We’re coming to the end of the part of the moviegoing year that everybody seems to despise with great passion. I recently wrote about how McNulty had stopped me from going to the movies for a while, but I never mentioned I didn’t think that was an issue. I might have missed seeing Man on a Ledge, but I was never particularly upset about this. However, I’m not in the camp that says the winter months are simply a prologue to when Cap, Thor, and Robin Scherbatsky come along to blow up half the shit in a metropolis that isn’t Metropolis, or that September is simply a prologue to Meryl Streep and Paul Thomas Anderson films. It seems like every year, the movies I get the most excited about are released in the summer, but the movies I actually end up liking the most generally aren’t. As somebody who increasingly values thought over execution, I gravitate more and more to ideas that seem at least kind of new, rather than a perfect display of filmmaking elements I already knew existed. I’m intensely excited to watch some of the upcoming blockbusters, and I would publicly perform the Macarena in Yonge/Dundas square right now if it meant I got to see The Dark Knight Rises even a day early. However, since these summer blockbusters have irresponsibly large budgets, they are overly micromanaged and, while often being mind-crunchingly awesome, are only conventionally so due to the financial risk involved. In the dead of winter however, much like the summer’s September hangover, we get movies that are allowed to be adventurous, if only because it’s much easier for a studio to earn back $20 million than it is $200 million.
Despite this year in film being generally underwhelming so far, there have been two movies released that were actually kind of great, particularly the found footage teen movie Chronicle. Written by Max Landis and directed by Josh Trank, Chronicle is a teen movie about what would happen should three teenagers suddenly be given superpowers, and how they would use them. The teen aspects of the movie are fairly standard, and the lead character Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is basically a John Hughes character type, if Pretty in Pink had wanted to be more overtly depressing. Andrew’s father is an abusive alcoholic, and his mother is dying of cancer. At school, he gets bullied, and is generally uncool until he, his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), and the high school’s quarterback Steve (Michael B. Jordan) find themselves drawn to some weird underground orb thing. The rest of the first half of the film was unlike any superhero movie I’ve seen, if only because of the found footage style that was used to tell the story. Instead of seeing a montage of Peter Parker learning how to use his new webswinging abilities, we get three friends challenging and testing each other, and their failures are funny, engaging, and always hold an aura of faux authenticity, despite the fact that two of our protagonists are such bad actors one never really buys their performance. And while it is easy to argue that the only reason this feels original is the addition of the found footage approach, the filmmakers add a new, interesting wrinkle to the style. Once Andrew learns that he can move objects with his mind, he no longer feels the need to hold the camera in his hands, allowing for more extravagant camerawork while still retaining the found footage approach. (Not to mention that the lead female character also has a camera, allowing for the use of multiple cameras, with different image qualities even, in many scenes.) But perhaps the most interesting element is the mild twist that leads into the film’s third act.
Throughout the film, the story is told mostly through Andrew’s eyes and (camera) lens, which is the film’s way of telling us we are meant to identify with him. In a traditional teen movie, we would be expected to do the same: rarely is the popular cousin of the nerd or the school’s quarterback posited as a teen film’s most likeable character. Which is why it is so jarring when Andrew starts using his newfound powers to generally fuck shit up, ripping teeth out of a bully’s mouth with his mind, and robbing people to pay for his mother’s medical care. After he is injured robbing a gas station, Andrew’s father confronts him in his hospital bed, leading Andrew to blows the walls out of the room and go on a destructive rampage throughout the city. While most film and comic book heroes find their villains established later in life, Chronicle shows this happening at a young age. Chronicle introduces us to a character we assume is the film’s hero, the character we should identify with, and then sixty minutes later it tells us he’s actually the villain. What makes this even more interesting is how this twist applies to the modern anti-bullying society we live within: with the amount of teen suicides rising in recent years, Chronicle gets us to identify with somebody who is bullied, and who speaks to a camera about his personal troubles, not unlike a modern teenager can do on YouTube. By sympathizing with this bullied teen, we are sympathizing with all bullied teens, which is why when Andrew acts out his darker impulses, it hurts a little to watch. He used to be the prey, but later in the film he finds himself identifying more with an apex predator. The implication of Chronicle is that perhaps he was always going to hurt somebody, but that his newfound powers allowed him to hurt others instead of himself.
21 Jump Street is a completely different kind of film than Chronicle, if only because I never once thought it might be about teen suicide. The movie’s characters aren’t so far apart from Chronicle’s, however: Channing Tatum’s Jenko might as well be Matt, and Jonah Hill’s character Schmidt is the bullied Andrew, albeit with a much better family life. Jenko dominated high school, Schmidt did not. When their careers in the police force lead them into undercover detective work from within their old high school, they find out that everything is different from what they remembered only a few years before. Now, the hippies are the cool kids, and Jenko’s formerly jock-ular tendencies make him seem like an asshole almost immediately. Schmidt infiltrates the cool kids’ gang by way of theater nerdery, and through his and Jenko’s experiences, 21 Jump Street shows how quickly the gap between young and old can grow now. In this movie, 25 is the new 50, as Jenko and Schmidt no longer have any clue about what is happening within youth culture. What were long established high school archetypes have changed, and while this movie is more a satire of this general idea than an actual depiction of fact, it is mostly done to show how differently modern teenagers have grown up than even the kids from a few years before. Eric (Dave Franco) and his friends were kids who can barely remember a world when organic food wasn’t the cool way to eat, and this humourous idea can stand in for anything else that has changed so dramatically, perhaps most notably in the use of technology.
I have no idea why the fuck ‘Justin is our Buzz Lightyear’ was trending on Twitter for an hour and a half on Tuesday afternoon, and I bet Jenko wouldn’t either. Eric probably gets it, though, even if he’s too cool to be a Belieber. Every time I look at the list of worldwide trending topics (which is something I do constantly), I find myself wondering why anybody would decide to spend their afternoon repeatedly tweeting ‘The Queen of Pop’s birthday is in 2 days,’ which the Little Monsters did Monday as some pro-Lady Gaga, anti-Madonna statement on the week of the latter’s album release. I know I was using ICQ and making GeoCities webpages about WWE wrestling when I was 13, so I assume I would be tweeting in an effort to make my favourite celebrities trend as well. I probably would have been trying to trend ‘PROUD OF BRENDAN FRASER’ when The Mummy was a hit, or something similar about an equally stupid celebrity who teenage me inexplicably thought was cool. When Jenko is initially excited about the prospect of going back to high school, it reminded me of the many people I knew like Jenko, who probably did like high school more than any other environment they experienced. Which is why it is cool that Jenko quickly learns that it’s not quite what you remember, and maybe you shouldn’t really be hoping for reversion. In a culture that constantly idealizes being young, it is interesting to see a movie reflect something as simple yet truthful as “it’s not quite like you remember,” particularly since that movie’s target audience might be the age group it is satirizing. 21 Jump Street wants us to stop idealizing the past, if only because we have to work so damn hard to try to keep up with the present.
21 Jump Street’s parodies of the action and teen genre will surely end up being the hardest I laugh this year, and I am doubtful that any other 2012 film not involving Batman will fail to have me as emotionally invested as Chronicle did. What each recent film did was play with its genre’s conventions, and use interesting forms of postmodern filmmaking to add something new to them. 21 Jump Street somehow ended up being an interesting comment on how wide the gap between young and old can be on a small timeline, and Chronicle was a parable for the anti-bullying age we are in. Each movie was completed on a comparatively small budget, and each movie accomplished new things within a genre that most people reflexively think of as lifeless. 21 Jump Street wasn’t just funny, but interesting; Chronicle was surprisingly intense and emotional, and also involved a moderately surprising twist.
Every summer, I go through a similar feeling when seeing a movie I spent an irrational amount of pre-release time being excited about. As Leonardo DiCaprio is explaining to Ellen Page how she can manipulate dreams, I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m actually watching Inception right now.’ The first time I vividly remember this happening was during The Dark Knight, but I’m certain it has been happening since I was fourteen and watching John Singleton’s remake of Shaft on opening night. (Despite being an underrated action movie, I still have no idea as to why I was so excited to see it. Fourteen year olds are idiots.) In these movies, I can’t remove my anticipation from the actual film itself. My reviews will always be tainted. Either the movie lived up to what I spent so much time thinking about, or it was worse than I hoped and I’m already full of ideas about what should have been different. I will always like a good Christopher Nolan blockbuster more than I should, just like I’ll probably dislike a Ridley Scott one a little too much.
Movies like 21 Jump Street and Chronicle are movies I had no real feelings about before I saw them, so my excitement about the interesting elements feels genuine. These are movies that I was mostly able to avoid promotion for, so I didn’t put any thought into what I hoped would happen. I wasn’t disappointed that Channing Tatum didn’t do any backflips, because I didn’t have a chance to think “I really hope Channing Tatum does multiple backflips in this motion picture.” I recognize that the element of surprise was important to my enjoyment of these movies, but the best things in all elements of life tend to come in the form of surprises.
Hollywood will continue to push their blockbusters in a way that makes me as excited to see Prometheus as I once was to see Shaft. We’ll still get the teaser trailer to make us shit our collective pants with excitement, and then we’ll get a full trailer a couple months later to make us shit even more. But when we do eventually see these movies, we will be left with the feeling of “Wow, I can’t believe I’m sitting in a movie theatre, watching Christian Bale fight against the 99%.” We are removing ourselves from feeling involved in the story and the theme before the final cut of the movie even exists, because the amount of thought and email discussion we dedicate to an unreleased film is unreasonable. We’ve done exactly what the studios want us to do when they release their trailers: have these films remain in our consciousness until we’re finally able to actually spend our money on them, and this is precisely the problem. We might be satisfied with these movies, but we’re never really surprised. The winter months might be filled with generally shitty movies, but the ones that are actually good might be more worth your time than anything else.