JOE (1970) / Drama

Running Length: 107 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for language, violence, drug use, and strong sexual content and nudity.

Cast: Dennis Patrick, Peter Boyle, Audrey Caire, K Callan, Susan Sarandon, Patrick McDermott
Director: John G. Avildsen
Producers: David Gil, Yorman Globus
Screenplay: Norman Wexler

Joe could have been something. It could have been a film about the kinds of people so fed up with the way things are going that they decide to take matters into their own hands. Joe bravely tries to be that kind of film, but isn’t. What it ends up being is a disappointing and dismissive attempt at pointing out the wrongs in society, doing so with very little impact.

Dennis Patrick stars as Bill Compton, an advertising executive who lives with his family in New York’s Upper East Side. Of late, his daughter Melissa (Susan Sarandon) has been living with her boyfriend Frank, a notable drug dealer in the area, which has caused some friction between her and her family. One day, Melissa overdoses and is sent to the hospital. Enraged, Bill tracks down Frank’s place to retrieve Melissa’s clothes, but when Frank shows up, his temper gets the better of him and he kills Frank in an ensuing brawl.

Panic-stricken, Bill takes refuge in a local bar; a bar that Joe Curran (Peter Boyle) frequents. Joe represents the average hard-working and blue-collar American for his time. He is racist and homophobic and holds contempt for anyone that is different. When Bill arrives, Joe is drunk and delivering his daily monologue on his resentment for the culture that the hippies created. Eventually, Joe strikes up a conversation with Bill and the two get to talking. One thing leads to another and before long, Bill has revealed his secret.

At the time of its release, Joe was hailed as some sort of masterpiece, doing well in areas both critical and commercial. Part of this was largely due to the powerhouse performance of Peter Boyle, who does an exceptional job as Joe. Boyle (who many will know as Frank Barone from the much-loved TV sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond”) was a terribly underused actor, only appearing in a modest number of films until his untimely death in 2006. His acting talents were never rightfully “stretched”, so it’s safe to say that in Joe he gives his best performance. (It was also the performance that broke him into Hollywood.) That being said, I don’t consider a fantastic performance. Boyle does a great job and adequately captures his character’s anti-heroic nature, and he has some riveting scenes, but this is a role meant for a more seasoned of an actor. Boyle gives it his all, but the reason why his performance was so “acclaimed” is because none of the actors that surround him are very good.

First and foremost, the film’s weakest link is Dennis Patrick, an actor whose career must have dissipated immediately afterwards. While Patrick may have the “look” of his character, he is simply not believable in the part. Half of the time he doesn’t even look comfortable. Many of his line-readings are flat and delivered with about as much emotion as that of a wax figurine. This may be contributed to the fact that he was not meant for this part or maybe he’s just not that good of an actor. Susan Sarandon carries all of the depth you’d expect from an actor of her age and skill, but she doesn’t exactly exceed expectations.

Now, not having tangible plot is not always a weakness. (Hell, it’s how Kevin Smith started his career.) Certain films don’t require plot in order to be interesting as long as there are interesting-enough characters and engaging script to hold the audience’s attention. Joe‘s writer, Norman Wexler, has a competent-enough screenplay. (He received an Academy Award nomination for it.) The set-up is intriguing and for the most part, the dialogue holds true, touching on delicate issues that plagued the working class near the end of the 1960s. Wexler’s smartest move – and biggest mistake – is making Joe Curran a supporting character instead of a lead. While Joe is an interesting character, the storyline that Joe is based upon could not work from his point of view. He belongs on the sidelines; there only to motivate Compton into doing bad. A film focusing on his life looks good on paper (as Boyle tried to do later on), but simply wouldn’t be interesting. Joe is a voice, not a person, and Wexler uses him accordingly.

On top of that, the bland direction on John G. Avildsen’s behalf doesn’t do Wexler’s script justice. He only succeeds in giving the film a more deliberate pace and his theatrical approach may cause viewers to lose interest within the first ten minutes. In the end, Joe could have been something, but isn’t. Those are the most positive words that I can say about it.

Final rating: ★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

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GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE (2012) / Action-Adventure

Running Length: 95 minutes
MPAA Classification: PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, and language.

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Ciaran Hinds, Fergus Riordan, Idris Elba, Violante Placido, Johnny Whitworth, Christopher Lambert
Director: Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor
Producers: Ashok Amritraj, Avi Arad, Michael De Luca, Steven Paul
Screenplay: David S. Goyer, Scott Gimple (based on the Marvel comic book series)

‘Depressing’ is not a dark enough word to adequately describe what these past couple of weeks at the movie theater have felt like. There has simply been nothing worth waiting for or looking forward to. Movies continue to be released and people continue to see them, but overall, the interest level of America has remained at a disappointingly low level.

Now of course, this is expected. The first quarter of the year is never an exciting time for cinema, so putting up with the bad movies is routine as long as there are a couple of good ones to keep us distracted. But lately, there hasn’t been. The movie industry is stuck in a rut. As each Friday comes along and a few new titles are added to the marquee, I become more and more curious of what those people in Hollywood thinking. Are people out there even trying anymore? Do they even care? Are they so out of fresh ideas that making something like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance sounds like a good idea? If so, they must be more desperate than I thought.

There have been many big screen adaptations of superhero-based comic books over the years and the Ghost Rider franchise is by far the most worthless of them all. Not much can be done with a character as uninteresting as Johnny Blaze and both films centered on him have proved that. Like the rest of America, I didn’t like the first Ghost Rider. I didn’t really like anything about it. But as box office totals will go on to prove, if a movie manages to make enough money, it will more than likely have a sequel made, even if the movie is entirely unworthy of having a sequel.

Now, while the first Ghost Rider is a bad movie, I don’t hate it. Sure, it’s unattractive and lousy and stupid to boot, but overall, it’s relatively forgettable. When I first saw it, I griped and complained and said what I needed to say, but when it ended, I moved on. Such is not the case for Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. I’ll be talking about it for a long, long time.

To get right to the point, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is an extremely awful movie. It is wretched and foul and degrading and so supremely god awful in every single aspect that making fun of it seems like the wrong thing to do. I feel like by attacking it, I’m giving someone the opportunity to utter the phrase, “Hey, go pick on someone your own size.” Well, when a movie as unforgiving as this steals an hour and a half of your life and money from your own pocket, what else are you supposed to do?

The story transpires somewhere in ‘Eastern Europe’ on Johnny Blaze (Cage), a man whose own soul is possessed by the Devil. Blaze has this curse where his body will burst into flame at any given moment, turning him into Ghost Rider. It’s an annoying curse and he rightfully wants it gone, so enter Moreau (Idris Elba), a man who claims that he can get rid of the demon trapped inside of Blaze’s body as long as Blaze does him a favor in return. That favor consists of escorting a young boy (Fergus Riordan) and his mother (Violante Placido) to a monastery while having Mr. Roarke (Ciaran Hinds) and his band of misfits hot on their tails.

It’s safe to say that Nicolas Cage is at the lowest point in his career right now. He’s made one bad move right after the other, consecutively appearing in movies so crummy that it’s starting to seem like he may never get out of the hole he’s in. (Currently, he’s the laughingstock of Hollywood.) Sure, in the first Ghost Rider, Cage isn’t any Ben Sanderson, but at least he’s acting and we can tell that he is. In Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, his acting is so incredibly bad and horrendously wooden that it seems entirely intentional. It’s as if he’s making fun of himself and in turn, we’re not entertained; we’re bored. It’s sad to watch a once-great actor embarrass himself upon the screen, looking like a deranged psychopath as he trips over line after line, shaking and laughing like a tweaked-out crack addict. The only other performance to speak of comes from Ciaran Hinds, who blabbers cheap one-liners and looks like a Robert De Niro knock-off recovering from a stroke.

In Crank, the directing duo of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor incorporated a lot of their trademark frenetic camerawork and campy humor, but here they just completely overdo it. They take advantage of both the Steadicam and ‘Zoom’ option, overusing them in unnecessary situations to the point where it becomes annoying and a little self-indulgent. Essentially, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance could make for a decent B-movie if it didn’t take itself so seriously, but because it’s just so flat-out bad, there’s no way that we can enjoy ourselves.

The CGI is woefully cheap-looking and entirely unconvincing, resembling something from a late 90s video game. You’d think that a 60 million dollar budget could buy a better visual effects team, but apparently, it can’t. On top of that, the editing is frantic and incomprehensible and at times it feels like scenes have been scrapped from the film altogether, making an already incoherent storyline even all the more difficult to understand. Eventually, I just stopped trying to follow everything and gave up on caring. I wonder; when the final result was shown to the crew, what were they thinking? Did they fully realize what they had just made? The people involved with this soul-sucking hunk of overstuffed garbage should be downright ashamed of themselves.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is not only the lowest thing that Hollywood has had to offer this year, but in a long, long while as well. The ineptitude on display here is astonishing. It’s despicable that a thing like this can be made and make profit, which it undoubtedly will. Of course, bad news is what you’d expect from a movie like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, so you may not be surprised by my warnings. But trust me: it’s a whole lot worse than I’m making it out to be.

Final rating: 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest