Actor Nicolas Cage has a lot in common with his superhero counterpart Ghost Rider featured once again on the big screen in the pseudo-sequel Spirit of Vengeance. Much like the daemon-infested crime fighter Cage has the power to make anything he touches explode into a wild blazing inferno thanks to his unique performance techniques. Cage does not simply deliver a line he detonates it; He does not simply react to his co-stars he executes an interpretive dance; He does not simply throw a punch he unleashes physical armageddon. Occasionally the style provokes unintentional laugher but in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance anything less would be unrealistic.
The new adventure finds Ghost Rider aka Johnny Blaze a former stunt man cursed after begging the Devil to save his father's life hiding out in Eastern Europe where he believes his soul-sucking alter-ego can remain silent. But Blaze's TLC session is cut short when Moreau (Idris Elba) an Algerian priest with connections to the Devil's latest diabolical plan arrives. Seems Satan who walks the Earth under the alias Roarke is hellbent on inhabiting Danny the young son of Nadya who made her own deal with the Prince of Darkness. If he succeeds Roarke will continue existing in the world of man—so of course it's up to Ghost Rider to put the kibosh on the end-of-the-world scenario.
If you didn't see the first Ghost Rider movie don't fret; the sequel isn't confined by any established mythology nor is it that concerned with the logic of its own story. Directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor employ a manic eye for action displayed in earlier films like Crank and Gamer shooting motorcycle chases shootouts and flaming skull transformations with adrenaline-infused camerawork that should leave anyone susceptible to motion sickness running to the bathroom. The 3-D transfer of the movie is a non-factor the post-convereted stereoscopic effects rarely intrude on the zippy camerawork. Unlike the Crank films Ghost Rider contends with its script dragging when the movie tries to explain what the heck is going on and only picking up when the directing duo and Nic Cage are allowed to play.
A host of solid supporting actors breath traces of life into half-baked villain and characters—Ciaran Hinds stands out as Roarke playing him like a forgotten Dick Tracy baddie—but at the end of the day Spirit of Vengeance is all Cage's show. With the fire of hell burning inside Blaze is in a constant fight against himself and Cage embodies the monstrous struggle with cockeyed rage and growling vocals. Neveldine and Taylor make the most of their larger-than-life lead and Cage spends most of the film teetering on the edge ballistic fury. That's not to say the movie doesn't take its quiet moments–a scene between Cage and Elba where Blaze begs Moreau to remove the Ghost Rider curse is surprisingly dramatic—but the movie has goals: to rattle you at 100 miles per hour.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance isn't as fun flashy or poignant as some of its recent comic book contemporaries but for 90 minutes Neveldine and Taylor revel in the ridiculous wringing their character and lead actor for every ounce of mayhem. This is a greasy gritty grunge Ghost Rider purposefully disgusting and low-fi. While a stronger emphasis on story would only help the spotty action flick Spirit of Vengeance proves a decent alternative to the faithful boyscouts and friendly neighborhoood superheroes that fill our big screen blockbusters. Ghost Rider belches magma pisses fire and plays nasty—you probably already know if this movie is for you.
Charles Bronson may have passed away but the spirit of his Death Wish films lives on -- albeit in an absurdly twisted fashion -- in F. Gary Gray’s (The Italian Job Be Cool) gleefully over-the-top revenge thriller Law Abiding Citizen.
Taking a welcome break from his recent run of lame chick flicks Gerard Butler (300 RocknRolla) stars as Clyde Shelton a loving husband and father whose placid suburban existence is upended when a couple of mangy meth monsters burst into his home. Not content to merely burglarize the place they proceed to butcher Clyde’s wife and daughter as he lies in a heap on the floor periodically losing consciousness after being stabbed several times.
The killers are soon apprehended and a grieving Clyde who somehow managed to survive the whole ordeal eagerly awaits swift retribution from the justice system. Hoping for the grim solace that only the death penalty can provide he places his faith in Nick Rice (Oscar winner Jamie Foxx) the hotshot district attorney charged with prosecuting the case to do the right thing and see to it that the two killers fry.
Nick however has other plans. Seeing the case as anything but open-and-shut and fearful that a not-guilty verdict in such a high-profile trial could derail his ambitious career plans (he sees himself as a Giuliani in the making) he opts to strike a plea deal: One man gets a death sentence while the other gets a mere 10 years in return for testifying against his cohort.
Chastened by the unseemly bargain Clyde takes matters into his own hands delivering his own uniquely painful brand of vigilante justice to the sinister men who destroyed his family. But he doesn’t stop there not by a longshot. His grudge extends much much further -- to the very heart of the justice system itself -- and he intends to bring the entire corrupt apparatus down even if he has to do it while locked up inside a jail cell. Which is where he ends up after police nab him for personally imposing the death penalty on the convicted killers.
Indeed Clyde proves to be something of a savant when it comes to killing people in creative cinematic ways employing exploding cell phones remote-control machine guns and other methods to take out the various judges attorneys and politicians on his hit list. Most amazingly he orchestrates all of this mayhem from behind bars. Seriously this guy’s flair for novelty violence makes the Joker’s antics in The Dark Knight seem amateurish by comparison.
The task of putting an end to all of Clyde’s mayhem naturally falls on Nick. And this is where Law Abiding Citizen’s fatal flaw emerges. Whereas Gray Butler and virtually everyone else seem to enthusiastically embrace the utter ridiculousness of it all Foxx plays it determinedly straight as if he’s the only one in the movie who isn’t in on the joke. Watching his performance it’s almost as if he’s making a different film than everyone else.
The right way for Law Abiding Citizen to end is for Foxx to administer an appropriately ironic death to Butler’s character utter something like “I rest my case ” and wink at the camera as he makes his exit. (Click here to read our exclusive interview with Foxx.)
I won’t give any spoilers away but suffice it to say this is NOT how the movie ends.
Playing second fiddle to a more famous sibling can be rough. Just ask Fred Claus (Vaughn) a regular guy who has had to grow up under the shadow of his little brother Nicholas Claus (Paul Giamatti) aka Santa. That’s a big shadow to say the least both figuratively and literally. As an adult Fred has pretty much steered clear of his family but when he finds himself in dire need of some fast cash he calls his brother. Pleased as punch to hear from him Nicholas nonetheless makes him a deal: If he comes up to the North Pole for a visit and to help out the few days before Christmas then Fred can have the money. Fred reluctantly agrees and soon he’s being whisked off in Santa’s sleigh by head elf Willie (John Michael Higgins). But once Fred gets to the North Pole nothing seems to go right and soon he is the cause of much chaos--which unbeknownst to Fred causes Nicholas even more stress since his North Pole operation is one step away from being shut down by a cold-hearted efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey). Can Fred quit being bitter in time to save his brother’s livelihood? Of course he can. Hmmm Vince Vaughn minus the R-rated Wedding Crashers/Old School irreverence? It’s a stretch. Seeing the comic actor playing it PG is a little weird but you might enjoy how Vaughn infuses his unique energy into Fred Claus. From getting all the elves to boogie down in Santa’s workshop to going on one rant after another (on his brother: “He’s a clown a megalomaniac a fame junkie!”) to pilfering money on the street and then being chased by Salvation Army Santas it’s all good. Giamatti too seems a little out of his comfort zone as the saintly St. Nick. The actor who usually plays such endearing sad sacks has already played against type to great effect this year as the maniacal bad guy in Shoot ‘Em Up but he isn't nearly as successful in doing the flipside of that in Fred Claus. And what the hell is Kevin Spacey doing in this? As the villain of the film he fills the shoes nicely but he is almost too good at it (natch) for such a feel-good family film. Even Higgins--a character actor who is usually so hilarious in films such as The Break Up and all of Christopher Guest’s movies—has to shed the cheekiness and sugar himself up for Fred Claus. There’s also Rachel Weisz as Fred’s beleaguered girlfriend (you heard right) and Kathy Bates as the Claus boys’ mother who always sees Fred as inferior to her other son to fill out a cast of big names doing family fare. Director David Dobkin is a Vince Vaughn favorite having directed him in Wedding Crashers and Clay Pigeons but like his muse Dobkin seems a little out of place guiding this material. Granted Dobkin creates a pretty magical North Pole complete with an entire city of little dwellings a Frosty Tavern and a huge domed Santa’s Workshop. The montage of Fred delivering presents on Christmas Eve—falling down chimneys stuffing cookies in his face zooming around in the sleigh—is also well done. But overall Fred Claus is a Vaughn vehicle—even as sugary sweet and family-friendly as it is--and all Dobkin really does is turn the camera on and let the man do his stuff. Dan Fogelman's script is also so very bland full of any number of holes and only picks up once Vaughn starts to improvise. Bottom line: If you’re looking to take the kids to a sweet Christmas movie and are a Vince Vaughn fan then Fred Claus is for you.
Even if you’re one of the 19 other people in a competitive internship at Dean Witter with Chris Gardner (Will Smith) you gotta root for the guy. Life’s beaten him up but not got him down. He lugs his computer-monitor-sized bone density scanner all over San Francisco hoping to sell just one to make ends meet for his family—but nobody’s buying. As his wife’s (Thandie Newton) discontentment nears a boiling point Chris accepts an internship at financial institution Dean Witter—six months without pay and only one of the 20 applicants will ultimately get a job out of it. This sends her packing. She leaves Chris and their son Christopher (Jaden Smith) to fend for themselves at which point they get evicted. It’s the tip of the iceberg because over the course of Chris’ penniless pursuit of the Dean Witter job (and “happyness”) he and Christopher will get by sleeping in homeless shelter--and even in train-station bathrooms. Chris had always vowed to never leave his son and he keeps his promise but there’s no guarantee that his perseverance will pay off. Except for the fact that Happyness is “INSPIRED BY A TRUE STORY”! Will Smith is getting all the awards buzz but it’s his real-life son Jaden who transcends all expectations in Happyness. Jaden’s never acted in a movie before and it’s safe to assume that because of his father's long-running movie stardom he could not have grown up in a more different environment than that of his character. Which makes it all the more amazing for this 8-year-old Hollywood tyke to grasp even if coincidentally the plight of a nomadic urban child. The best part about little Jaden is that his performance doesn’t seem robotic like so many child actors who are already too "seasoned" for their own good. Aside from the expected cutesy laughs there’s genuine spontaneity in Jaden’s performance obviously thanks to the fact that he’s acting opposite his dad. Papa Smith gives what’s probably his best performance to date although he's had a career of primarily action roles that weren't exactly conducive to a skills showcase. He delivers the goods here—as seen in the tear-rific trailer—as a man whose whole life is his child but frankly the tears evoked might be too few for Oscar’s liking. Newton (Crash) in a small role is terribly miscast but Mr. and Mr. Smith dominate the screen anyway. Even with the studio flaunting the movie’s "Inspired by a true story..." tagline like a badge of honor—as studios tend to do—and this being the holiday season and all Italian director Gabriele Muccino expends way too much effort into the crowd-pleasing/feel-good aspects of Happyness. The happy ending everyone already knows about should be saccharine enough. Granted this is why a studio loves true stories—one that begins on a low note ends on a really high note and fluctuates all over the radar in between—and it may make the film more pleasing to its targeted mainstream audiences but Muccino and writer Steve Conrad (The Weather Man) really take the gloss factor much too far. In this case they essentially try to tell us a mostly sad story but will not let us feel sad. For instance during what could be very dark reflective scenes potentially connecting with viewers who have struggled through similar problems music befitting a children’s tale overtakes the would-be drama so we don’t ever feel too badly for Chris. It’s nice that the director cares so much for us but oftentimes the best directors are the ones who show an audience tough love.
The Whole Ten Yards picks up about two years after the events that changed the lives of Oz (Matthew Perry) Jimmy "The Tulip" (Bruce Willis) Jill (Amanda Peet) and Cynthia (Natasha Henstridge)--and made them a whole lot richer. Nice-guy dentist Oz is now married to Jimmy's ex-wife Cynthia and living in Brentwood Calif. where he still practices dentistry. They seem happy but Oz is so paranoid someone will come after him that he keeps an arsenal of weapons in his home which is teeming with high-tech surveillance equipment. His suspicions however are not so farfetched: Turns out Cynthia is in cahoots with Jimmy who is now married to Jill and living in Mexico and they're planning to rob Hungarian mobster Lazlo Gogolak (Kevin Pollak) who's just been released from prison. But Lazlo has an agenda of his own. He wants to kill Jimmy for the murder of his son rival hitman Yanni Gogolak a couple of years ago. When Lazlo kidnaps Cynthia to get to Jimmy (he figures Oz will spill the beans on his whereabouts) poor Oz runs off to Mexico and pleads for Jimmy's help. What Oz and Jill don't realize however is that they are part of a much bigger revenge plot against Lazlo perpetrated by their own spouses Jimmy and Cynthia.
The only thing that makes The Whole Ten Yards engaging is the returning cast who have a playful and endearing on-screen chemistry. Willis and Perry are at the forefront reprising their roles as Jimmy "The Tulip" Tudesky and Nicholas "Oz" Oseransky respectively. The actors craft their characters well and uniquely and the conflicting personalities they create--Willis' cool and collected Jimmy and Perry's nervous and scatterbrained Oz--make watching their interactions entertaining. When the two discover that the hostage in the trunk of their car has died for example Willis stands there unflinchingly while Perry yelps "It looks like he got shot in the foot! Who dies from being shot in the foot?" Peet blends in with her own brand of humor; her klutzy character Jill is hilarious without trying to be which is the key to her performance. Jill's hung up on the fact that although she's a professional marksman she's never had a real kill--she's so accident-prone that her targets always die by default. Also returning for the sequel is Pollak who played Yanni in the first film. Here he returns as Yanni's father Lazlo aged with the help of prosthetics and makeup. It's a great idea and the result is pretty funny although the character is cartoonish.
Director Howard Deutch makes a valiant effort with this sequel to the 2000 hit; there's continuity in the characters although their lives have progressed since the events of the last film. The problem with The Whole Ten Yards is its story penned by Mitchell Kapner and George Gallo. While The Whole Nine Yards had an elaborate storyline it was easy enough to follow--everyone was basically trying to kill one another. Here the plot's equally convoluted but rather than interesting twists and turns we get inconsistencies and dead ends. Take Jimmy's new Suzy Homemaker role for instance. As the film opens Willis is traipsing around his Mexican villa in bunny slippers wearing a 'do-rag on his head fussing over dinner and the fact that the potatoes are supposed to be "floating around the lobster not just stuck there." We find out it's all an act but the reasons are never disclosed. By the time the film ends audiences will be asking themselves what it was all for. Perhaps the filmmakers thought the sight of Willis as a dowdy housewife would make moviegoers laugh so hard they'd forget to ask why.
Hoffman (David Arquette) Rosenthal (David Chandler) and Schlermer (Daniel Benzali) know their time is running out. As Sonderkommandos inside a Nazi concentration camp they have been forced to escort their fellow Jews into the gas chambers burn the corpses and dispose of the ashes. In exchange they receive a comfortable living with plenty of food and wine and fresh linens on their beds. But they know that soon their four-month period will be over and they will be executed like the rest. With the intention of rising up against their captors and destroying the ovens they have been hoarding weapons and supplies. They receive help in the form of gunpowder from a group of women prisoners working in a munitions plant. When the women are caught the instigator Dina (Mira Sorvino) valiantly refuses to reveal the whereabouts of the powder under nearly unbearable torture. Meanwhile Hoffman discovers a young girl who has somehow survived the gassing. Before she is burned alive in the ovens he and his fellow prisoners revive her with the help of Dr. Nyiszli (Allan Corduner) a Jewish doctor brought to the camp to perform experiments on the prisoners. Dr. Nyiszli has his own choices to make when the Nazi in charge of the crematorium (Harvey Keitel) offers to save his wife and daughter in exchange for information on the suspected revolt. The conflicts within the prisoners catalyze with the fate of the girl whose existence threatens to interfere with their plans but whose life they cannot deny.
In a surprisingly serious role David Arquette manages to hold his own against arguably better actors such as Steve Buscemi and David Chandler. Though his performance is admirably understated it's hard to buy him as a World War II-era Hungarian Jew. Another actor in the role might be hearing the words "Oscar-caliber performance" whispered around town but it's unlikely that Arquette will achieve anything more than an improved respect among his peers with this film. Mira Sorvino on the other hand has Best Supporting Actress written all over her performance. Looking gaunt and bedraggled she is nearly unrecognizable at first and gives a moving performance as one of the noble women who holds her ground under extreme torture. The talented and underrated Natasha Lyonne makes much of her small amount of screen time. As Oberschaarfher Muhsfeldt Harvey Keitel brings a certain humanity to his seemingly inhuman character in spite of a tenuous German accent. His scenes with Allan Corduner as Dr. Nyiszli provide an interesting counterpoint to the conflicts going on in the rest of the camp.
With so many accounts of the holocaust already adapted to the screen it would seem that there's little new ground to cover. Yet with this film director Tim Blake Nelson proves that Hollywood has only just scratched the surface. Like his first feature Eyes of God The Grey Zone is based on a stage play written by Nelson himself. Acting as editor and screenwriter as well as director he's adapted the story for the screen without pulling any punches. The result is an unflinching portrait of our equal capacity for good and evil that ranks with some of the best holocaust films ever made. It's not an easy film to watch. Scenes of death and torture are laced with troubling philosophical ambiguities that force the audience to examine what they would do in the same situation. In one scene Nelson literally does put the audience in the position of a victim about to be gassed using point-of-view angle shot with a handheld camera. The characters aren't portrayed as one-dimensional villains or victims. They are flawed and human full of complexities brought about by their unique moral dilemma. Of the many memorable scenes one of the best is an ironic juxtaposition as a band of prisoners plays a breezy Strauss waltz while a long queue of new Jewish arrivals files into the camp unknowingly headed towards the gas chambers. The film is full of poignant moments like this and is worth the time for those not bothered by the highly intense subject matter.