Ghost Rider (2007, Mark Steven Johnson), the extended cut

Watching former–I don’t know, he wasn’t really an indie, so something like pre-hipster hipster–wunderkind Wes Bentley in material like this movie (where he finally finds his appropriate level, skill-wise) is kind of amusing. Is it amusing enough to get through the whole movie, especially since Bentley doesn’t show up until twenty-five minutes into it (remember, he was supposedly going to be Spider-Man at one point)? No, because it only occurred to me I should be so amused by Bentley’s plummeting when he showed up. I needed something to amuse me, since his acting and the script are both so awful.

It’s also amazing what the MPAA will give a PG-13 if the intended audience are red state voters. Ghost Rider‘s got some positively nightmare-inducing grotesque imagery (but no swearing).

Watching Peter Fonda and Bentley “act” opposite each other… someone out there–presumably Mark Steven Johnson–thought they were doing a good job. He thought he’d written a good scene even, instead of something so laughable, it plays like a joke commercial on an episode of “Family Guy.” Worse is Johnson’s attempt to make Ghost Rider a story about fathers and sons, which is a bit like he did in Daredevil, only Daredevil seemed like a real movie, various absurdities aside. Ghost Rider seems like–given Nicolas Cage has been in it for three minutes thirty minutes in–a bunch of live-action video game cut-scenes.

In one neat thing, maybe unintentional, Cage’s friend, played by Donal Logue, resembles Cage’s (filmic) father, Brett Cullen. Cullen’s only in it in the flashback but he’s sturdily good, giving Johnson’s lame dialogue some life.

Cage’s unsteady Southern accent. I don’t know what to say about it. Other than someone should have noticed and had him loop his lines.

Johnson’s actually a Panavision throwback–he shoots it in 1950s and 1960s-style (pre-Leone?). He uses the widescreen to fill it with as much information as possible, instead of actually composing meaningful shots. I don’t even mean that one as an insult.

I’m trying to figure out why I’m still watching Ghost Rider, almost forty minutes in. Maybe because Ghost Rider hasn’t shown up yet.

Johnson treats the romance between Cage and Eva Mendes like a romantic comedy, something for Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Cage almost achieves charming, but Mendes is terrible. Not just in the romantic comedy attempts either, but on every possible level. I hope there’s a scene with her and Bentley though, just because it’d be so bad I can’t even imagine it.

Anyway, forty-two minutes and still no flaming Ghost Rider. I’m not turning it off until then–which I think Johnson considered, since he slaps two flashbacks on the front of it, taking up fifteen or twenty minutes.

His face burns off. PG-13.

And there it is. At forty-eight minutes, Ghost Rider shows up. At fifty, I turn it off. I can’t believe I made it. (I do need to point out, even though Ghost Rider’s smaller than Nicolas Cage because he’s just a skeleton, he still fills out the clothes like he’s got skin and muscles).

Leaving Las Vegas. Bringing Out the Dead.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Steven Johnson; screenplay by Johnson, based on the Marvel Comic character created by Gary Friedrich and Mike Ploog; director of photography, Russell Boyd; edited by Richard Francis-Bruce; music by Christopher Young; production designer, Kirk M. Petruccelli; produced by Avi Arad, Steven Paul, Michael De Luca and Gary Foster; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Nicolas Cage (Johnny Blaze), Eva Mendes (Roxanne), Wes Bentley (Blackheart), Sam Elliott (Caretaker), Donal Logue (Mack), Peter Fonda (Mephistopheles), Matt Young (Young Johnny), Raquel Alessi (Young Roxanne) and Brett Cullen (Barton Blaze).


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The New Centurions (1972, Richard Fleischer)

I was going to start this post saying complementary things about Richard Fleischer, something about how his mediocrity doesn’t get in the way of the film (and the film’s melodramatic mediocrity). Then he goes too far at the end, plunging the damn thing ever further into the muck. And The New Centurions is unbearably melodramatic. Stirling Silliphant loves every convention he can find–whether it’s the early scene with the cops telling each other it isn’t like the movies or the later one where the cops talk about being new Centurions. For such an influential (more on that part in a bit), the film’s got maybe one or two good moments. Overall, it’s a failed attempt at an honest portrayal of police officers (albeit, really, really good and honest cops). Basically, it’s an episode of “Hill Street Blues,” with James Sikking and his pipe no less, with more attention paid to the home lives of the cops. The ending invalidates the whole thing–and I just checked wikipedia, the first time I’ve compared novel to film since Tess–and the ending is a filmic creation. The book’s ending seems like it might make sense.

For the majority of the film, until that absurd ending, actually, The New Centurions isn’t terrible or even bad. Silliphant’s dialogue is horrendous and the actors stumble over lines, but the plot of the film is fine. Standard and melodramatic, but fine. Some of the episodes–obviously from novel writer Joseph Wambaugh’s time on the LAPD–are really amusing.

Of the actors (not the ludicrous ones, like Erik Estrada, who’s terrible), George C. Scott probably gives the worst performance, with Jane Alexander following closely. In Alexander’s case, she’s got nothing to do. In Scott’s, he’s got something to do but it’s often crap (his character’s story arc is terrible, regardless of its realism, simply because the film doesn’t really pay any attention to him). The supporting cast is generally good–Scott Wilson’s fine, so’s Rosalind Cash; Isabel Sanford shows up in fantastic cameo. William Atherton puts in a few minutes and he’s good.

But the real surprise of New Centurions is Stacy Keach. He’s amazing. He’s got the worst dialogue in the film too, but it’s still a privilege to watch his performance. It’s one of those unbelievably good performances, indescribably good; textured, nuanced, every positive adjective in that vein one can imagine.

I can’t not mention the score. I was trying and I couldn’t. I wanted to go upbeat on Keach (I’m hoping the white space does that work). It’s a Quincy Jones score and it’s terrible, but the interesting part is he lifts some of the theme to Shaft.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Fleischer; screenplay by Stirling Silliphant, based on the novel by Joseph Wambaugh; director of photography, Ralph Woolsey; edited by Robert C. Jones; music by Quincy Jones; produced by Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring George C. Scott (Andy Kilvinsky), Stacy Keach (Roy), Jane Alexander (Dorothy), Scott Wilson (Gus), Rosalind Cash (Lorrie), Erik Estrada (Sergio), Clifton Jones (Whitey), Richard E. Kalk (Milton), James Sikking (Anders), Isabel Sanford (Wilma), William Atherton (Johnson), Ed Lauter (Galloway) and Dolph Sweet (Sergeant Runyon).


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City of Hope (1991, John Sayles)

City of Hope is a raw John Sayles John Sayles movie. The camera follows the characters until it bumps into other characters, which is a simple, straightforward method, both a little more honest but also a little more amateurish. It introduces a gimmick into the film, which rarely does anything any good. It isn’t always the bumping characters–the most effective sequence is when, at the same time, separated by cuts, a bunch of characters decide to sell themselves out or not to sell out. But the bumping does pop again and it is noticeable. Maybe it’s a consequence of pan and scanning a 2.35:1 film (City of Hope, as far as I can ascertain, has never had a non-pan and scan video release). The pan and scan does hurt a little, but the gimmick would still be there, wider field of action or not. It’s not bad–films still do it today, good films, but they’re films made after Sayles (much like Sayles makes films after the Altman Nashville standard). It’s a raw artist in progress and it’s a thing sixteen years has made more noticeable. It doesn’t date the film, but City of Hope does have a visible place in Sayles’s body of work.

It’s also his most traditional story–one of the two primary storylines is Italian-Americans and their relationship to work and corruption. Sure, it’s political corruption–but the corrupt mayor is Italian. Vincent Spano’s character is also a very general lead for a Sayles film too–like I said, it’s all very raw. The other primary story, about Joe Morton’s attempt to be a successful and moral politician, is more radical. However, the Spano story, simply because Spano, and Tony Lo Bianco as his father, are so great. Joe Morton’s great too, but Sayles gives Spano a romance with Barbara Williams (who’s also fantastic). Watching certain moments in City of Hope, it’s obvious Sayles spent a lot of time figuring them out. There are some short car ride conversations he does beautifully, but also the scenes with Spano walking Williams home. Those scenes are amazing, pan and scan or not.

Where Sayles lifts the film from the norm is in the third act, when the viewer discovers it’s actually not all about people bumping into each other, or the titular City of Hope, which pops up three times at least, but is actually all about watching people corrupt themselves. There’s a wonderful juxtaposition of one woman telling her husband not to sell himself out, then congratulating him (that one’s from Macbeth, right?), with another not supporting dishonesty, after positioning herself to do so. Except every character in City of Hope, not just those four–with the exception of Williams, who’s a bit of a saint–eventually makes the choice to corrupt or redeem him or herself. Well, not redeem, but not further corrupt.

Besides the aforementioned, Tony Denison is great, so is Angela Bassett. Chris Cooper’s only in it for maybe four minutes, but in that time, it becomes clear his never becoming a leading man is a considerable tragedy for American cinema.

I’m probably less enthused about the film than I should be, but it’s only because I spent the entire time wondering how beautiful it must look in the right aspect ratio.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, directed and edited by John Sayles; director of photography, Robert Richardson; music by Mason Daring; production designers, Dan Bishop and Dianna Freas; produced by Sarah Green and Maggie Renzi; released by The Samuel Goldwyn Company.

Starring Vincent Spano (Nick), Tony Lo Bianco (Joe), Joe Morton (Wynn), Angela Bassett (Reesha), John Sayles (Carl), Gloria Foster (Jeanette), David Strathairn (Asteroid), Kevin Tighe (O’Brien), Barbara Williams (Angela), Joe Grifasi (Pauly), Louis Zorich (Mayor Baci), Gina Gershon (Laurie), Rose Gregorio (Pina), Bill Raymond (Les), Jace Alexander (Bobby), Todd Graff (Zip), Frankie Faison (Levonne), Tom Wright (Malik), Tony Denison (Rizzo), S.J. Lang (Bauer), Chris Cooper (Riggs), Stephen Mendillo (Yoyo), Josh Mostel (Mad Anthony), Daryl Edwards (Franklin) and Lawrence Tierney (Kerrigan).


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Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla (1994, Yamashita Kensho)

To say Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla has it all is an understatement. It has more than that. It has dirt bikes, black holes, a “Muppet Babies” version of Godzilla, a superwoman, walks on the beach at sunset, and, apparently, the first butt shot in a Godzilla movie. It’s a wacky mess, proving having no story is sometimes a good thing. The 1990s Godzilla series was so dependent on continuity, at one point during the film, I thought Joss Whedon wrote it. Space Godzilla has a bunch of little details, but the thing moves at such a fast pace, they’re not used for any reason other than storytelling brevity.

I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be a comedy. While the writer did go on to do other Godzilla movies, the director only did this one, which probably means Toho wasn’t happy with his performance. How could they be? He’s created a perfect Godzilla movie. It ends with a U.N. anti-Godzilla military guy opining, “Godzilla’s not that bad, is he?” After he’s just destroyed a city–of course, so has the Japanese anti-Godzilla military guy, in a giant robot (from these films, I’ve learned the Japanese solve all their problems with giant robots)–during a pointless fight with Space Godzilla. Maybe the lack of purpose–the film flip-flops between being about the telepathic control of Godzilla and the Space Godzilla’s origins in a black hole–is what makes Space Godzilla so good. It’s a bunch of scenes strung together, some of them really big–there’s some great matte shots in Space Godzilla, probably the most impressive in any Godzilla movie–all connected through the five main characters. Oh, I forgot–in my list up above–there’s a mad scientist too. Dirt bikes, black holes, and a mad scientist. Not much else offers you those three items.

There’s also the “Muppet Babies” Godzilla, which is cute and totally absurd. But really, it’s the cast. At one point, I got thinking about Yoshikawa Towako’s performance–when she’s standing around talking about mind-controlling Godzilla–she’s actually taking this absurd acting job seriously and making it all believable. All the other principals, Hashizume Jun, Yoneyama Zenkichi, and Odaka Megumi are good. Very likable, people you want to spend an hour and a half with. The best is Emoto Akira, playing a soldier obsessed with killing Godzilla. The film treats him as a goof-ball, running around on foot trying to catch the monster. It’s hilarious.

Technically, I already mentioned the sometimes great composites (usually when there’s no urban destruction involved). There’s also a really good score in Space Godzilla, something akin to a 1970s John Williams disaster score (except the two scenes I’m convinced are homage to From Here to Eternity). The most impressive thing about Space Godzilla, besides its approach to storytelling, is its sound design. The final fight scene has little weight, since no one’s really fighting for anything (the earlier fight, when Space Godzilla is trying to beat up Little Godzilla, is much more effective), but the sound design is amazing. Some great editing in the last fight scene too.

Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla is a big dumb mess and it appreciates and understands it’s a big dumb mess and does everything it can with that condition. It’s constantly delightful.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Yamashita Kensho; written by Kashiwabara Hiroshi; director of photography, Kishimoto Masahiro; music by Hattori Takayuki; produced by Tanaka Tomoyuki and Tomiyama Shogo; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Odaka Megumi (Saegusa Miki), Hashizume Jun (Shinjo Koji), Yoneyama Zenkichi (Sato Kiyoshi), Emoto Akira (Major Yuki), Yoshikawa Towako (Dr. Gondo), Saitô Yôsuke (Dr. Okubo), Sahara Kenji (Minister Segawa), Nakao Akira (Commander Aso) and Ueda Kôichi (Deputy Commander Hyodo).


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