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Ghost Rider (2007)

by Steve Habrat

When Marvel isn’t busy trying to force The Punisher on disinterested audiences, they are cramming Ghost Rider down our throats. This fiery badass on a bike just plays too nice in his disposable 2007 big screen debut, a film that only fans of the comic could love. Director Mark Steven Johnson’s Ghost Rider is a run-of-the-mill superhero film with the a whole bunch of superhero clichés we have seen countless times in other, better superhero movies. It doesn’t help that the film has no staying power once you have walked away from it. The culprit for all the mediocrity is the fact that the script, penned by Johnson, has holes big enough to drive a tricked out motorcycle from Hell through. Johnson seems like he is eager to deliver for Ghost Rider fans and I applaud him for that, but it would have been nice if he cleaned up his story a bit and, oh, I don’t know, thought outside the box. It would have also helped if he had filled his film with actors who actually care about the material they are working with. The only one who seems like he wants to be there is Nicolas Cage but he has such little talent to speak of that he doesn’t really come up with anything that will save this clunker of a film from a slow, fiery death.

Ghost Rider begins with introducing us to a young stunt motorcyclist Johnny Blaze (Played by Matt Long) and his father, Barton Blaze (Played by Brett Cullen). Barton, it turns out, has terminal cancer, which he tries to hide from young Johnny but the secret finally slips out. Devastated, Johnny slips off to work on his motorcycle when he finds himself approached by Mephistopheles (Played by Peter Fonda), a mysterious man who asks Johnny to ride for him. He goes on to mention Barton’s illness and adds that he could help. Johnny accepts the help but he accidentally sells his soul to the mysterious man. The next day Barton wakes up refreshed and feeling better than ever, something that stuns Johnny. Later that day, Barton is getting ready to perform a new stunt for a huge crowd of fans but the stunt goes wrong and Barton is killed. At the exact moment Barton is killed, Johnny sees Mephistopheles standing by and laughing. After the accident, Johnny sets out on his own but he once again finds himself approached by the mysterious man who says that he will come back for Johnny’s services one day. The film then speeds ahead to present day with Johnny (Played by Nicolas Cage) now a big name stunt motorcyclist who is always cheating death. As Johnny enjoys his fame, a sinister force is walking among us in the form of Blackheart (Played by Wes Bentley), a deadly demon who is searching for a contract that could allow him to unleash hell on earth. In order to stop Blackheart, Mephistopheles calls upon Johnny and turns him into a fiery superhero called Ghost Rider.

Ghost Rider leans heavily on the almost nonstop action at its charred heart. Very rarely does the film actually calm down enough to give us an intimate character moment. Perhaps this is good because the action actually allows Ghost Rider to be watchable for its two-hour runtime. The CGI is very well done, especially the effects on Cage when he morphs into the hissing demon. Things do turn goofy when Fonda and Bentley see their faces distorting into bluish ghouls with row after row of crooked fangs. They would be a dentist’s worst nightmare but they wouldn’t scare anyone else. The action basically sees Ghost Rider stomping around on the screen and battling one of Blackheart’s three grinning henchmen, all of which are dispatched with ease. The sad part to all of this is that Cage and Bentley allow the special effects to do all the work for them. Bentley ends up being guiltier of this than Cage, if you can believe that. Bentley’s Blackheart has to be the least convincing baddie to ever torment a superhero. At times, he seems like someone is standing off screen holding up a white poster board with his lines written on it. He doesn’t bring any menace to the role and in the end, he falls behind voice distortion and layers of CGI to make him an intimidating force. Still, he just seems too nice.

Cage, meanwhile, had to be breathing a sigh of relief that for once, he wasn’t the one ruining the movie. I was actually surprised in the amount of enthusiasm that Cage demonstrated even if he is hit or miss. The performance finds him speaking in a southern drawl that appears and then disappears without warning, something that you would think Johnson would have righted. The rest of the time, Cage just seems to be playing a giddier version of himself. Apparently, Cage is a huge fan of Ghost Rider (he even has him tattooed on his arm) and he really lobbied to nab the role. You would think he would have brought something special to this demon party, being a huge fan and all. Ghost Rider finds Cage’s Johnny Blaze striking up a relationship with forgettable reporter Roxanne Simpson (Played by Eva Mendes), a romance that has absolutely no spark to speak of. Mendes seems to just be going through the motions, very aware that she is only here to be saved by Cage’s CGI alter ego. The great Sam Elliot steps in as the mysterious Caretaker who finds himself the target of Bentley’s Blackheart. Elliot does a fine job with what he has to work with, even if there are more than a few holes in his character. Donal Logue shows up as Blaze’s wisecracking partner, Mack, who gets stuck with the typical one-liners for the kids. Rounding out the main players is Fonda’s Mephistopheles, who seems delighted to be playing the creeping puppet master.

There are aspects of Ghost Rider that are never fully explained to us, with things happening for no reason at all. Cage can apparently manipulate anything he touches, making them look like they were ripped out of the Devil’s imagination. There was also a twist with the Caretaker that drove me absolutely nuts, especially since Blackheart brutally terrorizes him while he does nothing about it. Another problem I had with the film was Blackheart’s evil plot to destroy earth. He gets the upper hand on Ghost Rider because he has no soul, something that Ghost Rider can target and destroy. Blackheart’s master plan fills him with hundreds of hellish souls, all of which can be burned up by Ghost Rider (Didn’t anyone catch this error while writing the film?). The film desperately wants to be a western but it seems that the western didn’t want to be associated with this crap so it spit it back into action territory. Overall, with wiser casting choices and a fully developed script, Ghost Rider could have turned out to be one of the more fun Marvel movies. It could have been a darker alternative to Marvel’s usually family friendly heroes. Instead, it just feels like watered down excuse to sell toys to kids and act as a quick cash grab for the money-hungry Marvel. A throwaway superhero vehicle that feels like it has been done before, and much better at that.

Grade: D+

Ghost Rider is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Jonah Hex (2010)

by Steve Habrat

I have seen quite a few comic book movie bombs in my day but I can honestly say that director Jimmy Hayward’s 2010 monstrosity Jonah Hex has got to be one of the worst I have sat through. Based on the DC Comics gunslinger created by John Albano and Tony DeZuniga, Jonah Hex is rank with studio interference, cropped down to a blink-and-you’ll-practically-miss-it runtime of just barely over eighty minutes. It really is a shame that this film has been butchered as bad as it has because the talented Josh Brolin pours everything he has into the growling bounty hunter who can speak to the dead. I bet Brolin even gagged when he added this to his resume. Severely incoherent, massively brainless, and loud to the point of making your ears bleed, Jonah Hex is such a mess that I have to say I can’t believe the studio even bothered tossing it into cinemas in the first place. I honestly have to say I hope someone lost their job over this because I would have locked this film away, crossing my fingers that no one would ever stumbled upon it and unleash it on the world. It is THAT bad.

Jonah Hex begins by flashing back to the Civil War, with our hero (Played by Brolin) serving on the Confederate side of the conflict. Hex is ordered by his commanding officer, Quentin Turnbull (Played by John Malkovich), to burn down a Union hospital. Hex refuses to carry the order out and retaliates by gunning down his friend and Turnbull’s son Jeb (Played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Turnbull tracks down Hex just after the war ends and proceeds to burn Hex’s family alive and make him watch. He then horribly disfigures Hex’s face and leaves him for dead. After several days, a group of American Indians stumble upon Hex and nurse him back to health. As Hex regains his strength, he realizes that he possesses the power to reanimate and speak to the dead by touching them. Hex is anxious to get back on his feet and find Turnbull but he learns that Turnbull died in a fire shortly after he massacred Hex’s family. To deal with his pain, Hex turns to bounty hunting but is soon approached by Lieutenant Grass (Played by Will Arnett) with news that Turnbull is alive and well. It appears that he has robbed a Union train of a weapon component for a doomsday device that can wipe entire towns off the map. Grass recruits Hex to set out and stop Turnbull before he can locate all the pieces of the weapon that he needs.

Judging by all the star power in Jonah Hex, I have the sneaking suspicion that the original script had much more to it than what we actually see on the screen. There is no way any A-list actor like Brolin would agree to be in something this god-awful. Brolin really takes his role seriously, growling through gritted teeth as he rides around rotting western towns, laying waste to anyone who dares piss him off. It is a shame that his back-story is brushed over with an animated flashback that fails to really add anything to his character. We are just supposed to accept that he is mad and he won’t be getting glad until he stands over Turnbull’s corpse. Hex finds an ally in Lilah (Played by Megan Fox), a beautiful prostitute who practically drools all over her cleavage when Hex knocks on her door. Fox is only in Jonah Hex to serve as some obvious eye candy for the male audience that this is aimed at. Her character adds nothing to the poor excuse of a story that is strung throughout the film. Brolin seems to just be humoring her when she is in his eyesight—even he seems perplexed why she is in front of the camera.

Then we have Mr. Malkovich’s Turnbull, a vile baddie who has a really evil plan that lacks a motive (Those are the worst, aren’t they?). Lt. Grass and President Grant (Played by Aidan Quinn) fret and stew over Turnbull’s horrific doomsday cannon and where he will strike with this weapon of mass destruction. Turnbull spits that he will wipe the United States off the map but he never explains why. Why is he so gung-ho on leveling all of these cities? Don’t expect an answer to that question. Just tremble in your boots as he sips absinthe and makes threats at wealthy aristocrat Adleman Lusk (Played by Wes Bentley), another character that adds absolutely nothing to what is going on. Turnbull leaves the gruesome enforcement to his giggling Irish right-hand man Burke (Played by Michael Fassbender), who I suspect is sometimes chuckling at what he has been asked to do by the director. Fassbender’s character is sort of interesting but he is always shoved behind Turnbull, who looks like he raided the wardrobe closet of Pirates of the Caribbean. While you are trying to get over the fact that Fassbender even attended this party, you’ll also be reeling from the fact that funnyman Will Arnett has shown up and is trying to be taken seriously as Lt. Grass. Both Arnett and Fassbender are probably hoping that you forget they were ever in this picture.

The action of Jonah Hex is earsplitting, muddled, and forgettable as it is set to pounding heavy metal music from the band Mastodon. The film features poor special effects and every action sequence is clipped too short to really be fulfilling. The finale is an absurd fistfight in the clanking steam punk engine room of Turnbull’s floating warship. He unleashes cannonball like delay-action bombs on Washington D.C. but there is never the threat that he will detonate them. You know Hex will throw a tomahawk into his plot at just the last second. Refusing to let us get to know any of the characters in the film, Jonah Hex is a hollow summer blockbuster with no feeling or direction. It is a free-for-all of noise and missed opportunities, with little care put into the development of Hex’s character. Even worse, the film seems like it was made in a mad rush just to get it on the big screen as quickly as possible and so DC had something to release against Marvel’s Iron Man 2. Overall, if Jonah Hex rides again, let’s hope it is given to filmmakers who actually respect his character and have an interest in his origin. Avoid this film at all cost.

Grade: F

Jonah Hex is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Hunger Games (2012)

by Jamie Matty

“The book was better,” is our most common response to page-to-screen adaptations, and yet, one that I couldn’t honestly say as I left the theater this Friday. It’s rare that a film surpasses the novel it was based upon; Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games does just that. For those of you who haven’t read the novels, here’s a quick synopsis: Sometime in a dystopian future, a country called Panem stands where the USA used to be. A lavishly totalitarian capitol city rules over and systematically abuses 12 districts that generate the resources it needs to sustain its hedonism. As a reminder that rebellion is futile, two children are annually selected from each district to compete in the Hunger Games, a nationally-televised tournament in which the contestants fight to the death until only one victor remains.  Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) sizzles as Katniss, the brave huntress from District 12 who volunteers to compete in the Games in her little sister’s stead.

In the mix we have a delightful ensemble cast: Josh Hutcherson (The Kids Are Alright) and Liam Hemsworth (Some Terrible Nicholas Sparks Movie) star as Katniss’s potential love interests; Woody Harrelson (Cheers) and Lenny Kravitz (American Woman?) serve respectively as her lovably alcoholic trainer and sympathetic personal stylist.  Finally, Elizabeth Banks is unforgettably frightening as a zombiefied Marie Antoinette (a.k.a. Effie Trinket, Katniss’ PR manager).

Though Lawrence seems to have more chemistry with Kravitz than her pre-pubescent male opposites (and who can blame her?), Hutcherson’s Peeta is charming and likable. The film’s main disappointments come from its costumes, which look cheap and gaudy (I had hoped for avant-garde and futuristic), and from Hemsworth’s stiff and unconvincing Gale. Additionally, while I had hoped for more raw violence, jerky cinematography keeps the fight sequences purposely blurred and within its PG-13 boundaries.

For viewers who loved the novel, this film won’t disappoint. Where Collins’ prose drags, the movie makes up for it in color, emotion, and crisp dialogue.  Additionally, the “Marxism and postcolonialism for kids” messages come through neatly without having to deal with Katniss’ annoying interiority.

Exciting, intriguing, and 40 billion times better than the drippy abortions that the Twilight franchise keeps pumping out, Hunger Games is a solid winner for Spring’s Best Blockbuster.

Grade: A-