Tuesday, February 21, 2012

More flaming bucket-wheel excavators, please

Posted By on 02.21.12 at 09:06 AM

ghost-rider-spirit-of-vengeance.jpg
One of my favorite jokes in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is that the movie takes place in Romania without offering any compelling explanation as to why. If you’ve seen enough cheap American genre movies in the last several years (particularly the straight-to-DVD releases), the joke should register pretty quickly. Many of these productions have been shot in Romania for financial reasons, though the films usually try to disguise the country as someplace else—and the generally witless attempts only make them feel cheaper. But directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Crank, Gamer) tend to embrace the cheapest and most disreputable aspects of film production, regardless of whether they're making a big-studio action picture like this. Their location work is inventive and often hilariously inappropriate. When Nicolas Cage has a heart-to-heart with the movie’s obligatory preteen sidekick, he takes him to the nearest diner, a communal-style roadhouse where the waitress brings them a big plate of cabbage.

When Neveldine and Taylor are firing on all cylinders—which is about half the time in this Marvel comic adaptation—they make movies that look like no one else’s. Employing highly physical camerawork and crass, spoofy humor, they successfully translate the crude pleasures of skateboarding videos and homemade comics to a feature film structure. Needless to say, their movies aren’t for everyone. They can be grossly immature in their sexual politics and they show adolescent disregard for public taste when it comes to drug use and the destruction of property. But the enjoyment they derive from making movies is undeniable. One of their favorite setups is to run the camera into the action while simultaneously zooming: it gives the work a pop-eyed, cartoonish effect.

It also brings a handmade quality to the dumb action spectacle, a genre which tends to produce slick, impersonal films. Like the amateur “Sweders” of Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind, Neveldine and Taylor will try out any cheap device if they think it’ll make the movie more interesting. Spirit of Vengeance contains split-screens, animated sequences, and scenes of understated drama, all of them deployed more or less at random. The directors regularly encourage their actors to overact (a quality they share with the late noted amateur filmmaker George Kuchar, whose work is playing around town this week), repurposing everyone in the cast as a special effect. Cage, in his go-for-broke Bad Lieutenant mode, gives them plenty to work with, inventing a range of wild gestures to show Johnny Blaze’s demonic possession (it seems like Neveldine and Taylor would have preferred to depict his transformations without any digital effects), and Ciarán Hinds, playing the devil, has good fun trying to outweird him.

This marks the first time Neveldine and Taylor directed a script they didn’t write, and the superhero plot often hampers their imaginations. It seems as though every Marvel Studios production must spend the last half-hour on fight scenes and costly computer-generated effects, and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance bears the company brand in more ways than one. While the formula may be commercially successful, it makes for bad storytelling: it’s hard to care about characters once they become blips on an expensive synthetic canvas. These sequences also give a film’s director(s) little to do, since most of their creative work happens in postproduction.

Neveldine and Taylor produce one great absurd image with CGI: a demonically possessed bucket-wheel excavator that the Ghost Rider uses like a giant flaming chain saw. But the movie runs out of steam pretty much every time the effects take over—they inhibit the sort of messy, disrespectful energy that’s often these directors’ saving grace.

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