Friday, March 30, 2007

Witness a side of beef

Ghost Rider is best summed up by the very last shot of the movie: as Nicolas Cage zooms towards the camera on his motorbike, the camera pulls close to his face as he arches one eyebrow.
It’s as if, on deciding that no one could ever take the film seriously thanks to yet another disastrous Nic Cage wig, they decided to play it for laughs. Not such a bad move when you consider how well comic book movies play on being camp – Fantastic Four was successful enough to spawn a sequel and even the first X Men adaptation had the knowing references to spandex suits and such.
But whilst many fans profess a fondness of vintage Doctor Who because of the wonky cardboard sets, Ghost Rider’s flaws aren’t endearing anybody to it.

As a comedy the film is virtually flat line, and as a spectacular event picture it scrabbles to hold interest, let alone generate thrills.
If the amount of cheese on display is anything to go by, it would be fair to assume that the creators were banking on Ghost Rider coming across as an ironic comedy. The moments where the Ghost Rider points to sinners and demons, pointing and growling “Guilty!” are almost embarrassing to the point where you want to look away, like watching a sex scene on telly as a twelve year old with your parents.


Wes Bentley as Cage’s nemesis is awful. He wanders around looking like a lost goth, touching people to death and summoning three elemental demons to fight for him. One made of water, one made of dust, and one made of dust, only swirling in the air. Except that they’re all really made of CGI that looks dated compared to 99’s “The Mummy” remake. The ropey effects could be forgiven if there was some invention to the baddies or their deeds, but there seems little point in them at all as they don’t offer any challenge or menace to the Ghost Rider, maybe pushing him over or something before he decides to set fire to them.
The actual plot is so humdrum it’s not worth going into, but the casting is interesting. The role of a cowboy-era Ghost Rider is taken by gen-yoo-wine cowboy actor for hire, Sam Shepard, who was thoughtful enough to even bring his chewing tobakky along (but is not seen mounting his steed in one take). Cage’s slovenly friend and co-worker is played by Donal Logue of the Tao of Steve fame who elicits mild smiling and thoughts of “It’s that Steve guy, where’s he been?”.
Eva Mendes serves well as a pretty lady who likes to wear tops that stop plunging halfway down her chest, and Peter Fonda shows up as the devil, seemingly prompting the hiring of Wes Bentley to make Fonda more convincing as the Prince of Lies.
A number of other characters are played by weird look-alikes – a no-shit police captain is played by a Michael Rooker-alike whilst Cage’s dad by a Chris Cooper-alike, for example. These actors seem to cement the film, along with its effects, firmly in B-movie territory, but with none of the wit or charm that makes efforts like Lake Placid stand out, Ghost Rider just stinks. Let’s not even mention the young versions of Cage and Mendes.
It was nice, briefly, to see Cage go wacko in his transformation scene as his head catches fire, recalling the old days of Vampire’s Kiss, but even this was a fleeting distraction from the main sport of Waiting For The End.

Cage feels a gurn coming on in Vampire's kiss

Ghost Rider successfully makes all of the other comic adaptations shine, elevating the likes of Daredevil and Punisher by helpfully adding a lower rung to the ladder.

It’s fair to ask why I even went to see it when my cack-radar was screaming even back when I first peeped the trailer last year – I avoided the Wicker Man after all. The reason is that of many of mankind’s foibles – greed. With my access-all-areas Cineworld pass I can go and see anything without feeling a financial burn, a side effect being that I’ll now take a chance where before I would have passed. I have been surprised by enjoying things I may never have otherwise seen, like the Pursuit of Happyness and the wonderful Guide to Recognising Your Saints, and glad that I caught treats like After the Wedding where before I might have missed its tight screening window, but Ghost Rider serves as the Karmic answer to these.

A film that I would have likely seen even if I had to pay actual money for it is the Good German, and in this case the film pass gains some ground that it lost to Ghost Rider, at least in financial terms.

Ever experimental, Soderbergh decided to make a 50’s noir steeped in betrayal, conspiracy and femme fatales. Unfortunately, despite the opening scene in hazy 4:3 which uses period footage, he doesn’t go all out to “make ‘em like they used to”, instead going the uncharacteristically (?) Hollywood route of jazzing up the proceedings with swears, sexy and violence. Rather than bringing the noir up to date it just creates a fat mess as the fucks and beatings grate like nails on slate against the faithful noir trappings.

A boring plot that is undoubtedly sunk by the awful characterisation further heaps upon these thematic problems.
Clooney can do little to enliven his army-based detective/journalist character, who seems to try and uncover the plots afoot in Berlin between the defeat of the Nazis and the post war carve-up not out of any real motivation, but simply out of sheer plot mechanics. His character has little wit or charm and even brains don’t seem to stand out as pieces of the puzzle seem to fall in his lap rather then actually get tracked down.
Tobey Maguire is badly cast against type in a role that calls for a nasty piece of work, and whilst it is heartening that he is trying to broaden his range, he does not come across as anything more than annoying despite the frequent and savage beatings he dishes out. Whilst his character does call for him to be weak and scared at heart, he doesn’t manage to make the flip side of ballsy menace come off.
Most surprisingly is the failure of Cate Blanchett.
As an actress who can easily set a scene alight with her glowing, slightly awkward beauty and undeniable acting chops, it seems odd that she blended into the background in her scenes, offering little besides enigmatic statements delivered in a corny accent and not matching the presence of the noir femmes of old, despite her proven ability to do so.

"You mean I've fucked Spiderman and Batman?

It is encouraging that Soderbergh is still willing to experiment and not stick to any genre or style, but rather than creating a hit or interesting failure, the Good German is just plain boring.