Friday, February 24, 2012


In the annals of Marvel Comics motion picture adaptations, 2007’s Ghost Rider is a sad, misguided footnote barely worth expending the energy to mention. Helmed by Daredevil director Mark Steven Johnson, it was a tediously limp franchise launch that impressively managed to render a tragic flaming biker skeleton boring. No mean feat, that! However, despite toxic word of mouth and a flurry of critical jabs, the lifeless origin tale managed to gross a respectable, if somewhat discouraging, $228-million dollars worldwide. Remarkably quickly, the usual studio sequel chatter withered on the vine, as audience demand for the next chapter was roughly as voluble as the sound of a lone tumbleweed lazily rolling across the barren desert plain.

Of course, never underestimate the motivational power of being forced to forfeit the rights to an iconic fanboy property! In an effort to keep the languishing superhero under the studio umbrella, and away from rival Marvel Studios, Sony dusted off a near-decade old script by Blade and Batman Begins scribe David S. Goyer and enlisted deranged directorial duo Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor of Crank fame to reignite the Rider. The off-kilter end result, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, is a crazed hallucination of nonsensical, frenzied idiocy that somehow manages to out-stupid its insipid predecessor while still crossing into shameless guilty pleasure territory. Make no mistake; as a film it’s ten tonnes of terrible. That said, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m compelled to confess that I was occasionally amused by its unrepentant bargain barrel trashiness.

Stripping away most of the elements established in the original, Spirit of Vengeance picks up with cursed stunt-artist Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage, the sole casting leftover) adrift in strangely desolate Eastern Europe. Nomadic, friendless and plagued mercilessly by the powerful demon raging with him, he’s recruited by a wine-guzzling monk named Moreau (Idris Elba) to help prevent the Devil (CiarĂ¡n Hinds) from achieving unimaginable power. His villainous plot centers on a young boy named Danny (Fergus Riordan), whose actual parentage is a secret long kept by his resourceful and tough mom Nadya (Violante Placido). Now hunted by a team of bounty hunters led by vicious pretty-boy killer Ray Carrigan (Johnny Whitworth, who dons a bad rockstar wig after being transformed into the evil Blackout), the family has no one to turn to except the unpredictable and dangerous Blaze, who desperately needs to succeed in his grim task if he ever hopes to regain his long lost humanity.

Neveldine/Taylor – as they concisely credit themselves – have never been particularly skilled at storytelling. Their Crank movies, and the spastic, migraine-inducing Gamer, were intentionally obnoxious exercises in chaotic, go-for-broke insanity and guerilla-style filmmaking showiness (the pair are known to shoot their action by whizzing around on rollerblades). For better or worse, Ghost Rider 2 cheerfully follows their usual manic modus operandi, with cheerfully dopey visuals – slightly more subdued than usual, probably due to the sadly underutilized 3D – propping up a sloppy joke of a script. There is some fun stuff here, amidst the flotsam, such as a massive fiery mining crane smashing enemies into cinders or a scene in which the hero pees fire. Seriously.

They do a good job giving presence to their walking matchstick crusader. The Rider is usually silent, doesn’t move around much, and his primary power of staring people to death isn’t overly cinematic, yet he’s a genuinely cool vision in bubbling leather, flame and smoke. And, unlike last time, his oddball abilities, such as spewing back molten bullets, transforming random vehicles into apocalyptic death rides and using his trusty chain to drag baddies to Hell are given a fitfully goofy showcase. As a dynamic on-screen protagonist, he grabs your attention.

It’s hard, though, to watch the disjointed Spirit of Vengeance and not notice the significant resemblance it bears to the notorious comic-book box-office disaster Jonah Hex, which Neveldine/Taylor penned and later derided as not being representative of their work. As was the case with that pitiful waste of celluloid, this movie has been edited to utter shreds – a possible sign of studio interference – so that characters pop in out of the story whenever convenient (Christopher Lambert’s abbreviated appearance as a tattooed monk is a true head-scratcher), and there’s no momentum or logic to its feeble Terminator 2-lite chase plot. There’s also a reliance on extended sequences of quirky animated exposition, darkly comedic instances of raising the dead and a climactic final battle that takes place in two realms simultaneously. It often seems as if the duo are trying to right the (infinite) wrongs of the Josh Brolin western with Ghost Rider 2, only to stumble into the same clumsy, obvious filmmaking traps that thwarted Hex director Jimmy Hayward.

To his credit, Nicolas Cage refuses to play it safe. The often fearless actor, who reportedly got into Blaze’s headspace by walking around set in Baron Samedi voodoo god makeup, channels his loony, foaming-at-the-mouth Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans protagonist on numerous welcome occasions. In one mesmerizingly bizarre moment he shakes down a black market criminal by giving in to his darker supernatural urges, twitching and sputtering with wild abandon. It’s not a particularly good performance – it feels driven less by character than by a demand to dial up the crazy for crazy’s sake – but he makes his share of the wretched dialogue work, and his idiosyncratic style is greatly appreciated when contrasted against the rest of the largely forgettable cast. Only Hinds is brave enough to try to go toe-to-toe with Cage, delivering a hammy performance that’s operatic in its unabashed ludicrousness. He makes Al Pacino’s scenery-chewing turn in The Devil’s Advocate look restrained by comparison. Fan-adored Thor co-star Elba, boasting a beyond cartoonish accent, is a good sport as the gun-toting warrior monk. Too bad he’s largely wasted in a frankly uninteresting and pointless role.

Like the similarly schlocky Marvel sequel Punisher: War Zone, Ghost Rider 2 wears its bad B-movie aspirations on its sleeve, ironically aware of its own pointlessness and bubble-headedly content to revel in hyper-silly violence and cheap empty thrills. No real attempt has been made to add dimension to the tormented antihero and his shallow universe, or spin an engagingly demented yarn worth caring a lick about. Which is kind of unfortunate, because, by Spirit of Vengeance’s end, there’s no mistaking the fact that this Rider’s tank is running perilously close to empty.

2 out of 5

*Originally published at Converge Magazine.

Handicapping the Oscar Best Picture Race

Okay, we all know this year's Best Picture race is something of a foregone conclusion. But why not have some fun analyzing which films are most likely to stand a chance against the unstoppable awards juggernaut that shall not be named here?

Head over to 24 Hours Vancouver to read my full thoughts on this years nominees.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Epi-Cast: Episode 33 - "An Oscarmoron"

Move over Weinstein, the Oscar season isn't all about you! And, as a reminder of that indisputable fact, Cam and Tom have emerged from deep deep cover to toss out another hot digital joint for y'alls. Want to know who our hosts think will win Best Animated Feature?! Well, strap yourself in because you are in for one wild, bumpy,senses-shaking ride!

Epi-Cast: Episode 33 - "An Oscarmoron"

With the Academy Awards just under a week away  (contrary to what one of the illustrious hosts states in this very episode), the diligent duo go toe-to-toe with Oscar queen Meryl Streep's The Iron Lady. Are Cam and/or Tom sick of biopics? Only one way to find out! Well, okay, that's not quite true. But there's only one way other than scanning Cam's recent reviews! In addition to the main course, Cam tells you whether Safe House or Chronicle are worth your $10, while Tom classes up the 'cast with eloquent critiques of Anonymous and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. And, if that's not enough wonder to satiate you, the two also debate the merits of recent trailers for The Amazing Spider-ManJack the Giant Killer and The Bourne Legacy, as well as offer up their choices for who should win at this year's Oscars. So plug in, chill out and let loose, cyber-brothers and sisters! 

To download, simply right-click and save on any of the episode titles above. Then you are free to indulge in one of the wild worldwide web's most majestic mp3 treasures.

P.S. We are, of course, available on iTunes! Simply do a store search for "Epi-Cast" and, WRECKER-MYSTERIO!, you can subscribe to our feed and receive instantaneous downloads whenever we bother to upload a new episode. Oh, and we are the "Epi-Cast", not the "Epicast." It's very unlikely that insightful interpretations of the Bible will be included amongst our heated ramblings.

P.P.S. Don't hesitate to leave a review on our iTunes page. As always, we sincerely welcome your hyperbolic praise/earth-scorching venom.

Film Review - SAFE HOUSE

One single alarming, unlikely thought nagged at me incessantly during Daniel Espinosa’s slick, hyper-edited Training-Day-meets-The-Bourne-Supremacy mash-up Safe House — a thought I never dreamed I’d have: Boy, I really wish Denzel’s usual collaborator Tony Scott had directed this nonsense! For at least Scott, a shameless four-decade veteran of flashy, enjoyable trash such as Unstoppable, Enemy of the State and Man on Fire, would have injected his own brand of off-beat stylistic weirdness and hyperkinetic razzle-dazzle into these beyond routine proceedings. Under his heavy guiding hand, we might have at least been treated to a delicious fromage-scented symphony of ludicrous idiocy, as opposed to this weary, derivative dirge of spy thriller cliches.

Set in vibrant Cape Town, South Africa, Safe House stars Denzel Washington as Tobin Frost (a stellar movie name, if ever there was one), an awesomely formidable CIA super-agent gone rogue. How formidable, you ask? We’re told — in appropriately solemn, awed tones — that he’s “the most brilliant operative” the CIA has seen. Wanted on four continents for espionage, he’s also single-handedly responsible for sending multiple highly-trained agents into permanent retirement from life. Yup, he’s that good! And now, without warning, he’s casually walked into the American consulate and surrendered to the not unreasonably shocked authorities.

Frost, of course, has ulterior motives for giving up the chase. He’s carrying a secret with him in the form of a self-injected capsule of information that threatens to expose all of the intelligence community’s dirty little secrets, and there’s a deadly hit squad of hired guns viciously nipping at his heals to recover it. Transported to a long-vacant nearby safe house for aggressive questioning, Frost finds himself explosively thrust into the care of the site’s inexperienced overseer Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) after the pursuing assassins blast their way through the facility’s (strangely modest) defences. Soon the unfairly matched duo are on a mad dash from certain death, with Weston doggedly trying to locate a new secure location to accommodate his unpredictable charge, while the wily Frost, plotting his own escape, attempts to worm his way into the untested agent’s increasingly taxed mind.

Cribbing heavily from Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day playbook, director Espinosa attempts to recapture that film’s fierce, memorable Crafty Mentor vs. Naive Protege dynamic, but sacrifices character in favour of frantic action spectacle and hackneyed scenes of energy-sapping exposition. Safe House's script, by David Guggenheim, relies purely on shallow dramatic shorthand, shoe-horning in all-too-brief “character moments” without properly developing the rocky relationship between its two polar opposite leading men. There’s no natural progression of their life-changing battle of wills, only a handful of awkward conversations in between bouts of fisticuffs, and by journey’s end they still feel like total strangers. Frost, who, we learn, rewrote the rules of CIA interrogation, boasts to Weston that he’s in his head and in total control, but the film stops frustratingly short of actually exploring the extent of the senior agent’s manipulative powers, or highlighting their powerful effects. Reynolds’ taciturn hero’s transformation appears to be informed less by actual psychological torment than by repeated vicious blows to the noggin. A cautionary tip to screenwriters: if you’re going to write a dumbed-down script, don’t repeatedly emphasize the brilliance of its characters without any evidence of said brilliance!

Given the pedestrian nature of the material, it’s tough to place much blame on the actors for failing to register in their rain puddle-deep roles. Washington, who inexplicably helped shepherd this project to fruition as an executive producer, is doing a pretty shameless variation on his Training Day/American Gangster charismatic villain persona. But he’s fun to watch and, because we know this character so well from his better past efforts, we project more onto Frost than is actually present. Reynolds, however, isn’t so lucky. Continuing his troubling career transition from magnetic scene-stealer to vanilla movie star, the charismatic actor is rendered inert by his sweat-streaked void of a protagonist, grunting and wincing his way through the entire picture. He shows admirable physicality here — we believe he’s capable of the violent feats of daring-do on-screen — but there’s no inner fire, and no reason to invest ourselves in this handsome blank. Filling out the cast as CIA higher-ups, Brendan Gleeson, Vera Farmiga and Sam Shepard — an invaluable combination that, in a film with ambition, would inspire spectacular pyrotechnics — are criminally wasted in nothing parts, tediously debating whether Reynolds’ Weston is on their side or not.

Overseeing his first major Hollywood production, Swedish import Espinosa seems timid to establish his own unique directorial voice. Instead, he approximates Paul Greengrass’s queasy Bourne shaky-cam — a conceit that’s fast becoming a crutch for helmers incapable of staging coherent action — with terribly mixed results. An early car chase, which memorably begins with Frost locked in a trunk, has pounding, propulsive momentum, but as the film continues the set-pieces become progressively sloppier. A night-time pursuit through a crowded shantytown is a confusing headache of epileptic editing, and the confined-quarter climax involving shoot-outs and bruising martial arts clashes jumps around too much to build any intensity. Compounding the visual ugliness, Espinosa and Bourne cinematographer Oliver Wood smear every frame with sickly grey and brown bleariness, as if the unfolding events were being viewed through the eyes of the stumbling town drunk.

There’s just so little to latch on to in this film; it’s such a bland, middle-of-the-road offering, filled with paycheck-cashing actors in full-on slum mode, that it doesn’t even manage to offend. Free of surprises — the third act mystery bad-guy reveal can easily be predicted by observing the ancient rules of typecasting — or anything resembling a creative spark, it’s a vapour of an action picture; dissipating immediately from memory once the credits begin to roll. Joylessly wasting talent and countless resources, Safe House crumbles under the sorry weight of its own shoddy construction.

2 out of 5

*Originally published at Converge Magazine.