(Maple, 2006) D: Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor, w/ Jason Statham, Amy Smart. Rating: NNNN
Six months ago in these pages, I called Crank the greatest hard action movie since Die Hard. On second viewing, I'll stand by that. It's non-stop whoopee, with blood, body parts, people dying on screen, wildly inventive set pieces, a visual style that makes sense in terms of the story, an actual honest-to-god metaphor and some pretty good sex.
All this is due to a near-perfect premise. Our hero (Jason Statham of Transporter) is a hit man who wakes up to learn he's been poisoned. He's got one hour to live, one hour to kill his killer, and a desperate need to stay wired on his own adrenaline and whatever kind of uppers he can beg, borrow or steal.
That premise produces a visual style that reels happily in and out of his addled mind. Are those girls in the plastic bubbles real or is he hallucinating again? It also leads to some great throwaway gags, like the backwards subtitles on the Asian businessman's POV shot.
Statham charges into his role with clenched-jawed glee, and Amy Smart kicks it up a notch as his stoner girlfriend. She's just ditzy enough to spin the whole thing into action comedy without sapping the energy, violence or utterly amoral attitude.
The DVD extras are thin but weird. First-timers Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor pop up in an insert box from time to time to make increasingly implausible statements about their working methods, and, if you like, you can watch the whole movie with the swearing dubbed out. There's sex and violence everywhere, and a man with "cunt" written on his forehead. What ever made them think they were going to make TV and airline sales?
Extras Directors' commentary, clean-language version, music video. Wide-screen. English, Spanish subtitles.
Conversations With Other Women
(TVA Films, 2005) D: Hans Canosa, w/ Helena Bonham Carter, Aaron Eckhart. Rating: NNNN
This would be a good movie even without the unusual visual device. The story sounds weak: a man (Aaron Eckhart) and woman (Helena Bonham Carter) meet at a wedding, flirt and go up to her hotel room to spend the night. It turns out they've got a history together. But the script makes the most of it with lively dialogue and a brisk pace.
And the performances are wonderful. Eckhart and Carter shift easily between a wide range of emotions and respond to each other's every move. Director Hans Canosa's visual contrivance catches it all.
The whole movie is done split-screen, shot using two cameras, so we're watching the performances as they were given on the day, with no cutaways, no reaction shots taken days later.
This takes a bit of getting used to, but it's a great way to watch brilliant actors at their best. It lets us make up our own minds about who we watch and what we think about the action, and it allows for some interesting compositions in motion. Canosa also uses the split screen for flashbacks and glimpses of his characters' thoughts.
Humans aren't really built to take in two images at once, but Canosa has done a good job of showing how it can do much more than show simultaneous action in different places. He and his actors explain a great deal of the process in the extras. In particular, he includes the demo reel that got him financing. It's a must-see for aspiring filmmakers.
EXTRAS Electronic press kit, explanation of split-screen, extensive interviews with director, stars, producer, director's demo reel. Wide-screen. French subtitles.
(Alliance Atlantis, 2006) D: Neil Burger, w/ Edward Norton, Jessica Biel. Rating: NNN
The Illusionist is a thoroughly pleasing romantic fantasy, rich in high emotion, atmosphere, visual elegance and a strong, unusual story.
So it's a little sad to hear writer/director Neil Burger (Interview With The Assassin) in his commentary explain exactly what kind of movie he intended and how he achieved it - because he didn't and he's so blindly sure that he did.
Burger claims he was going for awe and wonder by walking the fine line between the natural and supernatural, suggesting both, certain of neither. It's a noble ambition that only a few movies have pulled off. The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961) and The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963) come to mind. Those films did it it by first establishing a strong supernatural mood, then subtly undercutting it. But Burger goes the opposite route.
Eisenheim (Edward Norton) is established as a powerful stage illusionist from the outset. So when he returns to Vienna after years of absence to find his childhood sweetheart (Jessica Biel) in the clutches of sadistic Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), we're fully prepared for his trickster's wiles and not at all inclined to feel the presence of the uncanny.
Dick Pope's photography, Philip Glass's moody, mysterious score and Burger's decision to give the images an antique as well as period look create a rich, romantic atmosphere. Norton, Biel and Sewell bring it gracefully to life it with just slightly exaggerated performances.
But the acting prize goes to Paul Giamatti as the corrupt but good-hearted cop on the case. He turns what could have been a one-dimensional plot mover into a complex, likeable man.
Extras Director commentary, making-of doc, Biel interview. Wide-screen. English, French soundtracks. English, French subtitles.
(Fox, 2006) D: Mike Judge w/ Luke Wilson, Dax Shepard. Rating: NNN
Looking at Beavis and Butt-head or King Of The Hill, you might think that writer/director Mike Judge has a fondness for stupid people. Idiocracy cures you of that notion with a savage attack not merely on the dumbing down of American culture, but on stupid people themselves.
He's explicit about this. It's not only corporate greed and a culture that celebrates stupidity that are to blame. At bottom, the problem is stupid people breeding more in the absence of Darwinian pressures to clean them out of the gene pool.
A cryogenics experiment loses its funding, and completely average guy Joe Bowers (Luke Wilson) and a hooker (Maya Rudolph) wake up 500 years in the future, when nobody reads, nobody thinks, everything is filthy, porn is everywhere and everyone loves a one-joke, no-character comedy called Ow, My Balls.
The movie looks and moves like a typical dumb comedy, but Judge flips the usual dumb comedy rules to make stupidity the butt of all the jokes. We don't laugh at high-spirited stoner anarchists defying stuffy authority; we laugh at their inability to grasp simple ideas.
Wilson and Rudolph are okay in the leads, but Dax Shepard shines as our hero's moronic lawyer, showing the same comic grace and ability to create character from thin material that he deployed in Employee Of The Month.
In the end, the film wimps out, opting for inspirational speeches instead of the mass extinction its premise demands. And the extras are thin. But it's a treat to see a commercial American comedy that spits in the face of the big dumb-down.
Extras Deleted scenes. Wide-screen. English, Spanish soundtracks. English, Spanish, French subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, January 16
Mouchette (Criterion, 1967) This beautiful, spiritual film by Robert Bresson, one of cinema's genuine masters, took the top prize at Venice.
Purgatory House (Image, 2004) Fourteen-year-old Celeste Davis wrote and stars in this award-winning drama about an anguished teen making choices in the afterlife.
The Protector (Alliance Atlantis, 2005) Snappy martial arts actioner highlighted by a battle between star Tony Jaa's Muay Thai and the seldom-seen Brazilian capoeira.
Gridiron Gang (Columbia, 2006) Well-made inspirational football movie with The Rock coaching a gang of teen convicts.