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Project Power (2020)

The appeal of Project Power is immediate with its premise, which stirred a bidding war before finally ending up with Netflix. Take a pill and become a super hero for five minutes. Every person has a unique power and won’t know what that entails until they swallow that pill. However, there is also a risk that your body has a negative reaction of the exploding kind. I can see why studios would be all over that, on top of the fact that it plays into established popular cultural tropes, it still gets to be an original property. The finished film, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired, and I’m convinced that this hot commodity script went through a gauntlet of rewrites and producer interference, each new obstacle dimming and diminishing what made Project Power an exciting and compelling idea from inception. Well the concept is still interesting, and its relatively grounded sci-fi world has genuine potential, but the movie falls flat and is far too generic to be special.

Drug dealers are flushing New Orleans with a super pill that activates fantastic powers, though only for five-minute integrals. Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a local police officer who secretly keeps a stash of the pills for himself, to juice up to take on the escalating criminals. His supplier is Robin (Dominick Fishback), a teenager looking for a better life, who comes into contact with the mysterious and volatile Art (Jamie Foxx). He’s a man on a mission and working his way across the streets to go from supplier to supplier, working his way up the criminal food chain until he can confront the authority behind the super pill creation and distribution.

The premise by debut screenwriter Mattson Tomlin (The Batman) is tantalizing and makes every pill its own “what if?” scenario. I’m unsure whether or not the risk of bodily explosion occurs for every person or simply those whom the drug doesn’t agree with. I think it would be more interesting if every person stood some chance of risk. I talked about it with my girlfriend, if there was a pill that granted super powers but it also ran the chance of death, would you take it? We both answered, “Of course.” Who wouldn’t want to be a super hero, even if it’s only for five minutes? Naturally, much like within the X-Men universe, not every super power is on the same level of being useful. There’s a guy who grows extra bones, which serve as spikes attached to his body. I guess that’s something. It reminded me of the unfortunate mutant in X-Men 3 who could grow porcupine quills from his face (he even managed to coax someone near him to kill them). With such a momentous shift in human evolution, and through the angle of drug addiction, you would think Project Power would be the early steps of a complete re-examination of a changing society and the forces falling behind to try and catch up. This should be a big deal, and yet it never feels that way in this world. Super-powered criminals aren’t running rampant. One invisible guy robs a bank naked and it’s comedy. Nobody seems too panicked or bothered. It weirdly feels like everyone has already not only accepted this reality but compartmentalized it. If one city has a new super drug, would it not stand that others in neighboring cities and states and countries would also desire it? Should this not be dominating the news?

The characters are remarkably generic. Our heroes include a beat cop who “doesn’t play by all the rules” and goes on a secret mission to root out this drug conspiracy, a young black woman who wants to be an aspiring rapper while she’s slinging drugs, and a military veteran who was subjected to experiments and is desperate to find and save his kidnapped daughter. We’ve seen each of these archetypes in a thousand other action thrillers, and the fact that Project Power doesn’t give us any more than this is stunning. With some minute personal details, I have laid out everything we know about the three main characters in this movie. That’s it. It’s like each character was checking an archetype box and then was forgotten to be fleshed out. The worst is Art, a character that is coasting on Foxx’s attitude and charisma but is otherwise completely vacant. The kidnapped daughter storyline is maybe the most boring motivation that a protagonist could be saddled with. He might as well be a video game character from 90s-era titles, a military man who was betrayed by his government, experimented upon, given dangerous new powers, and now he’s striking out to save his daughter. It’s so bland and generic and boring. None of the major characters exhibit an interesting personality quirk, flaw, desire, or a point to make them more interesting than if a new nameless character had suddenly taken over from the background.

This extends to the villains as well. Their evil schemes are too vague and they’re just as generic and bland. The villains are also far too easily defeated, which drains any threat from their machinations. Without memorable or effective villains, Project Power limps to a finish, lacking the needed payoffs of our heroes triumphing over their foes. Does anyone care when Art defeats a secondary antagonist that is introduced far too late in the final twenty minutes? It’s too late to be introducing a Big Bad in the movie that is meant to be savored when vanquished. It’s not satisfying when the bad guys are dumb or nebulous or too easily beaten. I felt more antipathy with a bearded henchman than I did with any of his superiors. This is such an easy thing to do, establish a worthy opposition with personality and menace, a force that an audience will feel a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment over their eventual defeat. Make the villains matter. Regrettably, the villains in Project Power are just as generic and underdeveloped as the heroes.

Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have dabbled in many genres, first documentary (Catfish), then found footage horror (Paranormal Activity 3 and 4), then youthful thrillers with social media satire (Nerve), and now super hero action cinema. The versatility is to be commended, and they certainly infuse plenty of energetic style into Project Power. The special effects are pretty good when the powers are somewhat visually chaotic, like a drug dealer who becomes the Human Torch, running through ignitable room after room, while the camera zips along, lovingly documenting the rippling flames and embers. The camerawork and lighting can definitely provide jolts of excitement and engagement when the storytelling falters. However, there are moments that should have been avoided, like violent acts presented in unclear ways, perhaps trying to avoid a harsher rating that it ultimately got anyway. Another sequence is from the point of view of a dying woman trapped inside a container, and the action from the other side of the glass is almost completely obscured. The woman’s suffering seemed so overboard that it reminded me of that poor assistant lady who had a more gruesome death in Jurassic World than its actual villain. It’s a misplaced stylistic touch. A villain takes the drug and turns into a giant CGI troll, like something from 2002’s Chamber of Secrets and is goofy and misplaced. For a movie that is trying to be gritty and somewhat grounded, a giant CGI troll is a blunder. Joost and Schulman are currently attached to write and direct a Mega Man movie next, and I imagine this was a trial run for super-powered androids blasting one another to dust.

The Project Power playbook is pretty familiar and underwhelming in its creativity and development. The concept is there but the movie too often feels content to settle for less, trading in stereotypical heroes, vague villains, and muddled action sequences goosed with flashes of style to mask their lack of personal stakes and imagination. The scope of the movie is too frustratingly myopic and under-developed, like a nascent pilot for a TV series that provides impressions with a latent promise of getting back to storylines later. Except later will never arrive. Project Power (even the name is generic) is a super hero movie that feels like everything you’ve already seen before. It’s far less than super.

Nate’s Grade: C

Catfish (2010)

Catfish is a slippery pseudo-documentary that seeks to explore the idea of human connection in the digital age. What does it mean when people’s friends originate from a glowing box?

The film chronicles the online relationship of Yaniv “Nev” Schulman. He’s a twenty-something New York City photographer who gets a painting in the mail one day. It’s a painting based upon one of his pictures published in a New York magazine. A 12-year-old girl saw the photo and was inspired to paint. She keeps sending more and more paintings to Nev in New York. He researches the 12-year-old, her family, and eyes pictures of Megan, her older sister. Megan is a strikingly good-looking model who also dances, plays the cello, writes songs, and raises horses. Nev and Megan have several conversations via phone, texting, online chatting, e-mail, and Facebook postings. It’s a relationship completely dependent on thumbs. Then Nev, along with his filmmaking friends Henry Joost and Nev’s brother, Ariel Schulman, start noticing peculiarities. Why does Megan pass off other people’s songs as her own? Why does she never seem to be around when other family members are? Is Megan really Megan? The guys start investigating and deconstructing this online romantic fable. Nev’s friends prod him into making an unexpected road trip to Megan’s family home in Ishpeming, Michigan. They’re excited and morbidly curious about what awaits them.

I suppose your ultimate feelings about this movie will depend upon whether you view Catfish as a work of fiction or non-fiction. In either case, there’s a lot of manipulation and exploitation. Even if you do some half-hearted Internet research, you can find real-life events mentioned in the film that actually happened. A real-life special needs child died in the town of Ishpeming, as described in the closing text of the film. That means that a character we see late in the film is either the genuine special needs child or was a stand-in for one and the filmmakers took advantage of a community’s loss for “authenticity.” Which is more manipulative? Nev and his pals want to expose this scheming family, broadcasting private messages and intruding upon their lives with cameras to document their foibles. From my assessment, the film felt staged from start to finish. What luck they had cameras rolling for all these important moments of inquiry. But does that mean that the film is any less believable? The movie examines how easy it is not just to create a different persona, or new friends via the Internet; it showcases how the Internet allows people to create their own world. People lose themselves in alternate online realities, not just social-networking sites like Facebook but The Sims, Second Life, World of Warcraft, and all sorts of other avatar-based sites. The Internet allows us to fashion our own worlds, our own escape door from reality. Our grasp on reality has become subjective, which is further evidence that the truthfulness of the film is a moot point (a fictional non-fiction film about people posing as fictional versions of who they want to be online?). What does identity mean in an age of ever-increasing fiction?

As a film, Catfish is a mess of digital images. We see Facebook posts and text messages, scrutinize images posted Online, scroll through Google and YouTube for damming evidence of a con, and the guys make extensive use of Google Earth to showcase their cross-country travels. The visual do-it-yourself aesthetic contributes to the stab at authenticity as well as amateur journalism. The framing of the shots, however, is another point that tips Catfish into being a likely work of fiction. Whatever the case may be, the filmmakers and the subjects aren’t speaking one way or another.

Those snookered by Catfish’s sensational trailer (there will be many) are likely in for a crushing disappointment. Catfish begins as a slightly intriguing mystery as Nev and his buddies uncover the irregularities and discrepancies of Megan. Then when the trio actually arrives in Ishpeming in the dead of night, there’s about a ten-minute stretch of “don’t go in there!” cinema. Nev’s filmmaking pals egg it on with self-aware comments about how scared they are or how creepy the situation is becoming. Then again, who exactly peaks into an abandoned horse farm in the dead of night? At this point, goaded by the trailer, you’re expecting Catfish to go down the grisly horror path. You expect they will discover some terrifying secret like that Megan is apart of a family of grifters that lure unsuspecting men from the Internet to be butchered and have their organs sold. Catfish does not go down that path. It actually pretty much goes the way you’d expect in real life. It actually turns out to be a fairly normal, mundane story, something that would have made an interesting one-hour TV special (“To Catch an Internet Poser”? It would run for decades). Catfish begins as a warning about how well we can truly know someone in the digital age, but then it concludes as a thoughtful character-piece about the steps people take to alleviate the disappointments and hardships of life.

Catfish has some moments of intrigue and tension, but at most the film is a mildly interesting experiment. It straddles many creative lines. It’s both fiction and non-fiction, humane and exploitative, probing and lethargic, a fitting contradistinction about a world that full of them. It’s a mostly well-crafted movie but what do you do with it after you know all its secrets? Nev and his crew are on a crusade for the truth, but whose truth? If you’re looking for a true stimulating experience exploring life in the Internet age, check out The Social Network again. Talking and analyzing Catfish is more intriguing than actually viewing the film.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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