Friday, February 24, 2012

BROMANCE, ROMANCE, SHROMANCE: “This Means War” A Surprising Action Rom Com Flick

Men…go see the rom com This Means War.

You read that correctly, I said "men".

At the moment, I am hard pressed to remember a film that blends romantic comedy and action with such balance and panache; it is as much a “guy film” as it is a “chick flick”.

The premise is the standard romantic triangle: two buddies “FDR” (Chris Pine, Star Trek, Smokin’ Aces) and “Tuck” (Tom Hardy, Star Trek: Nemesis, Inception, Warriors, the forthcoming The Dark Knight Rises) vying for the affections of the same girl (Reese Witherspoon). The twist here is that they happen to be crack field agents in the CIA.

Chris Pine transplants his "Captain Kirk" persona into modern day Earth with the character of “FDR Foster” (with a couple of tongue in cheek references to the iconic character Pine has inherited, including his penchant for “intergalactic relations”). He imbues in his character a confluence of rakish charm of both Kirk and Harrison Ford’s “Han Solo” yet Pine plays it with a bit of guardedness. Hardy’s "Tuck" is the more “sensitive” of the two, but has enough macho swagger to balance it out. And one particular scene he makes a throwaway line given to Pine at the beginning of the climax especially poignant. He is a very talented actor, and it is surprising that someone who could play the sociopath Charles Bronson can juggle a role such as this. In their interactions Pine and Hardy have a wonderful chemistry together. It is easy to believe that these two have been practically brothers when you first meet them on screen. The comedy comes mostly from their knack of comedic timing coupled with their game of macho gamesmanship.  Their affability offsets the inherent discomfort one would get if one were to sit back and ruminate on the tactics they use to sabotage the other and insinuate themselves in their objective’s graces (misuse of government funds and equipment is an understatement here).

As the object of their mutual desire, this film is an interesting choice for Witherspoon. She may have top billing but her story takes a back seat to that of her co-stars. Yet she makes the most of what she has and holds her own. She defaults back to the plucky persona she’s managed to cultivate throughout her career but refreshingly absent this time is the smug self-awareness that tinged it. She is delightfully lacking in self-consciousness and gives the most natural performance she has in quite a while. Her “Lauren Scott” is competent, self-assured, and slightly neurotic, but none of these are played as stereotype. Complementing her performance is Chelsea Handler. While she is not a revelation as Tom Arnold was in “True Lies” so many years ago, her character is surprisingly nuanced. Her trademark delivery is in evidence but her persona is sublimated to suit the performance, which is marked with a surprising down to earth sensitivity. Rosemary Harris has little more than a cameo in her role as Nana Foster, but she brings a lot more spunk than she did to “Aunt May” in the Spider-Man films. It is easy to see where FDR got that aspect of his personality from.  

Sadly, the resolution the love triangle is practically telegraphed in the beginning of the film. If you’ve seen the original Star Wars trilogy then you will know how things will end up. In this case, however, the fun really is in the journey not the destination.

As a director, McG has been blasted for being all flash and having very little, if any, substance. However, with each subsequent outing, his films, while entertaining on the surface, begin to carry with them a little more emotional heft. One important theme in his films (and yes, this includes the “Charlie’s Angels” franchise) is the importance of familial relationships. This film showcases the importance not only of a fulfilling romantic relationship but that of the filial bond as well. As aforementioned, the “bromance” plot line overshadows the romantic one. In showing the agents as adversaries, the audience is treated to exactly why they need each other. They complement each other in a way only real companions can. Yet he also demonstrates why these men would go after the same girl and why she would be torn between the two. Quite possibly, despite the farcical ludicrousness of the proceedings, this may be McG’s most adult/mature film to date.

His pacing of the film is mostly balanced. The quiet moments are almost as gripping as the comedic ones, which come fast and furious and are genuinely funny. Where McG drops the proverbial ball is with his treatment of Til Schweiger as “Heinrich”, the film’s ostensible antagonist in the sense that his scheme of revenge is less than a “C” plot. The audience never feels any sense of jeopardy because his character is hardly present; he is more conspicuous by his absence. By the time he makes his move against the warring agents, it feels like almost a tacked on, deux-ex-machina afterthought. Also egregious having an actress of the caliber of Angela Bassett and give her what amounts to maybe two minutes of screen time as a Starskey and Hutch desk supervisor stereotype; an expositional plot device and little else. It seems as if the only direction he gave her was “do what you did in Green Lantern, but angrier.” The film could have arguably moved along fine without her, which is more indictment of the script than the talents of the pigeonholed Bassett.

This Means War is an almost perfect balance of what Hollywood looks for in its films: a film that will satisfy both genders. As of this writing it is lost in the shuffle of other, bigger budgeted and hyped films and that is to its detriment. Despite its minor flaws, it is a wonderfully executed film that is sure to please both genders and delivers on laughs and action.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

BLAZE OF NOT-SO GLORY: While flawed, “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” Is Superior To Its Predecessor

When plans were announced to make the Marvel Comics character “Ghost Rider” (created by Gary Freidrich, Mike Ploog and Roy Thomas) into a film, I was skeptical.  When Nicholas Cage was announced to play Johnny Blaze, I became even more so. When the film was finally released in 2007, my skepticism was well justified. What should have been, in hyperbolic parlance, a “balls to the wall”, “in your face”, fire and brimstone actioner, was instead a Disneyesque, watered down version of the story of Blaze, who enters a deal with Mephistopheles to exchange his soul for the life of Blaze’s father. While it made decent box office, it was poorly received by critics.

“Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance”, directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, is an anomaly in cinema in that it is a stealth-reboot: It stands alone without referencing its predecessor while retaining Cage in the title role. Even if it were a sequel, it would have been that other rarity: the sequel that is superior to the original.

The Ghost Rider is called upon by a warrior named Moreay (Idris Elba, perhaps the most entertaining performance in the entire film) to protect the Gypsy Nadya (Violenta Placido) and her pre-adolescent son Danny (Fergus Riordan) from his father, the Devil himself, Roarke (the character, played by Ciaran Hinds, takes the place of Peter Fonda’s Mephistopheles in this new continuity). “Spirit of Vengeance” succeeds by taking what could have been another entry into the tired “Anti-Christ” genre and making it entertaining by refusing to take itself seriously. Given that tone, one can see why Cage was kept. His bizarre shtick of quirky pauses and ticks, usually a liability in other roles, are perfectly at home in an environment in which the world is through a lens of “Dante’s Inferno” meeting “The Looney Tunes”. It’s a cartoon film come to life, with ham fisted acting (Hinds) juxtaposed against pathos (Placido, Cage in quieter moments). The films also has some pleasant tongue in cheek additions to the cast, like Anthony (Stewart) Head as part of a secret organization called to “watch” over the boy, or Christopher Lambert as a zealot priest priest who is part of an ancient order that resides on holy ground, bringing to bear a curved blade (a scimitar in this case) to behead someone. Johnny Whitworth also brings some menace to his role of Ray Carrigan, who also makes an unfortunate deal with Roarke. The action sequences are, like the film itself, over the top. However it also has that rarity in film, a balance between the heavy and the light. When the film threatens to take itself too seriously, a bit of often perverse levity is thrown in.  This time allowed to play the character in full, Cage brings a smart ass dimension to the character of Ghost Rider himself, his very stance a giant “F*** you” to those he is about to punish (a scene that had been shown in the teaser trailer is expounded on for a couple seconds more in the film, and it defines the character beautifully).  Interestingly, a couple of times writing this review I have written Johnny “Cage” instead of “Blaze”; not due to any love of Mortal Kombat but because I get the impression that Cage is essentially playing his quintessential cinematic self – the same type of character he played in the more experimental, quirky phase of his early career. In one sense, he seems to be sleepwalking through his role. On the other, this persona is exactly what the character needs. Cage is Blaze, and vice versa.

The direction was somewhat disjointed, as though two different films were made and mashed together into one piece. There are times, especially in the first half hour, where the shaky cam effect is overused to the point of dizziness; even in scenes wherein the characters are standing still. Further, a couple of moments go on a lot longer than they should (the sequence initially establishing Ghost Rider’s powers is especially egregious) while others are at least somewhat entertaining (Blaze’s transformation into the Rider mid-ride as an example). By the last third of the film, the direction becomes more tight and focused, leading to a very resounding, though made for TV movie or cable, climax.

“Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” is not going to make anyone forget the upcoming super-hero releases of 2012. However, it is a film that provides an entertaining hour and a half-plus and more than makes up for the deficiencies of the film that preceded it. The film may not blaze across the box office, but it will light your fire.

Saturday, February 18, 2012


The late Whitney Houston was afforded the dubious honor of having the American flag flown at half-mast for her funeral today.

There is no doubt that Whitney Houston was a singular talent. She could sing like nobody's business. Her voice was equal parts sweetness and sass, powerful yet melodic; an acoustical Olivier in terms of artistic delivery and nuance and the ease which she presented both. Her beauty was, for a time, exotic and almost incomparable; her poise and grace on stage belied her modest New Jersey upbringing. But for all her artistic achievements, for all her celebrity, Ms. Houston was one of us; a flawed human being.

What demons drove her to addiction to drugs, alcohol and by all accounts abusive marital relationship we, the public, may never know. But suffice it to say that this is a story that has been seen before in public bas relief: Judy Garland, Natalie Wood, James Dean, John Belushi, Elizabeth Taylor, Jim Morrison, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson...The true nature of her death is, as of this writing, unknown other than presumed drowning. Yet it is no secret that prescription drugs were found in her hotel room and with such sparse evidence, the collective court of the Internet has espoused its belief that drugs and/or alcohol were directly or indirectly involved.

It is a sad occasion for those lives across the globe her voice touch, but nowhere near the devastating despair that must be touching her immediate family and friends. That loss is immeasurable. We are left with the gift of her recordings and one last star turn in the forthcoming film "Sparkle".

As to why it is a "dubious honor"... are all these achievements and considerations worth having the flags at half-mast?

According to the requisite codes regarding flag etiquette, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was wrong to order flags across his state. Section 7(m) of the Flag Code states, in pertinent part:

By order of the President, the flag shall be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures of the United States Government and the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, as a mark of respect to their memory. In the event of the death of other officials or foreign dignitaries, the flag is to be displayed at half-staff according to Presidential instructions or orders, or in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law. In the event of the death of a present or former official of the government of any State, territory, or possession of the United States, or the death of a member of the Armed Forces from any State, territory, or possession who dies while serving on active duty, the Governor of that State, territory, or possession may proclaim that the National flag shall be flown at half-staff, and the same authority is provided to the Mayor of the District of Columbia with respect to present or former officials of the District of Columbia and members of the Armed Forces from the District of Columbia... The flag shall be flown at half-staff 30 days from the death of the President or a former President; 10 days from the day of death of the Vice President, the Chief Justice or a retired Chief Justice of the United States, or the Speaker of the House of Representatives; from the day of death until interment of an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, a Secretary of an executive or military department, a former Vice President, or the Governor of a State, territory, or possession; and on the day of death and the following day for a Member of Congress.

Nowhere are provisions made for celebrities, nor provisions for the Governor of any state to do so. Whitney Houston was neither a politician nor served in the armed forces. Similarly, Steve Jobs, another civilian, was accorded the same courtesy...also against the national flag code regulations. Whereas in the last ten plus years, thousands upon thousands of servicemen and women in our armed forces have died daily, without media coverage or a half-mast flag signifying their sacrifice. They are, at least in the collective popular mind, our modern unknown soldiers.

Yet, again, one cannot discount Jobs' contribution to our way of life with the technological revolutions he spearheaded, nor can we obviate Ms. Houston's artistic contributions to the pop culture landscape. Sure, she profited by those contributions but it can be argued that they did not give her complete solace of spirit. However, her music allowed people to forget their problems at least for a moment. Her voice had been heard in proms, weddings, dance clubs, movies...and at even just "one moment in time", her voice and by extension her "soul", touched the heart.

Whether Governor Christie's gesture was heartfelt or a political move is unknown but immaterial. Legally, it was wrong and to many a slap in the face in terms of what that gesture represents. But humanly, after a day of rumination, I've come to consider it a gesture acknowledging the fundamental human experience. She was a mythical Siren made flesh, but that god-like gift did not extend to her being. She struggled like the rest of us. It is an acknowledgement that even the seemingly best of us can fail. It is also an acknowledgement that her gift touched us, made us smile. Does it make it any less egregious? In our culture, where celebrity can be gotten with the release of an infamous sex video, absolutely not. But if we choose to "honor" those people then there are certainly other ways of doing it (such as the blue lighting of The Empire State Building upon the passing of "Old Blue Eyes" Frank Sinatra, as Americans an entertainment institution can be but still not accorded a half-mast flag).

Regular readers of my blog will recall my encounter with "John", a World War II veteran who regaled me on a Saturday morning with stories of his service and the personal sacrifices made in the line of duty and afterwards. In the coming years, he will pass on. His story closed, his sacrifices but to a select few, unremembered. It is highly doubtful that flags will be lowered to half-mast for him.

Yes, Whitney Houston's death is a tragedy.  Any loss of life, whether that of prince or pauper, is a diminishment.  But reserve the half-mast gesture for those who the provisions were made for; those multitudes that, sadly, have earned but will not receive that acknowledgement.