Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Ghost Rider (2007)

When you hear the word "superhero," images of people decked out in capes and spandex tights probably come to mind. However, one superhero stands out as being cut from a completely different cloth than other comic book superheroes: Ghost Rider. While the name was originally used by two separate cowboy titles by two separate publishers, it is a name most recognizably associated with a supernatural stunt biker named Johnny Blaze.

Created by writer Gary Friedrich and artist Mike Ploog, Blaze made his first appearance in the pages of Marvel Spotlight #5 in 1972, and got his own monthly series from Marvel Comics shortly thereafter. Though the series came to an end in 1983 and a new Ghost Rider was eventually introduced, it was Johnny Blaze that got the nod when it came time for the Rider to join other Marvel characters with his own cinematic adaptation.

But getting the movie into theaters, however, would be a long hard road out of developmental hell. Scheduling conflicts with the cast and crew, script issues, and studio changes ended up delaying production until early 2005. Columbia Pictures even changed the movie's expected August 2006 release date on two occasions, eventually deciding to release it this past February, where it was met with overwhelmingly negative reviews from professional critics. But screw those guys, I enjoyed it a lot and I'll tell you why.

As the movie begins, we're introduced to Johnny Blaze (Matt Long), a teenager who teams with his father Barton (Brett Cullen) as a duo of death-defying stunt bikers for a traveling carnival. After he discovers that his father is dying of an untreatable lung cancer, Johnny is approached by the demonic Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda), who offers to cure Barton's cancer if Johnny will trade his soul. The young man is understandably leery at first, but ends up inadvertently accepting the deal when he accidentally pricks his finger and lets a single drop of his blood drip onto the contract Mephistopheles had presented him. That's a cheap way to do business, but nobody ever accused the devil of playing fair.

Johnny awakens the next morning, believing he's simply had a really bizarre dream. But it's no dream; his father's fit as a fiddle. At least he is for a little while, because it isn't long before a freak accident during their show leads to Barton's tragic and untimely demise. Ah, irony; how I hate you, how I love you. Johnny starts making all kinds of wild accusations about who's at fault for the accident, but Mephistopheles retorts that he only agreed to cure Barton's cancer and not keep him alive. And it's not like it matters either way, since he still owns Johnny's soul and he'll be coming to collect one day.

Years later, the adult Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) has become immensely famous. Take Evel Knieval's fame and multiply it by a million, and you've got Johnny Blaze. Although he has achieved this recognition through unbelievably dangerous stunts, he is equally renowned for walking away from horrific crashes that would kill normal people. His manager and best friend Mack (Donal Logue) suggests that he has a guardian angel on his side, but Johnny thinks it's something else. And deep down, he knows it.

He's spent his life regretting the decision he'd made, looking for a sign that he's getting closer to a second chance at the happy life he'd had before his deal with Mephistopheles was struck. And as he prepares for his next big stunt, he gets that sign in the form of Roxanne Simpson (Eva Mendes). The two had been madly in love with one another and even planned to elope, but after his father's death, Johnny fell into a pit of self-loathing and left her behind without a word. Roxanne became a television reporter in the years since, and her station has sent her to interview Johnny before his next stunt.

The pair hit it off and slowly begin to rekindle their relationship, but a scary, demonic wrench gets thrown into the gears. Shortly before a big date with Roxanne, Johnny is finally called upon by Mephistopheles, who needs Johnny to remedy a problem for him. Blackheart (Wes Bentley), the son of Mephistopheles, has arrived on Earth with the intention of locating and procuring a long-hidden contract that will give him access to a thousand wicked souls and enough power to overthrow both Hell and Earth.

Mephistopheles just can't have that. So he cashes in Johnny's half of their bargain, enlisting him to serve as the latest in a line of fiery skull-faced bounty hunters that carry the name "Ghost Rider." He charges his new Rider with eliminating Blackheart and his three minions, sweetening the pot by offering to return his soul if he is successful. With a little help from a mysterious cemetery caretaker (Sam Elliott), Johnny learns the basics of his newfound power as he searches for a way to stop Blackheart from reaching the contract while reclaiming his own soul.

I don't believe I'm being controversial when I say that Ghost Rider is a solidly B-list character. So I think it only makes sense for him to be translated into a wild B-movie. While I will admit that the movie has a preposterous story and some hammy acting, it's all handled in such a way that makes it entertaining and just plain fun to watch. Sure, there's a few moments that will probably make you roll your eyes. Sure, there's a few moments that are corny and don't really work. But no matter, because the movie tries with all its might to be entertaining, and I think it's a success.

Writer/director Mark Steven Johnson is no stranger to the world of comic book superheroes, having previously helmed Daredevil in 2003. And just like Daredevil, Ghost Rider might not be built on the strongest of foundations, but it has its moments. Johnson's screenplay is a mixed bag. Among the bad are its fair share of clichés, predictable spots, and groan-worthy bits of dialogue (the only time the line "you're going down" has worked was when Bruce Campbell said it to a decapitated head in Evil Dead 2), while I felt the villains were lame. A superhero movie is only as strong as its villains, and Blackheart and his three henchmen were totally weak. And I also got the impression that the henchmen — played by Daniel Frederiksen, Mathew Wilkinson, and Laurence Breuls — were only included in order to boost the number of action scenes. It didn't help anything that the three were disposed of relatively quickly, either. Why even include them at all if they're only going to get one scene a piece? That time could have been used to make Blackheart seem like more of a threat, but what do I know.

However, Johnson balances the negatives with some positives. He gets the comedic bits right, and he includes a fun twist on a typical superhero movie cliché. You know how in most of these movies, conflict is created by the superhero trying to keep his girlfriend from finding out that he's the superhero? Batman, Superman, Spider-Man; they're all guilty of it. So what does Johnson do? He has Johnny come right out and confess to Roxanne that he's the Ghost Rider, and Roxanne treats him like he's out of his mind. It's the little moments like that that help save the script from complete mediocrity.

Johnson also helps to mask the script's inadequacies with his energetic direction. He and cinematographer Russell Boyd give us some fantastic camerawork that, when combined with the spectacular CGI effects, makes for a movie that is visually astounding. Johnson also makes sure to keep things going at a rapid pace, only really slowing down when we need to get the plot out of the way. This works in the movie's favor, since it is a movie driven by action sequences and exciting visuals, and slowing down would take away from that.

And I have to compliment Johnson's idea to change the color of Ghost Rider's fire depending on his mood. There's the usual orange when he's all about business, then a soft blue to represent sadness and worry, then a rare transition to black for pain. It's pulled off nicely, and I think it was a great idea since it's not like skulls can emote or anything. Johnson's direction is bolstered by not only the CGI, but by Christopher Young's great score as well. Containing elements of both the western and horror genres, Young's music is quite effective in setting the mood and establishing the movie's atmosphere. A couple of classic rock songs are put to good use as well, so I'm not complaining about the music at all.

Last but not least is our cast. Nicolas Cage is supposedly a big fan of the Ghost Rider comics, and his devotion to the character shows. I don't know if he's the first guy I'd have thought of to hire to play Johnny Blaze, but Cage is quite effective. He plays the role with an Elvis-like rock star flair, and the eccentricities he gives the character — sipping jelly beans from a martini glass, laughing his head off at videos of monkeys practicing karate, listening to the Carpenters to prepare himself for stunts — make the character likeable and engaging.

He also handles the dramatic scenes well, and his transformation scenes evidence a real knowledge of the character. In the scenes in which Johnny initially transforms into Ghost Rider, Cage exhibits tremendous agony that gives way to maniacal laughter as his flesh burns away. It shows that while the transition from man to monster causes Johnny pain, it gives the Rider pleasure; it's an interesting dichotomy that gives the character a certain subtle depth.

Eva Mendes is great as well, though I got the impression that her role was only there to serve two purposes: to be the token love interest, and to show off as much cleavage as possible so the 14-year-old boys in the audience will have something to watch between action sequences. But she's a lot of fun to watch, and Mendes and Cage have an amiable chemistry together that really makes their scenes work. Meanwhile, the character of Blackheart isn't all that great of a villain, but Bentley makes a good go at it. He at least tries, which I can respect. Our primary supporting actors, Peter Fonda and Sam Elliott, are both fantastic, but you wouldn't expect anything less from them.

Put it all together, and you've got a movie that, while not an all-time classic, is most certainly an entertaining way to spend two hours. I really don't get all the criticism against Ghost Rider; have people become so jaded by the artsy-fartsy pretentious crap that gets all the Oscar nominations every year that they just can't let themselves enjoy the simpler movies anymore? No, I wouldn't say that Ghost Rider is as good as Batman Begins or the first two Spider-Man movies, but it's still worth a watch. I mean, how many movies can say they have a stuntman forced to become a demon-fighting skeleton after getting the raw end of a Faustian deal he'd made years prior? What's not to like about that? So I'm going to give Ghost Rider three and a half stars, heavily leaning towards four, and a big thumbs-up. So go check it out, won't you?

Final Rating: ***½

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Jackie Brown (1997)

The runaway success of Pulp Fiction in the autumn of 1994 rocketed Quentin Tarantino to stardom, earning him the Cannes Film Festival's highest honors, an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and a reputation as one of the most imaginative writer/directors in Hollywood. However, as the buzz surrounding his sophomore project cooled, Tarantino spent the next few years on other projects. He wrote and directed a segment of the 1995 comedic anthology Four Rooms, then wrote and starred in the awesome 1996 vampire film From Dusk Till Dawn.

He returned to the director's chair in 1997 for his third feature-length film, a loose adaptation of Elmore Lenard's novel Rum Punch that Tarantino titled Jackie Brown. An homage to the blaxploitation films of the 1970s, Jackie Brown is a solid movie that, although it isn't as famous as some of Tarantino's other work, is a fantastic film worth watching.

Our story primarily follows Jackie Brown (Pam Grier), a flight attendant for a crappy Mexican airline. Though the job is awful and the pay is meager, it allows her to smuggle money into the United States for gun runner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). Ordell has attracted the attention of the ATF, who've recently arrested one of his employees, Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker). Working on a tip from Beaumont, ATF agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) and local cop Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen) catch Jackie as she arrives in Los Angeles with Ordell's latest shipment of funds. Initially refusing to deal with the agents, Jackie gets sent to jail pending trial.

Ordell, having already disposed of Beaumont after bailing out of jail, fears that Jackie too may be inclined to talk to the ATF like Beaumont did. He contacts Max Cherry (Robert Forster), the bail bondsman who arranged for Beaumont's release, and convinces him to bail Jackie out too. Max gets her out, and is smitten as soon as he lays eyes on her. He offers a ride home, and on the way to her house, offers to help determine her legal options. Jackie isn't home long before Ordell shows up at her house to silence her, but she gets the drop on him. She pulls a gun that she stole from the glove compartment of Max's car, and cuts a deal where she'll pretend to help the ATF while still managing to smuggle half a million dollars to Ordell.

To accomplish this, Ordell employs a few others, mainly ditzy stoner Melanie Ralston (Bridget Fonda) and Louis Gara (Robert De Niro), a bank robber recently released from prison. Nicolette organizes a sting to catch Ordell, though Ordell believes that Jackie will double-cross him by diverting the money before he can make an arrest. But unknown to any of them, Jackie plans on keeping the money for herself with a little help from Max. Everyone has their eye on that 500,000 dollars, but only Jackie knows how it's going down.

That synopsis may look relatively simple, but the movie is a complicated one. Fail to pay attention, and you'll probably get a little lost. But that's the beauty of Jackie Brown. It's hard to avoid getting pulled into the movie. It's a shame that it is, for all intents and purposes, the forgotten movie on Quentin Tarantino's résumé, because it's a fascinating watch. There are no wasted moments with Jackie Brown; everything serves to either develop the characters or move the plot forward. It's fascinating to watch where things go and how they're getting here.

Tarantino's direction, as always, is fantastic. Though his technique in this particular flick is no different than anything you'd see in any of his other movies, he at one point utilizes a technique straight out Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon. Instead of following one important sequence through one point of view, we see from three. Though I'm not sure how much of this was necessitated by the plot, it's intriguing to see just how this scene is perceived from each party involved. I don't really know if I'd call it an innovation or anything like that, but it's still pretty neat.

Where Tarantino really succeeds, however, is his screenplay. I haven't read Rum Punch so I can't vouch for any similarities or dissimilarities between the book and Jackie Brown, but the script once again shows Tarantino's knack for writing dialogue. However, it differs from his usual style because of its mostly straightforward narrative that isn't as frenetic as we would come to expect from him. It's a rare move on Tarantino's part, but he still manages to keep his audience guessing. He's successful in including plenty of twists and turns, making us wonder just how things will turn out until it's all revealed in the grand finale. So I guess it's a variation of a typical Tarantino theme: making sure we never really know how we're getting from Point A to Point B until we actually get there.

Let's not forget the cast, either. Nearly everyone puts forth an amazing showing. In the title role, Pam Grier is absolutely superb. She displays the strength that made her characters from Foxy Brown and Coffy so memorable, yet makes Jackie Brown distinguishable from those two by giving Jackie a certain vulnerability as well. She really makes you care about Jackie; she makes you believe that she could amount to more than just a washed-up stewardess on some crappy airline. Meanwhile, Samuel L. Jackson is, as always, fantastic as the swaggering arms dealer that talks a good game and tries backing it up.

Michael Keaton is fine as the trusting ATF agent, and Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda are both acceptable as the dimwitted duo that backs up Ordell. Not to make any accusations, but I think Fonda is only in the movie to satisfy Quentin Tarantino's foot fetish. Seriously, Reservoir Dogs is the only one of Tarantino's movies that doesn't have a close-up of the bare feet of one of his actresses. The guy likes what he likes and I won't knock him for that, but come on, Quentin. Not everybody's into feet, dude. Could you cool it in your next movie?

But perhaps the most surprising performance comes from Robert Forster, who earned an Oscar nomination for his appearance here. The majority of the characters that Tarantino has created over the years have been either irredeemable scumbags or over-the-top people that wouldn't exist in the real world. But Forster's character is different. You could believe that someone like Max Cherry exists, both due to how Tarantino has written him and how Forster portrays him. Forster gives Max a heart and soul while having an extremely amiable and believable chemistry with Grier, and I'll say he deserved that Oscar nomination.

And I'd be remiss if I neglected the excellent soundtrack Tarantino has put together. The soundtracks for each of his movies are great, and this compilation of '70s R&B and soul is no different. The opening title sequence alone, set to "Across 110th Street" by Bobby Womack, was enough to sell me on the music. But there are so many wonderful songs in the movie, it's hard not to find at least one song to like. The only exception to that is "(Holy Matrimony) Letter to the Firm" by rapper Foxy Brown. This song is really out of place when compared to the rest of the music, and I think the only reason Tarantino uses it at all is because Foxy Brown's stage name was inspired by a certain movie starring Pam Grier.

Of all the movies Quentin Tarantino has directed over the years, Jackie Brown is the only one that feels like it could take place in the real world. Maybe that's why it's his most underrated piece of work. Everyone is used to Tarantino giving us characters and situations that are bigger than life, but everyone and everything in Jackie Brown could truly exist. It might be what makes it so underrated, but it might also be what makes it such an entertaining film. So I'll give Jackie Brown four stars and the "Sutton At The Movies" seal of approval.

Final Rating: ****

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Night of the Living Dead (1990)

If you're a fan of horror movies at all, then I'm sure you've at least heard of George Romero. One of the genre's most respected filmmakers, he's been behind cult films like The Crazies, Martin, and his collaboration with Stephen King, Creepshow. However, his most famous work has been his series of zombie movies. Beginning with Night of the Living Dead in 1968 and continuing in the decades that followed with a number of other zombie movies, Romero's work with the undead helped to craft the zombie film as we know it today.

However, thanks to a screw-up made by the distributors, Night of the Living Dead was released without a copyright notice in the credits and ended up in the public domain. Whoops. After over twenty years of not making a dime from what would become one of the horror genre's most influential and important movies, Romero took a chance at swinging things in his favor by writing and producing a remake of his debut film. With special effects maestro Tom Savini on board as its director, this modernized take on an old classic didn't exactly set the box office on fire when it was released on October 19, 1990. However, in the two decades since then, Night of the Living Dead '90 has become a cult classic in its own right, and for good reason.

As in the original classic, the story is simple, yet amazingly effective. Our tale of terror begins at a cemetery in the middle of nowhere, where bickering siblings Barbara (Patricia Tallman) and Johnnie (Bill Moseley) have arrived to put flowers on the grave of their mother. As Johnnie teases his sister about her fear of the cemetery, they get into a scuffle with a mangy, sallow-faced man. Barbara flees after the man bashes Johnnie's head against a tombstone, eventually arriving at a secluded farmhouse.

And just her luck, there's a couple of zombies around the farmhouse too. But it isn't too long before a tough stranger named Ben shows up, running down one zombie with his stolen truck and dispatching the rest with a crowbar. As night falls, the pair discovers that they're not alone. Five survivors — young couple Tom (William Butler) and Judy Rose (Katie Finneran), and Harry Cooper (Tom Towles), his wife Helen (McKee Anderson), and their injured daughter Sarah (Heather Mazur) — make their presence known after spending the better part of the day hiding in the basement. While they barricade all the doors and windows and try to defend themselves against the armada of undead flesh-eating ghouls that is ever-growing outside the house, the panic-stricken group must also find away to defend themselves against the growing tension and cabin fever inside the house.

Night of the Living Dead '90 is proof positive that it's possible to make a good remake. A lot of remakes are simply soulless retreads made in order to get a few bucks off a name with a built-in audience. But this movie is not only a good remake, but a fantastic movie in general. Great direction, fantastic effects, and wonderful performances really help make the movie what it is, and — dare I day it? — I think it might actually be a little more entertaining than the original.

Aside from a few changes, George Romero's screenplay doesn't deviate that far from the original script penned by he and John Russo in the '60s. However, those changes make all the difference. Primarily, we see some differences in the Barbara character. The Barbara played by Judith O'Dea in 1968 was catatonic for nearly the entire movie, a character that was pretty much useless for the whole thing. But the updated Barbara becomes more assertive, someone who isn't going to just sit on the couch and babble incoherently about how everybody needed to drop what they're doing and go on a suicide mission to rescue her dead brother. The new Barbara has no problem kicking a little zombie ass if she needs to, and I think that the change is for the better. The ending is different as well, and although I thought the original movie's ending was more effective in its ability to shock, the remake's ending works too. It establishes a feeling that we're not any different than the zombies; we might even be worse than them.

Where the movie truly shines is in the other categories. Though he's known primarily as a master of makeup effects, Tom Savini makes the most of his feature-length directorial debut. He takes a number of opportunities to have fun at the expense of the audience, playing off our knowledge of the original movie and taking familiar scenes in directions that we wouldn't expect. He and cinematographer Frank Prinzi also film scenes in such a way that it allows things to creep up on us, to surprises us. We the viewer get the feeling that even with all the windows boarded up airtight, a zombified hand could come jutting in at any time to grab some poor fool that stood too close. Savini does a great job, and it's a shame that he hasn't directed more movies.

Helping Savini are the special makeup effects designed by John Vulich and Everett Burrell, and the music composed by Paul McCollough. Vulich and Burrell's effects are well done, making the zombies look like they truly are walking corpses. From the oozing, long-dead ghouls to the fresh, ready-to-bury body whose autopsy stitches are ready to pop and the one creature whose lower body is twisted at an impossible angle, the zombies are wonderfully disgusting, and look infinitely better than the zombies slathered in blue-gray greasepaint like in Dawn of the Dead or Day of the Dead. McCollough's music, meanwhile, helps enhance the tone of the on-screen proceedings. My only real problem with the score is that it sounds a bit dated, probably because of the use of synthesizers instead of an orchestral score or even something a little more ambient.

Finally there's the cast, who, for the most part, are great. Patricia Tallman is aces here, credibly transforming from vulnerable victim to take-no-prisoners zombie killer. Meanwhile, Tom Towles is entertaining as the antagonistic yet cowardly Harry, nearly treading into the line of overacting but still managing to turn in a fun performance. My only complaint is that his insults sound like they were stolen from old reruns of Leave It To Beaver; this is an R-rated movie, so a good solid profanity would have worked instead of something sounding corny. Though to be perfectly honest, that's more of a problem with the script than with Towles.

McKee Anderson turns in a subtle, understated, yet amiable performance, though she's not really a high priority character. I guess Bill Moseley figured he'd make the best of his ten minutes of screen time, because he's hilarious as Johnnie. William Butler is acceptable, while Katie Finneran spins her wheels as an essentially useless character. Rounding out the cast is veteran horror and sci-fi actor Tony Todd, who performs with an intensity that the role needs. He's the perfect person for the role, thanks to both his talent and his commanding screen presence. As soon as he shows up, you know he's going to take charge. And that's just what he does.

As I've said, Night of the Living Dead '90 is one of those rare remakes that is equal to, if not better than, the original movie. It might not have the same reputation as the original Night, but it's still a fantastic film that truly honors the legacy of what came before it. And for that, I'll give it four and a half stars. Go check it out.

Final Rating: ****½

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Ghostbusters II (1989)

Without a doubt, the summer of 1989 belonged to Batman. Tim Burton's cinematic reinvention of the Dark Knight was the undisputed king of the summer blockbusters. It dominated the box office and making a killing just off the merchandising alone. But to me, there was only one movie worth seeing that summer, and it wasn't Batman... it was Ghostbusters II. I couldn't get enough of the Ghostbusters at the time; I owned all the toys and merchandise and all that stuff, and had practically worn out my VHS copy of the first movie. So when I heard that a sequel was in the works, I was as excited as a seven-year-old boy could get. It's actually the first movie I can remember seeing in a theater, believe it or not. But while Ghostbusters II is special to me in that aspect, time has not been as kind to it as it's been to the first movie. It's actually kinda mediocre when you compare it to its predecessor, but I believe it's still worth a watch. So let's check out why that is.

Five years have passed since the Ghostbusters saved New York City from the wrath of Gozer. However, it hasn't been a happy five years. All the collateral damage caused during the battle with Gozer led to a judge issuing an injunction against the Ghostbusters, preventing them from catching ghosts and essentially putting them out of business. In the time since then, the four have moved on. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) hosts a local television show where he essentially mocks guests claiming to have psychic abilities; Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) is a researcher studying behavioral sciences; and Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) runs an occult bookstore, occasionally teaming with Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) to revive the Ghostbuster name as entertainers for children's birthday parties.

But something is about to pull them all back together again. After the stroller containing her infant son Oscar (Hank and Will Deutschendorf) goes flying into the street under its own power, Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) — now a painting restorer at the Manhattan Museum of Art — seeks out her old friends in order to find out why. The search leads Peter, Egon, and Ray to an intersection near Dana's apartment building, where, posing as city employees, they start drilling into First Avenue. Ray draws the short straw and gets lowered down into their hole, where he discovers an enormous river of pink slime flowing along the long-abandoned pneumatic railroad lines. He procures a sample of the slime, but as he's being lifted out, he accidentally kicks a power line and sends all of Manhattan into a blackout.

Thanks to this and the fact that they were digging up the street without anything so much as resembling a permit, the cops haul them in. It doesn't help them any that they had all their ghostbusting equipment in their truck, which puts them in violation of the aforementioned injunction. Peter, Egon, and Ray are sent to trial, ending up with Louis Tully (Rick Moranis) as their incompetent attorney while facing a judge (Harris Yulin) that is grossly biased against them.

The judge is so biased, in fact, that after he sentences them to eighteen months in prison, he goes on an angry tirade that culminates with the judge telling the three Ghostbusters that he'd have them burned at the stake if he could. The judge's rage causes the slime sample — which had been entered as evidence — to explode, releasing the vindictive ghosts of two murderers that the judge had sent to the electric chair years earlier. Panicking, the judge dismisses the case and rescinds the injunction, allowing Peter, Egon, and Ray to suit up and bust the ghosts.

The Ghostbusters officially reopen their business as paranormal investigators and eliminators. But as they return to their previous glory, Peter tries rekindling his past relationship with Dana while the others investigate the river of slime. Turns out that the slime is empathic, and it feeds on the emotions off those around it. They even trace the slime river to a definitive source: beneath the Manhattan Museum of Art. This is particular interest of the Ghostbusters, who have reason to believe that a painting of 16th-century Moldavian dictator Vigo the Carpathian (Wilhelm von Homburg) that Dana had been working on may have some connection to the supernatural.

And you know what? It does have some connection to the supernatural. Turns out that Vigo's spirit is contained within the painting, and he has turned Dana's boss, Janosz Poha (Peter MacNicol), into his own personal sidekick. He also gives the possessed Janosz some directions: bring him a child, so that he may transfer his soul into it at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve and live again. And Janosz has found the perfect child: Dana's son. So you just know that the Ghostbusters and Vigo are going to have a showdown. Janosz successfully kidnaps Oscar and traps Dana after she makes an ill-advised rescue attempt by herself, while all hell begins to break loose as the city's New Year's parties begin to kick into high gear. It's up to the Ghostbusters to crack the seemingly impenetrable cocoon of slime surrounding the museum, defeat Vigo, and save the world once again.

Ghostbusters II isn't a bad movie at all. Unfortunately, I don't believe it's as strong as the original movie. I simply got the impression that they were truing to catch lightning in a bottle a second time, and despite the movie's box office success (a worldwide gross of 215 million dollars), I don't know if I'd put it on a pedestal like its predecessor. Don't get me wrong, Ghostbusters II is entertaining. But it just feels like some of the magic was lost in the five years between the two.

Let's go with Ivan Reitman's direction first. Teaming with cinematographer Michael Chapman, Reitman once again crafts a movie that is visually astounding. Ghostbusters II isn't a movie that demands anything extremely flashy when it comes to direction or camerawork, but Reitman does a fantastic job in setting and keeping the movie's tone. This is assisted by the musical score composed by Randy Edelman. Instead of simply reprising Elmer Bernstein's music from the first movie, Edelman goes his own way and does a great job enhancing the movie's atmosphere. Whether it be something comedic, something frightening, or something heroic, Edelman is up to task.

The original songs comprising the movie's soundtrack — performed by high-profile acts like Run-DMC, Bobby Brown, Doug E. Fresh, Oingo Boingo, and Glenn Frey from the Eagles — aren't bad either, though I don't think they'd hold up outside of the context of the movie. I should also compliment the visual effects created by Industrial Light & Magic. Though there is an instance or two of the effects not completely blending in with their surroundings, scenes like the Ghostbusters fighting the courthouse ghosts and the Statue of Liberty walking through Manhattan are amazingly effective in drawing the audience in. That's why ILM is the best at what they do, folks.

Up next is the screenplay, once again penned by Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd. Instead of being a straight comedy like it could have been, Ramis and Aykroyd instead spread the humor thinly over the movie's 108-minute running time. Doing that allows them to establish some drama, a little horror, and even some romance with the Peter/Dana subplot. It's some very good writing, but I didn't feel that the script was one of the movie's strongest elements. I can't exactly put my finger on anything specific that bothers me, but it doesn't seem as charming as Ramis and Aykroyd's script for the first movie. I wish I could say what it was bugging me so much, I really do.

Last but not least is the cast. Practically every major player from the first movie is back, and everyone does a perfect job, specifically our leads. Bill Murray, Ramis, and Aykroyd are wonderfully entertaining, having a great comedic chemistry together. Murray also has a warm, amiable chemistry with Sigourney Weaver, who turns in a fine performance as the straight man (straight woman?) to the antics of the Ghostbusters. Unfortunately, it seems like they couldn't come up with anything for the other returning actors. Annie Potts is barely in the movie at all, while Ernie Hudson has only a handful of scenes despite being a Ghostbuster. Moranis fares the best, with a number of well-done important scenes and a funny mini-subplot with Slimer.

Of our antagonists, Peter MacNicol is the most notable, enthusiastically overacting and perhaps being more entertaining than the character should have been. Wilhelm von Homburg isn't given a whole lot to do until the climax, but he sure can deliver one intimidating monologue. And in an extremely minor and pretty much useless role, Kurt Fuller isn't bad as the mayor's sleazy assistant. I think the only reason the character was included in the movie was they thought the Ghostbuster-hating bureaucrat worked so well in the first movie, they'd use a similar character in the sequel. The character has no real purpose, and the subplot where he has the Ghostbusters locked up in Bellevue's psychiatric ward seems like a whole lot of filler.

As I said in the opening paragraph, Ghostbusters II is a special movie to me. However, that doesn't make me blind to the fact that it very nearly falls victim to a nasty case of "sequelitis." It's not as good as the first movie, but that doesn't necessarily make it a bad movie like other sequels out there. There's still a lot of good in Ghostbusters II, so I think it's worth a watch. My final verdict is three and a half stars, and I hope that one day, there'll be a Ghostbusters III to close out the trilogy.

Final Rating: ***½

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Ghostbusters (1984)

When I was a kid, it was fairly common for me to get wrapped up in whatever cartoon/toy line was hot at the time. I would get absolutely addicted. If you don't believe me, I need to let you go through the various old boxes in my attic. I still have all my old He-Man and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toys up there. Each of them continue have a special nostalgic place in my heart, but one of the few fads from my youth that I never really got over was the Ghostbusters.

I was a mere two years old when the movie originally hit theaters in the summer of 1984, but I was absolutely enthralled with the cartoon that began airing Saturday mornings on ABC beginning in 1986. I had all the toys, the books, the lunchboxes, I played the video games, and I even dressed up as a Ghostbuster for Halloween one year. But it wasn't just the cartoon I loved; it was the movie as well. I absolutely wore out my copies of the movie and the soundtrack, to the point that I think my parents were getting sick of them. The movie frequently turns up on lists of the funniest movies of all time and is one of my personal favorites, so let's get to the review and find out why.

Our tale of the supernatural follows three eccentric parapsychology professors: over-enthusiastic Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), nerdy Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis), and cynical womanizer Peter Venkman (Bill Murray). Their theories regarding the existence of the supernatural and the possibility of containing them are dismissed as signs of incompetence and the trio are fired from their cushy jobs at Columbia University, despite having actual contact with a ghost. They don't let their newfound unemployment bring them down, so the three associates go into business for themselves as the Ghostbusters, New York City's only paranormal investigators and eliminators.

Though business is quite slow — practically nonexistent — for them at first, they draw the attention of Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), whose refrigerator may or may not be a portal to some demonic otherworld. After visiting the Ghostbusters's office to ask for help, Peter is immediately smitten and takes the case. He visits her apartment and fails to find any evidence of supernatural activity, but promises to solve her problem despite making a bad impression with his flippant and flirtatious attitude.

However, Dana is almost pushed to the backburner when their first big bust pushes the Ghostbusters into the national spotlight. Everything from newspapers to political and scientific journals to talk shows and Casey Kasem's radio countdown has something to say about them. And as their business booms exponentially, the demand for their services becomes so high that they're forced to hire a fourth Ghostbuster, blue-collar Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), to help lighten the workload.

As time goes by, it becomes apparent that foul things are afoot in Manhattan. Dana's neighbor, a nerdy accountant by the name of Louis Tully (Rick Moranis), has become possessed by an entity that refers to itself as Vinz Clortho. He eventually ends up in Egon's care, where we learn his story: Vinz is the servant of an ancient Sumerian god named Gozer, and that his role in the grand scheme of things is that he is "the Keymaster of Gozer." Once he contacts another entity named Zuul, who we're told is the Gatekeeper of Gozer, the gates to Gozer's dimension will be opened and the apocalypse will be unleashed. So as Egon is quick to surmise, getting the Keymaster and Gatekeeper together would be bad times. And just their luck, Peter accidentally discovered exactly who Zuul has possessed: Dana. What were the odds of these two living next door to one another?

But this isn't the only thing the Ghostbusters have to worry about. Their massive success has attracted the attention of EPA inspector Walter Peck (William Atherton), a ruthless bureaucrat who is convinced that the Ghostbusters are nothing more than con artists using cheap parlor tricks to swindle innocent people out of their money. After Peter blows off Peck's inquiry about the safety and legality of their containment system, Peck returns with some police, a utility worker, and a court order to cut the building's power. Despite being warned of the dire consequences, Peck gets the power shut down as he wanted.

As you may probably surmise, that's not good. The containment unit goes up like a Roman candle, releasing the massive number of ghosts imprisoned inside it and allowing them to wreak havoc upon the city. In all the confusion, Louis escapes and heads straight for Dana's apartment while Peck has the Ghostbusters for causing the explosion. That's pretty stupid, if you ask me. He's the one that pulled the plug on the thing despite being told on numerous occasions that it was a bad idea.

While stuck in a prison holding cell, the Ghostbusters get a chance to study the blueprints of Dana and Louis's apartment building in Central Park West. Turns out that an insane physician and architect by the name of Ivo Shandor deemed society "too sick to survive" after the first World War, and founded a secret society dedicated to worshipping Gozer. Shandor designed the building as an antenna to bring Gozer to our world, and his cult performed rituals on the roof with the intention of ending life as we know it. And if you'll pardon the cliché, with the possessed Dana and Louis getting together and opening the portal, all Hell is about to break loose.

The Ghostbusters are eventually called out of their cell by the mayor (David Margulies) with the hopes that they'll be able to explain what's going on. They explain the whole deal about Gozer and how the apocalypse is on its way, and in spite of Peck's baseless accusations about them, the mayor lets them go and gives them a full police escort to Central Park West. It all comes down to a big showdown atop the roof, as the Ghostbusters face off against Gozer (Slavitza Jovan) and — of all things — a 112-foot-tall marshmallow man.

Ghostbusters is one of those great '80s movies that's managed to withstand the test of time and become a true part of the pop culture lexicon. Any random person over the age of twenty will know the proper response to the question "who ya gonna call," and that the word "slime" is usable as both a noun and a verb. But how and why has it managed to hold up for so long? What makes it any different from any of the other comedies from the time? I think it's because the movie has the ability to appeal to the broadest audience possible. While other comedies from the time, especially those done by the Ghostbusters crew, are embraced by connoisseurs of '80s cinema, Ghostbusters has a little something for everybody. The humor is certainly prevalent, but there's also elements of horror, science fiction, and a little fantasy. And while the movie is quite obviously a tongue-in-cheek affair from the start to the end, it manages to work on all those levels without wearing itself too thin.

Director Ivan Reitman does a fantastic job, crafting the movie as if it were a straight horror flick. Reitman and cinematographer László Kovács use elaborate camera setups to establish a certain sense of dread beneath the movie's comedic surface, especially as the movie heads into the third act. It helps that the effects aren't all that bad either, in spite of a few instances where things look a little dubious (like the bit where the Stay-Puft Man steps on a church). And although the theme song composed by Ray Parker Jr. was a number-one hit for three weeks and earned Ghostbusters an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, the score composed by Elmer Bernstein shouldn't be overlooked either. Bernstein's score fits each scene perfectly, going from a blues sound to something more horror oriented to a more heroic style in order to suit the movie's needs.

But aside from the aforementioned theme song, none of the songs really hold up outside of the movie. Don't get me wrong, they're all fine while you're watching the movie, but they haven't really aged all that well. It's not one of those soundtracks that I think you'll be leaving in your CD player or on your iPod for anything longer than a passing listen. It's not that they're bad songs or anything like that, but they're the kind of generic mid-'80s songs that nobody's really going to remember after hearing them.

And then there's the screenplay, credited to Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis. Now I'm not sure exactly how much dialogue was written and how much was improvised on-set, but either way, it's hilarious stuff. There are an almost innumerable amount of memorable moments and quotable lines, the pacing is tight, and I'd be willing to put it up against the script from any other comedy from the last decade and say that at least eighty percent of the time, Ghostbusters would be the funnier movie.

Last but not least is the cast. There's a reason why Ghostbusters has withstood the test of time since its release, and that reason is the cast and their chemistry with one another. Our three stars — Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis — are all amazing, each amiable and engaging in their own special ways. Murray almost carries the whole movie by himself as the sarcastic wise-ass of the group, while Aykroyd and Ramis add a certain whimsy to the group with their enthusiastic performances. Sigourney Weaver is fantastic, as well. She plays the role with a certain elegance that is evident even after her character has been possessed by Zuul, almost as if she were Margaret Dumont and Murray, Aykroyd, and Ramis's were the Marx brothers.

Rick Moranis is quite funny as Dana's dorky neighbor, and Annie Potts's droll performance as the Ghostbusters's overworked secretary Janine is entertaining. Meanwhile, Ernie Hudson, the fourth Ghostbuster, is sadly relegated to what is, for all intents and purposes, an incredibly minor and thankless role. He only has two or three big moments, one of which is a lame "I love New York" gag, which is kind of a shame.

Last, but not least, are our two villains. Many people overlook Gozer due to the character's lack of screen time, but the contributions of Slavitza Jovan and voice actress Paddi Edwards as Gozer make the character an intimidating one. The other villain, Walter Peck, is a complete and total sleazebag that is perfectly played by William Atherton. He's great at making you want to hate the character, which is why I'm not surprised Atherton was hired to play the slimy reporter in Die Hard.

If you're a fan of '80s movies and have yet to see Ghostbusters, what's wrong with you? It's one of the seminal movies of the decade, and unlike some other '80s comedies, it's actually aged gracefully in the more than twenty years since it first hit theaters. An outstanding blend of comedy, sci-fi, and horror, Ghostbusters is one of those flicks that most definitely lives up to its reputation. So if you haven't seen it, go rent it right now. The final verdict for Ghostbusters is four and a half stars and a hearty seal of approval.

Final Rating: ****½

Saturday, July 7, 2007

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

Before the turn of the twenty-first century, great superhero movies were few and far between. For every Superman, there was a Steel. For every Batman, there was a Judge Dredd. For every Blade, there was a Howard the Duck. But once we hit the year 2000, that all began to change, as evidenced by Bryan Singer's film based on Marvel's famed X-Men franchise. It was a huge box office success, and it swung Marvel from the back of the "comic adaptation" pack right to the front. It prompted Marvel to approve of movies featuring Spider-Man, Daredevil, Elektra, the Punisher, the Fantastic Four, the Silver Surfer, the Incredible Hulk, Ghost Rider, and even Man-Thing within the span of a few years.

And needless to say, there were a few more X-Men movies, too. Singer returned to the X-Men in 2003 with X2, but his commitment to Superman Returns three years later left him unable to helm what was billed as the closing chapter of the trilogy. The vacant director's chair was eventually filled by Brett Ratner, who brought us X-Men: The Last Stand. How well does it compare to Singer's work? Let's have ourselves a look.

Our movie opens, as with the previous two movies, sometime in the "not too distant future." Human scientists have found a way to suppress mutations, thanks to the DNA of a young mutant named Jimmy (Cameron Bright), whose own power involuntarily negates those of other mutants in his vicinity. The idea of a cure means a lot to one of its developers, Warren Worthington II (Michael Murphy), who lives in shame because his son, Warren III (Ben Foster), has enormous feathery wings. But what does a cure mean to mutants? For some, it means the chance to live a normal life without the fear of being persecuted, standing out, or harming themselves or their loved ones. This fear is especially evident in Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose inability to have physical contact with others may or may not be pushing her boyfriend Bobby (Shawn Ashmore) into the arms of another girl, Kitty Pride (Ellen Page).

Other mutants are offended by even the notion of "curing" what makes them special, while a certain few plan on doing something to vocalize their disgust. One such example: Magneto (Ian McKellen), who raises up an army of like-minded mutants with the warning that the cure is essentially a new form of ethnic cleansing. And caught in the middle is blue-furred diplomat Hank "Beast" McCoy (Kelsey Grammer), who is loyal to his X-Man roots yet works for a government seeking widespread distribution of the cure.

But the cure isn't the only thing that has to be worried about. Cyclops (James Marsden), fighting a severe depression after the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), is drawn to the site of her death. Jean appears to him, but when they kiss, something bad happens. Something really bad. Sensing trouble, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) dispatches Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Storm (Halle Berry) to investigate. When they arrive, all they find are floating rocks, Cyclops's sunglasses, and an unconscious Jean.

They take her back to Xavier's school, where he explains that when Jean first joined the X-Men, he realized that full realization of her potential would make her the most powerful mutant alive. Fearful that she would be unstoppable if she lost control, Professor Xavier established a series of psychic blocks in Jean's mind that held off much of her power. But as it cordoned off some of her strength, it also caused Jean to develop a malevolent alternate personality that called itself "Phoenix." When she sacrificed herself at the end of X2, the trauma tore down those psychic blocks and granted Phoenix free reign over Jean's psyche.

With the two personas vying for dominance inside her mind, a confused Jean eventually makes a violent escape from Xavier's school and returns to her childhood home. A home that, as we are quick to discover, will be the location of a tug-of-war with Jean in the middle. On one side is Professor Xavier, seeking to restore Jean's sanity and repress Phoenix, and on the other side is Magneto, who desires to initiate Phoenix into the Brotherhood of Mutants and pretty much exploit her in order to destroy the cure. And as members of both the X-Men and the Brotherhood brawl around them, the struggle for Jean ends with Phoenix asserting herself and vaporizing (!) Professor Xavier. Although broken-hearted, the X-Men must regroup and prepare for what will be a violent war with Magneto and his Brotherhood at Worthington's laboratory on Alcatraz Island.

I'm not totally sure how to feel about X-Men: The Last Stand. While I thought the action scenes were well done, the cast put forth an acceptable effort, and the direction was credible, there's just something missing from it that makes it of less or quality than its two predecessors. Maybe it's the fact that there's way too much going on. There are way too many characters and too much plot for a movie that's only an hour and forty-four minutes long. Sometimes a little less is more, you know?

More than anything, this situation could probably be blamed on the lackluster screenplay written by Zak Penn and Simon Kinberg. Considering that they're trying to balance dozens of characters among two storylines and two subplots, it's kinda hard for the drama to have any sort of emotional weight. If the screenplay had been whittled down to one main story and maybe a secondary story, or if the movie had been three hours long, it might not have been so bad. But since we've got the Dark Phoenix saga, the cure story, the Rogue/Iceman/Kitty love triangle, and Angel's angst going on in one short movie, there's just too much to follow.

It smooths out in the third act, but because the majority of the movie is so muddled, it's hard to get a straight bead on what exactly is happening. Really, the X-Men are better suited for a television show. X3 has a cast of right around twenty-five people worth noting, and it's hard to focus on each and every one of them over the course of the movie. But I will give Penn and Kinberg credit for some good dialogue and a couple of really great scenes. Take, for example, the scene where Mystique (again played by Rebecca Romijn) is shot with a weaponized variant of the cure and transforms into a normal human. Magneto unsympathetically shuns her, revealing that his hatred for Homo sapiens is so total that he is willing to turn his back on even his closest allies if he feels has to. In a movie with few character-defining moments, this one speaks loudly of just who Magneto is.

Up next is Brett Ratner's direction. Ratner caught a lot of flak from devoted fanboys who wanted Bryan Singer to return, but if you ask me, the transition is seamless. I didn't notice any major differences at all. Since the story is essentially Cliff's Notes, Ratner and cinematographer Dante Spinotti take the opportunity to turn the movie into a comic book action flick. The action is exciting and entertaining and the pacing tight and effective, all of it building to a twenty-minute climax that sees an enormous fight scene, a chase or two, and an unbelievably enormous amount of chaos and destruction.

And although the movie is light on story, Ratner manages to keep our attention with exciting and amazing visuals. The special effects are extremely well done, with Angel's wings, Phoenix's fury, and Magneto moving the Golden Gate Bridge standing out most. And if there's been any sort of constants in the X-Men movies, it's been great special effects and great music. I just spoke of the effects, so let's hit John Powell's great score. It does what all good movie scores do: enhance the on-screen action with an equally exciting auditory experience without being overbearing or distracting. Powell's music suits the movie to a T, so I'm not going to complain about it.

Last but not least is our cast of thousands. Just about everyone does a fine job, even those who don't have a whole lot of screen time. I've felt that Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Ian McKellen turned out the strongest performances of the trilogy, and X3 is no exception. Each of them put on an charismatic, engrossing show, never letting the audience out of their grasps. Halle Berry is also entertaining to watch, though I sometimes got the impression that she was just there to fulfill some sort of contractual obligations.

Famke Janssen, who essentially plays two characters, makes for an intimidating, conflicted villain that, though the role could have been handled a bit differently by the writers, was intriguing to watch. Though while Janssen's character could have been written better, James Marsden's could have stood getting even more improvement. Marsden only gets two or three scenes in the whole movie (more than likely due to him following Bryan Singer over to Superman Returns), so while he's not too bad, I felt like he wasn't trying all that much either.

In their relatively small subplot, Anna Paquin and Shawn Ashmore are both engaging, as was franchise newcomer Ellen Page. Playing a character that's the polar opposite of her breakthrough role in Hard Candy, Page exudes a sweet, charming innocence that makes me wish the Rogue/Iceman/Kitty triangle had gotten a little more time. Among the other newcomers to the X-Men movies, perhaps the most notable is Kelsey Grammer. Grammer is nothing short of awesome, almost as if he were born to play Beast.

Vinnie Jones is also extremely entertaining as Juggernaut, and although he only has two lines, I got a chuckle out of Eric Dane's performance as Multiple Man. And despite his character being drastically underplayed, Ben Foster is fine as the winged mutant comic fans know as Angel. If they'd done the "one main plot, one subplot" thing like I mentioned earlier, they could have easily expanded upon his character's story arc, and I wouldn't have complained.

While Fox's marketing department would have had you believe that this was the last X-Men sequel, I'm sure that there will be more. There are too many stories to be told, too much money to be made. Besides, the post-credits coda leaves things a little unresolved. Although X3 wasn't as emotionally profound or as plot-driven as the first two movies, I still thought it was an entertaining ride. And there's nothing wrong with that at all. I just wish that things didn't have to be so complicated in order to get to all the fun. So I guess you could say that X3 is a bit of a mixed bag. My final verdict for X-Men: The Last Stand is just a big "meh" with three stars. And now that that's out of the way, it's time to wait for those rumored Wolverine and Magneto spin-offs.

Final Rating: ***