Monday, May 19, 2008

A Frank Review of "Ghost Rider" and "Fantastic Four 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer"

Ghost Rider (2006)

The first thing I thought when I saw the "Ghost Rider" trailer in the theater? "That looks really bad." What exactly was I referring to? I suppose I could narrow it down to the terrible dialogue, lousy acting, video game cut scene CGI, and the Nicholas Cage factor, but really, why limit the scope of the pronouncement? Was there really an upside to this flick, beyond a relatively short running time and its lowering the bar on entry to avoid any expectation of quality? Taken as a bad movie from the start, it has its moments, though I had to rewind to see them all after falling asleep shortly after the first transformation. Shall I damn it with faint praise, like it was much better than Daredevil, though the direction and production values still fell within the lines of a genre show on the CW network? How about Peter Fonda and Sam Elliott being predictable in their reliable, expected goodness? Also, Donal Logue, but obviously to a lesser degree. Or that there are at least a few cool visuals, though my favorite remains Eva Mendes' semi-lifelike persistent cleavage? Because beyond that, I'm out.

The script is smart in its cobbling together of many of the better elements from all previous interpretations of Ghost Rider. That it the last time a word resembling "smart" will come up here. Johnny Blaze had the best origin and character, the penance stare, general look, and villainous types from the 90's relaunch, plus the sense of legacy for recent work. On the other hand, the havoc of Zarathos is replaced by the bland Spirit of Vengeance, when Cage isn't hamming to within an inch of the lives of all supporting actors never to have uttered he phrase "the dude abides." Wes Bentley, despite lots of digital assistance and quite a body count, is possessed of slightly less menace than Dennis, with a voice pitched an octave or two higher. His minions aren't especially threatening, nor of much interest. Your mileage on Eva is dependent on your enjoyment of her contributions to Mr. Skin, as she has zero chemistry with Cage and no acting chops besides. There's a sort of nod toward a Spider-Man romance and a story in general, but what you really have here are just set pieces with padding. If McG were to develop a Valium addiction, this might be the result.

I'd also like to point out that the DVD has the requisite comic book tie-in documentary, though it seems to abandon the source material within about five minutes, leaving us with more time for Mark Steven Johnson to explain his process. Yeah...

"Fantastic Four 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer"

First off, let me say that I not only enjoyed the first film, but preferred it to "Batman Begins." Pardon my bellyful of Bat-pretensions and consistently thwarted expectations, but I got a kick out of Tim Story's lighthearted and tonally true-to-source effort. It should then come as no surprise that I enjoyed about half of his follow-up, before it was decided to focus as much on the areas where the director has continued to fail as possible. The miscast Julian McMahon as not-Dr. Doom returns to not quite being Lex Luthor. The flick becomes burdened with heavy drama, which initially contrasted well with the Fantastic Family's humor, until it overwhelmed the production. This is doubly shameful because the gravitas that should have come with the scale and circumstances is nowhere to be found, and squanders the easy charms of the core cast.

The miscast Jessica Alba continued to supply prurient thoughts, but is given less opportunity this time, replaced by demands for "quality acting" time that led everyone to really hate Halle Berry as Storm.

The miscast Laurence Fishburne provides the voice of the Silver Surfer, which forces him to utter Silver Surfer dialogue. He's a Shakespearean actor, so he manages well, except that we all know Silver Surfer should sound much more whiny than Larry could be expected to stoop. When rendered in CGI, the Surfer looks pretty much exactly as everyone has expected since the T-1000 was introduced by James Cameron about a decade-and-a-half back. I much preferred when he switched to prosthetics that were beautifully sculpted and allowed more of Doug Jones' excellent physical acting to come across.

Andre Braugher is great as always as an antagonistic military figure, as is the returning Michael Chiklis as the Thing, but both are in glorified cameos. Chris Evans' continues to dominate the screen as the Human Torch, but his presence is tempered by a dull love interest and misguided attempts to give Johnny Storm depth. Ioan Gruffudd fairly well inhabits Reed Richards, which unfortunately translated into too much screen time for one of the least interesting super-heroes ever. It isn't Gruffudd fault-- we all know Mr. Fantastic has always been oxymoronic when applied to Richards.

The big let down is of course Galactus, but I won't spoil that particular disappointment. When you're upstage by [invisotext enabled] Dr. Doom on a fuckin' surfboard, you know things have gone terribly awry. The resolution to the problem the Devourer of Worlds represents is simple-minded to a degree that shatters any suspension of disbelief in even the uninitiated. Worse, it effectively excludes the titular stars from contributing, leaving them disposable guest-stars in their own feature. The whole third act fairly screams "backdoor pilot," which "Iron Man" effectively proved serves a post-closing credit sequence far better. Sophomore slump, I'm afraid.

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