Showing posts with label Better Living Through Netflix. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Better Living Through Netflix. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

BETTER LIVING THROUGH NETFLIX VOL. 13: THE PACKAGE AND HARD TICKET TO HAWAII



When I first joined Netflix, I had the typical enthusiast's reaction of immediately filling up my cue with the first 500 pictures that came to mind, which took approximately an hour, because I'm me, and, well, I have this thing about movies. In the years since, I've tended to just add new things I want to see, occasionally doing the “bump to the top” thing, but not really planning what order I want stuff to come beyond that. And, considering that writing this paragraph is the most sustained period of time I've ever spent thinking about my Netflix queue—seriously, the world is such a big place—I've mostly just watched stuff as it arrives, with very few exceptions, and since scaling back to the one-disc-at-a-time plan, the occasional double- or triple-feature is no longer on the table. Until, spectacularly, because the warehouse or whatever didn't have Hard Ticket To Hawaii immediately, they sent me The Package (not the Gene Hackman/Tommy Lee Jones/Pam Grier one, the one with Stone Cold Steve Austin and Dolph Lundgren) as well. And, on the evening of April Fool's Day, I decided to be a proper fucking fool and watch these pictures consecutively.

Stone Cold, lulling his enemies into a false sense of still being alive.

First up was The Package. Now, I'm rather attached to the one from the 80s, which actually holds up as a solid thriller and an example of Andrew Davis' modest auteurism (signatures: Chicago, Ron Dean/Joseph P. Kosala, skillfully mounted ownage). I saw a trailer for the Stone Cold/Dolph one and immediately summoned it (before doing the same with Hard Ticket To Hawaii, bumping this to 2nd). I was actually pretty excited to see it, and if I have to explain why you're in the wrong place. Yes, they were both in The Expendables, and The Expendables sucks, but without Sly around to fuck things up, hey. Possibilities are endless.

One possibility I hadn't considered was that it would actually be good. And it kind of is, in a weird way (and, admittedly, by the extremely low standards of direct-to-video ownage pictures). Stone Cold plays a Seattle-based enforcer who collects debts for a soft-spoken crypto-Irish boss who holds court in a dimly lit club with comfy armchairs. One day Stone Cold is assigned to deliver a package (c.f. the title of the picture) to a mysterious and dangerous motherfucker known as “the German” (Dolph, whose non-German-ness is actually dealt with deftly). Stone Cold, looking to both erase his jailbird brother's debt and get out of the business so he can go somewhere peaceful and fuck his wife, takes the job, but is immediately set upon by various heavily armed dickfaces with homicidal intent. Stone Cold does not take this lightly, and proceeds to kill everybody.

Now, the gentleman's physical size was well-established in his illustrious wrestling career. But one thing I hadn't realized about Stone Cold until seeing The Package was that the fucking guy can actually act. Sure, the role of “enormous bald man who kills everyone” isn't exactly a stretch, but Stone Cold has sharp timing and conveys a pleasantly surprising degree of emotional depth. It shouldn't, at this point, be any great shock when wrestlers turn to more traditional forms of acting and do well, though you have to remember I came up in an age when Hulk Hogan made movies where he basically mainlined steroids into his fucking eyeballs and chewed cars in half, which, as much fun as it is to watch when (really) high, doesn't require a lot of theatrical chops. But in the past decade we've seen The Rock (hated though he is by wrestling fans) become an occasionally quite excellent leading man in action pictures, and even John Cena, whose foray into cinema was an order of magnitude shittier than Dwayne's but still quite watchable (The Marine, though forgettable, did the job). And if CM Punk ever decides to try movies, look the fuck out. So, why not Stone Cold? Why not, indeed?

Dolph is enjoyably eccentric, per his usual recent tendency to show up in a role much smaller than the trailer would indicate, give a crazy speech about religion or cooking, then get in an almighty fucking altercation with someone else with huge muscles, resulting in expensive destruction and several photogenic deaths. There's this one bit where he's holding a guy as a bulletproof vest about five feet away from these greaseballs who are unloading automatic weapons at him except the (soon dead) guy absorbs all the bullets and Dolph empties a deceptively voluminous clip from his own gun into said greaseballs, again all from five feet away.

The one thing holding The Package back, oddly, is that the things it does right highlight the limitations imposed on it by its genre. For one: the action scenes, per the above paragraph, are shot in refreshingly long-ish takes, rather than all the cocaine hummingbird editing people tend to blame on Michael Bay (but that really started in music videos and ads around the 80s). But the longer takes highlight the fact that a lot of the action isn't blocked all that well. Now, there are some all-time classic moments. Stone Cold, tied to a chair that's bolted to the floor, manages to kill an Evil White Guy In A Suit with one fucking headbutt. That's duro, no room for debate. But some of the other shit, like those numbnuts missing Dolph about eighty times from five feet away, or all the fisticuffs shot in long enough takes that you can see that the stuntmen Stone Cold is beating the shit out of are slowing it way the hell down to give him time to cave in their faces with punches. This is why action movies started cutting quickly and often in the first place. But still, the impulse toward longer takes and clarity is a good one. And that kind of directorial care is also reflected in the performances, which—in a huge departure from most low-budget action pictures—are actually kind of (gasp) good. No one goes off on one of those Nick Mancuso-in-Rapid Fire scenery-chewing rampages. No one even blows a line reading. And I know that sounds like backhanded compliment, but I'm serious: there was actual filmmaking (fuck, there I go again) going on. The Package, much like its eponymous (though otherwise completely unrelated) predecessor, is quite enjoyable.

Oh, the look on that dude's face....heh heh heh

There are no backhanded compliments for Hard Ticket To Hawaii, on the other hand. It's one of the most glorious things I've ever seen. Writer-director Andy Sedaris, kind of the tumescent man's Roger Corman (for a very rough parallel that's almost as gleefully dumb and sensationalist as his movies), here presides over an enchantingly shameless melange of tits, absurd plot devices, and stunningly over-the-top violence.

The story involves a “contaminated” snake that accidentally gets sent to Molokai on a plane flown by a busty blonde DEA agent and her busty blonde sidekick, who's apparently in the witness protection program (and who crushes hard on James Bond). They ferry a honeymooning couple out to a remote spot (with the “contaminated” snake in tow) where almost immediately they're set upon by cop-killing drug dealers, who are being sent a couple boxes of diamonds via remote-controlled helicopter. The blondes (non-fatally) shoot the drug dealers' henchmen and fly away—completely abandoning the honeymooners—and repair to the jacuzzi to talk over what just happened, because toplessness is essential to investigative discourse.

Because shit has commenced going down, the DEA agent's boyfriend (or guy she fucks; sunshine is conducive to being mellow about such things) and his bro arrive to help kick ass. The baddies, however, wish them harm. Thus, this happens:



Tonally, that's the movie in a nutshell. There are a couple surprises that shouldn't be spoiled, though not without about a half hour of asking yourself “hmmm, is the movie actually aware of this?” One involves the much bally-hooed “contaminated” snake, about whom the movie forgets for huge stretches of running time. The other major one involves a staggeringly (and hilariously) inappropriate subplot about the bad guys' mole in the good guys' camp. Let's just say the word “transphobia” didn't exist in 1987 and leave it at that.

Hard Ticket To Hawaii is, objectively, a bad movie (ludicrous plot, shitty acting, weirdly overwritten dialogue where the characters blurt out literally everything on their minds), but it's also awesome (wonderfully insane plot, sublimely doofy acting, gloriously overwritten dialogue where the characters blurt out literally everything on their minds). If you have a medical condition where you go into anaphylactic shock if you go more than 15 minutes without seeing tits, fear not, you can't swing a tit without hitting a tit in this movie. And ho boy is there violence. The thing about violence in 80s movies is, special effects technology had yet to advance to full photorealism, so you could kill the fuck out of people in movies and be buffered against it really being disturbing due to the distancing effect inherent in the shitty effects.

The most important factor in Hard Ticket To Hawaii being such a blast is that the whole thing feels like it was written and directed with a good-natured smile. The hilariously cheap opening titles, basically just pieces of paper taped to boxes, set the tone. The fact that the busty blondes are the ones who actually get shit done and the muscular square-jawed dude needs a fucking bazooka to hit anything at all (note also, when the main busty blonde shoots the helicopter out of the sky at the end, her gun has a much longer barrel than his, because heh heh heh phallic “subtletly” ha ha ha) help counter enough of the gaze-y 12-year-old-ness re: titties as to make it fun rather than “fun except for the junior high school sexism.” It's more, “hey, man, titties and explosions are cool, right?” To which neither I, nor any civilized person, can pose no rebuttal. (Oh yeah, there are nice butts, too.)

Ahem. So yeah, this was a fun double feature. I highly recommend it, to the sophisticated cineaste.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

BETTER LIVING THROUGH NETFLIX, VOL. 12: FAST BREAK


My ability to be neutral about the 1979 comedy Fast Break is questionable. It is, almost literally, about everything I like: a comedy about a basketball-obsessed New Yorker that touches on race, gender, and class, with a scene where a bunch of people in a car have to eat a pound of weed for—ultimately unfounded—fear of thrown in jail by the cops (over 20 years before Super Troopers, n.b.) and with Bernard King in a major supporting role. Just about the only things missing are a ten-minute steadicam shot of leather-clad Chinese women murdering villains with machine guns (psychoanalyze away, I won't squawk) and a wrist-slashing Manchester rock score to give my id a screenplay credit on Fast Break. As it is, it's fucking close.

Taking myself as far out of this as I can, Fast Break stars Gabe Kaplan in his feature film debut, fresh off Welcome Back Kotter, as David Greene, a diehard basketball nerd who plays pickup games at the West Fourth St. courts and dreams of becoming a coach. These dreams are answered when the president of tiny (and fictional) Cadwallader University in Nevada offers Greene the head coaching job, under extremely shady conditions. To wit: first, he will be paid per every game he wins as a coach, but only if he wins, and second, he will get a three-year contract with a very reasonable salary if he is able to get a game with national powerhouse Nevada State. To be perfectly clear, the chances of Greene's ability to pull off the second condition under normal circumstances are approximately fuck-all.

Undaunted by these conditions (and his wife leaving him), Greene takes the position as coach and begins to assemble a team to head west with. He starts with Hustler (Bernard King), his spectacularly talented pickup game buddy, named Hustler because he supports himself financially by fleecing motherfuckers at pool (said motherfuckers object to this practice, leading to Hustler's immediate need to fuck off out of New York). Next is Preacher (Michael Warren), a preacher, and talented baller, who's incurred the wrath of his mentor in quasi-Christian scamology by getting the mentor's 15 year old daughter pregnant (Preacher is but 19 himself; also, it bears remembering that the movie takes place In The 70s), and is similarly in need of a change of scenery. Greene and Hustler stumble on DC (Harold Sylvester) almost accidentally, hiding in an abandoned house uptown fucked up on drugs with warrants out on him; after some convincing, he joins up. Finally, Greene discovers a girl named Roberta James, who goes by the nickname Swish, who's enrolled at CCNY but can't play ball because she's a girl (Fast Break being set either pre-Title IX or in an alternate universe where it had yet to take hold), and has her dress in drag and answer to Bobby so she can join his team.

Greene heads west with his four-player team, and DC decides to spend the entire journey smoking up everyone in the car. Though Greene declines, this leads to some very wobbly driving and the encounter with the cops mentioned in the opening paragraph. Once they arrive in Nevada the tone shifts slightly from laid-back 70s hangout picture to a familiar sports-movie “get ready for the big game” narrative complete with the usual contrivances. It bears remembering, thought, that Fast Break comes early enough in the cycle of modern Hollywood formula that any number of the familiar aspects in it predate the things they remind one of. The revelation that DC can't even read and the brief subplot in which Greene and Swish team up to teach him so he won't get kicked off the team calls to mind a similar subplot in Blue Chips where Nick Nolte and Mary McDonnell have to tutor Shaq to pass his SATs, only Fast Break predates that picture by fifteen years.

One other later basketball movie to which Fast Break invites comparison, as its moral opposite, is Hoosiers. Hoosiers is all about Gene Hackman redeeming himself and teaching kids to play basketball The Right (White) Way and prevailing over the odds by sheer force of gosh darn goodness. Fast Break, on the other hand, does not give a fuck. Gabe Kaplan's character recruits players strictly on the basis of their ability to kick ass at basketball. The only academic wrinkle comes from one of those players not even being able to fucking read, but aside from that, he lets them blow curfew and, in Bernard King's case, hustle the locals out of thousands of dollars at pool, with no more than mild ball-busting. The white kids he rounds out the team with can't even play basketball: the fifth starter, Bull, is a would-be football player (Cadwallader doesn't have a football team) who isn't much use beyond being big enough to knock anybody else down, though he does shape into a serviceable rebounding-and-defense center by the end of the movie. On the bench are a bunch of scrubs who never play, and two utter psychos whose sole value to the team is their ability to piss opponents off enough to get thrown out of the game.

The team, in short, is everything that, at the time, casual fans found irksome about basketball: a core of flashy black stars with questionable off-the-court habits, brutish enforcers, and shit-starters (Fast Break came out at a time when on-court fistfights were an extremely common occurrence, to the dismay of “purity of the game” pearl-clutchers). And there's none of this coming back from behind bullshit: they beat the fuck out of everybody. Including—mild spoiler alert—the rah-rah big time normal kids' team.

Fast Break also has no moral qualms at all about the fact that the way Coach Greene gets the big game against Nevada State is by having Hustler take the Nevada State coach to the cleaners at the pool table and then blackmailing him into arranging the game as a means of paying his debt. And let's just be perfectly fucking clear about things right here: this is fucking awesome. There's all this bullshit focus-grouped “moral” derpery in modern Hollywood where the hero has to learn something and the audience has to be reminded that drugs/gambling/lying/screwing teenagers/bribing cops/racism/homophobia/transphobia (damn, Fast Break keeps busy) are wrong. Fast Break is just like, fuck it, if you can't keep up that's your problem.

But simply because Fast Break doesn't subscribe to modern, absolutist notions of right and wrong, it's not an immoral movie. It just prioritizes. Hustling dudes at pool? Hey, fuck it, their fault they're not as good as you are. Do dumb stuff with your dick? Okay, you're dumb, but you're redeemable. Blackmail a rich guy to secure yourself a steady living doing something you can totally do but society won't let you because inequity prevails? Go right the fuck ahead.

When it comes to larger questions, Fast Break is on the absolute right side of all but one. The big one it gets right is race. David Greene is not a complete anomaly as a white guy in the 70s who is capable of being friends with black people, but the degree to which he, repeatedly and explicitly, corrects people on mild racial dipshittery by calmly treating black people as normal human beings is progressive even by today's standards. The movie also avoids the trap of treating him like a saint for this. He has slip-ups here and there, and even fucks up really badly at a key moment in the big game. In order to stop this one player on Nevada State from eating them alive, Greene puts one of his psychos in the game with explicit orders to get the guy pissed off enough to get him ejected. It works almost immediately, and when Greene and Hustler are helping the bloodied provocateur off the court, Greene asks him, “What did you say to him?” The reply: “I called his mother a dirty nigger.” With the tone, unmistakable, conveying the key information that this is exactly what Greene told him to say. Hustler stops immediately, and makes it very clear to Greene that this is unacceptable. Greene later, ashamed, apologizes, and Hustler makes it clear that he personally forgives him, but that goddammit, man, certain shit is just not right, this end does not justify those means.

This same moral complexity comes into play, though handled less successfully, with the building romantic chemistry between DC and Swish, that starts when Swish teaches him to read in like five minutes. Now, the whole movie DC and Preacher have been taking every opportunity possible to say hideously homophobic things about Swish (whom they, if you'll recall, believe to be male). DC starts becoming attracted to Swish, deflecting it with harsh asides about “faggots” and wild seizures of gay panic played for (unfunny) physical comedy. Things eventually get to the point where he splits from the college and is on his way, by means not yet considered, back to New York. At this point Greene catches up to him and reveals the “good news” that there's “nothing wrong” with him, because Swish is a girl! Yay. This is the only thing in the movie that lands this badly, fortunately, and it's buffered by the fact that no one in the movie is especially supposed to be seen as a good person or an audience surrogate.

Fast Break's fundamentally good-natured tone allows it to get a conditional pass on that one fuck-up, too. Again, it's hard to get morally outraged at a movie where everyone's walking around not giving a flying fuck, especially when they're doing so in such charming fashion. Also, it's funny. Gabe Kaplan was a really fucking great comic leading man back in the day before he went off to be a pro poker player. But the standout performance in the movie—perhaps only to me—is Bernard King as Hustler. He looks great on the basketball court, which one expects, but his performance is one of the loosest, perfectly in the moment athlete performances ever captured on screen. Forget the athlete qualifier, Bernard King is really, really goddamn good in this movie.

He's kind of a synecdoche of Fast Break as a whole: at the end you're like “Holy shit, how is this kind-of-by-the-numbers silly, stoned basketball comedy this good?” As cinema it's nothing earthshattering . . . but it's nothing to shake a stick at either. Basketball that's plausible as basketball is a rare thing in cinema, and the game scenes are all excellent, shot in long enough takes that it's clear that actual ball is happening. The possibility exists that Fast Break requires that level of basketball geekery to properly appreciate it, but even without digging that deep, it's still a refreshingly nasty-ass 70s comedy with some good performances and moments of surprisingly incisive truth. Could it lose the homophobia? Absolutely. But overall it's not fucking bad at all. And it's on Instant til the end of the month, so you can see for yourself.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

BETTER LIVING THROUGH NETFLIX VOL. 11: BERNIE


The way I initially heard about Bernie was odd, and it's something I can't help think about after having finally seen the movie. A couple years ago, I got into a conversation with an actor friend after a play we'd just seen. The topic of movies came up—movies, for some reason, often come up with me—and my friend told me Richard Linklater and Jack Black were making a movie about a guy he knew. Very cool, I said, or something like that, then asked what it was about. He told me it was about this guy he'd worked with in community theater in Texas who'd killed an old woman, and some of the other details. But the thing I remember him saying was that the guy, weird though he was, was really well liked, and the woman universally despised. All told it sounded like an interesting story for a movie, and I told my friend I thought it was pretty far out that he was connected, however tangentially, to a story that crazy. We both agreed that if anyone was going to tell this particular story, that Richard Linklater was maybe the perfect guy to tell it.

Linklater's made a career out of sneaking up on people. He's rarely afforded the credit he deserves as one of the great American directors of the last few decades, partly because he's resisted the mainstream for the most part (though the couple things he's done at studios have ranged from good to pretty damn good) but mostly because he isn't always waving his dick at us like some other contemporaries of his (like dudes whose names rhyme with Shmentin Shmaranshmino; don't get me wrong, I love QT, but he is a dick-waver). A Richard Linklater picture, if a director so versatile can be boiled down to an empirical core, is one whose pleasures are subtle, that values building a convincing, rich world over cleverness of narrative, and where human beings are complex, and matter. The subjects, scale, and genre of his pictures may vary, but that humanism is at the core of who he is as an artist, and it's that that made me excited about Bernie, beyond the personal connection.

And it's quite the story. Linklater tells it using a quasi-documentary style, alternating between talking head interviews with the people of Carthage, Texas—some of whom are actors, some of whom are real townspeople—and dramatic scenes. We're introduced to the locally beloved Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), an assistant funeral director and all-around total sweetheart, who as both those things comes to befriend the deeply unpopular, antisocial, and rich widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). For a time, they get along fine. He's basically her walker: they go to the theater, travel the world, the whole little-old-lady-and-nice-young-man nine. Only as time goes by, the fact that the old lady's really kind of an asshole leads to the relationship becoming emotionally abusive and Bernie devolving from walker to servant. One day, he can't take the belittling anymore and snaps; he lights her up, stashes her body in a freezer, and spends the next several months carrying on as if she's merely temporarily incapacitated and he's handling her business, during which time he gives away a ton of her money. Eventually, the game is up and DA Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew “trying to break the world's record for most awesome performances in one year” McConaughey) prosecutes Bernie for first degree murder. Then, because no one in town would vote to convict Bernie, whom they all adore, of killing Marjorie, whom they all despise, the DA has to try Bernie in San Augustine, 50 miles away. Playing on class differences (Bernie can pronounce stuff in French and has flown first class on an air-o-plane), he gets his conviction. Bernie is now serving life.

The thing about Bernie that makes it fall juuuuuust short of greatness is the conflict between the story itself and the way it's told. A few years back I learned the hard way that just because a story is true doesn't mean it works as a movie, with a script I wrote about the $9 billion in cash intended to fund the provisional government in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein that went missing. I had some thinly-fictionalized Blackwater private paramilitary contractor types get the cash heisted from them by a French diplomat, a Russian triple agent, and a hard-bitten, hard-drinking NYC cop. Disregarding the fact that that's the greatest fucking movie idea ever, and that even reading a synopsis of it will add four inches to the length of your dick, there arose issues of plausibility (not to mention every woman who read it being like what the fuck). But, I argued, it's something that really happened, how can it be implausible? It was then explained to me; the short version is “truth is stranger than fiction.” Sometimes, we need to de-strange-ify true stories to make them work as fiction. And, for real? That story about Bernie and the old lady and him killing her and no one in town wanting to put him inside, and it taking a near unprecedented act of ruthless, ambitious jurisprudence to even get him convicted? That shit's pretty fucking weird. So weird, in fact, that when my friend first told it to me back in 2010 or whenever it was I forgot I wasn't high and thought he was fucking with me because I was high except I wasn't. That story is strange. Telling it straight up as a regular movie story is going to run the risk of having the audience go “oh, please.” That's why B-Fleck calling Argo “the declassified true story” was a brilliant touch, and that's why, one presumes, Richard Linklater used the framing device of the gossipy interviews with the townsfolk.

What presenting Bernie in that fashion does is immediately reinforce the idea that this is a thing that happened. That the interviews are so beautifully executed, amounting to the greatest love letter to East Texas accents ever captured on screen—also, you can't tell the real people from the actors, they're all absofuckinglutely amazing—reinforces that idea with a couple steel beams and a block of concrete. The presentation is absolutely brilliant, and my favorite part about the movie, even more than the great performances from Jack Black (who's as free of shtick as he's ever been in his life) and Matthew McConaughey, who activated God mode at some point about 18 months ago and forgot to shut it off.

But this approach does create a couple dramatic problems with regards to time elapsed in the story being told. The major one arises in the part of the movie where Bernie is frantically trying to keep people from finding out that the old lady's dead and that he killed her. One of the best—and weirdest—parts of the actual story is that Bernie managed to keep this all hidden for almost a year. That's fucking insane. That's also the part of the story that lends itself best to actual drama. And it's a touch ironic that Richard Linklater, who is normally so good at simply letting things unfold and letting the natural drama in events create all the suspense and shit the movie needs (see: his masterpiece Dazed and Confused), hurries past this part of the story. It's ultimately not that big a deal because the good parts of the movie are so good, but it is enough to dock a couple points (completely random thought: whoever invents the Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic/CinemaScore version of Calvinball will earn eternal life in the kingdom of heaven).

One thing that (pleasantly) surprised me was how much overt discussion there was of Bernie being gay. There's a slim possibility he's asexual. But I mean, look, the dude was a walker for rich old ladies, he did theater, and he had really good manners, y'know what I'm sayin? Maybe I'm being provincial, but I was a bit taken aback at the way the townspeople reacted to the question of “Was Bernie Gay?” These people, from deepinahearta Jesus country, were mostly like, “Well, yeah, but—” and launched into some explanation of what an awesome guy Bernie was and how much they liked him. The one lady was like, “Well, no, he can't be gay, I mean, look at Jesus” and starts rambling about the Apostles to the point where she makes a really terrific case for them all being gigantic 'mos, all in the service of talking about how much she liked Bernie. It's almost like, if you could clone Bernie off a couple thousand times and distribute the Bernies around the Bible Belt, you could make a pretty healthy dent in homophobia. Almost. Maybe that's too idealistic. Certainly too science-fictional. But it certainly is interesting, and a really nifty reversal in expectations, to see this small southern town be so vehemently on the side of a guy who, not to be rude, is gay as a goose in Givenchy.

All in all Bernie's totally worth seeing, and a definite supporting argument for Richard Linklater as a great American director (the framing and cutting is exquisite throughout, natch). Perfect it's not, but really really good it is. And holy shit those accents. Considering Bernie didn't even make $10 mil at the box office more of You People™ need to see this, at the very least to keep Jack Black from making Ezekiel Balls Part 7 (what's good, all two of you who saw Thirteen and got that reference), so queue it up. NOW.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

BETTER LIVING THROUGH NETFLIX, VOL. 10: FIND ME GUILTY

Vincenzo Gasolina and Tyrion Lannister. Boosh.

With a handful of notable exceptions, Sidney Lumet's career as a director was characterized by his tendency to make very good movies that it never occurred to anyone to watch. This, to be clear, was never Mr. Lumet's fault. (Well, almost never: Q&A was terrible.) It was merely a function of his valuing character and story over all else, his refusal to (intentionally) lean on melodrama for cheap effect, and—maybe most important—the humility with which he carried himself personally. If you want people running around sucking your dick about what a genius you are, you need to plant the seeds by acting like one. Of course, this can backfire if you aren't one. But Sidney Lumet never seemed to care about that, always talked up the importance of the work above all else and the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process, and as a result he never won a competitive Oscar (he was given an honorary one when he was old, and his speech was pure elegance and class; Sidney Lumet was a man among men, believe) and even among the list of all-time classics he directed, all are associated primarily with their leading actors. His careful preparation, empathy, and humble commitment to the work above his own personal glory (and a number of other things associated with being awesome, surely) led to a vast array of actors giving either the best or one of the best performances of their careers working under Lumet's watch, among them Henry Fonda, Rod Steiger, Al Pacino, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Paul Newman, River Phoenix, and many many others. So too, in the second-to-last movie Sidney Lumet would ever direct, did Vin Diesel, in Find Me Guilty.

That's right, Vincenzo Gasolina himself. And it's not like “oh, sure, wow, he turned in a better performance than The Fast and the Furious, xXx, and The fuckin' Pacifier, big whoop.” Vincenzo's amaaaaazing in Find Me Guilty. He's out of his mind good in this. There's a grand total of one moment the entire picture when he's not perfect, and that moment is like two seconds in the Annabella Sciorra scene an hour or so in, even then it's just a moment of his composure cracking because he doesn't know what to do with his hands, and even then it's something you can rationalize as “well, maybe it's not that Vin doesn't know what to do with his hands, maybe it's Jackie” except, sorry, it is Vin. But that's okay. The whole rest of the picture Vincenzo's in this fucking wig looking like Jerry Orbach except radiating Movie Star, and it's like “Holy shit, Vincenzo has star power even when he's not flexing his guns driving two hundred miles an hour doing sex with Asia Argento?” If ever there was a moment for Sidney Lumet to pop his collar and be like “Oh yes that's right, y'all,” it's this. Making Robert Duvall look good is one thing. Making Vincenzo Gasolina look like something other than a guy who throws grenades by flexing his biceps is another matter entirely. It's not that Lumet waved a magic wand and turned Vincenzo into a good actor, it's that he knew enough about what acting actually is and was forward-thinking enough to say “I'm going to make a picture with Vin Diesel playing the lead where nothing blows up and he never drives a car.” And he did. And it's a massive amount of fun.

Based on a true story (and purporting to consist to great degree of actual court transcriptions), Find Me Guilty is the story of Jackie DiNorscio (Vincenzo), a wiseguy from the Dirty Jerz whose fuckhead cousin tries to clip him, unsuccessfully. Once he recovers, Jackie's luck takes another turn for the shitty when he gets pinched trying to buy a suitcase full of coke from an undercover cop. Not to mention, he has racketeering charges hanging over him. The US Attorney's office (represented by oily Linus Roache, who did an NY/NJ area accent so well I had to check who he was, only to be like “Holy balls, that's Linus Roache?”) swoops in and offers Jackie a deal if he rolls over on The Boys, only Jackie's a stand-up guy and won't hold with such rubbish. He tells the US Attorney, “Hey, you got a brother? Fuck him, too.” And thus Jackie and practically everybody he knows and has worked with go on trial.

The trial, a massive clusterfuck (it would go on to be the longest criminal trial in American history), is the bulk of the movie. Judge Sidney Finestein (Ron Silver, who is pick-your-jaw-up-off-the-fuckin-floor great in this, in a reminder of how great he could be when not simply noshing on scenery in an exploitation movie for a paycheck) does his best to keep all twenty-something defendants and their respective lawyers (the de facto leader of whom is played by the mighty Peter Dinklage, who rules beyond the capacity of the English language to describe) in line. And he'd have done so perfectly if not for the monkey wrench of Jackie deciding to defend himself. Jackie's wildly inappropriate, blithely ignorant of proper procedure, yet charming debut as defense counsel completely overwhelms the entire trial.

Storywise, that's all there is to Find Me Guilty. The narrative has occasional telling-rather-than-showing problems with conveying the massive amount of time over which the trial took place, and despite being based on a true story elements of it are really, really farfetched. It's the kind of material that in the hands of anyone other than an absolute master—and I really think it's time we start putting Lumet in with the all-time greats, if we aren't already—would be ridiculous nonsense. But in Lumet's hands, it's a delightful bit of entertainment.

Beyond the performances, which are simply tremendous, with countless beautiful little human moments, Lumet's direction is pristine classicism, with meticulous framing, long takes, actual medium and long shots that aren't either establishing shots or panoramic landscapes, and invisible edits. In spite of this it never feels conservative, or an example of a relic of a bygone era clinging to an outmoded way of working because it's all he knows. I feel like kicking myself in the balls for even suggesting such a thing. No, this is a director who trusts his actors to be all the flash and dash the picture needs. That trust derives from careful preparation, years of experience, and the confidence those combine to create. Maybe the result only seems so good because no one makes classical American cinema anymore, but it's still a wonderful little movie.

It's a movie that's been done wrong by history, too. Due to one of the absolute worst marketing campaigns in the history of human endeavor—like, “Kilgore Trout's SF appearing in porno magazines” level bad marketing—Find Me Guilty was gone from theaters before anyone knew it had come out, and was a non-factor in 2006's Oscar race, which I mean yeah I know, “Oscars? blow me,” but imagine if Harvey Weinstein is running the picture's campaign. Suddenly we've got Sidney Lumet going up against Marty Scorsese for Best Director, with both of them trying for their first. You've got Vincenzo getting a nom against Forest Whitaker; I mean, Forest Whitaker still would have won, but then we get the Fast and Furious trailer hailing “ACADEMY AWARD NOMINEE VIN DIESEL.....and paul walker” a couple years later, which would have been considerably lulzier than Vincenzo returning to the franchise having failed elsewhere.

Anyway. Fuck the business. Find Me Guilty still exists, and can be watched. And I'm here to say, with all the authority given a random asshole on the internet with Proustian Tourette's that it goddamn well should be. So there. At the very least, people fiending for a Game of Thrones fix should watch this to get a hit of some Dinklage. Or if you feel like winning a bet with a friend of yours who refuses to believe that Vin Diesel could ever look like Jerry Orbach. Or, if you just want to plain want to see a good movie. Sidney Lumet was the truth, ladies and gentlemen. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

BETTER LIVING THROUGH NETFLIX VOL. 9: IN TIME

I'm telling you nothing new when I say, and you no doubt have guessed from the enthusiasm that pervades my writing over at Tor.com, I rather like science fiction. As literature it provides an excellent framework for everything from social commentary to philosophical meditation. We're long past having to defend science fiction as serious literature. Kurt Vonnegut put a hollow point behind the ear of that argument, after Robert Heinlein tied its shoelaces together and Ray Bradbury kicked it to the ground. Stanley Kubrick similarly made the case for science fiction as serious cinema, for all those people with short memories who forgot about The Day The Earth Stood Still (to say nothing of Metropolis, or shit, Journey to the Moon, aka one of the first fucking movies ever). But SF cinema is a slightly iffier proposition. It's not that it can't be great (see Kubrick and many, many other examples) it's just that the difficulty curve is high; a book can stop in its tracks and take a couple paragraphs to explain shit, but too much of that kind of thing can make for a really dull movie under the wrong circumstances. This is why there's an occasional disconnect whereby SF movies can be good SF or good movies while failing somewhat in the other half of the equation. Sometimes, to quote The Wire gratuitously, things just be that way I guess. But, on the upside, that means, in a way, that SF movies have two chances to be good. That's why it's a shame that Andrew Niccol's In Time flunks both halves of the equation, in a weirdly reciprocal (to say nothing of paradoxical) fashion: it's bad SF because it's too committed to being a movie, and is a bad movie because it sacrifices too much of its connection to this world out of a mistaken belief in the profundity of its one-trick SF premise.

It's not like In Time has nothing to go for it. It sucks, but it sucks in a way that demands in examination into exactly why that is so. IN A WORLD that, despite being at least a hundred years in the future, still looks pretty much exactly the way downtown Los Angeles looks today (I kind of blame a recent viewing of Thom Anderson's fascinating Los Angeles Plays Itself for making me as sensitive to that; the only thing really wrong with the way Niccol uses his locations is that it simply doesn't look like it's that far in the future in any appreciable or convincing way), science has completely conquered the process of biological aging. Everyone, once they reach the age of 25, stays 25, in perpetuity. The catch is, everyone's given an allotment of time, which has replaced currency. Goods and services are exchanged for their value in time. When one's clock—located in a glowing green subcutaneous LED readout on one's left arm—reaches zero, one's body functions immediately cease, and one dies on the spot. There are haves, who are essentially immortal, with hundreds and occasionally thousands of years on their clocks, and have-nots, who labor daily for enough hours to be able to wake up alive the following morning.

Our hero here is one Will Salas, played by Mr. Justin Timberlake, a working-class lad living with his ma, Ms. Olivia Wilde, who due to the nature of this whole eradication of aging, looks basically JT's age, because she is. A few minutes of world-building ensues, until one evening out at the bar with one of the guys from The Big Bang Theory, JT encounters a rich guy on a bender throwing time around like a drunken sailor. Some dudes come in, led by Alex (I Am Number Four) Pettyfer (who can, amazingly, be seen to be giving progressively less of a fuck in every single one of his scenes in this picture) and make like they're going to fuck the rich dude up and roll him. For no apparent reason whatsoever, JT intercedes and helps the rich dude escape. Once they're clear of Alex Pettyfer and his thugs, the rich guy lays a suicide trip on JT, who doesn't quite know what to make of the guy and his angst; not having to worry about suddenly dropping dead at any moment is kind of a First World Problem. They drink some of the rich dude's good booze out of his schmancy flask and pass out. JT wakes up, alone, to find that the rich dude has transferred all his time (over a hundred years) to JT's clock, and JT looks out the window to see the rich guy's clock expire, after which he swan dives into the L.A. River.

The cops, led by the always awesome (he walks away with this movie, twirling it on his finger like a gun) Cillian Murphy, show up and immediately conclude that JT rolled the rich guy, just like Alex Pettyfer's dudes were planning on doing. A series of events that includes one of the most shamelessly melodramatic scenes ever filmed (I'm not exaggerating; “the scene when Olivia Wilde starts running” should replace “Lilian Gish on the ice floe” from D.W. Griffith's Way Down East as the cliché shorthand for melodrama) leads JT to the utopian New Greenwich, where all the rich fucks stay. JT encounters an intriguing young lady in a truly horrible wig (Amanda Seyfried), who it turns out is the daughter of the head evil white guy in charge (Vincent Kartheiser, reinforcing his ability, as first demonstrated in Mad Men, to wear the fuck out of a well-cut suit), who initially rather likes JT, and is impressed by his ballsy pursuit of wealth. Evil White Guys In Suits are drawn to their own kind, after all. Only JT's not evil, and Cillian Murphy's a good cop, which means in short order everything and everyone goes apeshit.

Now, none of the above is anything that wasn't in the trailer, so I'll stop the plot recap there. In any case, everything the movie is trying to say about the importance of living one's life in the moment and being appreciative of all life has to offer, and about social justice and how Evil White Guys In Suits manage to adapt to any sociopolitical scenario and stay in charge fucking over proles is all set up by that point in the narrative. The rest of the picture is just noise anyway (and a half-reprise of the above mentioned Most Melodramatic Scene In The Fucking Universe) until it ends in kind of a limpdick sequel setup, with nothing really resolved and no particularly deep conclusions to any of the picture's Big Questions. It ends up being silly and disappointingly fluffy given the potential beard-scratcher posed by literalizing the time-is-money conceit. And though the cinematography is pretty sweet (by the great Roger Deakins, natch), the things being photographed are kind of unimaginatively conceived; put it this way, I was really surprised to find out that Andrew Niccol had a $40 million budget, as it looks like he's trying to scrape by on about 10 at most. 

More than that, though, the thing that really fucks In Time up is the way things happen because the story needs them to. When JT saves the rich guy, okay, let's say he does it out of the kindness of his own heart, all right, maybe I'm just cynical. But him subsequently being able to outwit, outrun, and make fools out of a bunch of armed gangsters is a little convenient. As is the fact that apparently the cops of the 22nd or 23rd century or whenever this is, despite having far more reason to reinforce the societal status quo, have inferior surveillance technology to what would be at their disposal today. Even if you presuppose that, having essentially conquered death, the ruling classes would stagnate intellectually and pursue nothing but their own pleasure, you have to think that self-interest at least would lead to them setting up some kind of at least half-assedly fail-safed system to ensure that any potential Justin Timberlakes who might come along and challenge their hold on power at least have to sweat a bit. Because, come on, when Timberlake decides to go to the Evil White Guys In Suits' motherland, he gets all the way there and almost fully insinuated into the good graces of the most Evil and Whitest of them all before anyone even knows who he is or what he's done. Not only would it make more logical sense for it to be a lot more difficult for JT to do so, it would make the movie more suspenseful too. Even if, as it begins to appear by the third act, the whole time thing and the movie in general is just a parable for living in the moment, it'd still be nice if details rendered secondary by that being the case to not be as dumb, or as brushed past. Having the villains be this incompetent and weak weakens JT as a hero.

And yet . . . in spite of the fact that it fails as a movie and as SF and has The Single Most Melodramatic Scene In The History Of Cinema (not only once, but twice) In Time isn't that much of a chore to watch. Justin Timberlake does a damn fine job with what he's given in the lead; his getting-there-slowly-but-surely acting skills are more than up to the task here, as what the role really requires is star power, which he, of course, has in spades, though his character's so thin it isn't really worthy of his talents. Cillian Murphy is so good as the cop, now I want to see him play the hard-bitten grizzled cop with weekly heart attacks and monthly divorces and all other essentials in a good movie. And, of course, I'd watch Amanda Seyfried read the phone book. It's not just pretty and talented actors, either. Despite the movie's bilateral failure, it has its moments that work in between the things that don't. At times, when the lo-tech future isn't presenting fundamental challenges to the entire premise of the story it allows for isolated, engagingly real moments with the characters, specifically between Cillian Murphy and his other cops.

All of which leads to the kind of reductive kind of contradictory state of affairs where In Time sucks, but I didn't hate it. I don't know what to tell you. Timberlake can carry a picture even if it isn't necessarily this one, and I'd rather see a good director (see Gattaca for reference) swing and miss than see a shitty director's best. Sometimes things just be that way, I guess.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

BETTER LIVING THROUGH NETFLIX, VOL. 8: THE TOURIST, THE FIGHTER, AND AMITABH BACHCHAN


Before we get to the main thrust of this post, a bit of preliminary venting (and I am well aware of what a First World Problem this is, shut up and let me do my thing): fucking Netflix has sent me two separate discs of Zanjeer, both of which have been irrevocably fucked up. This pisses me off because a few weeks ago I saw Amitabh in Sholay, and for those of you who don't yet know, Amitabh Bachchan is basically the guy who when John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, Toshiro Mifune, Charles Bronson, and Chow Yun-Fat finish beating Chuck Norris to death and they're trying to figure out if it's even theoretically possible for anyone to best them in either combat or general badassery, Amitabh walks in and they're all like, “right, that guy. Well, shit, fellas, we're all competing for second place.” Sholay is so fucking good you have to start bringing people like Sergio Leone and John Ford and all the above-mentioned leading men into the discussion to explain to people, and it's not even like Amitabh's the coolest motherfucker in the picture by any kind of wide margin either. Co-star Dharmendra's so fucking cool in it he's the one who gets the girl. There's decades-long vendettas, mind-blowing action set pieces, and you'll never hear the phrase “How many men were there?” without shitting yourself the rest of your life. So, naturally, I wanted to see the picture that made Amitabh a star, and from what I've heard, in Zanjeer he plays a cop who doesn't play by the rules. Fuck and yes. Done. Bring me that movie, modern society. So listen up, and listen good, you red-envelope so-and-sos: send me a non-broken copy of Zanjeer.

So that's me last night. I was all set to watch Zanjeer only to have those dreams cruelly snatched from me. Since I was already in movie-watching mode, I decided I'd give the other two DVDs a shot. They could not have been more different from Zanjeer, but had some superficial connections with each other, both being 2010 releases by major Hollywood studios. One widely panned, one widely praised. I decided to watch The Tourist first.


The Tourist has a lot of assets at its disposal. Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie are two of the biggest movie stars in the world, and the two of them together is like exotic sexiness critical mass. Add in the fact that it's set in Venice, it's directed by the genius who made The Lives of Others, and the story sounds like straight up Hitchcock, and you got yo'self a whole mess of promise. Or, if you fuck up the execution, you got yourself a mess.

It'd be tempting to take that very contrived build and cap it off with “The Tourist, sadly, is the latter.” But the thing that's weird is that it doesn't totally suck. It's nearly crippled by an awkwardly stitched-together script, Angelina looks like she was rendered by a state-of-the-art sapience simulation program, and some truly stupid things happen. And yet, The Tourist has its charms.

It takes a while to get to them, though. The first ten minutes of the movie are wheel-spinning horseshit, and weaken the movie, because at least six of those minutes are spent trying to figure out whether Angelina's an android, on Valium, or needs a sandwich, and going “when the fuck's Johnny Depp gonna show up?” It's like the writers were in a morning-after coke coma and the designers and camera crew were like, “fuck it, somebody's gotta make this movie.” And they do their jobs really, really fucking well on this movie. Everything the entire picture looks absolutely gorgeous. (Well, except Steven Berkoff, but we're not there yet).

Ten minutes in, we have what really should have been the opening scene: Angelina made up and dressed immaculately, slowly walking through a train looking for a patsy, and coming across . . . Johnny Depp. The entire opening ten minutes of exposition are conveyed in the one shot of Angelina gliding through the train; there would literally be nothing of any value lost if you chopped the first ten minutes out of the picture. And Johnny is by far the best part of this whole movie. He's been in a couple dipshit Tim Burton movies (and a couple good ones, which feel like a while ago now), and the Pirates things are incoherent and oppressively frenetic, but Johnny fucking Depp is a movie star. He's an actor of great skill, to be sure, but like most true movie stars, there's a point at which you can't buy him as an ordinary person, because he's an otherworldly entity.

This is why the three biggest lies I've ever been told are:

1—“Yeah, dude, this shit is totally straight from Amsterdam.”
2—“I swear I won't get mad if you tell me what you really think.”
3—“Johnny Depp is a dorky, unworldly math teacher from Wisconsin.”

Now, let's be clear. I'm not knocking Wisconsin; they have enough trouble these days with that lunatic union-busting fuckstick governor of theirs. Math teachers either, I had one in high school who was an actor when he wasn't teaching (this meant he never slept and frequently got emotional and would rant at us in this half-Paul Lynde half-Yiddish patois that more often than not ended with him letting us read for the rest of the period while he went outside to exorcise the dybbuk with a cigarette; that dude was fucking awesome). I'm not even knocking unworldly dorks. The latter isn't something you have any power over, and neither is the former, most times.

The only problem is, Johnny Depp. If he was a math teacher, it would be in like fucking Sri Lanka or Suriname, or some such place where the women are brown, the weather is gorgeous, and everything is like one of those paragraphs in magic realist novels where you're just like “All right, already, my life is prosaic, stop rubbing it in.” (Ed. Note: if you're keeping score, no such place actually exists except in a Johnny Depp movie where he fucks some woman who's so beautiful you can't even fap to her because it would be rude). He's not a normal dude. This isn't a hierarchy thing, normal people are fucking great. Johnny just ain't in that genus.

So there's that. But here's where Johnny the actor manages to prevail against Johnny the movie star: he does all his “oh shit I'm a dork in over my head” business so goddamn well he shames anyone who's ever had to play this kind of role. Well, except Cary Grant. But dude. Cary Grant. Johnny's so good he keeps making you forget how retarded the rest of this movie is whenever he's on screen.

How retarded is the rest of the movie? Very. Some mysterious ex-lover of Angie's is sending her cryptic notes telling her to be places at certain times, and seemingly every cop in Europe has her under surveillance, led by Paul Bettany in full-on shithead mode. You ever notice how the bigger a prick Paul Bettany is, the worse the movie ends up being? He was a really cool guy in Master and Commander, Master and Commander was great. He was something Russell Crowe could do without in A Beautiful Mind, A Beautiful Mind was a movie we could do without. He was a useless psychotic turd in The Da Vinci Code, The Da Vinci Code was a useless turd of a movie. The Tourist falls somewhere mildly favorable but still hugging the middle on that spectrum, as Paul Bettany is kind of a shithead, but he's not malignant. Seriously, if you read about a movie, and Paul Bettany is playing the heavy or some random shithead, wait for the DVD. If he's playing the good guy, watch it. Unless he's playing a priest. He needs to stop playing priests.

So on top of the cops, Steven Berkoff and a whole bunch of Russian henchmen are after Angie and her mysterious ex. Angie tries to get everyone to think Johnny Depp is the mysterious ex, but the cops don't fall for it, except Steven Berkoff's man inside the cops tells Steven Berkoff that Johnny's the guy. So everyone starts chasing everyone else and Johnny and Angie look hot and Angie looks more and more like a computer-generated character and blah blah blah.

Right when you think the whole movie is going to be a total pile of bullshit, it springs a motherfucker of a third-act twist on us, that would have made the whole movie so much better if we'd known about forty-five minutes earlier: Johnny Depp actually is the mysterious ex. And he and Angie sail off into the sunset. What makes this so frustrating is that the whole movie you're like, “these two things would make this movie actually be good.” And you have to wait til like, what, five minutes left for that payoff? After a whole lot of inelegant scripting and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck playing the part of Sisyphus trying to overcome the shitty script and actually make the kind of movie the script fucks up at being? Sigh. So close. And yet . . .

After a brief intermission, I put the second movie in: The Fighter.



I remember seeing Micky Ward fight on TV a few times. I think I saw him lose to Zab Judah (back when Zab Judah was good, it was hard to tell one fight from another, he just beat the fuck out of guys), I know I saw parts of the epic career-concluding Arturo Gatti triptych, and the isolated highlight from the rest of his career. I knew little bits and pieces about him—he was from Lowell (which rhymes with prole), sportswriters liked him because he was white and not very athletic (the biggest boners recorded by science are the ones sportswriters have for short, slow white athletes), and his not inconsiderable success was attributable almost entirely to balls.

If the above sounds negative, I should clarify that I didn't really know anything about the guy that I didn't learn from sports media, which is a singularly frustrating beast. Mainstream sports writing is dominated by a very cloistered, sentimental, white, middle-aged, heteronormative male perspective unaware that any other perspective exists. This has eased up a bit in recent years, but only a bit. The irony of my distaste for the prevalent tone in mainstream sports journalism is that I am a white guy, I'll be middle-aged someday, and most of these dudes who get all teary-eyed whenever a five-foot-six-inch white guy bunts have seen way more of the world in person than I have in my life. I should be just as bad as they are. But sorry guys, David Eckstein is a shitty baseball player.

What this has to do with Micky Ward is that the media coverage of him was basically slashfic, and since so many of these little white fetish objects (of whom David Eckstein is basically Angelina Jolie in Gia) suck at sports, one sometimes assumes they all do. The three Arturo Gatti fights went a long way toward dispelling this impression of Micky Ward, as those fights were legitimate boxing legend, and Ward was damn close to winning all three of them.

So I was interested in seeing The Fighter, especially since practically everyone I know who saw it was like, “Holy fuck, dude.” And that was the first time some of them had ever said “fuck” or “dude,” so I knew they were serious. I popped it in, preparing myself for the worst—sports movies tend to be written from much the same perspective as sports journalism, and almost all of them adhere to some form of the “underdog overcomes adversity and wins the big game/race/fight at the end” formula—and hoping for the best.

What I wasn't prepared for was . . . holy shit Christian Bale. The Fighter is one of those movies where you need to watch the making-of doc afterward because otherwise you'll miss the fucking eerie way he became Dicky Eklund. Every last mannerism is right there. Despite the fact that Christian Bale is about fifteen years younger than Eklund and his hair hasn't gone gray, people who had known Dicky Eklund all their lives occasionally thought Bale was actually him. It's as a good a Method performance as you're ever going to see.

The fact that the rest of the cast manages to not get blown off the screen by not only Bale the Method actor but by Dicky the character is an enormous credit to the force of their performance. Mark Wahlberg is sneaky good as Micky: he spends almost the entire movie having other people speak and act for him, and it never reads as weakness in his acting. Every last insecurity and moment of fear reads clearly on his face and in his posture. If you want to do the Method dick-measuring contest between him and Bale, well, after you go fuck yourself I'll concede the point that Mark Wahlberg (and yes, he's good enough in this I'm suspending Marky Mark jokes for the duration of this post) doesn't transform himself into Micky the way Bale does Dicky, but he gives the performance this movie needs, a rock-solid movie star performance that serves as an anchor. Some roles need the Christian Bale Method Magical Mystery Tour, some roles need a movie star. Christian Bale is a Serious Ac-TOR, Mark Wahlberg is a movie star. If they were trying to out-Method each other the whole shithouse would go up in flames and it'd be a plodding wankfest, and if Bale didn't plumb the depths and go to the scary places he had to go to become Dicky and just spent the whole fucking movie posing for the trailer, it would have been pointless. Each does what he needs to do, and as a result each is as great as the other.

The whole rest of the cast is right up there on the same level. Jack McGee, a character actor of not just “That Guy” but “holy shit, THAT GUY! I fuckin love that guy!” status (it's a fine distinction, but a distinction it most certainly is), plays Micky's father, and is fucking great. He adds to his portfolio of great lines, which include these gems—

“Get the guy with the penis!” The Doors
“She makes me want to go out and buy rubbers.” Lethal Weapon 2
(Michael Douglas asks him “He had a girlfriend?”) “No....she did.” Basic Instinct
“Sorry man, John Wayne time. You're on your own, boss.” Backdraft

—with a fine assortment of terse quips about being afraid of his wife. There are two reasons Jack McGee is able to do this without seeming like a pussy. One is, he's Jack fucking McGee, fuck you. Two is, the wife in question is Melissa Leo, about whose performance one can only sit there not blinking for about an hour with smoke slowly wisping out of one's ears, murmuring faint unintelligible shit that might be language.

Melissa Leo, as the mother of not only Micky and Dicky but a truly terrifying armada of Massachussetts-accented daughters, is just unbelievable. It's hard to talk about just where she's coming from without sounding like either a sociology textbook or a condescending prick; suffice to say her violent distrust of anyone who isn't blood family is rooted in class insecurity, fear, and a ferocious maternal instinct. She's the general, and those daughters of hers are the army, and if you fuck with them you are on your way to the past tense.

Amy Adams, as Micky's girlfriend Charlene, manages to fuck with this group of women simply by existing. This highlights one of the great truisms of class warfare: no one openly cannot fucking stand each other like two ever-so-slightly different members of what appears to any la-di-da outsider to be one homogenous group. Amy Adams is from the neighborhood, she works at the local bar, she's a redhead just like a few of Micky and Dicky's scary sisters . . . but she went to college and she's prettier than they are, so she can do no right. Not to mention once she takes up with Micky and starts speaking for him (because he won't), shit is on.

The thing that particularly impressed me about what Amy Adams does in this is that she manages to play someone who isn't always a particularly nice person—Melissa Leo and the Leoettes are actually right, she does put on airs and talk to them like insects, and it isn't all due to their provocations—while still making it perfectly clear what Micky sees in her (beyond the obvious fact that she looks like Amy Adams). She's every bit the equal to all the other acting heavyweights in her midst, which is especially welcome in a role that in a lesser movie would be the textbook Annoying Girlfriend Role.

A certain amount of credit for all this great acting has to go to David O. Russell. It's one thing to assemble a bunch of really good actors, it's another thing entirely to actually get all of them together in the same movie. Russell grounds everything in a vividly realized Lowell, achieving a really impressive level of verisimilitude, selling the audience that this world he's created is real. And really, if you take away what Russell and the cast (and the brilliant choice to shoot all the fights with the same TV crews who shoot actual fights on TV) bring to this movie, you're left with a script that's pretty straight-up sports movie formula: Micky's an aging fighter not really getting anywhere, his ne'er-do-well brother drags him down, the brother gets locked up and rediscovers purpose, Micky rededicates himself to boxing, the brother gets out of jail and working together, Micky wins the title. The producers repeatedly say, without a hint of irony, that their inspiration was Rocky. Even if you like Rocky—which I really, really don't—you have to concede its formulaic structure, where the only thing keeping it from being simply unacceptable is the climactic fight itself (wherein Rocky really brings it, and though he loses he puts up a good fight, literally).

What Russell and the actors do with The Fighter is inject that same basic formula with such intensity, grounding it in a recognizable reality where the people are three-dimensional, that its only after you're done watching it, charting the sequence of events, that you go, “wow, yeah, that hit every single boxing movie beat except it hit them all so well I didn't notice.” Or maybe you do, but I got so caught up in the movie that I didn't. I ended up just repeating “wow” a whole lot, especially then when I watched the making-of doc and went “Goddammit, what the fuck did Christian Bale do? He fucking turned into that guy!”

Ultimately, one thing jumped out at me about this double feature. These two movies, watched consecutively, are an object lesson in the importance of execution. The Tourist has two of the sexiest movie stars who ever existed, a premise and setting tailor-made for two sexy movie stars, and yet is undone by an ever-so-slightly off-key tone and a script that seems like it started off shitty and then underwent a number of frantic, dissonant rescue rewrites done by too many different writers. And then there's The Fighter, which seems like it should be just another scrappy underdog boxing movie, and through sheer force of execution comes damn near the Body and Soul/Raging Bull caliber of boxing movies (the fight scenes really bring those two to mind; some of the shots are total James Wong Howe on roller skates shots, and Mark Wahlberg takes some hits that feel even more brutal than the ones De Niro takes in Raging Bull).

Execution. You can have all the assets, or all the liabilities in the world, but it's the work done with those assets or liabilities that makes the movie. You can have it all and blow it, or you can turn “meh” to gold. Sometimes you even make a movie so good it makes up for the absence of Amitabh Bachchan. But per that last point, and I cannot stress this enough, do not press your fucking luck. If that third copy of Zanjeer doesn't play in my DVD player, shit . . . if I'm not back by dawn, call the president.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

BETTER LIVING THROUGH NETFLIX, VOL. 7: THE EXPENDABLES


In the summer of 2010, the NBA was thrown for a loop when LeBron James, by any measure one of the two or three best basketball players in the world, and an athlete of astonishing and brutal grace, joined fellow All-Star Chris Bosh in signing with their mutual friend and fellow superstar Dwyane Wade on Wade's Miami Heat. It was widely considered that the teaming of three of the NBA's ten best players (evaluating Bosh generously) and two of the top five essentially made Miami the favorite to win the next several league championships. Wade, after all, had already won one. With such an array of talent in a league that, more than any other team sport, is a league of stars (phrase © FreeDarko), how could they not?

Though they've had some spectacular moments, reality proved a little more complicated. My beloved and long-suffering New York Knicks left a sizable testicle print on Miami's collective forehead on Oscar night, and Miami's current five-game losing streak is the top trending topic on Twitter as of this writing. Merely assembling big stars has not translated into instant success. You still, as the poet said, have to play the games. And this leads us, naturally, to The Expendables.

Long-time readers of this blog—I love all five of you dearly—will remember the odd mention here and there of The Expendables last summer and early fall. When it finally came out, life and finances prevented me from seeing it, and the generally lukewarm reviews made me not particularly care. Still, it's not as though I wasn't going to see it, it simply became the sort of thing I waited to receive in a little red envelope.

Much like the 2010-11 Miami Heat, The Expendables subscribed to the philosophy that one could achieve dominance through the collection of stars. Sly Stallone, a man whose very name conjures fond memories of explosions and violent death in the mind of the sophisticated cineaste, co-wrote, directed, and starred. Sly decided to take advantage of being Sly to call as many large and/or muscular practitioners of the fine art of ownage as he could think of, the idea being that an all-star team of swaggering fucking badasses could win the movie equivalent of a championship, which is to say, that it would own that much more, by the strength in numbers theory.

There are two flaws that present themselves even before we get to the movie. The first is, in Sly's desire to get EVERYBODY, he failed to convince two very important members of the genus “everybody,” namely Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal, to participate. Van Damme, hilariously, declined the role he was offered because he felt the picture lacked significant redeeming social value—which is why Jean-Claude Van Damme is so goddamn fucking fascinating, the man is so sublimely strange—and Seagal, also tellingly, passed because of a beef with the producer. It wasn't as though as Sly wasn't in charge of this shit; if he'd been thinking, he'd have shitcanned the producer in favor of Seagal and rewritten Van Damme's character so that he was running a Boys and Girls Club in Watts or some such.

Flaw 1a, while we're on about casting laziness, not securing Danny Trejo immediately and irrevocably disqualified The Expendables from being the kind of movie it aspired to be. Stupid action movies where shit blows up have Danny Trejo in them. He was in fucking xXx, for shit's sake.

But even if you take flaws 1 and 1a as subjective and unfair—which they are—there's still flaw 2, which is the identical problem the Heat find themselves having this season: you still have to play the games. You can get Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lungren, Randy Couture, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Terry Crews, you can get Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger to make cameos, Eric Roberts and Mickey Rourke for non-ownage scenes, and the underrated David Zayas to ham it up in the Danny Trejo role (it's to Zayas' credit that he even comes close to Trejo-level awesomeness), and sure, hey, that's enough testosterone to make any shit you need blown up officially on its way to kingdom come. But you still have to play the games. In this case, write a script that makes sense, and point the camera in the right direction so that the ownage is captured on camera.

These two qualifiers are not, to put it mildly, fucking rocket science. Writing a screenplay isn't as easy as it looks, but writing a screenplay for a stupid action movie is easier than a lot of genres. Sly, don't forget, has been nominated for an Oscar for screenwriting (for Rocky), so it's not unreasonable to expect him to know how to do stuff like creating characters and map out beats and create something at least coherent. As for the directing, that's an iffier proposition, but you would think Sly had at least been part of enough successful action movies, and movies in general, to know that the whole point of a movie is that you see what the fuck is going on.

You would, if you thought that, be wrong. The Expendables fails on every conceivable level on which a movie can fail. Even the most cursory glance at the rest of this blog should make it perfectly clear that I'm not pulling some snooty film critic bullshit. I damn well know better than to expect thought-provoking works of sensitivity out of Sly. But I don't think I'm amiss—especially as an ardent defender of the staggeringly fucktarded yet unfailingly entertaining Tango & Cash—in expecting Sly to at least deliver a presentable action picture. WHERE YOU CAN FUCKING SEE WHAT'S GOING ON.

This is the most puzzling and infuriating aspect of The Expendables. You can't fucking see anything. I was restlessly screwing around on Twitter while the movie was on, trying to regulate my breathing and not break shit. Here's how it went:

I think I'm going to watch The Expendables tonight. Whether it sucks or rules, it should still be fun to tweet/blog about.

All right, Sly, don't suck, or it's straight to your room with no steroids.

Things, however, went downhill quickly:

The Expendables is like a Dogme 95 picture shot on location in Sly's subconscious: badly lit, simplistic, and not as good as you'd think.

If the whole picture is this underlit I seriously might stalk Sly and ram a light meter up his ass.

My friend Abe chimed in at this point, informing me that there was going to be a fight scene between Jet Li and Dolph Lungren that would set a new standard for visual incoherence and editing; “watching it is like rolling down a hill.” Since we weren't there yet, I continued slogging through:

There's nothing wrong with The Expendables a good writer, director, camera crew, and editor couldn't fix.

I think Sly let his plastic surgeon edit this movie: "Hey, it's called Final Cut, he'll know how it works mumblemumble."

Hey, another one of those explosions that only kills people who don't have speaking parts! (Ed. Note: you know shit is fucked up when I—I, for fuck's sake—am complaining about explosions)

Damn shame Statham's trapped in this piece of shit. In a real movie, the scene where he owned all those guys on the ball court woulda ruled.

This whole movie, David Zayas is grumbling to himself "if I was still on OZ, I woulda killed the shit out of Eric Roberts in the 1st scene."

Another really bad sign: Mickey Rourke isn't the biggest plastic surgery casualty. WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU, SLY????

Christ, what fucking bullshit. Jet Li does NOT need Sly to save him from Dolph Lundgren. Jet wipes the floor with any of these guys.

(At that point, I replied to Abe's thing about the Li/Lundgren fight, which was even worse than he'd said: “I think the editing in the Li/Lundgren fight took five years off my life”)

Podcaster, and fellow sophisticated cineaste, Asim Burney then, rightly, pointed out: “more importantly what's up with Eric Roberts' teeth?” A damn fine question. Eric Roberts' teeth are certainly fucking bizarre in The Expendables. My theory: “Must have fucked them up chewing on scenery.”

By this point, we were past the point of no return anyway (by which I also mean that The Expendables is worse than Point of No Return, that stupid Bridget Fonda remake of La Femme Nikita):

So....I guess we never find out whether Sly or Stone Cold won that fight. Woulda been nice to know, in an action movie. (Ed. Note: if that fight was resolved in any fashion whatsoever, I have no idea; all I know is Stone Cold was beating the fucking fuck out of Sly, and then I blinked and Sly was running away and we never saw Stone Cold again. I swear, I was paying attention. I was totally squinting at the screen trying to figure out what the fuck was going on with the lousy lighting and the shitty editing, and I have no idea what happened to Stone Cold. This is not good.)

Sly makes Michael Bay look like Yasujiro Ozu. (Boosh, motherfucker. What has two thumbs and knows how to name-drop? This guy, madames et monsieurs)

Sly spent $85 mil on this shit and forgot to bring a tripod and lights. (Ed. Note: actually $80 mil, but the point still stands)

Wow. The Expendables really sucks THAT bad. You'd have to replace the Ghostbusters twinkie with a dick to really get a sense of the scale.

Which is basically all you need to know about The Expendables. It sucks a dick of a size that took Harold fucking Ramis' intellect to calculate.

I'm really kind of stunned by just how bad The Expendables actually is. It wasn't even like I was expecting it to be good. My standards for this kind of picture are not ambiguous, nor are they exacting. I want to see men with muscles deal violent death. I want large explosions; in certain cases one well-executed and well-timed explosion will suffice. And in the intervals between violent death and explosions, I want the men with muscles to be cool. For this last, you don't even need to write dialogue for the motherfuckers. Better yet, shut the fuck up. Michael Dudikoff didn't talk a lot, and he was cool (I don't want to hear any shit out of any of you, American Ninja 1 & 2 were both quality entertainment, and Avenging Force rocked). Danny Trejo doesn't flap his yap. Hell, even Alain Delon managed to hide the fact that he was kind of a shitty actor by shutting the fuck up, and Alain Delon rode that clever bit of strategy to status as one of the great icons of international cinema.

No one in The Expendables knows when to shut the fuck up. They bicker like retards. Jason Statham has this whole underdeveloped subplot with this woman—because no matter how bad a movie The Expendables is, it's not so divorced from reality that it would ignore the fact that Jason Statham has not gone an hour and forty minutes without having sex since his movie debut 12+ years ago—and Jet Li has this laboriously dwelt-on, and ultimately false, backstory about needing money for his family. Now, I know Statham has to get laid because he's Statham and Statham gets laid, but we didn't need to torture Jet with long dialogue scenes when we all know goddamn well his ingles isn't that great if it doesn't have any fucking point. Look, when I'm telling you you talk too goddamn much, it's time to take stock of your entire existence because holy shit. That's like Julie Taymor cracking on you for wasting money.

Sly's central fuck-up—I was about to say “original sin” but the movie wasn't that bad—is his failure to understand that language, be it verbal or cinematic, has meaning. His characters' idle, pointless chatter undermines their status as badasses, and he waves his camera around in an equally idle and pointless fashion. Even if he did hold his camera still, there's about five minutes total in the entire fucking movie that's lit well enough to even see. And even if he'd lit properly, the action is cut so that it is literally impossible to see who is doing what to whom at almost any point. That tweet about Sly making Michael Bay look as restrained and elegant as Ozu (famous for his long takes and exquisite compositions), that's only barely an exaggeration. At least in Michael Bay movies, the compositions are legible enough for you to realize, oh, yes, that's Megan Fox's ass. That whole fucking stunningly awful fight between Jet and Dolph, you never see Jet complete a single move. It's like Sly let a four-year-old with a severe cognitive impairment edit the entire picture.

In the wrong sort of mood, I'd interpret the fact that Sly's making a sequel to The Expendables as a sign that he was personally trying to get me to start taking heroin. But making sequels is what Sly does. And, shitty as The Expendables is, it made $200 mil. So, sure, it can exist. But fuck if you're gonna get me to sit through it unless Sly stops off at Home Depot for some clip lights and gets an editor who isn't tweaking his tits off while having a seizure on rollerskates (EDIT: Looks like, per Total Film, someone other than Sly will be making that call, as he won't be writing or directing! I HAVE INFLUENCE, PEOPLE! Ha ha HA!!!).

Remember. It takes more than stars to make a movie. It takes enlightenment. Heh heh heh . . .

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

BETTER LIVING THROUGH NETFLIX, VOL. 6: CRANKFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE CHELIOS

Ordinarily I wouldn't do another one of these posts for another couple months, but hey, writer's block is a bitch, I've been workin' for The Man, and I accidentally ended up with—theoretically—the greatest double feature ever. And, considering that they're both (apparently) unnecessary sequels, let's do this now:


Transformers: The Revenge of the Fallen

Okay, first of all, why the fuck is the title of this movie like a 70s samurai movie after a lobotomy? The title was one of the reasons why I talked myself out of going to see it in the theater, along with my longstanding pissiness re: Michael Bay, and a knee-jerk reaction against a movie based on a line of toys (even though I had them all when I was a kid, and the comics, and watched the cartoon, but hey, I wouldn't want to see a fuckin Voltron movie in my 30s either). But hey, this kind of thing is what Netflix is for.

Now, we'll recall that upon its release, Transformers part deux was met with some of the most violently scathing reviews in living memory. Roger Ebert called it “a horrible experience of unbearable length” and went on to unfavorably compare it to The Rock (jeez, remind me to never piss Roger Ebert off). Peter Travers anointed it the front runner for Worst Movie of the Decade (and what a decade for it, wow). Just about ever major media outlet took a gigantic shit all over it, and to top it all off, lead actor Shia LaBeouf even said “We got lost. We tried to get bigger. It's what happens to sequels. It's like, how do you top the first one? You've got to go bigger. Michael Bay went so big that it became too big, and I think you lost the anchor of the movie. . .You lost a bit of the relationships. Unless you have those relationships, then the movie doesn't matter. Then it's just a bunch of robots fighting each other.”

Shia's last observation was actually the thing I most disliked about the first movie. There were a lot of agreeably weird elements, and as much as I want to hate the little fucker, Shia's got something as a leading man. Nuance? Depth? For the gays. Shia cracks wise, doesn't look like too much of a dork running from explosions, and can plausibly nail attractive broads, and that's all he needs to do in his job. To be a serious actor, sure, you need a little more than that, but he's not a serious actor, he's a guy you get to play the lead in a dumb movie that makes money. And he does that well. Disturbia was fun. Eagle Eye was too. Sure they were stupid, but they weren't too stupid. The first Transformers teetered a little closer to the brink, and it seemed like the last four hours were indistinguishable robots destroying shit. I was a little worried, before I saw it, that the sequel would be more of the same.

Now that I have seen it, I say with a very large smile on my face, that I was absolutely right. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen goes full retard during the fucking studio logo. It opens with Optimus Prime narrating a fight in 17,000 BC between a bunch of black guys with flaky paint on their faces and a bunch of Transformers. Or maybe it's just one. Doesn't matter. It closes with Optimus Prime declaiming on the deck of an aircraft carrier, with blithe disregard for the George Bush semiotics.

That's the thing about Michael Bay. Some people get on his ass for being right-wing, or for enabling right-wingers, and it's true there's a lot of military shit in his movies, and the adoration his constantly-moving camera has for the military and the men in it verges on masturbatory. But I submit that this has nothing to do with politics. I think Michael Bay faps to the military because they're the guys who have the wherewithal to blow shit the fuck up.

And yes, when shit blows the fuck up, it is awesome. Mr. Bay's foibles as a director (a list as long and over-the-top as his movies) have to be taken with the grain of salt that the man has a near-mystical respect for the aesthetic beauty of the explosion.

Transformers: RotF might be the most perfect sequel ever. It takes the very concept of “full retard” and goes full retard on it. There are about eight or nine different movies co-existing under its umbrella, none of which make the slightest bit of sense, and every single one of them has been made before in less caffeinated form. Hell, let's not beat around the bush. This entire movie is fucking tripping on cocaine.

The plot has something to do with a really old Transformer who wanted to destroy the sun. Somehow Shia LaBeouf is, yet again, the one human being with the key to the whole shmear, some little piece of metal shit he gave to Megan Fox as a keepsake. Shia's extremely horny parents are sending him off to college (Princeton, which the writers apparently researched by watching Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle) where some badly lit Victoria's Secret model is being as obvious as she can in a PG-13 movie that she wants Shia to put his penis in her vagina (in the biblical sense), except Shia resists because he's technically still going out with Megan Fox, who in a parallel plot line develops a really weird sadomasochistic relationship with a Shih Tzu-sized Decepticon who talks like Bugs Bunny. Shia acquires a nerd friend for comic relief. Marines Josh Duhamel and Tyrese are off having trouble with an evil white guy in a suit (who, because this is a Michael Bay movie, turns out to be a gigantic fucking pussy). Robots periodically destroy massive amounts of shit; in one sequence where the Autobots, in collaboration with Josh Duhamel, Tyrese, and Aaron Pierce, on a covert mission in Shanghai, apparently succeed in keeping things covert by only destroying half the city.

Oh yeah, there's a whole bunch of casual racism in the form of an Autobot named Mudkip or something and some other one whose name I didn't catch (they all look alike to me . . . see what I did there? Oh, how I amuse myself). This, rather than being terribly offensive—he says, as a white guy—just kind of adds to the general avalanche of batshit. Because why not have two Autobots who transform into Mini Coopers talk like a WB sitcom?

Anyway, it's a little hard to think about shit in a movie where nothing makes any rational sense whatsoever. Shia, Shia's nerd, Megan Fox, and Megan Fox's sexually obsessed Decepticon take their act on the road after the bigger Decepticons destroy a bunch of shit (and kill Optimus Prime), and they find John Turturro—the government alien hunter dude from the first movie—working in a deli, and he's apparently Shia's nerd's father or something. John Turturro abandons his deli to go looking for . . . something . . . okay, when Shia was in college for five minutes, he had this weird nervous breakdown in Rainn Wilson's physics class (watching the Victoria's Secret models in the front row get all squirmy over Rainn Wilson is both one of the funniest fucking things I've ever seen and probably part of his contract for taking the part: “If I'm going to be in this fucktarded movie I want hot girls eyefucking me”) and started drawing weird, Asianesque symbols all over the place. Which I think has something to do with the thing they're looking for. Which John Turturro can somehow help them with . . .?

Megan Fox's robot sub has what looks like a Benedict Arnold moment when he leads them to some long-asleep Decepticon, except it turns out he's not a Decepticon, and the non-Decepticon teleports them all to “Egypt” (it could not be Arizona more clearly if there was a truckload of Mexicans getting jacked for their passports by cops), which just so happens to be right by where Josh Duhamel and Tyrese are. The robots all start commence destroying the Pyramids, because the thing that's going to destroy the sun is underneath them, except John Turturro takes Shia et al to Petra (in one of a million out of nowhere Indiana Jones references, including Rainn Wilson's eye-gangbang at the hands of his nubile students) where they find some dead Primes. A whole bunch more shit blows up and Shia gets killed and communes with the souls of the dead Primes, who give him some obvious advice (revive Optimus Prime, don't let the Decepticons win). So Shia comes back to life, sprinkles some robot pixie dust on Optimus Prime, who wakes up and kicks ass, and we all live happily ever after. Until the third movie.

To quote my friend—and better writer—Matt Freeman: “Transformers 2 is one of the only truly grandly bad movies made in years. It achieves levels of absurdity that are wild and unruly and boggling.” That just about sums up Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Sure it's bad. But it's bad on such a scale, with such disregard for rational sense, taste, and everything except the worship of size and explosions, that it becomes something oddly beautiful. It's impossible to say until the third Transformers movie is unleashed on us next year, but Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen may be the perfect crystallization of everything Michael Bay is and means to people. Which makes the fact that he officially apologized for it all the more hilarious.


Crank: High Voltage

“In a story so bizarre I can scarcely believe the event I'm reporting, and yet corroborated by at least a dozen eye witnesses. A white male apparently fell from the sky above downtown Los Angeles today, landed in the middle of a busy intersection, destroying one vehicle and hospitalizing its elderly driver, and then was removed from the scene even before emergency personnel could respond. Without a body the police have yet to piece together the events of the day. It can only be described as implausible. Reports of a second body landing in the Boyle Heights area have yet to be confirmed, and are being treated as the bullshit they most likely are.”
What's this? Self-awareness? In my post-rational cinema of the visceral? That's right. Crank: High Voltage is another sequel whose progenitor left me kinda cold at the end. While admirably concise and free of unnecessary exposition other than “This is Jason Statham. His name is Chev Chelios—presumably because someone already used the name Rex Roenick and because Gert Gretzky would have been excessively effeminate—and he is a hired killer. These bad guys want him dead,” Crank was nonetheless really fucking stupid, and was shot and edited in such a hypercharged, adrenalized, cartoonish fashion that the action scenes were almost redundant, as they differed from the rest of the movie insufficiently.

Much like Transformers, the sequel to Crank seems almost relieved to not be a first movie, and that it can get on with the proper business of being a retarded sequel. It's almost like, now that we're in the age of sequels, remakes, reboots, and the like, that being the first movie in a series is something dirty that should not be spoken of, and not until the first sequel does a franchise truly exist. Weird, but hey, the modern age is always weird and inexplicable, because due to the selective editing inherent in cognition, the past always seems nice, neat, and orderly.

I didn't even know how the hell they were planning to make a sequel to Crank, since Jason Statham dies at the end. Would they use the Better Tomorrow 2 gambit, having Statham Secunda be the twin brother of Statham Prima? Would they do the prequel route, to wit, how Jason Statham pissed off all those Mexican/Chinese gangsters enough that they shot him full of that poison shit in the first movie? Or something wholly different and heretofore unknowable? That's right, one hot heaping plate of wholly different and heretofore unknowable: Crank: High Voltage has the balls to sell us on the premise that falling out of a fucking helicopter thousands of feet above Los Angeles did not kill Jason Statham. Well, then, Crank: High Voltage, go on. You have my undivided attention.

A bunch of shady Chinese guys peel Jason Statham off the ground with a shovel (no shit, one of them literally has a shovel) and throw him in the back of the van. They proceed to shlep him to a filthy, poorly lit surgical facility where they remove his heart and replace it with a mechanical one. Why? Shush.

Statham, of course, escapes and kills a bunch of dudes. He leaves one alive with a shotgun rammed up his ass (again, literally) and hotwires a car, whereupon he feels a bit drowsy, whereupon he discovers he needs to give himself electric shocks to keep his new temp heart beating.

Not much else actually happens over the course of the movie. Jason Statham chases down the guy who has his heart. Shit gets broke in the process. Writer-directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor bring back a number of elements from the first movie, like comic relief Efren Ramirez (who is the brother of the character he played in the first movie, who was killed), and girlfriend Amy Smart, who once again has to have public sex with Jason Statham to keep him alive, this time in a racetrack in the middle of the track during a race (a horse jumps over them, and Amy Smart marvels at the size of its dick). The movie ends with Jason Statham again apparently about to die, except this time around they know better than to imply to us that he's dead. It's Jason Statham. We know he's not dead.

Crank: High Voltage is an entertaining hour and a half, and calling it brain-dead or retarded isn't quite accurate. If Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is tripping on cocaine, Crank: High Voltage is tweaking its fucking tits off. From the grimy cinematography to the “full body Tourettes” Efren Ramirez has to the very title of the movie, Crank: High Voltage is cinematic crystal meth. This, of course, means it's not for everyone. Downers people will find it bewildering. Asians and Hispanics may not be pleased with the caricatures.

Most importantly though, it's not really a picture for women. I hope Amy Smart and Bai Ling got paid for this movie, because holy shit. All they do the whole picture is either melt into liquified g-spot at the sight of Jason Statham (in itself not all that implausible, he's a handsome fellow) or—and this is the bad part—get abused and humiliated. Every single other woman in the movie is either a stripper or a hooker (or both), and there's this shot in the middle of a gunfight where a stripper gets shot in her breast implants and the camera lingers on her deflating rack (I don't know, I think it was supposed to be funny). Sure, the deus ex machina at the end is a bunch of strippers and leather queens with machine guns, but I don't know, dude. It's just self-aware enough as a movie that you can't simply write the misogyny off as a facet of its stupidity.

Of course, Crank: High Voltage is not meant to be thought about too much or too hard. It is, after all, post-rational. The problem with this is, people who don't think are going to watch it and instead of thinking “Wow, either Amy Smart is a really good sport or NOW needs a paramilitary wing” they're gonna go “Yeah, that bitch got owned, bro.” Don't get me wrong, I'm not getting PC on you or anything, but seriously, when a Michael Bay movie (a Michael Bay movie where Megan Fox gets her leg humped to the point of orgasm by a robot, no less) looks good compared to yours in its treatment of women . . . you done fucked up. You know you done fucked up now, right?

All that being said, Crank features the usual rock-solid Jason Statham performance. All he has to do is grimace, look sullen, and growl a bit, but he does these things so well. The Transporter pictures are more my cup of tea, with the European settings, the suits, the calmer—yet still intense—filmmaking, but Crank, in spite of its flaws and ghastly oversights (casual racism and misogyny, etc), is interesting, if a distant also-ran in the retard epic sweepstakes, since Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is now the gold standard.

Seen in tandem, these two pictures don't really have anything to do with each other except shitty lighting, a severe case of attention-deficit disorder, and feverishly, melodramatically stupid high concepts (“Evil robots from space want to steal the sun” and “Jason Statham has to literally retrieve his stolen heart”). They are both fun. They are both kind of upsetting if you think about them for too long. I don't really need to see either one of them again, but they both provided some good laughs. I do, however, want to see something that's actually good next.