Wednesday, March 28, 2007

300 (Particle Man)

Previously, Frank Miller gave us Sin City, an experience so amped-up and over-exaggerated that, while it doesn’t really hold water from an objective standpoint, was one wild ride while it was being viewed. Now we have 300, also from the deranged and ingenious mind of Frank Miller. Miller actually had little to do with the movie, unlike Sin City, where Robert Rodriguez gave him a co-director credit even though he never once manned a camera. But the Miller-ness is still intact, and 300 simply oozes style and drama.

Director Zack Snyder, whose only previous feature film was the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead (I didn’t see it myself, but I hear it was pretty terrifying), creates a story that’s hammy, over-dramatic, and one-dimensional, exactly like it should be. This is a comic book, people. If you’re looking for realism, watch C-SPAN.

It’s clear that Snyder understands the source material, because he evokes the right mood from the very first frame. It’s over the top, yes, but that’s definitely not a problem. In fact, I would have more of a problem with the movie if it were subtle and under-handed. Subtle it is not, but it’s very smart and self-aware. It knows it’s based on a graphic novel, and expects you to as well. Likewise, it expects you to check your pre-conceived notions about what a “normal” movie should look like at the door. The visual style is very stark and in-your-face, but also beautiful in its own way.

Now for the plot. Historically based (kinda…), 300 tells the story of the Battle of Thermopylae, in 480 BC. The Persian army was marching across the land, plowing over everyone who didn’t bow the knee. Sparta, and its King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), were definitely not ones to bow the knee to anyone. When Persia sends an emissary to tell Leonidas what’s what, he quickly gets a vision of just who he’s dealing with, but not long before he dies a horrible death. The Persian army of millions is on its way when 300 Spartans, lead by King Leonidas himself, block their path at a critical point. It’s a narrow passage through the mountains, such that the insurmountable numbers of the enemy become meaningless.

Meanwhile, Gorgo (Lena Headey), Queen of Sparta, is left to rally support for her king, and faces some political intrigue at home. The relationship between Gorgo and Leonidus is fascinating. As strong, courageous, and unflinching as Leonidus is, Gorgo matches him in every area. She gives him good counsel when he needs it, and believes in him and what he stands for, because she stands for that herself. Even so, she’s not butch or man-like, though her most attractive (non-physical) features are male in nature. Really, she every man’s dream: a masculine person in a smokin’ hot female body. She’s a woman of incredible beauty and grace, and is even a little vulnerable. In the midst of that, however, she’s strong and solid, unyielding to her cause. The most memorable moment in the film is when Leonidas and Gorgo see each other for the last time, and no words are spoken to one from the other. Yet volumes are said with just their exchanged looks.

LOTR fans will get a treat by seeing David Wenham again, as a one-eyed soldier with a gift for words and spinning tales. Other than that (and the king and queen), however, there are no stand-out performances. Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is just as he should be, exotic and other-worldly. A Quasimodo-like character (Andrew Tiernan) is really just a catalyst for the plot moving forward, and I feel that more could have been done with his character if the actor had made some different choices. The one over-the-top element to the movie that really distracted me from the experience was the inordinate amount of super-dramatic pauses it had. By the fourth time it had one, I was just saying, “that’ll do, pig, that’ll do.”

300 generally duplicates the experience of Sin City and every other comic book movie worth its salt, in that I bought into it during its runtime. That element is essential to comic book movies; it has to have the ability to make you suspend your disbelief enough to enjoy it. 300 succeeds most of the time, though it sometimes lets its stylization run away with it. Even so, it’s a very fun ride, which is what any ridiculously stylized movie should be.

Iconic lines:
“Spartans! Enjoy your breakfast, for tonight we dine in hell!"

22 Rating: 13

Particle Man

Monday, March 26, 2007

300 (Dr. Worm)

There's nothing subtle about 300. Look at the poster to the left here. See how it features a chiseled guy screaming in the rain? See how the title kind of looks like it was created by a blood splatter? See how there's a lightning bolt in the background, just for awesomeness sake? This poster tells you pretty much everything you need to know about 300. It's chock full of chiseled guys, blood, and--yes--awesomeness.

It's also the first movie of 2007 to make an imprint on the greater public consciousness, and for that, it deserves a deeper look.

The story of this film is rather simple: 300 Spartan soldiers must fight off a million-strong Persian horde. So it's your classic underdog story. But it's also the story of the Spartans defending their way of life against the Persians. So it's a classic "fight for your motherland" story. And in 300, the Spartans say all the right things about freedom and all men being created equal (in a bit of a stretch of historical accuracy), while the Persians are characterized as trembling in fear before their god-king Xerxes. So it's also a classic good vs. evil story.

These plot lines are developed, in large part, at the expense of nuance. But, honestly, that doesn't really matter. This is not a nuance movie. This is an adrenaline movie. This is a drums-pounding-electric-guitar-grinding-guys-yelling-and-killing movie. There's not a whole lot of room for nuance in the plot.

Fortunately, there's plenty of nuance in the visuals, which are stunning. The entire film has a marbleish feel to it, heightening the sense that these mythic heroes are ancient Greek statues come to life. And director Zack Snyder makes some really interesting choices with the fight scenes. At a couple points, he alternated between slowing down and then speeding up the action as the Greeks mowed through Persian after Persian--I found this to be a particularly effective technique (in fact the technique, and the movie in general, reminded me a bit of the video game Dynasty Warriors).

And like video games, 300 seems like it will appeal predominantly to male audiences. I don't want to generalize, but war movies with gratuitous battle sequences have historically been appreciated more by males than by females. Also, the main character, King Leonidas, is certainly a man's man; he's the kind of guy who'd sooner die than genuflect to another man--a character trait that sets the plot of the movie in action. Furthermore, there's only one one meaningful female character in the film, and not only is she admired mainly for her male characteristics (and hotness), she also bears the unfortunate name of Queen Gorgo. Other than her, it's pretty much all beefcake ... so, on second thought, maybe this film will appeal to females after all.

One person who should appeal to everyone is Gerard Butler, who plays King Leonidas. Butler's performance is strong and stable, and he's just thoughtful enough that you don't write off Leonidas as an arrogant jerk whose aversion to diplomacy brings his country to war. I will say, however, I was a bit confused as to why Leonidas and several of the other Spartans had Scottish accents. Maybe they were going for the Braveheart synergy effect (and in fact, one could certainly appreciate 300 as a poor man's Braveheart). Alongside Butler, Lena Heady does a competent job as Queen Gordo, Dominic West doesn't stretch but doesn't fail as the corrupt statesman Theron, and David Wenham is rather enjoyable as the silver-tongued soldier (and narrator) Dilios.

It should also be noted that this movie has attracted some attention for its perceived political messages. Iranians, for one, were incensed at how their ancestors (the Persians) are depicted. And several have noted that George W. Bush probably isn't disappointed to see such a positive portrayal of a leader who brings his country to war--despite objections--because he believes it's the right thing. (One writer went so far as to say the president "is going to blow a load in his pants when he sees this movie.") These are all interesting discussions, but they're out of place in a movie review. So check out our sister blog, I Should Be Allowed to Think, which was created just for topics like these.

All things considered, 300 is an enjoyable, visually arresting film that's a bit short on depth. That's good enough to earn it a 10.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (a guest review by Number Three)

Zhang Yimou (pronounced Jong Yeemo) is officially my favorite foreign director to date. His masterpieces include Raise the Red Lantern, Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower. Now we have Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, which is by no means a masterpiece, but certainly aspires to the greatness I have come to expect from Yimou. Riding is not like his martial arts movies, which most Americans think of when they hear Yimou’s name. Rather, it is more like his stupendous efforts To Live and The Road Home, which show off his ability to craft a story with both human drama and visual beauty.

follows Gou-ichi Takata on a multi-tiered journey of discovery of self, family, and humanity. One thing that strikes me as particularly unique with Riding is that it is a story primarily in China from a Chinese director, but the lead role is the legendary Japanese Actor Takakura Ken. In fact, Takakura is the only actor in this movie. Nobody else had ever been on screen for a movie before, which is how Yimou wanted it. After all, a story about the common people must be played by common people. It is done with tremendous success here. I didn’t even know there was only one seasoned actor in this movie until I learned otherwise from the special features. I’ve seen enough Hollywood actors unsuccessfully play the common man to no avail. Very few can because none of them are common. There is a sort of swagger in the Brad Pitts and George Clooneys and Renee Zellwegers of our acting set that they just can’t shake.

Well, Takakura Ken shakes the swagger and the rest of the actors never had it to begin with. This movie is a delight from the first frame to the very end. As I said, Riding follows Gou-ichi Takata, who lives in a Japanese fishing village far off from his son. When he learns that his son who’s back in Tokyo is ailing, he goes to visit, only to learn that they had grown further apart than he realized. His son refuses to even see him on his hospital bed. Thus begins a journey when his son’s wife passes along a video tape made by the son that reveals the son’s unfinished passion that he will now never be able to complete. Gou-ichi then sees an opportunity to win his way back to his son’s heart. This takes him to China to seek out what his son was unable to finish.

His quest meets obstacle after obstacle, and Gou-ichi’s persistence in and of itself is an astounding thing to behold, but what is yet more astounding is that his journey's purpose becomes multi-tiered as his focus extends beyond himself to those suffering around him. It is hard to describe the complexity of emotion and drama so skillfully shown, but this film was no doubt a great challenge for actor and director alike. There are moments of sadness and moments of levity, and amidst all of the emotion is the gorgeous backdrop of the majestic Yunnan province of China.

If you’re in the mood for a drama and willing to expand your horizons to another culture, give Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles a chance. There is a quality here that Hollywood often misses.

Number Three’s Score:
Mouthspeak (impact of dialog): +16
Watchfeel (impact of visuals): +18
Mouthfeel (overall watchability): +17

Number Three

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Because I Said So

Initial Reaction: It's over!! There is a God!!

I, like many of you, have seen a number of movies that I've appreciated to varying degrees. There have been films that I have loved and defended passionately. There are ones that I greatly enjoy, but wouldn't label them as "great movies." Then there are those on the other end: films I've hated because of the ideology they push or because of gratuitous violence. I've felt "meh" about many movies, not impressed but glad to have some kind of distraction in front of me. Then there are those that are just painful to watch.

Because I Said So falls into the last category. I'll be honest, I initially had reservations about seeing it; my tolerance for rom coms and chick flicks has been lessening lately. But I was having a fun night with a friend, and sometimes those movies are cute when you watch them with fellow females. I should've listened to my gut.

From the very opening scene I felt uncomfortable. It was more like watching actors improvise a movie than watching an actual movie. When the movie began, I was bombarded by numerous characters, situations, and lines being spoken quickly and at the same time. Not to mention some subpar cinematography (which says a lot--I seldom notice that sort of thing). I got the distinct feeling as I watched that the actors themselves hated this movie. And that's a bad sign.

Anyway, we are introduced right away to the Wilder family, which includes mother Daphne, and daughters Maggie, Mae, and Milly. Thankfully the older two are already married, but mother Daphne can't help but get way too caught up in her daughter Milly's life. She wants to see her happily married to a very specific sort of man, but Milly has decided instead to throw herself into her career as a chef.

The humor in Because I Said So was more of an annoyance to me than any kind of comic relief. I just wanted them to stop doing funny things. Unfortunately, the humor usually centered around Diane Keaton's character Daphne, and Diane Keaton was horrendous in this film. Annoying, superficial, hyperactive, unappealing and loud, her screen presence was like fingernails on a chalkboard. Since she was intended as the most comic character, this really destroyed any potential that Because I Said So had as a comedy. So let the record show that the "com" from its genre "rom com" is officially absent. I mean, when the running joke is when the "funniest" character walks onto a chaotic scene carrying a huge cake that she spent hours on (and you can guess what happens next), eyes are going to roll.

As for the rest of the characters, Mandy Moore was pretty watchable, but played one of the two characters she always tends to play: the sweet girl. This is fine, but before long her saccharine smile started to make me feel nauseous. One of her love interests (Gabriel Macht) is pretty decent, while the other (Tom Everett Scott) seems to be made of cardboard.

Milly's sisters, played by Lauren Graham (part of the reason I bothered with this movie in the first place) and Piper Perabo have significantly more success with the comedy of the film, but aren't given much to work with and unfortunately are hugely overshadowed by Moore and Keaton.

So, the plot: Milly is single and wanting a man. Mom wants to help, so she goes online, posts a personal ad, and interviews the suitors herself. Most of these have zero potential anyway (surprise: the scene includes a long line of unattractive/unpolished men trying to impress mom... unfortunately, the most funny scene), but at the end of the day, Prince Charming shows up. I'm not even going to give his name. That's how much I care. Anyway, mom decides he is good enough and he makes plans to happen to meet Milly. In the meantime, there's a musician in the room observing this process. He goes and talks to mom to see what she's up to and she explains it to him. He, of course, decides he'll give the daughter a go as well, takes one of her business cards, and leaves.

The long and short of it is that Milly starts dating both men. Mom pushes the one she chose (while not giving away the fact that she chose him in the first place) but Milly seems to prefer the other guy. It's the standard "who is right for me?" problem. There's conflict, there's sweetness, there's baking. In the end, in one of my least favorite scenes from the movie (there are so many to choose from), (SPOILER) she tells off the "wrong" guy because of such reasons as: "You liked what my mother wanted me to wear" and "I just ruined my souffle." Obviously, people, there isn't much here. It's a ridiculous scene that's supposed to be the emotional climax and the main thrust of the "romance" in the film. And so, let the record show that the "rom" part of "rom com" is also absent. Oy.

There were no lines that were memorable, so I'll give you the worst scene instead: Mom asks Milly what an orgasm feels like. Enough said.

Rating: -15

Poorly shot, disappointing in the acting department, painfully unoriginal, and a flop of a comedy, Because I Said So does not have high heights to reach. It achieved a whopping 6% (Rotten) on While watching it I felt genuinely uncomfortable because it was so bad. The last scene is a beautiful wedding, and we're supposed to all feel really happy. The movie actually succeeded in making me happy here, if only because I knew it was the end and I didn't have to watch it anymore.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Arrested Development - Season 1

As a TV watcher, I must fit into the category of “non-typical.” Granted, my favorite show is one of the most popular on television right now, 24. But my other favorites have all been cancelled after a none-too-long run. Freaks and Geeks was ignored and then unceremoniously dumped. Firefly was shown scathing disrespect and then discontinued despite overwhelming responses from its small number of fans. The best-fairing of the lot was Arrested Development, which managed to last two entire seasons, but just couldn’t make it all the way through the third. And like my other favorites, I caught onto Arrested Development only after the rest of the world did.

Arrested Development is the chronicle of Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman), high-ranking official in the Bluth Corporation, a construction firm. He is the “normal” one in a family of slackers and spoiled rich people. The family includes his father George (Jeffrey Tambor) who is president of the Bluth Corporation; Lucille (Jessica Walter), his possessive, wine-swilling, neurotic, and conniving mother; Lindsey (Portia de Rossi), his materialistic twin sister; Gob, (actually GOB, an acronym for George Oscar Bluth, played by Will Arnett), his conceited, vindictive, overly-dramatic magician of an older brother; Buster (Tony Hale), his timid and ultra-weird mama’s-boy of a younger brother; Tobias (the fearless David Cross), his ambiguously gay psychiatrist-turned-actor brother-in-law; George Michael (Michael Cera), his studious, confidence-impaired teenage son; and finally Maeby (Alia Shawkat), his disaffected, habitually naughty teenage niece. Don’t worry about keeping all the characters straight; that will come with time.

At the beginning of the first season, Michael is gearing up for what he thinks will be a big promotion at his father’s retirement party on the company yacht. In reality, his father gets arrested (hence the name of the series) and spends the rest of the season in prison. Michael then, as the only responsible (and arguably sane) member of the family, has to save the company from going under. He and George Michael, along with Lindsay, Tobias, and Maeby, move into a model home built by the Bluth Corporation. Lucille and Buster (who is more like a lapdog than an actual son) remain in their luxurious apartment, Lucille throwing money away as if the company were not crashing to the ground.

Michael, now the president, rides his bike to work every morning, and the only car the family has is one of those trucks with the stairs on top meant to be driven up to planes on the tarmac. Due to the ridiculous nature and outlandish behavior of his family members, Michael’s stress and load of responsibility are incredibly high. Gob is constantly cheating on his sweet Latino girlfriend; Lindsay is having trouble with her husband Tobias’s career choice, not to mention his unconscious homosexual tendencies; George Michael has a secret crush on his cousin Maeby, which may not be (but probably is) wrong; Buster, in rebellion from his overbearing mother, begins dating an older woman, who is oddly named Lucille; and as much work as Michael is doing to keep this family together, his mother Lucille seems to be stymieing his efforts at every turn. Yet even through the almost unending tough times, Michael’s family never fractures (despite his father being in jail), and because of that, never splinters into them not speaking to each other. Michael and his son basically have the mindset of “if we don’t take care of these incredibly inept people, who will?”

Honestly, this is one of the best shows ever to be on television. It is consistently funny throughout, features fantastic performances, is hilariously irreverent, and is incredibly sharp and quick-witted. It surpasses the great Seinfeld for TV comedies, because the situations are not just ridiculous and convoluted for the sake of being so, as the ones in Seinfeld so often were. Sometimes the characters say things that are so unbelievably politically incorrect that there is no recourse but to burst out laughing. Also, Arrested Development has a really good theme to it, though it’s buried underneath layers of caricature and hyperbole. It’s that family is the only thing you can truly count on. But Arrested Development is even more interesting than just that, because it takes that theme and then attempts to dismantle it with every single episode, but to no avail. Try as it may, it simply cannot overcome its own optimism.

The season ends much the same way as it started, with a seeming tragedy becoming a source of comedy. It’s sad that this show never really found its audience, but in retrospect, that was kind of inevitable. The brand of humor is very particular, and only certain people will be able to appreciate it. The show was kind of meant for DVD, too, because it really rewards multiple viewings. There are always new things to be picked up when one watches it again. Not too many people actually like it, as can be seen from the fact that it was cancelled, but I am proud to call Arrested Development one of my favorite TV series.

Iconic lines (or exchanges):
“Illusions, Michael. Tricks are something a whore does for money… or candy!”

Lucille: “Did that Mexican girlfriend of yours kick you out?”
Gob: “She’s not that Mexican, mom. She’s my Mexican. And anyway, she’s Columbian or something.”


22 Rating: 18

Particle Man

Friday, March 09, 2007

Daredevil/Ghost Rider

Since I’ve been writing reviews so sporadically, I thought that I’d take this opportunity to give our dear readers two, TWO reviews for the price of one! Today I’ll be looking at Mark Steven Johnson’s Ghost Rider, which is currently burning up the box office, and his previous comic book adaptation, Daredevil.

Daredevil was created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett early in the “Marvel Age” of comics. Trial Lawyer Matthew Murdock was blinded at an early age by an accident involving radioactive chemicals (what other kind is there?), which granted him a “radar sense” and dramatically increased his other four senses. Trained by the ninja master Stick, he defends Hell’s Kitchen as Daredevil, The Man Without Fear!
To be polite about it, Johnson’s 2003 film of Daredevil is quite an abortion. Johnson professes to be a big comic book fan, but this movie is plagued by a weak script, numerous character inconsistencies and weak motivations, and quite possibly the worst casting ever unleashed on a Hollywood film. The film begins with a wounded Daredevil, and moves to Daredevil’s origin (tweaked, and not for the better…..more on that later), and then moves back to the present day to explain why he was slumped against the cross on top of a church, bleeding everywhere. Matt Murdock (Ben Affleck….ewwww) and his partner Foggy Nelson (Jon Favreau, in the only good performance in the film) defend the poor and downtrodden in New York. A chance encounter in a coffee shop introduces Matt to Elektra Natchios (Jenifer Garner), daughter of a wealthy businessman in partnership with Wilson Fisk, the “Kingpin” of crime (Michael Clarke Duncan). Natchios wants out of the crime business, and the Kingpin sics assassin Bullseye (Colin Farrell) after her. Daredevil gets caught in the middle, is blamed for the murder of Daddy Natchios by Elektra, and wackiness ensues.
Batman Begins, Superman Returns, and Spider Man 2 have shown us that you can great films out of comic superheroes without taking all sorts of liberties with origins, motivations, etc. But Johnson gives us no evidence that he even really read a Daredevil comic before. First of all, his origin is tampered with so that Murdock suffers his accident by pure chance, instead of his saving an old man in the comics, a selfless act. Also, it is implied that his fighting skills are gained from his radar sense, which “makes the city his playground.” Riiiigghhhtttt. As anybody who’s studied boxing or other martial arts knows, that comes from lots and lots of hard work, not from knowing how to get from Point A to Point B. Second of all, there’s a scene early in the film where Daredevil tracks an acquitted (guilty) rapist, beats the snot out of him, and drops him in front of an oncoming train. This is a marked deviation not only from the character, but the character type. Could you get behind Spider-Man if he dropped a crook off of the Empire State Building? Or Superman if he blew up the head of a bank robber with his heat vision? This same principle applies to fans of the comics, who have seen Daredevil try and stop The Punisher from arbitrarily executing criminals time and time again. Third, he doubts himself throughout the entire film. Not only is this a characteristic the uber-confident Matt Murdock does not possess, it makes Daredevil come across as a whiny loser in the film. Whiny Loser + Blind Man Jumping Off Of Buildings = Does Not Resemble Our Earth Logic.
The casting for Daredevil? Must have been done by a blind man. I had the same problem with all four principals, in that I didn’t believe, or buy a single performance. Ben Affleck is simply the wrong choice for Daredevil. He’s really tall and stuff, sure. But he’s not much of an actor. He cannot convey intensity to save his life, which was vital to this film. A better choice would have been Matt Damon, Guy Pearce, or Ed Norton. Jennifer Garner was an unimpressive choice for Elektra, as she looks about as Greek as Condoleeza Rice. Again, not much of an acto….she can’t do dark or evil to save her life, and that hurts the role. There was a lot of controversy over the casting of Michael Clarke Duncan as the Kingpin, since the Kingpin was very, very white, and…..well, you know the rest. Michael Clarke Duncan is a good actor, and nobody really can convey massiveness onscreen like he can, but that’s not enough. We have a Kingpin who seems to favor brute force over Machievellian manipulation and striking out at his enemies through connections and with influence. As it stands, Duncan turns in a performance as subtle as a cement truck driving through a shopping mall. But perhaps the worst performance of all comes from Colin Farrell, playing the “Lucky Charms” version of cold-blooded assassin Bullseye. As played by Farrell, Bullseye is a manic, cartoonish, extremely goofy assassin, who kills at the drop of a hat, in plain view of people, which again……cement truck in a shopping mall. Even more ridiculous than his demeanor is his “costume”, which consists of a bullseye carved in his forehead, and a jacket that looks like it was leftover from a Meatloaf video. In the comics, Bullseye is like the Hannibal Lecter of the Marvel Universe: Approach with caution. The only reason that one would need to do that to the Bullseye of the film is because he’s liable to annoy you to death.
The nu-metal soundtrack that permeates the score of Daredevil hurts, and ages the film by degrees. Using pop music can be tricky, and in a superhero movie, a traditional orchestral score is best. The cinematography is ok, nothing to write home about. The other big bone I have with the film is that when you have a subject like Daredevil or Batman, a world class fighter, the fight choreography needs to not suck. And please, no CGI to “enhance” the fights.
So what did I like about Daredevil? Well, it was better than Hulk. Jon Favreau was pretty amusing. One thing that Mark Steven Johnson seems to do very, very well is insert scenes which illustrate smart, real-world principles. Take the scene in Daredevil where he returns from patrol. He takes his uniform off to reveal a map of scars, burns, bullet holes, stab wounds, etc. He pops Vicodin in the shower, and painfully pulls a tooth knocked loose out. There aren’t a lot of scenes like that in superhero movies, and more thought like that put into the script would have improved Daredevil substantially.
I can’t give Daredevil anything higher than a -6 out of 22 on the 22 scale, unless we’re talking about the extended, R-rated cut of Daredevil. That cut, which has slightly more depth to the story, gets a -2. Now, how does Ghost Rider stack up?

Ghost Rider is the story of Johnny Blaze, a motorcycle stunt driver who makes a very foolish decision in an attempt to save a loved one, and pays a price for it. Way, way back in Marvel Spotlight #5, Blaze finds out that his foster father Crash Simpson has cancer, and reasons that “there’s only one person that can help me now…….SATAN!” He whips out the Satanic Bible, makes a pentagram on the floor, puts a goat’s skull in it, and summons the devil for a deal that OF COURSE won’t bite him in the ass in any way, shape, or form. He is “cursed” with the power of the Ghost Rider, which he uses to fight evil. While having a cult following, Ghost Rider is for the most part a really cool visual without a ton of depth. The most current Ghost Rider series, written by Daniel Way, is aiming to correct this with a sharp focus on Ghost Rider vs. Lucifer, in a way that’s never been done before. But to be fair to MSJ, GR is nowhere near as developed a character as Daredevil.
The plot of Ghost Rider is a rehash of the origin: Johnny Blaze’s father Barton is diagnosed with cancer, and the young Blaze makes a “deal” with Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda) to save him. Said deal ironically backfires, separating Balze from his girlfriend Roxanne in the process. Blaze hits the road, and we fast forward into present time. The eccentric Johnny Blaze (Nicholas Cage) is a major star on the cycling circuit. He “drinks” jelly beans out of a martini glass, and regards Karen Carpenter with reverence in a pre-show ritual. His assistant Mack (Donal Logue) worries about his increasingly dangerous jumps, and his obsession with the occult. Blaze often asks people “if they believe in second chances.” He runs into Roxanne (Eva Mendes), now a TV reporter, and gets her to agree to have dinner with him. But that night, Lucifer comes calling, Blaze turns into Ghost Rider “the devil’s bounty hunter” for the first time, and is contracted with capturing his son Blackheart (a truly awful Wes Bentley), and wackiness enuses.
For the most part, I enjoyed Ghost Rider. After Daredevil, I definitely wasn’t expecting Shakespeare from MSJ. The movie is well shot, and for the most part, fun to look at. There’s a fairly striking bullet-time shot about halfway in, and the production design is pretty competent. I was actually pleasantly surprised at the creepy ambiance that is present in a lot of the film…..this wasn’t something I thought MSJ would be able to pull off. For better or for worse, the movie is pretty faithful to the source material, which should please hardcore fans of the comic. I mentioned real-world details in the DD review, and one that is rendered nicely is the aftermath of Blaze’s first uncontrolled motorcycle ride through the city on Ghost Rider’s hell-cycle. What do you think a city street should look like after a supernaturally-powered motorcycle goes tearing through it at about 200 mph, on fire? Yeah, it looks a lot like that.
Nicholas Cage’s performance both helps and hurts this movie. Given the odd feel of the film and the source material, there are few actors with Cage’s grasp of the odd that could do justice to it. When Cage pulls this off, as he does in films like Wild at Heart, Leaving Las Vegas, and Dead Fall, the results are very satisfying. When he doesn’t pull it off in a film (Vampire’s Kiss comes to mind…..), he falls flat on his face. What he manages here is something between the two. The very attractive Eva Mendes turns in a workmanlike performance that is adequate. The same can be said for Donal Logue. Peter Fonda as Mephistopheles and Sam Elliot as the mysterious caretaker are really the only actors who understand the material, and act accordingly. Wes Bentley hands us a campy performance that should result in the revocation of his SAG card.
Ghost Rider shares faults with it’s source material: style over substance. The big problem I had with the film is a real lack of dramatic tension. You not only get the impression that Johnny Blaze was mostly tricked into making the deal, but that he never even made up his mind when his signature was “acquired.” This departure from the original origin takes credence away from the idea that he is seeking redemption. Another aspect that adds to this is how powerful Ghost Rider is……every time he fights one of Blackheart’s minions, they get a lump or two in before he completely kicks their asses in. The villains needed to be a much more prominent threat. And while the visual effects were competent, even good, the main character simply didn’t look quite real enough. I’m sure that a skull on fire isn’t easy to render, even with today’s technology, but GR needed to look every bit as good as Gollum, for example. That, and while a lot of the film was legitimately funny, the script needed a once-over to reduce the amount of cheese in the recipe.
All in all, I got what I expected from Ghost Rider: Two hours of simple, escapist entertainment. It is an improvement over Daredevil, but not by much. I give Ghost Rider a 5 out of 22 on the 22 scale, and fear for Garth Ennis’s beloved DC/Vertigo series Preacher, which will be coming to HBO courtesy of MSJ. Gulp.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

For Your Consideration

I love Christopher Guest.

For those of you saying, "Who?": Please go rent This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind. In that order. Honestly, you won't be sorry.

For the rest, this review is for you.

You're wondering, how does this film stack up with the rest of Guest's work as a writer/director? (I include Tap, though Rob Reiner directed that.) Well, it's pretty darn good. Bearing in mind that this is my first viewing, and that Guest films get better with repeat viewings, I'd put Consideration ahead of A Mighty Wind and almost even with Best in Show, though still significantly behind Guffman and Tap.

Consideration is a significant departure for Guest, primarily because that it's not a mockumentary. It does still include plenty of interviews, but in this case the interviewers are characters in the film as well. The non-mockumentary style is a bit of a shock at first, but it doesn't take long to get used to.

In nearly all other ways, however, the film is vintage Guest. It's fueled by an enormous ensemble cast--larger than previous movies. So large, in fact, that even the core actors are on screen for no more than thirty minutes in total. And like all other Guest movies, it features mediocre people reaching for an elusive taste at greatness.

In the case of For Your Consideration, it's a group of people working on a low-budget, narrow-audience film called Home for Purim. The actors in the film are all either past their prime or never had a prime, and the crew are not without their own endearing quirks. But the best way to take this movie apart is by handing out...

Cast Report Cards
First, for the old guard (appeared in Guffman or Tap):
-Catherine O'Hara, as Marilyn Hack, is solid as the lead and mother figure of Home for Purim and the first to get Oscar buzz. She's brilliant at the beginning but gets a bit hammy toward the end. B+
-Harry Shearer doesn't particularly stand out as Victor Allan Miller, the father in Purim, but his quiet competence keeps the film nicely grounded. A-
-Parker Posey is stellar as usual, this time as Callie Webb, the daughter in Purim. She goes a bit over the top in one scene, but overall she does a wonderful job inviting the audience to share in her emotion. A-
-Christopher Guest, himself, puts in perhaps his worst performance to date as Jay Berman, the director. He's amusing in his brief screen time, but this is the least-believable Guest character I've seen. He gets a C.
-Eugene Levy brilliantly handles a role he's perfectly suited for, that of Victor Allan Miller's unscrupulous agent. Solid A.
-Bob Balaban and Michael McKean are decent in a smallish role as Purim's writers, Philip Koontz and Lane Iverson. The two are individually excellent, but don't have much chemistry together, so a B apiece here.
-Don Lake and Michael Hitchcock are sublime as Siskel/Ebert/Roper send-ups: Ben Lilly and David van Zyverden, two critics who can never agree. The scene where they weigh in on Purim made me laugh harder than any other scene in the movie. A+
-Fred Willard does his usual clueless ham schtick, here as Chuck Porter, co-host of a "Entertainment Tonight"-type show. He's good, but he doesn't steal the movie the way he did in Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. So, largely because of the high standards he's set, he only gets a B.

And the new guard (Best in Show and later):
-Willard's co-host Cindy Martin is played by Jane Lynch, who is excellent. It's hard to carve out space next to Willard, but Lynch does so beautifully and believably. So A-.
-Jennifer Coolidge is hilarious in every scene she's in as Whitney Taylor Brown, the producer. She's probably the one actor who consistently outfunnies everyone she acts with in this film: A+.
-Ed Begley Jr. is relatively unrecognizable as flamboyant make-up artist Sandy Lane. It's rather different sort of role for him, but he pulls it off with aplomb: A.
-Christopher Moynihan is perfectly average as Brian Chubb, the son in Purim. He does nothing to distinguish himself but also nothing to embarrass himself in one of the film's larger roles, so h gets a B.
-John Michael Higgins turns in a confident and comical performance as publicist Corey Taft: A-.
-Rachael Harris' performance is notably competent as Mary Pat Hooligan, Parker Posey's girlfriend in Purim: A-.

Some new folks--all of whom you might recognize from television--turn up as well.
Ricky Gervais (David Brendt in the British "The Office") rocks as studio exec Martin Gibb (A), completely outshining his co-exec, Guest regular Larry Miller (B-).
From the American version of "The Office," Jim (aka John Krasinski) pops up superbriefly as an actor in a competing film--too briefly to warrant a grade, in fact.
Other faces you might recognize include Sandra Oh (Dr. Cristina Yang in "Grey's Anatomy") and Richard Kind (Mark from "Mad About You"), who help out the film as a marketing team.

All together, it's a charming little comedy that merits at least one viewing, if not more. It's a solid B+, and on the 22 scale, it's a 10.