Sunday, January 30, 2011

Googolplex Gulag: SOMEWHERE - THE MECHANIC - THE GREEN HORNET

The start of a new themed blog entry that may come up from time to time, that is as often as I go to cineplexes.  As coined helpfully by Kevin Murphy in A Year at the Movies, a Googolplex is a kind of further extension of a cineplex, in that it's a very large, nightmarish place that, like its actual definition, has so many theaters.  Not all of the movies I see at the cineplex are even bad, some end up on my best of the year list (hell, Scott Pilgrim was seen thrice last year at the same Googolplex and always in digital-projection).  So, when I see a bunch of movies there in a row, I'll blog about it in this such titled entry-series that I came up with in those few minutes before one goes to sleep.  The recursive G sounds were what did it really.

1) SOMEWHERE


For my first film of the day, I ventured rather far (though not into NYC) to see this latest film from Sofia Coppola, playing only twice a day at the super-deluxe-combo-sized mall, the Palisades Center in West Nyack, NY.  For those who haven't been, think of the Mall of America only not quite as large (but close): a mammoth place where consumer whores venture to get their buy on (myself, sadly, included, as I did today before seeing this but after missing, thanks to *too many people taking up parking spots, grr*, my originally intended first film, The Way Back, which I'll just have to see another day).

Four floors, all packed to the gills with all kinds of stores, a few of them now closed down like FYE, all kinds of rich and poor people of obnoxious and crying-baby varieties, and even an ice rink and an actual honest to goodness IMAX theater, the kind that plays 70MM films (I almost caved to go to there, but sadly missed Hubble 3D, the only one worth seeing).  So, I stuck around and finally got in on this movie, with only four other people in the small theater at this super-deluxe-combo-sized AMC theater, with 21 screens.  Since I've gone here that's the largest I've come across next to the AMC Empire 25, only here not spaced like that theater, which I'll get to in a moment.

I knew I had to knock this one off the list sooner or later; I don't consider myself a big fan of Sofia Coppola's films, but I'm not a dismisser either of all of her works being empty or vapid or the works of a priveleged girl who has yet to have a film not produced or supported fully financially by her father, Francis Ford, with American Zoetrope (the last one is a fact, however, albeit none of her films are mammoth undertakings even Marie Antoinette included).  Somewhere comes close to most trying my patience with her style as of yet, a minimalist tale of an empty-inside Blockbuster movie actor who is akin to Ben Stiller's Tug Speedman from Tropic Thunder, at least as far as I could tell from one scene with a movie poster, and who spends his time at the infamous Chateau Marmont.

He has the kind of life any of us might like: lots of comped food, lots of comped strippers who dance on poles in his room, massages, trips to Milan to promote his movies, and other fun stuff like cars and whatnot.  He's not the quasi-washed-up actor of Bill Murray from Lost in Translation.  This makes it just a little difficult to sympathize with him, if only as compared to Murray (if I might indulge for just a moment in comparison), as Douriff's Johnny Marco has a pretty swell life.  To be sure, he's not married to the mother of his child, and he does have a kind of repetitive lifestyle- made perhaps a wee bit clear in a clever but shallow opening "metaphor" as Marco drives in a circle on a race track- but he's got the sweet life that many of us would dig: lots of perks, lots of free stuff, lots of girls on call, and genuine happiness with his daughter, at least for the time being she's there.

The movie is a series of vignettes really, not so much a story, which would be fine ala 'Translation', except that  this time it feels even more listless and aimless in where it's going.  It even could resemble a home movie with just much better cinematography (in fact this, from Harry Sivedes, is one of the things that kept me never quite bored during the running time, which is saying a lot for his credit).  We mostly see Johnny and his daughter Cleo hanging out, playing video games, hanging out more, eating, chit-chatting minor stuff, then going off to Milan, then coming back hanging out more, then seeing her off to camp, and then back to just hanging out.  I understand Coppola's eventual aim with the characters, that this is all there is and there isn't much of a life to be had with it, hence some tears shed late in the game from Cleo (wondering about where her mother is going off to, which is a "plot point" in quotes that is barely addressed and left needlessly ambiguous), and by Johnny, coming to his realization.

I suppose if I had to pinpoint what bugged me about the film is not so much the intended aimlessness, which can be fine, but how there is so little there there for a lot of the running time.  Minimalism, or something like it or "real" time of action can be fantastic, but usually it's in service of a story that has some actual thrust, say in Jim Jarmusch movies or 2010's The American.  Coppola's minimalism is the stuff of just, oh, ho-hum, whatever stuff, again like a home-movie.  There are occasionally lingering senses of what is at stake for Johnny Marco, but it doesn't come off as very dramatic (certainly not at the very end, which comes off as a moment that feels like the movie turned off before something was about to happen... Something... ah, 'Some' in the title, make sense!)  But it's more about mood and just ambiance of stuff, which, again, is fine, but at what cost?  Even Antonioni's insights into the empty bougeois had them in something of a semblance of a story.

And yet the effort ultimately is a mixed effort; I can begrudge the film for not doing "a lot" of stuff, yet I think that it still doesn't quite come close to Andy Warhol's minimal/empty movies.  There is entertainment to be had here, in spurts, and at times Johnny's blank expressions or befuddlement serves for some good comedy, like falling asleep with a girl in bed during a certain 'act' (also during the first of the stripper-pole dances), or with a goofy scene with a male masseuse disrobing(!), not to mention some of the oddness with being a movie star and having to do bullshit press junkets with pretentious questions like "Who IS Johnny Marco?"

Acting in the Somewhere is also commendable, albeit Stephen Dorff is no Bill Murray when it comes to interesting blank-faced actors playing actors.  Elle Fanning fares much better as a young girl playing a girl who is both wiser than her age and still a little kid needing parental guidance and love.  Most surprising is Chris Pontius, for once not in a role where he dances around like a male stripped (Jackass) as one of Johnny's friends.  And there is one particular scene, where Johnny is being fitted for a special effects head-thing and is covered completely with plaster, that is hypnotic in how the shot slowly zooms on him and is just this white caked-up face.  That, for my money, has deeper philosophical and visual meaning than a car in circles.

The short of it is, Somewhere has the shape of an experiment instead of a regular narrative, yet with characters that we're still supposed to care about and feel for as if it were a regular tragic-comedy.  It's not too quirky or too oddball or anything like that, on the contrary Coppola's made a serious, self-knowing film that respects the little minutia of life's little moments.  Whether people will want to revisit it again and again like her earlier works is still too early to tell, but I suspect not as much.


2) THE MECHANIC


After Somewhere ended, I needed one more movie for the night, and decided instead of slipping out buying another ticket and going back in to do one of my 'moves': the sneak.  Oh, I know, it's wrong and so on, but with certain films (and in this economy, make that my economy really) it has to be done.  It's not the first nor the last time, and it's a trick that is pretty simple to master: if you want to sneak around, make sure it's at a theater conducive for it, where people won't really notice so much (that is the employees) and where the theaters are in close proximity.

There's one theater in particular, the Garden State Plaza AMC, where I'll go into more detail on it being the simplest theater, but for now the Palisades Center theater.  It's a three-pronged place where it's split up into thirds (7 one side, 7 one side, 7 one side), so the game-plan should be based around a) what's playing when, and b) how close.  It also helps if people walk around about you for easier sneaking.  And for gosh-sakes, buy a snack or two, don't look like a creep going so immediately from one theater to another (as for ticket stubs... well, you'll just have to figure that shit out on your own).  Already I think I may have said too much, so for now let's just mosey on to the movie itself:

For the second movie, The Mechanic, I ended up missing the first few minutes, which I could surmise from what I saw walking in- a newly made corpse in a swimming pool- that Jason Statham was already at work killing people.  This time he's in remake mode again, this being a re-tooling of Michael Winner's 1972 film of the same name with Charles Bronson in the lead played (in wise re-casting) by Statham here and Jan Michael Vincent in the role played by Ben Foster here.  The main detailing in the "upgrade" to the 21st century is to have a director this time, Simon West, who is kind of an action hack with big budget movies, with his first notable one (Con Air) still being his pinnacle.  The rest of his work is not much to get excited about (forgettable Travolta, The General's Daughter, almost forgotten Angelina Jolie vehicle, Lara Croft Tomb Raider, and a recently shot pilot for a reportedly very bad superhero show called The Cape).  His work this time is... somewhat excitable, and at the same time not at all.

What he brings to the game in updating this story, which at the time was somewhat fresh in 1972 before upteenth hundreds of hitman flicks took this kind of premise - a "Mechanic", or a super-bad and slick hit-man who does kills without leaving a trace, has to kill his former mentor by order, and then takes under his wing his mentor's son who is more than a bit of a loose cannon that needs his anger tamed - is FAST ACTION.  You know the kind, with quick cuts and super-gory kills and stabbings and shootings, and lots of BIG explosions.  He's not as egregious in action-movie offenses as Michael Bay, though they both came up in the same Bruckheimer school of late 90's testosterone-fests, but it's close.  As an action director he's at best mildly entertaining, but somehow, since Con Air, he's kind of regressed into ridiculous-town territory, mostly saved by Jason Statham being such an excellent on-screen action presence.

The other disturbing thing is the disconnect between the first half of the film and the second, as the first is a relatively involving thriller-drama where the acting (even by the stiff Tony Goldwyn) is compelling with the material presented; Statham, Donald Sutherland, and as usual the mega-intense Foster make their characters count and matter, and there are some stakes at hand that make things interesting in the predictable dynamic between Arthur and Steve.  And, to be fair, some of the violence, such as a rather brutal fight between Steve and another big-as-hell Mechanic who has a thing for little boys, is taut and exciting and with an audience like the one I was with (predominantly super-into-the-action urban kids and adults) made for some hollering fun.

That is, really, until it just becomes ridiculous, which is mostly in the climactic showdown between the Mechanic(s) and the villain, and then after this with the bullshit denouement.  It's not that it's hard to see this coming, far from it, it's practically foreshadowed from the first scenes as to what will happen between Arthur and Steve.  There could have been some excellent catharsis, but instead it's just an excuse for HOLY-FUCK-HELL EXPLOSIONS where the placement of characters doesn't make total sense (in a spoiler-free discussion I could go on, but it's too soon as of this writing to dig deep about it, plus it's asinine anyway).  Suffice to say if your big end-scene involves music from Barry Lyndon and a detonator, something's kind of cracked in Cocaine Town.

The Mechanic can be fun and mindless excitement from the current mega-star of B-movies, as Statham as usual brings his stern-faced A-Game to the material, and Foster is a dependable side-kick, even through some of West's penchant for music-video shooting and editing montages.  But it hints devilishly at being more than it could be; whether this is more on the director or the producers I can't say.  It's half intelligent and well- acted action thriller and half direct-to-video trash.  And sadly lacking Neveldine/Taylor!


3) THE GREEN HORNET (2D)


This is actually more like a 'playing ketchup' entry; I saw this almost two weeks ago at the likable Edgewater National Amusements Multiplex (the only one I know of in the area not an AMC or a Clearview).  The sweet thing about this theater is its "Six Dollar Tuesdays", where all day for all showtimes (even the 3D ones) all movies are only six dollars, and a coupon for six dollars for small drink and popcorn!  This is a fun and clever way to try and get people to go to see movies more on weeknights, which is a better idea more often than not as to avoid big crowds and the And yet even with this incentive I decided to stay clear of the 3D for The Green Hornet, in first part as it was not shot for 3D and secondly that it ultimately really didn't need it, save perhaps (very arguably) for some of the fight scenes.  It's an agreeable movie to watch in 2D, as it's meant to be, in some part, like a 1990's goofy superhero flick.  Meant to be, by the way, not entirely.

I really did want to love this movie, as it's by a director who has made some of the wildest idiosyncratic work as a director in the past decade, Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine, Science of Sleep, chunks of Be Kind Rewind, the underrated Thorn in the Heart), not to mention his cornucopia of music videos that have set the bar to a whole other plain of artistic imagination and depth and invigoration.  But for this film, he is, by proxy of it being a Seth Rogen vehicle, mostly a hired gun here and there contributing a few cool visuals- mostly the fight scenes, which are given a slight twist on The Matrix by Kato's seemingly alien ability to zoom-in on his targets and project them across distances- and one scene involving a "I got it!" revelation scene set against the LA skyline and involving people as potted plants.

As a Seth Rogen vehicle, which is really what it is, it's... hit or miss.  In telling the story from the TV series and/or comic books about Britt Reid, son of newspaper mogul who has to step up and take some responsibility when his father dies and his "butler" Kato turns out to be a weapons/car expert and thus become the Green Hornet + Kato in fighting crime on the streets, it's still a Seth Rogen movie.  Meaning, from the guys who brought you Superbad and Pineapple Express.  This is fine for maybe the first twenty minutes or so, where we see Rogen as the party guy and irresponsible jack-ass he is.  It's when the plot gets further in to gear that he becomes a bigger Jackass (with a capital J) and gets into fights with Kato, one of which to such an insane extent as to try and top They Live's iconic fight, that he becomes very unsympathetic as a hero.  We want to see Britt Reid come into his own and get past his Billy Madison-ish ways, but when it finally does come about it comes all too quickly, as dictated by a plot as opposed to by natural character choices.  He makes Tony Stark look like the classiest cat in history by comparison, and he's technically a drunk lunatic!

And yet I would be remiss to say The Green Hornet doesn't provide some aural and visual pleasures and entertainment through some of it.  Jay Chau does what he can with a part that is sadly underwritten (or that he doesn't quite have the same charisma, or given enough time with it, as he does for his physical prowess), and it's a part that is the real bad-ass of the movie, the one who does all of the real work save for an idea here and there (ejector seats) or the gas-gun.  The opening scene will suck in most viewers who have an admiration for James Franco who plays an over-the-top villian who goes on and on about his name and how much Christoph Waltz's villain character (Bludnofsky, he keeps repeating) and the shit he's got in his office before he's taken down.  And Waltz himself brings his A-game to material that so doesn't deserve the likes of him, as a villain whose main thing, somewhat similar to how Britt has trouble coming up with a good "name" on the spot with the color Green, with what name to have, closing in on "Blood-nofsky".  Cameron Diaz... is no great shakes, and Edward James Olmos is underused, albeit in a somewhat thankless role.

But some of the action, even as it gets crazy in the final reel, is entertaining and Michel Gondry doesn't ever fuck up too bad on that scale.  He knows how to shoot it and let it go into some wild spots.  Even Rogen himself can be funny in the role (until, by the halfway mark, he's just annoying, almost on a level not seen since Observe and Report).  The main problems are right there in where a lot of movie's problems lie, in the script.  Rogen and his co-writer Evan Goldberg are fine and sometimes uproarious/outrageous comedy writers, however with conventional comic-book stuff they just don't know entirely how to handle all of the nuts and bolts to invigorate an already stale story (think back, who played the Green Hornet on the TV show... uh, no not Bruce Lee, the other one... right).  I mean, make us care about what's happening with these guys, get us on their side somehow, not just with goofy one-liners and all-too-quick wrap-around towards redemption.  They understand writing a jerk on one level, but not the progression of a hero from a "zero" so to speak.

In the Green Hornet it's as if all the parts are there for success, and in spurts and starts it succeeds and can be impressive like that mega-car Kato pimps out, and yet the whole doesn't quite work.  An entertaining shame.

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