Friday, June 29, 2007

Black Snake Moan (2007)

Written & Directed by: Craig Brewer
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake

Color, 116 minutes
Rated R

Grade: C-

If a grown up, skanked out, half-naked Wednesday Addams chained to a radiator is your idea of a good time (you know who you are), then you're going to love Black Snake Moan. For the rest of us who aren't thirteen, Moan is a disappointment. The storytelling is hackneyed, and there is an unpleasant, arrogant air of provocation hanging over the entire film. Writer/Director Craig Brewer may have proved how hard it truly is out there for a pimp in Hustle & Flow, but here he proves that turning what may be an enjoyably brief, juvenile wet dream into a two-hour film may be even harder.

Christina Ricci plays Rae, a trailer park nymphomaniac, and as the film opens, Rae has her hands full. Her boyfriend Ronnie, played by Justin (don't quit your day job) Timberlake, is passionately jumping her bones. The act is bittersweet, however, because once it's finished, Ronnie makes a beeline for the bathroom and continues to puke his guts out (I'm sure that's what every girl wishes for after being drilled by Timberlake). Ah, but Ronnie has a reason for the stomach knots, he's being shipped off to Iraq. They shed some tears, blow some kisses, and then Ronnie heads on down the lane. Three minutes later, Rae falls to the grown, clutching her legs, tugging at her shirt. She's gotta have it, and have it she does with just about everything that can walk, wiggle, or squirm. She takes on the local pot dealer, most of the football team, and she even tries her hand at Ronnie's best friend. He sees the chance he's been waiting for, but she makes fun of his "manliness" and the bastard punches her repeatedly in the face. Trying desperately to wake her up, he senses something maybe wrong, and, not knowing what to do, he kicks her out of his pickup. She's left lying on the road, unconscious, clothed in nothing but a cutoff t-shirt and panties.

The next day she's found by Samuel L. Jackson's Lazarus (pinning the film as a Christian allegory would be giving Brewer too much credit), a farmer/washed up blues musician who's been scorned by the wife who left him for his younger brother. Lazarus takes Rae back to his house, bathes her, prays over her, and does his best to "get her well." Rae is in and out of consciousness, breaking out into fits, writhing around on the floor, and Lazarus, in all his infinite wisdom, decides to chain her up to cure her "sickness." That's one way to get Lindsay Lohan to stay in rehab, I guess. The days go on, and with the help of a Bible thumper or two, Rae gets better. Lazarus is able to take on the manifestation of a fatherly figure to Rae, and the two establish a sort of familial bond. Lazarus, feeling better than he has in years, is inspired to pick up the old Gibson and put his wife behind him. He finds himself drawn to Angela, the local pharmacist, played brilliantly by S. Epatha Merkerson. Love is in the air, but everything threatens to come crashing down once Ronnie, discharged because of anxiety, gets wind of what's going on.

First of all, let me just say that I believe Brewer is a real find. I wasn't crazy about Hustle & Flow, but I enjoyed it and recognized the fresh, young talent behind the wheel. The music in Flow was essential to the film's success, and was subservient to the story. Here, the music is nothing but an afterthought ("Wouldn't it be cool if we made Lazarus a blues guitarist?"). There's no reason for it. Brewer tries to have it both ways, and he fumbles the ball. He's like one of those guys who juggles chainsaws. Like tossing around bowling pins wouldn't be enough, you gotta try and top that, and essentially risk cutting a limb off in the process. The interplay between Rae and Lazarus is interesting enough on it's own without the music, and he really could have created something substantial there. We don't need the slow motion scenes of sweaty people dancing and flailing their hair around. Yes, it's cool that Jackson sings and does his own guitar work, but it lessens the potential dramatic thrust that could have made this film something unique.

Worse than that, Brewer trips up on his own stylistic indulgences. We automatically know we're in trouble when the title credits come down over a slow motion image of Ricci, walking in the middle of the road, flipping off a tractor that is trying to get her to move out of the way. That's real classy. We get the heavy-handed symbolism, the usual Southern stereotypes, and the unfortunate Cameron Crowe-like focus on soundtrack over more important, but not nearly as cool, stuff like character development, patient storytelling, and dialogue. But, I guess if I had to pick one thing about Moan that really sticks in my craw, besides Rae's Laura Palmer-esque tendencies, Brewer's wannabe Lynchian flashbacks, and the potentially offensive idea of a woman being chained to a radiator because she's obsessed with sex, it would have to be the fact that, above all, Brewer is a hopeless romantic. As a storyteller, it's his biggest flaw. The proceedings are rendered predictable, and the happy ending practically ensures that the film will leave us with nothing but a forgettable two hour excursion. And it's a shame.

While I could go on with my rant (why does Rae's behavior have to be justified with the same old cliches), I won't, only because there are a few positives that must be brought to attention. First off, this is the best work that Jackson has done since Changing Lanes. He takes Brewer's flat idea of a stubborn ("I ain't gonna be moved"), broken individual, and makes it flesh. Against our better judgment, Jackson makes us understand Lazarus, and the method in his madness. It's a touching performance that deserves recognition, and Ricci is every bit his equal. Her sickly appearance leaves an impression, but we're won over by the truth and vulnerability in her performance. It's a risky role, in any given scene she is either topless or shot from the waist down, but she pulls it off marvelously. I would like to think that people would stand up and applaud her work here, but Ricci has never gotten her fair shake. For years, she has been bold and selective in her choices, and one quick look at her career shapes up and stands right with Johnny Depp B.B. (Before Bruckheimer). There aren't many actors that are as talented and fearless as she is, and to be quite honest, I doubt there ever will be. This film, and most of her others, are worth watching just to witness her at work. We should be thankful.

With the exception of the wonderful, Oscar worthy Merkerson, the bulk of the supporting cast, led by the cardboard cutout Timberlake, does nothing to help matters. Most of them are acutely aware that the camera is turned on, and they do their best to make sure the audience knows they're taking things seriously ("Look Ma, I'm in a movie."). It's increasingly painful to watch people who have no clue as to what they're doing. Cinematographer Amelia Vincent does her best to make up for the amateurishness by creating a wholly believable atmosphere. Tennessee's back roads, farms, and run down road houses come alive under the guidance of her wonderful eye. You almost choke on the stench of stale cigarette smoke, rank body odor, and spilt beer. She's Brewer's best weapon, and he should consider himself lucky. God only knows how bad things could have been without her on board.

Overall, though, we need to give Brewer credit for trying something different. This is far more ambitious than his previous film, and I hope he continues to branch out. He needs to learn when to pull it in, harness the power that's already at work, and let things grow organically. He has a unique voice, and the potential to stand apart from the run of the mill junk that fills the multiplex every week. Not every film is a success, but they should all be learning experiences. Take it in stride Brewer, pick up the pieces and start again. American cinema needs more risk takers; don't blow your chance to establish yourself near the front of the pack.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Bridge to Terabithia (2007)

Directed by: Gabor Csupo
Written by: Jeff Stockwell & David Patterson, based on the novel by Katherine Paterson
Starring: Josh Hutcherson, AnnaSophia Robb, Robert Patrick, Zooey Deschanel

Color, 96 minutes
Rated: PG

Grade: B+

Tuesday night at my house has been deemed "family movie night," and it's usually the same old thing. We'll rent the newest kids flick, our son will be mildly entertained, and my wife and I will go through the motions. During most of these excursions I make enough sarcastic comments to result in a lap full of popcorn (due to my son's impeccable aim) and an ample amount of bruising around my ribs (due to my wife's bony elbow), but this Tuesday was different. We picked up Bridge to Terabithia, a film that we had already seen earlier this year at the multiplex. At the end of each viewing of this film, I've noticed the lack of popcorn to clean up and bruises to tend to. I still maintain that I included my fair share of snide observations, but they became fewer and fewer as the film would progress. The reason is simple: for most of its running time, Terabithia is a pleasant, imaginative, even intelligent family film, and then it pulls the rug out. It goes to a deep, dark, resonant place that most conventional films would not even begin to approach. It's being sold as a Narnia/Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings knockoff, but I can assure you, it is far from that. It is nothing less than the Million Dollar Baby of family films.

Jesse Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) is a typical tween. He enjoys running, drawing, and crushing on his music teacher (Zooey Deschanel). He has four sisters who constantly rag on him, and his parents aren't exactly the most financially inclined. On his first day of school, Jesse is searching endlessly for his ratty old sneakers, and then is heartbroken to find that his mother has thrown them away. With no option but to wear a pair of hand me downs, Jesse grabs a black magic marker to cover up the pink Adidas stripes. He does his chores, catches up with the bus, and heads to school with the only hopeful thought in his mind being of winning "the big race." Oh, how his dreams are shattered when he finishes second, losing to Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb), his new neighbor. This is bad news for Jesse, because whatever tiny bit of "coolness" that wasn't ruined by wearing pink shoes has now been completely obliterated. To lose to a girl is bad enough for his credibility, but to lose to the new girl is simply earth shattering. Leslie's having her own trouble, not only is adjusting to her new environment causing difficulties, kids are constantly picking on her because she has a bit of an overactive imagination and her family has decided not to own a television. Kids can be so cruel, I know. As time passes, however, these two outcasts slowly form a friendship.

In the woods that run behind their homes, they find a refuge away from the trials of the everyday where their imaginations can run wild. They fix up a ramshackle old treehouse, and invent a magical kingdom called Terabithia, filled with fantastical creatures made up of the demeanors of school bullies, where they can be whatever they want. It's kind of like Heavenly Creatures with preteen sexual tension taking the place of lesbian subtext. Here they carve out new lives. They find an understanding and a bond between each other that is too strong to be broken by their differences in class. They are free to be children, and free to experience all of the innocence and imagination that youth should hold. Unfortunately, the real world catches up to them and in a masterfully handled third act, fantasy and youthful ignorance clash with the harshness and unrelenting horror of life.

For all the fun I may poke at it, I truly respected this film. Sure, I have my complaints. I mean, let's face it, if I had Zooey Deshanel for a music teacher and we got to sing Steve Earle tunes instead of the entire Disney repertoire, I would, undoubtedly, have fonder memories of grade school, but I wasn't as lucky. The teeny bop soundtrack is cutesy and it threatens to be a little overbearing at times, but that tends to come with the territory. These are minor quibbles anyways, and the meat of the film is in its extremely sensitive material. Director Gabor Csupo, coming from animation (he's responsible for the God-awful Rugrats), does a commendable job. He never lets the special effects take center stage, which is a smart move. The characters and situations are mature enough to compel an audience, and he knows it. As his cinematographer, Csupo has chosen the great Michael Chapman, who's responsible for lensing such warm hearted pictures as Taxi Driver, Hardcore, and Raging Bull, as well as one of my personal favorites, The Last Waltz (had to get that in there). Chapman brings the magic to life, shooting the film in warm, earthy tones that provide just the right amount of foreshadowing. Csupo also manages to get a big boost from screenwriters Jeff Stockwell and David Patterson, who obviously know their way around such delicate proceedings. They should; Patterson is the son of Katherine, the author of the popular novel on which the film is based. David's real life experiences were the inspiration for the story, and he infuses all that heart and tragedy into the film.

Even with all of this goodness intact, the film still wouldn't work without solid performers in the two leading roles. Thankfully, Hutcherson and Robb are fantastic. They're able to convey the awkwardness of childhood without overdoing it the way most films do. More than that, though, they have a real chemistry together and you could believe that these two have been friends for some time. They manage to draw in even the most hardened of audience members (me), and really cause a genuine sense of wonder and excitement. It's enjoyable to watch and you can tell that there is some real talent coming up in the world, and Hutcherson's exchanges with his father (a pitch perfect Robert Patrick) are especially touching. When the Harry Potter crap has had its run, and Daniel Radcliffe is desperately searching for another Peter Shaffer production to save the day, Hutcherson and Robb will still be making quality films. Bet on it.

This is the third production to come from the collaboration of Disney and Walden Media. The first (Holes) was lame, their second (Narnia) was a tad better, but harder to swallow because it reveled in its religious symbolism. Terabithia is a giant leap forward. It's mature, graceful, and literate, with much to say about the value of imagination, and it gets bonus points for taking the time to include one of the most intelligent discussions of Christianity in recent years (Ingmar Bergman himself would applaud). Maybe I'm a sucker, but I was won over by this little powerhouse. I think you will be as well.

Monday, June 18, 2007


Directed by: Brad Bird
Written by: Brad Bird, Jim Capobianco, Emily Cook, Kathy Greenberg, Jan Pinkava
Featuring the voices of: Patton Oswalt, Lou Romano, Janeane Garofolo, and Peter O' Toole

Color, 110 minutes
Rated G

Grade: A

Let's pretend for a moment, shall we. Imagine that I work for Pixar, and I have the task of pitching Ratatouille to the studio chiefs. At the risk of sounding like an outtake from The Player, it would probably go something like this: Patrick Suskind's Perfume as envisioned by Chuck Jones. Yeah, that sounds about right, except that Ratatouille may be even better. It's a fantastic film, first frame to last, and it accomplishes a feat that few films in recent years have been able to do: it brings a smile to your face, and keeps it there.

As our story opens, we're introduced to Remy, possibly the cutest animated rodent to ever hit the big screen (imagine a more realistic looking Mickey Mouse, with less guffaw and better taste), voiced impressively by comedian Patton Oswalt. Remy's having a difficult time, he has an incredibly refined palate, and because of this, his family has elected him to the position of poison sniffer. Remy, however, has higher aspirations, and he looks up to his idol, the recently departed chef and best selling author Auguste Gusteau, for guidance. Gusteau is a believer in the philosophy that "anyone can cook," and Remy, ever the idealist, takes this to heart. After he's separated from his family, Remy is on the verge of starvation, and he's beginning to hallucinate. He imagines an itsy bitsy Gusteau, who flies around giving him advice in a Jiminy Cricket sort of way. With Jiminy Gusteau's help, Remy finds himself in a sewer located directly below (where else?), Gusteau's restaurant. He scurries his way up to an open window, and watches in delight. As his attention focuses on the sensory overload attacking him from the kitchen, we, the audience, find ourselves drawn towards a young man by the name of Linguini (Lou Romano). He's a lanky, awkward little guy, who has just been hired to take out the garbage and wash the dishes. As Remy is running rampant through the kitchen, he notices Linguini messing around with a pot of soup that is being prepared. Knowing that Linguini has botched the food's potential for success, Remy, in an astonishing sequence, rushes to the rescue, adding just the right amounts of herbs and spices to fix Linquini's screw up. Linguini notices Remy, and before he can do anything, the soup is served, to a food critic nonetheless. The soup, of course, is a hit, and Linguini gets the credit. He's given a promotion, yet he knows he can't possibly recreate what Remy has done, so he does what anyone in his position would do: he asks the rat for help. Now, anyone who has seen a Disney film can tell you that animals can speak English amongst themselves, as well as being able to understand the English that humans speak, but they can't necessarily be heard by human ears. This presents itself to be a bit of a problem for our two heroes. What ensues from this mess are delightfully inspired scenes of physical comedy in which the two try and figure out a way to work together without exposing Remy to the rest of the kitchen.

The two finally begin to mesh, and their work becomes a sensation. Gusteau's restaurant is having its biggest success since the death of its founder, but behind the scenes, there are complications. Collette, the meat and poultry chef takes a liking to Linguini, and a romance is on the rise. Just when things are starting to work out, Skinner, the head chef, has plans to buy the restaurant and market Gusteau's image on a series of frozen foods. He's skeptic of Linguini's newfound talent, and he becomes hellbent on exposing the truth. The plot thickens, as Linguini becomes even more of a threat when a shocking revelation from the past is unveiled. Remy, having a hard enough time trying to hold Linguini's hand, has his own problems when his family reenters the picture and appropriately begin to give him guff for being so trustworthy of humans. Our two heroes slowly begin to drift apart, and all hope seems to be lost. On the horizon, however, a storm is brewing, and his name is Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O'Toole in Eli Cross mode), a nefarious food critic (Cruella de Vil meets Andrew Sarris) who strikes fear in the heart of every chef in Paris. Ego's last visit to the restaurant had resulted in a scathing review that nearly ruined the establishment and most likely drove its founder to his grave. Can our two unlikely protagonists pull together and take on the force of such a villain? You better believe it.

Ratatouille has an abundance of plot, and it is handled remarkably well. Brad Bird, who was responsible for Pixar's The Incredibles, establishes himself as a master of economy, by never falling prey to the exposition. He uses widescreen compositions to capture so much detail that the film cries out for repeated viewings.
There are so many things going on at one time that you find your eyes darting from one side of the screen to the other, doing your best to soak it all in. As a feat of animation, it is dazzling, as a feat of direction, it is masterful. Bird is the most cinematic of the Pixar crew and the one most likely to be able to survive in the world of live action. He indulges in references to past films, including a tip of the hat to Citizen Kane that had me in stitches.

The voice talent shines in every role. Oswalt makes Remy an endearing, loveable, yet intelligent creature, while Romano provides a perfect sidekick in Linguini. The supporting cast makes the most of their time, with Janeane Garofalo making Collette an appropriate hard case, Brad Garrett hilariously overdoing his French accent in the role of Gusteau, while Ian Holm is particularly nasty as Skinner. Taking pride of place, however, is O'Toole. He has a gem of a villain in Ego, and he knows it, giving what may be the most infectiously fun voice work in all of Pixar's productions. He's having a ball, and so is the audience.

Let's face it, Pixar has had an incredible run, but after seeing the almost unbearably, and embarrassingly, cartoonish Cars, I began to get nervous. Breaking out in a cold sweat, my hands began to shake, I had to stop and collect my thoughts. Was this is a sign of Pixar's venture toward mediocrity? Could the animation powerhouse possibly be on the way out? Not if Brad Bird has anything to say about it. His Ratatouille is the most intelligent and mature work in the Pixar oeuvre. It is a breathtaking piece of filmmaking, and I couldn't possibly be happier with it. Pixar is back, baby, and better than ever.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Breach (2007)

Directed by: Billy Ray
Written by: Adam Mazer, William Rotko, Billy Ray
Starring: Chris Cooper, Ryan Phillippe, Laura Linney

Color, 110 minutes
Rated: PG-13

Grade: A-

Writer/Director Billy Ray is back, his last film was 2003's criminally underseen Shattered Glass (a.k.a. Hayden Christensen Acts?!), a brilliant expose on "journalist"/liar/professional fabricator Stephen Glass of The New Republic, and we should be thankful. This time around, Ray takes aim at another factual target, Robert Hanssen (played by the incomparable Chris Cooper), a former FBI agent, with a Catherine Zeta-Jones obsession, who sold information to the Soviets for 22 years before being caught in 2001. Breach is a considerable step up from Glass, in scope and ambition, but Ray proves himself worthy by never losing sight of the little things, and we as an audience get the opportunity to see the emergence of an important new voice in American cinema. Breach is a small, modest masterpiece of a thriller that avoids all the usual cliches, and makes all the right moves.

The audience's surrogate is Eric O'Neill (Ryan Phillippe), a young, hardheaded operative looking to fast track his way to agent status (he's got a young bride (Caroline Dhavernas) on the home front, and can't bring back the bacon with his measly salary), who gets tipped to keep tabs on Hanssen. The higher-ups keep O'Neill in the dark, telling him only that Hanssen is a "sexual deviant" whose actions could be quite embarrassing for the Bureau if they were to get out. O'Neill agrees to the detail, but finds it quite boring, noting that Hanssen may be a prick, but he is no way a threat. Tension is tight between Hanssen and O'Neill at first, but their relationship grows due to common bonds, they're both Catholic, they're both married, and they both love their country. O'Neill begins to respect his target, and he willingly begins to accompany Hanssen and his wife (Kathleen Quinlan) to church and family get-togethers. It's all in good, clean, ultraconservative American fun, that is, until O'Neill gets hip to what's going on behind the scenes. Now, what use does a sexual deviant, he makes videos of he and his wife knocking boots, have for a trunk full of Uzi's and AK-47's? They're not for role-playing, I can assure you. O'Neill buckles down and raises his game, and you can pretty much guess the rest.

This type of material, which is done via television on a weekly basis, usually wouldn't make me take notice, let alone hand out kudos, but, then again, it is rarely ever handled this well. Instead of going the more-bang-for-buck-route, Ray revels in restraint. He pulls the leash; keeps it quiet, and allows the story to grow organically, focusing on the method, and putting the madness on the back burner. He's deep into his material, he knows it from the inside out, and he understands how incendiary it can be in its most simplistic form. He never shouts, he never rubs it in your face, and because of this, the tension builds, and you're drawn in closer to the screen, waiting silently for the bubble to burst. Through the intelligent and literate screenplay, he is able find the nuance in each character, adding dimensions that make them all the more sympathetic, and at times, frightening.

Speaking of characters, how about Chris Cooper, could this guy possibly be any better? Has there been a role that he couldn't conquer, or a film that he couldn't enhance exponentially? For Cooper, it's not enough for us to get the sense that Hanssen is a bad dude, he makes us look deeper, to peel away the layers of the individual. He makes us see all sides, from the loyal Opus Dei member to the gun aficionado to the devoted grandfather to the pervert, and we realize that this isn't an ordinary movie villain, but rather a fully formed character that we rarely get to see anymore. Most costars would cower in the presence of such a performance, but Phillippe stands his ground. Unfairly overlooked by the Academy for his superb work in Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, Phillippe sets out to make viewers notice him this time around. O'Neill is a tough character, because on one hand, he obviously fears his opponent, but on the other, he respects and even admires him as well, but Phillippe nails it. He latches onto O'Neills inner turmoil and lets it boil just close enough to the surface that we know he means business. He doesn't play second fiddle here, he goes toe to toe with Cooper, and it's spellbinding to watch. Call it a secondary role if you want, I call it a role in which stars are made. Take note, Hollywood. Ray does a fine job filling out the rest of the cast with familiar faces and reliable character actors, most notably Laura Linney as Phillippe's superior, but when all is said and done it's the battle of wills between Cooper and Phillippe that retains in the memory banks.

Ray's eye for detail easily rivals his knack for casting. Together with cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, who paints the screen in cold and sterile steely blues reminiscent of his work in Silence of the Lambs, Ray embellishes his mise-en-scene with telling subtleties, such as a displayed crucifix, the replacement of portraits, and claustrophobic departmental hallways with unopened boxes of brand new computers. Ray is growing more assured as a visual stylist, and his work here hearkens back to such '70's filmmakers as Pakula and Coppola. Let's hope that he keeps it up.

Call me excitable if you must, but thoughtful, confident filmmaking such as this is all but absent in today's marketplace of rehashes and repulsion for over-excitable audiences. The symbolism can overstay its welcome at times, and the ending might be a little too flat, but overall we have a mature, compelling piece of work that asks for our attention instead of our basic reactions. Breach is a member of a dying breed. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Ghost Rider (2007)

Written & Directed by: Mark Steven Johnson
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Wes Bentley, Peter Fonda

Color, 123 minutes (Extended Cut DVD)
Rating: Extended Cut Not Rated (PG-13 Theatrical)

Grade: C

As a child, I was fascinated with comic books and over the last seven or eight years I've been happy, in a nostalgic sort of way, to see so many of the beloved heroes from my youth make their way to the big screen. The nostalgia is officially beginning to wear off, and my patience is nearing its end. There have been plenty of terrible comic book adaptations in this young century (Fantastic Four, Constantine, X-Men 3), but there has always seemed to be a good one somewhere right around the corner. That corner seems to be fading from view, and it's becoming increasingly difficult to tolerate the continuing onslaught of comic book crap, so, you can imagine my surprise when I didn't ooze hatred for Ghost Rider. I know, I know, I'm getting soft, right? Maybe, but Ghost Rider is a film that, in spite of all its cheesiness, has its heart in the right place, even though its skull may be on fire.

Nicolas Cage stars as Johnny Blaze, stunt rider extraordinaire, who, as a child, sold his soul to Mephistopheles (Peter Fonda), just call him Lucifer, in order to save his father from cancer. Satan, being the bastard that he is, cures Papa's illness, then goes back on his word by killing him during a motorcycle stunt. Poor little Johnny, who would have thought that you couldn't trust a guy who demands that contracts must be signed in blood. Pissed to high heaven, Johnny blazes a trail out of town on his Dad's chopper, and goes down to the crossroads, Robert Johnson style, where he's met by Satan, who tells him that he is now a Ghost Rider, kind of like the Devil's version of Boba Fett with a motorcycle in place of that cool backpack. Flash forward a decade or two, and Johnny, all grown up, does his Evel Knievel routine on a, seemingly, weekly basis. He jumps football fields and Black Hawk helicopters, somehow managing to cheat death every time. Johnny's manager (Donal Logue) is worried about him, but JB shrugs him off, choosing to spend his time eating jellybeans out of a martini glass and furthering his obsession with monkeys. All this changes when Roxanne (Eva Mendes), Johnny's ex-flame, strolls into town. She's become a hot shot reporter, and she wants an exclusive. Johnny, however, has his own exclusive ideas about Roxanne, and when he begins to make his move, Satan shows up with another interesting proposition: If Johnny destroys Blackheart (Wes Bentley), the Devil's wayward son; he can have his soul back. Johnny, apparently not willing to learn from his past mistakes, reluctantly agrees, and is transformed into a flaming skeleton, ready to do battle with the forces of Hell. It ain't exactly Faust, I know, but it'll do in a pinch.

Ghost Rider, like Blade, was never a huge success as a comic. It had its followers, of which I was not one, but it never really took off with the masses. It never had much to offer in the way of character, and existed for so long simply because it was a bit different. This all changed in the early '90's, when Todd McFarlane took the same basic idea and created a much more inventive, and interesting character in Spawn. Nonetheless, writer/director Mark Steven Johnson, who made Daredevil (another film I didn't hate), does his best with what little he has to work with. Even though the film is heavy with special effects (albeit very bad ones), he puts the crosshairs on Johnny Blaze's struggles as a person, instead of endless fight scenes. I could be giving him too much credit, the film's budget was rather small for this type of film, and having Cage as a star pretty much guarantees that he gets more face time than anyone else does, including his bony, CGI alter ego. Either way you want to look at it, you can't deny Johnson's obvious love for his material, and he essentially creates something out of nothing, which is always deserving of a little credit.

The performances are, for the most part, in earnest. Cage revels in this type of material with his usual tics and flaring of the eyes. He's quite possibly the most neurotic superhero to grace the big screen. Adding a dash of H.I. McDunnough from Raising Arizona here, a pinch of Sailor Ripley from Wild at Heart there, and a little bit of Dubya's voice pattern to top it all off, Cage has fun, and it's hard to hold it against him. Eva Mendes fulfills the cleavage requirements quite nicely, but she does her best to become more than the love interest/damsel in distress. Fonda's Mephistopheles isn't necessarily a man of wealth and taste, nor his menacing or devious in any particular way, but I can see where Johnson thought it would be clever to feature Fonda in another motorcycle movie, though we all know that of the Easy Rider crowd, Dennis Hopper would have ate this shit up. The biggest problem comes in Bentley (the kid with a video camera in American Beauty) as Blackheart. He doesn't do much of anything except for bitching about how he won't "fall" like his father did. For the Antichrist, he's a bit of a pantywaist. He's followed around by a group of minions who look a bit like Depeche Mode with worse makeup. Sam Elliott, who narrates the film, provides his usual reliably grizzled support as a wiseass gravedigger who knows more than he probably should. The films real star, however, is gifted Aussie cinematographer Russell Boyd (Master and Commander). He shoots the daylight scenes like a western, and then, when it's dark, he bathes the screen in deep, dark blues that accentuate the flames that emanate from Ghost Rider's body. He creates a moody atmosphere, and, even though the special effects let him down, he treats the more ghoulish imagery seriously, and while it's not exactly on a par with Fuseli, it is a hell of a lot more than what this material deserves.

Ghost Rider, despite the bad press, is not a terrible film. The special effects would seem more at home in a direct to DVD release, and the fight scenes are nothing new, but Johnson makes up for this by bringing the characters to the forefront, and allowing them some room to breathe. He gives Mendes a nice Linda Hamilton moment, and Cage does his best Tom Joad material at the end, and you go through the motions and you can laugh it off, but you can't hold it against them, it is just a comic book adaptation after all. I mean, what should I do? Should I complain about the dialogue being corny? Of course the dialogue is corny here, but Sam Raimi has worked with Oscar winners and Pulitzer Prize recipients throughout the Spider-Man trilogy, and he hasn't done much better either. Ghost Rider is a film of modest ambitions, and because of that, it's not a complete failure. Did I enjoy it? Not necessarily. Did I hate it? No, certainly not. Am I going to lose sleep because I regret spending two hours of my life on it? Not at all. Sue me.