Saturday, December 29, 2012

Catching Up: Action-SF-Superhero-netflixtravaganza

Cold Souls - 2009, Sophie Barthes - netflix
The Expendables - 2010, Sylvester Stallone - netflix
In Time - 2011, Andrew Niccol - netflix
Love - 2011, William Eubank - netflix
Green Hornet - 2011, Michel Gondry - netflix
Chronicle - 2012, Josh Trank - netflix

There was a time, a time before children (circa 2009) that I would have seen all of these films in the theatre (with the exception of Love. of which I was previously unaware).  Given that this is a time after children, and video stores are non-existent and "digital" rentals can be ridiculously priced (seven dollars?!), plus the ceaseless amount of material to watch on netflix (or youtube, if you're not so concerned with video quality) I elected to wait (plus, I already was questioning the overall quality of these films based on trailers and reviews.

Of this disparate lot, Cold Souls is, theoretically at least, the most artsy-minded.  Paul Giamatti stars as himself, struggling with playing the titular part in Chechov's "Uncle Vanya" on stage.  The dark introspection of the play is taking a toll on his own psyche, and he's encouraged by his manager to go to a "soul storage" facility to help ease the burden.  Giamatti's struggle on stage and experimentation with soul storage is intercut with that of the Russian black-market soul extraction and exportation, primarily focussed on Nina (Dina Korzun), a soul smuggler.  When Nina's boss asks for a the soul of an American actor to implant in his struggling actress wife, Giamatti's winds up being the only option.

The film is a curious comedy-drama hybrid, but never quite commits to either.  There's a heavily comedic aspect to the concept that is constantly diluted by the existential drama, so it never is a funny as it should be.  At the same time the exploration of what it means to have a soul, be it your own, or someone else's is also never treated with enough seriousness or committed interest to actually be meaningful.  The film maintains it's "neither here nor there" tone consistently throughout, where it would have been better off vacillating between the two.  It's not a terrible picture, but it has a great concept and story that doesn't live up to its potential.

Equally not living up to its potential, Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables, a gathering of aging (and aged) action heroes that should have been glorious in its goofiness.  Instead it's marred by a terrible script, awful direction and an utterly painful stab a characterization.  The action is generally nonsensical, the motivations of the characters are non-existent, and the attempt at pithy dialogue are continuously painful.  It's hard to believe, judging from this picture, that Stallone was an Oscar nominated writer and actor, particularly the latter.  Stallone's delivery verges on incomprehensible through the entirety of the picture, and the vanity involved in the entire project (his camera stays leering on his then-64-year-old physique far too often, showing far too much of his hybrid rubbery/leathery skin) is kind of repulsive.  This should have been so simple, a gleefully ridiculous spectacle impossible to mess up and yet it's an atrocious picture with little to redeem it.

In Time contains a Sci-Fi conceit I'm rather enamored with, and attempts to explore the socio-political impact of that idea, failing miserably.  About 150 years in future, all humans are implanted with a clock shortly after they're born that activates when they turn 25, giving them one further year to live, but also stopping the aging process.  Time has become currency, so people must earn extra time as well as spend it to survive.  Writer/Director Andrew Niccol wrote and directed one of my favourite explorations of a dystopian future, Gattaca, so it's remarkable how off-the-rails In Time gets.

Niccol attempts to explore the idea of class warfare, how the 1% who have centuries oppress the rest of the population by controlling costs and supporting an infrastructure, including a police system that naturally skews to benefits the wealthy.  Unfortunately, the characters, and the scenarios the film takes them through, betray the insight of the concepts, by thrusting them too quickly into corny drama, hackneyed romance, implausible action, and an ill-advised "Bonny and Clyde" routine which manages to oversimplify a resolution to the meatiest aspect of the story.  There's a good story buried in here somewhere, and had Niccol treated it with the same seriousness of Gattaca instead of trying to devise an action blockbuster around an exploration of the divide between rich and poor, he would definitely have had a science fiction classic.  Instead, In Time is memorable only in its lost opportunity and misuse of terrific concepts.

Love is a fairly narrow, well travelled concept, that of the lone man aboard a space ship/station losing touch with his sanity the more time passes.  Owing a hefty debt of gratitude to similar-minded genre films like Solaris, Moon, Silent Running and, most directly, 2001, Love places its singular protagonist, Captain Lee Miller (Gunner Wright) alone aboard the ISS on a temporary monitoring mission that winds up being far less temporary when all the lights on the Earth below go out.  Something bad has happened and cut off from pretty much all communication over a lengthy span, Capt. Miller, like any man, begins to fall apart.

The concept of Love, however, as you might guess by its title, is more esoteric.  Capt. Miller begins to hallucinate interactions with people he only knows from remnant photographs, helping him explore his cerebral status.  Meanwhile a puzzling group of talking head inserts, musing on the human condition, find their way between scenes, which bear fruit only once the grander 2001-ex-machina presents itself.

The project of prog rock "supergroup" Angels and Airwaves, the film is low budget but what is accomplished on that budget is quite visually spectacular.  The set design and visual effects are quite appealing, and director Eubank makes to most of what he has.  There are niggling details here and there (the space suit definitely doesn't stand up to any scrutiny), but understanding the scale of the film gives them a bit of a pass.  The soundtrack by Angels and Airwaves is quite in sync with the emotional measures of the film, and represents one of its most potent aspects.  I have to wonder though if the film is companion to the two A&A albums or vice-versa.   Actor Gunner Wright is a phenomenal lead, with an understated presence capable of both confidence and vulnerability.  The film itself is definitely not for everyone, it's a mood piece, which, even at 84 minutes feels half an hour overlong, but if you can settle into its quiet rhythm it proves moderately rewarding.  Given the admirable display they put on here, hopefully we can see Eubank and Wright in larger scale projects in the future.

The Green Hornet was a film that could have used a bit of low-budget ingenuity.  This was a film that was going to get made regardless of who was involved, and the roster of talent that came and went on the project was a long one.  That it had the singular vision and the consistent tone it did, thanks to the Superbad writing team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and director-for-hire Michel Gondry is quite phenomenal, as I would have expected studio interference to be high (and maybe it was, hard to say).  However, despite the consistency, the tone/vision wound up being misguided and struggled to justify itself.  Plus I think Kick-Ass pretty much beat it to the punch.

Rogen and Goldberg's take, as might be expected, leans to the comedic side of things, skewering the masked vigilante genre, but, oddly, not lampooning it.  It doesn't push the genre to any sort of comedic extremes, really, but rather tries to make the idea of a well-meaning yet completely over-privileged, under-trained socialite a joke all it's own.  Equally, having the sidekick, Kato, be the brains, the muscle, the tactician, the weapon-smith, etc, was also part of the joke.  Both tired quickly, particularly frustrating was Rogen as Britt Reid/The Green Hornet sporting barely any character grown and just as frequently regressing whenever growth seemed imminent.  Jay Chou as Kato was quite charismatic, and enjoyable to watch, but seemed constantly marginalized and under-served... I know that was partly the point but it was no less aggravating.

Christoph Waltz in the role of the bad guy -- Chudnofsky, a Russian mob leader facing a crisis in his ability to intimidate -- was about the only aspect of the script that clicked thoroughly.  He nails every scene, particularly the opening sequence, a face off against rival James Franco which set the tone for the movie, but also hit its high mark early.  Cameron Diaz as a quasi/anti-love interest proved a surprisingly satisfying element to the story, but her character wasn't handled with much respect overall.  Gondry, an incredibly visual and inventive director, is restrained here, and I had hopes that he would be allowed to cut loose, but with only the creative flourish of the fight sequence and a few minor touches here and there, he merely did what needed to be done.  I wanted to like The Green Hornet.  Being a fan of Superbad and Gondry I wanted it to be a misunderstood work, madcap, like a 2 hour version of an Adult Swim program.  It's not.  It's not terrible, but it doesn't do what it sets out to accomplish, not well anyway.

Chronicle is a different kind of super-hero story that achieves its storytelling objectives, creating a "what if" type of "Outer Limits"-style power fantasy of three teens gaining telekinetic powers, and how each of them deals with it.  Of the three, Steve is the high school class president, football champ and all-around most popular guy, another, Matt, is a fairly average, happy-go-lucky kind of dude, and the third, Andrew, Matt's cousin, an stereotypical loner/outcast, whose mother is dying and father beats him, who feels like he doesn't belong and can't get anyone to notice him (not realizing that it's his attitude, insecurities and the hostility driving others away).

Using the "found footage" style of filmmaking, with Andrew behind the camera (at first, then using his powers to put himself into focus), the film documents the boys' discovery of, well, something strange that imbues them with their ability and their resulting experimentation with them.  As the continuously flex their "TK" muscles their abilities and capabilities grow, but Andrew, with the least fulfilling life, spends the most time focusing on it, thus becoming the most powerful.   Applying the adage "power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely", Andrew, ever the loner, the outcast, places himself outside and above humanity, becoming the inevitable villain of the piece, at which point the others must become the heroes.

It's largely an engaging film, exploring its conceit in a methodical manner that unfortunately telegraphs its trajectory almost from the start.  From the start this film aims for something other than "the birth of a hero" cliche, which is the typical route for the nerd/outcast who discovers he has superpowers (see, again, Kick-Ass, or Spider-Man or countless others), but at the same time the tone of the film from the onset shows that nothing good is going to come from Andrew obtaining any sort of strength and it really doesn't provide any hope that he will or even imply that he can.  Steve's ridiculous plan for making Andrew popular (the turning point of the film, kickstarting the third act) is utter cornball and betrays the "natural" aesthetic the film was going for in favor of 80's high-school comedy-style highjinks.  It's a bad idea in the story and a bad idea for the story.  The third act escalates from Andrew's triumph-to-embarassment-to-overreaction swiftly and becomes a respectable but all-too-often hammy throw-down.  The "found footage" conceit begins to tire halfway through and becomes a distracting presence by the third act.  It's a mostly successful, if ultimately unfulfilling experience.