Monday, April 27, 2009

Crank: High Voltage (2009)

Beneath the crudity and sexism of the Crank film series lies a metaphorical elegance most viewers miss. In the first film, gangsters poison Jason Statham's Chev Chelios. To keep his body alive, he needs to keep giving himself boosts of adrenaline. Many recognized the debt the first Crank owed to violent video games but they failed to notice how Chelios' ailment and his resultant compulsion for excitement perfectly mirrors the dynamic between fanatic and filmmaker within the world of exploitation action films. In a B-movie, boredom is the ultimate enemy and in Crank creators Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor invented a hero for whom boredom literally equals death. If Chelios doesn't entertain us, he's a goner.

With Crank: High Voltage, Chelios is very much alive and well. But while Neveldine/Taylor (as they're credited onscreen) have seemingly created a simple carbon copy of their first film's story – Jason Statham runs wild through the grimy backstreets and seedy underworld of Los Angeles –their entire mission statement, not to mention that ingenious gimmick, has changed significantly. This time around, gangsters steal Chelios' heart and to keep his artificial replacement pumping, he needs to keep giving himself shocks of electricity. Appropriately, then, if Crank was all about keeping its audience excited, High Voltage is all about keeping its audience shocked.

This means the movie is as much an entertainment as a full-on assault: on the audience’s expectations, on cinematic convention, on traditional moviemaking technique, and especially political correctness. There are a lot of jokes in bad tastes, and a few racial and sexual epithets that I certainly don’t approve of. And that’s the point. In a way, that old lady you've seen Statham dry hump in the trailer (in order to create some static electricity and keep himself juiced) and her horrified reaction to his lewd behavior (“He treated me like his hot little whore!”) is the onscreen representation of the voice (hopefully) inside all of us telling us what we’re are witnessing is wrong, wrong, wrong. If you’re horrified by what you’re witnessing, then High Voltage has accomplished its mission.

But even if you don’t care for Neveldine/Taylor’s crude sense of humor, the film’s worth a look for their audacious directorial style. The pair – who are their own camera operators – shot the film on consumer grade digital cameras, freeing them up to experiment with outlandish angles and and rigs (they even developed one that works along the same principle as The Matrix’s Bullet Time contraption, except it only weighs about 50 pounds and Statham can run in it). Because their camera of choice is so cheap to replace, they’re not afraid to imperil it– like, say, by dangling it off the back of a speeding motorcycle – which leads to delightfully unhinged stunt photography.

Their impressive camerawork, which applies a skater video mentality to chase sequences, is blended together with split-screens, still-frames, animation, even a spoof of a Godzilla movie. It looks, sounds, and moves like nothing else in movie theaters and it's bursting with unpredictability. Even though I'd seen the first Crank, thought I knew what to expect from round 2, I was continually surprised by High Voltage. How many sequels can you say that about? How many movies period?

High Voltage may be one giant revelry of juvenilia, crudity, and smut but it is one made free of compromise. It is goofy and silly, exhilarating and glorious. And, most importantly, it's totally shocking.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009


A shirtless and sun-hatted Jean-Luc Godard urges you to read my latest foray into TCM land, a reaction to the great DVD bundled with the March/April issue of The Believer (which also contains some of my twaddle). He's urging you to click. How could you resist those pecs?


And I realize that I've used this august space more for linkage than the hard-hidding original content you're used to. There's nothing to be done. Although I'll be sure to post a hyperbolic response to Crank: High Voltage in the coming week. It is my movie event of the year, and all.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

TCM Time

Check out the dangerous Movie Morlocks blog for my daring and dangerous post about TCM's 15th anniversary. I show the courage to discuss verboten stories involving my father and Fritz Lang. It crosses mulitple lines of respectability and good taste. Scandalous!

Oh, and don't ask me about my fantasy basball teams. I will just respond with bromides about how long the season is and regression to the mean. In short, I'm a miserable failure.

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Monday, April 13, 2009


A provocative image from the set of Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables. Eric Roberts and Stone Cold Steve Austin leap manfully in front of a giant fireball. 2010 can't come soon enough.

The image comes from Ethelmae's Blog, written by an enigmatic someone working on the film. (And for goodness sake click to enlarge). Have another taste:

"Today I was attacked by Jason Statham (Lee Christmas) firing a machine gun from a dive-bombing fighter plane, nearly burned alive by napalm and had to leap into the freezing Bay of Mangaratiba to save my ass. And how was your day???"

Jason Statham's character is named Lee Christmas. Let that roll around on your tongue for a bit. It feels right. Admit it.

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Friday, April 10, 2009

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (2009)

Even though Rawson Marshall Thurber's film The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is based on a Michael Chabon novel of the same name, its title is misleading. Given that title, shouldn't the film contain at least a little mystery? And shouldn't it bear at least some of the character and charm – or, if the filmmaker were so inclined, the grit and ennui – of the Steel City? Though Chabon's novel is very specifically set in Pittsburgh in the early 1980s, the film contains so little of the particulars of that time and place that it could have been set anywhere, even anywhen. If co-star Sienna Miller hadn't famously called the town "Shitsburgh" in an interview with Rolling Stone, you could have told me the movie was shot in Vancouver, or Toronto, or on Los Angeles soundstages, and I would have believed you.

I haven't read Chabon's novel, but if you told me the movie significantly changes the source material, I would believe that too. In Thurber's version, the hero is Art Bechstein (Jon Foster), a recent college graduate preparing for the exam he needs to become the stock broker his mob boss father (Nick Nolte) wants him to be. Entering into what Art calls the last summer of his life, he decides to take a job with as little responsibility as possible, and winds up as a clerk at a used bookstore, where he goes about his tasks with the same lack of enthusiasm with which he screws his ditzy boss Phlox (Mena Suvari, whose hair and outfits are the most egregiously modern in a film filled with bad period detail). At a party, he meets the boozy-but-sexy Jane (Miller) and through Jane he meets her boozy-but-cool boyfriend Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard). They open Art's eyes to the wonders of listening to punk music, drinking excessively, and sitting around talking about things so inconsequential I cannot remember a single topic of note just hours after watching the film.

Herein lies a crucial problem: Art becomes obsessed with Jane and Cleveland but the movie doesn't show us anything worth getting obsessed over. They're not intriguing; they're vapid. They don't have aspirations, dreams, goals, concerns, or even fundamental thoughts. Their entire lives consists drinking, screwing, smoking and looking very attractive; as Art burrows deeper into their world, there isn't more to discover about the pair, there's less.

Even though he's ten years too old for his part, Sarsgaard was likely cast because he's the only actor working today willing to explore the emotional and sexual places the character demands. It's too bad the screenplay doesn't bring half as much complexity to the Cleveland as Sarsgaard does with simple things like exhausted sighs and world-weary looks. Thurber tries to disguise the characters' innate dullness by swaddling the frame in warm, nostalgic hues and the soundtrack in warm, nostalgic songs, but that only serves to illuminate the vast divide between the magical movie he hoped for and the rote movie he made.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh would play as weak sauce in any context, but it's especially disappointing coming to theaters on the heels of the similarly themed but superiorly made Adventureland by Greg Mottola and because Thurber's first film, Dodgeball, was such a precisely-made piece of low-brow comedy. Here, I think, he was going something more whimsical and emotional, though there is no evidence within the text to support that claim. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is too leaden, and so is Foster as its lead. He moves through the film – and narrates his own adventures – with such a palpable air of indifference, that it begs the question: if he's so disinterested in his own life, why should we care about it? Art, and really the film as a whole, has no sense of curiosity. And certainly no sense of mystery.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Warner Archive

Head on over to TCM's Movie Morlocks blog to get my take on the three Warner Archive films I bought: Leo McCarey's 1942 propaganda-comedy Once Upon a Honeymoon (see above), Jacques Tourneur’s 1955 ‘Scope Western Wichita, and Budd Boetticher’s 1958 Westbound.


Monday, April 06, 2009

TerMET Art: Deeper into Baseball Land

The 7 Express train rumbled into Flushing, to a stop listed inside on the MTA map as "Willets Point - Shea Stadium." But as anyone on the 7 familiar with William A. Shea Municipal Stadium could plainly see, the striking blue horseshoe with its distinctive neon silhouettes had vanished without a trace, a small fenced-in patched of dirt in the center of a freshly asphalted parking lot the only hint of what had, until recently, stood proudly at 123-01 Roosevelt Avenue. In its place, a new ballpark for the New York Mets, Citi Field. I initially went to call Citi a new home for the Mets but something stopped me. It's not home. Not yet.

If you squint hard enough, Citi Field does look like home, or rather, the home of another team, Ebbets Field of ye old Brooklyn Dodgers. Before Ebbets fell to the wrecking ball in 1960, it housed generations of loyal fans of Dem Bums, including current Mets owner Fred Wilpon. He commissioned Citi Field as a sort of living memorial to Ebbets, and to that franchise's -- and maybe all of baseball's -- most important player, Jackie Robinson. Citi's distinctive, Ebbets-resembling entrance is the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, a beautiful memorial to baseball's color barrier smasher, including photographs, quotations and, most attractively, an enormous statue of Jackie's number 42, shining brightly in Dodger blue.

Though the Mets' existence is due in large part to the Dodgers' emigration westward in the late 1950s, and despite the appealingly classical feel of Citi Field's earthy exterior, there is something odd about using a ballpark to pay homage to a team's legacy, and having it be a team wholly distinct from the one who plays its games there. Another corner of Citi Field does feature large pictures of great Mets in their glory, but they feel a bit like false idols in their own house of worship.

Citi's interior largely abandons the turn-of-the-century design concept; that is, unless I'm mistaken and 1910s Brooklyn ballparks often featured accomodations like BBQ and seafood counters (and such diverse food offerings as pulled pork sandwiches and fried calimari), a sit-down restaurant nestled into the left field corner, an enormous two-floor team store near the Rotunda, and a 22,500 square foot "restaurant-cafe-bar-lounge complex" behind home plate. To be sure, Citi Field offers some significant advantages over its predecessor. Gone are the concrete walls that supported the Shea grandstands and obstructed the view of people strolling for hot dogs and beer; Citi Field's lower concourses provides marvelous vantage points of the playing field from just about every angle. And speaking of every angle, as someone who grew up at Shea, where the stands ended just beyond both foul poles, there's something exciting about a park with 360 degree walkways around the playing surface, and the dramatic vista from the bridge in right center field. As a fan of barbecue in general, and New York 'cue institution Blue Smoke in particular, I greatly approve of the admirably decadent notion of combining a beloved team with beloved food. And even without indulging in a bit of slow cooked pork, my first meal at the park was truly outstanding: a perfectly cooked burger and fries from another NYC restaurant transplant, Shake Shack.

The feelings a Met fan feels in this context are conflicted and confusing. On the one hand, Citi Field is an enormous technical upgrade from Shea Stadium in every possible way. Make no mistake: Shea Stadium was a dump. But for Mets fans, it was our dump. As I wrote last fall on the occasion of Shea's goodbye:

"Every inch of the concrete is cracked and dirty and no matter how long it's been since the last storm, puddles seem to accumulate everywhere. The food options, particularly in the upper deck where I spend most of my time, are laughably limited: if you're not into overcooked encased meats you're gonna be awfully hungry by the seventh inning stretch. Huge patches of seats in right field offer stunning views of the left field stands and absolutely horrendous sightlines to home. If you've got a Loge or Mezzanine seat more than ten or twelve rows back, I've got good news and bad news: the good news is if it starts to rain you'll stay bone dry; the bad news is that's because you're sitting under an overhang so severe you'll think you're watching the game through a slit cut in the bottom of a cardboard box."

At that time, I said I'd rather have Shea than Citi Field and, for now, my view remains unchanged. Of all our national sports, baseball is the one whose present is the most inextricably entwined with its history. And that's why even a dump like Shea Stadium can achieve such a vaulted place in the hearts of the people who go there. It doesn't matter whether the seats were uncomfortable or if the bathrooms were small. For every long-time Mets fan, our own personal histories of the team were played out in those crummy seats and cramped facilities. In his seminal baseball book The Summer Game, Roger Angell, writing about the demolition of the Polo Grounds, the Mets' first home, spoke about the almost alchemical hold these lost places have on our psyches and their "small landscape of distinctive and reassuring familiarity. Demolition and alteration are a painful city commonplace, but as our surroundings become more undistinguished and indistinguishable, we sense, at last, that we may not possess the scorecards and record books to help us remember who we are what we have seen and loved."

Ironically, the Polo Grounds' replacement was Shea Stadium, and Angell was not a fan. "On my first visit, the new ballyard," he wrote, "with its cyclotron profile, its orange and blue exterior spangles, and its jelly-bean interior looked remarkably like an extension of the [World's] Fair - an exhibit named 'Baseball Land.'" Angell found Shea modern, cavernous and cold. By the time I found it, it had aged into a lovably old-fashioned hovel and now I find his words echoing my own thoughts about Citi Field. Its blend of classical aesthetic and modern amenity is, of course, de rigueur for the current generation of "new ballyards" and has been ever since the runaway success of Oriole Park at Camden Yards in the early 1990s. After decades of cookie cutter multipurpose facilities (like, yes, Shea Stadium), the modern major league baseball field must give itself over to idiosyncracy. And Citi Field has them: three full decks in left field but only two in right to go along with its unpredictably zig-zagging fence. Of course, with so many "unique" parks littering the majors they're all beginning to look a little less innovative, "undistinguished and indistinguishable" as Angell so eloquently put it. This may have been one major contributor to the overwhelming feeling I had while walking to my seat in Citi Field that I was watching the Mets play a game on the road, instead of at home.

I am sure that will change with time. But for the moment, I still miss Shea. Citi Field is where the Mets play now, but Shea, paved into oblivion, still feels like home. Home is where the heart is, not where the best concession stands are. Despite the excited atmosphere at Citi Field, I knew I wasn't alone when, upon heading back to the 7 train, I spotted the following sign:

A little reminder that the Mets are still the primary draw for some people out here in Flushing. And some day Citi Field will earn its spot on this sign and in our collective hearts. It is exciting to have a shiny new stadium. But I'd be lying if I didn't say I missed Shea more than a little bit.


Saturday, April 04, 2009

It Happened to Jane (1959)

Through my religious devotion to Dave Kehr's comments section, I've discovered a lot of undervalued films. First it was the work of Robert Mulligan, whose Kent Jones-curated retrospective at the Film Society at Lincoln Center is one of my film year's major highlights (The Nickel Ride is a beautifully modulated L.A. noir, The Stalking Moon a gestural, existential western, and re-viewing To Kill a Mockingbird was equally revelatory). The fact that Mr. Jones has left the Film Society is a bummer, as he was the driving force behind the "American Auteurs" series of which the Mulligan series was the first. It's unclear if others will follow, but according to my sources, a Richard Quine series was in the pipeline, another favorite with Kehr's commenters. This might be a casualty of Jones' departure, but that's no reason to watch more Quine!

After being thoroughly charmed by the musical My Sister Eileen (1955) earlier this year on TCM, I recorded his 1959 Doris Day vehicle, It Happened to Jane. Let's just say he's 2 for 2. Set in a small Maine town, Day plays a widow starting up in the lobster business. Jack Lemmon is her pal from childhood, a mild-mannered lawyer who keeps losing the race for city Selectman. It's a colorful, exuberant farce. Day sues the train company after it is late with a delivery, killing all of the crustaceans on board. This small suit rapidly escalates into front page news after the train prez (a sublimely cantankerous Ernie Kovacs doing his best Harry Cohn impression) and Doris refuse to settle. She gets the court to seize the train, and soon she's on TV pleading her case.

Quine has a great feel for small-town life, using locals for town hall scenes, and sketching loving portraits of everyone from the railroad agent to the incompetent incumbent Selectman. Combined with his flair for caricature and elegantly framed compositions (he generates a wonderful sense of community from crane shots as well), the film is consistently surprising and engaging. TCM has been showing his films pretty regularly, so I'll be quick on the DVR trigger from now on, and hope that the Film Society slots him into their schedule.


My last two posts at TCM:

*On Sam Fuller's Thieves After Dark
On William Wellman's Other Men's Women


Thursday, April 02, 2009

Sugar (2009)

If the players of “The Bridgetown Swing,” a Single-A affiliate of the big league “Kansas City Knights,” took their minds off of their enormous pressures and considered the surroundings, they might note the brutal symbolism. “Bridgetown” sounds like the perfect place to connect a dingy past with a glorious major league future, but for most of the players it is the end of the road. Whether they realize it or not, they are playing in the shadow of a bridge they’ll never get to cross. This movie is a sobering reminder to baseball fans like myself that the major league teams we love are part of a largely invisible system that chews up young talent, takes what it needs, and mercilessly spits out the rest. The fact that Bridgetown sits amidst the cornfields of Iowa feels like a cruelly ironic play on the great baseball story Field of Dreams. Bridgetown is the Field of Harsh Realities.

For the rest of my review of Sugar go to The Rumpus.