Hope you fine folks out there like Nicolas Cage or the Holocaust, because that’s what you’re going to get this week at the movies. Yep, the two big releases of the week are the Oscar-nominated In Darkness and the guaranteed never-to-be-nominated (except possibly for a Teen Choice Award) Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance. They’re both good flicks, but obviously in wildly different ways.
Or if you feel like watching one of the worst movies of 2012, go ahead and check out McG’s latest mess, This Means War. It’s guaranteed to disappoint both spy movie fans and rom-com lovers. So, if you’re planning on having a late Valentine’s date, you’re looking at either Cage or the Holocaust this weekend, folks. A bit of a Sophie’s Choice? Sure, but nobody ever said dating was easy.
The Good: In Darkness
As long as the Academy Awards exist, there will be at least one film about the Holocaust listed amongst the nominees every year. This is one of the laws of La-La-land and thankfully this year’s requisite Holocaust entry is actually a rather wonderful film. In Darkness tells one of the rare Holocaust stories that hasn’t been told before. It’s the tale of Leopold Socha, a Polish thief who used the dank sewers of Lvov as a place to pull off his crimes and stash his goods.
Or at least, that’s what he did until the liquidation kicked off in Lvov; then he reluctantly agreed to hide a few Jewish families in his stinky underground lair, for a fee of course. Inevitably Socha has to lie to Nazis and risk his life, but eventually he starts to care for his hidden countryman and keeps their secret out of kindness and compassion rather than greed and commerce.
The story probably sounds a bit familiar, but In Darkness isn’t your garden variety Holocaust weepy. Director Agnieszka Holland (who already has a few award-winning Holocaust titles under her belt in Angry Harvest and Europa, Europa) and screenwriter David F. Shamoon never needlessly sentimentalize their characters. They all have their own selfish agendas and clash heads early on, eventually forging uneasy alliances amidst seemingly insurmountable tragedies.
It’s a welcome shift from the often simplistic and sentimental tales of victimization that define most Hollywood Holocaust movies. Holland also takes full advantage of her dark and claustrophobic sewer setting, creating terrifyingly tense scenes lit only by flashlights that will sear their way into your brain.
Now, obviously, In Darkness isn’t going to be a fun date movie nor do I want to make it sound like it’s completely unlike any other film made about the subject. However, considering how worn out this territory is, something about what Holland and her team accomplished feels just different enough to offer a new spin on a sad tale. Like Schindler’s List, the focus on a small group of survivors might give the film an uplifting ending that feels slightly inappropriate in light of the overall tone of the terrible tragedy, but that’s entirely forgivable. You can only make audiences feel so miserable for two and a half hours. A torchlight in the darkness is a necessity.
It’s unlikely that In Darkness will beat out the fantastic Iranian film A Separation next weekend in the Best Foreign Film category, but given the Academy’s love for Holocaust tales, it’s certainly not impossible.
The Bad: This Means War
“Okay, so there are these like two super sexy spy dudes, right? One is a ladies man and the other one just separated from his wife, so he’s sensitive, but looking for a little action. Then there’s this girl who just can’t find the right man, but she’s got one of those casual alcoholic married mom buddies desperate to get her dating again to live vicariously through her sex life. So, the girl ends up on an Internet dating site and totally starts dating both of the spies at once! It’s crazy, right? Well guess what? They totally find out and start getting competitive about her and using their secret spy gadgets and stuff. Oh, and there’s a bad guy too, so there will be some explosions.”
Somehow someone actually told that pitch to a studio executive in Hollywood and sadly it was purchased. Then everyone’s favorite sub-Michael Bay critical punching bag director McG (Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and Terminator Salvation) got involved and now we the public have to suffer through this action rom-com garbage. Just in time for Valentine's Day as well. Expect more than a few weekend dates to be ruined.
This is one of those movies where the idiotic premise kind of takes care of the review. You know it’s going to be stupid after hearing that outline, yet somehow McG finds a way to make the movie even worse than you’d imagine. The guy over-stylizes everything. Even scenes with characters walking between locations feature complex tracking shots, candy-colored lighting schemes, ridiculously expensive costumes, and a cast of background actors who look like they were plucked from a GAP commercial.
There isn’t a frame in the film that feels remotely authentic. It all takes place in McGland, a magical place where first dates inexplicably include acrobatic interludes at the circus and bachelor pads feature swimming pool ceilings filled with bikini babes. In theory, it’s a fun place to hang out and I’m sure it would be in two- or three-minute interludes. But in a feature length film, it gets very grating very quickly.
Any sense of charm or fun in this movie comes directly out of the stars. Chris Pine and Tom Hardy are charming and entertaining spies (although Hardy is far better than this sort of smiley-faced movie star role — he should be playing complex characters like the character actor he is), while Reese Witherspoon does the befuddled beauty thing well. However, good movie star acting only gets you so far and the talented trio certainly isn’t enough to overcome all the poorly staged action scenes, boring rom-com slapstick, a stock villain defined entirely by a European accent, and a particularly irritating sassy lady performance from Chelsea Handler.
Put it all together and you’ve got a massive waste of time and millions of dollars. Even if you love rom-coms and spy movies so much that you feel like This Means War was made for you, do not even consider watching it. Nothing will remove the painful memories from your brain, no matter how hard you try.
The Ridiculous Cage: Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance
2007’s Ghost Rider always felt like a bit of a wasted opportunity. The flaming skull biker was always at least an aesthetically compelling character that didn’t have much in the way of mythology or recognizable villains to be tied to. It’s a franchise that really offered filmmakers a chance to make it their own and with the lovably absurd Nicolas Cage cast in the lead role, the opportunity was there for a ludicrous tongue-in-cheek comic book flavored insanity.
Unfortunately that movie was just forgettable fluff, but it did well enough for a sequel to be launched and this time the producers hired the perfect goofy filmmakers in the Crank team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor. It seemed like all the pieces were in place for the Ghost Rider movie fans wanted the first time and they get it in bits and pieces. Overall, Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance is a fairly average superhero romp, but it’s definitely a massive improvement on the original with moments of Nic Cage insanity and Neveldine/Taylor’s bad taste madness peppered throughout.
The plot is a big ol' waste of time involving an innocent child spawn of Satan whom Cage has to protect, French mercenaries, suspicious monks, and well-dressed demons on a mission. It’s hard to follow and fairly inert. Had this movie been handled by a Hollywood hack, it would be even worse than the original Ghost Rider. But fortunately there are enough instances where Neveldine and Taylor add in fire-pissing gags, hard-rock pumping action, stupidly dangerous stunts, and allow Nic Cage to go as far over the top as he can to make it an entertaining romp.
This ain’t The Dark Knight, but it’s probably about on par with Guillermo Del Toro’s Blade 2. That was another instance in which a perfect director was brought in for hire, ensuring that the tone and style of the movie were right on the money, even if the filmmakers weren’t allowed the total control necessary to crank out a classic. In the end, I guess it’s appropriate for B-level Marvel Comics characters to get B-level movies.
I just can’t shake the feeling that this movie could have been a bad taste classic to rank alongside the Crank movies had Neveldine and Taylor gotten to write the script themselves. It’s still worth checking out for blockbuster jollies; it just ain’t what it could or should have been.