Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, April 29, 2017

Director Report Card: Neveldine/Taylor (2015)

5. The Vatican Tapes
Directed by Mark Neveldine

After “Paranormal Activity,” every studio had a found footage horror movie in development. Most of these – the likes of “The Devil Inside,” “Grave Encounters,” not to mention numerous “Paranormal Activity” sequels – came out quickly.  “The Vatican Tapes” was announced around the same time. The film was supposedly a found footage horror film concerning the Vatican's secret cache of recorded exorcisms. While many other films of this style were quickly churned out, “The Vatican Tapes” went into turnaround, suffering rewrites. By the time the movie was finally released, found footage horror was overexposed. This forced a change in style. Director Mark Neveldine, making his first movie without Brian Taylor, delivered a more standard horror flick. One that was barely released in most parts of the world.

Angela Holmes seemingly lives a normal life. She has just moved into a new house with her boyfriend, a relationship her former military father doesn't entirely approve of. Her birthday festivities are interrupted when a bad cut sends her to the hospital. After returning home, her behavior becomes strange. She has seizures and violent outburst. She wrecks her car, ending up in a coma for forty days. Upon awakening, her unnerving behavior continues. She attempts to kill a baby. She incites violence in the other patients. She speaks languages she can't know, performs seemingly impossible acts. Soon, the hospital perish believes her to be possessed and receives permission from the Vatican to perform an exorcism.

Say what you will about the films Mark Neveldine made with Brian Taylor but at least they were identifiable as their movies. The two “Crank” movies were brilliantly insane action flicks, that pushed the rules of the genre as far as possible into the realm of gonzo comedy. Even their lesser motion pictures, “Gamer” and the “Ghost Rider” sequel, had moments of brilliance. The two followed their demented muse, mixing juvenile comedy and highly energetic action scenes to varying degrees of success. “The Vatican Tapes,” meanwhile, shows few of trademarks recognizable in the duo's previous pictures. Mark Neveldine has made a fairly standard religious horror film. If his name wasn't on it, you'd never know this was from one-half of the team that made “Crank.”

“The Vatican Tapes'” ended up not being a found footage movie but you can still see its roots in the genre. The story’s events are frequently captured by security cameras. While Angela’s in the mental hospital, her demonic shenanigans are recorded by surveillance cameras. Such as her bed moving across the room on its own or a raven pecking at the window. Before the exorcism begins, the priest installs a miniature digital camera in the room. This feeds into the film’s primary gimmick, the Vatican has a collection of demonic activity on tape. The constant cutting away is potentially interesting. The film has the potential to comment on the role surveillance plays in our life now. Yet it’s mostly just a distracting creative decision, putting the film at a weird halfway mark between a traditional horror movie and a found footage flick.

If you watched “The Vatican Tapes” back-to-back with “Crank,” you’d probably never guess that the same director worked on both movies. Only one sequence in the entire film hints at this direction. While staying at the hospital, Angela occasionally joins a group therapy session. The other people in the circle are clearly mentally unstable and Angela’s Satanic presence clearly upsets them. This leads towards a memorable moment where the crazy people become violent, attacking each other and the nurses. They flip over chairs, slams someone through a table, and one hangs himself with a camera chord. The scene recalls the controlled chaos of Neveldine/Taylor’s other films. Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the best scenes in the movie.

Otherwise, “The Vatican Tapes” is visually indistinct. There’s very little of the frantic action that characterized Neveldine’s films with Brian Taylor. The film is shot through an overcast filter, most of the story taking place in shades of brown. There’s frequently a golden glow to the scenes devoted to Angela’s home life, which at least brings a warm feeling to mind. Upon arriving at the psychiatric clinic, gray becomes the color of the day. It’s all an attempt to capture a realistic, gritty perspective. In practice, it just makes the movie super boring to look at.

As a horror movie, “The Vatican Tapes” presents very little that audiences haven’t already seen. The film primarily trades in cheap jump scares. While the happy couple are on a bus, a bird smashes into the window. This is, of course, a preface to another bird successfully breaking the glass and attacking the people on the bus. Other loud sequences include crash-zooms on eyeballs or grimacing faces. When that doesn’t work, the movie falls back on shock tactics. Angela attempts to drown a baby from the newborn ward. She seduces a security guard before psychically causing the ceiling to collapses on him. A police officer gouges his eyes out with light bulbs. The film is attempting to create a foreboding atmosphere but the constant loud shocks prevent that from happening.

“The Vatican Tapes” is marching towards the inevitable exorcism sequence. At first, it seems like the filmmakers might be attempting to subvert expectations. The priest assigned with getting the demon out of Angela seems potentially unhinged at first. He talks about being possessed as a child. As the ritual goes on, his intentions shift from removing the entity from Angela to murdering her. You begin to wonder if he’s a danger to the girl. All of this is a red herring: The priest is in the right. Angela really has been taken over by a demon intent on ending the world. So that interesting bit of ambiguity is tossed out the window.

In truth, when the time comes for “The Vatican Tapes” to ramp up the scares, the movie really falls apart. The film begins to rely on overdone CGI. On scene that really got an eye roll from me involves Angela in chains. She pulls against the links, yanking her shoulders out of their sockets. This goes on until her spine twists in half. Potentially effective, right? Not so much, as the movie creates the contortion solely with CGI. Later, “The Vatican Tapes” piles on more computer generated spectacle. People fade out of their clothes. Others imagine animal attacks. A CGI fire cloud bursts through the room. It’s fairly lame stuff.

As one final kick in the ass, “The Vatican Tapes” tosses in an asinine twist ending. Angela just isn’t possessed by any ol’ demon. She’s the actual Antichrist, a false prophet sent to usher in the End of Days. An obnoxious resolution involves a secret group of Catholic priest watching the girl come to fame, growing in popularity, preparing the world for the Apocalypse. It’s a last ditch effort to make this cheap horror movie seem more important than it actually is, granting an unearned layer of pretensions to the proceedings. And all it succeeds in doing is pissing off the audience.

So what about the performances? Olivia Taylor Dudley stars as Angela. Dudley appears to be a favorite of the found footage horror genre, as she also appears in “Chernobyl Diaries,” “Dude Bro Party Massacre III,” and the sixth “Paranormal Activity” movie. In this film, she relatively charming when playing a normal person. Once she becomes possessed, Dudley fluctuates between wide-eyed starring and turning the volume way the fuck up. Eh, she’s okay. Dougray Scott, the man who was Wolverine in an alternate universe, plays her dad. Scott spends most of the movie with a sour look on his face, grimacing at everyone around him. John Patrick Amedori plays Angela’s boyfriend, a totally useless character that contributes nothing to the film. Amedori is a blank. If you look closely, you can also spot cameos from Michael Pare and Allison Lohman.

There’s at least more charisma on the church’s side. The only really likable character in the film is Father Lozano, the hospital parish played by Michael Pena. Lozano was a veteran of the Iraq War. After seeing so much bloodshed, he turned his life towards God. Pena successfully tows the line between a skeptic and a believer, unsettled by what he’s seen by looking for a logical explanation. Pena also brings some humor to the film, which it desperately needed. Most of the other priests are more intense. Peter Andersson, best known as the raping lawyer in the original “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” plays the Cardinal overseeing the exorcism. Andersson brings some wide-eyed intensity to the role but isn’t given much to do. Djimon Hounsou appears as a Vicar at the Vatican but it’s another example of the talented Hounsou being wasted in a nothing part.

“The Vatican Tapes” was finally released in 2015, going more-or-less direct to video after a tiny theatrical release. Few people saw it and those that did hated it. I don’t know if Mark Neveldine was working under studio pressure or meddling producers, which is why he delivered such a mediocre, lame product. The film’s lengthy production certainly points towards that. But what if this really was the movie he wanted to make? That’s depressing. Either way, “The Vatican Tapes” is a deeply forgettable, unremarkable motion picture. If this is the kind of material Neveldine is going to make on his own, let’s hope he reunites with Brian Taylor soon. [Grade: D]

The Neveldine/Taylor partnership will remain separated for a while. Brian Taylor will be making his solo directional debut this year with "Mom and Dad," a horror project with a decent premise that reunites him with Nicolas Cage. Hopefully, it'll be better than "The Vatican Tapes" was. I also hope that a string of disappointments doesn't derail either directors' career, as both clearly have the chops to make insane movies. If nothing else, there's always "Crank 3" to go back to.

Thus concludes another Director Report Card. Thank you for reading. 

Friday, April 28, 2017

Director Report Card: Neveldine/Taylor (2011)

4. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

“Gamer” may have flopped but the unique directorial team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor weren't down for the count just yet. The duo would get their biggest budget yet by taking a stab at the ever-popular superhero genre. On one hand, few people were probably asking for a sequel to the critically reviled but financially successful “Ghost Rider.” On the other hand, if any Marvel character was perfectly suited to Neveldine/Taylor's aesthetics, it's Ghost Rider. The cool-for-cool's-sake macho stupidity of a flaming skeleton biker that either fights or works for the Devil is a good fit for the guys behind “Crank.” Despite the ideal directional team, “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” would open to weaker box office and somehow earn even weaker reviews than the widely disliked original.

Eight years have passed since Johnny Blaze was first called upon to become the Ghost Rider. He is running from his rather literal demons, hiding out in Eastern Europe and drinking too much. That's when an eccentric monk named Moreau appears to him. The man tells Blaze he can remove his curse, exorcise the demon that forces him to transform, in return for a favor. Blaze is to protect Nadya and her son, Danny. Danny is the half-human off-spring of the same devil that cursed Blaze. The demonic lord is determined to possess the boy's body, which is sturdier then his current form. In order to protect the child from the devil and his henchmen, Johnny Blaze will have to become the Ghost Rider once more.

“Spirit of Vengeance” is not exactly a direct sequel to the poorly received original. Instead, it's a “soft reboot.” The film treats the original in broad strokes. Very little continuity passes between the two films. A few small details –  such as the name, appearance, and general nature of the devil Blaze signs his sole over to – are explicitly different. Overall, the second “Ghost Rider” movie doesn't contradict much from part one but more-or-less stands alone. The reason for this is pretty clear. “Ghost Rider” made money but wasn't very well liked. “Spirit of Vengeance” didn't have much to loose by being different from the original.

Among the changes is a much improved appearance for the fiery anti-hero. The CGI in the first “Ghost Rider” started to age badly the minute the movie hit theaters. The decision to give Ghost Rider a pristine, perfectly white skull gave the character an overly artificial appearance. For “Spirit of Vengeance,” Ghost Rider gets a design that could only be described as crispier. The skull is now charred black. The flames around his skull and pouring out of his sleeves feel hotter and sweatier. His leather jacket also receives a blackened, gooey appearance. The director's grittier aesthetic makes Ghost Rider, a visually ridiculous character, look a little more plausible.

The first “Ghost Rider” had a campy sense of humor that I didn't mind but rubbed many viewers the wrong way. “Spirit of Vengeance” has its own brand of comic relief. The directors bring their trademark absurdity to the story. This is most apparent in the handful of animated sequences that appear in the film. The film opens with Nicolas Cage explaining Johnny Blaze's origin, which includes a bare-ass motorcycle stunt. Later, when a running through a list of the various human forms the devil has taken over the years, Jerry Springer puts in a surprise appearance. These brief animated moments is also the closest Neveldine/Taylor get to the more extreme visual playfulness the two brought to the “Crank” films.

The directors' madcap sense of humor really comes up when Ghost Rider himself appears. When Nicolas Cage begins to change, the camera vibrates around the actor spasmodically. One amazing scene has the rage overtaking Cage. As he tears down the road, the camera lingers on his face, flames engulfing his skull. Another fantastic sequence occurs later, when the demon is leaving Blaze's body. A silhouette of the Rider appears in a white void, the skull vomiting up an endless stream of chains. The directors take Ghost Rider's fiery abilities to their logical conclusion. Johnny Blaze explains what happens when he urinates as the Ghost Rider. Some might consider that detail unnecessary or juvenile. I would argue for the opposite. Seeing Ghost Rider piss a stream of flames was absolutely necessary.

This is not the only example of how Neveldine/Taylor embrace the insanity of the character. The early action scenes in the film are delightfully unhinged. In his first appearance, Ghost Rider is dissolving goons into ash with his molten hot chain. After getting shot in the skull, the Rider vomits a stream of molten lead back into his enemy's face. The sequel grants Ghsot Rider a new ability. Any vehicle he pilots is transformed into a hellish contraption. This is taken to its awesome conclusion when Ghost Rider leaps into the cockpit of a massive land mover. Ghost Rider driving a flaming, lava-spewing Bagger 288 was something I didn't know I needed in my life until I saw it. More than the outrageous action, “Spirit of Vengeance” allows the character to casually violate the laws of physics. He gyrates like an interpretive dancer and, in one amazing scene, floats in the air for no damn reason. It's inspired lunacy.

At the center of all this insanity is Nicolas Cage at his most unhinged. The goofy hand motions and quirks shown in the first movie are discarded in favor of totally bent physicality. In the early half of the film, Johnny Blaze attempts to suppress the Rider by downing pills and booze. This allows Cage to be as erratic as possible. In one utterly mind blowing scene, he pins a minor character and threatens to uncage the beast. Cage screams, cackles, sweats, and goes all the way over the top. Assuming you don't mind casting all actorly good taste aside, it's incredibly impressive. When playing the Ghost Rider, Cage's intensely mad performance goes even further. This is not classically good acting. It is, however, incredibly entertaining.

The first “Ghost Rider” did not have first class bad guys. However, Peter Fonda's Mephisto and Wes Bentley's Blackheart served their hammy purposes. One of the biggest ways “Spirit of Vengeance” is weaker than the original is the bad guys. Ciaran Hinds fills in for Fonda, playing the devil's human form. Wearing a set of bizarre contact lens, Hinds sports an implacable accents. Half-way between Southern gentleman and greasy salesman, Hinds' interpretation of the devil is sleazy and off-putting. The secondary adversary is Blackout, an obscure marvel villain with the ability to suck light out of the room. Johnny Whitworth plays the supervillain as a relatively clueless, entirely amoral psycho-for-hire. Whitworth is having fun, especially in an inspired scene where he eats a Twinkie. However, Blackout still strikes the viewer as a villain with a deeply impractical abilities that isn't very intimidating.

The other corners of the supporting cast are more fun though. Idris Elba, in his second Marvel role, enjoys himself as Moreau. Ostensibly a monk, Moreau loves to indulge in booze, motorcycle, and guns. With his goofy French accent, Elba has a very good time playing the perpetually buzzed character. Cult icons Christopher Lambert and Anthony Stewart Head also appear. Sadly, both have fairly small roles, the movie not utilizing either actor. (Lambert does get covered head-to-toe in weird tattoos which is something, I guess.) Fergus Riordan and Violante Placido are servicable as Danny and Nadya but not very memorable.

As a comic book, Ghost Rider obviously operates as a superhero. Yet the character's adventures also belong to the horror genre. The first “Ghost Rider” only made passing nods to the demonic horror that Ghost Rider revolves around. We had some lost souls and spooky demon faces but that was it. “Spirit of Vengeance” blends horror and action a little better. The reoccurring hellfire certainly feels more visceral. Blackout's ability to rot living flesh, reducing people to mummies in seconds, is mildly disturbing. Mostly, the ending features some cultists in black robes, hanging around dark temples and chanting about demonic possession and human sacrifices. Processions of devil worshipers were a pretty big part of seventies horror comics so it's not to see that on-screen.

For all its nutty heights, there are some serious flaws facing “Spirit of Vengeance.” The relationship between Johnny and Danny is clearly meant to be the emotional heart of the film. However, Cage and Riordan don't have much chemistry. The characters are thrown together quickly, never really getting a reason to care about each other. Another issue is what happens in the end of the second act. Johnny Blaze has the demon successfully removed from his body. So, for the next half-hour, we're watching a “Ghost Rider” movie without Ghost Rider. Obviously, Blaze gets his demonic superpowers back before the end. Yet long scenes of Nic Cage creeping around, unable to help much, suck a lot of energy out of the film. That middle section feels much longer than it should.

Maybe the bad reviews both “Ghost Rider” films received effected the box office for the sequel. “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” made a little money but grossed considerably less than its predecessor. Nicolas Cage initially expressed interest in a third film but later changed his mind. Eventually, the character's film rights would revert back to Marvel. The studio would then stick a different version of Ghost Rider on that TV show nobody actually watches. You can't exactly call “Spirit of Vengeance” a good film but, for Neveldine/Taylor fans, it does have some stand-out moments. Ultimately, I have to rank both “Ghost Rider” flicks on about the same level. Both are guilty pleasures for totally different reasons. If given more money and more insanity, this “Ghost Rider” could've been amazing. As it is, “Spirit of Vengeance” is about half a lovably loopy action flick, half a routine experience. [Grade: B-] 

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]