Friday, February 23, 2007

Ghost Rider

Year: 2007
Director: Mark Steven Johnson
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Wes Bentley, Sam Elliott, Donal Logue, Peter Fonda

Every year there is a healthy supply of comicbook adaptations to hit the silver screen. I count four such films for this year, and this is the first one to arrive. In recent years, there have been eight Marvel comicbook characters adapted for celluloid. Spider-Man, X-Men and Blade were successful franchises. Elektra, Daredevil and Hulk were failures, while Fantastic Four and The Punisher fall in between. So where does Ghost Rider end up?

Ghost Rider tells the story of motorcycle stunt rider Johnny Blaze, who makes a deal with Mephistopheles, the devil himself, to save his dying father. However, Johnny gets screwed when Mephisto kills his father, right after curing his lung cancer. Now Johnny is bound by the devil to serve his bidding when he is called upon. With that burden on him, Johnny leaves his past and his beloved girlfriend Roxanne behind.

Many years later, Johnny successfully becomes a world famous stunt rider. This is the time when Mephisto calls upon him to honor his agreement and become his bounty hunter. It turns out that Mephisto's power hungry son, Blackheart has arrived on earth to claim the souls from an old agreement Mephisto failed to take. And now, Mephisto wants Johnny to stop him. Despite his objection, Johnny is forced to become the Ghost Rider and do exactly that, which makes things even more complicated when Roxanne walks back into his life and tries to reconcile with him. The only person that can help him is a mysterious man called The Caretaker, who seems to know a lot about the bounty hunters created by the devil to do his bidding.

As far as comicbook films go, this one isn't quite bad. It's by no means great, but somewhat passable. Cage is a fine actor, and he is a fan of the book, so he does nicely enough as Johnny Blaze. Mendes is forgettable as the love interest, she can't quite pass off as a reporter, but she does look gorgeous. Bentley gets the worst lines in the film as Blackheart, and his acting suffers because of that. Elliott is memorable as The Caretaker while Fonda is creepy as Mephisto, though I have to admit, in some scenes he's unintentionally funny, which is most unfortunate.

The special effects are mostly impressive, but I can't get past the rather robotic movements of the Ghost Rider himself, the very convincing flaming skull notwithstanding. When you first see Johnny transform into GR, it is quite impressive though. The hell cycle and all the stunt work and the action sequences involving the bike are alone worth the admission price. However, Mark Steven Johnson, who also directed Daredevil, should have polished up on the dialogue a little more. Some of the lines uttered by Cage, especially at the end, are quite laughable. A little more time spent on storytelling and character development won't hurt either. And Blackheart's goons? They're quite similar to the villains in Elektra, very cartoonish and easy to kill. Hmph.

So to answer the question at the end of the first paragraph above, I'd say Ghost Rider is in between, but just a little better than Elektra, which isn't great. Cheesy but quite fun, indeed. You can chew on this while waiting for Spider-Man to swing back into cinemas for the third time in May. (2.5/5)

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Blood Diamond

Year: 2006
Director: Edward Zwick
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou, Jennifer Connelly

I had wanted to watch this film ever since I heard of it. I felt that its subject matter, along with the casting and the director, would make it a worthwhile experience. And indeed it was.

Blood Diamond is set in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, during the chaotic and violent civil war taking place there. The title refers to diamonds being mined by people captured by the rebels, which are consequently used to fund the war against the government. In this story, a Mende fisherman, Solomon Vandy, leads a poor but contented life with his family, until the rebels attack his village. His family manage to escape, but Solomon is captured and forced to work in the diamond mines.

One day, he finds a big diamond, and as luck would have it, manages to hide it as the government forces storm the rebel troops. Word of the diamond gets out while he is in the lock-up, and heard by Zimbabwean diamond smuggler Danny Archer, who happened to be in there at the same time. Archer realises that this diamond may be his opportunity to buy his way out of Africa and put an end to being a smuggler for good. So he uses his connections to pull some strings and gets close to Solomon. Archer persuades Solomon to lead him to the diamond in exchange for helping him find his family. This is made harder however, when they find out that Solomon's family have become refugees, and his son has been captured by the rebels and brainwashed to join them as a soldier.

Meanwhile, an American journalist named Maddy Bowen runs into Archer, and tries to persuade him to reveal the secrets of the illegal diamond trade for her to publish to the world. Archer is reluctant, but gives in when he realises she can help him get to places he can't. He still wants the diamond for himself however, but will Archer do the right thing when they finally reach the diamond? Will he help Solomon get his son back? Time slowly runs out as Archer's superior, Colonel Coetzee closes in on them...

Many critics have praised DiCaprio's performance here, and I can't agree more. He puts in an intense and truly memorable performance as the diamond smuggler who eventually remembers why he has to do the right thing. DiCaprio also sports a convincing African accent for this role, probably even better than Nicole Kidman's accent in The Interpreter. Hounsou is also believable as Solomon, the father determined to do whatever it takes to save his son. Connelly is merely a supporting actor here to the two men, but she makes very good use of her screen time with a sterling portrayal of the journalist determined to get her story out.

Director Edward Zwick, who helmed the memorable The Last Samurai, spares no effort in depicting the horrors of the civil war in Africa. The intensity of violence, chaos and war look very real indeed. This is Africa at its worst, and you will feel for all the people who perish and suffer thanks to the war. Kudos to Zwick for his excellent direction.

Apparently this film has made several diamond trading companies around the world to release statements on the legal origin of their stones, so perhaps the message delivered by the film has come across successfully. On a lighter note, both DiCaprio and Hounsou have been nominated for acting Oscars. Based on the competition they will be facing, their chances of winning may be slim though. I would personally like DiCaprio to win, he's been long overdue for an award. Watch this if you enjoy excellent dramatic performances. You won't be disappointed. (4/5)

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Fantastic Four

Year: 2005
Director: Tim Story
Cast: Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis, Julian McMahon

Comicbook heroes the Fantastic Four have been dubbed as Marvel's first family by fans worldwide. Created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, it tells the story of four astronauts: the brilliant Reed Richards, his girlfriend Sue Storm, her brother Johnny Storm, and their friend Ben Grimm, who gain extraordinary powers after being exposed to cosmic radiation in space. They decide to use their abilities to protect the world from evil, and more often than not, they cross swords with their arch-nemesis Dr Doom, who has been Reed's rival for a very long time.

This film adaptation stays true to the comicbook in almost every aspect, save for the origin of Dr Doom and a few other things. The story begins with Reed and Ben asking Doom for assistance in going to outer space to observe a cosmic storm. Doom has the equipment and financial resources to do so, whilst Reed is broke, hence the request from the latter. So Doom ropes in Sue and Johnny for the mission and all five go up as planned. However, a miscalculation on Reed's part causes them to be bombarded by the cosmic storm and as a result, their DNA goes through massive changes.

Reed acquires the ability to stretch his body like a rubberband. Sue can turn invisible and create force fields. Johnny can generate flames all over his body and fly. Ben on the other hand turns permanently into a rock covered being with massive strength. When the four successfully stop a catastrophe on top a bridge, they immediately become media sensations. Despite Reed & Sue's attempts to hide their identities, Johnny embraces his newfound glory and basks in it, much to the chagrin of Ben, who only wants to return to normal. However, little do they realise that there is a bigger problem at hand. Doom was also transformed by the incident, and after losing his financial support from the bank, he uses his new powers to take his anger out on the four....

Tim Story successfully directs a film that everyone can enjoy, whether they're a fan of the comicbook or not. He balances the humour and drama of the story perfectly. You will enjoy the hilarious scenes involving Johnny and Ben as much as you'll feel for Ben as he tries to get used to being who he is. Check out the scene where he tries to pick up the engagement ring left behind by his fiancee, but he can't because his fingers are too big.

Chiklis, Evans and Gruffudd play Ben, Johnny and Reed respectably, just the way their comicbook counterparts have been portrayed in the books. Alba also does fine as Sue, but I still feel she is way too good looking for the part. McMahon portrays Dr Doom as arrogant and vain, which isn't quite like the comicbook version. Doom in the books has more than just arrogance, he has stubbornness and a overwhelming feeling of superiority over Reed, which is missing in this film. As for the special effects, they are astounding, especially for Sue and Johnny's powers. The action sequences are also well executed.

All in all, it's a well-balanced fantasy adventure film for the avid movie watcher. (4/5)

Sunday, February 18, 2007


Year: 2006
Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael Garcia Bernal, Koji Yakusho, Adriana Barraza, Rinko Kikuchi, Boubker Ait El Caid, Said Tarchani, Mohamed Akhzam

Once in a while, a unique film comes across your path that pretty much changes all the rules (or most of them) and leaves you with something different that you rarely get from other films. Babel is one such film.

Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who gave us the terrific 21 Grams, Babel features 4 stories taking place in 3 different countries across the globe, and presented in various languages. The stories are distinct from each other, but somewhat related.

In Morocco, a goatherd buys a rifle and hands it to his two sons, so that they can use it to protect the herd from jackals. The boys decide to test the rifle on a tour bus, and thanks to that, an American woman gets shot in the neck. Her husband, who is currently trying to reconcile with her after the death of one of their children, frantically attempts to get help, but is hampered by the language barrier and being in the middle of nowhere on the rough Moroccan plains. The couple's babysitter back home in the US, needs to attend her son's wedding in Mexico, but can't find a substitute to take care of their two children, so she brings them along. However, she faces trouble in taking them back home across the border after the wedding when border patrol mistakes her for an illegal immigrant. The original owner of the rifle, a businessman in Japan, faces hardship in communicating with his deaf-mute daughter, who in her fragile state of being lonely and misunderstood, resorts to desperate measures to get attention from the people around her.

Every story starts out normally, with a hint of disaster lurking, and then trouble begins and gets worse from there. The boys in Morocco try to hide the fact that they shot someone in an act of irresponsibility, then face dire consequences when their actions are discovered. The husband, trapped in a place where no one understands him, has to depend on the only Moroccan he can find that speaks English to help his wife, but the political impact from the incident hampers help from arriving. Amelia, the babysitter, succeeds in taking care of the children, until she gets to the border and all hell breaks loose and she ends up being lost in the middle of nowhere. Chieko, the deaf-mute girl uses every extreme tactic imaginable to get people to make contact with her, but it only sinks her even further down the line of dignity. All four are compelling tales that not only piques your interest, but makes you root for the characters as well.

As in 21 Grams, Inarritu distorts the timeline for the 4 stories while switching back and forth between them, and he keeps them related and yet distanced from each other enough for us to be able to follow them without getting confused. He and fellow writer Guillermo Arriaga once again come up with a story that leaves an impact on you and delivers a worthy message to the audience. The message in this case, is miscommunication, hence the title Babel. Babel refers to the tower of Babel, as in the Biblical story of how men built that tower to reach the heavens. It angered God who scattered the men across the earth and changed their way of speaking to each other in the same language.

What about the cast? Well, I can say that everyone, from the well known to the unknown, did splendidly. Pitt & Blanchett are phenomenal, as expected. Pitt plays the desperate husband so convincingly, you'll feel for him. Blanchett turns in an understated performance that still compells. She can do no wrong. Barraza plays Amelia well, as the babysitter who tries very hard to look after her charges even when the odds are stacked against her. Kikuchi, who isn't a deaf-mute in real life, conveys Chieko's pain realistically with her facial expressions. Her desperation is well-conveyed on screen. Boubker and Said, who play the two boys, also do not disappoint. These two, and the actors who play their family, look like the kind who don't usually act in movies, and yet they perform magnificently. As far as casting goes, this film is perfect. On a related note, Barraza & Kikuchi are both nominated for their roles in the Oscar category of supporting actress. Babel also received 5 other nominations for the Oscars this year for Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Editing and Score.

To be perfectly fair and frank, this isn't the kind of film you'll want to see over and over, due to its length (142 mins) and subject matter. But it will give you something different you won't expect from those summer blockbusters. Even if it doesn't win Best Picture, it certainly has made a considerable impact on viewers. It did for me. (4.5/5)


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