Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

WHY DO I OWN THIS?: Ghost Rider (2007)

Out of Marvel's library of superheroes, Ghost Rider seems like an odd choice for a film adaptation. The flaming skull headed biker is well known but has never been a universally recognized figure. Truthfully, the vengeance-minded wraith is deeply rooted to the decade that birthed him. Ghost Rider arose out of several mid-seventies fads. The character combined Evel Knievel stunt riding and the demonic horrors of movies like “The Exorcist” and “The Omen.” For bonus points, it threw in some iconography that wouldn't be out of place on a Black Sabbath album. Yet a “Ghost Rider” movie had been in development since the early nineties, before the massive success of “X-Men” and “Spider-Man.” When that adaptation finally roared into movie theaters in 2007, it was greeted with negative reviews from critics and “Ghost Rider” fans. The film is generally regarded as a misfire for everyone involved. So why do I own it?

“Ghost Rider” also has its roots in an even older story: The Faustian bargain. Johnny Blaze is the son of a motorcycle stuntman, who rides his chopper through flaming rings at state fairs all across the country. When his father is diagnosed with incurable lung cancer, Johnny is approached by a strange man. The man claims to be the devil and offers to heal Blaze's dad... In exchange for his soul. The boy agrees. His father's cancer is cured but the old man dies anyway. Thirty years later, Johnny Blaze is a hugely popular stunt rider in his own right. That's when the devil comes calling, tasking Johnny with tracking down his demonic offspring Blackheart and the scroll of damned souls he's after. To accomplish this goal, Blaze transforms into the Ghost Rider.

Ghost Rider is a very silly movie. The film revolves around imagery that looks fine on a comic book page but appears deeply goofy in live action. Ghost Rider looks bad ass in four colors. In flesh and blood, when created with somewhat dodgy CGI, a biker with a flaming skull looks funny. It doesn't help that the script sticks Ghost Rider with goofy one-liners, such as when he discourages a police helicopter from pursuing him. In the comics, one of Ghost Rider's trademark moves is to drive his hell-cycle up the side of a building, leaving behind a flaming trail. The movie replicates this without dialing back the ridiculousness. Ghost Rider's enemies, a trio of fallen angels representing different elements, also border unintentional comedy. They all dress in draping leather trench coats. The wind spirit's hair is always blowing in the wind. The water spirit is always damp. Thanks for giving us those visual clues, movie.

Some of “Ghost Rider's” goofy aspects are grating. Director Mark Steven Johnson – who already had one mediocre Marvel movie under his belt with “Daredevil” –  adds numerous melodramatic flourishes. Crash-zooms and whip pans are often utilized, drawing undue attention to themselves. Yet some of “Ghost Rider's” silliness is kind of endearing. A scene where Ghost Rider fights off some rowdy crooks in a holding cell is the definition of cheese ball, pulpy fun. How the Rider grabs his trademark chain and his spiked studded leather jacket are mildly amusing. One scene even has Ghost Rider giving some cops the bony, middle finger!

The action scenes are often ridiculous but in a creative way. Such as the unique ways Ghost Rider uses his red hot chain whip to dispatch his demonic enemies. The script lays down important plot points, like the Ghost Rider's penance stare ability and Blackheart's natural lack of a soul, in a very heavy handed fashion. You immediately recognize that these story points will be important latter. Yet that awkwardness is sort of endearing. The film almost feels like it was written by a kid. And I mean that as a compliment. By the time two generations of Ghost Riders – one on flaming motorcycle, one on flaming horse – ride through the desert to the ominous chords of “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” the film has fallen on the right side of ridiculous. And, if nothing else, the melted demon chrome of the Hell Cycle is awfully neat to look at.

Starring as Johnny Blaze is Academy Award winning thespian Nicolas Cage. Cage is a huge comic book fan. He took his stage name from Luke Cage and named his son Kal-El, for goodness' sake. Cage was determined to be a superhero or supervillain, his name getting attached to characters like Superman, Scarecrow, Green Goblin, and John Constantine. Yet Ghost Rider, a character he has tattooed on his body, was the only superhero Cage would actually get to play. Cage is, to put it simply, the perfect actor for “Ghost Rider.” He imbues the movie with a number of unnecessary quirks. Johnny Blaze chugs coffee, eats jellybeans by the handful, and loves monkeys and the Carpenters. Cage overdoes it with the wild facial expressions and crazy hand motions. It's a ridiculous, over-the-top performance and perfectly suited to the material. “Ghost Rider” lives and dies based on how crazy Nicolas Cage is acting at any given time.

“Ghost Rider's” supporting cast also occupies this borderland of enjoyable stupidity and blockbuster tedium. Casting Peter Fonda as the devil in a motorcycle movie is an amusing in-joke. Fonda hams it up nicely, growling with a weird, quasi-Southern accent. Wes Bentley plays Blackheart, Mephisto's felonious son. Bentley has admitted that he made this movie during a long period of heroin addiction. It's easy to see the controlled substances influencing his wide-eyed performance, which abandons any sense of good taste for overstated glowering. Sam Elliot trots out his well-worn cowboy act as Blaze's mentor, to mildly amusing effect.

On the other end of the spectrum is Eva Mendes. As Blaze's love interest, Mendes seems to actively look down on the material. She has no chemistry with Cage and steps through her comedic scenes with absolutely no grace. In her defense, Mendes' part is pretty shitty, a standard love interest who is imperiled in the last act. Donal Logue, as Blaze's short-lived buddy, pushes the comic relief shtick a little too far, often coming off as annoying. And each of the actors playing Blackheart's henchmen are terrible. All of them affect odd accents and overact under their modest make-up.

Why Do I Own This?: “Ghost Rider” was made near the end of the period when Nic Cage was a genuine box office draw, before the IRS came calling for his pyramids and dinosaur bones. His star power is probably why the movie made 228 million worldwide. “Ghost Rider” is clearly a deeply flawed film, possessing a goofball tone and a deeply hacky script. Having said that, I still find myself enjoying the movie more often than not. It's not good in any traditional sense. As overcooked, comic book trash, it's fairly entertaining. The film doesn't elevate the superhero genre. In fact, Johnson's film contributes to its childish reputation. Yet the fun I have with “Ghost Rider” was more than enough to justify the five bucks I spent on the DVD. My proudest purchase? Nah. But I'm all right with this one stinking up my collection. [7/10]

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: Jonah Hex (2010)

For years, Warner Brothers would struggle to turn DC Comics characters that weren't Batman or Superman into successful movies. Before their current, and no less fraught cinematic universe, the studio would produce two movies based on lesser known heroes. “Green Lantern” would be a misfire and box office disappointment. “Jonah Hex,” meanwhile, would be a catastrophic flop. It earned utterly acidic reviews and didn't even make back a third of its budget. Neveldine/Taylor wrote the screenplay and planned to direct. However, the duo probably realized the project was doomed and left before filming began. Instead, animation director Jimmy Haywood would helm the film. He hasn't attempted another live action feature since.

Jonah Hex is a bounty hunter during the American Old West. An unrepentant Confederate soldier, Hex still wears his fading gray uniform. During the war, he refused to obey an order made by the mad general Quentin Turnball. Years later, Turnball would appear to murder Hex's family and brutally deform his face. Even more years later, Hex discovers that Turnbull is still alive. Alive and planning to build a superweapon that could destroy the United States. Hex is reluctantly recruited by the U.S. government to stop Turnbull, giving him a chance to avenge his family's death.

By all accounts, “Jonah Hex” had a troubled production. The initial script by Neveldine/Taylor was not well liked by Josh Brolin or Megan Fox. Later, the script would be heavily rewritten, to tone down the humor and problematic aspects that the duo are known for. Warners Brothers would rewrite and re-cut the film multiple times. This difficult production is evident in the final film. The movie is only 81 minutes long, an unheard of length for a major action film, suggesting a lot was cut out. Moreover, Brolin performs a totally unnecessary voice-over narration throughout the film, a likely last ditch effort to salvage the plot. The story features many odd, unexplained detours. Such as Hex imagining a final battle with Turnbull in his mind or a truly baffling scene where Indians perform a magical ritual to bring Hex back to life. Those Indians, by the way, do not feature in any other scene.

In the comic books, Jonah Hex has had some far-out adventures. Frequent time travel has enabled him to team up with Batman and other heroes. He's fought monsters and zombies before. At one point, he was even tossed into a post-apocalyptic future. Despite these elements, Hex has always just been a hideously scarred western hero. For some odd reason, this adaptation gifts Hex with a superpower. His near death experience has given him the ability to talk to the dead. Whenever he touches a corpse, it springs back to life. As long as he holds onto it, the dead body can give him information. This ability comes with a lot of convoluted rules, which Brolin has to explain. This ability has little effects on the overall story, making its inclusion even stranger. (I wish I could blame this one on WB's rewriting and reediting but apparently it was present in Neveldine/Taylor's original script.)

Visually, “Jonah Hex” varies between being kind of interesting and utterly incoherent. Jimmy Haywood's handle on action seems okay in the beginning. A Sergio Leone-inspired shoot-out in the first scene, which features a Gatling gun attached to Hex's horse, works alright. Later, a sequence involving dynamite-firing crossbows is sort of cool. A pit fight between a burly human and a snake-like mutant actually features some dynamic action. Yet other scenes in “Jonah Hex” are poorly assembled. Most of the action scenes in the final act are set on a darkened boat. They are just about impossible to follow. Other scenes are hastily edited, the movie leaping between locations without much rhyme or reason. The CGI is also pretty ugly, though that probably wasn't Haywood's fault.

Fans of the “Jonah Hex” comics largely hated this movie but most agree that Josh Brolin playing the title part was at least a good idea. (Though many still wanted to see Thomas Jane in the part, including Thomas Jane.) Brolin does what he can to salvage the movie. He's fittingly gruff, unapologetic, and ready for action. When the character's rage shines through, you get the sense that Brolin probably would've been great in a much better film. The make-up that recreates Hex's famous facial deformity is, sadly, undeniably awkward. Having a dangling piece of rubber in front of his mouth likely hampered Brolin's performance too.

The supporting cast is less consistent. John Malkovich sleepwalks through his part as Turnbull, dryly delivering his evil plans without much feeling or conviction. Michael Fassbender hams it up to cartoonish level as Burke, Turnbull's main henchman. He rarely misses a chance to mug for the camera. Megan Fox – surprise, surprise – is terrible as Lilah, Hex's prostitute love interest. She attempts to lend some “girl power” attitude to the part, which is a deeply ill fitting choice. Moreover, Fox's line reading is wooden and her body language suggests she'd rather be anywhere else. (That she's shot exclusively in a porno-esque soft glow doesn't help.) This furthers my theory that Fox isn't a bad actress so much as she just hates most of the movies she's in.

When a movie has as messy a production as “Jonah Hex” did, you can't really blame any of the actors or filmmakers. Who can act when the script is constantly being rewritten? Who can direct when the studio has conflicting visions for the film? It's unsurprising that “Jonah Hex” is a fiasco.  Bad decisions were made at every turn. Yet the film has enough interesting aspects that you at least wonder what a good version – with a wildly different screenplay, largely different cast, more experienced director and less pushy producers – might have looked like. I can't even really hate “Jonah Hex,” though I totally sympathize with those that do. It's more of a doomed movie than a bad movie. Fucked at every turn, it never had a chance. Neveldine/Taylor were smart to get out when they did. [4/10]

Monday, April 24, 2017

Director Report Card: Neveldine/Taylor (2009) Part 2

3. Gamer

“Crank” opened the door for Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor. That film's success made Liongates and Lakeshore Entertainment eager to collaborate with the directors again. The two were given a bigger budget, going towards making a bigger sort of action movie. The result would be “Gamer,” a film that paired them with another big action star of the moment. This would slightly backfire, as the film appeared indistinct from any number of other Gerald Butler features. The result would be a movie that opened to audience indifference, failing to recoup its 50 million dollar budget. Yet some have defended "Gamer," suggesting that the film is worth a second look.

In the near future, a new type of video game has taken the world by storm. Billionaire inventor Ken Castle has introduced a new type of gaming. His first success, “Society,” allowed players to live out their wildest sexual fantasies. His second, “Slayers,” is a brutal first person shooter. The big difference is that the players aren't operating computerized avatars. They are controlling real people. The characters in “Slayers” are criminals on death row, controlled by nanites implanted in their brains. And the most popular slayer is Kable. Yet Kable, real name John Tillman, has a mind and soul. He hopes to survive the game and be reunited with his wife and daughter. When a group of hackers attempt to disrupt Castle's operation, Kable gets his chance to escape.

That Neveldine/Taylor's next movie would be explicitly about video games is fitting. “Crank” was inspired by several video games, combining the free-wheeling chaos of “Grand Theft Auto” with the heart-stopping intensity of “Berzerk.” “Gamer” doesn't merely reference classic video games. Instead, it attempts to deconstruct video game troupes. The film asks the questions: Would your feelings about video games change if they starred real people, instead of digital creations? It's a valid question worth asking, considering the evergreen appeal of ultra-violent video games. Yet “Gamer” doesn't go much deeper than that, assuming a sharp premise is enough.

“Gamer's” vision of the future is fairly implausible. There's no way games like “Slayers” or “Society,” or even the technology that makes them possible, would ever be legal. Yet “Gamer' is prescient in some ways. The player who operates Kable is a seventeen year old kid named Simon. His gaming skills have made him a celebrity, who gets sexual advances from adoring female fans. In 2009, somebody getting this famous for playing a video game seemed unlikely. In 2017, we live in a world where Pewdiepie makes millions of dollars and YouTube “Let's Players” are more influential on young people than most celebrities. That Simon is mostly a simpering bro might be a commentary on the attitudes such a level of fame might bring. Or it could just be how Neveldine and Taylor write most of their characters.

“Gamer's” social commentary is, for the most part, too vague. “Slayers” is shown to be so popular that people watch competitions all over the world, that massive billboards cover skyscrapers. This isn't too far off from reality, considering the worldwide success of “Halo” and “Call of Duty.” Yet “Gamer” never ask why people like intensely violent video games like that. Nor does it question what that says about our culture. Its criticism of how massive corporations take over and direct society is only glanced at. Some of “Gamer's” criticisms are especially shallow. Like how it depicts one avid player of “Society” as a morbidly obese pervert who lives in a dark room, starring at monitors, and rolling around on a Rascal scooter. You'd think the massive popularity of the kinds of video games “Gamer” is poking fun at would dispel such stereotypes.

As social commentary, “Gamer” isn't especially profound. But what about as an action movie? In that regard, “Gamer” seems a little too eager to recreate the grim, gritty, gunmetal world of “Gears of War” and “Modern Warfare.” Gray is the predominant color of “Gamer's” world. The action scenes are oppressively grimy. The movie quickly becomes a series of stern shoot-outs in indistinct, blandly colored environments. We're talking abandoned factories, abandoned warehouses, abandoned city blocks, and an area covered with concrete meridians. If the actions scenes were more interesting, maybe the bland color palette wouldn't be a problem. Instead, the action scenes are overly shaky and difficult to follow.

That so much of “Gamer” is so unpleasant to look at is a bummer. On occasion, the film shows an interesting, colorful side. I mean literally colorful, at times. One scene takes place in a day-glo sex club, with neon colors decorating the nude or semi-nude bodies. Other times, Neveldine/Taylor show the energetic direction that characterized the “Crank” movies. The sequence that introduces us to the “Society” game has the camera drastically spinning around the players. To let us know this world is all about sex, there's even a tracking shot of a big ass shoved into a pair of tiny shorts. The editing is brisk, the images flashing on-screen quickly but with a sense of purpose. It's the best part of the movie.

Another aspect that was crucial to the “Crank” series was its sick sense of humor. Sadly, that's something else that “Gamer” lacks. Occasionally, we get a sliver of humor from Kable's relationship with the kid that controls him or the over-the-top shenanigans of Ken Castle. Mostly, “Gamer” is all doom and gloom... Except for one sequence. Kable's wife works as an actor in Society, allowing players to inflict their sexual fantasies on her. After entering a club, she encounters a character calling himself Rick Rape. That's Milo Ventimiglia in a leather/spandex jumpsuit. Ventimiglia's performance is gloriously over-the-top, as he sweats, screams, and snaps his spandex. The scene is short-lived but so bizarrely sleazy that it lingers in the memory.

Nobody seems to like Gerald Butler's movies but, for some reason, most of them make money hand over fists. Butler has, occasionally, shown a macho charisma that at least hints at a reason for his popularity. There's none of that in “Gamer.” Butler barely speaks for the first half-hour. He mostly just grunts, leaps over objects, and murders his enemies. The character is totally directed by the plot and shows practically no personality. There's pretty much no reason to care about Kable. Butler stares with a psychotic glare but does nothing else to stretch his acting muscles. This is either a brilliant commentary on the intentional lack of personality most FPS protagonist have or a bad performance. I'll let you guess which one it actually is.

If the lead character is a total void, “Gamer” at least presents some entertaining villains. Michael C. Hall appears as Castle. Hall sports a ridiculous Southern accent. However, he hams it up to an amusing degree. Hall's Castle is so obviously evil, a totally amoral businessman that enjoys screwing over the world, that you wonder how the character was ever successful. But it is fun to watch. When it's decided that Kable must die, a slayer without a player is sent after him. Terry Crews fills this part. Crews is great at comedy but he's terrifying in “Gamer.” He's a physically intimidating character, muscled and massive. He casually murders his foes, washing their blood off his hands without thinking about it. Crews' sweaty, determined desire to murder Gerald Butler makes him a villain that seems genuinely dangerous.

There are a number of interesting actors in the supporting parts. Logan Lerman, still best known as Percy Jackson, doesn't sell his redemptive arc very well but is good at playing a snot-nosed asshole. Kyra Sedgwick appears as a hypocritical television interviewer. The character's morality seems to shift from scene to scene but Sedgwick is fittingly oozy as a gladhanding fame-seeker. John Leguizamo has a small role as one of the inmates forced to act as NPCs in the game. Sadly, Leguizamo exits the film before he has a chance to really become interesting. Keith David and Zoe Bell show up for bit parts and are sadly wasted. I like all of these people but can't say the same for Amber Valleta as Kable's wife. Valleta is a little too vacant eyed and shares zero chemistry with Butler. The film should've made Alison Lohamn's resistance fighter his love interest instead, as Lohman is far more interesting in her few scenes than Valleta is in the entire movie.

Once Kable escapes the game, “Gamer” blusters through a series of increasingly uninteresting action sequences. After Butler piles up even more of a body count, it's time for the showdown with the bad guy. What follows is an invigorating sequence where Michael C. Hall dances to “I've Got You Under My Skin,” along with a bunch of mindless drones. Butler then goes insane and brutally dispatches these henchmen with his bare hands. It's an impressively unexpected sequence and would've made a fine climax for the film. Sadly, “Gamer” goes on for about another ten minutes, dragging the audience towards an underwhelming confrontation between bloody hero and psychotic villain. That also, for some reason, involves basketball.

“Gamer” is also less original than it claims to be. Elements are clearly picked from “Rollerball,” “The Running Man,” and “Battle Royale,” all of which are superior films. I'm not sure what you'd blame “Gamer” flopping at the box office on. Maybe the September release date was to blame. Maybe people were sick of Gerald Butler. Or maybe the studio tried to sell a movie critical of video gaming culture to video gamers. Or maybe “Gamer” was just too much of an overly grim snooze to hook even undiscriminating action fans. “Gamer” needed to be either smarter, attacking its targets with a clearer head, or dumber, by embracing the absurdity of its premise. [Grade: C]

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Director Report Card: Neveldine/Taylor (2009) Part 1

2. Crank: High Voltage

“Crank” became a surprise critical and commercial success. It rode Jason Statham's star power to nearly 43 million dollars at the box office, a good return against his modest 12 million dollar budget. Moreover, the movie's insane theatrics won fans among regular critics and action movie obsessives. In other words, a sequel made perfect sense... Except for one tiny detail. “Crank” concluded with its lead character dying rather spectacularly. The writer/director duo of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor did not let this hold them back. Chev Chelios would return from the grave and “Crank: High Voltage” would come to theaters two years after the original. The sequel is surely one of the most off-the-walls mainstream action films ever produced.

The film begins with Chev Chelios' climatic plummet from a helicopter above the streets of Los Angeles. After his body collided with the concrete, a group of Chinese gangsters appear and scrap Chelios off the road. Four months later, he awakens in a Triad laboratory. Chev's seemingly immortal heart has been transplanted into the 100 year old leader of the organization. Inside Chelios' chest is a high-tech robotic heart, whose batteries need to be charged on a regular basis. Chev immediately escapes, reconnects with his girlfriend Eve, attempts to retrieve his heart, crosses paths with old enemies, and goes on another insane rampage.

Neveldine/Taylor scoff at the challenges presented by killing off your main character in the first movie. It takes them about a minute to get Chev Chelios off the pavement. Not long after that, Chevy is back up, moving and killing again. In many ways, “High Voltage” directly copies the formula of the original. Once again, Statham's hero has to obey certain rules if he expects to survive. Last time, it was keeping his adrenaline up. This time, it's keeping his robotic heart charged. The directors used the first film's premise as a structure upon which to hang increasingly outrageous action set pieces. For the sequel, they push the same construction even further. Neveldine/Taylor don't see the reliance on formula as a weakness but as a set-up within which they can do anything.

Something that distinguished that first “Crank” from similar action flicks was its frenetic visual style. “High Voltage” builds on this as well. Different tricks are employed to gift the film with an energy nearly as unstoppable as its protagonist. After getting a jolt from a car battery, the camera spins around Chev in a hectic fashion, emphasizing his speed. Fast motion, slow motion, and jerky editing are utilized throughout. A playful use of subtitles and on-screen text appeared in the first movie. For the sequel, the directors build on that quirk. The gimmick of showing locations on Google Maps makes a big return. Wonky looking subtitles show up, even when a character is speaking English. A perverse idea is visualized by a light bulb literally appearing over someone's head. It all adds up to make “Crank: High Voltage” as crazy visually as it is narratively.

“Crank 2” isn't bigger than the original in one, obvious way. The sequel's budget was seven million dollars more than the first. Which is probably pretty good for a mid-tier action flick but still not much in the world of blockbuster entertainment. “High Voltage” can't be much bigger than its predecessor, so it's crazier. Jason Statham leaps down a parking garage, outpacing a car.  The violence is more explicit. Elbows are cleaved off, nipples are sliced away. A machine gun being fired inside the tight confines of a car results in blood splattering everywhere and the driver's intestines spilling out. A stripper is shot through the breasts, causing her implants to spurt out. It's nasty stuff and would probably veer too far if “Crank 2” wasn't so clearly an over-the-top comedy.

That's right: A comedy. The humor in the first “Crank” rose out of the absurdities of its action movie scenarios. “High Voltage” goes for broke, digging further into the original's over-the-top, offensive humor. Some of this stuff maybe pushes itself too far. The treatment of women – almost exclusively as frequently abused sexual objects – comes off as rather gross. Asians stereotypes are embraced, with a prostitute speaking in broken English and crude name puns. That's the kind of a movie “Crank 2” is. Nothing is off limits. So we get a flamboyantly gay character with “full body Tourettes,” causing him to suddenly gyrate in spasmodic fashions. We see a man's testicles electrocuted on-screen. “High Voltage” even mocks the first “Crank,” when the original's sincere ending is brilliantly deconstructed. You could be offended or you could realize its all exaggerated insanity and laugh along with it.

Helping sell “Crank 2's” edgiest material is Jason Statham's hilarious performance. Statham makes it clear that he'll do anything to sell a gag. When Chev is forced to rub up against random people at the race track to create static electricity, Statham tries to be subtle at first. By the end of the scene, he's dry-humping an old lady. Another fantastic sequence has Chev accosting a pair of men using a shock collar on a dog. Statham deadpans fantastically as he straps the collar on his own neck and verbally abuses the guys. Statham's ability to keep a straight face throughout the craziest situations makes him the perfect leading man for “Crank.” His ability to shrug off the wildest events makes “High Voltage” even funnier than it otherwise would've been. Statham also has a way with gloriously profane dialogue but you probably knew that already.

In the first movie, Amy Smart proved what a good sport she was. “High Voltage” takes her character to even wilder situations and Smart is still willing to play along. She first marches on-screen in nothing but a pair of booty shorts and electrical tape. Not long afterwards, she's left in the backseat of a police car to be pawed out by another stripper. Naturally, “High Voltage” reprises the original's public sex scene. Arguably, it tops it too. Smart and Statham have increasingly gymnastic sex on a race track. The scene concludes with a graphic shot of horse genitalia and Smart getting washed down with a fire hose. All along, Smart remains on the movie's juvenile, insane wavelength.

Probably a portion of the bigger budget went towards grabbing some recognizable names for the supporting cast. Dwight Yoakam and Efren Ramirez return. Yoakam is even more profane than last time, playing Dr. Mills as a skeezy weirdo, medical genius. Ramirez' character also died in the first movie but he returns as an identical twin brother. The character's particular condition allows Ramirez to give an utterly fearless physical performance. Aside from returning cast members, “Crank 2” features a number of cult icons, showing practically as guest stars. Bai Ling gives an entirely absurd performance, playing her demented character to the rafters. David Carradine appears under heavy make-up as “Poon Dong” – yes, really – and seems to relish the opportunity to act so silly. In one of his final screen credits, Corey Haim shows up sporting an amazing mallet. Fittingly, he plays a perfect white trash asshole.

There's a number of lovably insane ideas on display in “Crank 2.” Yet two sequences rise to the surface as especially inspired in their ludicrousness. Chev Chelios spends most of the film's first half chasing the man he believes has his heart, a glorious narrative red herring. After confronting him at a power plant, Chev gets a super dose of electricity. This leads us to a scene that can only be called “The Kaiju Interlude.” Chelios and his enemy appear as giants, wearing rubbery masks exaggerating their facial features. They swing through a miniature set in the clunky fashion familiar to fans of “Ultraman” and Toho movies. Melodramatic music plays on the soundtrack, the film grade even replicating movies from the sixties. And then it's over. There's no reason for this scene to be in the movie other than it's awesome. Which may very well be reason enough.

Amazingly, “High Voltage” tops the foaming-at-the-mouth insanity of the kaiju scene. Only a few minutes later, Chev is not unconscious. What follows is a visual montage of the words “Fuck you, Chelios,” shouted at the audience in different accents and context. This segues into a dream sequence of Chev, as a kid, on a British talk show. (We get another celebrity cameo here, with Geri “Ginger Spice” Halliwell, appearing as Chelios' mom.) That's a clever way to give the audience a peak at the character's back story. It also fits the movie's absurd sense of humor. Just when you think the movie only has offensive humor to provide, it throws a brilliant bit of nonsense like this at the audience.

By the final act, “Crank 2” has reached levels of sublime weirdness. The first movie's villain re-appears in the most surprising manner. We get a shoot-out between Latino gangsters and machine gun wielding leather daddies. It all leads up to Chev Chelios' most extreme act of self-abuse thus far. Yet in his head, he sees a day-glo, sunshine, eighties love ballad paradise. In its final moments, “High Voltage” even breaks the fourth wall. When Chev Chelios, his skin blistering and burning away, gives the audience the middle finger... How can the audience interpret that?  Are Nevldine/Taylor telling the audience to fuck off? Or is it a cynical statement on sequels themselves? Or maybe, as I believe, they're giving typical action movie rules the finger? If there's any movie that tells audience expectations to fuck off, it's this one.

“Crank 2” ends with a sequel hook, promising further adventures for the undying Chev Chelios. Sadly, the box office recipes proved somewhat disappointing. Perhaps “High Voltage” was too spicy a meatball for the normal action movie audience? While I'd obviously loved to see “Crank” become a trilogy, I wonder how Neveldine/Taylor would top a film as unpredictable as this one. Maybe they could drop Chev into some sort of post-apocalyptic world? Anyway, the original is probably fresher and some of part two's humor hasn't aged too well. Yet the sheer number of outrageous ideas on display makes “Crank: High Voltage” another instant cult classic that is massively entertaining. [Grade: A-]

Saturday, April 22, 2017

NO ENCORES: Pathology (2008)

1. Pathology (2008)
Director: Marc Scholermann

When “Pathology” came out in 2008, I don't remember hearing very much about it. It's theatrical release was limited, meaning the film wasn't seen by many people. I only skimmed a few reviews, none of which were very exciting. The commercials and trailers I saw looked pretty generic to me. I probably wouldn't have watched “Pathology” if I didn't have an obsessive-compulsive need to see as many of the new horror movies in a year as possible. I was in no way prepared for the kind of movie “Pathology” actually was, an extremely twisted horror/comedy with murder-mystery elements. After scanning the credits, I realized this movie was written by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the madmen behind “Crank.” “Ah,” I said to myself, “That explains that.” The film, however, was actually directed by Marc Scholermann. A German born filmmaker, Scholermann has made a number of music videos and short films but, as of 2017, “Pathology” remains his only feature film credit.

Teddy Grey has a bright future ahead of him. He's just graduated with honors from Harvard and has joined the country's most highly regarded pathology program. He's also engaged to Gwen, the beautiful daughter of a rich businessman. At this turning point in his life he meets Dr. Jake Gallo. Gallo, and his gang of follow pathology students, pull Teddy into a sick game they play. One of the group will murder some undesirable individual – criminals, murderers, drug addicts – and then present the body to the others, seeing if they can guess the cause of death. Ted is resistant at first but is soon drawn in by the sex and drugs that often accompany the murderous game. But Dr. Gallo is more dangerous than he appears and Grey suspects his perfect life is imperiled.

The lame title didn't hint at “Pathology's” content very well. This is a depraved movie loaded with explicit sex, graphic drug use, and intense gore. We see multiple autopsies, bodies graphically cut open. Organs are freely tossed around. Skulls and sternums are cracked open. One especially gross moment involves a punctured colon. That's only the beginning. There's a lot of sex and nudity in “Pathology.” Two female characters casually make out with each other. Teddy begins a hot affair with Juliette, another member of the murder club. The two have sex on floors, in elevators, and in morgues, right next to the dead bodies. There's no lack of bare breasts and graphic humping. “Pathology” is also the only movie I can think that isn't about crack cocaine that features characters smoking crack. People use whip-its in this movie too. The graphic content is certainly startling, if you're not expecting this stuff.

It's not just that “Pathology” piles on the R-rated stuff. The movie is characterized by a nihilistic tone. The characters justify their violent ways by claiming that society is corrupt, full of awful excuses for people who deserve to die. (That doesn't explain the rampant drug use though.) Further selling this mode is what terrible people the main characters are. Milo Ventimiglia's Teddy is a totally feckless protagonist. Despite having a committed girlfriend, he sleeps with the other girl. He joins the murder club without much prodding. He's an anti-hero at best and Ventimiglia's grouchy, flat performance doesn't help matters.

Far better is Michael Weston as Dr. Gallo. Weston goes way over-the-top. He plays Gallo as a totally demented madman. He makes grand announcements about society and harasses other characters. As the story goes on, and Gallo grows more dangerous, Weston pushes his performance even further. For the extra push, Weston even hints that Gallo has a homoerotic obsession with Grey. By the final scene, Weston is sporting a half burned face and spouting arguments at his enemies, signifying the character's full blown transformation into a horror movie villain. It's certainly an entertaining performance and Weston more-or-less makes the movie.

There are some other notable names among the cast. Alyssa Milano is fairly subdued as Grey's fiance. Milano's parts of the movie are so sunny and sweet, that they contrast heavily with the mayhem in the other scenes. At times, Milano seems to be in an entirely different film. John de Lanice, known to “Star Trek” nerds as Q, shows up as the head of the program. De Lancie is entertaining in his brief scenes, bringing some humor to an otherwise stale voice of authority. (de Lanice would become something of a good luck charm for Nevldine/Taylor, as they also sneaked him into their next two movies.) Larry Drake also shows up as a character named “Fat Bastard,” a fitting description.

From a narrative perspective, “Pathology” is fairly absurd. It seems unlikely that these elaborate murders would be happening on hospital grounds for so long without some authority noticing. Later, the protagonist is linked to several murders and never comes under suspicion. That seems unlikely. Moreover, there's very few characters for the audience to root for. Like I said, Teddy is a terrible person. While Gallo is interesting to watch, he's an utterly despicable character. It's also hard to tell if “Pathology” is criticizing or embracing the nihilistic philosophies espoused by its characters. Add all of this stuff together and you're left with a movie likely to alienate the majority of viewers.

If you're looking for an aesthetic that directs “Pathology,” you can clearly recognize Neveldine and Taylor's finger prints. Occasionally, the movie reveals a sick sense of humor, in the way it piles up human bodily fluids. A character casually dropping a line about “tweaking” got a chuckle out of me. The actions of the murder club are often so extreme that only a small push would be necessary to make the film a deranged comedy. However, the material is mostly played straight, leading to a very grim motion picture that doesn't quite justify its own excesses. Playing a grisly punk song like “Parade of the Horribles” over the end credits could've been a sick joke but it also could've been an earnest statement about the film's themes.

So what of Marc Scholermann's direction? Visually, “Pathology” isn't too distinct from the “Saw” films, a similarly graphic horror series that was popular at the time. There's lots of grungy greens and antiseptic white operating rooms. However, Scholermann occasionally throws in an interesting element. When Ted is first exposed to the depraved antics of his new friends, Scholermann's attaches the camera to Milo Ventimiglia shoulders, allowing the audience to feel as disorientated as the character does. Later, after ruthlessly murdering a trio of prostitutes, Gallo imagines himself on stage before an applauding audience. Touches like these are intriguing. More of them would've made “Pathology” a more interesting watch.

For its deprived energy, “Pathology” is worth giving a look. You're honestly left wondering how far it'll go, at times. It's about as grisly as a mainstream thriller can get. The ending is also mildly clever. However, it's a deeply unlikable film. I'm not surprised that most people seem to hate it. If Neveldine/Taylor had directed the movie themselves, it probably would've been a more entertaining – or at least funnier - experience. (Though probably still pretty ugly.) As for Marc Scholermann, I don't know what he's up to now. The shrugging reception that greeted “Pathology” probably explains why he has yet to make another feature. Still, I sort of like this and would be interested in giving its director another chance. [7/10]

Friday, April 21, 2017

Director Report Card: Neveldine/Taylor (2006)

The directorial team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor are two of the most distinctive voices in modern action cinema. These guys strap cameras to themselves and follow their actors into action sequences that push pass absurdity. Their best films aren't quite homage or parody. Instead, they are over-the-top exercises in genre filmmaking, pushing story conventions to the breaking point in the name of awesome action and juvenile humor. Their movies are designed to make you go "Can you believe this shit?," with a big toothy grain. And that's exactly the point. This Report Card will also include Mark Neveldine's thus far only solo credit and a few of the movies they wrote but didn't direct.

1. Crank

When “Crank” came out in 2006, I knew nothing about the directorial team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor. When I finally sat down to watch the movie, a few months after it came out, I didn't expect anything but another Jason Statham flick. I figured it would be entertaining but forgettable, a disposable bit of action cinema junk food. What I got, instead, was a film that mixed over-the-top action with absurdist humor in service of an adrenaline pumping screenplay. From that moment on, I knew this pair of crazy directors were one to watch. Maybe most people who saw the film had a similar experience. “Crank” would become a surprise box office success and would be far better received than most of the stuff Statham starred in. Of course, it became an instant cult classic.

Chev Chelios is a dead man. A professional assassin by trade, Chelios has recently suffered from a moral crisis. He's considering giving up the killing business to be with his girlfriend, a hopelessly naive girl named Eve. That is until he wakes up incredibly sick. A Latino gangster named Ricky Verona has dosed Chev up with a synthetic poison, “The Shanghai Cocktail.” The drug will kill Chev quickly unless he keeps his adrenaline pumping. Chelios indulges in drugs, sex, and insanity to keep his heart pumping. He heads on a rampage across the city, hoping to stay alive long enough to get his vengeance on the men who killed him.

There have been many attempts to turn video games into movies over the years. Very few of these films are good, as video games have totally different narrative and pacing needs than film. Far more successful have been films made in the spirit of video games. “Crank” takes inspiration from the likes of “Grand Theft Auto” and arcade classic “Berzerk.” The former is referenced when Chev hijacks a car. The latter makes an actual cameo. Like a hyper violent Sonic the Hedgehog, Chev Chelios has to keep collecting power-ups to survive. Except instead of magic rings, he's grabbing drugs and thrills. This is a basic set-up that just happens to allow for as much mayhem as the filmmakers can squeeze in. “Crank's” debt to video games is announced early on, with the pixelated opening title sequence. To nail the point home, a video game version of the movie plays after the end credits.

What really drives “Crank” is the frantic direction. The directors shot most of the movie with special handheld rigs, granting “Crank” a constant sense of movement. This is fitting, as its rare that Chev Chelios stops moving. Neveldine/Taylor add even more wild tricks to this already frenetic style. When Chev slams his foot on the gas pedal, the camera vibrates with excess energy. After getting a dose of some weird drug, he has a bizarre hallucination of a glowing face. Split screen – sometimes as many as four – show up to convey as much information as possible. Sometimes, security camera footage switches places with the movie's action or additional screen appear inside the film. It's a wild looking movie, suiting its bug nuts narrative.

Neveldine and Taylor push their style as far as they can go, often playing with the limitations of the screen itself. More than once, they throw subtitles into the movie for the hell of it. Sometimes this is used to spell out a long phrase. Sometimes its done just to emphasize a point. Later in the film, Chev actually sees the subtitles. This links to an earlier moment, where he asks if he has a swear word written on his forehead... Just for the word to actually appear on his head. “Crank” doesn't just include a bunch of wacky stylistic flourishes to match its rushing story and twisted sense of humor. The directors were visibly attempting to play with the rules of the medium itself.

Aside from the insane direction, what really distinguishes “Crank” from a typical Jason Statham movie is its sense of humor. “Crank” is the kind of over-the-top macho fantasy that could've come from a twelve year old boy's mind. In keeping with that approach, its humor is often crude. A sequence involving black gangsters employs numerous racial epitaphs. Chev often uses homophobic taunts against Verona. One sequence has him tossing a Middle Eastern cab driver into the street and shouting “Al Queda!” This stuff is pushed so far that it becomes absurd. This pairs nicely with the movie's other ridiculous elements. Like a deadpan Statham driving through a mall, a sequence that concludes with a car on an escalator. Or a hospital tech being casually threatened, concluding with a bare-ass motorcycle ride across the city.

For a self-aware, juvenile power fantasy like this, there was no better man for the job than Jason Statham. Statham's incredible physicality and easy charm as a performer led him inevitably to action movies. While the likes of “The Transporter” and “The Mechanic” were entertaining enough, they didn't make much use of Statham's great comedic timing. In “Crank,” the Steak shows off how damn funny he can be. Chev murders assassins when his girlfriend isn't looking, nonchalantly attacking bad guys while keeping a straight face. When Chelios is under the influence of countless drugs, Statham gets to act more frenzied and nutty. You couldn't have asked for a better Chev Chelios, someone who just says “fuck it” and goes with the insane material.

Pairing perfectly with Statham is Amy Smart. Smart plays Eve, Chev's utterly clueless girlfriend. While Statham plays his part as profane and on-edge, Smart goes for as laid back as possible. The moment when he visits her in her apartment is hilarious, Smart totally unaware of the insanity her boyfriend has been getting up to. Eve is unaware... Until she can't deny the truth anymore. Smart is willing to go with the film's wild whims too. After realizing Chev really is an assassin, she excitedly declares “My boyfriend kills people!” Of course, Smart's best moment is the notorious public sex scene. How Smart goes from uncomfortable to totally into it, in seconds, is hysterical. Smart is totally on “Crank's” adolescent wavelength, having no trouble with wearing very little clothing all throughout the movie.

There's some talented performers in the supporting roles as well. Dwight Yoakam has a showy part as Doc Miles, the physician that attempts to help Chev throughout this adventure. Despite his other career as a country singer, Yoakam's performance is delightfully sleazy. I mean, the greasy haircut helps a lot. Yoakam is surprisingly willing to dig into the profane dialogue and has lots of fun with it. Jose Pablo Cantillo is also well utilized as Ricky Verona. Cantillo mostly plays the part as a colorful Latino gangster, which certainly suits the film. Yet I like the little flashes we get at Verona's insecurities, making the character a little more fleshed out. Lastly, there's Efren Ramirez as Kaylo. A flamboyant homosexual, Kaylo is somehow an associate of Chev's. Ramirez, better known as Pedro, has fun shattering his squeaky-clean image with the absurd character.

All of this stuff probably doesn't explain why “Crank” became a surprise box office hit. I think the big action sequences can probably be thanked for that. The action pushes the small budget as far as it'll go. I've already mentioned Statham driving a car through a mall, though it remains a high light. Another back alley brawl begins with somebody getting their hand chopped off. Amusingly, the bloody stump is utilized to punch someone while the severed hand also comes into play. A shoot-out in a Chinese sweatshop features quite a few bodies falling off a building. There's a hugely bloody shoot-out in the last act, providing enough arterial spray to satisfy the action nuts. And how do Neveldine/Taylor top all of that? With a fist fight that dangles outside of a helicopter and continues even as the fighters plummet towards the ground.

“Crank's” approach to sex is pretty juvenile, fitting the mindset that drives the entire movie. Yeah, not only does Chev and his girlfriend do it in a crowded street, a bus full of Japanese schoolgirls also put in an appearance. Yet there's something a little more interesting about its approach. After escaping the factory, Chev and Eve speed down the street, pursue by attackers. In order to keep that adrenaline pumping, she goes down on him... But not to completion. So, instead, he gets out and shoots the bad guys to death. Because in the over-the-top world of action movies, sex and violence serve much the same purpose.

“Crank's” delirious action would probably threaten to burn out viewers if the directors weren't so careful to balance out the pacing. There's a few cool down scenes, balanced out between the crazy theatrics. Such as that aforementioned scene in Eve's apartment. Or Chev getting a special injection from Doctor Miles. Or a rather bizarre moment in an elevator, where our hyper-violent hero begins to hear voices. This delicate balance is really shown off in the last scene, which is actually kind of poignant, featuring Chev apologizing to his girlfriend in his final moments. It's an effectively quiet moment after eighty-eight minutes of riotous carnage.

The first time I watched “Crank,” it left me with a rushing head. The movie got me nearly as pumped as it did Chev. The action was enormous, the humor was hilarious, the direction was crazy, and the performances were perfectly matched. Without the lack of expectations I had upon that first viewing, I didn't know if subsequent rewatches would have a similar effect. Luckily, “Crank's” insanity is evergreen. The directorial duo would build their reputation on this firecracker of a film, allowing them to create a number of other totally nuts motion pictures. Personally, I'm thankful for that. [Grade: A]

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Director Report Card: Kathryn Bigelow (2012)

9. Zero Dark Thirty

Before her making history with her Oscar win, Kathryn Bigelow was best known for expertly executed genre fare. She was – and I mean this as the highest of complements – a peddler of pulp.  Her reputation had been built on dazzling cult experiences like “Near Dark” and “Point Break.” After “The Hurt Locker,” Bigelow suddenly became a director of “important” films. Such as “Zero Dark Thirty,” a film about history so recent it was actually rewritten to reflect current events. Another collaboration with journalist Mark Boal, the film was initially about the unsuccessful attempts to capture Osama bin Laden. Following the events of May 2, 2011, the project was entirely revamped to be about the successful assassination of bin Laden. As you'd expect, “Zero Dark Thirty” was met with controversy and award season attention. Over four years after it came out, the events the film depicts still feel almost too recent.

In the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, one person would emerge as the most wanted man in the world. Osama bin Laden, a leader of Al Queda and a prime organizer of the attacks, evaded capture for nearly a decade. “Zero Dark Thirty” mixes fact and fiction, as it tells the story of how bin Laden was finally located. The film follows Maya, a CIA analyst who has spent her entire career tracking Osama. As Maya draws closer to the terrorist mastermind, she looses friends. She has numerous close calls with other terrorist attacks. She faces resistance from her superiors, who questions whether this quest is business or personal for Maya. All the while, Maya remains determined to achieve her goal.

Stylistically, “Zero Dark Thirty” is a continuation of “The Hurt Locker.” Both movies are rooted in a gritty sensibility, determined to recreate the hot, sand-strewn real life locations. For her ninth feature, Bigelow pulls way back on the shaky, handheld photography. Despite having a glossier look. “Zero Dark Thirty” feels no less tense and urgent than “The Hurt Locker.” Both films make use of frantic motion, glaring close-ups, and sudden explosions of violence. The two films are irrevocably linked in my mind, telling similar stories of obsession in a similar manner. If Bigelow ever makes another film about the War on Terror, I'll be happy to retroactively declare this the middle section of a thematic trilogy.

Despite its ripped from the headlines plot, Kathryn Bigelow's roots as a genre specialist shine through in “Zero Dark Thirty.” The story is a procedural, a mystery where the solution just happens to be common knowledge. Maya follows leads, retrieving clues from witnesses. Facts are revisited, a dead man turning out to a brother. There are false starts, trails that go cold and lead nowhere. When others tell her a lead might be a wrong turn, she sticks to her guns. Maybe this was Bigelow and Boal's way of feeding a real life stories, one that gets especially convoluted at times, to audiences. Through a recognizable genre outline.

This isn't the only familiar genre lens that Bigelow applies to this true story. “Zero Dark Thirty” is also a revenge story. The film begins with an absolutely chilling selection of real audio from September 11th, played against a black background. This is seemingly done to remind us of what was lost on that day, to give the following film more meaning. For Maya, hunting down Osama is a personal mission. She's out to avenge everyone who died in the attacks. Later, her quest is made literally personal, when a friend of her's is killed by a suicide bomber. Sometimes, I was even reminded of an eighties cop movie, when the lead struggles against obstinate authorities. Is filtering a real life story, one full of thorny choices and questionable decisions, through such a standard plot construction responsible? It's in debatable taste, if nothing else.

The aspect of “Zero Dark Thirty” that generated the most controversy when it was new, and possibly hurt the film's Oscar chances, was its depiction of torture. Here in reality, how effective “enhanced interrogation techniques” were at uncovering useful information has been debated endlessly. Many believed that the moral compromises necessary for such actions did not justify the intel that was gathered. “Zero Dark Thirty” makes no strong stance on this issue. The torture is depicted explicitly. Waterboarding, people shoved in tiny boxes, blasted with death metal, chained up and humiliated: It's all shown in detail. Ultimately, techniques like this is not what leads Maya and her team to Osama. Those who perform the torture are not judged harshly. On one hand, the film should be commended for its commitment to realism. On the other hand, it comes as wishy-washy on a hot button issue.

If you can separate “Zero Dark Thirty” from its real world roots – which is, you know, impossible – you'll see the film as a highly effective genre exercise. The factor uniting many of Bigelow's films has been her treatment of violence. In “Zero Dark Thirty,” every explosion, every act of terrorism, hits the viewer in the gut. When bombs go off, they rip through the air, the sound design catching the viewer off-guard every time. A pleasant dinner in a hotel is interrupted by a massive blast, destroying the room and throwing people through the air. As harrowing as the explosions are, the more intimate sequences of violence remain far more shocking. A terrorist attack on an American hotel, a gunman killing every American present, is sickening. An attack on Maya in her driveway is nearly as tense.

Moments like this combine to make “Zero Dark Thirty” an exhausting watch. This is not an easy movie to digest. It's long, Bigelow's longest film at two hours and twenty-seven minutes. Most of the movie moves at a snail's pace, many scenes devoted to Maya and her colleagues attempting to track down leads. Once you combine this with the often shocking scenes of realistic violence, the viewer is kept in a state of ill ease. If this was on purpose, it was to replicate Maya's head space. She's exhausted too, worn out from a long mission that has cost many lives and stretched on for years. Yet I'm not sure what purpose inflicting this on the viewer has. You could have made the same point without turning the movie into such a slog.

“Zero Dark Thirty” makes many questionable decisions. Its cast isn't one of them. At the front of the film is Jessica Chastain as Maya. Chastain maintains a steely intensity throughout the entire film. Maya is a character unwavering in her goals. Chastain gifts her with a distinct attitude. She's frank with her bosses, casually using profanity in front of them. She digs into cases on her own, often putting herself directly into the middle of the danger. That's her commitment to the cause. Chastain's performance is the main reason to see “Zero Dark Thirty.” It's powerful, full of nuance and small details, a boiling sea underneath her red hair and pale skin.

The supporting cast also has some recognizable faces. Jason Clarke has probably the showy supporting part, as the CIA agent in charge of interrogations. There's something about Clarke that makes me uncomfortable, that I can't put my finger on. Considering the character he's playing, it makes the film's treatment of torture even harder to determine. A number of known character actors appear as the bureaucrats in Maya's way. Mark Strong sports a pretty good wig. Kyle Chandler is probably the best of these characters, getting the most screen time with Chastain. James Gandolfini is under heavy make-up but is immediately recognizable, thanks to his voice and particular attitude. A number of future stars show up as the marines at the end. See if you can spot Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton, and Frank Grillo.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is building up to one moment: When Seal Team Six descends on Osama's compound and make the big fat kill. This sequence is as deliberately paced as everything else in the film. Yet the effect is different this time. As the marines work through the compound, the silence is interrupted by gunshots and doors being blasted through. The gritty intimacy of Bigelow's best films return in a big way. The audience is shoved into the tight hallways of the compound. The viewer never knows what kind of danger is around each corner. Even then, “Zero Dark Thirty” maintains it commitment to realism. The marines have to make hard sudden decisions, shooting at women and children. When bin Laden is killed, it practically happens off-screen. It's sudden, indecipherable from any of the other deaths in the house. And just like that, the journey is over.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is a film that fills me with a lot of mixed emotions. Yet I'm willing to forgive it for almost everything thanks to that final shot. The marines celebrate a successful mission. Maya silently nods to her co-worker, who shows her bin Laden's dead body. The next morning, she sits in solitude. As the helicopter door comes up behind her, she weeps in silence. Why she cries is up to the viewer to decide. Is it because she's spent a huge chunk of her life on this mission and is now wondering what's next? Is she relieved that this ordeal is over? Or do the scars of the experience linger on? It's a powerful, evocative moment and one that nearly makes the entire film.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is ultimately a hard movie to evaluate. When looked at as an expert piece of film making or a showcase for Chastain's abilities, it's obviously very impressive. However, the film remains an uncomfortable, exhausting watch. With the film being so closely tied to real life events, you are constantly distracted by the political ramifications of its storytelling. It strives for ambiguity yet the question of whether or not “Zero Dark Thirty” is for or against torture – and what that means for our country – makes the film difficult to discuss in any other context. I wonder if anyone could have made a satisfying movie telling this story. Some real world tales are too wrapped up in political, social and emotional baggage to be consumed in a two hour motion picture. I'm not saying Bigelow shouldn't have tried but a steadier grasp on the materiel would've helped. [Grade: C+]

The controversy around "Zero Dark Thirty" might have hurt its award season chances but Bigelow isn't one to back down from touchy subjects. Her next film, "Detroit," is another fact-based drama/thriller about the 1967 Detroit riot. It's also another collaboration with Mark Boal. Considering police brutality remains a serious concern, the film's timing couldn't be better. "Detroit" doesn't come until August and has already attracted some negative attention. The trailer is incredibly intense. Her career has bent in some interesting directions but Kathryn Bigelow remains an important cultural voice. I'm glad I did this retrospective.

Come back later in the week for another Director Report Card. Until next time, thanks for reading.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Director Report Card: Kathryn Bigelow (2008)

8. The Hurt Locker

For quite a few years, Kathryn Bigelow was known as a director who made movies that were well-liked by critics but didn't make any money. The reviews weren't even that good for her last two movies. If she had stayed on that path, we probably wouldn't be talking about her now. Instead, Bigelow collected enough funds to independently produce her next film. “The Hurt Locker,” a small movie that was seen by very few in its initial theatrical release, would receive universally positive reviews. It would ride a wave of hype all the way to the Oscars, where it won Best Picture. Perhaps even more impressive, Kathryn Bigelow would win the Academy Award for Best Director, making her the first and thus far only woman to ever grab that honor. It was a comeback film in the truest sense.

In the depths of the Iraq War, the leader of an Explosive Ordinance Disposal team is killed by an improvised bomb. Sergeant Will James is brought in as the replacement. James likes to diffuse the bombs by hand, often foregoing protective gear. He's good at it too, which is the only thing that let's him get away with this self-endangering behavior. As his adrenaline addiction pushes him to perform more dangerous acts, his team wonder about his sanity. James wonders about it too, as the days pile up in Iraq, people around him die, and his life is on the line every hour.

Over her long career, Kathryn Bigelow has often employed an on-the-ground style of action direction. In “Point Break,” handheld camera rigs allowed the filmmaker to get right into the tight corridors and winding paths her actors ran through. The director pushes this style as far as it'll go in “The Hurt Locker.” From the opening minutes, the film is characterized by a shaky, point-of-view perspective. The camera often swings wildly around the dusty streets of Baghdad, mirroring the frantic lives of the soldiers who are always on the lookout for danger. Bigelow stays just on the right side of incoherent, lending the movie a frenzied tone.

“The Hurt Locker” was written by Mark Boal, a journalist who spent two weeks in Iraq with a bomb disposal team. Subsequently, the film is based off the experiences he had while embedded in the war. Fitting this fact-based origin, “The Hurt Locker” is a loosely plotted movie. The script is largely episodic, detailing a number of different bombing and encounters James has to get out of. The setting, characters, and themes tie the film together into a cohesive narrative. This captures a more true-to-life approach. The real world doesn't have a three act structure. Some days, things just happen. This helps further establish the gritty, realistic approach the entire movie is built upon.

“The Hurt Locker” opens with a quote from Chris Hedges, describing how the rush of war can become a drug. That same phrase would become the movie's tagline. Sergeant James is a self-admitted adrenaline junkie. He often directly disobeys orders so he can get up-close and personal with the bombs he disables. The character himself wonders about the motivation behind his actions. He doesn't seem to be suicidal, as he takes measures to protect himself throughout the film. He talks about his ex-wife and infant son in a way that suggests he hopes to see them again. He's largely puzzled by his own behavior. Eventually, “The Hurt Locker' comes around to this point: James has developed an addiction to danger as a survival tactics. The other soldiers are increasingly shaken by their experience. Because he longs to see action again, it pushes him forward.

Just as an act of film making, “The Hurt Locker” is an impressive achievement. The bomb diffusing sequences are a master class in suspense. The scenes are deliberately paced, slowly pushing up the intensity. James' first bomb sequence has him uncovering a series of wires under the dirt, realizing the bomb is far more complex than he initially assumed. The second bomb sequence escalates similarly, James uncovering an entire trunk full of bombs. Each bomb dismantling sequence tops the previous one in terms of suspense. The film's proper climax involves an especially convoluted bomb, involving a timer and elaborate locks. This scene really makes the audience sweat, James' abilities pushed to the edge.

All of Kathryn Bigelow's films are united by their treatment of violence. Even in her pulpiest, campiest films, there's a weight and seriousness to the violence. This is especially true in “The Hurt Locker,” a movie even more grounded than her previous output. The violence in “The Hurt Locker” comes suddenly. A newly introduced character, played by a name actor, is killed only minutes after first appearing. A bullet suddenly, quickly rips into his body. He falls to the ground, dead. The explosions are massive, tossing debris high into the air. Bigelow focuses on the noise, the rippling ground, the flying shrapnel. It's not just a cool boom. It's a startling event. We see the bloody, grisly remains of bodies, blown to bits by blasts. “The Hurt Locker” is determined to impose the weight of its violence on the viewer.

The film captures another, more overlooked aspect of combat. Sometimes, its sort of mundane. When not diffusing bombs, James and his team members have to find ways to unwind. Sometimes they listen to death metal or play video games. Other times, they homoerotically wrestle and punch each other. Yet it's not just the downtime the film portrays. A shoot-out with a sniper is stretched out as long as possible. It's a waiting game, both men watching for the other to make a mistake. Sweat drips in their eyes. One soldier has trouble reloading his gun. It's nerve wrecking not because what's happening but because of what's not happening. Details like that further ground “The Hurt Locker.”

Aside from his team members, James only bounds with one other person while in Iraq. A spunky boy, probably in his early teens, attempts to sell him bootleg DVDs. Later, James messes around with the kid, disparaging the quality of the disc he was sold. He finds out the boy likes soccer and that he calls himself Beckham. Their scenes together are cute, easily the film's most light-hearted moments. This all comes crashing to a halt, when he discovers the dead body of a boy he believes to be Beckham. This is when the consequences of his actions begin to weigh on James' mind and when “The Hurt Locker's” story solidifies into something more concrete. In an odd decision, we later discover that Beckham is alive. This draws further attention to the irresponsibility of James' actions but is an odd choice, from a narrative perspective. The script never clarifies why James made this mistake.

By 2008, Jeremy Renner had been kicking around Hollywood for about a decade. He had appeared in a few major films, such as “S.W.A.T.” or “28 Weeks Later,” and garnered decent reviews for indie fair, like “Dahmer” or “Neo Ned.” After appearing in this film, Renner would be launched onto the A-list, soon enough showing up in Marvel movies. Jeremy Renner's performance in “The Hurt Locker” is stoic. He plays Will James as a man who keeps his feelings close to his chest. Even during the heat combat, he doesn't reveal too much. Instead, Renner hints at the turmoil and conflict the character feels inside. When those emotions pile up, he explodes in cathartic rage.

As a small production, “The Hurt Locker” doesn't have too many other big names in its cast. At least one other actor would find himself in Marvel superhero movies later on. Anthony Mackie, our future Falcon, plays Sergeant Sanborn. Mackie is more outwardly emotional than Renner. He gets more agitated more quickly. A sobering moment occurs late in the film, where Mackie expresses a desire to survive, to start a family. Also among the cast is Ralph Finnes, in his second  collaboration with Bigelow. Finnes appears briefly but makes an impression as a foul mouthed fellow soldier. Guy Pierce, rather brilliantly, appears in the opening scene as a fake-out protagonist. A name actor like that, you'd expect him to be the main character. He, uh, isn't.

“The Hurt Locker” is already a little too long, running eleven minutes over two hours. Some scenes probably could've been trimmed but that extended run time does allow for an interesting epilogue. We follow Will James as he returns home. He reunites with his ex-wife, who still lives in the same house. He plays with his infant son, having a cryptic one-sided dialogue with him. The film concludes with James returning to the Middle East, once again diffusing improvised explosives. It's an interesting ending that maintains the ambiguity of Renner's character. He really does love the rush more than anything and the consequences of that attitude will continue to haunt him.

I'm not sure “The Hurt Locker” deserved the absolute praise it received, that took it all the way to the Best Picture prize. It's a very good film, well directed and acted. However, the pacing is a little off. The script makes some odd decisions. Bigelow's handheld aesthetic is slightly disappointing, considering how smooth her other films looked. Still, that it would emerge as one of the most popular films about the War in Iraq speaks to its quality. It was also the critical and financial hit Bigelow needed to relaunch her career. She had been toiling on lackluster projects for too long. After winning that Oscar, A-list material will remain within her grasp. So that makes “The Hurt Locker” okay in my book. [Grade: B]