Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Max Vengeance per Gallon: DRIVE ANGRY, THE GREEN HORNET (in 2-D)

Two titles made it to Netflix in time for the heat: DRIVE ANGRY and THE GREEN HORNET (both 2011). Saw them and now can't remember the difference, but I remember the cars. America!!

ANGRY especially seems to labor under the impression that if it filters in enough Sons of Anarchy auto-erotic Americana --churches, faded American and/or Confederate flags rustling from their tin roof awnings, barbecues, Satanism, gasoline, redneck bars, hot blondes in jean short cutoffs with tattooed abusive juicehead boyfriends, trailers, diners, engine failures, and trigger-happy Arizona cops -- and of course cars, cars, cars--we'll forgive it its lack of any legit trespasses. It dresses awfully badass for a film afraid to drive even a hair outside the pre-established yellow lines of the "vehicular Satanist" genre. Even old Nic Cage is more or less on cruise control, unwilling to floor it with any of his signature hammy over-emoting. Outside of speeding and shooting some cops (who shot at him first, yo! Stay in school) he may as well be a Sunday school teacher.

Both ANGRY and HORNET  think they can get away with having opening scenes where a cool character is walking in slow motion towards the camera as some car or building slowly explodes behind him, like it's not been done to death, buried in an avalanche of parody, dug up, satirized, buried again, re-exhumed with reverse firing rockets after being buried alive by bulldozers. Such scenes are not cool or fun anymore, they are like blank spots in the screen while we doze off, dreaming of other films, from the 70s, when real cars were destroyed by the dozens instead of through pixelation. When we felt alive, tactile...

DRIVE finds Cage--once again back from the grave to avenge his daughter's death and/or save his granddaughter. Apparently Hell consists of watching helplessly from beyond the veil as your loved ones suffer. If the veil in this case was the screen and we were his loved ones, well, there you are, all meta and--unless you're at a drive-in or 3-D ready--choking on the exhaust fumes of cynical producers and product placement.

A pretty boy from the WB casting couch (Billy Burke) is the swaggering evangelical Satanist cult leader who's holding onto Cage's granddaughter until the moon is right for the solstice sacrifice which will herald doomsday. William Fichtner is 'the accountant' who's followed Cage up from Hell to ask him to at least call Satan and let him know when he intends coming home for dinner.

There are some plusses to DRIVE ANGRY: in one scene Cage is shooting bad guys while having sex with a naked waitress, fully clothed, with sunglasses (that's not the plus part) and holding a bottle of whiskey. He shoots the guys without spilling a drop and even takes a slow mo swig between bullets. Damn! The copious humiliated naked women parts however taint the film with that new leather misogynistic smell. Amber Heard, Nic's gal Friday has a lot of moxy and fighting skillz but does that really make up for her objectification? She all but grinds herself on the hood ornament like a frat pledge's dorm room poster. And doesn't she and that waitresss have mothers, too? Where's their moms roaring back from the grave to punch old Nic?

Hell, by the way, is depicted here as a kind of hustler's paradise, like Phoenix, AZ (where my brother Fred lives) but tinted red and with more ash. I don't know much about the autos in DRIVE ANGRY-- that's Fred's department--but I do know one thing, they're not stupid SUVs, and that's good enough for me. My first car was a 1976 Ford Maverick, which I could get up to 90 mph to jump this hill near my house and get massive air. A Maverick wasn't considered too "cherry" at the time, but now looking back that thing was the shit!

Mine was dark yellow, but you get the point
In DRIVE I do like that Heard is such a mega-badass and not afraid to really sink her teeth into the flesh of the guys she fights. But the whole thing with rescuing a baby from Satanists, that just doesn't work. Who can get fired up about the welfare of a baby? Unless your name is Wes Craven and your budget is three dollars, we know that baby's gonna be fine. When the budget's over a million and the target demo is 16 year-old boy, there's no emotional investment in a bunch of swaddling clothes - the kid may be cute, but he's not a character. He can't act. She can't act, excuse me. And if anything happened to that kid we would have heard about it from some concerned Christian group long before this.

GREEN HORNET is marginally more human, though Seth Rogen (who co-wrote) proves here that when shove comes to shovel he can bromance the crotch gags but he can't make us love again, and while director Jean Michel Gondry has made us love again--in the past--he doesn't do it here.  I was a huge Green Hornet fan thanks to an old radio show LP (left) I listened to five dozen times after getting my wisdom teeth out. Nothing like oral pain and opiates to make a 14 year old kid open to new ideas. I learned how to do an Irish accent based on Britt Reid's faithful chief reporter Axford (played by Edward James Olmos for some reason in this new version). I still use some of Axford's expressions in my everyday speech, such as "Sure'n it must be tha hornet!" So yeah, I know a little about this character... and that's what makes me dangerous. Broom Brooom!

Much as I revere some of Jean Michel Gondry's previous films I can only imagine how much more awesome HORNET would be with Jody Hill directing. The unsung genius behind the genuinely anarchic OBSERVE AND REPORT (see 'A Travis for Our Times'), Hill would have found the right note between comedy and chaotic, and the music would have been 15x as awesome! As it is, HORNET's music choices are too keyed to demographic market research to not whiff of cross-promotion, the best that can be said is that the songs avoid the 'word association' game these films so often rely on. I kept waiting for some emo cover of Joni Mitchell's "Just a little Green" or nu-metal crunk version of "It's Not Easy Being Green", or maybe "Green Onions" or Hold Steady's "Hornets! Hornets!"

The original Badass Batman-ish TV show
To its credit, GREEN plays with issues of class, sexism, race, and entitlement - stuff that also reveals its director's a socialist, which is okay (he's French). Shouldn't Kato be pissed that he's smarter, more talented and tougher than his boss? Of course he should! But Gondry is illuminating class resentment in a country that denies class exists. He brings up issues we in our American stupor have elephant in the roomed right out of our vision. How dare he suggest THE HELP is disgruntled? Jay Chou looks good in turtlenecks and underplays brilliantly but his martial arts skill is semi-buried under a ton of TERMINATOR DARK KNIGHT-style digital 'POV weapon-scanning' that's just not needed. All Seth Rogen as Brit Reid has going for him is a good party bro vibe and the ability to take a punch without losing a single tooth. A lot of prime real estate in the meanwhile goes to waste, and all the weirdly insular tics of rich kid cinema come wafting in from the pool like the stank of a maidless frat house.

For all that, a lot of people put a lot of effort into both of these films, which means they deserve respect, and yet this too is a negative. The cool part of something like the Batman TV show was how our own imaginations were required to complete the illusion. The last thing it wanted, deserved, or needed was respect. Seeing the threadbare candy-colored splendor of that TV show now, I realize just how much detail my childhood imagination supplied. Gondry's film, by contrast, is so over-produced we don't even need to see it --it's already seen itself so many times, been so tinkered-over in post-production houses, that the dick jokes bounce around like polished stones in a tumbler echo chamber until the sound imitates canned laughter and applause. Only a robot could truly love it. The rest of us are all just dollar-affixed attention spans required for its own self-justification.

In both films the fingers on the hand of genuine characterization and emotion are cut to fit the glove of ADD-addled CGI. These movies leave you nowhere but numb and, above all, not-bored. Sometimes numb and not bored is enough, but most of the time, having your ADD catered to by the cinematic equivalent of a rich kid's indulgent butler is enervating instead of exhilarating. Even something as ramshackle and off-the-cuff as RACE WITH THE DEVIL (1975) had enough rough edges, goofball termite moments, and semi-improvised human interaction to let you feel there was something in it you could call your own. An ashtray you could use where an unseen butler didn't deftly replace it with a new one after every ash flick (or in DRIVE, making sure each ash tray has a new product placement logo clearly in focus at the bottom, the edges each painstakingly distressed to smack of Americana realness. In this overly visualized characters in DRIVE and HORNET have no breathing room. Every breath is measured out by the frame and market-tested.

I'll probably have forgotten these two films by the time I get an actual 3D TV and can see them how they're meant to be seen, and I'm glad I'll be able to see them so fresh, if at all. But, seriously? What's up with Cage and these undead avenging dad roles? I haven't seen GHOST RIDER but between this and that alone (I'm sure there are a zillion others), Cage seems self-typecast as an all-American semi "good ole" boy, destined to return again and again from the dead to air his turbo-charged grievance against the demon/man/infrastructure that killed--or is about to kill--his child, wife and/or grandchild. All I can do is cradle a stack of Cage's latest films (all purchased for $2.99 in the Blockbuster sale bin) and shout "NoooooO!" while shaking my fist in slow motion at the overhead camera... then, in even slower motion, the whole chain of video rental stores blows up as I stroll boldly forth into the realm of internet streaming. Nooo, indeed.

But even that's not the end of old Nic! He's ready to drive up from Hell again and again, whenever a child is missing or money is needed, in whatever "role" you ree-quair of him. If what you ree-quair is he get his 3D ass up in them woods then maybe you're in DELIVERANCE or maybe you're an industry suit afraid to step outside the dirtbag revenge genre, preferring to again and again force some female relative of Cage's to be abused or killed in order to warrant his dour vindictiveness. Mess with his baby girl, he'll kill you. Mess with his car, he'll give you the horn.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah... I love Michel Gondry - both "Eternal Sunshine" and "Science of Sleep" are high on my list of all-time faves - but this one sort of disapointed.

    I realize the point here was his camera work - Gondry is the guy credited with some of the camera stuff from the Gap commericals where they circle a dancer with cameras that snap one after the other, so the resulting effect looks stop-motion/3D. Here he could work his magic with a huge budget.

    But... it's a damn comic book movie. And only a middle-of-the-road one at that...


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