Saturday, February 17, 2007

Ghost Rider

When my best friend and I went to the theatre today, we had to stand in line for the first time in ages. The usher called for anyone wanting to see Bridge to Terabithia. No one moved. He called for anyone who wanted to see Hannibal Rising. No one moved. It was clear that everyone in line was there to see Ghost Rider.

Of course, I suppose it should have been obvious that in a small Southern county where tractor pulls and demolition derbies are popular that a movie about a motorcyclist with supernatural abilities would be a big hit. As to whether the movie was actually good, that is a different matter. While I am sure that Ghost Rider probably won't appeal to individuals in certain quarters, what I can say is that it is one fun ride.

Ghost Rider is based on the comic book character of the same name. In the comics, stunt cyclist Johnny Blaze sold his soul so that his mentor might be cured of cancer. Ultimately, because of this, Blaze transforms into the Ghost Rider at nightfall, a figure in a leather jacket with a flaming skull who rode a supernatural, flaming motorcycle. The movie does make some alterations to the Ghost Rider's origin story, which might offend some purists, although I feel that the filmmakers actually improved upon it in doing so. Despite the changes, however, Ghost Rider is for the most part loyal to the comic book, to the point that the Silver Age Ghost Rider (Carter Slade, a Western character who first appeared in February 1967) is even included in the film.

Ghost Rider has all the ingredients of a good popcorn movie. It moves at a fairly good pace and has plenty of action. The film features some good fight scenes, such as those in which the Ghost Rider must battle demons with various elemental powers (powers over earth, air, and water). The climax in which the Ghost Rider faces off with archvillain Blackheart is perhaps one of the better such fight scenes in a comic book movie, even taking some unexpected turns. The movie also has some superb special effects. Most importantly, the Ghost Rider looks convincing, with his flaming skull and fiery motorcycle. And there are some pretty impressive, FX driven scenes, such as one in which the Ghost Rider races up a skyscraper on his bike.

Ghost Rider also benefits from nearly perfect casting. Nicholas Cage, a comic book fan himself, was a good choice for Johnny Blaze. He gives the role a bit of quirkiness while still remaining convincing as a man under a curse. Peter Fonda is perfect as Mephistopheles, whose casting in the role is also a bit of an in joke (for those with poor memories, Fonda played Wyatt in Easy Rider, the motorcycle movie. Sam Elliott, veteran of many a Western, is perfectly cast as the Caretaker, who knows a bit too much about the Ghost Rider legend for his own good. For me the only casting which rang a bit false was that of Eva Mendes as Roxanne Simpson. Aside from not thinking she looks much like the Roxanne Simpson of the comic books (indeed, I've never thought Eva Mendes was particularly pretty), there are times when she simply doesn't seem convincing enough in the role.

Of course, Ghost Rider is hardly a perfect film. Some of the dialogue can be pretty goofy at times. And the romance between Johnny Blaze and Roxanne Simpson doesn't really add too much to the movie for me (here I guess it must be kept in mind that I didn't find Mendes's performance particularly good, which might affect my opinion of the romantic subplot). And at times writer/director Mark Steven Johnson's script plays a bit too much by the book, with a few cliches that were old in comic books and movies during the Golden Age of both media.

Regardless, I don't think these flaws will keep many people from enjoying the movie. It is clear that Ghost Rider is not meant to be a thought provoking, intellectual film, but simply a good, old fashioned, fun action movie with a supernatural premise. That it is executed with some good action scenes, fairly solid special effects, and plenty of tongue in cheek humour makes it all the more enjoyable.

Friday, February 16, 2007

King's Row

I am guessing that most of you reading this have not heard of Fulton, Missouri. For a city its size, however, Fulton does have a few claims to fame. People from Missouri know it as the location of the Fulton State Hospital, which was the first mental institution west of the Mississippi. Sports fans may know it as the home of Olympic champion Helen Stephens, AKA "the Fulton Flash," who won the women's 100 metre final at the 1936 Olympics. Even more people might know it as the city in which Winston Churchill made his famous "Iron Curtain" speech at Westminister College. Besides that speech, however, Fulton's most famous claim to fame may be as the city that served as the basis for the fictional town of King's Row in the novel of the same name by Henry Bellamann and the 1942 movie based on the novel (upon which a short lived 1955 TV series was also based.

Author Henry Bellamann was born and raised in Fulton. He started out as a music teacher, and eventually became a teacher at Julliard and Vassar. He published several volumes of poetry before writing his first novel, Petenera's Daughter, about the Amish in Missouri. King's Row was his fifth novel and would also be his most famous. And in his hometown of Fulton it would also become his most notorious. Many natives of Fulton at the time thought that many of the characters were based on actual people in the town and many of the incidents in the novel based on actual events that happened in Fulton. To say that they weren't happy would be a bit of an understatement.

As it is, they may have had reason to be a bit unhappy with Bellamann for King's Row. While I am not privy to the various individuals and events from Fulton's history that may have served as a basis for much of the novel, I am aware of resemblances between the fictional town of King's Row and the real life city of Fulton that are more than superficial. Indeed, even the town's name, "King's Row," seems to be drawn from Fulton's history. Fulton is the county seat of and largest city in Callaway County, often referred to as the "Kingdom of Callaway." The county received its nickname from an incident which took place during the American Civil War. In 1861 Union troops were nearing Callaway County. Colonel Jefferson F. Jones then assembled troops to defend the county and pulled off one enormous bluff. He had tree logs erected to resemble artillery and thus deterred the Union troops. It is unclear whether the citizens themselves called their county "the Kingdom of Callaway" after this incident or if the Union Army gave it this name, but either way the name stuck. It then seems to me more than coincidental that a native of Fulton, the county seat of the Kingdom of Callaway, would write a novel about a town called "King's Row."

The resemblances don't stop there. Anyone familiar with the layout of Fulton and the layout of King's Row will notice that they are virtually the same. There are even streets in King's Row with the same name as streets in Fulton! More importantly, it must be noted that there is a mental hospital in King's Row, which plays an important part in both the novel and the 1942 movie based on the novel. And as I noted above, Fulton is the location of the Fulton State Hospital, the state mental hospital in Missouri.

The book King's Row would go out of print in the Sixties, although it would eventually see print again (in the Eighties, I believe) and has been in print ever since. Of course, the 1942 movie based on the book is probably even more famous than the book. Much of the material in the book didn't make it into the movie because of the Hays Office (such as one plot involving a closeted homosexual), but the film still captures much of the book's impact. The movie starred Robert Cummings (a native Missourian, although he was from Joplin in south Missouri rather than Fulton in mid-Missouri) and Ronald Reagan as Drake McHugh. The role would give Reagan would have his most famous line. After his amputation, he asks, "Where's the rest of me...?" Although the novel initially caused a bit of a furore in Fulton, the town has since taken the novel and the movie to heart. To wit, the suit Reagan wore in the film is now on display at the Kingdom of Callaway Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Centre.

At any rate, Fulton is a place any fan of the book or the movie King's Row must see. For that matter, it is simply a nice place for anyone to visit. Among its attractions are Winston Churchill Memorial and Library (on the campus of Westminster College), Crane's Museum (complete with a re-created White Eagle gas station), the Auto World Museum, and the Helen Stephens Olympic Display (at the sports complex at the college), among other things. Whether it is actually King's Row or not, Fulton is a very special place.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Lost is Found Again?

I have to admit it, earlier this season when the first new episodes aired. I worried that Lost may well have been one of those great shows that turned bad. The biggest problem for me was that the bulk of those episodes focused exclusively on Jack, Kate, Sawyer, and the Others, with very little seen of the many other castaways. Worse yet, the episodes just seemed drab to me. I can still remember the flashback involving Sawyer, which revealed that he had been in prison and that he had a daughter. For me the episode did little to increase my understanding of Sawyer and little to give more depth to his character (a character who is already pretty well developed, in my opinion). My ultimate reaction was, "So what?"

Worse yet, the producers seemed to be making some serious missteps with regards to Lost. Now I understand that Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje wanted to leave the series for other projects, necessitating the death of Eko. And I can accept that. But I did not like the idea of one of my favourite characters arbitrarily being killed off by the Big, Black Smoke Thing. Personally, as popular and well loved as Eko was, I at least thought that he deserved a hero's death. Since he had to die, why couldn't it have been in an attempt to rescue Jack, Sawyer, and Kate? Or perhaps he could have sacrificed himself to save other castaways from the Big, Black Smoke Thing? Eko's death still leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

As bad as the death of Eko was the introduction of two new characters, Nikki and Paulo (played by Kiele Sanchez and Rodrigo Santoro respectively). Part of my problem with the two characters is that they just seemed to have appeared from nowhere. Granted, I realise that there are other survivors from Oceanic Flight 815 than the main characters, but how did these two go two whole seasons without so much as one line in an episode? Am I to believe these two simply remained in the background for two whole seasons only to one day decide to get involved in things and start taking part and even making suggestions to Locke and Sayid? I suppose that the producers can be forgiven for awkwardly introducing two characters--after two seasons I suppose they were bound to make that mistake one day. What I can't forgive is that neither Nikki nor Paulo seem the least bit interesting to me. To me the two characters are simply dull. Now it is true that Nikki and Paulo have not had much screen time. And perhaps after their flashback episode later in the season I will feel differently. but for now I can't help but wish that the two of them would be written off the show as soon as possible. Apparently I am not alone in this. From just surfing the web, it seems a majority of Lost dislike Nikki and Paulo.

At any rate, it did seem to me that the producers of Lost had, well, lost their way. Fortunately, with the return of Lost, this appears to have changed. Last week's episode, in which we learn about the past of Juliet of the Others, I thought was fairly good. The episode even had a bit of action, something which had been sorely missing so far this season. As to last night's episode, it centred on one of my favourite characters, Desmond. Furthermore, the episode was a welcome change of pace from the typical Lost episode (I would say more, but I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't seen it yet). The preview for next week's episode also looks interesting.

Of course, I know that there are those who want answers to many of the questions posed by the series. Who exactly are the Others and what are their connection to the mysterious Hanso Foundation? Why are the lives of so many of the castaways connected before they reached the island? I can understand why many fans want answers to these questions, and I must admit I want them to, but I have faith that they will answer them in time. The fact is, I would rather the producers take their time in answering all of these questions rather than to answer all of them at once, leaving us with nothing interesting to watch on the show for the next two or three seasons.

At any rate, I have liked the first two episodes of Lost since its return. And while I must admit that two episodes may be too few to determine whether the show is once more going to be as good as once was, I must also admit that J. J. Abrams and his gang do have a good track record when it comes to this show. Prior to the third season, there were very few episodes of Lost I disliked and I can't say that they made any serious missteps. I do hope I am right and that Lost is back on track.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Ian Richardson R.I.P.

Ian Richardson, the British actor of stage, screen, and television, died February 9 at the age of 73. He was perhaps best known for playing Machiavellian politician Francis Urquhart in the British TV series House of Cards and its sequels.

He was born on April 7, 1934 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He attended the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. He worked with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and was a founding member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960. His first appearance on television was in a production of As You Like It in 1963. His first appearance on film was in Marat/Sade, a part he had originated with the Royal Shakespeare Company and on Broadway in 1965.

Richardson may best be known to American audiences from his work on television. Besides House of Cards and its sequels (To Play the King and The Final Cut), Richardson also played Sherlock Holmes in adaptations of The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Sign of Four. He also appeared in television productions of Tinker, Tailior, Soldier, Spy, The Master of Ballantrae, The Canterville Ghost, the mini-series Gormenghast, and the TV series Bleak House. He was also the distinguished, older gentleman in the American commercials for Grey Poupon mustard.

Richardson also appeared in many films. He played Mr. Warren in Brazil, Ambassador Toulon in M Butterfly, Polonius in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and Mr. Book in Dark City.