Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Let me start by admitting that I am a comic book geek, so I might be a little biased when it comes to their movie adaptations. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always enjoyed the Marvel Universe, so I’m always psyched when new movies based on their characters come out. That’s why I eagerly anticipated Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.

Now I will admit that the film’s predecessor, 2007’s Ghost Rider, wasn’t a great film. I thought it was alright, but even as a comic fan, I admit there was plenty of room for improvement. With that said, I was surprised to hear there would be a second film, but I was also enthusiastic to see if they made the necessary corrections to right the Ghost Rider brand.

Even though Nicolas Cage reprised his role as Johnny Blaze, AKA Ghost Rider, I hesitate to call Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance a sequel, though it’s not exactly a reboot either, like the comic book movies Hulk and Incredible Hulk were. This new Ghost Rider film neither ignores the first installment, nor does it reference it; instead, it seems to suggest that the previous film laid the groundwork, but the new movie was going to move on and introduce a new stage in Ghost Rider’s evolution.

As it happens, the movie progression is reminiscent of Ghost Rider’s comic book transformations throughout the years, namely his change from a tame, controlled, and cartoonish figure in the early 90s to today’s dark, terrifying, and intimidating character. It was a change that needed to be made, and I'm glad they made it.

So was the new Ghost Rider a better film than the first? Absolutely. The story itself wasn’t that much better, but it was executed more successfully. As a whole, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance was darker and gave the character an aura of terror, intimidation, and, as as it is to say it, vengeance. This was accomplished in a number of ways. First, the setting in Eastern Europe established an atmosphere of despair and desolation (it's not the most colorful or sparkling place) and second, the filmmakers paid attention to the little details; for example, in this film Ghost Rider’s skull was black and charred as if it was actually on fire, as opposed to the original’s version where the skull was white and simply surrounded by fire.

It was a small change, but if you make enough of them, it makes a big difference. Likewise, the new film featured an updated Ghost Rider wardrobe (I really loved the bubbling leather jacket), which perfectly complimented his new motorcycle. Not only was his bike sweet, the fact that the filmmakers highlighted the Ghost Rider’s ability to transform any vehicle he controls made for some of the more visually appealing scenes in the film.

Speaking of the filmmakers, Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Gamer, Crank, Crank: High Voltage), who co-directed the film, did a good job of incorporating their high-octane, unique point-of-view style into Ghost Rider, and to be completely honest, I can’t think of a better comic character where their style would be more appropriate.

As far as the cast goes, I thought they did an excellent job. I know there are many different opinions on Cage, but I happen to like him, though I will admit he has put out a lot of crap lately like Season of the Witch. In Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Cage wasn’t as innocent, censored, and absurd as he was in the first film and I thought he gave a satisfactory performance, even with some of his questionable one liners and the fact that he was only onscreen for about half (the CGI Ghost Rider starred in the other half).

While Cage did a decent job, Idris Elba stole the show as the drunken French monk Moreau. Even though he was a supporting character, Moreau was equal parts devote, humorous, and badass and it was entertaining just to watch him operate. Ever since I saw Elba play Charles Minor in The Office, I've thought he was a versatile actor, but I had my doubts with his latest role. Much to my surprise, he not only vanquished those doubts, he smashed them.

Likewise, I’ve long been a fan of Ciaran Hinds, who you may best know as Julius Caesar in HBO’s Rome. In my review on Tailor, Tinker, Soldier, Spy, I chastised the director for not utilizing Hinds’ talents. I’m glad to say that wasn’t the case here, though I certainly wouldn’t have complained if he had gotten more screen time. In Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Hinds plays the role of Roarke, who is the devil incarnate. There’s something ascetic and gallant about Hinds, but when he portrays a bad guy, he makes one hell of a convincing villain. If you see this film, take note of Hinds as I predict you’ll be seeing him in more and more films in the future.

I also think that Violante Placido, Fergus Riordan, and Johnny Whitworth did a fine job, though I wasn’t thrilled with the latter’s new look halfway through the film.

Don't get me wrong, there were a few things I didn’t like about this film like some of the exposition, cutaways, and camera shots, but I thought the visuals and special effects more than made up for it, especially if you see it in 3D like I did.

You’re probably not as big of a comic fan as I am, so I won’t be offended, nor surprised, if you don’t like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance as much as I did; however, I imagine you’ll get a big enough kick from the special effects, comedic relief, and solid performances to warrant a screening.

Buddies Forever Movie Club Rating: 72%

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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Safe House

There are about a half dozen actors in Hollywood who practically guarantee success at the box office. One of these men is Denzel Washington, who has just about as much star power as anyone. Throw in the versatile heartthrob that is Ryan Reynolds, and you have a new-age "odd couple," though instead of starring in a new comedy, they’ve thrown their collective weight behind action flick Safe House.

The film focuses on Matt Weston, played by Reynolds, who is a young CIA agent assigned to a vacant safe house in South Africa. For those who don’t know what a safe house is, Wikipedia explains that it is “a place where undercover operatives may conduct clandestine observations or meet other operatives surreptitiously.”

Weston is eager for an opportunity to prove himself and is afforded the chance when notorious CIA traitor Tobin Frost, played by Washington, is captured and taken to the safe house. On the verge of a torturous interrogation, the safe house is attacked by armed men and Weston forced to escape to the streets with Frost in tow.

From there, the armed men and the CIA are in hot pursuit of Frost, while Weston struggles to keep his “houseguest” in custody. Soon a complex conspiracy begins to unravel as Weston is drawn deeper and deeper into the fracas. It wasn’t particularly original, instead proving to be a run-of-the-mill action flick, but it was fairly entertaining.

I don’t know what it is about Washington, but he always captures my attention. If you look at his characters throughout the years, they’re not all that different; nonetheless, Washington tends to deliver. His performance in Safe House wasn’t anything special, but was on par with his performances in movies like UnstoppableThe Taking of Pelham123Déjà vu, and Inside Man, all of which are entertain with a certain level of mediocrity. 

In regards to Reynolds, I was actually pleased with his presentation. It was refreshing to see him play the role of an inexperienced and bumbling protagonist rather than a romantic-comedy or superhero lead. Reynolds has done quite a few action movies now, and if he plays his cards right, meaning if he chooses his projects wisely, he could become a formidable action star.

In addition to Washington and Reynolds, the supporting cast delivered fair performances. I always enjoy Brendan Gleeson, who you may know as Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody in the Harry Potter films, and he did not disappoint here. Likewise, both Vera Farmiga (Up in the AirSource Code) and Sam Shepard (Black Hawk DownSwordfish) made the most of their roles.

One of the things that struck me about Safe House was the way it was filmed. I don’t know what would be the right word to describe it, but all I could think of while watching it was "gritty." I saw that in a good way though. The colors, sets, and landscape combined to give the film a cheap, yet realistic, feel that I found engaging. As far as the story goes, I thought the covert elements were rather predictable. Even so, I enjoy being proven right almost as much as I like being duped.

Safe House is a film that isn’t particularly great, but it is entertaining. If you’re looking for an average action movie with above-average actors, then Safe House is for you. If you want originality and unpredictable mystery, then there are probably better options out there.

Buddies Forever Movie Club Rating: 59%

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Monday, February 20, 2012

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

I remember the first time I saw the trailer for ExtremelyLoud and Incredibly Close. I saw Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, John Goodman, Max von Sydow and Jeffrey Wright in the preview and thought, “What a cast!” Top it off with an emotionally-charged, albeit touchy, backdrop in 9/11, and my expectations were high. Unfortunately, expectations are one thing, while what the film actually turns out to be is quite another.

Let me start off by talking about the few things that I actually liked. First and foremost, I think young Thomas Horn did a good job portraying Oskar Schell, a “nine-year-old amateur inventor, Francophile, and pacifist searches New York City for the lock that matches a mysterious key left behind by his father, who died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.”

I must admit, I was conflicted regarding Oskar, namely that at times he was endearing while at other times extremely bratty and annoying. Nonetheless, Horn’s portrayal evoked polarizing emotions, which I think is a testament to his range. It was a tall order asking a kid to depict a child who lost his father on one of America’s darkest days, but Horn did a satisfactory job in his acting debut.

I must also give props to Sydow, who played “The Renter.” He did a fine job in the supporting role, despite his character being a mute. That’s right, Sydow doesn’t say a single word in the movie, and in my opinion, he gave the best performance. I believe this for two reasons. First, Sydow’s facial expressions and gestures are so advanced that they allowed him to express emotions clearly without the benefit of words, and second, the talents of the other characters in the film were wasted.

Combined, the actors previously mentioned, with the exception of Sydow and Horn, had maybe 25 minutes of screen time out of the movie’s 129-minute run time, and that is being generous. Goodman had two lines as Stan the Doorman and was onscreen for less than a minute, which obviously failed to utilize his abilities. Meanwhile, Wright had a more active role, though he didn’t make an appearance until the film’s end.

As far as Hanks and Bullock are concerned, these are the players the audience will come to see, but leave wondering why the director, Stephen Daldry, failed to take advantage of the Oscar winners. Hanks lights up the screen when he’s actually on it, but that only constitutes maybe 15 minutes of the film. Bullock, on the other hand, didn’t seem her usual self. I found her character, Linda Schell, flat, boring, and uninspiring. The character was a woman who lost her husband on 9/11, yet I felt no connection to her.

The underutilization of the actors was extremely disappointing, but the story was also lacking. I was expecting a journey of self discovery by Oskar and the rest of the characters, and while this happened in some capacities, it just fell flat. The was obviously unbridled love underneath the dreary and cold veneer of the film, but it just never came to the surface. While it was extremely loud in terms of context and star power, it was not incredibly close in hitting the mark.

There were a few good things about Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, but so much was left on the table that I imagine most viewers will leave unsatisfied and wanting. Whether they leave wanting either more story, closure, Hanks, or Bullock, the fact is they’re leaving unfulfilled. Not a great feeling to be spending your money on, unless it’s $1 at Redbox for the DVD.

Buddies Forever Movie Club Rating: 39%

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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Grey

I am going to be honest, I’m a big fan of Liam Neeson. If I know he is in a movie, I’ll want to see it. It may sound a bit exaggerated, but he has such a commanding presence that it is a pleasure watching him on the big screen. While he has had a long and prosperous career (i.e. playing Oscar Schindler in Schindler’s List), it wasn’t until recent hits like Taken, Unknown, The A-Team, and Batman Begins that Neeson became a major Hollywood player. With all that said, I was really looking forward to his new film, The Grey.

If you’ve seen the previews for The Grey, you can see that it is reminiscent of the Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin survival flick, The Edge, where a bear mercilessly stalks the survivors of a single-engine plane wreck. I say it is reminiscent, but The Grey is really more of a cookie-cutter copy as it features the survivors of a plane crash being hunted by a pack of wolves in a barren wasteland. The Grey may lack originality, but it more than makes up for it in execution.

As always, Neeson puts in a tremendous performance as Ottway, a sniper who protects workers at an outlier oil rig in the Arctic. Ottway is haunted by the memory of his wife, who had left him, and it seems only appropriate that he is alone and about as far away from civilization as humanly possible. Actors Dallas Roberts, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, and Nonso Anozie, all of who do an excellent job, round out the rest of the cast as the other survivors.

One of the things I liked best about The Grey was there was no unnecessary romance to convolute the story. Sure, there was Ottway’s wife, played by Anne Openshaw, but she was only shown in brief flashbacks that contributed to the story. Love is a luxury, and as this film makes abundantly clear, there is no room for luxury while trying to survive . . . unless love is the only reason you want to survive (which is the case with some of the characters).

The Grey is not only a man-versus-nature film, but highlights the conflict between man-versus-man and man-versus-himself. It fires on all cylinders and delivers hard-hitting questions, truths, and gut checks throughout. What would you do if you were thrown into an extreme survival situation? The Grey explores some of the answers, and believe me when I say it packs an emotional punch.

For example, right after a plane crash scene, the survivors find one of their colleagues gravely injured. As the man clings to life, Ottway bluntly informs him that he is going to die. I found the ensuing reactions, both by the survivors and the fading man, to be powerful. It was a terrible situation, and I wanted badly to turn away; however, I was caught up in the reality of situation and couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. It’s rare for a scene in a film to have such emotional influence, but this one did. I’ll never forget it.

The end of the film will have people taking, and while I don't want to give any spoilers, I will say that I liked it; however, I can see a lot of patrons leaving unfulfilled, especially if they’re the type who needs closure. I felt the ending was true to the theme and messages preached throughout the film, which revolved around the ideas of existentialism, religion, and faith. 

The Grey was well worth the price of admission and I recommend you check it out.

Buddies Forever Movie Club Rating: 81%

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Thursday, February 2, 2012

Underworld: Awakening

On one of my last days in Australia, I decided to see my third film of the trip and watched Underworld: Awakening, the fourth film in the franchise. With a movie like this, I know I’m not going to be viewing a future Oscar winner, instead I’m simply looking to be entertained. In the past, two out of the three Underworlds had accomplished that (the Underworld: Rise of the Lycans was pretty bad), and I’m happy to say that the fourth did the same.

When a film manages to entertain me throughout, I will automatically give it a near-50% rating. While Underworld: Awakening got to that point, it didn’t go any further. For those who don’t know, the Underworld franchise is based upon the vampires vs. werewolves concept, or as it is known in Underworld, Vampires vs. Lycans. That concept carried the first three films, while the latest installment added human-element into the mix.

After being absent from the abysmal Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, Kate Beckinsale reprises her role as Selene, a vampire death dealer who specializes in the extermination of Lycans. The film essentially picks up were the second one left off, namely Selene’s romance with Michael (formerly played by Michael Speedman), who was a hybrid vampire-Lycan. The latter character is run out of the storyline fairly early on, so Speedman’s absence, and subsequent replacement, isn’t really noticeable.

Instead of Michael, we get his love child with Selene, who is named Eve (played by India Eisley) and serves as the new hybrid. The story is set twelve years after Underworld: Evolution in a time when humans have discovered the existence of the vampires and Lycans, and doing their best to eradicate them. It all sounds pretty silly, and it really is, but what else would you expect from a movie like this.

The story of Underworld: Awakening is mediocre at best, but some decent special effects and high-octane action sequences make it watchable. Beckinsale’s reprisal is gratifying, as is watching Stephen Rea as Dr. Jacob Lane. Rea, who is soft spoken and accustomed to playing a good guy, shows his range by playing a diabolical villain. With that said, there were a lot of characters in the film with minimal development and seemed almost frivolous including Detective Sebastian (played by Michael Ealy), David (Theo James), and Quint (Kris Holden-Ried).

I’m not particularly glad I saw Underworld: Awakening, but I didn’t regret it either. I guess I would say that as a bad movie, this was a good one, if that makes sense. Your life won’t change one way or the other if you see this movie, but I can think of worse ways to waste 90 minutes.

Buddies Forever Movie Club Rating: 47%

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