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.
I expected Your Highness David Gordon Green's R-rated sword-and-sorcery farce to be a medieval stoner comedy something in the vein of Monty Python-meets-Cheech and Chong. This was not an unreasonable assumption given a) the film’s clearly suggestive title and b) the fact that its stars (Danny McBride and James Franco) and director previously collaborated on the THC-laced epic Pineapple Express. But I was waaaaaay off. Sure drug references abound in Your Highness but they are relatively benign in comparison to the film’s exhausting barrage of adolescent sexual humor and often shockingly crude language. Less bongs more schlongs is Your Highness' overriding ethos.
Taking care not to stray too far from the winning comic persona established in Eastbound & Down and The Foot Fist Way McBride plays Prince Thadeous a royal ne’er-do-well who lives in the shadow of his handsome older brother Prince Fabious (Franco) gallant knight and heir apparent to the throne of the kingdom of Mourne. While Fabious is out defending his father’s realm against various supernatural threats and earning acclaim for his illustrious deeds cowardly and entitled Thadeous parties with loose maidens and smokes hallucinogenic herbs with his twink-ish toadie Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker). But he finds he can no longer shirk his heroic duties when an evil sorcerer named Leezar (Justin Theroux) crashes Fabious’ wedding and absconds with the crown prince’s fiancée Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel). Urged to aid in his brother’s quest to rescue her Thadeous resists — that is until his father threatens to cut him off from the royal teat.
Very soon into his journey we discover why Thadeous was heretofore so reluctant to join in his brother’s adventures: Quests in the Your Highness universe entail an awful lot of encounters with homoeroticism – both latent and blatant. Knights dress in tights and codpieces and seem unusually affectionate toward one another. The price for advice from the Great Wize Wizard a bedridden seal-like creature wearing what looks to be a jellyfish as a skullcap is an open-mouthed kiss and a handjob. A sassy manservant is stripped of his clothing and revealed to be a eunuch. A tribe of feral women is ruled by a half-naked highly effete cherub-like figure named Marteetee. And so on.
Your Highness reaches its homoerotic apex during a pivotal scene in which Thadeous in his first real act of bravery intervenes to prevent Courtney from being raped by a minotaur which minotaur happens to be sporting a massive erection. Wanting a trophy to commemorate the deed he severs the slain beast’s still-engorged member and hangs it around his neck giving us for the remainder of the film a vivid monument to the filmmakers' most reliable comic device. (It’s an impressive sight – I fully expect “hung like a minotaur” to gain much greater prevalence in the lexicon should Your Highness be a hit.)
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. And Your Highness does throw in a few hetero bits to help balance the sexual ledger especially when the cast is joined by Natalie Portman playing a feisty fellow-quester and McBride’s unlikely romantic foil. Portman should at the very least be commended for being able to utter lines about a "burning in her beaver" with unvarnished sincerity.
Your Highness is often wickedly funny – a filthy spot-on send-up of The Beastmaster Krull and other campy '80s fantasy flicks. But there’s precious little beyond the filth and eventually the bawdy language and infantile shenanigans grow repetitive especially when the plot starts to meander in the second act. Green's primary comic instinct is to aim for shock value — as in Pineapple Express the action in Your Highness is punctuated by cartoonish violence — which grows tedious toward the end credits. His efforts would have been better devoted to expanding Theroux's and Deschanel's roles — they are woefully underutilized — or giving McBride something funnier to say than "motherf*cker."
Elderly Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) who once served under the great Alexander (Colin Farrell) narrates the life story of the man the myth the legend--the son of the ambitious King Philip (Val Kilmer) who surpassed his father at every level and charged into the farthest reaches of the world. From early childhood in Macedonia we see where Alexander gets his drive--mostly from his vengeful snake-lovin' mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie) who urges her son to take charge as well from his tutor Aristotle (Christopher Plummer). Even in the taming of his unbreakable horse Bucephalas at 10 years old Alexander's destiny is evident. The heart of the film lies in Persia which Alexander conquers in one of the most studied military battles of all time. Alexander spends a great deal of time there--taking in the culture claiming its riches and marrying a Bactrian princess Roxane (Rosario Dawson)--much to the chagrin of his Macedonian generals who are stuck in this foreign land with their king. Despite this success Alexander grows restless and turns his attention to the rest of the world including the unexplored regions of India. With his army stretched thin and his Macedonian troops longing for home Alexander presses them one campaign too far. Succumbing to a mysterious illness at age 33 Alexander dies never quite finding what he so desperately searched for.
Although some may scoff at casting the Irish actor in the lead Farrell does an admirable job playing the tortured hero blond wig and all. He exudes plenty of wide-eyed fury and intensity as Alexander the warrior balanced by the controlled calculation of a hyper-effective military commander although he isn't nearly as effective as the idealistic pre-world-conqueror Alexander as he is spiraling down into the haunted angst-ridden Alexander at the end of his obsessive crusade. Casting Jolie as Olympias is a stroke of genius. Sure Jolie can play a smart and beautiful woman in her sleep but her beauty is surpassed only by the power she imbues as Alexander's bitter yet loving mother; she's as hypnotic as the snakes she carries around. Kilmer relishes his role as Alexander's father Philip in all of his grotesque wine-soaked glory. Powerful driven and battle-scarred Kilmer's Philip knows precisely what he wants and matches Jolie's quiet intensity with the raw aggressive masculinity of a warrior king who is far more comfortable in his armor than a toga. In the supporting roles Hopkins is great as always this time in the thankless role of the narrator while Dawson plays Roxane with a ferocity that is as mesmerizing as it is terrifying. Standout Jared Leto also turns in a concentrated performance as Hephaestion Alexander's long-time companion boyhood friend and the person who loves Alexander the best. (And we do mean love.)
Alexander is Oliver Stone at his best. An Alexander nut for most of his life the director gives us a film that--even in its loooong three-hour form--continuously holds your attention especially its intense and bloody battle scenes. I mean honestly once you've fought against an elephant in armor the plain old sword-and-shield skirmishes pale in comparison. Alexander also possesses a great breadth of visuals: Alexandria's peace Pella's tension Babylon's opulence and India's richness. Yet as wonderful as the landscapes are it's personal interactions and internal politics that drive the story--and of course Stone's penchant for conspiracy theories as he more than insinuates Alexander was poisoned by his enemies rather than dying of an "unknown" illness. But a problem still remains: Alexander's life was so huge and he did so much that it's almost impossible to encapsulate it effectively into one film. Stone instead has to focus on what he thinks is the most important namely Alexander's renowned conquests while allowing the pressure cooker in which the young conqueror grew up--the triangle of mother father and son--come through in the decisions he makes later in life. For those few of us who have studied Alexander Stone has made this film especially for us. If you haven't spent any time reading Arrian and the other histories this excellent film might just inspire you to do so.