Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance"

Directed by Neveldine/Taylor, written by Scott M. Gimple & Seth Hoffman, and David S. Goyer, starring Nicolas Cage, Idris Elba, Johnny Whitworth, and Ciaran Hinds - Rated PG-13

This movie had the Evil Kurgan at "soul-eating flaming skull biker."

Full disclosure: I am an unapologetic fan of crappy Nicolas Cage movies.  Don’t get me wrong, the guy can turn in genuinely good performances (he’s an Oscar winner for a reason), but lately his career has become a joke of endless films, many of them considered garbage by most.  I kind of love each of his movies, though.  Strangely enough, I found the first Ghost Rider to be too boring to be enjoyable on even a crappy level.  So why would I even want to watch a sequel?  A shot in the arm from the directors of the Crank series (Neveldine and Taylor) can change a person’s mind.  And it turns out that’s exactly what Ghost Rider needed, though if you’re not on the same wavelength as the filmmakers, then you’re going to find this awful.  I was definitely along for the ride and, despite a few faults, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is a ridiculous, stupid, but ultimately fun time.

The first Ghost Rider made the cardinal sin of being a boring, unforgettable film.  That seems impossible since the character of Ghost Rider is a hellish skeletal biker who is constantly on fire.  The images alone should have been interesting enough to carry the film, but no amount of flame could spice that movie up.  Still, the idea of the Rider as this soul-eating creature is compelling enough to give it another chance.  This time around, the craziness of the Rider’s image is handled in a visually interesting way and the story, action, and humor is enough to make this worth your time. 

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance finds Johnny Blaze on the run from himself as he hides out in some nondescript Eastern European country.  He soon gets dragged into a plot concerning the son of the evil, demonic Roarke, who may be the devil himself, though it was unclear to me because if he’s the devil, he’s really quite weak.  Anyway, if Roarke can get his hands on the boy, the world will be plunged into darkness.  So it’s up to the Rider to stop him and possibly reverse the curse that Roarke has put on him as well. 

The story isn’t too ridiculous and has enough going on to keep things moving and a movie like this needs to stay in motion.  As long as Cage gets to crazy it up here and there it’s fine.  There are a number of odd scenes in which Cage gets to chew the scenery, but this isn’t The Wicker Man or anything.  Although one scene in which he threatens someone while trying to hold back the Rider is absolutely fantastic in its absurdity.  You don’t want to see a constant Cage cacophony, anyway.  Ghost Rider is about action.

The action is certainly better this time around, though it still has some issues.  First off, Neveldine/Taylor’s hyper style of filmmaking fits the Rider well.  The intensity is pitch-perfect.  The problem is the Rider just stands there and stares at people too often.  Sure, he does plenty of cool stuff in this movie (he pees fire! He tosses cars around like nothing!), but there are multiple scenes in which he shows up, ignores the major threats around him, and just slowly stares into a bad guy’s soul.  That sounds cool, but it doesn’t work in an action scene.  But when he does let loose, it looks pretty cool.

The visuals of the movie are fine, but the use of 3D is suspect.  The 3D does make the flames and smoke pop and it actually added to my enjoyment of the film, but too much of it was flat and some of it was just plain chaotic to the point of messiness.  For example, the Rider takes over some crane-type machine and turns it into a giant flaming chainsaw and the screen erupts in a blur of flames, smoke, and darkness.  I am waiting on the DVD to see what actually happened during that sequence because, in the theatre, it made my eyeballs sick.

Neveldine and Taylor aren’t necessarily suited for 3D.  They are a bit too frenetic for it.  They were the right directors for Ghost Rider because of their edgy, crazy violence in films like Crank.  Unfortunately, they were not given the R rating to do what the character truly needed.  But Spirit of Vengeance is still a step in the right direction.  Here’s hoping for an unrated cut on DVD. 

Despite the missteps and limitations, Ghost Rider still stands out as a ridiculous good time thanks to the sometimes too goofy humor and the cast.  Cage is obviously onboard, and Idris Elba has a lot of fun as a wine swilling French monk.  Johnny Whitworth hams it up gloriously as the Rider’s main competition.  Ciaran Hinds is decent as the villain.  The kid, Fergus Riordan, is tolerable.  And Christopher Lambert shows up and his presence alone is awesome. 

If you’ve read this far and you’ve been nodding along with everything, then this one is probably for you.  If what you’ve been reading sounds stupid and too weird, then you should probably skip it.  In fact, most of the general population should skip this one.  It takes a certain, idiotic mentality to truly enjoy Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.  I know I’m not alone out there, though.  So if you want a few Cage freak outs and some overall goofy fun in a comic book movie, then give this one a shot.  It really is better than the first, even if that’s not saying much.

Monday, February 27, 2012


*Been having some computer issues, so this is very late, but here it is, anyway.

Directed by Josh Trank, written by Max Landis, starring Dane Dehaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan, and Michael Kelly - Rated PG-13

High school kids with super powers?  It's a lot better than it sounds.

Found footage films like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield always interest me.  Sure, the handheld aspect can make them a dizzying experience at times, but it adds a realism that makes the films quite effective.  Traditionally this type of filmmaking has been used for horror films (and it works well), but Chronicle is the first superhero movie to be filmed this way and it turns out this genre is a perfect fit for the style.  It is basically a found footage film about three high school kids who get super powers.  It’s such a straightforward and interesting premise one wonders how it took this long for a film like Chronicle to get made.

As with most found footage films, the first problem the film has to tackle is to explain why a character would be filming their life.  Technology has mainly solved that problem (more on that later) what with all the security cameras installed, cell phone cameras, and a generally self-obsessed culture of video blogs and youtube videos.  You  still need to have a reason for a character to start filming every part of his life, though, and Chronicle comes up with a plausible enough reason.  Andrew (Dane DeHaan), the film’s loner protagonist, is a senior in high school with a mother on her deathbed (literally) and an out of work father who takes out all of his problems on his son, sometimes physically.  Andrew decides to start documenting everything that happens in the house and his inner film director starts to come out so he takes his camera everywhere. 
Soon enough, Andrew’s camera captures a very strange occurrence.  When he’s dragged to a rave party in the boonies by his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), Andrew and Matt, along with the most popular kid in the school, Steve (Michael B. Jordan), stumble across a mysterious hole.  Upon investigation, they notice a strange sound reverberating from it and decide to explore it further (why not?).  Anyway, something weird is down there and after making contact with it the three learn that they have telekinetic (among other) powers.  That is certainly a good reason to start recording your every action. 
What follows is the origin story of a group of superheroes.  Origin stories are getting kind of boring, though, due to the ridiculous amount of them in recent years.  But we’re not sitting around waiting for Peter Parker to get bitten by a radioactive spider.  Plus, Parker decided to instantly use his powers for good.  There are real high school kids; they want to have some fun.  That’s what makes Chronicle such a good time.  This isn’t a realistic movie, but the way the kids react to their powers certainly is.  They use them to pull Jackass style pranks, impress girls, and excel at beer pong.  It’s flat out funny at times.  But it does get darker and then the action starts.
Chronicle holds up as an action film thanks to the found footage style.  CG can sometimes look goofy in this style (and it certainly does at times in this film), but for the most part it is much more effective when captured on a handheld camera or security footage.  The ambition of the film may stretch too far at times, but for the most part all of the action is believable and exhilarating.  All of the telekinesis elements look great and the flying sequences are amazing. 
If Chronicle has a true weak point, it lies in the acting department.  The actors do come off as high school kids most of the time, especially when they get overly excited about things, but during the dramatic moments, they leave something to be desired.  As a light-hearted film, they are fine, but if there is meant to be an emotional connection made to these guys, then they are quite weak.  The film thrives despite this, though. 
Overall, Chronicle is a surprisingly good time.  Director Josh Trank handles the found footage genre in a refreshing way, and Max Landis’s screenplay fits into the superhero genre in a satisfying way.  The combination of telekinesis and found footage is melded perfectly as it allows the camera to float anywhere.  Sure, there are questionable moments (and that camera seems to be a little too resilient), but it all comes together quite nicely.  Plus, the found footage element opens up this film to a discussion about how filmed our society is these days. 
Chronicle may have been dumped in the early year wasteland of big releases, but don’t let that fool you.  This is an ambitious film that accomplishes an impressive amount of what it sets out to do.  The acting is nearly laughable at times, but there’s much more right with this film than wrong. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

"The Grey"

Directed by Joe Carnahan, written by Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, starring Liam Neeson, Dallas Roberts, and Frank Grillo - Rated R

"I'm going to start beating the s*** out of you in the next five seconds.  And you're going to swallow a lot of your own blood, over a billfold."  Gee, Sorry, Mr. Neeson, I'll put it back...

The emergence of Liam Neeson as an action star lately has never made much sense to me.  How do his characters of Briar (Next of Kin), Darkman (Darkman, duh), Priest Vallon (Gangs of New York),  and Qui-Gon Jinn (The Phantom Menace) not qualify as action roles?  Not to mention multiple other films in which he shows his tough side, like Seraphim Falls and Kingdom of Heaven.  For whatever reason, Taken is the only example people use when they want to proclaim Neeson’s action side.  Well, forget Taken (it’s extremely overrated anyway), because Liam Neeson has been an intimidating man onscreen for quite some time.  Also, forget the previews for The Grey, because this is not Taken with wolves.  “The Grey” is a surprisingly existential film in which Neeson gets to show his acting chops and his tough side.
The Grey may appear to be a simple story of survival against the elements…and wolves, but it is much, much more.  While the previews promise plenty of action featuring Neeson squaring off with wolves, it ends up delivering on a deeper level.  This is a story about survival, faith, life, and death.  The film begins with a suicidal Neeson.  He’s struggling with memories of his wife (it is not clear what has happened to her) and he has taken his misery to Alaska.  Neeson bides his time protecting pipeline workers from wolves, but this is not enough of a distraction.  Yet he can’t bring himself to end his life.  He is stopped, seemingly by fate, and that is how he ends up on a doomed flight back to civilization.  When that flight goes down in the Alaskan wilderness, The Grey truly begins.
The movie is quite simple in that it is all about Neeson and a handful of gruff survivors and their quest to survive.  A survival movie can get bogged down in misery if the filmmakers are not careful and while The Grey can certainly be described as depressing, it can also be described as realistic.  The film’s realism isn’t in the tense set pieces or wolf encounters (both feature some moments that strain believability), but rather in the characters themselves and their reaction to the situation they are in.  The writers of the film, director Joe Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (adapting his own short story), anticipate every question the viewer might have in a very natural way.  Once Neeson seems to be barking all the orders, others speak up, pointing out that no leader had been selected.  Some survivors get strong and noble, wanting to deal with the dead, while others raid the drink cart and take a more pessimistic approach.  This is all to be expected, but the characters all feel real and never come off as one-note, even if they fit into certain types. 

It helps that the characters are inhabited by some talented supporting actors.  Dallas Roberts does a fine job as the morally sound Hendrick, even if he does come off as a bit preachy at times.  Ben Bray provides some emotional punch as Hernandez.  And Frank Grillo is the surprise of the film as Diaz, the pessimistic loner of the group.  But this is still Neeson’s film and he carries it well.  Neeson has always been an imposing figure and when you see him threaten another survivor, you know the other guy is going to back down.  He can hold a movie through sheer physical presence, but he anchors it with his emotional gravitas.  When Neeson is struggling with past memories or cursing God, you believe he is feeling true anguish.  It makes the battle for survival all the more compelling. 
Director Joe Carnahan has a hand in making The Grey a success, as well.  The look of the film is perfectly stark and at times beautiful.  The handheld style (akin to The Wrestler) gives the viewer the feeling that we are on the journey with Neeson.  Carnahan crafts a number of memorable sequences in the film, all of them extremely suspenseful.  The best of these scenes is the aforementioned plane crash, which rivals the sequence in Fight Club for intensity. 
As a survival movie The Grey is fine, but what elevates it are the existential ideas behind the film.  The characters begin to question their situation.  Those of faith feel that there is a reason why they survived while those without consider it a simple coincidence.  The film doesn’t provide answers about faith, but rather makes a statement about the human spirit.  It is not faith that dictates life, it is the person.  Even with that point, there are deeper places you can go with this film.  The wolves can serve as physical representations of death.  The crash can be seen as a kind of purgatory in which the characters must acknowledge their faults and consider their lives.  Can you poke holes in any of these theories?  Absolutely, but isn’t it great that you can apply such ideas to a movie that is sold as “Liam Neeson vs. the wolves”? 
The Grey is not the action film that some may be hoping to see.  But if you keep an open mind, you’ll be pleasantly surprised (as I was) to find that it is a film with action elements that is much more concerned with saying something about humanity.  And when Liam Neeson wants to say something about humanity, you listen.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

Sticking with the purgatory theme, a lot of it makes sense.  Diaz realizes his life has been a waste and makes peace with his death (one of my favorite scenes, by the way).  Hernandez realizes what is most important in his life.  Neeson accepts death, not just his own, but also his wife's.  And...that's it.  The other survivors who only survive to be killed don't really get those moments.  So why are they there aside from being wolf food?  Still, it's an interesting idea.  And the film still works outside the theme, so the point could just be about survival and acceptance and there doesn't need to be a reason.

I would definitely watch Liam Neeson vs. the Wolves.

Glad a bit of humor was thrown in there with the references to Alive and a character asking if Neeson was going to turn into a werewolf.

Hey God, when Liam Neeson calls You out, throw him a bone...don't just send more wolves.  That's a bit harsh.