Monday, February 19, 2007

Yow! Monday!

Just finished one of two deadline gigs due today, so apologies for the late post -- I'll have more up later today, too, including news about the upcoming VT cartoonists panel in Burlington on Wednesday I'm part of.

Continuing:

Cine-Ketchup, Part 3:

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* GHOST RIDER (2007) - In a way, this tops Mars Attacks! and The Garbage Pail Kids -- being the only films based on trading cards that come immediately to mind -- in that technically Ghost Rider is the first film based on a decal.

I think.

Really.

Ya, I know, I know, there's the song "Ghost Riders in the Sky," a venerable fave of mine, too, that's saved for (and mangled) under this new flick's closing credits.

There's the original comic book Ghost Rider (aka Phantom Rider, in his 1960s Marvel resurrection), originally published by Magazine Enterprises until his demise in Red Mask #50 (November, 1955). That Ghost Rider was a western vigilante character with a pseudo-supernatural slant: he was the alter-ego of federal marshal Rex Fury, and he had a coolie -- I mean, Chinese sidekick named Sing Song. He didn't have superpowers, but he was one heck of a rider and shot a mean six-shooter; he was kind of a horror-tinged Lone Ranger or serial western hero, wearing a bone-white luminescent costume and riding a glow-in-the-dark horse (named Spectre) to scare the bejeezus out of his foes and craven criminals (though he did reportedly fight the occasional werewolf or vampire in his Pre-Code incarnation). Think of the original western Ghost Rider as a sort of wild west take on Russell Thorndike's British pirate/preacher/smuggler Doctor Syn (more familiar to my generation via the early '60s film versions, Hammer's Night Creatures aka Captain Clegg and Disney's The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh) -- now, he figures into this new movie, but I can't say more about that without given anything away.

Then there's the Marvel Comics Ghost Rider this film is ostensibly derived from: Johnny Blaze, a motorcycle stunt-rider whose comicbook cycle pretty much sucked wind. I mean, it wasn't a chopper, really, and it was too tame to appeal to bikers or those of us who dug biker movies. But that's neither here nor there. Johnny Blaze dabbled with devilish forces and made a pact with Mephisto, ending up losing his soul to possession by the demon Zarathos, though I thought the creepiest thing he did in the comic was fall for and marry his step-sister Roxanne, but maybe that's just me. In any case, Johnny Blaze gained enough control over his flaming-skull demon powers to fight on the side of right throughout his career, though he never really caught fire in terms of sales. Tuning out of the character's exploits in the late '70s and back in in the '90s, I was surprised to find some brawny teen named Dan Ketch had taken Blaze's place astride the cycle, which thankfully looked much cooler in the '90s than it ever had in the '70s, when it would have really mattered.

But, see, between the evaporation of the western Magazine Enterprises's Ghost Rider in 1955 and the resurrection of the moniker via Marvel's Ghost Rider in 1967, there was this absolutely iconic flaming skull decal every kid had on their bicycle, an image bikers embraced and truckers dug and that seemed to be just about everywhere there were wheels in the '60s.

The flaming skull image, with burning eyes staring out at you with uncanny life, was as omnipresent as those nudie girlie garage calenders with flimsy tops and panties on lift-up plastic sheets -- like, they were everywhere.

So, to my mind, Marvel's Ghost Rider was always derived from that decal -- period. And so is this movie, when you trace its lineage to its real pop culture flash point.

Now, it's the Johnny Blaze incarnation of the Marvel characters we've got on the big screen here, reportedly a pet project of star Nicholas Cage, who's more likable here than he was in The Wicker Man remake (2005), though it's Matt Long as the even-younger Johnny Blaze that seems closest to the Mike Ploog Ghost Rider comic incarnation I have soft spot in my skull for. Mark Steven Johnson, the man behind the so-so 2003 Daredevil movie (OK, it wasn't even so-so, but it was horns-and-tails above Elektra), is the auteur of note, and that says it all, if you know what I mean.

Writer/director Johnson knew that '70s "I've got the hots for my step-sister" shit wouldn't fly for a family Marvel movie, so here Roxanne (played in her younger incarnation by Raquel Alessi, then by more mature but less engaging Eva Mendes, of Hitch, Stuck on You, Out of Time, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, 2 Fast 2 Furious, All About the Benjamins, Training Day and Exit Wounds) is just, like, the girlfriend he stranded and ditched sans explanation after selling his soul to the debbil. That ol' debbil is fun to watch, via Peter Fonda milking his turn as Mephistopheles, though he's not nearly as scary as his ol' pop was in Once Upon a Time in the West (not a fair comparison, I know). Peter does more with less compared to the whippersnappers, except for Long and Alessi: Wes Bentley glares and sneers with abandon as (I kid you not) Blackheart, though truth to tell he looks and acts like he walked off the set for Constantine (in fact, the whole desert-and-demons mix works against the film, evocative as it is of better films like Prophecy and Constantine). Alas, Blackheart's trio of elemental bad-boy cronies are more Elektra (the movie) than, say, Big Trouble in Little China (no surprise, given that writer/director Johnson scripted and produced Elektra). Their tedium is balanced somewhat by Donal Logue's turn as Johnny's trusted sidekick Matt (who deserves far better than the unceremonious disposal he gets).

Best of all, though, is Sam Elliott as 'Caretaker,' though he's really -- no, I can't tell. It's one of the film's few, if utterly predictable, pleasures.

Sam's voice and face alone bring more character to this film than the surrounding 114 minutes of folderol. It's his voice we hear at the outset, but banish The Big Lebowski (1998) from your mind: no such luck here. Sam's The Caretaker, not The Stranger, here, and Johnson isn't even a distant thirtieth cousin of the Coen brothers -- he hasn't the wit or good grace to make the best use of his greatest asset, even as a narrative voice we can hang some tentative faith on.

Mark Steven Johnson
is to Marvel movies what Stephen Sommers is to Universal Monsters: Sommers, natch, coined a new gold mine for Universal with his antic The Mummy (1999), thus entrusted with the whole Universal pantheon of monsters, concocting the bombastic and far less fun The Mummy Returns (2001) and the unbelievably abysmal Van Helsing (2004). Johnson, likewise, is the anointed child of the Marvel franchise, though he's rightfully notched beneath the far more capable Sam Raimi; Johnson's Marvel movies are serviceable at best (his earlier Jack Frost, 1998, totally sickened me). He's given cart blanche and ample budgets (Ghost Rider's release was postponed from last year to allow more action sequences to be completed, including the ridiculous chain-roping-of-a-helicoptor that had one guy in my theater roaring and clapping with glee: score, Mark!). I'm glad the money-men have such faith in the fella, and I wish him all the good luck (and no ill will) in the world, personally, but I far prefer his script work on Grumpy Old Men, and I'll leave it at that.

Nicholas Cage's devotion to this venture likely got it made, but his Johnny Blaze is a mere ember onscreen. Blaze comes across as a cipher, rendered more cipher-like once his flesh burns to inexpressive bone. Unlike the Martians of Mars Attacks or even Ray Harryhausen's ambulatory stop-motion battling bones of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts, Ghost Rider doesn't register as a character. Pre-flaming-skull, post-Matt Long (whose young Blaze does register: though he has far less screen time than Cage, it counts for much more), Cage's Johnny Blaze is a self-effacing bummer, dependent on deadpan asides (he'd rather watch TV specials about Howler Monkeys than his own PR -- I can relate) and Elvis mannerisms Cage himself codified in David Lynch's Wild at Heart. Sailor Ripley would stomp the shit out of this shell of a man and leave him in the gutter without a backward glance -- but that's as unfair as mentioning Once Upon a Time in the West a few paragraphs ago. Wild at Heart is a real movie, not a franchise entry, and Johnson can't hold a cigarette match to David Lynch or Barry Gifford. I reckoned Cage-as-Blaze would have offered some cinematic measure of the confidence George Hamilton lent Evil Kneivel (1971) -- not much of a yardstick, admittedly -- but Cage is inexplicably a pale shadow in that department, too.

The Marvel movie formula is as shallow and tiresome to me now as the old Marvel Comics formula was to Bissette the comics reader in the '70s. It's all bombast, fire and brimstone with nada behind it or within it.

Yawn.

Still, I can honestly say this is the best film based on a beloved childhood era decal I've ever seen.

Beyond that -- well, it was what my first wife and I used to call a "coke" movie (as in cocaine): it looks and sounds like a lot is happening, when in reality nothing is happening, really (my forever favorite of this ilk is Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce, which embodies the coke movie aesthetic perfectly). Ghost Rider looks and sounds lively, it makes a lot of noise and burns a lot of eyeballs, but it isn't much of a movie. Now, I liked some of the imagery recreating specific 1990s Ghost Rider covers (especially the Kubert ones), and it kept me awake, though that was a struggle at two points. Like I said, this formula is wearing pret-ty thin for this old-timer. Sam Elliott was the only thing on the screen vaguely resembling an identifiable, I-give-a-little-shit-about character, which is all that kept me going at a couple of points.

Anyhoot, who cares what I think? The audience I was with (in Lebanon, NH) seemed to love it, the theater manager raved about it (he sure had a good time), so some folks think it kicks ass and it didn't suck like Elektra or The Punisher or the new Fantastic Four or the old made-for-TV Marvel movies, or Albert Pyun's Captain America.

Now, that was the suck.

But me, I'm with Johnny.

I'd rather watch the howler monkey TV special, too.
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* THE HAWK IS DYING (2005) - Thank God, a real movie.

I love films that tap unexpected wells of emotion; The Hawk is Dying does that, in spades. This is the latest incarnation of an affecting but decidedly unusual, undefinable subgenre about loners who deal with grief and loneliness via -- well, birds, in this case, a red-tailed hawk. This is a subgenre in and of itself, though, marked by gems like Ken Loach's Kes (1969), Monte Hellman's Cockfighter (aka Born to Kill, 1974), and Michael Burke's The Mudge Boy (2003), and The Hawk is Dying is just as good (and odd) a film as any of those. Paul Giametti certainly delivers as intensely observed, heartfelt and nuanced a performance as Warren Oates did in Cockfighter, though the film itself is closer to Kes.

Based on the long out-of-print 1973 novel by Harry Crews (A Feast of Snakes, All We Need of Hell, The Knockout Artist, Scar Lover, The Gospel Singer, etc.; see
  • the Harry Crews site for more info),
  • writer/director Julian Goldberger and a top-notch cast powerfully inhabit and illuminate this most peculiar slice of Southern drama. A-way down in Gainesville, Florida, eccentric bachelor and successful-enough local businessman George Gattling (Giametti) lives with his abandoned sister Precious (Rusty Schwimmer) and acts as a father to her now-adult autistic son Fred (Michael Pitt), but he himself has only one obsession -- hawks. However, George's self-educated attempts to catch and train his own raptor has thus far resulted only in slow death for the birds, fostering disdain for his obsession among even the most tolerant in his circle. When Fred is found dead under mysterious circumstances, George refutes any expectations to mourn the death of his nephew in a "normal" fashion to focus on breaking a red-tailed hawk he and Fred had captured before the boy's death. George's punitive self-exile (the trainer cannot eat until his hawk does) and increasingly bizarre behavior tests family -- and the audience -- beyond the breaking point, but his agonizing journey toward redemption is (thankfully) rewarding.

    Like all Crews's characters, George tests our limits as well as his own. This is a difficult film; Giametti gives an incredible performance and the ensemble cast delivers, too, particularly Michelle Williams as Betty (a character even odder than George), but it's the hawk's discomfort one cannot help but respond to throughout. It frays and plucks one's nerves in every frame: I found myself persistently pulled out of the film, pragmatically fretting for both the bird (supremely uncomfortable and thrashing around in a procession of setpieces that place it in claustrophobic rooms, cars, funeral homes, etc.) and Giametti (whose commitment and fulfillment of this role is worthy of one of the Labors of Hercules). I haven't been this relieved to see the AHA claim that "no animals were harmed in the making of this film" in I-don't-know-how-long. But this, too, is calculated by the director: George's singular obsession drives us crazy, too, manifest in & by the hawk's ordeal. It's not until the 80 minute mark that we're given any insights into the source of his manic devotion to raptors (a moment that also embodies the therapeutic powers of marijuana) -- and that's a long haul, by any measure.

    Despite my own mounting unease, Goldberger's measured, relentless focus on character, place and time (and his brilliant score) carried me through, and I found myself completely offguard and overwhelmed with tears when the film -- and George -- arrived at the disarming final grace note.

    [Aside #1: The last film to move me this profoundly with a mere gesture was Hilary Birmingham's Tully (2002), which is also highly recommended.]

    Sadly, this is a film that will never be seen by most people (Ghost Rider, of course, is everywhere and ever-present). This is a truly remarkable, uncompromising independent film in every sense of the term that still has any meaning; as such, it will alienate as many viewers as it will win, even from the precious few who'll even have a chance at seeing it (anyone who leaves the film before it's over will miss its merits completely). From its uncommercial title to its calculated, cultivated and utterly eccentric intensity, this is a masterpiece that simply defies marketing and boxoffice.

    [Aside #2: Note that Crews himself wrote a screenplay adaptation of his novel that remains unproduced; his only produced film work to date remains his (uncredited) script work on Stephen Gyllenhaal (credited story & screenplay) and Sean S. Cunningham's The New Kids (1984), a brutal low-budget guilty pleasure I savored during its one-week-only theatrical run.]

    Have a great Monday -- more later, as time permits...

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    2 Comments:

    Blogger HemlockMan said...

    Goddamn, you watch a lot of movies!!!

    I love Barry Gifford's work. I wish he produced more novel-length fiction. I consume his rare releases as quickly as I can lay my hands on them, and reread the old stuff when other writers bore the hell out of me.

    I did manage to see LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (not bad), and BROKEN FLOWERS (great). I'm a long-time fan of the work of Jim Jarmusch. Only once has his work ever disappointed me (COFFEE & CIGARETTES--the Iggy Pop/Tom Waits segment worked, but did not make the rest of the film worth sitting through).

    My son and I were going to go see GHOST RIDER, but now I'm not so sure.

    2/19/2007  
    Blogger SRBissette said...

    Ah, go see it. The rest of America is.

    I post on only a few of the movies I see -- I'm omnivorous, or rather, an opportunivore with cinema. Best film I've seen in a theater this week is definitely LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, which I most highly recommend. Info/review on that later!

    2/20/2007  

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