Posts Tagged ‘Neveldine/Taylor’

(How’s About This For Unfinished Business Dept.: No word of a lie – while getting ready for the current odyssey I unearthed from a dark corner of my luggage two sheets of aged, crinkled paper. They turned out to be a review actually written in Kyrgyzstan at some point in the spring of 2009, which I never got around to typing up and submitting to h2g2 (many possible reasons for this, none of which I care to dwell on). So here we are, better late than never – and it’s oddly reassuring to see that the core focus of my film criticism has remained unchanged in the last nine years…)

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column which proves that the words ‘unmissable release’ have become sadly devalued. As with our previous instalment, caveat lector – I’m talking about a movie I saw in a language I only have an elementary grasp of. That said…

In terms of being a tough movie to get a sequel out of, I suspect Beneath the Planet of the Apes still leads the field, concluding as it does with said planet vaporised along with every single character (or so it appears). I would have put 2006’s Crank somewhere on the same list, though, due to the ending featuring the fatally-poisoned main character falling two miles out of a helicopter into the centre of Los Angeles (thoughtfully phoning up his girlfriend to apologise on the way down).

There were of course three further sequels to Beneath the Planet of the Apes, along with two TV series and various other ephemera. The prospect of Crank becoming a similar multi-media institution strikes me as rather unlikely (not to mention deeply disturbing), but a sequel has duly appeared in the form of Crank: High Voltage, directed as before by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor.

Crank 2

Straight after hitting the ground, crazed psychotic Chev Chelios (perennial favourite hereabouts and Greatest Living Englishman candidate Lord Jason of Statham) is scraped off the pavement and slung in the back of a van by some Chinese gangsters. Impressed by his resistance to the adrenaline poison (the plot device driving the first film), they have decided to harvest his organs. Upon learning this, Chev responds in typically forthright style, but it’s too late: his heart has already been extracted for transplant into an ageing crime lord (David Carradine) and replaced with a battery-powered artificial one. The battery is wont to run low at the most inopportune moments, which only makes Chev’s quest to retrieve his heart even trickier…

By any even moderately civilised standards, the Crank movies are jaw-droppingly horrible – not actually badly made, just amoral, obscene, hugely violent, tasteless, profane, and thoroughly offensive. Crank: High Voltage is very much in the same vein as the original in that it is largely one headlong display of carnage and depravity on the streets of Los Angeles.

Any hopes of increased maturity this time round were dispelled by an early sequence in which Chev interrogates a somewhat-obese bad guy by inserting a lubricated shotgun barrel where the sun don’t shine. I am on record in these pages as disliking the Kill Bill films, in particular, for exactly this sort of thing, which makes my (guilty) enjoyment of Crank rather embarrassing.

So, how to defend it? Well, in addition to all the things previously mentioned, Crank: High Voltage is frenetic, ludicrous and bizarre (it’s even got Geri Halliwell in it), but it’s also frequently very funny (the great man shows signs of a comic touch that could probably be rewardingly utilised in the right role) and never, ever pretentious or under the illusion it’s anything other than junk entertainment. It’s consistently inventive and surprising in its storytelling, which is never confused (I particularly enjoyed the sequence in which Jason Statham turns into Godzilla. Honestly).

The directors deftly handle what turns into a fairly complicated story – the main thread concerns Chev and the increasingly improbable methods he uses to keep his heart going, but whirling around it like demented satellites are subplots featuring Chev’s girlfriend Eve (Amy Smart) who’s now a pole dancer, a rather excitable Chinese prostitute who’s also in love with him (Bai Ling), the twin of Chev’s original sidekick, who is also transsexual but, additionally, suffers from whole-body Tourette’s syndrome (Efren Ramirez)… you get the general idea.

As you may have surmised, this isn’t really a venue for nuanced acting, but everyone seems to do what’s required of them (well, I have my doubts about Ginger Spice, but that’s a matter of principle) and the great man does a nice job of making Chev distinct from his other franchise character, Frank Martin. (Though an in-joke where an old woman complains that she’s been molested by someone who looks like the guy from The Transporter had me rolling my eyes a bit.)

I couldn’t honestly recommend either of the Crank movies to anyone I didn’t know very well, but I hope I’ve given you some idea of what to expect should you decide to take the plunge. It will almost certainly exceed your expectations, though probably not in a good way. I wait with some trepidation the next sequel, which I note the film-makers’ have made much easier to arrange, though quite how they can sustain the concept for another full movie I shudder to think.

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Let the massed, insistent millions fall silent! Let the overwhelming demands of the public cease! Let the world finally breathe a sigh of relief and consider its good fortune as one of the human race’s fondest desires is, at last, brought to fruition. Yes, they’re made a sequel to Ghost Rider. (Sorry, should have said at the top: review may contain irony.)

Did anyone come out of the original film saying ‘Wow, that was such a great experience, I can’t wait for them to do another one’? Because I certainly didn’t. I did get some mileage out of delivering my considered opinion of Mark Steven Johnson’s film, which was basically – and don’t bother to stop me if you’ve heard this one before – that it was the greatest ‘Nicolas Cage plays a motorcycle stuntman who turns into a demonic burning skeleton biker vigilante’ movie ever made. If nothing else, the release of another ‘Nicolas Cage plays a motorcycle stuntman who turns into a demonic burning skeleton biker vigilante’ movie makes that line a bit less funny, so I was kind of predisposed against Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance from the start. Hey ho.

Anyway, it sort of follows the same general backstory as the first movie although some of the details have been faffed about with. Nic Cage once again plays Johnny Blaze, a daredevil stuntman who long ago sold his soul to the Devil for reasons which seemed quite pressing at the time but aren’t really dwelt on here. As a result of this deal, Blaze is cursed to be the host of the Ghost Rider, an infernal spirit unstoppably drawn to punish the guilty. As the movie opens he has relocated to an unspecified Osten-Europ, ostensibly to try and escape his predicament but much more likely because film production costs are rather lower over there.

Here he encounters Moreau (Idris Elba), a bike-riding, wine-guzzling warrior monk who has a proposition for him. The Devil (Ciaran Hinds) has spawned a child with gypsy woman Nadya (Violante Placido) and in but a few days will transfer his satanic essence into the lad, allowing him to unleash his full power in the Earthly realm. Or something. As the Devil’s flunkies have already offed Nadya and the kid’s existing protectors (including Tony Head, sadly curtailing his screen time), they are currently on the run, and if Johnny and the Ghost Rider will keep them safe and prevent the end of the world as we know it, Moreau knows of a way to free him of the Rider’s presence…

I know what you’re wondering – but no, they couldn’t find a role for Dame Judi Dench in this film. What they did find was a director’s chair big enough to accommodate Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the demented visionaries behind (amongst others) the almost indescribable Crank movies. Any film made by these guys is going to at least be interesting, and so I was by no means turning up to Spirit of Vengeance simply in order to pass a lonely evening.

And the film does show signs of the authentic Neveldine/Taylor signature style: frenetic camera movement (this was probably a mistake in a movie released in 3D, as I spent most of the running time with a vague feeling of incipient motion sickness), smash cuts, wild excess and a general sense that good taste is more a distant abstract concept than anything you might want to keep in mind while writing or directing. But, along with Cage as the star, this movie has retained Johnson as executive producer, along with Avi Arad as the producer and David S Goyer in the story department, all of whom have a much more mainstream, even pedestrian, pedigree. And this is, after all, a movie with a box office friendly certificate (12 and up in the UK, for instance).

As a result, one gets (as well as the incipient motion sickness) a definite sense of two wildly different sensibilities engaged in a bitter death struggle. There are fleeting moments of inspired Neveldine/Taylor lunacy (most notably, Ghost Rider widdling napalm, and Jerry Springer’s appearance as Evil Incarnate) but most of the time this is really not much more than a very routine fantasy action movie with the occasional striking visual: and even then, the film is shot in a naturalistic, rather drab way which seems to drain some of the energy and life from proceedings.

That said, what’s more notable here than ever is that for a blazing skeleton careering around on a burning motorcycle laying about him with a fiery chain, Ghost Rider is actually quite a boring character. My own memories of him start with an issue of Marvel Team-Up in which he beat up Spider-Man (rather easily) before the two of them joined forces to sort out a rather forgettable villain. In the middle of Marvel’s fictional universe, set against much brighter and cheerier figures, Ghost Rider has a certain novelty value and distinctiveness, but in a standalone project like this he does come across as more than a bit ludicrous. Maybe they should’ve put him in The Avengers: that would have been interesting.

Nicolas Cage gives… er… his standard performance. The days when he won Oscars, or was even a serious contender, seem to be long gone. Is he descending into self-parody? It is quite difficult to tell, but the fact he gets so many projects into cinemas rather than descending into straight-to-DVD oblivion must tell us something. I’m not sure what it is. In any case, in this movie he is aided by the fact that so many of his fellow performers are genuinely lousy. Idris Elba is saddled with a verrah pekoolia ohksent, as if his character wasn’t silly enough to begin with, while Ciaran Hinds – so good in The Woman in Black at the moment – appears to be doing an impersonation of Popeye the Sailor, which is an interesting approach to playing Satan. All of this is as nothing, however: despite shaving his head and having his face and scalp heavily tattooed, Christopher Lambert is instantly recognisable as soon as he opens his mouth, his uniquely personal duel with the English language having continued unabated despite it being over 25 years since Highlander.

So the direction is disappointingly blah, and the acting is rotten. As for the script, this kind of film doesn’t need to be subtle, but I would still hope it might avoid contrivances of the kind which litter the story here. However, where Spirit of Vengeance really falls down is in the action sequences, which are fatally underpowered. They’re either static or repetitive and – though this shouldn’t really be a surprise – very reliant on CGI effects. The final chase has a certain novelty value, in that it lets the Rider go out in the sunlight for the first time, but that’s really the best I can say about it.

My literary advisor came along to see Spirit of Vengeance with me (I think he’s looking to branch out), and at the end declared he had preferred the first one. I’m not sure I agree, but that’s only because the first one was so weak in other departments. This one shows signs of improvement, in some ways, but the restrictions placed on Neveldine/Taylor’s natural inclinations cramp their style so much one wonders why they’re directing at all. Nevertheless, I would still say this was the best ‘Nicolas Cage plays a motorcycle stuntman who turns into a demonic burning skeleton biker vigilante’ movie ever made – in 3D, anyway.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 5th 2009: 

Hello everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column which has recently crawled one space higher on the Sugababes reserve list. Were you to have really nothing worthwhile to do and dive back into the tottering, mouldy piles of 24LAS back issues which perpetually threaten to clog up my virtual office space, you would discover in the Christmas 2003 edition a heartfelt plea for a talented young actor named Gerard Butler to be released from the near-obscurity a succession of bad script choices had landed him in. Fast forward a few years, and good fortune and a lot of shouting whilst wearing leather shorts have indeed made Butler a bona fide star – it’s just a pity the column was on hiatus when it happened. Anyway, he’s back on the big screen now as the leading man of Neveldine and Taylor’s Gamer.

Gamer is not a movie afraid to partake freely from the Big Book of Sci-Fi Cliches. In the future the world is dominated by powerful corporations, but nobody minds that much as they’re all obsessed with computer games – plus ca change and all that, but the twist is that in these games, rather than controlling a sprite on a screen, you control a real live person whose motor cortex has been injected with nanotechnological cells. The game at the centre of the film is Slayers, where death-row inmates are equipped with high-powered automatic weaponry and let loose on each other under the remote control of computer gamers from around the world. If one of the cons survives for thirty sessions in a row, he wins his freedom. Current champion Kable (Butler), under the control of star player Simon (Logan Lerman), is getting perilously close to releasing himself. The mogul running the game, Castle (Michael C. Hall, in a role that demands he use anything up to thirty percent of his talent), has his own reasons for wanting Kable silenced, so it’s rather unfortunate that one of those improbably well-resourced subversive networks so often found in this kind of film set about springing Kable and stopping Castle’s plans.

As you can probably surmise, unlikelihoods pile up on unlikelihoods in quite dizzying quantities as Gamer proceeds (my favourite being when Kable fuels his getaway vehicle by chugging a bottle of vodka and then widdling in the petrol tank), especially as this film is supposedly set only a few years into the future. The story is so implausible (a less charitable individual might prefer ‘incoherent’) that to begin with it’s a little difficult to follow, something not helped by the onslaught of whip pans, smash cuts, handheld camerawork and crazy-paving editing the viewer is bombarded with. To be honest, your reviewer is feeling rather old and embarrassed for not twigging straightaway that this is the signature style of the game-savvy directors who perpetrated the indescribable Crank movies.

Gamer aspires to be rather more serious than either of the Cranks, but it’s not appreciably more mature. I would normally assume with a story like this that the directors’ message was basically ‘Isn’t the way we’re entertained by sex and violence just awful?’ – which, of course, would be immediately and terminally undermined by the fact that the film is being marketed on the strength of its sex and violence – but it seems to me that this is hardly the kind of line likely to be taken by the guys who in the past have gleefully given us Jason Statham sticking a shotgun up someone’s backside before frottaging an old lady. Any serious moral condemnation Gamer appears to be making is surely only a trick of the light, or a convenient pretext should this movie itself be taken to task for its content. Similarly, the potentially fruitful subtext of the movie – that people behave on-line in ways they’d never dream of doing in real-life – is only really examined in passing.

I was going to observe that Gamer is the first movie in history to be named after its target audience, which if nothing else is considerate, but I’m not entirely sure the computer-gaming community will appreciate being depicted as they are here. Simon comes across as a far from likeable spoilt nerd, and he’s by far the most positive specimen on offer. The only other real candidate is a morbidly obese slob living in squalor whose life appears to revolve around using his computer to engage in vicarious sex acts. Not exactly guaranteed to get the crowd on your side, guys. By extension the rest of the gaming community is depicted as morally bankrupt and/or depraved, quite happy to see human beings blown away for entertainment (in Slayers) or used and abused in grotesque and personal ways (in Society, the movie’s version of something like Second Life). One gets a strong sense that Neveldine and Taylor have a low opinion of human nature. (I’m inclined to wonder what Castle’s version of Hootoo would look like, but it would probably be in a rather lower-octane movie than this.)

I’m sounding quite negative about this film, and I feel I have to, and yet, and yet… Crank and its sequel were by most civilised standards utterly horrible, but also pieces of bravura film-making and hugely enjoyable in their way. Gamer doesn’t have the same freewheeling absurdity to make it fly, and the plot itself isn’t really anything special once you take away the admittedly striking visuals. The actors all do as well as they can with underwritten parts and the plotline about Castle’s hidden agenda in wanting Kable dead feels very much like an afterthought. The sequences in the Slayers games are surprisingly brief and confusing – the rules of the game are never made entirely clear. I wouldn’t make a very good Rollerball player (to choose a relevant example), but I at least know how to play it – in Slayers I would only have the faintest clue what to do beyond just shooting everyone in sight. The faintest sign of the spectre of Stanley Kubrick and A Clockwork Orange wafts through the film, but this may largely simply be due to an eye-catching musical-routine-come-graphic-punch-up near the climax, which surprises more than nearly anything else on offer.

Gamer is a bit too frenetic to pass muster as an actual thriller or piece of SF, but too thematically dense to be dismissible as simply a piece of high-energy fluff. I found myself getting desensitised to its various excesses rather rapidly and the sheer implausibility of the story really stopped me from getting involved in it. Butler and Hall do their considerable best with it, and the direction and visuals are frequently striking, but on the whole, given the talent involved this is a bit of a disappointment.

Speaking of living vicariously through your computer… one of the truisms of proper SF is that it really says more about the time it’s written than the time it’s set in. One of the ways this manifests in movies is that technology just tends to be enormously exaggerated versions of things we’ve already got rather than anything wholly innovative (not many pre-1990 movies saw the internet coming, for example). Unusually, this isn’t quite true of Jonathan Mostow’s Surrogates, a thriller which still shares quite a few similarities with Gamer. In a (different) unspecified near future, life has been transformed by a single new technology developed by a reclusive boffin (James Cromwell this time) and opposed by rebels, the refusenik Luddites being led by a rather hammy Ving Rhames here.

The technology in question is surrogacy, whereby people spend all their time at home with their brains hooked up to an android replica which goes out and lives their life for them. The utopia this has supposedly created (no crime, no accidental deaths, and so on) is disrupted when somebody finds a way to kill people via their link with the androids, liquidising their brains (I caught half an episode of What Katie Did Next recently so I have a good idea how this feels). On the case are FBI agents Bruce Willis and Radha Mitchell (and before you smirk, yes, Bruce’s android does have hair).

Once again improbabilities abound – we’re told ninety-eight percent of the global population routinely uses an extremely sophisticated robotic proxy and the associated high-spec communications network. Ninety-eight percent! Who’s paying for all this stuff? Then again someone at one point implies that the total population is only a shade over one billion so there must be a bit more cash in circulation. Even so, why the fall in the crime rate? (And so on.)

Anything like this would surely utterly transform the world beyond recognition, and to be fair the film runs with the ball as far as it can, showing amongst other neat moments a future where war is almost literally a computer game – armies sprawled in front of massed computer screens, ‘dead’ soldiers simply being issued a new robot and sent back into battle – but it’s beyond the scope (not to mention the budget) of Surrogates to explore the full possibilities of its central idea. So we end up with a world with astoundingly advanced robotics, cybernetics, and data processing systems, but where the cars, guns, and phones are virtually unchanged and people still use USB sticks. That said, the movie does make use of its central idea intelligently in terms of both plot (it soon becomes apparent that you simply can’t be sure who’s connected to a particular android) and character (Willis goes out on the street ‘in the flesh’ for the first time in ages and finds he’s well outside his comfort zone). There’s interesting, if not exactly subtle stuff going on here, although it perhaps does the ‘shocking contrast between inhumanly perfect android and its unexpectedly decrepit operator’ bit once or twice too often.

I must confess I turned up to Surrogates expecting something as bland and mechanical as the titular machines, and to begin with I thought I was right – Mostow’s direction isn’t exactly inspired, while all the actors playing their robotic avatars seem to feel obliged to give blatant ‘I’m really an android’ performances. Add to this the subtle but still intrusive CGI used to create the surrogate characters, and initially at least the film has a rather odd, tranquilised quality. But it improves quite considerably as it goes on. The thriller plot whizzes along cheerfully, it’s neatly played by most of the cast (and Rosamund Pike is probably slightly better than her part deserves as Willis’ traumatised wife), and there are a couple of well-executed if sub-Matrix action sequences where a fleshy mortals pursue or are pursued by souped-up androids.

I’m still not completely convinced about the climax (without wishing to spoil the ending, and despite what the film itself states, I can’t believe Bruce Willis’ character wouldn’t end up in court on charges of multiple manslaughter), and the film never quite rises beyond the level of simply competent at any point, but it focuses on telling an effective and interesting story without getting all in a tizzy about shocking the audience or stuffing every frame with a different kind of directorial razzle-dazzle. In short, it feels like a film made for grown-ups, and of the two films we’ve just discussed it’s Surrogates I’d recommend you went to see.

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