Thursday, April 30, 2009


Adventureland is the kind of movie that lives or dies by its atmosphere.  The story, about a recent college graduate(Jesse Eisenberg) saving money for grad school by working at a crummy amusement park and dealing with romantic travails in the late 80s, is stock coming-of-age material, save for some nifty supporting turns by the likes of Martin Starr as a bitter nerdlinger.  What makes the movie affecting is how much a given audience member relates to the details; the wall-to-wall 80s rock soundtrack, the meticulous 80s wardrobe, the elegantly decaying park rides and game booths, the bleary late night bull sessions, all painted with a fine camel hair brush.  If this stuff sets off a tuning fork of aching recognition in your chest, you'll be enraptured.  If you find the protagonist to be a pretentious, dithering nozzle head, then you'll find much less to like.  

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Shorter Crank 2 Review

Newest Entry for the 2009 Websters:

Awesome, noun, of or pertaining to the film Crank 2: High Voltage. See picture below.

Crank 2: High Voltage

Tolstoy wrote, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  That goes double for movies.  Good movies, no matter how different in tone or subject matter, all display a similar set of recognizable traits.  Bad movies can suck for a million different reasons.  One of the most common causes of film suckiness is the unspoken but all-pervasive assumption that every movie, regardless of genre, must contain the following elements: 1.)  a plausible plot 2.) sympathetic, realistic characters and 3.) relationships between said characters that change over the course of the film.  Now, most movies need these elements to really grab an audience, but for others, they just get in the way.  

Action films, in particular, generally suffer the most when they try to honor this received wisdom.  There are a few notable examples of successfully well-rounded actions movies, with Die Hard as the perennial example.  Most of the time action filmmakers who try to give their movie a conventional grounding in character end up sucking the life out of their project.  That's because creating textured characters with maturing relationships is really, really hard.  It's hard to do in any movie.  Great screenwriters and directors fail all the time to develop these kind of dynamics in their work.  How much harder is it when you're dealing in a genre that is by its very nature a glorified explosion delivery mechanism for thrill-seeking audience members.  Most action films are conceived as a series of jaw-dropping special effects set pieces or a high-concept plot, with an small army of nameless script monkeys brought in at the last minute to whip up some character arcs.   Some critics think that the awful results of such a process demand that action filmmakers spend more time and energy developing their characters than thinking of things to blow up creatively.  Those people fail to see the fact that, in most action movies, character development and realism are unnecessary and counterproductive.  A great example would be last year's failed attempt to relaunch The Punisher as a franchise.  Punisher: War Zone featured some phenomenally creative and outrageous blood-letting, including Ray Stevenson's Punisher punching through a guy's face and shooting another guy's face clean off with a shotgun while at the same time holding a small child in his arms!  Unfortunately, these wicked gimmicks were sandwiched between interminable and painfully awkward scenes of the Punisher questioning his mission and bonding with the same small child he was holding when he shot that one dude's face off.  If the lazy certitudes of Screenwriting 101 didn't demand such gestures towards a laughably half-assed idea of 'depth,' Punisher: War Zone would have been a non-stop hoot.

Action is the most visceral and visually-oriented of genres, and the urge to watch an action film is usually the urge to slake some primitive desire to vicariously witness uncanny acts of violence.  Now, the above mentioned critics would argue that action sequences only have impact if the audiences cares about the people suffering through them, and to an extent that may be true. In a run-of-the-mill action film without visual flair or any real kinetic ambition, character development is the only way to make the proceedings palatable.  But if the action kicks enough ass, if the filmmaker is willing  to discard notions of physical probability, good taste and basic human decency, then no one is going to care whether or not a scrappy orphan teaches the main character how to love again.  

No action auteurs understand this fact more than the brain trust behind the budding Crank franchise, Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor.  They have buried the putrid corpse of film propriety, creating a Frankenstein's monster of excess and depravity that challenges the audience to follow them into a candy-coated hellscape of cartoonish ultraviolence, all done with a winking self awareness that never gets in the way of a good cranial explosion or cattle prod to the nads. In the process, Neveldine and Taylor have shown the way to a new action film aesthetic where "over-the-top" is just the beginning.

When we last left Jason Statham's Chev Chelios, he had fallen thousands of feet from a helicopter onto the hood of a car in LA, a deadly Chinese poison overtaking his organs.  That's where Crank 2 picks up, with a van full of Triad hoods pulling up to Chev's body, scrapping him off the road with a snow shovel, and driving off with his body.  Underworld doctors remove his supercharged heart for transplant into a big shot gangster and replace it with a temporary artificial heart to keep him alive while they harvest the rest of his organs.  When Chev wakes up and finds out that the next organ on the agenda for removal is his wedding tackle, he commences an hour and a half of nonstop ass-kicking. In order to keep his artificial heart charged, Chev needs to repeatedly zap himself with any electrical current he can find, from tazers, dog training collars and jumper cables, all while trying to find his pumper.  You know Crank 2 is going to bring the awesome as soon as the guy with the snow shovel shows up; in a film devoted entirely to topping itself in outrageousness with each new scene, the key to keeping things from becoming monotonous is a keen attention to detail, and at each turn Neveldine and Taylor consistently make the most surprising, outrageous and wickedly clever choices.  

From the snow shovel road-peel to a shotgun enema to Corey Haim rocking a world-class mullet, Crank 2 leaves a breadcrumb trail of delightful, audacious coolness-nuggets strewn across the action film landscape.  Diminishing returns are usually inevitable in a movie that tries to top itself with every scene, but Crank 2 succeeds by actually topping itself in every scene.  You like the scene in the first Crank when Statham has sex with his girlfriend Amy Smart in front of a restaurant full of people?  Crank 2 features Staham and Smart having sex on a race track in front of thousands of cheering spectators.  As soon as you think that Jason Statham wailing on dudes might start getting old, Neveldine and Taylor stage the next fight as a Toho Studios showdown, complete with a rubber monster Jason Statham and exploding electrical towers.  All the while, Jason Statham shows why he is the undisputed king of two-fisted action; his glowering mug radiates world weariness, casual confidence and bottomless rage.   This stuff practically demands that you burst out laughing, but not because it's dumb, like the flying bus in Swordfish, but for all the best reasons; because it's surprising, its smart, and it kicks all kinds of ass.  Tolstoy's fellow Russian Vladimir Nabokov wrote, "Nothing is more exhilarating than Philistine vulgarity." It's good to finally see action filmmakers who've taken that undeniable truth to heart.  


Saturday, April 18, 2009


Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton was the most assured and effective studio debut for a writer-director in recent memory.  Clayton examines the moral toll suffered by those who live in the dubious moral universe of big business exigency.  Gilroy's new film, Duplicity, once again uses a background of corporate espionage to tell a story of character's going through existential crises, but this time he's playing it for funsies.  Instead of a agribusiness giant that sanctions murder and knowingly inflicts Midwestern farmers with cancer, the corporation in question this time around is involved in the lower stakes world of shampoo and face creams.  Julia Roberts and Clive Owen play former spooks who team up to steal trade secrets from a cosmetics company run by T0m Wilkinson.  It's sort of a low wattage Ocean's Eleven with Gilroy even supplying some of Steven Soderbergh's trademark retro camerawork.  The most interesting part of the movie is Roberts' and Owens' relationship, which is based on so many betrayals and doublecrosses that the two are incapable of trusting each other, even as they fall in love.  Other than that, the caper plot is somewhat clever without ever really feeling urgent, and it sure doesn't help that Julia Roberts is her usual dull-as-dishwater self, completely incapable of portraying the sort of seductive iciness the part calls for.  Her crumminess is made up for by typically good work from Owen and Paul Giamatti as Wilkinson's chief rival. Still, one hopes that Duplicity is a throat-clearing for Gilroy rather than a declaration of intent; the world doesn't really need somebody to direct Ocean's Fourteen if Soderbergh pulls a hammy.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Observe and Report

With just three projects, cult Sundance comedy The Foot Fist Way, HBO series Eastbound and Down, and the new studio film Observe and Report, director Jody Hill has carved out a niche as the poet laureate of American masculine crisis.  His protagonists, like Foot Fist's Fred Simmons and Observe's Ronnie Barnhardt (played by Seth Rogen), are aggressive, unpleasant borderline sociopaths, agonized by the cavernous distance between their self image as powerful men-of-action and the cold, sad reality of their own insignificance.  They're men who've wholeheartedly embraced the classic American definition of masculinity and find themselves waiting for society to notice their virility.  Hill seems to have made it his mission to bring Susan Faludi's book about late capitalist American male angst, Stiffed, to the big screen in a variety of guises.

Ronnie Barnhardt is the head of security at a suburban mall who finds a reason to live when a flasher beings terrorizing female customers.  He takes the opportunity to lead an investigation that quickly devolves into bullying and racial profiling and to woo a drunken cosmetics counter girl played by Anna Faris. He's also bi-polar and, motivated by his newfound purpose, goes off of his medication.  Along the way, we watch Ronnie whiplash from public humiliation to ass-kicking triumph, never sure events are real and which are the fever dreams of a isolated, wounded psyche.  This approach allows Hill to have it both ways: he gets the audience to cheer shocking acts of violence and anti-social behavior, but the full awfulness of the acts is blunted by the dream-logic at work.  It creates a moviegoing experience that is unsettling for a whole variety of reasons as the viewer tries to figure out the filmmaker's attitude towards Ronnie's actions, the other character's attitude towards Ronnie's action, and the viewer' own attitude towards Ronnie's action.  The most unsettling aspect of all is what a viewer finds themselves laughing at. The comedy beats are essentially the same sort of humor fodder you see in most mainstream comedy; surprising acts of violence, profanity, bodily fluids, etc, but the context is endlessly disturbing.  You find yourself laughing along with the demented power fantasies of a bloody-minded, authoritarian misfit.  

Observe and Report works best as a blackly comedic take on the corrosive power of the popular American conception of manhood.  This isn't the only reading of the film, and Hill seems to go out of his way to confound interpretation, which adds to the sense of unease one has while watching it,  but it's the one most consonant with the rest of Hill's work, and the one that makes it easiest to leave the theater without feeling dirty.  The real weak link of Observe and Report is actually Rogen, who just can't emanate the sense of menace that wafts off of Hill's usual leading man, Danny McBride.  When Rogen starts yelling at people or flailing around with a nightstick, it seems like he's on the verge of breaking into a good-natured chuckle and saying "just kidding."  It's sort of like if Albert Brooks had played Travis Bickle.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Fast! Furious! Eyebrows!

I've got two theories as to why Fast and Furious had the biggest April box office opening in history last week.

1. Pre-9/11 nostalgia.

Ah, the summer of 2001, a magical time of budget surpluses, dopey-but-harmless joke presidents, and little to no fear of apocalyptic terrorist attacks. It was also a time when a couple of young hotshots with serious drag-racing skills named Vin Diesel and Paul Walker taught us all how to love while committing grand theft auto. A simpler, gentler time. 9-11, pervasive fearmongering, endless war, torture, economic meltdown, The Chronicles of Riddick, Into the Blue and Michelle Rodriguez's DUI arrest later, and America wants the safety and security of the halcyon days before the towers fell. So when we see that the original cast from The Fast and the Furious is back together again, featuring the soothingly prominent eyebrows of Jordana Brewster, and without any bullshit about weird, foreign practices like "Tokyo drifting," we clamored to the cinema in order to relive that last summer of innocence.

2. The Fewer Words, the Better.

For the longest time, conventional Hollywood wisdom held that the key to making sequels enticing to an audience is adding words to the title. That's how you end up contending with exotic terminology like "Tokyo Drift" and "Electric Boogaloo." Now we know that what audiences really crave is simplicity. Don't be surprised if the Transformers sequel, currently called Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen becomes Trannies by the time June rolls around.