Sunday, July 01, 2007

Mini-Reviews: Ghost Rider on Blu-Ray and Blood Diamond on HD-DVD

After the disappointment of The Hitcher I was much happier with Ghost Rider - which came as a bit of a surprise given that the starting point for this movie is a comic book universally acknowledged to be one of the weakest in Marvel Comics' seemingly never-ending B-list canon of 'variations on a theme'. Nicolas Cage is also one of my least favourite actors, and the director, Mark Stephen Johnston doesn't exactly have a great previous track record, with critics everywhere panning his previous directorial debut, itself another Marvel comic book adaptation, Daredevil.

I had seen the trailer at a theatrical showing of Hot Fuzz, and like most in the cinema, been positively underwhelmed by it, to the extent that it was added to my list of 'films to avoid this Summer'. So the final movie comes as a pleasant surprise. It tells a story that's been told many times before, but as popcorn movies go it's well put together, well structured and written (no, really!) and features CGI work that doesn't keep drawing attention to itself in all the wrong ways.

This UK Blu-Ray version of the film is apparently more than 10 minutes longer than the theatrical cut, but still managed to keep me engrossed for pretty much all of its 2 hour running time, which is more than can be said for the much shorter The Hitcher. This is despite the extremely thin premise for the series which is based on Cage's 'Johnny Blaze' motorbike-riding character selling his soul to the devil to save his father from cancer and now having to pay the price by acting as his bounty hunter, tracking down those who've escaped from Hell.

Cage is much too old for the part that's been written, but apparently we have him to thank for keeping the script on track as he's an obsessive fan of the original comic book, and also for the inspired casting of Peter Fonda from Easy Rider as his evil boss Mephistopheles. Sam Eliott helps too by effortlessly channelling the spirit of Lee Marvin into his role as the grave-digging superhero side-kick of the main Ghost Rider character.

As comic-book movies go Ghost Rider is certainly a much more rewarding film experience than the execrable Fantastic Four or Pirates movies which have done such great business all over the country, if not in the same league as the first two X-Men films, Batman Begins or the Spider-Man franchise.

Against all expectations, given the source material, the film was a surprise box-office hit earlier this year, taking more than double its costs, which were hardly insignificant at over $100 million. Unlike the new Fantastic Four film (which cost more, but looked cheap and unconvincing a lot of the time) and Evan Almighty (which had a budget of $175 million - the world has officially gone mad when it comes to budgeting mediocre scripts!) ALL the money is clearly visible on screen. As a side note Evan Almighty, which I previewed in a blog entry last week, pulled in a pitiful $32 million in its American opening weekend so it needs to do some REALLY good business when it opens over here in August if it's to be regarded as anything other than an unmitigated financial disaster!

I've been generally unimpressed with the Blu-Ray discs I've bought so far - the quality control, especially on the picture transfer front, seems in general to be much lower than that for HD-DVD. Add region-encoding into the mix which means the best US titles from Sony and Fox aren't available to UK purchasers and the Blu-Ray story is pretty grim compared with HD-DVD. But this UK Sony release shows what the high definition format is capable of, and easily serves as a 'reference quality' disc for the Blu-Ray format. The extra's, which include an hour and a half of 'Making of' documentaries, albeit with frequently incorrect captions for different individuals, and several commentaries, are generous too.

If you want to see a film with subtlety and strong characterisation then Ghost Rider probably isn't for you. But if you like a good old-fashioned, roller-coaster ride movie with thrills, spills and a high standard of consistency then this is a 'must have' for any UK Region 2 Blu-Ray disc player owners - a disc to stick alongside the recent James Bond Casino Royale disc which, until now, has been the only 'must have' title that is exclusively available on the Blu-Ray format.

Ghost Rider Blu-Ray and Blood Diamond HD-DVD

If Nicolas Cage's name on a film normally has me turning away from the DVD shelf, Leonardo de Caprio's is enough to send me running out the shop door as fast as my legs can carry me. I guess the pudgy-faced actor can't help looking like an over-fed teenager, but for the viewer this makes it hard to invest any kind of believability in any 'fully grown man' roles he gets selected for.

However, I have to admit he's overcome his physical limitations in films like The Good Shepherd, Catch Me If You Can and The Aviator, proving he has real acting chutzpah beyond that which was on display in the disappointing Titanic. He seems to have genuine talent that many of his 'cult of celebrity' contemporaries at the Hollywood box office (Orloono Bland anyone?!) are sadly lacking.

Blood Diamond, released on the United Stated HD-DVD high definition format this week, shows that these previous surprises are no mere flash in the pan. The story may be somewhat clichéd and rather unsubtle in its political 'hit you over the head' message about the wrongs of the diamond trade, but DiCaprio and his co-star Djimon Hounsou lift it above the norm with performances that are never less than totally believable.

Jennifer Connelly as a humanitarian journalist, playing against DiCaprio's gung-ho smuggler, isn't given much to do, but makes the most of what she's given, even if I never for one moment felt there was any real chemistry between her character and DiCaprio's. In some ways the whole romance thing comes across as a repeat performance of that between DiCaprio and Kate Wynslett in Titanic - an annoyance that distracts from the main story and is never believable in any real sense of the word.

There's been rather a glut of South African movies just lately and this one doesn't pretend to be 'based on a true story', the way others have done. That being said much of what is shown is based on the experience of a campaigning journalist, and the film has a realistic feel to it (including much violence that will put the rom-com brigade off) and some background history that I hadn't been aware of before. The film was nominated for five oscars, but so far as I'm aware didn't win any of them - I guess Hollywood is all Africa'd out after Hotel Rwanda, Shooting Dogs and The Last King of Scotland because there's plenty in this film that impresses and it's not hard to see why it was nominated.

Beautifully shot with an excellent cast this is well worth two and a half hours of your time (yes, it's a bit of an epic!), and was released on standard DVD in the UK a couple of weeks ago, so you have no excuse for not checking it out, even if only as a rental.

Extra's wise the HD-DVD has a 'worthy but rather dull' hour long documentary on the 'conflict diamond' trade, with just three short five-10 minute featurettes on the film itself, although a commentary track from writer/director Edward Zwick, perhaps best known for The Last Samurai, is also included.

There is also the much-hyped HD-DVD 'In Movie Experience' but anybody who is prepared to sit through a two and a half hour film for a second time just for the odd snippet of 'in picture' video has far more patience than me. This is also the first HD-DVD to include Warner Brother's 'interactive web feature' - a deadly dull, and unbelievably slow-to-download web site that invites you to take part in an online poll or play trailers for other HD-DVD movies, inbetween asking you if you are happy to accept a Warner Brothers cookie every 15 seconds!

But it's the film that's important here, and Blood Diamond is a corker of a film for those that like their films to have some depth.

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