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John Carter is lost in space, Hill and Tatum score on Jump Street

by Mark Burger

If the intent was to create a bigscreen franchise based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic sci-fi stories, then John Carter must be considered a failure. This lumbering fantasy saga may indeed be faithful to the original stories (first introduced in a magazine serial 100 years ago) and may offer some visual enticements, but it lacks a sense of humor and, worse, a sense of fun.

Based predominantly on Burroughs’ original story A Princess of Mars, the film stars Taylor Kitsch in the title role of John Carter, a Confederate officer and veteran of the Civil War who is unexpectedly transported to the planet Mars, where his combat experience becomes quite handy.

Joined by the beautiful princess Dejah Thoris (the beautiful Lynn Collins), our brawny hero embarks on an otherworldly adventure that begins with some semblance of promise before collapsing under its own weight. By the time the film’s “big” climax rolls around, much of whatever interest the story possessed has long since dissipated.

Kitsch and Collins are both attractive, and each one possesses a noteworthy navel prominently displayed throughout (Collins’ is particularly fetching), but they struggle under the weight of the script, which is credited to director Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon.

Collins tends to come off better than her male counterpart, as Kitsch simply isn’t strong enough an actor to carry the weight of the film. Then again, it would take truly Herculean effort to conquer the story, which is told in stolid, stodgy fashion.

Others of note in the cast include Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic Church and Thomas Haden Church and Bryan Cranston, some in the CGI guise of aliens, some as humanoids, and most appearing to stifle their confusion, for which one can hardly blame them. Daryl Sabara, who plays Edgar Rice Burroughs in the film’s wraparound segments, at least has an excuse: His character is supposed to be confused.

Evidently still smarting from the critical and financial drubbing of last year’s animated fantasy Mars Needs Moms, Disney opted to drop the “of Mars” from the film’s advertising — thereby robbing it of its only real novelty. (The end credits restore the full title, for whatever that’s worth.)

With a pricetag conservatively estimated at $250 million, the studio is running a gauntlet. How familiar are contemporary audiences with the John Carter stories? The Adventures of Tintin didn’t do as well as expected in the US, despite director by Steven Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson, because today’s younger audience — for which it was primarily intended — simply weren’t acquainted with the stories, as popular as they once were. (The film fared far better overseas and was, comparatively speaking, a far superior film.)

Of course, the predominant concern beyond financial success — at least to some — is artistic achievement, and John Carter is a lumbering, bombastic behemoth of a movie. The visual effects are generally impressive, but what’s the point when the story they’re ostensibly enhancing doesn’t measure up?

Exactly.

Before it runs out of steam, 21 Jump Street is a cheerfully vulgar outing that gets a lot of mileage out of the unlikely pairing of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, who get a second chance to re-do high school — this time as cops.

The film, which opens Friday, is of course the “adaptation” of the popular ’80s cop show (one of the first hits on the thenfledgling Fox Network), albeit played for laughs. Hill, sporting a slimmer physique as well as executive-producer and story credits, is on familiar territory as the clueless Schmidt, who is unexpectedly accepted by the “cool crowd,” while Tatum’s brainless jock Jenko, falls in with the resident geek contingent. Posing as brothers (ha!), their job is to bust a secret drug ring, but they’d much prefer partying with their new classmates. That counts as undercover work, doesn’t it?

As well as spoofing the TV series, the film pokes goodnatured, lowbrow fun at teen comedies, with Hill and Tatum (also an executive producer) generating a pleasing onscreen chemistry that will likely pay off at the box office.

This is an especially good turn from Tatum, who has frequently come off as stiff in his earlier films (GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Dear John). Playing dumb suits him — and that’s meant as a compliment. There’s also fun work from Dave Franco (James’ younger brother) as the eco-minded, folk-singing drug dealer, Rob Riggle as the school’s unstable coach and Ellie Kemper as a teacher with the hots for Jenko. Ice Cube checks in now and again as Schmidt and Jenko’s belligerent, antagonistic captain — which he freely admits when he first meets them. Fans of the original series can also expect cameos from cast members, including a wellpublicized one by Johnny Depp, the first breakout star of “21 Jump Street” (and who couldn’t wait to leave it once he did break out).

Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who previously teamed for the animated Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009), get to indulge in a far raunchier sense of humor here, and do their best to keep the action moving even when the story’s momentum stalls. Still, 21 Jump Street is better than expected. That’s meant as a compliment, too.

Log onto YesWeekly.com — click on the “Flicks” section. Then go to “What’s Showing”

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