Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Cinema of Neveldine/Taylor

With the exception of Ghost Rider, the remaining three films of Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor are perfect examples of Video Game Cinema.

Crank (2006)
Crank: High Voltage (2009)
Gamer (2009)
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2011)

The premise of Crank is setup like a video game where the main character Chev (Jason Statham) can only go for a limited distance before he needs to recharge himself otherwise he will lose his single life, thereby ending the film. The reason Chev needs to recharge is to keep his adrenaline level up otherwise the drugs injected in his body will slowly stop his heart. He can keep his adrenaline level up either by natural or artificial means such as usage of epinephrine. Such a premise allows the movie to freely incorporate whatever is required for him to survive. This means Chev pumps himself full of drugs, gets into fights, steals a car (Grand Theft Auto anyone?) in order to move to a new location in search of an antidote. The script also includes Chev’s attempted rape of his girlfriend Eve (Amy Smart) so that he can keep his heart from slowing down. Chev’s aggressive sexual act starts out as rape but is turned into a semi-consensual act after Eve stops fighting back, much to the shock of an onlooking bus of tourists.

By giving the film a video game premise, the directors get away by including any over the top sequence in the script which ends up making the movie critic-proof. Any questions about the film’s logic can be countered with the explanation that Chev’s desperate need to survive mandates inclusion of abundant excess and crudity. For example, if Chev doesn’t try to rape his girlfriend, then it is game over. If he does not inject himself with drugs, then lights out. On a scale of 1-10 for crudity, Crank breaks the scale with a whopping 11. Incredibly, Crank 2 shatters the scale even further and outdoes the first movie. Although, Crank 2 just follows the template laid out by Crank and the only variation is to ensure every aspect from the first movie is super-sized in the second one. And to hammer the point home, a mock Godzilla like fight scene is included in Crank 2.

Crank and Crank 2 are single player video games where one character has to navigate his way through an urban jungle filled with danger at every corner. Both movies also contain moments when Chev is depicted like a pixelated 1980’s style arcade game. On the other hand, Gamer is a multi-player game designed to follow the structure of a MMORPG, a game style which allows multiple players to control different online characters. A movie based on MMORPG would have been complicated enough but Neveldine & Taylor layer the movie with a “Simulation” style video game & wrap everything around a hyper-interactive social media world. The end result is a movie that bombards a viewer with a stream of information which is delievered in tiny chunks via fast cuts. Such an editing style requires a viewer to take some time to absorb the material and get used to the style. Only once the gaming style is absorbed, the smart social commentary becomes apparent. The directors want to convey a world where the line between an online virtual personality and a real persona is slowly erased. One can even say that the current world is close to what Gamer shows but the movie was released back in 2009, at a time when online gaming was growing substantially but bandwidth sucking smart phones and tablets were still in their infancy.

Fast Cuts

Crank, Crank 2 & Gamer all feature rapid-fire editing which at times appears to contain multiple cuts every second. Such an editing style results in a disorienting effect which does not make for easy viewing. These three movies are on the opposite spectrum of Slow Cinema and demonstrate that hyperactive films which can’t maintain focus for even a second result in an experience where the movies running time appears a lot longer than it actually is. One can only painlessly finish watching these movies if one is able to tune in to their rhythm.

On the other hand, Ghost Rider has no such accelerated video game style. Of course, given the material’s comic book source, such a style would not have made sense. Still, nothing in Ghost Rider indicates any whiff of Neveldine-Taylor's work. The only way one can even form a link to this movie with the directors is by the ending of Crank 2 which features Chev completely in flames showing the finger to the camera. The image of Chev’s head in flames evokes Ghost Rider so it is not a surprize that the directors next project was the Marvel Comic book character.

One can understand what the directors are trying to do with their style but the movies require an investment from a viewer. The blistering style also makes it is hard to recommend their films to anyone. Although, there are plenty of excellent articles that one can read about the directors style and save the trouble of watching any of their films.

Essential Reading

Adam Nayman article perfectly summaries the cinema of Neveldine & Taylor.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky on Gamer.

Steven Shaviro has a 10,000 word entry on Gamer!

3D challenge

Ghost Rider was in 3D but thankfully the other three movies were in 2D.  The first 15 minutes of Gamer are far more challenging to keep one's headache in check than any 3D movie out there. However, Crank 3 will be in 3D and that will result in a massive viewing challenge for those who see it in a cinema.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Video Game Cinema

“Video Game Cinema” doesn’t only refer to movies based on video games but instead applies to movies which are constructed and edited like a video game. Video games have come a long way from the 1980’s style arcade action and shoot’ em games. Contemporary video games can be divided into multiple genres, contain numerous characters & complicated plots and often include a cinematic sequences called cutscene, which fills in the backstory about characters and their mission. Also, with the rapid evolution in computer graphics, most games feature life-like characters modeled after actors whose movements and facial expressions are captured to create authentic video game replicas. 

Although, as video games get more complicated and involve multiple role playing characters, most video game movies follow an arcade style plot where a single character achieves small goals leading to a final mission completion sequence. The Resident Evil series, Raid: The Redemption and the two Crank movies are examples of such video game cinema which feature a single character moving from one crisis to another. Gamer is also an example of a video game cinema but it is the only one in this spotlight which contains a richly defined complicated world with multiple characters competing for control in a single frame.

Part I of this spotlight looks at all five Resident Evil movies while Part II will cover the cinema of Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor.

Resident Evil Movies

Any discussion about video game cinema has to start with Paul W.S Anderson. He directed Mortal Kombat in 1995, at a time when video game movies rarely made their way into cinemas. In 2002, he directed the first Resident Evil movie and has written all the movies in the series and directed 3 of the 5 movies so far. He will also direct the 6th movie in the series due in 2014.

Resident Evil (2002, Paul W.S. Anderson)
Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004, Alexander Witt)
Resident Evil: Extinction (2007, Russell Mulcahy)
Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010, Paul W.S. Anderson)
Resident Evil: Retribution (2012, Paul W.S. Anderson)

The movies are based on a video game and for the most part, all 5 features follow a video game format where one central character, Alice (Milla Jovovich), moves from one action sequence to another. The first movie contains the most dialogue as it outlines the origins of the T-virus and how the infection ended up getting released from the Umbrella Corporation's underground facility (Hive).

Each movie recaps prior events so a viewer does not need to worry about seeing all the previous movies. Subsequent movies provide a little more information about Alice's past but for the most part, the movies are about Alice killing infected and mutated creatures. The subtitles in the movies refer to the creatures as zombies but that word is never used to describe the flesh eating walking dead in any of the movies.

The on-screen action is kept simplistic like an old fashioned arcade game where there are easily classifiable targets that have to be taken out. Once Alice or her allies kill the creatures, then they proceed to the next frame where more creatures await. Resident Evil: Extinction has some outdoor shots in the desert where multiple characters try to kill the zombies but usually Alice and just an additional character is present to do the killing. Alice finds new helpers as the movies progress with Claire (Ali Larter) doing her part in Extinction and Afterlife and Ada Wong (Bingbing Li) in Retribution. This is also a rare series where woman take centre stage both in terms of heroes and villains. The villain of the first four movies is the Umbrella Corporation headed by Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts) but the fifth movie finally reveals that the Red Queen computer, shown in the first movie, has gone rogue and taken over. As the name indicates, Red Queen is a female and her personification is a little girl. 

Throughout the series, villains often become allies to Alice in taking out a bigger threat. Or characters that were dead often return back in different roles. Each movie has a well defined end goal that must be reached and the returning characters either assist or stand in the way. The last two movies Afterlife and Retribution are basically cliffhangers that end by revealing that a bigger threat lays waiting.

The 5th movie, Retribution, so far is the high point of the series video game look and feel. By showing the computer as the villain, characters are given a clue as to where their next threat will come from.

For example, as Alice and Ada move through the city simulated landscape (New York), Red Queen’s voice indicates that the New York sequence has been initiated, alerting Alice and Ada that threats are on the way.

The audience also gets their cue as to a fight will take place. Also, just like in a video game, the music changes when a villain is about to enter the frame. Basically, Retribution feels like seeing a video game in demo mode.

All the movies don’t get good reviews because if one treats them as conventional movies, then it is frustrating to watch repetitious sequences over and over. On the other hand, if one sees the movies as simply live video games, then it allows one to get through them. Also, one can see the influence of some shots from this series in The Walking Dead. The Resident Evil movies feature overhead shots showing cluster of zombies narrowing on a target. Such shots can be found in Season One of The Walking Dead. Of course, the TV series has more focus on character development and dialogue driven scenarios whereas Resident Evil strips most of the dialogue out.

Other reading

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.

R. Emmet Sweeney and Dave Kehr.