Sunday, February 19, 2012

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)

For the last fourteen years, Hollywood has been cranking out movie after movie based on the superheroes that call Marvel Comics home. Some have been insanely successful blockbusters, but others were met with less-positive receptions. One of the Marvel movies that wasn't greeted very warmly was Ghost Rider, which performed well at the box office yet received a ton of negative reviews when it was released in 2007. I liked it in spite of its flaws, but the critical backlash against it seemed to be such that it took Columbia Pictures forever to greenlight a second movie starring Ghost Rider.

But as time passed and the film rights got closer to reverting back to Marvel, Columbia figured that they might as well hurry up and make that sequel so they could keep Ghost Rider under their umbrella. With Nicolas Cage reprising the role he played in 2007 and the guys behind Jason Statham's Crank movies directing it, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was released five years to the week after its predecessor. It's cheesy, goofy, dumb, and pretty doggone fun.

It's been years since Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage) made his Faustian deal that cursed him to become the Ghost Rider. He's spent that time hiding out in a remote part of eastern Europe, trying to avoid letting the Ghost Rider come to the surface as he searches for a way to end the curse that's plagued him for so long. Johnny's hideout is discovered, however, by Moreau (Idris Elba), an old acquaintance who approaches him on behalf of a secret religious sect.

Moreau has sought out Johnny to tell him that the Ghost Rider's presence is needed to protect a young boy named Danny (Fergus Riordan). Danny and his mother, Nadya (Violante Placido), are being hunted by Ray Carrigan (Johnny Whitworth), a vile weasel of a man chasing them at the behest of Roarke (Ciarán Hinds), the actual devil himself. If he can get his hands on Danny, Rourke will use him to perform a ritual that would give him ultimate power on Earth. Promised that the monks Moreau represents will find a way to end his curse if he can protect Danny, Johnny must once again unleash the power of the Ghost Rider and send Rourke back to Hell.

I honestly can't say that Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is a good movie. But what I can say that I thought it was a hell of a lot of dumb, silly, utterly goofy fun. There's no way to take the movie seriously, but then it doesn't take itself seriously either, it makes it easier to get over how stupid Spirit of Vengeance is. It's the kind of stupid movie that I love, and even though I probably shouldn't, I really enjoyed it.

Spirit of Vengeance was directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who previously brought us the Crank movies and Gerard Butler's Gamer. Neveldine and Taylor are no strangers to bad movies based on comic books, having written the tremendously awful Jonah Hex a couple of years ago. Their direction is actually pretty good, with some particularly great camerawork courtesy of cinematographer Brandon Trost. Neveldine and Taylor also do a great job of keeping things moving and never letting the movie get boring. Even the scenes whose characters are just sitting around talking have an energy to them that prevents these moments from slowing the movie down.

I also thought the action scenes were actually very well done. Neveldine and Taylor bring the same frenetic excitement that fueled the Crank movies to Spirit of Vengeance's action scenes, and it makes them a lot more awesome than they probably would have been otherwise. The movie's use of 3D makes the action a lot cooler too. While the 3D doesn't add a lot of depth to some of the slower scenes, it actually punches up the action scenes. Most movies that go through a conversion from 2D to 3D in post-production don't really turn out that well, but Spirit of Vengeance's conversion wasn't bad at all.

What was bad, though, was the script. Credited to Scott Gimple, Seth Hoffman, and David S. Goyer (yes, the same David Goyer that co-wrote Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy), the script is about as weak as you can get. The dialogue is poor, the story isn't really much to speak of, and the characters aren't worth a lot. The movie is definitely more spectacle than story, but that doesn't mean that Gimple, Hoffman, and Goyer had to half-ass the whole thing.

It also seems like they couldn't decide if they wanted the movie to be a sequel or a reboot. With Nicolas Cage returning to the lead role, it makes it hard to tell if any inconsistencies between the two Ghost Rider movies are just simple retcons, continuity errors, or if Spirit of Vengeance is a full-blown reboot. It doesn't really matter in the long run, but it's one of those things one would wonder about.

The last thing left to touch on is the cast, the majority of whom is forgettable. Violante Placido isn't very impressive, especially considering her character has practically nothing to do, whole Ciarán Hinds is just boring. Johnny Whitworth and Fergus Riordan at least put forth some effort, but they don't quite stand out either. I will say, though, that I liked Idris Elba and Christopher Lambert (who has a cameo as a monk), so it isn't all bad.

But the supporting cast isn't helped by the fact that they're in a movie with Nicolas Cage, who in recent years has built up a reputation as one of Hollywood's hammiest overactors. And I'm not kidding when I say that Cage's over-the-top performance here puts to shame his notoriously silly work in the remake of The Wicker Man. The scene where he's interrogating some goon and goes of on some wild tirade about how the Ghost Rider is itching to be let loose has to be seen to be believed. Cage is screaming at the top of his lungs, thrashing his head around like he's trying to snap it off, acting like he's completely lost his damn mind. It's some of the most gloriously cheesy acting I've ever seen. I really get a kick out of Cage when he's acting like this, and he definitely doesn't let me down here. He goes beyond chewing the scenery; he swallows it whole.

I can't say I really had very high expectations going into the movie, but it definitely left an impression. The phrase "so bad, it's good" doesn't quite apply; it's more like "so bad, it's freaking awesome." I know that the reviews for the movie have been really bad, but I can an honestly say that I enjoyed it a lot. And although the movie probably doesn't quite deserve it, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance gets three stars from me. I do kinda wish, though, that the Ghost Rider film rights had reverted back to Marvel, just to see if they would have tried squeezing him into the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" they've created. He doesn't have to be in The Avengers or anything, but still, it could have been cool to see.

Final Rating: ***

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Chronicle (2012)

The "found footage" style of filmmaking has long been associated with the horror genre. Scary movies pretty much invented and codified the style. "Found footage" movies aren't completely exclusive to horror, though, as science fiction has occasionally dipped its toes into the pool as well. Cloverfield, with its "man on the street" approach to the classic concept of a giant monster rampaging through an urban metropolis, is perhaps the most famous example. But although they're rare, it's not the only one, thanks to the recent release of Chronicle. Taking a coming-of-age tale and adding a dash of superpowers, Chronicle is a damn fine movie that's a lot more fun that I initially anticipated it would be.

Meet Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan), a meek, socially inept teenager who's recently taken to videotaping his day-to-day activities as a means of distancing himself from the hell that is his life. He's picked on at school, and his alcoholic father (Michael Kelly) routinely beats him while his cancer-stricken mother (Bo Peterson) wastes away on her deathbed.

His only friend is his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), who brings Andrew along to a rave on the outskirts of town to help bring him out of his shell. The rave isn't as fun for Andrew as it is for everyone else, but the evening gets a lot more interesting when popular classmate Steve (Michael B. Jordan) asks Andrew to bring his camera to document something he and Matt have found out in the nearby woods.

Steve and Matt lead Andrew to a bizarre hole dug into the ground. Curiosity gets the best of them, and they climb down into the hole to investigate it. They end up discovering a giant, glowing crystal at the end of a deep tunnel. The object quickly changes color and the three are stricken with pain and nosebleeds before something shuts the camera off.

Weeks pass, and the trio have discovered that the exposure to the object they'd found has given them telekinetic abilities. As they get a handle on their new powers, they start out simply having fun and playing practical jokes on unsuspecting people. Things take a dark turn, however, when Andrew begins showing evidence of sociopathic tendencies. It begins when he callously causes a car wreck that puts a man in the hospital. A series of personal tragedies and humiliating incidents that follow soon thereafter begin taking a further toll on Andrew's already fragile psyche. His powers developing to frightening levels, Andrew begins to view himself as an "apex predator" sitting atop the human race.

I didn't really expect a whole lot out of Chronicle when I first stepped into the theater. I wasn't expecting the worst, but I wasn't anticipating anything special either. I didn't think it would be anything more than just an "okay" movie. But it turns out that Chronicle was actually really good. It was a lot better than I thought it would be. I'm actually amazed at just how much fun the movie was. The whole "bullied kid uses supernatural powers for their own gain" thing has been done before, but Chronicle does it well.

Sitting in the director's chair is Josh Trank, a rookie filmmaker making his feature film debut. It's a heck of a debut, because Trank definitely shows he's got some style. Though he does cheat a little by using multiple cameras in the same scene, it still works. That "cheating," combined with the characters using their powers to move their own camera around independently, brought a more cinematic vibe to the usual "found footage" proceedings. This allows Trank to bring a very unique feel to the movie, one that makes it more engaging than it otherwise could have been. (Then again, if you're going to have the camera off by itself and filming everyone from a weird angle, why not just make a regular movie?)

The script, penned by Max Landis, is also really good. While the story is nothing new, Landis crafts it in such a way that it's never boring. Though there's no denying that Chronicle has prominent elements of sci-fi and action, Landis also uses the opportunity to study just how teenagers would act if they ended up with superpowers. They wouldn't immediately run out and become Spider-Man; they'd play pranks, get back at bullies, use their powers to pick up girls. Basically, they'd have a good time.

But then you have somebody like the character Andrew, who keeps getting pushed and pushed until he snaps and pushes back. Dozens of movies have told similar stories in the past, but Landis has crafted Chronicle in such a way that makes it a compelling watch. It's an "absolute power corrupts absolutely" tale that's heart-wrenching because of how much Landis makes you care about Andrew and the other characters. He actually makes you feel genuine concern for them. It goes beyond a simple superhero origin story and becomes one about a young man whose friends must deal with the developing psychosis caused by what some would see as a gift.

Chronicle is a captivating watch not just because of its direction and writing, but due also to the strong performances from its three primary actors. The characters aren't really that memorable individually, but the three actors really commit themselves to their parts anyway. For example, Alex Russell's character isn't really all that interesting from a superficial standpoint, occasionally spouting off quotes from philosophers to try sounding smart as he flirts with some girl who herself Is continually videotaping everything. But Russell is likable and trying his hardest to make an impression, and that goes a long way.

Michael B. Jordan, meanwhile, puts forth a very fun performance. He's fun, enjoyable, entertaining, and convincing. He's very enthusiastic to the point that it's almost infectious, so much so that a rather terrible incident that has a negative impact on Jordan's character actually takes a lot of the wind out of the movie. I don't want to spoil it, but it shows how good Jordan is.

And we can't go without mentioning Dane DeHaan, whose performance I thought was great. He remains utterly sympathetic throughout the whole movie, even as his character edges closer and closer to insanity. Even as he rampages through Seattle (well, Cape Town doubling for Seattle, but that's beside the point), DeHaan's performance makes you feel so bad for him because this is where all the crap he's gone through has pushed him to. DeHaan makes it believable, playing the role with conviction and intensity. He's damn good, and a lesser performance could have hurt the whole movie.

The other day, I read a review of Chronicle that stated, "Upon closer inspection, Chronicle also isn't really about anything; there is no greater theme to the tale, no life lessons to be learned, and no secrets revealed regarding where that orb that granted the boys their powers came from — just the terrible tragedy of too much power in the hands of young people who aren't emotionally equipped to handle it." I think that quote fits. That really sums up the whole movie. And Chronicle doesn't really even need to be anything more than that, either. It's effective, exciting, and entertaining. The honest truth in any event is that while Chronicle isn't a perfect movie, it's good enough to be a fun ride for an hour and a half. So I'm going to give the movie three and a half stars and my personal approval.

Final Rating: ***½