Monday, May 11, 2009

Crank: High Voltage

Crank High Voltage, Neveldine/Taylor. [F] april 20th, (lol) 2009.

I was actually looking forward to seeing this. See, Crank was an aggressively stupid movie, but there was something clever about the way it pursued that platform; it was visually inventive, occasionally bold in its provocations, and most importantly it seemed to possess a sense of tongue in cheek self-awareness that diluted its more irredeemably repulsive moments and enhanced its often funny attempts at genuine humor.

The entire movie played out as self-parody, a replica of spastic action movie tropes taken to their grotesque extreme, resulting in a sort of blackly comic reflection of the genre it was trying to embody - and the mindset that sustains it - taking many cues from television commercials and video games as well. A man who can only stay alive by constantly upping his adrenaline – it’s not subtle, but it’s clever, it turned the film into a sort of ironic deconstruction of American machismo. Crank wasn't always consistently smart enough to carry this concept all the way to the end, but I admired its ambition and it had a few surprisingly interesting moments of pure cinema that enhanced its effect as well. Plus it wore its griminess on its sleeve, with Google Maps location transitions and crappy looking DV video that gave the whole film an endearing handmade feel. Having seen the second installment, I'm inclined to believe that it might’ve just been a fluke.

Even the concept of the second one is meaningless in comparison to the first: a plastic, electrically powered heart is placed in protagonist Chev Chelios’ (Jason Statham) chest and he is forced to constantly recharge it by exposing himself to extreme amounts of electricity. Crank High Voltage makes the mistake of assuming that the success of the first film was due to how whoaaaa craaaazy the whole thing was. Interesting, unique camera work and editing becomes incoherently fast and choppy, lazy and uninteresting. Jokes are entirely abandoned for the sake of accommodating unending strings of curse words shouted from the mouths of racial stereotypes in the same way that a ten year old would spit them out: meaninglessly, counting on the words’ inherent offensiveness to do all the legwork. I’m not moralizing here, there are multiple scenes where this literally happens, and it's more or less an embodiment of this film's entire approach. If you thought that the first film’s treatment of its female characters was questionable, prepare yourself for a movie that never passes up an opportunity to show a naked woman riddled with bullets.

This is what it would look like if the Scary Movie people decided to do a feature length parody of Crank. As a blatant cash grab, the film does a really bad job at delivering even more of the same. It’s a complete misreading of all the things that gave the first one merit and a celebration of all the things that weighed it down. As an action movie, it’s boring. As a comedy, it’s not funny. As a reflection of a worldview, it’s cancerous.

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Treeless Mountain

Treeless Mountain, So Yong Kim. [B+] april 21st, 2009.

Standing on the rocky hill where, days earlier, they watched their mother disappear onto a bus and out of their lives, two young sisters stare down at the stop they’re hoping to see her at once more. One girl disappears and comes back with a large branch, which the two set about burying into the rocks, propping it up and leaving it standing like a small tree. “That was hard!” shouts the older one before turning back to the station. Nothing comes easily to them, not in a world this big.

So Yong Kim’s follow-up to In Between Days is in many ways an extension of the earlier film’s concerns. In Kim’s debut feature, a teenage girl, recently emigrated from Korea, wanders around an unnamed North American city, mostly during the night, constantly under the watchful eye of homogenous apartment buildings and the dim glow of streetlights, dealing with an unrequited love, a new environment, and an uninspiring new life. What the film excelled at was in depicting the terror of an unfamiliar place, the oppressive qualities a city can take upon when one is alone, unsure and sad. This awareness of and focus on environment continues in Treeless Mountain. The story concerns two sisters whose mother abandons them in order to find their missing father. She passes them off to their ambivalent aunt, who eventually passes them off to their grandparents, to live on their farm.

The film is simply an account of how these moments come to pass and, more importantly, how the girls deal with them. It’s thoroughly realistic in its depiction of these events and narrative trajectory, but its focus is less on narrative than on the effect of these experiences, and so it’s also an extraordinarily subjective film. In some wide shots you practically lose sight of the girls altogether, dwarfed as they are by the massive environment around them and the sudden, not entirely understandable changes in their lives. Most of the film is shot in close-up, and in these instances things happening in the foreground of the shot often eclipse the girls, activity that sometimes threatens to obscure them altogether.

In Between Days was almost aggressively monotonous, which was effective given its subject and narrative, but which also made it something of a chore to watch at times. It was arranged so that many scenes transitioned from one to another linked solely by lingering landscape shots, which wound up giving the film some visible seams that also reduced its sense of urgency and immediacy. Treeless Mountain is similarly bogged down at times, but it rises above these things due to the strength of its performances and cinematography. There is a palpable sense of growth and discovery as the girls turn their plight into a game, learning from a new friend how to barbecue grasshoppers and then turning that knowledge into a little entrepreneurial pursuit in order to buy their aunt a pair of shoes. Narratively it attempts to imbue some fairy tale elements onto the story, the younger sister always wears a princess dress, the grandparents turn out to be something like kindly witches, but it’s ultimately just another textural touch, a game that Kim seemed to enjoy playing with the film and the girls. Treeless Mountain lives off of the texture of the unique experiences it depicts. The thing that glues it all together is the marriage between this exacting subjectivity and the strength of the girls’ performances, which are really the centerpiece of the film. Getting a great performance out of a child actor is one thing, but getting an utterly natural one is really something special. Consequently, almost every moment in this film rings true.

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