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Actors and performances aren’t frequently covered here because for a long time science-fiction wasn’t an actor’s genre. In recent years however, genre fare has expanded its bounds (or actors have, as you might see it), and it’s always been inclusive to the weird that so often breeds interesting performances. I have no interest in the Academy Award-garnering “I have a disease, here’s my family,” one-man show performances that are typically seen as top in the industry. I want something out of an actor that grabs me or worries me, that makes me think about the character, not the artist’s craft.

These particular performances stand out because the characters they depict experience a great deal of physical pain or bound with endless energy — certainly an endurance test for any performer, despite all the breaks between takes and trailers and stuff. I think the reality of acting dawned on me recently when in an interview Mary Elizabeth Winstead described her experience shooting The Thing as breath-taking in the sense that she was hyperventilating 24-hours a day to act frightened. She was out of breath and light-headed so much, but in the movie it seems like a pretty standard horror role.

Note that the following list isn’t ranking how good I think the performances are, it’s based entirely on… well I guess the blob of text following the number’ll explain it.

10. Ralph Fiennes, Spider

This isn’t a case of bounding off the walls like #2 on this list — it’s a smaller approach. David Cronenberg’s Spider is an adaptation of a book about a mentally unstable British fellow who attempts to piece together a key moment from his past, and suffers the consequences when the memories blur over into the present. This may sound exactly what I was bitching about earlier, but this is a character piece unlike any other — there is almost no dialogue. Right around the level of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, I’d say. There are no soaring soliloquies or shout-fests with fed-up loved ones — Dennis Cleg (Fiennes) interacts with very few people, and when he does, it’s pretty uncomfortable.

He shakes and mumbles to himself, stalks forward with his shoulders slumped. Fiennes has really done it all, whether he’s the hero or the Nazi villain, or my favorite, the sleazy drugdealer from Strange Days, Lenny Nero. In Spider, he joins a good rank in David Cronenberg’s line of male leads (all of them with the exception of Rabid have featured male men characters, though I’m sure that one had a guy hero), another one of which is coming up soon…

9. Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad

This is one of my favorites. On the show, Jesse to me is the interesting character. Walt, played by three-time-in-a-row-Emmy-award-winning Bryan Cranston, is great, but his change is gradual, whereas Jesse is always on the rocks or at the bottom or coming back. He’s also a kid, which is something we must remind ourselves. To help, he uses foul language and says things like “Yo” and “Bitch” as catchphrases; he might jump bad — which is the term I believe they were going for with that title — but he’s actually a pretty nice guy, a victim of his past, of mistakes that ripple out to the end of one’s life.

Though he won the Emmy for Season 3, I think Season 2 was his finest moment — his involvement with Jane, an emotionally strong arc that makes you wonder why the original story had Jesse die at the end of Season 1. His ‘chemistry’ with Walt is just perfect. He’s the reason the premise, for me anyway, works. It’d be great as a show about a seemingly ordinary guy who unlocks the monster inside — but we already have Dexter, and unfortunately, Dexter (1-5) is the better show. In Breaking Bad, things are slightly different, as Walt and Jesse bicker and argue and joke around, and their relationship as student/teacher isn’t forgotten by the writers, and is really compelling to me for some reason.

Aaron Paul’s performance is one of constant exhaustion. Jesse is always running on empty, but he’s got a job to do. In the early days he was driven by money, because while Walt destroyed his life, he couldn’t say no to all that cash he was raking in and then losing. Nowadays (I’m halfway through Season 4) he’s in it because he has to be, and because he couldn’t leave his partner. He couldn’t — and he doesn’t want to.

8. Clive Owen, Children of Men

Those goddamn long shots, man. They must be super-endurance tests for actors. As if filming in front of a disorienting, bizarre green screen for a whole third of a movie in Sin City wasn’t bad enough, now he’s gotta throw his body through all sorts of hoops, navigating physical post-apocalyptic landscapes that seem to go on forever. For us, this makes the world seem real, and the action intense. But for the crew? I can’t even imagine. Children of Men is choreographed and shot so well, it’s like a divine invasion hit Cuaron square in the brainular, and he just painted each frame with gold.

Of course, we know that’s not the truth. Everyone involved put their work in, and that includes our lead, the reluctant Theo.

7. Tom Woodruff Jr., from Everything Good and Gooey

The special effects team of Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. has worked alongside Stan Winston and James Cameron in their prolific careers across almost all of the Alien films (the good and the bad), and very recently with The Thing. They’ve created many of the inventive and effective monsters of the past few decades, and Woodruff Jr. generally gets into the suit.

The physical toll the Robocop suit took on Peter Weller might be blamed on his not returning for a third return in that particular trilogy, but I have a feeling it was other things. Regardless, acting in a heavy rubber suit isn’t as fun as it might look on screen. And acting like a monster? Monsters have the tendency to a) move in otherworldly ways, like the Thing, and b) die horribly, like the Newborn from Alien Resurrection. While they do these things, they sometimes operate in environments thick with fog and goo. Ms. Winstead may talk of hyperventilation during the shoot, but Tom Woodruff Jr. I’m sure had brushes with overheating, even in the deep white of Antarctica…

6. Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises

One word: Naked Shower Fight.

5. Rutger Hauer, Blade Runner

I’m thinking specifically of the ending scene, which I saw on TV a few days ago during Cinemax’s Blade Runner 30th Anniversary, though I thought that was the 25th because I was gonna do something for it on the website. Given the state of things even that seems unlikely but if I missed it anyway…

While watching the climax, after Roy has met his maker and Rick gets an address, I realize how good this movie is and how it gets better with each viewing — and how jacked up Roy is. “Five, six, seven, go to Hell or go to Heaven — *gets hit, smashes into window* — THAT’S THE SPIRIT!” He really goes crazy here in his ‘pursuit’ for Rick, and we see how childlike he becomes. There’s a poigniancy to the madness, and it’s something that the subsequent roles Hauer took on couldn’t fully reproduce.

4. Jason Stathom, Crank and Crank 2: High Voltage

Jesus. The Crank movies are great, and booming with energy. Stathom has become known for driving a car and killing people, but when I close my ears and think “Crank,” the image that always comes to my mind is Jason Stathom running down the street and screaming into the air. These movies really live up to their namesake, and the fact that the second one is actually better than the first speaks to a sense of inventiveness and adventure that Nelvedine/Taylor work in with fiery passion and technical skill.

It’s kind of like the Escape from New York sequels, Escape from LA and Doomsday — they take a ridiculous premise and break it down scene by scene, element by element, making it less a movie and more a loose string of wild, graphic, and original action scenes with all sorts of gimmicks and mayhem. At the center of it all in Crank and Crank 2 is Chev “Fuck you Chelios” Chelios, undoubtedly the most memorable action hero of the 2000s.

3. Sharlto Copley, District 9

There’s something to getting beat up, and then there’s another thing to getting beat up by aliens, robots, PMCs, and warlords in the arid world of Johannesburg. District 9 has it all, and van Wikus goes through it in his painful-looking journey that’d be like if Dr. Brundle went on a mission to save some aliens while being pursued by the private military he used to work with. While his body becomes something that seems to always explode in pus whenever touched, van Wikus is rolling around in the dirt and sand amidst exploding heads.

Sharlto Copley gave it his all in this movie, and we feel his pain without him having to verbalize it. Even when he gets into the robot suit, which is supposed to be fun, there’s a drill noise and he gets hurt by something! This is one hostile world, which gives a lot of weight to the look and feeling of the movie, which moves along at a brisk pace toward a thundering climax*.

2. Kate Winslet, Heavenly Creatures

It’s small wonder why Winslet blossomed into the superstar actress she is today, for when she was seventeen and a part of a sitcom, she was brilliant in one of Peter Jackson’s most acclaimed films, Heavenly Creatures. Seventeen! She bubbles over with a frenzy of joy and insanity, playing a character with real life connections — a killer — who’s unmistakably a little girl with a troubled mind and misunderstood passions.

She loves the world and all its details so much, though not the one we inhabit. She’s the other half of socially awkward, that of off-putting, where the other character, played by the also brilliant Melanie Lynskey (who, like Kate Winslet, is a beautfiul adult), is inward and quiet. Winslet’s character beams and LOLs, always smiling with that face that looks like it’s about to explode, even when she’s plotting to kill someone…

1. Choi Min-Sik, Oldboy

I don’t think the number one could be anyone else. Mr. Min Sik (Mr. Choi?) never had to naked shower fight, but he did eat a live octopus, fight through an uninterrupted and complex hallway battle, withstand all sorts of torture and transform his appearance radically. The character, Oh Dae Su, becomes a monster, and Min-Sik does this with sweeping power and emotion that culminates in one hell of an ending, where after the Big Reveal, he goes crazy in an intense fight scene, screams for mercy and acts like a dog, and then cuts his tongue out. What a movie, I tell you.

So there you have it. These are the performances I watch out for, and I’ll try to put more of these together for other ‘categories’ of acting later.

*I don’t care how lude this word is. There isn’t much else I can use…

What a specific thing this is, and what a delicate feel modern action directors whiff on so frequently. Movies like Taken are on the right path, movies like The Expendables farther but still there, and movies like Machete miss it entirely. Thing is, those three movies are all pretty acclaimed, relatively speaking. The following movies are overlooked, underappreciated, or downright hated, and that’s because they’re far ahead of their time. Or… twenty to thirty years past…

Punisher: War Zone (2008)

Color, motion, composition, and endless violence. With this four year follow-up to the more popular and successful Thomas Jane Punisher, Lexi Alexander had pretty much free reign to do something we often shy away from, and the result is a balls crazy and allegedly faithful adaptation of Punisher comics. In those comics, people get their heads blown off, bodies torn apart, shot to pieces, and more — if that sounds good, pop this in the VCR and sit back. I think a problem with a lot of action movies these days is a mind-boggling commitment to realism. Movies are escapism, and we get to see in movies what we can’t see in real life or on TV shows or sometimes in our own minds because we wouldn’t think that a chair leg could be used to dispatch of somebody in such a way.

Punisher: War Zone is part slasher movie, and part zombie movie. It’s a slasher because the Punisher wrecks everyone he sees, and it’s a zombie movie — but without the zombies, which as of late have become the weakest parts of a zom… well never mind, that’s an absurd thing to say but I do believe they’re a bit played out. Six years ago. In zombie movies people get their heads blown off, bodies torn apart — you remember. The Punisher does horrible things to the human body, and he’s so eh about it. That’s why we have the straight man in Colin Salmon, a fan favorite despite rarely being in good movies, to react as we would when somebody gets their face removed.

Rounding out the cast are TV faces, in particular Dominic West of The Wire fame. Here he plays Jigsaw, and his reparte with “Looney Bin Jim,” who you won’t recognize from any of the comics, is comedy gold. In the end though, I appreciate that this movie commits to over-the-topness, and is plenty aware of what it is. A violence film, one that’s gleeful in its horrendous violence. The spectacle is spectacular, as people explode and get punched in — seriously, the Punisher could poke somebody in this movie and they’d start hemmohraging. Unfortunately for them he does much more than that.

Verdict: BUY, IMMEDIATREY

The Expendables (2010)

The build-up to The Expendables was enormous. Here’s a movie with everyone, about a team of soldiers who at some point will probably learn that they’re expendable, a classic trope whose best analog here would be Predator. I was also thinking Alien, but that’s not exactly an action movie. So I’m sitting in the theatre watching this movie and in the first five minutes a guy gets his head cut off with a sniper and I’m thinking, “Okay. I can see this.” But then the rest of the movie happens and it’s like… they just gave up. Or actually cared about their awful story. All I know is that it involves Angel Batista and waterboarding some chick, which was uncomfortable. Why would I want to see that? Was The Expendables gonna be the political thriller that’ll really bring to light all sorts of discussions on the morality of torture in our modern day? No, that’s clearly the job of 24: Season 8. There’s little action in this movie, and the action that’s there is average. Mildly entertaining, but highly disappointing.

These actors have Crank, Total Recall, Die Hard, First Blood, Terminator 2, and… Crank 2 between them, and The Expendables falls far beneath all of them. To be fair, Arnold wasn’t really in it, but he’s definitely in the sequel. Christ. I won’t go up to the box office and say “One for The Expendables 2 please… JUST KIDDING!” and then drive back home because it’s rated PG-13 (doesn’t really help though) I’ll do that because the first movie was atrocious.

Verdict: Avoid

Doomsday (2008)

The preemptive criticisms of this post-Descent Neil Marshall flick were priceless. They called it a mix of Escape from New York, 28 Days Later, and The Road Warrior. Now, I can’t speak for 28 Days Later — but look at yourself. Is that a bad thing?! I’d say more accurately the closest analog to Doomsday is Escape from LA, the much maligned sequel to Carpenter’s 1981 classic. Escape from LA to me set a precedent which was never capitalized on until Rhona Mitra hit the land beyond the wall in this movie, where it’s the same old song and dance: we quarantined a segment of population and they’re crazy. Time to check back in.

In Escape from LA you had transvestite Pam Grier, plastic surgeon zombie Bruce Campbell, Map to the Stars Eddie, surfing, evil basketball, and hanglider battles — it was completely wild and unpredictable, a 100% good time throughout, because amidst all this madness you have our favorite hero Snake Plissken, an entirely over-the-top and bad motherfucker. In Doomsday you have girl snake, a woman with an equally great name — Maj. Eden Sinclair.

I’ve talked a little bit about girls in science-fiction movies, and Eden Sinclair always places highly on ‘the list,’ (the one in my head) alongside better known femmes like Ripley and… Clone Ripley. She’s believably badass, and it isn’t like she’s just fighting useless stormtrooper types, you know the corporate soldiers in gas masks — she fights Ren fair knights and Mad Max cannibals. Add David O’Hara and one great chase scene at the end and you’ve got a recipe for Marshall’s best yet movie (though I haven’t seen Centurion). There’s actually more I want to say about Doomsday but this isn’t the time. So for now…

Verdict: Yes!

The Nelvedine/Taylor Catalogue

Crank, Crank 2: High Voltage, and Gamer are all great fun. Let’s look at each individually, because they’d all place on this list and you should infinitely see them.

Crank: The humble beginnings of one Chev Chelios, who finds out he’s a dead man in a high-concept movie. Shot on camcorders and rollerskates, this movie takes you to the action on a unique plane. There’s also very explicit violence and sex. For those It’s Always Sunny fans check out a cameo appearance by Glenn Howerton.

Crank 2: If you thought Crank was good, get ready, because Crank 2 is a phenomenon. Pretty much the insanest and funnest American action movie since Death Wish III. Eye-popping, and in at least two cases cringe-inducing. There’s just something about nipple cutting… These movies are endlessly inventive and highly motivational. Some days I’d like to just get up and run through town with a sexy accent, screaming into the air. The only fault I have with the movie is the villain. As much as I like Clifton Collins, Jr., and as great a character as he was, there was really great chemistry between Chev Chelios and the original guy — the first villain would also engage in a phone conversation with Chev and be like “We’re gonna kill you man,” and Chev would say something very casually and get the dude royally pissed off every time.

Gamer: I really enjoyed this movie. I know some have gripes with it, and maybe it isn’t as good as the others, maybe it takes itself too seriously, but I’m actually a big fan of the imagery in this movie, even as a straightup science-fiction film. The art design is great, the guns are big and cool, the battlefield is appropriately shattered, and Society is bright and eerie. It’s a movie with a surprisingly entertaining story, which is surprising given the saturation on the market across time for all these ‘evil sport on TV, look at yourself’ movies. This came out around the same time as The Condemned and Death Race, the latter of which I saw and also enjoyed quite a bit. If you’re into solid sci-fi shootemups or glorified B-movies or whatever name you want to give something like this, check it out. Explosions, Dexter, Zoe Bell, Gerard Butler with a gun, and the hectic assault on Society make it all worth it.

Verdict: Check em

Hobo with a Shotgun (2011)

Interesting story behind this one, but it’s not my place to go over it here. It’s also one that made watching the movie slightly bittersweet, but don’t let it get to you because Hobo is a very entertaining grindhouse flick. It isn’t like Planet Terror or Black Dynamite which, while they do dabble in their respective horror and action, are comedies, and good ones at that. Hobo with a Shotgun pretends to actually take itself seriously — and it makes sense. These guys set out to make a crazy 80s action movie with a lot of blood, and they succeeded. While there was less Hobo than anticipated, it’s still a fun, gory ride, with an early cameo by Ricky from Trailer Park Boys, the one who’s always losing his head.

Of course, there’s plenty more; I didn’t mention any foreign movies, but there are a few that have a lot of action and lean toward the ludicrious — half of the 80s action movie was the HK school, stuff by Woo and To, and there are modern versions of those, but F. I’m out.

 

1. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Note: It’s kind of confusing, but the post “1. The Ghost in the Shell,” did not mean that that was the #1 thing of the year, despite it following the other two Year End Review posts.

Here on Dreck Fiction I’ve talked about Scott Pilgrim vs. The World at length, so this will probably be retreading old territory — bear with me. In the end, the most awesome thing I saw this year came out last year, Edgar Wright’s third, and in my opinion, best movie — crazy as that sounds. When I first saw the movie over the summer, I was blown the hell away. Unfortunately I saw it the last day it was available OnDemand, one of the motivating factors behind the big decision to press enter. I always knew I was gonna like Scott Pilgrim; the trailers seemed promising and I had a lot of faith in Edgar Wright to make something that was at least entertaining. I remember very specifically — quite a feat, as I saw this perhaps five months ago — my dad came in the room and delivered some message so I had to pause the movie, and I paused it right before the Ramona/Roxy fight, maybe after Ramona threw Ann (who?) away. Sitting there, I was just thinking to myself, “I’ve really enjoyed this movie so far. I like the direction this is headed.”

As somebody who’s invested some time in learning about filmmaking, it’s hard for me not to zero in on the technical side of things, and ever since I started this blog I tend to think critically about movies when I’m watching them. Scott Pilgrim actually rewarded me for being aware of the filmmaking, because it’s such a finely crafted movie that when immersion is eschewed in this way, it’s a good thing. It allowed me to notice the details, which to director Edgar Wright are extremely important. The frame is always brimming with significant details and easter eggs — and boy does he and DP Bill Pope love the frame.

In terms of the look of the movie, it’s not even “look what we can do,” not even “look what we can do and how well” — it’s a spectacle resultant of very measured craft. Every eyepopping moment on screen, whether a product of the camera movement, clever composition, actor blocking, or visual effect, means something. Of course, the point of contention then for critics is that what it all means may not interest them, but that’s no excuse to not recognize the inspiring brilliance in this film’s making. Scott Pilgrim, appreciated today only by a small but very, very vocal minority, will have genre standing as time goes on.

It’s an outstanding example of the action-comedy, which, like the horror-comedy (of which Edgar Wright so excelled in six years earlier), requires a hefty amount of balance: tone, structure, wit — these elements aren’t enough, it’s within their combination that Scott Pilgrim and Slither and Desperado and other great, modern genre-mashups emerge. They must work with each other; this doesn’t feel like an action movie with comedic elements or a comedy with action scenes, it’s a whole film that plays out from start to finish, and by the time we reach the end, we’ve laughed, we’ve been excited, and we’re had our hearts warmed. The manufactured feel of so many other comedies and so, so many other action movies was left at the door.

The film had a predestination in terms of its artistic success, just like The Thing (2011), the next Mary Elizabeth Winstead movie, was doomed to critical and commercial failure at the point of its inception. It was based on preexisting material, which is a first for the director, though at the time of screenwriting the final volume had yet to be released, which led to some merciful reshoots* at the end of production. I’ve never read the comic, but I think the process and idea of adaptation set the wheels in motion for Edgar Wright. He took on a mission and was rather noble about it. Like Rodriguez wanting to make Frank Miller’s Sin City over Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, Wright strove to recreate the comic, but adapt it to the moving medium of film.

With such a dedicated force at the helm, there should’ve been little doubt in my mind that Scott Pilgrim was a movie to look out for, and right now there’s little doubt in my mind that the director’s fourth movie will be one to watch. It’s a pretty bold adaptation — in these days of Nolan’s Batman and endless reboots (these X-Men weren’t gritty enough), Scott Pilgrim feels fresh. The creators behind the film obviously adore the movie medium, and don’t shy away from its possibilities. Some people (I think) have called Crank one of the best comic book movies ever, because it is exactly that, despite not being based on anything.

Crank is the antithesis to a movie like X-Men Origins: Wolverine, or any of the X-Men movies, which like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four and Ghost Rider and all these things — it revels in its form. Movies, like comic-books, have a heightened reality, but somehow this gets lost in Hollywood’s endless struggle to be super serious and realistic. I’m not saying that when Peter Parker and Mary Jane upside-down kiss that CG hearts should come out, because that would be inappropriate to its foundational laws of reality, but the dedication to realism has led filmmakers to want to play it safe in terms of spectacle.

With such high budgets, why don’t we ever see something that’s completely balls-to-the-walls? Like fucking Punisher: War Zone! Christ, every time I gotta complain about these damn comic book movies that’ll always be mentioned. War Zone wasn’t made on a $100 million budget, but it was totally fun. It had energy. Like Scott Pilgrim, which, because it was made on a very high budget, was able to go above and beyond. Very rarely in that movie has a frame been untouched by frenetic computer enhancements and craazy color.

At the end of the movie, we know that the heroes are going to fight the villains, probably in New York, and they’ll throw cars around. With a movie like Scott Pilgrim, it’s a mystery as to what’s simply going to be seen next. And when something wild happens, it’s almost always logical or, at least, never truly out of left field. Giant animated yeti is going to fight dragons in the middle of a battle of the bands? Sounds alright to me.

Well, that’s probably enough of my Continuing Adventures in Eternal Praise for this One Movie for now. I kind of lost steam there towards the end, but those comic book movies always piss me off, so when I perceive a chance to rant, I’ll take it.

So there you have it. Those are the ten best, and two worst, things I saw this year. Overall, it was pretty solid. Last year there were actually ten movies, but hey — if TV shows are gonna be as good as Arrested Development, I’ll certainly take TV shows. Good night, and have a happy New Year! (Excuse me if you don’t celebrate New Year’s, I know that’s not very PC of me**).

*The original ending to the movie was changed when the final book was released. Originally, and you can still see these scenes in the DVD, Scott ends up with Knives. Thankfully Brian Lee O’Malley was there to save the day, and Edgar Wright was so goddamn dedicated to being true to the source…

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