Mark it down: by year's end, we'll look back at Feb. 17-19 and realize it was one of the worst moviegoing weekends of the year. Though it was saved in the end by The Secret World of Arietty and another viewing of Drive on Blu-Ray (which, if you haven't seen, you need to), the two big studio releases of the weekend really brought the pain.
Let's begin with Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. I hated the first Ghost Rider. Can't think of anyone else who liked it. And though it made $115 million, that was all front-loaded, as toxic word of mouth quickly spread. So, it was with great surprise when I learned that Sony had greenlit a sequel. Then I heard that directors Neveldine/Taylor (the two idiot savants behind the Crank franchise) were behind the camera, and I grew slightly more interested. The Crank movies are batshit insane. They are fun bad movies. I just figured that if you took their gonzo, over-the-top sensibility and paired it with Nicolas Cage's equally gonzo performance, you'd get something memorably trashy. I was wrong.
There are flashes of talent on display in the sequel - an occasional action visual that manages to thrill the eyes. But those are few and far between. The story for Spirit of Vengeance (The Dark Knight's David S. Goyer is a credit screenwriter) is of the bargain basement superhero variety - some mumbo jumbo about the Ghost Rider having to protect the devil's illegitimate son from deadly daddy. It ends up being a lot more boring than a movie like this needs to be. Cage is reliably loopy, but he doesn't get to say too many memorable or funny things, and for much of the time, his head is replaced by a CGI skeleton. The character of Ghost Rider is probably the least interesting of all of Marvel's superheroes. There's just not much to him beyond the initial thrill of seeing his flaming head and motorcycle.
This is slightly better than the first Ghost Rider (that means nothing), but it's a horrible movie in its own right. When you can't even say the movie is so bad, it's good (which, let's face it, is all this movie had going for it), that counts as a failure. I saw this on Friday night and instantly deemed it the worst thing I'd seen so far this year.
Turns out, I spoke too soon. On Saturday, Julie and I went to see This Means War, the new romantic action comedy from Charlie's Angels director McG. Now, nobody goes to a McG film expecting high art, but the premise seemed likeable enough (True Lies lite?) and I'm a huge fan of both Chris Pine and Tom Hardy, so I had modest hopes. After all, with actors like Pine and Hardy (and even Reese Witherspoon), there should at least be a certain charm quotient that carries the film over any rough patches. Wrong again.
This Means War is an atrocity, an easy contender for this year's "worst of" list. The script is terrible - requiring its characters to behave in illogical, unbelievable ways at every turn. Hardy and Pine play fellow CIA agents, whose friendship is threatened when they both fall for the same girl (Witherspoon). The big comedic moments are supposed to come via the variety of CIA tricks employed by both guys to one-up each other and get the girl. This is like the guy version of Bride Wars, only (shudder) worse. None of it is clever. All of it is clunky. And the filmmakers seemed to have spent no time researching how the actual CIA works. The set looked like something out of Men in Black.
Chelsea Handler plays Witherspoon's annoyingly horny best friend, who constantly thinks and talks about sex. You've seen this role a thousand times before, and it doesn't help that it suits Handler to a tee. I'm most disappointed with Hardy and Pine though. Hardy is such a forceful actor, but here, he just plays it nice and puppy dog-ish. That is not how I want to see Hardy. Pine, on the other hand, seems to have turned the charming douche levels up to 11, instantly wearing out the charm and just coming across like a giant douchebag instead. When you can't even make Hardy and Pine likeable, something's amiss.
McG has some talent as an action director, but he doesn't show any of it here. This is a hack job through and through. The action (what little there is of it) is pathetic, the attempts to shoehorn an action subplot in are half-assed, and the story is beyond predictable. A lot of times with romantic comedies, it's not about the destination, it's about the ride. Well, both suck in This Means War. I think what "This" actually "Means" is the worst movie so far this year.
Thankfully, I saw the new Studio Ghibli movie, The Secret World of Arietty, on Sunday afternoon, and washed some of the unpleasantness away. Based on the popular children's book, The Borrowers, this is a lushly animated Japanese film, that works at a polished, languid pace. It doesn't throw images down your throat or move at a fast clip. At times, that slow pace can work against it, but it's so much more confident and relaxed than other CGI animated movies I've seen of late, that it's just a pleasure to sit through. I had the same feeling watching Winnie the Pooh last year. Simple, sweet, and calming. I'm not a Miyazaki or Studio Ghibli fan generally, but I enjoyed this one, and so did my 3.5 year-old son. The story is familiar, but rewarding. I'm glad Disney is releasing these movies in the States, and giving them a decent marketing push. More families should check them out.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (*)
This Means War (*)
The Secret World of Arietty (***1/2)