Thursday, November 22, 2012

Four Actions and A Comedy

(..wherein I present a review of a quintet of films brought together by the meager connective thread of having watched them months ago and are not quite fresh enough in mind to write longer reviews)

Baby Mama - 2008, Michael McCullers - netflix
Serenity - 2005, Joss Whedon - blu-ray
Salt - 2010, Philip Noyce - netflix
Centurian - 2010,  Neil Marshall - netflix
Kill List - 2011, Ben Wheatley - netflix

For no reason other than I don't remember in what order I watched these, let's start with the comedy.  Baby Mama came out many years ago as a vehicle hoping to capitalize on the notoriety Tina Fey and Amy Pohler gained for playing Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton, respectively, on Saturday Night Live.  It's not strictly an "SNL movie", as it doesn't take an existing sketch and stretch it well beyond its breaking point to 90 minutes, ala Superstar or A Night At The Roxbury or Stuart Saves His Family, but it is the product of a writer-director coming from the SNL writers' room and, to no surprise, producer Lorne Michaels, so it's close.

I remember the commercials advertising the film back then and they seemed to center around Amy Pohler's lowbrow character going to the bathroom in the sink, and playing up heavily the sitcom-like scenario of a professional, well-to-do, single woman winding up sharing a her home with a crude, lower-class surrogate mother.  It looked forced, direly so.

Years later, Fey and Pohler are two of the most iconic female comic actresses on television, with their starring vehicles, 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, being mandatory watching for comedy nerds.  My affection for Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope drove me back to Baby Mama, to see just how these two powerhouses handled themselves in a feature setting together.  Their intimate rapport creates an immediately likeable dynamic between the two of them, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that Pohler's character carried intellect, just not so much education or cultural refinement.  Fey's character is Liz Lemon played far more straight laced, though she makes a charming lead.

The script itself is bland, generic, which explains why it didn't come out to Bridesmaids-style "women are funny too" raves in '08 nor has it maintained any kind of cult status like Fey's Mean Girls.  It's a 1980's style comedy mixing the odd couple, the buddy comedy and the romantic comedy genres, but without really focusing upon the comedy.  It has heart, lots of it, but at the expense of humour.  I was hoping for an under-appreciated gem in which Pohler and Fey cut loose but they're fairly reigned it, though proving that they're both quite good at investing in their characters and roles.

Of all the films I'm covering, Serenity is the only one I've seen before.  I liked the Firefly TV show well enough, picking up on it shortly after its cancellation, but the spun-off film has always been where it's at for me.  I'm not a "Browncoat" by any means, but I still maintain that Serenity is the best space opera since the Empire Strikes Back.

Whedon's had a banner year with the Avengers, which was a necessary vehicle to show the non-geek masses exactly what this guy does.  The ensemble is his forte, but he's well versed in comedy and action, and certainly knows how to innovate and bring you concepts you've never seen before.  Serenity, 7 years prior, showcased all this with about a third the budget but just as much scope.

I don't think I've watched Firefly since before seeing Serenity in theatre, so the details of the program have gotten incredibly hazy, and I likewise probably hadn't seen Serenity since it's video debut, but I remember it with much, much more clarity.  Watching it again, on blu-ray this time, was like visiting with an old friend, and I was as rapt in its story as I know I was the first time I watched it.  Whedon's planet-hopping story brilliantly reintroduces the characters from the series, carries forward plotlines without requiring any of the background, and builds its own epic around them that is cerebral yet accessible.

I watched with a keen eye to see whether Serenity did work as a cold introduction to its characters and universe, and I'm pleased to say it does an exceptional job.  It skips over the "getting the band back together" bit, but presents each of the characters in a way that you understand their general being and their dynamic with one another in short order.  I particularly like the way Book, a regular character on the TV show, is reintroduced as that ancillary supporting character that gives the heroes aide in time of need, provides the hero guidance, but he himself remains much a mystery (as he was in the TV show).

The action in this film still wows me, the digital effects are one polish removed from those of today, but largely hold up.  I love the face-off between Mal and "The Operative" (Chiwetel Ejiofor is brilliant in this role of a mercenary with a serious conviction to his beliefs,  believably dangerous), both of them, though the later one is a classic.  The film still gives me tingles, and while the serialized nature of Firefly worked very well for the show, the epic scope of film worked even better.

Where Serenity mixes its SF and western genres impeccably well, and Baby Mama even managed to mash up different 80's comedy genres to some degree, Salt couldn't manage to bridge the gap properly between suspense, spy and action, not for lack of trying.  There's strong waft of Bourne Identity in the air of Kurt Wimmer's script, the quest for truth in identity is the center focus here as well.  Yet, the heightened tension and drama of trying to understand whether Evelyn Salt, the film's protagonist, is or isn't a deeply implanted Russian spy keeps getting deflated every time we're subject to another action sequence.

The action sequences are actually quite good, but they seem desperately overblown and out of place in what should otherwise be a cold war spy drama.  Basically think about if Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy were adapted into a James Bond flick, that's about how well Salt works. 

2011's Hannah explored much the same themes but with greater success and style.  Director Philip Noyce has played at this kind of thing before with the Jack Ryan films starring Harrison Ford, and this feels like a 2000's deviation on those films.  That the character of Salt was originally scripted to be a man and the film was rumoured to be positioned as a starring vehicle for Tom Cruise makes perfect sense, as this seems like just the kind of unmemorable, lacklustre action movie that major stars like him, or Harrison Ford in his time, or Angelina Jolie should be featured in.  

I actually wish screenwriter Wimmer had directed this, as, for all the faults of his previous efforts like Ultraviolet and Equilibrium, at least he was adventuresome in his presentation and provided something different.  Salt could stand to deal with a somewhat misguided and spastic flavour, as when it gets plainly ridiculous late in its third act, it needs a ridiculous director to spice that up even more.  Wimmer still would have directed it with a direness to the situation, but in his experimentation there would have been some much needed fun.  And that's precisely what Salt is missing.

Neil Marshall is a contemporary of Wimmer, similarly having a few cultishly adored genre pictures under his belt in Dog Soldiers and the Descent (not so much Doomsday though, I believe) but never having launched to the next level as a director, because of the material he's working with.  Centurion is definitely a complimentary film to his existing repertoire, a decently conceived and shot Roman Empire-period action-adventure, but well shy of meeting the touchstones of blockbuster status.

The film opens with a long helicopters shot of the Scottish Highlands (of course it wasn't called Scotland back then, but neither were there helicopters, so whatever) with some hella cheesy sweeping title cards that are like Superman meets Fringe meets Braveheart.  From there it leads into a brief but CGI-enhanced bloody attack sequence, a Pict raid on a Roman encampment, where the film's primary protagonist, Quintas Dias (Michael Fassbender) is the sole survivor, taken prisoner.  It's all, well, not so good.  It looks alternately cheap and corny, but cheap in the sense that its trying to hard to cover its minimal budget, and corny in the sense that it doesn't do a very good job at it.

The second through line is the dispensing of the famed 9th Legion (led by Dominic West as Titus Flavius) to quell the Pictish threat.  That doesn't go so well, but in the process they rescue Quintas Dias and we have a Saving Private Ryan or Blackhawk Down-type scenario, only in this case, the person being saved is a total badass warrior and tactician and pretty much takes the lead of the remaining Legionnaires.  After Quintas' escape he's set upon by a horde of picts, led by their greatest tracker, the mute and entirely vengeful Etain (played by a fierce, gorgeous and decidedly scary Olga Kurylenko).

The first act is pained by it's uncertain focus and its attempts to cram too many ideas and characters into one space.  I'm trying to determine if the set-up spent too much or not enough time (I'm thinking the former) in getting to the meat of the film, the cat-and-mouse chase, as the overwhelmed Romans try in desperation to maintain their cool and make it to the safety of a Roman fortress.  By the end of the second act the film shows signs of real life and the third act is largely entertaining.  Though it does try, it never successfully surpasses its B-movie roots.. Not-yet-a-superstar Fassbender and not-yet-a-cult-hero West do provide the film a needed amount of not just credible, but bravura acting, especially in the face of some opposing dire performances.  The majority of the cast is fairly solid, but one or two of them... yowza, which producer's kid and/or father were they?  It's not a fantastic film by any stretch, but also not as dire as the opening act would suggest.  Centurion is the rare film that somewhat redeems itself in its third act, rather than throws away all its good will.

Speaking of which, Kill List doesn't necessarily throw it all away in the third act but it certainly takes a surprising dovetail into far stranger territory than the opening two acts would suggest, one that the viewer will embrace wholeheartedly in it's no doubt affectionate tribute to Wicker Man and it's likeminded 70's brethren, or flat out reject. 

My initial reaction to the unravelling threads in the third act was rejection, but in hindsight I have a surer appreciation for it and what co-writer/director Ben Wheatly was attempting to do.  The basic plot of the film finds former contract killer and now full-time family man wrestling with the idea of taking on another job, even though he desperately doesn't want to.  The film opens with some intense relationship drama as Jay and his wife Shel argue heavily about finances and anything else that comes up in the process. Wheatley's script (co-written with his wife Amy Jump) is blisteringly intense and grounded in these relationship sequences.  The performances here by Neil Maskell and the fetching MyAnna Buring are frightening, awkward and far too believable.  That they can play these roles so naturally, incorporating the whole angle of contract killing as if it's a natural part of life for this couple is by far the film's greatest strength, building a foundation that allows the wonky third act to remain grounded and frightening, instead of silly and stultifying.

As Jay and his partner, Gal, proceed with their assignment -- one paying big bucks, but providing no answer and carrying far too many secrets -- Jay begins to unravel under the stress.  His violent, thoughtless reactions to his victims and their increasingly erratic response to his arrival ("Thank you", they say, smiling) is indeed distressing.  There's obviously a reason he tried to quit the business, but this particular assignment seems almost designed to push his very mental limits.

I didn't love this film, at least not initially, but it's stuck with me in the recesses of my brain.  Wheatley created a simplistic seeming story that is clever in its intricacy and subtlety.  The sometimes confounding, almost forgettable subtle, yet bizarre touches and asides throughout on have a later payoff that is impressive in its execution, since they come up so brazenly yet are paid little attention to. It's sparse soundtrack, limited more to atmospheric noise than music, maintains a certain chilliness throughout the proceedings, while equally Wheatley marks his settings, wardrobes, and lighting with a largely natural sensibility. 

That third act is a divisive doozy, a quasi-twist which seems like a remnant from '70's suspense filmmaking.  The Wicker Man remake proved that it's hard to execute that kind of scenario without seeming ridiculous (but that could be all Nic Cage) and Hot Fuzz managed it but through the filter of absurd comedy.  Kill List manages to make it logical and intriguing, but it still feels quite out of date, which may be why it's so surreal (but I'm still discerning whether it's effective or inappropriate).