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

TOTAL RECALL (1990) / Action-Adventure

Running Length: 113 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for strong bloody violence, language, sexuality, and nudity.

Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rachel Ticotin, Sharon Stone, Michael Ironside, Ronny Cox, Mel Johnson Jr., Marshall Bell
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Producers: Mario Kassar, Andrew G. Vajna
Screenplay: Ronald Shusett, Dan O’Bannon, Jon Povill (based upon the short story “We Can Buy It for You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick)

At first glance, Total Recall may seem like the same old big budget actioneer that its star Arnold Schwarzenegger so often populates. Immediately, you expect bad acting, pervasive fight scenes, a lot of one-liners, and for good reason, too. (The latter two will be found here.) Cast Schwarzenegger was a huge risk for director Paul Verhoeven (RoboCop), for his name alone usually discourages movie-goers. But let me tell you something: Total Recall is not at all what you’re expecting.

Based on a short story by science-fiction icon Philip K. Dick, the plot of Total Recall transpires in a distant future, on an earth that looks a lot like the financial districts of most major cities. Schwarzenegger stars as Douglas Quaid, a construction worker who often dreams about visiting Mars. His wife Lori (Sharon Stone) and his friends dissuade him from thinking these thoughts, but when he hears about Rekall, a company that specializes in implanting memories of actual vacations, he decides to give it a go.

Upon arriving at Rekall, Quaid is given the option of traveling to Mars as either himself or a multitude of alter-egos, including the option to travel as a secret agent. He opts for the latter, is restrained and sedated, but before the procedure can begin, he wakes up and freaks out, claiming that he is not who he is. He tries to elope, but is subdued and sedated yet again. When he wakes up, hes still the same, but his life is no longer what it once was. Hired killers are after him and his wife and friends aren’t who they seem to be. That’s when he happens across a tape explaining that he’s actually part of an underground resistance fighting the forces of Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), a corrupt politician. This is big news for Quaid. He didn’t want any part of this. On the outside, he may look tough, but inside he’s just as unsure as the rest of us.

While the premise is intriguing enough, the main success of Total Recall can be found in the film’s production design and special effects. The brilliant reds and oranges of Mars are beautiful to behold and the landscape of the planet in general is well-designed. Being as it is a movie from the early 90s, one would expect for Total Recall to be dated when it comes to the visual aspect, but that’s not true at all. It has actually held up quite nicely. The special effects are dazzling. There’s a scene where Quaid uses an instrument to remove a tracking chip from his brain, a scene where he dresses up using the guise of a lady, and scenes where characters die from decompression on the harsh Mars atmosphere.

Much like RoboCop, there are a heck of a lot of shootouts and all of them end in bloodletting. Characters are axed, stabbed, drilled to death, and shot to pieces – (especially a poor unfortunate soul that Quaid takes hostage on an escalator). There’s even a character whose arms are literally ripped from his body. But Verhoeven keeps it cool and stylish, and often comedic, never lacking in execution. He delivers this violence with a side of tongue-in-cheek humor, which tones it down, making it less gruesome than it actually is. While Total Recall does touch on some important issues, there’s nothing about it that leads you to believe it’s a serious movie.

And as much as people label Schwarzenegger as one of the worst actors out there, he actually does a great job here, bringing as much humor and enthusiasm to the role as he possibly can. He’s the kind of actor that was made for this kind of film and I doubt that any other could replace him. While he does occasionally fall flat with a couple of his line readings, he manages to keep it together quite well for the most part and creates a character that isn’t exactly three-dimensional, but one that we can root for.

Total Recall is not only a great popcorn movie, but a work of startling ingenuity. It’s as absurd as they get, yet it never takes itself too seriously. That’s why it’s so much fun. The blockbusters of late are mechanical and routine and don’t have the heart required to make things work. Such is not the case for Total Recall. Yes, there is a fair amount of stupidity to be had. (In a film like this, when is there not?) But the story never sags and the tension only builds, and I was never bored. Call it what you want – it’s good entertainment.

Final rating: ★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

© 2011 Stephen Earnest

TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON (2011) / Action-Adventure

Running Time: 154 minutes
MPAA Classification: PG-13 for intense prolonged sequences of sci-fi action violence, mayhem and destruction, and for language, some sexuality and innuendo.

Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Jon Turturro, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Frances McDormand, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Kevin Dunn, Patrick Dempsey, John Malkovich, Julie White
Director: Michael Bay
Producers: Don Murphy, Tom DeSanto, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Ian Bryce
Screenplay: Ehren Krugher, based on the Hasbro toy line

It is often said the sequels are never quite as good as the original. They just can’t ever compare. Studio executives see their chance to cash in on a film’s success, so they decide to make another one. This involves adding onto the end of the film’s title a big number ‘2’ or a colon followed by a dumb phrase. Understand that I’m not trying to explain to you how a sequel is made. I don’t take you people for a bunch of idiots. I’m only trying to make a point.

Well, considering the fact that the first Transformers movie was a monumental piece of crap and the sequel that followed it was even worse, your expectations for Transformers: Dark of the Moon should be relatively low. This is one of the biggest, dumbest movie franchises in the history of cinema and why it continues to make money is a testament to the mental state of our generation. Its name upon the movie theater marquee attracts children, frat boys, video game nerds, and people who are looking for a good laugh. Of course, I fit in with the latter crowd.

What I didn’t realize was the trouble I had gotten myself into. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is class A cheese, loaded with a plethora of bad one-liners, bad performances, and all sorts of technical mishaps, but its unintentional humor began to wear off within the first hour, and with a dreadful ninety-something minutes to go, I started to feel very, very scared for myself. Trouble was indeed on the horizon.

Here is a film that is not only an assault on the human mind, but on the ears and eyes as well. It is a non-stop barrage of deafening roars and steel-on-steel screeching, with plenty of yelling to boot. I would classify it as a form of psychological torture, but I doubt that the film’s director, Michael Bay, even has a clue what that is.

This time, the plot is a tad more coherent, but it doesn’t remain that way. There are the Decepticons and there are the Autobots and they engage in a multitude of battles on planet Earth, as they are ones to do. There’s Shia LaBeouf, whose depravity as an actor knows no bounds. His performance consists of a lot of yelling, running, and the occasional crude remark towards his inept parents and/or hot girlfriend. Then there are the likes of John Malkovich and Frances McDormand and John Turturro, who are some of the most talented performers out there, but here, they just embarrass themselves.

I won’t go into detail about the robots themselves, except for the fact that they’re just as illogical as they were in the first two films. Structure remains the same, but now there are some that have beards made out of steel, there are some that wear clothes, and if I’m not mistaken, I swear I saw one smoking cigarettes.

As for the film itself, I got exactly what I was expecting and nothing less — large robot battle sequences with a lot of slicing and scratching and continuous gunfire, not to mention very loud explosions and some slowed-down scenes of very large objects toppling to the ground. Close your eyes, start humming a drum beat, and basically what you have is a bad dubstep mix. Plus, the film as a whole is visually unappealing. It relies on special effects to attract an audience, but these are no better than anything else. The cinematography is shockingly bland and boring, and everything is over-edited to the point where you honestly have no idea what is going on anymore. Images smash against each other so often and so recklessly that at one point during the film I just wanted to press my hands against my face and yell at the top of my lungs, “Stop!” My brain was being beaten to a pulp.

There is only so much mayhem that one person can take, and Bay stretches those limits to the extreme. At an astonishing 154 minutes long, Transformers: Dark of the Moon could be labeled as an “epic.” Was the extra hour of gunplay necessary? Was it? Really? Is there anyone out there that found themselves completely involved in the film for its entire length, despite all of the repetitive action going on in front of them? My head was numb. I was unable to blink. As the final credits began to roll, I felt as though I had lost a rather large and important part of my mind.

But there is a happy ending. This does end on a more positive note. We shall see no more installments to the Transformers trilogy. It is over and done with, unless of course Michael Bay finds a way to squeeze a fourth one in, and that is very well within the realm of possibility. But for now, I cherish the idea of a Transformers-free world, where hearing aid costs are down and money is being put to better use. Hell, I can see it already…

Final rating: ★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest

Review: THE WAY OF THE GUN (R)

Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro as Parker and Longbaugh.

U.S. Release Date: September 8, 2000

Running Time: 119 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, sexual situations, violence/gore)

Cast: Ryan Phillippe, Benicio Del Toro, James Caan, Juliette Lewis, Taye Diggs, Nicky Katt, Geoffrey Lewis, Scott Wilson, Kristin Lehman

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Producer: Kenneth Kokin

Screenplay: Christopher McQuarrie

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / December 28, 2011

Christopher McQuarrie’s directorial debut, The Way of the Gun, is a stylish and offbeat re-imagining of the classic Western that starts — and ends — with a very loud bang. It may get far-fetched and outlandish at times, but never so much that we become uninterested.

The plot focuses on Parker (Ryan Phillippe doing an uncouth impression of Marlon Brando) and Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro), a couple of criminals looking for the ultimate score. Their time comes when they overhear a conversation about a woman that is carrying a child for a wealthy couple, and the two get a rather clever idea: kidnap the woman and hold her unborn child for ransom until the couple decides to pay up. Well, their plan goes through, but there’s one thing that they haven’t reckoned with: the father of the child is Hale Chidduck, who happens to have a lengthy criminal background. One thing leads to another and pretty soon an all-out war is started between the kidnappers and Chidduck, who sends his henchmen out instead to take care of business.

Regardless of the slow pace, The Way of the Gun is handled quite well by McQuarrie, who seems pretty confident his first time out as director. He delivers a much-needed sense of style that is essential for a movie like this, especially in the film’s well-choreographed climax, but the real strength comes from his script. There isn’t a whole lot of originality to speak of, but that’s not saying there isn’t fun to be had. Channeling Peckinpah, McQuarrie sends his characters into the heat of desert, ready for action. But instead of heroes clad in trench coats and dark sunglasses, we get bulletproof-vested criminals wielding shotguns.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about McQuarrie’s script is that he doesn’t make the characters of Parker and Longbaugh inept or moronic like most movie criminals so often are. He derives their names from Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and sort of gives them some of the same qualities. That’s not saying that they’re perfect — they do manage to screw up a few times — but they’re smart and they plan ahead and a lot of their maneuvers are quite genius. The same goes for the opposing team. This way both sides are equally matched.

McQuarrie’s realistic approach also highly benefits the mood of the film. He keeps the action stylish, but does not over-exaggerate it. There is none of that choppy or heavily-edited gunplay that so often plagues modern-day crime movies. Everything is pulled off with straight-forward realism. We witness one of the world’s slowest car chases and a gun battle where our heroes are actually injured.

The Way of the Gun is also very dialogue-heavy. You saw this in McQuarrie’s previous script, The Usual Suspects, as well. He makes the character of Parker verbose and almost philosophical with his wording, and it’s his character that provides us with most of the film’s one-liners (“Fifteen million dollars is not money. It’s a motive with a universal adapter on it”).

The acting is not exactly top-notch, but there a couple of serviceable performances, most notably the one from James Caan, who plays yet another tough guy. This is a role that Caan finds himself in quite often, but here he brings an unexpected amount of heart to the character of Joe Sarno, possibly because it’s the one character that most adequately summarizes his acting career.

In a world of sub-standard action flicks, The Way of the Gun stands out. It doesn’t glamorize violence; it studies it. And while it may have its share of flaws, it’s engaging, involving, and a good start for McQuarrie as a director.

RATING: 3/4

Review: DEAD MAN (R)

Johnny Depp in "Dead Man."


U.S. Release Date: May 10, 1996

Running Time: 121 minutes

MPAA Classification: R (Language, sexual content, violence)

Cast: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, John Hurt, Billy Bob Thornton, Alfred Molina, Gabriel Byrne, Crispin Glover, Robert Mitchum, Michael Wincott, Lance Henriksen, Iggy Pop, Eugene Byrd

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Producer: Demetra J. MacBride

Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 19, 2011

Dead Man is a vastly uncompromising Western. It has all of the typical Western archetypes, yes, but the way in which it goes about them is extremely unorthodox.

The film is centered on a young Johnny Depp, who plays William Blake (not to be confused with the poet, although that will come into play later on). Blake is on his way to the town of Machine for a job that has been promised to him. On the train, he is warned that his grave awaits him in Machine. Of course, he pays no attention and only treats the warning with mild shock.

When he arrives, he is informed by the rifle-toting boss Mr. Dickinson (played by Robert Mitchum) that the job is no longer available. Depp, disgruntled and betrayed, leaves and heads to a bar. There, he meets a pretty girl (Mili Avital) and the two set off to her apartment to engage in sexual activities. But their fun is interrupted by an angry ex-boyfriend (Gabriel Byrne), who kills the girl and then is killed by Blake. Blake is wounded in the process and escapes through a nearby window, just before he collapses.

He awakes to an Indian named Nobody who believes him to be the real William Blake, the poet William Blake. Nobody takes Blake under his wing for a spiritual journey and awakening. Meanwhile, back at the ranch in Machine, the man that Blake killed happens to be Mr. Dickinson’s son. Dickinson learns that it was Blake that killed his son, most likely out of anger for the unavailable job, and hires a trio of bounty hunters to find and kill Blake.

Now, that’s where the plot actually begins. But it delves into much, much more. More than I can possible explain with words. Jim Jarmusch is a director that always has a purpose behind everything that he does, but here in “Dead Man”, I just can’t figure it out.

In fact, Dead Man is so unorthodox about the way that it goes about everything that I lost interest rapidly, more and more so as the film progressed. It turns into a wild and almost acid-like trip, but without the flamboyant colors that an LSD-trip would contain, as it is in black-and-white. So, it’s more like some weird lucid dream. I hated the look of the film in general. The cinematography was bland and uninteresting, the characters looked ridiculous, and the black-and-white was gritty and unappealing. I understand what Jarmusch is trying to do in defying the traditional laws of the Western film, but he took it too far. Dead Man is essentially a Western in drag–colorless drag, that is.

Of course, Depp is good in his lead role. He remains to be such a formidable actor and can mold quite well into any character that he portrays. I also liked Michael Wincott and Lance Henriksen in their bounty hunter roles. They had good chemistry and could be quite funny at times. As for the rest of the cast… Eh, not so much.

By saying this, I’m not saying that Jarmusch is an inept filmmaker. He’s had many a great film, but this is most definitely not one of them. I understand that this is probably considered as a “love it or hate it” film, and while I didn’t exactly hate it, I didn’t quite care for it.

RATING: 2/4

Review: TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN (PG-13)

Shia LeBeouf and Megan Fox run away from an explosion in one the many slow-motion sequences "Transformers 2" has to offer.

U.S. Release Date: June 24, 2009

Running Time: 149 minutes

MPAA Classification: PG-13 (Language, sci-fi violence, sexual content/references)

Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, John Turturro, Megan Fox, Ramon Rodriguez, Kevin Dunn, Julie White

Director: Michael Bay

Producers: Ian Bryce, Tom DeSanto, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Don Murphy

Screenplay: Ehren Kruger, Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman

 

By STEPHEN EARNEST / November 3, 2011

I have a theory behind Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Actually, this theory can also be applied to any other installment in the Transformers trilogy.

First off, I think I should give you a little bit of back story on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. It’s nothing too difficult to comprehend, but I don’t think it’ll make much sense.

The film’s lead character, Sam Witwicky (played by Shia LeBeouf), has got it all. He’s got a hot girlfriend, a sexually crude mother and father, and a nice Autobot in the garage. What more could a teenage kid ask for? But now he’s got to off to college and leave his hot girlfriend and Autobot behind. So, he decides to leave the All Spark (it has something to do with the Decepticons, but really, who cares?) to his hot girlfriend for safe keeping. Have I put enough emphasis on the word “hot”?

Some time later, Sam begins to experience visions of weird cryptic symbols. He lashes out in fits of writing in the college dorm room, scaring his friends, who aren’t quite sure what to do—-

Alright, that’s it. Really, who cares about the plot? You all know what it entails: giant robot battles. Nothing’s really comprehensible. It’s all just people running slow-motion from explosions, bare-naked ladies, and loud fight sequences. That’s what people want to see. Do they ever question the actuality of a event like this happening? Do they ever notice that these robots speak English in different dialects, even though they are supposedly from a far away planet? No, I guess not. But then again, this movie wasn’t made for the kind of movie-going crowd I encourage.

Now for the theory. See, what I suspect is that Michael Bay hires his screenwriter to write a script that is fairly good (at least, as good as a script can be that involves alien robots taking the form of household objects and invading Earth). Once the script is finished, Bay takes a look at it, decides what he wants in or wants out, and then begins his re-write (of course, this re-write is done with a couple of meat-headed friends).

Now, before this re-write begins, Bay and his meat-head buddies make a list of every movie cliche known to civilized man. This list ranges from the “girlfriend walking in on her boyfriend as he unwillingly makes out with some other hot chick, then he has to chase down his girlfriend and make amends” cliche to the “computer genius that hacks an entire computer system in a matter of seconds” cliche to even the “really loud action sequence followed by a quiet scene where a character has a one-liner, then the loud action sequence continues” cliche. Hell, they even managed to come up with a couple of cliches of their own.

Next, Bay gets paid by a couple of “big name” companies to advertise their products in his film, regardless of how much screen time that product actually gets. As long as it whizzes by, everyone’s happy. Could be half a second. All that matters is that you saw it.

Then, Bay adds in a couple of scatological jokes (for the kids), a couple of slow-motion action scenes, and some really cheesy one-liners. Maybe even a dog-humping–another-dog scene. In the end, what you basically have is a big-budget B-movie directed by a man who can only be described as the definition of the word “inept”. Who cares how much time was put into it? That makes it even more of a disappointment.

I won’t really go into any further detail to describe the absolute abysmal awfulness of this film. There’s no need and frankly, I don’t want to waste my time. You know if you’re you’re the kind of person that likes these movies.

Is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen one of the worst movies I have ever seen? Yes. It was about an hour in when I realized this. I thought to myself, “Can this movie possibly get any worse?” Then a tentacle resembling a bike-chain shot out of a woman’s mouth and began to choke an unsuspecting teen.

RATING: .5/4