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Friday, February 23, 2007

Flames! On the Side of My Face!: Ghost Rider, Reviewed

So was there anyone out there aware of the existence of Ghost Rider who thought, "Hmmm . . . Marvel Superhero movie, flaming skull, flaming chain whip (for whipping). Matilda can probably take or leave that"? If so, honey, we need to make a dinner date and get to know one another.

We first saw the trailer for Ghost Rider as part of the world's most perfect trailer reel before the pretty damned imperfect X-3. I've been on low-level squee alert ever since. Not even the news that this was written and directed by Mark Steve Johnson (who definitely deserves some time on the business end of the Penance Stare for Daredevil) could stop the squee. Of course, it helps that I did not know that until just this very minute. And so it was with a heavy heart that I learned they were not prescreening Ghost Rider for critics.

The decision to keep the flames under wraps earned the top box office slot on its opening weekend (and I think M said the highest opening numbers that Nicolas Cage has ever had [taking Elisabeth Shue roughly from behind may win the critical acclaim, but it does not, apparently, pay the rent]). I think it also probably contributed to the film's 27% rating at Rottentomatoes.com (this, incidentally, is a travesty, given Daredevil's 44% rating). So I'll just come out and say it: Ghost Rider is nowhere near as bad as Daredevil is. I can and will go further: Laserblast is nowhere near as bad as Daredevil. And I posit to you that The Avengers is not as bad as Daredevil. Oh, but I was talking about Ghost Rider, wasn't I?

Ghost Rider is by no means perfect. After the opening Sam-Elliott-narrated backstory, which is shot in deliciously comic-book-y style, it gets off to an extremely slow start. From the extreeeeeeme flashback to 150 years ago, we flash forward to Johnny Blaze's teenage years and find that his dad is dying and his girlfriend's father has some strange objections to his daughter making it with a carnie. Because all stunt motorcycle riders are the manliest of men, Johnny plans to run away with said girlfriend. His master manly plan is derailed by Johnny's shocking discovery that his chain-smoking, chronically coughing father has lung cancer. Oh, if only HIPAA had been in place to save Johnny from the cruelest form letter of all. If only his father had had the strength to crumple it even a little bit before tossing it in the trash!

But with this painful truth visited upon him, Johnny does what any young man would do: He goes to work on his bike in a carnival tent. Peter Fonda feels his pain (in a manly, Wotan's-Greatcoat-Wearin' kind of way, nothing fruity, you understand) and offers Johnny a deal: Dad's cure from cancer for Johnny's soul. Johnny's dumb cracker mind is comprehensively befuddled by this, but it matters not, because Mephistopheles stores his contracts on scroll holders so pointy that Johnny pricks his finger and falls into a deep sleep from which only true love's kiss can wake him. Er . . . no. He does prick his finger, which Meph takes as consent. Dad goes from cancer free to mangled and crispy in the space of an hour or so. (Does no one read the classics anymore? For the love of Ba'al, be specific)

The main problem with this section of the movie is not that it's utterly predictable. It's not even that the dialogue has a high stinkyness quotient. It is mostly that Matt Long has absolutely zilch to recommend him beyond a killer set of cheek bones and well-shaped lips. It seemed pretty clear to me that by the time the scene with Fonda was filmed (and, by the way, Mr. Fonda, I concur with M that you should remain in the safest, most undisclosed location you can find until you complete another film, because this has "Peter Fonda's last film" written all over it), everyone concerned had just given up on acting and direction and just wanted it over. It is possible, however, that Raquel Alessi (Young Roxanne) paid off Long to make her look good, because I'm pretty sure that he's the only actor of her generation that might be able to deliver those particular goods.

To distract myself from Long's painful, embarrassing attempts at plying his putative trade, I focused on the fact that there was no way in hell that this extremely pretty boy could possibly grow up to be the extremely funny-looking Nicolas Cage. I refer to this as the "Inverse Superman Problem," the Superman problem, of course, being that there's no freakin' way that Jeff East grows up to be Christopher Reeve. But I stand corrected in the case of Ghost Rider: A pair of blue contacts, a dark hair piece (that apparently took 3 hours each day to apply) and some kind of 22nd century cheek implants (I wonder if they were bits of apple meant to emphasize the round and prosperous aspects of the peasantry) and violas! Cage looks convincingly like the ridden-hard-and-put-away-wet adult version of Matt Long.

Whatever steps they took to pull off that visual trick, though, it was not enough to distract me from the Eva Mendes problem. Actually, let me be fair: It's really the Roxanne problem, which is really the age-old "love interest in bad-boy centric comics" problem plopped down at the crossroads of sexism and ageism in Hollywood. From the moment we morphed from Matt Long's final, extremely painful attempt to convey emotion to Cage's "Calm Blue Ocean" expression in the moments before he jumps a bunch of semis, I was preoccupied with the fact that Eva Mendes is a decade younger than Nicolas Cage. (I actually would have placed the age gap closer to 15 years, but I find that Cage was born in 1964, Mendes in 1974.)

But of course the film-going public would collectively burst into flames if a 43-year-old woman was cast as a love interest in a film like this, so we just have to pass over the fact that Roxanne's classist daddy's time might have been better spent if he'd objected to the whole statutory rape/pedophilia aspects of the thing way back when Johnny was 18 and Roxie was 8.

I guess it's to the movie's credit that it takes at least two steps to alleviate the obvious age gap: First, Nicolas Cage appears to have been sent to some kind of demonic trainer to prepare for his 30-second scene in a towel. I'm not much of a fan of sinewy, overmuscled guys (Donal Logue's schlumpy, cutie pie-doughy guy physique is much more to my tastes), but day-um! Nick is cut. So cut, in fact, that M and I were wondering if they CGI-ed his abs.

The second age-gap-distracting technique was to feature Eva Mendes's boobs in each and every scene and have them bring along Eva as kind of an afterthought. (In the car on the way home, M and I were discussing Cage's recently expressed desire to make a She-Hulk movie starring Mendes:

M: I have to admit that I can see it.
Matilda: I don't think you're qualified to judge after this movie.
M: What do you mean?
Matilda: I mean I think you should recuse yourself from the case.
M: Huh?
Matilda: I have two questions: What color is Eva Mendes's hair and does Eva Mendes have feet?
M: Be fair. They never framed her feet. I think her hair is dark.
Og: I rest my case.)

But really, I don't have anything bad to say about Mendes. And right up until they started showing her in button-down shirts open to her pubic bone, I thought that the movie might not totally suck on the female front. The first time we see the grown-up Roxie is in one of the really well-done visual echos of the comic-book style. Johnny is preparing for a stunt and making his way through a herd of reporters (he doesn't do interviews, of course), and she calls his name. The camera cuts to her backlit at the high end of a ramp that leads out into the lights of the stadium. It's a gorgeous frame, gorgeously lit. Roxie is wearing a monochrome dress that's close-fitting, high-necked, and sleeveless. It's an outfit that's easy to draw, as M pointed out, but it's also one that is in stark contrast to the high-waisted, girlish sundresses that Roxie favors earlier in the movie. Mendes, of course, has a body to die for, but it's on the curvy end of the spectrum (in fact, she's crowed about her child-bearing hips [which might be overstating the case ever so slightly]), and the dress highlights the fact that she has a modicum of meat on her bones, and just for a moment, you can believe that she and Cage might be of an age.

Also helping along the female problem is the fact that Mendes and Cage, overall, have a nice rapport with one another. The dialogue in their scenes together is not really something to write home about, but they have a great, giggly, flirty vibe that carries it. The movie runs into female problems again later (there's really no reason whatsoever that Roxie should be part of the final confrontation, for example, plus, she throws like a girl), but Ghost Rider is far from the worst answer to "How Do You Solve a Problem Like [Insert Girl's Name Here]" (the worst answer, tragically, would be the otherwise fantastic Batman Begins).

Like the handling of the Roxie problem, the homage to comic books in shot framing is something of a mixed bag. The very opening sequence, the introduction of adult Roxie, and many of the segments of the fights are really well done. Likewise, the narrative jangling of the fact that Blackheart meets up with the elemental demons in a biker saloon in the middle of the desert for no particular reason failed to bother me at all because the post-soul-sucking shots were so beautifully done. Johnson owes thanks to his cinematographers and art department for achieving a great 2-dimensional feel in the sets and dizzyingly weird perspective shots that is quite evocative of comic book panels without bringing the pace of the movie to a grinding halt. In most cases. One egregious negative example is pretty near the end when Johnny rides his hog into a swamp that is less realistic than anything one might find on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. And he rides. And he rides. And gee, where could this be going given that the water elemental demon is the only one he hasn't yet fought? And he rides. Oy!

Overall, the screenplay is not exactly a narrative triumph, but again, it's not the worst I've seen either. There's the slow start, the nonsensical departure of Sam Elliott after he's employed for one of the best visual gags in the movie, the communication of key plot points from miles away, and the fact that Donal Logue is completely misplaced after the first 30 minutes of the movie and only picked up again to do him gratuitous violence. The bad guys are not the sharpest knives in Hell's Drawer, but they needn't be. Still, Blackheart loses some serious street cred when he seems to believe that a good hanging will permanently solve his Ghost Rider problem.

M was concerned that some of the more abstract concepts of the comic book weren't communicated, but I "got" the Penance Stare right away and I had at least some idea of what the relationship between Ghost Rider and Johnny Blaze was. All things considered, the limited screen time, a few well-done visuals, and minimal dialogue was, to my mind, a better way to go than getting bogged down in a metric crap ton of exposition (cf. Constantine, for example).

The visual effects are good. I'm proud to note that the skull was based on scans of of Cage's actual skull (vive la anthropometry!), and they didn't try to have it emote in any way other than by voice. (M was very down on the voice, but it didn't bother me.) The flaming chain whip was awesome. every. time. And although there were certainly scenes included for the sheer pleasure of strutting the FX stuff, they were not especially cumbersome or intrusive.

With the exception of the two youngsters being positively dreadful and Peter Fonda relying primarily on his jackets to do the acting (in his defense, those were some shit hot jackets there), the performances were good. I imagine one either loves Nicolas Cage or hates him. I mostly love him, and certainly his quirky timing adds substantially to this movie. To return to the good decision not to waste too much time on draggy exposition, Johnny Blaze is surprisingly quick to accept his new night gig as Hell's Bounty Hunter. Cage has a ball selling that through a few funny moments, and it certainly comes out as believable (for comic book values of believable). Mendes does what she can and sparkles when acting against Cage. Sam Elliott is Sam Elliott. I imagine there was never any question as to who would be cast as Carter Slade, nor should there have been. He gives excellent straight man.

Wes Bentley (Blackheart) kept freaking us out, because he looks like the slightly chubby love child of Tobey Maguire and Sean Maher. (Yes, I feel like a total douche bag citing his chubbyness. He's not chubby by any reasonable real-world standards, and even if he were, I wholeheartedly support moving away from the insistence on rail-thin wisps of former people, but c'mon, your minions of hell are traditionally committed to hitting the gym often enough to keep them in slim, cassock-like coats and are generally not known to sport a wee bit of a double chin.) Physique aside, he was 100% committed to the goofy dialogue and struck a nice balance between scenery chewing and blasé wit. Laurence Breuls, Daniel Frederiksen, and Mathew Wilkinson had very little to do other than scowl as the elemental demons. Donal Logue (Mack, Johnny Blaze's Guy Friday) and Gibson Nolte (Stuart, Roxie's camera man) were pleasant sidekicks who got in some nice quiet character-development scenes with the leads.

So Ghost Rider, in my humble opinion, is a highly watchable movie that has frequent moments of genuine enjoyment. I don't begrudge the full price we paid for the tickets, and I'm confident in saying that it's worth a theater viewing, although you may want to catch it at a matinee or dollar theater.

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