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Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)

by Steve Habrat

America, you can all breath a collective sigh of relief. That nagging question on all of your minds has finally been answered. We now know what it looks like when Ghost Rider urinates! I know, I know, I was wondering when we would finally get the definitive answer to that brain-melting question. Thank you, Marvel! On a serious note, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is another swing and a miss for the Marvel Knights, the spin-off studio of Marvel Studios. Marvel Knights, we created in an attempt to bring some of the darker superheroes from the comic pages to the big screen and so far, they are zero for two (the other masterpiece from this branch division is Punisher: War Zone). With a fresh pair of directors (Crank’s Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor) and the studio hitting the restart button (subtly), Marvel somehow managed to make things even worse and make a film so unpleasant, the only reason it avoided the direct-to-DVD barging bin was the fact that Nicolas Cage’s name is leading the credits.  To my astonishment, Cage throws himself into Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance with such maniacal delight, I think that he may have finally hit rock bottom, and I thought that bottom was the FIRST Ghost Rider. Cage must really be a big fan of Ghost Rider and really hurting for money to agree to do this to himself. And to think that this man won an Oscar.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance picks up eight years after Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider (Played by Cage) battled the gathering satanic forces on American soil. He has been on the run and hiding out in Eastern Europe ever since, trying to deal with the curse that has been put on him by Roarke (Mephistopheles) (Played by Ciarán Hinds). Blaze soon finds himself approached by French priest Moreau (Played by Idris Elba), who asks Blaze to track down and save a young boy, Danny (Played by Fergus Riordan) and his mother, Nadya (Played by Violante Placido), from Roarke’s forces that are pursuing them. It turns out that Roarke, who is the Devil in a human body, wants Danny so that he can take a new human form on earth. Blaze reluctantly accepts the offer on the condition that Moreau takes him to a group of priests that will be able to lift the fiery cruse that plagues him. As the battle rages for Danny’s fate, the Devil unleashes the deadly Blackout (Played by Johnny Whitmore), who possesses the power to decay anything he touches, to deliver him Danny and kill Ghost Rider any way he can.

There really isn’t much to say about the plotline of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. It sucks and that is all there is to it. Half the time, it is barely coherent underneath all the searing action that cuts through the film like a white-hot knife. The story, which was penned by Scott M. Gimple, Seth Hoffman, and David S. Goyer (yes, the same David S. Goyer who helped revive Batman), is basically a recycled glob of other, better satanic horror films. Think a touch of The Exorcist with a big scoop of Rosemary’s Baby fused with Crank and the original Ghost Rider. When I wasn’t rolling my eyes from the story, I was busy fighting off motion sickness from the constant shaking of the camera. Mind you, I have NEVER once got motion sick from a movie before but I can say that Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was the film that had me reaching for the barf bag. I couldn’t wait until things slowed down so that my stomach would stop doing somersaults. I wish that the nausea was worth it and that there was some cool action scene to tell you about but the fight scenes are all the same here. They all basically consist of a bunch of bad guys standing around, Ghost Rider barreling towards them on his bike as they all stand in shock, and Ghost Rider approaching them one by one and sucking their souls out. That is all there is to it.

If I had to think of one reason for you to see Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, I’d say see it for the way that Cage throws himself into the role of Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider. I promise that you have never seen anything like it in your entire life. It is almost like we are watching a nervous breakdown documented in a big budget blockbuster. Cage is all shaky delivery and bone rattling screams as his face bubbles and contorts into the charred black skull. I guess if my career had come to what his has, I would be starting to go a little berserk myself. Luckily, Idris Elba is present to take things down a notch in one of the worst French accents you will ever hear. Don’t get me wrong. Elba brings more to the table that anyone else does here but it is so painful to watch him slip like this. Come one, Idris, you have been awesome in the past! Hinds seems to get a kick out of delivering lines like “Worst fucking deal I ever made” right to the face of the fiery Ghost Rider. He is slumming it after doing heavier work like Tinker Tailor Solider Spy. Riordan is a forgettable child actor who doesn’t even register in all the chaos while Placido is the eye candy, taking over where Eva Mendes left off.  Whitmore really tries to shake things up as Blackout but he has to be the most pointless character in the entire film. He is only here to provide the audience was a high-speed slugfest in the final moments of the film.

Neveldine and Taylor do what they can to add a smidgeon of emotion to this project but they cannot resist the urge to just leap back into the head pounding action. They try to throw in a half-assed relationship between Blaze and Danny but it such a weak attempt, it practically disappears from your memory by the end battle. I can say that I was pretty impressed by the special effects and I did like the overall look of Ghost Rider. Shaking off some of the polish that original director Mark Steven Johnson had slathered all over his CGI hero, this version of the character is a hell of a lot grittier than what Johnson came up with. It actually suits the character but it is a shame this was not applied to a much better movie. Much like the Punisher, I know there is someone out there with a good story for Ghost Rider but this certainly wasn’t it. It is time for Cage to walk away from the franchise and really do some soul searching because the man has completely lost his marbles. And to you, Mr. Goyer, what is your excuse? You helped bring one of the greatest superhero trilogies to the big screen and then you follow that up with this piece of shit! Do you hate comic books and comic book movies?! With the level of quality that we have seen in films like Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, X-Men, V for Vendetta, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight, there is no excuse for these types of superhero films in 2012. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance should have been tossed into an incinerator and forgotten. All of you responsible for this, sit in the corner and think about what you have done.

Grade: F

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Woman in Black (2012)

by Steve Habrat

Hollywood must have finally understood that America has had enough of the mindless torture porn horror films that they pushed upon audiences for years. I think the Saw franchise finally coming to end allowed multiple demonic horror and haunted house fright films to make their way back into local theaters. Sadly, these ghost films relied too heavily on the mockumentary/found footage technique that also worn out its welcome by the second Paranormal Activity. As far as straightforward horror films go, last year’s Insidious was a stand out and now we have The Woman in Black, a Hammer horror film that retains the gothic flourishes that was popular in films like 1959’s House on Haunted Hill and 1963’s The Haunting. Hammer Productions was famous in the 1950s for giving Universal’s Monsters alluring makeovers. Their hunger for style is alive and well in The Woman in Black as is a whole slew of good, old-fashioned bumps in the night.

Set in the early 1900s, The Woman in Black follows the young lawyer Arthur Kipps (Played by Daniel Radcliffe), who has found himself on rocky terms with firm he works for. Arthur carries a broken heart for his deceased wife who passed during childbirth and he also faces financial difficulties that have put a lot of pressure on his job. The firm he works for assigns him to handle the estate of Alice Drablow, who owned Eel Marsh House, a marooned mansion that sits on an island in the northeast of England. Despite the protests of his young son Joseph, Arthur departs to a small village just outside of where the mansion is located. Despite warnings by the locals, who tell him to leave and forget about the mansion, Arthur stays to complete the paperwork and protect his job. Arthur also happens to become friendly with a wealthy local man named Sam Daily (Played by Ciarán Hinds), who fills him in on superstitions that run rampant through the village. After witnessing a bizarre string of suicides by several local children and the appearance of a disturbing apparition of a woman in all black, Arthur begins uncovering family secrets that are buried in Eel Marsh House.

Carried by a damp, nippy atmosphere, The Woman in Black establishes an ambiance and it never budges. There is barely any sunlight in the film and few characters ever muster up a smile or grin. The film only pauses once to give the audience a quick chuckle before it shifts back into gloom. To director James Watkins, atmosphere is everything, giving the scares more oomph. The downside to all of this is that he accompanies most of the scares by loud blasts on the soundtrack to make us jump. To make it worse, half the time it is a fake scare that only turns out to be a raven or a carriage driver. When Watkins isn’t falling back on easy creeps, he composes an image that confidently gives you the willies. The woman in black stands in a graveyard and in the blink of an eye, she is gone. Arthur peers out into the trees from the porch of Eel Marsh House in a storm and he slowly discovers that a group of ghostly children stare back at him, only distinguishable by their silhouettes. Our title antagonist peers down at Arthur from a second story window, resembling a ghostly photograph. It’s these scares that give credibility to The Woman in Black, making the film an above average haunted house treat.

In his first starring role since Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe makes a smooth transition from boy wizard to distressed adult.  I worried I would have a hard time taking him seriously, on the grounds that this film demands, and would instead still see him a kid. Radcliffe has grown up, folks, and here he gives a performance that is safe but allows us a glimpse of his range. I sometimes found him to be a bit stiff as Potter but here, he seems contented and confident, almost thrilled to be in something other than Harry Potter. In The Woman in Black, Radcliffe is disconnected and  distant, appearing drained and at times, he could be inches from collapsing from fatigue. There are moments when he’s courageous, racing into the decrepit mansion after an otherworldly sighting in an attic window or grabbing an axe and inching towards strange footsteps that creak behind a closed door. He plays nicely off of Hinds, who makes Sam just as emotionally wounded as Kipps but a bit wiser. He seems to be keeping Arthur level, warning him not to go “chasing shadows”.

The Woman in Black also makes a near fatal error with the haunted mansion it takes place in. It is never good when your friend leans over and whispers, “That house looks like the stereotypical haunted house in every scary movie!” There is nothing setting Eel Marsh House apart from every other haunted mansion expect the location. Sure it is an imposing structure, any given rundown structure will be, but there is nothing setting it apart. The inside resembles an abandoned haunted house that has been left until next Halloween. There are perfectly placed cobwebs and everything has a thick layer of dust covering it. One room does stand out and that is the room the most ghostly activity occurs in. Radcliffe spends most his time snooping around a child’s room, crammed with creepy clown dolls that suddenly burst with chirping music box tunes and a rocking chair that will suddenly rock violently back and forth.

Better than many will give it credit for, The Woman in Black succeeds because it doesn’t embrace the found footage gimmick. Sure, the film has its fair share of flaws including minor plot holes and a final act that begins to flirt with silliness. With horror, I’ve learned to be a bit forgiving to films that get it even half right. Last year’s Insidious also had its fair share of problems, but it gave me the creeps, which is what it set out to do, so I overlooked the sputtering final act. The Woman in Black’s ending doesn’t fall apart that bad and it wisely ends before things can get more outlandish. Ultimately, the film manages to give you the chills and leaves images in your head that you’ll wish weren’t there. And it does it barely a drop of blood to be found! The Woman in Black will restore your fear in those bumps in the night and I promise that you will be sleeping with a night light on for more than a few nights.

Grade: B+ 

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

by Steve Habrat

I’m glad I let Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy marinate in my mind for a few hours before I sat down to hammer out a review of it. I emerged from the matinee showing with my head spinning and my brain scrambling to put the pieces of this puzzle together. I was so hastily trying to wrap my head around what I had just seen. I was initially let down by it and to think I was so excited to see this smoky, earth toned espionage thriller that looked like it was ripped out of the 1970s. I thought it would be full of thrills and white-knuckle moments. Folks, I’m here to tell you it’s not what you think it is. Despite passing itself off as a Cold War spy flick, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about the men that were causalities of this war that consisted of suspicion and heightened awareness of the individual at your side. Accusations flew in place of bullets. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about bombed out egos rather than bombed out cities. If character studies and talky dramas turn you off, either wait until this film is at your local Red Box or skip it entirely. If you are willing to let it into your brain, you will find it slowly creeping down your spine hours after you see it.

Set in 1973, retired British Intelligence agent George Smiley is lured out of retirement by Oliver Lacon (Played by Simon McBurney), the civil servant in charge of intelligence, to investigate a mole who has infiltrated intelligence and has apparently been there for years. Smiley teams up with fleeing agent Ricki Tarr (Played by Tom Hardy) and intelligence officer Peter Guillam (Played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and together they launch an investigation aimed at the new Chief of the Circus Percy Alleline (Played by Toby Jones), his deputy Bill Haydon (Played by Colin Firth), and his allies Roy Bland (Played by Ciarán Hinds) and Toby Esterhause (Played by David Dencik). Smiley begins meeting with individuals who were forced out of positions due to their suspicions and accusations, now left in ruin and haunted by what the know. Along the journey, Smiley tries to repair his shattered past and come to terms with his demons that silently plague him.

While it is certainly a droll film in it’s first forty-five minutes, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy finally sets things in motion when more layers begin to peel away. The one aspect I really liked in the beginning was the fact that Smiley barely spoke any dialogue and he lets his world-weary face do all the work. His eyes are cartoonishly enlarged behind his thick-rimmed specs and his mouth slightly opens as if he is about to let a thought out but he quickly remembers to cage it back up. He is a curious one. When he does speak, he has a raspy and weary voice to fit his somnolent eyes, though his words have been dipped in thick globs of confidence. Oldman does a terrific job with Smiley and he will certainly get an Oscar nomination for his aloof portrayal of John le Carré’s heartbroken spy. I found myself replaying the scenes of Smiley strolling through the misty, dingy streets of Cold War London or Smiley sitting alone in his apartment as the television chirps in the background. There is a knock at the door and in response, his head slightly turns, and this is when we get a quick glimpse at his broken and lonely heart.

The rest of the supporting players in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy hold up quite well next to the slow burn of Oldman’s Smiley. This is, afterall, a character piece. Firth’s Bill Haydon is a standout, providing some small bursts of humor in the relentlessly dreary atmosphere. Hardy’s Ricki Tarr seems like he will be the tough guy but Hardy has the good sense to show us that even tough guys have a breaking point. Jones’ Percy Alleline is a supercilious and loose cannon little twerp who you would never dare cross (even if he only stands at 5’5”). What is fascinating about these men, who all appear to be working on the same side, is that if their eyes were daggers, no one would be left standing. They sit around in a smoky boardroom and stare each other down, loose their cools, stomp off, and sulk. And yet Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy holds the moments where we see them fall victim to all the suspicion, accusations, and attempts at ruin. They collapse when the chips are down and it is almost worse than any of the actually carnage that the film shows us.

Behind all the cigarette smoke and glaring actors, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy offers us eye-popping art direction, allowing Cold War London to really come alive. At times, I felt that the sets were actually characters in the movie. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is also shrouded in a film noir atmosphere and the only thing missing is a femme fatale to lure these men to their fate. Director Tomas Alfredson has made a film that slowly grows in the hours after it has been seen, coaxing you back to uncover more. It is watered by your own puzzlement over it and your drive to want to put it all together. The film never resorts to gunfights or fists fights and it only builds excitement through heated exchange. The downfall of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is that the film sometimes seems unsure how to actually build that suspense and the narrative gets caught up in itself. Talky and arty with a nifty old school swag, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy works better as a portrait of wrecked men rather than as a chilly espionage mystery.

Grade: B+

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