0 Stars Movies

Frank Miller’s The Spirit is the Insane and Unhinged Product of a Uniquely Obsessed Auteur Mind

At last, finally another entry to our hallowed pantheon of zero-star unholy cinema atrocities. Frank Miller’s The Spirit is far more than just merely bad. Like the most infamous movie disaster of all, Ed Wood’s Plan Nine From Outer Space), it veers wildly from stunning weirdness to unintentional hilarity, interspersed with frequent stretches of insufferable boredom.

But what truly lands The Spirit among the rarified company of true cinematic crimes against humanity is that it is the insane and unhinged product of a uniquely obsessed auteur mind. The only difference is, Miller was handed a great deal more money and resources than Wood ever managed to wrangle.

Not that he didn’t have to work for it. Miller is one of the best-known (and most ripped-off) rock stars to graduate from the sweatshop that is the comic book industry. He has written and/or illustrated some of the best-selling and most influential series of comics’ modern age, including Wolverine, Daredevil, Ronin, Elektra: Assassin, Sin City, and 300. Much of this work has long been ruthlessly pillaged for raw material for Hollywood’s leveraging of comic book intellectual properties.

The unmatched one-two punch of his 1980s Batman graphic novels Year One (with David Mazzucchelli) and The Dark Knight, together with Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, became the basis for Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). That first major comics-to-movie blockbuster not only borrowed Miller’s particular interpretation of the character (itself a highly distilled version of its surprisingly dark history), but also his overall visual style (going so far as to visually quote individual panels).

Gabriel Macht in The Spirit
“I’m gonna kill you all kinds of dead.”

Over a decade later, Mark Steven Johnson’s Daredevil (2003) unfortunately fumbled Miller’s most famous original character, the Greek ninja assassin Elektra. But Miller was soon to cease being merely someone from whom Hollywood stole paid homage. In 2005, Miller jumped media barriers to co-direct a feature film adaptation of his original graphic novel Sin City with Robert Rodriguez. The two crafted an exactingly faithful recreation of the book, essentially treating the original comics as storyboards. Miller’s profile only rose as Zack Snyder pulled a similar stunt with Miller’s 1998 graphic novel 300, producing an even bigger (and slightly controversial) smash hit.

Credit to Miller for absorbing countless lessons from the seasoned indie maverick Rodriguez, enough to helm an entire feature on his own. The Spirit‘s visuals are often extraordinarily beautiful, exploiting the thin barrier between animation and live action blurred ever since the largely green-screened Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999) and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Kerry Conran, 2004). Like Sin City, nearly every shot is highly processed to effect a stylized evocation of noir literature and movies.

But together with Miller’s signature brand of stark, chiaroscuro images and purple, pulpy noir dialogue, it doesn’t look or sound anything like the real ostensible real source material, Will Eisner’s original Spirit comics. The legendary Eisner is considered the inventor of the graphic novel. The DVD edition of The Spirit includes a must-see bonus feature: “Miller on Miller,” in which he talks of Eisner as a teacher, and took many of his aphorisms as lessons, including the essential sensuality of inking (which Miller took rather literally). Eisner (and others such as Neal Adams) may have inspired Miller in the first place, but Miller’s version of The Spirit in Chucks and cape-like trenchcoat more closely resembles his own creations, especially Dwight from Sin City (Clive Owen in the film) or Daredevil as he appears in the 1990 graphic novel Elektra Lives Again.

I read Miller’s comics as a kid, and certainly never expected the guy would one day be a bankable force in Hollywood. Looking backwards, it’s plain he hasn’t changed much. His obsessions and preoccupations are now only amplified and enhanced: his modern comics (and now movies) are mostly comprised of homoerotic bone-crunching acrobatic fights (if the entirety of 300 isn’t proof enough, might I refer you to Daredevil’s battle with the naked, big-dicked Bullseye in Elektra Lives Again), voluptuous femmes fatale (no skinny waifs for him), and pulp fiction and film noir-inspired odes to his beloved New York City. Also on the DVD, Miller expounds on all his favorite talking points, from his detailed knowledge of comics history, his love for New York City, and his hatred of censorship (he’s famously prone to castigate the comics industry for weakly censoring itself instead of fighting back against – or even ignoring – Congressional pressure in the 1950s).

Scarlett Johansson in The Spirit
“I’ve known some pretty strange women in my time but this one, she’s got the final word on strange.”

I’m not familiar with Eisner’s original Spirit comics, which appeared as inserts in 1940s Sunday newspapers. But from what I understand, Miller took a great deal of liberties beyond jettisoning Eisner’s colorful visual style in favor of his own Sin City look. Miller adds a metaphysical aspect missing in the original, making The Spirit and his nemesis The Octopus both indestructible and quick-healing (perhaps inspired by the character Wolverine, to which Miller had a hand in popularizing in the early 1980s). The presence of Samuel L. Jackson can’t help but recollect M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, an infinitely more subtle examination of the superhero archetype.

The action is set in an unnamed fantasy urban landscape like that of Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1998) and David Fincher’s Se7en (1995): filthy, surrounded by water, soaked by constant precipitation and fog, and in perpetual night until the sun finally rises at the end. Miller’s script conspicuously avoids mentioning the year, but the automobiles and fashions are clearly of the 1940s while the characters employ the cell phones and internet of the 2000s. This is Miller’s home.

The Spirit sports an unusually eclectic cast, with Gabriel Macht in the eponymous role alongside much better-known stars Jackson and Scarlett Johansson in supporting roles. The performances range from the distracted (Sarah Paulson as a good girl besotted with The Spirit) to the borderline lunatic. One can hardly blame the actors, for surely they were at the mercy of the screenplay and Miller’s rookie coaching. Stana Katic is entertaining as Morgenstern, a gosh-golly gee-whiz rookie cop that goose-steps from scene to scene like a sexy robot. ScarJo rocks hornrimmed glasses like no bad girl before her, but it’s just plain uncomfortable to see her in Nazi fetishwear and jackboots.

The Octopus is a mad scientist conducting all sorts of medical atrocities in the name of mutating himself to godlike powers. He deems one of his misfired experiments as “just plain damn weird,” a phrase apropos of the movie itself. It’s oddly slapstick, and often outright silly. Unexpectedly, it’s much less violent, or rather, gory, than 300 or Sin City. It’s also slightly more playful in narrative terms; the Spirit’s noirish voiceover often brazenly breaks the fourth wall by speaking directly to the camera.

And finally, some trivia gleaned from the credits:

  • This comic geek thought I recognized a contribution by frequent Miller collaborator Geof Darrow (Hard Boiled and Big Guy & Rusty the Boy Robot), and I was proved correct in the end credits.
  • The end credits themselves, designed by Miller, are stunning.
  • Miller is also credited for the storyboards, which must be something to see.
  • Miller cameos as a decapitiated cop, the head of whom The Octopus wields as a weapon. He also appears in Sin City, Daredevil and RoboCop 2, for which he wrote the screenplay.
0 Stars Movies

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby fails to amuse

What was I thinking when I rented this turd? Oh yeah, that Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby might be a funny, entertaining diversion. One can’t always watch grim tales of abortion in Communist Romania or the death of a small town’s entire generation of children.

I had long since tired of Will Ferrell, once a treasure on the Saturday Night Live cast, but long since devolved into a movie factory that produces mostly crassness for crassness’ sake. But I had heard Talladega Nights also featured good turns from Molly Shannon, Amy Adams, and Sasha Baron Cohen, and I had also recently enjoyed John C. Reilly in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. But all fail to amuse here.

Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights
Will Ferrell does a pretty good impression of my unsmiling face while watching Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.

The ensemble obviously improvised whole chunks of the movie, but not really to its benefit. I counted only two bits that made me laugh: Bobby extemporizes the commercial endorsement “If you don’t chew Big Red, *BLEEP* you!” (a line so aggressively stupid I laughed on impulse), and later, his poncy French rival Jean Girard (Cohen) reveals his corporate sponsor, Perrier. These two gags should make it clear that although Talledega Nights is not the first comedy to parody extreme product placement, it does drive it to a heretofore unexplored new level of absurdity. Finally, it dispenses with its relative subtleties altogether and simply cuts to an actual Applebee’s commercial.

0 Stars Movies

Hey, at least it was only 86 minutes long: AVP:R – Aliens vs. Predator – Requiem

Ridley Scott’s original Alien is one of the most effective and influential horror films ever made, and a personal favorite of mine, with no apologies. Its art direction and visual aesthetic were so far ahead of their time that pretty much only the hairstyles have dated, but the real keys to its longevity are its brains and depth of substance. No doubt there have since been dozens of dissertations on its gender themes and often overtly sexualized imagery designed by biomechanical artist H.R. Giger. Once you realize the portal to the crashed spacecraft is a giant vagina and the xenomorph’s head is an erect penis, you will never be able to un-see it.

But Alien‘s most unfortunate legacy is that it has forever melded the science fiction and horror genres in moviegoers’ expectations. Aside from the odd exceptions to the rule ranging from the parable-for-all-ages E.T. to the gut-wrenching social critique Children of Men, we now can’t have a horror film without a rubbery alien or a sci-fi film without eviscerations and gore.

Worst of all, the Alien franchise has been cursed with diminishing returns. Probably but not necessarily by design, James Cameron’s vapid sequel Aliens completely drained the core themes and subtexts from the original in favor of the mere spectacle of spaceships and bullets. Subsequent sequels achieved the rare feats of being by far the worst films of two extraordinarily talented directors: David Fincher’s compromised Alien3 (the only installment with the traditional numeral in the title) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s bizarre-but-not-in-a-good-way Alien: Resurrection.

Part of the problem is that there can be only a limited set of variations on the core premise. The original Alien found the right recipe on the first try: lone but nearly invincible creature vs. unarmed bunch of humans in claustrophobic environment = teh awesome. Most sequels multiplied the number of aliens only to find that their collective dramatic impact was lessened when all it took was a futuristic Colonial Space Marine’s rifle to dispatch one.

Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem
(l to r) The PredAlien and a Predator face off in Aliens vs Predator- Requiem.

Meanwhile, the less ambitious Predator franchise managed to only rack up a meager two installments. Perhaps their lesser appeal is attributable to what the Alien films got right; the “aliens” are not intelligent members of a society like the Predators, whose entire culture is based upon the concept of ritualistic hunting. Aliens are instinctual beasts that live to eat and (especially) to breed, so savage and animalistic that their species doesn’t even have a name.

The two spent properties found a new life together in the unholy crossover marriage Alien vs. Predator that began as comics and video games. Inevitably, they found their way back to cinemas as Hollywood attempted to reboot the cash flow with the first film in 2004. But this “new” series has already run out of variations on the core premise in only its second installment.

Reiko Aylesworth in Aliens vs. Predator Requiem
You wouldn’t know it, but there are some human characters in this film.

Believe it or not, AVP:R is the first Alien film set not only in the present day, but also actually on Earth. This time around we have a single Predator vs multiple aliens, with a variety of helpless human bystanders caught in the crossfire. Basically, the Predators screw up and accidentally seed Earth with a batch of aliens they had intended to breed as hunting stock. A lone Predator, perhaps fancying himself a sort of space age Mr. Fixit, attempts to whitewash his colleagues’ mess. He’s no sympathetic hero, however, for he doesn’t hesitate to take the pelt of a human as a trophy when the opportunity arises.

To go back to the aforementioned variety of helpless human bystanders: any decent screenwriter or producer (or, hell, anyone who’s seen a couple of movies) should have realized that there are three problems with this scenario: “variety,” “helpless,” and “bystanders.” The huge cast of human characters all remain underdeveloped. The lamest thread involves a bunch of so-called teenagers, obviously written by a screenwriter that was never actually a teenager. The only recognizable face (to this blogger, at least) is Reiko Aylesworth from 24, miscast as an Army soldier on leave. Her only purposes in the story seem to be to instruct the audience that guns work better if you shout while shooting, and to have someone on hand who might plausibly know how to fly a helicopter.

Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem
Mandible with care

AVP:R is so divorced from the six prior Alien films that there are only two tenuous continuity threads to link them. A Mrs. Yutani appears, presumably of the Weyland-Yutani corporation that, in the future, will operate under the secret agenda of locating more aliens as it strip mines the galaxy for fossil fuels. But perhaps the one true link to the original Alien film from 1979 is a sequence involving a chick stripping down to her skivvies. In the original, the truly badass Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) deservedly kicks back her heels and gets ready for a suspended-animation nap in her undies, but here all we get is a bland “hottie” stripping for her unlikely dweeb crush (an incidence of nerd wish-fulfillment that speaks volumes as to the maturity and life experiences of the filmmakers).

What should have been another major screenwriting red flag is the hugely unsatisfying ending. When the Predator, the closest thing the film has to a hero or protagonist, finally closes in on his prey, they go at it looking for all the world like two pro wrestlers in rubber suits. And then immediately… they’re both obliterated by a nuke. A small handful of the humans are only barely proactive and manage to survive untraumatized despite having watched all their families and loved ones killed.

So why do I keep punishing myself by watching each Alien sequel? I don’t ever again expect something as multilayered as the original, but I do keep thinking that these kinds of movies are supposed to be at best entertaining and at worst a little fun, and yet they always turn out torturously awful. AVP:R‘s best quality is its brisk 86 minute running time, even in its unrated extended DVD cut.

0 Stars Movies

M. Night Shyamalan squanders the last of his goodwill in The Lady in the Water

I don’t know where to start with this one. I’ve been a M. Night Shyamalan fan from the very beginning, even when the role was better described as apologist.

Even to a fan, nearly every film comes with a “yeah, but…” disclaimer: The Sixth Sense is an excellent piece of slight-of-hand with some genuine emotion, but let down by an extended montage at the end recapping events recontextualized by the already-clear Big Plot Reveal. Unbreakable, my personal favorite of his, is a remarkably mature character piece on a real-world Superman, but whose comic-book origins probably alienated a mainstream audience that wants its comic book movies clearly signposted by garish costumes and action set pieces. Signs is a perfectly crafted sci-fi thriller that doubles as a wildly funny comedy (an intentional one, I should be clear… more on that later), but the delicious suspense is nearly ruined in the end by the filmmakers’ overconfidence in their shoddy CGI alien.

The backlash started as soon as The Sixth Sense, perhaps in direct correlation with its box office take, with people falling over themselves claiming to have detected the Big Plot Reveal well ahead of time. But The Village marked the moment when the grumbling turned sour. If not nearly as bad as its critical reception, The Village was a disappointment; its promising scenario satirizing the contemporary situation in Bush’s color-coded police state is stifled by a lack of humor uncharacteristic for the director, not to mention an underwhelming twist lacking the emotional punch of The Sixth Sense.

The classic Shyamalan film is a schematicly constructed jigsaw, which in itself is a great pleasure. But in The Lady in the Water, the tail wags the dog to an even greater degree than The Village. Humorless, pretentious, and forehead-slappingly… well, sorry for the cheap shot… stupid.

0 Stars Movies

If all bad movies could be this bad: Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space

Glorious! A masterpiece! Three cheers for Edward D. Wood, Jr.: writer, director, editor, and genuine auteur! Don’t let the no-stars rating fool you; this was so much more fun than some of our other no-stars, recently including The Wind in the Willows.

If only all bad movies were this bad. Seriously, it’s impossible to consciously make a cult film by expensively camping it up (as Tim Burton tried with Mars Attacks) or playing it straight (read Esquire nail exactly how Snakes on a Plane is misconceived). And I don’t mean to dump on Tim Burton; not coincidentally his eponymous Ed Wood is one of my all-time favorite movies, and I think one of Burton’s best. I do, however, mean to dump on Snakes on a Plane.

0 Stars Movies

Terry Jones’ The Wind in the Willows (Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride)

What’s this? Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride? A film written and directed by Terry Jones? I didn’t know he made anything after Erik the Viking. Wait, and it stars Jones & Eric Idle? With cameos by John Cleese and Michael Palin? Why, it’s practically a Monty Python movie… the only two missing are Graham Chapman, because he’s dead, probably, and Terry Gilliam, because he’s… American, perhaps. How could I possibly never have heard about this movie?

OK, let’s take a closer look at the DVD box. Released by Disney? Hm, that’s not necessarily a good sign. How about a quick web search. Wait, the original title was The Wind in the Willows? Why did Disney change it for home video? Did it not get a theatrical release? (A user comment on IMDB indicates Disney went straight to video with a different title)

Now let’s start playing it. Jones was never the visual stylist in the Python films (that was left to the other Terry). Willows looks kind of expensive, yet kind of cheap at the same time. Where’s Steve Coogan? He got first billing, but I don’t see him anywhere. Hey, there’s Idle, with a silly rubber tail! Oh no, he’s not going to start singing a song, is he? Oh god, it’s a musical…

Ninety minutes later, my brains are dribbling out of my nostrils. This has got to be one of the worst movies ever made. Coogan is practically unrecognizable (that’s him as The Mole). The great Stephen Fry shows up for a few blustery lines of dialogue but fails to elevate things. Jones looks ridiculous in green face paint and a fat suit (I hope) that I suppose is meant to read as “toad.” And sure enough, it was only a matter of time, he winds up in drag.

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