonholed audiences squarely aimed towards that movie. Like other movies of that generational ilk (e.g.: The Big Chill, Sixteen Candles, Wall Street, The Best Years Of Our Lives, etc), List had a very narrow audience in mind. I’d say a good sixty percent of moviegoers were lost on all its gags and pop cultural references. You had to be going to high school in the age of grunge to appreciate List.

Young doesn’t play it that way. Kurt Cobain offing himself needn’t be the end of all civilization for you to appreciate this week’s offering. That and unlike List, Young has a vibe about it one could call “malaise.” It’s a grey film; almost dark comedy, and makes us cringe at our alleged heroine’s motives because we all know her hair-brained schemes, delusions and drinking is going to lead to wreck and ruin. All of it by her own hand to boot.

Also unlike List, Young takes place in 2011, not 1993. Sure, Mavis’ mind might be stuck in the past, and there are plenty of touches in the movie to remind audiences where Mavis’ motivation lies. However these touches are used as melancholy, as we know we can’t go back again—what’s done is done—and you can truly never “recapture your glory days.”

Hold on. It’s not all desperation and depression in Young. Quite the opposite, really. There is reluctant buoyancy to the plot, a warped feeling of optimism that keeps the movie on the sunny side. Even if it’s sunlight flickering through a torn curtain.

Right, so Young is a character study. In this case we have Mavis. Everyone knows or knew someone like Mavis. They’re a former cool kid in high school, once always basking in the adoration of others, which ultimately proves to be their undoing. For four years in their formative days they developed a sense of personal value based on others’ perceptions. Take that away, and, well…one can get a tad unglued.

Theron’s Mavis has become quite unglued. She’s boozy, depressed and rather uncomfortable in her own skin. Theron’s portrayal is stiff throughout the movie, as if she’s wearing a mask and/or holding up a shield. Mavis is also rather fragile, like coming back home might shatter her unless she maintains this false front of success and confidence. It’s forged—resigned—from her bad faith decision to live up to an teenage, early 90s vision of herself. You kinda get the feeling that a big part of accepting Buddy’s invitation—well, that and plotting to undo his marriage—gave Mavis the excuse to head back home and revel in what she “escaped” from, re-bolstering that feeling of control she once had in high school. Then again, she could simply be a stuck-up bitch. Sometimes I delve too deeply.

Theron’s good at quiet desperation. However, it’s Oswalt who nails the “nerd angst” most of else felt and wrung their hands over back in high school. Granted for Oswalt, a self-confessed comic book geek, it’s not much of a stretch. With his self-effacing, schlumpy manner, Oswalt’s Matt quietly walks away with the movie. Now it’s understood that Young’s cast is built upon aging high school stereotypes, but none of them are two-dimensional, even Wilson’s former BMOC-turned-family man. Matt’s adult nerd schtick is not played out as sorry, awkward or any of the typical traits one would immediately identify as dorky. No. In spite of Matt being a loser townie—someone who didn’t “escape” Mercury like Mavis did—he possesses more coolness and is far more grounded than she is, what with all her faux urbane sophistication. Matt keeps popping Mavis’ delusions living inside her head, like some malign Jiminy Cricket. It’s really hard to not identify with, let alone enjoy Matt, and thank God he’s the only one that’s able to puncture Mavis’ self-inflated, broken ego. His drinking practices are more interesting, too. Trust me, I know. And salt before tequila is for softies who like Smirnoff Ice. Or Jolt.

There are also a great deal of details shrouding and shadowing Mavis’ world in Mercury. I know I say, “Damn, there’s lotsa details in this here character study” too damned much with movies like this. This time I ain’t talking about sheets of atmosphere enhancers like a good soundtrack and other pop culture touchstones. Okay, not just that. Here with Young, we’re talking quality over quantity unlike The To-Do List. Mavis’ predicament is brilliantly illustrated during the opening credits. Playing the same high school mixtape (tape!) over and over again. And playing the same Teenage Fanclub song, she and Buddy’s song from back in the day (and what screams alt-rock 90s like Teenage Fanclub?) over and over again. Hell, even the choice of song—”The Concept” from 1991s Bandwagonesque. Right, a little obvious—is spot on. The bar scene where Mavis first meets Matt has the Replacements’ “Achin’ To Be” playing softly in the background, and the pair proceeds to get sh*tfaced. Songs are triggers for memories. In Young, the tunes are applied as a tapestry for Mavis’ struggles, both past and…imagined past.

In addition to the music, there are oodles—subtle oodles—of nods to the 90s, Mavis’ halcyon days. The crisp, new fern bar; such places all the rage when the newest episode of Seinfeld was on everyone’s lips. Stupid hard cider drinks, the kind a delicate, unsophisticated teen palate could tolerate before too much resulted in the dry heaves…after much wet heaves. Even Matt’s collection of toys—er, “collectable figurines”—and his dingy Death To The Pixies tee, all of it buffets Mavis in her mission, resulting in an ever increasing tension of desperation. It eventually invites the question: Is Mavis descending into a character from one of her books? Whatever, but the whole scenario warns of the dangers of living vicariously, especially if it’s through your past self.

A final point about the tapestry. This could be the first time in her career that Theron’s beauty slips into parody. The scenes of her primping, choosing clothes for her “big dates,” tweaking her hair (and I mean “tweaking,” not fixing. Well, maybe “fixing” works, too. I’m not gonna spoil it; you’ll just have to see it) and other pathetic, vainglorious attempts to recapture radiance that’s long since blurred due to drinking and stress grinding cigarettes into Theron’s well-known, possibly self-aware public image. I think the woman is smart enough to know that the “just another pretty face” tag isn’t unfounded, and not just in the face of her Oscar-winning turn in Monster. The whole passive “turnabout as fair play” vibe of Young is as subtle as neon regarding the fallen prom queen template. Mavis’ “upgrades” belie her ever-dwindling returns, and it’s kinda hard to watch at times. However, I again think Theron knew this about approaching her character, as well as regarding her public image. Young provided the opportunity to both put the stereotype through a delicious wringer as well as puncture her own over-emphasized red carpet glory. In other words, she acted as Mavis to let the audience “have a laugh on her.” I know I did. Actually, it was more of a wince dotted with groans and snickers.

The only fault I found with Young was that it’s a bit linear and predictable, in that order. The movie might’ve benefited from more twists and turns, particularly employing Oswalt more often, to offset the straight line to Mavis’ impending undoing. Well, it really isn’t an undoing. Yeah, I know I’m flirting dangerously with spoilers here. Just watch the stupid movie and quit yer bitching.

As for the predictability, it’s a minor carp. We all know that nothing good’s going to come of Mavis’ ploy. Director Reitman butters on the pitfalls and failures and obvious calamity that Mavis’ actions will result. It’s only in one of the closing scenes where Matt’s sister Sandra (played earnestly by Colette Wolfe) where one of many possible conclusions could result for Mavis’ drunken fate. Overall, it’s a fun ride getting to the end though, if only it weren’t obvious. Then again, one could make the argument for it being so obvious, therein lays the fun. I dunno. I’m rather torn about the issue. Oh, well.

Young must be the best high school nerd revenge tale ever. It’s the anti-John Hughes movie. However unlike most stories in his vein, there’s no big climax of the dork standing up to the bullying jock, only an awkward, sad breakdown. This is usually how such confrontations pan out in reality anyway if you think about it. It’s no less satisfying though. Granted Mavis comes from a self-appointed, fleeting sense of entitlement, but at the end of the day—all our days—we all gotta get knocked down a peg sometimes. Even the most spoiled brat needs their comeuppance. But we all do, and if we’ve ever walked in those shoes hopefully we walk away with some humility and a lesson learned. Hopefully, but it seldom really happens. Nice to think, though.

Roles offered like Young did are what Theron needs more often. One doesn’t have to be the terse, determined type to score a role that lands an actor’s talent in the butter zone. Namely, high profile doesn’t require high exposure. Theron’s talented, no question there. All she needs to do to retain any street cred is to cut tracks like this one. Trim the fat and steer clear of what potential Prometheus’ might offer, like head scratching and shrugs and a leaving a yen for serial killers. Not that that’s really a bad thing. I guess.

BTW: no, the buxom girl I spoke of in the first intro did not become my wife. My girl’s of average build, and I find her quite pretty, albeit screechy at times. Also, she’s a bigger Depeche Mode fan than I. She thinks Music For The Masses is a more underrated album than Devotion, though. Then again, I prefer Gang Starr’s Daily Operation to both, so I win.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Duh, rent it. Hey, this ain’t a payback tale like Revenge Of The Nerds. It doesn’t have to be, and it’s more gratifying for it. Forget it’s a Gen X nostalgia tale, too. Age knows no obnoxious jock or cheerleader. Unless you were one. Or still are. Then grow the f*ck up and pay the bills.

Stray Observations…

  • “We have lives.” Chew chew chew.
  • I remember cassettes. Mixes. Cheap. Disposable. Fun. Also unreliable. Fragile. Sucked. Not every piece of nostalgia is sweet. Now CD-Rs on the other hand…
  • “You won best hair!”
  • “Yeah, I might be an alcoholic.” “Very funny.” Right. Thanks, “Mom.”
  • Sue me, but any movie that includes the ‘Mats in its soundtrack (even if from their worst album) will always earn some goodie points from me.
  • “How’s your dick?” “Not good!” “Does it work?” Best. Come-on line. Ever.
  • Theron plays buzzed very well. Something tells me The Method might’ve been employed here.
  • “The rest of us changed. You just got lucky.”
  • That was one very f*cked up intervention.
  • “I’m not a weirdo.”
  • Brilliant move with the ranch dressing. If you didn’t get it, you’re hopeless.
  • “Guys like me are born loving women like you.” Best line in the whole damned movie.

Next Installment…

What do the Civil War, Mars and Walt Disney have in common? Uh, not a lot. But don’t tell John Carter that. Especially the thing about Disney.